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. It's reasonable to be skeptical, since we've been told that virtual reality is coming any day now since the mid-1980s or so. But now it really is around the corner. The hardware is getting there (the Oculus Rift has gotten the most press, but Sony is also developing its own version), and the technical problems (like the "lag" between moving your head and seeing the images move...

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 Representative Bruce Braley, who, we now know, hates farmers. Braley, you see, got taped at a fundraiser with a bunch of lawyers, telling them that if Republicans took over...

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. The consensus of those watching yesterday's arguments ( see here , for example) was that though nothing is certain, Kennedy seemed to be leaning toward the position of the plaintiffs, and thus of every Republican in America. And it's that last part I want to talk about. It's easy to know why the owners of the company themselves wanted to bring this case. Hobby Lobby's ownership mistakenly believes that if you use an IUD, you're committing little abortions left and right, and therefore that if their insurance covers IUDs (and a few other forms of contraception) then they're complicit in abortion. But what I'm wondering is, why is it...

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. I say they weren't sincere because those of us who do this for a living love writing about presidential campaigns, no matter how far away the next one is. It's our thing. That, in fact, was number 6 on a 7-point listicle I wrote all the way back in August of last year, explaining why there's so much coverage of the presidential campaign so early. And today, Alex Seitz-Wald of...

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. What actually came of all that and how we should judge it will have to be a topic for another day. But why then? The answer seems pretty plain to me: George W. Bush. I've argued before that when he came along, Barack Obama seemed to embody everything liberals wanted to be and therefore what they wanted in a president. He was young, from a big city, multiracial, erudite, cosmopolitan, cool, and seemingly unafraid of Republicans. These surface features made lots of...

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

AP Images/J. Scott Applewhite
Y ou'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. If a certain word unsettles you, you might want to read something else with your coffee, but it's important we have Atwater's quote, spoken in 1981 during an interview with a political scientist, in front of us: " You start out in 1954 by saying, 'Nigger, nigger, nigger.' By 1968 you can't...

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. It worked great, for the last 15 years or so. But McKay Coppins reports that the success of conservative publishing led to its own decline. As mainstream publishers saw the money being made by conservative houses like Regnery and the occasional breakthrough of books by people like Allan Bloom and Charles Murray,...

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...

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...

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...

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's 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...

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...

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...

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 (...

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