Tuesday, November 11, 2014

What Happened on Election Day?

The obvious thing that happened was that Democrats got trounced. In races that were supposed to be competitive, Democrats lost. Republican governors who were supposed to be unpopular defeated Democratic challengers. In Illinois, a Republican newcomer, Bruce Rauner, handily defeated the sitting Governor, Pat Quinn, 49% to 45%. Republicans will control 59 of the 98 partisan state legislative houses, and 31 of the governorships across the country.

But that’s not the whole story of the 2014 midterm elections. Where Republicans won, popular Democratic incumbents also won. In Illinois, Senator Dick Durbin defeated Jim Oberweis 53% to 43%, although Oberweis was a familiar name statewide because he had run several times before. That means that about 1 of every 6 people who voted for Rauner split their ticket to vote for Durbin. One out of every 4 Rauner voters split their ticket to vote for Democratic Attorney General Lisa Madigan, and 1 out of 3 voted for Democratic Secretary of State Jesse White.

Several ballot questions in Illinois addressed partisan issues: a new 3% additional tax on incomes over $1 million, raising the minimum wage to $10 an hour, and a requirement to include birth control in prescription drug coverage in any health insurance plan. These were all “advisory questions”, meaning that they need legislation to take effect. They were all pushed by Democrats and all passed by a two-thirds majority.

Morgan County, where I live, is dominated by Republican voters. Rauner got more than twice as many votes as Quinn. But the tax on million dollar incomes also passed 60% to 40%, and so did increasing the minimum wage. Nearly half of those in Morgan County who voted to re-elect Republican Aaron Schock to Congress also voted to raise taxes on millionaires.

This ballot splitting between candidates and issues happened across the country. An amendment to the Colorado state constitution to define “person” at conception was defeated 65% to 35%, although Democratic Senate incumbent Mark Udall was defeated. A personhood amendment in deeply Republican North Dakota lost 64% to 36%. Minimum wage increases passed in Alaska (69% in favor), Arkansas (66%), Nebraska (59%), South Dakota (55%), all states where Republicans easily won Senate races.

Why did so many American voters select the Democratic side of issues and the Republican slate of candidates? Illinois may provide a partial answer. Illinois voters have been evenly divided in statewide races in recent years. Republicans and Democrats have alternated as governors during the entire 20th century. At the moment, Democrats control the state government, with super majorities in both houses of the legislature. But during the five years that Pat Quinn has been Governor, they made very little headway against the state’s deep financial problems. An income tax increase from 3% to 5% was passed, which I believe was necessary given our deep debts, but nothing else has been done. Democrats have failed in Illinois. The responsibility for this failure must be shared across those in leadership, including House Speaker Mike Madigan and Senate President John Cullerton, and throughout the ranks of Democratic legislators. Despite their dominance, Illinois Democrats have been afraid to tackle the difficult problems of the state. And Quinn is at the top of the ticket.

I think there is one more reason. The Democrats lost the battle of public opinion. It is always easier to point to problems, and Republicans at the national level have done little besides that for six years. During perhaps the most challenging period of American foreign policy in decades, Republicans have relentlessly criticized every decision that our Democratic President has made. Without acknowledging their own responsibility for the mess in the Middle East or proposing any new principles to guide our foreign policy, they have feasted on the extraordinary difficulties in Iraq and Syria and Libya and Afghanistan and Gaza and everywhere else.

But the Democrats have also failed to present persuasive reasons to believe in them. After passing one of the most significant pieces of legislation in memory, the Affordable Health Care Act, they have been running away from its initial difficulties ever since. Instead of proclaiming how much good it has done for millions of Americans who previously had no health insurance, they have allowed the Republicans to persuade most Americans that it is fatally flawed.

Democrats have failed to explain why the economic recovery has mainly helped the rich and how they would change that. Raising the minimum wage is only a start, a necessary one, but not much help to those earning just a bit more or without a job at all. On Sunday, President Obama said, “We have not been successful in letting people know what it is that we’re trying to do and why this is the right direction.”

So Americans angry about the economy have turned to a party which forced an end to unemployment insurance for the long-term unemployed, which wants to cut both welfare programs and taxes on the wealthy, which opposes doing anything to prevent jobs and profits from going overseas.

We’ll see how that turns out.

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, November 11, 2014

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Global Warming Truths

 Joseph Bast from the Heartland Institute wrote on October 27 that my article on the global warming hoax (Oct. 21) was “false” and “defamatory”. I do acknowledge an error: Heartland is not funded by “conservative PACs”, but by conservative foundations and other conservative organizations.

Bast’s article seems persuasive. He quotes numbers and studies and seems to be reporting science. But he isn’t. His article and the Heartland Institute have perfected the art of climate disinformation, following the same methods used by Holocaust deniers and creationists.

Bast wrote: “Tens of thousands of scientists who have studied the climate change issue believe the human impact is small and the likely effects not harmful. More than 31,000 of them signed a petition to that effect.” Not true. In 1998, Arthur Robinson sent out a petition urging rejection of the Kyoto climate agreement, and rejection of the idea that human-caused global warming would lead to “catastrophic heating” of the atmosphere. Anyone could sign and list their degrees. Over 31,000 signed, as Bast wrote. Among them were Charles Darwin, characters from “Star Wars”, duplicate entries, and corporate names. Even Bast’s own publications list only 9000 as having PhDs. Of those, very few were in climate science. “Scientific American” tried to verify some of those people, and found that some did not agree with the petition and some did not remember signing. Scientific American estimated that the petition was signed by “about 200 climate researchers”. What Bast says about the petition is a lie.

Bast says that my claim that 95% of scientific papers argue in favor of global warming “has been repeatedly debunked”. Since Bast doesn’t say who did this debunking, we go to Heartland’s own website and his article there, “Global Warming: Not a Crisis”. He cites a study by Benny Peiser, who claimed to find 34 papers which “reject or cast doubt on the view that human activity has been the main driver of warming over the past 50 years”. When challenged, Peiser couldn’t show that such papers existed. He retracted his claims and wrote the following email to Media Watch: “I do not think anyone is questioning that we are in a period of global warming. Neither do I doubt that the overwhelming majority of climatologists is agreed that the current warming period is mostly due to human impact.” Peiser wrote this in 2006! That was long before Bast cited Peiser as the guy who proves there is no consensus.

In a recent op-ed in the “Wall Street Journal”, Bast claims a German survey of hundreds of climate scientists in 2008 shows that “most climate scientists disagree with the consensus on key issues such as the reliability of climate data and computer models.” But such disagreements are normal. Bast doesn’t say that the authors asked the respondents to rate from 1 (not at all) to 7 (very much), the following question: “How convinced are you that climate change poses a very serious and dangerous threat to humanity?” Over 90% rated the answer 4 or above. In answer to the question, “If we do not do anything towards adaptation or mitigation, the potential for catastrophe resulting from climate change for the world in the next 50 years is 1 (very low) to 7 (very high)”, 90% answered 4 or above. When 90% say “catastrophe”, that’s consensus.

On Heartland’s website you can see a graph entitled “No global warming for 18 years 1 month”. This graph is based on data that NASA scientists use to show that 2005 and 2010 were the planet’s warmest years since data have been collected, and that of the 13 warmest years since 1880, 11 were the years from 2001 to 2011. But you can’t see that because of the misleading way the data is displayed by Heartland. Most newspapers in the US have published articles about how 2014 will probably be the warmest year ever. News about that is all over the world’s media, but Heartland doesn’t mention it.

Bast and his funders want people to believe that science is political, that scientists “benefit financially from the global warming hoax by using it to justify government funding.” He argues that all science is dishonest: during a FOX interview, Bast said that “peer-review has been corrupted, and we can’t trust what appears in our most prestigious journals anymore.” The world’s scientists and scientific organizations and journals are engaged in a giant conspiracy. Instead we should trust him.

Bast knows that few people will invest the hours needed to discover that his claims are bogus. It doesn’t matter if Bast doesn’t convince people that he is right. He succeeds when generous editors allow him equal space to promote Heartland’s nonsense. He succeeds if he casts doubt, if he creates a controversy, if people who don’t want to believe that the earth is heating up quote his phony studies. When 2014 goes down in history as the warmest year ever, nothing will change on the Heartland website.

Not everyone is like Bast. There’s not enough money in the world to pay me to write lies. If we can’t trust our scientists, then what do we do when the next crisis arrives? Whom should we trust when our lives are on the line in the case of an Ebola epidemic?

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
November 2, 2014

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

The Real Partisan Divide

During the past few years, innumerable commentators have lamented the partisan divide in Washington. Although many politicians campaign on their willingness to “reach across the aisle”, when they get to Congress the two parties are more polarized than ever before. A study of Congressional voting patterns shows that the overlap among liberal Republicans and conservative Democrats, which characterized Congress in the 1970s, and was still apparent in the 1990s, has entirely disappeared. Measuring political ideology by roll call votes, the most liberal Republicans in Congress are more conservative than the most conservative Democrats.

The polarized parties represent a polarized voting public. Another study shows Americans of the two parties moving further apart since the 1990s. More people are consistent liberals or conservatives than before. More than twice as many Americans as in earlier decades, in both parties, see the other party as “so misguided that they threaten the nation’s well-being.” Conservatives tend to be more disdainful of liberals than the other way around, more likely to have friends who mostly share their political views, more likely to want to live in a place where most people share their views, and more likely to be unhappy if an immediate family member married across party lines.

What can explain increasing levels of partisanship? Here’s one answer: Americans of the right and left no longer get the same news.

Before the advent of cable TV and the internet in the 1980s, news meant newspapers, national or local, or the major TV networks. Local newspapers got national news stories from the national papers or from national news services, like Associated Press or United Press International. The goal of these news sources was consistent, although not always achieved: to produce non-partisan information about the nation and the world without editorial comment or bias.

The news landscape has not only expanded rapidly, but changed in nature. Cable TV news networks are often explicitly partisan and internet sites providing news even more so. Talk radio, which had existed since the early 20th century, expanded in the 1970s. Politically oriented radio shows with explicit partisan viewpoints exploded in the 1990s because of the repeal of the Federal Communication Commission’s “fairness doctrine” in 1987. After 1949, broadcasters who wanted a license had to address issues of public importance and had to present a balance of viewpoints. The repeal of the fairness doctrine allowed broadcasters to present consistently partisan viewpoints. Following the success of Rush Limbaugh in the 1990s, conservative talk has come to dominate the airwaves. Cable TV networks are more evenly balanced, with MSNBC at the left end and FOX on the right.

The result has been that liberals and conservatives absorb different information about the world. Liberals get their news mainly from CNN, National Public Radio, the New York Times, and MSNBC. Conservatives overwhelmingly favor FOX News.

Even more striking are the levels of distrust of the other side’s news sources. 81% of consistent liberals distrust FOX News, while 75% of consistent conservatives distrust MSNBC. Those results are not surprising. What I think is a bigger problem is that conservatives distrust nearly all broad sources of national and international news.

The most trusted sources of news for conservatives are FOX News, Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh, the Drudge Report, and the Blaze (Glenn Beck’s news network). Among these, only FOX News actually presents news, as opposed to partisan commentary. The only other source of broad news more trusted than distrusted by conservatives is the Wall Street Journal, which only 30% say they trust.

Conservatives distrust all other sources of reported news. Three times as many conservatives distrust the three major TV networks as trust them. Five times as many distrust the Washington Post, and only 3% trust the New York Times, while half distrust it. Conservatives distrust USA Today, the BBC, and CNN. These news sources make up the so-called “mainstream media”. Conservatives have long attacked the major news sources as biased to the left, even when most newspapers endorsed Republican candidates.

The editorials in the Washington Post and the New York Times are liberal these days. But aside from that 1% of their content, these newspapers, and a host of other national sources of news, strive for something disdained by Limbaugh, Beck, Hannity, and Drudge: non-partisan information gathered by professional reporters. The most conservative Americans don’t want to hear or read that. They seek to become like the most vocal critic of the “lamestream media”, Sarah Palin: ignorant of basic information about the world beyond her front porch. They are absorbing Limbaugh’s racism and sexism, and Beck’s conspiracy theories, without the basic information which would enable them to evaluate these biases.

The self-imposed isolation of conservatives from broad-based news sources and their focus for their understanding of the world on the most ideologically driven commentators of the far right, like Rush Limbaugh, is dangerous. Conservative distrust of everyone who reports information they don’t want to believe makes rational discussion and political compromise impossible. That distrust is self-protection, but also self-deprivation. Without a common basis of knowledge about the world, we will not find our common ground as Americans.

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, October 28, 2014