Thursday, May 28, 2009

The Political Geography of the East Bronx

President Obama's nomination of Judge Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court offers another opportunity to visit some interesting political geography. While there is already heated debate about how her background, ethnicity, and upbringing will affect her jurisprudence, I don't want to enter that controversy. Rather, her nomination allows us to further explore the complexity of our political and electoral landscape, in arguably the most complex city of all--New York.

Judge Sotomayor grew up in the East Bronx's Soundview neighborhood, and more specifically, the Bronxdale Houses. Later her family moved to the massive Co-Op City. While public housing is commonly associated with blight and urban decay, a more correct reading of its history in America would note that it was for many, especially in the years following World War II, a stepping stone to the middle class and home ownership. Indeed, for working class strivers like the Sotomayors and other recent immigrants, these neighborhoods were a vital point of transition between where they came from and a hopefully prosperous future. For an exhaustive, and indeed critical, history of how New York City's housing and other infrastructure developed in the post WWII period, there is no better source that Robert Caro's much lauded history of Robert Moses, The Power Broker.

The Bronx is in many ways a misunderstood or understudied part of the city. Typically associated with 1) the Yankees and 2) crime, it has historically been an extremely diverse though also divided borough (see a discussion of the East Bronx, South Bronx, and the West Bronx). To get a sense of the largest ethnic concentrations in the current Bronx, see the map below.

The neighborhood in which Sotomayor was raised is currently part of New York's 16th congressional district, represented by Rep. Jose Serrano. In many ways, this district is extremely atypical. For example, census data reports that it is the nation's poorest district, with over 40% of the population below the poverty line. The Hispanic population makes up nearly 2/3 of the total. It was also, in the last election, the country's most Democratic. Barack Obama won 95% of the vote there, giving the district a Cook PVI of D+41. CQ's Politics in America notes:

"The South Bronx, overtaken by a post-World War II influx of Hispanics to New York City, has elected men of Puerto Rican origin to the House since 1970. The 16th's strong Puerto Rican influence is complemented by African and South and Central American immigrant communities. The district's 3 percent non-Hispanic white population is the nation's lowest."

Adjoining parts of the Bronx are included in the 17th district, represented by Eliot Engel and the 7th district, represented by Joseph Crowley.

While the confirmation process will certainly allow for Judge Sotomayor to articulate how her upbringing has affected how she views the law, any discussion of her home's politics will be more than tangential. Its these tangents, though, that I tend to find the most interesting.

If you're interested in all the happenings in Bronx politics, check out the Bronx News Network.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Mississippi Turning???

Some fascinating news out of Mississippi. This week saw the election of James Young as the first African American mayor of Philadelphia, Mississippi (NYTimes coverage here). For anyone familiar with the history of race in America and the Civil Rights Movement, Philadelphia is known as the place where civil rights workers Andrew Goodman, James Chaney, and Michael Schwerner were murdered in June of 1964. Along with the Montgomery bus boycott, freedom rides, the Birmingham campaign, and the March on Selma, these deaths during Freedom Summer were a major chapter in the march toward the passage of the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act of 1964 and 1965. Likewise, they've cast a long shadow that has been difficult for the city to shed. This election may help its residents turn a corner.

Later, Philadelphia was home to another event--viewed differently by competing camps--that speaks to our complicated history. Namely, Ronald Reagan kicked off his 1980 presidential campaign there at the Neshoba County Fair. By arguing strongly for "states rights," many have argued that Reagan, in coded language, was presenting himself as a more polished, refined, and less menacing version of George Wallace. This was, for critics, the personification and perfection of the "Southern Strategy." Others have offered a more benign interpretation of the Gipper's words to suggest that he was simply articulating his small government platform.

While Mississippi has the largest number of elected African American officials in the country, the bulk of these politicians come from the Delta region in the western part of the state. Back during the primaries I wrote a post about this region and how it differs from the rest of the state. Neshoba County is not in the Delta but sits in central Mississippi and has demographics that, even without its troubled history, would make the election of a black mayor more difficult. The county as a whole is 65% white and only 20% African American. Philadelphia has a larger black population with the breakdown being roughly 55% white and 40% African American. In last year's presidential race, McCain overwhelmed Obama in Neshoba County, winning 72% to 27%, 16 points better than he did statewide. Within Philadelphia itself, McCain bested Obama 59.5% to 40.5% (Results available here).

Its always dangerous to extrapolate from local races. As the coverage of Mayor Young's victory suggest, he campaigned as a reformer against a long-time incumbent and thus was certainly able to tap into voters'--black and white--dissatisfaction with the performance of city government. Nonetheless, one wonders whether the Obama campaign, despite losing badly in the state, benefitted someone like James Young. We know, for example, that black turnout in 2008 reached virtual parity with that of whites and that states with large black populations such as Alabama, Mississippi, and South Carolina saw voter turnout increase. If voters, once energized and mobilized, continue to vote over the long term then we might see something like an "Obama effect" in these other races. Its certainly too early to conclude that this is what's happening. Likewise, a four month old Obama administration isn't going to heal decades of racial tension and create national unity. Regardless of whether these campaigns are connected and regardless of whether James Young's election as mayor signifies something much larger than one candidate beating another in a small town race, one can't deny the symbolism.
**Top photo courtesy of the Neshoba Democrat

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Fun With Maps--Are Democratic States More "Developed"???

This comparison may not mean much but let's consider it. I just came across a map (and companion article) of the U.S. that breaks down states based on their respective Human Development Index (HDI) measure. The HDI was created by the United Nations to gauge a country's level of development. It incorporates measures of educational attainment, life expectancy, and income to create a continuum along which a country (or now state) can be placed. As a result, one can make comparisons between countries, and do so over time, to track growth and progress. When I saw the map I immediately thought that there was something familiar about it--it resembles pretty closely the results of the 2008 election.

For example, of the 21 states that have the highest HDI (.95 and above), Barack Obama won all of them except Alaska. Of the 8 lowest scoring states--HDI of .849 and below, McCain won them all. For the 15 states in the second highest cohort (.900 to .949), Obama won 6. Of the 6 states in the middle of the continuum, Obama only won Florida. What we see is a strong correlation between a state's HDI and Obama's success there. All of his electoral votes came from states at the upper end of the continuum with the exception of Florida. McCain was only able to capture 3 electoral votes from the most developed states, aided by Sarah Palin's Alaska roots.

Mere coincidence??? Perhaps, but if we look at the recent trends we shouldn't be so surprised by this. Exit polling conducted on election day (and indeed during the primaries as well) showed that Obama and other Democrats had begun to make in-roads among those at the top of the economic ladder. We've similarly seen great movement away from the Republicans among the most highly educated. Thus, whereas traditionally it had been thought that the Republican base was among the high income/high education chunk of the electorate, this no longer seems true.

For more on this question of how class, education, and other variables are affecting voting trends, see Andrew Gelman's work.

***Update: Speaking of which, Gelman critiques and tweaks the numbers a bit here.

***Further update: After some more data critiquing, a re-scaling of the data and the following map. The electoral correlations I suggest still largely hold although Obama does better on the low, but not lowest, part of the continuum.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

How Do You Stop the Bleeding If You're the GOP???

Recently released data from a new Gallup Poll is not good news for the GOP. As you see in the graphs above, every single demographic group surveyed has seen their Republican identification decline. About the only groups that have remained steady are seniors and frequent church goers.

Normally when a party is in decline, it is a result of the defection of part of its coalition. In the classic "realignment" school of thinking, new eras of party dominance are precipitated by a re-organization of the groups supporting each of the parties. What you have is a reshuffling of the deck, in other words. Depending on the size of the groups moving from one side to the other, the degree and durability of the new electoral majority can vary. Even in large realignments, though, you tend to see some parts of the minority party's coalition remain strong.

While these numbers may be temporary, the real problem with them, from the Republicans' standpoint, is that they don't offer much of a path forward. If Democratic gains were concentrated among particular groups--say the young, the un-married, those in urban areas, etc.--Republicans could create a strategy to isolate these groups from those who are still part of your coalition as well as from those whose allegiances aren't firmly defined (i.e. those traditionally seen as independents and moderates) Republicans would ideally also be able to target parts of the Democratic coalition that is shaky. By trying to define the Democrats as only representing a segment of the electorate the GOP could position themselves as a viable alternative. This is classic party politics. Whether it be Democrats reaching out to urban and minority voters with the ascendance of FDR or Reagan's courting working class whites, party majorities have their genesis when the party out of power is able to pick off the other's "low hanging fruit," especially when they are of a sizable number. However, when you are losing ground among virtually everyone, its much more difficult to stop the momentum working against you.

So what does the GOP do?? Does it simply try to hold on to those groups that, while they are running away, are doing so the slowest? Do they try something more radical? Or, perhaps most likely, do they stay in a holding pattern and hope that the Democrats overreach and fail to meet the heightened expectations of the American electorate? In other words, can you win by default?

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Does the Career of David Souter Tell Us Anything About the Current State of “Conservatism” in America???

With Friday’s announcement that Justice David Souter is retiring from the Supreme Court, attention has turned to how President Obama will approach the vacancy and attempt to put his imprint on the court. In much of this discussion, the conventional wisdom has been that the balance of the court is not likely to change with the confirmation of Souter’s successor. Pegged as a member of the four justice “liberal” wing of the court, Souter has been viewed—especially among those on the left—as a reliable defender of choice, the separation of church and state, and other progressive stances . As such, he has become the justice that conservatives most love to hate. For those on the right, Souter’s decisions have been those of an apostate in light of the assurances originally made by his supporters including President George H.W. Bush.

This picture of Souter, I’d argue, is off base. Justice Souter, it seems to me, is not a “liberal” as we tend to define the term. Similarly, those who argue that his “conservatism” never materialized on the high court are misreading his approach. While I don’t want to argue that Souter’s jurisprudence is analogous to either the Democrats’ or Republicans’ ideologies, untangling his record and style might help us understand some of the troubles currently vexing the modern GOP.

Perhaps the best retrospective of Souter’s time on the court that I’ve read over the past few days is provided by the New Republic’s Gordon Silverstein. Combating the conventional wisdom, Silverstein argues that Souter has been the quintessential “judicial conservative”. He writes:

Souter's departure offers a timely reminder that when it comes to the courts, we need to be careful about our terms. Though Souter's decisions were welcomed by ideological and partisan liberals, they were judicially conservative decisions. In fact, his were among the only consistently conservative decisions the court has known for the last two decades.

The reason is that there is a difference between an ideological or movement conservative and a judicial conservative. Judicial conservatives generally have great respect for the law, and for legal decisions that have been made. This is the essence of what is called stare decisis--let the decision stand. Upholding precedent staunches the forces of change--and typically, that generates conservative results. But when the precedent you are upholding is precedent set by the Warren Court, holding back the forces of change means enforcing liberal decisions against radical demands for change from movement conservatives.

What Souter’s case illustrates more broadly, it seems, is the debate about what “conservatism” really means. This is a debate, I’d note that has been raging for the last few years on Andrew Sullivan’s blog and to which he has devoted an entire book. It is also a debate that has been necessitated by the evolution of the modern GOP. The Souter nomination is just one small chapter in this story. As traditionally understood (and defined by Sullivan among others), conservatism’s central tenet is a skepticism about the ability of man (especially via government action or the power of the state) to change or re-order the world. For these writers “conservatism” and “doubt” are analogous. Thus, conservatives have a respect for the status quo, tradition, and that which has served society well over the long term. This strain of conservatism doesn’t argue that society and culture don’t or shouldn’t change, but rather that such change should be allowed to take its natural course rather than through state led engineering. Attempts to legislate change are not only likely to fail but will also endanger our liberties and freedoms. Thus, when faced with the choice of acting and non-acting (despite the severity of the problem at hand), a conservative will in almost all cases choose non-action as the best course.

With Souter’s retirement, I’ve gone back and found many of the profiles written about him upon his nomination for the court in 1990. In addition to providing some interesting nuggets of irony—i.e. words of praise from David Keene and words of criticism from Planned Parenthood—these stories repeatedly used a term to describe Souter’s personality and judicial temperament--cautious. The Souter of 1990 was someone uncomfortable with attempts, including by the court, to disrupt the status-quo. A Newsweek piece at the time noted that “His record suggests that he sees the judiciary as an institution with limited powers.” In retrospect, then, we shouldn’t be surprised by his opinions in Planned Parenthood vs. Casey or Bush vs. Gore. In both, it can be argued that he took the conservative position—not using the court to overturn longstanding precedent or interfere with the normal workings of other institutions of government. In both cases, as well, Souter drew further ire from those on the Right.

In reflecting upon this, I went back and re-read some of former Senator Warren Rudman’s memoirs, “Combat.” Rudman has been one of Souter’s closest friends since Souter served under Rudman in the New Hampshire Attorney General’s office back in the late 1960’s. Rudman had long advocated the elevation of Souter to the high court and was aided in this effort by the fact that former NH Governor John Sununu served as White House Chief of Staff in 1990. When Souter’s nomination was announced, Rudman made it his personal mission to shepherd the nomination through the Senate. When we examine Rudman’s career and ideology we see someone who epitomized this “cautious conservatism.” In the last chapter, he writes:

If someone had told me in the 1960s that one day I would serve in a Republican Party that opposed abortion rights—which the Supreme Court had endorsed—advocated prayer in the schools, and talked about government inspired “family values,” I would have thought he was crazy.

To me the essence of conservatism is just the opposite: government should not intrude in anything as personal as the decision to have a child, it should not be championing prayer or religion, and family values should come from families and religious institutions, not from politically inspired, Washington based moralists. (p. 243)

Rudman left the Senate just as the conflict between this version of conservatism and “movement” conservatism came into stark focus. With George H.W. Bush’s intra-party challenge from Pat Buchanan in 1992 (and also recall the 1988 success of Pat Robertson), followed by the ascendancy of Newt Gingrich and a heavily southern-tinged GOP congressional majority in 1996, a pragmatic, “cautious” conservatism espoused by people like Rudman, Howard Baker, Bill Cohen, John Chafee, and John Danforth was cast aside. In its place was a more confrontational, activist, and ideological version. This metamorphosis reached its apotheosis during the Bush 43 presidency. Whether it be Terry Schiavo, the War in Iraq, or funding for faith based initiatives, the policies of the Bush Administration, though branded as “conservative,” were premised on activism, not the status quo. “Caution” is not a word one would use to define the past eight years. Electorally, one region of the country has responded most negatively to this governing philosophy—the northeast. I don’t think it’s accidental that this is the part of the country that produced David Souter (and Rudman).

To get a sense of how the GOP has suffered in the northeast, consider the following. Of the 33 Senate and Governor’s seats in the Northeast, Democrats currently hold 27 (including Senators Sanders and Lieberman). In 2008 every one of these states voted for Barack Obama as well. Looking back over the past three decades we see how much the Republicans’ fortunes have declined in this region. Even in 1976, in the aftermath of the brutal Watergate election for the GOP, Republicans held twice as many statewide seats in the Northeast as they do now. What’s happened is that the traditional “Yankee” or northeastern Republican has become virtually extinct, a point highlighted by one of the few remaining of this species, Olympia Snowe, in an op-ed to the New York Times last week. Yankee Republicans are quite different in outlook than the modern day “movement conservative.” Writing about the northeast, Kevin Phillips argued that it has been this region more than any other that has been the bastion and defender of the “establishment.” While the “establishment” or “old order” is “conservative,” it is not conservative in the “movement” sense. Rather, this conservatism is temperamental, privileging the status quo over attempts to re-order or re-make society. When Phillips penned The Emerging Republican Majority, the northeast had become the most “liberal” part of the country because at that time, “liberalism” was indeed the status quo: “ As America moved into a new political era in 1968, the Northeast once again assumed its position…as the national stronghold of the old order, which this time was an institutionalized liberalism.”

What this all shows, I think, is that while its dangerous to equate a judge’s philosophy and decisions with an underlying political ideology, its equally dangerous to assume that terms like “conservative” have a single meaning. Rather, as I think the Souter example shows, this term means different things to different people, at different times, and perhaps in different places. Whereas it certainly makes no difference to Justice Souter how more politically minded conservatives and Republicans untangle these conflicting definitions, for the GOP it seems imperative if they want to recover their footing and become, as Texas Senator John Cornyn said last week, a “national party” once again.

Monday, May 04, 2009

Some Quick Thoughts On Where the Parties Are Strong (and Weak)

I'm going to be doing a few posts over the next week or so on the regional strengths and weaknesses of the Democrats and Republicans. For a quick first post on this, above is the geographical distribution of our country's governors. To get a sense of how broad the Dems' regional strengths are, consider the following: one could walk from Canada to Mexico--beginning your destination in each of 5 different states (Maine, New Hampshire, New York, Michigan, and Montana)--and not pass through a state with a Republican governor. The longest of these routes takes you through 10 states.

For Republicans it's only possible to make this trip via one route through three states (ID-->UT-->AZ). We should note, too, that this is only possible because Arizona's Democratic Governor Janet Napolitano resigned to become Secretary of Homeland Security and was replaced by the state's Republican Lieutenant Governor. Looking at elected Republicans, this trip can't be done.

**Also note that Kathleen Sibelius, upon becoming Secretary of HHS, was succeeded by Kansas' Republican LG. Thus, we could have colored both AZ and KS blue if we based our map strictly on which party was elected to the seat.

Friday, May 01, 2009

More Info On the 2008 Electorate--Guess Who Had the Highest Turnout

Much too long without a post. Several are in the works so stay tuned. Until some longer ruminations, I'd point to this report, released yesterday, on the composition of the 2008 electorate. Produced by the Pew Research Center, it gives us more insight into last year's turnout as well as the composition and participation of different subsets of the American electorate. A couple interesting points to note:
  • The composition of the American electorate is the most diverse ever. 2008's electorate saw increases in African-American, Asian, and especially Hispanic voters. The white share of the electorate was its lowest ever at 76%.
  • The historical white/black turnout gap virtually disappeared in 2008. White turnout was 66.1% and black turnout was 65.2%. Obviously the Obama candidacy was a crucial component in this but this cannot be good news for future Republican candidates in the black electorate can stay energized.
  • The gap between men and women overall in turnout continued. Female turnout was 65.7% while for men it was 61.5%
  • The highest turnout among any group--factoring in race and gender--was African American women. Turnout for black females was 68.8%!!!
  • While turnout among the young and their composition of the electorate was rather stable compared to 2004, the highest turnout rate among the young--by race--was among black voters. Black voters between the ages of 18 and 29 had a turnout rate of 58.2%.

I found these last two points to be really interesting. What we don't know, of course, is the durability of these trends and whether they will manifest themselves in elections without Obama on the ballot (say the 2010 midterms). It would seem, though, that this increased turnout among especially young and female African Americans produced some tangible outcomes. If you look at a state like North Carolina--which Obama won by a mere 14,000 votes--it seems likely that the Tarheel State would have stayed in the Republican column had we not seen this spike in turnout.