Saturday, February 1, 2020

There's a reason why the Senate, and not the people, decide what constitutes impeachable crimes....

Senator Lamar Alexander’s explanation for who should decide what to do about the president’s actions in Ukraine is absurd,  and represents fundamental ignorance about the Founders.
In an interview with Chuck Todd, Senator Alexander suggests that while he found the actions by President Trump concerning the withholding of aid to Ukraine inappropriate, the were not impeachable and—furthermore—that whether they merit removal is a judgment best left to the people. Here the link to the clip:

Let’s address the final point first: the people, and not the Senate, should decide in the forthcoming election whether the Ukraine allegations merit removal. Hogwash. 

First, the Founders were not democrats (small d) but republicans (small r). All kinds of checks and balances are put in place to insulate government institutions from the voice of the people because the Founders feared mob rule—particularly mob rule swayed by a demagogue. The Founders created the Electoral College, with voters casting votes for electors who—according to the scheme laid out in the Constitution—were supposed to exercise independent judgment when selecting the president. Furthermore, the founders expected (wrongly, it turns out) that it would be challenging for any candidate to achieve a majority of votes in the electoral college; thus, the House of Representatives would often decide who would serve as president. All of these factors point quite clearly to the notion that will of the people is really to be refined by several institutional checks and filters.

So, to Alexander’s point: No. It’s up to the Senators to decide whether the act is impeachable or not. Not the people in elections. That represents a profound ignorance of the Constitution and the situation facing the Founders.

To the second point about to what constitutes a high crime and misdemeanor, it is absolutely clear that the Founders were petrified about foreign influence in elections and the conduct of national affairs. This is why the citizenship and residency requirements exist for the presidency: To prevent a European puppet from taking the throne. I have to assume at some point Senator Alexander read President Washington’s Farewell address, which cautions the nation about entangling foreign alliances. Seeking foreign involvement in an election is precisely what President Trump did (and Alexander does not contest this point), which is precisely what the Founders thought was dangerous. And, to be plain, it is exactly the Senate that should decide these issues because they are supposed to be removed from the passions of the people given their longer terms and (at least at the Founding) their indirect election. I read the Federalist papers in college. Did they?

Then, there’s the stubborn fact (as John Adams would write) that the president broke the law: His withholding the aid in the first place was an illegal impounding (I cover this in my presidency and Congress class; Congress appropriates, and the Supreme Court has upheld this repeatedly) and he was accepting aid to assist in his reelection (breaking those silly campaign finance laws put into place after massive abuses by the Nixon campaign forces that had little to do with Watergate).

Finally, the issue of removal from office and the ability to run for president in the future. Yes, a grave action indeed—but again, given the fear of Kings and demagogues, again, this is precisely why the Senate must have this ability. The danger is a president who is supported by the majority of the people—that pesky majority tyranny that Madison warned against—who must be removed from the ballot because they can manipulate the popular will to retain office and work their will to oppress the minority. The Senate is a check on this! As Hamilton himself wrote (and Congressman Schiff quoted during the Senate trial):

When a man unprincipled in private life desperate in his fortune, bold in his temper, possessed of considerable talents, having the advantage of military habits — despotic in his ordinary demeanour — known to have scoffed in private at the principles of liberty — when such a man is seen to mount the hobby horse of popularity — to join in the cry of danger to liberty — to take every opportunity of embarrassing the General Government & bringing it under suspicion — to flatter and fall in with all the non sense of the zealots of the day — It may justly be suspected that his object is to throw things into confusion that he may ‘ride the storm and direct the whirlwind.’

On a personal note, I worked as a field staffer for Senator Alexander fresh out of college more than twenty years ago—on his presidential campaign. To say that I am disappointed in his position and behavior is a gross understatement. America deserved better from him—and the rest of the Republican caucus in the U.S. Senate. If you are upset, you know what to do. Vote like your life depends on it--because it does.

Thursday, May 16, 2019

Do Institutional Structures Shape Political Outcomes? Yes, Until Those Structures are Ignored

While we are here in the UK, students are required to write a daily journal entry. I provide a prompt for the students to respond to based upon what we’ve seen and experienced throughout the day. After visiting the Scottish Parliament, I asked them whether the institutional arrangements and structures of the Parliament produce a different politics from Westminster. It is something I hear a lot when I visit the Parliament, and certainly, it was well-expected by the founders of the institution expected a “New Politics” to emerge as a result.

My students were generally not convinced that the Scottish Parliamentary experience was all that different from the way in which politics is practiced the world over. In fact, they were downright cynical at the prospect that institutional structures could shape political behavior or outcomes all that much.

As an institutionalist, I was chagrined to say the least. I’ve built a career, and a research agenda, on the notion that the structures of politics shape behavior. Have I been simply unconvincing in the classroom on this point?

And yet, in some respects, there is a grain of truth in what the students claimed. Some institutional structures matter a lot, while others have little effect. My own research on First Minister’s Questions in the Scottish Parliament suggests that the tone of questions asked in the chamber may be more negative and combative than in Westminster despite all the ballyhoo and hype we hear about how the horseshoe shape of the chamber and the electoral system inspires a consensual rather than combative deliberation. Yet, the electoral system does matter. MSPs almost universally claim that regional members behave differently than those representing constituencies. And the evidence bears this out: they participate differently in the chamber, committee, and in their propensity to hold surgeries. In this case, structural arrangements do shape incentives. Regional MSPs do more party and legislative work, while constituency members pay more attention to the folks back home.

The point made by my students, however, is that politics is conflictual no matter how you slice it. Parties differ as to how to policy priorities and the distribution of power in society. They differ as to the ability to govern and how to do it. Conflict is essential to politics and expected—no matter how voters chose their legislators or the architectural design of the assembly space.

The problem, at the end of the day, is while conflict is necessary to politics, most people—including my students—do not like conflict. Perhaps the question is not whether a particular political system mitigates conflict but whether a political system can, based upon how the system is structured, can harness conflict productively. In the American system, voters are often frustrated by what is perceived to be a conflict that yields few results. Our politics is more partisan and the differences between the parties wider than at any point since at least the Gilded Age. Yet this differences do not manifest in much policy production or change because of political system makes it difficult to produce policy. The people, wrongly in my mind, ascribe to the conflict and the people the blame. The system of checks and balances, if anything, should bear most of the brunt of the blame from the people as the vitriol produced by our hyper-partisan American politics.

Conversely, the conflict in the British system is mostly confined to debate and Question Time both at Westminster and Holyrood. Legislation is still produced and government functions because political change is not in the hands of individual MPs but in government ministers and bureaucrats that help them develop legislative policy. The “talking” legislature serves as a political safety value for society, but the conflictual talk does not generally impede policy progression. Indeed, Brexit is the exception that proves the rule: Because Brexit splits across the parties creates policy deadlock making it difficult for May’s minority government to produce results.

In the American case, policy production is hard with or without conflict. Perhaps most troubling, however, is the recent propensity of frustrated majorities to dispense with institutional safeguards to advance short term policy goals. And that’s truly worrying given that these institutional bumpers were put in place precisely to protect minority interests over the long term. We’ve seen an increasing willingness of executives to resort to executive orders to implement policy when frustrated by Congress. The process of advice and consent has become empty, and Senators are rushing to make the chamber less deliberative by eroding the power of the filibuster. In the pursuit of policy, our checks and balances are falling by the wayside in favor of expediency and the growth of executive power. In that sense, the American system is increasingly aping the British system but without the benefits of a vigorous public scrutiny of the executive outside of congressional hearings. And even those hearing are under threat as members of the executive branch refuse to respond to congressional subpoenas and even the president claims immunity from congressional scrutiny.

To come full circle, do institutional structures matter in politics? The answer is yes, but only in so much as those institutional structures are respected by those who engage in politics. One of my students constantly upholds our codified Constitution as superior to the uncodified British Constitution, saying that the United Kingdom relies far too much on convention and norms. My response to him is that codification matters little if the individuals responsible for implementing words chose to ignore them. And, it is at that precise point where political conflict becomes truly dangerous irrespective if the chamber sits in a horseshoe or on benches across from one another.

Monday, May 13, 2019

Kindness, Empathy, and Exploration

Today, I and the amazing Doralyn Rossmann (punster extraordinaire) took 16 MSU students up and down the Royal Mile in Edinburgh. We did all the things that tourists here do: We visited Holyrood Palace, Edinburgh Castle, and had a lovely tour provided by Kiersten--the Blue Badge Guide who has taught my students about Scotland since 2015. The day was spectacular--66 degrees, sunny, with a bright blue sky. Our first full day in Scotland did not disappoint.

After walking ten miles, our group convened to discuss our insights from the day. The students all had interesting insights into Scotland--the juxtaposition of the new with the old, the lack of racial diversity, the surprising number of tourists and the wide array of languages spoken, and the layers of history in Scotland--with buildings and traditions older than our own country. But the observation that struck me the most in the moment was made by one of my students who has a gluten allergy. She was struck by how kind and helpful she found Scots in helping her navigate menus in restaurants, and how appreciative she was for this kindness. She remarked that at home, in the United States, she has found that when she divulges her allergies at eateries, she is often treated poorly. Servers and hosts express annoyance when they have to prepare food differently to accommodate her allergy. She shared that at times, when she has sent food back that has been in the presence of gluten accidentally (when a bun is mistakenly put on a sandwich), sometimes servers will simply take the bun off and send the meal back--this despite the fact that even traces of gluten can have severe health consequences for her.

Conversely, her experience in Scotland has been one of empathy. Servers patiently work through recipe ingredients, making suggestions. Others have extensive recipe books they provide her and another student with allergies to make sure the students will not come into contact with anything harmful to their health. Another remarked at how helpful EU regulations are in identifying, consistently and clearly, possible allergens located in packed foods shelved in markets. In fact, we made a special trip to Marks and Spencer to load this student up with food she could safely eat--and her basket was quickly full in 15 minutes. And, best yet, the food was SUBSTANTIALLY cheaper than what she'd pay back home.

This makes it far easier for my students to enjoy one of the best parts of travel: Experiencing other cultures through food. Three of my students, including one with those food allergies, tried Indian food for the first time tonight. They came away as converts--and most importantly, the student with food allergies was easily able to explore without any fear of negative health consequences.

All of this resonates with one thing I've come to appreciate about Scotland: The kindness I feel here. Sure, Scotland and Scots can be rough around the edges as they themselves will admit, but in many respects, there is an effort to be inclusive and supportive of people. I remember back in 2017 when we visited an SNP campaign office, I suggest that I and my students would happily campaign on the doors for them during the election (we had done so for Labour and the Tories in London), but I thought our American accents would be a detriment. No, assured the office manager, it would not matter at all. If you lived in Scotland, you were a Scot--full stop.

Inclusiveness and kindness. Two qualities I've come to appreciate about Scotland and its people.

Thursday, May 2, 2019

I Predict a [Political] Riot

Yes, I'm totally watching coverage of the 2019 local government elections in England tonight. UK politics is clearly on my mind.

Is Sir John Curtice on TV? Yes, yes he is. Coverage of 2019 Local Elections
In about a week, I’ll be in a plane flying across the pond to lead my third group of Montana State British politics students across the UK. While the trip has evolved (from three to two weeks) and the cities have changed a bit (Belfast and York were dropped; Cardiff added), there has been one constant: We tend to show up when things in British politics are utterly fascinating and unexpected. 

For example:
1.      In 2015, we arrived two weeks after the General Election where the Conservatives, beat the odds and won a majority. All the polls and prediction models suggested a hung Parliament with Labour holding the most seats. But it was not to be. Ed Miliband resigned, Nick Clegg was out, David Cameron was a political genius, and we got tickets to the Queen’s Speech Debate.

2.      In 2017, David Cameron had left Number 10 in disgrace after losing the EU Referendum. Teresa May, looking at polls suggesting the Conservatives would crush a Corbyn-led Labour Party, went to Parliament and asked for an Election under the terms of the Fixed Terms Parliament Act. Conservatives happily voted for an election and so did Labour—with perhaps some members of the PLP hoping a Labour wipeout might force Corbyn from the leadership. We showed upon the middle of the campaign, and canvassed for both Labour and the Tories in a marginal seat in North London. We left before the campaign concluded, but again, the unexpected transpired: May lost her majority and was forced into a confidence and supply arrangement with the DUP.

3.      This time, we will drop into Edinburgh in the wake of May failing to pass her Brexit plan in Parliament after several goes, the date of Brexit pushed back to perhaps October, possible European elections to be held on May 23rd, and a set of local election results with a shocking showing for the Liberal Democrats, Greens, and Independent candidates. And, perhaps—just perhaps—Teresa May will no longer be Prime Minister by the time we leave on May 26th.

I can’t wait to land, again, in the middle of unprecedented political times and to show my students the Britain I’ve come to know and love. The one thing I’m itching to ask British politicians is if we are at the cusp of a fundamental transformation in the party system. Recent events seem to suggest precisely that: Voters are punishing the parties in their strongholds, suggesting both an exhaustion with the status quo and the apparent inability of either party to produce results. May and the Tories can’t seem to get the UK out of the EU, and Labour can’t seem to present a competent and compelling alternative. Which either party survive intact? That’s the £65,000 question.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

The Value of Failure

Sometimes, failed quests are the most fun because while you may fall short of your objectives, you can draw some interesting conclusions from those failures and learn things you didn’t expect.
This morning started out easy enough: We visited the Churchill War Rooms, one of my favorite museums and—often—a favorite of my students as well. Churchill is simply a larger than life figure who, while well-known for his successful leadership in Britain’s darkest hour, actually had a career full of failures. Churchill went to South Africa to cover the Boer War and was captured. He recommended the bold and daring Dardanelles campaign while at the Admiralty, and its spectacular collapse and the great loss of life led to his resignation from the Cabinet. Churchill wrongly bet against the government in the abdication crisis, supporting King Edward. By the mid-1930s, Churchill was in the political wilderness and ignored by the public and the government when he repeatedly rang the alarm about Hitler’s designs on Europe. But it was because he was in the wilderness, because he had failed and been ostracized for his failures, that Churchill was exactly the man to come to the rescue when everyone else had lost public credibility for appeasing Hitler. Churchill’s failures paved the path for him to become Prime Minister when Britain needed him and his abilities the most.

Keeping the importance of failure in mind, this afternoon was an epic series of failures. My co-leader, Doralyn and I, led a group of three students to the Red Lion—a pub near the Parliament Square with a division bell signaling MPs when their presence was required to cast a vote—for lunch. The pub was jammed with people and the wait interminable. So we went elsewhere to eat before heading out on our next mission: To procure campaign signs, placard, T-shirts, and the like from the three major parties contesting the election in England (I say England as the other parties from whom we wanted campaign materials do not contest seats in English constituencies). 

We first went to Labour’s national headquarters, on Victoria Street. After some difficulty finding the precise location of the headquarters, we were turned away with nothing to show for our efforts. The national party, we were informed, is not a public office; an appointment was required. We did call an information number and were told that the constituency or regional campaign headquarters would likely help us out. As we were going to be campaigning in Hampstead and Kilburn on Wednesday and Thursday, we figured we be able to get Labour and Conservative materials then.

We were not, however, going to campaign for the Liberal Democrats. After locating the Liberal Dems headquarters in Hampstead and Kilburn, we walked to Victoria Station, hoped on the Victoria Line and headed north. 

(SIDE NOTE: The Evening Standard's front page for the day was fantastic. "Comrade Corbyn Flies the Red Flag"--the paper was readily available for free around Victoria Station)

After one stop, we switched to the Jubilee line for a twenty five minute ride to West Hampstead Station. Then, a five minute walk to Liberal Democrats HQ—and we’d have our campaign goods, right?

I just...want...some signs...and T-shirts.

Wrong. We found a derelict office space looking worse for wear on the lowest level of what looked to be a mixed-use council estate. There was no apparent way to get to the office space plastered with Liberal Democrat placards, however. We walked through the building, around the building, and back until we finally found the entrance: A gated garage with a coded keypad. There was no other way into the office space, and no phone number was listed on the website from which to contact anyone who may have been working diligently for the Liberal Democratic cause in Hampstead and Kilburn. Perhaps this was a sign of the lack of Liberal Democrat effort in the constituency; indeed, in 2015 the Liberal Democrats received less than six percent of the vote (a loss of nearly 27 percentage points from 2010). Given the constituency voted overwhelmingly to remain in the EU, the lack of interest in contesting Hampstead and Kilburn is somewhat surprising. 

What is even more surprising, however, is the difficulty we faced simply trying to get electioneering materials. True, I’m not convinced had we stopped by the DNC or RNC in Washington that we would have been greeted with open arms and given copious amounts of buttons, pins, shirts, and brochures. But surely a constituency campaign office, heading the local campaign efforts, would have been easily accessible to the public during a campaign with a vote taking place in less than four weeks?
In any case, on the thirty minute Tube journey back to the hotel, I reflected not on our misfortunes, but on our adventure. We visited parts of London tourists usually don’t see. We laughed together and simply enjoyed the camaraderie shared by adventurers on a great quest. And, it allowed us to make some political observations aiding us in our understanding of British politics generally and the current play of the race both broadly and in Hampstead and Kilburn in particular.

Monday, May 15, 2017

That Which Binds a Nation

Today, we took a grand tour of London, including spending considerable time in Westminster Abbey and walking throughout some of the City of London—which is the financial sector of London. I asked my students to write about what struck them as uniquely British—or at least, different—from the United States in their journals for the evening.

I’ve spend some time pondering this question, and my thoughts keep going back to Westminster Abbey, which was founded in 960. Obviously, the United States is far younger than Great Britain and, as a republic, doesn’t have a hereditary monarchy. But we don’t really have a place like Westminster Abbey either, which simultaneously manages to play important roles in the nation’s politics, religion, and cultural history. The kings and queens of the nation until the establishment of the Windsor dynasty are buried there, as are important military, political, scientific, and literary figures. When Queen Elizabeth dies, Charles, the Prince of Wales, will be crowned there. And the church itself remains an important part of the religious life of the Anglican Church.

There is no similar place in the United States. There is no official state religion per the U.S. Constitution. American presidents are not buried in one place, but scattered throughout the nation per their expressed wishes. We don’t honor our literary or artistic greats in any one place either, and the peaceful transfer of power takes place routinely on the steps of the U.S. Capitol--and rarely upon the sudden death of our head of state. Quite simply, there is no one place that embodies the cultural, religious, and political heart of the American nation like there is in Great Britain. 

In the United States, there is no one place which binds our nation together on so many dimensions like Westminster Abbey. The only analog, perhaps, is the Constitution itself which represents the collective hopes and dreams of the American people who are bound together by its enduring principles (and sometimes competing) of freedom and equality.And while the Constitution can be visited in the National Archives and is a remarkable accomplishment, sometimes I wonder what it would be like to have one national building to celebrate what it means to be American in all its varied dimensions.