Paul Waldman

Your Virtual Future

Flickr/Sergey Galyonkin

Don't be alarmed—I'm delivering the traditional Friday technology post a day early, because I want to talk a bit about virtual reality (VR). Facebook just spent $2 billion to buy Oculus, a company that as of yet has essentially no revenue and no customers, since its first product, the Oculus Rift virtual reality headset, is still in its development stages (game developers have models, but they haven't been sold to the public). Facebook thinks it's buying the future. Is it? And should you care? Well, Oculus itself may or may not be the future, but virtual reality is, for real this time. And yes, you should care.

Are Iowa Farmers Better Than the Rest of Us?

Flickr/Paul Adams Photography

With the midterm elections just over seven months away, it's kind of remarkable that we've gotten this far without being sucked down into the land of endless ridiculousness that is the Republic of Gaffes, where no expression of outrage is too insincere to be dismissed and no faux controversy is too silly not to occupy the press' attention for a few days. Do I speak of the horror of Mitch McConnell and the microsecond of Duke, in which a montage of all-American stock footage in an ad showed, to the particularly eagle-eyed, a flash of the hated Blue Devils? Or the betrayal of his opponent's NCAA bracket, which had Wichita State beating Kentucky? Indeed — obviously, neither of these two care at all for their home state or are fit to lead. But they stand a much better chance of moving past their controversies than Iowa Rep. Bruce Braley, who, we now know, hates farmers.

The Political Roots and Ramifications of the Hobby Lobby Case

Flickr/Sara C

The Supreme Court has completed the quasi-religious ritual of oral argument in the Hobby Lobby case, which will decide whether a corporation can declare its piety and thus absolve itself of the need to follow laws it finds unworthy of divine blessing. Now all we need do is wait for Anthony Kennedy to deliver his judgment, and the question will be settled.

If a Candidate Goes to Iowa and No Reporter Pays Attention, Has the Presidential Campaign Begun?

Flickr/Angela Radulescu

There's a ritual we go through around this time, in which reporters and commentators start writing about the next presidential campaign, but while making sure to alert their readers that they feel kind of guilty about it. It's absurd to talk about this stuff when the actual election is still two and a half years away, and now that we've admitted that, let's go ahead and dive deep into who are the leading candidates to be Hillary Clinton's field director! After the midterm elections in November, the obligatory mea culpas, which were never all that sincere to begin with, will begin to disappear from the articles.

What the Koch Brothers Can Do For Liberals

Flickr/peoplesworld

If there was a high point of liberal energy and activity in recent years, it would have to be the period running roughly from 2004 until 2008. New organizations like the Center for American Progress were founded, the netroots came into its own, and whenever a group of liberals got together, you just got the feeling you were at the start of something big. Years hence, it seemed, people would look back on what was going on that moment and say, "This is when it started." Only time would tell what "it" would turn out to be.

The GOP's Racial Dog Whistling and the Social Safety Net

AP Images/J. Scott Applewhite

You've no doubt heard the famous quote about race in politics spoken by the late Lee Atwater, the most skilled Republican strategist of his generation. Liberals have cited it for years, seeing in it an explanation, right from the horse's mouth, of how contemporary Republicans use "issues" like welfare to activate racial animus among white voters, particularly in the South. Race may be an eternal force in American politics, but its meaning and operation change as the years pass. It's time we took another look at Atwater's analysis and see how it is relevant to today, because it doesn't mean what it once did. Atwater may have been extraordinarily prescient, though not in the way most people think.

The Decline of Conservative Publishing

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As a liberal who has written a few books whose sales were, well let's just say "modest" and leave it at that, I've always looked with envy at the system that helps conservatives sell lots and lots of books. The way worked was that you wrote a book, and then you got immediately plugged into a promotion machine that all but guaranteed healthy sales. You'd go on a zillion conservative talk shows, be put in heavy rotation on Fox News, get featured by conservative book clubs, and even have conservative organizations buy thousands of copies of your books in bulk. If you were really lucky, that last item would push the book onto the bestseller lists, getting you even more attention.

Some Thoughts On New Journalistic Ventures, Internet Time, and Your Media Diet

This man is unstoppable clickbait. (Flickr/Greg Peverill-Conti)

This week, I've been substituting for Greg Sargent at his Plum Line blog at the Washington Post, which has been a lot of fun. I've enjoyed getting exposed to a new and larger audience. But it has also been challenging, particularly since I've tried to keep posting here on the Prospect as well. Greg's blog runs on a pretty strict schedule—his readers expect a post to be there when they get to their desks at 9 am, then a couple more through the day, and finally a roundup of links to other stories at the end of the day. They also expect writing that is pegged to today's events, but gives a broader perspective that will still be relevant tomorrow.

So that's demanding, even if there are people out there who write a lot more than that every day (Bekah Grant, a former writer for VentureBeat, recently wrote how "I wrote an average of 5 posts a day, churning out nearly 1,740 articles over the course of 20 months. That is, by all objective standards, insane." And don't even ask about the demands made on the people who write for sites like Gawker.) In the few moments when I haven't been panicking about whether my idea for the post that's due in an hour will be sufficiently interesting (or when I have no idea for the next post at all), it has given me some perspective on what we do here at the Prospect and how our writing and reporting fits into readers' lives.

Why the GOP Won't Change

Flickr/Rob Chandanais

Exactly one year ago, a committee of Republican party bigwigs issued the report of its "Growth and Opportunity Project," better known as the "autopsy." The idea was to figure out what the party was doing wrong, and how on earth Barack Obama had managed to get re-elected when everybody knows what a big jerk he is. There were some recommendations on things like improving the party's use of technology and its fundraising, but the headline-grabbing message was that the party had to shed its image as a bunch of grumpy old white guys and become more welcoming to young people and racial minorities.

It was always going to be a tricky thing to accomplish, both because the GOP is, in fact, made up in large part of grumpy old white guys, and because "outreach" can only go so far if you aren't willing to change the things you stand for. Mike Huckabee, that clever fellow, used to say, "I'm a conservative, but I'm not angry about it." Which is all well and good, but if, for instance, you say to young people that you don't think their gay friends ought to be allowed to get married, saying it with a smile doesn't really help.

And a year later, it's not just that the Republican party hasn't changed, it's that they don't have much reason to change.

The Missing White Poor

A famous white poor person. (photo by Dorothea Lange)

You may have heard about how last week, Paul Ryan made some unfortunate remarks about poverty, blaming it at least partly on, well, lazy black people: "We have got this tailspin of culture, in our inner cities in particular," Ryan said, "of men not working and just generations of men not even thinking about working or learning the value and the culture of work, and so there is a real culture problem here that has to be dealt with." The reason many people got angry about this is that when we talk about poor white people, nobody suggests that it's a product of a pathology that lies within those particular people. Republicans may think persistent poverty in rural areas is a regrettable thing, but they aren't delivering lectures to those people about their "culture." It's kind of a generalized version of the fundamental attribution error—people like me are poor because of conditions outside themselves, while people unlike me are poor because of their inherent nature.

Ryan's words set off a predictable round of "Is Paul Ryan racist?" contemplation (see here, for example), and in response to that we have to remind ourselves that that is always the wrong question. It's impossible to know with certainty whether anyone is racist, because that requires looking into their heart. But much more importantly, it doesn't matter. What matters is what people say and do, not what lurks within their souls. You can say to Paul Ryan, "Here's what's wrong with what you said" without shouting "You're racist!" which not only doesn't convince anyone of anything, it only leads everyone who doesn't already agree with you to shut down and refuse to listen to anything else you have to say. Before we get to today's chart about race and poverty (oh yes, I do have a chart), you should play this classic from Jay Smooth every time you're tempted to call a politician a racist:

The Imagined Reagan Will Live Forever

In 2012, the most popular baby names, according to the Social Security Agency, were Jacob for boys (18,899 little Jacobs) and Sophia for girls (22,158 wee Sophias). But holding on strong in the girl category, still cracking the top 100 at #97, was Reagan. No fewer than 3,072 proud, freedom-loving Americans named their girls after our 40th president that year, nearly a quarter-century after he left office.

Liberals, it need hardly be said, don't go in for that sort of thing. Would you consider naming your kid after a Democratic president? Probably not. I have a friend who named his son Truman, but let's just say that in school when the teacher calls his name, nobody has to ask which of the class' many Trumans she means. I'm sure there are some parents who have named their boys Barack, but even in 2009, at the height of President Obama's popularity, the name Barack didn't crack the top 1,000.

What's interesting about this isn't just the contrast between liberals and conservatives but the fact that even among conservatives, there's no one who even comes close to the kind of quasi-religious worship Reagan gets. It's partly because, depending on your definition of success, he was the most successful Republican president in the lifetime of most living Republicans. But even for people who remember his presidency, the actual details of that presidency have become completely irrelevant. Ronald Reagan now exists as purely as a symbol, an embodiment of every virtue one might admire, whether Reagan himself actually embodied those virtues or not.

Tolerance For the Non-Religious, Here and Around the World

Our chart of the day comes from the Pew Research Center's Global Attitudes project, which asked people in 40 different countries whether it is necessary to believe in god in order to be a moral person. There's a lot going on within that yes-or-no question, and one could see how it could carry different connotations in different cultures. The results aren't just a measure of people's own religious beliefs, but also of the character of the place they're in and the exposure they have to people who aren't like them. If you've always been taught that the nature of right and wrong and the enforcement of those rules comes from the church, and virtually everyone you've ever known believes in god, those who don't would seem like something of an alien species. So for instance, in Ghana, where 96 percent of people in another poll described themselves as religious, it isn't surprising that 99 percent in this poll—or basically everyone in both cases —says you have to believe in god to be moral.

At the other end, if you live in a place where most people don't believe in god, even if you do, you probably know many perfectly nice people who don't, so it would be harder to sustain the belief that they're all inherently amoral psychopaths. For example, in France, where about a third of people describe themselves as religious, only 15 percent say you need to believe in god to be moral. Unlike in Ghana where there are virtually no religious people willing to grant the morality of those who aren't religious, in France over half of religious people are willing to be so generous.

What about the U.S., you ask? Show us the chart already! Here it is:

Tesla, Car Dealers, and Anti-Competitive State Laws

Shoppers at a Tesla showroom in Amsterdam, where such things are legal. (Flickr/harry_nl)

You may not realize it, but car dealers wield an unusual amount of political power in this country. That's partly because they're located in or near pretty much every community everywhere, and also because they're highly organized and clever about using their influence. One of the ways they've done so is get laws passed in state after state making sure that the model under which they operate—one in which independent dealers sell cars, but car companies themselves don't—is the only thing allowed by law. In fact, laws making it difficult or downright illegal for car companies to sell their products directly to customers are on the books in 48 states. This absurd state of affairs hasn't gotten much attention until recently, when Tesla decided it wanted to open its own dealerships to sell people cars.

Among the places it has done this is New Jersey, where the company had opened two stores. But earlier this week, the New Jersey Motor Vehicle Commission passed a rule requiring that all auto sales be done through franchises, making Tesla's stores illegal. Their option now is to either test the rule in court, or convert the stores to "showrooms," where you can look at a car but not actually buy one.

You'd think that if conservatives really believed all their rhetoric about the value of unfettered free markets, they would be all over this issue, advocating for Tesla's side of the controversy and campaigning to break up the anti-free-enterprise car dealer oligopolies. But of course, we're talking about Tesla, and liberals like electric cars, and therefore conservatives feel obligated to hate electric cars, so that probably won't happen.

Thinking Small

Flickr/Kevin Gebhardt

There's a discussion starting to bubble up in some corners, one that will grow in intensity as we approach 2016, asking where the left should go as Barack Obama heads for the exits a couple of years hence. In the latest issue of Harper's, Adolph Reed offers a critique from the left of not just Obama but the liberals who support him. Our own Harold Meyerson offered a typically thoughtful criticism, to which Reed responded, but I'll just add briefly that one of the many things I didn't like about Reed's piece was the way he poses a dichotomy for liberals between investing too much in winning presidential elections even if the Democrat is imperfect (not a complete waste of time, but close) and building a movement (much better), but doesn't say what, specifically, this movement-building should consist of.

Meaningless Special Elections and the Press's Consequential Imperative

Failed congressional candidate Alex Sink, putting on her victory face. (Flickr/Village Square)

If it were up to me, I would eliminate special elections for the House of Representatives entirely. They make sense when it comes to the Senate, where every state has only two senators and terms run six years, meaning a vacancy can leave a state without significant representation for an extended period of time. But when a congressman dies or retires and there's another election to fill that critical 1/435th portion of the lower house's lawmakers in a few months, do we really need to mobilize the state's electoral resources, spend millions of dollars, and get a bunch of retirees to haul themselves down to the polls, only to do it all again before you know it? Hardly.

The other objectionable thing about special elections is that because they're almost always the only election happening at that moment, they not only get an inordinate amount of attention, the results also get absurdly over-interpreted. This is a symptom of what we might call the Consequential Imperative among the press (note: if you have a better moniker for this that could propel me to the front rank of contemporary neologism-coiners, hit me up on Twitter). The Consequential Imperative is the impulse, the desire, the need to assert that whatever a journalist happens to be reporting on is very, very important. So for instance, if your editor sent you down to Florida to do a week's worth of stories on the special election that just concluded there, you are extremely unlikely to write that this election was a contest between a couple of bozos, and means next to nothing for national politics (unless you're Dave Weigel, who for some reason seems to be almost the only reporter capable of saying such a thing). It's the same impulse that causes every gaffe, polling blip, and faux-controversy of every campaign to be presented as though it could dramatically alter the outcome of the election, despite all the experience telling us it won't.

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