Tag Archives: Krugman

Truth or Politics

Tom Block is an author, artist, and activist whose most recent book, Machiavelli in America, explores the influence of the 16th-century Italian political philosopher on America’s politics.  Machiavelli’s impact is particularly apparent today, as Block explains in the post below.  Block (who you can follow on Twitter at @tomblock06 and learn more about at www.tomblock.com) is also the founder of the Institute of Prophetic Activist Art in New York, where he works with artists and activists in building their social interventions along the lines of the activist theory he developed.

THOMAS

Tom Block

One of the greatest dangers to our democracy is the insignificant role that “truth” plays within our political discourse. The 16th-century Florentine political philosopher Niccolo Machiavelli first enshrined the importance of lying within the political realm in his seminal treatise The Prince.  As Diana Schaub (professor of political science at Loyola University Maryland) noted in “Machiavelli’s Realism:” “Machiavelli deployed words as a weapon . . . Machiavelli, the supposed champion of the force of arms, was in fact a practitioner of verbal fraud and distortion.”

Far from fading away over the ensuing centuries, Machiavelli’s strategy has expanded to overwhelm our contemporary political discourse.  And this dynamic, nurtured by the media and exploited by politicians, has helped lead in a direct line from the Florentine thinker to the viable presidential candidacy of Donald J. Trump.

Publisher and Founding Father Ben Franklin stated: “It is a principle among printers that when truth has fair play, it will always prevail over falsehood.”  But as Jim Rutenberg noted recently in the New York Times, “Mr. Trump’s surrogates…regularly go on television to push the point of the day from a candidate who . . . has asserted more outright falsehoods than all the other candidates who ran for president this year combined.”

While truth may well overmatch falsehoods in a forum where each has equal play, as Rutenberg notes, that is simply not the case currently in our political discourse.  Truth is rarely utilized as the lodestar for public dialogue.  Our journalists and pundits opt instead for simply repeating outright lies, reporting them as “news,” or – in the best of cases – for a dubious objectivity, often representing little more than a midpoint between two opposing political or social opinions, regardless of these opinions’ relationship to the truth.  As was pointed out this July 18, 2016 in the New York Times, the press bears much responsibility for the unimportance of truth to our political discourse, and therefore the rise of Trump:

There’s still a real chance that [Trump] might win. How is that possible? Part of the answer, I’d argue, is that voters don’t fully appreciate his awfulness. And the reason is that too much of the news media still can’t break with “bothsidesism” — the almost pathological determination to portray politicians and their programs as being equally good or equally bad, no matter how ludicrous that pretense becomes.

Ben Franklin must be spinning in his eternal resting place (Christ Church Burial Ground, Philadelphia).

The sad and frightening fact is that what is perceived by the public as “truth” often represents little more than a stew of popularly held (though often misinformed) attitudes. These arise as a reaction to polling data, Super PACfueled propaganda (the $3 billion in dark money sloshing around this election season), surrogates’ meaningless blather on cable news programs, a narrow reading of history (“remember the good old days!”), the weight of tradition, and a basket of other impressions, none of which are forced by the press to relate in any meaningful way with the actuality of the matter.

It is certainly not difficult to see how politicians gleefully exploit this Machiavellian dynamic to “play” the media, spewing any garbage they think will help their cause, while suffering little (if at all) when their mistruth is uncovered.  Since I started paying genuine attention to this gloomy aspect of American democracy, I have been astounded by the bald-faced lies used to win political elections, running from Lee Atwater’s “Willie Horton” ads (Bush I v. Mike Dukakis in 1988) through Karl Rove’s “Swift Boat Veterans for Truth” lies (Bush II v. John Kerry) and continuing through Mitt Romney, whose team falsely claimed, among many examples, that President Obama doubled the deficit (it was actually slightly down in his first four years) and that “up to 20 million people [would] lose their insurance as Obamacare [went] into effect” (almost the opposite of what’s actually happened).

Donald J. Trump has raised the bar of political falsehoods that perhaps all of us thought could go no higher.  None have exploited the media’s obsession with objectivity and false equivalency more successfully than the current Republican standard bearer.  His ability to lie, lie, and lie again, and not be called out once and for all (through references in every single citation as “Lyin’ Donald J. Trump,” for instance) allowed him to vault over 16 Republican candidates and stand at the precipice of taking the reins of the most powerful nation in today’s world.

As Machiavelli stated: “The great majority of humans are satisfied with appearances, as though they were realities, and are often more influenced by the things that seem than by those that are.”  The art of the lie is far more important to the leader than learning how to tell the truth.

Donald Trump follows Machiavelli’s dictum with the same passion that the devoted practice their religions. An astounding 70% of Donald Trump’s statements are mostly or completely false, according to PolitiFact, while only 15% are mostly or entirely true.  And though now, finally, there is a growing chorus of media members gingerly stepping in to call a lie a lie, they also dutifully repeat the lie over and over again before refuting it.  Through this repetition, the lie itself becomes embedded in the public consciousness, thus giving the many and absurdist propositions spewed from the latest Republican candidate for President a patina of reality.  Journalists should lead every article about Trump with this fact: he is, as Bernie Sanders averred, a pathological liar.  But unfortunately, despite the few truth-based journalists writing in alternative outlets like The Intercept or in the back pages of the Washington Post or New York Times, the media is central to the problem.

Journalists too often imagine their obligation to be simply reporting the “news” (whatever any partisan actor tells them), remaining indifferent to whether the statements have any relation to reality or truth.  In the journalistic code of ethics, this impartiality represents the highest code of honor.  As Sharon Bader noted in “The Media: Objectivity:”

Objectivity in journalism has nothing to do with seeking out the truth, except in so much as truth is a matter of accurately reporting what others have said. This contrasts with the concept of scientific objectivity where views are supposed to be verified with empirical evidence in a search for the truth. Ironically, journalistic objectivity discourages a search for evidence; the balancing of opinions often replaces journalistic investigation altogether.

Journalists such as Thom Hartmann, Glenn Greenwald, Rania Khalek, and other lesser known (to your average American, at least) writers do point out this problem, though they are always in a very slim minority. We find little succor in the mainstream media. Even such alleged “truth tellers” as the website PolitiFact, the Washington Post’s soothsayer Glenn Kessler, and Nobel Laureate Paul Krugman (now a New York Times columnist) have a dubious relationship with the facts.  As the editor of this blog has shown, all three of these sources have ignored evidence and/or gotten storylines completely wrong during this election cycle.

Without a genuine moral ombudsman to separate fact from fiction in our public square, all opinions – true or not – are simply viewed as offering differing “points of view.” Katrina vanden Heuvel (publisher and part-owner of the magazine The Nation) noted in the Washington Post:

For too many journalists, calling out a Republican for lying requires criticizing a Democrat too, making for a media age where false equivalence — what Eric Alterman has called the mainstream media’s “deepest ideological commitment” — is confused, again and again, with objectivity.

This quote comes from the last election (Romney v. Obama, 2012), though the situation has not gotten better, and perhaps has even worsened. As was noted in the aforementioned July 18, 2016 article from Krugman in the New York Times:

And in the last few days we’ve seen a spectacular demonstration of bothsidesism in action: an op-ed article from the incoming and outgoing heads of the White House Correspondents’ Association, with the headline “Trump, Clinton both threaten free press.” How so? Well, Mr. Trump has selectively banned news organizations he considers hostile; he has also . . . attacked both those organizations and individual reporters, and refused to condemn supporters who, for example, have harassed reporters with anti-Semitic insults.

Meanwhile, while Mrs. Clinton hasn’t done any of these things, and has a staff that readily responds to fact-checking questions, she doesn’t like to hold press conferences. Equivalence!

Perhaps more frightening than these simple facts is that we’re not talking about a subterranean conspiracy of which only a privileged few are aware. This dynamic is embedded in the journalistic canon. Krugman has said, for example, that his editors at the New York Times did not allow him to use the word “lying” back in 2000 when debunking the George W. Bush campaign’s claims about tax cuts Bush proposed.  And in an editorial by the Los Angeles Times calling the 2004 Swift Boat Veterans for Truth allegations against John Kerry fictitious, the editors stated:

[T]he canons of the profession prevent most journalists from saying outright: These charges are false. As a result, the voters are left with a general sense that there is some controversy over Dukakis’ patriotism or Kerry’s service in Vietnam…And they have been distracted from thinking about real issues (like the war going on now) by these laboratory concoctions.

The most disturbing line in this editorial is: “The canons of the profession prevent most journalists from saying outright: These charges are false.”  Why is this so?  That they can’t call a lie a lie?  Who wrote these “canons,” which seem to explicitly demand that journalists lie to their readers, in the name of “objectivity?”

Although I have seen many instances of this overt self-awareness by journalists, I am still left with the mouth-agape question: why not?  Why can’t truth be the central pillar of journalistic ethics, instead of a “canon” of false equivalency which allows Lee Atwater, Karl Christian Rove, Donald J. Trump, and others to use lies to great effect?

Matt Taibbi (a journalist reporting on politics, media and finance for Rolling Stone and other outlets) noted in On the Media:

Though we’re tempted to blame the politicians, it’s time to dig deeper. It’s time to blame the press corps that daily brings us this unrelenting symphony of horseshit and never comes within a thousand miles of an apology for any of it. And it’s time to blame the press not only as a class of people, but also as individuals.

This lack of accountability in the media presents one of the greatest threats to democracy and the American republic. Greater then climate change, greater than the terrorist menace, greater even than a frontal attack by a nuclear North Korea, the media’s unwillingness to base their reporting in the truth, opting instead for a mushy and moving center point between whatever the members of the two major political parties are saying, reduces the public conversation on matters such as climate change, the terrorist menace, and a frontal attack by a nuclear North Korea to a debate over points of view (one often factually inaccurate), instead of an exploration of the unassailable truth of any issue.

The unwillingness to base reporting in truth allows lies to fester, metastasizing from the corners of the Internet into a presidential campaign (Donald J. Trump’s) which fuses White supremacists, climate denial, fascist undertones, and an increasing series of lies into a viable candidacy.

Even worse is the level of awareness and even pride some journalists show concerning this “canon” of objectivity.  As Washington Post journalist Melinda Henneberger observed, concerning her profession’s (lack of) attachment to truth in reporting: “Newspapers hardly ever haul off and say a public figure lied, and I like that about us.”

This same mainstream columnist stated, concerning some media outlets which tagged as “flatly inconsistent with the facts” a number of points vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan made in his Republican National Convention speech in 2012: “of course, each of these pieces is analysis or opinion rather than a straight news story.”  And this “opinion” (i.e. the truth) has less impact on the shared reality of the public square than a “straight news story” (i.e., one that does not separate fact from fiction).

Political campaigns agree: facts can be presented as “spin” by partisans, and therefore fall under the rubric of “opinion.”  Consider, for example, this excerpt from an article in the Washington Post in 2012:

Jon Cassidy, writing on the website Human Events, said one fact-checking outfit declares conservatives inaccurate three times as often as it does liberals.  “You might reasonably conclude that PolitiFact is biased,” he wrote [as opposed to the fact that Republicans simply lie more often].

…Brooks Jackson, executive director of FactCheck.org, said he fears that the campaigns have come to see running afoul of fact checkers as something of a badge of honor.

Now, in Donald J. Trump’s America, even the lying spinmeisters are welcomed into the journalistic tent.  After Corey Lewandowski was fired as Trump’s campaign manager on June 21, 2016, he immediately resurfaced as a CNN political commentator – even though he had signed a non-disclosure agreement with Donald J. Trump!  As Rutenberg noted in his New York Times article:

Mr. Lewandowski has frequently wandered past the bounds of truth…[though, when he was hired by CNN,] Mr. Lewandowski told [fellow CNN journalist] Erin Burnett that he’d call “balls and strikes” in spite of his agreement with Mr. Trump.  But when he weighed in on Mr. Trump’s big economic speech last Tuesday, all he saw was a home run (“Mr. Trump’s best speech of the presidential cycle,” he gushed).

For the sake of full disclosure (and the truth), it must be noted that, although the Democrats are certainly not immune from this particular political sport (see: “Hillary Clinton” + “emails,” for instance), the Republicans have perfected the Machiavellian art of conflating “truth” and “lie.”  Two longtime Washington insiders, Thomas Mann (Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution) and Norman Ornstein (Resident Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute), wrote a book that got at this idea and summarized it four years ago in an article entitled: “Let’s Just Say It: The Republicans are the Problem:”

The GOP has become an insurgent outlier in American politics. It is ideologically extreme; scornful of compromise; unmoved by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition . . . “Both sides do it” or “There is plenty of blame to go around” are the traditional refuges for an American news media intent on proving its lack of bias . . . But a balanced treatment of an unbalanced phenomena distorts reality. If the political dynamics of Washington are unlikely to change anytime soon, at least we could change the way that reality is portrayed to the public.

Our advice to the press: don’t seek professional safety through the even-handed, unfiltered presentation of opposing views. Which politician is telling the truth?

Finally! One true statement about the political situation in the United States.

However, those in the media did not appreciate the sentiment.  After publishing their book and then article in the Washington Post, these two writers were essentially ostracized for their bipartisan, honest point of view.  As the alternative news outlet Media Matters noted a couple of weeks after the publication of the piece, “their [Mann’s and Ornstein’s] recent conclusion that Republicans are responsible for political dysfunction has been largely ignored, with the top five national newspapers writing a total of zero news articles on their thesis.”  Media Matters also pointed out that, after years of being go-to voices on the various Sunday political programs, Mann and Ornstein saw those invitations dry up after the publication of their book.

Given all of this, the rise of Trump should come as no surprise.  He is simply better at using lies to shape reality than the other 16 candidates he bested.  And he is cognizant that the press – compliant concubine that it is – will mostly parrot whatever garbage he spews from his mouth.

Donald J. Trump has risen from the fetid fertilizer of years of Republican obfuscation, lies, false accusations and other pernicious verbiage, all of which have been dutifully reported as one “opinion” (countered by an equally-weighted “opinion” known as the truth).  And when respected journalists have attempted to point out the problem of false equivalence, they have been “ostracized” by their mainstream compatriots or even shut down by their editors.

Trump is not an outlier, surprise or anomaly. He is the natural outgrowth of years of terrible reporting, coupled with Republican exploitation of this dynamic.

In a sense, Trump is doing us a favor. He is exposing the undercurrent of American democracy which has been hidden beneath the surface of “civility” and “objectivity” provided by the supine press. However, we must learn from his rise, and demand – once and for all – that truth, and not false equivalence, becomes central to our political discourse and public square.

If not, we might well learn just how far America can go toward becoming a fascist government ourselves, instead of fighting against them as we have in Germany, the Soviet Union, North Korea and other places around the world.  While all of us certainly want to “make America great,” the question becomes for whom, and at what cost?  A question that the mainstream media should – but never seems to – put at the exact center of the conversation about Donald J. Trump, and our public square in general.

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Filed under 2016 Presidential Election, Philosophy, US Political System

Pro-Clinton Writers Make Illiberal Arguments and Then Complain When They’re Called Out On It

A nontrivial portion of online comments are going to be unconstructive and/or offensive.  Especially when a columnist writes something provocative, a lot of people are going to be unhappy about it, and many of them, bolstered by the relative anonymity and psychological distance the Internet affords, will respond with vitriol.  That said, there are actually a lot of thoughtful readers out there, and even angry responses can sometimes contain good points.  Authors who take the time to consider the feedback they receive – to parse the constructive commentary from the trash – can improve their arguments and demonstrate that they’ve really thought through the fairness and implications of what they’ve written.

Unfortunately, many authors don’t do that.  And during this election cycle, this failure in self-reflection has been particularly prevalent among prominent Hillary Clinton supporters.

To illustrate what I mean, I’m going to focus on two columnists, Paul Krugman and Michael Tomasky, who share a few characteristics:

  • They’ve got wide readership. Krugman is much more well-known and writes for the New York Times, but Tomasky has a decent following in his own right; he’s a columnist for the Daily Beast and also edits Democracy: A Journal of Ideas.
  • They’ve written multiple pieces in support of Clinton that express illiberal ideas and/or distort the truth – that is, they’ve done exactly the type of thing they frequently ding Republicans for doing.
  • Instead of addressing any of numerous valid criticisms of their pro-Clinton articles, they’ve cast all of their critics as “Bernie Bros” who can’t possibly have anything legitimate to say. In “An Ode to My Berniebro Trolls,” Tomasky asserts that there is “nothing” even potentially objectionable about his previous piece, “Time for Bernie Sanders to Get in Line,” except that perhaps the title was an oversell of his main point: Sanders is “going to lose” and should therefore “lay off the attacks on Hillary Clinton, the Goldman Sachs speeches and all the rest.”  Krugman, for his part, has long complained of being subjected to the “Bernie Bro treatment,” which seems to mean that he’s been called “a corrupt tool of the oligarchy.”  He has recently claimed that the Sanders campaign itself is “getting pretty ugly in a way the Clinton [campaign] hasn’t.”

If Krugman really believes that “[g]ood ideas don’t have to be sold with fairy dust” and that “getting real is or ought to be a core progressive value,” he isn’t currently putting his money where his mouth is.  And Tomasky’s insistence that he’s “open to hearing a smart argument against [his] position” would be a lot more believable if he hadn’t thus far ignored those that have been offered.  If Krugman and Tomasky are serious about “getting real,” they will begin to acknowledge and address the following points:

The “Bernie Bro” narrative is “a Cheap Campaign Tactic Masquerading as Journalism.”

Everyone who has made this point recognizes that some Bernie Sanders supporters make sexist, racist, and/or otherwise offensive comments.  We condemn those comments.  We also request that Clinton supporters stop using a sexist label themselves, one that, when it isn’t being applied to women or people who don’t even support Bernie Sanders, is marginalizing the millions of women (and people of color; the “Bernie Bro” is often cast as an angry White guy) who are staunch proponents of the Sanders campaign (Sanders is actually way more popular than Clinton among young women and, increasingly, among younger Black and Latino voters).  As a recent study confirmed about sexism, Internet harassment is a major issue but is mostly not from “the left in general or Sanders supporters in particular.”

There are numerous examples of Hillary Clinton supporters who make sexist, racist, and homophobic comments as well.  Whether you’re subject to such comments is both a function of which candidate you support and how much privilege you have (women and people of color who support any candidate are much more likely to be harassed than White men like Krugman and Tomasky or half-Indian men who are perceived to be White like me, for instance).  So let’s not go around calling people “Hillary Elites” or “Hillary Straights” or “Bernie Bros.”  Instead, let’s condemn harassment without opportunistically twisting the truth about it and focus our energy on substantive debates about issues.

The Sanders campaign’s critiques of Clinton’s record and platform have been significantly fairer than the Clinton campaign’s misleading and/or untrue attacks on Sanders.

The only specific “attack” on Clinton that Tomasky actually attributes to Sanders is his call for Clinton to release the transcripts of three speeches Goldman Sachs paid her $225,000 (each) to make during the past few years.  But Sanders’ critique here is completely fair (as is what Tomasky calls Sanders’ “anti-Rahm Emanuel tincture”).  Clinton has repeatedly claimed that the money she receives from Wall Street doesn’t influence her; the American people have a right to know how her remarks to bankers comport with her professed commitment to regulate them (though how her comments could possibly look as bad as her continued refusal to share them is anyone’s guess).

To be fair, the precise definition of “attack” is open for debate, but despite Krugman’s assertions to the contrary, the fact that Clinton’s campaign has been much more insidious isn’t.  Throughout the primary, the Clinton campaign has repeatedly distorted the truth.  Clinton has disingenuously accused Sanders of sexism and racism, made false statements about his health care plan and history of health care advocacy, and misled the public about his record on the auto industry, immigration, Wall Street, and a variety of other issues.  Her team has also engaged in red-baiting, trashed taxes Democrats are supposed to support, and co-opted the language of intersectionality to inaccurately paint Sanders  – a rare politician who recognizes the connections between social and economic issues and is advancing a comprehensive social justice agenda – as a single-issue candidate.  Clinton’s campaign might not embody “the most negative campaign of any Democratic presidential candidate…in a presidential primary season” label that her staffers have tried to apply to the Sanders campaign, but the Clinton team’s tactics have been – by far – the most negative in this year’s race.

Sanders has a very strong track record as a legislator and executive.

Tomasky incorrectly argues that Sanders is an ineffective legislator, citing a lack of cosponsors on his bills as evidence that he doesn’t work well with Congress.  Tomasky omits, however, that Sanders recently negotiated a bipartisan bill “to expand veterans’ access to health care” with John McCain, a bill which is widely viewed as a huge success.  Sanders’ Republican colleagues, despite their disagreements with him, liked working with Sanders and praised him for his integrity and work ethic, while Democratic Senators said that, without Sanders, they “don’t think [they] would have gotten [the bill] done.”

Tomasky also fails to mention that Sanders has mastered the art of adding power-balancing amendments to larger bills; his accomplishments include (but are not limited to) securing funding for community health centers in the Affordable Care Act, blocking imports made with child labor, and increasing transparency about one-time government officials’ subsequent employment opportunities.

Sanders’ record as mayor of Burlington also shows that he’s an excellent executive.  He has a history of setting big goals, fighting for them, and eventually working out the best deal he believes he can.  The citizens of Vermont love Sanders for a reason – they know his record a lot better than Krugman and Tomasky do, and it’s a damn good one.

If anything, I’d prefer Sanders were much less into what Krugman calls “hardheaded realism” than he actually is.  That’s because Krugman is wrong about how to make change; we are served best not by “accepting half loaves as being better than none,” but by reframing issues and forcing policymakers’ hands.  As climate expert Bill McKibben explains, major accomplishments like gay marriage and civil rights legislation weren’t driven by leaders all too willing to compromise; they were driven by “big, impassioned movement[s] that cleverly changed the zeitgeist.”  Sanders gets this dynamic more than any major presidential candidate in recent memory, and that’s why his “political revolution” carries so much potential to change this country’s politics.

All the evidence suggests Sanders is a more “electable” general election candidate than Clinton.

Both Krugman and Tomasky write off the head-to-head polling that has consistently shown Sanders to outperform Clinton in hypothetical general election matchups with Republicans.  Tomasky argues that “a billion-dollar onslaught” from the GOP, targeted at the “tax increases he’s proposing,” would tank Sanders.  Yet as I’ve explained before, the GOP would also mercilessly attack Clinton, and the idea that those attacks would work better against Sanders is entirely inconsistent with other polling trends.  As shown below, Clinton’s favorability ratings have been steadily declining, while Sanders’ have continued to rise as voters have become more familiar with him.

Favorability

As I’ve also explained before and the graphs below show, Sanders does significantly better than Clinton among two demographic groups key to winning a general election: young people and Independents.

Millennials

Independents

Voters in these groups – unlike voters in Clinton’s key constituencies – may very well abandon the Democrats if Clinton is the party’s nominee.  I wouldn’t personally recommend basing your vote on perceived electability, but if that’s what you’re planning to do, the evidence indicates that you should vote for Sanders.

There are substantial, important differences between Sanders and Clinton.  These differences are in some respects much larger than the differences between Clinton and various Republicans.

Krugman argues that the differences between Sanders and Clinton “are trivial compared with the yawning gulf with Republicans.”  Ironically, the context for those comments – an article about financial policy and donations – provides a compelling counterexample: Wall Street does not like Sanders, but the industry seems to like Clinton more than many of the Republican candidates, as the graph below shows.  And though many of them likely agree with Krugman that the differences between Clinton and the Republicans are larger than those between Sanders and Clinton, numerous smart people and policy experts whose existence Krugman ignores believe both that Sanders’ Wall Street plans are much better than Clinton’s and that Sanders is far more likely than Clinton to surround himself with a staff that will execute a power-balancing policy vision.

Wall Street Donations

For an even better example, consider foreign policy.  Clinton has embraced an incredibly hawkish position on Israel, used the same foreign policy consulting firm as Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz (among other politicians), and supported a coup in Honduras in 2009; in fact, she has earned the support of many neoconservatives for her long history of supporting civil liberties violations and aggressive interventions that have resulted in the mistreatment and/or deaths of millions of innocent people.  Tomasky is right to point out that Sanders’ doesn’t get particularly high marks on foreign policy from “actual leftists,” but there’s a reason Congresswoman and Iraq War veteran Tulsi Gabbard resigned from the Democratic National Committee to endorse Sanders at the end of February (see video below): he’s much less imperialistic than the typical major party candidate.

Then there’s the death penalty: Sanders opposes it, but Clinton, like the Republicans, is okay with it.  There’s also the subject of immigrants’ rights: Clinton’s professed outrage over Donald Trump’s proposal to build a wall along the Mexican border is hard to reconcile with her repeated support for a border barrier in the past, support she touted as recently as November 2015.  Her newfound commitment not to deport children fleeing violence is also hard to believe given her defense of such deportations a mere seven months ago.  In contrast, Sanders has consistently opposed both a border fence and deportations.

From Clinton’s support for the escalation of the War on Drugs and move to more draconian welfare policy to her longtime opposition to gay marriage to her promotion of “free trade” deals that have prioritized the interests of multinational corporations over those of the bulk of the world’s citizens, Clinton’s history is closer to many Republicans’ than to Sanders’, who has a very good (albeit imperfect) record on racial justice issues, anti-poverty work, LGBT issues, and opposing bad trade deals.  To be sure, there are some causes on which Sanders has found Republican allies, but those causes have generally been ones – like opposition to corporate welfare – that Tomasky’s “actual leftists” support.

In light of all these facts, Tomasky’s argument that Democrats should refrain from criticizing Hillary Clinton (who he thinks will be the Democratic nominee), like a similar argument from Markos Moulitsas at Daily Kos, is a hell of a lot scarier to people like me than a Donald Trump presidency.  This undemocratic idea elevates party tribalism over good policymaking and “winning” over holding politicians accountable.  It presents a major obstacle to the change the world’s most disadvantaged populations desperately need, change which perpetual endorsements of lesser-of-two-evilsism will never deliver.  Such a misguided notion of “political pragmatism undermines progressive goals,” as I’ve argued before.

Sanders still has a legitimate shot to win the Democratic primary.

Half the country still hasn’t cast their ballots and Bernie Sanders isn’t all that far away from the pledged delegate targets he’d need to win the nomination; Tomasky is wrong to assert that “Sanders can’t win the delegate race now.”  Yes, winning will be difficult, but there’s still a clear path for him to do so, and as Sanders’ historic upset win in Michigan shows, an election isn’t over until the voters actually cast their ballots.  Krugman thinks an extended primary isn’t “good for the Democratic party;” I, on the other hand, think the Clinton coronation he and the Democratic party Establishment have been pushing is a whole lot worse, as it flies in the face of a lot of what the party is supposed to stand for.

All of that said, Krugman and Tomasky are right about one thing: Sanders supporters should avoid the reflexive attribution “of foul and malevolent motives” to Clinton supporters.

I know a lot of awesome Clinton supporters who do great work.  People support presidential candidates for a variety of reasons, and instead of jumping to conclusions about the character of those who disagree with us, we should listen to those reasons and evaluate them on their merits.  In fact, I’d urge everyone to extend the same courtesy to Bernie Sanders supporters, to Jill Stein supporters, to those who refuse to vote, and yes, even to people who plan to vote for one of the Republican candidates.  We should consider the possibility that others have thought through their electoral choices and have entirely legitimate reasons for making them.

At the same time, ethics and evidence matter, and it’s perfectly fine – in fact, it’s essential – to hold voters accountable for attending to them.  If you say your top priority is raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour, for example, you can’t possibly defend a vote for a Republican this year.  You also can’t really explain a vote for Clinton, which is why Sanders supporters were justifiably furious when the Service Employees International Union endorsed Clinton in November.

I suspect that Krugman and Tomasky don’t share all of my values and priorities.  We agree on a lot – I enjoy their writing outside of election season and appreciate much of what they advocate for – but they seem much more comfortable with the policy status quo than I am.  I reject the idea that public policy must inevitably leave millions of people behind; they very well may not.  In Tomasky’s words: “Fine. I can appreciate that.”  If more voters share Krugman and Tomasky’s values than share mine, so be it.

The problem, however, is that Krugman and Tomasky haven’t been writing about value disagreements.  Instead, rather than acknowledging and responding to the evidence and logical arguments that contradict their claims, they’ve continued to pen inaccurate and/or highly misleading articles for popular media outlets.  Is it any wonder that, in response to such widely read misinformation, they’ve received angry responses from Sanders supporters?

My best guess is that Krugman and Tomasky are suffering from a severe case of confirmation bias: they’re convinced that Clinton is the best option and have developed tunnel vision to avoid the cognitive dissonance that actually considering feedback might bring about.  But that doesn’t make what they’re doing okay.  And given how often they assign “foul and malevolent motives” to Republicans who write fallacious things, they’d do well to reflect on why it is that their readers have recently been doing the same thing to them.

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Filed under 2016 Presidential Election, US Political System

Evidence Indicates that Bernie Sanders is the Democrats’ Best Shot at the White House

Of those who know who he is, most voters like Bernie Sanders.  He is the only major presidential candidate with a positive net favorability rating among the general public.  Yet despite these facts and his wildly popular ideas, he remains the underdog in the race for the Democratic nomination.  Why?

The answer appears to be perceived electability.  When I’ve phone banked for Sanders, I’ve talked to a lot of voters who say they’re a big fan of his, and they’re glad he’s in the race, but they just aren’t sure he can win a general election.  They’re scared of the Republicans, they tell me, and their foremost concern is making sure the Democratic nominee, no matter who it is, wins in November.

I think this attitude is misguided, both because there are large and important differences between the Democratic candidates and because electability arguments can be circular, self-fulfilling prophecies.  In no small part because electability considerations are speculative, we’re much better served by casting our vote for the candidate whose record and platform is most aligned with our values.

That said, given that a lot of people think about electability, it’s worth looking at some evidence.  The numbers indicate that the Democrats’ electoral prospects would be better under Bernie Sanders than under Hillary Clinton for two important reasons:

1. Young people, who arguably won both the 2008 and 2012 elections for Barack Obama, love Sanders. Many do not like Clinton.

In Iowa’s Democratic primary, Sanders beat Clinton among Democrats aged 18-29 by 70 percentage points.  In New Hampshire, he won that age group by 65 percentage points.  And in the most recent national poll from Quinnipiac University, Sanders held a net favorability rating among 18-34 year-old voters of all political affiliations that was 57 percentage points better than Clinton’s (see graph below).  Sanders is more popular among millennials right now than Obama was among young voters in 2008 and 2012.

Millennials for Bernie

On voting results alone, my generation won Indiana and North Carolina for Barack Obama in 2008 and Florida, Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Ohio in 2012.  In addition, the youth contribution to electoral success extends beyond the vote; as Pew reported in 2008:

…young people provided not only their votes but also many enthusiastic campaign volunteers. Some may have helped persuade parents and older relatives to consider Obama’s candidacy. And far more young people than older voters reported attending a campaign event while nearly one-in-ten donated money to a presidential candidate.

It is extremely hard to believe that millennials would turn out and vote for Clinton in such large numbers if she becomes the Democratic nominee; over 41,000 people, for example, have already pledged to write Bernie in if he loses to Clinton in the primary.  There is also an undeniable “enthusiasm gap” between the Sanders and Clinton campaigns; even if most Sanders supporters would suck it up and turn out for Clinton if she ends up as the nominee, which is hardly guaranteed, we won’t see anything close to the volunteerism millennials are already engaged in on Bernie’s behalf.  If your main concern is electability, do you really want to gamble with the key demographic group from the last two presidential elections?

2. Independents and Republicans are more likely to vote for Bernie Sanders than for Hillary Clinton.

Sanders also has much higher favorability ratings than Clinton among non-Democrats; his net favorability among them was 39 percentage points better than Clinton’s in the most recent Quinnipiac poll, and in New Hampshire, he won Independents by 47 percentage points.  His class-based, anti-Establishment message resonates.  If you heard Sanders speak at Liberty University (a conservative hotbed; see video below) last September, you know what I’m talking about; his direct, honest pitch for people who disagree about social issues to band together in pursuit of economic justice was very well-received.  He didn’t win an army of converts overnight, but he did get people thinking; one Liberty alum estimates that half of the Liberty community could potentially Feel the Bern.

Read this take from teenage-conservative-icon-turned-Sanders-supporter CJ Pearson.  Listen to the growing contingent of “Lifelong Republicans Who Love Bernie Sanders.”  Or consider my (admittedly anecdotal) experience talking to several voters and reading numerous Internet comments of folks who are deciding between Donald Trump and Sanders.  As Daniel Denvir notes, that doesn’t mean that Sanders will win over the most prejudiced Trump supporters, but his brand of economic populism may make him “the Democrats’ only chance to wrest white working class voters from a billionaire’s hate-filled dystopian rage.”

The coalition we’re seeing for Sanders in the primaries already indicates the appeal he holds for voters who less consistently vote Democratic.  Polling data shows that “Sanders has forged connections to lower-income New Hampshire and Iowa Democrats that eluded Obama and every other progressive primary challenger in recent history.”  Unlike Clinton, Sanders may be able to turn out people who don’t often vote, bring in some folks who usually vote against their economic interests, and unite both groups with traditional Democratic voting blocs.

Polls that explore head-to-head matchups also suggest that Sanders would do better than Clinton against each of the top five Republican candidates.  Clinton-backer Paul Krugman calls such polls meaningless (he did, however, cite them himself to raise concerns about Barack Obama’s electability in March of 2008), and I personally wouldn’t read too much into them – we’re still very far out from the general election and opinions can surely change – but arguments that these numbers will flip remain completely evidence-free.  Here’s why:

– Republican attacks would work at least as well against Hillary Clinton as they would against Bernie Sanders.

Yes, Bernie Sanders defines himself as a Democratic Socialist.  If he is the nominee, GOP attack ads would surely use that label to cast him as insane, dangerous, and/or un-American…which is exactly the same thing they did to Barack Obama for eight years and would surely do to Hillary Clinton as well.

Anyone who would run screaming from a 30-second ad decrying socialism without doing any research isn’t going to vote for Sanders or Clinton in a general election.  But since most of Sanders’ platform, as mentioned earlier, is extremely popular, many voters who actually do their homework will quickly learn that his brand of democratic socialism isn’t scary at all (it’s not even particularly radical).

While the Republican party would undoubtedly dream up additional smears to use against Sanders, the GOP doesn’t exactly have a crisis of imagination – or a lack of material to work with – when it comes to attacking Clinton.  The idea that Sanders, a candidate whose popularity continues to grow with his name recognition, would be hurt more by such attacks than Clinton, whose favorability has steadily tanked over the last few years, is pure folly.

Candidate Favorability.png

– Candidates labeled “unelectable” by party elites and the punditry have won before.

While Clinton supporters love comparing Sanders’ candidacy to the unsuccessful campaigns of Eugene McCarthy and George McGovern, these comparisons don’t hold water.  Electoral dynamics today are drastically different than they were in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

At least two presidential candidates in more recent history have been labeled “unelectable” and gone on to win.  One was Ronald Reagan.  The other, as alluded to earlier, was Barack Obama.  That history isn’t proof that Sanders will follow suit, but it indicates that “expert” opinions about electability should be taken with a gigantic grain of salt.

For all their talk about the importance of evidence-based electability arguments, Krugman and his fellow naysayers haven’t actually provided any.  They rely instead on a dubious application of the psychological principle of loss aversion and a simplistic political categorization model, among other speculative arguments, each of which is unconvincing.

None of that’s to say that Sanders doesn’t still have a lot of work to do if he wants to win the Democratic nomination.  Clinton, despite having a very bad record on racial justice, currently holds a big lead among non-White voters.  Sanders will need to cut into that.  Clinton’s lead is likely due more to voters’ unfamiliarity with Sanders than anything else, however, and as more non-White voters learn about him, Sanders’ popularity among those voters should continue to rise.

When it does, we’ll have a real primary election on our hands.  And while I’d advise against putting too much stock in electability arguments, the candidate in that primary with the best record and policy platform – Bernie Sanders – also happens to be the Democrats’ best shot in November.

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How Change Actually Happens

Debbie Spielberg has worked on legislation and policy at the national and local levels, including serving as Legislative Director for Congressman John Lewis (D-Atlanta).  She currently is a legislative aide for Montgomery County Councilmember Marc Elrich (D at-large), where she works on transportation, housing, economic development, and environmental issues, and is also the chairperson of Jamie Raskin‘s Maryland State Senate campaign.  In this article, Spielberg draws on her experience working on progressive policy initiatives to explain why Bernie Sanders is the rare politician with the right theory of change.

Debbie

Debbie Spielberg

Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman recently echoed the argument of too many pundits, elected officials and some of my good friends that Bernie Sanders is too radical and his goals too idealistic to be electable, or, even, to enjoy legislative success if he is.

They’re wrong.

I remember a conversation I had about seven years ago with an erstwhile friend of mine who was consulting with the Obama White House on health care.  He told me that they were using focus groups to determine what health care proposals they could sell to the American public.  That seemed backwards to me.  I asked him why they didn’t first determine what the best proposal was, and then use the focus groups to figure out how to best sell it to the American public.

He quickly dismissed my question.  His argument: I just didn’t understand how politics work (never mind that I had spent years working in Congress and elsewhere in public policy).  Like Krugman, he believed in accepting the terms of a debate rather than in reframing issues, as Bernie does.

Unfortunately, Republicans get why this approach is misguided.  Packaging and sales can make or break an initiative or a candidate.  Remember the sales pitch that candidate George W. Bush was a “compassionate conservative?”  Remember the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth ads, recognized as lies at the time, which effectively distorted John Kerry’s record as a war hero?  Going back much further, President Harry Truman’s proposal for national health care in 1948, overwhelmingly popular at the time, fell victim to negative messaging from the first-ever political consulting firm.

How politicians and the media frame issues plays an essential role in how the public responds.  Bernie is competitive in the polls, and his campaign is generating excitement among many voters (both young and old) around the country, because he understands this point. We don’t rebuild and strengthen the middle class, which is the foundation of a strong democracy, by refusing to think big.  We do it by building a movement, and that starts with unapologetic advocacy for policies that help people.

Consider the bailouts during the Great Recession.  President Obama, top economic adviser Lawrence Summers, and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner should have declared that government’s top priority was to help individuals hold on to their homes (which are the largest part of middle-income wealth).  The right “sales pitch” with the right vision might have toppled Congressional opposition.  (I write “might” because we can’t know – they didn’t try.)

Instead of helping individual homeowners directly, the government bailed out (most of) the major financial institutions.  And held none of the offending executives and CEO’s of these institutions personally accountable.  Meanwhile, millions of Americans lost their homes and had to rebuild their lives from scratch.

In the same way that many well-meaning people believe that Bernie Sanders is “unelectable” (even though he has won 14 elections thus far in his life), many argue that a stimulus program focused on individual homeowners was not possible: the President and the Democrats who supported that approach could not have convinced others to rebuild from the bottom up.  I disagree.  President Obama did not take hold of the narrative and “sell” the best policies for the country.  That’s why his solutions turned out to be Band Aids, not the fundamental moves away from the Reagan/Clinton/Bush “assault” on middle-class and poor families that we desperately need.

Bernie, on the other hand, would fight for good policy ideas.  “Medicare for All,” free higher education, a $15 minimum wage, comprehensive immigration reform, addressing climate change, a focus on rebuilding our deteriorating infrastructure – these ideas would all strengthen the foundation of our country (literally, at least in the case of infrastructure!).  Importantly, though it may surprise Krugman et al., Bernie has a long record of translating such ideas into government policy that helps people.  As Eliza Webb summarizes over at Salon:

[Sanders] has combined what Krugman aptly terms “high-minded” leadership with deft policy-making, fiscal judiciousness with social liberalism, the agenda of the Republicans with the agenda of the Democrats, and strong purpose with clever bargains, to bring forth genuine, bona fide, palpable, honest-to-goodness change for the American people.

The dictionary defines radical as “very different from the usual or traditional.”  So perhaps Bernie and his ideas are radical.  With this “radical” candidate, we finally have a leader who is willing to shatter the conventional narrative and propose solutions that might actually make a difference.

I’m all in.

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Filed under 2016 Presidential Election, US Political System

What It Means to be Tough on Wall Street

I nearly spit out the hard apple cider I was drinking when I heard the following exchange during the first Democratic presidential debate:

Anderson Cooper: Senator Sanders wants to break up the big Wall Street banks. You don’t. You say charge the banks more, continue to monitor them. Why is your plan better?

Hillary Clinton: Well, my plan is more comprehensive. And frankly, it’s tougher…

Sure, Clinton’s plan has, as financial systems expert Mike Konczal notes, significantly more “footnotes and wonky details.”  If that’s what “more comprehensive” means, so be it.  But tougher?  More “characterized by severity or uncompromising determination,” as Merriam-Webster’s puts it?

To me, the best, most concise summary of the two candidates’ plans for Wall Street banks thus far comes from former US Labor Secretary and current Berkeley professor Rob Reich:

Bernie Sanders says break them up and resurrect the Glass-Steagall Act that once separated investment from commercial banking.

Hillary Clinton says charge them a bit more and oversee them more carefully.

Which of those options sounds tougher to you?

Konczal also highlights that Sanders, unlike Clinton, “wants to take on the power of the big banks.”  In addition, the two candidates’ approaches to curbing high-frequency trading “is a clear difference, with Sanders taking a more aggressive approach.”

Clinton didn’t possibly expect anyone to believe that she’d be tougher on Wall Street than Sanders, did she?

Imagine my surprise upon opening up a recent Paul Krugman article – expecting the excellent economic and political analysis he so often provides – and seeing that, in the candidates’ dispute “about whose plan was tougher,” he thought “Mrs. Clinton had the better case.”

Krugman points out, as does Konczal, that while Clinton has already laid out details on how she plans to conduct oversight of the “shadow” banking sector, Sanders hasn’t.  Krugman sees a specific plan in this area as more important than a commitment to break up the big banks.  This argument is fine to make, though it’s worth noting that Reich disagrees.

But the more important topic, Krugman argues, is tough-on-Wall-Street credibility.  And what’s baffling to me about his analysis is that he seems to think Clinton has it, a position completely at odds with the campaign finance data and Clinton’s record.

The crux of Krugman’s argument is that, while “there was a time when Wall Street and Democrats got on just fine…with the securities industry splitting its donations more or less evenly between the parties,” that time has passed.  He writes:

[I]f Wall Street’s attitude and its political giving are any indication, financiers themselves believe that any Democrat, Mrs. Clinton very much included, would be serious about policing their industry’s excesses. And that’s why they’re doing all they can to elect a Republican…

Financial tycoons loom large among the tiny group of wealthy families that is dominating campaign finance this election cycle — a group that overwhelmingly supports Republicans. Hedge funds used to give the majority of their contributions to Democrats, but since 2010 they have flipped almost totally to the G.O.P.

As I said, this lopsided giving is an indication that Wall Street insiders take Democratic pledges to crack down on bankers’ excesses seriously. And it also means that a victorious Democrat wouldn’t owe much to the financial industry…

Krugman is right about the overall trends.  A tiny group of wealthy families is contributing millions of dollars to 2016 presidential campaigns, most of it to Republicans, and the balance of hedge fund donations between the two parties has definitely shifted.  But those overall trends mask one crucial exception to the rule: Hillary Clinton.

The Center for Responsive Politics collects data on donations campaigns receive from individuals who work in the “Securities & Investment” industry, which is shown below.  While the organization recognizes that “not every contribution is made with the donor’s economic or professional interests in mind[, there is] a correlation between individuals’ contributions and their employers’ political interests.”  In addition, the “donors [they] know about, and especially those who contribute at the maximum levels, are more commonly top executives in their companies, not lower-level employees.”

Securities & Investment Chart - Updated

As the chart shows, Clinton actually leads all Republican candidates in contributions from this industry.  She has received over 40 times more money than Sanders has from individuals associated with Wall Street.  That’s lopsided giving all right, but it’s lopsided in a much different way than Krugman suggests.

Candidates receive considerably more financial support from Super PACs than from individual donations, but Clinton ranks among the Republicans in this category, too.  Jeb Bush, Ted Cruz, and Marco Rubio outpace her (Bush by a considerable margin), but her $20.3 million in Super PAC money is exactly $20.3 million more than Sanders has received.  While it’s not clear how much of any candidate’s Super PAC money comes from Wall Street, and while I suspect that Clinton Super PAC donors George Soros and S. Donald Sussman are more amenable to basic regulations than their fellow billionaire hedge fund managers who donate to Republicans, it seems plausible that a “victorious Democrat” – if that Democrat were Hillary Clinton – might, in fact, “owe much to the financial industry.”  And that’s before even considering donations to the Clinton foundation.

Super PAC Donations

Those donation profiles suggest that Sanders, despite not having a specific proposal on “shadow” banking yet, is far more likely than Clinton to fight for smart recommendations from folks like Konczal.

I find it especially hard to understand Krugman’s argument in the context of what Clinton touted as a tough-on-Wall-Street credential during the debate:

I represented Wall Street, as a senator from New York, and I went to Wall Street in December of 2007 — before the big crash that we had — and I basically said, “cut it out! Quit foreclosing on homes! Quit engaging in these kinds of speculative behaviors.”

I don’t know about you, but I don’t typically think representing a group of rich people and giving them a nonbinding but stern talking to qualifies as particularly tough.  History backs me up on this one – Clinton’s Wall Street lecture doesn’t seem to have worked out so well.

Paul Krugman is a great economist, I love his column, and I understand the point he’s trying to make: he thinks a Democrat in the White House – any Democrat – would be a hell of a lot better than any Republican.

But even if you agree on that point, don’t buy the idea that the practical difference between Clinton and Sanders is trivial.  It’s very large when it comes to Wall Street, where Sanders is tougher by any reasonable definition of the word.

Note (10/22/15): I updated this post with new data from the Center for Responsive Politics; the old graph, which appeared in the original version of this post, is shown below.  At that time (as the original version of the post noted), Sanders had “received so little from the Securities & Investment industry that the Center for Responsive Politics [didn’t] even report it.”

Securities & Investment Donations

Update (5/12/16): The Wall Street Journal reports that “Hillary Clinton is consolidating her support among Wall Street donors and other businesses ahead of a general-election battle with Donald Trump, winning more campaign contributions from financial-services executives in the most recent fundraising period than all other candidates combined.”  In addition, “some Wall Street donors have shifted their financial support from Republican candidates who dropped out of the race, such as former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, to Mrs. Clinton in recent months.”  The most recent data from the Center for Responsive Politics, shown below, includes both donations made directly to the campaigns and those made to candidates’ Super PACs.

Wall Street Donations 4-21-16.png

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Filed under 2016 Presidential Election, Business