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Out of Sorts

Our political homogeneity makes primaries more important than general elections, and that creates problems.

Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg speaks during a press conference following the arraignment of former President Donald Trump April 4, 2023 in New York City. (Photo by Kena Betancur/Getty Images)

There are lots of consequences for living in a country so thoroughly sorted as the United States.

In a system based on competing ambitions, it’s not so hot when the oars are all pulling in the same direction. Two useful examples put that principle very much on display this week. One was in Manhattan, where District Attorney Alvin Bragg brought forth an indictment of former President Donald Trump that looks a lot like bootstrapping. The other was in Tennessee, where Republican lawmakers expelled two Democratic members from the state House of Representatives for joining gun-control protesters who were trying to disrupt a session.

Bragg won his office in 2021 with 84 percent of the vote. There hasn’t been a Republican who held that post since Thomas Dewey in 1941, but as a general principle, the borough of Manhattan and New York City in general are much less competitive places than they were even in recent history. From 1989 to 2009, most New York mayoral general elections were decided by relatively narrow margins, with only Republican-turned-independent Michael Bloomberg getting more than 55 percent of the vote for his 2005 reelection bid. In the past three elections, Democrats have won 73 percent, 67 percent, and 67 percent again.

The Tennessee House of Representatives tells a similar story. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Democrats were still the majority party in the Volunteer State, and often enjoyed big majorities with 15-seat advantages in the 99-seat lower chamber. That was still the case 20 years ago, when there were 54 Democrats and 45 Republicans. But when the switch to the GOP came in hard at the end of the first decade of this century, things got lopsided quickly. By 2013, Republicans had a majority of more than 40 seats. 

Today, there are 75 Republicans and only 24 Democrats … well, now 22 Democrats after the expulsion of Reps. Justin Jones and Justin Pearson, both of Nashville. Pearson and Jones disrupted the business of the House last week to join with protesters who had come to the chamber to decry the Republican majority’s blockade of gun control legislation in the wake of a mass shooting at a Nashville school. And in a remarkable bit of political numbskullery, Republicans threw out the two black members but allowed a white legislator who had joined their protest to remain. When your party has more than three-quarters of the seats in the legislature, two-thirds majorities are dangerously easy to come by.

In a more closely divided chamber, the more reasonable course of a fine, a censure, and other sanctions would have been considered stern enough. It might have even happened with bipartisan support. But with a super-duper majority, who wants to be the Republican to go into his or her next primary with the label of being a friend to gun-grabbing Democrats?

The same goes for Bragg. Stung by the resignation of an assistant prosecutor last year who resigned in protest after Bragg declined to pursue a case against Trump for financial crimes, Bragg was in a political pickle. He had won his post two years ago in part for his promise to be tough on Trump, and here he was being called a patsy for The Donald. But when it seemed clear that Bragg was closing in on Trump with a grand jury indictment, Democrats cheered. Finally, Trump would get his comeuppance!

Instead, Bragg lived down to the expectations of his critics with what looks a lot like prosecutorial overreach. There was no new information about a case that federal prosecutors and Bragg’s own predecessor had passed on, and a tenuous-seeming effort to turn bookkeeping violations into felonies. Like the Tennessee Republicans, Bragg is within the power of his office and in concert with what primary voters probably want. But neither action looks prudential and both seem destined to increase partisan acrimony without any commensurate improvement to government. 

New York and Tennessee are both politically homogeneous in ways that would have been surprising even a decade earlier. That makes primary elections far more important than general elections, and that increases the demand for stunts like these and diminishes the chances for corrective action by citizens.   


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Holy croakano! We welcome your feedback, so please email us with your tips, corrections, reactions, amplifications, etc. at STIREWALTISMS@THEDISPATCH.COM. If you’d like to be considered for publication, please include your real name and hometown. If you don’t want your comments to be made public, please specify.


STATSHOT

Biden Job Performance
Average approval: 41.4%
Average disapproval: 54.0%
Net score: -12.6 points 

Change from one week ago: Unchanged                        
Change from one month ago: ↓ 5.6 points

[Average includes: Quinnipiac: 38% approve-57% disapprove; Fox News: 44% approve-56% disapprove; NPR/PBS/Marist: 43% approve-50% disapprove; Gallup: 40% approve-56% disapprove; Monmouth: 42% approve-51% disapprove]

Polling Roulette


TIME OUT: BUZZ OFF 

New York Times: “It’s a familiar, dreaded scenario in many parts of Africa and Asia: An elephant shows up, wanders into farmers’ fields, and tramples and eats crops. Sometimes farmers fight back, and elephants are killed. That series of events seemed likely to play out recently when a forest elephant bull emerged from the dense jungle surrounding Gbarnjala village in northwestern Liberia. But this time, things went differently. The munching bull heard an angry buzzing sound. It froze mid-chew, then turned trunk and high-tailed it out of there. The bull had heard the sound of a disturbed hive of bees — and like elephants all over the world, it had learned to avoid the insect sound at all costs. But in this case, no bees were actually present. He had triggered a BuzzBox, an audio technology that aims to keep elephants and people apart. … Conflict between humans and elephants is an urgent problem across Africa. … Elephants can take an entire year’s harvest overnight and occasionally even kill people they encounter. … Bees are an increasingly popular means of trying to quell that conflict.”


AFTER POLLING BUMP, TRUMP PURSUES DESANTIS DONORS

Politico: “In a memo to DeSantis’ donors … Trump’s campaign on Tuesday evening sought to paint the former president as the inevitable nominee and urged DeSantis’ donors to jump ship. … ‘The two things the memo illustrates are the President’s huge numbers and Governor Ron DeSantis’ collapsing numbers,’ the Trump campaign wrote in the memo. ‘Now is the time to demonstrate your support and join’ the Trump effort. … The indictment has proven to be a windfall for the Trump campaign, which through Wednesday has raised over $12 million since it emerged last week that the former president was facing charges. … But in its courtship of DeSantis contributors, it is clear, too, that the Trump campaign sees the risk that DeSantis poses to Trump’s path to the nomination, particularly in terms of his fundraising strength.”

DeSantis unsteady on national stage: The Dispatch: “The dynamic that could undo him nationally is currently helping him lay the groundwork for a more convincing presidential campaign. Nearly three months into his second four-year term, DeSantis is in complete control of the agenda in the state capitol. The governor has called the legislature into special session twice this year already, and has lawmakers working on dozens of personal priorities. Laws he signs affecting pandemic policy and public education make national headlines. … Yet, for all his political success in Florida, doubts linger about the governor’s chops as a campaigner. Many GOP operatives in Florida are skeptical he can meet the challenges of a presidential bid, with its endless demands and unrelenting pressure. … There are lingering doubts, however, that DeSantis isn’t nimble enough to handle Trump’s asymmetrical attacks in the GOP primary, nor effectively adjust when confronted with challenges he cannot swat away by attacking Democrats or a hostile media.”

DeSantis echoes doomed Giuliani 2012 strategy: NBC News: “Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ team is already plotting out a strategy to run against Donald Trump for the long haul. The plan focuses less on making a quick splash in places like Iowa or New Hampshire and more on outlasting the former president in a battle for Republican convention delegates. … DeSantis, who isn’t expected to formally declare his candidacy until May or June, isn’t expected to skip the first contests. Still, the strategy carries risks: Advanced attention to states that award more delegates under winner-take-all rules later in the primary season could translate into less time in the all-important first nominating contests, allowing Trump or another contender to develop unstoppable early momentum. … But DeSantis’ itineraries stand in contrast to those of his would-be rivals [who have] heavily focused on early states.”

Asa Hutchinson launches 2024 campaign, positions as never-Trump candidate: AP: “Asa Hutchinson, who recently completed two terms as Arkansas governor, said Sunday he will seek the Republican presidential nomination, positioning himself as an alternative to Donald Trump just days after the former president was indicted by a grand jury in New York. Hutchinson said Trump should drop out of the race, arguing ‘the office is more important than any individual person.’ … He is the first Republican to enter the race since Trump became the only former U.S. president to ever face criminal charges. Hutchinson’s candidacy will test the GOP’s appetite for those who speak out against Trump. … The formal campaign announcement will come April 26 in Bentonville, his hometown.”

Scott staffs up as 2024 decision draws closer: Post and Courier: “Republican U.S. Sen. Tim Scott and his advisers are building a South Carolina team. A pro-Scott super PAC has hired two veteran Republican campaign operatives, giving the political group a South Carolina focus and creating a campaign-in-waiting should Scott, R-S.C., decide to run for president in 2024. Opportunity Matters Fund Action has hired Matt Moore and Mark Knoop as state chairman and state director, respectively. … In February, Scott launched a national ‘Faith in America’ listening tour, a cross-country endeavor that took him to Iowa and New Hampshire, the first two states in the Republican presidential nominating calendar.”

Dems fret over potential No Labels ticket: Washington Post: “Uncertainty over the $70 million No Labels ballot effort has set off major alarm bells in Democratic circles and raised concerns among Republican strategists, who have launched their own research projects to figure out the potential impacts. As [Joe] Lieberman spoke, the Arizona Democratic Party filed a lawsuit to block No Labels from ballot access in that state on procedural grounds. … Splits have also emerged inside the organization. William Galston, a Brookings Institution policy scholar, said last week that he would separate himself from No Labels, which he helped found, over its 2024 planning for a third-party campaign to challenge Biden and Trump. … Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.), who has not declared whether he will run for reelection next year, and former Maryland governor Larry Hogan (R) are also supporters of the effort, and both said they have not ruled out participating in a No Labels presidential ticket, if it happens.

LIBERALS RIDING HIGH AFTER PAIR OF MIDWEST WINS 

New York Times: “The commanding victory on Tuesday by a liberal candidate in a pivotal race for the Wisconsin Supreme Court showed the enduring power of abortion rights and issues of democracy as motivators for Democratic voters, as well as a continuing struggle among conservatives to put forward candidates who can unite Republicans and win general elections. The liberal candidate, Janet Protasiewicz, swept onto the bench by 11 percentage points  … The outcome, combined with a surprise victory in Chicago’s mayoral race by Brandon Johnson, an outspoken progressive, demonstrated that the country’s largely unified political left is sustaining momentum since its unexpectedly strong showing in the midterm elections, even as conservatives fight among themselves and struggle to counter Democratic messaging on abortion rights. … Republicans are now heading into a series of coming races…with ample warning signs about the pitfalls of nominating candidates who hold positions…that are unpopular with voters in the nation’s most competitive states.”

Party switch hands North Carolina GOP a supermajority: News & Observer: “Democratic State Rep. Tricia Cotham joined House and Senate GOP leaders at the North Carolina GOP headquarters Wednesday morning to announce that she is switching parties to become a member of the House Republican caucus. … Cotham’s party switch will have major ramifications for state politics. Republicans now have a supermajority in both chambers, which will make it next to impossible for Democrats to uphold Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper’s vetoes going forward. House Republicans now control 72 of the chamber’s 120 seats — the exact number needed to override vetoes when all members are voting. Republicans came out of November’s election winning an outright supermajority in the Senate, but fell one seat short in the House, which is what makes Cotham’s decision so consequential.”

Moderates advance in Denver mayoral race dominated by homelessness: Wall Street Journal: “This city’s mounting homeless crisis is dominating a crowded mayoral election set for Tuesday, with over a dozen candidates offering competing plans on how to tackle an issue that has left residents sharply divided. … Among the most fraught debates has centered on how Denver has handled homeless encampments, which swelled during the pandemic as people stayed away from shelters fearful of getting Covid. … Kelly Brough, who recently led Denver’s chamber of commerce, has vowed to eliminate unsanctioned homeless camps within her first year in office and wants to temporarily move unsheltered people into more city-approved campsites. Mike Johnston, a former state senator, wants to build 20 micro communities of tiny homes and converted hotels. He has said he would enforce the camping ban on those who refuse city services.”

IT’S LONG PAST TIME TO EXPAND THE HOUSE, BUT HOW? 

Washington Post: “Democracy is also about math. … With the growing population and the House frozen at 435 seats, the spread runs from about 500,000 constituents for each of Rhode Island’s and Montana’s members and 580,000 constituents for Wyoming’s single member to 755,000 for each of California’s 52 representatives and 778,000 for each of Florida’s 28 representatives…. [T]he Founders never envisioned districts so large, and their gradual expansion over a century is a major reason our politics have become so dysfunctional. … But how big should the House be? There are seven basic options … The Wyoming Rule. Peg the size of a district to the population of the least-populous state. … The Cube Root Law. We would use the cube root of the national population. … Restore the 1913 Ratio. Use the fixed ratio that characterized the House when the 435-seat number was established in 1913. …”

BRIEFLY

Haley hauls in $11 million over first 6 weeks of campaign—Fox News

Dem Rosen mounts Senate reelection bid in hotly contested Nevada—Politico

Montana moves towards top-two primary in attempt to oust Tester—ABC News

WITHIN EARSHOT: DOING THE PEOPLE’S TWERK 

“We’re not trying to ban booty videos…”—Florida Sen.Marco Rubio defends his support for banning TikTok.


MAILBAG

“[I] just finished listening to Ink Stained Wretches and then your latest newsletter appeared in my inbox. I have been reading all day various commentaries about the Bragg indictment.  The consensus is that it is an overreach by Bragg and will redound to Trump’s benefit in the primaries. I don’t think that’s right. In a few months, we will look back at the Bragg indictment as the first of a series of indictments.  And the ones to follow are to be far more serious than paying hush money to a porn star.  There will likely be indictments for January 6 and for trying to subvert the election result in Georgia.  At that point, I don’t think anyone will just look at whether or not Bragg’s case is worthy.  In a few months, Bragg’s case will be just one of several. I don’t think I would want to have hugged Trump too closely once the more serious cases emerge. I think some Republicans are putting themselves out on a limb. In hockey, people talk of skating where the puck will be, not where it is.  In a few months, we will be in a different place and the Bragg case will be seen as just the first step.  Hard to see that scenario as great for Trump.”—Andy Alisberg, Boynton Beach, Florida

Quite possibly, Mr Alisberg! But it’s also quite possible that the other charges will be met with similar reactions from Republicans, which is to say that they will attack the process/prosecutor, minimize the offense, and “move on.” A party that couldn’t remove Trump from office for sending an angry mob to disrupt the certification of the 2020 election doesn’t seem likely to me to be persuaded by a prosecution for doing the same thing, or by a Fulton County, Georgia, case that covers much the same subject, or for mishandling state secrets. Trump did all these things in plain sight and, as with the blatant Georgia election interference attempt, brags about it. Now, there is the material question of whether Trump’s legal encumbrances become so great that he is facing jail time or is convicted. I am by no means convinced that Republicans won’t yet decide that they want to not nominate Trump a third time and that his legal woes won’t be a part of why they reach that conclusion. But for the plurality of the party still backing Trump, I don’t see anything yet that would change their minds. Indeed, his victimhood in their eyes probably strengthens the bond. The most likely scenario right now is that the Republicans will re-nominate Trump and he loses in the general election. The second most likely is that Trump becomes president again. Only after that do we get to the Republicans getting their act together and picking someone else. All subject to change, of course. But I will keep watching the puck! 

“It seems to me that the Democrats would prefer Trump to be the nominee since he’d be the easiest for Biden to beat (presumably). So wouldn’t they do everything they could do to make him the nominee, like trying to make him a martyr to the MAGAns? This would be consistent with their strategy of actively campaigning on behalf of Trump-endorsed candidates to ensure their general election defeats. Best case, Trump is the nominee. Worst case, Trump is in jail and ruined. Win/win.”—David Houggy, Allison Park, Pennsylvania

 I think that’s right, Mr. Houggy. But as I told Mr. Alisberg, that’s not the only possible outcome. Democrats boosted kooks in lots of Republican primary races in 2022 and in every case either got what they wanted, i.e., a weak GOP nominee who lost in the general and harmed the Republican brand (e.g. Doug Mastriano in Pennsylvania) or failed to tilt the primary outcome but won the general anyway (e.g. Heidi Ganahl in Colorado). But what about Kari Lake in Arizona? She came within .7 points of the governorship of what will be a crucial swing state in deciding the 2024 presidential election. Democrats boosted Lake in her primary fight against decidedly normal Karrin Taylor Robson, who had the backing of then-Gov. Doug Ducey. Democrat Katie Hobbs ended up nicking Lake in the general, but it doesn’t take much imagination to see how Lake might have won. The consequences for the country would have been significant given her enthusiasm for election denial and general crankiness. The problem with the Democrats’ thinking about Trump is that they might be only half right—which is what happened in 2016. Bill Clinton egged Trump on in entering the race and Democrats were delighted at the wreckage he wrought in the primaries. But he won anyway. Parties have long engaged in primary mischief. Republicans famously tried to boost Barack Obama in the 2008 Democratic contest on the grounds that he would be easier to beat. Womp, womp. But when the other party is contemplating nominating someone who is trying to make a frontal assault on the basic institutions of the republic and self-government, there are different implications. It’s not Democrats’ job to fix the Republican Party, but they should at least acknowledge the profound risk they are taking by helping Trump.   

“Both the right and left seem to be influenced by a nostalgic version of the late ’60s and early ’70s.  People took to the streets, they fought back, and America shifted its course.  Today, a loose confederation of movements associated with Antifa and Black Lives Matter are following a similar playbook.  The Proud Boys and the January 6 stuff seemed to be too.  If you’ve read Bryan Burrow’s Days of Rage, you are aware that those tactics pushed Americans away from the political programs of groups like the Weatherman and the Black Panthers.  Even when Americans adopted the music and clothes of the counterculture, they never adopted its politics.  Yet, its strategies have gained purchase, not lost it.  Have both the right and the left drawn the wrong lessons from 60’s and 70’s radicalism?  How much blame does boomer nostalgia hold for this phenomenon?”—Collin Rusk, Birmingham, Michigan

I think the boomers deserve their share of blame for misplaced nostalgia, but I think we also should be thinking about what happens to a nation so deplorably ignorant of its own history. Even before American history curricula became a hot-button issue in recent years, the larger problem of insufficient instruction had been mounting for decades. Civics and history education are essential to building the skills necessary for Americans to participate in self-governance, but are badly neglected. To wit: “Only 15% of 8th-graders scored proficient or above in U.S. history along with about a quarter in civics and geography. In reading and math, by contrast, about 35% of 4th- and 8th-graders clear that bar—with the only exception being 4th-grade math, where the proportion rises to 40%.” It’s bad if kids aren’t proficient at math, particularly for the kids themselves. But when we’re collectively flunking at citizenship it corrodes our capacity to do the work necessary to sustain the republic. Sadly, the politicization of the teaching of history sends an obvious message to educators: steer clear.


You should email us! Write to STIREWALTISMS@THEDISPATCH.COM with your tips, kudos, criticisms, insights, rediscovered words, wonderful names, recipes and, always, good jokes. Please include your real name—at least first and last—and hometown. Make sure to let me know in the email if you want to keep your submission private. My colleague, the doughty Nate Moore, and I will look for your emails and then share the most interesting ones and my responses here. Clickety clack!


CUTLINE CONTEST: GOT TO HAND IT TO HIM 

Former President Donald Trump at a rally in Waco, Texas. (Photo by Brandon Bell/Getty Images)
Former President Donald Trump at a rally in Waco, Texas. (Photo by Brandon Bell/Getty Images)

A true gift for Cutline Contest entrants last week from our patroness, Rachael Larimore, and you did not disappoint! And our winner kept it as tight as a clenched fist:

“Indicate to the Hand.”—Richard Miles, Washington D.C.

Winner, ‘Rigged!’ Division:

“What do you mean ‘Paper covers rock’?”—Chris Lee, Corvallis, Oregon

Winner, Small Hand Luke Division:

“If the Dems are successful at letting prisoners vote, I will rally the yard. Rock on.”—Doug Leo, Scottsdale, Arizona

Winner, Some People Say Division:

“I will raise my fist high—higher than ever before!  Higher than this, quite frankly.” —Linda McKee, DuBois, Pennsylvania

Winner, Orange Panthers Division:

“FREE HUEY!!”—Bob Goldman, Gilroy, California

Winner, Longest Yard Division:

“Fourth Down.”—Robert Martin, The Villages, Florida

Winner, This Beat Is Trumpotronic Division:

“Yo, pump up the jam, pump it up.”—Mikey Talhelm, Muncie, Indiana

Winner, Mah Nà Mah Nà Division:

“I can’t believe I forgot the sock! Maybe you could just imagine a sock with a face drawn on it over this hand?”—Jay Hickey, Lakeland, Florida

Send your proposed cutline for the picture that appears at the top of this newsletter to STIREWALTISMS@THEDISPATCH.COM. We will pick the best entrants for each week and an appropriate reward for the best of this month—even beyond the glory and adulation that will surely follow. Be hilarious, don’t be too dirty, and never be cruel. Include your full name and hometown. Have fun!


OH, BOYARDEE 

CNN: “Italians who use English and other foreign words in official communications could face fines of up to [$108,705] under new legislation introduced by Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni’s Brothers of Italy party. … While the legislation encompasses all foreign languages, it is particularly geared at ‘Anglomania’ or use of English words, which the draft states ‘demeans and mortifies’ the Italian language. … ‘It is not just a matter of fashion, as fashions pass, but Anglomania has repercussions for society as a whole,’ the draft bill states. … Under the proposed law, the Culture Ministry would establish a committee whose remit would include “correct use of the Italian language and its pronunciation” in schools, media, commerce and advertising. This would mean that saying ‘bru-shetta’ instead of ‘bru-sketta’ could be a punishable offense.”

Chris Stirewalt is a contributing editor at The Dispatch, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and the author of Broken News, a new book on media and politics. Nate Moore contributed to this report.

Chris Stirewalt is a contributing editor at The Dispatch, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, the politics editor for NewsNation, co-host of the Ink Stained Wretches podcast, and author of Broken News, a book on media and politics.