The 2020 Democratic National Convention: Feel the excitement?
Not quite. The four-day celebration of the best the Democratic Party has to offer and John Kasich has its schedule set—and if you’re like me, you’re less than impressed.
Day 1 features Bernie Sanders and Michelle Obama as their top-billed speakers. Other than that, though, the list doesn’t exactly overwhelm. Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Catherine Cortez Masto, fresh off not earning vice presidential nominations, are evidently set to inspire conventioneers with their newfound status. Ditto for Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. Sen. Doug Jones is there because…he has an election to try to win? Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who has seen his star rise despite his state’s dilatory early response to news of positive COVID-19 tests and allegations of corruption will…call Donald Trump names?
In all, the speakers here seem to evoke an air of temporary/contextual relevance because they were once considered candidates for president or vice president or for their handling of the coronavirus. Bernie’s and Michelle Obama’s legacies seem pretty secure, but the others? Aside from Reps. Jim Clyburn and Gwen Moore, their records and future party standing are questionable. Clyburn’s and Moore’s inclusion itself speaks to the Democratic Party’s preoccupation with identity politics but only to the extent it reinforces “old guard” politics.
Day 2 features Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and is headlined by Dr. Jill Biden. Lisa Blunt Rochester is…from Delaware (not to downplay her significance as both the first woman and first African-American to represent her state in Congress, but she’s definitely not a household name)? Sally Yates is presumably there because of her defiance to the Bad Orange Man?
After that, it’s a trio of white dudes who definitely represent establishment Democrats. Chuck Schumer and John Kerry, one might imagine, will be on hand to deliver plenty of bland generalities. And then there’s Bill Clinton. If his association with Jeffrey Epstein and the “Lolita Express” aren’t problematic enough, there’s a good chance he’ll say something cringe-worthy just the same.
Day 3 has, um, Billie Eilish for the young folks? Seriously, though, she’s slated to perform. Newly-minted vice presidential nominee Kamala Harris and Barack Obama are the top political stars of the evening. As a whole, this day belongs to the ladies—and that’s pretty cool. Unfortunately, two of those women are Nancy Pelosi and Hillary Clinton, of whom to say they are removed from the concerns of everyday Americans would be an understatement.
Other than that? Meh. Gabby Giffords will be bringing her party loyalty and her obvious standing to talk about gun control to the table. Elizabeth Warren, the picture of party unity that she is, also will be delivering remarks. Michelle Lujan Grisham has…grit? And I don’t know what business Gov. Tony Evers of Wisconsin has speaking at this convention. This man made a late bid to postpone his state’s primaries, was rebuffed by the Wisconsin Supreme Court, and didn’t intervene in the same way Republican governor Mike DeWine did in Ohio to push back elections due to concerns about coronavirus infections at polling places. Even if spikes following the Wisconsin primaries can’t be definitively linked to in-person voting, failing to act to reduce or eliminate this risk is to be decried, not celebrated with a speaking slot.
The final day of the convention belongs, of course, to Joseph Robinette Biden. Andrew Yang is speaking—or he isn’t—or maybe he is again? We’ve got not one, but two Tammies—Tammy Baldwin (surprisingly progressive for Biden) and Tammy Duckworth.
Aside from these speakers, I could take or leave the rest of the program. With no disrespect meant to The Chicks (formerly known as the Dixie Chicks), OK, were party supporters clamoring for you to be here? Chris Coons once more fulfills the obligatory Delawarean portion of the program and that’s about it. Sen. Cory Booker, Gov. Gavin Newsom of California, and Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms are present as not-too-old, not-too-young faces of the Democratic Party. Also, Pete Buttigieg is slated to gnaw on some cheese. Just saying—the guy looks like a rat.
This is what awaits viewers for the virtual Democratic National Convention, for the most part. As noted, John Kasich, who is still a member of the opposition party, should be speaking, though I didn’t see him listed on the official convention website schedule. All in all, with the Democratic Party speakers thus enumerated, there’s not a lot to excite prospective younger voters. A number of these political figures are either older, fairly obscure outside of political circles, or both, when not additionally owning problematic legacies (hello, Amy Klobuchar, Bill Clinton).
More critically, the attention to policy specifics, as it has been with Joe Biden the 2020 presidential candidate, will likely be sparing. In a political environment inextricably linked to the ongoing pandemic and impacted by the moment’s (overdue) push for economic, environmental, racial, and social justice, Americans hungry for substantive change want to know what the Democratic Party will do for them should the Democrats take the White House. The standard platitudes aren’t cutting it.
I refer to the “cold banality” of the Democratic National Convention in the title of this piece because, in addition to this event being a boring four-day celebration of Democrats not being Donald Trump, it largely freezes out progressives.
Bernie Sanders has been afforded a prominent role in the proceedings, though he has largely (and dubiously) tried to paint Joe Biden and his campaign as embracing a progressive platform. Tammy Baldwin and Elizabeth Warren will be also be delivering remarks, though on the latter count, it’s tough to know what exactly Warren’s commitment is to the progressive cause in the United States. She notably backed off her prior support for Medicare for All and took super PAC money during her own presidential campaign, trying to justify it by claiming everyone else was doing so and that she needed to follow suit. That doesn’t make you sound very principled, Ms. Warren.
And what about Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez? This is where it gets juicy, as they say. AOC’s entire involvement with the convention is reportedly limited to a one-minute prerecorded message. That’s it. Sixty seconds for one of the party’s rising stars and biggest fundraisers. If this sounds stupidly self-defeating, one has only to remember this is the Democrats we’re talking about here, masters of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.
This goes beyond mere strategic miscues, however. The DNC knows what it’s doing, and Ocasio-Cortez’s effective snub is another potshot at progressives seeking authentic leadership from the Democratic Party. Furthermore, with 2024 chatter already underway, the party establishment is probably desperate to blunt any momentum she might have for a presidential bid. They don’t want her pulling a Barack Obama and using her speech at the convention as a springboard to a viable candidacy. If that were to happen, they might—gasp!—actually have to commit to policies that help everyday Americans.
The old guard of the Democratic Party knows its days are numbered. Progressives haven’t won a ton of primary challenges, but little by little, they’re scoring impressive victories and elevating recognition of outspoken leftists to the national consciousness. Policies like Medicare for All and the Green New Deal are resonating with the general public. Heck, a significant percentage of Democratic voters say they have a positive view of socialism. Dreaded socialism. When people are finally beginning to sour on almighty capitalism, you know a real sea change is in our midst.
It is because of this percolating progressive energy within Democratic ranks that, while it’s still frustrating that the progressive movement isn’t further along by now, leftists in the U.S. and abroad can take heart knowing that there is strength in grassroots organizing and people-powered solutions to society’s ills. The Democratic National Convention, in all its pomp and circumstance, already felt somewhat irrelevant given the fragmentation of the global media landscape in the social media age. With a global pandemic and economic, political, and social unrest altering the political calculus in 2020 even more, it seems especially so now.
Speaking as a progressive, the fight for economic, political, and social justice is such that, despite any setbacks, there are always more battles to fight. In other words, there is always work to be done and voices to be amplified. But damn if it doesn’t get disheartening sometimes.
Of course, as the death count related to COVID-19 in the United States makes its inexorable climb toward 100,000-plus, the immediate health and safety of all Americans is of paramount importance. Still, taking a snapshot of progressive politics at this moment in time, it’s worth noting that, at the national level, progressive leadership and power doesn’t seem all that it’s cracked up to be or could be.
Let’s start with the Senate. Who are your progressive leaders and how do you feel about them lately? Bernie Sanders, who has missed at least one key vote in recent memory, is reportedly asking some delegates to sign agreements barring them from attacking other candidates or leaders, getting involved in social media confrontations, or doing interviews with reporters without approval. If true, it’s a disappointing development from a man who suspended his presidential bid with a whimper and gave up the fight with so much at stake and with so little conceded from Joe Biden’s camp.
Elizabeth Warren? After a disappointing campaign that ultimately saw her fail to catch on with progressives and party loyalists alike and only manage a third-place finish in her home state, her progressive credentials are in question now more than ever. Her attacks on Bernie, her reversal on super PAC funding, and her self-identification alongside Amy Klobuchar from primary season notwithstanding, her apparent abandonment of Medicare for All, a central tenet of the progressive movement in the U.S., invites charges of selling out for a chance to be Biden’s vice president—an unlikely eventuality to begin with given Joe’s ties to the banking industry.
Kamala Harris? Kirsten Gillibrand? Cory Booker? Like Sanders and Warren, they’re all carrying water for Biden despite a credible sexual assault allegation against him and other claims of unwanted touching or close physical proximity. Poor Ed Markey might not survive a primary challenge from Joe Kennedy III, the Pete Buttigieg of the Senate Democratic races—and no, that “Mayo Pete” comparison is not a compliment. Jeff Merkley. Mazie Hirono. Sherrod Brown. They’re not exactly household names outside of progressive circles and none are younger than 60.
In the House of Representatives, meanwhile, we thankfully have members who are making a name for themselves as progressives on the national stage—and younger ones at that. The problem here is that these reps are seemingly having their influence circumscribed at every possible turn (or at least the attempt is there) by Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other dyed-in-the-wool establishment Democrats.
Faced with an unprecedented economic and health crisis, Pelosi and Co. have largely capitulated to moneyed interests, offering little in the way of substantive relief to everyday Americans beyond the minimum standards Republicans have proposed. All the while, Pelosi, like her other moderate colleagues, has endorsed Biden’s presidential bid and has allowed herself to get dragged down in the mud with Donald Trump, making references to his weight and other performative gestures which neither do anything to help people in need nor do they help rally support for the party cause outside of loyalists (and also risk alienating people who don’t take kindly to body shaming regardless of the source).
To recap then, we have a promising group of younger progressives in the House amid Democratic Party control, but old-guard leadership is evidently determined to thwart them as part of a last-gasp effort to flex its might. In the Senate, Mitch McConnell is majority leader, Chuck Schumer is the party’s face, and even the members with the best voting records have made questionable alliances/decisions of late. In addition, as alluded to, the most progressive options of the 2020 presidential campaign saw their hopes dashed in dramatic fashion following Super Tuesday.
All of this on top of a coronavirus crisis that has seen tens of thousands of Americans die, millions of people file for unemployment and/or lose health insurance, and the world’s richest individuals get even richer as a direct result of the global pandemic has made the first half of 2020 so far a little frustrating, to put it mildly. What’s more, it doesn’t appear things will improve over the rest of the year or anytime soon for that matter.
Small businesses will continue struggling to survive in the absence of needed aid from the federal government. Another wave of COVID-19 infections is probable if not certain. And while Biden is enjoying a national polling lead in some cases of eight or more percentage points, that he’s not doing better given the depths of Trump’s inadequacies and that he continues to lag behind in the enthusiasm department is deeply troubling with November fast approaching. In short, 2020 has sucked royally—and for progressives in particular, there is every reason to worry the worst is yet to come.
Lest I relegate myself purely to the realms of doom and gloom, it’s not all bad for the progressive movement in the United States of America. If the popularity of figures like Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez is any indication, it’s that there is a real appetite for new leadership within a growing subset of the left-leaning electorate. As ignominious as the end to Bernie Sanders’s 2020 campaign was, too, exit poll after exit poll showed that despite primary voters’ preference for Joe Biden to take on Donald Trump, on issues like Medicare for All, they favored the progressive position over the standard alternative. So many voters are desperate for real change.
As the late great philosopher Tom Petty once said, however, the waiting is the hardest part. Whilst progressives helped organize a campaign for Bernie that was poised to go the distance—and there’s much to discuss in the postmortem period of analysis about why it didn’t but there’s not enough space in this article or perhaps one article in it of itself to do that—the Biden campaign struggled to raise finances, limped out of the gates in early contests, and didn’t even have a presence in a number of bygone primary states.
And yet he still romped in the South and managed numerous upset wins following his dominant showing in South Carolina. Whether Elizabeth Warren’s presence in the race long after it was clear her electoral chances were dead on arrival hurt Bernie is yet a subject of debate in leftist circles (among Sanders supporters, I feel like this may be overblown), but regardless, the two best candidates to ever be in striking distance of the overall polling lead came up well short of winning the nomination despite being better-funded and better-organized than the campaign that actually has Biden on a path to win the Democratic Party nomination and maybe even defeat Trump in November. That’s a tough pill to swallow, and increasingly so as real life proves candidates like Sanders, Warren, and even Andrew Yang on the topic of universal basic income right.
The news is better further down ballots, where there are real electoral successes to be found. AOC’s meteoric rise to prominence aside, though, primary challenges ending in progressive wins are fewer and farther between than eager leftists sifting through voting results would obviously like to see. The Democratic Party establishment has been more than hostile toward primary challenges from the left. (If you’re Ed Markey and facing a challenge from the right in the form of a corporate-funded candidate with the Kennedy name, that’s apparently fine.) Though this doesn’t mean that challengers’ efforts aren’t worthy if not necessary to compel Democratic incumbents to actually try to earn their votes, it’s nonetheless deflating when effort and good intent alone can’t overcome voter aversion to change and a party apparatus specifically constructed to quell dissent.
Inherently, these circumstances promote tension, for while progressives ideally would like to think about how to organize over the long term, the realities of the short term compel action even at the expense of immediate political capital. Regardless of the “color” of one’s district, someone should be running to represent policy goals like Medicare for All, the Green New Deal, a $15 minimum wage, cancellation of student debt, universal basic income, and other progressive priorities. No one wants to be running without a genuine chance at winning when the optics surrounding a landslide loss loom large. The need for involvement at the lower levels of government because of the magnitude of suffering for millions of Americans creates urgency, and progressive groups across key voting blocs are often fighting one another for relevance when cooperation should be the order of the day.
For me, what is especially challenging about all of this is how, despite progressives’ collective efforts since the 2016 election, we yet find ourselves in a precarious position. After Hillary Clinton’s defeat, Democrats haven’t learned their lesson, that much more determined to return to the days before President Trump no matter what in coalescing behind a candidate in Biden who generates even less enthusiasm than the woman who just lost.
Regarding COVID-19, America lags behind the rest of the world in curbing the spread of infection despite its wealth of resources, and at a time when we should be rethinking the role of capitalism in how our society functions (or doesn’t), some people seem only that much more willing to sacrifice others on capitalism’s altar so they can get a haircut or prevent a decline in stock prices. If there is a lesson to be learned herein, it’s sadly that 90,000 deaths is not enough to spur a movement of sufficient size toward fundamental change. A few months into widespread quarantines across the country, many of us are restless to the point of advocating for armed rebellion. What happens when the ravages of climate changes really start hitting home? If current developments are any indication, it, um, won’t go well.
In belaboring progressives’ struggles within the Democratic Party, I don’t mean to paper over the differences between the Dems and the death cult that is the Republican Party. For example, Joe Biden deserves your vote more than Donald Trump—full stop. I also don’t mean to insist that leaving the Democratic Party altogether is necessarily the correct tactic. The #DemExit movement is fraught with its own difficulties and potential shortcomings, though I also don’t blame progressives for wanting to move on after the litany of abuses they’ve suffered in such a short time, only wanting to do their part to make the Democratic Party better.
Though I think progressives might do well to place a greater emphasis on winning and grassroots organizing at the lower levels of government and though I have reservations about watching the Democratic Party burn to the ground, politics is ultimately a two-way street. Democratic leadership would do well not to take progressive votes for granted and offer at least some meaningful concessions to the left rather than mere table scraps. 2020 has been a disaster for progressive politics on the national stage thus far, but it doesn’t have to end that way—and the Democrats would be all the stronger by recognizing it.
Amid her 2018 take-down of President Donald Trump, members of his administration, media networks and their on-air personalities, and leaders of the Republican Party at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, comedienne Michelle Wolf took a brief moment to assail the Democratic Party. From the speech:
Republicans are easy to make fun of. You know, it’s like shooting fish in a Chris Christie. But I also want to make fun of Democrats. Democrats are harder to make fun of because you guys don’t do anything. People think you might flip the House and Senate this November, but you guys always find a way to mess it up. You’re somehow going to lose by 12 points to a guy named Jeff Pedophile Nazi Doctor.
Wolf’s armchair prognostication didn’t quite hit the mark. Riding a “blue wave” of sorts, Democrats did manage to take control of the House of Representatives, gaining a net total of 41 seats. Conversely, they further lost ground in the Senate, with Republicans adding two seats to their advantage. Nancy Pelosi soon became the Speaker of the House. Mitch McConnell, meanwhile, tightened his grip on the role of Senate Majority Leader.
It’s 2020 now. Once again, every seat in the House will be contested as well as 35 Senate seats, with both parties likely to retain a majority in their respective houses of Congress. (Then again, this year has been so wacky who knows what’s in store.) The one that looms largest, however, is undoubtedly the presidential election. In a virtual walkover, Pres. Trump won the Republican Party primary, meaning he will officially be vying for a second term.
On the Democratic side, meanwhile? The presumptive nominee is Joe Biden, who is on pace to secure enough delegates to win the nod outright but at this writing has yet to do so. Following Bernie Sanders’s suspension of his campaign and endorsement of Biden (barring rule changes at the state level, Sanders will continue to appear on primary ballots and accrue delegates in hopes of being able to influence the party platform), the former senator from Delaware and vice president has fully pivoted to a prospective November showdown with the incumbent.
The Biden-Trump match-up is one many would have predicted in advance of primary elections. For a while, it looked as if Bernie might run away with the nomination with Biden struggling to stay relevant. Then came a big win for Joe in South Carolina and a winnowing of the moderate portion of the field, followed by a Biden romp on Super Tuesday and decisive wins on successive “Super Tuesdays.” In the end, the early forecasts were right.
In advance of the general election, meanwhile, it’s anyone’s guess as to who would triumph in a theoretical face-off between these two men. Politico, for one, labels the race “too close to call.” The website 270toWin gives the edge to the Democratic Party nominee, but notes that critical states like Florida, Michigan, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania are effective coin flips. Regarding polling, various survey sources give Biden a lead of anywhere to two to 10 percentage points nationally, with none of the recent polls referenced by RealClearPolitics giving Trump an advantage.
Of course, polling doesn’t necessarily translate to votes, much in the way support on social media doesn’t necessarily translate to votes (thank you, Bernie detractors, we get it). This is beside the notion that the Electoral College decides matters, not the popular vote, as any Democratic Party supporter ruefully recounting the 2016 presidential election can tell you. The 2020 election will be decided on a state-by-state basis.
And while, as with national polling, Biden is ahead in numerous cases, re swing states, his are not overwhelming leads. Factor in margin of error and these numbers are somewhat worrisome. Not merely to invoke Hillary Clinton’s infamous line, but why isn’t Biden 50 points ahead or at least better off than current polling dictates? As many would reason, Trump is a terrible president and the depths of his depravity and incompetence have only become more apparent in his administration’s mishandling of the COVID-19 pandemic. What gives?
With all due respect to the “blue no matter who” crowd and even noting how difficult the threat of spreading coronavirus has made traditional campaigning, Joe Biden is a terrible candidate, especially noting the pitfalls which led to 2016’s debacle. What’s more, at a time of great need for so many Americans, he hasn’t been nearly as visible as he could or perhaps should be.
Let’s start with the whole missing-in-action business. Sure, there have been various public appearances by Joe via cable news outlets and online town halls, but these have been fairly sporadic. Additionally, when they have occurred, they’ve been marked by Biden’s trademark gaffes, mental lapses, technical issues, or have otherwise been led by to a considerable extent by Dr. Jill Biden, his wife.
If anything, Biden and his team seem content to try to hide him rather than make him more accessible, concerned that he will do or say something to hurt his chances in the fall. His absences, sometimes spanning days, have prompted the creation and promulgation of the #WhereIsJoe and #WhereIsJoeBiden hashtags on Twitter, and speaking of Twitter, we can be reasonably sure Joe himself is not the one publishing those tweets. Facing the rabid army of supporters that is Trump’s following, this is not a strength.
As for why Biden is a bad candidate, ahem, how much time do you have? Though, in Biden’s defense, that he’s merely “another old white guy” gets perhaps unfairly dwelt upon in an era of seemingly increasing sensitivity to identity politics, his policy goals aren’t doing him many favors in countering the narrative that he’s out of touch. To this effect, most of us seem to be unaware what his actual policy goals are, an idea reinforced by his and his campaign’s insistence on his decency and leadership rather than specifics. Granted, not everyone is a policy wonk or needs to know the nittiest and grittiest of the details of a candidate’s stances on issues, but for younger and more idealistic voters, in particular, their omission is troubling.
Given a dearth of elaboration on what Biden would hope to accomplish as president, we have only his record and his ties to certain industry groups as a large part of his donor base to rely on. That’s not a good sign either. As a senator, Biden took numerous positions/cast votes that haven’t aged well. Voting in favor of the Iraq War. Leading the charge on a 1994 crime bill that helped accelerate mass incarceration. Favoring cuts to social safety net programs like Social Security in an effort to reduce deficit spending. Siding with credit card companies and predatory lenders on 2005 bankruptcy law reform.
Biden’s participation on these fronts suggests fealty to donors and lobbyists or at least acting in the name of political expediency rather than genuine concern for his constituents. What’s worse, in his run-up to the nomination, Biden has either defended a number of these positions or has sought to obfuscate his role in the passage of key legislation. True, he has apologized for certain elements of his record and has backtracked on specific stances that would put him at odds with the rest of the Democratic field, such as his support for the Hyde Amendment, which limits the ability of federal programs like Medicaid in paying for abortions. One gets the sense, however, that his admissions and his reversals are begrudging ones, forced by a recognition of the damage his electoral prospects might incur by refusing to accommodate voter reservations.
On top of what we know about Joe’s votes and past public statements, there’s also the matter of proven falsehoods he has stated as well as questions about his conduct. Biden is a serial liar who had a previous presidential bid derailed by accusations of plagiarism. Just this election cycle, he and his campaign repeated a fabricated tale of his arrest in South Africa en route to see Nelson Mandela and have trumpeted an inflated image of his involvement in the civil rights movement, one Biden himself has promoted over the past three decades and change despite a lack of corroborating evidence. For all the insistence of Biden as a “good guy,” he sure has a problematic relationship with the truth that speaks to his identity as a career politician.
And then there’s the Tara Reade scandal, an ongoing and apparently worsening development for Biden. Initially slow to be recognized if not outright ignored by major media outlets, Reade’s claims of sexual harassment and eventual assault have gained traction even from publications and other sources who tend to be sympathetic to Biden and the Democratic Party. Biden, for his part, vehemently denies the allegations. But his penchant for spinning a yarn as well as his exhibited proclivity for, well, touching girls and women in a manner definitely considered inappropriate by today’s standards casts at least the shadow of a doubt on his dismissal of Reade’s account. It’s circumstantial, yes, but in an era where optics matter more than ever, the associations voters might make are potentially damaging.
Other politicians have been asked to resign or have bowed out of races for less. Here we are, though, in 2020 and with the #MeToo movement firmly established, and Joe Biden is the presumptive nominee. All this despite the allegations against him, his checkered voting record, his fabrications, his obvious cognitive decline, and his sagging enthusiasm among younger voters. This is the face of the Democratic Party and the person who is supposed to usher in a new era of bipartisan cooperation and be a bridge to a new era of Democratic leadership. This is the man who party leaders have hitched their proverbial wagon to and who party supporters are backing substantially in the primary.
The question of “What should we do?” in both the short term and long term is one being bandied about at a fever pitch by progressives since Bernie Sanders’s suspension of his presidential campaign. How did we lose and so decisively? Who will run in 2024? Should we vote for Joe Biden? Should we endorse Joe Biden? Are we not focused enough on winning races at the local and county level? Is there too little organizing among similar-minded groups and too much infighting? Where have all the cowboys gone?
OK, that last one was a joke. (Anyone here remember Paula Cole?) In all earnest, though, there’s a lot of uncertainty on the left right now and a big part of it involves whether progressives can co-exist with the rest of the Democratic Party or whether an existing or new party needs to be built up to challenge the duopoly the two major parties currently have on the American political landscape.
Concerning the former, if Bernie’s late struggles in the primary and the tone of the party establishment following his dropping out are any indication, progressives have a long way to go. Sure, a few younger progressives have begun to make a name for themselves. Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez. Ayanna Pressley. Ilhan Omar. Katie Porter. Pramila Jayapal. Rashida Tlaib. Ro Khanna. Despite the popularity of these figures, however, Democratic Party leadership still appears dead set on keeping them at somewhat of a distance.
Also, for every upset win like that of AOC’s, there are that many more blowouts in favor of the more moderate incumbent. By and large, Democratic voters are reasonably satisfied with their elected representatives. Either that or they are too afraid to take a chance on an alternative, too uninformed to make a decision on an unfamiliar candidate (primary voters tend not to be low-information voters but just raising the possibility), or simply convinced that no matter who they choose it won’t make a major difference in their day-to-day lives. The battle to reform the Democratic Party is one being fought tooth and nail by establishment forces and hasn’t yet caught on with a large enough subset of voters.
As for the state of the presidential race, if Biden’s camp and the DNC have made any meaningful concessions to progressives in hopes of winning their votes, er, most of us haven’t seen them yet. Lowering the age for Medicare enrollment to 60, for example, is a slap in the face to Bernie supporters, many of whom are younger and therefore nowhere close to qualifying. In fact, Biden’s refusal to even entertain a single-payer insurance system is, to many leftists, absurd given record numbers of people losing their jobs due to the spread of coronavirus and, with that, access to affordable healthcare.
Rumors of Cabinet appointments for people with ties to Wall Street and/or bailouts for “too big to fail” institutions. Virtual fundraisers starting at $2,800 to participate. Biden himself has been recorded saying that he “has no empathy” for younger generations and telling donors that “nothing will fundamentally change” if he’s elected president. On top of this, Nancy Pelosi, Chuck Schumer, and other high-ranking Democrats have offered milquetoast remedies to the economic hardships facing the electorate, allowing Donald Trump, in all his bombast and cluelessness, to hijack the domestic COVID-19 conversation. I don’t doubt the Democratic Party is willing to win in November, but it seems unwilling to do so at the expense of its contributions from certain industries and lobbying groups.
Indeed, the playbook from Biden and Co. for 2020 is evidently to try to court white suburban voters and persuade Republicans to go against Trump while it all but ignores the insights from the energetic progressive wing of the Democratic Party. In doing so, they’re pitching a return to “normalcy,” trying to win without younger voters and independents, or otherwise trying to hector undecided voters into submission, throwing everything from kids in cages to the potential death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg as reasons to vote for Biden and not against Trump. That didn’t work in 2016 and, for a segment of the electorate convinced the progressive option was screwed not once but twice, that’s arguably not going to cut it.
And yet, Joe Biden may still win! The closeness of the race as evidenced by polling lends itself to the notion Democrats are wedded to Joe for better or for worse. Take him or leave him. But if you’re a progressive being told that Medicare for All and the Green New Deal are a discussion for “later,” that it’s OK that Biden may have committed sexual assault because “look at Trump,” and that top party brass would rather have someone who struggles to complete sentences versus a much sharper candidate in Bernie Sanders, one who isn’t beleaguered by scandal and who has an army of fanatics waiting to help turn out the vote for him, how are you supposed to feel welcome? Where is the moral compass of this party?
Bypassing the Democratic Party completely, meanwhile, has its own complications, namely that it takes a lot of time, effort, and resources to establish a party. Granted, there are existing third-party options like the Green Party and Libertarian Party available, but so far, they have faced many of the same challenges progressives as a whole have faced in terms of funding, organization, and electoral logistics. Widespread voting reform including ranked-choice voting may help overcome this reality or at least mitigate the argument that “X cost us the election.” In the meantime, trying to draft progressives as Greens or Libertarians is a hard sell.
That brings us back to the notion of transforming the Democratic Party from within. As with fashioning a new political entity, it’s going to take time, money, hard work, and a vision forward. Simply put, it’s no small task, and with a party infrastructure in place that is specifically designed to check progressive momentum and stifle dissent, it begs wondering whether the Democratic Party, well, can be saved from itself or whether, even with the very real possibility of a second term of President Trump existing, the party has to fail and be dismantled for substantive progress to be made.
If letting the Democratic Party burn to the ground sounds crazy, as a reminder, in the midst of a pandemic, its presumptive presidential nominee, who has promised to veto M4A if it somehow clears Congress, has trouble navigating his way through an online forum and its congressional leaders have made more concessions to moneyed interests than average people. For a party that is ostensibly a working-class organization, it’s not living up to its mission.
In highlighting the different ways of addressing a broken political system, I don’t mean to dismiss reform efforts as worthless, but only to underscore the difficulties therein. Already, many of us on the left have seen the fight for recognition as the fight of our lives. The global pandemic has only intensified those sentiments.
I, for one, remain optimistic that changing the Democratic Party from the ground up is possible. At the same time and on the road to a more democratic Democratic Party, I feel it’s fair to wonder how many indignities progressives are meant to endure and whether establishment Democrats will ever learn their lesson from their electoral failures.
Donald Trump is a moron and a lousy president. Some of you may disagree, but this is not exactly a “hot take.” Trump and his oafish buffoonery have been decried and lampooned long before he became the 45th President of the United States.
Since beginning his campaign in 2015, Trump’s flouting of convention, ethics laws, and other principles—legal or otherwise—have been a source of great consternation and embarrassment to scores of Americans. He’s petty and vindictive. He spews incendiary misogynistic, racist, xenophobic, and otherwise discriminatory vitriol regularly to his Twitter followers. He’s clearly not a student of history, or for that matter, spelling. He enriches himself and his family at taxpayer cost. He emboldens other bigots like him. He consistently breaks promises. He’s a liar, a fraud, and a suspected sexual predator. His administration has manufactured humanitarian crises in Puerto Rico and at the border with Mexico. I could go on.
Of course, Trump is not the be-all-and-end-all when it comes to rich white racist assholes. For him to succeed both in politics and in life in spite of his incompetence, the man has needed help.
In terms of his career in business, he has received a lot of assistance on the financial and legal front. A lot of it. Donald Trump grew up rich, and when he faltered, there was daddy Fred Trump on hand to bail him out (recall his infamous “million-dollar loan” comment, which, in its tone-deafness, was yet a massive understatement). Or there were his bankruptcy filings (business not personal) centered around his casinos, which he has touted as a symbol of his shrewdness as an executive, but this argument makes little to no sense in light of his numerous failed business ventures over the years. More recently, Trump’s relationship with Deutsche Bank and his ability to keep securing money from the institution despite his defaulting on his loans has come under scrutiny. In all, it’s easy to avoid disaster when you have such a safety net at your disposal.
As for his career in politics, despite the apparent mismanagement of his campaign, Trump still managed to emerge triumphant from the 2016 presidential race. Once more, a lot of things had to go his way—and these factors were not simply a byproduct of good luck (unless we’re counting the fortune of being born into wealth).
Trump’s Republican primary challengers were a hopeless lot. The Clinton campaign and the DNC didn’t do themselves any favors. The media, seeking clicks and viewership, loaded up on coverage of his day-to-day doings. WikiLeaks. Russian meddling. James Comey. The very existence of the Electoral College. Without any one of these elements helping pave the way for Trump’s ascendancy, his bid for the White House might have ended as the joke many of us thought it was when he began. Instead, he won, riding the perfect shitstorm to victory. And we’d be remiss if we didn’t highlight the fact millions of Americans voted for him.
Donald Trump’s functionality as the CEO of the Trump Organization is, for the time being, null (this neither abrogates Trump’s myriad conflicts of interest nor Congress’s responsibility to investigate them, but we’re speaking of explicitly-stated positions). The 2016 election is over and we’re closer to the end of his first term than its beginning.
As the saying goes, however, what’s past is prologue. In his administration’s elaboration of a destructive agenda, President Trump has had a big assist from Republican lawmakers, including those individuals who were frequent objectors but have since turned into apologists or have remained critics only in the most tepid sense of the word. What’s more, with the House under Democratic control (whether or not Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s leadership is above reproach is another matter, but I digress), one figure’s enabling of the president looms large as calls for impeachment grow more numerous seemingly by the day: Mitch McConnell.
If you’re not familiar with Addison Mitchell McConnell, Jr., you probably don’t follow U.S. politics in the slightest or have been living under a rock for the last five years or so. McConnell has been Senate Majority Leader since 2015 and has served as a U.S. senator from the state of Kentucky since 1985. If you think spending over 30 years in the Senate means McConnell is particularly well liked among his constituents, think again. As of the first quarter of 2019, McConnell owns the distinction of being the only senator currently in office with a disapproval rating of 50% or worse. His 36% approval rating puts him in the bottom 10% of the Senate. The remaining 14% “don’t know” presumably because they somehow have never heard of him, so they might disapprove of him without really knowing it.
McConnell’s position as Senate Majority Leader has taken on a new significance since Trump was sworn in, but even before that, he drew the ire of his constituents and non-constituents alike when he refused to even allow a hearing on President Barack Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court following Antonin Scalia’s death.
Obama and McConnell were essentially playing a game with Garland’s nomination. The Senate Majority Leader had a chance to confirm Obama’s nominee, someone GOP leaders haughtily predicted he would never choose, and Obama would effectively call McConnell’s bluff. McConnnell’s other option would be to stonewall the nomination, look like an asshole, and risk losing in 2016 and have the new Democratic president nominate someone worse. Either possibility was a losing cause, forcing him to swallow his pride or look like an asshole and piss a whole lot of people off. He did the latter, of course, actually being an asshole.
Ultimately, the gamble paid off with Trump’s upset victory. Do I think McConnell deserves credit for this, though? No. Not for refusing to do his job (if this were you or I, we would get suspended or fired) and for being a partisan obstructionist. This kind of behavior is exactly why people don’t like Congress.
But yes, since Trump took the Oath of Office, McConnell’s tenure as Senate Majority Leader has become that much more meaningful—and not in a particularly good way either. Senator Tina Smith of Minnesota, who was appointed to the role following Al Franken’s resignation and who won a special election to earn her position full time, recently penned an op-ed for CNN outlining why McConnell’s leadership of the Senate has been a “big, fat waste.”
Before we begin, let’s acknowledge the proverbial gorilla in the room: Smith is a Democrat and McConnell is a Republican. By this token, she would seem predisposed to view Sen. McConnell and other GOP members, especially in the current political climate, negatively. That said, an honest assessment of McConnell’s steering of the Senate would most likely agree with Smith’s criticisms herein.
So let’s get to those criticisms. As Smith tells it, “McConnell has transformed the Senate into little more than the Trump administration’s personnel office, the place where good ideas go to die.” She points out that as of July 3, less than 20% of votes taken up by the Senate have involved legislation. The rest have involved pushing Trump-appointed federal judge nominees through Congress. And we do mean pushing them through. Since rules changes made effective in April, the time to debate these nominees has been reduced from 30 hours to two.
On top of this, these nominees tend to espouse nakedly conservative views and/or are borderline unqualified. Smith points to a week that was “pretty typical” by present standards in which 11 nominees were voted on, seven of them for lifetime appointments. One hadn’t ever tried a case in court. Another doesn’t believe divorce laws should apply to members of the LGBTQ community. Others don’t believe in providing women with access to contraceptives or can’t say definitively that Brown v. Board of Education was correctly decided. Yup, you read that last one right.
It’s not just nominees to the judiciary either. McConnell and his fellow Republicans have made it a habit of rubber-stamping executive appointments. You may not be surprised to find out many of these nominees are similarly—and dangerously—unqualified. One was Gordon Hartogensis, nominated and later confirmed as Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation head. Hartogensis is married to Grace Chao. Grace Chao is the younger sister of Elaine Chao, Secretary of Transportation. Elaine Chao is married to—you guessed it—Mitch McConnell. On a related note, amid accusations that Chao used her position as Transportation Secretary to steer benefits to McConnell’s home state of Kentucky, the Senate has done nothing to initiate investigation into this potential conflict of interest. Nice how that works.
In all, rather than advancing meaningful legislation that has bipartisan appeal, the Senate has become a haven for obstructionism. Smith closes her piece with these thoughts:
Every day, I talk to Democratic and Republican colleagues with lots of ideas about the work we should be doing. Passing the Violence Against Women Act, protecting our elections from cyberattacks from hostile nations, stabilizing our health care system, expanding rural broadband — these are all issues where most Democrats and Republicans share an interest in getting something done. But in this environment, the already-hard work of legislating has become nearly impossible, thanks to the majority leader’s steadfast commitment to packing the courts to the exclusion of almost everything else.
I had always heard that Mitch McConnell was a master legislator and a true loyalist to this institution. But in the 18 months I’ve been in the Senate, what I’ve seen is an astonishingly limited vision for what the Senate can and should accomplish. What a waste.
It’d be one thing if McConnell would try to make it seem like he and the Republican-controlled Senate were actually trying to get things done legislatively and blame Democrats for the inability to accomplish them. It would be outrageous and disingenuous deflecting, but at least there would be some pretense involved.
Instead, Sen. McConnell revels in being the kind of legislator everyone (at least on the left) loves to hate: the kind who does nothing useful and does so with a shit-eating grin on his face. When asked about Senate Republicans’ priorities this year, he proudly proclaimed they would be in the “personnel business.” In other words, stacking the judiciary with Federalist Society-approved candidates hell-bent on making the U.S. legal system in the image of the Constitution’s original interpretation and a conservative/libertarian one, at that.
McConnell has also welcomed comparisons between himself and the Grim Reaper, the personification of Death itself. As McConnell frames it, he is pleased to be associated with such bleak imagery in the service of defeating the “socialist agenda [Democrats] have been ginning up in the House.” As writer and comedian Dean Obeidallah, for one, would argue, opposing “socialism” has nothing to do with protecting women from violence and unwanted pregnancies or preventing foreign hacking of our elections. Failure on these fronts, rather, further demonstrates the extent to which McConnell has become the prototypical partisan hack.
Again, Sen. Smith has a politically-motivated ax to grind. Republicans have their prejudices against Nancy Pelosi. (For that matter, an increasing number of Democrats appear to be frustrated by her leadership.) That McConnell seems to relish his unpopularity and openly supports our ding-dong of a president (after initially opposing him in favor of Rand Paul, no less) speaks volumes. Mitch McConnell is the worst, knows he’s the worst, and doesn’t care. How do you root for someone like him?
As you may have heard by now, Mitch McConnell has a Democratic challenger in Amy McGrath, a retired U.S. Marine Corps Lieutenant Colonel. When news broke that she was making her candidacy official, the outpouring of excitement was immediate and palpable. Someone is giving Kentuckians an alternative to the hated McConnell in 2020! Democrats might oust the Grim Reaper and flip a Senate seat in one fell swoop! Don’t let my words alone tell the story, though. Let the $2.5 million in donations McGrath’s campaign raked in on the first dayexemplify the fervor shared by McConnell’s detractors around the country.
Regrettably, McGrath has already demonstrated that while she’s running against McConnell, it’s not immediately clear what she’s running for policy-wise. When prompted about the vote to confirm Brett Kavanaugh as a Supreme Court Justice, McGrath initially indicated she “probably” would’ve voted in favor of Kavanaugh in spite of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony, which she (McGrath) termed as “credible.” Within the span of a day, however, she reversed course, evidently impacted by the wave of negative responses her comments received. Regardless of what McGrath truly believes, her “flip-flop” on such a highly-charged issue puts her conviction in doubt.
Likewise puzzling is her remark that Mitch McConnell is the one standing in the way of President Trump elaborating the agenda he promised voters while on the campaign trail. This reasoning is, at best, naïve and, at worst, a lie. Trump isn’t living up to his word because he’s a liar and a fraud. McGrath’s strategy seems to take a page right out of the establishment moderate Democrat playbook: don’t do or say anything that might potentially alienate Trump voters and independents. It should be no surprise then that McGrath’s announcement comes after months of recruitment by Chuck Schumer. Going against the Grim Reaper with guns blazing, this is not.
Much in the way Doug Jones was a better choice for Alabama than Roy Moore because he is, well, not Roy Moore, Amy McGrath is a quantifiably superior option over Mitch McConnell, the unapologetic entrenched politician who single-handedly is doing his part to undermine an already-low public confidence in the legislative branch.
Even noting McConnell’s unpopularity, however, she is facing an uphill battle. Kentucky is a red state and has only gone for a Democrat twice in the presidential election in the past 40 years. Also, McConnell is still in office because he keeps getting re-elected. In 2014, he beat his Democratic challenger, lawyer Alison Lundergan Grimes, by more than 15 percentage points. Anything but an authentic challenge on the part of McGrath or another Democratic candidate could not only make it an easy victory for McConnell at the polls, but could undermine public perception of the Democratic Party as a whole in the process.
America deserves better than President Donald Trump and Kentucky deserves better than Mitch McConnell. Whether voters truly comprehend this much, meanwhile, is another story. If the Democrats are going to find success in 2020, they’ll need to come with it. After all, it’s not many people who have stared Death in the eye and won.
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.
Earlier this year, in response to comments professional basketball player LeBron James made with respect to President Donald Trump—notably that Trump “doesn’t understand the people” and that some of his comments are “laughable and scary”—FOX News personality Laura Ingraham took to her show The Ingraham Angle to denounce the 14-time All-Star, calling his remarks “barely intelligible” and “ungrammatical.” Furthermore, she opined that it’s “unwise to seek political advice from someone who gets paid $100 million to bounce a ball,” and suggested that James “shut up and dribble.” Meow.
Before I delve deeper into why I categorically disagree with Ms. Ingraham, let me first address the tenor of her commentary. Ingraham holds a view shared by other Americans that star athletes like LeBron James are overpaid (hence the “$100 million” jab) to play a sport that children play (hence the “bounce a ball” dig). Ingraham being Ingraham, though, she takes her level of deprecation up a level by insinuating that James is uneducated and unintelligent. He’s a dumb basketball player! He doesn’t speak too good! Bear in mind there likely is a racial subtext here, too, but one can only guess at exactly what the FOX News host was thinking as she delivered her thoughts, so I’ll leave that for you to ponder.
Laura Ingraham’s condescension aside, in addition to thinking that professional athletes earn too much money for playing a game relative to the rank-and-file workers of the U.S.A.—they might not be entirely wrong in thinking this way, mind you—she and others of a similar mindset might wish that entertainers, whether highly-paid basketball players or famous movie stars or what-have-you, would leave their politics to their private conversations. We came for the dunks and the Oscar-worthy performances, not the politics. Stay in your lane.
Taking a step back for a moment, let’s talk some more about LeBron James, and in doing so, not simply dismiss the idea that he, indeed one of the highest-salaried players in the NBA, is one of its best, if not one of its all-time greats. He’s a four-time league MVP, three-time NBA Finals MVP and champion, 12-time All-NBA 1st Team award recipient, five-time All-Defensive 1st Team honoree, and three-time All-Star MVP, not to mention Rookie of the Year winner in 2004. If all he does is bounce a ball, then he bounces it exceedingly well. Thus, while you may not agree with how players are compensated in general, next to other exceptional talents in the league, he is appropriately remunerated for his on-court contributions, and should be given his due among the NBA’s elite. I mean, they don’t call him “King James” for nothing.
As for taking shots at James seeming or sounding uneducated, even people who don’t watch the NBA are likely familiar with his backstory. Straight after a standout high school career at St. Vincent-St. Mary High School in Akron, Ohio, LeBron was drafted as the first overall pick by the Cleveland Cavaliers. In other words, he never went to college. As far as James and those around him were concerned, though, for someone who was a lock as a eventual NBA superstar, there was no need for him to seek a degree or try to prove himself against the top talent in the NCAA. This is not to say that he couldn’t have completed a four-year program, just that he didn’t. Besides, one doesn’t necessarily have to have a Juris Doctorate from the University of Virginia like Ms. Ingraham to be able to speak with any semblance of intelligence. For that matter, we might also be spared the haughty attitude.
With that aside made, let’s get back to the notion that the realm of politics and the realm of entertainment/sports should be kept separate. For those people who look at these media as escapes of sorts from the news media, especially stories of a political nature, this is a desire for which many of us can be sympathetic, at least in theory. Keeping up with the events of today is, in a word, exhausting. I’m sure there are some of us now whose blood boils at the mere mention of the name “Trump.” Even when we’re not having #NotMyPresident moments, there’s enough that goes on which is liable to depress us. Murder, rape, assault, theft, corruption, natural disasters, drug epidemics, mass shootings, salmonella outbreaks, glaciers melting, the last known male northern white rhino dying. So much of what we are made to absorb seems so abjectly negative, it feels only right we should have some sort of distraction or diversion.
In this regard, the controversy brought about by Colin Kaepernick kneeling in protest during the playing of the National Anthem might be a shock to the system as much as anything. Along these lines, NFL fans were probably angry on some level that they had to consider politics and social issues at all. Give me my three hours of men crashing into one another, cheerleaders shaking their pom-poms, and tons of commercials! I don’t want to have think about why people are unhappy with America!
Then again, maybe politics and social issues do have much to do with the nature of the controversy—too much, at that. Kaepernick intended his protest as a way to bring attention to the injustices faced by people of color at the hands of the criminal justice system and law enforcement in the United States, but without being disrespectful to veterans and members of the Armed Forces (after meeting and talking with Nate Boyer, former NFL long snapper and U.S. Army Green Beret, Kaepernick opted to kneel rather than sit).
After Donald Trump, a majority of NFL team owners, and other self-appointed arbiters of patriotism got a hold of it, however, it became a referendum on one’s appreciation for the military and the country. You don’t like it? Move to Canada! In Kaepernick’s case, the quarterback who at least could serve as a backup to one of 32 teams was all but officially blacklisted from the league. As far as Trump et al. were concerned re the “son of a bitch” Kaepernick, good riddance. And not another word about the treatments of blacks and other people of color in this proud nation.
This is where the desire to keep politics out of entertainment and sports gets tricky. If it’s part of a plea for a respite from the demands of the outside world, that would seem to have merit, or if nothing else, engender pity. If it’s based on a desire to kick dissenters out of the league for acting in accordance with First Amendment rights and to indefinitely prolong a meaningful conversation about race in this country, that’s a horse of a different color.
The latter condition accompanies an ongoing debate among self-styled culture warriors about whether there is a “time and place” for a discussion on important social issues, and whether “civility” should be observed. With respect to the ongoing dumpster fire that is the Trump administration’s handling of separating/reuniting immigrant families, some individuals decried Sarah Sanders’s being told to leave The Red Hen restaurant because of her politics, while others reveled in it. On the left, some, such as Maxine Waters, insisted Trump administration officials should expected to be “harassed” in public as long as the White House’s disastrous immigrant policy is in place, while others, like Chuck Schumer, put forth that this treatment was “un-American,” and even Bernie Sanders professed that Sanders and others should be able to sit down and have a meal.
While I, too, believe that individuals like Stephen Miller and Kirstjen Nielsen—reprehensible as their conduct has been in their official capacities—deserve not to be shouted at or threatened with bodily harm, all calls for civility are not created equal. First of all, what “civility” entails may be open to interpretation. Is asking Sarah Sanders to leave a restaurant uncivil? That might depend on who you ask.
Secondly, and more importantly, calls for civility are only as good as the ability to interact with the other party on an equal footing and with an openness to act in a corrective way. Indeed, there must be a time and place for such a dialog, alongside a legitimate promise to debate the issues at hand (unlike, say, a Mitch McConnell promise to his Democratic colleagues to hold a vote, which is almost certain to be broken).
Too frequently, meanwhile, protests that there is a time and place for serious deliberation signify that the desired time is “never,” the desired place is “nowhere,” and furthermore, that there is no guarantee the two sides will even talk about the same thing or agree to interact on level-headed, rational terms in the future. Besides, how do you debate, for instance, that tearing children away from their mothers is immoral? If it’s not already apparent that it is, this already signifies a bit of a problem.
Returning to the earlier war of words between Laura Ingraham and LeBron James, there are two concepts I submit we should consider. The first is whether or not Ingraham’s opinions carry more weight than James’s because she is specifically paid to express her opinions, whereas he is paid only to “bounce a ball.” While it might be Ingraham’s job to wax philosophical and political, and while she may be better-versed on specific topics, her opinions are no more valid than James’s, especially if buttressed by misstatements of fact and other misleading information. Sure, Ingraham’s education and experience may make her seem more credible, but just like you or I, she is subject to bias, not to mention a tendency toward elitism. Just because we might agree with her views doesn’t mean that bias isn’t there.
The second topic to consider is whether or not the want of refusal to “talk politics” should be considered an abdication of civil responsibility. Much as we might be loath to confront it, politics is infused into every facet of our daily life. Going back to the NFL, we might seek to avoid politics, but on the subject of player protests and other pertinent matters, the battle lines, if you will, have already been drawn. Consequently, not taking a stance is, in effect, taking a stance.
This sentiment only intensifies when the issue at hand directly impacts the person faced with making a judgment. How reasonable is it to expect professional football players, two-thirds of whom are black, not to have thoughts on this topic? Are they just supposed to “shut up and tackle?” Because they signed a contract to play football for a living, have they thus waived their freedom of speech? It’s no wonder players like Michael Bennett have likened the league’s treatment of its talent to how plantation owners treated slaves as property. It might be an extreme comparison, but it’s one that captures the feelings of blacks across the nation. Unless or until we’ve walked a mile in their shoes, we can’t really know what that’s like.
LeBron James changed team affiliations when he signed with the Los Angeles Lakers in early July, but his views on Donald Trump don’t appear to have changed any. In a recent interview with CNN’s Don Lemon, James reiterated his belief that President Trump is trying to “divide us” and that he feels that he “can’t sit back and say nothing” in the face of POTUS’s rhetoric. He also alluded to the President’s attitudes giving a sense of empowerment to those with strong racist beliefs to say demeaning things when previously they would not have, and stated his wish to never sit across the table from Trump (though he would do so with Obama).
If Laura Ingraham has had anything to say about LeBron James since her previous rant, I don’t know, though confessedly, I’m not really all that interested. Criticizing James as a stupid jock when he has remained free of controversy throughout his career (outside of “The Decision” and his numerous team changes, though this doesn’t relate to his personal conduct) and when he has done so much charity work for children in his native Ohio strikes me as petty and misplaced. As far as the NBA is concerned, James is to be celebrated on and off the court—not the other way around.
As some critics of Ingraham’s have suggested, it’s a little strange for someone who believes in individual liberty to rail against someone like James for expressing his or her personal opinions. What’s obvious in her reaction to James’s words is that she’s only telling him to stay in his lane because she doesn’t like what he says. If it were Candace Owens or Kanye West calling out professional athletes for kneeling during the playing of the National Anthem, Ingraham would, in all likelihood, be lapping it up, extolling the virtues of black Americans becoming “independent thinkers” and eschewing Democratic or liberal values. Cue the comment about taking the “red pill.”
While lamenting the idea that conservatives are threatening to ruin, for me personally, a movie in The Matrix which I have enjoyed since first seeing it in theatres, I am nonetheless focused on the real issue at hand. Though jingoistic Americans may feel otherwise, dissent can be patriotic, too. On the subject of athletes and entertainers using their platform to share their political views, such should be encouraged, for even if we disagree with them, there is no mandate which states that their beliefs are better than or count more than ours. They just happen to have a larger audience at their disposal, or stand to increase the size of their platform exponentially with their commentary. When prompted about her response to his interview, LeBron professed that, before their war of words, he had no idea who Laura Ingraham was, but that he definitely knew now and that it was good for her that she stoked this controversy. The baller he is, James knows not to hate the player, but the game.
So, let’s stop all this “shut up and dribble” nonsense. To be a citizen is to be an engaged, informed, and responsible individual—regardless of what you do for a living. After all, if we can elect a dangerously unqualified businessman in Donald Trump to be our leader, it’s just as well that we encourage one another to speak our minds.
You’ve probably seen T-shirts or memes devoted to instructing others to “PUNCH MORE NAZIS.” This sentiment, which invokes Richard Spencer—who doesn’t call himself a “Nazi” or a “white supremacist,” but an “identitarian,” though that basically means he’s a white nationalist and doesn’t want you to know he’s a white nationalist—getting punched in the face by a protestor on the day of Donald Trump’s inauguration, is one that many of us can probably get behind. After all, who really likes Nazis outside of actual Nazis?
As sympathetic as we may be to the idea of Spencer and his ilk getting decked, however—or, for some of us, wish we could’ve been the ones to do it—just because we can punch more Nazis, does it mean we should? Political theorist Danielle Allen, in an August 2017 column for The Washington Post, emphatically rules for the negative on this question. She writes:
White supremacy, anti-Semitism and racism are false gods, ideologies to be repudiated. They must be countered and fought. We must separate the violence that flows from those ideologies from the ideas that animate them. Different tools are at hand for fighting each.
We need to counter extremism’s violence not with punches but with the tools of law and justice. Where hate crimes and acts of domestic terrorism are perpetrated, our judicial institutions must respond. We as citizens must make sure institutions do their jobs, not plan to take the law into our own hands.
When the legitimacy of legal and judicial institutions has come into question — as has occurred because of police shootings and mass incarceration — we must strenuously advance the project of reforming those institutions to achieve their full legitimacy. But to take the law into one’s own hands is only to further undermine legal and judicial institutions. It provides no foundation for reform.
As Allen sees it, we need to be thinking more Martin Luther King, Jr.’s brand of civil disobedience and nonviolence, and less, you know, Charles Bronson’s brand of vigilantism from Death Wish. In doing so, we must address the failings of major institutions—namely the courts, the criminal justice system, and the legislative branch—enduring the process of advocacy for reform. Punching Nazis, while perhaps providing more immediate satisfaction, doesn’t put us on the same long-term path of reform.
In fact, as Allen stresses, countering violence with more violence only takes us further away from the peaceful society many of us would envision—one devoid of white supremacists and their hate. It does not make our world any more just than it was before we started throwing haymakers, rocks, and the like. It certainly doesn’t make it any more stable.
In other words—Danielle Allen’s words—”Once political violence activates, shutting it off is exceptionally difficult.” Her closing remarks reinforce this theme, with special attention to the morality of nonviolence as well as the impracticality of its opposite:
Why should anyone believe that people who have been committed to political violence will change their minds and recommit to peaceful forms of litigating conflicts? That kind of distrust erodes the foundations of stable political institutions. The path to justice always lies through justice, including the basic moral idea that immediate self-defense is the only justification for the use of force. We need moral clarity on this point.
Along these lines, violence is not the cure or negotiating tool we might conceive it to be. As the saying goes, it just begets more violence, and makes people that much more predisposed to taking sides and fighting, rather than willing to change. When people are made to think of political and social matters in terms of a war, they treat it like one—casualties and all.
The topic of punching Nazis is an extreme example, but one that facilitates a conversation about how we as Americans try to interact with and otherwise react to people with whom we disagree on matters of culture, politics, and morality. Recently, Sarah Sanders was asked to leave a restaurant named The Red Hen in Virginia because of her connection to the Trump White House.
The owner of the restaurant, Stephanie Wilkinson, was home when she got a call from the chef that night, who expressed to Wilkinson the notion that the staff was concerned about Sanders’s presence there. For Wilkinson, Sanders’s defense of Donald Trump’s policies within her role as White House Press Secretary was a deal-breaker. As she (Wilkinson) feels, it’s a matter of moral standards. Compassion. Cooperation. Honesty. These are not the kinds of things that Sanders and her briefings are not known for, and as such, Wilkinson took a stand. What’s more, Wilkinson said she would do it again if given the same opportunity.
News of Sanders’s removal from the restaurant has prompted all sorts of reactions, many of them indicative of a political divide that events such as these only seem to help widen. If The Red Hen’s spike in popularity on Yelp is any indication, the actions taken by its owner have proven very polarizing indeed, with scores of 1-star and 5-star reviews being affixed to the restaurant’s online profile in light of the controversy. While I suppose the treatment of guests should be a factor in reviews of eateries, lest we call these new additions illegitimate, to say nothing of the other elements of the customer experience really seems like a waste of an entry. I mean, what if the trout Grenobloise is truly transcendent? You can say what you want about the owner—but leave her and her restaurant their fish dish, OK?
Beyond reputation assassination via social media from anonymous sources, there are other issues raised by Sarah Sanders getting the boot from The Red Hen and subsequently calling out the restaurant on Twitter. For one, Sanders did so in her official capacity as Press Secretary, and that’s an ethical no-no. According to Walter Shaub, former ethics chief under Barack Obama and Trump, Sanders’s condemnation of a business for personal reasons using her government account can be construed as coercive and a violation of a corollary to the ban on endorsements that someone like Kellyanne Conway has blatantly disregarded in the past. As Shaub reasons, Sanders can “lob attacks on her own time but not using her official position.”
Also, people have drawn a comparison between the way Sanders was refused service for her political positions and the way some businesses have sought to refuse service to homosexuals, claiming “religious freedom.” As far as detractors on the right are concerned, this is just bigotry on the part of the left, but this is a false equivalency; since it has come up frequently enough, it’s worth addressing. Sanders chose her line of work and accepted her current position, and continues to serve as Press Secretary of her own volition. Gays and lesbians, on the other hand, don’t choose to be gay. It’s who they are. The best argument one can try to make is that Sanders, were she to proverbially fall on her sword, would put her career and her livelihood at risk. Still, that’s a stretch when considering the ostracism members of the LGBTQ community have faced over time.
The issue that appears to loom largest here, however, is the matter of whether or not owners of establishments should refuse service to patrons based on their political beliefs or their association with a disinformation machine like the Trump White House. This is where I’m a little unsure that Stephanie Wilkinson’s choice is the right one. Now, it’s one thing if Sanders and her group were actively trying to cause distress to members of the staff or other patrons, or they were trying to espouse discriminatory views. If I were a restaurant owner, I wouldn’t want, say, Ku Klux Klan members waltzing into my place and ordering cheese and crackers. There are limits to freedom of expression, to be sure.
Assuming Wilkinson has the right to ask Sanders and Co. to leave, though, whether or not she should ask them to leave is a subject worthy of debate. It’s like refusing to serve or otherwise accommodate someone wearing a “Make America Great Again” hat. In April, a New York City judge ruled a bar was legally allowed to refuse service to a man wearing a “MAGA” hat, as it wasn’t discriminating based on country of origin, race, religion, sexual orientation, or other demographic characteristic. It also didn’t help the man’s cause that he reportedly was verbally abusive to staff. In Sanders’s case, meanwhile, there is no indication that anything more than her presence was the source of unrest. Even in the court of public opinion, this seems like less of an open-and-shut case.
What especially gives me pause is that few people seem to be on Sarah Sanders’s side on this one, and I’m not sure if this is my failing in my refusal to join in, or just the left looking to stick their tongues out at a Donald Trump supporter like the White House Press Secretary in the midst of the administration’s flagging popularity, and as we plumb the depths of a crisis facing immigrant families which feels less like border security and more like ethnic cleansing.
Other Trump administration officials have met with similar treatment, with DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen and senior policy advisor Stephen Miller both being met with protests as they ate at—irony fully noted—Mexican restaurants. It’s not just Cabinet members and racist advisors to the President, either. A video of New York-based attorney Aaron Schlossberg berating and threatening employees of a restaurant with deportation because they spoke Spanish went viral, and condemnation and ridicule were soon to follow. Heck, a GoFundMe page was even erected to pay for a mariachi band to play outside the man’s office. At a moment in time marked by visible tension between groups, especially whites who support the President vs. minority groups and their defenders, everyone seems to be fair game. The racist rants of yesteryear now run the risk of damaging people’s careers.
In all, there doesn’t seem to be much sympathy for Ms. Sanders—and I don’t know that there should be, quite frankly—but despite what someone like Rep. Maxine Waters would aver, maybe these officials shouldn’t be kicked out of restaurants, and definitely, I submit, they shouldn’t be harassed. That is, if one were to convey his or her opinions to them in a civil manner, it’s one thing, but it’s another to shout epithets at them while they try to eat enchiladas.
At the end of the day, we may find the positions of Nielsen and Miller reprehensible, but they’re human beings. Like you or I or the immigrants who live in fear of the Trump administration’s zero-tolerance policy, they still need to eat and spend time with family. While I suppose Sanders and her group could have just gone, say, to a Chili’s instead, to try to abnegate the humanity of one because of his or her own abnegation of another’s humanity is to make two wrongs without making a right. It might feel good for a spell, but as with punching Nazis, it doesn’t put us on a path to reform.
To boot, for those looking to discredit people on the political left as intolerant in their own right, the decision to ask Sanders to leave The Red Hen has the power to turn her into somewhat of a sympathetic figure, and given that she’s served as the mouthpiece of an administration which doesn’t seem to have the word “sympathy” in its vocabulary, such is a regrettable turn in these cultural conflicts because concern for her feels unearned.
It comes on the heels of criticisms levied on her by Michelle Wolf, for which members of the media were quick to come to her (Sanders’s) defense, a defense not only unearned, but undeserved given that Wolf was only pointing out Sanders’s role as an enabler and liar for President Trump. Thus, when Sanders tweets to say that The Red Hen’s owner’s actions say “more about [Wilkinson]” than they say about her and that she tries to deal respectfully with those with whom she disagrees, you tend to hate that she seems even somewhat credible—compromised ethics and all.
I know my position is liable to be upsetting to some people because it screams Democratic centrism to them (Chuck Schumer, among others, has criticized the desire to harass Trump administration officials). Believe me—I don’t wish to be lumped in with moderates when the Democrats’ refusal to move further left is one of my chief frustrations as someone trying to become more engaged with politics. And I certainly don’t wish to appear as if I agree with Donald Trump, who, though he has much more important things to do—facilitate peace on the Korean peninsula, help Puerto Rico, reunite kids with their families, etc.—felt compelled to rant about The Red Hen’s decision on social media. Say what you want about POTUS, but he’s consistent, you know, in that he never misses a chance to point a finger in a petty way.
In the situations recounted above, no one beat up these officials, broke any property, or threatened them in any way.
If anyone is “uncivil,” it’s the con artists, criminals, and/or racists of the Trump administration and people of a like mind such as Rep. Steve King of Iowa.
President Trump is, like, the most uncivil of us all, and he has a platform much bigger than any dissenter on the left.
This is a natural and perhaps unavoidable reaction to a lack of immediate electoral solutions or an absence of meaningful legislative representation.
Fretting about civility on the left internalizes the belief that it is pointless to try to appeal to people on the right, especially the far right, on moral and rational terms. Moreover, it sows division within “the Resistance.”
Cooper also dismisses concerns about incivility from the left being used as political capital for Trump and other officials, and while I agree to a certain extent that one shouldn’t necessarily worry about the feelings and potential votes of others in the course of public discourse, I also think that these definitions of “civility” and “incivility” are somewhat vague and get muddled with moral judgments. Being “civil” doesn’t necessarily relate to the moral rectitude of your behavior or your speech, but merely to formal courtesy and politeness in their expression. By the same token, however, “political civility” isn’t exactly the same thing as civility as per the dictionary definition, so maybe the problem is simply with our specificity of expression and how we delineate the terms, first and foremost. The line is an apparently fine one, and who is using this terminology is as important as what words are being used.
Plus, for those decrying this fussing over civility as just a ploy to stifle free speech, while addressing how to reach people in the face of carelessness or lack of composure is critically important, and while not all calls for civility are equal considering the source—this can’t be stressed enough—this doesn’t strike me as an occasion to participate in relativistic exercises. So Trump’s henchmen and henchwomen are uncouth. Does that mean we should all up and call them “feckless c**ts” in the style of Samantha Bee? Even if I feel Bee, like Michelle Wolf, shouldn’t feel duty-bound to apologize, her use of profane language didn’t make her argument more credible. At least we should be able to agree on this point.
I get it—so many of us are angry at Donald Trump and his enablers, and heartbroken about the plight of immigrant children, and feeling powerless with the midterms months away and 2020 still seeming remote, and tired of the onslaught of bullshit day after day. It’s not easy. Then again, it never was going to be easy, and for all the hemming and hawing about civility, if this is not to be the goal, at least we can aim for precision of language and factual correctness. Even in the face of haphazard tweets and “fake news,” rationality and truth yet have value.
To view this post as it appears on Citizen Truth, click here. Citizen Truth is an independent and alternative media organization dedicated to finding the truth, ending the left-right paradigm, and widening the scope of viewpoints represented in media and our daily conversations. For more on CT, please visit citizentruth.org.
I do not follow President Donald Trump on Twitter, if for no other reason than I don’t want to be counted among his followers. Seeing as he’s President, though, and his words matter—perhaps they should matter more than they do, but matter they do—the media reports on what he says, and so I get enough of what I need to know secondhand. This is not to say that his words don’t affect me—indeed, they do, and because they affect me, I try to distance myself so as not to get overwhelmingly angry or distraught.
In saying this, I realize I am privileged to the extent that, while what Trump says might affect me emotionally, what he says is unlikely to affect my daily existence to the extent it disrupts it or completely changes it. For recipients of legal status under Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, the stakes are much higher, and as such, every Tweet has the potential to signify a policy shift which could make for a life-altering event. Akilah Johnson, in a recent piece for The Boston Globe, explores this reality for so-called Dreamers, who have to monitor the volatility of Trump’s Tweets the way others might follow the ups-and-downs of the stock market (and increasingly so in the wake of fears of a brewing trade war). Johnson provides a bit of context thusly:
On Easter morning, Trump began a series of tweets about DACA, border security, and the country’s immigration laws, and there has been at least one nearly every day since, though he has been tweeting about immigration since before taking office.
But young immigrants said they don’t see themselves in many of the tweets, which equate immigration with criminality one day and express sympathy for DACA recipients who have been “abandoned” and received “very unfair” treatment in another.
It’s as if, they say, their academic accomplishments, hard work, and individual stories mean little. Instead, they are reduced to stereotypes in the immigration debate that is playing out on social media. The declarations of support are even more confusing, they say, because it was Trump who seeks to end the program that shields them from deportation.
And so each news alert or iPhone notification about the president’s ever-changing immigration agenda can be panic-inducing.
That Donald Trump’s mindset and position on specific issues tend to vacillate—I’m being kind here—is no big secret or surprise. Assuming he even understands what he’s talking about, and that’s a big enough assumption as it is, Trump lacks the familiarity with the underlying subject matter and its nuances by virtue of not having seriously considered it as a function of his political inexperience. To a certain extent, the malleability of his stances reflect the notion he is a novice, as well as the high probability he seems unprepared to take the lead on areas like immigration because he not only wants to deflect blame or responsibility, but that he also was unprepared to win the 2016 presidential election in the first place.
Beyond learning on the job, however, Trump’s treatment of DACA recipients via Twitter reflects an attitude toward their plight that representatives of both parties at times have seemed too ready to embrace: that of behaving as if DACA is a mere bargaining chip and not something which affects hundreds of thousands of young people currently residing in the United States. Earlier this year, DACA negotiations were a notable sticking point in spending bill negotiations that ultimately resulted in a relatively brief government shutdown, but a shutdown it was. Democratic Party leadership apparently had its fears that Republican legislators would refuse to hold a vote on the immigration issue assuaged by Mitch McConnell’s promise that hearings on the matter would be forthcoming.
That was in January. We’re into April now, and evidently, little progress in Congress has been made on the subject of DACA, leaving Trump to unleash Tweetstorms about illegal immigration with his usual reckless abandon and even address the topic during the White House Easter Egg Roll. Seriously. At the time of the shutdown’s end, activists and other advocates for Dreamers maligned Chuck Schumer et al. for what they saw as “caving” on DACA, a characterization that was not lost on the GOP and other conservative critics who took their own opportunity to take jabs at their opponents at the center-left of the spectrum. Specifically, pro-immigrant groups voiced their disappointment with Democratic leadership agreeing to anything predicated on a Mitch McConnell promise, which would be—and these are my words, but I’m sure the sentiment is shared—like trusting a pack of wolves not to touch a juicy steak. Three months later, it appears their concerns were well justified.
What is singularly disturbing about the political gridlock surrounding DACA, and whether it is “dead” or simply in limbo following the passing of the March 5 deadline set by President Trump to get a deal done, is that, amid the inaction and turmoil, Trump’s voice is amplified. This is a terrible development, because in making illegal immigration a central theme of his campaign and into his presidency, Trump has exploited Americans’ fears about immigration, legal and not—as well as their lack of knowledge about the subject and/or refusal to adequately fact-check. On Easter morning, he raged about “big flows of people” trying to come to America and take advantage of DACA. He also has Twitter-shouted about “caravans” of dangerous criminals trying to cross the border, and has blamed Democrats for standing in the way of reform and wanting to let would-be Mexican border-crossers in unchecked. Presumably, it’s because the Dems are banking on undocumented Latinos to illegitimately vote by the millions for them, you know, despite there being any evidence of this whatsoever.
Like Akilah Johnson, Tessa Stuart, writing for Rolling Stone, spoke directly with Dreamers back in September 2017 to discuss the confusion surrounding DACA and the misconceptions that might exist as a result of hateful rhetoric related to its fate. In particular, the young people consulted for this piece hoped to debunk these myths about them and Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals:
Myth #1: DACA recipients can just become citizens.
Even Barack Obama as President was explicit about the idea that DACA is neither amnesty nor immunity nor a path to citizenship. As Astrid Silva, interviewed for the article, outlines, one of the primary benefits of DACA is an Employment Authorization Document, or EAD. But as Silva asserts, the current immigration picture is more complex than a situation like in The Proposal where Sandra Bullock marries for papers, and as Stuart spells out with the help of Rep. Ruben Kihuen, the first Dreamer elected to Congress, it’s much different than it was some 30 years ago, when immigrants who overstayed their visas could adjust their status.
Myth #2: DACA allows immigrants brought to the U.S. as children to stay indefinitely.
Nope. As Stuart spells out, the window for qualifying to receive DACA is a fairly narrow one: one had to arrive in the United States before the age of 16, live in the country since 2007, and be younger than 31 as of June 15, 2012. Of the 1.7 million people eligible, fewer than half actually have registered for the program, and have had to apply for a renewal of their status every two years.
Myth #3: DACA recipients “put our nation at risk of crime, violence, and even terrorism.”
Wrong again. That’s Jefferson Beauregard Sessions, espousing his views based on tolerance as head of the Trump administration’s totally impartial Department of Justice. Felony convictions and multiple or significant misdemeanors disqualify DACA recipients, as do those who are considered “a threat to public safety or national security.” The vast majority of Dreamers are law-abiding, America-loving people. Which makes Jeff Sessions full of you-know-what.
Myth #4: DACA gives undocumented immigrants access to federal benefits.
DACA recipients can obtain driver’s licenses and go to college. But they can’t receive federal financial aid, nor can they even enroll in a healthcare plan under the Affordable Care Act. For the young people trying to afford school, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals at least affords them the opportunity to work while they go to school so they can apply for private loans. People who harp on the supposed glorious “benefits” received by Dreamers overstate their case, and understate the contributions made by these immigrants, including but not limited to paying income taxes.
It should be stressed that Donald Trump is not the only influential voice to espouse anti-immigrant views steeped in racism and xenophobia. Worldwide, migration and refugeeism/asylum-seeking has helped put a strain on relations between ethnic groups; in Europe, for instance, one need look no further than the notion Marine Le Pen was one of the finalists, so to speak, in the race for France’s presidency that ultimately saw Emmanuel Macron elected, or how the Brexit referendum was pushed by far-right elements within the United Kingdom.
Besides, for Trump to succeed with a presidential campaign that, on Day One, bashed Mexicans as criminals, drug dealers, and rapists (with some good people; gee, thanks), he had to tap into prejudices shared by his supporters and others who voted for him. Though not an altogether significant group, a certain percentage of voters in the 2016 election went from casting their ballots for Barack Obama in 2012 to buying a ticket for the “Trump Train.” While economic factors and Trump’s faux populism had a part to play in this, the trepidation of white Americans over the nation “losing its identity” and of having “their culture” diminished by the influx of other ethnic groups likewise figured heavily into Trump’s upset electoral victory.
All this aside, Trump regularly ginning up the “deplorables” within his base deserves every bit of condemnation one can muster, and for the conservatives who cling to trickle-down theories of economics and change, this should inspire a proportionate sense of shame. While still misplaced, it would be one thing for Trump and his administration to more provincially focus their intensity on those undocumented immigrants who commit violent crimes or are otherwise found guilty of significant misdemeanors, as he indicated he would do while stumping for votes.
Instead, Trump being Trump, DACA recipients are liable in their own right to be detained or deported, with boasts of “DACA being dead” and no opportunity wasted to throw members of Congress (especially Democrats) under the bus, and Trump keeping with the nonsense about a wall furnished and paid for by Mexico. Meanwhile, Trump, Jeff Sessions, and their conservative ilk continue to push the myth that DACA recipients and immigrants in general are more likely to commit crimes. This is made especially galling when considering that immigrant children often outperform their peers in school, as Bruce Fuller, sociologist at UC-Berkeley, and others have observed. By this token, we should be outraged that Trump et al. are attacking our best and brightest.
Apple CEO Tim Cook, during an interview with MSNBC’s Chris Hayes for Recode’s Revolution TV special, spoke about how DACA is not an immigration issue, but a moral issue. Indeed, by going after Dreamers, the Trump administration is demonstrating its penchant for cruelty in threatening to deport those who came here as young children and who have little to no recollection of living in the country of their birth. People, who, moreover, contribute to America’s rich cultural tapestry, not to mention its economy. Even those who trumpet the need to uphold our nation’s laws seem to have their priorities in disarray. Are we content to punish DACA recipients for the “sins of their parents,” as outgoing GOP senator Jeff Flake would say? Is that “making America great again?”
The DACA debate is one that should serve as an impetus for all of us as Americans—native, immigrant, and otherwise—to consider who and what we support, and where we are going as a country. For members of the Republican Party, it is high time for them to contemplate how long they can continue to push false narratives about immigrants given a rapidly changing and increasingly diverse pool of individuals here. For Democrats and conscientious members of the electorate, it’s time to reassess whether or not we are doing enough to advocate for DACA recipients, open borders, and other liberal/progressive policies related to immigration. The shadow of the so-called “ugly American” looms large over the battle to protect a vulnerable subset of the U.S. population. Whether or not we care enough to put aside our hate and privilege, and act on these matters, is the question ultimately worth asking.
To view this post as it appears on Citizen Truth, click here. Citizen Truth is an independent and alternative media organization dedicated to finding the truth, ending the left-right paradigm and widening the scope of viewpoints represented in media and our daily conversations. For more on CT, please visit citizentruth.org.
While watching Super Bowl LII—and watching the Philadelphia Eagles win their first championship and defeat the New England Patriots’ evil empire (I may be a Giants fan, but the Pats are second only to the Dallas Cowboys on my hate list)—I saw a commercial that spoke to me. No, not the thirty seconds of black screen that befuddled a nation. No, not the myriad Tide commercials that made you think they weren’t Tide commercials until they were, and almost made you forget about people eating Tide detergent pods. Almost. Not the NFL commercial that saw Eli Manning and Odell Beckham Jr. dancing like they’ve never danced before. And certainly not the Dodge commercial that leveraged the words of Martin Luther King, Jr. to try to sell RAM Trucks. It was a commercial for CURE Auto Insurance, an auto insurance provider in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. No, not the one where its mascot, an anthropomorphized blue dot, calls Tom Brady and the Patriots dirty cheaters (essentially). The one where that blue dot says that GEICO and their gecko and Progressive Insurance and Flo, the most impossibly adorable insurance sales agent, well, both suck. It was shocking for its brazenness as well as for its use of mild language—CURE could just as well suck, and you or I wouldn’t know it unless we used their product and lived to tell the awful tale.
What stuck with me, though, is that these sentiments—”they both suck”—could well be applied to other contexts. Namely politics. The objections of CURE Auto Insurance to the likes of bigger names in GEICO and Progressive Insurance are not unlike that of independent/third-party objections to the dominance of the Democratic and Republican Parties in today’s political discourse. As with political affiliations outside the Democrat-GOP binary, it is not as if they don’t have skin in the game, so to speak; CURE wants you to believe that their smaller size will allow them to be more attentive to your needs as a consumer in order to bring you in as a customer, as those outside the Democrat-GOP binary would have you believe the two major parties have largely stopped listening to the wants and needs of their constituents and thus deserve your vote because they have your best interests in mind. In both senses, then, the aggrieved third party is selling something.
To the extent GEICO or Progressive is derelict in its customer service duties I cannot say or wouldn’t begin to speculate; according to J.D. Power’s 2017 survey, Amica Mutual reigns supreme in overall auto claims satisfaction with 5 of 5 stars (J.D. Power trophies?), while GEICO manages a 4/5 rating, and Progressive, a so-so 3/5. In the world of voter satisfaction, meanwhile, it should come as no surprise that neither the Democratic Party nor the Republican Party get high marks from the American public. In a January 2018 poll conducted by NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist, while the Dems and GOP beat out Congress as a whole (8%) in terms of those who expressed “great confidence” in the institution, the 10% garnered by Republicans and the 13% managed by the Democrats fail to inspire in their own right. Moreover, if the fallout from the #ReleaseTheMemo drama has any impact on these figures, it’s only likely to depress them (and me in the process).
So, let’s talk about the Nunes memo, as it has been called. Its namesake, Devin Nunes, and other people who supported its release, insist it is not a political hit job. But come the f**k on—it totally is. Before I get too ahead of myself, let’s talk about what the four-page memorandum actually says:
The crux of the fault-finding within the Nunes memo revolves around how the FBI and Department of Justice came to warranting, under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, a probable cause order and authorizing electronic surveillance of Carter Page, a Trump campaign foreign policy adviser and a person of interest in the special prosecutorial investigation helmed by Robert Mueller for his possible role as an intermediary between associates of Donald Trump and Russian officials, potentially including pro-Trump interference on Russia’s part in the 2016 election. The memo’s contention is that it was not properly disclosed that the so-called Steele dossier, information compiled by former British intelligence officer and FBI source Christopher Steele and which formed a significant part of the basis for the initial FISA application and its three subsequent renewals, was paid for by Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign to the tune of some $160,000, nor was it disclosed that law firm Perkins Coie and research firm Fusion GPS had facilitated this arrangement.
Also of apparent issue is Steele’s correspondence with the news media. According to the memo, the FISA application for Page’s surveillance heavily cited a September 2016 article by Michael Isikoff for Yahoo! News, which doesn’t corroborate the Steele dossier because it doesn’t have to—Steele spoke with Yahoo! and other outlets directly—and later spoke to Mother Jones for an October 2016 article by David Corn and revealed his identity. The bone of contention is that an FBI source shouldn’t be revealing his or her identity and compromising his or her usefulness as a source, and at the very least, that Steele should’ve made his media contacts evident for the purposes of the FISA application.
More on Christopher Steele: according to the Nunes memo and citing a documented account by Bruce Ohr, former Associate Deputy Attorney General of the DOJ, Steele’s involvement was about more than just the money. That dirty, dirty Clinton money. It was about his “desperation” and “passion” for Donald Trump not becoming President that he did his part regarding the dossier.
So, why is all this an issue? According to the memo, it’s because, as of January 2017 and per former FBI director James Comey’s own words, the Steele dossier was characterized as “salacious and unverified.” Also, did I, Devin Nunes, mention Steele was biased against Trump? Did you get that? Christopher Steele—Donald Trump—MASSIVE BIAS. Just wanted to make sure that was in there.
Somewhat surprisingly, the Nunes memo additionally mentions, while stating there is no evidence of cooperation between Carter Page and George Papadopoulos, another foreign policy adviser to the Trump campaign and someone who has already pled guilty to lying to the FBI, that an FBI counterintelligence investigation began in July 2016 by looking at Papadopoulos, not Page. Of course, the memo also goes on to indicate that FBI agent Pete Strzok and FBI attorney Lisa Page were not only knockin’ boots, but had indicated their severe BIAS! against Donald Trump, and furthermore, that in their texts, orchestrated leaks to the news media and discussed an “insurance” policy against Trump winning the election with FBI deputy director Andrew McCabe. McCabe announced his resignation from this post on January 29.
In the wake of the memo’s release, many independent observers commented on just how remarkably, well, unremarkable its contents are. In terms of bombshell revelations, Nunes’ memo is about as earth-shattering as was the Benghazi investigation and Hillary Clinton’s involvement; in other words, much ado about nothing. Additionally, scrutiny of the memo raises its own set of questions about the motivations behind its release. Let’s do our own dive into the arguments raised within its text:
The Clinton campaign paid for the research that compiled by Christopher Steele. And? So? At worst, this would seem like an issue with the process of securing a warrant for surveillance of Carter Page, but this says nothing of the veracity of Steele’s claims. It’s my understanding that opposition research is a standard part of politics in today’s day and age. At any rate, if the intention was to prevent Trump from winning, it didn’t serve that purpose, so what’s the big deal at this point? The Republican candidate won. Get over it.
Steele’s interaction with the media and his disclosure of his identity as an FBI source, if anything, seems like an internal matter for the Bureau to handle, not for Devin Nunes to publicly criticize. Again, this would seem to be an issue of process, and highlighting Steele’s failure to disclose this aspect only serves as a blatant attempt by Nunes and others to undermine the FBI’s credibility.
Devin, bruh—a lot of people don’t like Donald Trump at this point. Trump’s approval rating may have gone up recently, perhaps thanks in part to his State of the Union speech of which a majority of Americans approve, but it’s still a minority of Americans who give him a thumbs-up at this point. These allusions to anti-Trump bias just look like a cheap way to gin up his supporters for his—and possibly your own—political benefit.
The memo highlights Comey’s indication that the contents of the dossier were “salacious and unverified.” Not only have some aspects of the Steele dossier since been confirmed (or disconfirmed), however, but other elements are simply still unverified, not demonstrably debunked. The mainstream media may distance itself from its contents, but that may have as much to do with lurid tales of Russian prostitutes and “golden showers” as much as anything, not to mention Buzzfeed’s apparently reckless release of the associated information.
Last but not least, the notion that an FBI investigation into Russian meddling in American affairs began not with Carter Page, but instead George Papadopoulos, would seem to somewhat undermine the central theme of this memo: that surveillance of Page under FISA was based on faulty intelligence from an unreliable source. If Papadopoulos’ involvement with Russia was sufficient to spark an in-depth look, this works against the notion that Trump’s detractors or even Mueller and his associates have nothing besides the Steele dossier on which to go. Besides, once more, the memo doesn’t suggest the intel on Papadopoulos is false, but merely drags Pete Strzok and his “mistress”—yes, the Nunes memo actually refers to Lisa Page as such—as if to suggest that their affair makes them less than credible. This morality-based character assassination has no bearing on the validity of the case against either Page or Papadopoulos. Talk about salacious.
Donald Trump and his supporters see this as proof that the investigation into his possible ties to Russia, including orchestrating interference in the 2016 election on his behalf, is nothing but a witch hunt. Fake news. Then again, Trump especially would say this. For many discerning onlookers not already blinded by loyalty to Pres. Drumpf, though, the public release of the Nunes memo—which was only made possible because the White House opted to declassify its contents, mind you—is intended primarily to erode confidence in the intelligence community and the Mueller investigation so that it will seem like a natural consequence that Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein is fired, his successor is named, and that individual can get rid of Robert Mueller. Because Trump and his associates are innocent. And all around him, people are heavily BIASED against him. SO MUCH BIAS. PUTTING THINGS IN ALL CAPS MAKES THEM MORE BELIEVABLE.
Both the Democrats and the bulk of the U.S. intelligence community were highly critical of the use of classified information in this way. Adam Schiff, Democratic member of the House of Representatives for the state of California and ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee—or “Little” Adam Schiff, in Trumpist parlance—CC’d on the release of the original memo, for one, asserts that the information included in the memo is cherry-picked in a manner designed to create a narrative that makes the President look like a target of a conspiracy. Not to mention its contents, it should be stressed, do not exonerate Pres. Trump, but merely cast aspersions on the reliability of the FBI, DOJ, and relevant sources.
Even if the revelations within are fairly tepid, meanwhile, the implications of the executive branch and members of the legislative branch of the federal government going after the American intelligence community are such that we of the rank-and-file persuasion should be concerned regardless of our political affiliation. As even some Republicans, including high-profile party members like John McCain, would insist, this interparty and interoffice conflict does Vladimir Putin and Co.’s work for them in sending public confidence in our political institutions downward yet further. This is not to say that FBI agents and DOJ personnel shouldn’t be held accountable for any misdeeds on their part, or should be afforded too little oversight owing to the broad notion that information related to investigations may be “sensitive.” By the same token, when Trump can take wild swings on Twitter at officials under his purview—including heads of agencies installed on his watch—and the media and its consumers can report and digest this all without batting an eye, one may get the sense we’re on shaky footing as a nation indeed.
President Trump’s tiff with Adam Schiff—the Schiff Tiff, if you will—and the resistance Nancy Pelosi showed in a marathon speech on the House floor in an effort to bring attention to the fate of Dreamers after the Senate reached an agreement on the terms of a budget proposal without any assurances that the immigration issue will be taken up in the near future, make for appealing political theater. The hullabaloo about the Nunes memo, meanwhile, paired with the recent vote to reauthorize FISA Section 702, makes leaders on both sides of the political aisle hard to support. On the Republican side of things, I was already predisposed to think less of Paul Ryan, but his defense of the release of the memo as standard operating procedure for Congress is disingenuous and cowardly when numerous GOP House members are either publicly criticizing Devin Nunes or abandoning ship by refusing to run for re-election in the midterms. On the Democratic side, meanwhile, Pelosi and Schiff’s public censure of Donald Trump and his Republican brethren rings hollow when they’re voting alongside their GOP counterparts to extend the surveillance powers of a President they deem to be untrustworthy. For their part, Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell and minority leader Chuck Schumer should be held accountable for this vote as well, the latter in particular. If 34 senators could say “Nay”—including seven Republicans—he could’ve joined his fellow New York legislator Kirsten Gillibrand in doing so.
As I have emphasized on this blog and as numerous other concerned members of the Resistance would offer, when something crazy is going on in national news and politics—which these days unfortunately seems to disproportionately involve President Donald Trump and his embarrassing conduct—it merits watching what is going on when Congress actually gets around to advancing and/or passing legislation through the House and Senate. To be sure, there have been a fair amount of distractions recently that have dominated headlines and have made this task more difficult. Probably the biggest topic on everybody’s minds was the President’s alleged use of the word “shithole” in describing countries like El Salvador, Haiti, and various African countries that are less savory as sources of immigrants than, say, Norway. I say “alleged” because several Republican lawmakers present for the meeting and DHS secretary Kirstjen Nielsen have denied that he used that word. But come on—you know they’re full of shit. Even with a distraction like this, there’s another layer of distraction built in. Yes, Trump used a bad word, but the more important notion is Trump insinuated that it would be better if we accepted people from a country where white people are the majority as opposed to countries where black or brown people are the majority. Never mind that Americans are more likely to immigrate to Norway than the other way around because people who live there enjoy a high standard of living, universal health care, and generally are among the happiest individuals on Earth. The implication was clear to those who understand Trump has basically been a white supremacist’s wet dream since he started running for office.
Otherwise, there were more salacious accounts involving Trump’s personal life, specifically that he was having an affair with then-porn star Stormy Daniels while he was married to Melania back in 2006, and that, so as to not undermine his political chances or damage his brand or what-have-you, his lawyer formed a shell company in 2016 to negotiate the payment of $130,000 so that she would not disclose details about their relationship. Even though Daniels apparently did tell a number of details about it back in 2011 when interviewed by In Touch Weekly magazine—including the revelation that Trump is obsessed with sharks and hates their shark-y guts. Not a particularly damning revelation, mind you, but just entertaining. Why we haven’t heard or likely won’t hear more about it is perhaps puzzling—Chris Cillizza of CNN surmises it is likely because Trump’s camp has denied any connection between Trump and Daniels, people don’t want to be involved with anything even tangentially related to porn (at least where prying eyes might see), that we’ve heard it all about Trump already, or all of the above—but regardless of the profile of this story, it seems like pretty reprehensible behavior on Trump’s part from a moral standpoint, and pretty ethically inexplicable from a legal standpoint if there wasn’t any legitimate reason for Daniels to be getting $130K (and why wasn’t it $150K—that’s a much nicer “round” number than $130K, no?).
On top of this, there was the drama involving the government shutdown, which wasn’t so much of a “distraction” given that there were real consequences for this happening, but the partisan squabbling it encouraged was realistically more theatrical than anything. Democrats expressed their concerns about the level of funding for the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) and for the level of protection for “Dreamers” under Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). Republicans were outright blaming the Democrats for this mess and used military pay as a bargaining chip, alleging that the Dems held these all-important monies for our uniformed men and women hostage. Donald Trump kept insisting that someone needs to pay for a border wall. All the while, fingers were being pointed in every direction—with most Americans pointing back at Congress for not being able to strike a deal or by tying the DACA issue to the budget resolution issue, even if Democratic, Republican, and independent voters alike broadly support an extension of DACA. In short, and after the fact, no one looks good as a result of this, and for all his past criticisms of President Obama in presiding over shutdowns, it looks especially bad for Trump now that he has encountered one in just a year or so since he began his tenure—and with both the House and Senate under GOP control, no less.
All this, and we haven’t even gotten to the #ReleaseTheMemo business that conservatives have had on the tip of their tongue of late! Congressional Republicans have been alluding to a memo in Devin Nunes’ possession that outlines Obama-era abuses of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) by the FBI and Department of Justice, specifically as it regards investigation into Russian influence in the 2016 presidential election. Worse than Watergate, they claim! It is with this final distraction that I’ll bring in a recent piece by Matt Taibbi of Rolling Stone for an excellent contextualization—as he is wont to provide—of this particular instance of click-bait news. Taibbi starts by saying what most reasonable observers have put forth: that if the memo is really as jaw-dropping as outspoken Republicans have made it out to be, then by all means, it should be released. At the same time, though, as Taibbi argues, if this material truly exonerates Donald Trump of any wrongdoing re Russia, why hasn’t the man himself released it? After all, Trump, um, is characteristically not afraid to share. From the article:
By all means, if the memo is important (although I doubt it) let’s let the public see it. But followers of this story should also remember that if this or any classified document somehow exculpates Donald Trump on any front, he’s had the power all along to declassify such information. Why Trump hasn’t done so on a number of these occasions has been one of the enduring mysteries of this affair. It’s given pause to even the most hardened Russiagate skeptics.
This includes people like former federal prosecutor Andrew McCarthy of the National Review. McCarthy has been highly critical of the Robert Mueller investigation, but has also repeatedly wondered why Trump is not lifting the veil on some of these documents. One of the few figures in the media to explore holes in Russiagate theories propagated by both sides, McCarthy had this to say in August:
“I can’t get past a nagging question: Why must we speculate about whether the Obama administration abusively exploited its foreign-intelligence-collection powers in order to spy on Donald Trump’s political campaign? After all, Trump is president now. If he was victimized, he’s in a position to tell us all about it.”
At the very least, it’s food for thought, and prompts Matt Taibbi to label the #ReleaseTheMemo fervor “curious and disingenuous at best.” (Also not helping this case: that this hashtag has been linked to Russian bots that have helped to get it trending on Twitter.) At the same time, Taibbi indicates that it’s not like individuals on both sides of the political aisle haven’t been working to obscure what the sources of their information on Russia may be. Already, given its history of attention-grabbing details like lurid tales of Russian prostitutes and “golden showers,” and the subsequent backlash it received for having the likes of Buzzfeed break the news unconfirmed, the Steele dossier, for one, has not necessarily been something the mainstream media wants to acknowledge as informative of the investigation into Trump’s affairs. In other words, there’s much confusion and misdirection about what people know and how they know it re Russia, and thus far, it has mostly amounted to nothing more than additional confusion and tedious back-and-forth accusation, as it did with the shutdown.
The main thrust of Taibbi’s article, meanwhile, and getting back to the notion of these events as distraction and theater, is that while all this political brinksmanship was going on, important legislation with serious implications was being passed, aided by Democrats crossing that proverbial aisle. The first, coincidentally, involves FISA. Specifically, the House and Senate passed an extension of Section 702 of the Act, which lets the U.S. government obtain the communications of foreign nationals outside the United States without a warrant. Per the language of the law, intelligence agencies are not permitted to target U.S. citizens or nationals, or to use the power of Section 702 to surveil individuals on American soil. Groups like the American Civil Liberties Union and other civil liberties-minded organizations, however, have expressed doubts about how this program may be used and abused. The ACLU, in particular, enumerates these charges concerning the deleterious effects of Sec. 702:
Section 702 allows warrantless surveillance of people inside and outside the U.S.
Despite the fact that the law is not supposed to be used to target Americans, the government has been doing just that for years.
Information collected under Section 702 could be used against you, and you likely wouldn’t know.
Section 702 is used to examine communications flowing in and out of the U.S. in bulk.
Surveillance programs have been abused by the intelligence agencies.
There is little that prevents Section 702 from being used against critics, activists, religious minorities, or communities of color.
The program is not subject to any meaningful judicial oversight.
The government has deliberately chosen to hide the impact of the program from the public.
Section 702 surveillance chills freedom of speech and association.
There are more detailed explanations for each of these items on the ACLU page linked to above, but suffice it to say, there are legitimate concerns about how broadly Section 702 may be used to capture information that is relevant to “foreign intelligence”—a distinction that is subjective and seemingly intentionally vague—how this sensitive information may be stored in databases for undetermined lengths of time, how political or even personal enemies may be targeted by intelligence community members as an abuse of their privilege, how legal procedure may be circumvented in the name of “anti-terrorism” efforts, and how so few data have been made clear to interested parties regarding the surveillance of Americans and the usage of their online communications. Liberal or conservative, it creates trepidation on the part of the average telephone/mobile/Internet user-consumer, and perhaps worst of all, it feeds the narrative of the “deep state” on the right that undermines even the best-intentioned government actions. But, by all means, let’s have more conspiracy theories!
As Matt Taibbi submits, too, it may be patently self-defeating to reauthorize the “virtually limitless surveillance powers of this president” when many suspect him to be aided or compromised by Russia. Which makes it all the more frustrating—at least to me—that Democrats like Nancy Pelosi and Adam Schiff would vote for an extension of Section 702 of FISA when they have publicly expressed their doubts about Trump. Taibbi explains what is likely behind this “yes” vote from key House Dems:
This is a classic example of something that’s been axiomatic in Washington for ages: that both parties tend always to be interested in expanding executive power, no matter who’s in office or what the political situation. In this case, the principle of expanding presidential authority outweighed even concerns of abuses by the likes of Donald Trump.
Or, perhaps to put this another way, yes, let’s give the executive more power so we can exploit it when our party is in the White House. As tends to be the case in the world of politics, moral objections are relative to how many seats you control and whether or not your side is in the Oval Office.
The other piece of legislation which stands to get through the Senate, notably with the help of several Democrats, and which is equally if not more concerning, is the rolling-back of regulations provided for by the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, already criticized for not going far enough to do either of its stated objectives. The list of Democratic co-sponsors to the so-called Economic Growth, Regulatory Relief and Consumer Protection Act, which was released on December 5 of last year, reads like a who’s who of irritatingly moderate Democrats. Michael Bennet. Joe Donnelly. Heidi Heitkamp. Tim Kaine. Angus King, who technically is an independent, but let’s give him, ahem, credit where credit is due. Joe Manchin. Claire McCaskill. Gary Peters. Jon Tester. Mark Warner. These are self-professed Dems from states like Colorado, Montana, Virginia, and West Virginia in which being a centrist on matters of regulation of business appears to be a self-preservation move more than anything. Unless, as Taibbi suggests, they were either tricked or wooed by lobbyists for the banks. Here’s what he had to say on the matter:
In another bizarre episode, at least ten Senate Democrats recently crossed the aisle to support a rollback of key provisions of the Dodd-Frank banking reform bill, the killing of which of course has long been a major policy goal of Trump’s. The Dodd-Frank bill story is particularly disturbing, because it signals a rare potential area of consensus amid the otherwise reassuringly dysfunctional three-headed monster that is the lunatic Trump, establishment Republicans, and Democrats.
The bill has been pitched as aid and regulatory relief to small banks and credit unions. Such groups are the widows and orphans of financial reform: nobody’s ever against helping them, which is why even giveaways to Wall Street behemoths are often dressed up as aid to regional bankers. The Dems who crossed the aisle to support the Dodd-Frank rollback bought into the lobbyist-flogged idea that Too-Big-To-Fail banks have too many punitive regulatory requirements, and moreover that “smaller” companies (i.e. firms with less than $10 billion in assets) should be exempt from the already watered-down Volcker rule, which prevents depository banks from gambling for their own accounts.
One of the main ideas behind the proposed bill, which passed the banking committee 16 to 7, is changing the definition of a “Too Big to Fail” institution from having $50 billion in assets to having $250 billion in assets. This quintupling of the size limit would mean a number of huge companies would now enjoy relaxed capital requirements and other benefits. Only about 10 companies would be left to face the more stringent rules.
Why is this a concern? Only because it would increase the risk of another financial meltdown like we had ten years ago. As Taibbi and others argue, de-concentrating financial power by breaking up the big banks and by forcing them to separate banking and investing (read: sanctioned gambling) activities helps to mitigate this risk. Besides, if you’ll recall, it was taxpayers who bore the brunt of the last recession, but absent more stringent rules to keep Wall Street and the financial industry in check, there’s no guarantee another crisis won’t manifest. And once more, we would be the ones called on to bail out the big companies who played fast and loose with our money—not the other way around.
As Taibbi frames this, this is Congress in a nutshell: they fight publicly over something that’s “irrelevant, inaccurate, or far from a resolution,” only to have a consensus group advance a bill that is highly important/relevant, but “unsexy” and unlikely to garner the same attention, or even the kind of attention it merits. For the liberal progressives among us, this is a decidedly poor modus operandi.
Even as distraction, the three-day “kerfuffle,” as Matt Taibbi called it, over the shutdown was particularly galling to many on the left because the Democrats made a deal without any real assurances from Republicans that voting on a new DREAM Act would be taken up in the near future. Oh, sure, Mitch McConnell swore there would be, but trusting Mitch McConnell is like the fabled frog trusting the scorpion not to sting it as they cross the river—the scorpion will sting because that’s its nature, and McConnell will back out of his promise because he, like our President, is a lying sack of shit. Of course, Chuck Schumer didn’t waste much time backing out of certain terms either—after initially indicating prior to the end of the shutdown that a border wall would be on the table as part of forthcoming negotiations, he apparently pulled a 180 and made it clear the wall was no longer on the table. Psych! Regardless, after Donald Trump and congressional Republicans were done lambasting the Democrats for causing the whole government shutdown, the relatively short duration of the shutdown dovetailed ever nicely into jabs from conservatives that the Dems “caved” on the issues at hand. Name-calling though it might be, it’s hard to disagree with this assessment. The fate of Dreamers and the wall are still sticking points, and once more, the can has merely been kicked down the road noting that this resolution is merely a temporary budget fix.
Not that this necessarily means a huge deal, but if Americans are disappointed and embarrassed by this particular episode in U.S. politics, you can just imagine what the world thinks of us—distractions and all. Zack Beauchamp, writing for Vox, researched this very topic, and was struck by one prevailing theme which emerged from the responses he received from international observers: that there is something profoundly wrong with the American political system. For those looking on in Canada, France, and even the United Kingdom, with whom there yet remains some sympathy for our backward ways, there is cause for both concern and vague deprecation. For less understanding authoritarian regimes and otherwise tightly-run states, there is outright glee that America’s government can descend into chaos so easily, and unfounded as the claims may be, the shutdown makes us look weak, suggesting to some that Western democracy is fundamentally flawed (hello, Chinese propaganda!) or that the shutdown is pure theater to distract from the Democrats’ conspiracy theories about Trump’s ties to Russia (hello, Russian propaganda!). All these reactions without having to mention golden showers, shitholes, or Stormy Daniels. Jeez—has it only been a year so far? It feels more like ten with all the nonsense that’s gone on heretofore.
To reiterate, though, this goes back to the notion of distraction. For all the blaming and finger-pointing that went on this past week, where consensus has been achieved, yet worse consequences stand to be realized. The extension of Section 702 of FISA, as noted, is concerning to liberals and libertarians alike, and the continued collective kowtowing of Congress to “Too Big to Fail” institutions and Wall Street alumni is seeming proof that both parties work first for their benefit, and get to our concerns if and when they have the time and wherewithal. If you think a three-day shutdown is bad, just wait until the next economic nosedive, something that arguably is less a question of if and more a question of when.