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Saturday Q&A

Topic of the week? The filibuster. Look in the "civics" section for those questions.

Current Events

C.W. in Kansas City, MO, asks: Regarding the January 6th insurrection, I fear that the people being asked to speak to the select committee, as well as those being criminally charged, are being told something along these lines: "We will all be fine as long as you follow our instructions. Don't cooperate in any way, and definitely don't cut a deal. We'll pay your legal bills. Just help us gum up the works until we control the House and the White House, at which time we'll end the investigation and, if necessary, give you a pardon." I'm afraid this strategy could be successful for them (It's only a slight variation of Donald Trump's game plan for life.), so I'm hoping you can tell me why this scheme won't work.

V & Z answer: What you are describing is the prisoner's dilemma. "Everyone keep quiet" is potentially a viable strategy... as long as everybody actually keeps quiet. However, if the strategy breaks down, then the people who talked first are far better off than those who continued to hold out, since the early defectors are likely to get less harsh sentences than the holdouts. That means that each person involved is constantly weighing "stick with the conspiracy of silence" against "people are going to defect, and it's better for me to be early to that party rather than late."

The classic prisoner's dilemma involves just two people who have knowledge of a crime, and it's knowledge that only those two have (i.e., there are no bystanders). So, Prisoner A need only worry about one person: Prisoner B. But the plotting that took place on 1/6 appears to involve dozens of people, if not more. Further, there are people who have knowledge of events and who are not criminally exposed, and so are already revealing information. That means that even if all the top-tier plotters keep their mouths shut, they could still be in hot water. Lots of people are convicted of crimes without giving any testimony at all. There are Trump True Believers™, like Roger Stone and Steve Bannon, who will probably remain on board even if the ship sinks. But most of the others will surely recognize that the Department of Justice is playing hardball, and that the 1/6 Committee is making a lot of progress. Someone like Mark Meadows has to be very nervous that he's at risk of spending some serious time in prison, and has to be considering the possibility of trying to minimize his penalty. And as soon as one member of the inner circle flips, there's going to be a stampede for the exit.

Finally, to gamble on Trump to regain the presidency and to follow through on promises of "pardons for all" is a big gamble, indeed. So, for that matter, is expecting him to cover your legal bills. He doesn't even pay his own legal bills.

C.L. in Durham, UK, asks: What would be the likely consequences be for someone subpoenaed by the 1/6 commission who took the Jeff Sessions approach and repeated "I do not recall" to every question?

V & Z answer: First, they would still be at risk of contempt of Congress, since failure to cooperate is failure to cooperate, whether it takes the form of refusing to show up or the form of refusing to answer questions. Further, it may be provable that they most certainly do recall. If so, they might be opening themselves up to perjury charges.

Keep in mind that people have been trying to outmaneuver the American justice system for centuries. The 1/6 plotters aren't going to discover a brilliant new end run around the system that hasn't been tried a thousand times before.

J.E. in Minneapolis, MN, asks: Can Donald Trump be prosecuted for the call he made to Georgia Attorney General Brad Raffensperger (R)? I think that it would be very difficult. Can the phone call be admitted as evidence, since Trump was not made aware of the fact that the call was being recorded, and was never given the opportunity to continue or discontinue the conversation knowing that it was being recorded?

V & Z answer: Both federal law and Georgia state law say that recording a phone call requires the consent of just one party to the call. So, that is not an "out" for Trump.

And yes, he certainly could be prosecuted. The most relevant Georgia code would appear to be 21-2-604, which reads:

A person commits the offense of criminal solicitation to commit election fraud in the first degree when, with intent that another person engage in conduct constituting a felony under this article, he or she solicits, requests, commands, importunes, or otherwise attempts to cause the other person to engage in such conduct.

What this means is that the only leg that Trump has to stand on is arguing that he wasn't encouraging fraud, and that he was merely trying to encourage Raffensperger to recover legitimate, lost votes. However, Trump's own verbiage on that call was not consistent with someone merely trying to correct an error, as he threatened Raffensperger about the "big risk" that the Secretary was allegedly taking in refusing the play along. It is not helpful to Trump that there were other parties to the scheme, including Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), who are exposed, and any of them could flip on him to save themselves.

In any event, Fulton County DA Fani Willis says she is making progress in her investigation, and is leaning toward requesting a grand jury indictment. And legal experts who have looked at the publicly known information are in concurrence that Willis is likely able to clear the legal hurdles she needs to clear in order to make her case.

H.C. in Santa Cruz, CA, asks: The Supremes have ruled the mandate for employers is illegal. So, can I sue my employer since they won't protect me in the workplace from my unvaccinated colleagues?

And why haven't the insurance companies put an end to this by dropping coverage, or making it very expensive, for the unvaccinated? Seems to work for Quebec, although that is Canada. It is the same economic calculation.

V & Z answer: Your first question is one that nobody knows the answer to... yet. But we're going to find out. A woman named Matilde Ek was working for a California candy store chain (See's), contracted COVID-19 from a fellow employee, passed it on to her husband, and the husband died. Ek sued See's, See's argued that her claim is covered by workman's compensation insurance, and just a couple of weeks ago, a California judge rejected the claim from See's and allowed the suit to move forward. There are numerous other suits like this in courts across the U.S.; presumably the outcomes will differ based on state law and on the judges who hear the cases.

As to insurance, there are already employers (notably Delta Airlines) who are requiring unvaccinated employees to pay more for coverage. It is probable that other employers will follow suit, and that this will be the primary way that members of large-group plans will be compelled to pay for their unvaccinated status.

One rather significant issue is that a disproportionate number of people who have truly bad (in other words, expensive) outcomes are senior citizens. And they tend to be covered by Medicare. It's none too easy to extract more coin from those folks.

M.M. in San Diego, CA, asks: Recently, I have heard a number of rank and file, genuinely distressed anti-vaxxers claim that the vaccine is lethal. I've read that Steve Bannon's podcast pushes that disinformation. What exactly are these folks being told?

Initially, I was angry at and dismissive of anti-vaxxers, but now I pity them. Influence campaigns always target the most susceptible, those who are not particularly well educated and who are prey to their own fears. It's a cruel game that has cost many their lives.

V & Z answer: Brief non sequitur: Let us imagine that the FBI announced that it was opening the "Donald Trump Criminal Activity Tip Line" at 1-800-CROOKED. If you learned that the Bureau got 57,231 tips in the first month, what would that tell you? Not a lot, right? Until you know the number of tips that were valid, as opposed to wild speculation, trolling, drunken joking, etc., it would just be a number.

The main "lethal vaccine" argument being pushed by Bannon, Joe Rogan, and Robert F. Kennedy Jr., among others, is based on data from the CDC's Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System (VAERS). The arguments starts with the fact that more than 10,000 deaths from the COVID vaccines have been reported to VAERS in the last year. Then it proceeds to the observation that no other vaccine in use today has killed anywhere near that many people in a single year. That leads to the conclusion that the COVID vaccines are the most lethal and dangerous vaccines ever developed.

There are so many issues with this "analysis" that anyone who tries to make it is telling you that they are either willfully dishonest or else that they repeat whatever they hear without critical thought or fact-checking. To start, as with 1-800-CROOKED, the numbers from VAERS are not reliable, and are not meant to be used in this manner. The purpose of VAERS is to give the CDC clues into things they should look into, not to create statistics. And as you can imagine, there are people with an agenda who might well submit a false report to VAERS in order to pump up the numbers. More common than that, however, are people who connect a real death with a vaccination, even if there is no evidence of a connection. This just happened with the actress Betty White, who was allegedly "killed" by a booster shot, but who turns out to have died from a stroke.

Beyond that, comparing annual death rates from the COVID vaccine to annual death rates from any other vaccine is problematic because most other vaccines are administered to a small percentage of the population each year, as opposed to the majority of the population in a single year. There have been close to 500 million doses of the COVID vaccine given in the United States in the last year, which far and away exceeds any year's worth of vaccines for polio, chicken pox, measles, mumps, etc.

And finally, even if you take the VAERS number as completely legitimate, that's 10,000 deaths in the last year, or roughly 27 per day. About 1,400 Americans are dying from COVID each day right now, and nearly all of them are unvaccinated. So, even if the COVID vaccines are the most lethal and dangerous vaccines ever developed, they are considerably less lethal and dangerous than not getting vaccinated. At least 50 times less lethal and dangerous.


B.B. in Columbus, OH, asks: If Donald Trump is the Republicans' nominee in 2024 and the RNC finds excuses not to have him debate, will people want to watch a "debate" that's actually just (probably) Joe Biden answering questions? That can be done any time, anywhere. I wonder whether it might actually be to Biden's advantage to invite the Libertarian nominee to debate him if Trump won't. Not only does that make Trump look even more cowardly and petty, it draws viewers in with the spectacle of a debate. And the debate would be against a candidate whose ideas are unlikely to resonate with many of Biden's core supporters, which means it will strengthen their fervor for Biden. It would also get the Libertarians media exposure that might result in the Republicans losing votes to them.

V & Z answer: There is no chance that Biden (or any other Democratic nominee) would go for this. It's not a great look for a president to act as "equals" with someone so low on the political totem pole. Further, the Libertarian would surely know that this is their chance to get some attention, and would likely be a loose cannon.

The best option would be for Biden to hold town halls where the questions are asked by private citizens, as opposed to some sort of milquetoast moderator. Even better would be if some amount of "danger" was introduced by making it possible for un-vetted questions to end up before the candidate. We don't know exactly how to set that up, since vapid or vulgar questions should be quashed, but maybe there's a way.

K.B. in Madison, WI, asks: Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI) announced his re-election bid several days ago. Needless to say, I was not surprised or impressed. Johnson is in a tie (with former governor Scott Walker) on my list of most despised elected officials ever when it comes to my state. I've been talking with my wife and son about the best way(s) I can help him go down in defeat come November, and offered "Driving voters to the polls on Election Day" as their #1 recommendation. Do you agree this would be the best way for me to help his (yet to be determined) opponent in the Senate race? Any follow up commentary/additional thoughts are most certainly welcome.

V & Z answer: Well, on Election Day itself, possibly. However, depending on your physical presence, there might also be significant value in serving as a "poll watcher" who acts as a hedge against Republican "poll watchers."

Meanwhile, before Election Day, the most useful thing you can do is work on getting absentee ballots in as many Democratic hands as is possible. The Wisconsin Democratic Party has a webpage where you can sign up to help with 2022 campaigns. They help match people with tasks based on the Party's needs, the person's interests, and the person's skill set. WisDems also has an online calendar of "get involved" events, if you prefer a more à la carte approach. For example, next Saturday, they're doing phonebanking to encourage people to request absentee ballots.

D.T. in San Jose, CA, asks: What is the value of using the Cook PVI when predicting the outcomes of individual congressional races?

If I understand correctly, the Cook PVI is a measurement of how that district compares to the national average for previous presidential elections. But in recent elections, the national popular vote has favored Democrats by a few points.

Doesn't this mean that, all other things being equal, the Democrat would be expected to win an R+1 district by about 2%? Wouldn't it just be clearer to use party percentages, rather than PVI?

V & Z answer: Yes, all other things being equal, a Democrat will win an R+1 district. However, PVI exists primarily for comparative purposes. It gives us a rough estimate of what kind of election would be needed to flip a seat (e.g., Republicans will win a bunch of D+1 and EVEN seats in a narrow-Republican-win year, like 2004, but will only win a bunch of D+6 and D+7 seats in a red wave year, like 1984). Further, it allows us to compare districts within a state, so as to judge which ones are likeliest to flip, and also which ones make the most sense for a particular candidate who is district-shopping.

It would indeed give the same information if Cook (or anyone else) said "In the last two presidential elections, this district gave 54% of its votes to the Democrat, whereas nationwide it was 51%." However, "D+3" is rather more efficient.

R.C. in Des Moines, IA, asks: Does a party get a significant boost in the state in which it has its convention?

V & Z answer: Statewide, there is no statistically significant effect. However, under the right circumstances there appears to be a statistically significant effect locally (at the city and county levels). In a really close race, of course, every vote counts. Further, the bump can make a difference for folks downballot.

C.J. in Burke, VA, asks: Just wondering why you think Houston, San Antonio, Las Vegas, and Kansas City didn't make the final cut for the Republican National Convention.

V & Z answer: We didn't see the bids, of course, but we think we can probably figure out at least some of the main issues.

Kansas City is the easiest. It withdrew its bid.

Las Vegas throws its hat into the ring for every major convention, political or no, since the city is in the convention business. However, it never makes the final cut for the political conventions. The city's reputation for sin and debauchery does not mesh well with the image the parties are trying to put forward. Further, the DNC and the RNC want to be the only game in town, which they will be in most cities, but not in Vegas. And how embarrassing would it be for the Republican Party to be holding their convention right next door to, say, the Gentlemens Club Expo (usually scheduled for August). Can you imagine the late night jokes?

In Houston, the temperature reaches 90 degrees or more on the majority of summer days. That's very warm for all those people in suits, crowded into a relatively small space. Further, even if the evidence doesn't support it, there are surely some deciders in the RNC who hope to pick up some votes by putting their convention in a purple state. Texas is not a purple state.

San Antonio has the same downsides as Houston, and also has very limited experience hosting these sorts of events. It's never hosted a party convention or a Super Bowl; the biggest events it has handled are several NCAA Men's Basketball Final Fours, some college football bowl games, the WWF Royal Rumble 1997, and concerts by George Strait and Paul McCartney.

F.S. in Niagara Falls, ON, Canada, asks: Do you envision Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) challenging Joe Biden for the 2024 nomination? If not, why and if yes, how viable a candidate would he be?

V & Z answer: Implausible, we think. Manchin is too much a Republican for most Democrats and too much a Democrat for most Republicans. And it is the former concern that really matters, since it is Democrats who choose the party's nominee. In particular, given the Senator's preference for the filibuster over voting rights, we think he would struggle mightily to attract Black voters in the primaries. And without them, getting the Democratic nomination is basically impossible.


L.V.A. in Idaho Falls, ID, asks: Please detail the recent (1900-present) history of the Senate filibuster. On the occasions you wrote about the talking filibuster, the unstated implication is that this will overcome the 60 vote threshold problem. Yesterday, you presented a detailed scenario where only 50 votes (plus VP) are needed. Haven't 60 votes been needed since 1975, and 2/3 before that. Doesn't a talking filibuster still need 60 votes?

V & Z answer: Under the procedures that govern Congress and every other legislative body, various parts of the process are open to discussion (for example: "Should we bring this bill to the floor for consideration?" or "Should we pass this bill?"). And some, many, or all members are entitled to stand up and share their point of view. Some legislative chambers, including the U.S. House of Representatives, limit the time afforded to each member (though the Speaker and the two party leaders in the House are not subject to the limit). Other legislative chambers, including the U.S. Senate, have no limits, or else no limits on "relevant" talk. In those circumstances, a member can get up and prattle on for some lengthy amount of time, perhaps followed by another member, and another, and another. This is unpleasant for the people who have to stand up and read the phone book, or summarize 200 political position papers, or recite Shakespeare, or tell the world's longest shaggy dog story. However, it's also unpleasant for the talkers' colleagues, who can't get anything done while time is being wasted. This is particularly true if the legislative session is nearing its conclusion. So, the talking can force (usually) minor concessions: "We'll stop blathering endlessly if you agree to add another $5 billion to the defense bill," for example.

From the occasion of the first Senate filibuster in 1837, and for the next 80 years, there was nothing that could be done to end a filibuster other than allowing it to run its course. However, on March 8, 1917, the Senate changed the rules to allow cloture to be invoked by a two-thirds vote. Cloture means, in effect, that a large percentage of the members believe that enough has been said, and that it's time to move on. The senators in 1917 wanted to preserve, as best as possible, the chamber's tradition of unlimited debate. That's why they set the threshold so high. However, there was also a war on, and a group of about a dozen antiwar senators were making it more difficult for Woodrow Wilson to manage the war effort. So the cloture rule was adopted, on his request, to give the supermajority a tool to use in particularly dire circumstances, when time was of the essence.

Up until the 1960s, filibusters were a relatively rare phenomenon. For example, there were three of them in 1917, although that was enough to drive Wilson to distraction. There were 11 in the 1920s, 4 in the 1930s, 9 in the 1940s, and 3 in the 1950s. Starting in the mid-50s, however, the Civil Rights Movement began to gain steam. Southern senators had no real hope of resisting civil rights legislation, but they hoped to soften it some, and also to show the folks at home that they (the senators) were fighting the good fight. And so, the 1960s saw 28 filibusters—in other words, more than in the previous 40 years combined. Since the Senate rules of that era only allowed the Senate to conduct one item of business at a time, the spike in filibustering threw a giant wrench into the works, and the upper chamber fell far behind on the business it needed to conduct.

This was a source of much frustration for Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield (D-MT), who served in that position from 1961-77. So, he worked out a rule change that allowed the Senate to conduct more than one item of business concurrently. However, it is not possible for there to be a talking filibuster and some other item of business happening on the floor of the Senate simultaneously. That would be quite distracting. So, the change necessarily meant that the filibuster went from being a talking filibuster to a silent one. All a member had to do was say "filibuster!," and that was it, barring invocation of cloture. All of a sudden, the Senate was working on perhaps 20 items of business at the same time, and making no progress on 17 of them because those 17 were being filibustered.

Keeping in mind that the Senate is supposed to be a genteel, cooperative entity, Mansfield did not expect the change in procedures to lead to massive abuses. And he thought the possibility of cloture would serve as an insurance policy—if a group of senators decided to throw a temper tantrum, their colleagues could shut it down. But the number of filibusters immediately jumped to double digits, while the number of successful cloture votes was small. For example, in the first Senate term governed by the new rules, there were 24 filibusters and only 4 of them were shut down by invoking cloture. And so, in 1975, Mansfield arranged for one more change, dropping the number of votes needed for cloture down to three-fifths of the Senate. In other words, with a fully staffed Senate, it went from 67 votes to 60. That helped a little, but not all that much. And this is where the situation stands today.

There are a small number of circumstances where a supermajority of senators is required in order for a vote to be successful (for example, veto overrides). However, the vast majority of situations require only a simple majority. What the silent filibuster does is keep bills from getting to that point. And so, 60 votes are not needed to pass the bill, per se. They're needed to shut down "debate," so that the Senate may then proceed to an actual vote on the bill, when 51 votes are all that are needed.

With a talking filibuster, by contrast, there are two ways it can end. The first is that cloture can be invoked, if the necessary 60 votes are there. The second is that the filibusterers can exhaust all of their floor-time entitlements. Each one can only speak twice per bill per "legislative day," and they can't leave the floor of the Senate while they talk, or their "turn" ends. Once all floor-time entitlements are exhausted, the filibusterers cannot extend debate anymore because they are literally not entitled to participate in debate any longer. At that point, the Senate proceeds to a vote. And again, in most circumstances, approval only requires a majority.

A.R. in Los Angeles, CA, asks: All the discussions about changes to the filibuster have me really confused. The original filibuster rules required a Senator to actually hold the floor, which delayed a vote on a bill, but didn't kill it altogether, right? So hasn't it already been changed to this new incarnation where a bill can effectively be killed simply be raising one's hand and saying "filibuster!"? And hasn't this rule already been distorted from its original purpose? There's no 60-vote threshold to pass legislation, as noted by Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) and the filibuster was never meant to change majority rule. Or am I missing something? Why is restoring the filibuster not considered a return to normal governing rather than a seismic change?

V & Z answer: As you can see in the lengthy answer above, you have the right of it. The talking filibuster was in place for 135 years (or more, if you add the years from 1789-1837, when it theoretically could have been used, but wasn't). And its purpose was to give the minority a little bit of leverage, not to allow the minority to completely shut down the majority.

As to returning to the talking filibuster, the concern that Manchin and Sinema have both expressed is that such a move will heighten divisions in an already polarized country. They do not seem to be considering the possibility that much frustration, from both sides on the aisle, stems from Congress being unable to get much done (with the parallel implication that the Supreme Court's power grows beyond all reasonable bounds). A more valid concern, in our view, is that the talking filibuster would mean a return to the one-track system, wherein the Senate could only consider one item of business at a time. That could be a real problem, particularly given that there are many senators (ahem, Rand Paul, R-KY) who would love to paralyze the government, and so might filibuster every single bill in order to help achieve that goal. Even the Southern racists from the 1960s only filibustered civil rights bills, and even that was enough to cause Mike Mansfield to blow his top.

A.W. in Lincoln, MA, asks: How much does a talking filibuster really gum up the works? Has it ever been used effectively to halt Senate business for days or weeks (with several people taking turns to speak, of course)? In other words, what's so terrible about returning to a talking filibuster, and why didn't Joe Manchin himself simply suggest this a long time ago if he's really OK with it?

V & Z answer: It certainly can, and has, gummed up the works. And the famous example is the one we've mentioned in the last two answers, namely the Southern senators in the late 1950s and the 1960s. Strom Thurmond alone managed to use up 24 hours and 18 minutes of floor time in a record-setting filibuster in 1957. It's a particularly effective tool when the end of a session is nearing, since the minority can theoretically run out the clock. Imagine that the talking filibuster is revived and the Republicans take control of the Senate in November's elections. They would mount an endless filibuster from Nov. 8 through Jan. 3, 2023.

R.H. in Santa Ana, CA, asks: Can a hypothetical current Member of the House of Representatives, let's call him Geuben Rallegos, accept campaign contributions today for a hypothetical 2024 Senate campaign against a hypothetical Senator, let's call her Syrsten Kinema?

Just wondering.

V & Z answer: Yes. Funds are raised by the election, not by the office. If a candidate raises money for the 2024 primaries, they can use that money on a campaign for the House, the Senate, dogcatcher, or any other office they decide to run for.

In a completely unrelated note, the U.S. Senate seat from Arizona that is up this year belongs to Mark Kelly (D-AZ), who is finishing the term of John McCain. If a person wanted to represent the Grand Canyon State in the Senate, and did not want to take on Kelly, then they would have to wait 2 years for their next opportunity, when the other seat will be up.

J.B. in Hutto, TX, asks: Since Eugene V. Debs ran for president while incarcerated in prison in 1912, I suppose a precedent has already been established that a citizen can, in fact, run for president while in prison. My question is simply this: What if Donald Trump is convicted on one of the serious charges against him in the next two-and-a-half years, sentenced to prison, and then wins the 2024 presidential election? I'd say that this is utterly ludicrous, but after the events of the past few years, I have learned not to do say this about anything.

V & Z answer: Even if Debs (and, for that matter, Lyndon LaRouche) had never run from prison, the answer would still be very clear: the Constitution lays out three (or five) qualifications for the presidency, and "not in prison" is not among them. The only way to add additional qualifications is through constitutional amendment. And if Trump were to be elected from prison, he surely would be released in order to serve in his elected office. It is not practical for someone to run the nation from a prison cell.

The only possible exception to all of this involves the "(or five)" that appears in the previous paragraph. The three requirements for president laid out by the fellows who wrote the Constitution are: (1) natural-born citizen, (2) resident of the U.S. for at least 14 years during their lifetime, and (3) 35 years of age or older. However, the Fourteenth Amendment effectively adds a fourth requirement that is potentially relevant here: One cannot hold public office if one has engaged in insurrection or rebellion against the Constitution. If Trump was convicted of something like that, then he presumably would not be allowed to appear on ballots. But if he was placed on ballots (say, in red states), and he was elected, he might be deemed to be ineligible to the office by the Supreme Court, which would pass the office to the vice president. This would be a very ugly situation that would lead to riots, so we will have to hope it does not happen.

Incidentally, the fifth requirement for president comes from the Twenty-Second Amendment, which disqualifies anyone who's served either two terms or 10 years as president. Obviously, this doesn't apply to Trump.

D.M. in Woodland Hills, CA, asks: I would like to understand the history of the Electoral College. Can you recommend a book?

V & Z answer: Most books on this subject are either pro-EC or anti-EC screeds, or else are children's books. Alexander Keyssar, of the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, is definitely an EC skeptic, but he's not over-the top, and in Why Do We Still Have the Electoral College?, he does an excellent job of tracing the history of the EC as both an institution and as a political football.

Note that the book is weighty (544 pages), so you might want to read this interview with Keyssar first as a preview. Also, the chapters are relatively independent of each other, so you could theoretically pick and choose which ones interest you.


M.D. in San Tan Valley, AZ, asks: After watching yet another presidential documentary recently, I started to wonder about the history of presidential slogans. Could you elaborate when presidential slogans started; when it became normal for presidential candidates to use slogans to make themselves more appealing to voters. And while on the subject, could you give us your three best presidential slogans as well as your three worst?

V & Z answer: This sort of popular electioneering was not necessary in the early days of the republic, as relatively few people could vote, and the ones who did have the franchise were almost exclusively social elites. So, campaigning was largely done through newspapers, which were generally aligned with, and often funded by, one of the political parties. The newspapers of the early nineteenth century were opinion-driven, and were more like Mother Jones or The Federalist than The New York Times or The Washington Post.

Eventually, as the vote was extended to most (and then all) white men, newspapers weren't enough to get it done. Many of these voters could not afford newspapers (they cost the modern equivalent of about 10 dollars), or were not literate. And so, candidates and parties introduced campaign songs, which became common in the 1820s. They could be performed by bands at speeches and rallies, were memorable, and were accessible even to those who could not read.

Not long thereafter, it occurred to people to take the key lines from campaign songs and turn them into slogans. A slogan is even easier to remember than a song, and can be printed on posters, and buttons, and sewn onto flags, and the like. Literacy was becoming more common by the 1830s and 1840s, and even those who could not read might plausibly learn to recognize a brief slogan. The first year where all the pieces really fell into place was 1840, when the Whigs were trying to hold together a tenuous coalition that didn't agree on much beyond their disdain for Andrew Jackson (who had been out of office for 4 years by that point, but who was the Donald Trump of his day). Anyhow, behind their candidate William Henry Harrison, the Whigs ran a campaign entirely devoid of actual policy positions, and based entirely on slogans. And so that was the election that is considered to have introduced political slogans to American presidential politics.

As to best and worst, we are considering only effectiveness as political tools, and not how agreeable or disagreeable they are. Anyhow, here are our top three:

  1. Tippecanoe and Tyler, Too! (William Henry Harrison, 1840): This is the slogan that started it all. Nobody really cared about John Tyler, but including his name made the slogan alliterative and memorable. Meanwhile, "Tippecanoe" was a very efficient and effective way of reminding voters of Harrison's two main qualifications for office: (1) he was a general, (2) who had fought and defeated Native Americans.

  2. Make America Great Again (Donald Trump, 2016): Like Harrison, a candidate who had little in the way of qualifications for office, and not much of a platform. "Make America Great Again" succinctly encapsulated what platform he did have, and the fact that it could be reduced to a recognizable and easily verbalized acronym turned it into an incredibly effective rallying cry.

  3. I Like Ike (Dwight D. Eisenhower, 1952): It committed the candidate to absolutely nothing, policy-wise, reminded people of a major reason to vote for him (he was a nice fellow), and it made use of the Rhyme-as-reason effect.

And here are our bottom three:

  1. Obama Isn't Working (Mitt Romney, 2012): Romney had several slogans in 2012, and all of them were terrible. However, this was the worst of the lot. First of all, voters do not respond to slogans that attack the other candidate—it suggests that the very best thing you have to offer is that at least you're not the other guy. Further, Romney had a well-deserved reputation for being out-of-touch, and this slogan helped to reiterate that. See, it wasn't actually an original idea; it was a play on a Tory slogan from 1978: "Labour Isn't Working." However, the British version is a pun, playing off of the two possible meanings of "Labour." The Romney version isn't, and makes it seem like he and his people didn't really understand the bit they were aping.

  2. AuH2O (Barry Goldwater, 1964): One of the raps against Goldwater was that he was out of touch with the common man. Picking a slogan that is essentially a lame chemistry joke certainly did not help with that.

  3. Rum, Romanism, and Rebellion! (James G. Blaine, 1884): This wasn't the work of Blaine or his inner circle; it came from a Republican operative in New York City. The point was to rally members of the GOP by reminding them that the Democrats were a bunch of drunken Irishmen and former Confederates. However, as with Hillary Clinton's "deplorables" comment, the attack instead served to galvanize the opposition. Irishmen showed up in droves to vote against a party that regarded them as nothing more than drunken papists. That was enough to swing New York, and New York's EVs swung the election. It may be the only political slogan that singlehandedly cost a presidential candidate the White House.

We could have included more entries on each list, but we were only asked for three of each. If readers have suggested additions, we'll run some of them tomorrow. Make sure to note which list, and why you say so.

J.M. in Tulsa, OK, asks: One of my favorite Civil War films is Ang Lee's "war is pointless" film Ride with the Devil, which focuses on the Bushwhackers in Missouri and Kansas, centering in particular on a quartet of guerrillas, made up of two sets of "true believer plus loyal companion with conflicted loyalties." Have you seen the film, and what was your take? It was based on the novel Woe to Live On, whose author typically wrote more contemporary pieces set in the Ozarks.

V & Z answer: (Z) has seen it, and it's not to his liking. To start, he just doesn't care for Ang Lee's directorial style. Beyond that, the film has the same basic problems that Gangs of New York does: visually stunning, but a meandering and unfocused plot. Further, both films are somewhat hard to understand if you don't know the underlying history, and are not all that revelatory if you do.

It's understandable why you, or others, might like the film (again: visually stunning, plus it's basically a revisionist Western). But it just wasn't (Z)'s cup of tea.

B.C. in Huntsville, AL, asks: Your response to a question on Prohibition brought another question to mind. I have been told that, at the time Prohibition was being proposed, the alcohol tax represented a major source of income for the federal government. If Prohibition was to be enacted, a new source of income needed to be found. That new source became the income tax. How correct is this?

V & Z answer: There may be a cause-and-effect relationship but, if so, it's reversed. The income tax amendment was ratified in 1913, while the prohibition amendment was ratified in 1919. And so, it could be that some budget-conscious politicians were willing to support Prohibition because they knew it wouldn't blow a hole in the federal budget, but there's no argument for "Prohibition led to the income tax" because the timeline doesn't work. The income tax was adopted for other reasons: progressives regarded it as fairer to the poor than excise taxes and tariffs, farmers felt it would leave them less vulnerable to fluctuations in commodity prices, nationalists saw the U.S. as a budding world power and knew that the government would need a lot more money to sustain that, etc.


S.K. in Sunnyvale, CA, asks: Who the heck invented batting average notation? Why didn't they just use a friggin' percentage, like every other field of human endeavor (other than gambling)?

V & Z answer: Much of the language of early baseball was borrowed from cricket, including batting averages. In cricket, however, batting average measures the number of runs per at bat. Since batters generally score many runs each time they come up, the number is all but certain to have numbers on both sides of the decimal point. For example, Donald Bradman, widely regarded as the greatest cricketer ever, had a batting average of 99.94 in Test matches and 95.14 in first-class matches.

In baseball, rather fewer runs are scored, and—unlike cricket—not all of them are scored by the batter themselves. And so, basing baseball players' batting average on runs per at bat would result in extremely low numbers, and wouldn't be all that instructive. Instead, early baseball writers decided that the thing that separated stronger players from weaker was how many hits they averaged per at bat. So, they applied the cricket formula, but to a different commodity, one that can never be produced in the quantities that cricketers produce runs. Bradman's single greatest appearance as a batter yielded 270 runs, while the most hits a baseball player can collect in an at bat is one.

H.F. in Pittsburgh, PA, asks: As the saying goes, "There are no stupid questions, but there are a lot of inquisitive idiots." What have been some of the worst questions (besides this one) submitted to

V & Z answer: You submitted this several months ago, and we held it, just to test our original response to the question. However—and we hate to disappoint you, but we must—our instinct was sustained: We really don't get stupid questions.

We can think of two explanations for that. First of all, the readership of this site is self-selected, and is undoubtedly above average in terms of education, intellect, etc. Second, when you spend decades as a teacher, you get very good at grasping the question the person was trying to ask, even if they expressed themselves in a clunky fashion.

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