Friday, May 15, 2009

When do SCOTUS Picks Really Matter?

This is kind of rambling, but as much as conservative lobbying groups do not want a liberal on the court, and as much as older Senators seem more ambivalent on the issue, and as much as arbitrary (or obvious) standards can be required, does Obama's pick really matter all that much?

According to Oleg Smirnov and Charles Smith, the overall difference does not matter all that much (Emphasis mine)
Our results suggest that membership change in the Supreme Court has a discernable effect on the revealed policy positions of sitting justices. At the aggregate level, the Court seems to move to counter-balance the ideological change brought about by a new justice. One possible implication of the result, which we discuss in greater detail below, is that such counter-balancing behavior may provide greater institutional stability of the Supreme Court. The contrarian movement of drag ensures an institutional rigidity that lessens any new member’s ability to move the aggregated policy position of the Court in any substantial fashion... In other words, membership change in the conservative direction leads to a greater response from liberal justices while a change in the liberal direction leads to a greater response from the conservative justices.
And as such when Sandra Day O'Connor, the media continued to portray the already moderate Anthony Kennedy as the new swing vote. Now, we understand that in general that the Supreme Court does try to maintain a certain status quo, and Andrew Gelman too asks why that is so while showing nifty graphs of it. This would then suggest that for a Supreme Court pick to matter, there would have to come a general ideological shift, and historically, it seems that the SCOTUS does reflect somewhat the ideological shifts of the country as a whole.

What does this mean? Well, for Obama, it may seem to be that he had might as well nominate a women, or an Hispanic, or a member of the LGBT community (or all three for special bonus points), to placate his liberal constituencies (especially since his inaction on gay issues have angered the LGBT community somewhat). It's fairly obvious that he will pick a liberal nominee, but if the court is mostly self-correcting when it comes to ideology, how ideologically sound that nominee is really doesn't matter.

With most of the conservative members of the court being fairly young (and Kennedy and Antonin Scalia at the ripe young ages of 72 and 73 respectively), this may also suggest that the country still is not ready for a change back into more overall liberal trend. If the Reagan era of conservatism is over, then we should theoretically see a noticeable change in the Supreme Court, but it's hard to discern just how that will happen except unfortunate circumstances.

Though, there have only been few major eras of notions of government, from bigger national government (inception 1890s) to smaller (1890s-1930s) to bigger (1930s to 1980s) then to smaller again (where we are now). Perhaps the SCOTUS will then change and it'll just take more years than I think.

I guess my main question here is that even if Obama was replacing a conservative justice, could it really have a significant effect on the court itself? Or will it self-correct itself to a more centrist position?

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Torture, Religion, Partisanship, and Human Rights

I'm probably lagging on this discussion, but I've gone from disappointment in my fellow religious, to mild confusion, and back to disappointment.

Pew's survey shows that people who are more religious are also more inclined to believe that the use of torture is justified more often than not. Those who attend services weekly make up almost half of their sample and bring up the national average significantly. In addition, comparing their survey of the nation as a whole with Gallup's survey could suggest that the public is fairly informed on the issue. Pew used the word "torture" while Gallup used the term "harsh interrogation techniques" and came up with similar numbers (49-47 Pew, 51-42 Gallup - so the use of words may have a small effect).

In theory, the religious, at least among Christianity, should have a strong sense of human rights issues. Ideally, the average religious Christian should oppose the death penalty, abortion, embryonic stem cell research, gay marriage, euthanasia, and theoretically also oppose the use of torture on others (of course, this is a broad generalization).

Gauging the partisan breakdown of the religions the conclusion I came to is that partisan identification matters more than religion identification. But just how important is party as compared to religion? Or just party in general? Shouldn't religion be the more dominant and common factor in a person's daily life?

Edit: I cited the wrong part of the Gallup poll. There's a large overall difference in support for torture: 49-47 Pew, 55-35 Gallup, an 18 point difference. The partisan split is interesting though. Democrats: 36-60 Pew, 39-54 Gallup. Indies: 54-42 Pew, 55-34 Gallup. GOP: 64-35 Pew, 80-15 Gallup.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

The Importance of Paying Attention to other Disciplines

Yesterday over at the UNL Grad Student blog we had a discussion about cross-disciplinary research, with emphasis on its ability to help us answer "bigger" questions than would be afforded by staying only within political science. I was just reminded of this today when I was out perusing the computer science/information systems literature (a seeming prerequisite for a person interested in the intersection of tech/society/politics) and found this article on patterns of the news cycle among blogs and the mainstream media. Simply put, had I not exited the safe shell of the political communication literature, I'd never have discovered what I think is going to be an important article for one of my interests. And I'm almost certain that this research is probably unknown to others with similar interests.

Now, as a graduate student who is just nearing the halfway point of studies I haven't had too many chances to look to other disciplines for guidance or ideas, though this is going to quickly change with many of my program's requirements now safely out of the way. I'd be interested in hearing what both faculty and other grad students have experienced in terms of cross-disciplinary research. I.e., how has it affected your research? What are the pitfalls of these approaches?

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

The Torture Memos

In our first week of existence, discussion really took off around the topic of the recently-released torture memos. After reading an article in the New York Times, I asked whether we needed to rethink our moral qualms about torture if these "harsh interrogation techniques" actually yield valuable intelligence.

As the Co-Director of Nebraska's Human Rights and Human Diversity Initiative, and having taught numerous classes on justice and human rights, I have a pretty good sense of my position on this question. Clearly, torture damages the international credibility of countries that make use of it, brutalizes those who engage in it, and is a grave violation of human rights under any circumstance.

Most interesting, to my mind, is that the information coming to light in these torture memos shouldn't be surprising in the least. I remember, quite clearly, preparing to teach an introductory course on justice in 2004-2005 and pulling articles on the Abu Ghraib scandal. At that time, there were articles about the Bush administration bringing in lawyers to consider ways to effectively work around the Geneva Conventions. These articles suggested that military personnel might be unclear about which techniques constituted torture and about whether the government allowed "harsh interrogation techniques" to be used on "enemy combatants." But it is hard to say that the Bush administration was unclear in its intentions (despite assertions that the United States doesn't torture), given the decision to bring in lawyers who might find ways around the Geneva Conventions.

Just some additional food for thought, as we kick off the Tweet Academy blog. If you'd like to become a blog contributor, send a Direct Message to @Tweet_Academy on Twitter. We're hoping to get a balance of students and faculty. And, of course, if you're not following us on Twitter just yet, you can click on the link on the right to follow Tweet_Academy and comment/contribute new topics to our on-going 140 character discussions.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009


In order to better organize and to expand upon some of the topics discussed through the Tweet Academy, we've launched this blog. The idea is that a collection of political science faculty and students (both graduate and undergraduate) will occasionally post here to further the discussion beyond the 140 character "tweets" that got us rolling.