Publick Occurrences 2.0

November 2, 2009

Fun with Political Geography

My students and I had fun discussing political geography today.  For instance, take a look at these two maps side by side.  First, we have the presidential electoral map from 1860, from the National Atlas of the United States:


Then we have this recent study, from Open Left, depicting how white men (the only ones eligible to vote in 1860) voted in 2008:


Now, obviously it would be very easy to overdraw an analysis from these two maps.  And indeed, I think Open Left is a bit too Whiggish (despite trying not to be Whiggish) about the links between the expansion of voting rights and the election of Progressive presidential candidates–after all, the expanded electorate has certainly elected its share of conservative Presidents.

But it’s still pretty interesting.


February 17, 2009

Breaking the Vice Grip?

Filed under: 2008 elections,Jeff Pasley's Writings,Media — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 12:17 am

Possibly it is obnoxious to say I told you so, but I was very pleased to see Obama campaign manager David Plouffe quoted making the same point I made last August about the electoral insignificance of vice-presidential picks. He also notes the real impact of the great Mooseslayer on the race: she helped the Democrats, big time.

Here is Plouffe on Gov. Sarah Palin: “Vice presidential picks rarely but sometimes make an electoral difference. Our view was it probably wasn’t going to matter that much. It’s the most over-covered story in politics. This was the one exception to that. It did have an effect.”

“She was our best fundraiser and organizer in the fall.”

Long may she run as the GOP’s shining star.


January 11, 2009

Win a Date with Barack Obama

Filed under: 2008 elections,Media,Obama Administration,Presidency — Benjamin Carp @ 10:19 am

On Friday, the New York Times hosted a roundtable discussion with Harold HolzerJonathan Alter, and Ted Sorensen.  It was a beautiful, cold day looking over the Hudson River from the 15th floor.  The panelists discussed how Abraham Lincoln, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and John F. Kennedy dealt with crisis and war during their presidencies.  (Christie’s also displayed the original copy of Lincoln’s victory speech of November 10, 1864, which can be yours for $3-4 million.  The text of the speech itself is free.)

Jonathan Alter trucked out the famous Oliver Wendell Holmes quip that FDR had a “second-class intellect, but a first-class temperament.”  After observing that Barack Obama has a “first-class intellect,” he noted that Obama’s temperament, in the face of our current crises, is as yet untested.  ”All presidents are blind dates,” Alter said, which got a laugh from the audience of jaded reporters and ad-salesmen.

Now, the idea of a date with Obama sounds like something Amber Lee Ettinger would say.   She just couldn’t wait for 2008.  But 2008 was just an election—now it’s 2009, and the guy’s got to run the country.  Alter’s comment calls to mind this interesting New Yorker article by Malcolm Gladwell on the difficulty of predicting who will be a good professional quarterback or public school teacher.  The same is true of picking an elected leader.  Can Obama keep his cool even when the pocket starts to close in?

The electorate’s expectations for Obama are pretty high.  Obama ran an impressive campaign in 2008, which is a pretty grueling executive responsibility in and of itself.  So there’s every reason to think that the temperament of “No-Drama Obama” will suit the country just fine.  On the other hand, the United States faces some pretty big challenges—and Obama can’t overcome them all with just, well, temperament.

The NYT chose three panelists who had written about Lincoln, FDR, and JFK.  The take-away theme was: history gives us reason to hope.  But then again, they cherry-picked three pretty good presidents for the discussion.


January 10, 2009

The Electoral College is a Joke

Filed under: 2008 elections,Congress,Constitution,Media,Political culture — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 6:35 pm

Literally. Or at least, jokes are all that the media can seem to find to write about the official counting of the electoral vote:

The Republican highlight of the afternoon: a lonely Rep. Mary Fallin (R-Okla.) clapping when it was announced that John McCain and Sarah Palin won the electoral votes from her home state.

But perhaps the funniest moment of the session: Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, sticking his fingers in his ears when the results were announced from his home state of South Carolina. McCain pulled that one out despite Clyburn’s efforts to get one more Southern state in Obama’s column.

It is hard to blame reporters or participants for taking this attitude, given the manifest pointlessness and vestigiality of the Electoral College as an institution. The automatic reverence for the Constitution that suffuses our culture has induced a considerable number of pundits and political scientists to defend the EC over the years, but most defenders and detractors seem to conflate the institution itself with the state-based apportionment mechanism embedded within it.

It seems to me that the weighting of the votes for president is a separate question from the operations of the institution. The thing the institutional EC was intended to do, act as one of the filters between local popular majorities (and parties) and the choice of the presidency, it never did properly even once. One of the things I have learned from my current research on the election of 1796 is that even back in the very earliest days of presidential electioneering, when presidential electors actually ran (or stood) under their own names, the primary matter discussed was not “Which local big-shot (elector candidate) do we trust to choose a president for us?” but “Which well-known national candidate will he support?” I have an example of an elector candidate in Maryland writing to the newspapers to deny a candidate affiliation that was already circulating in his neighborhood. In other words, no one ever gave a rodent’s behind about the electors or their non-existent college even when there was nothing else to vote for, presidentially speaking.


November 20, 2008

The GOP’s Southern No-Exit Strategy

Filed under: 2008 elections,GOP,Regionalism,Voting — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 10:45 pm

From Brad DeLong’s most prodigious of all blogs by a working academic, there is some support for my “William Jennings Bryan coalition” post of a few days ago, with heavy-duty social science graphs.  As I understand it, the graphs show that 2008 southern voters were radically more responsive to race than voters in other regions, with the Midwest as the next most similar region, but not very similar. (It was the relatively underpopulated Plains that went for McCain, not the cities of the [post-] industrial Midwest.) Brad opines:

The whites in the heartland of today’s Republican Party just do not vote–and do not think–like the rest of us do. Richard Nixon wanted the Republican Party to lock up the South. Now it looks as though the South has locked up the Republican Party.

The post does not get any deeper into the history of the GOP’s southern problem, and emphasizes racism more than I did; yet one must note that for all Bryan’s humanism and good Christian intentions, southern racists were his hard-core base of support.  In his last run in 1908, Bryan pulled more than 70% of the vote in Texas, Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, and South Carolina, and over 90% in those last two.


November 16, 2008

Congratulations, GOP, You’ve Won the William Jennings Bryan Coalition

While last week’s NYT article on the South’s waning influence in national elections was one more example of the bigot hunt that the media has been on ever since Barack Obama emerged as a serious contender for the Democratic nomination, it nevertheless makes a good point about the dead end the GOP has rushed into by over-relying for too long on the Southern strategy of somewhat indirectly stirring up the racial and cultural antipathies of southern, rural, and less educated voters. “They’ve maxed out on the South,” political scientist Merle Black is quoted saying in the story, which has “limited their appeal in the rest of the country.” The underlying problem is that while there seem to be NASCAR fans and mega-churches everywhere these days, the South’s fundamentalist political style does not travel all that well, or age gracefully when it does. Non-southerners (and a non-trivial minority of southerners) get tired of being harangued and bullied after a while. More than that, perhaps, the high emotional key and folksy inflection just do not suit voters without the necessary white, rural, evangelical Protestant background/mindset. Life in the big city seems to foster a more complicated view of the world.

What the 2008 Electoral College map shows more than ever is that the Republicans now find themselves with the coalition the Democrats had at the beginning of one of their least competitive periods a century or more ago. That would be the William Jennings Bryan coalition of the Solid South plus the Plains and mining West, the Great Commoner’s ticket to presidential election losses in 1896, 1900, and 1908. While Bryan was far more intelligent and humane than either John McCain or Sarah Palin, he appealed heavily to rural Protestant self-righteousness, building on the remains of the Populist Party, and lost crucial northeastern working-class Catholic votes that the Democrats have always needed to win national elections.  Twisting the Populist platform of economic reform into the nostrum of “Free Silver,” with an assist from western mining interests, the Bryan Democrats were defeated in 1896 by William McKinley and his “Full Dinner Pail” of typical Federalist/Whig/GOP trickle-down economics, which seemed the safe and rational alternative when contrasted with Bryan’s emotionalism.

Far from learning from their mistake, the Bryan Democrats nominated their favorite two more times and saw him beaten even more badly each outing. In his later years, Bryan made his alliance with evangelical Protestantism (and status as a political ancestor of modern Christian conservatism) even clearer by stumping against evolution and taking the anti-monkey (I mean, anti-evolution) side in the Scopes “Monkey” Trial.  Coming from Nebraska, Bryan also forged the political and cultural connection between the Plains states and the South that disappeared for a time at mid-century but reemerged with a vengeance in the the GOP culture wars that have raged ever since the Clinton sex scandals.

Let’s go to the maps. From Dave Leip’s Atlas of U.S. Presidential Elections, here’s the election of 1896 (note the historically correct use of red for the Democrats and blue for the GOP):

Now 2008:

The South’s larger, migration-fueled population in recent times made the Bryan coalition a bit more winnable for the modern GOP than it was for the Bryan Democrats. That is, until one consequence of northern migration below the Mason-Dixon inevitably made itself felt: as educated Northeasterners moved further south down I-95 into northern Virginia and then fanned out into the burgeoning cities of central North Carolina, they brought some of their more tolerant attitudes and modernity-friendly politics with them. This effect is certain to spread in the future. The solid South will go back to its loser status and stay there for awhile as key parts of it become more diverse and break away, and the rest gets more and more offensive to everyone else.

After the jump, a salute to the sort of “culture and heritage” that today’s GOP increasingly follows in the footsteps of:



November 13, 2008

God Bless That Sarah Palin There, or The Summers of Our Discontent

Filed under: 2008 elections,Media,Obama Administration,Presidency — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 1:42 am

Presidential transitions are always rough for the political news media, and their consumers, especially in the age of 24-hour basic cable news channels. They have to talk about something even if there is nothing to talk about. So we get endless parsing of rumors about who might be appointed to what position and what that might say about the incoming administration. For instance, the liberal end of the blogosphere has been freaking out for a couple of days over rumors that former Harvard President and Clinton Treasury Secretary Larry Summers was being considered for the Obama Administration. (I intend to use that last phrase as often as possible for a while).

The freak-out has produced some useful reminders that the roots of the recent free-market excesses date back to Clinton-era deregulation that Summers championed. (His enablement of Enron seems especially embarrassing.)  And yet, the freakout is occurring based no new real information except the names of the transition team members, and given the unusual-for-Democrats tightness of the ship Obama runs, I doubt we will get anything new until the President-elect is ready to tell us for real.  It was only natural and appropriate for a new Democratic president to turn to members of the previous Dem administration for advice. Indeed, it would be insulting not to — Clinton made one of his many early mistakes by snubbing the Carter Administration (repeating Carter’s own mistake). So, yes, the immediate previous Democratic Treasury Secretary was brought in, along with Robert Rubin and many others.  Not exactly the fulcrum of modern American history, death of a dream, or any of that. If it makes some of the freaked feel better, my reading is that Summers’s presence on the transition advisory board would more strongly suggest that he is NOT in line to be T-Sec again rather than the reverse. Clintonomics has duly been acknowledged, and now Obama will make his own choice. I would go with Paul Krugman myself, but that sort of provocative grandstand play is exactly why Barack Obama is getting ready to move into the White House, rather than John McCain or myself.

So, I say, God bless you Sarah Palin and your clueless post-election media blitz there [read in North Country dialect], apparently designed to remind voters of everything they did not vote for last week by continuing to babble your failed campaign talking points. Matt, Wolf, Greta, and the rest love an empty political celebrity story to flog and you are just the empty political celebrity to give it to them. Sarah, you distract the bloggers for a while, and give Barack Obama a few days catch a breath, organize his adminstration, find a school and dog for the girls, and then you can give back the spotlght you enjoy so much.


November 10, 2008

Discussion: Obama’s Victory in (Political) Historical Perspective

Filed under: 2008 elections,Political culture — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 11:04 am

We have an actual discussion taking place here on the blog in the wake of Obama’s victory, both keying off of Reeve Huston’s article in the Common-Place politics issue, which should look quite prescient now. (It looks even more prescient when you consider that Reeve first wrote it over the summer.) At any rate, Reeve Huston and a reader have exchanged views on his article’s comment page, and Huston also responded to one of my nervous pre-election posts wondering whether the Obama “ground game” would be everything Democrats hoped. I am going to republish most of Huston’s response here on the main blog to make sure everyone sees it. The point I would make about our perspective, as political historians of the Early Republic, is that we can see a little beyond the obvious and perhaps overly self-congratulory analyses coming out of the mainstream media and a good deal of the blogosphere right now. Here’s Reeve:

I see two other factors [besides the "ground game"] as crucial to his victory. The first a strong message, as Jeff suggests. Where I think I depart from Jeff is that I see Obama’s campaign as a step forward. Obama’s message began to do what Democrats have failed to do since the mid-1970s: tie policy specifics with a broader vision of where the polity should go (an end to wedge politics; “I am my brother’s keeper”). I agree that the Democrats still have a way to go on this matter: “The Change We Need” is no New Deal.

The second factor behind Obama’s victory is what the media was so obsessed with during the primaries: charisma. When Obama speaks, voters listen, and for a good reason. If we look back, most if not all of the transformative elections in American history have combined a powerful new message, a terrific ground game by the standards of the time, and a charismatic leader. This was true of Andrew Jackson’s victory in 1828, FDR’s in 1932 and 1936, and Reagan’s in 1980. In Jefferson’s and Lincoln’s victories, the charisma issue seems less clear. Jefferson was beloved, but not charismatic; on the other hand, charisma mattered less in an era when candidates did not personally campaign. And I might be wrong, but it seems to me that the cult of personality around Lincoln came after his death, not before. In each case, charisma was crucial in initially bringing voters to a new party or policy regime. But charisma is always in short supply. Jackson was followed by Martin Van Buren, Reagan by Bush the elder. Charisma is essential to forging a new political coalition, but that coalition’s long-term survival depends on more the mundane factors of organization, message, and policy.

Which leads us to the question of policy. There were two other factors in each of the historical victories I mentioned, including (so far) Obama’s. First, widespread discontent among the electorate, usually accompanied by a sense of crisis. Second, bold policy departures that sought to resolve that discontent by addressing the crisis in an entirely new way. Jefferson drastically cut the military and federal spending and expanded the territory open to land-hungry farmers; Jackson fought the Bank War and initiated Indian removal; FDR enlisted the federal government in regulating capitalist enterprise and in guaranteeing minimal economic security to most Americans. Each of these presidents not only held onto their majorities but expanded them by delivering dramatically new policies and by presenting a vision of the future that made sense of their policies.

It’s on this second point that the jury’s still out for the meaning of the 2008 election. I personally am thrilled by David Plouffe’s statements that he intends to keep the organization that got Obama elected going during the new president’s term. This holds the possibility of a permanent change in the way politics is conducted, not only during elections but between them. What would have happened to Clinton’s health care plan if there had been hundreds of thousands of volunteers going door to door, working to persuade voters of the merits of the plan? A ground game is no guarantee of victory on any given policy, but it could serve as a powerful counterweight to the armies of lobbyists that routinely weigh in on policy and the ad campaigns that appear when the stakes are particularly high.

Still, I don’t think that volunteers will be hitting the streets to promote a slightly more responsible bailout for investment banks. Without policies that speak directly to their discontent, Obama won’t be able to hold on to his supporters for long. This, I think, has been the reason behind the Democrats’ failure to craft a clear, strong message. Kerry’s um, hyper-nuanced stand on the Iraq War in 2004 hurt him a lot, not least by making him look like a wimp next to Bush, whose stand on the war was clear and strong. But what choice did he have if he wasn’t willing to say that the United States should leave Iraq? Similarly, Al Gore’s eleventh-hour populist rhetoric in 2000 won him a few extra points in the polls, as did a similar move by Hillary Clinton this year. But Democrats can only go so far with this sort of populism, because they aren’t very populist in their policies any more. Some Democrats, from Paul Wellstone and Dennis Kucinich to Russ Feingold and even Nancy Pelosi, have offered clear alternatives to the reigning economic orthodoxy of the last twenty-eight years; but until 2006 they’ve been outnumbered by the cautious triangulators clustered around the Democratic Leadership Council. For twenty years, mainstream Democratic leaders like Bill Clinton have embraced deregulation, abandoned anti-trust enforcement as banks and the major players in other industries got too big to fail, and promoted “free market” reform (including wholesale privatization and the evisceration of social spending) around the world. They have been less purist in this approach and more attentive to the needs of the poor and the middle class (at least in domestic policy), but this is hardly a distinction on which to build an electoral majority. Democratic economic policies belie the occasional populist rhetoric of Democratic candidates and have up to quite recently allowed the much clearer message of the free-marketeers to frame the debate. And the leaders of the party still haven’t come up with an alternative to them.



November 5, 2008

I Knew I Liked That Guy . . .

Filed under: 2008 elections,Environment,Media — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 1:05 pm

Here are President-Elect Obama’s real feelings about presidential debates in their present media-driven format, from a Newsweek special report offering, in essence, material they promised the campaigns not to publish until after the election:

When he was preparing for them during the Democratic primaries, Obama was recorded saying, “I don’t consider this to be a good format for me, which makes me more cautious. I often find myself trapped by the questions and thinking to myself, ‘You know, this is a stupid question, but let me … answer it.’ So when Brian Williams is asking me about what’s a personal thing that you’ve done [that's green], and I say, you know, ‘Well, I planted a bunch of trees.’ And he says, ‘I’m talking about personal.’ What I’m thinking in my head is, ‘Well, the truth is, Brian, we can’t solve global warming because I f—ing changed light bulbs in my house. It’s because of something collective’.”

Systemic, institutional, collective solutions to collective problems: playing my song!


No Dreaming Necessary, It Actually Happened

Filed under: 2008 elections,Founders,Popular culture — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 1:50 am

I am not sure that a chief magistrate of African descent, put there by the work of the most effective and disciplined national political organization ever constructed, really was part of “the dream of our founders.” Probably not. Yet putting a period to the atavistic, fear-fueled, moronic politics of the past decade was a good dream that really does seem to have come true. Wherever they are, I hope the Founders are graciously sending their thanks to President-Elect Obama — what a thrilling phrase to write — for including them in his big night. (The involvement of Washington, Jefferson, and Madison’s home state in the shift is a nice touch, truly something new under the sun.)  Obama’s election alone makes this one of the most positive political turning points in American history, but I really do think the calm determination he showed throughout the campaign bodes very well for his performance as chief executive. I am going to insert the video of Obama’s sober but magnificent victory speech for future reference. And also for posterity, let’s have the link to the “Historians for Obama” petition, dated November 2007.  That was one perspicacious group, if I do say so.

In his speech, John McCain was clearly in full Reputation Restoration Mode, but he took the right attitude and seemed to quash any revanchist efforts to de-legitimize Obama’s win with lawsuits or bogus charges of voter fraud, so good for him. I don’t remember ever hearing a concession speech crowd booing their candidate’s expressions of respect for his opponent before, but I guess that’s what you get when you spend so much effort juicing up so angry and disrespectful a base as McCain seemed to have. He seemed rather relieved to go back to being his former public self again, while the look on Sarah Palin’s face said more Ex-Overnight Celebrity than Future Leader of the Party. But we’ll see.

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