Vox Pop

The Prospect's politics blog

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? Senator Dianne Feinstein is outraged that the CIA, she says, was spying on staffers from the Senate Intelligence Committee (which she chairs) who were investigating the agency's torture program. For his part, CIA Director John Brennan is outraged that anyone would accuse the CIA of sneaky, duplicitous behavior, because they would never do that sort of thing. Never. Conservatives are outraged over President Obama's appearance on the web...

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...

SXSWedu: How to Keep Friends and Influence No New People

AP Images/Erich Schlegel
AP Images/Erich Schlegel A nyone who survived high school knows just how much blood, sweat, and tears must come before someone gets voted “Best All-Around” in the school yearbook. Being liked is one thing, but to be liked by lots of groups often requires that one always stay on the safe side of every conversation, never fully engaging. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the same is true in education policy, where ideological differences rule the community. The cliques and lunchroom politics are serious business, and the jargon makes it all the worse. EdTech-ers sit at a table near EdReform-ers, while community-schools people sit beside the teachers’ unions. And because no one talks much to each other, it’s easy to affirm your beliefs and vilify your opponents without much challenge. So to its credit, the education-technology conference South by Southwest EDU—SXSWedu, as it’s known—is trying really hard to be friends with everyone. It’s trying to become a platform for serious policy debate, it’s...

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. That's a common problem. Movements are great, but creating and sustaining them is hard work, work most of us would rather not do. It also takes skill, timing, and bit of luck. Most 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 (...

News Flash: An Abortion Provider Wins in Kansas

AP Photo/John Hanna
AP Photo/John Hanna Dr. Ann Kristin Neuhaus observes a State Board of Healing Arts meeting flanked by her attorneys, Kelly Kauffman, left, and Bob Eye in Topeka, Kansas. S ince the death of George Tiller, the third-trimester abortion provider who was killed in Wichita in 2009, former abortion doctor Ann Kristin Neuhaus has been fighting Operation Rescue—one of the country’s most radical anti-choice groups—alone. As part of their effort to oust “Tiller the Killer,” Operation Rescue lodged frequent accusations of medical misconduct with the Board of Healing Arts, the state medical licensing board, against Tiller and his colleagues. After his murder, Operation Rescue turned the full force of its ire on Neuhaus, who had worked on and off as a consultant for Tiller in the early 2000s. Appeals to the Board of Healing Arts hadn’t worked in the past, but the 2010 elections swept in Sam Brownback, a virulent opponent of abortion, as governor. Brownback had the power to select new members for...

Daily Meme: The Flood Will Not Be Televised

You might think, given the country's general secular drift, that Bible epics would not be Hollywood's latest cash cow. And you would, of course, be wrong. This year, no less than four movies (loosely) based on Biblical stories will appear in theaters near you. The deluge began last month with Son of God , a feature-length version of the "The Bible" miniseries (without the Satan character that just happened to look like our president ). An Old Testament story is up next. The trailer for Noah , which first aired during the Super Bowl, looks like your average apocalypse flick, except everyone is wearing scruffy linen tunics. There's thunder, flying mud, the occasional fireball, lots of monsters, and— in lieu of Jesus's flowing locks —some truly spectacular facial hair . This week, The New Yorker profiled Noah 's director, Darren Aronofsky (of Black Swan fame), who proudly declared that his upcoming film is the "least Biblical Biblical movie ever made." In Aronofsky's vision, Noah is an...

Daily Meme: Of Ferns and Bellwethers

Pity the poor political pundit. We're eight months away from a mid-term election that will likely change nothing in the partisan political balance, the Conservative Political Action Conference and its clown car of presidential contenders has closed up shop, the do-nothing Congress persists in doing nothing—but even so, clickable content must be concocted. And so, today, we have much (much, much) ado about ... ferns and bellwethers. In case you've been in a blissful media-free zone all day, the headline news of the day is that President Obama went on Zack Galifianakis's faux talk show, "Between the Ferns." The commander-in-chief did a respectable job of deadpanning and "droning" on about healthcare.gov. If you are so inclined, you can read virtually identical reviews and analyses of the six-minute spot at several million outlets including The New York Times , TPM , US News , Politico , HuffPo , CNN , and, just to arbitrarily stop the list right here, The American Prospect . Cliff's...

How Should We Think About—and Report On—the Tea Party Now?

Flickr/Rob Chandanais
It's safe to say these are times of decline for the Tea Party. They can't muster any more government shutdowns. The public's view of them is decidedly negative. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, far from being cowed by the ultra right-winger running against him, said of the conservative interest groups promoting primary challenges to incumbent Republicans, "I think we're going to crush them everywhere." So if they're not steering the GOP ship in the same way they were not long ago, should the media stop covering them so much? This question is relevant in the aftermath of another Conservative Political Action Conference that got oodles of press coverage, as it always does. Josh Marshall referred accurately to that coverage as "a tacit conspiracy of derp between the event organizers and the people who cover it. You be outrageous; we'll be outraged. And everyone will be happy." This gets back to the eternal question of what matters in political coverage, and there's a school of...

Barack Obama Considers Punching Zach Galifianakis In the Face

Yes, this actually happened.
When people think back on the attempts of presidents and presidential candidates to engage directly with pop culture, they usually date the modern era to Bill Clinton donning shades and playing sax on the Arsenio Hall Show in 1992. There were a few awkward attempts prior to that, like Richard Nixon participating in the "sock it to me" gag on Laugh-In in 1968. But Barack Obama has probably done more of these appearances than anybody else, not just going on shows like The Tonight Show and The View to be interviewed, but actually becoming part of the entertainment. He slow-jammed the news with Jimmy Fallon, but in that case he was essentially the straight man, which is the safe place for a president to be. After all, he needs to be in on the fun, but not sacrifice his dignity. Nixon may have said "Sock it to me," but his advisers were smart enough not to let him get hit in the head with a giant club. This morning, however, we get a look at what may be a new high in presidential pop-...

This Is Your Camry On Drugs

The change in the social perception of drunk driving is one of the great public health success stories of the last half-century. It went from being perceived as an amusing bit of recklessness to something truly despicable, and today drunk driving deaths are half of what they were a few decades ago. And now that recreational marijuana is legal in Washington and Colorado, almost surely to be followed by other states, there's a renewed need to discourage driving while high. The key to the success of the drunk driving campaign was creating a new social norm, one in which people would discourage each other from driving drunk. It also gave people a means to avoid it, by popularizing the idea of the designated driver. Washington state is starting a campaign to discourage driving while high with three PSAs soon to be airing in the state. No frying eggs here: OK, so that's kind of funny. But I'm a little skeptical about whether it will have a dramatic impact. The ad does include the idea of...

Let Them Eat Dignity

Flickr/Gage Skidmore
Flickr/Gage Skidmore Representative Paul Ryan A few days ago, Paul Ryan got caught repeating a little fib in his speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference. It was of a not-uncommon type, in which a vivid anecdote somebody hears from somewhere gets told and retold in a game of political telephone in which the facts get mangled and the story from elsewhere becomes something the speaker claims happened to her. We can forgive Ryan for repeating it, since the falsehood didn't originate with him. But the real power of the story lies in its revelation of the cruelty that underlies the way contemporary American conservatives look at the poor, and the wispy veil they try to pull over that cruelty in the hopes we won't see it for what it is. To start, here's the story Ryan told, about Eloise Anderson, who directs the Wisconsin Department of Children and Families: She once met a young boy from a very poor family, and every day at school, he would get a free lunch from a government...

Can We Make Environmentalism a Centrist Issue?

Flickr/Manos Simonides
Flickr/Manos Simonides F or decades, thinkers on the left have wondered why the working class regularly votes against its own interests, upending what Marx believed would be an inevitable march from democracy to socialism. In his book, What’s the Matter with Kansas? , Thomas Frank argued that social issues obscure economic motives, and indeed the most salient non-economic one has always been race, at least in this country. In America, conservative politicians have exploited racism to their own benefit, first to disempower blacks with Jim Crow, then to undermine the union movement, and more recently to undercut support for welfare programs, as Ian Haney Lopez recently documented in Dog-Whistle Politics . Nixon’s “law and order campaign” played on racial fears, as did Reagan’s denunciation of “welfare queens.” Republicans played at race to win solid majorities for decades while actively working against the interests of the majority of Americans. The left has much to learn about this...

Daily Meme: Three Weeks and Counting

President Obama's plot to turn the United States into a paradise for the proletariate is going precisely as planned. According to a survey conducted by the Gallup organization last month, the percentage of Americans without insurance has dropped to 15.9 percent—the lowest rate since 2008. Left-leaning analysts like The Washington Post 's Greg Sargent are cautioning liberals not to get too excited . According to Gallup's numbers, the rate reached an all-time high of 18 percent in the third quarter of 2013 At Bloomberg , Jonathan Bernstein concludes that "[t]he new data should, at the very least, make us slightly more confident that Obamacare isn't radically increasing the net number of uninsured. I wouldn't go much farther than that." That's certainly a lot of qualifiers. The rate of uninsured African Americans showed the largest drop of any minority group, from 20.9 percent in the first quarter of 2013 to 18.3 today. But results were less promising among Hispanics—the group most...

Daily Meme: Love, Tolerance, and CPAC

For the millions of American reality-show junkies who just can't wait for the return of 2012's most outrageous hit show—the Republican presidential debates—this week's Conservative Political Action Conference has offered a tantalizing sneak preview. Just about every potential 2016 cast member was in D.C.—and everybody had something to prove. For Chris Christie, excluded last year but invited back now that he's being "attacked" by the media—instant conservative cred!—had to show he could get the 'wingers on their feet. Which, Christie being Christie, was a snap, especially with guaranteed-to-please counterfactuals like this one about Democrats: “They’re the party of intolerance. Not us.” (And hey, if you doubt for a second that Republicans are indeed the lonely beacons of open-mindedness in this land, check out the instantly famous photo of the near-empty conference room where they held their minority outreach panel on Thursday .) Bobby Jindal, who's trying to prove that being detested...

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