Sunday, April 28, 2019

The Problem with a President Bernie Sanders

Senator Sanders is a good, intelligent, forthright man.  His heart is in the right place.  And he certainly believes strongly about what is right and what is wrong.

But there’s a problem with Sanders as President.  It lies in primarily two areas:  rhetoric and policy development.

When it comes to rhetorical style, Bernie Sanders and his fire-breathing progressive allies share much with Donald Trump.  It is confrontational in both tone and substance.  As Trump and many autocrats have shown, this is certainly the way to build a devoted, unwavering base.

But such a style and the unwavering … dare one say, unthinking … political support it engenders does not bode well for the future of our democracy.  If Sanders, or AOC (Ocasio-Cortez), or Trump say something, their followers take it as gospel truth and praise the speaker.  A healthy democracy depends on people thinking, sifting through competing ideas, not leaving it to leaders to think.

This style also exacerbates the us v them aspect of politics and social dynamic.  Before the recent extreme polarization of American politics, people were usually sorely disappointed when they lost an election, but the call by all was for unity, for forming a “loyal” opposition.  In Congress or elsewhere, there were political disagreements, people took their stands, but it was with the feeling that everyone had the country’s best interest at heart and so there was civility in the midst of disagreement.  People could agree to disagree.

Gone are those days.  While the problem started with Senator Dole's very negative relationship with President Clinton during his 2nd term, it became all -consuming when Obama was President and Republicans in Congress, led by Mitch McConnell and John Boehner, decided that they were just going to say, “no,” to anything floated by Obama; their only purpose in Congress was to defeat him.  It went so far as to not giving Obama’s 2016 Supreme Court nominee a hearing in order to keep the slot open should a Republican win the next election, even though that was almost 8 months away and the start of the new term 10 months away.

There is a danger in Sander’s campaign style as with the combative style of some of the newly-elected progressives in the House.  The danger is that you may win some battles, but you will ultimately lose the war. You will not change the culture/government in the ways you would like because you have alienated many rather than generated good will among your opponents.

The other problem with Sanders as President comes in the all-important area of policy development.  Let’s take as an example Sander’s Medicare-for-All.  A wonderful idea, but as I explained in my post, “Medicare for All or Some?” not the way to ultimately get to where he wants to be ... universal single-payer coverage.  But Sanders has no use for discussing all the problems, all the dislocation, inherent in implementing his health plan should it pass.  

I draw from this, in combination with his rhetorical style, that Sanders is not a reasonable man … meaning that one cannot reason with him and he can’t employ reason with those not on his team, convincing them to support him or finding a place for compromise where both sides win.  It’s like W saying, “Either you’re with us or against us.”  Like it’s impossible to imagine the reality of someone being on your side but having a difference of opinion on tactics.  What we very much need in a President is a reasonable man.

So I was not for Sanders in 2016 and I’m not for him now.  But not for the reasons of the Democratic Party establishment.  Not because he fights the larger ills of our culture and government.  Not because he sees the ills of capitalism.  Not because he thinks the super rich are richer than they need be.  I have no problem with any of those positions.

It is rather because his rhetorical style will leave us with a country which drifts even further apart.  Where the concept of an American social contract is even more distant.  Where the phrase “my fellow Americans” becomes an unimaginable anachronism.

Sunday, April 21, 2019

What Trump Did and Didn’t Do - The Mueller Report and Beyond

There is no way to get around the fact that the Mueller Report makes very clear that there was no collusion or cooperation with Russia regarding its interference in the election for the purpose of insuring Trump’s election.  Therefore Trump and his campaign did not commit that crime, or at least the evidence was not sufficient to ensure successful prosecution of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, which is the criminal standard Mueller was using.

With regard to the obstruction charge, I don’t know the fine points of law on this subject, but Mueller was not willing to say what he did regarding the Russia charge … there was no obstruction.  And so he said that the findings do not exonerate Trump.  He just laid out the facts for and against.

But in our system of justice, if you don’t have enough facts to prove a crime, even though it sure looks like it, the person should not be charged, and if he is he will be found not guilty.  Thus from this technical perspective, Barr was correct in his prosecutorial decision.

So Trump and his campaign either did not commit these crimes, or at least could not be successfully prosecuted for them, which we must take as legally the same thing.  Innocent until proven guilty is our system’s maxim.

One more point should be made about Trump not being guilty of a crime.  Many people point out how the report is loaded with examples of Trump lying and forcing others to lie.   But lying is not a crime, unless it’s under oath, and Trump did not lie under oath because Mueller never got to take live testimony from him.  Nor was there sufficient evidence to prove that he forced others to lie under oath, which would be what’s termed “suborning perjury.”

But there is one potential crime that the Mueller report does not seem to have addressed:  accessory after the fact, or aiding and abetting, Russia’s interference in the election.  Certainly Trump and his campaign knew that Russia was interfering in the election.  That was a crime and the Special Counsel has indicted numerous Russian operatives in that regard.

Now, failure to report a crime is generally not a crime itself.  However, if you take action to help conceal the crime, then you become an accessory after the fact which is a crime.  And so the question is, did Trump and/or campaign officials help or conspire to conceal information of Russia’s election interference.  Did they do something beyond not reporting?  That remains for Congress to investigate.

But beyond the Special Counsel’s narrow prosecutorial question, whether there was sufficient evidence to successfully prosecute a crime, that leaves the question whether Trump committed a "high crime or misdemeanor" which is an impeachable offense, or whether he acted in a manner not befitting the office of President.  These are both questions for Congress to assess.

With regards to cooperating with the Russians or obstructing justice, the Report lays out a multitude of facts, which may well meet the lesser standard of proof for an impeachable offense, which is closer to the preponderance of the evidence, was it more likely it happened or not.  Also there is the question of whether he was an accessory after the fact, or aided and abetted.   As for being unfit for office, unfortunately, one cannot impeach a President for being unfit for the office.  Only the public can remove him for that cause by voting him out of office. May the investigations begin.

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Rep. Omar Is Her Own Worst Enemy

There are many commendable things to say about Rep. Omar.  First and foremost, she stands up for what she feels is right regardless how unpopular her position may be.  
However, Rep, Omar has a habit of sticking her foot in her mouth.  The problem is not what she is saying, at least as far as I’m concerned, it’s how she is saying it.

Most recently.  In a speech regarding civil rights and Muslims, she said that after September 11, because “some people did something,” Muslims began losing access to their civil liberties.

That phrase was so insubstantial and vague that it was guaranteed to provoke an outpouring of anti-Omar and anti-Muslim invective from Trump and other right-wing sources.  Did she give any thought to the fact that she was addressing a very sensitive subject for her fellow Americans?

What she could and should have said, accurately, was that because Muslims from foreign countries caused the destruction of the World Trade towers and the horrific death of thousands of Americans, American Muslims were losing access to their civil liberties.   This would not have been a betrayal in any sense of her cause, her people or her faith.  She would have merely been speaking the truth.  And no one could have used that statement to attack Muslims.

It she does not feel comfortable speaking that truth, if she is not comfortable criticizing other Muslims or Muslim leadership while excoriating American actions, then she will not be respected.  And will not serve the people of her faith well.

Anyone who has the attitude that they cannot criticize their own because so many others criticize them unjustly, is doing themselves and their people a disservice.  Whether it’s American nationalists, fervent Jews, or agitated Muslims, the goal should be to make America, or Israel, or orthodoxy, or Palestine the highest example of humanity.  And that can only happen through self-criticism.

In the specific case of Rep. Omar, instead of her election to the House being a source of much-needed expansion of sensitivity to Muslim issues through her intelligent comments, she has instead repeatedly created controversy and hurt her cause through careless (or possibly not careless) phrasing of issues.  She has given ammunition to her enemies and deprived her mainstream supporters of cover for their support. 

If Rep. Omar and her fellow newly-elected fire-breathing progressives in Congress really want to move their projects forward, they would be well advised to tone down the rhetoric, to reduce their confrontational stance, to acknowledge the concerns and doubts of opponents and address those concerns and doubts.  If they continue to fight fire with fire, they will end up accomplishing nothing of substance and a huge opportunity to advance social justice in our country will be lost.

Monday, April 8, 2019

We Need a National Discussion on Race and Racism

We as a people have never had a conversation about race.  That is a sad fact.  Race and racism have of course been discussed by groups and between people, but we have never had a national discussion.  There has never been a national reconciliation about race and racism.  Not even after the Civil War. 

Given all the challenges we currently face stemming from confrontational polarized politics, it may seem like the wrong time to bring up this topic.  But nevertheless for the future health of our country and for the future wellbeing of the 12.7% of our population which is black, this discussion must take place.  And in order for it to take place, people need to have a clear understanding of the history of the African-American experience in this country.

Many books have been written on this topic, or at least with such a title.  Many of the books tell about all the contributions of African-Americans, whether it be in science, government, music, etc.  To me, these books seem to be trying to convince both whites and blacks that African-Americans deserve to be valued.  But this tact has not and will not change white America’s attitude because it does not address white feelings of difference, feelings of fear, or feelings of superiority.

Then there are books which very clearly and in great detail tell the facts about slavery, the civil war, emancipation, and the more recent past including of course the Civil Rights movement.  The most moving and insightful of the books that I have read was W.E.B. DuBois’ The Soul of Black Folk.  These books powerfully relate the injustice that African-Americans have as a group suffered over the centuries.

But surprisingly, none of the books that I have seen, except for books about African-American radicals like Malcolm X, provide a frank assessment of the lives of blacks, especially average blacks, in modern America.  How they are treated by white America.  

This is an essential part of waking America up and having the discussion we need to have.  For there is a general impression among many whites that African-Americans have been given so much preferential treatment and have so many rights that it is their fault if they are still living in poverty and ignorance.  According to a 2016 PEW report, 38% of whites feel that the country has made the changes needed to give blacks equal rights.

What follows is a very brief attempt to clearly outline the African-American experience in this country.

First of all, who were these people who became enslaved?  They were free people living normal lives, having various roles in their mostly rural communities, who were captured by either black or white slave traders.

In 1790, just after the adoption of the Constitution, there were 680,000 black slaves (19% of the population) and 58,000 black freemen.  By the outbreak of the Civil War, there were 1.8 million black slaves (approximately 12% of the population) and 360,000 black freemen.  The vast majority were plantation slaves and their life was toil, fear, and degradation.  They were the property of their owners and could be used, bought, sold, and killed at the whim of their owners.

After the Civil War, after emancipation, there was a brief period in the South where some blacks started coming into their own, owning land and attaining political office, but that quickly changed as the Federal government supported the white power structure, Reconstruction ended, and the era of Jim Crow laws came into being.  While no longer slaves, blacks had no de facto rights and could be summarily punished or even lynched for offending the white power structure.  They were poor and downtrodden, with nowhere to go.  Their hopes that came with emancipation dashed.

In the North, the 13th Amendment didn’t really change the lives of blacks much, except in the border states of Maryland, West Virginia, and Kentucky where there had been substantial numbers of slaves.  Blacks in the North were mostly, with several well-known exceptions, looked down upon before and after emancipation by the general population.  It’s true that abolitionists didn’t think anyone should be a slave; it was immoral.  But like pro-life Evangelicals, they didn’t think much about what happens to the freed slave.  The assumption was that if you are free you can take care of yourself.

The Great Migration of blacks to the North that began in 1915 changed their lives in many ways and did open more opportunities, but they were mostly segregated in slums and had few opportunities beyond manual labor or service.  Their lives were certainly materially better than living in the South, but they were still a mostly uneducated, looked-down-upon class by white America.  The “American dream” was not available to them.

During the 20th century, a black middle class and professional class did grow that was able to materially partake of the “good life.”  But this accounted for a relatively small percentage of blacks.  Most were stuck in the ghetto living under terrible conditions and with only minimal educational opportunities.  In 1966, 41.8% of African-Americans were poor.  Life was still a dead end for many.

The Civil Rights movement brought more rights for African-Americans and improved the lives of many:  23% of blacks aged 25 and older had college degrees in 2016, 50% of black households had incomes over $43,000 in 2014.

But it did not substantially change the lives of many blacks.  While the poverty rate fell, 26% of blacks were still poor in 2014.  

So where do things stand today?  Regardless of the metric … income, education … black Americans still lag substantially behind white America.  College degrees: 23% blacks v 36% whites.  Median household income:  $43,000 blacks v $72,000 whites.  Poverty rate:  26% blacks v 10% whites.   Unemployment:  10.3% blacks v 4.5% whites.  One statistic makes the stubbornness of this inequality despite improvement very clear:  median black household income today, while almost twice as high as in 1967, is just what white household income was back in 1967.

Putting aside material advancement, which is undeniable, the Rights movement did not much change the attitude of white Americans towards black Americans.  Discrimination is still pervasive although often less obvious.  Thus even if one has “made it,” blacks are still conscious of their unequal standing in the eyes of whites.  According to the 2016 PEW report noted above, only 8% of blacks think that the country has made the changes necessary to give blacks equal rights, while 43% think that the country will never back the necessary changes,

Even before the empowerment of the ALT-right movement by the Trump administration, discrimination against blacks and a feeling that blacks are not as smart or good as whites, or were “different,” was endemic in America.  Republicans even want to take away their vote whenever possible.  While surveys show that whites generally approve of the principle of racial equality today, when it comes to implementation in the workplace or schools, for example, less than 30% think the government should take action to insure equality.

Many whites, especially Republicans, and some blacks as well, place a large share of the blame of poverty and the lack of advancement on blacks themselves.  And to some extent this is true; for most people, education and advancement must be gone after, it’s not given to you.  

But after having been beaten down for generations, lower class blacks need to grow up in a culture that encourages you to have thoughts of education and advancement and provides the means to implement your thoughts.  Middle and upper class blacks go to schools and have role models that do that.  But lower class blacks live in a culture where neither their family and peers nor representatives of the government power structure they have contact with provide that encouragement or the means to implement.  For them, life experience makes it very difficult to imagine that their lives could be different.  A large new study of intergenerational effects on social  mobility makes this clear.

Now let me address the feelings of fear, of difference, of superiority that lie behind continuing racism, whether at a very low or aggressive level.  First of all, what is there to fear?   Even assuming that blacks would rise up in violent revolt, this is not the 1860s South where black slaves accounted for 38% of the population.  As to fear of individual black men, our fear is based on the knowledge that we have mistreated blacks and made many prone to violence.  If we treat blacks like human beings, then there would be no reason to fear.

It is true that African-Americans are different from WASPS and most other ethnic or racial groups in this country.  But then they are all different from each other.  At one time, that difference caused discrimination and even violence between groups.  But we’ve gotten over that for the most part.   The time has come to get over that regarding blacks as well.

And as for superiority, if a group that has the advantages that white Americans have enjoyed for centuries doesn’t score better, have more degrees, and make more money there would be something amiss.  There is no inherent intelligence difference between the various races.  That canard of race “science” has long ago been debunked.  Give blacks the same social support and opportunity that whites have enjoyed since the Civil War and in time they will reach the level of education and income of whites.  There will always be blacks who are poor and uneducated, just like there will always be whites who are poor and uneducated.  It has nothing to do with race, it has mostly to do with opportunity,

The point of this short primer is that despite emancipation, despite all the laws that protect civil rights, despite integration, and despite the undeniable improvements in the material living standards of large numbers of blacks, most African-Americans have never realized the true fruits of freedom because they have never experienced equal opportunity in anything from the government or society at large.  Starting most importantly with equal opportunity in primary and secondary education.

They are still not truly free in a very important sense of the word.  We are still far away from Martin Luther King’s dream of one day all people being able to join hands and sing, “Free at last!  Free at last!  Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”

Tuesday, April 2, 2019

Joe Biden — 3 Strikes You’re Out!

Joe Biden is a good man, intelligent, experienced, and may have a very good chance of defeating Trump in 2020.  But he should not be the Democratic candidate for President in 2020.

There are at least three reasons why Joe Biden should not be President.  First, Joe Biden was not just against busing and affirmative action in the 60s and 70s, it’s the reason why.  He saw no reason why white people today should have to pay for the suffering of black Americans over the centuries.  “I’ll be damned if I feel responsible to pay for what happened 300 years ago.”  

The language he used in opposition to civil rights would have done George Wallace proud.  Yes, he has become a strong supporters of civil rights and allied himself with Barack Obama.  But in between he was also a tough on crime Democrat who said in 1990, “One of my objectives, quite frankly, is to lock Willie Horton* up in jail.”   He was a proponent of legislation that led to the mass incarceration of black men.

Perhaps he has truly reformed.  But a man who so consistently appealed to the racial fears of middle-class white America should not be a Democratic candidate for President.

Second was his handling, as Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, of the confirmation hearings of Judge Thomas as Supreme Court Justice and the testimony of Anita Hill.  Just this past Tuesday, he said that he regretted that he “couldn’t” give her the kind of hearing she deserved.  How disingenuous.  He certainly could have had he wanted to.  But he didn’t.  And perhaps even worse, he made the decision not to call other women who were waiting to testify regarding Judge Thomas’ sexual harassment.  It is thanks to Joe Biden that we are stuck with Clarence Thomas sitting on the Supreme Court.

Third, while there have always been some questions about his interactions with women, a former Nevada state legislator has come forward recently with an accusation of inappropriate touching.  Not groping, mind you, but nevertheless inappropriate, intimate touching.  “He leaned into me from behind, inhaling my hair, and kissing me on the back of my head.”  This was not an innocent peck on the cheek.  And this was not 30 years ago, this was in 2014.  

In response Biden said that “he did not believe he acted inappropriately,” but admitted he had made “expressions of affection” over the years.  Whether he then believed he acted inappropriately isn’t the question.  It’s whether he now admits that he did what was claimed and that in retrospect, by today’s standards, it was inappropriate.  That’s the answer that I would have wanted from Biden, but politicians rarely admit they made a mistake, even when caught.

We have to recognize now because of the #MeToo movement how frequently women have had to submit to such unwanted behavior by men with power.  It may not have been socially or politically incorrect at the time, but Joe Biden should have known better and been in greater control of himself.

Yes, Joe Biden might be able to win back the white middle-class vote.  But this is not the man who should be leading the Democratic Party and be President of the United States … certainly not at this moment of time.

* Willie Horton was a black convicted murderer who got a weekend furlough while Michael Dukakis was Governor of Massachusetts, didn’t return, and committed several crimes including rape before being arrested.  He was used by Republicans as an example of Dukakis being soft on crime during his 1988 presidential campaign.