Archive for December, 2016

La-La Land

There’s a scene in the new musical La La Land where jazz pianist Sebastian, played by Ryan Gosling, is confronted by his old friend and band-leader, Keith (Jon Legend) about the nature of jazz.  It’s after Sebastian’s first practice session with Keith’s new band.  Sebastian is convinced jazz is dying because people won’t take it on its own terms.  Keith replies that Sebastian talks about saving jazz, but that to do that, you have to bring it up to date with synthesizers and backup singers, not be a slave to its history.  But Sebastian isn’t trying to put jazz in amber, he just wants it to be confident in its own authenticity.

Keith and Sebastian are talking about jazz.  And about the movie musical.

The central artistic tension of the film is between nostalgia and creativity.  Both writer-director Damien Chazelle and his on-screen avatar Sebastian struggle with how to draw on the goodwill and good feelings of a golden age, while not getting trapped in stagnant nostalgia.  This year saw a number of films set in Hollywood’s golden age that didn’t work well.  I had high hopes for the Coen Brothers’ Hail, Caesar!, but it failed precisely because it was post-modern nostalgia, and homage rather than a creation.

Chazelle solves the problem by not making a period piece.  It’s set in 2016, but follows the conventions of the traditional musical.

La La Land works because it’s confident in its own authenticity.  From the opening production number set in a traffic jam on an LA freeway, the characters simply slide into singing or dancing because that’s what characters in musicals do.  The musical numbers advance the plot or develop the characters because that’s what musical numbers do.

Gosling and Stone don’t wink at the audience.  Hip irony, or self-aware self-consciousness would kill the picture, because if a film doesn’t take its own form seriously, why should you?)

The musical is actually melodic and enjoyable, legitimate 21st Century show tunes, not rock or rap shoehorned into a mismatched genre.  You recognize Seb & Mia’s theme when it’s repeated; the recurring ballad, a rhythm song named “City of Lights,” works in any tempo or mood, and isn’t so overworked that you get sick of it.

And oh, do you take it seriously.  There’s plenty of humor, of course, but through the first 120 minutes, right up to the climactic “Epilogue,” you first believe in Seb and Mia, and then invest heavily in their relationship.  Each of them is charming in their own right, but the chemistry between them pops off the screen.  You desperately want them to succeed as individuals and as a couple.

Therein lies the central relationship tension of La La Land – can they have both their creative dreams and their dream of each other?

By setting a traditional music today, and by writing for a 2016 audience, Chazelle really does keep you guessing up until the very end.  Some will find the ending satisfying; to others, it will look like the easy way out.

But sorry, no spoilers here.  You’ll have to see it yourself.

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Sen. Gillibrand Does History

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) has tweeted out that she won’t support a law allowing Gen. Mattis to serve as Secretary of Defense with 7 years of his military separation, because she believes in civilian control of the military. Nobody I know disagrees with the principle, and there’s plenty of civilian control built in, starting with the fact that Mattis himself is now a civilian, as is the incoming president, and most of the members of Congress.

Maybe Gillibrand needs a history lesson.

The only other time such a law was needed was when former Gen. George Marshall moved from the State Department to Defense under Pres. Truman. Marshall, for the benefit of Sen Gillibrand, was the author of something called “The Marshall Plan,” which saved much of Western Europe from Communism by helping it to rebuild after World War II.  Truman asked him to serve as Secretary of Defense during something called “The Korean War,” which saved South Korea from Communism by defending it against the Chinese and Russians.

Pres. Truman knew a thing or two about civilian control of the military.  For instance, during the Korean War, he found himself standing up to and relieving the popular Gen. Douglas MacArthur, who thought he knew enough to dictate the scope and terms of the war to the president.

Gillibrand’s about my age and got into Dartmouth at a time when the Ivies hadn’t descended into madness, so I assume she’s familiar with at least some of these facts.  (In case she’s not, she’s got a 50th birthday coming up in a week; maybe someone can buy her David McCullough’s biography of Truman for a present.)

More likely, she’s posturing as a leader of The Resistance, positioning herself for a 2020 White House run.  Rumor has it that she’s already been contacting Clinton donors with that possibility in mind.  She may also remember 1989, when Democrats torpedoed the nomination of fellow Senator John Tower for Defense Secretary, and believe that this is a road to weakening a President Trump at the outset.

It may play well with her base, and with the party, which is where she needs to start.  But Gen. Mattis is revered among his troops and admired by the public at large.  Starting with an attack on his nomination might not be the swiftest move in the long run.

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By Any Means Possible

Looking at a map of where the Democrats are in the majority, the fashionable conclusion is that their party is now a regional one, hugging the coasts.  In fact, they’re barely even that.  One-third of all Democratic Congressmen come from just three states – California, New York, and Massachusetts.  So when the party chose Chuck Schumer (NY) and Nancy Pelosi (CA) to lead it in the Senate and House, they were just being true to the current shrunken geography.  They may represent the party’s ideology, but there also just weren’t that many states to choose from.

One state where leftists have been feeling the pinch is Wisconsin, home of the progressive movement.  Democrats have seen their share of the state legislature wither to 13 of 33 Senate seats, and 35 of 99 House seats.

So off they went to court.  In the past, federal courts have generally struck down some forms of gerrymandering designed to dilute voting power based on race.  While the Supreme Court held open the idea that partisan gerrymandering, it had never found a practical yardstick that it approved of, and so the issue lay where it had lain since the beginning of the Republic.

However, in 2016 The Year of the Unprecedented, Democrats have managed to win an unprecedented victory.  A federal court has ordered the state’s legislative lines redrawn.  The court thinks it has found a Judicial Sabrmetric measure that allows it to definitively state that partisan gerrymandering violates freedom of association.  The argument is roughly that votes in excess of what’s needed to win are “wasted” votes.  If the losing side has substantially more wasted votes than the winning side, then it will win disproportionately fewer seats than its vote total suggests that it “should” have.

The logic of the argument escapes me.  Parties are voluntary associations, created for the purpose of attaining elected office.  (Or in the case of Libertarians, for debating certain ideas.)  Nobody is preventing anyone from freely associating, and there is no “right” for a party to be elected to any given office.

Moreover, sometimes, a party simply becomes so weak in a jurisdiction that even with the best districting, there’s simply not way to guarantee it any seats.  For example, in Hawaii’s State Senate, there are currently 25 Democrats and zero Republicans.  None, nada, zilch.   And yet Republican candidates surely received votes.  Should the state be required to draw a district in order to guarantee at least some Republican seats?  Of course not.

But for the moment, at least in Wisconsin, the law is that Republicans aren’t allowed to win by too much.  So let’s look at some of the inputs and implications.

Wisconsin’s Own History

The state has historically leaned left, but has never been as monolithically Democrat as its reputation might have it.  Indeed, back in the 20s – 40s, the Democratic Party there was all but extinct.  As late as 1948, Republicans controlled 27 of 33 State Senate seats, and 92(!) of 100 House seats.

The pendulum started to swing back, and the 1958 elections proved to be a watershed.  Republicans went from a supermajority in the House to a minority, and virtually all of the statewide offices went to Democrats.  Note that this happened with the same districts that, in 1956, had give Republicans 2/3 of the State House.  The party reached its high-water mark in the early 80s, with supermajorities in both the State House and State Senate, but since then – 35 years ago – the state has been swinging back to Republicans.

Naturally, the Democrats blame this weakness on redistricting and gerrymandering, rather than natural party swings and their own misreading of the state’s politics.  Such gerrymandering doesn’t explain Scott Walker winning three statewide elections, a conservative winning a state Supreme Court election, or the election and re-election of Sen. Ron Johnson, but then Democrats have never been one to let logic interfere with a good power-grab.

Gerrymandering is Self-Limiting

There’s a vast literature on drawing legislative districts, but ultimately, a party with control of the process is confronted with two choices – it can either pack its opponents into a few districts, or spread them out.

By packing them in, the majority party is seeking to limit the number of competitive districts, and ensure a smaller, but more durable majority.  Many districts will be uncompetitive, a few will be swing districts.  If the majority is small enough, then it might lose control in a bad year, but will retain control in most years.

By spreading them out, the majority party will be in front in more districts, but those majorities will be smaller.  So in a normal year, they’ll have broader control of the legislature, possibly a supermajority, but they risk losing many districts in a wave year.  That’s what happened to Republicans in the 1958 Wisconsin elections.

Parties who are clinging to small majorities may find that there just aren’t enough districts to go around to try the first option, so they choose the second, writing themselves small majorities in many districts, and counting on the power of incumbency to see them through.

The Democrats have done poorly in the 2014 and 2016 legislative elections in Wisconsin, and their argument is predicated on the idea that they’ll never be able to claw their way back to competitiveness.  But while gerrymandering helps, it can’t overcome long-term secular trends.

For decades, nay generations, Democrats gerrymandered districts to their advantage.  In response, Republicans began a long-term, multi-decade effort to squeeze the Democrats from the bottom-up.  Their in state legislatures are the result of that.   The change from 1980 is stunning, and began in earnest in 1994:

Perverse Outcomes

I mentioned above that there are two broad ways of gerrymandering – write in small but secure legislative majorities, with a few competitive districts, or write in a greater number of competitive districts, with some majority in each.

The ruling would seem to favor the first option over the second.  If the metric is that each party has a proportional number of “extra votes,” a party will have an incentive to make as many districts as lopsided as possible, giving themselves small but secure majorities.  The net result is liable to be less competitive elections, with efforts concentrated in a few districts.  The vast majority of residents would live in uncompetitive districts.

This would seem on the face of it to contradict the ruling’s logic.  While the point of gerrymandering is legislative control, the point of an individual election is the selection of an individual legislator.  The majority party would have an incentive to make sure that in the vast majority of those districts, at least one party never had a reasonable shot at getting elected.  To the degree that gerrymanding contradicts freedom of association (and again, I don’t follow the logic there), this result would compound the problem, not ameliorate it.

Consequences for Open Primaries

The court is agreeing with the plaintiffs’ argument that unfair district lines are an attack on freedom of association.  So be it.

Colorado just passed a law imposing a presidential primary, and another law requiring that unaffiliated voters be allowed to vote in one party’s primary.  How then are state laws that determine how parties’ nominees are chosen not such an infringement?  If a party chooses to have a primary, or a caucus, or an open primary, why is that not the party’s business?  If this ruling stands, it’s almost impossible to see how an inherently political process that affects a party’s ability to win can be an infringement on free association, while a state diktat on how a party chooses its nominees isn’t.

Too Bad – Go Win

Democrats are (or were, in 2009) fond saying that elections have consequences.  Unless they’re won by Republicans, especially in years ending in 0.  At one level, they’re right to be concerned.  The Democrats find themselves where the Republicans were for a long time – a regional party, and a minority party at every level, with only the White House in grasp.

They’ve never been shy about using judicial and administrative tools to achieve policy ends, but at this point, those are the only tools in the toolbag.  The public has soundly rejected the social activism and, to a lesser extent, the regulatory manipulation that is the Democrats’ current stock in trade.  Should it continue to see its desires frustrated, things could get even uglier for the Democrats and for the country.

And electorally, the Republicans have been squeezing out the Democrats’ bench for decades now.  Not only are Pelosi and Schumer bicoastal, they’re old.  The only areas outside of the coasts producing new Democratic talent are the cities, which have been trending blue for a while.  If the Democrats have to rebuild everywhere else, the Republicans may have a very difficult time rebuilding there.  Count on them to try, though.

Rebuilding the party isn’t the work of one cycle, or of winning the White House, no matter how dangerously concentrated power has become.  The last two Democratic presidents have been terrible for the party.

If Democrats want to win again, they need to figure out how to win, not look to the courts to save them from their own disconnect from the people whose votes they’re trying to earn.


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