David Freed '16 is a columnist for the Harvard Political Review.

10 Years of Arcade Fire’s Funeral

Books & Arts - HPRgument - Music - Online September 16, 2014 12:55 am

On September 14th, 2004, when Arcade Fire’s Funeral was released, most of this magazine’s writers had barely entered middle school. We each had our unique experiences of discovering the album—some first heard the songs over the speakers of their older siblings’ CD players, others at high school parties, and some only in college at the rabid insistence of their peers. The following reflections provide a cross-section of our diverse listening experiences.

10 Years of Funeral: Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)

Books & Arts - HPRgument Posts - Music - Online September 15, 2014 8:36 pm


In the age of online dating and Tinder, modern affection has become increasingly rationalized. No longer constrained by the numbers in our phonebook, we have access to more possible dates in a day than preceding generations could have in a lifetime. The idea that you could meet anyone, anywhere, is an invitation for the rationalist to contemplate anything less than the perfect match as suboptimal. Technology has incentivized us to look past the girl next door.

In this respect, “Tunnels” is a fresh blast of nostalgia. Replete with a storybook view of love and genuine youthful invincibility, the song hearkens back to a time of refreshing simplicity. Amidst the constant pressures—inside Cambridge and elsewhere—to consider the vast possibilities of the future, “Tunnels” offers nonchalance. Like much of Arcade Fire’s music—“Wake Up” is much the same way—the song evokes images of unstructured wanderlust; the soft cadence an invitation to explore, not worry. The aloof nature of the song’s protagonists—“We tried to name our babies/But we forgot all the names”—makes the future seem far, far away.

There’s a certain allure to this magic of indifference—“Since there’s no one else around/We let our hair grow long/And forget all we used to know,” Win Butler sings at one point. The idea that love is just a climb out the chimney away, “in the middle, in the middle of the town” conjures up images of a simpler time.

The love in “Tunnels” is not defined by its economic optimality. It’s all-consuming (“Then we think of our parents/Well what ever happened to them?!”) It overcomes all obstacles (“And if the snow buries my, my neighborhood … Then I’ll dig a tunnel from my window to yours.”) It’s forever.

 Next track: Neighborhood #2 (Laika)

A Brave New World: Spotify and the Future of Music

Beat of the Drum: The Music Issue - Covers March 20, 2014 11:16 am

For most of the 20th century, changes in the music industry were limited to hardware. The gramophone became the record player, which eventually became the hi-fi and later, the at-the-time revolutionary CD. The biggest labels dominated the industry, supervising the mass dissemination and release of albums in an age of limited media. Like a venture capital firm, labels would invest in ten new artists in hopes of hitting it big with one.

The old-school business model peaked in 1999, with global music sales just shy of $28 billion. Thirteen years later, revenue was nearly cut in half—the result of a music revolution that began with Napster and became the rise of Generation Y, consumers endowed with a sense of righteousness that was anathema to paying for music. These changes necessitate that an industry historically slow to adapt make drastic changes; to serve this new generation, the music industry is catering to the Napster mantra it once fought hard to suppress.

In the Beginning

Like Facebook, Napster began in a Boston-area dorm room. Creator Shawn Fanning thought of the program as a music search engine, underestimating a project that first harnessed the power of the Internet and peer-to-peer (P2P) sharing. Launched in May 1999, the site had four million songs by October and 26 million users by February—a catastrophic blow to an industry at its peak. The invention of the MP3 file format in the late ‘90s had enabled the music industry to compress large audio files to a fractional size and had led to the rise of the palm-sized CD, then the primary industry revenue driver.

Napster turned the boom of the ’90s into the recession of the 2000s. “MP3” overtook “sex” as the Internet’s top search term in 2001; unauthorized downloads became 90 percent of the market. Unable to compete, scrambling labels turned to the courts to rebalance a permanently tilted field. The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) sued over 35,000 individuals in the early 2000s, creating an expensive toll for P2P sharing. As Napster and Fanning fell under a barrage of litigation, iTunes rose to fill the void, co-opting Napster’s technology and offering the labels a solution with one big concession: the contemporary album.

The iTunes store was initially a compromise between Napster’s unregulated freedom and the old business model. Consumers had unlimited, but not free, access to music. As the music industry’s only lifeline, the five major record companies acceded to all of Steve Jobs’ demands. All albums became available on a track-by-track basis. iTunes sold tracks for ninety-nine cents, two dollars less than Sony Music. The new program allowed consumers to buy individual tracks, forcing the industry away from the filler tracks off which it had previously made large profits.

Larry Miller, professor of music business at New York University, noted that Apple’s streaming services were a way of pushing forward its hardware business. “One thing to note here with respect to Apple and Samsung … they are device companies first and service companies second,” Miller told the HPR. “So music has, in a way, incentivized dramatic growth of their device business.”

iTunes was remarkably successful at driving business, but it left the Napster generation unsatisfied; once consumers had tasted free music, letting go proved difficult. Artists who had flourished under the previous model struggled under iTunes, creating a void. Garth Brooks, AC/DC, Metallica, Madonna, and The Beatles refused to sell their music to the service. Consumers grew frustrated with Jobs’ vertical integration of the store, first with his initial decision to open it only to Apple users and later with his digital-rights management (DRM) software—copy-protecting software that made iPods the only compatible hardware to play iTunes music.

Heading Downstream

Enter streaming services. Online music players Pandora and Spotify launched in the latter half of the aughts. The new applications allowed users to listen to unlimited free music at the expense of audio advertisements, at the same time promoting their platform to artists by offering compensation per play. Pandora was an assault on the modern radio network, Spotify a substitute for the iTunes store.

The new streaming services are the future of the industry, both a response to illegal downloading and to the iTunes pay-for-play model. The two leaders channel the attitudes of a generation that feels entitled to free music. Over the past year, streaming—divided into interactive (Spotify, Rdio, etc.) and noninteractive (Pandora, Google Play, iTunes Radio) sectors—is up 32 percent and digital download sales are down six percent.

“It used to be the case that if you wanted to listen to what you wanted when you wanted, you had to own it,” Selena Elton, a professor of music business at the University of Miami, told the HPR. Elton said that interactive and noninteractive services, while both substitutes to owning music, are not direct competitors.

However, Spotify, in particular, has presented itself as the next decade’s Napster. Swedish founder Daniel Ek is a Fanning acolyte, co-opting both his software and his ideas. Ek, who has stated the company’s mission is to pay musicians their fair share, has put $500 million back into the pockets of artists, labels, and publishers.

“Spotify was really created to combat piracy,” Graham James, Spotify head of U.S. communications, told the HPR. “The record business was in serious danger because people could steal music and nobody felt like they had to buy. We had to set up a legal alternative to piracy that was better [so that] we could fairly compensate artists for their work.”

So far, the company has enjoyed substantial growth despite not yet turning a profit. Company revenues are up 128 percent in the past year, meaning more and more money is funneled to artists, many of whom already receive more from Spotify than iTunes thanks to the sheer number of users on the service.

Berklee College professor of music business Peter Alhadeff said that Spotify, like Napster, has changed the way that people consume music. “It is changing the way that people think about access,” Alhadeff told the HPR. “At last I think it is triumphing over ownership.” In this way, Spotify is the next step in the P2P sharing process Fanning pioneered, in which people share music rather than take home copies of their own.

These services benefit artists as much as they help consumers. Monitoring software allows users to follow the artists their friends are listening to, providing a crowdsourced means of evaluation that ensures artists will receive exposure under the new platform. Spotify, without the burden of one-time payment, provides a simple alternative to illegal downloads. Ek, the former founder of P2P sharing site uTorrent—which has since evolved, beyond his control, into a hub for illegal downloading—understands how to harness the unlimited exposure of free music into profitability for artists.

“We recognized you have to have a free tier to be successful,” James said. “If people can create any song they want through pirate sites, you need to offer them a free experience.”

The streaming access model favors timeless over rhyme-less. With profits based on aggregate clicks, timeless music becomes much more profitable than songs with ephemeral appeal. The result is an ostensible meritocracy and a template for musicians to adapt to the streaming age.

Weak Streams

Ultimately, Ek’s success is a product of effectively embracing the intentions of Generation Y, imbedded with the Napster presumption that music should be free and they should have full choice at their fingertips. Sean Parker, who went to court on his conviction that music should be free, was an initial investor in Spotify. Napster was the first place where consumers could listen to the music of any artist they desired, but Spotify is the first to monetize that for artists, giving record labels (and the artists they control) a fair shake in the battle against piracy. In a new era, it isn’t the CD model or the iTunes model that characterizes the outlook for the music industry. Instead, interactive services like Spotify are leading the industry into a new age.

Image Credit: Wikimedia

Raising the Minimum Wage: A Public Policy Conundrum

United States October 28, 2013 6:38 pm

Low-wage-workers-take-part-in-a-protest-organized-by-the-Coalition-for-a-Real-Minimum-Wage-outside-the-offices-of-New-York-Governor-Andrew-Cuomo-May-30-2013.1When, in the first State of the Union speech of his second term, Barack Obama suggested raising the federal minimum wage nearly two dollars, it sparked a firestorm of controversy. Lionized by leftists as a solution to rampant poverty, those on the right criticized the policy as an economic inhibitor. As a question of worker rights, the popular minimum wage is quite easy defend. Closer inspection of the economic data used in its defense, however, demonstrates that the policy has negative effects for the entire economy, with the harm exacerbated for the low-skilled unemployed in poverty that the policy was originally supposed to help.

A Populist Panacea

Historically, the minimum wage—dubbed by Edward Kennedy “one of the best antipoverty programs” available to the government—has been an extremely popular political provision. Although according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics only about 5.2 percent of Americans earn wages at or below the minimum, raising the minimum wage has earned historically high public approval ratings. Gallup’s March poll, which found a 71 percent approval rating, produced nearly identical results as a 1994 Wall Street Journal poll (72 percent).

However, while the issue has enjoyed bipartisan support among the masses, politicians have increasingly taken party-line positions on the topic. President Obama’s proposal to raise the minimum wage to $9.00 won support in March from over 90 percent of self-described liberals polled by Gallup, with over half of conservatives and two-thirds of moderates backing it as well. By contrast, a March bill aiming to raise the federal minimum wage to $10.10 produced a strict division amongst the parties in the House of Representatives; each and every Republican voted against the bill, and they were joined by only six of the 190 Democrats.

“No matter where or when, the public supports the minimum wage,” David Madland, the Director of the American Worker Project at the Center for American Progress Action Fund, told the HPR. Madland, who supports both raising the minimum wage and indexing it to inflation to preserve its real value, said that as the parties have become more homogenous, the previously economic issue has become a political one. “There is a big philosophical divide on whether you think government should raise standards and ensure that people that work full time don’t live in poverty or whether you believe that the market is always right,” Madland says, making a publicly incontrovertible issue a contentious political one.

Madland argues that the minimum wage not only boosts the incomes of workers but also has little effect on unemployment. In response to the contentions of House Speaker John Boehner—who claimed raising the minimum wage would cost lower-income workers their jobs—Madland points out that workers on higher wages tend to work harder and stay on their job longer. The benefits are not limited exclusively to the worker here, either; with lower turnover, employers cut their labor costs.

Furthermore, Madland points to a series of articles written by Arindrajit Dube, a professor at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst and Michael Reich, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, among others, that indicate minimum wage increases do not reduce employment in these states. Reich et al. focused on state-level data during recessionary periods in the early parts of the century and during the Great Recession and concluded there was no statistically significant impact from minimum wage raises on either hours worked or employment levels.

“The standard theory says that if you raise the price of something, then the purchasers will buy less of it,” Madland observed. “When you [actually] do it, the academic research says that doesn’t happen.”

Missing the Boat

Yet, the economics at hand at not as easily resolvable as Madland contends. The policy has spillover effects far beyond the immediate effect on employment. According to Mark Wilson, a former deputy assistant secretary of the U.S. Department of Labor and author of a Cato Institute paper titled The Negative Effects of Minimum Wage Laws, the law is not a social panacea.

“Somebody has to pay for it,” Wilson told the HPR. He points out that companies forced to raise labor costs minimize costs elsewhere, causing effects an employee feels indirectly over time. Because such costs are implicit and indirect, consumers have a harder time seeing the costs of the minimum wage than the plainly evident benefits—a situation Wilson analogizes to current tax law. “If everyone at the end of the month had to write a check to the IRS instead of having it withheld from their wages, people would know exactly how much they are paying [the government],” Wilson says. “Now it is hidden from them. It’s a similar situation in terms of the minimum wage effects.”

These penalties, perhaps appropriately steered by the market’s “invisible hand,” result in lower prices and fewer potential job opportunities. Wilson cedes that job losses are rare, but asserts that workers would see their policy benefits remanded to the company through reduced benefits and smaller raises in the future. Since the workers paid minimum wage are typically low-skilled employees with few alternatives, the long-term job security comes at the cost of a decrease in lifetime earnings.

Additionally, Wilson notes, a lack of change in the employment of low-skilled workers means that the policy does little for the unemployed. Taking into account Madland’s assertion that “the vast majority of people working on the minimum wage are adults and many have been there for quite some time,” the pool of people most disproportionately affected by the change are those who generally seek labor at minimum wage—low-skilled, unemployed adults. Madland clarifies that teenagers make up a minority of those seeking minimum wage jobs, meaning the effect of the policy is to increase barrier to employment for the individuals who need labor the most.

Wilson’s study corroborates simple economic logic; raising the minimum wage, he finds, increases the likelihood and duration of unemployment for low-wage workers and discourages part-time work. A 2005 Journal of Human Resources study is even more pessimistic, contending that “the net effect of higher minimum wages is … to increase the proportion of families that are poor and near-poor,” propagating the exact inequity it intended to solve.

A More Complicated Issue

Ultimately, while the economics of the issue are distinctly negative, policy frequently isn’t so simple. Bentham-esque economic utilitarianism is rarely at the forefront of policy maker’s minds; advancing the cause of the many at the general expense of the few has long been considered a prurient social goal. Benefits like TANF come from taxes levied on high-income corporations and individuals even when doing so inhibits the market’s ability to maximize production and societal utility.

Minimum wage advocates like Madland point out that there are groups disproportionately affected by the minimum wage like African Americans and women who stand to gain even as their employers lose. “The minimum wage is a worker issue for all workers but women are disproportionately affected,” Madland told the HPR. Two-thirds of workers on the minimum wage, he says, are women, with both discrimination and historical job gendering playing a part. “You have huge gender equity issues that increasingly becomes part of the debate,” he says. “If people understood how much the minimum wage is important to women, it would enjoy even greater support than it already does.”

Social factors like the ones Madland discusses must be weighed against the predominantly economic argument that Wilson makes. Ultimately, when it comes to advancing the welfare of the worst-off workers, there is little argument against raising wages. However, raising wages creates unforeseen and often difficult-to-see indirect effects in the marketplace that illuminate the harsh economic consequences of such a policy. The policy’s negative effects on the unemployed only compound the policy, whose surface benefits belie the economy-wide negative effects it poses.

Photo Credit: Reuters

Healthy Olympic Skepticism

International - World October 27, 2013 11:43 pm

Historically, hosting the Olympics has been a symbol of patriotism and national rebirth. Hosting the Games has been a way to show off the best of one’s country and has been a way to demonstrate a nation’s ascent (Beijing, 2008), international superiority (Atlanta, 1996), and, now, national rebirth (Tokyo, 2020). When Japan won its bid a month ago for the 2020 Summer Olympics, the national reaction was euphoric. Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe told The New York Times that “the joy [of winning the bid] was even greater than when I won my own election.” Four years ago, when Rio de Janeiro won the bid for 2016, then-Brazilian president Inacio Silva had to battle back tears during the press conference as he exclaimed, “our hour has arrived.”

However, times are changing. Protests in Brazil surrounding the country’s decision to host the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Summer Olympics have brought to light the negative sides of winning a bid for these events. From an economic perspective at least, the Olympics are an international event with only fleeting advantages but permanent financial burdens.

A recent test case, South Africa, illustrates this point rather clearly. According to Planetizen’s Nate Berg, the South African National Treasury invested more than 2.1 billion rand (about $230 million) in transportation and infrastructure to support the influx of a new stadium. To compound the problem, the government spent an additional R2.2 billion on building soccer stadiums that electrify the country for four weeks but last for years as unused remnants of a nation’s glory days. And with their yearly maintenance costs of up to R3.3 billion, the stadiums are not done draining the country of funds after the tournament is over.

As Berg writes, although “these stadia are seen as springboards for development,” the risks are significant and “there’s also the distinct danger that they could become unsustainable money pits.” In South Africa, the IMF projected an additional 2.6 percent GDP growth from the World Cup that turned into a 3.5-point deficit after accounting for the tournament’s costs, adding up to six percent of the country’s GDP. The infrastructure built up cost for the country to nearly R22 billion more than expected; things that appear to be benefits—such as the new transportation system—have hidden costs that go beyond financial burdens. The travel system furthered income inequality—with its R100 cost making it inaccessible for the poor. Similarly, only 30 percent of stadium construction benefits went to those below the poverty line, meaning that the majority of the stadium’s benefits did not go to those who needed it most. While short-term construction opportunities temporarily lowered unemployment, financial benefits from the event went disproportionately to the rich.

More recent cases bear out the same outcomes. Even in a developed country like Britain—with significant infrastructure around London that limited the costs for certain Olympic events (ex. The conveniently located All England club)—had costs go above fifteen billion dollars, about 0.7 percent of the country’s GDP. For Beijing the number was nearly $40 billion; in the last 12 years, the only Summer Olympics to cost less than $15 billion was Sydney in 2000.

Most importantly, the money spent on the stadiums and the Games rarely funnels back to the people that need it most. Instead of spending the money on valuable infrastructure to either shore up preexisting weak areas of the country or expand into valuable new frontiers (think universal high-speed Internet), the country pours billions into two weeks of international spotlight. As athletes bring home gold medals—or in the case of the World Cup, put ball after ball in the back of the net—the costs are pushed to the background. However, the images that lasts are those of the permanent stadiums, rising high above the cities that surround it. Emblematic of the irrational economic cost of the Games, these stadiums—which often require maintenance costs in the millions of dollars a year—represent the implicit tradeoff required in hosting the games: two weeks of fame for the opportunity to take an economic step backwards.

Photo Credit: www.beenidrew.com

Rick Perry: America’s Last Feudal King

United States September 6, 2013 11:18 pm

In the final installment of his series analyzing Texas politics, HPR staff writer David Freed reflects upon the legacy of Texas Governor Rick Perry
Rick PerryWhen Rick Perry, the longest-serving governor in Texas history, announced he would be stepping down in 2014, it was cause for celebration in Austin. Growing up in Texas’ own liberal oasis, the irony of a city known for distancing itself from the rest of Texas—a state dedicated to its own national independence—was never lost on me. Even as the news was met solemnly outside city boundaries, jubilation broke out around the capital and across my Facebook and Twitter feeds. However, Perry will leave behind a legacy that is more complicated than it appears, and he deserves recognition for being perhaps the last feudal king of America’s only remaining nation-state. Indeed, his dominance of Texas politics challenges the American model of democracy, which is predicated on checks and balances and a meaningful separation of powers.

It is difficult to explain Texas to those who haven’t lived here. The state’s national identity is wrapped up in its independence; there are many here proud of the fact that Texas history is weighed equally with U.S. history on state standardized tests. To this day, our prior independence remains a point of state pride (and a viable advertising slogan). Long before the Alamo became a decrepit tourist attraction, it was a symbol of Texas independence. The hollow structure represented the efforts of our forbearers to make Texas a country. Not a colony, not a territory. A country.

Texas is unique: it was never part of the South, but it wasn’t part of the Mexican Cession or Louisiana Purchase either. We may have our southern vices, and we are quite proud of our three Fs—firearms, faith, and football. Texans love our status as simultaneously the friendliest state for businesses and college football recruiters. Left to our own devices, we would still have the 14th largest economy in the world—Houston would be the 25th on its own—larger than South Korea, Saudi Arabia, and Norway.

Since Perry succeeded George W. Bush as governor in 2000, there have been no viable threats to his reign. He is the first Texan in history to be elected to three consecutive four-year terms as governor and, barring a minor miracle, would have easily been elected again in 2014. While Wendy Davis has her weaknesses as a candidate in Texas, her speech at the capitol prompted the strongest outpouring of Texas liberal energy and vitriol in my lifetime. Yet, the day after her speech, Perry still led her in state polls by 14 points—one point higher than his average gubernatorial margin of victory.

With all due respect to others seeking to claim the title, Perry has been the ultimate Republican during his time in office. With a few notable exceptions, the Texas A&M alum pursued a conservative agenda that endeared him to a sizable swath of voters whose support he rode to electoral victory after electoral victory. Perry is a politician of the GOP school that expects the government to promote free business and wholesome morals, staying out of the private sector and immersing itself in the personal one. This attitude fueled his rise to the top of Texas politics and enabled him to gain unparalleled political power. His public popularity, combined with his across-the-board support from the Senate, gave him lord-like power over the state.

If (and, honestly, when) Perry runs for President in 2016, he will hang his hat on the business he has brought to the state. In the past decade, Texas has created a third of net new jobs nationwide. In the same period of time, Texas has been the top state for foreign exports and, according to the Commerce Department, has generated $265 billion in gross revenue. Buoyed by housing a quarter of the nation’s oil reserves, Perry’s subsidies ensured that 95 percent of U.S. oil and gas comes through pipelines originating in the Lone Star state. He added an immediately successful private marketing arm to the state government in order to more effectively sell it to businesses. According to Site Selection Magazine, Texas had 761 notable “big business” projects last year. The runner-up, Ohio, had 491.

However, Perry also brought a private sector-style cost-cutting approach to the state government. He replaced 2900 state employees with private call centers and minimized the commitment the state made to health care. By 2013, the state had the highest percentage of uninsured people in the United States. This was mostly due to cuts Perry had authorized—first dropping hundreds of thousands of poor and working class Texans from Medicaid and then cutting the family planning budget by two-thirds, forcing 60 clinics statewide to close.

It is Perry’s staunch social conservatism that may pose the greatest threat to his 2016 candidacy. The governor’s social positions are part of his direct appeal to extreme conservatives but offer little room for compromise. According to the Planned Parenthood Action Fund, he “has done more to hurt women than any governor in history.” The numbers back up Perry’s extreme pro-life position. While in office, the governor forced more than 55 health centers to close their doors, depriving more than 13,000 women of medical care. In 2005, he signed the pro-life informed consent Women’s Right to Know Act and started funding abortion alternatives in Texas. He stated that he opposes Roe v. Wade and would support a human life amendment to the Constitution. Later that year, he funded a mandatory ultrasound law.

Likewise, Perry has carved out clear stances on gay marriage (“marriage is between one man and one woman”), capital punishment (“I’ve never struggled with that at all”), and even global warming (“A scheme to make money”). His strongly conservative positions differ little from those of his predecessor. However, the similarities between Bush and Perry do not begin and end with their policies. Serving in arguably the nation’s most homogenous political climate, both were susceptible to the ideological pressures (or lack thereof) of Texas that made them such politically successful governors and determined the fortunes of their presidential runs.

An essential component of democratic governance, the process of deliberation and careful construction of legislation, is essentially lost in Texas’ de facto single-party political realm. Lieutenant governor David Dewhurst called it “the most conservative state in America,” and no Democrat has held a statewide office in nearly 20 years. The ideologically homogenous countryside (each of the major four cities tends to vote Democratic) makes for a likewise single-minded state Senate. This gives Perry, as it gave Bush, nearly unchecked power to dictate state politics and treat the state, as Matt Glazer puts it, like “his personal fiefdom.”

With complete electoral security—the only election he has ever lost was the 2012 Republican primary—Perry’s reign at the top of Texas politics for more than a decade has been a demonstration of either the merits or the perils of democracy. On one hand, the will of the majority was obeyed in almost every instance. With the exception of a few progressive policies (e.g., subsidies to wind power and embryonic stem cell research), Perry has done everything that the majority of Texans want. On the other hand, Perry has done everything that the majority of Texans want. This runs directly against the idea of a vigilant electoral minority that prevents a dominant majority from running politics without reconciliation to the opinions of the few. Perry’s near-fifteen year shaping of Texas politics without contest has made him a king in a way that he could never be elsewhere.

The reign is coming to an end. Perry will step down in 2014 and take a second turn in the national spotlight. How he fares will be quite intriguing. He and Bush, incubated in the same ultraconservative beaker, were released into very different national political atmospheres. Thirteen years after Bush took office, national opinion has swung leftward on gay marriage and capital punishment—so much so that concerns about Perry’s social positions overshadowed a solid business resume in 2012. Four years later, he can take advantage of added national campaign infrastructure (much like Mitt Romney did after losing to John McCain in 2008) and hope that his substantial charisma makes voters forget about the many debate blunders of 2012. Meanwhile, Texas will remain much as Perry left it. The Friday Night Lights will still shine; Sundays will still be reserved for church and football. The state will anoint a new leader and carry with it the memory of its past leader, a true conservative who, for a decade, challenged the modern conception of democracy and lived as its king.




Wendy Davis: A Bright Star, but Not the Lone Star State’s Next Governor

United States September 4, 2013 12:48 am

In the second installment of his series analyzing the Texas political landscape, HPR staff writer David Freed assesses Wendy Davis’ political future in Texas


Perhaps Kanye West saw it coming before anyone else when he rapped in “Homecoming” about a girl named Windy, who when she met tough guys would “like to tow ‘em off/And make ‘em straighten up their hat cause she know they soft.” West’s description of a no-excuses, no-BS woman could easily fit Wendy Davis, the Texas senator who just took the state legislature by storm with her filibuster of Texas’ recently-approved twenty-week abortion ban. However, while Davis is the current poster child for the rebounding Texas Democrats, her long-term calling is probably to be the state party’s Moses: the hero needed to take the group to the promised land, but not the one to lead them in.

Davis’ story began four and a half hours away from the Capitol floor. The Fort Worth native was one of four children supported by a single mother, and as early as 14, she began to work to help provide for her family. In just five years, that family included her own daughter. At that point, Davis enrolled in community college as a teenage single mother, transferring to Texas Christian after two years and becoming the first person in her family to earn a bachelor’s degree. First in her class at TCU, Davis next set her eyes on Harvard Law, graduating with honors. She returned to her hometown as an attorney at Haynes & Boone, practicing until she was elected to the Texas Senate in 2008.

In her first two Senate terms, Davis was unafraid to challenge the dominant Republican leadership. Her most famous filibuster was not her first in the Capitol; in 2011, Davis led a crusade against the $4 billion in proposed cuts to the state’s education budget. Her rebellion did not go unnoticed. That same year, state Republicans attempted to redistrict Davis out of her seat. The senator successfully fought the measure in federal court but still only staved off Republican Mark Shelton by three points in 2012.

Davis is again up for re-election in 2014, as Texas law stipulates that in their first term after the decennial census, half the senators serve only two-year terms. With Davis up for re-election the same year as Governor Perry, the latter’s announcement that he will not seek another term has prompted speculation (and pleas) for Davis to run for statewide office. In a savvy political move, the senator has taken advantage of her new fame, meeting with future donors and party leaders in Washington as she considers her options for 2014.

For all of Davis’ heroics, she is not the right person for the 2014 gubernatorial ticket. Her pet topic, abortion, may rally liberals across the nation to pour in large sums of money for her campaign, but her filibuster is a double-edged sword. No issue rallies partisans on both sides more fiercely than abortion. A UT survey found that 62 percent of Texans oppose abortion, and the pro-life faction has taken the possibility of a Davis campaign quite seriously. Davis will not kowtow to pro-lifers in any way: the senator dismissed polls showing that a majority of women support late-terms abortion bans by contending that “a lot of people don’t really understand … what’s happening in that arena today.” Regardless of the veracity of her statement, Davis’ tendency to speak her mind on abortion does her no favors with a Texas electorate where more women than men strongly support late-term abortion bans (48 percent to 45 percent).

Davis’ potential struggles are not lost on the Republicans. Texas Republican Party Chairman Steve Munisteri has all but begged Davis to run for governor, confident both that she will lose the gubernatorial race and that the Democrats will lose the state Senate seat she now clings to by the skin of her teeth. (Under Texas law, she cannot run for both seats.) After 2010 redistricting, there are precious few Democratic seats in the Texas Senate. Increasingly restrictive voting eligibility legislation has only made these seats harder to retain. Running Davis for governor and ceding her seat to the Republicans could then be two Democratic losses in one.

Davis’ task becomes even more daunting when one considers that she would likely face a formidable opponent in Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott. He already has $20 million stashed away for a possible general election race, and the Republican machinery that propelled Perry to back-to-back-to-back victories will return in full force for Abbott. Texas Democrats are optimistic that Davis could excel among young, Hispanic and female voters, but even that advantage may not be as sizable as they think. Admittedly, all three groups tend to support liberal candidates, but it bears repeating that Davis’ pet issue will hinder, not help, her among Texas women. Meanwhile, Hispanics in Texas turn out in lower rates than almost anywhere else in the nation. Only 32 percent are currently eligible, and Jeremy Bird’s Battleground Texas will not be able to fully execute its voter turnout strategies in the 18 months before the general election.

This is not to say that Davis has no political future in Texas. Her national fame already has become a beacon of hope for Texas donors accustomed for years to sending money elsewhere. Meanwhile, in the state Senate, Davis can work on changing the culture in Texas politics and being the face of a resilient party with its eye on the Capitol. Currently, the political climate is hostile both to Democrats and, quite shockingly, to women. Less than a year ago Democratic senator Judith Zaffirini proposed reserving a breast-feeding room for staffers at the Capitol, and Republican senator Kel Sliger proposed an amendment designating her office for the purpose.

However, abortion is not the issue that Texas Democrats will eventually coalesce around when they make a concerted push to take the Capitol back from Perry, Abbott, and the rest of the Republicans. To do so, I suspect they will emphasize immigration reform. While a Wilson Perkins Allen poll found that 62 percent of Texas Hispanics describe themselves as pro-life, 80 percent of Hispanics sampled in a national Latino Decisions poll said that undocumented immigrants should have the chance to become citizens. A Democratic campaign focused on immigration reform may be especially effective given that Abbott filed a court brief in July 2010 to support Arizona’s strict immigration law.

Davis excites the party’s base and can be the face of the organization while it continues to look for a torchbearer who can appeal to the state’s moderate electorate. An extremist (for Texas) on abortion, Davis is certainly not that person. Julian Castro, whose stirring speech at the 2012 Democratic National Convention garnered national notoriety, might fit the bill, but he is also shifty on his future intentions for statewide office. Bird and Battleground Texas have given themselves a long timetable with which to work, trying to turn the state blue by 2020, and they should not mortgage their future with a Davis 2014 gubernatorial run that qualifies as a swing for the fences. Davis has helped the party take the first steps towards the Capitol, but the party would be best off placing its bets on someone else to take the final ones.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia


Battleground Texas: The GOP Fights for its Life

United States August 31, 2013 8:04 am

In the first of a series of articles analyzing the Texas political landscape, HPR staff writer David Freed discusses the significance of Battleground Texas

Second Battleground Texas Logo

Not long after Barack Obama’s re-election in 2012, his national field director Jeremy Bird was out of a job. Bird, whose big data approach revolutionized political campaigning, needed a new target. Bird was barely out of graduate school when he delivered the South Carolina primary to Obama as the state’s field director, a feat that impressed the candidate so much he promoted Bird to the biggest battleground state: Ohio. Not eight months later, Bird delivered another crucial victory by five points, relying on strong turnout from the Democratic strongholds of Cleveland and Cincinnati. Four years later, Bird was responsible for helping Obama take Virginia—using consumer research to identify eligible unregistered voters and getting a high registration and turnout rate in key demographics (blacks, Latinos, college-age voters, etc.). Bird’s new project, a Texas nonprofit called Battleground Texas, has a much more ambitious goal: turning the GOP into the Whigs, a goal that should make partisans on both sides quake in their boots.

“The fight to make Texas count starts now,” the homepage of Battleground Texas says. It continues, “Are you with us?” The message is directly in line with Bird’s fundraising history, and the Kennedy School grad has done his best to tap into the state’s Democratic fundraising bases. Trying to rally a base accustomed to sending money to PACs in other states, Bird is painting this as the dawning of a new era in Texas history. Battleground Texas’ logo is heavy with symbolism: a sun rising in the middle of the Texas star reiterates the “it’s a new day” message that Bird and director Jenn Brown have been pitching to prospective fundraisers. The group has already raised more than a million dollars and has turned the national prominence of Wendy Davis and Julian Castro into a message of long-term hope.

According to Bird’s February op-ed in The Huffington Post, changing the state’s 38 electoral votes “could virtually remake the presidential campaign map.” The state’s ever-expanding population has seen its electoral college votes nearly double in the last century, and Texas serves as a crucial GOP stronghold. Giving Texas to the Democrats is a 76-point swing. Consider that California (55 electoral votes), New York (29), Pennsylvania (20), and Illinois (20) have voted blue in the last six elections, and a Democratic candidate is already starting up 172-0. In a race to 270, turning Texas blue would do away with competitive election cycles.

It is no surprise, then, that many Republican legislators are treating the issue with all due seriousness. Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott said that Battleground Texas was a bigger danger to the state than the leader of North Korea, calling the 38 electoral votes a last line of defense. Texas senator Ted Cruz remarked in a Ryan Lizza New Yorker profile that “If Texas is bright blue, you can’t get to two-seventy electoral votes. The Republican Party would cease to exist.”

However, it is not only Republicans who should be concerned about the demise of the GOP. Later in the Lizza interview, Cruz argued that if Bird is successful, “we would become like the Whig Party. Our kids and grandkids would study how [the GOP] used to be a national political party.” Fittingly, the Whigs are actually the ancestors of the modern-day Republican Party. Moreover, the Whigs served an important purpose in American history: during a time of a single dominant national party, they provided the “loyal opposition” the country needed. The Whigs existed for only a couple of decades, beginning in 1832 as a counterweight to Andrew Jackson’s dominant Democratic Party. They were last (barely) competitive in the 1852 election, and by 1860, they had disappeared from the ballot completely.

Republicans can learn much from the Whig Party, which splintered over the (then) progressive issue of slavery. The issue caused former Whig Abraham Lincoln to temporarily quit politics and eventually destroyed the Whigs’ holdings in the South. The remnants of the party reformed in the North and became the modern-day Republican Party. The Whigs’ power eroded when two very separate sides of the party were unable to reconcile their visions for the future of the party, a quandary that the Republicans face now. Republicans are not divided by any single issue as profound as slavery, but they do face a similar challenge in defining their central message. Already the party fights changing public opinion on immigration reform and gay marriage, and outliers (led by Cruz) advocate doubling down on the GOP’s 2012 election cycle message.

Even partisans on the other side of the aisle should grow concerned about what could happen in a one-party state, something that the United States has not seen since Reconstruction. The excesses of the Republican-dominated Congress during Reconstruction illustrate the perils of one-party rule. The severe penalties Congress imposed on the South only exacerbated the struggles of the Southern agricultural economy, setting half the country back fifty years. Moreover, liberals should not assume that a single-party regime would be a progressive halcyon. Most fundamentally, though, single-party rule poses a challenge to the American conception of democracy, which depends upon a system of checks and balances to foster debate and compromise.

Bird certainly faces an uphill battle if he wants to strike this blow against the Republican Party. Democratic state hero Wendy Davis was barely able to defend her state Senate seat last year, and Republicans are practically begging her to run for governor, convinced Abbott’s war chest will ensure Republican victories both in the mansion and in Davis’ Senate district (Texas law precludes her from running for both seats). Much has been made about the rising Latino vote in Texas—the state is one of four where the majority of the inhabitants are non-white—but 40 percent of them are not registered to vote. Furthermore, 62 percent of the Texas Hispanics who voted in the 2012 election described themselves as pro-life. For Davis, whose claim to fame is a staunch pro-choice position but who would need Hispanic Democrats to turn out in force, this is close to a death sentence.

Davis is, however, only the first in a line of candidates flush with Battleground Texas funding that Texas Democrats will throw at the conservative garrison in the governor’s mansion. With changing demographics in their favor, Battleground Texas can focus on the long term. Bird’s success would mean a fundamental change in American politics and a possibility that both parties should regard with some trepidation. To prevent democracy from devolving into tyranny of the majority, a nation needs a strong minority.

Photo Credit: The Butler Bros.




Left Fishing for Answers

United States July 11, 2013 6:30 am


UT Austin

With everyone expecting a bang, the Supreme Court delivered a whimper. The decision in Fisher v. Texas was anticlimactic and surprising; no one would have predicted that the lone dissenter to a decision that tacitly upheld affirmative action would be Ruth Bader Ginsburg. The justices’ ultimate decision, which remanded the case back to the Fifth Circuit and asked that it reconsider its initial decision, exemplified an unusual degree of judicial restraint.

In the 7-1 decision to remand the case (Elena Kagan recused herself), the Court reaffirmed its strict scrutiny standard for affirmative action programs. Strict scrutiny is the highest standard of judicial review to which a law may be held. In order to stand, the law must be backed by a compelling state interest and narrowly tailored to advance that interest. The early directives from the Supreme Court, Regents of the University of California v. Bakke (1978) and Grutter v. Bollinger (2003), established this strict scrutiny standard for affirmative action, while also asserting that promoting racial diversity in education can be a compelling state interest.

The Court’s Fisher decision displayed rare judicial restraint. Kennedy hewed very closely to previous arguments made by the court in support of affirmative action, acknowledging the benefit of racial diversity in admissions in promoting “enhanced classroom dialogue and the lessening of racial isolation and stereotypes.” The verbiage in the decision differs little from previous court statements on the matter, a respite from the judicial activism, evident in cases like Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission (2010), that has characterized the Supreme Court in recent years.

However, unlike the majority opinion, both Clarence Thomas’ concurrence and Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s dissent were anything but restrained. Thomas wrote that if the issue came up again, he would strike down affirmative action. The lone black justice on the Court, who has long been an outspoken critic of affirmative action, compared the practice to both slavery and segregation. His argument—that affirmative action hurts those students who are admitted more than those who are rejected—has roots in experience. Thomas, the only black person at his high school and one of a handful at the seminary college he attended, considers his Yale Law degree useless because of the taint of affirmative action. 

By contrast, Ginsburg’s dissent was a ringing endorsement of race-conscious affirmative action programs. Ginsburg wrote that the component of the University of Texas admissions program at issue, which explicitly considers race, is constitutional, and that there is no need to remand the case to the Fifth Circuit for further review. Moreover, she argued that explicit consideration of race is preferable to UT’s Top Ten Percent program, which guarantees admission to students in the top ten percent of their graduating class in high school. According to Ginsburg, the facially race-neutral Top Ten Percent program actually takes advantage of geographic segregation in Texas in order to increase racial diversity. She concludes that admissions programs “that candidly disclose their consideration of race [are] preferable to those that conceal it.”

On the other hand, Justices Samuel Alito, Clarence Thomas, John Roberts, and Antonin Scalia gave every indication in previous decisions and oral argument that they oppose the practice of affirmative action. Ultimately, however, the Court punted on the decision rather than issue a sweeping ruling in a case that did not demand it. The passive outcome of the decision is especially surprising given that Roberts himself once opined that “the way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.” However, Roberts displayed a reverence for the history and reputation of the Court last year in siding with the Court’s liberal wing to protect Obamacare, and similar concerns may have influenced him in Fisher. This may explain why the Court’s conservative justices were unable to produce a majority to strike down affirmative action.

While the next Jeffrey Toobin book will explain the inner politicking that led to the unexpected decisions in both the health care and affirmative action cases, for the moment, the policy stands. Yet, the future of affirmative action is far from settled. The Court has already accepted another affirmative action case for the next term, when it will consider the constitutionality of a 2006 Michigan referendum that barred the state’s public colleges and universities from considering race or ethnicity in admissions. Until then, precedent and stare decisis will stand, even as judicial activism on both sides threatens the principle’s fragile foundations.

Photo Credit: Portal to Public Health at the University of Texas at Austin

Same-Sex Marriage and the Court

HPRgument - United States July 5, 2013 7:46 pm

Four HPR writers explore the legal and political ramifications of the Supreme Court’s recent same-sex marriage decisions. From Justice Kennedy’s judicial activism and Justice Scalia’s originalism to the LGBT equality movement and party politics, these writers explore some of the most pressing questions the justices left us with on June 26. (Update: Humza Bokhari looks back at the various paths leading the first thirteen states to marriage equality.)

Living in Anthony Kennedy’s World

HPRgument Posts July 5, 2013 7:44 pm

Just before last year’s Obamacare ruling, Time Magazine released a profile of Justice Anthony Kennedy. The authors chronicled his Sacramento upbringing, where he worked for California golden sons Earl Warren and Ronald Reagan, and presented an optimistic view of the justice’s legal philosophy, painting it as a pragmatic alternative to his ideological counterparts. Yet after his U.S. v. Windsor decision, one full of self-righteous morality and contempt for the opposition, Kennedy has been pilloried as a self-made monarch, raising the question of the role of judicial activism in America’s conception of democracy.

Origins of the Court’s Role

The origins of the Supreme Court were modest. Shuffled into the basement of the Capitol when it was first built, the institution was created as the least powerful among the branches. It was not until the establishment of judicial review in Marbury v. Madison, where Chief Justice John Marshall gave the Court the power to issue declarations of constitutionality on federal statutes, that the third and forgotten branch of government reared its head. Marshall’s decision paved the way for a number of influential decisions by the Court in the 19th century, from the Barron v. Baltimore (1833) decision that began the process of selective incorporation to the Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857) decision that stoked the fires for the Civil War

In its early decades, the Court hewed closely to previous decision and precedent, taking care to move the legal needle incrementally. The justices were cautious of “legislating from the bench,” a pejorative for judicial activism. The instances of egregious judicial decisions without strong legal foundations were few and far between; even Dred Scott was based on a constitution that classified slaves as three-fifths of a person. The trouble began early in the 20th century, where a pair of decisions – one on each side of the ideological spectrum – laid the groundwork for the Court’s increased presence later in the century. In both Lochner v. New York (1905), where the Court established a to-that-point unheard of ‘right to work,’ and Wickard v. Filburn  (1942), where a FDR-pressured Court upheld the government’s right to tell farmers to burn their crops under the interstate commerce clause, the justices were at their worst.

In the latter parts of the century, the Court was initially dominated by the liberal judicial activism of the Warren and early Burger Courts before a swath of Nixon and Reagan appointees set the stage for the heavily conservative Rehnquist and Roberts Courts. From the Griswold v. Connecticut (1965) declaration of a right to privacy discovered in the “penumbras of the constitution” to the controversial Roe v. Wade (1973) decision, the early liberal benches made a number of decisions that declared radical legal theories. The arguments differed sharply from the textualism of the original justices, an argument that called for explicit constitutional textual evidence of any right the justices could reference. Not unlike the conservative decision of Lochner, Roe and Griswold relied on implied—not explicitly defined—rights in the constitution. It was 15 years after Roe that Anthony Kennedy was appointed to the Court, where he would proceed to embody the judicial activist trend of the time and the rise of the Court to national prominence.

“Hail King Kennedy”

Kennedy was not Reagan’s first choice for the opening on the bench; the President’s first two choices, Robert Bork and Douglas Ginsburg, were defeated earlier because of ideological and cannabis issues, respectively. Now in his 25th year on the Court, Kennedy has been abandoned by fellow moderates Sandra Day O’Connor and remains the main swing vote on the Court. He was on the winning side in 91 percent of cases argued before the Court this term, including 20 of the 23 cases divided 5-4. Kennedy dissented only seven times on the year, the lowest on the Court. While he was on the losing side of last year’s Obamacare decision, voting to strike the law down in its entirety under the limited power of the commerce clause, Kennedy’s vote often determines the winning side.

Besides Kennedy, the remaining eight votes on the Court are often predictable; as such, the Court’s decisions are frequently left to Kennedy’s whims. He was the deciding vote in Planned Parenthood v. Casey (1992), a decision affirming the ultimate decision in Roe, and Bush v. Gore (2000), a black stain on the Court’s history. His Windsor decision came a decade after he wrote a majority opinion in Lawrence v. Texas (2003) that moved the Court’s position on gay marriage 180 degrees from the 18-year old precedent of Bowers v. Hardwick (1985). Kennedy deals with cases on a trial-by-trial basis and his legal philosophy can be either pragmatic or infuriatingly inconsistent, depending on the viewer.

However, it is not Kennedy’s legal philosophies or obscure verbiage—the justice is known for his oft-confusing prose—that make so many of his critics angry. The justice has time and again asserted the power of the Court. In doing so, he has given more and more power to the weight of his own decision. In Windsor, Kennedy’s majority opinion was full of contempt for the opinions of same-sex marriage opposition, despite the fact that 38 of the 50 states have not yet legalized same-sex marriage. Scalia calls out the swing justice in his dissent and notes that the Sacramento native straw mans those opposing same sex marriage with a moral pretentiousness assuming his is the only answer.

In this case, where both sides during oral argument essentially asked the justices only to maintain the opinion of the lower Court, Kennedy’s overreaching opinion goes far and beyond even what the plaintiff in the case expected. Much like the Voting Rights Act from the previous day, the Court handed down an opinion striking down legislation that had been enacted through the democratic American legislative process. National Review editor Mark Steyn ripped Kennedy for his legal overreach, ending his castigating column in the New York Post with a sarcastic “Hail King Kennedy”. In the Washington Post, Dana Milbank added, “it is an accident of politics but an accepted fact of life that, in this nation of 314 million people, the only person whose opinion counts most of the time is that of Kennedy.”

Democracy and Majority

Milbank’s choice of words, labeling Kennedy’s dual status as a judicial activist and swing vote as “an accident of politics,” brings up the question once again of whether judicial review is democratic and acceptable in situations where it strikes down the opinion of the population’s majority. Kennedy epitomizes this discussion with his position as the deciding vote in so many SCOTUS decisions that have a tremendous impact on the country

The argument that judicial review is conducive to democracy took form in the anti-populism of the late Ronald Dworkin, who argued that the opinion of the majority is not the end-all of democratic decision-making. Dworkin contended that the majoritarian conception of democracy is not as genuine as a comprehensive conception where everyone is given an equal part in decision-making without the dominating influence of the oppressive majority. He argued that judicial review promotes democratic values and provides a check on the opinion of the majority – a results-oriented argument. Kennedy is a proponent of these arguments, with his dedication to preserving liberty in the public and private spheres.

However, the idea of unelected and unaccountable judges defying the opinions of the majority doesn’t sit well with everybody. Jeremy Waldron, and more recently Steyn, has led the Dworkin critics who offer a more process-oriented argument. Waldron and Steyn contend that no matter the outcome of a judicial decision – whether it conveys democratic values or not – the process is undemocratic, placing the same decision-making power normally reserved for the masses in the hands of a few.

There are a lot of problems with Steyn’s “King Kennedy” argument. For one, Kennedy makes his vote in isolation. Although the rest of the justices’ votes are predictable, they are not made ahead of time. Kennedy does not cast his vote with absolute certainty that it will be the deciding factor. His position on the Court is simply an exacerbated case of the voter at the voting box in a contested district: if the election is decided by one vote, his vote still holds the same weight as the others in the majority.

Secondly, the Court is bound (in theory) by the constitution, and it is not unprecedented for legislators to override the Court’s decisions by installing federal constitutional amendments in their place (e.g. the civil rights amendments). Much like every other branch of government, there are checks on the power of the judicial branch. It also bears noting that the judicial branch is not the only non-democratically elected branch; much of the executive branch and, without the 12th amendment, only one-half of the legislative branch (the House of Representatives) would be. Majority rule is not an intellectual concept with deep American roots; both separation of powers and the contentious filibuster are quite antidemocratic measures under the majoritarian conception

However, that doesn’t mean that Kennedy is innocent of overreach. Multiple times the spectacled justice has been guilty of judicial activism. His Windsor decision features a reluctance to even acknowledge the opinions of the other side. His legal argument is a strong departure from his previous writings on the issue; stare decisis is nowhere to be seen. He abandons the federalism argument he has made in the past and cites an obscure desegregation case calling Bolling v. Sharpe to argue, as his former employer Earl Warren did in Bolling, that sometimes “discrimination may be so unjustifiable as to be violative of due process.” The combination due process and equal protection argument he makes has no intention of moving the legal needle slowly, and Kennedy leaves the door open for another case where the Court will rule on prohibitive same-sex marriage laws on a state basis.

Alexis de Tocqueville, who had a noted admiration for the United States political system, once said that “there is hardly a political question in the United States which does not sooner or later turn into a judicial one.” With the way that predominant social and political issues—abortion, gay marriage, affirmative action, voting discrimination, etc.—have been decided by the Court in recent years, de Tocqueville’s 19th century quote is a prescient realization the dominant nature of the Supreme Court in our current society.

Kennedy, and the Court as a whole, are not the monarchs that their critics paint them out to be, but the past 60 years of activism has dramatically changed the balance of power in the federal government. Whether judicial review is antidemocratic, an issue raised in response to Windsor, is less of an issue in a government with little commitment to the majoritarian conceptions of democracy. More concerning is the deterioration of stare decisis and increased fluidity and variance in the Court’s decisions.

A Tale of Two Identities

Books & Arts May 21, 2013 8:00 am

House of CardsStepping out of the darkness, Frank Underwood, played by Kevin Spacey, introduces himself to the audience. “There are two kinds of pain,” he begins, cradling the head of a whimpering dog injured in a hit-and-run, “pain that makes you strong or useless pain.” Brusquely, he tilts the dog’s head to one side and rotates. “I have no patience for useless things,” he comments as he snaps the dog’s neck.

House of Cards, Netflix’s $100 million project and the brainchild of Beau Willimon and David Fincher, invites viewers in for a ride in the ruthlessly ambitious mind of a South Carolina congressman. Underwood, who specializes in the backroom politics of Capitol Hill, is the epitome of Cards’ central duality. He exemplifies the nuanced view of politics Fincher’s work presents: a heavy dose of contemporary cynicism dulled by a steady stream of age-old idealism. Painted as both the most corrupt and the most powerful man in Washington, Underwood is simultaneously the immoral bureaucrat of today and the commanding congressman of yesteryear.

Underwood is the point man for Fincher’s Washington critique. Although much of the show’s initial publicity was directed towards the ways that Netflix altered the consumer experience—automatically shortening credits and optimizing episode times to fit trends in its consumer viewing database—the show itself also demonstrates a careful attention to public opinion. Choosing salient political topics as episode fodder (education and environmental policy frame two of the show’s large story arcs), Cards plays directly into contemporary political cynicism. Fincher’s illustration of Washington satisfies every pessimistic vision held by Washington outsiders, sparing no prey in his caustic portrayal of journalists, lobbyists, executives, and even the military.

The Ends Justify the Means

Underwood’s blatant exploitation of both family and friend to reach the top dominates the series’ plot, but the objects of Frank’s wrath are often Fincher’s most frequent targets. The congressman manipulates media coverage through Kate Mara’s Zoe Barnes, a redheaded fireball of ambition whose curt language and je m’en fiche attitude make her the show’s most compelling character. Barnes’ raw lust for prestige jumps off the screen as Mara perfectly balances the professional and edgy aspects of Zoe’s character. Underwood uses Barnes as a media microphone to leak valuable stories; through her, he pens articles that torpedo a secretary of state nomination and release valuable White House documents.

Barnes is the focal point of the show’s derogatory treatment of the news media. Working at the Washington Herald, Barnes’ breaking news stories are treated with suspicion by her coworkers and managing editor. The White House correspondent, Janine Skorsky (Constance Zimmer), cavalierly asks her whom she seduced to get her scoops—pre-empting a later conversation at indie publication Slugline where Skorsky tacitly asserts that a female journalist who doesn’t exploit her body for stories isn’t doing her job correctly. Barnes, who had been maintaining a sexual relationship with Frank that his wife Claire (Robin Wright) was perfectly aware of, reflects on this conversation and discontinues her dalliance with Underwood, who immediately cuts her off from breaking news. The harsh message about female journalists resonates loudly, but Fincher isn’t done. Zoe’s next hookup? Her former colleague at the Herald, a news reporter she exploits in her new quest to unearth the truth behind a dead congressman.

That dead congressman is Pennsylvanian Peter Russo (Corey Stoll), a youthful representative who lives with little regard for those around him. Coming up from working-class South Philadelphia, Russo’s drive to Capitol Hill should be a redemption story. Instead, Fincher conveys Russo’s identity through his addictions to alcohol and cocaine. Caught driving while intoxicated with an escort, Russo is backed into a corner when Underwood pulls up, absolving him of all legal harm at a steep price: a debt to Frank. The debt to Underwood traumatizes Russo throughout the series. While Frank convinces him to get clean by dragging him into myriad political no-win situations, the former alcoholic is forced to swap political integrity for its personal counterpart.

Not only do Russo’s struggles with alcoholism and substance abuse fit into larger suspicions about the morality of elected officials, the way he prioritizes individual goals over his constituency matches contemporary political cynicism. His tragic ending, with the tantalizing twosome of alcohol and ample cleavage ruining the six months of sobriety he built up while running for office, preys on common conceptions about the immorality of politicians.

In an age when satisfaction with the legislators of Capitol Hill is at an all-time low, Cards taps into a reservoir of resentment in its spare-no-prisoners treatment of politics. Claire Underwood’s management of a nonprofit involves about as much emotion as her husband’s management of the country. She begins by firing half of her staff; later, at the expense of torpedoing her husband’s prized energy bill, she accepts money from a company specializing in oil production to fund projects overseas. Her noble intentions are tainted with the unmistakable stain of corruption. Much like every other character in the show, her morals are contingent on her goals and ambitions—she unscrupulously sacrifices integrity in her means to achieve the desired ends.

Claire is not Zoe, in whom Fincher exploits the inconsistency between puerile features and her aggressive and cavalier sexual presence in emotionally unsettling ways. However, Claire’s apathy as she makes her husband into a cuckold while simultaneously maintaining a detachment from her new lover is downright eerie. Her intimacy with Frank resembles more of a business partnership than a marriage; their union is predicated on mutual support and romantically falls apart when business interests conflict. Employing a cynical view of Washington that extends to the bedroom, Cards gives no room for love in sex, only a predominating thirst for power. Here, Frank quotes Oscar Wilde, “everything in the world is about sex except sex. Sex is about power.” Desires for power drive sexual relationships and even the sanctity of marriage is a tryst broken in Fincher’s consummate cynical portrayal of Washington.

An Archaic Conception

For all of its political criticisms, Cards simultaneously harkens back to a forgotten ideal about the America political realm. Although the show preys upon the immoral conceptions Americans hold about Congress, it offers a tacit reassurance of the predominant worry about politicians; namely, that is, Fincher’s characters get things done.

Like the legislators of yore, Underwood is brutal but undeniably effective. Viewed through one lens, the congressman cleverly uses the death of an impoverished schoolchild for political gain, forcing the hand of his union boss opponent. Seen through another, the plea is another ruthless Washington power play. Frank’s tactics are of dubious morality but highly effective. A no-nonsense former militiaman from the South, Underwood presents a brusque tone and aggressive rhetoric that conjure up images of legislative titans like Lyndon Johnson and John C. Calhoun. His syrupy Southern drawl is at odds with his menacing attitude and creates a persona seemingly in tension with itself but also self-serving in his single-minded pursuit.

Frank’s persona reflects the dominant overtone of the series: the quest for power. It manifests itself in Zoe’s endless pursuit of the story and Claire’s emotionless abuse of both her husband and her own employees to further her own ambitions. It manifests itself in Russo’s dogged quest for the governorship and the almost-tangible hunger of Underwood’s ambition. Referenced ceaselessly in his monologues to the audience, Underwood’s preference for power over fame and fortune dominates his personality. In the series’ penultimate episode, locked into war with a billionaire as he is vetted for the vice presidency, Frank makes a haughty comment about his opponent—noting that his wealth is more important as a measure of power than material well-being.

A Reassuring Discomfort

In this way, Cards skirts a tenuous line. At the same time that it fulfills the audience’s skepticisms about politics, it aims to satisfy idealistic beliefs about what politicians can truly be. House of Cards specializes in providing us a moribund version of what we, at our core, want to see. Although Fincher satisfies every deep fear we have about politics in a reassuringly horrific sense, the director assuages our concerns with strong central characters conjuring up utopic ideas of past politicians. Immorality and the thirst for power in Washington may be the dominant themes of Cards, but Spacey’s captivating and dominating Underwood is not long behind. In more ways than one, Netflix tailored the show to the psyches of an American conscious deeply suspicious of politics, simultaneously exploiting our fears while providing a light at the end of the tunnel.

Redefining Rack City

Campus Conversations - Harvard - HPRgument April 5, 2013 7:48 am

HPR writers respond to the recent controversy surrounding the rapper TYGA’s invitation to perform at Yardfest.

Straw Man Arguments Detract from Meaningful Tyga Debate

Campus Conversations - Harvard - HPRgument Posts April 5, 2013 7:48 am

The debate regarding the petition preventing Tyga from performing at Yardfest misses several important points necessary for rigorous discussion.  First, the Tyga scheduled to perform at Yardfest will most likely perform his tamer music that is similar to music performed by recent Yardfest artists.  And second, contrary to what those opposed to Tyga think, defendants of Tyga performing at Yardfest do not support his misogyny and are not anti-activist.

Tyga receives some unfair criticism.  The Tyga who may appear at Yardfest will probably not perform songs on his mixtapes which contain the most offensive lyrics. Also, the comments attributed to Tyga’s music in collaboration with other artists are often incorrectly cited to the rapper himself.

The sentiments of those in favor of keeping Tyga have also been unfairly characterized. Harvard freshman Colin Diersing argued in an article for the Harvard Political Review that supporters have a “personal prerogative to attack any activist or cause they rate less important or valuable than their own work.” Such is a misappropriation of a more laissez-faire style of protest. As Diersing calls it, the #wehavebiggerproblems argument refers to the line of thinking that worrying about the essentially harmless Tyga takes time away from other activist causes.

The contention of the pro-Tyga faction is: if you don’t like, don’t come. The “voting with your feet” idea has its roots in common economic principles of which N. Gregory Mankiw would be proud. The artist is enabled by popular support for his music that demonstrates a demand for his supply. By accepting his music without raising objections to its contents, consumers are sending the artist a message that they accept and tacitly condone his work.

By not showing up, those who resent the rapper send a larger scale message by encouraging a small turnout or even a large walkout than forming a petulant petition with little chance of success; having already been signed to a $30,000 contract, the University is likely recalcitrant to cancel and eat the cost.

Such arguments allow us to refocus our discussion on more important topics about the role of music in our society in transforming the opinions of our culture. Talib Kwell and Lupe Fiasco recently took to Twitter, arguing over the notion that these lyrics simply represent the poor socioeconomic realities and cultural mores of the rapper’s communities. This argument wouldn’t seem to explain the entire problem, but it would explain in part the preponderance of this kind of language among rap artists.

Artists that have performed at previous Yardfests and other Ivy League spring festivals (Cornell’s Slope Day, Penn’s Spring Fling, etc.), such as Wu-Tang Clan, Common, and Snoop Dogg, are also guilty of misogynistic lyrics. As a post in the Harvard Class of 2016 Facebook group illustrated, the three previous years Harvard has invited artists to Yardfest with similar lyrics and less protest. Whether that was because the music was simply better—another relevant Tyga protest is the incredibly poor quality of his music—or because it was less explicit still raises questions of whether the University condones these sentiments by inviting these artists to play at Harvard.

I tend to side with those who see little value in protesting the Tyga concert. While I find his lyrics horribly offensive, I recognize that his more popular music is tamer and along the lines of things performed by recent Yardfest artists. A more relevant discussion, I believe, is about the purpose of the concert and the transparency of the College Events Board, the organization that chooses the artists to invite. The CEB chooses artists it believes students will like, and Tyga’s popularity is large enough they chose him, cycling back to the basic argument about supply and demand. In the present, the libertarian argument of “if you don’t like it, don’t go” is not incompatible with the anti-Tyga assents. Demonstrating virulent dissatisfaction with these kinds of artists has likely made it enough that the CEB will monitor its choices more closely in the future. Banning him serves little practical or symbolic purpose; discussions should center on productive conversations about the role of music in our society and where these misogynistic lyrics came from in the first place.


Photo Credit: Harvard Crimson

The Future of the GOP

The Future of Conservatism April 2, 2013 11:51 am

Future of GOPIn the fallout of the 2012 presidential election, the American media has continually discussed the nature of the GOP’s alleged “race” problem. The Republican Party, which lost in the election black, Hispanic, and Asian votes by 89, 47, and 51 percent, respectively, began to deliver rhetoric of reform. Apologies gave way to admissions of guilt and to pledges of turnaround in both message and policy within the GOP. Florida Senator Marco Rubio commented that, “Republicans need to work harder than ever to communicate our beliefs to [minorities],” and even Al Cardenas, the head of the American Conservative Union, was quoted in Politico as saying that the GOP “needs to realize that it’s too old and too white and too male.”

Cardenas, who went on to say that the party “needs to figure out how to catch up with the demographics of the country before it’s too late,” has been part of efforts to cultivate a new party image. His message rests on the argument that because the top public faces of the GOP, including Mitt Romney, Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell, and John Boehner, are primarily white males, the party’s struggles among minority voter blocs can be attributed to the identities of its top representatives.

However, this discussion of issues of race in the GOP is derived from the tacitly incorrect assumption that minority candidates best represent “minority issues.” It similarly incorrectly characterizes the party’s views and history with race, while ignoring the larger, more immediate problems facing the GOP: communication and accessibility.

Who Are the Best Representatives?                                              

Timothy Johnson is the founder and president of the Frederick Douglass Foundation, a public policy organization that, according to Johnson in an interview with the Harvard Political Review, attempts to “raise awareness about a variety of different issues that affect the black community” and assert that specific “black issues” such as unemployment, incarceration, and education, disproportionately affect the black community.

Interestingly, Johnson denies that black candidates are inherently better at representing these issues than representatives of other ethnicities. More important, according to Johnson, is how a representative chooses to stand for those issues.

Former Alabama congressman Artur Davis, the only African-American congressman to vote against the Affordable Care Act, agrees. Davis, who represented a community that was sixty percent black, says that for most of the black community, the most important issues to voters deal with policy and not skin color. Davis pointed to Rep. Steve Cohen’s Memphis district as an example of a white congressman in a majority African-American district who was able to defeat black challengers. Cohen has retained his seat through numerous races, including a challenge from former black Memphis mayor Willie Herenton. Davis told the HPR that, “For the overwhelming majority of the African-American voters there… is no special affinity for a candidate because he is black,” particularly given that recent history has shown that these voters “prefer white liberal Democrats to a more conservative black Democrats.”

Republican National Hispanic Assembly Chair Alci Maldonado, whose grass-roots organization seeks to bridge the barriers between the GOP and the Hispanic-American community, expressed sentiments similar to those of Johnson and Davis. Maldonado said Hispanics largely share the same concerns as other Americans—the economy, education, and national security—and he asserted that although diversity is important in politics, it is not the driving factor behind Latino political votes. “As long as the politician advocates and articulates these issues with clarity and sincerity,” Maldonado told the HPR, “voters will respond accordingly, irrespective of their ethnic background.”

Revising National Stereotypes

To be sure, the issue for the GOP, then, is not primarily one involving the ethnic makeup of its leadership, but rather one of public perception. Maldonado recalled how the party’s long history of supporting abolition, feminism, and civil rights legislation has often been forgotten.

Johnson similarly expressed that the GOP does a “terrible job” of promoting ethnic candidates and diversity within the party, even though this is an important part of the GOP’s future going forward, given that the share of Caucasians in the overall electorate has been steadily decreasing. Johnson argues that, in particular within the GOP, “There is a need for more positive promotions of black Republicans to understand that skin color does not dictate party affiliation.”

Within the history of his party, Johnson has plenty to point to. The first twenty-one black congressmen were Republican, four of the first five Hispanic senators identified with the GOP, and an African-American, Michael Steele, has even chaired the Republican National Committee. The only two current Hispanic senators, Rubio and Texas Senator Ted Cruz, are also both Republican.

Both Johnson and Davis discussed the stigmas associated with being a black Republican, something that Johnson said he sees as a larger problem within the Republican Party. According to Johnson, “When you talk to blacks who say that all blacks who are Republican are in some way token, that’s where the party fails,” because such comments actually encourage a larger and undue stereotype of homogeneity within the African-American demographic overall.

In the Deep South, Davis said, there is also still a history of racially tinged campaigns that has made the Republican Party unelectable to many black voters who still remember campaigns waged by Republican candidates like Barry Goldwater, who voted against the Civil Rights Act.

Communicating a Message

The presence of stereotypes and stigmas afflicting both the GOP and conservative minority candidates illustrates the biggest issues within the Republican Party. According to Hispanic Leadership Network Executive Director Jennifer Korn, the GOP struggles with outreach into minority communities and with targeting specific blocs of voters with different backgrounds. Korn explains that while Democrats have few qualms about targeting specific groups, Republicans see the electorate as much more unified and “don’t do as much coalition building because they view Americans as Americans.” Korn also points to mischaracterization of the party message in the media as a problem hindering outreach efforts, particularly when it involves topics such as immigration.

When extremist voices like Richard Mourdock drive the GOP’s larger message, Korn explains, they not only ignore the feelings of the majority of the party, but also open the door for political foes to exploit their comments for political gain. For example, most Republicans, according to Korn, take a fairly moderate stance on immigration, however a few loud voices in the media dominate the discussion for the Republicans, which allows Democrats to campaign on these issues and paint the party with a broad brush.

Unlike Korn, Johnson blames party officials for the problems with misconceptions with the Republican Party. He cites the 2012 Republican National Convention as an example, given that the speaking lineup reflected homogeneous Caucasian faces of the party, instead of minority party officials. Johnson points out that at the Convention, the most senior black Republican in the country, Jennifer Carroll, did not have a speaking position.

Johnson also noted how several other prominent black Republicans were also denied a chance to speak at the Convention and how this impacted the blacks in the election. In particular, Michael Steele and Herman Cain did not have national speaking roles, which gave the impression, according to Johnson, “that the Republican Party does not appreciate its blacks, especially those trailblazers who have sacrificed a lot.”

Where to Go From Here?

Moving forward, Korn believes that the GOP needs to regain the focus it had during the years of President George W. Bush. Korn, who ran the Hispanic outreach for Bush, notes that while the party currently lacks direction, it need only look at the templates for success it already created.

Issues of communication and accessibility that currently plague the party were not as problematic in 2004, when Bush won 44 percent of the Hispanic voting bloc. Similarly, Bush’s brother, former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, routinely won a larger percentage of the non-Cuban Hispanic vote than current senator and Cuban-American Rubio. As such, Korn emphasizes that the GOP does in fact have the ability to compete in diverse demographic groups, and that the answer to how to do so resides not so much in policy as in effort. She prioritized redefining the GOP as more moderate and centrist in its message.

Maldonado believes that much of the Hispanic demographic holds conservative values similar to those of the GOP, including those of “limited but responsible government, fewer taxes, more individual freedom, and equality of opportunity.”

Although Maldonado expressed satisfaction with the efforts of the GOP, Johnson said that he has not seen enough urgency among the party about its future among African-American voters, because, in his view, “It is uncomfortable for some people to talk about black issues [even as] we have no problem talking about women’s issues.” He stresses that change will be gradual but that the focus for the future needs to go beyond two-year election cycles and towards the broader goals of developing new perceptions and discussing issues that matter to African-Americans.

These sentiments reflect a reconciliation of differing opinions in the GOP. While the media incorrectly blames political homogeneity for the GOP’s faults, problems with accessibility and communication resonate more loudly as the party moves forward. The problems they face are not easily solved; to improve, the party must mix policy moderation with a rededication to outreach into minority communities. Overcoming a history of racist campaigns in the South and harsh rhetoric on issues of women’s rights and immigration requires a party-wide commitment to reverting to the GOP’s roots—to Lincoln and Roosevelt, and other Republican civil rights pioneers. If this is done, the future of American politics could change quite dramatically.

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