Imperfections

While American democracy is imperfect, few outside the majority of this Court would have thought its flaws included a dearth of corporate money in politics.

— Justice John Paul Stevens,
dissenting opinion in Citizens United (2010)

This week’s featured post is “Say — you want a revolution?

This week I finally decided to vote for Bernie

You’ve seen me wrestle with this the last two weeks. On most issues, I agree with Bernie more than Hillary. But I also think the difference between the two is tiny compared to the difference between any Democratic candidate and any Republican candidate. (We can, for example, argue about whether Bernie’s ideas for breaking up the big banks are better or worse than Clinton’s plans to strengthen the Dodd-Frank regulations of Wall Street. But Republican candidates want to repeal Dodd-Frank, and go back to the system we had in 2008.) And I believe Clinton is the stronger general-election candidate for a number of reasons.

But for me the decisive factor comes back to what I wrote when I covered Sanders’ announcement statement back in May:

I think it’s way too early to make the unite-behind-a-winner argument. There has to be some point in the electoral process where people express their consciences and vote their ideals. Otherwise, the horse-race mentality becomes self-stoking: People won’t support a candidate they agree with because he can’t win, and he can’t win because the people who agree with him won’t support him.

It’s still too early. I want everyone to know that there is substantial support for more radical solutions than we’ve been offered in past election cycles. I want Clinton to know that if she’s the nominee in the fall. I want the media to know that, so they won’t take seriously Republican claims that Hillary is some kind of left-wing extremist, or that her positions are as far left as public discussion ever needs to go. I want the next set of Democratic presidential candidates to know that, so liberals will be emboldened to run and moderates will take their left flank into account.

My decision was made easier by Hillary’s narrow win in Iowa (which was not decided by coin flips — how do these things get started?). If she had suffered a surprising loss, especially a large loss, then another large loss in New Hampshire (which the polls are predicting) might send her campaign into a death spiral. I wouldn’t want to feel responsible for that.

As for those of you who vote later in the process, I don’t think my decision tells you much. I think pragmatism should be an increasingly important factor as the campaign goes on. Which way that pushes you and how that weighs against your idealism is something we all have to decide for ourselves.

but I wasn’t the only Democrat talking politics this week

The one thing that makes me nostalgic for the days when Hillary was supposed to coast to the nomination is the level of Democrat-on-Democrat belligerence I’m seeing. Given the people I hang with, I’m seeing it mostly as attacks on Hillary by Bernie supporters, but I’m told it goes both ways.

If I had the power to make a rule for the rest of the Democratic nomination process it would be this: Don’t repeat Republican rhetoric.

So Sanders supporters should not be gleefully finishing the character assassination that Richard Mellon Scaife’s right-wing Arkansas Project started against the Clintons in the 1990s. If you don’t trust Hillary, fine. But recognize that the Hillary-can’t-be-trusted meme dates back to a series of crap scandals that fell apart when their details came out, which nonetheless have left a grungy film on her image. (In last week’s episode of the TV show Billions, a lawyer explains the ineffectiveness of refuting a false charge after it makes headlines: “If someone says Charlie fucked a goat, even if the goat denies it, he goes to the grave as Charlie the Goat Fucker.”) If you refer vaguely to that untrustworthy image, rather than to specific Clinton statements you have specific reasons not to believe, you’re making use of Scaife’s propaganda.

The emails, BTW, are just the latest crap scandal. Last week I wondered whether similar security violations would show up in the emails of past secretaries of state, if anybody examined them through the same magnifying glass. Apparently, somebody else wondered that too, and it turns out they do.


Similarly, it’s fine for Clinton supporters to wish for more details about how Sanders would pay for his programs. But the notion that they can’t be paid for buys into the taxes-are-already-as-high-as-they-could-possibly-go message that Republicans have been trying to convince of us for decades.

Likewise, any kind of red-baiting should be off the table: Sanders’ policies are what they are and if  you want to criticize them on their merits, fine. But criticizing them because you have managed to attach a socialist or communist label to them … leave that to the Republicans. And if his defense policies don’t seem muscular enough for you, that’s a legitimate thing to discuss. But don’t imply that Sanders is somehow disloyal or doesn’t want to defend America. That’s Ted Cruz rhetoric.


I’m similarly disturbed by the Hillary-is-a-warmonger charge that gets thrown around. (That’s not Republican rhetoric, but the more it catches on, the harder it’s going to be to unite Democrats in the fall.) Admittedly, there is a policy difference between Hillary and Bernie: Hillary is likely to spend more on defense than Bernie, and to use American power more forcefully. And it’s worth taking into account that Hillary voted to authorize the Iraq War while Bernie opposed it.

But if you listen to the speech she gave in 2002 during the Senate debate on the authorization resolution, it’s not a rah-rah war speech.

This course if fraught with danger. … If we were to attack Iraq now, alone or with few allies, it would set a precedent that would come back to haunt us. In recent days, Russia has talked of an invasion of Georgia to attack Chechen rebels, India has mentioned the possibility of a preemptive strike on Pakistan, and what if China were to perceive a threat from Taiwan?

So, Mr. President, for all its appeal, a unilateral attack (while it cannot be ruled out) on the present facts is not a good option.

She supports the resolution in order to give President Bush all possible tools to pressure Saddam Hussein into compliance with UN inspections. So her 2002 position reflects the same approach to conflict that as Secretary of State she initiated (and Secretary Kerry completed) with regard to Iran: increasing pressure of all sorts to get the desired outcome without fighting. “I take the President at his word,” she says — that word being that Bush would do everything possible to disarm Saddam without war. That was her mistake.

Also, look at her husband’s administration: We didn’t fight a major land war during those eight years. (As The Onion put it after Bush replaced Clinton: “Our long national nightmare of peace and prosperity is finally over.”) Bombing was part of a ring-of-pressure that ended Serbia’s genocide against Bosnia and Kosovo, and forced the fall (and eventual war-crimes trial) of President Milosevic without a U.S. invasion. Actually, Bill Clinton’s most suspect military decision was the war he didn’t fight: He didn’t try to stop the Rwandan genocide.

So is a vote for Clinton a vote for war? I really don’t think so.

and New Hampshire is inundated with politicians

The Onion reports: “Plows Working Around Clock To Keep New Hampshire Roads Clear Of Campaign Signs”. It’s a joke, but that’s really what it feels like. I’m ready to unplug my phone.

Blogger Chuck Fager reflects on what the great New Hampshire poet Robert Frost might have said about all this.

Polls are predicting a large Sanders win in New Hampshire. But after that things really get interesting. So far, Sanders hasn’t shown much support from non-whites, who aren’t much of a factor in either Iowa or New Hampshire. But Hispanics are a large percentage of the Democrats in Nevada (caucus February 20) and blacks are the majority among Democrats in South Carolina (February 27 primary).

Even though those states currently look good for Clinton, it’s not unreasonable to expect Sanders to start picking up non-white support. Blacks were slow to warm to Barack Obama’s candidacy in 2008, but they did eventually come through for him. Sanders has already been endorsed by a few prominent blacks like Ben Jealous and Cornell West. Bill Clinton’s role in creating the mass-incarceration problem might start working against Hillary, even though her current positions on the issue are pretty good.

For what my opinion is worth — after all, I’m a white guy with a mostly white circle of friends, and so far I’ve refused to put my black and Hispanic acquaintances on the spot to represent their people — I suspect that belonging to an discriminated-against minority tends to make a voter cautious. Feeling like you have the freedom to fall in love with an idealistic-but-impractical candidate might be a symptom of privilege, comparable to a college student majoring in art history rather than business or engineering. If that’s the case, then Bernie can hope for a snowball effect with non-white voters: The more support he gets, the more viable he looks to people who will only support a viable candidate.

Or maybe the snowball will melt in Nevada and South Carolina, as snowballs tend to do.


As for the Republicans, Trump is expected to win, but beyond that things are unpredictable. As I predicted last week, the media decided that Rubio’s third-place finish in Iowa gave him momentum. But he had a truly embarrassing debate Saturday night, suffering mostly at the hands of Chris Christie, who was supposed to be fading. Some polls have John Kasich gaining.


A neurologist takes a whack at explaining why Ted Cruz creeps people out. He has “atypical” facial expressions: “Senator Cruz’s countenance doesn’t shift the way I expect typical faces to move.”

That doesn’t necessarily mean he’s insincere or psychopathic, but if watching him just makes you feel uneasy, that’s probably why. Tech-savvy people have joked that Cruz falls into the “uncanny valley” — that region of animation where human characters are accurate enough to seem like they ought to be human, but instead are just unnerving.

but there are advantages

So many important political people show up in New Hampshire just before the primary that you can have some really interesting encounters. (On election night in 2008, for example, I realized that the guy standing behind me at the bar was Senator Durbin.)

Last weekend, the local get-money-out-of-politics group, NH Rebellion, held a conference in Manchester. Both Hillary and Bernie were there, along with Kasich. (Trump was on the schedule, but I never heard whether he showed up or what he said.)

Somehow, maybe because hardly anybody else who got the email realized what a unique opportunity it was, or were just distracted by all their other opportunities, I wound at a table in a coffee shop with Rep. John Sarbanes, my own congressional representative (Annie Kuster), and half a dozen other people. Sarbanes — if the name rings a bell, you might be remembering his father the senator — is the guy in Congress leading the fight for the Government By the People Act, which is a way to do public financing of campaigns without a constitutional amendment and without running afoul of the Supreme Court. (It reflects a lot of the ideas Lawrence Lessig has been pushing.)

I’ll be talking about the merits of that proposal in future weeks, but for now I just want you to bookmark John Sarbanes, because he looks a lot like a future presidential candidate. He’s handsome, personable, smart, and relates well to small groups. He’s also on the right side of a major issue, and got there early.

One of the things Sarbannes described over coffee was how he’s been getting more congresspeople to talk about campaign finance reform (which the conventional wisdom has said for years that voters don’t care about; it’s an inside-baseball topic). He says he tells his colleagues not to talk about campaign finance instead of their usual issues, but to use it to “caffeinate” their usual issues: Instead of saying “we need to do something about climate change”, say “we need to do something about climate change and what’s stopping us is all the special-interest money lined up on the other side“. [The quotes are approximate; I wasn’t taking notes.]

and you might also be interested in

A federal grand jury has indicted 16 people in the Malheur Wildlife Refuge occupation. LaVoy Finicum, the only occupier who has died, is being hailed as a martyr by the kind of people who need that to be true. Cartoonist Matt Bohrs points out the difference between Finicum and the various young black men who have been gunned down by the authorities.

and let’s close with some north-of-the-border mischief

The Bank of Canada wants local Star Trek fans to stop Spocking their fives.

Say — you want a revolution?

Changing presidents or even changing minds isn’t enough. A real revolution has to change a lot of people’s political identities.


Some years ago, I was at a restaurant a couple blocks from my apartment when that cycle’s Democratic congressional candidate (Katrina Swett, which would make the year 2002) came in to campaign. It was late enough that most of the lunch traffic had left already, so shaking every hand in the room didn’t take her very long.

After the candidate left, our waitress — a pleasant young woman who had been doing a perfectly fine job as far as I and my friend were concerned — came over with an inquisitive look on her face. I thought she was going to ask us whether we knew anything about Swett, and whether she would be a good person to represent us in Washington. Instead, she asked whether we knew anything about Congress. “Is it, like, important or something?”

I’m not particularly good at answering a fundamental question when I was expecting a specific one, so let’s just say that I doubt my pearls of wisdom changed her life, or even that she remembers me at all. But I’ve remembered her ever since.

By telling this story, I don’t mean to denigrate the political sophistication of young adults or the working class or women or any other category that this waitress coincidentally belonged to. But to me, she represents a group that pundits and armchair political strategists often forget: people who just don’t care about politics. They aren’t stupid or any more self-centered than the rest of us, and they aren’t discouraged or embittered or angry. They just look at politics the way other people might look at football or fashion or Game of Thrones: They have never bothered to pay attention to it, and they don’t see that they’re missing out on anything.

It’s hard to say exactly how many such people there are. But certainly they could constitute a significant voting bloc, if they saw any point in it.

The truly silent majority. In a typical presidential election, voter turnout is somewhere between half and two-thirds of the voting-age population. Mid-term congressional elections usually draw less than half of the electorate, and less than a third bother to participate in some state and local elections. (A shade over 30% voted in Kentucky’s recent gubernatorial election, yielding a surprise Republican win.) As you can see from this graph of the turnout in every presidential election since 1824, this phenomenon is nothing new; to see significantly larger turnout, you have to go back to 1900.

So in virtually every contested election in the entire country for the last century, the margin of victory has been less than the number of people who didn’t vote. That massive lack of participation provides a blank wall onto which many people can project their conflicting fantasies.

Like Ted Cruz:

The last election, 2012, 54 million evangelicals stayed home. Fifty-four million. Is it any wonder the federal government is waging a war on life, on marriage, on religious liberty, when Christians are staying home and our leaders are being elected by nonbelievers?

“Imagine instead,” he told the students at Liberty University, “millions of people of faith all across America coming out to the polls and voting our values.”

Real Clear Politics’ election analyst Sean Trende attributed Mitt Romney’s 2012 loss to “the missing white voters“, and argued that the GOP wouldn’t have to work so hard at appealing to Hispanics if it could just raise white turnout.

Wherever you stand on the political spectrum, you can imagine that the apathetic masses only appear not to care about public affairs. Actually, they just haven’t heard the right motivating message: your message. As soon as they do, then everything will start to change.

Heck, some version of this thought pattern occurs even in the fringiest, most radical circles. The armed yahoos who took over that wildlife refuge in Oregon didn’t figure on overpowering the federal government by themselves. They imagined a nation full of anti-government patriots, ready to take up arms as soon as someone was brave enough to sound the clarion call.

When they sounded that call and only a few dozen wackos showed up, I imagine they were pretty surprised.

The discouraged liberal majority. In spite of the daydreams of militiamen and social conservatives, the statistics say that marginal voters trend Democratic. That’s why relatively high-turnout elections like Obama’s first presidential race in 2008 (57.1% of voting-age citizens participated; that would be a low turnout in a lot of other democracies) are good for Democrats, while low-turnout elections, like the midterms in 2010 (41%) and 2014 (36%), strongly favor Republicans. That’s also why Republicans like to make voters jump through hoops: They believe the ones who won’t bother will mostly be Democrats.

Those numbers justify the Great Democratic Turnout Fantasy: If everybody voted, Democrats would win every election, everywhere. The Democratic advantage would be so insurmountable that the Party wouldn’t have to compromise on wedge issues like abortion or gay rights or gun control. Democrats wouldn’t have to pander to powerful interests or rich individuals. They could put the unalloyed New Deal/Great Society message out there and wait for the votes to roll in.

In particular, what if all the young people voted? What if all the women voted? What if all the low-wage workers voted? But we’re zeroing in on my waitress, and that should make us all stop and think: Who are the people who don’t vote, and what level of participation can we reasonably expect out of them?

Levels of engagement. People relate to politics in all sorts of different ways, and devote different levels of energy to it. Here’s a rough categorization, varying according to the depth and quantity of the thought and effort involved.

  • Apostles. These are people who have a political worldview and can lay out their political philosophy — liberal, conservative, anarchist, communist, white supremacist, or whatever. They can state their principles and apply them to whatever issues come up, without any outside guidance.
  • Activists. Some cause — anything from the environment or abortion to something as local as establishing a new park or putting a stoplight on a dangerous corner — got them interested in politics. Their interest in that issue placed them on one side or the other of our deep political polarization, so they have come to identify with other activists on a wide range of issues.
  • Players. Like a sports team, a political party can be part of a personal identity; issues are just opportunities to argue that your team should win. For example: From the end of Reconstruction to the New Deal, the South was solidly Democratic. That wasn’t because the Democratic Party represented a philosophy universally accepted by Southerners. Rather, the Republicans were the party of Yankee invaders (and disenfranchised Negroes), so the Democrats were the home team.
  • Fans. Left to their own devices, many people wouldn’t care about elections. But personal identity connects them to people who do care. When election day gets close, they look to a family member, a minister, a union leader, or some admired public figure to tell them who the good guys are.
  • Impulse voters. These citizens have only a tangential connection to politics. They might not vote, or they might vote for some whimsical reason: They like or dislike a candidate’s face (or, more ominously, race or gender). Or they heard a story that made him/her look good or bad. Or a slogan appealed to them; maybe “Yes We Can” in one election and “Taxed Enough Already” in the next.
  • The alienated. Disinterest in politics can also be part of a personal identity. Politics is some stupid thing that people yell at each other about. Politicians are like televangelists or get-rich-quick swindlers: They’re in it for themselves, and if you pay any attention to them at all you’re just being a sucker.

Most public discussion of politics comes from apostles or activists, and tends to project that level of interest onto non-voters: People don’t vote because the major parties aren’t addressing their issues or speaking to their philosophy. If only we changed our platform or the emphasis of our rhetoric, they’d flock to us.

But I don’t think my waitress had a political agenda in mind, or was turned off when Candidate Swett didn’t speak to it. I believe she was in the low-engagement impulse/alienated region, and honestly had no idea why she should care who went to Congress.

Paradoxes. When you picture non-voters as disgruntled apostles and activists, the world seems full of mysteries: What’s the matter with Kansas? Why do so many working-class whites vote against their economic interests? Why do so many Catholic Hispanics vote for pro-choice Democrats? How can the country whipsaw from a Democratic landslide in 2008 to a Republican landslide in 2010, and then re-elect Obama in 2012?

But while some apostles and activists don’t vote (holding out for a candidate with the proper Chomskyan or Hayekian analysis, I suppose), I believe that the vast majority of non-voters are in the low-engagement categories. You can’t understand turnout without accounting for them.

What’s the matter with the working-class whites? Thomas Frank’s book tells you, if you read carefully: As union membership declined, players and fans who used to identify with their unions (and vote that way) started identifying with their fundamentalist churches (and voting the other way).

Why does the immigration issue worry the Republican establishment so much that they want to pull against their base? Because they see Hispanics developing a team identity and deciding that the Democrats are on their side. If that happens, a lot of impulse and alienated Hispanics (and Asians and Muslims, for similar reasons) will become reliable Democratic players and fans, regardless of other issues.

What happened between 2008 and 2010? Liberal apostles and activists will tell you that Obama betrayed their high ideals. He failed to be the transformational FDR-like leader they had hoped for, and so the excitement they generated in 2008 was gone by 2010. But that should lead to another question: Why didn’t 2010 see a progressive wave similar to the Trump/Cruz/Carson rebellion we’re seeing on the right this year? Why didn’t all the disappointed liberals of 2008 send a more liberal Congress to Washington in 2010, one that would force Obama to come through on the hopes he had raised in 2008?

My answer is that the 2008 wave wasn’t primarily ideological or issue-based. While he presented well-defined positions on major issues and had the support of many thoughtful people, Obama also brought a lot of impulse and alienated voters to the polls on the strength of his personal charm, the Bush administration’s failures, and a message that resonated at a level not much deeper than “Hope and Change”. In 2008, Obama represented not just national health care and ending the Iraq War, but something he could not possibly have delivered: a “new tone in Washington” where politicians would start working together rather than yelling at each other.

Do I wish Obama had pushed harder on progressive issues (the way he started doing after 2014, when he had no more elections to face)? Yes, I do. But do I think he could have turned the 2008 coalition into a permanent electoral force that would have transformed American politics the way FDR did? No. I think that reading of recent political history is unrealistic, because the transformation Obama was supposed to catalyze depended on alienated and impulse voters suddenly deciding to change their personal identities and see themselves progressive activists and apostles.

Why would they have done that?

The kind of political revolution we won’t have. My rough categorization has fluid boundaries. At any given moment, people are migrating in both directions across the border between the alienated and impulse voters. Fans are getting energized and becoming players, while players are getting burned by their experiences and retreating back into fandom. Disengaged people are running into some issue that hits them on a deep level and makes them dig into politics in a way they never thought they would.

But (absent some huge crisis I don’t want to wish for) big changes in the personal identities of large groups of people don’t happen overnight. In particular, they don’t happen in one election cycle. So the vision of “political revolution” that I’m hearing from a lot of Sanders supporters (though Bernie’s own use of the phrase seems a little more cautious, if a bit vague) is not going to happen: We’re not going to sweep Bernie into office and then hold that majority together as a pressure group that will either make Congress pass his agenda, or toss them out of office in 2018 if they don’t. If we get a 2008-like progressive vote in 2016, a lot of that total will be low-engagement voters who will already have lost interest by Inauguration Day.

Change in America has never happened in a single election, through the election of a radical leader. The abolition movement, for example, didn’t start by sweeping Abraham Lincoln into office. It was a long, hard grind that began decades before Lincoln’s campaign. [1]

How big changes happen. When you look at American politics on a larger timescale, though, it does include a few big changes and re-alignments: the 1776 Revolution, abolition, the turn-of-the-century Progressive movement, the New Deal, civil rights, and the conservative counter-revolution we’ve been living in since the Reagan administration.

But none of those turnarounds happened quickly. Take civil rights: The Democratic Convention of 1948 split over civil rights, and Truman won without the break-away Dixiecrats. But the Voting Rights Act didn’t pass until 1965.

Ronald Reagan made it to the White House in 1980 on his third attempt, after failing to get the Republican nomination in 1968 and 1976. Republicans didn’t get control of the House until the Gingrich wave of 1994.

Between 1968 and 1994, a lot happened outside of electoral politics: Starting in the 1970s, billionaires and big corporations pooled their resources to create the intellectual infrastructure to make conservatism respectable. [2] Economic conservatives made common cause with religious fundamentalists; combined with union-busting, that instituted a shift in the way Americans found their political teams. Spin doctors developed ways to appeal to white racism covertly, without setting off a backlash. [3] Conservatives developed talk radio, then Fox News and a whole media counter-culture, with its own celebrities and cult identity. [4]

The next turning point. By now, the Reagan counter-revolution has gotten long in the tooth, and its plutocratic nature gets harder and harder to deny. If you look at inequality graphs, things started going wrong for the middle class after the Democrats lost seats in the midterm elections of 1978, which pushed them towards deregulation and letting unions fend for themselves. [5] Reagan’s tax cuts accelerated that process, and by now the ascendancy of the rich — and the plight of the average American — should be obvious to everyone.

The outsized influence of money on our political process has also become obvious, to the point that majority opinion influences government action only when it happens to coincide with the opinion of the wealthy. To a large extent even before Citizens United, and much more boldly and obviously after, large corporations and wealthy individuals buy the laws they want.

It’s not hard to make the connection between these odious results and the conservative principles that have dominated our politics since Reagan: low taxes on the rich, loose regulations on corporations and banks, and a Supreme Court that believes money is speech and corporations are people.

So the Reagan paradigm should be vulnerable.

What is success? In The Democracy Project, David Graeber measures the success of a revolution not by whether it seizes and holds power, but by whether it changes “political common sense”. By that measure, he judges the French Revolution a success: It may have ended up giving power to Napoleon rather than the People, but afterwards the divine right of kings was dead as a political principle, while “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity” lived on.

Conversely in America, changing the party in power does not always (or even usually) start a new era. The Republican presidencies of Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon did not end the New Deal/Great Society era of liberalism, and the Democratic presidencies of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama did not end the conservative Reagan era. Here at the end of the Obama administration, political common sense has not changed much in decades: The basic assumptions of what government does, what problems it should and shouldn’t address, and the range of possible solutions that can be debated are more or less what they were in 1995 or 1982. To the extent those things have shifted, they’ve flowed ever further to the right.

So a real political revolution will not happen just because we elect a new president, not even one whose agenda is as transformational as Bernie Sanders’. It’s not hard to imagine conservatives repeating against President Sanders the game plan that worked against Obama: Obstruct everything he tries to do, then present him as a failure and a disappointment in the 2018 midterm elections. If Sanders’ 2016 victory has depended on impulse voters liking the sound of him (but not changing their political identities), that plan should work again. By 2018 they will have lost interest, and Republicans will sweep a low-turnout midterm.

What would a real political revolution look like? We can’t start a new progressive era in American politics by getting low-engagement voters to show up once. The revolution does have to have an electoral component, but it also needs to proceed on two other levels.

Most simply, our appeal to impulse and alienated voters needs to be more sustainable. [6] 2008’s “Hope and Change” and “Yes We Can” were inherently single-use slogans. In 2010, it was impossible to pivot from “Yes We Can” to “We Would Have If Those Bastards Hadn’t Stopped Us”. (Contrast those single-use slogans with Reagan-era memes that are still with us: small government, strong defense, family values.) Here, things are improving: Bernie Sanders’ focus on “the rigged economy” is something that progressives can keep coming back to until we get it fixed. We need more such phrases.

At an even more fundamental level, though, we need to change the ways that people identify with politics. We need more Democratic players and fans, who stay loyal from one cycle to the next, so that we aren’t depending on unreliable impulse voters to put us over the top.

This level of social engineering is beyond my competence, but it’s not impossible.

The old-school method, which I believe still works, is to build on our initial success by connecting the changes we’ve achieved to positive change in people’s lives. My own family is an example: I don’t know what political identity the Muders had in the 1920s, but a story I heard again and again growing up was how in the 1930s my grandfather managed to stall the bank from repossessing the family farm until the New Deal’s farm loan program started. That saved the farm and we’ve been Democrats for four generations now.

But that snowballing sense of progress is exactly what Republican obstruction has tried to deny us these last seven years, with considerable success. The only major advance we’ve seen recently is ObamaCare, which is why — even as we push for a single-payer system — we need to stop running it down. It’s saving lives. If the saved people realize that and tell their family and friends, we’ll have a lot more reliable votes. Maybe soon all the minimum-wage workers who get a raise will join them.

But while snowballing progress is the fastest way to change political identities, it’s not the only way. An alternative is to create and support and grow local institutions that create liberal community, as the Reagan conservatives did with fundamentalist churches. Unions would be ideal, but if that clock can’t be turned back, there are other possibilities: What if instead of relating to politics through her fundamentalist church, a housewife started getting her political identity from her co-op grocery or a local environmental group? Even something that isn’t overtly political — say, a folk music cafe — can liberalize the identities of the people who feel part of a community there.

The wild card in this process — which I hesitate to speculate on because I’m such a novice myself — is social media and the various forms on online community. What can we create that people can belong to, that will reinforce their identities as progressives?

When people decide to vote or not vote, or when they stand in the voting booth deciding which oval to darken or which lever to pull, they shouldn’t feel alone. They should feel part of a community that is interested in what they are doing and why. Which community that is will determine elections for decades to come.

When you change that, you’ve made a revolution.

What about that waitress? I never became a regular at that restaurant, and young waitresses switch jobs often anyway, so I didn’t keep track of her. For all I know, by now she might have changed and become deeply political. Who can say what might have caused it? Maybe she had children and started wondering who regulates the corporations who make the processed food she’d been feeding them. Maybe she got to know the Hispanic workers in the kitchen, and realized they can’t be what’s wrong with America. Maybe she found Jesus and became an anti-abortion crusader. When you’re talking about individuals, anything can happen.

But whether she has changed or not, America still has lots of impulse voters and citizens alienated from the political process completely. You can win a single election by convincing a bunch of them that you are sufficiently different that they should take a chunk out of a single day to come vote for you. But you can’t make a revolution that way.

To make a revolution, you need to get a large number of them to change their political identities and become players or fans of your team. You need to inspire fans of the other team to get their political identities from a different part of their lives, some part that will connect them to your team instead.

That’s a lot more complicated than just getting out the vote, and it takes a lot longer. But that’s what needs to happen, if you want a revolution.


[1] Lincoln’s success, in fact, depended on finding the right compromise position on slavery — one a bit less radical than that of Seward, the early Republican front-runner.

[2] That story is told in Jane Mayer’s recent book Dark Money.

[3] See Ian Haney Lopez’ book Dog Whistle Politics, which I summarized in “What Should Racism Mean?“.

[4] Part of the credit for the Ted Cruz victory in the Iowa Caucuses has to go to the endorsement of Duck Dynasty‘s Phil Robertson, who appeared with Cruz in an ad.

[5] That interpretation was already apparent by 1984 when Thomas Edsall wrote The New Politics of Inequality.

[6] At an even more basic level, we need to recognize the existence of low-engagement voters, and stop being ashamed of appealing to them. Idealistic liberals look askance at Madison Avenue tactics. But phrases that speak to low-engagement voters — like Sanders’ “rigged economy” — need not be empty. If we’re communicating something real to voters — something we can back up with data and policy for anyone inspired to dive into the details — rather than just trying to trick them into voting for our candidates by taking advantage of their ignorance, we have nothing to be ashamed of.

The Monday Morning Teaser

OK, the primary’s tomorrow, so I really have to decide who I’m voting for. In spite of all the trepidation I’ve been expressing the last two weeks, it’s Bernie, for reasons I’ll explain in the weekly summary.

This week’s featured post is another one of those long history-and-theory rambles that I’m sure any blogging coach would tell me to stop writing — if not for the fact that Not a Tea Party, a Confederate Party and The Distress of the Privileged are my two most popular articles. It’s called “Say — you want a revolution?”, and it’s about what’s really involved in the kind of “political revolution” Bernie keeps calling for. I think it’s a bigger job than a lot of Sanders supporters imagine. The problem isn’t just getting people out to vote once — Obama did that — but creating a reliable new voting majority that will keep coming back election after election. And that means understanding a lot more about why people do or don’t vote.

Even the parts of the summary that aren’t about my own decision are largely going to be about the campaign. Living in New Hampshire right now, it’s hard to think about much else. But I’ll also mention my cup of coffee with Rep. John Sarbanes of Maryland, who is leading the fight in Congress against money in politics. (A lot more about that in coming weeks. If Sarbanes isn’t a future presidential candidate, I’ve never seen one.) I’ll try to keep a sense of humor, even about tomorrow’s primary, and I’ll look for a much less serious closing.

Eyes and Feet

Keep your eyes on the stars, but remember to keep your feet on the ground.

Theodore Roosevelt (1904)

This week’s featured post is “Undecided With 8 Days To Go“.

This week everybody was talking about the presidential race

The Iowa Caucuses start this evening. Most recent polls show a close race with a small advantage to Clinton. But Iowa has such a weird process that polling often gets it wrong.

On the Republican side, polls show that Cruz peaked about three weeks ago, and that Trump has regained a medium-sized lead, even though his numbers have been falling too for the last week. But since he never developed a ground game, nobody can say how many Trump supporters will get to the caucuses and stay long enough to make their votes count. Cruz is still running second, but fading. Rubio is third and rising, so it’s not impossible that he could finish second, or even first if Trump’s voters don’t show up.

Tomorrow, I expect the media to be saying that Rubio’s showing was the most surprising, and that he has momentum going into New Hampshire. But I don’t think I’ll be buying that interpretation if he doesn’t actually win. I think Obama/Clinton in 2008 showed that there is no “momentum”. Only votes and delegates are real.


Friday morning I tried to see Donald Trump in Nashua, but it turns out that having a ticket and being 45 minutes early wasn’t good enough; I was third in line when they announced that the room had reached its fire-safety capacity. Hundreds of people were still in line behind me, so I’m not sure what the point of having a ticket was.

But most of what I wanted to do was observe the crowd, so I got to do a little of that while standing in line. Everybody I saw was white, which isn’t that big a surprise in New Hampshire. Men outnumbered women, maybe three to one. Nobody was wearing or saying anything overtly racist or anti-Muslim. People didn’t bring signs and I didn’t see any protesters. We didn’t chant slogans or get rowdy. For a group of supposedly angry voters, we were all surprisingly docile as we waited in the sort-of-cold until we were told to go home.

The guys in front of me hadn’t definitely committed to Trump yet, but they thought Cruz had looked bad in the previous night’s debate, the one Trump boycotted. They agreed that Hillary Clinton has “no chance” and speculated about whether she’d be indicted for the email thing. They were sure she deserved to be indicted, but disagreed about whether Obama would allow it.


Speaking of Cruz, I loved Josh Marshall’s take on why he looked bad in the debate. (Josh was in Cruz’ residential college at Princeton, but in 2013 claimed not to recall him until his wife jogged his memory.)

My general sense is that it wasn’t that Cruz got attacked or that the attacks on him did any particular damage. It was that the spotlight was inherently bad for him. … This whole portion of the debate – which lasted for maybe the first 45 minutes or so – had the feeling of walking into a conversation at a party that’s just very awkward and uncomfortable – because it’s Ted Cruz holding court and pontificating. And you want to leave. Again, it’s not that the attacks were particularly biting or damaging. It’s just that you saw Cruz up close. And he’s not pleasant to be around.


I also don’t think Trump’s event competing with the debate did him any good. (I can’t imagine it playing well in Iowa when Trump called another rich New York developer up to the stage with his young trophy wife. I suspect Trump’s own marriage is not something middle-aged Iowa housewives want to dwell on too long.) So Trump and Cruz both looking bad recently is another reason Rubio could do better than expected.


We now have Trump’s plan for replacing ObamaCare: “We’ll work something out” with the doctors and hospitals, he says. I don’t know why no one had thought of that before.


A questioner told Ted Cruz about his brother-in-law, who didn’t have health insurance until ObamaCare, but started seeing a doctor too late and died of cancer. “What are you going to replace [ObamaCare] with?” he asked.

Cruz responded like this:

there are millions who had health insurance, who liked their health insurance and who had it cancelled because of Obamacare … millions are losing their insurance now and if we allow people to purchase across state lines, it will drive down the cost where they can afford it and get it earlier. [Your brother-in-law] would have gotten [health insurance] earlier if he could have afforded it earlier, but because of government regulations he couldn’t.

It’s worth pointing out that the regulation that raises costs the most is the government’s perverse insistence that health insurance actually cover you if you get sick. Policies that include ways for the insurance company to weasel out of covering sick people can be amazingly cheap. And if you never get sick, you never know.

and Flint

Exposé news stories have a stereotypical trajectory: There’s a problem that officials are sweeping under the rug, but journalists or whistleblowers uncover it. And then things get taken care of. The problem is fixed, victims get the help they need (better late than never), and the irresponsible officials are disgraced. Happy ending.

That doesn’t seem to be happening in Flint. The first part — problem, rug, uncovering — follows the script. And while Governor Rick Snyder hasn’t been forced to resign (yet), some lower-level people have, and I think Snyder’s political career is pretty much over. But the problem is a long way from fixed.

Here’s the gist: The emergency manager Snyder appointed to run Flint, supplanting the elected government,  decided to change the city’s water source. Rather than buy Lake Huron water from Detroit, they’d pump it out of the Flint River. Lots of towns use river water and it’s not a big deal, but you need to account for the fact that river water can be more corrosive. If you don’t treat the water somehow, it can leach lead out of pipes and slowly poison the people who drink it. (Flint’s water mains are iron, but many of the pipes that connect houses to the mains are lead.)

So now Flint is back to using Detroit’s water, and the long-term plan to have its own pipeline to Lake Huron is on track for completion in June. But that hasn’t solved the problem, because the lead didn’t come from the river, it came from the pipes. A lot of faucets in a lot of homes still have elevated lead — some many times higher than the recommended filters can handle — and nobody knows how long that will continue.

The sure solution is to find all the lead pipes and replace them, but that could cost hundreds of millions of dollars, which nobody is volunteering to pay. But waiting for the lead levels to come down on their own — drinking, cooking, and bathing with bottled water in the meantime — gets old in a hurry.

And then there are the long-term effects of lead exposure on children’s brains. Is the state going to take responsibility for that? How?

In the background of this whole story are issues of race and class. Flint is poor and mostly black. Poverty is why the city was in the financial trouble that got an emergency manager appointed in the first place. And whether the suffering of poor blacks registers with state officials the way wealthier white suffering would, well …

Wednesday, Rachel Maddow devoted her whole show to a townhall meeting in Flint, talking to local residents and various experts on water and plumbing and lead poisoning. That series of videos starts here.

and the arrest of Ammon Bundy

Tuesday night, the authorities finally did something about the militia occupation of the Malheur Wildlife Refuge near Burns, Oregon. The leaders of the occupation were arrested on their way to a community meeting set up by supporters in the nearby town of John Day. Unofficial spokesman Lavoy Finicum was killed.

Supporters have tried to make a martyr out of Finicum and claim that the government intentionally murdered him, but the FBI eventually released aerial video of the confrontation: Finicum’s truck stops for several minutes on the highway as police cars flash their lights behind it. Then the truck races forward until it gets to a police roadblock. At that point it tries to drive around the roadblock and gets stuck in the snow. Finicum gets out of the truck with his hands up (his passengers stay inside), but doesn’t appear to be surrendering as he sidles further off the road, away from police. When he reaches into his coat he gets shot. Police claim they found a handgun in his coat.

Ammon Bundy and his brother Ryan are among the arrested. They have been charged with a felony that seems designed for this situation (actually it was designed for Confederates seizing federal outposts in the Civil War): conspiracy to impede officers of the United States from discharging their official duties through the use of force, intimidation, or threats.

A handful of holdouts (maybe five) are still occupying the refuge. Like Bundy, they seem to grossly overestimate their negotiating position: They want to leave without charges, or maybe to be guaranteed a pardon. But the FBI is only interested in talking about how they’re going to surrender. The authorities seem to be tightening up a little more all the time; they’ve now cut off internet and cellphone access.

Bundy, meanwhile, has asked the remaining occupiers to go home, possibly because the judge in Portland can’t see offering him bail while there’s an armed camp he could try to run to.

This fight is ours for now in the courts. Please go home. Being in the system, we are going to take this opportunity to answer the questions on Art. 1, Section 8, Clause 17 of the United States Constitution regarding rights of statehood and the limits on federal property ownership.

Once again, he’s picturing himself as a sovereign citizen meeting the government on equal terms. But I predict his trial will concern the crimes the government has charged him with, not the crimes he charges the government with. (Regarding “the limits of federal property ownership”, I suspect that the State of Oregon might have standing to pursue this in a different court, but Bundy himself does not, and it certainly isn’t relevant here. Even in the appropriate venue, I think Oregon would lose that case.)

and you might also be interested in

Once again, headlines indicate that something maybe-sorta might come of the Clinton emails. But Dianne Feinstein still doesn’t think so.

The latest revelations that Secretary Clinton’s emails include classified information lack the same key information as previous reports. First, the 22 emails the State Department has labeled classified are part of seven separate back-and-forth email chains, and none of those emails chains originated with Secretary Clinton.

So: Seven times during her Secretary of State years, somebody sent her an email containing information that wasn’t marked classified at the time, but in hindsight should have been.

Reuters claims the info was “foreign government information”

The U.S. government defines this as any information, written or spoken, provided in confidence to U.S. officials by their foreign counterparts.

I wish we had a control on this experiment: If we looked at all the emails of some other State or Defense secretary chosen at random, how many similar examples would we find?


The best thing since President Bush’s “Is our children learning?


This white giraffe ought to be the center of a cult.
null

and let’s close with something timeless

It’s amazing how well the climactic speech of Charlie Chaplin’s “The Great Dictator” stands up after 75 years.

Undecided With 8 Days To Go

In a normal New Hampshire primary, undecided Democrats get courted and pandered to. But this year everyone just seems annoyed with us.


Tonight, this election cycle starts to get real: Actual voters will caucus in Iowa and we’ll get the first commitments that actually mean something. A week from tomorrow, I’ll be voting in New Hampshire.

And I’m still not sure what I’m going to do.

I know a lot of you will suspect my honesty when I say this — that in itself strikes me as a symptom of the general situation — but I have genuinely not decided whether I’m voting for Clinton or Sanders. I’m not pretending so that I can sneak my pro-Bernie or pro-Hillary propaganda past your defenses. I really don’t know what I’m going to do.

In a nutshell, the dilemma comes down to this:

  • I like the issues that Sanders has been highlighting: single-payer health care, a big public works program to build infrastructure and create jobs, breaking up the big banks, offering tuition-free college, and so on.
  • I see a huge difference between any Democratic candidate and any Republican candidate, and I have much more confidence of a Democratic victory in November if Clinton is the nominee.

I know the objections to both of those points: The Sanders proposals are all things that would never get through Congress anyway, so what difference do they make? And polls show Bernie running well against the most likely Republican nominees — better than Hillary in most cases — so why can’t I just accept that he’d be the better nominee? And besides, isn’t the lesser evil, well, evil?

I’ve considered all that. I really have. Honestly. And I have worries about both candidates.

My worries about Sanders. To me, the Sanders candidacy only makes sense when you think about how it started: Elizabeth Warren finally convinced everybody that she was serious when she said she wasn’t running, so somebody else had to represent the progressive wing of the Party. Otherwise, Clinton would run unchallenged and could take liberal votes for granted. So Bernie stood up to carry the liberal banner, to be the un-Hillary and make sure progressive issues weren’t ignored.

It isn’t clear to me that Bernie has ever had a serious intention of becoming President of the United States.

How can I say that? Well, I’ve listened to his speeches. The typical Sanders speech boils down to a list of statistics that leads to a list of proposals. [1] You know what’s not in there? Who he is.

For example, here’s a bunch of stuff I never knew until a few minutes ago when I looked it up on Wikipedia: His wife’s name is Jane. It’s a second marriage for both of them. They have no children together, but Jane had three children from her first marriage, and Bernie has a son from a non-marital relationship in the late 1960s. Bernie’s older brother lives in England, where he’s involved in politics with the Green Party.

Is that kind of stuff important? Well, if he just wants to take the liberal message to the Democratic Convention, no. In that case, the message is important and the messenger doesn’t matter.

But if we’re talking about actually becoming president, family and other personal information does matter. Americans expect to have a relationship with their president. We don’t vote for a set of policies, we vote for a person.

The President, after all, is going to come into our living rooms the next time something like 9-11 happens. He or she is going to mourn with us, acknowledge that this is really awful, and reassure us that we’ll get through it if we work together. If we have to go to war, the President is going to tell us why. If the economy starts collapsing, the President will tell us not to panic, and will outline all the things the government will do to keep the situation from getting out of hand.

We want to feel like we know that person.

Sanders has told us that he wants to do good things, but he hasn’t told us why. That may seem like a silly question to you, but Americans get suspicious of people who offer to do good things for them for no obvious reason. (Ronald Reagan used to make fun of the guy who says, “I’m from the government and I’m here to help you.” His audiences loved it.)

Bernie has said that he’s “not particularly religious“. For some people, that’s a deal-breaker right there. But even the people who are OK with it are going to want to know what deep values motivate him and where those values come from. Abstractions won’t do; they’ll want stories. (John McCain wasn’t particularly religious either. But he could point to a family tradition of military service, leading up to his POW story.)

If he doesn’t tell those stories and answer those questions, the Republicans will do it for him. Last week, I talked about the kind of smears we’re likely to see if the opposition starts taking him seriously. I don’t think Bernie has set himself up well to respond.

The way you undo a smear is that you tell a more convincing story about yourself than the one your enemies are telling. You look straight into the camera, straight into America’s living rooms, and say, “You know me. You know what I’m really like.”

When voters were being horrified by videos of Barack Obama’s radical black pastor, Jeremiah Wright, Obama went on TV and told the story of his relationship with Wright, and his lifelong relationship with blackness. When Jimmy Carter tried to scare the country with Ronald Reagan’s extremism, Reagan just said, “There you go again.” With his delivery, with that face and voice Americans had been seeing and hearing for decades, it was devastating.

I have  a hard time picturing Bernie Sanders doing anything like that. He’s not building the kind of personal connection to the voters that could see him through a crisis. His poll numbers may look good now, but in the fall campaign he’ll be vulnerable.

My worries about Clinton. To understand Hillary Clinton, you have to know about two formative political experiences.

The first time Bill was elected governor, he came to office with an ambitious agenda that was quite liberal for Arkansas. And Hillary also was breaking the mold. She dressed more like a college student than a Southern lady — not to mention a governor’s wife — and she kept her own name, Hillary Rodham.

That first term, Bill ran into huge opposition, accomplished very little, and got tossed out of office in the next election. The NYT summarized in 1991:

In his first term, in 1978, he offered a far-ranging package of liberal proposals. Since then, he has painstakingly picked his issues, built his coalitions and chosen his fights. To admirers, that has shown a shrewd ability to use his political capital where it could achieve results. Critics have seen it as timidity in taking on powerful interests.

Hillary learned a lesson too: For Bill’s comeback campaign, she became a Clinton. They won.

But that was Arkansas, not Washington. So when Bill was elected president in 1992, he again came in with a sweeping liberal agenda, and Hillary was right in the middle of it: She would lead the effort to achieve Harry Truman’s dream of national health care.

It was a re-run on a larger scale: huge opposition, massive legislative defeat, and a backlash at the polls. The midterm elections of 1994 were a Republican sweep that ended decades of Democratic control of the House. Hillary was blamed for the disaster, and for the rest of his presidency, Bill Clinton could only accomplish anything — or even keep the government open — by making deals with Newt Gingrich. Once again, he had to pick his issues and choose his fights.

If I had that history, I’d probably be cautious too. So it’s no wonder that Hillary doesn’t cut loose and propose idealistic stuff any more.

But there’s a problem with constraining your imagination to what is currently possible: Once you do that, the range of possibility can only shrink. As David Atkins wrote in Washington Monthly:

Politics isn’t just the art of the possible today. It’s also about shaping the realm of the possible tomorrow. When the opposition is willing to compromise, pushing the envelope might come at the expense of real gains in the moment. But when the opposition is intransigent, advocating for the impossible might just be the most productive thing a president can do to lay the groundwork for gains in the future.

Maybe this year you can only afford to vacation within driving distance of home, so fantasizing about Paris is completely impractical. But if you don’t maintain a Paris fantasy at all, the year when it’s finally just barely possible, you might not notice.

The Republicans never make that mistake. Their primary campaigns are always full of ideas like abolishing the EPA, replacing the income tax with a flat tax, privatizing Medicare, banning Muslims from coming into the country, ending abortion, and all sorts of other things that I doubt the next Republican president could make happen. The conservative imagination stays fertile, and if circumstances unexpectedly give them their chance, their plans will be ready to go.

Which way from here? So that’s where I am: I like Bernie’s issues, and I like him in the messenger role, carrying the progressive flag to the convention, reminding the public that Clinton and Obama aren’t the far left wing of American politics, and making sure Hillary knows that her left flank can’t be taken for granted. But the thought of him as the nominee sets me worrying about the Trump administration. [2]

So who am I voting for in eight days? I’m still not sure, and whatever I’m thinking right now might flip after I see what happens tonight in Iowa.

No man’s land. That indecision puts me in a strange position as I peruse my Facebook news feed or wander the blogosphere. Sanders and Clinton themselves are doing a fairly good job controlling their rhetoric, but that’s not true of their supporters. On social media, things go ad hominem in a hurry: If you defend Sanders, you don’t grasp how the world works, but if you criticize him, you’re part of the evil Clinton establishment. If you try to stand in the middle and keep both sides honest, you’re both clueless and corrupt.

So on behalf of all the Democrats who are still undecided and really can see it both ways, I’ll put this plea out there: Between now and the time the nomination is decided, please work on imagining that some people might honestly and intelligently size up the situation differently than you do. Not everybody who disagrees is evil or stupid.

More similar than different. This rancor is a bit ridiculous, because what we’re mainly arguing about is whether you accomplish more by moving step-by-step or by thinking big. As Rebecca (@Geaux_RC) commented last week on my post “Smearing Bernie, a preview“:

[Clinton and Sanders] agree on the following:

Climate change is real and should be addressed. Women deserve to have control over their bodies. The wealthy should pay more than they currently are in taxes. Voting rights need to be protected and expanded, not undermined and limited. Education is an important priority and should be funded appropriately. The minimum wage needs to be raised. Health care is a fundamental human right. The criminal justice system needs reform.

The Republican candidates disagree with all of that. (OK, Rand Paul supports some kind of criminal justice reform. Any other examples?)

So Bernie wants a $15 federal minimum wage while Hillary wants $12, with state and local action to increase that wage in places with a higher cost of living. (Republicans argue about whether the current $7.25 is too high, while some are against the principle of any government-set minimum wage.)

Bernie calls for a $1 trillion infrastructure program, while Hillary’s is only $275 billion.

Bernie wants public colleges and universities to be tuition-free. Hillary wants community colleges to be tuition-free, and has a more complicated plan for making other higher education affordable.

I could go on, but trust me, the pattern is true across the board: Bernie’s proposals are simpler and bigger, while Hillary’s are wonkier and more cautious. But I can’t find an issue where they have fundamentally different goals.

Conversely, compare either of them to Republican candidates: Bernie and Hillary want the rich to pay higher taxes, while the Republicans want the rich to pay lower taxes. Bernie and Hillary want the government to do more about global warming, while the Republicans want to undo the things President Obama has done. Bernie and Hillary want to protect a woman’s right to choose an abortion, while the Republicans want to chip away at it or eliminate it entirely. And so on.

Given all that, can’t we all figure out some way to get along until the Convention? And then march united into the fall elections? I know it will be frustrating to watch your candidate lose, whichever one it is. And eating your words and voting for other one in November; that’s going to be a challenge. But none of it is going to be as frustrating or as challenging as listening to the Ted Cruz inaugural address.


[1] I’m putting this in a footnote because it’s an aside that interrupts the flow of what I’m saying, but would it kill the guy to tell a story once in a while? Not everybody thinks in statistics. All the way back to Lincoln, the great American politicians have been storytellers.

[2] One more concern: Sanders’ I-have-never-run-a-negative-ad high principles. Particularly against Trump or Cruz, I think the Democrats’ fall campaign needs to be scorched earth.

The Monday Morning Teaser

At long last, somebody is finally going to vote. The Iowa Caucuses are tonight, and the New Hampshire Primary is a week from tomorrow.

And I still don’t know who I’m voting for. In this week’s featured post, I’ll take you through my thinking — and make a plea for mutual understanding. It’s amazing how much hostility both Sanders and Clinton supporters are tossing at people who are slow to join them.

That should be out soon.

The weekly summary will cover other odds and ends from the presidential race (including the Republican side, which the featured post doesn’t deal with at all), note that switching back to the original water source hasn’t ended the Flint crisis, express gratitude that the authorities finally made a move against the Oregon occupation, and link to some other interesting stuff.

Expectations

Keep a light, hopeful heart. But ­expect the worst.

— Joyce Carol Oates

This week’s featured post is “Smearing Bernie, a preview“. When the right-wing media starts painting Bernie red, will the charge stick? Will it throw him off his game?

This week everybody was talking about the weather

To me, the remarkable thing about Winter Storm Jonas — other than the fact that New Hampshire was fine place to sit it out — was how far in advance it was forecast, and how closely it matched those forecasts. Days before the storm hit, I knew it was coming and that the worst of it would be just west of Baltimore. I didn’t expect 30 inches of snow at JFK Airport, but otherwise the meteorologists did pretty well.

and the Republican campaign starting to turn nasty

To be fair, if you are Hispanic or Muslim or female or gay, the Republican campaign has been nasty all along. But lately the candidates have started being nasty to each other.

Donald Trump actually used the word nasty to describe his closest rival, Ted Cruz.

He’s a nasty guy. Nobody likes him. Nobody in Congress likes him. Nobody likes him anywhere once they get to know him. He’s a very –- he’s got an edge that’s not good. You can’t make deals with people like that and it’s not a good thing.

Former Republican nominee Bob Dole agreed:

I don’t know how he’s going to deal with Congress. Nobody likes him.

That’s an unusual thing to say about a sitting senator. The Senate has clubby aspect to it, and you can always find people in the opposing party to say (of somebody like Joe Biden or Orrin Hatch) “I disagree with him, but he’s a good guy.” In Cruz’ case, it’s a challenge to find a senator in his own party who will tell you he’s a good guy.

And Cruz’ college roommate won’t either:

Ted Cruz is a nightmare of a human being. I have plenty of problems with his politics, but truthfully his personality is so awful that 99 percent of why I hate him is just his personality. If he agreed with me on every issue, I would hate him only one percent less.

So something odd is happening: For months, everyone has been predicting that the GOP establishment would unite against Trump. But if Cruz is the alternative, they’d rather unite against Cruz.


The NYT reform-conservative columnist Ross Douthat explains “The Way to Stop Trump“. Abstract arguments about his personality or his unfaithfulness to conservative orthodoxy or his ignorance of important issues don’t seem to shake Trump’s supporters. But Trump’s business success has left a trail of victims, many of whom are the white working-class “regular guys” Trump appeals to. Put them on camera, Douthat advises, and get people to empathize with them. Joe Sixpack types who cheer when Trump is nasty to Hispanics and Muslims might have second thoughts if they saw him being nasty to people like them. (Who’s the loser now, chump?)

Tell people that he isn’t the incredible self-made genius that he plays on TV. Tell them about all the money he inherited from his daddy. Tell them about the bailouts that saved him from ruin. Tell them about all his cratered companies. Then find people who suffered from those fiascos — workers laid off following his bankruptcies, homeowners who bought through Trump Mortgage, people who ponied up for sham degrees from Trump University.

But Douthat doesn’t seem to realize that there’s a reason Trump’s Republican rivals have been reluctant to go there: Empathy is a liberal emotion. Conservatives see empathy as weakness. (President Obama was ridiculed when he cited empathy as a reason for nominating Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court. “President Obama clearly believes that you measure up to his empathy standard,” Senator Grassley said during her confirmation hearing. “That worries me.”)

Conversely, Republicans glorify strong leaders who can “make the tough decisions”. Those decisions are “tough”, not because they require personal risk or sacrifice, but because they require heartlessness: who to fire, whose benefits to cut, who to torture, how many innocent-bystander deaths are acceptable collateral damage, and so on.

One prior assumption of the Fox News Fantasy World is that conservative policies have no victims; anyone who gets hurt had it coming. So it enrages conservatives when you puncture their denial by finding actual victims and putting them on camera: the Sandy Hook parents, refugee kids, families thrown off food stamps, moms of dead soldiers, and so on. They think that’s cheating. Ann Coulter once famously denounced the widows of 9-11 first-responders (“I have never seen people enjoying their husband’s death so much.”) when they criticized the Bush administration. She saw “using their grief to make a political point” as a low blow.

So while I agree with Douthat that his strategy would work, I wonder if Trump’s Republican rivals are willing to break the empathy taboo. Democrats will, though, and that’s one reason Trump is a less formidable general-election candidate than current polls indicate.


Carly Fiorina has no chance of winning the nomination or being president, so I’m not going to cover her in any detail. But her talk in Hudson, NH Saturday morning was only a few minutes down the road, so I went. Maybe 125 people showed up, filling the local American Legion hall. The audience was polite and welcoming, but subdued.

I’m always interested to observe how a female candidate navigates the narrow passage between the Weak Little Girl and Cold Heartless Bitch stereotypes. (There’s no similar dilemma for men, which is one reason male candidates it easier.) In the debates, Fiorina has tried a little too hard to look like a strong leader and ended up sounding strident to me, so I wondered if she’d seem warmer in person. She does.

Unsurprisingly, her talk assumed the Fox News Fantasy World: ObamaCare is failing, our military has been gutted, capital-G Government is strangling the economy, the world doesn’t respect us any more, Christians are persecuted, government spending can be slashed without hurting anybody, Hillary doesn’t care about the four Americans who died at Benghazi, climate change is not worth bringing up, and so on.

Here’s what I found interesting: Carly is running primarily against Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. (No other candidates were named.) She yoked them together as the two sides of “crony capitalism”: Politicians like Clinton sell favors and businessmen like Trump buy them.


Sarah Palin’s Trump endorsement had that unique Palin touch of incoherence, the kind that left Larry Wilmore asking, “Was she drunk?” (I don’t think so, but I understand why he wonders.) I believe Sarah envies rappers, so she comes out with stuff like this:

We are mad
and we’ve been had.
They need to get used to it.
We’re not gonna chill
In fact, it’s time to drill, baby, drill
down and hold these folks accountable.
And we need to stop the self-sabotage and elect
new, independent, a candidate who represents that
and represents America first — finally.

Pro-constitution.
Common sense solutions
that he brings to the table.
Yes, the status quo
has got to go.
Otherwise we’re just going to get more of the same.
And with their failed agenda
it can’t be salvaged
it must be savaged.
And Donald Trump is the right one to do that.

Where is William Shatner when you need him? Or Vanilla Ice? Huffington Post’s comedy editor published the notes for Sarah’s speech. And Tina Fey brought back her Palin immitation.

and the Democratic race more contentious

The main topic of discussion this week was Bernie Sanders’ single-payer healthcare plan, which the Clinton campaign presented as a threat to every healthcare advance since Medicare. Chelsea Clinton was the most explicit:

Sen. Sanders wants to dismantle Obamacare, dismantle the CHIP program, dismantle Medicare, and dismantle private insurance. … I worry if we give Republicans Democratic permission to do that, we’ll go back to an era — before we had the Affordable Care Act — that would strip millions and millions and millions of people off their health insurance.

Hillary herself said that Sanders would

take Medicare and Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program and the Affordable Care Act health-care insurance and private employer health insurance and he would take that all together and send health insurance to the states, turning over your and my health insurance to governors.

FactCheck.org and Politifact objected. Here’s Politifact’s judgment:

Under Sanders’ plan, Americans would lose their current health insurance. However, his proposal would replace their health insurance and cover the currently uninsured. The program would auto-enroll every citizen and legal resident, all of whom would be entitled to benefits. While the plan would give governors authority to administer health insurance within their states, it includes provisions to allow federal authorities to take over if the governors refuse to implement it.

It’s impossible to predict with certainty how Sanders’ plan would play out in real life. But Clinton’s statement makes it sound like Sanders’ plan would leave many people uninsured, which is antithetical to the goal of Sanders’ proposal: universal healthcare.

But while the Clinton campaign’s charges are indeed misleading and raise too much fear, they do point to some genuine issues:

  • Allowing the states to implement single-payer gives Republican governors too much room to monkey-wrench the program, as we’ve seen them do with ObamaCare. It’s hard to estimate how much damage a Scott Walker or Sam Brownback could do while still implementing enough of the program to keep the feds from taking over.
  • Sanders’ plan still lacks important details. Ezra Klein explored this in “Bernie Sanders’ single-payer plan isn’t a plan at all“, in which he described the proposal as “vague and unrealistic”.
  • Politically, it’s hard to imagine how the Sanders proposal could survive the FUD campaign the health insurance companies would undoubtedly launch. The central idea — that the government is going to take away something that may be working well for you (your healthcare coverage, whether it’s private or government-sponsored) and replace it with something better — requires maintaining an unlikely level of public trust in the face of a money-is-no-object opposition campaign.

That last point deserves some elaboration: ObamaCare squeaked through Congress largely because Obama promised: “If you like your healthcare plan you can keep it.” And even though that promise was kept for the vast majority (I know I kept my plan and my doctor), he paid a large political price for the cases where things turned out differently. Any new proposal that would force everyone to learn a new system and says “Trust me, it will be better” is going to run into trouble.

Making healthcare a human right is a core Democratic principle and should continue to be. But I don’t think we can get there by asking the American people to take a leap of faith-in-government. More likely, progress will be like walking a heavy bookcase across a room: Lift one side and pivot, then rock to the other side and pivot again, always letting the floor bear most of the weight. At each major step towards universal healthcare, the majority should be able to keep what they have while a minority changes; through a series of such steps — each fulfilling the promise that the changing minority betters its lot — we can walk the public over to single payer. I wish we were strong enough to lift the bookcase and carry it to its best location, but we’re not, and I can’t imagine that we will be in my lifetime.

With that in mind, I’d like to see Democrats push to restore the public option that was taken out of ObamaCare, maybe by allowing people of any age to buy into Medicare. Over time, the greater efficiency of the public option might drive private plans out of the market, leaving us with the single-payer system Sanders (and most Democrats) ultimately want. (This is essentially the case Paul Krugman made last Monday.)


Polls were all over the map, and either side could find one to say it was winning. Nate Silver’s model currently gives Clinton an 82% chance of winning Iowa and Sanders a 61% chance of winning New Hampshire. Nationally, the RCP national polling average has Clinton 51%, Sanders 38%.

and the Oregon occupation

They’re still there, and if the federal government has any plans, it isn’t sharing them. Oregon Public Broadcasting continues to be the best place to follow the story.

Oregon Governor Kate Brown seems to be losing patience with the FBI’s inaction. She describes the situation as “intolerable” and says “This spectacle of lawlessness must end.” We’re also starting to hear from the real victims: the federal employees who can’t do their jobs and may feel physically in danger. Also, the people who use the wildlife refuge for its intended purposes, like Oregon resident (and novelist) Ursula Le Guin.

The militia folks have started a “common law grand jury” to decide whether to indict local government officials for “multiple constitutional crimes”. As with everything else they do, they’re taking themselves incredibly seriously, warning reporters that it’s a “felony” to pry into the grand jury’s deliberative process.

OPB also offers a psychological analysis of the possible fault lines between the various leaders of the occupation.

My pure speculation about the federal strategy is that when they finally move, they want the public reaction to be “What took you so long?” Meanwhile, the occupiers keep posting evidence of their crimes online, making a prosecutor’s job pretty easy.

and you might also be interested in

This week’s guns-make-us-safer story comes from The Seattle Times: Thursday night, a man got drunk and took his (legal) concealed weapon to a showing of the Benghazi movie 13 Hours. He fumbled with it and it fired accidentally, wounding a woman he didn’t know. But of course, think of all the terrorists who were prevented from attacking the theater that night, for fear of meeting such a formidable patriot.

A second story comes from Mississippi, where on Saturday the wife of the owner of a gun store got into an argument (over a $25 fee) with a customer picking up a repaired gun. One thing led to another, and then led to a shootout. The owner and his son are dead. The customer and his son were taken to the hospital with life-threatening injuries.


Here’s a local view of the Flint water crisis.


The scientists at NOAA and NASA make it official: 2015 broke 2014’s record as the hottest year on record. By a lot.


The LA Times talks to some white Republicans in an Iowa diner: They think immigration’s a problem, but they don’t want to round up and deport the local Hispanic immigrants, even if they’re here illegally.

That rings with my memories of growing up in the rural Midwest: Folks are more extreme when they talk about abstractions than when they talk about people. There’s how you feel about “homosexuality”, and then there’s how you feel about your lesbian niece. I’m not surprised something similar happens with immigrants.


Here’s an insightful video about race, and the difference between being non-racist (easy) and anti-racist (hard).

and let’s close with something cool

The Swincar E-Spider, a different kind of all-terrain vehicle.

Smearing Bernie, a preview

A Murdoch paper shows us how Republicans will go after Sanders, once they start taking him seriously.


Soviet propaganda poster.

Bernie Sanders, as seen by the New York Post

So far, Republican presidential candidates have been positioning themselves to run against Hillary Clinton.

In the transcript of the most recent Republican debate, I found only five mentions of Bernie Sanders.  Two occurred when John Kasich was asked about the possibility of running against Sanders, and brushed it off:

We’re going to win every state if Bernie Sanders is the nominee. That’s not even an issue.

In the other three, Sanders’ name was invoked to tar somebody else. Marco Rubio said Ted Cruz typically joined with Sanders to vote against defense bills in the Senate. Twice, Sanders and Clinton were yoked together, so that Clinton could be associated with a position Bernie has taken more explicitly: Ben Carson said Clinton and Sanders blame everything on “those evil rich people”, and Chris Christie said both would raise Social Security taxes.

Clinton, on the other hand, seemed to come up in every answer. She was described as “a national security disaster”, “someone who lies to the families of those four victims in Benghazi”, “an enabler of sexual misconduct”, who wants “to take rights away from law-abiding citizens”, and whose weakness “will lead to greater war in the world”. In other settings, Donald Trump has speculated that Hillary is running “to stay out of jail“, and Chris Christie has promised to prosecute her.

In short, the Right’s barrage against Hillary targets far more than her vision of America’s future or her proposals for getting there. It’s personal, and has been since Bill’s candidacy first drew their attention a quarter century ago.

At times, Republicans even appear to consider Sanders an ally in the anti-Clinton struggle. Karl Rove’s American Crossroads PAC is running an anti-Hillary ad in Iowa, echoing a Sanders-campaign charge about contributions from Wall Street. Bloomberg reports:

During Sunday night’s Democratic debate, the Republican National Committee made the unusual move of sending no fewer than four real-time e-mails to reporters defending the self-described democratic socialist from attacks by Hillary Clinton or echoing his message against her.

It’s not a complete love-fest, though. Republican leaders or Fox News or other conservative outlets occasionally trash the whole idea of socialism or a socialist president. But so far their criticisms of Sanders have mostly stayed philosophical: Bernie’s a good guy, he just has bad ideas.

You know that won’t last, if a Sanders presidency starts to look like a serious possibility. I suppose an optimist could imagine a Sanders/Trump, Sanders/Cruz, or Sanders/Rubio race becoming a national debate about Bernie’s issues: universal health care, an increased minimum wage, creating jobs by rebuilding America’s public infrastructure, making college free, breaking up the big banks, and so on. The GOP’s candidate could explain why he opposes Bernie’s agenda and try to convince the American people to agree with him.

But I suspect the Republicans will take a different approach, because they always do. In a general-election campaign, they won’t be satisfied to say that Sanders is wrong; instead, they’ll want to argue that there is something wrong with him. A campaign that is already centered on hatred and fear won’t change its character for Bernie. Once he is seen as a serious challenger, there will have to be reasons to hate and fear Bernie Sanders.

What reasons? Let’s assume for the moment that there is no legitimate scandal in Bernie’s past, nothing that would give pause to an objective, well-informed voter. Let’s go further and assume that he hasn’t had allies or acquaintances who can be demonized, like Jeremiah Wright or Bill Ayers.

Does that put him in the clear? I don’t think it does. Even if Sanders and everyone he has ever associated with are paragons of saintly virtue, “scandals” can always be manufactured out of nothing.

The Obama-birther issue is a classic example: Barack Obama was born in Hawaii. The State of Hawaii says so, local newspapers published birth announcements at the time, and there was never any reason (beyond the wishful thinking of people who didn’t like him) to doubt his birth or citizenship or eligibility for the presidency. But that didn’t keep the “controversy” from raging for years. (Trump voters still don’t believe Obama was born in America.)

Going back a little further, John Kerry served admirably in Vietnam, was wounded three times, and received both a bronze and a silver star for heroism. But all that was turned against him in the campaign that gave swift-boating its name. Mike Dukakis was accused of being against the Pledge of Allegiance, and responded too slowly because he just couldn’t believe anyone would take the charge seriously. (They did.)  The suicide of Clinton aide Vince Foster was hyped as a murder, supposedly to cover up an affair with Hillary. (But according to a contradictory rumor, Hillary is lesbian.) Al Gore said several true things that got exaggerated, and then the blame for being a “serial exaggerator” got pinned back on him. Howard Dean yelled at the wrong time, so he was clearly unhinged.

No matter how much you admire Bernie Sanders, nobody is so perfect that they can’t be lied about or ridiculed for some blameless statement or action. If Sanders becomes a threat, the Right will go after him — personally. Not his policies or political philosophy, him.

How will they do it?

We got a preview in the January 16 edition of Rupert Murdoch’s New York Post. In a column the Post categorized as News (not Opinion), Paul Sperry wrote “Don’t be fooled by Bernie Sanders — he’s a diehard Communist.

The article is long and full of details, but even so, the evidence Sperry assembles for his claim is … well, sketchy would be a compliment.

  • As a student in 1964, Sanders belonged to the Young Socialists League. (The article gives no evidence that YSL was all that sinister. And besides, a lot can happen in half a century. At about the same time, Hillary Clinton was a Goldwater girl.)
  • He worked for a union that was investigated by the infamous House Un-American Activities Committee. (That’s the one Joe McCarthy used for his witchhunts. If everyone HUAC investigated had actually conspired with the Soviets, the Republic would have fallen a long time ago.)
  • In the 1970s, he “headed the American People’s History Society, an organ for Marxist propaganda”. (No evidence is given for the Marxist-propaganda claim, other than a documentary favorable to the early-20th-century American socialist and labor crusader Eugene Debs. Elsewhere, a University of Vermont librarian elaborates: “In the brochure’s ‘Dear Educator’ section, Sanders announced that Debs was the first documentary in a new series called ‘The Other Side of American History,’ which would ‘deal with people and ideas that the major profit oriented manufacturers of audio-visual material will not cover because of economic and political reasons’.”)
  • Bernie’s Senate office displays a portrait of Debs, who like a lot of people at that time — George Bernard Shaw and H. G. Wells come to mind — was slow to recognize the dark side of the Russian Revolution. (Saying nice things about the Bolsheviks was far from the center of Debs’ political identity, which was more about organizing unions, trying to keep the U.S. out of World War I, and popularizing then-radical notions like unemployment insurance and Social Security.)
  • In the 1970s, Sanders belonged to the Liberty Union Party, which wanted banks and utilities to be publicly owned. (Contrary to the “diehard Communist” claim, the leader of that party says they parted ways because “Sanders was moving right”.)
  • As Mayor of Burlington, he supported rent control and land trusts. (In hindsight, it worked out pretty well.)
  • While he was mayor, Burlington’s minor-league team was called the Vermont Reds (possibly because it was a farm team of the Cincinnati Reds. Life imitates art here: In the 1970s conspiracy-theory romp Illuminatus!, a right-wing rabble-rouser warns an Ohio crowd that the time to thwart Communist world domination is now: “Are we going to wait until the godless Reds are right here in Cincinnati?”)
  • In the 1980s, he didn’t support President Reagan’s attempt to overthrow the elected government of Nicaragua by force, and instead attempted to find a peaceful solution to the conflict. (The Sandinistas eventually lost an election and left office voluntarily, so maybe they weren’t such Stalinist monsters after all.)
  • Burlington has a sister city in Russia (as part of a program established by President Eisenhower). As Mayor, Sanders and his new wife went on a group trip to that sister city not long after they got married, creating the sort-of-true claim that he “honeymooned in the Soviet Union“.

There’s more, but you get the idea. For decades, Sanders has been on the left side of the American political spectrum. He’s been suspicious of what unregulated capitalists might do and in favor of workers organizing unions to counter their power. Like the late Howard Zinn, he believes (correctly, I think) that the left side of American political history got misrepresented during the Cold War, and still isn’t told accurately. He’s been skeptical of the perpetual-warfare state, and its efforts to focus our attention on external enemies rather than internal injustice.

If that’s diehard Communism, then there are a lot more diehard Communists than I thought — including me, I guess.

Looking at the weakness of the case, you might be tempted to laugh it off. But swift-boating John Kerry was absurd too, and it worked. With money, media power, and a significant slice of the population ready to repeat whatever nonsense they’re told, the Right can go places with a narrative like this — especially against a candidate most of the country doesn’t know.

So if you were a Republican candidate running against Sanders next fall, why would you risk discussing single-payer health care on its merits (and defending the health insurance companies nobody likes) when you could instead turn the question to whether Bernie Sanders is a loyal American? I mean, Stalin supported single-payer health care, and Castro — so why are we even discussing how it works and who it benefits? The GOP candidate will favor American healthcare, not Soviet healthcare like Comrade Sanders.

Why bother disputing the moral and economic virtues of a higher minimum wage, when you could say: “I believe in wages that you earn fairly in the free market, while Comrade Sanders believes the government should set your wages”? Why defend the too-big-to-fail enormity of Citibank and Bank of America when you could instead rail against Comrade Sanders’ plan for a government takeover of the banking system? (If ObamaCare could be labeled a “government takeover of the healthcare system“, why not do the same to Sanders’ bank-break-up plan?) You could point out that strong American presidents of both parties, from Harry Truman to Ronald Reagan, won the Cold War. So why are we giving in to Communism now?

And since Sanders has declared his independence from all special interests, the Republican nominee will have much more money to use setting the terms of the general-election debate. He’ll be able to launch five attacks for every Sanders defense. Even when Sanders gets free media attention, he’ll find himself confronted with questions about Soviet healthcare and government takeovers and giving in to Communism. When you talk to your crazy uncle who lives inside the Fox News bubble, those phrases will form a buzzword-wall that you’ll never get past.

That is why the decision to vote for Sanders in the primaries — here in New Hampshire, my decision is coming up faster than most — is more complicated than it seems. Because Sanders has yet to face the full force of the right-wing bullshit machine, I put no stock at all in the polls showing him running better against Republican candidates than Hillary does, or picking up Trump voters in a race against some other Republican. And while I want to see a full public debate of the issues Bernie is raising, I’m not at all sure that will happen if we nominate him.

That may sound crazy, but the campaign you get is often not the one you thought you were signing up for. Mike Dukakis knew he’d have to defend his ideas about creating jobs, but he never expected to become the Guy Who Hates the Pledge of Allegiance or the Pro Black Rapist Candidate. (Looking back, he said: “I made a decision we weren’t going to respond. That was it. About two months later I woke up and realized I was getting killed with this stuff.”) Elizabeth Warren anticipated criticism of her banking proposals, but not how much time she would have to spend denying that she invented Native American ancestors to cash in on affirmative action.

Being in the right only helps up to a point. If the other side can launch a series of attacks that have just enough surface plausibility to demand a response, the public’s attention may never turn to the issues you’re trying to run on. The voters may never listen to all those wonderful points you want to make.

So if he’s nominated, I have to wonder how much of Bernie’s message will make it out to the voters, and how much will be swamped by bullshit issues. How much time will he spend establishing that he’s not a Bolshevik (or worse, refusing to establish that he’s not a Bolshevik, on the high principle that he shouldn’t have to), or defending some easily misrepresented Burlington city ordinance from thirty years ago? Having seen how completely the Right can re-invent a recent historical figure like Saul Alinsky, I can barely imagine what they’ll do with Eugene Debs.

Dealing with bullshit issues patiently but firmly (and occasionally managing to turn them to your advantage) requires its own kind of political skill, the kind John Kennedy demonstrated when he defused fears of his Catholicism, or Obama showed when he spoke about race and Jeremiah Wright. (That speech was the moment I realized I wanted Obama to be president.) No one believes Hillary Clinton has the oratorical gifts of JFK or Obama, but she’s been facing right-wing smears for more than two decades, and has gotten pretty good at fending them off, as she showed when she stared down the House Benghazi Committee for 11 hours in October.

Does Bernie Sanders have that in him? I don’t know. So far, nothing in his career has required it. I worry that when Fox News and Rush Limbaugh and Alex Jones put him in the crosshairs, he’ll get testy and defensive. Baseless attacks might raise his preachy side, leading him to lecture reporters rather than answer their questions or artfully deflect them or humorously turn them around. His idealism might lead him to insist that because bullshit issues shouldn’t matter, they don’t.

They do. In election after election, we’ve seen that they do. We need a candidate who can deal with them.

Is Bernie Sanders that candidate? I don’t know. That — maybe even more than how I feel about the policy differences between Clinton and Sanders — is the thing I have to decide in the next two weeks.

The Monday Morning Teaser

We’re coming down to the wire on the early primaries: Next Monday the Iowa caucuses happen, and eight days later I have to vote here in New Hampshire. As the Democratic race tightens up, I find myself wondering: So far all the Republicans have been running against Hillary, talking about Benghazi and emails and Bill’s escapades. If they started running against Bernie, what would that sound like?

Well, it turns out The New York Post jumped the gun on the anti-Bernie campaign, warning America that he’s a “diehard Communist”, and listing all sorts of “evidence” that has just about as much factual basis as … well, as the Benghazi stand-down order and all the other crap they’ve been throwing at Hillary.

But just because it’s crap doesn’t mean that it won’t work, or at least work well enough to distract the electorate from looking at the issues Bernie is trying to run on. Going back to Dukakis and the Pledge of Allegiance issue in 1988, all Democratic nominees spend a big chunk of their campaign wading through crap: swift-boating against Kerry, birtherism and “paling around with terrorists” against Obama, and so forth. Some nominees have had the political skill to cut through the noise and get the public to pay attention to their issues, and some haven’t. That has a lot to do with which ones won.

So what about Bernie and his “history” of diehard Communism? If he’s nominated, how will the Republicans use that against him and will he have the skills to deal with it? I’ll meditate on that in this week’s featured post “Smearing Bernie, a preview”. That should be out soon.

The weekly summary also has a lot of election coverage in it: Trump/Cruz is getting nasty. Hillary has been overstating the problems with Bernie’s healthcare plan, but Ezra Klein and Paul Krugman point out that there are some legitimate issues there. The Vanilla ISIS folks are still scaring the birds away in Oregon. Winter Storm Jonas clobbered the NY-Washington corridor, but left New England alone. Then there’s Flint, and verification that 2015 was the hottest year ever.  And of course, a couple guns-make-us-safer stories. That should be out by 10:30.

Standing Up

Our collective futures depend on your willingness to uphold your duties as a citizen. To vote. To speak out. To stand up for others, especially the weak, especially the vulnerable, knowing that each of us is only here because somebody, somewhere, stood up for us.

— President Barack Obama, the 2016 State of the Union address

This week’s featured posts are “The Positive Republican Message, Annotated” and “There’s a Lot to Know about the Militia Takeover“. As always on MLK Monday, I want to flash back to my attempt to guard the radical career of Martin Luther King against those who would reduce it one over-simplified quote: “MLK: Sanitized for Their Protection“.

This week everybody was talking about the State of the Union

Tuesday, President Obama gave his final State of the Union address. [video, text] I see it as the beginning of his victory lap: No matter what you may hear from the Republican presidential candidates, the United States is much better off than it was when he took office. Other than ObamaCare or the Iran nuclear deal, his accomplishments haven’t been flashy. But he came into office telling his administration “Don’t do stupid stuff” — like invading Iraq, say, or passing another huge tax cut for the rich — and for the most part they haven’t. It’s amazing how well America can do if the president isn’t doing stupid stuff.

No doubt the victory lap will peak with an appearance at the Democratic convention this summer. I expect the delegates to clap for a long, long time.


Another recent Obama broadcast is his “Guns in America” townhall conversation on CNN January 7. [video, transcript]

and Iran

This week President Obama frustrated yet again everyone who wants a war with Iran. Tuesday, Iran seized two American patrol boats and the ten sailors aboard them, claiming they had entered Iranian waters (which seems to be true). The next day the boats and the sailors were released without anyone needing to “unleash the full force and fury of the United States” as Ted Cruz pledged to do at Thursday night’s presidential debate.

At the time the nuclear deal with Iran was being debated in Congress, critics objected that the Obama administration was “leaving behind” several Americans held in Iran, including Christian minister Saeed Abedini and Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian. The administration argued that those negotiations were better handled separately rather than putting everything together in an omnibus package. Well, Saturday, the United States and Iran completed a prisoner swap that included Abedini and Rezaian. They weren’t left behind.

It’s probably not a coincidence that Saturday also marked the end of economic sanctions against Iran, as the International Atomic Energy Agency verified that Iran had complied with its part of the nuclear deal. The sanctions had frozen Iran’s deposits in the international banking system, which have been estimated anywhere from $50-$150 billion.

Republican candidates try to make this sound like a U.S. payoff to the Iranians. For example, Donald Trump characterized the deal as: “They get $150 billion, plus seven [prisoners] and we get four [prisoners].” But the money was always theirs; we were simply holding it hostage. Obama “gave” the Iranians nothing.

What the end of sanctions will do is let Iran return to the international oil market. The anticipation of Iranian oil coming onto the market is part of why oil prices have been collapsing lately. So yes, President Obama does deserve some credit for gas prices falling below $2 a gallon.

and the continuing Oregon militia stand-off

I cover that in “There’s a Lot to Know about the Militia Takeover“.

and deaths of cultural icons

If you’re my age, chances are David Bowie meant something special to you. It was always hard to separate his life from his art, and now it is hard to separate his death from his art, as in the “Lazarus” video from his final album Blackstar.


Alan Rickman also died this week. For most people he’s Professor Snape, but I’ll always remember him as the Metatron in Dogma. Oh, that voice. Or maybe that voice up a few octaves.


I feel remiss in not having noted the death of Meadowlark Lemon when it happened at the end of 2015. Like all athletes who make it into their 80s, Meadowlark long outlived his glory days. Many young people probably know nothing about him, and possibly nothing about the Harlem Globetrotters in general, who still exist but aren’t the cultural force they once were.

The Globetrotters began in an era when American professional sports leagues were still segregated, and black athleticism was only safe for whites if it came wrapped in comedy. (In baseball, Satchel Paige was a similar package of athletic skill and comedic showmanship.)

In Meadowlark’s lifetime the NBA was open to blacks, but for working-class white boys of my generation it still was chancy to openly imitate black stars like Bill Russell or Oscar Robertson. (I never told anybody that my reverse lay-up was styled after a photo of Elgin Baylor. That’s one reason the “Be Like Mike” series of Gatorade commercials in the 90s — with kids of all races pretending to be Michael Jordan — could sometimes make me tear up.) But imitating a funny stunt by Meadowlark or his wild-dribbling teammate Curly Neal was OK.

and the Episcopal Church

The Episcopal Church is one of the oldest religious organizations in America, going back to the Church of England’s extension to the North American colonies. George Washington attended the Church of Virginia, which why a bust of him has been in the crypt of St. Paul’s in London since 1921. (I’ve seen it.)

Thursday, that centuries-old connection frayed, as a convocation of primates from the Anglican churches of 44 countries met in Canterbury, and suspended the Episcopal Church from participation in governance of the Anglican Communion. The primates’ official statement says:

we formally acknowledge this distance by requiring that for a period of three years The Episcopal Church no longer represent us on ecumenical and interfaith bodies, should not be appointed or elected to an internal standing committee and that while participating in the internal bodies of the Anglican Communion, they will not take part in decision making on any issues pertaining to doctrine or polity.

The “distance” arises from the Episcopalians’ increasing tolerance of homosexuality, which is particularly odious to the African Anglican leaders. An openly gay Episcopal bishop was elected in 2003, and same-sex marriages were officially recognized in July. The role of women is also an issue, though many other Anglican churches ordain women as priests. Katharine Jefferts Schori was presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church from 2006-2014.

Such issues have led to the formation of a rival Anglican Church in North America, which is not officially recognized by the Anglican Communion, but is recognized by numerous African Anglican churches.

It’s hard to see how this issue resolves in three years, or in anything other than a permanent separation, since Episcopalians don’t seem likely to back down. “We’re committed to being a house of prayer for all,” said current Presiding Bishop Michael Curry. The most eloquent expression of that position came from Jim Naughton, the former head of the archdiocese of Washington, D.C.: “We can’t repent what is not sin.”

The Daily Beast‘s Jay Michaelson sees the Anglican/Episcopal rift as

just the surface of a much deeper division, reflecting the polarization of Christian life in the 21st century.

and you might also be interested in

This week’s guns-make-us-safer story concerns an Ohio man who killed his son. The 14-year-old’s skipping-school plan involved sneaking back into the basement after apparently going out to catch the bus. His father heard a noise downstairs and shot at what he believed to be an intruder.


Sociologist Victor Tan Chen elaborates on the recent study showing declining life expectancy for working-class whites, predominately due to despair-related health problems (like suicide and addiction) in middle age. Chen focuses not just on the declining economic opportunities for less-educated whites (a problem they share with less-educated non-whites, whose life expectancy is still increasing), but the simultaneous decline in sources of community (like church or union membership), and in long-term marriages. When economic disaster strikes, a go-it-alone attitude and an ideal of rugged individualism may leave a person more vulnerable to despair than a better-connected person who is even worse off financially.


Charles Alan Martin tells how his thinking about Black Lives Matter has changed:

Up until this point, I’ve stubbornly held onto the presumption that BLM needed to somehow deliver their message in a way I could find palatable when, in reality, I wasn’t owed a damned thing.

I had a similar realization just before I wrote “Why BLM Protesters Can’t Behave“.


The debate over whether Ted Cruz is a “natural born citizen” of the United States — which the Constitution mentions as a requirement for the presidency — has heated up.

I admit, it’s satisfying to watch Cruz have to deal with this after all the completely baseless noise he and his fellow conservatives (like his Dad, for example) made about President Obama’s citizenship. I think this is a bullshit issue, but Cruz has made a career out of bullshit.

Even so, my position is simple: We have to respect the clear constitutional requirements (like being at least 35 years old), but any ambiguity should be interpreted to maximize voter choice. I will be very sad (and worried) if the American people elect Ted Cruz as our next president. But the place to stop him is at the ballot box; I don’t want to disqualify him on a technicality.

Cruz is also dealing with the revelation that he funded his Senate campaign with loans from Goldman Sachs, where his wife works, and didn’t report it properly. NPR explains the possible ramifications.

And I question how much influence David Brooks has on the Republican electorate, but the conservative NYT columnist wasn’t pulling any punches in “The Brutalism of Ted Cruz“:

Ted Cruz is now running strongly among evangelical voters, especially in Iowa. But in his career and public presentation Cruz is a stranger to most of what would generally be considered the Christian virtues: humility, mercy, compassion and grace. … He sows bitterness, influences his followers to lose all sense of proportion and teaches them to answer hate with hate. This Trump-Cruz conservatism looks more like tribal, blood and soil European conservatism than the pluralistic American kind.

BTW, “tribal, blood and soil European conservatism” sounds to me like a roundabout way of saying “fascism”.


And while I’m on that subject (again), here’s a fascinating historical tidbit from Robert O. Paxton’s The Anatomy of Fascism:

The term national socialism seems to have been invented by the French nationalist author Maurice Barrès, who described the aristocratic adventurer the Marquis de Morès in 1896 as “the first national socialist.” Morès, after failing as a cattle rancher in North Dakota, returned to Paris in the early 1890s and organized a band of anti-Semitic toughs who attacked Jewish shops and offices. As a cattleman, Morès found his recruits among the slaughterhouse workers in Paris, to whom he appealed with a mixture of anticapitalism and anti-Semitic nationalism. His squads wore the cowboy garb and ten-gallon hats that the marquis had discovered in the American West, which thus predate black and brown shirts (by a modest stretch of the imagination) as the first fascist uniform.

Keep that in mind as you watch Ammon Bundy and his fellow militia yahoos in Oregon.


Some insight into Trump supporters from a Muslim woman who attended a rally in a hijab.


Now that Michael Bay’s Benghazi movie 13 Hours is out, the long-debunked myths about Benghazi are likely to be trotted out again. Fortunately, Media Matters has put together a convenient video debunking yet again the four biggest Benghazi myths. Bookmark it, and use as needed in Facebook arguments.


Sky Palma@DeadStateTweets:

If you vote for a party that’s against government regulation, don’t be surprised if your tap water ends up poisoning you.

and let’s close with something you can start watching tonight

War and Peace, the miniseries.

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