Is Political Realignment on the Horizon?

After starting strong, I haven’t been blogging too much lately.  The conventions and a slew of developments in the Presidential race have given me plenty to say, but school has a funny way of stealing the free time I would use to write about such things.  I reclaimed a little bit of that free time today, though, and I thought I’d use it to discuss a topic that has always intrigued me: political realignment.

Since the early 1980’s, the lines of demarcation in American politics have been pretty distinctly drawn.  After Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980, the Republicans defined themselves as a culturally conservative party with a strong preference for deregulation and supply side economics.  They have not budged from such stances, and some would argue they have become progressively more entrenched in them.  The Democrats, meanwhile, have sometimes struggled to define themselves.  The resounding defeats of Walter Mondale in 1984 and Michael Dukakis in 1988 led some to question the strongly left-wing stance of the party, which led to the nomination and eventual election of the centrist Bill Clinton in 1992.  The party thrived during the 1990’s, but began to meander again in the 2000’s.  It was only with the election Barack Obama in 2008 that the Democrats found definition again, this time as a distinctly center-left party with ideological leanings somewhere between the parties of Mondale/Dukakis and Clinton.

The 2012 Presidential race is being run along those lines.  Mitt Romney, the Republican, is running a campaign that is, by most objective measures, very conservative.  His economic policies are some of the most conservative in recent memory, while he is holding the party line on social issues.  Obama, meanwhile, is maintaining his standing as a relatively progressive candidate while alsoportraying himself as a pragmatist who is willing to compromise when necessary.

Thought Romney’s message has been very conservative, he has received a great deal of criticism from the right for not being conservative enough.  Take, for instance, the following quote from Rush Limbaugh:

“If Obama wins, let me tell you what it’s the end of: The Republican Party. There’s gonna be a third party that’s gonna be oriented toward conservatism. I know Rand Paul thinks libertarianism. And I know if Obama wins, the Republican Party is gonna try to maneuver things so conservatives get blamed….The only problem is, right now Romney’s not running a conservative campaign. But they’re gonna set it up to say, ‘Well, the right sat home,’ or, ‘The right made Romney be other than who he is.’ They’ll try to deflect the blame, but they got who they want.”

The same sentiment has been echoed by talk-show host Laura Ingraham and a number of grassroots groups on the right.  Now, it’s always possible this is just talk.  People like Limbaugh and Ingraham are known for saying things like this.  What if the Republican coalition is really fracturing, though?  Political realignment happens, and after thirty years under the current order, we could be due for a shift.  Consider the coalitions that comprise the current parties:

Republicans:  middle-class “values” voters, libertarians, business elites

Democrats: college-educated voters, unions, African-American and Hispanic voters, conservative “Reagan Democrats”

Now, it’s important to recognize that these are just general trends.  There are plenty of African-American and Hispanic Republicans, while there are plenty of business elites who back the Democrats.  Demographically speaking, though, these are groups that lean heavily a certain way.  Each party has been able to appeal to these groups in a certain way, and in doing so build an effective coalition.

For the sake of argument, let’s say the right gets frustrated enough to start their own party.  We can assume it would align pretty closely with the Tea Party movement, so we’ll call it exactly that: the Tea Party.  The Democrats and Republicans would continue to exist, but with an altered coalition.  Here’s how I see things shaking out:

Tea Party: values voters, libertarians

Republicans: business elites, former Reagan Democrats, some college-educated voters

Democrats: unions, African-Americans and Hispanic voters, some college-educated voters

Values voters and libertarians are not a perfect match – true libertarians are not comfortable with socially conservative causes like same-sex marriage bans, while social conservatives are not as adamant about economic libertarianism.  Each side would be able to overlook these differences and maintain a strong coalition, though.  The Republicans would return to their pre-Reagan focus on business first, while likely softening their stance on social issues to attract the portion of college-educated voters who are socially progressive but lean right on economic issues.  The Democrats, after losing their conservative wing, would define themselves as a true left-wing party, most likely in the image of Europe’s Labor parties.  They would retain a large portion of the college-educated voters who have supported them historically, while maintaining their historic support from minority groups.

Who would benefit from this situation?  In the short-term, it would provide a major boost to the Democrats.  They would likely retain most of their existing coalition while the Tea Party and Republicans sorted out their differences and defined themselves.  As time went on, though, the Republicans would pick off the conservative portions of the Democratic Party and help stabilize the new system.  While no party would dominate, the Republicans would become very powerful.  As the relatively moderate group sitting between a left- and right-wing party they would be the the tie-breakers on most issues.  The leverage they gain from negotiating with both parties would provide them with strong standing to push through their own legislative priorities.

While it would be born out of some of the worst excesses of American right-wing extremism, such realignment could be one of the best things to happen to the country’s political system.  Two parties can hardly capture the ideological diversity that exists in the electorate, and more defined parties would help that flourish.  In addition, the presence of a centrist party may help limit some of the vicious partisanship that has defined American politics in recent years.  The need for cooperation among at least two parties would also help eliminate gridlock and prevent legislation from stalling out in Congress as it does now.

I’m not sure this realignment will happen, but it is a distinct possibility.  One that I hope will come true.

Build it Yourself, Stan

Few things interest me more than sports.  While I am making a career out of studying political issues, my passion for sports is a close second.  This is particularly true with baseball – while I follow hockey and football in the winter, baseball holds a special place in my life.  So special, in fact, that I got the St. Louis Cardinals’ iconic interlocking STL logo tattooed on my arm after their miraculous World Series run in 2011.

Sports and politics (mercifully) exist in completely separate realms.  There is one time, though, when they intersect – when teams demand new venues.  The opening of Camden Yards in Baltimore in the early 1990’s began an exodus away from the so-called cookie-cutter stadiums on the 60’s and 70’s and the construction of state-of-the-art stadiums designed to host only one sport (as opposed to their multi-sport predecessors).  There has been an increasing demand on the part of franchise owners that these venues be publicly funded.  They argue that venues attract tourism, bring in revenue for a city, and give it the prestige of being a “major league city.”

Enter the current drama surrounding the St. Louis Rams football team.  The Rams, who left Los Angeles for St. Louis in the mid-90’s, are going on 20 years in the Edward Jones Dome.  “The Ed” was once a great place to watch a game – when “The Greatest Show on Turf” dominated the NFL on their way to winning Super Bowl XXXIV the electric atmosphere made for a great fan experience.  A declining team and majestic new stadiums in other cities, though, have made the football experience in St. Louis inadequate.  The Rams’ lease with the city requires that the dome be a “first tier” NFL stadium by 2014, or the team has the right to back out of their lease.

This, naturally, has St. Louisans worried.  If the Rams are able to void their lease it would give them the freedom to move to another city.  Los Angeles, their original home, is actively working to attract an NFL franchise, and it is an open secret that they would love to bring the Rams back.  The city of Industry, CA, a Los Angeles suburb, is pushing to build a beautiful new venue in hopes of attracting a team.  This has given Stan Kroenke, the billionaire owner of the Rams, easy leverage to use in his negotiations with St. Louis.

Where does this leave St. Louis?  With other cities anxious to draw the Rams, is there any way they can improve or replace the dome within the confines of their current fiscal situation?  The St. Louis Convention and Visitors Commission recently submitted a plan to make a number of improvements to the dome, including the addition of a glass facade and the introduction of more natural light to the building.  These would make the dome a much better venue, but it is unlikely to match the the multi-billion dollar proposals other cities could make.  Giving the Rams a “first tier” venue, as the lease requires, would likely require the construction of a new facility, and it would be nearly impossible for the city to accomplish that.

I would love to see St. Louis keep the Rams.  While my own football loyalties lie across the state with the Kansas City Chiefs, I don’t want to see my hometown lose the status of having an NFL franchise.  But with an underfunded police force and struggling public schools, the city can’t afford to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on a football team.  A city has a responsibility to address essential infrastructure issues before spending on status symbols, which makes anything more than minor stadium improvements unwise for St. Louis.

According to Forbes, Stan Kroenke is worth an estimated $3.2 billion.  Why can’t he spend his own fortune on a new venue?  Why does the city have to jeopardize its school system to retain his football team?  If Stan is committed to having a new stadium built on the public dime, the sad truth is it won’t happen in St. Louis.  And it shouldn’t.  Cities shouldn’t be held hostage to billionaire owners who are too stingy to invest their own fortune in their teams, and I hope St. Louis is wise enough to see that.  It’s better to lose a status symbol than give up on running a functional city.

Senator Todd Akin? Please, No.

I haven’t been writing this blog for too long, but it should be obvious by now that my views lean pretty heavily toward the left.  I’m reluctant to give myself a label, but it’s safe to say I’m pretty far to the left of Obama and the Democrats.  Truth be told, there’s a part of me that enjoys this.  Don’t get me wrong, I wish there was a vibrant leftist movement in the United States (President Bernie Sanders, anyone?).  I enjoy the chance to bounce my ideas around with people who disagree with me, though.  I’m lucky to be surrounded by friends who, while having different political opinions, are level-headed and easy to discuss such things with.

Such is the life of a pseudo-socialist in St. Charles, Missouri.

While I respect all those around me who hold different views, I have long-standing issues with my Congressman, Todd Akin.  If you want to know why, look at his recent comments about NBC editing “under God” out of the Pledge of Allegiance during their coverage of a golf tournament: He said, “I think NBC has a long record of being very liberal, and at the heart of liberalism really is a hatred for God and a belief that government should replace God.”

This is, sadly, par for the course for a guy who once personally informed me his top legislative priority was passing a Constitutional Amendment to keep “under God” in the pledge of allegiance.  This, combined with his vicious anti-gay rhetoric and alliance with Michelle Bachmann, has given me ample reason to want Rep. Akin out of Congress.

I got my wish – kind of.  He’ll be leaving the house after this term, but as I discussed in this post a couple weeks ago, will be challenging Senator Claire McCaskill for her seat this fall.  I consider her a slight favorite to retain the seat, but still have that “what if” lingering.  Senator Todd Akin?  Could this man have that much power?

That thought has been in the back of my mind since the Republicans nominated him on August 7.  Then he proceeded to make what may have been the most offensive statement of his career.  While discussing his opposition to abortion in the case of rape, he said ” if it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.”

Really, Todd?  Care to define this “shutting down” process?  Or do you want to tell us what you see as an illegitimate rape?  I honestly don’t know if I’ve ever heard a public official say something so absurd.  I mean, sure, Michelle Bachmann once completely made up a story about the HPV vaccine leading to mental illness, but this even goes beyond that.  To show such blatant disrespect to rape victims is nothing short of appalling.  I wish I had more to say on it, but it all really speaks for itself.

Ultimately, my wish to see Todd Akin out of Washington will probably come true.  If predictions from the extraordinary political prognosticator Nate Silver prove true, this could be a fatal blow to his campaign.  Still, it’s sad someone like him could ever reach this level of government.  As a leftist in a red state, I can attest to the fact that people are going to disagree.  We don’t need people to be as vicious about it as Rep. Akin, though.  There’s just no excuse for someone to disrespect rape victims like this.  Hopefully Missouri voters see it that way and end Akin’s unfortunate tenure in Washington.

Putin’s Russia: Back in the USSR?

One of the most widely-discussed issues in the last week is the controversy surrounding the feminist punk band “Pussy Riot.”  For those who were not aware, the three members of this band recently staged a protest in a Russian Orthodox church in the middle of mass.  They were hoping to bring awareness to what they see as an increasingly aggressive and power-hungry President Putin.  It was just announced that each member of the band has been sentenced to two years in prison on charges of “hooliganism.”

While their protest may have been in poor tastes, this is obviously an alarming development.  It is no secret that Putin has been cracking down on opposition in Russia, and giving three young women a lengthy prison sentence for staging a protest is another sign that Russia is moving back toward its totalitarian past.

To get more information on these alarming developments in Russia, I turned to Freedom House, one of the most respected authorities on the state of freedom in the world.  In their annual report they combine a number of factors to give every country a ranking of either “free,” “partly free,” or “not free.”  In their 2012 report, Russia earned the dubious distinction of being “not free.”  One of the most significant issues in that country is state control of the media, and Freedom House notes that “in Russia, the state-controlled media bombarded domestic audiences with predictions of chaos and instability as a consequence of the Arab protests, with a clear message that demands for political reform in Russia would have similarly catastrophic results.”  Using the media to distort the image of the Arab Spring is alarming, but fits the trend of censorship and distortion in an increasingly state-run Russian media.

My most obvious concern here is for the people of Russia. But what about the possible impact on regional and international stability?  Some have argued that this is a positive development in that area – they claim that a stable Russian government will maintain control of their sizable nuclear arsenal and serve as a firewall against those who would push the country into conflict.  While this is a valid point, it does not account for what happens after Putin.  I may be in the minority on this, but recent evens should suggest that totalitarian regimes no longer have the “shelf life” they once did.  The rise of the internet and mass-communications make it easy for opposition groups to both organize in their own country and network with those in others.  This is what brought down deeply-entrenched governments in the Middle East and could very well bring down the Putin regime in Russia.  Freedom House even indicated that the state-run media feared that very thing.

If Putin entrenches himself further, who will fill the power vacuum after he leaves?  What if Russia ends up like Egypt, where Mubarak has been replaced by military leaders who are reluctant to cede control to a democratically-elected government?  This would be particularly dangerous in Russia, where there are known Soviet loyalists and ultra-nationalists in the military leadership.  This instability in a nuclear-armed state could post a grave danger to the rest of the world.  Russia made a miraculous transition from the Soviet regime to the government of Boris Yeltsin in the early 1990’s, but we should not bank on that happening a second time.

The good news is that hope is not lost in Russia….yet.  There are still elements of opposition in both the Russian government and Russian civil society, and taking down Putin now would not mean the collapse of the state.  Though it is flawed, there is still a democratic infrastructure in place that could facilitate an easy return to (at least quasi-) democratic government.  If Putin continues on his current trajectory, though, there is a good chance that will be lost completely.  The window is closing quickly, but the people of Russia still have a chance to stop the country’s descent into totalitarianism.

Romney and Ryan’s Medicare Hypocrisy

When I started this blog, I envisioned myself discussing matters of “high politics,” or issues that are essential to the survival of the state.  As a student of International Relations, I’m generally drawn to such issues.  Outside of a few posts on Syria, though, I’ve been sucked in by matters of “low politics.”  As the name suggests, these are issues that are of less importance.  While they can still be significant, they pose no risk to the survival of the state and are approached with less urgency.

I guess election season does that to me.  By November I’ll be completely fed up with the talking points, the ads, and general lack of civility that have come to define American elections.  Until then, though, it’s hard to keep myself from getting sucked in.  This ad by Mitt Romney did just that for me:

$716 billion taken out of Medicare?  Damn, that’s not good!  If true, this is a legitimate criticism of Obama that resonates even with a strong supporter like myself.  As tax payers, we contribute to medicare from the time we begin working, so denying people of benefits they’ve earned through years of hard work is completely  unfair.

This is a pretty bold claim, so I did a little research on it.  Turns out it’s (big surprise) completely false.  The Affordable Care Act reformed the way payments are made to various healthcare providers in the Medicare system, and the supposed cuts are actually $716 billion that is being saved by streamlining the process.  According to this article from ABC News, the savings came about because the law “reduced provider reimbursements and curbed waste, fraud and abuse”

You know what makes this even better?  The same article states that “Ryan himself endorses [the Medicare savings] in his signature budget plan – the same plan Romney has said he would sign as president if it reached his desk.”  So not only do they distort what actually happened under the law – they’ve given it their explicit endorsement!

This kind of deception has become the norm in American elections.  One of the most frustrating aspects of this attack, though, is the way it directly contradicts Romney and Ryan’s image as deficit hawks.  Saving $716 billion on a program without cutting any benefits is a dream come true for them.  That’s why Ryan’s budget included it and Romney gave it his endorsement.  Releasing this ad shows that it’s all talk, though.

I really wish the media had the gall to call candidates out when they distort facts like this.  It happens all the time, from people on both sides of the aisle.  Most people won’t do their homework after seeing this ad, and it could very well have an impact on the election.  The media should be holding Romney’s feet to the fire on this, but outside of a few articles scattered online, they’re nowhere to be found.  It’s absolutely ridiculous that they continue to let this happen.

 

Art Imitating Life?

Since I first saw the preview a few weeks ago, I’ve been dying to see The Campaign.  Not only am I a fan of political comedies, but I love anything with Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis.  Any movie combining these two actors and this genre simply couldn’t fail.  Unsurprisingly, the movie exceeded my expectations.  Ferrell and Galifianakis were brilliant as rival candidates for a Congressional seat in North Carolina.  They both mastered their unique characters and made a ridiculous story seem at least somewhat plausible.

The story centers around Cam Brady (Ferrell), an incumbent Congressman, and his upstart challenger, Marty Huggins (Galifianakis).  Wealthy industrialists (who bear a striking similarity to the Koch Brothers) try to mold the race, which contributes to an increasingly ridiculous campaign.

It goes without saying that The Campaign is not a realistic story; it is a comedy, and should be viewed as such.  Under the surface, though, there is a message about the ridiculous state of affairs in American politics.  When wealthy interests are the dominant forces in elections and ad hominem attacks are more effective than reasonable critiques of policy, the door is open to such satire.

Take, for instance, the recent controversy over this ad by Mitt Romney:

First off, there’s the fact that the ad is blatantly dishonest.  Obama did not eliminate welfare to work requirements; rather, as factcheck.org points out, he gave states some flexibility to define welfare-to-work requirements.  Sadly, such blatant distortions have become par for the course in political advertisements.  There is very little accountability for such attacks, and that opens them up to all kinds of dishonest tactics.  Even looking beyond the incorrect information in this ad, you see old clips of Obama taken out of context and the Heritage Foundation cited in one of the attacks.  While these may not be as “dishonest” as the welfare attack, they unfairly distort the image of his opponent and pass off information from one of the most biased think tanks in the country as factual.

Mitt Romney is not the only politician guilty of taking this approach.  Actually, he’s part of a pretty strong majority.  That’s where Cam Brady and Marty Huggins come in; while Romney and Obama aren’t nearly as ridiculous as they are, the win-at-all-costs approach they took in the movie is similar to the approach candidates are taking in real elections.  The loss of civility and willingness to do anything to win is an alarming development.

Satire, while humorous, is capable of levying some of the strongest criticism of current affairs.  Just like The Colbert Report brings awareness to flaws in the media by spoofing their approach to the news, The Campaign uses humor to bring up a number of issues with our electoral process.  I have no illusions about this movie changing the way we conduct elections, but I hope it at least makes people see the way real campaigns sometimes mirror this fictional camapign.  We haven’t reached the level of Brady vs. Huggins yet, but we could be headed down that road.

Why Intervention is Not the Solution in Syria

I’ve always had an interest in security issues.  Not enough to make that my focus in school (because, seriously, is anything more interesting than international law?), but enough to make such issues grab my attention and hold it for some time.  This has likely contributed to my ongoing interest in the situation in Syria.  A few days ago I wrote about the issues Syria and the international community will face after the fall of President Assad.  It is largely overlooked, but it is one of the most serious challenges facing the international community in relation to Syria.  As I argued, instability there could not only cause seriously problems for its citizens, but destabilize an already volatile region.

What about the challenges the world faces while Assad retains control?  It goes without saying that most of this will fall on the people of Syria.  With fighting raging in many parts of the country, few people there are able to escape the challenges of this growing civil war.  There is discussion, though, about what other states should be doing to mitigate this conflict.

The notion of international involvement emerged again this week, with former French President Nicholas Sarkozy calling for intervention in the Syrian conflict.  This echoed Senator John McCain calls for airstrikes earlier this year.  McCain and Sarkozy are part of a vocal but small minority on the international level.  While their case is bolstered by the success of airstrikes and a no-fly zone in Libya, McCain and Sarkozy’s governments have shown no willingness to use military force to quell the fighting.

Intervention is an intriguing option.  After all, it worked well in Libya despite a great deal of skepticism.  Many feared the creation of a third major conflict in the Middle East, with the United States sacrificing lives and resources in a prolonged engagement.  Ultimately, though, they toppled Gaddafi quickly and prevented a humanitarian crisis.  What began as a risky endeavor became one of the biggest foreign policy successes of the Obama administration.

Sadly, though, Syria is not Libya.  Not only did Gaddafi’s military have outdated equipment, but they were severely weakened without air power.  By quickly dismantling their air defense system and taking out their air force they took away the army’s biggest strength, and set the stage for the rebels to march from their stronghold in Benghazi to take down the regime in Tripoli.  The obvious benefits of taking out the government’s air power and the clear geographic distinctions made military intervention a wise gamble.  In Syria, though, much of the fighting is taking place in cities.  Where Gaddafi was using his air force to either attack civilian targets or take out rebel groups advancing through the desert, fighting against Assad has largely taken place on the streets of Syria’s major cities.  Taking out Syrian air power would do very little to limit such fighting.

In addition to the limited benefits of military intervention, many have questioned the impact this would have on regional stability.  A recent article by James Zogby in The National (a newspaper based in the UAE) indicates a number of other issues.  He discusses the strength of Assad’s military relative to Gaddafi’s, but also looks at issues of regional stability, including the possibility of outside intervention stoking a sectarian conflict.

If outside intervention could hasten the fall of Assad and end the bloodshed in Syria I’d be completely on board with it.  Sadly, though, the costs would vastly outweigh the benefits.  As I argued in my last post, regional instability and sectarian conflict need to be avoided at all costs.  Any international plan needs to be focused not just on the fall of Assad, but the delicate situation that emerges after.  Humanitarian assistance, a close alliance with the rebel leaders, and a concrete transition plan are the most important things the international community should be doing at the moment.