Money in politics. Whether you’re a concerned citizen on the right or left, a majority of Americans seems to agree that the influence of moneyed interests on the workings of Congress and on the determination of elections up and down the card is a problem in this country. Perhaps most egregious—though that could just be the nefarious nomenclature talking—is so-called “dark money,” or money spent by politically active nonprofits that, owing to their structure, do not have to disclose the sources of their funds, and thus can essentially receive unlimited amounts from corporate, individual, or union benefactors. As a brief primer on dark money on opensecrets.org explains, in theory, the extent of these nonprofits’ political activities is supposed to be proscribed, but the IRS, whether because it has been hampered by cuts to its funding or because it hasn’t made enforcement a priority, has done little to enforce any limits. Accordingly, spending by these groups has been on the rise in recent election cycles. The amounts are not insignificant either—we’re talking tens of millions, if not hundreds of millions, of dollars in all. Dark money, ahem, casts a long shadow on American politics.
It is with this backdrop in place that we delve into recent reports that Americans for Prosperity, a political network backed by the Koch Brothers, is planning to spend upwards of $400 million in 2018 alone to help try to advance conservative policies. As Kathryn Watson reports for CBS News, “friends” of the network are optimistic about the prospects of conservative candidates in the 2018 midterms after what they deem to be successes in reforms at the Department of Veterans Affairs concerning loosened restrictions on the ability of veterans to seek health care outside the sphere of government, as well as the more recent tax cut authored by Republican leaders, not to mention the addition of conservative Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court. Watson underscores the notion that these fundraising efforts are to be made with anticipated difficulties come November. For one, history dictates that the party in the White House doesn’t tend to do well in midterm elections. In addition, polling cited in Watson’s piece has Democrats beating Republicans by an average of about eight percentage points. And then there’s recent Democratic Party successes in Alabama, New Jersey, and Virginia. And then there’s the ever-popular Donald Trump (sarcasm intended).
And yet, spend these Koch Brothers-affiliated political organizations will, including some $20 million on trying to sell the public on the idea that the tax cut passed in late December of last year isn’t, you know, a flaming pile of horse manure. Plus, while the Koch Brothers did not personally spend anything on the 2016 presidential election—maybe because they were as disappointed in the final list of candidates as many of us were, though I could just be projecting—as Watson also indicates, they have apparently warmed to the idea of working with the Trump administration, and “want to protect what they consider significant accomplishments in the administration, and work to further them.” For the record, I wasn’t aware the Trump administration had any significant achievements thus far, but if the Kochs and Co. can find them, more power to them.
With this news about the Koch network pushing its proverbial chips to the center of the table to protect Republican interests (and majorities), it’s not long before the Democrats really start sounding the alarm on the need to counteract the planned record spending on the 2018 midterms. Of course, this means that the Dems will be doing so with one hand on the crank to the air-raid siren and the other pointing directly at your wallet or purse. Not-for-profit organizations, political or not, need to solicit money to operate—this is an unavoidable truth of our world. At the same time, though, who prospective donations will be funding—that is, how the party arrives at its eventual nominee in key races—is significant.
Going back to Kathryn Watson’s article, on the GOP side, the Koch Brothers, Americans for Prosperity, and their ilk have not specified what they’d be looking for in candidates to back, but whether erring on the side of economic or social conservatism, it seems pretty safe to assume they’d be erring; the only thing mentioned within the span of the piece is that Koch Family network leaders issued a statement expressing vague support for President Trump’s path to citizenship for young immigrants, but not without concern for ending “chain migration.” “Concern” is an understatement. As the Baltimore Sun and other critics of Donald Trump’s recently-unveiled immigration plan insist, aside from the requirement of a border wall in exchange for protection for Dreamers being an absurdity, curtailing practices like chain migration and the diversity visa lottery not only distorts the facts on the numbers of foreign nationals who come to the United States in this way, but risks putting the country at a serious disadvantage by communicating an inhospitable attitude toward all immigrants, and depriving the nation of needed entrepreneurship, innovation, and vitality given an aging workforce. To be sure, these arguments can be extrapolated to the immigration discussion as a whole, but here, they are particularly relevant.
What about the Democrats, though? Should they stick to their guns and ride it out with their preferred centrist strategy, banking on history, polling, and Republican retirements to reclaim electoral momentum this year? Numerous outside observers would respond in the negative, and would rather see the Dems “go left to be right.” Sophia Tesfaye, deputy politics editor for Salon, indicates as much in her own reaction piece to the recent news regarding Koch-backed plans to boost spending by some 60% relative to 2016, and relates the additional number-crunching in terms of seats in Congress that explains why Republican donors plan to invest so heavily in the 2018 midterms. Tim Phillips, president of Americans for Prosperity, for one, believes 80 seats will be competitive this fall. Meanwhile, as Tesfaye explains, Democrats only need to net 24 seats in November to reclaim a majority in the House, and with some 16 Republicans set to retire and make their vacant seats liable to flip in favor of the Dems, as identified by the Kochs—and this is before Rodney Frelinghuysen from my home state made his own announcement about retirement—this leaves little margin for error, so to speak, for GOP leadership re the midterms. Tesfaye also cites the same “generic ballot” polling which suggests a decided overall advantage for Democrats over Republicans in hypothetical matchups between the two major parties, with the former enjoying an even more decided advantage among women. Based on this, 2018 could see the same “blue wave” experienced with the 2006 midterms during George W. Bush’s tenure.
Obviously, the above presents the Democratic Party with a rare opportunity. What is less obvious, Tesfaye argues, is that it also provides the Dems with a real chance to institute the kind of reforms that Bernie Sanders et al. would argue the party needs to make if it is going to compete with the Republican Party and thrive over the long term. From the article:
It’s clearly rough out there for Republicans in the House of Representatives, but what may be less obvious is how that provides a prime opportunity for progressives who want to push Democrats to the left. While five of the first six Republicans to quit during this term did so to accept jobs in President Trump’s administration, Democrats’ attempt to regain a House majority relies on a number of high-profile Republicans’ planned retirements. Freeing the field of an incumbent advantage allows not only a chance for Democrats to compete in the general election, but also an opportunity to nominate candidates who more accurately represent the most motivated Democratic voters.
Take, for instance, the seat vacated by veteran Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., in the coastal suburbs of San Diego. Democrat Doug Applegate came within 2,000 votes of unseating Congress’ wealthiest member in 2016, as Hillary Clinton won the district by more than seven points. In 2012, Mitt Romney beat Barack Obama by that same margin in the district. With Issa’s retirement, Applegate, a retired Marine colonel, is being challenged by progressive clean energy professional Mike Levin. Both Democrats are campaigning on a decidedly progressive “Medicare-for-all” platform.
In invoking the idea of primary challenges, it’s worth talking about whether primary challenges in the abstract are an important part of the political process and to selecting a congressional, presidential, or other candidate, or whether a competitive race in advance of the general election does more harm than good. Speaking of Bernie Sanders and his bid to secure the Democratic Party presidential nomination for the 2016 election, if you ask staunch Hillary Clinton supporters, Sanders not only hurt her prospects of winning the whole shebang, but did lasting damage to the Democratic Party infrastructure in holding on as long as he did. If you ask Bernie’s faithful, meanwhile, as well as any number of independent commentators, the surprisingly and robustly competitive challenge he offered made Clinton a better candidate, and did well to engage younger voters who otherwise might not have been engaged or were simply disenfranchised with the politics of the moment, especially coming down from the highs of Barack Obama and “YES WE CAN!” Sophia Tesfaye, too, evidently sees merit in holding more than mere walkovers to the general election. Continuing with the sentiments about the opportunity developing before the Dems’ eyes, she writes:
Throw out the conventional wisdom that contested primaries hurt a party’s chances in the general election (which was likely never true anyway). A competitive Democratic primary could get more people involved in the process, boosting turnout in November’s general election. Look to Virginia’s gubernatorial election in 2017 for the clearest example of how that might play out in the Democrats’ favor. Some Democrats feared that a primary challenge by progressive Tom Perriello in the Virginia race could fatally wound establishment favorite Ralph Northam, but the intra-party competition led to increased media coverage and intense voter interest. After beating Perriello in the primary, Northam went on to trounce Republican Ed Gillespie by nine points in an election most observers expected to be neck and neck.
In midterms, low voter turnout makes the size of the Republican base in many purple-to-red districts appear much larger than it actually is. Coupled with egregious gerrymandering meant to dilute the influence of the Democratic base and rampant voter suppression, midterms and other non-presidential elections have helped Republicans build what can seem an impregnable political power base.
More coverage. More interest. Bigger turnout. As Tesfaye frames this viewpoint, low turnout—whether as a result of apathy, active interference, or both—tends to benefit Republican candidates. It certainly benefited Donald Trump, who seemed to stun his own damn self by winning the 2016 election. In elections at the state level, where turnout is more likely to be subdued (“Wait, who’s running for governor again?”), anything that could help boost the profile of a candidate—particularly in a race that’s expected to be as close as Northam vs. Gillespie was—could be a difference maker. Besides, as some might argue, if a candidate can’t survive a tough primary, he or she may not be a great candidate for the general election outright.
As Tesfaye insists, however—and as I’d be keen to agree with—this moment beckons more than the Democrats simply embracing authentic primary challenges for its nominations in 2018 and beyond. It’s about the Democratic Party embracing an authentically progressive direction now and in the future. Or as she puts it, “A blue wave is coming. Electing more moderate, poll-driven, ‘blue dog’ Democrats to ride that wave would be a grave mistake.” For a party prone to repeating its mistakes, though, there is every worry they will do just that.
In an era of escalating political expenditures, the need for organized fundraising networks is a clear and present concern. At the same time, meanwhile, it distracts us or takes away from two separate conversations we could or perhaps should be having. The first is the viability of the two-party system—I myself voted neither for Donald Trump nor Hillary Clinton in 2016. As Americans become increasingly frustrated with the direction of the two major political parties, public opinion would suggest that we should be seeing more people coming out to support the Green Party, Libertarian Party, and independent voting options. And yet, owing to their dissatisfaction, the preferred option for so many eligible voters seems to be to stay home. This, to me, is a travesty, exacerbated by the notion relief from the indifference of the Democratic and Republican Parties to change seems slow in coming, as well as the idea leading and organizing a legitimate challenge to the two-party system is a tremendous effort. It’s why Bernie Sanders has thus far eschewed invitations to run as a Green Party representative or to spearhead the creation of a “People’s Party” in favor of trying to instill reform within the Democratic Party. As admirable as the cause is, it’s a long-term project, to be sure.
The second conversation that could or should be happening goes back to the idea that started this piece: money in politics. As long as not-for-profit entities are allowed to skirt restrictions on the scope of their political activities and are not required to be more transparent about where and from whom they get their donations, and as long as many politicians and government officials allow themselves to be beholden to the whims of leaders of industry and other wealthy patrons, our system as is will be little more than a mockery of the concept of a truly representative democracy. As Sophia Tesfaye alluded to in her piece, the skewing of legislative districts along demographic lines or otherwise done so for an express political advantage—Tesfaye points to Republican gerrymandering as a deleterious force but both parties have been guilty of this practice—is part of the problem, and the precedent created by the Supreme Court’s ruling in Citizens United v. FEC which allows, under the First Amendment, for-profit organizations, not-for-profit organizations, labor unions, and other associations to make independent expenditures essentially unrestricted by the government, is also a big bone of contention for liberals and conservatives alike. When someone like Sen. Sanders is able to generate more donations than someone entrenched in big-money Washington politics like Hillary Clinton in a given month, it’s both commendable and inspiring, but heretofore, it’s the outlier more than the norm, and even then, Bernie was fighting an uphill battle against the Democratic Party establishment in the primaries.
These are significant problems that the United States of America faces, and not to blame the activists that are doing great work on the behalf of so many important issues, but the fragmented nature of their efforts doesn’t seem to help counteract the way those with more money and clout are able to afford more political influence up and down party slates in our country today. Black Lives Matter, #MeToo, those who advocate on behalf of Dreamers, Native Americans, and Mother freaking Earth—all are causes related to challenging the patriarchal hegemony of moneyed, profit-seeking whites over the working class, the poor, minorities, and every intersection therein. Accordingly, the solution is a complex one, but to be sure, it involves a concerted effort on the part of the everyday Americans, including direct involvement in the political process, even from those who would appear to lack the interest in politics or don’t see themselves as the political “type.” Thus, whether you believe that “love trumps hate” or merely that true grassroots organizing and fundraising can overcome the cash that wealthy executives can throw endlessly at political races, and even in the face of despair that individuals like Donald Trump are running amok in Washington, we must act and stand together. The Koch Brothers are all in for 2018. What are you doing to do about it?
When someone blows up a physical embodiment of the year “2016” and encourages people to tell that year to go f**k itself, you know it’s been an abnormally bad one. John Oliver took the opportunity to give 2016 this proper send-off (a report on this event was equally properly filed under the category “F**K 2016” by Aimée Lutkin and Jezebel), and that HBO agreed to afford Oliver the chance to explode something of that magnitude likewise speaks to the horror that was this past 366 days. That’s right—in case you had forgotten, 2016 was a leap year, so all-too-appropriately, we were given one extra day to protract the misery. The Julian and Gregorian calendars can eat a collective dick on that front.
I only started this blog in the middle of June of this year, so I missed the chance to comment on some things that happened earlier in 2016. With over 50 posts under my belt on United States of Joe, however, there’s still enough topics to revisit to make reflecting on the year that was worthwhile. Well, at least as far as I’m concerned. And since, despite my overall belief in fair and democratic principles, this blog is not a democracy but a Joe-ocracy, that’s the agenda for this session. You’re welcome. So, kick back. Get plenty of champagne ready—noting how awful the past year has been, it may take quite a bit of alcohol to get into the spirit. And get ready to count down to 2017. It’s time to give our own send-off to 2016, middle fingers in the air and all.
Well, before we take the plunge into the abjectly negative, let’s go back to the app-based sensation that was Pokémon Go. Since its initial breakthrough success which had critics saying the smartphone game had ushered in a new era of augmented reality and had fundamentally changed the way we look at mobile gaming, downloads and use of the title have understandably cooled. In light of the downward trend, members of the media are now looking at Pokémon Go altogether as a disappointment, especially in light of some updates which failed to impress. You need to walk 3 KM just for one stinking Charmander candy? I’m never going to get that Charizard! NEVER, I SAY!
Now that I’m done being dramatic, not only do I find these charges against the game and its maker Niantic overblown (although, seriously, those Buddy System ratios are pretty shitty), but expectations, buttressed by the app’s initial success, were probably always too high. Though Niantic did its part to make the game palatable to people of all ages and ability levels by making gameplay largely based around throwing Poké Balls and by simplifying battles, the players who are most likely to find the experience rewarding are fans of the original game, who are used to grinding for experience, completing the game as completely as possible, and overall, staying in it for the long haul. It’s not Angry Birds. It’s not Candy Crush Saga. It’s not Fruit freaking Ninja. You have to walk and work for your rewards. You know, when you can’t pay money for some of them. Either way, you still have to walk!
When Bernie Sanders suspended his campaign in July and formally endorsed Hillary Clinton, it admittedly felt like a punch to the gut. For all the mental preparation made, when the moment actually arrived, it still hurt. What made Sanders’ decision and the associated feelings yet worse, though, was the reception his standing behind Clinton received and the accusations that got hurled around in the wake of the announcement. Con-man. Sell-out. Traitor. Looking at Bernie’s endorsement in a purely ideological vacuum, it is easy to assess this move as a betrayal of his principles and what he stands for. In this instance, however, context is everything, and with Donald Trump having sewn up the Republican Party nomination, Sanders saw greater merit in trying to unite Democrats and other prospective voters in an effort to defeat Trump. Ultimately, the orange one shocked the world and scored an electoral victory, but Bernie Sanders did his best to avoid this eventuality. That not enough Americans either came out to vote or otherwise didn’t buy what Hillary was selling is largely on her, not Bernie.
Of course, in the immediate aftermath of the suspension of Bernie Sanders’ campaign, the remaining candidates looked to capitalize. Even with the bulk of Sanders supporters presumed to be going over to Hillary Clinton’s camp, Donald Trump himself made an instantaneous pitch to those “feeling the Bern,” trying to tap into their fervent and justifiable anger at the political establishment. Third-party candidates like Gary Johnson and Jill Stein, too, though, made a play for these suddenly available votes, rationalizing that there was no better time than now than to tell the two major parties to shove it. In endorsing Clinton, Bernie repeatedly tried to communicate the danger and inadequacies of Trump as a presidential candidate first and foremost, even though he may have largely been preaching to the choir, as younger voters by and large detested “the Donald.” He also, meanwhile, cautioned against a “protest vote” for someone like Johnson, Stein, or even Harambe (and yes, he would’ve loved to follow this election), realizing, as did all these newfound suitors for Bernie backers’ affections, that the votes of his faithful could swing the election by helping to decide key swing states. To reiterate, it didn’t work all that well, but the effort on Sanders’ part was there.
Ultimately, as Bernie Sanders himself will insist, his run for President, while important, was always more concerned with starting a revolution and getting more Americans, especially younger voters and working-class individuals, involved with the political process, even at the local level. Whether the energy behind his campaign and the urge for progressive grass-roots activism is sustainable in the United States is yet to be seen, but either way, there is yet room for optimism that people will want to keep active and informed as a means of exerting greater control over their own destiny. Thus, you may call Bernie any name you want, but I choose to label him an inspiration, and I feel history will bear out this sentiment as well.
As we Bernie Sanders supporters worked our way through the Five Stages of Grief and Loss, eventually, we had to come to accept that either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump was going to be our next President. In fact, even the non-Berners were forced to do the same, in all likelihood ensuring many who were on the fence—that is, on whether or not they would vote at all—would choose the latter option and just stay home. In my piece referenced in the title of this section, I mused about the notion that maybe we, as a collective electorate, did not deserve better than these choices that a significant portion of said electorate neither trusted nor cared for much. Ever since 2000, when Ralph Nader was accused of costing Al Gore the election (even though Gore lost that shit on his own, with an admitted probable helping from electoral shenanigans down in Florida), Americans have been highly critical of parties like the Green Party and the Libertarian Party, with the usual refrain being some combination of “they could play spoiler to a legitimate candidate” or “you’re throwing away your vote” if you opt for one of them.
However, to invoke the words of Mr. Nader himself, not only is this attitude politically bigoted, as it negates the will of the individual to make an informed choice in accordance with his or her conscience, but it nullifies our bargaining power with the two major parties. After all, if we blindly vote either Democratic or Republican, beyond losing the election, what motivation does either party have to institute reform that better reflects the needs and wants of the voting public? Especially for members of the working class, both Democrats and Republicans have seemed to take them for granted, which at least partially explains why the Dems lost this election and why Trump and Sanders achieved the levels of popularity they did this election cycle.
In the end, though, despite the increased visibility of Gary Johnson and Jill Stein in the lead-up to the election, most Americans who voted (and there was a good portion of the country who could’ve voted which didn’t) cast their ballots for either Hillary or Donald. As historically unfavorable as these two candidates were, and for all their flaws—Trump as an idiot and professional con-man stoking the flames of fear and hatred, Clinton as an out-of-touch elitist with a penchant for pandering and expensive Giorgio Armani jackets—better than nine-tenths of voters decided they had to pick one of the two, if for no other reason than to block the other candidate they liked even less. Which is pretty shitty, if you ask me. Personally, even with the knowledge that she wouldn’t win, I voted for Jill Stein, as I felt neither Donald Trump nor Hillary Clinton had earned my vote. That relative few other Americans opted out of the two-party paradigm, however, signals to me that we, as a nation, are not ready to demand political change as strongly as we should. It’s either red and blue in these United States, and if you don’t like either color, the present message, unfortunately, is to get the f**k out.
Holy f**k, indeed. In retrospect, I’m not sure why the pollsters were so surprised that Donald Trump scored the “upset” victory, or why we were so easily convinced that Hillary Clinton was such a strong favorite to win the presidency, when their models were consistently wrong or failed to predict the magnitudes of certain results throughout the primary season. At any rate, as must be reiterated for anyone who sees Trump’s win as a mandate, the man who considers himself a master of “The Art of the Deal” won the presidency on the strength of electoral votes, not because he had a resounding victory in the popular vote (in fact, he lost by more than 2 million votes, and it apparently tears him up inside)—and certainly not because he ran a stellar campaign.
So, how did Trump win? Looking at the exit poll data, certain trends do tend to stick out. Regionally, Donald Trump fared much better in the Midwest and the South, and of course, he carried key swing states, notably those in the Rust Belt (e.g. Ohio, Wisconsin). In terms of demographic data, Trump had an easy advantage among male voters and voters 45 and above, not to mention he held an appeal among less educated individuals and the wealthiest earners (a seeming paradox, though as evidenced by how they spend their money, rich people aren’t necessarily all that smart—look at Trump himself!), as well as evangelicals and married people, but perhaps most notable of all, whites voted at almost a 60% clip for Donald Trump, while close to three of four non-whites went for Hillary Clinton. CNN commentator Van Jones referred to this aspect of the results as a “white-lash”, as in “white backlash” after eight years of a black president the Republicans have characterized as a cause of America’s problems and someone with a secret Muslim agenda, and it’s hard to argue otherwise, really. When the former head of the Ku Klux Klan is cheering you on and citing you as an inspiration, you know white supremacist beliefs, racism and xenophobia helped you to victory.
On a somewhat related note, the thematic reasons why Trump voters chose the way did are also significant. Speaking of racism and xenophobia, supporters of Donald Trump rated immigration trends and terrorism the most important issues facing the United States. Screw the economy and foreign relations—let’s worry some more about brown people. As for the quality that best drew voters to Trump, it wasn’t whether the candidate cares about them, exhibits good judgment, or has the right experience—those voters tended to go for Clinton—but whether he or she could bring about “change.” Whatever the heck that means.
In a nutshell, that’s why Donald Trump is set to be our next President. As for who we can blame for this, besides the obvious in Trump himself and his supporters, there are three core enablers for the man’s political success. Certainly, the Republican Party let him waltz right in and secure the nomination after a barrage of similarly weak candidates failed to stand in his way, and after the GOP at large sowed the seeds of fear and hate he exploited. The media, too, acted irresponsibly and selfishly, chasing ratings while failing to challenge Trump on his lack of defined policy, his factual inaccuracies, his reckless language, or even his refusal to publish his tax returns. In addition, the Democratic Party, in its own right bears some responsibility. Among its most damning sins are its failure to stand up for the working class, its inability to protect jobs and wages, its support for disastrous trade deals like NAFTA and TPP, its complicity with corporations and wealthy donors, and its allowing antitrust laws to lapse or otherwise become weaker, thereby consolidating power into fewer and fewer hands. The failure to stop Donald Trump is a collective one, and though it probably won’t happen, these enablers should do some serious soul-searching for fear of endangering their long-term prospects.
Should anything happen to Donald Trump, whether in terms of his health (not that I’m wishing for the man to pull a William Henry Harrison or anything) or impeachment, the next man in line may not be all that much of an improvement. Mike Pence, who has been governing the proud state of Indiana, has arguably made a number of shitty choices during his tenure. He vetoed a refund of a tax overcharge on the basis it would have cost too much to administer. Before he got too much (warranted) negative feedback, he proposed JustIN, a state-run news service some likened to Pravda in the Soviet era. He rejected Medicaid expansion in his state under the Affordable Care Act on principle, to the detriment of his constituents. He insisted on a ban against a needle exchange program that was effective in limiting the spread of HIV related to a particular drug injection, and later reversed his position, but refused to use state funding to provide for such exchanges. Perhaps most notably, he signed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act into law, which allowed for discrimination against the LGBT community and cost Indiana some $60 million in revenue before its reversal. An opponent of gay marriage and women controlling their own reproductive rights, Mike Pence is one of a seemingly increasingly long line of conservative Republican leaders who puts evangelical beliefs ahead of his state’s and the nation’s best interests. He’s not Trump, but he’s no rose either.
In terms of what damage he may do in terms of signing legislation into law and what damage he likely already is doing in his appointees for key positions (Rick Perry for Secretary of Energy—are you f**king serious?), that Donald Trump has been thrust into a position of immense power is bad enough, but his association with the far-right and his inspiration to the likes of David Duke makes for some shitty ripple effects just the same, let me tell you. I said earlier that Trump’s electoral victory should not be seen as a mandate given how he lost the popular vote and in light of how divided we are as a nation. And yet, the Breitbart crowd and members of the so-called “alt-right” have taken it as such, viewing themselves as fighters in a culture war they are winning, standing against political correctness and other liberal “absurdities.” They also apparently like boycotting companies who don’t stand for their white supremacist agenda. You know, even though they probably don’t use their products anyway. But boycott it is! TRUMP TRUMP TRUMP TRUMP!
When Hillary Clinton formally acknowledged the alt-right in a speech during the campaign, though I feel it needed to be said, it further legitimized this loosely-constructed movement that coincides with the likes of Gamergate’s sexist perpetuators. That Stephen Bannon has been given a prominent advisory role in Trump’s administration, though, should concern us more conscientious Americans. Donald Trump is not normal, and those who sanction his misdeeds and try to normalize his objectionable behavior are standing in the way of progress. Furthermore, the gang mentality with which many of them operate, encouraging online attacks on and/or death threats against individuals whose values clash with theirs, is troubling, as is the unwillingness of social media services to more aggressively pursue those accounts which violate their terms of service for fear of losing traffic. In short, the alt-right has arrived, as much as many of us might not like to dignify them with a response, and it is incumbent upon those of us who have respect for others—not just respect for white males who refuse to admit to their privilege—to speak out against their behavior and words as dangerous and wrong.
Before Donald Trump swooped in to save the day and stop the threat of taco trucks on every corner in the United States, the United Kingdom gave us a teaser trailer for the U.S. presidential election with a referendum vote on whether or not to remain in the European Union. As with the election in the States, the experts predicted voters would do the sensible thing; if this were an analogy in the vein of the old SATs: UNITED STATES: ELECT HILLARY CLINTON :: UNITED KINGDOM: VOTE REMAIN. And, as with the election in the States, voters did the exact opposite.
The parallels are uncanny. The decision to leave the EU was, as it was in the United States, mediated by a greater incidence of older voters opting to do the wrong thing. Like with Trump’s anti-immigrant appeals and vague notions of “making America great again,” Leave voters were swayed by visions of “securing the nation’s borders” and “taking back control” of the country’s economy, not to mention equally empty promises of the UK Independence Party. Additionally, voters seemed to be making choices that were a direct rejection of existing politics. Barack Obama, David Cameron—either way you slice it, the public clamored for change, no matter who would bring it or what it would entail. The fallout from both votes is still being assessed, but the discontentment of the working-class voter and upward trends in outspokenness among white nationalists worldwide suggest the U.S. and UK votes are not isolated incidents, and in turn, that the risk of other Brexit-like events occurring in the future in other countries is all-too-real. The winds of change are blowing, and one can only hope our houses don’t get knocked over when the gusts have subsided.
Contrary to the apparent beliefs of some, black people don’t enjoy getting mowed down by police at routine traffic stops. While police shootings may not have been any more numerous in 2016 than in years past, through the advent of cellphones and other camera-based technologies, violence involving police certainly has become more visible. Whatever the precise rates of deaths related to encounters between civilians and police, it would seem as though we have a lot of progress to make regarding recognition of the disparity of treatment people of color receive at the hands of police and that which is received by whites, regardless of whether the person accosted by one or more officers has a gun or not.
A perfect illustration of the failure of much of white America to confront its privilege in this regard comes in arguments about the very name and nature of black activism in the United States which exists in large part due to documented police brutality. In response to hearing the moniker Black Lives Matter, or merely even the phrase “black lives matter,” some people are too quick to “correct” the original speaker with the phrase “all lives matter,” or counter with their own version (i.e. “blue lives matter”) that serves to negate the critical recognition of blackness inherent in the initial figure of speech. To me, however, this falls prey to a fairly obvious logical trap: if all lives matter, then black lives, as a subset of all lives, should matter too, and there should be no problem accepting that terminology. “Black lives matter” does not mean black lives should matter more than other lives, but simply that they should matter as much as white lives, blue lives, or any other color lives of which one can think. Clearly, though, they don’t, or else there wouldn’t be a need for organizations such as Black Lives Matter.
The need to scrutinize adherence by individual officers to specified protocol when engaging possible suspects, as well as the systems which serve to shield “rogue” cops from criticism and/or prosecution, is undermined by two key strategies of those who react to protests with knee-jerk defenses of our uniformed police. The first is to question the integrity of the victim—yes, victim—who, because he or she is labeled a “thug” or has a history with the law, evidently deserves to be effectively lynched by the police who intercede him or her. The second is to de-legitimize efforts of black activists wholesale, conflating them unfairly with those who loot and otherwise take advantage of violence and associated protests for their own gain, likening them to terrorists, or wrongly insisting they are advocating for the slaughter of police. In both cases, this is counterproductive, regressive thinking.
As some have argued, those cops who are too nervous not to shoot someone at a routine encounter shouldn’t be placed in such a highly leveraged situation, and either way, good police—which comprise the majority of forces around the nation, let’s be clear—should be appreciative of efforts to root out bad actors from their ranks. As for the protests against police brutality, this doesn’t equate to disrespect for the police, nor does kneeling during the playing of the National Anthem constitute an affront to our military, as Colin Kaepernick’s example reminds us. Black Lives Matter et al. don’t want to see law and order dissolved. They just want to see police officers and officials who wear the badge held accountable when they do wrong, and at a very basic level, not to be utterly afraid they might die when getting pulled over by a squad car. It’s 2016. We need to do better as a country in addressing racial inequality, especially within the purview of criminal justice.
There have been too many mass shootings in the United States of late, but the Orlando nightclub shooting, in particular, was particularly devastating for many of us. Not only was it a tremendous loss of life, but that the LGBT community was apparently the specific target of the violence made this brutality that much worse for a population that regularly faces hatred and persecution. Speaking for myself, it is difficult to comprehend how someone could harbor such hate for themselves and others that they would wish to walk into a building and start firing indiscriminately. Perhaps this idea gets the tiniest bit easier to understand when we understand this hate works both ways. As jihadists would seek to inspire terror in the West through bombings and mass shootings, white nationalism encountered in Austria, France, Holland, the United Kingdom and the United States, among other nations, has created an environment that has often proved hostile to Muslims, and has made the prospect of accepting more refugees from war-torn countries like Syria decidedly poor. I mean, Donald Trump ran on a platform of which one of the key tenets was a temporary ban on travel to the U.S. for all Muslims. It’s incredible, and incredibly shameful, at that.
Never mind the idea that all this bluster about “bombing the shit out of ISIS” may actually be good for the Islamic State’s ability to recruit and strengthening its resolve. The jingoists among us would have everyone believe that Islam is fundamentally incompatible with the laws of the United States, that it is a “cancer” to be snuffed out, and that American Muslims who don’t do enough to help discover would-be terrorists in their midst (which, evidently, is quite easy) are guilty in their own right, and regardless, likely merit surveillance of their homes/places of worship and tests administered to gauge their love for and commitment to the U-S-of-A. This conflation of Islam, a religion which preaches peace at its core, and the bastardized religion ISIS and other jihadists/”radical Islamists” practice, is a patently false equivalency.
For the sake of an analogy—one for which I can’t take credit, let me stress—ISIS is to everyday Muslims what the Ku Klux Klan is to white people who aren’t unabashed racists. In both cases, the majority disavows the hate and violence these groups perpetuate. This is by no means saying we shouldn’t be vigilant against individuals who would wish to do us harm. As bad as the Orlando massacre was, though, and as unforgivable as the actions of an organization like ISIS/ISIL have proven, our responses and the negative feelings that accompany some of these reactions reveal an ugly side to our patriotism as well. In the demonization and the pursuit of “the other,” we run the clear risk of losing ourselves.
I didn’t originally write about it, but the Chicago Cubs actually won the World Series. To wit, I have neither observed nor heard any stories about swarms of locusts descending on fields or rivers of blood forming, but I’m not ruling them out just yet. The apocalypse takes time to develop, you know?
Wells Fargo was forced to fire thousands of mid-level managers for directing employees to create fake accounts and sign up customers for services without their knowledge, essentially making them scapegoats for the company’s aggressive sales model. The company eventually apologized—sort of—and John Stumpf was eventually removed from the role of CEO, but the big bank largely closed the book on this sordid chapter of its history without really admitting wrongdoing, and Stumpf had a nice golden parachute on which to drift to security. Meanwhile, Wells Fargo has apparently learned absolutely nothing from this fiasco, as new CEO Tim Sloan has expressed the belief that the company and the banking industry as a whole could actually do with less regulation. Evidently, it’s all fun and games when you get to play with other people’s money.
FBI director James Comey, despite finding that Hillary Clinton and her aides were extremely careless in their handling of E-mail while Clinton was Secretary of State, that Clinton should’ve known certain E-mails were classified and didn’t belong on an unsecured server in the first place, that the State Department was generally lacking in security protocol for classified E-mails, and that Hillary used multiple unsecured devices in locations where American adversaries could have exploited this vulnerability, held a press conference to announce he was not recommending charges be filed against the Democratic Party nominee. Then, a week before the general election, he announced that the Bureau was looking anew into Clinton’s E-mails, which she and her campaign cite as a factor in why she lost. So, nice going, Director Comey! You’ve undermined confidence in the Federal Bureau of Investigation and perhaps swayed the election! Don’t pat yourself on the back too hard!
Chris Christie not only failed to capture the Republican Party nomination, but he was overlooked by Donald Trump for vice president despite being, more or less, his manservant. Oh, and Bill Baroni, deputy executive director of the Port Authority, and Bridget Kelly, Christie’s deputy chief of staff, two key figures in “Bridge-gate,” were found guilty on all counts in a trial related to the George Washington Bridge lane closure scandal, and a separate criminal trial is set to take place for Christie himself. Congratulations, Chris. You played yourself.
Puerto Rico defaulted on its debt, a result fueled by a combination of fiscal and economic factors, including the repeal of tax breaks for businesses, the creation and sale of triple tax-exempt municipal bonds, the inability of the commonwealth to declare for bankruptcy, exempting wealthy investors and businesses from paying capital gains taxes, “vulture” hedge funds buying up bonds and demanding a full payday, and institutions like UBS selling risky bonds they themselves underwrote to unsuspecting customers. Today, Puerto Rico’s financial future is yet in peril with individuals who are alleged to have helped the island along the path to crisis serving on its appointed oversight board, and with Donald Trump being a crazy mofo. Also, the U.S. Virgin Islands may be on the way to its own debt crisis. Um, huzzah?
In some good news, the Trans-Pacific Partnership seems to be all but dead, being disliked on both sides of the political aisle. Also, the Dakota Access Pipeline is on indefinite hold, as the Army Corps of Engineers found more research needed to be done regarding the environmental effects of its intended route through the Standing Rock Indian Reservation. Of course, supporters of these canceled or postponed initiatives may yet redouble their efforts, so we concerned progressives can’t really relax. At least we can enjoy a short breather before the ball drops, eh?
In the title of this piece (remember back that far?), I reference the notion that 2017 has to be better than 2016. I’m not sure it amounts to much, though, beyond wishful thinking. If the best qualification for improvement which comes to mind is that we won’t be electing Donald Trump, it’s cold comfort in light of the fact he’ll already be President. Going back to his appointees, if they are any evidence, the country is set upon a bumpy path for the next four years, or until the man gets impeached—whichever comes first. His Defense and National Security Cabinet leaders view Islam as a threat to America. His Education Secretary is an opponent of public schools, despite never having attended one. His Energy Secretary infamously once forgot the name of the department he has been tapped to helm. His Health and Human Services director wants to privatize everything and largely gut social programs like Medicaid, Medicare, and Social Security. His HUD Secretary knows nothing about housing administration.
Wait, I’m not done yet! His head of the Justice Department failed to be confirmed as a federal judge once upon a time because he was an out-and-out racist. His Labor Secretary opposes raising the minimum wage. His Secretary of State has likely financial ties to Vladimir Putin. His Transportation Secretary is married to Mitch McConnell—and that’s evidence enough of poor judgment. His Treasury Secretary oversaw 50,000 or so foreclosures from his position within OneWest Bank, an entity which was accused of unethical practices and discrimination against minorities. His EPA head is a climate change denier. His Small Business Administration director is former CEO of a fake wrestling empire. And his United Nations representative has no foreign policy experience. Irresponsible does not begin to describe these selections, and fingers are crossed that one or more of them fail to get confirmed by the Senate.
So, yeah, I’m not incredibly optimistic about the United States’ prospects right now. The silver lining, as I see it, is that more and more Americans are waking up to the realization that our system is broken and that it doesn’t work for everyone, and with luck, that number will grow as the sheen wears off the shiny promises Trump has made and can’t hope to keep. I wouldn’t have wished for a Donald Trump presidency in a thousand years, but if this hastens the movement of the nation in a more progressive direction, so be it. For those of us who refuse to accept Trump and the America he has envisioned as normal, and who insist that we’ve come too far as a country to simply put the train in reverse, the resistance starts now. 2017, we look to you in strengthening our resolve. And 2016, once more, you can go f**k yourself.
In case it has yet to dawn on you or you failed to observe my mention of it in my last post, Donald Trump won the 2016 presidential election, but only because he had enough electoral votes. This is to say that although Trump has 290 electoral votes to his credit, and potentially at least 16 more assuming Michigan shakes out in his favor, in terms of the popular vote, Hillary Clinton has the edge by more than 500,000 votes. Considering over 120 million ballots were tallied in this election, that’s a fairly slender margin, but it’s a margin of victory nonetheless. Moreover, if the presidency were decided based on the popular vote as opposed to the jumbled electoral math of fifty states with different relative worth, that would mean Clinton would instead be our forthcoming Commander-in-Chief. But despite the fantasies of many, this is not the case. Barring impeachment or arrest, Donald Trump will be America’s president for no fewer than the next four years following his inauguration.
This raises the obvious question, then: why doesn’t the popular vote decide who wins presidential elections? Putting this another way: who came up with this stupid Electoral College business anyway? The Electoral College, perhaps not necessarily in name but at least in function, was discussed as early as 1787, when the Founding Fathers were deciding as part of the Constitutional Convention how to pick a President of the United States. The Virginia Plan, which served as the basis for much of the Convention, proposed that Congress elect the President. Even then, though, policymakers recognized that leaving such matters exclusively to Congress was a shitty idea. Not only did such a system bypass the popular opinion completely, but it ran the risk of the congressional majority voting merely along party lines (as opposed to more ideological reasons), or that such a voting bloc could be influenced by a foreign government (as opposed to, ahem, serving the interests of corporations and wealthy individuals, as it does now). Leaving the decision of who would become President exclusively to voters, meanwhile, also had its unpalatable aspects, especially to the Southern delegation, because slavery might become an issue, and that might open up a whole different can of worms. Not long removed from a revolution which necessitated bloodshed, and with unity a priority, this therefore did not seem like an ideal solution.
Thus, in the spirit of compromise, we got a version of what we know today as the Electoral College, a concession especially appealing to delegates from smaller states who were concerned that without a system that places relative importance on individual votes in lower-population areas (today, for instance, a single vote in Wyoming is worth much more in terms of determining the state’s direction for the Electoral College than a single vote in Texas), big states and cities could vote according to an agenda that ignores the little guy, so to speak. It is in this spirit that we consider attempts to do away with the Electoral College, even as recent as a few decades ago. In 1968, ol’ Richard “Tricky Dick” Nixon, despite only beating Democratic challenger Hubert Humphrey by about 500,000 votes in the popular vote—less than 1% difference—won the electoral vote by more than 100 votes. This seeming discrepancy was enough to give the public some concern, which, in turn, gave members of Congress cause to strike while the iron is hot and try to implement change. Rep. Emanuel Celler, a Democrat from the state of New York, first introduced proposed legislation by the name House Joint Resolution 681 to call a winner in presidential elections based on the popular vote, as long as a presidential and vice-presidential tandem earned 40% or more of the vote. The measure easily passed the House Judiciary Committee, of which Celler was a member, in April 1969, and cleared the House of Representatives as a whole, too, by a fairly wide margin. The bill even had the support of Nixon, the man who just won the election by so controversial a vote differential.
As we know of Congress, however, there was still one final hurdle to clear on the way to enacting law: the United States Senate. Or as I like to call it, “the place where good bills go to die.” Senate Joint Resolution 1, known as the Bayh-Celler Amendment for its namesake from the House, the aforementioned Emanuel Celler, and its co-sponsor from the Senate, Birch Bayh, Democrat from the proud state of Indiana, was introduced to the Senate at large in 1970 after passing the Senate Judiciary Committee 11 to 6. Whereupon it was quickly filibustered (why the filibuster is a thing, too, is not immediately apparent to me, but this is neither here nor there), besieged by conservatives from both parties, notably those from smaller states who saw the Electoral College as an important bargaining chip so as not to have their power ignored in favor of the bigger, more populous states or the national collective. The measure failed to reach the two-thirds majority needed to end the filibuster, and with Richard Nixon opting to go no further to try to persuade his Republican brethren to support getting to the magic number of 67, by the time 1971 rolled around and Congress was open for business, the bill was as good as dead. In short, the Bays-Celler Amendment got fili-busted.
There goes Congress again—standing in the way of progress, am I right? Wait, am I right? Might I actually be missing the big picture in railing against the Electoral College, and sounding like all the sore-loser Democrats/liberals who thought the Electoral College was all fine and dandy until their candidate failed to win? Let’s circle back for a moment. As the corresponding article on Wikipedia so neatly outlines, there are several reasons why proponents of the Electoral College argue for its maintenance. They include:
1. Prevention of an urban-centric victory
OK, so we’ve kind of already beat this idea to death. Those in favor of preserving the electoral system we currently use in the United States believe the Electoral College is a safeguard against presidential candidates drawing votes exclusively from cities and bypassing more rural regions en route to the White House. I tend to think this reason for propping up a method based on somewhat complicated tabulations of electoral votes is overblown, however, in that it overestimates how much of the U.S. population resides in urban locales. One vote counting the same no matter where you come from seems fair, and at any rate, the argument can be made that if certain states or regions feel neglected, it is up to their congressmen, congresswomen and governor(s) to demand better representation on a national level. I’m not sure I necessarily subscribe to this last point, mind you, but I do think this justification for the Electoral College can be argued against.
2. Maintenance of the federal character of the nation
I feel like, to an extent, this is saying #1 in a different way—by giving a minimum number of electoral votes to a less populous state, this enhances the value of each vote alongside the value of a vote in a more populous state, given the winner-take-all paradigm. In turn, since each state’s electoral count matters in the general election, individual states are empowered to make laws on voting and voter enfranchisement—provided, of course, these news laws do not violate existing constitutional principles. I’m admittedly on the fence on this one. I do think there is merit in voters in states like Alaska, Montana, and North and South Dakota feeling as if their vote matters more and that their state’s agenda is not being disregarded. That said, having so many different laws on voting from state to state seems to make things woefully fragmented when the process should be the same for each person casting his or her ballot. As tends to be the case, it’s a fine line to walk between states’ rights and the need for a national consensus.
3. Enhancement of the status of minority groups
I’ll just quote this directly since this is the sum total of this particular argument:
Instead of decreasing the power of minority groups by depressing voter turnout, proponents argue that by making the votes of a given state an all-or-nothing affair, minority groups can provide the critical edge that allows a candidate to win. This encourages candidates to court a wide variety of such minorities and advocacy groups.
I may be oversimplifying, but what this sounds like is an excuse to pander to Asians, blacks, Latinos and other minorities. Not thrilled with this justification, in that event.
4. Encouragement of stability through the two-party system
I’m sorry, but before I even get to explaining this bit, let me preface by saying that by allowing Donald Trump to secure the Republican Party nomination and win the presidency, we’ve kind of turned the notion of “stability” of the two-party system on its head, no?
5. Flexibility if a presidential candidate dies
Gee, um, great?
6. Isolation of election problems
The argument here is that if fraud in significant numbers occurs in one state, its effect on the election can be blunted by the limit of electoral votes that state receives. Then again, in instances like Florida’s need for a recount in 2000, the likes of which were enough to decide an election, the counterargument is that this doesn’t really isolate that state’s problems. Ah, 2000 Presidential Election, will your manifold historical lessons never cease?
If the above defenses of the Electoral College are the best we have to offer, the associated benefits are questionable on their merits alone. Great—we have the Electoral College so we, um, don’t forget farmers in Butte, claim we carry hot sauce in our bags, vote for the lesser of two evils, have a back-up plan in case someone dies, or limit the damage when a given state screws the pooch. In light of the criticisms of this institution, moreover, these merits are even more questionabler, and that’s not even grammatically correct!
Besides, as noted earlier, the seeming fairness of the “one person, one vote” setup should the popular vote prevail, the trappings of the Electoral College are such that 1) candidates will spend inordinate amounts of money and time on “swing states,” 2) because of the winner-take-all nature of deciding states, turnout is discouraged in those states in which a result in favor of one major party is presumed likely, further encouraging candidates to ignore non-swing localities, 3) if fraud and other forms of voter disenfranchisement do occur, it’s harder to know because of the emphasis on electoral votes, 4) American territories like Puerto Rico have no say because they don’t get electoral votes, 5) third parties, who might offer credible alternatives in case both the Democratic Party and Republican Party representatives suck—as in this election—are SOL, and 6) we have to justify graphics and touch-screen maps to plot out possible Election Day scenarios just to see who can or will win. As a voter in the state of New Jersey, I felt and still feel that, beyond voting for down-ticket major-party candidates and specific ballot initiatives, my vote for president was essentially meaningless, since Hillary Clinton was almost certain to take the state. You know, besides the notion Jill Stein wasn’t going to win. It’s the principle of the thing, dammit!
Going back to the notion of proposals to overturn the Electoral College as “loser talk” and criticisms of protests of Donald Trump’s win around the country as mere whining, though I’m understandably biased on each count, I think these challenges are not unfounded. Regarding the former, the Electoral College seems to be, among other things, a vestigial holdover from the formative days of the United States when slavery was widespread and the Founding Fathers, while encouraging democratic principles, seemed intent on limiting the power of the general electorate to do damage in terms of electing terrible political candidates. When some of today’s lawmakers (e.g. Louie Gohmert, Steve King), however, are evidently intent on taking America down an anti-gay, anti-minority and otherwise regressive path, the supremacy of discretion of elected officials over the public, as in the belief that whites are inherently superior to other races, appears unfounded.
Concerning the latter, meanwhile, right, there weren’t Republican protests when Barack Obama was elected. This is an apples-to-oranges comparison, though. Obama ran on a platform of hope and belief in the American spirit. Trump ran on a platform of absent policy goals, fear, hate, ridicule and wanting to go backwards to a mythical time when the United States was “great.” These shows of defiance, such as the symbolic safety pin people have taken to wearing, I believe, are or should not be levied against the democratic process itself, but rather a candidate that made divisiveness a cornerstone of his campaign. In other words, this is a show of solidarity with those groups that stand to be most negatively impacted by President Trump’s policies. Besides, it’s better to let dissenters get their protests out now, rather than do what Republicans have done for the entirety of Barack Obama’s presidency: undermine his credibility right down to suggesting he was born in another country. Death by a thousand paper cuts, I know, but it’s still character assassination—and perhaps more insidious for how drawn out the process of chipping away at his legacy has been at the hands of the GOP, often in overstated terms.
Chances are no progress will be made in the foreseeable future on abolishing the Electoral College. After all, our current system achieved its desired result: producing a winner. When the W is all that matters given the winner-take-all electoral format, and when candidates like Donald Trump can evidently say and promise anything to secure enough people’s votes, there arguably won’t be enough impetus for change from either the general public or our appointed lawmakers. Which is a shame, because the Electoral College, like so many potentially unfair American institutions, deserves to be revisited and scrutinized.