A note about the Washington primary

I would loved to have gone along to a polling station here in Seattle to give you guys an on the ground perspective of an American primary contest, but sadly it is not possible. In King County, which encompasses the city of Seattle, all voting is conducted by mail. In the biggest city in the state, this election will play out at kitchen tables and through postboxes, not in school halls and community centres.

It’s a shame, because I visited a station in Washington’s Whatcom County for the 2004 Presidential election, and found it fascinating. The lines were long, though nowhere near as long as in parts of swing states like Ohio or Florida. The vote was conducted using a rather complex punch card system not dissimilar from the one that caused so much trouble in Palm Beach County in 2000. The polling officials even indulged my request to try a sample ballot on one of their machines. After my experimental attempt, I began to sympathise with the Floridians who found the ballot confusing.

Perhaps this is a reason to recommend mail-in ballots like those used in King County. It seems likely that letting voters cast their votes from home would reduce the chance of error. Allowing people to vote whenever they find time rather than requiring them to show up to a specific place on a specific day also seems an excellent way to bolster turnout. Mail-in voting is popular out west — many parts of Oregon also use it — and while I usually find American voting innovations to be wacky and overly complex (e.g. touch screens), this seems a logical way to improve efficiency and participation.

As for the returns this evening, I meant to mention this in my earlier post today, but it slipped my mind until I saw this Politico article: the thing to watch out for in tonight’s results will be the proportion of the vote Senate candidates Patty Murray (D) and Dino Rossi (R) get. These are an imperfect predictor of the general election result, as Republicans will likely be more motivated to vote in this primary than Democrats, considering they have a more competitive field to choose from. Likewise, though Rossi is expected to win, he might pick up support in November he didn’t have today, from voters who back the Sarah Palin-endorsed Clint Didier but would still vote for Rossi in a two-way contest against Murray. Even so, this will give us an insight into what kind of chance the Republican Party has of swinging Senate seats that in a usual cycle would be safe for the Democrats.


Mr Obama goes to Seattle

I won’t be holding my breath for a glimpse of the Commander in Chief, however. The President’s visit will consist of a private visit to a small business in the historic downtown Seattle neighbourhood of Pioneer Square, before he heads off to a couple of big-money fundraisers for the state’s incumbent Democratic Senator Patty Murray. (Tickets for one of these events run at $10 000 a head, the Seattle Times reckons.) Obama is expected to be out of town before the afternoon is over.

Not to worry; the state has plenty to keep itself busy. Today is Primary Day in Washington state, and for all but a select few Democratic Party dinner guests, August 17 will be about local politicians rather than the one visiting from D.C.

A host of races are on the ballot, including state government representative and senatorial seats, as well as a number of judgeships. Yes indeed: as with many other states in America, Washington elects its judges. The local alternate weekly newspaper The Stranger has even been actively campaigning to remove one from the state Supreme Court — your opinion on the bizarreness of this will likely depend on whether you’re reading this in the U.S. or not.

But the race to pay attention to will be the Senatorial contest. Murray has no serious Democratic challengers, but a few Republicans are vying to take her out in November. And they might have a shot at doing so:  RealClearPolitics and FiveThirtyEight both rate the state as a toss-up, though both have Murray slightly ahead in their polling aggregates.

Though the race is closer than you might expect in blue Washington, I suspect Murray will be likelier to win another term than not this November. But a couple of GOP hopefuls think they can swing the seat. The Tea Party pick is the Sarah Palin-endorsed farmer and ex-footballer Clint Didier, a fiery fellow from the conservative eastern side of the state. However, Washington Republicans have apparently not heard that this is the year of the political outsider, and the GOP favourite is still Dino Rossi. Rossi is a well known politician in the state, and he ran for governor here in 2004 and 2008, losing narrowly both times. Rather than try to remake himself as a Tea Party convert, he has campaigned as a straight-up Republican, and though I’ve said before that I have my doubts how welcoming the state will be of a two time loser, this is probably his best strategy. He’s clearly hoping that this is indeed the year of the Republican Party, and that Democratic unpopularity can tip him over the top. And if the GOP is to have any chance at all of performing the unlikely feat of gaining control of the Senate, Washington is the kind of state it will have to win.

The most likely outcome from today is that Dino Rossi and Patty Murray will be selected to face each other in November. However, it’s not assured, particularly considering Washington’s unusual primary system. Called a Top Two Primary, it is unlike most other primary contests in that the races are not segregated by party; for each political office up for grabs, the two candidates who receive the most number of votes today will compete in the general election in November, even if they’re both from the same party. In fact, the Washington State primary doesn’t even acknowledge party affiliation, and considers each candidate to be running as an individual. Candidates signal their party membership by listing on the ballot which party they prefer.

It’s a symptom of the West’s grizzled independent streak — or its obstreperousness, if you’d prefer. Between 1935 and 2003 voters could cast their primary ballot in any race they chose; voting, for instance, in the Democratic Senate race before making a selection in the Republican mayoral contest. The system was found unconstitutional because it infringed on the party’s right to free association. The Top Two Primary was the state’s means of retaining a primary that kept control with voters while thumbing its nose at the major parties.

It’s worth keeping an eye on the races today, because California has recently adopted the same system, in hopes of clearing some of the partisanship out of its dysfunctional government. The only upset we have a chance of seeing in Washington’s Senate race would be a scuttling of Rossi by his party’s right wing in favour another Tea Party insurgent. But keep an eye on the race, and try to imagine what chaos the voters of California might cause when they get their hands on this system…

Steven Slater: America’s Other Guy

Former JetBlue flight attendant Steven Slater.

Steven Slater headed to his arraignment this past Tuesday (Photo: NYT)

America’s newest folk hero, Steven Slater probably wasn’t taking a stand specifically against his employer, JetBlue this past week, though he’s certainly made a convincing bid for being hallowed as the patron saint of taking a job and shoving it. Should you not know, Slater is the flight attendant who, fed up with a passenger’s rudeness, quit his job with an announcement over the landed plane’s intercom before fleeing down the exit chute with two pilfered beers in hand. When police showed up at his home later that day, they caught him in mid-coitus. America has celebrated individuals who have stuck it to the man in less flamboyant fashion, so it’s little wonder this guy has captured headlines in the slow days of late summer.

Slater’s outburst seemed more like an outburst at the whole freakin’ system than an outcry against lousy workplace conditions. But as Slate points out, that Slater’s demonstrative deplaning was also a resignation probably didn’t hurt his chances of charming a country full of people watching their careers stagnate along with the economy. In periods of sluggish growth, it’s not just the unemployed who feel the pain; workers who need to work harder to keep their jobs, with few immediate prospects for promotion or pay-raises, aren’t going to be feeling so happy about their labour either.

Perhaps this is why America seems particularly sour on business at the moment. JetBlue’s beverage cart copped the brunt of Slater’s workplace anxiety, but 2010 has seen the nation as a whole shift its fury from one corporation to the next, be it a safety-lax Toyota or an environmentally irresponsible BP. And the biggest selling movie in the States this past week was The Other Guys, a curious flick that starts off as a madcap Will Ferrell spoof of cop buddy-movies, before morphing into a spirited denunciation of unethical businessmen and corporate tricksters.

This goes beyond the anger directed specifically at Wall Street over recent years; Americans don’t seem any happier about big business right now than they are about big government. For those of us who have been told repeatedly that the United States is centre-right, individualist nation whose people would be happiest if government just got out of the way and allowed private enterprise to do its thing, this animosity for corporate America might seem counterintuitive.

To be sure, America has a unique regard for the individual, and this often expresses itself in anti-government terms. And from the nation’s very beginning, Americans have chafed under heavy-handed political authority. But while framing this in simple government-no, business-yes terms might serve those who benefit from weak regulations, the American individualist streak is a little more complex. (I’d argue Americans are happiest with government when they don’t notice it, not when it’s not there.) And just because this individualist streak doesn’t fit in with Marxist ideals about class solidarity does not mean Americans like being pushed around by business any more than they do being pushed around by politicians.

After all, the American individualist ideal involves being one’s own boss, answerable no more to pushy bosses or rude customers than to intrusive laws. And if the expression of that should involve a triumphal getaway from a lousy job, it should be little surprise Steven Slater has vaulted into the ranks of the nation’s newest micro-celebrities.

Weekend update

It’s been a while since we’ve done one of these, huh?

As America gears up for a new week, why not check out something from a hyped new release from last week, Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs? It’s a rather middling album, sadly, but it has a few highlights. Here’s “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains),” from their Madison Square Garden Show this past Thursday.

Comforting madness

Characters from the AMC drama Mad Men

Moderate spoilers ahead, depending on how much of the show you’ve seen.

When the fourth season premiere of the AMC drama “Mad Men” went to air three weeks ago, the show seemed to shift from highly acclaimed TV series to genuine cultural phenomenon. The premiere was launched with a Times Square party. Banana Republic mimicked the show’s style in its window displays and offered its customers the chance to win a role in the series. Leading man Jon Hamm’s face seemed to crop up everywhere and his character is being touted as a model for modern masculinity. Sadie Stein at Jezebel argues that the show is the new “Sex and the City,” observing that, “people talk about Mad Men who don’t watch it. There’s enough cultural saturation that we’ve come to feel a collective sense of ownership, whether someone’s seen the show or not.”

Last Sunday, the New York Times ran an article by Katie Roiphe arguing that the Mad Men appeal lies in its portrayal of moral abandon in contrast to modern stuffiness:

The phenomenal success of the show relies at least in part on the thrill of casual vice, on the glamour of spectacularly messy, self-destructive behavior to our relatively staid and enlightened times. As a culture we have moved in the direction of the gym, of the enriching, wholesome pursuit, of the embrace of responsibility, and the furthering of goals, and away from lounging around in the middle of the afternoon with a drink.

It’s a silly article, stuffed with clichés about Whole Foods and organic milk, and it confuses counter-culture artistes with conservative businessmen like Don Draper. (Better is Maureen Dowd’s meditation on the differences between Holly Golightly and Betty Draper, published the same day.) But Roiphe’s article isn’t just a vapid take on modern life, it’s a poor reading of the source material.

Mad Men’s phenomenal appeal (beyond smart storytelling, of course) lies in its distinction from the modern world, sure. But for mine, its success lies not in its comparative recklessness, but in its staidness. In an America still in the midst of Great Recession uncertainty, the show presents small, contained worlds that are easily understandable and controllable. The aesthetic is a stylish nostalgia, where men look dapper, women look pretty, and all is warm-hued. The world of Mad Men is an insular one; exterior shots are few and far between, and the characters seem to transition from home to office to restaurant to bar without needing to venture out in to the wider world. Though the show is known for its New York setting, there are no shots of skyscrapers or city lights, downtown traffic jams or subway entrances. The entire thing exists in an artificially-lit, hermetically sealed otherworld.

Unlike the bare-knuckle capitalism of “The Sopranos,” on which Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner previously worked, Don Draper’s world is one of gainful, steady employment, where status is marked easily and incontrovertibly by neat suits, neat haircuts and liquor served neat. Even now that Don is divorced and is a partner in his own fledgling agency, he retains the trappings of upper-middle class success he’s enjoyed in seasons previous. The problems of the show’s characters are the stuff of domestic drama, and reassuringly distant from the greater uncertainties of contemporary America.

Mad Men is a show for these times, all right. But it’s a salve for the hard times, not a vessel for the frission of vice. No wonder America loves it.

14 > 8

And not just mathematically.

Big news out of the Federal District Court in San Francisco: Judge Vaughn R. Walker has found that California’s Proposition 8 violates the right to equal protection under the law established by the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Prop 8 was the initiative passed by California voters in 2008 that changed the Californian constitution so as to outlaw gay marriage in the state. Since federal law supersedes state law, even a change to a state constitution can’t be used to diminish rights that are federally protected.

And that is why this ruling is so momentous. While most previous court decisions, such as those in Iowa and Massachusetts that found in favour of gay marriage, did so on the basis of state constitutions, the California decision was based on the federal constitution. And although the decision only applies to the state of California, the legal argument in question is valid throughout the United States. That is, if a Californian’s right to gay marriage is protected by the 14th Amendment, then so too is a Texan’s, an Alaskan’s, a Mississippian’s and an Oregonian’s. That makes the case more akin to Loving v Virginia, the 1967 Supreme Court decision that struck down laws preventing interracial marriage.

Of course, what will actually happen is that this case will be appealed until it reaches the Supreme Court. Observers are pegging 2012 as the approximate date for that hearing to come about. And if the Supreme Court should agree with Walker’s decision, then gay marriage would become legal everywhere in America, even if voters have put in place state-based laws or constitutional amendments. So, understanding how the court’s liberal-conservative split usually breaks down, the near future of gay marriage across America rests in the hands of Justice Anthony Kennedy. (Though, as Nate Silver points out, the votes of Chief Justice John Roberts and the newly confirmed Elena Kagan should not be taken entirely for granted.) Continue reading

Let Gillard be Poland


In Bartlet’s image…

West Wing fans (we’ve got a few of them at the Centre) might be charmed by this post from Annabel Crabb in which she compares Julia Gillard’s new desire to show Australia the real Julia Gillard with this scene from Aaron Sorkin’s political drama. The staff of the show’s fictional President Bartlet urges the first termer to gear up for re-election by reaffirming his core principles: “Let Bartlet be Bartlet.”

Says Crabb: “After six weeks of Ms Gillard’s prime ministership, after a repetitive feast of “moving forwards” and “more governing to do” and “a good government that lost its way”, we have finally arrived at: “Let Gillard be Gillard”.”

There’s nothing wrong with a good “West Wing” reference, but I’m more fond of American politics in its non-fictional guise. And before Bartlet and Gillard, there was the Gipper.

“Let Reagan be Reagan” was a slogan used by the 40th president’s conservative supporters to urge the administration to eschew compromise and enact stronger conservative policies. The earliest usage I can find of it in the Factiva database is a New York Times article from December 17, 1982, in which the reporter questions, “Will the budget for the fiscal year 1984 be one that, in the view of some, ‘lets Reagan be Reagan?'” The sentence is written as if readers might already be expected to be familiar with the phrase. Another early usage in the Times, from January 21, 1983, reports on a Republican rally:

At the rally of party loyalists who took time off from their Government jobs, Interior Secretary James G. Watt warmed the crowd up with an exhortation that instantly brought them to their feet, cheering, applauding and offering rebel yells.

”Let Reagan be Reagan!” Mr. Watt’s cry rang through the hall, in obvious reference to conservative complaints that Mr. Reagan was being guided dangerously by moderate advisers.

A 1991 article by the late Times wordsmith and Richard Nixon speechwriter William Safire traces the origins of the slogan farther back:

This was a phrase popularized by then-Representative Jack F. Kemp, who disclaims coinage, in urging White House “handlers” to permit President Reagan to express his true nature. It had previously appeared in January 1982 as a theme of a United States Information Agency global broadcast directed at Soviet imperialists to “Let Poland Be Poland.”

Safire goes on to explore farther, locating the origin of the phrase, when in reference to a particular nation, as a 1938 Langston Hughes poem, titled “Let America Be America Again.”

In the “West Wing” universe, Ronald Reagan was never President, as its alternate history begins after Richard Nixon’s presidency. So on TV, credit for the coinage belongs with Bartlet’s chief of staff Leo McGarry. But in our world, credit Hughes, credit Reagan, or credit the Polish people’s desire for freedom. Credit the “West Wing” writers, however, with nothing more than knowing when to appropriate a nice turn of phrase.