Guys, Stop Being So Mean to the Billionaires

Guys, stop insisting billionaires pay more taxes. You big meanies. (Photo Credit: Jim Gillooly/PEI/CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

On behalf of the billionaires of the United States of America, I would like to request that you, the reader, refrain from any talk of a wealth tax or tax increase on the super-rich.

While we’re at it, you should abandon all notions of supporting the Green New Deal or Medicare for All. None of this is politically feasible, and what’s more, you’d be taxing job creators, thereby hurting employment and the U.S. economy. In other words, just go back to enjoying the status quo.

You big meanies.

Dispensing with that bit of pretense, I don’t know about you, but I’m getting pretty sick and tired of billionaires telling us what we can and can’t do in a political sense and why taxing them “to the hilt,” to borrow their verbiage, is so blatantly unfair.

The intertwined issues of personal finances, wealth, and taxation have gained new resonance with the entry of Michael Bloomberg into the 2020 presidential race. Evidently, having one billionaire on the Democratic side of things already (Tom Steyer) isn’t enough.

Also, there’s the matter of safeguarding certain ideologies. With progressives Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders more than relevant in the Democratic primary and Joe “I Got Along Fine with Segregationists” Biden not the sure bet to win the nomination that some establishment Dems might have envisioned at the start of his candidacy, Bloomberg’s late-start bid can be seen as the last gasp of old-guard centrists trying to cement their place in the American political landscape. You know, unless Hillary Clinton jumps in too, which in that case, just go ahead, shoot me, and be merciful. I just don’t think I can bear to watch that a reprise of that fiasco.

Because money equates to power and political influence, Bloomberg is not the only billionaire who is wont to gripe about plans to claw back dollars from the super-rich or lament Sen. Warren’s ascendancy in polls and have media outlets ready to listen. Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, when recently asked about Warren’s proposed “ultra-millionaire tax,” joked about how much he’d have left under such a policy. Gates also highlighted how much he has already paid in taxes as well as given in a philanthropic sense, effectually debating whether or not a tax hike might depress charitable contributions.

All kidding aside, Gates realistically has more money than he or his family will ever need. The notion Warren’s tax plan or that of any similar framework could jeopardize his finances or his ability to donate is absurd. What’s yet worse is his response or lack thereof to a question about whether he would vote for Donald Trump’s re-election over Warren or any other Democratic candidate. For someone who has slammed Trump and his policies in the past, Gates appears to be putting his money where his critical mouth and thinking should be. The result is not a good one.

Before Gates cracked wise about being placed into a whole new tax bracket, there was former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz, who not only has similarly derided Warren’s ultra-millionaire tax as “ridiculous,” but once had visions of a presidential run dancing in his head as he went on a promotional book tour. Schultz’s “run” ended before it began, seemingly generating more scorn than praise from the general public. Hell, the man didn’t even make it past September.

Schultz’s decision to mount or not mount a campaign certainly garnered a lot of media attention prior to his opting for the latter, however, if for no other reason than the existential dread which accompanied the possibility, even if remote, that he might vie for president as an independent. And while he may have been heckled at stops on his tour and ratioed on Twitter, news of his political contemplation made the rounds on cable news and in major newspapers in much more favorable terms.

His both-sides-ing of Democrats and Republicans despite the GOP harboring honest-to-goodness white supremacists earned him not condemnation, but a platform by which to dispense his ridiculous comparisons. As it does too often these days, the world of political punditry largely failed to diagnose Schultz’s shortcomings prior to his abandonment of his aspirations for the time being. Though if you’ve been paying attention to the Bret Stephenses and the Donny Deutsches of the world, this may come as no great shock to you.

Which brings us now to Michael Bloomberg, presidential candidate, who has derided the GND as “pie-in-the-sky,” has insisted M4A will “bankrupt the country,” and who possesses a—shall we say—complicated political legacy dating back to his time as mayor of New York City, including but not limited to his repeated switches away from and later back toward the Democratic Party, his push to extend the city’s term limits law so he could serve a third term in office, and his support for much-criticized policies such as stop-and-frisk. In many respects, he appears to be out of step with his chosen party of the moment, not to mention prospective Democratic voters.

Try telling to this to the talking heads at MSNBC, however. In an on-air segment shortly after Bloomberg’s filing to get his name on the Alabama Democratic primary ballot, Meet the Press host Chuck Todd rather nauseatingly argued that Bloomberg is not only a “serious contender,” but is among the more progressive candidates on the core issues appealing to leftists. Bernie Sanders already had fired shots at Bloomberg’s candidacy, saying that the former NYC mayor “ain’t gonna buy this election.” Tom Steyer, fellow billionaire, suggested Bloomberg should agree to the idea of a wealth tax if he were serious about running for president. Todd’s own panel guests didn’t even seem to be buying this analysis.

And yet, here was Todd, trying to make the case for Bloomberg because of his, um, supposed appeal to suburban Republicans? While I’m all for Chuck Todd embarrassing himself on live television, these talking points do nothing but insult the intelligence of the viewer. Michael Bloomberg is a “serious” candidate because of his personal finances. End of story. He may have better electoral prospects than his successor, Bill de Blasio, but that’s not saying much considering de Blasio (who doesn’t believe Bloomberg should be running in the first place, by the by) ended his run not long after Howard Schultz suspended his ill-fated quest for glory in 2020. In an era in which the status quo is being scrutinized and flat-out rejected, Bloomberg seems like a prototypical bad candidate. All this before we get to his past comments on women and alleged inappropriate conduct toward them, which make him look like the center-left’s version of Trump. This is who Democratic Party supporters should back?

Ah, but this is what privilege looks like. It affords you ample opportunity to publicly lament the concept of a wealth tax and have other people give you free press and do your dirty work trying to convince the public of your legitimacy for you. It gives you a ticket to the dance without having to do any of the hard work of building a political profile or raising the funds to mount a campaign. It lets you create a toxic work environment that encourages the open objectification of female employees and emboldens male leadership to make sexual advances and inappropriate comments with impunity. The potential loss of this privilege and criticism of the above may be interpreted by people like Bloomberg as unfairness. But it’s a bit of the scales tipping in the other direction—and perhaps they haven’t tipped quite far enough yet.


For a progressive like myself, what is so frustrating about the existence of presidential wannabes like Michael Bloomberg and Howard Schultz—aside from the notion they are glaring examples of why we need to get big money out of politics—is that they only serve to amplify the voices of other centrists like them, making the case to Americans that there is no way we can achieve the kinds of policies the Bernie Sanderses and Elizabeth Warrens of the world envision. They’re too unrealistic. They’d be a disaster for the country. They’re akin to the pony that children ask for for their birthdays or Christmas. You’re not a child, are you, prospective voter?

Presumably, Bloomberg and Schultz are smart men. They might be prone to delusions of grandeur, mind you, but who isn’t from time to time? But yes, this is why their take on issues like the environment and health care are so disappointing. If someone like Bloomberg is such a visionary leader, why can’t he think of a way to make initiatives like the Green New Deal and Medicare for All work?

For that matter, why can’t other moderates see the light? In mathematics, students are taught to work backwards to solve problems. Sure, the potential solutions for the United States might be more complex than with a sixth-grader’s homework. The mechanism, though, is the same. Before saying no to an idea, why not play around with it? What meaningful societal advancement has ever arisen from defeatist capitulation?

The obvious complication herein, of course, is that Bloomberg and others may be aware of how to work to solve these problems, but actively choose to ignore these avenues. Then again, maybe they simply are blinded by a mindset that refuses to let them envision the full range of possibilities. One might argue that there are no conditions by which men like Bloomberg and Schultz could appreciate the big picture. They are so far removed from what life is like for average Americans they simply can’t acknowledge their situations.

Sure, this critique can be leveled at politicians of all make and model to a lesser or greater degree; Bernie supporter that I am, I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that he is a millionaire in his own right on the strength of his book sales. For the likes of these billionaires, however, it rings especially true. What’s more, it can’t be ruled out that they aren’t panning Elizabeth Warren’s ultra-millionaire tax out of self-serving interest. Even when they have more money than God like Bill Gates does.

Could Michael Bloomberg make an impact on the 2020 presidential race? Perhaps. Is he what America needs, though? No, and you can bet Donald Trump is licking his chops at the prospect of facing him in the general election. Democrats, there’s too much at stake to entertain thoughts of what President Bloomberg might do for the country.

Sorry to be such a meanie about it.

Facebook Is Not Your Friend

Mark Zuckerberg invoked the iconic figures of Frederick Douglass and Martin Luther King, Jr. when defending why his company will allow political candidates to lie with reckless abandon. Wait, what? (Photo Credit: Anthony Quintano/Flickr/CC BY 2.0)

Q: What kind of company views the very existence of Elizabeth Warren’s presidential campaign as an “existential threat?”

A: Facebook, and the doom-and-gloom terms in which it frames this discussion tell you all you need to know about whose side it’s on.

What’s Mark Zuckerberg and Co.’s bugaboo about the progressive Democrat’s candidacy? Senator Warren doesn’t seem like the most physically imposing character. Could one woman really represent that much of a danger to a corporation worth billions of dollars?

Well, if she becomes President of the United States, perhaps. As a Democratic senator from the state of Massachusetts, Warren has built a profile championing corporate accountability and emphasizing standing up for the rights of end users of companies’ goods and services. Despite Joe Biden’s attempt to take credit for it in the most recent Democratic presidential debate, her signature achievement heretofore is the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, a creation explicitly and singularly devoted to safeguarding average Americans in their solicitation of financial services.

On a related note, Warren has been a vocal critic of Wells Fargo and its executive leadership, memorably grilling then-CEO John Stumpf in 2016 during a Senate Banking Committee hearing about the banking giant’s underhanded business practices and later advocating for the institution to remain under a growth cap imposed by the Fed until it can evidence a willingness to comply with standards of equitable behavior. Seeing as Wells Fargo has seen a revolving door at the top since then and still languishes under an asset restriction, it appears her concerns are more than warranted.

Broadly speaking then, Elizabeth Warren represents a desire to more directly regulate corporate America, including the tech sector, distinguishing herself from rival Bernie Sanders as an adherent of capitalism rather than a self-described democratic socialist. For Facebook, meanwhile, an organization predicated on selling and manipulating user data which might have and should have faced stronger repercussions for the breadth of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, this does not compute.

Understandably, monoliths like Amazon, Facebook, and Google don’t wish to have their size or power circumscribed. The same applies to the big banks, who have met likewise with Sen. Sanders’s ire and calls for separation of their traditional banking elements and more speculative financial services. How Facebook is going about trying to resist demands for greater accountability, however, deserves every bit of admonishment and scrutiny.

Dipayan Ghosh, co-director of the Digital Platforms & Democracy Project at the Harvard Kennedy School and former adviser to both Facebook and the Obama administration, is one of the growing lot who believes it’s time for Facebook to be more strictly regulated. Ghosh’s sentiments come on the heels of an announcement by the social media titan that it won’t censor or even fact-check politicians despite the notion these ads may contain false or misleading claims.

To be fair, actors across the political spectrum are prone to false or misleading content in their political advertisements; Sen. Warren’s campaign, for a bit of shock value, recently led its own Facebook ad with the notion that Zuckerberg and Facebook had endorsed Donald Trump for re-election before admitting within the same space that that wasn’t literally true. (In response, the Facebook Newsroom Twitter account sent a rebuke of sorts referencing the ad, which is vaguely astonishing in itself.) Nonetheless, when a policy shift clearly benefits lying liars who lie such as Trump, such a move gives pause.

Let’s get one thing straight: Donald Trump is not a smart man, but he ain’t no dummy either. This is to say that he knows how to take advantage of an institution which helps his bottom line, and his campaign has exploited Facebook’s refusal to remove disingenuous political content with heavy investment in advertising through this medium as well as Google. While Joe Biden and his son Hunter’s alleged malfeasance have been a frequent target of Trump’s scorn—even though there is no evidence to suggest the Bidens have done anything improper and, ahem, people in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones—the falsehoods and rules violations have been widespread and numerous. In a way, this spending is a perfect microcosm of a presidency marked by its own flagrant falsehoods and rules violations.

For his part, Zuckerberg has sought to defend Facebook’s new open-door political advertising policy on free speech grounds, weirdly invoking the likes of Frederick Douglass and Martin Luther King Jr.—what?—in making his case across media outlets and envisioning his company as one which charitably allows for freedom of expression. Much as you can’t yell “Fire!” in a crowded theater or yell “Bomb!” on a airplane with impunity, though, if you’re a platform with the influence and reach of Facebook, you can’t let other people and entities with influence and reach wantonly peddle their lies—or at least you shouldn’t be able to. At the very least, if you’re going to enforce the rules (or not enforce them), you should do so without apparent political prejudice.

Ay, here’s the rub: for all the accusations of a liberal bias on platforms like Facebook, the company’s actions and its very structure suggest a complicity with conservatism and conservative figures/outlets. Over the past few weeks, Judd Legum has practically made Facebook’s dalliances with right-wing favoritism the raison d’être of his newsletter Popular Information. Among the items Legum has cataloged:

  • Zuckerberg meeting with Tucker Carlson and other conservative commentators and journalists to discuss matters of free speech and partnership, and Facebook naming the Daily Caller as a fact-checking partner despite a history of inaccuracies (to put it mildly)
  • Facebook stacking its D.C. office top leadership with veterans of Republican politics
  • Zuckerberg falsely claiming Facebook was created in response to and as a means to facilitate conversation about the Iraq War and other conflicts
  • Facebook permitting coordinated inauthentic behavior by the Daily Wire, originally Ben Shapiro’s baby, while acting to outlaw the same practices from progressive sources
  • Facebook failing to override its automated controls to flag and ban content for Black Lives Matter groups, LGBTQ activists, left-leaning small publications, and others forums which may be critical of conservative views

All this has made for a climate at Facebook hinting at a “frightening new world for political communication,” as Ghosh phrases it. He writes:

It is now the case that leading politicians can openly spread political lies without repercussion. Indeed, the Trump campaign was already spreading other falsehoods through online advertising immediately before Facebook made its announcement — and as one might predict, most of those advertisements have not been removed from the platform.

Should our politicians fail to reform regulations for internet platforms and digital advertising, our political future will be at risk. The 2016 election revealed the tremendous harm to the American democratic process that can result from coordinated misinformation campaigns; 2020 will be far worse if we do nothing to contain the capacity for politicians to lie on social media.

Could the Trump presidential campaign engage in the same kind of chicanery it did in 2016 and still lose in 2020? Sure. In fact, if the results of that election were based solely on the popular vote, Trump never would’ve been elected. Still, Facebook is playing a dangerous game, one which invites great risk to the American political process without much risk to its own survival and which allies the company with disreputable (outside of conservative circles anyway) people like Ben Shapiro and Tucker Carlson. It is deliberately trying to sway the election to serve the desires of executive leadership, whether it legitimately believes the kind of rhetoric from publications like the Daily Caller and the Daily Wire or not.

In doing so, Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook are making it clear they are acting only in their own selfish interests. That doesn’t sound like something either Frederick Douglass or MLK would’ve wanted.


When we talk about Facebook’s sense of responsibility regarding how it handles user data and the veracity of claims in advertising that appear on the site, opinions may vary with respect to how culpable we truly believe Mark Zuckerberg et al. to be. If we were to take, say, a Friedman-esque examination of things, we might aver that if Facebook is financially responsible to its shareholders and isn’t breaking the law outright, deliberations about corporate social responsibility are much ado about nothing. In other words, while we might find Facebook’s actions objectionable, as far as leadership may be concerned, they are doing what’s best for the business. At heart, that is priority one.

In this day and age, however, such a perspective is a minority opinion. Personal and organizational accountability matter, even if not everyone agrees on how we can enforce adherence to a certain standard of conduct. Fines against a company may look like an appropriate punishment, but not only might these sums function as a mere drop in the proverbial bucket for corporations like Facebook, they don’t get at the personnel and the faulty leadership structures to blame for such lapses or intentional misdeeds.

What’s more, assigning guilt to an entity without the capacity for feeling guilty (i.e. a corporation is not a person) arguably is of limited utility and may only serve to ensnare lower-level accomplices or negatively impact workers on the lower links of the food chain. Much in the way #MeToo can be scrutinized for how much change it has effected and how durable its assignment of repercussions, there is room to wonder how punitive these measures truly are for major players in the U.S. economy, especially within the tech sector. Both in terms of applicable statutes and defined ethical frameworks, we seem to be lagging behind Silicon Valley’s attempts to define itself as an adjudicator of moral standards.

So, what’s the answer? Owing to the complexity of the question re individual vs. company-wide responsibility, the potential solutions are manifold, but some part of what actions should be taken would seem to involve government intervention. As noted, Dipayan Ghosh, for one, believes it’s time to regulate. From the closing of his piece:

If Facebook cannot take appropriate action and remove paid political lies from its platform, the only answer must be earnest regulation of the company — regulation that forces Facebook to be transparent about the nature of political ads and prevents it from propagating political falsehoods, even if they are enthusiastically distributed by President Trump.

Our nation has always aspired to place the interests of our democratic purpose over the interests of markets. Silicon Valley should be no exception.

Going back to Elizabeth Warren, supposed existential threat that she is, she advocates going a step further and breaking up monopolistic tech companies like Amazon, Facebook, and Google, even going as far as to call for the undoing of certain mergers such as Amazon’s acquisition of Whole Foods and Facebook’s ownership of Instagram. Zuckerberg, in the leaked audio from a Facebook employee meeting that produced his quote about Warren in the first place, acknowledges the likelihood of a lawsuit to combat such a move, in the same breath expressing his confidence that the company would be successful in an eventual legal challenge. Are Warren’s plans unrealistic? Is Zuckerberg overconfident in this instance? By now, we’re used to big businesses winning, but the courts, interpreting existing antitrust law, may yet favor would-be regulators.

To say the least therefore, the fight over Facebook’s open-door political advertising policy appears far from over. In the meantime, and barring a course change like that of Twitter’s to ban all political ads (personally, I don’t love the idea the company is just throwing up its hands and waiving its potential to be a model actor, but it’s better than doing nothing), what you can be sure of is that, Facebook, a company which has never meaningfully apologized for the large-scale breach of trust exposed by the Cambridge Analytica bombshell, is not your friend. You may like being able to connect with family and friends and share photos and do all the things the social media platform is capable of doing. But executive leadership is neither truly interested in your privacy nor the sanctity of the First Amendment, and if you’re using the service, you’re implicitly giving your assent to their disregard of both. Whether that’s a deal-breaker is up to you.

Putting “Getting Things Done” in Context

What has Bernie Sanders done? Only been a consistent leader on progressive issues in over 20 years in Congress (and even before that) and started a political revolution. How’s that? (Photo Credit: Gage Skidmore/CC BY-SA 3.0)

As a Bernie supporter dating back to 2016, many things stick in my proverbial craw, but one turn of phrase even today still grinds my likewise proverbial gears. When asked during a Democratic debate in October 2015 by Anderson Cooper whether she is a moderate or a progressive, Hillary Clinton remarked, “I’m a progressive, but I’m a progressive who likes to get things done.”

Ooh! Sen. Sanders, did you feel that sick burn?

Without wanting to delve into Clinton’s history and go tit for tat, pointing out all the things she may not have “gotten done”—like, for instance, actually winning the 2016 presidential election—the litmus test of getting things done remains problematic because of how unevenly and borderline disingenuously it gets applied, specifically as it concerns authentically progressive candidates.

For that matter, I’ve witnessed it being used by supporters of one progressive candidate against another. You probably have an idea about where I’m going with this. Anecdotally, I’ve seen some Elizabeth Warren fans take shots at Bernie, asking, for all his 28 years in the House of Representatives and the Senate, what has he, you know, done? Presumably, some of these Warren supporters were Hillary supporters from the last campaign cycle, so the same line of attack about what the senator from Vermont has accomplished may yet be fresh in their minds. For a select few, there may additionally be some misdirected resentment in accordance with the notion Bernie is not a “true Democrat” and was a chief reason why Donald Trump won. Poor Hillary. It’s never her fault.

Key to the do-nothing-Bernie argument is a glance at his legislative record, particularly the legislation for which he was primary sponsor actually getting enacted. His objectors will point out that, in over two decades in Congress, Sanders has only had seven of his resolutions/bills ratified: four from his time in the House, three in the Senate. Five of these motions enacted are germane mostly to his home state, including two pieces of legislation which served to designate post offices after someone specific. Not altogether scintillating stuff. The other two specifically addressed cost-of-living adjustments for veterans and updating the federal charter for the Veterans of Foreign Wars. Again, you may find yourself uninspired unless you were specifically impacted by these changes.

What this line of thinking fails to account for is the context in which these bills were introduced. After all, this is Congress we’re talking about here, an institution not exactly known for its prolific productivity. The very GovTrack.us showcase of Sanders’s sponsored legislation linked to above helps explain this reality.

Does 7 not sound like a lot? Very few bills are ever enacted — most legislators sponsor only a handful that are signed into law. But there are other legislative activities that we don’t track that are also important, including offering amendments, committee work and oversight of the other branches, and constituent services.

Right. There’s a bigger picture to be appreciated. On the subject of committee work, Bernie is a ranking member of the Senate Committee on the Budget and a member of the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions; Energy and Natural Resources; Environment and Public Works; and Veterans’ Affairs committees. So there’s that.

Such analysis also doesn’t consider the over 200 bills/resolutions signed by the president to which Sanders added his name as a co-sponsor since being sworn in as a U.S. Representative in 1991. As it must be clarified, not all of these are watershed legislative achievements. I mean, from my count, nine of these co-sponsorships were related to commemorative coins. Still, to imply inaction on Bernie’s part is misleading.

Moreover, this ignores all the times Sen. Sanders has shown leadership on a bill that, through no fault of his own, hasn’t been passed. Look at his recent offerings. Recognizing the “climate emergency” for what it is. College for All. Medicare for All. Social Security expansion. Raising wages. Lowering drug prices. These were all proposed this year. Just because this legislation is dead on arrival in a GOP-controlled Senate with a Republican in the White House doesn’t confer meaninglessness. It signals the individual proposing it is willing to fight for things worth fighting for.

This is before we even get to the issue of when political expediency “gets things done” but not necessarily in a way that is productive for all Americans. Back in June, Joe Biden touted his ability to work with the likes of James Eastland and Herman Talmadge to pass legislation, waxing nostalgic on the “civility” that could be afforded to all parties.

Beyond the obvious problem that Biden is touting his ability to work with Southern segregationists in—let me highlight this in my notes—2019, that communal effort may not be what it’s cracked up to be. The former VP has received his due criticism from Kamala Harris and other Democratic rivals for allying with segregationists in opposition of busing to integrate schools. Next to his legacy as “an architect of mass incarceration,” as Cory Booker put it, Biden’s willingness to compromise paints him in a rather poor light. It certainly clouds his purported credentials of being a champion of civil rights.

It’s not just with Bernie either. Across the board for Democrats, it seems instructive to view legislative efforts through the lens of what party controls each house and who is potentially waiting to sign a passed bill in the Oval Office. Republicans, led by shameless obstructionist and judiciary stacker Mitch McConnell, control the Senate. Donald Trump, who appears to have a death grip on today’s iteration of the GOP, is president. Should we fault Sen. Warren for watching Trump and Co. dismantle the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau before her eyes? Should we admonish Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and other members of The Squad for voting their conscience only to see Senate Republicans or moderate Democrats in either house stand in their way?

Centrists like Nancy Pelosi may sneer at progressives who “have their following” only to see their votes outnumbered or their voices drowned out by appeals to civility and expediency. Absent the ability to lead, however, the progress they seek is all but nullified. There’s a reason why figures like Sanders and AOC are so popular when Congress as a whole is not. The policy positions they embrace are, by and large, supported by the American public. What’s not lacking is their commitment. It’s the political will to see their initiatives through.


Key to the Clintonian-Bidenesque “getting things done” mentality is a firm belief in the value of bipartisanship, of reaching across the aisle in the name of advancing legislation. Say the right things. Make the right amendments. Pull the right levers. Eventually, a workable bill will come out. That’s how things are supposed to work, in theory. Reasonable people making reasonable policies.

Amid the dysfunction of today’s Congress, this ideal still appears to hold water with the general public. How else to explain Joe Biden’s continued hold on the top of Democratic Party polls after two poor showings in the debates and despite a history of gaffes and poor decisions? Unless some voters are simply happy enough to have some semblance of Barack Obama’s presidency back. If we could just go back to the days before the era of President Donald Trump, everything would be back to normal, right?

Maybe, maybe not. Biden may reminisce fondly about the days when Democrats and Republicans could get along peaceably or believe that once “sensible” leadership is restored to Washington, the GOP will cut the malarkey and retake the mantle of responsible stewards of the country. He arguably both underestimates the polarization of the current political climate and overestimates his own deal-making ability in doing so, though.

Today’s Republican Party isn’t your granddaddy’s Republican Party, simply put. Not when the president is lashing out against his critics on Twitter daily, getting policy directives from FOX News, and putting the nation on the path to a dictatorship. Not when members of the party are actively denying the severity of our climate crisis or pretending that white nationalism doesn’t exist. Not when party leaders are defending the inhumane treatment of migrants at our border and are sharing derogatory memes about Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and her progressive colleagues with impunity.

For those of us who aren’t old enough to recall an environment like the one Biden envisions, this is all we know of the GOP, and based on how low it has sunk and continues to sink, there’s every reason to believe it has reached the point of no return—if things were even that good to begin with. Once we take off our rose-colored glasses and re-appraise past decisions from intersectional perspectives, we may come to realize just how devastating certain policies spearheaded by both parties have been for Americans outside the so-called ruling class.

In addition to his checkered civil rights record, Biden’s cozy relationship with the banking, financial services, and insurance industries contrasts starkly with his image as a blue-collar champion. Given a crowded Democratic primary field and ample resources with which to evaluate his overall record, this may turn out to be a liability. That is, even if he earns the party nomination, there’s still the matter of the general election. Trump seemingly defied the odds against Hillary Clinton, in many respects a superior candidate. Who’s to say doubling down on someone like Biden won’t backfire, leaving us with a second term of President Trump? If he’s doing and saying all these reprehensible things now, what will this mean when he gets re-elected and has nothing to lose?

Going back to the days of bipartisan cooperation under past administrations may have its superficial appeal to voters, especially moderate whites who can better afford to be casual political participants. Even that relative comfort may be illusory, however. The climate emergency is not going to fix itself. Nor is the student debt crisis or the health care affordability crisis or our crumbling infrastructure or any other serious dilemma facing our world. Simply put, the stakes are higher now and Obama-era notions of hope and change dissolving into incrementalism aren’t sufficient. It’s going to take more than that. It’s going to take real people power.

Let’s therefore put aside vague, top-down conceptualizations of “getting things done” in favor of mobilizing voters and encouraging citizens to get involved at various levels of government. We’ve got the people. We only need the conviction to see it through. If you’re not on board with a progressive vision for our future, don’t worry about what is politically “feasible” or what can get done. Worry about getting out of the way of those determined to lead.

Re Kamala vs. Tulsi, Problems Abound

Tulsi Gabbard tore into Kamala Harris’s record as a prosecutor and attorney general of California during the second Democratic debate. Harris countered by pointing to Gabbard’s low polling numbers and questionable appraisals of world leaders like Bashar al-Assad. They’re both kind of right. (Photo Credit: AFGE/Flickr/CC BY 2.0)

The second round of Democratic Party presidential debates is behind us, and I think it is safe to say that many of our questions about the field have been answered and a clearer picture of the frontrunner’s identity is emerging.

Kidding! Nothing is certain, everything is chaos, and dark psychic forces threaten to take down the world as we know it. My joking allusion to Marianne Williamson aside (she’s a trip, ain’t she?), things are very much up in the air regarding the path to the Democratic nomination in 2020.

The first night seemed to be a productive one for Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, widely acknowledged to be the progressive leaders of the field. On this note, I’m really wondering what the point of CNN trying to showcase the likes of John Delaney, John Hickenlooper, and Tim Ryan was. Were they trying to certify them as mere pretenders? Or was this an attempt to “balance” out the leftists and/or rein them in?

If so, it arguably didn’t work, with Warren and Sanders getting in some of the best lines of the night against their centrist objectors languishing in the lower-polling echelons of the 20+ vying for the party’s presidential nod. Beto O’Rourke, Pete Buttigieg, and even the aforementioned spiritual teacher had their moments. Steve Bullock and his centrist brethren seemingly would be well advised to consider exiting the race as Eric Swalwell has done, but don’t let me, you know, rain on their parades.

The second night I admittedly didn’t watch as closely, but evidently, it had its share of memorable moments, if not more so than the half preceding it. Joe Biden once again seemed underprepared for the event, trying to do a delicate dance with his relationship to Barack Obama’s policies amid attacks from other candidates and apparently short-circuiting when attempting to instruct people to text to a certain number to join his campaign. Cory Booker, in an exchange with Biden on his record as mayor of Newark, accused the elder statesman of “dipping into the Kool-Aid when you don’t even know the flavor.” New York City mayor Bill de Blasio, another fringe candidate, faced interruptions from protestors over the city’s handling of Eric Garner’s death, shouting “Fire Pantaleo!” in response to the NYPD’s refusal as of yet to meaningfully hold the officer implicated in that incident accountable for his actions.

Perhaps most notable, however, was Kamala Harris’s disappointing performance in the eyes of her supporters after a triumphant first debate. Much in the way Harris exposed Joe Biden in the first debate on elements of his record, especially his stance on busing, Tulsi Gabbard potentially revealed a crack in her opponent’s façade, assailing her record as a prosecutor and later attorney general of the state of California.

Among Gabbard’s criticisms—which she is not alone in raising, it should be underscored—are accusations that Harris defended the use of the death penalty and brushed off evidence of wrongful convictions, ignored claims from sexual abuse survivors, and laughed off putting people in jail for offenses related to marijuana and truancy in schools. For Harris, trying to paint herself as a progressive leader, the attacks from Gabbard, appeared to broadside her. Cue the umpteen headlines about how Tulsi DESTROYED Harris.

Harris, for her part, fired back at Gabbard following the debate, helping set off a conversation that has spilled over into the days and nights afterward. When prompted by Anderson Cooper about the Hawaiian representative’s withering rebukes, Harris remarked that she doesn’t take the opinions of an “Assad apologist” like Tulsi seriously and demeaned her low polling percentage. Her campaign also invoked the specter of Russian meddling in American elections, suggesting Gabbard’s discourse was emblematic of propaganda from the Putin regime. Gabbard has since derided those comments as “cheap smears” designed to deflect from the real issue at hand concerning the state of criminal justice across the nation today.

It’s easy to take sides and get caught up in the win-or-lose, black-or-white dynamism of today’s political climate; Lord knows plenty of Internet and TV commentators have already taken sides in the war of words between these two women. Not simply to avoid confrontation, however, but there is room to appreciate how we can simultaneously agree and disagree with both candidates.

On Harris’s prosecutorial record, when confronted about it by Gabbard on-stage, she mustered, “I did the work of significantly reforming the criminal justice system of the state of 40 million people which became a national model for the work that needs to be done. And I am proud of that work.”

When asked further about it by Cooper post-debate, meanwhile, she dodged, pivoting to Gabbard’s low polling numbers and record on foreign policy. It suggests Harris is not altogether proud of the work she did or doesn’t want to invite the criticism from progressives. Either way, and regardless of Gabbard’s place among the field, she should have been able to defend herself over the course of the debate rather than after the fact and without her congressional colleague present.

As for Gabbard’s foreign policy stances, it’s, well, complicated. Having served as a medical operations specialist and military police officer in Iraq after enlisting in the Hawaii Army National Guard, she is critical of the policy of American interventionism that has characterized our nation’s foreign policy throughout its history, particularly as it intersects with our involvement in the Middle East. To this effect, she condemns the U.S.’s penchant for insinuating itself in other countries’ affairs in service of regime change and installation of leaders willing to acquiesce to American interests. It’s a position that commentators on both sides of the aisle are wont to defend.

Less defensible, however, is her relationship with autocrats of the Eastern Hemisphere as well as the political right. Gabbard has been adamant about the value of being able to meet with authoritarians like Syria’s Bashar al-Assad and Egypt’s Abdel Fattah el-Sisi to further a dialog, and at times has been—how shall we say this?—less than forceful in labeling Assad, for one, a brutal dictator and war criminal. In her own post-debate CNN one-on-one, she had to be pressed by Anderson Cooper on admitting as much. Gabbard has also praised Indian prime minister Narendra Modi, leader of the Indian People’s Party, a Hindu nationalist party (Gabbard is a practicing Hindu), who has seemingly not done enough to curb sectarian bigotry and violence against Muslims in his country. If we are judging her by the company she keeps/seemingly fails to adequately condemn, Gabbard isn’t above reproach.

On this note, among the Democrats in the field, Gabbard has been a favorite among conservatives ever since her criticism of President Barack Obama for refusing to call jihadists “radical Islamic terrorists,” regularly appearing on FOX News programs like Tucker Carlson’s to discuss her views. Her isolationist worldview and opposition to regime change in Syria appeal to anti-war libertarians and far-right leaders. In the past, she has also opposed civil unions and same-sex marriage, though she has since expressed support for the LGBT community, and voted with Republicans in 2015 to make it harder for Syrian and Iraqi refugees to immigrate to the United States. When you’re championed by figures like Richard Spencer and David Duke—yes, that David Duke—it raises one’s eyebrows.

One can’t be sure how personally Harris and Gabbard take these matters. At heart, both are still Democrats and after the election, they’ll need to be committed to fighting the GOP’s agenda, whether they serve in Congress or the White House. It’s their supporters and how their relationship is portrayed in the media, on the other hand, about which I tend to worry. It’s one thing for Kamala and her devotees to downplay Gabbard’s charges about her record because the latter is a relative unknown or a supposed stooge of the Kremlin. What if Cory Booker or Elizabeth Warren or Pete Buttigieg were to offer the same criticisms, though? And what will happen if Harris ultimately wins the nomination? You can be sure Republicans will come at her with this and worse.

As for Gabbard, progressives, some of whom are Bernie supporters who have favorable opinions about her since she became the first congresswoman to support him in his 2016 bid for the presidency, might cheer the notion of Harris being taken down a peg. Even if Gabbard does hold numerous positions agreeable to progressives and regardless of the fact she was the most Googled candidate after either round of debates, the reluctance at points to come down harder on Assad and other despots is problematic. At best, it’s something of a blind spot. At worst, it’s something more sinister, though this is not to accuse her in such a regard or anything. It’s simply troubling.

You can agree with Tulsi Gabbard’s remarks about Kamala Harris while still demanding accountability for her past votes and interactions with various world leaders. You can support Harris and dismiss Gabbard’s claims about her pre-Senate career, but you can also recognize this is a vulnerability of hers. Preferring a candidate doesn’t mean you need to apologize for her or him, nor does it mean you have to feed the media narrative of a “blood feud” or “catfight” by arguing with the other candidate’s backers on Twitter. At a time when social media helps amplify acrimony in political discourse, there’s room for a lot of ugliness in its elaboration. Two debates in, potential bad omens loom in the distance.


For me, the nature of the ad hominem attacks levied by Kamala Harris at Tulsi Gabbard and echoed by supporters of these candidates and those of other political figures is deeply disconcerting. As you’ll recall, Harris’s campaign, in deflecting from the matter of her checkered record within the purview of the California justice system, invoked Russian interference in our elections as a potential reason for why Gabbard might attack her in this way. Even before this, meanwhile, corporate media were making the connection between Tulsi and Russia.

It should be no wonder, then, that accusations of Gabbard being an operative of the Kremlin or her defenders being Russian bots were flying around wildly after the debates. To be fair, Russian meddling is a real concern for our country. The U.S. intelligence community has made this abundantly clear. That said, suspicion of criticism levied at an establishment-backed candidate like Kamala, feeding itself like the ouroboros eating its own tail, verges on McCarthyite paranoia. What about Bernie? He went to Russia once. Is he a tool of the Kremlin? How do I know you’re not a Russian bot? Your papers, please!

Even when people aren’t claiming that Vladimir Putin and the Russians are loving the debates for the discord and confusion they’ve supposedly helped sow within the American electorate, Democratic supporters and news outlets are keen to advance the theory that all this in-fighting hurts the Democrats and will only lead to re-electing Donald Trump. By now, Republicans are well practiced at making assertions like “Democrats want open borders” and “they’re trying to turn America into a socialist country” in standing by their man.

Both rank-and-file members and party elites seem to forget, though, that primaries are designed to parse out the differences between candidates in search of a single nominee. This is to say that, for a “big-tent” association like the Democratic Party, disagreements are inevitable, and besides, there is yet ample time to come to a single choice. Moreover, on the subject of GOP talking points, even Pete Buttigieg, backed in part by wealthy donors and Wall Street money, recognizes that these attacks from Trump and Co. are liable to frame the Dems as “socialists” no matter who ultimately gets the party nod.

Such is the nature of the beast in modern politics. Heck, even moderate Democrats might levy the same charges against certain members of the field. When alignments with billion-dollar industries and prevailing opinions about the necessity of hewing toward the center to win elections are at stake, leftists may be assailed by anyone to their right, regardless of party affiliation. Talk about your knock-down, drag-out fights.

November 2020 is coming up soon enough. There are still several debates to be had, however, not to mention elections in 2019 that stand to yet more directly impact our lives. Relatedly, it’s one thing if we use these debates to have an honest conversation about the candidates, their policy positions, and the future of the Democratic Party. It’s quite another if we allow ourselves to be swept up by divisive narratives which border on conspiracy theories and use mudslinging and personal attacks to squelch the kind of open discussions we should be having. Under the latter set of circumstances, it may not matter how active Russian agents are in trying to promote chaos. Not when all we need is the slightest push.

Bret Stephens Sucks, Or, When Punditry Goes Awry

Despite growing up in Mexico and speaking Spanish fluently, Bret Stephens espouses us-versus-them attitudes and lambasts Democrats for their support of undocumented immigrants. How cool! (Photo Credit: Veni Markovski/Flickr/CC BY 2.0)

Despite President Donald Trump’s umpteen comments in reference to the “failing” New York Times, the “Fake News Washington Post,” and other notable publications critical of his leadership, there has been a lot of good reporting during his tenure in the White House and in the campaign leading up to the election.

It is good reporting borne out of necessity, prompted by an administration in disarray built on a complete disregard for transparency and truth. Alas, there has also been some less-than-good reporting and/or questionable editorial oversight in recent times. Frequently, media outlets will report Trump’s public comments at face value, devoid of meaningful context. “President Trump accuses Democrats of election fraud.” Right, but what about the idea he is doing so without citing any credible evidence? For the love of journalistic integrity, call a spade a spade, won’t you?

If reporting on Trump’s failed stewardship of the Taj Mahal in Atlantic City or the utter fraud behind Trump University or his repeated aggressive sexual behavior in and out of marriage or his stance on the Central Park Five and advocacy for their execution is the good, and reporting on, say, Stephen Miller eating glue as a child is the bad, the ugly may be the out-of-touch views promulgated by today’s television pundits and columnists, many of them white males who refuse to check their privilege at the door.

Case in point, Bret Stephens, whose work, according to many familiar with it, is a repository for bad takes. In a recent column for the New York Times, Stephens opined that the Democratic Party, as evidenced by the first round of presidential debates, is off to a “wretched start” in advance of 2020 and “seems interested in helping everyone except the voters it needs.”

Let’s put aside our puzzlement over why Stephens, a conservative notorious for being a climate change “agnostic” (as he terms it), feels he needs to criticize the Dems declared for presidential runs in this way even noting his frequent criticism of President Trump. The startlingly crude viewpoints in his piece speak for themselves. In particular, this passage drew jeers and censure from the blogosphere/Twitterverse:

In this week’s Democratic debates, it wasn’t just individual candidates who presented themselves to the public. It was also the party itself. What conclusions should ordinary people draw about what Democrats stand for, other than a thunderous repudiation of Donald Trump, and how they see America, other than as a land of unscrupulous profiteers and hapless victims?

Here’s what: a party that makes too many Americans feel like strangers in their own country. A party that puts more of its faith, and invests most of its efforts, in them instead of us.

They speak Spanish. We don’t. They are not U.S. citizens or legal residents. We are. They broke the rules to get into this country. We didn’t. They pay few or no taxes. We already pay most of those taxes. They willingly got themselves into debt. We’re asked to write it off. They don’t pay the premiums for private health insurance. We’re supposed to give up ours in exchange for some V.A.-type nightmare. They didn’t start enterprises that create employment and drive innovation. We’re expected to join the candidates in demonizing the job-creators, breaking up their businesses and taxing them to the hilt.

As numerous critics have pointed out, for Stephens, who spent his childhood in Mexico and is fluent in Spanish, to lump himself in with the “this is America, we speak English” crowd is woefully disingenuous. You know, unless he suffered a head injury that has caused him to forget the Spanish he learned as well as the very fact he speaks it, which in that case, my condolences.

More than that, though, the dehumanizing “them-versus-us” rhetoric at a time when migrant families are being indefinitely detained en masse in substandard facilities (the term “facilities,” in many cases, is a generous one) without legal representation or even being charged with a crime is chilling. Not to mention it’s riddled with inaccuracies as a function of being grounded in nativism and trickle-down hogwash.

They broke the rules, even though seeking asylum is supposed to be legal. They don’t pay taxes, even though they do. They got themselves into debt. Who? Are we talking about undocumented immigrants here or college students/young adults born in the States, whose issues with repaying their student loans are nothing at which to scoff? And spare me the “job-creators, taxed to the hilt” line. If we’re talking about multinational corporations, some of them have gotten exceedingly proficient in paying little to no taxes while forgoing investment in their employees and the surrounding communities for the sake of relentlessly seeking profit. In this respect, creating jobs (which may not even be that rewarding for the job-holders in the first place) is the least they could do.

Stephens isn’t the only one at the Times trafficking in self-centered moderate conservative whining. In his own reaction column to the Democratic debates, David Brooks, another Never-Trumper, pleads with Democrats not to “drive him away,” taking it upon himself to speak for the 35% of American voters who identify as “moderates.”

In doing so, he decries how “the party is moving toward all sorts of positions that drive away moderates and make it more likely the nominee will be unelectable.” Americans like their health plans. The economy is doing well (yay, capitalism!). These candidates sound like they want open borders, which has lost progressives elections elsewhere around the world. There’s too much raging against the top 1% and not against the top 20% (the upper middle class).

There’s that concept again: “electability.” It’s a concept everyone seems to profess knowing a lot about without being able to clearly define it. Will advocating for Medicare for All (which, by the by, has broad support from Americans across the political spectrum) make a candidate unelectable in the general election? How would we even know? The economy is doing well now. What happens if we suffer another economic crisis (and yes, there are warning signs to be had)?

On immigration, are we to ignore the ethical and moral concerns for-profit imprisonment of asylum-seekers and immigrants presents, not to mention the real economic benefits these people bring to the table, because of moderate whites’ vague worries about a loss of “cultural identity?” On the Democrats trying to engage with Trump in a battle of “populist v. populist,” why not mention how Trump’s supposed “populism” is really just a concession to wealthy white males like himself?

Ultimately and in all, Brooks is critical of progressives who reject calls for civility and, in laying out their vision of the future, ensure the party can’t win next November. What good is “civility,” however, when today’s Republican Party is premised on bad-faith, deceptive arguments for holding up the status quo? And rather than appealing to a shrinking, elusive voting bloc, why not try to generate actual enthusiasm among those who haven’t voted or previously couldn’t vote? Why not try to win rather than playing not to lose? Have we learned nothing from 2016?

Evidently not. Instead, we get moderates who lauded Hillary Clinton and assured us voters would tire of Trump once again propping up an establishment candidate in Joe Biden because he supposedly “can stand up to” the orange-faced incumbent. Never mind Biden’s checkered past as a senator or that he seems to lack original policy ideas. Let the gaslighting continue and ignore the sound of progressives banging their heads against the wall.


I’ve highlighted Bret Stephens’s and David Brooks’s questionable outlooks on the 2020 presidential race, but this kind of analysis is by no means limited to conservatives. On the Democratic/liberal end of things, there are examples of punditry gone awry a-plenty.

Rebecca Traister, columnist at The Cut, an offshoot of New York magazine skewed toward women’s interests, describes this as the “Donny Deutsch problem in media.” As she explains, while the Democratic Party field is indicative of the country’s growing diversity—both ethnic and ideological—the face of today’s talking heads in political media hasn’t kept pace. Traister writes:

Where many Americans have seen the emergence of compelling and charismatic candidates who don’t look like those who’ve preceded them (but do look more like the country they want to lead), some prominent pundits seem to be looking at a field of people they simply can’t recognize as presidential. Where many hear Democratic politicians arguing vigorously on behalf of more justice and access to resources for people who have historically been kept at the margins of power, some prominent columnists are hearing a scary call to destabilization and chaos, imagining themselves on the outside of politics they’ve long assumed should be centered around them.

Altogether, what’s emerging is a view of a presidential commentariat that — in terms of both ideas and diversity — is embarrassingly outpaced by the candidates, many of whom appear smarter, more thoughtful, and to have a nimbler grasp of American history and structural inequities than the television journalists being paid to cover them.

Traister acknowledges Stephens amid the elaboration of her column, but adds some more names as examples of individuals who are supposed to be experts in their field but seem out of touch with what’s happening in the world more than anything.

Following the debates, Joe Scarborough railed against the Democrats’ stances in favor of undocumented immigrants being entitled to health care and that their crossing the border should be decriminalized. Chris Matthews, like Stephens, framed Kamala Harris’s taking of Joe Biden to task on the subject of busing during the debate as making white people feel as if they are “on trial” or that she is speaking out of some racially-based resentment. As for Mr. Deutsch, he panned Elizabeth Warren’s prospects in the general election next to Biden’s, touting his experience as an advertising and branding executive as an affirmation of the validity of his viewpoint. He, like Donald Trump, evidently gets people. Well, I’m sold, I don’t know about you.

As Traister finds and as others would agree, the “safe center” on which these men think the Democrats can rely may no longer be the source of salvation they or other mainstream liberals imagine it to be. This much becomes evident when looking at the substantial appeal of signature policy ideals such as the Green New Deal, Medicare for All, and taxing the wealthy at a higher marginal rate. The contention of Deutsch et al. is that promoting these positions will hand Trump the election in 2020. Maybe it’s through embracing a bold vision of the future (a vision furthered by strong female candidates, no less) that the excitement needed to turn out the necessary voters to prevent his re-election will be achieved, though.

In fairness, Traister admits the likes of Stephens and Scarborough may be right, at least in the short term. Maybe the Democrats will win with Biden as their chosen candidate. Over the long term, however, the party strategy will almost certainly have to change in deference to a “different, faster, smarter, lefter turn toward the future.” To this end, the hegemonic hold white males have over political punditry will need to be addressed at some point too.

Unfortunately, this won’t be realized nearly fast enough, meaning newspaper subscribers and TV viewers will be forced to see the 2020 campaign through the prism of these privileged, moneyed men’s worldviews. Meaning we’re liable to get defenses of Biden and his condescending attitude toward people unlike him ad nauseum until the election or until his bid for the White House goes down in flames.

There’s a #MeToo dimension to this disproportionate representation as well. Matthews caught heat last year for an unearthed “hot mic” incident of sorts from 2016 where he jokingly asked where he put “that Bill Cosby pill” he brought with him in advance of an interview with Hillary Clinton. Deutsch, by his own admission, is a shameless flirt who has fantasized about women he was worked with and waxed poetic on Sarah Palin’s hotness when she first came to political prominence.

When Traister speaks to how problematic it is that potential voters and prospective candidates for public office are having their opinions shaped by these men, she has a firm grasp of what she’s talking about. Their professionalism (or lack thereof) is certainly not above reproach. Might we not submit the same of their political insights?

The male-dominated world of political media reacting with pearl-clutching bewilderment at up-and-comers in the Democratic Party like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez leading by example. Joe Biden’s place atop the polls despite his apparent unpreparedness in that first debate. These phenomena are related. These men are unused to a world in which their place atop the hierarchy is no longer guaranteed, where a twenty-something who previously worked as a bartender—gasp!—is beating them in the open exchange of ideas. As the very title of Rebecca Traister’s article asks, politics is changing; why aren’t the pundits who cover it?

Amen, sister.

Identity Politics, the Double-Edged Sword

Joe Biden isn’t necessarily a bad candidate because he’s an old white guy. He still may be a bad candidate, mind you, just not necessarily because he’s an old white guy. (Photo Credit: Marc Nozell/Flickr/CC BY 2.0)

Dear discerning members of the left,

What if I told you there is a 37-year-old person of color running for the Democratic Party presidential nomination in 2020 who believes in health care for all, free public tuition, a $15 minimum wage, supports the Green New Deal, stands by our veterans, promotes intersectionality, advocates for upholding the rights of vulnerable subsets of the population, champions large-scale economic, political, and social reform, and holds rallies attended by thousands of enthusiastic young people across the country? You’d sign up for that candidate in a heartbeat, wouldn’t you?

OK. Now assume the same things about this candidate—only change that instead this individual is a 77-year-old white guy. Are you suddenly less enthused?

In a nutshell, I’ve just described Bernie Sanders’s platform and one of the common criticisms I’ve observed anecdotally in my interactions with various Democratic and left-leaning activist groups. Never mind that Bernie believes in criminal justice reform, demanding the wealthy and large corporations pay their fair share in taxes, empowering Native American tribal nations, expanding Social Security, fair trade and workers’ rights, getting big money of out politics, gun safety, immigration reform, investing in rural America, LGBTQ equality, racial justice, reinvesting in public education and teachers, standing up for the people of Puerto Rico, and Wall Street reform. At the end of the day, he’s just another old white male.

I get it. The U.S. presidency has been a bastion of white male privilege for, well, ever, with Barack Obama being the notable exception to the rule, and after him going right back to Donald J. Trump, who is pretty much the poster boy for this concept. For what it’s worth, I also happen to think the women of the 2020 presidential race haven’t gotten a fair shake thus far next to other candidates, especially Elizabeth Warren. Hell, Kirsten Gillibrand is getting killed in the polls, and beyond what you may believe about the authenticity of her leftward shift since she became a member of the Senate, that her being among the first in her party to call on Al Franken to resign may be a major factor in her low polling numbers seems more than a little plausible. So much for the #MeToo era. Female Democratic Party supporters, try to maintain some semblance of decorum as you throw one of your own under the bus and back over her just to run her over again. Sheesh.

But, yes, it strikes me as counterproductive that so many voters desperate to throw Trump out of office are evidently more concerned about the identity of the person running and whether he or she “can stand up to Trump”—a judgment predicated on hypotheticals, preconceived notions of leadership, and other subjective factors which may lack real credence—than the actual platform on which that candidate is running and what it might mean for the country. Admittedly, it may be a bit early for policy specifics roughly a year-and-a-half from November 2020, though going back to Bernie, he’s got a whole page of positions on key issues on his campaign website, so maybe not. An arguably more productive exercise would be to take these various candidates’ stances, divorce them from the individuals delivering them, and assess them in a blind “taste test,” so to speak. In theory, it shouldn’t matter who’s making the case as long as he or she is making the right case.

Such is why I bristle at the idea Bernie is too old or white or socialist or “not a real Democrat”—whatever that means. If Cory Booker or Kamala Harris or Pete Buttigieg were pitching the same platform, would we be having the same sort of discussion, looking for other ways to discredit them along demographic lines? Or would we be instead extolling their virtues as a black man, a woman of color, or a highly-educated gay man and veteran?

Though I believe there are other reasons why he’s not an ideal candidate for the Dems—and more than just that some would identify him as the creepy handsy uncle of the Democratic field—I fear 76-year-old Joe Biden, now officially running for president, may suffer from the same treatment. So he’s old and white. Does this mean he can’t do the job? After all, should he prove incapable at a point after getting elected, there’s a whole line of succession after him. Ladies and gents, there are safeguards in place.

This is the double-edged sword of identity politics. On one hand, it allows you to embrace a diverse field of candidates as it relates to ethnicity, gender, geography, religion, sexual orientation, and other identifying characteristics. On the other hand, it can cause you to miss the forest for the trees, getting you caught up in notions of “electability” and whether someone looks or sounds presidential rather than whether they possess the ideals and the vision for the job. This is before we even get to Pres. Trump, who sure doesn’t act or sound presidential but enough people voted for him so he got the position anyhow. If any member of the Democratic Party field isn’t presidential next to him, they’re actively trying not to be.

Of course, this may be much ado about nothing. Biden and Sanders are among the front runners in current polls, so being old white dudes sure doesn’t seem to have hurt them so far. Still, opinions change and polls have been known to be wrong, and once we get deeper into primary season, what amount to trifles now may loom larger if we’re still tearing down candidates irrespective of what they have to offer voters in terms of stated policy specifics or lack thereof. Unless we’re not serious about beating Trump no matter what. We are serious about that, aren’t we?


To paraphrase poet Robert Burns, the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry. Identity politics, for their appeal to diversity, can be elaborated to absurd extremes that work against voters’ best interests. On a similar note, the current climate of concern about Russian hacking and influencing efforts with respect to our elections speaks to a very real concern for Americans across the political spectrum.

When not carrying water for Pres. Donald Trump re the state of immigration policy in this country, recently deposed Department of Homeland Security chief Kirstjen Nielsen evidently was concerned enough about Russian meddling to want to bring the issue up with the president, only to be warned against such a move by Mick Mulvaney as Chief of Staff. This is another one of those occurrences that is galling because it goes against what many of us believe is morally correct but, based on what we know and suspect of Trump as his sphere of influence intersects with Russian interests, it is not the least bit surprising.

This preoccupation with meddling, too, however, can be taken a bit too far. Amid the hypersensitivity about Russia compounded by Trump’s upset win in the 2016 election and the findings of the Mueller report coming out in dribs and drabs, though we are more than a year away from the general election, criticism of one Democratic Party candidate on the part of another’s supporters runs those detractors the risk of accusations of engaging in activity that “will help Trump get re-elected” or, worse yet, betrays their identity as Russian agents or bots.

Going back to criticisms of Joe Biden’s candidacy, to refer to him simply as “Creepy” Uncle Joe absent of additional context or insight only seems to invite the defensive, reflexive anti-Russia “J’accuse!” that is characteristic of Democratic loyalists in this zeitgeist. More constructive criticisms, meanwhile, would seem to be found in revisiting Biden’s past actions and legislative hallmarks. Roxanne Jones, a founding editor of ESPN Magazine, speaks to marks on Biden’s CV in musing that he is “losing his glow.”

Adding to #MeToo-era deliberations on the appropriateness of Biden’s interactions with certain women, Jones highlights other events which do not paint the former U.S. senator in the best light. As has been observed by numerous critics, for one, Biden played a critical role in questioning Anita Hill during Clarence Thomas’s Supreme Court confirmation hearing, doing so in a way that “devastated and shamed” a “credible, intelligent woman” and set women back who would’ve otherwise come forward with sexual harassment claims in hostile work environments. To make matters worse, he hasn’t apologized directly to Ms. Hill about his involvement as chair of the Senate committee presiding over the hearing.

There’s also the problem of Biden’s legacy as a principal author of drug crime laws which have helped fuel America’s ongoing mass incarceration problem as they have been elaborated and modified over the years. These laws disproportionately target people of color, with mandatory minimum sentencing and sentencing disparities giving rise to a prison population explosion that feeds an ever-hungry for-profit prison industry. And Jones doesn’t even address the issue raised by Elizabeth Warren and others that Biden has a rather cozy relationship with the health insurance and banking industries as a former legislator from Delaware. If a kickoff fundraiser bankrolled by telecom and health insurance corporate execs is any indication, Biden’s identity as a working-class hero and champion of the “every-man” is more problematic than perhaps many realize.

These are legitimate criticisms of Biden as a seeker of the highest political office in the nation. But are Biden’s steadfast backers and other Democratic Party supporters desperate to unseat Trump willing to listen? Giving little thought to qualms about Biden’s prior questionable actions, those apologists with whom I’ve interacted online have defended his character, his legacy of public service, and his willingness to stand up to Trump, in doing so casting aspersions on my personhood separate from being a Russian operative and lamenting how some people only want to a tear a “good man” down.

To the extent that some naysayers only wish to denigrate candidates as part of some never-ending purity test without offering an alternative or advancing a point of meaningful debate, I agree with such an assessment. Not everyone is a bot or stooge for Vladimir Putin, however. That some people would seek to squelch discussion along these lines says something profound about just how toxic political discourse can become when facts give way to feelings, distrust becomes an all-too-valuable currency, and arguments are “won” or “lost” based on who yells the loudest or who has the most followers on social media.

When we get this far, no amount of rational deliberation will make a difference, and in fact, those armed with logic can fall into the trap of wasting their time and effort on a lost cause. As the Republican Party under Trump has demonstrated time and again, such a pitfall may well be intentional—though the line between cold calculation and overall incompetence may indeed be blurry.

Focusing on the identity of the politician making appeals on policy matters or that of his or her objectors may provide us with some measure of satisfaction. But personality and individual attributes, charming or otherwise, are not substitutes for a well-developed party platform. If the goal is truly to beat Donald Trump next November, maybe we should worry less about who is leading the charge and pay more attention to appealing to what voters want the most.

On Trump’s Garbage Sanctuary City Plan

President Donald Trump (center) is considering a plan to send undocumented immigrants to sanctuary cities as a form of political retribution. Sens. Tom Cotton (left) and David Perdue (right) are co-sponsors of a bill that seeks to drastically reduce legal immigration to the U.S. Both proposals are garbage steeped in prejudice. (Photo Credit: The White House/Flickr)

A burden. An infestation. Like refuse to be sent away and dumped elsewhere.

These are the kinds of characterizations evoked by the Trump administration’s considered plan to send undocumented immigrants detained at the border to so-called “sanctuary cities” and “sanctuary states” as a means of political retribution. The plan, which is of questionable legality to begin with, obviously has Trump’s backing and the tacit approval of White House press secretary Sarah Sanders, but congressional Republicans have been slow if unwilling to throw their support behind such a measure. While not explicitly endorsing such a policy, though, they yet may try to leverage pushback by Democrats into a bipartisan legislative deal. Where there’s political will, there’s a way, eh?

Before we begin dissecting Trump’s proposal, let’s first get one thing straight about “sanctuary” cities and states. The term refers to municipalities and other jurisdictions that limit their cooperation with federal authorities on immigration law so as to reduce fear among immigrant communities and to encourage them to use necessary public resources and to report crimes to law enforcement. To this effect, sanctuary cities may prohibit law enforcement and municipal officials from asking about an individual’s status or may refuse to hold immigrants beyond their release date without a judge’s warrant for committing a crime not related to immigration status.

This distinction, however, does not preclude ICE agents from enforcing immigration law of their own accord. For this reason, some immigrant rights activists favor the term “welcoming city” or “fair and welcoming city” to pertain to these places so as not to imbue immigrants or their advocates with an undue sense of security. Calling your city a “sanctuary city” does not magically seal its boundaries to prevent federal authorities from coming in.

With that point behind us, let’s get to Trump’s idea. Donald Trump has had sanctuary cities in his crosshairs even before becoming president. On the campaign trail, he suggested refusing to send federal funding to these jurisdictions who fail to cooperate on matters of immigration law. In doing so, Trump pointed to highly-publicized cases like Kate Steinle’s murder at the hands of an undocumented immigrant as a partial justification for his policy proposal. Such a directive, as with the current notion of unloading undocumented immigrants on sanctuary cities/Democratic Party strongholds, would’ve been of questionable legality, not to mention it was probably overstated so as to gin up his base. If anything, Trump is more likely to target specific programs like Justice Assistance Grants or the State Criminal Alien Assistance Program, which President Barack Obama even eyed axing during his tenure.

In this respect, a decision to ship out asylum-seekers and undocumented immigrants to sanctuary cities is nothing new for Trump, who has made illegal immigration his chief bugaboo since announcing his bid for the presidency. It is, meanwhile, of questionable utility. By relocating asylum-seekers and economic migrants within the U.S., his administration is making it all the more unlikely these people won’t be deported. Press Secretary Sanders noted this isn’t the president’s first option. As we all know, Trump and his stalwart fans want the wall and they want it yesterday.

Even so, if the goal is deportation and deterrence, this move would seem to fly in the face of that agenda. Reportedly, several mayors of major U.S. cities seemed to embrace the idea, and Central American migrants and their advocates reason this could actually be a godsend for them. In addition, some analysts believe the intended overtaxing of public resources implied by the administration’s plan would be slim to none. Even in smaller municipalities identifying as sanctuary cities or towns theoretically less equipped to deal with a rapid influx of people, undocumented immigrants would probably just move on if the economic resources were to be lacking in a given locale. There would be nothing to compel them to stay in one place or to dissuade them from heading elsewhere.

It’s one thing that the Trump administration’s sanctuary city proposal, as with that of a wall at the Mexican border, would be of dubious effectiveness in controlling illegal immigration and marshalling flows of peoples. For that matter, knowing Trump’s, er, penchant for details, such an undertaking would likely be a logistical nightmare marked by cost overruns, delays, harsh treatment of the people to be transported, and lack of meaningful oversight. As with the wall, however, it’s the cruelty of the messaging behind it that really makes it so disturbing.

Bill Carter, CNN media analyst and author, for one, decries Trump’s “vicious” revenge plan. For Carter, the “depraved,” “grotesque,” “insane,” and “sociopathic” policy proposal (as others have described it) is, on the face of it, “awful.” What makes it especially troublesome is that this event is but one in a sea of additional complications facing this country, a number of them involving Pres. Trump. Carter writes:

By any historical standard, the proposed White House plan to try to inflict some kind of damage on districts hospitable to immigrants by busing masses of detainees to those locations and setting them loose — like an “infestation,” a favorite characterization of this White House about immigrants from Mexico and Central America — would have unleashed a torrent of intense and sustained high-volume coverage. And viewers and readers encountering widespread analysis of a story marked by terms like insanity and sociopathy would recognize something extraordinary had happened.

Instead, the din of incessant political noise can be expected to quickly obliterate any effort to give this latest development what would, in the past, have been its proper due as a screamer of a headline. And context will fly off into the ether. Astonishment will ebb. Media heads will snap back.

For Carter, despite the obvious allusions to be made between Watergate and Trump’s scandals and despite the media’s “indispensable” role in holding the president accountable, when it comes to the mess that is the Trump White House, it’s unclear just how strong the media’s influence still is. The era of Trump is one defined by incomprehensible absurdity that defies attempts to easily define or explain it. As Carter makes the analogy, it’s like fighting wave after wave of zombies. After a while, the sheer volume would wear you down. In Trump’s America, news of a notion to move undocumented immigrants to and fro, treating them like trash, is but one part of an assault on the senses of the news media consumer. And, as Carter tells ominously, it just keeps coming.


Along the lines of what Bill Carter points to as a barrage of newsworthy events, this latest to-do involving Donald Trump and U.S. immigration policy is concerning beyond its immediate circumstances. For one, the half-baked sanctuary cities plan is a distraction from any number of things amiss with the Trump administration, not the least of which is the ongoing drama surrounding the findings of the Mueller investigation.

If anything, Attorney General William Barr, in his presser on the Mueller report and his release of a heavily redacted version of the document, has raised more questions than he has provided concrete answers on whether Trump obstructed justice. His presentation of its contents in a misleading, if not patently false, way has prompted Democratic lawmakers to call for Robert Mueller to testify before Congress on matters relevant to his findings, and in a few cases—notably as recommended by presidential nominee Elizabeth Warren—to begin impeachment proceedings against the president. Barr’s actions smack of cronyism and certainly have done nothing to appease those on the left who have closely followed this investigation.

To boot, news of this plan may be a way to get a less drastic policy directive across and make it seem all the more savory by comparison. Back in 2017, Carlos Maza, video producer at Vox and the creative force behind the “Strikethrough” series, which examines manifestations of the media in the Trump era, published a seven-minute video piece about Trump’s antics in the context of what is known as the Overton window, or the range of acceptability for an idea in public political discourse. As Maza explains in accordance with the theory, the easiest way to move that window is to propose an “unthinkable” idea, even if it is rejected, as it will make more “radical” or “ridiculous” ideas seem relatively “normal.”

As this concept relates to Trump, behavior that would’ve shocked us under previous presidents has become that much more commonplace. We regularly expect to be bullshitted, as Maza so colorfully puts it. A side effect of this reality, though, is that media outlets have stocked their panels with anti-Trump conservatives to argue against pro-Trump personalities, creating a new middle ground for the conversation. As a result, our expectations get lower. Republicans are no longer concerned with governing well, but merely with not being Trump. The proverbial bar is so low it’s on the ground.

Maza points to the egregious Republican tax bill as an example of this. The Senate version of the bill was rushed through a vote with lawmakers barely having read it. Meanwhile, Pres. Trump was busy tweeting about Michael Flynn. Suddenly, with Trump pushing his brand of crazy, the GOP’s chicanery was not the embarrassment it should’ve been but rather a win from which Trump’s ranting served to distract. The president provided political cover for his party mates helping to promote his regressive domestic agenda.

Maza’s report came out prior to the Democratic Party regaining control of the House after the midterms, so the political climate has changed appreciably since that time. Nevertheless, that’s unlikely to stop Republicans from trying to advance legislation impacting immigration. Earlier this month, Sens. David Perdue, Josh Hawley, and Tom Cotton reintroduced the Reforming American Immigration for Strong Employment Act, or RAISE Act, aimed at reducing legal immigration to the United States by as much as 50%.

Billed as a defense of American workers, it is a proposal supported by White House adviser Stephen Miller—and that alone should give one pause. The claim that “they’re taking our jobs” has been argued for years without much credible evidence to support it. In addition, the bill’s given priority to highly-skilled workers despite an ever-present need for “skilled” and “unskilled” labor is recognizable as a backdoor to reduce the influx of immigrants altogether. The RAISE Act, ostensibly a piece of legislation geared toward benefiting the U.S. economy, appears to be plagued by an misunderstanding of the immigration situation in this country, or worse, intentionally skews a debate informed by racial prejudices. Next to Trump’s absurd sanctuary cities plan, however, it not only seems more logical, but more responsible. The available evidence suggests otherwise.

Amid the chaos of the Trump administration, a notion to send migrants and asylum-seekers to sanctuary cities as political retribution is just one in a series of confounding happenings. But even if doesn’t come to pass, the message it sends is not to be minimized. It is one of cruel dehumanization of some of the most vulnerable residents here in America, and it, unlike them, is garbage.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Joe Biden? Really?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Complicated Legacy of John McCain

top_gun_mccain
As a naval officer, John McCain survived years of unimaginable physical and psychological abuse. That doesn’t absolve him of poor decisions as a lawmaker and presidential candidate, though. (Photo Credit: Diane Bondareff/Flickr/CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Since Senator John McCain passed away after a protracted battle with brain cancer, the tributes have been pouring in from members of the media and political figures on both the left and right. He’s being hailed as a war hero, a maverick, a politician who put country first, and someone who brought dignity to his position as a legislator. He’s also being lauded for changing the way presidential campaigns are run, in that he provided journalists with more access than was the standard at the time.

Hop on Twitter and start digging, however, and you’ll find no shortage of comments from his detractors who, if not downright gleeful about McCain’s death, are devoted to dispelling the myth the media has created about the senator from Arizona. As author Dan Arel tweeted, “He was a monster who killed civilians in Vietnam, voted to kill civilians as a senator, tried to block Martin Luther King Day, sang about bombing Iran…I can keep going. He was a horrible human being and we should be celebrating his death.” But please, Mr. Arel—tell us how you really feel.

In no uncertain terms, therefore, John McCain was a divisive figure in U.S. politics, and since the mainstream media already has the extolling of his supposed virtues covered, let’s get another viewpoint from the vocal minority who has little, if any, praise to spare.

Paul Blest, news editor for Splinter News, wrote a piece shortly after McCain’s passing detailing “the myth of John McCain.” As Blest explains, the media helped McCain craft his image as a “maverick” and “honorable statesman” because, aside from his status as a war hero, he was “always willing to give the media access, the thing it craves above all.”

As such, the press lionized him for doing, as Blest characterizes it, the “bare-ass minimum.” One instance highlighted within is when, during a 2008 town hall, one of McCain’s supporters professed that she was worried Barack Obama might become president because he is “an Arab,” to which McCain replied by taking the microphone, shaking his head, and saying that he’s not an Arab but a “decent family man.”

Members of the media point to this example as emblematic of his extraordinary character, viewing the decade-old clip through rose-colored glasses. Blest and others have pointed out, meanwhile, that a truly meritorious response would’ve been to point out that even if Obama were an Arab, this would not be reason to fear or loathe him, i.e. being an Arab and a decent family man aren’t diametrically opposed.

Another instance of the press celebrating John McCain occurred when he cast his vote against the GOP’s attempted repeal of the Affordable Care Act. In keeping his proverbial cards close to the vest until the last minute, McCain brought a wealth of media attention his way, and prior to entering the Senate chamber, reportedly told reporters to “watch the show.” McCain’s tone here belies the seriousness of the vote about to be cast. Over 20 million Americans were projected to have their health care plans disrupted by a repeal of the ACA. That’s not something to equate with popcorn entertainment.

Thus, while McCain’s willingness to stand apart from his fellow Republican lawmakers when it suited him (see also his opposition to confirming Gina Haspel as CIA director) shouldn’t go unmentioned, as Blest argues, that cases like these were few and far between should give us pause and force us to reconsider his legacy.

One area that really sets John McCain apart—and not in a good way, mind you—is his history as an unrepentant hawk. McCain’s was a leading voice in pushing for intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq, even past the point when people were considering it a failure and waste of resources, human or otherwise. He also advocated for war with Iran, and celebrated President Donald Trump’s reversal on the Iran nuclear deal. To many, McCain is, simply put, a warmonger, and the decision to name the bill authorizing an exorbitant defense budget for 2019 after him is therefore apropos.

In addition to his beating the drums of armed conflict, and for all his ballyhooed departures from Trump—which the president has treated with his characteristic pettiness in affronts to him beyond the grave—McCain still voted in league with Trump some five-sixths of the time. This included supporting the nomination of Neil Gorsuch and the ability of a Republican-led Congress to block Obama’s pick, as well as voting for the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, a bill that primarily favored the super-wealthy.

And then there’s John McCain as presidential candidate. His correcting the record on Barack Obama aside, he still agreed to name Sarah Palin, someone clearly not suited to be next in line to run the country (or perhaps any public office of relative import), his running mate in 2008. Arguably, Palin’s rise in prominence gave way to the ascendancy of Donald Trump, for both have been elevated to national political stature owing to rhetoric steeped in factual inadequacy and prejudicial attitudes.

Plus, there’s his whole unapologetic commitment to use of the term “gook,” a racial slur directed at Asians. Even if he meant it primarily for his North Vietnamese captors, it’s still an epithet that Asians and non-Asians alike find offensive. Context notwithstanding, words matter, even (read: especially so) in the era of Trump.

In light of all of the above, and despite tribute after tribute in newspapers and on cable news, Blest suggests McCain’s place in American political history shouldn’t be so highly esteemed. He writes:

McCain’s political legacy should be largely that of someone who frequently and loudly toyed with doing the right thing and yet decided to do the other thing almost every single time, and who was a willing and active participant in the destruction of one country and helping the racist, authoritarian right rise in his own. What John McCain’s legacy will be, however, is the one crafted by the reporters and peers who loved him, who bought hook, line, and sinker that McCain was a different kind of politician, and not the fraud he actually was.

This is blunt talk coming from Blest, and in the immediate aftermath of McCain’s death, his words may come across to some as disrespectful, notably given McCain’s bipartisan acclaim. Just the same, though, Blest’s dissent appears more firmly rooted in patriotic concerns than Pres. Trump’s personal grudge, and at any rate, is authentic to how many Americans feel, particularly those of a progressive bent. These feelings, of course, may be magnified given the day’s tense political climate. But it doesn’t make them any less valid.


It’s admittedly difficult to approach John McCain’s memory with anything but reverence if we focus only on how much the man suffered while imprisoned during the Vietnam War. Certainly, if one recalls the late David Foster Wallace’s extensive profile for Rolling Stone of McCain while on the campaign trail circa 2000, his recounting of the physical abuse the man endured as a naval officer tells of a man committed to his principles and exhibiting a resolve few could hope to match. From Wallace’s piece:

In October of ’67 McCain was himself still a Young Voter and flying his 23rd Vietnam combat mission and his A-4 Skyhawk plane got shot down over Hanoi and he had to eject, which basically means setting off an explosive charge that blows your seat out of the plane, which ejection broke both McCain’s arms and one leg and gave him a concussion and he started falling out of the skies right over Hanoi. Try to imagine for a second how much this would hurt and how scared you’d be, three limbs broken and falling toward the enemy capital you just tried to bomb.

His chute opened late and he landed hard in a little lake in a park right in the middle of downtown Hanoi, Imagine treading water with broken arms and trying to pull the life vest’s toggle with your teeth as a crowd of Vietnamese men swim out toward you (there’s film of this, somebody had a home – movie camera, and the N.V. government released it, though it’s grainy and McCain’s face is hard to see). The crowd pulled him out and then just about killed him. U.S. bomber pilots were especially hated, for obvious reasons. McCain got bayoneted in the groin; a soldier broke his shoulder apart with a rifle butt. Plus by this time his right knee was bent 90-degrees to the side with the bone sticking out. Try to imagine this.

He finally got tossed on a jeep and taken five blocks to the infamous Hoa Lo prison – a.k.a. the “Hanoi Hilton,” of much movie fame – where they made him beg a week for a doctor and finally set a couple of the fractures without anesthetic and let two other fractures and the groin wound (imagine: groin wound) stay like they were. Then they threw him in a cell. Try for a moment to feel this. All the media profiles talk about how McCain still can’t lift his arms over his head to comb his hair, which is true. But try to imagine it at the time, yourself in his place, because it’s important. Think about how diametrically opposed to your own self-interest getting knifed in the balls and having fractures set without painkiller would be, and then about getting thrown in a cell to just lie there and hurt, which is what happened.

He was delirious with pain for weeks, and his weight dropped to 100 pounds, and the other POWs were sure he would die; and then after a few months like that after his bones mostly knitted and he could sort of stand up they brought him in to the prison commandant’s office and offered to let him go. This is true. They said he could just leave. They had found out that McCain’s father was one of the top-ranking naval officers in the U.S. Armed Forces (which is true – both his father and grandfather were admirals), and the North Vietnamese wanted the PR coup of mercifully releasing his son, the baby-killer. McCain, 100 pounds and barely able to stand, refused. The U.S. military’s Code of Conduct for Prisoners of War apparently said that POWs had to be released in the order they were captured, and there were others who’d been in Hoa Lo a long time, and McCain refused to violate the Code.

The commandant, not pleased, right there in the office had guards break his ribs, rebreak his arm, knock his teeth out. McCain still refused to leave without the other POWs. And so then he spent four more years in Hoa Lo like this, much of the time in solitary, in the dark, in a closet-sized box called a “punishment cell.” Maybe you’ve heard all this before; it’s been in umpteen different media profiles of McCain. But try to imagine that moment between getting offered early release and turning it down. Try to imagine it was you. Imagine how loudly your most basic, primal self-interest would have cried out to you in that moment, and all the ways you could rationalize accepting the offer. Can you hear it? If so, would you have refused to go? You simply can’t know for sure. None of us can. It’s hard even to imagine the pain and fear in that moment, much less know how you’d react.

But, see, we do know how this man reacted. That he chose to spend four more years there, in a dark box, alone, tapping code on the walls to the others, rather than violate a Code. Maybe he was nuts. But the point is that with McCain it feels like we know, for a proven fact, that he’s capable of devotion to something other, more, than his own self-interest.

It’s episodes like this that John McCain’s backers can easily point to as evidence as a man of a certain character. I don’t know about you, but I don’t suspect I would fare particularly well under these circumstances. I mean, I’m the kind of person who freaks out when I can’t log into Pokémon Go because the server is down momentarily. By this token, four-plus years of physical and psychological torture seems like an impossibility.

And yet, it’s precisely because of what McCain saw and survived during wartime that makes his less savory political stances all the more frustrating. For him to witness or even be party to the atrocities of armed conflict and to turn around and to embrace a foreign policy that prizes indiscriminate bombing of foreign lands and wanton regime change is hard to process. It’s incongruous with the image of the younger man holding strong in a strange land against a hostile enemy, and surely flies in the face of the glowing portrait the mainstream press appears keen to paint.

John McCain’s hagiographic appeal in an era in which Donald Trump and current Republican leadership evidently seek to drag the party down to its darkest depths is such that even the likes of Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have paid him tribute, much to the chagrin of their supporters.

It’s disappointing and frustrating, especially since it’s hard to know whether these champions of progressive ideals legitimately believe his “legacy represents an unparalleled example of human decency and American service,” as Ocasio-Cortez phrased it, or if they feel compelled to do so for fear of reprisal—and for that matter, which of these is worse. Maybe it’s just that they respect our Armed Forces like most Americans do, even in the face of the military’s ugliest acts, or that from working alongside him (in the case of Sanders and Warren), their sense of personal attachment prevents them from viewing his record more objectively.

Lapses like these are why, in the pursuit of a more progressive vision for the United States of America, it is often more rewarding to be invested in individual issues rather than individual candidates. In this regard, the postmortem borderline deification of Sen. McCain is already excessive, much in the way, for instance, liberals’ elevation of Barack Obama obscures his less commendable devotion to centrism and capitulation to Wall Street and other moneyed interests.

Suffice it to say, then, that not everyone was thrilled with the political career of John McCain, and as far as his legacy is concerned, it should be mixed. Alas, the whitewashing of that legacy appears already underway, a subset of the larger tendency to view long-tenured lawmakers like McCain as sacrosanct, the kinds of leaders we want to see rather than the complicated, flawed humans they are.