When Boris Johnson walked through the front door of Number 10 on July 26 2019, the British political system was in a state of Brexit-induced paralysis. But in a small room upstairs, arguably the second most powerful man in Britain was already issuing new instructions to demoralised staffers: “Don’t be shit.”
A dishevelled figure with a soft voice and the appearance of an eccentric scientist, Dominic Cummings explained to his political team — largely inherited from a broken Theresa May — that from now on Number 10 would be run like Nasa, with him at Mission Control. There was one single objective: delivering Brexit.
“It was genuinely jaw-dropping,” says one of those present. At times, in what a staffer said was a 90-minute diatribe, Cummings started waving his pen around so frantically that they feared he would deface the oil painting behind him.
“The overriding sense was we had wasted the last three years,” says another witness. “He said bad performance wouldn’t be tolerated. Then he invited everyone next door for some drinks — it was so different to the old regime. It was genuinely quite inspiring.”
Jason Stein, an adviser who attended the meeting, noted at the time: “Astonishing meeting. He says the last government made a total mess of this and we won’t mess it up again. He says unlike the last government, decisions are going to be rapid and final. It’s absolute Darwinism in there. Titles don’t matter.”
Six months later, Cummings is still in Downing Street, presiding over a new political landscape that he has helped shape. The man who directed the 2016 campaign to take Britain out of the EU is chief adviser to Johnson, a prime minister who used the promise “Get Brexit Done” to secure an 80-strong House of Commons majority.
On January 31, Britain will formally leave the EU — although the challenge of agreeing a trade deal with the bloc will be just beginning.
Cummings, who gave Britain Brexit, is leaving the tricky details of delivering it to others. The 48-year-old is moving on to a new agenda, in which he hopes to remake the civil service, put money into Britain’s “left-behind” regions and turn the country into a leading centre for science, putting it at the cutting edge of artificial intelligence, robotics and climate change. This month, he published a blog post that went viral, inviting “weirdos and misfits” to join him at the heart of government.
Those who see him in Number 10 meetings with Johnson detect no deference towards the prime minister. “He sits there, leaning back in his chair — they act as though they are equals,” says one senior government figure. “There’s no doubt about that.”
For now, Johnson embraces Cummings, who is seen by friends as a “Renaissance man” with rare skills spanning campaigning, policy, communications and project delivery. To his enemies he is vicious, unscrupulous and an intellectual showboater who is riding for a fall.
For all his successes in plotting election strategies, the pressure is now on to deliver his highly ambitious agenda. One government insider says: “He’s all-powerful and he’s running the country. But nobody ever dies in a ditch for an adviser. Of course he’s expendable.”
Cummings, who declined to be interviewed for this article but responded to fact-checking queries, tells people he will quit long before he is fired. He likes to give the impression that he is just passing through, moving from one project to the next, and that he could happily walk away at any time and return to his “bunker” at his parents’ farm in County Durham.
When he joined the Vote Leave campaign in October 2015, Cummings insisted he would only be the “acting” campaign director, but went on to lead it to victory. Similarly, he predicted in November 2019 that he would soon quit Number 10: “There’s a reasonable chance I won’t be around any more. As you know, I strongly dislike Westminster, so I’m reluctant to return,” he told colleagues.
But Cummings did come back after Johnson’s victory in December and immediately announced plans to create his dream Downing Street operation, inhabited by data scientists, policy experts, project managers and people with “odd skills”. Uri Geller, the celebrity spoonbender, has applied.
Even Cummings’ appearance is seen by some as an outward symbol of his avowed contempt for Whitehall tradition. His sartorial standards have deteriorated the closer he has got to the centre of power. Some see it as insolent and disrespectful. Cummings argues, however, that it is simply that he has “always been a scruffy bastard”.
Nor is he the first dishevelled iconoclast to operate in Number 10: Steve Hilton, who padded barefoot around Downing Street as David Cameron’s “blue-sky thinking” adviser, quit after becoming frustrated at his ability to achieve change.
But Cummings’ style has become increasingly idiosyncratic over the years. His “low-riding”, loose-fitting trousers are usually accompanied by threadbare shirts, often open to the chest and covered in biro marks. Cummings likes to set off this ensemble with a bulldog clip, attached to his shirt.
Freddy Gray, deputy editor of The Spectator and a friend of Cummings and his wife Mary Wakefield, another senior journalist on the magazine, says: “On occasions, Dom has come into the office with two pairs of tracksuit bottoms on and Mary’s looked up and thought that he was one of the homeless people she helps to look after.”
His friends say he is not planning to be in Downing Street in the long term. “He doesn’t dream of some permanent Metternich or Talleyrand continuance in office,” says one. But they also agree that now Cummings is installed, he wants to get big things done quickly. The country is in for an interesting ride.
Cummings was born in Durham, a cathedral city in the north-east of England, in 1971. His father was a construction manager on oil rigs and his mother a special educational needs teacher. Although his upbringing was geographically distant from the gilded world inhabited by the Eton-educated Johnson and David Cameron, Cummings nevertheless attended Durham School, a prestigious fee-paying establishment founded in 1414, and Exeter College, Oxford.
In spite of railing in this month’s unorthodox Downing Street job ad against the “blah blah” spoken by Oxbridge humanities graduates, Cummings himself studied ancient and modern history.
Robin Lane Fox, his tutor in ancient history (and the FT Weekend gardening columnist), says: “He got a very good First in both parts in three years,” adding that Cummings was “a whole class better” at the subject than Boris Johnson, who studied classics at Oxford some years earlier.
Critics argue that Cummings is a poseur, name-dropping Thucydides and Bismarck — later broadening his repertoire to include physicists and data scientists — to claim intellectual superiority. But Lane Fox disagrees: “Dominic is not a pseud.”
At Oxford, Cummings was also highly influenced by the late Norman Stone, his tutor in modern history and an adviser to Margaret Thatcher, who encouraged him to travel to Moscow in 1994 to witness the new world being created behind the old iron curtain.
Liam Halligan, a Telegraph journalist who was then working as an academic at the London School of Economics and writing columns for The Moscow Times, offered Cummings somewhere to stay.
“A lot of smart young westerners were going to Moscow at the time,” Halligan recalls. “Norman Stone asked if I could help him out. There was a little sofa in the hallway and he slept on that. He was intense, very clever, socially a little bit awkward. He didn’t initially have a job but wanted to see what was going on. Later, he worked on a bond desk. There were lots of investment projects coming and going.”
Cummings helped to set up an airline flying from Samara on the Volga to Vienna, but it was spectacularly unsuccessful. “It once took off forgetting its only passenger,” he once recalled.
Halligan says he could see why people thought that some of the bright young Brits arriving in Moscow were security service “assets”. “The whole atmosphere was like a Graham Greene novel,” he says. Conspiracy theories have been built around Cummings’ time in Russia, a country that 20 years later celebrated Britain’s departure from the EU. “It’s utter bollocks,” says Halligan.
Back in the UK in the late 1990s, Cummings entered the world of rightwing pressure groups, becoming campaign director for Business for Sterling, a group campaigning to stop Britain joining the euro. Again, Stone helped with the introductions. Cummings believed the euro was a doomed project and the EU was a lumbering behemoth, but he has never actually been a member of the Conservative party.
Instead, his instinctive view that politicians are squanderers of public cash and his dislike of big bureaucracies — including the one based in Brussels — were fused in 2004 in the referendum campaign in which he made his name: an often-forgotten vote on Tony Blair’s plan to create a regional assembly in the north-east of England.
Blair wanted to decentralise power to the English regions and saw the north-east as a good place to start. He had reckoned without Cummings, who helped to campaign against the new regional assembly with the aid of a giant inflatable white elephant and the slogan: “Politicians talk, you pay.”
County Durham manufacturer John Elliot, who chaired the campaign, says that when they met every morning to plan the day’s events, Cummings was highly important. “He was not the most talkative but he was probably the most influential.” He adds: “He was quite single-minded. He wanted to keep things simple. He kept on message.” The “No” side won 78:22.
Some 12 years later, Cummings deployed the same simple messages, visual stunts and a focus on “waste” in the 2016 Brexit referendum. But first, he retreated to the three-room outhouse at his parents’ farm near Durham. One visitor says: “It’s what you’d expect — quite ramshackle, packed with books.”
He disappeared from the scene for over two years, reading history and developing his growing passion for science, which he believed held the key to understanding and solving public policy problems.
He also immersed himself in the art of campaigning. Elliott says Blair’s polling guru, the late Philip Gould, and Bill Clinton’s adviser James Carville, an abrasive Washington outsider from Louisiana, are among his heroes. Carville mastered the three-word campaign slogan “The economy, stupid.” Cummings later came up with “Take Back Control” and “Get Brexit Done.”
In 2007, Cummings caught the eye of Michael Gove, a fast-rising Tory shadow minister, who made him his special adviser for seven years and brought him into David Cameron’s new coalition government to overhaul England’s education system and take on what Gove liked to call “the blob” — the teaching establishment, which he blamed for accepting low standards.
By now, Cummings had started writing down his thoughts, expounding in sprawling online tracts how a more rigorous education system could help to solve the country’s ills. “We need what Murray Gell Mann, the discoverer of the quark, calls ‘an Odyssean education’ that integrates knowledge from maths and science, the humanities and social sciences, and training in effective action,” he wrote in 2014.
In 2011, Cummings married Mary Wakefield, having met at a mutual friend’s party. “He was already friends with my brother Jack,” Wakefield says. “Anyone who’s friends with Jack is OK by me.” They have one son, Alexander Cedd, known by family as “Ceddy” and named after the Northumbrian saint. Friends say Cummings is a doting father.
Wakefield’s father owns Chillingham castle in Northumberland but friends say the couple, who own a house in Islington, do not enjoy a lavish lifestyle. “Typically English — asset rich, cash poor,” says one. “Mary has to earn a living.”
Cummings, who has long railed against officials earning six-figure salaries, earns just under £100,000, less than other senior Number 10 staff.
The couple’s relationship was depicted in a Channel 4 film on the Brexit referendum, in which Cummings is sympathetically played by Benedict Cumberbatch, a Remainer who spent an increasingly bibulous evening with the couple, noting Cummings’ mannerisms. “Because of the film, people see Mary as the sweet one,” says Freddy Gray. “She hates that. If either of them is Machiavellian, it’s her.”
Cameron initially blocked Cummings from entering government on the grounds he was too confrontational. Gray says Cummings’ parents had excitedly texted their son when they saw television pictures of him entering Number 10 on the first day of the new government, only to be told he wasn’t wanted.
“I think that cemented his and Mary’s deep dislike of Dave and the gang. I remember thinking the day after the referendum, ‘Well, that’s what happens if you f**k with Mary and Dom.’”
Cameron later relented and allowed Cummings to join Gove, but he came to regret it. David Laws, a former Liberal Democrat minister who worked with Cummings at the education department, witnessed the abrasive style that he would eventually take into Downing Street.
“He can be unnecessarily rude, hectoring and create a climate of fear, which isn’t generally conducive to good government,” Laws says. “I think he’s genuinely interested in serious policy issues rather than ‘spin’, but whether he engages at a level where he actually delivers is another matter.”
By 2014, Cameron was tiring of the fact that his flagship education reforms — which sought to toughen up exams and curriculums — had become “toxic” with voters, partly thanks to Cummings waging war with the teaching profession.
Cummings jumped first in 2014 — Cameron later labelled him a “career psychopath” — and returned to his bunker, while Gove was shuffled out of the department.
Two years later, Cummings would return as the prime minister’s nemesis, working with Boris Johnson and Michael Gove to deliver Brexit in the 2016 referendum, campaigning on EU “waste” and ruthlessly exploiting fears about immigration with a false claim that Turkey was about to join the EU and that millions of Turks would soon be heading for Dover.
“What he is brilliant at doing is creating a kind of guerrilla warfare against the establishment,” says Craig Oliver, who helped to run the Remain campaign. “He found the weak spots and probed them relentlessly. He understood how to get into the psychology of discontent and leverage and used that against the establishment. Can he maintain that in government?”
Dominic Cummings barely knew Boris Johnson when the two linked up in the 2016 referendum campaign but the adviser was immediately impressed: “He thought people were wrong not to take Boris seriously — he thought he had an extra gear,” says one friend.
Matthew Elliott, chief executive of Vote Leave, says they went on to forge a formidable and close partnership, which has been carried into Downing Street. “They admire each other’s strengths,” Elliott says. “Boris is funny, witty, charismatic, intelligent and brings the television cameras out. Dom is massively bright, can bring a team together and drive things.”
Cummings, who had spent the previous 20 years dreaming about what he might do if he found himself running Number 10, moved to a completely new level when he walked in there with the new prime minister.
Nominally Johnson’s “assistant”, in reality he acts as his chief adviser and chief enforcer. He hires and fires staff and set the tone of the new government, focusing on delivering Brexit and the three things he says people actually care about: the NHS, tackling crime and ending austerity. But his arrival in Number 10 also highlighted some paradoxes.
Wakefield says that her husband is “extremely kind” but some see Cummings as ruthless and vindictive in securing his objectives. He summarily sacked a young Treasury adviser, Sonia Khan, for alleged disloyalty and had her marched off the premises by armed police.
“He ruined a young woman’s life,” says one Tory insider. In his most recent blog post, Cummings fulminated against “the horror of human resources”.
On the other hand, Cummings’ urgency and drive have inspired loyalty among many colleagues. Sir Mark Sedwill, cabinet secretary and Britain’s top civil servant, has put off a plan to become Britain’s ambassador to Washington to help deliver Cummings’ civil service reforms. “They have a good relationship,” says one Downing Street insider.
A Tory official adds: “Dom is genuinely open about things. He’s keen to hear criticism. But he’ll also tell you that if you don’t like it, ‘F**k off — there’s the door.’”
Cummings is often seen as a revolutionary who wants to kick down bastions of the establishment — he has loudly criticised the civil service, the Supreme Court, parliamentary “lobby” journalists and the BBC — yet he retains a remarkable conviction that the state can be a force for good. Provided it is run on his terms.
Downing Street has magnified what one government insider calls “the Cummings myth” but also put a spotlight on his shortcomings. David Laws says: “He’s very, very good at defining himself against things like the north-east assembly, the EU, Nick Clegg [the former Lib Dem leader] or David Cameron. Now he has to show he can deliver not just bloody good campaigns but something positive.”
His strategy of closing down parliament last October to try to force through a no-deal Brexit was blocked by the Supreme Court and could have been disastrous for Johnson, had the Lib Dems and Scottish National party not obliged the prime minister by agreeing to a snap election.
“He’s not a soothsayer,” says one government insider. “He spent ages telling us that we would be toast if we didn’t deliver Brexit on October 31. In fact, he was completely wrong: the ‘Get Brexit Done’ message won us the election. If he had delivered Brexit, the election would have been totally different.”
Meanwhile, Cummings recently lost a battle with the Treasury when he proposed that chancellor Sajid Javid should embark on a massive pre-election spree of tax cuts and spending. Javid said it would be folly to engage in a spending race with Labour and was ultimately backed by Johnson.
Although Cummings advises Johnson across all aspects of government, those inside Number 10 say it is important to strip away the “myth” and recognise that in some areas he is much less influential than others. Since his run-in with Javid, Cummings has taken a lower profile on the economy, while the former chief of the Vote Leave campaign is increasingly letting others sort out the details after Britain formally leaves the EU on January 31.
A complex post-Brexit trade deal with the EU is being run by Johnson’s Europe adviser David Frost. When Ursula von der Leyen, European Commission president, visited Number 10 this month, Cummings did not ask to attend. “There were six places at the table but he didn’t want to come,” says one person briefed on the meeting.
Cummings recognises there is a danger of spreading himself too thin and failing to deliver. His new focus reflects the passions developed in his bunker: putting science at the heart of government and ensuring that the government machine delivers what the politicians promise.
His inspiration is the US government’s Manhattan Project, which created the first atomic bomb, and — as he put it in his blog — “the way in which George Mueller turned the failing Nasa bureaucracy into an organisation that could put man on the moon”.
He wants to set up a civilian version of the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (formerly known as Arpa), pursuing “high-risk, high-return projects that markets won’t fund — ie failure is normal”. His WhatsApp profile says: “Get Brexit done, then Arpa”.
But Cummings risks making enemies by denouncing some officials as work-shy, knocking off at 4pm and leaving their minister to take the flak for their mistakes. Oliver notes: “The danger for Dominic is there are an awful lot of civil servants and not many people in Number 10.”
Cummings recognises that his abrasive and relentless style has a time limit. He suffers from a much-discussed mystery ailment that causes pain in his abdominal area, and often has to stand in meetings, grimacing with pain. He says he will have a long-delayed medical operation after January 31, and tells colleagues that he will then find out if “Mary and the PM agree on a job for me”.
Everyone in Number 10 assumes he will carry on. In his ad inviting “wild cards” to work in Downing Street and improve the advice given to Johnson, he suggested he might stay for a year and then quit: “We want to improve performance and make me much less important — and within a year largely redundant.”
Matthew Elliott believes Cummings can change the country and that he is doing it with the best of intentions: “He’s not a partisan person. He’s there to represent people who live outside London and people living in the north-east, where he comes from. That’s quite a pure motive.”
But Steve Bannon’s defenestration from Trump’s White House is a reminder of the danger that advisers face, especially when they become public figures in their own right. Cummings could hardly complain; this month he told potential applicants to join his team in Number 10: “I’ll bin you within weeks if you don’t fit.”
Jonathan Powell, Blair’s former chief of staff, wishes Cummings well in his efforts to overhaul the state but fears that he is on course for a spectacular crash. “On the basis of my experience, the sensible thing for an unelected official in Number 10 to do is keep a low profile,” he says.
“I give him 12 months max. If you try to be in the papers every day your political life expectancy is short — and like Rasputin, you end up on the bottom of the River Neva in chains.”
George Parker is the FT’s political editor.
Additional reporting by Chris Tighe in Newcastle
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Faith, politics mix on Martin Luther King Jr. Day
Monday’s Martin Luther King Jr. holiday found leaders still wrestling over his contested legacy against the backdrop of a presidential election year.
Republicans told a sometimes cool crowd at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta that they were honouring King’s civil rights legacy of service and political empowerment. But Democrats found more favour by highlighting the ways they said the current political and social order calls for more radical action in line with King’s principles.
Monday’s speeches at King’s onetime church were just one slice of the political struggle in Georgia, where Democrats believe they can make further inroads in the Republican controlled state, aided by diverse in-migration and a suburban backlash against U.S. President Donald Trump.
Up for re-election this year, Trump sought to stamp his own mark on the commemoration. He and Vice-President Mike Pence made a brief visit to the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in Washington. Earlier in the day, Trump sent a tweet noting that it was the third anniversary of his inauguration: “So appropriate that today is also MLK jr DAY. African-American Unemployment is the LOWEST in the history of our Country, by far. Also, best Poverty, Youth, and Employment numbers, ever. Great!”
Black unemployment has reached a record low during the Trump administration, but many economists note economic growth since 2009 has driven hiring. The most dramatic drop in black unemployment came under former president Barack Obama. Despite economic success, polls find most African American voters regard Trump with distaste.
In Atlanta, Republican U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler, appointed earlier this month by Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, said her upbringing on an Illinois farm was touched by King.
“Dr. King’s call to service, to sacrifice, to put others first, it shaped our home and inspired us to ask what Dr. King asked the world. ‘What are you doing for others?’” Loeffler said.
One of Loeffler’s Democratic opponents in a November special election could be the Rev. Raphael Warnock, the current pastor at Ebenezer, which King and his father once led. Warnock, without mentioning Loeffler by name, said that honouring King means more than just voicing “lip service” on one weekend a year.
“Everyone wants to be seen standing where Dr. King stood. That’s fine, you’re welcome,” said Warnock, who could soon announce a Senate run. “But if today you would stand in this holy place, where Dr. King stood, make sure, that come tomorrow, we’ll find you standing where Dr. King stood.”
Of King, Warnock said that “too many people like to remember him and dismember him at the same time” calling Georgia “ground zero for voter suppression” and citing the failure of the state’s Republican leadership to fully expand the Medicaid health insurance program.
Others agreed with him, with keynote speaker Rev. Howard-John Wesley of Alexandria, Virginia, telling attendees that “we have lost the radicality” of King’s vision, talking about how King attacked the Vietnam War and the unequal American economy at the end of his career.
Loeffler made no mention of Trump or the Senate impeachment trial, but Democratic U.S. Rep Hank Johnson did, drawing applause when he mentioned impeachment and saying American democracy is “in grave danger.”
“Our communities are once again finding themselves on the front lines of fighting to protect our very republic,” Johnson said. “And it can be easy, brothers and sisters, in moments like these to despair. But even in our darkest hours, the legacy of Dr. King is a hope that dawn will come.”
Georgia’s Republican Secretary of State, Brad Raffensperger gamely took the stage, seeking to build confidence that his office supports broad voter participation and that the state’s new voting machines will guarantee a fair vote. Democrats led by former gubernatorial nominee Stacey Abrams have attacked his actions.
“Every voter gets one vote. We all have a voice. We all count,” Raffensperger said.
King’s daughter Bernice spoke about the King holiday becoming a day of service, “a day on, not a day off.” She said the holiday needs a broader vision.
“A day on is not enough. What we need is a light on, committed to working vigilantly to build the beloved community,” she said. “A light on encompasses a commitment not just to service but to systemic change as well.”
The same kind of wrestling over what King means in the present moment was taking place elsewhere, with Pence speaking Sunday at a church service in Memphis, Tennessee.
Pence spoke at the Holy City Church of God in Christ about King’s religion and how he “challenged the conscience of a nation to live up to our highest ideals by speaking to our common foundation of faith.”
Acknowledging the nation’s divisions, Pence said that if Americans rededicate themselves to the ideals that King advanced while striving to open opportunities for everyone, “we’ll see our way through these divided times and we’ll do our part in our time to form a more perfect union.”
As a presidential election looms this fall, divisions rankle, according to recent opinion polls.
Among black Americans, more than 80 per cent said last year that President Donald Trump’s actions in office have made things worse for people like them, while only 4 per cent said they thought Trump’s actions have been good for African Americans in general. That’s according to a poll conducted by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.
Colby Cosh: Here it is – your quadrennial 'American politics is weird' column – National Post
The actual, real, honest-to-God voting part of the U.S. presidential nominating process will begin with the Iowa state precinct caucuses on Feb. 3, two weeks from Monday. Every four years, at around this time, I rediscover the astonishing opacity of this process and marvel anew. The Iowa caucuses themselves, which have been the paramount preoccupation of American politics for months, serve as an excellent example.
You may have seen C-SPAN footage of the weird precinct caucus goings-on. These incorporate no balloting. Instead, you see small roomfuls of enthusiasts forming physical groupings, chatting about who they ought to support, and then merging smaller “non-viable” groups until the number of groups matches the number of delegates to be sent further on in the process.
“Further on to where?”, you may ask. To the Iowa Democratic Party county conventions, silly; but those don’t happen until March 21. These conventions send delegates to the party conventions for each congressional district (on the morning of April 25), and also to the state convention (June 13).
The actual makeup of the Iowa delegation to the national convention isn’t fully decided until that last date — yet an estimate of the statewide “result” will be provided magically on the evening of the 3rd. Even if no candidate drops out before the district and state conventions, this guess isn’t exactly set in stone. If there are dropouts, the final Iowa vote in the national roll call may look nothing at all like the estimates from the evening. Yet it’s these semi-fictitious, inferential estimates that will actually influence the course of the race in the other 49 states (and in the non-state delegations).
From a Canadian standpoint it all seems like a hell of a way to run a country. We have come to regard party leadership-election procedures as not only a matter of public interest and inquiry, but as something for which political parties should be positively accountable. Fine details of leadership votes are widely discussed. Everybody interested in politics knows, for example, that the federal Liberals and Conservatives both give equal weights to all federal ridings (somewhat controversially for the latter), and that the New Democrats use direct one-man-one-vote, having abandoned the old system that gave separate weight to “affiliates,” mostly labour unions. We all spent a week discussing the anomaly in the 2018 Ontario PC race (wherein electoral weighting allowed Doug Ford to prevail despite winning fewer votes overall and fewer ridings than Christine Elliott).
Would you know, as a news consumer, that American political parties are nothing like this? The idea of weighting delegations strictly according to Electoral College numbers was abandoned down south not far into the 20th century: both parties learned that it made some sense to down-weight states they had no hope of winning in the general election. (A key moment was the Republican national convention of 1912; a resurgent Teddy Roosevelt had cleaned up in scattered primaries, which were still a novelty, but Taft won on the strength of Southern support, and the party ripped apart.)
The Democratic Party now allocates delegates to states by a formula that is only half pure electoral weight. The other half of the coefficient (yes, there’s a coefficient) is based on the Democratic vote for president in the past three elections, which leads to pretty big distortions. Further bonuses are available to states that vote later in the cycle (in order to discourage a pell-mell race among the states to the front of the nomination calendar) and to states that “cluster” primary dates with those of neighbours.
This means many states have a Democratic convention delegation out of whack with both their population and their heft in the Electoral College. The American press rarely if ever discusses this, and it takes digging to find the details. Texas, with its 29 million souls and 38 electoral votes, is scheduled to have 261 nominating votes on the floor in Milwaukee. New York, home to 19 million people and 29 Electoral College votes, receives extra credit for Democratic loyalty and for having its primary in late April: it will send 320 delegates.
This goes to show how the slowly evolved party rules can lead to puzzling outcomes, since Texas should have a closer statewide presidential race than New York and often figures prominently in Democratic psephological dreaming. Of course, in the normal course of events, it is all decided before the delegates assemble. No one ever has any reason to care about the sizes of New York’s or Texas’s delegations per se.
And no one ever will, unless we get another “brokered” major party convention — one that begin with the identity of the candidate for president not yet decided. This hasn’t happened since 1952, and isn’t probable now. But if it were to happen, it would probably be on the Democratic side — where almost all states now hold primaries and divide their delegations in proportion to the raw vote — in an election year with a crowded field, a Republican incumbent, and no clear Democratic frontrunner. I’m just sayin’.
• Twitter: colbycosh
College-Educated Voters Are Ruining American Politics – The Atlantic
Many college-educated people think they are deeply engaged in politics. They follow the news—reading articles like this one—and debate the latest developments on social media. They might sign an online petition or throw a $5 online donation at a presidential candidate. Mostly, they consume political information as a way of satisfying their own emotional and intellectual needs. These people are political hobbyists. What they are doing is no closer to engaging in politics than watching SportsCenter is to playing football.
For Querys Matias, politics isn’t just a hobby. Matias is a 63-year-old immigrant from the Dominican Republic. She lives in Haverhill, Massachusetts, a small city on the New Hampshire border. In her day job, Querys is a bus monitor for a special-needs school. In her evenings, she amasses power.
Querys is a leader of a group called the Latino Coalition in Haverhill, bringing together the Dominicans, Puerto Ricans, and Central Americans who together make up about 20 percent of the residents of the city. The coalition gets out the vote during elections, but they do much more than that.
They have met with their member of Congress and asked for regular, Spanish-speaking office hours for their community. They advocate for policies like immigration reform for Dreamers and federal assistance in affordable housing. On local issues, the demands are more concrete. Dozens of the group’s members have met with the mayor, the school superintendent, and the police department. They want more Latinos in city jobs and serving on city boards. They want the schools to have staff available who can speak with parents in Spanish. They want to know exactly how the city interacts with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Querys is engaging in politics—the methodical pursuit of power to influence how the government operates. If she and the community she represents are quiet and not organized, they get ignored. Other interests, sometimes competing interests, prevail. Organizing gives them the ability to get what they want. Much as the civil-rights movement did, Querys is operating with clear goals and with discipline, combining electoral strategies with policy advocacy.
Unlike organizers such as Querys, the political hobbyists are disproportionately college-educated white men. They learn about and talk about big important things. Their style of politics is a parlor game in which they debate the issues on their abstract merits. Media commentators and good-government reform groups have generally regarded this as a cleaner, more evolved, less self-interested version of politics compared to the kind of politics that Querys practices.
In reality, political hobbyists have harmed American democracy and would do better by redirecting their political energy toward serving the material and emotional needs of their neighbors. People who have a personal stake in the outcome of politics often have a better understanding of how power can and should be exercised—not just at the polls once every four years, but person to person, day in and day out.
In the United States, political habits vary significantly by race and education. In a 2018 survey, I found that whites reported spending more time reading, talking, and thinking about politics than blacks and Latinos, but blacks and Latinos were twice as likely as white respondents to say that at least some of the time they dedicate to politics is spent volunteering in organizations. Likewise, those who are college-educated report they spend more time on politics than other Americans—but less than 2 percent of that time involves volunteering in political organizations. The rest is spent mostly in news consumption (41 percent of the time), discussion and debate (26 percent), and contemplating politics alone (21 percent). Ten percent of the time is unclassifiable.
Furthermore, the news that college-educated people consume is unlikely to help them actively participate in politics because, as the Pew Research Center has found, they are more likely than non-college educated Americans to rely on national rather than local sources of news. Daily news consumers are very interested in politics, so they say, but they aren’t doing much: In 2016 most reported belonging to zero organizations, having attended zero political meetings in the last year, having worked zero times with others to solve a community problem.
What explains the rise of political hobbyism? One important historical explanation is the culture of comfort that engulfs college-educated white people, a demographic group that is now predominately Democratic. They have decent jobs and benefits. There has been no military conscription for some fifty years. Harvard’s Theda Skocpol argues that as the percent of Americans with a college degree has increased over time, they have come to feel less special, less like stewards of their community, less like their communities depend on them. As the college-educated population has grown over time, community participation has, surprisingly, plummeted.
In other words, college educated people, especially whites, do politics as hobbyists because they can. On the political left, they may say they fear President Trump. They may lament polarization. But they are pretty comfortable with the status quo. They don’t have the same concrete needs as Querys’s community in Haverhill has. Nor do they feel a sense of obligation, of “linked fate”, to people who have concrete needs such that they are willing to be their allies. They might front as “allies” on social media, but very few white liberals are actively engaging in face-to-face political organizations, committing their time to fighting for racial equality or any other issue they say they care about.
Instead they are scrolling through their news feeds, keeping up on all the dramatic turns in Washington that satiate their need for an emotional connection to politics but that help them not at all learn how to be good citizens. They can recite the ins and outs of the Mueller investigation or fondly recall old 24-hour scandals like Sharpiegate, but they haven’t the faintest idea how to push for what they care about in their own communities.
If you think the status quo in politics isn’t great, then the time wasted on political hobbyism is pretty tragic. But political hobbyism is worse than just a waste of time. As I argue in my new book, Politics is for Power, our collective treatment of politics like a sport incentivizes politicians to behave badly. We reward them with attention and money for any red meat they throw at us. Hobbyism also cultivates skills and attitudes that are counter-productive to building power. Rather than practicing patience and empathy like Querys needs to do to win over supporters in Haverhill, hobbyists cultivate outrage and seek instant gratification.
In the Democratic Party coalition, racial minorities have long operated in tension with the well-educated, cosmopolitan wing of the party. It’s a tension between those who have concrete demands from politics and seek empowerment, versus those who have enough power that politics is more about self-gratification than fighting for anything. Only if you don’t need more power than you already have could you possibly consider politics as a form of consumption from the couch rather than as a domain of goals and strategies.
In the 1950s and 1960s, there was a brief movement of activism by “amateur” or “club” Democrats, as they were called. These were middle-class white professionals who met regularly in well-to-do neighborhoods to talk about politics and push a liberal agenda, including civil rights. A criticism levied against these groups was that they were all talk. In 1967, for instance, in their book, Black Power, Kwame Ture (formerly Stokely Carmichael) and political scientist Charles Hamilton wrote that African-Americans have tried for too long to work with groups like the club Democrats. The authors argued that liberal white professionals didn’t really value black empowerment, often actually impeded black empowerment, and failed to understand the life-and-death consequences for political power. “Let black people organize themselves first,” they wrote, “define their interests and goals, and then see what kinds of allies are available.”
Liberal white hobbyists living in well-to-do white enclaves, especially in blue states, might look at politics today and think the important stuff is happening elsewhere—in poorer areas of their own state, in swing states, in Republican states, in Washington—anywhere but where they live. Ture and Hamilton saw this pattern back in the 1960s. “One of the most disturbing things about almost all white supporters,” they wrote, “has been that they are reluctant to go into their own communities—which is where the racism exists—and work to get rid of it.” Fast forward to the present day—to a world of increasing inequality in resources, where rich neighborhoods will feature yard signs claiming everyone is welcome but where zoning rules claim otherwise: If you don’t think there is any work to do in your own town in advancing the cause of racial equality, you are not looking very hard.
In immigrant communities, minority communities, in poor communities, politics is about empowerment. When politics is about empowerment, like it is for Querys, community service and political engagement are closely connected. Helping parents navigate school systems, helping neighbors fill out government forms, making sure families have healthcare and food and security—this is both community service and a fight for basic human needs. Those needs can also be served through attaining political power. And how does one gain power for their values, in the way that Querys does? By working in local organizations that demonstrate to a community of people you care about their needs. Then, when an election comes or an important meeting happens, the community shows up. That’s is the basic formula. That’s real politics. It’s precisely the kind of work that political hobbyists expect someone else to perform while they nod along to MSNBC.
College-educated hobbyists can engage in real politics too. They’ll need to figure out what needs are unmet and how they can serve them. They’ll need to find local organizations in which they can serve. More fundamentally, they’ll have to figure out which communities they’re willing to fight for. As things stand, their apathy suggests that they already have figured that part out.
This article was adapted from Hersh’s upcoming book, Politics Is for Power: How to Move Beyond Political Hobbyism, Take Action, and Make Real Change.
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