Following Bernie Sanders’s all-but-inevitable departure from the Democratic Party presidential primary race, the endorsements have been coming fast and furious for Joe Biden, the Dems’ presumptive nominee, including from Bernie himself.
Soon after Bernie’s surprisingly-early public backing of his friend and former senatorial colleague during a recent Biden livestream, Barack Obama, the yin to Biden’s yang during his tenure in the Oval Office, threw his weight behind Joe’s candidacy. Not long after that, Elizabeth Warren, who notably abstained from endorsements when it came down to just Bernie and Biden, also got behind the latter with a proud endorsement video for the man who loves Amtrak, aviators, and ice cream.
Echoing the positions of groups like the Democratic Socialists of America and the Sunrise Movement, however, I don’t endorse Joe Biden. I wouldn’t necessarily counsel against voting for him, mind you, especially for those who live in swing states, and I also believe even probable nonvoters should contribute to the discussion by trying to influence the party platform in a progressive direction. Either way, though, I am patently against trying to shame those who are undecided or have indicated they won’t vote for Biden into doing so.
First things first, if you’ve read my writing for any length of time, you know I’m a Bernie Sanders supporter through and through. How could I advocate not endorsing or not voting for Biden when my main man Bernie suggested it would be “irresponsible” for me not to?
Well, despite what some of you may have heard or might believe, we Bernie faithful are not members of a cult or bots. We can think independently of our inspirational leader. In fact, there are many who donated to the Sanders campaign and who otherwise supported Bernie’s run for the White House who wanted to see him go harder after Biden and his record when they became the final two candidates for the nomination. We believe Bernie’s a great man, but he’s not infallible. We can openly disagree with him.
This is besides the notion that, after years of being labeled as “toxic” and being dismissed as “Bernie Bros” who are predominantly young and white and hate women and want everything handed on a silver platter to them, all of a sudden, our votes are highly desirable and our endorsements are expected to mean something. Well, which one is it? Are we toxic, to be avoided at all costs? Or are we highly-valued members of the voting bloc/Democratic Party supporters? You can’t have it both ways.
(At this point, it might behoove me to mention that the concept of “Bernie Bros” being more liable to attack people online than supporters of other candidates is a myth perpetuated in large part by media outlets, more correctly attributable to his popularity. But please don’t allow me to let observable data get in the way of a good narrative.)
Plus, there’s the matter of the logical trap surrounding the “a vote for anyone but Biden is a vote for Trump” line. By extension, by one not voting for Trump, isn’t that the same as voting for Biden? If not, how so?
This is where, before I get ahead of myself, I openly concede Joe Biden and Donald Trump aren’t the same—and it’s not even close. Trump is a bigot, a cheat, a con man, a fraud, and a liar. Worse yet, he’s not remotely good at his job.
We’ve seen 3+ years of President Trump and the results include an administration continuously full of upheaval and vacancies; a Cabinet full of millionaires, billionaires, and other cronies; an escalation of racist and xenophobic rhetoric; a fast track for confirmation of federal judges thinly veiled in their prejudices and often incompetent; a tax cut that primarily favors wealthier earners; weakened protections for the environment and the LGBTQIA+ community; and a woeful response to the present threat of coronavirus/COVID-19 marked by political favoritism and hampered by a lack of due preparation. All the while, Trump, when not enriching himself, playing golf, tweeting, or watching FOX News, deflects blame, undermining a free press as “the enemy of the people.” It’s hard to imagine a worse president in the modern era than Donald J. Trump.
Returning to the question of the fallacy that not voting for the Democrat is a vote for the Republican and vice versa then, the only way this equivalency loses validity is if you consider that one candidate’s supporters are that much more likely to come out for their chosen nominee than the other’s. Such is potentially a big problem for Biden: enthusiasm. As recently as the end of March, an ABC News/Washington Post poll revealed only 24% of those surveyed strongly support Biden over Trump, while more than half of prospective Trump voters surveyed indicated they are “very” enthusiastic about casting their ballots for the incumbent. That’s worse than what Hillary Clinton encountered in 2016 at this point in the race—and we all know how that turned out.
Why the lack of enthusiasm for Uncle Joe? Maybe because he’s—and I’m just spit-balling here—not that good of a candidate. Through all these proud endorsements by the likes of Obama, Sanders, and Warren, a lot has been said about his character, his lifetime of public service, and his leadership. On the other hand, little, if anything, has been said about his policy positions or a cohesive vision for America’s future, and talk of his supposed progressive credentials flies in the face of his actual record.
The image Obama et al. are creating is an idealized version of Biden, one designed to drum up votes and drive home the differences between him and Trump on dimensions like empathy. It does not consider Biden’s stalwart opposition to Medicare for All and other single-payer health insurance systems, even during a global pandemic that is seeing record numbers of Americans file for unemployment and get kicked off their employer-sponsored healthcare plans. It does not consider his halfhearted embrace of the Green New Deal which would see the United States miss a net zero emissions target date of 2030 recommended by progressives by two decades. It does not consider his support for student debt cancellation only for some income levels, not all, and not after siding with lenders on a 2005 bankruptcy bill that made it harder for people to file for bankruptcy and unable to discharge their student loan debt through bankruptcy. It’s revisionist history that re-characterizes Biden’s identity as the poster boy for political expediency as something greater than what it actually is.
All this hagiographic elevation of Biden also fails to consider limiting factors that would seemingly disqualify most other candidates. One is his cognitive decline, obvious to anyone who has eyes and ears. It’s why we have not seen or heard more of him since the coronavirus prompted a state of national emergency in the United States. It’s why he’s reliant on cue cards, notes, or teleprompters during all planned appearances, which are often short and have his wife, Jill, leading him along. It’s why we see clip after clip of him laboring with his speech, struggling to form complete sentences and thoughts. This is more than gaffes or a stutter—and it’s not a secret to Republicans either.
The other big problem with Biden as the candidate of a major party, particularly one that touts its inclusivity and its strong female leadership, is the list of allegations made against him by various women of unwanted touching or close physical proximity. Most serious among them, and yet disappointingly underreported, is the account of Tara Reade, a staffer for Biden in the 90s, who claims that Biden sexually and verbally assaulted her.
Despite comparisons to Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony against Brett Kavanaugh prior to his confirmation to the Supreme Court and despite Reade seeming credible in her retelling of details about the alleged assault, many of the same people loudly calling for Kavanaugh’s withdrawal as a nominee are expressing their doubts about the veracity of Reade’s public statements. The primary difference herein appears to be not whether Reade is believable, but that Biden is a Democrat backed by the party establishment, while Kavanaugh was jammed through confirmation by Senate Republicans. He’s on our team, not yours. At least he’s not as bad as Trump. A victory for women and #MeToo, this isn’t.
Given all this, it’s no wonder enthusiasm for Joe Biden—the “white moderate” warned about by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. who is cognitively impaired, has no empathy for young people, has few clear policy goals, and may be guilty of sexual assault—is so low. Even after a term of President Trump, that Biden is a tough sell should be immediately concerning to Democratic Party leadership and the “vote blue no matter who” crowd all the same.
So what, you may be thinking. If you’re not voting to stop the madman in the White House, maybe you should be ashamed. You just refuse to accept that your guy is not the one going for the nomination. He didn’t have the votes. It’s over. Get over your privilege and get behind the winner. We’re ridin’ with Biden.
I get it—a second term of President Trump would not be felt as severely by all Americans, much as is the case now. The horror stories of migrants kept in detention, denied asylum despite the dangers they face in their countries of origin. The families negatively affected by the Muslim ban masquerading as a travel ban. The anti-Asian hate being fomented as a result of fear and misinformation about COVID-19. The administration’s attempt to erase trans people. It’s not something I like imagining.
Citing Pew Research Center data from 2018, Greenwald finds that 56% of nonvoters in the 2016 presidential election made less than $30,000 per year. More than half of non-voters were age 49 or younger or were high-school-educated or less, and nearly half of nonvoters were non-white. Moreover, while voter suppression efforts of these groups are both “real are pernicious,” the idea that nonvoters are frequently not registering because they are dissatisfied with their choices or don’t believe their vote will make a difference is significant. It would, too, seek to dispel “the outright, demonstrable falsehood that those who choose not to vote are primarily rich, white, and thus privileged, while those who lack those privileges — voters of color and poorer voters — are unwilling to abstain.” In saying this, Greenwald is fixated on the bubbles we find ourselves in when we subsist only on a diet of one-sided cable news and social media.
It is this understanding that begs the question: How many indignities are progressives supposed to endure in their earnest attempts to help reform the Democratic Party and to defeat the Donald Trumps of today and tomorrow? Bernie Sanders ultimately didn’t make the case to enough Democratic primary voters that he is the most “electable” and is the right choice to take on Trump and the GOP. His, like any campaign, was flawed.
Biden’s campaign, meanwhile, has suffered from a lack of organization and funding throughout his run. He placed fourth in the Iowa caucuses and fifth in the New Hampshire primary. It was because of his strong showing in South Carolina and the coalescence of the Democratic Party around Biden that he was able to vault to the lead for the nomination and never look back, further buoyed by a media narrative that celebrated his comeback uncritically.
To make things worse, Barack Obama has had more influence on said coalescence than he would lead or like you to believe. As reports have indicated, the former president was influential in getting Amy Klobuchar and Pete Buttigieg to endorse Biden right around the time they bowed out of the race. Obama also held several conversations with Bernie to help “accelerate the endgame” before the Wisconsin primary results were made public.
Most chillingly, and regarding that Wisconsin primary, according to insider reports, Biden’s campaign was “eager” to have it run as originally scheduled or else they’d turn up the heat on Bernie to drop out, a notion Obama stressed in his conversations with Sanders. For all the “bad optics” of 2015 and 2016, this blatant favoritism of the establishment candidate over the progressive is yet harder to bear four years later. That Biden and his team would encourage people to go the polls during a global pandemic and despite widespread closures and poll worker shortages is all the more reprehensible. This was always about stopping Bernie and then beating Trump. Any pretense otherwise is beyond absurd at this point.
Joe Biden isn’t Donald Trump, and if you’re voting for the former to stop the latter, I understand completely. When people don’t share your enthusiasm for voting strategically and when they perceive that nothing meaningful will change regardless, though, trying to bully, demean, or insult them into voting is of questionable, if any, utility. So enough with the vote shaming already. You’d be better off making calls and trying to engage with disaffected nonvoters by understanding their points of view if you truly want to avoid disaster in November.
As Tom Perez and the Democratic National Committee would have it, it’s OK if you risk your life and those of others to come out and vote in the primaries. Especially if you’re casting your ballot for Joe Biden.
Originally, “Super Tuesday III” (if they’re all so “super,” are they really that super?) was supposed to involve Democratic Party primaries for four states. On the eve of Ohio’s intended primary, Gov. Mike DeWine’s administration sought to postpone in-person voting until a later date in light of the ongoing global pandemic. The move was struck down by a judge but polls were later closed by Amy Acton, director of health for the Ohio Department of Health, and the primary was postponed.
Arizona, Florida, and Illinois went ahead with their primaries unabated, however, and reports from polling locations indicated that in many cases, the decision to not postpone was an unmitigated disaster. Numerous poll workers and managers were no-shows. Polling locations were closed or moved so abruptly that voters had to travel to multiple sites to try to cast their ballots, and because of the closures, prospective voters were herded into confined spaces (in violation of CDC guidelines), forced to wait potentially for one or more hours in unsafe conditions, or go home and forfeit their vote. Despite assertions to the contrary, many polling stations lacked sufficient hand sanitizer to meet the public demand or otherwise failed to enforce social distancing standards encouraged to reduce the spread of coronavirus.
These primaries were, in other words, a shit-show, and a completely foreseeable one, at that. Less than 24 hours beforehand, however, DNC chair Tom Perez was on MSNBC trying to make the case that, to borrow the verbiage of a popular meme, this is fine.
In an interview with Chris Hayes, Perez insisted that the DNC respected what Arizona, Florida, and Illinois were doing and that he didn’t think it was for him to “second-guess those judgments of governors who insisted they are able to safely carry on with the primaries.” On the day of the primary, he tweeted, “AZ, IL, and FL are all voting today. Please remember your health comes first. Stay safe and take care of yourself. Thank you to all the voters, poll workers, and staff making democracy work.”
Lo and behold, in light of the scenes described above, the judgment of Governors Doug Ducey (AZ), JB Pritzker (IL), and Ron DeSantis (FL) were very much questioned, especially so after they advised against congregations of people in other contexts to encourage social distancing. Perez’s boast about staff, voters, and workers “making democracy work” was therefore decidedly dubious. In a primary season that has seen incidence of long lines in states like California and Texas lasting beyond poll closing times, frequently in areas disproportionately trafficked by younger voters and/or people of color, poll closures and the appearance of anything remotely resembling voter suppression is liable to raise a red flag among concerned observers, particularly those of a progressive bent.
Owing to the numerous—shall we say—irregularities surrounding the latest swath of state primaries, these results should be considered illegitimate, regardless of the outcome. Furthermore, and more importantly, keeping the polls open or otherwise encouraging people to vote during a public health crisis and without credible assurance that the requisite safeguards would be available is reckless, a dereliction of duty, and as some might argue, criminally negligent. The aforementioned governors, Tom Perez, and the DNC should be thoroughly ashamed of themselves as a result, assuming they are capable of genuine human emotions like shame.
In terms of what should be the contested results of primaries, let’s not mince words: Joe Biden romped and probably would have, due apprehension of coronavirus or not. Biden beat Bernie Sanders by double digits across the board, even eating into his support among Latinos, a bastion of support that Sanders’s campaign had previously enjoyed during this campaign by a substantive margin. Exit polls indicated Biden performed significantly better among voters in terms of whose leadership they would trust during a crisis, who they think would be better able to get legislation passed given a Republican-controlled Senate, and perhaps most telling of all, that they think he would fare better than Bernie in the general election against Donald Trump.
The suggestion that Perez and Co. are trying to rush through the primaries so as to sew up the Democratic Party primary and limit Biden’s exposure, of course, is pure conjecture, barring some sort of WikiLeaks-esque revelation of favoritism on the DNC’s part as it was in 2016. Still, for a party looking to avoid bad optics following a much-publicized hack and proliferation of e-mails from the last election cycle, the choice to plow ahead and tout turnout when an untold number of voters were either turned away from the polls or feared for their safety is unconscionable and could literally cost lives.
Tom Perez and the Democratic National Committee appear to be saying that the ends justify the means. The mere thought that your vote matters more than your voice or even your life, though, is a sobering one indeed.
What shouldn’t be overlooked as part of this story is that the Republican Party, too, held primaries earlier this week. Florida and Illinois had hundreds of thousands of Republicans turn out in favor of the incumbent, Donald Trump, allowing him to secure the necessary number of delegates to earn the nomination outright. Bill Weld (if you’re wondering who that is, I had to Google him to make sure that is, in fact, his name) has consequently suspended his bid for president, not that it had much of a chance to succeed to begin with. So the Republican Party bears some responsibility in this regard to boot. But in terms of party affiliation, the blame is bipartisan. JB Pritzker is a Democrat. Doug Ducey and Ron DeSantis are Republicans (as is Mike DeWine, whose administration, as noted earlier, commendably postponed the state’s primaries). At least at the state level, there is proverbial blood on both parties’ hands.
Even the two major Democratic Party candidates (Tulsi Gabbard was running as of Tuesday, but suspended her bid the next day and endorsed Joe Biden) could have done more. Joe Biden’s campaign rather indifferently directed people to the polls, downplaying the unique threat coronavirus poses by proffering the notion “we held elections during the Civil War, the 1918 flu pandemic, and World War II” such that “we can meet the same challenge today.” Bernie Sanders, while expressing concern that he wasn’t sure it made sense to hold the primaries when interviewed following last Sunday’s debate, could’ve, in theory, told his followers not to go to the polls and protested the outcome as illegitimate. That may have only further hurt his perception among Democratic Party loyalists not to mention his decreasing odds at capturing the nomination, but it would’ve been a prudent move.
Going back to the subject of turnout, despite coronavirus concerns and the lack of a contested primary on the Republican side, turnout was yet robust, though the final tallies were certainly aided by absentee, early, and mail-in votes. This shouldn’t necessarily be assumed as a boon for Biden, the presumptive Democratic Party nominee, however, particularly in deference to Trump’s having secured the nomination officially now and essentially before he began. Trump has a base of fervent supporters who haven’t substantially wavered since he took office.
Moreover, while Biden-friendly pundits tout the breadth of the coalition he’s building (I say that Biden is building it, but it’s more that Democrats are coalescing behind him as the person they think is best-positioned to beat Trump), Bernie continues to beat him handily in terms of independent voters and crushes him on youth support. It is very fair to wonder whether these key groups will come out in force for Biden, especially in swing states. While it’s reckless to put anyone’s supporters in danger, one might insist it is egregiously bad to do that with Biden’s backers, who are his bedrock and are most susceptible to the effects of COVID-19 generally being older.
This all makes for a disturbing picture for the rest of the primary season and engenders even less confidence in Democratic leadership among progressives than they previously have had during Tom Perez’s tenure as DNC chair. For his part in last Tuesday’s fiasco, Perez should resign, and as has long been a rallying cry, the Democratic National Committee should be reformed to more authentically represent the designs of rank-and-file party supporters instead of merely satisfying moneyed interests and seeking votes. Until and unless dramatic changes are made, the prospects of a Democratic Party victory in the 2020 election are suspect and the possibility of a mass exodus from the party sooner or later is disturbingly real.
When it comes to the present-day incarnation of the Republican Party, always beware the shell game.
Per Dictionary.com, shell game is defined as “a sleight-of-hand swindling game resembling thimblerig but employing walnut shells or the like instead of thimblelike cups.” If you’re familiar with the setup of three-card Monte, the logistics are essentially the same, only with cards instead of shells. Find the pea (or the Queen of Hearts) under the shell. Double-down on your ability to find it again. If you’re successful, you win big. If you’re not, the opposite happens.
With Donald Trump, Con-Man-in-Chief, working in cahoots with a party whose agenda seems increasingly predicated on deception—so that you don’t discover how bad their policies actually are for you or the country at large—this diversionary tactic is alive and well. Before your eyes, numerous issues await your attention, but energy/money/time being limited, you can only pick one on which to act at the risk of having all three suffer.
Concerning the events of the last week and change, three “shells” jump to mind being of national import, especially fresh after Election Day. All merit scrutiny as threats to democracy, and yet, there aren’t enough hours in the day.
That press conference
President Trump has had some stupendously bad press conferences during his tenure, but his post-election presser, if not the outright worst, ranks right up there. There’s a lot to unpack here, so let’s get to the nitty-gritty, shall we?
The great and powerful Republican Party: First things first, Trump started by lionizing the GOP’s “achievements.” Apparently, not losing control of the Senate and ceding control of the House qualify. At any rate, they were achievements because the Democrats had an unfair advantage in fundraising from special interests and wealthy donors and because the media is so gosh-darned mean to Republican candidates. Also, we had a bunch of retirements. But we had big rallies! And we did better than Obama! The country is booming! If the Democrats don’t screw everything up, we’ll all be united and thriving together!
On bipartisanship: With the whining about the Republicans’ handicap thus dispensed with, it was time for questions. First up, about that spirit of bipartisanship he and Nancy Pelosi talked about. Like, that’s not really going to happen, right? Especially with all the investigations expected to be going on and unless y’all compromise? Trump demurred on the issue. No, we’re totally going to be able to work together with the Democrats. Of course, if we can’t, they’re the ones in control of the House, so you know—their fault.
Oh, that border wall… We’re gonna build the wall. We’ve already started building it, in fact. Just try and stop it. The American people want it. The Democrats want it—they just don’t want to admit it. Fine by me. I’ll take the political capital and run with it. But the caravan is coming, ladies and gents. I can’t say for sure that I’d advocate shutting down the government for it. But come on—I totally would.
On the ever-tumultuous Cabinet: Trump is totally happy with his Cabinet. Good Cabinet. Great Cabinet. As long as no one suddenly displeases him, he has love for all. At this point, in a completely unrelated move, the President pushed a button revealing a pool of sharks underneath the floor and lowering a human-sized cage suspended above it from the ceiling.
The Jim Acosta portion of the program: If there’s one moment of the press conference you heard about, it was likely this. CNN’s Jim Acosta, established persona non grata among Trump’s base, pressed Trump on referring to the migrant caravan in Central America as an “invasion.” Trump was all, like, well, I consider it an invasion. Acosta was all, like, but that caravan is hundreds and hundreds of miles away and you’re demonizing immigrants by showing them climbing over walls, which they’re not going to do. And that’s when things got really interesting. As Trump settled into Attack Mode, Acosta tried to ask a follow-up question. Trump was all, like, you’ve had enough, pal. Nevertheless, he persisted, trying to ask about the Russia investigation. Meanwhile, a female aide tried to grab the mic away from Acosta, which he stifled with a “Pardon me, ma’am” and a hand on her arm. Before Acosta relented, Trump called the investigation a “hoax” and called Acosta a “rude, terrible person.” Fun times.
More about the Jim Acosta portion of the program: NBC News’s Peter Alexander came to Acosta’s defense as next reporter up—only to get harangued by the President in his own right—but the implications of this kerfuffle and the subsequent revocation of Acosta’s press privileges in covering the White House are serious. I don’t care what you think about Acosta personally, even if you feel he’s a self-aggrandizing hack. Judging by the smarmy attitude of other CNN personalities like Anderson Cooper and Chris Cuomo, elevated self-appraisals seem to be a fairly common occurrence there. I also don’t care what you think about Barack Obama’s frosty relationship with FOX News and the questionable treatment its reporters received at the hands of the Obama White House. On the latter count, two wrongs don’t make a right, and if Trump and Co. want to distinguish themselves, they should do it by being better and less petty—not the other way around. To that effect, squelching Acosta’s voice in a dictatorial way should be concerning no matter where you stand politically in the name of journalistic integrity and a free press. And let’s not start with the whole “Acosta assaulted that young woman” narrative. If you’re relying on a doctored InfoWars clip to make your argument, you already should take the hint you’re probably on some bullshit.
More on bipartisanship: After Jim Acosta was given the ol’ Vaudeville Hook, Alexander questioned Trump on why he was pitting Americans against one another. To which Trump asked back—and I am not making this up—”What are you—trying to be him?” He was referring to Acosta, of course. Even after what just happened, it was stunning. For the record, Pres. Trump gave a dodgy “they’re soft on crime” answer and suggested the results of the election would have a “very positive impact.” So, um, yay togetherness!
If the Mueller investigation is unfair to the country and it’s costing millions of dollars, why doesn’t Trump just end it? I’m posting the whole question here, because the President sure didn’t answer it convincingly.
On voter suppression: “I’ll give you ‘voter suppression’: Take a look at the CNN polls, how inaccurate they were. That’s called ‘voter suppression’.” Um, what?
On the individual mandate: You know, I could tell you what he said, but do you have any confidence that, regardless of how people feel about the individual mandate, Republicans have a plan in mind which will allow them to keep premiums down and cover preexisting conditions? Neither do I.
When all questions by women of color are “stupid” or “racist”: Speaking of three-card Monte, here’s a shell game within the shell game in which you get to pick which one is the most flagrantly dog-whistle-y. PBS NewsHour’s Yamiche Alcindor asked Trump about whether his claim to be a “nationalist” has emboldened “white nationalists” here and abroad. Trump said it’s a “racist” question. Putting aside the notion held by many that racism implies power and Trump therefore has no idea what he’s talking about in this regard, it’s a legitimate question. Trump pivoted to his overwhelming support from African-American voters—a fabrication, at any rate—but his lack of an appropriate response betrays his complicity on this issue.
More on denigrating black female reporters: While the dialog with Alcindor was the only such interaction with an African-American female reporter during the press conference, it’s not his only recent unflattering characterization herein. In response to a question by CNN’s Abby Phillip about whether he appointed Matthew Whitaker as acting Attorney General, he called her query “stupid” and opined that she asks “a lot of stupid questions.” As for April Ryan, Trump recently referred to her as a “loser” and someone “who doesn’t know what she’s doing.” If these comments were isolated incidents, one might be able to give Trump the benefit of the doubt. In such close proximity to one another and based on his track record, though, Trump deserves no such consideration. He’s attacking these women of color because he has a problem with being challenged by strong females and because it’s red meat to throw at his base.
Other odds and ends:
Trump evidently can’t turn over his tax returns because he is under audit. This is complete and unmitigated bullshit.
Trump likes Oprah. Even if she, too, is a loser.
If anything is going to be done with DACA, it will apparently have to be dealt with in court. Whose fault is that? You guessed it: the Democrats.
Trump claimed to have a lot of trouble understanding people from foreign news outlets. If there were anything to make him seem like more of the “ugly American,” well, this would be it.
What did Trump learn from the midterm results? Seeing as he learned that “people like him” and that “people like the job he’s doing,” he obviously didn’t learn a damn thing.
Will Mike Pence be Trump’s running mate in 2020? Yes. Glad that’s settled. Nice hardball question there.
How will Trump push a pro-life agenda with a divided Congress? Like a mother trying to give birth, he’s just going to keep pushing—don’t you worry, evangelicals.
Did China or Russia interfere in the election? The official report’s, as they say, in the mail.
How can we enact a middle-class tax cut alongside the existing corporate/high-earner tax cut? With an “adjustment.” What kind of adjustment? Trump’s “not telling.” YOU HAVE NO IDEA. JUST SAY IT.
Per “Two Corinthians” Trump, God plays a very big role in his life. He’s also a “great moral leader,” and he loves our country. On an unrelated note, a lightning bolt ripped through the ceiling during the press conference, narrowly missing Trump as he delivered his remarks.
Au revoir, Monsieur Sessions
Politics makes strange bedfellows. If you’re thinking how strange it is to be protesting the firing of Jeff bleeping Sessions, you’re not alone. Sessions’ aforementioned removal as AG in favor of Trump loyalist Matthew Whitaker—assuming he actually was fired and didn’t resign, though how would we know?—is not something that anyone feels bad about for Sessions’s sake. You make a deal with the Devil, and eventually, you expect to get burned, no? Given his profile as a notorious anti-drug dinosaur who infamously once professed that good people don’t use marijuana, some drug reform activism groups are even happy he’s gone.
Outside of this context, though, the larger partisan hostility toward Robert Mueller and his investigation matters. I’m not going to even get into whether Trump has the right to remove Sessions and replace him with someone like Whitaker who wasn’t confirmed by the Senate, or whether it matters if he was fired or if he quit. Honestly, these questions are above my ken as a citizen journalist.
If past statements are any indication, however, putting Whitaker in charge of the DOJ is suspect. The man didn’t exactly write the book on how to limit the scope of the Mueller investigation, but he did pen an opinion piece for Trump’s favorite news outlet on how it should be done. As with invalidating Jim Acosta’s White House press privileges (a move which has prompted another lawsuit against the Trump administration, mind you), such is a line the president should not cross, no matter what side of the aisle you’re on. As Americans, we should all be worried about the fate of the Mueller investigation as it comes to a head, and should implore our elected officials to safeguard the inquiry’s results.
The ghost of the 2000 election
Oh, those hanging chads. It’s somehow comforting—and yet actually deeply, deeply disturbing—that not much has changed since the fracas surrounding the 2000 recount that captivated a nation and prompted cries of a “stolen” victory for George W. Bush. Then again, that Al Gore didn’t win his own state and that thousands of Florida Democrats voted for Bush puts a bit of a damper on pointing to these shenanigans and Ralph Nader as the only reasons why Gore lost. As with Hillary Clinton losing in 2016, alongside legitimate concerns about Russian meddling and James Comey’s untimely letter to Congress, it’s not as if strategic miscues or lack of enthusiasm about the Democratic candidate in question didn’t play a role.
Now that I’ve set the scene, let’s talk about 2018. There were a number of close races across the country this Election Day—some so close they still haven’t been certified or conceded. Depending on your views, some were either disappointments or godsends. If you were pulling for Beto O’Rourke in Texas, while you still should be encouraged, you were nonetheless dismayed to find that enough voters willingly re-elected Ted Cruz, famed annoyance and rumored Zodiac Killer. If you were pulling for Kyrsten Sinema in Arizona, meanwhile, you likely were over the moon once the race was finally called.
Of the key races not yet called at this writing, those in Florida and Georgia loom particularly large. In the Sunshine State, the candidates of both the race for U.S. Senate between Rick Scott (R) and Bill Nelson (D) and the race for governor between Ron DeSantis (R) and Andrew Gillum (D) are separated by less than half of 1%. Meanwhile, in the Peach State gubernatorial race, there are enough outstanding votes that Stacey Abrams (D) and her campaign are convinced they can force a runoff election based on the margin.
In all three cases, despite the razor-thin vote disparities, Republicans have been quick to cry fraud or try to expedite certifying the results. Scott, with Trump throwing his own claim around wildly in support, has made accusations of electoral malfeasance without the evidence to back it up.
And this is just speaking about what has happened after the election. Leading up to the election, DeSantis caught flak for telling voters not to “monkey this up” by voting for Gillum, dog-whistling loud enough for racists across the Southeast to hear. Brian Kemp (R), meanwhile as Georgia Secretary of State, oversaw the purging of voters from rolls, the failure to process voter applications, and keeping voting machines locked up—all primarily at the expense of voters of color, a key Democratic constituency.
Depending on how far back you wish to go, the antics of DeSantis, Kemp, and Scott are only the latest turn in a long-standing American tradition of voter suppression aimed at blacks. Carol Anderson, professor of African-American studies at Emory University, provides a concise but effective history of keeping blacks from the polls—by hook or by crook. We may no longer be threatening prospective voters of color with tar and feathers, but voter purges, closure of polling locations, and disenfranchisement of felons from being able to vote aren’t much of an improvement. This is 2018, after all.
As Van Jones and others might insist, Kemp et al. can only win one way: by stealing. To put it another way, if these Republicans were convinced they had won legitimately, they wouldn’t need all the chicanery, subterfuge, and insinuations of impropriety. Even if they do prove to have the votes necessary to win, their conduct is a stain on the offices they have served or will serve.
Like it is with the White House’s revocation of Jim Acosta’s privileges following Trump’s press conference or the suspicious installation of Matthew Whitaker as head of the Department of Justice, the injustice here is such that it should, ahem, trump partisanship. Instead, our “winning is the only thing” mentality and emphasis on results over process all but ensures bipartisan inaction.
Assuming a shell game is run fairly, the customer playing need only follow the correct shell amid all the movement. This itself might be a chore depending on how much and how fast the shells move. Going back to the Wikipedia entry on the shell game, though, there’s an important note about how, frequently, games of these sort are not on the up-and-up:
In practice, however, the shell game is notorious for its use by confidence tricksters who will typically rig the game using sleight of hand to move or hide the ball during play and replace it as required. Fraudulent shell games are also known for the use of psychological tricks to convince potential players of the legitimacy of the game – for example, by using shills or by allowing a player to win a few times before beginning the scam.
In other words, it’s a con. You’ve been following the wrong shell all along because the eyes deceive. In the context of President Donald Trump’s unbecoming behavior, his DOJ shakeup of questionable legitimacy, and the Republican Party’s stacking of the electoral deck, while all of these matters merit your justifiable outrage, they are yet a distraction from something else not even on the table.
For one, shortly after the press conference, Trump issued a directive designed to halt asylum-seeking at our southern border. It’s a particularly problematic order, in that it appears to fundamentally misunderstand asylum law and makes it yet harder to apply for asylum than it already is. It’s also reactionary policy that overstates the dangers of the migrant caravan and illegal immigration in general, and further puts us out of step with international standards on safeguarding refugees/asylees.
This executive order comes on the heels of Trump’s stated desire to end birthright citizenship, another move which would be of dubious constitutional validity and subject to challenge in court by civil rights advocacy groups, not to mention having U.S. troops stationed at the border with Mexico. It’s easy to dismiss these as political stunts designed to fire up his base when you have no skin in the game, so to speak.
For immigrants and would-be applicants for asylum/visas, this rhetoric is more worrisome. Owing to our country’s poor track record of acting on behalf of vulnerable populations—I’ll bring our sordid history of intimidating voters of color and otherwise acting in official capacities to deny them their rights back up, in case you need reminding—this is more than simple hand-wringing based on the theoretical.
In the miasma and noise of a Republican agenda fueled by the views of FOX News talking heads, Koch-Brothers-funded legislative influence, obeisance to moneyed interests and religious conservatives, Tea Party railing against deficits, and Trump’s own prejudicial outlook, it’s legitimately hard to cut through all the bullshit and focus on what we can do as possible influencers. By now, the sense of fatigue is real, especially because when we act to counteract said agenda, there’s also half-hearted Democratic Party policies and media clickbait designed to offend around which to work.
So, what’s the answer? Assuming my words are even that useful in this regard, I’m not sure. As noted, all of the above merits scrutiny, but we have our limitations. It may be useful to zero in on one or a handful of issues that arouse your personal political passions. Plus, if you can afford it, so many causes spearheaded by organizations devoted to the betterment of society deserve your donations, though throwing money at these problems does not automatically equate to solving them.
At the end of the day, though, what is abundantly clear after decades of failed policy initiatives is that tuning out is not a viable option if we want meaningful change. Indeed, people-powered solutions will be necessary if we are to fix our broken democracy—and there’s a lot to fix, at that. Recognize the shell game for what it is, but don’t refuse to play. Instead, change the game.
As we get closer and closer to Election Day 2018—which is Tuesday, November 6 in case you haven’t already circled it on your calendar or have voted or have made plans to vote—the factors that mediate voter turnout become all the more relevant.
As is so often talked about and lamented, a significant portion of Americans who can vote choose not to do so. It happened in 2016, as frustrated Hillary supporters and others not enamored with the current president are keen to remind everyone who will listen. It will likely happen to a greater extent this year. This is all before we get to the polls, where there’s no assurance we will even recognize most of the candidates listed.
Those who elect not to cast a ballot have their explanations. There’s work, school, and other responsibilities. They may believe they don’t know enough about the voting process or the candidates, or simply don’t feel inspired by their choices. Their district may not be a “competitive” one. Especially within immigrant populations, families may not have a robust tradition of voting in this country, with children of immigrants often not possessing a strong role model in this regard.
These explanations may not suffice as excuses, mind you. Barack Obama recently appeared in an online video designed to eat away at the most common justifications people give for not coming out. Not caring about politics. Not relating to the candidates. Not being well informed. Not knowing where to vote or not having time on Election Day. Feeling as if one’s vote “doesn’t matter” or that the midterms are “boring.” Obama addresses these ideas in a reasoned and amusing way. I personally could’ve done without the knowledge he doesn’t care about Pokémon (you’ll never be president of the Kanto region with that attitude, Barack!), but I appreciate the effort on his part.
Motivating potential voters is critical to achieving high turnout, of course. But working to overcome obstacles designed specifically to depress participation is important in its own right. As research suggests, voter turnout correlates in a statistically significant way with how easy the voting process is.
Christopher Ingraham, writing for The Washington Post, delves into a recent report by political scientists at Northern Illinois University and Wuhan University in China that measures voter turnout in each state against the relative “time and effort” needed to vote as a function of that state’s election laws. Researchers analyzed 33 types of laws that applied to areas like the ability of citizens under 18 to register in advance of reaching voting age, early and absentee voting permissibility, polling hours, registration deadlines and restrictions, and voter ID requirements.
The findings? Generally speaking, the easier it is to vote in a state—what the researching scientists term having a lower “cost of voting”—the higher turnout tends to be. For the sake of a comparison, the five states with the easiest voting profile (Oregon, Colorado, California, North Dakota, Iowa) averaged almost nine percentage points better turnout in 2016 than the corresponding pentad at the opposite end of the spectrum (Mississippi, Virginia, Tennessee, Indiana, Texas). The researchers also made sure to account for and control for potential founding factors including competitiveness of the race at the top of the ticket, education level, and income level. The trend in voting patterns held.
As with any correlation, there are outliers which prove counterexamples. Hawaii, despite being in the top 20 of easiest states to vote, owned the worst turnout rate from 2016 by far. Virginia, despite having some of the most restrictive election laws in the country, had turnout roughly equivalent to Oregon’s. Overall, though, the evidence is pretty compelling that expanding voting access leads to increased turnout. On the other hand, evidence is strong that intentional policies which make voting more difficult—Ingraham points to such efforts in Mississippi, Tennessee, and Texas—are related to a lower turnout percentage.
As Ingraham relates, and as the Northern Illinois/Wuhan scientists submit, the easiest way to make voting, well, easier, is to allow same-day voter registration and, to boot, to permit people to get registered or re-registered at their polling place. This is not to say that other factors pertaining to the cost of voting can’t or shouldn’t be addressed. After all, what good is same-day registration when officials close polling locations? The idea remains, meanwhile, that simple changes which improve the voting process can have a material effect on producing better voting outcomes. With eyes already on Election Day 2020, voter ease of access is more than a passing concern.
As the scatterplot which accompanies Christopher Ingraham’s article speaks to, “red” states are more likely to be characterized by a high cost of voting. 4 of 5 and 9 of 10 of the hardest states to vote in by nature of their requirements went for Donald Trump in 2016. Returning to the notion of obstacles designed specifically to make voting more difficult, and as the very title of Ingraham’s piece indicates, this is no accident. To be fair, both parties have been guilty of trying to stack the deck, so to speak, especially when it comes to gerrymandering to try to get a political advantage.
Just because both parties have had their moments, however, doesn’t mean that all attempts to swing elections are created equal. Indeed, as attempts to suppress votes are concerned, Republicans are usually the worse offenders. All the more unnerving is the apparent phenomenon of the GOP aiming to disenfranchise voters and not being all that secretive about it.
Republican gubernatorial candidate and current Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp has made news recently for his decision to suspend more than 50,000 voter applications—a majority of them from blacks—justified as part of an “exact match” voter fraud deterrent. He’s also come under fire for purging yet more voters from the rolls for not voting, and has been sued for failing to safeguard voting records against hacking.
On top of this, newly-leaked audio from a private Kemp campaign event reveals Kemp expressing concern about his opponent, Stacey Abrams, pushing to get voters to the polls and exercise their right to vote. These remarks may be fairly innocuous, but Kemp’s role as Secretary of State as well as his political stances (Kemp’s statements on Russian election interference have resembled those of President Trump) cast doubts about whether a conflict of interest is at work here.
There are any number of instances to which one can point to deliberate efforts to bar people from participatory democracy. Back in Georgia, some 40 elderly black residents were ordered off a bus in Cobb County on their way to the polls to cast their ballots during the state’s early voting. Not only is this a thinly-veiled intimidation tactic, but it is indicative of a pattern of voter suppression that disproportionately targets people of color. For a party in the GOP that seems content to try to deny projected population trends and a growing sense of multiculturalism in the United States in favor of appealing to working-class whites and older Americans fearful of change, while the strategy is no less appalling, it makes a lot of sense.
Assuming Democrats, particularly progressive Democrats (I am not treating these terms as mutually exclusive, but regard this term as you will), are interested in expanding and protecting the right to vote, what do they need to do? Honestly, probably the best thing they can do is win elections, and ay, there’s the rub. Republican efforts to suppress votes specifically target members of their base, making it harder for them to win elections and stop GOP officials from doing things like purging voters based on flimsy arguments and closing polling places, or nominating and confirming judges who uphold discriminatory election laws crafted by the likes of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). It’s a vicious circle, and one the apathy of American voters only helps perpetuate.
For activists, meanwhile, advocacy for the expansion of voting rights and informing and educating the public about options designed to make the voting process easier seems like a meritorious course of action, and one that is beneficial in terms of the bigger political picture, at that. Especially for the activist groups that prefer remaining issue-based and not candidate-focused, as well as for the organizations that have struggled with attracting more diverse membership, working to eliminate barriers to exercising the right to vote can be an important step in breaking down barriers to positive change elsewhere.
Twice in recent memory, high-profile conservatives took the opportunity on social media to take crass potshots at a subset of Americans, specifically a particular age group. Joe Scarborough took to Twitter on August 7 to opine on—what else?—the perceived laziness of millennials today. He Tweeted:
Young men in the 1940s liberated Europe from Nazism and the Pacific from the Japanese Empire. Today, too many stay home playing video games.
There are any number of ways in which one can dissect this statement, not the least of which is that there weren’t video games in the 1940s, so how can we compare the two generations, let alone assume young men (or women) wouldn’t have played video games if they had them back then? For one, Scarborough is pining for an era when we had a freaking World War, one in which over 400,000 military deaths were recorded just from the United States. As any number of parents of millennial men might (and did) respond to these sentiments, it’s a good thing their children are not going off to fight and die in a bloody conflict, let alone being drafted involuntarily into one. Even better yet, this notion underestimates and undersells the importance of younger Americans to today’s Armed Forces. As of 2015, the average enlisted member of the U.S. military was 27 years of age, and the average officer was still under the age of 35. Seeing as you wouldn’t expect the demographics to change that profoundly in two years’ time, the idea that millennials are shiftless non-contributors to the betterment of society is patently false.
Tomi Lahren also used her platform as a telegenic conservative to assail millennial males for being inadequate as manly, masculine men, Tweeting this:
As I watch millennial men struggle to lift their bags into the overhead bin I am reminded how f’d we are if there’s a draft.
Aren’t you sharp as a tack, Ms. Lahren? As with Joe Scarborough’s dumb Tweet, there were manifold ways in which Lahren could be criticized for her insensitivity. For starters, she herself is a millennial, so she comes across as somewhat of a self-hating snob right out of the gate. Then there’s the idea overhead storage bins are not part of military training exercises or service requirements, and in the event of compulsory service, probably wouldn’t be enough of a disqualifier anyway. Once more, and to top it all off, we have the aforementioned statistics on average age of those served and those receiving special commendations for their service to debunk the notion that millennials are incapable of serving in the Armed Forces with distinction—male or female. Tomi Lahren tried to brush this off as a mere joke, but regardless, this remark is as unfunny as it is inaccurate.
Joe Scarborough’s and Tomi Lahren’s musings on the supposed military unpreparedness of today’s young adults require little time to dispel because A) neither individual can claim distinguished a service record of his/her own, and B) because they are both generally ill-informed and espouse the opinions of entitled assholes. I invoke their words, however, because, even outside of military contexts, millennials tend to get dragged by news media and on social media alike. Google search “millennials kill” (or Bing search—if you’re one of those people), and you’ll instantly have at your fingers umpteen articles and blog posts either asking if millennials are killing a particular industry or institution, or outright proclaiming that they are. Applebee’s and Buffalo Wild Wings. Cars. Cereal. Credit. Crowd-funding. Golf. Good manners. Home Depot. Hotels. McDonald’s. Movies. Napkins. Relationships. Retail, in general. Soap. Trees. Wine. If at any point someone or something goes on a decline, millennials will probably be blamed for it. Because apparently, they are responsible for the fates of all these things and more. Right.
Based on when I was born, I fall under the amorphous and expansive umbrella that is the millennial generation, so it is not as if I am an unbiased party to this conversation. That said, I take issue with the sentiment that young adults, because of presumed bad habits or fatal flaws, are trying to intentionally ruin all these bastions of goodness. In fact, some of them may not be all that meritorious in the first place, or at least possess certain drawbacks. Golf is a fine sport, but the country club/elitist aspect of memberships at so many courses has understandably made it hard to attract new blood to the game. McDonald’s has healthier options on its menu, but at heart is still fast food contributing to the expansion of Americans’ waistlines as well as those of an international market. Napkins are frequently thrown out or otherwise wasted when handed out in bunches. Trees? Killing machines! OK, so that last one was tongue-in-cheek, but in the other cases, these challenges were likely to be faced by these industries and institutions even before millennials had enough spending power to impact them one way or another. As with the idea that machines and outsourcing are killing jobs in the United States, for those areas which have yielded to changing employment trends, the forces which set them into motion were themselves set into motion many moons ago and probably on a larger scale than one generation could hope to reverse by its lonesome.
As blaming millennials intersects with the 2016 election, you can bet your bottom dollar analysts singled out younger voters as a reason Donald Trump defeated Hillary Clinton in the general election. It was because millennials didn’t come out and vote like they did for Barack Obama, especially in swing states. It was because they voted instead for third-party candidates like Gary Johnson and Jill Stein. If only they had come out in force to thwart the evil orange one. These stupid spoiled brats just couldn’t be bothered to do what was right for the country. Couldn’t they have put their avocados and their phones down for five seconds and hauled their asses down to their polling places? An unrepentant Stein voter myself, I disagree on many levels with what I see as rather facile explanations for what transpired this past November. Here are just a few of my rebuttals to the notion the blame for President Trump rests squarely on the shoulders of millennials:
1. The onus should be on the major-party candidate to win.
The Democratic Party put all their proverbial eggs in one basket when they sold out for Hillary and did what they could to submarine Bernie Sanders’ chances to win the nomination. This meant getting behind a deeply unpopular candidate, one almost as unwell-liked as Donald Trump and one who had low appeal to those on the fence or who identify as a third-party/independent voter. Thus, while there were legitimate reasons to gripe about interference in the election, whether this was from Russian operatives or James Comey, there were definite strategic miscues from the Clinton campaign and party leadership. Such as, you know, all but ignoring key battleground states. Hillary Clinton’s message to voters seemed to be, “Hey, I know you don’t really like or trust me, but I’m better than that jackass Trump. Take it or leave it.” If you’re worried about eligible voters not showing up at all, that’s not a real inspiring rallying call, such that if you’re losing numbers to the Green and Libertarian Parties, or worse, None of the Above, that’s on you as the face of one of the two major parties.
2. What about all those other non-voters?
Millennials made up about 19 percent of the electorate in 2016, roughly the same percentage recorded in 2012. According to the United States Election Project, however, approximately 45% of eligible voters didn’t turn out this past November. For the biggest election in history (aren’t they all?), that’s a pretty poor turnout, and obviously not one that would find younger voters wholly culpable. People who can vote but choose not to vote is not a concern to be diminished, but what about those people who want to vote but have obstacles placed in their way, or certain classes of Americans who are specifically barred from voting, such as felons? If the Democrats were really concerned about turnout, they would more strongly address the improper purging of voters from the rolls across states, gerrymandering, polling place closures, and other methods of voter disenfranchisement. Chasing wealthy donors can only take you so far when it comes to garnering votes from the rank-and-file portion of the electorate.
3. What about all those Trump voters?
You know, the 60+ million who came out for a man who has denigrated the disabled, Mexicans, Muslims, news reporting in general, other people of color, veterans, women, and probably more groups I can’t bring to mind right now. Millennials didn’t come out for Hillary Clinton nearly as robustly as they did for Barack Obama, but this doesn’t mean that they necessarily went to “the dark side” either. Younger voters easily sided with Clinton over Trump, with the gap proving even wider among members of minority groups. Exit polls suggest that older white males with lesser amounts of formal education were favorable to Trump, as well as evangelicals and Christians on the whole. For all those pointing to millennials as the biggest factor in Donald Trump’s upset victory, three fingers point back at 50-plus-year-old voters motivated by feelings of loss of privilege and who bought the portrayal of the United States as a country being overrun by illegal immigrants and threatened by ISIS/refugees. But sure—let’s beat up on younger voters, many who have not had the chance to vote and screw things up like we’ve been doing for years.
4. Donald Trump is not a starting point, but a reiteration of long-standing political and social trends.
We’ve never seen a presidential candidate, or for that matter, a president quite like Donald Trump. And yet, his rhetoric is not unfamiliar. Leading up to the election, Trump billed himself as the “law and order” candidate, but it was on the strength of a hippie-hating, tough-on-crime attitude that Richard Nixon ascended to the top political office in the land. Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton also leveraged fear about crime and, well, minorities in general as part of their law enforcement policy, taking Nixon’s “war on drugs” and pushing its precepts into overdrive, bringing mandatory minimum sentences, three strikes laws and other hallmarks of an already-questionable anti-drug approach into the fold. As for the kind of racism and xenophobia that Trump has pretty much openly encouraged, America is no stranger to discrimination and outward shows of prejudice. We are not far removed, comparatively speaking, from the days of lynchings in the streets of blacks and segregated schools and institutions, and realistically, even when this divisiveness is not explicitly enforced, it exists as part of de facto standards that continue to drive growing disparities along racial and socioeconomic lines. Following eight years of Barack Obama and a burgeoning national sensitivity to social injustice, not to mention a heightened appreciation for the virtues of multiculturalism, it was perhaps only natural a backlash would occur led by whites feeling a sense of loss as a function of their diminished privilege, lost jobs, and inability to cope with and understanding a rapidly changing world. In the ebb and flow of the movement toward progress, the United States under Trump is unquestionably experiencing a receding of its metaphorical tide.
Donald Trump, in short, exploited this reactionary tendency of American attitudes over time. Before we give him the lion’s share of the credit, however, let’s stress that Trump wouldn’t have been able to reach the heights he has without the help of key enabling parties. Speaking of parties, the Republicans obviously gave him quite a push, paving the way for his appeal by pandering to the ultra-rich in terms of fiscal conservatism and the ultra-right-wing in terms of religious/social conservatism. You know, besides trotting out a sorry morass of candidates. I mean, Ted Cruz was one of the major players on the G.O.P. side of things—and even his own kids don’t like him that much! The Democrats, meanwhile, also aided and abetted Trumpism, fielding their own highly unpopular candidate, and over the years not doing enough to resist Republican attempts to diminish union participation and voting rights, or engage working-class Americans in a way which encourages their prolonged involvement on behalf of the Dems. Indeed, the Democratic Party’s identity today as a largely centrist, corporatist entity has hurt its performance in elections at every level, and what’s more, it appears party leadership does not fully comprehend this dynamic.
Last but not least, the news media have, by and large, sacrificed their accountability and integrity in reporting about Trump—or at least did so in advance of that fateful day in November—in the push for ratings and clicks. Even now, reporting will prove critical of each new turn in the dumpster-fire saga that is Donald Trump’s presidency, but will lose some detail in the distraction shell game created between what #45 Tweets and says, and what his administration and a Republican-led Congress are actually doing. Have we forgotten how he defrauded scores of investors with the farcical Trump University? Are we done mentioning how he spends weekend after weekend at one of his resorts, enriching himself at our expense? Do we ignore that his career as a “successful” businessman has been riddled with missteps and outright failures? These are essential tidbits of information, and to bypass them in light of some vague concept of respect for the presidency or “fairness in reporting” is arguably all but a dereliction of duty.
Attempts to understand successive generations—and the ensuing failure to do so for some leading to a roving antipathy for today’s youth—are as American as baseball and apple pie. Even if we’ve never directly experienced the kind of intergenerational conflict we’ve undoubtedly seen across entertainment media, we, as a result, know the stereotypical lines associated with generational divides. Turn down that music! Cut that hair, hippie! Show some gumption! As a millennial, I’ve encountered my fair share of societal pressures related to the gulf of expectations which exists as a function of interactions between individuals of different ages. Why, when I was 30, I was married, had two kids, had a house, and was well along in my career! And I loved it! Then again, I myself have trouble understanding members of my own generation sometimes, let alone those younger than me. What is so interesting about you taking a selfie on the bus to New York City? And, with all that we now know about the dangers of cigarettes, why are you smoking? I mean, we all have our vices, but at least with a chicken parm sub I am satisfying my base needs in the form of hunger. CHICKEN PARM—YOU TASTE SO GOOD!
Millennials, riding along in their Ubers while drinking their kale smoothies, have become just the latest group for those older and not necessarily wiser to scapegoat for whatever ails the nation. While this does not totally absolve young adults of their role in producing negative outcomes, including that of the 2016 election, in many cases, their share of the blame appears wildly overstated, and I have to think a lot of this sentiment betrays a thinly-veiled resentment toward their lot. So, how do we overcome this? Well, as with any cultural clash between groups, facilitating a dialog seems to be of paramount importance. I want a wife and family and house, and maybe even a dog and a cat—but I want it on my terms. You may see this as selfish, but I see it as self-interested, and that distinction means a lot. Alongside encouraging a conversation, there is, as well, merit in looking inward. At a park near where I live, I saw a sign that read—and I’m paraphrasing—”Before you complain, have you considered volunteering?” Time, money, and other obligations get in the way, of course, but if it’s truly worth the sacrifice, maybe you—yes, you!—could stand to do more. If you can. Not trying to harsh anyone’s mellow over here.
Millennials: we may not be perfect, but we’re not that unlike you. And we certainly aren’t the guilty killers of all that is good that sensational headlines have made us out to be.
Ladies and gentlemen, President Donald Trump is very concerned about the integrity of the results of our elections. Very, very concerned. In fact, President Trump is so concerned about rooting out voter fraud that he created a special election commission devoted to this purpose, chaired by Vice President Mike Pence and vice-chaired by Kris Kobach, Kansas’s Secretary of State. In its letter to the Secretaries of State of all 50 states, the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity reportedly asks for names, addresses, birth dates, and party affiliations of all registered voters, as well as felony convictions, military statuses, the last four digits of Social Security numbers, and voting records dating back as far as 10 years ago. It’s a lot of information that’s being requested, and potentially sensitive information, at that. This explains why roughly 9 out of 10 responding states have told Trump and his commission, in a manner of speaking, to go screw. In fact, Mississippi Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann, a fellow Republican, had this to say of the Commission’s inquest: “They can go jump in the Gulf of Mexico, and Mississippi is a great state to launch from.” Ending on a preposition notwithstanding, these are tough words, and quite the negative response irrespective of party affiliation of the government official.
Often, proposed policies and ideological stances will be euphemistically titled or otherwise surreptitiously structured so that the superficial idea seems appealing or plausible when the underlying intent of the shift is of ill intent. “Right to work” legislation has awful implications for unions and other forms of organized labor, but having more rights is better, no? The concept of school choice is patently destructive to public schools and only helps to further divisions based on race and socioeconomic status in our country, but choice is a good thing, right? The aims of the Presidential Advisory Commission, meanwhile, even on their surface do not pass the smell test. Since scoring his upset electoral victory in November, Donald Trump has consistently invoked claims of voter fraud as the reason he, too, lost the popular vote. Millions of “illegals” aiding Hillary’s cause! Rampant, widespread fraud! California, a hotbed of electoral impropriety! Except that exactly as much as Trump and members of the alt-right have advanced conspiracy theories to this effect, actual reputable sources have consistently refuted them. Time and time again. Despite it seeming almost silly now, it must be emphasized and re-emphasized that there is no credible, verifiable evidence for Trump’s claims. They are as hollow as those of his absurd and hateful birther claims levied against Barack Obama. And yet, his cadre of supporters holds on to notions like these in the face of any and all disconfirming proof. It fits the narrative they wish so desperately to believe.
Hence why all but a handful of states have pledged to refuse the Commission’s request, at least in part. Whether based on the illegitimacy of Pres. Trump’s claims, the sensitivity of the information involved (especially SSNs, political party affiliations, and birth dates), or both, a number of Secretaries of State charged with responding to the electoral commission’s supposed fact-finding mission have rejected what they consider to be a rather flagrant example of government overreach and violation of privacy. Now, on one hand, some might construe this widespread antipathy to the work of Kris Kobach and Company as unreasonable and hiding an ulterior motive. And by “some,” I mean essentially just Donald Trump, who took to—you guessed it—Twitter to cast his aspersions, suggesting those states who won’t play ball with his “very distinguished VOTER FRAUD PANEL” might be hiding something. Right. 40+ states are conspiring to hide pervasive, unsubstantiated fraud all for the purpose of? Making the President look bad? Does everyone have an ax to grind against Donald Trump? Even those led by Republicans? As with Trump’s attacks on the media and shameless reposting of Photoshopped GIFs depicting himself landing wrestling moves on a fighter with a CNN head, this kind of rhetoric and inflammatory imagery would be worthy of mockery but for his stature and the tone it sets for elevating him as a cult figure above time-honored American institutions. Unsubstantiated as his claims are, Trump and his level of discourse are yet dangerous.
Going back to the idea of policy as a wolf in sheep’s clothing, and while there is little to redeem the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity even on its face, as with other better-constructed parts of a broadly-stated conservative agenda, there are more sinister applications to this push for “voting integrity.” As Bridgette Dunlap, writing for Rolling Stone, explains, the Commission is really about voter suppression, and we need look no further than the figure at the center of this whole operation. From Dunlap’s piece:
Trump’s commission is led by Kris Kobach, the Kansas secretary of state who’s now running for governor. Kobach is the legal mind behind a slew of anti-immigrant and anti-voter laws implemented across the country, many of which have been struck down by courts. He’s been called “the king of voter suppression” by the ACLU and “the most racist politician in America” by Kansas’ Senate minority leader. Kobach was such a dedicated birther that he demanded even more information after Obama released his birth certificate before placing him on the Kansas ballot. He was recently fined by a federal court in a case challenging his state’s voter restrictions for making “patently misleading representations to the court” regarding a memo he provided to Trump about such restrictions.
More racist than even Steve King, Representative from the state of Iowa? That’s pretty racist! OK, OK—even if the source of that comment was speaking in hyperbole, Kobach’s is the kind of history which fails to inspire confidence in his ability to ensure election integrity. In fact, given his track record, “integrity” is not a word that should enter one’s vocabulary, regardless of the context. Like any number of Pres. Trump’s appointees, Kris Kobach appears to have been selected specifically to undermine the office or function he was tapped to represent. Forget for the moment the request for personal identifying information may be illegal on numerous counts—as Dunlap details, it probably violates both the Privacy Act and the Paperwork Reduction Act, and has already been challenged in court by the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC). Bridgette Dunlap notes how Kobach has been a vocal supporter of the Interstate Voter Registration Crosscheck Program, which is designed to weed out fraud by comparing voter registrations in different states and eliminating duplicates based on name and birth date. Sounds great, right? Except that it produces scores of false positives from different people who possess common names and therefore easily may share both a name and a birth date, or seeks to assign intent to defraud when the same person is registered in two different states and he or she may simply have moved. This is the kind of faulty system that Kris Kobach champions, one that nullifies voters who are legitimately registered for the privilege. As Dunlap alleges, Kobach knows this full well, and is charged with facilitating the completion of a database that serves to “produce junk analysis to support [his] claims that people are voting in multiple states and noncitizens are voting in large numbers.” The concept of pervasive voter fraud is a gigantic red herring, but again, it feeds into the story that undocumented immigrants are not only taking our jobs, but stealing our elections as well. Quite the sleight of hand from the election officials who are truly pulling the strings, no?
Bridgette Dunlap leaves us with some reasons for optimism, albeit a cautious brand of optimism, at the end of her article. Her closing remarks:
The U.S. has an ugly history of racially discriminatory voting laws. Trump and Kobach have made it impossible for anyone who cares about empirical evidence to deny this is the latest chapter. But whether state Republican officials will continue to protect voters in defiance of Trump, or join him in winning elections by any means necessary, remains to be seen.
What Dunlap seems to be saying is that Donald Trump and Kris Kobach have done and said enough that it should be objectively clear that their election commission, of flimsy standing to begin with, is even less meritorious than stated and designed specifically to disenfranchise voters from minority groups. The key word here is should. More and more, members of the GOP and conservatives appear to be more than just amenable to arguments that show a disdain for facts—in fact, they look to be embracing such a mentality (before we get ahead of ourselves here, Democratic supporters also increasingly seem to be falling prey to fake news and judgments based on opinions, not verifiable facts). So, how exactly has this prevailing trend within the Republican Party manifested itself with specific respect to voting rights? Greg Palast, in another piece which appeared in Rolling Stone, addresses what he calls the “GOP’s stealth war against voters.” The aforementioned Crosscheck Program appears front and center in Palast’s analysis, and a key passage in his article governs the purging of voter records predominately among non-whites.
We had Mark Swedlund, a database expert whose clients include eBay and American Express, look at the data from Georgia and Virginia, and he was shocked by Crosscheck’s “childish methodology.” He added, “God forbid your name is Garcia, of which there are 858,000 in the U.S., and your first name is Joseph or Jose. You’re probably suspected of voting in 27 states.”
Swedlund’s statistical analysis found that African-American, Latino and Asian names predominate, a simple result of the Crosscheck matching process, which spews out little more than a bunch of common names. No surprise: The U.S. Census data shows that minorities are overrepresented in 85 of 100 of the most common last names. If your name is Washington, there’s an 89 percent chance you’re African-American. If your last name is Hernandez, there’s a 94 percent chance you’re Hispanic. If your name is Kim, there’s a 95 percent chance you’re Asian.
This inherent bias results in an astonishing one in six Hispanics, one in seven Asian-Americans and one in nine African-Americans in Crosscheck states landing on the list. Was the program designed to target voters of color? “I’m a data guy,” Swedlund says. “I can’t tell you what the intent was. I can only tell you what the outcome is. And the outcome is discriminatory against minorities.”
Now, does this correlation prove causation? Well, no, correlation never does, and furthermore, can produce false positives. For the sake of a classical example, ice cream sales and violent crime are strongly positively correlated—not because the ne’er-do-wells among us have a sweet tooth, mind you—but because both ice cream sales and violent crime become more frequent when it’s hot out. This is to say that there is a confounding variable. Still, even if we can’t prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that the Crosscheck Program is blatantly discriminatory, that its performance in producing arrests is so poor in spite of allegations of widespread malfeasance is reason enough to put the program into question. Of course, another way to look at this matter is to say that Crosscheck is doing a fine job of deterring fraud. It’s a stupid way to look at it, but it’s another way. You can’t prevent rampant fraud when it doesn’t exist in the first place.
So, voter suppression methods like the Crosscheck Program don’t actually root out voter fraud. Furthermore, they produce results which serve to discriminate against minorities of all makes and models. Beyond the wastefulness and the unfairness of this all, is there a yet larger significance? You bet your patootie, there is! Let’s check in with our friend Greg Palast again, and review a piece he penned immediately after the 2016 election. You see, Palast is an investigative journalist, and through his analysis of Donald Trump’s margins of victory in key battleground states such as Arizona, Michigan, and North Carolina alongside the figures of purged voting records from each of these jurisdictions, he concluded—not merely to be grandiose or inflammatory—that the Republican Party and Trump’s operatives helped steal the election. Chief among those operatives is none other than—you guessed it—Kris Kobach, and Crosscheck is also waiting in the weeds. Moreover, as Palast details, this voter suppression explains in large part why exit polls on the day of the election could have been so poorly predictive of the actual results. As he instructs, exit polls can only assess who voted for whom. They can’t, meanwhile, know whose vote was counted and whose vote was not. Indeed, Greg Palast asserts that based on the evidence, it was Jim Crow, not the voters, who elected Trump. He sums up his thoughts nicely with the following:
This country is violently divided, but in the end, there simply aren’t enough white guys to elect Trump nor a Republican Senate. The only way they could win was to eliminate the votes of non-white guys—and they did so by tossing Black provisional ballots into the dumpster, ID laws that turn away students—the list goes on. It’s a web of complex obstacles to voting by citizens of color topped by that lying spider, Crosscheck.
In short, the fix was in. Granted, this doesn’t excuse the poor strategy employed by Hillary Clinton, her campaign, and the Democratic National Committee, nor does it exculpate the Democratic Party of its larger structural flaws re its losses in congressional races, but it certainly adds context. And it provides a point of focus for political activists across the political spectrum in the critical area of election reform. Because when elections are stolen, we all lose.
Assuming Greg Palast’s analysis is correct—and I have no reason to doubt it, mind you—and given what we know of Donald Trump, Kris Kobach, and the Republican Party, the considerations within this piece are markedly frustrating. Trump is a fraud masquerading as a legitimate President—who, backed by Kobach, is pushing a voter suppression agenda masquerading as a legitimate operation to deter and eliminate fraud. The layers of illegitimacy are both astounding and aggravating. Cue the #NotMyPresident and #NotMyCommission hashtags. What makes the very existence of the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity all the more irksome is that while some of us who are just average citizens and not even all that well versed in the subject of voting rights get that this operation is a sham, more Secretaries of State who do possess the requisite experience and, furthermore, are charged with safeguarding the sensitive identifying information of their constituents aren’t likewise telling Trump and Co. to go jump in the ocean. Even if states are pledging only to share information that is already available to the public and nothing more, that they would give the Commission credence is either a symbol of their complicity, their incompetence, or both. The same goes for those states and Secretaries of State who are “still reviewing” the request or “still waiting” for a letter—and you can add their symbolic cowardice to the mix of what their response or lack thereof may represent.
This commission and the Interstate Voter Registration Crosscheck Registration are just two examples of devices and techniques which serve to actively bar/suppress voter turnout or otherwise purge legitimate voters from minority communities. Denying the vote to felons, disinformation campaigns, photo ID laws, strategic closure of polling places, and voter caging are just some of the methods employed to this effect. Returning to the concept of Democratic Party electoral approach, while the Dems definitely should be criticized for adhering to a losing strategy denoted by the absence of a unified path forward and for failure to credibly invite progressives and working-class Americans to the table, that they are not more robustly fighting this aspect of a white conservative Republican agenda only speaks to their questionable priorities, i.e. big-ticket donations and special interests over true grassroots fundraising and organization. In other words, they don’t give a shit about the little guy much more than the Republicans do—if at all.
As usual, meaningful change in this area will have to come from the bottom-up, not to sound like too much of a Bernie Sanders supporter. We as voters must keep one another informed and demand accountability from our officials on matters of voting rights and voter suppression for the sake of all voters, and maintain this involvement and pressure on those charged with ensuring our privacy and the sanctity of the voting process throughout our campaign and theirs. Donald Trump’s election integrity commission is a crock of shit because he is pointing to a level of voter fraud that doesn’t exist, but this doesn’t mean our system is perfect and that there aren’t important issues to address. Far from it, in fact.
I consider my father to be an intelligent individual. Before recently retiring, he worked for several decades as an accountant, and toward the end of his gainful employment, he also served as a human resources director of sorts, absorbing most of the functions that a full-time, HR-exclusive professional would for a small business. He is quick-witted, has a good sense of humor, and continually tries to improve himself by challenging himself physically and mentally. With respect to politics, however, I feel his judgment lately is somewhat suspect, especially as it errs on the side of the conservative. My parents are both lifelong Democrats, and at one point, Dad even joked that he would vote for an ax murderer if he were a Democrat rather than a Republican. (My father does not deny outright that he said this, but he does not admit it either, and legitimately or not, claims not to remember this statement.)
With this personal political history in mind, it caused the rest of the family great concern earlier in the 2016 presidential campaign when Dad said he was considering voting for Donald Trump. For someone on the Republican ticket, Trump’s legacy as a conservative was notably lacking, so the idea that the family patriarch would be considering a vote for a GOP candidate was not immediately so alarming. His apparent support for Trump, a grade-A asshole, meanwhile, was. Mom, an avowed believer in Hillary Clinton, if for no other reason than wanting to see a woman become President, belabored the point whenever the election or politics came up. Dad responded by saying that he liked Trump because he was straightforward and “not a politician.” On this note, I agreed that politicians and politics as usual had justifiably driven resistance to “establishment” or “mainstream” figures within both parties, and thereby had helped fuel the billionaire’s appeal. But electing Donald Trump as President of the United States, I argued, was like, because you didn’t enjoy Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, burning down the whole library in protest. Even as a symbolic gesture, a vote for Trump was a vote for hate and a vote against reason and, you know, actually being qualified for one’s intended office.
Eventually, my father began to sour on Donald Trump, not so much because of his intended policies—or lack thereof—but mostly with respect to his denigration of women. As good as any reason not to cast a vote for the man, as far as I was concerned. To wit, I don’t know who Dad voted for this past November. All I know is that since the election and in the months since, every time a discussion of a remotely political nature has threatened to rear its head in our house, he has sought to put the kibosh on it, plaintively asking, “Do we have to talk about politics?” Accordingly, it is pretty rare that my father makes any political commentary unsolicited. (His social commentary is more regular, though no less disturbing, particularly as it concerns anti-feminist attitudes or criticisms of appeals to diversity and political correctness.)
One area where Dad has been notably vocal, though, and a point on which I patently disagree with him, is the subject of unions and other professional organizations. Whether it is because of his experience in the human resources realm or in spite of it, or even related to my mother’s dealings with union representation (Mom is a registered nurse), I can’t say for sure, but suffice it to say, Pops believes unions are “ruining this country.” Harsh words, but Dad is certainly not alone in his antipathy to these organizations. In 2013, Al Lewis, now-business editor of The Houston Chronicle and then-Dow Jones Newswires reporter, Wall Street Journal columnist, and writer for MarketWatch, explored America’s distaste for unions alongside their apparent acceptance or tacit compliance of many with standard operating procedure for corporations and the executives who manage them. Lewis describes the psychology of anti-union sentiment:
Unions…could counter many of the economic injustices that plague America. Unfortunately, unions have lost their power to do so. Union membership in the private sector is down to 6.6 percent of all workers, [a] Bureau of Labor Statistics report showed. In the public sector, 35.9 percent of all employees remain unionized.
This is why, as Americans, we often view unions as a cause of higher taxes. We also are still wondering where the mob buried former Teamster boss Jimmy Hoffa. We sense a more subtle form of institutional corruption in the unions’ alignment with mostly Democratic politicians. We detest the extra layer of bureaucracy unions add to any workplace. And we suspect that it can kill business.
The pension liabilities some companies have amassed in past union negotiations simply blow our minds. And we are uncomfortable with the idea of monkeys running a zoo instead of zookeepers. So by now, most Americans have decided they don’t want to be in a union, even if the decline of unions correlates to the decline of the middle class.
The perception of union leaders as not merely working with political leaders, but for them or in cahoots with them, certainly would seem to work against acceptance of the abstract concept of unions in the United States, as does the image of the union leader earning a comparatively exorbitant salary next to the members of the organization he or she represents, or unions lobbying for their pensions even with many states and municipalities in a state of financial turmoil. More than mere politics or even morality, however, Al Lewis speaks to implicitly-held theories of leadership and who or what types of individuals are capable of leading groups of workers. “We are uncomfortable with the idea of monkeys running a zoo instead of zookeepers.”
Right there, we have a sense of the larger and more pervasive attitude toward those at the top of the hierarchy and those forming the base of the pyramid. Those at the top are presumed to have superior management and leadership skills, not to mention acumen in their given field. Those at the bottom are presumed to be deficient in such skills, drones born to follow rather than lead. Especially as it concerns trade professionals, there exists a stereotype of the blue-collar worker as fat, lazy, stupid, or all three. You know the idea—the plumber crouched over his work, his rear-end barely concealed by his briefs and sagging jeans. There is undoubtedly a perception gap when it comes to these two groups, a phenomenon further expounded upon by Lewis to conclude his piece:
Americans hate organized labor, but somehow they do not hate organized management. As the labor unions have declined, professional corporate managers have formed increasingly powerful guilds of their own. They belong to elite groups, such as the Business Roundtable or the Trilateral Commission, to name a couple. Many are even having a little cabal in Davos, Switzerland this week. What? You thought that was about improving the world? This is how they end up on each other’s boards, approving each others’ compensation packages.
In this subtle way, CEOs have built the most successful union in all of history. You ask a company why it pays its CEO so much, and the answer is always because it is what all the other CEOs get paid. All the other CEOs who sit on each others’ boards, that is.
It is the greatest spin job in all of economics and politics. When someone making $943 a week tries to organize, and fend for their own economic interests, Americans have been conditioned to call it socialism. But when someone making several hundred thousand dollars a week does it, they call it free enterprise.
The many, in other words, look up to the few, and as part of this aspirational model, look down upon their present station, or simply down upon those who they believe exist at a lower echelon than them. In the context of unions, when workers organize and try to buck the paradigm of the survival of the fittest paradigm, we have been conditioned to view it as a violation and an aberration rather than the way things should work. As Mr. Lewis intimates, somehow we have been led to associate the activities of professional organizations with greed and excess, or even asking for something undeserved, when executive compensation packages continue to reach obscene levels, even in the face of scandal. Simply put, the American people, by and large, seem to have it backwards when it comes to how they regard the balance of power in our society.
So, yes, likewise simply put, public support for unions has been on the decline, as has participation from workers in those professions who might stand to become or remain members. As of the date of publication of Al Lewis’s article, union membership was down to 11.3% of all workers, a level the author notes is the lowest the United States of America has seen since the Great Depression. Rarely are comparisons to the Great Depression ever a good thing for trends involving employment and labor. This historical perspective alongside current negative feelings about organized labor forms the backdrop for the much-politicized battle over the responsibilities and rights of workers in relation to unions, often correlating with party affiliation. Journalist and academic Thomas Edsall, in an op-ed appearing in The New York Times back in 2014, phrased this succinctly with the very title of his essay, “Republicans Sure Love to Hate Unions.” Edsall elaborates on the depth of the GOP’s war on unions as fueled by stronger conservatives within its ranks:
Republicans are willing to go to great lengths to weaken the union movement, especially at the state level. Even as the strength of organized labor as a whole declines, conservatives view unions that represent public sector employees, in particular, as anathema. They are desperate to gut the power of the 7.2 million organized government workers — who range from teachers, to clerks in the Department of Motor Vehicles, to social workers, public hospital employees, meat and poultry inspectors, road workers, property tax auditors and civil servants in general. These are the employees who populate the extensive bureaucracies that the right loathes.
Those familiar with the evolution of the Republican Party over the past few decades should not see this reality as much of a surprise. The GOP has become unflinchingly pro-business in its adoption of fiscally and socially conservative positions, to a fault and to the extent that they have sought to undermine regulations on corporations, other businesses, and whole industries (e.g. banking and finance) because they view them as bad for business. Unions, seen as a constraint of a different sort and emblematic of the type of bureaucracy conservatives always claim to want to bypass, are therefore a prime target for Republican lawmakers and state leaders. Three Republican governors in particular are cited for their anti-labor hostility and posturing in Edsall’s op-ed. The first is Scott Walker, Wisconsin governor and early 2016 presidential race dropout. The second is Rick Snyder, Michigan governor, who we now know was a key player in the lead-filled dumpster fire that is Flint’s water crisis. The last is my personal favorite, New Jersey governor Chris Christie, whose administration engineered Bridgegate and who has gone after the teachers’ union with fetishistic fury. Many people, myself included, would characterize actions taken by all three during their tenures, especially those leading to the crisis in Flint, as reprehensible. Does this necessarily mean that their positions on unions are therefore wrong? Well, no. But let me tell you—it doesn’t inspire a great deal of confidence either.
Again, the Republican resistance to union participation shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. The Democrats’ failure to meet this war on organized labor in kind, however, is vaguely disappointing, though perhaps not altogether surprising either, if you understand the schism within the Democratic Party between its establishment wing replete with big-money donors, and its progressive wing predicated on grassroots funding and organizing, as well as advocacy for a $15 minimum wage, among other things. Thomas Edsall puts the nature of the Democrats’ weak defense of unions in blunt terms: “If Republicans and conservatives place a top priority on eviscerating labor unions, what is the Democratic Party doing to protect this core constituency? Not much.” In saying as much, Edsall points to the Obama administration’s undermining “of the bargaining power of the most successful unions by imposing a 40% excise tax, which takes effect in 2018, on health insurance premiums in excess of $10,200 annually for individuals, and $27,500 for families, in order to finance Obamacare.” These so-called “Cadillac plans,” Edsall continues, intended as a luxury tax of sorts, are seen by labor leaders as threats to health insurance benefits that various unions have had to fight for with executive management of companies. As one labor leader quoted within the piece opines, non-union and union workers alike will be hurt by these plans, with non-union workers in particular at risk of having their benefits slashed and their deductibles skyrocket. To put this in different terms, and as far as labor groups are concerned, with “friends” like the 40% tax, who needs enemies?
It should be stressed that this Thomas Edsall piece was published in 2014, before the rise of Donald Trump. Even then, the Democratic Party was being lectured by Edsall and others to “neglect the union movement at their own peril.” Accordingly, Edsall’s closing paragraphs seem duly ominous, if not presaging the disaster of a Trump presidency outright:
Even when the party had full control of both houses of Congress and the White House in 2009, Democrats gave a less than halfhearted effort to pass labor’s top priority: legislation that would make elections for union representation easier. Democratic strategists looking toward the future are focused on “the rising American electorate” — single women, minorities and the young, with no reference to labor.
At the same time, many voters in the Republican electorate are themselves middle and low income. In 2014, 67 percent of those who cast Republican ballots earned less than $100,000 in household income; 30.4 percent made less than $50,000. Republicans face their own problems remaining competitive in presidential elections, which will only worsen if they do not strengthen their support among these less affluent voters.
But even with labor unions no longer the force they were — and in fact in part because of their decline — the pressure will fall on both parties to more effectively represent the interests and rights of economically struggling voters, who at some point will refuse to tolerate their eroding income and lack of opportunity.
Translation: people are going to get pissed, and will vote accordingly. In acknowledging this effect, I, in the same breath, acknowledge that there was—as crazy as might seem at first glance—a slice of the American electorate that went from casting their ballots for Barack Obama in 2012 to turning out for Trump in 2016. Their numbers are not insignificant, but as Sean McElwee argues, focusing on this relatively small subset of 2016 election voters obscures the real trend that should be garnering Democrats’ attention, particularly those more entrenched members of the establishment. Where Donald Trump and his campaign succeeded, and where Hillary Clinton, her campaign, and Democrats including Obama have failed to manage, is mobilizing those who should be among their base to the polls. McElwee attributes a large part of this failure of the Dems to their reluctance to make voting rights a priority for various groups, a problem exacerbated by Republicans’ efforts to nullify any inherent advantages with these blocs. He explains:
When Republicans take power, their first priorities are voter suppression and right-to-work, their second is to destroy the capacity of government to aid working families and their third is to turn the government into a patronage machine for wealthy whites. Democrats have failed to understand that in order to win, they must do the opposite. Voting rights must be a priority, and policies should strengthen the ability of working people to organize and mobilize.
“Working people.” Sean McElwee highlights them above any other segment of the Democratic Party’s core supporters, at least traditionally speaking, and references to their “organizing” clearly invokes the importance of unions. From there, or perhaps even concurrently, Democratic leadership must invite workers and sympathetic activist/progressive groups to the table. As McElwee sees the matter, this is the only path forward for a successful Democratic Party, or to quote him directly, “Party elites will have to cede some power to make this happen.” If recent party history is any indication for the Democrats, this is easier said than done.
In terms of the first priorities of the GOP underscored by McElwee in his piece and quoted above, the voter suppression angle probably isn’t that hard to understand. Numerous articles have been written about the “real” voting scandal of 2016: not the closeness of the vote in certain swing states begging a recount, not even the possible hacking of voting machines and other Russian interference in the presidential election, but voter suppression at the hands of Republicans determined to try to widen their advantage over Democrats at the polls, including by limiting opportunities of people of color to vote and creating unnecessary hurdles for them to cast their ballots. (Together with gerrymandering, these are issues of considerable importance that do not get nearly the attention they should.) Right-to-work, meanwhile, is a concept that is likely unfamiliar to the average voter, especially one from a state that does not have such a law on the books. The term “right-to-work” sounds pretty benign in it of itself. Should people have a right to work? Sure, why not? Let’s rubber stamp the bill along and call it a day, shall we?
Not so fast. It would be bad enough if “right-to-work” was a form of euphemistic language—you know, in the way “civil asset forfeiture” is another way of saying “the police gets to take your shit if you’re at all implicated in a crime and without proof of wrongdoing or even being charged.” But it’s more than that—it’s a complete misnomer. Right-to-work has nothing to go with the right to work. The University of Missouri–Kansas City recently featured a profile on right-to-work legislation in the University News, UMKC’s independent student newspaper. First, the editorial defines the term and gives context to the political debate surrounding it:
Right to work legislation prohibits unions from requiring that dues or fees be paid by all employees that it represents. This usually has the effect of weakening labor organization, as unions will have less financial power to fight for higher wages or benefits such as health care. Additionally, so-called “free riders” can take advantage of the workplace protections and benefits without contributing to the unions that acquire them. Conversely, proponents say that job growth increases because businesses prefer to operate in states with right to work laws.
Data can usually be spun by either side to support or reject the claims of the other. There is no firm consensus by economists or statisticians on the effects of right to work, as it cannot be easily isolated from other factors such as variable standards of living or the economic recovery following the recession. In general it increases job growth and in general it decreases wages, all usually in tandem with other pro-business and anti-labor policies. This is a subject where hard, unbiased data is scarce and so the debate devolves into opposing ideological and political arguments. Therefore, right to work legislation probably makes less impact as an economic policy than it does as a political call-to-arms.
This University News profile, whether to be merely diplomatic about the matter, or because it legitimately wants to be cautious because of the purported lack of “hard, unbiased data” on right-to-work legislation, describes its economic impact with an air of neutrality. Still, certain elements of this synopsis scream out to the liberal and progressive reading it and suggest a negative connotation. “Has the effect of weakening labor organization.” “‘Free riders’ can take advantage…without contributing.” “Decreases wages.” “Anti-labor.” Sure, job growth may occur, but seemingly chiefly because companies prefer to operate in climates that are favorable to business and let them take advantage of workers in their own right; job number increases, after all, would mean little when the quality of the positions being added is suspect. However you slice it, that businesses would lobby and Republican politicians would craft policy in favor of right-to-work doesn’t appear to be an accident, especially not in light of the aforementioned war on unions perpetrated by the Republican Party.
This same profile, on the other hand, invokes visions of “danger” as well as cites some guy named Martin Luther King, Jr. in capturing the antipathy held by labor leaders and others toward right-to-work policy. The danger, as the UMKC student staff behind the article have identified, is “in inciting political will to elect those with an interest in supporting big business,” and that it “also attracts those businesses’ donations.” As for MLK, he was downright foreboding about the concept in the abstract. As quoted within the feature:
In our glorious fight for civil rights, we must guard against being fooled by false slogans, such as “right to work.” It is a law to rob us of our civil rights and job rights.
Leave it to a man assassinated, presumably for his views on matters of not only racial inequality, but income and wealth inequality, to put things in perspective and give the matter its due weight. Even then, King and others saw the importance of protecting labor from the machinations of big business and the politicians who aid and abet corporate attempts to shrink union representation. Sure, they may not have been statisticians with “hard, unbiased data” at their disposal—but perhaps they didn’t need to crunch numbers to see the writing on the wall.
For those who have crunched the numbers, meanwhile, the evidence for why right-to-work legislation is problematic for rank-and-file workers regardless of political or union affiliation is that much more compelling. In 2011, Elise Gould and Heidi Shierholz authored a report for the Economic Policy Institute on the “compensation penalty” of right-to-work laws, finding that wages, the rate of employer-sponsored health insurance, and employer-sponsored pensions were all significantly lower in states that had these laws on the books. Sure, this is just one study, and the EPI does lean more to the left, but the comprehensiveness of the report alone suggests Gould and Shierholz might be on to something.
The historical implications of right-to-work legislation only magnify its problematic nature. Michael Pierce, associate professor at the University of Arkansas, directly ties right-to-work to the South’s prejudicial past (and sometimes present) and deliberate attempts to disenfranchise Jews and people of color. From his January 2017 essay:
As Kentucky legislators pass a measure outlawing the union shop and Missouri’s General Assembly contemplates doing the same, it is worth remembering that so-called Right-to-Work laws originated as means to maintain Jim Crow labor relations and to beat back what was seen as a Jewish cabal to foment a revolution. No one was more important in placing Right-to-Work on the conservatives’ political agenda than Vance Muse of the Christian American Association, a larger-than-life Texan whose own grandson described him as “a white supremacist, an anti-Semite, and a Communist-baiter, a man who beat on labor unions not on behalf of working people, as he said, but because he was paid to do so.”
OK, you’re thinking, Vance Muse was just one man from one Christian organization. That doesn’t necessarily mean much. No, but when it inspires whole states, their governors, and their legislators to pursue right-to-work legislation specifically to marginalize unions and their members, this is more than just the trivial misdeeds of one man. Pierce closes his piece with these thoughts:
The Arkansas Farm Bureau Federation and allied industrialists were so pleased with the Christian American Association’s success in passing the anti-strike measure that they agreed to underwrite a campaign in 1944 to secure a Right-to-Work amendment for the Arkansas constitution. This placed Arkansas alongside Florida and California as the first states where voters could cast ballots for Right-to-Work laws. While Muse and the Christian Americans consulted with the campaigns in California and Florida, they led the one in Arkansas.
During the Arkansas campaign, the Christian Americans insisted that right-to-work was essential for the maintenance of the color line in labor relations. One piece of literature warned that if the amendment failed “white women and white men will be forced into organizations with black African apes . . . whom they will have to call ‘brother’ or lose their jobs.” Similarly, the Arkansas Farm Bureau Federation justified its support of Right-to-Work by citing organized labor’s threat to Jim Crow. It accused the CIO of “trying to pit tenant against landlord and black against white.”
In November 1944, Arkansas and Florida became the first states to enact Right-to-Work laws (California voters rejected the measure). In both states, few blacks could cast free ballots, election fraud was rampant, and political power was concentrated in the hands of an elite. Right-to-Work laws sought to make it stay that way, to deprive the least powerful of a voice, and to make sure that workers remained divided along racial lines. The current push for Right-to-Work in Kentucky and Missouri (along with the fueling of nativism) does something similar—it is an attempt to persuade white working people that unions and racialized others are more responsible for their plight than the choices made by capital.
Two things jump out here. The first is that there is a pronounced racist component to right-to-work—even if modern-day conservatives and Republicans downplay that factor. This may be a case of guilty by association, but Rep. Steve King, now-infamous white nationalist, loves right-to-work. Loves it. King loves it so much that he re-introduced legislation in the House to institute a National Right to Work Act. Where there’s smoke, there tends to be fire, and when there’s bad policy with the specter of racism looming, there tends to be Steve King. Just saying. The second is the mentality that connects to the earlier consideration of Americans “hating unions more than CEOs.” Anti-labor, anti-immigrant—it’s all part of the same classist soup that corporations and the wealthy use to depress the working class by turning them on themselves. Divide and conquer—a page straight out of the GOP playbook.
Given the efforts of Republican Party and industry leaders to weaken the rights of labor, in accordance with any number of factors that lend themselves to lower union enrollment numbers and fewer dues being paid, it would seem that the Democratic Party, a party which preaches inclusiveness and fighting for “the little guy,” would exhibit a more robust, if not more cohesive, challenge to the erosion of the bargaining power of the working class amid the erosion of manufacturing jobs. Owing largely to its own moneyed interests, however, the Democrats are currently primarily a fundraising operation, and only secondarily a defender and mobilizer of organized labor, allowing Republicans to undercut them in individual elections such as the 2016 presidential election, as well as threaten their political support from unions by taking labor group endorsements all but for granted. To reiterate the words of Thomas Edsall, however, they do so at their own peril. As Edsall notes, the Democratic percentage among union voters has consistently stayed in the 60% range for the past two decades, Not only is organized labor making up a smaller and smaller part of the general electorate, though, but Republicans continue to win local, state and federal offices despite changing demographics which should favor the Dems. If Democrats can’t even get into office, let alone do something about the strength of unions and their ability to organize, it paints a pretty grim picture for the working class in the United States.
Right-to-work: it has nothing to do with the right to work, nor is it right for workers, union or not. And if nothing is done to form a coalition to resist attempts to disempower unions and those workers who would join their ranks, we could be on our way back to the days and ways of the robber barons sooner than we think—if we aren’t there already.