Tag Archives: Republicans

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You’re welcome.

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Filed under Poverty and the Justice System

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

Bernie Sanders Is Correct: He Polls Better than Hillary Clinton Against the Republicans

PolitiFact just issued a completely incorrect ruling on one of their “fact checks.”  Here is the correct ruling on the following statement from Bernie Sanders:

34justice Truth Ruling

PolitiFact called it “false” because they found a few polls in which Clinton does better.  Their “fact checking” was grossly negligent, however.  While the meaning of “Almost all of” can be debated and I would have rather Sanders said “In general,” the worst anyone who has actually done their homework could rule this statement is “mostly true.”

RealClearPolitics compiles results from every poll and reports averages in many matchups.  The chart below shows how Clinton and Sanders fare on average against each of the top five Republican candidates (shown in order of the candidates’ average ranking in Republican primary polls).  As is obvious from looking at the graph, Sanders polls better on average than Clinton against each of the candidates, and significantly better than Clinton against Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, the two leading candidates in the Republican field (for example, while Sanders beats Cruz by 3.3 percentage points in the average poll, Clinton loses to Cruz by an average of 1.3 percentage points).

RCP Polling Averages

People can have reasonable debates about how to interpret the poll results.  Should Democrats be most worried about Marco Rubio?  Maybe.  Do the results mean much, given that all the matchups are hypothetical at this point and the general election is still a long way away?  Maybe not.  But the evidence we do have is clear: the polls absolutely, as Bernie Sanders said, “suggest that [he is] a much stronger candidate against the Republicans than is Hillary Clinton”

That may not have been PolitiFact’s ruling, but it is the truth.  How’s that for a fact check?

Update (2/26/16): As the chart below shows, newer RealClearPolitics data shows that Sanders is now doing even better relative to Clinton against the leading Republican candidates than he was doing a month ago.

RCPPolls2

HuffPost Pollster also aggregates polling data.  Democrats will be comforted by their results, which are much more favorable to both Sanders and Clinton than the results from RealClearPolitics.

HPPPolls

What is also abundantly clear from both sites’ models is that, as time goes on, Sanders’ standing against the top Republican candidates improves and Clinton’s gets worse.  These polls still certainly aren’t the be-all and end-all of electability evidence, but especially given the trends and Sanders’ superior popularity among millennials and Independents, the argument that these polls tell us nothing is getting harder and harder to justify.  I recommend basing your vote on your values, not on perceived electability, but if electability really is your primary concern, the data very obviously indicates that Sanders is the better pick.

Update (3/19/16): Hillary Clinton is now polling much closer to (though still not) as well as Sanders against Donald Trump, but is getting destroyed relative to Sanders against Ted Cruz and John Kasich.

RCP 3-19-16

HuffPostPollster 3-19-16

Update (4/12/16): Sanders is still outperforming Clinton in head-to-head general election matchups.

RCPPolls

HuffPoPolls

Update (5/17/16): Sanders still has a large head-to-head polling advantage over Clinton when matched up against Trump, who will be the Republican nominee.

H2H Polls 5-17-16

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Donald Trump is A Problem, Not The Problem

Last September, Frank Rich wrote an article for New York Magazine entitled “The Importance of Donald Trump: Far from destroying our democracy, he’s exposing all its phoniness and corruption in ways as serious as he is not. And changing it in the process.”

How so?  Rich argued that Trump has “ensnared the GOP Establishment in a classic Catch-22: It wants Trump voters — it can’t win elections without them — but doesn’t want Trump calling attention to what those voters actually believe.”

Well, that cat left the bag long ago, at least when it comes to anti-Muslim bigotry.  As 2015’s last GOP presidential debate made clear, there isn’t a single Republican candidate willing to declare that Trump’s proposal to temporarily ban all Muslim non-citizens from entering the country is bigoted and unconscionable.  Instead, Trump’s challengers fell all over themselves to court the 59% (or more) of Republican voters who support such a plan.  Even Lindsey Graham (who has since dropped out of the race) and Jeb Bush, who got credit in some corners for challenging Trump’s proposal, could only muster the courage to question whether it would undermine our ability to build coalitions and stay safe.  They left the core problem with it – that it is completely immoral – unmentioned, and they insisted that loyalty to the eventual Republican nominee was more important than the rights of the world’s Muslim population.

So is Rich right?  Does Trump expose the despicable views of his fellow candidates, thus enabling us to confront and discredit them?  Or, as Rachel Maddow asked several weeks ago (in the same vein as these comments from Steve Benen), does Trump shift the Overton window of acceptable political discourse?  In other words, does Trump’s rhetoric normalize similarly repugnant proposals from Bush, Ben Carson, Chris Christie, Marco Rubio, and just about every other Republican presidential candidate by making them seem tame in comparison?

I don’t profess to know the answer to that question.  But either way, those of us who truly believe in freedom and justice need to stop treating Donald Trump like some sort of anomaly.  It’s also incumbent upon us to stop acting like despicable, racist, anti-Muslim sentiment and policy ideas are confined to the Republican party; though unethical rhetoric and proposals rear their ugly heads among prominent Republicans more often and more overtly than they do in many other quarters, the mainstream media, popular “liberals,” and high-ranking Democrats are complicit in the persecution of Muslim communities as well.

Consider CNN, the news network that hosted the aforementioned Republican debate.  In October of 2014, for example, network anchors Don Lemon and Alisyn Camerota invited renowned scholar Reza Aslan to an interview (shown below) that began with an absurd question: “Does Islam promote violence?”  Aslan’s responses throughout the rather hostile and offensive set of interview questions, in which he was interrupted by both Lemon and Camerota several times, were well-reasoned and, for the vast majority of the interview, remarkably calm.  He noted that female genital mutilation has nothing to do with Islam – this human rights violation is common in many countries in and around Central Africa, regardless of their majority religion, and is not an issue in majority-Muslim countries outside that region.  He explained that “Islam doesn’t promote violence or peace. Islam is just a religion, and like every religion in the world, it depends on what you bring to it.”  He pointed out that women in majority-Muslim Turkey have had more political success than women in the United States, and, finally, getting a little fed up with Lemon and Camerota’s ignorance, explained more forcefully that the use of the phrase “‘Muslim countries,’ as though Pakistan and Turkey are the same, as though Indonesia and Saudi Arabia are the same…is, frankly…stupid.” (Aslan actually apologized for using the word “stupid” after the interview – even though it’s a fairly accurate description of the generalization he was describing – presumably because he wanted to make sure Camerota knew that he wasn’t directing the comment at her intelligence).

CNN’s response to this exchange, rather than to reflect on what their anchors might have done wrong, was to put Lemon and Camerota back on air to defend their interview in a discussion with Chris Cuomo (shown below).  In his closing remarks, Cuomo said that Aslan’s “tone was very angry, so he wound up kind of demonstrating what people are fearful about when they think of the faith in the first place, which is the hostility of it.”

If you want a more recent example, check out the next interview below, this one between CNN anchors John Vouse and Isha Sesay and Yasser Louati, head of the International Relations Desk for the Collective Against Islamophobia in France.  Just like Lemon and Camerota, Vause and Sesay started with a bigoted and offensive premise – all Muslims should take responsibility for the terrorist attacks in Paris – and continued to ask the same inappropriate question over and over again after Louati politely debunked it.

I wish these videos were outliers, but they aren’t; CNN’s anchors, as well as many members of ostensibly “liberal” media and policy circles, disparage Muslims all the time.  And CNN doesn’t condone this behavior because of an unwavering commitment to freedom of expression for its staff; less than a week after the interview with Louati, CNN suspended its global affairs correspondent, Elise Labott, for issuing the following tweet:

In some ways, CNN is more at fault than the Republican candidates for spreading Islamophobia.  When a major television station that many people believe to be broadcasting “objective news” censors tolerant opinions from some of its journalists while giving other journalists free reign to bash the Muslim community, it mainstreams ignorant, prejudiced views far more successfully than Donald Trump ever could.

That’s a large part of why Barack Obama and the Democratic presidential candidates also deserve rebuke (as does George W. Bush, despite the praise he has received from Hillary Clinton).  To their credit, they are all careful to draw a clear distinction between Islam the religion and violence perpetrated by a small number of individuals who profess to believe in it.  Obama, at the State of the Union this week, said that “we need to reject any politics that targets people because of race or religion.”  Yet his and others’ words often lend cover to anti-Muslim animus by (intentionally or not) erroneously implying that “terrorism” and “Islam” are linked.  At the last Democratic presidential debate of 2015, for example, Clinton put the burden on Muslim-Americans to “stop radicalization,” and even Bernie Sanders, who is by far the best major presidential candidate on this issue, insisted that we are in a “war for the soul of Islam.”  Unless the candidates also think that the terror the Israeli government visits in the Middle East or that the fear the Ku Klux Klan still inspires in the United States represent wars for the souls of Judaism and Christianity, respectively, there is no excuse for this kind of language.

The Democrats’ foreign policy positions also contribute to the problem; their support for aggressive war in response to perceived threats of terror normalizes an “us versus them” and “ends justify the means” mentality used to oppress Muslims in various countries around the world.  Clinton is by far the worst perpetrator among the candidates in this regard – her foreign policy record and rhetoric are worse than those of many Republicans.  As but one example, she presided over massive increases in weapons deals to the Saudi Arabian government, one of the most repressive regimes in the world that just began 2016 by beheading 47 people, while they donated millions of dollars to the Clinton Foundation.  But Obama is very far from blameless.  Phrases like “our enemies” and “have to be rooted out, hunted down, and destroyed” from the State of the Union don’t help, nor do Obama-ordered drone strikes that mostly murder innocent civilians.  And even Sanders has lent cover to the Saudis.  When the supposed “liberals” take these positions, it’s little wonder that Republican debate moderator Hugh Hewitt can suggest that it is a virtue to “order air strikes that would kill innocent children by not the scores, but the hundreds and the thousands” without anyone batting an eyelid.

It’s also little wonder that anti-Muslim sentiment runs alarmingly high among Democratic voters; between 15% and 25% (depending on the poll) support Trump’s proposal.  Even scarier, that number could be as high as 45% when Democrats don’t know that the proposal is Trump’s, suggesting that there’s actually much more of a bipartisan consensus in favor of institutionalized discrimination against Muslims than many party loyalists would like to believe.  Constant threats, intimidation, and violent attacks against Muslim citizens aren’t a Trump problem; they’re an American problem.

So while it is perfectly appropriate to condemn Donald Trump and the Republicans for their bigotry, we must not treat them as anomalies.  We must also confront the media, the Democratic candidates, and all of our friends who, whether purposefully or not, and whether explicitly or not, spread the lie that Islam is uniquely violent.  We must go beyond pointing out that prejudice and aggressive war make us less safe, that far more “acts of terror” are carried out by Right-Wing extremists than by those professing to be Muslims, and that state-sanctioned violence by Western nations is responsible for far, far more deaths of innocent civilians than ISIS ever will be.  We must, first and foremost, stand in support of Muslims worldwide by denouncing profiling, implicit forms of discrimination, demonization of the “other,” and aggressive calls for war – no matter who they’re coming from – as morally wrong.

Note (7/6/16): This post used to contain audio from the Rachel Maddow show on the Overton window, but it is no longer available.  The reference to it has been replaced with a reference to a piece on Maddow’s blog.

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Filed under 2016 Presidential Election, Race and Religion

Why I Reject Lesser-of-Two-Evils-ism

If Hillary Clinton ends up winning the Democratic nomination for president, some Bernie Sanders supporters will vote for her anyway.  I can respect that decision.  While the differences between Democrats and Republicans are often overstated – to give just two examples (there are many), the same people advise Clinton, Marco Rubio, and Ted Cruz on foreign policy and Hillary Clinton is at least as cozy with Wall Street as most Republicans – there are some real and important reasons to worry about a Republican White House.  The Supreme Court and heads of agencies are, in my view, the biggest concerns in this vein.  I’d have low hopes for Hillary Clinton’s appointees but no doubts that they’d be better on balance than those offered by a Trump, Cruz, or Rubio.

Yet I will not vote for Hillary Clinton in 2016.  While I understand the lesser-of-two-evils mentality, I disagree with it; most of Clinton’s policy positions are unacceptable to me.  If Sanders loses the primary, I will probably vote for Jill Stein.

Wouldn’t that be a strategic blunder, some friends and family ask me?  Democrats who aren’t quite as polite ask if I’m an idiot.  Don’t I realize that this type of thinking led to George W. Bush becoming president in 2000 and that I may similarly “blow this election” by deciding to vote my conscience?

The premise of these questions, however, is completely wrong, and not just because, as Jim Hightower documented at the time, voting records show that “Gore was the problem, not Nader,” in the 2000 election.  In fact, refusing to vote for Hillary Clinton in the general election is both a principled and strategic decision that I encourage more people to embrace.

There are two possibilities when it comes to my vote: it will either impact the outcome of the election or it won’t.  If my vote won’t impact the outcome of the election, I might as well vote for the candidate with the best policy positions, regardless of his or her supposed electability.

If my vote will impact the outcome of the election, I may have to decide which matters more: (a) the differences between a bad Democrat and worse Republican over the next four years or (b) the degree to which I’d undermine our chances to enact fundamental change to a broken political system in the long-run by pursuing a lesser-of-two-evils voting strategy.

As I’ve noted before, the type of political “pragmatism” that would lead someone to choose (a) undermines power-balancing policy goals.  Because politicians and Democratic party officials know that many voters think this way, they have little incentive to listen to our concerns.  Instead, they can pay lip service to progressive values while crafting a policy agenda and decision-making process more responsive to wealthy donors than to their constituents.

That dynamic is on full display already in the 2016 Democratic primary election. Clinton is campaigning against priorities, like single-payer health care, that Democrats are supposed to embrace.  While early union endorsements for Clinton initially improved her rhetoric on education issues to some degree, she is already backtracking to assure corporate donors that her positions are unchanged.  The unions who endorsed Clinton early have no negotiating power relative to rich donors who make their support contingent on Clinton pursuing their interests; given that fact and her record, she seems unlikely to keep her promises if elected.

The Democratic National Committee’s actions are also illustrative.  The party establishment lined up behind Clinton before the race even started, and the DNC’s debate schedule is, despite their protestations to the contrary, quite obviously constructed to insulate Clinton from challenge.  DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz’s recent decision to suspend Sanders’ campaign’s access to its voter data (in response to a data breach by a since-fired Sanders staffer; the access was restored after the Sanders campaign sued the DNC) has caused even party loyalists to believe that the DNC “is putting [its] finger on [the] scale” and pro-Clinton journalists to acknowledge that the DNC’s behavior “makes Clinton’s lead look illegitimate, or at least, invites too many ‘what ifs.’”

DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz and Hillary Clinton (source: Mark Wilson/Getty Images, via http://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2015/11/12/9699836/democratic-debate-schedule)

DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz and Hillary Clinton (source: Mark Wilson/Getty Images, via http://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2015/11/12/9699836/democratic-debate-schedule)

Both Clinton and party leaders are making a mockery of many of the principles the party is supposed to stand for.  And pledging to support Clinton in the end – no matter what she and the DNC do – enables this kind of behavior.  It’s hard for me to see how we will ever fix our political process and reclaim our democracy by refusing to draw some lines in the sand.

I could accuse those who disagree with that assessment of propping up a sham political system.  I could say that, by downplaying the unfounded smears the Clinton campaign has spread against Sanders and insisting that we must support Clinton in the general if she wins the nomination, they are destroying the Democrats’ credibility and thus helping to ensure ever more privilege-defending and corrupt elected officials and government policy.  But it would be a lot fairer of me to acknowledge that a lot of the Republicans are really scary, that my strategy isn’t guaranteed to work the way I think it will, and that people evaluate the risks differently than I do.

Similarly, those who disagree can continue to accuse people like me of “helping the GOP” in the 2016 election by pointing out that the Democrats have extreme flaws and don’t always deserve our support.  But it would be a lot fairer of them to acknowledge that millions upon millions of people have suffered at the hands of lesser-of-two-evils candidates over the years, that an open commitment to support a lesser-of-two-evils candidate robs voters of bargaining power, and that the Democratic Party has brought voter discontent upon itself.

Hopefully Sanders will win the Democratic primary and this discussion will become a moot point.  In the meantime, it’s good for those of us who believe in social justice to push each other on our tactics.  We would just do well to remember that reasonable people with the same goals can disagree about which electoral strategy is most likely to help us achieve them.

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Filed under 2016 Presidential Election, US Political System

Machiavelli in America and One Response to this Social Illness

Tom Block is an author, playwright and artist, whose work spans more than two decades.  In this blog post, Tom introduces us to his political antidote to our Machiavellian political sphere.  Adapted from his book, Machiavelli in America, this piece is part of Tom’s greater exploration of how to bring spiritual and even mystical values to bear on contemporary society. His work is collected under a theory he calls “Prophetic Activism,” a model of using art, thought and other means to infiltrate (rather than simply oppose) the power centers of business and politics.  For more information about Tom’s work, please visit his website.

Tom Block and his most recent book, Machiavelli in America

Tom Block and his most recent book, Machiavelli in America

Nowadays, the Machiavellian notion that political arrangements may not be judged by any objective standards of right and wrong, that there is neither any natural or any divine law, but only the law of will, of success and failure, is almost unchallenged (p. xvi).

Many people are familiar with the controversial thinking of the Renaissance political philosopher Niccolò Machiavelli (d. 1527).  His influence has been so widespread that the word “Machiavellian” has been incorporated into our language as a pejorative, defining a person who is cunning, duplicitous and operates in bad faith.

What might be less well known is the profound influence that Machiavelli has on contemporary American politics.  From state houses to the Presidency, Machiavelli’s ideas and motivations are central to building winning political campaigns and passing legislation, however un-democratic and antithetical to a healthy, pluralistic society.  As Renaissance scholar Paul Grendler noted (p.149): “Today, Machiavelli’s influence on political policy may be greater than at any time since he served the Florentine government.  Machiavelli has become American.”

The foundation of Machiavelli’s political ideology is straightforward: everyone in society is selfish, acting primarily for personal gain.  And for a politician to succeed in mastering this world, she has to either manipulate or frighten people into believing that their interests ally most closely with her own.

Machiavelli’s program concentrates on subjugation and mastery.  He does not concern himself with the common good, democracy or human rights.  For Machiavelli, the concepts of moral philosophers from Moses to the Sufis and the religions within which they operate are certainly important.  But only because these religious systems provide a fraudulent tool for the relentless, morally unhinged pursuit of power.  In terms of their direct relation to political reality, however, he considers them as meaningless as music.

Machiavelli’s central tenet is that the truth of any matter must be overwhelmed by two stronger factors: fear and fraud. In terms of inspiring fear in the populace, it is the surest method of gaining control over them:

I come to the conclusion that, men loving according to their own will and fearing according to that of the prince, a wise prince should establish himself on that which is in his own control and not in that of others (p. 82).

He also noted that truth can be easily shunted aside, using fraudulent means to inspire fear, and then oneself offered as the palliative, inspiring a populace to follow the leader:

The great majority of humans is satisfied with appearances, as though they were realities, and is often more influenced by the things that seem than by those that are (p. 182).

It is through inspiring fear in the citizenry, as well as using fraud as a tool to appear to be what the people want (i.e., safe, religious, moral, “like” them etc.) that political victory can most easily be won.

In terms of winning political office or legislative battles by immoral means?  Not to worry.  He noted: “When the act accuses, the result excuses” (p. 139).  Whatever actions undertaken to attain political victory are excused if the actor is successful.  Machiavelli absolved triumphant leaders of all blame or responsibility for any act necessary to attain and retain power:

A wise mind will never censure anyone for having employed any extraordinary means for the purpose of establishing a kingdom or constituting a republic . . . when the result is good, it will always absolve him from blame (p. 139).

Machiavellian inspiration is not hard to discern, either throughout American history or even in our most recent political season.  A brief study of George W. Bush’s (43rd President of the United States) manner of attaining a very dubious electoral victory, and then his perverse political use of the terrorist attacks of 9/11/2001 (on New York’s World Trade Center and other sites) would suffice.  But for our purposes, it is important to mention that George W. Bush was acting in a time-honored American Machiavellian tradition.

Neo-Conservative thinker Michael Ledeen (b. 1941) noted the similarities between the beginnings of America and the Florentine’s ideals: “There is much in Machiavelli that sounds like the American Founding Fathers…Machiavelli’s notion of the good state calls to mind The Federalist Papers” (p. 109).

Ledeen continued on to reference specific Machiavellian influence on James Madison (fourth President of the United States), Alexander Hamilton (first United States Secretary of the Treasury) and Benjamin Franklin (Founding Father and so-called “First American”).  The Florentine’s inspiration can also be found on the thinking of George Washington (first President of the United States); Thomas Jefferson, (principal author of the Declaration of Independence) and John Adams (America’s first Vice President, as well as the second President of the United States).  All of this has been outlined in more depth in my book.

The reverberations of the long-ago Florentine political philosopher can clearly be ascertained in the most recent electoral campaigns, which often are based in fear, character assassination and moral fraud.

For instance, in this current electoral cycle in North Carolina, Republican challenger Thom Tillis is ratcheting up the fear by linking Senator Kay Hagan (D) to terrorist threats.  A campaign advertisement of his notes: “Hagan and [President] Obama are to blame for the growing emergency linked to extremist groups like ISIS.”  And in keeping with the Machiavellian dictate that another sure way to win a political campaign is to assassinate the opposition, Senator Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has undertaken a scorched-earth campaign against his challenger, Alison Grimes (D):

As many observers predicted, the McConnell strategy was to bring Grimes’ popularity down.  She has been bombarded by negative attacks over the summer by McConnell’s campaign and super PACs.

The reality of American politics turns away from the moral intentions of our Declaration of Independence and Constitution and toward a power-driven oligarchy, ruled over by the most pernicious, negative and fraudulent.

It should be noted that this problem infects one side of the aisle far more than the other.  Although the mainstream press would be loathe to appear anything but “objective” (defined as the midpoint between the two parties), it is the Republican Party, and even more so the right-wing “Tea Party” members of that party, who most clearly exhibit the influence of the medieval political philosopher.  Renaissance scholar Paul Grendler noted that this linkage between America’s right wing and the Renaissance philosopher goes back to at least World War II:

Machiavelli has been a theme in American conservative political discussion since the 1940s.  It is likely that the use of Machiavelli has contributed to the combative mentality that characterized American Cold War politics, the belligerency of American conservatism and the take-no-prisoners tactics and language employed against liberalism and the Democrats (p. 168).

In my book, I outline many specific manners in which Machiavelli not only influenced our Founding Fathers, but also can still be felt in the legislative, executive and even judicial branches of government, including the overwhelming power of money, the efficacy of character assassinations and the use of war-like language to the utilization of religious and moral fraud and war itself, all as immoral political tools.

Regardless of what we might wish, think or work for, it is the Machiavellian dictates of power politics which are accepted as “politics as usual,” while all other potential moral methods of political interaction are simply shunted to the side as the strategy of losers.  And time and again, the results of political elections confirm the view that Machiavelli is for winners.

Although this dynamic is well known and even remarked upon, we (as a society) haven’t developed effective responses to Machiavelli, specific manners of combatting this pernicious dynamic.  What I offer in my book, and will summarize here, is one manner of attempting to combat this social cancer.  And one which takes into account our zeitgeist, from the deeply religious nature of so much of America’s public life, to the unwillingness of American journalists to base their reporting on the truth, opting instead for some mushy middle between the positions of the two major parties, which they define as “objective.”  This lack of moral clarity in the press corps only allows fraudulent political actors more leeway in creating their own alternate reality, a vile combination of fraud, character assassination and amoral pandering.

Though at least one administrator of this blog might disagree with me, I feel strongly that God and religion must be taken into account when considering a palliative to the shared social illness exhibited in our public square.  Activist responses to social illnesses must take into account the reality of that society; and offer familiar (i.e., religiously-based for Americans) manners of infiltrating and changing it – instead of simply standing outside of the metaphorical walls to the city and lobbing well-meaning and ineffectual ideas toward a population that couldn’t care less.

A Response to Machiavelli: The Moral Ombudsman

Conservative columnist Cal Thomas put forward an interesting proposal concerning the insertion of truth into politics:

Before an election, have candidates take a lie detector test.  Put it on TV and/or the Internet.  A panel of reporters or other experts could ask the questions, just like they do in presidential debates.  In fact, this could be a five-minute segment at the end of the debates.  “And now, to the lie detectors…”

Ha, ha, ha!  The political participants on both sides of the aisle would never accept common sense remedies such as this one.  It would too easily and clearly unmask the whole pernicious system.  Lie detector tests are for criminals!  Not for politicians, they would assure.

And we certainly can’t rely on the press to offer us a reportage of current politics and events based on truth (instead of some bizarre combination of “objectivity,” generally held opinion and polling data – which itself only represents the desires of the most powerful propagandistic machine).

The unwillingness to base journalism in truth is well-noted, by the way.  As the Los Angeles Times noted in an editorial: “the canons of the profession [journalism] prevent most journalists from saying outright: These charges are false.”  And as Washington Post journalist Melinda Henneberger said, 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.”

So it falls to us, we the people, to devise our own method of inserting truth into the Machiavellian world of American politics, and what follows is one such proposal.  I have devised an idea that can be implemented within our political system, offering a muscular response to the ingathering of power and money by the top one percent of American citizens.  As Machiavelli noted (p.211): “So enormous is the ambition of the grandi that it soon brings that city to ruin if it is not beaten down by various ways and various modes.”

This response to Machiavelli offers one manner to “beat them down.”

Honest discourse and unimpeded knowledge is virtually impossible to come by in the American political panorama.  For this reason, I propose that clearly stated information itself represents the greatest potential tool supporting genuine democracy.  In a country where voter suppression, lying, cheating, stealing and all manner of fraud are accepted as “politics as usual,” the ability to come by clear and concise information on any issue is virtually impossible.

The Moral Ombudsman would operate within the parameters of 21st-century Washington D.C., acknowledging the manner in which power is won and imposed.  Specifically, this is the call for the creation of a non-profit organization of the same name: “The Moral Ombudsman,” to develop and insert a moral lodestar into politics.

The Moral Ombudsman would bring together a board of recognized religious and social leaders to form a non-governmental organization to provide moral oversight of our lawmakers, as well as the laws that they make.  This collective would be constituted of leaders from the following religious and spiritual groups, representing the breadth of faith and secular communities in the United States: Christianity (two each from Baptist, Pentecostal, Lutheran, Presbyterians, Methodist, Anglican, Catholic and Eastern Orthodox); Judaism (one each from Reformed, Conservative and Orthodox); Muslim (one each from Sunni, Shi’a and Sufi); Buddhism, Sikhism, Hindu, Mormon; Unitarian, Secular Humanist and Atheist.

Other potential board members might include an academic leader, an agreed upon politician (preferably at the end of his public career, and not at the beginning), a social theorist or perhaps lay leader who would add perspective to the conversation.  The final constitution of the board would represent the vast majority of American citizens.  It would also acknowledge the Christian heritage of our nation by weighting the board in that direction.

The board would first be charged with developing a social and political moral code that would be agreed upon by all members of the board.  Although at first blush, this step clearly seems to present a potentially insurmountable obstacle, it is not as difficult as it might appear.  At the core, virtually all religions are in accord.  There are moral values shared by all creeds, which inform the hearts of every sacred path.

In this response to Machiavelli, the common good will take into account such things as the obligation of those who have the means to aid those who do not; the right to adequate health care access to for every citizen (hardly revolutionary, as thirty-two of the thirty-three developed nations have universal health care, with the United States being the lone exception); adequate shelter, a necessary amount of nutritious food, free education, freedom of religion and association and freedom from racist or ethnically deleterious laws and treatment.

Social issues such as the following would be discussed and agreed upon, becoming the bedrock formulation for the Moral Ombudsman.  These positions would help define the manner in which politicians, their actions and their laws, would be viewed:

  • Obligation of the rich to help the poor
  • Human right to health care
  • Human right to adequate, nutritious food
  • Human right to satisfactory housing
  • Forgiveness, restitution and rehabilitation as bases for the prison system
  • Minority rights
  • Women’s rights
  • Freedom of association
  • Freedom of worship
  • Freedom from racism
  • Freedom from hate speech
  • Foreign policy based in respect and commonality
  • Truth as the basis for news reporting
  • Truth as the basis for political language and ideas
  • Truth as the basis for political campaigns

Each religion’s scriptures provides many different readings, from the suppression and slaughter of the “other;” veiling of women; polygamous and tribal laws to readings that emphasize peace, respect and open-mindedness.  Put bluntly, George W. Bush could find plenty in the Scriptures to justify his views, as could Martin Luther King Jr.

Leaders from the various religious creeds would be sought who believed in the opening and loving aspects of their creeds, not the close-minded, “us” vs. “them” manner of politicizing religion.  They would conceive of theirs as a valid path, and not the single road to spiritual grace.  They would be leaders whose views shared much with the contemporary zeitgeist in respecting the plurality of ethnic, social and cultural diversity and the worth of individuals (instead of holding that the religious system is more important than the rights of its constituent members).

The Moral Ombudsman would reach beyond social, economic and political barriers, speaking in the best interests of all Americans, all the time.  The Moral Ombudsman would be immune to fluctuations in the stock market, monetary reward, poll numbers or television ratings.

Issuing its decisions in policy papers, op-ed articles, newsletters, scorecards on the votes of members of congress, governors and the president and other like manners, this non-profit watchdog group would finally offer a true moral center from which to judge the legislation and actions of our elected princes.

Once the moral structure was set into place with the creation of a specific set of political virtues, the work of the organization would be to judge both legislators and legislation by its precepts.  Each law coming up for a vote in Congress would be compared to the moral principles agreed upon by the Board.  A grade would be issued, with a zero representing a completely immoral law (such as raising taxes on the poor so that the rich might have a lower tax burden), to a 100% (universal health care, for instance).  There would be a written release issued, as well as a rating.

Each legislator would have his votes analyzed, and would receive a sum-total number score for his moral centeredness.  This method is modeled on the scores issued by NGO groups from the National Rifle Association to the Nature Conservancy.

Additionally, the Executive Branch, military, State Department and actions of members from other governmental arms would be so judged.  Pilotless Drone attacks on other people’s soil?  Nope.  No matter how much verbiage there is about terrorism, eliciting the fear response of the population, this cannot be morally justified.  Secret Ops work in Latin America?  Presidential pandering, military posturing, and State Department dithering?  No, no and no.  The Moral Ombudsman’s job would not be to garner votes or make friends with the higher ups.  It’s job would be to begin the vital but nearly impossible work of centering American politics in a moral schema, instead of allowing it to continue to founder in the media created world of “objective reality.”

In the end, difficult though it might be, a moral middle would be carved out of the amorphous and amoral public and political square.  Finally, some manner of shared values would emerge that each of us, in our heart of hearts, might agree upon.

Is this solution easy?  Absolutely not.  Is it fraught with potential problems?

Yes.  Oh, yes.

But we are left with no choice but to try.

 

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The Shutdown: Blame Republicans but Watch the Democrats

I wrote an email to my political mailing list on August 21, 2011 entitled “Does the White House have Power?”  At that time, many mainstream Democrats insisted that Barack Obama was an innocent victim of an intransigent Congress, that he ardently supported progressive priorities like a public health care option and higher taxes on wealthy Americans but had little leverage to make those ideas a reality.

Glenn Greenwald thoroughly debunked that claim on several occasions, as my email at that time documented.  I revisit this issue now because the current government shutdown is yet another proof point that the White House has power.  Both the Democratic Party as a whole and Barack Obama specifically exercise that power when they care about policy outcomes.

House Democrats just initiated a procedural motion called a discharge petition to try and end the shutdown without compromising on Obamacare.  The strategy pursued by the White House and Democratic congresspeople during the current Obamacare debate has been not to appease, but to message, over and over again, that fringe Republicans are to blame for the shutdown – Republican demands are unreasonable and unpopular.  Though many journalists predictably pretend that Democrats and Republicans are equally to blame for the shutdown, the majority of Americans recognize the Republicans are at fault.  Obama’s appropriate response to the current Republican demands illustrates that he at the very least could have taken similar action during the original health care debate in the first few years of his presidency and during the “fiscal cliff” debate at the end of 2012.  Instead, as Paul Krugman wrote at the beginning of this year, “he gave every indication of being more or less desperate to cut a deal.”

If Republicans had followed through on their threats in those debates, there would have been some suffering, no doubt.  But there’s suffering because of the current shutdown, and while it’s regrettable, we sometimes may have to stomach short-term loss for long-term gain.  In the current debate, the Democrats are suggesting implementation of Obamacare, a plan originally conceived by Congressional Republicans and the Heritage Foundation in the early 1990s and loved by the insurance industry, is worth this short-term suffering.  And it may be – my dad, who helps lower-income people gain access to health care, likes to remind me that Obamacare should improve the lives of millions of people, which is no small matter.  If that’s your mindset, though, you probably should have supported the Republican plan in the 1990s and you should also probably give George W. Bush and Republicans in Congress some credit for Medicare Part D, which, like the Affordable Care Act, expanded coverage to people who didn’t previously have it while enriching private industry.

Whatever your thoughts about Obamacare, make no mistake about this fact: the White House has power.  Obamacare in its current form is exactly what Obama and the Democrats desired.  By their own admission, the Obama Administration didn’t want a single-payer health care plan that would benefit more Americans to become a reality.  Despite his rhetoric to the contrary, Obama worked hard to keep the public option out of the Affordable Care Act.  He pressured progressives like Dennis Kucinich to adopt a more conservative bill while journalists insisted, when Ben Nelson and Joe Lieberman were holding up a better bill, that Obama was powerless to influence congresspeople.  In addition, Obama never really wanted higher taxes on the wealthy or prosecutions of white-collar criminals who torpedoed the economy; he’s extremely cozy with moneyed interests.  If he actually believed in the progressive ideals to which he pays lip service, we would have seen a lot more of his current messaging a long time ago.

As Greenwald wrote in the summer of 2011, “[t]he critique of Obama isn’t that he tries but fails to achieve certain progressive outcomes and his omnipotence should ensure success.  Nobody believes he’s omnipotent.  The critique is that he doesn’t try, doesn’t use the weapons at his disposal: the ones he wields when he actually cares about something (such as the ones he uses to ensure ongoing war funding — or, even more convincing, see the first indented paragraph here).”  None of the Democrats’ or Obama’s behavior diminishes the Republicans’ responsibility for the shutdown.  But I hope watching the shutdown saga unfold is instructive for people who over the past five years have repeatedly excused the Democratic Party’s poor policy outcomes as the products of a weak office.

Update: The deal the Democrats eventually got provides further evidence that Obama could have done much, much more during the early years of his presidency.

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