Paul Waldman

Paul Waldman is a contributing editor for the Prospect and the author of Being Right is Not Enough: What Progressives Must Learn From Conservative Success.

Recent Articles

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:

Daily Meme: Outrage City

  • Washington runs on many things—power, bureaucracy, and the frenzied exchange of business cards, to name a few—but if there's one resource we have more of than any other city in America, it's outrage. True, most of Washington's outrage is utterly insincere, offered up in an attempt to get people angry at one's political opponents over what are usually mundane sins (or no sin at all). But it's still the coal we shovel into the great steam engine of our politics, keeping everything chugging along at a comfortable clip. So who's feeling outraged today?

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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