Friday, August 28, 2015

Bush, Clinton, Trump, and Sanders: The Battle of Conventional v Unconventional Politics

All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players
—As You Like It, William Shakespeare

If the world is a stage, presidential campaigns are Broadway.  The 2016 election so far is pure theater, yet not one that is going according to script. Were that the case, the drama of Bush v Clinton, the sequel (sort of), would be the main plot.  Yet four months prior to the Iowa caucuses and 14 months out from the general election, the story is still being written, with Trump and to a lesser extent Sanders and Clinton’s overstated inevitability the stories being told and covered. The story that was supposed to be told was that of Jeb Bush and Hilary Clinton.  Both were the establishment party candidates, assumed inevitable and unassailable by now.  In some ways they are still strong candidates by conventional wisdom.  Bush and his SuperPAC have raised the most money, has the best organization and he has secured more endorsements than any other Republican.  Clinton is in the same place as Bush, but she additionally still leads in all national and most state polls among Democrats in her quest for the party nomination.  She also has the experience of running president once, experience that should not be overlooked.  But Both Bush and Clinton have problems, the former more than the latter, and their problems are both self-inflicted and about a changing political landscape they neither seem to understand.
Bush’s problem is partly that the Republican brand has changed.  Yes the Bush name has been a major part of the Republican presidential brand since 1980 but the brand has worn thin.  People are tired of it.  Moreover, Bush has inherited a problem that his father had–the wimp factor.  If in 1980 his father looked helpless and limp in a New Hampshire debate against Reagan, Bush looks the same next to Trump.  Jeb simply looks weak and inarticulate.  Now some say he is just sitting back waiting for Trump to implode.  Maybe.  But that assumes implosion; it assumes that Trump does not actually represent what the Republican Party is now and that he has captured it.  Trump’s outspoken views on women, immigrants, and almost everyone else he offends speaks to anger and frustration white males–especially without a college degree–feel.  This appeal to white male anger and macho has been building in the party for years, and Bush just does seem to understand the degree to which the rhetoric has galloped beyond where he is.  He sort of wants to be the big kid in the room, the one sounding mature when it comes to all the positions that Trump espouses.  Much in the same way the GOP has never understood how the Tea Party took them over, they do not see how Trump is doing the same.
Trump’s politainer strength is acting like he is not a real politician, using his brand and image to stoke his campaign.  He does well in polls and gets way more media coverage than he should, in part because he sell soap and that is what the media needs to do.  He fulfills theirs needs and vice versa.  But Trump coverage is also a death watch, waiting for the inevitable train wreck and demise.  It might come.  But it might not.  Trump may be a new politician for the ages.  He may be redefining political categories, thus the confusion by the Huffington Post whether to cover him in the politics or entertainment section.  Trump scares the GOP not only because of his honestly about where the party is moving but by his capacity to exit the party as run as an independent.  Yet for all the talk of where Trump is now, the question is whether he has a ground game and will all the folks who support him come out on a cold February 1, night in Iowa to caucus for him?
Clinton also struggles with a party that is indebted to her and one which has left her behind.  She too is old news like Bush, and she is trying to make herself relevant to a new generation of Democrats.  Yet for all of her strengths, her core weaknesses of 2008 remain.  A campaigner with powerful blind spots, an inability to relate to average voters, and now an inability to put to rest lingering and new doubts regarding her e-mails and personal ethics.  Whether she has acted illegally is really only a small part of the issue–the bigger problem is character and judgement.  She has broad support but polls suggest not deep enthusiastic support, less so than eight years ago.  But Clinton fatigue and how the party had moved beyond her too is reflected in rise of Bernie Sanders and constant talk of Joe Biden entering the race.
Sanders is fascinating.  He should be nothing more than a gnat to Clinton but he has steadily moved up the in polls.  In fact he has gained more in the polls than Trump but the media opts not to get him as much coverage.  The Trump v Sanders coverage difference to a large extent is about the former being the candidate who represents the least amount of change or threat to the political system (Trump’s message is restorative–“Make America Great Again) versus a candidate who indicts the system and wants to really change and not reform it, as Obama did.  Trump is safe and not a threat to the corporate media and America, Sanders challenges both.  Sanders is slowly building a campaign and rising gradually in the polls, not flashing, this is often a sign of real strength.  What he too offers in terms of a ground game is yet to be seen, but he has strengths in Iowa and New Hampshire that should not be ignored.
So where does all this lead in terms of how politics is like a stage?   First, politics is great drama but more often than not does not follow the story that everyone thinks.  Second, never assume inevitable, never assume campaigns are supposed to follow a predefined script, what once worked may not in the future.   Great political campaigns are ones that do not simply follow a script but write their own, and perhaps part of what is going on this election cycle so far is the degree to which the  new rules are being written for 2016.  If that is the case, what Bush and Clinton are doing is following the rules, while Trump and Sanders are writing them.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Candidate Wealth and the Buying of Presidential Elections

Clinton 'Had No Choice' But To Come To My Wedding Because I Gave Her Donations
–Donald Trump

American’s say that like to identify with presidential candidates, that they could sit down and have a cup of coffee with them.  They also want candidates whom they think will understand them, that share their concerns.  If that is the case then most Americans must be millionaires, at least that would have to be the conclusion based on the personal wealth of many of the leading presidential candidates.
Personal Capital has produced a terrific chart of the personal wealth of the leading 2016 presidential candidates, pointing out that the Republican and Democrat frontrunners Donald Trump and Hilary Clinton are billionaires and millionaires, respectively.  At a time when according to CNN Money, the medium net wealth of Americans was $44,900 (down $77,300 in 2010), Trump is estimated to be worth $4.1 billion and Clinton $59 million.  One wonders both why Americans see these two candidates as capable of empathizing with their plight or serving as the champions of their causes.  In fact, in the case of Trump, his land speculation and penchant for telling others “You’re fired!” makes one wonder why his support is so strong, especially among those hardest hit by the types of behavior he engaged in.
Personal Capital has also pointed out the cost of elections, showing too that it is the game of millionaires and billionaires.  In 2012 $7 billion was spent on all US elections with $2.6 of that just on the presidential election.  And that may be a low ball estimate Alone in 2012 Obama raised $1.1 billion and Romney $1 billion.  My estimate is that Republican and GOP party nominees will each need to raise $1.5 billion for their presidential runs.  Throw in SuperPAC and third party spending, I easily see a presidential race costing $4-5 billion.  Most of this money will come from one to two percent of the population, meaning that the super rich will be contributing money to run a presidential election where the contest might be among the super rich.  An election by the rich, for the rich, and of the rich, especially when we consider the economic bias and class stratification in terms of who votes.
There are a lot of problems with this scenario; the cost of elections, the huge gap between the rich and poor, and the failure of public policy over the last 30 years to address the problems of how to build wealth for all, not just the rich.
Perhaps Donald Trump was correct about one thing–maybe contributions do buy elections and politicians and given who gives and runs, that might tell us something about the bias in our political system.

Acknowledgments: Graphic courtesy of  Personal Capital.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Out-Foxed! Fox News and the Crisis of Contemporary Journalism

Fox news is trapped–ensnared not only in the basic contradictions that plague the news industry in general– by a business plan that increasingly reveals the impossibility of it serving as a legitimate news service while also pursuing it profit imperatives and its political goals.   The first Republican debate and how Fox treated Trump then and afterwards point to the coming crisis this national news service faces.
Back in 2000  I edited a book It’s Show Time: Media, Politics, and Popular Culture, in which I a penned a chapter entitled “The Cultural Contractions of the American Media.”  In it I described the four roles or functions that the news media performs in our country.  There is first the democratic function; that is the task of informing citizens about public affairs and serving as a watchdog.  It is this function which is at the heart of the First Amendment constitutionalizing a free press.
As the theory goes, a free press that critically reports the news is essential to a functioning democracy.  For many, this image of a free press was formed during the middle to second half of the twentieth century.  It was the era of Walter Cronkite who told us “that’s the way it is,” of Woodward and Bernstein relentlessly pursuing a story even if it meant that it would bring a president down, or the New York Times publishing the Pentagon Papers.  We expected the media to be politically neutral, but critical, and to evaluate all the facts and decide on what is the truth.  Truth was not telling one side and then the other; it was often times recognizing that truth might be something different.  This is what reporters once learned in journalism school.
But this image of the media is quaint and old-fashioned.  For one, it is an image that seldom existed, especially when we remember that the press the constitutional framers had in mind looked nothing like what it does today.  It was first handbills and pamphleteers such as Ben Franklin, and then small partisan-controlled papers which literally were the party organs.  But the creation of a national media, the search for audience share, and the large bell shaped distribution of public opinion made it reasonable for the news to search for the center.  But that era ended, with the media pulled by three other functions that compromise its democratic function.
Unlike even a generation ago, the news media is controlled by a small handful of corporate behemoths.   Journalism professor Ben Bagdikan once talked of the big 50 media companies in America, it is now the big six, with Rupert Murdoch’s Fox one of them.  Fox is also one of the principle drivers making news corporate, and with that structure it is a for-profit business.  At one time news was a lost leader for a company, now it is a revenue generator.  To make money, maximize market share.    But in a era where now (as opposed to the 1960s in a pre-cable, pre new media and pre social media 24/7 news cycle) there are many apparent choices for news, profitability is possible with market segmentation.  Fox news figured this out.  Develop a product niche, capture that audience, and make a ton of money.  Instead of profitability through news neutrality, profitability comes from appealing to a certain audience–be it liberal, conservative, or whatever.  Political neutrality and objectivity take a back seat to profitability.
But to maximize profitability and market share the media has had to become more entertaining.  Ben Barber, one of my former professors, talks of a world where we are increasingly distracted by many diversions.  We do not just have to watch the news–we can do a hundred other things to entertain us.  Thus corporate news in presented increasingly in a format to entertain us.  Thus the fine line between Comedy Central and legitimate news.  Watch morning “news” shows, they are more about entertainment or hyping other television shows or personalities.  This is the world too of politainment that I have written about.
Finally, as corporations they too have their own political interests.  They lobby the federal government, they support candidates, they have their ideological and political biases.  Taken together, the corporate, for-profit, entertainment driven aspect of contemporary news often all but makes the democratic function impossible.  “All the news that’s fit to make money” is what it is about.
So how does this apply to Fox national news?  They are trapped by these four conflicts as are the other major news services.  But Fox has a special problem–its business plan was more extreme than others, and it also had a fifth imperative constraining its behavior, specifically serving as a mouthpiece for the Republican Party.  Fox has been profitable for years and has been able to hide behind the veneer or being real legitimate journalism, but the Republican debate last week laid bare all the problems it and much of the American media faces.
In going after Trump Fox stood to make the debate a ratings hit and it succeeded.  It might have also been a way to show it was a legitimate news service while also being a guardian of Republican orthodoxy.  Megyn Kelly too may have viewed the debate to show she was a real journalist, not simply the shrill conservative commentator that her nightly show reveals.  But now all of this has exploded on Fox and Kelly.  Post debate Trump’s poll numbers are up, Rogers Ailes effectively apologies to Donald Trump, and 20,000+ sign a petition demanding that Fox prevent Kelly from hosting another Republican debate because she is biased and instead she should question the Democrats instead.
What is at stake for Fox is its veneer of journalistic legitimacy which was always critical to its business plan.  The debate it hosted was a debacle and the backlash from it is not over.  Nothing here says that Fox will cease to exist or that it will lose money, but what we may conclude is that its product and business plan are forever damaged.  Fox is trapped and there may be no way out of the contradictions it faces.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

The Lesson of Norwood Teague: How Not to Respond to Sexual Harassment Allegations

Norwood Teague’s alleged sexual improprieties and the way the University of Minnesota responded are textbook examples in the wrong way to handle complaints of sexual harassment. Unfortunately, this method–sweeping it under carpet–the  seems to be the norm both in academia and in the business world.  In many ways, it is not much different than the way the Catholic Church has handled sext abuse complaints against priests.
What Teague apparently did most recently that led to his resignation was legally wrong. Sending unwanted sexual messages, pictures, or propositions to those with whom you work is wrong and it is actionable as sexual harassment under federal civil rights law.  Doing the same to people with whom you do not work is not a  civil rights issue but nonetheless actionable under general harassment or criminal law in some cases, but that is not is what is at issue here.  Instead the question at work is simple: What did the employer known and when, and how did it respond.
Under federal law, if an employee (it does not matter what level, be it co-worker, supervisor, or CEO) sexually harasses another employee, employers generally not legally liable for the behavior of the employee if they take appropriate action.  Upon receiving a complaint proper action could be  dismissal of the accused employee, but it could also be other appropriate remedial action to address the matter.  What is appropriate depends on the factual circumstances.  What is not appropriate action is doing nothing, ignoring it, or sweeping it under the carpet.  Take appropriate action and courts will not hold employers liable as a rule.
Employers are generally responsible for the actions of their employees, especially if they knew about their bad behavior, or were negligent in not knowing about it.  Often what happens when it comes to sexual harassment is that employers simply pay a victim to remain quiet.  Instead of going to court to face legal charges publicly, employers settle out of court, asking the victim to keep silent and not discuss the issue.  Legal settlements make sense, but they often do not solve the problem.   Too often victims are compensated and hushed but the employer does nothing to punish the harasser or correct the problem.  Instead, the employer simply throws money at the victim but nothing changes to alter the hostile environment, creating a ticking bomb that will eventually go off again in the future.  Or, what sometimes happens is that the employer and the accused employee reach a private settlement, agreeing not to say anything about the charges, freeing up the latter to move on to another workplace where the problem may repeat itself.
The private settlement of sexual harassment disputes may make a lot of sense in each case, but collectively it does little if anything to solve the problem of sexual harassment and hostile environments.  Yes, maybe enough private settlements and pay outs may convince employers they need to change their culture, but equally likely they may come to view paying for sexual harassment as a cost of doing business and move on.  Similarly, the employee private dismissed learns what at the end of the day?  It is okay to harass?
If the Star Tribune news accounts are correct, the University of Minnesota and Virginia Commonwealth University paid out $300,000 to settle past claims against Teague.  Minnesota was on notice of his behavior, but what did it choose to do–pay out, hush up victims, and little else.  This creates real problems for the U since it was cognizant of Teague’s behavior but hushed it up (of course it does not help that he was the athletic director, seemingly protecting him because of the special status sports and athletes enjoy in many colleges and across society).  In some ways, only a small step of difference between what it did and the St Paul-Minneapolis Archdioceses knowing about abusive priests and instead of doing something, simply transferred them elsewhere.
There needs to be a better process.   Privately paying off victims or dismissing aggressors does little to solve the basic problem of sexual harassment.  Instead it often condones the practice but doing little to change institutional or individual behavior.  This is the real lesson of Norwood Teague story, how the way we are responding to sexual harassment is failing to reform institutions or individual behavior.

Saturday, August 8, 2015

Jerry Springer Without Jerry: Thoughts on the First Republican Presidential Debate

Let’s be serious–this was not a debate it was pure entertainment.  More accurately, the first Republican presidential debate (including the junior debate for the also-rans or wannabees) was pure politainment.  It was the spectacle of demonstrating what happens when we merge politics and entertainment, we get politainiment.  It is about the transformation of news into entertainment where the focus is on ratings and making money, and it is about the effort of candidates to become media personas to succeed in politics.  This is what Ronald Reagan did, as did Jesse Ventura.  Now we have FOX, Donald Trump, the first debate,  and might I say, the departure of Jon Stewart from Comedy Central all occurring on the same night.  Welcome to politainment and the 2016 election cycle.
Jon Stewart and Comedy Central never pretended to be real news but so many people treated like it was.  It was pure politainment representing the fine line between politics and entertainment.  But FOX national news (as opposed to the local FOX affiliates) has be pure partisan politics pretending to be news.  It has brilliantly figured out (in ways that MSNBC has yet to) how to break down the walls of partisanship, news, and entertainment and package it into a multi-billion dollar force that serves as the unofficial house organ for the Republican Party and often crackpot conservatives theories.   Thus Fox is conflicted with competing demands of pushing ideology, making money via ratings, and entertaining.  This is the context of the Thursday so-called debate.
Had this been a real debate the first question would not have been about honoring party endorsements and third party candidacies.  It would have been one asking candidates questions about global warming, ISIS, unemployment, or their stand of the treaty with Iran and what alternatives they had.  I heard so many people say the journalists did a good job asking tough questions.  No, they were terrible in terms of encouraging a debate on serious matters of public policy.  Instead they were provocateurs do their best to ask questions to hype ratings and get a fight started–no different than what Jerry Springer did so successfully.
The debate was made for Trump.  He is the ultimate politainer of our age.  Setting up with an opening question to get Trump mad was brilliant entertainment. It made for perfect theater.  And in setting up a format where Trump was the star–and also the object to be attacked–perhaps Fox was also trying to protect mainstream Republicanism from what it has become–Trump.
So much has been made of Trump’s racism with his immigration comments and sexism with comments about women and allusion to Ms. Kelly and her menstrual cycle (at least he did not say she was “on the rag” or was PMS but you knew he wanted to say that).  But the fact of the matter is that the other candidates are just as harsh on immigration.  They have all taken extreme positions on abortion and women’s health.  Even though no federal funds pay for abortion, they all want to cut Planned Parenthood off from federal funds that pay for women’s health.  Jeb Bush said too much money is being spent on women’s health.  Huckabee said he would send in federal troops to prevent abortions.  Rubio will not support abortions even when a woman’s life in endanger.
Trump scares the Republican Party because he actually is what the GOP has become, except he is not shy to run away from his racism and sexism.  The rest of the party wants the benefits of racism and sexism but without owning up to it.  They pretty up their policy positions–no immigration, no abortions, restrictions on voting–but want to deny the real reasons or implications of their policies.  Texas tried to justify its voting restrictions but a Fifth Circuit this past week upheld a lower court decision finding a racial impact to its voter ID laws.  Trump is laying bare where and what the Republican Party is and has become, and   faced with that reality FOX is trapped.  Does it come to the defense of the kinder and gentler Republicanism that wants and cake and eat it too or does it exploit Trump for all the money and ratings they can garner?  This is the problem for FOX and the Republican Party now.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

You're Fired: Why Trump Can't Win (Or Why Trump Stands for what the GOP has Become)

The Republican Party establishment would love to turn to Donald Trump and say "You're fired" but they can't.  Trump does not need them.  But that does not mean he is a shoe-in to win the party nomination or presidency.  The Koch brothers can relax.
             Donald Trump may be surging in the polls and leading the Republican field for now, and he may even do well in the coming Republican debate. But ultimately he will not win the presidency as a Republican or third party candidate.
            Trump’s frontrunner status perplexes political pundits and journalists. It should not. For the last few decades, Trump’s signature mark has been his self-promotion -- hotels, books, product line, television show.  Trump is brand, no different than Coke or McDonalds, and his early lead reflects that. His popularity is name recognition, reflecting the old adage that any news coverage is better than none.
            With a crowded field of 16 declared Republican candidates, Trump stands out -- as did Ventura in Minnesota -- as the anti-politician, someone with both better name recognition, and a mastery of the media his opponents simply don’t have. He has a personality that contrasts against a backdrop of bland politicians.
            Trump taps into anger and resentment, especially among white men and the uneducated, and he provides a voice for the people who see their world crumbling and are looking for someone to blame.  Trump thus speaks what so many Republicans have been thinking, he is just honest in actually saying it. In that sense Trump is exactly what the Republican Party has come to represent, but now when the GOP is faced with the honesty of their own rhetoric looking them in the face, they almost cringe for what they have unleashed over a generation is an ideology of xenophobic, racist, misogynist, and poor-hating language.  This is what the GOP has become and this is Trump stands for.  He strips aware the veneer of the Republican Party, demonstrating that when honest, its rhetoric is unelectable.
            Finally, Trump, like Ross Perot in 1992 has money; Money to finance his campaign as the endorsed party candidate, or as a third party challenger facing the legal hurdles of getting on the ballot across the country.
            Despite these advantages, Trump’s fleeting popularity illuminates his campaign’s problems. Trump’s first place surge is 20 percent of a party where, according to 2012 exit polls, only 32 percent of the population identifies as Republican.  His surge represents barely 7% percent of the potential electorate in 2016.  The GOP in general faces a demographic problem: their Caucasian, Christian base is old, dying off, and shrinking each presidential election.  Republicans need to win minority voters, who with each election are a greater percentage of the electorate. yet the GOP struggle to do so with their message. Trump’s immigration comments make it even harder for him to succeed among minorities.
            There’s another issue at play in Trump’s pseudo-success. Politics is like selling beer -- it is the about telling a story or having a narrative. Clearly, Trump knows how to tell a story to sell a brand, but so far he lacks a narrative or reason for his presidency. He has yet to explain why he is running, what his vision for America is, or what he hopes to accomplish. Candidates with narratives, even bad ones, beat candidates without them. Without a narrative, Trump will be unable to mobilize whatever base he has. His popularly is all in polls, not in real people, his  is not a grassroots campaign. Ultimately, successful politicians have to deliver voters to caucuses, primaries, and general elections. Ninety percent of life, as Woody Allen famously said, is showing up. Trump confuses media presence and name recognition with people mobilization -- the same mistake Hillary Clinton made in her 2008 run against Obama.
            Trump faces three additional liabilities. First, politics is about passion. It is not simply candidates being passionate, but voters or supporters being passionate about the candidate.  Passion is what makes people volunteer, door knock, phone call, give money, and show up to vote. Trump taps into voter anger and resentment, but not voter passion. Voters are only mobilized if they are passionate about the candidate; That is missing with Trump. 
            Second, part of that passion comes with likeability and relate-ability: do voters like you, do they think you can relate to them, or vice versa.  Trump lacks all this.  His disdain for middle America is evident--the Trump brand is not for Joe Six Pack.  Trump is an arrogant billionaire born into money and privilege and whose most famous quote is “You’re fired!” Trump’s signature line will doom him when voters decide they do not want a president who is synonymous with firing people. Mitt Romney learned that in 2012.
            Finally, with 20 plus years in the limelight, Trump has little room to redefine himself.  He was always a controversial figure, described as arrogant, a buffoon, or worse. He always had high name recognition but that came with high negatives, and they are only growing.  Trump will have a difficult time reversing these negatives, expanding his base, and winning over swing voters.  Polls already show Trump doing poorly in swing states among swing voters, and it will only get worse.

            Trump is having his moment but it will not last. But even if he does get the Republican nomination he will not be able to translate his business brand and name recognition into a viable presidential campaign; The voters will eventually say "You're fired!" to Trump.