Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Susan Collins might leave the Senate, and other observations on "moderates"

Amid the international messes with Russia, Syria, North Korea and wherever else, this one may have evaded your attention.  Susan Collins may leave the Senate.  She is considering a gubernatorial campaign in Maine.  Also, something about rain in Spain.

Collins is dead-center of the ideological spectrum, according to the NOMINATE scale we use in political science, based on congressional roll call votes.  The first dimension of the measurement system, which is basically liberalism/conservatism, ranges from -1 to +1, and she is at .0370, and always has been basically at 0 (as was her former colleague, Olympia Snowe).  One can speculate about her reasons for wanting to leave-- fear of a primary (or maybe general election threat), general disgust with the Senate and national politics right now, real desire to be Governor, take your pick.  At least she isn't talking about spending more time with her family (the lie that politicians use when they are ducking out of town to avoid a scandal).

I have no insight into why she might be more interested in the Governor's office.  Rather, I have a few comments on the praise that often gets heaped upon moderates.  In a political system infested with wingnuts* and moonbats**, and where wingnuts in particular seem to be a force for dysfunction on an unprecedented scale, one might be tempted to think, "oh, if only we had more moderates!  Oh, for more Susan Collinseses!"  By the way, [sic].  Yeah, lots of people think that everything would be just hunky-dory if only we had more moderates in DC.  Let's pick that apart, shall we?

In my opinion, we've had two truly great Speakers of the House in the last decade.  I've been a big fan of both Nancy Pelosi and, yes, John Boehner for a long time.  He was at odds with the wingnuts in his party, whom he called "knuckleheads," and he was never a cause of dysfunction.  He's the guy who saved us from a debt default when the knuckleheads in his party tried to force one.  And he was in no way moderate.  On that -1 to +1 scale?  .7480.  He just wasn't a, well, knucklehead.

So what is a moderate, anyway?  Think of two issues:  redistribution and abortion.  To be liberal is to be a redistributionist and pro-choice.  To be conservative is to be pro-life and anti-redistribution.  So, how about Catholics?  The ones who actually follow church doctrine?  That would be pro-redistribution, and pro-life.  Moderate, right?  What about libertarians?  Pro-choice and anti-redistribution.  Moderate, too, right?  So, Catholics and libertarians are both "moderate," even though they agree on nothing.  "Moderate" is kind of meaningless.

I've been making this kind of observation for a while when I teach about ideology, and interestingly, at last week's conference, Hans Noel from Georgetown presented a paper showing that activists actually placed Susan Collins to the left of West Virginia Democrat, Joe Manchin, presumably because of their abortion positions.  Collins is a pro-choice Republican who is more opposed to Obamacare than Manchin.  Abortion vs. redistribution.  Abortion wins, in activists' eyes.  Cool, right?  I'd link to Noel's paper if the conference web site allowed it, but they don't, so if you want it, go spam Hans Noel.  The paper is called "Is John McCain more conservative than Rand Paul?  Using activists' pairwise comparisons to measure ideology."

Then there's who the moderates used to be, back when Congress was full of 'em, in the mid-20th Century, as opposed to what Congress is full of now.  Old southern racists.  Remember them?  Do we want a Congress filled with those motherfuckers?  Sorry, I didn't mean "motherfuckers."  I meant housekeeper-fuckers.  Strom Thurmond.  What a guy.  Go read about that racist piece of shit.

Anyway, what's the big deal with moderates?  Would you rather have John Boehner, or that racist piece of shit, Strom Thurmond?  You know, the guy who set the all-time filibuster record by filibustering civil rights legislation.  In the 84th Senate, Thurmond's NOMINATE score was 0.1070.  Remember the scale:  -1 to +1.  That's close to dead-center!  He was a moderate!  A racist piece of shit, sure, but a moderate!

The complication is that this was back when a simple, one-dimensional model wasn't enough to explain what happened in Congress.  According to Keith Poole and Howard Rosenthal, who developed the NOMINATE score, you needed at least two dimensions back then, with that second dimension explaining civil rights type stuff.  It wasn't all about simple liberalism and conservatism back then.  What happened?  Looooooong story...  Probably for a series of upcoming posts...

So, what does it mean to be a moderate?  Potentially a lot of things, not all of them good, and this is before we get into the idea of a person who is just easily swayed and generally unprincipled.  If someone wants to praise Susan Collins on her merits, then fine.  I'll continue to praise John Boehner on his merits as a statesman while pointing out how dysfunctional the GOP currently is, even though ideologically, he wasn't that far from the wingnuts who kicked him out of office because they were too fucking stupid to understand what they were doing.  And anyone who would prefer Strom Thurmond circa 1956 (i.e. the moderate) to John Boehner should remember what happened to Trent Lott.  Trent Lott was forced to step down as Majority Leader of the Senate in 2002 for telling everyone that we would have been better off had Thurmond won the White House.  In 1948.  When he ran on a segregationist platform.  Back then, in a liberal/conservative sense, Thurmond was a moderate.

Susan Collins is a moderate.  She may be leaving the Senate.  Whether that is good or bad has nothing to do with the fact that she is moderate.  Enough with the knee-jerk worship of moderates.

*Wingnut:  Right-wing wacko, e.g. Louie Gohmert.

**Moonbat:  Left-wing wacko, e.g. Bernie Sanders.

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