Government

Dynasty envy

kings-gath

Monarchy is a completely nonsensical form of government. Making someone the leader of your country because one of their immediate relatives was leader of your country is blatant nepotism, and history is full of examples where it produced rulers who had no business being in charge of anything.

I mention this because apparently Queen Elizabeth has been Queen Elizabeth for a really long time, which serves as a news peg for Vox’s Dylan Matthews to make the argument that monarchy is actually great.

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Nation-State Socialism

ellis-registry-room

I tend to be skeptical of American socialists. Partly because I think that socialism doesn’t actually have a useful definition within American political discourse, because supporters and critics both treat it as a nebulous concept that stands for whatever they want it to stand for.

The other problem is that socialism hasn’t been a major distinct force in American politics since the 1930s, when FDR absorbed a lot of its ideas to make the New Deal. Which means the socialists who do understand what they’re talking about are working from an old playbook that doesn’t always hold together.

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Argue the law

stoneI didn’t start seriously watching Law & Order until the show (and the police procedural in general) were pretty much played out, so it was a revelation when Netflix enabled me to start watching from the beginning. As cliché as the show’s promise of ripped-from-the-headlines stories would get, it really did a terrific job of capturing the cultural mood of its era.

One very early episode, “Subterranean Homeboy Blues,” presents the case of a white woman who shoots two black men on the subway, and gets through her trial essentially on the argument that the shooting was justified because black men are scary. It was apparently based on the case of Bernhard Goetz, and I got to thinking about it over the weekend as the George Zimmerman trial was wrapping up. And I think there’s more than the obvious parallels worth considering here.

I deliberately didn’t pay much attention to the actual Zimmerman trial, because I think turning one particular case into a cultural event does a disservice to basically everyone involved.

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Keeping a republic is hard sometimes

Egypt rally

For the past few years, I’ve tended to commemorate Independence day by watching an episode of the HBO miniseries John Adams, since it combines two things I generally like doing: Fairly superficial intellectual exercises and watching TV. Normally, I go with the obvious episode — “Independence,” the one about the Continental Congress — but this year I had something else in mind.

A major thread in the show’s later episodes is the impact of the French Revolution on the new United States. It’s an especially timely look now, since just yesterday Egypt’s first-ever democratically elected leader was forced out in a military coup, and there’s a lot of mixed feelings about whether it’s a good thing or not.

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The war on buses

A bus.

The Washington state legislature doesn’t exactly make Congress look good, but sensible governance isn’t exactly a thing here either. To wit: the state Senate chose to ignore the transportation bill that passed the state House of Representatives last week, threatening huge cuts to local transit services and making the case against bicameralism in one stroke of inaction.

Here’s where it gets really silly: The part of the now-dead transportation bill that might have held off those giant cuts would have given King County the authority to submit a ballot measure asking voters to raise the vehicle registration fee in order to fund Metro transit service, as well as county and city roads.

In other words, the county needs the state legislature’s permission to ask local voters to approve a local tax. And the state legislature won’t give it.

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Gerrymandering is still a problem

The original Gerry-manderI generally think Wonkblog is an excellent public service, especially compared to most of what passes for political coverage, and the fact that they feature perspectives from actual political scientists is excellent. That said, John Sides’ piece on why “Gerrymandering is not what’s wrong with American politics” feels a bit like it’s missing the forest for the trees.

Sides’ thesis, that the polarization of elected representatives in both the House and Senate seems to have very little to do with the ideology of their electorate and a lot to do with their political party, is a bit surprising, but I wouldn’t dream of criticizing an argument with so many graphs to back it up. But even if you accept the premise, that doesn’t necessarily mean that gerrymandering isn’t a factor.

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The expectations trap

I'm not even sorry.

So I was minding my own business, checking my news feed, when I realized that I’d just come up with a way to link HBO’s Girls and the debt ceiling. This was not part of my plan for today.

It all began this morning, when I came across this article about how Girls’ second season dealt with all that controversy over the show’s treatment of minority characters (or lack thereof) by adding Donald Glover and an arc about interracial dating. After that came several different stories about the debt ceiling and a previously obscure idea to get around it by minting a huge-denomination platinum coin. And I started to think that both cases demonstrate a similar failure of our collective ability to figure out where the real problem is.

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Puerto Rico is testing us

Last week, in news that everyone ignored because everyone always ignores Puerto Rico, the voters passed a referendum backing statehood for the first time in history. Maybe. Sort of. It’s complicated. But it’s one of those things I never quite expected to see, and it comes at a really interesting time.

I don’t know anything in particular about Puerto Rican politics, so I can’t say whether this is actually a grand territory-wide conspiracy to put Congress on the spot (it probably isn’t), but it sure could shake out that way. The issues that revolve around statehood for Puerto Rico could stand in pretty well for a lot of the questions about how the United States relates to Latin America, as well as the growing Latino population within our borders.

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We are not more liberal than Amsterdam

Tuesday’s election was a big one for Washington state. Voters extended its 32-year streak of not electing a Republican governor, but whatever: The real action came from citizens’ initiatives, as we became the first and only state to simultaneously legalize same-sex marriage and recreational marijuana. Which led led The Stranger‘s Eli Sanders to tell anyone who’d listen that Washington is “not only the most progressive in the nation, but even more so than Canada and Amsterdam.” (The Stranger itself deployed its usual sense of nuance in its analysis of the result, as shown above.)

This is the sort of logic that only works if you only care about social issues. And it papers over the fundamental problems the state is still having thanks to the initiative process, which remains one of the worst ideas the progressive movement ever had.

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Mandates are silly

Eight years ago, as an editorial writer for my college paper, I wrote a counterpoint against the idea that George W. Bush’s reelection gave him a mandate to pursue goals like the partial privatization of Social Security. I still think I was on the right side of that argument (and I could say history agrees), but looking back, I think I could have made a much simpler case. And now that another close election has given way to the usual arguments about the size, scope or existence of President Obama’s mandate, it looks like I have the chance.

Barack Obama won a mandate to be President of the United States for another four years. Which is worth a lot. But beyond that, any attempt to read an obvious policy preference in the election results would involve a pretty serious misunderstanding of how our political system works. (more…)