Let's explore this moment in US politics together

Wait no longer, OverHere has arrived

Hello, hello! Welcome to the very first edition of OverHere, the newsletter through which we will explore this moment in US politics together.

The US midterm elections are coming up on November 6. Each week leading up to the midterms I will curate the most helpful and interesting articles about developments in US politics, and offer my own insight as a relentlessly curious Australian living over here, to help explore questions we all have about what the […] is going on in this part of the world.

The US midterm elections present the first widespread chance to take the temperature of the nation following the extraordinary 2016 election. Issues like immigration, health care, jobs, trade, race, guns, women’s rights, and Russian interference remain front and centre. But it can be hard to cut through and draw out what really matters, to separate what is noise from what will be significant in shaping the future landscape.

I have lived here for nearly three years now, and I still have a million questions about the dynamics that are shaping the political landscape. And I have a million questions for and about the different communities that make up this vast and diverse country that can be in equal parts charming and bewildering.

I know you all have questions of your own, and I hope this newsletter will be a way for us to explore these questions together.

Headlines worth paying attention to

In case you escaped the headlines this past week, there was a lot of Trump abroad.

Trump joined Putin for a private one-on-one summit in Helsinki, just three days after the Justice Department indicted 12 Russian intelligence agents on charges of hacking the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. Expect a week filled with speculation about what the summit was all about, and chatter about the meaning of Trump’s reluctance to address Russian meddling in the 2016 election. Trump is already facing criticism from all sides, including from Republicans and Fox commentators. And he has said that he misspoke when he appeared to accept Putin’s assurance that Russia did not meddle in the US election over the US intelligence agencies’ conclusion that it did.

Earlier in the week, Trump kept things spicy at NATO, pressuring member countries to up their defence spending. He reportedly threatened to pull the US out of NATO if spending targets were not met, and accused Germany of being “totally controlled” by Russia because of its importation of Russian gas. In Britain, Trump claimed to know best on Brexit, threatening to axe a US trade deal with Britain if British Prime Minister Theresa May pursues her latest announced plan for a “soft” Brexit.

At home, the Trump administration began reuniting migrant children, detained after crossing the border with Mexico, with their families, starting with children under the age of five. Shortly before publishing this, more than 2,800 children remain in detention facilities, waiting to be reunited with their families.

SCOTUS: much voting, much politicking, the opposite of transparency

And, of course, Trump announced his nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court (SCOTUS), to fill the vacancy left by retiring justice Anthony Kennedy.

This is a move likely to have an impact on the Court, and on America, well into the future. So this week I want to take an initial deeper dive into the nomination. I have sifted through many of the tomes already written on the subject, to draw out some of the more insightful sources, and will keep on at the task.

Kavanaugh is seen as a solidly conservative pick, likely to further cement a majority conservative Court, and less likely to be the kind of swing vote that his predecessor was.  

The confirmation process is a highly political one.

Kavanaugh’s nomination is not a done deal, though. The next step is confirmation by the Senate. The appointment of judges to SCOTUS is a highly political process, requiring approval by the US Senate after nomination by the President.

For a graphical representation of the confirmation process, I found the diagram in this WaPo explainer helpful.

Of course, Australia’s own process for selecting High Court justices is opaque and political in its own way (being, in essence, a Captain’s Pick). The US confirmation process is political in a much more public (though not necessarily transparent) way. The process will involve the opportunity for the public airing of Kavanaugh’s dirty laundry, and of course the opportunity for politicking as both sides seek the numbers to win / block the Senate vote.

What are the maths for confirmation, you may ask?

It’s pretty tight, actually. Remember, the Republicans need at least 50 votes to win the confirmation (since they have Vice President Pence to break a tied vote). Currently there are 51 Republican Senators, 47 Democrat Senators and two Independents. Senator John McCain has not voted all this year while he undergoes treatment for brain cancer, so the Republicans may only have 50 Senators present at the vote. In that event, assuming all Democrats and Independents vote against his confirmation (which is not a guarantee), the Republicans can’t afford to lose a vote.

There has therefore been a strong focus on several Republican Senators who are seen as perhaps more likely than others to vote against Kavanaugh. Among them are Susan Collins (Maine) -- who has said she would not vote to confirm someone “who demonstrated hostility to Roe v. Wade” -- and Lisa Murkowski (Alaska). In the days since the nomination, however, both have signaled some level of comfort with Kavanaugh.

Something I find crazy is that senators are lobbied by special interest groups with interests on both sides of the aisle. In some cases groups with anonymous donors are planning spends in the realm of tens of millions of dollars to target Senators seen as the more likely candidates to break from their party voting line. How can regular people, and perhaps even the Senators themselves, know what special interests are behind this pressure to decide something that will have such a material and long-term impact on the country?

Key questions I am keen to explore further through this newsletter include:

  • (The obvious one:) What would having Kavanaugh on SCOTUS mean for decisions on key issues the Court will likely have to grapple with during his term - e.g. abortion - and issues it might have to grapple with - e.g. impeachment - and how do we even go about knowing the answer to this (prior decisions, extra-judicial statements, prior life and work experience?)?  

  • Given that the Senate process for confirming Kavanaugh is a political one with tight maths, what political horse-trading will go on to ensure Kavanaugh’s nomination?

  • Why is it taken so much for granted over here that one can predict with certainty how a SCOTUS justice is likely to decide in the face of a particular set of facts?

Source: New Yorker (you can follow their cartoons on Instagram @newyorkercartoons)

I couldn’t resist.

Have you read something on the subject that you found particularly helpful or illuminating? Hit reply and let me know.

The quest for the anti-Trump: is it Stormy Daniels’ lawyer, Michael Avenatti?

One of America’s real talents is turning out … colourful characters, and these times are a playground for characters and storylines that make fiction look bland. How could we forget Anthony ‘The Mooch’ Scaramucci, Trump’s press secretary for less than a second?

In these times of Trump, some folks are keeping an eye out for an anti-Trump. And some are looking at Michael Avenatti, the lawyer for Stormy Daniels (quick reminder: the porn star in a legal dispute with Trump over an alleged affair). Hard-hitting, larger than life, fond of a TV appearance, and possessing a not unhealthy ego, Avenatti has amassed a large following since taking on the case, and has been characterised as a Trump-like anti-Trump. In a time where the cult of personality seems as powerful a factor as ever in presidential elections, is he planning to run in 2020? According to Avenatti, in this recent profile in The New York Times Magazine:

‘“Never say never,” he said, finally. “If you would’ve told me four months ago we’d sit here talking about this — that I’d be representing an adult film star, to in the present, that I would become a household name, at least in a lot of households — I would’ve told you, ‘You are out of your mind!’ ” He went on: “The truth is, I don’t know what’s going to happen over the next 18 to 24 months. I just don’t know.”

Two weeks later, in response to a journalist on Twitter, Avenatti would go a step further, saying he’d run for president if “there is no other candidate in the race that has a REAL chance of beating” Trump.’  

For a bit of fun …

I will be the first to admit that I am a sucker for a lip-sync battle, and Americans in uniform seem uncommonly good at them. I hope you enjoy the Corinth Police Department’s rendition of Party in the USA as much as I did.

Future themes ... this is a country where less than 50% of voting age citizens make the trip to the ballot box in the midterms

This week I participated (silently) in a conference call that the New York Times organised for subscribers. The subject of the call was how to to participate in politics, and covered themes around voting and activism. The conversation was interesting to me for several reasons. One was from an audience engagement angle, showing a shift towards facilitating conversations between journalists and audiences. Another was the way it signalled a shift in the role the Times sees itself as playing, perhaps moving towards educator and coach - educating and coaching readers in how to make a plan to vote, and strategies for getting more involved in activism - rather than simply informer. But most interestingly for the purpose of this newsletter was the subject matter: essentially, how to be an engaged citizen in and around election years.

The question of what it means to be an engaged citizen is one I am always interested to compare between the US and Australia. We are certainly living in an age in the US where to be political often means to call oneself an activist. But I am particularly interested in questions around voting, since it is just so different to voting in Australia. The obvious difference is that voting here is not mandatory. That in and of itself gives rise to many interesting questions in this nation that prizes democracy, and seeks to spread it throughout the world.

Here are some questions I want to explore around voting (some of which have already come from you through earlier conversations, so thank you!):

  • Who votes, and who doesn’t vote?

  • What are some of the reasons people don’t vote? I plan on speaking with non-voters to ask about their reasons (particularly interested in principled standpoints).

  • What voter suppression efforts still persist, and which groups are affected? In a conversation about voter engagement earlier this year, an African-American colleague of mine posed the question: can we even call America a real democracy, given efforts to suppress votes over the years?

  • What does the universe of political advertising look like here? When parties have to put so much effort into getting people out to vote (or not), advertising takes on a different role.

Got a question about voting, or about how people participate in politics over here? Just hit reply to this email and send it through, and I’ll do my best to find answers for you.

Well, that’s it for today.

I hope you have a gorgeous week, wherever you are. I will see you in your inbox next edition.

Over and out,

Alex Eggerking

Oh wait, some other stuff

Say hello. Got a question or thought you’d like to share about something in this newsletter? Or maybe some feedback or a suggestion for future editions? Just want to say hi? PLEASE hit reply to this email and let me know. Don’t hold back, I urge you! This newsletter is brand new, and hearing from you will help me shape it into something that YOU continue to find valuable.

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A note on spelling. I have thought long and hard about matters of spelling since setting out to write this newsletter. I have decided that since the majority of the audience will likely be Australian or have some connection to Australia, Australian spelling will win the day. Please forgive the occasional slip up where I let a stray Americanisation remain. It took me nearly two years to start using ‘z’s as a matter of course (and call them ‘zee’s’), and now this practice is lodged in my brain. It is also nearly impossible to get through a business day here without referring to people as “folks”, so please grant me that indulgence from time to time, too. Grammar, well, that’s a different matter, and all grammatical mistakes are my own. Feel free to point them out if that’s the sort of thing that makes you happy.