Here in the math department at James Madison University, we are currently debating certain changes to the major. The problem is that we have distinct groups in pure mathematics, applied mathematics, statistics and math education. We also have students that major in mathematics for very different reasons. Some are training to be teachers, some are planning to go into industry, others are interested in graduate school, still others might be double majoring in something like physics or computer science. All of this diversity makes it difficult, more like impossible, to craft one major that perfectly fits everyone's needs. So, the current major is the result of many small compromises, meaning it does the job reasonably well without actually making anyone completely happy.

As it happens, I am currently the chair of the group in pure mathematics. I have spent a lot of time this term listening to the perspectives of people from the other groups, and also trying to get my own group united around, well, something. As a result, I have had a bit of an epiphany about governing: it's not a very pleasant job. In fact, it's mostly tedious and frustrating. If you really take it seriously, and really try to craft reasonable solutions to practical problems that everyone can live with, then you spend a lot of time getting nowhere.

Mind you, the sorts of arguments we're having are ultimately penny ante stuff. There's little chance either of making major changes or of messing things up too badly, and we'll all still be friends at the end of it. How much worse must it be to be a mayor, or a governor, or a senator? So much worse, I would imagine, that the old adage about anyone wanting the job being automatically disqualified rings true to me.

Then factor in the complete hell you go through to get elected, especially at the state or federal level. Most of your time is spent raising money, which is to say that you are constantly having to pander to various wealthy assholes, who usually have some purely venal reason for wanting your attention. Then you have to deal with our cartoonishly awful press corps, desperately waiting for you to give them something they can present as a gaffe or a scandal. Of course, the public is no prize either, since they are the ones lapping up what the press corps feeds them.

Can it be any wonder that so many of the people who enter politics at the state or federal level do not do so for noble reasons? Are we surprised that so many just like the trappings of power, or are crazed fanatics, or seem interested in anything other than the actual task of governing?

As you might have guessed, these musings are inspired by tonight's election results. The Republicans pretty much ran the table. They will take control of the Senate, among many other victories. At the national level this will change little. In fact, it's probably good for the Democrats' Presidential ambitions in 2016. The newly-elected Republican senators are wall-to-wall crazies with no interest in doing anything save for investigating President Obama. People don't like crazy, and they tend to pay more attention to Presidential elections than to midterms.

So what went wrong for the Democrats? Certainly there were plenty of structural factors against them: sixth-year blues, low turnout in midterms, defending a lot of seats in red states. But there is one explanation that should not be ignored. Kevin Drum writes:

Just a quick note about an election meme that's already driving me crazy: Democrats lost because they're timid, vacillating milksops who can barely string together a coherent message and are congenitally unwilling to stand up for their own beliefs. No wonder everyone hates them!

Give me a break. Democrats are Democrats, and they act pretty much the same every election cycle. And yet, they won big in 2006, 2008, and 2012. If they're such gutless milksops, how were those victories possible?

Drum is wrong. Democratic politicians mostly are a bunch of timid, vacillating milksops. They have been for all of my political memory, which dates back to the early nineties. Bill Clinton was a welcome exception, but most are closer to Alison Lundergan Grimes, the hapless Senate candidate who just lost to Mitch McConnell in Kentucky. She's the one who bobbed and weaved embarrassingly to avoid answering the question, posed by a newspaper editorial board, “Did you vote for President Obama?” Apparently she felt the days of headlines over her cravenness were better for her than just stating the obvious about who she voted for. That's pretty much the definition of being a timid, vacillating milksop. Kentucky in particular has benefitted enormously from Obamacare, but you would never have known it from the Grimes' campaign. She didn't deserve to win, and neither did all of the other cowards who ran away from President Obama.

Drum asks how the Democrats ever win elections. The answer is that their ideas are both better and more popular than what Republicans offer. Sometimes that matters. From 2000-2006, for example, the Republicans controlled both Congress and the Presidency. The results were so disastrous--allowing 9/11, ill-conceived wars, catastrophic economic policies, incompetent handling of natural disasters--that all the negative ads in the world couldn't make people not notice. Democratic governance simply works better for more people. There are not enough millionaires and religious fanatics to get Republicans elected. Normal people have to be fooled into voting against their interests.

Which brings me to the main structural advantage enjoyed by Republicans: low-information voters. If you're unfamiliar with the concept, here's an illustration:

A significant chunk of Louisiana Republicans evidently believe that President Barack Obama is to blame for the poor response to the hurricane that ravaged their state more than three years before he took office.

The latest survey from Democratic-leaning Public Policy Polling, provided exclusively to TPM, showed an eye-popping divide among Republicans in the Bayou State when it comes to accountability for the government's post-Katrina blunders.

Twenty-eight percent said they think former President George W. Bush, who was in office at the time, was more responsible for the poor federal response while 29 percent said Obama, who was still a freshman U.S. Senator when the storm battered the Gulf Coast in 2005, was more responsible. Nearly half of Louisiana Republicans -- 44 percent -- said they aren't sure who to blame.

Get the idea? That's what Democrats are up against. The Republicans are entirely without conscience when it comes to lying about what's going on in the world. My own representative, for example, sent out a mailer telling everyone that Ebola is rampaging through the country right at the same time that Obama took away everyone's health care. Who does that, and who believes it when something like that shows up in the mail? The Repubicans are the ones who mock the “reality-based community.” They understand the concept of the big lie. And they know that heavy doses of message discipline coupled with confident fanaticism is very appealing to a lot of people. Republicans are good at this precisely because their ideology is based on simple, asinine slogans that are easy to present in soundbite form.

Democrats, for their part, are temperamentally unsuited to this sort of thing. They mostly act like Jon Lovitz's impression of Michael Dukakis from the classic Saturday Night Live sketch. That's the one where Dana Carvey, portraying the first President Bush, said one stupid thing after another in a debate, provoking Dukakis to reply, “I can't believe I'm losing to this guy.”

Do you remember Bill Clinton's speech from the 2012 Democratic National Convention? He spent an hour explaining, with impressive lucidity, why the Democrat's ideas and results are better than those of the Republicans. It was treated like a revelation by the media, and properly so, since Democrats so rarely speak with such force and clarity. President Obama later quipped that he should appoint Clinton as the Secretary of Explaining Stuff. Indeed. So why doesn't Obama himself ever speak like that? He is far too much of a law professor for the political climate he faces. His record is eminently defensible, even impressive given the forces arrayed against him. But Obama himself seems uninclined to defend it, much less any of the Democratic candidates.

It's time to wrap this up, so let's ponder the saddest thing of all about tonight's election results: they won't actually change very much, at least at the national level. That's because so many of the Democrats have already gone over to the dark side. There are still some Al Frankens and Elizabeth Warrens, but there are plenty of conservative Democrats who are just as uninclined as the Republicans to rein in Wall Street, or support the public schools, or to fight the foolish calls for austerity in a time of economic crisis. So when I read tihngs like this, from Danny Vinik at The New Republic:

Obstruction, while destructive for policymaking, has been good politics for the Republicans. Future Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has successfully blocked bill after bill—and avoided giving Democrats victories on them—by using the filibuster. For a time, McConnell also stopped the president from appointing many Democratic nominees—leaving judicial posts empty and kneecapping agencies like the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and National Labor Relations Board, which had to operate without leaders or members.

The blocking of nominees ended last November, when Democrats invoked the “nuclear option”—they changed the rules of the Senate to eliminate filibusters for all executive branch and judicial nominees. (They left an exception for Supreme Court justices.) But don’t expect Reid to use the filibuster any less than Republicans have. Reid has a history of supporting the filibuster when in the minority and criticizing it when in the majority. There’s no reason to expect that to change with McConnell as majority leader.

I just have to shake my head sadly. The Democrats will not use the filibuster in anything close to the borderline-treasonous way the Republicans have. The Republicans will only need a few Democratic votes to break a filibuster, and they will rarely find it difficult to find them. (Just as George W. Bush had plenty of Democrats to support him in every foolish thing he did.) And if by some fluke the Democrats actually find some backbone and get united around an obstructionist agenda, the Republicans will not hesitate to change the rules.

So don't lose any sleep over this. The country's decline occurs a bit faster under Republican than under Democratic rule, but it's been mostly downhill ever since Reagan. And just think, in a few weeks this election will be a memory, and the 2016 race will start in earnest.


More like this

they won’t actually change very much, at least at the national level.

There's some irony behind that statement. Having gained control of the Senate, one would normally expect that this would give the GOP a power to block presidential nominations that they didn't have when they were a minority. But for some reason I can't fathom, the Dems have allowed the GOP Senate minority to effectively block all nominations for the past several years, so yeah, we're not going to see a difference there.

One possibly significant change is that the GOP will now chair all the Senate committees. This allows them to set committee agendas, etc... rather than the Dems doing it. And for some committees, that may make a big difference.

Well, with control over the Senate

Ack, ignore my last sentence fragment. Cut and paste error.

Amen. I just posted a shorter, weaker version of this post on Jerry Coyne's blog, in response to his election-result blues.

I noticed some of the same dynamic you (Prof. Rosenhouse) described (how leadership positions attract people for the wrong reasons) in management at General Electric. The people who desperately wanted the next higher open management job usually were not the sort who would manage with the interests of employees or customers at heart, or had the most integrity. The best you could hope for was that along with their ambition they had enough sense to know that treating people unfairly would catch up with them eventually. That wasn't so much the case when I started, when most of the managers had fought in WWII. That experience seemed to instill a spirit of "we're all in this together" and the ambition that leaders had was mainly directed at doing a good job. That sounds too good to be true, I know, but I could support it with lots of anecdotes (too long for the margins of this comment section).

So it may be that things have to get much worse before our leaders get better, or people like me (who didn't compete for the one unit-manager position I might have been able to get) decide the effort is necessary.

Can't wait for 6 years of "make 'em squeal."

By Michael Fugate (not verified) on 05 Nov 2014 #permalink

Ditto, what Jason said.
The Dems need to get a spine... while the GOP rank-and-file proudly goosestep to the beat of 1930s Germany (and no, that's not hyperbole).

There is something that Democrats consistently miss, and rational thinkers consistently miss:


("Ouch, he used all caps!" Darn right I did.)

ALL the cog sci research supports this. Show people photos of daisies and dog doo, and the ones whose brains light up the MRI for the dog doo are > 90% likely to be conservatives. Conservative brains react to "disgust" more than liberal brains. Etc. etc. ad-nauseam.

Republicans, for all their science denialism, are masters of the relevant fields. They know how to craft emotional narratives that work.

We need to learn this, and practice thi.:

In EVERY story, there are three things going on:

1) The "overt" narrative. The plot as it's usually described.
2) The "moral" or "message."
3) The "emotional narrative."

(3) is nothing more than a sequence of emotions that are portrayed, for example in a war film, "fear, courage, triumph." But (3) is the key to the film, the fiction, and the proverbial kingdom.

That's why people go to films and read fiction. DId you see _Contact_ to learn astrophysics? Hell no, you saw it to experience an _emotional narrative_ in a context that fits into your worldview.

Emotional narratives are what wins or loses elections.

For example 2008 was "Fear" vs. "Hope." After all the national catastrophes, the Republican message of "fear" was off-putting and Obama's message of "hope" was uplifting. When the economic poo hit the blades in September 2008, people needed a huge dose of hope. Obama delivered that message brilliantly and won.

The past six years have no doubt worn him to a frazzle, and it probably takes all the hugs the First Lady and his kids give him, to keep him sane in the face of domestic enemies who are as dangerous as our foreign enemies.

But the point is, most Democrats haven't the faintest slightest clue about how to do this.

Bill Clinton gets it: because when he's "explaining," he's also using his formidable nonverbal communication skills, such as tone and rhythm of voice, to invoke emotions in his listeners. THAT is what works.

We need to learn this, we need to get it, we need to use it.

Stop explaining, and start invoking FEELINGS.


Say it out loud a few times. Say it with FEELING. Understand what it means. And start demanding that our candidates recognize this and deal with it.

Obama has done less than nothing to disabuse ordinary pepole of their common misconceptions.

If, after six years in office, it remains a fact that

RE Republicans in the Bayou State when it comes to accountability for the government’s post-Katrina blunders.

---> (only) Twenty-eight percent said they think former President George W. Bush, who was in office at the time, was more responsible for the poor federal response

----> while 29 percent said Obama, who was still a freshman U.S. Senator when the storm battered the Gulf Coast in 2005, was more responsible.

and ---> Nearly half of Louisiana Republicans — 44 percent — said they aren’t sure who to blame.

it suggests to me that, to the extent that this is an important matter--there are other areas of profound ignorance much more serious and important-- Obama is simply proven, again and again incompetent and negligent in his work. And, as a Democrat, he's a disgrace. I say good riddance to all such "Democrats."

By proximity1 (not verified) on 06 Nov 2014 #permalink

Our senior senator, who was 20 points ahead in the polls a month ago barely won by less then 1%. The same Mark Warner who was the most popular governor in Virginia in the last 30 years and who got more then 60% of the vote 6 years ago. This against an opponent who had never run for public office previously. We're fortunate that the election for governor, lt. governor, and attorney general were held in 2013 or the whackjobs Cuccinelli and Jackson might have won.

The Democrats managed to lose the governorships of Massachusetts and Maryland, 2 of the bluest states in the country. Maybe there's something wrong with their candidates (certainly that was the case in Massachusetts where Martha Coakley lost a statewide race for the 2nd time).

By colnago80 (not verified) on 06 Nov 2014 #permalink

Democratic politicians mostly are a bunch of timid, vacillating milksops... Bill Clinton was a welcome exception...

The guy who introduced "triangulation" (i.e., start by giving away half the store) as a presidential strategy provides a damn poor benchmark for steadfastness (though he looks good compared to the incumbent, who starts by giving away 3/4 of the store at minimum).

Since our esteemed host's political memory includes only two Democratic presidents, he might do well to read up on Johnson, Truman, and Roosevelt to gain some perspective on the era when Democrats had spines.

By Pierce R. Butler (not verified) on 06 Nov 2014 #permalink

Drum is wrong. Democratic politicians mostly are a bunch of timid, vacillating milksops.

The Republicans are entirely without conscience when it comes to lying about what’s going on in the world.

Hell of a system you've got there. Is that all you get for $3.67 billion in spending (that's been accounted for so far, anyway)?

"Obama is simply proven, again and again incompetent and negligent in his work."

I think he is neither. The objectives have been clearly stated, and are clearly reflected in policy. Sociopathy might be reckless and arrogant, but it is usually quite focused.

"Sociopathy ..."
Really? What foolish bit of imagination makes you think he is a sociopath? The fact that the majority of his policies have been continuations of President Bush's?