Subpoenas Aren’t Optional, and Other Impeachment Musings

Apparently, being Donald Trump’s personal lawyer means you forget how the law is supposed to work. (Photo Credit: Gage Skidmore/Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0)

In May, when former White House Counsel Don McGahn was called to testify before the House Judiciary Committee regarding information sought related to Robert Mueller’s investigation into possible conspiracy and obstruction charges for President Donald Trump and other members of his transition team, McGahn willingly defied the subpoena.

For a political figure like Trump and others around him, that McGahn would simply no-show members of Congress is, while almost unprecedented, not particularly surprising. We’ve thrown out the book on presidential behavior and politics as usual so often lately that the binding is cracked and our arms are worn out from the repetitive action.

Still, you would hope as a lawyer that McGahn would have some respect for the law and legal precepts. Besides, and at any rate, you’re, um, not supposed to be able to up and refuse a subpoena like that. As Committee chair Jerry Nadler put it, “Our subpoenas are not optional. We will not allow the president to stop this investigation.” He also warned that McGahn could face contempt charges for failing to appear before the House Judiciary Committee.

This was several months ago, when House Democrats were dancing around the very idea of impeachment and seeking an alternate route to accessing information about Trump’s potential impeachable offenses. It’s October now. Needless to say, the paradigm has shifted regarding the launch of a formal impeachment inquiry. With a majority of House Democrats and even members of the Senate/presidential candidates favoring impeachment, and with Speaker Nancy Pelosi publicly indicating plans to move forward with impeachment proceedings, there is yet greater urgency to compel prospective witnesses to comply with congressional ultimatums.

Unfortunately, that urgency is lost on these witnesses themselves. Sure, the exact circumstances are different than they were a few months prior. Pelosi and Co’s. decision to finally go ahead with impeachment was brought about by a whistleblower complaint which has since come to light from an unnamed individual in U.S. intelligence made in August.

Among other things, the whistleblower alleges Trump pressured Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky multiple times to investigate Hunter Biden, Joe Biden’s son, regarding his role as a board member of a Ukrainian energy company. Despite Trump’s assertions, there is no evidence either Biden did anything wrong within this sphere of influence. As with the focus on Hillary Clinton and her numerous supposed scandals prior to the 2016 election, however, the suggestion alone may be sufficient to sway the minds of voters. And to be clear, Biden, despite numerous bad policy positions (past and present) and the real possibility he is losing his mind, is still the odds-on favorite to win the Democratic Party presidential nomination. Please excuse me while I bang my head against a wall for a moment.

Seriously, though, this is serious business involving Trump. Asking for a foreign leader to investigate a political rival not as a matter of national security, but as a matter of personal political gain, may be a crime and is probably an impeachable offense. Either way, and getting to the central point about testifying before Congress, persons of interest within the context of an impeachment inquiry should not be treating subpoenas as if they’re tickets to some voluntary information session, some theoretical event. As Merriam-Webster defines subpoena, it is “a writ commanding a person designated in it to appear in court under a penalty for failure.” It’s not a request.

Try telling that to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, though, who has admitted he was on the call between Trump and Zelensky and has stated that he won’t comply with a House Foreign Affairs Committee subpoena, has vowed to fight the deposition of other State Department officials in the service of impeachment proceedings, and who has labeled the committee’s “request” (which, again, isn’t a request) as an attempt to “intimidate, bully, and treat improperly the distinguished professionals of the Department of State.” As Pompeo would have you believe, committee chair Eliot Engel will personally hold down each of these “distinguished professionals” and take their lunch money, whereupon they will be given wedgies and quite possibly will be forced into their own lockers.

Trump personal lawyer and morning talk show resident-crazy-person Rudy Giuliani also has commented about a subpoena in terms of something to which he may or may not accede. Evidently, Giuliani has received subpoenas from three different House committees, but claims that before a “proper” decision can be made, a number of issues have to be weighed, including attorney-client privilege, “substantial constitutional and legal issues,” and “other privileges.” What’s that, Mr. Giuliani? Adhering to the law might involve the Constitution and other legal principles? You don’t say! Never mind that attorney-client privilege might not actually apply in your case because you’re such a blabbermouth. But I digress.

For a House committee issuing a subpoena, when one of the objects of its investigatory powers fails to acquiesce to its summons, what recourse does it possess? Well, one option is to involve the courts. Regarding McGahn’s earlier refusal to appear before Congress and to try to nullify a larger strategy of the White House’s to shield presidential advisers from being held accountable, the House Judiciary Committee filed a lawsuit in August with the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia to force McGahn to testify. The White House has claimed McGahn has “absolute immunity” from being made to testify before the Committee, a concept which has been used by past administrations but hasn’t been fully tested by the courts.

The problem with this route? It, well, takes time. As stated in the New York Times article linked above, this case could take months or longer to resolve. With a presidential election little more than a year from now, this is obviously far from ideal. As Judd Legum, author of the political newsletter Popular Information, and others have pointed out, meanwhile, another possibility exists in invoking inherent contempt.

Congress hasn’t invoked inherent contempt in more than seven decades, but in this case and given the gravity of the Trump administration’s repeated attempted erosion of the Constitution and democracy overall, it seems well warranted. It certainly is a more direct path to try to get a particular target to comply. Upon the passing of a resolution to execute an arrest warrant, the desired party is taken into custody, tried for contempt, and if found guilty, can be detained or imprisoned “until the obstruction to the exercise of legislative power is removed.” The legislature can also fine the non-compliant party for failing to observe its authority, as Rep. Mike Quigley has publicly observed.

If House Democrats are truly forthright about wanting to carry out an impeachment inquiry with any due sense of efficiency, they shouldn’t hesitate to invoke contempt for those Trump administration officials and actual freaking lawyers who apparently don’t know what a subpoena is. Sure, it may feel like an extreme step to some, particularly among the president’s defenders. Then again, as Legum would insist, “these are extraordinary times.”


Despite the notion many of us looking on at this impeachment business from the cheap seats have been anticipating such action for a long time now, an unfortunate byproduct of this unfolding scandal is that we have even more coverage of Donald Trump now. Visit one of the major cable news sites and witness the litany of Trump-oriented stories available for your consumption. Trump lashes out. Trump attacks. Trump, at his worst. Trump this. Trump that. Even in potential infamy, Trump’s name is everywhere. He couldn’t have succeeded better on this front if he had tried.

What’s particularly bad about this state of affairs is it pushes news items important in their own right to the back pages. The United Kingdom is still in political turmoil, trying to come to grips with the results of a Brexit referendum vote that seemingly never had a chance of being implemented smoothly in the first place. Foreign interference in the 2020 election is probable if not certain, with Vladimir Putin among those laughing about the very suggestion. Mohammad bin Salman and Saudi Arabia have yet to face substantive consequences for the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, and war continues in Yemen, of which the Saudis, aided by American weapons and aircraft, are key players. U.S. manufacturing is on the decline. The border crisis is anything but resolved. Deforestation and fires continue in the Amazon, a direct result of an ill-advised policy shift by Jair Bolsonaro’s Brazil. In short, there’s a lot of bad shit happening right now, and the fevered news coverage surrounding Trump’s legal and political entanglements obscures these real problems.

This isn’t to say, of course, that we shouldn’t be paying attention to the events and players relevant to the impeachment process. Even with Bill Clinton’s impeachment in the rear view mirror, so to speak, what we’re witnessing with Trump is historic and its own animal.

All the same, we should be cognizant of what we’re missing by dwelling on this single controversy. Besides, even if Trump were to be impeached and removed by Congress, that wouldn’t be the end of Republican control of the White House and Senate, nor would it magically put a stop to a rise in hate crimes and overt right-wing extremism in the United States and elsewhere. It’s not like he’s the Night King. Removing him wouldn’t mean the end of ugly rhetoric here in the United States and it wouldn’t essentially spell doom for the Republican Party’s attempts to stack the federal judiciary, target entitlement programs for cuts, and do other harm to the social safety net and fairness in representative democracy.

Donald Trump, members of his administration, and enablers of his on the outside like Rudy Giuliani may not have much regard for the rule of law. That notwithstanding, we shouldn’t treat their flippant dismissal of congressional authority as something to be considered acceptable or normal. In theory, no one is above the law. The Democrats and American news media would be wise to reinforce this idea in both their speech and actions, especially if we are to have but the semblance of confidence in them as institutions going forward.

There Sure Are a Lot of “Lone” Wolves Out There

Dylann Roof, who killed nine people in a Charleston, SC church in 2015, though considered a “lone wolf” attacker, is one of a growing number of people dining on hateful beliefs promulgated in online circles. (Photo Credit: Charleston County Sheriff’s Office)

A bar or nightclub. An office building. A place of worship. A school. Seemingly weekly, news of horrific acts of violence by a “lone wolf” attacker reaches our consciousness. Just recently, a shooting at the Chabad of Poway Synagogue in southern California, which left one person dead and three injured, made headlines.

The profile is all too familiar: a sole gunman entered and opened fire with an assault weapon. That the shooting occurred on Passover also suggests this was more than a coincidence; multiple officials, including President Donald Trump, referred to it as a “hate crime.” According to San Diego County sheriff William Gore and as first reported in USA TODAY on April 27, though law enforcement officials were still verifying its authenticity, a “manifesto” of sorts posted online around the time of the attack hinted at the shooter’s possible motivations/reasons for targeting Jews.

In terms of our experience and our feelings about these attacks, it’s difficult to know to what degree we should feel encouraged or dismayed. Concerning the Poway synagogue shooting in particular, that only one person died certainly is worth celebrating. Viewing these matters more globally, however, the verdict is less clear, and with each attack, our ability to process it all is tested.

Undoubtedly, for the communities directly impacted by this sort of violence, the brutality and sense of loss felt is profound. Recent suicides by survivors of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, FL and by the father of one of the children lost in the Sandy Hook Elementary attack speak to the devastating long-term emotional toll gun violence can effect. To say the suffering is a shared one appears wholly accurate.

Even for those of us who haven’t felt the brunt of the carnage wrought by lone wolf attackers and other perpetrators of mass violence, the repetition of the same story may be affecting in its own way. Each tragedy can feel like a punch to the gut, or worse, we may become numb to these events as a function of their apparent frequency. As is often talked about in media circles, we then run the risk of allowing these acts of terrorism to become the “new normal.”

A survivor of a 2018 school shooting in Santa Fe, when asked whether she were surprised about what transpired, replied that she felt “eventually [a shooting] was going to happen” at her school. Her resignation to this idea as a young child, sounding more defeated than optimistic, was perhaps the most heartbreaking aspect of this affair. I can only imagine how parents of young children must feel today, sending their children off to school in clear or bulletproof backpacks to participate in active shooter drills. It’s not a set of circumstances I envy.

Witnessing news reports on incidences of hate-fueled violence, as with other crimes, can make them seem more common than they actually are. We respond to the gravity of these situations and not necessarily to the statistical likelihood we will face our own personal encounters with this type of thing. Still, trends in observed data surrounding mass shootings and mass murderers are enough to cause alarm, even though the odds of an attack in our neighborhood may be comparatively slim.

Though published back in 2016, a Frontline PBS report by Katie Worth on the increasing incidence and lethality of lone wolf attacks still carries weight. Citing available research from multiple sources on the subject, Worth explains how five core findings have emerged relating to trends in this kind of violence in the United States. The findings, as she spells them out:

1. Lone wolf attacks are becoming more common. While noting these attacks are still rare and though they are nothing new, Worth details how both the number of attacks and the number of fatalities from these events have gone up in the past decade. In fact, by the date of the Frontline report, the 2010s had already surpassed all other decades in these regards, so one can only imagine where we’re at now.

2. White supremacist ideologies remain the top source of inspiration for lone wolves, though jihadism is also a significant influence. Though the left is not immune to instances of lone wolf attacks, predominantly, it is right-wing extremism which motivates these terrorists. And whether they are white supremacists or jihadis, they are terrorists. Though their exact motivations may be different (the appeal of al-Qaeda and ISIS for some young Westerners is particularly disturbing to national security experts), don’t let the absence of their condemnation and the disproportionate anti-Muslim rhetoric of conservative circles convince you there is some gargantuan divide between them.

3. Lone wolves are different than conventional terrorists. Though terrorists they may be, there are distinctions to be had. Lone wolves are mostly single white males with a criminal record, diverging from those who commit violence as part of a political organization in that they tend to be older, less educated, and significantly more prone to mental illness. Perhaps most surprisingly, lone wolf attackers motivated in part by politics tend to resemble if they aren’t patently indistinguishable from apolitical mass murderers who harbor some personal grievance. The only major difference herein is that mass murderers are more likely to perpetrate violence in a place with which they are familiar, whereas lone wolves are more likely to go somewhere previously unknown.

4. Guns are lone wolves’ weapon of choice. Though once upon a time, lone wolf attacks in America more frequently featured the use of explosives, controls on the purchase of bomb-making materials following the 1995 Oklahoma City bombings are believed to be a key factor in reducing the incidence of attacks involving explosive devices. The bad news is that the permissiveness of U.S. gun laws has afforded would-be lone wolves with a staggering array of high-velocity firearms capable of hurting or killing many people in a short span. Say what you want about the Second Amendment, but the statistics are pretty clear on this front.

5. Lone wolves usually tell others about their plans. Whether it’s a cryptic post on social media, a manifesto mailed to media outlets, or some other sign of intent, lone wolves frequently telegraph their acts of violence. Of course, prevention is no easy task and finding useful intelligence to this effect raises concerns about surveillance and possible infringement of people’s civil liberties. As the report also indicates, lone wolf attacks tend to be less effective and deadly than coordinated attacks involving multiple actors. These notions aside, with this type of threat on the rise, there is some comfort in knowing investigators have hope for stopping the next tragedy in that these threats don’t usually arise in complete isolation.


It bears underscoring that not everyone who holds extremist beliefs goes on to shoot up a church or school or what-have-you. As alluded to earlier, lone wolf attacks, though on the rise, are still fairly uncommon. It should also be noted that not everyone professing fealty to an extremist cause necessarily believes in all its tenets. As experts on the subject will aver, what complicates our understanding of lone wolf attacks is that some individuals get involved with extremist movements simply as a means of inciting violence. The backdrop of hate serves as a backdoor to inflicting pain and suffering.

From a law enforcement/criminal justice standpoint, this may facilitate their prosecution. Whatever the reasons for committing these crimes, they are highly visible. In our ever-present search for meaning, however, the obscurity of a perpetrator’s motive can lead to frustration or downright despair. How do we overcome something when its very form is elusive? To say this isn’t easy seems like the understatement of understatements. In addition, our comprehension of these matters is hindered by a lack of available information on the subject, aided (and abetted) by a shift at the federal level away from viewing all forms of domestic terrorism as such. Under President Trump, counterterrorism efforts have focused almost exclusively on Islamic terrorism.

Meanwhile, the Trump administration has eliminated distinctions between different types of domestic terrorism, conflating white supremacist violence with that of so-called “black identity extremists” in its new category of “racially-motivated violent extremism,” confusing the frequency of cases between the two. This is no accident, a move with political designs written all over them, a concession to Trump’s base and to the changing face of the Republican Party. The president’s supporters by and large do not want to contemplate the rise of white supremacist violence here and abroad. Trump and his administration are only too happy to acquiesce.

This intentional minimization of the threat posed by white supremacists in the U.S. is understandably not lost on the rest of us, especially not members of the opposition party. Earlier this month, a handful of Democratic senators including presidential hopefuls Amy Klobuchar, Cory Booker, and Kamala Harris signed and sent a letter to Attorney General William Barr (yes, that AG Barr) and FBI director Christopher Wray admonishing the Department of Justice and the Bureau for failing to adequately acknowledge and address the growing danger posed by white supremacist terrorism.

The senators also charged the DOJ and FBI with taking concrete steps to address this issue, outlining resources to be used in their efforts, and to explain why its classification system for domestic terrorism changed in the first place. Decry this as an “attack” on Trump designed to garner political capital if you will, but these concerns are undoubtedly shared by these legislators’ constituents and scores of other Americans like you and me. Even political opportunists get it right at least occasionally.

Irrespective of examples of mass shootings and other violence, the exigency of curbing white supremacist influence around the world demands action. Since Trump’s inauguration, outward shows of racism, xenophobia, and other forms of prejudice have become more mainstream. On one hand, that these dark attitudes and behaviors are becoming more visible means we are better able to combat them with love, understanding, and if necessary, peaceful resistance. On the other hand, to the extent this sense of empowerment would allow those possessing extremist beliefs to expand their reach, such transparency is recognizably problematic.

Seattle-based investigative journalist David Neiwert, in a recent opinion piece, writes about how hate groups are recruiting young people into a “toxic” belief system at an alarming rate. Addressing the increasing frequency of lone wolf attacks like the Chabad of Poway shooting, Neiwert underscores how many of these perpetrators of violence feel they are doing something heroic, fed by conspiracy theories and convinced they have taken the “red pill” and see what is real. Often, social media and other online or phone-accessible forums are the breeding ground for this hate. What’s more, we as a society need to acknowledge the proliferation of dangerous extremism for what it is. From the article:

It’s time for us to stop looking away and start paying attention. We need to acknowledge that our own children are being radicalized online, and that a social media ecosystem predicated on a toxic libertarianism that allows hateful speech to run rampant has been the main platform enabling this phenomenon. Before the arrival of the alt-right, white nationalism was on its elderly deathbed. Now the numbers are unquestionably surging with youthful converts. Judging from pure internet, social media and gaming-hub traffic, we’re talking in the hundreds of thousands, if not millions of new young white nationalists being born online right now. We need to recognize that there are policies that are fueling it, as well as irresponsible media entities doing the same — and that these things must cease.

What also must be stressed is that, while we employ the term “lone wolves” to apply to the individuals who carry out these heinous attacks, as Katie Worth’s Frontline PBS report underscores, usually someone is made aware of their intentions. To this point, Amy Spitalnick, executive director of the nonprofit Integrity First for America, writes in her own essay how anti-Semitic lone wolves aren’t really “lone” wolves at all, but rather a group hiding in plain sight.

As Spitalnick tells it, these attackers are “part of an online cabal that perpetuates this violent hate.” Whether it’s through messaging apps, 8chan, the neo-Nazi Daily Stormer website, or some other forum, lone wolves are often making their intentions to do harm known to others, with their postings reading like a “virtual road map” after the fact. These premeditations are not met with condemnation and revulsion, but acceptance, fame, and idol worship.

Along these lines, Spitalnick shares Neiwert’s sense of urgency about how to combat this disturbing phenomenon. At a minimum, she advocates for recognition of the surge in white supremacist terrorism as a national emergency, as well as investment by the federal government in programs designed to address this crisis rather than cuts and amorphous distinctions between white supremacists and “black identity extremists” which misrepresent and obscure. To boot, platforms like Twitter need to get serious about curbing abuse, harassment, hate, and threats of violence. Looking at you, @jack.

Having Donald Trump promote white nationalist views from his bully pulpit in the White House is bad in it of itself. Even if we remove him from office through electoral or other means, though, the problem won’t be solved. He is not the Night King whose defeat will suddenly mean the destruction of all other bigots around him. Trump’s rise is only the tip of the proverbial iceberg, and with all these “lone” wolves committing wanton acts of violence, the time for a unified front working to stem the spread of chilling right-wing extremism is now. To borrow another Game of Thrones reference, winter isn’t coming. It’s already here.

2018 in Review: Hey, We’re Still Here!

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and other women newly elected to Congress are a big reason for excitement leading into 2019 despite disappointments in 2018. (Photo Credit: Mark Dillman/Twitter)

Rejoice! If you’re reading this, it means we haven’t yet managed to get ourselves embroiled in a nuclear war and that the future of our civilization as a going concern—despite our best efforts—is still a possibility!

Whatever your outlook on the days, weeks, and years to come, it’s worth looking back on the moments of the past 12 months and revisiting the themes they evoked.

Without further ado, it’s time for…

2018 IN REVIEW: HEY, WE’RE STILL HERE!

Mueller…always a good call.

When the year started, what did you figure the odds were that Robert Mueller’s investigation would still be going? 50% Less than that? At this writing—with Donald Trump and this administration, you never know what might happen and who might suddenly quit or get fired—the Mueller probe into Trump’s presidential campaign and possible collusion with Russia continues largely unimpeded.

This is not to say that its continued operation and final delivery are guaranteed. Jeff Sessions’s watch as Attorney General has ended, and his dismissal created the objectively strange sensation of a furor over his removal by the left despite his support of the Trump administration’s destructive agenda. His replacement, Matthew Whitaker, a Trump loyalist, inspires little faith there will be any obfuscation of the investigation, especially since he has rejected the advice of an ethics official from the Office of the Deputy Attorney General to recuse himself from the investigation.

With Mitch McConnell the obstructionist refusing to allow a vote on a bill that would safeguard the investigation, there’s little hope Congress will act to intervene should Trump move to fire Mueller. Which, as he has reminded us umpteen times, he can do because he’s the president. Whatever Mueller’s fate, the results of his team’s findings are yet impressive and suggest the probe should be permitted to run its course. Over 30 people and three Russian companies have been charged in the special counsel’s investigation, producing more than 100 criminal charges, and more yet might be on the way.

Despite Trump’s hollow concerns about the cost—Mueller’s probe is a “waste of money” and yet we should fund a wall that a lot of people don’t want—Robert Mueller and Co. have been remarkably effective and efficient. Trump shouldn’t mess with this investigation if for no other reason than not to risk a major public outcry against him.

“Guns don’t kill people,” but more people killed people with guns

Think we don’t have a problem with gun violence in the United States? That there’s an entire Wikipedia entry for mass shootings in the U.S. in 2018 alone begs to differ.

The February 14 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida in which 17 students were killed and another 17 injured was perhaps the most notable for the activism it helped inspire, but there were other newsworthy shootings around the country. Yountville, California at a veterans home. Nashville, Tennessee at a Waffle House. Santa Fe, Texas at the high school. Scottsdale, Arizona in a series of shootings. Trenton, New Jersey at the Art All Night Festival. Annapolis, Maryland at the Capital Gazette building. Jacksonville, Florida at a Madden NFL 19 tournament. Aberdeen, Maryland at a Rite Aid. Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania at the Tree of Life synagogue. Tallahassee, Florida at a yoga studio. Thousands Oaks, California at a bar. Robbins, Illinois at a bar. Chicago, Illinois at Mercy Hospital and Medical Center.

Gun rights advocates may point to the varying locales of these shootings and suggest that no matter where you go and how restrictive the gun laws, people can still acquire firearms by illicit means and can do harm. In any number of cases, however, shooters haven’t needed to subvert legal channels. Either way, this shouldn’t deter lawmakers from passing more restrictive gun laws. It should be difficult for individuals to acquire guns. There are too many guns. More guns means a higher likelihood that people will get shot. This is not complicated.

If you want to talk about mental health aside from the gun issue, I’m with you. If you want to insist that we just need more good people with guns, I’m not with you, but I still think we should talk about it. In the case of Jemel Roberson in the Robbins, Illinois shooting, he was the good guy with a gun, and got shot because he was black. We haven’t come close to solving the gun violence problem in America, and as long as groups like the National Rifle Association will continue to lobby against gun control and resist statistical research into fatalities related to gun violence, we won’t make progress on this issue. Here’s hoping the NRA continues to suffer a decline in funding.

“Stormy” weather

Stormy Daniels alleges Donald Trump had an extramarital affair with her back in 2006. Trump, who denies everything, denies this happened. Meanwhile, someone paid her $130,000 in advance of the election. Who do you believe? Also, and perhaps more to the point, do you care?

I have no reason to doubt the veracity of Daniels’s account. For some people, though, the mere notion she gets and has gotten money to have sex on camera puts her word in doubt. She’s an opportunistic liar looking to cash in on her 15 minutes of fame. Ditto for her lawyer Michael Avenatti, who naturally has political aspirations.

Even for those who might believe her or who would like nothing more than to nail Trump on some dimension, the nature of her profession is such that they might be loath to discuss the matter of Trump’s infidelity and hush money payments. Talking about sex and adult entertainers is, well, icky for some.

In this respect, our willingness or unwillingness to confront this chapter of Daniels’s and Trump’s lives is a reflection of our own set of values and morals. It’s especially telling, moreover, that so many white evangelicals are willing to forgive Pres. Trump his trespasses. For a group that has, until Trump’s rise, been the most insistent on a person’s character to eschew such concerns demonstrates their willingness to compromise their standards in support of a man who upholds “religious liberty” and who exemplifies the prosperity gospel.

Thus, while some of us may not care about Stormy Daniels personally or may not find campaign finance law riveting, there’s still larger conversations about sex and money in politics worth having. Despite what nonsense Rudy Giuliani might spout.

FOX News continued its worsening trend of defending Trump and white supremacy 

Oh, FOX News. Where do we begin? If we’re talking about everyone’s favorite source for unbiased reporting (sarcasm intended), a good place to start is probably their prime-time personalities who masquerade as legitimate journalists.

Sean Hannity, now firmly entrenched as FOX News’s night-time slot elder statesman with Bill O’Reilly gone, was revealed as a client of Michael Cohen’s (yes, that Michael Cohen) and an owner of various shell companies formed to buy property in low-income areas financed by HUD loans. Surprise! That surprise extended to Hannity’s employer, to whom he did not see fit to disclose a potential conflict of interest when propping up the likes of Cohen and Ben Carson, or his adoring viewers. Not that they care, in all likelihood. Hannity tells it not like it is, but how they want to hear.

As for more recent more additions to the prime-time schedule, Laura Ingraham, when not mocking Parkland, FL survivor David Hogg for not getting into colleges (he since has been accepted to Harvard) or telling LeBron James to “shut up and dribble,” denounced the “massive demographic changes” that have been “foisted on the American people.” She says she wasn’t being racist. She is full of shit.

Tucker Carlson, meanwhile, remained the go-to guy for white supremacist viewpoints, questioning the value of all forms of immigration and more recently deriding immigrants as poor and dirty. He has lost more than a dozen advertisers since those latest comments. Good. The only criticism is that it took them this long to dissociate themselves from Carlson’s program.

FOX News has seemingly abandoned any pretense of separation from the Trump administration in terms of trying to influence the president’s views or tapping into his racist, xenophobic agenda. It hasn’t hurt them any in the ratings—yet. As those “demographic changes” continue, as television viewership is challenged by new media, and as President Trump remains unpopular among Americans as a whole, however, there is no guarantee the network will remain at the top. Enjoy it while you can, Laura, Sean, and Tucker.

Turns out big companies don’t always do the right thing

Facebook, Papa John’s, and Wells Fargo would like you to know they are very truly sorry for anything they may or may have not done. Kind of.

In Facebook’s case, it’s selling the information of millions of users to Cambridge Analytica, a consulting firm which did work for Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and was founded by Steve Bannon (yes, that Steve Bannon). It also did a piss-poor job of weeding out fake news and hate speech and has since taken to relying on a questionable consortium of fact-checkers, most suspect among them The Weekly Standard.

Papa John’s had to reckon with the idea John Schnatter, the company’s namesake, is, well, kind of a racist dick. They’ve been battling over his ouster and his stake in the company ever since. As for Wells Fargo, it’s still dealing with the bad PR from its massive account fraud scandal created as a function of a toxic sales-oriented corporate culture, as well as the need to propose a reform plan to the Federal Reserve to address its ongoing shady practices (its proposals heretofore have yet to be approved).

In all three cases, these companies have sought to paper over their misdeeds with advertising campaigns that highlight their legacy of service to their customers or the people within their organization who are not bigoted assholes. With Facebook and Wells Fargo in particular, that they continue to abuse the public’s trust conveys the sense they aren’t truly repentant for what they’ve done and haven’t learned anything from the scandals they’ve created.

Unfortunately, cash is king, and until they lose a significant share of the market (or the government refuses to bail them out), they will be unlikely to change in a meaningful positive way. The best we can do as consumers is pressure our elected representatives to act on behalf of their constituents—and consider taking our business elsewhere if these organizations don’t get their shit together.

Civility, shmivility

Poor Sarah Sanders. It seems she can’t attend the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner or go out for a meal with her family without being harangued.

While I don’t necessarily think people like Sanders, Kirstjen Nielsen, and Stephen Miller should be denied the ability to eat (although it’s pretty f**ked up that Miller and Nielsen would go to a Mexican restaurant amid an immigration crisis), calls for “civility” are only as good as the people making such calls and the possibility of substantive action in key policy areas.

People were upset with Michelle Wolf, for instance, for telling the truth about Sanders’s propensity for not telling the truth by making allusions to her as Aunt Lydia from The Handmaid’s Tale and by referencing her smoky eye makeup as the ash from burned facts. Members of the press tripped over themselves to comfort Sanders and to disavow Wolf’s performance. But Wolf was doing her job, and told truth to power. It’s Michelle Wolf who deserves the apology, not habitual liar and Trump enabler Sarah Sanders.

I believe we shouldn’t go around punching Nazis—as satisfying as that might be. That said, we shouldn’t allow people to dispense hate simply to appease “both sides,” and we should be vocal about advocating for the rights of immigrants and other vulnerable populations when people like Miller and Nielsen and Sanders do everything in their power to pivot away from the Trump administration’s destructive actions. After all, it’s hard to be civil when children are being taken from their mothers and people are being tear-gassed or dying in DHS custody.

Brett Kavanaugh…ugh. (Photo Credit: Ninian Reed/Flickr)

There’s something about Alexandria

Love her or hate her, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has arrived on the national stage following her upset of incumbent Joe Crowley in the Democratic Party primary for New York’s 14th congressional district.

If you’re a devotee of FOX News, it’s probably the latter. The incoming first-year representative has joined Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and Nancy Pelosi in the vaunted space of people to be booed and hissed at for pretty much everything she does. She took a break before the start of her first term? How dare she! She refused to debate Ben Shapiro? What is she afraid of? As a young Latina socialist, she ticks off all the boxes their audience possesses on their Fear and Hate Index. All without spending an official day on the job.

Like any inexperienced politician, AOC has had her wobbles, chief among them when she flubbed a question on Israel and Palestine. Nevertheless, she has handled the numerous attacks on her on Twitter and elsewhere with remarkable deftness and grace. More importantly, she appears ready to lead her party on key issues, as evidenced by her outspokenness on the concept of a Green New Deal.

Party leaders may downplay the significance of her upset primary win, but Ocasio-Cortez’s emergence, to many, heralds a progressive shift for Democrats, one in which its younger members and women are not just participants, but at the forefront. At a time when establishment Dems only seem more and more unwilling to change, there is yet reason for genuine excitement in the Democratic Party.

John McCain died. Cue the whitewashing.

I don’t wish death on anyone, but John McCain died at the right time. That time would be the era of President Donald Trump, and by contrast, McCain looks like a saint.

McCain is best remembered for his service to the United States and for helping to kill the Republicans’ intended replacement for the Affordable Care Act. But we shouldn’t brush aside the less-savory elements of his track record. As a Trump critic, he still voted in line with the president’s agenda most of the time. He was a prototypical war hawk, advocating for intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq as well as a proponent of armed conflict with Iran—even after all he saw and endured in Vietnam.

Meanwhile, as a presidential candidate, though he is celebrated for defending Barack Obama at a town hall as a good Christian man (though he didn’t specify that he’d be worth defending if he were actually a Muslim), he was an unrepentant user of a racial slur directed at Asians and he signed off on the unqualified Sarah Palin as his running mate. A lot of the fondness he receives now from journalists likely stems from the access McCain gave reporters while on the campaign trail. Even his vote not to quash the ACA was done with a flair for the dramatic that belied the seriousness of its implications.

John McCain wasn’t the worst person to inhabit the U.S. Senate. But simply being more civil than Donald Trump is a low bar to clear. Regardless, he should be remembered in a more nuanced way in the name of accurate historical representation.

Brett Kavanaugh…ugh.

There were a lot of shameful occurrences in American politics in 2018. I already alluded to the Trump administration’s catastrophic mishandling of the immigration situation and of ripping apart families. The White House also seems intent on hastening environmental destruction, doing nothing to protect vulnerable subdivisions of the electorate, and pulling out of Syria as an apparent gift to Assad and Vladimir Putin.

And yet, the nomination and eventual confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court somehow became the most galling example of D.C. partisanship witnessed in sometime. Of course, any discussion of Kavanaugh would be incomplete without the mention of Merrick Garland. On the heels of Republicans’ refusal to hear him as a nominee following the death of Antonin Scalia and after Neil Gorsuch was sworn in, things were already primed for tension between the two major parties.

When reports of multiple alleged instances of sexual misconduct dating back to Kavanaugh’s high school and college days surfaced, though, the GOP’s stubborn refusal to budge and choose a new candidate was downright appalling. Kavanaugh didn’t do himself any favors with his testimony on the subject of these accusations, lashing out at the people who questioned him, insisting this investigation was a partisan witch hunt, and assuming the role of the aggrieved party like the spoiled frat boy we imagine he was and perhaps still is.

Kavanaugh’s defenders would be wont to point out that the rest of us are just salty that “they” won and “we” lost. Bullshit. Though we may have disagreed with Gorsuch’s nomination and conservatism prior to his being confirmed, he didn’t allegedly sexually assault or harass anybody. Brett Kavanaugh, in light of everything we now know about him, was a terrible choice for the Supreme Court. Senate Republicans should be ashamed of this chapter in American history, and this might be a good segue into talking about term limits for Supreme Court justices. Just saying.

Death by plastic

In case you were keeping score at home, there’s still an ass-ton of plastic in the world’s oceans. According to experts on the matter, the global economy is losing tens of billions of dollars each year because of plastic waste and we’re on a pace to have more plastic in the ocean than fish by 2050. Doesn’t sound appetizing, does it?

By all means, we should keep recycling and finding ways to avoid using plastic on an individual basis. Every bit helps. At the same time, we’re not going to make the progress we need until the primary drivers of plastic waste are held accountable for their actions. Coca-Cola, Nestlé, Starbucks, Unilever—looking at you.

In terms of world governments, China is the worst offender hands down, and numerous Asian countries line the top 10 (Indonesia, Philippines, Vietnam, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Malaysia), but we’re not exactly above reproach. In fact, with Trump at the helm, we’ve been active in helping water down UN resolutions designed to eliminate plastic pollution.

Plastic pollution is not an isolated problem, and it’s not going away either. Literally. That stuff lasts a long time. We need to stop plastic production at the source, and push back against companies like Nestlé who exploit downtrodden communities with lax water safeguarding laws. This isn’t a game.

The Dems flipped the House, Brian Kemp stole an election, and other observations about the midterms

It’s true. Though Republicans widened their majority in the Senate, Democrats flipped the House, presumably paving the way for Nancy Pelosi to return to the role of House Majority Leader. Groan at this point if you’d like.

With the Dems running the show in the House, there’s likely to be all sorts of investigations into Donald Trump and his affairs. I mean, more political and financial, not the other kind, but you never know with that guy. That should encourage party supporters despite some tough losses. Beto O’Rourke fell short in his bid to unseat Ted Cruz from Senate, despite being way sexier and cooler. Andrew Gillum likewise had a “close but no cigar” moment in the Florida gubernatorial race. Evidently, voters preferred Ron DeSantis, his shameless alignment with Trump, and his thinly-veiled racism. Congratulations, Florida! You never fail to disappoint in close elections!

Perhaps the worst of these close losses was Stacey Abrams, edged out by Brian Kemp in the Georgia gubernatorial race. If you ask Kemp, he won fair and square. If you ask anyone else with a modicum of discretion, he won because, as Georgia’s Secretary of State, he closed polling stations, purged voters from the rolls, failed to process voter applications, and kept voting machines locked up. Kemp’s antics and the shenanigans in North Carolina’s Ninth Congressional District give democracy a bad name, and beckon real voting reform championed by grassroots activists. After all, if Florida can restore voting rights to felons—Florida!—the lot of us can do better.

George H.W. Bush also picked a good time to die 

Like John McCain, I didn’t wish for “Bush Sr.” to die. Also like John McCain, people on both sides of the aisle extolled his virtues at the expense of a more complete (and accurate) telling of his personal history.

Bush, on one hand, was a beloved patriarch, served his country, and had more class than Donald Trump (again, low bar to clear). He also was fairly adept at throwing out first pitches at baseball games, I guess. On the other hand, he campaigned for president on dog-whistle politics (see also “Willie Horton”), pushed for involvement in the first Gulf War by relying on fabricated intelligence, escalated the war on drugs for political gain, turned a deaf ear to people suffering from AIDS, and was accused by multiple women of trying to cop a feel. So much for being miles apart from Trump.

Was George H.W. Bush a good man? I didn’t know the man, so I can’t say for sure. But he was no saint. Nor was his son or Ronald Reagan or Bill Clinton or Barack Obama or any other president. He led the country. Let’s not erase his flaws in the name of “togetherness.”


I chose to review these topics because I covered them at length on my blog. This obviously doesn’t cover the sum total of the events that transpired in 2018. Let’s see.

Congress reauthorized Section 702 of FISA and rolled back Dodd-Frank, extending our use of warrantless surveillance and making it more liable we will slide back into a recession. That sucked. Devin Nunes released a memo that was reckless, misleading, dishonest, and not quite the bombshell it was made out to be. That sucked as well. Our national debt went way up and continues to rise. American workers are making more money because they are working more, not because wages have risen.

What else? Trump got the idea for a self-congratulatory military parade—and then cancelled it because people thought it was a waste of time, effort, and money. DACA is still in limbo. U.S. manufacturing, outside of computers, continues its downward slide. Sacha Baron Cohen had a new show that was hit-or-miss. Oh, and we’re still involved in Yemen, helping a Saudi regime that killed journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

So, yeah, in all, not a whole lot to get excited about in 2018 on the national news front. Moreover, that there seems to be mutual distrust between liberals and conservatives dampens enthusiasm for 2019 a bit. And let’s not even get started on 2020. If you think I’m raring to go for a Biden-Trump match-up (based on current polling), you’d be sorely mistaken.

And yet—step back from the ledge—there is enough reason to not lose hope. Alongside Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a record number of women won seats in Congress. Ayanna Pressley became the first black women elected to Congress from Massachusetts. Michelle Lujan Grisham became the first Democratic Latina governor. Sharice Davids and Deb Haaland were elected as the first Native American women to Congress. Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib were elected as the first Muslim women in Congress. Guam got its first female governor in history in Lou Leon Guerrero. That’s real progress.

Indeed, while Donald Trump as president is intent on standing in the way of progress, and while his continued habitation of the White House is bad on so many fronts, his win has been a wake-up call to ordinary people to get involved in politics, whether by running for office, by canvassing for political candidates and issues, or by making their voices heard by their elected representatives one way or another. Politics can’t be and is no longer just the sphere of rich old white dudes. Despite the efforts of political leaders, lobbyists, and industry leaders with a regressive agenda as well as other obstacles, folks are, as they say, rising up.

There’s a lot of work to do in 2019, the prospect of which is daunting given that many of us are probably already tired from this year and even before that. It’s truly a marathon and not a sprint, and the immediate rewards can feel few and far between. The goal of a more equal and just society, however, is worth the extra effort. Here’s hoping we make more progress in 2019—and yes, that we’re still here to talk about it same time next year.

Want to Improve Voter Turnout? Start by Making It Easier to Vote

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Whether you consider voting a right or a privilege, it bears defending in the name of participatory democracy. (Photo Credit: Michael Fleshman/Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0)

As we get closer and closer to Election Day 2018—which is Tuesday, November 6 in case you haven’t already circled it on your calendar or have voted or have made plans to vote—the factors that mediate voter turnout become all the more relevant.

As is so often talked about and lamented, a significant portion of Americans who can vote choose not to do so. It happened in 2016, as frustrated Hillary supporters and others not enamored with the current president are keen to remind everyone who will listen. It will likely happen to a greater extent this year. This is all before we get to the polls, where there’s no assurance we will even recognize most of the candidates listed.

Those who elect not to cast a ballot have their explanations. There’s work, school, and other responsibilities. They may believe they don’t know enough about the voting process or the candidates, or simply don’t feel inspired by their choices. Their district may not be a “competitive” one. Especially within immigrant populations, families may not have a robust tradition of voting in this country, with children of immigrants often not possessing a strong role model in this regard.

These explanations may not suffice as excuses, mind you. Barack Obama recently appeared in an online video designed to eat away at the most common justifications people give for not coming out. Not caring about politics. Not relating to the candidates. Not being well informed. Not knowing where to vote or not having time on Election Day. Feeling as if one’s vote “doesn’t matter” or that the midterms are “boring.” Obama addresses these ideas in a reasoned and amusing way. I personally could’ve done without the knowledge he doesn’t care about Pokémon (you’ll never be president of the Kanto region with that attitude, Barack!), but I appreciate the effort on his part.

Motivating potential voters is critical to achieving high turnout, of course. But working to overcome obstacles designed specifically to depress participation is important in its own right. As research suggests, voter turnout correlates in a statistically significant way with how easy the voting process is.

Christopher Ingraham, writing for The Washington Post, delves into a recent report by political scientists at Northern Illinois University and Wuhan University in China that measures voter turnout in each state against the relative “time and effort” needed to vote as a function of that state’s election laws. Researchers analyzed 33 types of laws that applied to areas like the ability of citizens under 18 to register in advance of reaching voting age, early and absentee voting permissibility, polling hours, registration deadlines and restrictions, and voter ID requirements.

The findings? Generally speaking, the easier it is to vote in a state—what the researching scientists term having a lower “cost of voting”—the higher turnout tends to be. For the sake of a comparison, the five states with the easiest voting profile (Oregon, Colorado, California, North Dakota, Iowa) averaged almost nine percentage points better turnout in 2016 than the corresponding pentad at the opposite end of the spectrum (Mississippi, Virginia, Tennessee, Indiana, Texas). The researchers also made sure to account for and control for potential founding factors including competitiveness of the race at the top of the ticket, education level, and income level. The trend in voting patterns held.

As with any correlation, there are outliers which prove counterexamples. Hawaii, despite being in the top 20 of easiest states to vote, owned the worst turnout rate from 2016 by far. Virginia, despite having some of the most restrictive election laws in the country, had turnout roughly equivalent to Oregon’s. Overall, though, the evidence is pretty compelling that expanding voting access leads to increased turnout. On the other hand, evidence is strong that intentional policies which make voting more difficult—Ingraham points to such efforts in Mississippi, Tennessee, and Texas—are related to a lower turnout percentage.

As Ingraham relates, and as the Northern Illinois/Wuhan scientists submit, the easiest way to make voting, well, easier, is to allow same-day voter registration and, to boot, to permit people to get registered or re-registered at their polling place. This is not to say that other factors pertaining to the cost of voting can’t or shouldn’t be addressed. After all, what good is same-day registration when officials close polling locations? The idea remains, meanwhile, that simple changes which improve the voting process can have a material effect on producing better voting outcomes. With eyes already on Election Day 2020, voter ease of access is more than a passing concern.


As the scatterplot which accompanies Christopher Ingraham’s article speaks to, “red” states are more likely to be characterized by a high cost of voting. 4 of 5 and 9 of 10 of the hardest states to vote in by nature of their requirements went for Donald Trump in 2016. Returning to the notion of obstacles designed specifically to make voting more difficult, and as the very title of Ingraham’s piece indicates, this is no accident. To be fair, both parties have been guilty of trying to stack the deck, so to speak, especially when it comes to gerrymandering to try to get a political advantage.

Just because both parties have had their moments, however, doesn’t mean that all attempts to swing elections are created equal. Indeed, as attempts to suppress votes are concerned, Republicans are usually the worse offenders. All the more unnerving is the apparent phenomenon of the GOP aiming to disenfranchise voters and not being all that secretive about it.

Republican gubernatorial candidate and current Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp has made news recently for his decision to suspend more than 50,000 voter applications—a majority of them from blacks—justified as part of an “exact match” voter fraud deterrent. He’s also come under fire for purging yet more voters from the rolls for not voting, and has been sued for failing to safeguard voting records against hacking.

On top of this, newly-leaked audio from a private Kemp campaign event reveals Kemp expressing concern about his opponent, Stacey Abrams, pushing to get voters to the polls and exercise their right to vote. These remarks may be fairly innocuous, but Kemp’s role as Secretary of State as well as his political stances (Kemp’s statements on Russian election interference have resembled those of President Trump) cast doubts about whether a conflict of interest is at work here.

There are any number of instances to which one can point to deliberate efforts to bar people from participatory democracy. Back in Georgia, some 40 elderly black residents were ordered off a bus in Cobb County on their way to the polls to cast their ballots during the state’s early voting. Not only is this a thinly-veiled intimidation tactic, but it is indicative of a pattern of voter suppression that disproportionately targets people of color. For a party in the GOP that seems content to try to deny projected population trends and a growing sense of multiculturalism in the United States in favor of appealing to working-class whites and older Americans fearful of change, while the strategy is no less appalling, it makes a lot of sense.

Assuming Democrats, particularly progressive Democrats (I am not treating these terms as mutually exclusive, but regard this term as you will), are interested in expanding and protecting the right to vote, what do they need to do? Honestly, probably the best thing they can do is win elections, and ay, there’s the rub. Republican efforts to suppress votes specifically target members of their base, making it harder for them to win elections and stop GOP officials from doing things like purging voters based on flimsy arguments and closing polling places, or nominating and confirming judges who uphold discriminatory election laws crafted by the likes of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). It’s a vicious circle, and one the apathy of American voters only helps perpetuate.

For activists, meanwhile, advocacy for the expansion of voting rights and informing and educating the public about options designed to make the voting process easier seems like a meritorious course of action, and one that is beneficial in terms of the bigger political picture, at that. Especially for the activist groups that prefer remaining issue-based and not candidate-focused, as well as for the organizations that have struggled with attracting more diverse membership, working to eliminate barriers to exercising the right to vote can be an important step in breaking down barriers to positive change elsewhere.

How About a Constitutional Convention? How About No

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We’ve never held a convention of the states to propose a constitutional amendment, and maybe it should stay that way for the foreseeable future. (Image Credit: Howard Chandler Christy)

When it comes to the idea of a constitutional convention, it’s important to know who is doing the asking, why they are asking, and what the risks are should such a proposal come to pass.

As economist/political activist Robert Reich would have it, a “rogue” constitutional convention is “the biggest threat to our democracy that you haven’t heard of.” Full stop. First, as a primer, Reich explains that there are two ways to amend the Constitution:

There are 2 ways to amend the United States Constitution: One way – the way we’ve passed every amendment since the Bill of Rights – is for two-thirds of the House and two-thirds of the Senate to vote for a proposed amendment, and then have it ratified by at least three quarters of the states – now 38 in number.

But there’s a second way to amend the Constitution. Two thirds of the states may demand that Congress form a constitutional convention to propose amendments.

Why is Reich so disturbed by a convention that ostensibly is formed democratically by means of a two-thirds majority? The problem, as he tells it, is that once such a convention is convened, “there are no rules to limit or constrain what comes next.” In theory, delegates could change the ratification process at the convention, lowering the 38-state bar for approval of new amendments. From there, Reich warns, an Article V convention could “allow delegates to write their own agenda into our Constitution.”

And what might such an agenda look like? Like Reich, Charles P. Pierce, writing for Esquire, invokes the Koch Brothers as a point of immediate concern to discerning Americans on the left of, at, or near the center of the political spectrum.

The Koch Brothers have been bankrolling a pro-convention movement called the Convention of the States Project based on imposing fiscal restraints on the federal government as well as term limits on officials and members of Congress, not to mention limiting the very power and jurisdiction of the federal government. Disguised as convening for the purpose of proposing a balanced budget amendment, as Pierce explains, the convention would be a means of leveraging the language of the Tenth Amendment to significantly weaken the power of the government to regulate private enterprise. He paints a doom-and-gloom picture of what’s stake here:

Disunion would be triumphant. The final victory of movement conservatism would be a return to Gilded Age economics tied to a rebooted Confederate States of America.

Mr. Madison saw it coming. All of it. The mercantile power arrayed against political democracy. Politicians who become servants of the money power and not the people who elected them, and opportunists who would take advantage of these conflicts for their own benefits.

As Pierce, channeling James Madison, espouses, this intentional division is like an illness that could prove fatal if there is no intervention to treat it. Consider the cockles of my heart duly unwarmed.

Going back to Robert Reich’s sense of dread, what starts with an “innocent” balanced budget amendment—which he describes as “crazy” and Pierce describes as “The Worst Idea in American Politics”—could open the floodgates to a wave of additional regressive reforms, including restricting abortion rights, eliminating First Amendment protections for freedom of the press and freedom of speech, standing in the way of marriage equality for members of the LGBTQIA+ community, and eating away at the very checks and balances designed in our nation’s formative years. It wouldn’t only set us back, but noting the big money of the Kochs et al. behind this particular movement, it’s patently undemocratic.

It should be pointed out that conservatives aren’t the only ones calling for a constitutional convention; one group, Wolf PAC, supports an Article V convention as a means of aiming to institute campaign finance reform. Critics of circumventing the “standard” approach to effecting constitutional change, from whichever direction you approach a constitutional convention, though, see this process as an exercise in recklessness.

One such critic, David A. Super, professor of law at Georgetown Law, pans not only calls for an Article V convention, but theoretical constraints offered by the Convention of the States Project for states to undertake in the event their delegates go rogue. In a piece for The Hill published back in March, Super spelled out three big reasons why calls for these laws amount to little more than a “sham.”

For one, the Constitution says nothing that would give the states power to control its delegates “any more than state legislatures can control their states’ Members of Congress.” These delegates would, in effect, become federal officials who get their authority from Article V. Second, state courts would have no jurisdiction to meddle in a constitutional convention, and Congress would possess no ability to oust delegates either. Additionally, the timetable for ratification of laws to restrict delegates would likely be too short to have meaning given that delegates to the convention could finish their business and vote before anything is passed.

The prevailing sentiment of Pierce, Reich, Super, and others thus appears to be that the United States, divided enough as it is given the current political climate, doesn’t need to encourage any additional disunion. Especially not when, as some tallies have suggested, there are 28 states of the necessary 34 willing to convene an Article V convention.

Noting our closeness to the two-thirds target majority—however accurate it may be—their tone is one of urgency, and one that has the mindset of statehouses at heart. Super warns state legislatures not to “delude themselves that the dangers of an Article V convention can somehow be contained.” Reich appeals to his readers’ sense of activism and justice in instructing them to “tell their state lawmakers to reject calls for an Article V convention.” Pierce speaks only in ominous terms, but we get his drift. These professionals/experts caution strongly against plunging America into uncharted waters when the ship already may be leaking as it is.


As expressed in the opening paragraph of this piece and to be underscored once more, when it comes to a proposal like a constitutional convention, it’s important to know who is doing the asking and why they are asking. If you follow The Hill, you may have more recently seen this piece by Lindsey Stroud espousing the belief that this Constitution Day (which was Sept. 17), states should “finally unwrap the gift of Article V.” In the piece, Stroud points to our “mind-boggling” national debt, “unfounded” fears of a runaway convention, and holding a “tyrannical” federal government accountable.

What you don’t know unless you read the fine print is that Stroud is affiliated with the Heartland Institute, characterized on the namesake Wikipedia page as “an American conservative and libertarian public policy think tank.” This same Heartland Institute, in its advocacy for free-market policies, argues against the very existence climate change, questions the links between smoking and cancer, pushes for the privatization of public resources including those of public schools, and opposes an expanded federal role in health care. I’m not saying the views Stroud puts forth are necessarily wrong because of this agenda. Still, you’ve heard what other “experts” have to say and if the stance of a pro-tobacco, anti-environmental think tank doesn’t give you pause, you might need to question your own judgment.

What makes the prospects of an Article V constitutional convention so alluring is disillusionment on both sides of the political aisle with respect to various institutions. Especially if you’re a leftist, you’re probably thinking the current President sucks, Congress is feckless, and the Supreme Court has been compromised with the addition of not one but two illegitimate picks in Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh. Particularly Kavanaugh. On top of this, there’s all this money—so-called “dark money” or otherwise—being regularly infused into political campaigns and lobbying. Cue the (deserved) mentions about Citizens United. These elements of the American political system not only seem broken but far from being fixed and maybe even on the path to ruin. Why not try an end-around to institute meaningful reform?

Then again, the road to Hell is paved with good intentions, and the Devil is in the detail. I’m mixing my metaphors a bit, but the point (other than that there are a lot of sayings involving Hell and the Devil) is that yes, action is needed beyond merely talking about our broken system, but that it’s also critically important to go about it the right way.

I would argue that rather than focusing on trying to get a two-thirds majority of states to agree to convene to change the Constitution, we should continue to make efforts to improve voter turnout and eliminate barriers to voting predicated on partisan attempts at voter disenfranchisement. We should also continue to exert pressure on our current lawmakers, encourage political parties to produce better candidates, and run for office if we’re not satisfied with what party leaders come up with. Sure, we can consider incorporating the language of some of these constitutional convention resolutions in state law proposals. But encouraging an unfamiliar process as anything more than a last-ditch effort seems imprudent. Despite our frustration and the notion it’s going to be a long process, people-powered reform is the way to go.

At the risk of beating a proverbial dead horse (there are also a lot of horse-related sayings), appropriate weight should be afforded questions about who proposes an Article V constitutional convention, why, and what the consequences stand to be. As bad as things are now, they could get worse.

“Why Should We Believe Her?” Why Not?

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Brett Kavanaugh, during his Senate confirmation hearing in 2004. He can maintain his innocence amid multiple accusations of sexual misconduct while we view his accusers as credible. It’s not a zero-sum game. (Image Credit: CSPAN)

Note: This piece was written and published prior to Julie Swetnick’s allegations being made public.

As the drama surrounding Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court drags on, it unfortunately is difficult to say what has been the most disheartening aspect of this process. Certainly, for people who have lamented the partisan rancor of American politics in recent memory, calls to delay or speed up proceedings have done little to assuage their concerns. On a personal note, I consider anything that makes Mitch McConnell more relevant than he usually is a net loss as well, but that is for each of us to decide.

In all seriousness, though, probably the worst aspect of this whole affair is that it has dredged up so many awful attitudes on the subject of sexual assault, rape, and accountability for males in the #MeToo era. For those previously living under a rock, Kavanaugh has been accused by two women of some form of egregious sexual behavior, with Deborah Ramirez, board member and volunteer at Safehouse Progressive Alliance for Nonviolence and Yale University graduate, joining Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, a psychologist and professor of statistics at Palo Alto University, as an accuser. Since coming out to allege Kavanaugh of trying to force himself on her as a teenager, Blasey Ford and her family have been subject to death threats and have been forced to hire private security. For his part, Kavanaugh and his family have received threats too.

Then again, maybe the pain of hearing and reading the callous disbelief of some observers is worth exposing their misguided and outmoded ways of thinking. Still, that the tenor of arguments outside the purview of Congress and Washington, D.C. echoes that of lawmakers who divide reflexively along party lines is disturbing. In reality, regardless of whether or not Kavanaugh gets the job, the believability of Blasey Ford and other survivors should not be a partisan issue.

That opinions along gender lines might similarly be divided is likewise unsettling, albeit somewhat understandable. There’s a probable generational component, too, as well as other ways by which responses may be separated. As a white cisgender male young adult, my perspective may be indicative of this identity, so feel free to keep this context in mind as you weigh my thoughts.

With that said, let’s address some of the comments one is liable to hear leading up to a prospective vote on Brett Kavanaugh’s candidacy to be a Supreme Court Justice.

“Boys will be boys.”

Ah, yes. The old “boys will be boys” line. While keeping in mind the notion that Kavanaugh was reportedly in high school when he is alleged to have made an unwanted advance on Christine Blasey, or in college when a second instance of alleged unsolicited sexual behavior occurred with Deborah Ramirez, his relative youth or hormones doesn’t excuse the way he acted—it merely provides context. Especially considering that there is no accompanying sentiment that “girls should be girls,” if young women are expected to behave as ladies, young men should be able to comport themselves as gentlemen. Particularly if they belong to the “superior” sex, and sarcastic eye-rolls are warranted in this instance.

What’s alarming to me is how I’ve heard women defend Kavanaugh’s behavior along these lines, more so on the side of supporters of the Republican Party, and yet even so. “I mean, what hot-blooded male hasn’t acted like that?” Well, I haven’t, for one, and neither have the men who make consensual sexual acts a priority. Even if we’re grading Kavanaugh personally on a curve because “things were different then,” it’s 2018 and he will be adjudicating matters according to today’s standards. Right here and now, “boys will be boys” needs to be retired.

“They were drinking/drunk.”

Right. We know that alcohol consumption can lower inhibitions. It can make us do things we wouldn’t normally do and would be wise in avoiding, such as throwing table tennis balls in plastic cups and drinking out of them regardless of where those balls have been or, say, eating at White Castle. Nevertheless, getting inebriated does not obviate an individual’s obligation to behave responsibly, nor it does comprise consent to be violated in any way. This is akin to the notion that females dressed in a certain way are “asking for it.” It’s victim-blaming, and it’s not an acceptable defense for sexual assault or rape. End of story.

The other main reason for invoking alcohol is to cast aspersions on the veracity of the accuser’s account. Deborah Ramirez was drinking at the time of the alleged incident, and as such, there are “gaps” in her memory. This notwithstanding, she maintains she is confident enough in what she does remember about Kavanaugh’s conduct and that it warrants scrutiny. That should be enough, and if what Ramirez is saying is accurate, it makes Kavanaugh’s behavior seem that much more appalling that he would try to take advantage of the situation.

“If it really happened, she/he would’ve gone to the authorities.”

Sigh. There is any number of reasons why victims of sexual abuse, sexual assault, sexual harassment, or rape might be reluctant to file a police report or even tell people close to them about it. They might feel a sense of shame surrounding what happened, despite deserving no blame. They might be in denial or aim to minimize the gravity of it. They might be afraid of potential repercussions or simply fear they won’t be believed, especially if drugged or under the influence of alcohol. They already might suffer from low self-esteem and somehow think they deserve to be mistreated. They might feel a sense of helplessness or hopelessness about the situation. They might not even recognize what happened to them constitutes one of the above. Perhaps worst of all, they might already have been a victim, fundamentally altering their approach to future such situations.

In short, there’s plenty of legitimate reasons why an unsolicited sexual advance or encounter might go unreported. Noting this, we should afford victims understanding and the chance to come forward with their recollections when they are ready. Besides, this is before we get to the instances of victims who do come forward and still aren’t taken at their word.

“They’re just doing this to get their 15 minutes of fame.”

Yes—all that fame. Besides Anita Hill and famous victims of Harvey Weinstein et al., how many of these people who report an assault or rape do you know offhand? I’m guessing not many. Sure—we know Christine Blasey Ford and Deborah Ramirez right now. Will we remember them 10 years down the road? Five, even?

As is their misfortune, if they are remembered by the masses, they likely won’t be known for being compassionate, intelligent, proud women with college degrees and inspired careers. They’ll instead probably be known simply as accusers, their names forever tied to the man who allegedly victimized them. Depending on the audience, they also stand to be vilified for trying to bring a “good man” down, and as noted, there’s the matter of death threats and potential professional repercussions. For the supposed benefits, these accusers have that much more to lose. Courageous? Yes. Glorious? No.

“This is all just part of a Democratic smear campaign.”

You can question the timing of these revelations and whether there is any political dimension to them. Blasey Ford and Ramirez are either registered Democrats or have donated to liberal/progressive groups, though they aver that this did not factor into their decision to come forward. At the end of the day, however, if the allegations are true, does any of this matter? So what if these accounts come to light less than two months before the midterm elections? There’s never a “good” time to disclose such inconvenient truths.

Nor does it matter that these events happened years, decades ago. Regardless of whether or not the accused can still be found guilty in a court of law, victims may still live with the pain and shame of their encounter. If left untreated, these wounds will not heal. That’s not something we should encourage in the name of political expediency.

After all, in speaking of timing and political expediency, how are we to regard Kavanaugh’s letter signed by 65 women who knew him when he attended high school and attest to his honorable behavior and treatment of women with respect? How were these women found and contacted so quickly to produce this document? And what does this prove? If we can view Blasey’s and Ramirez’s past conduct through a critical lens, we can view this attempt to sway the minds of ranking congressional members similarly. Just because Brett Kavanaugh didn’t disrespect these women doesn’t mean he didn’t hurt others.


Ever since the likes of Bill Cosby and Harvey Weinstein were being brought down by accusers nowhere near as powerful or famous as they are, many observers have had a tough time reconciling apparently conflicting principles. One is that purported victims of sexual assault and other crimes should be believed, regardless of gender. Since women are disproportionately victims in this regard, this means implicitly believing women. The other principle is presumption of innocence. Until we know all “the facts,” Brett Kavanaugh shouldn’t be labeled a sexual predator.

While noting that this is more akin to a job interview than a trial for Kavanaugh and while the court of public opinion increasingly seems to eschew the need for a preponderance of evidence before assigning guilt, we would do well to remain open to the idea that both sides of the story could be true. Brett Kavanaugh claims he is innocent. That is his version of the truth. Christine Blasey Ford and Deborah Ramirez claim otherwise. That is their version of the truth. Not being in the room with them, we can’t know for sure. But without subscribing to an agenda, we can choose which of these is the best answer, so to speak. Assuming these parties testify, that is what the Senate Judicial Committee will be tasked with.

Whomever we personally believe, the important thing is that these claims be investigated. With all due respect to Kavanaugh and his family, as well as the aims of Mitch McConnell and Chuck Grassley, the veracity of the accusations supersedes their feelings. “Judge Kavanaugh’s reputation might suffer.” So? What of his accusers? If recent history is any indication, Kavanaugh might not receive enough votes to be confirmed, but it’s unlikely he will suffer serious adverse effects to his livelihood as a result of these proceedings.

For instance, for his supposed fall from grace, Louis C.K. was able to do a surprise comedy routine less than a year since he admitted wrongdoing. For men like him, it’s evidently a question of when he will come back, not if he should. For the women who were his victims, they can’t come back to prominence—and there’s a good chance they gave up on comedy because of how they were treated by him. For every James Franco starring in The Deuce, there’s an Ally Sheedy who cites Franco as a reason not to ask her why she left the television/film business. That sounds messed up to me.

As for McConnell and his Republican brethren, I have little to no sympathy for their wanting to get Brett Kavanaugh confirmed despite multiple claims of misconduct and after refusing to hear Merrick Garland’s nomination by Barack Obama following the death of Antonin Scalia. If you want a nominee for Supreme Court Justice voted on with less controversy, you and your GOP mates should do a better job of vetting one. Pick again. We’ll wait. It’s not our problem if you can’t afford to.

In the end, those of us who believe Christine Blasey Ford, Deborah Ramirez, and all purported victims of sexual assault until given a reason to doubt them do so because we simply have no reason to doubt them in the first place. If Brett Kavanaugh is innocent and telling the truth, he will likely be confirmed (and may be anyway, for that matter), and we lose nothing. It is those who reflexively question the accusers and hack away at their credibility that risk inexorable damage to their own. For their sake, I hope they like their odds.

Is the Susan Collins Crowdfunding Effort a Good Thing?

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A crowdfunding page will donate money to Sen. Susan Collins’s opponent’s campaign in 2020 if she votes to confirm Brett Kavanaugh as a Supreme Court Justice. It isn’t as pure as a warning she’ll be voted out. It’s not a bribe or threat either, though, and given the perceived importance of this nomination, it’s understandable. (Photo Credit: Stuart Isett/Fortune Most Powerful Women/Flickr/CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Money in politics. Time and time again, it’s high up on voters’ lists of priorities on what needs to change to improve the political landscape in Washington, D.C. and elsewhere.

Of course, what people likely envision when meditating on this subject is PACs and super PACs and “dark money” contributions and donations from millionaires, billionaires, and others with the kind of serious capital that makes financially supporting a political candidate no big thing. For the right-wing conspiracists among us, cue the George Soros train of thought about him being Satan, or a disciple of Satan, or somehow getting Satan to work for him. As long as the Devil is involved somehow.

Recently, a crowdfunding effort related to the increasingly contentious confirmation process for Supreme Court Justice nominee Brett Kavanaugh made national news because of just how problematic Kavanaugh’s nomination is, as well as because of its unusual format.

A campaign on CrowdPAC targeting Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) will charge the accounts of pledged donors in the event Collins votes “yes” on Kavanaugh’s confirmation. The donations, which total upwards of $1 million, would go to her opponent’s campaign in the election for her seat in the Senate. According to Collins, this is essentially a “bribe” to get her to act in a certain way.

Does this crowdfunding campaign aimed at Collins’s vote and her re-election prospects in 2020 constitute a quid pro quo tantamount to a bribe? Furthermore, is this kind of voter participation a sign of democracy at work or a sad commentary on the state of politics today? As it tends to be the case, the answers depend on who you ask, but let’s consider one particular set of viewpoints.

First, there’s the matter of whether the CrowdPAC initiative is a bribe. Deborah Hellman, professor of law at the University of Virginia, and Stuart Green, professor of law at Rutgers University, co-authored a piece for The Atlantic dwelling on these issues. As the duo argues, Collins’s case doesn’t quite “follow the script” of a bribe per federal bribery law.

For one, voters are not trying to offer Collins herself money, but rather her opponent, such that even if she accepts the offer, so to speak, she won’t receive any money for doing so. In this sense, it’s clearly not a bribe. There’s also the notion that rather than this being a “bribe,” it could be considered a “threat.” Legally speaking, however, a yes-vote wouldn’t cost the senator anything. Sure, it might encourage the admonishment of pro-choice groups and other progressive-minded individuals, but it’s not as if Collins stands to lose money or her life if she fails to comply.

Accordingly, the case that the CrowdPAC campaign is a flagrant violation of bribery or other campaign finance-related law may not be a strong one. Still, there’s a larger conversation to be had about the implications of campaigns of this nature for participatory democracy, notwithstanding that Susan Collins might yet see a material consequence by having to raise money to offset the $1 million+ her opponent would receive. As Hellman and Green have it, this points to a “conundrum at the heart of our law and politics”:

Bribery laws are designed to keep money from influencing political decisions. Yet Supreme Court cases holding that political giving and spending are forms of political speech are designed to let that happen. How can we prohibit the use of money as a form of political expression at the same time that we validate it?

The whole point of bribery law, as traditionally understood, was to prevent citizens using money to achieve ends that ought to be achieved through voting, and politicians from being “bought.” In a healthy democracy, Maine citizens would threaten a Kavanaugh-supporting Collins with electoral consequences, not monetary ones. In our democracy, it’s commonplace for voters to express their views at least as much with their credit cards as with their ballots, and routine for politicians to respond by adopting positions that follow the money.

The suggestion of a broken political system is no big revelation. You have probably felt the same way, if not experienced the inherent flaws of “politics as usual” first-hand. Nevertheless, our esteemed professors of law have a point about what constitutes true participation. While we might donate to campaigns or express our views on candidates via social media, these contributions do not necessarily translate to votes.

For example, despite fervent support, Bernie Sanders was facing an uphill battle to upend Hillary Clinton in the 2016 Democratic Party presidential primary. That is, for all Bernie’s fanatics’ devotion, and whether registered Dems were thinking pragmatically or had some other reason for voting the way they did, “Hill-Dawg” was the clear winner at the polls.

As Hellman and Green put forth, there may be some virtue in a crowdfunding effort designed to influence a senator’s vote, at least relative to the “plutocrat” model that takes us further away from the “one-person-one-vote principle on which our democracy is based.”

Even so, they argue, it’s a “cold comfort,” for even if Collins’s CrowdPAC case is not a literal bribe, it still feels like bribery. In other words, when political donations and spending is considered a way to participate in the voting process, and when campaigns to influence opinions involve fighting money in politics with more money, “it will always be difficult, even in principle, to distinguish a campaign contribution from a bribe.”

At the minimum, we’d be inclined to agree that Hellman and Green aren’t wrong. For all the enthusiasm with which opponents of Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination might greet over a million dollars in donations to this cause, these considerations should temper that zeal.


About that nomination, though. Much as people might agree that the two-party system is messed up in theory and then voted strategically for Hillary Clinton to block Donald Trump in practice, we might concede that we need to get money out of politics in theory and then throw our own hard-won dollars at one politician to defeat someone we like less in practice. In both cases, there is a perceived exigency that would supersede our utmost ideals. We are willing to sacrifice what is best for what is politically expedient or feasible.

With Brett Kavanaugh, the perceived exigency is related to Republicans’ attempts to jam him through the confirmation process before the November midterms. Kavanaugh’s positions on the scope of executive authority (highly relevant in the era of President Trump) and on abortion (social conservatives have long sought to overturn Roe v. Wade) have activists and others justifiably concerned. This is before we get to reservations about Kavanaugh’s alleged perjury during his confirmation hearing as well as concerns about his character related to accusations of sexual assault. When members of the GOP are mulling the need for a delay alongside Democrats, after all, it raises an eyebrow or two.

It is within this context that we are left to consider whether the ends justify the means in attempts to sway Susan Collins’s vote. As Ady Barkan, activist and someone dying from the ravages of ALS, believes, Kavanaugh’s nomination is a threat to health care for millions of Americans, notably those with pre-existing conditions, a threat to women’s right to choose, and a threat to organized labor.

In this respect, the issue of his nomination isn’t just a passing concern—as Barkan and others would aver, it’s a matter of life and death. Thus, for all the supposed “hysteria” of the left over Kavanaugh, it’s worth noting that they treat this whole affair with due seriousness. By this token, 3,000 wire hangers sent to Sen. Collins’s office isn’t an instance of trolling, but a metaphor for the danger to social progress Brett Kavanaugh represents.

There is hope that Senate Democrats hold the line on delaying a confirmation vote and to voting “no” on Kavanaugh when the vote comes. At the very least, they should offer resistance to Republican attempts to push him through and try to create a conservative majority in the Supreme Court. Conceivably, the delay and repeated calls to oppose Kavanaugh could convince “swing vote” GOP senators like Susan Collins to move away from a party-line vote. Of course, Dems in red states facing re-election are on the fence about their nomination vote, so there are electoral “realities” to keep in mind.

After a certain point, though, and if voters are willing to sacrifice their money and principles to the cause, these swing vote senators should contemplate what their principles are regarding the Brett Kavanaugh vote. They may dismiss crowdfunding efforts like Ady Barkan’s as bribery or coercion, but their commitment to their stated values is not above reproach either.

America Should—But Probably Won’t—Take Responsibility for Promoting Violence in Central America

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No one is here to defend MS-13, but the United States government’s approach to combating gang violence and illegal immigration from Central America, as well as its refusal to take ownership of its role in perpetuating poverty and unrest in the so-called Northern Triangle, may be counterproductive to its aims in these regards. (Photo Credit: Federal Bureau of Investigation)

When you are Donald Trump or one of his surrogates and regularly divorce cause and effect—or are simply divorced from reality—you are free to distort details and expel falsehoods to support your narrative. Though it has been repeatedly observed, it’s worth stressing that Trump started his presidential campaign spewing inaccuracies about Mexican people as criminals and rapists, without revealing any master plan to fix this “broken” immigration system. It was outrageous. It was reprehensible. What’s more, it worked.

Since then, Trump and Co. haven’t exactly gotten more accurate or presidential over time. While concern for the separation of immigrant families, how and where they’re being detained, and how and when—if at all—those already separated will be re-united have dominated headlines, the Trump administration hasn’t softened its rhetoric any. Outside of relenting on the issue of separating children from their mothers, President Trump has authorized the creation of a “denaturalization” task force, one that seeks to remove naturalized citizens on clerical or other “technicalities” and which has evoked comparisons to the Red Scare.

Critics of the White House’s immigration policy have taken to referring to it in rather dark terms, labeling it “ethnic cleansing.” They’re not wrong, either. Amid the elaboration of a white nationalist agenda which has seen senior advisor Stephen Miller and Department of Homeland Security head Kirstjen Nielsen emerge as figureheads of the ongoing crisis and, at that, perpetrators, Trump has engaged in more than his fair share of scaremongering in public speeches, at rallies, and on Twitter.

A particular source of animus—and deservedly so in light of their actions, let’s be clear—is Mara Salvatrucha, better known as MS-13. The international gang, associated with various acts of criminality and violence, has served as a go-to bogeyman for Trump in his attacks on Democrats. As Trump would have it, a vote for the Dems in November is a vote to “let MS-13 run wild in our communities.” ICE, meanwhile, is “liberating” communities every day from the organization whose motto reportedly is “kill, rape, control.”

Indeed, MS-13 and other gangs that recruit from Central America and Mexico are a real concern, but Trump is using the specter of past incidents involving its members and existing fears and urban legends about gang violence to try to drum up support for his “zero tolerance” immigration policy and enhanced border security measures. Even belaboring the use of the word “animals” to describe MS-13 has a dog-whistle underlying meaning, as Trump’s indiscriminate employ of this pejorative has been interpreted as a general dehumanization of immigrants and people of color. If Trump hadn’t kicked off his presidential bid denigrating an entire country and its people, we might have a chance of giving him the benefit of the doubt. By now, though, many of us know better, and that Trump knew exactly what he was saying when he used the word “animals” with all its vagaries.

It’s bad enough that Donald Trump and his flunkies embrace an “us vs. them” mentality when it comes to undocumented immigrants as a subset of the larger conversation about who is or isn’t considered a “true” American. You know, largely because of that whole “being a decent human being” thing that Trump seems not to be able to understand. What makes this stance yet more problematic is the notion it fails to recognize—unconsciously or willingly—the United States’ complicity in the conditions which have led to a refugee/asylee crisis in Central America, notably in its “Northern Triangle” (El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras).

Cole Kazdin, writing for VICE Media, outlines how the U.S. has had a hand in destabilizing Central American nations long before the era of Trump. Citing Elizabeth Oglesby, an associate professor of Latin American studies at the University of Arizona, heavily throughout the piece, Kazdin depicts a pattern of American intervention on behalf of its own interests—and usually at the expense of competing interests within those countries.

In Guatemala, back in the 1950s, under the guise of fighting communism, the United States helped organize a coup to overthrow the democratically-elected government and continued to train the Guatemalan army into the 1970s, a civil war that Oglesby characterizes in no uncertain terms as “genocide.” In 1970s Nicaragua, the U.S. government directly inserted itself in the clash between the democratic nationalist Sandinistas and the dictatorship helmed by the Somoza family, later supporting the Contras, a material relationship that infamously saw the Reagan administration fund these contrarrevolucionarios through the covert sale of arms to Iran. In El Salvador and Honduras, meanwhile, the U.S. intervened on behalf of the Salvadoran government in an effort to squelch the socialist group FMLN and held military exercises in Honduras.

As Kazdin notes, this is before we even get to the “war on drugs,” an ongoing situation set in motion as part of Richard Nixon’s political agenda that pushed cartels out of Colombia and into the impoverished, unstable Northern Triangle. Going back to MS-13, while its activities are relevant to the war on drugs and their criminality is certainly not to be lauded, Kazdin, via Oglesby, stresses that while the group has strong Salvadoran roots, its origins are traced back to Los Angeles, not Central America.

Furthermore, dwelling on MS-13 overlooks the larger issue of government-linked crime networks that come directly out of the counterinsurgency experience of the 1980s,” according to Oglesby. The American government may not be directly encouraging the rise of gang numbers, but by indirectly paving the way for their growth, its influence looms large. As it is in the Middle East and elsewhere, regime change can produce some unfortunate unintended consequences.

With all this in mind, and getting to the issue of migration and asylum-seeking, despite its hand in catalyzing unsafe, untenable situations in Central America, the United States has made it a habit of refusing asylum to applicants from south of its border, particularly those coming from El Salvador. Now with Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s announcement that domestic violence and gang violence are no longer grounds for asylum, there is every concern that people will continue to try crossing the desert and relying on criminal networks to help smuggle them north, which presents a new set of dangers. Trump and Co. are keeping with the historical trend, but in a way that is seemingly even more overt in terms of racism and xenophobia, and holding to the idea that these additional perilous hoops through which to jump will prove an effective deterrent to illegal immigration, and a disincentive to would-be gangbangers near and south of the border.

Here’s the thing, though: these methods may not be having their intended effect, or may be even serving to exacerbate the situations they profess to fix. On the migration front, Elizabeth Oglesby indicates that militarizing the border serves only to increase migration. Not only has the price of smuggling people north soared commensurate with the uptick in danger, but since it is that much more difficult to return, more families are migrating together to try to keep the unit together.

Another point worth considering: what people are trying to escape in Central America might be as bad or worse than what they face trying to immigrate illegally into the United States. Andres Oppenheimer, writing for The Miami Herald, agrees, and believes the problem will keep getting worse as long as parents have to fear for their lives and those of their children.

Oppenheimer cites Roger Noriega, who served in the State Department under George W. Bush, and who points to gang violence and organized crime—fed to a large extent by a demand for illegal drugs in the States—as destructive forces to economies and state institutions, not to mention individuals who run afoul of bad actors. For too many families in Central America and Mexico, there is a real risk of their children being forced into the employ of gangs and/or having to pay these gangs off for “protection.” Moreover, governments and officials are too often corrupt, powerless to diminish the influence of gangs, or both. Such is not a recipe for substantive positive change.

Trying to put a bandage on the illegal immigration situation in the form of fences/walls and more Border Patrol agents, as Oppenheimer and others would argue, therefore does a poor job of stopping the bleeding when the underlying health of these source countries for asylum-seekers is suspect. In terms of possible solutions, therefore, it would seem prudent, if not necessary, to invest in these countries in a humanitarian capacity and to help fund and mobilize efforts to help combat corruption and crime. Instead, Congress has reduced assistance to El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras by almost $85 million since 2017, which almost certainly won’t help willing governments combat the influence of criminal organizations. In other words, isolationism isn’t the answer.

As for MS-13, treating its influence with a “firm hand” may limit its effectiveness and bring up a new set of ethical and moral issues about the procedures used to combat gang violence. In El Salvador, the U.S. government has thrown millions of dollars at curbing the influence of Mara Salvatrucha and other gangs, and the brutality and corruption associated with the Salvadoran government’s approach may be proving counterproductive. A detailed special report for CNN by Nick Paton Walsh, Barbara Arvanitidis, and Bryan Avelar on the link between U.S.-funded police and illegal executions in El Salvador provides a sense of perspective on this note:

While the US program is aimed at improving the effectiveness and legality of El Salvador’s fight against gangs, narcotraffickers and human smugglers, the “Firm Hand” strategy being deployed now by the country’s government — against a gang culture so widespread it amounts to an insurgency of sorts — runs counter to lessons learned in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to some analysts. In those US-led conflicts, corrupt security forces and brutality exacerbated the ferocity of the insurgency.

Analysts have noted that brutal police tactics have previously backfired, as the gang members killed are sometimes looked upon more favorably in their neighborhoods, or less guilty than intelligence suggests, causing anger in the community and prompting some residents to turn away from the police and towards the gangs.

Not for nothing, but Afghanistan and Iraq are not the kind of examples you want to lead with as analogs of success in dealing with hostile groups. Even when dealing with a potential criminal element in an environment as conducive to drug-related violence as El Salvador, abuses by authorities are liable to produce a backlash, despite the public’s desire for their leaders to be tough on crime. Simply put, a balance has to be struck, and extrajudicial killings tip the scales the wrong way.

At the end of the day, and at a fundamental level, the questions that should be asked by the Trump administration are as follows: 1) “What are we trying to accomplish regarding immigration and violence as it impacts the United States, Mexico, and Central America?” 2) “Are we accomplishing what we have set out to accomplish?” and 3) “If so, are the solutions worth the costs?” Thus far, however, there is little to suggest the relevant problems have even been adequately defined, let alone sufficiently addressed, and with all the finger-pointing that President Trump has done, you can be sure he hasn’t considered America’s role in perpetuating worrisome trends.


Returning to Cole Kazdin’s column for a moment, while Elizabeth Oglesby’s damning analysis of U.S. relations with Central America features prominently in her analysis, the words of civil rights advocates and other experts carry as much weight—if not more—and succinctly state the case for America’s direct engagement with Mexico and the countries of the Northern Triangle in a more diplomatic and even-handed way.

Per Xochitl Sanchez, TPS (Temporary Protected Status) coordinator for CARECEN, the Central American Resource Center in Los Angeles, the United States has “a moral and social responsibility to this population of immigrants as they are complicit in the creation of the conditions of forced migration” of these countries, notably El Salvador. Charles Kamasaki, senior cabinet advisor for UNIDOS US, also cited within Kazdin’s piece, likewise believes in acting in accord with a moral imperative steeped in equanimity and reciprocity. As Kamasaki puts forth, “For those who felt strongly that we should intervene in Central America, whether it was to fight communism, or to maintain good conditions for business so American consumers could enjoy cheap bananas or Nicaraguan coffee, I would argue that responsibility’s a two-way street. If we enjoy benefits, then that brings with it some obligations.”

Alas, “diplomacy” in the era of President Donald Trump evidently involves starting trade wars and other confrontations with our presumed allies, railing against the likes of Justin Trudeau and Angela Merkel while praising dictatorial leaders like Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping, and Kim Jong-un. If we can’t get along with Canada, a row with whom comedian Seth Meyers likened to “holding a grudge against a golden retriever puppy,” there’s obviously little room for a spirit of cooperation with countries like El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Mexico, nations replete with brown-skinned individuals who speak Spanish and, therefore, must be demonized as part of Trump’s demagoguery.

For Christ’s sake, the man picked a fight with Carmen Yulin Cruz, the mayor of San Juan, Puerto Rico, after the island was hit by a devastating hurricane. These storm victims are American citizens. Just because they are people of color and can’t vote in congressional and presidential elections doesn’t mean they should be an after-thought, especially not when noting the mainland’s role in loading the territory with crippling debt. Instead, Trump being Trump, he lashes out on Twitter and calls people names—especially when they are women and/or people of color and dare to challenge him. I mean, if one were to visit the Oval Office and find a dartboard with a picture of Maxine Waters’s face on it, would he or she be really surprised? Dude’s got an ax to grind.

While harboring guilt about the treatment of Central America’s Northern Triangle to the extent it stunts our ability to act and move forward would be its own issue, that the United States’ historical culpability continues to go largely unspoken makes the prospects of fixing problems which affect North America too (such as gang violence and mass migration) rather grim. America should take more responsibility for promoting violence in Central America. But it probably won’t, and until it does, it would seem the wounds that mark many Central American institutions will continue to stay open.

To view this post as it appears on Citizen Truth, click here. Citizen Truth is an independent and alternative media organization dedicated to finding the truth, ending the left-right paradigm, and widening the scope of viewpoints represented in media and our daily conversations. For more on CT, please visit citizentruth.org.

I Didn’t Vote or Campaign for Hillary. Please Don’t Use the Separation of Immigrant Families to Try to Shame Me for It.

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If you want to talk about my white privilege, fine. If you want to talk about what I could have done for vulnerable immigrant groups and can do going forward, I’m genuinely sorry, and with you. If you want to shame me for my vote for a third-party candidate, however, I reject your ignorance of electoral realities and your political bigotry. (Image Source: CBS News via YouTube)

I don’t often share personal experiences in my political writing, mostly because I feel like I’d be sharing stories that no one wants to hear. That still may very well be the case, but seeing as this situation was made relevant to the ongoing crisis facing the separation of immigrant families, I figured I would highlight my experience as a way of talking about the related issues.

A now-former friend on Facebook, who is a leader/organizer on behalf of a nonprofit organization, recently took to social media to ask whether any Jill Stein voters would like to apologize for their choice in the wake of said crisis. I, as someone who voted for Stein, took umbrage to this comment, if for no other reason than it seemed particularly haughty of him to begin the conversation on these terms. Granted, I could’ve (and probably should’ve) not engaged at all, but I did, and so here we are.

First, a note about my vote for Jill Stein: I am neither an ardent supporter of Stein nor am I am a Green Party fanatic. I also don’t fully know what the heck the point was of the recount she spearheaded or ultimately what exactly became of the money raised to fund recount efforts. For some of you, I suppose that just makes it worse: that I would just up and support a third-party nominee of whom I am not a follower despite being a registered Democrat. In this sense, my vote can be seen as somewhat of a betrayal.

I also should note that I supported Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign, and voted for him in my state’s Democratic primary. By this point, I had no illusions that Bernie would capture the nomination; my home state, New Jersey, was one of the last handful of primaries to be held in the 2016 election season, and several media outlets were already calling the nomination in Hillary’s favor before the polls could open. Accordingly, you might see my refusal to cast my ballot for Clinton, too, as a manifestation of the “Bernie or Bust” mantra. Although technically I did vote, just not for a representative of either major political party. Nor did I write in Sanders’s name as a protest vote. Or Harambe’s, even though I’m told he would’ve loved to see the election results.

When it came down to it, though, I didn’t feel like Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party did enough to try to win my vote—simply put. To me, Clinton’s campaign was emblematic of a larger strategic flaw that characterizes the Dems: too much capitulation to centrists, too dismissive of concerns about reliance on corporate and wealthy donors, too little regard for the concerns of working-class Americans and grass-roots organizers until it comes time to donate or vote. To me, Hillary’s pitch seemed largely tone-deaf if not disingenuous, plagued by secrecy about E-mail servers and Goldman Sachs speeches as well as ill-advised comments about “deplorables,” among other things. And for those of you already raising a finger to wag about the deleterious aspects of the Republican Party and its nominee, I never even remotely considered Donald Trump or another GOP candidate for my vote. At present, that’s a line I won’t cross, in jest or otherwise.

Thus, despite her evident misunderstanding of quantitative easing, I voted for Jill Stein—not because I thought she could win or because I feared Trump could—but because I felt the values she and her campaign expressed most closely matched mine. That’s it. I imagine many Trump voters felt the same way re values—that is, they supported his economic or social platform more than him or his antics, though if that’s the case, I don’t know how much that says about their values. I’m just trying to get the idea across that people’s “support” for particular candidates can be more nuanced than today’s political discourse might otherwise suggest.

My voting mindset, therefore, was not “strategic” in the sense that I didn’t vote for Hillary Clinton specifically to block Donald Trump. In light of my state’s final tally, it would seem my vote was unnecessary in this regard, though I could not know that for sure at the time I cast my ballot. Clinton came out ahead in New Jersey by more than 13 percentage points and close to 500,000 more votes, and thanks to the Electoral College and our winner-takes-all style of deciding these matters, all 14 of the Garden State’s electoral votes went to her. Stein did not even manage a third-place showing, being bested by the likes of Gary Johnson, the Libertarian Party’s candidate.

This was the crux of my initial rebuttal about the need to apologize for my vote. While on a state-by-state basis, the notion of Johnson and Stein being “spoilers” may or may not have more validity (more on that in a bit), in my state, it did not. Regardless, to point fingers at lowly third parties deflects a lot of blame, and to borrow a term from Ralph Nader, who faced similar finger-pointing following the 2000 election, is to succumb to a high degree of “political bigotry.” In other words, it’s scapegoating perpetrated by members of major parties to distract from their need for substantive reform.

In addition to the culpable parties oft-cited by Clinton’s supporters and defenders—namely Russia, James Comey, and sexism (this last one may or may not be so true depending on the context or individual voter’s mindset, but that’s a whole different kit and caboodle)—there’s ample room to consider what role other groups played or, in theory, could have played. After all, what about the people who could vote and didn’t? What about the people who couldn’t vote but perhaps should be afforded the privilege, such as convicted felons? And what about the folks who actually voted for Donald Trump? Are they to be absolved of responsibility because they didn’t know better? If so, where is this written?

Additionally, what does it say that someone like Clinton, vastly more qualified than her opponent and, from the look and sound of things, quantifiably more capable, lost to someone in Trump to whom she had no business losing? For all the justifications for Hillary Clinton failing to capture an electoral majority—let’s not forget the fact she won the popular vote, an issue in it of itself when considering it’s not the deciding factor in presidential victories—we shouldn’t overlook some questionable decisions made by the Clinton campaign, including, perhaps most notably, how she and her campaign paid relatively low attention to important battleground states like Michigan and Wisconsin. Of course, even in Rust Belt states like Pennsylvania where Clinton campaigned heavily, she still lost, so maybe any establishment Democrat the party trotted out might’ve met with the same resistance fed by blue-collar whites flocking to Trump. Still, one can’t shake the sense Hillary approached the final throes of the campaign with a certain sense of arrogance.

To my ex-FB-friend, however, my reasoning was insufficient, and at this point, one of his colleagues, who happens to be a person of color, interceded to agree with his sentiments. As far as they were concerned, my support for Jill Stein may have influenced people in states more susceptible to a Trump win to vote for someone other than Hillary Clinton. I guess, for the sake of an analogy, my thoughts could’ve “infected” those of otherwise discerning voters to make them vote the “wrong” way. My assignment of blame to Hillary despite the forces working against her was panned as well, as was my diminishment of Stein as a spoiler. All in all, they contended, my position was one that exhibited my white privilege, and made me sound—quote unquote—morally reprehensible.

As far as I am concerned, if I’m morally reprehensible—fine. You can call me a serpent demon, for all I care. The legitimacy of the arguments within are what interests me. On the subject of my potential game-changing pro-Stein influence, though it’s possible, it’s highly unlikely. In my immediate circle, I told few people unless specifically asked who I planned to vote for. I also wrote a post back in 2016 about why I planned to vote for Jill Stein and posted to Facebook, but—let’s be clear—hardly anyone reads my writing. My own mother doesn’t even read it most of the time. From her standpoint, my entries are of the TL;DR ilk, and what’s more, they tend to be devoid of pictures of cute animals or how-to makeup videos. Fair enough, Mom.

On the subject of Jill Stein as spoiler, while it’s true that Stein’s numbers may have been larger than Trump’s margin of victory in key states, to say that all those votes would have gone to Hillary instead makes an assumption which may be accurate, or it may not. Again, however, it doesn’t change the contention that the race shouldn’t have been this close in the first place. Weeks after the 2016 election, as vote counts were yet being finalized in too-close-to-call contests, Jim Newell wrote as much in a piece for Slate. He argued:

The lesson of the Comey letter should not be that everything was just going fine until this singular event happened. Obviously Democratic candidates can pick up some tips for the future, such as a) always be sure to follow email protocol and b) keep your electronic devices as far as possible from Anthony Weiner. But they can never rule out some other Comey-equivalent October surprise. The question to ask is: Why was the Clinton campaign so susceptible to a slight shock in the first place? A campaign is resting on a very weak foundation if one vague letter from the FBI causes it to lose a huckster who sells crappy steaks at the Sharper Image.

The “Jill Stein or James Comey cost Hillary the election” narrative is akin to the narrative that Bernie Sanders did irreparable harm to the Democratic Party. You’re telling me that one man not even officially affiliated with the Democrats as a U.S. senator permanently damaged the entire party apparatus? To me, charging Sanders with potentially bringing ruin to the Dems says more about party’s infrastructural integrity (or lack thereof) than it does the intensity of his so-called “attacks” on Hillary Clinton as her primary challenger.

On the subject of my white privilege, meanwhile, well, they’re right. Let me say I don’t dispute this. I enjoy a certain amount of privilege on a daily basis and have almost certainly benefited from it over the course of my educational career and my professional life. Going back to the state-by-state basis of variation in election results, though, the biggest issue would appear to be my geographic privilege. If I lived in a state projected to be much closer based on polling data, might I have chosen differently?

Perhaps. It’s a decision I’m weighing on a smaller scale as we speak with Sen. Bob Menendez seeking re-election in New Jersey after a poor showing in the Democratic Party primary. Sure, Menendez is still the likely winner come November, but with doubts raised about the ethics of his behavior still fresh in voters’ minds, can I take his win for granted? On the other hand, if I do vote for him, what does this say about my values as a voter? Is choosing the “lesser of two evils” sufficient, considering we’ve been doing it for some time now and the state of democracy in this country doesn’t seem to be all that much better for it? These are the kinds of questions I don’t take likely.

Another issue invoked at around the same point in this discussion was whether I had done as much as I could to prevent Trump from winning. For what it’s worth, I wrote a piece separate from my pro-Jill Stein confessional right before the election about why you shouldn’t, under any circumstances, vote for Trump, but as I already acknowledged, my readership is very limited. At any rate, and as my online detractors insisted, I didn’t vote for Hillary, and what’s more, I didn’t campaign on her behalf. I could’ve “easily” made calls or knocked on doors or what-have-you for her sake at “no cost” to me, but I didn’t. As a result, according to them, I was complicit in her electoral defeat.

Could I have told people to vote for Hillary Clinton? Sure. I don’t consider myself any great person-to-person salesman, but I could’ve made the effort. Although this would present a weird sort of dissonance between my advocacy and my personal choice. Why am I instructing people not to vote for Trump and choose Clinton instead when I myself am choosing neither? Then again, I could’ve chosen to vote for Hillary, or simply lied about my choice, assuming anyone ever asked. I also could’ve tried to lobotomize myself with a fork to forget anything that happened leading up to the election. That’s the thing with hypotheticals—you can go any number of ways with them, no matter how unlikely or painful.

Eventually, it became evident that these two gentlemen were demanding that I apologize, but in a way that could make them feel better about accepting me as one of them—a liberal, a progressive, a member of the “Resistance, etc.—rather than simply apologizing to immigrant populations and people of color for “putting my white privilege above” their more immediate worries. My original critic was unequivocal in his demands: “You need to apologize.” His colleague and my second critic, reacting to my expressed feeling that relitigating the 2016 election only to quarrel among various factions on the left was of limited use and that we need to be more forward-thinking in our approach to 2018, 2020, and beyond, was likewise stern in his disapproval. As he stressed, you can’t just do something shitty, say “let’s move on,” and be done with it. I would have to admit my wrongdoing, or he and others would reserve the right to judge me negatively. Such was my “choice.”

Ultimately, my parting remarks were to reiterate my positions as stated above, and to insist that people not be shamed for their vote as part of some scapegoating exercise against third-party/independent voters. I also closed by telling my second critic in particular—someone very critical of me on a personal level despite barely knowing me—that I hope his recruitment efforts as an organizer are handled with more aplomb. End of discussion, at least on my end, and click on that Unfriend button. Now you guys don’t have to fret about having to work with me—because I won’t work with you unless I have to.


The unfortunate thing about this conversation—other than that I let it happen—was that it grew so contentious despite the idea we seemed to agree on a lot of points. For one, I conceded my privilege in voting the way I did, something I have characterized as not merely being about race, but of geographical privilege as well. I would submit that admitting privilege is only a small part of the solution, however.

A more constructive recognition of inequality between people of different ethnicities, I would argue, involves advocacy for those who can’t vote, those who should be able to vote, or those who can vote, but otherwise find obstacles in access to the polls. On the latter note, there are numerous reforms that can be enacted or more widely used to expand the voter pool in a legitimate way. These include automatic voter registration, increased availability of the absentee ballot and early voting options, making Election Day a national holiday, and opening and staffing additional polling places in areas where election officials are unable to meet the demand of voting constituents.

Moreover, these issues can be addressed concomitantly with issues that affect all voters, including the electoral vote vs. the popular vote, ensuring the integrity of machine-based voting with paper records, gerrymandering designed purely for one party’s political advantage, the influence of Citizens United on campaign finance laws, and ranked-choice voting as an alternative to a winner-takes-all format. American elections have a lot of avenues for potential improvement, and particularly salient are those that disproportionately affect people of color.

I also conceded that I could have done more and can still do more on behalf of undocumented immigrant families, especially as it regards the separation of children from their parents, and this recognition more than anything merits an apology on my part, so to those negatively impacted by the policies of this administration, I am sorry. By this token, many of us could probably do more. Hearing of so many horror stories of young children being traumatized and parents being deliberately deceived by Border Patrol agents is disheartening, to say the least, and as powerless as many of us may feel in times like these, there are ways to contribute, even if it seems like something fairly small.

There seems to be no shortage of marches and protests designed to elevate awareness of the severity of the crisis facing immigrants and asylum seekers, notably from Mexico and Central America, as well as groups devoted to advocating for and defending the most vulnerable among us that can use your contributions. RAICES (the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services) and the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union) jump to mind, but there are numerous possible recipients of much-needed donations. As always, be sure to do your homework regarding the reputation of any charity you seek out.

Though it may go without saying, you can also contact the office of your senators and the representative of your district to express your desire that they support any legislation which puts an end (hint: not the House GOP bill) to the Trump administration’s “zero-tolerance policy” on illegal immigration, and to thank them for signing on in the event they do. If they don’t accede to or even acknowledge your request, keep trying. As it must be remembered, these lawmakers serve us—not the other way around.

The point I refuse to concede, however, is that I should apologize for my vote for Jill Stein in a state won by Hillary Clinton when I neither voted for nor supported Donald Trump, when both major parties have contributed to destructive immigration policies over the years, when Democrats lost an election they most likely shouldn’t have lost, and when this same losing party refuses to own its shortcomings and open the door to real reform, instead only becoming more calcified. That is, I certainly won’t apologize merely to assuage the concerns of fellow Democrats and liberals. Now is the time for a dialog, not a lecture, and certainly not the time for endless dissection of the 2016 presidential election and guilting conscientious objectors. At a point when we should be working together, I reject this means of tearing one another apart.

To view this post as it appears on Citizen Truth, click here. Citizen Truth is an independent and alternative media organization dedicated to finding the truth, ending the left-right paradigm, and widening the scope of viewpoints represented in media and our daily conversations. For more on CT, please visit citizentruth.org.

On the Decline of U.S. Manufacturing (and No, It’s Not All About Automation)

Bethlehem Steel
While automation is widely believed to be the key to manufacturing job losses in the United States, more recent research suggests globalization and practices by competitors like China have made more of a difference than otherwise might have been believed. (Photo Credit: Joshua Schnalzer/Flickr/Creative Commons

Ready for a deep dive into economic trends and theory facing the American manufacturing sector? I get it—the topic may not be an altogether sexy one—but the implications that accompany these trends are important ones, so bear with me for a bit.

Gwynn Guilford, reporting for Quartz, recently penned an excellent analysis of the United States’ effective stagnation when it comes to growth in the manufacturing sector, an eventuality that even trained data-driven economists have misinterpreted by viewing manufacturing more holistically. She begins her piece by talking about Donald Trump decrying globalization as a job killer on the campaign trail, and this being dismissed by economists and other data-driven analysts as rhetoric in favor of automation as the dominant explanation for job loss in the States.

As Guilford tells it, though, Trump was closer to the truth than a lot of experts might otherwise have entertained—though for reasons he likely can’t iterate, so let’s not give the Devil too much of his due.

First, a matter of context. According to Guilford, who cites data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, manufacturing employment has declined by more than 25% since 2000, to the tune of some 20 million jobs. At the same time, however, the manufacturing sector’s output has continued to increase despite the job loss, roughly in line with growth in the U.S.’s gross domestic product (GDP). The easy explanation for this is that advances in management, skill, and—you guessed it—technology have made manufacturing processes more efficient, yielding superior output and production when adjusting for inflation.

True as these justifications for industrial improvement may be, though, there is still the matter of the paradox created with respect to rising output and concomitant declining employment in the manufacturing sector. Here’s where the economic theory comes into play. Susan Houseman, economist and specialist in matters of globalization, in conjunction with Federal Reserve economists, looked at detailed statistics regarding calculations of manufacturing output.

As Guilford explains, integral to understanding what Houseman and her colleagues saw is how economists assess year-to-year measurements. Not only do they look at the raw numbers of finished products made from one period to the next minus the costs of production (a principle known as “value added”), but they adjust for changes in price and product quality. The problem with measuring things in this way, meanwhile, is that adjustments based on assumptions of value can be misinterpreted as or otherwise confounded with sales data, making it seem as if the country is selling more goods than it actually is.

As Houseman et al. contend, this is precisely what’s happening with the consensus analysis of the U.S. manufacturing sector, and one relatively small subsector is skewing the observed data: computers. The evidence of this is alarming when controlling for the computing industry in plotting private industry and manufacturing growth over time. Between 1947 and 1977, graphs of statistics recorded by the Bureau of Economic Analysis show growth of manufacturing and private industry largely in step, on a steady incline. From 1977 on, however, taking computers out of the manufacturing equation creates a stark downward departure for the Manufacturing, Less Computers line. As Guilford puts a cap on this, “By 2016, real manufacturing output, sans computers, was lower than it was in 2007.”

In other words, the health of the American manufacturing sector looks to be dangerously overstated, and while automation did, of course, occur here, Guilford points to evidence that globalization and trade may have done more damage than previously considered. In this regard, China, a frequent target of Donald Trump’s as he stumped for votes, indeed plays a central role.

China’s emergence as a major exporter of goods is estimated by one group of economists as costing America over 2 million jobs from 1999 to 2011, helped by competitive advantages in the form of artificially devalued currency and cheaper labor, and exacerbated by the strengthening of the U.S. dollar, which reduced the demand for American exports. But American leadership is not without its culpability herein. As economists Justin Pierce and Peter Schott argue, China’s joining of the World Trade Organization as a member in 2001 negated the ability of the U.S. to retaliate against Chinese currency manipulation and other protectionist policies, a situation Bill Clinton, among others, encouraged as President of these United States.

In addition, going back to the notion of automation as a job killer, there are some logical flaws in the emphasis on this cause being a primary driving force. For one, as Guilford bluntly puts it, robots “have to work somewhere.” Given the statistic that more than 75,000 manufacturing plants in the U.S. closed between 2000 and 2014, for overall manufacturing output to increase, other factors would have to be at play. There’s also the matter of the United States lagging behind other developed nations such as Korea, Singapore, Germany, and Japan in terms of use of robotics. The numbers, as they say, don’t add up.

Thus, if anyone or anything should get a wag of the finger, according to Gwynn Guilford, it’s “two decades of ill-founded policymaking,” the kind that “put diplomacy before industrial development at home, offering the massive American consumer market as a carrot to encourage other countries to open up their economies to multinational investment.” In doing so, we as a nation dismissed the threat of foreign competition and accepted (and continue to accept) the popular narrative that automation was and is the major driver of job extinction.

What’s particularly problematic about this mindset is that it obscures the importance of manufacturing to the U.S. economy and as a provider of skills to American workers. With production facilities closing their doors, there’s less incentive to do the kind of research and development that leads to better, more competitive products. As you might expect, too, the brunt of the costs of manufacturing’s decline outside of the computing subsector have been borne by the middle class, while the lion’s share of the benefits of globalization have been reaped by the so-called urban professional elite and multinational corporations.

In turn, politically and socially speaking, the country has become increasingly unequal and more polarized. All of these elements suddenly seem tailor-made for Trump and his faux populism to swoop in and capture an upset victory like he did in the 2016 election. The man struck a nerve in the heart of blue-collar America. Predictably and unfortunately, though, he hasn’t done much to boost U.S. manufacturing, instead focusing on tariffs and pushing the nation to the brink of a trade war with any number of entrants willing to fight back, and ignoring the currency manipulation angle that validates, in part, his anti-China tirades. Not that this exculpates the Democrats, either, whom Guilford characterizes as possessing “no vision for how to reverse the industrial backslide.”

All of this paints a fairly grim picture of the outlook for the manufacturing sector moving forward, as it does for the country’s susceptibility to divisive rhetoric and strongmen like Trump. To quote Guilford in closing:

US leaders’ longstanding misunderstanding of the manufacturing industry led to the biggest presidential election upset in American history. But they still don’t seem to grasp what’s been lost, or why. It’s easy to dismiss the disappearance of factory jobs as a past misstep—with a “we’re not getting those jobs back” and a sigh. Then again, you can’t know that for sure if you never try.

It’s one thing for political leaders, often derided as out of touch with John and Jane Q. Public, to misunderstand the issues about which they profess to know—assuming they ever understood in the first place. When economic analysts are falling prey to the same faulty reasoning, however, it doesn’t instill a great deal of confidence in those of us less well-versed in such matters. The most inspiring sentiment here is Guilford’s seeming doubt about whether or not the jobs we take for granted are really lost for good, that we don’t know for sure one way or another. Then again, we have to try first, and based on the current state of affairs, that’s no guarantee.


Considerations of the stagnation of American manufacturing accompany this week’s not-so-great news for workers amid an ongoing assault on workers’ rights from the political right. In a 5-4 decision that saw conservatives comprise the majority, the Supreme Court ruled that employers can compel their employees to sign arbitration agreements in which they waive their rights to bring class-action suits against the employer. Justice Neil Gorsuch, while indicating this practice of company management is “debatable,” nonetheless found that federal arbitration law does not conflict with the National Labor Relations Act, a piece of legislation in place since 1935 governing the rights of employers and employees alike, and designed to protect the ability of the latter to collectively bargain and form trade unions.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, meanwhile, speaking in dissent, was unequivocal in her negative assessment of the ruling, calling it “egregiously wrong,” and offering these additional sentiments on the matter:

The court today holds enforceable these arm-twisted, take-it-or-leave-it contracts—including the provisions requiring employees to litigate wages and hours claims only one-by-one. Federal labor law does not countenance such isolation of employees.

As the “Notorious RBG” finds, these agreements are evocative of the so-called “yellow dog” contracts used by employers until being outlawed in 1932 that barred workers from forming or participating in unions as a condition of employment. Now more than 85 years removed from a legislative remedy to such lopsided bargains, to know that we are potentially moving backward on the subject of workers’ rights is frightening.

Ginsburg isn’t the only one painting this decision in such ominously historical terms either. While the Court didn’t specifically address discrimination in the workplace with this ruling, civil rights advocates have expressed their fear it will set a precedent that will allow employers to skirt their responsibility with respect to claims of discrimination and harassment in the workplace. Add to this fears that a conservative majority ruling in Janus v. AFSCME could strip unions of their ability to collect “fair share” fees from non-members who nonetheless benefit from union representation, and there is any number of reasons for concern for the fate of American unions and the imbalance of political power fueled and perpetuated by moneyed interests.

As with intervening to attempt to save manufacturing jobs, the impetus should be on lawmakers and the country’s leadership to steer the nation in the right direction on upholding workers’ rights, a point Ruth Bader Ginsburg emphasized in her dissent. At least as long as Republicans control both Congress and the White House, however, any pushback on efforts to undermine organized labor appears unlikely, especially while establishment Democrats fail to rise more strongly to its defense until it’s time to campaign—and even then there are failings, as the story of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 electoral loss demonstrates. A year-and-a-half after the fact, one is left to wonder what lessons, to be exact, the Dems have learned from their defeats of previous years.

Donald Trump was closer than he probably realized to the truth about China’s role in the United States’ manufacturing woes, and it got him to the White House. Until we as a nation get better at diagnosing this reality and abandoning the “robots took our jobs” narrative, crafting proactive-minded policy to adapt to the challenges of a global market, and ensuring that workers can organize and advocate for better wages and working conditions, we run the risk of similarly unqualified candidates taking advantage of the unrest that is apparent in teachers’ strikes and other walkouts which are happening, have happened, and will continue to happen—not to mention continued efflux of research and development skill, factory closures, and job loss.

On the surface, American manufacturing looks to be growing as it has in past decades. A deeper dive into the numbers, though, tells a more complete story—and one that doesn’t obviously lead to a happy ending. Let’s hope we as a country realize this before it’s too late and we fall too far behind on the world stage.

To view this post as it appears on Citizen Truth, click here. Citizen Truth is an independent and alternative media organization dedicated to finding the truth, ending the left-right paradigm, and widening the scope of viewpoints represented in media and our daily conversations. For more on CT, please visit citizentruth.org.