Going old school on the election

One of the pleasures of turning forty is that I feel I can let loose my inner McCain Crotchety Old Man more often.  I believe you young people on the interwebs refer to this as going "old school."  [Um... just saying "old school" makes you sound old--ed.  Pipe down.] So here goes -- I don't like some of the new-fangled innovations going on during this election.  Nate Silver at fivethirtyeight.com discusses one of these negative innovations -- CNN's decision to show dial group reactions during the debate: 
The problem is that the squigglys may give thirty random strangers from Bumbleweed, Ohio just too damned much power to influence public perception. The squigglys influence the home viewers, the home viewers participate in the snap polls, the snap polls influence the pundits, the pundits influence the narrative and -- voilà! -- perceptions are entrenched.... What I'd suggest is that the CPD ask the network to refrain from including focus-group reactions in their live broadcasts of the debates. If the networks want to include the squigglys in their re-broadcasts of the debates, or perhaps on their Internet streams, I'd be all for that. But I think the viewer should be entitled to formulate her own, independent reaction to the debate, rather than having to share her television with Joe the Plumber and some guys from his neighborhood.
Be sure to check out this old-school post from Mark Blumenthal on why these dial-testers are not a representative sample. Now, here's the thing:  Silver's basic argument is that watching these dial-testers creates peer effects among voters -- and voting should be an independent decision of the individual.  I concur.  But shouldn't this logic extend to the actual voting process as well?  I bring this up because of the astonishing rise in early voting.  If this New York Times story by Kirk Johnson is correct (and let's concede that the story is impressionistic), then a lot of early voting is taking place collectively rather than individually: 
The presidential debate had barely ended Wednesday night when Kristin Marshall had her ballot on her lap, pen in hand, ready to vote. Three friends, all supporters of Senator Barack Obama, the Democratic nominee, had their ballots, too. “Obama’s the second one down — don’t accidentally pick the first,” said Ms. Marshall, 27, a reference to the ballot placement of Senator John McCain, Mr. Obama’s Republican opponent, as her living room of Obama supporters erupted in laughter. The traditional American vote — a solitary moment behind a black curtain in a booth, civics in secret — was never thus.... The Obama campaign made a big effort this week to encourage debate-and-vote parties like the one at Ms. Marshall’s home here in Larimer County, another pivotal county with a lot of mail-balloting.... In coming up with strategies to get out the mail-in vote in Colorado, both campaigns have focused on making the mail-in voters feel part of a bigger movement. The Obama campaign’s debate-and-vote parties, for example, were intended to create a feel of civic participation. Republican efforts to hand-deliver packets create a support structure for voters who might feel put off by the lack of Election Day traditions, volunteers said. “We’re a friendly face at the door,” said Jim Kepler, a real-estate broker and Republican volunteer in Greeley who has assisted in delivering the information packets. “We’re there to help them, and they like that.”
Again, call me old school, but I like the tradition of going to the polling place, because it's a unique combination of civic community and the rights of the individual.  You go with your fellow citizens to a common locale, maybe you chat up a few of them before and after you vote -- but once you're in the booth, it's just you and your conscience. If you read Johnson's piece, you can see some counterarguments in favor of early voting, but they all revolve around the point that the Voting Day process can be cumbersome and problematic.  But the answer to this is not to encourage early voting, it's to fix the Election Day process.  There are many aspects of campaigns and elections that are social -- as they should be.  But the action of voting itself should not be made by the individual.  For all the good intentions that are used to justify it, I worry that early voting undercuts that individual decision.  I eagerly await all the younglings to tell me that I'm clueless on this one.  UPDATE:  Daniel Davies weighs in against Nate Silver.  I will concede that his idea of having the dialers hang around after the debate and respond to CNN's commentators would be awesome.

Daniel W. Drezner

Trying for the full Huntington

As I've said before, I've greatly admired Samuel Huntington's career. Huntington's gift as an academic is that he has been unafraid to make the politically incorrect argument, regardless of the consequences. This doesn't always mean he is right -- but it does mean he's usually interesting. I suspect that John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt are trying to copy the Huntington template in their essay, "The Israel Lobby" for the London Review of Books: Here's how it starts:

For the past several decades, and especially since the Six-Day War in 1967, the centrepiece of U.S. Middle Eastern policy has been its relationship with Israel. The combination of unwavering support for Israel and the related effort to spread democracy throughout the region has inflamed Arab and Islamic opinion and jeopardised not only U.S. security but that of much of the rest of the world. This situation has no equal in American political history. Why has the U.S. been willing to set aside its own security and that of many of its allies in order to advance the interests of another state? One might assume that the bond between the two countries was based on shared strategic interests or compelling moral imperatives, but neither explanation can account for the remarkable level of material and diplomatic support that the U.S. provides.

Instead, the thrust of U.S. policy in the region derives almost entirely from domestic politics, and especially the activities of the Israel Lobby. Other special-interest groups have managed to skew foreign policy, but no lobby has managed to divert it as far from what the national interest would suggest, while simultaneously convincing Americans that U.S. interests and those of the other country  in this case, Israel are essentially identical.

Well, that argument certainly won't rub anyone the wrong way. Interested readers should be sure to check out the longer, footnoted paper which is archived at the Kennedy School of Government. So do Mearsheimer and Walt achieve the full Huntington? No, not really. "The Israel Lobby" is the academic equivalent of waving a big red cape at one's ideological opponents, hoping they'll foam at the mouth and act stark raving mad because the authors cited Chomsky or CommonDreams, or because, "the Fatah office in Washington distributed the article to an extensive mailing list." [Or maybe they're pissed that they didn't crack the 100 Most Dangerous Professors in America!!--ed.] So let's avoid that bait. Reading the essay, I can conclude the following:

1) Mearsheimer and Walt make a decent case of arguing that interest group lobbying is responsible for some aspects of U.S. policy towards the Greater Middle East. Now this asssertion alone is enough to make people very uncomfortable at cocktail parties and other venues. Whenever I bring up ethnic lobbying in my American foreign policy class and mention Israel, everyone in the room tenses up. So kudos to Mearsheimer and Walt for speaking the taboo thought.

2) Shot through these papers are an awful lot of casual assertions that don't hold up to close scrutiny [Which makes it eerily similar to some of your blog posts!!--ed. True that.]. The authors assert that, "If Washington could live with a nuclear Soviet Union, a nuclear China or even a nuclear North Korea, it can live with a nuclear Iran. And that is why the Lobby must keep up constant pressure on politicians to confront Tehran." I'm pretty sure that there's more to U.S. opposition to Iran possessing nuclear weapons than the protection of Israel.

From the longer Kennedy paper, Mearsheimer and Walt make a fascinating logical assertion: "[T]he mere existence of the Lobby suggests that unconditional support for Israel is not in the American national interest. If it was, one would not need an organized special interest group to bring it about. But because Israel is a strategic and moral liability, it takes relentless political pressure to keep U.S. support intact." What's fascinating about this quote are the implicit assumptions contained within it: i) the only interest group in existence is the Lobby, and; ii) in the absence of the Lobby, a well-defined sense of national interest will always guide American foreign policy. It would be very problematic for good realists like Mearsheimer and Walt to allow for other interest groups -- oil companies, for example -- to exist. This would allow for a much greater role for domestic politics than realists ever care to admit.

Finally, they argue that the U.S. invaded Iraq only primarily because Israel and the Lobby -- in the form of neoconservatives -- wanted it. I wrote my take on this argument three years ago:

The notion that such a conspiracy exists rests on the belief that the administration's foreign policy principals -- Donald Rumsfeld, Condoleezza Rice, Colin Powell, Dick Cheney, and Bush himself -- have somehow been duped by the neoconservatives into acting in a manner contrary to their beliefs. But while critics have never lacked for accusations against these officials, being weak-willed is not among them. In the end, it's far more likely that Bush is exploiting the neoconservatives' ideological arsenal to advance his preferred set of policies than vice versa.

3) There are sins of omission as well as commission. Walt and Mearsheimer assert that Israel has been a "strategic burden." They do a good job of cataloging why that's the case -- but omit important examples of Israel being useful, such as the 1981 Osirik bombing. They also go into depth on the Bush administration's policy towards the Palestinian Authority, but never mention the arms shipment that Arafat lied to Bush about as a causal factor behind Bush's decision to freeze out Arafat.

4) The evidence is pretty thin in some sections. To demonstrate the current political power of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, they cite a 1984 election where AIPAC was allegedly curcial. They argue that the Israeli-Palestine problem is at the root of Al Qaeda's beef with the United States -- which is funny, because I was pretty sure it was the presence of U.S. forces near the holy shrines of Mecca and Medina. They claim the Lobby is responsible for U.S. policy towards Syria, but that policy amounts to little more than some empty sabre-rattling.

After finishing the article, I began to wonder whether the paper is simple a massive exercise in explaining away a data point that realism can't cover. Most realists opposed the Iraq War, and Mearsheimer and Walt were no exception. They can and should take some normative satisfaction in being proven right by what happened after the invasion. However, I suspect as positive social scientists they are bothered by the fact that the U.S. invaded Iraq anyway when realism would have predicted otherwise. When realists are confronted with contradictory data, they tend to fall back on auxiliary hypotheses -- the cult of the offensive, the myth of empire -- that have very little to do with realism. Explaining away Iraq on The Lobby might have a whiff of the Paranoid Style, but it's certainly consistent with the literature.

In the end, I think Mearsheimer and Walt get to the full Huntington -- but alas, it's the Huntington of Who We Are? rather than The Soldier and the State. There's more I could write about, but I'm eager to hear what others think.

UPDATE: OK, I should have said, "I'm eager to hear what others think... after they read the article." Two final thoughts. First, I'm surprised and disappointed that the article has gotten zero coverage from the mainstream media in the United States. I completely agree with Walt and Mearsheimer that this is a topic that needs more open debate. Second, there's one non-event that keeps gnawing at me after reading the piece. If "The Lobby" is as powerful as Walt and Mearsheimer claim, why hasn't there been a bigger push in the United States for more fuel-efficient cars, alternative energy sources, and the like? After all, the only strategic resource that Israel's enemies possess is large quantities of oil. If "The Lobby" is so powerful and goal-directed, wouldn't they have an incentive to reduce the strategic value of their advesaries?

ANOTHER UPDATE: See this follow-up post on the Walt/Mearsheimer paper as well.