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.

Bruenig1.png

Source: Matt Bruenig

Bruenig2.png

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.

1 Comment

Filed under Education, Poverty and the Justice System, Labor

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.

Stein Voters.png

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.

3 Comments

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 www.tomblock.com) summarizes some of the book’s core themes to debunk the notion that Islam is uniquely violent.

THOMAS

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.

26 Comments

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.

5 Comments

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 www.tomblock.com) 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.

THOMAS

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 FactCheck.org, 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.

2 Comments

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.

34 Comments

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.

41 Comments

Filed under 2016 Presidential Election, US Political System

There’s a Reason People Think the Democratic Primary Was Unfair and Undemocratic: It Was

Journalists have been cautioning Bernie Sanders against “suggesting the entire political process is unfair,” insisting that doing so could have “negative and destabilizing consequences.”  They contend that he must “argue to his supporters that the outcome of the [Democratic primary] process was legitimate” so that he can convince them to vote for Hillary Clinton.  According to several recent articles, this argument should be easy to make because “The Democratic Primary Wasn’t Rigged” and “Bernie Sanders lost this thing fair and square.”

The problem, however, is that the Democratic primary was anything but “fair and square.”  It may not have been “rigged” in the narrow sense in which some of these writers have interpreted that word (to mean that there were illegal efforts to mess with vote counts), but it certainly wasn’t democratic. That’s why only 31 percent of Democrats express “a great deal of confidence” that the Democratic primary process is fair and is likely why the election conspiracy theories these journalists decry have gained traction.

Defenders of the Democratic primary results make several legitimate points.  Clinton secured more votes and more pledged delegates than Sanders.  When voting rules were less restrictive, she still won a greater number of open primaries than he did.  Caucuses, which are very undemocratic, likely benefited Sanders.  There isn’t evidence that the Clinton campaign coordinated efforts to purge voters from the rolls, inaccurately tabulate votes, or mislead Sanders’ California supporters into registering for the American Independent Party.  While “the American election system is a disaster” and “should be reformed,” it’s not clear that the numerous and alarming voting rights issues that surfaced during the primary (from Arizona to New York to Puerto Rico) systematically disadvantaged Sanders.  And discrepancies between exit polls and final voting results can happen for a number of reasons; they aren’t necessarily indicative of foul play.

Yet at the same time, these points skirt the very real ways in which the primary process was “rigged;” as Matt Yglesias and Jeff Stein have acknowledged, “the media, the party, and other elected officials [were] virtually uniformly…loaded against” Sanders from the get-go.  The thumbs on the scale from these groups mattered a lot, more even than Yglesias and Stein surmise.

To quickly recap what those thumbs looked like, the Democratic party threw so much institutional support behind Clinton so long before she even declared her candidacy that political scientist David Karol asserted, in December of 2014, that “Hillary has basically almost been nominated.”  The Democratic National Committee’s debate schedule was “obviously intended” to insulate Clinton from challengers and scrutiny. The DNC, in response to inappropriate behavior from a Sanders staffer who DNC staff had recommended and the campaign had already fired, suspended Sanders’ access to important voter data in violation of its contract with his campaign.  While Clinton was dinging Sanders on his ostensible disregard for party fundraising, the “so-called joint fundraising committee comprised of Clinton’s presidential campaign, the Democratic National Committee and 32 state party committees” was exploiting loopholes in campaign finance laws to funnel the bulk of its resources to Clinton and Clinton alone.  Even into late May, DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz was leaning heavily into biased, anti-Sanders messaging, and leaked emails confirm that she and other DNC leaders actively sought to undermine the Sanders campaign.  In addition, leaders of numerous groups traditionally affiliated with the Democratic party – unions and organizations generally more aligned with Sanders than Clinton on campaign issues – endorsed Clinton without polling their members (the groups that did open the endorsement process up to members typically endorsed Sanders).

Mainstream pundits and analysts were hardly any better than the Democratic party.  From the moment Sanders entered the race, the media insisted – when they covered him at all, which was not very often – that he had “no chance of winning.”  They continued to write off the possibility of a Sanders victory even as his popularity skyrocketed and he took an early lead in the popular vote, inappropriately including superdelegates in their reporting to make it look like Clinton was winning big.  They asserted that the hundreds of policy wonks in support of Sanders’ ideas didn’t exist, subjecting Sanders’ proposals to far more scrutiny than Clinton’s, getting their analysis of some of Sanders’ plans flat-out wrong, and attempting to “boot anyone not preaching from the incrementalist gospel out of the serious club.”  They began to pressure Sanders to drop out well before even half of all primaries and caucuses had been completed.  They helped advance the false narrative that angry, sexist, illiberal White men fueled Sanders’ rise when his supporters were typically more power-balancing than Clinton’s and he was actually most popular among young women, young people of color, and poor Americans.  They also helped the Clinton campaign propagate numerous misleading and/or untrue attacks on Sanders.

In general, as often happens when political and media establishments are threatened, they progressed from “polite condescension” towards the Sanders campaign to “innuendos” to “right-wing attacks” to “grave and hysterical warnings” to something close to a “[f]ull-scale and unrestrained meltdown.”  It’s not clear exactly how much of that progression was coordinated, but it takes minimal effort to dismantle the claim that the Democratic party and mainstream media outlets were mostly neutral.  Whether Clinton surrogates were praising her on TV without disclosing their ties to her campaign or technically unaffiliated newspaper outlets were blasting Sanders in headlines and post-publication edits to their articles, media sources consistently parroted misleading Clinton campaign talking points.  Evidence indicates that the DNC was along for the ride.

It is true that Clinton faced a large amount of negative media coverage herself – much of it in the summer of 2015 and by some metrics the most out of any presidential candidate – and it is also true that the Sanders campaign had its issues, especially when it came to reaching out to and addressing the concerns of older Black voters.  But that doesn’t change the fact that Clinton got way more coverage at a critical juncture of the race, a huge asset because “[n]ame recognition is a key asset in the early going [and,] even as late as August of 2015, two in five registered Democrats nationally said they’d never heard of Sanders or had heard so little they didn’t have an opinion.”  It also doesn’t change the fact that Clinton was considered the de facto nominee even when media coverage was otherwise unfavorable, a dynamic that surely benefited her among Democrats who prioritize uniting the party in the general election above all else.  Though Sanders’ popularity increased as voters became more familiar with him, the initial lack of media coverage of his campaign, Democratic party opposition to his candidacy, and the idea that a Clinton win was inevitable all hamstrung him greatly.  If the media coverage he received had been more equitable and accurate, it is easy to show that he might have been the Democratic nominee.

That’s why, when writers argue that superdelegates did not “decide the nomination for Clinton,” they’re only half-right.  Clinton certainly won the popular vote under Democratic primary rules, but the superdelegates’ early allegiances and the media’s reporting on those allegiances also certainly influenced that popular vote.  Roadblocks from Democratic party elites and misleading or downright untrue attacks from the Clinton campaign, its many high-profile surrogates, and the mainstream media were ubiquitous throughout the primary process and certainly influenced the vote as well.

As Glenn Greenwald summarized, premature media reports that Clinton had won the election on June 6, besides depressing turnout in the next day’s primaries, constituted “the perfect symbolic ending to the Democratic Party primary: The nomination [was] consecrated by a media organization, on a day when nobody voted, based on secret discussions with anonymous establishment insiders and donors…[T]he party’s governing rules are deliberately undemocratic; unfair and even corrupt decisions were repeatedly made by party officials to benefit Clinton; and the ostensibly neutral Democratic National Committee…constantly put not just its thumb but its entire body on the scale to ensure she won.”  Combine many Democrats’ staunch denial of these problems with undemocratic voting practices that have favored Clinton and that her supporters have too often downplayed, and it’s little wonder that some people believe the election was a sham.

Journalists who disagree should absolutely make their case.  They should also, however, more seriously consider where voters’ concerns come from and stop insisting the system isn’t “rigged.”  People think “the entire political process is unfair” because it is.  And many doubt that “the outcome of the [Democratic primary] process was legitimate” for good reason.

It’s not Sanders’ responsibility to convince people that the primary was something it wasn’t.  It’s our collective responsibility to fix our democracy in the months and years ahead.

Sanders has some ideas for how to go about doing that, and they’re a good start, but there’s still much more to offer in this area.  Stay tuned.

Update (7/23/16): The following sentence fragment was added to this piece after a Wikileaks release of DNC emails: “and leaked emails confirm that she and other DNC leaders actively sought to undermine the Sanders campaign.”  In addition, an earlier version of this piece contained a sentence that read “New evidence suggests that the DNC was along for the ride,” but that sentence was updated to read “Evidence indicates that the DNC was along for the ride” due to corroborating evidence in the Wikileaks release.

36 Comments

Filed under 2016 Presidential Election, US Political System

The Heroines of 34justice

In case you haven’t heard yet, the United States Treasury Department decided in April to overhaul how our currency looks.  The new $20 bill will feature Harriet Tubman, an amazing abolitionist who, in addition to bringing hundreds of former slaves to freedom along the Underground Railroad, was a strong advocate for women’s suffrage.  She won’t be the sole occupant of her new real estate – despite ceding the front of the twenty to Tubman, the bill’s current (and rather despicable) mascot, Andrew Jackson, is just migrating to the back – but Tubman will be one of the first women since Martha Washington and one of the first Black people ever to appear on American paper money.  The qualifier “one of” is only necessary because the Treasury Department will also be adding Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott, Alice Paul, and Sojourner Truth to the back of the $10 bill and Marian Anderson, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Martin Luther King Jr. to the back of the five.

Since the design of the new bills won’t be completed until 2020, White men can continue to revel in their exclusive hold on U.S. paper currency for quite some time.  We try to move a little faster here at 34justice, however, and, thanks in part to a reminder from a Twitter commenter, we’re going to see the Treasury Department’s delayed modifications to the dollar and raise them a change, effective today, to our website banner.

newlogo.png

The new 34justice logo features (from left) Ida Wells, Mohandas Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., Helen Keller, Malala Yousafzai, Cesar Chavez, and Aung San Suu Kyi.

Authentically celebrating the achievements of women (or any other group of people, for that matter) requires far more than visual representation.  We are consistently humbled by reminders from our female partners, friends, and family members that women have played a tremendous role in advocating for power-balancing policy while occupying a marginalized position even within their own movements, and we plan to continue to look for opportunities to elevate women’s voices on this blog.

In the meantime, we hope our revamped banner better highlights both the diversity of the people who have fought for social change and the interconnectedness of their respective challenges to power.  History is replete with examples of courageous women who, like the following four newcomers to the 34justice logo, have made vital contributions to social justice movements and left indelible marks on the world.

Helen Keller

helen_keller

Many people know that Helen Keller, despite being a “wild and unruly” child after becoming blind and deaf when she was 19 months old, was very bright, mastered sign language, and eventually learned to speak.  Fewer people know that she was an an active leader of the American socialist movement, a suffragette, an ardent advocate for people with disabilities, and an anti-war activist (not to mention a strong supporter of birth control).  In fact, Keller helped found the ACLU and was a renowned author and speaker on social justice issues, emphasizing the intersectionality of various struggles in her work and earning the well-deserved Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1964.

Aung San Suu Kyi

suu_kyi

In 1988, after spending most of her life in India and England, Aung San Suu Kyi returned to her native Burma to take care of her mother, who had suffered a severe stroke.  That same year, Burma’s longtime military dictator stepped down and a pro-democracy movement – along with backlash from the military junta that killed thousands of protesters – took the country by storm.  Suu Kyi emerged out of the “8888 Uprising” (termed as such because it began on August 8, 1988) as a prominent member of the National League for Democracy (NLD), advocating for “a non-violent movement towards multi-party democracy” as well as “human rights and the rule of law.”  The NLD won 59 percent of the vote in a 1990 election and should have taken 80 percent of the seats in parliament, but the junta nullified the election results and kept Suu Kyi under house arrest for a total of 15 years between 1989 and 2010.

In 2010, the Burmese government finally held an election.  It was unfortunately a sham and the military-backed party won in a landslide, but Suu Kyi was released a week after it took place.  She met with the country’s president and helped facilitate some long overdue political reforms, and in 2012, the NLD won in a landslide in the country’s first “free and fair” elections in over 20 years.  Suu Kyi, who continued her social justice advocacy, was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor from the United States and was finally able to collect the Nobel Peace Prize she won in 1991.  Burma (officially known today as Myanmar, though there is considerable controversy about its name) is far from where it needs to be, but the NLD, with Suu Kyi at the helm, won another decisive victory in 2015 that sent “a clear message that civilians are now in charge.”  While technically banned from the presidency because of the country’s military-designed constitution, Suu Kyi has assumed the position of “state counselor” – created just for her – and is effectively the leader of the new government.

Ida Wells

ida_wells

In 1884, 71 years before Rosa Parks declined to give up her seat to a White man on a bus in Alabama, Ida Wells refused to give up her seat to a White man on a train in Tennessee.  After being forcibly removed, she sued the railroad and initially won her case, though Tennessee’s Supreme Court overruled this decision.  Wells, a teacher, began to write about that and other injustices.  When she highlighted the unacceptably poor conditions of the schools serving Black students in Memphis, she lost her teaching job.  But that didn’t discourage her; instead, it further invigorated her passion for social-justice-oriented investigative journalism.

Wells began to debunk myths about lynchings; at the time, many people thought they were appropriate responses to rape or some other heinous crime.  She documented how they were actually White supremacist murders of people who competed with White businesses, had consensual relationships with White women, or were even viewed to have looked at White people wrong.  Forced to move north by the anger and death threats her writing provoked, Wells continued to speak out about these injustices, touring Great Britain and successfully drumming up some European opposition to lynching.  She was also a founding member of the NAACP and several women’s organizations.

Malala Yousafzai

malala

The Taliban controlled much of northwestern Pakistan in 2007 and aggressively suppressed women’s rights; girls were banned not just from “cultural activities like dancing and watching television,” but from attending school as well.  That didn’t sit well with Malala Yousafzai, who at age 11 delivered a speech entitled “How dare the Tailban take away my basic right to education?”  Soon thereafter, Yousafzai began to blog and speak out about her experience under the Taliban regime for the BBC, garnering worldwide attention and a nomination for the International Children’s Peace Prize.

In response, the Taliban tried to kill her; she was shot in the head on a bus in October of 2012.  The assassination attempt sparked a massive outpouring of support for her cause and led to “the first Right to Education Bill in Pakistan.”  Amazingly, Yousafzai survived and immediately resumed her advocacy, kicking things off with a speech at the United Nations in 2013 and eventually co-winning the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize.  When she turned 18 on July 12, 2015, she opened a school for Syrian refugees in Lebanon and “called on world leaders to invest in ‘books, not bullets.’”

Leave a comment

Filed under Gender Issues

Perspective Should Trump Sensationalism

Prominent Democratic media figures and politicians have long argued that Donald Trump is a uniquely terrifying threat to America’s future.  Back in February, for example, Ezra Klein called Trump “the most dangerous presidential candidate in memory.”  In March, Democratic National Committee Chair Debbie Wasserman-Schultz claimed that Trump is “the most extreme and vile, misogynistic candidate in modern times.”  And more recently, right before the Indiana primary, President Barack Obama said that Trump “is not somebody who, even within the Republican Party, can be considered as equipped to deal with the problems of this office.”

These claims, however, are missing vital context.  Trump would probably make a really bad president, but far from being a unique disaster, his nomination may have actually been the best-case outcome of this year’s Republican primary.

Many of the things Trump is known for – his overtly racist comments, for example – certainly are, as Jenée Desmond-Harris recently noted in The New York Times, “infuriating and frightening.”  But they’re not anomalies.  Both Republican and Democratic politicians have long played more subtly on racist stereotypes.  Trump’s blatant racism, as Desmond-Harris explains, makes it harder for people to pretend racism doesn’t exist or not to “understand what it represents about the country.”

There is, of course, a very legitimate concern about the costs of such unconcealed racism from a prominent public figure.  Trump “has given people permission to openly trumpet views they may once have kept to themselves — and gives them a place to gather together.”  Violence is a predictable result of these gatherings – especially considering the fact that Trump has at times encouraged it – and we’ve already seen it happening at Trump rallies all over the country.

At the same time, it’s not like the pre-Trump era was free from violent White supremacy, and when racism and other forms of discrimination are easily identifiable, they’re much easier to confront.  Consider, for example, Trump’s despicable proposal to ban Muslims from the country.  Given that American society has persecuted Muslims intensely for the past 15 years and that the mainstream media and numerous politicians – again, in both major parties – have facilitated this persecution, it’s hard to believe we’d be seeing the same outrage about the ban (let alone legislation intended to thwart it) if it had been proposed in more coded language by someone perceived to be more mainstream.  In fact, survey evidence highlights this point; Democratic support for a Muslim ban grows from 25 percent to 45 percent when voters don’t know the ban is Trump’s idea (Republican support is above 70 percent whether voters know it’s Trump’s idea or not).

Marco Rubio’s comment that Trump “says what people wish they could say [but] can’t [because of] consequences, here and around the world” is telling.  The consequences are in the form of popular backlash, and it’s the fear of that backlash, in part, that’s driving Right-wing opposition to the Republican nominee.  Radio and television personality Glenn Beck, for instance, worries “that the GOP is going to be completely racist – whether it’s true or not – because of Donald Trump. You will never have another Republican president ever again.”  Beck is likely wrong about his electoral prediction, unfortunately, but he may be right about Trump exposing the racist, sexist, and xenophobic elements of America that are particularly prevalent in the Republican party.  It’s perfectly rational to fear having those prejudices out in the open, but that exposure could also be what’s necessary to begin to dismantle them.

The other reason a lot of prominent Republicans don’t like Trump is that, as Nate Silver put it back in September of 2015: “There’s an alternate reality in which he decided to run as a Democrat instead — he wouldn’t have to change his policy positions all that much.”  That was certainly the argument of Ted Cruz, who complained in a Super Tuesday speech about, among other things, Trump’s support for “socialized medicine,” Planned Parenthood, “compromise…on Supreme Court nominees,” and neutrality when it comes to Israel and the Palestinians.

The man Trump calls “Lyin’ Ted” described most of Trump’s positions incorrectly, but there was also an element of truth in what Cruz told his supporters.  Despite Trump’s promise to repeal Obamacare during the primary, he’s also said, to the chagrin of his Republican foes, that he wants to replace it with more universal coverage; he’s even been a supporter of single-payer health care in the past.  Though Trump has argued for defunding Planned Parenthood, he’s also maintained, unlike other Republican candidates, that he has “a lot of respect for some of the things they do.”  It’s hard to know what Trump would do with the Supreme Court – as one legal scholar mused in March, he’s a real “wild card” – but unlike most Republican candidates (John Kasich is another exception), he has floated less insane justices in the past.  On Israel and Palestine, Cruz actually got Trump’s prior statements right, and while Trump recently spoke much more hawkishly about the conflict, that may be in response to Hillary Clinton’s “attempt to cast herself to Trump’s right” on the issue.

It’s hard to know for sure what Trump believes – “his hair has been more permanent than his political positions,” as AEI’s Thomas Miller said last July – but there are actually a few domains in which Trump might have better policy positions than Clinton.  Trump and Clinton both say they oppose the Trans-Pacific Partnership, for example, but while Trump’s opposition isn’t quite for the right reasons, it’s fairly credible; Clinton’s, on the other hand, isn’t.  While Clinton and her supporters make arguments more extreme than Antonin Scalia’s in defense of her big money donors and speeches at Goldman Sachs, Trump is telling the truth about the influence of money in politics (which he openly admits that he has benefited from as a donor and, like Clinton, pledges to reform).  Trump says he wants a much bigger investment in infrastructure than does Clinton, and there’s a legitimate case to be made that, in general, Clinton has a bigger “appetite for military engagement abroad” than Trump does.

In other areas, Trump’s positions may be less extreme than his primary posturing suggests.  For example, he now says he is open to raising the minimum wage, he initially frowned upon North Carolina’s anti-transgender bathroom law, and there are indications that he may walk back his plans to build a wall between the United States and Mexico and deport millions of immigrants.  To be clear, he hasn’t given a number on the minimum wage, he decided North Carolina’s law was a state decision in response to pressure from Republicans, and he has not yet pulled support for a border wall or deportations.  His positions here are completely unacceptable, as are his tax plan and his statements on guns, torture, and much else.  Furthermore, as mentioned above, it’s hard to know whether he would adhere to anything he’s said, and it would be a serious understatement to say that his advisers inspire little confidence.  But it’s also important to remember that it’s hard to know what Clinton truly believes, that there is cause for concern about who her staff would be, and that she was absent from the fight for a higher minimum wage, opposed to marriage equality, and supportive of border barriers and deportations until relatively recently, when the right positions (pro-large minimum wage increase, pro-marriage equality, anti-border barrier, and anti-deportations) became politically advantageous for a Democratic Party politician.

None of that is to say that anyone who believes in social justice should consider voting for Trump; please don’t.  I strongly disagree with the notion that he’d be the lesser-of-evils candidate if Clinton is the Democratic nominee.  (If that happens, I encourage Bernie Sanders supporters to vote for a third-party candidate.)

I would, however, urge everyone, both here and around the world, to treat Trump less like a heretofore unseen danger.  It’s not a bad thing that Trump “is reinforcing long-held suspicions that America is a racist, imperialist nation” – there are very good reasons for those suspicions, and we can’t fix our problems if we don’t acknowledge them.  And it’s also not a bad thing that Speaker of the House Paul Ryan – who Dylan Matthews recently called a “doctrinaire, down-the-line supply-sider who wants massive cuts to safety net and social insurance programs and equally massive tax cuts for the wealthy” – has wondered whether his “conservative principles will be championed” by the Republican nominee for president.  As even pro-Clinton journalist Jonathan Chait has pointed out, “a Trump presidency would probably wind up doing less harm to the country than a Marco Rubio or a Cruz presidency.”

That certainly doesn’t mean fears of Trump are unfounded.  But let’s also make sure we give his candidacy the appropriate context.

2 Comments

Filed under 2016 Presidential Election, Race and Religion