Monthly Archives: September 2019

why I am optimistic about the impeachment process

I find myself less anxious than most friends and commentators. Here are my largely sanguine responses to several current concerns about the impeachment process:

It’s a mistake to focus on one specific scandal. Congress should persuade the American people to condemn a whole pattern of corruption in the administration. (See David Atkins, for example).

Congress can focus on one or two articles of impeachment in order to handle those charges well. (The best current guess is that the articles will involve: 1. Trump’s interaction with Ukraine, and 2. the administration’s obstruction of Congress across many issues.) Meanwhile, the press, presidential candidates, pundits, social movements, and regular citizens will inevitably conduct a wider inquiry and debate. I don’t think the big picture will be lost just because the articles in Congress are precise and narrow.

The Ukraine story also implicates Hunter Biden, and hence (in some way) Joe Biden. That either means that it’s a poor choice of a scandal for the Democrats to use in an election year, or that it’s bad for the public, because both parties will end up defending crony capitalism.

Joe Biden has an opportunity to make a case that he is truly blameless in the Ukraine matter. If he is persuasive, fine. If he fails to persuade, then it’s better that he should fail now, rather than during the general election. Meanwhile, Elizabeth Warren has every incentive to broaden the issue to encompass crony capitalism writ large. Her voice (and others’, too) will ensure that the whole Democratic Party is not soft on corruption.

Impeachment will drown out the Democratic primary campaign, overwhelming an important debate about our future.

During the primary season, a party wants its own faithful to pay attention to the rival proposals, critiques, counter-arguments, endorsements, gaffes, etc. It’s generally fine if other voters pay little attention until a nominee emerges to address the whole public. With vast attendance at primary campaign events and a lively debate online, there is little chance that core Democratic voters will tune out the primary. The intended audience is paying attention.

The impeachment debate will arbitrarily affect the outcome of the Democratic primary.

If it takes Joe Biden down, he was doomed anyway. If he turns it to his advantage, it will reinforce his best argument: his electability. If Warren benefits because she makes the sharpest critique of corruption–well, she is raising a real issue. And if someone else (say, Kamala Harris during a Senate trial) uses the impeachment effectively, it’s evidence of that candidate’s skill.

The Speaker seems to want a short, narrow impeachment process. That will not persuade the American people of the deeper problems with Trump. Pelosi is resigned to an unpopular process and doesn’t understand that impeachment hearings could change Americans’ opinions.

Don’t take what Speaker Pelosi says precisely at face value. I’m not saying that she’s lying; she would genuinely prefer a shorter and tighter process. But she knows that impeachment is likely to extend and expand. She wants unconvinced voters to believe that Democrats are trying to make this quick so that they can move onto other matters. She is also putting mild pressure on her caucus to move things along. I would be very surprised if things actually do wrap up by Thanksgiving, or if she believes that they will.

(By the way, I am continually surprised by strong partisans’ assumption that when someone on their side says something conciliatory about the other side, that person really means it. Do you really think Nancy Pelosi’s main reaction to this situation is to be “heartbroken and prayerful,” as she told ABC News? Are you sure Joe Biden actually believes the Senate Republicans are reasonable? It is not only the other side that sometimes doesn’t say exactly what they think.)

The Senate will acquit, Trump will survive, and as a result, not only will impeachment be further weakened as a tool for accountability, but Trump’s electoral prospects will improve.

Yes, the Senate is overwhelmingly likely to acquit, and Trump will still hold office on Election Day in 2020. But the American people should by then have a clear account of his criminality, which should weigh, at least mildly, against his reelection prospects. That is a sanction. Subsequently, he may face a federal jury on related charges.

If anything, I would have some qualms about actually removing him less than a year before the election. Who would the GOP nominate? What kind of mandate would a Democratic president hold? My ideal outcome might be for the House to impeach, a majority of US Senators to vote to remove Trump, for him to hang on because fewer than 67 Senators voted against him, and for the American people to finish the job in November.

Impeachment creates (at best) a tough vote for Democrats in districts that voted for Trump. Why “punish” the president by giving his party a boost in the congressional election?

This matter has received vast amounts of attention. My tentative takeaway is that any electoral impact will be small and may be a wash–a few Democrats losing in conservative districts and states (like Alabama), but a few Republican Senators facing very tough votes as a result of impeachment. There is a long tail of possible outcomes in either direction, but the best bet is a limited effect.

It’s a mistake to give many House committees a role in impeachment. One committee should handle it.

Pelosi is trying to build support by giving several leaders and groupings within her caucus a stake. Also, one of the articles is likely to be obstruction, and the Administration has obstructed several committees.

The Democrats grandstand amateurishly in hearings. They don’t know how to cross-examine and build a case.

True. And there’s a reason for it: individual politicians want to talk on camera, even though the inquiry would be much better handled by professional counsel. This problem is worth worrying about, but surely the Democrats will finally get it together now ….?

only in America!

When informed that the Lord Mayor of Dublin, Ireland, was Jewish, Yogi Berra exclaimed, “Only in America!”

I was in the jury pool in Middlesex County, Mass. a couple of weeks ago. Of the dozen cases before the court that morning, 11 were settled with pleas, and one proceeded to a bench trial because the defendant waived his right to a jury.

The judge came out to thank us for our service, explaining well that our presence in the jury chamber was a reminder to both sides that they could face a panel of citizens. Warming to his theme, he informed us that only in the United States do we have a right to a trial by jury.

Actually, the number of countries in which juries play important roles is about fifty. Even in the USA, we have juries because England has required them since 1215. Some seminal American jury trials took place while Massachusetts was still a British colony: the libel case against John Peter Zenger, the Boston Massacre Trials.

The jury pool in a diverse American city is a beautiful thing: people come together from all walks of life and all nations of the earth to deliberate as equals. The instructional video was appropriately inspirational, showing diverse Massachusetts citizens at work as jurors. In the video, they even wear varied costumes in the jury box: a guy in a hardhat, an athlete in uniform, etc. It’s a symbol of equity + diversity.

But why the impulse to defend democratic and liberal institutions as unique to the USA? The most common claim of this type is that we are uniquely a nation of immigrants. By my calculation, the US ranks 67th in the world in the percentage of its people who were born overseas, just behind Germany and far behind the republic just to our north (which also uses juries).

Can’t something be good even if it also happens in other countries? What anxiety underlies this urge to claim exceptionalism? Could it be in the back of the judge’s mind that the US ranks below all comparable countries in both public safety and incarceration?

If patriotism depends on the empirical claim that we perform better than everyone else, it is a thin reed. One response is to assume that our form of government is literally unique: only in America! Then no empirical comparisons are needed. But that’s not a viable response, because often many other countries do the same thing. The right response is to be proud of the good things–like jury trials in Massachusetts–and to work to change the bad things (like racial bias in Massachusetts’ criminal justice). That is patriotism that isn’t contingent on exceptionalism.

See also: American exceptionalism and anxieties about American exceptionalism.

community engagement and student success in college

You can now get the recording and associated slides for the AAC&U webinar entitled “The Confounding Promise of Community: Why It Matters More Than Ever for Student Success.” I was a bit of an outlier because I talked about college students’ learning in social movements, taking as my text a 1961 article by Martin Luther King, Jr. on that topic. My comments were based on my article, “Another Time for Freedom? Lessons from the Civil Rights Era for Today’s Campuses.” For me, “community” meant social movements that may target institutions for change.

The excellent other presenters mainly discussed projects that are based in their colleges and engage the communities around them: Ventura County, CA, San Diego, Newark, NJ, and Queens, NY. I thought they demonstrated that their institutions are components (or even “anchors”) of those communities. So instead of saying that their students “go into” communities, we might conclude that their students belong to communities and learn beyond the classroom.

for Irina

Little Irina Antonovna, six,
Took it upon herself to write to her aunt,
Laboriously addressing it to:
"Region of Petrograd, Max Heltz factory."

Why did she write this letter? Well, her father:
Ten years in the camps for being a scholar,
Dead by now. Her mother: dead. Neighborhood:
Wall fragments, smoke, equipment shards, Nazi bombs.
Grandfather: died of rickets while walking
Irina to safety. Grandmother: same.

The letter worked; Irina lived. Married
Dmitri, who never asked her opinions,
But did write Number Nine for her and maybe
Heard her when he wrote the gentle cello drone
That supports the opening. Or the polka--
Why couldn't that frenzied part be Irina?
Why assume she was always soft, helpful?

A young, diverse American quartet
Exhumes Dmitri and Irina for us,
His black notes crisp on their iPads, their bows
Vibrating like cicadas, their eyes flashing
Recognition, assent: one to the other.

They are pillowed in layers of safety.
A clean, bright stage, a tidy concert hall,
An audience that has heard it before
And knows just when to leap up for applause:
White-haired burghers of this college and town.

Irina's professor father would have fit
Right in, if he hadn't been starved or shot.
Little Irina would have liked to hide
Beneath that concert grand, so solidly framed.
A campus cop waits, unworried, outside.

This place is not real. What's real is in the notes.
They know starvation, midnight knocks on doors,
Cities murdered from the sky, orphans' fears,
They know, too, the terrors of the audience,
Shrunken in their seats, nervous to drive home.

Phones still ring with sad news; death sentences
Come in biopsy results. And beyond this room
A billion new Irinas plead to be spared.

See Stephen Harris, “Quartet Number Nine,” “Interview of Irina Shostakovich by Alexandre Brussilovsky,” and also “voices,” and “a poem should.”

college student turnout more than doubled in 2018

My colleagues at the Institute for Democracy and Higher Education here at Tisch College have released their national report on the 2018 election and sent detailed specific reports to each of the roughly 1,031 colleges and universities that participate in our National Study of Learning, Voting, and Engagement (NSLVE). This research is based not on surveys (which have errors in sampling and self-reporting), but on official voting records for about 20 million people.

As reported in today’s Washington Post, the headline is that college student turnout more than doubled between 2014 and 2018 (the last two midterm elections). It’s true that everyone’s turnout grew in 2018, but college students far surpassed the national trend. My favorite statistic is that turnout rose on 99% of all the NSLVE campuses. Now that is a significant pre-/post- change.

The full report has much more detail on demographic groups, profiles of selected colleges, and suggestions for maintaining the momentum. As always, the actual result (40% of college students voted in 2018) remains too low, but the only way forward is by raising engagement one step at a time, and doubling it is a good step.