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.