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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We Miss the Old Kanye…

Kanye West is oft considered one of the greatest musical talents of his generation. He also supports Trump and recently gave an interview stating his belief that slavery was a choice. This week on the show, David and Mike dive down the rabbit hole that is Kanye West’s mind, explore themes of race and gender throughout his music and discuss his unique rise (and maybe fall) to music stardom. Tune in.

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The Nation of Islam Problem

The Nation of Islam is officially recognized as a national hate group due to its black supremacist, anti-Semitic and anti-LGBTQ views. And yet, Tamika Mallory, a prominent black activist and national co-president of the Women’s March, attended one of their biggest annual events anyways. This week on the show, David and Mike discuss the history of the Nation of Islam, its rise to prominence and its odd and unique position within the black community. They also grapple with what it means to be an ally and the obligation to hold folks in your own community accountable. Download and listen.

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The World of Wakanda

This week on the show, David and Mike travel to Wakanda to dissect the latest blockbuster installation in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the Black Panther. The Run It Black hosts cover topics of Pan-Africanism, white supremacy and identity in this hour-long episode. Even if you haven’t seen the movie yet, tune in — the first half is 100 percent spoiler free!

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Neoliberalism, Meet Neocolonialism.

Neoliberalism. What is it? Why should we care? And how has our popularly held notions of the rise and spread of neoliberalism shaped contemporary conversations on issues of race, class and progress? This week on the show Mike and David sit down with Professor N.D.B. Connolly to discuss his recent work related to race and neoliberalism and ponder the idea that maybe, just maybe, there are better frames for characterizing the mess we find ourselves in today. Tune in.

Recent pieces by N.D.B. Connolly:

A White Story, Dissent Magazine, January 22, 2018
Black and Woke in Capitalist America: Revisiting Robert Allen’s Black Awakening, for New Times’ Sake, The Social Science Research Council, March 7, 2017

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Aziz Ansari, Power, and Sexual Assault

On January 13, online magazine Babe published an article titled, “I went on a date with Aziz Ansari. It turned into the worst night of my life.” The piece alleged acts of sexual misconduct on the part of comedian Aziz Ansari and in the aftermath, folks have been left to grapple with the murky questions of what is sexual assault, why do men fail to see it, and what we can do to stop it. On this week’s episode of Run it Black, David and Mike enter the fray.

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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

Ta-Nehisi Coates, Cornel West, and the Ongoing Debate on Race and Class

This week on Run it Black, Mike and David talk about the latest entry into the ongoing intellectual debate between philosopher and activist Cornel West and critically acclaimed essayist Ta-Nehisi Coates. The conversation covers a range of topics including identity politics and the Obama administration, the roles of race and class in how we talk about progressive struggle and what it all means looking forward to 2018 and beyond. Check it out and let us know what you think.

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Andre 3000 Still Got Something to Say

On this week’s Run it Black Podcast, we talk about a fascinating GQ profile on the rapper Andre 3000, the importance of the rap duo Outkast, and why Andre continues to remain relevant at age 42. We also go speak to the development of Southern Hip-Hop and its influence on much of the rap game in 2017, regardless of region. Later on, we dive into where Hip-Hop as a genre is headed and whether it can evolve into an art form that speaks to the experience of older folks. Finally, we give our top 5 Andre 3000 tracks because, well, of course we would. You won’t want to miss this episode!

 Music Below:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You’re welcome.

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