Anyone remotely familiar with New Jersey politics knows it is a machine state.
When Governor Phil Murphy’s administration dared to kick the hornet’s neck and shine a light on potential abuses of the NJ Economic Development Authority by George Norcross, Democratic Party boss, it made quite a few waves felt even outside the Garden State. Within the Democratic Party structure, it intensified if not created a rift between Murphy and Democratic leaders in the state loyal to Norcross. In a largely blue state, the Democrats were divided in a very public fashion and once-stated legislative priorities mysteriously vanished.
There are yet other examples of essentially naked acts of corruption or malfeasance. Senator Bob Menendez, for one, has managed to retain his seat in Congress despite revelations about his impermissible acceptance of benefits, the beneficiary of congressional standards watered down to the point of absurdity. After a stint as governor that saw his popularity steadily decline over his tenure amid scandals and uneven handling of the state’s budget crisis, Goldman Sachs alum Jon Corzine presided over MF Global, a futures broker and bond dealer, ultimately overseeing the company file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy and settling with the Commodity Futures Trading Commission to the tune of $5 million for his part in the firm’s collapse. And this is just the Democrats. Don’t even get me started about Chris Christie, Bridgegate, and his abuses of his position.
In short, at every level, New Jersey politics of late has been marked by a rigid adherence to big-money establishment politics and prominent political figures compromised by conflicts of interest. Thankfully, though, the hegemonic power structure of the state isn’t going uncontested.
As Ryan Grim and Akela Lacy wrote about in an article for The Intercept last month, New Jersey’s “cartoonishly corrupt Democratic Party is finally getting challenged.” Referencing the Corzine, Menendez, and Norcross scandals as part of this profile, Grim and Lacy highlight a wave of progressives who not only are challenging entrenched party loyalists, but doing so with serious campaigns, notably in the House. Hector Oseguera’s bid to unseat Albio Sires, a congressional veteran who has been a member of the House since 2006 with little to show for it in terms of legislative achievements or name recognition, is the main focus of the piece.
Oseguera, an anti-money-laundering specialist, isn’t the only progressive name-checked in the article, however—nor should he be. Whether it’s Democratic Party primaries in the House or Senate or even county freeholder races across the state, there are a number of primary challengers championing progressive causes and giving New Jersey voters credible options in the upcoming July 7 primary.
In New Jersey’s fifth congressional district, for instance, Dr. Arati Kreibich, a neuroscientist who immigrated to the United States at the age of 11 with her family, is challenging Josh Gottheimer, a centrist Democrat with a war chest upwards of $5 million who serves as co-chair of the Problem Solvers Caucus, a bipartisan congressional group that seems to cause more problems than it actually solves. In my home district, NJ-9, octogenarian Bill Pascrell faces competition from Zinovia “Zina” Spezakis, the daughter of Greek immigrants with a strong focus on addressing climate change. Cory Booker, fresh off his failed presidential campaign, is opposed by Larry Hamm, a long-time community activist, leader, and organizer. Even Bonnie Watson Coleman, a member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, faces a challenge from Lisa McCormick, who previously managed 38% of the vote against Sen. Menendez in his latest reelection bid and, like Spezakis and Hamm, is inspired by the presidential runs of Bernie Sanders.
As Grim’s and Lacy’s report underscores, citing the sentiments of Eleana Little, a candidate for Hudson County freeholder, the progressive left in New Jersey has people. It has grassroots funding/organizing and volunteers phone-banking and sending out postcards. Despite setbacks at the presidential campaign level, there is real energy behind down-ballot candidates fighting for Medicare for All, the Green New Deal, cancellation of student debt, and a $15 minimum wage, among other things. For a movement inspired by the likes of Sen. Sanders, these primary challengers are proving that “Not Me. Us.” is not just a campaign slogan—it’s a mantra.
Can one or more of these candidates win? It’s possible, even if the odds (and fundraising) are against them. Following Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s sensational upset primary win over Joe Crowley in NY-14, progressives and political news media alike are looking for “the next AOC.”
One race being watched closely because of its perceived similarities (not to mention its geographic proximity) is Jamaal Bowman’s bid to unseat Eliot Engel, a 16-time incumbent and high-ranking House Democrat. In case you missed it, Engel was recently caught in a hot mic situation in response to speaking at an event related to the protests following George Floyd’s death, telling Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr., “If I didn’t have a primary, I wouldn’t care.” Please, New York’s 16th, vote for Bowman and refuse to stand for that level of apathy.
AOC’s success story is yet an outlier, as numerous progressive challengers to established names in Congress have failed to match her electoral success. This doesn’t mean their efforts were without merit, however. Moreover, the political calculus has changed appreciably since this election cycle began. Obviously, there’s the matter of COVID-19, which has changed so much about our everyday lives, at least for the time being. The ongoing Black Lives Matter protests happening here in the United States and elsewhere, too, have ignited calls for meaningful change. People are fed up, to put it mildly. Whether that sense of outrage translates to increased voter turnout remains to be seen. Then again, if you had told me a month ago that protesters would compel a major city like Minneapolis to consider disbanding its police force and that Confederate symbols and statues of Christopher Columbus would be getting upended, I would’ve stared at you in disbelief. At this moment, everything seems possible.
While not to compare the state of New Jersey politics to protests of that magnitude, along these lines, if you would’ve told me a year ago we’d have a group of progressives this impressive running for office in a state this hostile to primary challenges, I would’ve looked at you sideways. At a time when ordinary citizens are demanding accountability and substantive action from the people meant to protect and serve them, it feels like only a matter of time before people ask for better with their ballots.
Though you probably don’t need a reminder, in 2016, Donald Trump won the U.S. presidential election. Despite getting fewer votes than Hillary Clinton overall, Trump won enough states—and the right states, at that—to secure victory under the current system. In the minds of many voters, Trump’s lack of experience in public office, his moral failings, and his platform predicated on demonization of “the other” were negligible next to their dislike of Hillary Clinton and her perceived corruption.
Pundits and average voters alike (rightly) have criticized this viewpoint in the endless postmortem dissection of the election to follow. But the notion remains that Americans, jaded about the country’s politics and/or susceptible to political rhetoric, viewed these candidates on par with one another. This, despite Clinton’s obviously superior comprehension of D.C.’s workings and her message—however genuine—that “love trumps hate.” Trump’s triumph seemed to be a clear signal to establishment politicians that voters are fed up with the status quo and are willing to roll the dice on an unpolished outsider, even if it risks further damaging the institutions they regard as broken.
It’s 2018 now and the midterms are fast approaching. As evidenced by the race for Bob Menendez’s seat in the Senate, though, little has changed in the Democrats’ approach to winning elections. At a time when winning back the House and/or Senate is a priority for the Democratic Party, it bears wondering whether history will repeat itself and the Dems will find themselves on the losing end once more, even with apparent momentum.
First, a little background re Menendez. Back in June, in a piece for The Intercept, journalist Glenn Greenwald wrote about how Menendez was set to garner the Democratic Party nomination for New Jersey’s Senate seat up for grabs this November, and how his nomination serves as a symbol of how “calcified” the party really is. For Greenwald and numerous New Jerseyans, the issue with Menendez, who is seeking a third term in the Senate and is a veteran of Congress of 26 years, is his—how shall I put this?—questionable attention to ethics.
As Greenwald details, the public integrity unit of the Obama administration’s Justice Department began prosecution of Sen. Menendez in 2015, bringing him up on a dozen federal corruption and bribery charges. Allegedly, Menendez accepted lavish gifts and donations from friend and supporter Salomon Melgen, a Florida-based ophthalmologist, in exchange for helping Melgen resolve disputes with federal health agencies, secure contracts, and obtain visas for three of his female “associates.”
Ultimately, the case against Menendez was dismissed because of a hung jury, but as Greenwald characterizes this situation, the New Jersey senator benefited from federal bribery statutes diluted “to the point of virtual impotence” by the Supreme Court over the years. Without the presence of a “smoking gun,” as several jurors in the case cited in their refusal to convict, convictions of public officials are “close to impossible to obtain.” The Trump DOJ, as apparently litigious and vindictive as it is, opted not to re-try Menendez. All of this occurred amid Menendez receiving a public admonishment by the Senate Ethics Committee for accepting and failing to disclose gifts, effectually bringing discredit to a legislative body that hasn’t been all too credible of late, especially in the minds of everyday Americans.
And yet, as Greenwald explains, Menendez’s fellow Democrats, including Chuck Schumer, Cory Booker, then-governor-elect Phil Murphy, state senate president Steve Sweeney, then-incoming State Assembly president Craig Coughlin, and influential party leader George Norcross, were quick to rally around him. Thus, with an advantage in party support and finances, any primary challenge was all but a non-starter.
It bears highlighting that Greenwald criticizes more than just Menendez’s ability to skirt convictions owing to lax bribery statutes, and that his fault-finding is indicative of larger reservations about the Democratic Party on a national level. For one, as chair of the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee, Menendez is an influential and outspoken Iran hawk, and during George W. Bush’s tenure, he voted with Republicans to authorize the Bush-Cheney Military Commissions Act, which later would be deemed unconstitutional. Menendez also has been a staunch supporter of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, and for his trouble, has received donations from AIPAC supporters and officials, including significant sums for the costs of his legal defense.
Greenwald sums up his case against Menendez thusly:
This is how calcified the Democratic Party is: They even unite behind an incumbent who is drowning in sleaze and corruption, who was just “severely admonished” by the Senate Ethics Committee, whose legal defense was funded by far-right figures, and who has used his senior leadership role to repeatedly join with the Bush-Cheney and right-wing GOP factions against his own party’s supposed positions. Not only do they unite behind him, but they ensure that no primary challenge can even happen — they deny their own voters the right to decide if they want Menendez — by making it impossible for any such challengers to raise money from funders who rely on the largesse of Democratic officeholders and who thus, do not want to run afoul of their decreed preferences.
Whether New Jerseyans outside the progressive vanguard are fully aware of Bob Menendez’s profile as a U.S. senator is a matter of debate. His very public corruption charges, on the other hand, are fresh in the minds of voters, and likely explain why Menendez performed relatively poorly against Lisa McCormick, a virtual unknown, in the Democratic Party primary. It also likely explains to a large extent why a recent Stockton University (GO OSPREYS!) poll has the race between Menendez and his Republican opponent Bob Hugin essentially in a dead heat.
So, who is Bob Hugin? Hugin grew up in Union City, NJ, and attended Princeton University as an undergraduate, later earning an MBA from University of Virginia. He also served as an active duty infantry officer in the 70s and 80s, and a reserve officer after that. In terms of his professional life, Hugin has worked at J.P. Morgan, and most recently, spent close to two decades with Celgene Corporation, a biotechnology company which manufactures drugs for cancer and other chronic illnesses.
As for Hugin’s positions on the issues, among other things, he supports the move of the United States Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, increased domestic production of oil and natural gas, opposing “sanctuary cities” and securing our borders, enhancing our vetting process for immigrants, increased military spending, school choice, extraditing Assata Shakur/Joanne Chesimard as part of relations with Cuba, and accountability for North Korea given any denuclearization agreements. Much of Hugin’s platform, meanwhile, lacks specificity, particularly when, say, addressing New Jersey’s finances or the state’s health care. While he may appear more socially moderate than someone like Donald Trump, his stances are, on the whole, generic conservative Republican.
Moreover, Hugin is not without unsavory elements in his past. At Princeton, he fought antidiscrimination protection for gays, and later opposed making an all-male eating club co-ed, describing a lawsuit at the time to overturn the gender exclusivity policy as “politically correct fascism.” Hugin says his views have “evolved” since then. Additionally, as CEO of Celgene, Hugin oversaw significant price increases in cancer drugs. Hugin and the company have defended these increases as necessary to offset expenses, but consumer advocates have accused them of “gaming the system” to prevent generics from reaching the market and artificially keeping revenues high. In an era when executive behavior is under increasing scrutiny, this is not a good look.
For all Bob Hugin’s baggage, however, given how ethically compromised Bob Menendez is perceived to be, it’s hard for him to connect in his attacks on Hugin’s character in a meaningful way. How can one point fingers about the other’s greed when he himself was accused of accepting lavish gifts? Even the indignation about the excesses of Big Pharma seems misplaced considering Menendez has received over $900,000 from the pharmaceutical industry over the course of his legislative career. These monies include 2012 donations from Celgene employees; Menendez was third-highest in Congress in donations from Celgene employees that election cycle. Bob, meet Bob. Pot, meet kettle.
It is no surprise that nearly all of the content of the political ads between Hugin and Menendez has been negative, attack-oriented fare rather than substantive reasons to vote for either candidate. As it concerns the latter individual, the strategy seems to be a shrug and a “take me as I am” attitude, much as it was with Hillary Clinton and the outrage about her E-mails and other scandals, however disproportionately they may have figured into the 2016 election. For most Democratic voters this election cycle, it means biting the proverbial bullet and casting their ballot for Menendez or staying home and risking losing a Senate seat to the Republicans. Electorally speaking, it’s the equivalent of being caught between a rock and a hard place.
In making allusions to Clinton vs. Trump, I recognize that different factors were in play than with Menendez vs. Hugin. Though Hillary and her supporters might’ve been quick to accuse her critics of sexism, gender bias almost certainly had an impact on the race. There also hasn’t been anything close to the magnitude of what happened with James Comey and his fateful letter to Congress—though it’s still early, mind you. Plus, there’s the obvious contrast in the levels of the races being run; Clinton/Trump was a national race for the presidency, while Menendez/Hugin is a state race for a seat in the U.S. Senate. For what it’s worth, Bob Hugin (thankfully) isn’t Donald Trump, to boot.
Differences aside, the essence of the conflict for potential Democratic voters is the same: as with Clinton and Trump, an experienced Democratic Party politician may lose to a Republican with no history of holding public office who touts his ability to create jobs (which he had to do as a function of running a business) as a crowning achievement. In Bob Menendez’s case, it’s particularly bad given a) New Jersey tends to vote “blue,” b) the president, a Republican, is largely unpopular, and c) the state just lived through two terms of Republican Governor Chris Christie, also largely unpopular.
I’m not suggesting it should be a walk-over for Menendez necessarily, and you may well dispute the predictive accuracy of the Stockton University poll or any similar poll. As some observers might argue, however, Menendez and his campaign waited a while to get into the fray with political advertisements, allowing Bob Hugin to strike first. In a blue state like New Jersey, Bob Menendez would be expected to have a lead, even if slight. An effective tie is vaguely embarrassing, and is downright disturbing to those leaning left with visions of “flipping” the House and Senate.
I’m also not suggesting Democrats, independents, and others with qualms about Menendez should necessarily choose otherwise or just stay home either. While I might strongly suggest that my fellow New Jerseyans not vote for Hugin, their vote is their business. Should Hugin end up as the victor, though, blame should be placed primarily on the shoulders of Bob Menendez and his campaign, not his constituents. The onus should be on the candidate to make the case to voters why they should choose him or her, rather than accusing or shaming voters for their choices. Sure, greater turnout should be encouraged. Pointing the finger at average voters who have to work and/or may not have much concern for politics seems like a poor tack to take, meanwhile, notably when both parties are yet more unpopular than individual politicians.
At any rate, voters in New Jersey and other states deserve better than to feel forced to cast their ballots for candidates they feel hard-pressed to endorse without meaningful and robust primary challenges and without room for serious debate. And they shouldn’t have to worry they are giving their implicit consent and reinforcing the bad political strategy of the major political parties with their vote. In the grand scheme of things, Bob Menendez is just one candidate in one race. But his situation is representative of a larger dysfunction within American party politics that beckons substantive reform.
I don’t often share personal experiences in my political writing, mostly because I feel like I’d be sharing stories that no one wants to hear. That still may very well be the case, but seeing as this situation was made relevant to the ongoing crisis facing the separation of immigrant families, I figured I would highlight my experience as a way of talking about the related issues.
A now-former friend on Facebook, who is a leader/organizer on behalf of a nonprofit organization, recently took to social media to ask whether any Jill Stein voters would like to apologize for their choice in the wake of said crisis. I, as someone who voted for Stein, took umbrage to this comment, if for no other reason than it seemed particularly haughty of him to begin the conversation on these terms. Granted, I could’ve (and probably should’ve) not engaged at all, but I did, and so here we are.
First, a note about my vote for Jill Stein: I am neither an ardent supporter of Stein nor am I am a Green Party fanatic. I also don’t fully know what the heck the point was of the recount she spearheaded or ultimately what exactly became of the money raised to fund recount efforts. For some of you, I suppose that just makes it worse: that I would just up and support a third-party nominee of whom I am not a follower despite being a registered Democrat. In this sense, my vote can be seen as somewhat of a betrayal.
I also should note that I supported Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign, and voted for him in my state’s Democratic primary. By this point, I had no illusions that Bernie would capture the nomination; my home state, New Jersey, was one of the last handful of primaries to be held in the 2016 election season, and several media outlets were already calling the nomination in Hillary’s favor before the polls could open. Accordingly, you might see my refusal to cast my ballot for Clinton, too, as a manifestation of the “Bernie or Bust” mantra. Although technically I did vote, just not for a representative of either major political party. Nor did I write in Sanders’s name as a protest vote. Or Harambe’s, even though I’m told he would’ve loved to see the election results.
When it came down to it, though, I didn’t feel like Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party did enough to try to win my vote—simply put. To me, Clinton’s campaign was emblematic of a larger strategic flaw that characterizes the Dems: too much capitulation to centrists, too dismissive of concerns about reliance on corporate and wealthy donors, too little regard for the concerns of working-class Americans and grass-roots organizers until it comes time to donate or vote. To me, Hillary’s pitch seemed largely tone-deaf if not disingenuous, plagued by secrecy about E-mail servers and Goldman Sachs speeches as well as ill-advised comments about “deplorables,” among other things. And for those of you already raising a finger to wag about the deleterious aspects of the Republican Party and its nominee, I never even remotely considered Donald Trump or another GOP candidate for my vote. At present, that’s a line I won’t cross, in jest or otherwise.
Thus, despite her evident misunderstanding of quantitative easing, I voted for Jill Stein—not because I thought she could win or because I feared Trump could—but because I felt the values she and her campaign expressed most closely matched mine. That’s it. I imagine many Trump voters felt the same way re values—that is, they supported his economic or social platform more than him or his antics, though if that’s the case, I don’t know how much that says about their values. I’m just trying to get the idea across that people’s “support” for particular candidates can be more nuanced than today’s political discourse might otherwise suggest.
My voting mindset, therefore, was not “strategic” in the sense that I didn’t vote for Hillary Clinton specifically to block Donald Trump. In light of my state’s final tally, it would seem my vote was unnecessary in this regard, though I could not know that for sure at the time I cast my ballot. Clinton came out ahead in New Jersey by more than 13 percentage points and close to 500,000 more votes, and thanks to the Electoral College and our winner-takes-all style of deciding these matters, all 14 of the Garden State’s electoral votes went to her. Stein did not even manage a third-place showing, being bested by the likes of Gary Johnson, the Libertarian Party’s candidate.
This was the crux of my initial rebuttal about the need to apologize for my vote. While on a state-by-state basis, the notion of Johnson and Stein being “spoilers” may or may not have more validity (more on that in a bit), in my state, it did not. Regardless, to point fingers at lowly third parties deflects a lot of blame, and to borrow a term from Ralph Nader, who faced similar finger-pointing following the 2000 election, is to succumb to a high degree of “political bigotry.” In other words, it’s scapegoating perpetrated by members of major parties to distract from their need for substantive reform.
In addition to the culpable parties oft-cited by Clinton’s supporters and defenders—namely Russia, James Comey, and sexism (this last one may or may not be so true depending on the context or individual voter’s mindset, but that’s a whole different kit and caboodle)—there’s ample room to consider what role other groups played or, in theory, could have played. After all, what about the people who could vote and didn’t? What about the people who couldn’t vote but perhaps should be afforded the privilege, such as convicted felons? And what about the folks who actually voted for Donald Trump? Are they to be absolved of responsibility because they didn’t know better? If so, where is this written?
Additionally, what does it say that someone like Clinton, vastly more qualified than her opponent and, from the look and sound of things, quantifiably more capable, lost to someone in Trump to whom she had no business losing? For all the justifications for Hillary Clinton failing to capture an electoral majority—let’s not forget the fact she won the popular vote, an issue in it of itself when considering it’s not the deciding factor in presidential victories—we shouldn’t overlook some questionable decisions made by the Clinton campaign, including, perhaps most notably, how she and her campaign paid relatively low attention to important battleground states like Michigan and Wisconsin. Of course, even in Rust Belt states like Pennsylvania where Clinton campaigned heavily, she still lost, so maybe any establishment Democrat the party trotted out might’ve met with the same resistance fed by blue-collar whites flocking to Trump. Still, one can’t shake the sense Hillary approached the final throes of the campaign with a certain sense of arrogance.
To my ex-FB-friend, however, my reasoning was insufficient, and at this point, one of his colleagues, who happens to be a person of color, interceded to agree with his sentiments. As far as they were concerned, my support for Jill Stein may have influenced people in states more susceptible to a Trump win to vote for someone other than Hillary Clinton. I guess, for the sake of an analogy, my thoughts could’ve “infected” those of otherwise discerning voters to make them vote the “wrong” way. My assignment of blame to Hillary despite the forces working against her was panned as well, as was my diminishment of Stein as a spoiler. All in all, they contended, my position was one that exhibited my white privilege, and made me sound—quote unquote—morally reprehensible.
As far as I am concerned, if I’m morally reprehensible—fine. You can call me a serpent demon, for all I care. The legitimacy of the arguments within are what interests me. On the subject of my potential game-changing pro-Stein influence, though it’s possible, it’s highly unlikely. In my immediate circle, I told few people unless specifically asked who I planned to vote for. I also wrote a post back in 2016 about why I planned to vote for Jill Stein and posted to Facebook, but—let’s be clear—hardly anyone reads my writing. My own mother doesn’t even read it most of the time. From her standpoint, my entries are of the TL;DR ilk, and what’s more, they tend to be devoid of pictures of cute animals or how-to makeup videos. Fair enough, Mom.
On the subject of Jill Stein as spoiler, while it’s true that Stein’s numbers may have been larger than Trump’s margin of victory in key states, to say that all those votes would have gone to Hillary instead makes an assumption which may be accurate, or it may not. Again, however, it doesn’t change the contention that the race shouldn’t have been this close in the first place. Weeks after the 2016 election, as vote counts were yet being finalized in too-close-to-call contests, Jim Newell wrote as much in a piece for Slate. He argued:
The lesson of the Comey letter should not be that everything was just going fine until this singular event happened. Obviously Democratic candidates can pick up some tips for the future, such as a) always be sure to follow email protocol and b) keep your electronic devices as far as possible from Anthony Weiner. But they can never rule out some other Comey-equivalent October surprise. The question to ask is: Why was the Clinton campaign so susceptible to a slight shock in the first place? A campaign is resting on a very weak foundation if one vague letter from the FBI causes it to lose a huckster who sells crappy steaks at the Sharper Image.
The “Jill Stein or James Comey cost Hillary the election” narrative is akin to the narrative that Bernie Sanders did irreparable harm to the Democratic Party. You’re telling me that one man not even officially affiliated with the Democrats as a U.S. senator permanently damaged the entire party apparatus? To me, charging Sanders with potentially bringing ruin to the Dems says more about party’s infrastructural integrity (or lack thereof) than it does the intensity of his so-called “attacks” on Hillary Clinton as her primary challenger.
On the subject of my white privilege, meanwhile, well, they’re right. Let me say I don’t dispute this. I enjoy a certain amount of privilege on a daily basis and have almost certainly benefited from it over the course of my educational career and my professional life. Going back to the state-by-state basis of variation in election results, though, the biggest issue would appear to be my geographic privilege. If I lived in a state projected to be much closer based on polling data, might I have chosen differently?
Perhaps. It’s a decision I’m weighing on a smaller scale as we speak with Sen. Bob Menendez seeking re-election in New Jersey after a poor showing in the Democratic Party primary. Sure, Menendez is still the likely winner come November, but with doubts raised about the ethics of his behavior still fresh in voters’ minds, can I take his win for granted? On the other hand, if I do vote for him, what does this say about my values as a voter? Is choosing the “lesser of two evils” sufficient, considering we’ve been doing it for some time now and the state of democracy in this country doesn’t seem to be all that much better for it? These are the kinds of questions I don’t take likely.
Another issue invoked at around the same point in this discussion was whether I had done as much as I could to prevent Trump from winning. For what it’s worth, I wrote a piece separate from my pro-Jill Stein confessional right before the election about why you shouldn’t, under any circumstances, vote for Trump, but as I already acknowledged, my readership is very limited. At any rate, and as my online detractors insisted, I didn’t vote for Hillary, and what’s more, I didn’t campaign on her behalf. I could’ve “easily” made calls or knocked on doors or what-have-you for her sake at “no cost” to me, but I didn’t. As a result, according to them, I was complicit in her electoral defeat.
Could I have told people to vote for Hillary Clinton? Sure. I don’t consider myself any great person-to-person salesman, but I could’ve made the effort. Although this would present a weird sort of dissonance between my advocacy and my personal choice. Why am I instructing people not to vote for Trump and choose Clinton instead when I myself am choosing neither? Then again, I could’ve chosen to vote for Hillary, or simply lied about my choice, assuming anyone ever asked. I also could’ve tried to lobotomize myself with a fork to forget anything that happened leading up to the election. That’s the thing with hypotheticals—you can go any number of ways with them, no matter how unlikely or painful.
Eventually, it became evident that these two gentlemen were demanding that I apologize, but in a way that could make them feel better about accepting me as one of them—a liberal, a progressive, a member of the “Resistance, etc.—rather than simply apologizing to immigrant populations and people of color for “putting my white privilege above” their more immediate worries. My original critic was unequivocal in his demands: “You need to apologize.” His colleague and my second critic, reacting to my expressed feeling that relitigating the 2016 election only to quarrel among various factions on the left was of limited use and that we need to be more forward-thinking in our approach to 2018, 2020, and beyond, was likewise stern in his disapproval. As he stressed, you can’t just do something shitty, say “let’s move on,” and be done with it. I would have to admit my wrongdoing, or he and others would reserve the right to judge me negatively. Such was my “choice.”
Ultimately, my parting remarks were to reiterate my positions as stated above, and to insist that people not be shamed for their vote as part of some scapegoating exercise against third-party/independent voters. I also closed by telling my second critic in particular—someone very critical of me on a personal level despite barely knowing me—that I hope his recruitment efforts as an organizer are handled with more aplomb. End of discussion, at least on my end, and click on that Unfriend button. Now you guys don’t have to fret about having to work with me—because I won’t work with you unless I have to.
The unfortunate thing about this conversation—other than that I let it happen—was that it grew so contentious despite the idea we seemed to agree on a lot of points. For one, I conceded my privilege in voting the way I did, something I have characterized as not merely being about race, but of geographical privilege as well. I would submit that admitting privilege is only a small part of the solution, however.
A more constructive recognition of inequality between people of different ethnicities, I would argue, involves advocacy for those who can’t vote, those who should be able to vote, or those who can vote, but otherwise find obstacles in access to the polls. On the latter note, there are numerous reforms that can be enacted or more widely used to expand the voter pool in a legitimate way. These include automatic voter registration, increased availability of the absentee ballot and early voting options, making Election Day a national holiday, and opening and staffing additional polling places in areas where election officials are unable to meet the demand of voting constituents.
Moreover, these issues can be addressed concomitantly with issues that affect all voters, including the electoral vote vs. the popular vote, ensuring the integrity of machine-based voting with paper records, gerrymandering designed purely for one party’s political advantage, the influence of Citizens United on campaign finance laws, and ranked-choice voting as an alternative to a winner-takes-all format. American elections have a lot of avenues for potential improvement, and particularly salient are those that disproportionately affect people of color.
I also conceded that I could have done more and can still do more on behalf of undocumented immigrant families, especially as it regards the separation of children from their parents, and this recognition more than anything merits an apology on my part, so to those negatively impacted by the policies of this administration, I am sorry. By this token, many of us could probably do more. Hearing of so many horror stories of young children being traumatized and parents being deliberately deceived by Border Patrol agents is disheartening, to say the least, and as powerless as many of us may feel in times like these, there are ways to contribute, even if it seems like something fairly small.
There seems to be no shortage of marches and protests designed to elevate awareness of the severity of the crisis facing immigrants and asylum seekers, notably from Mexico and Central America, as well as groups devoted to advocating for and defending the most vulnerable among us that can use your contributions. RAICES (the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services) and the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union) jump to mind, but there are numerous possible recipients of much-needed donations. As always, be sure to do your homework regarding the reputation of any charity you seek out.
Though it may go without saying, you can also contact the office of your senators and the representative of your district to express your desire that they support any legislation which puts an end (hint: not the House GOP bill) to the Trump administration’s “zero-tolerance policy” on illegal immigration, and to thank them for signing on in the event they do. If they don’t accede to or even acknowledge your request, keep trying. As it must be remembered, these lawmakers serve us—not the other way around.
The point I refuse to concede, however, is that I should apologize for my vote for Jill Stein in a state won by Hillary Clinton when I neither voted for nor supported Donald Trump, when both major parties have contributed to destructive immigration policies over the years, when Democrats lost an election they most likely shouldn’t have lost, and when this same losing party refuses to own its shortcomings and open the door to real reform, instead only becoming more calcified. That is, I certainly won’t apologize merely to assuage the concerns of fellow Democrats and liberals. Now is the time for a dialog, not a lecture, and certainly not the time for endless dissection of the 2016 presidential election and guilting conscientious objectors. At a point when we should be working together, I reject this means of tearing one another apart.
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Who’s the most popular figure in American politics right now? Well, obviously, our fearless leader Donald Trump, right? Um, yeah, no. As of April 12, per Gallup, Trump’s approval rating sits at 41%, seemingly not all that much improved since hurling 59 Tomahawk missiles at Syria. In fact, since the start of his term, President Trump has gone from having essentially equal approval and disapproval ratings at a point in the mid-40s, to having his approval rating dip to a level of near-stasis around the 40-percent-mark and his disapproval rating escalate to a near-constant rating upward of 50%. So, yeah, it’s not that guy. For the sake of a contrast, Barack Obama finished his tenure with about a 60% approval rating—though let’s be real—as feelings of buyer’s remorse began to kick in shortly after Trump’s electoral victory, this figure was bound to be on the incline.
Given Congress’s depressed approval rating of late, you would be loath to thinking it would be a member of the House of Representatives or Senate either. Back to Gallup we go. Though hating on Congress is nothing new, it’s still fairly startling to see only one in five Americans giving our lawmakers a proverbial thumbs-up. Democratic respondents, likely frustrated with a Republican-controlled legislature running amok, report a scant 10% approval rating. Independents, likely believing both major parties, by and large, suck eggs, lie at the 20% national average. Even Republican respondent approval ratings of Congress are down; the current approval rating sits at 31%, notable after a 50% rating and seven-year high in February. Apparently, people don’t like it when you screw around with their health care—who knew!
Let’s back up a moment. Who is the most popular senator with his or her constituents? Wait a minute—could it be a certain senator from Vermont? Close! Patrick Leahy is second among senators in terms of approval from the residents he represents. Oh, wait—you meant the other senator from Vermont. Yup, the Granite State has quite the one-two punch in terms of positive vibes, and leading the country in terms of the most beloved senator in these United States is none other than Bernie Sanders, according to a recent Morning Consult poll. Both of Maine’s senators, Angus King (#5) and Susan Collins (#6), also ranked in the top ten, which is actually pretty well balanced between Democrats/independents and Republicans.
It should be noted that Sanders, while most-approved of within this poll and possessing the widest gap of approval to disapproval percentage, does not get the lowest disapproval rating overall; that honor goes to Brian Schatz of Hawaii (#8). For the sake of completion, lowest approval rating goes to Thom Tillis of North Carolina (39%), with Democrats Gary Peters of Michigan (39%), Robert Menendez of New Jersey (40%), and Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada (42%), and Republican Dean Heller of Nevada (43%) rounding out the bottom five. Honorable mention goes to dishonorable Mitch McConnell (44%), Republican senator from Kentucky, the only person in the Senate to garner a higher disapproval rating (47%) than his or her approval rating. Congratulations, Mitch—you toad-faced heel.
Forget about mere popularity within the state of Vermont, though. Nationally speaking, Bernie Sanders, according to a FOX News poll dated March 15, enjoys a 61% approval rating, as opposed to a 32% approval rating. That’s significantly better than Donald Trump (44% favorable; 53 unfavorable) or even Mike Pence (47% favorable; 43% unfavorable). As Janice Williams, writing for Newsweek, frames these statistics, this kind of appeal might have been enough to give Bernie the W in a theoretical head-to-head matchup with Trump. Whether or not this is true is anyone’s guess, but regardless, these kinds of figures likely merit the Democratic Party’s attention.
While Sanders ran on the Democratic ticket in opposition to Hillary Clinton during the 2016 primaries, as a member of the Senate, he is, of course, an independent, and one of only two in the Senate alongside the aforementioned Angus King of Maine. As much as Bernie Sanders is keen to preserve his identity as an independent, though, the establishment wing of the Democratic Party appears content to keep him at arm’s length. Such is the complex dance between progressives who are sympathetic to the aims of the Democratic Party at large, especially as regards the Dems’ superior positions on matters of social policy, and mainstream Democrats who, generally speaking, want nothing to do with progressive candidates.
The well-publicized tension between the then-leadership of the Democratic National Committee and the Sanders presidential campaign provides perhaps the most salient example of this divide, but even after a failed attempt to keep Donald Trump out of the White House—an attempt which featured Bernie, upon suspension of his campaign, throwing his support behind Hillary Clinton, mind you—this same kind of tug-of-war informs Democrats’ backing of more liberal candidates, or lack thereof. This past Tuesday, the results of a special election to fill the vacancy of the House seat left vacant by Mike Pompeo’s appointment and confirmation as CIA director were surprisingly close given the setting: a Kansas district, which is situated in a deeply red state and which opted for Trump over Clinton by a 27% margin in the presidential election. Only seven percentage points separated the winner, Republican Ron Estes, from the runner-up, Democratic challenger James Thompson. Whether or not this one election heralds a more pronounced Democratic uprising in future elections is yet to be seen, but in another upcoming special election for a House seat in Georgia, Democratic supporters are licking their chops at the chance to grant victory to Jon Ossoff and send a message—however small—to President Trump and the GOP that their agenda is not approved of by a significant cross-section of the American population.
Give Republicans a run for their money in two red states? Democratic leadership must have invested a lot in both candidates, huh? Maybe—maybe not. In terms of Jon Ossoff, the candidate for the vacant House seat in Georgia, both the Democratic National Committee and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) have invested heavily in support of him, adding millions of dollars to the millions his campaign has raised, eager to spin the narrative of sticking it to Donald Trump. As for James Thompson, the progressive from Kansas? Eh, not so much. Sure, after the fact, the Democratic establishment added the closeness of the race between Estes and Thompson to this same anti-GOP, anti-Trump narrative. But during the campaign itself? Support for James Thompson was quantifiably lacking, despite his identification under the Democratic Party banner.
The Democratic establishment tried to appropriate Thompson’s success in the district as a testament that anti-Trump sentiments will translate to big wins for Democrats in the 2018 midterm elections. However, when pressed on why they failed to support Thompson, they dismissed criticisms for ignoring the race. The Huffington Post reported, “A DCCC official who spoke with The Huffington Post on Monday, however, argued that the party’s involvement would have been ‘extremely damaging’ to Thompson because it would have been used against him by Republicans, who have poured significant money into the race. Thompson has performed better than expected in the race because he stayed under the radar, the official added.” This claim makes little sense, especially given that Thompson’s Republican opponent portrayed him as an establishment Democrat anyways.
Rather than this special election representing an anomaly or misstep from the Democratic leadership, there’s a prevailing trend within the party’s establishment to select and support weak, centrist candidates who provide the party with opportunities to fundraise from corporate donors. This trend is symptomatic of a revolving door within the Democratic Party leadership, where party officials often sell out to work for Republican lobbying firms.
In this equation, Ossoff is that “centrist” candidate, which explains the disparity of support. The thinking from the leaders of the Democratic Party seems to be that a moderate Democrat is better than a Republican—even when courting big money from similar or even shady sources, or even “selling out” to working for Republican lobbying firms after the fact. A rose by any other name would still smell as sweet, and as progressives might argue, money in politics, whether at the behest of Dems or Republicans, is still a corrupting influence.
Thus, when it comes to progressive candidates and voters, there’s a dilemma concerning how and where they swear their allegiance in upcoming elections. By virtue of the Republican Party’s alliance with regressive conservative elements, and Trump’s own collusion with the far-right, the right side of the spectrum is a no-go. Supporting the Democratic Party, meanwhile, is problematic in its own right when its leadership doesn’t support them back, hews too close to center, and refuses to authentically embrace grassroots fundraising and organizing on a national level. Existing independent/third-party options are likewise less than savory owing to questionable organizational infrastructure and, as regards the Green Party and Libertarian Party specifically, figureheads in Jill Stein and Gary Johnson that are considered punchlines more so than viable presidential candidates. Broadly speaking, the current list of options for liberals is fraught with frustration.
In fact, if a recent article by Alex Roarty for McClatchy DC is any indication, liberals are “fuming” over the Democratic establishment’s reluctance to stick its neck out for anyone of a more progressive tint. Both Jim Dean of Democracy for America and members of our Our Revolution, an organization founded by former Bernie Sanders campaign staffers, are cited within the piece as reproaching the Democrats for their refusal to “wake up” and to stop ignoring districts they don’t think they can win because they are too “red.” Even James Thompson, the also-ran man from Kansas, was critical of the Democratic Party’s approach to his race, averring simply, “(DCCC) and DNC need to be doing a 50-state strategy.”
The DCCC and DNC spokespeople cited in Roarty’s article seemed to defend the lack of backing for Thompson by throwing up their hands and declaring the race “unwinnable,” a sentiment echoed all the way up to Committee chair Tom Perez himself. This is not the kind of talk that helps energize a party and recruit new members, though. First of all, yes, James Thompson lost, but only by seven percentage points, and with the likes of Mike Pence and Ted Cruz making appearances and Republican donors infusing money into the race against him in the final weeks and days when the final result seemed not so sure. In addition, and in the arena of the self-fulfilling prophecy, if you never try to make inroads in certain districts and areas of the country (e.g. Midwest, South), you are never going to win. It didn’t play well for Hillary Clinton to write off Trump supporters as “deplorables,” and it arguably doesn’t help the Democratic Party to ignore whole swaths of the United States of America.
In short, what are progressive liberals to do, especially when they see some of their most popular figures in Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Keith Ellison reduced to flunkies for the Clinton campaign and/or donation solicitors in the name of “party unity?” See, I think the Democratic leadership thinks we progressives are too stupid to notice that they are less concerned with what’s in our hearts and minds, and more concerned with what’s in our wallets and purses—or that they simply don’t care if we do notice. I believe, however, that progressives—young progressives, especially—are better at reading authenticity or its absence than today’s political leaders give them credit for, such that when Sanders or Warren threw their support behind Hillary for political reasons, or when they create a position in the DNC of deputy chair that is even more ceremonially meaningless than that of Perez’s role of chairperson, it rings hollow. As it should. Representative democracy doesn’t truly qualify as such unless constituents feel they are being represented by someone who embraces and exemplifies their values, and consistently, the Democratic Party brass had made it evident that they can’t or won’t go as far on matters of grassroots fundraising and policy than their more liberal supporters are asking them to.
As Jonathan H. Martin, professor of sociology at Framingham State University, and others of a progressive mindset are convinced, the answer to the question, “What do we do?” is “Form a new party.” As Martin depicts the situation, if people can’t coalesce around an existing party that has seemingly benefited from a Bernie bump of sorts, such as the Green Party, Justice Party, Socialist Alternative, or Vermont Progressive Party, then a new organization needs to be forged, with those who “feel the Bern” in mind. According to Prof. Martin, the two groups who are leading this charge, at least as of late February, are the Progressive Independent Party, which aims to be a coalition of the willing in terms of progressive, third-partiers, and others on the left, and the Draft Bernie for a People’s Party movement, which pretty much says what it entails up front.
Of the two, Jonathan Martin finds the latter more immediately appealing, for if someone as popular as Bernie Sanders were to break ranks and form a new party, polling indicates that not only does a sizable subset of the voting population desire a viable third party, but many Americans do want the kinds of bold reforms that a Sanders type proposes. Martin highlights both the likelihood that this vision could move forward with Bernie at the helm, and the ultimate choice that progressives face in the political uncertainty following the 2016 election, with the following ideas:
While recruiting Sanders for a “people’s party” may sound like a long-shot effort, his own statements indicate that he remains open to third party politics, and might well go that route if his work to reform the Democrats fails. However, if Bernie doesn’t eventually do this, the movement for a new party may go forward without him.
In any case, the DNC election and subsequent events should challenge both influential and ordinary progressives to ask themselves how long they will continue sailing on the U.S.S. Democrat. That ship is not headed toward the desired destination, nor is it even designed to go there. Moreover, in the wake of the 2016 election, it is a boat that appears to be rotting, drifting, and gradually sinking. Why not jump aboard a different vessel, one that really has the potential to get us where we urgently need to go?
For Bernie’s part, the man still seems unwilling to abandon ship, continually speaking in terms of reforming or rebuilding the Democratic Party in more democratic fashion, and eschewing the pleas of Jill Stein and Company to get on board with a third-party agenda. At the immediate moment, therefore, it seems more probable that a theoretical People’s Party will have to soldier on without their muse, though the alternative is certainly not impossible considering just how tiresome the Democratic establishment can be for the rest of us—and we’re not even interacting with them regularly like Bernie Sanders is. As for the rest of us? Perhaps we don’t quite see the Democrats as a rotting, drifting, sinking ship, but how many of us have one foot in a lifeboat—with some rope handy just in case we get the urge to kidnap Captain Sanders and hold him as our progressive prisoner? Presumably, such a political maneuver would be intended for 2020, as the 2018 midterms are just a year-and-change away, but to take a genuine shot at disrupting the duopoly held by the Democratic and Republican Parties, even that kind of mobilization needs to happen sooner than later. In other words, if liberals are thinking about bailing, they may need to make a decision fast with political waters rising.
Fix the Democratic Party or start a new party altogether? For progressives across the United States, it’s a conundrum, to be sure. This much, however, is clear: the Democratic Party, as it is, can’t function as a cohesive unit in the long term, and progressives backed by/composed of a coalition of young voters and working-class individuals either need to be invited to the table, or find a new restaurant altogether. What to do, what to do?
Though it’s been fairly quiet on the confirmation front lately (President Donald Trump has been repeatedly criticized for his—shall we say—dilatory commitment to filling vacancies in his Cabinet), even ex post facto, it can be educational to see how our U.S. senators voted on the 19 nominees thus confirmed. A particularly valuable resource in this regard is an interactive graphic from The New York Times authored by Wilson Andrews, Times graphics editor, that plots the confirmation vote records of each and every senator, sorted by most “no” votes to least.
On the Republican side, the results are disappointing, if not unsurprising. Of the 52 Republicans with a seat in the Senate, only four have registered at least one “no” vote: Lisa Murkowski (DeVos), John McCain, (Mulvaney), Rand Paul (Pompeo, Coats), and Susan Collins (DeVos, Pruitt). Aside from Andrew Puzder, who withdrew his name for consideration for the role of Secretary of Labor, and Betsy DeVos, Secretary of Education, who required Vice President Mike Pence to break a 50-50 tie and has been the only nominee to receive multiple “no” votes from Republicans, no one else has really been in doubt to pass confirmation proceedings. The only other candidates who have failed to garner even 55 votes are Mick Mulvaney (Office of Management and Budget), Jeff Sessions (Attorney General), Tom Price (Department of Health and Human Services), Scott Pruitt (Environmental Protection Agency), and Steven Mnuchin, the likes of which, either based on their past conduct, their conflicts upon conflicts of interest, or both, haven’t exactly distinguished themselves—well, at least not in the positive sense.
As for the Democrats and independents, the results are decidedly more varied. The top “no” voter in the Senate, tallying 17 of 19 nays, is Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, who is not really regarded as a progressive heroine, but has seemingly moved further left as she has gone along, and certainly more so than in her days in the House. Also high on the list are some of the more popular and well-regarded senators in terms of their principles—Cory Booker, Jeff Merkley, Bernie Sanders, and Elizabeth Warren, all of whom have issued 16 of 19 “no” votes. These senators and others who have voted no roughly two-thirds of the time—13 or more “no” votes, let’s say—comprise a minority even within the group of just Democratic and independent senators. Only 15 of this bloc of 48 senators have voted “no” 13+ times (31.25%), and that clip decreases to a scant 15% within the U.S. Senate at large. On one hand, that more Democrats are willing to break ranks is perhaps encouraging in terms of the desire to not merely rubberstamp or preemptively dismiss nominees along the path to confirmation. On the other hand, if you were looking for a unified front from the Dems, you can go ahead and keep looking, and moreover, the divide in votes may be indicative of a larger ideological divide within the Democratic Party.
Though a minority in its own right, a group of eight Democratic or independent senators has failed to record 10 or more “no” votes in 19 confirmation vote proceedings, with five of them failing to eclipse even six of 19, or a third of votes. These are the lowest of the low, literally speaking, regarding “no” votes:
Joe Manchin III (D-WV)
“No” Votes: 4 (DeVos, Mulvaney, Price, Ross)
Joe Manchin, a professed Democrat, has cast as many “no” votes as Republican Senators who have voted “no” altogether during the confirmation process. As noted, that’s a bar that should be fairly easy to clear—and he hasn’t. The votes for Scott Pruitt and Rex Tillerson don’t come as that much of a surprise for Manchin, hailing from a state that is synonymous with coal, but the “yes” vote for Jeff Sessions is particularly egregious. Some are comparing Joe Manchin, based on his willingness to break from other Dems, to Joe Lieberman, a comparison which is not all that endearing. Though obviously a joke, it’s telling when the official Twitter feed for Full Frontal with Samantha Bee suggests Democrats oppose Manchin in the 2018 primaries with a lump of coal. Brutal, but not wholly undeserved.
Heidi Heitkamp, like Joe Manchin III, suffers the ignominy of voting “yes” on both Pruitt and Tillerson. Also like Manchin, she hails from a state in North Dakota of which fossil fuels make up a significant part of the economy, so not a huge shocker there, but still disappointing. That she would be so principled on nominees like Mick Mulvaney, Jeff Sessions, Tom Price, and Steven Mnuchin makes her positions on Scott Pruitt and Rex Tillerson all the more jarring. Either way, Heitkamp and Manchin are the only two Democrats to vote for both Pruitt and Tillerson, and the former, like the latter, should receive her due censure from progressives within the party.
Angus King of Maine is one of two independents in the Senate, alongside a certain senator from the state of Vermont who gave Hillary Clinton a run for her money regarding the Democratic Party nomination. Like Bernie Sanders, he caucuses with the Democrats. Apparently, though, he doesn’t vote with them nearly as often as his counterpart. Certainly, the “yes” vote for Rex Tillerson is concerning, but his approval for the likes of Ben Carson and Rick Perry is also vaguely disconcerting. Mr. King, you may be independent and may caucus with the Dems, but you are no Bernie Sanders. Not even close.
Joe Donnelly (D-IN)
“No” Votes: 6 (DeVos, Mulvaney, Sessions, Price, Mnuchin, Tillerson; did not vote on Pruitt)
If you believe Joe Donnelly, he is a lawmaker committed to making life better for his fellow Hoosiers, and this includes working across the aisle when necessary. If you approach his statements and his voting record from a more pragmatic or even cynical viewpoint, though, you might say he capitulates to conservatives when he has to. As both a member of the House of Representatives and a U.S. Senator, Donnelly’s record has been marked by his being more moderate on both economic and social issues. While I respect that this likely has caused him stress in being the subject of attacks from both the left and the right, speaking as someone from the far-left, I and other progressive-minded individuals are looking for better than 6-for-19 on these confirmation votes. That would be fine in baseball, but Indiana does not have a major league team, and these matters are more important.
Mark Warner has the exact same voting record on Cabinet position confirmations as the aforementioned independent Angus King. That’s not an endorsement—nor should it be considered as such. Once again, the principled stance on Pruitt alongside a “yes” vote on Tillerson is an odd juxtaposition, and even casting votes in favor of Rick Perry or even Ryan Zinke raises the progressive brow. Warner, it should be noted, is the top Senate Democrat investigating ties between Russia and Trump, particularly in the arena of interference in the 2016 presidential election. That said, being recently spotted having a chat over wine with Rex Tillerson doesn’t exactly inspire confidence for Democratic supporters that his interests and party loyalty are all that pure. Mark Warner, you’re on notice.
Even for those Democratic senators who have cleared the low hurdle of six “no” votes, a few others have yet to garner double digits, putting their judgment in question, or, if nothing else, suggesting they may be too close to center to really inspire enthusiasm among younger members of the party base. The following senators, if not getting an explicit wag of the finger, are nonetheless worthy of a wary eye:
Claire McCaskill (D-MO)
“No” Votes: 7 (DeVos, Mulvaney, Sessions, Pruitt, Mnuchin, Tillerson, Carson; did not vote on Price)
You may have heard Claire McCaskill’s name in the news recently, when she called upon Jeff Sessions to recuse himself from any investigations into Russia and Trump, averring that she personally had never met Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak—when, in fact, she totally had. She also has recently been making a push to Bernie Sanders supporters in her bid for re-election—you know, despite endorsing Hillary Clinton early in the primaries and criticizing Sanders’ campaign at the time. These stories may say enough about the Democratic senator from Missouri, but her voting record alone on Trump’s Cabinet nominees should prompt criticism from the left.
As far as moderates go, Jon Tester is fairly well regarded among liberals based on a number of his votes in the Senate, as well as policy positions which have evolved and moved further left over time (e.g. same-sex marriage, Don’t-Ask-Don’t-Tell). A bleeding-heart liberal Tester is not, though, with his pro-gun stance, for instance, painting him as more of a “your grandpappy’s” kind of Dem than the “elitist liberals” that are always being decried in right-wing circles. At least on the gun issue, this is perhaps to be expected in a red state like Montana. Still, one might have liked to see more push-back on nominees like Wilbur Ross or even Linda McMahon given his past diatribes against the wealthy. You get a pass this time, Sen. Tester. This time.
Tim Kaine’s presence on this short list means Virginia has two under-10 “no” vote senators to its name, the only such state to earn that distinction given two Democratic/independent senators. Kaine, as you’ll recall, was Hillary Clinton’s pick for vice president, and a way too “safe” one at that. He is the sort that is unlikely to generate much enthusiasm from even party loyalists, let alone a younger portion of the base looking for more conviction on important issues, such as free trade (like Clinton, Kaine has supported NAFTA and came late to his resolution against the Trans-Pacific Partnership) and regulation of the banking industry (proposals of his, while under the guise of being pro-regulation, have been criticized by progressive groups as being anything but). Tim Kaine may be a nice enough guy, but he was the wrong choice for Clinton’s presidential campaign, and may be symbolic of the “mainstream” wing of the Democratic Party that is keeping it from more enthusiastically embracing more liberal views.
To be fair, one might argue that “no” votes without much hope of dramatically altering the outcomes of these Cabinet nominees mean very little. In this regard, stances taken against potential office holders amount to little more than posturing. By the same token, however, for those who have registered more “yes” votes than “no” votes, perhaps these confirmation votes presage a deeper reluctance to embrace the Democratic Party as a whole, or at least magnify the effect of their senator’s centrism.
Where the rubber meets the road, so to speak, then, is with the looming vote to confirm Neil Gorsuch as the next Supreme Court justice. In a vacuum, Donald Trump’s choice of Gorsuch to fill the vacancy left by the passing of Antonin Scalia might not be so hotly contested by Democrats. As things in the political world have shaken out of late, though, there is additional context to consider. Republicans already had majorities in the House of Representatives and the Senate before the fateful events of November, and with Trump—a loose cannon if ever there were one—ascending to the highest office in the nation, the stakes are higher than ever for a party in the Democratic Party that is reeling from electoral defeats up and down the levels of government.
Of even higher relevance, meanwhile, is Merrick Garland’s stalled nomination for this same vacancy. As you’ll likely recall, Garland was tapped by President Barack Obama near the end of his tenure, which he was perfectly justified in doing. Effectually, Obama called conservative Republicans’ bluff, nominating the kind of jurist that appeals to those on both side of the political aisle, and thus requiring GOP lawmakers to all but in name concede their refusal to confirm or hear Merrick Garland was petty gamesmanship. Which, of course, they did. Mitch McConnell and Co. held their breath and waited for Obama’s second term to conclude, rejecting calls from their Democratic counterparts and their constituents alike to “do their jobs.”
With all this in mind, we return to the current kerfuffle over Neil Gorsuch. Whereas Trump’s various Cabinet picks have only needed a 51-vote majority to secure confirmation, the role of Supreme Court justice, because it is so vital and because it is a lifetime appointment, would require 60 votes as part of a procedural cloture vote to end debate and move on to the actual confirmation vote if Senate Democrats are determined to filibuster the nomination. So, how committed are the Dems and independents in the Senate to staving off the confirmation vote? Well, let’s just say they should have enough votes—a minimum of 41 would be required—to filibuster Gorsuch’s nomination. But it’s not exactly a safe margin, and fairly significantly, I feel, a few senators have either wavered on whether or not they will support a filibuster, or have outright indicated they are against this measure. Once again, Wilson Andrews and The New York Times, with the help of Audrey Carlsen, Alicia Parlapiano, and Jugal K. Patel, have devised another helpful graphic to help us sort out the positions for or against filibuster.
Undecided or Unclear: 2
Up for Re-election: 2 (Benjamin L. Cardin, Robert Menendez)
Ben Cardin and Bob Menendez are likely to vote against Neil Gorsuch in a final vote to determine if he is confirmed or not. Remember, though, we are talking about specifically pledging to support the 60-vote filibuster, and as of Tuesday, April 4, 4:30 P.M. EDT, their commitment was judged by the team at the Times to be undecided or unclear on that front. Cardin, for what it’s worth, has said he supports the filibuster on social media, and Menendez has apparently followed suit. Both senators are facing re-election in 2018, but that provides only slight plausibility as to why they would wait until Democrats were all but assured of having the necessary 41 votes given they do not really hail from strong red states. In short, and to be quite frank, it’s pretty cowardly of Ben Cardin and Bob Menendez to make their intentions known after the fact. The above-cited article from The Hill also name-checks Angus King, who, as we know, is an independent and has only managed a scant six “no” votes (and is up for re-election), as a late decider. As Democrats, however, you would expect better of Cardin and Menendez, both of whom have gone 12-for-19 in “no” votes, and as a progressive hailing from the state of New Jersey, I am severely disappointed in the latter.
Against Filibuster: 4
Up for Re-election in Solid Trump State: 3 (Joe Donnelly, Heidi Heitkamp, Joe Manchin III)
Not Up for Re-election: 1 (Michael Bennet)
Joe Manchin. Heidi Heitkamp. Joe Donnelly. We’ve heard these names before, haven’t we? Suddenly, their positions on Cabinet nominees, viewed through the lens of their opposition to the filibuster, make a lot of sense. All three are running for re-election in what are deemed “solid Trump states,” meaning Donald Trump carried them by more than five percentage points in the presidential election.
On one hand, I get that re-election in hostile territory, so to speak, stands to be difficult, and there are those of us who would be willing to accept a moderate Democrat who agrees with the party at least some of the time as opposed to a Republican who is more likely to promote a regressive political agenda. On the other hand, though, being, for all intents and purposes, light versions of Republicans arguably does little for the party and only helps depress turnout in elections, especially among independents and progressives. In this regard, the Dems who capitulate to conservative or even moneyed interests can be seen as conceding without making a concerted effort to expand their base among neglected demographic groups in their jurisdictions—playing politics in the short term and risking party support in the long term. In other words, the likes of Donnelly, Heitkamp and Manchin are playing not to lose rather than to win, and this same strategy as employed by Hillary Clinton and other Democrats only seems to be hurting the Democratic Party at the polls. Once again, speaking bluntly, Democratic leadership doesn’t seem to “get it.”
As for Michael Bennet, even for someone whose job is not immediately in danger, he has recognizably faced pressure from both the left and right regarding the filibuster. If Jon Tester, a senator in a red state up for re-election can support the filibuster, however, I submit Bennet (10-of-19 “no votes”) could have, too. Way to ride that center rail, Mike.
The Senate Republicans are expected to exercise the so-called “nuclear option,” essentially rewriting the rules so that 51 votes can advance proceedings to the actual confirmation vote. So, why bother with a filibuster? Democrats and others on the left would insist that this is more than warranted for the GOP’s refusal to hear Merrick Garland, and besides, with a president whose ethical conflicts are barely disguised as such, and who many contend is too unhinged to serve in his present role, there are those who call on Senate Dems to demand Trump release his tax returns at a minimum before considering Neil Gorsuch for the vacancy in the Supreme Court. Then again, Republicans would say that the Democrats “started it,” after rewriting Senate confirmation rules for executive and judicial nominees in their own right in 2013. Is all fair in love, war, and politics, or do two wrongs not make a right? I guess it depends on what side of the fence you’re on, honestly.
Even if the Republicans “go nuclear,” as President Agent Orange would have it, resisting the confirmation of Gorsuch and other picks until that point based on the merit of held ideals would convey to voters that the Democrats are willing to fight for their constituents and for what they believe in rather than merely trying to hold on to what seats they have. Moreover, claims from Joe Manchin et al. that politics should be kept out of the judiciary are weak sauce when politics so clearly stand behind the decision to nominate Neil Gorsuch in the first place. If Dems like Claire McCaskill want votes from Bernie Sanders supporters, they can’t just ask for it—they have to earn it. That is, they have to demand the kind of change that authentically speaks to the needs of their rank-and-file constituents, and not merely count on voters’ ability to distinguish their policies from those of the GOP, especially when calling for incremental or middling reforms. Otherwise, with Democrats like these, who needs Republicans?
If you’ve read or perused this blog, chances are I’ve already telegraphed, to a large extent, my nerdy tendencies, but in case you needed any more evidence in this regard, here’s a reference that will buttress any suppositions you may have had. In the Star Trek universe, there exists a race of cybernetic beings rather uncreatively named the Borg. They seek not to advance politically or amass wealth, but to consume technology, as well as to, in the words of Capt. Jean-Luc Picard as the Borg alter-ego Locutus, assimilate other peoples into their collective so as to “raise” their “quality of life.” They hurtle through space in craft that resemble giant metal cubes. They are not aware of themselves as separate individuals, only as units within the collective. Perhaps most strikingly, the Borg do not like taking no for an answer. When not informing you of your imminent assimilation and subsequent loss of personhood, they are kindly explaining to you that “resistance is futile.”
While I, at the time, found the writing for Star Trek: The NextGeneration to be some of the best on television, I still feel a lot of it holds up today.I say this perhaps in spite of the allegorical nature of the Borg, which is so readily apparent the full-sized U.S.S. Enterprise would be harder to miss. The Borg, in their monomaniacal pursuit of technological advancement and “cultural” assimilation, are a warning about the perils of collectivism and the pervasiveness of technology, carried to the extreme. The latter count, for one, is duly noted; take a look at any group of people waiting on line, for example, and note how many of them immediately take to their smartphones. On the former count, too, blindly following leadership in its various forms or adhering to cultural or societal norms risks agreement simply to avoid conflict or independent thought, not to mention the ascension of individuals to power who rely on authoritarianism and the conditions which lend themselves to their success. You probably know where I’m going with this. The Borg have a Borg queen. In the United States’ current political climate, we have Donald Trump, incoming President and would-be emperor.
As noted, the Borg collective confronts each species—and effective assimilation target—it meets with the idea “resistance is futile,” and once more making the comparison to today’s American politics, many people not entirely thrilled about a Trump presidency have taken to familiar standbys like “it is what it is” (death to that phrase, if you ask me) and “what can you do?” buying fully into the concept of top-down leadership. As others might argue, however, resistance is not only not futile, but mandatory at a time like this. Such explains the movements of Robert Reich and others which makes resisting Donald Trump their raison d’être. Reich, who founded Inequality Media, a non-profit organization designed to help educate the American public about how income and wealth inequality in this country has manifested and grown over time and what can be done to reverse this trend going forward, recently authored a video piece outlining an agenda for members of the resistance to combat the types of regressive reforms Trump is expected to enact during the first 100 days of his presidency. The following is my summation of the 12 points to this agenda—I hope you weren’t planning on going anywhere for a while—with some additional commentary regarding potential difficulties in successfully meeting the goals therein:
1. Contact your senators and representatives.
I know, I know—we’re always told this, but seriously, though—get in the habit of reaching out to your elected officials. As far as I am concerned, I feel fortunate as a New Jerseyan to have two U.S. Senators in Cory Booker and Bob Menendez who I believe share a number of the same positions on the issues as I do, and feel similarly about Representative Bill Pascrell in exemplifying some of the best values the Democrats have to offer. Others might not be as lucky to be so well represented, but this doesn’t mean we should take the good ones for granted, nor does it mean we should necessarily forsake those legislators who don’t seem as keen to oppose Donald Trump’s and the Republicans’ conservative agenda. Tell them to oppose it, though, and to oppose Trump’s awful appointees. These candidates for top positions in his Cabinet should be vetted and confirmed, not rubber-stamped.
2. March and demonstrate.
You’ve probably already heard about the Women’s March on Washington which is slated to occur the day after the Inauguration (January 21). Reich calls for additional marches in the following months, though, to reinforce the solidarity felt among those afraid for their families, their health, their rights and their safety, as well as that of people who were demonized and bullied throughout the election cycle. Blacks, immigrants, Latinos, the LGBTQIA community, Muslims, Native American Indians, people with disabilities, survivors of sexual assault, women—the list goes on. Some may decry these as the actions of a bunch of sore losers, or too little too late, or that they play identity politics to make groups feel better about themselves without effecting real change, or that they will do nothing to bridge the divide experienced between those who brand themselves as everyday Americans and the supposed liberal elites. There might be a kernel of truth in any number of these charges, but this doesn’t mean you can’t go to one of these marches and demonstrations as a casual observer and see what you can learn. It may not be for the exact right reasons, but from where I’m sitting or standing, anything organized in opposition to Donald Trump as President is for a good cause.
3. Uphold sanctuary cities and states.
The applicability of this item may vary depending on your proximity to an international border, but the sentiment behind it may well hold true no matter where you hang your proverbial hat. In my home state, the mayors of Newark, Jersey City, Union City and other municipalities have affirmed their city’s commitment to not detaining undocumented immigrants per ICE’s request unless accompanied by a judge’s order. Republicans have made the horror stories particularly salient in recent years, but allowing people to be held for the mere purpose of possible deportation, especially those who have been in this country for some time and have contributed to their communities and economies, seems like a waste of municipal, county and state law enforcement when immigration is under the jurisdiction of the federal government, if not an example of overreach on the part of the U.S. government officials. Reich urges non-cooperation on the part of we the people, and without probable cause, this would appear to be a just cause.
4. Boycott Trump real estate, hotels and brands.
Done. Of course, this is easy for me, as I don’t make it a habit to support Donald Trump financially if I can. Also helping matters: as a discerning shopper, I try to avoid products and services that are effectively likened to hot garbage, which is apparently the level of quality of Trump’s new hotel in Washington, D.C. What Robert Reich proposes, meanwhile, is a bit more difficult: boycott those retailers that carry Trump products, even if you don’t plan to purchase those individual items. Especially when Ivanka Trump’s fashion line is considered, the list of stores and retailers to potentially stop frequenting contains some significant names, and it includes the likes of Amazon, Bloomingdale’s, Kmart, Lord & Taylor, Macy’s, Nordstrom, Overstock.com, Sears, TJ Maxx and Walmart. These are some big-deal companies, no doubt, so it would take some effort to avoid some or all of them (a yet more expansive list can be found at grabyourwallet.org). Still, it can be done, and what’s more, the official site for #GrabYourWallet offers a script/template you can follow when contacting these companies’ customer service departments and representatives. Sorry, Ivanka. I’ll pass on your various handbags.
5. Write letters & op-eds to the editor of your local newspaper.
Reich encourages you to pen these types of pieces to help communicate the dangers and fallacies of a Donald Trump presidency, including that agenda of his for the first 100 days, and to maintain a steady flow of these arguments. That’s right—keep ’em coming! Like Krabby Patties off of Spongebob’s grill! Yes, I’m an adult!
6. Contribute daily to social media with truthful, up-to-date facts and actions relevant to the movement to resisting Trump.
You know—keep reminding people of how shitty Donald Trump’s behavior and intended policies are.
7. Contribute to opposition groups.
Robert Reich offers a few suggestions, such as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Common Cause, the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Economic Policy Institute, and, of course, Inequality Media, but you’re free to donate to the organization of your choice which you believe stands for the kinds of values Trump, his cronies, and other conservative Republicans won’t defend. You know, like, maybe Planned Parenthood, which the GOP aims to de-fund at the federal level, because they apparently think they should be able to tell women what to do with their own bodies. These kinds of organizations.
8. Make #ResistTrump visible.
Arm bands, bumper stickers, lapel pins—if it’s got #ResistTrump on it so people can see, you’re good to go. I’m not exactly the most craftsy person myself, so I sympathize with you on this point, but as of yet, online merchandise for “the Resistance” seems fairly sparse, and not for nothing, ugly. So, for now, you might just have to bite the bullet and start a DIY project or make friends with someone who’s good at creating things like the aforementioned items. Maybe bake them some cupcakes to sweeten the deal (or, yes, buy those, too).
9. Get involved with and promote progressive politics at the local and state levels.
Reich has a few major suggestions regarding topics to address, such as environmental reform, progressive tax reform, higher minimum wages, stopping gerrymandering, and helping to put an end to mass incarceration, but again, pick a cause and run wild with it. Certainly, the ability of workers to form and promote unions is something worthy of defense, despite Republicans’ and corporations’ attempts to weaken the bargaining power of these trade associations. Wherever rights are being abrogated, resources are being misused, or justice is proving not-so-blind, there’s an issue to get behind and a reason to get involved.
10. Abolish the Electoral College.
That’s right—you abolish it, all by yourself! OK, so one person by his or her lonesome isn’t going to dismantle the Electoral College, but lending your support and voice to the movement to supplant our wacky present electoral system in favor of the popular vote can only help. I’ve written at length about my feelings about the Electoral College, and if the electors won’t stand in the way of a tyrant in the making like Donald Trump, we may as well just do away with the damn thing. The likes of South Dakota and Wyoming be damned!
11. Reach out to independents and Trump supporters.
I know—this may seem like the last thing you want to do right now on the eve of Trump’s inauguration, but hear me out. And hear them out, assuming you can stand it. Especially for those voters who went for Barack Obama in 2012 only to turn around and cast their ballot for Donald Trump in 2016, ask them what about Trump’s agenda they find so appealing. If Democrats are to make any headway in taking back the House and the Senate, as well as governorships and seats in local legislatures, they’re going to have to win back the support of independents, working-class Americans and others who have lost faith in the Democratic Party. The Dems may not have burned these bridges, but they need to act fast to repair them in time for the midterms in 2018 and the presidential election in 2020.
12. [YOUR IDEA GOES HERE]
No, seriously. Here’s where you can choose your own political adventure. Reich doesn’t offer much in this regard by design, but does suggest you meet with family and friends to discuss what you can do to put your own spin on the Resistance. I don’t know—maybe wear a silly hat when you do it? Hey, give me a break—I’m still working on my own #12!
Before the election, some prospective voters were wondering whether or not we should just vote for Donald Trump , blow up the political system as we know it, and rebuild our democracy in a more progressive way. I was not among this lot, and while I didn’t vote for Hillary Clinton, I didn’t choose Trump either, my reasoning being that I didn’t trust him with the fate of our country any more than I would trust a pack of hungry coyotes to watch over a small kitten. As you well know and are coming to grips with, the American people chose the orange-skinned one to lead our nation for the next four years. I believe they chose poorly. Regardless of whether or not Donald Trump’s election would theoretically be better for the country because it would hasten some sort of revolution, the reality is that Trump is set to lead our nation until 2020 or his impeachment—whichever comes first. Thus, out of necessity, a resistance must be formed, grown and maintained. Resistance, in this case, is not futile. It is essential. Resistance against hate. Resistance against tyranny and scaremongering. Resistance against bullying and ganging up on people online and offline. Resistance against the dissolution of fact and the erosion of ethics. Resistance against a political party and a system which puts the corporation and wealth above empathy and other hallmarks of humanity. Resistance against a world that allows a man to lie, cheat, deceive and steal his way to personal success. Resistance against that which we know is clearly wrong.
Some years ago, one of my friends, a mix of Cuban and Puerto Rican heritage, received the funniest birthday gift from some of my other non-Puerto Rican friends: Puerto Rico, the board game. Any inherent latent racism not withstanding, it turns out Puerto Rico is actually a pretty well-regarded strategic game. Created by two-time Spiel des Jahres winner Andreas Seyfarth, the 2002 German-style board game boasts a complexity the likes of which casual board game fans who find that the bubble-popping pleasures of Trouble puts them at their limit will immediately find themselves out of their element. There are five different types of Goods, which can either be sold to a Trader for Doubloons or shipped home with a Captain for Victory Points. Trader and Captain, meanwhile, are just two of several roles which Rotate among the players involved and afford the holding player one or more Actions associated with that role. But wait—there’s more! There are also cards/game pieces for Buildings, Cargo Ships, Colonists, and Island Tiles. Had enough fun yet?
What’s my point, beyond the apparent fact you need sufficient patience and time to play Puerto Rico? The merits of its design aside, it’s a game of which the premise is built on the practice of colonialism. You know, because what else could make a laborious strategic enterprise even more enjoyable but a little colonialism thrown into the mix? Puerto Rico, like any number of modern island nations and territories, was, centuries ago, populated by native peoples—in this case, the Taíno—who were minding their own business until white people showed up and ruined the party. Good old Christopher Columbus, the patron saint of European colonization and wayward navigation, stumbled upon the land during his travels, and after reporting his findings back to the Spanish crown, returned in 1493 with orders to help expand Spain’s empire—by any means necessary. In the coming decades, the island which came to be known as “Puerto Rico” saw a full-scale colonization effort on the part of Spain, and a massive dying-out of much of the indigenous population. It helps when you force individuals into working in encomiendas, ignore the Laws of Burgos which expressly forbade the mistreatment of indigenous peoples on the islands of Hispaniola, Jamaica and Puerto Rico, and have any number of infectious diseases at your disposal. Nothing like biological warfare to help subjugate people with darker skin than you.
Is your white guilt kicking in yet? No? Don’t worry—I’m not even close to being finished. Flash forward to today, and Puerto Rico is no longer a Spanish colony, but rather a commonwealth of the United States of America (thanks, Spanish-American War!). If you think this has spared Puerto Rico from exploitation, however, you’d be very wrong. Puerto Rico just defaulted on some $2 million of debt owed, necessitating the intervention of Congress with the passage of the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management and Economic Stability Act, or PROMESA (promesa is Spanish for “promise), which, among other things, outlines the creation of an Oversight Board to aid in managing the island’s handling of its obligations going forward and restructuring its debt. So, how did it get this bad for the place known primarily to mainland Americans as a source of delicious rums and talented baseball players? A few months ago, John Oliver chimed in on the Puerto Rican debt crisis with an extended segment on the current problems facing the commonwealth and the origins of its distress. Regarding what has contributed to the mess Puerto Rico is in, a number of individual decisions by the American and Puerto Rican governments are highlighted in greasing the wheels to economic/financial/fiscal ruin, including:
Sec. 936 tax breaks: To encourage companies to flock to Puerto Rico, the island and its prospective business suitors were afforded tax breaks under Section 936 of the U.S. Tax Code, effected in 1976. Generous tax breaks, at that, and loopholes by which the “foreign” subsidiaries corporations could avoid paying income tax if they distributed monies to the parent in the form of dividends. You can read more about the specifics from the Tax Foundation here, but suffice it to say, from a tax collection perspective, this was a disaster. Economically, however, for Puerto Rico, this was a valuable source of revenue, such that when the tax breaks began to be phased out twenty years after that with Sec. 936’s repeal, this set the stage for collapse when, predictably, those businesses which first came in waves left the same way. And so did a significant part of Puerto Rico’s economy.
Triple tax-exempt municipal bonds: Also not particularly helpful in the debt reduction vs. debt creation situation has been the sale of Puerto Rican bonds that were tax-exempt at the federal, state and local levels. As the same Tax Foundation piece explains, this was all well and good when Puerto Rico’s finances weren’t in complete shambles, but now that they are, this creates a situation whereby a shit-ton of debt is owed without the ability to pay it.
Rewriting the language of laws to pay certain creditors first: OK, so Puerto Rico incurred its fair share of debt, but it was still hopeful of paying it off, so it agreed to new language in its Constitution to satisfy bondholders first before other creditors and lenders. Fine, but when a commonwealth such as Puerto Rico owes all sorts of parties, including those that provide essential services such as access to hospitals and schools, this presents a major problem for the people who have to live there.
No Chapter 9 bankruptcy as a non-state/Bankruptcy Amendments and Federal Judgeship Act of 1984: One of the most galling aspects of Puerto Rico’s depression, as John Oliver illuminates, is that, unlike American municipalities such as Detroit, Puerto Rico can’t claim relief under Chapter 9 bankruptcy. What’s particularly frustrating about this inability of Puerto Rico’s is that its genesis is essentially steeped in mystery. The provision stripping Puerto Rico of the right to file for bankruptcy included as a change to the Bankruptcy Amendments and Federal Judgeship Act of 1984—nobody is quite sure how it got there. Oliver puts the onus on Strom Thurmond, who did, in fact, technically propose the amendment, but Politifact puts this in context, noting that this change was a holdover from an earlier piece of legislation, was bundled with a number of other modifications, and was, perhaps not all that well understood by Thurmond. Still, that this provision ever existed—as Sen. Clay Davis would put it, is “some shameful shit.”
Exempting wealthy investors/businesses from capital gains taxes: To paraphrase John Oliver, this incentive made for pretty good white people bait. Despite any inherent unfairness to the existing residents of the island, the adoption of Act 22 in 2012 made most forms of investment income tax-free. In theory, this was supposed to encourage companies and investors to create jobs and otherwise contribute to the Puerto Rican economy. As Oliver and Reuters correspondent Edward Krudy have spelled out, however, the results haven’t been all that encouraging. As many have reasoned, Puerto Rico has become one big tax haven with little personal benefit to show for it.
“Vulture” funds: Perhaps the most sinister of creditors looking for their Puerto Rican payday are hedge fund managers, who own significant amounts of the commonwealth’s tax-exempt bonds after buying them on the cheap, and seek a full return even in the face of government cuts to pensions and social services, not to mention widespread poverty on the island. This is why these hedge funds are so aptly referred to as “vulture funds.” Like vultures, the managers of these funds circle the financial skies, waiting for weak debtors like Puerto Rico to give up the ghost, or in this case, default on their obligations. As many would see it, this is greed at its finest (read: worst).
UBS sells risky bonds to itself since Investment Company Act of 1940 doesn’t apply: Think it might be a conflict of interest for an investment bank like UBS to sell bond funds containing bonds the bank itself underwrote? Yes, and illegal too, in the United States under the Investment Company Act of 1940, but not in the anything-goes investment climate of Puerto Rico. Scores of unsuspecting investors neither understanding the depth of Puerto Rico’s woes nor the idea that the investment vehicles they purchased were based on assets doomed to fail have been forced to sell back their investments for much less than they thought they would initially net, or to go to arbitration. David Evans of Bloomberg wrote a piece about UBS’s shady financial “services” practices surrounding Puerto Rican debit in September of last year, which explains this in greater detail just in case you’re not sufficiently pissed off already.
Thus, PROMESA, which provides temporary relief to Puerto Rico, a land of 3.5 million American million citizens, is a good thing, right? Depends on who you ask. In the immediate sense, this so-called “rescue” of an insolvent Puerto Rico may have been necessary as a means of preventing the sharks, vultures or any other metaphorical predatory animals from circling, but speaking once more in imagery, if PROMESA is a life preserver, the depth of the island’s troubles means it’s not out of the water yet. Far from it, in fact. The provisions of PROMESA don’t require a “bailout” in terms of taxpayer funding, but long-term, there are serious questions about what management and restructuring of Puerto Rico’s debt will entail. Almost certainly, new austerity measures will take effect, and the poorest and least financially capable residents of Puerto Rico will likely bear the brunt of any cuts. Moreover, the Oversight Board appointed by the Act will be comprised of people who were not chosen by Puerto Ricans and have no ties to Puerto Rico, and therefore will possess no substantial incentive to develop a truly fair debt management plan for its people.
PROMESA passed the Senate 68 to 30 on June 29 before being signed into law by President Obama, but not without vocal dissent from those who opposed the legislation in its final form. Sen. Bob Menéndez (D-NJ) was among its more fervent critics, citing numerous reasons as to why PROMESA is a flawed bit of policy:
It is a vote to authorize an unelected, unchecked and all-powerful control board to determine Puerto Rico’s destiny for a generation or more. It is a vote to authorize an unelected and all-powerful control board that could close schools, shutter hospitals, and cut senior citizens’ pensions to the bone. It is a vote to force Puerto Rico, without their say, to go $370 million further in debt to pay for this omnipotent control board which they don’t even want. It is a vote to cut the minimum wage down to $4.25 per hour for younger workers in Puerto Rico. It is a vote to make Puerto Ricans work long overtime hours without fair compensation or protection. It is a vote to jeopardize collective bargaining agreements. It is a vote to cut worker benefits and privatize inherent government functions. It is a vote to place well-heeled hedge funds and creditors ahead of the people. It is a vote to give the board the power to sell off and commercialize natural treasures that belong to the people of Puerto Rico. And at its worst, it is a vote to authorize an unelected, unchecked and all-powerful control board that determines Puerto Rico’s destiny for a generation or more.
Bernie Sanders was also highly critical of the Act. Echoing Sen. Menéndez’s sentiments, Sanders derided PROMESA as something which makes the United States its “colonial master,” depicting it as a drain on Puerto Rico’s rights and a punishment for its people. You can watch the video and read the full transcript here on Salon. Oh, and don’t forget to #FeelTheBern while you do.
Puerto Rico may be a board game, but the real-life Puerto Rico is not a game, especially for the three-and-a-half million men, women and children who live there. Even so, American hedge fund managers and lawmakers apparently want to play fast and loose with its finances like they were selling cash crops for Doubloons. In reality, Puerto Rico itself is being bought and sold by people who likely won’t be the ones most adversely affected by the actions of those pulling the strings economically and politically. As a commonwealth and not a full state, as well as an island unto itself, Puerto Rico may seem remote to many Americans, who may have their own problems, to be sure. Still, as Lin-Manuel Miranda, creator and soon-to-be former star of the musical Hamilton, reasons at the end of John Oliver’s segment on Puerto Rico, the commonwealth of the United States is only 100 miles away from the mainland. Besides, as stressed earlier, they are American citizens. They may not be able to vote directly for president, but they did participate in the presidential primaries. I mean, they overwhelmingly chose someone who supports PROMESA, what Juan González of the New York Daily News referred to in a recent column piece as a “poison pill,” but hey, that’s their choice to make!
So, yes, let’s treat Puerto Rico as a commonwealth and not a colony. They’re in enough trouble as it is—and no, I’m not talking about the board game Trouble, OK?