What Is Needed to Improve Civility?

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Paul Krugman’s column today in the Times congratulates President Obama on a wonderful speech, but argues that coming together across differences is far from realistic.

But the truth is that we are a deeply divided nation and are likely to remain one for a long time. By all means, let’s listen to each other more carefully; but what we’ll discover, I fear, is how far apart we are. For the great divide in our politics isn’t really about pragmatic issues, about which policies work best; it’s about differences in those very moral imaginations Mr. Obama urges us to expand, about divergent beliefs over what constitutes justice.

On one hand, I can see where Krugman is going. Given the imposing, complicated issues we face as a country and our lightning fast discourse thanks to technology, improving civility in our politics is going to be beyond difficult.

On the other hand, I think it’s a cop out. I don’t think civility means what Krugman thinks it means. I agree with Krugman’s claim that we do have two fundamental worldviews at work in our nation; I embrace that reality. I am resistant to the deepening of the chasm between these paradigms over the past few decades. Today, people don’t listen to agree but to disagree. Somehow we have moved to a passive-aggressive style of politics where disagreement on issues is so dangerous that we avoid each other. As the Schiff letter I discussed the other day argues, politics becomes about the problem-solver, not about the problems being solved. As a result, few problems are solved.

Whether or not President Obama’s speech was enough to snap this country out of its trance can only be determined over the next few months/years. Our track record supports the view that it might just be a blip, and that the prevailing winds toward incivility will continue. The question I am left with is what will it take – short of a revolution – to change the way we operate?

Problems with the Political Process

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In a letter to the Washington Times, former Republican representative Peter Schiff (R-CT) explains why our political process is so removed from the problems people are actually facing.

This is how the game works in big-time politics: A potential candidate hires a polling firm to create a strategically written and scientifically executed poll to discover the buzzwords and simple campaign themes that ‘resonate’ among voters. Consultants then boil down the poll results to a few ‘winning’ message points and strategies. At that point, the modern candidate simply hammers away again and again at those sound bites. Winners are those who stay ‘on message’ while knocking their opponents ‘off message.’ It is of little consequence to the professionals that this process produces the kind of vacuous, unprincipled leaders who have brought our country to the doorstep of economic ruin.

Most of our officeholders, then, are empty robots, incapable of taking principled stands on issues. Sounds about right.

Underestimating the Impact of the Youth Vote

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Thomas Goldstein and Thomas Bates, Executive Director of the Washington Bus and Vice President for Civic Engagement at Rock the Vote respectively, penned an op-ed published in today’s Seattle Times.  Goldstein and Bates took aim at the idea that youth’s “low” turnout in midterm elections relative to older age groups ultimately means a smaller impact on the results.

It isn’t exactly news that young people tend to vote at lower rates than older voters. The more interesting story is that even if young people turn out at lower rates, they can dramatically affect the election landscape and outcomes. That happened most visibly in the 2008 presidential election, but also in certain nonpresidential elections closer to home.

The approval of Referendum 71, the election of a young mayor in Tacoma, and two victorious young City Council candidates in Spokane are all evidence of the efficacy of targeting young voters. Moreover, the highest turnout in the state in 2009 was in the 43rd Legislative District, which has the greatest concentration of young voters.

Even with mounting evidence, too many campaigns write off young voters, and this tired habit has made the prophecy of low turnout a self-fulfilling one. It almost reads as a new definition of madness: Time and time again, campaigns don’t invest time and resources into young people, and then are surprised when they don’t mail in their ballots.

[…]

Luckily, we’re doing something about it. Forward-looking organizations and campaigns have tested methods to engage young people and have committed resources to make them reliable voters. And we’re seeing results: For the past three major election cycles — yes, even pre-Obama — the turnout of young people has steadily increased.

We know what works: Make sure young people are registered to vote, give them relevant information in an engaging way, and run campaigns that connect with their values.

The point both are making is that, blessed with size, the effect of even a subtle increase in the Millennial voting rate can be worth a few points in various midterm elections — enough to tip those races in different directions.

As we move forward into the meat of the 21st Century, these younger people, increasingly becoming adults, are going to need to be pursued in a different way than past voters.  This calls for aggressive engagement, complete with the “relevant information” Goldstein and Gates mention above, as well as managing campaigns that reflect youth’s values.

Political Limits to Short-Term Intolerance for GOP

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It turns out there are limits to the short-term, intolerant approach to campaign messaging.  From NBC’s First Read:

*** Latinos aren’t swing voters anymore: For example, 68% of Latinos approve of Obama’s job (compared with 48% of overall respondents and 38% of whites), and they view the Democratic Party favorably by a 54%-21% score (versus 41%-40% among all adults and 34%-48% among whites). And their views of the Republican Party? In the poll, the GOP fav/unfav among Latinos is 22%-44%. What’s more, Latinos think Democrats would do a better job than Republicans in protecting the interests of minorities (by 58%-11%), in representing the opportunity to move up the economic ladder (46%-20%), in dealing with immigration (37%-12%), and in promoting strong moral values (33%-23%). The only advantage they gave Republicans was in enforcing security along the border (31%-20%). And Latinos remain a sleeping — yet growing — political giant: 23% of them aren’t registered voters (compared with 12% of whites and 16% of blacks), and

*** Dropping like a rock: It didn’t use to be this way. In 2004, George W. Bush, the former governor of Texas, won some 40% of the Latino vote. But in 2006, that percentage for Republicans dropped to 30%, and it was 31% in ’08. And check out these party identification averages among Latinos that our Hart (D)/McInturff (R) pollsters put together from our past NBC/WSJ polls; this chart puts together the YEARLY average of all Hispanics surveyed for each year (approximately 900 respondents are included in each yearly sample):

— In 2004, Dems held a 22-point edge in party identification among Latinos (49%-27%)
— In 2005, it was 24 points (48%-24%)
— In 2006, it was 26 points (50%-22%)
— In 2007, it was 30 points (52%-22%)
— In 2008, it was 35 points (57%-22%)
— In 2009, it was 31 points (50%-19%)
— And so far in 2010, it has been 36 points (58%-22%).

*** The Pete Wilson lesson: Smart GOP strategists know this is a problem; the consensus is that Republicans need to capture AT LEAST 35-40% of the vote to win national contests. Yet looking at Republican primaries across the country, GOP candidates aren’t looking at the long-term. In Arizona, John McCain is airing a TV ad declaring “complete the danged fence.” In California, Steve Poizner is comparing Meg Whitman to Mexico’s president in a TV ad criticizing her opposition to the Arizona law, while Whitman has a TV ad saying she “absolutely” opposes amnesty. And in Alabama, gubernatorial candidate Tim James says, “This is Alabama, we speak English. If you want to live here, learn it.” Pete Wilson is an important lesson here, says co-pollster Peter Hart (D): In presidential races from 1952 to 1988, Dems won California just once. After Wilson’s Prop. 187, Republicans haven’t come close to winning the nation’s biggest state. The next California could be Texas, and the GOP can’t afford to have that big state become competitive. 

The scary thing (if I’m putting on my GOP consultant hat) is the party ID numbers.  “Dropping like a rock” is putting it lightly.  Given the withering away of most demographics in the modern Republican coalition, these plummeting numbers among Latinos take on even more importance.  With all this focus on short-term news cycles, the Republican brand continues to disintegrate among a changing America.

William and Mary Student Elected to Williamsburg City Council

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You’ve read about this movement before here.

And now, it’s taken another step forward.

After a failed student campaign a year ago, William and Mary students put together an organization called Students for a Better Williamsburg (SBW), an organization engaging local government in order to provide the best outcomes for students. This effort led to the amendment of a housing ordinance, making it more student friendly and eliminating an issue that divided the town and gown factions in the community for years.

This past spring, a student ran for a Williamsburg city council seat once more. Last Tuesday night, Scott Foster, a graduating senior, dominated the contest.

Foster was elected to the Williamsburg City Council on Tuesday night, becoming the first William & Mary student ever to do so. The 22-year-old said his win was a victory for town and gown relationships.

“Today, the people of Williamsburg demonstrated that our city is truly unified,” Foster said Tuesday night. “When I decided to run for City Council, I hoped to receive the student vote. Now, I have been additionally honored and humbled to have received such strong support from across our City.”

Foster received 1559 votes in the election, 741 more votes than the next finisher, Planning Commission Chairman Doug Pons, who also earned a seat on the council Tuesday night. Five candidates, including one incumbent, ran for the two open positions. According to Foster’s campaign, approximately 67 percent of his votes came from students and the remaining votes came from residents.

Over 1000 William and Mary students voted for their fellow student in the election, ensuring that college students will have a strong voice in the city’s government. Between this victory and the aforementioned organization of Students for a Better Williamsburg, William and Mary students have provided students across the country with a model for organizing within the system to produce positive outcomes.

How did Foster do it? Well, in textbook Millennial fashion. Foster used online social networking to spread the news, and then benefited from a student-coordinated voter registration and GOTV effort on William and Mary’s campus.

Foster benefited from a coordinated get-out-the-vote campaign by William & Mary students. Earlier this year, student organizations, including the Student Assembly, worked to encourage students to vote in the election through a series of registration efforts. Approximately 300 students registered this year as a result of the drive. More than 2,100 students are registered to vote in the City of Williamsburg and early estimates indicate that roughly 50 percent of registered students voted in Tuesday’s election.

On election day, the Student Assembly provided transportation for students between the Sadler Center and the Stryker Building voting location. Sarah Rojas ‘10, outgoing president of the assembly, also sent an e-mail to the College’s students, encouraging them to vote in the election.

[…]

Much of Foster’s campaign was run by students who utilized a website and social media outlets such as Twitter, Facebook, Flickr and YouTube. Foster also spent a good deal of time meeting city residents.

After his upcoming graduation, Foster plans to continue his studies at William and Mary in 2011, attending the William and Mary Law School.

Rethinking the Redistricting Process

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Given the high levels of partisanship and dysfunctionality in our Congress, perhaps Thomas Friedman is right to suggest a new way of drawing Congressional district lines, thanks to inspiration from a leader in the field of democracy studies, Stanford scholar Larry Diamond.

Diamond suggests two innovations. First, let every state emulate California’s recent grass-roots initiative that took away the power to design state electoral districts from the state legislature and put it in the hands of an independent, politically neutral, Citizens Redistricting Commission. It will go to work after the 2010 census and reshape California’s state legislative districts for the coming elections. Henceforth, districts in California will not be designed to be automatically Democratic or Republican — so more of them will be competitive, so more candidates will only be electable if they appeal to the center, not just cater to one party. (There is a movement pressing for the same independent commission to be given the power to redraw Congressional districts.)

As I see it, this has two benefits.

1.) This puts one of the republic’s responsibilities (defining constituencies for representatives) back into the people’s hands. Thus, ordinary folks not only get to choose their representatives, but they also exercise more power in reconstructing that process.

2.) It leads to more honest electoral races. With the elections constructed by the people themselves, campaigns have more incentive to focus on the common good as opposed to the interests of elite insiders (notice I didn’t say they will be exclusively focused on the common good — more needs to be done).

It’s not often I agree with Friedman, but I concur with his endorsement of Diamond’s proposal. The people need to reassert their will on our governing processes. Taking over redistricting is one way of doing so.

Republicans and Government

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I am at the Houston airport on a layover and reading through various articles I missed while I was in Gulfport, MS for an Alternative Spring Break trip.

The Huffington Post points something out that I thought was a good reiteration of the dissonance going on within the Republican Party regarding government and the average citizen’s opinion of it.

CONSERVATIVES STILL DELUDING THEMSELVES: Despite the clear shift in American attitudes towards progressive values and governance, conservatives are clinging to the myth that the American public agrees with them. In his speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference, hate radio talker Rush Limbaugh bellowed that “we’re not a minority” and that President Obama’s progressive agenda was an “assault” on America “from within.” On MSNBC’s Morning Joe yesterday, Rep. Mike Pence (R-IN), claimed that Republicans were “fired” because the American people were tired of big government. But as Halpin and Agne demonstrate, American beliefs about government have moved in a progressive direction. Six in 10 Americans believe that “government should do more to promote the common good,” versus 37 percent who feel that “government should do more to promote individual liberty.” Regarding concepts of freedom, the Progressive Studies Program study found that 57 percent believe that “freedom requires economic opportunity and minimum measures of security, such as food, housing, medical care and old age protection,” compared to 38 percent who favor the idea that “freedom requires that individuals be left alone to pursue their lives as they please and to deal with the consequences of their actions on their own.”

Pence’s bit about being fired is delusional, but also predictable. It’s the only line the GOP has at this point.

I don’t think the Republicans will taste electoral success in the near future until they can admit that their problems have something to do with demographics rather than being limited to a fault ex-president.

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