American Daily: June 18, 2015

By Jonathan Bradley in Sydney, Australia

18 June 2015

  • Nine people have been murdered in a shooting at a black church in South Carolina.

A white gunman killed nine people during a prayer meeting at one of Charleston’s oldest and best-known black churches Wednesday night in one of the worst mass shootings in South Carolina history.

Heavily armed law enforcement officers scoured the area into the morning for the man responsible for the carnage inside Emanuel AME Church at 110 Calhoun St. At least one person was said to have survived the rampage.

  • US Treasury will put a woman on the $10 bill starting in 2020.

The U.S. Treasury threw a curve ball at advocates who were pressing to get a woman on the $20 bill, announcing Wednesday that it's going to put one on a redesigned $10 bill, instead.

Treasury Secretary Jack Lew told reporters that the new notes are being timed for 2020, in part to mark the 100th anniversary of the constitutional amendment that gave women the right to vote.

  • The seven minutes the Clinton administration considered endorsing marriage equality.
“I now conclude that I was wrong about same-sex marriage,” Correia wrote, in a draft statement meant to be delivered by Clinton. “I continue to believe that the people of California should be able to decide what marriages they will recognize. But I hope they will choose to recognize the validity of marriage between people of the same gender if the marriage is legal where it occurred. Consequently, I am opposed to Proposition 22.”

With this in mind, I often wince when the first signs of new investment — a national grocery store breaks ground, a sit-down restaurant replaces an empty storefront — are bluntly derided as harbingers of "gentrification," a word that has largely negative connotations. If poor neighborhoods have historically suffered from dire disinvestment, how can the remedy to that evil — outside money finally flowing in — be the problem, too?

Houston is already home to NASA; if past is prologue, then the city’s successes as the host of the nation’s explorations into the final frontier (space) will serve it well when we conquer the next one (time). Put a Jurassic Park next to the Johnson Space Center and call the campus the Space-Time Continuum!

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The China checklist

By Tom Pantle in Sydney, Australia

18 June 2015

Tom Pantle is an undergraduate student with the University of Sydney. In winter 2015, he will travel to Fudan University as part of the Centre's Shanghai Study Abroad Program. During his travels, he will be contributing to the Centre's blog.

Nǐ hǎo! I’m Tom, a second year studying a Ba Economics, majoring in Finance and Chinese. In less than 3 weeks, I’ll be jetting off halfway around the world for the most amazing and challenging experience of my life. I’m off to China for a 6-week program offered by the United States Study Centre, aimed at enriching students with a strong cultural understanding with one of our largest trading partners and a chance to place our feet in the front door of the world’s largest companies to learn about business in China.

The amazing 6-week program involves two weeks travelling in Shanghai and Beijing visiting multinational corporations, and four weeks at Fudan University.

Great expectations

Here’s my personal list of must dos:

    1. Really try and immerse myself in the culture and the language. I’m only a beginner speaker of Mandarin and I can’t wait to put it to the test, embarrassing as it may be. 
    2. Eat something truly inedible. I don’t mean a weird textured fruit or ugly vegetable, but rather something really cringeworthy. I have no idea what this may be yet but I’m sure I’ll know when I see it. 
    3. Learn. Plainly and simply, I’m so excited to visit these companies and understand the challenges of conducting business in China in the hope of achieving my own career goals.
    4. Explore. From walking the great wall to becoming lost in the metropolitan lights of Shanghai and everything in-between.

This is me signing off for now, wish me luck! Zàijiàn!

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American Daily: June 16, 2015

By Jonathan Bradley in Sydney, Australia

16 June 2015

Guardian count
Bush is the "establishment" candidate in the race. Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker is, according to opinion polls, the leader among the candidates trying to position themselves to Bush's right. Yet Bush appears to be more comfortable talking about social issues than Walker, who would rather focus on economic policies. On a set of issues that have typically been important to primary voters, it's the establishment candidate who is the more outspoken conservative.

Money isn’t everything, and it certainly isn’t the only thing in presidential campaigns. Still, as former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush officially enters the 2016 presidential campaign today, there’s going to be a lot of talk about whether his super PAC can hit its $100 million fundraising “goal” by the end of the month. You should mostly ignore those stories; money matters, but Bush will clearly have plenty of cash. Pay more attention to whether GOP officials — governors, senators and House members, in particular — are backing Bush.

When Barack Obama first ran for president, he joked that he didn’t “look like all those other presidents on those dollar bills.” It is certainly time for our currency to bear the faces of African Americans and women. But this admirable effort shouldn’t come at Andrew Jackson’s expense. Jackson was a deeply flawed president and in many ways a detestable man. Yet he was also a towering hero, key to birthing the expansive American democracy we know today. It’s entirely possible to honor his enduring contributions even as we squarely acknowledge his crimes. Grappling with those paradoxes and contradictions is what distinguishes history from moralism or sentimentality.

Some wager that the park’s cultural relevance is peaking as it moves from being seen as outdated to antique, a disappearing display of old-Florida camp. Maybe nostalgia-hungry tourists are spiking attendance. Maybe it’s just better marketing.

But there’s another explanation too – that mermaids have taken up the mantel as America’s “new vampire,” pop culture’s latest pick for the sexy-scary-sweet monster that is supposed to tell us something about our own humanity. The monsters that, unwittingly, carry our society’s baggage with them.

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Some elections can't be bought

By Jonathan Bradley in Sydney, Australia

15 June 2015

I recently interviewed Democratic Party fundraiser and lobbying Anthony Podesta; you can see his comments in the video above. In an era when many political observers, particularly Democrats, bemoan the influence of money in politics, someone who the kind of job Podesta gets a bad rap, but to his credit, he stands by his work and defends what he does. He also has a keener sense than many of the limits to the power that money can exert in politics:

People are smarter than we give them credit for. They don't sit around and vote for whoever spent the most money or raised the most money; they actually take the measure of presidential candidates. Money can be important in a race for Congress where the only thing people... where people don't know as much as they do about the president. The saturation coverage of presidential campaigns is such that people will get their information in a multitude of ways, from social media to the old-style broadcast televison.

Podesta's take comes with its own biases; I expect he neither wants to pitch himself as someone able to usurp the democratic process, but nor would he want to suggest that people who write cheques for candidates he has worked for have wasted their money. Nevertheless, what he's saying here is exactly right.

We give too much weight to the ability of the ultra-wealthy to sway high profile political races. In a presidential contest, both sides are spending huge amounts of money, and their efforts tend only to neutralise any advantage the other might have gained. What's more, the presidential race is played out over such a large timeframe, and receives so much attention from the media, that it is immensely difficult for advertisers to shift voters' views on a candidate. By the end of October of 2012, anyone who was going to vote had a pretty established set of opinions about Mitt Romney and Barack Obama. A few extra ads weren't going to convince an Obama supporter she'd be better off with Romney, or vice-versa.

And that's exactly what Larry Sabato, Kyle Kondik, and Geoffrey Skelley say in an excellent piece debunking the myths of 2016:

Despite the mountain of cash that will be spent on campaign activities, those dollars are unlikely to decisively alter the outcome of the 2016 general election. Without question, the increasingly oligarchical nature of American campaign financing is troubling, but the presidential outcome itself won’t be determined by the whims of mega-donors. The polarized American electorate and the partisan nature of the money chase ensure it.


So what impact will all that campaign money actually have?

If invested heavily in voter contact, cash can help a campaign better turn out its voters, since the lion’s share of the electorate is already locked-in. But donors often prefer their money go to something they can see and hear in their own homes, TV advertising, despite the fact the ads’ effect on voters is short-lived.

As John Sides and Lynn Vavreck showed in The Gamble, a useful recap of what actually happened in 2012, if one side had a serious advertising advantage on a single day, that candidate could increase his or her vote share as much as four points. But that kind of advertising edge very rarely occurred, even during Mitt Romney’s ad blitz in the final week of the campaign. And the boost from the ad imbalance lasted only about a day.

That doesn't mean we shouldn't be concerned about the distorting effect of money in politics, but it does mean we're worrying about the wrong thing if we think the Koch Brothers or Warren Buffett are going to steal the White House for their preferred candidate. Where money is a problem is — just like Anthony Podesta told me — in lower profile races, like House or state and county-level contests. These receive far less coverage than national races, and undecided voters are far more reliant on other sources of information, including advertising. A rich and determined benefactor could really skew the results of an obscure House race if he puts his mind to it.

Fundraising also takes up time politicians could be doing more useful things — like listening to constituents who aren't writing them cheques, learning about the issues, or doing the actual hard work of legislating. Politicians themselves hate doing it, even though they feel like they rely on it.

American politics would get much better with campaign finance reform that restricted the amount of money rich people could pour into politics and the amount a successful candidate feels like she needs to raise to win. But the reason isn't because a handful of billionaires will decide who the next president will be. That will be down to the American people.

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American Daily: June 15, 2015

By Jonathan Bradley in Sydney, Australia

15 June 2015

In all, the speech wasn’t in a class with her famous “glass ceiling” barnburner, which closed out the 2008 campaign. Yet like that speech, it did reflect Clinton’s stated goal inside the campaign – creating an ideological “foundation” for the next 17 months of campaigning. And it certainly reflected the Hillary her staff knows: a little long-winded, earnest to a fault, and above all, trying very hard to connect with her party’s base.
The numbers which people like me bring forth to convey the problems of our justice system are decent tools. But what the numbers can’t convey is what the justice system does to the individual black body. Kalief Browder was an individual, which is to say he was a being with his own passions, his own particular joys, his own strange demons, his own flaws, his own eyes, his own mouth, his own original hands. His family had their own particular stories of him. His friends must remember him in their own original way. The senseless destruction of this individual must necessarily be laid at the feet of the citizens of New York, because it was done by our servants, and it was done in our name.
  • Justice Scalia's example of a man who should be put to death has been pardoned.
For Scalia, McCollum was the perfect example — a murderer whose actions were so heinous that his crimes stood as a testament to the merit of capital punishment itself.
Yesterday, McCollum was pardoned. Scalia’s perfect example of a man who deserved to be killed by the state was innocent.

The United States is a big country, with lots of trains in it. So you can really think of this big generic question as composed of three separate questions with separate answers. One question, of urgent interest to media and political elites in New York and Washington, is why Northeast Corridor passenger rail service is so much slower than the first-rate systems found in France, Spain, China, and Japan. The second question, which will have bedeviled anyone who's ever been a tourist in Europe, is why passenger rail outside of the Northeast Corridor is so unimaginably awful. Last but by no means least, there's the question of why the richest and most powerful empire the world has ever known can't build itself a first-rate national, truly high-speed rail network along Chinese lines.

  • The 2016 presidential candidates logos, ranked.

Rick Perry logo evaluation

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Did Watergate break bipartisan America?

By Jonathan Bradley in Sydney, Australia

12 June 2015


I've had the above diagram illustrating the increasing polarisation in the US House for a good few weeks now without finding anything particularly useful to say about it: it's clear and attractively presented, sure, but as Christopher Ingraham, who shared it at Wonkblog, says, it's nothing we didn't already know. He explains how it works:

[A group of researchers published in journal PLOS One have] drawn dots for each representative, and lines connecting pairs of representatives who vote together a given number of times. Finally, the dots for each representative are placed according to how frequently the Representatives vote together overall.

There are a few times in recent American political history that pundits point to as decisive in the polarisation of the parties in Congress. There's the 1987 fight over Robert Bork's failed nomination to the Supreme Court. The scorched earth tactics of the 1994 class of Republicans led by House Speaker Newt Gingrich and his Contract With America. The introduction of the informal "Hastert Rule" under the speakership of Dennis Haster in the early 2000s. The series of George W. Bush judicial nominees filibustered by the Democratic Senate minority in 2005. The 60-vote Senate, whereby cloture votes are required for practically any action to go ahead, as established by Mitch McConnell in 2009. As the chart above shows, this history coincides with increasing distance between the parties and less cooperation on votes.

Yet I think it also suggests an earlier year as a decisive break of the cross-party cooperation of the 1950s and 1960s: 1975, when the 94th Congress convened. This was the Congress of the Watergate Babies, the wave of Democrats ushered in after voters turned against the party of Richard Nixon, who had resigned in disgrace in August 1974.

That Watergate should usher in a new era of polarisation isn't entirely expected: both Democrats and Republicans turned against Nixon during the Watergate hearings, and it was the President's failure to keep Republicans on side that truly made his administration untenable. But that didn't stop a public disgusted by the corruption coming out of the White House from punishing the party who had back Nixon's bid for office.

The result? The wide spread of blue and red dots connected by smears of grey in the 1973 graph turns into a big cloud of blue in 1975 with a small clump of red. That makes sense: the Republicans who survived the post-Watergate bloodbath would have been the ones in the safest seats — and with the party's growing conservatism, these would have been the in the most right-leaning districts. The size and density of the blue and red clumps has swelled and shrunk since, but the mish-mash of the pre-1975 years never returned. (Though note how, once again, there was another big separation in 1993 and 1995, when Bill Clinton was inaugurated and when Republicans took over Congress respectively.

Watergate's winnowing of Republican moderates isn't the entire story; Rick Perlstein's The Invisible Bridge, for instance, describes how conservatives solidified their hold over the party during the Ford presidency and the subsequent 1976 presidential primary. But the PLOS One diagram suggests that Watergate helped push the parties farther apart. Not to conflate correlation with causation, but here's the result:

What’s happened? In large part, the disappearance of moderate-to-liberal Republicans (mainly in the Northeast) and conservative Democrats (primarily in the South). Since the 1970s, the congressional parties have sorted themselves both ideologically and geographically. The combined House delegation of the six New England states, for instance, went from 15 Democrats and 10 Republicans in 1973-74 to 20 Democrats and two Republicans in 2011–12. In the South the combined House delegation essentially switched positions: from 91 Democrats and 42 Republicans in 1973-74 to 107 Republicans and 47 Democrats in 2011–12.

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American Daily: June 12, 2015

By Jonathan Bradley in Sydney, Australia

12 June 2015

The decisions of other communities were rarely so transparent, but the trend was unmistakable. Before 1950, Americans went swimming as often as they went to the movies, but they did so in public pools. There were relatively few club pools, and private pools were markers of extraordinary wealth. Over the next half-century, though, the number of private in-ground pools increased from roughly 2,500 to more than four million. The declining cost of pool construction, improved technology, and suburbanization all played important roles. But then, so did desegregation.
  • Hillary Clinton's strategy of taking bold positions to put the GOP on the defensive.
One big concern bedeviling progressives is that Hillary Clinton’s candidacy will mark the return of triangulation—the preemptive ceding of ideological turf, at a time when, thanks to partisan polarization, such concessions amount to outright victories for the Republican Party. But the early days of Hillary Clinton’s candidacy suggest these fears are overblown—that she is engaged in an entirely different kind of political positioning, one that carries the promise of significant progressive victories or at least of clarifying the terms of key policy debates dividing the parties.
Graham would be the first unmarried man in the presidency since Woodrow Wilson, whose first wife, Ellen, died in 1914, a year into his term. (In 1915, Wilson married Edith Bolling Galt, who assumed an important role in the executive branch when her husband had a severe stroke in 1919.)
  • Play Guess Who with the 2016 presidential field.
Guess Who
  • Atlanta band Algiers: punk, gospel, and American politics.

Algiers arrives at a moment of crisis in American race relations, a moment that American musicians are responding to. There is a role in black protest music for the songwriter who is both a prophet and a pamphleteer, delivering news as it happens: Gil Scott-Heron was once this figure, as was Nina Simone, and others. In recent months, D’Angelo’s Black Messiah, Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, and tracks by artists like Prince (‘Baltimore’) and Chicago rapper Tink (‘Tell the Children’) have built upon this tradition. “Through all the sorrow of the Sorrow Songs there breathes a hope – a faith in the ultimate justice of things,” wrote Du Bois, and Algiers share a sliver of this hope, buried deep inside their cacophonous despair. The nasty, metallic guitar tone that coats this album, in counterpoint to the songs’ simple, open structures, is deliberately difficult. Dissonance is dissent.

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Our racist counterparts

By Jonathan Bradley in Sydney, Australia

4 June 2015

Those of you who weren't at the Centre's recent Police Violence and Protest in America panel event missed a great discussion, but the good news is you can catch up with it right here, courtesy of ABC Radio National's Big Ideas, who broadcast the event.

One moment I thought stood out was a point made by our lecturer David Smith on the temptation of many white Australians to look at recent turmoil in Ferguson or Baltimore and see it as symptomatic of an American pathology from which we here are fortunately shielded:  

One thing I've learnt ... having lived in the US, having a lot of relatives in England, is that when you're a white person in a white-dominated society, the other country's white-domination is always worse than yours. In Britain, and even in the United States, Australia is often a shorthand for horrific racism, but our mental model of racism here is often the US South; I was shocked by things that I heard just in casual conversation in Britain. And I think that we always tend to see structures of racial domination in other countries far more clearly than we see our own, and we're often far more likely to rationalise our own structures of racial domination. So the fact that there are Aboriginal communities in [Australia] who live in conditions that are basically like pre–Civil Rights African American communities in the South; the fact that there have been 340 black deaths in custody since the Royal Commission in 1987; I think that sometimes we don't see that as part of the same kind of class of problem.

It's true that the kind of cultural structures that create racism are specific to individual societies, but there is danger in treating America as a spectacle of prejudice that doesn't exist here in ways that are just as damaging. We can learn from watching the United States, but not if we understand it as a cautionary tale that flatters the good opinion we have of ourselves.

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American Daily: June 4, 2015

By Jonathan Bradley in Sydney, Australia

4 June 2015

Quinnipiac is out with a new poll that confirms something the national media is loathe to admit, and that essentially never surfaces in their coverage of one of the most-covered people in the world today: Hillary Clinton is the most popular politician in America.

It's wrong to say the press should cover every candidate equally. It has constraints, both in resources (covering candidates is expensive!) and reader interest. Horse-race coverage, after all, is driven in large part by readers who want to know which candidate is going to win or at least who has a good shot at winning. Given how many candidates have a realistic chance on the Republican side and the presence of a few protest candidates in that race as well (Rick Santorum, a bit of both, is declaring his bid today), journalists have complex calculations to make.

Richard was evasive on whether Australia’s policy to turn back asylum boats had, at least in part, contributed to the standoff.
“The US takes a different approach,” she said, pointing to the policy of assessing protection claims on-board the vessels in which asylum seekers flee.
Why the sudden interest? In 2008, airfares to the USA were around $2300. Ouch. Today, Virgin is offering Sydney-LA return from $1229.
That results from a deliberate decision of the Australian government, to introduce competition into the market.
  • Buzzfeed listicle of the day: 154 thoughts Australians have when they go to Walmart for the first time.

28. OMFG Nexium is just on the shelves??????
29. All this time I’ve been going to the doctor like a damn chump. WTF Australia OMG.
30. Would it be weird if I bought two packs of toothpaste and took them home because it’s just great value?
31. Whatever, I’m doing it. #YOLO.
32. I should have got a basket.
33. Um. Aussie hair products what’s that about tho????
34. Made in America lol.

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The tensions of federalism and the death penalty

By Stephanie Chalmers in Sydney, Australia

2 June 2015

The blog is currently featuring post written by postgraduate students in our USSC6902 US Politics: Presidency and Congress class, taught by Gorana Grgic. Their posts are archived here.

In popular representations, the death penalty in the United States is largely tied to individual states. Archetypal portraits pit blue and red states against each other, with the conservative heartland of the South seen in favour of the death penalty, while Democratic-voting New Englanders distance themselves from the practice. And there are statistics to support these generalisations, with the overall decline in support for the death penalty driven by Democrats.

The death penalty, then, is an interesting case study in federalism, with the balance of state and national powers clearly in play. The states have the autonomy to impose their own laws regarding capital punishment, while the federal judiciary has the power to test these laws and ensuing judgements against the Constitution, particularly the Eighth Amendment, which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment.

American society is characterised by regionalism, and federalism allows each state to cater to its distinct constituents while functioning within a national system of checks and balances. How is it, then, that one of the most high profile death sentences in recent history was handed down in Massachusetts, a state that bleeds Democratic blue?

On April 15, 2013, two bomb blasts ripped apart a congregation of revellers and runners, at the finish line of the 177th Boston Marathon on the city’s iconic Boylston Street, killing three and injuring hundreds more. One perpetrator, Tamerlan Tsarnaev was killed in the manhunt that followed, while the other, younger brother Dzhokhar, was eventually captured. It was an attack that united the city, and the country, under the refrain of "Boston Strong," but the resulting death sentence has been divisive.

While the state of Massachusetts has long outlawed capital punishment, the federal government maintains the power to hand down the death penalty. When President Bill Clinton signed the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, he expanded the reach of the federal government’s application of capital punishment to more than 60 offences. Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was charged with a range of federal crimes, including causing death by using a weapon of mass destruction, and convicted by a federal jury.

But the federal jurisdiction did not make the trial of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev any less local. As Professor John Brigham of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst notes in his 2004 study of the federal death penalty, the imposition of federal capital punishment can clash with local cultures, “rais[ing] compelling questions about the cultures of law,” particularly in a region as ardently opposed to the death penalty as New England.

The New York Times reports “the death sentence almost feels like a blot on the city’s collective consciousness,” citing recent polls showing less than 20 per cent of people from Massachusetts supporting the death penalty in the Tsarvaev case, compared to 60 per cent nationwide. Amnesty International USA labelled the penalty “outrageous … particularly when the people of Massachusetts have abolished it in their state.”

Read More

Boston bombing victim Martin Richard

And it’s not just local — it’s also personal. Eight-year-old Martin Richard was killed in the bombings, and his younger sister’s leg blown off, as they watched their father complete the Marathon. Yet Martin’s parents publically pleaded for the death penalty to be taken off the table, pre-empting the years of ongoing appeals against the sentence that likely lie ahead.

The death penalty in the United States is a working example of the tensions inherent in the federalist system. On one hand, the states assert their power to govern over certain areas of public life, calling on the federal government to stay out of their affairs. After President Barack Obama weighed in on a botched execution in Oklahoma, Texas Governor Rick Perry criticised the President for getting involved in state business, accusing him of looking for “a one-size-fits-all solution centric to Washington.” In many instances, capital punishment is seen as a state matter best left in the hands of the states.

However, polls demonstrated a majority of Americans supported the federal imposition of the death penalty in the Tsarnaev case, against the collective will of the people of Massachusetts. In a post-9/11 America, hyper-concerned about instances of domestic terrorism, the Boston bombings felt like an assault on national security, and the national character. In the death sentence of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the will of the American people was asserted, but the people of Massachusetts were left unsettled. Why did the American people support the supremacy of federal law over the rights of the states in this instance? This is a question that has been, and will continue to be asked time and time again, in different ways and under different circumstances, as the living contradiction of the United States federalist system of government continues to unfold.


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