Friday, October 09, 2015

What Just Happened to the House GOP?

As you have all seen by now, Republican House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy has dramatically withdrawn from the race for Speaker of the House. As every news story has made clear, McCarthy was undone by the opposition of a group of hard-liners (probably about forty of them). What the news stories don't make clear is that those hard-liners could not have come close to beating McCarthy at the caucus election where McCarthy resigned. The GOP caucus would have elected McCarthy comfortably if he had let them vote. But the forty malcontents who shivved McCarthy refused to accept the result of their own party's election. They were going to vote against McCarthy on the House floor with the Democrats. No news story explains this particularly clearly, but it's that, rather than the details of McCarthy or Boehner's individual political fates, that really suggests a major change.

The usual political logic is you try to get someone you want as your own party's candidate, but then you stick with your party's choice in the election with the other party. If you don't like Pelosi or Boehner (or Gingrich or Hastert or Wright or O'Neill or ...) you vote against them in your own party's caucus vote. But if most of your party still votes for Pelosi/Gingerich/Boehner/O'Neill, you go out and vote for that person, too. The forty-or-so malcontents in the self-described "House Freedom Caucus" are done playing by those rules. Unless they are given what they want (indeed, apparently almost everything they want), they are going to shiv their own party's elected leaders.

Boehner didn't lose support among Republicans in the sense that a solid majority of House Republicans did not back him. He resigned from the Speakership because a minority of House Republicans refused to accept what the majority of their own party wanted.

What this means is that the Tea Party, more or less (the most conservative segment of the House Republicans) has begun to operate like a parliamentary third party. Specifically, they are beginning to behave like the tiny minority parties (often fifth- or eighth- or ninth-parties) who gain disproportionate power in multiparty parliaments like Italy's or Israel's. The major parties in those parliaments, while much larger than the tiny parties, can seldom form a majority coalition alone. Neither Likud nor Labor wins more than 50% of the seats in Parliament. So they have to cobble together coalitions by bringing in various small parties, each of which gets to make its demands. And therefore those small parties get significantly more influence than the number of actual voters they attract would suggest. The tail gets to wag the dog a little bit every time a government forms.

Now, the Democrats and Republicans have both always been somewhat unlikely and unruly coalitions, with pretty strange bedfellows in each party. But mostly, the Democrats and Republicans have mostly operated like single parties, keeping the fractious infighting on the inside. But the Tea Party/Freedom Caucus/Hostage Takers are no longer playing by those rules. They are willing to sabotage their own party's candidate for Speaker of the House, the same way various small Italian or Israeli parties are willing to sabotage their natural allies' chance of building a governing coalition until enough favors have been extracted.

Note here that the group of Congressmen doing this is unrepresentative in two ways. They represent a tiny minority of voters, easily less than 10%. And they are on one of the far ends of the political spectrum. It's not the forty most moderate Republicans demanding to call the shots or they'll burn the whole pool hall down. It's the forty most hyper-conservative Republicans, the ones furthest away from the median voter.

In earlier periods, before the Democrats and Republicans were as cleanly sorted along ideological lines as they are today, a small minority in Congress, suggesting a closely-divided public, usually led to a more moderate, compromise-oriented Congress. There were enough conservative Democrats and enough liberal Republicans that neither party  could make big changes without a big majority. A party with a slim majority in the House could not ram through big initiatives that the other party hated, because the moderates in your own party would vote with the other side. That seemed roughly to reflect the will of the people.

Now the most-conservative Democrat is more liberal than the most-liberal Republican in Congress, and vice-versa. So there's little danger, especially for Republicans, of House members defecting to the other party. Now the danger is that the hardest-line members of your own party (people who, maddeningly, have no closer political ally than you in the world) will betray you and disrupt the functioning of government in order to get what they want. So the current system gives outsized influence to tiny political groups, who are far from the ideological mainstream and have done various things of which the country deeply disapproves. It is not pretty and it is not fair, but it seems to be what our system is becoming. Of course, it didn't used to be this way.

cross-posted from, and all comments welcome at, Dagblog

Saturday, October 03, 2015

Update from Old Friend of the Blog (or, Kevin Hogan Is Back!)

Four years ago, I blogged about my old friend and colleague Kevin Hogan, a Massachusetts teacher who was ambushed in a parking lot by a Fox News reporter peddling a sex scandal.
Kevin has been suspended from his job. He is in real danger of being fired. And he will likely never find another job as a teacher. That is a sad thing, and not just for Kevin.  Teaching may be the single best thing he does for the world, and the world will be much the poorer if he leaves the classroom.
I was afraid that Kevin's educational gifts - and Kevin is a genuinely gifted educator - would go to waste, unused. But last week I got a surprise e-mail from out of the blue: Kevin Hogan, who has now become an LGBT activist. I cannot tell you how pleased and relieved I am to hear that news. If Kevin is being kept out of classrooms, his talents as a teacher and communicator can still benefit us all in the public square.

And Kevin does have important things to teach us, not least the hard truths of surviving the 21st century's vicious public shaming. He's currently finishing a book, Healing Stigma: A Survivor's Guide to Repairing Identity in the Internet Age, and I am looking forward to reading it. This is news that stays news. We don't yet have our minds around what we, in the internet age, are doing to private individuals, but Kevin's experiences and his thoughtful reflection can help us understand. Here is Kevin on the recent Ashley Madison hack, something widely taken as an opportunity for gleeful internet heckling:
On the morning of August 19th, I woke up early and went online to check the news. A headline in the business section caught my eye: "Ashley Madison infidelity site's customer data 'leaked.'"
A chill crept over me. I ran to the bedroom, where my wife was just waking up. She must have recognized a familiar look on my face, because she immediately reached for my hand and asked what was wrong.
"People are going to die," I whispered to her, dreading the words as I said them. 

You can read the rest of Kevin's post here. It's very much worth the read.

Welcome back to the fight, Kevin. This time, I know our side will win.

cross-posted from, and comments welcome at, Dagblog

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Ask Me About Shakespeare, Round Two

Over at Dagblog, I'm hosting my second "Ask me about Shakespeare" thread. If you want to watch the steam come out of my ears as I relive my graduate oral exams, that's the place right now.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Winnowing the GOP Field with Jane Austen

Scott Walker has left the Republican presidential primaries: the first dropout who was once considered a major contender for the nomination. That, and the departure of Rick Perry, leaves us with only fourteen or fifteen candidates left. In fact, the real number is much smaller than that, because of a statistical concept called the Pareto principle; there have never been sixteen choices, because the Pareto principle cuts the number down to a smaller number of practical options. But since I am a book nerd rather than a math nerd, I am going to illustrate this statistical idea with my old friend Jane Austen and her Pride and Prejudice.

In Pride and Prejudice, Mr and Mrs Bennet have imprudently had a family of five daughters and no sons. Since there's no son, Mr Bennet's estate is going to distant relatives when he dies, leaving his widow and five daughters in poverty. The five girls' only hope is to marry well. But since there are five of them, there is the real danger that they will crowd each other out so that none of them gets married. Other characters ask why the Bennets have allowed all five daughters out "into society," meaning the marriage market, at once instead of letting one daughter out at a time, so that Daughter Number Two wouldn't start going to balls until Daughter Number One was married. The Bennets take a laissez-faire approach which hopes that all five girls can find husbands; the neighbors fear a Tragedy of the Commons in which the glut of Bennet sisters on the marriage market keeps any of them from being married.

Neither scenario is correct. Three sisters get married, two do not, and the two who do not are never in even the remotest danger of a marriage proposal. The Bennett sisters offer three, rather than five, real choices for potential suitors. Two of the five sisters are eliminated from consideration by the Pareto principle, which says that any option which comes behind another in all criteria being considered is thereby eliminated from consideration: "Pareto dominated," as they like to say at 538. If I'm choosing a motel for the night, I might balance my choice between low cost on one hand and amenities like good cable or a free breakfast on the other. Maybe I'll go with Chain A, which costs more but provides HBO and a waffle buffet, or the much cheaper Chain B, with its basic cable and continental breakfast. But I am not even going to consider Chain C, which costs $20 more than Chain B but doesn't offer ESPN or breakfast. Why would I pay more not to get a Danish? Chain C is Pareto dominated, eliminated from the field of choices.

Now, the eldest of the five Bennet sisters, Jane, is universally agreed to be the best-looking. She is also easily the nicest of the five. Daughter Number Two, Elizabeth, is the second-prettiest (as we know from the behavior of a failed suitor who only considers looks), but not especially nice; she can have a sharp tongue. On the other hand, Elizabeth is by far the smartest. Meanwhile youngest sister, Lydia, is far and away the easiest of the five. (I tried to find another term like "affable" or "agreeable," but none of these are quite accurate. Lydia is distinguished from her four sisters because she's the one most likely to have sex before marriage.) And of course the sisters are all equal on some criteria, such as wealth and family background. A man who needs a rich dowry, or who can't bear the thought of Mrs Bennet as a mother-in-law, is going to rule all five sisters out of consideration.

An especially shallow suitor (and the novel does have one), would just rank all five sisters by physical attractiveness: Jane first, Elizabeth second, and Mary last. By that standard, Elizabeth would be Jane's closest rival. But most people looking for a spouse are at least a little smarter than that, and choose along more than one axis, so that Jane and Elizabeth are never actually in competition with each other for serious suitors. If you're looking for pretty and nice, Jane is the clear winner, and someone looking for someone like Jane is not going to consider Elizabeth at all. Elizabeth is less physically attractive AND more likely to take your inventory with other people there listening.

On the other hand, there are suitors who value intelligence, and who might prefer Elizabeth to her prettier sister, especially if they put less of a premium on beauty alone. Elizabeth is more than pretty enough to marry, and much, much smarter than most other young marriageable ladies in the novel, so she attracts her own suitors. But there's virtually no overlap between men who pursue Elizabeth and men who pursue Jane. If you're interested in beauty and sweetness, Jane Pareto dominates Elizabeth. But Elizabeth isn't universally dominated because she has something that her sister doesn't. If you're interested in beauty and brains, Jane isn't really in the running because, while she is not stupid, neither is she unusually bright. Jane and Elizabeth each have their own distinct group of suitors and occupy different parts of the decision space.

Likewise, a caddish suitor looking for someone to sleep with rather than to marry is going to be much more interested in Lydia. Jane and Elizabeth may be prettier and, in the abstract, sexier. But they don't crowd Lydia entirely out of the decision space because she offers something they don't. If you're looking for premarital sex, the fact that Jane is hotter doesn't make her a better choice. The sexier sister who won't sleep with you is not a better choice than the still-perfectly-sexy sister who will. So Lydia, Jane, and Elizabeth present three distinct alternatives, appealing to three different kinds of men.

But the other two sisters, Mary and Kitty, are eliminated from consideration because neither offers a genuine alternative to the other three sisters. Instead, they both come off as inferior imitations of one of those three. Mary, who is clearly the homeliest, has staked all her chips on showing off her brains. Her problem is that Elizabeth is still much, much smarter. Mary's attempts to seem smart are painfully laborious, all too clearly the product of ponderous study, while Elizabeth is quick as lightning. And, worse yet, Elizabeth is also much prettier than Mary. Poor Mary can't win, and doesn't. No suitor is going to pursue Mary while Elizabeth is available.

Likewise, Kitty is a paler imitation of Lydia, almost surely the second-easiest. (She clearly knows about some of Lydia's illicit romance and keeps that secret, whereas the other three sisters would almost certainly narc on Lydia immediately.) But second-easiest, in this case, means not as easy. Anybody interested in Kitty is going to be more interested in Lydia. So, like Mary, Kitty is Pareto dominated. She is one of the eliminated choices and has to live vicariously through Lydia's imprudent adventures.

Now, our crowd of Republican candidates likewise represents a number of significant alternatives, each with its own sector of the decision space, and a number of also-rans who are basically ruled out. The candidates are competing on different strengths, most obviously on their conservatism and their electability, but there are other characteristics that resonate with Republican primary voters; the exact list is up for debate. Performance of authority seems to be salient, so that Fiorina doing her best alpha-dog act at the second debate helped her enormously. And, alas, there is clearly a subset of GOP voters that is looking for the best racist dog-whistler.

Trump doesn't compete on electability at all. But he performs authority well, he traffics in various fringe beliefs that are current among some of the party base, and  he doesn't so much do the racist dog whistle as he calls his racist dogs at the top of his voice. If you were planning to run as a maverick outsider and pick up support with some subtle racial signaling, Trump has you beat on every level. He is more of an outsider than any first-term Senator or far-from-DC governor can claim to be. He is also more maverick-y than anyone else, being not merely a maverick but a bull in a china shop, untethered by any restraint or sense of prudence. You can't be more outrageous than Trump. And if you were hoping to pick up a few white-pride voters, Trump had you beat out of the gate when called Mexicans rapists in his announcement speech. Other "outsider" candidates looking for that particular slice of white support are Pareto dominated by Trump.

There are other examples. Huckabee and Santorum are both running as not-very-electable champions of Christian conservatives. But Huckabee is both more appealing to Christian conservatives and more electable than Santorum is (meaning not so very electable, but not as hopeless as Santorum). This leaves Santorum no air to breathe at all. If Bobby Jindal was hoping to be the non-white hardcore conservative candidate, Ben Carson (even more hardcore and less white) has him beat. If Jindal was hoping to be the Chance to Reach New Voters, Rubio has him beat (because the Latino vote is much bigger than the South Asian vote).

Where we are really not seeing much competition is in the Electability sweepstakes, with the candidates whose basic appeal is that they can win in the general election. Right now the primary voters don't seem interested in electability at all; the most recent polls show Trump, Carson, and Fiorina, three candidates who haven't won a single election between them, with more than half the combined support of GOP voters. As I've argued before, the most surprising thing is not how well Trump is doing but how poorly Jeb Bush, the presumptive electable alternative, is doing. And no one has yet emerged as the main electable candidate, the way Mitt Romney emerged last time around. The 2012 Republican primaries featured one main Electable Option, Romney, and a bunch of competitors for the role of Uncompromising Conservative. This time we have a clear Uncompromising Outsider, pretty much safe from challenge on his native turf, and no solid Electable Mainstream Option. In 2012, no Republican could hold onto the Lydia Bennet role for more than a week or two. This time, no Republican has seized the Elizabeth Bennet role for even a week.

The Democratic primary, on the other hand, already has a pretty clear and recognizable shape. There's a party-establishment favorite, Clinton, whose main appeal is her electability, and a dark-horse challenger, Sanders, whose main appeal is his ideological closeness to the base. Then you have a couple of also-rans like Martin O'Malley or Jim Webb,  Pareto dominated by Clinton because they are at once less liberal and less electable than she is. And you have the non-candidate, Biden, sitting out because he would be dominated by Hillary if he got in now (he's slightly less electable and equally mainstream), but that would flip around if Hillary were suddenly undone by a major scandal. (If Hillary turned out to be, say, selling weapons to Iran and using the money to fund the Nicaraguan contras, to choose a purely hypothetical example, she would suddenly be less electable than Biden.)

Where I would expect to see movement in the Republican campaign is on the mainstream, electable side. Trump cannot be beaten at Trump's game. Candidates like Cruz or Rand Paul are going nowhere this year. Neither is Carson, really, even if he's outpolling some more likely contenders right now. But someone could conceivably take over the mainstream/establishment/viable-in-a-general-election role that Jeb Bush hasn't managed to keep or win. Yes, some of the other mainstream/moderate candidates are hopeless. No primary voter would vote for George Pataki, who is both to the left of Jeb Bush and less viable in the general election than Jeb Bush, when they could simply vote for Jeb Bush. The same basically goes for Lindsay Graham. But while Jeb himself can't manage to break ten percent in the polls, one of the other candidates in his general category could overtake him. People like Rubio and Kasich, or even Christie despite his serious problems, would be smart to stick around.  They aren't really competing against all 13 of the other candidates. They aren't even competing against Trump. Not yet. They're competing against Jeb Bush for the position of Reasonable Party Dad that he mysteriously can't nail down. Then whoever manages to establish himself in that role can go toe-to-toe with Trump under the "Yes, but I can beat Hillary" banner.

And if none of the "electable" establishment candidates emerges as a major contender, then we will be on new and unexpected ground.

cross-posted from, and all comments welcome at, Dagblog

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Loving Shakespeare's Language, Then and Now

This Sunday's New York Times Magazine carries an elegantly written lament by Stephen Greenblatt of Harvard University, who has come to believe that his students don't love Shakespeare's poetry as poetry anymore:
Even the highly gifted students in my Shakespeare classes at Harvard are less likely to be touched by the subtle magic of his words than I was so many years ago or than my students were in the 1980s in Berkeley, Calif. What has happened? It is not that my students now lack verbal facility. In fact, they write with ease, particularly if the format is casual and resembles the texting and blogging that they do so constantly. The problem is that their engagement with language, their own or Shakespeare’s, often seems surprisingly shallow or tepid. It is as if the sense of linguistic birthright that I experienced with such wonder had faded and with it an interest in exploiting its infinite resources.
To this, I say: Okay. Maybe. But also maybe not. But if this is so, it isn't a naturally occurring phenomenon. It results from a changed set of educational emphases. Focusing on the poetry as poetry, and relentlessly working over the rhythms and images and word choices, was the central enterprise of college English Lit classes over roughly the middle half of the 20th century. And because that was what high school and middle school English teachers had learned how to do in college, that was what they passed on to students in middle school and high school. If Stephen Greenblatt came to college already loving Shakespeare for the beautiful language, it is because he had come to college through an educational system where studying Shakespeare meant studying the beautiful language.

There was a move away from this system (which went and still goes by the name "the New Criticism") starting roughly in the 1980s. Here's another passage by a scholar of Greenblatt's generation:
In graduate school at Yale in the late 1960s, I found myself deeply uncertain about the direction I wanted my work to take. I was only mildly interested in the formalist agenda that dominated graduate instruction and was epitomized in the imposing figure of William K. Wimsatt. His theory of the concrete universal -- poetry as "an object which in a mysterious way is both highly general and highly particular" -- seemed almost irresistibly true, but I wasn't sure that I wanted to enlist myself for life as a celebrant of the mystery.
Wimsatt was one of the intellectual giants of the "New Criticism," the so-called "formalist" attention to poetic language above all else. But our former graduate student couldn't limit himself to that approach. So he struck out in a new direction and pioneered a new critical approach to Shakespeare which centered on using history to illuminate the texts in new and innovative ways.

He is, of course, Stephen Greenblatt. The second passage is from Learning to Curse: Essays in Early Modern Culture, page 1.

A few quick acknowledgements: Greenblatt is legitimately the most famous and influential Shakespeare scholar of his generation. He has basically been Shakespearean Number One for years now. I don't know him personally, but we are one degree of separation apart in dozens of directions. And I will admit, right now, that he has been a major influence on my own work. I'm a big, big fan. (I knew right where to find that second passage, didn't I?)

Now, I have never believed that Greenblatt's work meant turning away from the poetry itself. But many of his many, many critics have said exactly that. They view the question as either/or: are we talking about poetry, or are we talking about "early modern culture?" I have always viewed the question as both/and: the intellectual tools that Greenblatt provides supplement the older toolbox originally filled by Wimsatt and the boys. (I spent my first year in college being subtly but relentlessly drilled in the older skill set by one of Greenblatt's most distinguished colleagues. That experience has turned out to be much more formative than I once admitted to myself.)

Greenblatt's NYT Magazine piece reads from one viewpoint like an inadvertent mea culpa, bemoaning all the changes that Greenblatt's critics once warned that Greenblatt himself would bring to pass. Kids don't love Shakespeare's poetry any more! We told you this would happen! But I read it instead as evidence that Greenblatt himself has always been a both/and type. He didn't turn away from Wimsatt's methods because he thought they were wrong. He took them as proven, and moved on to a different area where things needed more clarification. Loving the language was always something he presumed as part of the basic approach. And certainly, at the beginning of his career, with decades of educational infrastructure teaching every English major to use and value those Wimsatt-y New Critical skills, Greenblatt could safely take them for granted.

But the real problem with the NYT piece isn't that Greenblatt pines for the older approach that he himself helped to dethrone. The problem for me is that Greenblatt, whose own ground-breaking work has been on examining social and cultural context, ignores the context of the educational system itself. Greenblatt 2015 writes about falling in love with Shakespeare's language as a spontaneous personal event, wholly distinct from the educational system around him. (He even leads off with a middle school teacher's failed attempt to win him over to Shakespeare, so that he can imply that his love comes from himself and not from school.) But Greenblatt circa 1985 teaches us to be suspicious of those claims, and to look for the ways that the society around the individual loads the deck.

People in Greenblatt's generation encountered the message about Shakespeare's beautiful language over and over again, maximizing the chances that it would eventually stick. Students today encounter the message that "Shakespeare can be cool in some exciting new medium!" over and over again; if students who got that message relentlessly until high school graduation reproduce that message themselves in college, that's not exactly supernatural. People don't fall in love with Shakespeare entirely and spontaneously on their own. Someone else always passes notes for him in study hall.

If Stephen Greenblatt wants students to love the Shakespeare that he loves himself, he needs to woo them for that Shakespeare. He needs to show students those poetic beauties and give the students opportunities to savor them. He needs to woo persistently without pestering, to allow the wooed party room to breathe without letting the courtship run cold. He needs to keep the object of desire before the students' eyes until they decide that, deep in their own hearts, they desire it for themselves. It's a tricky process. It's not easy, and it doesn't always work. But we've been doing it for a long time, and it has a name. It's called "teaching."

cross-posted (and all comments welcome at) Dagblog