I would like members of the “just vote” crowd to ponder if they, given the chance, would say the same to the families of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor if they met them face to face.
Despite what they may mean as catalysts in the push for change, the murders of Floyd and Taylor are tragedies. The victims are gone (at least in corporeal form) and no amount of “justice,” retributive or otherwise, could hope to bring them back. Accountability for all those involved and meaningful reform are only some measures of consolation.
In Floyd’s case, the four officers at the scene were charged and face an eventual trial, though at this writing, cameras have not been approved for use in the courtroom. Lest we forget, it wasn’t until the Attorney General’s office stepped in that prosecutors levied charges with teeth against these police in the first place. In Taylor’s case, the city of Louisville reached a $12 million settlement with her family and planned reforms, but no one has been arrested. As many critics have agreed, Breonna’s family deserves that much money and more, but that is not true accountability or justice.
What else do the deaths of Floyd and Taylor have in common? They occurred in jurisdictions led by Democrats. Minneapolis mayor Jacob Frey and Minnesota governor Tim Walz are members of the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party, not to mention both state senators. Louisville mayor Greg Fischer and Kentucky governor Andy Beshear are Democrats.
Beshear, Frey, and Walz may get some of benefit of the doubt having only started their tenures last year or in 2018, but Democrats have held the gubernatorial seat since 2011 in Minnesota and have controlled the Minneapolis mayoral seat since 1978. It’s not as if there hasn’t been ample time for action, even if we’re accounting for assumed Republican resistance to reform (and let’s not let them off the hook either).
Eric Garner. Rayshard Brooks. The list goes on. These people were killed at the hands of police despite living in places run by Democrats either at the municipal or state level. This is not to say that elected officials should be held accountable for every act of violence that happens on their watch. That said, their responses in these situations merit scrutiny, and regardless, that police brutality is so pervasive independent of party control flies in the face of the “just vote” mentality.
This is where I reassure the reader that, despite my misgivings, I believe fundamentally that everyone who can should vote. A free and fair vote is the cornerstone of any representative democracy (how free and fair it is merits further discussion, but I am speaking purely in the abstract) and elections matter, often increasingly so the more local they get.
Lord knows I have been told as much repeatedly by Democrats and other staunch defenders of Joe Biden. This presidential election is of utmost importance. I would tell you that “it’s the most important election of our lifetime,” except people always say that and, even if it’s true, I feel like I’m beating the proverbial dead horse by repeating this line. You probably don’t need convincing on this dimension.
Indeed, I don’t take issue with voting or, for that matter, who one votes for. I might tell you your vote is ill-advised, especially if you’re voting Republican, but that’s your choice. It is specifically the “just vote” mentality as a means of dismissing legitimate concerns that I seek to admonish here because it fails to appreciate the magnitude of struggles for marginalized people and because it gets weaponized against progressives as a means of quelling dissent within Democratic Party ranks.
The examples of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor are extreme, though salient, topical, and illustrative of how ingrained injustice is from a racial and socioeconomic perspective. Expanding the conversation beyond police violence, the theme yet applies. San Francisco, despite a reputation for liberalism, has been the site of high rates of homelessness mediated by a pronounced housing shortage. Seattle, likewise regarded for being more liberal, has suffered its own homelessness crisis.
Independent of the affiliation of elected leadership, widening income and wealth inequality underscore the hardships faced by so many Americans. The pandemic has only intensified these woes, exposing the fragility of our way of life after suffering a shock to the system like a global health emergency. New York governor Andrew Cuomo, for some reason asked to speak at the Democratic National Convention, referred to COVID-19 as a metaphor in a nod to this theme. Strictly speaking, if this all is a metaphor, someone forgot to tell the virus because it seems pretty real to me. That said, it does put existing societal ills under a microscope such that their existence and pervasiveness are easily visible.
Over 200,000 people have died in the United States as a result of COVID-19 infection, and more states than not are headed in the wrong direction in terms of the rate of increase of positive tests. Meanwhile, congressional leadership is fretting about the price tag of a second round of stimulus checks and politicians are extoling the virtues of “affordable” health care, including a vaccine which is still in its testing or theoretical phase. All the while, the richest among us are making bank off this health crisis. Our suffering is their opportunity. It’s downright deflating, but not surprising under a system in which capital is prized above all else—plant and animal life, people, the planet itself.
This is the world “just vote” has given us: a world in which engagement dies after the votes are counted and people wear their modest civic participation around like it’s a major achievement. Privilege that it is, voting should be an afterthought and not the sum total of one’s efforts. It is not a panacea. The party loyalists who insist otherwise seeking a return to normalcy and the ability to go back to brunch or back to sleep are standing in the way of progress, plain and simple.
Adding a new wrinkle to the sense of urgency surrounding the 2020 presidential election is the passing of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Though anytime someone is regarded with iconic status, our recollection of that person tends to be rosier than their full record perhaps warrants, the “Notorious RBG’s” advocacy for women’s rights and personal crusade against gender-based discrimination can’t be ignored when discussing her legacy. Ruth Bader Ginsburg was a veritable trailblazer when it came to her service on the Supreme Court and she earned her place in history.
For the “vote blue no matter who” crowd, Bader Ginsburg’s seat was already a key component of their cajoling of uncommitted left-leaners into electoral acquiescence. Think of RBG! Think of the Supreme Court! In fairness, this is one of the more compelling arguments they could make. A strong imbalance on the court in favor of conservatives could endanger any number of human rights, notably reproductive rights. Coincidentally, Democratic causes and candidates have raised more than $100 million since RBG’s passing, and one might imagine a number of these donations were made with the fate of Roe v. Wade in mind.
That congressional Democrats and Joe Biden appear to be taking a stand against Republican efforts to try to ram a replacement through the confirmation process is encouraging. Though no one in their right mind would have wished for Bader Ginsburg’s death, that her passing could be the spark for a unified front by the broadly-stated “Left” communicates the sense that there is something worth fighting for within the Democratic Party structure. In a year that has been all but a bust for progressives on the national stage, this infuses the march to November with a new energy.
Of course, these gains won’t last forever and even if Democrats regain control of both the White House and the Senate, their feet will need to be held to the fire. We know “just vote.” We’ve seen it, heard it, and lived through it. There’s a better way forward. Our very future depends on it.
WARNING: For those with delicate political and economic sensibilities, this piece will make repeated references to a particular term. A dirty word in certain circles, to be sure. In fact, some may be unable to speak it lest they devolve into paroxysms of uncontrollable shouting and frothing at the mouth. He doesn’t mean what I think he means, you shudder. Oh, but I do, intrepid reader. You guessed it: that word. The “S word.”
Socialism. (Boo! Hiss!)
As we approach Election Day 2020, attacks from the right have been trying to frame any and all serious Democratic contenders as “socialists,” railing against the purported evils of suggested policy shifts such as Medicare for All, free tuition at public colleges and universities, the Green New Deal, and other tenets of a progressive or liberal agenda. Under this haphazard framework, legitimate elements resembling facets of socialist societies can and do get conflated with all sorts of things right-leaning individuals don’t like.
Political correctness? Socialism. The LGBTQ “agenda?” Socialism. Migrants crossing our southern border? Socialism. Democrats “coming for your guns?” Socialism. Electric cars? Socialism. Liberal indoctrination of our youth? Socialism. The sissification of manly men? You better believe your patootie it’s socialism!
Thrown around recklessly in this manner, socialism also gets confused with other economic and political systems people either don’t grasp or haven’t bothered to try to understand. In the minds of some, socialism, a theory of organization which favors social ownership of the means of production and of working to satisfy human needs, is synonymous with communism, which can be seen as the next step after socialism in a post-capitalist society, and which advocates for doing away with notions of class, money, occupational specificity, and private ownership.
As a Bernie Sanders supporter, I’ve heard the question numerous times, “Isn’t he a c-c-communist?” As if the person asking were a character out of Scooby Doo or something, staring down a ghost. No, he’s not. As other democratic socialists believe, he feels both the U.S. economy and society should be run democratically to meet the greatest public need and not just for the benefit of a privileged few. Especially when understood next to communism, some might even believe his proposed reforms don’t go far enough.
Let’s not get bogged down in discussion of specific political candidates, though. The larger point is that talk of socialism, in the hands of bad-faith actors and critics, becomes a weapon used to discredit anyone and anything resembling a leftist or espousing leftist ideologies. In this sense, socialism is understood as both logically and morally inferior to capitalism. Ah, yes, capitalism. The free market. A model of economic efficiency free from the tyranny of government control. A bastion of Western rectitude and a symbol of the industry of a proud country like the U.S. of A. Surely, the right’s embrace of unfettered capitalism puts it on the right side of history. After all, you don’t want America becoming Venezuela, do you?
Put aside any notions of Venezuela possessing unique features which have led to its economic disarray (e.g. an overreliance on oil as a source of revenue) as well as doubts about whether socialism as it is designed has actually been employed there by the likes of Hugo Chávez and Nicolás Maduro (it hasn’t), though. If we are to invoke capitalism as a defense of why socialist functions can’t or shouldn’t exist in America, shouldn’t we be able to explain with a straight face why it is fundamentally better? To this effect, shouldn’t we all be able to speak to the wonders capitalism has done for all of our lives?
In a two-part video essay titled “What’s Wrong with Capitalism” for her channel ContraPoints, Natalie Wynn, ex-philosopher and YouTuber with a mind for social justice (and a great follow on YouTube and Twitter, by the by), addresses some of the potential shortcomings of a capitalist society like ours.
Beginning with a bit of context about acute feelings that something is wrong with our world as expressed by middle-class white males facing a changing population at home, an expanding global marketplace/exchange of ideas, and a commensurate loss of privilege, Wynn avers that while this sense of “getting screwed” is accurate, others are getting screwed worse. In this regard, and with respect to vague attempts to scapegoat other disenfranchised groups, the problem is not “the Jews,” nor is it feminism, the ghost of Karl Marx, people of color, trans people, vegans, or anyone else who might be labeled a “cuck,” a “snowflake,” etc. The problem is capitalism.
So, what’s wrong with capitalism? Wynn makes these salient points in service of her arguments:
Alienated labor: Or as Wynn simplifies it, “shitty jobs.” Because many workers have no stake in the profitability of the company they serve and are merely working to make money, ensure a path to other benefits, and/or not get passed over for a promotion or fired, there’s no sense of intrinsic reward from their efforts or a sense of camaraderie because they are being pitted against one another.
Depending on the situation, they might also be forced to engage in company retreats and other “team building” exercises or they might not even be identified as employees at all (i.e. independent contractors, who are liable for much of their own expenses and not privy to the same benefits). The pretense makes it that much worse.
Advertising: As Wynn defines it, the purpose of advertising is “to manufacture desires, which brands across the world spend nearly five hundred billion dollars a year doing.” In theory, if we are rational beings capable of making rational decisions in our best interest, as is an assumption of capitalism, we shouldn’t require such illogical pairings of, say, attractive women and luxury vehicles, or celebrities and expensive watches. That’s because the point of advertising in a capitalist system is not to satisfy existing needs, but to endlessly create new “needs,” leaving those original very real needs dangerously unfulfilled.
Inequality: Referencing BuzzFeed’s web series Worth It, in which Steven Lim and Andrew Ilnyckyj try more reasonably priced items against a vastly pricier counterpart to assess whether the high-end option is, as the name indicates, “worth it,” and putting a spotlight on Season 2, Episode 5, in which Steven and Andrew compare a $2.75 slice of pizza to a $2,000 24K-gold-covered pizza from Industry Kitchen comprised of various expensive items, Wynn highlights how by simply consuming the decadent choice, because they judge it to be inferior, this suddenly begins to weigh on their conscience. They feel, on some level, guilty for having been a part of consuming something of which the cost arguably could’ve been better used elsewhere.
As Wynn explains, morality has little to no bearing on this situation. Ilnyckyj and Lim are not bad people for eating a high-falutin’ pizza, nor are the makers of the pizza wrong for creating such a pricy entrée. It is, instead, the fault of capitalism that it fuels and makes so evident the divides in income and wealth inequality which promote feelings of guilt when the alternatives are juxtaposed together. Or, to phrase this in a concise philosophical argument:
Capitalism as we know it is a defective economic system, because, although it’s good at creating large amounts of wealth in an incredibly efficient way, it distributes that wealth in an incredibly inefficient way, where efficiency is understood not as the capacity to maximize total wealth but as the capacity to maximize human happiness.
This failure is therefore not necessarily a function of some dysfunction or inability on the part of those most disenfranchised by capitalism’s elaboration, but rather a systemic flaw.
Money buys happiness…but only to an extent
Within the American economic system, more income yields more happiness, presumably because individuals/their families have enough money to meet their basic needs and can live more comfortably. At somewhere between $65,000 to $95,000 a year, however, the reported happiness benefit plateaus.
According to this interpretation of socioeconomic data, then, the stark difference between the mean income (about $72,000, within the plateau zone) and the national median ($59,000, below the plateau zone) is vaguely startling, at least as far as the goal of maximizing happiness through the economy goes. Moreover, the top 1% of American earners make more than $389,000, well beyond the upper limits of the plateau zone. What good does that serve them or us?
To Wynn, what’s particularly galling for lower-income families is not just that they have trouble making ends meet or have to worry about money/what to sacrifice, it’s that they have to do so knowing full well there are other Americans who are obscenely rich. Their eventual anger, which she likens to the kind felt at the peak of the French Revolution, would therefore be justifiable.
This analysis comes from one person, who while being humorously self-deprecating about her acumen, is yet an ex-academic who describes herself as a “dumb-dumb” who “likes shiny things.” This is to say that while she did her research and presented her viewpoints in a very entertaining way, she is not an expert in this subject matter. Yet armed with a group of economists who specialize in researching and addressing widening equality, who knows what else we could throw alongside Wynn’s content. 40 minutes? Maybe 400 minutes is more appropriate given the potential complexity of this topic.
Capitalism, you’re getting off easy here.
For those of us sold on the perils of capitalism either as a result of Natalie Wynn et al.‘s discourse on the subject or based on our own feelings of dissatisfaction and alienation within a capitalist society, it is clear what the problems are, but not necessarily how we move past them. As Wynn indicates, the conditions for socialism to take root in the United States would require a failure of the current system. At the very least, that will take time.
In the interim, Wynn largely demurs on the actions she prescribes for her viewers to take to comic effect, suggesting among other things that we eat more vegetables, try not to be manipulated into waging war against other downtrodden people, tweet radically, vote Labour, and not cede more power to “the absolute worst dingbats our society has to offer.” Ultimately, she yields to the call to arms of Tabby, a cat-woman radical and one of her videos’ list of personas (fur-sonas?), who seeks to smash her way to revolution. Catgirls of the world unite! The idea has appeal, if for no other reason than the patent absurdity of it all.
I would submit that amid taking actions to benefit the planet and the world’s huddled masses yearning to breathe free, we should also keep conservations going about the long-term viability of our society as is and how well each of us are doing (or aren’t) within the confines of a capitalist framework. In my relatively short life span, I have witnessed a global financial crisis and the ensuing recession. Despite our apparent current economic fortune, there’s reason to fear we could be headed there again. An ongoing trade war with China. Widespread accusations of currency manipulation of allies and rivals alike. A slowdown in world trade across continents. And we still haven’t felt the full force of the GOP tax cuts or realized their implications. In other words, there are plenty of reasons to fear another recession, and Donald Trump’s White House is a key player in all of this.
Relatedly, and with a nod to Trump loyalists who have stuck by him amid the disarray, I urge his supporters and others sympathetic to his cause to think about, beyond his positions on immigration and other social issues, just how much they’re getting as a function of his presidency. You may have faith in him despite misgivings about his bully mentality, his fascist leanings, his misogyny, racism, transphobia, and xenophobia. Hell, you may actually like these things about him, and if you made it this far, thanks for reading. I’m not sure why you did, but thanks.
When it comes down to it, however, if you and your bottom line are what primarily concern you, keep thinking about what President Trump and the GOP are or aren’t doing for you. You probably are already watching the markets. But keep the tax cuts in mind and how you have benefited, if at all. Or how trade wars, which Trump boldly proclaimed are easy to win, may actually be hurting you when you’re picking up the tab. Or why, despite all the promises you’d be “winning,” things feel pretty much the same as before, if not worse. Barack Obama’s shift in the Oval Office is over, and when Republicans start coming for your social safety net to try to make up for their shitty policy goals, you won’t be able to blame him for it. Not terribly sincerely, in any event.
And by all means, amidst the doom and gloom depicted by conservatives and centrists alike about socialism, consider whether it is vitally important that we live in a world of unfettered capitalism. An end to capitalism wouldn’t mean an end to your ability to enjoy stuff as you might in our present materialistic society. It would, meanwhile, signify a shift away from a system that prizes profit over people and seeks to make money rather than satisfying human needs and happiness. Whether by regulating capitalism more heavily or by transitioning away from it, that seems like an end result worth striving for.
Despite America’s much-ballyhooed status as “land of the free and home of the brave,” when it comes to voting, a significant portion of the U.S. population remains unwilling or unable to cast their ballots in elections up and down tickets. A recent report for NPR by Asma Khalid, Don Gonyea, and Leila Fadel entitled “On the Sidelines of Democracy: Exploring Why So Many Americans Don’t Vote” plumbs the depths of this modern electoral reality.
First, a matter of statistics. According to the authors’ data, only about 60% of eligible voters cast ballots in 2016. If 2010 and 2014 are any indication, meanwhile, turnout for midterm elections is only expected to be about 40%. As the NPR piece insists, it can’t be known for sure how many elections might have experienced different outcomes had all or a even a larger majority come out to the polls.
However, as the report is also keen to stress, voting doesn’t just decide winners and losers. It influences what policies candidates enact upon getting into office. What’s more, it affects how these politicians interact with would-be supporters and which interests they appeal to. In other words, rather than depicting campaign platforms as static and resistant to change, Khalid et al. see them as malleable under the right outside pressure.
What’s particularly disturbing about the who, what, and why of voters vs. non-voters is that research shows these two groups have appreciably different views on matters of policy. The findings of Jan Leighley cited within the NPR piece suggest non-voters are more likely to support programs which expand the social safety net and policies which effect a redistribution of wealth.
This is before we even get to the matter of those who can’t vote, whether because of criminal records, registration issues, or other “irregularities.” The authors place this subset of the population in the hundreds of thousands, a significant number when considering some recent elections have been decided by mere hundreds of votes.
But non-voters who can vote and choose not to are at the crux of Khalid’s, Gonyea’s, and Fadel’s piece. Using data from L2, a non-partisan voter file vendor (you can read about the exact methodology in the linked article), NPR analyzed what separates voters from non-voters. Though the specific circumstances vary from place to place, the authors isolated four factors: age, income, education level, and habits.
In talking to young adults from Las Vegas, the common refrain was that they didn’t know enough about politics or even voting, for that matter, to cast ballots. This echoes the findings of Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg, director of CIRCLE, an initiative at Tufts University which looks at youth civic and political participation.
Not only are young people potentially confused about what voting entails, but they are generally pessimistic about its ability to bring about positive change. As they tend to be more itinerant than other age groups, they also feel less connected to the issues affecting where they live. Or they’re “too busy.” Or they don’t feel inspired by many political candidates. Whatever the underlying reason(s), by not voting, young adults are making it that much more likely candidates will opt not to court them in future elections in favor of groups that come out more strongly.
In McDowell County, West Virginia, the issues of class and education loom largest. The median annual income in Welch, WV, the county seat, is only about $25,000 a year. Once again, there’s the perception that no matter who is in office, their county gets the proverbial short end of the stick and is all but ignored by politicians.
Going back to Jan Leighley’s research, class more than any other variable promotes a voting discrepancy; nearly 80% of high-income earners vote, as opposed to only about 50% of low-income earners. As having a college degree makes a person that much more able to secure employment and start a career, it is no wonder education level is a factor as well. Throw in the need to work multiple jobs and other potential responsibilities, and voting certainly stands to be less of a priority.
As for El Paso, Texas, the NPR study found low Latinx turnout. At least in El Paso County, there are specific reasons which may combine to explain why over 60% of registered voters don’t come out to the polls. Part of the reason may be that immigrant families may not be familiar with voting, and that children of immigrants born here may not have had their parents serve as models in this regard. This may help inform why Asian-American voter participation is also low. Additionally, Texas hasn’t been a politically competitive state for decades now. Plus, El Paso doesn’t exactly have a good track record with respect to corrupt public officials, so there’s that, too.
Still, as Khalid et al. show, it’s not just in Texas that Latinx voters are disproportionately staying home, even when candidates for public office like Donald Trump are painting Mexicans with broad strokes as criminals and rapists. In addition to the idea that Latinxs feel a disconnect with the political process—this is emerging as a common theme across demographics—the reality is that voter outreach to non-voters is, as the article puts it, “anemic.” Rather than try to engage non-voters, candidates will plumb voter files for people who do vote frequently and try to reach out to them. This does not bode well for a robust increase in voter turnout.
Perhaps on some level, one sympathizes with political campaigns on this last note. As the NPR article states outright, “It’s more expensive and time consuming to chase down infrequent voters.” Inconvenient as this truth might be, though, it doesn’t provide a solution going forward. This is not meant as a criticism of the report, which appears to be well-researched and incisive. Nonetheless, it’s a limitation, as complex as any potential solution to low voter turnout may be.
Thus, for all the report’s valuable insights, it’s, well, kind of a downer. Maybe this is unavoidable in the face of stark electoral realities, but for those of us seeking an inspired and inspiring path to action, we’ll have to look elsewhere for answers.
My time as a frequent voter and political observer has been admittedly brief. However, rather than take the tack of many to harangue the non-voting among us into submission—Lord knows I’ve received my fair share of vote shaming despite actually going out to the polls—I tend to focus on how the voting process can be reformed and how the major parties should do better given their prominence.
At the risk of oversimplification, a big way to generate more enthusiasm for voting is to produce better candidates who run on genuinely attractive platforms. In this sense, the person(s) behind the campaign are less important than the ideas and ideals they embrace. Why else would Bernie Sanders, a septuagenarian secular Jew from Vermont with a Brooklyn accent, be so popular among people who follow politics, especially young people?
This is, of course, not to say that Bernie’s 2016 campaign and stances were perfect. For instance, his positions on foreign policy issues at times lacked nuance, and his defense of gun ownership and gun manufacturers when gun violence is such a hot topic (mostly because Americans keep getting shot and killed at rates far surpassing those of other developed countries) was characterized as out of touch. I, for one, support his views on not going after manufacturers unless they behave unethically or illegally, but I also recognize his defense of attitudes from a state that prizes hunting as a tradition as a liability for a presidential run.
As some might even aver, Sanders is really a one-issue candidate. That one issue, however, is a central one: widening income/wealth inequality and the dissolution of power and viability of the working class. It’s a problem that some of us can afford to ignore, but the vast majority can’t.
Accordingly, when Bernie talks about these subjects as well as getting money out of politics (the “rigged economy” train of thought), it resonates. Take the example of health care. When Americans have to choose between paying medical bills and buying basic necessities, that’s not merely due to poor choices—it speaks to a broken system. It’s no wonder he and candidates like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez who espouse similar views (including advocacy for Medicare for All) have captured the imagination of so many people.
It should be stressed that great candidates don’t just grow on trees. Part of producing better candidates is being able to choose from a deeper pool. I’m not just talking about “diversity” in the narrow sense of ethnicity, gender, religion, sexual orientation, or other identifying characteristics, though these are important. I mean more individuals with a progressive mindset should be running for office. This is easier said than done when people have families and jobs and lives. You know, better people than me.
Nevertheless, along these lines, party leaders should make the effort to reduce or lower the barriers for civic and political engagement. Part of this is demystifying the voting process and the ability of running for office. While I don’t feel we should necessarily encourage people to make ill-informed decisions, there’s also the matter of other voters caring about one issue or choosing based on ugly prejudices (see also “President Donald J. Trump”). In all, it would appear to be a wash. The same goes with candidates for public office. For every noble statesman or stateswoman to serve in an official capacity, there’s someone who is ill-qualified for their role and/or good for nothing else but running for office (once again, see also “President Donald J. Trump”). As the saying goes, this is politics, not rocket science.
When politicians are not compromised by their obedience to moneyed interests, and when the threshold for political participation is more reasonable (i.e. fewer fundraisers charging several hundred dollars a head), only then, I believe, will we set the stage for a meaningful dialog between elected representatives and their constituents. This includes town hall meetings with residents—you know, ones to which officials actually show and field questions rather than ditching them and complaining about unfair treatment. You ran presumably because you wanted to serve your state/town/what-have-you. Do your job.
I speak about these things in the abstract, realizing full well it is difficult to bring about positive change. To reiterate, easier said than done. It takes time, effort, and cooperation forged through a shared vision. Then again, no one said it would be easy, and furthermore, the desired outcomes are worth the struggle. We as a nation have to do better when it comes to voter turnout. The alternative is to stay home and ensure that our needs continue to go unanswered and our voices remain unheard.
“Wow. F**k the DNC.” That’s what I thought upon first reading excerpts of Donna Brazile’s first-hand account of Hillary Clinton’s “secret takeover of the DNC.” As published in a piece on Politico, Brazile’s reflections and retelling are apparently themselves an excerpt from her (Brazile’s) upcoming book. Yup—like the subject of her account, Brazile is seeking to profit off a relitigation of the 2016 election. But I digress.
As I alluded to in the title of my own piece, Donna Brazile’s insider information from her time as interim chair of the Democratic National Committee is both a confirmation of what many of us have suspected or known outright, and yet still startling. Even before we were mired in the era of President Trump—a tenure which has every possibility of lasting two terms, despite what approval ratings and legal entanglements might otherwise suggest—it was made evident through WikiLeaks’ publication of thousands of E-mails from a hack of key DNC officials that there existed within the Committee a clear bias in favor of the Clinton campaign. It’s a bias that was suggested by a questionable Democratic Party debate schedule marked by relatively few debates (at least next to the Republican Party and its gaggle of uninspired candidates) on odd days and times, but ultimately confirmed in black and white by these E-mails, not to mention Debbie Wasserman Schultz’s particular animus toward the Bernie Sanders campaign and campaign manager Jeff Weaver. At the same time, it’s perhaps unexpected to have these revelations come from Brazile, someone who infamously was fired from CNN after it was discovered she was tipping off the Clinton campaign in advance of a debate televised by the cable news network, and someone who, within the DNC E-mails, expressed her own, even if momentary, irritation with the Sanders campaign.
Before we dive into Donna Brazile’s—shall we say—allegations, let me cut off a potential objection I see to my analysis here and clarify my purpose. Do I think the way in which the DNC “rigged” the primary, as some would say, cost Bernie Sanders a chance at the Democratic Party presidential nomination? While I may disagree with a number of my fellow “Sandernistas” on this point, I don’t think the pro-Clinton bias exhibited by the DNC prior to the Democratic National Convention tipped the scales so heavily that Bernie would have won even in a fair fight. Beyond the evident collusion between the Clinton camp and the DNC, Sanders faced significant challenges in going up against the larger Democratic Party establishment apparatus (“how dare this independent run as a Democrat!”), as well as a comparative lack of name recognition next to Hillary Clinton, an understandable disparity in support among older women, and a failure to establish a significant advantage among minority voters, a struggle which mirrors the progressive movement’s difficulties in reaching people and communities of color in American politics.
These admissions aside, to adhere to the notion that Hillary still would’ve won the Democratic Party nomination and to say nothing of the other shenanigans is to miss the point. If Hillary Clinton and her campaign didn’t need to game the system, why bother doing it in the first place and inviting criticism/risking low turnout in her favor? This kind of manipulation, even if legal—and that’s a big “if”—is the kind of unethical which undermines people’s confidence in political institutions and representative democracy as a whole. For younger or otherwise more idealistic voters who envision a reform of the political process and rejection of the status quo which favors the interests of corporations and wealthy individuals, these hijinks are far more significant in their implications for campaign finance reform and political participation than the outcome of one election, disastrous as it was in ushering Donald Trump into the White House.
In other words, this aspect of the 2016 campaign season is significant, especially for a party that lost an election it was widely predicted to win and has been suffering down-ticket losses even in states in which it has historically thrived. So, let’s get to Donna Brazile’s “bombshell” account. Here are some of the more salient quotes from the excerpt featured on Politico:
My predecessor, Florida Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, had not been the most active chair in fundraising at a time when President Barack Obama’s neglect had left the party in significant debt. As Hillary’s campaign gained momentum, she resolved the party’s debt and put it on a starvation diet. It had become dependent on her campaign for survival, for which she expected to wield control of its operations. Debbie was not a good manager. She hadn’t been very interested in controlling the party—she let Clinton’s headquarters in Brooklyn do as it desired so she didn’t have to inform the party officers how bad the situation was. How much control Brooklyn had and for how long was still something I had been trying to uncover for the last few weeks.
By now, Wasserman Schultz’s reputation as DNC chair has long been made sour; if you’ll recall, she was forced to resign in disgrace after the evidence of her Clintonian favoritism was made public knowledge. Hence, this is not exactly news that her managerial skills are suspect. Still, it does provide those who felt and continue to feel “the Bern” a certain sense of satisfaction. I know it did for me.
On the phone Gary told me the DNC had needed a $2 million loan, which the campaign had arranged.
“No! That can’t be true!” I said. “The party cannot take out a loan without the unanimous agreement of all of the officers.”
“Gary, how did they do this without me knowing?” I asked. “I don’t know how Debbie relates to the officers,” Gary said. He described the party as fully under the control of Hillary’s campaign, which seemed to confirm the suspicions of the Bernie camp. The campaign had the DNC on life support, giving it money every month to meet its basic expenses, while the campaign was using the party as a fund-raising clearinghouse.
Here, Brazile is describing her conversations with Gary Gensler, CFO of Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. According to Gensler, Barack Obama’s campaign incurred some $24 million in debt, and between his slow repayment of that debt and the contributions of Hillary for America and the Hillary Victory Fund, a “joint fundraising vehicle with the DNC,” the majority of the remaining monies owed had been taken care of. But that still left some $2 million or so that required the approval of a loan, the arrangement of which was orchestrated by Wasserman Schultz and made possible by the direct connection between the Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee. Given the apparent dire financial straits of the DNC at the time, it is perhaps no wonder that Hillary and Co. had so much control over the allocation of monies in the Hillary Victory Fund. Still, that knowledge of this situation was not more widespread—whether within the Bernie Sanders campaign or within the DNC itself—keeps with the theme of a lack of transparency and ethical practices. Even if Hillary still would’ve won the primary nomination, this evidence of an unethical process leaves one to wonder if the race might’ve been closer if there were a more equitable arrangement, and to lament that we’ll never know for sure how close.
I wanted to believe Hillary, who made campaign finance reform part of her platform, but I had made this pledge to Bernie and did not want to disappoint him. I kept asking the party lawyers and the DNC staff to show me the agreements that the party had made for sharing the money they raised, but there was a lot of shuffling of feet and looking the other way.
When I got back from a vacation in Martha’s Vineyard, I at last found the document that described it all: the Joint Fund-Raising Agreement between the DNC, the Hillary Victory Fund, and Hillary for America.
The agreement—signed by Amy Dacey, the former CEO of the DNC, and Robby Mook with a copy to Marc Elias—specified that in exchange for raising money and investing in the DNC, Hillary would control the party’s finances, strategy, and all the money raised. Her campaign had the right of refusal of who would be the party communications director, and it would make final decisions on all the other staff. The DNC also was required to consult with the campaign about all other staffing, budgeting, data, analytics, and mailings.
I had been wondering why it was that I couldn’t write a press release without passing it by Brooklyn. Well, here was the answer.
There are two particular reasons why Brazile’s references to this agreement are significant. The first is that, despite Hillary’s talk on the campaign trail about wanting to rebuild the Democratic Party from the bottom up, the state Democratic Parties were getting less than half of 1% of what Clinton and her campaign were raising. Brazile references a separate Politico article from May 2016 by Kenneth P. Vogel and Isaac Arnsdorf which details this suspect arrangement. Again, old news, but the severity of the situation merits underscoring. The second, though, is the timing of the agreement’s creation. It was signed in August 2015, less than six months after Hillary Clinton officially announced her candidacy, and long before she had officially secured the nomination. This kind of control for Hillary’s sake well in advance of state primaries and the election itself may be unprecedented, and—not to beat a dead horse, but—it flies in the face of a fair and transparent selection process. Some kind of democracy—and we’re the ones who don’t support democracy by not voting for her.
I told Bernie I had found Hillary’s Joint Fundraising Agreement. I explained that the cancer was that she had exerted this control of the party long before she became its nominee. Had I known this, I never would have accepted the interim chair position, but here we were with only weeks before the election. Bernie took this stoically. He did not yell or express outrage. Instead he asked me what I thought Hillary’s chances were. The polls were unanimous in her winning but what, he wanted to know, was my own assessment?
I had to be frank with him. I did not trust the polls, I said. I told him I had visited states around the country and I found a lack of enthusiasm for her everywhere. I was concerned about the Obama coalition and about millennials. I urged Bernie to work as hard as he could to bring his supporters into the fold with Hillary, and to campaign with all the heart and hope he could muster. He might find some of her positions too centrist, and her coziness with the financial elites distasteful, but he knew and I knew that the alternative was a person who would put the very future of the country in peril. I knew he heard me. I knew he agreed with me, but I never in my life had felt so tiny and powerless as I did making that call.
When I hung up the call to Bernie, I started to cry, not out of guilt, but out of anger. We would go forward. We had to.
Wonderful story, Donna. I’m sure your book is full of such vividly-written prose. As unsympathetic as I am toward Donna Brazile’s position as DNC chair, even under these circumstances, and all kidding aside, it is intriguing to hear her talk about how she had reservations even before the election about Hillary’s campaign and the challenges she (Hillary) faced in beating Donald Trump. Plus, it also is kind of nice to have Brazile say something positive about Bernie. He may not be a saint and I might not agree with every last one of his positions on issues, but I do have a lot of admiration for that man. Fellow Sanders fans, this last quote was for you.
Hillary Clinton and the Democratic National Committee were in cahoots—fine, you may be saying. Still, even if you don’t believe this ultimately affected the outcome of the primary election to the extent that Bernie Sanders would’ve won instead, and even if Donna Brazile’s insider account reveals a broken political process that merits fixing, what is the utility of opening up old wounds? Why risk dividing a Democratic Party that has seen so much tumult over the past year and change?
Well, Esteemed Reader, the answers to these queries are manifold. First of all, there is the issue of money, and by that I mean, campaign donations. For all the donors who contributed to the Bernie Sanders campaign (myself included), it makes a bit of a difference to have them sink their money into a cause that the DNC worked so hard to ensure was a lost one rather than an equal and fair bid for the nomination. If you weren’t already aware, a class action lawsuit already has worked its way through the courts, with the case brought against the DNC by attorneys Jared and Elizabeth Beck being dismissed back in August by federal judge William Zloch on the grounds that “the named Plaintiffs have not presented a case that is cognizable in federal court.” As Bruce Spiva, on behalf of the DNC, argued, and as the court evidently agreed, there is no way to determine who is to be considered in standing to be defrauded and eligible for remediation. In doing so, however, Spiva essentially confirmed that the Committee favored Hillary Clinton, and theoretically that it could do so because the Democratic Party can do what it wants regarding the selection of its representatives at the Democratic National Convention and at the state level. Good for party unity, this line of thinking is not.
More pressing than this, though, is the notion that the Democratic Party never has truly healed in the first place from the divisions which surfaced during the primaries. While I’m not here to defend the actions of Sanders supporters who would demean Hillary Clinton and her supporters through thinly-veiled sexism, and while there is some degree of “to the victor goes the spoils” to be expected with how the Clinton camp and Hillary’s faithful reacted to the “Bernie or Bust” crowd, if ever one was to have the impression that the establishment wing of the Democratic Party and newer members/fervent Sanders supporters were a cohesive lot, he or she was missing the signs of an ongoing battle for the soul of the party. Take Hillary Clinton herself. Why author and release a book about the 2016 election concerning “what happened” only to once again deflect responsibility and to blame Bernie Sanders for irreparable harm done to the Dems? For one thing, if Bernie Sanders as one man can bring down the entire apparatus of a major political party, that appeals to a weak party infrastructure even before the events leading up to the election began. Indeed, from the sound of what Donna Brazile is indicating, the debt created by the Barack Obama campaign compounded by poor management from Debbie Wasserman Schultz already had the DNC in dire straits. In this regard, Bernie is a fall guy as much as anything.
Besides this, though, and as Clinton and her parrots would insinuate, Bernie isn’t a “true Democrat,” and beyond Bernie self-identifying as an independent, this kind of deprecation begs the question: What does it mean to be a “true Democrat”? Does it mean blindly supporting the party’s chosen candidate despite any reservations about him or her? Does it mean holding lavish meet-and-greet fundraisers that are meant to exclude a large swath of would-be Democratic voters? Does it mean bypassing whole battleground states because making speeches about income inequality in Giorgio Armani clothing is generally not appreciated by blue-collar types? To me, attacking Bernie for not being a Democrat when the Democratic Party itself has moved away from its roots as a party of the middle class and of working-class Americans is as disingenuous as it is fruitless. At least he ran an authentically grassroots campaign and talked about income and wealth inequality in a meaningful way. And yet he is the divisive one when the class warfare perpetrated by corporations and the wealthy puts the bottom 99% at risk. If Bernie isn’t a “true Democrat” by these standards, I’m not sure I want to be either.
Hillary Clinton may choose to take her potshots at Bernie Sanders from behind the cover of her non-fiction—well, more or less; it’s not fiction if she believes it’s true, right?—book. On one hand, it appears as if Clinton’s personal political aspirations have subsided. That is, “Hill-Dawg” is unlikely to run again in 2020. Though you never know—she or Joe Biden just might rear her or his head in two to three years’ time to represent the Obama administration/Democratic Party establishment in full force. Either way, however, and on the other hand, as a political figure whose work has spanned her formative years as a woman interested in politics, her identity as a notably engaged First Lady during her husband’s tenure as President, her time in the U.S. Senate, and her service as Secretary of State, HRC’s voice carries a certain amount of weight, and she figures to still be involved in the world of politics.
Thus, when Clinton speaks about Bernie in this way—someone who is still directly involved in the political sphere as senator from the state of Vermont and who may yet have designs for another run at the presidency in 2020—it does matter. Perhaps above all else, it is a signal to party leadership that Sanders is not to be trusted with the keys to the car, so to speak. If the management of the DNC under Tom Perez, former Labor Secretary and Donna Brazile’s successor, is any indication, Democratic Party leaders already have this advice close to heart. Recently, Perez revealed his list of appointments and nominations for key Committee positions, and to a large extent, Democratic Party loyalists were favored over individuals who supported Bernie Sanders and/or Keith Ellison. If there’s a better symbolic gesture of just how unwelcome progressives are at the Dems’ table, you’d be hard-pressed to find one.
All this makes Donna Brazile’s depictions of Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the Democratic National Committee, and Hillary Clinton all the more curious. Is Brazile trying to stir the pot merely to sell copies of her own work of non-fiction? Does she legitimately believe the criticisms she leveled against these current and former bastions of Democratic Party infrastructure/leadership? Or might she primarily see value in throwing a bone to Bernie Sanders supporters rather than deliberately alienating them? One can only speculate as to whether or not Brazile’s true motivations are self-serving, but if someone who seemed as staunchly pro-Hillary as she can make these comments, maybe more than just Donna Brazile see the writing on the wall concerning the future of the Democratic Party for 2018, 2020, and beyond. Serious reform of the Democratic Party and of the DNC is needed if its leadership hopes to match the enthusiasm the Republican Party has been able to generate among its loyalists and within its conservative base. Certainly, there’s a long way to go on this front, and with only a year to go before mid-term elections in 2018, the short-term political outlook looks bleak for the party associated with the color blue.
Death and taxes. As the saying goes, they’re the two inescapable facts of life on this Earth. And maybe glitter, too. I’ve heard it said glitter is the herpes of the arts and crafts world, and having been the victim of glitter’s stickiness in the past, I appreciate the analogy. There’s so much you could say about death and its inevitability, more than could fit in one post and not exactly the kind of topic I’d cover in a blog about current events and politics anyway. There’s less you could say about glitter. It’s shiny—yay? Taxation in the United States, meanwhile, is an issue off which we can reasonably bite and chew. Taxes, be they local, state, or federal, are almost always relevant in some way to our daily lives, but currently exceedingly so in light of a recent resolution narrowly passed by the House of Representatives that paves the way for a Republican-led Congress to try to jam a tax reform bill through the legislature. After the GOP’s failure to get an ill-crafted replacement of the Affordable Care Act through both the House and Senate, the pressure is on Mitch McConnell, Paul Ryan, and the rest of the party’s leaders to devise something that will find success and uphold a pledge of both theirs and President Donald Trump’s to lower taxes.
Back at the end of September, Trump and the “Big Six”—House Ways and Means chair Kevin Brady, National Economic Council director Gary Cohn, Senate Finance chair Orrin Hatch, Mitch McConnell, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, and Paul Ryan—unveiled a rough cut of what a Republican tax reform bill would look like. David Floyd, writing about the “Trump tax reform plan” under the Investopedia.com banner, offers a fairly good primer on what the forthcoming bill might look like. Among the salient points of agreement among the Big Six and made evident to reporting media:
For personal taxes
Three brackets: In what may seem as somewhat of a welcome change given the U.S. tax code is often derided as too complex and ridden with loopholes, a GOP tax bill is expected to reduce the number of tax brackets applicable to personal filers from seven brackets to just three: 12%, 25%, and 35%. Perhaps the most notable change herein would be the reduction of the top bracket from 39.6%, because, as with charges levied against the Republican plan for “repeal and replace,” the intimation is that the primary intent of this legislation is to give the wealthiest Americans a tax cut. Well, this aspect sure doesn’t help.
Higher standard deductions: From the looks of things, much higher. For current 2017 tax law, the standard deduction for single filers is $6,350, and $12,700 for married filing jointly. Under the proposed reform, the Single standard deduction would rise to $12,000 and the MFJ deduction would shoot up to $24,000. As for the Head of Household deduction, um, what Head of Household deduction? Seriously, though, the GOP tax plan doesn’t mention anything about it, which could presage an elimination of this option. Sorry, single parents—this is Trump’s family-oriented America now.
No additional standard deduction: A forthcoming reform bill is likely to eliminate the additional standard deduction (currently at $1,550) for single filers who are either 65+ years of age or blind. Sorry, old and blind people—this is Trump’s America now. The disabled and elderly don’t get priority.
No personal exemption: That apparent good news about your standard deduction? It stands to be tempered by the likelihood that the personal exemption will evaporate. That’s $4,050 which would suddenly become unavailable. Harsh, bruh.
Elimination of itemized deductions: Not all itemized deductions, but a number of them, particularly that applicable to deducting state and local taxes. Which would disproportionately affect filers in “blue” states, but that’s just a coincidence, right? Already, the dramatic increase for the standard deduction would be anticipated to reduce the number of couples/individuals making use of itemized deductions, which would only be useful if these individual deductions surpass the given standard deduction. Eliminating the so-called SALT deduction would, in all probability, further increase that trend.
Increasing the child tax credit: Increasing the child tax credit—what’s bad about that? Well, not much, from what I can tell, but this is probably a concession designed to make the legislation more palatable from a political standpoint. This is to say that the main reason this bill is being proposed by Republican leadership is most likely not related to concern for the average parent and his or her child/children.
Cutting the AMT and estate tax: Yeah, this is straight-up, good-for-the-wealthy-type shit right here, especially concerning the latter, which affects less than 1% of American estates and only those worth more than $5.5 million. The Trump Family, in particular, would benefit handsomely from a repeal of the estate tax. Yup, no conflicts of interest here—move it along, people. Nothing to see here.
For business taxes
Cutting the top corporate tax rate to 20%: Corporations, so onerously plagued by taxes that a number of them find ways to pay little to nothing in this regard, will apparently have this burden further reduced by the Trump/Big Six tax plan. Here’s the thing about this tax cut: the cost. Taxes collected are tax revenues, and with a drop in the highest corporate tax rate from 35% to 20%, the estimated cost to the United States is some $2 trillion over a decade. Trillion. With a T. It’s doubtful the brain trust behind the forthcoming bill will be able to find a plug that large to fill the void.
Establishing a top “pass-through” rate of 25%. With pass-through entities, such as sole proprietorships, partnerships, and S-corporations, owners pay based on personal tax rates. As with the intended shift on the top corporate tax rate, the reduction in the top rate for pass-through entities would be substantial, down from the aforementioned 39.6% highest bracket threshold. Under the guise of this bill, this reduction is meant to give a break to America’s small businesses. Not only would a majority of small business owners not benefit anyway under the proposed plan, making this—surprise!—a boon predominantly for wealthier business owners, but defining what organizations/what type of work qualifies for classification in this way was already cumbersome. Meaning the IRS, already besieged by cuts over the past few years, will likely have that much more trouble sifting through returns if this bill comes to pass. It’s OK, though—your refund will get to you eventually. We hope.
Establishing a “territorial system” for foreign-based revenues: This applies to multinational corporations, and would allow these businesses to be subject to taxation based on where the money was made, rather than be subject to U.S. taxation, including a 35% tax on overseas profits for American corporations when they bring them back home. This might actually be a good element of the reform, as a large consensus seems to favor this treatment for multinationals, arguing that it will improve the American corporate tax system and could potentially make U.S. firms more competitive with their foreign counterparts. As they say, though, the Devil is in the details, and thus far, the details have been decidedly murky. What would a minimum foreign tax to discourage revenue shifting look like, exactly? For a supposed low, one-time tax rate to bring existing foreign revenues ashore, what is the proposed rate? If multinational corporations don’t want to shift them to the United States, do they even have to pay the tax at all? I’m asking you, the reader, because I’m not sure the Republican brass in charge of crafting this legislation have really thought through all the implications.
I say the details have been murky on the territorial system, but as with the various awful iterations of the GOP health care bill that did not get passed, there is a lot that is unclear about this tax plan concocted by the Trump administration and Co. What income ranges will get assigned to which of the three proposed tax brackets? Will the deduction from 39.6% to 35% actually survive the drafting process given obvious tax breaks for the wealthiest Americans are unpopular with most of the population? What itemized deductions actually stand to be preserved by the Republican tax reform bill? How will abuses of the reduced top pass-through rate be curbed? And how exactly are we going to pay for these tax cuts? How exactly are we going to pay for these tax cuts? No, really—how the f**k are we going to pay for these tax cuts? I’m asking this three times because it’s important, and because a shortfall in tax revenue is to be expected relative to current rates, will this mean cuts in other areas to offset these losses? Also like with the health care bill voting process, it is doubtful that GOP lawmakers will have the time and wherewithal to read and comprehend what they’re potentially voting on—or much less be asked to. Keeping in mind the Republican Party’s penchant for legislative chicanery and desire for a victory regardless of the eventual fallout, anything less than full speed ahead is considered a liability for those who bleed Republican red. By this token, Trump and the Big Six probably hope their Republican Party underlings are as in the dark about this bill as we are.
As much as we don’t know about the fine details, however, and as accelerated a timeline under which the Republicans in Congress will aim to operate to keep as many people as unaware as possible, the broad strokes are enough to tell that the forthcoming tax reform legislation, like the deficient health care bills that preceded it, is something about which calling and writing one’s elected representatives merits the effort. Because this is legislation which is primarily designed to benefit wealthy business owners and other wealthy individuals—let’s not sugarcoat the matter. But don’t just take my word for it. John Komlos, professor emeritus of economics and economic history at the University of Munich, states outright that the GOP tax cuts would make the rich even richer. In an opinion piece appearing in PBS’s economic segment, “Making Sen$e,” Komlos argues that any theoretical gains to be enjoyed by members of the middle class from these revisions and cuts are easily outpaced by the windfalls to be realized by the most well-to-do. The professor explains:
Take a median household of two earners with an income of $59,000. The best estimate is that their after-tax income will increase by 1.2% or by $704. To be sure, that is nothing to scoff at. It is twice as much as their income gains during the previous 17 years but it is hardly enough to be a game changer for them. Their likelihood of affording college for their kids will not increase, for example. Their consumption will be not increase the economy’s aggregate demand appreciably either.
In contrast, the super-rich will become amazingly even richer. If the GOP had its way, the top tax rate would decline from 39.6 percent to 35 percent for a married couple earning more than $470,000. Take a typical CEO of a major corporation who earns, say $20 million. With a typical effective tax bill of 25.6 percent for someone in that position, their take home pay currently would be around $14.8 million. Under the new plan, the tax bill would decline by 4.6 percent, or roughly $900,000. However, according to the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center, the gain would be even more — roughly $1.2 million.
Either way, in this scenario the windfall would leave the CEO with disposable income of around $16 million. This would certainly be enough to buy some political influence. So, the tax cuts feed a vicious circle that lead from the windfall to political power and the ability to influence the public’s worldview and thereby gain further profits and additional power both political and economic.
Prof. Komlos sees the Trump tax plan as another version of Reaganomics and to be rightly derided as “voodoo economics.” As it has been a linchpin of conservative economic theory for some time, the central mechanism here is trickle-down theory, and experience has shown it doesn’t quite work as specified. From the Reagan tax cuts, we got a “$2 trillion increase in the government deficit and the hollowing out of the middle class,” earning us respectable but only incremental growth. The majority of growth experienced under George W. Bush prior to the Great Recession benefited the top 1%, and the deficit ballooned yet again. All this is an erosion of the middle class and its power, while income and wealth inequality widen, with the growing chasm threatening to swallow the bottom 99% whole. As for the idea the drop in corporate tax rates will stimulate growth, Komlos argues that what is limiting additional investments by American businesses is not burdensome taxation, but lack of demand for the product. No amount of lining the pockets of the wealthy can magically spur demand from the public.
John Komlos’s closing remarks strike an ominous tone, even if they leave the door open for something better:
At its core, the tax plan was made by the 1 percent for the 1 percent. Apparently greed has no limits. Make no mistake about it: this is nothing less than class warfare. And as Warren Buffett, the second richest man in America, so astutely recognized, “my class has won.” We were fooled by Reaganomics. We were fooled by George W. Bush tax cuts. Will the 1 percent fool us again? Or will Abraham Lincoln be proved was right, when he said that you can’t fool all of the people all of the time.
The hope, of course, is that the American people will realize how lopsided this bill is and will demand something fairer, not just in terms of the alignment of specific income brackets with specific percentages, but in terms of the distribution of wealth and power across the American economic spectrum. The major reservation, however, is that some distraction like terrorism or Hillary Clinton or the difficulties of daily life will come along to make too many of us ready to forfeit our bargaining power. History has repeated itself with the Republican presidents leading up to Barack Obama. It can easily repeat itself after the fact, change and hope aside.
Speaking of distractions, as is so often the case with Donald Trump, he and his Republican cronies have utilized their brand of misdirection to try to minimize public attention to how terrible their tax plan will be. At about the same time we were hearing that the resolution narrowly passed which would allow Republicans to fast-track tax reform legislation through Congress, our attention was diverted to concerns about the release of the JFK assassination files, of all things, as well as Trump’s blathering about Hillary Clinton and sales of uranium to Russia. These may very well be worth the scrutiny, mind you, but the timing of their release/publicizing functions to obscure the fact that wealthy people masquerading as authentic representatives of the American people are intent on catering to their wealthiest benefactors first, leaving the scraps for the rest of us. The intersection of Trump administration proceedings, Republican legislative machinations, and the rantings and ravings of a spoiled brat who was elected to be—but does not act like—the President creates a shell game by which all options are vaguely appealing, but the contents of one have the unique power to do quantifiable damage to our country and the balance of power within it. In this case, it’s the GOP-led Congress’s shell that covers their mad dash of an attempt to give the wealthiest Americans an unnecessary tax break, and to get a bill passed before we’re singing “Auld Lang Syne” to ring in 2018. This means that, following any elections individual states, counties, and municipalities may have this November, the timeline for voicing opposition to any proposed legislation will be slim.
Thus, even while indictments are being issued by Robert Mueller in the investigation into Donald Trump and his potential ties to Russia, the details of this whole Republican tax shebang will be critical to pursue in the coming days, weeks, and months. Particularly so we can find out what the hell, if anything, is being done to our 401(k) plans and their associated limits. The Republican tax plan is going to suck. It’s up to us to find out just how bad it will suck and which representatives/senators to contact and pressure in the hopes it won’t be passed.
In social politics today, there seems to be an additional “F-word” that people dare not speak without looking around nervously or others getting downright angry. I’m talking about “feminism,” a term which conjures up some powerful imagery both for its supporters and for those who resist its use and its underlying motivations. Part of the strong reactions a dialog about feminism, gender, and “women’s issues” provokes, I believe, is related to the confusion about what this decades-old—if not centuries-old—movement entails. That is, different groups and individuals tend to define feminism differently. Kellyanne Conway, who, like so many members of the Trump administration, evidently can’t help but put her foot in her mouth—you know, when she’s not putting her feet on the couch in the Oval Office—and gave her own definition of feminism that invited due criticism. Conway, when interviewed recently at CPAC 2017, this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference, said she rejected calling herself a “feminist” because the term has been tainted by the left and because the nature of the movement has become exclusionary and anti-conservative. The counselor to the President had this to say when prompted about feminism:
It’s difficult for me to call myself a “feminist” in the classic sense because it seems to be very anti-male and it certainly is very pro-abortion in this context and I’m neither anti-male or pro-abortion. So there’s an “individual feminism,” if you will, where you make your own choices. I look at myself as a product of my choices, not a victim of my circumstances, and that’s really what “conservative feminism,” if you will, is all about.
Wow. As self-professed intellectuals like myself would put forth, there’s a lot to unpack here. Kellyanne Conway’s makes a number of suppositions that require one’s assent or tacit agreement. Let us first enumerate them, and subsequently address their potential veracity.
1. Feminism is anti-male.
This is a persistent criticism of the feminist movement: that those who subscribe are a bunch of man-haters who wish for the advancement of women at the expense of men who work very hard and are just minding their own business. This is not merely an oversimplification of feminist positions, however, but skewed to the point of absurdity. Might some feminists see patterns of patriarchal oppression and sexism where perhaps they don’t exist? It’s possible. Not all revolutionaries wave their banners for the same reasons, after all, and some might do so for the wrong ones. To a large extent, though, feminist arguments would appear to hit the mark given the pervasiveness of gender inequality across continents. At any rate, calling feminists “anti-male” makes about as much sense as calling Black Lives Matter activists “anti-police.” Feminists are not calling for violence against or abuse of men. It’s about equality, and addressing institutionalized forms of prejudice against women. Criticism does not necessarily equate to hate, and if those targets of criticism are indeed wrong, to defend them puts the defender at fault also.
Often, rejection of feminist views betrays a defensive attitude on the part of he or she expressing the rejection. For example, how many times have you heard “feminism” and “shrill” in the same sentence? Breitbart’s readership, for one, seems to dine on this stereotype like Garfield the cat dines on lasagna. Here’s a gem from the unholy pseudo-informative spawn Stephen Bannon helped nurture: “License to Shrill: Feminists Can’t Stop Whining about Their Fake Problems.” In this piece, the author suggests that feminists fret and whine about their “frivolous” problems like “the Democrats talking about climate change as a security threat when the country is under attack by illegal immigrants and radical Islamic terrorists.” And this from a female writer, no less!
2. Feminism is very pro-abortion.
It is, in fact, possible to have a nuanced set of views on abortion. I personally wish there were fewer unplanned pregnancies in the world, and I certainly don’t encourage men and women to be reckless in their sexual activity. However, I wouldn’t tell a pregnant woman not to have an abortion in deference to my beliefs, because I believe the matter of choice is sacrosanct. I’m sure many card-carrying feminists share these sentiments, at least to an extent. An abortion is not a procedure to go about willy-nilly, but to make a value judgment about someone else’s situation and to thrust those values upon the other person unsolicited is a sin in its own right, and can make what may very well be an emotional and stressful decision that much more difficult. People who vilify the “godless left” for being pro-abortion might just as well look at themselves and their aversion to a woman’s right to choose.
3. There is an individual feminism where you make your own choices.
Yes, there is. It’s called feminism. I just talked about it. You make your own choices. Like, say, those involving your body.
4. Liberal feminists view themselves as victims of their circumstances.
Bear in mind that Conway is making a distinction between feminism and “conservative feminism” in the first place. And they call us liberals the ones who are divisive! The “liberals play the victim card” charge is one that has been made numerous times before irrespective of gender and circumstances. Those college students who want an affordable education? Playing the victim. They’re just asking someone else to foot the bill. Those protestors going after police officers for doing their job? Playing the victim. It’s the fault of those resisting. Blacks upset about slavery? Hey, that was a long time ago—quit your bitching! Are you overweight? Get on a treadmill already, fatty! And I’m sure we can think of any number of barbs to throw at women and the issues they care about. Need an abortion? You should’ve learned to keep your legs closed in the first place, slut! Want to be taken seriously as a professional? Don’t dress in such provocatively tight clothing, provoking lustful eyes, OK? Upset about y0ur pay? Get a better job! Stop crying. Get over it. Welcome to the real world.
Let me say a few things about these things—chiefly with respect to how wrong-headed they are. On the subject of sexuality, specifically women’s sexuality, I would argue it is incredibly unrealistic to insist on all or even a majority of sexually mature women to adhere to an abstinence-only lifestyle. This is not a commentary on females’ lack of control of their bodily impulses, mind you—I would say the same thing for men, too. Especially men. It’s not that they can’t choose not to have to sex, but they shouldn’t be expected to, and that there is a profound double standard in our society concerning moral judgments of others’ sexual activity—men tend to be lauded for their sexual prowess, while women are shamed for their lasciviousness—speaks to a normalized attitude, once again, of dictating to women what they can and can’t do with their bodies.
On the subject of women in the workplace, um, the glass ceiling is pretty well documented by now. In the United States, women, on the whole, make less than men, and once more, there is a gender-based disparity in perception at work under the subheading of leadership. A male taskmaster is a strong, determined leader. A female in this same role is labeled a bitch, a cunt, is on her period, or needs to get laid. It’s boorish, quite frankly, and incredibly unfair. Moreover, on the literal subject of “victimhood,” women are disproportionate targets of physical and sexual assault, with college campuses across the U.S., in particular, seeing exceedingly high levels of violence against women and men. What is perhaps worst of all herein is the idea that with too many college and universities, there is neither an established environment of acceptance for victims of sexual violence nor a tone at the top which signifies a demand for justice in all cases. In some cases, these institutions charged with safeguarding the well-being of their student body appear more interested in protecting the school’s image. After all, donors are less liable to open up their purse strings or wallets if their would-be donee is regarded as a proverbial viper’s nest of danger and iniquity. Better to make young women jump through hoops to report cases of rape/sexual assault and slut-shame them to the back pages of the newspaper.
So, yeah, feel free to opine on the liberal victim mentality. But conservatives play the victim, too, especially when taken to task for blatant sexism and other forms of prejudice. If anything, it’s a pot-kettle sort of situation.
At the very least, Kellyanne Conway’s understanding of feminism as an abstract concept seems incomplete. So much so that Merriam-Webster’s official Twitter feed took to defining “feminism” for her and others’ benefit: “The belief that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities.” Nothing about hating men. Nothing about separating one feminist from another based on ability to choose for oneself. Nothing about viewing oneself as a victim or blaming others for one’s position in life and set of circumstances. And certainly nothing about the Women’s March, undoubtedly awash with feminists, being proof that those involved and many women in general have an issue with women in power, as Conway herself suggested. Unless Donald Trump is, in fact, a woman, and let me say that he doesn’t make a particularly fetching one if that’s the case.
Suffice it to say, though, that both men and women may misconstrue what feminism entails and what does or does not constitute a violation of feminist principles. Recently, Emma Watson caught flak for wearing an outfit for a Vanity Fair photo shoot that featured her wearing no bra and very little else covering her breasts. The argument from her online detractors was that Watson, a self-identifying feminist, is a hypocrite for decrying the objectification by men on one hand and dressing in a way that, as they would describe it, encourages objectification. As these critics see things, her revealing garb is a betrayal of her principles and sends mixed messages. Emma Watson, for her part, was taken aback by the negativity, mostly because she expressed a sense of frustration about these critics misunderstanding feminism to begin with. Or, in her words, from an interview with the BBC:
Feminism is about giving women choice. Feminism is not a stick with which to beat other women. I really don’t know what my tits have to do with it. It’s very confusing.
Very confusing indeed. Some might philosophize that by dressing sexy, Watson is no better than the the male behavior she discourages, but a key difference here is the matter of choice. Whether or not you agree with it from a moral standpoint, Emma Watson is choosing to dress this way, a notion she herself reinforces. As if she were making a choice about whether or not to have an abortion, it’s her body, and furthermore, one might argue that by exercising her free will, she is disempowering those who would seek to objectify her without her consent. In this context, control is everything. Otherwise, Beyoncé fans have taken to pointing out Watson’s reversal on this position. About three years ago, Emma Watson noted she felt conflicted about Beyoncé referring to herself as a “feminist” and having her (Beyoncé’s) 2013 visual album appear as if shot through a voyeuristic lens and from the perspective of the heterosexual male libido. First of all, um, that was three years ago. People’s opinions can change a lot in that span, especially for someone of Watson’s age. Second of all, Watson acknowledges her opinions about the subject matter were not really “formulated” at the time. Call her a hypocrite or “flip-flopper” if you want, but regardless of what she said then, she has the right attitude about it now. The woman has breasts—what do you want her to do about it?
The “if she didn’t want to be objectified, she wouldn’t be leaving her flesh so exposed” argument, by the by, is a logically weak one, akin to the idea that women are “asking” to be raped or otherwise assaulted based on how they dress. What’s more, this is not the first time Emma Watson’s feminist credentials or even her use of the term has been questioned. Watson was invited to deliver a speech on the fight for gender equality worldwide for the launch of the HeForShe initiative at the United Nations, and reportedly, was asked not to use the “F-word.” As in “feminism.” She did anyway. Even for an occasion designed to mark a movement for men to advocate for and support women in the fight for gender equality, that Watson received this “friendly advice” signifies the overall discomfort both women and men have in using the term based on its negative connotations. Emma Watson noted in an interview with the London Evening Standard that she debated whether or not to comply with this request, but that she ultimately chose in favor of using the term, explaining herself thusly:
I was encouraged not to use the word feminism because people felt that it was alienating and separating and the whole idea of the speech was to include as many people as possible. But I thought long and hard and ultimately felt that it was just the right thing to do. If women are terrified to use the word, how on Earth are men supposed to start using it?
Watson makes an excellent point. If feminists themselves are afraid to use the term and extol the virtues of their worldview, this risks dissuading men who are more amenable to the feminist cause from lending their support, and moreover, gives those who reject feminist ideals, chief among them conservatives and males who reflexively view any pro-female movement as a threat to their way of life and therefore in need of neutralization (see also alt-right, Gamergate) ammunition in further weakening their (the feminists’) resolve. Though not to equate the two movements and the struggle for mainstream acceptance they face, democratic socialism is another term which is assailed by its opponents to the extent people who might otherwise be sympathetic to its cause are alienated from the theory. Democratic socialists believe in a democratic form of government alongside a socialist economic system, rather simply.
As author and journalist Dan Arel explains, democratic socialism is, in many ways, not what you think it is. It is not Marxism, in that democratic socialism does not advocate for workers controlling the means of production. It is not communism as we would commonly understand it, that is, as manifested in China and the USSR. It is not a replacement for capitalism, but rather a more responsible, one might argue, version of capitalism that would restrict the excesses of corporations and their owners and would act to safeguard employee rights. It is not pure socialism, as democratic socialism believes that consumer goods/services and certain societal elements should be approached democratically rather than from a central government. Perhaps most importantly, it is not incompatible with modern American economic and political structures. As Arel suggests, democratic socialism already exists within the Democratic Party—it just isn’t embraced by all its members. Universal health care, free college tuition, a stronger social safety net—these are not pipe dreams for many developed countries around the world, especially in Europe. Yet people hear “socialism,” and either because they conflate it with communism or simply believe that industry in the United States is overregulated as it is, condemn democratic socialism in a reactionary way. Bernie Sanders and his crazy ideas! Why doesn’t he just move to Sweden if he loves it so much? Never mind that benefits such as community development block grants, the Earned Income Credit, educational grants, family planning services, food stamps/SNAP, the Head Start program, Job Corps, Medicare, public housing, Social Security, and weatherization services for low-income households are all social programs used by Americans of all different economic backgrounds and political affiliations. Um, you’re welcome.
Back to the role of feminism in America and in the world today, though. Feminism, at its most basic and essential, speaks to equality of opportunities and rights irrespective of gender. As suggested earlier, some men, notably those dyed-in-the-wool, old-fashioned sexists—whether they are conscious of it or not—view the advancement of women as a threat to them and their way of life. Feminists also face obstacles from institutions primed to favor men, chief among them the world of business, rigid standards of morality and religious conservatism, and even censure from other women who view their lot as whiny man-haters. In the discussion of not wanting to give the haters more fodder, though, certainly, card-carrying feminists must stick by their principles and do so without concern for excluding those uncomfortable with calling feminism by its rightful name. They should not have to fight this fight alone, however, and with a new generation of young men more sensitively attuned to ideas related to female sexuality, gender equality, and women’s issues, it would appear necessary that they recognize women’s struggle for equality as one which affects them as it does the women advocating for greater autonomy of self, and without concern for their (the men’s) immediate personal benefit. Their mission is our mission. Their losses and gains ours as well.
Now more than ever, with a man in the White House who identifies as pro-life to court religious conservatives despite expressing support for a woman’s right to choose in the past—not to mention boasting about being able to grab women “by the pussy” and defending his words as “locker-room talk”—and a Republican-led Congress which has targeted Planned Parenthood’s federal funding despite it not being used for abortions, already a small portion of the organization’s total services, men must support women’s rights as part of a unified front against others who would seek to abrogate these liberties. Accordingly, the following points should be considered non-negotiable, and let it be stressed that the feminist/women’s rights agenda is not limited to just these items:
Constitutional equality. I’ll speak briefly about equality in pay in a bit, but for women across demographic lines, constitutional guarantees to educational opportunities, full Social Security benefits, and job opportunities and political opportunities/power, are lacking. The Equal Rights Amendment, passed by Congress in 1972, has yet to be ratified in a three-fourths majority of states (only 35 of the 50 have ratified it), but efforts continue at the grassroots level to get its language specifically into the U.S. Constitution.
Control over reproductive rights. This includes access to safe abortions and available, affordable birth control and reproductive health services. I know I specified earlier that men should advocate for these points irrespective of any immediate benefits, but as they stand to, ahem, benefit from women’s healthy expression of their sexuality, right off the bat, this should be an easy sell.
Ending violence against women. Domestic violence and violence against women in college settings jumps to mind, but across international and cultural borders, there unfortunately are too many instances of the subjugation of women by physical and other means. Female genital mutilation sticks out in this regard, being inflicted on upwards of 200 million women and girls worldwide, chiefly in the regions of Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. It is deemed by the World Health Organization as unnecessary and dangerous, and by the United Nations and other international bodies as a human rights violation. Violence against women in its various forms is a serious problem in our world today, a reality that is made all the more disturbing by all the underage females who are targeted because they can’t protect themselves and/or to satisfy some illicit trade, as in the sex trafficking of young girls. This should not be considered a remote problem for distant continents either. This is a human problem and one that affects all of us.
Equal pay for equal work. Seems fair, right? Arguing against equal pay for women on the basis of their supposed inferiority is outmoded and foolish thinking, plain and simple.
Freedom from stigmatization of normal bodily functions. Earth to Donald Trump and some other men—women menstruate. This is uncontrollable, and symptoms of PMS shouldn’t be assumed against them when they dare to show emotion or, you know, do their job as female reporters/news personalities (what up, Megyn Kelly?) Also, women breastfeed. They shouldn’t have to hide this fact, especially given the idea babies need sustenance to survive and thrive. Stop, ahem, being such babies about this.
Justice for women of color and for the LGBTQ community. In the pursuit of gender equality, those who champion women’s rights are usually not provincial in their focus. Though they might frame their discussion of job discrimination, pay equity, Social Security and pension reform, and what constitutes a “living wage” in terms of women’s issues, these topics are applicable to the larger conversation about income and wealth inequality that pervades societal problems in the United States and elsewhere. Part of the women’s rights movement is addressing opportunities for women of color in all areas, especially education, employment, and health care, and for the LGBTQ community, notably with respect to child custody, employment, health services, and housing.
Again, these are not strictly “women’s issues,” but ones that affect all of us, considering how they impact and have impacted the lives of the women around us—our mothers, our grandmothers, our wives, our daughters, other female family members, our female teachers, our female nurses, and so on and so forth. Furthermore, despite the progress we have made in this regard, there is much work to do, and realistically, we should be further along than we are. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, when asked two years ago about why gender parity in his Cabinet is so important to him, responded simply with the line, “Because it’s 2015.” It’s 2017 now, and the vast majority of us—women and men, men and women—should be proud to say we are feminists. I certainly am, and you should be too.
As I feel it must be reiterated, mostly because the Democratic Party doesn’t seem to be able to allow it to fully sink in, the Democrats have had their electoral asses handed to them of late. Despite Hillary Clinton winning the popular vote by close to 3 million votes, they lost the 2016 presidential election at large to Donald Trump. In the Senate, they enjoyed a net gain this November of only two seats, and thus still trail Republicans 52 to 46 (two U.S. Senators identify as independents: Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Angus King of Maine). In the House of Representatives, they gained six whole seats, which sounds good until you realize there are 435 congressional districts and the GOP also has a lead here, 247 to 188. It gets worse. In terms of governorships, Democrats preside over only 16 states, with Bill Walker of Alaska being considered an independent. Roughly speaking, the Republican Party has a two-to-one advantage in this regard. And Lord knows what the situation is like at the county and local levels, but chances are the larger overall trend doesn’t bode well for the Democratic Party as the scope of provinciality narrows.
In light of this all-around political beatdown, how do the Democrats begin to try to regain a foothold at the various levels of government? Do they try to argue that their party is one of inclusiveness and moral rectitude, and hope that distinguishing themselves from the GOP in these regards will allow them to carry the day, especially as President Trump and his administration implodes (no guarantee, but they already show signs of cracking)? Tempting as it sounds, this doesn’t seem to be enough, and certainly wasn’t sufficient for them to garner the W in the general election. A critical part of the solution, as many see it, is for the Democratic Party to become bolder and to allow itself to be touched by an authentic progressive spirit. The popularity of the likes of the aforementioned Bernie Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth “She Persisted” Warren from Massachusetts, in particular, among young liberals and independents would seem to indicate the party needs to attract talent that not only reflects the identity of the electorate in terms of ethnic, gender and religious diversity, but a willingness to combat the entrenchment of moneyed interests in state and national politics and to level the playing field for voters and candidates across demographic groups. Other progressive stances which are seen as vital to this effort and thus necessary for the Dems to embrace include a stronger commitment to combatting climate change, a unified front on protecting and respecting the values of minority groups, including those of Native American Indian tribes, and a more pronounced shift toward principles of democratic socialism, namely that of a Medicare-for-all/single-payer health care system.
In short, a partial answer to the question of, “Where do the Democrats go from here?” seems to be, “Left.” That is, further left then Hillary Clinton and other establishment politics might have otherwise been willing to go, especially prior to the presidential election. This begs a follow-up question to the answer, assuming it is, in fact, a correct partial answer: “Is moving purely left of center enough?” If exit polls from November are any indication, perhaps not. Where Hillary Clinton fared well, according to CNN polls, perhaps is no surprise. A 54% majority of female votes were “with her,” as were people under the age of 45 by similar percentages. Clinton also fared significantly better than Donald Trump with non-whites, people with annual incomes under $50,000, unmarried respondents, and those who reported their identity as Jewish, Muslim, or belonging to some other religion. By contrast, Hillary did not fare as well among voters 45 and over, among whites, among less educated voters, among married people, especially men, among veterans, and among Christians—Protestants, Catholics, Mormons, other branches of Christianity, you name it. While Clinton’s gender may be a bit of a confounding factor here, especially with respect to the sex of the poll respondents, on other dimensions, the other disadvantages she faced likely speak to challenges Democrats face as a whole and will continue to have to address in coming elections.
Concerning the concept of going further left, for the Democratic Party, seeing as progressivism is related to liberalism, and in the present-day context, is somewhat of a more extreme version of it, or perhaps liberalism carried to its logical next point, as exemplified by the jump from ObamaCare to a single-payer health care and insurance system, adopting positions that appeal to independents would seem like a relatively easy task. Through collaboration with Bernie Sanders’s surrogates and supporters, Hillary Clinton and her team crafted a party platform in advance of the election that both sides could champion as the most progressive in the modern history of the party, although lacking in several respects, notably failing to support a $15 minimum wage, not coming out strongly in opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership and other trade deals, proving silent on the issue of deportation, rejecting the Medicare-for-all paradigm, not going far enough on legalization of marijuana, and doing little to address the bloated U.S. military budget. Then again, this shift away from center may be easier said than done, especially in light of the influence of money and lobbying from industries and business leaders in establishment politics. For instance, someone like Cory Booker, Democratic Party darling from my home state and someone I generally support, is principled enough, but when it comes to, say, a bill or amendment which would allow Americans to buy prescription drugs from Canada at a cheaper rate, his vote against the measure makes sense when you consider he has accepted the most money from the pharmaceutical industry of any Senate Democrat in the past six years. It is oft said that money talks, and in the sphere of politics, this is time and again achingly apparent.
Reaching across the aisle, meanwhile, presents its own challenges. Going back to the 2016 presidential race, even if Hillary Clinton were to try to extend a proverbial olive branch to those on the right, if she didn’t in the same breath negate her sincerity with her infamous “basket of deplorables” comment, she likely would have had many die-hard Republicans firing up chainsaws at the sight of that olive branch. Even after the election, the non-politicians among us, too, are wont to struggle with “bridging the cultural divide,” as much as detractors on both sides of the aisle accuse their counterparts opposite them of divisiveness. Susan Shaw, a professor of women, gender and sexuality studies at Oregon State University, recently penned a very considerate piece expressing her frustrations in trying to understand and communicate with white Christian Trump supporters, as we know, a pivotal source of strength for Donald Trump in the election. Shaw, a self-identifying progressive, expresses her alienation from the religious right as someone who grew up within this environment:
My white, conservative Christian upbringing had told me that was the American Dream—to work hard and succeed. I did, and I feel you’re holding it against me now that I no longer share your views. I think you must imagine the liberal elite as East Coast, Ivy League-educated, trust fund babies completely out of touch with how most people live. Sure, some faculty members grew up with money. Some went to Ivy League schools. But a lot of us professors were you—working class kids who did whatever it took to get a college education. Along the way, a lot of us developed progressive ideas, not out of our privilege, but out of our own experiences of discrimination, struggle and oppression.
Shaw’s description of the source of her progressivism within the context of “discrimination, struggle and oppression” admittedly makes more sense coming from her than someone like me, a white male in a suburban middle-class household. In this regard, I suppose the extent of hardships we face is always relative—someone, somewhere has it worse. Regardless of who has the more “legitimate” claim to progressive ideals, if there is such a thing, Prof. Shaw appears to indicate that such a political orientation is buoyed by experience with the kinds of disparities, injustices and problems progressivism seeks to address. In other words, while their social critics—professional and amateur alike—demean liberals as delusional, soft and unable to cope with the “real world,” Susan Shaw speaks to the notion that individuals on the left and far left are rather resilient, strong, capable people, and what’s more, they may be better in tune with reality than those who preach the very virtue of cold realism.
In defending so-called “out of touch” liberal elites like herself, Shaw also takes her target audience—at least in name—to task for their apparent tone-deafness. As she remarks in cutting fashion, “We really do know a lot about what we’re talking about, and we have something to offer in a real conversation across our differences (including the East Coast Ivy Leaguers who aren’t as out of touch as you may think). But I don’t think you want to hear us or me.” Thinking along these lines, much of the rest of Shaw’s open letter to white Christian Trump supporters reads like a list of grievances. The reasons why she feels this distance from them, despite her upbringing, include the following:
1. You call people “sore losers” and tell them to “get over” Trump winning, but this is because you don’t have as much to lose as other Americans.
As Susan Shaw explains, for all the talk of who’s “winning” and “losing,” the policies enacted by the new administration aren’t a game to many Americans. President Trump has made his intention clear to support “religious freedom,” and in doing so, has put protections for the LGBT community in the crosshairs. With the White House pushing for the Muslim ban despite its unconstitutionality, and ICE agents rounding up undocumented immigrants regardless of whether or not they violate criminal laws, gloating over an electoral victory belies the sense of fear people are feeling in response to Trump’s agenda. It’s at best insensitive, and at worst, unnecessarily hateful and cruel.
2. You’re blaming the wrong people for your own grievances.
Shaw identifies an attitude of discontentment among Trump supporters that they don’t get what they deserve or that someone who doesn’t deserve what they have has taken what is theirs. The cited cause often is illegal immigration. You know the refrains. “They’re taking our jobs.” “They’re stealing our benefits.” No, they’re not. The real problem is an economic system that pits workers against one another and, as Shaw terms it, “limits their work and financial security.” For all the bluster about “illegals” committing violent crimes, it is white-collar crime and conditions which lend themselves to widening income and wealth inequality which truly depress the upward mobility of the “other 99%.”
3. You keep promoting “fake news.”
And no, not the CNN kind. Susan Shaw is talking about, as much of an oxymoron it may sound, real “fake news.” Here’s Ms. Shaw again in her own words:
You say you want progressives to listen to you. Then prioritize truth. This election was filled with “fake news,” shared widely on Facebook, and this administration already has begun to create a language of “alternative facts” to misinform and mislead. If you want to talk, offer evidence, real evidence based on verifiable data and reliable sources, not wishful imaginings or fabricated Breitbart stories. An internet meme is not an informed and legitimate point of argument that facilitates dialogue. We’ve reached a point where you’d rather believe an overt lie if it supports a belief you already hold than pursue the truth if it might challenge your currently held belief.
Shaw goes on in the same thought to point out the apparent hypocrisy in upholding the Bible as a book of truths and, at the same time, believing in or, at the very least, sanctioning a lie such as the White’s House version of the comparative sizes of Donald Trump’s Inauguration crowd and those of Barack Obama for both of his presidential victories, when simple visual evidence tells the true story. The principal conflict herein, then, would seem to exist between personal beliefs and gut feelings, and logic and verifiable evidence, an ideological struggle that has manifested in the interplay of faith and science for centuries. And maybe Susan Shaw and people like myself are again betraying a liberal, elitist bias, but seriously—people need to learn how to choose and cite their f**king sources. It’s one thing if you didn’t get in the habit of doing so if you never went to college, but be that as it may, it’s still important to ascertain the reliability of vital information.
4. You celebrate a man whose commitment to Christian values is, ahem, highly questionable.
Donald Trump is clearly no saint and no Jesus. Not even close. Even the most devoted Trump supporters are liable to agree on this point, which makes it that much more mystifying how Christian Trump supporters try to reconcile his actions and beliefs with that of the teachings of the Bible. Dude has either condoned within his base and staff, or participated himself in, acts/speech of anti-Semitism, homophobia, Islamophobia, misogyny, racism, and sexism. Old “Two Corinthians” Trump even made fun of a disabled reporter. That’s f**ked up.
Aside from this, Shaw also takes issue with the idea that the religious right insists on “religious freedom,” except if you happen to be anything other than a heterosexual Christian, which would make our nation only more religiously constrained as a result. Not to mention it was never our Founding Fathers to make this a purely Christian nation. America is meant to be a melting pot and a land which respects tolerance for all faiths. As Henry Drummond quips in Inherit the Wind, “The Bible is a book. It’s a good book, but it is not the only book.” Amen, brother.
5. You claim to be “pro-life,” but you’re really just “anti-choice.”
The most plausible reason I can see that Christians, especially evangelicals, would be willing to support Trump over Hillary Clinton despite the former failing to confirm with Christian values on the whole, is that they support the man for his position on one or more particular issues with a religious tint. Perhaps it is his rejection of Muslims. Perhaps it is because he chose Mike Pence for his running mate. Or maybe, just maybe, it is his pro-life stance, a more recent “evolution” of his political and social ideologies. Susan Shaw, undoubtedly concerned with matters of abortion and birth control as a professor of gender, sexuality and women’s studies, takes specific umbrage to this holier-than-thou mentality from conservative religious types. She puts forth her arguments pretty tidily as such:
To cling to overturning Roe v. Wade as the only way to end abortions is a fantasy based on ideology rather than medical science and social science, and it flies in the face of the evidence for what is successful. So the real question is are you more interested in actual effectiveness in lowering abortion rates or ideological purity? We can lower abortion rates together but not by denying women choices over their own bodies. We can be effective together by listening to the data and working together to ensure all women have access to contraception, education, and social and economic resources. Are you willing to have that conversation?
Denying women access to abortions and reproductive health services, as Shaw argues, is not going to stop them from having abortions, or trying to take matters into their own hands. Not only does this obviously still put the baby at risk, though, but it endangers the pregnant woman as well. Conservative Christians seem to want their cake and eat it too, i.e., they want to prevent abortions but they also want to prevent women from having access to birth control and contraceptives. Right—we get it—there’s abstinence. But this is unrealistic for many, not to mention it assumes real romantic feelings can’t exist for teenagers and young adults who lack the income to pay for contraception out of pocket. Either way, it’s governance based on religious conservatism and a strict morality thrust upon Americans within a sphere that should be reserved for secular applications. Besides, for those “pro-lifers” who would seek the unalienable rights of the fetus upheld only to turn around and demand the state-sponsored killing of someone convicted of a heinous crime, it kind of throws a wrench in the whole idea of the sanctity of human existence, ya know?
In closing, Susan Shaw communicates two critical points. The first is that on the subject of simply “agreeing to disagree,” much like Trump supporters reproaching his critics for being sore losers, it is not as if the areas affected by the President’s policy decisions are some sort of game or part of some abstract theoretical exercise. Real lives are affected by what President Trump says and does, and thus agreeing to disagree is unacceptable for those with a conscience or stake in what is decided. The second isn’t so much a point as much as a series of questions to the religious right, once more expressed in a spirit of desperation:
We need to talk, and I don’t know how to talk to you anymore. I need to know, is it more important to you to win than to do good? Or can we build coalitions? Listen to science? Rely on real evidence? Be effective? Put the needs and rights of all others above ideologies? Can we live the love of God we claim? You want me to hear and understand you. I get that. I also want you to hear and understand the rest of the world that is not you or your kind. Because they too are God’s people and therefore are in the circle of those whom we must love. You taught me that when I was a child. If we can agree on that now, we have a place to start.
The Bible teaches, “Love thy neighbor.” The Declaration of Independence asserts, “All men are created equal.” And yet, the mood and tone struck by the Trump administration tell us to fear our neighbor, and to reject those who are not like us as inferior. If these words which are supposed to mean so much to conservatives and/or Christians are not observed, how are we supposed to have a honest conversation between individuals on both sides of the political aisle? How are we on the “godless” left supposed to understand those holy rollers who don’t quite practice what they preach? Shaw rightly believes that if those on both sides can’t agree that all the world’s people are God’s people and must be loved as such, we as a nation can’t even begin to bridge the divide. In doing so, she provides no answers, and only searches for them—because realistically she can’t provide them. Those of us searching for answers in our own right are met with the same difficulties.
Of course, this doesn’t imply that the Democratic Party shouldn’t try to expand both left and right of center if it is to grow stronger and to make a dent in its minority political status across the American landscape. Nonetheless, little progress will be made on this front unless authentic receptivity is felt on both sides to listen to what the other is saying. It has also been said that “everyone is forgiven by God, but not everyone is saved.” From a political standpoint, the fear exists that this may be true of some members of the general electorate as well.