The Assault on Public Opinion

 

One of the underlying premises of a democracy is that government must be responsive to the will of the people. The clearest manifestation of that obligation is the direct election of government officials. How the concept works between elections is not always so clear.

Our understanding of “what the public wants” can come from a number of different sources.  For some, public opinion is identical to what we personally believe.  Many of us live in political bubbles and find our opinions reaffirmed regularly by almost everyone in our immediate circle.

There is growing evidence that our society has become increasingly segregated into like-minded communities.  We encounter few, if any, people who see the world differently than we do.  It is too easy to slide from that reality to the belief that most people have similar opinions.  The corollary to that phenomenon is that we are amazed when we discover there are others out there who disagree with us and wonder what is wrong with them.

This pattern, which has increased sharply in the last two decades, helps to explain the growing polarization of our politics.  If we constantly get reinforcement of our own views, we are more and more inclined to dismiss any contrary opinions.  Where and how we get our news tends to follow the same outline.  The world of Fox viewers has almost no overlap to that of MSNBC watchers.  When you live in an echo chamber, other perspectives can’t easily break through the noise clutter.

A second source of our views about “what the public wants” comes from people we view as authority figures.  On lots of public issues, we have little or no direct experience or first-hand knowledge.  This source certainly overlaps with elements of the first factor, the reinforcement of our views, but fills in when we have less to go on.

Some authority figures are friends and acquaintances, people whose opinion we particularly value on topics that we see as their area of expertise.    Often, however, these sources are public figures, perhaps the president, or a leading figure in whichever political party we identify with, or an individual who has achieved a level of success that we believe warrants our attention.

Elected officials frequently tell us that they have taken a particular action or position in response to the public will.  The dilemma, of course, is that you hear that assertion from politicians on opposing sides of an issue.  Claiming that the public supports you is a way to legitimize your stance as well as a way to persuade people to agree with you.

In an era where charges of “fake news” are thrown about with abandon, it’s hard not to be skeptical about claims of popularity for someone’s newest initiative.  Yet, sometimes, the public–which may not have had any firm opinion on a particular issue–decides to follow and ratify a claim based primarily on exhortation.

A third, and seemingly more scientific, source is public opinion polls.  Here again, elected officials cite approvingly favorable polls and characterize unfavorable ones as flawed.   The recent debates about, first, the Republican efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act and, more recently, the Congressional tax bill demonstrate that public opinion polls are easily disregarded by politicians when they have the votes.

Survey research, after achieving real influence in the post World War II period, has been in a more troubled time recently.  Failing to predict a number of election outcomes correctly hurt their credibility.  Increasing questions about methodology, including how to account for cell phone users in their samples, made some people skeptical.  And, perhaps counter-intuitively, the proliferation of new polls resulted in conflicting results with no clear way to choose among them.

When you look at these three sources for answering the question “What does the public want?”, it’s apparent that finding anything near a consensus is almost impossible.  We have become an increasingly fragmented society and body politic with less and less ability to agree on common ground.

Some of the problems that I have described are inherent in human nature. But some are the product of a deliberate and calculated assault on the very idea that there is an identifiable public will.  We are living in a period when determined political minorities have been able to pursue their interests without regard to any broader public will.

Congress refuses to enact what a majority of Americans see as “common sense” gun regulations.  The entire Republican Party resists efforts to deal with climate change even as polls show a majority of citizens concerned about its impact.   Providing access to affordable health care is clearly more important to most voters than it is to Congressmen who currently dominate the legislative process.

Money has become a critical factor in our elections, diminishing the impact of individual voters.  Gerrymandering has allowed minority policies to be pushed by those who manage to rig the system to their benefit.  We have a president who casts aside truth, long-held norms and even respect for our constitutional system.

We are left with only one effective means of expressing public opinion, one that many citizens voluntarily give up.  Voting is the last best hope for retaining democratic government but it only works if citizens get up off their lethargy and participate in the political system.  So many of the pillars of our system are under attack and have already been eroded.  This is no time for complacency.

At the end of the day, the true measure of patriotism and love of country isn’t clapping for a speech or having a show of military force, but voting.  The next real test of whether our democracy will endure comes in the General Election of November 2018.   It’s not someone else’s responsibility; this is on all of us.

 

Donald Trump and the Mitchell Doctrine

Early in the presidency of Richard Nixon, Attorney General John Mitchell responded to a reporter’s question with these words: “Pay attention to what we do, not what we say.”  That’s incredibly good advice for those trying to make sense of the presidency of Donald Trump. His words, particularly when they come in the form of a tweet, are at best a distraction and frequently false or misleading.

Even his supporters acknowledge that he uses words in ways that confound the expectations of normal people. We have been told to consider some of his statements as alternative facts. When the evidence of a falsehood becomes overwhelming, Trump sometimes claims that he was joking. We have been told over and over again to take his words figuratively, not literally.  Then there’s the problem that he keeps changing what he has to say about any particular topic.

Take his State of the Union speech as a case in point.  The fact checkers had a field day, as they always do, but I’m talking about something much more fundamental than a string of lies.  The very essence of the speech was dishonest.

Some observers got all excited about his “proposal” for a $1.5 trillion infrastructure program to rebuild roads, bridges, sewer and water systems and other vital parts of America’s backbone.  That section of the speech was total nonsense, just a distraction that Trump did not mean seriously.  He knew that Republicans, having just given away the store in their tax bill, are not about to approve a massive spending initiative.  Additionally, the price tag is a bit of fraud.  Later reports reveal that he was talking about $200 billion in federal spending to be leveraged toward state, local and private contributions.  Not going to happen, but the Trump “squirrel” got lots of media attention.  Pay no attention to what he says.

Could anyone make sense of what the President really wants to do about immigration?  He’s been all over the place in the last month.  He rejected a bipartisan initiative after having said that he would sign any bill brought to him by Congress.  The substance of his most recent position–to the extent you can fathom it from the State of the Union–is a jumble of contradictory and inconsistent pieces that has no whole to it.

Important parts of the problem are that Trump doesn’t understand policy, is almost impossible to brief on issues and often makes up things as he speaks.  Recall promises he made during the presidential campaign that are long-forgotten.  It’s honestly really hard to know what he thinks and his words offer few clues.

Critics seem puzzled that his supporters haven’t abandoned him as he has failed to deliver on bringing back coal and manufacturing jobs, hasn’t gone after Wall Street and hasn’t yet succeeded in implementing a Muslim ban.  Part of the explanation for why the political base continues to support him is that they respond to the “red meat” rhetoric he throws to them.  His loyalists seem to take the words without the deeds.

Those critics also make the mistake of believing that Trump supporters are primarily motivated by economic self-interest.  Many of them are not.  J.D. Vance fundamentally missed the point.  In their anger, fear and disaffection, his backers rely on symbolic victories and rhetorical attacks on government and elites.  They are misled by Trump’s words in the same way that his critics are.

Trump has no real ideology, no core set of beliefs with respect to government.  He is the ultimate transactional person.  His presidency has been driven by two primary factors.

First – and this is deeply, deeply troubling – Trump is determined to erase as much of Barack Obama’s legacy as he can.  That goal, however, is not motivated by policy or ideological preference.  Rather, it is his endless and insatiable need to stroke his own ego by tearing down anyone  he sees as a rival.

There is more though.  Trump has demonstrated in ways big and small that he is a racist.  Going after Obama satisfies his racist impulses as well as playing to that part of his base that shares his attitudes.

Trump is also  motivated by his desire for power.  He knew little or nothing about government when he was elected, but has discovered that the office comes with lots of perks.  He is now a national and international figure rather than just someone covered by the New York tabloids.  Playing nice with conservative Congressional Republicans isn’t the product of like-mindedness; it’s a cold hard calculation of how to stay in power.

That’s why he got on board with a tax plan that contradicted much of what he said on the campaign trail.  That’s why he can’t really decide what he thinks about immigration.  That’s why he’s made the most feeble of efforts to move an infrastructure plan forward.  And it’s why he’s turned over the nomination of federal judges to ideologues who  care deeply about restricting a woman’s right to choice, an issue Trump has vacillated on over the years.

There is another aspect of Trump’s desire for power that accounts for much of what he has done as president.  As the wealthy head of a private business, he had absolute authority.  Sycophants were everywhere.  The rules were whatever he wanted them to be.

As he has learned a little about government and the Constitution, he has discovered that he doesn’t like the limitations imposed upon him.  Thus, the most striking characteristic of the Trump presidency has been his disregard for norms, rules and law.  He has tried to undermine freedom of the press.  He has sought to interfere in independent investigations as well as judicial proceedings.  Just this week, he announced that he was going to disregard a law passed almost unanimously by Congress that would require him to impose new sanctions on Russia.

John Mitchell was right.  If you watch what Trump has done rather than spend time listening to what he says, the picture is very clear.  Trump poses a clear and present danger to American democracy.  That’s not because he is crude or uninformed or a bully, although he is all of those things.  Rather, he has no respect for our constitutional system and will always put himself–not even party–before country.

 

Is “R” the New Scarlet Letter?

 

If you are a Republican running for public office in November 2018, you are in trouble.

Let me count the ways. Donald Trump, the leader of your party, is the least popular president at this point in a first term of anyone in modern history. The Congressional members of your party are, with few exceptions, marching in lock-step support of the least qualified person  ever to hold the office.  And they are even less popular than Trump.

If you are a state or local office holder, you might run, but you can’t hide. You will still have “R” plastered over your name on the ballot.

Both history and math are against you. The party of the incumbent president almost without exception loses seats in Congress in the first off-year election of the presidential term. Add to that the enormous number of “voluntary” retirements by incumbent Republican members of Congress who have seen the handwriting on the voting booth wall.

Republicans are likely to lose as many as 50 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives and, with them, control of the chamber. In the Senate, where many more Democrats are defending seats in 2018 than Republicans, your task should be much easier, but  probably won’t be.

Republicans in both houses voted for an incredibly unpopular tax bill whose primary beneficiaries are the very rich. They also tried mightily to repeal the Affordable Care Act, stripping health care coverage from millions of Americans. While they didn’t succeed directly, working in concert with Trump, they managed to badly cripple the law. Running on those two “accomplishments” is the challenge Republican incumbents have as a weight around their necks in this election.  And that was before a government shutdown that most Americans see as the fault of Republicans.

The early warning signs–the canaries–are already in.  2107 elections in New Jersey, Virginia and that special one in Alabama all should have Republicans quaking in their boots.  While most of the media attention has focused on the prospects of a Democratic takeover in Congress, Republican office holders at the state and local level should also be worried – very worried.

Look at Pennsylvania and Maryland, adjoining states with striking political differences.   A Democratic tsunami is barreling toward  Republicans who mistakenly think they are safe.  Local races in the suburban counties around Philadelphia in 2017 produced Democratic winners in offices that had been Republican for decades.  The trend is almost certain to continue in state legislative races in those counties in 2018.  While Republicans hold significant majorities in the Pennsylvania General Assembly, expect those gaps to shrink dramatically  this year and disappear altogether in 2020.

Meanwhile, the two statewide Democratic office holders, Governor Tom Wolf and U.S. Senator Bob Casey, who both looked vulnerable at one point, now seem well positioned to win re-election.

Pennsylvania’s Congressional delegation, in which Republicans have benefited enormously through a combination of Democratic concentration in cities and some of the most extreme gerrymandering in the country, is likely to see changes in 2018.  Three districts in the Philadelphia suburbs are being targeted by Democrats.  Moreover, a suit before the State’s Supreme Court could result in a redrawing of the congressional districts in time for the 2018 election.  Stay tuned.

Maryland, widely known as a Blue state, could see a reversal of recent Republican gains.  In 2014, Larry Hogan upset the Democratic candidate, Anthony Brown.  In 2018, the circumstances will be dramatically different.

First of all, Brown ran a truly dreadful campaign.  Second, Hogan was largely unknown and managed to portray himself as a moderate Republican back when people still believed such a person existed.  Unicorns were in fashion that year as well.  Finally, Donald Trump was not the president.

This year, Democratic turnout  will almost certainly be significantly higher than it was in 2014.  The party’s large registration advantage means that Hogan will be facing strong head winds no matter what he does.  So far, he has tried to walk a difficult tightrope, paying lip service to bipartisanship but relishing attacks on the General Assembly’s Democratic leadership and on Baltimore.  His record of accomplishments is thin and all of his vetoes have been overridden.

As the recent Gonzales survey shows, Hogan continues to be very popular in public opinion polls, but that has not translated into support for his re-election.  While the Democratic field running for the nomination is large and the outcome is far from settled, any of the leading candidates is likely to be a formidable opponent for Hogan in the fall.  In fact, if you have an opportunity to wager on the outcome, bet on Hogan being a one-term governor.

How will these political forces play out in other state elections?  Democrats have veto-proof majorities in both legislative bodies and picking up additional seats is probably a stretch.  On the other hand, incumbents who might normally be considered vulnerable are much more likely to be re-elected in the political climate that will surround the November election.

If you think of suburban counties in Maryland as the best opportunity for Democrats to pick up offices currently held by Republicans, the jurisdiction that looks most like the Philadelphia suburbs is Howard County.  In the Democratic debacle of 2014, Republican Allan Kittleman was elected County Executive.  While he remains popular, he will face a strong challenger in County Council member Calvin Ball.  Regardless of how county voters see Kittleman’s record, he is going to have a really tough struggle to retain his office in a year in which Democrats have so much going for them.

A final example.  There are areas in Howard County where Republicans have almost always done well.  One is the state legislative seat currently held by Bob Flanagan, a long-time office holder who was Transportation Secretary under Republican Governor Bob Ehrlich. Flanagan has not been particularly visible and has little or no impact as a member of the minority in the House of Delegates.  Don’t be surprised if he loses his re-election bid to Courtney Watson who ran against Kittleman in the bad Democratic year of 2014.

While there are several months left until the November election and all sorts of things could happen in the meantime, just about every political indicator now points to a highly motivated and energized Democratic electorate going to the polls and sweeping large numbers of Republicans out of office.  Carrying the burden of Donald Trump as their party leader will be more than they can overcome.

The Silence of the Lemmings

Donald Trump is an awful excuse for a human being. He finds new ways to demonstrate that irrefutable truth every day.

Trump is a racist, something that was evident to anyone paying attention long before his most recent outburst. He is a pathological liar whose lies sometime have a purpose and other times seem more like reflex actions, his natural state of being.

The President is uninformed, lacking a scintilla of curiosity. He doesn’t read. His attention span is so short that briefing him on an important topic is almost impossible.

Psychiatrists should be reluctant to go on the public record. However, it doesn’t take medical training to recognize that he is a narcissist, might well fit the definition of a sociopath and offers a textbook’s worth of material for studying abnormal personality traits.

And yet, almost all the members of one of this country’s two major political parties act as if they are deaf, dumb and blind to these obvious characteristics.  The Emperor has no clothes on, but Republicans are still committed to admiring his non-existent outfit.

Every once in a while, but remarkably infrequently, one of them offers tepid criticism of something that Trump said, but so weakly as to lack any impact.  Speaker of the House Paul Ryan is the master of the mealy-mouthed non-comment, but he certainly has lots of company.

A new version of “Profiles in Courage” focused on Republican Members of Congress would be nothing but blank pages.  When Trump bragged during the presidential campaign that he could shoot someone on 5th Avenue and no one would care, did we realize that he was including Congressional Republicans in that assertion?

At this point in the Trump era, he may continue to shock us, but he no longer surprises us.  There is no bottom to what he is capable of doing, no act too outrageous, no assertion beyond his imagination.  He is, he tells us, “the least racist person in the world”, the individual who “understands the health care system better than anyone else,” “the best deal maker ever.”  The rest of us shake our heads in dismay while Republicans act as if what he is doing and saying is normal.

The crazy–is there really another word for it?–meeting in the White House to discuss immigration legislation last week is the latest example.  Trump was reported to be furious that a bipartisan proposal included special provisions for refugees from Haiti, El Salvador and several African countries.

According to the one Democrat in the room, Senator Richard Durbin of Illinois, Trump fumed about letting people into this country from “shithole” places such as those.  Two Republican Senators who were also in the meeting first claimed that they could not remember what he said and later denied that Trump used those precise words.  Trump himself offered a weasely explanation that his words had been “rough” but not what Durbin claimed.  He and his minions have not provided their version of what Trump  said.

On Monday, the extent of Republican complicity in covering for his racist language became clear.  Multiple sources assert the word Trump used was “shithouse” rather than “shithole.”  Based on that very narrow distinction, Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas and Senator David Perdue of Georgia defended Trump.

I don’t know to what circle of Hell Dante would assign Cotton, Perdue and Trump’s other Republican enablers, but it would certainly be one of the hotter ones.

For Mitch McConnell, Paul Ryan and other Republicans, Trump is a “useful idiot.”  While it’s clear that he had little understanding of the provisions of the tax bill and made all sorts of dishonest assertions about it, his presence in the White House allowed a group of hardline conservatives to pass legislation that they have salivated about for years.  Despite his wildly exaggerated opinion of himself, the movie version of this story would have Trump played by Charlie McCarthy, the dummy manipulated by Edgar Bergen.

Is there any action that Trump might take that would go too far for Congressional Republicans?  They are clearly unconcerned about Russian interference in the 2016 election.  Will they continue to be indifferent to future meddling?  Trump’s administration has taken no actions to prevent future cyber-penetration and Republicans have shown no willingness to acknowledge that America’s security is at risk.

Similarly, they seem untroubled by Trump’s assertions–totally without merit–that there was widespread voter fraud in 2016.  In fact, the party that once had Lincoln as its standard-bearer fully supports a wide assortment of voter suppression schemes.  Efforts to undermine our democratic system don’t set off any alarm bells for Republicans.

What about the risk that Trump will initiate or provoke a war with North Korea?  Or that his bellicose rhetoric and hostility to diplomacy will lead to renewed fighting in the Middle East?  Whatever your favorite metaphor for indifference–fiddling while Rome burns or whistling past the graveyard– Republicans refuse to take seriously the dangers that this unhinged president poses to world peace.

Last, but certainly not least, how will Republicans respond as Robert Mueller closes in on Trump, his family and his co-conspirators?  If Trump tries to fire Mueller, the early indications are that his party will excuse his action as a legitimate response to a partisan witch hunt.

We are in scary territory.  Politics has never been, as the old saying goes, beanbag, but there has usually been an assumption that, when push comes to shove, country does come before party.  Right now, it’s hard to argue such a principle is alive in the Republican Party.

At long last, have they no sense of decency?

Oprah for President?

 

A lot of people got very excited during the Golden Globe Awards to hear a thoughtful and articulate celebrity discuss important public issues. It’s hard not to see the reaction as in part a backlash against the incoherent ramblings of the “very stable genius” in the White House. In addition, however, Oprah Winfrey’s remarks addressed in a direct, no-nonsense fashion the long-standing cloud of sexual harassment and unequal treatment of women that has characterized the entertainment industry forever.

It’s definitely a talk that people should hear and share. Winfrey’s use of a public platform with millions of viewers to deliver her message was a brilliant choice on her part. She accomplished her task with style, eloquence and inspiration.

Should her Golden Globes speech be seen as the kickoff for a presidential campaign? Winfrey is certainly among the best known and most admired people in the country. Those are assets that any candidate would love to have in their pursuit of a presidential nomination. Are they enough to make her a serious and credible contender for the presidency in 2020?

That question has already generated a national debate.  For many, the stunning contrast to the crass narcissism of Donald Trump makes her a very appealing choice.  Compare a man who apparently doesn’t read at all to a woman who has made books a central part of her public identity.  Trump’s persona is one of conflict and division while Winfrey seems to be much more about building bridges and making connections.

Yet, even many of her strongest admirers question whether her status as a celebrity, not a person who has experience in government, public service or leadership in a large organization, is the right profile for a presidential candidate.  Any evaluation of her qualifications has to look at more that whether she is a better person than Donald Trump.  That’s way too low a bar.

My guess is that the Winfrey “boomlet” will probably fade fairly quickly.  To be a serious presidential candidate, she would have to do more that make great speeches.  She would have to raise money–which she probably would have no difficulty in doing.  She would have to take positions on important issues of the day and have some depth of understanding about them.  The fact that Trump has mastered none of the understanding is not a sufficient measure.  The anti-Trump has to be better, more knowledgable, more thoughtful, able to effectively deliver a coherent message.

Winfrey would also have to start meeting with political leaders, donors, the media and regular voters.  She certainly seems to have the skills to handle the human interactions, but whether she has the temperament, patience and endurance remains to be seen.  To seek the presidency, a person has to really desperately want the office and be willing to put up with a long, hard process that often makes little sense at the moment.

I am less concerned that she is a celebrity than that she is, in political terms, an amateur.  You may think professional politicians have not always served us well and you would certainly be correct.  But many have.  Trump’s non-existent public resume is unique in presidential history.  Our least successful chief executives have struggled because they came unprepared for the job.

There are great risks to turning the levers of power over to people who have neither  experience with, nor understanding of, how government works, what the constraints–formal and informal–are, and the realization that getting things done is more about persuasion than the exercise of formal authority.

Donald Trump’s ascension to the presidency has to be seen as an anomaly.  Moreover, his lack of deference to the Constitution, his stunning ignorance about the most basic features of our government system and his lack of perspective, historical and otherwise, should convince all thoughtful voters  never to go down the celebrity path again.

We are at a perilous moment in our history.  If we are successfully to overcome the threat the Trump presidency poses to our most basic values and institutions, we must have leaders who understand and appreciate those values and institutions.

I have no idea whether Oprah Winfrey has those qualities.  I loved her speech and how it inspired many Americans.  If she really wants to be taken seriously as a prospective leader of this country, however, she has a lot of learning and a lot of very hard work to do.  I don’t preclude the possibility that she could do it, but we have too little to go on at this point to judge her as anything other than a smart, articulate individual.

That she gave all of us a moment of hope and inspiration is something we should all cherish.   Let’s not, however, get ahead of ourselves.

 

 

2017: A Year Out of Focus

 

Year-end reviews usually seek to offer perspective on events of the prior 12 months.  As I thought about how to approach that task for 2017, I realized that this past year had been a bit off from the start, never quite in focus, not fitting in with any standards by which we usually make comparisons.

Still, shouldn’t we be able to summon the means to make sense of what has admittedly been a jarring period and maybe even learn some lessons from the experience?  If not, we run the risk of repeating a history that seems to many of us to be bending its arc in the wrong direction.  That version of “Groundhog Day” would be more horror show than comedy.

The presidency of Donald Trump and its assault on long-standing traditions and norms of our political system is certainly not the only important story of 2017, but it is in many respects the central one.  Yet, even as we were living through the first 12 months of an administration unprecedented in American history, it was incredibly difficult to stay focused on the most significant developments and not be distracted by the numerous sideshows, some deliberate and some just “Trump being Trump.”

As much as I am appalled by many of the policy decisions made by the President and the Republican Congress in 2017–the tax bill, the relentless attacks on the Affordable Care Act, the dismantling of environmental protections, the undermining of alliances and international agreements—all of those actions and more were the inevitable byproducts of the 2016 election results.

We have to hope that future elections will produce public officials who reverse many of those actions and move the country in a different direction.  Great damage is being done in the meantime to the  nation as well as to individuals, but, as both voters and non-voters must realize, elections have consequences.

My greatest concern is with the very real threat—and I don’t believe I am engaging in hyperbole—to our democratic system of government.  Trump has trashed long-standing political norms—not releasing his tax returns, not divesting his business and financial holdings, appointing relatives to senior White House positions, trying to delegitimize the media, calling into question the validity of election results, treating truth as a plaything to be disregarded at his whim.  Whether those norms and standards can be re-established after the Trump Presidency is far from certain.

The future may be even worse.  His Justice Department is supporting efforts in multiple states to disenfranchise voters.  His commission on voter fraud is a transparent gimmick to limit access to the ballot box.  His rhetoric in the aftermath of the 2016 election could foreshadow moves in 2018 and 2020 to nullify votes and even election results.  Preventing that possibility requires public vigilance, legal challenges and electing officials who will oppose his efforts rather than blindly following his lead.

My review of what is significant about Trump’s first year in office has no room for his tweets, for Ivanka and Jared, for the greed and lack of ethical standards of members of his cabinet or for his generally crass behavior.  I’ll leave those topics to the re-energized media as well as to late night comics.

On the other hand, there are a number of areas in which Trump’s failure to act has had enormous significance.  His administration’s refusal to take seriously Russian interference in the 2016 elections and its continuing cyber-attacks on this country is a serious dereliction of duty in not protecting our national security.  His indifference to the impact of growing inequality in the United States poses a serious risk to the country’s long-term stability.  Is there a point at which the economic imbalance becomes so great that it threatens the relative political stability that has endured since 1789?

Two additional trends from 2017–both relevant to the Trump Presidency but neither merely the product of it—also make my review.  2017 unearthed a level of tension in race relations in this country that had been submerged for many years.  This hostility became more visible partly as a backlash to the presidency of Barack Obama but also in response to the overt encouragement and racial “dog whistles” of his successor.

There were many moments during the year that illustrated those patterns, but none so vivid as Trump’s comments in the aftermath of the white supremacist march in Charlottesville, Virginia.  As if that weren’t enough encouragement for undercover racists, Trump’s Chief of Staff John Kelly, often described as the only adult in the room, offered his own revisionist interpretation of the Civil War in which he downplayed the role of slavery.  The “good people on both sides”line was a much clearer signal than any wink or nod might have been.

The other major development of the year, celebrated by Time magazine, was the “#MeToo” movement.  Demonstrating that all roads in 2017 led back to Trump, the accusations of sexual harassment and worse that led to the ousting and resignations of many powerful males in the last few months generally paled in comparison to the list of those making similar claims about Trump.  Yet, he remains in office vigorously defended by his base supporters including many Evangelical Christians.

As awful as much of 2017 was, there were a few encouraging signs of a willingness to fight back against Trump.  Elections in Virginia, New Jersey and Alabama have been seen by some as the precursors of a Democratic tsunami in 2018.  Unprecedented numbers of women running for public office are starting to break up the old patterns of traditional politics.  High turnout in the normally low turnout off-year election of 2017 offers the hope that sleepy Democrats may finally be waking up.

If you were paying attention only to day-to-day events, to the seemingly endless stream of distractions and outrages, 2017 was a truly depressing year.  There were, in addition, some dreadful policy outcomes.  However, if you are looking for any glimmers of hope, the new activism, particularly among women—and specifically, in Alabama, African-American women—gives you something to hold on to.

Fighting back against the darkness requires having hope that change can be achieved if we all work hard enough at it.  That needs to be the theme of 2018.

A Gift for my Grandchildren

When I was three years old, my mother gave me an extraordinary gift. Against incredible odds, she got the two of us to this country after the communist regime in Hungary executed my father. Fortunately, there was no ban at that time preventing refugees escaping dangerous places from entering the United States.

I have always been grateful for the privilege of living in a nation that values individual freedom and liberty and strives to be a democracy.  Winston Churchill once said that democracy is the worst system of government in the world except for every other one.  As someone whose family suffered greatly from two of those others—Nazi Germany and the Communist Soviet Union— I truly believe that this is a great country even when, at times, it falls short of its ideals.

Perhaps because I acquired my citizenship rather than being born with it, I have always treated it as something to be cherished.  Since I first became eligible to vote, I have never missed an Election Day.  I have always strived to be an well-informed citizen.  For much of my professional career, I taught politics and government to college students.  Even in retirement, I have remained engaged in public affairs through reading, writing and discussion.

With that  history as my guide, I find myself in despair about today’s  dysfunctional politics.   We are witnessing government behavior–because, really, who could call it policy– under Donald Trump and the Republican Congress that is dominated by dishonesty, a total absence of ethics, mean spiritedness and greed.  In a lifetime devoted to the study of politics as well as of being a direct participant, I never imaged we would sink this low.

The people of the United States are better than this.  Only a small portion of Americans support the direction that Trump and the Republicans are taking us.  On almost every important issue you can think of—the tax bill, climate change, health care, a woman’s right to make decisions about her own body, civil rights, the rights of the LBGTQ community, gun regulation, foreign affairs—clear majorities of Americans oppose the policies of Trump, Ryan, McConnell and their lock-step followers.

Their unpopular and unrepresentative actions have been made possible largely as the result of two malignancies in the political system.  One is the oversized impact of unregulated money.  Influence, votes and policy are all for sale.  You might add Members of Congress to that list.

The second factor is gerrymandering, the drawing of legislative boundaries to create safe seats.  Sadly for the health of our politics, Republicans have been incredibly adroit and ruthless at gaining control of the redistricting process and then pushing their advantage to the limit.

The result is  a House of Representatives in which Democrats win more votes nationally but end up with fewer seats.  The same thing has happened in a large number of state legislatures.  Similarly, Republicans control the U.S. Senate in part because they win most of the states with smaller populations but which still have two senators each.  And never forget that Donald Trump lost the popular vote for president in 2016.  While the latter two features are embedded in the Constitution, the result, when combined with “dark money” and gerrymandering, is a government that need not be responsive to the majority of citizens and their interests.

This is not the country I want to leave to my grandchildren.  Neither do I want them  ever to wonder if I might have done more to fight against those who would change our form of government to that of the few, an oligarchy, or worse yet, a dictatorship.  I don’t doubt for a second that Trump will take us there if he can and that some in this country, including some in Congress, would be silent, complicit or enthusiastic supporters.

My best hope is that there are lots of other patriotic Americans who feel the same way I do.  The single most important thing people can do to save this country is to vote in the 2018 election.  Democrats in large numbers have ignored off-year elections for too long with dire consequences.  2018 provides an opportunity, if enough voters show up, to sweep Republicans out of office in historic numbers and send an unmistakable message to President Trump.  Let me repeat, the single most important thing  people can do to save this country is to vote in the 2018 election.

An essential step, but even more is needed to ensure victory.  Whatever level of political donations you’ve made in the past, this is the year to greatly increase it.  Your grandchildren will be the beneficiaries of that investment in their future.  If you haven’t donated in the past, this is the year to start a new habit.  We can all wish that money weren’t important in politics, but it is.  Fight back against the big money and give more than you think you can.

As with many friends, I vacillate between rage, depression and renewed determination.  The first two don’t do any good even though they are hard to avoid.  What motivates me and keeps me focused is the gift my mother gave me all those years ago and my determination to pay it forward to my grandchildren.

An Agenda for Democrats

Donald Trump will continue to provide lots of material to keep Democratic activists motivated in 2018. That’s not enough, however, if Democrats are going to regain control of one or both houses of Congress and make significant progress in state gubernatorial and legislative races.  Success in next year’s elections requires fighting for specific goals, not just being opposed to what the President is doing, as awful as that is.

So far,  we’ve heard a lot of agonizing over the absence of a clear Democratic message.  That’s really not very helpful.  The party-out-of-power is also spending an inordinate amount of time refighting the battles of both the 2016 nominating process and the stunning defeat in that year’s presidential election.  To round out this trifecta of navel gazing, there’s plenty of despair about the absence of a clear front-runner for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination.

Much of what’s wrong with the Democratic Party in the 21st century is a preoccupation with presidential politics to the almost total exclusion of every other office, particularly at the state and local level.   Rather than devoting so much time to finding a savior, Democrats would be much better off giving their time, attention and money to recruiting a new generation of candidates, winning state and local elections and building a coalition that addresses the interests and concerns of the great majority of Americans.

In fact, there will be a strong, dynamic presidential candidate in 2020.  It’s okay we don’t yet know who that is.  There are many rising stars who just haven’t gotten national attention yet.  The list of potentially appealing candidates–mayors, governors, members of Congress and some who don’t hold political office–is so substantial that the challenge will be picking among them.

Let’s dispense with one piece of the 2016 post-mortem.  Trump’s continued support by much, although not all, of his base shows that no Democratic candidate is likely to win their support.  No campaign should have to reach out to racists, xenophobes, sexists or bigots of any stripe to win an election.  Those individuals are far from a majority in this country and in no way represent what the United States stands for.  Of course there are some Trump voters who do not fall into any of those categories and some may be open to the appeal of a thoughtful progressive candidate.

A Democratic message will emerge through the campaigns of candidates for offices at all levels of government.  Litmus tests are not required; not every Democrat has to agree on every issue.  Neither is it useful to have a long check list of issues that define the Party.  Political parties, to be successful, have to be coalitions that allow differences, dissent and flexibility.

My own take on a potential Democratic agenda may not appeal to you.  That’s okay because I view it as a first draft.  I’ve focused on broad themes and connections that ties issues together.  Your favorite cause may not be explicitly mentioned although I might still agree with you about its importance.   Finally, I have deliberately kept this list relatively short on the premise that most voters will focus on only a few key priorities.

  1. Invest in the future.  People will have different ideas about what fits into this category.  Without necessarily excluding other suggestions, I would start with: education, infrastructure, environmental protection.
  2. Everyone deserves to be treated fairly and with dignity.  A few years ago, I might not have felt the need to say this directly, but the attacks on a whole range of groups and individuals in more recent times makes it imperative.  My list under this admonition is long, but I prefer to state the principal rather than run the risk of leaving out any who are at risk.
  3. Build an economy for a global, interdependent world.  Most commentators agree that Democrats need an economic message, but are hard pressed to articulate what it should be.  #1 above covers some of it.
    • Make sure that all Americans have access to the education and training needed to become productive workers.
    • Global competition means that there will be losers;  automation means that some of the jobs that exist now will disappear.   This country needs to do a much better job of retraining those who lose jobs through no fault of their own.  We need to recognize that transitions to new employment will be longer and harder than we have been willing to support up to now.
    • Government support for research and development needs to be increased, not decreased as the current administration is doing.  Similarly, support for universities and for graduate education needs to be seen as one of the pillars of a robust and competitive economy, not merely as a line item in the budget to be cut.
    • Support industries of the future, such as those related to a sustainable environment, that need help in the early stages of development.  Republicans object to “picking winners and losers in the economy,” but actually do that all the time, just with different beneficiaries.
  4. Everyone deserves quality health care at an affordable price.  Democrats were on the political defensive about the Affordable Care Act until Republicans started their ugly and disjointed effort to take it away.  Americans then discovered that they actually like many of the features of Obamacare.  Whatever ends up happening in the short-term, supporting a system of universal health care is both right and a political winner.
  5. Support the institutions and individual rights that make the United States a democracy.  Fight back against voter suppression and gerrymandering.  Don’t let the Department of Justice, the court system or the rule of law become political tools.

I could make the list longer and certainly could expand on the explanations, but I mean this to be a starting point.   Most fundamentally, I don’t think a winning Democratic message, whether it’s my version or someone else’s, is that hard to develop.  Of course, candidates who can articulate and argue the case effectively are required.  A free and independent press is also important.  The push back against Trump’s fake new campaign is actually a hopeful sign.

Finally, we have to have an informed and engaged electorate.  Too often, Democrats have stayed home in off-year elections and in state and local contests.  The activism of innumerable groups that sprung into life after the 2016 presidential election should give us all hope.

This is a fight for the very existence of our form of government.  It is a fight that can be won.  If we make the effort. Freedom doesn’t come like a bird on the wing.  Every generation has to win it again.

 

Happy Holidays to Trump Voters Everywhere

Donald Trump has been president for almost one full year.  To those who voted for him: You must have a lot to be thankful for.

Those of us who supported the candidate who lost in the Electoral College have been admonished frequently since then to try to understand your point of view and your grievances. We are told that if only Hillary Clinton had paid more attention to you and your concerns, the election outcome might have been different.

Maybe so.  Public opinion polls continue to show that you have no regrets about your vote last November, that you continue to strongly support Trump’s performance as president. It’s obvious that those of us who are so opposed to what his Administration is doing are missing something.

In that spirit, I’ve been examining what the President has accomplished to retain your support and loyalty. What have been the benefits for you of having Donald Trump as president of the United States? To deepen whatever understanding we can glean from the record of the first year, it’s also worth examining your attitudes on key issues of the day as reflected in public opinion polls.

Most observers agree that the president’s biggest victory this year was the confirmation of Neil Gorsuch to be the newest justice on the U.S. Supreme Court.  While he owes much of that win to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell–who prevented a vote on President Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland in 2016 and then changed the Senate rules to allow confirmation by a simple majority in 2017 –a win is a win.  Additionally, the Administration is on a near record pace to fill federal judgeships, in part because so many vacancies were held over from the previous year.

The Trump Administration has rolled back a lot of regulations, particularly in the area of environmental protection.  As long as you don’t care about climate change or the quality of the air you breath or the water you drink–and polls suggest that you don’t–everything is good.

The President hasn’t done quite so well with other executive actions.  Courts  have rejected a number of his orders, beginning with his “Muslim ban.”  No funds have been appropriated for the “big, beautiful wall” between the United States and Mexico.  These were two of the issues that got the most boisterous applause during the campaign.  The polling seems to indicate that you are content with his efforts on these promises, regardless of the results, and maybe that you didn’t really take them too seriously in the first place.

Meanwhile, Trump’s appointees to the Federal Communications Commission have indicated that they will roll back the previous Administration’s rules on “net neutrality.”  Sounds like a pretty technical issue, doesn’t it?   The new rules may increase your cable bill, decrease the speed at which you can download and limit the sites you can access, but don’t worry because all the big cable companies are delighted with the change.  You like big cable companies, don’t you?

What about  other priorities?  Republicans have been trying all year to get rid of the Affordable Care Act.  After several failed efforts to “repeal and replace”, they are now trying instead to sabotage it.  Should they succeed, these attempts would, as judged by independent assessments, lead to millions of Americans either losing their health insurance or having to pay much more for it.

As Trump supporters during the campaign, you roared your approval whenever the candidate attacked “Obamacare.”  Now, you may be getting your wish.  Your continued support for the President suggests that either you approve of the trashing of the Affordable Care Act or you don’t  understand the impact it will have on you personally.

The other big item on the Republican agenda this year, one with strong vocal support from Trump, is tax “reform.”  The current versions, one passed by the House of Representations and another still being crafted in the Senate, would bring the largest benefits to corporations and the country’s wealthiest individuals.

Most non-partisan assessments conclude that the middle and working class are likely to lose out as the result of proposed tax legislation.  Democrats have been confounded by the apparent willingness of working class Trump backers to act against their own economic self-interest.  What is most likely in this case is that those supporters see the reports that they will be harmed by the Republican bills as “fake news.” In any case, you don’t seem troubled so far by the newest give-away to those who need it the least.

The controversy over the Republican candidate for the Senate from Alabama, Roy Moore, offers additional insight into the Trump coalition.  Even before the President all but endorsed Moore last week, polling showed that a plurality of Republicans were willing to support Moore despite the multiple allegations that he pursued teenage girls while in his early 30s.  As Trump said explicitly, you view it as better to have a Republican sexual pervert than any Democrat.

The unholy alliance between Trump and Moore reveals other disturbing patterns as well.  Moore has demonstrated over and over again that he has no respect for the rule of law.  He has been removed from office twice for failing to uphold the U.S. Constitution.  Both Trump and Moore readily employ racist dog whistles, openly display their homophobia and generally appeal to people’s worst instincts.

Frankly, these examples make me wonder if my efforts to better understand Trump supporters are doomed to failure.  Support for a thoroughly discredited person like Moore represents the most egregious sort of  partisan tribalism.  It seems to be yet another demonstration that Trumpism has taken control of the “soul” of the Republican Party.

Maybe that is what you wanted all along.  In that case, this whole effort to find common ground may just be a big waste of time.  The only thing that makes sense at this point, if you are determined to keep supporting a president who is so damaging the country–which is,  after all, your country as well–is to start organizing for the next election.

Let’s get together next November and see how having Donald Trump and Roy Moore as the voices of your party works out for you.

 

 

 

Dealing with Political Overload

The political news these days comes barreling at you in relentless waves, and so much of it is depressing, discouraging and scary.  And, of course, some of it is merely a distraction, bright shiny objectives that have little or no real importance.  Worse yet, some of it is fake.

If you are a person who feels a responsibility to keep up with current affairs, to be knowledgable about what our government and its leaders are doing, you can’t just shut yourself off or bury your head in the sand.

To take an example, how does someone sift through the torrent of news items from the past couple of week?  Roy Moore and teenage girls.  A Republican tax bill that threatens to exacerbate the income and inequality gap in this country.  Continuing Congressional efforts to sabotage the Affordable Care Act.  Mass shootings followed by Congressional “thoughts and prayers.”  Jeff Session’s incredible shrinking memory.  Donald Trump’s foreign travels that emphasized his high esteem for dictators.  More revelations about Trump campaign officials meeting with Russians during the presidential campaign.  The threat of a nuclear war with North Korea.   Further dismantling of environmental protections by the EPA.

And the surprisingly positive results from the 2017 election.

I’ve only scratched the surface, but even this list is more than most of us can absorb.   Yet, our in-baskets are filled with countless news summaries and updates.  Some of us start the day with “Morning Joe” and make sure we are still up to date by evening by checking in with Rachel Maddow.

The challenge is finding the happy medium between being constantly outraged and being disengaged.  How do you fulfill your responsibility to be an informed citizen without driving yourself crazy?

I certainly haven’t figured out a foolproof approach, but looking back at recent events may help develop some rough guidelines.  In any cases, here’s my best shot.

Robert Mueller is going to figure out whether there was collusion or improper contacts between the Trump campaign and Russia.  Neither the additional public revelations nor the continuing denials will change that.  Until the investigation fingers the President or people really close to him, it’s not important to follow the day-to-day drama.  That should free up a lot of time and emotion.

Roy Moore is a Republican problem.  That party is now in a lose-lose situation of its own making.  We already have enough information to confirm without doubt that Moore is a slimy hypocrite and sexual predator.  Additional disclosures will only be further confirmation.  Other than the priceless material he is providing to late night comics, Moore isn’t worth much of our attention.

When the Alabama election results are in, one of two things will happen, either of which is significant.  Democrats may pick up a Senate seat which would cut the Republican majority to one.  That would be important.  On the other hand, a Moore victory would mean that every Republican office holder for the foreseeable future would have to answer questions about the Party’s association with him, a prospect none of them will relish.

Both Donalds, the original and Jr., are going to continue their vaudeville performances.  Much of it is tweets and stupidity signifying nothing.  We know Jr. is a lightweight who has stumbled into incriminating acts, but his antics are only worth Mueller’s attention, not ours.

President Trump is obviously a more complicated category.  He draws a lot of attention for his erratic behavior, his buffoonery, his endless lies that often have no point and his stunning lack of a moral compass.  While we shouldn’t ignore those characteristics, neither is it worth obsessing about them.  He is what he is.

On the other hand, his actions should get our attention.  In foreign affairs, he has already done great damage to this country’s national interests and seems eager to do even more.  Pulling out of the international climate agreement.  Shredding trade deals.  Calling into question our collective security treaties.  Engaging in irrational taunting of North Korea.  Acting as if Vladimir Putin is our friend rather than a deadly enemy.

Trump has sacrificed our leadership position in the world, has made us a less reliable partner to our allies, has failed to understand much less respond to the serious threats that this country faces.  Our attention and activism should be focused on these areas, not on his idiotic tweets.

Similarly, the tax bill now under consideration by Congress, the efforts to dismantle the health care system and the relentless attacks on environmental regulations should have all of us up in arms.  Public opinion and political pressure have already contributed significantly to the many failures of the Trump legislative agenda.  This is no time to stop.

Nor  should we ever accept the level and frequency of deadly gun violence in this country as normal, as just another day in America.  Rather than periodic upswings of attention when another massacre occurs, we need to push every day for sensible gun laws.

With all the time that my suggestions have freed up from your day, the best way in which you can change the political landscape and at the same time enhance your mental health is to get involved in state and local elections in 2018.  As the results of last week’s elections demonstrate, there is a real opportunity to make significant gains in state legislatures.  The political winds are shifting and may even lead to a change in party control of both houses of Congress.

The winds aren’t enough however.  Volunteering, organizing, and making campaign contributions are essential if the light is to be restored to American politics.