“What would it take to break this cheap little spell and make us wake up and inquire what on earth we are doing when we make the Clinton family drama—yet again—a central part of our own politics?”
― the late Christopher Hitchens in 2008
Both Republican and Democratic “elites” woke today with a headache. Perhaps they imbibed a bit too much last night, or perhaps they feel woozy because they sat on their duffs, passively watching during the last eight months as their parties were hijacked by “outsiders.”
Despite the big names in the Republican presidential field – governors, senators, a brain surgeon, another Bush – the GOP now confronts the political reality of the grand old party nominating a candidate, Donald Trump, who more closely resembles former Italian prime minister (and convicted procurer of sex with under age prostitutes) Silvio Berlusconi than any Republican candidate since the party nominated John C. Fremont in 1856.
At least both “successful businessmen” – the Italian stallion and the King of Queens – have very interesting hair and lots of former girlfriends.
Trump, a misogynist, a sociopath, a certifiable sufferer of narcissistic personality disorder – look it up – is the guy that the Parliament of our historically closest ally, Great Britain, recently considered banning from that sensible country. The venerable House of Commons really didn’t have the power to “ban Trump,” as nice as the ring of that sounds, but not a single member defended the necktie hocking, Muslim bashing, completely policy devoid real estate speculator.
I can almost hear the ghost of Churchill, the father of the “special relationship” talking to the ghost of FDR on that secret wartime telephone link from London to D.C. “Mr. President,” Winston asks, “what has happened to American politics?” The line goes dead.
The Republican frontrunner is a salesman who gives used car salesmen a bad name. Trump doesn’t really believe the garbage he spews (or maybe he is really an idiot and does), but he is really the guy who pulls up his sleeve, exposing the fake Rolodex watches, and sells what sells, at least to 30 percent of the Republican electorate.
The $64,000 question out of New Hampshire for Republicans is simply this: why did none of these smart guys, OK and Carly Fiorina, not go after the real estate developer when they might have stopped him? Hardly anyone took him seriously in July, me included, but that was not the case last October. All the signs were there – months ago – that Trump was hijacking a grand old party and no one, not Jeb, who he “emasculated,” or Cruz or Rubio or Christie who he insulted and dismissed called him out. No one, no one, has really taken on his checkered business record, his bankruptcies, his flip-flops, or his obvious mental and policy deficiencies.
I’m an aging political hack, but I think I could write the TV spot – something about four bankruptcies, three wives and two positions on every issue.
As Jennifer Rubin wrote of Trump in today’s Washington Post: “While his ceiling may be about 30 percent, the more traditional candidates will need to fight Trump not with conservative bromides but with bare-knuckle fighting and empathy for the working-class voters Trump attracts.”
But, enough of that. Let’s talk about Hillary. The Clinton Corps has been spinning a 20-point loss in New Hampshire, which Hillary won in 2008, as just an example of home field advantage by Vermont’s Bernie Sanders. It’s not.
The reports this week that Bill and Hillary Clinton were contemplating a shake up in her campaign in the wake of what really amounts to two straight losses – Hillary won Iowa, but not really – is all the proof needed that the Clinton machine hasn’t received any meaningful re-tooling in eight years. When you’ve been involved in two presidential campaigns, well four counting Bill’s, and you think the campaign’s problems are just a staff issue, then Houston – or Brooklyn – you have a problem.
The problem is an awkward, uneasy candidate with no compelling message.
Clinton may still hang on and win the nomination in ugly fashion, but she will forever be dogged by her inability to answer a really simple question in the recent Democratic debate. Why did Goldman Sachs, the poster child of Wall Street excess, pay her, after her tenure as Secretary of State, more than $600,000 for three speeches? Her answer for the ages was: “It’s what they offered.”
I suspect, as some in her Goldman Sachs audiences have said, that she gave those investment bankers just what they wanted to hear, but the real question is why? Why take the risk, why make the calculation that the money is more important than the message, particularly if you want to run for the highest office in the land? To paraphrase James Carville, “it’s the judgment, stupid.”
Clinton comes out of New Hampshire a limping candidate, her inevitability – haven’t we heard this before – not looking quite so inevitable. Deconstruct the New Hampshire vote and you’ll find Clinton lost in places where she cleaned Barack Obama’s clock in 2008. Bernie Sanders beat the inevitable by double digits in a state she won eight years ago. Could it be the magic is gone? Maybe she is, as Obama famously, said just likable enough.
This crazy season of American politics has produced as frontrunners a dangerous nationalistic buffoon and a 74-year old democratic socialist. This looks more like France than New Hampshire. The outsiders are now inside because the Republican “establishment” has produced a robotic Marco Rubio and a collection of current and former governors who act like they couldn’t win a county coroner’s race, while Democrats have recycled a deeply flawed, ethically challenged, self-entitled frontrunner who has no message beyond “I’m ready to be president.” Is Joe Biden doing deep knee bends, getting ready?
The ultimate irony of the presidential race, so far at least, is that the buffoon and the socialist have run the best campaigns. The so called political “experts” in the race can’t explain their speaking fees, their memorized speeches or their Super PAC’s. And the outsiders have a reality that a scripted Hillary or a calculating Ted Cruz will never match.
Trump isn’t really authentic, of course, but he fakes it better than any other Republican, while Sanders really is authentic and his only opponent isn’t.
Whether we like it or not, Trump and Sanders have articulated ideas about the America they see in the future. We may not like their aspirations, but they have them. The rest of the field is playing a tactical game that is all about winning a news cycle rather than winning the White House. Clinton will now look increasingly desperate as she goes after Bernie and someone in the Republican field will have to find the gumption to confront Trump on his own artificial turf. More than ever in this crazy race anything is possible.
The always sane, sensible, sober South Carolina primary beckons. Hang on.
So, it turns out the old, tired rules of politics aren’t so old and tired after all.
Some Iowa caucus takeaways:
A message is better than a muddle: Bernie Sanders has one, a message, and Hillary Clinton doesn’t. The old rule for candidates is that when you begin to hate the very thought of giving your stump speech one more time you are at the point when the message is finally being heard. Whether one likes it or not, Sanders’ message about income inequality, economic unfairness and a rigged economy has been consistent for, well, thirty years. I follow this stuff pretty closely and I still can’t define why Clinton wants to be president and what she might do with the job if she gets there. Electability and experience isn’t a message.
An organization is better than a rally: Ted Cruz had the old-style ground game to identify voters and get them out to caucus on a cold February night and Donald Trump didn’t. The key metric here is that the allegedly brilliant real estate developer spent more money over the last few months on baseball caps than he did on data collection and analysis of the Republican caucus goer. Sounds like a loser to me.
Ideas are better than ideology: The Republican field comes out of Iowa more muddled and soon to be more vicious than ever and just as devoid of real political ideas as the party has been for the last eight years. The last two GOP candidates for president have made the mistake of thinking they could win an election by not being Barack Obama, now the Republican field seems to think it can win by not having an agenda. Ask yourself a simple question: what do the Republicans want to do? They seem only to want to be against things – immigrants, Obamacare, trade deals, climate change, same sex marriage, you complete the list. Where is the agenda – a conservative agenda – that talks of moving the country forward? Obama ran on hope and change and not being George W. Bush, but he was also about ending wars and doing something to address the uninsured. Republicans seem to want to run on gloom and doom and repealing Obamacare without offering a replacement. Still aren’t convinced? Consider this: a democratic socialist is giving Hillary Clinton a contest, not because of the label, but (so far at least) because of his agenda.
Substance trumps showbiz: This is, admittedly, a variation on the previous point, but (fearless prediction) even reality television shows grow old when they get into re-runs. Over the course of the next few weeks (months) the vetting of the next Commander-in-Chief will get ever more serious. Events in the world or the economy will give us all a taste for the future again and we’ll look to substance and seriousness, at least I hope we will. It’s easy now to see that the turning point in the last real presidential election we had, 2008 – Obama versus McCain, came with McCain’s theatrical suspension of his campaign during the near economic meltdown in the fall of the election year. McCain, with little to say about the economy, opted for the showbiz of suspending his candidacy and threatening to miss a scheduled debate. Obama, cool and collected, looked by contrast “presidential.” Game over.
Iowa is ridiculous: Not the state, but the caucus process. Both parties would be well served to put a stake in the charade that a couple of hundred thousand non-representative voters should have a critical role in beginning the presidential selection process. There has got to be a better way. There is: shorten the campaign (it can be done), rotate the opening primaries to involve a variety of states and regions and begin to act like a modern democracy rather than a what we have now – an almost completely non-representative process that produces endless debates and craziness.
I blame Jimmy Carter, well, actually Rosalynn Carter. For Iowa, I mean.
Fresh out of college in 1975, I landed my first radio reporting job at a 10,000 watt giant of an AM radio station in Oelwein, Iowa – The Hub of Northeastern Iowa. Oelwein, population today about 6,500, is named after a local farm family and was carved out of Iowa corn country right after the Civil War. It was, and is, an exciting place, as Iowa farm communities go.
Radio station KOEL – 950 on the dial – played country western music and I was the third man on a three man news staff. It is now completely amazing to me that a small market radio station in the middle of Iowa farm country had a three person news department, but in 1975 KOEL did. I had a job, an apartment above the TruValue hardware store and a shift from 10 am until 6 pm – no breaks, just radio.
My job had two major components, one that occupied virtually all my time and one that made me a star, well not really a star, but at least got me a listening audience.
Job One was to sit at a triangle shaped desk in the newsroom – the news director on one side of the triangle, me on another, the third side for the morning news guy – and work the phone. I dialed literally hundreds of calls every day drawn from phone numbers on cards in the largest Rolodex I have ever seen. Numbers for every county clerk in northeastern Iowa, every city hall, the fire and police departments, the schools, the VFW halls, every place that people gathered and news might be committed. I’d dial the numbers and ask the poor schmuck on the other end something clever, like “anything happening with the Decorah city council?” An overwhelming percentage of the time the answer was, “pretty quiet.” But, once in a while some city clerk or secretary to the county commission would say, “Well, last night we voted to upgrade the sewer treatment plant – is that news?” Yes, thank you; that is news.
I’d type up the details and KOEL would tell the world about the sewer upgrade. It wasn’t exactly Pulitzer Prize stuff, but it was news in northeastern Iowa, along with the pickup-tractor collisions, the deaths of prominent farmers, the broken water mains and the occasional armed robbery of a gas station or marijuana bust.
My fifteen minutes of fame came at 12:15 pm every week day when I settled into the news booth to deliver The Midday Market Report! For fifteen long, long, long minutes, I read the market reports from South Sioux City, Sioux Falls, Omaha, South St. Paul, etc. etc. I still envision those bib overall wearing Iowa farmers sitting at the kitchen table eating lunch and hanging on my every word. I didn’t – and still don’t – know a barrow from a gilt, but those farmers, I knew, were counting on my reporting.
Occasionally, just for color, I’d throw in an item from the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, or casually mention that Cargill had made news, but mostly it was numbers and vaguely familiar terms: bushels and futures, corn and soybeans, barrows and gilts. It wasn’t Ed Murrow reporting the London Blitz, but I had a microphone and an audience and my soybean futures.
Then, as if by salvation, I was delivered from yet another call to another city hall in another little Iowa town. Rosalynn Carter came to Oelwein.
I had the bright idea to actually grab a tape recorder and go out of the station, leave my phone of all things, and interview her. Her mostly unknown husband, the former governor of Georgia, was spending a lot of time in Iowa in 1975 acting out a crazy strategy aimed at winning something called the Iowa Presidential Caucus.
The news director was dubious. It would mean time away from my calls and taped interviews were rare on KOEL, which placed a premium on important stuff like a two car collision, in which no one was injured, just outside of Strawberry Point. It must have been a slow news day because he finally said – OK, go do it.
I went to a senior citizens center or an Elks Club or some such place and asked clever questions of Rosalynn – “So, what brings you to Oelwein, Mrs. Carter?”
What brought her, of course, was Jimmy Carter’s strategy to go from unknown former governor – Jimmy Who? – to presidential contender by focusing, laser-like, on the first contest of the 1976 campaign, while pretty much every other candidate, better known figures like Senator Henry Jackson and Congressman Morris Udall, weren’t paying attention, at least to Iowa.
The Iowa caucus had been around since, like, 1840 but until Carter – George McGovern gets a little credit in 1972 – no one paid much attention. Jimmy Carter changed all that.
As Julian Zelizer writes in The Atlantic, “From the start, the key to [Carter’s] strategy revolved around Iowa. Carter believed that if he could influence media coverage of his candidacy through a victory in Iowa, he would be treated as a serious candidate, making it easier for voters in subsequent contests, like New Hampshire, to vote for him. The actual delegate count from Iowa was less important than the kind of media coverage his victory would produce.”
Media coverage is exactly what I provided, well, provided to the candidate’s wife, but this was Oelwein, not Waterloo or Cedar Rapids or Des Moines. I still think it was neat that Rosalynn Carter came to Oelwein, a town you need to want to visit. I remember she was very polite, reserved and generous with her time. A very rookie reporter remembers such things. I imagine another candidate in a different time – you know who I mean – would have thought the young guy with the Sony recorder was a sorry “loser,” but Mrs. Carter patiently answered my not-so-probing questions.
The rest is history. Carter launched his road to the White House in Iowa in 1975. I was in on the ground floor (well sort of).
If you are already tired of hearing about the next presidential election, just blame my first news director. He gave me a few minutes away from the phone to interview the next First Lady of the United States of America. Iowa has never been the same.
“The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars / But in ourselves, that we are underlings.”
William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar
Unlike a sizeable number of Americans, I am not all that angry about the direction of the county. But I’m clearly an outlier.
In the America of 2016 it turns out that Franklin Roosevelt was wrong. The only thing we have to fear is everything. Esquire and NBC report that, “half of all Americans are angrier today than they were a year ago. White Americans are the angriest of all.”
The polls says we aren’t having our expectations met, we think things are unfair – mostly to us, not to them – and we don’t think we’re being treated well enough. We are angry. Really angry. But I still find myself standing with FDR. “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself – nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”
Our politics is what fails to deliver on my expectations, my sense of fairness and the idea that we don’t treat each other as we should. The politics and the people running – now there is a problem. And maybe, just maybe, the fault is not all in our stars, but in ourselves.
Our president hasn’t lived up to all my expectations, but I doubt he could have even had his legion of opponents met him even a tenth of the way toward the middle. I don’t think he’s been a disaster. Or that he’s made the country unsafe or that he is somehow un-American. I shake my head when some no-name congressman says Barack Obama been the most racially polarizing president since the Civil War. Really? I don’t personally remember him, but I think Andrew Johnson might get some consideration for that title.
I don’t think the country, as one leading candidate says, is in horrible shape. Oh, we have some real problems, but horrible shape? No.
I’m not ready to make America great again, because I’m not sure what that means. Are we longing to go back to the 1950’s, the Cold War, the Vietnam Era, or the country before Martin Luther King, Jr. and Lyndon Johnson brought us into a more enlightened, if far from perfect, realization about our legacy of slavery?
Are we pining away for Richard Nixon or maybe Herbert Hoover? Does the Arab oil embargo of the 1970’s make us all warm and nostalgic? I confess that I do not miss Gerald Ford’s campaign to “Whip Inflation Now.” Reagan’s “morning in America” had a nice ring, but I still can’t square the gauzy images of The Gipper’s last campaign in 1984 with his selling arms to Iran or making nice with Saddam Hussein. We were actually buying down the national debt when Bill Clinton was pre-occupied with a blue dress, but I’m not all that keen to go back to Bubba’s presidency.
George W. Bush will live in history for making the greatest foreign policy blunder since Neville Chamberlain flew to Munich, so I’m not eager to revisit that period. W’s father’s presidency looks better and better, but there was that Willie Horton ad.
I’m not carrying a pitchfork in the back seat of the SUV and I’m not angry. What I am is disappointed, deflated and distressed. I want an America again that I, at least kind of, recognize. I’m yearning for an America where contenders for the most exulted position in our politics actually try to lift us up, talk about our aspirations, our shared ambitions and that deal in facts and real proposals. But, I’m afraid I’m whistling past the political graveyard. I want to go back to that kind of great America, but I’m fated to live in 2016.
We endured another political debate this week among the Republican contenders for the White House, each of whom now talks like the people who write anonymous, snarky, nasty comments at the bottom of newspaper websites. They are competing to see who can paint the darkest image of an America in decline, threatened by killer Muslims, Mexican rapists and politically correct lefties. Listening to these guys – and Carly Fiorina – you’d think it was 1933, with 25 percent unemployment and Hitler as chancellor of Germany. They seem to believe the U.S. military is now weaker than the army of Luxembourg. The economy is awful, which you can conveniently say if you don’t look back to the Great Recession of 2008.
Across the aisle, the leading Democrat, an epically inept and ethically challenged candidate, actually dispatched her daughter to New Hampshire to launch the harshest attack so far in the Democratic campaign. “Senator Sanders wants to dismantle Obamacare,” the once and maybe future first daughter said, “dismantle the CHIP program, dismantle Medicare, and dismantle private insurance.” Oh, come on.
Frankly, Chelsea Clinton attacking Bernie Sanders on health care is just embarrassing, not to mention bizarre, but also not all that surprising considering her mother’s stunning inability to grow as a candidate and tap any political vein other than “it’s my turn.”
No, I’m not angry. I’m just disappointed. I’ve been in and around politics for more than 40 years and I don’t remember a time when I’ve felt more disappointed in our politics. Disappointed and embarrassed. The thought of a contest for leader of the free world between the current front runners leaves me embarrassed for my country. The rest of the world is looking at us, much as we should be looking at ourselves, and asking is this really the best we can do?
I’m not agitating to making the country great again. I’m longing to make America sane again.
I’m not angry, but I do feel like I’m watching a continual loop of a Fellini film – fantasy dressed up in neorealism. The top stars have orange hair, constantly feature sneering expressions, say and do crazy things. You would never bring one of them home for dinner. Mom would have a fit. Like Fellini at his best this campaign, at its worst, is surreal, indeed Felliniesque.
Fear, loathing and unlikeable characters shouting nonsense, that’s what passes for an audition for the job that Washington, Lincoln, Roosevelt and Eisenhower once held. The campaign is all emotion, no logic, all venom, no vision. Surreal.
Maybe this is America in 2016. And if it is our America then that is something to be angry about.
“Trump has received about the most disproportionate media coverage ever for a primary candidate. The risk to Trump and candidates like him is that polling built on a foundation of media coverage can be subject to a correction when the news environment changes.” – Data gura Nate Silver on the polls and Trump.
Never in the course of American politics have so many paid so much attention to so many polls with so little relevance to what is really going on. Polls drive media coverage. Polls determine who gets to debate in prime time. Polls have become the oxygen of American politics. If you are up in the polls you are “surging.” Drop a few points – calling Ben Carson! – and you are “slumping.”
Every day of the week brings a new poll. Left Overshoe Junior College has released a new poll! Trump leads among six white guys who responded online! Post the story!
We are obsessed with polls, or at least political editors, reporters, campaign operatives and politicians are obsessed with polls. OK, let’s admit it, we are all obsessed with polls. I have been drafting survey questions and trying to analyze results for most of my adult life. I love the “cross tabs” and the idea of insight into the population, but we need to admit the business of polling is an art and not a science. Surveying a nation as big and diverse as ours often means channeling Monet and creating an impression rather than proclaiming a survey as scientific fact. Additionally, the rapid attention to all of the polling holds the real potential to skew the democratic process itself.
Time for a Deep Breath…
It’s human nature to want to know, as Donald J. Trump might say, “just what the hell is going on.” But political polls have become a little like really good Belgian chocolate. A little taste of really quality chocolate is satisfying and may even be good for you, but indiscriminately gobble too much and you’ll get a sugar high and put on a few pounds.
As The New Yorker’s Jill Lepore noted in a widely discussed piece last month: “From the late nineteen-nineties to 2012, twelve hundred polling organizations conducted nearly thirty-seven thousand polls by making more than three billion phone calls. Most Americans refused to speak to them. This skewed results. Mitt Romney’s pollsters believed, even on the morning of the election, that Romney would win. A 2013 study—a poll—found that three out of four Americans suspect polls of bias. Presumably, there was far greater distrust among the people who refused to take the survey.”
The Pew Center, which conducts widely respected surveys, estimates that the participation rate for its surveys is now just eight percent. Twenty years ago pollsters considered an 80 percent participation rate acceptable. With lower and lower participation rates, not to mention the challenge of reaching potential voters on a cell phone, some polling outfits have turned to “online” surveys, but the online methodology and sample quality have not kept pace with the frantic nature of polling.
Rutgers University professor Cliff Zukin, a past president of the American Association of Public Opinion Research, wrote a while back in the New York Times that “Internet use correlates inversely with age and voting habits, making this a more severe problem in predicting elections. While all but 3 percent of those ages 18 to 29 use the Internet, they made up just 13 percent of the 2014 electorate, according to the exit poll conducted by Edison Research. Some 40 percent of those 65 and older do not use the Internet, but they made up 22 percent of voters.”
With polls and chocolate it is a case of all things in moderation. So, while you nibble on a little pre-Christmas chocolate consider at least two principal things that are wrong with the overriding obsession with polling in our political process.
Two Big Problems with Too Many Polls…
First, too many polls these days are the political equivalent of a sleazy used car salesman who washes and polishes the old clunker in order to peddle it to some unsuspecting rube who doesn’t take time to look under the hood. Methodology matters, as does the professionalism and integrity of the polling organization. When assessing the latest polls its essential to “look under the hood” and understand how the survey was conducted and for whom it was conducted.
The data-crunching guru Nate Silver, he’s the guy who has nailed the prediction in the last two presidential elections, has a nifty analysis of the vast assortment of polls that make their way into the national news machine. Silver has ranked the polls according to their accuracy and methodology over time. It’s become standard practice for me – a certifiable “news junkie” – to check Silver’s ranking against the latest poll that assumes to convey heaven sent wisdom.
Second, it’s an old cliché in the polling business, but its still true: a political survey is a snap shot of a moment in time, specifically the time when the survey was conducted, as well as the slice of the electorate surveyed. At a given moment in time a well-constructed, well-researched survey utilizing a well-conceived sample can provide real insight into broad themes and valuable information about how voters might make specific choices among well-articulated alternatives. What polls are not particularly good at doing, at least at the current stage of the presidential campaign – remember not a single vote has been cast yet – is to serve as a predictor.
A skilled Republican pollster told me recently that one of the hardest things to master in the survey business is the “quality of the sample” – what portion of the electorate is actually going to make the effort to get to the polls and vote. “You need to be very careful,” this pollster said, “to pull a sample that accurately reflects age, party, geography, race and gender. That takes time and again costs more money.”
For example, when many Republicans, including his own campaign strategists, thought Mitt Romney would pull out a win over President Obama in 2012, they had misread the electorate that actually bothered to vote. A good deal of the polling miscalculated, for instance, the level of voting by Hispanic Americans. In his last election George W. Bush captured 40+ percent of the Hispanic vote. In 2012 Romney got only 25 percent. That difference in the makeup of the electorate helps explain Obama’s second term. At the same time, it would be a mistake to automatically assume that any Democrat in the future will always gain that level of the vote by a specific demographic group. Every election is different. Understanding the shape of the electorate is critical to good survey work.
The data-crunching site FiveThirtyEight has teamed with the NPR program On the Media to create a new consumer’s handbook for deconstructing the polls. You might want to copy the dozen points and tape it to your television.
But What of Trump…
I’ve become convinced that the Donald J. Trump phenomenon is, at least in some significant measure, a function of Trump’s own narcissistic pre-occupation with his standing in the polls. Trump regularly touts his “YUGE!” lead in the latest poll. He Tweets his standing from early in the morning until late at night. In the circular logic that drives news coverage of political campaigns Trump is, in many ways, a creation of the polls he loves to cite.
It is probably not a surprise then that Trump comments almost exclusively on polls that show him doing well. As the website FiveThirtyEightPolitics noted recently: “Trump also likes to tweet or retweet about the same poll a lot. He tweeted 29 poll results that he approved of more than once. He also tweeted one poll (a September CNN national survey) favorably, before turning on it more than once to highlight a better poll result for him from NBC and SurveyMonkey.”
As Trump tweets to his 5.3 million Twitter followers a poll that he likes, perhaps more than once, he is simply building the buzz about how successful his candidacy seems to be. It’s little different, from a marketing standpoint, than what Disney is doing by branding everything it can touch with a Star Wars logo. Marketing works to create impressions, drive coverage and, temporarily at least, move polls. It also help encourage people to buy Star Wars themed merchandize.
Trump may be an idiot about policy, but he understands the psychology of perception and he is constantly using polling data, some of it decidedly specious, to continually reinforce his leadership of the Republican field.
It is also no surprise that Trump dismisses as fatally flawed any poll that shows him slipping. When the very well regarded Des Moines Register poll recently showed Trump trailing Texas Senator Ted Cruz in Iowa, the place where the first voting takes place right after the first of the year, Trump dismissed the poll as the biased work of a newspaper that has been critical of his candidacy. Should I remind him that he touted his lead in the same poll earlier in the year?
As Nate Silver says: “Trump probably realizes, the media’s obsession with polls can become a self-perpetuating cycle: Trump’s being in the media spotlight tends to help him in the polls, which in turn keeps him in the spotlight, which in turn helps in the polls, and so forth.”
It’s worth pointing out once again that no one has voted yet and there is considerable historical evidence that voters in early state contests like Iowa and New Hampshire decide very late in the process as to who they will support. Trump’s national polling lead may yet translate into real votes in the Iowa caucus – remember that in the best poll conducted at the state level talking to people who have actually participated in previous caucus voting he is behind – but there is also an argument to be made that his lead is to a large degree a function of prospective (or possible) voters seeing and hearing him constantly. Name ID matters, particularly when voters are still weighing choices.
As Jill Lepore noted in her New Yorker piece: “Donald Trump is a creature of the polls. He is his numbers.” But there could well be a bigger and longer-term problem for our democracy than one self-obsessed, poll-centric billionaire.
Reporting incessantly on polls and allowing this week’s polling results to determine the shape of political coverage, Lepore and others argue, is more than just a sign of the times, it is a signal of the increasing disintegration of American political culture.
“Turning the press into pollsters has made American political culture Trumpian,” Lepore writes, “frantic, volatile, shortsighted, sales-driven, and anti-democratic.”
No political junkie – I’m certainly guilty – would encourage a complete disregard for political polling, but there is a very strong case to be made for backing it off a full turn. Let’s have a little real voting and then we can see who is really winning.
It says something about the state of American politics that the quarterback for the Green Bay Packers makes more sense on the issue of moment than most of the people seeking to become president of the United States.
When players for the Packers and the Detroit Lions lined up last Sunday to observe a moment of silence in recognition of the horrible events in Paris some nitwit in the crowd yelled out a slur against Muslims. Rodgers heard it, as did most everyone else.
The Packers proceeded to lose a close game to the Lions, but when Rodgers met reporters after the game the derogatory comment was clearly still bothering him.
“I must admit I was very disappointed with whoever the fan was that made a comment that was very inappropriate during the moment of silence,” Rodgers said.
“It’s that kind of prejudicial ideology that puts us in the position we are today as a world.”
The quarterback as statesman.
Trojan Horse or Horse’s Something…
Meanwhile, that old charmer who continues to lead the Republican field in all the polls suggested we might need to shut down the nation’s mosques, while we round up every Syrian in the country and deport them. No kidding. You can look it up. Donald Trump also compared Syrian refuges to the Trojan Horse, which may just be about a perfect analogy for what his candidacy means to the modern Republican Party.
Chris Christie, who I would really like to think knows better, vowed to let no Syrian refugee in the country – even orphans under the age of five. “I don’t think orphans under five are being, you know, should be admitted into the United States at this point,” the big-hearted big man said. “But you know, they have no family here. How are we going to care for these folks?”
I’m guessing Jindal in his zeal to protect his people missed recent stories about extremist protests in, well, the Punjab region of northern India. One governor’s violent extremist is another’s dangerous Syrian, I suppose.
Ted Cruz, born in Canada of Cuban parents, wants to allow only Christians in the country. Ben Carson says we should do everything possible to help out the huddled masses yearning to be free; everything but let any of them into the United States. Marco Rubio agrees because the government is so incompetent it cannot do an adequate background check.
And then there is Texas, never a state to take a backseat on the crazy bus. A Lone Star state legislator, Republican Tony Dale of Cedar Park, wrote to his state’s U.S. Senators: “While the Paris attackers used suicide vests and grenades it is clear that firearms also killed a large number of innocent victims. Can you imagine a scenario were [sic] a refugees [sic] is admitted to the United States, is provided with federal cash payments and other assistance, obtains a drivers license and purchases a weapon and executes an attack?”
Yes, you read it correctly – don’t let those refugees in the good old U.S.A. because it’s just too darn easy for them to get a gun. Dale, of course, is one of the biggest champions of gun rights in the Texas Legislature. Would it be unkind to mention that his biography lists Representative Dale as a member of the Roman Catholic Church, whose leader has repeatedly reminded the world, and did again Sunday, that refugees are all God’s children whose need comfort and “their human dignity respected.”
I could go on, but Aaron Rodgers has already said much of what needs to be said. Shame he is just trying to get to the playoffs and not to the White House.
One of the most difficult things to do in politics is to keep your head when everyone around you is losing theirs. Or as Rick Klein of ABC News puts it, “The speed with which the Paris attacks went from a national-security debate to an immigration one says more about the perceived state of today’s Republican Party than it does about today’s perceived security threats. The Republican contenders have sought to one-up themselves with letters, bills, demands, and sound bites.”
A Simple – and Wrong – Answer to a Complex Question…
Another difficult thing for politicians is nuance, subtlety and complexity. The Paris attacks, the downing of the Russian airliner and all the rest provide enormous cause for concern and caution. The modern world may well be continuing down a long, dark corridor of uncertainty as the twilight struggle against fundamental evil goes forward. But this nuanced, subtle and complex struggle will not be won on the basis of who gins up the most outrageous sound bite or issues the most bombastic executive order.
In fact, the vapid and short sighted response from Americans who should know better may actually play directly into the hands of those who would do us harm.
As Scott Atran, a researcher who has spent time interviewing Islamic State recruits in several countries in an effort to understand their motivations, wrote in a thoughtful piece in the New York Review of Books, “the greater the hostility toward Muslims in Europe and the deeper the West becomes involved in military action in the Middle East, the closer ISIS comes to its goal of creating and managing chaos.”
This is precisely what Syrian and other refugees are fleeing.
World Vision, the widely respected NGO that advocates worldwide for children, estimates that 12 million Syrians have fled their homes in the midst of the continuing civil war. Half of these refugees are children; children who have, at a minimum, lost opportunities for education and anything approaching a normal life and, at worst, face malnutrition and abuse.
The UN High Commissioner for Refugees, who must have one of the world’s most difficult jobs, said recently “It was not the refugee movement that created terrorism; it is terrorism together with tyranny, together with war, that created refugee movements.”
My people came to the United States from Wales and Germany, others in my family trace roots to Poland and Luxembourg. Maybe your family came from Norway or Italy, Mexico or Sudan, Russia or Rwanda. Perhaps you know someone who started life in India or Japan or Vietnam or a hundred other places. A big, good hearted nation, even one that finds itself in the middle of a confusing, dangerous, even deadly world, does not lead from fear and it does not insist on simple, tidy answers to complex realities in a part of the world that often remains foreign and unknowable to westerners.
“America has not changed Iraq or Syria, but the wars there have indeed changed America,” Ignatius wrote. “Americans have learned the limits of military power and covert action; the U.S. has helped create enemies that did not exist before George W. Bush’s mistaken invasion of Iraq in 2003 (I described my own mistakes in supporting the Iraq War, and explained the lessons I drew from this horrible experience, in a 2013 column); it has fostered a degree of mistrust so acute that many in the region now welcome the vain autocrat Vladimir Putin as a deliverer. Obama’s policies may have been weak and feckless, but they have reflected a widespread desire among Americans to extricate the country from the Middle East’s long wars.”
We did our part to create this mess and that includes helping create a few million refugees and now it’s time to show that we are better than the jingoistic rhetoric and fear mongering for votes from governors and presidential candidates and those who couldn’t find Aleppo on a map.
We are better than that. At least I think we are.
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[Note: Thanks to those readers who noticed this site was down for a few days for a little maintenance. We’re back and thanks for reading!]
In a year when a majority of the Republican electorate – xenophobic and angry – fixates on the fanciful notion that political inexperience presents the only sure path back to the White House, it should have been obvious that the immigration reform embracing, “low energy” former governor of Florida, the consummate insider in an outsiders race, would be doomed.
New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd calls it “the fall of the House of Bush,” the ultimate meltdown of the ultimate “establishment” Republican family. Jeb is toast, says Frank Rich, “History will look back at him, if it looks at all, as a world-class fool and the last exhausted gasp of a GOP that no longer exists.”
He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother…
Even popular culture seems to be conspiring against Bush. Truth, a glossy big screen “serious movie” starring Robert Redford as Dan Rather and Cate Blanchett as his CBS ’60 Minutes” producer, revisits the controversial story of brother W’s National Guard service in the Vietnam era. Reviews of Truth have been all over the map with many negative, but the film will still remind voters in both parties, not to mention the scribbling class, of Bush 43’s checkered presidency, as well as that whole entitlement thing at the moment brother Jeb would rather talk about, well, anything else.
Donald Trump “emasculates” Jeb for his lack of passion and mocks him as the candidate of “mommy and daddy,” while delightedly reminding everyone that the last Bush was a YUGE disaster.
The hard right in the GOP dislikes Bush more than any Democrat. The Red Statewebsite is on deathwatch for the crown prince of Kennebunkport, unable to contain its disdain for a guy who was a very conservative big state governor, but now is a “entitled” pariah: “The first step in fixing a problem is acknowledging you have a problem. The problem here [for Bush] is not that the electorate and party have changed but rather we are, for the first time, seeing the Emperor’s new clothes. We are seeing the people who believe they are entitled to lead — ‘rule’ is actually the word they would like to use — do nothing but propose the same tired old solutions because that is the way that it has always been done. Quite honestly, if you aren’t angry you either haven’t been paying attention or you are part of the problem.”
The Challenge of Getting Better…
Perhaps Jeb is destined to be his generation’s Robert Taft, the conservative scion of that famous American political family who was forever the bride’s maid, never the bride, always the pretender who never completely excited fellow Republicans.
Every campaign manager’s not-so-secret wish is that their candidate gets better over the course of a race. A slow start can often be overcome in a long race if the candidate gets steadily better. Bush started his campaign slowly and seems to have gotten more inept as the Iowa caucus approaches. His smack down by Marco Rubio in the most recent Republican debate has been widely seen as Jeb’s Waterloo.
“You could blame political malpractice — bad aides, bad advice, bad strategy. A hundred million dollars doesn’t buy what it used to,” writes Tim Egan of Bush’s debate debacle. “But the fish stinks from the head down, as any Sicilian grandmother will tell you. Bush owns this debacle, the third in a row. The debate broke him.”
Somehow a 112-page PowerPoint document detailing the Bush campaign’s line of attack on fellow Floridian Rubio, as well as internal polling information and plans for advertising ended up in the “in box” of David Catanese, the senior politics writer for U.S. News & World Report.
There are only two realistic explanations for the “leak.” It was either an enormous mistake on the part of a crashing campaign that hit the “send” key without thinking, or more likely it was a well-timed effort to inform the Super PAC supporting Bush (under our crazy system the PAC and the campaign can’t legally communicate or coordinate efforts) of Bush’s strategy over the next couple of months. By the way, that Bush Super PAC is still sitting on $100 million that it can use to jumpstart the “Bush comeback” storyline.
Maybe in this deranged campaign season that has seen the old, tried and true political playbook shredded, a cool $100 million doesn’t buy you love in Iowa or New Hampshire, but it can buy a lot of television time and that is going to be better than fighting over debate moderators.
Bush, on life support or already dead, has performed one statesmanlike service to the party that for the most part seems hardly able to tolerate his existence. Reading that dense PowerPoint details the Bush fixation on Rubio, the young protégé who now threatens to eclipse the one-time mentor. It’s a story line out of Shakespeare and, while Bush waits like the New York Mets for the “break” that may never come, Rubio’s moment may have now arrived and for the young senator that may mean peaking too soon.
“Rubio and President Obama have strikingly similar profiles,” the leaked Jeb strategy document says,” first-term senators, lawyers and university lecturers, served in part-time state legislatures for eight years, have few legislative accomplishments, and haven’t shown much interest in the process of advancing legislation and getting results.”
There is hardly a more poisonous charge than comparing a fellow Republican to the hated Obama and that line of attack, had it been employed by a more skillful candidate in the recent debate, might have had impact among GOP primary voters. At the least, Bush’s Super PAC now knows the talking points for Iowa as Rubio, who has flown below the radar for much of the pre-primary season, finally gets vetted in earnest. If Bush can’t have the nomination he seems hell bent on making sure that Rubio won’t either.
By Definition a Dynasty Has Staying Power…
Still, I’m in a small universe of observers who says of Jeb – not to fast. Say what you will about the white shoe, old-line establishment Bush Dynasty, like the lowbrow Duck Dynasty, it has staying power, even in re-runs.
Patrician “Poppy” Bush somehow navigated his way through the Watergate implosion – he was party chairman during Nixon’s final fall – then sought the presidency, lost and settled for the second spot, which positioned him to serve Ronald Reagan’s third term.
The elder Bush was never a great campaigner – remember Big Mo – but he made up for it with dogged determination and an ability, well hidden behind the nice guy demeanor, to go for the political throat. George H.W. finally met his match when tangling with the founder of the Clinton Dynasty.
All of which is another way of saying: get ready for the “Bush Rebounds” stories. You heard it hear first. In the enormously fractured modern Republican Party anything is now possible. The favored son of the dynasty may not have what father and brother possessed, including the instinct to Swift Boat opponents, but a guy with a $100 million Super PAC and 100 percent name ID may yet have the staying power to outlast this completely crazy cast of contenders.
Jeb Bush has been a perfectly awful candidate so far, but even the Mets, dead at mid-season, made it to the World Series. When everything is crazy anything is possible.
Conventional political wisdom holds – we all know how “conventional” the current campaign has become – that Bernie Sanders has no (nadda, zip, zero) chance of becoming the Democratic nominee for president, let alone reaching the Oval Office.
Unthinkable, the Beltway Gasbags say, that the former mayor of the People’s Republic of Burlington wins, even though Vermonters have been sending him to Washington since 1991.
Sanders must then be doomed by his age? He is 74-years old.
Or maybe it’s his unruly shock of white hair that looks like it was styled in a wind tunnel. Maybe he’s too Jewish. Maybe its because he comes from Vermont, a small, weirdly shaped state that unless you are from New Hampshire (or Canada), most Americans couldn’t find on a map.
Or perhaps it’s the native New Yawker in Sanders, who sounds like a Big Apple cab driver, well at least he sounds like the kind of cab driver New York had before all New York cab drivers started sounding like they grew up in Somalia or Pakistan.
None of his apparent political shortcomings – age, hair style, positions – fully explains why Sanders has a “he can’t be elected” problem. His real problem is the “S” word – he’s a s-o-c-i-a-l-i-s-t.
Actually, Bernie describes himself as a “democratic socialist,” which in real life – and in Europe and Canada – means he believes in the democratic political process – things like elections, representative government, trying to convince others to agree with you. But, he also believes the system is too often rigged to leave out the little guy. What a radical idea. He’s actually been very consistently saying this for, like, 40 years.
Still, in our politics describing yourself as a “democratic socialist” is a little like being convicted of child abuse while reading Chairman Mao’s Little Red Book. It is the kiss of political death this socialism.
But why? Why has only the United States among the rest of the world’s industrial and, yes democratic societies, never had a particularly serious socialist political movement? Canada, France, Great Britain, Denmark, Sweden, on and on have a 20th Century tradition of what Sanders calls democratic socialism, but not the United States.
But before we lock up the women and children and worry about nationalizing the railroads, let’s consider what Sanders (and others of similar ilk) have actually said and done over the course of American history and why the term and the idea have become such political kryptonite.
In their book It Didn’t Happen Here – Why Socialism Failed in the United States authors Seymour Martin Lipset and Gary Marks observe that an American “working class party,” with a foundation of trade union members, never caught on in the U.S. precisely because what social democrats offer is what many Americans already believe they have – “a democratic, socially classless, anti-elitist society.” The authors call it Americanism.
In essence, although most Americans would never say it this way, we have long embraced a political philosophy – Americanism, if you will – that is wrapped up in our aspirations, our myths, and our ideas of exceptionalism. Americanism is also deeply rooted in our notion that our political system is in no way separate from free market capitalism and that by extension, capitalism translates to “a democratic, socially classless, anti-elitist” society.
As a result, when a political candidate suggests that capitalism might not be the complete answer to American issues like wide spread poverty, racial or class inequality or, just to mention one of Sanders’ key issues, making certain every young person who wants a higher education gets one.
Capitalism = Democracy…
For most of the 20th Century the Americanism equals capitalism construct has defined American politics. To suggest that capitalism might not be the answer to every one of society’s issues has been a good way to get branded with, well, the socialist label. Suggest that the really wealthy need to pay a greater share of taxes because, well, they can afford to do so and you are guilty of “class warfare,” the ugly twin of socialism.
But it wasn’t always so. Once the Sanders’ notion of “democratic socialism” was seen as a legitimate alternative to the policy prescriptions of conservative Republicans and more left of center Democrats.
In the election of 1912, one of the most interesting, complicated, and important presidential elections in our history, four major candidates sought the White House. Two of the contenders – Theodore Roosevelt, running on the Bull Moose ticket, and the election winner, Democrat Woodrow Wilson – were certainly not socialists, but did advocate a robust form of progressive politics that included sweeping attacks on the excesses of big business, support for organized labor, and improvements in the lives and economic conditions of working Americans.
A third candidate, incumbent Republican President William Howard Taft, was a kind of “establishment Republican” of his day and ours. Taft would not be out of place or uncomfortable in the modern Republican Party of John Boehner or Jeb Bush. Taft was a candidate embraced by big business, a big man with little interest in the kind of “activist” presidency that Roosevelt or Wilson personified.
The fourth major candidate in 1912 was a socialist – Eugene Victor Debs, an Indiana-born, railroad union leader who ran for president five different times. Debs captured nearly a million of the 15 million votes cast in 1912 – his issues then were essentially Sanders’ issues now – and that election proved to be the high water mark of American socialism.
Eight years later Debs was running for president again, but this time from behind the bars of the federal penitentiary in Atlanta where he was doing time for speaking against U.S. involvement in the Great War, a victim of the era’s hysteria about “radicals” who dared to veer from conventional ideas about American patriotism.
The “Radical” Ideas of Eugene V. Debs…
At the end of Debs’ trial – he was convicted under the Sedition Law of 1917 – he spoke to the court and said, in part:
“In this country—the most favored beneath the bending skies—we have vast areas of the richest and most fertile soil, material resources in inexhaustible abundance, the most marvelous productive machinery on earth, and millions of eager workers ready to apply their labor to that machinery to produce in abundance for every man, woman, and child—and if there are still vast numbers of our people who are the victims of poverty and whose lives are an unceasing struggle all the way from youth to old age, until at last death comes to their rescue and lulls these hapless victims to dreamless sleep, it is not the fault of the Almighty: it cannot be charged to nature, but it is due entirely to the outgrown social system in which we live that ought to be abolished not only in the interest of the toiling masses but in the higher interest of all humanity…”
In his fascinating history of the Socialist Party in America, historian Jack Ross details the number of elected officials in the country who were elected on a Socialist ticket, most of them at time Eugene Debs was the American face of socialism. Ross’s list makes for interesting reading.
When Milwaukee and Many Other Cities Elected Socialists…
In the first two decades of the 20th Century, hundreds of Socialists were elected to city councils, as mayors, and state legislators in nearly every state. Wisconsin – take that Scott Walker – elected literally hundreds of Socialists and Milwaukee had a Socialist mayor nearly continuously from 1910 to 1960. One of those mayors, Daniel Hoan, served from 1916-1940 and another, Frank Zeidler, from 1948-1960.
These so called “sewer socialists” sounded a good deal like Bernie Sanders in their demands for greater focus on the needs of the working class and they governed well, providing efficient and effective city governments. They would not have been re-elected time and again had they not been good at the nuts and bolts of governing and a good place to look for evidence of Sanders’ version of democratic socialism is his time as a small town mayor.
Butte and Anaconda, Montana had Socialist mayors before the Great War. Socialists were elected as county clerk and sheriff in Minidoka County, Idaho in the same period, a place where no Democrat has been elected in decades. The city of Sisseton, South Dakota had a Socialist mayor and Nebraska elected a Socialist to the state board of regents. But no more.
With the exception of the owners of a few Che Guevara posters leftover from the 1960’s, American socialists are about as prevalent today – and relevant – as, well, Che Guevara.
“Socialism only works in two places: Heaven where they don’t need it and hell where they already have it.” – Ronald Reagan
My own theory as to why the socialist philosophy failed to gain greater political traction in the United States relates to the aggressive and very effective demonization of American socialists that began in the post-Civil War era, accelerated during the Red Scare of the 1920’s, climaxed with Joe McCarthy in the 1950’s, and has remained a key fixture of conservative political rhetoric ever since. The steady branding of “socialism” as far outside the American mainstream, combined with the conflating of “democratic socialism” with Soviet communism sealed the political fate of the heirs of Eugene V. Debs.
In post-World War I America, the Palmer Raids, initiated by the attorney general in a Democratic administration, rounded up thousands of “radicals,” many of them immigrants, and hundreds were deported because of their alleged leftist or un-American attitudes. America suffered a “red scare” that tended to feature more violations of civil liberties than any real threat to national security.
Congressional committees and J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI later lavished attention on leftists in Hollywood, the media, and in government. Increasingly little if any distinction was made between “democratic socialists” and communists, even though you can plausibly argue that anti-communism (and anti-socialism), with all its excesses, has been a far more powerful force in American politics than any theory advanced by Karl Marx.
Joe McCarthy’s “red baiting” in the early 1950’s briefly made him the most feared and loathed man in the country and his reckless methods destroyed careers and reputations. Every Democratic president since Franklin Roosevelt has been called a socialist or a communist by someone on the political right. Roosevelt, a New York multi-millionaire, was no socialist and, ironically, may have actually saved the country – and American capitalism – from moving to a radical leftist place during the Great Depression. Still the far right, even now, laments the “socialist” agenda of the New Deal.
Even FDR was a “Socialist…”
Roosevelt did accomplish some radical change – massive spending on public works, breaking up the huge and often corrupt utility holding companies, creating an old-age pension program that has proven to be kind of popular ever sense – and FDR did try to implement large scale planning of the economy with the National Industrial Recovery Act. The Supreme Court told him no.
I love the story of Roosevelt’s Labor Secretary Frances Perkins testifying before Congress on the legislation we now call Social Security. A skeptical senator, probing for the Achilles heel of the idea that the government might create actually create a program we all pay into in order to provide a degree of security for all of us in old age, pressed Ms. Perkins: “Isn’t this just a tiny bit of socialism,” the senator asked. No, she replied, it isn’t.
Loyalty Oaths, Alger Hiss, the John Birch Society…Oh, My…
After World War II and into the Cold War, Harry Truman, in so many ways an exemplary president and person, instituted “loyalty oaths” to root out communists (who now interchangeably were also called socialists), state legislatures debated the so-called “Liberty Amendment” to the Constitution in the interest of making America more American, the John Birch Society equated American political liberalism with Stalinist communism, and we fought a war in Southeast Asia designed to stop the insidious expansion of the socialist/communist ideology.
Richard Nixon owed his national profile while still a very junior member of Congress to his pursuit of Alger Hiss, one of the few people from the 1950’s who actually did have questionable allegiance to his country. Nixon, according to his most recent biographer, clung to the memory of his victory over Hiss, ironically, all the way to détente with Moscow and his historic opening to China.
You can write your own 21st Century sentence about what we used to call “Red” China, and as you do, remember that the Chinese president recently dined at the White House with the CEO’s of Microsoft, MasterCard, Netflix, Oracle, Walt Disney, and Morgan Stanley – socialists all, I’m sure.
Bernie Sanders probably won’t be president and you didn’t hear it here first, but like many democratic socialists in America’s past – from Debs to Norman Thomas, one of the most impressive Americans of the last century, to Michael Herrington to the old mayors of Milwaukee – his ideas have relevance and, if you listen closely, contain an important message about what America says it is, but has not yet fully become.
None of these socialists advocated or even privately believed, Sanders included, in violent revolution or the kind of reprehensible system Stalin built in Soviet Russia. They believed in using the tools of democracy, including persuasion and elections, to bring about societal and political change.
But, given our often-tenuous grasp of our own history, not to mention inability to consider nuance, that message gets lost, while the label – “he’s a socialist-slash-communist” – stings and sticks.
“In America today, the rich are getting richer, the poor are getting poorer and the millions of families in the middle are gradually sliding out of the middle class and into poverty,” Sanders says. ”In the final analysis, the people of America are going to have to say that the wealth, labor and natural resources must be used to benefit all the people, not just a few super-rich.”
That is not much different than what the old railroad union member Gene Debs said on the eve of going to prison in 1919 for speaking his mind: “I am opposing a social order in which it is possible for one man who does absolutely nothing that is useful to amass a fortune of hundreds of millions of dollars, while millions of men and women who work all the days of their lives secure barely enough for a wretched existence.”
The Worst Features of Petrograd and the Gilded Age…
It has long been un-American to embrace such language – the workers versus the governing class – but in an age when the super wealthy and super powerful at the very top of our social order display, as historian Jack Ross has written, the “worst features of both Petrograd and the Gilded Age,” the guy who will not win is making lots of noise and lots of people, including many younger Americans, judging by the polls, are listening.
“The concept that motivates us is a community good as opposed to the concept of an individual pursuing their own self-interest and that somehow the public good comes out of that,” Frank Zeidler, the one-time Socialist Mayor of Milwaukee once told the Nation magazine. “Our concept is that a pursuit of the good of the whole produces the best condition for the good of the individual.”
Bernie Sanders may not get to the White House, but he may convince a new generation of Americans – a generation sick and tired of too much money in politics, too much power in too few hands, and too little hope for a shrinking middle class – to think seriously about what that dreaded word – socialism – might really be all about.
One of the challenges in assessing the presidential candidacy of Donald Trump is that you run out of words that begin to describe his idiocy and cluelessness. I haven’t used despicable for a while, so let’s use that to characterize Trump’s reaction in the wake of the horrific – and most recent – mass shooting last week in Roseburg, Oregon.
And, of course, the GOP front runner had to make the unthinkable tragedy of students and their teacher murdered in a writing class all about him. “I have a license to carry in New York. Can you believe that? Somebody attacks me, they’re gonna be shocked,” Trump blustered in front of a cheering crowd at a campaign rally in Tennessee.
The Republican clown then completed the trifecta of gun mythology, which includes the old canard that even more guns are the answer to mass shootings and that we should all be armed to make the country safer, when he dismissed the epidemic of mass gun murder in the United States as (and he should know) a mental health issue.
It’s also not about the myth of mental illness, although that certainly plays a part. Dr. Paul Applebaum, a Columbia University psychiatrist who specializes in attacks like the recent one in Oregon, told New York Magazine last week that it is a fool’s errand to attempt to deal with mass murder by attempting to predict who is capable of mass murder.
“When I heard the news of the Oregon shootings, I thought, I’m done talking to reporters about the causes of violence.” Applebaum told the magazine. Rather, he said, he had developed a one-size-fits-all statement for the media that concluded, “If you tell me that there’s nothing we can do about guns, I’d say then we’re done. We’ve conceded that we are willing to tolerate periodic slaughters of the innocent. There’s nothing more to say.’”
Over the next couple of days the horror that unfolded last Thursday at Umpqua Community College will quickly fade away as it always does after the most recent gun outrage in America, while the short national attention span will move on to something else. President Obama is certainly correct when he says mass gun murder has become so routine in America that we have trouble maintaining for more than about two news cycles the outrage that might move us to action. We aren’t just lacking in urgency about gun mayhem we just don’t care.
The families in Roseburg will be left to attempt to cope with their grief and loss. But we should all grapple with the haunting words in one family’s statement that the loss of their 18-year old child has left their lives “shattered beyond repair.”
Meanwhile, the political class carries on with nary a skipped beat, repeating the old, tired and lame myths about guns. The Oregon victims deserve better – much better – than the perpetuation of myth making about guns from Trump and all the other apologists for mass murder who refuse to face facts about the society’s perverse embrace of the culture of the gun.
Debunking the self defense myth (using real facts), David Atkins wrote in the Washington Monthly that the right wing gun lobby and its slavish adherents have “gone so far off the rails that reality is no longer a relevant boundary on discussion. As with supply-side economics, the benefits of gun culture are taken not on evidence but on almost cultic faith by the right wing and its adherents.”
This mind set, apparently, prompts a state legislator in Idaho to post on his Facebook page that he is “very disappointed in President Obama. Again he is using the tragic shooting in Oregon to advance his unconstitutional gun control agenda.” What a crock, but also what a widely believed crock. When it comes to guns we know what we believe even when it’s not true. Discussions – or arguments – about guns exist like so much of the rest of American political discourse – in a fact free environment. Myths about guns morph into “facts” about guns.
A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.
– Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution
The entirety of the mythology begins, of course, with the Second Amendment and the decades that the National Rifle Association has devoted to myth making about the twenty-six words of the amendment.
“For more than 200 years following the adoption of that amendment,” Stevens has written, “federal judges uniformly understood that the right protected by that text was limited in two ways: First, it applied only to keeping and bearing arms for military purposes, and second, while it limited the power of the federal government, it did not impose any limit whatsoever on the power of states or local governments to regulate the ownership or use of firearms. Thus, in United States v. Miller, decided in 1939, the court unanimously held that Congress could prohibit the possession of a sawed-off shotgun because that sort of weapon had no reasonable relation to the preservation or efficiency of a ‘well regulated Militia.’”
…A Well Regulated Militia…
Stevens says during the tenure of the conservative Republican Chief Justice Warren Berger, from 1969 to 1986, “no judge or justice expressed any doubt about the limited coverage of the amendment, and I cannot recall any judge suggesting that the amendment might place any limit on state authority to do anything.”
In his retirement Chief Justice Burger bluntly said in an interview that the Second Amendment “has been the subject of one of the greatest pieces of fraud, I repeat the word ‘fraud,’ on the American public by special interest groups that I have ever seen in my lifetime.”
Only fairly recently, in fact in the last decade as Stevens points out, has the Second Amendment been broadly reinterpreted by the Court – the Heller decision in 2008 and the McDonald case in 2010, both decided by 5-to-4 votes – to sharply expand its meaning. Of course, powerful political forces, including most importantly conservative politicians and the NRA, helped to propel these changes made by the most conservative Court since the 1930’s. The gun myths grew in direct proportion to the political agenda of the mostly rightwing politicians who benefitted most significantly from the NRA’s pressure and cash.
Nonetheless, “It is important to note,” Stevens writes, “that nothing in either the Heller or the McDonald opinion poses any obstacle to the adoption of such preventive measures” – expanded background checks and bans on assault weapons for instance – that were widely suggested in the wake of the Newtown tragedy that claimed the lives of 20 children in 2012.
Justice Stevens would go farther, as would I, in returning the Second Amendment to its original intent by inserting just five additional words. A revised amendment would read: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms when serving in the Militiashall not be infringed.”
But such a change seems unthinkable when federal lawmakers won’t risk NRA ire by even discussing the kinds of change that the existing Second Amendment clearly permits.
Rather than advancing an “unconstitutional agenda” as gun mythology would have you believe, Obama has suggested – he did again last week and will no doubt do again and again – that “responsible” gun owners should finally support common sense efforts that might begin to roll back the rate of slaughter. You have to wonder if there actually are “responsible” gun owners out there who are as shocked as some of us are about mass murder at a community college, or at a church in Charleston, or at a theatre, a shopping center, at Army and Navy bases, or in a Connecticut elementary school.
Has the NRA so poisoned the political well of reality that no red state Republican can dare say “enough is enough” and something must change? Is there no group of “responsible” gun owners willing to call the bluff of the makers of the gun myths? Does every NRA member buy the group’s more guns, no regulation logic, while blithely sending off their dues to enrich a collection of political hacks in Washington, D.C. whose real agenda is to – wait for it – maintain their influence and, of course, sell more guns?
So, while Roseburg mourns, the gun world turns away and Trump and others get away again with repeating the well-worn myths about guns. What we can be sure is not a myth is that we will be here again soon enough repeating the call for prayers for the victims and the first responders and we will, for a few televised moment at least, be stunned, while we consider the ever mounting death toll.
And so it goes. The cycle repeats. Nothing changes. A society’s inability to deal with its most obvious affliction hides in plan sight. We also quietly hope that the odds are in our favor and unlike the grief torn families in Oregon we’ll not be the next ones shattered beyond repair.
In Washington, D.C., a town where status almost always counts for more than substance, having your own Towncar with a driver or commanding a motorcade that features a dozen black Suburbans is perhaps the ultimate sign that you have “made it” in the Unholy See.
Pope Francis, the best retail politician in America this week, showed up at the White House in a squat little Italian Fiat 500L, the vehicle the Eurocar rental people try to pawn off on you if you’re lucky enough to visit Florence. The car gets 35 miles to the gallon and retails for $20,000. Fancy it isn’t, practical it more surely is.
The contrast this week between the smiling, waving, warm, genuine, selfie posing, Fiat-riding Bishop of Rome and the pompous self-assurance of the American ruling class could not have been more pronounced.
Who but Pope Francis could have stood before the dysfunctional American Congress, a group of mostly hyper partisan, re-election obsessed elites who have spent the summer debating shutting down the government again, and reminded them of why they are where they are.
Gosar said he expected Francis would devote a good portion of his speech to the “questionable science” of climate change and anyway the Pope acts like “a leftist politician” and therefore deserves to be dissed in public. Francis’ speech did touch on climate change, but his real message – compassion, care for the poor, shared responsibility for one another, peace and “the pursuit of the common good” were no doubt lost on too many of our political wise men, people like Gosar, the members of the caucus of constant division.
“A political society endures when it seeks, as a vocation, to satisfy common needs by stimulating the growth of all its members,” the Pope said in the House chamber, “especially those in situations of greater vulnerability or risk. Legislative activity is always based on care for the people. To this you have been invited, called and convened by those who elected you.” It was more civics lesson than political speech, more a sermon on service from a smart Jesuit than a list of policy prescriptions from a South American leftist.
Still, since everything in America is at all times political, the voices of the entrenched right, who willfully ignore the perils of income inequality and the reality of climate science, had the long knives out for Francis even before his Fiat rolled toward the White House.
The Sermon from the Beltway…
“Pope Francis embodies sanctity but comes trailing clouds of sanctimony,” was the ironic bombast from George Will, the most sanctimonious of all the Beltway gasbags.
“With a convert’s indiscriminate zeal, [Francis] embraces ideas impeccably fashionable, demonstrably false and deeply reactionary,” Will sermonized in his syndicated column. “They would devastate the poor on whose behalf he purports to speak — if his policy prescriptions were not as implausible as his social diagnoses are shrill.”
Whew. Caring for the poor, trying to eliminate poverty, working for peace, ensuring the survival of the planet are now merely “fashionable.” George Will will now be remembered as the first conservative apologist for the status quo to label the carpenter of Nazareth’s ideas as “reactionary.”
Most of the ruling class and many on the far right, perhaps because of their own blinkered beliefs in the unadorned wonders of capitalism and their comfortable status among the well off, have missed Pope Francis’ real message, which is why they fail to understand his broad and deep appeal around the world.
The Pope isn’t really a politician in the sense that George Will sees him, but rather a philosopher, or even better a religious philosopher. His message – like Jesus or Buddha, darn I say, Mohammed, transcend politics.
“Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s,” the gospels report as Jesus’ response to a question about whether Jews should pay taxes to the Roman authorities. On trial for his teaching and presenting a threat to the ruling order, Jesus reminded Pilate that his “kingdom is not of this world.”
Service of the Human Person…
Catholics and non-Catholics around the world have warmed to this Pontiff precisely because he constantly, in word and action, lives the fundamental “kingdom of God” message of inclusion, caring, dignity, hope and decency. Francis’ entire visit to the United States and all his public pronouncements re-enforce the essential message of his faith. The Pope was, as a good pastor does, merely reminding the leaders of our secular kingdom, that they can benefit – indeed all of us can benefit – from behaving less like partisan division makers and more like the Lord’s disciples.
When Francis said, “If politics must truly be the service of the human person, it follows that it cannot be a slave to the economy and finance. Politics is, instead, an expression of our compelling need to live as one, in order to build the greatest common good,” he was simply saying that we must use “politics” to address the world’s real issues. That isn’t a message from the left or right, but it is both spiritual and practical. And it is the language of a leader.
Think about this: suppose Mr. Gosar, the boycotting Arizona congressman, were as important as he obviously thinks he is and had been invited to give a major speech at St. Peter’s in Vatican City. Imagine that Pope Francis had been invited to attend that speech, taking time away from visiting a homeless shelter or cleaning up the mess that has become the Vatican bank. Can you imagine the South American leftist being so self-important and so rude as to boycott the speech of one of his right wing critics? Of course not. It wouldn’t happen and that speaks volumes about the main in the Fiat.
Francis has been administering to the sick in Washington, New York, at the United Nation and elsewhere. Let’s hope – indeed let’s pray – that after his remarkable visit that a few more of us are open to his message of healing.