MoDo and Frank Bruni are off today, so I guess that’s why we get Keller. The Pasty Little Putz has fallen down the rabbit hole. In “Democrats Get a Gift From the Roberts Court” he actually tries to ‘splain to us how the voting rights decision could help sustain the Obama majority. It’s apparently supposed to so outrage “overheated liberals” that we’ll try extra, extra, extra hard to vote. “Karen Garcia” from New Palz, NY has become one of my favorite NYT commenters. She begins her comment on this POS thusly: “I have to hand it to Ross Douthat. He is very skilled at advancing the racist cause of the American Right Wing under the guise of a sensible-sounding pep talk. Reading between the lines, here’s what he seems to be saying: Minority people have been rising above their station, actually getting off their butts and voting. And winning. No fair!” The Moustache of Wisdom has a question in “Takin’ It to the Streets:” What’s behind so many popular street revolts in democracies? Go ask a cab driver, Tommy. In “Mandela and Obama” Mr. Keller thinks he knows what America’s president might have learned from South Africa’s hero. Here, FSM help us, is Putzy:
Back in the days when Republicans were reading polls through rose-colored glasses and imagining a Mitt Romney landslide, one of their most plausible arguments was that many pollsters were simply misreading the likely composition of the electorate. There was no way, this theory ran, that core Democratic constituencies would turn out at the same rates as in 2008, when Obamamania was at its peak. Instead, 2012 was set up to be what the conservative writer Ben Domenech called an “undertow election,” in which reduced turnout among young voters and minorities would drag the incumbent down to defeat.
This expectation turned out to be wrong on two counts. First, Republicans faced an unexpected (though in hindsight, predictable) undertow of their own, as many conservative-leaning, working-class white voters looked at what Mitt Romney had to offer and simply stayed home.
Second, instead of declining as expected after the history-making election of 2008, African-American turnout may have actually risen again in 2012. When the Census Bureau released its turnout analysis last month, it showed blacks voting at higher rates than whites for the first time in the history of the survey.
If you believe Chief Justice John Roberts Jr.’s more overheated liberal critics, last week’s Supreme Court decision invalidating a portion of the Voting Rights Act is designed to make sure African-American turnout never hits these highs again. The ruling will allow a number of (mostly Southern) states to change voting laws without the Justice Department’s pre-approval, which has liberals predicting a wave of Republican-led efforts to “suppress” minority votes — through voter ID laws, restrictions on early voting and other measures.
These predictions probably overstate the ruling’s direct impact on state election rules, which can still be challenged under other provisions of the Voting Rights Act and other state and federal laws. But it is possible that the decision will boost the existing Republican enthusiasm for voter ID laws, and hasten the ongoing, multistate push for their adoption.
If so, though, the Roberts Court may have actually handed the Democratic Party a political gift.
How so? Well, to begin with, voter identification laws do not belong to the same moral or legal universe as Jim Crow. Their public purpose, as a curb to fraud, is potentially legitimate rather than nakedly discriminatory, and their effects are relatively limited. As Roberts’s majority opinion noted, the voter registration gap between whites and blacks in George Wallace’s segregationist Alabama was 50 percentage points. When my colleague Nate Silver looked at studies assessing the impact of voter ID laws, he estimated that they tend to reduce turnout by around 2 percent — and that reduction crosses racial lines, rather than affecting African-Americans exclusively.
A 2 percent dip is still enough to influence a close election. But voter ID laws don’t take effect in a vacuum: as they’re debated, passed and contested in court, they shape voter preferences and influence voter enthusiasm in ways that might well outstrip their direct influence on turnout. They inspire registration drives and education efforts; they help activists fund-raise and organize; they raise the specter of past injustices; they reinforce a narrative that their architects are indifferent or hostile to minorities.
This, I suspect, is part of the story of why African-American turnout didn’t fall off as expected between 2008 and 2012. By trying to restrict the franchise on the margins, Republican state legislators handed Democrats a powerful tool for mobilization and persuasion, and motivated voters who might otherwise have lost some of their enthusiasm after the euphoria of “Yes We Can” gave way to the reality of a stagnant, high-unemployment economy.
So a lengthy battle over voting rules and voting rights seems almost precision-designed to help the Obama-era Democratic majority endure once President Obama has left the Oval Office. As Sean Trende of RealClearPolitics has pointed out, for all the talk about how important Hispanics are to the conservative future, the Republican Party could substantially close the gap with Democrats in presidential elections if its post-Obama share of the African-American vote merely climbed back above 10 percent — a feat achieved by Bob Dole and both Bushes. If that share climbed higher still, the Democratic majority would be in danger of collapse.
Such a turn of events wouldn’t just be good news for Republicans. It would be good news for black Americans, as it would mean that both parties were competing for their votes.
But for now, our politics is headed in the opposite direction. Liberal demagogy notwithstanding, voter ID laws aren’t a way for Republicans to turn the clock back and make sure that it’s always 1965. But they are a good way for Republicans to ensure that African-Americans keep voting like it’s always 2008.
It really is time for the Times to come up with a “conservative columnist” who has his medication successfully regulated. Next up we have The Moustache of Wisdom:
The former C.I.A. analyst Paul R. Pillar asked this question in a recent essay in The National Interest: Why are we seeing so many popular street revolts in democracies? Speaking specifically of Turkey and Brazil, but posing a question that could be applied to Egypt, Israel, Russia, Chile and the United States, Pillar asks: “The governments being protested against were freely and democratically elected. With the ballot box available, why should there be recourse to the street?”
It is an important question, and the answer, I believe, is the convergence of three phenomena. The first is the rise and proliferation of illiberal “majoritarian” democracies. In Russia, Turkey and today’s Egypt, we have seen mass demonstrations to protest “majoritarianism” — ruling parties that were democratically elected (or “sort of” in Russia’s case) but interpret their elections as a writ to do whatever they want once in office, including ignoring the opposition, choking the news media and otherwise behaving in imperious or corrupt ways, as if democracy is only about the right to vote, not rights in general and especially minority rights.
What the protesters in Turkey, Russia and Egypt all have in common is a powerful sense of “theft,” a sense that the people who got elected are stealing something more than money: the people’s voice and right to participate in governance. Nothing can make a new democrat, someone who just earned the right to vote, angrier.
Here is what the satirist Bassem Youssef, the Jon Stewart of Egypt, wrote in the Egyptian daily Al Shorouk last week, on the first anniversary of the election of President Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood’s party: “We have a president who promised that a balanced constituent assembly would work on a constitution that everyone agrees on. We have a president who promised to be representative, but placed members of his Muslim Brotherhood in every position of power. We have a president and a party that broke all their promises, so the people have no choice but to take to the streets.”
A second factor is the way middle-class workers are being squeezed between a shrinking welfare state and a much more demanding job market. For so many years, workers were told that if you just work hard and play by the rules you’ll be in the middle class. That is just not true anymore. In this age of rapid globalization and automation, you have to work harder, work smarter, bring more innovation to whatever job you do, retool yourself more often — and then you can be in the middle class. There is just so much more stress on people in, or aspiring to be in, the middle class, and many more young people wondering how they’ll ever do better than their parents.
Too few leaders are leveling with their people about this shift, let alone helping them navigate it. And too many big political parties today are just vehicles for different coalitions to defend themselves against change rather than to lead their societies in adapting to it. Normally, this would create opportunities for the opposition parties, but in places like Turkey, Brazil, Russia and Egypt the formal opposition is feckless. So people take to the streets, forming their own opposition.
In America, the Tea Party began as a protest against Republicans for being soft on deficits, and Occupy Wall Street as a protest against Democrats for being soft on bankers. In Brazil, a 9 cent increase in bus fares set off mass protests, in part because it seemed so out of balance when the government was spending some $30 billion on stadiums for the Olympics and the World Cup. Writing in The American Interest, William Waack, an anchorman on Brazil’s Globo, probably spoke for many when he observed: “Brazilians don’t feel like their elected representatives at any level actually represent them, especially at a time when most leaders fear the stigma of making actual decisions (otherwise known as leading). … It’s not about the 9 cents.”
China is not a democracy, but this story is a sign of the times: In a factory outside Beijing, an American businessman, Chip Starnes, president of the Florida-based Specialty Medical Supplies, was held captive for nearly a week by about 100 workers “who were demanding severance packages identical to those offered to 30 recently laid-off employees,” according to Reuters. The workers feared they would be next as the company moved some production from China to India to reduce costs. (He was released in a deal on Thursday.)
Finally, thanks to the proliferation of smartphones, tablets, Twitter, Facebook and blogging, aggrieved individuals now have much more power to engage in, and require their leaders to engage in, two-way conversations — and they have much greater ability to link up with others who share their views to hold flash protests. As Leon Aron, the Russian historian at the American Enterprise Institute, put it, “the turnaround time” between sense of grievance and action in today’s world is lightning fast and getting faster.
The net result is this: Autocracy is less sustainable than ever. Democracies are more prevalent than ever — but they will also be more volatile than ever. Look for more people in the streets more often over more issues with more independent means to tell their stories at ever-louder decibels.
Tommy, decibels can’t get louder. Sounds get louder, and decibels measure that. Sheesh… And now we have Mr. Keller’s ruminations:
Gathering valedictory material on Nelson Mandela as he faded in a Pretoria hospital the other day, I came across a little book called “Mandela’s Way.” In this 2010 volume, Rick Stengel, the ghostwriter of Mandela’s autobiography, set out to extract “lessons on life, love and courage” he had learned from three years of immersion in Mandela’s life.
Stengel, who is the managing editor of Time magazine, could not resist comparing his hero to another tall, serene, hope-bearing son of Africa: Barack Obama.
“Obama’s self-discipline, his willingness to listen and to share credit, his inclusion of his rivals in his administration, and his belief that people want things explained, all seem like a 21-century version of Mandela’s values and persona,” he wrote. “Whatever Mandela may or may not think of the new American president, Obama is in many ways his true successor on the world stage.”
A bit much, yes? Well, Stengel was hardly alone back then in awarding the American president a stature he had scarcely begun to earn. The Nobel Committee, which had awarded its peace prize to Mandela for ending the obscenity of apartheid, bestowed that honor on Obama merely for not being George W. Bush.
Different men, different countries, different times. Perhaps even Mandela — who was more successful liberating South Africa than governing it — could not have lived up to the inflated expectations heaped on Obama. But it is interesting to imagine how Obama’s presidency might be different if he had in fact done it Mandela’s way.
Mandela, in his time on the political stage, was a man of almost ascetic self-discipline. But he also understood how to deploy his moral authority in grand theatrical gestures. Facing capital charges of trying to overthrow the state in the Rivonia Trial, he entered the formal Pretoria courtroom dressed in a traditional Xhosa leopard-skin cape to dramatize that he was an African entering a white man’s jurisdiction. And then he essentially confessed to the crime.
In 1995, Mandela, newly elected president of a still deeply divided country, single-handedly turned the Rugby World Cup — the whitest sporting event in South Africa, long the target of anti-apartheid boycotts — into a festival of interracial harmony. He was, in short, the opposite of “no drama.”
Obama’s sense of political theater peaked at his first inaugural. He rarely deploys the stirring reality that he is the first black man to hold the office. As my Times colleague Peter Baker notes, “Obama’s burden as he sees it, different from Mandela’s, is to make the fact that he’s black be a nonissue. Only then will his breakthrough be truly meaningful.” Still, I think Mandela would have sought a way to make a more exciting civic bond out of the pride so many Americans felt in this milestone.
Mandela understood that politics is not mainly a cerebral sport. It is a business of charm and flattery and symbolic gestures and eager listening and little favors. It is above all a business of empathy. To help win over the Afrikaners, he learned their Dutch dialect and let them keep their national anthem. For John Boehner, he’d have learned golf and become a merlot drinker. “You don’t address their brains,” Mandela advised his colleagues, and would surely advise Obama. “You address their hearts.”
Mandela was a consummate negotiator. Once he got you to the bargaining table, he was not going to leave empty-handed. He was an expert at deducing how far each side could go. He was patient. He was opportunistic, using every crisis to good effect. He understood that half the battle was convincing your own side that a concession could be a victory. And he was willing to take a risk. I don’t envy Obama’s having to deal with intransigent Republicans or his own demanding base, but Mandela bargained with Afrikaner militants, Zulu nationalists and the white government that had imprisoned him for 27 years. By comparison, the Tea Party is, well, a tea party.
Mandela usually seemed to be having the time of his life. Perhaps this is because (sadly for his family) the movement was his life. He shook every hand as if he was discovering a new friend and maintained a twinkle in his eye that said: this is fun. We’ve had joyful presidents — Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan. Obama more often seems to regard the job as an ordeal.
Mandela, above all, had a clear sense of his core principles: freedom, equality, the rule of law. He changed tactics, shifted alliances (one day the Communist Party, another day the business oligarchs) but never lost sight of the ultimate goal. In fairness to Obama, Mandela had a cause of surpassing moral clarity. The American president is rarely blessed with problems so, literally, black and white. And if Obama leaves behind universal health care and immigration reform — two initiatives that have consistently defeated previous presidents — that will be no small legacy. But tell me, do you have a clear sense of what moral purpose drives our president?