Evidence Indicates that Bernie Sanders is the Democrats’ Best Shot at the White House

Of those who know who he is, most voters like Bernie Sanders.  He is the only major presidential candidate with a positive net favorability rating among the general public.  Yet despite these facts and his wildly popular ideas, he remains the underdog in the race for the Democratic nomination.  Why?

The answer appears to be perceived electability.  When I’ve phone banked for Sanders, I’ve talked to a lot of voters who say they’re a big fan of his, and they’re glad he’s in the race, but they just aren’t sure he can win a general election.  They’re scared of the Republicans, they tell me, and their foremost concern is making sure the Democratic nominee, no matter who it is, wins in November.

I think this attitude is misguided, both because there are large and important differences between the Democratic candidates and because electability arguments can be circular, self-fulfilling prophecies.  In no small part because electability considerations are speculative, we’re much better served by casting our vote for the candidate whose record and platform is most aligned with our values.

That said, given that a lot of people think about electability, it’s worth looking at some evidence.  The numbers indicate that the Democrats’ electoral prospects would be better under Bernie Sanders than under Hillary Clinton for two important reasons:

1. Young people, who arguably won both the 2008 and 2012 elections for Barack Obama, love Sanders. Many do not like Clinton.

In Iowa’s Democratic primary, Sanders beat Clinton among Democrats aged 18-29 by 70 percentage points.  In New Hampshire, he won that age group by 65 percentage points.  And in the most recent national poll from Quinnipiac University, Sanders held a net favorability rating among 18-34 year-old voters of all political affiliations that was 57 percentage points better than Clinton’s (see graph below).  Sanders is more popular among millennials right now than Obama was among young voters in 2008 and 2012.

Millennials for Bernie

On voting results alone, my generation won Indiana and North Carolina for Barack Obama in 2008 and Florida, Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Ohio in 2012.  In addition, the youth contribution to electoral success extends beyond the vote; as Pew reported in 2008:

…young people provided not only their votes but also many enthusiastic campaign volunteers. Some may have helped persuade parents and older relatives to consider Obama’s candidacy. And far more young people than older voters reported attending a campaign event while nearly one-in-ten donated money to a presidential candidate.

It is extremely hard to believe that millennials would turn out and vote for Clinton in such large numbers if she becomes the Democratic nominee; over 41,000 people, for example, have already pledged to write Bernie in if he loses to Clinton in the primary.  There is also an undeniable “enthusiasm gap” between the Sanders and Clinton campaigns; even if most Sanders supporters would suck it up and turn out for Clinton if she ends up as the nominee, which is hardly guaranteed, we won’t see anything close to the volunteerism millennials are already engaged in on Bernie’s behalf.  If your main concern is electability, do you really want to gamble with the key demographic group from the last two presidential elections?

2. Independents and Republicans are more likely to vote for Bernie Sanders than for Hillary Clinton.

Sanders also has much higher favorability ratings than Clinton among non-Democrats; his net favorability among them was 39 percentage points better than Clinton’s in the most recent Quinnipiac poll, and in New Hampshire, he won Independents by 47 percentage points.  His class-based, anti-Establishment message resonates.  If you heard Sanders speak at Liberty University (a conservative hotbed; see video below) last September, you know what I’m talking about; his direct, honest pitch for people who disagree about social issues to band together in pursuit of economic justice was very well-received.  He didn’t win an army of converts overnight, but he did get people thinking; one Liberty alum estimates that half of the Liberty community could potentially Feel the Bern.

Read this take from teenage-conservative-icon-turned-Sanders-supporter CJ Pearson.  Listen to the growing contingent of “Lifelong Republicans Who Love Bernie Sanders.”  Or consider my (admittedly anecdotal) experience talking to several voters and reading numerous Internet comments of folks who are deciding between Donald Trump and Sanders.  As Daniel Denvir notes, that doesn’t mean that Sanders will win over the most prejudiced Trump supporters, but his brand of economic populism may make him “the Democrats’ only chance to wrest white working class voters from a billionaire’s hate-filled dystopian rage.”

The coalition we’re seeing for Sanders in the primaries already indicates the appeal he holds for voters who less consistently vote Democratic.  Polling data shows that “Sanders has forged connections to lower-income New Hampshire and Iowa Democrats that eluded Obama and every other progressive primary challenger in recent history.”  Unlike Clinton, Sanders may be able to turn out people who don’t often vote, bring in some folks who usually vote against their economic interests, and unite both groups with traditional Democratic voting blocs.

Polls that explore head-to-head matchups also suggest that Sanders would do better than Clinton against each of the top five Republican candidates.  Clinton-backer Paul Krugman calls such polls meaningless (he did, however, cite them himself to raise concerns about Barack Obama’s electability in March of 2008), and I personally wouldn’t read too much into them – we’re still very far out from the general election and opinions can surely change – but arguments that these numbers will flip remain completely evidence-free.  Here’s why:

– Republican attacks would work at least as well against Hillary Clinton as they would against Bernie Sanders.

Yes, Bernie Sanders defines himself as a Democratic Socialist.  If he is the nominee, GOP attack ads would surely use that label to cast him as insane, dangerous, and/or un-American…which is exactly the same thing they did to Barack Obama for eight years and would surely do to Hillary Clinton as well.

Anyone who would run screaming from a 30-second ad decrying socialism without doing any research isn’t going to vote for Sanders or Clinton in a general election.  But since most of Sanders’ platform, as mentioned earlier, is extremely popular, many voters who actually do their homework will quickly learn that his brand of democratic socialism isn’t scary at all (it’s not even particularly radical).

While the Republican party would undoubtedly dream up additional smears to use against Sanders, the GOP doesn’t exactly have a crisis of imagination – or a lack of material to work with – when it comes to attacking Clinton.  The idea that Sanders, a candidate whose popularity continues to grow with his name recognition, would be hurt more by such attacks than Clinton, whose favorability has steadily tanked over the last few years, is pure folly.

Candidate Favorability.png

– Candidates labeled “unelectable” by party elites and the punditry have won before.

While Clinton supporters love comparing Sanders’ candidacy to the unsuccessful campaigns of Eugene McCarthy and George McGovern, these comparisons don’t hold water.  Electoral dynamics today are drastically different than they were in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

At least two presidential candidates in more recent history have been labeled “unelectable” and gone on to win.  One was Ronald Reagan.  The other, as alluded to earlier, was Barack Obama.  That history isn’t proof that Sanders will follow suit, but it indicates that “expert” opinions about electability should be taken with a gigantic grain of salt.

For all their talk about the importance of evidence-based electability arguments, Krugman and his fellow naysayers haven’t actually provided any.  They rely instead on a dubious application of the psychological principle of loss aversion and a simplistic political categorization model, among other speculative arguments, each of which is unconvincing.

None of that’s to say that Sanders doesn’t still have a lot of work to do if he wants to win the Democratic nomination.  Clinton, despite having a very bad record on racial justice, currently holds a big lead among non-White voters.  Sanders will need to cut into that.  Clinton’s lead is likely due more to voters’ unfamiliarity with Sanders than anything else, however, and as more non-White voters learn about him, Sanders’ popularity among those voters should continue to rise.

When it does, we’ll have a real primary election on our hands.  And while I’d advise against putting too much stock in electability arguments, the candidate in that primary with the best record and policy platform – Bernie Sanders – also happens to be the Democrats’ best shot in November.

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Filed under 2016 Presidential Election, US Political System

How Change Actually Happens

Debbie Spielberg has worked on legislation and policy at the national and local levels, including serving as Legislative Director for Congressman John Lewis (D-Atlanta).  She currently is a legislative aide for Montgomery County Councilmember Marc Elrich (D at-large), where she works on transportation, housing, economic development, and environmental issues, and is also the chairperson of Jamie Raskin‘s Maryland State Senate campaign.  In this article, Spielberg draws on her experience working on progressive policy initiatives to explain why Bernie Sanders is the rare politician with the right theory of change.

Debbie

Debbie Spielberg

Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman recently echoed the argument of too many pundits, elected officials and some of my good friends that Bernie Sanders is too radical and his goals too idealistic to be electable, or, even, to enjoy legislative success if he is.

They’re wrong.

I remember a conversation I had about seven years ago with an erstwhile friend of mine who was consulting with the Obama White House on health care.  He told me that they were using focus groups to determine what health care proposals they could sell to the American public.  That seemed backwards to me.  I asked him why they didn’t first determine what the best proposal was, and then use the focus groups to figure out how to best sell it to the American public.

He quickly dismissed my question.  His argument: I just didn’t understand how politics work (never mind that I had spent years working in Congress and elsewhere in public policy).  Like Krugman, he believed in accepting the terms of a debate rather than in reframing issues, as Bernie does.

Unfortunately, Republicans get why this approach is misguided.  Packaging and sales can make or break an initiative or a candidate.  Remember the sales pitch that candidate George W. Bush was a “compassionate conservative?”  Remember the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth ads, recognized as lies at the time, which effectively distorted John Kerry’s record as a war hero?  Going back much further, President Harry Truman’s proposal for national health care in 1948, overwhelmingly popular at the time, fell victim to negative messaging from the first-ever political consulting firm.

How politicians and the media frame issues plays an essential role in how the public responds.  Bernie is competitive in the polls, and his campaign is generating excitement among many voters (both young and old) around the country, because he understands this point. We don’t rebuild and strengthen the middle class, which is the foundation of a strong democracy, by refusing to think big.  We do it by building a movement, and that starts with unapologetic advocacy for policies that help people.

Consider the bailouts during the Great Recession.  President Obama, top economic adviser Lawrence Summers, and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner should have declared that government’s top priority was to help individuals hold on to their homes (which are the largest part of middle-income wealth).  The right “sales pitch” with the right vision might have toppled Congressional opposition.  (I write “might” because we can’t know – they didn’t try.)

Instead of helping individual homeowners directly, the government bailed out (most of) the major financial institutions.  And held none of the offending executives and CEO’s of these institutions personally accountable.  Meanwhile, millions of Americans lost their homes and had to rebuild their lives from scratch.

In the same way that many well-meaning people believe that Bernie Sanders is “unelectable” (even though he has won 14 elections thus far in his life), many argue that a stimulus program focused on individual homeowners was not possible: the President and the Democrats who supported that approach could not have convinced others to rebuild from the bottom up.  I disagree.  President Obama did not take hold of the narrative and “sell” the best policies for the country.  That’s why his solutions turned out to be Band Aids, not the fundamental moves away from the Reagan/Clinton/Bush “assault” on middle-class and poor families that we desperately need.

Bernie, on the other hand, would fight for good policy ideas.  “Medicare for All,” free higher education, a $15 minimum wage, comprehensive immigration reform, addressing climate change, a focus on rebuilding our deteriorating infrastructure – these ideas would all strengthen the foundation of our country (literally, at least in the case of infrastructure!).  Importantly, though it may surprise Krugman et al., Bernie has a long record of translating such ideas into government policy that helps people.  As Eliza Webb summarizes over at Salon:

[Sanders] has combined what Krugman aptly terms “high-minded” leadership with deft policy-making, fiscal judiciousness with social liberalism, the agenda of the Republicans with the agenda of the Democrats, and strong purpose with clever bargains, to bring forth genuine, bona fide, palpable, honest-to-goodness change for the American people.

The dictionary defines radical as “very different from the usual or traditional.”  So perhaps Bernie and his ideas are radical.  With this “radical” candidate, we finally have a leader who is willing to shatter the conventional narrative and propose solutions that might actually make a difference.

I’m all in.

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Filed under 2016 Presidential Election, US Political System

Bernie Sanders Is Correct: He Polls Better than Hillary Clinton Against the Republicans

PolitiFact just issued a completely incorrect ruling on one of their “fact checks.”  Here is the correct ruling on the following statement from Bernie Sanders:

34justice Truth Ruling

PolitiFact called it “false” because they found a few polls in which Clinton does better.  Their “fact checking” was grossly negligent, however.  While the meaning of “Almost all of” can be debated and I would have rather Sanders said “In general,” the worst anyone who has actually done their homework could rule this statement is “mostly true.”

RealClearPolitics compiles results from every poll and reports averages in many matchups.  The chart below shows how Clinton and Sanders fare on average against each of the top five Republican candidates (shown in order of the candidates’ average ranking in Republican primary polls).  As is obvious from looking at the graph, Sanders polls better on average than Clinton against each of the candidates, and significantly better than Clinton against Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, the two leading candidates in the Republican field (for example, while Sanders beats Cruz by 3.3 percentage points in the average poll, Clinton loses to Cruz by an average of 1.3 percentage points).

RCP Polling Averages

People can have reasonable debates about how to interpret the poll results.  Should Democrats be most worried about Marco Rubio?  Maybe.  Do the results mean much, given that all the matchups are hypothetical at this point and the general election is still a long way away?  Maybe not.  But the evidence we do have is clear: the polls absolutely, as Bernie Sanders said, “suggest that [he is] a much stronger candidate against the Republicans than is Hillary Clinton”

That may not have been PolitiFact’s ruling, but it is the truth.  How’s that for a fact check?

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Voting for Bernie Sanders, Learning from Ta-Nehisi Coates

Several months ago, Black Lives Matter activists targeted Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders with protests.  Many of my fellow Sanders supporters thought these protests unfair, in large part, as I explained at the time, because Sanders “has an excellent record on racial justice issues, much better than any other candidate running for president.”  Sanders backers noted that his “passion for economic justice…is intimately connected with a passion for racial justice.  Income, wealth, and opportunity inequality in this country disproportionately affect communities of color, and a commitment to addressing them is in many ways in and of itself indicative of a view that Black Lives Matter.”  Since Hillary Clinton and the Republican candidates “have almost-uniformly worse records and stances…on issues affecting Black Americans,” Sanders supporters didn’t understand “why Black Lives Matter [was] applying pressure primarily to the candidate most sympathetic to their cause.”

These very same arguments are now surfacing again in response to Ta-Nehisi Coates, who recently took Sanders to task for failing to support reparations (restitution for the centuries of plunder America has visited upon Black communities).  These arguments are still, to a large extent, fair to make.  It is also fair to point out some notable problems with Coates’ characterization of Sanders and his positions:

  • Sanders is not the self-proclaimed “radical” Coates thinks he is – Sanders is making fun of that label in the quote Coates pulls and frequently says on the campaign trail that his ideas, which are wildly popular, are not radical;
  • Sanders is not, as Coates asserts, “posing as a pragmatist” – he most definitely is a pragmatist (just a more power-balancing one than we usually see in American politics);
  • Sanders is in fact “the candidate of…unification” in the Democratic primary, despite Coates’ claim to the contrary; and
  • As Daniel Denvir and Kevin Drum have noted, Sanders’ responses to the questions he’s been asked about reparations – that he supports “making massive investments in rebuilding our cities, in creating millions of decent paying jobs, in making public colleges and universities tuition-free, basically targeting our federal resources to the areas where it is needed the most and where it is needed the most is in impoverished communities, often African American and Latino” – don’t sound all that different from a reparations proposal Coates himself has previously entertained.

At the same time, the thrust of Coates’ articles is entirely legitimate and extremely important, as were the Black Lives Matter protests.  “For one thing,” as I mentioned previously with regard to the protests, “while racial and economic justice are intimately connected, they are not the exact same thing.”  Coates, like the protesters before him, wants Sanders to “promote a specific racial justice platform complementary to his economic justice agenda, and [he has] every right to demand that [Sanders] do so.”  For another, Coates is justified in focusing on Sanders “precisely because he’s a natural ally and the candidate most likely to respond” productively to Coates’ concerns.

Coates hammers this message home in an excellent follow-up piece:

Many Sanders supporters…correctly point out that Clinton handprints are all over America’s sprawling carceral state.  I agree with them and have said so at length.  Voters, and black voters particularly, should never forget that Bill Clinton passed arguably the most immoral ‘anti-crime’ bill in American history, and that Hillary Clinton aided its passage through her invocation of the super-predator myth.  A defense of Clinton rooted in the claim that “Jeb Bush held the same position” would not be exculpatory.  (“Law and order conservative embraces law and order” would surprise no one.)  That is because the anger over the Clintons’ actions isn’t simply based on their having been wrong, but on their craven embrace of law and order Republicanism in the Democratic Party’s name…

[Similarly, t]hat a mainstream Democrat like Hillary Clinton embraces mainstream liberal policy is unsurprising. Clinton has no interest in expanding the Overton window. She simply hopes to slide through it.

But I thought #FeelTheBern meant something more than this. I thought that Bernie Sanders, the candidate of single-payer health insurance, of the dissolution of big banks, of free higher education, was interested both in being elected and in advancing the debate beyond his own candidacy. I thought the importance of Sanders’s call for free tuition at public universities lay not just in telling citizens that which is actually workable, but in showing them that which we must struggle to make workable. I thought Sanders’s campaign might remind Americans that what is imminently doable and what is morally correct are not always the same things, and while actualizing the former we can’t lose sight of the latter.

Coates is verbalizing here what we deserve from every politician, but especially from the candidate we are pledging to support: a willingness to advocate for what’s right, even when it’s not particularly popular.  And whether Bernie Sanders’ dismissal of reparations is semantic or substantive, whether it’s driven by true opposition or by political pragmatism, it’s wrong.  His campaign’s lack of engagement with Coates thus far, who has reached out to the Sanders team several times, is particularly disappointing.

That certainly doesn’t mean we shouldn’t vote for Sanders (and, to be clear, there is no possible interpretation of Coates’ argument that should lead anyone to vote for Clinton).  Many people who support reparations have endorsed and are campaigning for him, and there is strong support for Sanders even in the Coates household (see video clips below)!

Coates discusses Sanders and reparations with Chris Hayes.

Michael Render (also known as Killer Mike), who is “pro Reparations for any people used and abused like Blacks have been here and other places,” explains why “Bernie Sanders is our guy.”

But no politician, no matter who he or she is running against, should ever be immune from critique.  And in Sanders’ case, demands for justice from oppressed people are exactly what his political revolution is supposed to be about.  It’s thus incumbent upon Sanders supporters to stop hassling Coates for asking tough questions and, instead, to start thanking him for holding all of us – including someone who may very well be the next President of the United States – accountable for being the very best we can be.

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Filed under 2016 Presidential Election, Race and Religion, US Political System

Bernie Sanders-Style Health Care Would Be a Big Win for Low- and Middle-Income Americans

Bernie Sanders just released his new proposal for a single-payer health care system.  As former US Labor Secretary Rob Reich notes, Sanders’ plan would be “a huge advance over what we have now.”  Reich’s summary:

It builds on the strengths of Medicare. Like Medicare, it’s universal — separating health insurance from employment, and enabling people to choose a health care provider without worrying about whether that provider is in-network: All they’d need do is go to the doctor and show their insurance card. No more copays, no more deductibles and no more fighting with insurance companies when they fail to pay for charges.

Through a single national insurance system, we’ll no longer be paying for the marketing and advertising of private for-profit health insurers, nor their giant executive salaries, or their complex billing systems. Government will negotiate fair prices with drug companies, hospitals, and medical suppliers.

The plan’s release came right before the fourth Democratic debate and after a week of attacks from the Hillary Clinton campaign, which had been simultaneously complaining about not having plan details and distorting the details of a similar proposal Sanders introduced in the Senate in 2013.  Even those sympathetic to Clinton have labeled these attacks “questionable” or “genuinely strange,” while those willing to more accurately describe her team’s “GOP fear tactics” have noted that they are “wildly misleading,” “flagrantly mischaracterizing,” “mostly false,” “nonsense,” “disingenuous,” “stupid,” and “dishonest.”  Sanders’ plan would expand Medicare, not “dismantle” it; cover more people, not “strip millions” from coverage; ensure that insurance is provided in every state, not “empower” governors to “take [it] away;” and save most Americans lots of money, not “cost” them.

That last point in particular deserves more emphasis, as it’s one about which Clinton appears to have been lying outright.  Speaking to George Stephanopolous about single-payer health care on Wednesday, January 13, Clinton said: “Every analysis that I’m aware of shows it’s going to cost middle-class families and working families.”  Yet I have never seen such an analysis, and every analysis I am aware of says the exact opposite: that most families would gain big from a switch to a Sanders-style health care system (as Sanders explained at the debate, their savings from not having to pay premiums anymore would outweigh any increased taxes they would have to pay to fund the program).

Consider, for example, a 2013 analysis of the Expanded and Improved Medicare For All Act from UMass-Amherst economist Gerald Friedman.  Physicians for a National Health Program called this bill and Sanders’ old plan (which, despite Clinton’s suggestion to the contrary at the debate, is not all that different from his new one) “simply two expressions of the one single payer concept;” Clinton spokesman Brian Fallon agreed that the two bills were “similar” in a recent interview.  As shown in the graph below, Friedman estimated that everyone in the bottom 95% would see their after-tax incomes rise under such a proposal.  Fallon is clearly familiar with this analysis – he selectively referenced parts of it in the interview linked above – and it’s been the most common citation for cost estimates that Clinton herself has used; it’s near impossible to believe that Clinton was not “aware of” it.

Friedman HR 676

Distributional analysis, from UMass-Amherst economist Gerald Friedman, of a 2013 proposal for single-payer health care.

Friedman now estimates that, “[f]or a middle-class family of four with an income from wages of $50,000 and an employer-provided family plan of an average price, the Sanders program would save $5,807, or 12% of income.”  Similarly, the Sanders campaign had previously estimated that his old plan would have saved a typical family between $3,855 and $5,173.  PolitiFact argued that employers might respond to the financing scheme in that plan by reducing workers’ paychecks, but still estimated, even under pessimistic assumptions, that “the average family would save $505 to $1,823 a year.”

There have also been analyses of proposed state-level single-payer health care plans.  A proposal in Vermont in 2001 would have saved an estimated $995 on average for families making between $50,000 and $75,000 a year, while a proposal in California in 2006 would have saved families in that same income range an estimated average of $2,942 (the poorest families – those making less than $10,000 a year – would have saved an estimated average of $608 in both states).

Each of these analyses indicates that Bernie Sanders-style single-payer health care is a major win for low- and middle-income Americans.  It’s theoretically possible that Clinton both isn’t “aware of” any of them and that she and Fallon are sitting on credible analyses that say something different, but I’d give that possibility much lower odds than Martin O’Malley winning the Democratic nomination.  And while Clinton shifted gears slightly at the debate in response to Sanders’ new plan, many of her comments, like the assertions that Sanders would “tear [the Affordable Care Act] up” and that Democrats “couldn’t get the votes for” a public option during the ACA debate, were still extremely misleading.

This conversation about single-payer health care has become a perfect window into the choice facing Democratic primary voters.  After receiving millions of dollars from the health insurance industry, Hillary Clinton no longer supports the type of truly universal health care coverage she backed in the early 1990s.  Instead, she has attacked Bernie Sanders’ support of such a plan with very similar tactics to those she herself decried in 2008 as “right out of Karl Rove’s playbook” (see video below).  These attacks, besides being dishonest, undermine key Democratic values.

On the other hand, Bernie Sanders has a consistent record of fighting for those values.  He rejects money from special interests and believes, as his new proposal reiterates and he said at the debate, that health care is a right that “should be available to all of our people.”  As he also pointed out, the real question isn’t whether single-payer health care is desirable – it’s quite clearly “a pretty good deal.”  The more pertinent question is “whether we have the guts to stand up to the private insurance companies and all of their money, and the pharmaceutical industry.”

Sanders certainly does.  Let’s hope the voters choose wisely.

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Filed under 2016 Presidential Election, Medicine

Donald Trump is A Problem, Not The Problem

Last September, Frank Rich wrote an article for New York Magazine entitled “The Importance of Donald Trump: Far from destroying our democracy, he’s exposing all its phoniness and corruption in ways as serious as he is not. And changing it in the process.”

How so?  Rich argued that Trump has “ensnared the GOP Establishment in a classic Catch-22: It wants Trump voters — it can’t win elections without them — but doesn’t want Trump calling attention to what those voters actually believe.”

Well, that cat left the bag long ago, at least when it comes to anti-Muslim bigotry.  As 2015’s last GOP presidential debate made clear, there isn’t a single Republican candidate willing to declare that Trump’s proposal to temporarily ban all Muslim non-citizens from entering the country is bigoted and unconscionable.  Instead, Trump’s challengers fell all over themselves to court the 59% (or more) of Republican voters who support such a plan.  Even Lindsey Graham (who has since dropped out of the race) and Jeb Bush, who got credit in some corners for challenging Trump’s proposal, could only muster the courage to question whether it would undermine our ability to build coalitions and stay safe.  They left the core problem with it – that it is completely immoral – unmentioned, and they insisted that loyalty to the eventual Republican nominee was more important than the rights of the world’s Muslim population.

So is Rich right?  Does Trump expose the despicable views of his fellow candidates, thus enabling us to confront and discredit them?  Or, as Rachel Maddow asked several weeks ago (audio below), does Trump shift the Overton window of acceptable political discourse?  In other words, does Trump’s rhetoric normalize similarly repugnant proposals from Bush, Ben Carson, Chris Christie, Marco Rubio, and just about every other Republican presidential candidate by making them seem tame in comparison?

I don’t profess to know the answer to that question.  But either way, those of us who truly believe in freedom and justice need to stop treating Donald Trump like some sort of anomaly.  It’s also incumbent upon us to stop acting like despicable, racist, anti-Muslim sentiment and policy ideas are confined to the Republican party; though unethical rhetoric and proposals rear their ugly heads among prominent Republicans more often and more overtly than they do in many other quarters, the mainstream media, popular “liberals,” and high-ranking Democrats are complicit in the persecution of Muslim communities as well.

Consider CNN, the news network that hosted the aforementioned Republican debate.  In October of 2014, for example, network anchors Don Lemon and Alisyn Camerota invited renowned scholar Reza Aslan to an interview (shown below) that began with an absurd question: “Does Islam promote violence?”  Aslan’s responses throughout the rather hostile and offensive set of interview questions, in which he was interrupted by both Lemon and Camerota several times, were well-reasoned and, for the vast majority of the interview, remarkably calm.  He noted that female genital mutilation has nothing to do with Islam – this human rights violation is common in many countries in and around Central Africa, regardless of their majority religion, and is not an issue in majority-Muslim countries outside that region.  He explained that “Islam doesn’t promote violence or peace. Islam is just a religion, and like every religion in the world, it depends on what you bring to it.”  He pointed out that women in majority-Muslim Turkey have had more political success than women in the United States, and, finally, getting a little fed up with Lemon and Camerota’s ignorance, explained more forcefully that the use of the phrase “‘Muslim countries,’ as though Pakistan and Turkey are the same, as though Indonesia and Saudi Arabia are the same…is, frankly…stupid.” (Aslan actually apologized for using the word “stupid” after the interview – even though it’s a fairly accurate description of the generalization he was describing – presumably because he wanted to make sure Camerota knew that he wasn’t directing the comment at her intelligence).

CNN’s response to this exchange, rather than to reflect on what their anchors might have done wrong, was to put Lemon and Camerota back on air to defend their interview in a discussion with Chris Cuomo (shown below).  In his closing remarks, Cuomo said that Aslan’s “tone was very angry, so he wound up kind of demonstrating what people are fearful about when they think of the faith in the first place, which is the hostility of it.”

If you want a more recent example, check out the next interview below, this one between CNN anchors John Vouse and Isha Sesay and Yasser Louati, head of the International Relations Desk for the Collective Against Islamophobia in France.  Just like Lemon and Camerota, Vause and Sesay started with a bigoted and offensive premise – all Muslims should take responsibility for the terrorist attacks in Paris – and continued to ask the same inappropriate question over and over again after Louati politely debunked it.

I wish these videos were outliers, but they aren’t; CNN’s anchors, as well as many members of ostensibly “liberal” media and policy circles, disparage Muslims all the time.  And CNN doesn’t condone this behavior because of an unwavering commitment to freedom of expression for its staff; less than a week after the interview with Louati, CNN suspended its global affairs correspondent, Elise Labott, for issuing the following tweet:

In some ways, CNN is more at fault than the Republican candidates for spreading Islamophobia.  When a major television station that many people believe to be broadcasting “objective news” censors tolerant opinions from some of its journalists while giving other journalists free reign to bash the Muslim community, it mainstreams ignorant, prejudiced views far more successfully than Donald Trump ever could.

That’s a large part of why Barack Obama and the Democratic presidential candidates also deserve rebuke (as does George W. Bush, despite the praise he has received from Hillary Clinton).  To their credit, they are all careful to draw a clear distinction between Islam the religion and violence perpetrated by a small number of individuals who profess to believe in it.  Obama, at the State of the Union this week, said that “we need to reject any politics that targets people because of race or religion.”  Yet his and others’ words often lend cover to anti-Muslim animus by (intentionally or not) erroneously implying that “terrorism” and “Islam” are linked.  At the last Democratic presidential debate of 2015, for example, Clinton put the burden on Muslim-Americans to “stop radicalization,” and even Bernie Sanders, who is by far the best major presidential candidate on this issue, insisted that we are in a “war for the soul of Islam.”  Unless the candidates also think that the terror the Israeli government visits in the Middle East or that the fear the Ku Klux Klan still inspires in the United States represent wars for the souls of Judaism and Christianity, respectively, there is no excuse for this kind of language.

The Democrats’ foreign policy positions also contribute to the problem; their support for aggressive war in response to perceived threats of terror normalizes an “us versus them” and “ends justify the means” mentality used to oppress Muslims in various countries around the world.  Clinton is by far the worst perpetrator among the candidates in this regard – her foreign policy record and rhetoric are worse than those of many Republicans.  As but one example, she presided over massive increases in weapons deals to the Saudi Arabian government, one of the most repressive regimes in the world that just began 2016 by beheading 47 people, while they donated millions of dollars to the Clinton Foundation.  But Obama is very far from blameless.  Phrases like “our enemies” and “have to be rooted out, hunted down, and destroyed” from the State of the Union don’t help, nor do Obama-ordered drone strikes that mostly murder innocent civilians.  And even Sanders has lent cover to the Saudis.  When the supposed “liberals” take these positions, it’s little wonder that Republican debate moderator Hugh Hewitt can suggest that it is a virtue to “order air strikes that would kill innocent children by not the scores, but the hundreds and the thousands” without anyone batting an eyelid.

It’s also little wonder that anti-Muslim sentiment runs alarmingly high among Democratic voters; between 15% and 25% (depending on the poll) support Trump’s proposal.  Even scarier, that number could be as high as 45% when Democrats don’t know that the proposal is Trump’s, suggesting that there’s actually much more of a bipartisan consensus in favor of institutionalized discrimination against Muslims than many party loyalists would like to believe.  Constant threats, intimidation, and violent attacks against Muslim citizens aren’t a Trump problem; they’re an American problem.

So while it is perfectly appropriate to condemn Donald Trump and the Republicans for their bigotry, we must not treat them as anomalies.  We must also confront the media, the Democratic candidates, and all of our friends who, whether purposefully or not, and whether explicitly or not, spread the lie that Islam is uniquely violent.  We must go beyond pointing out that prejudice and aggressive war make us less safe, that far more “acts of terror” are carried out by Right-Wing extremists than by those professing to be Muslims, and that state-sanctioned violence by Western nations is responsible for far, far more deaths of innocent civilians than ISIS ever will be.  We must, first and foremost, stand in support of Muslims worldwide by denouncing profiling, implicit forms of discrimination, demonization of the “other,” and aggressive calls for war – no matter who they’re coming from – as morally wrong.

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Filed under 2016 Presidential Election, Race and Religion

The Sound Reasoning Behind a $15 Minimum Wage

The New York Times Editorial Board recently endorsed a $15 federal minimum wage.  A proposal at the federal level would phase in $15 an hour in small increments over a period of several years and would still, as the Times mentions, set a wage floor in 2020 below what most low-wage workers need to provide for their families.  Yet Slate’s Jordan Weissmann believes that “the argument in favor of a $15 federal minimum is…extremely weak,” and that the endorsement is “emblematic of a progressive movement that has fixated on a much higher minimum as the answer to the problem of low-wage work while refusing to grapple with the potential downsides.”

Weissmann supports a federal minimum wage above $10 an hour and possibly in the $12 an hour range; like Alan Krueger, one of the economists who authored some of the landmark research on the minimum wage, his argument against $15 surely comes from a good place.  His assertions are substantively wrong, however; proponents of a $15 federal minimum have grappled with the points he makes and have decided that the case for a $15 federal minimum is actually much stronger than Weissmann’s.

The crux of Weissmann’s argument is that, “if the government forces wages too high, businesses will eventually cut back on hiring.”  $15 would be “too high,” he argues, because it is higher than “historical and international norms.”

Weissmann is correct to note that a $15 minimum wage would affect a larger share of low-wage workers in Little Rock, Arkansas than in Seattle, Washington, where a minimum wage increase to $15 an hour is already being phased in.  He is also correct to note that the research literature on the minimum wage largely speaks to moderate increases in the minimum wage, not to what might happen if it were increased to $15 an hour.  Proponents of a $15 minimum wage know these facts; they just don’t agree that they’re disqualifying.

The thing is, opponents of the minimum wage have been claiming for years, based on flawed but standard economic theory, that the mere existence of a minimum wage will kill jobs.  A huge body of research over the past twenty years has shown that these arguments are wrong: most studies suggest that the minimum wage has negligible effects on employment, and while there are credible studies that find small negative employment effects, there are also alternative theories out there, and a few findings to back them up, about why a higher minimum wage could, in some cases, actually lead to more employment.  Not having research about what would happen at $15 does not mean that it would cost jobs – it just means that, if we go to that level, we can’t be certain that the minimum wage’s opponents will continue to be so wrong about its effects on the job market.

Whether you think $15 will pose an employment problem is thus a matter of conjecture.  Weissmann is entitled to his beliefs, but it’s worth highlighting that a) the proposed increase is phased in in increments, giving businesses time to adjust, b) corporate profits are near all-time highs (as is executive compensation), suggesting that most businesses that employ low-wage workers can easily absorb the labor costs (one recent analysis of the fast food industry even suggests that firms could absorb a $15 minimum wage without a reduction in profits), c) Weissmann’s arguments mirror those of the minimum-wage-increase naysayers who have repeatedly been wrong, d) Weissmann’s summary of the evidence from Puerto Rico is woefully incomplete; a more thorough look does not actually support his case, and e) even economists, who typically lean towards embracing standard but flawed supply-and-demand theory, have split opinions on what might happen under a gradually phased-in $15 federal minimum wage.*

The fact that a $15 federal minimum wage would affect more workers in Little Rock, Arkansas than in higher-wage states can also be viewed as an argument in favor of larger increases in the minimum wage – they provide more help to a larger number of low-wage workers who are struggling to get by!  As Weissmann himself acknowledges, it takes around $20 an hour for a single parent to raise a child even in states with the lowest costs of living.  He gives surprisingly short shrift to the huge risk in not raising the minimum wage high enough: that it will lock in insufficient income support for millions of low-wage workers who desperately need additional money.  The fact that the nationwide movement for $15 has been driven by the very workers who would be affected by the policy change suggests strongly that they view the definite downside posed by a lower minimum wage – less compensation for their hard work – as a whole lot scarier than the indefinite possibility that $15 might cause some reductions in employment.  The argument against $15 could theoretically be used to reject every bold new policy proposal that helps people; it’s really hard to make progress if you don’t push past historical and international norms every so often.

In addition, while I applaud Weissmann for his concern about low-wage workers being able to find jobs, advocating against higher wages for millions of people is an odd way to address this concern.  The minimum wage does not exist in a vacuum; it is one policy among many that can be used to help low-wage workers.  While Weissmann correctly notes that the Earned Income Tax Credit and minimum wage are complementary, he fails to consider whether direct job-creation programs and/or policy that addresses firms’ decision-making in response to minimum wage increases could complement the minimum wage as well.

So while Weissmann thinks the New York Times underweights the potential and unknowable risk of heretofore unseen levels of job loss, I believe (along with hundreds of economists) that he underweights the immediate, definite risk of keeping the minimum wage too low.  I encourage him to, at the very least, consider policy tools that can mitigate his concerns without depriving low-wage workers of much-needed income.

*Update (1/5/16): It’s also worth noting, as minimum wage expert Dave Cooper has reminded me, that “the fear of a negative impact on jobs is a bit too simplistic. The concern is that the higher minimum wage could reduce the total aggregate work hours among low-wage workers, but even if that occurred, those workers would still be better off if, even while working fewer hours, the higher hourly wage caused their annual earnings to rise.”

Correction (1/25/16): The original version of this post misspelled Weissmann’s name.

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Filed under Business, Labor

From Constituent to Elizabeth Warren: Please Endorse Bernie Sanders

Jesse Koklas, a volunteer for the Bernie Sanders campaign with a B.A. in Politics and French & Francophone Studies from Brandeis University, recently asked her senator, Elizabeth Warren, to endorse Sanders in the Democratic Primary.  A version of the letter she sent is below.

Jesse Koklas

Jesse Koklas

Dear Senator Warren,

Please endorse Senator Bernie Sanders in his campaign for President. He represents the antithesis to the 1%, one of the only other voices besides yours that remains unflinching in the face of corporate self-interest.

When I moved to Waltham to attend Brandeis University, I registered in Massachusetts so I could vote for you. We met at a rally you held with Rep. Markey a few years ago. Thank you for your talk then and your work since!

I admire you and Senator Sanders for the same reason: you both boldly speak the truth. And as Senator Sanders himself has asserted and I’m sure you agree, the truth is that it will take a lot more than just Bernie Sanders to make real dramatic change to our unequal system, controlled as it is by the purse strings of those far removed from the struggles of the average citizen.

People don’t engage in our political process because they don’t feel like they can make a difference. That is a circular, self-fulfilling prophecy, and one we will never escape if we don’t start truly mobilizing the electorate.

In order to win the vote from the well-funded, politically elite candidates, we need all of the people I’m talking to in the street, in my kitchen, and at the local watering hole to come out and vote. Bernie Sanders’ message can speak to them. If these people show up and stay engaged, it will allow someone to take the conversation about our broken system to the oval office, someone who will not back down when confronted by those who still refuse to listen.

This campaign can make a statement about how our current political system has failed to represent our citizens. I think you can help people hear this statement. You could help excite voters to come to the polls for Bernie.

Ms. Warren: if these people come out and vote and become active in the political process, think about the potential: we could change laws that our entire system is based on. Citizens United could be overturned. That’s the type of thing that the Bernie Sanders campaign is all about.

I respect your decision not to endorse anyone until now, but you have an intelligent and dedicated group of constituents who trust your judgment. We know that your compass needle is perpetually pointing north and we need you to endorse Bernie Sanders. You know how to make people pay attention, and I think it’s time America paid attention to Bernie.

Your constituent,
Jesse Koklas

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Filed under 2016 Presidential Election

Why I Reject Lesser-of-Two-Evils-ism

If Hillary Clinton ends up winning the Democratic nomination for president, some Bernie Sanders supporters will vote for her anyway.  I can respect that decision.  While the differences between Democrats and Republicans are often overstated – to give just two examples (there are many), the same people advise Clinton, Marco Rubio, and Ted Cruz on foreign policy and Hillary Clinton is at least as cozy with Wall Street as most Republicans – there are some real and important reasons to worry about a Republican White House.  The Supreme Court and heads of agencies are, in my view, the biggest concerns in this vein.  I’d have low hopes for Hillary Clinton’s appointees but no doubts that they’d be better on balance than those offered by a Trump, Cruz, or Rubio.

Yet I will not vote for Hillary Clinton in 2016.  While I understand the lesser-of-two-evils mentality, I disagree with it; most of Clinton’s policy positions are unacceptable to me.  If Sanders loses the primary, I will probably vote for Jill Stein.

Wouldn’t that be a strategic blunder, some friends and family ask me?  Democrats who aren’t quite as polite ask if I’m an idiot.  Don’t I realize that this type of thinking led to George W. Bush becoming president in 2000 and that I may similarly “blow this election” by deciding to vote my conscience?

The premise of these questions, however, is completely wrong, and not just because, as Jim Hightower documented at the time, voting records show that “Gore was the problem, not Nader,” in the 2000 election.  In fact, refusing to vote for Hillary Clinton in the general election is both a principled and strategic decision that I encourage more people to embrace.

There are two possibilities when it comes to my vote: it will either impact the outcome of the election or it won’t.  If my vote won’t impact the outcome of the election, I might as well vote for the candidate with the best policy positions, regardless of his or her supposed electability.

If my vote will impact the outcome of the election, I may have to decide which matters more: (a) the differences between a bad Democrat and worse Republican over the next four years or (b) the degree to which I’d undermine our chances to enact fundamental change to a broken political system in the long-run by pursuing a lesser-of-two-evils voting strategy.

As I’ve noted before, the type of political “pragmatism” that would lead someone to choose (a) undermines power-balancing policy goals.  Because politicians and Democratic party officials know that many voters think this way, they have little incentive to listen to our concerns.  Instead, they can pay lip service to progressive values while crafting a policy agenda and decision-making process more responsive to wealthy donors than to their constituents.

That dynamic is on full display already in the 2016 Democratic primary election. Clinton is campaigning against priorities, like single-payer health care, that Democrats are supposed to embrace.  While early union endorsements for Clinton initially improved her rhetoric on education issues to some degree, she is already backtracking to assure corporate donors that her positions are unchanged.  The unions who endorsed Clinton early have no negotiating power relative to rich donors who make their support contingent on Clinton pursuing their interests; given that fact and her record, she seems unlikely to keep her promises if elected.

The Democratic National Committee’s actions are also illustrative.  The party establishment lined up behind Clinton before the race even started, and the DNC’s debate schedule is, despite their protestations to the contrary, quite obviously constructed to insulate Clinton from challenge.  DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz’s recent decision to suspend Sanders’ campaign’s access to its voter data (in response to a data breach by a since-fired Sanders staffer; the access was restored after the Sanders campaign sued the DNC) has caused even party loyalists to believe that the DNC “is putting [its] finger on [the] scale” and pro-Clinton journalists to acknowledge that the DNC’s behavior “makes Clinton’s lead look illegitimate, or at least, invites too many ‘what ifs.’”

DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz and Hillary Clinton (source: Mark Wilson/Getty Images, via http://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2015/11/12/9699836/democratic-debate-schedule)

DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz and Hillary Clinton (source: Mark Wilson/Getty Images, via http://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2015/11/12/9699836/democratic-debate-schedule)

Both Clinton and party leaders are making a mockery of many of the principles the party is supposed to stand for.  And pledging to support Clinton in the end – no matter what she and the DNC do – enables this kind of behavior.  It’s hard for me to see how we will ever fix our political process and reclaim our democracy by refusing to draw some lines in the sand.

I could accuse those who disagree with that assessment of propping up a sham political system.  I could say that, by downplaying the unfounded smears the Clinton campaign has spread against Sanders and insisting that we must support Clinton in the general if she wins the nomination, they are destroying the Democrats’ credibility and thus helping to ensure ever more privilege-defending and corrupt elected officials and government policy.  But it would be a lot fairer of me to acknowledge that a lot of the Republicans are really scary, that my strategy isn’t guaranteed to work the way I think it will, and that people evaluate the risks differently than I do.

Similarly, those who disagree can continue to accuse people like me of “helping the GOP” in the 2016 election by pointing out that the Democrats have extreme flaws and don’t always deserve our support.  But it would be a lot fairer of them to acknowledge that millions upon millions of people have suffered at the hands of lesser-of-two-evils candidates over the years, that an open commitment to support a lesser-of-two-evils candidate robs voters of bargaining power, and that the Democratic Party has brought voter discontent upon itself.

Hopefully Sanders will win the Democratic primary and this discussion will become a moot point.  In the meantime, it’s good for those of us who believe in social justice to push each other on our tactics.  We would just do well to remember that reasonable people with the same goals can disagree about which electoral strategy is most likely to help us achieve them.

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Filed under 2016 Presidential Election, US Political System

Good Policy Is the Goal. Compromise Should Not Be.

Matt Bruenig just wrote an excellent series of posts dismantling a misguided “Consensus Plan for Reducing Poverty and Restoring the American Dream” from the American Enterprise Institute and the Brookings Institution.  Bruenig’s posts explain why the plan’s emphasis on education, work, and marriage will not accomplish its goals (I’ve made similar points about education and family structure before).  While it’s important to note that education and work (and family strength and stability, which are critically different from family structure) have value – improving education and the availability of good jobs can boost economic mobility – the evidence is clear that we will not equalize opportunities for more than an unacceptably small subset of kids until we both reduce inequality and make sure kids’ basic needs are met.

Richard Reeves, a researcher I really like who participated in drafting this unfortunate “consensus plan,” describes it as a triumph of realism over purism.  In doing so, he draws a false equivalency between what he calls “purists on both political extremes: those on the right who simply see government as the problem, and fantasize about sweeping away vast swaths of institutional architecture and funding, and those on the left who imagine that simply taking money from some and giving it to others will cure society’s ills.”

“Liberals” (or, in the parlance of the report, “progressives”) and “conservatives” are the labels DC insiders typically use to categorize people on one or the other of these false extremes, as shown below.

LiberalConservativeBut the idea that these are two equivalently absurd “sides,” and that the best course of action is thus to compromise by meeting in the “middle,” is unfortunately a major impediment to good policymaking.  It is harmful primarily because it fails to capture how certain views and proposals are more ethical and evidence-based than others.

For example, if our goal is to reduce poverty and boost the opportunities of poor children, evidence shows that the “purists” Reeves describes on the “left” have a much more legitimate claim than those on the “right.”  Government programs like Medicaid, SNAP (formerly food stamps), and the Earned Income Tax Credit, for example, work very well on these fronts, as do direct cash transfers and more robust social insurance systems around the world.  Redistribution may not “cure [all of] society’s ills,” but it definitely works as intended in most cases, while gutting government programs, especially during times of economic hardship, doesn’t.  It is simply incorrect to suggest otherwise, but the categorization scheme above implies that each “side” has an equally legitimate perspective.

Consider how similar reasoning could be applied to current presidential debates on immigration.  Donald Trump’s platform (build a wall across the border, end birthright citizenship, and don’t let any poor people into the country, among other crazy ideas) could represent the perspective on one “side” of the political divide, while Bernie Sanders’ plan to bring 11 million people out of the shadows could represent the other.  Both Trump and Sanders say they want to put “the needs of working people first – [over those of] wealthy globetrotting donors” (Trump’s words).  The AEI/Brookings brand of “realism” could result in the adoption of a decent chunk of the Trump immigration agenda; it clearly isn’t an approach that makes for desirable policy.

Reeves is right that there are a “diversity of views” among those on each side of this uninformative partisan divide, and the AEI/Brookings team correctly notes that nobody “has a monopoly on the truth” – even Donald Trump occasionally has a good idea and even smart, principled politicians like Bernie Sanders sometimes get things wrong.  Yet a better political categorization scheme would explicitly note that Sanders’ policy positions are far superior to Trump’s on the two criteria that matter most: ethical considerations and the degree to which proposed policy ideas are supported by available evidence.  The tool below does so.

Political Tool.003

The x-axis is an “ethics axis” and requires us to think through John Rawls’ veil of ignorance.  As I’ve explained previously:

“Privilege-defending” viewpoints and policies that ignore the veil of ignorance – those that mainly consider the ideas, desires, and needs of people already in power – fall on the left side of this axis.  “Power-balancing” viewpoints and policies developed after reflection about the veil of ignorance – those that more ethically think through the concerns and needs of less-privileged people – fall on the right.  The vertical or “accuracy axis” of the tool orients us to the facts; it plots views according to the degree to which a combination of sound theory and empirical evidence informs them.

The ideal policy, developed with consideration of the veil of ignorance and using the most accurate interpretation of the facts, sits in the upper right hand corner.  This tool thus provides several advantages over…the traditional Left-Right spectrum.  First, it forces us to think about what matters; we cannot plot opinions on this tool without ethical and intellectual analysis.  Second, the tool captures that objectively good policy (policy in the upper right hand corner) is more desirable than the “center” of opposing viewpoints.  Third, it gives us a common framework to discuss policy ideas with people with different perspectives, orienting our conversation to two pillars – truth and justice – instead of normalizing disagreement as inevitable.

Elevating “bipartisanism,” “compromise,” and “realism” as goals might help a group come to a consensus wherein each “side” gets some things it wants.  It does not often result in good policy platforms, however, and the Brookings/AEI plan is a case in point.  If we want final products that are truly ethical and evidence-based, we need to reject compromise for compromise’s sake and start recognizing that some viewpoints and proposals are more legitimate than others.

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Filed under Poverty and the Justice System, US Political System