Friday, December 15, 2017

Obscure Music Friday: Syd Barrett

Who was Syd Barrett? One of the original psychedelic geniuses...and casualties. Sadly, few now know that he was the original creative force behind the far, far more famous Pink Floyd. Richie Unterberger explains:
Like a supernova, Roger "Syd" Barrett burned briefly and brightly, leaving an indelible mark upon psychedelic and progressive rock as the founder and original singer, songwriter, and lead guitarist of Pink FloydBarrett was responsible for most of their brilliant first album, 1967's The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, but left and/or was fired from the band in early 1968 after his erratic behavior had made him too difficult to deal with (he appears on a couple tracks on their second album, A Saucerful of Secrets). Such was his stature within the original lineup that few observers thought the band could survive his departure; in fact, the original group's management decided to keep Syd on and leave the rest of the band to their own devices. Pink Floyd never recaptured the playful humor and mad energy of their work with Barrett.
I remember vividly that when I scored a copy of The Piper at the Gates of Dawn and played it, it pretty much blew my mind. From the first cut, the haunting "See Emily Play" (the video linked to here), the whole album was, for want of a better word "trippy" and hinted at a strange, enticing world beyond my limited Silver Spring, MD horizons.  

Unlike Barrett, I  made it back from that strange world. But I still love the album and, as Unterberger puts it, the "mad energy" behind it.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Sure the Democrats Are Riding a Wave, But Won't Gerrymandering Prevent Them from Taking Back the House?

In a word, no. That is to say, if there is a decent sized wave the Democrats have an excellent chance of taking back the House, despite the fact they are disadvantaged by gerrymandering. And by a decent-sized wave, I don't mean the Democrats carrying the House popular vote by a gaudy margin of 8-10 points or more. They can probably do it with considerably less.

Alan Abramowitz shows this in an elegant little analysis just published on Larry Sabato's Crystal Ball. Abramowitz controls for the effect of post-2010 gerrymandering--which he does find is significant and large--and still finds that the Democrats could get a House majority with around 52 percent of the two party House vote (prior to 2010, the model indicates that slightly less than a majority of the popular vote--49 percent--would have sufficed).

And 52 percent looks like a pretty easy target to hit, based on results we have been seeing in the generic Congressional ballot polling. Abramowitz notes:
In recent weeks, Democrats have been averaging a lead of between eight and 10 points according to RealClearPolitics....that large a lead on the generic ballot would predict a popular vote margin of around five points and a gain of between 30 and 33 seats in the House — enough to give Democrats a modest but clear majority.
There you have it. Gerrymandering is bad....but it is far from an insuperable obstacle. 

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Democratic Wave Watch: Post-Alabama Edition

The data just keep accumulating. The Democratic wave that seemed like a desperate hope in the aftermath of the 2016 election gathers at the horizon and becomes ever clearer. Here are some thoughts from various astute political observers:

1. Ron Brownstein, The Atlantic:
Jones beat Moore with a strong turnout and a crushing lead among African Americans, a decisive advantage among younger voters, and major gains among college-educated and suburban whites, especially women. That allowed Jones to overcome big margins for Moore among the key elements of Trump’s coalition: older, blue-collar, evangelical, and nonurban white voters.
This was the same equation that powered the Democratic victories in the Virginia and New Jersey governors’ races. The consistency of these results suggests that Democrats are coalescing a powerful coalition of the very voters that polls have shown are the most disenchanted, even disgusted, by Trump’s performance and behavior as president….
“Anti-Trump fever is now so strong among Democrats, young voters, and independents that the GOP is likely to face a surge in turnout on the Democratic side that will make the 2018 midterms lurch toward the demographics of a presidential year,” says longtime GOP strategist Mike Murphy, who advised Attorney General Jeff Sessions when he first won his Alabama Senate seat, in 1996. “That is a looming disaster that could well cost the GOP control of the House. We are in a Trump-driven worst-case situation now.”
2. Harry Enten, 538
The cycle that looks most like this one is 2006, when Democrats gained 30 seats and control of the House from the Republicans3 thanks to a hefty win in the popular vote across all House races. In 2018, they need 24 seats to win back control of the lower chamber. The difference between the average swing in special federal elections and the margin of the national vote for the House has averaged just 3 percentage points since 1994. It has never differed by more than 7 points. So even if Democrats do 7 points worse in the national House vote than the average swing so far suggests, they’d still win the national House vote by 9 points, which would likely mean that theyreclaim a House majority next year.

Indeed, the special election results so far this year are merely another indication of the GOP’s precarious position. President Trump’s approval rating is below 40 percent and Democrats hold an 11-percentage-point lead on the generic congressional ballot.

We’re still nearly a year from the 2018 midterms. That’s enough time for things to shift. Maybe Trump will grow more popular, for example. But historically, the environment doesn’t change much between this point in an election cycle and the midterms. So if you’re a Democrat, Tuesday’s Alabama result is just the latest special election sign that things are looking up heading into 2018.
3. Nate Cohn, New York Times:  
Over the last eight years, political analysts had come to think that Democrats were at a distinct disadvantage in midterm elections, since their younger and nonwhite coalition was less likely to turn out than older and white voters.
It is time to retire that notion. Tuesday in Alabama, Democrats benefited from strong turnout that plainly exceeded midterm levels, while white working-class Republicans voted in weaker numbers. It was enough to send Doug Jones to the Senate instead of Roy Moore, in one of the reddest states in the country.
This has been a pattern in all of this year’s major special elections, as well as in the Virginia general election. It is consistent with a long-term trend toward stronger turnout by the party out of power in off-year elections. It also suggests that President Trump’s less educated and affluent version of the Republican coalition has eroded the party’s traditional turnout advantage.
It's increasingly looking like the real question is not whether there will be a Democratic wave, but how big that Democratic wave will be. That's a happy thought, perhaps enough to put a spring in your step in what has been a dark time.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

What the Exit Polls Tell Us about How Doug Jones Won

Well, quite a night. How'd it happen--what got Doug Jones over the finish line ahead? The exit polls, interestingly, tell a story that was prefigured by an earlier poll that I posted about back on December 3:
The Washington Post/Schar School poll, a poll that gives Jones a 3 point lead among likely voters, shows how [a Jones victory] will happen, if it does happen. First, overwhelming support from blacks, combined with solid turnout (this poll has blacks at about a quarter of likely voters, which is good but not unreasonably high). Then mega-swings in the white vote relative to 2016. Trump carried the white vote by 70 points in Alabama in 2016. In this poll, Moore carries the white vote by a mere 30 points (63-33). 
This scenario more or less came to pass, according to the exit polls. Black voters made up 28 percent of the electorate--beating their share in the Post poll-- and supported Jones by 96-4. And Jones lost white voters by 36 points (31-67), pretty close to the deficit in the Post poll (especially when one keeps in mind that exit polls have a chronic tendency to overestimate Democratic deficits among whites). This 36 point deficit is about half the 70 point deficit Clinton ran up among white voters in the state in 2016.

Breaking down white voters between college and noncollege, noncollege whites supported Moore by 54 points--strong, but not as strong as the 77 point margin they gave Trump in 2016. White college graduates supported Moore by a mere 16 points (57-41), a mega-swing away from the GOP compared to the 55 point margin these voters gave Trump in 2016. 

While I don't have information on the gender breakdown of these voters in 2016, it's worth noting that Jones had a mere 5 point deficit among white college women, according to this year's exit poll. This suggests an unusually large swing by these voters toward Jones. A harbinger of what we'll see in 2018?

Monday, December 11, 2017

Whoa! Jones Up by 10 Over Moore in New Fox News Poll

Does this mean Jones is probably going to win? Nah. The RCP polling average still has Moore up by 2.5 points, so I guess I'd still make him the favorite. But you've gotta classify this latest poll--and the Fox News poll is typically a high-quality poll and therefore better than the a lot of the lower shelf pollsters who've worked this race--as good news. It ain't over 'til it's over.

The internals of the Fox poll look very good for Jones, hitting support benchmarks that should produce a victory for Jones if they happen in the real world: a 20 point deficit among whites, a near tie among white college graduates and a mere 33 point deficit among white noncollege voters (trust me, that's good). But which voters will really show up?: not just the relative numbers of white and black voters but which type of voters within a given demographic; perhaps the likely white voters in the Fox News poll aren't actually a good representation of the white voters who who will show up on Tuesday. Just how much things can move around depending on how you capture and weight that likely voter sample is shown very clearly here by SurveyMonkey's Mark Blumenthal.

So hold on to your popcorn! It could be a wild ride.

Saturday, December 9, 2017

Can We Please Stop Saying Trump's Base Is Immovable?

I must say I'm getting a bit annoyed with the repeated claim that Trump's base of support is absolutely solid--can't be moved. This contention gets people depressed, but it shouldn't for the simple reason it's not true. Sure, Trump's approval rating is still pretty high among Republicans and people who voted for him in 2016, but for chrissake what do people expect? This is a  polarized country; he's not going to suddenly have a 30 percent approval rating among partisans of his own party.

But he is losing ground. He is losing support among the very kind of voters you would describe as his base and that's very important. He (and the GOP) need every vote they can get and when solid supporters start drifting off that's very bad for them.

Data from a recent Pew release show this drift very clearly. Since February, he's lost 8 points in approval among Republican identifiers/leaners (from 84 to 76 percent), 17 points among white evangelical Protestants (from 78 to 61 percent) and 10 points among white noncollege voters (from 56 to 46 percent).

So can people please stop spreading this myth of Trump's invulnerability? He's a weak president and getting weaker, including among his own supporters.

Science Fiction Saturday: A. E. van Vogt

Image result for a e van vogt

Super-science! Telepaths! Galactic empires! Time travel! Monsters and supermen! A. E. van Vogt was a leading light of the so-called Golden Age of Science Fiction (late '30's to early '50's) when American science fiction was starting to escape from its pulp magazine origins (but not completely!). Van Vogt's hallucinatory, mind-boggling stories, including Slan, The Weapon Makers of Isher, The Voyage of the Space Beagle, The World of Null-A and many, many others, set a standard for bold imagination and complex plotting. The nature of van Vogt's brilliance is well-captured by science fiction critic John Clute:
Although van Vogt catered for the pulps, he intensified the emotional impact and complexity of the stories they would bear: his nearly invincible alien Monsters, the long timespans of his tales, the Time Paradoxes that fill them, the quasi-messianic Supermen who come into their own as the stories progress, the Galactic Empires they tend to rule and the states of lonely transcendental omnipotence they tend to achieve – all are presented in a prose that uses crude, dark colours but whose striking Sense of Wonder is conveyed with a dreamlike conviction. The abrupt complications of plot for which he became so well known, and which have been so scathingly mocked for their illogic and preposterousness – within narratives that claimed to be presenting higher forms of logic to the reader – are best analysed, and their effects best understood, when their sudden shifts of perspective and rationale and scale are seen as analogous to the movements of a dream.
It is these "Hard-SF dreams", so grippingly void of constraints or the usual surrealistic appurtenances of dream literature, that have so haunted generations of children and adolescents...
Yup, his stuff was pretty awesome. Maybe particularly if you were 13 or so, but still..... 

Friday, December 8, 2017

Obscure Music Friday: Ex Hex

I love this band! Washington's own Ex Hex, fronted by Mary Timony, formerly of Helium and Wild Flag. This all-woman power trio totally rocks. Have a listen (bonus: flying saucers in the video!) and if you like what you hear, and you're in the DC area, Ex Hex will be playing December 30th at my favorite venue, the Black Cat. The Optimistic Leftist will be in the house!

I saw a show of theirs previously at the Black Cat and it was one of the best shows I've ever been to.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

What Really Happened in Virginia in 2017, Part Deux

Image result for victory in virginia

The exit polls were quite misleading on what really happened in Virginia in 2017. That was my argument, based on estimates we have done at CAP for our Voter Trends in 2016 project, which indicated that 2016 exit polls in VA had practically reversed the correct proportions of white college and noncollege voters, dramatically underestimating the share of white noncollege voters in that  state (and pretty much every other state). My extrapolation, based on these data, was that the 2017 exits once again got it wrong in Virginia.

Confirmation of my assessment comes from big data gurus Catalist in a ground-breaking analysis of election and polling data from Virginia by their Chief Scientist, Yair Ghitza. Combining pre-election turnout scores, precinct-level 2017 election returns and polling data, Ghitza's analysis shows that the exit polls were indeed incorrect in the portrait they painted of 2017 Virginia voters.

Here's the basic story. The 2017 Virginia exits claimed that white college educated voters vastly outnumbered white noncollege voters by 41-26. They further claimed that Northam carried the white college vote by a narrow 51-48 margin, while losing white noncollege voters by 26-72.

The Catalist analysis is quite different. Their estimate is that Virginia voters in 2017 were 42 percent white noncollege while just 34 percent were white college graduates. Furthermore, they find that Northam carried white college voters by double digits (as I predicted earlier), 56-44, while Gillespie's margin among white noncollege voters was significantly less (65-33) than shown by the exits.

As these data imply, the Catalist analysis finds that, overall, the voting electorate was more white and less minority than shown by the exit polls. Blacks were 18 percent of voters not 20 percent; Latinos were 3 percent of voters, not 6 percent. On the other hand, Catalist finds that voters from these two groups were more strongly Democratic (93-6 and 73-25, respectively) than indicated by the exit polls.

Ghitza notes that there are some uncertainties to this analysis but they are likely to have had only modest effects (a point or two) on the estimates they produced. The large and very important differences with the exit polls are very unlikely to go away no matter how much they refine their analysis.

I agree. It is time to face up to the fact that the exit polls are just not right in important respects and that people should treat their findings with more skepticism. On a hopeful note, Ghitza reports that Catalist may be able to deploy their basic methodology very quickly after coming elections to generate more accurate estimates of vote share and vote preference by demographic group. Let us hope! The exit polls clearly need some real competition.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

What's Really Happening in German Politics?: An Interview with Judith Meyer

Should the SPD enter another “grand coalition” with Angela Merkel’s CDU? Is Merkel actually a progressive—or as progressive as German politics can be at this point? What is likely to happen in German politics in the next few weeks/months? Judith Meyer, a computational linguist and German political activist (she works with Yanis Varoufakis’ DiEM25 movement), is a singularly astute observer of German politics; she has kindly allowed me to share some of her recent insights with readers. Herewith, an interview with Meyer conducted over email.

Q: Should the SPD enter another grand coalition?

A: No. It would deal a deep blow to German democracy. It must be possible for the voters to effect a change of government and change of policy. For 12 years now we had the same government (except of a brief stint of CDU-FDP that was in no way different than the others) and we should have it for another 4 years?? That only happens in dictatorships. People decided to rout the SPD in order to force a change. The SPD only got 20% and was forced to swear a holy oath to not have another grand coalition this time. If they go back on it, they will be 10% next time the people have a chance to vote.

All the more because the CDU breaks its coalition contracts, e.g. one of the SPD's key campaign demands last time was that there should be a state contribution towards the pensions of those who have worked at least 40 years and whose pension is still below 850 EUR / month (the poverty line for Germany is 1033 EUR / month), in order to combat the rising number of elderly poor we see searching the trash bins. This did not happen. And just recently, it was the vote of the CSU minister that approved glyphosate to continue to be used for another 5 years in the EU. There had been a massive EU-wide and Germany-wide mobilisation against glyphosate, which is why the SPD (though not the CDU) had decided to take a strong stance against it. Under the conditions of the coalition agreement, with one partner being in favour and another against, that meant that Germany would have had to vote 'abstain' at the European level. Now however, Germany voted in favour and due to its population weight approved it for all of the EU. Following this, both SPD, Greens and FDP said that they do not consider CDU to be capable of coalitions. (On another issue, the European parliament had also voted against approving it and it's deeply concerning that the "government" of the EU chose to treat its parliament as a mere advisory body.)

Schulz promised that there would be a vote among all SPD members on whether to accept the coalition contract. I think that his team will come to an agreement in order to let the SPD members be the ones to refuse. Approval for a Grand Coalition is currently only 25% in the general population (38% in favour of new elections, 14% for CDU-Greens minority government and 11% for CDU-FDP minority government); among SPD members 36% are in favour, while state-level SPD leaders attach significant conditions. I think as soon as some quid-pro-quo becomes known, the probability that SPD members will approve the coalition contract will be close to zero. We'll have new elections. The parties already agreed on a date: 22 April. Plenty of time for all parties to re-assemble and for public opinion to yield a very different result.

Q: At times, Merkel seems to act like a progressive. Should we consider her as such?

A: I think German politics cannot be fully understood by American standards. The entire political spectrum is to the left of the US. In the Romney/Obama election, a mock vote among Germans came out 95% in favour of Obama, because most of his radical ideas were considered self-evident here. See this article of mine for a summary of some differences:   So seen within this spectrum rather than the American one, CDU is still right of center, and SPD is approaching right of center ever since the Seeheimer circle (of which Schröder is the most famous) took over party leadership and forced neoliberal or at least third way policies. 

Merkel has given no sign of being interested in less than business-centric policies, so she is still considered right of center here. That does not prevent her from sharing, to some extent, the pro-refugee attitude that forms part of society's consensus here, and which can be found both on the far left (Die Linke) and the far right (FDP). Until recently we did not have any party in parliament that was anti-refugee, as the nationalist NPD and its predecessors always failed to take the 5% hurdle. Also keep in mind that our constitution is unique worldwide in stating an unequivocal and individual right to asylum (and was written after WWII, at a time when Germany was hosting 12 million refugees on a population of 70 million, so "being overwhelmed" is not a valid argument to suspend the constitution on this matter). Refusing an asylum seeker at the border, before their case can be heard, rejected and the refugee has had a chance to sue against the rejection, would simply be unconstitutional.

We learned later that this was one of the reasons Merkel made that fateful decision in summer 2015: according to eyewitnesses, after police and military had already been withdrawn from other regions in order to reinforce the borders, she called a last meeting of the minister of the interior, heads of police, heads of military and so on, and asked for two guarantees: 1) that her decision to repel the refugees would not be deemed unconstitutional by a court, and 2) that there would be no ugly Nazi-evoking pictures of German militarised police and dogs against refugee kids. Since nobody was willing to give those guarantees, she called it off. Welcoming the refugees was in line with popular sentiment at the time - the police had to ask people several times to stop coming to the train stations and shelters with gifts because there were too many. There was a party atmosphere. A month later, among CDU voters, 47% were still in favour of opening the borders and 41% against. Of course this has petered out now with the media reporting more and more about the difficulties of hosting so many refugees, especially with the federal government not doing its part - relying entirely on volunteers to organise language courses, often not refunding municipalities for the extra accommodation and food expenses, and so on.

Franz Josef Strauß (former CSU leader) famously proclaimed that there must not be any democratically legitimated party to the right of the CDU/CSU. The article makes reference to that. In other words Merkel's party was supposed to absorb enough of the mild xenophobes so that no truly xenophobic party could enter parliament. They did this by including, under their big umbrella, the segment that might be called 'family values voters' in the US. People who are not just against foreigners but also against gays, against non-traditional gender roles, to some extent against the disruption of technology and so on. It's chiefly these people that turned against Merkel. But Merkel wouldn't have remained chancellor for 12 years and counting if she hadn't alienated these people by successfully co-opting issues to the left of these voters.

Whenever there was an issue that looked big enough to unseat her (and not a moment before!), she added it into her world view. One famous example is gay marriage. The CDU/CSU leadership has long maintained that civil unions are good enough for homosexuals and they don't need access to civil marriage. However, gay marriage is absolutely uncontroversial in Germany with some 70% in favour even among the CDU/CSU voters (and a small majority of CDU/CSU voters even in favour of adoption rights for homosexuals). Shortly before this year's election, it looked like SPD, Greens and Linke would make gay marriage one of their rallying cries for the election campaign - so Merkel quickly convened a vote, in which she said that personally as a Christian she still doesn't favour gay marriage but she doesn't want to prevent anyone else from voting for it, so Germany approved gay marriage just before parliament went on break and the topic could no longer be used in the campaign. 

Similarly with the nuclear issue after Fukushima. Originally the SPD-Green government had enacted a law requiring nuclear power plants to gradually shut down. This was the biggest victory ever for German Greens and quite left them without a purpose, no other big topic to rally around. Merkel essentially undid this law at the beginning of her chancellorship, allowing nuclear power companies to pay to keep the power plants online for decades longer. Then after Fukushima, she saw the huge movement against nuclear power - the Greens temporarily polled over 20% - and hastily decreed that the nuclear power plants have to shut down in even less years than the original SPD-Green plan. Of course since she's a friend of business, she also decided that the German government would pay power companies very handsomely for breach of contract, lost profits, disposal of nuclear waste and so on. The German population as a whole is more environmentalist than most Western societies (see the World Values Survey) but CDU/CSU and especially FDP have always played the role of defending big business against these interests, they never had any environmentalist policy ideas of their own that the population wasn't already loudly clamouring for, and sometimes not even then, as can be seen with the CSU's glyphosate vote just now, 2 million signatures against glyphosate, a SPD coalition contract obliging them to vote 'abstain', the European parliament also voting against, and yet the CSU minister at the EU level just approved glyphosate for five more years...

CDU/CSU is not leftist in the sense of pro-refugee (more than AfD but not more than anyone else in Germany's party spectrum until now), definitely not leftist in the sense of environmentalist or civil rights, and definitely not leftist in the sense of welfare and workers' protections. The SPD however is considered to no longer be left, due to adopting CDU/CSU positions for the 12 years they were partnered...

Q: What else should Americans keep in mind when thinking about German politics?

A: I feel that our political ideas lead to a lot of talking past one another, probably because ideas like introducing minimum 3 weeks paid vacation would be considered socialist policy in the US, while it would be an attack on workers' rights here ;-) , where the state already guarantees 28 days' paid vacation and in practice 6 weeks isn't rare. We have to consider the direction of change and the ideological justification that parties use.

The biggest misconception is usually regarding the FDP. Think of them as libertarians, or as close to that as any dare to be without falling into political oblivion in Germany. We would place them to the right of CDU. They used to have the subtitle "Party for rich people" in their logo (!), they are extremely favourable to global trade deals, pro big business, against workers' protections, against regulation, against environmentalism... Like leftists, they were in favour of gay marriage and against mass surveillance, but that's no more than libertarians do in the US. Now after this year's elections they are pivoting to try to steal anti-immigrant votes from AfD...

Q: How significant do you think it is that the Jusos (the SPD youth group) have come out against a new grand coalition? There's no real analogue to the Jusos here in the States.

A: Wasn't it that Democrats under the age of 35 were overwhelmingly in favour of Sanders, while the party heads had early on decided on Clinton? I don't think our young people are so different. The young people of any establishment party always have stronger opinions and more idealism (or at least less pragmatism) than the old guard, who are used to doing politics a certain way and who have to consider their position within the party or their job in parliament in deciding what view to take on any issue and how strongly to defend that view. The only difference is that in Germany, every couple decades or so there is a new popular party that embodies the spirit of the new generation, as with Bündnis 90/Die Grünen embodying all the political views that the 1968 generation became famous for, and the Piratenpartei embodying a generation shaped by the internet, with party membership reflecting those demographics. 

An aside: the establishment parties in Germany, compared to those in other countries, were/are particularly tone-deaf about the internet in their utterances and in the policies they tried to enact. Also, even today none of the German government and very few MPs use Twitter. I wouldn't be surprised if a majority still had their secretaries print out emails for them. The Pirate Party peaked at 13% in the polls in 2012 and entered 4 state parliaments at 7-9%. Now however they have deconstructed for various reasons and the big parties are trying to absorb as many Pirate members and voters as possible, with digital campaigns that are a far cry from what we've seen in the US, UK or France even.  

With this understanding, the SPD members strongest in favour of a new Grand Coalition are those that are afraid of losing their MP positions at a new election, or those that supported Sigmar Gabriel and who are afraid they will lose their position in the pecking order if Martin Schulz prevails. Meanwhile the youth organisation Jusos has an innate desire to change the world (albeit those joining SPD for that purpose must necessarily be less ambitious, and more ready to accept existing hierarchies, than those joining Greens or Linke, which are more horizontal organisations and less satisfied with the status quo), and this desire is certainly amplified by the idea that a change in party direction would also bring other people to the top (the Jusos don't currently have anyone near the top). 

Four years ago, we already had this situation: some of the SPD were strongly against the Grand Coalition, and the Jusos were among the strongest opponents, welcoming Sigmar Gabriel with loud protests when he visited their assembly ahead of the coalition treaty being signed. In the end, the SPD membership voted 75.96% in favour of the coalition treaty (details on the vote turnout etc: This is possible because Jusos, and young people in general, are a very small part of SPD. The Jusos organisation counts ca. 70,000 members (stable, non-increasing for the past 10 years). Every SPD member under 35 is automatically a member of Jusos and additionally there is a possibility to sign up as a Jusos member without being a member of SPD, which was 20,000 people last time I checked. So Jusos might be 50,000 out of the SPD's current 443,000 members. (Aside: this is a huge decrease from the 70s: in the 70s, SPD had over a million members and Jusos had 300,000. The decline in membership is across all parties except the Greens) The average age of SPD members is now 60; only 32% of party members are women. 

I believe that this year the opposition to the Grand Coalition is much stronger than in 2013, both within Jusos and in the general party, certainly among the voters. More people have understood that the Grand Coalition is harmful to the SPD, including to their own chances of being elected or re-elected. The party leader and candidate for chancellor Martin Schulz himself is strongly against the Grand Coalition. That being said, there is a penalty in German society for not being ready to play ball (the FDP is suffering now), so I think it's most likely that the Grand Coalition will be rejected by a party vote rather than the leadership accepting the blame for the talks failing. 

Q: Could you tell us a little more about what’s happening within the German left—broadly defined—these days?
A: I'm on the board of the Democracy in Europe Movement 2025 (DiEM25), a transnational pro-European anti-austerity movement / party initiated by former Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis (with whom I work on a daily basis) and which also counts Noam Chomsky, Saskia Sassen, Susan George, Naomi Klein, Slavoj Zizek, Ken Loach, John McDonnell and others among its advisors. Due to my work for this organisation, I am particularly attuned to what is happening in the left-of-center in Europe. A broad breakdown of the movements within the German left parties:

SPD: neoliberal/pro-European or socialist/green/pro-European
Green: green/pro-rich/pro-European or green/socialist/pro-European
Linke: socialist/anti-European or socialist/xenophobic/anti-European or old-Communist/authoritarian or socialist/green/pro-European

So if the SPD goes the way of a Grand Coalition, it may find itself losing supporters to a new grouping, while if it doesn't, it may find itself renewed from within. Of course another important factor is of the leadership fight between Wagenknecht (socialist/xenophobic/anti-European) and Kipping (socialist/green/pro-European) in Linke. Germany may look calm so far but is unlikely to stay that way, no matter which way the dice fall.

Q: How should we understand the rise of the Pirate Party and similar formations in Germany and elsewhere?

A: As I alluded to further above, I see the Pirate Party's success mainly as a result of the other parties' failure to understand the concerns of internet users (e.g. protecting civil liberties on the net, greater transparency and opportunities for participation, very progressive views in general), along with a generational shift that might have been due anyway.

That being said, one interesting aspect that sets them apart from establishment parties is also "fun" (and it applies even more to DIE PARTEI, which doesn't have a program beyond "fun"). I am not sure if / how this plays out in other countries, but M5S (Five Star Movement in Italy) was founded by a comedian, so maybe they are more fun than the establishment parties, too?

In both the Pirate Party and DIE PARTEI, fun can be found for example in less-than-serious campaign posters. The Pirate Party uses some fun posters among serious ones, while DIE PARTEI's posters are all fun and not all have a message. Examples:

· (Pirates: "You can't go to work like that" ... "therefore universal basic income")
· (Pirates: "A wombat for every household!"  ... "we can do unrealistic campaign promises too")
· (DIE PARTEI: "Liberté, égalité, f*ck Afdé")
· (DIE PARTEI: "stuff [Berlin's former mayor] Wowereit, send [former head of Greens] Künast to a hairdresser and resurrect [the Zoo's favourite polar bear] Knut"

Apart from that, there are many ways that the Pirate theme could be (and was) used for fun. That involves e.g. costumes and theme actions (boat-based campaigning), but also one of the key party slogans of all times:  "Klarmachen zum Ändern" (make ready to change), a play on words with the actual pirate phrase "Klarmachen zum Entern" (make ready to board).

Even beyond the Pirate theme, party conventions would involve ball baths, and the rules of both party conventions and parliamentary group sessions recognise a right for anyone to demand a vote on immediate "pony time": the communal watching of the children's cartoon series 'My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic' in order to restore harmony at the time of infighting. For inexplicable reasons, this children's TV series is popular with (adult) nerds even beyond the Pirate Party. (

Some of the fun elements, especially the ones referencing nerd culture and online culture, definitely were a hindrance to the Pirate Party's expansion in Germany. Also there are a lot of people, especially among older Germans, who have a strict view of where jokes and un-seriousness are acceptable and where not (e.g. professionals like lawyers and doctors mustn't tell their clients jokes, all professionals must wear suit & tie or whatever passes for a uniform of the trade,...). But it seems that there is nevertheless a good share of German voters that likes the idea of more fun in politics, or accepts it as a distinguishing feature from the establishment.

Q: Thank you Judith!

Monday, December 4, 2017

The New California Democrat and America’s New Way Forward

I have a new article out with Peter Leyden, the third in our ongoing "California Is the Future" series. This one focuses on the emergence of the New California Democrat and how that could lead the way to a new era in US politics. Here's the beginning of the article:
A New California Democrat is rising, and it’s not Jerry Brown. To use a biblical analogy, the 79-year-old Brown is more like Moses, who got his people to the edge of the promised land — and then handed over leadership to the next generation, who are now pressing on and creating the land of milk and honey.
To be sure, the second coming of Jerry Brown as governor of California from 2011 through 2018 was essential in helping to lay the foundation for the next great progressive era in California politics. But that era is just now fully taking off, with a younger generation leading the way. The New California Democrat is epitomized by a set of leaders in their forties and fifties who blossomed as politicians in the 21st century, well after California’s conservative era (1980s) and its period of polarization and paralysis (1990s). They include:
Gavin Newsom, 50, the current lieutenant governor of California and the leading candidate to succeed Brown as governor. He was a two-term mayor of San Francisco, starting in 2003, at the beginning of the city’s tech transformation. Kamala Harris, 54, a current California U.S. senator who succeeded Barbara Boxer in 2016. Formerly the California attorney general, Harris is frequently mentioned as a possible candidate for U.S. president. Eric Garcetti, 46, the popular two-term mayor of Los Angeles, reelected with 81 percent of the vote; also contemplating a run for U.S. president. Tom Steyer,60, the billionaire former hedge fund manager turned environmental and political activist; currently pressing a national campaign to impeach President Trump. Kevin de León, 50, the president pro tempore of the California State Senate who is running for U.S. Senate against incumbent Democrat Dianne Feinstein.
The Old California Democrat is exemplified by the 84-year-old Feinstein, who has represented California in the U.S. Senate for 25 years, as well as 77-year-old Nancy Pelosi, a representative in the U.S. House for 30 years and currently the House minority leader. These Democrats rose to political leadership in the pre-2000 era of conservative politics, the tax revolt, and the populist anti-immigrant wave. They were shaped by the urgent need to defend against these reactionary political currents and uphold the basics of progressive governance and social tolerance. This they nobly did.
Unfortunately, both of these long-serving warhorses do not want to give up their positions, and they are distorting the natural succession of leadership. Feinstein is running in the 2018 election for yet another term, which has prompted the candidacy of de León, among others. And Pelosi has resisted pressure for a change in Democratic leadership in the U.S. House, which will only continue to mount. The national prominence of Old California Democrats like Feinstein and Pelosi — and even Brown — has obscured the emergence of what truly is a New California Democrat.
This new political animal can be quite radical in terms of national politics — calling for everything from impeaching Trump to establishing single-payer health care. The New California Democrats understand that a healthy society needs a strong government that’s well funded, and they don’t shy from raising public funds through progressive taxation. But the New California Democrats appreciate the market and the capabilities of entrepreneurial business. They are tech savvy and understand the transformative power of new technologies and the vibrancy of an economy built around them. They understand that to solve our many 21st-century challenges, we need business to come up with solutions that scale and that grow the economy for all.
In a national context, the New California Democrat would be recognizable as a progressive, the polar opposite of the conservatives controlling Washington, D.C., right now. They are rooted in similar values as 20th-century progressives, but they have let go of old ideas and solutions that constrained the solution space in the past. The New California Democrat is less ideological and more practical. In this sense, they are different from many Bernie Sanders Democrats. You might describe them as Practical Progressives, or Pro-Growth Progressives, or Entrepreneurial Progressives. A catchall label might be 21st-Century Progressives, since all the hallmarks that make them different have come since the year 2000. And many of the most distinguishing hallmarks will be determined in the next five to 10 years. For now, let’s just call them what they certainly are: New California Democrats.
Read the whole thing here on Medium (ungated). 

Sunday, December 3, 2017

How Doug Jones Can Beat Roy Moore

It won't be easy. But the Washington Post/Schar School poll, a poll that gives Jones a 3 point lead among likely voters, shows how it will happen, if it does happen. First, overwhelming support from blacks, combined with solid turnout (this poll has blacks at about a quarter of likely voters, which is good but not unreasonably high). Then mega-swings in the white vote relative to 2016. Trump carried the white vote by 70 points in Alabama in 2016. In this poll, Moore carries the white vote by a mere 30 points (63-33). 

The Post poll allows one to break down the white vote by college and noncollege. The poll has white noncollege voters supporting Moore by "only" 42 points. That sounds like a lot but compared to Trump's 77 point margin among this group in 2016, it's not bad. And there are twice as many white noncollege voters as white college voters so that swing, if it happens, will loom pretty large in determining the outcome. We can't break white noncollege down between men and women but judging from other data in the poll, it seems plausible that white noncollege women will drive the swing. How much they move could determine Alabama's next Senator.

Saturday, December 2, 2017

Science Fiction Saturday: David Brin's Startide Rising

One of my favorite space operas of all time is David Brin's Startide Rising. Why is it so great? I'll let Alan Brown on the excellent site explain in his retro-review of the book. 
Everyone loves dolphins. And chimps. And everyone loves spaceships. And adventures. So, in the mid-1980s, when David Brin put dolphins, chimps, and humans in spaceships, and dropped them into the middle of a rip-snorting adventure, I (and a lot of other people) immediately jumped on board. And what a wonderful ride it was…. Few books written in the 1980s did as good a job as Brin’s work of recreating the good old “sense of wonder” that I remember from my youth….
In Brin’s future history, as humans begin to reach beyond Earth, they also begin to experiment with other species on the planet to encourage them to sapience. This includes dolphins and chimpanzees. Mankind then finds that the stars are filled with sentient races, races whose histories sometimes stretch back billions of years. The human race, however, represents an immediate mystery to these Galactic aliens. Throughout history, senior patron races have been ‘uplifting’ other races to sapience, and those junior races then serve them through a kind of indenture system. This is similar to what humans have been doing with dolphins and chimpanzees, although while the humans try to treat their junior races as equals, some Galactics treat the junior races as little more than slaves. While uplifting other species confers the humans status as a patron race, there is no sign that the human race has a patron of its own. This makes humans a ‘wolfling’ race, and without patrons, the humans are at a disadvantage in the chaotic civilization that spans the stars….Many races rely upon the Library, a gigantic collection of ancient knowledge, rather than engaging in scientific research or experimentation. There are legends of a race called the Progenitors, who first developed the process of uplifting, but little is known about them....
Partnering with dolphins and chimpanzees, humans are reaching out to the stars, and rather than depending on the Library, they are using research ships to explore the universe and verify the information they have been given. And there is some reason to believe that not all the information is accurate, or has been corrupted with malicious intent. The humans resist simply using existing technologies developed by others, and have made some new discoveries thanks to their efforts—which marks them as either creative innovators, or disruptors of the status quo, depending on the perspective of the races that are observing them.
Streaker, one of Earth’s research vessels, is a mix of Galactic and human technologies, modified with some interesting adaptations in order to best serve its various crewmembers. While dolphins normally live in water and breath air, because of the difficulties posed by keeping air and water separated in zero gravity, many compartments are filled with a highly oxygenated water that can be ‘breathed’ by the dolphins. And while gravity control is possible, the humans have also designed the ship with internal centrifugal wheels that can simulate gravity in a more low-tech manner. The ship is armed, as are most vessels in the anarchic Five Galaxies, but is not a military vessel.
So it's quite a setting and, as the reviewer suggests, a "rip-snorting adventure". Get your sense of wonder ready and give it a try. 

Friday, December 1, 2017

Obscure Music Friday: Strawberry Alarm Clock

Groovy, man! Strawberry Alarm Clock were, like, far out and they had the fabulous 1967 hit, "Incense and Peppermints" (video linked to here in all its psychedelic glory; note the tripped out costumes and the guitar player playing cross-legged). 

I actually saw them live at a show during the all-too-brief incarnation (July, 1967-January, 1968) of the old Ambassador Theater in DC as a psychedelic dance hall. I remember there was an appropriately mind-blowing psychedelic light show and that the band played of course (among more forgettable fare) Incense and Peppermints. I believe the show was sometime in November. My recollection was that the show was quite sparsely-attended--maybe 20 people or so. But a good time was had by all.

Shockingly, the band appears to be still around in some form, playing oldies gigs of various kinds. Too dreadful to be imagined. Glad I saw them when they were truly groovy!

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Redistribution Lives!

Most people on the left believe the right has succeeded in their maniacal quest to reverse progressive redistribution by the modern state. This gives the right too much credit. They have, in fact, failed to do this (though a reasonable case can be made that they have slowed the growth in progressive distribution). 

Peter Lindert, one of the great academic experts on inequality (his book with Jeffrey Williamson, Unequal Gains, is the definitive history of American economic inequality) documents this in a recent study that he summarizes on the VoxEU site (emphasis added):
·         Government budgets have shifted resources progressively, from the rich to the poor, within the last 100 years. The middle ranks are neither favoured nor disfavoured.  Before WWI, very little was redistributed through government.
·         The shift toward progressivity has not been reversed, contrary to allegations of a rightward shift since the 1970s.  Among democratic welfare states, the closest thing to a demonstrable reversal was Sweden’s partial retreat since the 1980s. Globally, the most dramatic swing has been Chile’s record-setting return towards progressivity after the regressivity under Pinochet. 
·         As a corollary, the rise in inequality since the 1970s owes nothing to a net shift in government redistribution toward the rich, despite the lowering of top tax rates.
·         Since the late 1970s, several governments have shown a mission drift away from investing in lower-income children and working-age adults, while concentrating social insurance on the elderly. Japan, the US, and some Mediterranean countries have missed an opportunity for pro-growth income-levelling. 
The full study is available in a working paper, The Rise and Future of Progressive Redistribution" (warning: much wonkery! But lots of great data).