Voting: Which Method Is Right for You?

Jenny Wolochow studied Philosophy and Religious Studies at Stanford University (MA ‘11), taught elementary school in California through Teach for America, and now works as a Product Marketing Manager for Partners at Coursera.  She is passionate about civic engagement and explains why in this post, which also touts voting by mail and links to a great guide she developed to help California voters navigate this year’s ballot.  Views expressed here are her own.


Jenny Wolochow

I know some of you are disenchanted with American politics – especially this year.  But the craziness of this presidential election shouldn’t stop you from participating in our democracy.

Voting is a right that not everyone has, and our ancestors fought hard to earn us that right.  It’s a chance to have our voices heard – and it can make a difference.  For those reasons, it’s an important responsibility for us to take advantage of that opportunity and to use it well and wisely.

Outside of just the presidential election, there are many local candidates who deserve your attention.  In fact, one could argue that state and local races matter considerably more than federal ones.  If you live in 35 states, specific policy issues will be on the ballot and should also be on your radar.  I live in one of those states and have created a ballot guide to help my fellow Californians navigate this year’s voluminous and confusing set of propositions.  The guide includes information on the San Francisco ballot measures as well.

Knowing your options for how to vote (i.e., by what method you should vote) is also important.  Most states have three voting methods: (1) in person on election day, (2) in person early, or (3) by mail.  You can use the resources at to check with your local elections office to see the available methods and key deadlines this year.

My recommendation: If you want to get the biggest return on investment for your vote, you can get the same “benefit” with a very low “cost” by choosing to vote by mail.  As I’ve learned firsthand from being a native Oregonian (voting by mail is the default for everyone in the state), voting by mail has three important advantages over in-person voting:

1) It’s convenient. When you vote by mail, you can vote whenever you have time; you don’t have to worry about your schedule.  Traveling out of town on election day?  No problem.  Too busy at work to get time off for voting in person?  No big deal.  Not sure where your polling place is?  Doesn’t matter.  You don’t even have to fill out the ballot all at once; you can space it out and fill in parts of it whenever you have the time.  You can choose to return your completed vote-by-mail ballot either in person or by mail to a county elections office.  Just remember that your ballot must be turned in before the polls close on election day.

2) It helps you make thoughtful, informed choices.  When you get your ballot in advance, you have plenty of time to review it, consider your options, and research issues.

3) It’s more private than in-person voting.  You decide when and where to fill out a vote-by-mail ballot and put it in a sealed envelope, instead of having to carry your ballot around in a public place with a thin divider.

Voting is not perfect.  Our democratic system is not perfect.  But there are still good reasons to participate in it, and it’s often easier and more productive to vote than many people think.

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Filed under 2016 Presidential Election, US Political System

Teacher Satisfaction: Education’s Failure to Retain Quality Educators

Jesse Soza, Ed.D., was a classroom teacher for twelve years but chose to leave after experiencing high levels of frustration and burnout. He now researches and consults with schools and districts about teacher satisfaction, which, as he describes in this post, is intimately related to working conditions for educators.


Jesse Soza

A Conceptual Misunderstanding of Teacher Satisfaction

As the 2016 – 2017 school year gets under way, one of the goals many school districts will undoubtedly have will be the retention of quality teachers. While the objective of keeping talented and skilled employees would (and should) be a best practice of any self-respecting organization, education in particular has had a difficult time succeeding in this arena. With a standing attrition rate hovering around forty percent for teachers in the first five years of service, losing high numbers of educators has become a norm for the American system. Furthermore, as a result of an almost fatalistic acceptance of this norm, a dangerous notion has emerged that teaching can be approached as a “transient profession,” implying that sustained commitment to students, colleagues and the work itself is an unnecessary trait for teachers. As high turnover rates limit teacher quality and incur high monetary costs for districts, there is little doubt that this combination is devastating for education. Districts and schools are desperate to do whatever they can to keep quality teachers.

It is not surprising, then, that there is a lot of conversation around the idea of teacher satisfaction. Districts know that happy teachers are far more likely to remain teaching than those who are experiencing dissatisfaction. Thus, significant time, effort and expenses have been marshaled in an attempt to provide incentives that might lure teachers to the profession and, more importantly, keep them teaching. Example incentives include signing bonuses, financially supplemented graduate degrees earned during the first years of teaching and/or job security in the form of extremely quick tenure (this is merely the tip of the iceberg in terms of what districts may be willing to offer). On the surface, these common-practice incentives appear desirable. One could reasonably assume that a teacher who is able to attain them should have a noticeable increase in satisfaction and thus be more likely to stay committed to teaching.

Yet data seems clear that these and other incentives have not had the desired effect of increasing retention. No matter what teachers are being offered, overall levels of satisfaction have failed to increase and the result has been a continual hemorrhaging of young, talented teachers (not to mention the high levels of burnout experienced by veteran teachers).

After studying teacher burnout and attrition and interviewing teachers across numerous sites and systems about their feelings around what it means to be an educator in the current system, I have come to an important conclusion about teacher satisfaction: What satisfaction actually is and how it is generated is not well understood within the educational community. As long as satisfaction remains ambiguous or ethereal, attempts at building and implementing meaningful action to address satisfaction will continue to be ineffective. Therefore, the primary issue at hand becomes turning the nebulous concept of teacher satisfaction into something more accessible, and thus workable, for those who seek to engage it.

Defining Satisfaction

What makes satisfaction such an interesting phenomenon is that, while people experience it in a variety of situations on a daily basis, they often encounter difficulty in placing precise parameters around what exactly is going on. The overall concept, however, is fairly simple: Satisfaction is the resultant feeling that occurs when an internal desire or expectation is either fulfilled or denied (to a degree) by conditions of reality; the more fully reality fulfills an expectation, the greater the satisfaction one feels. When reality denies actualization of an internal expectation, dissatisfaction occurs. Levels of satisfaction are thus constantly generated as desires or expectations interplay with people’s experiences. However, what makes satisfaction difficult to analyze and measure is the sheer number of variables that influence it. Indeed, the devil is in the details. In the case of education, understanding teacher satisfaction requires insight into how the desires and expectations of teachers are interplaying with the conditions that make up their work environment.

The Desire to “Make a Difference” Versus the Reality of Teacher Work Environments

The vast majority of teachers enter the profession with the intent of “making a difference” in students’ social, emotional and academic lives. While the specific details of how that is carried out will vary from teacher to teacher, the expectation and desire to “make a difference” assuredly sits at the core of teachers’ passion and drive. Teacher satisfaction, then, must be considered a measure of how well a teacher is able to actualize those expectations and desires. The more they are allowed to work towards “making a difference,” the more likely teachers are to find satisfaction. However, if they perceive that they are unable to do so, dissatisfaction is likely to set in.

Unfortunately, teachers all too often find their expectations and desires of “making a difference” at odds with the current conditions of teacher work environments. These environments, heavily influenced by well-intentioned but deeply flawed reforms such as No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top, emphasize prescription and rigidity to meet metrics, requiring teachers to adopt pedagogy, methods and values that are not their own. Teacher autonomy, creativity and expertise (qualities normally attributed to professionals) have been sacrificed for formulaic, teacher-proof methods that mandate curriculum, instructional delivery systems and behavior management procedures, among other things. Reform meant to improve the system has actually created an educational culture that actively works to deskill teaching, although few would describe it as such. The institution defined by teachers carrying out the act of teaching is, in fact, becoming increasingly adept at stripping its workforce of its ability to do so. Fueled by what often seems like distrust and a lack of respect for teachers and their craft, various forces within society continue to deny teachers the ability to practice their vocation and, as a result, the opportunity to fulfill the expectations and desires that constitute their passion, drive and expertise.

When working conditions strip from teachers the ability to actualize the expectations that make up their passion and drive, they become alienated from the job and, because of the personal nature of teaching, themselves. Combined with teaching’s abysmal compensation and poor social status, it should not be difficult to imagine why attrition and burnout rates remain high (and will continue to be so in the future). Instead of honoring teachers as passionate, driven experts, the current trend is to view them as high-level technicians, merely carrying out dictums that have been passed down to them. The more teachers are forced to adopt the educational values, purpose, methods and strategies set forth by others, the more separated they become from their own values, purpose, methods and strategies.

This cultural invasion within education marginalizes teachers and undermines opportunities for them to find satisfaction. In a somewhat ironic twist, the passion and drive that keeps teachers in the classroom in spite of poor compensation, long hours, lack of resources, etc. is the same passion and drive that education is actively stripping from them. Without this passion and drive, there is no reason for an individual to commit to such a maligned profession, which explains the problems our system is experiencing today.

When writing about workers laboring in conditions where they cannot find meaning and purpose, Karl Marx noted, “[the worker] does not fulfil [sic] himself in his work but denies himself, has a feeling of misery rather than well-being, does not develop freely his mental and physical energies but is physically exhausted and mentally debased.” This, unfortunately, accurately describes the current state of the American educational system and its relationship with its teachers. Education, as a human endeavor, cannot continue to operate in a way that dehumanizes those who work within it. Indeed, teacher satisfaction will only be realized in systems where teachers’ expectations, desires, passion and expertise are truly respected and honored.


Filed under Education

The Lazy Liberal Scapegoating of Millennials and Bernie Sanders

The Hillary Clinton campaign is “alarmed by the drift of young voters toward the third-party candidates,” according to the New York Times.  So are many Clinton supporters, including Clara Jeffery and Kevin Drum at Mother Jones.  Jeffery says she has “never hated millennials more,” while Drum directs his hatred not at millennials but at Bernie Sanders, whom Drum argues “convinced young voters that Hillary Clinton was a shifty, corrupt, lying shill who cared nothing for real progressive values – despite a literal lifetime of fighting for them.”  Clinton Super PAC Priorities USA is “launching a multimillion-dollar digital campaign that talks about what’s at stake and how a vote for a third-party candidate is a vote for Donald Trump.”

These reactions misunderstand and condescend to millennials and ignore vital context about two main points.

First, millennials have very good reasons to oppose a Clinton presidency.  As I’ve tried to explain to Drum before (he has ignored me), many millennials, myself included, grew up with his perception of Hillary Clinton – that she is a good Democrat fighting the mean Republicans and subject to a relentless stream of unfair criticism from the corporate press.  It has only been during my adult life, after a lot of research, that I’ve developed my current view: Clinton may sometimes be the subject of unfair press coverage, but she also has a large, influential group of media cheerleaders and has been on the wrong side of numerous issues important to populations I care about: war, criminal justice, immigrant rights, LGBT rights, the death penalty, international trade, and anti-poverty policy, to name a few.  Drum’s idea that Bernie Sanders’ accurate critiques of Hillary Clinton’s record hoodwinked millennials into our current views is both patronizing and inaccurate.

Millennials recognize that third-party voting comes with tradeoffs.  While it does increase the likelihood that the worse of two major-party candidates will emerge victorious in an election (though much less so than third-party critics claim), it also has the potential to help break the two-party system open in the long run and holds Democrats accountable for ignoring the policies their base desires, policies that would help millions of disadvantaged people.  “Whether you think the pros outweigh the cons depends on a number of factors,” as I’ve argued before, “including how much optimism you have about a third-party voting bloc’s ability to use its power effectively and how much worse you think Trump is than Clinton.”

Which brings me to my second point: while it’s perfectly fine for someone to believe that defeating Trump should be our top priority, anyone espousing that viewpoint should have supported Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primary.  The evidence overwhelmingly indicated – for months, getting stronger all the time – that Sanders would have been more likely than Clinton to beat Trump in a general election matchup.  The only rebuttal to that evidence – that Sanders hadn’t faced real criticism and that his numbers would tank when he did, if he eventually became the nominee – fell apart very quickly upon inspection.

In fact, what drew Jeffery’s ire was a now-deleted paragraph from a New York Times story that confirmed why Sanders would have been more electable than Clinton:

The third-party candidates draw their strongest support from younger voters.  Twenty-six percent of voters ages 18 to 29 say they plan to vote for Mr. Johnson, and another 10 percent back Ms. Stein.  A little more than one in five political independents say they will vote for one of the third-party candidates.

Drum points out that millennial support for third-party candidates in the referenced poll is a bit higher than it typically appears to be (he also links to a FiveThirtyEight analysis suggesting that it is strongest among people under 25), but he admits that “Clinton is clearly doing worse among millennials than Obama did four years ago.”  These results were completely predictable; millennials and independents were the groups among which Sanders most dominated Clinton in the primary and are two constituencies for whom support for Democrats (and/or showing up in November) is most likely to be conditional.  “Voters in these groups – unlike voters in Clinton’s key constituencies – may very well abandon the Democrats if Clinton is the party’s nominee,” I wrote in March.  That’s exactly what appears to be happening.

Despite the foreseeability of this result during the primary, Drum asserted that Clinton was “almost certain to be more electable in November than a self-declared democratic socialist,” citing exactly no evidence to back up this claim.  It seems odd that he, Jeffery, and other Democrats spent so little of their time analyzing the electability evidence during the primary, given their intense focus on beating Trump today.  If they had, they would have known what people like me had been trying to tell them for a very long time – large numbers of millennials and Independents who would vote for Sanders might very well not vote for Clinton – and, if beating Trump was their prime objective, spent their time pleading with older Democratic voters to support Sanders.

Millennial voting patterns are thus not only a product of voters’ legitimate analyses and electoral strategy; they’re also entirely expected.  Those upset about them who backed Clinton in the primary and/or advanced the incorrect notion that she was more electable than Sanders have nobody to “hate” but themselves.


Filed under 2016 Presidential Election

Education Matters, But Direct Anti-Poverty and Inequality-Reduction Efforts Matter More

I once began a K-12 education talk by putting the following two questions on a screen.

1. What is the single policy change that would most improve the quality of K-12 education?
2. What is the single policy change that would most reduce the opportunity gap between low-income and high-income students?

I asked audience members to, by a show of hands, indicate which question spoke to them more.  They had three choices:

A) Question 1
B) Question 2
C) Doesn’t matter, since both question 1 and question 2 have the same answer

Stop and think for a second about which choice would have prompted you to raise your hand.

If you would have selected choice C, you would have been joined by about 90 percent of the audience at my talk.  I expected that result.  In a culture in which politicians routinely say things like “education is the closest thing to magic we have here in America” and cite low graduation rates in low-income areas as evidence of our education system’s failures, that view is unsurprising.

It’s also completely wrong.  The overwhelming evidence that choice C is incorrect falls into at least five primary buckets:

1) There are large gaps in test score performance in the United States before students enter kindergarten. The graph shown below, from the Economic Policy Institute, documents the extent of these gaps (there are gaps in various cognitive and noncognitive skills as well), and as Sean Reardon has shown, there is evidence that they close during the school year, only to reopen during the summer months.  The gaps have declined in size since the late 1990s, but they are, in Reardon’s words, “still huge.”

EPI Kindergarten.png

Inequitable access to preschool for low-income students is definitely part of the problem here, but gaps are apparent in infancy and probably due mostly to differences in housing, nutrition, medical care, exposure to environmental hazards, stress, and various other factors.

2) Decades of research into the causes of the gap in test scores between low-income and high-income students in the United States has consistently found a limited contribution from school-based factors. In the US, variations in school quality seem to explain no more than 33% of the discrepancies in test score performance; this number, which has been around since 1966, considers the influence of a student’s classmates to be a school-based factor (it arguably isn’t) and thus seems to be a conservative upper bound. Most studies put the school-based contribution to what is commonly called the “achievement gap” closer to 20%, with about 60% attributable to “student and family background characteristics [which] likely pertain to income/poverty” and the other 20% unexplained.

3) Economic success in this country is less common for low-income students who are successful in school than for high-income students who are unsuccessful in school. The graph below, made using data from the Pew Economic Mobility Project, compares the distribution of adult economic outcomes for children born into different quintiles of the income distribution with different levels of educational attainment.  If education were the prime determinant of opportunity, we’d expect educational attainment to determine these adult economic outcomes.  Yet the data show that children born into the top twenty percent who fail to graduate college typically fare better economically than children born into the bottom twenty percent who earn their college degrees.  In fact, the born-into-privilege non-graduates are 2.5 times as likely to end up in the top twenty percent as adults as are the born-poor college graduates.

Mobility - Pew

4) The test scores of students in the United States relative to the test scores of students around the world aren’t all that different than what students’ self-reports of their socioeconomic status would predict. The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) has an “index of economic, social, and cultural status” which incorporates family wealth, parents’ educational attainment, and more.  There is a gap in test score performance between students who score high on this index and students who score relatively low on it in every country in the world.  The size of the gap varies by country, as does the median test score, but there is a strong correlation overall between students’ socioeconomic status and their performance on standardized tests.  The first graph below, in which each data point relates the average socioeconomic index score for a decile of a particular OECD country’s students to that decile’s average performance on PISA’s math test, depicts this relationship.

OECD Test Scores - All.png

As the next two graphs show, test score performance for the bottom socioeconomic decile in the United States falls right on the OECD bottom-decile trend line, and while U.S. test scores for the second decile are a little below the OECD trend (as are U.S. scores for the next few deciles), socioeconomic status seems to explain American students’ performance on international tests pretty well overall.

OECD Test Scores - Bottom Decile.png

OECD Test Scores - Second Decile.png

5) The distribution of educational attainment in the United States has improved significantly over the past twenty-five years without significantly improving students’ eventual economic outcomes. While people with more education tend to have lower poverty rates than people with less education, giving people more education neither creates quality jobs nor eliminates bad ones, as Matt Bruenig has explained.  A more educated population (see the first graph below), therefore, just tends to shift the education levels required by certain jobs upwards: jobs that used to require only a high school degree might now require a college degree, for example.  The “cruel game of musical chairs in the U.S. labor market” (as Marshall Steinbaum and Austin Clemens have called it) that results is likely part of why poverty rates at every level of educational attainment increased between 1991 and 2014, as shown in the second graph below.


Source: Matt Bruenig


Source: Matt Bruenig

Bruenig’s analysis lacks a counterfactual – the overall poverty rate may well have increased if educational attainment hadn’t improved, rather than staying constant – but it’s a clear illustration of the problem with primarily education-focused anti-poverty initiatives.

None of this evidence changes the fact that education is very important.  It just underscores that direct efforts to reduce poverty and inequality – efforts that put more money in the pockets of low-income people and provide them with important benefits like health care – are most important if our goal is to boost opportunities for low-income students.


Filed under Education, Labor, Poverty and the Justice System

Privilege: Many Jill Stein Voters Have It, and Many Hillary Clinton Voters Do, Too

As an outspoken supporter of Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein, I often get questions akin to the one Stein was asked at the Green Town Hall on August 17: “Given the way our political system works, effectively you could help Donald Trump like Ralph Nader helped George Bush in 2000.  How could you sleep at night?”  More often than not, such questions are followed by the claim that voting for Stein in November is an act of self-indulgent privilege.  Only those with little to lose from a Donald Trump presidency can afford to risk it by adhering to a rigid set of principles that will never come to fruition, third-party critics argue; people who might suffer under Trump’s policies, on the other hand, understand the stakes involved in this election and that Hillary Clinton is the only practical alternative to Trump.

This formulation misconstrues privilege dynamics and misrepresents the identities and considerations of third-party voters and others who refuse to support Clinton, who are far less often White, affluent, heterosexual men than their detractors seem to believe.

The status quo is serving many people poorly.  Proclaiming that, because the alternative is “worse,” everyone must vote for Clinton – a politician who has championed policies that have actively harmed millions of people both here and around the world – is, at its very best, patronizing to those who are currently suffering.  It’s a promise of crumbs instead of a meal with the admonition that starving people better be thankful for crumbs, as the other candidate might take even those away.

This rationale plays on the fears of disadvantaged people and those who care about them in order to perpetuate current power dynamics.  Its use is in many ways an expression of the very privilege it critiques.

Third-Party Critics Misconstrue Privilege Dynamics

Privilege is a multi-dimensional concept, and very few people can claim to speak for the most downtrodden in society.  Individuals writing widely read articles about the privilege of third-party voters aren’t refugees from Central America who President Obama is currently deportingwith Clinton’s support, until recently.  They aren’t incarcerated for marijuana possession or sitting on death row, likely to stay locked up or sentenced to die if Clinton becomes president.  They aren’t living under Israeli occupation, or in deep poverty, or afraid of being obliterated by a drone strike, with little hope for change under the specter of a Clinton presidency.  As Morgana Visser recently noted, “many marginalized people are rightfully horrified of Hillary Clinton,” and those accusing nonvoters and third-party voters of privileged indifference to the plight of others have the privilege themselves not to be so marginalized that four, or eight, or indefinitely many more years of incremental change to the status quo is intolerable to them.

The thing is, the argument that the Democrats are the only actual alternative voters have to Trump – that the status quo cannot be radically improved and that incremental change is all that is possible – is one that many people cannot afford.  Those of us voting for Stein seek to challenge this thinking, to fight for a world in which the most marginalized people are not consigned to deportation, lifetime imprisonment, poverty, or death at the hands of Democrats who are better than Republicans but not nearly good enough.  Third-party voting and abstaining from the presidential election altogether are strategies designed to either change the Democratic Party or create an alternative in a political system that has failed disadvantaged populations for decades, as Sebastian Castro points out.

It’s perfectly fine to challenge the efficacy of that strategy, and I encourage everyone to read compelling cases for lesser-evilsism in 2016 from Michael Albert, Noam Chomsky and John Halle, Shaun King, and Adolph Reed.  I evaluate the risks of Trump relative to Clinton and a lesser-of-evils vote relative to third-party voting differently than they do, but I also have a ton of respect for where they and other social justice advocates like them are coming from.

It is wrong, however, for anyone to wield accusations of privilege as a cudgel against those with different electoral strategies, especially because this tactic ignores the voices of Michelle Alexander, Cate Carrejo, Rosa Clemente, Andrea Mérida Cuéllar, Benjamin Dixon, Eddie Glaude, Marc Lamont Hill, Jenn Jackson, Rania Khalek, Arielle Newton, Kwame Rose, Kshama Sawant, Cornel West, and numerous other members of marginalized groups who support alternatives to the Democratic Party and/or believe it’s fine not to vote at all.

Those who prioritize identity politics should also remember that prominent spokespeople for the Green Party (including Clemente and Cuéllar) tend to be less privileged than their Democratic Party counterparts, that a woman has been on the Greens’ presidential ticket every single year in which the party has launched a bid for the White House (beginning in 1996), and that the party’s presidential and vice presidential candidates this year – Stein and Ajamu Baraka – are by far the least privileged candidates running.

Third-Party Critics Misrepresent Voter Demographics

Statistics on Green Party voters in the United States are hard to find, but it’s possible to back out some rough estimates from recent polling.  The graph below uses data from four different polls to compare demographic shares among registered Clinton supporters, registered Stein supporters, and all registered voters.


The estimates debunk the notion that Stein’s base is especially privileged.  Her supporters are about as likely as Clinton’s to be women and seem to be a little less likely than Clinton voters to make over $50,000 a year or to have the privilege of a college degree.  The confidence intervals on these estimates are likely fairly large and the average differences between the candidates’ supporters in these domains, if there are any, are thus probably small, but other evidence also suggests that Green Party voters tend to have low incomes; as Carl Beijer has observed, Ralph “Nader had a stronger 2000 performance among voters making less than $15,000 a year than he had with any other income demographic.”

Beijer also makes an important point about the domain in which Stein and Clinton supporters differ most: age.  While age-based privilege is a complicated concept – both young and old people can be targets of discrimination – younger voters have to worry much more than older voters about “what happens over the span of decades if [they] keep voting for increasingly right-wing Democrats.”

Now, to be fair, Clinton voters are more likely than Stein voters to be people of color.  But Stein’s share of voters of color is similar to the share in the general population of registered voters; Stein voters are not disproportionately White.  Looking at the total population that won’t vote for Clinton, which is a larger universe than the set of registered voters who support Stein, provides an even more striking rebuttal to the those-who-oppose-Clinton-are-White-male-Bernie-Bros narrative.  As Visser shows, Reuters data actually suggests that over 40 percent of people of color do not plan to vote for Clinton in 2016.  In fact, neither do over 45 percent of the LGBTIQ community, nor the majority of women, “marginalized religious folk,” and people making less than $50,000 a year.

None of those statistics change the fact that I, along with many Clinton supporters, am privileged enough to have little to lose from a Trump presidency.  But like nearly all Clinton supporters – and unlike the millions of people who, as Visser reminds us, “do not have the privilege of feeling or being any safer under Democrats [as] opposed to Republicans” – I have even less to fear from a Clinton win.  Pundits and partisans would do well to spend less time alleging that third-party voters don’t care about the disadvantaged and more time reflecting on why large numbers of people are much more worried than they are about the status quo.


Filed under 2016 Presidential Election, Philosophy, Sports, US Political System

War in the Name of God: Christianity Is No Less Addicted Than Any Other Religion

Tom Block is an author, artist, and activist whose book, A Fatal Addiction: War in the Name of God, explores the relationships between religion, spirituality and institutional violence.  In this post, Block (who you can follow on Twitter at @tomblock06 and learn more about at summarizes some of the book’s core themes to debunk the notion that Islam is uniquely violent.


Tom Block

In a recent op-ed in the New York Times, Gary Gutting (a professor of philosophy at the University of Notre Dame) argued concerning what some call “radical Islamic terrorism:”

Islam has not yet tamed, to the extent that Christianity has, the danger implicit in any religion that claims to be God’s own truth.  To put it bluntly, Islam as a whole has not made the concessions to secular values that Christianity has.

This Western-centric, racist and arrogant attitude from the spiritually “advanced” Christian religion toward the unreformed and medieval Islamic one is all too typical. As I write this, Christian nations (mostly our own) rain bombs down from drones onto weddings, schools and other secular places and events in Islamic lands.  The difference between our bombs and their bombs, however, is (according to the narrative) massive: we drop our payloads in the name of peace and with a great sadness that they force us to, while they joyfully blow themselves up in evil acts of anarchy and murder.

At least Christian killers value their own lives!

One needn’t dig too deeply into the American story, or psyche, to discover specific examples of our country’s Orwellian “war is peace” paradigm, all tightly supported by the loving vessel of American Christianity.

Christian language and imagery are explicit in the American call to arms.  America’s wars have almost always been – and continue to be – spiritual/religious affairs in which young men and women are called to sacrifice themselves for the Christian God.  As was noted in an article in Newsweek:

In America, God and war have a particular kinship: evoking God in the midst of mass killing is inspirational…Divine sanction has been used to give meaning to the Constitution’s promise of equality, as well as to license genocide…This impulse to blend God and war owes much to the American temperament: Americans have always feared one (today, nine out of ten call themselves believers) and loved the other (the United States has fought in dozens of armed conflicts in the nation’s two-and-a-third centuries).  Not a few old warriors have admitted to thrilling to the words of “Onward Christian Soldiers.”

If you’re not convinced that this defines a current American attitude, consider the United States’ response to “Islamic terrorism” (the American existential threat du jour).  “In the weeks after the September [11, 2001] attacks,” Pulitzer-Prize-winning journalist Christopher Hedges observed, “communities gathered for vigils and worship services.  The enterprise of the state became imbued with a religious aura…The state, and the institutions of state, became for many, the center of worship.”

On the first anniversary of the attacks, seven months before the 2003 incursion into Iraq, President Bush said: “Our cause is even larger than our country.  Ours is the course of human dignity, freedom guided by conscience grounded by peace.  This ideal of America is the hope of all mankind.”  As the British newspaper The Guardian reported:

George Bush has claimed he was on a mission from God when he launched the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. Nabil Shaath, Palestinian foreign minister said: “President Bush said to all of us: ‘I am driven with a mission from God. God would tell me, “George, go and fight these terrorists in Afghanistan.” And I did. And then God would tell me, “George, go and end the tyranny in Iraq.” And I did.’”

Bush’s politics of war were always framed for the public in a religious manner.  As Anglican Priest Jeremy Young noted, for example, Bush suggested in his 2003 State of the Union address “that America is Christ and that its role is to save the world.”  However, it is true that Bush hasn’t been president for nearly a decade, so it might be argued that now, finally, America has moved past the conflation of Jesus’s will and our military incursions.

Would that it were so.  President Obama, winner of the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize, has continued the starry-eyed vision of an American Christ of the sword.  Professor Robert H. Nelson, writing for the mainstream PBS website, notes that Obama, too, has infused religious imagery into his speeches.  And Obama has buttressed this faith with bombs.  According to Politifact, by the spring of 2016, Obama had ordered 500 drone strikes in Somalia, Pakistan and Yemen (as opposed to 60 by President Bush); 1000 drone strikes in Afghanistan in 2014 alone; and a smattering of others in Syria, Libya, Iraq and other far-off, generally Muslim locales.  The Huffington Post noted that “nearly 90% of people killed in recent drone strikes were not the target,” allowing Obama’s scattershot Christian murders to be assured of killing Muslims, though rarely the “correct” ones.  Far from shying away from these actions, our Christian leader has bragged about it: “There isn’t a president who’s taken more terrorists off the field than me, over the last seven and a half years,” he puffed in an interview with Fox News’ Chris Wallace in April 2016.

None of that is to say that American Christians are in any way different or worse than contemporary practitioners of Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, Sikhism, or even Buddhism.  It is simply the case that Christianity is no better, no more evolved, no more peaceful than any of the world’s religions – all of which (even Buddhism) are steeped within a tradition of sacred violence, and are currently involved in wars of choice in the name of God.  (While I am well aware that many will balk at the idea that Buddhism, too, is as bloodthirsty as the other world’s religions – gasp! – Buddhist practitioner Brian Daizen Victoria notes in his book Zen at War that “warfare and killing are described as manifestations of Buddhist compassion” and Buddhists are, in fact, committing violence today.)  All faiths utilize war-like language and imagery to describe matters of the spirit and exhort followers to religious catharsis through violence.  Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer stated in his book, Is Religion Killing Us: “Religiously justified violence is first and foremost a problem of ‘sacred’ texts and not a problem of misinterpretation of those texts.”  Since virtually all major religions have embedded within them violent images of God, people can selectively recall these texts and extract from them divine support for war, creating the foundation for what Nelson-Pallmeyer terms the “violence of God tradition.”

One central reason that contemporary leaders have such a willing audience when representing war as religiously sanctioned – and, in many cases, even a spiritual obligation – is the extensive history of uniting physical war and the spiritual path within the sacred teachings of virtually all creeds.  Though much of the religious language was undoubtedly meant as metaphor, the human mind runs quickly downhill to the literal, leaving reams of imagery and injunctions for leaders to utilize when discussing military campaigns within the secular culture, and influencing the minds of potential warriors.

American politicians, the media and even mainstream entertainers – like those of all other cultures and religions – do everything in their power to play up the similarities between the religious path and war, all for the poorly obscured purpose of exploiting human pawns to protect their own earthly power or to just simply make a buck (e.g., Boeing, General Electric, Northrup Grumman et al.).  Perhaps, to some extent, they might even believe their own words, especially if they themselves have fought in a war and come out more or less whole.  In this case they will be forced to trust in the lie of a mystical war, if only to help justify the horrors they themselves witnessed and perpetrated.

We need only examine the words of a man considered an American hero, Senator John McCain (R-AZ), to understand how war language explicitly borrows from the religious and even mystical lexicon.  Here’s how he eulogized a soldier fallen in Afghanistan:

He loved his country, and the values that make us exceptional among nations, and good…Love and honor oblige us.  We are obliged to value our blessings, and to pay our debts to those who sacrificed to secure them for us.  They are blood debts…The loss of every fallen soldier should hurt us lest we ever forget the terrible costs of war, and the sublime love of those who sacrifice everything on our behalf.

Note how the very real horrors of war are euphemistically referred to in the language of mysticism: “sublime love,” “obligation,” “good causes,” “moral purpose, “save the innocent,” “peace” and “sacrifice.”  This presentation persuades the general population to bypass the intent of their religious teachings, concentrating instead on its sometimes-grisly content.

For those who waver, the dead soldier is held out as incontrovertible proof of the necessity and worth of the war.  After all, how could one “force” the soldier to have died in vain, by questioning the worth of his action?  The war becomes worthwhile because someone has died undertaking it, a reversal of the normal assignation of worth, which defines an action’s merit before the risk is actually taken.  In a horrifying example of the “sunk costs” theory, the more people that die for a cause, however mistaken, the more religiously valuable the action, no matter what the true human or economic price really is.  Through the sacrifice of human souls for political ends, war becomes enmeshed with a true God experience.

Perhaps as dangerous as the ongoing conflation of spirituality and war are assertions like those from Gutting, who declares that American Christianity has “moved past” religiously sanctioning state violence.  This blindness allows our country to engage in wars for our victims’ own good – in much the same way that 12th-century Crusaders (a term used by George W. Bush in describing America’s response to the attacks of 9/11/2001) or 15th-century Spanish Inquisitors did.

It’s time for a dose of honesty: Christianity is in no manner more mature or less war-like than Islam or any other religion. To heal the illness of state-sponsored murder, we must first admit that.


Filed under Foreign Policy, Race and Religion

Jonathan Chait’s False Equivalence

Pundits get justifiably upset when voters or political candidates suggest that Hillary Clinton is just as bad as Donald Trump.  The differences between Clinton and Trump and the dangers Trump poses are frequently overstated, but for those of us who believe in social justice, there’s no denying that four years of Trump would be expected to be worse than four years of Clinton.

Yet the pundits themselves commit a much greater sin of false equivalence when expressing their unhappiness with those critiquing the Democratic Party.  Jonathan Chait, for example, recently equated protesters at the Democratic convention with Republican politicians, asserting that the only difference between these two groups of “unhinged extremists” was that the former had been “screaming at the stage” in Philadelphia while the latter had been “screaming from the stage” in Cleveland.

On Saturday night, I met one of the people Chait maligned, a Bernie Sanders delegate from California named Yolanda Gonzalez.  A veteran elementary school teacher in Los Angeles, Yolanda has been touring the country as a volunteer for Brand New Congress during her summer break.  The organization plans to run a full slate of congressional candidates in 2018 who commit to a grassroots-developed platform in the mold of the Sanders agenda: getting money out of politics, taking bold action on climate change, revamping our criminal justice system, ensuring a basic standard of living for everyone, and ending discrimination against historically disadvantaged communities.

Yolanda is proud of her protests at the DNC; in contrast to Chait’s insistence that critiques of Clinton are “more characterological than ideological,” Yolanda’s beef with the Democratic nominee is substantive.  She takes issue with Clinton’s history of pushing fracking around the world and her hawkish foreign policy and believes that Clinton faced far fewer consequences for what FBI director James Comey called “extremely careless…handling of very sensitive, highly classified information” than would have been faced by a less powerful person (Yolanda is almost certainly right).  Yolanda says her students deserve politicians who will fight for the real changes they need, not those who insist that incremental change is all that’s accomplishable.

That’s why Yolanda became a Sanders delegate.  It’s why, despite the rudeness she endured from Clinton delegates (one of whom called a member of her delegation a “fag”) and the Democratic Party’s attempts to silence her protests (which included the installation of noise-cancelling machines) throughout the convention, she continued to show up every day and join her fellow delegates in chants like “No More War,” “Stop the TPP,” “Ban Fracking Now,” and “Black Lives Matter.”

Chait may not share Yolanda’s social justice inclinations and might disagree with her tactics.  But “unhinged extremism” comparable to what you saw from the likes of Rudy Giuliani at the Republican convention those tactics most certainly were not.  In fact, it’s a lot less accurate to say that than to say that Clinton is the same as Trump.


Filed under 2016 Presidential Election

Truth or Politics

Tom Block is an author, artist, and activist whose most recent book, Machiavelli in America, explores the influence of the 16th-century Italian political philosopher on America’s politics.  Machiavelli’s impact is particularly apparent today, as Block explains in the post below.  Block (who you can follow on Twitter at @tomblock06 and learn more about at is also the founder of the Institute of Prophetic Activist Art in New York, where he works with artists and activists in building their social interventions along the lines of the activist theory he developed.


Tom Block

One of the greatest dangers to our democracy is the insignificant role that “truth” plays within our political discourse. The 16th-century Florentine political philosopher Niccolo Machiavelli first enshrined the importance of lying within the political realm in his seminal treatise The Prince.  As Diana Schaub (professor of political science at Loyola University Maryland) noted in “Machiavelli’s Realism:” “Machiavelli deployed words as a weapon . . . Machiavelli, the supposed champion of the force of arms, was in fact a practitioner of verbal fraud and distortion.”

Far from fading away over the ensuing centuries, Machiavelli’s strategy has expanded to overwhelm our contemporary political discourse.  And this dynamic, nurtured by the media and exploited by politicians, has helped lead in a direct line from the Florentine thinker to the viable presidential candidacy of Donald J. Trump.

Publisher and Founding Father Ben Franklin stated: “It is a principle among printers that when truth has fair play, it will always prevail over falsehood.”  But as Jim Rutenberg noted recently in the New York Times, “Mr. Trump’s surrogates…regularly go on television to push the point of the day from a candidate who . . . has asserted more outright falsehoods than all the other candidates who ran for president this year combined.”

While truth may well overmatch falsehoods in a forum where each has equal play, as Rutenberg notes, that is simply not the case currently in our political discourse.  Truth is rarely utilized as the lodestar for public dialogue.  Our journalists and pundits opt instead for simply repeating outright lies, reporting them as “news,” or – in the best of cases – for a dubious objectivity, often representing little more than a midpoint between two opposing political or social opinions, regardless of these opinions’ relationship to the truth.  As was pointed out this July 18, 2016 in the New York Times, the press bears much responsibility for the unimportance of truth to our political discourse, and therefore the rise of Trump:

There’s still a real chance that [Trump] might win. How is that possible? Part of the answer, I’d argue, is that voters don’t fully appreciate his awfulness. And the reason is that too much of the news media still can’t break with “bothsidesism” — the almost pathological determination to portray politicians and their programs as being equally good or equally bad, no matter how ludicrous that pretense becomes.

Ben Franklin must be spinning in his eternal resting place (Christ Church Burial Ground, Philadelphia).

The sad and frightening fact is that what is perceived by the public as “truth” often represents little more than a stew of popularly held (though often misinformed) attitudes. These arise as a reaction to polling data, Super PACfueled propaganda (the $3 billion in dark money sloshing around this election season), surrogates’ meaningless blather on cable news programs, a narrow reading of history (“remember the good old days!”), the weight of tradition, and a basket of other impressions, none of which are forced by the press to relate in any meaningful way with the actuality of the matter.

It is certainly not difficult to see how politicians gleefully exploit this Machiavellian dynamic to “play” the media, spewing any garbage they think will help their cause, while suffering little (if at all) when their mistruth is uncovered.  Since I started paying genuine attention to this gloomy aspect of American democracy, I have been astounded by the bald-faced lies used to win political elections, running from Lee Atwater’s “Willie Horton” ads (Bush I v. Mike Dukakis in 1988) through Karl Rove’s “Swift Boat Veterans for Truth” lies (Bush II v. John Kerry) and continuing through Mitt Romney, whose team falsely claimed, among many examples, that President Obama doubled the deficit (it was actually slightly down in his first four years) and that “up to 20 million people [would] lose their insurance as Obamacare [went] into effect” (almost the opposite of what’s actually happened).

Donald J. Trump has raised the bar of political falsehoods that perhaps all of us thought could go no higher.  None have exploited the media’s obsession with objectivity and false equivalency more successfully than the current Republican standard bearer.  His ability to lie, lie, and lie again, and not be called out once and for all (through references in every single citation as “Lyin’ Donald J. Trump,” for instance) allowed him to vault over 16 Republican candidates and stand at the precipice of taking the reins of the most powerful nation in today’s world.

As Machiavelli stated: “The great majority of humans are satisfied with appearances, as though they were realities, and are often more influenced by the things that seem than by those that are.”  The art of the lie is far more important to the leader than learning how to tell the truth.

Donald Trump follows Machiavelli’s dictum with the same passion that the devoted practice their religions. An astounding 70% of Donald Trump’s statements are mostly or completely false, according to PolitiFact, while only 15% are mostly or entirely true.  And though now, finally, there is a growing chorus of media members gingerly stepping in to call a lie a lie, they also dutifully repeat the lie over and over again before refuting it.  Through this repetition, the lie itself becomes embedded in the public consciousness, thus giving the many and absurdist propositions spewed from the latest Republican candidate for President a patina of reality.  Journalists should lead every article about Trump with this fact: he is, as Bernie Sanders averred, a pathological liar.  But unfortunately, despite the few truth-based journalists writing in alternative outlets like The Intercept or in the back pages of the Washington Post or New York Times, the media is central to the problem.

Journalists too often imagine their obligation to be simply reporting the “news” (whatever any partisan actor tells them), remaining indifferent to whether the statements have any relation to reality or truth.  In the journalistic code of ethics, this impartiality represents the highest code of honor.  As Sharon Bader noted in “The Media: Objectivity:”

Objectivity in journalism has nothing to do with seeking out the truth, except in so much as truth is a matter of accurately reporting what others have said. This contrasts with the concept of scientific objectivity where views are supposed to be verified with empirical evidence in a search for the truth. Ironically, journalistic objectivity discourages a search for evidence; the balancing of opinions often replaces journalistic investigation altogether.

Journalists such as Thom Hartmann, Glenn Greenwald, Rania Khalek, and other lesser known (to your average American, at least) writers do point out this problem, though they are always in a very slim minority. We find little succor in the mainstream media. Even such alleged “truth tellers” as the website PolitiFact, the Washington Post’s soothsayer Glenn Kessler, and Nobel Laureate Paul Krugman (now a New York Times columnist) have a dubious relationship with the facts.  As the editor of this blog has shown, all three of these sources have ignored evidence and/or gotten storylines completely wrong during this election cycle.

Without a genuine moral ombudsman to separate fact from fiction in our public square, all opinions – true or not – are simply viewed as offering differing “points of view.” Katrina vanden Heuvel (publisher and part-owner of the magazine The Nation) noted in the Washington Post:

For too many journalists, calling out a Republican for lying requires criticizing a Democrat too, making for a media age where false equivalence — what Eric Alterman has called the mainstream media’s “deepest ideological commitment” — is confused, again and again, with objectivity.

This quote comes from the last election (Romney v. Obama, 2012), though the situation has not gotten better, and perhaps has even worsened. As was noted in the aforementioned July 18, 2016 article from Krugman in the New York Times:

And in the last few days we’ve seen a spectacular demonstration of bothsidesism in action: an op-ed article from the incoming and outgoing heads of the White House Correspondents’ Association, with the headline “Trump, Clinton both threaten free press.” How so? Well, Mr. Trump has selectively banned news organizations he considers hostile; he has also . . . attacked both those organizations and individual reporters, and refused to condemn supporters who, for example, have harassed reporters with anti-Semitic insults.

Meanwhile, while Mrs. Clinton hasn’t done any of these things, and has a staff that readily responds to fact-checking questions, she doesn’t like to hold press conferences. Equivalence!

Perhaps more frightening than these simple facts is that we’re not talking about a subterranean conspiracy of which only a privileged few are aware. This dynamic is embedded in the journalistic canon. Krugman has said, for example, that his editors at the New York Times did not allow him to use the word “lying” back in 2000 when debunking the George W. Bush campaign’s claims about tax cuts Bush proposed.  And in an editorial by the Los Angeles Times calling the 2004 Swift Boat Veterans for Truth allegations against John Kerry fictitious, the editors stated:

[T]he canons of the profession prevent most journalists from saying outright: These charges are false. As a result, the voters are left with a general sense that there is some controversy over Dukakis’ patriotism or Kerry’s service in Vietnam…And they have been distracted from thinking about real issues (like the war going on now) by these laboratory concoctions.

The most disturbing line in this editorial is: “The canons of the profession prevent most journalists from saying outright: These charges are false.”  Why is this so?  That they can’t call a lie a lie?  Who wrote these “canons,” which seem to explicitly demand that journalists lie to their readers, in the name of “objectivity?”

Although I have seen many instances of this overt self-awareness by journalists, I am still left with the mouth-agape question: why not?  Why can’t truth be the central pillar of journalistic ethics, instead of a “canon” of false equivalency which allows Lee Atwater, Karl Christian Rove, Donald J. Trump, and others to use lies to great effect?

Matt Taibbi (a journalist reporting on politics, media and finance for Rolling Stone and other outlets) noted in On the Media:

Though we’re tempted to blame the politicians, it’s time to dig deeper. It’s time to blame the press corps that daily brings us this unrelenting symphony of horseshit and never comes within a thousand miles of an apology for any of it. And it’s time to blame the press not only as a class of people, but also as individuals.

This lack of accountability in the media presents one of the greatest threats to democracy and the American republic. Greater then climate change, greater than the terrorist menace, greater even than a frontal attack by a nuclear North Korea, the media’s unwillingness to base their reporting in the truth, opting instead for a mushy and moving center point between whatever the members of the two major political parties are saying, reduces the public conversation on matters such as climate change, the terrorist menace, and a frontal attack by a nuclear North Korea to a debate over points of view (one often factually inaccurate), instead of an exploration of the unassailable truth of any issue.

The unwillingness to base reporting in truth allows lies to fester, metastasizing from the corners of the Internet into a presidential campaign (Donald J. Trump’s) which fuses White supremacists, climate denial, fascist undertones, and an increasing series of lies into a viable candidacy.

Even worse is the level of awareness and even pride some journalists show concerning this “canon” of objectivity.  As Washington Post journalist Melinda Henneberger observed, concerning her profession’s (lack of) attachment to truth in reporting: “Newspapers hardly ever haul off and say a public figure lied, and I like that about us.”

This same mainstream columnist stated, concerning some media outlets which tagged as “flatly inconsistent with the facts” a number of points vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan made in his Republican National Convention speech in 2012: “of course, each of these pieces is analysis or opinion rather than a straight news story.”  And this “opinion” (i.e. the truth) has less impact on the shared reality of the public square than a “straight news story” (i.e., one that does not separate fact from fiction).

Political campaigns agree: facts can be presented as “spin” by partisans, and therefore fall under the rubric of “opinion.”  Consider, for example, this excerpt from an article in the Washington Post in 2012:

Jon Cassidy, writing on the website Human Events, said one fact-checking outfit declares conservatives inaccurate three times as often as it does liberals.  “You might reasonably conclude that PolitiFact is biased,” he wrote [as opposed to the fact that Republicans simply lie more often].

…Brooks Jackson, executive director of, said he fears that the campaigns have come to see running afoul of fact checkers as something of a badge of honor.

Now, in Donald J. Trump’s America, even the lying spinmeisters are welcomed into the journalistic tent.  After Corey Lewandowski was fired as Trump’s campaign manager on June 21, 2016, he immediately resurfaced as a CNN political commentator – even though he had signed a non-disclosure agreement with Donald J. Trump!  As Rutenberg noted in his New York Times article:

Mr. Lewandowski has frequently wandered past the bounds of truth…[though, when he was hired by CNN,] Mr. Lewandowski told [fellow CNN journalist] Erin Burnett that he’d call “balls and strikes” in spite of his agreement with Mr. Trump.  But when he weighed in on Mr. Trump’s big economic speech last Tuesday, all he saw was a home run (“Mr. Trump’s best speech of the presidential cycle,” he gushed).

For the sake of full disclosure (and the truth), it must be noted that, although the Democrats are certainly not immune from this particular political sport (see: “Hillary Clinton” + “emails,” for instance), the Republicans have perfected the Machiavellian art of conflating “truth” and “lie.”  Two longtime Washington insiders, Thomas Mann (Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution) and Norman Ornstein (Resident Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute), wrote a book that got at this idea and summarized it four years ago in an article entitled: “Let’s Just Say It: The Republicans are the Problem:”

The GOP has become an insurgent outlier in American politics. It is ideologically extreme; scornful of compromise; unmoved by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition . . . “Both sides do it” or “There is plenty of blame to go around” are the traditional refuges for an American news media intent on proving its lack of bias . . . But a balanced treatment of an unbalanced phenomena distorts reality. If the political dynamics of Washington are unlikely to change anytime soon, at least we could change the way that reality is portrayed to the public.

Our advice to the press: don’t seek professional safety through the even-handed, unfiltered presentation of opposing views. Which politician is telling the truth?

Finally! One true statement about the political situation in the United States.

However, those in the media did not appreciate the sentiment.  After publishing their book and then article in the Washington Post, these two writers were essentially ostracized for their bipartisan, honest point of view.  As the alternative news outlet Media Matters noted a couple of weeks after the publication of the piece, “their [Mann’s and Ornstein’s] recent conclusion that Republicans are responsible for political dysfunction has been largely ignored, with the top five national newspapers writing a total of zero news articles on their thesis.”  Media Matters also pointed out that, after years of being go-to voices on the various Sunday political programs, Mann and Ornstein saw those invitations dry up after the publication of their book.

Given all of this, the rise of Trump should come as no surprise.  He is simply better at using lies to shape reality than the other 16 candidates he bested.  And he is cognizant that the press – compliant concubine that it is – will mostly parrot whatever garbage he spews from his mouth.

Donald J. Trump has risen from the fetid fertilizer of years of Republican obfuscation, lies, false accusations and other pernicious verbiage, all of which have been dutifully reported as one “opinion” (countered by an equally-weighted “opinion” known as the truth).  And when respected journalists have attempted to point out the problem of false equivalence, they have been “ostracized” by their mainstream compatriots or even shut down by their editors.

Trump is not an outlier, surprise or anomaly. He is the natural outgrowth of years of terrible reporting, coupled with Republican exploitation of this dynamic.

In a sense, Trump is doing us a favor. He is exposing the undercurrent of American democracy which has been hidden beneath the surface of “civility” and “objectivity” provided by the supine press. However, we must learn from his rise, and demand – once and for all – that truth, and not false equivalence, becomes central to our political discourse and public square.

If not, we might well learn just how far America can go toward becoming a fascist government ourselves, instead of fighting against them as we have in Germany, the Soviet Union, North Korea and other places around the world.  While all of us certainly want to “make America great,” the question becomes for whom, and at what cost?  A question that the mainstream media should – but never seems to – put at the exact center of the conversation about Donald J. Trump, and our public square in general.


Filed under 2016 Presidential Election, Philosophy, US Political System

What Unity Should Mean

If headlines about the Democratic convention (shown below) are any indication, the main purpose of the event is “party unity.”  Calls to “Unite Blue” have been intensifying as the Democratic primary process has inched towards a close and represent a pitch for Bernie Sanders supporters to rally around Hillary Clinton, helping her to emerge victorious in November’s general election matchup with Donald Trump, Gary Johnson, and Jill Stein.

Unity Images

The brand of “unity” being pushed, however, is a corruption of the word.  It zeroes in on a narrow set of attitudes and behaviors – those towards Clinton and other Democratic party leaders – and makes a binary categorization: people who praise Clinton and other Democrats while pledging to vote for them in the fall are good, while those who protest Democratic party leaders at the convention and/or refuse to vote for Hillary Clinton are at best “ridiculous” (Sarah Silverman), “crazy” (Jonathan Chait), “pathetic” (Jon Favreau) “babies” (Amanda Marcotte) and at worst “whiny diaper babies” (Bob Cesca), “dickheads” (Imani Gandy), “garbage people” (Ian Millhiser), “shitheads” (Joan Walsh), or my personal favorite, from a Daily Kos blogger going by the name of LiberalCanuck, “Regressives [who] are commonly found in terrorist and quasi-terrorist circles [and] want misery [and] suffering [so a] revolution can occur.”

This brand of unity is so blinding that those espousing it often pile on and attack individuals who turn out to be with them on the very issue they deem most important (making sure Hillary Clinton wins in the fall).  It risks alienating Sanders supporters – who are more likely than any other candidates’ supporters to hold anti-racist views and support social justice policies – and undecided voters who might otherwise be inclined to lean Democratic, thus sowing the very division to which those pushing party unity are ostensibly opposed.

There is a better kind of unity, one that actually brings people together in pursuit of a more just and equitable world.  It is based on a shared passion for helping those in need, an openness to intellectually honest disagreement, and a commitment to respect and accountability.  This brand of unity has three major components:

1) Sticking to intellectually honest arguments: During the primary, pro-Clinton partisans propagated illiberal, misleading, and/or false claims about Bernie Sanders and his supporters. Now, despite what the New York Times (hardly a Sanders-sympathetic media outlet) has called “undeniable evidence of what Mr. Sanders’s supporters had complained about for much of the senator’s contentious primary contest with Mrs. Clinton: that the party was effectively an arm of Mrs. Clinton’s campaign,” many pundits have responded, not by apologizing for mocking Sanders supporters’ suspicions, but by downplaying and diverting attention away from the evidence confirming that the primary was unfair and undemocratic.  It’s hard to develop a successful coalition when some members of that coalition can’t trust that others are engaging in good faith, and prominent Clinton supporters have a lot of work to do to show that they are.

To be clear, the behavior of these prominent individuals is not representative; most Clinton supporters already engage in good faith most of the time, and there are also Sanders supporters out there who distorted facts during the primary.  It is incumbent upon everyone who truly supports power-balancing policy to make sure we’re adhering to the truth.

2) Respecting intellectually honest disagreement about the strategy most likely to achieve a common goal: Third-party voting, for example, comes with pros and cons for those who believe in social justice policy. The main con, as its detractors are quick to point out, is that it increases the chances that the worse of two major-party candidates will win an election (though it is not the same mathematically as a vote for the worse major-party candidate and, contrary to popular belief, is not the predominant reason George W. Bush became president in 2001).  The main pro of third-party voting, on the other hand – one its detractors rarely if ever acknowledge – is that it increases voters’ leverage over the Democratic party and the likelihood of a meaningful challenge to America’s two-party system in the long run, a system millions of people continue to suffer under.

Whether you think the pros outweigh the cons depends on a number of factors, including how much optimism you have about a third-party voting bloc’s ability to use its power effectively and how much worse you think Trump is than Clinton.  Reasonable people with very similar policy goals and visions for the world are going to disagree about whether third-party voting is worth it – some have even suggested alternative voting options – and rather than excoriating each other, we should have a robust and respectful debate.

3) Addressing legitimate concerns from coalition members and working together on areas of agreement: Third-party voting holds appeal because of the Democratic party’s very real failings, and those who wish to sway third-party voters should make their case not by belittling those voters’ concerns, but by working to make the Democratic party better. If Clinton gets elected and actively pursues the policies she borrowed from Sanders on the campaign trail, we will consider voting for her in 2020.  In the meantime, those voting for third-party candidates in the general election this year must both help push those policies through social movements and make sure to be actively involved in electoral processes at the city, state, and congressional levels.

In short, there’s no reason unity has to be so divisive.


Filed under 2016 Presidential Election, Philosophy, US Political System

Bernie Sanders Knows What He’s Doing and Is Doing It Quite Well

According to Politico, House Democrats booed Bernie Sanders during a closed-door meeting on Wednesday, July 6.  They would like him to officially end his presidential campaign and were frustrated that, in response to calls to endorse Hillary Clinton, he stated that his goal “is to transform America,” not just “to win elections.”  This reaction was unsurprising; as Politico noted, “House Democrats overwhelmingly supported Hillary Clinton during the presidential primary fight,” and the idea that winning elections might be a means rather than an end “plays better on the campaign trail than in front of a roomful of elected officials.”  Even one of Sanders’ few congressional supporters during the primary, Raul Grijalva, has argued that a Sanders endorsement of Clinton has “got to happen prior to the [Democratic] convention.”

What doesn’t make any sense at all, however, is the argument many of Sanders’ detractors have been advancing for quite some time about why they think he should drop out.  The idea that “he’s squandering the movement he built” by withholding his endorsement (advanced by a “senior Democrat, speaking on the condition of anonymity”) is obviously incorrect, but has been repeated over and over again by numerous journalists and pundits, including:

  • Gabriel Debenedetti and Sahil Kapur, who penned pieces entitled “Sanders loses convention leverage” (for Politico) and “Sanders’ Long Refusal to Endorse Clinton Hurts His Leverage” (for Bloomberg), respectively, on June 17;
  • Joan Walsh, who argued in The Nation on June 27 that “Sanders may…be setting himself up for less influence in Philadelphia, rather than more;”
  • Jamelle Bouie, who contended in Slate on June 28 that “the leverage [Sanders] held at the end of the primary just isn’t there anymore;”
  • Stuart Rothenberg, who wrote in The Washington Post on June 30 that “Sanders is not yet irrelevant[, but] he reached a point weeks ago when his stubbornness became counterproductive;” and
  • Joshua Green, who asserted in Bloomberg on July 7 that “Sanders increasingly looks like an afterthought who’s squandering an historic opportunity.”

Their arguments boil down to the following: The more Sanders waits to endorse Clinton, the more he alienates her team, encouraging them to ignore parts of his platform that they’d be otherwise inclined to support and to rely on other politicians, like Elizabeth Warren, for progressive credibility.  Sanders’ “first and most prominent supporters have jumped off the bandwagon, congratulating and in some cases endorsing Clinton,” Debenedetti notes, and Bouie adds that Sanders has lost his chance to “claim credit” for the “natural movement to Clinton among Democratic primary voters” that has already begun to take place.  Bouie believes Sanders could have taken “a starring role in the campaign against Trump,” opening “the doors to lasting influence,” but in the words of Rothenberg, “Clinton doesn’t need Sanders anymore.” If “Sanders delivers a late or halfhearted endorsement,” Walsh argues, Clinton may even turn to Republicans for votes.

Yet these claims are belied by recent events.  As Jeff Stein observed in Vox, the draft Democratic party platform, released in full on Friday, July 1, “shows Sanders winning on at least six signature issues that reflect long-held goals of his movement…on top of victories Sanders [had] already won over the platform.”  Bouie is right to point out that “Team Sanders…lost out” in platform discussions about “more contentious” issues like the Israel-Palestine conflict, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), and environmental regulation, and Green isn’t far off when he says the platform is “a purely symbolic document,” but it’s also undoubtedly the case, as Stein notes, that the party is still “moving [Sanders’] way on several key issues.”  Though Politico’s unnamed senior Democrat and Green ignored it, Clinton also just announced a new plan to make college free for families making under $125,000 a year, a proposal that isn’t quite as good as Sanders’ but represents a striking reversal from her earlier campaign rhetoric.

The reason for these concessions is simple: Clinton wants Sanders’ endorsement.  Yes, some Sanders supporters already seem poised to vote for Clinton, but even they often have negative perceptions of her and are unlikely to volunteer and/or donate in the same way they would have if Sanders was the nominee.  Clinton knows that generating the enthusiasm and votes necessary to beat Donald Trump in November would be easier with Sanders on board and the possibility that he won’t be is the best bargaining chip Sanders has got.

If winning more concessions from Clinton is a key objective for Sanders, he’d be crazy to give that chip up prematurely.  It’s hard to believe that Sanders would have secured the gains he already has if he had followed the pundits’ advice and tried to ingratiate himself to Clinton.

At the same time, winning concessions from Clinton is not Sanders’ – or Grijalva’s, or many other Sanders supporters’ – only or even primary goal.  Sanders has explicitly prioritized making “certain that Donald Trump is defeated and defeated badly,” as Bouie pointed out, and Sanders has both said that he will vote for Clinton in November and suggested that an endorsement may be imminent.  That position isn’t unreasonable; though the differences between Trump and Clinton are often overstated, Clinton is undoubtedly the lesser evil facing those who believe in power-balancing policy.  But it also deprives Sanders and his voters of a whole lot of bargaining power.

In fact, Clinton can court a growing list of Republicans not because of the delayed endorsement by Sanders that Walsh has feared, but for precisely the opposite reason: as one Republican strategist has explained, many Sanders supporters “have already shown, by and large, that they’ll fall in line and back” Clinton despite policy positions they dislike.  The loss of bargaining power that pledging to vote for Clinton entails is also apparent in pressure from Wall Street about Clinton’s choice of a running mate: “moderate Democrats in the financial services industry argue that Sanders voters will come on board anyway and that Clinton does not need to pick [Elizabeth] Warren to help her win.”  A commitment to lesser-of-evilsism is indisputably accompanied by a loss of leverage in situations in which you and the candidate you’re backing disagree.

Some Sanders supporters have already decided that a united front against Trump is more important than that leverage.  Others believe that fixing a Democratic party that is seriously broken is a more pressing concern and that the concessions Sanders has won, while not meaningless, are very different than binding commitments Clinton would be likely to adhere to if elected; we wish Sanders had maximized his leverage by seriously entertaining a third-party run.  Sanders, on the other hand, has been attempting to balance his attention to both goals, to influence the Democratic party platform as much as possible without materially affecting the Democrats’ chances in the fall.

It’s perfectly fine to disagree with his relative weighting of priorities.  But let’s stop pretending that he’s making a strategic blunder.  Sanders knows exactly what he’s doing, and despite assertions to the contrary from media and “top Democrats,” he has actually done it quite well.


Filed under 2016 Presidential Election, US Political System