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.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

A Tale of Two Parties: The Challenges Facing the Republican and Democratic Parties in 2016

            In contrasting ways both the national Republican and Democratic parties are divided and dysfunctional, facing terrific challenges as they enter the 2016 elections.  Their respective troubles speak to many issues, but among them is both a generational shift occurring in the US and the failure of the establishment in the parties to keep pace with these changes.  Political scientists like to speak of critical party realignments.  These are processes where parties redefine themselves, adopting new policies and coalitions to reflect the changing political landscape.  Realignments are necessary for political survival.  Yet in so many ways, what we are seeing with the Republicans and Democrats are realignments that are either going in the wrong direction or which are stalled, thereby contributing to the problems they face as they enter 2016.

The Republicans
            When Abraham Lincoln in 1858 gave his famous “A house divided against itself cannot stand” speech he was referring to a country torn by slavery not a House of Representatives and Republican Party divided against itself.  But that is exactly what we are witnessing now.  First it was the presidential race where the so-called establishment party candidates with governing experience (Jeb Bush for example) are losing to the outsiders (Trump, Carson, and Fiorina) or to the hard right (Cruz).  But now the House of Representatives is a mess: Boehner is out, McCarthy is out, and the Liberty Caucus of the House (aka the Tea Party members) is looking to weaken the Speaker’s position and pull the Republicans even farther to the right and into even a more confrontational mode against Obama, Democrats, and really government and the institution of the House itself.  One thought it was bad enough that the Republican House could not accomplish anything in the last four years, now it cannot even rule itself.  It is a party hugely divided against itself, and against its future.
            The Tea Party has won.  They have achieved a critical realignment of the Republican Party, remaking it in is conservative image.  It took five years but now they have enough clout to at stalemate the party, if not perhaps completely take it over.  Critical realignments of parties are good–they are ways to realign the base and policy preferences of the party so that it will be able to survive and reflect the changing and evolving political landscape.  Yet the critical alignment of the Republican party is retrogressive–it is a party taking it backwards in time. 
            The new Republican Party is one that seems to represent not a new emerging demographic of America–one that is more multicultural and racially diverse–but one that is a throwback to the aging base of its that will literally die off in the next few years.  Phrase otherwise, the future belongs to the Millennials but the Republicans are still locked into the politics of the Silent generation.  They are adopting views on immigration, abortion, GLBT rights, and taxes that are clearly at odds with those views held by the Millennials.  Moreover, they are hardly a populist party.  Their views on GLBT rights, guns, and money in politics are in clear opposition to where public opinion in America is headed, and also to where majorities of their own members are in some cases.  Throw in their views on taxes and it is clear that the new GOP is a plutocratic one, increasingly anachronistic and at odds where history is headed. Contrary to the claims of some that the Republicans are the party of no, they actually do have an agenda.  It may not be one that they can govern on, but they do seem to have an emerging an clear narrative, even if that narrative is one that is a throwback in time and to a set of views that is so many ways take them back to a world before the New Deal.

The Democrats
            The best thing the Democrats have going for them is the Republicans.  Yet the Democrats too are a divided party–just look at Clinton versus Sanders.  Clinton is still leading in the national polls and have a ton of party regulars and leaders supporting her, but polls show little enthusiasm for her among many of her supporters. She is the safe candidate, although one that the polls again suggest may not be able to win over critical swing voters in swing states.
            Sanders speaks to a base of the Democratic Party fed up with its institutionalism and elitism.  Obama  disappointed, he helped the banks and Wall Street and never did much for workers, unions, and middle class America.  He now seems paralyzed in waning presidency.  Sanders offers something Obama, Clinton, and the Democrats have not had since 2008–a narrative for why they should govern.  “Change” was great in 2008 but since then what has been the narrative for the Democrats?  What is the message they offer for why they should stay in power and govern?  Simply saying the Republicans are nuts is not enough.  The lack of narrative cost Democrats power in 2010 and 2014 and it was only a weak Mitt Romney that saved them in 2012.  Clinton has no narrative in 2016, Sanders does. He has pulled near even with Clinton in fundraising, still leads in Iowa and New Hampshire, and draws enthusiastic large crowds.  Clinton for now has huge advantages further down the line, even if Biden enters the race. Clinton should be able to wipe out a Socialist running as a Democrat, yet her failure to do so speaks to her weaknesses and to the dangers facing a Democratic Party establishment that has too quickly endorsed a candidate who too may not be where the future of the party is.  Clinton, like Bush, is yesterday, not the future.
            Moreover, Democrats are counting too much on “demographics are destiny” in 2016.  The demographics are against Republicans and favor Democrats, but one still needs a reason to get people to vote, and they includes offering a good candidate with views that will motivate and mobilize.  Remember 2014 where we threw an election and no one voted?   Clinton lacks the buzz, Sanders may have that.  The Democratic party divide mirrors the Republican Party–establishment v outsiders, aging Boomers v Millennials.   The problem the Democrats face right now is that while demographics are destiny, the leadership is fighting this destiny both by embracing policies and candidates who might now reflect this destiny, and by a failure to construct a narrative to take advantage of that destiny.
              It is the best and worst of times for the Republicans and Democrats.  Both have the potential to change but they approach and they direction they are taking may not where history suggests they  should move.  What also may be occurring is that the divides between and within these parties reflects more powerful divides within the US across race, class, gender, region, and religion.  Lincoln may have been right in that a house divided against itself cannot stand.  The divisions that we see politically reflect broader divides found in America society, yet neither the Democrats nor Republicans seem capable at addressing  these divides.