Category Archives: Articles

Can We Overthrow the Creditocracy?

In the long history of oppression, where are we today? And what can we do about it?


The simplest, most direct form of oppression is forced labor: Work for me, do what I say, or I’ll beat you. And if no beating short of death will induce you to do what I want, then the example of your demise will at least make my next victim more pliable.

Unfortunately for the oppressor, though, forced labor is also morally simple. The press-ganged victim knows I have wronged him or her. Given the chance to run away, or (better yet) kill me, he or she will feel completely justified.

That’s why history is full of attempts to dress oppression up and make its morality more confusing. If you want to be cynical, you might tell the whole economic history of the world that way: as a series of systems to dress up oppression and shift the guilt of it from the order-giver to the order-taker. In every era, the many work and the few benefit, but those who run away or revolt are the immoral ones. They are ungrateful wretches who bite the hands that feed them and repay their kindly benefactors with violence.

For example, from today’s perspective the slave society of the old South seems pretty stark: Do what I say because I own you and your children and your children’s children down to the last generation. And yet, the literature of the time — written by whites, naturally — often waxes lyrical about the great good the white man has done for his undeserving servants: given them the gift of civilization, saved their souls for Christ, accepted them in his home and fed and clothed them since birth, or perhaps purchased them from an animal-like existence under a slave-trader and bestowed upon them new names and new roles (however lowly) in human society.

How dare the slave forget his obligation and steal himself away!

Freedom without access. Most systems are more subtle than that. The people at the bottom aren’t owned, and in fact their freedom may be a central point of public celebration. But a small group controls access to something everyone needs to survive. To guarantee your own access, you must strike a deal with them — on their terms, usually — and do what they say. And because society frames its story in a way that justifies the access-control, the people who tell you what to do are not your oppressors, they’re your benefactors. You owe them for giving you the opportunity to serve.

Whatever that necessary something is, and however access to it is controlled, tells you what kind of oppressive system you’re in. In feudalism, a small group of lordly families control the land you need to grow food. To get access, your family must swear fealty to one of them, and God have mercy on the traitor who breaks his vows. In the sharecropper system that replaced slavery in the South, whites (often the same whites who had owned the antebellum plantations) controlled access to money and markets. Freedom and even a small chunk of land might be yours, but the wherewithal to survive until harvest had to be borrowed, and then you were obliged to sell your crop to your creditor, for a price he named — usually not quite enough to clear your debt. If you tried to escape this system, you weren’t a runaway slave (as your mother or father would have been), but you were a runaway debtor and the law would hunt you down just the same.

In the North, oppression took its purest form in the company towns immortalized in the song “16 Tons“, where the singer imagines that not even death will get him out. The company controlled every side of the transaction — not just access to productive work, but the scrip you were paid in, and the company store where you could spend it. The system wasn’t quite so obvious in the bigger cities, where many employers drew from the same labor pool, but basic outline was the same: To get access to what Marx called “the means of production” — land, factories, mines, or any other resource that human labor could turn into the stuff of survival — the masses at the bottom of the pyramid had to deal with a fairly small group of employers, who could dictate wages and working conditions.

As on the plantations or the feudal manors, the language of morality had been turned inside-out: The oppressor was the benefactor. Give me a job, the worker begged.

The American exception. Underneath all that oppressiveness, though, something new had been blooming in America from the beginning. Dispossessing the Native Americans of an entire continent had created opportunities for wealth so vast that the old upper classes couldn’t exploit them all without help, so common people were cut in on the booty.

Already in 1776’s The Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith had documented that wages were considerably higher in the colonies (where there was so much work to be done and a comparative dearth of hands) than in England itself. The post-revolutionary Homestead Acts codified a system that had been operating informally for some while: For whites, American wages were enough above subsistence that you could build a stake of capital, buy tools and transport, and then set out for the hinterland and establish an independent relationship with the means of production. For one of the few times since the hunter-gatherer era, working-class Europeans could apply their labor directly to the land and live without paying for access.

Post-Civil-War American history can be told as a struggle by the capitalist class to claw back those hastily bestowed opportunities by manipulating markets, monopolizing the new railroads, and generally “crucify[ing] mankind upon a cross of gold” as William Jennings Bryan famously put it. But they never completely succeeded. Hellish as turn-of-the-century mines and factories could be, the vision remained: Capitalism didn’t have to be so bad, if workers had a way to opt out and employers had to compete to hire them.

The early 20th century brought a series of shocks to the capitalist system: the world wars, the Russian Revolution, the Great Depression, and finally the very real threat of Communist revolutions. The devastated Europe of 1945 in some ways duplicated the opportunities of the New World: There was so much work to be done that for three decades (les Trente Glorieuses, as the French put it) full employment and rising wages could be the norm.

In the Cold War competition with Communism, Capitalism had to loosen up to maintain the workers’ loyalty. And so a mixed public/private social contract developed: The means of production would continue to be privately owned, but government would keep the worker in the game. Government would provide education at little or no cost to the student; guarantee a liveable minimum wage; protect consumers from unsafe products and workers from dangerous workplaces; prevent monopolies from forming; create jobs by building public infrastructure; defend the workers’ right to form unions powerful enough to negotiate with corporations on equal terms; maintain a safety net against unemployment, disability, and old age; and (except in the United States) take care of the sick. The political expectation was that a rising tide would lift all boats: If profits rose, wages would rise, and everyone would benefit.

Counterrevolution. But by the late 1970s, the failure of the Soviet system to make good on its economic promises made Khrushchev’s we-will-bury-you threat ring hollow, and Western capitalists started to wonder if they’d given away too much. The theme of their Reagan/Thatcher counterrevolution would be privatization. Wherever possible, get government out of the picture so that the natural power imbalance between worker and employer can re-assert itself.

And that has been the story of the last not-so-glorious forty years: Powerful unions and nearly-free state universities are mere memories. Inflation has pushed the minimum wage down towards subsistence. We are told that the wealthiest nation in the world cannot afford a safety net; if bankruptcy looms (or can be manufactured), the solution is not to commit new resources, but to slash benefits. Consumer and worker protection is “job-killing regulation”, and making up for a job shortfall with public works is unthinkable. Increasingly, even public K-12 education is under fire; if you really want a high-quality education for your child, perhaps a government voucher will defray the cost a little, until inflation eats up that subsidy as it has the minimum wage.

As a result, even as productivity-per-hour and GDP-per-capita have continued to rise, wages have not. Ever-increasing shares of the national income and the national wealth are controlled by the top 10%, the top 1%, the top .01%. Even in the uppermost levels of the economic pyramid, there is always an even smaller class of people just above you whose skyrocketing wealth is leaving you far behind.

Creditocracy. Andrew Ross’ book Creditocracy and the Case for Debt Refusal points out that the goal of the counter-revolution is not just a restoration of late 19th-century capitalism, in which large employers dominate by controlling access to jobs. It’s a subtly different system of oppression entirely: a creditocracy.*

Everything the Cold War social contract promised is still available, you just have to pay up for it. How will you do that? You’ll get loans, and spend the rest of your life working to make payments. Rather than beg “Give me a job”, you’ll beg “Give me loan, so that I can get what I need to get and keep a job.” The bankers will be your benefactors, and then they will tell you what to do.

Education is where this project is most advanced. Probably there will always be some way to warehouse children at public expense while their parents work, either in public schools or in minimal private schools fully covered by a public voucher. But if you want the kind of education that gives a child options beyond minimum wage or welfare, you’ll have to pay up. Some people will be able to cover that expense, but most will have to borrow. If we’re talking about college, we’re already there. Working your way through college was once a realistic goal; it no longer is. The Federal Reserve recently estimated total student debt at $1.13 trillion, with about 1 in 8 borrowers owing more than $50,000 each, and a small but increasing number beginning their careers more than $200,000 in the hole.

If you just want to live somewhere, that won’t be a problem. But if you want to live in an neighborhood where potholes are fixed and police protect you rather than prey on you, you’ll have to pay up. Need a loan?

Public transportation? Forget about it. You can stay home for free, but if you want to work you’ll need a car, and cars cost. Calories are easy to come by, but safe and healthy food? Still available in certain upscale groceries, if you can afford it. Medical care? We’d never just let you die, and we have repayment plans with attractive rates. Clothes? I see you’ve got your body covered, but you’ll never get a job looking like that. Libraries? Parks? There are some you can join for a membership fee, though probably not in your neck of the woods. News? Comes from cable TV or the internet, via the local monopoly. Retirement? You can never be sure you’ll have enough to stay out of poverty, but maybe your kids will co-sign for you if you live too long.

During the post-war Trente Glorieuses, debt was a way to anticipate your rising income and get a few luxuries earlier than you otherwise might. But in the Creditocracy, debt is a necessity; all but the wealthy need to borrow to stay in the game. And once you owe, the onus is on you to toe the line: You’ll never cover your payments working in a field you love, or letting moral considerations control what you will and won’t do for a living. (Are you sure you don’t want to fight in our war? We’re hiring.) You don’t dare stick your neck out politically or socially, if you want to stay employed and keep making your payments. Maybe someday, if you get it all paid off, you’ll live by your heart and your conscience. But until then …

And where does this needed credit ultimately come from? It’s conjured out of the aether by the Federal Reserve, and distributed to the big banks by loans at rock-bottom rates. That’s the controlled access that makes the whole system possible. They have access and you need it, so they can tell you what to do and leave you thanking them for it. And if they ever push things too far and make loans that can never be repaid, then they’ll have the government behind them, bailing them out and sticking ordinary taxpayers with the bill. You may have lost your home, your savings, and God knows what else in the whole mess, but at least the banker will be made whole.

The Morality of Default. On the rare occasions when systems of oppression are beaten, they are first beaten morally. Slavery can’t be defeated until the runaway slave becomes a hero rather than a scoundrel, and the rebellious one can become a soldier rather than a murderer. The company town can’t be overthrown until the worker who refuses to work becomes a striker rather than a bum, and values solidarity with his comrades over the debt he owes his employer for “giving” him a job.

Today, it seems like an impossible dream that debtors could ever take the moral high ground away from creditors. Somebody who borrows and then won’t pay is a deadbeat, a moocher, a loser. It seems hard to imagine a debtors’ rights movement that could win popular support for a repayment strike or the outright renunciation of unreasonable debts.

But that’s what Ross envisions. To get there, we need to develop and popularize moral standards that separate good debts from bad debts. For example, view John Oliver’s piece on the payday lending industry, and then consider the idea that many of these loans — particularly ones where the original principal amount was paid back long ago, but the compounding interest has taken on a life of its own —  should just not be repaid. Similarly, the Consumer Financial Protection Board is suing ITT Educational Services for tactics that seem widespread in the for-profit college industry: using high-pressure sales tactics to push students into taking out loans, when they have little prospect of either getting a degree or paying off the loan. Some of the sub-prime loans of the housing boom were likewise made with no reasonable prospect of repayment, then sold off to investors anyway. The primary fraud came from the banker, not the borrower.

Other debt is perhaps no fault of the lender, but should not be charged against the debtor either. Medical debt — often as clear a case of pay-or-die as any highway robbery — is the best example, but much student debt fits as well. The debt exists because of society’s failure to provide what ought to be public goods. If any debt is going to vanish in the fancy bookkeeping of the Fed, this kind of debt should.

Some debts are legitimate, but there are equally legitimate claims in the other direction, ones that the Creditocracy does not take as seriously. Much of the developing world’s debt to the wealthy countries might be cancelled by fair reparations for colonialism, or by the responsibility that industrialized nations have for using up the carbon-carrying capacity of the atmosphere. Today, the obligations in one direction are considered iron-clad, while the ones in the other are optional. Why should that be?

Probably most debts should eventually be paid. But even they might also be part of a larger debt strike, to force action on the ones that should be renegotiated or just renounced.

In the long run, the infrastructure of the Creditocracy might be torn down and rebuilt into an economic system whose primary purpose is to create useful goods and services rather than profits, a world with more co-ops and credit unions and crowd funding, and less money swirling around in financial derivatives.

But long before that can happen, the moral structure that supports the Creditocracy needs to be challenged and shaken at many levels. Imagine, if you can, a world in which the debtor who does not pay — like the slave who runs away or the worker who sits down on the job — is a hero.

Not a deadbeat, a moocher, or a loser. A hero.


* One reason this “review” is so long is that although I think the ideas in the book are important, I don’t actually like the way Ross makes his case. His style is repetitive, needlessly polemic, and sloppy with numbers. So I’m recasting the ideas in my own way.

One example: While making some point about Google and Facebook, Ross mentioned what each “earned” in a particular quarter. The numbers seemed high to me, so I checked them. He had actually quoted the companies’ revenues, not their earnings.

He was making a qualitative point, in which revenues worked just as well as earnings (i.e., some other number was small potatoes to companies that big). So it seemed to just be sloppiness rather than deception. But I don’t have to hit many such examples before I start to doubt everything.

Am I Charlie? Should I Be?

Let me start by saying what should be obvious, something I hope will provoke no disagreement: Nothing that people say or write or draw should get them killed. Not by a government, a church, a political party, or offended individuals. No opinion or blasphemy or insult or truth or lie, no matter how it’s packaged or delivered, justifies violence.

In almost every case, the proper response to speech is speech, or perhaps a shocked or dignified silence. Truth is the best answer to lies, insight the proper response to fallacy. Sometimes an insult can be topped by a cleverer insult, and sometimes it’s wiser to walk away. If a comedian tells a cruel joke and the audience responds with stunned silence, justice has been served. No violence is necessary or called for or warranted. Say what you may, you don’t “have it coming”. As Hassen Chalghoumi, the Muslim imam of the Paris suburb Drancy said in response to the Charlie Hebdo killings:

We can argue over liberty, but when we’re in disagreement we respond to art with art, to wit with wit. We never respond to a drawing with blood. No! Never.

Even the classic exception — yelling “Fire!” in a crowded theater — just calls for someone to put a hand over your mouth and hustle you out the door, maybe to face a misdemeanor charge that underlines the seriousness of the situation. No beat-down is necessary. No lengthy imprisonment. No execution.

Nothing you say or write or draw should get you killed.

My next point isn’t quite as obvious, but also shouldn’t be controversial: Some legal speech should be socially unacceptable. After Mel Gibson went on a drunken rant about the “fucking Jews”, he wasn’t imprisoned or assassinated, but his popularity took a dive. When Duck Dynasty‘s Phil Robertson spewed a lot of demeaning nonsense about gays, blacks, and anyone who isn’t Christian, he was not arrested, but the show’s ratings dropped.

If I started sprinkling words like nigger and faggot through all my conversations, I would be breaking no laws, but people would avoid me. If I talked like that in a workplace, to my co-workers or our employer’s customers, I’d probably get fired. That’s an entirely appropriate response that has nothing to do with free speech.

Free speech has social consequences. If you want to be protected against the nonviolent social consequences of what you say, you’re talking about something else, not free speech.

Free speech also doesn’t require anyone to sponsor my speech or provide a convenient platform for me to say things they find offensive. (That actually isn’t hypothetical; I occasionally get invitations to speak in public, which I believe would dry up if I made a habit of saying racist or otherwise hateful things.) So when A&E briefly decided to separate itself from Robertson (and then reversed that decision), that wasn’t about free speech. Neither were the examples raised by David Brooks Thursday in his NYT column. If the University of Illinois doesn’t want to pay a Catholic priest to preach his doctrine in a for-credit class as an adjunct professor (and then reverses that decision), that might violate academic freedom (depending on what academic freedom means in the tradition of that school), but not freedom of speech. If universities do or don’t want to host Ayaan Hirsi Ali or Bill Maher, that’s a sponsored-speech issue, not a free-speech issue.

If people respond to what I say by calling it “hate speech” or by calling me a racist or sexist or some other name I don’t like, my rights have not been violated. (No matter what Sarah Palin thinks the First Amendment says.) Those words don’t have some magical power to “silence” people. Free speech doesn’t end when I’m done speaking; other people get to speak too — about me, if they want.

So I should be free to say or write or draw what I want without violence, but everybody else should be free to argue with me or insult me or shun me, if that seems appropriate to them. And if your response to me seems over-the-top to some third person, he or she should be free to criticize or insult or shun you too. That’s how freedom works.

So am I Charlie? After 9-11, Le Monde titled an editorial “Nous sommes tous Américains” — we are all Americans. For decades, the French had resented being in the shadow of American power, and had been reluctant allies at best. But in 9-11 Le Monde saw a violation of the civilized principles France and America share, and realized that what had happened to us could happen to them. So they put aside any petty urge to gloat over our misfortune and instead chose to identify with us: In the aftermath of 9-11, we were all Americans, even if we happened to be French.

In the same spirit, the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris has people all over the world saying “Je suis Charlie” — I am Charlie. (Wednesday, it led to a Le Monde op-ed by American ambassador Jane Hartley gratefully recalling “Nous sommes tous Américains”.) But are we really Charlie? Should we be?

There are a lot of ways in which we are all Charlie, or wish we had it in us to be Charlie. Charlie Hebdo is a satirical magazine that refused to back down when it was threatened or even attacked. (It’s still not backing down; the next issue will have a million-copy run.) All of us want to speak freely, and want to identify with people who stand up to intimidation and bullying, even if we don’t always stand up ourselves. Nobody wants to see the bullies win.

To that end, a lot of web sites have been re-posting the Charlie cartoons that offended Muslims (with translations at Vox), and are presumably the ones that 12 people died for. If anybody thinks that murder is an effective way to suppress cartoons, they should find out how wrong they are. Here’s one:

“Muhammad Overwhelmed by Fundamentalists” says the headline, and Vox has a red-faced Muhammad saying “It’s hard to be loved by idiots.” That sentiment would also fit well in Jesus’ mouth, IMHO, and would make the cartoon funny, if that’s what it really said. I could imagine such a cartoon in The Onion.

But something isn’t quite right about Vox‘s translation, because idiot is a perfectly fine French word, and Muhammad isn’t saying it. French has never been my subject, but after a little poking around online, I’m suspecting that cons is actually closer to cunts, which changes the impact considerably. (That’s also the translation favored by Saturn’s Repository.)

Then there’s the cartoon I won’t re-post, but The Hooded Utilitarian did: the one that turns the Boko Haram sex slaves into welfare queens. Is that supposed to be funny?

The American media has been portraying Charlie Hebdo almost as a French equivalent of irreverent American publications like The Onion or Mad, but it really isn’t. Something much darker has been going on. Charlie wasn’t just trying to be funny without worrying who it offended; it was trying to offend people for the sake of offending them, while maybe incidentally being funny. And although you can find examples here and there of attacks on Catholics or Jews, it put special effort into offending Muslims.

Which leads to the next question: If Charlie Hebdo was attacked for baiting Muslims, should those of us who find ourselves identifying with Charlie carry on its mission by doing our own Muslim baiting?

For me, that’s where Je suis Charlie starts to break down. Glenn Greenwald makes the obvious comparison:

[I]t is self-evident that if a writer who specialized in overtly anti-black or anti-Semitic screeds had been murdered for their ideas, there would be no widespread calls to republish their trash in “solidarity” with their free speech rights.

Greenwald (who is of Jewish heritage but was not raised in any organized religion) illustrates that point by posting an ugly series of anti-Semitic cartoons and asking: “Is it time for me to be celebrated for my brave and noble defense of free speech rights?”

Punching down. Humor works best as a weapon of the weak against the powerful. But when the powerful make fun of the weak — like when popular high school jocks trip the new kid into a mud puddle and laugh — it soon stops being humorous and turns ugly.

Sometimes telling the weak from the powerful is tricky. When Rush Limbaugh plays “Barack the Magic Negro” on his show, is he a free citizen lampooning a powerful politician, or a rich and influential white celebrity telling American blacks that even the best of them don’t deserve his respect? I can imagine someone taking the first view, but the mere existence of the second restrains me from laughing.

In France, Muslims are not just a minority religion, they are an underclass. Many come from former French colonies like Algeria, and work low-status jobs for considerably less than the average French wage. Whatever other messages Charlie Hebdo‘s anti-Muslim cartoons might send, they also express the social power that educated white Frenchmen have over their darker-skinned menials. And that makes those drawings considerably less funny.

The Hooded Utilitarian sums up:

White men punching down is not a recipe for good satire, and needs to be called out. People getting upset does not prove that the satire was good. And, this is the hardest part, the murder of the satirists in question does not prove that their satire was good.

Satire, even bad satire or bigoted satire, is not something anybody should be killed for — or arrested or beaten up or vandalized for. I’m not making a both-sides-are-wrong point, because the wrong on one side is completely out of scale with the other. But that doesn’t mean I want to celebrate anti-Muslim bigotry.

So in some ways I want to be Charlie and in other ways I don’t. I hope that if anyone ever tries to intimidate me out of speaking my mind, I will be as courageous as the staff of Charlie Hebdo. I hope their successors remain free to print what they want, and that the people who appreciate their work remain free to buy it. But I can’t endorse what they published. All speech should be legal and free from violence, but some should be socially unacceptable.

Will Republicans Ever Have a Sister Souljah Moment?

Now that he’s under duress, Steve Scalise will denounce David Duke. But when it mattered, he courted Duke’s racist voters. Will a Republican ever intentionally offend extremists in the base to gain credibility with the center?


Louisiana Congressman Steve Scalise is the new member of the Republican House leadership, replacing Eric Cantor, who lost his primary to a Koch-brothers candidate. Scalise is supposed to be the link between the leadership and the GOP’s extreme right wing, a role he appears to be good at.

But a funny thing happened: A blogger* (Lamar White Jr.) did some digging and found out that in 2002, then-state-rep Scalise was “an honored guest and speaker at an international conference of white supremacist leaders.” The group was the European-American Unity and Rights Organization (EURO), a hate group established by KKK-Grand-Wizard-turned-Republican-politician David Duke.

Now Scalise says he doesn’t remember the event (which an aide said it was “highly likely” he had attended), and there’s a complicated version of the story in which it’s all a big misunderstanding; he just happened to be speaking at the same hotel at the same time to a lot of the same people. (Under further investigation, this version is falling apart.) Scalise claims he wouldn’t have spoken to EURO if he’d known what they were. He mentions giving hundreds of speeches with just one staffer, implying that the EURO gig just slipped through the cracks somehow.

But that explanation doesn’t pass the smell test. Duke was not an inconsequential figure in Louisiana politics in 2002. In 1991 he had stunned the state Republican Party by out-polling the establishment Republican candidate in the primary and winding up in a run-off for governor. (In the run-off, a national controversy in which Duke’s Klan-leader past was a major issue, he got a majority of the white vote and 39% statewide. If the Voting Rights Act of 1965 hadn’t enfranchised blacks, Duke would have become governor.)

In his early campaigns, Scalise at times consciously courted Duke voters. A Roll Call article from 1999 reported on a congressional race Duke was considering:

Another potential candidate, state Rep. Steve Scalise (R), said he embraces many of the same “conservative” views as Duke, but is far more viable. … “The voters in this district are smart enough to realize that they need to get behind someone who not only believes in the issues they care about, but also can get elected. Duke has proven that he can’t get elected, and that’s the first and most important thing.”

Three years later, Scalise couldn’t have just not noticed that David Duke was leading EURO now, or not known what that meant.

The New Republic‘s Brian Beutler makes the right point: The problem this incident illustrates isn’t that Scalise himself is or was a white supremacist — he probably isn’t and wasn’t. But (especially in the South) white racists have become a key component of the Republican base, one that a canny politician has to court, even if he can’t publicly endorse their ideology.

if in 1999 you said “the first and most important thing” about Duke was merely that he couldn’t get elected, rather than his despicable racism, it says something important about the voters you were trying not to offend. Many of those voters are still alive today.

In Democratic circles, you frequently hear talk about a “Sister Souljah moment“, which has been defined as “a key moment when the candidate takes what at least appears to be a bold stand against certain extremes in their party”. The paradigmic SSM was when candidate Bill Clinton denounced statements by black rapper Sister Souljah, saying “If you took the words ‘white’ and ‘black,’ and you reversed them, you might think David Duke was giving that speech.”

But SSMs only happen on the Left. (The article I took that definition from discussed Mitt Romney’s missed opportunity for an SSM, when he failed to denounce Rush Limbaugh’s grotesque slut-shaming of Sandra Fluke, saying only that slut was “not the language I would have used“. The substance of Limbaugh’s comments was apparently fine with Mitt; only his language was objectionable.) When the national media gets focused on an issue like Scalise’s EURO speech, conservative politicians can be cornered into rejecting an extremist like David Duke or Cliven Bundy — and can’t be cornered into rejecting Rush Limbaugh, no matter he says or does — but no Republican creates such moments to demonstrate his or her reasonableness to the moderate voter.

So no Republican presidential candidate — not even a so-called “moderate” like Jeb Bush or Chris Christie — is going to confront conservative extremists with reasonable positions and intentionally get himself booed.** No one is going to tell CPAC that the party needs to move to the center, or endorse background checks in front of the NRA, or defend church-and-state separation at the Values Voters Summit, or confront the Energy Alliance with the facts of climate science, or tell white racists that he really isn’t interested in their support.

Instead, if candidates don’t feel comfortable endorsing extremist views outright, they will dog-whistle to these groups, as Scalise did to EURO in 2002***, or Ronald Reagan did to white racists in 1980. They’ll present their conservative bona fides to CPAC, defend “constitutional rights” to the NRA, endorse “traditional values” to the values voters, identify with “sound science” in front of the Energy Alliance, and talk to white racists about the deficiencies of “inner city culture”.

Everyone in the room will know what those words mean. The extremists will come out feeling that the candidate agrees with them in his heart, but his agreement will be deniable in front of the general public.

Maybe someday there will be Sister Souljah moment on the Right. But not yet. The crazies are too important a constituency, so all serious Republican candidates have to pander to them.


* Can we finally put to bed the canard popular among mainstream journalists that they do all the investigative reporting, while bloggers just bloviate based on mainstream journalists’ discoveries? Bloggers may not have access to anonymous “highly placed sources” and can’t score interviews with Dick Cheney, but collectively we plow through a lot of original source documents. White apparently rummaged through the online archives of the white-supremacist Stormfront group. I doubt he had to elbow any Washington Post reporters out of the way.

** Romney did construct a reverse-SSM when he intentionally evoked boos from an NAACP gathering, thereby proving to extremists in his own party that he would stand up to black leaders.

*** According to a contemporary Stormfront account, Scalise didn’t directly endorse white supremacy at the EURO meeting. (But if Scalise thought he was speaking to some other group, that distinction apparently was lost on the Stormfront commenter, whose subject-line says “EURO/New Orleans 2002″.) Instead, he spoke about a topic white supremacists would appreciate: government favoritism to blacks.

Representative Scalise brought into sharp focus the dire circumstances pervasive in many important, under-funded needs of the community at the expense of graft within the Housing and Urban Development Fund, an apparent give-away to a selective group based on race.

5 Things to Understand About the Torture Report

You don’t have to read the full 525-page executive summary of the “torture report” — officially the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence’s Committee Study of the Central Intelligence Agency’s Detention and Interrogation Program — to get the gist. The 19-page “Findings and Conclusions” section begins right after Senator Feinstein’s six-page introduction and is very readable.

When something this long and detailed comes out and says things a lot of people don’t want to hear, it’s easy to get drawn off into arguments that miss the point. So here are my “findings”, the main things that I think the average American needs to understand:

  1. We tortured people.
  2. A lot of people.
  3. We gained virtually nothing from it.
  4. It was illegal.
  5. No one has been held accountable for it.

1. We tortured people. Past public discussions of torture focused primarily on waterboarding, but this report makes it clear that “enhanced interrogation” also included beatings, sleep deprivation (“up to 180 hours, usually standing or in stress positions”), ice water baths (at least one detainee died of exposure), threats against detainee’s families (“threats to harm the children of a detainee, threats to sexually abuse the mother of a detainee, and a threat to “cut [a detainee’s] mother’s throat”), and “rectal feeding without documented medical necessity”.

In addition, inexperienced and poorly trained interrogators sometimes made up their own unauthorized torture techniques, and were not punished for doing so.

Compare this to the definition in Article 1 of the United Nations Convention Against Torture, which President Reagan signed in 1988 and the Senate ratified in 1994,* making it “the supreme Law of the Land” according to Article VI of the Constitution:

For the purposes of this Convention, the term “torture” means any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity.

If you are having any doubt about whether the acts described in the report are torture, imagine a foreign government doing them to an American. John McCain doesn’t have to imagine this, he can remember it, so he has no trouble calling the CIA’s program torture.

2. A lot of people. The public arguments about waterboarding usually led to the claim that we had only done it to three very bad people. But the report says the CIA applied “enhanced interrogation” to 119 people, many of whom didn’t meet the program’s own standards for inclusion.

These included an “intellectually challenged” man whose CIA detention was used solely as leverage to get a family member to provide information … and two individuals whom the CIA assessed to be connected to al-Qa’ida based solely on information fabricated by a CIA detainee subject to the the CIA’s enhanced interrogation techniques.

And remember: that’s just the CIA. It doesn’t count all the prisoners abused by the Army at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere. For an account of that torture, I recommend Fear Up Harsh by former Army interrogator Tony Lagouranis, who wrote:

Once introduced into war, torture will inevitably spread, because ticking bombs are everywhere. Each and every prisoner, without exception, has the potential to be the one that provides the information that will save American lives. So if you accept the logic that we have to perform torture to prevent deaths, each and every prisoner is deserving of torture.

3. We gained virtually nothing from it. Torture’s effectiveness in getting information out of people has been hotly debated all along. Dick Cheney and others claimed it was invaluable, while the sources Jane Mayer and Phillippe Sands talked to said otherwise. After reviewing the CIA’s records, the Senate Intelligence Committee began its findings by calling BS on torture advocates’ effectiveness claims.

#1: The CIA’s use of its enhanced interrogation techniques was not an effective means of acquiring intelligence or gaining cooperation from detainees.

The shocking thing you learn as you get into the history of the program is that there was never any real reason to think it would be effective. The program was not designed by experienced interrogators, but by a consulting psychologist with no experience, based not on techniques that had gotten information out of prisoners in the past, but on a program we ran to teach our own soldiers how to resist torture. In other word, “enhanced interrogation” was designed to be torture, not to get information.

The repeated claims that torture “saved American lives” were based on several types of deception: giving torture credit for everything a tortured detainee told us, even if he told us before he was tortured; giving torture credit for thwarting “plots” that were never more than a few terrorist wannabees talking big to each other; and picking out rare nuggets of truth from a spew of lies and nonsense after we’d gotten the same information some other way.

People under torture will start saying things to make it stop. If there’s a story you want to hear, they will tell it to you; that’s why torture is so good at forcing false confessions out of people. But it doesn’t seem to be a good way to get them to tell you the truth.

In addition to gaining us nothing, the torture program cost the United States a great deal, not just in money, but in our moral standing around the world, and our international relations. The report describes how U. S. ambassadors to various countries were not cleared to know about the secret prisons the CIA had arranged to build in those countries. We can only imagine how the rulers laughed when their U.S. ambassadors pressed them to be more transparent about human rights.

4. It was illegal. The memos written by the Bush administration’s Office of Legal Counsel were already bizarre distortions of the applicable law, ignoring the clear statements of Article 2.2 of the Convention Against Torture:

No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture.

and the Eighth Amendment:

Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.

These OLC torture memos have been repudiated by President Obama.

But the Senate report now informs us that the CIA was not telling the Bush OLC what their program was really doing, and was lying about its effectiveness.

OLC memoranda signed on May 30, 2005, and July 20, 2007, relied on these representations, determining that the techniques were legal in part because they produced “specific, actionable intelligence” and “substantial quantities of otherwise unavailable intelligence” that saved lives. … The CIA’s representations to the OLC about the techniques were also inconsistent with how the techniques would later be applied.

So the CIA lied to the OLC about what it was doing and whether it was working, and the OLC lied to the President about whether the program (as the CIA had described it) was legal. This was a frequent pattern in the Bush administration, which also turned up in the “evidence” that Saddam had an active WMD program: Some low-level analyst would shade his conclusions to correspond to what his boss wanted to hear; his boss would shade them further for his boss; and so on up the ladder.

What we don’t know for sure is whether Bush, Cheney, or other top officials wanted it this way. Were their underlings out of control and deceiving them about it? Or was this a wink-and-nod arrangement that gave the higher-ups deniability?

5. No one has been held accountable for it. In the early months of his administration, President Obama pledged that he would not prosecute the torturers at the CIA, justifying his position like this:

It is our intention to assure those who carried out their duties relying in good faith upon legal advice from the Department of Justice, that they will not be subject to prosecution.

That sort of made sense: Maybe you realize what you’re doing is dicey under the law, but you’re not a lawyer and the lawyers say you’re OK. It shouldn’t be a crime to trust them.

But now the Senate report makes it clear that at least some people at the CIA were manipulating the Department of Justice’s Office of Legal Counsel, feeding it false information about the nature and success of their program, and then doing more than the OLC torture memos authorized. Nevertheless, Obama has shown no signs of changing his position.

Subsequent to his boss’ declaration, Obama’s chief of staff elaborated that the policy-makers who OK’d torture and the lawyers who invented bogus justifications for it would also not be prosecuted. He didn’t explain, but simply said, “That’s not the place that we go.” So the Obama administration ratified what law professor Jonathan Turley had dubbed “Mukasey’s Paradox” in honor of Bush attorney general Michael Mukasey:

Under Mukasey’s Paradox, lawyers cannot commit crimes when they act under the orders of a president — and a president cannot commit a crime when he acts under advice of lawyers.

In other words, if a president orders his OLC lawyers to find a way to justify him doing whatever, they all get off scot free.

But then there’s that pesky Convention Against Torture again, and that whole constitutional thing about treaties being the supreme law of the land. Countries that sign the CAT — like the United States — are obligated to investigate and prosecute cases of torture within their jurisdiction. Republicans love to call President Obama “lawless” and accuse him of failing to “faithfully execute the laws” as the Constitution mandates. I’ve argued in the past that those claims are bogus, but in this case — a case where nearly all Republicans agree with him — Obama really is failing to execute the laws.

University of Chicago law professor Eric Posner offers this argument against prosecution:

When the president takes actions that he sincerely believes advance national security, and officials throughout the government participate for the same reason, then an effort to punish the behavior—unavoidably, a massive effort that could result in trials of hundreds of people—poses a real risk to democratic governance.

Obama’s problem is that if he can prosecute Republican officeholders for authorizing torture, then the next Republican president can prosecute Obama and his subordinates for the many questionable legal actions of the Obama administration—say, the drone strike that killed Anwar al-Awlaki and three other American citizens.

In practice, this honor-among-thieves argument comes dangerously close to Nixon’s adage that “when the President does it, that means that it is not illegal.” Nobody is willing to follow it as far as it would go. A president might order genocide out of a sincere belief that the targeted race constitutes a risk to national security, and underlings might carry out those orders for the same reason. (I suspect most of the world’s genocides can be made to fit that pattern.) Should they get off?

I want to stand Posner’s argument on its head: What endangers democratic governance is the tacit agreement that neither party will prosecute its predecessors (except for Blagojevich-style personal corruption) no matter what laws they break. I’m a Democrat who voted for Obama twice, but I would welcome an investigation of the legality of the drone program. If it’s a war crime, then people should stand trial, up to and including President Obama himself.

Posner may be right that no jury would convict a CIA torturer, or someone like Bush or Cheney — or Obama for that matter. But that’s a jury’s decision to make, and not anyone else’s.

So what about ticking bombs? In the ticking-bomb scenario torture defenders love to cite, you are absolutely certain that

  • a hidden nuclear bomb is about to destroy some city like New York, killing millions
  • a guy you are holding knows where it is and how to disarm it
  • he’ll tell you if you torture him, but not otherwise

It’s worth noting that this was not the case for any of the 119 detainees the CIA tortured. So we’re weighing a made-for-TV movie scenario against 119 real people.

In any real situation, you wouldn’t know any of this. You’d have unconfirmed reports about a bomb, which might or might not work, set to go off sometime. You’d suspect this guy was part of the plot. You’d hope he had the information you need. And maybe torture would get it out of him, or maybe it would just solidify his resolve — which otherwise might have melted at the last minute as the enormity of the crime became real to him. So you’d be acting on a hunch, with the possibility that maybe you want torture this guy out of frustration with your own helplessness rather than because it would accomplish anything.

But suppose you’re convinced that torture will make the difference here and save New York. What should happen? I think you save New York, but then you turn yourself in and throw yourself on the mercy of a jury (hopefully a jury of New Yorkers). If you’re not willing to take that risk, then you’re no hero. You’re willing to make somebody else suffer to save lives, but not willing to risk suffering yourself.

There should never be a process that can give prior approval to torture, or hide it after the fact. Everybody who decides to torture in America’s name should have to face his fellow citizens.

Truth and reconciliation. One suggestion to preserve at least some of the integrity of our legal system is that President Obama could offer formal pardons to the Americans involved in torture, from President Bush on down to the guys who poured the water during waterboarding. ACLU Executive Director Anthony Romero explains:

The spectacle of the president’s granting pardons to torturers still makes my stomach turn. But doing so may be the only way to ensure that the American government never tortures again. Pardons would make clear that crimes were committed; that the individuals who authorized and committed torture were indeed criminals; and that future architects and perpetrators of torture should beware. Prosecutions would be preferable, but pardons may be the only viable and lasting way to close the Pandora’s box of torture once and for all.

Jonathan Bernstein agrees, hoping that generous pardons would take the partisanship out of torture, and allow Republicans to condemn it. But he adds:

A final step has to be a truth and reconciliation commission to detail what happened and how counterproductive it was. … The only way to get the truth, in other words, is to make it clear that a commission will treat the people involved generously, even if its investigation shows the horrors of what they did.

Truth and reconciliation commissions have been used in many countries — notably South Africa — to move on after a national moral catastrophe. I have my doubts it would work here (and so does Bernstein). But if the alternative is to do nothing …


* The Convention Against Torture was ratified with official reservations. But none of the reservations mention Article 1 or Article 2.2.

Can We Share the World?

a rambling attempt to get to the heart of the progressive vision


After the mid-term elections I lamented that “Republicans have a story to tell. We’re stuck with facts.” While Democrats had a lot of specific issues to sell to segments of the electorate — increase the minimum wage, protect access to health care, pay women the same as men, fix the immigration system, preserve access to abortion and contraception, subsidize renewable energy, and so on — it didn’t add up to a mythic vision on the scale of the conservative vision, which I summed up as: America is a city on a hill with barbarians at the gates.

Conservative zeal comes from a deep, almost mystical, sense of destiny thwarted, purity corrupted, and one last chance to set things right. In that vision, every tiny issue becomes a symbol of the larger struggle. When you hear about a 12-year-old Guatemalan girl fleeing the gang warfare in her country and showing up at our border, you instantly grasp her role in the cosmic threat to everything you hold dear. If somebody somewhere is scamming Food Stamps to avoid working, that’s not a fraction of a cent on your tax bill, to be weighed against all the genuinely needy people the program helps, it’s an invitation to God’s judgment against our nation.

To them, every race for every office is part of one big apocalyptic battle. That’s why their voters show up at mid-term elections and ours don’t.

But I don’t believe conservatism is inherently mythic and liberalism inherently pedestrian. I just think we’ve lost touch with the heart of our own vision and so lost our ability to tell the story of what we’re trying to do. At the end of that post, I pledged to spend my time in the metaphorical wilderness trying to get those things back.

The purpose of this post is to catch you up on what I’ve been thinking. I realize it’s less polished than the usual Weekly Sift post, but rather than wait for everything to come into perfect focus, I thought I’d toss the raw ideas out there in hopes of starting a productive discussion.

Roots of myth. I believe that the truly mythic ideas — the ones that just feel right, independent of current evidence — go way, way back. I’m agnostic about whether they have biological roots, but I think they’re older than civilization and are already present in some form in hunter-gatherer cultures.

In particular, as I meditate on my own deepest political intuitions, I find three hunter-gatherer notions at the root of both my liberal and my conservative impulses. The three don’t fit together cleanly in the modern world, which is why I’m vulnerable to framing: If an issue arises in the context of one of the notions, I might have a liberal response; but if you describe the same issue in terms of a different notion, my snap reaction my be conservative. The three notions are:

  • Nature belongs to everyone.
  • We’re all in this together.
  • The tribe has to defend its territory.

Nature belongs to everyone. In hunter-gatherer society, the forest, the lake, and the field are all there for you. If you’re hungry, go hunt, go fish, go gather. There’s no gatekeeper, no owner whose permission is required. There’s no such thing as an unemployed hunter-gatherer, because nobody has to hire you and nobody can fire you.

In the modern world, this notion cuts in both liberal and conservative directions. When Marx talks about public ownership of the means of production, or Pope John Paul II frames the ideal economy as a “Great Workbench“, or liberals want the government to be the “employer of last resort” they’re trying to preserve or restore this direct relationship to the Earth’s productive potential: If you’re able and willing to work productively, no one should be able to stand in your way.

In today’s economy, though, someone does stand in your way. Not just the forests, lakes, and fields, but also the factories, mines, malls, offices, and laboratories are all owned by someone. If you aren’t one of the owners and you want to work, someone with better access to the means of production has to hire you — and (depending on market conditions) may take a substantial cut of what you produce. If no one does hire you, you’re cut off from the productive economy in a way that no hunter-gatherer ever could be. [I explored these ideas in more depth in “Who Owns the World?“.]

That’s the liberal side of this notion. The conservative side arises when you either ignore the owner/gatekeeper role or assume that the hurdle it constructs is trivial: “You want something? Go work for it.”

We’re all in this together. A conservative take on the first notion might justify you gorging on a deer you’ve killed while less successful hunters look on in hunger. “There’s a forest out there,” you could tell them, “go get your own.”

But actual hunter-gatherers rarely act this way. Generosity gains you friendship and respect — social goods that don’t spoil like deer meat. In a world without money, banks, or privately owned land, honor among your tribesmen is the best kind of wealth you can accumulate. Some day you’ll be the hunter without a catch. Some day you’ll be the one with the bad ankle or the concussion, who needs help to get home. Having tribesmen around who owe you favors is a very valuable asset.

Today, this is the spirit behind social insurance and social goods of all sorts. Maybe today I’m the one with a job and money and health insurance. Maybe today my family is healthy and I’m still in my prime. Maybe I don’t have kids, or my kids are grown. Why should I pay for other people’s unemployment compensation and Social Security and Food Stamps and public schools? Because although there’s a lot of skill and hard work involved in success, there’s a lot of luck too, and nobody’s luck lasts forever. A society where we all look out for each other isn’t just friendlier, it’s also more secure.

Today, you are in a position to be generous. Tomorrow, someone else might be, and you might need generosity.

The tribe has to defend its territory. Hunter-gatherers usually aren’t humanists, they’re tribalists. The “everyone” in the first notion and the “we” in the second isn’t humankind, it’s the tribe. And “Nature” isn’t the whole world, it’s the tribe’s territory. Our forest, our lake, our field, our people. The tribe needs to command the resources necessary to provide its people with a good life.

Outside the tribe’s territory are strangers without number. They come and go, and they think differently. You can’t reach the kind of understandings with them that you can reach with your tribesmen. In some situations you may take pity on them and help them, but in others you may see them as wolves who want to kill our game and leave us with nothing, or as locusts or rats who will multiply to eat up any surplus we might generate.

This configuration of images and ideas also survives in the modern world, even though it’s not so clear exactly who our “tribe” is. But whoever we identify with — country, race, language group, social class, religion, neighborhood, family — it’s tempting to restrict our vision of the good life to people “like us”. We have to hang on to what we need to have a good life. What happens out there — outside the tribe, over the wall, beyond the oceans — is not our problem unless the outsiders try to take what’s ours. The world outside the tribe is full of greedy predators and teeming masses who carry strange diseases and can’t be reasoned with.

This idea is inherently conservative — it’s the root of the City-on-a-Hill-with-Barbarians-at-the-Gates vision. Under its influence, expansive notions of Nature belonging to everyone and all of us being in this together seem naive. Scarcity is the fundamental fact of economics. There is not enough for everybody, so the good life can only happen within walls, within fences, within borders. The Gospel of Malthus says that the poor will multiply to consume any surplus, so the privileged classes have to control their soft-hearted generosity. If no one is starving, then the good life that we enjoy is not secure.

If you focus on the third notion, the possibility of universal justice — justice outside the tribe — goes away. Some tribe will seize the best resources and live the good life, while pushing all the others into poverty. Will that be our tribe our some other? In the words of Humpty Dumpty: “The question is which is to be master — that’s all.”

In the context of global capitalism, this means that some comparatively small group of people will control the world’s oil, its drinkable water, its productive land. Some group will own the Great Workbench, and anyone who wants a seat there must buy it or inherit it or occupy it as a vassal for some lord. Some group of people will have their hands on the valves that control the flow of the world’s production, and can turn it on or cut it off according to its interests. Will that be our tribe, or somebody else’s?

One of the best expressions of the conservative horror of sharing the world comes from a minor character in Atlas Shrugged, a tramp who survived the fall of the once-great 20th Century Motor Company, which disastrously turned itself into a socialist enterprise. How awful it would be, he thinks, if such socialist ideas took hold on a worldwide scale.

Do you care to imagine what it would be like, if you had to live and to work, when you’re tied to all the disasters and all the malingering of the globe? To work — and whenever any men failed anywhere, it’s you who would have to make up for it. To work — with no chance to rise, with your meals and your clothes and your home and your pleasure depending on any swindle, any famine, any pestilence anywhere on Earth. To work — with no chance for an extra ration, till the Cambodians have been fed and the Patagonians sent through college.

In this vision, the needs of the outside world are infinite and will never be satisfied. What’s more, the benefits of investing in those people will never come back to you. It will never be the well-fed Cambodians who pick up the slack, and no college-educated Patagonian will ever be your doctor or invent a product you need. To see yourself as a tribesman of the World, rather than a defender of a territory sufficient to sustain your small group of people, is to be sentenced to endless labor with no hope of reward.

The small world. Today, we know some things the hunter-gatherers — and previous eras of civilization — didn’t know. We know the world is finite and has a finite number of people in it. We know that Malthus was wrong: As women become more educated and more confident that their children will survive, they have fewer of them, not more. We know that the Earth is one big productive system, and that the garbage we throw over the wall or let the waters and winds carry away isn’t really gone.

The world outside the walls isn’t vast and incalculable any more. In fact, it’s actually kind of a small world. It’s so small that the world inside the walls can’t really be managed without accounting for what’s outside.

Can we share the world? As I’m coming to see it, the liberal challenge — I’m calling it a challenge rather than a vision because I don’t think we have it that worked out yet — is to ask whether we can come to view humanity as one tribe with the Earth as its territory.

It’s tempting to jump forward right away and say, “Why yes, of course we can. In fact we have to.” But it’s a real challenge: Can we square some vision of the Good Life with what the Earth can provide for everyone? Because if not, then the City on a Hill dominating the teeming masses around it is the only good life we can hope for. If the choice is to live in hopeless squalor or to be part of the Master Race, then a sizable chunk of people in every generation are going to choose to be fascists. And who’s to say that they’re wrong?

Just as obviously, we can’t simply declare Universal Justice starting tomorrow. That really is naive. Because the world economy isn’t just a distribution system, it’s a production system, and the two are interdependent. Adding up global GDP and sending everybody a check for the average amount would be like carving a factory into pieces and sending one home with each worker.

And there really are predators in the world, and good people separated by such large and ancient walls of misunderstanding that they can’t possibly trust one another. What happens to them?

But still: One tribe with the world as its territory, offering each person a chance to work for the good life, and providing some kind of safety net for those who fail. Is there a way to make sense of that? Is there a way to get from here to there?

Don’t just say, “Yes. Of course.” If you take it seriously, you’ll see that it’s a real question, and the answer might be No.

This Time, Will the Outrage Matter?

Objective people could come to different conclusions about Darren Wilson’s guilt. But no one can argue objectively that the investigation of Michael Brown’s death was impartial and conducted appropriately.


Monday night, after Prosecutor Bob McCulloch announced the grand jury decision not to indict Officer Darren Wilson for the shooting death of Michael Brown — my Facebook news feed exploded with anger: Wilson got away with murder. Police have free rein to keep shooting young black men. Black lives don’t count. And much more.

I had heard similar outrage when Trayvon Martin’s killer walked free. And yet, nothing changed; if it had, we wouldn’t be doing this all over again, would we? Will anything change this time? Or will we be right back here in another few months — another unarmed black youth killed by a cop or vigilante, who faces no substantive consequences?

After Trayvon, we already know how the nothing-changes path looks: Rather than evidence of systemic dysfunction, the case becomes an identity marker in the endless Red/Blue partisan battle: George Zimmerman is a racist murderer, or Trayvon Martin was a thug who got what was coming to him. There seems to be no objective truth; you just pick your side and wave its flag. To one side, the martyrdom of an innocent motivates change. To the other, failure of yet another an attempt to railroad a good man is proof that the system works, but just barely; give an inch, and the next time the grievance industry wins.

It’s already easy to see how that could happen again. If I had a different batch of Facebook friends, no doubt my news feed would have exploded with reactions of a different flavor: I always knew there was nothing to that case. It was obvious a bunch of the witnesses were lying, and when the grand jury had all the evidence in front of it, they agreed. What a shame Officer Wilson decided to resign — all the liars who smeared him should be prosecuted for perjury. The whole thing was all just an excuse to riot.

If we want anything different to happen this time, I think we need to re-establish the notion that there is an objective truth to this matter — the kind that persuades the uncommitted and converts some of the opposition — and that objectively, the system did not work. More than that, we need to argue that the reasons it did not work are not specific to the details of the Brown shooting; the same reasons will continue to endanger innocent people until something changes.

As in every attempt to speak the truth, this means choosing our words carefully, rather than saying whatever it feels good to say. That’s what I’m going to try to do.

Here’s my best statement of what went wrong: The process was rigged to get Darren Wilson off. And the same forces that created this rigged process will still be there for the next case.

Notice what I didn’t say: that Darren Wilson murdered Michael Brown. I didn’t say it because (although I suspect it) I don’t actually know that it’s true. But I have no doubt whatsoever that the process was rigged, and I believe that any person who looks at the situation objectively will have to agree.

In refusing to say that Wilson murdered Brown, I am also refusing to get into the minutia of the evidence — which witnesses were and weren’t believable, what the autopsy or the forensic evidence said, and so on. That’s one prime way that the Red/Blue debate goes nowhere: by producing fractal he-said/she-said arguments that spin off ever-smaller he-said/she-said arguments, until the larger point the case exemplifies is lost.*

You don’t have to go into any of that to see that the process was rigged at two levels:

  • The Ferguson police were more focused on getting Wilson off than finding the truth.
  • The prosecutor subverted the ordinary grand jury process in Wilson’s favor.

The police. The Washington Post outlined the ways that crime-scene protocols were ignored in gathering the initial evidence:

When Ferguson, Mo., police officer Darren Wilson left the scene of the fatal shooting of unarmed teenager Michael Brown, the officer returned to the police station unescorted, washed blood off his hands and placed his recently fired pistol into an evidence bag himself. … the officers who interviewed Wilson immediately after the shooting did not tape the conversations. The [grand jury] transcripts also showed that an investigator from the medical examiner’s office opted not to take measurements at the crime scene and arrived there believing that what happened between Brown and Wilson was “self-explanatory.’’

In addition, the Ferguson police violated their internal protocol by not creating a use-of-force report. As a result, Officer Wilson had the time to concoct an account of the shooting that covered all the points necessary to avoid guilt without directly contradicting the undeniable physical evidence. (Again, we do not know that he did so — perhaps his hard-to-believe story is actually true — we only know that the Ferguson police gave him that opportunity by violating all their usual procedures.)

If I had any temptation to give the Ferguson police the benefit of the doubt — maybe they were just so shocked that one of their own could be a suspect that they forgot how to do their jobs — it vanished when the police started acting as the unofficial Darren Wilson Public Relations Department. As a Justice Department spokesman put it: “There seems to be an inappropriate effort to influence public opinion about this case.” At a time when the police were still withholding the name of the officer and the number of shots fired, they released video of Brown appearing to steal cigars from a convenience store, and leaked that the autopsy had shown THC in his bloodstream. As for the false rumor (with fake photo**, no less) that Wilson had suffered a fractured eye socket — we have no way of knowing whether that came from police or not.

The prosecutor. In the day-to-day course of their jobs, prosecutors work hand-in-glove with police. So if the police have circled the wagons around one of their own, it takes a brave local prosecutor to go against them.

That’s why Governor Nixon was urged to appoint a special prosecutor, one who had no prior relationship with either Michael Brown or the Ferguson police. He refused, saying:

There is a well-established process by which a prosecutor can recuse themselves from a pending investigation, and a special prosecutor be appointed.  Departing from this established process could unnecessarily inject legal uncertainty into this matter and potentially jeopardize the prosecution.

In other words, procedural abnormalities that worked in Officer Wilson’s favor were fine, but any that might counter that bias would “inject legal uncertainty”.

As a result, Prosecutor Bob McCulloch engineered something that bore no resemblance to a typical grand jury.

The ordinary purpose of a grand jury is to determine whether probable cause exists to move on to a trial. In other words: Does the prosecution have a case that would be convincing in the absence of any defense rebuttal? For this reason, a grand jury investigation is entirely the prosecutor’s show; he is under no obligation to present evidence that favors the suspect, or to challenge the testimony of witnesses against the suspect.

As Justice Scalia (of all people) wrote in a different case:

It is the grand jury’s function not ‘to enquire … upon what foundation [the charge may be] denied,’ or otherwise to try the suspect’s defenses, but only to examine ‘upon what foundation [the charge] is made’ by the prosecutor. … As a consequence, neither in this country nor in England has the suspect under investigation by the grand jury ever been thought to have a right to testify or to have exculpatory evidence presented.

But the ordinary grand jury process assumes the prosecutor is motivated to get an indictment; it completely misfires if his intention is not to get an indictment.

Instead, McCulloch ran the equivalent of a trial, but one that had only a defense attorney, not a prosecutor. Law Professor Marjorie Cohn explained:

[McCulloch] put the grand jury in the role of being a trier of fact, which is not its role. The grand jury was put in the position of basically being a jury, but in a one-sided, closed proceeding.

Witnesses whose testimony indicated that Wilson was not in danger, that Brown was far away and surrendering when Wilson gunned him down, were grilled hard. In McCulloch’s words, they were “confronted with the inconsistencies and conflict between their statements and the physical evidence”.

But one witness was treated with unusual deference: Officer Wilson himself. His unusual story — in which Brown does everything he can to goad Wilson into shooting him — was not challenged in any way. MSNBC legal analyst Lisa Bloom tweeted that the cross-examination “Should have been a grueling session, not the tea party the transcript shows.” She focused on the conflict between Wilson’s statements about Brown’s attack and his incredible strength, and Wilson’s complete lack of injury when examined afterwards.

San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi suggests another opening that a serious cross-examination might have pursued:

Wilson’s description of Brown as a “demon” with superhuman strength and unremitting rage, and his description of the neighborhood as “hostile,” illustrate implicit racial bias that taints use-of-force decisions. These biases surely contribute to the fact that African Americans are 21 times more likely to be shot by police than whites in the U.S., but the statement’s racial implications remained unexamined.

The icing on this misshapen cake was identified by Lawrence O’Donnell: The grand jury was misled about the law. Vox summaries:

Before Wilson testified to the grand jury on September 16, prosecutors gave grand jurors an outdated statute that said police officers can shoot a suspect that’s simply fleeing. This statute was deemed unconstitutional by the US Supreme Court in 1985; the court ruled that a fleeing suspect must, at least in a police officer’s reasonable view, pose a dangerous threat to someone or have committed a violent felony to justify a shooting.

Like the Ferguson police, McCulloch also joined the Wilson public-relations effort. Repeated leaks from the grand jury were all favorable to Wilson. His public statement announcing the non-indictment — itself a nearly unprecedented event — “read like a closing argument for the defense” according to a University of Missouri law professor.

His release of the grand jury transcripts — also highly unusual — merely reinforced the need for a trial. As The New Republic‘s Noam Scheiber put it:

The problem with this is that we already have a forum for establishing the underlying facts of a caseand, no less important, for convincing the public that justice is being served in a particular case. It’s called a trial. It, rather than the post-grand jury press conference, is where lawyers typically introduce mounds of evidence to the public, litigate arguments extensively, and generally establish whether or not someone is guilty of a crime.

Objective people could come to different conclusions about Wilson’s guilt. They might disagree about which witnesses were credible, and envision the scene differently. But no one can argue objectively the investigation of Brown’s death was impartial and conducted appropriately.

So what if the process was rigged? If you believe Wilson was justified, you may not care that Michael Brown’s killing was never impartially investigated. The reason you should is that police killings and other police violence against unarmed victims in questionable circumstances is not rare in America.

No one keeps track of the exact number, but at least 400 Americans are killed by police each year, compared to (for example) six in Germany in 2011. No one knows how many of these shootings were of unarmed and otherwise unthreatening people, but now that the world is filling up with cameras, we’re seeing more and more videos of such cases. (Conor Friedersdorf collects several.)

You and I weren’t the only ones watching the rigged process that protected Darren Wilson. Police all over the country were watching with great interest. And they learned that if they over-react and kill someone — perhaps particularly if they kill a young black man, but more generally as well — they are very unlikely to be held accountable. Their colleagues will protect them, and prosecutors will not want to take a stand against them.

Several reforms are needed, which Friedersdorf lists: lapel cameras for police, dashboard cameras for police cars, independent prosecutors in cases where police are suspects, and more.

Wisconsin has such an independent-prosecutor law, probably because that state had the perfect poster case: Michael Bell, a white retired Air Force colonel whose son was shot in the head by police in 2004 after his hands had been cuffed behind his back. With the Bell case in front of them, even white citizens understood that unjustified police violence could happen to them.

Black citizens had always known.


* It’s worth pointing out that endless argument is not a draw; it’s a victory for the side that believes nothing should change.

** The fake photo trick was also used in the Trayvon Martin case.

One-and-a-Half Cheers for Executive Action

When democracy is failing, somebody still has to solve problems.


Imagine that something in your house’s infrastructure is broken: a pipe is leaking, an electric circuit is shorting out — something like that. There’s a guy in town who deals with such problems, but he isn’t coming. Maybe he’s too busy, maybe he doesn’t like you … whatever, he’s just not coming. You know enough to throw together a temporary fix, something that will keep the water damage from spreading or the house from catching fire, but it won’t be the right way to fix the problem and it certainly won’t be up to code.

Worse, given how things have been working around town lately, you don’t know that it will ever be up to code. You could imagine that the professional will be along to fix things the right way next week or in a few weeks, but what’s more likely is that your kludgy fix will lead to another “temporary” kludge the next time something goes wrong, and little by little your whole house will diverge from the standard practices that make houses liveable. Anybody who tries to fix anything in the future will have to know not just plumbing or electrical systems, but the specific lore of your house and the strange things that have been done to it through the years.

Knowing all this, how do you feel about your kludge? Good, sort of. You’re keeping things from falling down or burning up. But you also know you’re taking one more step down a path you don’t really want to follow.

That’s pretty close how I feel about the executive action on immigration that President Obama announced Thursday night. In the short run, I love it. If we can bring four million people out of the shadows, so that they will no longer be exceptions to the systems that keep society working properly, that will be a huge positive for all of us. But it also continues the pattern I described last year in “Countdown to Augustus“, where partisan conflict causes a tit-for-tat series of moves that are all technically legal, but which erode the social and moral norms that the republic is based on. Eventually democracy becomes so dysfunctional that the people cheer when a man on horseback sweeps it all away.

There’s a lot to unpack there, so let’s start by reviewing the immigration problem.

The shadow population. Nobody is really happy about how our immigration system has been working. I can’t think of a single major political figure who will defend it, who will stand up in public and say, “We shouldn’t change anything. Everything is just fine the way it is.”

The government estimates that 11.3 million people live in the United States without proper documentation. Most are Hispanic and more arrive all the time. The total has stayed fairly steady — and maybe even gone down a little — since the Great Recession. But that’s not a stable situation. Eventually there will be some crisis in Mexico at a time when our economy is doing well, and the in-flow will resume.

In the aggregate, these immigrants are probably good for our economy. (You can tell the story in such a way that people working difficult jobs for low wages victimize the rest of us, but that seems like a stretch to me.) It’s possible that native-born unskilled workers are hurt by the competition for jobs. But even here, it’s the shadowy nature of undocumented workers that is the real threat. An employer might prefer an undocumented worker because s/he can’t complain about abuse, unsafe working conditions, or wage theft. Pulling that worker out of the shadows makes the competition with native-born workers more fair.

The biggest problem the undocumented cause is not anything they do as individuals, but that their need to stay in the shadows gums up systems that depend on people coming forward. We have been lucky so far, but imagine if an epidemic of bird flu or drug-resistant tuberculosis got loose in the shadow population, and they not only didn’t show up at hospitals, but kept trying to work (in restaurant kitchens and as janitors and nannies) because no one gives sick days to undocumented workers. The undocumented are also unlikely to report crimes they see, either at the workplace or in their neighborhoods, for fear of being questioned about their status. And the existence of a shadow population provides a natural hiding place for the small number of border-crossers we really should be afraid of, like terrorists or drug-smugglers.

We can’t secure the border. “Secure the border” is a slogan like “end poverty” or “world peace”. It expresses an aspiration that cannot be achieved by any country resembling the current United States.

Ignore the Mexican border for a moment and just consider our Canadian border. Most of it is in remote areas that are not marked by any natural obstruction. (The green areas on the map are the places where there is no water barrier.) In the wilds of Montana or Maine or Alaska, crossing the border is just a walk in the woods; you might have to hop a fence, or you might not even know you’ve crossed. The idea that we’re going to surround our country with five thousand miles of Berlin-Wall-style fortifications is ludicrous.

People can walk into the United States. That’s not going to change anytime soon, no matter who’s president or what laws we pass.

If you don’t want to walk, come as a tourist or student and just stay; that’s how about half the undocumented got here. Are we really going to follow every visitor to Disney World or the Grand Canyon to make sure they go home? The old East German Stasi might have been up to a job like that, but no police system we want to have in America could do it.

Ditto for tracking down and arresting all 11.3 million of our current undocumented residents. A police force capable of that … what else could it do? I don’t think we want to find out, but I would love to hear the conspiracy theories if President Obama proposed a realistic — fully staffed, fully funded — plan to secure the borders and deport the undocumented. Police state! Tyranny!

So we’re not solving this problem by enforcement alone.

The irresponsibility of Congress. In my leaky-pipe metaphor, the professional-who-won’t-come is Congress. President Bush pushed Congress to do something, but it wouldn’t. Under President Obama, the Senate passed a bipartisan immigration reform plan, but the House has done nothing. I mean, literally nothing: It didn’t vote on the Senate’s bill, it didn’t pass an alternative, nothing.

Which would be dandy if the House leadership’s position was that our immigration system is A-OK and nothing needs to be done. If you think nothing is the right solution, then fine, do nothing. (That, for example, is how the global-warming debate is going. Congressional Republicans think no action is needed, so they block any attempt at action. They’re wrong, but at least their position is internally consistent.)

But if you are an official branch of government and you think the country has a serious problem, then you have a moral obligation to work on a solution. The House has totally failed to meet that obligation. House Republicans would rather have the impossible “secure the border” slogan to run on than take responsibility for any constructive action.

So there’s President Obama, watching his pipes leak and knowing that the plumber isn’t coming. So he does something. It’s a kludge. It is meant to be temporary, but might have to hold up for a long time. How should we feel about that?

What the order does and doesn’t do. President Obama’s executive order does not grant anyone legal status under our immigration laws. No one becomes a citizen or permanent legal resident. People who would have been near the bottom of the deportation list anyway — mainly parents of U.S. citizens or permanent residents who have been here four years or more, but also a smaller class of students and other people with economically valuable skills — are invited to come forward and apply for a temporary deferral of deportation. If that request is granted, they will then have legal permission to work in the United States while their deportation is deferred.

The administration estimates that about four million people could qualify.

Is it legal? Last week, before the policy was announced, The Wall Street Journal challenged President Obama to produce “the missing memo“, the opinion from the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel on whether he had the power to do this — implying that he might be so lawless that he had not even asked for a legal analysis. And much has been made of a 2011 townhall meeting President Obama had with Hispanic students, in which he seemed to admit that such an action would be illegal:

With respect to the notion that I can just suspend deportations through executive order, that’s just not the case.

The OLC memo was released before Obama’s speech, and it makes refreshing reading (for those of us who read such things). Moreover, it supports both Obama’s executive order and his townhall statement.

Before I get into the details, I’d like to recall the kinds of memos the OLC was writing during the Bush administration: ones explaining how the President could unilaterally nullify the Convention Against Torture, or why the President had the power to declare American citizens to be “enemy combatants” and lock them up indefinitely without charges or trials. One standard feature of those memos was that they were open-ended: They explained why the President could do what he wanted now, but never described the limitations he might run into if he wanted to do more later. In one, for example, the OLC’s John Yoo wrote:

Article II, Section I makes this clear by stating that the “executive Power shall be vested in a President of the United States of America.” That sweeping grant vests in the President the “executive power” and contrasts with the specific enumeration of the powers — those “herein”– granted to Congress in Article I.

In other words, Bush’s OLC believed the President’s constitutional powers were “sweeping”, while Congress’ powers were limited to the ones specifically enumerated.

By contrast, the Obama OLC’s immigration memo lays out the principles limiting the President’s power, and says that some of what had been suggested is legal and some isn’t. (The part that isn’t — deferring deportation of parents of the “Dreamers” who were the subject of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals order of 2012 — had been rumored to be part of this executive order, but was left out — possibly because the OLC determined it was beyond the President’s power.)

Quoting numerous Supreme Court decisions, the memo lays out four principles that limit the kind of executive action that had been proposed:

  1. “enforcement decisions should reflect ‘factors which are peculiarly within [the enforcing agency’s] expertise’.”
  2. “the Executive cannot, under the guise of exercising enforcement discretion, attempt to effectively rewrite the laws to match its policy preferences. … In other words, an agency’s enforcement decisions should be consonant with, rather than contrary to, the congressional policy underlying the statutes the agency is charged with administering.”
  3. “the Executive Branch ordinarily cannot, as the Court put it in Chaney, ‘consciously and expressly adopt a general policy that is so extreme as to amount to an abdication of its statutory responsibilities’.”
  4. “a general policy of non-enforcement that forecloses the exercise of case-by-case discretion poses ‘special risks’ that the agency has exceeded the bounds of its enforcement discretion.”

If, for example, the President were to simply stop deporting people — “just suspend deportations through executive order”, as he put it in 2011 — he would violate Principle 3. The law says to deport people, so the President can’t just say no. But Congress has not provided the resources to deport everyone who is in the country illegally.

DHS has informed us that there are approximately 11.3 million undocumented aliens in the country, but that Congress has appropriated sufficient resources for ICE to remove fewer than 400,000 aliens each year, a significant percentage of whom are typically encountered at or near the border rather than in the interior of the country.

As a result, the executive branch has to prioritize which 400,000 undocumented immigrants it wants to go after each year. Its prioritization can’t be arbitrary, and can’t rely “on factors which Congress had not intended it to consider”. Past Congressional action has emphasized deporting terrorists and other violent criminals, so there’s no problem putting them at the top of the deportation list. Deferring deportation for “humanitarian” reasons has also been recognized by Congress, and keeping families together has been recognized as humanitarian. Also, there is a long history (recognized by Congress) of deferring deportation of people who are in the middle of a lengthy process that might eventually grant them legal status.

Unless they are dangerous criminals, parents of U.S. citizens and permanent residents fit all these criteria. And the executive branch will continue deporting people at the rate its resources allow, giving temporary deferrals — revocable on a case-by-case basis — to low-priority enforcement targets.

But OLC doesn’t find that the same humanitarian concerns apply to parents of the beneficiaries of DACA.

Many provisions of the INA reflect Congress’s general concern with not separating individuals who are legally entitled to live in the United States from their immediate family members. … But the immigration laws do not express comparable concern for uniting persons who lack lawful status (or prospective lawful status) in the United States with their families.

The DACA executive order did not (and could not) give the Dreamers legal standing to petition for the admission of their parents, as citizens and legal residents can. So there is no basis for deferring the parents’ deportation while we wait to see what happens to that petition.

Is this a bad precedent? Vox considered the question: “What could a Republican president do with Obama’s executive power theories?” Their answer is: not much that Bush wasn’t already doing.

Various ideas have been floated for what the executive orders of a Republican president might do through selective enforcement: change the tax laws, give polluters carte blanche to violate the Clean Air Act, waive all the requirements of ObamaCare, etc.

The problem in most of the cases is that debts and penalties accumulate rather than evaporate. Maybe President Perry wouldn’t prosecute you for failing to pay more than whatever flat-tax number he had in mind, but your debt to the IRS would keep accumulating until some future president made you pay, plus interest and penalties. So taking advantage of the offer would not be a prudent move.

In general, I’m not afraid of what a Republican administration might do if it sticks to the four limiting principles the OLC laid out. So the problem is more political than legal: To the extent that Republicans convince the country that Obama is doing something illegal, the next president will have rhetorical justification for doing illegal things too.

That is in fact the longer-term pattern: When conservatives falsely accuse liberals of something, they’re usually laying the groundwork for really doing something similar themselves later on. For example, liberal Supreme Courts were accused of “making up rights” for women and minorities; so when conservatives took over the Court, they felt justified in making up rights for corporations.

Now they’re telling us that the Democratic president is writing his own laws. Whether that is true in some literal legal sense or not — and I don’t believe it is — in their own minds the groundwork is being laid for future Republican decrees.

What to do? The frustrating thing about the pattern laid out in “Countdown to Augustus” is that there’s never a good place to make a stand against it. The encroachments are usually in the realm of norms rather than laws. Typically, you see a disaster looming or an injustice happening, but your opponents have taken some legal-but-unprecedented action to block the usual way the Republic would take action against it. You have the legal power to act anyway, but in a way that just isn’t done. If you act, your opponents feel themselves put in a similar situation, and they then look for further norms they can break to regain the upper hand. Eventually, people are finding loopholes in the laws against murder and treason.

But do you let your opponents gain advantage by breaking norms, without responding? Do you let the injustices continue or the disasters strike, just to preserve a norm of political behavior that the other side won’t respect anyway?

President Obama has patched a pipe in a kludgy way. In an ideal world, it would only have to hold until the plumber can get here. But the plumber’s not coming. So I’m glad the patch is there. But I’m not happy.

Republicans have a story to tell. We’re stuck with facts.

In his recent Senate campaign in my state, Scott Brown talked a lot about securing the border. That’s the southern border, the one with Mexico, the one that’s over 2,000 miles away from New Hampshire. He connected the border issue to both terrorism and Ebola, neither of which we have here. And it almost worked. As a carpetbagger from Massachusetts, running against a likeable woman we’ve been electing governor or senator since 1996, in a state Obama won twice, Brown nearly pulled it off, losing 51.6% to 48.3%.

This happens at a point in the economic cycle when things are looking reasonably good: Unemployment, GDP growth, and the federal budget deficit have all escaped from the scary territory they were stuck in for so long after the housing bubble popped, and all are trending in the right direction. The stock market is at an all-time high. American combat troops are almost out of Afghanistan and Iraq, and the country is as close to peace as it has been since 9-11. And while Fox News has managed to create a series of faux scandals to excite its viewers, by the very real measure of indictments and convictions, the Obama administration has been the cleanest one we’ve seen in a long time, comparing very favorably with, say, the Reagan administration.

Compounding the mystery, Brown’s near-miss is a rare failure in the national Republican trend. Their victory doesn’t just bring control of the Senate, but sweeps into office some pretty radical folks, like Joni Ernst in Iowa, another state Obama won twice. Sam Brownback, whose tax-cutting mania has pretty well wrecked the fiscal health of the state of Kansas without providing any of the private-sector economic boost he promised, got re-elected governor.

Meanwhile, voters were making some liberal choices on ballot measures: Oregon, Alaska, and D.C. all legalized marijuana; Arkansas, Alaska, Nebraska, and South Dakota raised the minimum wage; Washington tightened gun control; and Colorado defeated a personhood amendment to limit abortion. And the national brand of the Republican Party, as Rand Paul put it, “sucks”. A pre-election poll by NBC and the Wall Street Journal showed the party’s favorable/unfavorable rating far underwater: 29%/47%, as opposed to the Democrats’ narrower 36%/43% split.

So there’s no real evidence that the public is getting more conservative, or seeing Republicans in a better light, but still they’re electing more and wackier Republicans. What’s up with that?

The City on a Hill. I was home sick on Wednesday, so I spent the day reading a short new book called Narrative Politics by Frederick Mayer. Mayer is a professor at Duke and the book is published by Oxford University Press, so it’s more academic than popular. But it is readable and has a clear point: Political scientists like to talk about voters who rationally weigh their interests, and tug-of-war struggles between institutional powers like unions or the Chamber of Commerce or the NRA. Meanwhile, pundits and campaign consultants like to talk tactics: ad buys and gaffes and moving the conversation away from your opponent’s issues and towards yours. But they all underestimate the power of stories to evoke a public response and channel that response into actions like contributing and campaigning and voting.

Mayer begins and then later concludes with the story-telling in Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. King never comes out and says, “I have a story to tell”, but his speech revolves around an implicit story I might retell like this:

From the beginning, the reality of America has been trying to catch up with the dream of America. From Jefferson, who wrote that “all men are created equal” but continued to own slaves; to Lincoln, who won a war to end slavery, but could not deliver full freedom; to the civil rights movement of King’s own day, which had its victories, but still left much to achieve; to the future that King could see in his dream, and would later see from “the mountaintop“, in which the promise of equality would be fulfilled.

The story of America was the story of progress towards an ideal. That story connected to a great past, was continuing right there in Washington where King was speaking, and would carry forward to a successful conclusion in the future. It was mythic, it was inspiring, it was motivating. And today’s Democrats have nothing like it.

Republicans do. Like King, they don’t say outright, “Once upon a time …” and start telling their story explicitly. But it’s always there in the background. It can be hard to pick up on, because most speakers just allude to the story rather than re-tell it, assuming that their supporters and potential supporters already know it. I’d tell it like this:

American is and always has been the “shining city on a hill” that Ronald Reagan talked about.* Its Constitution gave the world a model of liberty. Its free society gave opportunity to immigrants whose path to success had been blocked by the class system of Europe. Its capitalist economy and the industrious virtue of its citizens gave the world a new model of productivity and prosperity. The heroism of its soldiers and the determination of its statesmen saved civilization from both fascism and communism.

But now, the City on the Hill is threatened by barbarians at the gates. If the City were focused and united, no horde could stand against it. But the virtue that still exists in many of its citizens is mixed with corruption. Many have lost sight of the golden vision of the Founders and have forgotten the glorious history that followed. Many have lost the virtues of industry and self-reliance, and have no ambition beyond soaking up the productivity of others. Many do not understand the uniqueness of the City and why its values must be defended.

The City needs a renewal within and a crusade without, led by those who understand the world-historic significance of the City and its ideals. Without such a renewal and such a crusade, it will fall, and the light it brought to the world will be extinguished. But with such a renewal, its virtues can be restored, its enemies can be routed, and its golden past can live again.

[* I’ve described before how Reagan altered the city-on-a-hill image that goes back to the Mayflower.]

It’s easy to poke holes in this story, but before we do, let’s take a moment to appreciate its sheer diabolical beauty. For example, the story itself contains no prejudice other than nationalism, but it easily adapts to whatever bigotry a listener brings. Those lazy citizens who expect someone else to support them, do they have a certain complexion? The threatening barbarians, is that Arabic they’re speaking? Spanish? The corrupt citizens, might they be gay? Or atheists? Or Jews?

Maybe. Maybe not. Bigotry is harnessed, but deniable.

Similarly, the story can unite people who disagree, because the renewal it calls for can be anything. Does the lost vision the Founders include a fundamentalist style of Christianity? Or a robber-baron style of capitalism? Or what the League of the South calls “Anglo-Celtic culture“? Maybe some of that lost virtue is sexual: Men are having sex with other men, and women don’t know their place any more. They want to be free to have sex with whomever — barbarians, even — and escape the consequences of their sin through birth control or abortion.

No wonder the City is in danger.

What it explains. It’s only in the context of the City/Barbarians story that you can really understand the intensity rank-and-file conservatives feel about issues that (at first glance) have nothing to do with their lives. Why should straight people care so much about whether gay people get married? Or New Englanders fear Guatemalan children? Why do so many people have an opinion about academic theories like American exceptionalism? Why should well-fed families begrudge a poor family its Food Stamps? Why do people without young children feel such strong hostility towards public schools and their teachers? Why are those ISIS beheadings so much more horrifying than the beheadings that are normal Saudi executions? Why did the Ebola panic get so out of hand?

These things are not issues in the usual political sense. They are signs of the corruption of the City, omens of the barbarians’ arrival, and warnings of the havoc they’ll unleash if they get here.

The story also explains the bizarre animus people feel towards President Obama, and their willingness to believe absolutely anything about him: He’s Kenyan, he’s Muslim, he’s gay, he pals around with terrorists, he’s Marxist, he wants to kill your grandmother, and on and on. Obama’s fundamental sin is that he’s not one of us. He wants to open the gates and invite the barbarians in. Fox News’ “psychologist” Keith Ablow laid it out:

[Obama’s] affinities, his affiliations are with them. Not us. That’s what people seem unwilling to accept. He’s their leader … we don’t have a president. … We don’t have a president who has the American people as his primary interest.

Sure, you can go all academic-historian and explain why the story isn’t true. You can explain that the City was always corrupt, that its prosperity depended as much on slavery and genocide as on virtue and Godliness. You can point to the virtues of the people the City wants to exclude, or the ways they have been exploited, and the debts to them that a just city would want to honor. And it won’t matter. Because a story like this doesn’t have to be true, it just has to feel true.

And if you come from a certain segment of American society  — the one I came from, for example — it does.

The lost age of upward mobility. I grew up in that segment of the white working class that expected to move up. Our expectation rested on a bunch of things that don’t exist any more.

To start with, there was my father’s job. He worked in a locally owned factory that wasn’t unionized, but had to compete for workers with factories that were. So a man who worked there (they were nearly all men in those days) could support a family and have a little money left over. Education wasn’t required; Dad had a high-school diploma, but others didn’t. And yet his job was secure in a way that is hard to imagine now. The factory itself was stable from one decade to the next — no thought of robots or China, or a junk-bond deal to liquidate its assets. So if you were reliable and worked hard you could do what Dad did: keep that job until you were ready to retire.

At every stage in my young life, I knew that if I was successful, the next stage would open up. If I did well in high school, I could go to college. It didn’t require luck or massive family savings or big loans. Community college was practically free, and the state university system was barely more expensive. You could just about work your way through college with a part-time job during the academic year and a full-time job in the summer. At worst, you might have to take a year off to work and save (at a working-class job that paid enough to let you save). So if college was part of your plan, money wasn’t going to stop you.

Once you got to college, if you chose a reasonable major and did well, you’d get a job when you graduated. Not delivering pizzas or telemarketing, but a real white-collar job with a career path. Or maybe you’d go on to graduate school and train for a higher profession. In a lot of fields, you could again work your way through. (I got a math Ph.D. by teaching calculus and getting a fellowship from the NSF. I came out debt free.) Or maybe you’d take on some debt to become a doctor or get an MBA, but that was an investment; it would pay off in no time. Once again, if you did well, there were jobs. The economy moved slowly enough that the job you’d pictured when you started grad school would still exist when you finished. And you could imagine (falsely, as it turned out) that it would still be there when you retired.

Life had what the stock-market analysts call visibility (“the extent to which future projections are probable”). You could make a plan and carry it out.

Undoubtedly, things were less certain if you weren’t white or spoke with a foreign accent. And women were just entering a lot of professions in those days, so they had no idea what to expect. But for a native-born white man, the good life was there for the taking. Nobody was exactly giving it to us — at each stage we had to work and succeed, and some of us fell by the wayside. But if you did succeed, the prize would be there. You could count on it.

None of that is true any more.

Today. As I write this I’m in my late 50s, watching my friends limp towards the end of their careers. A lot of them are one re-organization or one leveraged buyout away from unemployment, with no guarantee anyone would hire them at this age.

And their kids … I have no idea what to tell them. Even the most brilliant and energetic can’t predict where they’ll be in a few years. States have gotten out of the business of providing inexpensive high-quality higher education. There are no “safe” majors any more, no degrees that will guarantee a good first job, or even just one that will cover student loan payments. And the jobs themselves … even if you get one and everything seems fine, it can vanish like smoke. Maybe the office will move to Bangalore, or your whole profession will be replaced by an iPhone app. It doesn’t matter how smart or hard-working or well qualified you are. You could be scrambling for survival by this time next week.

Exactly whose fault this is … that’s a complicated question. Maybe the 1%, or the politicians, or technology, or globalization, or just the faceless forces of History. When the average person tries to figure it out, he just throws up his hands. Why? He doesn’t know why. But he knows this: It just feels wrong. And it didn’t used to be this way.

We used to be safe in a City on a Hill, but now there are barbarians at the gates. …

It feels true. That deep anxiety that never quite goes away. The sense that everything you’ve relied on could go “pop!” at any moment. That’s just how you’d feel in a city that was about to fall.

Nothing in the Democratic message addresses that.

What Democrats lack. Everything the Democrats support is on the wrong scale: We want to raise the minimum wage, and subsidize your health insurance, and pay women the same as men, and cut back the war on minor drugs, and create jobs building infrastructure, and put a little less carbon in the air. All good stuff. If you can get it isolated in a ballot question, it will probably pass. But none of it says, “Those are the people I want running things. I’m going to go out and take action to see that they do.”

George Lakoff summarizes the current Democratic strategy like this:

Use demographic categories to segment the electorate, categories from the census (race, gender, ethnicity, age, marital status, income, zip code), as well as publicly available party registration. … Poll on which issues are “most important,” e.g., for women (or single women), for each minority group, for young people, and so on. This separates the issues from one another and creates “issue silos.” … Assume that people vote on the basis of material self-interest and design different messages to appeal to different demographic groups.

What that misses is precisely the caring-about-things-that-don’t-directly-affect-you that the Republican story inspires. If you make minimum wage, then vote Democrat, because we’ll give you a raise. If you’re a poor woman who might get pregnant, we’ll defend your access to abortion. If you’re gay, we’ll support your right to fair treatment. If you’re Hispanic, we might not deport your nephew. If you’re young, we’ll help you deal with your student loans. But if you’re none of those things — or if you are, but not identifying strongly with your categories today — why should you care? What binds all those people together with all the other Democrats and offers them a role in the drama of history?

That’s the kernel of truth behind the charge that Democrats want to “divide America“, or that they try to win by offering “free stuff“. In one sense, those charges are laughable; it’s Republicans who have the big Us-against-Them story, and they are no less willing to offer free stuff to their constituencies. But Democratic strategy and messaging atomizes America. We may have a message for you as a unique combination of demographic categories. But we don’t have an identity to offer you as an American.

Even Lakoff’s proposal doesn’t really fix that problem. He offers a more unified set of principles and ways to advocate them, but the narrative element and the connection to our underlying anxiety is still missing. You can’t fight a story with principles, any more than you can fight it with facts or debunking or appeals to demographic interests.

You fight a story by telling a better story, one that does a better job of ringing true both factually and emotionally, one that draws people in and makes them want to tell that story to others. At the moment, we don’t have a better story. We’ve just got facts.

After you lose, you ought to spend some time in the wilderness, rethinking how you got here. During my time in the wilderness, these are the questions I’m going to be thinking about:

  • What is the real story of America? the one that’s based on actual history rather than fantasy?
  • How is that story playing out here and now, in the lives of everybody?
  • How do we want that story to come out?
  • What would it mean to be on the right side of that story, playing a role you’ll be proud to remember in your old age?
  • How can we offer Americans that kind of role?

The Case For Voting Democrat

I live in New Hampshire’s 2nd Congressional district, so most of the political ads I see are negative. Maybe that’s true everywhere, but it’s very obvious here: I’m told not to vote for Senator Shaheen or Rep. Kuster because they support President Obama too much. I’m told not to vote for their opponents because Marilinda Garcia is “too extreme” and Scott Brown is “working for the Big Guys, not New Hampshire“.

And while I recognize that it’s important to lay out the stakes of increasing the power of Republicans in Congress — do you like what they’ve been doing? they’ll do more of it if they have more power — I also think it’s important to close a campaign positively: Forget the other guy (or gal), why should people vote for you?

Allow me to explain by looking at the major issues: the economy, climate change, inequality, immigration, protecting our rights, ObamaCare, and war.

The economy. Under Democratic leadership, the economy has been getting slowly but steadily better in just about every way. Since Inauguration Day, 2009: Unemployment is down.

Screenshot 2014-11-01 08.07.16

GDP is up.

Screenshot 2014-10-31 10.54.28

The budget deficit is moving towards balance.

Screenshot 2014-10-31 10.32.26

The stock market is up.

Screenshot 2014-10-31 10.39.17

And inflation has stayed low.

No one denies that the recovery has been slow. That’s the difference between the old-style inventory-correction recessions and the bubble-popping recessions we’ve seen lately, as I explained in 2011. (Short version: In an inventory correction, the business cycle can return to its previous high as soon as retailers work through their excess inventory. But when a bubble pops, the previous high was based on a fantasy.) The 2008 housing-bubble downturn is the third consecutive bubble-popping recession, after the savings-and-loan bubble in 1990 and the dot-com bubble in 2000. All three led to what were described at the time as “jobless recoveries”. The 2008 bubble was bigger and and the corresponding recession deeper than the other two, so it has taken even longer to come out of.

All through the Obama years, the economic argument has been between Democrats who wanted more stimulus — maybe by doing something about our crumbling infrastructure or upgrading our antiquated electrical grid — and Republicans who wanted to cut spending. The result has been moderate stimulus — not nearly what economists were calling for.

What would have happened if we’d gone the Republican route? History doesn’t allow do-overs, so it’s impossible to say for sure. But one comparison says a lot: Europe and the UK suffered the same recession we did, and implemented the austerity program that Republicans wanted here. It didn’t go well. (The graph below was the best one I could find, but it only goes to 2012. The U.S. advantage only grows after that. In the most recent quarter, the American economy grew 3.5%, compared to 3.2% in the UK, and growth in the European Union has been stuck below 1%.)

Climate change. The environment used to be a bipartisan issue. Republican President Teddy Roosevelt was a proud environmentalist; Richard Nixon established the EPA; and as recently as late in 2007, conservatives like John McCain were campaigning on environmental issues. “Climate change is real,” he said at a New Hampshire rally I attended, and he proudly described the McCain-Lieberman cap-and-trade plan to cut carbon emissions.

But today, climate change is a party-line issue. If you agree with the scientists who study the topic that climate change is happening, is caused by burning fossil fuels, and that something should be done about it — in other words, if you hold the 2007 McCain position or anything stronger — you should be a Democrat. Otherwise, you’re with these guys:

Cap-and-trade passed the House when Nancy Pelosi was speaker, but fell to the threat of a Republican Senate filibuster in 2010. (McCain had turned against his own idea by then.) When Republicans took control of the House in 2011, the possibility of passing anything through Congress ended. Because there is no Republican climate-change plan that Democrats could compromise with or even surrender to. The Republican position is that climate change is just not a problem.

The only Republicans willing to talk about climate change at all are the ones claiming it’s a hoax created by a conspiracy of liberal scientists. Sarah Palin says: “More people are waking up to the global warming con” and goes on to compare concern about climate change (“hysteria”) to eugenics. You might say Palin doesn’t matter, because she isn’t in office. But the Republican chair of the House Committee on Science and Technology recently sounded similar in an op-ed in the Washington Post. Its final paragraph begins:

Instead of pursuing heavy-handed regulations that imperil U.S. jobs and send jobs (and their emissions) overseas, we should take a step back from the unfounded claims of impending catastrophe

That leaves the executive branch to take action on its own, which is always going to be a second-best option. We’re still a nation of laws, so if you can’t change the laws your hands are tied. Nonetheless President Obama and the EPA have taken a few small steps towards mitigating the very real disaster we keep marching towards. (2014 is looking like it will unseat 2010 as the hottest year on record.) Fuel economy standards on cars and carbon-emission standards for power plants have been raised.

But Mitch McConnell is promising to undo Obama’s executive actions if he becomes majority leader of the Senate. So we’ll be back to doing nothing.

Inequality. The old slogan was “A rising tide lifts all boats.” In other words, if the economy became more productive, rich, poor, and middle class would all benefit alike.

That stopped being true right about the time of the Reagan Revolution. Since then, we’ve cut taxes on the rich and on corporations, raised payroll taxes for Social Security and Medicare, made it all but impossible to start a new union, drastically limited the enforcement of antitrust laws, and made students pay for more and more of the cost of a college education. The results have been predictable.

I wish I could say Democrats were fighting to reverse all that, but they’re mostly just trying to keep it from getting worse. ObamaCare was a step in the right direction, and so was the tepid increase in the top tax rate in 2013. Meanwhile, Republicans are full steam ahead: even lower top tax rates, less regulation, less support for education, and more union busting.

Immigration. The Senate immigration reform bill is one of the rare examples of bipartisanship in the Obama era, but Republicans in the House blocked it without passing any alternative, or even bringing one to a vote. The House passed the DREAM Act back in 2010 when the Democrats were in control, but it died in a Republican Senate filibuster.

Like climate change, immigration is another issue where President Obama — recognizing that Congress is stuck — has tried to do what he can without new law. He has moved DREAMers to the bottom of the deportation priority list, and has implied that he will do more after the election. Republicans have threatened to impeach him if he does.

In the 2014 cycle, immigration has been a prime focus of Republican demagoguery. “Secure the border” is the refrain, and it connects to whatever fear-object is currently available: ISIS, Ebola, or unemployment. Meanwhile, they provide few details about what a secure border would look like or how it might be achieved. More and more, “our Mexican border is insecure” looks like one of those permanent ideological fixations that needs no supporting facts — similar to “we need to cut spending” or “voter fraud is rampant”. It will always be true, no matter how many walls we build or border agents we hire. And it will always be a reason to do nothing about immigration.

Protecting our rights. Both parties think the other side is attacking basic American rights. However, they disagree on which rights are in danger.

Democrats are trying to defend these rights: The right to vote without paying a de facto poll tax or jumping through partisan hoops. The right to marry the person you love. The right to decide for yourself whether to carry a pregnancy to term. The right to be treated fairly by police, even if you are poor or non-white. The right to equal pay, regardless of gender. The right of women to have their health problems taken as seriously by insurance as men’s health problems.

Republicans are worried about these rights: The right to carry a loaded rifle through the aisles of Target. The right of businessmen to refuse service to people they don’t like. The right of employers to decide what health coverage their employees can have. The right of Christian pharmacists and health-care workers to put their religious beliefs above your care. The right of corporations and billionaires to spend as much money as they want on political campaigns — and to do it anonymously.

Which set of rights you think are really important and actually in danger should tell you something about which party to vote for.

War. In the last year of the Bush presidency, 314 American troops died in Iraq. So far in 2014, there have been two. In Afghanistan, the total went from 155 in 2008 to a high of 499 in 2010, and this year is down to 49. Meanwhile, President Obama has resisted calls to put troops on the ground in Syria or return combat troops to Iraq, and continues to resist pressure to attack Iran. Like every president since Truman, Obama has failed to resolve the Israel/Palestine problem, if you want to criticize him for that.

ObamaCare and public health. There was a time when Republicans were planning to make this election a referendum on ObamaCare. But they dropped that plan, because more and more obviously all the time, ObamaCare is working: The number of uninsured people is down everywhere, but especially in states that accepted Medicaid expansion. Healthcare inflation is down. None of the sky-is-falling Republican predictions have come true. (They’re still predicting disaster, but more and more they resemble a religious cult predicting the End of the World: It’s coming, but the date keeps sliding for some reason.)

As I explained in more detail last week, public health in general is a Democratic issue. It’s fundamentally a we’re-all-in-this-together issue rather than an every-man-for-himself issue. In a genuine epidemic like the 1918 flu, your neighbor or your nanny or the janitor at your office getting sick is a problem for you; you want them to be diagnosed and treated as efficiently as possible. You don’t want them staying out of the system because they don’t have health insurance, or because they don’t have papers and are afraid of being deported.

The Ebola panic has pointed out something else as well: Public officials should keep their heads in a crisis, and not play on people’s fears for political gain. The Obama administration and Democrats generally have provided the calm, fact-based, science-based leadership this country needs.

 

That’s true across the board. If you want leadership that is based on facts, on science, and on the way reality actually works, you should vote for Democrats.

Vote. It’s not nearly enough, but it’s something.

If you’ve got friends who think they’re “protesting” by not voting, send them this from the Young Turks:

And while we’re on the subject, let’s address the “Both parties are owned by Wall Street” or “neither party represents me” argument: It’s true. There’s lots of stuff I want out of government that neither party is even proposing: single-payer health care, ending the perpetual war, reining in the NSA, enforcing the antitrust laws,  … I could go on.

What that proves isn’t that voting doesn’t matter, but that voting is not enough. In addition to voting, we need to be educating ourselves and our friends, challenging cultural assumptions, mobilizing support around an agenda for more radical change, launching primary challenges to get better Democrats on the ballot, pushing better forms of voting (like instant runoff) and more.

We need to use the political process, and we need a movement like Occupy … plus whatever else you can think of. Not one or the other. Both.

Not voting isn’t a protest, it’s a retreat. Not voting means abandoning the small amount of power the system allots you.

You have a choice tomorrow. There’s one party with a way-too-small response to global warming, and another that that says climate scientists are part of a global conspiracy; one party that keeps the perpetual war simmering reluctantly, and another that would eagerly boil it over; one party that sells out to Wall Street on certain key issues, and another that is 100% owned and operated by Wall Street and the fossil fuel industry; one party with a half-hearted response to economic inequality, and another working to increase inequality; one party that won’t stand up to the theocrats, and another that stands with them. In the near term, one or the other is going to control the government. Which should it be?

Would I like a different choice? Sure I would. But in the meantime I’m going to make the choice I have. Because this one’s simple: Do you want more Ruth Bader Ginsburgs on the Supreme Court or more Anthony Scalias? That decision is going to be made by voters. So don’t you want to be a voter?

Vote. It’s not nearly enough. But it’s something.

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