As a Bernie supporter dating back to 2016, many things stick in my proverbial craw, but one turn of phrase even today still grinds my likewise proverbial gears. When asked during a Democratic debate in October 2015 by Anderson Cooper whether she is a moderate or a progressive, Hillary Clinton remarked, “I’m a progressive, but I’m a progressive who likes to get things done.”
Ooh! Sen. Sanders, did you feel that sick burn?
Without wanting to delve into Clinton’s history and go tit for tat, pointing out all the things she may not have “gotten done”—like, for instance, actually winning the 2016 presidential election—the litmus test of getting things done remains problematic because of how unevenly and borderline disingenuously it gets applied, specifically as it concerns authentically progressive candidates.
For that matter, I’ve witnessed it being used by supporters of one progressive candidate against another. You probably have an idea about where I’m going with this. Anecdotally, I’ve seen some Elizabeth Warren fans take shots at Bernie, asking, for all his 28 years in the House of Representatives and the Senate, what has he, you know, done? Presumably, some of these Warren supporters were Hillary supporters from the last campaign cycle, so the same line of attack about what the senator from Vermont has accomplished may yet be fresh in their minds. For a select few, there may additionally be some misdirected resentment in accordance with the notion Bernie is not a “true Democrat” and was a chief reason why Donald Trump won. Poor Hillary. It’s never her fault.
Key to the do-nothing-Bernie argument is a glance at his legislative record, particularly the legislation for which he was primary sponsor actually getting enacted. His objectors will point out that, in over two decades in Congress, Sanders has only had seven of his resolutions/bills ratified: four from his time in the House, three in the Senate. Five of these motions enacted are germane mostly to his home state, including two pieces of legislation which served to designate post offices after someone specific. Not altogether scintillating stuff. The other two specifically addressed cost-of-living adjustments for veterans and updating the federal charter for the Veterans of Foreign Wars. Again, you may find yourself uninspired unless you were specifically impacted by these changes.
What this line of thinking fails to account for is the context in which these bills were introduced. After all, this is Congress we’re talking about here, an institution not exactly known for its prolific productivity. The very GovTrack.us showcase of Sanders’s sponsored legislation linked to above helps explain this reality.
Does 7 not sound like a lot? Very few bills are ever enacted — most legislators sponsor only a handful that are signed into law. But there are other legislative activities that we don’t track that are also important, including offering amendments, committee work and oversight of the other branches, and constituent services.
Right. There’s a bigger picture to be appreciated. On the subject of committee work, Bernie is a ranking member of the Senate Committee on the Budget and a member of the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions; Energy and Natural Resources; Environment and Public Works; and Veterans’ Affairs committees. So there’s that.
Such analysis also doesn’t consider the over 200 bills/resolutions signed by the president to which Sanders added his name as a co-sponsor since being sworn in as a U.S. Representative in 1991. As it must be clarified, not all of these are watershed legislative achievements. I mean, from my count, nine of these co-sponsorships were related to commemorative coins. Still, to imply inaction on Bernie’s part is misleading.
Moreover, this ignores all the times Sen. Sanders has shown leadership on a bill that, through no fault of his own, hasn’t been passed. Look at his recent offerings. Recognizing the “climate emergency” for what it is. College for All. Medicare for All. Social Security expansion. Raising wages. Lowering drug prices. These were all proposed this year. Just because this legislation is dead on arrival in a GOP-controlled Senate with a Republican in the White House doesn’t confer meaninglessness. It signals the individual proposing it is willing to fight for things worth fighting for.
This is before we even get to the issue of when political expediency “gets things done” but not necessarily in a way that is productive for all Americans. Back in June, Joe Biden touted his ability to work with the likes of James Eastland and Herman Talmadge to pass legislation, waxing nostalgic on the “civility” that could be afforded to all parties.
Beyond the obvious problem that Biden is touting his ability to work with Southern segregationists in—let me highlight this in my notes—2019, that communal effort may not be what it’s cracked up to be. The former VP has received his due criticism from Kamala Harris and other Democratic rivals for allying with segregationists in opposition of busing to integrate schools. Next to his legacy as “an architect of mass incarceration,” as Cory Booker put it, Biden’s willingness to compromise paints him in a rather poor light. It certainly clouds his purported credentials of being a champion of civil rights.
It’s not just with Bernie either. Across the board for Democrats, it seems instructive to view legislative efforts through the lens of what party controls each house and who is potentially waiting to sign a passed bill in the Oval Office. Republicans, led by shameless obstructionist and judiciary stacker Mitch McConnell, control the Senate. Donald Trump, who appears to have a death grip on today’s iteration of the GOP, is president. Should we fault Sen. Warren for watching Trump and Co. dismantle the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau before her eyes? Should we admonish Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and other members of The Squad for voting their conscience only to see Senate Republicans or moderate Democrats in either house stand in their way?
Centrists like Nancy Pelosi may sneer at progressives who “have their following” only to see their votes outnumbered or their voices drowned out by appeals to civility and expediency. Absent the ability to lead, however, the progress they seek is all but nullified. There’s a reason why figures like Sanders and AOC are so popular when Congress as a whole is not. The policy positions they embrace are, by and large, supported by the American public. What’s not lacking is their commitment. It’s the political will to see their initiatives through.
Key to the Clintonian-Bidenesque “getting things done” mentality is a firm belief in the value of bipartisanship, of reaching across the aisle in the name of advancing legislation. Say the right things. Make the right amendments. Pull the right levers. Eventually, a workable bill will come out. That’s how things are supposed to work, in theory. Reasonable people making reasonable policies.
Amid the dysfunction of today’s Congress, this ideal still appears to hold water with the general public. How else to explain Joe Biden’s continued hold on the top of Democratic Party polls after two poor showings in the debates and despite a history of gaffes and poor decisions? Unless some voters are simply happy enough to have some semblance of Barack Obama’s presidency back. If we could just go back to the days before the era of President Donald Trump, everything would be back to normal, right?
Maybe, maybe not. Biden may reminisce fondly about the days when Democrats and Republicans could get along peaceably or believe that once “sensible” leadership is restored to Washington, the GOP will cut the malarkey and retake the mantle of responsible stewards of the country. He arguably both underestimates the polarization of the current political climate and overestimates his own deal-making ability in doing so, though.
Today’s Republican Party isn’t your granddaddy’s Republican Party, simply put. Not when the president is lashing out against his critics on Twitter daily, getting policy directives from FOX News, and putting the nation on the path to a dictatorship. Not when members of the party are actively denying the severity of our climate crisis or pretending that white nationalism doesn’t exist. Not when party leaders are defending the inhumane treatment of migrants at our border and are sharing derogatory memes about Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and her progressive colleagues with impunity.
For those of us who aren’t old enough to recall an environment like the one Biden envisions, this is all we know of the GOP, and based on how low it has sunk and continues to sink, there’s every reason to believe it has reached the point of no return—if things were even that good to begin with. Once we take off our rose-colored glasses and re-appraise past decisions from intersectional perspectives, we may come to realize just how devastating certain policies spearheaded by both parties have been for Americans outside the so-called ruling class.
In addition to his checkered civil rights record, Biden’s cozy relationship with the banking, financial services, and insurance industries contrasts starkly with his image as a blue-collar champion. Given a crowded Democratic primary field and ample resources with which to evaluate his overall record, this may turn out to be a liability. That is, even if he earns the party nomination, there’s still the matter of the general election. Trump seemingly defied the odds against Hillary Clinton, in many respects a superior candidate. Who’s to say doubling down on someone like Biden won’t backfire, leaving us with a second term of President Trump? If he’s doing and saying all these reprehensible things now, what will this mean when he gets re-elected and has nothing to lose?
Going back to the days of bipartisan cooperation under past administrations may have its superficial appeal to voters, especially moderate whites who can better afford to be casual political participants. Even that relative comfort may be illusory, however. The climate emergency is not going to fix itself. Nor is the student debt crisis or the health care affordability crisis or our crumbling infrastructure or any other serious dilemma facing our world. Simply put, the stakes are higher now and Obama-era notions of hope and change dissolving into incrementalism aren’t sufficient. It’s going to take more than that. It’s going to take real people power.
Let’s therefore put aside vague, top-down conceptualizations of “getting things done” in favor of mobilizing voters and encouraging citizens to get involved at various levels of government. We’ve got the people. We only need the conviction to see it through. If you’re not on board with a progressive vision for our future, don’t worry about what is politically “feasible” or what can get done. Worry about getting out of the way of those determined to lead.
Why does [INSERT NAME OF CABLE NEWS OUTLET] insist on giving air time to [INSERT NAME OF OFFICIAL]?
The above is a refrain I’ve seen countless times on social media in relation to the appearance of some political figure on a show like Meet the Press or Anderson Cooper 360°. Usually, the official is Kellyanne Conway or someone else for whom the commentator has little regard in the way of truth-telling or giving a straight answer. Deflect, pivot, or lie outright. I’m sure you can think of a few such examples.
In an era in which consolidation among media outlets or talk thereof is all but constant, and in which the desire for media output is such that traditional purveyors of the news must find new ways of competing with alternative sources, there seemingly has never been a greater need for scrutiny of the media’s stewardship of the day’s breaking stories. Who will watch the watchers?
An unfortunate byproduct of this state of affairs is the effort to appeal to “both sides” on a given topic. As it is with other forms of reporting (e.g. sports pregame shows), this lends itself to rather bloated collections of panelists. On-screen discussions begin to look less like conversations and more like the opening theme to The Brady Bunch. This is problematic for no other reason that, in a political climate already predisposed to name-calling and shouting matches, there is all kinds of cross-talk and people unable to get a word in edgewise. If at first you don’t succeed, just yell louder or cut off others while they’re speaking.
More importantly, though, the desire of news outlets to appear free of bias creates situations in which “experts” with diametrically opposed views “debate” matters in such a way that the dialog is less substantive discourse on relevant issues and more a manner of ceding a platform to individuals with objectionable policy stances based on false statistics and misleading narratives.
Duca’s Exhibit A in a long list of evidence in her charge against Carlson is a recent segment on his show when he denigrated Central American migrants and those who support their lawful entry into the United States, averring that letting them in “makes our own country poorer and dirtier and more divided.” So much for those tired, poor, huddled masses yearning to breathe free, eh, Tucker? In response, Tucker Carlson Tonight lost over a dozen sponsors—and rightly so. The only downside is it took these companies so long to distance themselves from Carlson and his show.
As Duca explains, Carlson protests that his right to free speech is being disregarded, and while he’s right that he’s being “silenced” by boycotters who exert pressure on companies not to advertise on his show, this is not inherently unfair. Or as she puts it, “I keep Command-F-ing the Constitution, and can’t seem to find the place where our founding fathers guaranteed that a bigotry variety hour be sponsored by IHOP.”
Other critics advocating on behalf of Carlson—or specifically, against any boycotts—suggest there is danger in allowing customer protests to dictate advertisers’ decision-making. We might see corporate sponsors shying away from the political arena altogether unless to support a pro-corporate message. Or commentators who are also members of vulnerable minority groups might be attacked with strategic boycotts based on some vague conservative “moral” objection. Cue the slippery slope imagery.
It’s worth noting at this point that sponsors jumping ship is not censorship. This is not to say that the abstract idea of companies as arbiters of content is necessarily A-OK either; while we might revel in Carlson losing advertisers, we have seen what companies like Facebook have done in their negation of content that veers toward either political extreme and away from the corporatist mainstream vanguard.
Still, it’s not as if the long arm of the federal government is holding Tucker down. If businesses don’t wish to align themselves with your brand, that’s their decision. We might disagree if we feel their standards are being applied unevenly—or not at all. In any case, the free speech defense rings a bit hollow with FOX News’s boy wonder here.
Even if we frame the argument for or against Tucker Carlson in terms of constitutional liberties, though, the point Duca makes is that defending him on the basis of a “both sides” argument assumes he is a legitimate journalist with legitimate opinions. But he’s not, and his hate speech as deemed acceptable by corporate sponsors isn’t guaranteed by the First Amendment. Furthermore, it’s not as if his opinions are merely bad ones. They’re intentionally designed to dehumanize their subjects.
What makes this so troublesome is that views like Carlson’s are not based on facts. There is no preponderance of data which supports them. Duca similarly assails a Yahoo! News ad as part of the company’s “see all sides” campaign in which the statement “immigrants enrich us” is juxtaposed with “immigrants endanger us.” The implication is that the two ideas are on a par with one another, but the latter is, as one Twitter user put it, “racist garbage.” Immigrants are no more likely than native citizens—and are, according to multiple studies, statistically less likely—to commit dangerous crimes. It’s a false equivalency.
Duca closes with these thoughts on the immigration “debate” as it involves Carlson:
According to Carlson and those condemning the boycotts of his show, the right to empower white supremacy relies on the idea that all views deserve unbridled expression regardless of public will or their relative harm. This creates a perverted juxtaposition in which personhood is set on a level playing field with bigotry. The idea that a group who is being targeted has no right to self-defense is a patently absurd. You could fault Carlson’s line of thinking as a person with a soul, or just as someone who comprehends the basic principles of logic. If nothing else, we can thank Carlson for the egregiousness of this example, which reveals the fatal flaw at the core of “both sides” nonsense with stunning clarity. Carlson insists that his dehumanization of immigrants be heard based on the ignorance at the core of “both sides-ism” and the “free speech” hysteria that often surrounds it. Beneath his whiny white supremacy lies the ugly fallacy that somehow all opinions are equal, but all people aren’t.
There’s no context in which Carlson’s commentary is acceptable or correct, and therefore no use in “debating” him on the merits of his arguments. Boycotting his program is the most direct way of telling him that he and his rhetoric have limits—even if his employer doesn’t enforce any. To insist otherwise is to make it that much more likely his hate has a place in everyday conversations.
For many conscientious objectors to the way the Trump administration is handling enforcement of immigration law and its messaging on the need for border security, irrespective of what we think about illegal immigration or the efficacy of any wall/slatted steel barrier, what is striking is the heartlessness inherent in their attitudes and speech, as well as those espoused views of their supporters. If the parents didn’t want to be separated from their children, they shouldn’t have crossed illegally. If they want to apply for asylum, they should do it at a port of entry. I mean, only two children died in federal custody. Um, that’s not that bad, right?
It shouldn’t be surprising that fundamental misunderstanding of how asylum/immigration works and what exactly families from Mexico and Central America are leaving behind accompanies this spirit of overall callousness. The insistence on applying for asylum at ports of entry doesn’t account for the delays in processing applications and the refusal of customs officers to even entertain asylum-seekers, as well as President Trump’s and Jeff Sessions’s modifications—attempted or otherwise—to make asylum or other lawful entry more difficult for those who would entreat it. Nor does it appreciate the seriousness of the threat of violence in the region related to the drug trade, a situation we have helped fuel.
As for the whole kids dying in federal custody thing, I’m not sure how this can really be deemed acceptable, but there are people who will defend it along the lines of my sample remark above. Kevin McAleenan, head of Customs and Border Protection, has claimed that federal agents did “everything they could” to avoid the deaths of two children age seven or younger while defending the administration’s agenda. So, what—we just chalk these up as “oopsies,” shrug our shoulders, and move on?
McAleenan also sought to defend not telling Congress about the death of the seven-year-old when he testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee last month, so his judgment is already somewhat suspect. Either way, children shouldn’t just mysteriously up and die. And DHS chief Kirstjen Nielsen should really have made more of an effort to know how many children had died in federal custody before her own testimony—not to mention not waiting until a second child died to visit the U.S.-Mexico border.
On the subject of separation of families and putting mothers and their children in cages, meanwhile, Donald Trump’s defenders will point to their trusty rebuttal of “Obama did it first.” As it bears constant reminding, however, while Barack Obama and his administration were not above reproach in their numbers of deportations and of prosecuting people who entered the United States illegally, the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy stepped it up and then some.
Under Obama, at least initially, asylum-seekers and parents were only targeted in extreme circumstances (e.g. the father was carrying drugs). By contrast, under Trump, they were detained and separated as part of standard operating procedure, and with increased vigor. In Obama’s case, too, the administration was responding to a surge in unaccompanied minors crossing the border and a lack of resources leading to struggles in accommodating these numbers. That it sought to deter asylum-seekers by detaining and deporting them expeditiously was bad policy, but eventually, Obama put an emphasis on removing those who committed felonies or were otherwise considered dangerous. Besides, the courts checked him on the use of detention as a means of deterrence for more than 20 days, citing Flores v. Reno as precedent.
With Trump, on the other hand, his administration has aggressively sought to overturn the Flores settlement and to separate families, aiming to hold them indefinitely and longer than 20 days as well as take children away from their parents and treat them as “unaccompanied minors.” Trump has also bandied about the notion of ending birthright citizenship, whether or not he can actually achieve it. What’s more, even if this were Obama’s legacy—which it isn’t, noting the shift in us-versus-them rhetoric and the indiscriminate persecution of immigrants—that was then and this is now. Donald Trump clearly hasn’t learned any lessons from his predecessor—not that he really wanted to in the first place.
Coming from a man who began his presidential campaign with labeling Mexicans as rapists and other criminals with a broad brush, and who refuses to take one scintilla of responsibility for anything that happens during his tenure, it should surprise no one that an agenda predicated on fear and hate would be devoid of empathy. That it would resonate with those who voted for him and those who continue to stand by him is what continues to confound many of us not among them. It sounds almost silly, but we simply can’t wrap our minds around this sort of indifference to human suffering.
And yet, as Adam Serwen wrote about in a piece for The Atlantic from October of last year, the cruelty of it all “is the point.” Beginning with allusions to 20th century lynchings and other state-sponsored murders of blacks with the photographs of white men grinning alongside their bodies, Serwen makes the connection between the present-day cruelty of the Trump administration, a cruelty which includes the “ethnic cleansing” of the president’s anti-immigrant stances but also extends to the male-dominated laughter at Christine Blasey Ford’s expense (and that of all other survivors of sexual violence).
In all cases, there is a communion based on the shared enjoyment of others’ suffering, a perverse joy that, much as we might be loath to accept it, is part of the human condition. Worse yet, it is a communion built on hypocrisy. Only President Trump, his family, his inner circle, his supporters, and those people he himself supports deserve “the rights and protections of the law, and if necessary, immunity from it.” All others merit scorn, if not outright abuse.
Serwen concludes his article with these thoughts that echo Lauren Duca’s take-down of Tucker Carlson:
Trump’s only true skill is the con; his only fundamental belief is that the United States is the birthright of straight, white, Christian men, and his only real, authentic pleasure is in cruelty. It is that cruelty, and the delight it brings them, that binds his most ardent supporters to him, in shared scorn for those they hate and fear: immigrants, black voters, feminists, and treasonous white men who empathize with any of those who would steal their birthright. The president’s ability to execute that cruelty through word and deed makes them euphoric. It makes them feel good, it makes them feel proud, it makes them feel happy, it makes them feel united. And as long as he makes them feel that way, they will let him get away with anything, no matter what it costs them.
To hear Serwen talk about Donald Trump in this way provides at least some comfort to those of us who oppose everything he represents. I personally have bristled at the notion Trump deserves credit for anything, even when it is pulling one grand confidence trick, because appealing to people’s baser instincts is generally not something I’d hold in any esteem. That Serwen would limit Trump’s talents to this questionable skill, though, reinforces the idea that Trump is not nearly as skilled as some would make him out to be save for his ability to connect with those of a like mindset.
It is through this lens that we can view Tucker Carlson’s hate speech and the futility of debate on its merits. When the narrative has no merit because it is built on the negation of the other’s humanity and on distortions of reality, what utility is there in trying to expose or rationalize this line of thinking away? Along these lines, when cruelty is the driving force behind a shared vision of America, what is the use of amplifying the voices that would coalesce this mentality?
For this reason and more, discussion of boycotting Carlson’s show and the Trump family’s business enterprises is well appropriate. As far as the mainstream is concerned, their message of division must not be normalized. While we should stop short of violence to achieve this purpose, coming out in support of marginalized groups and standing up to each white supremacist rally with vastly greater numbers where it may arise is essential. You can’t debate cruelty and hate with those that choose to make them their modus operandi, but you can show that they have no place among what can be deemed generally acceptable.
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.
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.
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.
The way President Donald Trump operates, it’s not like many of the remarks he made during his recent interview with Lesley Stahl for 60 Minutes were particularly surprising or groundbreaking. Many of his comments were riffs on the same songs he has sung before.
Even if they weren’t very earth-shattering or shocking, meanwhile, Trump’s comments were nonetheless disappointing to hear/read as an American who doesn’t share the same set of values. Stahl’s questions ranged across a fairly wide set of topics, but here are some of Trump’s most noteworthy insights:
Trump “doesn’t know” that humans have a role in climate change.
Pres. Trump seemed to walk back one-time comments he made that climate change is a “hoax.” In the same breath, however, he expressed doubt that it’s manmade, and when Stahl pressed him on the overwhelming evidence that it does exist and that we’re contributing to it, he suggested that this climate change could simply reverse somehow and that the scientists advancing the consensus theory have a “very big political agenda.”
That Trump would feign concern for the effects a shift away from fossil fuels might have on American jobs is commendable, at least by his standards. Trying to effectively deny our hand in climate change as part of a political agenda when the scientific consensus is such a strong one, on the other hand, is exactly the kind of thinking we don’t need at this stage in the game when more urgent action was needed yesterday.
Trump suggested there could be “severe punishment” for Saudi Arabia if found they were behind the disappearance of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, but didn’t provide specifics.
Trump admitted it was possible the Saudi government was behind the murder of Khashoggi, and indicated the vehement denial on the part of the Saudis. He then hinted that weapons deals could be at stake, but as he did with concerns about climate change, he pivoted to worrying about jobs at companies like Boeing and Lockheed Martin. So, while he acknowledged the possibility of sanctions, Trump doesn’t seem all that committed to endangering business ties with Saudi Arabia because of it. Astonishment of astonishments there.
At this writing, reportedly, the Saudis are preparing to admit Khashoggi died during a botched interrogation. Obviously, the interview was taped prior to these reports. What was worst about this segment, though, was that Trump said the matter was especially troubling because Khashoggi was a journalist, even making an aside about how strange it must be to hear him say that. Yeah, it is, and it comes off as more than a little disingenuous after regularly railing at members of the press and calling them the “enemy of the American people.” Pardon us if we’re not especially enthralled by your promises that you’ll get to the bottom of his disappearance.
Trump claimed that Barack Obama put us on a path to war with North Korea, and qualified his “love” for Kim Jong-un.
Evidently, under President Obama, we were going to war with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, but now—BOOM!—no more war and Kim is talking about nuclearization. You’re welcome, America. Get that Nobel Peace Prize nice and shiny for “the Donald.”
Within Trump’s logic, it’s his trust for Kim that has been such an essential diplomatic asset. This despite the possibility raised by Stahl that North Korea hasn’t gotten rid of any weapons and may actually be building more. Trump, attempting to further distance himself from Obama, intimated there are no plans to ease sanctions, but Stahl persisted on the topic of Trump’s stated “love” for North Korea’s despotic leader. Trump tried to minimize the language he used as a figure of speech, but Stahl belabored North Korea’s horrid human rights record under Kim and his father.
Trump’s admiration for dictators is nothing new, but hearing him downplay talk of gulags and starvation is yet bothersome. More on this to come.
Trump still has no idea how tariffs work, nor does he apparently have high regard for his supposed allies.
President Trump insisted China is close to negotiating on tariffs and other matters of trade. In the meantime, though, President Xi Jinping (another leader with dictatorial aspirations overseeing a country with questionable regard for human rights) and China are content to retaliate with tariffs, and Stahl questioned how long we will be content to try to strong-arm China into negotiation when it’s American consumers who are bearing the brunt of these tariffs. Is the point to use the people of each country as bargaining chips in an escalating trade war?
Trump argued with Stahl for a while about whether or not he called it a trade war, a skirmish, or a battle, but this is semantics (and he totally f**king did call it a trade war, according to Stahl). Alongside likely overstating our trade deficit with China, Trump once more communicated his faulty understanding re tariffs. What’s more, he seemed ambivalent as to the continued integrity of diplomatic relations with Europe as a function of NATO membership, and grew combative with Stahl on the point of levying tariffs on our allies and inviting disunion. As long as Trump and his advisers hold to the narrative that the United States is being taken advantage of by the rest of the world when it comes to defense spending and trade, the average consumer is the one who will be caught in the middle.
Trump believes that Vladimir Putin is “probably” involved in assassinations and poisonings.
But only probably. Continuing the earlier conversation about Pres. Trump and his love of autocrats, the man would not commit to saying that he believed Putin was behind attacks on critics and political opponents, professing that he “relies on” Russia and that it’s their country, so it’s essentially their business. I’d be eager to know what precisely he means when he says he relies on them, and it’s possible his drift is a more innocent one, but when so much seems to hint at Trump being compromised by Russian ties, it’s hard to give him the benefit of the doubt.
This sentiment only grows when considering his hedging on Russian interference in the election and his evasiveness on the Mueller investigation. When prompted by Stahl on meddling in the 2016 presidential election, Trump was quick to rebut by claiming China meddled as well. Even if that were true, however—experts say there is evidence of a pro-Chinese influence campaign at work, but no concrete evidence of Chinese electoral meddling—it’s a deflection. Stahl called him out on this tactic, only to be argued with in the spirit of whataboutism.
Additionally, Trump refused to pledge that he won’t shut down the Mueller investigation. In other words, um, yeah, you should still be worried about Mueller’s fate as special counsel. Particularly if the midterms go poorly for the Republican Party.
That whole family separation thing was all Obama’s fault.
When asked what his biggest regret so far has been, the first thing that jumped to Trump’s mind was not terminating the NAFTA deal sooner. Not the whole taking children away from their parents thing, as Stahl interjected. It’s not exactly mind-bending to witness Trump fail to recognize a policy bent on unmitigated cruelty as his worst mistake, but it still stings like salt in the proverbial wound if you fashion yourself a halfway decent human being.
To make matters worse, Trump defended the policy under the premise that people would illegally enter the United States in droves otherwise. Furthermore, he blamed Barack Obama for enforcing a policy that was on the books. To be fair, Obama’s record on immigration is not unassailable, as his administration was responsible for its share of deportations. But separating families is a new twist on trying to enact “border security,” and it ignores the perils immigrants face upon return to their native land, perils we have helped exacerbate. Try as he might to escape it, Donald Trump and his presidency will be inexorably tied to this heartless policy directive.
The country is divided, but that’s the stupid Democrats’ fault.
According to Trump, the country was very polarized under Obama, but now on the strength of the economy, he can see it coming together. You’re welcome, America. Stahl questioned him on this criticism of Obama and the Democrats’ contributions to political rancor when he and his Republican cronies just won on the Kavanaugh confirmation and he proceeded to immediately lambast the Dems. Trump predictably deflected by saying it’s the Democrats who don’t want the country to heal. They started it! They were so mean to Brett Kavanaugh! What a bunch of stupid babies!
In case you had any doubts, Trump doesn’t give two shits about Christine Blasey Ford.
Continuing with theme of Kavanaugh’s confirmation, Lesley Stahl addressed Trump’s mockery of Dr. Ford’s testimony before Congress, asking why he felt he had to make fun of her. Trump says she was treated with great respect. Stahl was, like, really? Trump was, like, anyway, who cares? We won.
That’s right, ladies and germs—the ends justify the means. It’s all about the W. You heard him.
The White House is definitely not in chaos. Definitelynot.
The on-air portion of the 60 Minutes interview ended with Stahl asking the president about the media reports of a White House in turmoil. Three guesses as to his reply. If you said “fake news,” you’d be correct. (If you didn’t, what’s wrong with you?) Trump also didn’t seem fazed about the high turnover within his administration. Hey, sometimes it just doesn’t work out! Along these lines, Trump wouldn’t commit to James Mattis as Secretary of Defense, nor would he give a ringing endorsement to Jeff “I’m Only a Racist on Days That End in ‘Y'” Sessions. Not that I have any great love for either of those men, but it’s still messed up when a man like Trump expects unflinching loyalty and yet stands by his appointees only when it’s convenient.
Trump also opined on his feelings of distrust of White House officials, consummate with his assessment of Washington, D.C. as a “vicious, vicious place.” Good news, though, fellow Americans: he now feels very comfortable as POTUS. Many of us might be continuously on edge, but he’s right as rain. Well, at least there’s that.
To some, Lesley Stahl’s 60 Minutes interview with Donald Trump was disappointing in that it didn’t break new ground. Sure, it further revealed that he is ignorant of how basic economic and scientific principles work, that he possesses a predilection for strongmen, that he will blame Barack Obama for pretty much anything, that he holds absolutely no regard for survivors of sexual assault, rape, and sexual violence, and that he has the temperament (and possibly the intellect) of a grade-school child. But we already knew all this. As noted earlier, it’s more salt in the wound for members of the so-called Resistance, but short of potentially alienating our allies with his public comments—which is not to be undersold or encouraged, mind you—but comparatively, his words are sticks and stones.
It’s where Trump’s actions and those of his administration have effect that should truly frighten us, meanwhile. As he so often does, Matt Taibbi provides excellent insight into the area of biggest concern: the U.S. economy. Stahl noted in voiceovers during the interview that Trump loves to talk about America’s economic success. After all, it makes him look good. Never mind that he may have a limited role in that success and that he inherited favorable conditions from his predecessor, but he wouldn’t be the first president to take advantage of others’ successes.
Trump was notably silent, conversely, when the Dow recently fell 1,377 points over two days amid a stock market sell-off. As Taibbi writes, this event is but a prelude to a larger economic disaster, and it stands at the confluence of three irreconcilable problems. The first is the Federal Reserve raising interest rates as a means of trying to rein in the excess of large companies taking advantage of quantitative easing and zero-interest-rate policy.
This might not be such a problem except for the second factor: the Trump/GOP tax cuts. As economic experts warned prior to their passage, the cuts were based on overly enthusiastic projections of economic growth. When the inevitable tax shortfall occurred, we would need to start borrowing more, as is already underway. Higher interest rates on increased borrowing means more of an economic burden.
All of this comes to a head when we consider the third problem: tariffs. To try to make up for the issues raised by higher borrowing rates and a revenue shortfall, the government this week debuted new Treasury bills in the hopes of generating immediate cash. The potential conflict arises when considering China is the primary buyer of U.S. T-bills and holds over a trillion dollars in American debt.
The assumption is that Chinese demand for Treasury notes will remain unchanged despite the tariffs. However, as Matt Taibbi and Lesley Stahl and others are right to wonder, what happens if the trade war’s tariffs hurt the Chinese economy to the point that China no longer can or is willing to subsidize our skyrocketing debt? It’s a purely theoretical question at this point, and a rhetorical one at that, but the fallout from the intersection of these trends could be devastating. Taibbi puts a cap on the gravity of the situation thusly:
As we’ve seen in recent decades, even smart people are fully capable of driving the American economy off a cliff. What happens when the dumbest administration in history gets a turn at the wheel? Maybe last week wasn’t the time to start panicking. But that moment can’t be far.
Ominous, but perhaps not hyperbole. Noting what happened last time when the economy nearly collapsed, when the next disaster strikes, it will undoubtedly be we, the other 99%, that pays most dearly. Especially as Mitch McConnell and his Republican partners would have it, now clearly eying cuts to Medicare and Social Security.
President Trump may enjoy schmoozing with Lesley Stahl and giving bad answers his base will eat up now. In the short to long term, though, the terrible choices of his administration and his party could prove costly to the American economy, and by association, the global economy. Though he undoubtedly won’t meet with our same burden, he should at least take more of the blame when it does.
Since Senator John McCain passed away after a protracted battle with brain cancer, the tributes have been pouring in from members of the media and political figures on both the left and right. He’s being hailed as a war hero, a maverick, a politician who put country first, and someone who brought dignity to his position as a legislator. He’s also being lauded for changing the way presidential campaigns are run, in that he provided journalists with more access than was the standard at the time.
Hop on Twitter and start digging, however, and you’ll find no shortage of comments from his detractors who, if not downright gleeful about McCain’s death, are devoted to dispelling the myth the media has created about the senator from Arizona. As author Dan Arel tweeted, “He was a monster who killed civilians in Vietnam, voted to kill civilians as a senator, tried to block Martin Luther King Day, sang about bombing Iran…I can keep going. He was a horrible human being and we should be celebrating his death.” But please, Mr. Arel—tell us how you really feel.
In no uncertain terms, therefore, John McCain was a divisive figure in U.S. politics, and since the mainstream media already has the extolling of his supposed virtues covered, let’s get another viewpoint from the vocal minority who has little, if any, praise to spare.
Paul Blest, news editor for Splinter News, wrote a piece shortly after McCain’s passing detailing “the myth of John McCain.” As Blest explains, the media helped McCain craft his image as a “maverick” and “honorable statesman” because, aside from his status as a war hero, he was “always willing to give the media access, the thing it craves above all.”
As such, the press lionized him for doing, as Blest characterizes it, the “bare-ass minimum.” One instance highlighted within is when, during a 2008 town hall, one of McCain’s supporters professed that she was worried Barack Obama might become president because he is “an Arab,” to which McCain replied by taking the microphone, shaking his head, and saying that he’s not an Arab but a “decent family man.”
Members of the media point to this example as emblematic of his extraordinary character, viewing the decade-old clip through rose-colored glasses. Blest and others have pointed out, meanwhile, that a truly meritorious response would’ve been to point out that even if Obama were an Arab, this would not be reason to fear or loathe him, i.e. being an Arab and a decent family man aren’t diametrically opposed.
Another instance of the press celebrating John McCain occurred when he cast his vote against the GOP’s attempted repeal of the Affordable Care Act. In keeping his proverbial cards close to the vest until the last minute, McCain brought a wealth of media attention his way, and prior to entering the Senate chamber, reportedly told reporters to “watch the show.” McCain’s tone here belies the seriousness of the vote about to be cast. Over 20 million Americans were projected to have their health care plans disrupted by a repeal of the ACA. That’s not something to equate with popcorn entertainment.
Thus, while McCain’s willingness to stand apart from his fellow Republican lawmakers when it suited him (see also his opposition to confirming Gina Haspel as CIA director) shouldn’t go unmentioned, as Blest argues, that cases like these were few and far between should give us pause and force us to reconsider his legacy.
One area that really sets John McCain apart—and not in a good way, mind you—is his history as an unrepentant hawk. McCain’s was a leading voice in pushing for intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq, even past the point when people were considering it a failure and waste of resources, human or otherwise. He also advocated for war with Iran, and celebrated President Donald Trump’s reversal on the Iran nuclear deal. To many, McCain is, simply put, a warmonger, and the decision to name the bill authorizing an exorbitant defense budget for 2019 after him is therefore apropos.
In addition to his beating the drums of armed conflict, and for all his ballyhooed departures from Trump—which the president has treated with his characteristic pettiness in affronts to him beyond the grave—McCain still voted in league with Trump some five-sixths of the time. This included supporting the nomination of Neil Gorsuch and the ability of a Republican-led Congress to block Obama’s pick, as well as voting for the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, a bill that primarily favored the super-wealthy.
And then there’s John McCain as presidential candidate. His correcting the record on Barack Obama aside, he still agreed to name Sarah Palin, someone clearly not suited to be next in line to run the country (or perhaps any public office of relative import), his running mate in 2008. Arguably, Palin’s rise in prominence gave way to the ascendancy of Donald Trump, for both have been elevated to national political stature owing to rhetoric steeped in factual inadequacy and prejudicial attitudes.
Plus, there’s his whole unapologetic commitment to use of the term “gook,” a racial slur directed at Asians. Even if he meant it primarily for his North Vietnamese captors, it’s still an epithet that Asians and non-Asians alike find offensive. Context notwithstanding, words matter, even (read: especially so) in the era of Trump.
In light of all of the above, and despite tribute after tribute in newspapers and on cable news, Blest suggests McCain’s place in American political history shouldn’t be so highly esteemed. He writes:
McCain’s political legacy should be largely that of someone who frequently and loudly toyed with doing the right thing and yet decided to do the other thing almost every single time, and who was a willing and active participant in the destruction of one country and helping the racist, authoritarian right rise in his own. What John McCain’s legacy will be, however, is the one crafted by the reporters and peers who loved him, who bought hook, line, and sinker that McCain was a different kind of politician, and not the fraud he actually was.
This is blunt talk coming from Blest, and in the immediate aftermath of McCain’s death, his words may come across to some as disrespectful, notably given McCain’s bipartisan acclaim. Just the same, though, Blest’s dissent appears more firmly rooted in patriotic concerns than Pres. Trump’s personal grudge, and at any rate, is authentic to how many Americans feel, particularly those of a progressive bent. These feelings, of course, may be magnified given the day’s tense political climate. But it doesn’t make them any less valid.
It’s admittedly difficult to approach John McCain’s memory with anything but reverence if we focus only on how much the man suffered while imprisoned during the Vietnam War. Certainly, if one recalls the late David Foster Wallace’s extensive profile for Rolling Stone of McCain while on the campaign trail circa 2000, his recounting of the physical abuse the man endured as a naval officer tells of a man committed to his principles and exhibiting a resolve few could hope to match. From Wallace’s piece:
In October of ’67 McCain was himself still a Young Voter and ﬂying his 23rd Vietnam combat mission and his A-4 Skyhawk plane got shot down over Hanoi and he had to eject, which basically means setting off an explosive charge that blows your seat out of the plane, which ejection broke both McCain’s arms and one leg and gave him a concussion and he started falling out of the skies right over Hanoi. Try to imagine for a second how much this would hurt and how scared you’d be, three limbs broken and falling toward the enemy capital you just tried to bomb.
His chute opened late and he landed hard in a little lake in a park right in the middle of downtown Hanoi, Imagine treading water with broken arms and trying to pull the life vest’s toggle with your teeth as a crowd of Vietnamese men swim out toward you (there’s film of this, somebody had a home – movie camera, and the N.V. government released it, though it’s grainy and McCain’s face is hard to see). The crowd pulled him out and then just about killed him. U.S. bomber pilots were especially hated, for obvious reasons. McCain got bayoneted in the groin; a soldier broke his shoulder apart with a riﬂe butt. Plus by this time his right knee was bent 90-degrees to the side with the bone sticking out. Try to imagine this.
He finally got tossed on a jeep and taken five blocks to the infamous Hoa Lo prison – a.k.a. the “Hanoi Hilton,” of much movie fame – where they made him beg a week for a doctor and finally set a couple of the fractures without anesthetic and let two other fractures and the groin wound (imagine: groin wound) stay like they were. Then they threw him in a cell. Try for a moment to feel this. All the media profiles talk about how McCain still can’t lift his arms over his head to comb his hair, which is true. But try to imagine it at the time, yourself in his place, because it’s important. Think about how diametrically opposed to your own self-interest getting knifed in the balls and having fractures set without painkiller would be, and then about getting thrown in a cell to just lie there and hurt, which is what happened.
He was delirious with pain for weeks, and his weight dropped to 100 pounds, and the other POWs were sure he would die; and then after a few months like that after his bones mostly knitted and he could sort of stand up they brought him in to the prison commandant’s office and offered to let him go. This is true. They said he could just leave. They had found out that McCain’s father was one of the top-ranking naval officers in the U.S. Armed Forces (which is true – both his father and grandfather were admirals), and the North Vietnamese wanted the PR coup of mercifully releasing his son, the baby-killer. McCain, 100 pounds and barely able to stand, refused. The U.S. military’s Code of Conduct for Prisoners of War apparently said that POWs had to be released in the order they were captured, and there were others who’d been in Hoa Lo a long time, and McCain refused to violate the Code.
The commandant, not pleased, right there in the office had guards break his ribs, rebreak his arm, knock his teeth out. McCain still refused to leave without the other POWs. And so then he spent four more years in Hoa Lo like this, much of the time in solitary, in the dark, in a closet-sized box called a “punishment cell.” Maybe you’ve heard all this before; it’s been in umpteen different media profiles of McCain. But try to imagine that moment between getting offered early release and turning it down. Try to imagine it was you. Imagine how loudly your most basic, primal self-interest would have cried out to you in that moment, and all the ways you could rationalize accepting the offer. Can you hear it? If so, would you have refused to go? You simply can’t know for sure. None of us can. It’s hard even to imagine the pain and fear in that moment, much less know how you’d react.
But, see, we do know how this man reacted. That he chose to spend four more years there, in a dark box, alone, tapping code on the walls to the others, rather than violate a Code. Maybe he was nuts. But the point is that with McCain it feels like we know, for a proven fact, that he’s capable of devotion to something other, more, than his own self-interest.
It’s episodes like this that John McCain’s backers can easily point to as evidence as a man of a certain character. I don’t know about you, but I don’t suspect I would fare particularly well under these circumstances. I mean, I’m the kind of person who freaks out when I can’t log into Pokémon Go because the server is down momentarily. By this token, four-plus years of physical and psychological torture seems like an impossibility.
And yet, it’s precisely because of what McCain saw and survived during wartime that makes his less savory political stances all the more frustrating. For him to witness or even be party to the atrocities of armed conflict and to turn around and to embrace a foreign policy that prizes indiscriminate bombing of foreign lands and wanton regime change is hard to process. It’s incongruous with the image of the younger man holding strong in a strange land against a hostile enemy, and surely flies in the face of the glowing portrait the mainstream press appears keen to paint.
John McCain’s hagiographic appeal in an era in which Donald Trump and current Republican leadership evidently seek to drag the party down to its darkest depths is such that even the likes of Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have paid him tribute, much to the chagrin of their supporters.
It’s disappointing and frustrating, especially since it’s hard to know whether these champions of progressive ideals legitimately believe his “legacy represents an unparalleled example of human decency and American service,” as Ocasio-Cortez phrased it, or if they feel compelled to do so for fear of reprisal—and for that matter, which of these is worse. Maybe it’s just that they respect our Armed Forces like most Americans do, even in the face of the military’s ugliest acts, or that from working alongside him (in the case of Sanders and Warren), their sense of personal attachment prevents them from viewing his record more objectively.
Lapses like these are why, in the pursuit of a more progressive vision for the United States of America, it is often more rewarding to be invested in individual issues rather than individual candidates. In this regard, the postmortem borderline deification of Sen. McCain is already excessive, much in the way, for instance, liberals’ elevation of Barack Obama obscures his less commendable devotion to centrism and capitulation to Wall Street and other moneyed interests.
Suffice it to say, then, that not everyone was thrilled with the political career of John McCain, and as far as his legacy is concerned, it should be mixed. Alas, the whitewashing of that legacy appears already underway, a subset of the larger tendency to view long-tenured lawmakers like McCain as sacrosanct, the kinds of leaders we want to see rather than the complicated, flawed humans they are.
In my last post, I wrote about Jordan Peterson and how I believe, alongside others, that his rhetoric about the excesses of the left can be dangerous in the wrong hands. Naturally, my thoughts were summarily dismissed, my credibility was challenged, and I was told by numerous individuals, presumably Peterson’s supporters, that my references and I completely misunderstood Peterson and his theories, and that I needed to watch one of his lectures in its entirety or read one of his books—that is, hear it straight from the proverbial horse’s mouth—to fully comprehend what he’s talking about. In other words, it’s not Peterson’s fault he’s so misunderstood—it’s the fault of the liberal media who bashes his beliefs and me for being such a leftist dum-dum.
Leftist dum-dum as I may be, I do thank those who pointed me to the Munk Debates, a forum billed by the organization itself as “the world’s preeminent public debating forum.” The most recent debate, held back in May, involved the aforementioned Mr. Peterson; academic, author, preacher, and radio host Michael Eric Dyson; actor, comedian, presenter, and writer Stephen Fry; and author and blogger Michelle Goldberg. The theme was Political Correctness, under the tagline, “Be it resolved, what you call political correctness, I call progress.” Dyson and Goldberg represented the Pro side of the debate. Fry and Peterson comprised the Con half.
The merits of this particular debate can be questioned; Lord knows they have been, from my cursory reading of various reactions to the two-hour-long event. A common charge from reviewers was that, for a forum about political correctness, political correctness wasn’t discussed all that much, a sentiment that Fry, one of the participants, expressed during the actual proceedings.
The discourse wasn’t entirely civil, either. During a particularly heated exchange on the subject of white privilege, Jordan Peterson displayed a sense of irritation, challenging his confrères on the opposite side of the debate to quantify as to what percentage he has benefited from his white privilege, and to ask how he should recompense others for this advantage. Michael Eric Dyson countered by suggesting that white privilege is not something quantifiable, and pivoted to questioning Peterson on his tone: “Why you mad, bruh?” Or, to paraphrase Dyson in his subsequent comments, for all your success as an author and public intellectual, why are you so intent to play the part of the “mean mad white man”?
Unfortunately, comments like Dyson’s—valid or otherwise—have sort of overshadowed the larger conversation about political correctness as the night’s central point. Arguments about whether or not political correctness was adequately addressed also seem to be blown out of proportion. As Michelle Goldberg contended, part of the problem about talking about “political correctness” is how it’s defined and used. That is, political correctness is difficult to define as something discrete, and can be employed by its champions in service to respecting people’s differences or deployed as a weapon to attack liberal politics.
For Dyson, meanwhile, the outrage about political correctness is part of a reactionary attitude for whites in trying to come to grips with the need to cede power to minority groups. When nearly all white straight Christian males were in charge, per Dyson, political correctness wasn’t a thing. Thus, to speak about political correctness, one must acknowledge issues pertaining to race and gender, among other characteristics, as well as the need for larger conversations about these concepts.
Before I get to noting how attendees scored the debate, let’s first get into some background about political correctness itself. Merriam-Webster defines politically correct as “conforming to a belief that languages and practices which could offend political sensibilities (as in matters of sex or race) should be eliminated.” From the apparent origins of its current use with the New Left in the 1960s and 1970s, the term has since been coopted in conservative circles as a pejorative to express discontentment with a perceived liberal/progressive orthodoxy in schools and especially at colleges and universities. As many liberal commentators view this alternative use of “PC,” it’s a segue to discrediting the views of “the Left,” as amorphous as that identifier may be.
In the context of the present “culture wars” between liberals and conservatives, the battle over political correctness has taken on new meaning in the era of Donald Trump, a man who, by most accounts, has eschewed traditional political norms as an unabashed political outsider, and according to fact-checkers, who have had no shortage of work during his tenure as President of the United States, is generally incorrect in what he states to be incontrovertibly true. Since then, in the eyes of many onlookers, these two sides have become only that more entrenched in defending their views from perceived attacks from the other side, and for that matter, from those within their own ranks.
Indeed, some people likely felt a sense of betrayal when they found out Stephen Fry, a liberal-leaning homosexual Jew, was to accompany Jordan Peterson on stage arguing against political correctness as progress. For Fry, who acknowledged that he and Peterson may have their differences of opinion—which may be putting it mildly—his argument against political correctness is that it doesn’t work, as exemplified by the rise of Trump and of the growing influence of white nationalism around the globe. As Fry believes, it only succeeds in promoting a backlash from destructive elements on the right and far-right, as well as alienating people by making them unsure about how to act, nervous about how to speak, and unafraid to be creative or experimental for fear of rebuke.
As for Trump, he has addressed the subject of political correctness directly, perhaps most notably in the first Republican debate of the 2016 election season in Cleveland. As Trump put it:
I think the big problem this country has is being politically correct. I’ve been challenged by so many people and I don’t, frankly, have time for total political correctness. And to be honest with you, this country doesn’t have time, either.
So, to put the question point-blank, does the United States simply not have time for political correctness? And does it do more harm than good, or does it simply not work?
Certainly, there are those who would opine that political correctness is a deleterious force, that it does not make for constructive dialogs. One such opponent of PC culture, Michael Rectenwald, professor of Global Liberal Studies at NYU, believes the fundamental flaw of political correctness is it necessitates political correction.
As Rectenwald recently argued, the necessity to correct incorrect behavior involves a imposition of what is deemed to be right, and hearkens back to earlier invocations of the term as used in Soviet Russia and Maoist China. As he also insists, these allusions are not made merely for shock value, but because of the totalitarian impulses that likewise lie behind enforcing political correctness. Rectenwald writes:
I mention the Soviet and Sino-Communist sources of political correctness not to invoke a Red Scare but rather to note that the contemporary “social justice” movement is marked by the same impulses. Former Soviet and Maoist Chinese citizens recall a system under which verbal spontaneity and skepticism could be fatal. During our soft cultural revolution, those accused of ideological deviation — such as Google’s former employee, James Damore — while neither tortured or killed, are sent to the metaphorical gulags of public censure and unemployment.
On the specific case of James Damore, while it’s certainly the case that his memo was misrepresented by the media as being overtly “anti-diversity” (Damore actually offers suggestions for how Google’s handling of diversity issues might be improved), and while Google perhaps overreacted by firing him, to say that Damore was terminated merely for “ideological deviation” belies the offense that numerous women within the company took in relation to the circulation of this internal memo, and fails to consider that Google and its CEO Sundar Pichai found portions of the memo to be in violation of the company’s Code of Conduct and professed that these offending segments “cross the line by advancing harmful gender stereotypes in our workplace.”
Upon the memo’s contents going viral, numerous critics objected to the validity of the science contained within and regarded it as bigotry dressed up as empirically-derived evidence. In short, Pichai and others did not have a problem with Damore questioning specific policies at Google, but in doing so in a way perceived to be discriminatory. Indeed, prior to Damore withdrawing his complaint before the National Labor Relations Board, an NLRB lawyer found the company was within its rights to fire him based on his use of discriminatory language.
As for the invocation of murderous communist regimes, this is quite a comparison to make, and seems just as well suited to come from one of Jordan Peterson’s tirades against “postmodern neo-Marxism.” How does “public censure and unemployment” even come close to being “tortured or killed”? Sure, efforts should be made by Google and other employers to not disproportionately harm one’s image or livelihood in the event of a firing like James Damore’s. Such are unfortunate consequences. They’re not, however, the kind of things that, you know, get outlawed in the Geneva Convention. Rectenwald’s characterization here smacks of hyperbole.
Rectenwald’s other evidence for the growing totalitarianism of North American colleges and universities seems rooted in his personal experience. As he alleges, NYU strongly rebuked him for his “mere questioning of social justice ideology,” essentially forcing him to take a paid medical leave, and faculty members subjecting him to all sorts of racist and sexist slurs. That Rectenwald tweeted anti-Left sentiments any number of times using the handle @antipcnyuprof is not up for debate; the man admitted as much in an interview with the school newspaper. That he was the target of defamatory statements may be true, and I’m not about to question the validity of his claim here.
That he was pushed into taking leave, though, appears highly questionable. According to E-mail correspondence between Rectenwald and Fred Schwarzbach, dean of liberal studies at the university, Rectenwald specifically requested a leave of absence, and Schwarzbach indicated his dismay at how Rectenwald characterized his treatment by NYU to the media. At best, Rectenwald appears to be mistaken in his depiction of how events unfolded, and at worst, is purposely twisting them to serve the designs of his narrative.
Michael Rectenwald’s treatises on the pitfalls of totalitarian political correctness are, of course, not the only source for this type of content, so far be it from me to suggest that his questionable logical connections mean that his side of the debate has necessarily lost. Before we dispense with his case, however, it is worth noting the way in which he has been given a platform for his discontent. Breitbart and FOX News, perhaps predictably, latched onto the story as a case of SJW activism gone wrong, and Rectenwald has also gotten exposure on Tucker Carlson’s show, as well as in The Washington Post and in YouTube videos alongside—you guessed it!—Jordan Peterson.
His exposure is perhaps not on the level of Mr. James Damore, whose termination from Google earned him an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, as well as interviews with, among others, Ben Shapiro, Business Insider, CNBC, CNN, and—right again!—Jordan Peterson, but you get the idea. As with Peterson making waves for vowing not to comply with legislation on the use of gender-neutral pronouns, there seems to be more than just an issue of free speech at hand here.
At least for the moment, let’s pause and swing over to the other side of the debate fence. Mark Hannah, a staffer on the John Kerry and Barack Obama presidential campaigns, wrote a piece for TIME Magazine that characterizes political correctness not as the opponent of “unvarnished truth-telling,” but as the counterpart to carelessness toward other people’s attitudes and beliefs.
In thinking along these lines, Hannah invokes the presidential campaign of one Donald Trump (the column was published prior to the 2016 election), and highlights how the use of precise language by Obama vs. Trump’s free-wheeling approach gets conflated with views on political correctness. In particular, Hannah contrasts Obama’s refusal to refer to “radical Islam” with Trump’s rhetoric about Muslims and political correctness gone amok, recognizing Obama’s deliberateness as strategic rather than fawningly considerate. Hannah writes:
Conservatives might tell us Obama is “politically correct” and Trump “tells it like it is.” But when it comes to the debate over the phrase “radical Islam,” Obama is playing chess and Trump is playing dodge ball. If politics is about strategy, political correctness is arming oneself with a sound strategy while political incorrectness is strategic recklessness.
As Hannah details, Obama himself dismissed concerns about political correctness in avoiding the term “radical Islam,” saying that his careful use of language is about defeating extremism and hampering recruitment efforts. Reckless characterizations, on the other hand, invite alienation of our allies in the war on terror and motivation of adversarial groups like ISIS.
While criticizing Trump and his ilk, Hannah also stresses that perceptions about the right from the left on the subject of political correctness might be similarly confused. From his anecdotal experience as a lecturer, Hannah finds that while anti-PC stances may be a reaction for some in not being able to espouse their personal prejudices, for others, it’s a mistrust of deliberate speech as the tool of high-falutin’ politicians:
Many on the left think conservatives demonize political correctness because they resent having to suppress their own prejudices. That might be true for some. But as someone who teaches a college class on political rhetoric, I’ve come to appreciate that anti-PC attitudes are part of a longer tradition of suspicion toward carefully calibrated language. Throughout history, our species has tended to distrust people who have a knack for political oratory. Part of this stems from the fact that most people are not good public speakers at the same time most people have an affinity for people who are like them. This is something psychologists call “homophily,” and is the reason so many of us tend to want to vote for somebody we’d “like to have a beer with” rather than someone smarter than us.
Looking at the 2016 election post-mortem, while race definitely played a part in people’s votes (how else to explain, for example, the wide disparity between white evangelicals, a majority of whom voted for Trump, and evangelicals of color, a majority of whom sided with Hillary Clinton?), this suspicion of more polished orators like Obama was almost certainly a factor as well, favoring the “Make America Great Again” candidate. It’s a tendency, Hannah tells, with origins as far back as ancient Greece, rooted in distaste for the use of ornate language as a means of courting votes for public office or avoiding jail time. Given his scandal-plagued tenure as president, this sounds more and more like Trump as we go along.
As Hannah writes in closing, though, the use of political correctness is in line with American tradition, back to the country’s very formative days. Political correctness was not viewed as a way to “stifle insensitive speech,” but a manner of speaking for those “trying to out-compete that speech in a free and open exchange.” For Trump and others to complain about PC culture, therefore, is to blame the free marketplace of ideas a professed Republican like he should ideally embrace, or, to borrow a sports analogy, to “petulantly” argue with the umpire. In professional baseball, that’s the kind of thing that can get you thrown out of the game. Trump, alas, is very much still in the game, but there’s every reason to think he stands to do something that will get him removed from office. In theory, even his Republican supporters have their limits.
Going back to the Munk Debate on Political Correctness, it’s worth noting that while 87% of people in attendance expressed an openness to changing their opinion on the matter at hand, prior to the debate, a 64% majority agreed with the Con side, a majority that grew to 70% following its inclusion. Without detailed demographic information or follow-up questions, it’s hard to know precisely what the audience believed and why they voted like they did.
It’s possible they believed, as they are entitled to, that political correctness really is a force that retards societal progress. I surmise that, lost in these statistics, is an affinity for the Jordan Peterson and Stephen Fry that only grew in the wake of Michael Eric Dyson’s “mean mad white man” comment. After all, Peterson and Fry have quite the followings, and admittedly, Dyson and Michelle Goldberg were previously unknown to me. Fry’s self-deprecating humor, too, was one of the highlights of the debate, and provided a nice balance against Peterson’s nearly-relentless seriousness.
Then again, perhaps the uptick can simply be attributed to the sentiment that Peterson and Fry won the debate. After reading a sample of online comments related to viewing the debate remotely, a number of users appear to have indicated Dyson’s comments about Peterson were the point that decided that the Pro side lost the debate, because that’s when it got personal and Dyson’s views lost all weight. It’s difficult to know to what these random commenters genuinely subscribe, or what biases—conscious or unconscious—might inform their assessments of the validity of the onstage arguments.
Wrong or right, the timbre of Dyson’s diatribe was a direct response to Peterson’s tone in asking for a percentage of how much his white privilege has helped him, one of dismissiveness and vitriol. In this respect, you could say Dyson took the bait offered by a clearly-vexed Peterson. Or, you could claim Dyson’s just a “racist,” as numerous commenters did. Never mind the idea that racism implies power and invokes the institutions behind it. In today’s modern political parlance, for many, racism and prejudice are one and the same. Such may be a false (if not dangerous) equivalency.
I’m also not sure how well the percentages of those surveyed at the debate reflect the opinions of Americans or Canadians at large. Certainly, to have someone more liberally inclined such as Stephen Fry arguing against the widespread use of political correctness may be telling that objection to this convention can come from people on either side of the political aisle and in between. Someone on the left, for instance, may balk at the extension of the acronym LGBT to include categories like queer, intersex, asexual, and pansexual because it feels, to them, more like alphabet soup than a community. Political correctness must be adaptive to changing social norms, and requires that participants be capable of adapting with it. For even the most PC-minded among us, it can be a challenge.
This notwithstanding, and irrespective of the Munk Debate audience tallies, political correctness is something worth striving for. Even if its opposition doesn’t reflect an underlying annoyance at having to use preferred terms or, worse, a genuine loathing for someone or their constituent group, political correctness still facilitates an open exchange of ideas and indicates a willingness to deal with the other person on amicable, equitable terms. Moreover, to recapitulate Mark Hannah’s points about the values of our forefathers, political correctness is very much in the American way. As suspect as Barack Obama’s precise language made him seem to some, Donald Trump’s political incorrectness only reflects his lack of preparation and his cruelty. That’s not politically useful—it’s a liability and morally objectionable.
On top of all this, to address Fry’s concerns, political correctness does work. As tempting as it may be to side with social anarchy, political correctness provides guidance on how to act in situations involving mixed-group interactions, and on the plane of creativity, PC language does not stifle innovation, but allows it to grow by imposing constraints, whereas “blue-sky thinking” can give rise to deleterious phenomena like bigotry, groupthink, and misattributions of truth merely to those that speak loudest or most often (for more information, attend this excellent piece by Guardian columnist Oliver Burkeman and the appended Cornell study within the text). In short, political correctness works in any number of life situations, and in the era of #MeToo, rejecting it for fear of reprimand from some objector real or imagined is a rather hollow justification.
Political correctness isn’t standing in the way of progress, or making the world less safe, or killing comedy, or coddling our youth. It’s a useful method of communication and representation which connotes our ability to honor those different from us and understand where they’re coming from, and to grease the wheels of strategic advancement rather than to invite counterproductive, reckless behavior. To those of us like Donald Trump who insist we don’t have the time for political correctness, one may easily counter that it’s perhaps exactly the time for it, and something we need now more than ever.
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