By Lambert Strether of Corrente.
In Game of Thrones, “the iron price” is a concept in the culture of the Ironborn. Paying the iron price means taking by the sword, rather than paying with coin. Thus, it is a primary aspect of the “Old Way”, the traditional lifestyle of the Ironborn. The opposite of the iron price is “the gold price,” which is considered shameful for a man to pay. And it is true that in some ways it’s more honorable to risk your life, sword to sword, than risk your hoard, moneybags to moneybags, and that the midterms were more about gold than iron.
But I’d like to connect “the iron price” to the well-known “Iron Law of Institutions,” explained here by A Tiny Revolution:
Democrats operate according to the Iron Law of Institutions. The Iron Law of Institutions is: the people who control institutions care first and foremost about their power within the institution rather than the power of the institution itself. Thus, they would rather the institution “fail” while they remain in power within the institution than for the institution to “succeed” if that requires them to lose power within the institution.
This is true for all human institutions, from elementary schools up to the United States of America. If history shows anything, it’s that this cannot be changed. What can be done, sometimes, is to force the people running institutions to align their own interests with those of the institution itself and its members.
So what does this mean today? A lot of things, such as:
1. The voting booth is by no means the only place that Democrats care about what you do. In fact, from their perspective, by the time you get to the general election much of the game is over. …
2. , not the well-being of the party overall. …
3. Any serious attempt to transform the Democratic party would include a conscious attempt to change its culture, into one that celebrates different people: organizers rather than elected officials and donors. ….
4. If you don’t believe the Democratic party is redeemable, don’t get your hopes up that another party would end up being much better. Any other party would also be subject to the Iron Law of Institutions. It thus would be quickly just as dreadful as the Democrats…unless people put in the same amount of work as would be required to clean out the Democrats’ Augean stables.
5. Generally speaking, don’t expect too much from political parties, and certainly don’t expect them to change much in less than a generation. And in any case, keep in mind much [not all!] of the power in society lies elsewhere.
So, by “pay the iron price” in the American political context, I mean point #2: “threatening the power of Democratic leaders in their party.” Clearly, Zephyr Teachout and Tim Wu were willing to pay the iron price by challenging corrupt Democratic thug Andrew Cuomo; the Congressional Progressive Caucus, by contrast, is never willing. Nor is Elizabeth Warren, nor any other actual or potential Democratic candidate that I know of. Very, very few other Democrats are. To their credit, Tea Partiers are almost too willing, which is why the Republican regulars suppressed them this cycle; to his credit, Barack Obama was willing. Back in the day, Eugene McCarthy was willing.
(I’m a bit more hopeful about the possibilities for, er, change, than A Tiny Revolution, because parties have successfully re-invented themselves over time, often for ill but sometimes for good; look at what the Republican Party of Lincoln has become under Reagan or Bush; and look at what the Democratic Party of James Buchanan became under LBJ, or Clinton, or Obama.) 
As we move through other aspects of the 2014 midterms — rather than exciting, bloody massacres, more nerdly matters like ballot initiatives, voter suppression, and statehouse races — we’ll see opposition between the gold price and the iron price come up consistently.
Before moving on, though, I’d like to call attention to these two essential nuggets from our previous post on the midterms, “Red Wedding for Democrats.” First, commenter wbgonne turns the thesis of the post into an epigram:
Democrats would rather lose as neoliberals than win as economic populists
Second, this definition of neo-liberalism seems useful:
The essence of neo-liberalism is transforming public social relations into transactions — ideally involving rental extraction — because markets.
Note that both legacy parties support neo-liberalism defined in this sense; that’s why it was possible for RomneyCare to morph seamlessly into ObamaCare, which is a morass and minefield of transactions and rental extraction (that being the social reality that underwrote the continuing ObamaCare “marketplace” website debacle, and also made it such a challenging development project).
At the Ballot Box
Let’s start with the ballot box, where the act of voting takes place. As is well known, Republicans — focused, as usual, on issues of
sphincter control non-compliant “others” — have been making strenuous efforts to restrict access to the ballot box through strict voter ID requirements as a modern form of the old literacy tests; the putative justification is that people are going from polling place to polling place to vote multiple times, which a moment’s thought will show would be a remarkable inefficient way to steal an election. For example:
Texas’s ID law, passed by Republicans in 2011, is the nation’s strictest. As Alkhafaji found out, it doesn’t allow student IDs, though it does allow concealed handgun permits. Texas has been able to point to just two cases since 2000 of in-person voter impersonation fraud of the kind that the ID requirement would prevent.
But the real question isn’t what the Republicans, bless their hearts, are doing; it’s what Democrats are doing. Or, rather, not doing. Democratic leaders are not:
- Nationalizing the issue of voting rights
- Challenging Republican voter suppression legislation in court, as a party, at all times
- Introducing legislation, at the state or the Federal level, to roll back voter suppression legislation, as a party, at all times
- Seeking to register voters, en masse, in off years (and you’d think that selling people insurance under ObamaCare would have provided an ideal opportunity to piggyback a voter registration system)
So, one can conclude only one thing: Since Democratic leaders don’t oppose these Republican efforts, they support them. No doubt that’s because those disenfranchised by Voter ID requirements tend to be not professional, more poor, older, and not white, and hence more likely to be injured by, and vote against, the neo-liberal policies that Democrats and Republicans alike support. In other words, voter suppression is a successful example of bipartisanship.
That said, let’s turn to the details of the election; I’ll give some resources on voting at the end. After all, there are only 732 days until election day, 2016, so we’d better read up!
FiveThirtyEight says that turnout is down (though if there are figures on how much of this is due to voter suppression, I haven’t seen them).
[The figures show] a steep decline from recent national elections. McDonald estimates that just 36.6 percent of Americans eligible to vote did so for the highest office on their ballot. That’s down from 40.9 percent in the previous midterm elections, in 2010, and a steep falloff from 58 percent in 2012.
OK, 2012 was a presidential year, so turnout was up, but relative to 2010? That’s cliff-diving! In regards to the Democratic GOTV (Get Out The Vote) operation, how are the mighty fallen!
Remember that Obama’s strategists didn’t simply assume control of the Democratic Party when they won in 2008; they actually supplanted it. The idea was that his field operation, rechristened Organizing for America (as opposed to Obama for America) after the campaign, was far more sophisticated and space-age than anything Democrats already had in-house. So OFA moved into the Democratic National Committee and effectively took it over.
The Obama Campaign paid the iron price, in other words; their sword was technology.
In the afterglow of that victory, during the weeks in early 2009 when the OFA guys were plugging in their iPhones over at the party’s new, sleek headquarters on Ivy Street, it was popular to suggest that a permanent realignment had taken place. I recall sitting on one of these postelection panels around that time, at Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism, and hearing some of my colleagues go on about this Rooseveltian, once-in-a-century shift that Obama had ushered in. Republicans were finished for 40 years, give or take a few; the new electorate was younger, more diverse and more liberal, and it was only going to get more so with each successive election.
And what a load of bollocks that turned out to be. (This would appear to be a case of A Tiny Revolutions #3 — “a conscious attempt to change its culture” by celebrating organizers — but I’d argue that contacting people only creates weak ties, and isn’t the same as organizing them, and the iPhone dudes did a lot more of the former than the latter.
No turnout model on the planet, no matter how shrewd or high-tech, can make a party as compelling as a great messenger. Nor can it substitute the blather of an empty campaign for the power of an actual idea.
You can’t beat something with nothing, another theme that has re-occurred this year.
Election Night Problems
As usual, and shamefully for a putatively first world country, there were all sorts of glitches all around the country; Reuters has a list:
Chicago, more than 2,000 election judges – a fifth of the total – failed to show up at polling places after automated phone calls beginning on Saturday falsely informed them that they were unqualified without additional training (!). … Officials and voting rights advocates reported machine failures in North Carolina and Texas, polling breakdowns in a key Florida county and an overall increase in the number of people reporting they were turned away for lack of proper identification [see above].
The locations reporting problems include Ferguson in St Louis County. Bradblog has a round-up of odd events reported from the ground and by St Louis papers:
They ran out of paper ballots at 4:20 this afternoon and had hours long lines for 3 electronic voting machines. The poll workers said paper ballots were running out at other polling precincts.
Move along people, move along….
Building on the spurious concern over voter identification fraud, we have the Crosscheck project. Greg Palast has a report in Al Jazeera America:
Using open-records requests, Al Jazeera America obtained the previously confidential Crosscheck lists of 2.1 million voters potentially accused of casting ballots in two different states in the same election, a crime punishable by 2 to 10 years in prison. The lists reveal that the supposed double voters were matched simply on first and last name, and middle initials, suffixes and Social Security numbers were ignored.
That’s not a bug. It’s a feature. What shows amazing chutzpah is that Crosscheck nationalizes the techniques of the infamous “Florida Felon’s List,” which Jebbie used to purge Florida voter rolls of Democrats before election 2000. Note that the technique of “shoddy” database methodology” (and by “shoddy” we mean “having engineered the outcome the client preferred”) is very similar:
[The] computer program automatically transformed various forms of a single name. In one case, a voter named “Christine” was identified as a felon based on the conviction of a “Christopher” with the same last name. Smith says ChoicePoint would not respond to queries about its proprietary methods.
Fortunately, Democratic party leader President Obama spoke out strongly about disenfranchising black, Hispanic, and Asian-American voters using shoddy database methodoloy. Oh, wait…
Here are some resources on voting: Bradblog is the go-to blog for the subject of voting; Ballot Access News tracks the efforts of emergent parties to get on the ballot, and how the legacy party duopoly attempts to prevent them.
Ballot measures about increasing the minimum wage scored huge wins in Illinois, Alaska, Arkansas and Nebraska. In the same Arkansas election that incumbent Sen. Mark Pryor (D) lost by 17 points, the minimum wage increase ballot measure was approved by a two-to-one margin.
In California Proposition 47, a major sentencing reform measure, won with 58.5 percent support. The measure is a clear signal the state has turned against the aggressive drug war and “tough on crime” mentality.
Marijuana legalization had its best election ever scoring three big wins in D.C., Oregon, and Alaska. An impressive feat given that young people tend to turn out in lower rates during midterm elections.
Paid sick leave will now be required for many workers in Massachusetts thanks to a win for Question 4.
The extreme anti-abortion personhood measures were easily defeated in Colorado and the red state of North Dakota. …
Alabama’s ballot initiative was an amendment to the State constitution. The National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) summarized it:
Proposing an amendment to the Constitution of Alabama of 1901, to prohibit the State of Alabama from giving full faith and credit to public acts, records, or judicial proceedings of another state that violate the public policy of the State of Alabama and to prohibit the application of foreign law in violation of rights guaranteed natural citizens by the United States and Alabama Constitutions, and the statutes, laws, and public policy thereof, but without application to business entities.
Coverage focused on “prohibit the application of foreign law,” by which the proponents meant sharia law, another well-known Republican issue of
sphincter control non-compliant “others.” However, I think the “full faith and credit” clause is more interesting. From AL.com, the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Gerald Allen, asked Eric Johnston of the Southeast Law Institute to explain the bill:
“With the laws about legalization of same-sex marriage, legalization of marijuana, our sister states are not all walking together,” Johnston said. “They are coming up with different things, so we need to address all of this kind of thing. Amendment One would remind judges: We’ve got a constitution, we’ve got rights; you need to respect those rights.”
Which is all fine, but where do Alabama’s “states’ rights” stop, and why? Could Alabama decide not to recognize other state’s driver’s licenses, for example? How about forms of identification? Or health insurance? I mean, “out-of-network” is one thing, but “out-of-Alabama” is another, surely?
At the State Level
David Sirota has been on fire since he left Pando and joined International Business Times, and here are two stories he wrote. First, he contrasts campaign funding at the state level to that at the Federal level:
To put the DLCC’s fundraising total into context, consider Kentucky’s election. Democratic candidate Alison Lundergan Grimes raised almost double the amount of money for her single unsuccessful U.S. Senate bid than the national party apparatus raised for its campaign for more than 6,000 state legislative seats.
The election results starkly reflected the decision by party donors and operatives to direct so few resources into state races. … In all, NCSL reports that there are 67 legislative chambers controlled by Republicans and just 29 controlled by Democrats. Republicans gained seats in every region, adding up to 375 seats to their column. That gives the GOP more than 4,100 of the country’s 7,383 legislative seats.
This seem like a fine case of “The Iron Law of Institutions.” The powers-that-be are all at the Federal level, so that’s where the money goes, the strength of the party be damned. (So the Democrats should really stop whining about gerrymandering and redistricting, right? Since they are putting no money into winning the legislatures where those decisions are made?)
Second, Sirota points out a fine example of open, third world-style conflict and corruption:
No recount will be needed to declare one unambiguous winner in Tuesday’s gubernatorial elections: the financial services industry. From Illinois to Massachusetts, voters effectively placed more than $100 billion worth of public pension investments under the control of executives-turned-politicians whose firms profit by managing state pension money.
Note that this is Naked Capitalism’s beat, and I hope that readers will be on the lookout and send us links on pension funds being looted by finance Flexians. Because you know it will happen!
“Money in Politics”
I have some skepticism about “Get money out of politics” as an ethic and a goal, expressed here. That said, there’s no question money (“the gold price”) does affect politics, and here’s an example.
From the Atlantic, which explains that state judges have a better ROI than state legislators:
Political donors have realized that a donation to a state supreme court campaign brings higher yields than a donation to a state legislator’s campaign: It’s more expensive to change who’s passing the laws—often more than 100 people—than to change the handful of individuals who interpret them. ….
In one poll, nearly half of the judges surveyed said that campaign contributions had in some way influenced their decisions. But Shepherd, the Emory professor, sought out a more empirical link between judicial-election spending, Citizens United, and the rulings that judges then made. She and her co-author, Michael S. Kang, found that . Further, they were 7 percent more likely to side in a defendant’s favor before Citizens United than after.
But the relation between money as input and elections and policy as output is by no means always linear, as the state of Maine shows.
The Strange Case of Maine
First, Maine was number one in voter turnout, at 59.3%; remember that the average turnout was an abysmal 36.6%. However, Republican Governor LePage won re-election “at Marden’s prices”, with his cost-per-vote less than half of Michaud, the Democratic loser, who also had a greater proportion of money from outside groups. Nor did heavy Democratic spending yields returns in state Senate races:
Outside groups working to elect Democrats to the Maine Senate spent more on negative advertising than their opponents in almost every case but received very little return on that hefty investment.
In fact, the relation between spending and victory in Maine was inverse!
That’s where most of the opposition spending was concentrated, with outside Democratic groups spending about $6.50 in opposition ads for every $3.50 outside Republican groups spent to support their Senate candidates.
The reverse was true in the House, where Democrats appear to have retained majority status — albeit by a slimmer margin — after spending about $2.50 in opposition ads for every $7.50 outside Republican groups spent to support their candidates.
I think the Governor’s race is another case of “you can’t beat something with nothing,” and in this case the unlovable and irascible LePage, who fled his abusive millworker father at the age of eleven and lived on the streets for two years, was most definitely something, and the grey apparatchik Michaud was nothing. For the Senate races, I have no explanation, except to hope that Maine can bottle and distribute whatever cultural factors cause more spending to lose votes, because the rest of the country needs it. Of course, this election could be just a blip!
In so many ways, the 2014 midterms were about the gold price. Gold to pay the operatives, consultants, “strategists,” and bent database programmers; gold in retirement coffers to be seized by bent FIRE executives; gold to Federal Senators, but not to state ones; and a rejection, quite possibly random, of the gold price for office in the great state of Maine.
It would be a pleasant thing if the 2016 elections were about the iron price: Challenges to the leadership by Democrats who believe that the neo-liberal policies that have been metastatizing in the body politic since the mid-70s are indefensible in human and moral terms, and that neo-liberals will take down the whole country if their policies are not halted and rolled back. I don’t see any Democrats on the horizon who are willing to pay that price, but then LBJ didn’t see Eugene McCarthy coming either.
 All the points A Tiny Revolution makes are worth studying. For example, Howard Dean was, ultimately, not willing to pay the iron price, but the “50 State Strategy” did attempt to change the culture of the Democratic Party as #3 suggests. #4 calls into question the justification for emergent parties like the Greens. #5 is a useful reminder that our political economy has many power centers besides parties (and voters).
 There’s certainly a more scholarly definition out there somewhere, but since this definition evolved in the rough and tumble of the NC comments section, and moreover is useful in providing a plausible account of the actions and policies of both parties, we can go with it for now. See here for an operational approach to the same question of definition. Presumably, when neo-liberalism has metastatized completely, the only people willing to pay the iron price will be mercenaries.
 Were voter impersonation fraud an optimal technique, Jeb Bush would surely have used it in Florida 2000.
 I remember that voting in the last Quebec referendum, in a province of six million, was done on paper, and the count was done by volunteers and complete in an evening. There is absolutely no reason — except, perhaps, the Iron Law of Institutions — why this cannot be done in the United States, and even made an occasion of conviviality on the holiday that Election Day should be. Hand-marked, hand-counted paper ballots, tabulated in public, are the “gold standard” of voting technology.
 The same Jebbie who is treated seriously as a possible Presidential candidate in 2016. Then again, impunity for theft and fraud is now normalized among the elites, so I suppose we should not be surprised.