Author Archives: Ben Spielberg

The Washington Post’s Lurch Toward Developers

According to The Washington Post’s editorial board, “balance…has eluded” Marc Elrich, the Democratic nominee for county executive in Montgomery County, Maryland whose campaign I managed during the primary. This allegation is based largely on Elrich’s written commitment, if elected, to “invite the [president of the county’s major labor union] to the interview and selection processes for all of [the county’s] department heads,” which the Post calls “an extraordinary promise, even for a pro-labor politician — and one without precedent in any area jurisdiction, as far as we can ascertain.”

It is true that local officials do not typically give labor a voice in government decision-making. But it is strange to say the promise to do so is less “balanced” than the more common practice of giving employees no input whatsoever on the managers who will be overseeing their work. In fact, giving workers substantially more control over private companies’ operations by allowing them to elect a portion of a company’s board of directors may be “among the most broadly popular ideas in American politics” right now. That practice, called co-determination, is already widespread in Germany and Western Europe. Elrich’s proposal, like co-determination, would help ensure that employees are assigned productive work that advances the mission that both managers and workers share.

Perhaps the Post’s confusion about the meaning of the word “balance” stems from the complete absence of it in their coverage of the Montgomery County executive race. “Marc Elrich’s lurch toward labor” was not the first, not the second, not the third, but the fourth explicitly anti-Elrich piece the editorial board published. They even wrote a fifth piece about ranked-choice voting (a policy that Elrich strongly supports) that subtly attempted to delegitimize Elrich’s primary victory before the votes were officially counted. While the Post’s editorial board is of course welcome to support or oppose whomever they please, the sheer volume of negative copy they’ve devoted to Elrich appears to be without precedent in their commentary on previous Montgomery County executive candidates (not to mention executive candidates in other area jurisdictions) – at least, as far as I can ascertain. The editorial board also violated some basic journalistic principles in their anti-Elrich advocacy.

Even more concerning, the Post’s anti-Elrich bias and journalistic malpractice weren’t confined to the editorial pages. The paper’s news coverage also suffered from a serious slant, casting a misleading narrative pushed by a few powerful developers and their allies as objective reporting.

Between when I started as Elrich’s campaign manager in October of 2017 and early February of 2018, the Post reported on pretty much every major event in the executive race and did so more or less neutrally. They covered county executive forums in October, November, and December, the decisions of former Rockville mayor Rose Krasnow and Potomac businessman David Blair to enter the field, the first major campaign finance filing in January, and the organizational endorsements of CASA in Action (Elrich), SEIU Local 32BJ (Elrich), the Metropolitan Washington Council of the AFL-CIO (Elrich), the Montgomery County Sierra Club (Roger Berliner), and Progressive Maryland (Elrich). In stories about important county issues like the government’s budget shortfall, the minimum wage bill Elrich co-sponsored, and the departure of one of the county’s major businesses, the Post also quoted Elrich and the other sitting members of the county council who were running for county executive while mentioning their candidacies.

In February, a new reporter took over the Post’s Montgomery County beat. And as major endorsements for Elrich continued to roll in, the Post stopped covering them. They did report on a racial justice forum on February 25, their piece on the crowded field in the county council race a few days later mentioned the county executive candidates in passing, and their article about whether to prioritize funding for the school system’s proposed capital budget or for road projects noted the candidacies of Elrich and Berliner, who were on opposite sides of that debate. But the Post mostly went silent on the executive race for a while, not carrying another news story about it until April 19.

That story, entitled “In Maryland’s largest jurisdiction, contest for county executive seen as anybody’s race,” quoted two “experts,” both of whom – Keith Haller and Steve Silverman – sat on the four-person candidate interview committee for a group called Empower Montgomery. Purporting to “effectively represent all Montgomery County residents – and avoid having political decisions influenced by narrow special interests,” Empower Montgomery actually represents the county’s most powerful special interest group: wealthy developers. Blair has been listed among the organization’s co-founders (Silverman has, too, though neither man currently appears on the Empower Montgomery website) and Elrich was the only county executive candidate who refused to take developers’ campaign contributions, insisting he would hold them accountable for paying for the school construction and transportation infrastructure necessary to support new development. So it wasn’t too surprising when Empower Montgomery launched a series of attack mailers against Elrich right before the election.

While calling Haller and Silverman election experts, the Post’s April 19 article did not mention either of their affiliations with Empower Montgomery or the county’s developers. The article did, however, give Silverman space to downplay the significance of Elrich’s endorsements and characterize his candidacy as occupying “the far-left, pro-union, anti-development lane.”

Then, on April 27, for the first time in two months, the Post finally covered another candidate forum. This forum – the last the paper would cover before the primary election on June 26 – was co-hosted by none other than Empower Montgomery. Referencing the report Empower Montgomery commissioned to be unveiled and discussed at the forum, the Post’s title warned that the “Montgomery Co. economy is stagnant, and leaders are ignoring job creation.” Among the solutions Empower Montgomery recommended to this ostensibly dire situation? As the Post summarized: attracting Amazon’s second headquarters (that “would help to solve pretty much every many [sic] of the economic problems the county faces,” the Post gushed); “reduce energy taxes and impact fees on new development; and increase economic development resources” (emphasis mine). The article referred to Empower Montgomery as a “nonprofit advocacy formed by business leaders,” making no mention of Blair being listed as a co-founder or the very narrow business interests – developers – that the organization actually represents.

When the Post’s editorial board endorsed Blair on May 12, they linked to this April 27 news article as justification, calling the Empower Montgomery-commissioned report “the unsettling backdrop for the June 26 Democratic primary…The central question is which of the candidates for county executive is most capable of juicing a sluggish commercial environment — the only way to broaden the local tax base so it can sustain the county’s excellent schools and progressive services.” In addition to endorsing Blair, the editorial board made sure to note that four of the other candidates would be acceptable. The only exception was Elrich, “whose popularity owes much to his reflexive opposition to innumerable local projects — including the Fillmore, a beloved live music venue in Silver Spring. Mr. Elrich would be the wrong person to broaden the county’s tax base and revive its prospects.”

This editorial prompted a flurry of angry letters to the editor from Montgomery County residents, one of whom reminded the editorial board of something they should have already known: “Mr. Elrich was not opposed to the ‘beloved’ Fillmore music venue but to the $11 million in public funds given to Ticketmaster.”

In an apparent attempt to justify their pro-Blair, anti-Elrich position, the Post’s editorial board doubled down with a follow-up piece on June 5. This second editorial inaccurately accused Elrich of “declar[ing] he’d rather divert jobs to neighboring Frederick County than attract them to Montgomery,” relying on a dishonest claim from a developer-funded blog that proudly asserts: “[d]evelopers are part of the solution and we welcome their support.” Elrich wrote a letter to the editor to correct the record, and the Post published it on June 10. But less than a week later, the Post highlighted the allegation again in a feature on Elrich that they published as part of a series on all six of the Democratic candidates. The feature linked the inaccurate blog post and – until I emailed the author and the piece was edited post-publication – failed to include a link to Elrich’s response.

Unlike the features on the other candidates, which focused on why those candidates were running and what they wanted to accomplish, the Elrich feature centered around criticisms and Elrich’s responses to those criticisms. “Marc Elrich is tired of being called a socialist,” it began, following up with “rumors about a Che Guevara poster on his office wall” and claiming that “business leaders” felt “unease” at the prospect of an Elrich-led county government. Whereas other candidates’ endorsements were all described positively, Elrich’s much more extensive and diverse endorsements list was mentioned briefly and then qualified with a less overt version of the critique in the Post’s most recent anti-Elrich editorial (see below). Prior to my email to the author, the feature didn’t even mention that Elrich would appear on the teachers union’s “apple ballot,” which is quite possibly the county’s most coveted endorsement prize.

Endorsement Paragraphs - Post Features

Though it’s hard to fully appreciate how much of an outlier the Elrich feature was without reading them all (those interested can do so here), the graph below provides a quick illustration. Each bar represents the percentage of paragraphs in the feature that paint the candidate in a positive light minus the percentage of paragraphs that portray the candidate negatively. As the image shows, Elrich is the only candidate who received a net negative portrayal. (The categorization scheme is somewhat subjective, of course, but I tried to categorize conservatively; anybody interested can download and play with the categorizations here).

Positivity - Post Features

To be fair to the Post, they did cover the teachers union’s endorsement on June 6. They also covered candidates’ and progressive groups’ attacks on Blair for trying “to buy the election” in two separate pieces. Yet even there, the paper was less credulous about attacks on Blair than it was when evaluating attacks on Elrich. For example, the paper asserted that the Progressive Maryland Liberation Alliance super PAC “does not offer any proof that its accusations [about Blair’s business record] are true.” Not once did a Post news article put a similar note after “business leaders’” unfounded critiques of Elrich.

The combination of the bias in the Post’s main feature, their elevation of developers’ narrative without proper citation, and the editorial board’s blatant mischaracterization of Elrich’s positions surely influenced the primary vote. While Elrich won anyway and we’ll never be able to quantify the impact the Post’s misinformation had, it’s hard to imagine Elrich wouldn’t have won by a larger margin if residents had received more accurate information.

Moving forward, Montgomery County residents can feel confident that they’ll continue to get balance from Elrich. It would be nice if they could also expect balance from the paper of record.

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Filed under 2018 Elections, media

A Plea to Progressives: Reject Russia Hysteria and Prioritize Social Justice

For well over a year-and-a-half now, prominent Democratic politicians and media figures have alleged that, in an unprecedented attack on democracy, “Russia hacked the election” in 2016 to install Vladimir Putin’spuppet,” Donald Trump, into office. Those pushing this narrative call Trump a “traitor” and accuse him of committingtreason” against the American people.

I have raised objections to the way many Democrats are talking about Russia for two main reasons:

1. Skepticism of our intelligence agencies’ claims is warranted, as history has shown. From overthrowing the democratically elected Allende government in Chile and lying about it to secretly selling weapons to Iran in the 1980s and lying about it to falsely declaring that Iraq had provided al Qaeda with weapons of mass destruction, the CIA’s history doesn’t exactly inspire confidence in their credibility. The FBI similarly helped to lead us into Iraq under false pretenses (see this video from 15 years ago of none other than lead Russia investigator Robert Mueller) and has a long history of targeting anti-war and civil rights activists with dishonest smears. And as exposed by Edward Snowden during the Obama Presidency, the NSA has lied repeatedly to Americans about their warrantless spying programs. In each of these and many other instances, our intelligence agencies’ falsehoods have served deeply illiberal goals. Nobody should take their word as gospel, and everyone should be skeptical of what our intelligence agencies’ public pronouncements might be designed to accomplish. Consider the following:

a. Hysteria about Russia could lead to war – or worse. As noted above, inaccurate fearmongering helped lead us into the Iraq War in the early 2000s. The more prominent media and political figures say that “we’re in a 9/11 national emergency” and declare Russia to have “launched a war” against us, the more at risk we are of becoming engaged in an actual war with Russia, a country with a serious stockpile of nuclear weapons. In fact, a former US general and a foreign policy consultant seemed to suggest that military action against Russia might be appropriate in a recent article in Politico, writing: “This is our Pearl Harbor, our 9/11. In the past, we have risen to the defense of our values, our ideologies and our institutions. It’s time for another fight.”

One wouldn’t know it from the media narrative about Trump and Russia, but Trump has already taken a harder line against Russia than Barack Obama did when in office – he has imposed harsh sanctions, bombed a Syrian airfield, pulled out of the Iran deal (which Putin supported), sent lethal weapons to Ukraine, and increased funding for anti-Russian efforts in Europe. Democrats pushing Trump to take more aggressive action would do well to consider why Obama didn’t (and to watch this video of Obama mocking Mitt Romney six years ago for making the same type of claims many Democrats are making today).

b. Unfounded accusations of treason are used to silence dissent. Less than fifteen years ago, the Center for American Progress documented the Bush Administration’s attacks on the patriotism of anyone who opposed their narrative about 9/11 and Iraq and, more broadly, their foreign policy. Beyond Iraq, “the tactic of undermining political opponents by making unsubstantiated attacks on their loyalty to the United States” has a name – McCarthyism – and has a long history of being used to persecute social justice advocates.

While it’s true that the allegations of treason today are centered heavily on staunch opponents of social justice – Trump and various Republicans – Establishment Democrats have unsurprisingly also targeted Jill Stein, Glenn Greenwald, and anyone else who has dared to criticize their behavior – we are at best “fucking clueless…idiot[s]” and at worst “agent[s] of Trump and Moscow” (that we are staunch critics of both Trump and Putin doesn’t seem to matter). It is not hard to imagine the current McCarthyite climate persisting after Trump is ousted from office and used primarily once more, as it has been throughout American history, to attack proponents of a more just society.

I’m not an expert on cybersecurity and do not know the entire basis for our intelligence agencies’ claims – nobody outside of those agencies does! What we do know, however, is that the first report they released that purported to show evidence of Russian interference in 2016 contained more anti-social-justice propaganda than evidence. We also know that many widespread claims related to alleged Russian interference over the last two years – Wikileaks doctored Clinton campaign emails, Russia hacked the Vermont power grid, certain American blogs are tools of Russian propaganda, Russia tried to break into and compromise voter systems in various states, Russia interfered in the French election – have turned out to be false.

Mueller’s July 13 indictment is detailed and he may present convincing proof that the Russian government hacked various Democrats’ email accounts (there are also reasonable people who seem to believe the evidence is already convincing on that point). But given our intelligence agencies’ sordid history, we should be careful not to place our trust in them.

2. We should be focusing our time and energy on effective responses to Trump, Republicans in Congress, and the homegrown problems of systemic classism, racism, sexism, and other forms of bigotry that long predate 2016. The only standing concrete charges against the Russian government are that they hacked Democratic emails and poured a very small amount of money into an unsophisticated, inconsequential social media advertising campaign. These activities were neither the primary reason for Trump’s victory nor particularly surprising – the United States government “meddles” in many other foreign countries’ elections much more significantly than Russia is alleged to have done here – and, as polling shows, Americans rightfully care more about issues that will directly impact their lives than about the “situation with Russia.”

To be fair, Establishment Democrats who consider themselves part of the #Resistance have generally been highly critical of Republican efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act, cut taxes, and enforce draconian immigration policy. But the amount of time spent on these issues – not to mention advancing a proactive agenda for single-payer health care, a $15 minimum wage, a radical restructuring of our criminal justice system, and more – has paled in comparison to the amount of time spent on speculation about Trump and Russia. In one analysis of a six-week period in 2017, for example, popular MSNBC host Rachel Maddow was found to have spent more time talking about Russia than about every other issue combined. As another illustrative example, CNN Contributor Joan Walsh seemed unhappy with Bernie Sanders for tweeting about a long-scheduled “CEOs vs workers” town hall he was hosting on the day of the Trump-Putin summit in Helsinki; in Walsh’s mind, presumably, Sanders should have ignored income inequality that day and been exclusively focused on questioning Trump’s patriotism. Every cover story hypothesizing that Trump has been a “Russian-intelligence asset” since 1987 draws attention away from important, reality-based domestic issues that could have had that cover space.

There’s a reason Establishment Democrats find the Russia-successfully-waged-an-unprecedented-attack-on-our-democracy-and-is-to-blame-for-all-our-problems narrative so appealing: it absolves them of responsibility both for losing the 2016 election and for failing to address the needs of millions of Americans who are suffering. They want the public to forget that they ran an undemocratic primary process in 2016 to select the less-electable, less-social-justice-oriented candidate as their nominee, that their model for Democratic politics has resulted in huge losses for the party throughout the entire country, and that Democrats have long condoned some of the policies they now profess to be outraged about. If Democratic elites can convince enough people that the current state of American politics is Putin’s fault rather than something their glaring failures have contributed to, they will have a much easier time staying in power.

None of that means that the Russian government wasn’t behind the phishing emails sent to John Podesta and the Democratic National Committee – they may well have been! It also remains true that Donald Trump lies all the time and has almost certainly done dozens of illegal things. Nobody should take statements from either him or Vladimir Putin at face value, and the Mueller investigation should absolutely proceed.

But Democrats also need to be more careful about how they approach the issue of Russia and the 2016 election. Failing to do so could have very serious consequences.

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Filed under 2016 Presidential Election, Foreign Policy, US Political System

Written in 2017, Relevant in 2018 and Beyond

With the year drawing to a close, and because I like lists, I wanted to highlight the ten pieces I wrote in 2017 that I believe remain most relevant for 2018 and beyond.

#10: The Trump administration’s ongoing attack on workers (The Washington Post, August 30)
Donald Trump pledged during his campaign, that, with him in office, “the American worker will finally have a president who will protect them and fight for them.” In this piece, Jared Bernstein and I tick off a multitude of ways in which this promise has turned out, predictably, to be false. The list has gotten longer in the time since we went to press (check out Jared’s recent interview of Heidi Shierholz on how the Trump Labor Department is trying to help employers steal workers’ tips), and it will be important to continue to shine a light on team Trump’s anti-worker actions in 2018.

#9: The Paul Ryan Guide to Pretending You Care About the Poor (Talk Poverty, November 20)
Speaking of the disconnect between Republican politicians’ rhetoric and their actual actions, this satirical piece outlined the way in which Paul Ryan sells his help-the-rich-and-punish-the-poor agenda as the opposite of what it actually is. With the Republican tax cut for rich people signed into law, Ryan has already trained his sights on eviscerating programs that help the poor. Don’t let anyone you know fall for how he’ll spin it.

#8: Why Medicaid Work Requirements Won’t Work (The New York Times, March 22)
Elected officials who share Ryan’s disdain for poor people will likely try to add work requirements to their states’ Medicaid programs in 2018. Here, Jared and I explain why that policy’s main effect is just to deprive people of needed health care.

#7: Seattle’s higher minimum wage is actually working just fine (The Washington Post, June 27)
The Fight for $15 has been incredibly successful over the past few years; 29 states (plus DC) and 40 localities now have minimum wages higher than the federal minimum. Yet the not-so-brave quest some economists and politicians have undertaken to hold down wages for low-wage workers continues unabated, and they jumped all over a June study of Seattle’s minimum wage increase to proclaim that workers are actually better off when we allow businesses to underpay them. A closer look at the study, of course, reveals that it proves nothing of the sort, so keep this rebuttal handy for the next raise-the-wage fight you find yourself engaged in.

#6: Below the Minimum No More (The American Prospect, May 30)
Abolishing sub-minimum wages is the next front in the minimum wage wars; while many jurisdictions have raised the headline minimum wage, most have failed to satisfactorily address the exemptions in minimum wage law that allow businesses to exploit tipped workers, workers with disabilities, and teenagers. It’s about time we had one fair minimum wage for all workers, as this piece explains.

#5: Protect the Dreamers (The American Prospect, September 28)
Republican Senator Jeff Flake claims that he voted for the Republican tax bill after “securing…commitment from the [Trump] administration & #Senate leadership to advance [a] growth-oriented legislative solution to enact fair and permanent protections for #DACA recipients.” In this piece, Jared and I note how a clean Dream Act is the only approach that politicians who truly care about helping immigrants would find acceptable; Flake must be held accountable for supporting it. State lawmakers should also be pressured to take the steps we outline to combat the xenophobia emanating from the White House.

#4: U.S. Intelligence Agencies Scoff at Criticism of Police Brutality, Fracking, and “Alleged Wall Street Greed” (34justice, January 9)
To date, there is at best remarkably weak evidence behind many prominent politicians’ and pundits’ claims about Russian interference in the US election. I read the report that is the basis for many of these claims when it came out in January and, as I noted at the time, it’s almost comically propagandistic. Some Democrats’ disregard for actual facts when it comes to allegations of Russian hacking and “collusion” is troubling, as is the McCarthyite climate in which people who challenge the Democratic Party Establishment are accused of being secret agents of Vladimir Putin. Those who would prefer a more reality-based Russia discussion in 2018 would do well to take a half hour to watch Aaron Maté interview Luke Harding about this topic.

#3: Amen for Alternative Media (34justice, May 2)
An obsession with Russia conspiracy theories is far from the mainstream media’s sole problem. The problem also isn’t a paucity of Republican journalists, as the May/June issue of Politico posited. Instead, as my response to Politico discusses, the mainstream media’s problem is one of subservience to power. Independent media are doing the public a great service by exposing us to information and viewpoints often absent from corporate cable and major newspapers, and it is essential that we fight to protect and promote independent media in the years ahead.

#2: The Progressive Agenda Now: Jobs and Medicare for All (The American Prospect, April 3)
Given Republican control of the presidency and both chambers of Congress, one would be forgiven for urging social justice advocates to focus their energies on policy defense. But that would be a mistake, as Jared and I note in this column, both because the best defense is sometimes a good offense and because, if we want to enact the policy millions of people need, we must lay the groundwork for that policy as soon as possible. There is much more beyond a federal job guarantee and Medicare for All that we have to flesh out and advocate for, but those two big policy ideas wouldn’t be too shabby a start.

#1: We Don’t Need No “Moderates” (34justice, July 29)
Putting the right politicians in power is the prerequisite for enacting most of the policy changes we need to see. Those who tell you that “moderate” or “centrist” politicians are more “electable” than social-justice-oriented politicians are wrong, and there is never a good reason – never – to advocate for the less social-justice-oriented candidate in a Democratic primary. The results of the 2017 elections only underscore this point. It’s time we got to work electing true social justice advocates to positions of power.

Happy reading and happy new year!

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Filed under 2018 Elections, Labor, Poverty and the Justice System, US Political System

How to Spin an Agenda for the Rich as an Agenda for the Poor, by Paul Ryan

Once, at a town hall in Wisconsin, someone asked me the following question:

“I know that you’re Catholic, as am I, and it seems to me that most of the Republicans in the Congress are not willing to stand with the poor and working class as evidenced in the recent debates about health care and the anticipated tax reform. So I’d like to ask you how you see yourself upholding the church’s social teaching that has the idea that God is always on the side of the poor and dispossessed, as should we be.”

If you’re ever in a position of power and trying to simultaneously cut taxes for rich people and benefits for poor people, you’ll get asked questions like this one a lot. To make sure you’re ready for it as the tax debate heats up, I’ve written a handy step-by-step guide on how to convince your constituents that the help-the-rich, whack-the-poor agenda is the only way to go:

1) Say you share the same goals. The trick here is to convince people that you’re with them all the way on the importance of helping the poor. You just disagree about “how to achieve that goal.” Start there and you’ve quickly turned things from a moral referendum on whether we should help the poor or the rich into what appears to be a reasonable disagreement over what works best to help the least advantaged.

2) Direct attention away from what it means to be poor. People who ask these sorts of questions think that poor people simply don’t have enough money to meet their families’ basic needs. You know better. Tell them what the poor really need is “upward mobility,” “economic growth,” and “equality of opportunity.” Not only do these airy concepts all sound really good – who could be against any of them? – they also let you pivot away from the obvious solution: giving people more of the resources they lack. True, your agenda doesn’t bring about the things to which you’ve shifted the focus. But don’t worry! The narrative that tax cuts promote economic growth is one that voluminous evidence to the contrary has thus far been unable to kill; likewise, the intimate connection between inequality of outcomes and inequality of opportunity is one very few interviewers will point out. People are often happy to ignore the large body of evidence on these issues and treat them as debatable.

3) Imply that poor people’s personal failings are what’s holding them back. You can’t pull off the enlightened nice-guy routine if you’re blaming poor people for their problems outright. So you need to do it subtly: say that what we really need is worker training and programs that encourage people to work (again, who’s going to be against that?). Never mind that there’s little actual evidence of a “skills gap” and that most people who can work already do. People are predisposed to believe that our success relative to those less fortunate is a result of our superior work ethic and talents (rather than a product of race, class, gender, and/or other forms of privilege and sheer dumb luck). The more you tap into that predisposition, the more people will oppose downward redistribution and support imposing burdensome requirements on the Have Nots instead.

4) Choose unrepresentative examples and statistics. People are always shocked to hear my example of “a single mom getting 24 grand in benefits with two kids who,” because of the way the safety net is designed,” will lose 80 cents on the dollar if she goes and takes a job.” They don’t need to know that very few single mothers ever face such a marginal tax rate, that marginal tax rates for low-income people are typically much lower than marginal tax rates for people with more money, that it pays to work even for the tiny group of people my example describes, or that reducing the marginal tax rates low-income people face without pushing them deeper into poverty would require investing more in the programs I want to cut, not less.

Similarly, I love to tell people that “our poverty rates are about the same as they were when we started th[e] War on Poverty,” which is more or less what the official poverty measure shows. That official measure excludes the effects of the very programs I say aren’t working, of course, and yes, there is a Supplemental Poverty Measure that refutes this claim and that analysts across the political spectrum agree is more appropriate to use, but the inconvenient truth that anti-poverty programs currently cut poverty nearly in half and have reduced poverty by 10 percentage points since the late 1960s isn’t exactly going to help us pass our agenda.

5) Hammer “focus on outcomes” rhetoric. Focusing on outcomes is popular in many fields, so this talking point – that “instead of measuring success based on how much money we spend or how many programs we create or how many people are on those programs, [we should] measure success in poverty on outcomes” – is very effective. The fact that nobody actually measures program effectiveness by how much money we spend or by the number of programs we create is irrelevant, as is the large and growing body of research showing that the safety net boosts the long-run outcomes of children growing up in poor families, as is the havoc the tax-cut agenda has wreaked on Kansas. All that matters is that people fall for this line, nodding their heads in agreement when you say it.

As long as you’re proposing to redistribute money from the bottom and middle to the rich, you’re going to get questions like the one I got at that town hall. There will always be those who oppose reverse-Robin-Hood-ism on principle. But if you stick to these steps, before you know it, you’ll have convinced a constituency (and perhaps even yourself!) that helping the rich is actually about helping the poor. At worst, people will just be too confused to know what to think.

You’re welcome.

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Filed under Poverty and the Justice System

34justice Partners with Run It Black

I’m excited to announce that 34justice is partnering with Run It Black, a podcast on “sports, politics, culture, and the intersection of race” from David Tigabu and Mike Mitchell.  Mike taught me much of what I know about podcasting, and David is no newcomer to 34justice, having previously authored a great piece for us on how the co-option of Christianity helps explain the election of Donald Trump.  Besides being good friends of mine and knowing far more about pop culture than I ever will, David and Mike have awesome insights about the connections between racism and various other forms of oppression.  Often containing fascinating historical context, their episodes are both entertaining and informative.

You can listen to Run It Black episodes directly through 34justice’s new Run It Black widget, which can be found on the top right-hand-side of our webpage on a desktop computer and towards the bottom of the page on a mobile device.  You can also tune in on iTunes.  Here’s a quick overview of the first five episodes (from earliest to most recent):

What to do about the NFL?
Find out why David and Mike are boycotting the NFL this year and what they think of the Floyd Mayweather versus Conor McGregor showdown.

The Politics of Hurricanes
People of color suffer most when natural disasters strike, are often de-prioritized during our inadequate responses to such disasters, and will continue to face disproportionate harm if we fail to address climate change.  David and Mike explain.

Jemele Hill Was Right
Hill’s Black colleagues backed her up when she called Donald Trump a White supremacist, but ESPN didn’t.  David and Mike discuss the Right-wing backlash to race-conscious sports media before delving into some statistics on and possible remedies for the racial wealth gap.

Puerto Rico’s Colonial Disaster
As David and Mike note, our government has treated Puerto Rico significantly worse than it treats US states during times of natural disaster, a problem consistent with a long history of unjust policy towards Americans on the island.  They also comment on the evolution of NFL players’ protests against racial injustice.

The Enduring Significance of HBCUs
While neither David nor Mike attended an HBCU, they’ve thought a lot about the important role such institutions play in improving opportunities for Black Americans.  They note HBCUs’ many strengths, why some criticisms of HBCUs are misplaced, and the curious case of HBCU presidents accepting Donald Trump’s invitation to the White House.

Especially if you aren’t getting enough Run It Black between episodes, I highly recommend following the podcast, as well as David and Mike, on Twitter.  Happy listening!

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Filed under Environment, Gender Issues, Labor, Poverty and the Justice System, Race and Religion, Sports, US Political System

Improving the Structure of Math Departments

At many schools I’ve worked at or observed, math departments are structured counterproductively.  The best teachers often teach the most advanced classes, while the newest teachers, or those most in need of support, teach the classes that struggling students are more likely to attend.  As a result, the students most in need of excellent teaching can be least likely to get it.

Math departments may be structured this way for a variety of reasons.  There is surely a correlation of some sort between teaching skill and mastery of mathematics, so the best teachers may just more often than novice teachers be well-equipped to teach advanced courses.  It may also be the case that teachers prefer teaching advanced classes; as the students in advanced classes typically already want to be there, teachers of those classes can focus more on content instruction and less on classroom management.  School leaders may want to keep their best teachers happy, and giving those teachers the advanced classes may be one way to do that.

I can understand why teachers might, if given the choice, decide to teach AP Calculus AB instead of an intervention class geared towards students who failed Algebra I.  Especially given the workloads American society foists upon teachers, who never have enough hours in the day to do a fraction of what they’d ideally do for their students, teacher burnout is a real concern.  While I know some great teachers who love teaching hard-to-reach students and have made doing so their life’s work, and while teaching advanced students also carries its challenges, working with the highest-need students is often emotionally exhausting and probably accelerates the burning-out process.

Several approaches could potentially help reduce the tension between pursuing the most equitable arrangement – in which the best teachers teach the students who need help most – and protecting teachers against burnout.  One option would be to reduce the number of classes teachers of introductory or remedial courses would be required to teach.  If nothing else, an extra free period would give these teachers more time to plan remediation and give students constructive feedback.  Another option would be to ensure that an instructional aide is available to assist teachers in every lower-level course they teach.  A third approach would be to require every teacher teaching an AP or honors course to teach a lower-level course as well.  (None of these ideas is mutually exclusive, of course.)

Reducing teacher burnout and making our schools more equitable are big challenges that ultimately require substantially increased investments in public education, particularly in low-income areas, as well as an overhaul of what teacher workdays and support structures look like.  We must push for those investments and overhauls, not to mention the larger, outside-of-school changes that are most important for ensuring equal opportunity for every student in this country.  In the meantime, we should explore creative ways to simultaneously keep our best teachers invigorated and make sure they’re in front of our students in need.

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We Don’t Need No “Moderates”

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has apparently decided that embracing the “Blue Dog Democrats” – a group of politicians who proudly tout their commitment “to pursuing fiscally-responsible policies, ensuring a strong national defense, and transcending party lines” – is the prudent electoral strategy for the Democratic Party in 2018.  Daily Beast contributor Michael Tomasky agrees, writing that the “reality, which many liberals refuse to accept[, is that to win a majority in the House of Representatives], Democrats have to win in 20 to 25 purple districts.  And that means electing some moderates.”

If you’re in favor of Democrats joining with Republicans to enact tax cuts that go mostly to the rich, reductions in government spending on support for low- and middle-income people, and more legislation authorizing perpetual war, this strategy isn’t totally crazy.  But if you’re in favor of “single-payer health care, a much higher minimum wage, a massive infrastructure program, a top marginal…tax rate around 50 percent, a much higher payroll tax cap, and more,” which Tomasky says he is, this strategy couldn’t be more wrong.  Even if it led to a Democratic House, it would stymie your agenda.  In New York, for example, while the Blue-Dog-esque Independent Democratic Conference (IDC) gives Democrats a nominal majority in the state Senate, the IDC consistently partners with Republicans to undermine economic and social justice.  A Democratic majority doesn’t help you very much if the Democrats who get you there don’t share your values.

Importantly, there’s also no reason to believe Tomasky’s assertion that “moderate” candidates will improve Democrats’ electoral prospects.  In fact, evidence suggests an alternate strategy holds more promise in contested (or even heavily Republican) districts in 2018.

Consider recent special elections to replace Trump appointees Mick Mulvaney (South Carolina’s 5th District), Mike Pompeo (Kansas’ 4th District), Tom Price (Georgia’s 6th District), and Ryan Zinke (Montana’s At-Large seat) in the House.  Democrats pursued the Tomasky strategy (or, as former Hillary Clinton press secretary Brian Fallon seems to call it, the “Panera Breads of America” strategy) in Georgia, spending a historical record $30 million on a candidate, Jon Ossoff, who stressed deficit reduction and actively opposed both single-payer health care and taxing the rich.  The national party apparatus mostly stayed out of the other three races, but the Democratic candidates in Kansas (James Thompson) and Montana (Rob Quist) secured progressive endorsements with a platform closer to the one Tomasky theoretically supports.  Nobody paid much attention to Archie Parnell, the Democratic candidate in South Carolina, who, like Ossoff, would fit in pretty well with the Blue Dogs.

The Democrats lost all four races.  But based on how Democrats had fared in each of those districts historically, they also significantly outperformed expectations.  All of them except for Ossoff, that is, who did far better than the practically nonexistent candidate Democrats ran in the prior congressional election in Georgia’s 6th District but worse than Hillary Clinton performed there against Donald Trump.  Note also that Georgia’s 6th District is more affluent than most and thus, according to Tomasky, a place in which “the Democrat should definitely talk more about growth than fairness but can probably get away with somewhat more liberal social positions,” which basically describes how Ossoff ran his campaign.  In other words, the Democratic Party invested the most resources and got the least return on one of the “moderate” special election candidates in a district tailor-made for the Tomasky strategy.

Advocacy for single-payer health care didn’t put Thompson and Quist over the top in their races, of course, and Parnell, a “moderate” who both the party and grassroots organizers more or less ignored, came the closest to victory.  These special elections certainly don’t prove that endorsing economic justice more will win.  But they do show it can play better than a Republican-lite economic platform in heavily Republican areas, a fact also underscored by the recent results of state special elections.  In New York’s 9th Assembly District, for instance, which Trump won with 60 percent of the vote, bold progressive Christine Pellegrino just trounced her Republican challenger en route to a seat on the state assembly.

Then there’s the recent international evidence.  Jeremy Corbyn just helped the United Kingdom’s Labour Party pull off its biggest electoral swing in seventy years, defying pundit predictions of Labour’s imminent trampling from a few months before.  Some of Labour’s surge was likely due to the Conservative Party’s mistakes, but some of it was also likely due to a bold set of economic ideas Labour outlined in a new manifesto, ideas that couldn’t be more different from those the Blue Dog Democrats embrace.  Labour’s showing underscored what evidence had indicated since at least February of 2016, when I first pointed it out: Bernie Sanders was much more likely than Hillary Clinton to win a head-to-head matchup against a Republican presidential candidate that November.  That evidence only got stronger as the primary season continued; many Democrats likely wish they had taken it more seriously.  Today, Sanders – a politician about as far from the Blue Dogs as you can get in the Senate – remains the most popular politician in America.  The claim that Sanders-style economic and social justice advocacy is unworkable in the critical purple districts Tomasky references doesn’t square with the absence of moderate Democrats more popular than Sanders in those districts.

And let’s not forget that the Democratic Party has been decimated in recent years.  Not only have they lost control of the executive branch of the federal government and both chambers of Congress, they now also hold only 18 state houses, 15* governorships, and 13 state senates.  They’ve been running moderate candidates in purple districts, and that strategy doesn’t seem to be working very well.

That doesn’t mean we can be certain about what will get Democrats elected.  A candidate’s general election viability is ultimately unknowable.  It may depend on her or her opponent’s platform, debating skill, fundraising prowess, personality, or field operation.  It may hinge on the quirks of the community she’s running for office in or how much the media likes her.  It may come down to random chance.  Electability is also often a self-fulfilling prophecy; people commenting on electability and making decisions based on their perceptions of it can actually influence it and do so all the time.

The only thing we can be certain of in the electability space is political strategists’ and pundits’ poor track records.  Many of the people who claim to know what is and isn’t possible in future elections thought Bernie Sanders would barely get 15 percent of the vote in the Democratic primary.  Many of them were sure that Republicans would never nominate Donald Trump, and once that prediction turned out to be wrong, were still absolutely positive that Trump would never become president.  It’s long past time we viewed their claims with skepticism, especially when there’s evidence that points the other way.

Good policy can sell.  Voters can be persuaded.  Political reality is not something that gets handed to us, but something we help create.  Candidates with economic and social justice platforms can win in purple districts, and they’ll be even more likely to do so if Democratic pundits stop assuming they can’t and start getting behind them.

*Updated from 16 to 15 on August 5, 2017, after West Virginia Governor Jim Justice announced he would switch his party affiliation from Democrat to Republican. Thanks to Michael Sainato for the heads up!

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Filed under 2016 Presidential Election, 2018 Elections, US Political System

Amen for Alternative Media

Media Establishment.pngThe May/June issue of Politico Magazine contains an article entitled “The Media Bubble Is Worse Than You Think.”  Its central argument is that media concentration in affluent “blue” areas (those that typically vote for Democrats) has led to ideological uniformity in newsrooms, and it cites the increased geographic concentration of writers who work for Internet media sources as evidence that this problem is threatening to get even worse.

Part of the article’s thesis, that “the national media just doesn’t get the nation it purportedly covers,” is undoubtedly true.  But the article is wrong to imply that an underrepresentation of Republicans is the problem.  The actual problem is the mainstream media’s overrepresentation of Establishment viewpoints – from both major political parties – and its marginalization of economic- and social-justice viewpoints.  And the age of Internet media, for all its flaws, is an improvement on what came before.

A quick look at the most ostensibly liberal mainstream media outlets is instructive in this regard.  In the world of newspapers, that’s The New York Times.  While they certainly do commission social-justice-minded op-eds, and while their editorial board often advocates on behalf of less-advantaged Americans, the paper gives more voice overall to privilege-defending viewpoints of those in power than to power-balancing ideas from those who seek to challenge the status quo.  The Times recently hired Bret Stephens, for example, who has previously written anti-Arab screeds and called the idea that racism and campus rape are systemic problems “imaginary” in the Wall Street Journal.  In his first Times column, Stephens revisited some of the climate-change skepticism he’s been peddling for years.

Stephens joined a cast of ten other Times columnists, several of whom appear to believe it’s a major problem that members of what they call the “speech-policing, debate-squelching, illiberal P.C. left” care more about “war victims in South Sudan” than the “scarcity of conservatives” in academia.  The only self-proclaimed liberal among this particular group of columnists seems to think that people are poor, at least in large part, because of their moral failings, and he once argued that “the central challenge in the poorest countries is not that sweatshops exploit too many people, but that they don’t exploit enough.”  And the most ostensibly progressive columnist at the paper spent a great deal of time taking illiberal and/or inaccurate potshots at Bernie Sanders and his supporters during the 2016 Democratic primary.  There isn’t a single Times columnist who “represent[s] the millions [of people] who hate war, support single-payer [health care,] or oppose capitalism,” as Sean McElwee recently noted.

The problem is perhaps even worse when it comes to cable news.  The most ostensibly liberal mainstream station, MSNBC, just hired a senior adviser from 2008’s McCain-Palin presidential campaign and may also bring on a Right-wing talking head who thinks there’s been “a lot to celebrate” from Donald Trump’s first 100 days in office.  One of the station’s longtime anchors voted for and vigorously defended George W. Bush during the mid-2000s, and MSNBC features several leading personalities and commentators who consistently attack the social-justice-minded wing of the Democratic Party, often with misleading reporting.  Even the network’s more social-justice-inclined broadcasters seem wary of straying too far from Democratic Party orthodoxy (note that those who do sometimes lose their jobs), and one of them, the station’s most-watched host, has focused more on conspiracy theories about Russia than on all other issues combined over the last couple of months.

Again, that’s the “liberal” media.  Other major media outlets occupy a space in which fomenting bigotry against a marginalized group of people is okay but tweeting opposition to refugee restrictions is grounds for suspension.  Politicians are encouraged to discuss terrorism and foreign enemies but allowed to ignore poverty, campaign finance reform, and existential threats to the planet.  The most-watched cable network (Fox News) and the editorial pages at the arguably most-circulated newspaper (The Wall Street Journal) are a repository for privilege-defending ideology and alternative facts.

It is for this reason that Politico’s analysis is off base.  The mainstream media’s ideological uniformity is less liberal and more Establishment, likely driven less by geographic clustering and more by corporate capture.  A small handful of companies own the vast majority of the media Americans consume.  If corporate America doesn’t find something acceptable – if it’s threatening to those in power – it often isn’t published or aired.

It is no surprise, then, that a study of media coverage of the 2016 election found that five different Republican candidates “each had more news coverage than Bernie Sanders during the invisible primary” in 2015 – despite the fact that “Sanders had [already] emerged as [Hillary] Clinton’s leading competitor” by that time.  The only vehemently anti-corporate candidate in the race was, according to another analysis that compared Google searches about candidates to the press they received, “being ignored by the mainstream media to a shocking degree.”  When mainstream media sources finally did begin to acknowledge Sanders’ existence, their coverage was often dismissive of his candidacy and/or misleading, and rarely issues-focused.

The liberalization of the news and editorial landscape that the Internet has helped usher in is thus a welcome development.  Some alternative media sources are terrible, of course, and social media, which has some real issues, surely sometimes facilitates the spread of falsehoods.  But what you’ll get from a Breitbart, Drudge Report, or Infowars isn’t all that far afield from what you’re likely to see on Fox, whereas the Internet also exposes people to some of the great alternative sources out there.  Democracy Now!, The Intercept, FAIR, Jacobin, The Young Turks, and The Benjamin Dixon Show, for example, provide a perspective that is very different from those commonly aired on MSNBC or given space in The New York Times.

Exposure to these alternative sources is greatest among young people, who are far more likely to use the Internet as a primary news source than are older individuals.  Interestingly, young people are also least likely to have voted for Donald Trump in the 2016 election and most likely to have backed Sanders in the Democratic primary.  Young Republicans are less likely than their older counterparts to hold extreme and inaccurate views.

This matchup between social-justice-oriented voting patterns by age and media access by age may very well be a coincidence, or it may just reflect the general tendency of younger people to be more progressive than older people.  But it may also reflect that younger people no longer must rely on corporate-owned media for our information.  Instead of being subjected to a steady diet of the Establishment’s point of view, we can identify alternative sources we like, follow them, and engage in fact-checking ourselves.  Rather than being cause for consternation, that’s a development we should celebrate.

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Filed under 2016 Presidential Election, US Political System

Ellison for DNC Chair: It Matters

The race for the Democratic National Committee Chairperson is very important.

In case you haven’t been following it, there are many candidates running, but only two major contenders: Keith Ellison, Democratic Congressman from Minnesota’s 5th congressional district for 10 years straight, and Tom Perez, the Secretary of Labor from the Obama Administration.  The winner of the race, who will be chosen during the weekend of February 24 by 447 party insiders, will run fundraising, outreach, and primary processes for the Democratic Party over the next several years.

Overall, Ellison has stronger social justice credentials than Perez – he’s been an active Co-Chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus and has put forward some of the most progressive economic justice legislation in Congress during his time there.  He’s been a staunch advocate for unions, was an early supporter of a $15 minimum wage, and was an early opponent of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and other trade deals that are more about enriching multinational corporations than promoting the free exchange of goods and services.  His voting record on women’s rights, LGBT rights, anti-racist policy – you name it – is excellent.  And before coming to Congress, Ellison worked in civil rights and employment law.

But Perez deserves a fair bit of credit for his record, too.  As the Labor Secretary, Perez went after companies that stole from their workers, embraced policies that would raise the pay of and increase opportunities for members of underserved groups to become federal employees and contractors, and pushed forward a rule that would reestablish the right to overtime pay for millions of workers.  His active support for the TPP is a non-trivial stain on his résumé, but those who believe in social justice should generally like the policies he’s pursued, as others have also noted.

Yet if that’s the case, why is it so important that Ellison wins?

The answer to that question lies in the answer to another: why is Perez even running?

Ellison jumped into the DNC Chair race right after the election (on Monday, November 14).  His candidacy made a ton of sense for the party for three main reasons:

– Ellison was one of the few Democrats calling for the party and media to take Donald Trump seriously from the beginning. The clip below, from a panel Ellison did back in July of 2015, is the most striking illustration of the contrast between Ellison’s prescience and the irresponsibility of the vast majority of Establishment media figures and politicians during the course of the 2016 election.

– Ellison was the second congressperson to endorse Bernie Sanders during the Democratic primary, and one of only a small handful to have done so at all.  Many other federal policymakers also had backgrounds more aligned with Sanders than with Hillary Clinton but backed Clinton anyway, possibly because of some combination of a misguided sense of political pragmatism and a legitimate fear of retribution.

Given that Sanders was much more popular than Clinton among Independents and the most popular primary candidate ever among young people, whose energy and enthusiasm Democrats desperately need in the future, it makes strategic sense for the party to put one of his early supporters in a leadership role.  Doing so would suggest that the Democrats, after throwing a ton of institutional weight behind the less electable, less social-justice-oriented candidate (and failing to hold party leaders accountable for their clear violations of the DNC’s charter) en route to squandering the 2016 election, have learned something.  It would give hope that the Democrats may run a fairer, more democratic primary process next time, and that those who opposed Clinton needn’t write the party off entirely.

– Once Sanders lost the primary, Ellison helped draft the DNC platform and became an outspoken proponent of voting for Clinton.  He campaigned very hard for Clinton between July and November.  He showed, in other words, that even though he thinks there is a better path than the one the Democratic Party is currently on, he believes in working within the Democratic Party structure for change.

I would have personally preferred Ellison to not campaign for Clinton, but I respected his choice to do so, and the fact that he did – vociferously – makes him an ideal candidate for party unification.  So does the fact that, unlike Sanders, Ellison is Black and Muslim, and his ascendance would diversify Democratic Party leadership, a worthy objective that Clinton fans have long claimed to support.  Ellison can potentially bridge the gap between good-faith Clinton and Sanders supporters and grow a bigger Democratic coalition.

Establishment Democrats and big-name donors began attacking Ellison as soon as he declared his interest in being DNC Chair, however.  They first complained that chairmanship was a full-time job and that, as a sitting congressman, Ellison wouldn’t have the bandwidth to focus on it.  They then inaccurately cast Ellison as an anti-Semite, misconstruing a 2010 speech he gave and condemnations of White supremacy and Israeli policy that he made twenty-five years ago.  Ellison soon thereafter declared that he would resign from Congress and become DNC Chair full-time if he wins the race, and he has repeatedly proven allegations of anti-Semitism false, but no matter; the Clinton/Obama apparatus wanted a challenger, and when Howard Dean didn’t pan out, they pressured Perez to step in.  He formally entered the race on December 15.

Perez has presented little that looks different from what Ellison has proposed, and nobody has offered a coherent explanation for why they think he’d do a better job leading the party than Ellison would.  Endorsements of Perez, like the one Joe Biden just made, have just highlighted personal details about him and included vague statements that could at least as easily apply to Ellison.  It’s thus hard to understand why Perez would have thrown his hat into the DNC Chair race (as opposed to the Maryland gubernatorial race) if not to maintain the Democratic Party’s current power structure.  The message to those who supported Sanders and want the party to embrace full-scale social and economic justice – many of whom are already upset that Perez pushed some of the Clinton campaign’s disingenuous attacks on Sanders behind the scenes during the primary – seems to be that they’re still expected to fall in line and support whatever the party Establishment decides.

An Ellison victory wouldn’t by itself bring the change the party needs – not by a long shot – and even if he wins, social justice advocates will need to push him on several issues.  Maybe in part to try to forestall attacks from Democrats who will be making the DNC Chair decision, he’s embraced some worrisome positions.  Ellison has endorsed the corporate candidate over the Bernie supporter in a recent race for Florida Democratic Chair, criticized the peaceful Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement against the oppressive policies of the Israeli government, softened on his previous commitment to banning lobbyist contributions to the DNC, and promoted some election postmortems that deserve considerably more skepticism.  But Ellison has a strong record overall and would bring a real possibility for regime change, a commitment to grassroots activism, and a new kind of Democratic Party politics.  As Sanders said following Biden’s endorsement of Perez (who Sanders likes and expressed respect for), the race for DNC Chair is about whether the Democratic Party “stay[s] with a failed status-quo approach or…go[es] forward with a fundamental restructuring.”

Some Democrats lashed out at Sanders after this statement.  They were, according to The Hill, “frustrated by press reports characterizing the contest as a proxy battle between the party’s leftist Sanders wing, represented by Ellison, and a more moderate Barack Obama-Clinton wing, represented by Perez.”  But to think otherwise is naïve – that’s precisely what it is.  And as some politicians, union leaders, and media figures who backed Clinton have already recognized, the smart move for Democrats who want to see the party win in the future “would be…to embrace Keith Ellison as DNC Chair.”  That would be the right move for those who believe in social and economic justice as well.

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“March for Life” and “Pro-Life” Are Misnomers

Every year since 1974, thousands of people have come to Washington, DC to rally against Roe v. Wade.  Protestors argue that pregnant women should be stripped of the ability to choose whether or not they want to have an abortion.  Referencing the unborn fetuses pregnant women carry inside their bodies, these anti-abortion advocates call their demonstration the “March for Life.”

Politicians who support these efforts use similar language.  Senator and former Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio, for example, declared the “simple truth that all human life is sacred” to be the most recent march’s inspiration.

Yet neither Rubio nor the vast majority of marchers can credibly claim to have “pro-life” views.

I do not think fetuses should be viewed the same way as people, but let’s imagine you disagree with me.  Suppose, based on that disagreement, you believe an abortion kills an innocent person.  You think enabling the death of innocent people is wrong, and you thus think abortion must be opposed in all circumstances.  Isn’t that a “pro-life” view?

Well, it depends.  The logic of the ostensibly “pro-life” part of that reasoning is that, because X kills innocent people, and because killing innocent people is wrong, nobody should be able to choose X for any reason.

Here’s the problem with that logic: “X” could be any number of things.  Drone strikes kill innocent people.  More generally, war always does.  So does the death penalty.  And many other policies, while less active and direct than drone strikes, war, and putting people to death, effectively kill people.  Refugees are potentially given a death sentence when the countries to which they’re fleeing don’t let them in.  Thousands of people die each year due to inadequate access to health care.  And societies’ refusal to invest in substantial benefits for poor people both here and around the world leads to preventable deaths all the time.

People who truly have a “pro-life” position, therefore, oppose all of these things.  Those who are anti-war, anti-death penalty, pro-inclusive immigration, pro-universal health coverage, and pro-substantial benefits for the poor in addition to believing that fetuses are people and abortions are wrong may have a coherent, “pro-life” philosophy.

Needless to say, that’s not a description of Rubio.  He, like so many other anti-choice Republicans, opposes aborting fetuses but none of the preventable deaths mentioned above.

That doesn’t mean Rubio wouldn’t offer a justification for his positions.  He’d likely argue that drones, refugee bans, and military actions save more innocent lives than they sacrifice, that the death penalty is reserved for bad people who deserve it, and that providing health care and money for poor people slows economic growth, discourages work, and harms the very people such measures are intended to help.  He’d be wrong about all of these things – the United States perpetrates far more violence than we prevent, there are innocent people on death row, and meeting the needs of poor people, which we have the resources to do, would be perfectly consistent with a strong economy and boost long-term economic mobility – but that’s not the point.  The point is that Rubio does not allow the idea that “all human life is sacred” to guide his policy positions.  Instead, he balances the sacrifice of human lives against other things he thinks are important and decides which he thinks matters more.

In the realm of abortion, Rubio and others have decided that a fetus’s right to be born is more important than a woman’s right to make a personal, intimate decision about her body.  Again, if you believe fetuses are people and that life starts at conception, that may be a defensible position.  But if you also oppose raising taxes on rich people to provide health care and other basic needs to kids after they’re born, or if you support war, or the death penalty, your position definitely isn’t “pro-life.”  If you contend that “human life is sacred” only when that belief deprives women of rights but not when it consigns innocent people to death or cuts a little bit more into your fortune, you don’t really believe it.

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Filed under Gender Issues, Philosophy