Category Archives: 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.

1 Comment

Filed under Foreign Policy, US Political System

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.

1 Comment

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.

22 Comments

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.

2 Comments

Filed under 2016 Presidential Election, Philosophy, US Political System

What Unity Should Mean

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

Unity Images

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

34 Comments

Filed under 2016 Presidential Election, Philosophy, US Political System

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

41 Comments

Filed under 2016 Presidential Election, US Political System

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Update (10/8/16): Another email leak provides further confirmation that the DNC “anointed [Clinton] the presumed nominee even before the campaign formally began,” as Michael Tracey notes.

Update (10/16/16): Thomas Frank, in a qualitative analysis of Washington Post coverage of Sanders during the primary, finds that clearly negative stories about Sanders outnumbered clearly positive ones by a “roughly five to one” margin, whereas the ratio for Clinton coverage “came much closer to a fifty-fifty split.”

38 Comments

Filed under 2016 Presidential Election, US Political System

The Electability Counterfactual

In Pennsylvania, the biggest delegate prize on Tuesday, April 26, 11 percent of Democratic primary voters indicated in exit polls that “electability” was the “candidate quality” they cared about most.  Of those voters, 83 percent cast their ballots for Hillary Clinton.

The results were similar in Connecticut and Maryland and have been pretty consistent throughout the entire country; the 8 to 21 percent of voters who value electability more than anything else have overwhelmingly voted for Clinton in every state in which exit polling is available except Vermont (where Clinton got “only” 50 percent of the votes based on this criterion).  The strongly held belief among Democratic primary voters – at least, those Democratic primary voters who care most about the electability criterion – seems to be that Clinton is more likely than Bernie Sanders to win a head-to-head general election matchup.

This belief, however, is completely at odds with the evidence.  Polling data and voting results clearly imply that Sanders would match up better against any of the Republican candidates than Clinton would.  If voters who cared about electability had been aware of this evidence when voting, Sanders could very well be on his way to wrapping up the Democratic nomination (rather than facing a very narrow, though not impossible, path to victory).

I don’t personally value perceived electability very much: I care more about candidate records and values, electability often ends up being a self-fulfilling prophecy and, given that it requires speculation about numerous unknown factors, electability cannot be gauged with certainty.  But I’ve written about it during this election cycle both because there are people who do care and because a fact-free media narrative about electability has been sowing misinformation among Democratic primary voters.

Head-to-head polling matchups against potential Republican candidates are the most direct evidence we have on the question of electability.  As the graph below illustrates, those polls clearly favor Sanders, and they’ve done so since before voters in the first primary state (Iowa) headed to their caucus locations.

Head-to-Head Polls

Pundits continue to insist, as they have for months, that these poll results are “meaningless” (or, at best, that they “overstate [Sanders’] general-election prospects”).  They argue that Sanders “hasn’t been attacked” yet by Republicans and that, if attacks began to air, “his advantage over [Clinton] would disappear.”  Yet Sanders has been attacked by the GOP; Donald Trump has been calling Sanders a “maniac” and “communist” for the last six months, Right-wing media outlets have been telling people that, under Sanders, “your paycheck will feel the Bern,” and Future 45, a Republican Super PAC, launched an ad campaign back in February intended “to start educating Americans about [Sanders’] out-of-touch record.”  In fact, the “glaring [general election] vulnerabilities” one columnist described Sanders as having back in February – being old, being labeled a “socialist,” and wanting to raise taxes – are all things that Hillary Clinton and/or her surrogates have already attacked him for during the primary season.

GOP operatives would surely intensify their attacks on Sanders if he became the Democratic nominee.  But the fact of the matter is that head-to-head polling in April is often predictive of general election outcomes and that, in spite of numerous attacks leveled against him over the past few months, Sanders’ popularity has continued to rise steadily.  Clinton’s popularity, as the chart below shows, has been consistently headed in the opposite direction.

Favorability

In addition, young voters, who “arguably won both the 2008 and 2012 elections for Barack Obama,” prefer Sanders to Clinton by very large margins.  So do Independents.  If the Democrats want to secure these critical voting blocs in November, the next two graphs strongly suggest that they’d be best off with Bernie Sanders as their nominee.

Youth

Independents

In short, the electability evidence overwhelmingly favors Sanders, and most voters who have seen it, as I’ve been unsurprised to discover while phone banking and canvassing on Sanders’ behalf, find it convincing.  The problem is that most people haven’t seen it and/or have been told, erroneously, that it doesn’t matter; that’s the most likely explanation for the exit poll results we’ve seen thus far.

Just for fun, I decided to see what the election would look like in an alternate universe, one in which this evidence was widely available to all voters.  Those who prioritized electability would at the very least split evenly between the two candidates, but would more likely vote for Sanders in margins as large as those by which, in the actual results, they’ve broken for Clinton.

Holding every other voter’s preferences constant, these scenarios would have drastically shifted election outcomes.  If voters prioritizing electability had been equally as likely to break for Sanders, Sanders would have won Connecticut, Illinois, Iowa, Massachusetts, Missouri, and Nevada.  Clinton’s pledged delegate lead would have fallen from 287 to 129, a total that would have been viewed as surmountable.  And if Sanders dominated among these voters, he would have won New York, North Carolina, Ohio, and Pennsylvania as well.  As the graph below shows, increased awareness of electability evidence could very well have put Sanders ahead of Clinton by 83 pledged delegates.

Electability What-If

In other words, if the facts on electability had been publicized and everything else had remained constant, Sanders might today be the frontrunner for the Democratic nomination.

That’s obviously a huge “if” and it doesn’t in any way change reality: Clinton is winning big and time is running out.  But electability hypotheticals provide some insight into how the 2016 Democratic primary process, like far too many of our public debates, has been driven more by misleading media narratives than by the facts.

I know, I know – as Sanders likes to remind us, “telling the truth” is considered a “radical idea” in American politics.  But as his candidacy has also underscored, that certainly doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it.

Update (6/5/16): Adam Johnson has thoroughly debunked “The Myth That Sanders Hasn’t Been Criticized.”

3 Comments

Filed under 2016 Presidential Election, US Political System

The New York Primary was a Sh*tshow. Here’s Why.

Russ Nickel is a screenwriter (with a B.A. in Creative Writing from Stanford University and an M.F.A in Screenwriting from Chapman University) who used to believe his vote mattered.

Russ Nickel.png

Russ Nickel

Like many Bernie Sanders supporters, I’m new to politics – most of my knowledge came from comedians, who seem to be the only ones unaffected enough by corporate media to be able to tell the truth (Stephen Colbert and John Oliver, I’m looking at you). They drilled into me some of the worst aspects of our system, and Super PACs were at the top of the list. But I resigned myself to the fact of their existence. Citizens United happened, every candidate was corrupt, and I might as well just sit back and focus on pursuing my career, not worrying about the country as a whole.

Then there was Bernie, a man who was untouched by the corruption of the system, who was addressing every issue these comedians had shown me was so important (the insane wealth gap, privatized prisons, climate change, women’s rights, LGBT rights, education, pretty much everything in The Big Short).

Like many Bernie supporters, I had faith. I believed everyone got a vote. I believed the will of the people mattered. But that faith has been destroyed. Not my faith in Bernie, of course—I’ll be hosting phone banking events and canvassing as much as I can—but my faith in democracy is well and truly gone. Here’s just some of what went wrong in New York’s Primary:

126,000 Voters Dropped from Voting Rolls

Shortly before the election, 126,000 Democrats were dropped from the rolls. This is a huge number, and it’s so significant that Mayor de Blasio (who is himself a Hillary Clinton supporter) demanded an explanation. Voters were removed for a number of reasons, often because they were “inactive.” Why should you be removed if you haven’t voted recently? And more importantly, why did this purge occur shortly before the election? Many of these purged voters showed up to their polling places and were unable to cast a vote. This is neither a Bernie nor Hillary issue. It’s just a democracy issue.

Voter Registrations Changed on a Massive Scale

Countless stories are rolling in of voters’ registrations being changed from a party they’ve voted for their whole lives to something else. This is particularly problematic in a closed election, where only Democrats can vote for the Democratic candidate. When voters showed up and were registered under the wrong party, they were given two options: either get a court order or fill out an affidavit.

It’s ridiculous that there is so much burden placed on voters. Voters should not be expected to travel to a court, speak to a judge, and receive a court order to vote. And even if they do miraculously have the time to do that, it’s not enough; they also need some sort of proof that they used to be registered as a Democrat. The onus should not be on the voters to keep evidence to prove their political affiliation.

Who knows how many thousands or tens of thousands of voters were turned away on Tuesday? Stories of this are everywhere (like this, or this, or this—the list goes on). In that first case, the poll worker actually discouraged the person from voting.

Registrations Changed Due to Forgeries

Who knows how many of the switched registrations were malicious? There are already accounts coming in of people’s signatures being forged so that when they showed up, well, they had to fill out an affidavit.

In fact, it got so bad that…

New York City’s Comptroller is Auditing the Board of Elections

Technically this is something going right, but it’s just further proof of things going so wrong. You can read his letter here. He brings up a number of critical points, like…

Polls Opened Hours Late

Multiple polling locations didn’t open until hours after their listed opening time. This meant that voters arrived, stood in line, and eventually had to leave for work, unable to cast a vote. These locations often suggested voters go to another location and fill out a provisional ballot.

Provisional Ballots and Affidavits Were Often Unavailable and Likely Won’t Be Counted

Many voters wanted to fill out provisional ballots and affidavits in situations when, for whatever reason, they weren’t allowed to vote. Unfortunately, there are countless stories of polling locations not having these ballots (like this and this). One report even states that the location refused to hand out provisional ballots, and when the Attorney General was contacted and instructed poll workers to do so, the local Board of Elections replied by saying “the Attorney General doesn’t run this office.”

Who knows how many thousands or tens of thousands of people didn’t even fill out these ballots? And there may be literally hundreds of thousands of people who did. Not only might these ballots not be counted, but if they are, it will happen weeks after Hillary has gained momentum from her win. This fiasco illuminates exactly how messed up the system is. People want to vote. They want to be part of our democracy. But they’re being told that they can’t, and when they can, they’re being told their vote doesn’t matter.

An Emergency Lawsuit was Filed

The registration problem got so bad that a lawsuit was filed and there was an emergency hearing. Unfortunately, rather than make any sort of real decision, the judge said that, because this was a county-by-county issue, the lawyers would need to produce defendants in every single county (that’s over 60 defendants). They were given about 20 minutes to do this. Obviously, that time limit is absurdly unrealistic, so the hearing had to be postponed. This meant that literally millions of voters were unsure whether the election would be open and their votes would count. The judge said it was okay because voters already had a remedy; they simply had to go to a judge and get a court order allowing them to vote.

No Working Machines

Even when polling places opened on time, there were reports of locations without a single working machine. So what’s the solution? Oh yeah, an affidavit. Of course. Or wait until a new machine is brought in, not knowing how long that wait will be. Again, people had to leave because of work.

Voters Listed in Wrong Location

As I write this list, my anger and depression are hitting me all over again. There are so many stories of voters going to polling locations only to not be listed. Here, take an affidavit, they were told, but many would-be voters were more stalwart and refused. Sometimes they turned out to magically be listed after all, and other times they were listed in different districts, despite having no change of address or anything—they were simply mis-listed. Or sometimes, literally everyone at the location wasn’t listed and was forced to fill out our good friend the affidavit.

New York has “2nd Lowest Voter Turnout So Far”

It’s absurd that New York is only ahead of Louisiana in terms of voter turnout. Only 19.7% of eligible New York Democratic voters cast a ballot. You know why the title of this section is in quotes? It’s because New York’s turnout was actually higher than usual and above what the official numbers indicate (here’s an article literally titled “Voter turnout unusually high in New York”). It’s because tens or hundreds of thousands of people were forced to fill out affidavits or were simply turned away. So yes, they turned out, but then they didn’t get to vote.

In Some Districts, Hillary’s Margins were Less than the Number of Affidavits

Hillary won some districts (again, no telling how many at this point) by small enough margins that the number of affidavits (which seem to have largely affected Bernie supporters) could overturn her victories.

One Polling Location on Lockdown

The silliest one yet. One polling location happened to go on lockdown. Meaning more people couldn’t vote. And all of this still doesn’t bring up the #1 problem with New York’s primary:

THREE MILLION INDEPENDENTS WEREN’T ABLE TO VOTE

Sure, maybe it’s fine to have a closed primary. I don’t know. But having the registration change deadline be October of the previous year, literally 6 months earlier, is absolutely insane. Few people even knew about Bernie’s campaign at this point. This law makes it virtually impossible for a come-from-behind candidate to win this state. It’s absurd. Bernie does incredibly well among Independents. These are people who are going to vote in the general election. They wanted to vote for Bernie in the primary, but they couldn’t.

To Conclude, Voter Suppression has Ruined this Election

Voter suppression has happened throughout the country. There is a lawsuit currently underway in response to Arizona’s disgraceful procedures, which many claim constitute blatant voter suppression. In Chicago, an official audit by the Board of Elections just showed that, while Bernie lost with 47.5% of the vote in one precinct, after an audit, he won with 56.7% of the vote. That’s absolutely insane. That amounts to a swing of 18.4% in the final results!!! The media continues to tell us that Hillary is an unstoppable force and Bernie an unelectable candidate, but the only 2 states Hillary has won in the last 10 primary contests are under investigation for election fraud and voter suppression. Think about that.

We live in America, a country ostensibly founded on the principles of democracy. This election has shown that the people do not have a voice. We cannot win. This is what we’re fighting against.

What would the New York Primary results look like if the hundreds of thousands of voters who wanted to exercise their democratic right to vote were simply allowed to? If the millions of Independents actually had a chance to make their voices heard?

What would it look like?

32 Comments

Filed under 2016 Presidential Election, US Political System

A Less Wonky Bernie Sanders Would Still Make a Great President

bernie-sanders-visits-daily-news

Bernie Sanders at an interview with the New York Daily News on April 1, 2016 (image via Shaun King).

According to much of the mainstream media, Bernie Sanders’ recent interview with the New York Daily News was an unmitigated disaster. Chris Cillizza wrote that “Sanders struggled.  Often mightily.”  Jonathan Capehart argued that Sanders “seemed surprisingly out of his depth.” David Graham contended that Sanders “couldn’t offer a coherent answer,” Damon Linker said he “bombed big-time,” and the Washington Post Editorial Board complained that he displayed “shocking ignorance on his core issue.”

The problem with this media formulation is twofold.  First, as experts like Dean Baker and Mike Konczal have explained, Sanders grasps the issues discussed in the interview much better than most of his critics do.  With regard to Sanders’ much-maligned comments on breaking up big banks, for example, political economy reporter Zach Carter noted that “[t]he legal landscape Sanders describes is basically correct and not embarrassing to anyone who actually understands it.”

Second, a closer look at the interview reveals a crucial point about the presidency that is often overlooked: a candidate’s values, vision, and record matter a lot more than the specific policy proposals that candidate unveils during campaign season.

That’s true because literally “[t]housands of people work in the West Wing, the East Wing, the Cabinet, and the Executive Office of the President.”  These are the people who actually write the granular policy proposals that come out of the President’s office; it is their job to “carry out the priorities of the…Administration.”

Neither Sanders nor Hillary Clinton, if one of them were to become President, would hash out all the details on the dozens of issues that cross the President’s desk every day.  They’d both have staffs to do that.  What they would do is guide the construction of those details: they’d lay out their goals, outline the broad contours of how to get there, appoint and/or hire staff who share their vision, and exercise final decision-making authority.

Sanders alluded to this point repeatedly during the Daily News interview, explaining what he wanted to do and describing how, when it actually comes time to do it, he’d need to gather more information and consult experts on the specific course of action to take.  He’d rely on the Treasury Secretary and other staff “who know a lot about this” to figure out the best way to break up the banks.  He’d direct his Attorney General to figure out how to aggressively prosecute wrongdoing on Wall Street.  He’d need “paper in front of” him before deciding exactly what Israel’s withdrawal from Palestinian territory should look like.  These statements make a lot of sense and shouldn’t disturb anyone – unless, of course, you worry about who the Treasury Secretary, Attorney General, and/or staff providing his briefing papers might turn out to be.

And therein lies a crucial difference between Sanders and Clinton: the people with whom they surround themselves.  Clinton’s staff and donor list reads like a who’s who of Establishment Democrats, wealthy interests, and corporate lobbyists.  She draws advice from the same foreign policy firm used by several Republicans and refuses to condemn corruption from close friends like Rahm Emanuel.  One of her prominent surrogates, David Brock, is known for “scurrilous hatchet jobs,” including his attempt to discredit Anita Hill (who was sexually harassed by Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas) during the 1990s.

Sanders, on the other hand, has a history of hiring social justice advocates to work for him.  He plans to “shut the revolving door between Wall Street and the federal government.”  His racial justice platform explicitly states that his policies would be developed with “input from a broad segment of the community including activists and leaders from civil rights organizations.”

None of that is to say that all of Sanders’ staffers would be perfect or that all of Clinton’s staffers would be cause for alarm.  In fact, I’m sure you’d find a number of great people working in a Clinton administration.  But while there’s undeniably value in having some people with financial industry experience in regulatory positions, for example, Clinton’s pool of possible advisers doesn’t inspire a ton of confidence among those of us concerned about the influence of money in politics.

Especially given Sanders’ superior record and bigger goals in areas ranging from Wall Street reform to the environment, it seems like a pretty safe bet that a team he assembled would push hard for change.  They wouldn’t necessarily get their entire wish list, but they, unlike a Clinton administration, could be expected to fight tooth-and-nail for power-balancing policy.

Thus when Clinton jumped on the media narrative and used the Daily News interview to accuse Sanders of not understanding “the law or the practical ways you get something done,” her critique wasn’t just incorrect; it completely missed the point.  What a presidential candidate wants to do, and that candidate’s credibility in advocating for it, is a lot more important than whether that candidate has memorized the minutiae of policy proposals.  Technocratic knowledge can’t fix weak goals.  There are, however, a plethora of policy experts around to help candidates who want to implement a bold, power-balancing policy vision.

So while Sanders does actually have a firm grasp on a lot of policy details, that’s not the main reason I’m voting for him.  I support Bernie Sanders in large part because he would bring a new mode of thinking – and new people – to the White House.

1 Comment

Filed under 2016 Presidential Election, US Political System