Vox Pop

The Prospect's politics blog

Why Madisonian Democracy Still Can't Have It All

AP Photo/The Daily Progress, Jonna Spelbring
AP Photo/Charles Dharapak, FILE T his hasn’t been a good month for fans of Madisonian democracy. One thing that most parliamentary systems are exceptionally good at avoiding is the kind of deadlock over policy that stilled our democratic government’s heart and has left us two weeks deep in a shutdown. As a result, those who are skeptical of our separate institutions sharing powers are out in full force . It’s no surprise; liberal preference for the British system over what the Framers concocted goes back at least to Woodrow Wilson. Not all of the current anti-Madisonians agree on exactly what they would prefer, but there’s a general critique they share: not only does the U.S. system yield gridlock and risk collapse, but it doesn’t really have any advantages in terms of democracy to justify that inefficiency. I’ve argued against the efficacy claims recently—the problem is a broken Republican Party, not the structure of government—but I think the democracy claims are wrong as well...

Daily Meme: Congress, Better than Ebola!

Americans are not impressed with Republicans right now. While President Obama's approval rating has ticked up two points this month, the GOP has seen their popularity drop to its lowest levels ever. By a margin of 22 percent, respondents in the latest NBC/ WSJ poll blame Republicans over the White House for the government shutdown. Also on the country's bad side? Congress writ large. Public Policy Polling found that 85 percent of respondents disapprove of our chief legislative body's job performance. Just to hit the point home of how bad a position the House is in, let's look at what people have said in the past about a few things people currently like better than Congress. Witches : "Her mind will always be plotting and scheming and churning and burning and whizzing and phizzing with murderous bloodthirsty thoughts." Respondents preferred witches over Congress by a margin of 14 percentage points. Cockroaches : "Catching sight of a cockroach usually inspires one of a short list of...

Virginia’s Libertarian Surge That Wasn’t

AP Images/The Roanoke Times/Rebecca Barnett
A s Terry McAuliffe and Ken Cuccinelli duked it out during the second debate of the Virginia governor’s race last month, Robert Sarvis was on the sidelines, ribbing both candidates on Twitter. Sarvis, who’s running for governor as a Libertarian, was polling at 7 percent, a surprisingly high number for a third-party candidate in Virginia. He wasn’t invited to participate in the debate, and his irritation was plain. “Audience needs a shower after all that mudslinging,” he tweeted , adding , “Debate would’ve been more substantive with me on stage. That’s a sure thing. Next time, VA!” The final debate will take place on October 24 at Virginia Tech, and Sarvis has been gunning for an invitation for weeks. But although he’s been polling between 8 and 12 percent for the past month, it looks like he’ll be exiled to Twitter once again . Under an agreement negotiated by Cuccinelli, McAuliffe, and the debate’s sponsor, a local television station, Sarvis needed to be polling at 10 percent or...

In Catalonia, a Warning on One-State Solutions

AP Images/Paco Serinelli
AP Images/Paco Serinelli F rom the balconies above the narrow stone-paved streets of Girona hung gold-and-red striped flags. A blue triangle and white star adorned most of them, transforming the banner of the autonomous region of Catalonia into the standard of Catalonian independence. Here and there a legend emblazoned a flag: Catalunya, Nou Estat D'Europa —"Catalonia, A New State in Europe." I'd taken the train north from Barcelona to see Salvador Dali's personal museum in Figueres and then explore Girona's medieval old city. I was on vacation from the Middle East. But a political writer's time off can so easily become a busman's holiday. I looked at the flags and thought of the arguments about how to solve the Israeli-Palestinian imbroglio, about political scientist Ian Lustick's very recent New York Times essay despairing of a two-state outcome, and about the furies that the late Tony Judt released almost precisely 10 years ago when he came out for a one-state solution. Nationalism...

John Boehner Is Adrift

Flickr/Donkey Hotey
At this point, I'm starting to get the feeling that John Boehner spends a good portion of each day sitting around in his office with a bunch of aides as they all stare at the ceiling. "Anybody got any ideas yet?" he says periodically. "No?" Heavy sigh. Every couple of days they come up with something, float it to reporters, and find that it only serves to confuse things, to the point that nobody knows what they're demanding anymore. First they'd only open the government and raise the debt ceiling if the Affordable Care Act were defunded. When that didn't fly, they suggested they'd release the hostages if the ACA were delayed for a year. No go on that, so they suggested that they'd accept some kind of "grand bargain" as long as it included "entitlement reform," which is Republican code for cutting Social Security and Medicare. Nope. Then they said they'd take some package of unnamed budget cuts and tax cuts. They aren't getting that either, and now it seems they've finally come to...

Daily Meme: Don't Forget the Sequester

The House is finally starting to make moves on the debt ceiling and the budget, but it's important to note that one sure casualty of this extended stand-off is all of the federal spending already slashed by the sequester earlier this year. The clean CR passed by the Senate, you may note, restores government spending at post-sequestration levels, meaning that no matter what, Republicans end this battle with a substantial, if unlikely to be splashed all over the news, policy win , regardless of how the politics of the shutdown are dissected and graded. And, it's not looking like the budget cuts are going to prompt a public outcry either, despite their myriad troubling effects. Only 23 percent of respondents in a recent National Journal survey say they've noticed the budget cuts at all. With programs and jobs being chopped up left and right, it looks more like Americans have taken our sparse and underfunded programs as the status quo, instead of something worth getting angry about,...

In Praise of Designer Babies

One day, I will rule this measly planet. (Flickr/paparutzi)
Imagine you knew that you carried a gene for a debilitating illness. But doctors could go into your egg (or your spouse's) and remove that gene, enabling you to have a baby who, whatever other problems they might encounter through their lifetime, wouldn't have to worry about the illness. Would you let them? Most people would say probably yes, provided they were sure the technique was safe and wouldn't produce some kind of two-headed mutant centaur baby. That, after all, is what people were worried about when the first baby conceived via in-vitro fertilization was born in 1978—although in that case, they were worried about cyclops babies ( seriously ). It turned out in the end that IVF is perfectly safe, and now it's a common procedure, the ethics of which is questioned only by radical anti-choice extremists. Well we may be approaching the time when doctors can fix certain kinds of inherited diseases before an egg is even fertilized. And naturally, people are worried about "designer...

Postcards from the Shutdown Edge

AP Photo/Brian Skoloff)
AP Photo/Chuck Burton T en days into the shutdown, it’s easy to wonder just how much the federal government helps people day-to-day. We’ve heard about delays in highways maintenance and about federal workers who have to wait until the government opens to get paid. What about those programs conservatives are always complaining about? You might have expected stories about people suffering without help from various federal services—from food stamps to welfare checks. Instead, there’s been little to indicate needy people are going without. That’s because the worst potential effects of the shutdown have been delayed—for now. States, even deep red states, are currently covering for the feds. Some programs waiting for re-authorization—like food stamps—are still largely intact because the federal government sends out reimbursements at the end of the month, so there’s still money and state employees to administer the benefits. Others programs have state money to thank. Through moving funds...

Two-Faced: The Democratic Party's Divergent Future

AP Images/Tina Fineberg
M ichael Bloomberg has declined to endorse anyone in the race to succeed him as New York’s mayor. Neither Democrat Bill de Blasio, whose entire campaign is a critique of Bloomberg’s tenure in office, nor Republican Joseph Lhota, who is trailing de Blasio by a mind-boggling 50 points and who has been heard disparaging Bloomberg to boot, has endeared himself to the billionaire mayor. But Bloomberg has not been without other local endorsement options—just not for mayor. Earlier this week, hizzoner’s spokesman said that Bloomberg would endorse Newark Mayor Cory Booker in his bid to win New Jersey’s U.S. senate seat later this month. (The date of the special election is October 16 th .) The New York Times has reported that Bloomberg’s PAC will spend $1 million on ads to boost Democrat Booker in his surprisingly close race against Tea Party Republican Steve Lonegan. The most recent poll, from Quinnipiac, shows Booker leading Lonegan by 12 points—the same margin as last month, but down...

Perverting the State of Our Union

AP Images/David Goldman
The profound truth that’s been lost in the desperate effort to end the federal shutdown is that, more than any time since the 1850s, a significant portion of the current government is hostile to what the rest of us call “union.” Well-meaning talk about doing what’s in the best interests of the country has about it a kind of heartbreaking naiveté. When commentators despair as to whether some Republican members of the House of Representatives understand the consequences of defaulting on the nation’s bills, it’s akin to asking mid-19 th -century Southern Democrats whether they understood that the alternative to their intransigence on the issue of slavery was civil war. The answer was that they understood it and welcomed it. In the same fashion, a tenth of the present national legislature finds the country so fundamentally flawed and believes the nation has become such an abomination—as personified by the abomination who occupies the White House and whom they deem a grotesque miscarriage...

The Task Rabbit Economy

T askRabbit.com markets itself as a Web service that matches clients seeking someone to do odd jobs with “college students, recent retirees, stay-at-home moms, [and] young professionals” looking for extra income. The company website calls it “a marketplace dedicated to empowering people to do what they love.” The name Task Rabbit doesn’t exactly suggest the dignity of work, and the love often takes humble forms. Customers hire Task Rabbits to clean garages, haul clothes to the laundry, paint apartments, assemble Ikea products, buy groceries, or do almost anything else that’s legal. The San Francisco–based company, which has raised $38 million in venture capital since it was founded in 2008, makes its money by tacking on a 20 percent surcharge to the fees paid by clients. The firm performs criminal background checks on aspiring Rabbits, who then get access to chore requests posted by customers. Using the familiar metrics of the Internet, the more than 10,000 approved Rabbits are rated...

Is the Shutdown Creating a Dystopic Political Future?

The House GOP caucus, circa 2024.
Let's cast our minds forward a few weeks, to after the shutdown/default crisis is over. At that point, the 2014 off-year elections will be only a year away. And what will the lasting effect of this episode be? Maybe not all that much. After all, the party of the sitting president almost always loses seats in off-year elections, the big exception being 1998, when the electorate turned on Republicans after the spectacle of impeachment. The shutdown/default is a very big deal, and the GOP will certainly suffer for it, but it's not that big. Even if things turn out as badly as possible for the Republicans, chances are that they'd only lose a few seats in the House—not enough to lose control—because of the way the district lines are drawn (it was Republicans' great good fortune to have an enormous win at the state level in 2010, the year before post-census redistricting took place). I could be wrong about this, of course ( here's a suggestion by Sam Wang that losing the House is a real...

How the Crisis Ends

In 2010, John Boehner tells President Obama, "I'm open! Pass it over here!" The President declines. (White House photo by Pete Souza)
I know it may be a little hard to envision right now, but the crisis we're in at the moment is going to come to an end. The question is, how? It might be worthwhile to think through the major possibilities. I've added odds for each one, based on my best (and necessarily subjective) judgment. 1. President Obama caves. He agrees to delay the Affordable Care Act for a year to restart the government and agrees to budget cuts and entitlement cuts beyond the sequester-level budget Democrats have already agreed to in order to raise the debt ceiling. Tea Partiers triumph. Many congressional Republicans still think this is a possibility. They see Barack Obama as a weakling who will always crumble in the end. They also suffer from a common political delusion, that the American public agrees with you on both the substance of policy and the tactics you've chosen. So even with polls showing approval of the shutdown, their party, and the institution in which they serve plunging to the depths of...

De-Kochifying the Dance

AP Images/Javier Galeano
The three buildings arrayed around the central fountain at New York’s Lincoln Center are, north to south, Avery Fisher Hall, the Metropolitan Opera House, and the David H. Koch Theater. Avery Fisher was a radio and sound reproduction technologist who amassed a fortune from his hi-fi ventures in the mid-20 th century, and donated a vast sum of money to the New York Philharmonic, which today performs in his eponymous auditorium. The Metropolitan Opera is the Metropolitan Opera. And David Koch is the same David Koch who is financing the destruction of the United States as we know it. Owned by the City of New York, the Koch Theater is home to the New York City Ballet; it hosts visiting dance companies as well. It was known as the New York State Theater—its construction was funded by the state’s government—from its opening in 1964 until 2008, when David Koch made a ten-year, $100 million pledge to fund the theater’s renovation and its operating and maintenance expenses. The question before...

McCutcheon, the Next Victory for the 1 Percent

AP Photo/Susan Walsh
(AP Photo/J. David Ake) S tarting with Buckley v. Valeo in 1976 and continuing up to the Citizens United decision in 2010, the Supreme Court has repeatedly found that attempts by Congress to restrict campaign finance violate the Constitution. In 2011, a bare majority of the Court found that a public-finance law that didn't suppress speech violated the First Amendment . Based on today's oral argument in McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission, it is overwhelmingly likely that the Supreme Court will further restrict the ability of Congress to pass campaign-finance restrictions. McCutcheon is a potentially new frontier in constitutional law because it involves campaign donations. In Buckley , the Court held that restrictions on campaign spending faced a high level of First Amendment scrutiny, but legislatures had more leeway to regulate campaign donations . Congress has limited both the size of individual donations (with $2,600 being the current maximum) and the aggregate amount of...

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