The art of ignoring the voters

Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, which is running until October 20 at my local community playhouse, isn’t my favorite kind of historical drama — it’s an aggressive mashup of anachronisms that can’t seem to decide how true it wants to be to the real story that it’s telling — but if you read it pretty narrowly, as a skewering of populism and a certain kind of revolutionary, it has some clever points.

Some of the play’s most biting elements don’t involve Andrew Jackson the man or his actual presidency, both of which are pretty heavily fictionalized. Instead, the show works to paint a picture of the American public as a bunch of willfully ignorant simpletons who just want a big strong leader to come along and make the tough decisions for them. And what’s fascinating about this idea isn’t so much how accurate it is, but how central it is to basically every ideology’s political vision, including the moderates. Actually, especially the moderates.


Cultural imperialism and helmet laws

I don’t generally have a lot of nanny-state moments, but this article about how Seattle’s bike helmet law is holding up efforts to launch the Puget Sound Bike Share program had a couple of discordant notes. Repeatedly, the article makes assertions like this:

We live in a helmet-wearing culture and the PSBS plans to own it. “We are proud to start the [bike share program] in Seattle and be a model for other cities,” Lindmark says.

That’s Ref Lindmark, who happens to be the transportation planner for King County Metro as well as president of the PSBS board. Note that his quote seems to have nothing to do with bike helmets, much less our “helmet-wearing culture.” Possibly because that’s not what we have. What we have is a county regulation stating that anyone riding a bicycle without a helmet can be subject to a $30 fine. So the fact that just about everyone in Seattle wears a helmet isn’t a cultural quirk so much as the result of a deliberate policy choice by our government.


The New Format fallacy

Back this summer, as part of his less-than-subtle attempt to tell American journalism how to fix itself, Aaron Sorkin inserted his vision of an idealized debate into last year’s Republican primary. The whole thing turned into a case study in how much better The Newsroom was at identifying the problems in modern journalism than it was at coming up with solutions, and how the show managed to be half-right and yet go horribly wrong. But considering what did and didn’t work in this week’s real presidential debate, it’s worth taking another look.

I mentioned right after the debate that I thought its biggest problem was the disengaged approach from moderater Jim Lehrer. That mattered more than usual because this debate actually did include a kind of revolutionary new format, which mostly did away with the tightly structured response times we’re used to from previous presidential debates. It’s a promising trend, but it means we really do need the moderator to play a more agressive role.


Where’s the beef?

When I was in high school, and a little bit in college, I took a few turns in my school’s debate club. It was fun, since I like arguing, but I ended up drifting away from it for a couple of reasons. One, I wasn’t that great at it. Two, it turns out that figuring out an objective way to score an argument ends up taking a lot of the fun out of it.

I’m thinking about this because we’ve reached that time in every presidential campaign where I remember why I hate the debates. It’s not that the debates themselves are bad — they’re not great, but they really are the one of the best chances you get to see the candidates argue for their ideas. What bothers me is that the ideas are generally the farthest thing from anyone’s mind.


John Roberts just saved the Supreme Court, maybe

Part of me thinks that if Bush v. Gore didn’t destroy the court’s reputation as an impartial arbiter of the law — as no less an authority than Justice John Paul Stevens warned it might — then probably nothing will. But public approval of the Court has been dropping over the last few years, and a party-line, 5-4 vote against the biggest, most politically charged issue of President Obama’s presidency probably wouldn’t have helped.

And, apparently, that almost happened. The Court’s ruling on the Affordable Care Act came so close to striking down the law’s individual mandate that both CNN and Fox initailly reported that it had. It established a more radical reading of the Commerce Clause — the idea that Congress can regulate industries that do business across state lines — than even the law’s opponents expected a year ago. And yet some deft maneuvering by Chief Justice Roberts managed to soft-pedal the impact of the ruling and turned him into a hero of judicial restraint.


I miss my alien budget

Good times.

SimCity 2000 always had a special place in my childhood, in large part because  I would spend hours playing it every weekend to avoid having awkward living room time with my stepfamily. (We went through a SimTower phase that I think was brutal on everyone.) And some odd things about the game have stuck with me.

Obviously there were elements like the strangely haunting soundtrack, or the alien death robot — which I never actually used that much, because really all it did was start fires. But it probably says something that what I really appreciate is how the game tapped into my budding interest in politics and government.


Shocker: Different voting system might change something

Sometimes, the easiest way to understand why we have some particular status quo — for example, our insanely convoluted electoral system — is to find a bunch of people who agree the status quo is a mess and get them talking about what would work better. Committees are the force that turns great ideas into okay laws, and okay ideas into travesties.

I got reminded of this when I was reading this article on i09 about ranked choice, or instant-runoff voting, an electoral system that would let voters rank candidates in order of preference. This helps give a clearer idea of the voters’ preferences in an election where no candidate gets a majority of the vote, and therefore could encourage third-party candidates by getting rid of the spoiler effect.

The weird thing about the article is that it seems to view this feature as a problem.


Musings on Democracy

I just realized something. First I’m reading this from Matthew Yglasias about why Congress and the White House can’t work anything out:

Note that if Obama were a hereditary monarch, this would be something like the historical process through which the United Kingdom became a parliamentary system with a symbolic head of state. Parliament started with a relatively bounded authority over granting new tax revenue to the king. But the king would, in practice, need new tax revenue periodically in order to fight wars. This fact, combined with parliament’s greater democratic legitimacy, victory in the English Civil War, and successful perpetration of a kind of coup in 1688 allowed it—and specifically the House of Commons within parliament—to over time seize control of the entire policy agenda. But of course Obama’s not a hereditary monarch, and both the House and the White House have independent claims to democratic legitimacy.

Probably the most sensible resolution to this is the original British one — establish a single center of power by systematically destroying the influence of the others, in their case the monarchy and the House of Lords. In a parliamentary system, there’s one head of government who’s indisputably in charge, so people know who to reward when things are going well and who to blame when they’re not.

But that was way too straightforward for our founders.


Today in Metaphors

From Wonkbook, the daily roundup of government news from Ezra Klein:

House Republicans feel their preferences should take priority because they won the last election. Sharp cuts to non-defense discretionary spending are nothing more than their due. Senate Democrats counter that they still control not just the Senate, but also the White House — the House Republicans are a minority partner in this play, and don’t get to decide what the government does or doesn’t do merely because they control one of the three major legislative checkpoints. An uncompromising force is meeting an unimpressed object.

If you follow American government enough, one of the themes you pick up on is that we’ve got so many independent power centers that whenever people disagree about what to do, nobody can decide who should have the final say. Since everybody can claim some kind of democratic legitimacy and nobody has enough power to just make things happen, our government tends to end up not getting much done. Which was the founders’ original idea, but the world has gotten a bit faster since the 1780s and we’re not doing a great job of keeping up.