Why Did Scott Walker Fail?

Scott Walker started as one of the best candidates in the Republican Primary. But this week, he was the second Republican candidate to drop out. There have already been many different takes on why Walker failed: gaffes, speaking time in debates, money, failure to bridge the grassroots and establishment of the party, poor staffing.

All of those sound plausible, but not one seems really decisive. While there are reasons Walker failed, there was nothing inevitable or predictable about in his failure. When Walker announced his candidacy, pundits were correctly were positive about his chances based on everything they knew at the time. If Walker was still a frontrunner in polling today, no one would be that surprised. Only in retrospect that Walker’s failure seems easy to explain.

This is not to say that the reasons attributed to Walker’s failure are wrong. Rather, I think that it’s was basically impossible for a rational and knowledgeable person to have predicted his failure. More generally, it may be easy to construct narratives after the fact, it’s hard to predict narratives about the future.

Measuring Bipartisanship, Or the Overquantification of Political Science

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UPDATE: I’m not sure anything I wrote about DW NOMINATE is right here, I’ll be reading up on it. If you happen to be an expert on quantitative measures of polarization you can email me at jackhlandry@gmail.com    

 Over at Vox, Matt Yglesias posts this graph showing a slight increase of bipartisanship the last two Congresses. More specifically, it shows that the share of bills introduced with at least one co-sponsor from the opposite party. Yglesias notes that this uptick in bipartisanship is increasing despite the fact that the ideological composition of Congress is largely the same.

     What evidence is there that members of Congress haven’t become more moderate in recent years? While Yglesias doesn’t cite it the strongest and most common measure used in political science literature about polarization is DW-NOMINATE. It uses a complex statistical method to compare the ideology of members of Congress relative to each other. As you can see, ideologies have increasingly polarized in both chambers since 1960 and shows no sign of abating.

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     The problem with these measures is that they’re both purely quantitative. Neither consider that actual content within bills, they only measure the votes on them. So theoretically, a significant portion bills that have bipartisan cosponsors could be naming post offices. You may think I’m being facetious, but according to the Congressional Research Service, “More than one in five of the public laws passed by the 110th and 109th Congresses were post office naming bills.” The first two post offices bills I found had bipartisan cosponsors from multiple states. They were also voted on unanimously, which would impact DW NOMINATE scores. Yet these bills are obviously irrelevant to the overall level of partisanship in Congress. While more rigorous analysis is needed to see exactly how significant naming post offices is on these statistics, the lesson is clear. Without examining a bill’s actual content, you can’t make judgements about partisanship based on purely quantitative statistics.

     What if Congress Members are trying to artificially inflate how “bipartisan” they look by co-sponsoring trivial legislation with their colleagues across the ille. While it’s probably far fetched, my two-bill analysis didn’t rule it out. And as political science stands now, it seem unlikely that anyone would catch it.

     What if, a few Republicans co-sponsored the Affordable Care Act and more voted for it instead of zero. While this would only be one vote in both the DW NOMINATE and Quorum’s bipartisanship measure, it would of drastically changed the narrative for the 2010 elections and been a defacto reduction in the polarization in Congress.

     Those that support the quantitative approach would probably respond that a bipartisan vote on Obamacare would lead to more bipartisan votes on other matters and ultimately be reflected in the scores. My response is that if the quantitative approaches are really robust, they should be checked against more subjective accounts of votes and bills’ actual content.

     The emphasis on quantitative rigor and avoiding subjectivity in political science has led to the end of systematically examining the content of bills. While there are obviously drawbacks to using more subjective measures for assessing polarization, quantitative measures have drawbacks too. It’s best to use both of the tools of political science, quantitative and qualitative, to make judgements about trends. An obsession with quantitative rigor could blind political science to the reality of what’s really happening in Congress

Right to Work and Unions, Explained

     Since shortly after World War II, American workers that belong to unions has been rapidly declining.


     The latest Republican idea to weaken unions has had some populist appeal: Right to Work. Right to Work laws basically make union membership voluntary. If you get hired at a company that’s unionized, you do not have to join that union or pay its dues in a right to work state.

     While some states have had right to work laws on the books for awhile, the idea has picked up steam lately. Four states have added right to work laws in the past 3 years, while only one state added right to work laws between 1986 and 2011.  

     The idea of right to work has intrinsic appeal. It doesn’t ban unions, it just gives people the option of joining or not. In fact, The National Right to Work Foundation, which lobbies states for right to work laws frames the idea as nither pro or anti union, but simply as a matter of personal freedom. It’s easy to understand why 3 in 4 Americans support it, while 3 in 5 Americans support labor unions. The problem is that right to work is a backdoor way of crippling unions.

     Collective action is a difficult enterprise. While it’s true that unions advocate on behalf of workers to make them better off, almost all unions require a small portion of member’s salary go to the union. So while unions may be ultimately beneficial, they come with both costs and benefits. And as long as costs are imposed, some workers may try to avoid those costs and free ride off the effort of others.

     In The Logic of Collective Action Mancur Olson compares union membership to a competitive market with many firms. In a competitive market, business compete to offer the lowest prices and best service they can. However, if all the firms in the industry cooperated to raise their prices, all the firms would benefit. In the real world, this kind of cooperation fails because whoever breaks the agreement and lowers prices will make a tremendous profit at the others expense. In other words, since there is an opportunity to free ride, firms fail to collude.

     The same logic applies to unions. As long as there is an opportunity to free ride, cooperation will fail. In the case of right to work, workers get an opportunity to work at a firm with all the benefits that come from unionization without the cost of actually being a member. Thus, unions are inevitably weakened in states with right to work laws as workers try to free ride off the benefits of unionization without paying the costs of being a member. When Michigan signed right to work into law, unionization fell 12%.  

     Republican framing of right to work is duplicitous. Right to work inevitably weakens unions. But by framing Right to Work as purely a matter of personal freedom with no effect on unions, Republicans have found a way to trick the American people into hurting unions. Logic tells us support both right to work laws and unions, you must pick one or the other. But Republicans have managed to get 3 in 4 Americans to support right to work while 3 in 5 support unions. A quick bit of arithmetic tells us that over a third of Americans are being duped.

Black Intellectuals and Conservative Criticism

For the past few decades, conservatives have had a contentious relationship with black intellectuals. From Cornel West to Michael Eric Dyson, the figures who represent black people and black culture in academia are often criticized by mostly white conservatives. In the minds of many conservatives, the black intellectual represents the typical “victim defender” in liberal ideology. They typically perceive well established black liberals negatively, believing that they excuse values such as responsibility and hard work, and blame society for individual short-comings.

While there is something to be said about “playing the victim”, ignoring centuries of oppression, along with current prejudice is a slippery slope when explaining the existence of racial inequality. Conservative talk show hosts such as Sean Hannity, and Rush Limbaugh, (who compared NFL teams playing each other to the bloods and crips) generally have no problem pointing out the negative aspects of black people and black culture. Conservatives in academia such as Dinesh D’Souza tiptoe the line of extreme racist ideology, by focusing heavily on “cultural pathologies”, while completely ignoring the racist history of the United States. It is heavily implied in works such as D’Souza’s that certain minorities are inherently lazy, and are unproductive members of society.

Civil rights activists in the post-Civil Rights era are another frequent target of conservatives indifferent to racial inequality, although such activists have made controversial comments throughout their careers. While it is fair to say that today’s civil rights activists such as Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson cannot be compared to civil rights leaders of the past, the automatic dismissal of compelling points made by these activists mirrors the silencing tactic white supremacists have used throughout our nation’s history. Part of this silencing in the “colorblind” “post-racial era” means not discussing racial inequality, the fact that black people are 3 times more likely than their white counterparts to be in poverty, twice as likely to be unemployed, and extremely high chance of receiving a low quality education resulting in the Achievement Gap. Of course racist practices that were less than half a century ago such as redlining, and blockbusting which contributed to housing disparities among races, along with racial profiling by law enforcement, and employment discrimination, are all plausible causes of racial inequality that exists after the Civil Rights Movement. To the surprise of many conservatives, institutional racism does exist in the post-Civil Rights era. Take the National Bureau of Economic Research’s findings for example, where job applicants with “black sounding names” are 50% less likely to get a call back from employers even with the same credentials as their white peers. (http://www.nber.org/digest/sep03/w9873.html) Or the fact that black criminals receive harsher penalties in the criminal justice system than white criminals guilty of similar crimes. According to the United States Sentencing Commission, a black individual on average has a 15.2 % longer sentence than a white person who committed the same crime. (http://www.yalelawjournal.org/article/mandatory-sentencing-and-racial-disparity-assessing-the-role-of-prosecutors-and-the-effects-of-booker) Conservatives often claim that black people “play the race card”, but are unaware that the deck is stacked against us.

(Update: the original post incorrectly cited the 50% statistic as 33%)

The Progressive Case for Hillary Clinton

     The contest between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders for the Democratic nomination is perhaps the defining choice for the future of the Democratic party. The candidates offer pretty stark differences in terms of policy.

     Sanders is perhaps the most liberal politician elected at the national level. A Democratic socialist, says Obamacare doesn’t go far enough and backs a 90% tax rate for the wealthiest Americans.

     In contrast, Clinton is cozy with Wall Street banks and voted for the Iraq war. While her campaign has definitely highlighted a number a progressive ideas, many liberal activists think she’s just saying whatever’s required to get elected and will end up governing differently.

     Sanders supporters think that if he became president it would result in fundamental changes in American Policy. While Sanders would make the radical change needed to reign in inequality and help everyday working people, Clinton would largely represent that status quo . But if Sanders ever won the presidency, he’d encounter an insurmountable obstacle: Congress.


     In 2008, Barack Obama was elected on a platform of hope and change which for many supporters, never panned out. Obviously, the severe economic downturn that accompanied Obama’s election took priority in the President’s agenda. But after passing the economic stimulus and handling bank bailouts, he returned to the other promises of his campaign. Universal healthcare barely passed Congress and was considered by many liberals as a sell out to the healthcare industry. Efforts to combat climate change, gun control and immigration failed in Congress.  

     All this happened in one of the most productive and liberal Congresses in history. Not since Jimmy Carter have Democrats had a filibuster proof majority in the Senate, majority in the House and a Democratic President. And not since Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society has a Congress made so many new laws.

     Despite these facts, only 3 in 10 Democrats approved of Congress during this period. Many felt that the promises of Obama’s campaign were unfulfilled. Conor Friedersdorf’s declaration that “Hope and Change are dead” is representative of many formerly enthusiastic Obama supporters.


     Democrats should remember the lessons of this period as they consider the choice between Sanders and Clinton today. Certainly Sanders is more liberal than Clinton, and his positions reflect the opinion of a substantial part of the Democratic Party. But Presidents are not kings, and Sanders’ positions are not likely to be turned into actual policy even if he is elected.


     President Obama was gifted the most liberal Congress since Jimmy Carter when he took office. In all likelihood, the next President will have a very different situation. Currently, Republicans currently control the Senate by only four seats. It’s certainly possible that Democrats retake that majority in 2016. But don’t forget that a simple majority doesn’t really count in the Senate. Almost all substantial legislation requires not 51 but 60 votes to pass due to the filibuster, and a 60 vote majority in the Senate is highly unrealistic.

     The situation in the House is similar. Republicans currently have a pretty large majority, controlling 247 seats to the Democrats 188. While a simple majority is powerful in the House, there are many reasons to think that a Democratic majority won’t happen. Generally, there are only modest changes of 10 to 12 seats in the House every year, not nearly enough to take control of the House. The exceptions happen when the economy is doing poorly. Not only is another recession unlikely, but an economic downturn would likely be blamed on Democrats.

     Thus, we know the next President is very unlikely to face a Congress that is has Democratic majorities. And even if that Congress was beat all odds and did restore a strong Democratic majority, a Democratic president cannot get all that it wants. We know from the first two years of Obama’s presidency that even in the best of political conditions that Presidents are strongly constrained within the system.


     Unfortunately, American Presidential campaigns don’t like to acknowledge the constraints in which a President governs. Its typical to pretend as though being elected president licence to implement law as they see fit.

     Thus, the choice between Clinton and Sanders isn’t really a choice of policy. The policy differences between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders are ultimately not significant given the context they will inevitably govern in.

     So instead of voting based on the policy differences of Sanders and Clinton, you should vote for the candidate that  will be most effective moving U.S policy in a more liberal direction given the constraints of the system. Without a doubt, that candidate is Hillary Clinton, not Bernie Sanders.


     Back in 2008, Clinton ran against then Senator Obama as a candidate of pragmatism. While his hope and change may of been uplifting, she argued that she would be able to work more effectively with Congress. While speculating about what would’ve happened if Clinton won the presidency is pointless, it is clear that a message of pragmatism and working with Congress was more relevant than Obama’s hope and change.

     And Clinton’s message of working with Congress is not all rhetoric. Her record in the Senate shows how she can work across the aisle to advance change and deeply believes in that approach as a more general governing philosophy. Vox’s comprehensive history of Clinton tells this story the best best:

“When Hillary Clinton entered the Senate with zero legislative experience but more name recognition than her other 99 colleagues behind her, she was determined to play the workhorse role. And even though it seemed like a poor match for the objective situation, she did it extremely well — plowing away on committee assignments and upstate New York economic development teams, earning praise from senior members on both sides of the aisle and the grudging respect of a press corps she was boring to tears.

If Clinton had wanted to serve as the champion for embittered liberals, she could easily have played that role. Her stint as senator from New York, like Bobby Kennedy’s before her, was pretty clearly intended as a stepping stone to the White House. Following in Kennedy’s footsteps as a national ideological spokesperson would have been a logical approach.”

     Bernie Sanders’ Senate record stands in sharp contrast. Rather than a behind the scenes workhorse, he has been more of a protest Senator. Before running for president, he may be best known for his filibuster on corporate greed and the decline of the middle class. It was so popular in crashed the Senate’s servers and was later made into a book.

     Regardless of what you think the merits of Sanders record, it is not good preparation for the Presidency. Presidents have to govern, not just draw attention to problems. Delaying votes for 8 hours may be an honorable ideological stand, but it does not foster the best relationships with Senate colleagues.


     The Presidency is not about making sweeping systemic change. While it’s always popular to think of Presidents as all powerful, they work within the confines of a frustrating system. If the eight years of Obama’s presidency have taught us anything about politics, it is that change is hard, even under the best conditions. So lets elect someone who will make progress towards the change Democrats want to see, not just represent it with lofty rhetoric. Let’s elect Hillary Clinton.

The Under-appreciated Alexander Hamilton

     Lin Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton has taken Broadway by storm. Currently the number one show on Broadway, the show is a summary of the “ten dollar founding father without a father” Alexander Hamilton’s life in hip-hop form. I had the privilege of seeing it during previews with my sister at Richard Rogers. The show, based on facts from Ron Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton, brings new awareness to an otherwise underrated and under-appreciated key figure in the early stages of the U.S.

      Alexander Hamilton was born in the Virgin Islands. There, he proved his value to peers who crowd funded his migration to New York City. Through raw talent and intellect, he found himself at the right hand of General of the Continental Army, George Washington. But his real value came after the Revolution. Although James Madison usually takes most of the credit for writing The Federalist Papers because he is responsible for the two most cited issues, No. 10 and 51, it’s Alexander Hamilton who actually wrote the majority of the papers. Hamilton was a driving force behind the ratification of the Constitution. He then became a member of his friend George Washington’s cabinet as the first Secretary of the Treasury. Under Washington, Hamilton was granted power that no other secretary of the Treasury has been granted since. With the post of White House Chief of Staff not existing until 1946, Hamilton took on this role as a power behind the throne and acted as the brains behind Washington. Hamilton then laid the foundation for the precursor of the Federal Reserve, saving the young nation from early economic disaster.

      Under Washington, Hamilton and his Federalists often clashed with Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, a figure that is widely recognized amongst the American public and is known as an ancestor to the modern day Democratic Party. However, many of the ideals that Hamilton fought for and embodied are fought for now by progressives, whereas Jefferson fought for many conservative values. Hamilton battled for a strong central government, implied powers provided to Congress by the Constitution, and economic controls over businesses. Hamilton envisioned America as an industrial powerhouse, while Jefferson envisioned America to remain an agricultural state.  Hamilton was also an avid abolitionist, after witnessing the horrors of slavery in the Virgin Islands. His conflict with Jefferson was the precursor to the conflict between Northern and Southern interests in the Civil War. In many ways, Hamilton pushed for liberal ideals, with his spiritual successor being Abraham Lincoln.
      Despite all of this, Alexander Hamilton remains relatively unknown to the American public. Most don’t even recognize his face on the ten dollar bill compared to Lincoln on the five and Washington on the one. According to this poll on Rasmussen, less than 3% of Americans view Hamilton as the greatest founding father. However, Hamilton’s legacy thrives today as it is his vision of America that exists now, not Jefferson’s. A stronger central government with a Federal Reserve, along with almost a century of being the world’s top economic power can be attributed to Alexander Hamilton.