Houston, We Have a Problem

 

Texas needs federal assistance, lots of it. The damage, human and property, inflicted by Hurricane Harvey requires a united and collective response. The imperative to help in this time of overwhelming need shouldn’t be impacted by partisan, ideological or regional differences.

Unfortunately, that perspective has not always applied to other natural disasters.  Texas Republicans, and for that matter many other Republicans as well, voted against emergency relief aid in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy.  Senator Ted Cruz was asked about his position against granting relief then in anticipation of a bill to help victims of Harvey.  His explanation for voting against the bill to help Americans in the Northeast part of the United States after Sandy was that lots of non-emergency spending was included.

That explanation, however, fall apart under examination.  Fact checkers have totally discredited the Texas Senator’s description of what was in that emergency legislation.  Cruz, who is clearly the least popular senator among his colleagues, is engaged yet again in world class hypocrisy.

Past behavior notwithstanding, Members of Congress should approve emergency assistance for Harvey victims as soon as possible.  I choose to believe that most will hold themselves to a higher standard than Cruz does.

However, this may also be an opportunity for a broader discussion about the role of the federal government and the importance of collective responses to challenges facing this country.  You might think there would be close to unanimity on the importance of a federal role in emergency relief, but that isn’t always the case.  Many Republicans are so fixated on reducing the size of the federal budget that they even argue for offsetting cuts to “pay” for hurricane assistance.  We will soon see what kind of response Cruz and his colleagues have to the crisis created by Harvey.

One of the cornerstones of contemporary conservative thinking is that individuals are responsible for themselves and shouldn’t be given “handouts” by government.  At its extreme, this position argues that the “free market” will do the best job of allocating resources and allowing the best decisions to be made.

Put aside for a minute that the concept of a “free market” is a fiction used to rationalize personal preferences.  In Houston, there has been no zoning or land use regulation.  It’s a great example of the rugged individualism that Texans claim as their defining characteristic.  The absence of planning and regulation, however, contributed significantly to the flooding and extreme damage caused by Harvey.  Houston has developed so rapidly, with so many miles of highway, so little permeable surface, that there is not nearly enough earth available to absorb water runoff.

Harvey has been described as a storm of biblical proportions, a once in a thousand years phenomenon.  While we may not see anything quite so disastrous again in our lifetimes, we will be getting extreme weather more frequently in the future.  According to the Army Corps of Engineers, Houston is in a 500-year floodplain, yet has flooded three times in the past decade.  And the reality remains that the impact of Harvey has been significantly worse than if attention had been paid to the risk–actually the certainty–of massive flooding.

Should we, as a result of bad land-use decisions in the Houston area, hold back on relief aid?  Do the people who are suffering from Harvey’s impact bear responsibility for their plight?  I don’t see it that way and have no reservations about assistance, but the philosophy of Cruz and some hard-line conservatives, when applied to other groups in need, would suggest letting Houston residents live with the consequences of their past decisions.

One of the Internet posts I saw from a Texas elected official proclaimed that the citizens of that state would get through this disaster because they have a tradition of working together and of helping each other.  That’s a great sentiment, but anyone reading about recent actions of the Texas legislature might be skeptical about how far that helping really goes.

Gerrymandering legislative districts–recently overturned by a Federal Court–to dilute minority voting power is certainly not an example of that helping spirit.  Constructing barriers to women’s health services doesn’t seem particularly friendly.  Despite having an enormous number of people who would have been eligible for service, Texas said “no” to Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act.

We will, in all likelihood, compartmentalize our response to the damage done by Harvey from other examples in which the country would benefit from a collective effort.  This could be a teachable moment, a chance to apply the lessons of emergency relief, so visible in this instance, to other needs that don’t look as dramatic but are every bit as important.

Our Child President seems enthralled with the size of the disaster.  It is the magnitude that he convinced himself was on the National Mall for his Inauguration.  His tweets insure that he will avoid the criticism that George Bush received during Katrina for being totally out of touch, but there’s no indication so far that he will provide any leadership to the country in terms of either the response to the emergency or to the broader issues of coming together as a nation.  Sad.

 

 

The World Turned Upside Down

In the Broadway mega-hit “Hamilton”, creator Lin Manuel Miranda depicts the British shock at their defeat at Yorktown through the song “The World Turned Upside Down.” It’s hard to think of a more apt description of our political world in the Age of Trump.

Many Americans are still struggling to decide how to respond to a president who so flagrantly disregards the norms and conventions that have served politics reasonably well for much of our history. We keep expressing surprise at each most recent action long after we should have learned not to be surprised by anything that he does. His comments in the aftermath of the ugly white supremacist march in Charlottesville dismayed even some of his supporters, including members of his administration. How much longer some of them can continue to compromise their values and self-respect is an open question.

Trump certainly signaled that he was going to pardon Sheriff Joe Arpaio well before he acted, but the decision still shocked many observers including some prominent Republicans.  He is so far beyond the boundaries of normal that many of us are still floundering in our efforts to fashion a meaningful political response.

Indeed, Trump’s trampling of political conventions has called into question whether our constitutional system is adequate to the challenge of constraining him.  He openly discusses the possibility of pardoning himself.  It’s not clear that our system would prevent that outrageous act.  His pardoning of Arpaio raises the specter of similar clemency for individuals who obstruct inquiries into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election and into Trump’s financial dealings.  No one will be totally surprised if, as the investigation gets closer to the president, he fires Robert Mueller, but it will be quite a jolt for the rule of law in this country.

The presidency of this unhinged and unrestrained individual has become a national civics lesson.  What should be apparent to any serious observer is that our ability to govern ourselves depends on much more that a single document, as much as we all pay homage to the U.S. Constitution.  In that respect, Originalists miss the point all together when they argue for a strict historical reading of that text.  Trump has vividly demonstrated that the stability of our system depends on much more than the words that were written in 1787 however they are interpreted.

Tradition, norms, conventions, precedent, rules, laws and application are also part of the fabric of American democracy.  What that means, however, is that nothing works automatically.  When you hear references to the impeachment process or invocation of the 25th Amendment, remember that neither of them is self-enforcing.  Either would require courageous action by political figures who may have conflicting loyalties and interests.

Can you imagine Vice President Mike Pence and any member of Trump’s Cabinet declaring that he is unfit to hold office?  As Andy Borowitz might point out, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos would probably have to consult Google to find out what the 25th Amendment says.

Members of the Republican Party in Congress, even though they are elected independently of the President, have shown no more indication of backbone than the Cabinet.  Between worrying about the 25% of their base who will support Trump even if he shoots someone in broad daylight in Times Square and continuing to calculate that he will be receptive to their policy and ideological goals, the idea of Republicans impeaching Trump regardless of what he does is incredibly far-fetched.

Our political world really has been turned upside down.  Just as we are hearing that it will take years for the Houston area to recover from the devastation caused by Hurricane Harvey, the damage to this country caused by this administration will last well beyond its time in office.  In both cases, we are still in the midst of the storm with no relief in sight.  How do you start rebuilding when the flood waters are still rising?

I’m looking for rays of sunshine, but it isn’t easy to find them.  If the level of political activism that we are seeing today can be maintained through the 2018 election, there is a chance that the political balance in Congress could be sufficiently altered to place additional constraints on the President.   Maybe there will be an outbreak of political courage as a result, but I’m not holding my breath.

Treating Trump’s presidency as normal is not an option.  Neither is the false optimism that assumes that the system will self-correct.  We are facing the greatest challenge to this country since the Civil War.  The outcome is far from certain.

 

Was the firing of Steve Bannon just another effort to distract us?

 

Donald Trump has had a couple of awful weeks, all self-inflicted wounds. By Friday, his presidency seemed to be spiraling out of control in the aftermath of his morally obtuse defense of the actions of white supremacists and Nazis at Charlottesville. Prominent business leaders moved to separate themselves from his administration. Republican elected officials openly criticized his remarks. Even some members of the White House staff seemed stunned by his comments. The image of General John Kelly, his new chief of staff, squirming and looking incredibly uncomfortable at Trump’s press conference, may have said even more than the torrent of editorials and press criticism that rained down on the President.

At this moment, however, the story dominating the headlines is the firing of Chief Strategist Steve Bannon.  Depending on your perspective, Bannon had been Trump’s puppet master, the architect of the Administration’s right-wing nationalist agenda, a shameless self-promoter, the brains behind Trump’s bluster, or some combination of the above.  Many conservatives have seen him as their man in the White House while liberals have almost universally regarded him as an evil Svengali and have called for his removal from Day One of the Trump Presidency.

Rumors have been swirling for days if not weeks that Bannon would soon be forced out.  After all, he kept getting the kind of praise and attention that Trump can’t stand to see anyone else receiving.  Kelly’s appointment, intended to bring order to the chaos of the White House, suggested that there wouldn’t be room for both of them.  According to press coverage, Kelly pushed Trump to get rid of Bannon.

Amidst the celebrations, including the gloating, about Bannon’s firing, a critical question remains however: what exactly has changed?

Trump has not retracted, modified or disavowed his position on “both sides” being responsible for the violence in Charlottesville.  He continues to show no appreciation of the historical significance of the Nazis, the KKK or the fact that the Civil War was fought primarily to determine whether slavery would continue to exist.  He still sees “good people” among those marching in Charlottesville with guns, clubs and symbols of hatred and bigotry.  He continues to show more concern for the fate of Confederate statues than the welfare of American citizens.

The President still has his twitter account.  He is still a narcissist with little or no impulse control.  He still resists being briefed on world issues. His relationship with Congress continues to worsen just as a series of critical issues–raising the debt ceiling, passing a budget, trying to reform the tax system–have fast approaching deadlines with no clear path to resolution.

And in case you had forgotten in the most recent avalanche of news, Trump still has Robert Mueller investigating Russian interference in the 2016 election, whether his campaign knew about and collaborated with the Russians, and, perhaps more ominously for the President, what financial relationships Trump has had with Russians.

Let’s also remember that Kim Jong-un still has nuclear weapons, ISIS is still in Syria and Iraq, and this country’s longest war still rages in Afghanistan.  All of these hot spots pose major challenges to the Preident regardless of where Steve Bannon is.

Bannon certainly encouraged Trump to always cater to a base that responds positively to calls for a wall between the United States and Mexico, that cheers his Muslim ban, and that sleeps better at night believing that there is no place in the US military for transgender Americans and no sympathy for members of the LBGQT community.  Every indication we have so far is that Trump really didn’t need convincing to adopt those positions.  Don’t expect a kinder and gentler Trump now that Bannon has left the White House.

To what extent Bannon is really gone is not all that clear either.  Do you remember when Corey Lewandowski was fired as the head of Trump’s presidential campaign?  He continues to talk regularly with Trump, is seen  wandering the halls of the White House and has made a lot of money promising his clients special access to the President.  Does anyone really believe that things will be any different with Bannon?

At the end of the day, Bannon’s departure from the White House is more smoke than fire.  There will not be a new Trump as a result.  Moreover, Bannon will feel even less constrained back at Breitbart to advocate for his extreme views and attack anyone whom he sees as an obstacle, including prominent Republicans.  And just as Trump was incapable of criticizing the racists and anti-Semites who marched in Charlottesville, he will continue to treat Bannon as a kindred soul, a “good person” who happens to be spewing hate.

 

Writing about Donald Trump

 

The President is both the problem and the distraction. Thousands of words are written about him every day but it’s hard to determine what significance, if any, they have. We are caught between the Scylla of paying too much attention to every word he utters and the Charybdis of treating his unhinged behavior as normal.

When future historians look back at the times we are currently living through, they will not need to say that there were no voices raised in protest.  Nor will they think that no one warned of the dangers Trump posed to the American constitutional system and to the norms keeping politics within fairly reasonable boundaries over the years up to 2016.

They will instead have the daunting challenge of figuring out why so many Americans were unmoved by the warnings. Historians will ask why large groups of citizens were willing to take a leap into a totally unfamiliar future based on Trump’s unreliable promises and his appeals to the worst in human nature.

There are some clues already available.  We were a deeply divided, indeed polarized, country even before Trump announced his campaign for president.  Now it appears that we don’t even agree on  facts because we rely on different information sources with little or no overlap.  His attacks on the media and on “fake news” are likely to diminish our ability to find common political ground long after he has departed the public arena.

Moreover, there seems to be an enormous gap in this country about how to define self-interest, a concept that has been central to political analysis throughout history.  Critics of Hillary Clinton’s campaign slammed her for not having an economic message that reached out to working class whites  left behind by the global economy.  However, numerous studies have argued that many of those voters are less moved by economic interests than by social issues, especially coded or symbolic ones.  Trump supporters continue to respond to his call to build a wall and to ban Muslims from entering the United States even as coal and manufacturing jobs show no sign of returning.

I regularly read some of the smartest and most thoughtful columnists working today.  While Trump has certainly provided them with a steady stream of materials to write about, many must feel as if they are trapped in an endless loop where nothing changes despite their best efforts.  We are living in an Age of Sisyphus where the rock keeps rolling back down the hill.

The New York Times’ David Brooks recently wrote a column entitled “Getting Trump Out of My Brain.” His goal was “to spend less time thinking about Trump the soap opera and more time on questions that surround the Trump phenomena and this moment of history.”  It’s a challenge that a lot of smart presidential observers are struggling with and achieving only limited success.  It may be, however, the crucial question to pursue.

Trump’s most recent rant threatening North Korea with unprecedented “fire and fury” illustrates the challenge.  The cynic might view his bellicose language as just another instance of his lack of impulse control or, alternatively, as a deviously clever way to distract everyone from the Russia investigation.  And while we have been cautioned on numerous occasions to not take his words literally, what if Kim Jong-un does?

We may be too deep into our current situation to be able to make much sense of it.  The search for historical precedents for his presidency has provided neither insight nor comfort.  We do know that his campaign struck an emotional chord with many Americans and that some percentage of those continue to enthusiastically support him.

One report which underscores that reality is a poll showing that over 50% of Republicans would agree to cancel the 2020 Presidential Election if Trump claimed that the results would be rigged against him.  Even if you don’t believe that a nuclear war with North Korea is imminent, you should be terrified that so many of your fellow citizens have that opinion.

I have neither the audience nor the skill of Tom Friedman,  E.J. Dionne, Trudy Rubin or Michael Gerson.  In offering commentary on the Trump presidency, I am searching for the words to help me understand the Trump phenomenon as well as to express my concerns and even my outrage at what is happening to our country.  At times, friends have thanked me for putting their thoughts into words and for reminding them that they are not alone.  I am grateful for that feedback, but have not figured out how to expand my reach beyond the choir.

And, like Sisyphus, I sometimes feel like I am writing the same column over and over again with only the words rearranged.  Beating your head into a wall is not a productive political exercise, but neither is standing idly by as the political system is hijacked.

Are We All Living in a Dystopian Novel?

Much of the time, Donald Trump seems more a dark caricature of a president than the real thing. People use all sorts of metaphors to describe his bizarre behavior in office, including references to psychological disorders, comparisons to fascist dictators of past history and, of course, reality television shows.

None of these has been quite sufficient. During his campaign for president, he kept doing things that analysts agreed were the “last straw”, surely the breaking point in his effort to win the nomination. Since he took office in January, numerous events have been described as the worst day or worst week of his presidency, yet they keep coming. There is, as best anyone can tell, no bottom to what Trump is capable of doing.

Trump’s shortcomings have been well catalogued.  He came to the job never having served in either public office or the military.  He is stunningly ignorant about even the most basic information regarding issues, law and policy, the lives of others, or the rest of the world.  Worse yet, he shows no interest in learning.  Trump substitutes lies and bluster for knowledge and perspective.

The words “chaos”, “dysfunctional” and “incompetent” have become increasingly the language to describe this Administration.  It’s apparent that  Trump isn’t really interested in governing.  While some might take comfort in that realization and in the disarray that characterizes everything that the White House does, there is a much greater danger lurking below the surface.

What Trump does care about is holding power, not being perceived as weak–note all his references to others laughing at the United States or at Republican Senators–and not being unmasked as the fraud that he is.  He is not going to go quietly into the night.  He will pull down the entire edifice of government before he allows himself to be humiliated.

The most serious transgression thus far has been Trump’s attack on the constitutional system.  Whether or not you agree with “originalists” about the correct way to interpret our founding document, the reality is that our political system relies upon much more than just a piece of paper written in 1787.  It’s also history, Supreme Court decisions, precedent, compromise, norms and civility.

Trump has unleashed an all-out attack on our entire system.  He disregarded years of accepted practice when he refused to share his income tax returns.  He violated the spirit of the law when he brought unqualified family members into senior positions in government.  He views Congress as an annoyance rather than a co-equal branch of government.   Although his firing of James Comey may not constitute  obstruction of justice, it is certainly a blatant trampling of the independence of the Federal Bureau of  Investigation.

Every political observer on the planet is watching to see what will be the next attack.  Will he fire Special Council Robert Mueller?  Will he replace Jeff Sessions and Rod Rosenstein at the Department of Justice?  If he takes those steps and there isn’t an immediate move to impeach him, we really will be entering dystopian territory.

American presidents have enormous powers.  Practices that have evolved since the Constitution was originally written have greatly increased those powers.  The revered system of checks and balances is far from automatic.  It only works when those in office recognize that there are limits on their powers and other officials in the political system place a higher value on the country and the Constitution than they do on personal loyalty to the president.

It’s not surprising that Trump can demand and received subservience from White House officials.  As members of his personal staff, they serve at his pleasure. If they don’t respond as he wishes, he can replace them and bring in world-class sycophants.  There is no one working there now–neither the relatives nor the generals–who is an effective restraining force.  The first six months of his presidency should have made that totally clear to everyone.

Before Trump took office, some observers saw signs of latent fascism and suggested comparisons with Hitler and Mussolini.  That Trump has a Jewish son-in-law and a daughter who converted to Judaism led others to conclude that, therefore, he couldn’t possibly be anti-Semitic and, thus, wasn’t a fascist.

A better place to look, however, is the psychological literature on authoritarian personalities.  When you examine the characteristics of this personality type, Trump comes across as a textbook example.  Joseph Stalin in the 1930s offers a clearer analogy.  That was the period of his greatest paranoia, of his purges of people in the army and the communist party whose loyalty Stalin doubted.  Sound familiar?

Trump acknowledges no limits on his power.  He is, in many respects, a shrewd analyst of human nature, a skilled manipulator of public opinion and a person who defines everything in terms of the impact on him.  He has no allegiance to the American political system, to fundamental values or to anyone else.  He will do anything to hold on to power.

The “novel” in which we find ourselves today doesn’t need to have a dystopian ending, but it could.  The next few months are likely to be critical.  The future of American democracy depends on Trump being held accountable by Congress, the Courts and the political system.  He is a dangerous man and it’s time for even his supporters to realize that he’s also a fake who has no interest in delivering on any of his promises.  Whether the political system which has evolved over 230 years can hold him remains to be seen.

 

 

It’s Almost 2018

 

Donald Trump has managed to disrupt many of our conventional notions about the world of politics.  Bad things are happening so fast and so frequently that it’s hard to know which ones should get our attention. More significantly, the relatively trivial distractions are difficult to ignore because they seem so outrageous.  Trumps flagrantly disregards conventions, norms, rules, laws–and the truth.

Despite his claims about how incredibly successful his presidency has been in the first six months, the reality is that he has created an unstable and dangerous mess. Trump and the Republican leadership in Congress have already done great damage to this country, damage which would be even worse if they weren’t so incompetent.

The international situation–whether you are thinking of China, Russia, North Korea, the Middle East, or our relationships with our traditional allies–is spinning out of control. Largely by executive action, this administration is jeopardizing the future of the planet by undoing environmental regulations and withdrawing from the Paris climate agreement. Trump, ironically, seems to have little understanding of what he is doing and cares even less. His erratic posturing on health care legislation would be laughable if the risks weren’t so great.

And we haven’t even gotten to a serious discussion about his budget proposal which would devastate what is left of the safety net for the poor and disadvantaged, dramatically reduce enforcement of many protections that the government by law is required to provide, and ultimately offload all sorts of commitments onto state and local governments.

In response to these cataclysmic events, what is the average citizen to do? Political activism is at its highest level since the 1960s. Pressure on members of Congress impacted the deliberations over the McConnell healthcare bill. Republican legislators, when they go to their home districts, are either hiding or facing angry constituents. Much of the media has recovered from the nap it took during the presidential election campaign and is now increasingly focusing a sharp light on the actions of the president. And late night comics have never had so much material to work with.

However, Trump is still the president and the hardest core of his base continues to support him and to see the world through orange-tinted glasses. Those hoping for impeachment proceedings or invoking of the 25th Amendment are almost certainly going to be disappointed. Few Republicans have shown the courage to stand up to Trump or to place a higher loyalty to country than party.

Until November 2018, the best hope is to contain the damage caused by this president. Nothing good is going to happen.  Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan will continue to try to increase the wealth of the rich at the expense of the poor. Jeff Sessions will continue to support efforts to disenfranchise voters. Environmental safeguards will continue to be dismantled. And the list will go on.

The only hope to reverse the tide of destruction is for Democrats to turn out in record numbers in the 2018 election and regain control of the House and the Senate. We don’t have to decide who the Democratic Presidential nominee will be in 2020 to succeed in 2018. Neither is it essential to have universal agreement on the precise language of the Democratic “message.” It is, however, critical that there be a unified party working together for a common goal rather than one mired down in intramural battles over personal grievances.

It’s time to stop arguing about whether Hillary Clinton was the right candidate in 2016 or about what could have been done differently. That was the last war. Now it is time to fight the next one.

To be sure, there has to be an economic message. As Trump showed last time, however, it doesn’t need to be too detailed or too complicated. But it’s not enough to say that Trump and the Republicans are awful, although that will certainly motivate some voters. Democrats must offer a message that resonates with the real-world concerns of voters.

My personal view is that it is much more effective to turn out committed Democrats, many of whom have historically stayed home in off-year elections, than it is to put much effort into trying to convert Trump supporters. If they continue to insist on believing that coal jobs are coming back, there’s no argument that will ever convince them. Don’t call them deplorables,  do campaign in places that have had Republican majorities, but don’t count on winning the election there.

The 2016 outcome was a surprise, but it was also close.  Politics is always messy, parties are rarely well-organized and even hindsight is not always terribly clear.  Democrats will not in a single election overcome the years of neglect of state and local races, but they do have the chance to turn 2018 into a wave election, a political tsunami, that gets the country back on the road to sanity, decency and hope.

2018 may be the last best hope to save American democracy.  Democratic control of Congress may be the only thing that can stop Trump, Sessions and Russian hackers from manipulating–stealing–the 2020 Presidential election.  As awful as the current situation is, that really could be the end of democracy in America.

A New Partisan Divide: Higher Education

 

We have become increasingly used to sharp differences of opinion between Democrats and Republicans. While the 2016 Presidential Election was the most consequential demonstration that our country is deeply polarized, there are more and more examples, some of them new and surprising.

The Pew Research Center conducted a poll in early June that showed fundamental differences by party affiliation in opinion about major institutions in the county.  The findings support other research that shows we are more likely to live close to people with similar political orientations, more likely to socialize with them and, increasingly, to obtain our news about the world from sources that have filtered it to meet our pre-existing views.

The Pew study showed clear divides in Democratic and Republican views about banks, churches, labor unions and the media.  While the most recent poll reflected a widening of the gaps between how party identifiers view these institutions, the overall assessments followed historical patterns that have been around for a while.

Not true for higher education.  The 2017 numbers are stunning, grounds for serious head scratching.  As recently as two years ago, Republicans saw the impact of colleges and universities as positive rather than negative by 54% to 37%.  Since then, support among the GOP for higher education has fallen off the table.  This year’s poll has only 36% of Republicans viewing colleges and universities as positive as opposed to 54% who view them negatively.  In every single demographic category that the poll examined, the level of support dropped significantly.

To underscore the contrast, Democrats, who have always held a highly positive view about higher education, support colleges and universities in this most recent survey by 72% to 19%.  The overall positive balance, 55% to 36%, highlights both the chasm between the parties and the hazards of looking only at overall poll numbers without examining the sub-categories.

This dramatic turnabout by Republicans is at first glance really puzzling.  Higher education has long been touted as the path to economic and social advancement in the United States.  The stories of parents sacrificing to enable their children to attend college are a cherished part of the American narrative.  And if the past weren’t significant enough, the reality of a global economy and international competition argue even more urgently for the importance of higher education.

Unraveling the numbers requires, by necessity, a certain amount of speculation.  Let me suggest three factors that may contribute to the new Republican antipathy to higher education.  None can stand alone as a total explanation and all of them require acknowledgement that the attitude is held by some Republicans despite being contrary to their self-interest.

For a number of years, the party of Donald Trump–he may have taken control only in 2016, but the party was clearly waiting for him to arrive–has been engaged in a war against science and facts.  Rejecting the overwhelming consensus among scientists about the threat to the planet of climate change is the most visible but hardly the only example.

Data about the impact of gun ownership on public safety is routinely and aggressively rejected.  The benefits of preventive health care and of a single-payer insurance system are attacked as socialism without more than a glance at the facts pointing to both dramatic health and financial benefits that would accrue .  This list could be much longer, but the common thread is a systematic rejection of science and facts.

The logical–in some worlds–next step is to turn against the institution in our society that is one of the major transmitter of science and facts.  The logic is very similar to that employed to attack the “mainstream media.”  Some Republicans rationalize their attacks by arguing that colleges are actually partisan institutions fostering radical ideas and a Democratic agenda.  Citing examples of individual faculty who openly espouse progressive views, they jump to sweeping generalizations without ever having been on any college campus other than the one they attended.

A second factor to consider springs from the success that Donald Trump has had in appealing to white working class individuals who are struggling in the changing economy.  For that segment of the Republican base, colleges are elite institutions pampering the children of the upper class.  Never mind that those students include the children of more affluent Republicans with whom they have joined in support of Donald Trump.  Regardless of the reasons that they didn’t go on to higher education, their perspective is often one of resentment rather than lost opportunities.

When Bernie Sanders proposed debt-free college and Hillary Clinton eventually supported the idea during the campaign, JD Vance’s “hillbillies” saw that as yet another reason to vote Republican and to show their disdain for higher education.

Moreover, many of them have not had positive experiences when they ventured into a college.  Some students were bilked by for-profit institutions that charged them a lot of money and gave them nothing of value.  It is another irony of the Trump Administration that Education Secretary Betsy DeVos wants to loosen the rules on the very institutions which prey most heavily on the poor and disadvantaged.

Amy Goldstein’s brilliant study of Paul Ryan’s hometown, Janesville, points out another source of grievances.  Training programs in community colleges turned out to make little or no difference to those people trying to restart their lives after the local GM plant closed.

The third factor on my list is the growing politicization of issues across the board.  This one actually may cut across the other two explanations.  If partisanship is the primary motivating force for many Republicans, the specific issue doesn’t really matter.

Go back to two issues that I mentioned earlier–climate change and health care–that have become matters of Republican orthodoxy.  When not a single Republican member of the U.S. Senate is willing to acknowledge the threat posed by climate change, it suggests that the facts really don’t matter; sticking with your party is the only thing that matters.  Similarly, being willing to vote for a health care bill that harms millions of your own constituents is hard to understand other than as an exercise in party loyalty.

What the Pew study may really show is that Republicans are coalescing around opposition to higher education primarily as a way of showing party cohesion.  The other factors I described were part of the conversation that led to the incredible shift from their historical support for an institution that has been one of the keys to success in America.  It’s far from the only instance in which the Republican Party is placing partisan politics over benefit to the country and, more cynically, to their own supporters.

 

A Message, A Message, My Party for a Message

 

Democrats are particularly good at navel gazing, but sometimes angst has a basis in facts and data. Recent electoral history, with the major exception of Barack Obama’s presidential victories in 2008 and 2012, has not been good for Democrats. Despite all the talk that the country’s shifting demographics were on their side, Democrats have been losing elections, sometimes by narrow margins, but still losing.

Liberal optimism was at a high right after Obama’s first win and the incredible outpouring of joy in Grant Park on Election Night 2008. Was a new coalition that would shape politics for decades being built? Were we entering the post-racial phase of our country’s history? Would Obama’s remarkable story inspire a new generation of public-spirited candidates?

Optimism, it turns out, is not enough. During the Obama presidency, Democrats lost control of both houses of Congress, lost hundreds of state legislative seats and lost gubernatorial races in states they once dominated. As if all of that wasn’t disheartening enough, Donald Trump won the 2016 Presidential Election and Republicans maintained their edge in both the House and the Senate.

During that campaign and since, the predominant Democratic “message” to voters has been focussed on how horrible and dangerous and vulgar and petty Donald Trump is. Despite the accuracy of all of those pronouncements, it has had little or no impact on Republican voters who continue to support their party and Trump even though they have doubts about him.

After the recent–and fourth consecutive–loss in a special Congressional election in Georgia, the gnashing of teeth among Democrats reached a fever pitch. So much money and hope were attached to the candidacy of Jon Ossoff, and yet he lost.

Was he less than a stellar candidate? Was the specter of Nancy Pelosi and her “San Francisco values”, as Republican ads constantly reminded voters, too much? Did Republican voters decline to connect Trump’s problems to Congressional candidate Karen Handle? Or was the district too much of a long-shot from the start to justify the inflated expectations?

The answer to those questions is yes.

When you put together the long string of losses, many people wonder if the Democratic Party needs to rethink its core message.  Or, to put the matter more starkly, does the Party, which seems to be adrift without a clear mission, need to develop and publicize a core message?

Lots of thoughtful people have analyzed the problem.  Their well-written commentaries all seem to fall short, however, of offering a direction for the future.  It has to be more than attacking Donald Trump, Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell.  It has to be more than listening to white working class voters who have been displaced by economic change.  It has to be more than doubling down on identity politics.

The most frequent refrain is that Democrats need to focus on crafting an economic message and on the creation of jobs in the new economy.  What that means in terms of specific policy proposals is not clear in any of the commentary.  New clean energy jobs?  Sure, even if right now we are conceding leadership in that field to the Chinese.  New high-tech manufacturing jobs?  Sure, as long as you have the education and skills and recognize that there won’t be nearly as many of those jobs as there were in traditional manufacturing.

Another approach might be to try to “out promise” Donald Trump.  We’ll bring back even more coal jobs.  We’ll reopen the auto plants that have been shut down.  We’ll make America the leading producer of steel in the world.  Forget that.  He’s a much better liar than any candidate the Democrats might produce.

Moreover, Trump has grabbed many of the emotional hot-button issues that have a stronger appeal to some voters than economic self-interest.  A Muslim ban?  A wall between Mexico and the United States?  Cutting off funds to Planned Parenthood?  Free guns for everyone?  Part of developing a new Democratic message has to include sticking to a set of core values and not merely pandering for the sake of votes.

Where does that leave the Democratic Party?  A lot of smart people are hunting for the magic message.  While I haven’t found it either, I have a few thoughts on the path to take.

First of all, the “Yellow Brick Road” goes through state and local elections.  Building a cadre of candidates, regaining control of the legislative districting process and mobilizing local citizen energy and enthusiasm are all essential to the revitalization of the Democratic Party.  The effort in a number of different states to recruit more women as candidates is a hopeful and encouraging step.

Second, changing leadership at the top of the party–elevating a new generation of activists–can’t be put off any longer.  I agree that Nancy Pelosi has, as she recently declared, remarkable political skills.  It’s still time for her to move on and so must the group of officials who have dominated the Democratic Party for decades.

As another example, which can be replicated in many parts of the country, the cynicism I constantly hear about Philadelphia’s Democratic establishment–that’s you, Bob Brady–is a clarion call for change.  Repeatedly supporting candidates who commit felonies or engage in unprofessional acts, being unable to turn out enough voters in key elections, and generally being unresponsive to most constituents have undercut what little credibility they once had.

Finally, on this short list, don’t learn the wrong lessons from the recent string of electoral defeats.  Should Democrats veer left and become the party of Bernie Sanders?  While that’s certainly the dream of some activists, there’s little evidence that there are enough votes on that end of the political spectrum to produce a winning coalition.

Another temptation is to conclude that neither a woman nor a minority candidate can win the next national election.  The backlash toward Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton by a segment of the electorate doesn’t mean that most voters are close-minded.  The field of candidates shouldn’t be limited to white males although neither should they be excluded.

How do these steps help the Democratic Party identify a message that resonates with voters?  At the risk of intra-party conflict and some bumps on the road, the answer may lie in a more inclusive process. This involves listening to voters, avoiding reflex responses to ideas that don’t sound familiar and, without jettisoning core values, being willing to reconsider old truths that may not hold up so well anymore.

That’s what Emmanuel Macron was able to do in France, establishing a political movement and then a new party that now dominates French politics.  That’s what an upstart group was able to do in Barcelona, creating a grassroots model that is being examined by activists in many other countries.  That’s what Indivisible is trying to do in the United States, providing tools and strategy to local political organizations.

A better, stronger Democratic message will result from the political engagement of concerned citizens, not from a focus-group tested draft produced by a bunch of long-term insiders.  It may be messy, but it is a necessity if we are to address the anger, division and exclusion felt by so many today.

 

 

Greedy and Mean-Spirited

 

Initial reactions to the Senate version of Trumpcare have been overwhelmingly negative. The proposal, drafted behind closed doors, has been described accurately as a giant transfer of money from the poor to the rich.  Another assessment viewed it as a fundamental attack on Medicaid, a health safety net for one out of every five Americans.

While the specifics of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s bill may not have been totally predictable, the mean-spirited approach certainly was. Everything the Republican majority has attempted for a long time has demonstrated a callous indifference, even hostility, to the poor and disadvantaged in this country and a fawning obsession with shifting still more resources to those few who already have way more than they need.

Why do the most wealthy citizens of the United States need another tax break?  As countless studies have shown,  the last two decades have yielded a growing concentration of wealth in this country.  We are increasingly defined by inequality, two nations not one.  The so-called Republican healthcare bill would accelerate and exacerbate those patterns.

Is there any justification for another transfer of wealth to the wealthy?  Republicans continue to trot out the claim that the wealthy are job creators, that “supply side” economics–the theory that money will trickle down to the less fortunate–will create dynamic economic growth.  This ignores the fact that past efforts have all failed.  The massive tax cuts under Ronald Reagan and later George W. Bush led to enormous budget deficits, not to an economic stimulus.

The real explanation is that too many wealthy people are greedy for more and more and Republican lawmakers, who count on a steady flow of campaign contributions, are more than eager to accommodate them. It’s a perverse system that is steadily eroding the foundations of representative democracy.

The other half of the equation, robbing the poor to give to the rich, is equally confounding.  Notwithstanding the populist appeal of Donald Trump, Republicans basically don’t like poor people.  Wrapping themselves in what they, in an incredible display of arrogance, view as the moral high ground of ending “dependence on government support”, much of the GOP holds anyone who isn’t rich totally responsible for their own problems.  If only they had been smart enough to inherit millions of dollars, they could join the club.

Republican mean-spiritedness is not focussed solely on the poor in their newest version of income redistribution masquerading as a healthcare bill.  Hostility to any measure that benefits the health of women is a well-established Republican tenet.  The Party leaders may bemoan the epidemic of opioid addiction, but this newest proposal will provide less treatment rather than more.  That 23 million people will end up without health insurance if their mean-spirited bill is enacted into law really is, similarly, of no concern. Continue reading “Greedy and Mean-Spirited”

Beyond “Hillbilly Elegy”

“Hillbilly Elegy”, JD Vance’s memoir of a dysfunctional Appalachian family, on the New York Times Best Seller list for 44 weeks and counting, offered a trendy explanation for Donald Trump’s victory in the 2016 Presidential election. If only Democrats had paid more attention to white working class voters devastated by economic change, the outcome might have been different.

Vance is a gifted writer with a great personal story who introduces us to some fascinating characters in his book.  He is certainly correct that Hillary Clinton’s campaign largely ignored the voters who Vance described, but he fails to offer a thoughtful discussion of what it would have taken to persuade his hillbillies to resist the siren song of Trump.

To be sure, Vance is not the first person to explore the reasons for why working class voters have been abandoning the Democratic Party.  Thomas Frank, in 2004, posited in “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” that residents of the state, rather than voting their economic self-interest, were being distracted by Republicans appealing to them on social issues like abortion and opposition to gay rights.  The tanking of the Kansas economy under ultra-conservative Governor Sam Brownback may have finally showed those voters the error of their ways, but that’s not a sure thing yet.

Hillary Clinton, as you may remember, offered a different explanation, that many of Trump’s backers were “deplorables”, motivated by racism, anti-immigrant hostility as well as opposition to a progressive social agenda.  Her turn of phrase did not play well politically and blocked, at least at the moment, any serious assessment of voter motivations.

This is a debate that’s likely to continue until at least 2020.  The ability and willingness of Democrats to seek out and build a coalition that includes at least some people not living in bubbles or on the two coasts may be the key to whether they can prevail over Donald Trump (or Mike Pence?) in the next Presidential election.

A recently published book by Amy Goldstein, a reporter for the Washington Post, digs much more deeply than Vance did into the challenges faced by an American working class that is seeing its jobs disappear.  In “Janesville”, she examines the impact on Paul Ryan’s hometown in Wisconsin of the closing of a GM plant in 2008.

Many of the people described by Vance are their own worst enemies, frequently making decisions that lead to turmoil in their lives.  By contrast, Goldstein examines, in a series of case studies, people who seem to do everything right but still never recover their lost economic status.

Some go back to the local community college to retrain for a new career.  Others commute to GM plants in other states, seeing their families only on weekends, in the hope that the Janesville plant will reopen or that a new job with comparable wages will come along.  Some families work multiple jobs, including teenage kids, to try to cobble together enough income to approach their GM-era quality of life.

The results were decidedly mixed.  Job retraining programs, Goldstein discovered, had no significant impact on finding new, decent-paying employment.  Janesville competed for new manufacturing plants without success.  And, as the community struggled with the new economic reality, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker was slashing government budgets and attacking the State’s public unions.

Meanwhile, Janesville’s Member of Congress, Paul Ryan, was veering to the right, proposing budgets that would have an even more devastating impact on any kind of government safety net or support for the economically displaced.  Walker and Ryan kept getting reelected although they did not win the support of the majority of Janesville voters.

Goldstein’s book offers a much more complex and nuanced view of America’s working class and the troubles they are facing. She notes that Janesville is increasingly becoming two communities, one of people succeeding in the new economy and another of those being left behind.  Moreover, the first group is showing very little sympathy for the second.

For several years, people laid-off from the GM facility engaged in wishful thinking about when it would be reopened.  That sounds an awful lot like those who believe Trump’s promise to bring back coal jobs.  The impulse to hope that yesterday can be restored is a powerful one.

Another reality suggested by her study is that a shrinking economic pie does not bring out the best in people.  Janesville in the past prided itself on its strong sense of community and its generosity to those in need.  Besides having less wealth to share, it became apparent that there was a tendency to blame those in economic need for their own problems.

Curiously, even among those who had benefitted from government programs such as aid to attend community college, there was a discernible anti-government attitude.  After years of hearing a drumbeat of attacks–starting from Ronald Reagan–many in this country are reflexively inclined to believe that “government is the problem.”

Crafting an agenda that responds to the plight of America’s working class–without resorting to false promises–is a daunting challenge.  Vance is correct that listening is an important first step, but it’s not enough.  Honestly facing the fact that most of manufacturing jobs of the past aren’t coming back is probably essential, but it’s likely to be a hard sell for potential voters.

“Janesville” underscores the truth that there isn’t a single, bumper-sticker answer.  Trump’s failure to produce coal or manufacturing jobs–much like Brownback’s destruction of the economy of Kansas–may eventually sink in with wishful thinkers.  But creating viable alternatives will be a hard slow process.

Ultimately, however, the Democratic Party has to present an economic message that focuses on where and what the jobs of the future will be, on the role of government in providing a safety net and on the reality that funneling even more of the nation’s resources to the wealthiest Americans will not “trickle down” to anyone else.  And then Democrats have to find a candidate who can effectively deliver that message.