Sunday, July 31, 2011

Stanley Greenberg is the latest dot non-connector

Sandy Levinson

The Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg has a very interesting piece in today's NYTimes in which the principal question is why a Democratic Party that in fact is the majority party issue-by-issue is in such precarious shape as a political party. I won't go through his whole argument; you should read it yourself. But I do want to highlight several of his specific statements:

1) I see clearly that voters feel ever more estranged from government — and that they associate Democrats with government. If Democrats are going to be encumbered by that link, they need to change voters’ feelings about government.

2) ... [V]oters show they are fairly cynical about Democratic politicians’ stands. They tune out the politicians’ fine speeches and plans and express sentiments like these: “It’s just words.” “There’s just such a control of government by the wealthy that whatever happens, it’s not working for all the people; it’s working for a few of the people.” “We don’t have a representative government anymore.”

This distrust of government and politicians is unfolding as a full-blown crisis of legitimacy sidelines Democrats and liberalism. Just a quarter of the country is optimistic about our system of government — the lowest since polls by ABC and others began asking this question in 1974. But a crisis of government legitimacy is a crisis of liberalism. It doesn’t hurt Republicans. If government is seen as useless, what is the point of electing Democrats who aim to use government to advance some public end? (emphasis added)

One can quibble about whether Republicans don't also pay a price. Indeed, I think it may be a mistake to identify Tea Partiers with the institutional Republican Party, whose demise in some ways we are seeing in front of our eyes. It is clear that Tea Partiers properly view Mitch McConnell and John Boehner as opportunistic and completely cynical charlatans. And, of course, many Democrats have been wondering over the past month or two whether Barack Obama actually has any deep commitments that he's willing genuinely to fight for instead of rushing to make pre-emptive concessions to people who wish him (and the political coalition he so brilliantly put together in 2008) an unglorious demise. If such a deal is announced later today or tomorrow, I suspect that the sigh of relif will be mixed with sheer and justified rage at these "leaders'" willingness to take the country to the edge of the cliff for their own political purposes. (In my own cases, I have to remember that I think it is profound error to "personalize" our politics and thus turn away from the blame that should be attached to our Constitution and the dysfunctional political system it created.) If anyone believes that the not-so-grand bargain to be announced in the next 24 hours will lead to an uptick of "confidence" in our form of government, they are crazy. Anyone who doesn't feel "estranged" from our government is deluded.

But, of course, Greenberg is no more willing to connect the dots between our "system of government" and our decidedly defective Constitution than is anyone else with access to the New York Times. He makes the usual calls for campaign reform (with zero probability of being passed or, many would argue, of actually making a beneficial difference).

Consider, though, a conference that will be held at Harvard in September, co-sponsored byFix Congress First (organized by Larry Lessig), the Harvard Law School, AND Tea Party Patriots, precisely for the purpose of considering the need for a new constitutional convention. The Tea Party, as I've written before, is willing to connect the dots, for which they deserve at least one cheer. The fact that I disagree strongly with repealing the Seventeenth Amendment or adopting Randy Barnett's "Repeal Amendment" (though for reasons that might surprise some of you) is not at all the same thing as adopting the rhetoric of our "basically perfectly Constitution" that is the motif of too much of the response to Tea Party proposals. Precisely because it will be a truly "bi-partisan" (but not Tom Friedman's brand of "centrist") gathering, I suspect it will be unusually interesting and will potentially get some coverage even by the
Mainstream Press.

For what it is worth, I suspect that had public opinion polls and focus groups been available around 1775, at least a quarter of the population would have had confidence in the government of His Majesty King George III and been optimistic about the future. (There were, after all, quite a few Loyalists, even though we rarely learn about them.) Do we face a "revolution"? No. But do we face the possibility of significant "regime change" in the future. After all, the House of Representatives, as I've argued earlier, is basically claiming to be America's Parliament. Perhaps the House will in fact accept the "Grand Bargain," but will it get more than the minimum number of Republican votes to constitute a majority together with the far larger number of Democrats. Will John Boehner remain the Speaker, at least so long as that decision is up to the Republicans, led de facto by the "lean and hungry" Eric Cantor? And, of course, there will be the international consequences of America's decline as the "indeispensable" (military) power, because we can no longer afford to play that role.

In any event, I look forward to reading Mr. Greenberg's next piece in, say, six months, especially if the "estrangement" takes ever more visible form as ordinary people realize what the "Grand Bargain" will mean to their hopes for their (and their children's) futures.


I think you mean Randy Barnett.

I look forward to meeting you at the conference.

However defective our Constitution may be, (And I'd agree it's far from perfect.) I think our political culture is far more defective. That's the far more critical problem, as even a perfect constitution being implemented by a corrupt political culture isn't going to be functional.

The Constitution hasn't been amended in four decades, except for the 27th amendment, which was speedily neutered by the judiciary. Clearly, our government managed to function for quite some time under a constitution which you regard as fatally broken. I put it to you that the Constitution isn't what's driving our present difficulties.

In many ways, it's hardly a factor at all anymore...

Thanks for pointing out that I inadvertently substituted the name of my good friend Randy Kennedy for my good friend Randy Barnett. I've made the correction in the text.

As for Brett, I'm mystified by his reference to the judicial "neuttering" of the 27th Amendment (assuming, of course, one regards it as a legitimate amendment in the first place, given the 203-year time lag between proposal and final ratification in 1992). The very fact that it is regarded as legitimate is one of the most bizarre aspects of American constitutional culture!

1. I don't know how anyone could type out "TP Patriots" without getting angered and at least putting "Patriots" in scare quotes. For starters, their very name implies that somehow others are less patriotic.

2. Greenberg either doesn't realize or mention how much Dem social/cultural issues play in driving people away from them. Consistently calling people racists as Dem leaders do does not exactly endear them to your party.

3. Greenberg's immig. ideas (at least) can't be trusted. The polls he mentions are able to achieve their remarkable results through various forms of bias, such as offering a false choice between mass round-ups and "reform". Polls invariably fail to mention a third option (attrition). Those polls also invariably fail to note any of the downsides of their plans (such as giving the MX gov't even more political power inside the U.S.)


Consider, though, a conference that will be held at Harvard in September, co-sponsored byFix Congress First (organized by Larry Lessig), the Harvard Law School, AND Tea Party Patriots, precisely for the purpose of considering the need for a new constitutional convention.

THAT will be a fascinating discussion. Please post on the conference when it happens. Do you think they might have online video feed or recordings?

Stan Greenberg is doing his usual ramp up polling and focus groups leading up to a presidential election. Rather than any structural matters, Greenberg is looking at how the government's mismanagement of the economy is deeply alienating voters from the government. His NYT piece is just the latest of several discussions of this phenomenon. Here are a couple recent highlights:

I think Brett is referring to Boehner v. Anderson, which allows Members of Congress to benefit from automatic COLAs without having to take a new vote.

Its somewhat of a sneaky way around the 27th amendment, though I am not sure that I would put the blame on the judiciary.

Sandy, it was ratified by the requisite number of states, for all that today's Congress would never have chosen to originate it.

Sandy, this is puzzling on so many levels.

1. You have correctly pointed out the deficiencies of the U.S. Constitution, but you can't seriously believe that the reason the U.S. is a reactionary and dysfunctional plutocracy is because of the particular Constitution adopted in 1789.

2. Do you seriously think a Constitutional Convention in the era of Fox News and other crypto-fascist media would yield anything other than a horror? This defies belief.

You're stuck in an Idee Fixe at this point, and it's making your commentary increasingly irrelevant. The Constitution is epiphenomenal at this point.

"BARACK OBAMA can’t catch a break from the American public on the economy, even though he prevented a depression and saved global capitalism."

The words of a political hack. Give me an analysis by someone with no connection to the American party system. Give me at least someone who admits the difference between what the Democrats represent and what they claim to. But you're not going to will away the divisions in this country- between people, regions, and classes- with yet another gathering of Brahmins. Trying to create new systems of management is something you do after a crisis not before. For the moment education is the answer. As is it it's the more representative House that's full of nutjobs.

Rank and file teabaggers and liberals are equally opposed to cuts in SS and medicare that the Poobahs of both parties are aiming for. We have a ridiculously uneducated electorate, and the teabaggers are are as clueless as they are enraged. The cluelessness is the problem, not the anger.

The crisis in this country is political: it's down to the vulgarity of things. A single Payer program was popular when it was explained well. We didn't get it. SS is not in crisis, but the Poobahs say it is. Etc. etc. Save the design charrette for later. Again, given the situation it's just fiddling. Too many Americans want the freedom of children, but I'm going to celebrate the minority who crave the authority of schoolmasters.

typo: "but I'm not going to celebrate the minority who crave the authority of schoolmasters."

Leiter: "The Constitution is epiphenomenal at this point."


However the Constitution of this can be faulty, (And I agree, it is far from perfect.) I think our political culture is more defective. This is a much more critical, because even a perfect constitution, led by a corrupt political culture will not be functional. The Constitution has not changed in four decades, with the exception of the 27th change that was quickly reversed by the courts. Clearly, our government has managed to operate for a time under a constitution that you consider to be fatally broken. I put to you that the Constitution is not what motivates our current problems.

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