Paul Waldman

Closing the Gun Show Loophole: Better Than Nothing?

Flickr/Brittany Randolph
Ah, bipartisan compromise, just what the country is yearning for. We saw some yesterday, as NRA favorite Pat Toomey and NRA favorite Joe Manchin got together to see if they could come up with a plan for universal background checks, which as everyone knows are supported by 90 percent of the public in just about every poll that's been taken on the subject. What they produced, however, wasn't anything like "universal." Is it better than nothing? Sure. Should it be celebrated? Eh. Toomey and Manchin's proposal would close the "gun-show loophole," meaning if you buy a gun at a show you'll have to submit to a background check. It also covers sales over the Internet. What it doesn't cover is private sales between one person and another. You've probably heard the figure that 40 percent of gun sales happen outside licensed dealers, and while the evidence for this figure is thin , nobody really knows if it's too high or too low. Furthermore, nobody knows what proportion of that 40 percent...

Jindal Agonistes

Flickr/dsb nola
Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal, whom everyone assumes will be running for president in 2016, has had a lot of ups and downs in his relatively short career. Hailed as a wunderkind, he was given a series of influential positions in Republican administrations both state and federal while still in his 20s, eventually winning a seat in the House and then the governorship. Then he had that disastrous State of the Union response in 2009, where he looked almost hilariously awkward and uncomfortable. He recovered from that, though, and things seemed to be going very well when he gave a speech telling Republicans they couldn't be the "stupid party." His bold truth-telling made reporters swoon . But alas, things have turned. Jindal recently proposed a tax plan that would cut taxes on the wealthy and increase them on the poor and middle class, and was shocked to find that people in his state found it less than appealing. He withdrew the plan, but not before his approval rating plunged into the...

Why Are Lists So Irresistible?

Flickr/atibens
Yesterday I gave a talk at my grad school alma mater—the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania—about what journalists and scholars can teach each other. Interestingly enough, the academics in attendance all nodded their heads when I went on a little rant about how awful most academic writing is, and made the case that just because it has always been that way it doesn't have to continue to be that way. (Though when I quoted Elaine Benes—"People love interesting writing!"—the students looked at me blankly, obviously having no idea whom I was referring to. Kids today.) The abysmal quality of academic prose is something that every grad student complains about and every professor acknowledges, but nobody seems to have the gumption to do anything about. That's a topic I'll return to later, but in discussing the current state of the media, I described how the most-read piece on The American Prospect 's web site in 2012 was "My So-Called Ex-Gay Life," Gabriel...

A Government That Can't Govern

Everything's going according to plan... (Flickr/Gage Skidmore)
Over the weekend, our friend Jonathan Bernstein wrote an interesting post discussing the point, not uncommon on the left but nonetheless true, that the problem with our politics today isn't "polarization" or "Washington" but the Republican Party. His argument is basically that the GOP is caught in a series of overlapping vicious cycles that not only make governing impossible for everyone, but become extraordinarily difficult to break out of. As the base grows more extreme, it demands more ideological purity from primary candidates, leading to more ideological officeholders for whom obstruction of governance is an end in itself, marginalizing moderates and leaving no one with clout in the party to argue for a more sensible course, and in each subsequent election those demanding more and more purity become the loudest voices, and on and on. John Hunstman would probably tell you that he would have had a better chance of beating Barack Obama than Mitt Romney (who spent so much time...

Martin Luther King and Today's Gun Advocates

Photo from the Library of Congress/Dick DeMarsico
Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated 45 years ago yesterday, and one of the interesting little sidelights to the debate over guns that you might not be aware of is that gun advocates claim King as one of their own. You see, King had armed guards protect his family, and at one point applied for a permit in Alabama to carry a concealed weapon himself. He was turned down, since in the Jim Crow days the state of Alabama wasn't about to let black men carry guns. You can find references to these facts on all kinds of pro-gun web sites, as nonsensical as it may seem. Gun advocates want to claim King as part of their cause, but also want to completely repudiate everything he believed about the power of nonviolence, which is kind of like Exxon saying John Muir would have favored drilling for oil in Yosemite because he sometimes rode in cars. The reason Martin Luther King sought armed protection was there were significant numbers of people who wanted to kill him, and eventually one of them...

Sunday Shows Continue Long Tradition of Suckage

Oo, fascinating!
The Sunday political talk shows—your "Meet the Press," your "This Week," your "Face the Nation"—embody just about everything that's wrong with American politics, with Washington, D.C, and with the media. Every Sunday, you can flip between them and watch one party hack or another mindlessly deliver talking points, then watch the host try fruitlessly to trap said hack in some piece of hypocritical position-switching, then watch a bunch of "party strategists" bicker through the delivery of more talking points. I can understand why people who aren't interested in politics would find them unbearable, but even I can't stand them, and I'm someone who listens to C-SPAN radio in the car. (If you're interested in the depths of my disgust, you can read more here ). But there's no doubt they play an important role in Washington's political life, through the twin powers of agenda-setting and status conferral. The topics discussed on the Sunday shows are considered important topics, and the people...

We're All Buzzfeed Now

Not the NRCC web site.
A year or two ago, people would heap scorn on the Huffington Post, since although it employs excellent journalists who do valuable reporting, it also practices a brutal click-driven kind of management, in which celebrity news and grabby headlines are used to pull readers in, leaving some vaguely ashamed they read it in spite of themselves. HuffPo may not have invented the sideboob slideshow, but they brought it to such a high level that they eventually created an entire sideboob section on their web site, which is, not surprisingly, the top result you get on Google when you search the term. The section was created as a joke, but also kind of not. Yet these days, you don't hear many of those complaints about HuffPo anymore. Why? One word: Buzzfeed . One might not have thought that another web site could find gold in the combination of guilty pleasure clickbait and actual journalism that HuffPo pioneered, but Buzzfeed did. Today, if someone is lamenting our short attention spans and the...

Obama Pleads for Empathy on Guns

Throughout his presidency, Barack Obama has portrayed himself as Washington's last reasonable man, pleading that we can find some common ground on almost any issue despite our disagreements if we just listen to each other and open our hearts a little. Republicans complain that it's all just an act—he's just trying to look like the reasonable one, to make his opponents look more intransigent and stubborn and gain the upper hand politically. That may be partly true, even though they don't need his help to look unreasonable; they do a fine job of it all by themselves. The latest narrative on the gun issue is that the prospects for meaningful legislation are slipping away as the tragedy of Newtown fades from our ridiculously short memories and members of Congress feel little of the public pressure required for them to stand up to the NRA. So Obama has been campaigning for his favored legislation, and yesterday he gave a speech in Colorado, the centerpiece of which was a plea to both sides...

Marriage Is What Brings Us Together Today

flickr / arts enthusiast M any conservatives now concede they've lost the argument on same-sex marriage. The question is not if but when full marriage equality will prevail in the United States, and what the effects will be. But as much as we've talked about marriage in recent months, most of the debate has been lacking in context about the state of marriage in America today. We'll get to the data in a moment, but first, a few brief words about the history of marriage. Supporters of "traditional" marriage often express their fear that if gay people are allowed to marry, the institution will be transformed. The truth, however, is that marriage has already been transformed, not just in the United States but around the world. We're now seeing simply the latest phase of a long evolution. When people refer to "traditional" marriage, they're usually talking about developments that occurred only within the last couple of centuries of marriage's history. If you advocate "biblical" marriage,...

The AP Gives Up "Illegal Immigrant"

Flickr/Emilio Labrador
The Associated Press, whose stylebook is used by lots of different publications, has announced that it will no longer use the term "illegal immigrant." This essentially accepts the argument that advocates for immigrants have been making for some time, namely that the fact that someone immigrated illegally doesn't make them an illegal person, any more than the fact that you got a speeding ticket means you should be labelled an "illegal driver," despite your violation of the law. Unsurprisingly, conservatives were contemptuous of the AP. On the right, however (and in the conservative media), even the term "illegal immigrants" is considered unduly generous, the preferred terms being "illegal aliens" or just "illegals." The AP also doesn't like "undocumented immigrant," which is preferred by immigration activists, "because it is not precise. A person may have plenty of documents, just not the ones required for legal residence." That seems kind of silly; if you refer to someone as an...

The Pointlessness of Contrarianism for Its Own Sake

Contrarianism!
When you write for a magazine with a particular ideological bent, it's natural to wonder whether you're being too soft on "your" side. This question comes up more when your side is in power, since they're the ones who are implementing policies and making decisions; when the other side is in charge, most of your time is spent documenting and analyzing all the harmful and dangerous things they're doing, and your side is occupied with fighting the ruling party and waiting for its turn. Obviously, politics is a neverending conflict, and that conflict can produce a certain siege mentality. For instance, when a Democratic president proposes a plan for universal health coverage and Republicans attack it with a campaign of mind-boggling hysteria and dishonesty (death panels!), it's natural to spend a good deal of time correcting the record and defending it, even if you think that plan is less than ideal. There are some people (like Glenn Greenwald) who write largely about one set of issues,...

Smart People Believing Stupid Things

So after a brief moment in the spotlight, it appears that Ben Carson will not be this week's Savior of the Republican Party after all. But his quick rise and fall raise an interesting question: Why are some people incredibly smart when it comes to some topics, and incredibly stupid when it comes to others? To bring you up to speed, Carson is a noted neurosurgeon who, among other things, was the first to successfully separate conjoined twins joined at the head. He's also extremely politically conservative (and African-American), which made him a popular, though by no means nationally famous, figure in some conservative circles. Then in February, he gave a speech at the National Prayer Breakfast, in which he took the occasion to sharply criticize President Obama (who was sitting right there) and advocate for a flat tax, which as everyone knows is pleasing unto the Lord. The Wall Street Journal then ran an editorial titled "Ben Carson for President," and he was off to the races, making...

Whither Homo Economicus?

Jamelle Bouie
It's hard out there for a culture warrior. Every time an opponent of same-sex marriage does an interview these days, one of the first questions is, "Isn't your side on this issue doomed to failure?" They're even getting a cold shoulder from their own allies; after years of bashing hippies and wielding "God, guns, and gays" to great electoral effect, the leadership of the GOP would rather talk about anything else. And now it's Democrats who are happy to stoke the cultural fires, secure in the knowledge that the majority is on their side. Not long ago, many in the GOP began to hope that the rise of the Tea Party could transform the culture war into one primarily about economics and the role of government. We could still have just as vigorous a battle between Us and Them, but with the old social issues fading into the background. There would be a new division, one in which our kind of people value free markets, low taxes, and a government that leaves you alone, while those other kind of...

Sarah Palin Soldiers On

Flickr/therealbls2002
One of the main reasons so many members of Congress become lobbyists after they leave office is that there just aren't that many high-level opportunities available to them where they can use what they learned in office. After you've spent a bunch of time learning the ins and outs of Congress, and somebody's willing to pay you half a million dollars a year or more to put that knowledge to use, it seems to make a great deal of sense. But what if at the end of your political career, you've become, to most people, a laughingstock? And what if you're not a lawyer, so you can't practice law, and you're known for being erratic, so no one would hire you to run their interest group, and in truth you have no marketable skills at all? Then you're in a quandary, which is where Sarah Palin found herself four years ago. And you have to hand it to her: she fashioned a post-campaign career that manages to continue on no matter what setbacks she encounters, from getting her reality shows cancelled to...

The Dead End That Is Public Opinion

If you want to produce change, make politicians as terrified as this sandwich. (Flickr/Sakurako Kitsa)
As the effort to enact new gun legislation hobbles along, liberals have noted over and over that in polls, 90 percent or so of the public favors universal background checks. In speaking about this yesterday, President Obama said, "Nothing is more powerful than millions of voices calling for change." Then Jonathan Bernstein explained that opinion doesn't get political results, what gets results is action. I'd take this one step farther: what gets results is not action per se, but action that produces fear . I'll explain in a moment, but here's part of Bernstein's argument: See, the problem here is equating "90 percent in the polls" with "calling for change." Sure, 90 percent of citizens, or registered voters, or whoever it is will answer in the affirmative if they're asked by a pollster about this policy. But that's not at all the same as "calling for change." It's more like...well, it is receiving a call. Not calling. Those people who have been pushing for marriage equality? They were...

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