On Sex Work, Morality, and Truth

Pete Buttigieg is among those on the left who, in deriding Donald Trump as a “porn star president,” takes a jab at an industry in sex work that has been disproportionately stigmatized and which sees its professionals face certain risks and a lack of concern for their rights and trustworthiness. (Photo Credit: Marc Nozell/Flickr/CC BY 2.0)

At a recent CNN town hall, Democratic hopeful Pete Buttigieg took specific issue with Vice President Mike Pence’s support of Donald Trump. Buttigieg, mayor of South Bend, Indiana (Pence’s home state) and openly gay (ahem, not Pence’s favorite distinction), criticized Pence for his support for Trump in an apparent abandonment of his principles as a Christian. As Buttigieg put it, “How could he allow himself to become the cheerleader of the porn star presidency? Is it that he stopped believing in scripture when he started believing in Donald Trump?”

As far as the post-event dissection and sound bite accumulation went, this was Buttigieg’s quote of the night. For what it’s worth, the pointed criticism of Pence and the religious right is well taken. Prior to the rise of Trump, white evangelicals were most likely to insist on a candidate’s morality as an important quality. Now, however, they downplay Trump’s moral and other deficiencies of character, in this respect acting more white than evangelical. For some, it may be unconscious, but either way, religious conservatives see an ally in a president who appears to exemplify the so-called “prosperity gospel” and who would uphold their brand of “religious freedom.”

Mayor Buttigieg, though, is not a member of the religious right. He is a Democrat and Episcopalian whose mere sexual orientation would make him a target of conservative Christians’ scorn. His attack of Trump’s “porn star presidency” is a double-edged sword that strikes not only at Mike Pence’s hypocrisy and that of his ilk but also at adult entertainers and their choice of vocation. Within his comments are an implicit criticism of porn stars—or at least a failure to defend them. Trump is a bad person. He consorts with porn stars. By association, if you associate with him or them, you are a bad person.

The unnamed allusion to Trump’s extramarital liaison with Stephanie Clifford a.k.a. Stormy Daniels is not the first knock on the woman who alleges she slept with Trump and was paid off in advance of the 2016 presidential election for her silence. Rudy Giuliani—or the crazy person masquerading as Rudy Giuliani for the purposes of defending Donald Trump—expressed to a national audience the belief that Daniels has no credibility because she is a porn star. Translation: Stormy Daniels is a lying whore who can’t be trusted because all porn stars are lying whores. Michael Avenatti’s detractors on the right have leveled similar criticisms of Daniels’s then-lawyer on guilt-by-association principles. He represents porn stars, ipso facto, he is a lying scumbag.

Irrespective of what you think of their personalities—Avenatti, in particular, strikes me as an obnoxious attention-seeker—their choice of vocation or client shouldn’t have a bearing on their believability. As is oft said, love the sinner; hate the sin. In this instance, however, even on the left, there are those who condemn the sinner and sin. Trump is a “porn star president.” Lost in the discussion of his and Pence’s and Daniels’s and Avenatti’s morality is the more relevant issue of whether Donald Trump specifically directed a payoff to Stormy Daniels and whether that constituted a breach of campaign finance law. It shouldn’t matter whether Daniels is a porn star or prostitute or any other similar type of professional. It’s Trump’s conduct with which we should be primarily concerned.

Unfortunately, this bilateral takedown of adult entertainers and other sex workers is emblematic of our larger discomfort with sex work as a function of our discomfort with, well, sex. Sex is enjoyable. It’s the reason most of us are here, barring in vitro fertilization or the like. Talking about it, though, for many of us can be an, er, icky prospect, necessitating the use of double entendre or other euphemistic language. And showing our appreciation of its splendor? Oh, no. Especially for women, that’s not very “lady-like.” Too much sex and you risk getting branded as a “slut.” Worse yet if you’re a prostitute. Then you’re a criminal and deserve to be admonished. So much for the world’s oldest profession.

I watch porn. (Mom, if you’re reading this, apologies.) I’m not without my reservations. There are the usual complaints. The costumes tend to be tacky. Lo, the cut-rate nurse uniforms. The dialogue is often stilted. The acting is frequently subpar. And is there nothing that doesn’t get a porn parody? Who asks for a Rugrats porn parody anyway? Who finds that sexy?

Even when these things are improved upon—and I do think the production value of today’s adult entertainment is largely superior to the XXX offerings of yesteryear—there are troubling aspects of the presentation and of the industry as a whole. The plots—which often barely qualify as such and for some reason usually revolve around sex with stepfamily—can be steeped in misogyny, involving coercion or trickery of the female participant(s) as pivotal “plot” points.

Even when the content is geared to be more “female friendly,” the on-screen enjoyment is often reserved for wealthy characters who enjoy lavish accommodations on the count of being highly-paid hard-working individuals. It’s luxury porn on top of being actual porn. There are also concerns off camera about suicides of numerous high-profile stars and the ever-present worry about transmission of sexually-transmitted infections in a world where condom use is infrequent. And we haven’t yet gotten to the problem of monetization for production companies and actors/actresses alike.

So yeah, the adult entertainment industry has its issues—and I’m sure I’ve missed a few. Still, I’m not sure why there seems to be such a disdain or disregard for the people involved, the type which prompts left-leaning comedians like Chelsea Handler to equate porn stars with abusers, child molesters, and Russian hackers. I get that its objectors may see porn as exploitative and the performers as lacking talent. But why the hate? Because they love sex and like getting paid for it? Even within the context of the on-film productions, there seems to be an inherent condemnation of the young women in these situations modeled on real life. These whores will do anything for money! They can’t control themselves when they see what he’s packing down there! We condemn them for their vices while absconding to our bedrooms, gratifying our pleasures. To the extent that these scenes are a reflection of us and our society is disconcerting.

Morality also appears to cloud our collective judgment when it comes to our demonization of escorts, prostitutes, et cetera and advocacy for their rights. A presumption in this regard is that the sex worker has agency over her or his circumstances—and that may be a big presumption to make. There are arguments by some feminists and others that sex work is an oppressive form of labor, especially as it relates to exploitation by “pimps.” Speaking of exploitation, there are serious concerns about human and sex trafficking that would subvert that necessary agency and constitute a serious crime. In many cases, there are quantifiable risks to the sex worker, including drug use, poverty, rape, sexually-transmitted infections, and violence.

These issues notwithstanding, the stigma of sex work lingers. As with adult entertainers, prostitutes who get involved with this line of work for the money or sex are demeaned as unskilled opportunists, and as for the risks they face, the consensus response seems to be an effective shrug of the shoulders. They chose this lifestyle. If they don’t like it, they should get an education and a real job. This comes to a head when discussing sex workers’ desire for safety and protection against burdensome regulations as well as freedom of movement, available health services, and other rights that mere status as a human being should confer. In practice, this is not always the reality.

Meera Senthilingam, a CNN Health and Wellness editor, penned an article which appeared on CNN in February concerning “what sex workers really want.” In the opinion of one sex worker interviewed for the piece, seeing as they pay the same taxes, sex workers should be afforded the same rights as other service professionals who are allowed to work from home. There is also the problem for some prostitutes when law enforcement gets involved. In places where the legality of the practice is null or vague and dependent on who solicits who, the presence of police may actually be a deterrent to would-be customers.

This assumes, by the by, that the police aren’t the ones abusing, exploiting, or harassing sex workers, and as with the agency of sex workers mentioned earlier, this is quite an assumption to make. As with any profession, there are bad actors, and for a population in sex workers already susceptible to violence and other health and safety concerns, it puts practitioners in a bind, to put it mildly. It begs the question: who will watch the watchers when it comes to safeguarding their liberties as citizens?

The above deliberations are worth talking about. Whether it’s because of a deprecating attitude regarding sex work, a discomfort in approaching such matters, or both, however, even those on the left who usually are keen on standing up for individuals’ agency over their bodies and protecting their inalienable rights appear loath to mention sex workers specifically. Chalk it up to social mores or personal morality, but in 2019, America and the world at large is evidently lagging on this topic.


You might ask why we are worried about the feelings and opinions and rights of someone like Stormy Daniels. The woman didn’t even vote, for crying out loud! What do she and her contemporaries have to contribute to the larger discussion about Donald Trump and American politics? To be honest, I’m not totally sure, but if we dismiss her as an opportunist and a slut from the jump, what chance do we have to listen and know with an open mind?

In front of an audience of 500 women or so at The Wing, a work and community space designed for women in Washington, D.C., Daniels recently said she believes Michael Cohen to be true in his testimony to lawmakers. Cohen, like Daniels, has had his credibility attacked reflexively by Republican supporters of the president, and while she may not possess a great deal of affection for the man—she referred to Cohen as “dumber than herpes”—she thinks he is honest and that, like her, he came forward because he’s tired of “being bullied” and “being called a liar and a rat.”

Sure, this is just one person’s opinion, but it comes from someone who alleges to know Trump intimately—in more than one sense of the word. In this respect, her thoughts have at least much value as a shameless defender of Trump like Sean Hannity. Instead, though, she’s a porn star to be derided alongside the president, Mike Pence, and even child molesters and wife beaters. Thanks for the insight, but we’d rather scoff at you from atop our high horses. Don’t call us; we’ll call you.

Whether it’s within the context of #MeToo or of simply acknowledging the dignity of sex workers as human beings, the left has a problematic relationship with those storytellers it considers to be problematic or unsavory. Daniels has stressed she is a not a victim with regard to #MeToo. Cohen, set to spend three years in federal prison, is sure as heck not a victim.

Through all the deals they’ve struck and monies they’ve received, this doesn’t mean they’re utterly irredeemable. And their past actions and vocations have no bearing on the veracity of what they say about Trump. To allow our social and moral misgivings to stand in the way of our better judgment is to fall prey to the same kind of prejudices that have characterized conservatism of late. You know, when its practitioners actually heed their conscience or the teachings of scripture.

You Don’t Have to Be a Democrat—but Who Are You Supporting?

Candace Owens is right that blacks don’t have to support the Democrats. Unfortunately, that’s pretty much all she’s right about. (Photo Credit: Gage Skidmore/CC BY-SA 2.0)

You don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here.

Treating the analogy of the closing bar as a metaphor for political affiliation, “going home” is presumably supporting the Democratic Party, at least for people who have been party supporters or are members of subsets of the electorate that traditionally have formed the party’s base. It may not be the most satisfying way to end the night but it’s safe, familiar.

The “staying here” non-option-option, by association, is supporting the Republican Party. In terms of the bar analogy, this means if you don’t leave willingly, the cops show up and you likely go to jail. In politics, it means likely supporting a party in the GOP that stokes racist prejudice and makes upholding the status quo a priority—whether that’s good for the population as a whole or not.

In either case, the “staying here” option seems like a questionable decision to make. Who would rather go to jail than leave of his or her own volition? Why would you support a party that seems predicated on hatred of people like yourself?

And yet, there are obviously exceptions to the rule. For example, in the 2016 election, an estimated 8% of black voters opted for Donald Trump. As Michael D. Shear, John Eligon, and Maggie Haberman profile in a piece for The New York Times, there are those blacks who stand by the president even at the risk of damage to their credibility and despite his negative messaging.

The article focuses on but isn’t limited to people that have a following on social media and YouTube, namely Candace Owens and the sisterly duo of Diamond and Silk. These figures had prominent roles at this year’s CPAC (Conservative Political Action Conference) as well, loudly arguing against liberalism, socialism, and reparations, among other things. As Owens would insist, President Trump is not a racist and black people who hear him speak up close “love him.” As Trump’s fervent backers would insist, this support from black voters as well as his relationships with black celebrities is evidence that the mogul-turned-Commander-in-Chief is not a racist.

Only Donald J. Trump knows what’s in Donald J. Trump’s heart for sure. From what we’ve seen so far, meanwhile, the evidence pointing to him not being a racist is, well, not good. The firm of Eligon, Haberman, and Shear isolate just a handful of instances where Trump and his rhetoric speak to an anti-black bias, namely accusations of housing discrimination for him and his father, Fred Trump, calls for violence against Black Lives Matter activists, his unrepentant advocacy for the death penalty or other punishment for the Central Park Five even after their exoneration, and that whole “shithole countries” comment in reference to Africa and immigration. In other words, if Trump isn’t a racist, he’s got a lot of explaining to do. And this is all before we get to his treatment of other people of color, especially Hispanics/Latinx residents and individuals from countries subject to his administration’s “travel ban” (or “Muslim ban,” as its critics would less diplomatically label it).

Also not a good sign: the lack of black representation in Trump’s Cabinet and his administration as a whole. Ben Carson is the only African-American in the Cabinet, serving in a capacity for which he was questionably qualified in the first place as secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Omarosa Manigault Newman was the only black member of his senior staff and has since written a tell-all book that would seek to confirm the allegations of racism at which Trump’s public conduct hints.

Expanding the conversation to the Republican Party at large, the article’s authors key in on a recent episode during the Cohen hearing in which Rep. Mark Meadows defended the president from Michael Cohen’s allegations of racism by pointing to his employ of Lynne Patton, an official within Carson’s HUD department. For detractors, this was Meadows using Patton as a “prop” and an example of a bigger pattern of GOP leaders relying on “token” members as proof of their commitment to minority groups. I can’t be a racist. I have family that are people of color. If it seems like weak sauce to a white person like myself, you can just imagine how it might sound to actual people of color.

This is what makes Trump backers like Candace Owens and Diamond and Silk so confounding and profiles like the recent New York Times piece so compelling. Short of a gun to my head or literal brain damage, I can’t think of any reason why I would cast a vote for Trump in 2020—to be clear, I didn’t vote for him in 2016—and being a straight white cisgender male, I am the least likely to feel the brunt of the administration’s more destructive policies toward communities of color. For blacks and other members of minority groups, the reasons for standing by President Trump seem less clear.

The division within the ranks of black Republicans as told by Shear, Eligon, and Haberman may shed some light. Even within this sphere, conflict and uneasiness abound. Some unequivocally believe in Trump. Some support him despite his rhetoric or what they see as black administration officials reinforcing negative stereotypes. And some, like their white GOP counterparts, have distanced themselves from the president entirely.

Accordingly, if we non-Republicans are perplexed, we are not alone. For the Candace Owenses of the world, “staying here” and sticking with the Republican Party has been an option and, what’s more, it has boosted their national profile. It’s a path and a profile not without risk to their long-term relevance, though, and not without consequences for other women and people of color. Not to mention all bets may be off when, as with the closing bar, the cops show up. Unless you believe all the African-Americans who have died at the hands of police had it coming to them. In that case, don’t let me dissuade you.


For those not totally enamored with Donald Trump’s approach and/or who represent a potentially vulnerable segment of the electorate, they may see their identity as a Republican or Trump supporter as a virtue, even as others might deem it a liability.

Returning to the Eligon, Haberman, and Shear piece, black political strategist Raynard Jackson, who found himself aghast at the spectacle of Mark Meadows and Lynne Patton, is cited within as a Trump backer despite certain misgivings. While he criticizes the president for “surrounding himself with black people who told him what he wanted to hear rather than what he needed to hear,” Jackson still stands by him because of his economic policies and because he feels he (Jackson) can make a bigger difference from the inside of the conservative movement. If nothing else, he feels he has a seat at the table. Love or hate Trump, that’s more than a lot of us can say.

The portion of African-Americans who support Trump/other Republicans is perhaps an extreme example owing to how small it is. I also recognize the idea that I am perhaps not the best or most qualified person to be talking about Trump’s approval as it intersects with race. Either way, let’s open the conversation to a larger discussion of his supporters and why they voted for our country’s leader.

Back in 2015, Conor Friedersdorf of The Atlantic asked 30 Trump supporters why they backed the orange-faced one. The answers were fairly wide-ranging, though understandably, some common themes emerged. He’s a moderate at heart. He wants America to win. He has a drive for perfection. He’s living the American dream. He’s an alpha male. He has led large organizations before. He has BUILT REAL THINGS. He’s not politically correct. He’s not politically correct. He’s not politically correct. He’s not rehearsed. He’s a deal-maker. He won’t take no for an answer. He’s not Barack Obama. He’s not Hillary Clinton. He stands up for working Americans. He’ll protect America and put it first. He has put illegal immigration front and center. We’ll be able to burn it down and build it up faster with him in charge. The two-party system is broken. The presidency is a joke. At least it will all be entertaining.

As Friedersdorf found, the responses tended to fall into one of two broad categories: 1) those who believed Trump was the best choice to lead the country, and 2) chaotic as his presidency would be, it would be a sight to behold. Reading through the responses myself, what struck me—beyond the ideas that some people are really fed up with political correctness and that some people simply want to watch the world burn—is that Americans wanted someone who made them feel proud to be Americans. Obama, in his intellectual, reserved manner, did not always communicate that sense of bravado and confidence that people have come to associate with our proud republic. On the other hand, Trump, the consummate showman, articulates these sentiments better than anyone. For a self-professed Ivy league-educated billionaire, he’s somehow relatable.

Minuscule as the segment of pro-Trump black voters may be, it nonetheless may be instructive not to dismiss what the president means to them. Trump, for many, represents winning and patriotic pride. For all their fidelity to the Democratic Party, black Americans may not find their lives dramatically better because of it. As it bears stressing, politics and your support should be fundamentally about what you believe is right; it shouldn’t necessarily be characterized by what you expect to get out of the deal. But could I understand blacks expressing their dissatisfaction with a party they feel has taken them for granted? Sure. As a progressive, I feel it sometimes myself. Perhaps not in the same way, mind you, but feel it I have.

You don’t have to go home but you can’t stay here. Nothing says you have to vote Democrat. You can vote independent. You can vote third-party. You can not vote at all, which I would discourage, but it’s your choice. The likes of Candace Owens and Kanye West have helped promote this notion. At the end of the day, however, voting Republican in the era of Trump, despite what it means for one’s sense of autonomy or desire to succeed or national pride or even morbid curiosity, nonetheless strikes me as a counterproductive exercise. It’s one thing to walk away from the Democratic Party. It’s another to walk away and into the jaws of a party that uses you as a prop or actively campaigns on the idea you are something lesser.

Bernie’s Not a “True Democrat.” So What?

Bernie Sanders is not a Democrat. But he’s done as much to advance the Democratic Party’s true ideals than anyone in recent history and is among the least likely in the Senate to vote with President Donald Trump’s agenda. Shouldn’t that count for something? (Photo Credit: American Federation of Government Employees/Flickr/CC BY 2.0)

Since Bernie Sanders made official what has long been suspected in that he would run again for president in the 2020 election, for his detractors, the reasons abound why they don’t “feel the Bern.” He’s too old. He’s too socialist. He’s another white male. His policy goals are untenable. He’s too full of himself. He cost Hillary Clinton the last election. He has done irreparable harm to the Democratic Party. He hasn’t done enough to rein in the sexism of his campaign or his supporters. He’s out of touch. His time has passed. He needs to step aside.

As a confessed Sanders supporter from 2016—and thus someone making no claims to objectivity—I bristle at a number of these concerns. Especially the ones about Bernie costing Hillary the election or doing major damage to the Democrats. Some people seem conveniently to forget that Bernie campaigned for “Hill-dawg” after ending his own bid. As for the party’s integrity, if one person is capable of causing such profound destruction to the Dems’ infrastructure, to me, that says worse about the party itself than the one supposedly wreaking havoc. Just saying.

The objection heretofore unnamed which particularly galls me, however, is the notion Sanders isn’t a “true Democrat.” True, Bernie isn’t a Democrat; he’s an independent. He caucuses with the Democrats, but he identifies primarily as an independent.

Admittedly, as fact-checker Linda Qiu, working then for PolitiFact and now for the New York Times, explored back in 2016, Bernie has had a problematic association with calling himself an independent vs. identifying as a Democrat, particularly as it pertains to his candidacy for president. On his Senate website, he listed himself as an independent. On his campaign website, he identified as a “Democratic candidate.” He has frequently criticized the Democratic Party and has rejected the label of Democrat in the past, but he has campaigned for Democrats.

As I saw one Internet commentator put it, Bernie’s like the guy who goes to bed with you and doesn’t call you back the day after. As he caucuses with the Democrats, serves on Senate committees with them, and frequently co-sponsors bills with them, I think this criticism is a bit overblown. At the very least, Sanders’s ambiguity is confusing to the prospective voter. From the party’s perspective, too, they might not feel too jazzed up about a candidate receiving the apparent benefits of associating herself or himself with the Democrats without willing to link herself or himself definitively with the party. Fix your heart or die! Wave that blue banner! What’s so bad about the Democratic Party that you don’t want to join?! (Wait, that was rhetorical—don’t actually tell us!)

For the individual voter, however, despite the confusion and whatever self-serving advantages an uneasy alliance with one of the two major parties might hold, the litmus test of whether someone is a “true Democrat” makes less sense to me. Of course, if you’re a diehard Democratic Party supporter, I get it: you probably feel a sense of umbrage about Sanders’s awkward dance with the Dems. What, Bernie, you’re good to be a member? If you don’t want to call yourself a Democrat, we don’t want you! And take your “Bernie Bros” with you!

Such a response to Sanders’s candidacy is understandable, if impractical. Much in the way we might insist on ideological purity tests for political candidates or even people/organizations that we admire and materially support, some of us who have long backed the Democratic Party regard upholding the party’s ideals as important. It’s not just a matter of intellectual attachment. It’s a matter of the heart or even the soul. As imperfect as her actions have been and her reasoning may yet be, Donna Brazile’s complaint about reducing the influence of superdelegates because of the blood, sweat, and tears she shed for the Democrats speaks to the seriousness with which she treats these affairs. Simply put, it’s personal.

With all this acknowledged, there are two big reasons why Bernie running as a Democrat in 2020 seems desirable: one more general in relation to our political system, the other specific to present circumstances. The first reason is that independent candidates face an uphill electoral battle and their very candidacy risks swaying the election. At heart, I tend to dismiss the third-party/independent-candidate-as-spoiler diatribes that periodically manifest after close races. Given the current dominance of the two major parties, a Democrat’s or Republican’s loss in a contested race should be seen mainly through the lens of that candidate’s and that party’s failure to seal the deal. Besides, it’s your right to vote however you want.

Independent as he may be, though, and as disagreeable as you may find some of his positions on issues, Bernie’s no dope. He doesn’t want to split the electorate any more than you would plead with him not to. Along the same lines, he has rejected overtures from third parties—both existing and theoretical—because of the time, effort, and organization it would take to bolster and sustain the ranks of such a progressive faction.

Then again, he could always not run. In fact, some of his 2016 supporters might share these sentiments. For all the criticism and mudslinging a presidential campaign brings with it, not to mention the strain of going from city to city doing debates, interviews, speeches, and the like, there’s a lot for one person to endure and the risk of damage to one’s political career for all the scrutiny. See also “Howard Dean Scream.”

The other major reason why Democratic Party supporters should encourage the strongest possible pool of candidates is the man who currently resides in the White House—you know, when he’s not at one of his resorts. The Dems and their supporters are deservedly riding high after their party took back control of the House subsequent to the midterms. Still, nothing is guaranteed for 2020, and especially after Donald Trump’s upset win in 2016, the Democrats would be loath to take anything for granted. Trump, for all his malapropisms and missteps, maintains a base of fanatical backers. And this is before we even get to disinformation campaigns about individual candidates that surely are underway—foreign or domestic.

To reiterate, I voted for Bernie in the Democratic primaries in 2016 and still admire him, so I’m not unbiased in expressing my opinions. Just the same, I’d like to think that if he were 100 and purple, I’d support him nonetheless. For me, it’s a matter of his stated ideals. This is not to say that other candidates don’t share similar views or possess their own strengths. It’s a crowded field and a deeper one this time around, at that. For the pragmatists among us, however, his bid for the presidency as a Democrat shouldn’t be an issue, assuming the proverbial cream will rise to the top and that the primary process is a fair one. Bernie diehards, you don’t have to say it; I can already see you wagging your finger at the DNC.


What is truly problematic about the argument Bernie Sanders isn’t a “true Democrat” is that this distinction, much like Sanders’s identification with the Democratic Party, appears to be nebulous. How does someone get classified as a true Democrat? Is it based on time served in office under the party banner? Dues paid or donations raised? Commitment to the party ideals? Some combination of the above? Does the definition change over time? And who decides such things?

Briahna Joy Gray, senior politics editor for The Intercept, for one, celebrated in 2017 that Bernie is not a Democrat because that apparently leaves him free to advance the party’s ideals while the actual Democrats lament political “realities” and revert to the same faulty electoral strategies. Gray closes her piece with these thoughts about the charge levied by Hillary Clinton, Barbara Boxer, and their establishment ilk that Sanders is “not even a Democrat”:

The implication that non-Democrats would fail to live up to Democratic values, when those values are precisely the ones the Sanders movement aims to push forward, is partially why the “not even a Democrat” smear is so grating to progressives. That the party is moving leftward should provoke warm-hearted optimism and encouragement from Democrats; after all, those are ostensibly their values, too. Instead, the petty and territorial response from some Democrats reminds one of the line from Mean Girls: Bernie Sanders “doesn’t even go here!”

Political parties aren’t sports teams. Politics are about principles and results, not tribalism.  As Marc Munroe Dion, quoted in Thomas Frank’s Listen Liberal, put it when describing the despair that had settled on a dying manufacturing town, those still invested in party affiliation itself are performing “political rituals that haven’t made sense since the 1980s, feathered tribesmen dancing around a god carved out of a tree trunk.” Affiliation is not a birthright or an immutable characteristic, but an expression of personal ideals. If Bernie Sanders, the most popular politician in America, is not a Democrat, it is the Democrats, not Bernie, who need to consider redefining themselves.

From where Gray is standing, Sanders’s candidacy and lingering popularity should only be threatening for Democrats if his core values and theirs fail to align. That their ideals aren’t that dissimilar and yet a tension between the two sides exists suggests it’s the Democrats who have trouble articulating or defining their ideals, notably because they’re, in part, compromised by their fidelity to “banking interests and the technocracy” as opposed to the interests of labor that at least once formed the backbone of the party’s support. It’s hard for us to be “with her” or “stronger together” when it’s difficult to know whose designs are being considered alongside our own expressions of what we need.

As of February 23 and as calculated by FiveThirtyEight, in the U.S. Senate during the era of President Donald Trump, only Kirsten Gillibrand (12.2%), Jeff Merkley (13.3%), and Elizabeth Warren (13.3%) have voted in line with Trump less often than Bernie Sanders (14.6%). That puts Sanders in line with other contenders like Cory Booker (15.6%) and Kamala Harris (17.8%), significantly better than declared or rumored candidates like Sherrod Brown (29.2%) or Amy Klobuchar (31.3%), and miles ahead of someone like Joe Manchin, who has voted in line with Trump’s position 60% of the time. West Virginia’s identity as a “red” state notwithstanding, and noting that a party is only as good as its weakest link, how silly does it look to cast aspersions on Bernie when he fares better on the ideological purity test than the majority of his Democratic colleagues and when someone like Manchin seems like the living embodiment of a DINO (Democrat in Name Only)? This is not a good look for the Dems.

True, Bernie Sanders is not a Democrat. But so what? He’s done as much as anyone in recent memory to help save the Democratic Party from itself, and while it can’t be assumed that he would’ve won the 2016 election had he won the nomination, he may just be the Democrats’ best option in 2020.

Why Do Billionaires Like Howard Schultz Want to Run for President? Because They Can

Former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz is considering an independent presidential run, but there seems to be little to no need or desire for him to run, not to mention his lack of political experience. (Photo Credit: Flickr/Department of Defense/U.S. Army Sgt. James K. McCann/CC BY 2.0)

Reportedly, former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz is “seriously considering” a presidential run—as an independent no less.

Why not run as a Democrat and join an ever-deepening 2020 field? As Schultz has suggested in interviews, he opposes running as a Democrat because of what he views as “extremism on both sides.” He also believes that if a progressive won the Democratic Party nomination, it would be a surefire way to get Donald Trump re-elected.

There’s a bit to unpack here even with so little quoted, so let’s get down to it. On the notion that there are extremists or bad actors “on both sides,” while this may be true, it would seem a bit of a false equivalency. On the progressive left, you have people arguing for a $15 minimum wage, universal health care, higher taxes on the wealthiest Americans, etc. On the far right, you have Nazis and other white supremacists. For someone who professes to loathe Trump, Schultz’s discourse sounds a lot like his. Even if he’s talking primarily about the national debt, to speak in general terms about the left and right is as reckless as the deficit spending about which he speaks.

As for the idea that having a progressive as the Democratic Party nominee in 2020 means handing over the presidency to Trump, this is a line that’s been parroted over and over since the 2016 election and even before that. But it underestimates the enthusiasm that exists across ideologies for progressive ideals and policy initiatives, and fails to account for the struggles more moderate candidates have encountered in recent elections. Hillary Clinton, for all of her education and experience, and despite sexism and shenanigans prior to Election Day, had serious flaws as a candidate right down to how she ran her campaign. If centrism is the virtue we’ve made it out to be, shouldn’t Clinton have finished 20 points ahead, as she (in)famously quipped? The results don’t appear to bear this out.

This is all before we even get to the obvious assertion: that running as an independent would steal votes from the Democratic nominee. Such a prediction may or may not be true; it’s hard to assess what independents and other unaffiliated voters may be thinking as they step into voting booths absent exit polls, and then, of course, it’s too late. There’s also the matter that voters should be free to choose whomever they want in an election. It’s their vote and their right. That said, I don’t know that I’m encouraging independent presidential runs—especially not from billionaire businessmen given we have one in the White House.

Initial responses to Schultz’s visions of 2020 candidacy, er, haven’t been great. At a recent stop on his book tour—it’s called From the Ground Up and you can be sure it speaks to his credentials as a job creator and someone interested in civic engagement!—Schultz was interrupted during his interview with CNBC’s Andrew Ross Sorkin by a heckler who told him, “Don’t help elect Trump, you egotistical billionaire asshole” and later added, “Go back to getting ratioed on Twitter.” As the kids would say, shots fired.

Schultz brushed off the criticism—”I’m not running a primary race on Twitter”—but it is interesting witnessing a lukewarm (at best) reception for Schultz’s hint at a presidential bid. Sure, the bulk of it may relate to the contention that Donald Trump is no ordinary president, a racist fraud and pathological liar intent on taking the country backwards who needs as an undivided an opposition as possible to get removed from office and get us back on track.

A component of this animus might additionally stem from Starbucks’s uneven track record of late in avoiding controversy, notably concerning race relations. While still executive chairman of Starbucks, there was the whole to-do at the Philadelphia store that saw two black men arrested for trespassing while waiting for a friend. Let’s also not forget the Race Together campaign, an initiative devoted to racial equality and one promoting a dialog on race which was panned as misguided and tone-deaf. Turns out people don’t like when white billionaires lead a discussion on race relations. Go figure.

What’s also perhaps striking about Schultz’s non-announcement announcement is, despite the poor reception it has received from hecklers and trolls, how much press it has received in such a short time. Sure, a book tour helps, though there seems to be no shortage of books on the market from political figures or those with similar aspirations.

As noted, however, interviewers and other members of the media have been lining up to greet the former Starbucks chief executive and absorb his supposed political insights. He and his wife Sheri got some face time on 60 Minutes this past weekend. CBS This Morning. The New York Times. NPR. Laudatory opinion pieces by David Frum. You may not necessarily hold these sources in high esteem, but they certainly do expose Schultz and his views to a fairly wide audience.

To be fair, not all of this has been positive or even neutral press. In a series of tweets about Schultz, Paul Krugman painted him as a conservative and anti-Democrat masquerading as a centrist. Other detractors have raised objections similar to the ones outlined above. We don’t need another egotistical billionaire in the White House. No one asked or wants you to run. I asked for a caramel macchiato, not a caramel latte. OK, that last one is a joke, but suffice it to say there is plenty of negativity to go around.

Still, Schultz must figure he has an audience, right? And, as the saying goes, there’s no such thing as negative press? If Donald Trump can build a following despite the attempts of the mainstream media to laugh off his presidential campaign, it’s conceivable that the networks and pundits who prop him up might be enough to make an eventual candidacy seem meritorious. If Schultz is as self-centered as he’s made out to be, he might be swayed by Trump’s attempts to egg him on, too. Left or right, there’s no shortage of individuals who would undoubtedly relish the chance to try to take the president down a peg. It’s a trap, but in an era of performative outrage, any blowback could have its purpose. Hey, at least I stood up to the man! At least I stood for fiscal responsibility!

This very column devoted to Schultz’s testing the waters could be seen as unnecessary attention. In other words, if we ignore him, he’ll go away. Especially after Trump’s electoral success, though, it may be a few cycles before the billionaire executive candidate goes out of fashion. Either way, there’s a larger conversation about how money and privilege afford power. Long before the Trump era, Ross Perot had a reasonably successful run as an independent. As long as someone’s personal finances can get him or her a ticket to “the show” and as long as he or she has a path to voters’ attention, focusing on candidates like Howard Schultz as a subset of the discussion of the role of money in politics remains relevant.


The devil’s advocate argument, if you will, for Schultz’s possible candidacy would seem to exist with respect to the notion that he built his company, as the title of his book alludes to, “from the ground up.” If he earned his money through his hard work and his vision, why not spend it how he wants? There would also be historical precedent if Schultz wins. Schultz would be the first Jewish president of the United States, though like Bernie Sanders, he tends to downplay his faith. As he said in his 60 Minutes interview, “I am not running as a Jew if I decide to run for president. I’m running as an American who happens to be Jewish.” Let that be the only comparison between Schultz and Sanders, at least in this space.

Even if Howard Schultz can run for president, however, should he? In spite of recent controversies involving the Starbucks brand, the man hasn’t engendered much antipathy from the American people. Should he decide to run for office, particularly as an independent, that could dissipate fast. Why risk the damage to one’s reputation as well as a possible Starbucks boycott? Any way you slice it, that’s bad for business.

Schultz, a lifelong Democrat, claims to appeal to the voter who is sick and tired of bickering and ineffectiveness between the two major parties. He wants “to see the American people win.” But a number of his positions seem out of step with what Americans want, and certainly with what progressives would like to see. His deliberation on the national debt evokes the “pay-go” debate as it applies to the Democratic Party agenda, a shift that Nancy Pelosi and others have embraced along the lines of economic “pragmatism” but one that could stunt progressive initiatives.

His insistence that universal health care is as illusory as Donald Trump’s visions of a border wall, meanwhile, belies the idea that it is practiced around the world, suggesting that if we really wanted to, we could follow the lead of Australia, Canada, China, Europe, most of South America, Russia, and scores of other areas/countries. That Schultz so readily and straightforwardly dismisses something which is fast becoming part of the mainstream political conversation makes one tend to wonder whether he fails to understand this much or understands all too well and chooses to ignore it. To this effect, I’m not sure which is worse.

So, yes, Howard Schultz can run for president. It’s a free country. It just seems, though, like there’s not a huge need or desire for him to throw his proverbial hat into the ring, and having people dip into their personal finances and vie for public office when campaign finance is already so enmeshed with the designs of corporate and wealthy donors seems problematic.

Money should not suffice or be a prerequisite for political participation. Let’s not encourage another out-of-touch billionaire who lacks experience to go beyond hocking his autobiography.

Joe Biden? Really?

Joe Biden is affable, experienced, and believes in the dignity of a hard-earned paycheck. But does that make him the best choice for Democrats in 2020? (Photo Credit: World Economic Forum/Manuel Lopez/Flickr/CC BY-NC-SA-2.0)

According to a recent poll of 455 likely Democratic caucus-goers from the state of Iowa, Joe Biden is their top choice for president in 2020 at 32%. Bernie Sanders comes in second at 19%, followed by Beto O’Rourke at 11%. Elizabeth Warren (8%) and Kamala Harris (5%) round out the top five, assuming you don’t include “Not sure” as part of this ranking.

Observers will point out this is a very early poll. For the sake of an example, Jeb Bush had a comfortable lead at this point in 2014—and we all know how that eventually turned out.

Nevertheless, these poll results hint at what Democratic supporters’ priorities might be leading up to 2020. With Biden leading the pack, political experience and a perceived ability to stand up to Donald Trump appear to be key factors in voters’ decision-making process. In the language of the poll, they prefer a “seasoned hand” to that of a “newcomer.”

As a reaction to Trump, this predilection for the former vice president is understandable. Trump, the outlandish outsider, has demonstrated what damage a neophyte with a questionable temperament for the job can do. That said, is Biden really who the Dems want to represent them in the next presidential election?

If you ask Frank Bruni, New York Times columnist, the answer is heck, no. Bruni, despite liking Biden, urges him not to run for president. Here’s Bruni’s opening salvo from a recent column:

You’d agree, wouldn’t you, that Consideration No. 1 in choosing a Democratic nominee in 2020 is making sure that the person is best positioned to defeat Donald Trump? That nothing else comes close? Then what would you say if I told you that we should put our chips on a man who failed miserably at two previous campaigns for the nomination, the first one back in 1988, a year before Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was born? And that when he applied the lessons from that debacle to his second bid two decades later, he did no better, placing fifth in the Iowa caucuses, getting fewer than 1 percent of the state’s delegates, and folding his tent before even the New Hampshire primary?

And that he spent nearly 45 years in Washington, a proper noun that’s a dirty word in presidential politics? And that his record includes laws and episodes that are reviled — rightly — by the female and black voters so integral to the Democratic Party? And that, on Election Day, he would be 77, which is 31 years older than Bill Clinton was in 1992, 30 years older than Barack Obama was in 2008, and a complete contradiction of the party’s success over the past half-century with relatively youthful candidates?

You’d tell me that I was of unsound mind. Well, Joe Biden’s boosters are.

But tell us how you really feel, Frank. In analyzing the general election prospects of a man who sounds a lot like he’s about to run for president, Bruni is critical of the pitch Biden is making for a Democratic Party nomination. Which, at this point, mostly amounts to him touting his qualifications. Hillary Clinton is supremely qualified for the top political office in the country based on her experience. Donald Trump is, well, not. But it was Trump who won the 2016 election. In this political climate, experience might not be all that it’s cracked up to be.

This is not to say that Biden isn’t a great guy at heart. As Bruni feels, he’s a devoted political servant and family man, as well as someone with the inner strength and the requisite knowledge to match his aspired role. He’s “real.” 

Still, there are some not-so-savory elements of Biden’s political career. Though he has since apologized for not being able to “do more for” her—Biden has been criticized for his part in questioning Anita Hill during the 1991 confirmation hearings for Clarence Thomas. His questions have been characterized as reflecting a remarkable tone-deafness, and while he avers he always believed Hill’s testimony, his demeanor at the time suggests otherwise.

As Bruni underscores, Biden also merits scrutiny/criticism for his ties to the banking industry and support of a 2005 bill that made it more difficult for consumers to win protection under bankruptcy, as well as his role in drafting a 1994 crime bill that some analysts and activist groups allege did damage to communities of color and helped fuel America’s mass incarceration problem.

On the latter, Biden has repeatedly defended the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act signed into law by President Bill Clinton. The victims of institutional racism and the war on drugs, however, might take issue with this badge of honor.

Plus, and with all due respect, he’s an old white dude. This isn’t necessarily a disqualifying factor; look at how popular Bernie Sanders is with young people. Still, as a D.C. insider who doesn’t signal a move of the Democratic Party in a new, progressive direction, he’s a questionable choice in their bid to unseat Trump from the Oval Office. 

Bruni closes with these thoughts on Biden’s prospective candidacy:

He has said that he’ll decide in the next month or two whether to run — whether he’s willing to spend that much time away from his grandchildren. For their sake, I hope he stays on the sidelines. For our sake, too.

As a Bernie supporter from last election, I’m definitely biased in his favor relative to Biden. But when ol’ Amtrak Joe would seem to be a poor choice next to others in the field with less experience, too, I tend to agree with Mr. Bruni.


In deference to Joe Biden and responding to Frank Bruni’s dismissal of his earlier runs, while his past presidential campaigns have fizzled out, Biden stands a better chance now that he has more name recognition having served as vice president. Assuming Hillary Clinton doesn’t run in 2020—and that’s no guarantee, mind you—he’s got name recognition and probably would have the backing of establishment Democrats should he survive the nomination process.

I also don’t think Biden’s age is the problem that some make it out to be. Sure, people may see young progressives like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez as the future of the Democratic Party, and deservedly so. (If you think like Matthew Yglesias, you might be ready to usher her into the White House, but let’s wait until she actually is of age and has served a day in the House of Representatives, shall we?)

In the meantime, the Dems have an election to win and it’s not as if people like Biden and Bernie Sanders have serious physical or mental health concerns that would prevent them from serving. Age is just a number, and what matters most are a person’s ideals and capability for the office, not their gender, race, religion, or any other identifying characteristic.

Saying Biden is recognizable and competent enough to be president of the United States is not an endorsement, though. In a piece from 2017 reacting to a blog post Biden wrote for his namesake institute at the University of Delaware about choosing a future that “puts work first,” Bill Scher, writing for POLITICO, discusses Biden’s platform being essentially a rejection of populism, whether the kind exploited by Donald Trump and his ilk in their pitch to Republican voters or the sort championed by Bernie Sanders as a means of saving the Democratic Party, well, from itself.

Scher’s piece is a lengthy one, and merits a full read, if nothing else, for its dissection of Biden’s views on universal basic income, Silicon Valley executives, corporations, and the “dignity” of one’s work. His closing remarks, however, do nicely sum up Biden’s strengths and his potential weaknesses ahead of a probable presidential run:

With all this in mind, there’s one major question left that Biden has to consider before he runs: Does he have a shot? He’s an old white man at a time when many Democratic voters are hungry for fresh faces. However, he’s also a commanding presence who would likely enter a field overcrowded with rookies stepping on one another’s populist toes. And he’s just as comfortable talking about the old days at the local auto show as he is embracing multiculturalism. He can seamlessly shift from celebrating the American worker to confronting the scourge of domestic violence (as he touts one of his big Senate legacies, the Violence Against Women Act) to the importance of LGBT rights (and reminding how he publicly nudged President Obama on gay marriage.)

If nothing else, Biden has a path. It’s a path that diverges from left-wing and right-wing populism; a path that seeks partnership between workers and corporations, unity across racial and gender lines, and reverence for higher education and the idea that you can work your way to a better life if given the right tools.

But walking that path will require a few more signature policy ideas, and a whole lot of Scranton charm. If anyone can make everyone believe he’s on their side—and in turn, erase many of the divides wracking the American electorate—it may well be the fast-talkin’, back-slappin’, gaffe-makin’ God-love-him Uncle Joe.

Biden is indeed someone with working class appeal, whether or not you buy into the authenticity of his image. This aspect of Amtrak Joe’s character is undoubtedly why Barack Obama chose him as his running mate. At a time when the backing of working-class whites, traditionally a bastion of Democratic Party support, is far from a guarantee with job losses affecting the manufacturing sector and union membership on the apparent decline, Biden’s ability to connect on a personal level with voters in crucial swing states is not to be undersold.

All the same, Biden, at least at present, lacks a big idea that can inspire across voting blocs. Repugnant as many of us may find it, Trump rode the vision of a wall at the Mexican border to electoral victory—and appears prepared to shut down the federal government over this issue, still insisting to anyone who will listen that Mexico will pay for it. Simply put, Biden will need more, on top of a credible, complete platform amid a crowded Democratic field.

Accordingly, and to bring Bruni’s objections back into the mix, Joe Biden is a risky proposition for Democrats leading up to 2020, with or without a signature policy proposal and especially if he keeps touting 90s-era crime legislation that critics increasingly see as problematic as views evolve and conflicts between groups persist. Even as he has his share of admirers, it may be better for his legacy, the Democratic Party, and all of us if he passes on a 2020 presidential bid.

How Much More Crowded Can the Dems’ 2020 Field Get?

Beto O’Rourke may be a hunk of a man, but shouldn’t we know a bit more about him and his politics before vaulting him to the top of an already-crowded Democratic field for 2020? (Photo Credit: Beto O’Rourke/Twitter)

Not long after his near-miss in the race for a U.S. Senate seat for the state of Texas, people inspired by Beto O’Rourke’s performance were already prepping his 2020 presidential bid. This despite, you know, Beto’s own assurances on the matter that he wouldn’t be running in 2020. Then again, he wouldn’t be the first candidate to say one thing and do another. Never say never, eh?

The desire is apparently there for Beto, though. And I do mean desire. If there was one candidate this election cycle who inspired a legion of thirsty female fans, it was the gray-in-all-the-right-places Beto O’Rourke. Very curiously, the Texas GOP tried to make their opponent look foolish during the race by showing him getting arrested as a college student, or when he used to play in a band, or skateboarding in a parking lot. The strategy backfired, though, because as discerning observers submitted, Lone Star State Republicans only managed to make Beto look hot, hotter, and oh-so-dreamy.

Upping the sex appeal of the Democratic Party field isn’t to be undersold. Although how much sexier can you get when you already have John Delaney in the mix, amirite, ladies? Seriously, though, as impressive as Beto’s bid was in a state that Trump carried by nine points in 2016 and was won by Republicans in each of the last four presidential elections, it’s kind of amazing—and possibly frightening—that party supporters would be willing to throw everything behind someone they potentially know very little about.

So, yes, what do we know about Robert Francis “Beto” O’Rourke, other than that he’s a fine hunk of meat? According to his campaign website, he’s a fourth-generation Texan, born and raised in El Paso. He went to school at Columbia, and worked in New York City doing different jobs before coming back home and starting Stanton Street, a web development company. Becoming involved in various civic and community-based organizations, Beto then moved on to the world of politics. He served two terms on the El Paso City Council and then ran for and won a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives in 2012. O’Rourke has served in that capacity ever since.

Other than that, yeah, there’s the mug shot. Beto was arrested twice in the 90s, once for attempted burglary and the other for DWI, with both charges eventually getting dismissed. He was also in a band called Foss. They have a MySpace. And yes, he skateboarded in a Whataburger parking lot. As John Oliver would say, cool.

Perhaps his biggest—and best—moment making the Internet rounds, though, was his defense of players protesting racial injustice by kneeling during playing of the National Anthem. You can view his response here as highlighted by NowThis, a post since retweeted more than 200,000 times and liked more than 400,000. 

All of this is all well and good, and Beto’s impassioned treatise on these players’ patriotism especially deserves to be lauded, but what about the issues? Besides swearing off PAC money, what does our bad boy who can shred in multiple senses stand for? Going back to the ol’ Beto for Texas site, his platform is actually pretty developed. His positions include:

  • Strengthening the safety net for farmers by bolstering federal crop insurance programs.
  • Defending the Affordable Care Act and opposing cuts to Medicaid and Social Security.
  • Promoting policies that encourage companies to invest in their surrounding companies.
  • Barring the use of public tax dollars for private schools.
  • Optimizing the use of current resources while incentivizing renewable energy sources.
  • Supporting the Equality Act, repealing the Defense of Marriage Act, and ensuring equal pay for equal work.
  • Imposing term limits, refusing money from political action committees, and ending partisan redistricting.
  • Requiring background checks for all gun sales and prohibiting the sale of military-grade weapons and high-capacity magazines.
  • Promoting universal health care.
  • Increasing funding for Pell Grant scholarships and the Federal Perkins Loan program.
  • Ending the militarization of our immigration enforcement system and closing private immigration prisons and for-profit detention centers.
  • Investing in apprenticeship, certification, and training programs that will help those without college degrees keep pace in an era of increasing specialization.
  • Ending the war on drugs and the federal prohibition of marijuana.
  • Defining “victory” in a military/diplomatic sense and outlining a strategy to achieve it
  • Exercising appropriate oversight of Medicare.
  • Improving access to care and housing for veterans.
  • Ensuring a woman’s right to choose and guaranteeing access to birth control and emergency contraception. 

O’Rourke’s stances generally seem agreeable from a liberal standpoint. Accountability for gun sellers, campaign finance reform, legalization of marijuana probably stand out the most. Also, defending the ACA and so-called “entitlement” programs, protecting women’s health care and equal pay, and standing against GOP anti-immigration rhetoric is important. Other points on the agenda arguably don’t go far enough. The apparent hedging on use of fossil fuels at a time when urgent action is needed on climate change is disappointing, as is the refusal to more forcefully call for single-payer health care/Medicare-for-all. These positions may be tailored more to Texas voters than they would in a presidential election. However, could you really assume as much?

And for those suffering from a case of Beto-mania, how much of his platform is one with which you were familiar prior to reading? How distinguishable is it from the ones offered by the likes of Joe Biden, Michael Bloomberg, Cory Booker, Sherrod Brown, Julian Castro, Hillary Clinton, Kamala Harris, Amy Klobuchar, Bernie Sanders, or Elizabeth Warren (and I know there’s people I’m leaving out)? Ignoring considerations of race—and that’s quite a thing to push aside—the comparison to Barack Obama is obvious. Beto’s a younger congressman who is well-spoken and measured in his political approach. He has that fabled “it” factor.

But will that be enough in 2020? Obama’s meteoric rise within the Democratic Party ranks occurred prior to the rise of Donald Trump. Now, with Trump the incumbent challenging established political norms (if not breaking them) and with other rising stars in the party like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez giving voters a glimpse of what the Dems of the future might look like, the political landscape may not be what it was back in 2008—fresh-faced as Beto O’Rourke may be. At the very least, he or whomever Trump’s opponent will be will need a slogan to match “Make America Great Again.”


Evidently, the bar for political entry is a low one to clear these days. Whether it’s the need to satisfy an electorate desperate for novelty and voices outside the established vanguard, that someone like Donald Trump has already done gone blown up the whole system we thought we knew, or both, party supporters appear to need only to hear one inspiring speech from an individual before signing on for his or her presidential run.

Oprah Winfrey, for one, has been an oft-speculated-about figure ever since she made a stirring speech at the 2018 Golden Globes after accepting the Cecil B. DeMille Award. The acceptance speech touched on various themes, including racial justice, the need to defend a free press, and female empowerment. It was a well-written, well-delivered speech, and Winfrey is clearly a people person and born entrepreneur.

Not only has she not expressed a clear desire to run for president in 2020, however, but we know very little about what she stands for apart from her stances on the aforementioned issues. Michelle Obama, an Ivy League-educated woman with a best-selling book out and a stadium tour soon to begin, has similarly raised consciousness about various topics, include healthy eating, women’s rights, and supporting military families, but has yet to affirm a bid for the White House and has indicated little about a developed platform along these lines. As with Winfrey, the belief in Michelle Obama as a viable presidential candidate lies heavily in that she talks a good game. With Obama in particular, it also probably helps that her husband spent two terms in the Oval Office and overall public opinion of him remains high.

Speaking of Barack Obama, prior to becoming President of the United States, he was a relatively young and untested senator from Illinois. He didn’t have all that much experience to his name before his keynote speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention helped vault him into the national consciousness. As many Americans would agree, he managed to do a fair job, and could’ve done perhaps an even better one if not for Republican obstructionism in Congress. If he, a neophyte of sorts, could fulfill the duties of the highest political office in all the land, why couldn’t Oprah or Michelle? Certainly, they’d be a better choice than Donald Trump, no?

While, again, this is not to say that they can’t or even shouldn’t run, it is worth wondering what it says about us that we’d be willing to go “all in” on them or someone like Beto O’Rourke despite such little exposure. In the case of Barack Obama, though I may have some misgivings about some of his policy directives, I submit he is of uncommonly strong character. The way he carried himself during his presidency was such that even at his worst, he still projected a certain sense of dignity and resolve.

Beto may have much of the same qualities as Barack Obama, but it would be unwise to expect too much of him, and at that, to expect that his candidacy alone would be enough to propel the Democratic Party in an exciting new direction. After eight years of Barack, we got Trump. Good as his showing in Texas was, Beto still lost. The party’s commitment must be more than just to one or a handful of candidates. It should be issue-driven and focused on the people to be affected by these stances rather than the names on the ballots. Even with the best men and women running for office, a weak party infrastructure is damaging to the cause.

As the weeks pass, the Democrats’ field for 2020 promises only to get more crowded, as does their desire to remove Donald Trump from office. For them and for us as voters, it bears questioning what we expect from a candidate for public office and what specific problems we want addressed by today’s political leaders. If this does not help narrow the pool of candidates, we are not doing our due diligence as political participants. 

Is the Susan Collins Crowdfunding Effort a Good Thing?

susan_collins_on_the_rocks
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.