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Unsung Success

Hurricane Maria killed 2,982 people on American soil – 2,975 in Puerto Rico, four in the contiguous United States, and three in the U.S. Virgin Islands. More lives were lost on American territory to Hurricane Maria than to any other hurricane since the 1900 Galveston hurricane, which is recorded as the worst natural disaster in American history. Hurricane Maria was less deadly than the 9/11 attacks by just 14 lives.

George W. Bush’s handling of Hurricane Katrina is widely, and justly, regarded as the paradigm of incompetent federal disaster management – and Hurricane Katrina killed 1,146 fewer people in the United States than Hurricane Maria did. But Donald Trump wants us to know that the federal response to Hurricane Maria was an “unsung success.”



Midterm Update: The Governors’ Races

The electoral map for the 2018 Senate races is bad for Democrats, but the map for the 2018 gubernatorial races is just as bad for Republicans. Thirty-five Senate seats are up for election, 26 of them held by Democrats and only nine held by Republicans. Thirty-six governors’ seats are up for election, 27 of them held by Republicans and only nine by Democrats. (I’m counting Alaska Governor Bill Walker as a Republican – even though he was elected in 2014 as an independent, with a Democratic running mate, he was a member of the GOP until then.)

In one important respect, the gubernatorial map is even worse for Republicans than the Senate map is for Democrats. Senators are not term-limited, and only three incumbent senators, all Republicans, are not running for re-election. By contrast, the incumbents aren’t running in 17 of the 36 gubernatorial races – 13 of them are Republicans and only four are Democrats. It’s a whole lot easier to flip an open seat than it is to beat an incumbent.

Pre-election indicators are so favorable to Democrats that the Democratic Governors Association is reportedly targeting 17 Republican-held governors’ seats, their top priorities being Michigan, Nevada, Ohio and Wisconsin. Meanwhile, Republican strategists have all but abandoned hope of defeating any Democratic incumbents who are running for re-election. The Republican Governors Association says nothing about challenging incumbent Democrats, but insists that it is going “on offense” in three of the four states with retiring Democratic governors – Colorado, Connecticut and Minnesota (but not California).

Democratic governors are outnumbered by 34 to 16, so Democrats need to pick up nine seats to pull even. As it happens, President Donald Trump’s abysmal approval rating over the last few months is consistent with a net loss of nine to 12 Republican governors this November. Moreover, polling to date puts only two Democratic seats in danger: Oregon Republican State Representative Knute Buehler polled even with incumbent Democratic Governor Kate Brown in this summer’s only non-partisan poll, and Rhode Island Republican Alan Fung, Mayor of Cranston, has polled well this summer against incumbent Democratic Governor Gina Raimondo – although both Oregon and Rhode Island are sufficiently blue that I don’t think either governor is seriously at risk.

On the other hand, early polling puts three Republican-held statehouses in serious danger: Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner has badly trailed the Democratic nominee, businessman J. B. Pritzker, in every poll published so far; Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette hasn’t come out ahead in a poll against former State Senator Gretchen Whitmer since last December; and New Mexico Democratic Congresswoman Michelle Grisham has outpolled Republican Congressman Steve Pearce in every published poll.

On top of those three, Democrats have plausible pick-up chances in nine other states, including some eye-openers: Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Kansas, Maine, Nevada, Ohio, Oklahoma and Wisconsin. Georgia, Kansas and Oklahoma are closer than they might have been because Republicans opted against candidates who polled better in hypothetical general election match-ups: Republicans chose Brian Kemp in Georgia, Kris Kobach in Kansas, and Kevin Stitt in Oklahoma.

On the other hand, Florida Democrats may have hurt their general election chances yesterday, when they nominated Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, who polled slightly less well than Congresswoman Gwen Graham against Republican Congressman Ron DeSantis.

When Democrats’ list of plausible pick-ups includes Florida (which hasn’t elected a Democratic governor since 1994), Georgia, Kansas and Oklahoma, you know that Republicans are in big trouble.

Furthermore, if the blue wave goes tidal, at least two more Republican seats could be swamped: Alaska and Iowa. By all rights, the Alaska race should be closer than it is so far. Incumbent Governor Bill Walker is a Republican who was elected in 2014 as an independent and has governed as a moderate; so far, it looks like he is splitting the more progressive vote with the Democratic nominee, former U.S. Senator Mark Begich, leaving the Republican nominee, former State Senator Mike Dunleavy, with the conservative plurality.

Trump’s trade wars make Iowa something of a wild card. There isn’t any post-primary polling yet, but the highly rated firm of Selzer & Co. found in January that incumbent Republican Governor Kim Reynolds led Democratic businessman Fred Hubbell by just five points. Since then, Hubbell has outdone Reynolds in fundraising, in a race that’s likely to break state spending records.

So the good news is that Democrats have solid chances to flip 12 seats, and outside chances for two others, while Democratic-held seats are showing relatively little vulnerability. The bad news is that three of the country’s bluest states, Maryland, Massachusetts and Vermont, have very popular Republican governors who are running for re-election. If these were open seats, these would be very likely pick-ups for Democrats in November.

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Forty-six states are electing members of at least one house of their state legislatures this November. In seven houses that are up for election, Republican legislators hold majorities so thin that the loss of only three Republican seats to Democrats would flip the majority. Republicans hold larger but still vulnerable majorities in several other houses that are up for election. With highly partisan Republicans in control of the White House and almost certainly the Senate for two more years, and soon to control the Supreme Court, Democratic victories in the U.S. House of Representatives and in state gubernatorial and legislative races are critical to the vitality of two-party democracy for the next two years.


Trump’s Trumanesque Mid-Terms

It has become commonplace to observe that Donald Trump’s approval rating is stubborn – it varies very little in response to events. Generally, the focus of this observation is on negative events, meaning that President Trump’s approval rating does not drop when things go badly for him. I’ve noted the opposite: his approval rating does not rise when things go well for him. Conversely, President Trump’s disapproval rating has also been remarkably constant.

From the beginning of the 2018 mid-term primary season – March 6, to today – Trump’s approval rating has varied only from 40.0 to 42.7 percent, and his disapproval rating has varied only from 51.3 to 54.3 percent. Trump’s net approval rating – his approval rating minus his disapproval rating – has varied from -14.1 to -8.9 percent. In other words, as little as three percent of the vote has shifted between approval and disapproval of Trump’s performance as president.  I’ve pointed out that Trump’s net approval ratings have varied less than any other president during the modern era of polling – that is, beginning with Harry Truman.

Only Truman went into his first mid-term elections with a net approval rating as bad as Trump’s at this point in his presidency. Truman’s first mid-terms, in 1946, were disastrous, arguably the worst for any post-war president: Republicans gained 11 Senate seats and 55 House seats that year.

So the good news is that Democrats are likely to take back control of the House of Representatives, despite the substantial headwinds of partisan gerrymandering and voter suppression measures by Republican-controlled state legislatures. And Democrats will likely pick up several governors (more on that later this week), and perhaps a few hundred state legislative positions.

But this post is about the bad news: barring some pretty shocking late-campaign development, Democrats won’t take back control of the Senate this November. Thirty-five seats are up for election, 33 by regular election and two by special election in Minnesota and Mississippi. Of those, 26 are held by Democrats and only nine by Republicans. Worse, some of the Democratic incumbents are defending seats in states that Trump won by substantial margins.

Polling shows that four Democrats are seriously endangered: Florida’s Bill Nelson, Indiana’s Joe Donnelly, Missouri’s Claire McCaskill, and North Dakota’s Heidi Heitkamp. (Jon Tester of Montana, Sherrod Brown of Ohio, and Joe Manchin of West Virginia, all once thought to be in big trouble, have settled into significant polling leads.) Conversely, polling shows that Democrats have reasonable prospects to flip only three Senate seats: Arizona, Nevada and Tennessee.

So a good night on November 6 would be Democrats holding their own in the Senate. They get to 51 senators if somehow they lose only one of the seven races noted above. If they lose two of them, they need to find another pick-up that almost certainly isn’t there.

That said, there are two surprises in the polling. Beto O’Rourke is polling well but consistently behind Ted Cruz in Texas. O’Rourke, despite swearing off PAC money, is out-fundraising Cruz by more than two-to-one. The two non-partisan polls published so far this month show O’Rourke to be within striking distance: the Marist College poll put Cruz ahead by four percent among registered Texas voters, just a tad outside the poll’s margin of error; the Emerson College poll put Cruz only one percent ahead, well within that poll’s margin of error. Still, Texas hasn’t elected a Democrat to the Senate since Lloyd Bentsen’s last re-election in 1988. Trump won the state by nine percent, and he still carries a net approval rating of eight percent among Texans.

The other surprise in the polling is in Mississippi’s special election to replace Thad Cochran. The November 6 election is actually a non-partisan primary; if no candidate wins 50 percent of the vote, the state will hold a run-off between the top two finishers on November 27.

The leading candidates are a Democrat, former Secretary of Agriculture Mike Espy, and two Republicans, Cindy Hyde-Smith, who was appointed to serve pending the outcome of the special election, and Chris McDaniel, a state senator and talk show host. Hyde-Smith has the backing of both Donald Trump and the Republican establishment, whereas McDaniel has support from Tea Party groups.

Polling to date is relatively low quality, mostly partisan, but those polls consistently show Espy running well enough to get into a run-off with Hyde-Smith. Most of the polling shows that Hyde-Smith would beat Espy in a run-off, although the most recent poll, an Espy partisan poll, puts Espy ahead of Hyde-Smith by three percent. (Hypothetical run-off polling between Espy and McDaniel shows Espy winning that match-up.)

The thing is, if the November 6 vote sends the race to a run-off, and if control of the Senate is at stake, the run-off will be the most expensive three-week election campaign in American history. Polling up to and including the November 6 vote itself goes out the window as outside interests pour tens of millions of dollars into Mississippi.

That might be fun to watch, but Mississippi hasn’t elected a Democrat to the Senate since John Stennis’s last re-election in 1982. Donald Trump beat Hillary Clinton there by 18 percent – and Mississippi is one of the five most Trump-favorable states in the country: Trump’s net approval rating in Mississippi is 24 percent.

If Texas and Mississippi matter to control of the Senate, Democrats’ prospects are pretty bad.


Ohio Gerrymanders; Missouri Pays Union Dues

Ohio is one of the worst gerrymandered states in the country. Although Republican Congressional candidates averaged 56 percent of the state-wide vote in the three elections from 2012 to 2016, Republicans won 75 percent of Ohio’s Congressional districts (12 of 16) all three times. No Congressional seat has changed party hands since 2012, the first election after the current districts took effect.

A quick look at the district maps shows how abusive the gerrymanders are. The 9th District, for example, delicately carves a long sliver of Democratic-leaning precincts stretching along the Lake Erie shoreline from Toledo to Cleveland. The district includes the presumably unpopulated Sandusky Bay in order to maintain the pretense of contiguity. The Cook Political Report gives the district a partisan lean of 14 percent more Democratic than the nation at large.

Conversely, the 6th District flows more than 250 miles down the Ohio River, from north of the tip of West Virginia to the southern tip of Ohio near Ironton, reaching out to grab passing Republican-leaning towns along the way. Cook rates the district 16 percent more Republican than the country as a whole.

The 12th District, site of yesterday’s Congressional special election, starts in northern Ohio, near Mansfield, slides southwest to central Ohio, where it scoops up enough of the Columbus area to dilute Democratic voting strength in metropolitan Columbus but not enough to turn the district Democratic, then shoots out to the southeast toward Zanesville, ending up as a jagged, irregular “J” tipped over on its back. The district’s pro-Republican lean is seven percent.

Gerrymandering was not the only curious feature of Ohio electoral practice on display in yesterday’s special election. Although the winner of the special election, which is too close to call pending counting of provisional and absentee ballots, will immediately take his seat in Congress, he will be up for re-election in November, just like every other member of the U.S. House of Representatives. Primary elections to pick the parties’ nominees to run in November were held on May 8. Perhaps not surprisingly, the primary winners were the same two candidates who duked it out in the special election yesterday. So for Ohio’s 12th District, the campaigning continues as if yesterday’s election didn’t even happen.

Donald Trump won the 12th District by 11 percent in 2016. So the good news for Democrats is that their candidate beat the Trump outcome by about 10 percent, and beat the partisan lean by about six percent. Although the Democratic candidate outraised and outspent the Republican candidate, the Republican candidate was propped up with considerable spending by national Republican organizations. In November, with all 435 House seats up for grabs, national party funding for this district will likely be considerably reduced. So the November re-run of yesterday’s special election may play out a little differently.

A quirk of Missouri election practice was also on display that state’s primary elections yesterday. Early in 2017, Missouri’s Republican-controlled legislature enacted, and its Republican governor signed, a “right-to-work” law. As with much in politics, labels can be misleading: a “right-to-work” law has nothing really to do with anyone’s legal right to work.

A “right-to-work” law is an anti-union measure dressed up as a workers’ rights measure – it entitles workers who are covered by collective bargaining to accept the benefits of collective bargaining agreements without paying dues to the unions that negotiate the agreements. If payment of union dues is not mandatory, union strength is diminished, both in collective bargaining and in other areas of union activity. And of course the point of “right-to-work” laws is precisely that, to diminish union strength, not to enhance workers’ rights.

Passage of Missouri’s “right-to-work” law provoked a furious backlash, resulting in collection of several times the number of voter signatures needed to invoke the state’s rarely used referendum procedure.

Which brings us to the Missouri quirk. The Missouri constitution provides for voter referendums to be held at the next “general election,” which occurs on “the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November in even-numbered years.” The constitution also prescribes the text to be used in petitions for voter referendums, and that text includes the statement that the referendum can be held other than at a “general election” if “the general assembly shall designate another date.”

The Missouri legislature – the “general assembly” – took a look at the election calendar and saw that incumbent Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill, who is fighting a tough re-election battle, will be on the November general election ballot. Legislators quite rightly foresaw that a voter referendum on the “right-to-work” law might arouse popular opposition, which in turn might boost pro-McCaskill turnout. So they “designated another date” – specifically, they designated yesterday’s primary election day, where increased Democratic turnout wouldn’t hurt anything Republicans cared about.

Missouri voters clobbered the “right-to-work” law yesterday, by more than a two-to-one margin. Voters cast 120,000 more votes in the referendum than in both parties’ senatorial primaries combined. In other words, Republican legislators were right to be concerned: the “right-to-work” law was highly unpopular with Missouri voters, and repeal of the “right-to-work” law drove those voters to the polls.


Doing Unto Yourself as You Would Have Others Do Unto You

Modern American political culture lacks a sense of mutual obligation, a sense that we are our brothers’ keepers. American political culture has become a free-for-all of every man for himself. We loudly proclaim our right to do as we wish, without troubling too much over whether what we do is good for anyone besides ourselves. Figuratively speaking, at least, my right to swing my fist no longer necessarily ends at the tip of your nose. My private freedom of action is not moderated by the public damage my actions do. We object to the suggestion that government might restrain our actions, and we state the objection in dire terms: we stand for “liberty” and against “tyranny.”

For instance: an individual’s right to bear arms takes precedence over all other rights, including others’ right to be safe and secure from mass shootings. A country that doesn’t allow its citizens to arm themselves like Rambo is a tyranny, not a free country. The right to own unlicensed assault weapons with unlimited firepower and magazine capacity is essential to “liberty,” and the risk that proliferation of such weapons poses to the rest of society is of no concern.

“Stand your ground” laws, once the exception among American states, are now the rule. “Duty to retreat” laws were once regarded as a hallmark of civilized social interaction; stand your ground laws were remnants of the “wild west.” A duty to retreat law prohibits a person from using deadly force in self-defense if that person knows that he can escape the confrontation in complete personal safety; a stand your ground law allows that person to kill an attacker even if the person could safely flee. Thus the purpose of a stand your ground law is to preserve the fragile pride of a person who would rather take a life than flee a confrontation. But gun rights advocates have re-cast stand your ground laws as essential elements of individual freedom; a state that imposes a duty to retreat is a tyranny.

Based on the thinnest of evidence that vaccinations might pose a risk to the children who are vaccinated, anti-vaccination parents accept the benefits of “herd immunity” but refuse the obligations. And as the anti-vaccination movement grows, herd immunity erodes, reviving risks of epidemics that had been all but eliminated from this country. “Liberty” thus vests a person with the right to increase the quite real risk of deadly epidemics in order to protect that person from the quite probably imaginary risk of vaccination.

We eradicated small pox in this country in the 1950s and 1960s, and small pox vaccinations were discontinued for the general population in 1972. We wiped out polio by 1979. Today, we have the ability and resources to eradicate diseases like diphtheria, measles, pertussis, rubella and tetanus, but anti-vaccination parents are entitled to frustrate those efforts.

Freedom of religion used to be primarily a matter of a person’s private conscience. What was a right to believe and to worship as one chooses is now a right to behave toward others as one chooses, regardless of the consequences for those others. Freedom of religion thus entitles the religious to refuse to do business with people they disagree with. Bakers refuse to sell wedding cakes to prospective same-sex spouses; pharmacists refuse to dispense legal, medically necessary abortifacients; employers refuse to allow contraceptive coverage as part of their employees’ health insurance policies.

Home schooling has become popular as a means to avoid exposure of one’s children to teaching that a parent dislikes or disagrees with. To home schooling advocates, the right to control the ideas that are shared with one’s children pre-empts all other concerns; the social good that comes from children’s interaction with other children in a common setting is of no moment. A common civic education, however important to democracy, is subordinate to the parents’ right to decide how their children should think.

Although we say we are a country of “one person, one vote,” our modern concept of “liberty” has made us a country of “one dollar, one vote.” Billionaires so inclined are entitled to dominate discussion in the figurative public square. The damage that such narrow domination of public discussion does to democracy is of no concern; “liberty” requires that rich and poor alike be allowed to spend unlimited amounts to influence political outcomes, and the fact that the poor have nothing to spend is just too bad for them. The wealthy buy media outlets to propagate their views; as more billionaires buy more outlets, the Fourth Estate becomes not an organ of democratic self-government but an organ of propaganda to amplify the wealth and power of those who are already vastly wealthy and powerful.

Those powerful wealthy few thus obtain from our government tax reductions for themselves, and spending reductions for everyone else. Indeed the increasing concentration of wealth and power in ever fewer individuals, and the expansion of corporate power in the guise of enhanced corporate “liberty,” are probably the two greatest threats to liberal democracy in America.

In 1965, the ratio of the highest to lowest compensation paid at America’s largest companies was 20 to 1. Now the CEO-to-worker pay ratio is more than 300 to 1. From 1978 to 2014, CEOs’ inflation-adjusted compensation rose by 997 percent, compared to 11 percent for workers.

The federal minimum wage was last raised in 2009, to $7.25 an hour, but the real buying power of a federal minimum wage earner peaked 50 years ago, in 1968. Today’s full-time minimum wage employee makes about $15,000 a year, before taxes.

The highest marginal rate for individual federal income taxpayers was 70 percent as recently as 1980. The top rate has been below 50 percent since 1987. During World War I and for a few years thereafter, the top rate varied from 67 to 73 percent; during World War II, the top rate hit an all-time high 94 percent. During the war in Afghanistan, the top rate was lowered from 39.1 to 35 percent, where it remained throughout the second Iraq War.

The top .1 percent own as much as the bottom 90 percent, for the first time since the 1930s – the share of each group is now about 23 percent. The wealth share of the top .1 percent has risen steadily for the last 40 years, from a low of seven percent in the late 1970s. The share owned by the bottom 90 percent has fallen steadily, from a peak of 36 percent in the mid-1980s. The richest one percent of Americans now own nearly 39 percent of all American wealth, a historic record.

Financial assets are even more disproportionately the province of the wealthy. For instance, stock ownership (both directly and through investment vehicles like mutual funds and retirement accounts) is nearly universal among wealthy Americans, but much less common among other Americans. The wealthiest 20 percent own 92 percent of stock shares, meaning that the remaining 80 percent own just eight percent.

The unionization rate of American workers peaked at about 33 percent in the mid-1950s, and has dropped by half since 1980, from 20.1 to 10.7 percent. As unionization has declined, the share of American workers covered by traditional “defined benefit” pension plans has also dropped. Whereas 67 percent of unionized private sector workers have pension plans, only 13 percent of non-union workers have them. (Seventy-eight percent of government workers still enjoy defined benefit pension plans, and of course those are under attack.) Overall, only 18 percent of private sector workers have access to pension plans.

As traditional pensions have gone out of favor with corporate employers, “defined contribution” plans like 401(k) accounts have come into favor. Many of these are fully funded by employee contributions, although some employers match at least some of those contributions. Sixty-two percent of workers have access to these plans, although only 44 percent actually participate in them. For low income workers, participation rates are nearly negligible: 19 percent of workers in the lowest 25 percent of income, and 12 percent in the lowest 10 percent. Only 17 percent of part-time workers participate in defined benefit plans.

In other words, companies no longer reward dedicated long-term service with financially secure retirements, at least not for their wage-earning employees.

In about 20 years, the Social Security trust fund will be exhausted, and benefits payments will be made solely from current Social Security tax payments – meaning that benefits will have to be reduced by about 25 percent.

Thirty-six percent of American workers have saved less than $1,000 toward their retirements; 60 percent have saved less than $25,000. The decline of labor unions, the stagnation of workers’ wages, the erosion of the real federal minimum wage, the decline in defined benefit plans, the poor participation rates for defined contribution plans, the low savings rates of low-income workers, and the unwillingness of Congress to fully fund future Social Security benefits together risk a return to the pre-New Deal days of widespread poverty among our senior citizens.

In other times, a foreseeable social calamity of this magnitude would get a strong social response. Such a social response would involve some form of sharing. Relatively small decreases in corporate profits and shareholder dividends could fund increased wages, and revival of defined benefit pension plans or increased matching of contributions to defined contribution plans. Relatively small increases in Social Security taxes on upper income earners would fully fund future social security benefits. In 2018, the maximum salary subject to Social Security tax is $128,400 – an employee making that much pays the same Social Security tax as a CEO making 100 times that much.

If endangered species protections marginally reduce corporate profits, the answer is to get rid of endangered species protections. If fuel efficiency standards marginally reduce profits, the answer is to reduce fuel efficiency standards. If limits on arsenic in drinking water marginally reduce profits, the answer is to raise the limits on dumping arsenic. If reducing the risk of climate change-induced disasters marginally reduces profits, the answer is to deny that risk. If maintenance of efficient public infrastructure requires taxation that marginally reduces profits, the answer is to let public infrastructure rot.

Where private activity imposes costs on the public, today’s answer is that private profits should not be made to yield to public benefit – reducing private profits to pay public costs is tyranny. The public interest in clean air and drinkable water, the public interest in maintaining global temperature and sea levels, the public interest in maintaining natural wonders for recreation and enjoyment – all must yield to corporate “liberty.”

We have stretched our concepts of legal rights and acceptable behavior to allow individuals and corporations an ever-increasing breadth within which they may act without regard to the consequences their actions impose on others. We’ve become a “might makes right” culture – those who can, take, and those who can’t take get taken, and too bad for them. “Gimme more” is the new American golden rule. Greed is not just good, it’s a fundamental element of liberty. Constraints on greed are tyranny.

Righting our democracy requires that we recalibrate our appeal to self-interest, to moderate greed with a sense of social obligation. Our leaders should be able to call on us, without subjecting themselves to ridicule and derision, to ask just a little less often what our country can do for us, and just a little more often what we can do for our country.



Who is David Brat?

OK, quick – no fair Googling – who is David Brat?

Virginia’s congressional 7th District was held by Democrats from 1871 to 1971, except for three brief periods totaling just five years. In 1971, Republican Kenneth Robinson succeeded conservative Democrat John Marsh, Jr., and the seat has been held by Republicans ever since.

A safe seat for either party allows an ambitious occupant of that seat to gain seniority and rise into the ranks of party leadership in the House of Representatives. Thus Eric Cantor, who was elected to Congress from Virginia’s 7th District in 2000, became the chief deputy Republican whip in 2003, the whip in 2009, and the Republican leader in 2011.

Cantor beat all challengers by wide margins. His 2012 Republican primary opponent mustered just 21 percent of the vote. Cantor was young, and his grip on the seat was firm. He was well on way to becoming the speaker of the House.

In 2014, Cantor was challenged in the Republican primary by David Brat, a political novice who had tried for public office only once before – an unsuccessful shot at a seat in the Virginia House of Delegates in 2011. Cantor outspent Brat by 40 to 1, but Brat won the primary by a dozen points. Party leaders very, very rarely lose primary campaigns. No House majority leader had lost a primary in the history of the position, which dates to 1899. Brat’s win was huge, and the more astute among the political commentariat correctly saw in Brat’s win the foreshadowing of a broader populist movement within the Republican Party.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez similarly took Democratic Congressman Joseph Crowley by surprise in a Democratic primary this year. A political novice, Ocasio-Cortez was badly outspent by Crowley, the chairman of the House Democratic Caucus and the chairman of the Queens County Democratic Party. But she beat him on the ground, appealing to a district that has become half Hispanic, and especially appealing to the part of the district that lies in the Bronx, where Crowley’s presence was so rare that a Bronx politician teased him when he showed up for an event there that he “must have gotten a new GPS.”

As with Brat’s upset of Cantor, Ocasio-Cortez’s upset of Crowley generated lavish attention from the political commentariat. In particular, Ocasio-Cortez’s self-description as a Democratic Socialist grabbed pundits’ notice: from the right, as a club to beat all Democrats with, and from the left, as a warning to moderate Democrats. The problem, of course, is that Ocasio-Cortez is not a socialist, Democratic or otherwise.

The core belief of an actual socialist is that the means of production, and perhaps even all property, should be collectively controlled, not privately owned – and Ocasio-Cortez believes no such thing. (Neither does Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, who also enjoys provoking with the “socialist” label.) Ocasio-Cortez’s platform is well within the Democratic mainstream, albeit distinctly on the party’s left wing. She wants to tax wealthy individuals and corporations to pay for social programs like universal health care. In other words, she doesn’t want to abolish private enterprise; she wants to harvest its benefits for progressive social ends.

Watch the beginning of Trevor Noah’s recent interview with Ocasio-Cortez, where he asked her directly what she means by the term “Democratic Socialist.” Her answer was about health care and education, and she cited as national role models the United Kingdom and Canada – two very vigorously capitalist countries – in preference to Venezuela and Cuba, options offered to her by Noah.

Full disclosure: I voted for Ocasio-Cortez, not because of her Democratic Socialist label, and not to make any kind of statement about national Democratic Party leadership – although I do think that Democrats would do well to bring new faces, new ideas, and new energy into their leadership. I voted for Ocasio-Cortez because I agree with her positions on the issues that I regard as among the most important, like health care, education, immigration and social justice. And I voted for Ocasio-Cortez because I am confident that her positions will not cost Democrats the district in the November general election.

Like David Brat, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez beat a powerful, entrenched incumbent because she is a better fit for the district’s current political and demographic composition. But while Brat’s upset of Cantor foreshadowed a broad Republican shift from conventional post-Reagan Republican politics, I don’t think Ocasio-Cortez’s upset of Crowley foreshadows a broad rejection of modern Democratic norms and values, and most certainly does not predict a Democratic movement toward socialism.

David Brat is running for his third term in Congress. Four years after his splashy arrival in Washington, he has reverted to obscurity. Meanwhile, his district’s Republican lean has moderated: the Cook Political Report gives his district a pro-Republican lean of just six percent, which is well within the margin of this year’s pro-Democratic polling shift. Cook rates Brat’s 2018 re-election race a toss-up.

Ocasio-Cortez is obviously smart, capable and well-spoken, and a convincing majority of her district’s Democratic voters preferred her to the long-known quantity of the incumbent. But that doesn’t make her the leading edge of a national trend.


My World Cup

The World Cup of soccer is a great international experience. Every four years, 32 national teams compete in a month-long series of games, culminating in a world championship that gives even the poorest and humblest of the winning team’s countrymen four years’ worth of bragging rights over the entire world. The 2018 championship game was played today, between the national teams of France and Croatia, in Moscow.

The sport is known as “soccer” in the United States, but as “football” in much of the rest of the world. Even the French, who ordinarily get rather testy about the immigration of English words, call the sport “football.” So do the Germans. In the Spanish-speaking world, it’s “futbol.” Many languages have their own terms for the sport, words that are not imported versions of English words. In Indonesian, for example, the sport is called “bola sepak.” But even then, for the most part, when people in those countries speak in English about the sport, they call it “football,” not “soccer.”

Our few terminological allies share our need to distinguish soccer from another sport that is locally known as “football.” In the U.S. and Canada, “football” is the game played with a prolate spheroid-shaped ball, in which two teams each field eleven players at a time, the teams in turn trying to advance the ball toward a goal line and opposing that advance.

In Australia, “football” is a rugby-like game called “Australian rules football” that combines the pace of soccer with the violence of American football. Australians rarely call Australian rules football by its actual name, because Australians rarely call anything by its actual name. In Australia, if it’s worth talking about at all, it’s worth shortening its name – my personal favorite being “breaky,” because, one knows, it’s just so much more trouble to say “breakfast.” So when Australians talk about Australian rules football, they call it “Aussie football,” or just “footy.” In any event, if you mention soccer to an Australian, he’ll know what you’re talking about.

Growing up in small-town America, I had relatively little exposure to soccer, and none at all to the World Cup. Only when I moved to New York did I realize what a world-wide spectacle the event is. After I got out of law school, I moved to a multi-ethnic neighborhood with a substantial Hispanic population – and Latinos are among New York’s most ardent World Cup fans. The 1982 World Cup was played in Spain and won by Italy. Latin American teams did relatively poorly that year – still, the event drew lots of vocal interest in sports bars, restaurants and social clubs around my neighborhood.

Four years later, when the Argentinian team won the final, my neighborhood erupted in a cacophony of celebratory horn-honking, noise-making and flag-waving. By comparison, the Times Square celebration of VE Day was just a small gathering of close friends. The Argentinian population of my neighborhood must have been second only to Buenos Aires that day. Either every Argentinian-American within a hundred miles had flocked here for the game, or else the entire Hispanic population had become honorary Argentinians for a day, or maybe both.

In 1988, I met the Colombian-American who would become my domestic partner and later my spouse. He is a life-long soccer fan and World Cup fanatic, and I caught the bug. I was already a sports fan, so I lacked immunity to the World Cup virus.

In 1995, my spouse and I took a vacation trip to his native Colombia, during the Copa America – a soccer tournament then played every other year. We spent a week on a farm near the small town of Filandia, and the caretaker of the farm invited us to a day-long barbecue at another farm a few miles away. That day was the Copa America third-place match, and it was between Colombia and the United States. I was the only American – the only non-Colombian – at the barbecue, and the Colombians rooted loud and hard for the Colombian team. I do root for American teams for whatever typically short time they remain in the running, but the Colombian fans attributed to me an ardency of fandom that matched theirs and far exceeded my own.

I dutifully played my role, but internally I rooted for Colombia, for the wholly pragmatic reason that I wasn’t sure how friendly the international rivalry would remain if the team of the gringo visitor beat the team of my hosts. And although American national soccer teams do not have the storied history of the great South American and European soccer powers, there was a real chance of American victory that day. The American team had done well in the previous year’s World Cup, which was hosted by the United States – including a 2 – 1 U.S. win over Colombia that kept the Colombian team from advancing to the second round of play.

Fortunately, the Colombian team beat the American team for third place in the 1995 Copa America. I made the required show of patriotic disgruntlement, but I was genuinely glad to take some ribbing from the Colombian fans.

Two of our later vacations coincided with World Cup tournaments. In 1998, my spouse and I spent four weeks in France – the first two weeks in Paris, before the World Cup games began, then two weeks in Brittany and the Alsace during first-round competition. Paris was decked out for the event, and public service announcements were everywhere, reminding Parisians to be nice to foreigners, and to be understanding of their infacility with French. (Parisians do need to be reminded.)

The Place de la Concorde, the largest Parisian square, was under construction to serve as the centerpiece of the opening ceremonies; the ancient Egyptian obelisk in the square was covered by a metal frame that would ultimately support a giant stylized soccer ball on the top of the obelisk.

We watched the opening ceremonies from our gite de France in Brittany; it was ceremony as perhaps only Parisians can do ceremony. Four gigantic soccer players led four columns as from the four corners of the earth, parading to their ultimate meeting in the Place de la Concorde, in a convergence of great sport, great artistry, great history and great culture.

During our stay in the Alsace, we spent a day in Basel, Switzerland. During the afternoon, we came across an international food festival, with rows of tents housing pop-up restaurants of national cuisines from around the world. As we explored, we heard – faintly at first – merengue music, signaling that a Dominican Republic food tent was nearby. We followed the music and found the tent, where a muted television played a World Cup game between Nigeria and another team. As we ate, and watched, and listened to the merengue, we were joined by a Swiss man. Conversing with us first in English, he learned that my spouse is Colombian-American, and then conversing with us in Spanish, he told us about his Peruvian wife and their travels in Peru.

It was one of the great international experiences of my life: sitting with my Colombian-born partner in a Dominican Republic food tent in Switzerland, watching the Nigerian team competing in the World Cup in France and chatting with an English-speaking, Spanish-speaking Swiss man who was married to a Peruvian-born woman.

We had a similar experience in Reykjavik, in 2010, while the World Cup was being played in South Africa – the World Cup that gave the world the vuvuzela. In particular I remember having lunch in the Café Paris, chatting in English with a Danish couple at the next table, while a World Cup match (I don’t remember which teams) played in the background.

There was a Brazilian sports bar that was, as I remember it, on the main street of Reykjavik. You might need a moment, as we did, to absorb the concept of a Brazilian sports bar in Iceland. My spouse and I stopped in, because that’s what one does when one comes across a Brazilian sports bar in Iceland.

Later during the same vacation, in the little town of Isafjordur, we came across a restaurant that billed itself “the northernmost Indian restaurant in the world,” and we stopped in there as well – because how could we not? We also came across a restaurant that billed itself as “Balkan,” where our conversation with the Bulgarian-Icelandic owner-cook-waitress led to our visit a few months later to Nessebar, Bulgaria, a beautiful little city of Byzantine ruins on a little spit of land sticking out into the Black Sea.

The Brazilian sports bar was filled with Brazilians, an unlikely gathering so close to the Arctic Circle. Apparently every Brazilian in the entire country had come to this bar, where we watched the Brazilian team beat the North Korean team, 2 – 1. We came across no North Korean partisans, or at least none who would confess to it.

I think the World Cup is more of an international experience even than the Olympics. In the Olympics, a national team competes in every event for which its athletes have qualified. Even national teams that win no medals, and may have no real hope to win any medals, are still able to compete right up to the very last day of the games. Therefore fans root for their countries’ teams throughout the competition.

In the World Cup, only 32 countries’ teams qualify for the event in the first place, and teams are eliminated as the competition progresses. True soccer fans remain involved in the premier event of the sport, whether or not their country’s team qualifies for the competition, and even after their country’s team is eliminated from the competition.

Therefore unlike the Olympics, by the end of the World Cup most of the world’s soccer fans are rooting for teams other than their own national teams. Personally, after the United States is out of the running, I tend to root for whichever team is the underdog – so I cheered Croatia’s knife-edge defeat of Russia last week, and I cheered for them in today’s final against France.

My spouse tends to root for other Latin American teams once Colombia is eliminated – although he has a soft spot for teams that include the world’s great stars, like the Portuguese team, whose star is Cristiano Ronaldo dos Santos Aveiro, universally known simply as Ronaldo.

Rooting for a team representing a country other than one’s own seems to me to be an emblematic international experience. I’m not talking about “tactical” rooting, when a fan of one team roots for another team in a particular game, because that team’s win will advance the prospects of the fan’s own team. That’s just “enemy of my enemy” fandom. I’m talking about “devotional” rooting, when a fan whose own team is out of the competition transfers true loyalty to another team.

France beat Croatia today, 4 – 2. It’s the second World Cup title for France; it would have been Croatia’s first. The French team includes players with last names like Rami, Umtiti, N’Zonzi, Mbappe, Griezmann, Hernandez and Fekir, whereas the Croatian team is essentially mono-ethnic. So the French victory is in its way a victory for internationalism.


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