Category Archives: US Political System

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

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

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

U.S. Intelligence Agencies Scoff at Criticism of Police Brutality, Fracking, and “Alleged Wall Street Greed”

dni-report

The Office of the Director of National Intelligence just released a report on Russia that lacks evidence and casts legitimate critiques of United States policy as part of a Kremlin plot.

On Friday, January 6, The Office of the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) released a report – Background to “Assessing Russian Activities and Intentions in Recent US Elections”: The Analytic Process and Cyber-Incident Attribution – that had been ordered by President Obama.  The report’s headline assertion, consistent with what anonymous officials had been saying to media outlets for months, was that “Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the US presidential election.  Russia’s goals were to undermine public faith in the US democratic process, denigrate Secretary Clinton, and harm her electability and potential presidency” (thus electing Donald Trump, the candidate for whom “Putin and the Russian Government developed a clear preference”).

While U.S. intelligence agencies “did not make an assessment of the impact that Russian activities had on the outcome of the 2016 election,” the report did claim that “Russian military intelligence (General Staff Main Intelligence Directorate or GRU) used the Guccifer 2.0 persona and DCLeaks.com to release US victim data obtained in cyber operations publicly and in exclusives to media outlets and relayed material to WikiLeaks,” actions that some Democratic Party leaders and media pundits believe contributed to Trump’s win.  Predictably, then, the report’s release has led to renewed outrage, with some prominent public figures declaring that Russia committed an “act of war” deserving of an aggressive US response.

One major problem with this response is that the report offered “no new evidence to support assertions that Moscow meddled covertly [in the election] through hacking and other actions,” as a piece in The New York Times noted.  Though it’s certainly possible that the Russian government was behind an email to John Podesta that a Clinton IT staffer mistakenly called “legitimate,” the American public has yet to see proof that Russia ordered such a phishing attack.  What the American public has seen, on the other hand, is a parade of misleading and sometimes outright false stories about Russian hacking that likely have something to do with 50 percent of Democrats’ belief that “Russia tampered with vote tallies to help Donald Trump,” a claim for which even the report admits there is no justification.  Especially given our intelligence agencies’ history of deceiving the public into wars in Vietnam and Iraq – not to mention current DNI James Clapper’s false claim about NSA spying in 2013, the FBI’s attempt to get Martin Luther King Jr. to commit suicide in 1964, and various other violations of people’s rights and the law over the years – skepticism of their current claims about Russian hacking, at least until they present some convincing proof to back up those claims, is well warranted.

Even more alarming than the report’s lack of evidence about Russian hacking was its ironically propagandistic accusation that the television network RT is a “propaganda machine” engaged in a “Kremlin-directed campaign to undermine faith in the US Government and fuel political protest.”  Among what the United States government appears to consider part of this “Kremlin-directed campaign” of “propaganda:”

  • “RT broadcast, hosted, and advertised third-party candidate debates and ran reporting supportive of the political agenda of these candidates. The RT hosts asserted that the US two-party system does not represent the views of at least one-third of the population and is a ‘sham.’”
  • “RT framed the [Occupy Wall Street] movement as a fight against ‘the ruling class’ and described the current US political system as corrupt and dominated by corporations[,] created a Facebook app to connect Occupy Wall Street protesters via social media[, and] featured its own hosts in Occupy rallies.”
  • “RT’s reports often characterize the United States as a ‘surveillance state’ and allege widespread infringements of civil liberties, police brutality, and drone use.”
  • RT programming has criticized “the US economic system, US currency policy, alleged Wall Street greed, and the US national debt.”
  • “RT runs anti-fracking programming, highlighting environmental issues and the impacts on public health.”

Those reading this list would be forgiven for being more convinced that RT is worth watching than that it peddles in Russian propaganda.  Violations of civil liberties in the United States are ubiquitous.  So is police brutality.  It’s an undeniable fact that our government’s use of drone strikes routinely kills innocent civilians.  Millions of social justice advocates across the United States oppose fracking, Wall Street greed, and America’s undemocratic electoral system for good reason.  And while fearmongering about the national debt is a definite problem, those doing it are more often moderating U.S. presidential debates than abetting the Kremlin.

To be fair to our intelligence agencies, RT is state-owned and does, as the network’s Editor in Chief Margarita Simonyan has admitted, have an explicitly Russian agenda.  But as Simonyan correctly points out, “there is not a single international foreign TV channel that is doing something other than promotion of the values of the country that it is broadcasting from,” and that includes the US-backed Voice of America network.

In fact, mainstream media outlets in the United States, despite their technical independence from the federal government, often uncritically advance the ideas of those in power as well.  The Times’ publication of inaccurate information about former RT anchor Abby Martin after the intelligence report came out is a good example: they said Martin had quit RT because of her view that it was a propaganda outlet when Martin did no such thing – she was actually supported by RT even while she produced content critical of the Russian government.  The Times modified its article post-publication, but the piece still blatantly misrepresents what happened with Martin.  Recent and egregiously incorrect reports on “fake news” and the U.S. electrical grid in The Washington Post are other prime illustrations of this problem.

None of that makes any actual propaganda from RT less pernicious, demonstrates that the Russian government wasn’t behind a phishing attack on John Podesta, or means that U.S. intelligence agencies must be lying.  It just means that we should be skeptical of claims presented without evidence to support them, particularly if the sources for those claims have a less than stellar relationship with the truth – even if those sources happen to be the United States media and/or the United States government.

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Voting: Which Method Is Right for You?

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

jenny-wolochow

Jenny Wolochow

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Filed under 2016 Presidential Election, US Political System

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.

estimated-green-shares

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.

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

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.

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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.

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Filed under 2016 Presidential Election, Philosophy, US Political System