Category Archives: Current Events

What My Twitter Sources Told Me Really Happened To Michael Brown

We are in a revolutionary period when it comes to the dissemination of news in this nation. A recent Pew Research Center survey finds that as of this past January, fully 74% of Americans use social networking sites and, among online adults, almost 20% are on Twitter, an increase in Twitter use of 5% in two years.  This is still a relatively small number of Twitter users compared to those who get their news through other means, but the increase isuggests that Twitter’s influence as a platform for gathering and sharing political stories is on the rise. This is evident, for example, when comparing Pew’s estimate of the Twitter coverage of the Michael Brown shooting to that of Trayvon Martin’s two years earlier.

Political scientists are just beginning to assess how the growing use of Twitter and related social media platforms are affecting the coverage of and attitudes toward American politics. In that spirit, I’ve undertaken a comprehensive survey of my own Twitter feed regarding what actually happened in the Michael Brown shooting (with no pretense that my twitter sources represent a truly random sample of the twitterverse more generally). Here’s what I’ve been able to discern regarding this tragic event:

1. Officer Darren Wilson, who is white, unnecessarily provoked an altercation with Michael Brown, who is black, by ordering him to get off the street and onto the sidewalk. Michael Brown, who is black, unnecessarily provoked an altercation with Officer Darren Wilson, who is white, by initially refusing to respond to Wilson’s direction to get on the sidewalk and stop blocking street traffic.

2. Wilson knew, via a report on the police scanner, that someone had robbed nearby convenience store just minutes earlier and he saw that Brown was carrying cigars, which the scanner report indicated was one of the items stolen. Wilson had no idea that Brown had allegedly stolen some cigars and, even if he did, that does not excuse Wilson’s use of excessive force.

3. The police decision to release video of the robbery was needlessly incendiary and designed to turn public opinion against Brown. The police reluctantly released the video due to multiple media requests under the Freedom of Information Act, and in the goal of full transparency.

4. When Wilson tried to get out of his cruiser to question Brown, the 6-foot-4, 292 pound suspect pushed him back into the car, and then punched Wilson. In the ensuing struggle, Wilson’s gun went off, at which point Brown broke free and tried to escape arrest. Office Wilson, irked with Brown’s slow response to his directive, backed his cruiser alongside Brown. Then, without provocation, he reached out through the cruiser window and grabbed Brown by the throat, pulling him toward the cruiser, prompting Brown to struggle to break free. When Brown did, Wilson, while still in his cruiser, shot at Brown once.

5. After the initial shot (or shots), Brown turned around and raised his hands to surrender, but was shot multiple times by Wilson, who had chased after Brown, from a distance of about 7 feet. Wilson, pursuant to standard procedure, pursued Brown and his friend, ordering them to freeze. When they turned around, Brown ran at Wilson, prompting the officer to shoot him in self-defense from a distance of 2-3 feet.

6. Wilson reportedly has severe facial bruises consistent with a struggle. Preliminary autopsy results on Brown show no sign of a struggle.

7. In a clear sign of excessive force, Brown was shot six times, including two shots to the head, despite the fact that he was unarmed and trying to surrender. Consistent with police training, Wilson – fearing he was in imminent danger – used deadly force to protect himself.

8. Ferguson and St. Louis police faced a near impossible task of both respecting the right of demonstrators to peaceably protest while at the same time cracking down on those looters and others who were explicitly trying to provoke a police response. The subsequent mishandling by law enforcement of largely peaceful protests, including the use of tear gas and rubber bullets, exacerbated an already tense situation, and showed complete incompetence on the part of St Louis and Ferguson police.

9. Media coverage, particularly via Twitter, has helped pressure law officials to release information they otherwise would have concealed and generally made it harder for them to whitewash a clear violation of Brown’s civil rights. Media coverage, particularly via Twitter, has inflamed an already unstable situation by providing incomplete and sometimes inaccurate information, and by precipitating a rush to judgment. It will be almost impossible for Wilson to get a fair hearing.

10. President Obama’s decision to wait until all the facts are in before visiting Ferguson, or commenting on the case in detail, epitomizes the type of calm, restrained leadership we expect from our president. President Obama’s unwillingness to talk about the racial implications of the Brown shooting, never mind visit Ferguson, is a betrayal of everything we expect from the first black President.

11. Law enforcement should resist a rush to judgment, and instead take however long is necessary to fully assess the evidence before deciding whether to prosecute Wilson. The longer law enforcement waits to indict Wilson and bring him to trial, the more volatile the situation in Ferguson will become.

12. Unfortunately, a white cop shooting an unarmed black man is an all-too-common occurrence in this country, and it is evidence of the systemic racism that continues to cloud race relations. The immediate racialization of the Brown shooting and the concomitant rush to judgment both exaggerates the impact of race as a causal factor in the shooting, and needlessly undermines race relations in this country.

13. Finally (and here I am anticipating the twitter reaction to this post!), by trying to treat these dueling narratives as equally (in)valid, this post is another example of the false equivalency that characterizes reporting on the Brown shooting, when it is quite clear that one side of the story is true, and the other almost wholly made up.

And that’s the truth about what happened to Michael Brown in Ferguson, based on what I’ve read on Twitter.

Give ‘Em Hell! Bears, Bubbles, Teleprompters and A Republic

This Sunday’s Shorts:

The Bear Is On The Loose

At some point in their presidency, all presidents chafe at the isolation imposed by living in the White House “bubble” and seek ways to partake in some “normal” activities, even something as mundane as eating a burrito bowl at Chipotles.  Of course, sometimes this is for photo opportunities, but more often it reflects a genuine desire to break the isolation that is an inevitable part of being president. On this topic, Harry Truman told the following story as part of the conversation that I recounted in yesterday’s post: “I sat on the porch one Sunday afternoon, and there was a ballgame down there on the Ellipse, and I thought I would go down and see the ball-game, and I started to walk down there, and I looked around and there were two or three policemen on one side and Secret Serviceman on the other side, and when I got to the fence, it broke up the ball-game – they all came over to look at me. By experience you learn those things. What President Taft said is true. It is an extremely lonesome job, and I can’t see why anybody in his right mind would want the job. It was rather forced on me.”

A Republic (Not a Democracy) – If You Can Keep It

I rarely disagree with the always interesting Jonathan Bernstein, but I’m going to take issue with Jon’s latest post,  in which he argues that the terms “democracy” and “republic” are largely synonymous. Jon’s broader point is that those, like Philip Klein, who persist in claiming the American political system is a republic and not a democracy are splitting hairs. In fact, Jon argues, there are only different types of democracies, each characterized by different rules governing representation, decisionmaking, etc. To argue otherwise, he believes, “encourages sloppy thinking, including excuses for some seemingly undemocratic practice that we have no other reason to support.”

Well, maybe. But recall that Madison writes Federalist 10 with the specific intent to defend what some might call undemocratic practices embedded in the new constitutional system. In this essay he explicitly labels the newly-established governmental system a “republic”, and takes pains to distinguish it from a “pure democracy” because he sees them as fundamentally different types of government, with different strengths and weaknesses. Madison argues that a “pure democracy, by which I mean a society consisting of a small number of citizens, who assemble and administer the government in person, can admit of no cure for the mischiefs of faction.” A republic, in contrast, “by which I mean a government in which the scheme of representation takes place, opens a different prospect, and promises a cure for which we are seeking.” Madison then goes on to make a point-by-point comparison between a republic and a “pure democracy” emphasizing in particular the strong points of a republic: the delegation of governing control to a small number of citizens elected by the rest, and the corresponding ability to expand the polity to include many more interests, thus weakening the ability of any one faction to dominate the political system. Anyone who has sat through a debate on school funding in a Vermont town meeting can certainly appreciate Madison’s distinction!

Jon is clearly aware of Madison’s famous argument, of course, but he believes Madison’s “republic” “can and should be supported as a strong version of democracy.” However, it seems to me that this “strong version” represents a fundamental difference in kind, rather than simply a version of democracy that falls along one end of the democracy continuum. Of course, although Madison seems to think there is a fundamental difference between a pure democracy and a republic, he also acknowledges variations among republican forms of government: “Hence, it clearly appears, that the same advantage which a republic has over a democracy, in controlling the effects of faction, is enjoyed by a large over a small republic…” Nonetheless, I’ll let Madison have the final word: “In the extent and proper structure of the Union, therefore, we behold a republican remedy for the diseases most incident to republican government.”  In the end, while Jon prefers to channel political scientist Bob Dahl, I’m sticking with Madison.

Use a teleprompter? Give ‘Em Hell, Harry!

It’s no secret that President Obama, like almost every president before him dating back to Eisenhower, uses a teleprompter when giving most public speeches. Still, the fact that previous presidents have relied on the teleprompter to various degrees has not stopped partisan critics from suggesting Obama’s frequent use of this device indicates that he is somehow not up to the job or lacks command of the issues. (It also prompted this wonderful Onion parody of what happened when Obama’s “home teleprompter” failed during a family dinner.)

Given the criticism, why bother with the teleprompter? One reason is that everything a president says has policy implications – hence, why take a chance that the president might misspeak? In fact, this was the very point Truman White House aide Charles Murphy made in an internal memo, dated September 13, 1950,  that he sent to Truman in response to criticisms of the President’s speeches. In discussing how to address the criticisms, Murphy notes, “A Presidential speech is a different animal from a news broadcast. Its primary requirement is accuracy, not style.” Murphy then went on to make the following suggestion: “I believe we should continue to seek improvements in the mechanical arrangements – such as lighting, etc. Particularly, we should explore thoroughly the possibilities of readings from a screen for television purposes and also the possibility of using larger type for the readings copy.” Truman, however, was having none of it. Here he is, a month after the Murphy memo, speaking to the United Nations on October 24, 1950, without a teleprompter, regarding the Korean War.

Indeed, as Rob Schlesinger recounts, Truman never did adopt the teleprompter. Instead, it came into regular use under his Republican successor, Dwight Eisenhower – a president who is rarely charged with lacking command of the issues.  But I doubt that will mollify Obama’s critics.

Have a great Sunday!

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Why Suing the President Makes Good Politics

Yesterday the House voted 225-201 to approve a resolution authorizing Speaker Boehner to sue the President for his unilateral decision to push back the implementation date of a key provision of Obamacare. The vote broke down on nearly straight party lines – five Republicans voted against the measure, while no Democrats supported it. Predictably, the partisan decision set off a flurry of debate among political pundits, with liberals arguing that it was a further sign of Republican extremism run amok, and likely a prelude to a vote to impeach the President. Conservatives countered that it was necessary to prevent the President from encroaching on Congress’s constitutionally-based lawmaking authority.

As legal experts point out, there’s not much likelihood that this effort will be any more effective than previous attempts by members of Congress to sue the president. Courts typically rule that congressional members fail to prove they have been injured by the President and thus lack standing, and that Congress has the power to correct the President’s action via the legislative process rather than resorting to judicial fiat. For this reason it is unlikely that the Republican’s latest effort will have any real impact, legally speaking.

So why sue? The legal perspective misses the central logic driving the Republicans’ decision. The political scientist David Mayhew, in his classic study of Congress, labeled votes like yesterday’s “position taking” which he defined as “the public enunciation of a judgmental statement on anything likely to be of interest to political actors.” The key point for Mayhew is that the position – in this case voting to sue the President – is the political commodity; the legislator seeks approval from constituents for taking the position rather than for achieving effects. From Mayhew’s perspective Republicans don’t have to win the lawsuit for it to pay electoral dividends in this fall’s midterm elections. Indeed, as they head home for the midterm break, Republicans will have ample opportunity to explain their position to potential voters. Democrats, too, can use their opposition to the resolution to gin up support back home as well.

Mayhew wrote his classic work in 1974. In today’s era of divided government and deeply polarized and evenly matched congressional parties, however, position taking is probably a more important component of congressional activities. Because parties are so well sorted ideologically today – the Democratic party more uniformly liberal, and the Republican thoroughly conservative – a party’s “brand” means much more electorally than when Mayhew wrote. Members of each party are thus deeply vested in staking out positions that they think help draw a contrast with the opposition party in the next election. Moreover, as the public face of his party, the President is often the target of this position-taking exercise as political scientist Frances Lee documents.  That is precisely the logic driving the Republican caucus’ decision to sue President Obama, and why Democrats are intent on portraying this as a prelude to impeachment.

As position taking becomes a more integral part of congressional activity, Congress continues to vote on issues, but with far less to show for those votes in terms of legislative productivity. Indeed, as this chart by Day Robins shows, in terms of laws passed, the current 113th Congress is on pace to be the least productive in the last 40 years.

laws passedThe reason is that legislators vote not so much in the expectation of passing laws as they do to send positional messages that help clarify the party’s standing on issues that divide the parties. The electoral effect is the message conveyed by the vote rather than whether it becomes law.

Early last month, President Obama dared Republicans to sue him over his use of executive action. Republicans in the House were only too happy to take him up on the challenge. Both sides believe they will be rewarded by their party faithful for staking out such extreme positions. And they are likely right. Although this CNN poll suggests a majority (57%) of those surveyed do not support suing the president, fully 75% of Republicans do, while only 13% of Democrats favor a lawsuit. Independents oppose the effort by a 55%-43% margin. Both sides are betting that in a typically low-turnout midterm, their respective party bases – motivated in part by this lawsuit – will turn out in disproportionately higher numbers come November.

Suing the president may not be good government, but in a midterm election year it makes for great politics.

 

Sunday Shorts: Hillary’s Money, Midterm Turnout and Illegal Immigration

It’s Sunday, and that means time for some short takes on trending stories:

In this earlier post I argued, tongue only partly in cheek, that Hillary Clinton may not be rich enough to be a great president. As I pointed out, our greatest presidents as rated by historians are, beginning with George Washington, often extraordinarily wealthy. Indeed, wealth seems to be a predictor of greatness! Despite this, I noted a spate of media stories of late suggesting that Hillary’s wealth may somehow prove to be a stumbling block for the presidency. Not surprisingly, given this narrative, Republican Party operatives have established a website designed to make Clinton’s wealth a campaign issue.

That Republicans are using Clinton’s wealth against her does not surprise Democratic pundit Paul Waldman. However, that the media seem to embrace the same logic does surprise him. As he writes in this Washington Post opinion piece, “But what may be even more remarkable is that so many in the press go right along with this stupidity… There’s a hidden assumption in some of this coverage that candidates should be nothing more than advocates for their class. If you’re rich, then you can’t sincerely care about the well-being of people who aren’t, and anything other than advocacy on behalf of other rich people is odd, even suspect.” The irony here, of course, is that Waldman’s Democratic colleagues used precisely this logic to attack Mitt Romney’s candidacy during the 2012 campaign.

Meanwhile, in an otherwise illuminating discussion of the reasons why midterm election turnout is typically much lower than that for a presidential election campaign, Pew Research Center author Drew DeSilver posted this graph based on research by Michael McDonald, a University of Florida political scientist:

As you can see, turnout out for congressional midterm elections was actually higher than for presidential elections during the period 1789-1824, which runs contrary to the norm for most of our nation’s history.  What explains this apparent anomaly?  DeSilver’s answer: “History break: As McDonald’s chart shows, in the early decades of the republic, midterm elections typically drew more voters than presidential contests. Back then, most states only gave voting rights to property owners, and Congress — not the presidency — tended to be the federal government’s main power center and focus of electoral campaigns.” What DeSilver’s explanation does not say, however, is that for the first several presidential elections, many states did not choose electors through the popular vote. In 1792, for example, George Washington won reelection, but only 6 of the 15 states chose electors based on some form of popular input.  It is no wonder, then, that turnout for congressional elections was higher – many people simply did not have the opportunity to vote for the president (or, more properly, for the electors who chose the president). Indeed, it was only after most states began using the popular vote as a means of choosing electors, along with a decline in property-based voting requirements, that popular participation in presidential elections began increasing. That increase in participation provided presidents, beginning with Andrew Jackson in 1828, with an independent base of power and rescued the office from a dangerous dependency on Congress.

Peter Rothschild brought the following Security Weekly article on immigration by Scott Stewart to my attention. You might think, given the extraordinary media attention to the immigration issue, most recently in reaction to Texas Governor Rick Perry’s decision to post the National Guard at his state’s border with Mexico, that we are facing a record influx of illegal immigrants. Think again. Stewart writes, “Lost in all the media hype over this ‘border crisis’ is the fact that in 2013 overall immigration was down significantly from historical levels. According to U.S. Border Patrol apprehension statistics, there were only 420,789 apprehensions in 2013 compared to 1,160,395 in 2004. In fact, from fiscal 1976 to 2010, apprehensions never dropped below 500,000. During that same period, the Border Patrol averaged 1,083,495 apprehensions per year compared to just 420,789 last year.”

Of course, as Stewart acknowledges, apprehensions may not be the best indicator of the rate of illegal border crossings. Still, the data seems to belie the media narrative that the country is enduring an illegal immigration crisis. But it is easy to lose sight of this with the media focus on the apparent increase in undocumented children crossing the border. That story has far greater media legs than does one focusing on the fact that “the Border Patrol will apprehend and process hundreds of thousands fewer people this year than it did each fiscal year from 1976 until 2010.”

Finally, we are scheduled to begin occasional “simulposting” with the Christian Science Monitor sometime this coming week. If past experience is any clue (see the comments to this post on the debt ceiling crisis!), the more visible platform is likely to mean more comments from readers who often have strongly-held views. That’s fine – I always enjoy the comments from readers from both sides of the political aisle and try to respond to all of them. I also exercise a very light touch on the censor button – as long as the comments are civil, I don’t care how passionate the language or what political views are expressed, although it is worth reminding everyone that my response to a comment doesn’t necessarily imply agreement (or disagreement) with that comment.  This is a non-partisan blog – it says so right in the title! I learn a lot from readers, and my hope is that we can continue this dialogue in the months to come.

Have a great Sunday!

The Malaysian Shootdown: What Would Reagan Have Done?

Last Thursday’s apparently deliberate shoot down of a Malaysian civilian airliner by Ukrainian separatists using Russian weaponry inevitably brought back memories of the Soviet’s shooting down of Korean Airlines 007 in August, 1983. And, not surprisingly, conservative and liberal pundits have drawn different lessons from President Reagan’s response to that earlier tragedy. Conservatives have cited with approval the national address Reagan made in which he condemned the attack as a moral outrage, and have openly wondered why President Obama has not made a similar speech to a national audience. Liberals, in contrast, have focused on Reagan’s initial reluctance to leave his California ranch when first notified of the KAL shootdown, a decision that attracted a fair share of media criticism at the time. Ultimately, Reagan did come back to Washington to give a nationwide address.

Both perspectives, I think, miss the important lesson from Reagan’s handling of the KAL007 incident.  Before developing that point, however, it’s worth listening to Reagan’s speech.

It appears that President Obama will shortly provide his own brief statement regarding the Malaysian Airlines tragedy. I’ll be on with comments and some context regarding the KAL007 comparison shortly after.

11:30 a.m. President Obama has just completed his brief statement re: the Malaysian airline shootdown.  His primary message was to push Russian leader Vladimir Putin to cooperate in the investigation of the Malaysian jetliner tragedy. Beyond that, however, he offered very little in the way of concrete steps, although it is likely additional punitive options, such as stronger sanctions, are being debated.  In short, the statement was vintage President Obama – cautious, pragmatic, devoid of rhetorical excesses and designed to buy time while keeping public pressure on Putin.  As such it almost surely will be condemned by conservative pundits as more talk, with little action.  It bears remembering, however, that Reagan received similar pushback from conservatives for not acting more strongly in the aftermath of the KAL007 shootdown in 1983.  That incident occurred during a period of heightened tension between the U.S. and the Soviet Union – tension that had been exacerbated in part by Reagan’s previous words.  In June, 1982, Reagan gave a speech to British members of Parliament, in which he proclaimed that the “Soviet Union…runs against the tide of human history.”  The following March, in a speech to evangelicals, he famously called the Soviet Union “the focus of evil in the modern world.”  Also that month he unveiled the Strategic Defense Initiative, dubbed “Star Wars”, against the backdrop of a rapid increase in U.S. defense spending.  In October, after the KAL007 incident, Reagan sent troops into the Caribbean island of Grenada to overthrow the Cuban-backed government there.  The next month West Germany agreed to accept U.S. Pershing II and cruise missiles, prompting the Soviets to walk out of arms control talks in Geneva.

In retrospect, the KAL007 shootdown marked the low point of U.S.-Soviet relations during the Reagan presidency. By the end of 1983, even Reagan was acknowledging the necessity to dial back the harsh rhetoric, in order not to further inflame an already tense situation.  That deescalation was helped when Soviet leader Yuri Andropov died in February, 1984, and was replaced with Konstantin Chernenko.  Although Chernenko lived for little more than a year after assuming power, he recognized that the Soviets were in no position to win an arms race with the U.S. and, shortly after Reagan’s reelection in 1984, the Soviets agreed to restart arms negotiations without preconditions.  Chernenko’s softening position laid the foundation for his successor’s Mikhail Gorbachev’s policy of glasnost at home and more conciliatory, albeit still contentious, relations with Reagan and the U.S.

At this time, of course, it is impossible to tell whether the Malaysian shootdown represents a turning point in U.S.-Russian relations, and if so, whether that means a resumption of a Cold War-like standoff or a realization from both sides that it is time to step back from the brink and engage in more constructive diplomacy.  And that uncertainty is exactly my point. There is a tendency for pundits, with the benefit of hindsight, to simplify their read of history in ways that accord with their own ideological preferences.  Whether liberal or conservative, however, the “lessons” pundits derive often overstate the degree to which presidents felt free to act at the time these incidents are occurring.  While Reagan’s nationwide address did evoke a moral clarity, and on a more visible platform, that perhaps was a bit less evident in Obama’s just-concluded statement, Reagan’s actual response to the KAL007 shootdown stopped short of actions that might escalate an already tense situation. In part, this reflected Reagan’s uncertainty over Andropov’s motives, or even the circumstances behind the shootdown.  It also reflected the limited range of possible responses available to Reagan, many of which had the potential to exacerbate an already tense situation.

When we get beyond the pundits’ take on the KAL007 shootdown, it appears that Reagan’s response then isn’t much different than Obama’s reaction to the Malaysian jetliner incident, at least to this point.  And it is a reminder that the powers of the presidency seem much more limited, and the repercussions of acting rashly much more consequential, when you are sitting in the Oval Office than when you are critiquing the president’s actions from afar.  This is not to say that history will judge Obama’s foreign policy, taken as a whole, as better, or worse than Reagan’s.  But in contrast to what pundits are currently suggesting, that comparison is not likely to turn on Reagan and Obama’s respective handling of these two tragic shootdowns which, so far, seem remarkably similar.