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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.

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.

There’s a Lot to Know about the Militia Takeover

I was going to do my own analysis of the militia takeover of Malheur Wildlife Refuge in eastern Oregon, but it turns out there’s no need: Lots and lots of insightful articles are out there already, so I’ve decided to survey them for you.

You can come at this story from many different angles:

  • the day-to-day actions of the occupiers and the (so far) apparent inaction of the government in response. The best place to keep track of this is through Oregon Public Broadcasting, which has a web page collecting all its Malheur-related articles.
  • the legal case that sparked the occupation, the arson conviction of Dwight and Steven Hammond.
  • the larger land-use issues that unite many local ranchers against government policy, whether they agree with the armed occupation or not.
  • the off-beat and sometimes downright nutty versions of American history and constitutional law that the militiamen use to justify their actions.
  • how the government should respond to the occupation
  • the hilarious responses of various comedians and satirists.

Recent developments. As I said above, OPB is the place to keep up. If you’re waiting for a pitched battle, not much has been happening. The occupiers were supposed to be announcing their exit strategy Friday, but OPB didn’t publish one, so probably that didn’t happen. The most ridiculous recent story was the first arrest: Kenneth Mendenbach was arrested Friday for unauthorized use of a vehicle after he drove a commandeered government van into town for supplies. An unofficial spokesman for the militia called this a “dumb choice“.

An Oregon sportsman’s group, Backcountry Hunters & Anglers, have posted a video of their members tearing down one of the occupiers’ signs. They recognize the obvious:

It’s a baldfaced grab at the lands that belong to the people of the United States. I can guarantee what that means is that pretty soon they’ll start saying, “Well, you guys can’t come out on this land because it’s ranchland.”

The Hammonds. The spark the set off the conflict was the re-imprisonment of the Hammonds, when an appellate judge ruled that their conviction (for arson on public land) carried a mandatory minimum sentence of five years. A good summary of the case comes from the local U.S. attorney.

I agree that mandatory minimums are bad law, but I don’t believe in a special exception for white land-owners. So if this case motivates conservatives to get on board with criminal justice reform, that would be great. But a lot of non-violent black offenders are serving long sentences for drug convictions, and their plight doesn’t raise similar public compassion.

BTW, the Hammonds quite likely have committed many more crimes than the arsons they were convicted of. They had already plea-bargained the charges down, and the government believes one fire was set to cover up evidence of an illegal deer hunt. There’s also a child-abuse angle on the story. So, in short, I don’t see them as sympathetic figures.

Ranchers and public land. A more positive view of ranchers and the complexity of the grazing-on-public-land issue comes from Grist‘s Nathaniel Johnson. Long-term grazing rights are not property, but in some ways they sort of are. For example, a bank will give you a loan based on the value of your grazing rights. Ranchers pay higher prices for land with federal grazing rights attached, so it’s not entirely crazy for them to feel cheated if those rights are changed or eliminated.

Also at Grist, Darby Minow Smith, interviews her Montana-rancher Dad about the issues raised by the Malheur occupation. He argues that grazing on public land is a good thing, as long as it’s not over-done.

There are indicator species that show that a forest is healthy. I’ve long maintained that cows on grazing permits are an indicator that there’s a system that’s working. There’s open space out there. There aren’t subdivisions choking up around the forest.

On the other hand, The Week‘s Ryan Cooper calls attention to the underlying contradictions of “cowboy socialism”, i.e., the strange marriage of the rugged individualist stereotype to demands for free stuff (land, water, etc.) from the government.

As Marc Reisner details in his history Cadillac Desert, this is the basic problem with Western politics, even up to the present day. It has been from the very start handicapped by the reality that only extensive federal government projects could possibly facilitate the settlement and development of the region, but it has been too wedded to the cowboy mythology to admit it.

But instead of coming to terms with reality, and building quality government institutions to ensure the programs functioned properly, Western politicians simply grafted massive federal subsides onto their beloved cowboy individualism.

If the federal government hadn’t fought the Indian wars and the Mexican-American War, the West wouldn’t be available to English-speaking settlers at all. Without expensive federal investments in dams and other big infrastructure projects, most of the non-coastal West would only support populations about the size of the Native American tribes who preceded the white settlers. Without the subsidies that created the transcontinental railroads, Western ranchers would have had no way to bring a product to market. And so on.

So the idea that Western ranchers are victims of government “tyranny” is nutty. I’m reminded of this scene from Monty Python’s Life of Brian, where a Judean revolutionary gets answers to his rhetorical question “What have the Romans ever done for us?”

OPB makes the connection between the proposal to return federal lands to the states and the probable result: privatization with no regard for hard-to-monetize values like the environment. Oregon is currently trying to sell the Elliott State Forest.

Legal and historical nonsense. Pacific Standard‘s Aaron Brady attributes the claims of “federal tyranny” in Harney County to “Libertarian Fairy Tales“.

In the beginning, there was the land. But like all virgin soil, it required entrepreneurial ranchers to settle it before it could produce value, and this was central to the myth: that nothing existed before the arrival of these free men. … For the Bundys, then, nothing really happened before the 1870s. They do not mention Spanish explorers in 1532, or French Canadian trappers, or the British occupation after the war of 1812, or Oregon statehood in the 1850s. Their story most definitely does not begin thousands of years ago, when the first people settled the region. They have no time for how the Army re-settled the northern Paiute in the Malheur Indian reservation in 1872—emptying Harney County for settlement by white people—nor how those same white settlers demanded (and got) the reservation dis-established in 1879 so they could have that land too.

And then there’s the simple craziness of the occupiers’ legal/political views. Right Wing Watch‘s Miranda Blue gives some of the background, relying on Daniel Levitas’ 2002 book The Terrorist Next Door. Levitas traces the militia ideology back to the teachings of white supremacist minister William Gale: The Constitution gives the federal government no power to manage lands inside the sovereign states. (To believe this, you have to ignore or rationalize your way around Article IV, Section 3: “The Congress shall have Power to dispose of and make all needful Rules and Regulations respecting the Territory or other Property belonging to the United States”) And since the states have not stood against this federal usurpation, power reverts to the counties.

The county should be recognized as the seat of power for the people, and the sheriff is to be the “ONLY LEGAL LAW ENFORCEMENT OFFICER IN THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA!” all healthy men between the ages of eighteen and forty-five who are not in the military could be mobilized into a posse comitatus to redress their grievances, Gale explained.

But of course, since the Harney County officials aren’t backing the occupiers, they’re not legitimate either. A “citizens grand jury” is being put together to press charges. The logic is circular: The occupiers will submit to legitimate authority, but any authority who tells them to stop what they’re doing is not legitimate.

Religion. The Bundys are Mormons, and many of the militiamen seem to have a strange interpretation of Mormonism. I know virtually nothing about Mormonism, mainstream or otherwise, so I’ll let OPB’s John Selpulvado explain.

Humor. The occupation has been fertile ground for comedy.

Perhaps my favorite is this Ken-Burns-like documentary clip.

Precedents and federal response. The government’s wait-and-see approach to the Malheur occupation contrasts sharply with the many shootings of unarmed blacks that Black Lives Matter has called attention to, and also to the violent ejections of Occupy Wall Street protesters from numerous encampments a few years ago.

At least two other incidents have been mentioned as precedents:

  • the MOVE bombing in Philadelphia in 1985, in which a militant black group was bombed by the police, killing 11 and setting 63 neighboring homes on fire.
  • the attempted occupation of a federal wildlife refuge in Georgia in 1979, by 40 descendants of black slaves and sharecroppers who had once worked the land. Those who refused to leave were forcibly removed within three days and charged with trespassing.

Those who sympathize with the militiamen talk about Waco and Ruby Ridge, two sieges that ended in bloodshed, and were cited as motivation for the Oklahoma City bombing a few years later. Even if you don’t sympathize, that history provides an argument for under-reacting to the current incident: Why incite bloodshed that could inspire further bloodshed down the line?

And of course there’s the Bundy stand-off of 2014, in which a similar gathering of armed militiamen kept the Bureau of Land Management from recovering unpaid grazing fees by impounding the cattle of Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, father of Ammon Bundy, a leader of the Malheur occupation. Numerous crimes were committed in the course of the stand-off (it being illegal to threaten a federal agent by pointing a weapon at him or her), but so far none have been prosecuted.

The militiamen regard the 2014 incident as a victory, and seem to feel that Malheur continues their momentum. It’s not much of a stretch to believe that this incident arises from the lack of a forceful government response in Nevada.

What I hope for. The government has a narrow path to walk. I understand the desire not to fight a pitched battle and then wait for reprisals from the militia movement. On the other hand, if Bundy and his compatriots come out of Malheur feeling victorious, they’ll go on to try something else. There’s debate about whether it’s appropriate to use the word terrorist here, but some of the same logic applies: If a group is looking for a confrontation, it’s very hard not to give them one eventually.

If the U.S. government is not willing to enforce its laws against armed right-wingers, it starts to look a little like the Weimar Republic: Hitler was arrested for treason after his first attempt to take power, the Beer Hall Putsch of 1923. But he served less than a year in prison and was back out leading his party by the end of 1924. A German government that believed in itself enough to seriously punish insurrectionists might have saved the world a lot of trouble.

So I think it’s important that the outcome of this incident, however long it takes, not give the occupiers anything they can describe as victory. There should be no concessions about the Hammonds or local land use, and the militia leaders have to go jail. Just peaceably going home — or off to the next confrontation — is not enough.

I hope someone in the government is giving serious thought to how to make that happen without killing anybody. That will be a hard feat to pull off.

The Positive Republican Message, Annotated

After South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley gave the official Republican response to the State of the Union address, the media focused all its attention on the anti-Trump implications of her call to “resist [the] temptation” to “follow the angriest voices”, particularly where immigration was concerned.

But I was more interested in where she went from there: If the GOP is going to be more than just a megaphone for anger and fear, it needs to present a positive vision for America’s future. In other words, it needs to compete for the hope-and-change vote that Barack Obama monopolized in his 2008 landslide. So Haley laid out this hopeful program for the next Republican presidency, which I quote in full:

If we held the White House, taxes would be lower for working families, and we’d put the brakes on runaway spending and debt.

We would encourage American innovation and success instead of demonizing them, so our economy would truly soar and good jobs would be available across our country.

We would reform education so it worked best for students, parents, and teachers, not Washington bureaucrats and union bosses.

We would end a disastrous health care program, and replace it with reforms that lowered costs and actually let you keep your doctor.

We would respect differences in modern families, but we would also insist on respect for religious liberty as a cornerstone of our democracy.

We would recognize the importance of the separation of powers and honor the Constitution in its entirety. And yes, that includes the Second and Tenth Amendments.

We would make international agreements that were celebrated in Israel and protested in Iran, not the other way around.

And rather than just thanking our brave men and women in uniform, we would actually strengthen our military, so both our friends and our enemies would know that America seeks peace, but when we fight wars we win them.

Growth, jobs, education, better health insurance, liberty, the rule of law, stronger diplomacy, and seeking peace but winning wars when we’re forced to fight them — what’s not to like? That’s a far more attractive vision than the Great Wall of Mexico, or invading ISIS’ godforsaken desert, or bombing Iran, or watching a special police force round up and expel 11 million Hispanic immigrants.

My only argument with Haley (other than the issues she leaves out completely, like climate change, voting rights, the environment, racial justice, and so on) concerns the Republican policies that are supposed to produce these wonderful outcomes. And that’s why I think her litany needs some line-by-line annotation. Let’s start at the top:

If we held the White House, taxes would be lower for working families,

Maybe. But the tax cuts proposed by all Republican candidates focus their benefits on the rich. As was true of the Bush and Reagan tax cuts, anything working families get is just shiny wrapping on a package addressed to the wealthy.

Typically Republicans deny that their tax cuts will explode the deficit, but they always do, and then the next step is to seek cuts in programs working families count on, like Social Security and Medicare. (That small tax cut you get will be eaten up pretty quickly if you have to support your aging parents.) The following chart is from 2012, so the right side is a little out of date, but the general point is still valid.

No party could openly propose: “Let’s slash rich people’s taxes and make up the difference by cutting Social Security and Medicare.” But that is the Republican agenda. They will pass it by breaking it in two: First pass huge tax cuts that mainly benefit the rich, and then treat the resulting deficit as an emergency no one could have foreseen. Working people will have to “sacrifice” their Social Security and Medicare benefits to deal with the “emergency” created by the tax cuts.

and we’d put the brakes on runaway spending

As this chart from the libertarian Cato Institute shows, federal spending has been fairly level during the Obama administration, after increasing sharply under Bush.

and debt.

Republican candidates do propose cutting spending on things like food stamps, but after accounting for increased defense spending, the net spending cut is typically far smaller than the tax cut. So the deficit is likely to jump sharply during a Republican administration (after falling under Obama), as it did when Reagan and Bush cut taxes.

We would encourage American innovation and success instead of demonizing them,

Listening to Haley, you might imagine Democrats spouting absurdities like, “Damn that iPhone!” or “What good is this Internet fad anyway?” — which we never do. Her statement only contacts reality after you realize that innovation and success is a euphemism for billionaires. Democrats haven’t “demonized” billionaires, but we have been (correctly) pointing out that billionaires soak up just about all of America’s economic growth, leaving little for anyone else.

so our economy would truly soar and good jobs would be available across our country.

The theory that making the rich richer will produce growth and good jobs for everyone is known as trickle-down economics. In the history of humankind it has never worked, for a simple reason: When the poor and middle class have more money, they buy things that somebody needs to produce, creating new jobs and industries. But when the rich have more money, they bid up the prices of limited goods like stocks, Van Gogh paintings, and beachfront property, inflating speculative bubbles that eventually pop and damage the economy the rest of us depend on.

We would reform education so it worked best for students, parents, and teachers, not Washington bureaucrats and union bosses.

No one has gone after teachers’ unions harder than Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin. The benefits of this to students and parents are virtually invisible, and teachers are undeniably worse off. Sam Brownback’s Kansas exemplifies another Republican approach to education: When his tax cuts for the wealthy didn’t produce the economic boom he promised (because trickle-down economics doesn’t work), he made up the deficit by cutting money for public schools.

But Republican education reform would definitely benefit one group: corporations who want a bigger chunk of the education market.

We would end a disastrous health care program, and replace it with reforms that lowered costs and actually let you keep your doctor.

The “disaster” of ObamaCare continues to exist mainly in the conservative fantasy world. In reality, the percentage of American adults without health insurance has dropped from 16% when Obama took office to under 9% today, is still dropping, and would have dropped much more if Republican governors hadn’t refused to expand Medicaid. Predictions that ObamaCare would “kill jobs” have not proven out.

The Republican replacement for ObamaCare is also a fantasy. Six years after the Affordable Care Act became law, Republicans have still not agreed on an alternative, and no GOP presidential candidate has anything more than the barest sketch of a plan. Any claims about what such “reform” would do are meaningless until enough details get specified that outside experts can analyze the program’s costs and individual families can tell whether or not they’re covered. Those details are still a long way off, and may never arrive.

We would respect differences in modern families,

Would they? I think the vagueness of this claim speaks for itself. No Republican candidate will openly say, “I respect gay or lesbian couples who get married and raise children” or “I respect transgender Americans.” Large parts of the Republican base would be offended if a candidate said, “I respect blacks and whites intermarrying.”

but we would also insist on respect for religious liberty as a cornerstone of our democracy.

Americans’ freedom to worship the deity of their choice has not changed during the Obama years. But in conservative rhetoric, religious liberty has expanded well beyond any previous meaning, to become code for conservative Christians controlling the behavior of others. No one has been able to explain how this expanded religious liberty can be granted to non-Christians, particularly atheists or Muslims, so the Constitution’s guarantee of “the equal protection of the laws” is out the window.

We would recognize the importance of the separation of powers and honor the Constitution in its entirety. And yes, that includes the Second and Tenth Amendments.

But what about the 14th Amendment? After Republican-appointed Supreme Court justices undo the recent decision legalizing same-sex marriage — as numerous candidates have promised — how will gays and lesbians receive the equal protection of the marriage laws? And conservative legal arguments against birthright citizenship — another guarantee of the plain language of the 14th Amendment — are far more convoluted than any alleged “judicial activism” of liberal judges.

It has also become common for Republicans to get misty-eyed talking about the sacred writ of the Constitution, and then demand drastic changes with their next breath.

We would make international agreements that were celebrated in Israel and protested in Iran, not the other way around.

When President Obama and Secretary Clinton got the world to agree to harsh sanctions on Iran — which forced them to bargain seriously about their nuclear program for the first time — I doubt the Iranians celebrated. And I can’t help wondering: who would these agreements Haley is talking about be with? Actual agreements require compromise. If you want to dictate terms to other countries, you have to defeat them in war first. Is that the plan?

And rather than just thanking our brave men and women in uniform, we would actually strengthen our military,

Actually she means instead of thanking our brave men and women in uniform. Republicans are good at starting wars, but not so good at taking care of the people who fight them.

so both our friends and our enemies would know that America seeks peace, but when we fight wars we win them.

The last Republican administration started two wars and won neither of them. And yet, the last eight years have seen no Republican soul-searching or new approaches to foreign policy. (The exception is Rand Paul, who has barely any support.) If a Republican wins the presidency in November, expect to see the Pentagon and State Department led by the same people who invaded Iraq and had no plan for what to do next.

In short, I would love to see the eventual Republican nominee run on a positive vision for America rather than on anger and fear. But it would be even more wonderful if the candidate offered proposals that stood some chance of achieving that vision. That’s something neither Haley nor any other Republican has yet attempted.

Trump Supporters and Liberals: Why aren’t we on the same side?

Working Americans do need to “take our country back”. But from who?


Back in 2011, in “One Word Turns the Tea Party Around“, I suggested a simple change to Tea Party rhetoric: Wherever the word government occurs, replace it with corporations. When I did that, suddenly I could agree wholeheartedly with the people Tea Party web sites loved to quote. Like Ronald Reagan:

Man is not free unless corporations are limited.

or Ayn Rand:

We are fast approaching the stage of the ultimate inversion: the stage where a corporation is free to do anything it pleases, while the citizens may act only by permission.

After the switch, Grover Norquist is still a radical, but I can see where he’s coming from:

We want to reduce the size of corporations in half as a percentage of GNP over the next 25 years. We want to reduce the number of people depending on corporations so there is more autonomy and more free citizens.

When I changed Washington to Wall Street, Rand Paul was right on target:

Wall Street is horribly broken. I think we stand on a precipice. We are encountering a day of reckoning and this movement, this Tea Party movement, is a message to Wall Street that we’re unhappy and that we want things done differently.

Running the wrong way. Looking at the Tea Party rank and file — the ordinary people who swelled its ranks rather than the ones who funded it or constructed its message or rode it to Congress — I found a lot to identify with. I agreed with them on a lot of key points, which I listed:

  • Honest, hard-working Americans are seeing their opportunities dry up.
  • The country is dominated by a small self-serving elite.
  • Our democracy is threatened.
  • The public is told a lot of lies.
  • People need to stand up and make their voices heard.
  • If we stand together, we’re not as helpless as we seem.

The problem, as I saw it then, was that somehow these people had gotten turned around — to illustrate, I linked to a video of Jim Marshall’s famous wrong-way touchdown run —  so that when they thought they were striking back at an oppressive government, they were in fact carrying the ball for the real sources of oppression: the billionaires and the corporations.

Tallying up. Four and a half years later, we can tally up the results of that wrong-way run. Tea Partiers provided the victory margin that gave Congress and many governorships to the Republican Party. But what has that power been used for?

Whose agenda is that? How does any of it address the issues that created the Tea Party in the first place?

“Anti-establishment” Republicans. Recently, a lot of Tea Partiers claim to be catching on, so they’re now in revolt against the Republican establishment. Instead, they’re supporting supposedly anti-establishment Republicans like Ben Carson, Ted Cruz, Carly Fiorina, and especially Donald Trump.

But to me, it looks like they’re falling for the same shell game all over again. Because they’re still turned around, still trying to make common cause with billionaires and corporations against the scourge of Big Government, still expecting the wolves to help them keep the sheep dogs in check. Again, the form of the rhetoric is right, if only a few words would change. Then Ben Carson would denounce the billionaire class instead of the political class, and Carly Fiorina would say:

This is not an economy anymore that works for everyone. We have come to a pivotal point in our nation’s history where, truly, the possibilities for too many Americans — entrepreneurship and innovation — is being crushed. It’s being crushed by corporations that have grown so big, so powerful, so costly, so corrupt and so inept.

Ordinary Americans do need to “take our country back”. The question that separates liberals from Tea Partiers is: Who do we need to take our country back from?

Divide and conquer. All through American history, the very rich have used a divide-and-conquer strategy to stay on top of the more numerous classes. Particularly in desperate times, their message to working people has always been the same: There is an even more desperate class of workers coming to take what’s yours. So in order to keep what you have, you must help us keep what we have.

In the Old South, the more desperate workers were the black slaves, if they should ever get their freedom. So poor Southern whites fought and died to maintain the human property of the plantation owners. Even after the war, they were the shock troops of the KKK, whose terrorist violence crushed the Reconstruction state governments and took away the new rights of the freedmen. And was their loyalty rewarded? No, it was not. Throughout the New South, the old aristocracy continued to keep its own taxes low, maintain few public services, and (in particular) not fund the public education that might have allowed poor whites to better their lot.

All the poor whites had done was to disenfranchise their potential black allies, who might have helped them take power from their real enemies, the aristocrats.

Something similar was happening in the North, against other “invasions” of desperate workers: the Irish, the Italians, the Jews. Who benefited? The robber barons: Rockefeller, Carnegie, Vanderbilt, and all the rest. Railroad tycoon Jay Gould is supposed to have boasted that he could hire half the working class to kill the other half.

The targets then weren’t just the new ethnic groups. They were also union organizers: “communists” and “anarchists”. In the coal mines, workers sang:

They say in Harlan County
There are no neutrals there
You’ll either be a union man
Or a thug for J.H. Blair.

Which side are you on?

And the working people who stayed loyal to the bosses, were they rewarded? In the short run, a little. Busting heads for the Pinkertons paid decent money. And scab wages were good, for as long as the strike lasted. But after the moment passed, things always went back to normal fairly soon.

You load sixteen tons, and what do you get?
Another day older and deeper in debt.

In the 1920s, President Coolidge proclaimed, “The business of America is business.” His administration, followed by President Hoover’s, saw no problem in the speculative excesses of the financiers. And when it all collapsed, leaving millions of working Americans without jobs, did either the plutocrats or their politicians say, “These workers built America, we have to take care of them.”? Of course not.

Once I built a railroad, I made it run
Made it race against time
Once I built a railroad, now it’s done
Brother, can you spare a dime?

Once I built a tower up to the sun
Brick and rivet and lime
Once I built a tower, now it’s done
Brother, can you spare a dime?

Taking the country back. But you know something? Those people actually did take their country back. How? They elected a liberal: Franklin Roosevelt. That’s how we got Social Security and union rights and a minimum wage.

For once, working people didn’t let themselves be split against each other, white against black, Protestant against Catholic, native-born against immigrant. They stayed united against the people FDR called “the malefactors of great wealth”. And as a result, when World War II was over and there was new money to be made, it flowed to all classes, not just to a few people at the top. For three decades, we had rising wages, shrinking gaps between rich and poor, and increasing opportunity across the board.

Even Republicans turned liberal in those days. Dwight Eisenhower built the ultimate Big Government monument: the interstate highway system. Richard Nixon signed the Clear Air Act, put forward a national health care plan, and pursued a fiscal policy that led Milton Friedman to quip “We are all Keynesians now.” Those were good times for working people.

Today. Recent decades haven’t been so good. There’s room to argue about what caused it or which choices made it better or worse, but one thing is clear: More and more people feel desperate. And so the rich are making their old pitch: Even more desperate workers are coming to take what’s yours. If you want to keep what you have, you have to help us keep what we have.

If you’re wondering what has happened to your piece of the pie, they want you to look down the ladder at immigrants and the poor, not up at them. Look at the undocumented Hispanics, who aren’t in a position to demand the minimum wage or a 40-hour week or even safe working conditions, for fear their bosses will turn them in to the immigration police. Look at the blacks who work two minimum-wage jobs and still don’t make enough to get by without food stamps. Look at the Muslims who came here looking for a better life, just like Catholics did 150 years ago. (In those days, Catholics were the ones whose religion was supposed to be incompatible with American values.) Those are the folks you’re supposed to be afraid of and guard yourself against, not the wealthy few who are monopolizing all the benefits of the expanding economy.

Trump. The chief pitch-man for this message is a billionaire, one whose wealth comes from inherited capital and connections, who has probably never done a day’s physical labor in his life, and who I suspect has gone decades at a time hearing nothing from working people other than “Yes, Mr. Trump” and “No, Mr. Trump.” and “I’ll get that for you right away, Mr. Trump.”

He’s the guy who’s supposed to be speaking for Joe Sixpack and all the other Americans who just want a chance to work hard for a fair wage. Does that make any sense?

Trump lives here, but your wages are too high.

But, you might object, FDR was rich too. So let’s look at what Trump wants to do. He’s mostly kept things vague, but he does have a few specific proposals and positions: His tax plan gives a huge cut to the very rich; the top tax rate comes down from 39.6% to 25%, and the corporate rate shrinks even further to 15%. He opposes raising the minimum wage, calling American wages “too high”. If he has come out clearly against any of the plutocratic policies I listed above, I haven’t heard it. As the Who sang:

Meet the new boss
Same as the old boss.

The only thing that’s different about Trump is that he’s not “politically correct”. In other words, he harkens back to a day when white men didn’t have to worry about insulting blacks or Hispanics or women or gays or the disabled. Back then, if you had white skin and a penis, you just let your words fly and never looked back. (Or so I’m told.)

I suppose if you’re a white man who has been tut-tutted once too often, it can be satisfying to watch somebody flout all those new rules of courtesy. But face it: None of that is going to do anything to take the country back for working people or make America great again.

Bernie. You know who is offering a program to take our country back? Bernie Sanders. Like FDR, he wants to create jobs by rebuilding America’s infrastructure, investing money in things that produce economic growth, like roads and rail lines and airports and the electrical grid — not a wall across the middle of the desert. He has offered the only realistic plan to replace ObamaCare without cutting off millions of people’s health insurance. He’s behind a higher minimum wage. He wants everybody to be able to afford a college education. He advocates breaking up the big banks, so that they never again have the economy over a barrel like they did in 2008. He has proposed a constitutional amendment that gives Congress back the power the Supreme Court took away with the Citizens United decision: the power to keep billionaires from buying our political system.

Those plans would make a real difference in the lives of working people. But there is a downside, if you want to call it that: Rich people and corporations would have to pay more tax, and Wall Street would have to pay a tax that would discourage financial manipulations by introducing some friction into their transactions.

Sanders’ proposals are also politically impossible, we are told. He can’t be elected, and if he were he wouldn’t be able to get any of his ideas through Congress. Well, they wouldn’t be impossible if all the hard-working Americans who want to take the country back would get behind him. If working-class people — and, let’s face it, specifically white working-class people — would ignore all the fear-mongering and race-baiting and instead ask themselves what’s really going to change their lives for the better, then 2016 could see a liberal sweep that could reverse all those wrong-way touchdowns of 2010 and 2014.

In order to do that, though, a lot white working-class Americans would have to turn around. They’d have to stop looking at the imaginary threats below them and focus instead on the very real ways that those at the top of the pyramid — the billionaires and the corporations — are cutting off their hopes. They’d have to stop worrying so much about Big Government — which we can get control of if we all stand together — and worry more about Big Money, which we’re never going to control without using the power of government.

Will it happen? Probably not. It’s hard to turn around once you get up a head of steam. But it has happened before, and each election is a new chance, maybe to take the country back, or at the very least, “to get down on my knees and pray we don’t get fooled again.”

Themes of 2015: Black Lives Matter

The third theme running through 2015’s Sifts has been Black Lives Matter. All year in the weekly summaries, I called attention to whatever the latest case was of unwarranted police violence caught on tape, from Walter Scott to Laquan McDonald.

In March, the Justice Department ripped the veil off the predatory police-and-municipal-court system in Ferguson, and the racist policing that enforced it.

[T]he City of Ferguson relies on fines for a major portion of its revenue. It regularly budgets for fines to increase, and it pressures the police department to meet its budget goals by finding more offenses it can cite citizens for. Its municipal court is an opaque, inflexible system that is hard to navigate, particularly if you are poor and/or lack transportation.

As a result, a minor initial offense can snowball into an endless and expensive series of interactions if a citizen fails to appear in court when expected (whether notification of a court date has been received or not) or fails to pay the full fine assessed (regardless of the citizen’s ability to pay).

In short, the Ferguson justice system is predatory and the citizens are the prey.

The counter-attack from the Right was that BLM is anti-police, or even promotes violence against police. I tried to answer that in “Rich Lowry’s False Choice“. (The choice was between the bad racist policing so many black communities see now, and no policing at all.) I drew the implicit conclusion from Lowry’s BLM-slandering article:

So that’s your choice, black America: Live in completely lawless communities, or STFU whenever police kill young blacks they already have subdued, or shoot down young blacks who are doing nothing wrong. You can have police who continue misbehaving the way they have been, or no police at all. There is no third alternative.

A second objection came from people who claimed to sympathize with BLM’s issues, but found BLM tactics unnecessarily rude, as when two young black women shut down a Bernie Sanders speech in Seattle in August. In “Why BLM Protesters Can’t Behave“, I raised the question “What if you must be heard, but no one listens to your polite voice?” and quoted an activist:

I’ll tell you why. It’s because nobody listens to black people until we fuck their shit up. That’s what works. And we are trying to survive, so that’s what we do.

In “Protesting in Your Dreams” I called out Ben Carson, and all the other people who somehow blame BLM for the non-existence of the protest movement they’d prefer to see, but who don’t lift a finger to start that “better” movement.

But what if your purpose is to support the status quo, and maybe to gain the gratitude of the Powers That Be by helping derail and delegitimize the only effective action that’s currently happening? Then you should do what Ben Carson is doing: Fantasize about protest movements that could be happening, but aren’t.

Because that’s one thing the Powers That Be can always count on: Fantasy protests never change anything.

And finally, in “Samaritan Lives Matter“, I answered the “all lives matter” point, using a frame that Christian social conservatives should be able to understand.

The point, I believe, of making the third man [in the Good Samaritan parable] a Samaritan rather than a generic human, is precisely that saying “A Samaritan is my neighbor” would stick in a Judean’s throat, while “Anybody can be my neighbor” probably wouldn’t. “Anybody can be my neighbor” is an abstract feel-good idea a Judean could hold in his head without raising any of his specific prejudices.

The same thing is going on with “Black Lives Matter”. It isn’t meant to say “Black lives matter more than white lives” any more than Jesus was trying to say that Samaritans are better than Judeans. The point of saying “Black lives matter” is that it sticks in the throat of a lot of white Americans. By contrast, “Lives matter” and “All lives matter” are nice, feel-good abstractions. When we say them, we can think about generic people — who we probably picture as white.

Themes of 2015: Religion, Morality, and the Law

All year, gay rights has had to compete with claims of “religious freedom”. I should have predicted that: If you look back in American history, bigotry has always hidden behind religion.


As 2015 began, same-sex marriage was clearly headed to the Supreme Court. The ruling in Obergefell v Hodges wouldn’t come until June, but both sides were making their final push to bend public opinion in their favor. So in February, I wrote “When Hate Stays in the Closet” to answer what seemed to me to be the two most reasonable-sounding arguments against same-sex marriage. (A consistent gripe I have about the national debate is that all sides tend to focus on the most hateful and unreasonable arguments made against them, and leave the more reasonable ones untouched.)

On April 6, “Religious Freedom: Colorado’s sensible middle way” explained the principles involved in the various cases involving bakers, photographers, and other folks who felt their religious convictions should allow them to not serve gay couples who were planning their weddings. The key principle, which was already embedded in First Amendment cases and didn’t need any new religious-freedom laws to enforce it, was:

a business open to the public should be (and I believe is, without any new religious-freedom laws) free to refuse to endorse an idea, but it should not be free to refuse service to people merely because they practice or promote that idea.

So if a baker refuses to put “Gay Marriage Rocks” on a cake, that’s his First Amendment right. But if the shop sells wedding cakes to the public, it isn’t free to refuse a wedding cake to a same-sex couple.

I continued on the religious-freedom theme in May with “Turning the Theocracy Against Itself“, making the point that the new religious-freedom laws were clearly intended only for conservative Christians, and predicting that

If “religious freedom” laws end up giving atheists and Muslims the same consideration Christians are claiming, Christians will repeal those laws themselves.

For example: Inscribing “In God We Trust” on the money forces atheists either to do without the convenience of a national currency, or to hand out pieces of paper that denounce their own religious views. How can any non-sectarian religious-freedom law not ban that?

In May, I gave my best explanation of why I think bans on same-sex marriage are unconstitutional, even though the people who ratified the 14th Amendment probably never envisioned protecting same-sex couples.

In current law, the [legal] roles of husband and wife are virtually interchangeable. … So the claim that gays and lesbians want to “redefine marriage” has it exactly backwards. During the last century-and-a-half, marriage has already been redefined. And in marriage as it exists today — rather than during the Revolution or the Civil War — what’s our justification for refusing its advantages to same-sex couples?

In short, the Constitution and the 14th Amendment haven’t changed, but the world has changed around them. Nor is the Supreme Court being asked to “redefine marriage” or to pass a “judicial law” legalizing it. That’s not what a court is for. But we do need the Court to tell us what “equal protection” is going to mean in the context of today’s marriage laws.

Also in May/June, the Josh Duggar molestation scandal broke. For reasons I can’t recall, I resisted devoting an article to it, but a segment of a weekly summary was of article length and scope, concluding:

Morality, as I conceive it, is about how we’re all going to live together on the Earth without making each other miserable. If you picture it instead as a private interaction between yourself and the Divine Lawmaker, I think you’ve still got some growing up to do.

In early June, the Bruce/Caitlin Jenner story suddenly put transgender issues in the headlines. I had never thought about the topic seriously before (and it showed; ever since, commenters have been educating me about how not to inadvertently give offense). But rather than mask my own squeamishness, I decided to explore it to see what insight it could give me into the people who saw the celebration of Jenner as a “snapshot of just how corrupt, how morally corrupt, how morally bent, how morally twisted, how morally confused, how morally bankrupt we have become”. In “What’s So Scary About Caitlyn Jenner?” I announced an abstract principle that I should probably break out into its own article sometime: Everything you thought was a category is actually a continuum.

I think the unifying principle of social conservatism is the desire to believe that the categories in our heads — male/female, black/white, good/evil, friend/enemy, and so on — correspond to real and solid divisions in the external world. Social conservatives increasingly retreat into an information bubble as it becomes more and more obvious that what they want to believe simply is not true. Binary categories are just kludges evolution has provided to help us simplify a world too complex for our brains to fully grasp.

When the Obergefell decision arrived in June and same-sex marriage became legal nationwide, I was pleased by the result but (once again) disappointed in Justice Kennedy’s reasoning.

Justice Kennedy got the right result for the wrong reasons, and that will eventually cost us.  Not in other marriage cases – that’s over, just like everybody says. But Kennedy’s soaring rhetoric about the dignity of gay relationships wasn’t supported by a sound legal framework that we can use in, say, employment equality cases.

By founding his decision on a vague “right to marry” that he scries out of the word liberty in the 14th Amendment, Kennedy fed conservative rhetoric about “redefining marriage” and “judicial activism”. In the long run, I believe the reasoning that will stand is the equal-protection argument above, which I learned by reading the lower-court decisions.

After Obergefell, opponents of same-sex marriage largely went into denial, claiming that the other branches of government (or some popular uprising) could still stop this abomination (which has been happening in Massachusetts for more than a decade with no visible ill effects).

The opponents hate to be called bigots, and argue that their opposition is based on religion, not hatred. So it’s completely different than say, the opposition to interracial marriage in the 1960s. In order to make that argument, you have to be completely ignorant of history, so I tried to fix that with a history lesson in “You Don’t Have to Hate Anybody to be a Bigot” (the year’s most popular new post). After reviewing the religious arguments that have justified segregation and slavery, I concluded:

There’s nothing new about nice, salt-of-the-Earth people who sincerely believe that certain other people are undeserving of empathy or respect or fair treatment. There’s nothing new about those beliefs being expressed and justified in religious terms, or put forward by ministers and theologians.

Quite the opposite, that’s the normal situation.

In other words, it is totally typical for Americans to hide their disregard for their neighbor behind their love of God. Today’s Mike Huckabees and Kim Davises are heirs to a long tradition of religiously justified bigotry, even if they would rather not claim that legacy.

In his Obergefell dissent, Chief Justice Roberts raised the specter of polygamy as the next step down the slippery slope. In July, I examined that possibility, finding that (A) it’s not nearly so simple a step as Roberts implied, and (B) it’s also not the horror that he imagined.

By September, we had the Kim Davis saga, which I covered in “Is Kim Davis a Martyr?” I describe the standard of purity Davis  and others want to apply here — that Christians shouldn’t involve themselves in other people’s sins in any way — as “a ‘sincerely held belief’ that was invented solely for this purpose.” I see no reason to take it seriously.

As the year ends, the push to define religious freedom broadly — for conservative Christians, if no one else — continues, accompanied by the self-justifying fantasy that American Christians are persecuted. We’ll undoubtedly see more states pass laws that legalize discrimination against gays, and since the male-Catholic-conservative majority on the Supreme Court (Roberts, Scalia, Thomas, Alito, Kennedy) shows no signs of grasping the problem yet, it wouldn’t surprise me if they extend the religious-freedom principles in the Hobby Lobby decision even further in 2016.

I don’t see this trend stopping until unpopular religious groups start claiming their equal rights under these laws and interpretations, and forcing conservative judges to explain why they don’t deserve the same consideration Christians get. When those laws start protecting the broadly defined religious freedom of Muslims and pagans and atheists, conservative Christians will lead the repeal effort themselves.

Themes of 2015: the Presidential Race

I started 2015 with clear expectations about how I’d cover the campaign. But by Fall, I had to back up and try to answer a more fundamental question than the ones I ‘d been addressing: WTF?


Back in January, I had it all laid out.

I figured that for the first half of the year I’d resist the temptation to speculate about who was and wasn’t running, whether Clinton and Bush were inevitable nominees or not, and what the earliest Iowa polls meant (because they probably didn’t mean anything). Presidential politics has a way of crowding out all other political thought, and I wasn’t going to play that game.

By summer, I’d be looking at the candidates one-by-one, and cutting through the media’s endless horse-race coverage to focus on where each one wanted to take the country. I figured I’d have to sort through all sorts of tax-and-budget schemes, education plans, environmental positions, programs for giving more or fewer undocumented immigrants a path to citizenship, and so forth. I’d have to argue that both global warming and racism are real, tax cuts don’t pay for themselves, privatization doesn’t work, the market isn’t going to fix inequality by itself, and so on. Different faces, different specifics, but basically the same philosophical battle the country has been having for decades.

Instead, we’re talking about throwing 12 million people out of the country, and banning Muslims from coming here at all. We’re discussing what fascist means, and whether one of our front-runners qualifies. A sizable chunk of the country believes that Planned Parenthood has a lucrative business in harvesting fetal organs, and wants to shut down the government (or maybe start shooting people) to put a stop to it.

In short, things didn’t go the way I expected.

The divergence started simply enough: Large numbers of candidates got into the race so early that I had felt I had to start covering them at the end of March, when I wrote my introduction to the Republican primary process. Shortly afterwards, I started my 2016 Stump Speeches series, which was intended to focus on each candidate’s implicit or explicit answer to the question: “Where does America need to go and why am I the person to lead us there?”

In retrospect, that looks ridiculously naive.

Democrats. On the Democratic side, I sort of did what I intended. I confess to ignoring Martin O’Malley, even though I’ve seen him twice and he seems like a competent guy. But he never convinced me that he brought anything special to the race, in policy, in message, or in electability.

Chafee and Webb were gone before they caught my attention. Biden didn’t run. Lawrence Lessig tried to run, and his exclusion from the process is an interesting and disturbing story I’ll get around to telling eventually. That left Clinton and Sanders.

I covered Sanders’ announcement speech and a later speech he gave at the conservative Christian Liberty University. It was easy for me to like Bernie and his message, but less easy to imagine him leading the party to victory. I know the polls don’t detect that problem yet, but I find myself wondering what completely bogus issues the Republicans will be able to throw at him if they start seeing him as something more than just a tool to use against Hillary. (I lived through 1988, when Bush the First was able to completely dumbfound Mike Dukakis by making a serious issue out of the Pledge of Allegiance. You never forget an experience like that.) Coming from the relatively pristine political environment of Vermont, is Bernie ready for that? Can he keep his composure when he’s waist-deep in bullshit? I have serious doubts.

Hillary strongest argument, from my point of view, is that she has endured everything the GOP could throw at her for more than 20 years. (The all-day Benghazi hearing in October was a microcosm of their inability to beat her down.) But what did I think of her as a person and what could I believe about her as a president? Is better-than-a-Republican all I can say about her?

So I did my homework. I pulled three Clinton speeches into one article, and added the insight I got from reading three books by her and two about her. After spending that much time listening to her author’s voice, I kind of get Hillary now, in a way that I don’t think most of her critics on the left do. If God tasked me with picking our next president, I’m sure I could find somebody I liked better. But I’ve gotten to be OK with Hillary. I will probably vote for Bernie in the primary to send a message, but when Clinton is nominated — as I expect her to be — I’ll have no problem with that. Given that we live in a you-can’t-always-get-what-you-want world, Hillary will do fine.

Republicans. With the Republicans, though, my project broke down. I started out diligently analyzing the speeches and proposals of Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, Rick Santorum, and even Ben Carson.

And then, suddenly, we were in the Year of Trump, and any hope of a sensible, substantive discussion on the Republican side went away. It wasn’t just Trump; it was also what everyone else thought they had to do to compete with him. There was a chunk of the electorate energized by Trump, and suddenly everyone had to try to reach it.

I characterized one Republican debate as “Three Hours in Bizarro World“, but basically all of them have been that way. Fact-checking them has been pointless, because the distortions, lies, and mis-statements of fact have not been isolated incidents that can be picked out and corrected. The Republican campaign is happening in a completely different reality from the one I live in.

The NYT’s Patrick Healy nailed something important:

One of the most striking takeaways from the first two Republican debates and Tuesday’s first Democratic debate is that the two parties do not just disagree on solutions to domestic and foreign policy issues — they do not even agree on what the issues are.

That’s the root cause of the country’s polarization: People who want to solve a problem can usually find a way to compromise their solutions. But you can’t compromise about whether something’s a problem or not. If one side is discussing climate change while the other is trying to decide how big a wall to build on the Mexican border, what’s the compromise?

Eventually, I stopped trying to explain that Ben Carson’s “tithe” tax plan wouldn’t work, or why Jeb Bush’s claims about his economic record in Florida don’t stand up to scrutiny. I didn’t quite realize it at the time, but by the Fall I was trying to answer a more fundamental question: What the fuck?

Instead of mapping out policy differences, I found myself describing the difference between hucksters (Trump) and crackpots (Carson). I looked at models of fascism, and discussed how the Trump campaign did or didn’t fit them. I tried to figure out what leadership means to me, and what kind of leader we should be looking for. I traced the history of freedom rhetoric, and why it so often runs counter to rights. And whether it qualifies as fascist or not, how the Trump electorate has been building for years, and is the logical culmination of Republican politics.

I end this political year with more humility. I thought I knew what it meant to cover a presidential campaign, and it turns out that this year I didn’t. It’s not about taxes or infrastructure or education or drone strikes any more. Maybe someday it will be again, but for now I’ve still haven’t gotten past “What the fuck?”

I think I’ll be working on that question for a considerable chunk of the year to come.

Small-government Freedom vs. Big-government Rights

The issues of Reconstruction continue to animate today’s political rhetoric.


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One of the central words in conservative rhetoric is freedom. The far-right members of the House are the Freedom Caucus. Nate Silver did the math, and found that the 2012 Republican platform mentioned freedom four times more often than the Democratic platform. At times they even push it to absurd lengths: To chide France for not supporting the invasion of Iraq, House Republicans renamed their cafeteria’s french fries “freedom fries“.

Freedom is so universally cited by conservatives that liberals often satirically suggest the explanation “because freedom” for any conservative proposal that doesn’t add up. (Wonkette: “Ben Carson will defund commie liberal colleges, because freedom.” Josh Marshall has used “Because Freedom” as a satirical headline at least twice.) Freedom, they’re suggesting, is just a buzzword conservatives throw out whenever they have no substantive justification for what they want to do.

Its not that Democrats don’t like freedom, but they tend to talk about particular freedoms (freedom of choice) rather than capital-F Freedom as an abstract entity. They’re more likely to talk about rights: voting rights, abortion rights, civil rights, and so on.

There are, of course, a large number of counter-examples in both directions. (Gun rights, for example, or FDR’s “freedom from want” and “freedom from fear”. [1]) But in general, the parties are talking about two subtly different concepts: Freedom, particularly the way conservatives use it, is inextricably linked to small government: Freedom means the government doesn’t get in your way.

Rights on the other hand, only exist if society provides some method of enforcement. Without a court you can appeal to when your rights are violated, and ultimately, without a police force or army that will enforce that court’s judgments, you don’t have any rights. Black children, for example, didn’t begin to acquire a right to an equal education until President Eisenhower sent the 101st Airborne Division to Little Rock. Rights require some kind of government to enforce them, and if the forces that want to violate your rights are strong, you need a really big government. [2]

A simple example: If you want to be able to buy a little marijuana and smoke it without fear of narcs busting down your door, you want freedom. But if you want to be sure that what you buy really is marijuana, that no toxic or addictive chemicals have been added to it, or that the seller won’t just bash you over the head and take your money without giving you anything, then you’re looking for your rights as a consumer. Your freedom just needs the government to get out of your way, but your rights require government involvement. [3]

The relative value of freedom vs rights depends in large part on how much power you have. If you are wealthy, well-connected, or otherwise privileged, then there are all kinds of things you could do, if government would just stay out of your way. But if you are poor, then the barriers you face have more to do with your lack of resources than with government regulations.

Powerful groups can defend their own prerogatives whether they have government-enforced rights or not. Nobody has to force lunch counters to serve whites; no parent has to go to court to make the local public school offer courses in English; Christian children aren’t pressured to say “under no God” in the Pledge of Allegiance; and men in the workplace don’t have to wonder whether a glass ceiling is holding them down. But the rights of less powerful groups depend on government.

In the course of a typical workday, a woman who makes fries at McDonalds isn’t all that constrained by the government. Sure, taxes are taken out of her paycheck; she has to keep her hair covered while preparing food and wash her hands after using the bathroom; and she faces the threat of jail if she skims from the till, but the whims of her shift manager are a far bigger source of oppression than all the pencil-pushers in Washington.

On the other hand, the guy who owns her McDonalds franchise faces constant assaults on his freedom. He can’t pay his workers the $5 an hour he thinks they deserve, even if they’re so desperate they would have to take it. He can’t demand that they work in unsafe conditions. He can’t extract sexual favors from them. His kitchen has to face health inspectors. He has to make sure the trash is properly disposed of. Zoning keeps him from expanding to the new location he wants. And on and on and on. Everywhere he looks, there’s a regulation or a bureaucrat or a potential lawsuit. Tyranny, that’s what it is.

Several of those restrictions on his freedom are what the government has to do to establish the woman’s rights. She has a right to a basic level of respect and fair treatment from her employer, and (without government) she lacks the power to make him respect those rights.

That’s why American political rhetoric about freedom has such a bizarre history: a lot of it comes from slave owners. “Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery?” Patrick Henry demanded in the speech that ends with his memorable: “Give me liberty or give me death!” But he died owning 65 slaves. James Madison enshrined freedom of speech and freedom of religion in the Bill or Rights, but owned over 100 slaves. Thomas Jefferson is said to have owned 600 slaves in the course of his life, and a sizable chunk of his surviving descendants were fathered on a slave.

Confederate rhetoric was full of freedom, and the corresponding threat of “tyranny” or “slavery” (for white Southerners) if their cause did not prevail. In the first line of his famous speech “Slavery a Positive Good“, Senator John Calhoun warned that if the South didn’t respond to even the slightest encroachments on the institution of slavery, Southern whites were “prepared to become slaves”. In his inaugural address, Confederate President Jefferson Davis invoked “the consent of the governed” to justify a government that disenfranchised not only all its black subjects, but many poor whites as well. “All we ask is to be left alone,” said Davis. Left alone, that is, to enslave others.

The things powerful people want to be left alone to do have changed over the years: Now they want to be able to pollute rivers, get miners killed, refuse to serve gays and lesbians, use the public schools to promote their religion, put obstacles in front of minorities voting, and so on. But the basic rhetoric has stayed the same: If you just keep the government out of everybody’s way, then we’ll have freedom.

And it’s true: We will have freedom, but we won’t have any rights that more powerful people want to take away.

To see these concepts worked out in the most extreme way, pick up Gregory Downs’ recent book After Appomattox: Military occupation and the ends of war. It tells the story of the post-surrender occupation of the South by the U.S. Army, and the official state of war that continued until the last Confederate state had its representatives seated in Congress in 1871.

As I’ve described several times before, the Reconstruction Era is the unspoken reference behind a lot of the current conservative usage of tyranny, particularly as it relates to tyranny being overthrown by armed civilians. The tyranny in question was the military occupation of the South, which was absolutely necessary to guarantee any rights at all to the newly freed slaves. A terrorist insurgency by Confederate veterans eventually made the occupation more costly than the North could stomach, and black rights all but vanished after the troops were withdrawn, leading to the Jim Crow era.

Downs describes the philosophical shock that many Northerners suffered when they realized that slavery couldn’t be eliminated just by issuing proclamations or passing Constitutional amendments.

Wartime emancipation and the postsurrender struggle against slavery forced Northerners to examine the question of whether people could be free without the intervention of the government.

The law might say one thing, but the facts on the ground said something else.

[S]lavery endured on the ground well after the end of fighting. Of the nearly 4 million slaves in the United States in 1860, the vast majority were still held in bondage as the Confederate armies surrendered.

Slaves only became free when troops were around to prevent the masters re-asserting their ownership.

Ambrose Douglass, held a slave in North Carolina, captured the relationship between emancipation and the soldiers’ presence. In his area, “I guess we musta celebrated ‘mancipation about twelve time … Every time a bunch of No’thern sojers would come through they would tell us we was free and we’d begin celebratin’. Before we would get through somebody else would tell us to go back to work, and we would go.”

Many whites saw the same reality:

Arkansas’ U.S attorney similarly wrote that “he who stands between the late master and the freedmen for their protection, must be backed by the power of the bayonet.”

To the former Confederate, though, “bayonet rule” looked more like this:

Northerners knew they wanted to end slavery, but had no clear notion of what freedom would mean for the ex-slaves.

As freedpeople taught officers about the enduring power of slavery, soldiers and ex-slaves together developed the notion that freedom meant accessible rights. … [E]x-slaves found it easy to invoke rights as the measure of what it meant not to be enslaved. As slaves, they had virtually no rights they could defend in court. Looking to the experience of free people around them, they defined freedom in part as the opportunity to have these basic rights — marriage, control of children, property ownership, travel, and contract — protected by the government. … Instead of a march to freedom, with its connotations of separation from the state, freedpeople and soldiers described a walk toward government.

In particular, black men’s right to vote was established on paper by the 15th Amendment. But in reality, it only existed only where federal troops guarded the polling places. When the troops were withdrawn, Confederate veterans terrorized blacks who tried to vote. Ultimately, new state governments elected almost entirely with white votes disenfranchised blacks almost entirely until the federal government re-inserted itself into the situation in the 1960s through the Voting Rights Act.

Downs draws the conclusion:

[L]ooking at the story after Appomattox forces us to confront the dismaying, necessary fact that our own contemporary freedom and civil rights are in some ways the products of war powers. Even the rights we cherish are often fashioned by coercion.

So bear that in mind the next time you hear a conservative politician wax eloquent for freedom and against big government. How many of your rights will have to go away in order to allow the powerful people he represents the freedom he wants them to have?


[1] The confusion is amplified by two rhetorical back doors. In general “freedom from X” is a roundabout synonym for “the right to not-X”. So “freedom from want” includes a right to a minimum level of food and shelter. Conversely, the “right to be let alone” is a fairly broad description of what I am calling “freedom”.

[2] One popular conservative trope is that our rights come from God, not from the government. Ted Cruz said:

What is the promise of America? The idea that, the revolutionary idea, that this country was founded upon, which was our rights, they don’t come from man. They come from God Almighty. And it’s the purpose of the Constitution … to serve as chains, to bind the mischief of government.

While an appeal to the Declaration of Independence’s soaring rhetoric “All men … are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights” is inspiring, it is also ineffective, because God is notoriously poor at policing rights-violations in a timely manner. His mills, after all, grind slowly.

[3] In this case, as in many others, the two notions are in opposition. What about the seller’s freedom to lie to you, to cheat you, or to bash you over the head? Your rights depend on restricting his freedom.

The Leadership We Need

When Donald Trump’s supporters are asked what they like about him, one phrase that always comes up is “strong leader”, and a contrast is drawn between Trump and President Obama, who is a “weak leader”.

People who think that way must have a very different view of leadership than I do. But this is the kind of thing we don’t talk about much. In our public discussion, leadership is like art: We all think we know it when we see it, so we don’t need to define it.

But I’m thinking we do need to define it, so I’m going to take a few paragraphs to say what I think leadership is, and how our current would-be leaders are succeeding or failing at it.

Here’s what leadership means to me: the ability to see a practical path to a better world, and to convince enough people to join you on the journey that you can actually get there together.

Given that definition, there are several ways that would-be leaders can fall short:

  • Idealists envision a better world, but have no practical plan for getting there.
  • Visionaries get so far ahead of the People that few can follow them.
  • Academics lack the ability to communicate their vision or persuade the People to believe in it.
  • Panderers do not present a vision at all, but simply tell the People what they want to hear.
  • Demagogues take advantage of the People’s ignorance, greed, and fear to gain power for themselves. If they lead anywhere, it is to a harsher, more hate-filled, and more violent world.

This doesn’t correspond directly to a Left/Right spectrum, but there is a broad correlation: Liberals have a weakness for Idealists (of course a book about a “better world” with a view from space on its cover is liberal) and Visionaries, while Conservatives love their Demagogues. All political movements have their Academics and Panderers.

A good way to sum up the Clinton/Sanders argument among Democrats is that Clintonistas see Sanders as a Visionary, while Sanders supporters see Clinton as a Panderer. Sanders’ program sounds great to most Democrats, but the question is whether the larger public is ready for it. And Clinton is saying a lot of progressive things right now, but will she still be saying them in the general election when she has a different audience?

One test of leadership that all the Republican presidential candidates are failing is to tell the American people the truth about climate change: It’s happening, it’s caused by burning fossil fuels, and there will be serious economic, humanitarian, and even military consequences if we don’t take dramatic action. No one on the Right wants to hear that (and people on the Left aren’t wild about it either), so the conservative candidates (most of whom are smart people who probably know better) avoid the problem when they can and openly deny it when it comes up. That’s pandering.

Democrats pander in a more subtle way. Candidates (especially Clinton) are reluctant to face the gap between the size of the country’s problems and the size of their proposed solutions. Raising the minimum wage or re-jiggering student loan programs isn’t going to reverse the country’s polarization into rich and poor. Effective gun control will require more than just background checks and assault-weapon bans. And so on.

There’s a tricky road to walk here: A Leader would be pushing for the small steps s/he can hope to take in the short term, while continuing to build support for actions big enough to make a difference. (One possible role model is how before Pearl Harbor FDR walked the narrow path between Visionary and a Panderer as he coaxed the public towards entering World War II. He didn’t seek a premature declaration of war that Congress would have voted down, but he prepared for war with the nation’s first peacetime draft and an increased defense budget. And by swapping destroyers to Britain and then getting the Lend-Lease program through Congress, he clearly identified the country with the Allies.)

The difference between a Leader and a Demagogue can be hard to see when you get caught up in the passions of the moment, but if you introspect a little you can feel it in your heart. A Leader calls out the best in his or her followers. Under the influence of a Leader, you feel more courageous, more hopeful, more generous, and generally more heroic.

These famous words of JFK’s inaugural address could come from either a Leader or a Demagogue:

Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty.

What marks that address as leadership is what so many of the people he inspired went on to do: join the Peace Corps, or go to Mississippi for the Freedom Summer. They took risks and inconvenienced themselves for the benefit of others. Listening to Kennedy made them better people.

But those who listen to Donald Trump (and to a lesser extent several other Republican candidates) become angrier, more fearful, and more self-centered. They want to make their enemies suffer. They want to send other people to fight in the deserts of the Middle East, but they don’t volunteer to go themselves. Trump tells his followers not that they need to sacrifice, but that they’ve sacrificed too much already. It’s time for other people to sacrifice: the Hispanics, the Muslims, the Syrian refugees, the inner-city blacks.

Both Leaders and Demagogues will call on you to be strong, but the Leader will have you focus your strength on the real enemy, and take the risks associated with opposing strength to strength. The Demagogue will offer you scapegoats, weaker people you can beat up on.

Both a Leader and a Demagogue will leave you feeling energized, but if you introspect honestly, you can tell the difference: The Leader calls on you to find virtues you didn’t know you had, to be better than you have ever been. The Demagogue gives you permission to be worse.

You can tell.

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