The rise of the west and the changing sociopolitical landscape

Aeon this weekend highlighted a 2017 article by Joel Mokyr looking at how Europe became the richest part of the world (or at least one of the richest).  Historically, there have been many theories, ranging from racist rationals, cultural ones, to it merely being Europe and the overall west’s turn to be on top.

That last one shouldn’t be dismissed too quickly.  1000 years ago, the Muslim societies in the Middle East were the pinnacle of civilization.  Europe at that time was a poor backwater.  Arguably, the Middle Eastern societies benefited at the time from being situated at the center of Asia (and thus the center of the known world), putting them at the intersection of long range trade routes, making them an international economic hub.  The rise of Europe seemed to coincide with trade shifting from overland routes to the seas, giving the sea powers (Portugal, Spain, France, and Britain) the advantages.

Still, the question could be, why did Europe produce those sea powers and not other regions?  The answer Mokyr explores is one that’s been posited many times: competition.  Europe never had one central government, but numerous squabbling states competing with each other.  That competition ensured that the Age of Discovery, among other things, would continue, unlike in China, whose own age of discovery was abruptly cut short by the whims of imperial decree.

But Mokyr notes that competition is only half of the story.  The other half is the rise of science and technology, and an intellectual class.  Unlike in regions dominated by a central authority, where a conservative ruling class threatened by developing ideas could simply suppress them, any attempt to do so in Europe simply led to other powers making use of those ideas.

Mokyr describes a “society of letters” which existed between intellectuals across international borders.  That and the printing press allowed ideas to permeate throughout European cultures.  So when Galileo was persecuted by the Catholic Church, and his ideas banned in Italy, they simply resurfaced in other countries, and continued to be built upon.

I’ve often noted that the printing press was the disrupting technology of the second millennium.  Its development in the 15th century led to ideas spreading much more rapidly, and enabled collaborations that previously had only happened across generations.  No one in 1440 could have predicted the effects it would eventually have: the Scientific Revolution, Reformation, Counter-reformation, religious wars, and many other developments.

So Europe’s rise could be a factor of competition and a technology and culture that allowed ideas to permeate throughout the competitors.  Thinking about this makes me wonder about the rise of the internet.  On the one hand, it could be seen as a continuation of mass media, which itself can be seen as a continuation of the printing revolution.

But the internet has always felt different.  The fact that I’m writing and publishing this post, without having to convince a publisher, broadcaster, or anyone else with resources to make it available, and that people throughout the world will be able to read it, seems like something new.  Something whose long term effects we’re just beginning to feel.

Some of the effects, of course, have been predicted from the beginning.  Even in the 1990s, I remember seeing predictions that it would lead to far more globalization than existed at the time, and that this would have consequences for many people in society.  That’s largely come to pass.

What was less predicted is the backlash that we’re now seeing in many countries.  In the English speaking world, that’s manifested as Brexit in Britain, and the election of Donald Trump in my own country.  Although in retrospect, looking back at history, it should have been obvious that something like this would happen.  The waves of industrialization of the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries all came with their associated backlashes.  The rise of socialism and communism can actually be viewed as giant backlashes against those waves.

This morning, Taegan Goddard, on his Political Wire blog (highly recommended BTW), noted that the Democratic party has now been hijacked (warning: paywall), similar to the way the Republican party was four years ago.  The front runner for the Democratic nomination is a candidate who, until a few years ago, didn’t identify as a Democrat.  And the strongest alternative may end up being a billionaire who also only recently started identifying as a Democrat.  It’s worth remembering that Trump spent most of his life not identifying as a Republican.

For most of US history, political parties chose their nominees in smoked filled rooms, the choice made by party insiders.  That started to change in the 1970s with the switch to primary elections.  But even with that switch, party insiders: major donors, elected officials, and political professionals, still largely determined who the primary candidates would be, through the infamous “money primary.”

Goddard recalls that he wrote in 2016 that Trump’s rise in the Republican party “broke political science”.  With the rise of Bernie Sanders, we seem to be seeing a similar dynamic in the Democratic party.  The days of party insiders pre-winnowing the candidates appears to be over.

But what’s leading to that change?  Goddard focuses on the rise of social networks: Twitter, Facebook, and all the rest, in other words, the internet.  Another unforeseen consequence of the rise of the internet, is the weakening of elites in both parties to be able to constrain the choices.  Candidates now have the ability to interact directly with their constituencies and bypass party elites, the media, and other gatekeepers.

Some are saying that this means that parties are now irrelevant.  I think that’s wishful thinking.  The dynamics of how governing works in the US haven’t changed.  Given the structure of the US government, a president still needs allies in the legislative and judicial branches to get things done, and given the nature of separate but overlapping incumbencies, those alliances still need to be long term.  In other words, parties aren’t irrelevant yet.

And the fact is that this is happening within the parties, not outside of them.  But it is changing the nature of politics in the US, in ways I’m not sure anyone would have predicted a decade ago.

Bringing this back to the original thesis, the rise of Europe and the west may well have been based on competition, a competition enhanced and informed by a framework that allowed new ideas to proliferate.  It’s manifesting in new ways today, and happening across a much wider backdrop, with other world regions increasingly becoming major players.

The question, as always, is what happens next?

Don’t teach Congress about science and technology; teach the voters

M. Anthony Mills has a short piece at Politico advocating the return of the OTA (Office of Technology Assessment), which was defunded in the 1990s as a budget cutting measure.  The argument is that congress needs to know more about science and technology, that maybe if they knew more, they’d make better decisions.

Except, politics doesn’t work that way.  Individual senators and representatives in Congress make decisions largely based on what their constituents demand from them, or at least what those constituents will tolerate.  Of course, the demands of major donors also come into the picture, which is often the real reason anti-science decisions happen.

The solution to this problem isn’t to educate those senators or representatives.  Even if they sit still long enough to receive that education, it won’t work, since the sentiment of their constituents and major donors will win out.

What will work is educating those constituents, that is, the voting public.  That’s admittedly harder since the public is far larger, and getting them to sit still for education is just as difficult.  Yet, in a democracy, there really is no other path.  Getting movement on climate change and other areas will only happen when voters overwhelmingly demand it, with enough force to override the influence of major donors.

Incidentally, this applies to just about any other policy area anyone wants to see progress on.  Progress on gay and lesbian acceptance only happened once it was clear that the voting public was on board.  (The show Will & Grace did more to bring it about than any direct lobbying of politicians.)  Likewise for movement on sexual harassment issues.  This fits the historical pattern, where civil rights only happened once the public demanded it.

Politicians don’t lead, they represent, and representatives, if they want to keep their job, recognize swings in voter sentiment.  To see change, don’t focus on the politician.  Focus on the voter.

Unless of course I’m missing something?

Politics is about self interest

I’ve read a lot of history, including American history of the 18th and 19th centuries.  It’s interesting to read about the politics of these periods.  From a distance across generations and centuries, you can see the distinction between the self interested stances people took and the rhetoric that was used to justify those stances.

An example from the 18th century was the controversy about the new federal government assuming the Revolutionary War debt from the states.  Both sides of the controversy had philosophical reasons for their position, such as concern about federal power versus the benefits of establishing faith and credit for the United States.  But in general, the states that favored the idea (called “assumption”) still had a lot of war debt, while the states that were against it had paid most or all of their debt already.

This also holds for what was the most controversial issue in early America: slavery.  People’s stance on this issue seemed to be heavily influenced by the economy of their state.  In northern industrial states, slavery was becoming less economically viable and dying out, and was therefore seen as barbaric.  However, in the largely agricultural southern states, slavery remained a major part of the economic system, and was therefore seen as a vital institution.

It’s much more difficult for us to separate the stories we tell ourselves today from the self interested realities.  This is probably why some political scientists argue that people aren’t motivated by self interest when they vote.  But that idea simply isn’t backed by history or psychology.

In their book, The Hidden Agenda of the Political Mind: How Self-Interest Shapes Our Opinions and Why We Won’t Admit It, Jason Weeden and Robert Kurzban argue self interest figures heavily into our political positions.

This isn’t something we generally do consciously.  Citing psychology research that shows we often don’t understand our own motivations, they argue that our unconscious mind settles on stances that reflect our inclusive personal interests, with “inclusive” meaning that it includes the interests of our friends and family.

We tell ourselves a high minded story, one that we consciously believe, but like the public relations spokesperson for a large corporation, our consciousness is often uninformed on the actual reasons why the Board of Directors of our mind adopt a stance.  In other words, our self interested positions feel like the morally right ones to have, and people opposed to our positions seem evil or stupid.

Working from this premise, and using data from the United States GSS (General Social Survey), Weeden and Kurzban proceed to show correlations between political positions and various demographic, lifestyle, and financial income factors.  They also periodically glance at broader international data and, although the specific issues and populations vary, find that the general principle holds.

They identify some broad factors that have large effects on our political positions, including things such as sexual lifestyle, membership in traditionally dominant or subordinate groups (religion, race, sexual orientation, etc), the amount of human capital we have, and financial income.

The first factor, sexual lifestyle, generally affects your attitude on a number of social issues such as abortion, birth control, pornography, and marijuana legalization.  Weeden and Kurzban break people into two broad groups: Ring-bearers and Freewheelers.

Ring-bearers tend to have fewer sexual partners across their life, generally making a commitment to one partner, marrying them, and having a family with a higher number of children.  They often strongly value their commitments (which is why they’re called “Ring-bearers”).  A major concern for Ring-bearers is the possibility of being tempted away from those commitments, having their spouse be tempted away, or their kids being tempted away from leading a similar lifestyle.

This concern often makes them want to reduce the prevalence of lifestyles that lead to such temptation, such as sexual promiscuity.  As a result, Ring-bearers tend to favor policies that make promiscuous lifestyles more costly.  Which is why they’re generally pro-life, oppose birth control and sexual education, and oppose things like marijuana legalization, which is perceived as facilitating promiscuity.

Of course the reasons they put forward for their stances (and consciously believe) don’t reflect this.  For the abortion stance, they’ll often argue that they’re most concerned about protecting unborn children.  But the fact that they’re usually willing to make exceptions in cases of rape or incest, where the woman’s sexual lifestyle usually isn’t a causal factor, shows their true hand.

On the other side are the Freewheelers.  Freewheelers generally lead a more active sexual lifestyle, or aspire to, or want to keep their options open for that lifestyle.  They’re less likely to marry, more likely to divorce if they do, and generally have fewer kids.

Freewheelers generally don’t want their life style options curtailed, and don’t want to experience moral condemnation for it.  This generally makes them pro-choice, in favor of birth control and family planning, and in favor of things like marijuana legalization.

Like Ringbearers, Freewheelers usually don’t admit to themselves that preserving their lifestyle options is the motivating factor for their social stances.  Again, focusing on abortion, Freewheelers usually say and believe that their stance is motivated to protect women’s reproductive freedom.  But the fact that pro-choice people are often comfortable with other laws that restrict personal freedoms, such as seat belt laws or mandatory health insurance, shows that personal freedom isn’t the real issue.

Freewheelers also often don’t have the private support networks that Ringbearers typically enjoy, such as church communities, which Weeden and Kurzban largely characterize as child rearing Ringbearer support groups.  This makes Freewheelers tend to be more supportive of public social safety net programs than Ringbearers.

The next factor is membership in traditionally dominant or subservient groups.  “Groups” here refers to race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, immigrant status, etc.  In the US, traditionally dominant groups include whites, Christians, males, heterosexuals, and citizens, while traditionally subservient groups include blacks, Hispanics, Jews, Muslims, nonbelievers, females, gays, transsexuals, and immigrants.  It’s not necessarily surprising that which group you fall in affects your views on the fairness of group barriers (discrimination) or set-asides (such as affirmative action).

But there’s a complicating factor, and that is the amount of human capital you have.  Human capital is the amount of education you’ve attained and/or how good you are at taking tests.  Having high human capital makes you more competitive, reducing the probability that increased competition will negatively affect you.  People with high levels of human capital are more likely to favor a meritocracy.  On the other hand, having low human capital tends to make getting particular jobs or getting into desirable schools more uncertain, so increased competition from any source tends to be against your interests.

For people with high human capital and in a dominant group, group barriers mean little, so people in this category tend to be about evenly split on the fairness of those barriers.  But people with low human capital and in a dominant group tend to be more effected by increased competition when group barriers are reduced, making them more likely to be in favor of retaining those barriers.

People in subservient groups tend to be opposed to any group barriers, or at least barriers affecting their particular group.  People in subservient groups and with high human capital, once barriers have been removed, tend to favor a meritocracy and to be less supportive of specific group set asides.  But people in subservient groups and with low human capital tend to be in favor of the set-asides.

All of which is to say, more educated people tend to be less affected by group dynamics unless they’re being discriminated against, but less educated people are more affected by those dynamics.  Less educated people discriminate more, not because they’re uneducated, but because their interests are more directly impacted by the presence or absence of that discrimination.

And finally, Weeden and Kurzban look at financial income.  It probably won’t surprise anyone that people with higher incomes are less supportive of social safety net programs, which essentially redistribute income from higher income populations to lower income ones, but that people with lower incomes are usually in favor of these programs.

Most people fall in some complex combination of these groups.  Weeden and Kurzban recognize at least 31 unique combinations in the book.  Which particular combination a person is in will define their political perspective.

For example, I’m a Freewheeler (relatively speaking), mostly in dominant groups except in terms of religion, where I’m in a subservient group (a nonbeliever), have moderately high human capital (a Master’s degree), and above average income.  Weeden and Kurzban predict that these factors would tend to make me socially liberal, modestly supportive of social safety nets, opposed to religious discrimination, in favor of meritocracy, and economically centrist.  This isn’t completely on the mark, but it’s uncomfortably close.

But since people fall into all kinds of different combinations, their views often don’t fall cleanly on the conservative-liberal political spectrum.  Why then do politics in the US fall into two major parties?  I covered that in another post last year, but it has to do with the way our government is structured.  The TL;DR is that the checks and balances in our system force broad long lasting coalitions in order to get things done, which tend to coalesce into an in-power coalition and an opposition one.

In other words, the Republican and Democratic parties are not philosophical schools of thought, but messy constantly shifting coalitions of interests.  Republicans are currently a coalition of Ringbearers, traditionally dominant groups, and high income people.  Democrats are a coalition of Freewheelers, traditionally subservient groups, and low income people.  There may be a realignment underway between people with low human capital in dominant groups (white working class) and those with high human capital, but it’s too early to tell yet how durable it will be.

But it’s also worth remembering that 38% of the US population struggles to consistently align with either party.  A low income Freewheeler in traditionally dominant groups, or a high income Ringbearer in a traditionally subservient group, might struggle with the overall platform of either party.

So what does all this mean?  First, there’s a lot of nuance and detail I’m glossing over in this post (which is already too long).

Weeden and Kurzban admit that their framework isn’t fully determinant of people’s positions and doesn’t work for all issues.  For example, they admit that people’s stances on military spending and environmental issues don’t seem to track closely with identifiable interests, except for small slices of the population in closely related industries.

The authors’ final takeaway is pretty dark, that political persuasion is mostly futile.  The best anyone can hope to do is sway people on the margins.  The political operatives are right, electoral victory is all about turning out your own partisans, not convincing people from the other side, at least unless you’re prepared to change your own position to cater to their interests.

My own takeaway is a little less stark.  Yes, the above may be true, but to me, when we understand the real reasons for people’s positions, finding compromise seems more achievable if we’re flexible and creative.  For instance, as a Freewheeler, the idea of content ratings and restricting nightclubs to red light districts suddenly seem like decent compromises, ones that don’t significantly curtail my freedom but assuage Ringholder concerns of being able to keep those influences away from them and their family.

And understanding that the attitude of low human capital Americans toward illegal immigrants is shaped by concern for their own livelihood, rather than just simple bigotry, makes me look at that issue a bit differently.  I still think Trump is a nightmare and his proposed solutions asinine, but this puts his supporters in a new light.  Most politicians tend to be high human capital people and probably fail to adequately grasp the concerns of low human capital voters.  In the age of globalization, should we be surprised that this group has a long simmering anger toward the establishment?

In the end, I think it’s good that we mostly vote our self interest.  We typically understand our own interests, but generally don’t understand the interests of others as well as we might think.  This is probably particularly true when we assume people voting differently than us are acting against their own interests.

Everyone voting their own interests forces at least some portion of the political class to take those interests into account.  And that’s the whole point of democracy.  Admittedly, it’s very hard to remember that when elections don’t go the way you hoped they would.

America’s long path to universal voting rights

My memory of what I learned in early grade school about the history of American voting rights went something like this.  Prior to 1776, we were ruled by the king of Great Britain.  He was a tyrant who oppressed us with taxation without representation, so we rebelled and set up a democracy.  (UK readers, I see you rolling your eyes.)

There may have been a brief mention of slaves getting the vote after the Civil War (the slaves themselves weren’t mentioned until we got to the section on the causes of that war), but other than that, I came away with the impression that voting was mostly something we had figured out in 1776 with maybe some fine tuning in 1787.

Yep, the value of a public education.  To be fair to my state’s school system, the picture did get more sophisticated in middle school grades, but not by much.

Of course, the reality is that there had been elections in England for centuries before the American Revolution (which was a conflict against Parliament as much as with the king).  The American colonies had largely inherited the old English voting paradigm, which included allowing voting by males who owned a certain amount of property.  Many colonies also restricted the right to members of approved religious denominations.

The result was at the beginning of the United States, only a relatively small minority of the population could vote.  The exact percentage varied depending on locale, ranging from as low as 40% of adult white males to as high as 80%, depending on the availability and expense of property and the exact voting laws, with some estimates of the overall percentage of the American population that could vote being as low as 6%.

The progress from that initial very limited suffrage to the near universal suffrage we have today happened in what I would call four waves.  The first wave enfranchised most white males, the second wave briefly enfranchised blacks, the third wave women, and the fourth re-enfranchised blacks along with much of the remaining excluded population.

The first wave happened in the early 19th century.  White males who didn’t have the vote were pushing for it, but that by itself wasn’t enough to make it happen.  There was a strong sentiment that only those with a stake in the society should be allowed to vote, as well as a concern that too broad a franchise might allow elections to be swayed by a nascent working class enslaved to their employer’s interests.  Many fretted that America might someday become a country of working class people instead of farmers.

Proponents of broader suffrage argued that fears of a working class country were unfounded, that America would always be predominantly agrarian.  The proponents had to be careful in the arguments they used, focusing on why their particular group should have the vote without implying that voting was any kind of general right.  Such a right might imply that women, blacks, and natives should be allowed to vote, which everyone regarded as crazy talk.

The success of this wave came from a number of factors.  The rise of national political parties played a role, allowing voters who had the right to vote in one type of election to punish a party that opposed their right to vote in other elections.  In addition, the War of 1812 shed light on the fact that soldiers without the right to vote had a lower incentive to fight.  But perhaps the largest factor may have been new states in the west, who used broad white male suffrage to attract migrants, which put competitive pressure on the eastern states to expand their own franchise.

The result was that by more or less 1850, if you were male, white, and paid taxes (the standard that replaced the property requirements), you probably could vote.  Still excluded at this point were women, blacks, most native Americans, paupers, and most immigrants.  The first half of the 19th century was a period of mostly optimism about democratic ideals.

The second half wouldn’t be.  As America indeed started to become the working class society people of a previous generation had feared, those fears came roaring back, leading to widespread nativism and discrimination.  When we think of the later 19th century, we often might think of the Civil War and Reconstruction, of blacks getting the right to vote.  This was the second wave I mentioned above.  But it happened in an era of otherwise rising skepticism about the ideals of a broad democracy, which is likely why the second wave mostly floundered.

As Reconstruction ended and white southerners seized back control of their states, the north showed little interest in stopping the subsequent large scale disenfranchisement of blacks.  Yes, the 15th Amendment was on the books, theoretically guaranteeing blacks the right to vote, but after the first decade or so of its ratification, only the most brazen violations of it were policed, generally allowing Jim Crow era laws to develop.  It was a stark demonstration that liberal laws are impotent if the people in power won’t enforce them.

The late 19th century turn against democracy also resulted in strong headwinds for the women’s suffrage movement, which is usually considered to have started in 1848.  Those headwinds resulted in little progress before 1900, although women did often get the right to vote in some local elections such as for school board positions, and a more broad right in a few western states.

The third wave for women’s suffrage didn’t really heat up until the early 20th century, when women’s groups became far more organized and aggressive.  In addition, the industrial nature of World War I demonstrated that women could contribute substantially to war efforts, something that had been a convincing argument in the first two waves.  That and there was an international movement in several democratic countries to enfranchise women.  All of which culminated in the 19th Amendment being ratified in 1920.  (Interestingly, this was followed by a very conservative decade in American politics.)

The Great Depression in the 1930s led to something of an ad-hoc change.  Paupers continued to be largely excluded from the voting franchise, with technically anyone receiving any kind of welfare considered a pauper.  However, the large scale unemployment and hardship of the 1930s made officials reluctant to label anyone on relief a pauper, which largely ended that exclusion.  It became kind of an inversion of the situation with the 15th Amendment.

The fourth wave started with World War II.  Part of the war propaganda on the western side focused on the fact that we were democracies and the enemies weren’t.  (I guess conveniently ignoring the realities in Russia.)  That and the fact that the Nazis saw American racial laws as a source of inspiration for their own policies, policies which resulted in the Holocaust.  This seemed to turn a harsh light on the differences between the ideals of American democracy and the reality.  It was also recognized that America’s racial issues gave the communists a Cold War propaganda issue.

Nevertheless, the fourth wave was a long slog, starting with desegregation of army barracks in the late 1940s, and civil resistance from blacks themselves in the 1950s.  Eventually the result was the Civil Rights Era.  This resulted in laws passed in the 1960s guaranteeing blacks the right to vote, finally fulfilling the promise of the 15th Amendment a century after it has been ratified.

But the Civil Rights Era also included a rush to correct other longstanding issues with American voting, so that many groups that had been excluded by a variety of underhanded techniques, such as American Indians, mobile workers, recent immigrants, paupers, and other smaller groups were finally enfranchised.  It was a period when the Federal government finally took an active role in ensuring the right to vote.  By the early 1970s, America finally had near universal suffrage.  (“Near” because in many states convicted felons, insane people, and other similar categories continue to be excluded.)

When I was younger, I never realized just how recent this development had been.  Nor how fragile or incomplete it was until the 2000 election with all the disputes about voting laws and the electoral college, or again when in recent years the Supreme Court invalidated substantial portions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, not to mention the election we just had.

As always, I find reading history helps to put our own times in context, which can be comforting in some ways but alarming in others.  Reading about voting rights history in America shows that voter eligibility has always been a partisan issue, and that the times we live in aren’t nearly as uniquely blinkered as we might fear.  On the other hand, it also shows that our conception of democracy is a very recent one, and that there’s no guarantee that past progress can’t be reversed.  Vigilance is always required.

therighttovotecoverMuch of the information in this post came from ‘The Right to Vote: The Contested History of Democracy in the United States‘ by Alexander Keyssar.  I can’t say this was an exciting read, and the Kindle version had some unacceptable formatting issues, but I found it a fascinating source of information for this topic.

Lessons from the election of 1824 and Silvio Berlusconi

Understandably, a lot of people continue to be upset about the results of this election.  One thing that keeps coming up in my feeds are people advocating for the electoral college to change that result.  The idea is that if 37 Republican electors can be convinced to change their vote, Trump can be prevented from getting into the Oval Office.  While I can understand the sentiment, I think focusing on this is a mistake.

First, the chance of success is vanishingly small.  Convincing 37 hyper-partisan Republican electors not to vote for the official Republican candidate is the longest of long shots.  You might succeed in pulling a few, maybe, but 37 is pretty hard to imagine.  And even if you did, it’s highly unlikely they’d vote for Clinton.  At best, they’d go for other Republicans, which would just throw the election into the Republican dominated House of Representatives.

A lot of people advocating for this seem to hope that the Republicans in the House would vote for whichever Republican alternate came in third in the electoral vote, but how likely is that really?  Republican leaders know that any person elected that way would be extremely damaged goods.  And I suspect any such candidate with any sense would quickly withdraw themselves from consideration.  The House would almost certainly confirm Trump.  (It might be worth it if the Republicans realized how undemocratic the electoral college is and this scenario motivated them to help abolish it, but that seems like a big ‘if’.)

495px-andrew_jacksonBut let’s say it did work and someone other than Trump was elected.  The thing to think about is, what happens next?  For an idea, I invite you to read about the election of 1824.  In that election, there was a combative populist candidate that many educated people feared, Andrew Jackson, and a more establishment candidate, John Quincy Adams.  Jackson got a plurality of the electoral college but not a majority, so the election went to the House, which elected Adams.

It’s not really possible to know exactly how much support Jackson had in 1824 since there weren’t opinion polls in those days, and only a fraction of the population was able to actually vote in the 1824 presidential election.  What we can say though, is that people were outraged, and  Jackson immediately started running for the 1828 election.

That next election would be one where the number of people who could vote for the president (or more precisely, the electors) would increase dramatically.  And after four years of relentlessly attacking the Adams administration, particularly pushing a narrative of aristocrats having stolen the election in 1824 in a “corrupt bargain”, Jackson won the 1828 election in a landslide, this time with a definite mandate, and went on to serve two terms.

Jackson is a sobering historical comparison to Trump, because backed by the working class of his day, he did some pretty awful stuff.  He got the Indian Removal Act passed, which led to the infamous Trail of Tears.  When the Supreme Court made a ruling against the way native Americans were being treated, Jackson brazenly ignored it.  Trump’s attitudes toward immigrants resonates a little too close for comfort with Jackson’s attitudes toward native Americans.

Jackson instituted the spoils system of federal job patronage.  Today we’re used to top administrative jobs being political appointees, but Jackson made pretty much every civilian federal employee a political appointee.  The result was a federal workforce brimming with people who weren’t competent in whatever job they had received.   This state of affairs wouldn’t get corrected until the creation of the federal civil service several decades later.

Jackson also got into a feud with the head of the Second Bank of the United States (who was admittedly, if I recall correctly, something of a jerk) and ended up vetoing the renewal of that bank, leaving the United States without any central banking authority until 1912, and even then that authority wasn’t effective until the 1930s.  In other words, Jackson arguably damaged the economy of the country for a century.  To be fair, Americans’ inherent distrust of banks stopped that mistake from being rectified for generations, but Jackson’s treatment of central banking probably added a weight to that fear it might not have otherwise had.

In his ongoing feud with the then dying Second Bank, Jackson withdrew all federal deposits from it, and then issued the Species Circular, an executive order requiring that all payment from the government to be in gold or silver.  The resulting monetary shock led to the Panic of 1837 and an economic depression that his chosen successor, Martin Van Buren, had to contend with.

Jackson’s policies led to the creation of the Democratic Party to support him, and in reaction, the creation of an opposition party, the Whigs.  One of those in opposition was a young Whig named Abraham Lincoln.

Anyway, the point is that denying Jackson the Presidency in 1824 turned him into a victim of the establishment and arguably made him much stronger.  Would the same thing happen if Trump were denied the Presidency by similar machinations?  It’s hard to say, but right now Trump can’t claim too much of a mandate since he lost the popular vote.  Making him a victim might metastasize his support for 2020 into something far more powerful.

In other words, be careful what you ask for.

Another tactic being advocated for Democratic electors is for them to vote for someone other than Clinton.  The idea is that this might outrage people enough to generate a will to do something about the electoral college.  This strikes me as the loser of the game punching themselves in the face in a bid to change the rules.  It doesn’t seem like something the winner, the Republicans, will care about.  Being twice now the beneficiary of an electoral college / popular vote mismatch in the last twenty years, the Republicans have little incentive to change things.

I think people on the left have to deal with the reality of a President Trump and Republican domination of the federal government for at least the next two years.  But as Ezra Klein pointed out, Democrats should remember that they’re not in the minority in this country.  As of this post, Clinton is ahead in the popular vote by over two million votes, and more people voted for Democratic Senators than Republican ones.  (Although admittedly the Republicans did get more votes in the House races.)

And Trump remains a deeply unpopular figure.  Democratic opposition to his more loathsome policies needs to conducted with that in mind.  As Luigi Zingales points out in his New York Times piece, using lessons from the long running but inept opposition to Italian populist Silvio Berlusconi, opposing Trump by focusing on his personality is a losing strategy.  The opposition to Trump should be based on where he’s weakest, on his policies and how they affect people.

Trump really doesn’t have a mandate.  The opposition should be careful not to deliver one to him.

Why Trump won, and a calmer assessment of the situation

The filmmaker Michael Moore, who had predicted a Trump win several months ago, went on Morning Joe on Friday and discussed why Trump won.  It was painful to watch, but the main point that struck home was when Moore pointed out that many Trump voters were previously Obama voters.  What this tells me is that we on the left need to stop calling all of Trump’s voters racists or otherwise attempting to shame them.  Some definitely are racists and bigots, but many aren’t.

So why did many who don’t share Trump’s values vote for him?  Because they perceived that their economic situation was getting worse.  This is borne out by the exit poll data, which show that, of the 27% of the country who feel they are financially worse off than they were four year ago, 78% voted for Trump.

As I said a few posts back, universal democratic suffrage works because people know when their own situation is getting better or worse.  When your situation is getting worse, you often vote for change any way you can get it, all other details be damned.

It’s easy for those of us who are relatively comfortable economically to bemoan Trump’s values, but if my personal financial situation had been in decline, I have to admit that I would have been sorely tempted to vote for change, any change.  And if I couldn’t bring myself to vote for the change candidate, I might have stayed home, which is what a lot of Democrats and Democrat-leaning voters did this election.

It’s incredibly painful that this led to someone like Trump winning, with all the damage he’s liable to do, particularly given that the economic problems of this group were largely a result of Republican caused gridlock.  But painting all of Trump’s voters with the same brush is a mistake.  Many of those voters will be the ones who might be convinced to vote for someone else in the future.  Attacking them now will only harden their attitudes.

So that’s how we got here, but what now?  Anyone who thinks they know what’s going to happen in a Trump administration is delusional.  At this point, I suspect Trump himself is still figuring that out.  But based on his campaign positions (such as they were) and his moves this week, I think we can take a shot at a tentative assessment of what will happen.

First, I’m not as sure today as I was on the morning after the election that the economy is doomed to suffer.  I’m sure Trump and the Republicans will pass a huge tax cut.  This will blow a hole in the deficit, but it will also stimulate the economy.  I’ve been saying for years that our economy needed more deficit spending to spur activity, and we’re about to get the Republican version of that.  I’d have preferred the Democratic version, but an economic stimulus is still an economic stimulus.

Of course, if Trump starts trade wars, any benefit from the stimulus might be more than offset by economic contractions from reduced exports and higher prices on consumer goods.  Still, a large enough stimulus, while it won’t bring back legacy manufacturing jobs, might still provide more opportunities for those who were effected by the decline of those jobs.

I’m also a bit less pessimistic about the social safety net.  Trump, in his populace positions, actually rejected orthodox Republican ideas of cutting social security.  The big exception was his position on Obamacare, but he now appears to be walking back that stance somewhat.  In truth, I always thought the Republican promise to repeal and replace Obamacare was rhetoric.  Given how conservative Obamacare actually is, I’m more expecting them to pass a “repeal” bill that mostly shuffles its components around and renames it, with probably some additional conservative tweaks.  Not that some of the changes won’t be painful.

I still can’t see any reason to be optimistic about climate change.  Trump naming a climate change denialist to head the environmental transition team is a bad sign.  So, I don’t expect any progress on this in the coming years.  Many are acting as though this will doom the Earth.  In truth, the Earth was going to get warmer with or without the US participation in international climate change initiatives, but now it’s going to get warmer than it otherwise would have.

I also still fear that science overall is going to take a hit in this administration.  The more natural sciences might not be compromised too much, but look for anything related to climate science, or to the social sciences, to see declines in funding.  I hope I’m wrong about this.

We probably will see some form of that idiotic wall get built on the Mexican border.  But I seriously doubt we’ll see mass deportations.  In truth, despite surrounding it with a lot of angry rhetoric, Trump walked back the mass deportation threats once the primaries were over.  Not that the situation isn’t likely to be more dangerous for many undocumented immigrants.

Trump was also not hostile to the LGBT community, and took some flack from other Republican candidates for it.  So while I doubt we’ll see any progress on LGBT issues in his administration, Republicans who want to reverse the recent gains may find themselves frustrated.

Race relations, unfortunately, may be a different matter.  Trump’s attitudes in the campaign and overall history are worrying here, and they are largely in sync with overall Republican attitudes.  I fear that people of color may see their position erode in the next few years.  Again, I hope I’m wrong.

On international relations, I really have no idea what’s going to happen.  Trump’s comments about NATO, his advocating for war crimes, and a lot of other bombastic nonsense he sprouted in the campaign, is pretty scary. We can only hope actually being in power and being responsible for the consequences makes him more cautious in his approach.

On the supreme court, again I’m not sure what’s going to happen.  Trump promised to appoint conservatives, but many of his own positions aren’t really conservative, particularly not on social matters.  Still, he’ll need his nominees approved by a Republican Senate, so it’s probably safe to assume they will be at least conservative leaning.  This may be the most lamentable result of this election, a Supreme Court dominated by conservatives for another generation.

All of this, of course, assumes that Trump is able to maintain a somewhat rational and coherent path in his administration.  Given how erratic he often was during the campaign, this seems like a big if.  It’s still quite conceivable that he ends up doing something wantonly illegal and gets impeached.

It’s painful to note this, but if he does manage some form of minimal administrative competence and manages to accelerate the economy, I see him getting re-elected in 2020.  The only way Democrats have a chance in 2020 is if he tanks the economy, which he may do if he’s not careful with his trade changes.

But regardless, Democrats have a reasonable chance of making gains in 2018, both in the House of Representatives and in state houses across the country, and again in 2020, which may put them in a crucial position to reverse some of the gerrymandering that has given Republicans such a lock on the House.  Given where the party is right now, in minority status across all levels of government, it’s a rebuilding they desperately need to do.  It will be a long slog.  Those of us on the left should prepare ourselves for a marathon, not a sprint.

So that’s where I see us being right now.  I may have very different views depending on what happens in the coming weeks and months.  What do  you think?

Well, we went and did it

Obviously I see the results of this election as a tragic mistake, one that we’ll be feeling for a long time.  It’s hard not to see this as a victory for fear, hatred, and bigotry.  The man who came to political prominence by calling into question the citizenship and legitimacy of the first black president will be the one to succeed that president.  (That he may do so while actually losing the popular vote will be salt in the wound.)

There’s obviously going to be a lot of soul searching on the left, but one thing I’m pretty sure of is that the inevitable articles touting Trump as some kind of political genius and Clinton as an incompetent campaigner will be utter and contemptible bullshit.  Whatever happened here was seismic and far larger than either of them.

Many people this morning are talking about the economic anxieties of the working class whites who voted for Trump.  I do think there’s something to that, but I think it would be a mistake to think that those economic anxieties were the only factor.

The much more difficult issue is the strong streak of nativism and racism that exists in this group, and the overall angst about the cultural and demographic changes that are happening in the country.  I’m not sure what anyone can necessarily do about that.  (Not that I think anything should be done about it.)  As this graph from a Pew Research article shows, the changes are happening and aren’t something amenable to being addressed by government policy, at least other than (hopefully) unthinkably draconian ones.

Source: http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2016/03/31/10-demographic-trends-that-are-shaping-the-u-s-and-the-world/
Source: http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2016/03/31/10-demographic-trends-that-are-shaping-the-u-s-and-the-world/

One thing that is glaringly obvious is that the polling industry has some serious issues.  That their methodologies didn’t see any significant whiff of this coming means they’ll have to thoroughly reassess those methodologies.  It’s one thing to talk about results within the margin of error, but when every poll was wrong in the same direction, something’s definitely broken.

For better or worse, the Republicans now hold all the keys to government.  Whatever happens in the next couple of years, they own it.  We can only hope they can find the wisdom not to run the country into the ground.  I wish I could say I was optimistic, but I desperately fear that the coming years will not be good ones for the economy, science, climate change, or for anyone who isn’t white, Christian, and male (and it’s not even at all clear to me it will be good for that group).

Early access to exit poll data, universal suffrage, and other election ruminations

So, tomorrow is election day here in the US.  If you’re a US citizen and you haven’t voted yet, now’s the time to make plans.  As I noted in the last post, this is not the year to sit the election out.  The most recent projections still show Clinton with a slight to modest lead, but the outcome of this election is not foregone by any measure.  Particularly if you live in a swing state, your vote will matter.

Personally I also don’t think it’s the year for a protest vote.  However, if you’re bound and determined to make such a vote and you live in a swing state, but would prefer to find a way to avoid aiding and abetting Trump, you might consider doing a vote swap with someone who isn’t in a swing state.  As I mentioned in the last post, a ranked voting system, as opposed to our current first past the post system, would make this unnecessary.

If you’re like me, and always been a bit irritated that the journalists and politicians seem to have access to exit poll data long before we the public do, you’ll like this.  Starting at 11am eastern time tomorrow, Slate and a site called VoteCastr will begin making projections based on the polling data available at that point, updating it throughout the day.  Of course, in close states like Florida, the data may be off enough to project the wrong victor, so if you watch this, do it with that in mind.

With all the talk about voter intimidation and long lines at the polls, I’m reminded of the fact that, while all states have absentee voting by mail, most only allow it if you have an approved excuse.  However, three states have voting by mail as their primary method without any reported issues.  It seems like voter participation in this country would be a lot higher if this was the rule across the country.  I know my future questions for any politicians running at the state level will be if they support this, and if not, why not?

Finally, there’s been some talk recently wondering if universal suffrage is the best form of democracy we could have, with some people wondering if we shouldn’t restrict the vote to people with a minimal amount of knowledge, most eloquently described by Jason Brennan in this Aeon article.  I’m all for voters being more informed, but I think using knowledge as a prerequisite for voting is a terrible idea.

As Brennan himself observes, figuring what knowledge would be crucial would itself be an intractable political problem.  It’s worth remembering that the US southern states once used literacy and arbitrary knowledge tests as a mechanism to disenfranchise blacks and other minorities.  The idea that they could be brought back but this time keep it fair and objective is one we should be deeply skeptical of.

And my reading of history is that political leaders take care of their power base.  They may or may not take care of people outside of that power base, but any time there is a conflict of interests, those in the power base win.  Brennan cites research that people don’t vote selfishly in elections.  While I’m not familiar with that research, I am familiar with history, and it shows that voters have not historically had that altruism.

Suffrage, the right to vote, didn’t expand by those with the vote altruistically expanding it.  In almost all cases, those without suffrage who wanted it had to fight and put pressure on them.  Women only got the right to vote after decades of women’s suffrage movements.  And blacks only got their right to vote secured after they began marching in the streets in the civil rights era.

It’s also worth noting that the people who opposed these groups getting voting rights were often among the most educated and knowledgeable people in the country.  The KKK’s ranks once included doctors, lawyers, politicians, and even at least one US President.  Knowledge didn’t make any of these people more altruistic in considering the needs of others without power.

I can understand the sentiment in the year of Brexit and the rise of Donald Trump.  Democracy doesn’t guarantee that the populace will make good decisions.  Although people generally know when their lives are getting materially worse, so I do think democracy dramatically increases the probability that terrible rulers will lose power and bad directions will be reversed.  Anytime we in the west start to bemoan the quality of our leadership, a quick glance to places like North Korea, where large swaths of the population reportedly live in starvation, shows that democracies with pervasive suffrage, while far from perfect, are also far from the worst possible forms of government.

None of this means that I’d be sanguine if the racist, xenophobic, misogynistic, pathologically lying bully that is the current Republican nominee won.  I think it would be a disaster and a dangerous threat to our democracy.  But so would be taking the vote away from people who didn’t have the “right knowledge”.  Ultimately, the best solution for threats like Trump is to educate people as much as possible, and hope that enough of them sensibly don’t choose destructive paths.

Anyway, remember to vote.  Your future may well depend on it.

Voting in the general election, 2016 edition

Today early voting started in my state, and because voting on November 8 would be a hassle, I made use of it.  It probably won’t surprise any of my regular online friends that my vote went to Hillary Clinton.

To be upfront, the Republican candidate would not have gotten my vote, even if they had been calm, sober, competent, and upstanding, as were John McCain and Mitt Romney.  I generally vote Democratic, mainly because I agree more with their vision of what our society should look like, and find the vision of many hardcore Republicans repugnant and, in the case of the Tea Party and “Freedom” Caucus people, outright dangerous.

I personally prefer a society where people can’t be discriminated against because they belong to the wrong religion, hold the wrong philosophy, have the wrong skin color or other ethnic marker, like the wrong kinds of sex, are the wrong gender or desire to be the wrong gender, or any other similar type of reason.  I know libertarians often share the same outlook on these social matters, but I find them far too focused only on discrimination from the government, and too unconcerned with discrimination from other social institutions such as churches, civic organizations, businesses, or society overall.

And given that scientific data and history show that none of us are as self sufficient as we might like to think, I also prefer a society with a robust cradle to grave social safety net, including universal healthcare, free (or low cost) education, more generous unemployment benefits, better care for those in poverty, and a wide variety of other measures, all of which I perceive are more likely to happen with Democrats in power.  At a minimum I perceive that the existing safety net, as incomplete as it is, won’t be further eroded if they hold at least one of branches of government.

I know conservatives often fear that providing this kind of safety net will somehow ruin our moral fiber or economic vitality, but that concern doesn’t hold up when you look at other developed democracies, most of which have stronger safety nets than we do, and none of which have descended into the kind of dystopian nightmare that we’re always assured will come about if we strengthen our own programs.

And I actually think we give up a lot of economic vitality by forgoing that robust safety net.  How many more entrepreneurs would we have if potential risk takers didn’t have to worry about losing health insurance for their children?  How many more people might follow their passion if doing so wasn’t so much more risky than simply working a job that, while safe, doesn’t maximize their contribution to society?

So that’s why I voted Democrat.  Now, it’s become very chic among progressives to bemoan that Hillary Clinton is our only viable option.  Many seem grudgingly willing to vote for her to avoid a President Trump, but are unhappy with Clinton herself.  That’s not my outlook.  My vote for her was moderately enthusiastic.

To be sure, Clinton is not perfect.  But from everything I can see, she’s spent a lifetime fighting for something like the vision I outlined above.  Yes she’s had to make compromises along the way, but if you’re not willing to get your hands dirty, you’re not going to make progress.  My perception is that Clinton is extremely intelligent, a ferociously hard worker, cares deeply about public policy, and is more prepared for the Presidency than just about anyone who has ever run for the office.  We can always imagine a more perfect candidate, but I think she’s in the upper tier of the people actually qualified to do the job.

But what about all the controversies?  What about her emails, paid speeches, the Clinton foundation, Benghazi, and all the rest?  I’ve followed all of these reasonably closely, and I can’t find anything actually nefarious in any of it (with the exception of Bill’s marriage infidelities, but holding that against his wife, the primary victim, is vicious stupidity).  Yes there are mistakes, but again we’re talking about someone who is human, not a public policy machine.  I certainly find nothing in any of it to justify all the hyperbolic outrage.

I can understand the amplified outrage from Republicans since it’s to their advantage to make as much political hay out any mistake that they can, but I’ve frequently been puzzled by the outrage from the left.  When I talk with progressives about Clinton, as we cross off each “scandal” that turned out to be nothing but a partisan witch-hunt, I’m struck by how often their attitude boils down to some version of “I just don’t like her” or “I just don’t trust her”.

Ultimately, I think Clinton’s problem, from a political perspective, is her gender.  I’m not talking about the knuckle dragging conservatives who might argue against the desirability of a woman President, but the unconscious bias many of us have against the idea of a woman commander in chief, even on the left, even among many women.

Clinton faces a trade-off that women vying for leadership positions today often face.  If they act in the traditional manner that society expects of women, they’ll be considered too timid for leadership.  If they’re strong and assertive, they’ll be perceived as annoying, grating, and bitchy.  I think we as a society need to outgrow this double standard, and stop holding women like Clinton to standards we’d never hold a male candidate to.

As I said above, Clinton has my enthusiastic vote, but even if I weren’t enthusiastic, she’s become the choice of sanity.  I’m not going to go on a rant about Donald Trump.  If you still see him as an acceptable option at this point, there’s nothing I can say that would change your mind.  For anyone else, including those holding their nose while voting for him, I’ll just note that a ranked voting system, particularly in the party primaries, might serve our country far better than the traditional first past the post system we now use.

I never seriously considered the third party candidates, Johnson for the reasons I laid out above on libertarians, and Stein because she has scant public leadership experience, and neither of them strike me as economically literate or particularly knowledgeable on public policy.  But also because only one of two people will be elected President on November 8, Clinton or Trump, and doing anything other than voting for Clinton increases Trump’s chance of victory.

Every election people say that the stakes are enormous in a bid to convince you to vote.  It’s often hyperbole.  But this time I don’t think it is.  Hopefully you’re registered, but if not, check your state’s deadlines, because many still allow you to register, and some allow same day registration.  This is not the year to sit out the election.  Consider doing early voting if there’s any chance you might not be able to make it on election day.

Your vote will matter.  Even if you’re in a non-swing state, contributing to the popular vote gives information about the country’s overall attitude toward the candidates, which might become important if election results end up being contested.  Don’t look at the polls and assume that the result is a foregone conclusion.  Polls can be wrong, particularly in catching late breaking changes.  Don’t take any chances with this election.  Do your part.  Get out and vote.  If you don’t, your opinion literally won’t count.

Why the US two party system is so entrenched

The other day, I came across this Big Think explanation by historian Sean Wilentz on why the US always seems to gravitate to a two party system.

Unfortunately, while I think Wilentz touches on the main points, his explanation doesn’t seem as clear as it could be.

To start off, he refers to the US electoral practice of first past the post voting, or plurality voting, which is a fancy name for only having one winner of an election that goes to the candidate with the most votes.  It’s in contrast to a system that awards proportional representation to all parties that manage to get at least some defined minimal proportion of votes.

Most of the political systems that do some form of plurality voting, tend to have two major parties.  The systems that do proportional systems tend to have several parties.  The tendency of plurality voting systems to gravitate toward two parties is known in political science as Duverger’s law.

Although a more accurate name might have been “Duverger’s trend”, because while most political systems that do plurality voting have two party systems, it’s still possible for an occasional third party (or fourth) to get significant representation in them.  The UK has a plurality system, yet a few years ago it had a viable third party, the Liberal Democrats, who had enough representation to control the balance of power in Parliament.

But in the US system, third parties virtually never get much of a footing.  Occasionally a charismatic presidential candidate manages to get to get enough votes to sway the outcome of an election, but one has never actually won.

Perhaps the most successful third party presidential candidate in American history was Theodore Roosevelt in 1912.  Roosevelt was a popular ex-president who had only been out of office for four years.  (This was before the lifetime two term limit was in place.)  If there was ever a time when a third party candidate should have claimed victory, it would have been that year.  Yet, despite doing better than the Republican candidate, he only managed to split the Republican vote and throw the election to Democrat Woodrow Wilson.

With the exception of a couple of brief periods, the US has been a two party system for our entire history.  Initially the two parties were the Federalists and the Democratic-Republicans.  But this first two-party system had ended by 1820, after the collapse of the Federalists under allegations of treason during the War of 1812.

But by the 1830s, a new two party system had emerged: the Democrats and the Whigs.  The Whigs would later collapse in the 1850s, ripped apart by the slavery issue.  There were multiple parties 1850s and 1860s, mainly because of the convulsions the country was going through in the lead up to and carrying out of the American Civil War.

But within a few years after the Civil War, the two party system was back, now with Democrats and Republicans.  Those parties have remained ever since, although their stances and constituencies have varied tremendously over the decades.  In the 19th century, the Republicans tended to be the progressives and Democrats the conservatives, although the detailed issues were very different.

So, why does the US system so consistently gravitate back to two parties?  Part of it is Duverger’s law, but the utter absence of viable third parties in the US system is striking.  I think Wilentz had the right idea that it is embedded in the US constitution, although not just in the plurality voting aspects.

As all Americans learn in school, the US federal government has three separate branches: the executive (President), the legislative (Congress), and the judiciary.  The Constitution was designed to separate powers between the branches in such a way as to minimize the possibility of a tyranny developing.  This arrangement seems to have worked pretty well, so well in fact that it has generally been copied by the individual states.

However, as Richard Neustadt pointed out in his classic ‘Presidential Power and the Modern Presidents‘, executives and legislators in the US don’t so much have separate powers as shared powers.

What’s the difference between “separate” and “shared”?  In my home state of Louisiana, we have a number of statewide elected officials (treasurer, secretary of state, etc) who operate more or less independently of the state governor.  They’re able to (mostly) stay out of each other’s way.  Their powers are separate.  But that isn’t true between Presidents and Congress or most governors and their state legislators.  To accomplish substantive things, they must work together.  In other words, their powers are mostly shared.

Of course, as anyone paying attention can attest, working together often doesn’t happen.  But the highest probability of it happening is when allies control the different branches.  Without allies in Congress, a President can’t do much more than fairly narrow executive actions, and without an ally in the Presidency, Congress’s ability to pass laws is severely constrained, and both branches can have their initiatives killed by an unfriendly Supreme Court.

For this to work, the alliance needs to be a broad coalition, otherwise it won’t be strong enough or enduring enough.  Our bifurcated system of government requires the coordination from these alliances to function.  But any such successful coalition is going to make decisions that a lot of people don’t like.  The best chance the various opposing constituencies have of fighting the governing coalition is to form their own opposition coalition.

This is pretty clear if you look at the history of how the Democrats and Whigs developed.  President Andrew Jackson was the dominating political presence of his day.  He got things done with his allies in Congress, who eventually became the Democrats.  But a lot of people were passionately opposed to Jackson’s policies, and they eventually coalesced into the Whigs.

Our system of government rewards the largest coalitions, and it is to the advantage of each separate interest group to be in the largest coalition, or if that isn’t possible, to be in the second largest.  In other words, to be part of the two party system.

In our system, the coalitions are formed outside of government and change fairly slowly.  While this can be very stable, it can also lead to entrenched divided government, as it is right now.  It is an arrangement that, while unintentional, is a direct side effect of the way our government and constitution are structured.

Wilentz is right that the only real way to change this situation is to amend the constitution, perhaps radically, introducing proportional representation in Congress or collapsing the executive and legislative branches together.  This would take a two thirds vote of Congress and ratification by the legislatures of three quarters of the states.  In other words, don’t expect movement on this anytime soon.

But the two party system has collapsed twice in American history.  How do we know we’re not in that situation this year?  That one of the third parties isn’t perhaps ascendant?  When asking that question, consider that parties have never won the Presidency until they had a significant representation in Congress and in state legislatures.  Ask yourself how much representation the third party you’re considering has at those levels.  If the answer is minuscule or zilch, then this probably isn’t the year that party will come into power.

One popular reason to vote for a third party candidate is to make a protest vote.  Maybe the major party closest to your views isn’t addressing one or more issues that you care deeply about, and you want to send a message to them.  Protest voting can get the attention of the major parties and convince them to incorporate its views into their plank, but usually only after they have lost an election.  In other words, protest voters should be prepared to watch the candidate on the other end of the political spectrum go into power.