Friday, August 28, 2015

Remembering New Orleans

Years ago I worked with a young African American man who had grown up in New Orleans and then traveled to a small town in northern Minnesota to attend college on a basketball scholarship. When I asked him why he had made that unlikely journey, he said, "Growing up in New Orleans I looked around at my friends and family and realized that if I was going to survive, I had to get out of there. And so I took the only chance I had."

By the time I met him, he had graduated from college and earned a Master's Degree. We hired him to work with young urban middle school kids who were struggling in school. He was one of the most talented and gifted people I ever worked with. I learned a lot from him.

All of that happened before Katrina. But I thought of that young man when I heard what President Obama had to say when he traveled to New Orleans yesterday.
And we came to realize that what started out as a natural disaster became a manmade disaster -- a failure of government to look out for its own citizens. And the storm laid bare a deeper tragedy that had been brewing for decades because we came to understand that New Orleans, like so many cities and communities across the country, had for too long been plagued by structural inequalities that left too many people, especially poor people, especially people of color, without good jobs or affordable health care or decent housing. Too many kids grew up surrounded by violent crime, cycling through substandard schools where few had a shot to break out of poverty. And so like a body weakened already, undernourished already, when the storm hit, there was no resources to fall back on.
There were actually three phases to the "storm" that rocked the city of New Orleans. First came the kind of devastation wrought by our neglect of major metropolitan areas all across this country. In New Orleans, that is what led the young man I worked with to recognize that he needed to leave in order to survive. Included here would be our failure to reinforce the levees - as had been recommended by the experts for years. Second came the actual storm. And third came the failure of both the state and federal government to respond. The suffering we all witnessed as a result is almost too difficult to comprehend.

Here is how President Obama summed it up in 2007.
America failed the people of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast long before that failure showed up on our television sets. America failed them again during Katrina. We cannot — we must not — fail for a third time.
The President went on to make some promises to the people of New Orleans. This week Politifact reported on the progress to date.

* Strengthen the levees - Compromise
* Restore wetlands - Promise Kept
* Housing relief - Compromise
* Establish new crime programs - Promise Kept
* Improve transportation - Compromise
* Rebuild schools - Promise Kept
* Rebuild hospitals - Promise Kept
* Direct oil revenue for costal protection - Promise Broken

As he said yesterday, progress has been made, but a lot remains to be done.

The Roots of Political Correctness

It seems that one of the issues that unites almost all the Republican candidates who are running for president is disgust with the idea of political correctness. It has especially become the rallying cry for Trump and Carson.

When I think of the term, I am immediately reminded of how Lee Atwater described the Southern Strategy in 1981 (excuse the language - it is his, not mine).
You start out in 1954 by saying, "Nigger, nigger, nigger." By 1968 you can't say "nigger" — that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states' rights and all that stuff. You're getting so abstract now [that] you're talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you're talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites. And subconsciously maybe that is part of it. I'm not saying that. But I'm saying that if it is getting that abstract, and that coded, that we are doing away with the racial problem one way or the other. You follow me — because obviously sitting around saying, "We want to cut this," is much more abstract than even the busing thing, and a hell of a lot more abstract than "Nigger, nigger."
That, my friends, is the root of political correctness.

Republicans are more than welcome to go back to the language they used in 1954. Not many of us have been fooled by their "dog whistles" since then anyway. But when they do, they can also expect to be called out as the racist bigots that kind of thing demonstrates. You see...free speech doesn't simply apply to those who want to be free to say obnoxious things. The rest of us are also free to exercise our own rights to call them out.

We've all been witness lately to the fact that Donald Trump is free to suggest that Mexican immigrants are criminals and racists. He's even free to run for president on a platform of "deport 'em all." And Ben Carson is free to suggest that the United States should discard things like the Geneva Conventions and torture prisoners of war. But "freedom" also means that the rest of us are free to call them out as the racist war mongers they're proving themselves to be.

When people complain about political correctness, they are suggesting that they want the freedom to say obnoxious hateful things. But they have always been free to do so. Just don't expect the rest of us to be quiet when they do.

Our Democracy Is Only Rigged If We Let It Be

Cass Sunstein has written an important rejoinder to the idea that our democracy is rigged.
Here’s the paradox: The U.S. is in a period of extraordinary reform, and many recent changes have been made to help those against whom the system is supposedly rigged.
Without mentioning the Obama administration specifically, he lists some of the reforms we've seen over the last seven years:

* Obamacare
* Dodd-Frank (including the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau)
* The Credit Card Accountability Responsibility and Disclosure Act
* The Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act
* Repeal of "Don't Ask/Don't Tell
* Aggressive fuel economy standards for cars and trucks
* EPA rules on mercury and greenhouse gas emissions
* Increased taxes on wealthy Americans
* American Recovery and Reinvestment Act

And then he concludes:
A rigged system couldn't have produced such a range of reforms, many of them aggressively opposed by well-funded private interests.
On why so many people resonate with the idea that the system is rigged, here's what he has to say:
One answer is that whenever you lose, it’s tempting to blame the system, and concentrated wealth, rather than to acknowledge the existence of disagreement and debate. People on the left want Congress to enact many other reforms, including a significant increase in the federal minimum wage, a far more progressive income tax, infrastructure improvements and national legislation to combat climate change.

But on these and other issues, rigging doesn't adequately explain Congress’s inaction. The major obstacle is political polarization. Americans are divided, and so are their representatives. In a democracy with checks and balances, large-scale reforms are difficult to achieve without some consensus.
Neither Sunstein nor anyone else would ever deny that big money has too much influence in our democracy. But I think he makes a very important point. Assuming it is the only roadblock for further reforms becomes a kind of self-fulling prophecy. First of all, it makes the whole enterprise seem hopeless. If the system is rigged against us...why try? I believe that is the attitude of a lot of Americans who have said "a pox on both your houses" and given up on engagement. That simply ensures even more clout for big money.

But Sunstein gets to another way it undermines our political discourse. Rather than explore disagreements and debate our differences, we too often assume that our opponents are simply controlled by big money. The most obnoxious example of that I've seen is when immigrant rights groups accused Delores Huerta of corruption by financial interests when she urged patience about immigration reform. I suggest that you to pay attention to how often that argument comes up. If you want to earn some cheap points in a debate, simply accuse your opponent of being beholden to big money. But if you have any interest in getting to the source of the disagreement and highlighting the issues, it requires a bit more curiosity and dialogue.

I believe that one of the great undercurrents happening in our politics right now is the one articulated by Marshall Ganz as the tension between private wealth and public voice. As ugly as it looks right now, that is exactly what we're seeing on the right with the way the "base" is challenging the "establishment."

On the left, the tension isn't as great because we just witnessed Barack Obama lead two grassroots campaigns based predominantly on small donors. Bernie Sanders is absolutely right when he says this:
The lesson to be learned is that when people stand together, and are prepared to fight back, there is nothing that can’t be accomplished.
That is exactly the same message we heard from a candidate in New Hampshire back in 2008.
Democrats, independents and Republicans who are tired of the division and distraction that has clouded Washington, who know that we can disagree without being disagreeable, who understand that, if we mobilize our voices to challenge the money and influence that stood in our way and challenge ourselves to reach for something better, there is no problem we cannot solve, there is no destiny that we cannot fulfill...

We know the battle ahead will be long. But always remember that, no matter what obstacles stand in our way, nothing can stand in the way of the power of millions of voices calling for change.
The result is that list of reforms up above. But we've still got a lot of work to do. The only way that happens is if we believe we can...and if we are willing talk to each other (sometimes even disagree) about how to do it.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Amelia Boynton Robinson


A heroine has passed.
Civil rights leader Amelia Boynton Robinson died this morning at the age of 104.

Ms. Boynton Robinson led an incredible life, getting her start as an activist when she was just a little girl during the fight for women's suffrage. It just so happens that today is also the 95th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment.

Ms. Boynton Robinson was first registered to vote in 1934, an incredible accomplishment in and of itself in Alabama. In 1964, she became the first female African American to run for office in Alabama and the first woman of any race to run for the ticket of the Democratic Party in the state. She received 10% of the vote.

Her place in history was further sealed when she became a key organizer of the Selma-to-Montgomery march in 1965. A photo of her beaten unconscious during Bloody Sunday went around the world. The march would lead to the passage of the Voting Rights Act.

Ms. Boyton Robinson remained an advocate for voting and civil rights all her long life. Earlier this year, President Obama held her hand as a group of civil rights veterans and supporters crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday.

Rest in power, Amelia. We will continue the fight for voting rights for all Americans.

Trump and White Supremacists

“Trump, on a gut level, kind of senses that this is about demographics, ultimately. We’re moving into a new America.” He said, “I don’t think Trump is a white nationalist,” but he did believe that Trump reflected “an unconscious vision that white people have—that their grandchildren might be a hated minority in their own country. I think that scares us. They probably aren’t able to articulate it. I think it’s there. I think that, to a great degree, explains the Trump phenomenon."
That comes from a fascinating article by Evan Osnos titled: The Fearful and the Frustrated. The particular quote is from someone named Richard Spencer. Here's how Osnos introduces him:
Richard Spencer is a self-described “identitarian” who lives in Whitefish, Montana, and promotes “white racial consciousness.” At thirty-six, Spencer is trim and preppy, with degrees from the University of Virginia and the University of Chicago. He is the president and director of the National Policy Institute, a think tank, co-founded by William Regnery, a member of the conservative publishing family, that is “dedicated to the heritage, identity, and future of European people in the United States and around the world.” The Southern Poverty Law Center calls Spencer “a suit-and-tie version of the white supremacists of old.
While it is a bit disturbing to find myself agreeing with a white supremacist, Spencer's quote pretty much echoes what I've been saying about Trump's appeal.

Apparently Osnos was doing some reporting on extremist white-rights groups when the whole Trump phenomenon hit. As such, he had a front-row seat to how this dark corner in our country reacted. The upshot of it all is...they love it.
Ever since the Tea Party’s peak, in 2010, and its fade, citizens on the American far right—Patriot militias, border vigilantes, white supremacists—have searched for a standard-bearer, and now they’d found him.
Spencer has gotten a higher profile lately due to the fact that he seems to be the go-to guy on understanding the recent popularity of the hashtag #cuckservative. Here's Dave Weigel explaining:
Late last week, a neologism was born. Twitter was the incubator. "Cuckservative," a portmanteau of "conservative" and "cuckold" (i.e. a man whose wife has cheated on him) burned up Twitter as fans of Donald Trump's politicking warred with the movement conservatives who opposed it...

What is "cuckservatism?"

I'll defer to Richard Spencer, president of the white nationalist National Policy Institute.

"#Cuckservative” is a full-scale revolt, by Identitarians and what I’ve called the 'alt Right,' against the Republican Party and conservative movement," Spencer explained in an e-mail. "The 'cuck' slur is vulgar, yes, but then piercingly accurate. It is the cuckold who, whether knowingly or unknowingly, loses control of his future. This is an apt psychological portrait of white 'conservatives,' whose only identity is comprised of vague, abstract 'values,' and who are participating in the displacement of European Americans — their own children...

According to Spencer, "Trump is a major part of the 'cuckservative' phenomenon — but not because he himself is an Identitarian or traditionalist. His campaign is, in many ways, a backward-looking movement: 'Let’s make America great again!' Why Trump is attractive to Identitarians and the alt Right is: a) he is a tougher, superior man than 'conservatives' (which isn’t saying much), and b) he seems to grasp the demographic displacement of European-Americans on a visceral level. We see some hope there."
Consider yourself on notice. People like Richard Spencer "see some hope" in the likes of Donald Trump. These guys can come up with new names for themselves (i.e., "Identitarians" or "alt Right") and perhaps they don't don sheets and pointy hoods or burn crosses at their gatherings. But make no mistake, it's the same crowd.

Reclaiming Morality

I know you are busy. But I'd like to ask you to take a few minutes and watch Rev. William Barber talk about morality.


I have often found it frustrating that the word "morals" has been hijacked in our culture to spur only thoughts about sexual morality. Obviously Rev. Barber - who is the founder of the Morals Monday Movement - has a much more expansive view of the term. He grounds his belief in his Christian faith. But the moral justice he is talking about is something we all share, regardless of our religious tradition (or lack thereof).

The reason I think this is so important is because we are currently witnessing a movement in our country that has no claim to morality. When two men assault someone because of his Mexican heritage, claim that their actions were based on their thinking that Trump is right, and Trump responds by saying his followers are "passionate about making America great again," he is not talking about the America I believe in. Dylann Roof was passionate too. But when he walked into a church and gunned down nine people simply because of the color of their skin, that was the opposite of moral.

Let's put this bluntly...hate is immoral. And anyone who fans the flames of hatred is acting immorally. That's why Rev. Barber is right when he says that, "It's a necessity for the destiny of our democracy that we realize that we have to look at public policy through the moral lens of justice for all and through the Constitutional principle of the common good."

Of course it is important to remind ourselves that the root of hate is fear. It seems that a lot of people are afraid today. Perhaps some of those fears are grounded. But when our fear is unmoored from morality, hatred is the result.

It's not enough to condemn the hate. We must take up the mantle of building a moral alternative to the fear. I believe that is exactly what Rev. Barber is doing in North Carolina. Here's how he describes the movement's philosophy.
When we looked at the preponderance of this legislation that was passed and was being planned, we said, let’s look at the deep values of our constitution. We read where it says that in North Carolina, all political power should only be used for the good of the whole. We saw that our constitution of 1868, passed by blacks and whites, guaranteed equal protection and it guaranteed public education, both as a constitutional value and a moral value. Then we looked at the federal constitution and saw that the deep values in that are the common good—promoting the general welfare. The first word, before you even get to freedom and liberty, is the establishment of justice.

Then we went to the Bible. We saw that every major faith says that love and justice should be at the center of public policy. Isaiah 10 says, “Woe unto those who make unjust laws that rob the right of the poor.” And we said, wait a minute, when you look at these policies, it’s not only bad policy, but it’s immoral and extreme. And we said that we had to stand up as a coalition—not liberal vs. conservative (that’s too small, too limited, too tired), or Republican vs. Democrat. We had to have a moral challenge because these policies they were passing, in rapid-fire, were constitutionally inconsistent, morally indefensible, and economically insane.
I'm all for having a discussion about what we should do about immigration. But when it is based on immoral lies about a non-existent "crime wave" spurred by "illegal aliens" and "anchor babies," that is no discussion...that's fear-mongering that leads to hatred. And I'm all for having a discussion about police reform. But when it's based on an immoral lie about "thugs" and "playing the race card," that's fear-mongering too.

To have a moral conversation about those issues means starting where President Obama did in his second inaugural address:
Each time we gather to inaugurate a President we bear witness to the enduring strength of our Constitution. We affirm the promise of our democracy. We recall that what binds this nation together is not the colors of our skin or the tenets of our faith or the origins of our names. What makes us exceptional -- what makes us American -- is our allegiance to an idea articulated in a declaration made more than two centuries ago:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

Today we continue a never-ending journey to bridge the meaning of those words with the realities of our time. For history tells us that while these truths may be self-evident, they’ve never been self-executing; that while freedom is a gift from God, it must be secured by His people here on Earth. The patriots of 1776 did not fight to replace the tyranny of a king with the privileges of a few or the rule of a mob. They gave to us a republic, a government of, and by, and for the people, entrusting each generation to keep safe our founding creed.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Epistemic Closure Comes Back to Haunt the GOP

Five years ago Julian Sanchez did us the favor of defining a pattern among conservatives that he called "epistemic closure."
One of the more striking features of the contemporary conservative movement is the extent to which it has been moving toward epistemic closure. Reality is defined by a multimedia array of interconnected and cross promoting conservative blogs, radio programs, magazines, and of course, Fox News. Whatever conflicts with that reality can be dismissed out of hand because it comes from the liberal media, and is therefore ipso facto not to be trusted. (How do you know they’re liberal? Well, they disagree with the conservative media!) This epistemic closure can be a source of solidarity and energy, but it also renders the conservative media ecosystem fragile...If disagreement is not in itself evidence of malign intent or moral degeneracy, people start feeling an obligation to engage it sincerely...And there is nothing more potentially fatal to the momentum of an insurgency fueled by anger than a conversation.
The entire basis for the existence of Rupert Murdoch's Fox News is the belief that the "mainstream media" cannot be trusted to tell the truth because they are all "liberals." This fed something that we as human beings already tend to do anyway - reject information that doesn't conform to our already-established beliefs. It feels good to not have to grapple with the cognitive dissonance that comes with consideration of conflicting facts. But the end result is that it kills curiosity and we wallow in ignorance.

The disastrous results of epistemic closure for conservatives have been on display for some time now. It explains how they continue to deny the science of climate change, assume that the Bureau of Labor Statistics is "cooking the books" on unemployment data and led to a whole movement during the 2012 election to unskew the polls. But for everyone from Murdoch to GOP leaders, it worked to keep the base angry and engaged.

And then...it got out of control. Take a look at the results of Frank Lunz's focus group with Trump supporters.
"They're 'mad as hell and not going to take it anymore,'" Luntz said. "And (Trump) personifies it: Each sees in him what they want for the country. They want him to fix what makes them mad, and they believe he will."

It is Trump's ability to reflect back to voters their most fervent wishes for the nation, Luntz said, that makes the political outsider so dangerous to the rest of the 16 other GOP 2016 hopefuls. The main reason for this, Luntz found, was what he termed a willingness of Trump supporters to live in "an alternative universe" in which any attempt by the media to point out inconsistencies in Trump's record or position was seen as a politically motivated conspiracy.

"When the media challenges the veracity of his statements, you take his side," Luntz asked of his focus group. Only one person sat quietly, her hands in her lap, as 28 other arms shot up in agreement.
For these participants, the Republican establishment (and perhaps even Fox News itself) has now joined the liberal New York Times in peddling a politically motivated conspiracy when they challenge Donald Trump. That should come as no surprise when these same people have been told for years that they can pick and chose their facts based on how they make you feel. Stephen Colbert was positively prophetic when he coined the term "truthiness." And now it's all coming back to haunt the GOP.

Jeb Bush Comes Out Swinging...Then Stumbles

The conventional wisdom that has developed recently about the 2016 Republican candidates is that they can't criticize Donald Trump and risk losing his supporters. The thinking has been that perhaps their SuperPacs can eventually do so while providing "plausible deniability" for the candidates themselves.

Apparently Jeb Bush didn't get that memo. Here's a video the Jeb! campaign released yesterday.


In just over a minute, it goes after Trump on his immigration proposal from the left for his plan to "deport 'em all," and then from the right for critiquing Mitt Romney's idea about "self deportation." That's a pretty direct hit on the number one issue that has come to define Trump's candidacy.

But then yesterday Bush had another gaffe moment that drew all of the attention away from this message. During a press conference in the border town of McAllen, TX, he got pretty testy when asked about his use of the term "anchor babies" and said that - rather than applying to Mexicans - it's more of a problem with Asian immigrants. That created another scenario that he is likely to be answering questions about for the next few days.

Perhaps it is still early enough in this campaign that these stumbles indicate a steep learning curve and Jeb will eventually get his footing. But if he really does want to take on Donald Trump directly, this is certainly not how that's done.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Confusing Thoughtfulness with Cowardice

As I said previously, I had to take a break from the news for a couple of days because of the explosion of hate we're seeing from conservatives. But I have to admit that - in the midst of all that - articles like this one by Ryan Cooper contributed to sending me over the edge.
Of all the powers of the presidency, the pardon is perhaps the most absolute. The president can pardon anyone for any or no reason, with an exception in the case of impeachment (so he may not pardon himself). It provides a kind of emergency valve for the criminal justice system, in which people who have been unjustly convicted can still appeal to common sense and decency.

President Obama has been more stingy with this power than any president in American history. It betrays a rampant political cowardice in his administration, and a callous disregard for human rights.

Presidents have been pardoning fewer and fewer people in recent history, but Obama has set a new record in pardoning just 64 people so far. Both George W. Bush and Bill Clinton pardoned more — and so did even the first Bush, despite the fact he was only in office for one term. What's more, many of Obama's pardons have been for people who were already released from prison, making them more PR efforts than victories for justice. His record on commutations is better, but not by much.
Cooper goes on to talk about the thousands of people who are still in prison due to the disparate sentencing guidelines on crack cocaine that were partially remedied in the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010. And then he writes this:
There is the fear that if they freed those thousands of wrongfully imprisoned people, a few would probably commit more crimes and end up back in prison, setting the stage for another Willie Horton advertisement. Better thousands upon thousands of people be imprisoned unjustly than the administration have to deal with a political scandal.
I seriously have no idea why someone like Cooper would write an article like this that completely ignores President Obama's Clemency Initiative - which is focused on commuting the sentences of exactly those thousands of people he's talking about.

Let's review the numbers for just a moment. Since announcing that initiative, the Office of Pardons has received thousands of petitions. President Obama has already commuted 89 of those sentences (the most since LBJ) after rigorous review. There are currently over 8,000 petitions pending and the administration has promised to act on all those that are received by January 2016.

Cooper implies that there is some magic way of identifying thousands of people who qualify and that they should be both released from prison and pardoned without any review of their records. He seems completely unaware of the fact that "another Willie Horton" wouldn't just be a "political scandal." In this political atmosphere, it would surely send us back to the dark ages on criminal justice reform.

I am someone who finds absolutely nothing redeeming in this country's misguided war on drugs and have no love lost for the way our current criminal justice system operates. But I also think that what Cooper is suggesting is nothing short of reckless. A thoughtful approach that reviews individual situations is what is called for...exactly what President Obama is doing.

Frankly, this is one of those things that often frustrates me about liberals. The idea that a leader would craft a working solution to a problem is cast as "cowardice" precisely because it is so thoughtful. We spent 8 years criticizing the Bush/Cheney administration for recklessness on the other end of the political spectrum. It looks no better coming from this side.

Renewing Hope as the Hate Explodes

As you may have noticed by now, I took a break from the news over the last few days. I had to. The hate that is being unleashed by the candidacy of Donald Trump got to me. I found myself despairing for my country and needed some time to regroup. I have been reminded of how well Derrick Jensen captured what is happening.
From the perspective of those who are entitled, the problems begin when those they despise do not go along with—and have the power and wherewithal to not go along with—the perceived entitlement…

Several times I have commented that hatred felt long and deeply enough no longer feels like hatred, but more like tradition, economics, religion, what have you. It is when those traditions are challenged, when the entitlement is threatened, when the masks of religion, economics, and so on are pulled away that hate transforms from its more seemingly sophisticated, “normal,” chronic state—where those exploited are looked down upon, or despised—to a more acute and obvious manifestation. Hate becomes more perceptible when it is no longer normalized.

Another way to say all of this is that if the rhetoric of superiority works to maintain the entitlement, hatred and direct physical force remains underground. But when that rhetoric begins to fail, force and hatred waits in the wings, ready to explode.
As I watched that hate explode, I became aware of the fact that screaming back at it didn't cut it for me. And no, I don't think that it helps anyone, not even Bernie Sanders. Hatred has no redeeming quality, and to suggest otherwise is something I refuse to contemplate.

In order to reinvigorate my hope in this country, I went back to a source I have depended on for the last seven years...the man we elected twice to lead us. I wasn't that long ago that he reminded us of something we were taught by those who crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge fifty years ago:
The Americans who crossed this bridge, they were not physically imposing. But they gave courage to millions. They held no elected office. But they led a nation. They marched as Americans who had endured hundreds of years of brutal violence, countless daily indignities –- but they didn’t seek special treatment, just the equal treatment promised to them almost a century before.

What they did here will reverberate through the ages. Not because the change they won was preordained; not because their victory was complete; but because they proved that nonviolent change is possible, that love and hope can conquer hate.
If you are - like me - feeling the need to rejuvenate the possibility of love and hope, I invite you to do what I just did...watch this one again.


Don't let the haters get you down. Remember who we are!
We know America is what we make of it.

Look at our history. We are Lewis and Clark and Sacajawea, pioneers who braved the unfamiliar, followed by a stampede of farmers and miners, and entrepreneurs and hucksters. That’s our spirit. That’s who we are.

We are Sojourner Truth and Fannie Lou Hamer, women who could do as much as any man and then some. And we’re Susan B. Anthony, who shook the system until the law reflected that truth. That is our character.

We’re the immigrants who stowed away on ships to reach these shores, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free –- Holocaust survivors, Soviet defectors, the Lost Boys of Sudan. We’re the hopeful strivers who cross the Rio Grande because we want our kids to know a better life. That’s how we came to be.

We’re the slaves who built the White House and the economy of the South. We’re the ranch hands and cowboys who opened up the West, and countless laborers who laid rail, and raised skyscrapers, and organized for workers’ rights.

We’re the fresh-faced GIs who fought to liberate a continent. And we’re the Tuskeegee Airmen, and the Navajo code-talkers, and the Japanese Americans who fought for this country even as their own liberty had been denied.

We’re the firefighters who rushed into those buildings on 9/11, the volunteers who signed up to fight in Afghanistan and Iraq. We’re the gay Americans whose blood ran in the streets of San Francisco and New York, just as blood ran down this bridge.

We are storytellers, writers, poets, artists who abhor unfairness, and despise hypocrisy, and give voice to the voiceless, and tell truths that need to be told.

We’re the inventors of gospel and jazz and blues, bluegrass and country, and hip-hop and rock and roll, and our very own sound with all the sweet sorrow and reckless joy of freedom.

We are Jackie Robinson, enduring scorn and spiked cleats and pitches coming straight to his head, and stealing home in the World Series anyway.

We are the people Langston Hughes wrote of who “build our temples for tomorrow, strong as we know how.” We are the people Emerson wrote of, “who for truth and honor’s sake stand fast and suffer long;” who are “never tired, so long as we can see far enough.”

That’s what America is. Not stock photos or airbrushed history, or feeble attempts to define some of us as more American than others. We respect the past, but we don’t pine for the past. We don’t fear the future; we grab for it. America is not some fragile thing. We are large, in the words of Whitman, containing multitudes. We are boisterous and diverse and full of energy, perpetually young in spirit.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Trump's Appeal

It's been fascinating to listen to pundits try to capture just what it is that Donald Trump is tapping into with the extremist base of the Republican Party. You hear words like "populist anger" a lot. And the fact that he is appealing to white working class voters (mostly men).

But I'd suggest that you take a minute to watch The Donald talk to Bill O'Reilly Tuesday night. See if you can count the number of lies that he tells.


If rationality mattered to any of the people Trump appeals to, the following information might be important:

* We are not experiencing a crime wave in this country. As a matter of fact, "crime rates in the United States have been on a steady decline since the 1990s."

First generation immigrants (including those who are undocumented) actually commit fewer crimes than those who are natural born citizens.

* We are also not experiencing a wave of undocumented immigrants coming across our border. As a matter of fact, "the number of unauthorized immigrants currently living in the U.S. has stabilized in recent years."

* Rather than a wave of new unauthorized immigrants, 62% of undocumented adults have lived in this country 10 years or more.

Taking all that into account, it's pretty safe to say that Trump isn't appealing to the "rational" side of Republican voters. Rather, I'd say this map pretty well sums up what's going on.


If you were to overlay that with a map showing Trump's appeal to white voters, I'd suggest that the correlation would be pretty strong (especially from Texas to the East Coast).

The world is changing for these folks and they're scared to death about that. If you add the fact that the country just elected its first African American President...twice...you get a couple of the factors that Tim Wise called "the perfect storm for white anxiety."

The furor Trump is both tapping into and fanning is simply a continuation of the confederate insurgency we've been seeing for a few years now. It's time we named it for what it is and get on with building the Third Reconstruction.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

The Silliest of Silly Seasons

As I child, I used to pester my Mom with a question every now and then: "What would happen if there was ever a day with no news?" Her response was never very satisfying to me. She'd simply say that would never happen.

I've always wondered why I was so curious about that as a child. Who knows, it must have had something to do with the budding political junkie in me. Because seriously, I think there are days when it really feels like there is no news. What? You want to suggest that Sen. Bob Menendez finally announcing that he will not support the Iran deal is actual news? Or how about the fact that Sen. Marc Rubio thinks Donald Trump's immigration plan can't pass in Congress? Really?!

But of course when there is no news, we can't say so...hence "silly season." And - due to the clown car that is currently running for the 2016 Republican nomination - this has GOT to be the silliest silly season EVER!

For example, did you hear the one about how they've taken that old "Name That Tune" game and turned it in to "Name That GDP?" Jeb Bush started it all with:

"I can fix that economy with 4% GDP."

Next came Chris Christie with:

"I can match that 4%."

Not to be outdone, Scott Walker weighed in with:

"I can fix that economy with 4.5% GDP."

But Mike Huckabee blows them all out of the water with:

"I can fix that economy with 6% GDP."

Do I hear 7%? Going once...going twice...

Steve Benen has a little fun with all this.
It’s genuinely amazing to watch a post-policy experiment play out in real time. GOP presidential candidates are not only offering vague and unrealistic economic plans, they’re also citing growth projections by pointing to numbers they’ve pulled from their ears. There’s no pretense of seriousness; I half expect them to start using words like “gajillion” in their stump speeches.
And Jonathan Chait points out why none of these candidates can call each other out.
But there’s a weakness in basing your economic message on pulling a crazy number out of thin air: Another candidate can always pull an even crazier number out of thin air.
Frankly, I have to find ways to laugh about all this. I am under no illusion that this kind of silliness with end just because silly season is over and "real news" starts happening again.

On Changing Hearts

There is a lot of discussion going on about this recently released video of Hillary Clinton talking to members of the Black Lives Matter movement - and rightly so. These are things we need to say to each other and discuss openly.


I have to say that the minute I saw this, I thought about what Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. said on this topic.
Now the other myth is one that we hear a good deal and that is that legislation cannot solve the problem that we face in the area of civil rights and in the area of racial injustice, that you've got to change the heart. I'm sure that you've heard this. You can't legislate morality. You've got to change the heart, and often politicians use this to keep from passing fair housing bills and other legislation that's necessary to grapple with the problem. Now certainly I believe in changing the heart. As I said a few minutes ago, I'm a Baptist preacher, and that means that I'm in the heart- changing business. I preach Sunday after Sunday about conversion, the need for regeneration, the new birth. I believe in what some call original sin, if not as a historical event then as a mythological category to explain the universality of the "gone-wrongness" of human nature. I believe in that, and I think that the heart needs to be changed. I don't want to criticize this totally. I simply want to point out that there is another side. I know that if we are to come to the glad day of true integration, true brotherhood, that men will have to rise to the majestic heights of being obedient to the unenforceable, not doing it because the law says it but because it is natural and right. I recognize that.

But after saying that, it is necessary to go on to say that there is another side. It may be true that morality cannot be legislated, but behavior can be regulated. It may be true that the law can't change the heart, but it can restrain the heartless. It may be true that the law can't make a man love me, but it can restrain him from lynching me, and I think that's pretty important also. So while the law may not change the hearts of men, it does change the habits of men if it is vigorously enforced. When you begin to change the habits of people, attitudinal changes begin to take place, and they begin to adjust in an amazing way to things that they never thought they could adjust to, and I've seen this over and over again. There is still a need for vigorous legislation, and legislation that's strongly enforced to deal with many of our social problems.
Offered for your consideration...

Monday, August 17, 2015

The Ripple Effect


An article I quoted the other day suggested that the Iran nuclear deal had "thrown a great stone in the region's waters." M.K. Bhadrakuar elaborates in the Asia Times:
What we are witnessing is that the Iran nuclear deal has reset the power dynamic that is over three decades old. With the certainties that the ancient animosities had provided evaporating, it is as if the door has opened by itself in a haunted house...

To be sure, there is a huge uptick of diplomatic activity all around. The Iran nuclear deal has shaken up old assumptions and there are signs of a new willingness by the Gulf players to cross the fences they had previously erected with deliberation.
This is certainly going to be fascinating to watch. I recommend that you read the whole article to get somewhat acquainted with the cross-current of agendas that are at play. It's impossible to know what the end result will be. But there is no doubt that change is coming!!!

President Obama on Power and Change

I recently returned to a theme I've talked about a lot during Obama's presidency: conciliatory rhetoric as a ruthless strategy. This time I applied it to foreign affairs and the realignment we're beginning to see in the Middle East. In response, BooMan is a bit skeptical and said he's still working on fleshing the idea out for himself. So perhaps with everyone on vacation in Washington, this is as good a time as any to take a deep dive into the topic and evaluate it's viability.

The developing conventional wisdom about President Obama among liberals is that initially he was naive about Republicans and tried too hard to negotiate with them. This is usually followed by an assumption that his posture over the last year or so represents that "he FINALLY gets it!"

There are a couple of very serious problems with that assessment. First of all, to assume naiveté on the part of a guy maned Barack Hussein Obama who rose up through Chicago politics to become the first African American president is, in and of itself, a bit naive - if not tinged with a pretty good dose of racism.

But the historical record shows that he wasn't unaware of Republican plans from the outset. In his book The New New Deal, Michael Grunwald points out that, during the negotiations over the initial stimulus package (which was signed by President Obama 28 days after he was inaugurated), a couple of Republican Senators informed Vice President Biden that the plan was to obstruct anything the President tried to do. So, at minimum, we know that Obama was not uninformed.

What we have to answer then is why the President would continue to try to negotiate with Republicans when he knew they were simply determined to obstruct. To answer that question we have to know something about how Barack Obama defines the great challenges of our democracy and what he learned about power and change as a community organizer.

In his book Reading Obama, James Kloppenberg reviews the President's history and writing to demonstrate that he is in the tradition of this country's philosophical pragmatists (i.e., William James and John Dewey).
It has become a cliche to characterize Obama as a pragmatist, by which most commentators mean only that he has a talent for compromise - or an unprincipled politician's weakness for the path of least resistance. But there is a decisive difference between such vulgar pragmatism, which is merely an instinctive hankering for what is possible in the short term, and philosophical pragmatism, which challenges the claims of absolutists...and instead embraces uncertainty, provisionality, and the continuous testing of hypotheses through experimentation...

Between college and law school, Obama spent three crucial years working as a community organizer in Chicago, and observers unsurprisingly take for granted that there must be a difference between what he learned on the streets of the far south side and what he learned in the seminar rooms of elite universities. To a striking degree, however, the lessons were congruent: Democracy in a pluralist culture means coaxing a common good to emerge from the clash of competing individual interests. Bringing ideals to life requires power. Balancing principles and effectiveness in the public sphere is hard work, an unending process of trail and error. No formulas ensure success.
Kloppenberg summarized this in an article about his book:
Throughout his career, Obama has refused to demonize his opponents. Instead, he has sought them out and listened to them. He has tried to understand how they think and why they see the world as they do. His mother encouraged this sense of empathy, and it’s a lesson Obama learned well. Since January 2009, Obama has watched his efforts at reconciliation, experimentation, and -consensus--building bounce off the hard surfaces of political self-interest and entrenched partisanship, but there is no reason to think he will abandon that strategy now. He knows that disagreement is a vital part of the American fabric, and that our differences are neither shallow nor trivial...

After almost two years as president, Obama has failed to satisfy the left for the same reason that he has antagonized the right. He does not share their self-righteous certainty. Neither his personal restraint nor the achievements of his administration should surprise anyone who has read his books...In November 2010, President Obama remains the man who wrote Dreams and Audacity, a resolute champion of moderation, experimentation, and deliberative, nondogmatic democracy.
It is interesting to note how Obama's law school students described him as a professor.
In class, Mr. Obama sounded many of the same themes he does on the campaign trail, Ms. Callahan said, ticking them off: “self-determinism as opposed to paternalism, strength in numbers, his concept of community development.”

But as a professor, students say, Mr. Obama was in the business of complication, showing that even the best-reasoned rules have unintended consequences, that competing legal interests cannot always be resolved, that a rule that promotes justice in one case can be unfair in the next.
In 2005, then-Senator Obama summarized his approach to politics in an article to the "netroots" on Daily Kos titled: Tone, Truth, and the Democratic Party.
I firmly believe that whenever we exaggerate or demonize, or oversimplify or overstate our case, we lose. Whenever we dumb down the political debate, we lose. A polarized electorate that is turned off of politics, and easily dismisses both parties because of the nasty, dishonest tone of the debate, works perfectly well for those who seek to chip away at the very idea of government because, in the end, a cynical electorate is a selfish electorate...

Our goal should be to stick to our guns on those core values that make this country great, show a spirit of flexibility and sustained attention that can achieve those goals, and try to create the sort of serious, adult, consensus around our problems that can admit Democrats, Republicans and Independents of good will.
Anyone who thought that this man would meet Republican obstruction with political warfare fueled by ideological zeal knew absolutely nothing about him.

The question becomes: what is the alternative? Back in 2007, Mark Schmitt did a great job of forecasting the answer to that when he wrote about the different approaches to change that were evident in the three top candidates who were then vying for the Democratic nomination (Clinton, Obama and Edwards). Here's what he said about Obama:
The reason the conservative power structure has been so dangerous, and is especially dangerous in opposition, is that it can operate almost entirely on bad faith. It thrives on protest, complaint, fear...One way to deal with that kind of bad-faith opposition is to draw the person in, treat them as if they were operating in good faith, and draw them into a conversation about how they actually would solve the problem. If they have nothing, it shows. And that's not a tactic of bipartisan Washington idealists -- it's a hard-nosed tactic of community organizers, who are acutely aware of power and conflict.
The scenario that played out over and over again on everything from health care reform to budgets was that President Obama would put his ideas on the table and then ask Republicans to do the same. Most of the time, they simply refused. As the President demonstrated that he was willing to meet them more than halfway, the demands they did articulate became more and more extreme - leading to things like a possible default over raising the debt limit.

Knowing that the Republican position was simply to obstruct, President Obama offered pragmatic conciliations, recognizing that the closer he moved to what had traditionally been "sensible" Republican policies, the more difficult that would become. Their options were to either work with him on solutions (his preference) or continue to obstruct - painting themselves into an ever-more extremist corner.

Here's where Jonathan Chait's description of "the Obama method" comes in:
[Obama's strategy] does not presuppose that his adversaries are people of goodwill who can be reasoned with. Rather, it assumes that, by demonstrating his own goodwill and interest in accord, Obama can win over a portion of his adversaries' constituents as well as third parties.
What people constantly miss about this approach is that it is not necessarily aimed at winning over his "adversaries." Rather, it is aimed at "his adversaries' constituents" (i.e., the American public). A couple of years ago, conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer noticed exactly what was happening.
[Obama's] been using this, and I must say with great skill–-and ruthless skill and success–to fracture and basically shatter the Republican opposition… His objective from the very beginning was to break the will of the Republicans in the House, and to create an internal civil war. And he’s done that.
What made this strategy less successful than it might have been was a media that - for whatever reason - has determined to adhere to a narrative of "both sides do it," no matter what. As the story was told to the American public, it came across as "Washington is gridlocked because both sides have dug in." According to former Republican Congressional staffer Mike Lofgren, that is exactly what Republicans had in mind.
A couple of years ago, a Republican committee staff director told me candidly (and proudly) what the method was to all this obstruction and disruption. Should Republicans succeed in obstructing the Senate from doing its job, it would further lower Congress's generic favorability rating among the American people. By sabotaging the reputation of an institution of government, the party that is programmatically against government would come out the relative winner.
Occasionally sanity broke out. For example, when people like Thomas Mann and Norm Ornstein wrote, Let's Just Say it: The Republicans are the Problem.
We have been studying Washington politics and Congress for more than 40 years, and never have we seen them [Republicans] this dysfunctional. In our past writings, we have criticized both parties when we believed it was warranted. Today, however, we have no choice but to acknowledge that the core of the problem lies with the Republican Party.

The GOP has become an insurgent outlier in American politics. It is ideologically extreme; scornful of compromise; unmoved by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.
It's true that President Obama has changed his tone lately...or has he? He returned to these themes in his 2015 State of the Union address with his remarks about "a better politics," and I'd remind you of his succession plan.
One senior Obama adviser says the administration “To Do list” after 2012 included thinking “about how you lock in the Obama coalition for Democrats going forward. Because it’s not a 100 percent certainty that they come out for the next Democrat.” Part of the answer, the adviser said, was to pursue aggressive unilateral action on “a set of issues where we have an advantage … and believe are substantively the right thing to do” and dare Republicans to oppose him.
What we are witnessing right now is that 17 candidates are vying for the 2016 Republican nomination and saying things like:

* "Let's send combat troops back to Iraq"
* "Deport 'em all"
* "Climate science is a hoax"
* "Abortion should be outlawed, even in the case of incest and rape"
* "I'd send in the FBI and federal troops to stop abortions"
* "The United States is like Nazi Germany"

Can you spell "e-x-t-r-e-m-i-s-m?"

Meanwhile, we're experiencing the longest period of private sector job growth in the country's history, Obamacare and Dodd-Frank are working better than most people expected, there is a growing bipartisan consensus emerging from the states that it's time for criminal justice reform, we're likely to see a global climate accord reached in Paris this December and an amazing realignment is taking place in the Middle East.

Perhaps it's still too soon to say whether or not "conciliatory rhetoric as ruthless strategy" is a success.