Thursday, December 31, 2015

The P—ed Off Voter: Trump, Sanders, and the Failures of the Mainstream Republican and Democratic Parties

Two interesting pieces in the New York Times on December 31, point to important role of the p---ed off or disaffected voter and the mainstream Republican and Democratic voters in the 2016 presidential election.

The first article examines who are the Trump voters, finding many to be individuals–mainly but not exclusively white male, low income, no college–who still consider themselves Democrats but recently vote Republican.  They are the voters Democrats lost when the party embraced civil rights–as told by Mary and Thomas Edsell in Chain Reaction–and they became the Reagan Democrats in the 1980s, when they vote.  But many do not vote.  They are the ones who have lost out in the nearly two generation economic grind that has produced the economic inequalities that we now see in our society.  They see Democrats as having abandoned them as many of their candidates have walked away from talking about economics and class and instead turned into the party of people of color. When they do vote they support Republicans, but there too they see a party that no longer speaks to them. Trump’s message does (even if his solutions will do little to help them too).

The other article is how the battle for New Hampshire is about capturing the 40%+ independent voter in that state who could vote in either the Republican or Democratic primary.  Trump and Sanders are fighting for these voters, as are of course the other candidates.  This article too speaks to the voter who no longer feels that the two mainstream parties generally represent them, and instead their decision to vote and for whom is really up for grabs.  With it high percentage of these independent voters New Hampshire is typical of many of the swing states examined in my book.

We hear terms to describe these voters as swing or independent.  I think the best term is actually the p---ed off or disaffected voters.  There is little evidence that many voters actually swing in terms of switching to voter for candidates across parties.  Instead, they make a decision to vote or not.  Swing might more aptly describe swinging in or out of electoral politics.

The disaffected voter is central to the 2016 election prospects for Trump, Sanders, and the two parties.  There is evidence that the two parties do not adequately capture or speak to the interests of many voters.  This is the reason explaining why there is a strong force behind Sanders and against Clinton, and the same with the support for Trump and against Bush, for example. Robert Michael’s Political Parties well describes the tendency of parties to become less democratic and open over time.  One result might now be that the Republican and Democrat parties no longer resonate with many voters–young (especially Millennials), the poor, many people of color, and low income white males without college degrees. And in some cases women.  These are people who the political economic system has ignored, and whom the political parties too seem to have left behind or fail to give voice to.

The two NY Times pieces speak to a society where there is a disjuncture between the political and economic systems, where the leadership and mainstream of the two parties fails to capture the political frustrations and interests of many people in the US.  If that is the case t hen perhaps 2016 is  the basis of what political scientists call a critical election or realignment.  Such an election or alignment would produce a new political alignment and set of policy positions among the parties, or  new parties might emerge.  There is no guarantee that this will occur here.  Many thought that 2008 would produce a critical alignment and it did in some ways, one that seemed to benefit Republicans  more than Democrats, at least for now.  Longer term though the generational changes in the US that will see the Silent and Baby Boomers exit politically to be replaced by Gen Xers, Millennials, and post-Millennials (the Digitals) will reveal something that may not benefit either of the two major parties as they now stand.  Instead, the voters of these generation may be driving political changes because they are part of a large cohort of disaffected or p---ed off voters not happy with the status quo.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Politics, Lies, and Videotape: Rumor and Journalism in Era of the Social Media

“Let me tell you one truth–I always lie.”

Truth seems to be one of the main casualties of the social media.  There appear to be Facebook facts and real facts.  Facebook facts are those circulating across the social media.  They are stories which are not true, partially true, or simply the spinning of some pseudo-facts taken out of time and context. Often this manufacturing of facts is innocuous.  But increasingly as politics and partisans have discovered the social media as a tool for campaigning, it has become  a major source of political rumor and propaganda.  One would hope that the mainstream media, especially as it covers the social media, would correct these distortions, but that no longer appears to be the case.
There are two interesting political  stories driving Facebook and the media this Christmas weekend.  The first are stories that the Clinton camp is worried that it could lose Iowa and New Hampshire in the next couple of months.  The second story is that NBC’s Chuck Todd claiming it is not the media’s job to correct GOP lies about Obamacare.

Clinton Losing Iowa and New Hampshire?
Consider the Clinton story first.  I first saw a Facebook post on December 26, 2015 describing how Clinton was worried about losing the first two states in the Democratic Party presidential contest.  Clicking on the link it was to an article in Politico form September when the polls were much closer and in fact in looked as if Sanders was closing in on Clinton.  Several other  other Facebook posts had similar links to similar older articles or polls showing close races.  That was then, now is now.   Stories from four months ago do not reflect the present which show Clinton still leading Iowa and a closer race in New Hampshire.  Granted there is some evidence of a new Sanders’ effort to close the gap, and granted that Sanders may prove to be better at the GOTV than Clinton (a real possibility), but recirculating old articles from four months ago and passing them off as reflecting current reality is simply a lie.
A second basis for this Facebook fact is an apparent Clinton e-mail to supporters right before  Christmas saying she could lose Iowa or New Hampshire.  Clinton could be prescient but keep in  mind the context of the letter.  It is a fundraising letter begging for money and encouraging her supporters to turnout.  Her letter is no different than any other fundraising letter from a non-profit claiming that the sky is falling.  Candidates all the time seek to get money out of people by claiming that it is an emergency, they are about to lose, or that time is running out.  They do this–as do many organizations–that if they are in the lead there is a sense of complacency that led to people not giving or showing up to vote.  Crying wolf is a great motivation tool.  One should read her letter as simply that–it is an effort to make sure her supporters continue to give and show up to vote.

Chuck Todd, Corporate Journalism, and Obamacare
A second story making the rounds is an interview by NBC’s Chuck Todd saying it is not the job of the media to correct the Republican lies about Obamacare.  Did Todd actually say that?  Here is what he said in an interview.

Ed Rendell: Chuck. I think you are dead right. I think the biggest problem with Obamacare. It’s not a perfect bill by any means was the messaging. If you took ten people from different parts of the country who say they’re against a bill and sat them down. I’d love to have ten minutes with them and say, tell me why you are against the bill. If they told you anything, it would be stuff that’s incorrect.
Chuck Todd: That’s right.
Rendell: Incorrect.
Todd: But more importantly, it would be stuff that Republicans have successfully messaged.
Rendell: Absolutely.
Todd: Against it. And they won’t have even heard. they don’t repeat the other stuff. because they haven’t heard the Democratic message. What I always love, people say it’s your folks’ fault in the media. it’s the President of the United States fault for not selling it.

First, it is not so clear that Todd said it is not the job of the media to correct GOP lies.  In the context here Todd acknowledged Republican lies but also said the Democrats have done a bad job messaging and selling the Affordable Care Act.  This is one plausible reading of what Todd said.  Second, this interview took place back on September 18, 2013–more than two years ago.  Why is the story rerunning today?
Second, assuming Todd did say what some claim then of course he is wrong.  The very job of traditional journalism is to seek and publish the truth.  The entire enterprise of democracy depends on a robust and active press publishing the truth.  They are to be the watchdogs for the people, publishing the truth, exposing corruption, reporting to hold the government accountable.  That is the purpose of the First Amendment.  The Jeffersonian ideal of the people ruling requires an educated public and that is where the press comes in–publish the truth.
Truth is not reporting what both or several sides say–being fair and balanced.  Truth may be something entirely different than what any partisan says.  This used to be the rule of what one learned in journalism schools, but it no longer seems to be the practice of real journalism which does simply report what everyone says and then leaves it up to the public to decide.  This is not journalism–this is simply operating as a communications organ for different sides (and not all the sides as is evidenced by how much Sanders is ignored).  Journalism is not public relations or corporation communications but that point seems to be lost in the era of for-profit journalism.
And now what makes all this worse is how journalism seems increasingly  to be echoing or amplifying the distortions found on the social media.  If anything, the ethics of real journalism should rise above the lack thereof of the social media.   Perhaps if real journalists stopped trying to imitate and repeat the social media facts and corrected them, confidence in them would be better than it is now, and the public would be better informed than it is now.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Donald Trump and the Politics of Bathroom Humor

Women urinate and have periods.  So what else is new?   Coming out of two of the presidential debates this year the biggest headlines are that Trump accuses Fox’s Megyn Kelly of having her period as the reason she asked him tough questions, and that it is disgusting that Hillary Clinton had to urinate during a break in the most recent Democratic debate.  Something is wrong with politics and the media if these are the stories that capture our attention.
If there was any doubt that Donald Trump deserves to win the misogynist male pig of the year award that ended with his comments making fun of Hillary Clinton’s bathroom break during last Saturday night’s presidential debate.  They come after jokes about Carly Fiorina’s physical appearance and  accusations about Megyn Kelly’s mood and menstrual cycle. The reality is that bodily functions exist and that there are some differences between men and women.  Adults accept this and move on.
In the course of a work day adults accept the reality that we need to take bathroom breaks.  Studies have documented shortages of bathrooms for women in many public places and that in many cases it takes women more time to do their business than men.  Adults also recognize that  women can get pregnant and for good or bad (or sexist reasons) are assigned more domestic and child rearing duties than men and therefore should not be discriminated against for that.  Trump’s campaign is replete with dragging out double standards and sexism.  I suspect it is no surprise he was once a big supporter of the Miss America pageant; it appears that the only part of women he likes are their T & A.
But also there is something just sophomoric and juvenile about these comments.  In fact, that is the campaign he is running–sophomoric.  His campaign is about name calling, making fun of others, and jeering at bodily functions and people’s physical looks.  On the stump he also swears, challenges the masculinity of others, and picking on others.  All that is missing are groin kicks and fart jokes and what you would have is Tom Bernard’s KQRS morning show.  Its staple humor for a quarter century has been this type of insulting puny humor.  Perhaps that is acceptable conduct for a morning show seeking to appeal to the lowest common denominator to achieve ratings, but it should not be the basis of a political campaign.  Yet if the polls are to be believed, 39% of those who claim to be Republicans (32% of adults X 39% = 8%) seem to like Trump’s views.  
Whether this support is for Trump the candidate or Trump comedy road show it is not yet clear.  But the major point here is that Trump is using the same type of insults and jokes that make  make adolescents to help fuel his campaign popularity.  Yes it gets him in the news but should we not hope that this country is better than that? Is the key to making America great against reside in making fun of the women who pee?  I hope not.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

The DNC v. Sanders: Why Bernie is in Trouble

Sanders is in trouble.  And it is not simply the problem with staffers hacking Clinton’s voter database.  The problem runs deeper, much of which has little to do with Sanders, per se.  Instead,  the forces that are perhaps beginning to do Sanders in are entirely predictable and resident in the nature of leftist politics in America and its relationship with the Democratic Party.

The Party v. Sanders
Democrats have a long history of animosity with socialist candidates.  Yes many were elected at the local level in Minnesota and Wisconsin in the 1920s and 1930s, but one should also remember how fiercely Democrats and Liberals often joined in the communist witch hunts of McCarthy during the 50s.  Out of fear of being red-baited or considered pinkos, Democrats were slow to condemn what he did.
But even at a less extreme level, it comes as absolutely no surprise that the Democratic National Committee (DNC), Deborah Wasserman Schultz, and the establishment Democratic Party are pressing the scales and favoring Hilary Clinton over Bernie Sanders.  Face it, two things are going on here. First, remember that Bernie is not a Democrat–he is an independent and self-described democratic socialist running within the Democratic Party.  He and his supporters are challenging the hierarchy and establishment of the Democratic Party.  He is to the Democrats as Trump is to the Republicans in so many ways.  He has not build up favors within the party, he is not married to a former president of the US who was a Democrat, and he is not beholden to the same special interests that so much of the party, including Clinton is.  The current Democratic Party is a pro-business corporate entity, this is not who Sanders is.  Given all of that, should one be surprised that the party would shun him.
Sanders is part of a long line of progressives nationally and in Minnesota taking on the Democratic Party establishment.  Think of Eugene McCarthy to Johnson, or Howard Dean v. John Kerry.  Or even consider Jesse Jackson in 1988.   He and hie delegates were shunned in Minnesota and across the country.  Party leaders and regulars are basically conservative.  They go with incumbents over challengers, old faces as opposed to new, and are loath to accept those who have not paid their dues or sworn their allegiance to party endorsements and traditions.  Political parties are insular, often unable to change, adopting a strategy that is more protective of their interests than that of what the people want.  In effect, often leaders think “they” are the party and not the people who attend caucuses or vote.  For years I have levied this criticism against the Minnesota DFL–a party still often living in the past, basking in the legacy of Humphrey, Freeman, Mondale, and Wellstone, not realizing that times have changed and that the keying to winning is developing a strategy and narrative that will be broader than one which is only good for winning in Minneapolis and St Paul.  Robert Michels classic Political Parties, published a century ago, described the oligarchical tendencies of political parties, well described this phenomena, and it still worth reading.

 War and Socialism
Sander’s other problem is his narrative.  He speaks of the problem of class politics–the gap between the rich and the poor, the power of corporations in American society. It is not a message of fear.  Contrary to Trump, he does not blame the rational perception of many that economically it is worse for them now than in the past by attacking Muslims or immigrants.    His message is one of working and middle class solidarity.  Yet the events in Paris and San Bernardino have eclipsed his theme of economic justice.  In so doing, he would not be the first progressive candidate felled by this.
The late nineteenth and early twentieth century socialist parties of Europe were derailed by World War I and nationalism that pitted workers against workers across the continent.  In the US, WW I ended Eugene Debs’ career as it did too for Norman Thomas with WW II.  War is a great way to break up progressive politics.  Find another enemy, fight another war, distract workers from their economic plight by playing on and to  their fears and prejudices.  War is a wonderful to divert peoples’ attention from domestic issues.  George Bush did that with Afghanistan and Iraq.  “You need to wait because we need to fight a war and you need to sacrifice for the war effort.”  This is what we are again hearing.  Sanders’ message of economic justice is getting eclipsed and drowned out by the drum beat of war that not only the Republicans are sounding, but so is Clinton.  No she is not saying send ground troops in yet, but there is no question that her political status is benefitted by a war.

The Arrogance of Power
Perhaps the only bright side for Sanders is Clinton’s continued sense of entitlement and arrogance. Clinton’s recent debate performance was strong, but she talked right past Sanders and O’Malley.  She and her supporters still act as if she is entitled to the presidency–it is her time, she is due it.    Yes Clinton has a lot to offer and she is the establishment candidate for the party, but she has yet to offer a compelling narrative to why she should be president.    She has lots of positions and views on subjects, but there is no compelling and overarching narrative for her presidency.  She needs to solve that problem.
Sanders has a narrative and an argument, but alas, it may not be enough.  With less than 45 days to the Iowa caucuses Clinton appears to be consolidating her hold there, New Hampshire, and beyond. Yes 45 days is an eternity, and yes surprises can happen during that time, but right now Sanders is in trouble, with much of his problems no surprise given what has happened in the past with really progressive candidates who take on the establishment in the US.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Donald Trump and the Corporate Media Bias in America

Prophecies of Trump’s demise are like waiting for Gadot.  For months establishment media and political operatives have declared that his comments on McCain, women, Mexican immigrants, and now Muslims would do him in.  They have not.  Instead, they have done little more than fortify his status.  So what is going on?  There is no one answer, but understanding both the corporate biases of the media and the ability of Trump to bring traditional marketing strategies to politics are critical.  They also explain why Sanders is stuck in the polls.
Ranging from the New York Times, Washington Post, the Economist, to pundits on television such as FOX or NBC, Trump’s rise is attributed to many factors.  Some link him to Orban in Hungary and Le Pen in France, seeing Trump as appealing to nativism and political and economic anxiety arising out of both the declining economic fortunes of white middle and lower middle America and the renewed fears of terrorism after the Paris attacks.  Trump also benefits hugely from his name recognition, the mediocrity of his rivals along with their lack of media sophistication.  All of these are reasonable explanations. But Trump also is served well by his understanding of marketing and media bias.
Pick up the standard book on business marketing–Philip Kotler’s Marketing Management.  He and others will tell how FUD–fear, uncertainty, and dread–are the cornerstone of how to sell products.  “Am I pretty enough?  Does this car make me look like a jerk?  What will my friends think?  Am I attractive enough to women?”  Much of American consumerism appeals to ours fears, uncertainities, and dread.  Anxiety sells as does vanity, envy, and worry.  The seven deadly sins are better motivational tools than the four cardinal virtues.  Trump knows that, and he also knows how to use the media to convey his message.  He has done that for a career.  The rest of the Republican field are hacks by comparison.  In fact, most elected officials dread the news and media, fearing they only time reporters want to speak to them is to report on bad things.
Trump, as the Washington Post reported, is not unhinged and his statements not unplanned.  He has tested marketed them on Twitter and in speeches before going mainstream with them.  What Trump understands is how presidential politics is more about narratives and marketing than it is anything else.  He knows how to speak to the camera, turn a phrase, appeal to FUD.  His success is simply in better understanding the media and marketing than others do.
He also understands how at least in this early stage of the campaign even bad media coverage is better than none.  So much of the polling and success is simply about name recognition.  It is about branding.  Those who denounce him simply feed into his persona.  Attack him and it supports his image of being an anti-establishment populist.  He feeds on the same distrust of the media and government that Spiro Agnew spoke of when he railed against “effete intellectual snobs” and “nattering nabobs of negativism.”
But the other factor benefitting Trump is media bias.  For years conservatives railed against a liberal media bias.  If that were the case Bernie Sanders would be leading Clinton and be a household name.  The media bias in America is not liberal but a corporate one.  All of the major news networks are owned by larger for-profit corporations which generally share a pro-business bias.  Trump’s ideas get play because they both generate profits for the news industry (he is a good headline that sells soap) and because he political views do not challenge a basically pro-corporate business world view.  Unlike Sanders, Trump does not challenge economic inequality, corporate power, or even the legitimacy of capitalism.  He does not rail against Wall Street and contrary to his image, Trump is no friend of working class America.  Trump is ratings success and safe coverage for the corporate media.
So is Clinton.  She is a Wall Street Democrat.  In a different era she would have been a Republican with the positions she has.  She gets coverage for many of the same reasons as Trump–her name sells soap and she is not anti-establishment.  Yet unlike Trump, Clinton is not a master of the media.
Now image a different world.  What if Sanders received as much coverage as Trump?  The fact that he does not ought to be proof of a media bias against real liberals or those on the left.  He is marginalized by the mainstream media despite the fact that his poll numbers within the Democratic Party are better than Trump’s in the GOP, and that there are more people identifying as Democrats than Republicans.  In effect, more people nationally probably support Sanders than Trump.  But Sanders is not media savvy and he offers a message that challenges the corporate media.
Overall, Gadot may arrive and Trump may collapse.  We re still six weeks from Iowa.  There is no indication of a Trump ground game and his success seems all air wars and marketing.  But at some point he needs to show he can deliver the votes. But for now Trump will continue to thrive because of his better understanding of the media and marketing, and the advantage is enjoys from a corporate media.

Saturday, December 5, 2015

The Second Amendment is not a Bar to Reasonable Gun Regulation (The American people are the problem)

Yet again another mass murder in the US and yet again another round of calls for gun control
regulation followed by yet again claims that the Second Amendment bars any legislative action. This has led some to call for a constitutional amendment repealing or modifying the Second Amendment.  The reality is that there is no need to amend the Constitution.  Congress and the states have sufficient constitutional power to act if they want.  The issue is not the Constitution, or even the NRA.  Instead it is political will and resolve...among the American people.
Some thought the debate and public opinion on guns would have changed after 20 young children and six adults were slaughtered at Sandy Hook Elementary School.  A few states acted but little changed. The NRA in typical fashion said the solution was more guns.  Now a terrorist attack in San Bernardino kills 14 and the NRA is in the position of defending policies that make it easy for terrorists to get assault rifles.  The ludicrousness of their positions should be enough to discredit them and their lobbying power. But it will not be.
The NRA has argued that the solution to gun violence is to prevent the mentally ill from getting guns.  This assumes all mentally ill people are violent and those who are sane are not.  Our prisons are full of lots of people who use guns and commit  crimes and the law has deemed them sane.  There are millions of people in America will mental illness problems and few are violent. But even is preventing the mentally ill from obtaining guns were the solution, without universal background checks that policy is impossible to enforce.  But this fact does not really matter.
Claiming that everyone should be armed and that we can defend ourselves is false.  It reeks of images of the shootout at the OK Corral or it assumes abilities to respond that few people have.  Go talk to the police or those in the military about how much training it takes to use a gun.  And think about also how much criticism there is even now regarding police use of deadly force and it should be obvious that more guns are not going to make us safer.  But this fact does not really matter.
It would perhaps be easier to refute the NRA’s claims but it bullied Congress yet again in July 2015 into preventing the Center for Disease Control from researching gun violence.  But there is research from outside the US that examines gun violence that challenges claims that guns make us safer.  But the facts from this research do not really matter.
And of course the NRA can bring out its biggest weapon–invoking the Second Amendment. Advocates of gun control can whine to their hearts content about the Second Amendment but the reality is that it exists.  Moreover, while many might argue the Supreme Court was wrong in its 2008 D.C. v. Heller opinion where a majority ruled that the Amendment protected an individual right to bear arms, the reality is that this is what the Court said.  But it is also important to recognize something else about that opinion–the Court did not rule that all gun regulations are unconstitutional.  As the Court declared:

Like most rights, the right secured by the Second Amendment is not unlimited. From Blackstone through the 19th-century cases, commentators and courts routinely explained that the right was not a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose.

Even in Heller the Court recognized that limits on who could own a gun, where and when, and the types of guns permitted could all be enforced.  Case law before and after Heller have upheld bans on guns in schools, religious institutions, and public buildings.  Regulations banning specific types of guns are permitted, and rules governing sales have too been upheld.  Probably the only law that would not be constitutional would be a flat ban on personal possession of a gun for personal safety in the home.  Beyond that, most regulations are constitutional.  Otherwise, no one has a constitutional right to own an atomic bomb.
The point is that the Second Amendment is not a legal bar to gun regulation.  The problem is political will.  There is simply not enough political will in this country to act.   Calling for a constitutional amendment is foolish.  If there was enough political will to pass a constitutional amendment there would be enough political will to enact meaningful legislation to control gun violence.
Whatever the facts are about guns, they really do not matter.  Facts are not issue here.  It is even more than the pure lobbying power and intimidation of the NRA that is at issue.  Yes they hide behind the Second Amendment and cowboy myths of American rugged individualism to prevent the regulation of guns.  They use fear of crime, political imagery, and the power of money, lobbying, and influence to prevent politicians from acting. But the NRA has millions of members.  The NRA and its supports are geniuses–they have figured out how to mobilize divided public opinion, gerrymandered safe political districts, and other tools of influence to prevent meaningful gun regulation.  Our gun policies are a symptom of a grid locked political system and public opinion which is simply divided.  Until such time as the public is act all the facts in the world will not matter.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

The Train Wreck of Politics

Politics is like an attractive nuisance.  There are so many reasons why what politicians do annoy us, but nonetheless political junkies remain attracted to the stories in the news.  Yes politics has turned into entertainment and campaigns and elections often  seem like farces, but that should not distract us from the reality that politics and government are important.
Government does matter in terms of what it does and, while we often forget it, government in the US has accomplished a lot and made powerful positive differences in our lives.  Ranging from landing a man on the Moon, fluoridating water to improve dental health, or producing tap water, roads, bridges, and arresting the bad guys and putting out fires, government matters.  Free markets are fine in their place, but they have proved to be incapable of addressing many problems our society confronts. Having said all that as an important reminder to those who see government as bad or evil, there are several stories in the news this week that highlight what many see as the bad side of politics.

Trump: “Have you no sense of decency?”
The witch hunts of the 1950s McCarthy era crashed to a close on June 9, 1954.  After Senator Joe McCarthy during a public hearing made another allegation about someone’s political affiliations,  Joseph Welsh, chief counsel for the US Army retorted: “You've done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?”  Welch’s comments exposed the reckless and cruel attacks of McCarthy as nothing more than shameful rhetoric made for personal political gain.  Maybe Donald Trump has finally had his Welsh moment.
For months there has been a death watch as Trump insulted one group after another.  It has included military POWS, women, Muslims, non-mainline Christians, and now individuals with handicaps.  This latest was mocking a NY Times reporter’s physical handicap.  Till now the comments seemed not to hurt him.  Instead the controversies only gave him media coverage, giving him attention in ways that bullies get attention when they pick on someone.  It may still be the case that Trump’s latest comments will not hurt him long term and that he remains the favorite in the polls among Republicans.  Yet a recent Reuters poll shows a 12% drop in his support among Republicans in the last week.  Is it possible that he has finally reached a point where he has insulted enough Americans that he has crossed the line?  When do you think he will pick on orphans, kick a dog, or spit at someone?
Clearly something has changed.  Check out John Kasich ad where Trump is compared to Hitler.  This is a hard hitting ad that points out how Trump has gone after one group after another just like Hitler (and McCarthy) did.  Surprising that the ad is by a candidate and not a SuperPac.  But it does appear that other candidates are no longer afraid of Trump.

Trump Part II:   @!*&%# Off!
Trump has had a major impact on the Republican presidential race in many ways, including his use of foul language.  The NY Times reports that other GOP candidates are now also swearing on the campaign circuit.  The road to macho must be through the seven words that George Carlin could not say on television (and which Bono got fined for using) but which candidates for president can now freely deploy.  I a waiting for the next Republican debate where Kasich turns to Trump and says “F— off!”  If that happens we are not far from the classic SNL routine where Dan Aykroyd and Jane Curtin do a mock debate, ending with the famous line “Jane you ignorant slut.”

Why we hate politicians
Ann Lenczewski was a well respected member of the Minnesota House of Representative.  She was perhaps the leading expert on tax policy.  Yet she recently announced her resignation to join a law firm to become a lobbyist lobbying the state legislature.  In a recent interview in Politics in Minnesota when asked about the fact that this looks really bad she replied:

“That’s understandable.  If the Legislature would pass a law, which has never happened, and a governor would sign it, that would say you can’t lobby for one or two years, I would follow the law. ...Many former House members have gone on to be lobbyists:...there’s dozens and dozens of them...The House has a rule [against lobbying], but it only applies if you’re a member of the House.”

Her answer is akin to the “if everyone else is doing it, it must be ok.”  Her answer simply rang hollow and showed clear deafness for how bad this looks.  It is even worse to know that for years she was one of the major sponsors of legislation to ban this type of behavior.  I guess at the end of the day it is another story of if you can’t beat them, join them.  Ann is a good person whose statement simply captures the reality of how bad even Minnesota politics is.  No wonder the state earned a D- in its most recent ranking on ethics.

The 2016 Minnesota Election Themes 
It is becoming clear what the 2016 elections themes will be in the battle for the Minnesota House and Senate.  Of course it will be the Senate Office Building but so too look to see Polymet and Black Lives Matters as issues.  So too will be whether to help workers on the Iron Range and Lake Mille Lacs as the governor had wanted.  These are issues that divide not just the two major parties but also the Democrats.
Moreover, while the governor is perfectly correct that something needs to be done to address  the racial disparities in Minnesota, it is not clear that the Democrats and he are building the political coalition in greater Minnesota to accomplish this.  Black Lives Matters may be good copy and a salient issue that could help urban Democrats, but it is not an issue that will help them in the suburbs and greater Minnesota.
Why raise all this?  So far the Republicans in Minnesota seem to be defining a better set of themes and campaign narratives than are the Democrats.  While in a presidential election year DFLers normally do better look at 2016 as a year where it will still be difficult for Democrats to retake the House and the battle for the Senate will be challenging.

The Achievement Gap
Finally, take a look at this sobering article on the state of education and race in America since Brown v. The Board of Education.  The gaps between Blacks and Whites show that race still matters and that perhaps we need to show as much anger about the education gap as we do about the shooting of African-Americans by police officers.
No, the solution is not vouchers or to get rid of public schools as conservatives demand.  There is little evidence that these gimmicks along with charter schools have succeeded.  Simply spending more money on schools is not the answer (although the US does spend less on education as a percentage of its GDP compared to other major countries) in the same way that cutting taxes is not  always the answer. The question is how to spend money–existing and new–to improve education.  The answer lies not just in spending on schools but also in support networks that make it possible to support families, parents, and communities.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Minneapolis, Black Lives Matter, and the Failures of American Urban Policy

            Minneapolis is a microcosm for urban America.  Especially so when it comes to failed urban policy.   The confrontation and controversy between its police and people of color  provide a case study for much of what is wrong in how America responded to the race riots of the 1960s, opting instead to adopt a militaristic approach to urban poverty and racism as opposed to seeing the roots in a lack of economic opportunity and inequality.
            Urban American burned with racism and poverty in the summer of 1967.  Across the country from Newark to Watts race riots gripped America as African-Americans protested discrimination.  Minneapolis was no exception.  In response, President Johnson convened a study of the causes of these riots, asking too for policy recommendations.  The  National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, better known as the Kerner Commission, declared that along with frustrated hopes surrounding the unfulfilled promises of the civil rights laws:

White racism is essentially responsible for the explosive mixture which has been
accumulating in our cities since the end of World War II. Among the ingredients of this mixture are:
* Pervasive discrimination and segregation in employment, education and housing, which have resulted in the continuing exclusion of great numbers of Negroes from the benefits of economic progress.
* Black in-migration and white exodus, .which have produced the massive and growing concentrations of impoverished Negroes in our major cities, creating a growing crisis of deteriorating facilities and services and unmet human needs.
* The black ghettos where segregation and poverty converge on the young to destroy
opportunity and enforce failure. Crime, drug addiction, dependency on welfare, and
bitterness and resentment against society in general and white society in particular are the result.

The Kerner Commission called for the enactment of comprehensive and enforceable federal open housing laws, placing low and moderate income housing outside of ghetto areas, and building six million new and existing units of decent housing. Instead of taking this approach that treated urban unrest as one rooted in racism and poverty, the response instead was twofold.  First, the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968 defined the riots as a problem of law and order, ushering in the gradual militarization of policing in urban areas, especially as a result of the Nixon-Reagan war on drugs and then with Bill Clinton treating the crime spike of the 1990s with the placing of 100,000 more police of the streets and increasing prison sentences for many offenders, most of whom happened to be African-American males living in segregated concentrated poverty neighborhoods.
            Second, in 1969 while serving as Nixon’s urban affairs adviser, Daniel Patrick Moynihan sent the President a memo suggesting: “The time may have come when the issue of race could benefit from a period of 'benign neglect.”  Effectively with this memo the second civil rights revolution was coming to an end in America.  The Great Society programs meant to address poverty were scaled back, culminating with Clinton signing a 1996 law reforming welfare.  Race in general came to be ignored as an issue to be addressed with anything more than laws declaring America to be a color-blind society.
            Fifty years later, the failures to responded adequately to the problems the Kerner Commission originally described, and the path that instead was taken, is where America is now, including Minneapolis.  Since 1967 Minneapolis has failed to desegregate is schools and neighborhoods, it has persistent problems of poverty and concentrated poverty, and mayors have repeatedly put downtown  development ahead of promoting economic opportunity in the neighborhoods.  And now one can see how the militarized approach to crime and disorder pits the police against communities of color, precipitating the confrontations in Minneapolis and across the country.

            Black Lives Matters’ demands seek to reset the clock, placing America back in a place similar to where the country was in 1967.   Instead of responding to racism and poverty with bullets and neglect, BLM calls for both demilitarization of policing and social justice.  Whether this time Minneapolis, Minnesota, or the United States will respond correctly is yet to be seen.  And whether the tactics of BLM, which too seem to mimic those  used fifty years ago and which failed to make racism and social justice the core policy issues, will work this time, too are yet to be seen. 

Sunday, November 8, 2015

The Crisis of Mainstream Republicanism (and why the Democrats are not far behind)

There may be a simple reason why Bush, Christie, and Kasich are doing so poorly and Carson and Trump so well, at least by comparison–mainstream Reagan Republicanism is exhausted and bankrupt.
There is a terrific piece recently in Politico by Michael Lind that makes that point.  The mainstream Republicanism that Bush and Christie are part of is indebted to Reagan.  He makes a good point but I argued the same point five years ago. The battle to build the Reagan brand of Republicanism had  its roots in Goldwater’s victory over Rockefeller.  As I stated then:

The contemporary battle for the Republican orthodoxy begins in 1964 when Barry Goldwater challenged the Rockefeller wing of the GOP for dominance. Goldwater’s “Extremism in defense of liberty” speech was a repudiation of the accommodation with the New Deal that Eisenhower, Javits, and the Rockefeller wing had reached. Goldwater may have lost the election but he propelled the GOP in a direction that first triumphed with Reagan’s victory in 1980 and his inaugural speech declaration that government is the problem, not the solution.

The Reagan coalition blended together often contradictory movements of economic liberty and social conservatism. The former requires a minimalist state protecting individual choice, the later requires an activist one second-guessing freedom. While ideological, it was still willing to compromise within its party and with Democrats, producing notable and important legislation such as the 1986 tax reform and the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act. From 1980 to 2008 the Reagan brand is what defined the party. But beginning with the presidency of George Bush in 2001, and clearly by its end the Reagan brand had worn thin and when McCain ran and lost in 2008 it was clear that Reaganism was dead. Obama’s victory, along with Democratic gains in 06-08, signaled that change. For whatever it meant, it was preferred to Reaganism.
Reaganism was a brand–anti government, anti-taxes, and in so many ways, really anti working class, even though ostensibly its rhetoric was populist.  It won over the white working class, the Reagan Democrats, the then Archie Bunkers of the world, mostly because of either the perception or reality that the Democrats were no longer on their side.  Reaganism was successful because of its powerful narrative and because of the weak one Democrats had.

I also argued back in 2010 that the Reagan brand was exhausted, dead by 2008 with the Palin-Bachman remaking of the party.  That remaking is essentially complete, leaving Bush and Christie out.
But the remaking failed to win in 2008 and 2012.  It is still failing yet the mainstream Republicans have yet to figure this out.  Neither the Reagan version nor the one that emerged should be able to hold  white working class America, the group that has seen its economic position gradually erode more and more.  Trump’s success speaks to the failure of both the Reagan and Palin-Bachmann brands of Republicanism.   Trump may not have a plan to help white working class America, but he taps into a sentiment and angst that so far neither the Republicans nor the Democrats have addressed.
There is no good reason why either verison of  Republicanism (Reagan or Palin-Bachmann) should be able to hold on to white middle America  except for the fact that the Democrats have yet to articulate a plan and narrative that speaks to them.  Enter Sanders. The Sanders-Clinton split in the party in part is about the failure of the Democrats to speak to white working class America, suggesting that the Bill Clinton-Obama party brand too may be exhausted. That is the story for another blog another day.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Politics, Lies, and Journalism: Why the Public Does Not Care If Politicians Lie

            American politicians and public officials lie.  George Bush lied about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, Bill Clinton about not having sex with Monica Lewinsky.  Politicians before and after them have lied.  But something seems different about the 2016 US presidential race so far.  The scope of lying seems unprecedented, as is the reaction to the media when it calls out candidate fiction.  The most recent example–Ben Carson’s lie about having being accepted at West Point andthe backlash by him and others against the press, claiming reporters are out to get him.
            First, what is a lie?  It is intentionally saying something one knows or should know to be false with the intent to deceive.  This should be contrasted from a mistake. I may believe something to be the case when it is not and if a state that then it is not a lie, only a mistake.  Lies can also be the withholding of critical or material information.  I tell you only part of the truth and not the “whole truth” as we swear to declare when testifying in court under oath.  There are also “white lies” such as “Yes Virginia there is a Santa Claus.”  They are still lies but the motive may be honorable, or at least not malicious.
            Generally we consider lying to be wrong.  We lie in order gave advantage for our self in a world where others act on the belief that we are telling the truth.   For Kant, lying is wrong because we make an exception for our self a general rule that says everyone should tell the truth. Honesty is necessary for trust, to be able to get along with others, and to encourage reliance upon others.  Live in a world where no one can trust one another and quickly we would fall into a Hobbesian state of nature.
            Lies have been a part of politics since the days of ancient Greece.  In the Republic Plato wrote of the noble lie–a story to tell people about the origins of social classes in order to justify political  relations and authority.  Rousseau too speaks of political lies in his Discourse on the Origins of Inequality, as does Dostoevsky in his tale of the Grand Inquisitor in Brothers Karamazov.   In perhaps the single best book ever written about political lies, Sissela Bok in  Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life,  argues against the claim that politicians or public officials can lie in the name of the public good.  In a democratic society, lying to the public is wrong because it make you–the public official–the sole arbiter of what is the public good.  That is the task of elections and the people who are sovereign.  Additionally, lying to the public undermines political legitimacy and it fails to treat the public with respect.
            But the lying we are seeing in 2016 is not of the kind above. What we are seeing are not lies in the alleged public interest.  Instead they seem to be lies about one’s autobiography or about the state of the affairs of the world.  For example, Carly Fiorina has lied both about the contents of a Planned Parenthood video and the percentage loss of jobs for women under Obama. Some have argued she has also lied about her career and working her way from secretary to CEO.  Marco Rubio has been accused of lying about his family and the flight from Cuba under Castro.  Hilary Clinton is accused of lying about everything if you listen to some.
            In 2016 we are seeing a different type of lie, along with the reaction to it.  Collectively, the Republican presidential candidates are at least in denial if not lying about global warming and its causes. Some are lying about their tax plans or their political records. All of them, but especially Trump, seem to be lying about who the unauthorized immigrants  (illegal immigrants) are and what impact they have on the economy.  The type of lies here are ones where even if they have made a mistake initially, the scientific or other evidence is overwhelming and when confronted with the facts, they should change their claims.  But they do not.  They remain  fastened to their denials.  Few want to call this a lie.  Some might say a candidate is wrong or misinformed on an issue.  Yet when individuals intentionally repeat information or make statements they know or should know are false, that is a lie.
            But why do they lie?  There are many reasons, both psychological and political.  Perhaps it is ego, self-aggrandizement, or even the seduction of power. These lies are done to help them win elections by appealing to the prejudices or beliefs of some voters.  There is a pure instrumentality to these lies.  But most people don’t seem to consider these statements lies.  Exactly why is perplexing.  Maybe public expects politicians to lie.  Or on some matters of public policy voters too are confused or they view political statements no more than mere statements of belief–akin to saying “tomorrow will be a better day.”  Or maybe the public simply accepts candidate exaggeration–perhaps no different than when people lie on their own resumes.
            Yet usually even if the public does not treat candidate statements about political issues as lies  traditionally personal statements about one’s autobiography are viewed differently.  Most voters can understand personal lies–claims that one did or did not do something in private life.  Nixon lying about his involvement in Watergate is a good example.
            Traditionally the role of the media in the United States is to seek the truth and publicize it.  The Jeffersonian idea of democracy requires a free press to provide the critical information the public  needs to know in order govern and make choices.  The press also has a watchdog function, serving to uncover corruption and public deception in order to hold the government accountable.  The gold standard of journalism, as well documented in All the President’s Men, is to provide two sources to corroborate facts.  In fact, the job of a journalist is about publishing the truth by gathering and weighing the facts.  Real journalism is not simply reporting what two sides say–such as what the Democrats and Republicans assert–but determine what is truth and print it.  There are many economic reasons and pressures why the press often no longer does this, instead simply pandering to the prejudices of their audience into order to maximize revenue.  As a result, public trust in the media is low.
            Now enter Ben Carson.  By all accounts he has repeatedly lied about being accepted to West Point.  He never applied, never was accepted.  The media reported that and now they are looking into  other claims he has made about his upbringing.  Why?  If Carson is making his life story his political  narrative he has placed it into the public domain for scrutiny.  The press has a right to investigate it.  Had Carson not made his personal life public then perhaps the press should not care, especially stories about who Carson was in his youth.  But Carson is putting his personal character into  political and public display, thereby making his lies relevant to his fitness for office.
            No surprise Carson is angry at the press for effectively calling him a liar. More surprising is  the public backlash against the media, with some claiming they are out to get Carson.  Some of the reaction is political, some a product of the declining trust in the media.  Some of it is cognitive dissonance, where supporters will dismiss information contrary to what they believe. One reporter  I know calls this faith-based politics.  No matter what the facts are one holds fast to one’s beliefs.  My candidate did not lie, the media is out to get him.
            Social media does not help.  Who know what percentage of what is found on Facebook is even close to the truth.  Facebook facts simply confuse more, sow doubt, and appeal to the ignorance, intolerance, and paranoid style of American politics that historian Richard Hofstadter wrote about.   Nor does the American educational system help–increasingly it fails to do what the it should do–force students to confront ideas that challenge their prejudices.  And the courts do not help–striking down lies regulating political lies.

            So where does this take us?  In the 2016 presidential election lying seems everywhere but it also seems no one is bothered by it.  No one really thinks that truth exists or that anyone really tells the truth, or that it does not matter.  Abraham Lincoln may have been wrong–perhaps you can deceive all of the people all of the time, and that no candidate (or group in politics) need fear the sanctions associated with lying.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Fred Thompson and the Lessons of the CNBC Debate: It’s not Real it’s Politainment

So what might the death of politician-entertainer Fred Thompson and the complaints surrounding the recent CNBC debate have in common?  Quite simply, they are proof that the line between politics and entertainment have disappeared, producing what I have called for 17 years a politainment culture where the lines between news, politics, and entertainment have disappeared.
Fred Thompson was a Republican US Senator and presidential candidate, as well as an actor most famous for his role as the Manhattan DA Arthur Branch in Law & Order. (Recall how the original DA Adam Schiff, played by Steven Hill was a takeoff of the real Manhattan DA Robert Morgenthau).  Less anyone forgets, Thompson served nobly as legal counsel to Senator Howard Baker during the Watergate hearings.  Thompson glided easily between television acting and politics, with his presidential run, though unsuccessful, bolstered by his Law & Order fame.  The point is that Thompson was able to use his acting, entertainment, and political skills and persona throughout his multiple careers, often making it difficult to separate fact from fiction, reality from drama, politics from entertainment.
Enter the CNBC Republican debate. The RNC has pulled out of future debates with NBC  because of complaints of gotcha questions; they candidates more or less have said the same.    Behind their sorted complaints is a simply one–the debate was not supposed to be a debate, it was supposed to be a staged media event.  They candidates really did not want to be asked tough questions they simply wanted free air time and opportunity to say what they wanted without being grilled or held accountable for their actions.  For them the  presidential debate has turned into what the national conventions have become–choreographed infotainment for the party (the Democrats are the same with this expectation).
Yet somewhere along the way the reporters at NBC forget this.  They came to the debate thinking it was, well a debate, and that they as journalists should ask real questions, sort of.  By that, while on the one hand the CNBC reporters treated it like a real debate NBC too knew it was a media event and it had to sell time and generate an audience.  One is not going to do that if you ask serious questions about the economy and national defense, or at least ask these questions in a serous way.  Instead, the CNBC reporters asked questions in a style meant to provoke.  After all, given the media success of the Fox and CNN debates, the ante had been upped and if CNBC did not continue in the pattern of good entertainment that the previous GOP debates revealed then the worst possible thing could have happened–ratings failure and irrelevance.
Both CNBC and the GOP candidates came to the debate last week understanding all this.  Ostensibly it was a debate, in reality it was entertainment competing against other amusements such as the World Series.  Fox was so criticized for the first debate and claims that it has become nothing more than the media arm of the Republican Army.  Maybe that is its business plan, but do not forget that all the networks have a business plan that is basically blurring entertainment and politics.  All of them face similar bottom lines.  News divisions have become as dependent on the entertainment factor of politics as politicians have.  Trump figured this out this year first, but Fred Thompson understood it years ago and his passing is simply a reminder of the how politics has evolved into politainment.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Ben Carson’s America

With Ben Carson taking the lead over Donald Trump in Iowa and perhaps nationally there will be new media focus on him in the third Republican debate.  So far he has not gotten much scrutiny, but that will soon change.
            What does Ben Carson’s America look like?  In many ways perhaps not so different from that of Trump’s, Fiorina, and most of the rest of the Republican presidential field.  More style than substance has distinguished the various GOP candidates from one another, but in so many ways they share along with the congressional Freedom Caucus (the Tea Party) faith in what I shall call the five Cs: Conservatism, Constitutionalism, Capitalism, Christianity, and Caucasianism.  It is these five Cs–especially let’s call them the Five Fundamentalist Cs–that really is the core of  what Ben Carson’s America looks like.
            Carson’s campaign slogan is “Heal, Inspire, Revive.”    Ted Cruz’s is  "Reigniting the Promise of America.”  Trump’s is “Make American Great Again.”  All three speak to an America in decline, one that has drifted away from it basic principles or values.  They want to bring America back to an ideal they once saw in the US but which they see having slipped away, especially under Obama.  It is a retro image of America–no, not a benign Norman Rockwell one–but nonetheless one that  looks at the country with a halcyon view of the past.  It is less looking at the world though rose colored glasses or one that has golden tones.  It is instead that world of the five fundamental Cs.
            It is a conservative America, one hostile to change and resistant to new ideas, especially those based on science and reason.  Thus it is an America that denies global warming, ignores the reality about immigration, cannot come to grips with the fact that vaccines work and do not cause autism, and questions whether other countries have ideas from which we can learn.  But on the other hand, Clinton sold us out in Benghazi, Planned Parenthood got rich selling dead baby parts, and Obama is a Muslim who is not an American citizen.
            It an America of constitutionalism.  No, not a constitutionalism that generally emphasizes individual rights but one of limited government, especially a federal government.  It is a belief that all government is wrong, but especially the federal government since the New Deal, and there is a need to strictly enforce the Constitution to limit the size of the government.  It detests presidential power–at least as used by Obama–and selectively wants to give absolutism to the Second and Tenth Amendments–but sees no constitutional impediment to waterboarding or restrictions on government spying on its own citizens in the interest of national security.  Nor does the Fourteenth Amendment means what is says when it declares all who are born in the US are citizens.  And even if it does mean that, we should change it in the interest of getting the Constitution right in terms of what it is supposed to mean.
            It is an America of capitalism.  It is no coincidence that the Declaration of Independence and Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations (the book giving the first expression and description of capitalism) both came in 1776. Markets are good, government is bad. Who needs regulation, such as the Clean Air Act or the Clean Water Act, as Trump recently remarked.  Business can figure out how to protect the environment much in the same way that the Obamacare is not needed because the private sector can find better ways to insure more people than the government can.  We do not need to tax the rich, the benefits of capitalism will trickle down to all of us.  Welfare disincentivizes the poor and crowds out charity, taxes discourage individuals and businesses from investing, and left to its own devices, privatized government services will do it faster, better, and cheaper than all those lazy overpaid government workers.
            It is an America that is Christian. God Bless America. We are one nation under (a Christian) God.  Muslims are not welcome and are suspect, especially unfit to be president.  Jews are tolerated, and non-mainstream Christian faiths such as Seven Day Adventists are not really Christian.  The Constitutional Framers never intended a separation of church and state.  Government should be able to enforce morality, ban abortion, prevent gays and lesbians from marrying.  Christians should be able to invoke the First Amendment to discriminate, to refuse to provide for birth control for women, and force everyone to pray in public school.  With God on our side America can again be a great nation–just let’s not remind anyone about all the times true Christian politicians have been caught with their pants down.
            Finally, it is an America that is Caucasian (and male). Especially ironic in part for Carson.  But it wants a color-blind America–or at least one that says that the only color that matters is white and that all of us should act that way.  It denies racism still exists, all lives matter and not Black Lives Matter, and that police target racial minorities.  We need to erect a big wall across American borders (Even Canada for ex-candidate Walker) to keep not just the illegals out but perhaps also to keep all immigrants out.  America was better when it was almost all white, but now immigration is flooding America with lazy, welfare-dependent rapists and murders who just want to come to the US to steal our jobs.  Oh, except for those agricultural jobs, according to Carson, that pay so low that no real American’s want them.
            Ben Carson’s America is what they think the country was like 50 years ago.  Or maybe 100 years, of perhaps what it was in 1787 or 1776.  It was an America where God made America a shining city on a hill where rich white guys ruled and where everyone else knew their place, whether it was on the plantation, in the kitchen, or working for the businessman who knew best how to invest his money and provide for us all.

            This is Ben Carson’s America.

Friday, October 23, 2015

A Day in the Life of Black Minnesota: What Black Lives Matters Minnesota Wants to Say But is Not Being Heard

Do Black lives matter in Minnesota?  Despite being a state with a progressive, tolerant, and egalitarian reputation, the group Black Lives Matter (BLM) has repeatedly demonstrated to highlight the racial disparities and discrimination in Minnesota.  Their demonstrations deserve attention yet it is not so clear that their message is being heard by policy makers and voters.
            A generation ago political scientist Andrew Hacker wrote Two Nations: Black and White, Separate, Hostile, Unequal.  It documented an America divided racially, pointing not just to the housing and educational segregation between Blacks and Whites, but also to how this divide affected the many other ways the two races experience life, including the way they experience the criminal justice system and pop culture.  Blacks and whites live in different worlds, consume different foods, watch different television shows, movies, and music.  They also interact with the government and policy makers in very different ways.  This is true in Minnesota too.
            A range of studies point to the different ways Blacks and Whites live in Minnesota.  For Whites, the economy is generally good, home ownership high, the schools among the best in the country, and the police professional and respectful.  White students in Minnesota have among the best SATs in the country, living up to the myth of Lake Wobegon where all of them are above average.  Unemployment for Whites is among the lowest in the country, incomes among the highest.  Yet for Blacks, it is a tale of two cities; it is another or different Minnesota in which they live.
            Consider first education and housing.  Nationally almost 30 years ago American Apartheid  by Douglas Massey and Nancy Denton  described a nation as segregated as the Jim Crow era. More recently Myron Orfield’s Institute for Metropolitan Opportunity 2015 report “Why are Twin Cities so Segregated” points to a persistent residential and educational segregation  patterns in the seven county metro area.  Blacks live in high or concentrated poverty neighborhoods in Minneapolis or St Paul and in a few inner ring suburbs.  These are areas with high crime, high and persistent unemployment, few services, and weak schools.  Yet there is nothing really new in this report: Twenty years earlier studies by the Institute on Race and Poverty pointed to the same conditions, finding the Twin Cities to be among the most segregated metropolitan areas in the country.  But the power of the Orfield study is documenting how a generation later, despite policies of open enrollment and charter schools, little has changed the educational segregation.  Moreover the report points to a retreat from fair share housing, and the political pressures from the housing and educational community that have exacerbated segregation.
            Now look at education specifically.  Minnesota Department of Education data point to Blacks and other students of color scoring 30 points or more lower on achievement tests compared to whites.  US Department of Education data demonstrates Minnesota near the bottom of the list in on-time high school graduation rates for Blacks, with an overall 67% graduation for Black males (compared to 90% for White Males) according to the 2015 Schott Foundation for Public Education report.  The Black White male graduation gap is one of the highest in the country.  Finally, a 2014 study found Black students ten times more likely to be suspended or expelled from Minneapolis schools than White students.
            Third, look at income and unemployment.  A 2013  Minnesota Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights report found the unemployment gap for Blacks to be three times that of Whites.  A 2015 report by the Center for Popular Democracy found the report to be nearly four times, second worst among states in the nation, only behind Wisconsin.  And 2015 US Census data point to Minnesota as having one of the highest Black White gaps in medium family income in the nation.
            Finally, consider how Blacks experience the criminal justice system.  Nationally Nina Moore’s 2015 book The Political Roots of Racial Tracking in American Criminal Justice describes the existence of two criminal justice systems in America–one for Whites and one for Blacks.  The criminal justice system Blacks experience is one where they are more likely to be stopped, detained, searched, shot, and imprisoned than whites.  This is the reality that BLM Minnesota has sought to highlight. Marie Gottschalk’s Caught: The Prison State and the Lockdown of American Politics evidences Minnesota as having the worst Black-White incarceration ratio in the nation. Michael Tonry at the University of Minnesota has reached similar conclusions.
            The picture is not pretty for Blacks in Minnesota.  Blacks and Whites dwell in separate worlds in Minnesota and experience schools, housing, education, the economy, and the criminal justice system differently.  Their worlds are separate and unequal.  This is the sobering message that BLM Minnesota wants to articulate, yet how effective have they been?
            BLM Minnesota takes it tactics from a page in Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter From the  Birmingham Jail.”  There he writes of the power of use of nonviolent direct action to create a ”crisis and establish such a creative tension that a community that has consistently refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue of discrimination.”  For King, direct action creates a crisis that opens the door to negotiation–it forces White policy makers to act.  This means protests at Mall of America, the State Fair, or seeking to shut down the TC Marathon, with the aiming of forcing a crises and bringing white privilege to the bargaining table.  It’s a great theory, and it worked once, but it is no longer so clear that such a strategy will work.
            For one, so far BLM Minnesota has not brought policy makers to the table. Yes Governor  Dayton and Mayor Coleman have met with them but no policy commitments.  There is also no evidence that state legislators are moving.  Second, as Randall Kennedy’s recent “Lifting as We Climb” essay in Harper’s Magazine suggested, the tactics being used by Black activists today departs dramatically from those 50 or more years ago, and instead of gaining attention of White America, it is alienating them.  The media and public reaction to the State Fair and TC Marathon protests reveal how the BLM protests overshadowed their message.
            But second, Nina Moore points to how even if one reaches policy makers and forces them to the negotiation table, public attitudes and electoral strategies create disincentives for policy makers to dismantle racially discriminatory policies.  Instead, protests such as at the Fair or Marathon reinforce a get tough on crime strategy that only makes matters worse racially.  Needed instead are electoral strategies to change the political incentives.

            Finally, even King’s “Letter From the Birmingham Jail” noted how perhaps the greatest impediment to civil rights reform is the white moderate who says “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action.”  It is the white moderate, here the vast majority of white Minnesotans, who pose the biggest challenge to BLM Minnesota.  They are the ones who need to be won over.  It is they who need to pressure the policy makers to negotiate and change, but so far BLM Minnesota has failed to craft a message and set of tactics to sway them.  Instead, arguably they have done little to succeed with them, raising serious doubt that they have even begun to succeed in making the case for why Black lives should matter in Minnesota.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

What does it mean to be a Democratic Socialist? (And Why Bernie Sanders may not be one)

So what is democratic socialism?  Both the Washington Post and NY Times recently tried to answer that question. In the first Democratic presidential debate candidate Bernie Sanders described in part what it means for him to be a democratic socialist:

And what democratic socialism is about  is saying that it is immoral and wrong that the top one-tenth of 1 percent in this country own almost 90 percent - almost - own almost as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent.  That it is wrong, today, in a rigged economy, that 57 percent of all new income is going to the top 1 percent.

That when you look around the world, you see every other major country providing health care to all people as a right, except the United States.  You see every other major country saying to moms that, when you have a baby, we're not gonna separate you from your newborn baby, because we are going to have - we are gonna have medical and family paid leave, like every other country on Earth.

For Sanders, economic justice and leveling the opportunity and income gap between the rich and poor is what part of what it means to be a democratic socialist.  Yet historically the term has meant  more that economic justice, it also included democratic control of the economy.

Democratic socialism emerges as a political movement in response to Karl Marx’s criticism of capitalism in the mid nineteenth century.  To simplify, Marx had argued that the core problem of capitalism was  a class exploitation and struggle between the bourgeoisie and proletariat where the latter sells labor power which is extracted as surplus value by the former.  The bourgeoisie own the means of production and over time in their race to maintain profits they increasingly replace human labor power with machines, they drive down wages placing more and more individuals into poverty.  This process creates an economic crisis, intensifying class struggle, and eventually creating conditions for a capitalist struggle.  As the theory was eventually amended by Engels, it suggested an economic inevitability for the revolution.  With Lenin, the communist party would serve as a vanguard movement to lead the revolution.  As further amended by Stalin, this party in practice was highly undemocratic.

Starting in the late nineteenth century individuals such as Eduard Bernstein in Evolutionary Socialism argued that the revolutionary tactics and economic inevitability of the revolution were not  practical or certain.  He and others agreed with much of the basic criticism of Marx but instead tied the future of a classless society to parliamentary democracy.  Specifically, the emphasis was upon linking universal franchise to socialist ideals with the hope that socialism could be brought about by elections.  For Bernstein, socialism was an ethical imperative, it was about treating everyone with respect, and it was grounded in the French Revolution ideas of promoting “Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity.”  It was taking the ideals of political liberalism and translating them into economic democracy.  In effect, workers would have democratic control not just of the government but of the economy.

There was serious debate over whether parliamentary socialism was possible, with writers such as Rosa Luxemburg, Karl Kautsky, and Leon Trotsky reaching various conclusions.  But the core argument about what constituted democratic socialism centered on democratic control of the marketplace–it was democratic control of capitalism.  It was about ensuring that workers and not capitalists made decisions about what to invest, not letting the choice simply remain in the boardrooms of corporate executives.

The dividing line between democratic socialism and what we might call enlightened capitalism or liberalism is significant.  John Stuart Mill’s Principles of Political Economy argued that social injustices could be addressed by simple redistribution of economic resources–the classic welfare state.  Here the government would tax the rich and redistribute economic resources, or use its power to improve the economy.  Eventually this would be the Keynesian economics of the New Deal and Great Society.  It is state capitalism for the benefit for middle class and poor, but it is still capitalism.  Yes, the government can act and manipulate the economy for the benefit of the people, but it can also do that for the benefit of the rich.  This is what the US government has essentially done for the last couple of generations, and this is the criticism that Sanders is leveling. 

In so many ways, Sanders is a left liberal following Mill and Keynes–we can use state capitalism to augment  economic redistributions–but he is not a democratic socialist in the classic meaning where the emphasis is upon democratizing both the political and economic systems.  It is about subordinating market choices and the free market to serving democratic imperatives.

Michael Harrington was perhaps America’s finest theoretician of democratic socialism.  He was one of the founders of the Democratic Socialists of America.  His book The Other America in the early  1960s is one of the clearest criticims of American capitalism and it inspired many.  But in his Socialism Past & Future he crisply defines democratic socialism as:

[D]emocraticization of decision making in the everyday economy, of micro as well as micro choices.  It looks primarily but not exclusively to the decentralized, face-to-face participation of the direct produces and their choices in determining the matters that shape their social lives.  It is not a formula  of a specific legal mode of ownership, but a principle of empowering people at the base...This project can inspire a series of structural reforms that introduce new modes of social ownership into a mixed economy.

Democratic socialism is not the central state planning of the economy where the government owns  all the businesses.  It is as Alec Nove describes in the Economics of Feasible Socialism a variety of business types, but all are connected by the idea that there is democratic control over basic economic choices.  What China has with its state-owned enterprises is not socialism, it is state capitalism, and mostly to the benefit of a few.  Few Chinese have much say over the economic choices being made in that country, one where there is a sharper and sharper class divide.

Democratic socialism for Harrington, and Dorothy Day, as well as Norman Thomas, Eugene Debs, and Emma Goldman, is also as Bernstein argued, infused with ethical imperatives about respecting human dignity and the banner of individual rights as articulated by classical writers such as John Locke and John Stuart Mill. Democratic socialism would assail  the power of the rich and of corporations in America, contending that is not enough just to tax them and redistribute wealth.  Instead, it is about saying they do not get to make the political and economic choices that govern the rest of society.  It is saying that the people get to own the economy and decide for themselves.  Capitalism does not dictate how democracy operates, it is vice-versa.

This is what democratic socialism has historically meant. Hillary Clinton is not a democratic socialist.  Nor is Obama.  Both are state capitalists. Sanders may or may not be one or he may be redefining what the term means.  But orthodox democratic socialism is something different than what Sanders described in the first Democratic Party debate.