It’s hard to imagine it, but somehow the San Diego region grappling with an unprecedented public health and economic shock over the novel coronavirus will nonetheless have to conduct an election cycle in a few months.
What was the focus of the San Diego political world less than a month ago is now an afterthought.
Yet on a number of levels, the election we’re about to have will bear little resemblance to the one we imagined having at the start of 2020.
Time for a new message: In the months ahead, every political race in town will come down to voters deciding which candidate is best suited to solve the dire crisis facing the city of San Diego and the broader region.
Agency budgets are being ravaged just as service needs skyrocket. Some are much better prepared than others – cities, for example, are much more dependent on sales and tourism taxes than the county.
Topics that have always played a role in local politics, but which don’t usually carry the day, have just become central. Who will best protect small businesses from shuttering, or provide a path to reopening for those that already have? How can a local city, or the county, ensure residents have access to health care, or that workers are guaranteed paid sick leave? What service levels can a government maintain when projected budget deficits become immediate shortfalls overnight?
As recently as Election Night, this cycle was taking place in the middle of the longest economic expansion in the country’s history. Just a few weeks later, it’s a different world.
In that new world, will anyone care with which development-focused acronym (Remember YIMBY vs. NIMBY???) mayoral candidates choose to associate themselves?
Candidates with different backgrounds will nonetheless be able to make the case that they’re best positioned to deal with the new world. But it’s hard to believe any of them could simply roll out the same message they had settled on before anyone knew what the coronavirus was.
Time for a new campaign: But it isn’t just what candidates say that will obviously need to change. How they reach would-be voters just underwent a radical change as well.
Think about your standard, get-out-the-vote operation, where volunteers and candidates gamely go door to door to high-propensity voters to shake their hands, give them a flyer outlining their positions and ask for their vote. Can you even imagine that sort of personal interaction taking place on a regionwide scale just a few months after we were mandated not to associate with our closest friends and family?
How do campaigns fundraise, if the sorts of boozy affairs in wealthy donors’ backyards for a few dozen would-be contributors can’t go forward? Remember coffees?
It’s not an unsolvable problem. But it’s certainly a big change from the way things have always worked.
Padilla Puts the Virus in Perspective
Chula Vista Councilman Steve Padilla became maybe the most visible San Diegan to test positive for the coronavirus on Saturday.
Contemplating the number of people with whom he had interacted in the two weeks preceding his diagnosis – both at Chula Vista Council meetings, on Election Night, at other public affairs and in his role as chair of the California Coastal Commission – made it clear that the virus had already spread far beyond the number of confirmed tests we were hearing. Padilla also flew home from a Coastal Commission meeting last Friday, after he was already demonstrating symptoms.
But if his diagnosis showed the virus was everywhere, the mid-week news that he had been hospitalized and hooked up to a ventilator demonstrated just how serious the virus is.
From Scott: We live our lives in stories. It’s the story we tell ourselves. It’s the story we tell others. It’s the story we hear and follow about what’s happening in the world.
In moments like this, the public story is particularly acute. The story abruptly stops being a background discussion you can pay attention to if you want. It shifts to becoming intensely relevant to everybody’s lives and livelihoods. The story becomes everything. And so you always, in moments like this, see people arise who help us understand the story we are in right now. What part of it are we in? What is the next chapter? Who is the villain? What is the conflict and when will it be resolved?
They weave what’s happening into your life so you want to go through the story with them.
On the national level, for example, we have met Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and a member of the White House Coronavirus Task Force. He has been effective at explaining what’s going on and why. On the other hand, President Donald Trump, has not.
There are others who arise who make clear decisions about what’s going to happen and then they explain them and lay out other tactics. They give guidance and direction and to the extent people understand why they’re doing what they’re doing, they can be compelling. You can want to follow them.
These are the types of leaders I have noticed. They are the storytellers and the generals. Great leaders have to do both well but they usually have a strength on one side.
It must be very awkward to be a candidate at a time like this. You want to respect, for the good of all, the person currently in charge. But you also want to be seen. You don’t want your opponent — who may be the person in charge! — to demonstrate clearly they are better suited for this than you.
Neither mayoral candidate has demonstrated much interest in standing out either as a storyteller or potential general. Among other candidates, a general wash-your-hands style of guidance giving has caught on.
So this is a slight nudge: People want to know why things are happening and where we are going and why. Candidates can help with that. They can offer constructive alternatives. People want you to demonstrate what kind of decisions you would make were you put on the spot the way current leaders are.
This isn’t the time to be shy. People can tune you out if they want. But they have a lot of time on their hands right now and trust me, they are really into this story.
How not to do it: This is a mindbending column — not in a necessarily good way. It’s not the fault of the writer, the U-T’s Michael Smolens. It was a good piece. It just felt like a maze of passive aggressive between-the-lines attacks. Is County Supervisor Kristin Gaspar talking about Supervisor Nathan here? No? Does Darrell Issa think this is all a hoax?
The whole thing is has an intense “who-is-she-or-he-really-talking-about-here?” quality.
Anyway, this is not the time to be subtle and cryptic. If you have something to say, let’s do it. Conflict can be fine and helpful as long as it starts from a place of basic respect.
Issa Doesn’t Think It’s a Hoax
This week, Ammar Campa Najjar who is running against Darrell Issa for the 50th Congressional District, highlighted a questionable statement Issa had included in a fundraising mailer. Issa wrote: “Make no mistake, the left is manufacturing crisis after crisis, in an attempt to whip the American people into a frenzy. From wildfires to sea level rise and even the outbreak of viruses, we’ve lived through all these disasters before.”
We asked Issa’s campaign to explain what that meant and never heard back. The U-T’s Charles T. Clark did, though. Issa told him that he didn’t actually say “coronavirus.” So he was just talking about, like, random viruses. Not the one that has changed everything about our lives.
He later tweeted his own concern about this particular virus — the one he was definitely not talking about before.
“As the #Coronavirus situation continues to unfold, please stay safe, protect yourself, and listen to officials such as @CDCemergency. We’ll get through this, but staying healthy is priority number one,” Issa wrote.
Everyone Did Horribly on the Elections Contest
It seems like a 50 years ago that we put up the Great Voice of San Diego Primary Elections Contest. But we’re finally ready to determine the winners. Six (6!) people won this round. They each missed three of the questions.
Here were the questions and the right answers.
San Diego mayor: Choose over or under for Todd Gloria, 40.5 percent. — OVER
San Diego mayor: Which two candidates will make the runoff? — TODD GLORIA AND BARBARA BRY
53rd Congressional District: Choose over or under for Georgette Gomez, 14.5 percent. — OVER
50th Congressional District: Choose over or under for Carl DeMaio, 22.5 percent. — UNDER
County Supervisor District 3: Choose over or under for Kristin Gaspar, 44.5 percent. — UNDER
County Supervisor District 3: Which two candidates will make the runoff? — KRISTIN GASPAR, TERRA LAWSON REMER
Measure A: Choose over or under YES, 56 percent. — UNDER
Measure C: Choose over or under YES, 55 percent. — OVER
County Supervisor District 1: Which two candidates will make the runoff? — BEN HUESO, NORA VARGAS
Presidential primary: Will Elizabeth Warren get a higher percentage of the vote in San Diego County than in the state as a whole? Yes or No. — NO
The six winners:
Cong B Dinh
They all win lunch with us but since we can’t eat lunch anymore with people, tough luck for them!
If you have any feedback or ideas for the Politics Report, please send them to email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.
What is actually known about hydroxychloroquine, the drug the president is fixated on recommending for COVID-19. Plus: The pandemic seems to be hitting people of color the hardest.
It’s Monday, April 6. In today’s newsletter: What is actually known about hydroxychloroquine, the drug the president is fixated on recommending for COVID-19. Plus: The pandemic seems to be hitting people of color the hardest.
« TODAY IN POLITICS »
Trump’s Miracle Drug
President Trump has tweeted some very questionable information about the coronavirus, most recently hyping “HYDROXYCHLOROQUINE & AZITHROMYCIN,” as a potential treatment for COVID-19. Our staff writer James Hamblin cautions:
While some very early evidence has shown that hydroxychloroquine may influence the course of COVID-19, Trump is overriding his top medical adviser and minimizing serious risks by encouraging Americans to try the drug right now. This brazen dispensation of medical advice from the president is dangerous in ways beyond the potential harm of the drug itself.
What is known about hydroxychloroquine, then?
It is unclear how hydroxychloroquine would work to treat COVID-19, but the drug is one of many now being urgently studied for the treatment of the disease. The drugs being tested include those that could block viral replication, such as remdesivir, and others that may target the way the virus binds to human cells. Still other drugs aim to modulate a person’s immune response, among them a class of drugs known as IL-6 inhibitors. Hydroxychloroquine has the theoretical potential to affect the virus itself or the immune response. In addition to treating malaria, hydroxychloroquine is importantin the treatment of autoimmune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis and lupus. In those specific conditions, the drug effectively serves to subdue an overactive immune response.
In this photograph, Joel Albert, of Potomac, Maryland, plays his drums under a canopy of cherry blossoms at the end of March. Our senior editor Alan Taylor has put together this essay of images of warmer days and beautiful flowers returning to the Northern Hemisphere, for all of those who can’t be outside to see them.
« THE CORONAVIRUS READER »
(MIM.GIRL / SHUTTERSTOCK / THE ATLANTIC)
+ The pandemic seems to be hitting people of color the hardest, Ibram X. Kendi notes based on his reading of data from hot spots. And “in the end, though, no group of Americans may be more vulnerable to COVID-19 than the incarcerated and the homeless,” he writes. It’s time to pay more attention to these pandemic disparities.
+ What’s going on with Bill de Blasio? The New York mayor seems irritated by the need to fight the coronavirus, Alexander Nazaryan writes: “Aware that his progressive ambitions have been frustrated, de Blasio has complained that legions of enemies—conservatives, capitalists, newspaper headline writers—are arrayed against his vision for the city.”
+ The president belatedly acknowledged how dire a threat COVID-19 is, but many of his enablers in right-wing media refuse to take his cue, Peter Beinart writes: “Even when he reluctantly accepts a scientific consensus, some of the biggest conservative megaphones in America still won’t.”
Ezra Klein’s new book Why We’re Polarized identifies much of what’s wrong in the gridlocked US political system. But he dismisses the role of class in cohering the movements that can finally democratize it.
In his new book Why We’re Polarized, Vox founder Ezra Klein offers a model for understanding American political polarization and dysfunction through the lens of group identity. He argues that while polarization is normal (the United States is still actually less polarized than many other democracies), our political system is simply not equipped to deal with partisan polarization.
His account goes something like this: the failure of Reconstruction after the Civil War set the stage for a century of autocratic one-party Democratic rule in the South. Despite bearing the Democratic moniker, the “Dixiecrats” were really a party unto their own. Northern Democrats tolerated the Dixiecrats’ white supremacism in order to maintain a viable national ruling coalition, an arrangement that precluded neat bipolar sorting along party lines.
This uneasy alliance came to an end when northern Democrats broke ranks to join the Republican minority in passing the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the same year the right-wing Barry Goldwater snagged the Republican presidential nomination, which “cleared the way for southern conservatives to join the Republican Party and northern liberals to join the Democratic Party.” With the Dixiecrats out of the picture, the political parties were free to naturally sort themselves around ideology — and, eventually, everything else too.
In the following decades, we saw the rise of what Klein terms political “mega-identities” that subsume everything from ideology to racial and gender identities to the movies we watch, the news we consume, and the restaurants we patronize. Virtually everything about us can now signal partisan identity.
While political polarization is not inherently bad, as it allows for clearer and more meaningful choices at the ballot box, the US political system — with all of its “checks and balances” and veto points — requires compromise to function. Polarization under divided government explains the never-ending gridlock, the government shutdowns, the “constitutional hardball,” and the inability of elected majorities to actually enact their agenda.
Furthermore, the undemocratic nature of American political representation has resulted in asymmetric political polarization. Republicans can win elections by catering to a minority of overrepresented mostly white, mostly Christian rural voters who feel their demographic dominance slipping, while Democrats, in Klein’s view, must moderate their platform to appeal to a broader coalition that includes right-of-center voters.
The result: an extremist Republican Party bearing hard into white identity politics and antidemocratic policies to consolidate their minority rule, a moderate Democratic Party forced to cobble together a broad coalition of less homogenous voters often united only in their opposition to Republicans, and a cumbersome political system always on the brink of crisis and failure.
This analysis is convincing. Klein, known for his wonky attention to detail, stays grounded in material reality. Where many liberal commentators blame individual actors, Klein is focused on the incentives that drive them. The problem isn’t Mitch McConnell — it’s the undemocratic nature of the Senate and a flawed constitution that generates irresolvable legitimacy crises under divided government. The problem isn’t Trump himself — it’s a political system that allows demagogues to take power without a popular mandate.
This systemic approach gets to the heart of the problem with American politics. Gridlock and crises of inaction aren’t the result of politicians that don’t know how to compromise but rather a political system that disincentivizes bipartisan cooperation while requiring it to function.
Rethinking, Not Rescuing, Identity Politics
Why We’re Polarized, according to Klein, is focused on understanding these problems, not solving them. Nonetheless, the final chapter cautiously offers some solutions. In addition to proposing much needed democratic and regulatory reforms, which Klein elsewhere dismisses as unlikely to actually happen, he also calls for us to “depolarize ourselves.”
Political identities, he warns, are reinforced by a “massive apparatus for defining, policing, and activating them.” By practicing “identity mindfulness,” individuals can recognize propaganda and slant and better manage their own emotional response to identity-based manipulation.
While such mindfulness might help individuals lead more examined political lives, it does little to address the problems Klein identifies. Individualist solutions are no answer to intractable societal problems.
Klein is speaking mostly to a receptive left-leaning audience. Republicans voting on white identity politics aren’t listening and they have no incentive to start now. They aren’t going to turn off right-wing media in a moment of quiet self-reflection, not en masse. They aren’t going to help dismantle the undemocratic institutions that politically advantage them. And they certainly aren’t going to abandon an identitarian movement in the middle of what feels, to them, like an existential battle against opponents rallying around their own brand of identity politics.
In the introduction to the book, Klein attempts to “rescue” identity politics from those who have weaponized the term against historically marginalized groups. White Republicans wield their (waning) demographic majority to present their concerns as “just good, old-fashioned politics” while dismissing the concerns of minorities as self-interested, niche identity politics. “With a quick sleight of hand,” Klein writes, “identity becomes something that only marginalized groups have.”
Klein isn’t wrong here. The dominance of identity politics across the political spectrum can make organizing around class and universalist policies seem hopeless or like a strategic error. It is neither. The Left has paid a great price for organizing mostly around minority identity politics, often to the exclusion of class politics entirely. The Democratic base comprises a hodgepodge of minority groups and white liberals. The glue holding that coalition together is often little more than dislike of Republicans. This is not enough to build a viable political movement.
A party in which both Mike Bloomberg and Bernie Sanders can make a credible play for the nomination is inherently unstable.
Moreover, organizing the Left around a coalition of marginalized identities, as most liberals and even many leftists now do, cedes political debate to the preferred venue of the identitarian right. They want to argue over divisive cultural issues. The culture wars are also the preferred battlefield of right-wing ideologues who would rather political debate stay focused on identity issues than on enacting universal social programs, addressing inequality through wealth redistribution, or challenging the power and influence of capital.
We have gone so far down the left identitarian rabbit hole that, as Klein points out, in a “bizarre, worst-of-both-worlds compromise,” candidates for the 2020 Democratic nomination began rebranding popular universalist policies in the language of identity politics. Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren billed an earned income tax credit and universal childcare, respectively, as reparations for slavery. “These were universalist programs—programs that would help people of all races—being pitched in particularist ways,” Klein writes.
There’s no better way to hobble a popular agenda than to mislabel it as something divisive and unpopular. We’re doing the Right’s work for it here.
Worse, identity-based political organizing causes the Left to actually abandon its core mission of building a just, equitable society, shifting battles from broad struggles for the redistribution of wealth and resources to a fight for more seats at the table. The problem becomes not the unjust system itself but rather the lack of minority representation within it. In this way, the identity politics that Klein hopes to rescue, no matter how well intentioned such movements may be, end up reinforcing the neoliberal status quo.
Class Is More Than an Identity
Despite repeatedly emphasizing that our identities are pluralistic, Klein gives little attention to class in the book. This seems curious given that class cuts across racial divides and the geographic divisions that warp representation in the American political system. After all, Donald Trump would not be in the White House, nor would Republicans enjoy such an unassailable demographic advantage in the Senate, without having picked off so many white workers in the Midwest and elsewhere.
During a book tour Q&A session, Klein clarified that he doesn’t see class as a powerful identity in American politics. He notes that the Left line that “conservatives vote against their own interests” is a misunderstanding that arises from narrowly defining interests in terms of material resources. In Klein’s view, American politics is a fight over group identity and status, and policy debates are merely proxy wars in the struggle for group dominance. Voters are voting on identity, and the Left has mostly failed to create a class identity that speaks to the American public.
It’s true that the broader liberal left has largely abandoned class politics and that the rising democratic-socialist left must work harder to build class identity, but the implication that class is just another identity equal to others is inaccurate. Class consciousness may get activated like any other identity, but it functions very differently in practice. Whereas “identity politics” (as practiced by both the Left and the Right) divide the country into factions at war for group status, class consciousness cuts across racial, geographic, and cultural divides. Organizing around class puts most voters on the same side.
I’m under no illusion that white workers will unanimously join a class-oriented, multiracial, egalitarian movement — the pull of fascism and nativist nationalism is strong — but organizing around universalist policies at least provides material reasons to do so.
The Bernie Sanders campaign’s strength, once again, reveals the power in organizing around the commonality of class. Rather than trying to disguise universalist policies in the language of identity politics, Sanders consistently responds to the Democratic establishment’s pandering identity fetishization by underscoring how his policies — such as Medicare for All and a federal jobs guarantee — benefit everyone, marginalized groups most of all, in material ways that chanting vague platitudes like “X minority’s rights are human rights” does not.
It’s not enough to simply acknowledge injustice — we have to actually do something about it.
If the Democratic Party and the broader left want voters to vote on material interests, they need to make improving material conditions a priority and market it as such. Of course, much of the Democratic establishment has no interest in challenging the neoliberal order and is happy to spin its wheels arguing endlessly over whether our oppressors are diverse enough.
Those who are truly invested in improving material conditions will still find themselves pushing up against the gridlock inherent to our broken and undemocratic political system, but at least they’ll be able to credibly and honestly make the case that they are working to make things better, for everyone.
Democratization Is Not Optional
A popular platform will not spare the Left from contending with the constraints of the American political system described in Why We’re Polarized. Enacting policies, no matter how popular, requires political power. Unfortunately, malapportionment — which overwhelmingly benefits the Republican Party — prevents electoral majorities from translating into governing majorities that control political institutions. Furthermore, “checks and balances” prevent even governing majorities from enacting their campaign agenda.
Given that an excess of veto points favors neoliberal politics, this is particularly problematic for the Left when trying to create public programs and social policies. We won’t get to democratic socialism without democratic governance.
Under the current system, the American public is powerless to hold politicians accountable for policy failures and broken promises. Voters often don’t even know whom to blame. Divided government in the presidential system, a bicameral legislature, and judicial review create competing claims to democratic legitimacy that, as Klein points out, the American political system has no way to resolve. This is why Americans have such disdain for Washington. Legislators can’t legislate. The administration can’t govern. One party gets blamed for the other’s obstructionism and sabotage. Nothing changes no matter who wins elections, and voters are left demoralized. Ultimately, political disputes get decided by unelected federal judges, if they are addressed at all.
Klein is absolutely correct, as he argues in the book, that American democracy would work better if governing coalitions were elected by popular will and able to enact their campaign agenda. The public could then decide whether or not they did a good job and vote accordingly in the next election. This is the popular conception of democracy. It’s also not at all how the American political system works.
Why We’re Polarized offers a number of strategies for democratizing the political system, including fighting voter suppression, bypassing the Electoral College with an interstate popular vote pact, replacing gerrymandered single-member House districts with multimember districts decided by ranked-choice voting, scrapping the Senate filibuster, expanding congressional representation to Puerto Rico and DC to rebalance power in the Senate, and changing the composition of the Supreme Court.
None of these solutions need to clear the almost impossible hurdle of constitutional amendment. Some are procedural reforms. Others can be enacted with simple majorities in Congress once the filibuster is removed. Admittance of new states into the union isn’t even subject to presidential veto. Klein makes these suggestions precisely because he sees them as most achievable. More foundational constitutional reforms, like the abolition or democratization of the Senate, are deemed impossible.
He’s not alone. In his 2001 book, How Democratic Is the American Constitution?, the late constitutional scholar Robert Dahl voiced a similar pessimism. He found the most ambitious and meaningful democratic reforms the least achievable and put the odds of democratizing the Senate at “virtually zero.” More recently, political scientist David Faris put forward a plan to democratize the Constitution in It’s Time to Fight Dirty. Here, too, the reader is offered a familiar combination of policy reforms and messy constitutional workarounds that paper over the structural problems of broken institutions.
There is an understandable pragmatism at play here. The American constitution is hard to amend. Republicans will resist any democratic reforms that threaten their advantage. Constitutional workarounds seem like the obvious answer. Admitting new states into the union so that Senate malapportionment breaks more evenly over current partisan coalitions seems more achievable than abolishing the Senate. The National Popular Vote Interstate Compact seems easier than doing away with the Electoral College.
But is this really true? These reforms haven’t happened for a reason. Republicans’ outsized power in political institutions is self-reinforcing. Any constitutional workarounds have to survive the undemocratic political institutions they seek to reform, a problem Klein acknowledges. Bills have to make it through both chambers of Congress and avoid presidential veto to become law. Even then, they can be struck down by conservative-packed courts.
Crudely rebalancing malapportionment without directly addressing the way votes are counted and weighted could also backfire. Republicans can pack courts and “gerrymander” state lines too. In fact, they’re better positioned to do so.
Weaponizing flaws in the political system to score political points, suppress votes, and subvert democracy are already a primary way political battles are waged in this country. Major escalation in such tactics is only going to further delegitimize the constitutional system — but that might actually be the best argument for pursuing them. An undemocratic political system that works to suppress popular will should be deemed illegitimate and, ultimately, dismantled.
This is what Klein and other liberals know but are unwilling to say.
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