Why American Politics Is So Stuck — and What New Research Shows About How to Fix It

“We documented the partisan trade-off bias across five studies using online samples of a total of 1,236 participants, a mix of Republicans and Democrats. As an example, in one of our studies participants were randomly assigned to view a set of policy trade-offs, some proposed by Republicans and some proposed by Democrats. The policies dealt with taxes, environmental regulation, gun control and voting rights. Participants then rated how intentional they perceived the negative side effects of each policy to be. The more participants identified with the Republican Party, the more intentional they perceived the side effects of the Democratic-proposed policies to be, and the more participants identified with the Democratic Party, the more intentional they perceived the side effects of Republican-proposed policies to be.

In a nutshell, our studies showed that the negative side effects associated with different policy trade-offs are not interpreted by opponents as side effects at all, but as intended goals of the policy.”

“The good news is that by identifying the partisan trade-off bias, our research points a path forward: Policymakers who pay more attention to this bias might be better equipped to achieve compromise. This means that rather than focusing only on the main goal of a policy, they need to communicate clearly to the public what is intentional and what is a regrettable side-effect of that goal.”

Soviet Ethnic Policies Split Kyrgyzstan

“Former physicist Askar Akayev was Kyrgyzstan’s first president. He built a reputation for striving to create a real liberal democracy but shifted into a more autocratic stance as parliament resisted some of his economic policies.

Akayev’s rule lasted until 2005, when his administration fell amid a violent revolution. His successor, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, was toppled by another uprising in 2010. Tribalism, nepotism, corruption, and the meshing of government with organized crime—the nation produces and is a transit point for heroin in international markets—have been hallmarks of Kyrgyz politics for much of the post-Soviet period.”

What the 14th Century Plague Tells Us About How Covid Will Change Politics

“The effects of mass death on the economic fortunes of workers were profound. On the eve of the Black Death, Europe was characterized by feudalism, a hierarchical social and economic system with military aristocrats (and the clergy) at the top and a large mass of peasant laborers at the bottom. Because the economy was overwhelmingly agricultural, the elite’s capital was held almost exclusively as land. Peasants were tied to this land through a highly exploitative system of forced labor called serfdom, which demanded the uncompensated provision of labor and greatly restricted workers’ mobility.

The demographic collapse wrought by the Black Death was a fundamental shock to this system — at least it was in the areas where the toll of the plague was high. The basic laws of supply and demand explain why. In areas where the plague hit hard, it decimated the labor force. At the same time, the disease left the upper classes’ main capital asset, land, completely untouched. Thus, one factor of economic production, labor, suddenly became scarce and expensive, while the other, land, became abundant and cheap. The result was a massive increase in peasants’ bargaining power. Thus, workers were able to demand better working conditions, improve their access to land and, given the challenges elites faced in policing their movement, migrate to the cities. In the years immediately following the Black Death, serfdom collapsed and was replaced by a wage economy based on free labor.

Yet this reaction to the Black Death did not take place across the whole of Europe. Although much of Western Europe (including some western areas of what we now think of as Germany) suffered from the plague with particularly high intensity, leading to those massive changes to the bargaining power of labor, Eastern Europe, which was less exposed to trade and had sparser human settlement, saw significantly less death. Consequently, in the eastern parts of Europe, including the east of German-speaking Central Europe, the system of serfdom persisted for centuries longer than it did in the West.

These differences in labor freedom had important consequences for local politics and institutions. We find that areas of Central Europe that experienced high mortality from the Black Death — leading to an early end for serfdom — developed more inclusive political institutions at the local level, such as the use of elections to select city councils. These changes initially resulted from shifts in the organization of agriculture. In areas where the Black Death hit hard, elites were forced to decentralize much of the everyday control over agricultural management to the peasants themselves. This created a local need for coordination, since agricultural production at the village-level could only be successful if peasants agreed on the crops to be harvested and the division of labor in the agricultural round. As a consequence of these early experiences with self-governance, peasant villages began to demand the right to elect their own officials. Over time, this led to wider and wider participation in collective self-governance at the local level. Such experiences fostered a lasting culture of civic engagement and cooperation that proved essential for safeguarding the freedoms of laborers from future attempts by elites to roll back the gains won in the wake of the Black Death.”

Lebanon’s electricity was down for a day, but the crisis was years in the making

“the crisis came to a head..when the nation’s two largest power stations ran out of enough diesel fuel to provide even a few hours of electricity in a country already confronted with multiple crises.”

“The blackout comes just over a week after the government allowed a contract with a Turkish company supplying power via two barges off the coast of Beirut to lapse, cutting off that energy supply.
Though common, private generators proved insufficient during the outage — as Beirut-based journalist Bel Trew pointed out on Twitter Saturday, not only are such generators incredibly expensive to run and equally subject to Lebanon’s fuel shortages, but they do little to keep essential services like hospitals running.”

“Lebanon has dealt with energy problems for decades; hours-long outages have long been a part of everyday life. But the country’s current economic crisis, combined with political corruption, has turned what was once a serious, but for many, manageable inconvenience into a far more acute crisis.”

“The shutdown comes as Lebanon is experiencing shocking hyperinflation; the Lebanese lira, which is pegged to the dollar, has dropped 90 percent in value since fall 2019 and is currently trading about 18,900 lira per dollar on the black market. Prior to Lebanon’s 2019 economic implosion, the exchange rate was 1,500 lira per dollar.

That astronomical inflation makes ordinary goods like medicine hard to come by, much less enough fuel to power an entire country.

Critically, the compounding crises have serious political implications, both internally and outside of Lebanon. Hezbollah, the Iran-backed Shia militant group — which is part of Lebanon’s government, although the US has designated it a terror group — brought in gasoline fuel by the truckload from Iran via Syria, according to a New York Times report last month, apparently flouting US sanctions.

Currently, according to the Washington Post, those US sanctions are also a major obstacle to a plan for Lebanon to import gas from Egypt via Syria, which could improve the long-term outlook for Lebanon’s power grid. That could soon change, as US ambassador to Lebanon Dorothy Shea confirmed in August that the Biden administration is seeking “real, sustainable solutions for Lebanon’s fuel and energy needs.”

For the time being, however, the Lebanese government has been conspicuously absent in responding to the interconnected crises facing the country, despite the fact that Lebanon formed a new government last month. That absence has only served to highlight Hezbollah’s ability to deliver basic goods where the central government fails, potentially giving the group a larger foothold in the country.

Lebanon’s new government is also its first functional administration since a major explosion rocked its capital, Beirut, last year, according to the BBC. In the aftermath of that crisis, the existing government resigned, creating a stalemate that took 13 months to resolve.”

“Lebanon’s 2019 financial collapse sprang from decades of bad economic policy: Ultra-wealthy, deeply entrenched public servants have long benefited from a peculiar political system and enriched themselves further by helping themselves to public funds. From 2018 to 2020, the country’s GDP fell from $55 billion to $33 billion — a precipitous drop typically associated with the outbreak of conflict”

“The explosion also destroyed Lebanon’s major grain silo, leaving the country with less than a month of reserves at the time. It also destroyed Beirut’s port area, which handled about 70 percent of the food imports in a country that imports about 85 percent of its food.”

“”Lebanon’s political system is the product of a decades-old power-sharing arrangement among leaders of Lebanon’s 18 religious sects, the most important being the Sunni and Shia Muslims and Maronite Christians. This system, known as confessionalism, parceled out political power according to sectarian quotas, with each sect usually led by one or several members of prominent political families.”

Despite the lack of public services and the blatant corruption of those in power, Lebanese politicians have generally proved adept at playing up sectarian disputes and doing just enough to keep their constituents satisfied.”

Why Bipartisanship In The Senate Is Dying

“There were once plenty of senators who represented states that voted for the other party for president. Between 1960 and 1990, roughly half of all sitting senators fit into this group. But over the last three decades, that number has plummeted”

” Likewise, in an earlier political era, many senators shared their state with a senator from the opposite party. Not only did this serve to reinforce the electoral reality that either party could win a state, but it also gave such senators an obvious bipartisan partner in the Senate, particularly on issues of concern to their home state. Today, though, only 12 senators..have a colleague who’s from the other party.”

“because Senate elections were more about local issues, both parties were able to compete nationally. Voters didn’t care as much whether they sent a Democrat or a Republican to Washington. What mattered was whether they sent somebody who could represent their state well. And senators could prove their worth by bringing home federal funding for roads and bridges — just the kind of issue that used to facilitate bipartisan dealmaking.
But today’s political campaigns and voters care far less about roads and bridges. They care far more about national culture-war issues — and which party controls the majority in Congress. As a result, Democrats can’t win in much of the Southeast and the Mountain West, and Republicans are now perpetual losers in the West and the Northeast. Only the Southwest and the Midwest remain competitive, and that’s only because state populations are currently balanced between liberal cities and conservative exurbs.

It’s also why bipartisanship in the Senate is waning. Republican senators in solidly Republican states do not have to worry about winning over some Democrats; the senators’ general election win is all but assured. Rather, the most likely way they could lose is if they face a primary challenge to their right. And the most likely way they could draw such a challenger is if they were to publicly work with Democrats.”

“even for senators who want to publicly prove their bipartisan bona fides, the problem is that party leaders like Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell prefer votes that draw sharp contrasts between the two parties. Divisive partisan politics help with campaign fundraising in an era of increasingly ideological donors (both big and small). And high-stakes elections mobilize and excite voters. Bipartisanship, in contrast, muddles the stakes and blurs the lines.”

“Biden worked harder than Trump to foster a bipartisan deal. But arguably, it was the Democrats’ threat of eliminating the filibuster to pass voting rights legislation that pushed McConnell into supporting a bipartisan agreement in a way that bolstered Sinema and Manchin’s faith in bipartisanship. This is hardly a sustainable formula for bipartisan dealmaking on major issues.

To be sure, Congress can still accomplish some lower-profile bipartisan lawmaking (like a recent major upgrade of our drinking-water and wastewater systems) through what Matthew Yglesias and Simon Bazelon have dubbed “Secret Congress.” It turns out that members of Congress can still work across party lines when issues are relatively noncontroversial and there is not much media attention.

Indeed, if you look beyond the partisan media’s name-calling, you can find surprising amounts of bipartisan activity”

“But “Secret Congress” works only because it’s secret, and it’s secret only because the issues are not high-profile enough to draw the public spotlight. But if the only bipartisanship that happens in Congress happens on uncontroversial one-off issues, this leaves the most important issues of the day to wither on the shoals of a 60-vote threshold in the Senate or, more commonly, in the gridlock of a divided government.”

“partisans are the most hostile to compromise — especially those individuals whose racial, religious and cultural identities line up most strongly with one party. But the partisan sorting that has aligned these identities so closely with one party over the last several decades is precisely the reason why voters have come down so hard on politicians who compromise. The more that national political conflict is centered on abstract moral issues and the identity of the nation, the more any compromise feels like a surrender.

To recreate the conditions that allowed bipartisanship to flourish in the Senate once upon a time seems unlikely anytime soon. Instead, the most bipartisan-oriented senators are the most endangered. Manchin is a dying breed. His eventual replacement in West Virginia will almost certainly be a Republican.”

Kyrsten Sinema Is Confounding Her Own Party. But … Why?

“Most Democrats in Congress are united around the Democratic agenda, but a small number of senators and representatives have so far been able to hold up its passage. “I need 50 votes in the Senate. I have 48,” President Biden said last week, regarding his social spending bill. As for who is standing in the way, his blame was clear: “Two. Two people.”

Those two people are Sens. Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema. The two moderates have forced Democrats to water down several priorities (such as election reform and the $3.5 trillion budget bill) and are blocking more ambitious reforms entirely (such as abolishing the filibuster). But while congressional observers — from the commander-in-chief on down — usually mention Manchin and Sinema in the same sentence, it’s a mistake to lump together their resistance to their party’s priorities. Manchin’s centrism is unsurprising: He has been a conservative Democrat his entire career, and his home state of West Virginia is so red that it might be politically impossible for him to move left, even if he wanted to.

But neither is true of Sinema. Once a staunch progressive, Arizona’s senior senator has taken a hard turn to the right. On the surface, that appears to have been an effort to make her more electable by courting moderate and conservative voters. If so, she may have overcompensated: Arizona is no West Virginia, and no other swing-state senator has vexed Democratic leadership so thoroughly. In fact, Sinema’s established such a firm anti-progressive reputation that she may have lost the support of enough Democrats to endanger her reelection just the same.”

“Democrats are lucky that Manchin is in the Senate at all. Because of how red West Virginia is, a typical senator from the state would almost certainly be a Republican.2 Indeed, based on Trump’s margin in West Virginia in 2016, we’d expect that a generic replacement for Manchin would have voted in line with Trump’s position 89.3 percent of the time during his presidency. Manchin, though, voted with Trump just 50.4 percent of the time — a lot for a Democrat, but not a lot considering the partisanship of his home state.

Using the same methodology, we’d have expected a generic replacement for Sinema to vote with Trump just 39.8 percent of the time — a reflection of the purpler partisanship of her state and her congressional district at the time. Yet Sinema voted with him 50.4 percent of the time too, as much as Manchin. That made her the only Democratic senator who voted with Trump significantly3 more often than expected based on the politics of senators’ states. Her voting record during the Trump years looked more like Manchin’s, Sen. Joe Donnelly’s, Sen. Heidi Heitkamp’s or Sen. Claire McCaskill’s — all Democrats from substantially redder states.”

“If Sinema is acting moderate for electoral reasons, she clearly disagrees with the conventional wisdom about how moderate a swing-state senator needs to be. On one hand, maybe she has a point: Donnelly, Heitkamp and McCaskill all lost reelection in 2018, as did Sen. Bill Nelson, whose home state of Florida is about as purple as Arizona but who voted with Trump less often than Sinema did. All four voted with Trump significantly less often than we’d have expected given the partisanship of their state, suggesting that Sinema’s strategy of hewing closer to expectations might have been smarter. (Although this doesn’t justify her approach of voting with Trump more often than expected.) On the other hand, political science research has found that candidates and congressional aides are really bad at assessing where voters stand on the issues. One 2013 study found that politicians overestimated by several percentage points how conservative their constituents were, in direct contradiction of Sinema’s entire theory of the case.”

“Sinema is presumably betting that Democrats who dislike her will vote for her regardless, and that at least some Republicans who like her will vote for her, too.”

“If Democratic opinion of Sinema sinks low enough, she could even be in danger of losing in a primary.”

“It may be her donors. In a September report, liberal group Accountable.US found that Sinema raised at least $923,065 from business interests that opposed Biden’s budget reconciliation plan, such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, a longtime Sinema ally. She’s also been the recipient of large donations from the pharmaceutical industry, which critics have blamed for her opposition to letting Medicare negotiate down drug costs. Of course, it’s possible that the causation is reversed — that such interest groups are donating to her because they like her positions on these issues.”

“Another explanation for Sinema’s centrism could be that she genuinely believes in it. In her 2009 book “Unite and Conquer,” Sinema described how she was initially frustrated at her inability to get things done in the state legislature — so she decided to stop being a “bomb-thrower” and start working with Republicans. Perhaps now, after so many years of embedding with the GOP to get things done (this is the first time she has ever served in a legislative chamber controlled by Democrats), she has internalized the conservatism of her peers — and even embraced bipartisanship as a policy goal unto itself. (That would explain her fierce opposition to ending the filibuster and her dogged negotiation of a bipartisan $1 trillion infrastructure bill earlier this year.)”

Trolls Will Be Trolls, Online and Offline, Reports New Study

“If you’re a troll online, you are most likely also a troll offline, at least with respect to political discussions, reports new research published in the American Political Science Review. In their study, Aarhus University researchers Alexander Bor and Michael Bang Petersen investigate what they call the “mismatch hypothesis.” Do mismatches between human psychology, evolved to navigate life in small social groups, and novel features of online environments, such as anonymity, rapid text-based responses, combined with the absence of moderating face-to-face social cues, change behavior for the worse in impersonal online political discussions?

No, conclude the authors. “Instead, hostile political discussions are the result of status-driven individuals who are drawn to politics and are equally hostile both online and offline,” they report. However, they also find that online political discussions may tend to feel more hostile because the greater connectivity and permanence of various Internet discussion platforms make trolls much more visible online than offline.”

LC: The article and study seem to use a broader definition for “trolling” than I use.