Analyzing Obama’s Weak Spots – Part 2: The Northeast

This is the second part of three posts analyzing the congressional districts President Barack Obama underperformed in. It will focus on his relative weakness in the northeast. The third part can be found here.

(Note: I strongly encourage you to click the image links on this post when reading; they're essential to understanding what I'm saying.)

The Northeast

In my previous post I created a map of congressional districts in which Mr. Obama performed worse than Senator John Kerry:

Map of Districts in Which Kerry Did Better Than Obama

In this map the most obvious pattern is a roughly diagonal corridor of Republican-shifting congressional districts, stretching from Oklahoma and Louisiana through the Appalachians. This area has long been seen as a place in which the electorate is moving away from the Democratic Party.

The post then looked at the Northeast, another region in which Mr. Kerry did better than Mr. Obama. Unlike Applachia and the Mississippi Delta, the conventional wisdom characterizes the Northeast as a stable Democratic stronghold. Yet, as the map below indicates, six northeastern congressional districts shifted Republican in 2008:

Map of Northeast Districts

Much of the movement in Massachusetts, of course, occurs due to the loss of Mr. Kerry’s home-state advantage. Yet the districts in Massachusetts (MA-4, MA-6, MA-7, MA-9, and MA-10) also share a number of commonalities. All are quite suburban, quite wealthy, and quite white. Unlike the Appalachian districts above, these places vote substantially Democratic. Neither Mr. McCain nor former President George W. Bush came within single-digits in any of these districts (I suspect 1988 was the last time a Republican presidential candidate did so). Yet this is also Scott Brown territory; the Republican candidate won four of these districts.

Notice, too, the highlighted New York district (NY-9). Like those in Massachusetts, this district is inhabited mainly by middle-class, Democratic-voting whites. The effect of 9/11, which convinced many New Yorkers to vote Republican, was particularly strong in places like these (in fact, it was probably greater here than anywhere else in the nation). Orthodox Jews, an increasingly Republican demographic heavily represented in this district, have shifted strongly Republican since then.

Indeed, Long Island as a whole was relatively lukewarm towards Obama. Apart from the fighting ninth, Republicans did respectably in NY-3 and NY-5, holding Obama’s improvement to less than 1% in both districts. Like NY-9, these places are wealthy and suburban.

One wonders whether this change is merely a temporary blip or the start of something more worrisome for Democrats. The case of Florida is probably not reassuring:

Map of Florida Districts

This is Florida’s Gold Coast – a Democratic stronghold – and three districts here (FL-19, FL-20, FL-22) voted more Republican than in 2004. Mr. McCain’s age probably helped him along here; the large population of retirees may have empathized with one of their own.

Ironically, a large number of these retirees probably came from NY-9 or eastern Massachusetts. Like both areas, these districts vote Democratic but have been slowly moving Republican. FL-22 is the exception, having been not very Democratic to begin with. In FL-19 and FL-20, on the other hand, Democratic candidate Al Gore did substantially better than both Obama and Kerry. This was a function of the substantial Jewish population in these districts; Jews strongly supported Joe Lieberman, his Jewish nominee for Vice President.

Fortunately for Democrats, almost none of the Florida or northeast districts represent a 2010 pick-up opportunity for Republicans. Except for FL-22, all have voted Democratic by double-digits for at least three consecutive presidential elections. A few weeks ago a special election in FL-19 resulted in a 27% Democratic margin victory. It is the long-term that is worth concern for Democrats.

In the short term, Democrats must worry about Appalachia and the Mississippi Delta. There Democrats are in deep, deep trouble for 2010. There are a surprising amount of Democratic representatives in these Appalachian seats where Mr. McCain did better than Mr. Bush. Their predicament will be the subject of the next post.



Analyzing Obama’s Weak Spots – Part 1

This is the first part of three posts analyzing the congressional districts President Barack Obama underperformed in. The second part can be found here.

(Note: I strongly encourage you to click the image links on this post when reading; they're essential to understanding what I'm saying.)

Congressional Districts

By most accounts, Senator Barack Obama dominated the 2008 presidential election. He won an electoral landslide, winning Republican-leaning states such as Indiana and North Carolina which his campaign targeted. Compared to 2004, the nation shifted almost ten points more Democratic.

Mr. Obama improved from Senator John Kerry’s performance almost everywhere. He did better in the vast majority of counties and 45 out of 50 states (by margin). As for congressional districts: more than 90% of them voted more Democratic than in 2004.

Yet this means that at least several dozen congressional districts were more friendly to Mr. Kerry than the Illinois Senator. Using the amazing information found on swingstateproject and Dave Leip’s election atlas, I have mapped these districts below:

Map of Districts in Which Kerry Did Better Than Obama

There is a clear pattern here: Republican-shifting congressional districts are found along a diagonal line stretching from Louisiana and Oklahoma to southeastern Pennsylvania, roughly along the Appalachian mountains. This is not exactly startling news; ever since the primaries, Mr. Obama’s weakness in these regions has been well-noted. The five states that shifted Republican from 2004 – Arkansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and West Virginia – are all located here.

The exceptions to this pattern, however, constitute items of considerable interest. Some of these have fairly simple explanations. Arizona’s 1st district voted more Republican, for instance, mainly because Arizona was Senator John McCain’s home state.

Other districts, however, go against commonly-held political wisdom. Take LA-2: a black-majority, inner-city district located in New Orleans (represented, ironically, by Republican congressman Joseph Cao). While LA-2 strongly supported Mr. Obama, black depopulation in the aftermath of Katrina made this support less than that in 2004.

Another example can be found in the northeast:

Map of Northeast Districts

Republicans do better in five Massachusetts districts and one New York district.

This movement stands in contrast to the narrative of Democratic dominance in the northeast. Most in the beltway have ignored this trend, or dismissed it as simply the loss of Mr. Kerry’s home-state advantage. Whether this is true or not, there is quite a lot of interesting stuff to be said on these districts. The next post will be devoted solely to exploring this pattern.




Arizona’s Law and the Bennett Law

The recent signing of Arizona’s harsh anti-immigrant bill reminded me of another law passed a while ago. Commonly called the Bennett law, it aimed to make the teaching of English mandatory in all public and private schools. Like Arizona’s law, it constituted a response to large immigration, ignited by nativist sentiment.

The Bennett law reacted to similar anti-immigration feelings as those present in Arizona today. To many Americans, immigrants were unwanted foreigners taking away American jobs. They spoke a foreign language and came from a foreign land. They did not speak English and were accused of refusing to do so. They had a different culture and stayed together amongst themselves; assimilation did not seem to work with them. They seemed less loyal to the United States and more loyal to their homeland. At core, they seemed “un-American.”

I am speaking, of course, about German immigrants in Wisconsin.

The year was 1890, and America was faced with a massive, unprecedented inflow of immigrants. They were coming from all over western Europe – Germany, Ireland, Norway and Sweden. Many were Catholics – a religion some did not consider Christian in those times. Others considered drinking alcohol as quite normal, in contrast to American norms.

Bennett’s law came about because of these cultural clashes. Originally an ordinary school reform, it became engulfed in controversy when Assemblyman Michael Bennett of Dodgeville added an amendment requiring all schools to teach English.

During this time, many German-Americans went to private, parochial schools set up by the immigrant community; these were especially prevalent in rural Wisconsin. Because many did not teach English, the Bennett law posed an existential threat to these German schools. The Democratic Party, which had a substantial base amongst immigrants, came out strongly against the law; the Republican Party, dominant in Wisconsin at the time, strongly favored it.

Republican supporters, including Governor William Hoard, argued that learning English was vital to succeeding in America. Mr. Hoard stated:

I have, I believe, as friendly a feeling towards our German-American population as any man in this country; and if I did not believe that the Bennett Law would assist in the advancement of their youth I would certainly oppose its continuance upon our statute books. I want the little German boy and girl, the little Norwegian, the little Bohemian and the little Pole, the children of all foreign born parents, to have the same chance in life as my children. Without a knowledge of the English language they can not have this chance.

They also appealed to good-old American patriotism and the much-admired American tradition of the “little red schoolhouse.” One newspaper wrote:

The little district school-house is very dear to the American heart, and whoever lays the hand of violence upon it will evoke a storm of wrath which no power on earth can withstand. It is impossible to tell what motive may lurk behind this opposition to the Bennett law, but if its opponents are preparing for an attack upon our public schools, let them beware.

Opponents, on the other hand, called it an unconstitutional intrusion of the government into private affairs. They argued, moreover, that the Bennett law was pointless; German-Americans were quickly learning English anyways.

The main contention, however, was that the Bennett law constituted an attack on the German-American immigrant community. One German newspaper heatedly claimed that:

To such people who will recognize as “Americans” only those whose ancestors lived here during the war of the revolution, the German who clings to his home customs and to his glorious native tongue is an annoyance. It is not sufficient for them that we should become Americanized – we want to do that in the proper manner, of course – but they want us to become de-Germanized. And they think that can be accomplished first by destroying German schools. Their calculation is certainly a correct one. Aside from immigration, which it is sought to restrict in every possible manner, the German element in America has its greatest strength in the German schools. In destroying these, as the Bennett law seeks to do, the German element would lose one of the main conditions of its existence.

Matters came to a head in the 1890 gubernatorial election, when Republican Governor William Hoard, a powerful advocate of the Bennett law, faced re-election. Mr. Hoard lost by an overwhelming margin to Democratic candidate George W. Peck, backed by the angered German-American community.

In the following years the Republican Party’s dominance upon Wisconsin politics was severely disrupted. Their 7-2 House congressional majority was upended, turning into a 8-1 Democratic majority. Democrats gained a two-to-one majority in the state legislature, and Wisconsin voted Democratic in the 1892 presidential election (for the first time since 1852). Although other factors, such as an unpopular tariff, were also responsible for this, the Bennett Law certainly played no small role. It was promptly repealed in 1891.

Fortunately for the Republican Party, German-American loyalty to the Democratic Party did not last. Their self-consciousness as an immigrant community gradually faded away as they were absorbed into the American melting pot. Today individuals with German heritage tend to vote Republican. Some undoubtedly are influenced by nativist sentiment against those supposedly foreign, non-English speaking, assimilation-resistant Latino immigrants flooding into the United States.

But if the history the Bennett Law tells one anything, the Latino immigrant of today is the German immigrant of yesterday. In half a  century labeling Latinos as “foreigners” may sound as strange as talking about a German-American immigrant community.



Comparing Barack Obama, John Kerry, and Mike Dukakis

(Note: I strongly encourage you to click the image links on this post when reading; they're essential to understanding what I'm saying.)

In the aftermath of the 2008 presidential election, the New York Times famously posted a map depicting county-by-county changes from the 2004 election. A different version of this map is below:

Map of 2008 presidential election county-by-county changes

What is remarkable about this map is the evenness of the Democratic movement – a 9.72% shift to them from 2004. With the exception of a diagonal patch of Appalachia, President Barack Obama improved throughout the country. It did not matter if a county was located in Utah or California, whether it belonged to a dense city or a thinly populated farm, or whether it was poor or rich – almost every county still voted more Democratic than it did in 2004.

If one moves to a statewide basis, the shift is still fairly uniform:

Map of state shifts from 2004 to 2008

Once again, Mr. Obama does well everywhere except for Appalachia. His improvement, however, is noticeably less in the traditionally Democratic Northeast. The South is strangely divided between the friendly Atlantic coast and the hostile inland states (with the exception of Texas). There is also a fairly apparent split between east and west: in the latter, Obama’s improvements are almost uniformly strong. The movement east is far more variable.

Compared to the county-by-county map, this map lends itself more easily to analysis. For instance, the color of several states can be explained through local factors. Clinton-loving Arkansas appears dark red, while Senator John McCain’s home state Arizona stands out amidst its dark blue neighbors. Obama’s home states Hawaii and Illinois also appear dark blue, but Governor Sarah Palin’s Alaska stays more Republican. Massachusetts, home state of Senator John Kerry, does not shift Democratic by much; Indiana, where Obama’s campaign led a massive turn-out effort, shifts massively.

In playing around with these maps I also took a look at the 1988 presidential election. In that election, Democratic candidate Mike Dukakis lost by 7.73% to Vice President George W. Bush. Because Mr. Obama won by 7.26%, the nation voted 14.99% more Democratic than in 1988. Here is Obama’s performance compared to that of Mr. Dukakis:

Map of state shifts from 1988 to 2008

What this map reveals is far less uniformity. Compared to the previous ones, this is much more a depiction of structural political changes.

Perhaps most obviously, much of South Central America swings against Obama, illustrating the decades-long Republican shift of this region. Dukakis still was able to win a number of white Democratic counties in places like Louisiana and Oklahoma. Today those places have largely abandoned the party.

There are other patterns. A number of Plains states, such as Kansas and the Dakotas, have very little or no movement to Obama. He actually does worse in Iowa. This reflects a relatively strong Dukakis performance in rural America, which was in the midst of an agricultural crisis in 1988.

Most interestingly, one can see the 2008 electoral map in the map; the dark blue states almost all voted Democratic in 2008. Democratic-voting states today tended to shift most to Obama; Republican-voting states today tended to move less. Only two states that voted for Obama haven’t shifted strongly Democratic since 1988: Iowa and Minnesota. Out of all the states John McCain won, on the other hand, only Arizona, Georgia, and South Carolina shifted strongly Democratic – and Democrats came quite close in Georgia. A similar trend has been observed in previous posts.

I am not certain if this pattern suggests electoral polarization: Democrats improve greatly in a number of 1988 Republican-leaning states (such as New Jersey or North Carolina), and Republicans do the opposite in places like West Virginia or Iowa. Instead, it appears to make sense for a candidate to win a state he or she does best in. Thus, this pattern seems to illustrate the electoral coalition Democrats have carved since 1988.

The farther one looks back, it seems, the more a map reveals.


Maps of Virginia Elections

(Note: I strongly encourage you to click the image links on this post when reading; they're essential to understanding what I'm saying.)

To follow up the series on Virginia, I’ve posted a few recent presidential elections in the state (courtesy of the New York Times). Each map comes with some brief analysis.

Link to map of 2008 presidential election in Virginia

Capitalizing on a decade of Democratic movement, Senator Barack Obama becomes the first Democratic presidential candidate to win Virginia since 1964. The Senator performs best in eastern Virginia, especially the fast-growing northern Virginia metropolis. Western Virginia is not as enamored; parts of it even vote more Republican.


Link to map of 2004 presidential election in Virginia

Nobody pays attention to Virginia in 2004, and for good reason: incumbent George W. Bush cruises along to a comfortable victory. Amid all the hoopla in Ohio, Republicans fail to notice a disquieting trend. Fairfax County, the populous heart of Northern Virginia, goes blue in the first time for decades.


Link to map of 2000 presidential election in Virginia

Governor George W. Bush sails to an 8% victory. He artfully weaves together a classic Republican coalition: wealthy suburbs combined with Republican-trending rural Virginia.


Link to map of 1996 presidential election in Virginia

Expecting to win the state, incumbent Bill Clinton is surprised to see Virginia slip from his grasp. He does better than in 1992 – performing well amongst Democratic constituencies in the Appalachian west, the black southeast, and the rich inner-core suburbs of Northern Virginia. But it’s not enough: a strong Republican vote in Richmond’s suburbs denies Mr. Clinton his victory.


Link to map of 1992 presidential election in Virginia

Another presidential election, another Republican victory in Virginia powered by suburbs and small towns. Yet Governor Bill Clinton does relatively well. Compared to the 20.5% beating George H.W. Bush gave to Democratic nominee Mike Dukakis in 1988, a 4.4% loss ain’t nothing.




The Republican Machine Vs. The Coakley Campaign

It’s been a fairly long time since Attorney General Martha Coakley famously lost Massachusetts to State Senator Scott Brown. A look back at the race gives an insightful view into the Republican machine, and how Republicans are often quite effective when campaigning.

Mr. Brown ran a classic Republican campaign. He effectively painted Ms. Coakley as lazy and unwilling to campaign, a politician who didn’t care about Massachusetts, who simply assumed that Massachusetts would vote Democratic because it always did. Every minor mistake Coakley made – a stupid statement here, a word spelled wrongly there – was turned into further support for this theme.

These are classic Republican tactics; they are the bread and butter of the Republican machine. Senator John McCain’s campaign spent all summer creating controversy out of nothing. For instance, he ran an ad accusing Senator Barack Obama of not visiting the troops; one of the images in the ad originally showed Mr. Obama draining a three-pointer in front of – guess what – the troops. Mr. McCain’s ad then photoshopped the troops out. In the end Mr. Obama’s campaign, with the helpful aid of Fox News, spent an entire week engulfed in artificial controversy.

Martha Coakley fell victim to similar tactics. She famously didn’t know who Curt Schilling was, for instance – a mistake Mr. Brown used to paint her as elite out-of-touch. Yet being familiar with sports has absolutely nothing to do with being a good Senator or making decisions that affect the country’s well-being. President George W. Bush was a devoted sports fan; that didn’t make him a good president.

Republicans also attacked Ms. Coakley for misspelling Massachusetts in an ad – another variation on the “Martha doesn’t care about Massachusetts” theme. In reality the misspelling occurs for one second in the credits; it isn’t even noticeable unless it’s specifically pointed out to an individual. Chances are that the misspelling had nothing to do with Ms. Coakley; it was probably the fault of a tired staffer running low on sleep. Perhaps more pertinently, if a crisis occurs and the United States is under grave threat, being able to spell “Massachusetts” will not save the nation.

The problem was that Ms. Coakley’s campaign never bothered to point any of this out. It never worked to counter Mr. Brown’s narrative, to say that knowing Curt Schilling’s name has absolutely nothing to do with being a good Senator. Instead, Ms. Coakley essentially ran a turn-out operation, desperately urging Democrats to vote rather than characterizing Mr. Brown’s narrative as wrongheaded. Nationally, Democrats panicked and ran around like chickens with their heads cut off.

In light of this analysis, it comes not as a surprise but almost as expected that Ms. Coakley performed as she did.



Three Cheers for Artur Davis!

Artur Davis is an ambitious man. A Harvard graduate and Democratic congressman from Alabama’s 7th congressional district, Mr. Davis is busy planning an audacious run for governor in one of America’s reddest states.

Moreover, Mr. Davis is doing all this in one of the most unfavorable environments for Democrats in recent history. His campaign, many think, is bound to fail.

But political analysts are not skeptical for any of the reasons above. They are interested, rather, in the fact that Mr. Davis has black skin. According to the Beltway, white people in Alabama will never vote for a black man – and so Mr. Davis’s campaign is doomed from the get-go.

There is some truth to this simplistic analysis. Politics in the Deep South is heavily racially polarized; often the Democrats are the party of blacks and Republicans are the party of whites. Exit polls indicate that President Barack Obama won a grand 10% of Alabama’s white vote; Senator John McCain won a grand 2% of Alabama’s black vote.

On the other hand, Mr. Obama wrote off Alabama the second the primaries ended. In Deep South Georgia, where his campaign put in some effort, the president came within 5.2%. The three southern states he contested full stop ended up voting Democratic.

Indeed, candidates who make serious appeals to “racist” voters often end up doing surprisingly well. The first state to elect an Indian-American governor was not multiethnic California, not liberal Massachusetts – but blood-red Louisiana, where Bobby Jindal overcame racial animosity through years of hard work. LA-2′s majority-black constituents surprised everybody, a month after Obama’s election, by voting for Vietnamese-American Joseph Cao instead of the black Democrat. For Alabama state representative James Fields, decades of good work and relationship-building translated into electoral support by the monolithically white residents of Cullman County, Alabama. This is quite something, given a description of Cullman County:

Cullman’s are exits off the Interstate that most African-Americans avoid. A district judge at the Cullman courthouse named Kim Chaney told me, “I do have black people who are very reluctant to come to court here because of the reputation we’ve had for so many years”…Rozalyn Love, a medical student at the University of Alabama in Birmingham explains, “Cullman is known, especially among Birmingham folks, as the racist white bigot county.” In Alabama, this is, of course, saying something.

As these examples show, racism is not a constant. A minority candidate does not automatically lose 10 or 20% of white voters just by running (or vice-versa). Instead, racism constitutes a variable that can be reduced or increased. If Mr. Obama doesn’t bother to visit Alabama, then white voters in Alabama – already predisposed to be hostile – won’t vote for him. If well-meaning Democrats always nominate white candidates, believing that minority candidates can’t win, then it literally becomes impossible for minority candidates to win.

On the other hand, if a Bobby Jindal makes a determined effort to reach out to “racist” voters, he’ll get votes. If a James Field spends decades working for “racist” places, then those places will vote for him. If a Joseph Cao runs in a district where nobody believes a non-black candidate can win, he might find himself pleasantly surprised.

So three cheers for Artur Davis, for attempting to do what everybody else deems as impossible. Perhaps Mr. Davis loses votes by being black – but he also can gain votes through intelligence, sheer determination, and by running an outstanding campaign that reaches out to everybody. If he successfully does these things, Mr. Davis might just do better than anybody can imagine.


Republican Merrymaking After 2004

Four six years ago the Republican Party ruled American politics. A Republican president had just been re-elected, cementing two decades of Republican dominance (apart from the freak election of one President Bill Clinton). It held solid majorities in the House and Senate. Conservatives controlled the Supreme Court, and most states were governed by Republicans.

Naturally, Republicans were celebrating this state of affairs. A PBS set of interviews provides a very interesting look into Washington’s conventional wisdom following President George W. Bush’s 2004 triumph. Titled “How Secure Is Republican Dominance?” it constitutes an almost alien contrast to today’s narrative of Democratic dominance.

Some of these differences can be quite amusing. Take, for instance, the words of Republican pundit Grover Norquist:

Do you believe that the re-election of this president is a kind of proof-positive of the Republican hegemony/plurality, whatever you want to call it, for the next couple of election cycles?

The president’s re-election in 2004 was a confirming election for 2002 and 2000. But we’ve now had five, six election cycles with Republicans controlling the House and the Senate and now two presidential elections. When you look at what redistricting does, the Republicans will hold the House until 2012. When you look at the 30 red states and the 20 blue states, the Republicans will hold the Senate indefinitely unless there’s some radical change in the nature of the two parties. The party that carries all those lovely square states out west will dominate the Senate.

So the Republicans have the House until at least 2012, but probably another decade. They have the Senate indefinitely, and the question is — they’ll win and lose presidencies just as the Democrats when they were the dominant party would sometimes mess up and lose the presidency in ’52 and ’68.

In addition to predicting never-ending Republican control of Congress (as well as providing eminently quotable material six years later), Mr. Norquist contributes some thoughts on the coming 2008 presidential election. The Republican candidate, of course, is favored:

I think it would be difficult to see a Democrat winning in 2008 because of the demographic trends, because of some of the successes that you can see the Republicans will have in the next four years to weaken the trial lawyers and strengthen the constituencies. The Democratic Party needs to restructure itself as something other than the trial lawyer, labor union, government worker, aggressively secular party. That isn’t a majority strategy.

Not everybody is as optimistic as Mr. Norquist, however. A number of pundits note Mr. Bush’s close margin. Reporter Dan Balz of the Washington Post warns Republicans of the dangers of overreaching. He argues that:

The danger for the Republicans is the same danger that any winning party has — and we’ve seen it repeatedly over the last two decades — which is to over-interpret any election as a mandate for something, and to presume that because they won a certain victory that they now have the right to essentially do what they want to do…And if you do things that go too far in one direction, you do that at your peril. So if the Republicans overreach, as the Gingrich Republicans did in the Congress in 1995 and 1996, there could be a backlash against the Republicans that would first be felt, I would guess, in some of the off-year elections in 2006, and certainly could be felt in the 2008 presidential election.

These foresightful words are echoed by Matthew Dowd, the chief campaign strategist of the Mr. Bush’s 2004 presidential campaign (who later became a hostile critic of the president). He too worries about the future:

So, a tight election that we won closely and that we hold the Senate, we hold the Congress, and we hold the presidency, is a good place to be. But you don’t hold them by huge amounts. And if your policies go awry and you have the wrong candidates, you could easily lose those elections.

Nevertheless, Mr. Dowd takes heart in the current weakness of the opposition Democratic Party. Republicans are the party of ideas; Democrats are the party of “No.” If they don’t stand for anything, Democrats will have a difficult time winning elections:

I think a bigger part of their difficulty is they have no organizing principle right now. And that is, they have no person to organize around. They haven’t had this since Clinton left the presidency. Their entire organizing principle for the last four years has been anti, meaning it’s all been against the president. It hasn’t been for somebody. It hasn’t been: “We love this person. This person is the leader of the Democratic Party. We care about him.” It was all: “We don’t like Bush. Let’s get him out of office.” And they don’t have a set of policies that people, average voters in their minds say, “This is what the Democrats stand for. This is what they stand for in foreign policy. This is what they stand for in the war on terror. This is what they stand for on the changing economy.”

As amusing as these quotes stand four six years later, they also serve as a warning to the current Democratic Party. Today’s situation, in fact, is almost the polar opposite of that a mere four six years ago. Today it is Democrats, not Republicans, who rule American politics. In the House and Senate, the party holds greater majorities than Republicans ever did in their heyday. They control the presidency; the Democratic candidate won the 2008 presidential election by an electoral landslide. In state legislatures and governorships around the country the Democratic Party is dominant. Pundits throughout Washington are predicting a dire future for Republicans – just as they did six years ago for Democrats.

Take demographics, for instance. In 2004 demographic changes were supposedly dooming the Democratic Party: Bush had won 97 out of 100 of America’s fastest growing counties (the same places where Obama would make some of his greatest gains), and Republican-trending Hispanics were growing more and more sizable. Nowadays the narrative is the complete opposite: Democratic strength among young voters and growing minorities such as Hispanics (again!) will supposedly turn the Republican Party into a permanent minority.

Yet the tides of public opinion can turn around just as quickly as they did after 2004. If one replaced “Republican”  with “Democrat,” many of the statements quoted here would fit right in today’s conventional wisdom of Democratic strength.  In 2016 that conventional wisdom might look just as stupid as Mr. Norquist’s words do today.




Five Things the United States Did Right

One of the greatest strengths the United States has constitutes its ability to admit mistakes – to apologize and acknowledge that America has not always been right, and that it has sometimes done things terribly wrong. This capacity has always served the country well; if America has often traveled down the wrong road, it has even more often corrected its path.

Yet although people do the country a great service in perceiving in faults, sometimes the criticism goes a bit too far.

Take my college, for instance, a great institution which I love – but which exemplifies this excessive self-criticism. I have taken classes in which professors have labeled America a nation founded upon “white supremacy.” Another course, supposedly chronicling America’s history, turned out to be a litany of how the United States had oppressed blacks, women, Native Americans, Hispanics, Asians, the poor, homosexuals, Third World countries, the environment, and everything in between.

I have conversed with friends convinced that the United States has hurt the world far more than it has helped it. I know students so blinded by bitterness and hatred for America’s wrongdoings that it is frightening and very sad – who find racism and oppression in every TV show or every action of the Republican Party. Sometimes I feel the blindness creeping on myself.

So in the spirit of fighting this blindness, here are five things America has done right:

5. Acknowledging its wrongs. Although this post is a reaction to this gone too far, America’s ability to self-criticize still constitutes a substantial strength. Few other countries are as ready to accept error as the United States. While Germany unconditionally views its actions during WWII as a national failure, Japan still honors its war criminals. Britain may admit colonialism was wrong, but many in the country still hold pride in the days when self-determination was denied to half the world.

4. Technological innovation. The United States has developed a number of inventions and innovations which have greatly improved living standards. Whether it was through inventing the light bulb or developing the Internet (for which America was largely responsible), America’s creations are responsible for bettering the lives of billions.

3. Democracy. Although its backing for democracy has not been perfect, in the aggregate democracy is better off with America in the world.  The American Revolution and its revolutionary ideals played a vital factor in spreading democracy and catalyzing the momentous French Revolution. America expanded the right to vote faster than almost every other country (Germany, for instance, only first gained democracy in the 1920s). As a well-working liberal democracy, the United States functions as an inspiration for many other countries. Even if the American government may not support their specific cause (e.g. during the Cold War), many activists for democracy still see America as an example to light their path.

2. Being on the right side of history. In the great conflicts of the 20th century, the United States has generally fought for the right side. America may have made mistakes fighting Nazism or communism, but the overall cause was the more just alternative. It always despised the monarchy which took Europe so long to overthrow. And while America may have dabbled in colonialism, its hostility to European imperialism sealed the fate of their dying empires.

1. Treatment of minorities. This may sound strange, given that so many of America’s wrongs have involved its minorities. Yet while discrimination and subtle racism still burden the lives of millions of minority citizens, at the same time those minorities have far more opportunity than they would have in any other country. America is more generous to immigrants than almost every country in the world – one of its greatest advantages. France and Germany still do not consider their immigrants citizens even after three generations. In China Sun Yat-sen still called the Manchus foreigners three hundred years after they first entered China. In the United States, by contrast, it only takes one generation to become American. For larger groups the process is longer – Jews, Irish, Italians, and Slavs were considered foreign for many years. Today the same applies to Hispanics. Yet eventually Hispanics will be considered as white as the Irish are today.

One group, of course, will never be classified as white – African Americans (and probably Asian-Americans), who have the greatest claim to grievance against America. Yet while the United States enslaved and segregated its black citizens, it also elected a black president in 2008. Blacks have power of sorts today, and the United States has made sure that their story is a central part of its history. Ask Americans to name the greatest American of the past century, and many will probably say MLK. Ask Americans to name the best president, and they will say the one who freed the slaves. This may sound like small consolation to the millions of blacks struggling under the yoke of poverty today. Perhaps a better one is this: in no other country I can name has a dominant majority elected a member of its impoverished minority as president.




Otto Wels: A Moment In History

In any given year, every politician will probably make several dozen speeches. The vast majority of these will be forgotten instantly; even prime-time presidential speeches fade from the news cycle after a couple days. Indeed, history may only remember one out of the thousands of speeches given over a political leader’s term.

One such memorable speech was given by a Mr. Otto Wels. A German politician belonging to the Social Democratic Party, Mr. Wels spent more than a decade in politics and eventually became the party’s Chairman. He must have given a number of speeches throughout this time.

Yet out of all the time Mr. Wels spent as head of his party, history remembers only one speech of his. Today it is overshadowed in light of the great and terrible events that came after, but nevertheless worthy of recalling.

The date is March 1933, the place Germany’s parliament. The occasion: Chancellor Adolf Hitler and his National Socialist Party are proposing an Enabling Act after unknown assailants burned down the Reichstag building last month. This will transfer all legislative powers to the executive under Mr. Hitler. It will make Germany a one-party dictatorship.

With Hitler’s armed Brown-shirts standing right there as voting takes place, the Enabling Act passes by a 4-to-1 margin. All the parties, save one, vote for it.

Last of all stand the Social Democrats, and to a man they vote against Hitler’s Enabling Act – right in front of the Nazi stormtroopers. Even today the party prides itself in its actions on that fateful day. Otto Wels moves up to make a speech assailing the Enabling Act – the only opposing speech that day. A translated transcript can be found here.

To be honest, it is not a particularly memorable speech. Mr. Wels spends much of it defending his party; at times the flow is quite jumpy. One almost gets the feeling that it is politics-as-usual, not a moment that will be frozen in history. Nevertheless, Wels gets off some good lines:

Freedom and life can be taken from us, but not our honor.

We stand by the principles enshrined in, the principles of a state based on the rule of law, of equal rights, of social justice. In this historic hour, we German Social Democrats solemnly pledge ourselves to the principles of humanity and justice, of freedom and socialism. No Enabling Act gives you the power to destroy ideas that are eternal and indestructible.

When Wels ends, there is chaos in the room. The Social Democrats applaud; Hitler’s supporters, who outnumber them, raise a cacophony booing.

Then Hitler himself gets up and launches an epic attack on the Social Democrats. It is a quite unforgettable response (one can listen to this speech; the first part is here, the second here, and the conclusion here):

We National Socialists will now clear the path for the German worker leading to what is his to claim and demand. We National Socialists will be his advocates; you, Gentlement, are no longer necessary!

You think that your star will rise again? Gentlemen, Germany’s star will rise and yours will fall!

Everything that becomes rotten, old, and weak in the life of a people disappears, never to return. Your death knell has sounded as well.

I do not even want you to vote for it. Germany will be liberated, but not by you!

On balance, Hitler’s speech is by far the more effective of the two. Unlike Wels, he has two clear themes: the German people and the wrongs done to Germany after WWI. He blames the Social Democrats for the latter and skillfully wields the card of German nationalism.

Moreover, Hitler has three advantages over Wels. Firstly he is a brilliant speaker, the best – perhaps – in German history. He is excited and angry, emotional and quite able to rouse an audience. To this day Germans are suspicious of politicians with impressive speaking skills.

Secondly, the Social Democrats had somewhat naively released copies of Mr. Wels’s speech to the media. It had then found its way to the Nazis, enabling them to pre-write a strong rebuttal.

Finally, Hitler has battalion of armed Nazi Brown-shirts in the room applauding his every word. Otto Wels was not so lucky.

Perhaps it is just, then, that history commemorates the words Otto Wels said that day and not those of Hitler. He was not a great speaker (that was Hitler), but he spoke for the side of justice. In the context of the times it was perhaps one of the bravest speeches ever spoken.





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