Sunday, July 3, 2011

Class-based liberalism vs. Minority rights liberalism

Alec MacGillis of the Washington Post has penned a very interesting analysis of the state of contemporary liberalism ("The rise of zombie liberalism: Half-dead, half-alive"), where he argues there are successes in defending minority rights (racial minorities, women, and most recently and prominently, gays and lesbians). At the same time, unions are in retreat and the American welfare state under renewed attack. What explains the different levels of success?

Leaving aside the fact that America is still marked by severe racial and gender inequality (MacGillis wisely includes a quote from Barney Frank regarding the recent shift to support for gay rights in public opinion is very specific to that group and marks a generational shift), MacGillis offers a simple explanation: wealthy individuals have backed campaigns for gay rights, and specifically the recent New York vote on gay marriage, and at the same time, wealthy individuals (including some of the same folks who supported gay rights) have backed campaigns to retrench the welfare state, keep taxes on the rich low, and keep Wall Street unregulated.

I think that money is a part of it, though in a way that MacGillis doesn't really address. Passing laws to give equal rights for minorities does not cost much. Regulations that say you can't discriminate against some people, or opening up marriage opportunities, simply do not take much from the treasury, whereas laws, policies and programs to deal with income inequality or union organizing either cost a lot from the treasury or limit employer profits. Policy success is always going to be easier when the resistance against it is cultural or moral rather than money.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Immigration reform: Learning from Utah

Progressives: You can learn from Utah. Really.

Re-posting from my recent piece at _The Hill_.

Critics on both the left and the right are dismissing President Obama’s recent call for immigration reform, saying he offered nothing new. However, his El Paso speech on Tuesday, and recent events in some states gave hints of a possible winning strategy. Ironically, Obama may claim victory if conservative groups are at the forefront of the change—but reformers will have to scale back their ambitions to make it happen.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

A new number one

In this PBS "Need to Know" podcast, my fellow rustbelt intellectual, Rick Karr, explores the reasoning behind Washington Monthly's university rankings and the meaning of American meritocracy.

The Washington Monthly approach rewards universities that give a lot back to the taxpayer, and are a sharp contrast to the US News and World Report rankings which focus on selectivity, SAT scores, and perceptions of prestige. Whereas the US News ranking typically puts Harvard University at #1, the Washington Monthly ranking finds that University of California-San Diego is the best university in America. Rick talks to Washington Monthly's Paul Glastris, and then talks to me about some of the differences between the 2 number 1s: Harvard (where I received my PhD) and UC-San Diego (where I now teach).

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Too Little, Too Late?

Today's Times has a front-page story about attack ads now, finally being launched by Democratic Congressional candidates. It seems that these campaigns have finally recognized that many of the Republicans running against them are sleazy, corrupt, tools of big business, or out 'n out lunatics.

The question, of course, is whether it is too late to alter the dynamics of these races. Had they been run right after Labor Day, perhaps; in the last week of September, I dunno.

At the risk of stating what is so obvious it is cliche, the issue now is voter turnout. There is no question who the angry motivated voters are: they are the roughly 30% of Americans who are, in their own way, fascists. I don't use that term glibbly - we ought to be forthright that a sizable portion of the tea baggers, the Palinites, the Bachmann-ites, were they a political movement in a European country, would be described as "far-right" "ultra-nationalist" and "neo-fascist." Like the National Front in the UK or the Le Pen movement in France. In this country, however, we call them a major and respectable political party.

So will these ads wake up the rest of us and get us out to the polls? It is too late to change minds, I suspect, but it isn't too late to turn out voters.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Choose Your Narrative

For six or more months now the political story line playing in the media has been the crumbling of the Democratic party and the newly resurgent and confident conservatives, embodied by the Tea Partiers. We've all accepted this story more or less and as a consequence in the run-up to the midterm elections the question being debated is only whether the Democrats will suffer a defeat like they did in 1994 or will it be worse?

There has been another version of events out there, needless to say, and only in the week or so has it started to appear in the mainstream. Rather than witnessing a conservative revival, we are actually watching the implosion of the Republican party as it eats its own young.

The recent Republican primaries in New York and Delaware were the events that put this narrative on the media radar screen, but the story has been out there ever since Rand Paul won his Republican primary in Kentucky, and Earl Grey Aficionado Angle won in Nevada. While all politics is indeed local, taken together this Republican primary season demonstrates that the party has been hijacked not simply by its very right wing - which is true - but by its genuinely lunatic fringe.

As a result, the Republican mayor of Reno, Nevada has announced that he will be supported Harry Reid; Charlie Crist is running as an Independent for Senate in Florida and has a good chance of winning; the right-wing vote for governor in Colorado is deeply divided now that former Congressman Tom Tancredo - a nut of the highest order - is running on the American Constitution Party ticket; and most recently Lisa Murkowski has announced her write-in campaign for Senate in Alaska, after she lost to a right-wing Tea Bagger in the primary.

All of which is good news for Democrats - or it ought to be. What confuses me is why Democrats seem so beaten and dispirited right now. And, more to the point, why the predictions are that they won't turn out to vote. President Obama has scored more major legislative victories in his first 18 months than all but a handful of presidents and we have our tails between our legs.

Republicans will always have the advantage of money, and of a party discipline that Leonid Brezhnev would have envied. But the opportunities right now not simply to retain control of the House and the Senate, and to strangle the Tea Party in its crib strike me as quite good.

So c'mon folks - the only way to ensure that my second narrative, the story of GOP self-destruction, prevails is we all energize and turn out the vote to repudiate the Tea Party.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Tea Drinking and the Ironies of History

Whatever else the tea drinkers who assembled in Washington on August 28 might have accomplished, they did manage to turn the National Mall into an irony-free zone, at least for an afternoon.

They certainly seemed oblivious to the obvious ironies of the day. Like the fact that even as the tea party movement was portraying itself as a “grassroots” upwelling from the people, the New York Times and the New Yorker were running big stories about the right-wing billionaires who are funding the whole show. I’d like to get me some of that “populism.”

Nor did they seem fazed that featured speaker Glenn Beck - former shock-jock, now Messiah Complex victim - was exhorting the nation to return to “traditional values.” Beck has made his career playing so fast and loose with the facts that he no longer knows when he is lying and when he’s not. This is the guy, after all, who lied to the ladies on “The View.” How low can you sink?!

Many people got upset that the event took place on the anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington, at the same location where Martin Luther King delivered his “I Have a Dream Speech.” You could see that this would make some people touchy since the tea partiers want to re-open debates most of us thought were settled long ago, like the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and the 14th amendment, which was passed in 1868. Ironic for sure.

Personally, I got the biggest giggle being lectured at by Sarah Palin about “character.” When the going got tough up there in Alaska, not only did Governor Palin quit her job in order to cash out, but she gave one of the most memorably bizarre speeches ever delivered by an American politician who wasn’t drunk. A model for any of us facing tough times.

The biggest irony of the day, however, came from Abe Lincoln, whose memorial was appropriated for this tea party.

Lincoln, if memory serves, was the president who prosecuted the Civil War against the southern confederacy. He fought the war for two reasons: first, to preserve the Union; second, to end slavery in the United States. When he promised, in the Gettysburg Address, a “new birth of freedom” he wasn’t talking about the freedom of the wealthy to get richer, which is what the tea drinkers seem to have in mind, but about removing the stain of slavery from the fabric of the nation.

In order to achieve those goals Lincoln engineered the largest expansion of the Federal government and of Federal power to that point in our history. He instituted the nation’s first military draft; he suspended habeas corpus rights. Most importantly, he issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which was viewed by slave owners as an outrageous infringement of private property rights. Abe Lincoln was arguably the first “big government” president.

He did all this over the yapping objections of those who insisted on “states rights” because he knew that only through the actions of the Federal government would the institution of slavery be crushed and freedom granted to roughly 4 million enslaved Southerners.

Had Lincoln left the question of slavery to the Southern states, how much longer would that human tragedy have endured? Hard to say, but the Confederate Constitution, the legal framework for the nation Southerners fought to establish is pretty clear about this. It reads: “no law denying or impairing the right of property in negro slaves shall be passed.”

And yet there they were, thousands of tea drinkers standing in front of Lincoln talking about the evils of the Federal government and the need to return to states rights. All with straight faces. Martin Luther King might have been spinning in his grave, but I think I saw Abraham Lincoln roll his marble eyes in disgust during those speeches.

So the next time you want to have a little fun, ask one of these Earl Grey aficionados about Abe “Big Government” Lincoln. Ask them which side was right during the Civil War. And since the “states rights” position was on the wrong side of history about slavery, and about segregation, ask them why they think they think they’re on the right side now? You’re liable to get some rambling, semi-coherent answer that will be positively Palin-esque.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Baghdad Goodbye

Today the last American combat troops left Iraq, nearly 7.5 years after Bush/Cheney launched this military fiasco. There is no measure of this war that makes anything other than an unalloyed disaster with few parallels in American history - not the number of deaths and injuries, the $2 trillion spent on it, nor the way it has weakened the American position in the region and the world.

The Obama Administration deserves - and will surely not get - a great deal of credit for fulfilling this campaign promise. After all, even as Obama may be sinking us deeper in Afghani quicksand, he resisted calls to abandon his original timeline in Iraq.

Violence has subsided in Iraq and a measure of stability has returned, but in fact the country remains a basket case and will be that way for some time. The troop escalation - the so-called "surge" - led by Gen. David Petreaus (to whom George Bush more or less abdicated his role as Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces in 2007) deserves some credit for this.

But the surge was always intended to create enough safe space for the Iraqis to come up with a long-term political resolution to the civil war of 2004-07. That, clearly, has not yet happened. Politics has ground to a halt in Iraq months now after the elections. There is still no real government now in Baghdad, and none on the horizon.

Some while ago I suggested the right analogy for the Iraq war was not Vietnam, but Cambodia. There, after the United States contributed to the destablization of the country, the country descended into a fratricidal, genocidal civil war, brought to an end - ironies of ironies - when the Vietnamese invaded and restored some order.

American combat troops are not necessary for whatever may happen in Iraq going forward and it is long past time for them to come home. Let's hope Obama is demonstrates similar resolution with his timetable to get American troops out of Afghanistan.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Xenophobia I Can Believe In

Not too long ago I attempt a little piece of research. I wanted to know how many military bases the United States maintained overseas. Answer?


Suffice it to say that the number runs well into the many dozens if not several hundreds. They range from the venerable and infamous, like Guantanamo Bay, to the much more recent and volatile, like the staging areas in several of the 'Stans that the military has used for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But the bulk are left over from the Cold War when the United States established this global military presence to counter the Soviet threat.

Last time I checked, however, the Cold War is over. In fact, the college students I now teach were all born after the end of the Cold War. For them it might as well be ancient history, like the Victorians, or the War of 1812. And yet we remain saddled with this Cold War military infrastructure. Tens of thousands of soldiers in places all over the world, costing us hundreds of millions of dollars annually.

The bloated Pentagon budget has been the budgetary elephant in the room as Congress frets about deficits, debt and spending cuts. Nor is that obese budget liable to be put on a serious diet, given how geographically spread out military spending is, and how important it is to the economy of the those red states whose politicians complain loudest about government spending.

Yet surely the vast number of overseas installations is an easy place to start the slashing. What possible justification can there be, after all, for keeping 65,000 troops in Germany?! Or even in South Korea, whose own military is now one of the most advanced in the world?

Surely there must be a way to tap into the nativism and xenophobia currently abroad in the land and turn it toward a movement to bring our troops home from these far flung places. Americans are famously suspicious of foreign places and we don't like foreigners. So can't we put those forces to work for good instead of evil and use it to shrink the American military presence around the world?

PS. After I wrote this little essay I picked up the NY Times Magazine and found Deborah Solomon's interview with Barney Frank. It seems that he and Ron Paul have found some common ground on this very issue!

Friday, July 30, 2010

Still Biden His Time

Almost exactly two years ago (??!!) I wrote a piece here complaining about Barack Obama's decision to make Senator Joe Biden his running mate. I argued that it was a safe, reassuring choice rather than one that carried any real political juice. A senior, well-respected senator; strong on foreign policy issues; no wacky skeletons in his closet., bringing with him ALL of Delaware's electoral votes.

Two years later, and 18 months into the Obama Administration, I want to reiterate my complaints. Biden may well provide the President with all sorts of useful advice on all sorts of matters. Indeed, from what I have read, his may be the sanest voice on Afghanistan, insisting that our best strategy is to neutralize Al Qaeda and, more or less, leave.

He has also served the useful function of being the butt of the jokes made by late-night TV hosts against the administration. People in the mainstream may still be a tad nervous about laughing at the President, but Biden provides as least one punch-line a week.

But for a long time now the office of Vice President has required another task as well: attack dog for the President. Spiro Agnew may have set the mold; Dick Cheney raised it to an apotheosis. Biden has avoided it.

The President is not supposed to engage in partisan bickering, nor is he supposed to score cheap political points. He is supposed to remain above the fray - at least publicly. The Vice President is supposed to be out there flogging the political opposition, rallying the base, and getting angry at all the things which demand anger. Biden hasn't done those things.

So for all of us who are baffled at the way the administration has allowed the message to spun by the rabid right-wing without offering any significant defense (to say nothing of an attack to put the Republican party on the defensive) I remind you: that isn't the President's job (and given all we know about this President, it simply isn't in his temperment). It's the job of the VP.

And Biden isn't rising to the challenge.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Immigration reform: Start with small steps

Another player has entered the immigration battle as the Justice Department sues Arizona over its new immigration law. And the reason the fight is centered in Arizona is that reform has failed in Washington.

Like the characters in "Hot Tub Time Machine," reformers are stuck in 1986. That's when Congress passed, and President Reagan signed into law, the Immigration Reform and Control Act, which married border control and the legalization of millions of illegal immigrants.

Reformers today are misguided to seek a similar "grand bargain" on immigration. History shows 1986 was an anomaly, and the desire to get everything for a controversial group typically gets nothing. But there's hope: A few in the movement have begun to see that getting meaningful action will require small steps and "mini-bargains."...

To read the rest of this post (written before today's big court decision), please click here:

Monday, April 26, 2010

The Executioner's (Happy) Song

It's one of the thorniest aspects of the capital punishment issue. And yet we rarely talk about it, hiding our heads in shame, hoping it will go away.

I'm not talking about the legal niceties here, not about what might or might not be cruel and unusual. Ethics schmethics. I'm talking about the "image problem" state-sanctioned killing causes. We all have to be conscious of our image in this Facebook-saturated, twittering society, and governments who kill people are no different. They worry about their image too.

Take, for example, the problem one Ronnie Lee Gardner has caused the good folks in Utah. Gardner was sentenced to death in Utah in 1985. Back then, death-row prisoners got to choose the method of their own execution (hey, it was a more permissive time) and Ronnie Lee chose the old-fashioned firing squad. Fast forward 25 years, and now Utahans (Utah-ites?) don't want to load up the 30-30s "because of the media attention and bad image" they feel firing squads bring to their state. (Quoted NY Times, 4/24) They would prefer that he be strapped to a gurney and pumped full of chemicals. (The NRA, which funds much of Utah politics, has objected strenuously to "this blatent assault on the 2nd ammendment." "Guns are how we've always killed people," an NRA spokeman said, "Not just in Utah, but in every damn state in the nation. Shooting people with guns is one of our most deeply cherished American traditions.")

Or look at the problem the Saudis are now confronting. The Saudis want to kill Ali Hussain Sibat because he was convicted of "sorcery" for, among other things, predicting the future. (Presumably, not his own, or not very successfully). Being a less enlightened society than Utah, Saudi Arabia prefers to execute people by chopping their heads off with a long, curved sword. But you see the problem: doing so would make Saudi Arabia look like the sort of country that would, well, chop off someone's head with a long, curved sword. How is the Riyadh Tourist and Convention Bureau supposed to do market that!? (The SLCSA - Saudi Long Curved Sword Assocation - has objected strenuously to the delay in this execution. "Long curved swords are how we've always killed people," an SLCSA spokeman said, "Chopping off heads with long curved swords is as Saudi as stoning women for adultery.")

So I say to Utah: shoot Ronnie Lee and do so proudly. Don't worry that this public execution might become a public spectacle. It won't harm your state's image one whit. In fact, why not use it as the basis of a PR campaign: "Utah - XXX days since a botched execution. We're much better than Ohio!" or "Utah: We'll shoot you if you if you ask real nice!"

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Who Speaks for the Banks??!!

What do you see when you look at Mitch McConnell?

I know. You see a shriveled old white guy, the sort of guy whose sagging face screams "restricted country club!" You see a face - nay, a person - of the sort that Grant Wood used to paint. Kentucky Gothic.

But I'll tell you what I see as I look into those doleful eyes. I see vulnerability. I see pathos. I see loneliness. I see the Lorax, with a southern drawl.

You remember the Lorax, right? The Dr. Seuss book? He was the fuzzy little creature who tried all by himself to defend the forest against the ravages of industry. He famously took his solitary and courageous stand: "I speak for the trees, for the trees have no tongues. And I'm asking you sir, at the top of my lungs - that thing! That horrible thing that I see! What's that thing you've made out of my truffula tree?"

That's Mitch McConnell. Mitch "The Lorax" McConnell has taken on the loneliest cause of righteousness in our country today: Defending Ginormo Wall Street Banks from any sort of reform.

Sure, it's easy to pick on the banks and the bankers. It's easy to blame them for, well, everything they screwed up for the rest of us. Fish in a barrel easy. And all this anger about how we had to bail them out? Well, that has really brought out our uncharitable side, hasn't it. They needed our help - when your neighbor comes over for a cup of sugar, you don't hold it against them for the rest of eternity, do you? Are you proud of yourself for all that anger?

Mitch "The Lorax" McConnell is defending the banks as a way of appealing to the better angels of our nature, and progressive people ought to applaud his lonely work. After all, he is the Senate Minority Leader, and aren't we progressives always trying to champion the interests of minorities? Likewise, The Louisville Lorax is simply trying to protect this tiny number of bankers from the bullying of a great mob. There are so many of us, and so few of them - they need someone to stick up for them, and Mitch "The Lorax" McConnell has taken on that job.

So the next time you see The Louisville Lorax on TV, or hear him deliver his talking points in that weird way where he repeats everything he says three times but doesn't actually say anything, or at least anything that Frank Luntz didn't write for him because that's all he really knows how to read, don't get angry. Repeat after me:

"I speak for the banks, for the banks have no tongues (Note: strictly speaking they have dozens and dozens of high-paid lobbyists who function as their tongues). And I'm asking you Sir (presumably here President Obama, who Mitch would never call "sir" but probably "boy") at the top of my lungs - that reform. That horrible reform that I see. What's that reform you've made out of my truffala tree?"

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

The Civil War - Now 100% Slavery-Free!

Let me start by saying that I wrote the last essay before I learned that the Republican Governor of Virginia had declared a "Confederate History Month" purged of any mention of slavery. I confess as well that as a history professor - you know, a PhD in history, lots of courses in history, lots of courses I've taught, yadda yadda - I always thought the the Civil War was really fought over the issue of slavery. So I thank the Honorable Governor for setting me straight on this.

But it got me to thinking. If I've so completely misunderstood the Civil War, then perhaps I've misunderstood lots of other things about Southern history too. And if its time to celebrate the Confederacy, then why not party over those other things as well. Why stop at Confederate History Month in Virginia?! Here are some ideas for other celebrations we should mark throughout the calendar:

Segregation Appreciation Days! - Let's take a week and turn back the clock, back past 1954 (Brown v. Board) all the way back to 1896 (Plessy v. Ferguson). For this week, let's bring back the rich traditions of segregation to the South. You know, like separate water fountains. Denny's Restaurants could refuse to serve black patrons and NOT have to worry about being sued. Because after all, segregation was really about "states' rights" - not about keeping negroes in their place.

Plantation Days! - Not too many people in the South actually own plantations any more, but we can update those good old days can't we? The plantations may be gone, but lots of white folks in the South have lawns right? And those lawns are often cared for by landscaping companies that employ Mexicans. So during Plantation Days, just don't pay them. Threaten to call the immigration authorities if they make a stink about it. They'll get back to mulching right quick I reckon. I'm thinking sometime in the spring when the magnolias are blooming for this.

Gov. Orval Faubus Week! - During the first week of the new school year let's honor the great states' rights champion, Arkansas' own Orval Faubus, by standing in the doorway of our local schools and refusing entrance to any non-white kids. Especially the Asians, who work harder than our kids and are getting better grades and going to better colleges. I hate that.

Secession Summertime! - All that talk by Gov. Rick Perry and others about seceding from the Union is just hot air. Southern states don't want to leave America - they can't afford it. Not with the balance of payments being what they are. Geez, if the South really did try to form its own country (again), its social statistics would resemble Nicaragua's, only without the charm and with much worse food. But during Secession Summertime all those Yankee tourists could be treated like foreign visitors, forced to show ID papers or passports, shaken down for cash at the border. That sort of thing. Who knows? maybe that would raise enough money to ease that balance of payments.

The Klan Kat Walk! - Let's face it: One of the reasons the Klan has dwindled of late is the fashion. Very few of us look all that good in nothing but white, the cuts on the robes and hoods aren't flattering and it's really tough to get the barbeque stains out. Why not put a little hipster edge into the ol' KKK by sponsoring some Klan fashion shows? See what creative variations on the old standard can be. Could be a way to promote young, up-and-coming designers, maybe raise a little money for the local John Birch Society. Just because you're going to a cross burning doesn't mean you have to look frumpy.

The Holiday Book Burning! - The Republican majority on the Texas State Board of Education pointed us in the right direction with their recent decision to re-write American history to make it more, well, Republican. So let's close out the year by having big book burnings around the South to celebrate the Christmas holiday. Preferably near one of those 10 commandments monuments. What a spectacular way to honor the baby Jesus, watching all those books about slavery, reconstruction, segregation and lynching go up in flames. Jesus doesn't want us to read those books, he wants us to handle snakes and watch preachers on the TV. Who doesn't love an old-fashioned book burning?

It's time to stop being ashamed of all that history. Embrace it, hold it, cherish it, and in so doing, make it up, ignore it and lie about it. After all, if the Confederacy had won the war, we'd all be a lot whiter, wouldn't we?

Monday, April 5, 2010

The General Vanishes?

Poor Ulysses S. Grant.

Saving the Union by defeating the Confederate army and being elected twice to the Presidency is no longer good enough to secure a place for posterity. Republicans, led by Representative Patrick McHenry of North Carolina, want to take the portrait of Grant off the $50 bill and replace it with one of Ronald Reagan. I had forgotten that Grant graces the $50, but Republicans handle a lot more those bills than I do, and apparently they want to see Reagan’s face every time they slap one down at a West Hollywood club.

No disrespect to General and President Grant, these Republicans insist, just time to honor Reagan. Again. And they’re right, at one level. This isn’t really about Grant or his bearded face. It is part of a much larger Republican project of re-writing the history of their own party to expunge it of anything that doesn’t conform to their current, hard-Right agenda.

Sixteen Republican presidents have occupied the Oval Office since the first, Abraham Lincoln, was elected in 1860. Now, like the relatives nobody wants at Thanksgiving, Republicans don’t want much to do with most of them any more. Of course, some of them we would all like to forget – like the disgraced Richard Nixon, and “Uncle Warren” Harding, and “Rutherfraud” B. Hayes. But when was the last time you heard some Republican politician singing the praises of Dwight Eisenhower or even Teddy Roosevelt?

They don’t want to acknowledge that Eisenhower was perfectly content with most of FDR’s New Deal, or that Teddy Roosevelt was a champion of environmental conservation. They certainly don’t want to be reminded that Richard Nixon tried to create a national health care system.

No, the current Republican Party wants to forget about its own past so it can trace its origins exactly as far back as Ronald Reagan. And over the last twenty years the Party has, in an almost Vatican-like fashion, mounted a campaign to have Reagan canonized as St. Ronald. The Party regards his presidency as nothing short of immaculate and miraculous. During a 2007 debate, Republican presidential candidates brought up Reagan nineteen different times when answering questions; George W. Bush, the sitting Republican president at the time, came up exactly once.

Still, this current effort to replace Grant with Reagan on the fifty seems particularly perverse and particularly telling. As Lincoln’s general, Grant took what was a faltering Union military effort and turned it around. His campaign was as grim as it was inexorable, and he was determined that the Union army would triumph over the rebellious Confederacy. It does not exaggerate too much to say that without Grant there very well might not be a United States of America.

In the current political climate, however, this is the history that the Republican party wants to repudiate. Tea partiers fulminating about “state’s rights” and Republican politicians, like Texas Governor Rick Perry, who talk casually these days about seceding from the Union, aren’t sure that the right side won the Civil War and certainly don’t want any part of Grant’s legacy.

Likewise, this effort to dump Grant off the fifty represents a symbolic piece of the Republican Party’s “southern strategy,” using race as a wedge issue to attract white voters.

As late as the 1930s Republicans campaigned proudly on their history as the party that ended slavery. In the 1950s, Eisenhower’s Justice Department helped move the civil rights agenda ahead.

Then the Republican Party decided to turn its back on racial progress and cast its future with the bigots and Confederate flag-wavers. Nixon was the first Republican to capitalize on the southern strategy, but not the last. Reagan sneered at the “welfare queen” though it turned out she was fictitious; George Bush I used Willie Horton to strike terror in the hearts of white voters. And so it has gone.

The lily-white Republican party of 2010 wants nothing to do with the man who defeated the Confederacy, and who, as President, oversaw efforts to “reconstruct” a more equitable South.

During the Cold War, experts who watched the Kremlin used to study photographs of official Soviet events to see which Communist Party members were visible and which had been “erased” because they had fallen out of favor. (I've stolen the title of this post from a terrifically fun book about this phenomenon called "The Commissar Vanishes.") Not content to submit its current members and candidates to ideological purity tests it has decided that the past too must be purged of all but the true believers.

I wonder if poor Ulysses S. Grant would really want to be a member of party that no longer wants him as a member.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Feeling Better Already

Joe Biden was right the other day. The Health Bill is a big f!@#$ deal.

It is far from perfect and the process of getting it passed confirmed all your worst instincts about the American political system. But it did pass, and as a consequence the lives of real people - lots of them - will be made better. It may be early to say such things, but nonetheless: thisbill may well rank along with Social Security and Medicare as the most significant piece of social legislation in the nation's history. We have become so accustomed to the over-use of the word "historic" by an adjectivally-challenged media that we not quite recognize real "historic" when we see it. But this is the genuine article.

It is a victory and should be celebrated as such. Go ahead: cheer, fist-bump, pop a cork. As they say in sports, a win is a win.

And as with all victories, there must be losers and so let me introduce you to Team GOP - nickname "The Bund" - who threw everything they had, no matter how vile, foul, or dishonest at this bill and came up short.

Team GOP refuses to accept that they have lost (in fact, many who live in their particular flat earth refuse to admit they lost the election of 2008) and so they have simply doubled-down on their opposition, vowing to repeal the bill, or vowing to stall it forever in the Senate, or vowing to block it in the courts etc etc.

This is a losing strategy for Team GOP, though probably not for the individual members who come from safe districts and retrograde states. But the spectacle of Tea Partiers defending their Constitutional freedom to spit on Congressmen while some of the Bundies cheered them on may prove one of those "have you no decency?" moments. The polls are already showing increased support for health care package now that its specifics are being rolled out for people. Come the fall elections, Team GOP will campaign on the opposition to kids with chronic diseases and tax credits for small businesses. Doesn't sound like a winner to me.

Unless, of course, they stake their next "Waterloo" moment on defeat the banking reforms. Then they can campaign on their defense of un-regulated plutocratic bankers. That should go over well.

So Obama just won the policy battle and the political battle. Feeling better?

Monday, March 15, 2010

Take a Deep Breath

The Obama Presidency has failed.

14 months into it, that's the only conclusion you would draw based on the way the press has reported it. And I'm not talking about the vast right-wing noise apparatus. Listen to NPR or pick up any issue of the NY Times, and that's what they're reporting. The latest exhibit in this litany of doomsaying is yesterday's (Sunday) Times Magazine whose cover story is about the failure of Rahm Emmanuel to get anything done. (The Times, for its part, still cowers in fear from being slapped around by Dick Cheney for 8 years. I think they've changed their famous motto on the banner to read: "All the news we're not scared to print." )

But even given the cravenness of the mainstream press, someone ought to mention that this story line of failure and inaction is simply wrong. Obama passed an enormous stimulus bill, whose effects are now beginning to be felt (out here in Ohio we may even get passenger rail service because of it!); he has in fact ramped down the war in Iraq even as he has ramped up the war in Afghanistan, both exactly what he campaigned to do; he has signed a number of important Executive Orders which would have gotten my attention if not for the other larger issues. (I'll mention only that he did away with Bush Administration restrictions on stem cell research).

How soon we forget! And now there is serious movement on a financial reform bill, a real chance of fundamental change in the student loan system (those of us involved in higher ed ought to be cheering loudly about this one), and last week Obama launched an effort to re-write No Child Left Behind, which comes up for re-authorization this spring.

Oh yeah, and health insurance reform. Obama is right that we have never been as close as we are right now to getting a health insurance reform bill - never.

There are plenty of reasons to complain about the particulars of any of these. I certainly don't think the financial reform bill, as it currently stands, goes far enough, nor do I have any enthusiasm for the escalation of the war in Afghanistan. But a year into this administration and the economic arrows are starting, tentatively to point in the right direction and even the Pakistanis are now arresting terrorists.

Failure and inaction?

And while we're at it, let's put this in some historical context: no American president, with the possible exception of Abraham Lincoln, inherited as many messes as Obama has. The economy may well have been worse in 1933 when FDR took office, but he had few foreign policy issues to worry about (he didn't pay much attention to Europe for several years), much less two bungled and mis-managed wars; Vietnam was certainly a larger mess than Iraq in 1968 but the economy was still humming when Nixon took office. While we're at, for another point of comparison, George Bush II inherited a balanced budget, a budget surplus and a nation at peace. Heckuva job Georgie.

And remember too that when Abraham Lincoln took office the entire Southern congressional delegation left - Obama has accomplished what he has in the face of the most vicious, partisan and obstructionist opposition in American history.

The Times may well be hopelessly craven, but why are the rest of walking around with such a feeling of dread, convinced that a collection of aging white tea-partiers and Palin-ites will take over Washington in November? Let's all take a deep breath, realize how far we've come in the past year, and put the gloves back on. We should all be relishing the opportunity to take on the Party of No and hold them accountable for holding the nation back.

Friday, February 26, 2010

The God That Failed

When I was growing up, one of the feeble responses made by those who still clung to the hope that communism might still triumph as a system of political economy, in the face of all the evidence that it wouldn't, was to insist that it hadn't really been tried. That in the Soviet Union and in China (and in North Korea and Cambodia too I suppose) the real utopian dreams of communism had been perverted into the dystopian nightmares of the Gulag and the Cultural Revolution.

Those late-night dorm-room debates came back to me yesterday as I listened to Tennessee Senator Lamar Alexander (and to every other Republican who said anything) at the health care summit at Blair House. There they sat telling us the free market would really work, it really would fix the disaster that is our health insurance system. Really. See, the free market in health insurance hasn't really been tried, just like communism in China. There they sat, praying to the god that has failed so abjectly and insisting that the rest of us do the same.

These are free- market fundamentalists, after all, and like true-believers of any sort to acknowledge that something might be wrong with their world-view would be to have the whole edifice come crumbling down. And just like Mao's apologists a generation ago, these people will never permit reality to intrude on that world-view.

The fact that we already have a market (and profit) driven health insurance system and the fact that it has failed is beside the point. Since the free market must always generate the best outcome, the state of our health insurance system must be our fault, not the fault of the models that get generated by free market fundamentalist economists.

President Obama deserves credit for taking what looked like a piece of pure political theater and attempting to turn into something more substantive. And it certainly did make clear that the substance of the Republican position is to obstruct, to object, to critique and to put nothing of substance on the table.

So yesterday's event has left us exactly where we have been for some time. Bi-partisan compromise on health insurance reform was never a live option. Two questions remain. First, will Democrats, who enjoy bigger majorities than George Bush ever did in both houses, straighten up and fly right on this issue? And second, will the White House turn the health insurance issue to its political advantage as the November elections approach. At the moment, I don't feel good about either of those things.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

The impossible contradiction that is the Democratic president

It took almost a year, but we now are hearing the conservative critique of Obama that he "dithers," that he waffles, that he wavers, that he is not quite a real man because he does not show convictions. Of course, we've heard the "waffle" epithet thrown at other Democratic presidents, especially Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter. And you don't have to be Democratic president to be called a dithering, waffling unmanly man. Just ask John Kerry.

What is remarkable about these charges is not that they are made: critics know we want a strong leader (that phrase is almost redundant). What is remarkable is that the charge is made at the same time as the opposite charge: that Obama (or fill in the name of a Democratic presidential candidate) is a megalomaniac bent on using the government to fulfill--you guessed it--his horrifying liberal convictions. In other words, Obama is a waffle with a fascist's mustache.

One of these may be true. He may be the waffle or the mustache. But not both.

To be fair, conservatives have had to deal with Republican presidents facing their own familiar from the Left: that they are stupid. Now they are even facing social scientists who try to prove it. George W. Bush faced this charge throughout his presidency, but so did Reagan. Republican vice presidents have faced it (remember Dan Quayle) and of course Republican vice presidential candidates (Sarah Palin). At the same time, liberals have painted Republican presidents, despite their supposed stupidity, as scheming to destroy all that is good. The threat is real enough to earn them the fascist mustache on protesters' placards. The contradiction here is slightly less pronounced, because liberals can point to a Rasputin-like team of advisers who tell the supposedly-dumb president what to do (that logic works less well for Republicans attacking a Democrat because the Democratic president would not waffle if they had an analogous team of scheming liberal advisers).

While there may be a grain of truth to these stereotypes (that Democratic presidents are more deliberate and Republican presidents more un-nuanced in their assessments of issues), the media are probably responding to what psychologists have identified as a kind of cognitive confirmation bias: we start with a meaning of a thing, and then we notice everything that conforms to that meaning, and ignore that which does not. We can hold only one meaning of a thing at a time (either waffler *or* liberal schemer), and bias our interpretations based on that.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Not Ready for Democracy

While the rest of the nation expressed shock at Republican Congressman Joe Wilson and his “You lie!” outburst at President Obama, South Carolinians doubtless recognized it for what it was: the latest in a long, distinguished history of not-ready-for-democracy political behavior.

In fact, Wilson has got nothing on his predecessor Preston Brooks. Brooks was also a Congressman from the great state of South Carolina. Like Wilson, Brooks let his emotions get the better of him. So much so that on May 22, 1856, Brooks approached Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner, seated at his desk on the floor of the Senate, and beat him savagely with a cane. Sumner collapsed unconscious, but Brooks kept flailing away.

Several other Senators tried to help their colleague but were held at bay by Laurence Keitt, another South Carolina politician, who pulled a gun and threatened to shoot. This is why it is so important that people be allowed to carry firearms: to prevent good Samaritans from intervening when your friend wants to beat someone up. Keitt was censured by Congress, which is probably one reason the NRA was founded.

The reason Sumner deserved his beating, as far as the good folks from the Palmetto State were concerned, was that Sumner was an abolitionist and he went to Harvard.

Brooks was right about Sumner, which puts him one up on Wilson, who got it wrong about health care for illegal immigrant. Sumner wanted slavery ended and he pulled no rhetorical punches on the floor of the Senate, though as far as I know he never actually punched anyone. He really was a threat to slavery.

South Carolina was home to some of the biggest, nastiest slave plantations in the Old South, and South Carolinians so loved their slave system that they were the very first to secede from the Union. Edmund Ruffin, a transplant to South Carolina from Virginia claimed to have fired the first shot on Fort Sumter, precipitating the Civil War. He would have bragged about that to his South Carolina neighbors for the rest of his natural days but he shot himself in the head after the South lost the war.

The most beloved South Carolina politician of the more recent past was Strom Thurmond, segregationist, bigot and all-around standard-bearer for South Carolina. Among his many accomplishments, Thurmond holds the record for conducting the longest filibuster in Senate history. He went on and on for 24 hours and 18 minutes to oppose the Civil Rights Act of 1957. When Thurmond wasn’t busy defending segregation and opposing civil rights for African Americans, he found time to father a child with a black maid. And South Carolina voters so loved the original “Dixiecrat” that they elected him governor and then Senator eight times – 48 years.

Then, of course, there is Appalachian Trail-enthusiast Mark Sanford, the current governor. In a political landscape filled with narcissists and hypocrites Sanford has risen high above the crowd. Even in South Carolina’s illustrious political history, one is hard pressed to think of another politician who combines self-aggrandizing self-indulgence with a limitless sanctimoniousness in such generous portions. To announce to the world that his Argentine squeeze was his “soul-mate” (eeww!) but he was going to return to his wife anyway took a particularly kind of political courage.

So by comparison, Joe Wilson’s outburst seems pretty timid. Disappointing, really, by South Carolina standards. And Wilson got it wrong. His wimpy little yelp during the President’s health care speech has given analysts an excuse to point out how wrong he was. He should have caned an illegal immigrant instead.

Still, one wonders what it is about South Carolina that is seems to produce a disproportionate number of political socio-paths. And why do South Carolina voters keep elected them?

The only answer I can come up with is that Edmund Ruffin was right. South Carolinians don’t really want to be part of the United States, and they don’t have any use for the political rules and processes the rest of us pretty much agree to. Like civil rights, civil debate and keeping your soul-mates to yourself.

I suppose we should be happy that Hapless Joe Wilson didn’t get up to try to cane the President while Lindsay Graham fought off the Secret Service. But why don’t we finally give South Carolinians what they really want. Let them secede and form their own nation: The White People’s Republic of Upper Georgia, or some such.

Let’s wave farewell to South Carolina. Before some else gets caned.

Monday, September 7, 2009

What's in a Name?

Labor Day and summer is over. This means the real fights over health care reform begin in earnest. The Glenn Beck-sponsored nonsense of the last few weeks was merely cable TV filler during the slow summer weeks. Now things get serious.

So in anticipation of that, let me offer a small suggestion. Let's stop talking about "health care" reform. No one, in fact, is talking about reforming health care - the experience patients have with their doctors. The real issue is how we pay for our health care, not the care itself. So let's call this issue what it really is: "health insurance" reform.

Semantics to be sure, but debates are about language as much as they are about ideas and the semantics matter. Very few Americans actually want their "care" reformed - or put slightly differently, at a moment when houses are being foreclosed and jobs being lost, they are terrified by anything that sounds like it might interfere with their doctor's visit.

At the same time, few Americans care much about protecting the bloated profits of the health insurance industry. Most Americans want easier access, lower costs, and most, I suspect, would enjoy not having their legitimate claims routinely denied by their insurance carriers. These are the problems that need reforming, not what goes on in the doctor's exam room.

And as we have seen during those farcical "town meetings," talking about "health care" reform is too easily hijacked and is really only a distraction. Let's start talking about "health insurance" reform instead; let's force the Republican Rump to defend the health insurance industry to the nation. Let's make it easier and clearer for Americans to focus on the real issue here.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Not the Summer of Love

Summer 1993.

Team Clinton was trying to reform the nation's health care system and things were already starting to look grim. The forces of Gingrich darkness were gathering strength. Scary ads were running on TV.

Late that summer I joined roughly 500,000 fellow progressives on the Mall in DC for one of the largest demonstrations in American history. As Clintoncare was beginning its slow death, we marched in Washington to demand. . .that gays and lesbians be allowed to serve in the military.

One result of that demonstration was the heavily triangulated and patently absurd "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy. Another result was the defeat of health care reform. After 1994 health-care reform vanished from the national agenda until 2008.

Never mind how inept the Clinton people were in trying to reform health care, and how much blame they deserve. They got no help from people on the left, most of whom were still in the thrall of indentity based politics. For their part, the Gingrich crowd recognized that they could occupy with left with any number of battles in the culture wars. They were thus able to win the real fights of the decade without much opposition (like tanking the health care plan, for example). In 1993 what put progressives in the streets - forget the irony of it all - was gays in the military, not health care reform, welfare reform, or a host of other things.

I've been thinking about that demonstration as I've watched the "town hall" meetings on health care being hijacked by screaming loonies. I have no doubt (though I also have no real evidence) that these "spontaneous" expressions of grassroots anger at health-care reform are in fact carefully orchestrated recitations of Republican party talking points. It hardly matters one way or the other - at the moment, the Republican party has successfully framed the debate about health care and stolen most of the national headlines.

Part of this is the fault of the Obama administration which has not yet made the case for reform as effectively as it could or as it needs to. Part of the fault, however, lies with us. There has been no groundswell of support for health care reform to match the screamers at the recent town hall meetings. No one has yet organized a big march in Washington to demand that all Americans - gays and straights, wise Latinas and dumb white guys - have access to health care.

There is much to dislike about the current proposals to be sure, but that is beside the point. Some health care reform is vastly better than no health care reform, and not just for the health of the nation. Remember that in 1994, emboldened by their defeat of the Clinton health bill, the Gingrich lunatics took over Congress and turned it into their asylum.

The question this time around is whether progressives are prepared to march for health care, or whether Joe the Plumber and all his cousins will be allowed to defeat it again.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Time for Hearings

Hear that sound? something between a buzz and a whine? That's the sound of the finance industry lobby revving its engines (and mobilizing its membership) to kill the Obama administration's ambitious plan to overhaul how the industry is regulated.

This legislation has been flying under the proverbial radar to a certain extent because of the even more contentious battle over health care reform. While our health care system is certainly broken beyond the point of applying band-aids, it was not responsible for the economic mess we are now in (and will be in for some time). The banking/investment industry was, and bringing it to heel must be the centerpiece of an economic recovery.

It comes as no surprise that the banks and the hedge-funds would oppose any effort to regulate their behavior - though doing so requires them to deny that anything has gone wrong, that they bear any responsibility for what has happened, or that the Federal government has an obligation to protect the vast majority of Americans who aren't investors in hedge fund from their greed, dishonesty and down-right stupidity. Despite all this, they remain a powerful and effective lobby - especially with craven Congresspeople - and they have no counterweight on the Hill.

Which is why I think Congress needs to hold hearings on the financial collapse of 2008. Congress needs to investigate what happened and who was responsible for it, not so there can be indictments and trials and jail terms (though I would sorely love to see all of that). Rather, hearings are necessary to create a narrative through which the Treasury's plans for regulation can be understood by the public.

The banking industry has already framed the issue in a way which it feels will kill it: a few bad apples; don't stiffle financial innovation; regulation is unnecessary interference in the free market. The Obama administration, therefore, needs to offer a different frame: bankers and investment houses got fabulously rich at the expense of the rest of us; much of what they did was unethical; markets work best with clear and effective rules. Hearings are a way to establish that frame and to write that narrative. In other words, hearings may be the best way to generate the public anger necessary to overcome the influence of the banking lobby.

Instead, roughly 200 members of Congress have signed on to a petition (authored by -who else - Ron Paul) to create a congressional audit of the Federal Reserve. That may or may not be a fine idea, but the notion that the Fed is responsible for the Great Recession, rather than AIG, Countrywide, BoA etc, is patently absurd. Instead of directing its anger at the Fed, Congress needs to direct it those private sector players who are really to blame.

We won't get serious reform of the financial sector without public anger to support it. And if we don't get it, we can all look forward to more of the credit-default-swapping, mortgage-backed-securitizing, derivative-selling shenanigans that landed us where we are now.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

What Happened to 55?

Buried in the "Science" section of today's Times is a squib reporting a new study in the current American Journal of Public Health. The study looked at highway deaths since the repeal of the national 55mph speed limit and concluded that the "failed policy of increased speed limits" accounted for an estimated 12,500 unnecessary deaths over a ten-year period. This despite all the safetly improvements that have been made in cars which should have brought the death rate down. (No word, at least in this summary, on how many non-fatal injuries could be attributed to increased speed).

When Congress imposed 55mph on the nation in 1974, car crashes weren't its primary concern. Rather, Congress wanted us all to drive more slowly as a way of burning gasoline more efficiently. During that first energy crisis, with an OPEC oil embargo, rising gas prices etc, this seemed like an easy and sensible way to help ease our dependence on imported oil.

Repealing that speed limit, which began in 1987 and was complete by 1995, was a pure piece of Reaganite political symbolism. After all, Americans have a constitutional right to drive at 65 don't we? and a 55mph speed limit was an onerous regulation imposed by pointed-headed Democrats who wanted to deprive us of our freedom. I think the speed limit in the Soviet Union was 55mph wasn't it?

So, one new energy crisis and 12,500 additional deaths later, why aren't we talking about bringing back the 55mph speed limit? Even President Obama, who has more or less mandated that the American auto industry produce more fuel-efficient cars in the future, hasn't suggested we drive at 55mph to get better mileage in the cars we are already driving.

The reason, I think, is that higher speed limits not only burned more gas and killed more drivers, but it profoundly re-shaped the American landscape. During the decade or between the elimination of 55 and the collapse of the real estate market, exurban sprawl was a major driver of the American economy. Chester county, Pennsylvania, Delaware county, Ohio, Lake county Illinois, all on the far edges of metropolitan areas, grew at astonishing rates during those boom years, as did dozens of other exurban places.

To live out on the exurban frontier doesn't simply require a car - though it obviously does. The distances between home, work, school, shopping, city culture have become so attenuated that life requires a car driven at high speeds. In this sense, 65mph help make exurbia possible.

Conversely, lowering the speed limit back to 55 would increase the time exurbanites spend in their cars by over 15% (roughly), a significant amount given how much time they already spend there. Many Americans, therefore, simply cannot fathom driving any slower, regardless of how much money they might save at the pump, or how many lives they might save.

And herein lies the double-edged nature of more fuel efficient cars: on the one hand, there is no question that we ought to have cars that get better mileage. On the other, this will simply encourage people to drive more, and will provide an impetus to sprawl, which is also environmentally destructive. The answer to this dilemma, obviously, is fuel efficient cars driven through more densely-built towns and cities, and, needless to say, that is far easier said than done. The question, therefore, is whether the rising costs of exurban life in the coming years pressure people back toward the center, toward shorter drives, better access to mass transit, and even to places where walking and biking is possible.

There are plenty of ways policy might encourage that, but speed limits are certainly one place to start.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Lost in the Sunbelt: Notes from Southern California

Rather than the usual coherent essay-style posting, I'm presenting today just a few notes in easily digestible form about life in the fiscal disaster that is California.

1. Who would have thought that in a time of financial crisis, the faculty of the UC system would be looking with envy at our Rustbelt colleagues? We are in a fiscal crisis of unprecedented depth and severity, and every day or two we receive a new email telling us how bad it is or what new calamity awaits next week. And what of the flagship university in the state hit hardest by the financial crisis? The University of Michigan is in a state where at least one city, Michael Moore's hometown of Flint, is actually debating shrinking itself and giving back whole sections of the city to nature. And yet the University of Michigan is doing fine. I would like to blame our misery on Wall Street, but clearly, the system in California needs to be redesigned (either the ways we tax and spend in Sacramento or the way we finance the whole university enterprise or both) and perhaps the Rustbelt can give us a model.

2. Am I the only person who sees what seem to be obvious examples of unnecessary spending at the local level despite the crisis? Gilman Drive, the road I take to UC-San Diego when I drive, has for a decade been a bumpy, crumbling mess. But someone picked this year to pave it--beautifully, I might add. Smooth as satin. Recall that San Diego is a city that a few months ago considered closing several libraries, and has numerous other fiscal debacles to worry about. Is this all about "use it or lose it" funding rules for government institutions?

My hometown of Highland, IN closed its public library this year, but this fiscal juggernaut did it to renovate, not to save money. Perhaps this is a mini-version of the financially sound University of Michigan.

My pet peeve wasteful spending (I actually love the new Gilman Drive) is that the University of California still prints a campus phone book for every faculty member and office. Who uses phone books anymore? Everything has been on the web for more than a decade. I'm guessing the cost of those phone books would keep at least a few staff people employed for a year or more.

3. Unrelated: Is it time to rethink the political strategy of incrementalism, at least in the culture wars? I've always thought that progressive change on cultural and regulatory issues comes best from expanding on small victories. And so, for example, advocates for gay rights should focus on the simple things, like having the Civil Rights Act of 1964 amended to ban discrimination in employment based on sexual orientation. Small changes like this do not challenge deeply held beliefs (and yes, it's still legal to discriminate against gays and lesbians on the job).

In this view, the focus of gay rights advocates on the hot button issue of gay marriage is totally misguided. Why mobilize your enemies by going after marriage rights before employment nondiscrimination rights?

But perhaps this is wrong. Note that the year 2000's Prop 22 in California, creating a statute that defined marriage as between a man and a woman, passed with 61% of the vote. In 2008, the California Supreme Court struck down Prop 22. But the voters went and reversed, passing Prop 8, which amended the state constitution to define marriage as a union between a woman and a man. What is interesting here is that this time the idea only won over 52% of the voters.

The trend for gay rights in general is toward increasing acceptance. Was the mobilizing for the right to marry by advocates for gays and lesbians the best PR campaign ever run? Unlike so many public portrayals of gays and lesbians (who can forget the story in _The Onion_ reporting that the flamboyant antics of a gay pride parade set the movement back 50 years?), the struggle for the right to marry re-brands this group as just regular folks, no different from anyone else, on the central institution of family life. Even if the right to marry fails, it may actually make all of the other nondiscrimination rights easier.

4. If America is ever again going to see economic populism, now should be the time: the Wall Street firms we all just bailed out with our tax dollars are now posting record profits and will begin to reward themselves handsomely very soon with bonuses--while contributing no visible benefits to the country. My guess is that the financial crisis is more likely to generate an anti-immigrant backlash than anti-Wall Street populism. Perhaps it is time to re-read Michael Kazin's excellent book, The Populist Persuasion, and search for lessons.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Why Not "Government Motors?"

The Federal Government - that is to say, you and I - now own an astonishingly large piece of General Motors. In the long run, this may or may not prove to be a good deal for the public and the American auto industry. Of course, in the long run, as Keynes famously said, we're all dead, so who can say?

Still, critics of the government's role in GM's bankruptcy seem to take it as an article of faith that the government should not step in to take over a failing industry, like car production, because governments have no business operating in the private sector.

As GM's bankruptcy approached, I heard and read several versions of the story of the British car industry in the 1970s: collapsing of its own inefficiencies and ineptitudes, it was taken over by the Labor Government and consolidated into one, enormous entity. Which then failed even further, causing a huge loss of taxpayer money. Moral of story? Government should not dictate what private companies do.

The British story is certainly a cautionary tale, but at roughly the same moment much of the American railroad industry was also collapsing. It was taken over by the government and turned into Consolidated Rail. Conrail managed to stabilize the American freight railroad system, and modernize it to some extent. Indeed, Conrail was successful enough that it was broken up and sold back to the private sector (CSX, in particular, benefitted magnificently from Conrail's breakup, thus from the public investment in it). Conrail's story would seem to offer a different lesson for GM, though we've heard less about that.

Indeed, as many commentators have noted, GM's operations in emerging markets are doing better than its domestic operations. In China particularly GM is making and selling lots of cars. Of course, in China GM operates in a roughly 50-50 partnership with the government. It seems to work there.

I don't mean to argue that the government take over is either good or bad, though it was probably necessary and unavoidable. (The government may not be able to save GM, but it can hardly do any worse than GM's own management and board have already done.) But as we contemplate the changed economic landscape that will emerge after our current economic mess we need to dispense with the dogma that government ipso facto is incapable of partnering with industry. We need to stop genuflecting at the altar of the MBA as the source of all wisdom about our economy. We need to recognize that the private sector has public responsibilities and that government's job is to protect our interests and enforce those responsibilities.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

A Court that Looks Like Us?

It has been hysterical to watch the Republican Bund react, hysterically, to the nomination of Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court. Newt, Pat Buchanan, Bill O'Reilly, Rush, and not a few Republican Senators behind the scenes - all in a foaming lather over the prospect of a woman and a Hispanic. Or is it a Hispanic and a woman??!! Watch their eyes rotate in different directions.

There is another piece of Sotomayor's identity, however, that is apparently off-limits even to those who would de-rail her nomination at any cost: she was raised Catholic. If she is confirmed - and I certainly expect she will be - she will join Scalia, Alito, Thomas, Kennedy and Roberts as the 6th Catholic sitting on the bench. Should that trouble us? Should the question of religious affiliation be a matter of public scrutiny during nomination hearings?

Joyce Appleby, a distinguished professor of history at UCLA, has just written a brave op-ed piece for the History News Service, in which she says: yes. The whole piece is available at (full disclosure: I write pretty regularly for HNS), but let me quote from it here:

"In truth, religion is not a factor in the majority of decisions that the court will make each year. It might not be relevant at all had not the Catholic Church, with some other denominations, taken public stands on issues of great political significance today.

Abortion comes immediately to mind, but it's not the only constitutional matter where religion and politics clash. This past week two eminent lawyers, David Boies and Theodore Olson, filed a law suit in Federal District Court in San Francisco as co-counsel for two gay couples challenging California's Proposition 8. The California juarSupreme Court's upholding of the proposition's ban on same-sex marriages triggered the action, which seeks relief for gay couples under the Constitution's protection of equal rights.

The case could go all the way to the Supreme Court, raising questions about the vigorous opposition to same-sex marriages by the church to which five, and possibly six, justices will belong. The death penalty, which the Catholic Church also opposes, is another.

Recusal sounds like a radical measure, but we require judges to withdraw from deliberations whenever a personal interest is involved. Surely ingrained convictions exert more power on judgment than mere financial gain. Many will counter that views on abortion, same-sex marriage, and the death penalty are profound moral commitments, not political opinions. Yet who will argue that religious beliefs and the authority of the Catholic Church will have no bearing on the justices when presented with cases touching these powerful concerns?"

The Catholic Church in this country over the last generation, but particulary in the last 8 years, has injected itself more and more intrusively into our politics, precisely in areas like gay marriage and abortion. Should we be concerned that while less than 30% of American citizens come from Catholic backgrounds but soon 2/3rds of our Supreme Court justices do?

Sunday, May 31, 2009

More Dreams Deferred

Over the last decade or so, the courts have chipped away at affirmative action programs in a whole host of areas. The cases which have gotten the most attention have been those which involve college admissions. This is no surprise, since no country places a greater faith in the power of educational opportunity than this one.

Using race/ethnicity as one among several criteria for college admissions became a way of leveling the educational playing field for under-represented groups on campus. It acknowledged that certain groups of people faced steeper obstacles getting into college than others. The courts, however, began more and more to disagree with that rationale.

So ten years ago, officials in Texas came up with an interesting solution to the dilemma. They created a mechanism through which the top 10% of the graduating class from every Texas high school would, more or less, be guaranteed a spot in one of the state's Tier 1 institutions. Underneath this entirely race-blind quota system was the deeply unhappy truth that public education is so thoroughly segregated in Texas that the enrollment of minorities in those Tier 1 universities would go up dramatically.

And it did, and the Texas model seemed to offer a way of providing access to higher education while neatly skirting the increasingly sticky discussion of race and affirmative action.

Until now. The Times reports today that legislation pending in Austin will terminate the experiment. Surburban legislators have been furious that some of their (largely white and above-average income) constituents' kids are being denied entrance into Tier 1 schools in favor of poor kids (black, hispanic and white) from urban and rural districts. Now they apparently have enough votes to end the program. (In fairness, they are being aided in this by the colleges and universities involved who find the quota system restrictive to their own admission plans).

There are several obvious ironies to observe here, not the least of which is the spectacle of a nation telling poor kids to get ahead by getting an education and then refusing in every conceivable way to make that possible. But what struck me was that this news underscores the way suburban school districts were pitted against urban and rural ones. The same was true some years ago in Ohio when a collection of urban and rural districts sued the state, claiming the way schools were being funded was unconstitutional. (They won; but the state was firmly in the grip of Republicans and the legislature simply refused to address the court's ruling).

This is really myopic, since more and more we are recognizing the way metropolitan regions share interests and problems across the urban/suburban/rural divide. Questions like transportation, open-space preservation, food production, clean air and water, and economic development, transcend political and demographic boundaries, and the places that deal effectively with these issues will be those places that recognize that fact. In Texas, alas, suburbanites still don't seem to realize that the whole state has a vested interest in giving better educational access to all its kids.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

The Ol' College Try

President Obama deserves a great deal of credit for delivering the commencement address at Notre Dame, and Notre Dame deserves credit for inviting him. It is an example of the kind of civility that we have missed for the last eight years. (Full disclosure: my employer, Ohio State University, invited George Bush to commencement in June, 2002. After students and family filed into the stadium for the event, the stadium was put under lock-down and student protesters were arrested. Several spent up to 72 hours in jail for carrying signs or for turning their backs on Bush when he spoke).

The President addressed the issue that made his appearence controversial head-on: abortion rights. By drawing an analogy to the issue of civil rights in the 1950s, he suggested that people could find common ground on this thorny question.

On one level, the President simply acknowledged what has been true already in this country for about a generation. In survey after survey, a majority of Americans support access to abortion, though most favor certain kinds of restriction on that access. A majority of Americans, in other words, have already reached that common ground, though we haven't quite had the courage yet to admit this fully and out loud.

But at another level, of course, the President searched for a middle ground in vain. For those - and as it turns out there weren't really that many of them - who turned out to protest Obama's speech, abortion can only be discussed in absolutist terms. Any abortion under any circumstance ought to be criminalized. No quarter given; no half-way measures. We might dismiss these people as a small minority of zealots except for the fact that they exercise of outsized influence on our politics, and indeed, on the culture as a whole. The multi-millionaire founder of Dominos pizza, for example, has contributed heavily to anti-choice causes and the founder of Curves, the chain of women's gyms, posts on his website his desire to "destroy" Planned Parenthood.

This single-minded opposition to abortion masks other agendas, as many have pointed out. The issue, for some, isn't really about unborn children but about controlling women. The Catholic church, after all, is probably the world's largest institution predicated on the discrimination of women. For others, the fixation on fetuses is a proxy for an attack on sexuality more broadly. When the President suggested that we might find common ground by finding ways to reduce unwanted pregnancies, he did not mention Texas where high schoolers are only given abstinance education and which, surprise surprise, now has one of the highest rates of teen pregnancy in the nation.

Right as those explanations surely are, behind them looms a particular christian theology that we need to understand. For fundamentalist Protestants and their Catholic allies, the important lesson of the Gospels did not come from the Sermon on the Mount, but from the events on Calvary. They aren't interested in messages of compassion, love, of lasts being first, but rather in the passion and the crucifixion. (Remember fundamentalist Catholic Mel Gibson's bizarre movie which some dubbed "The Jesus Chain Saw Massacre??) In this view of the world, suffering and pain are the only roads to redemption.

At its root, the fetish of the fetus isn't about the "sanctity of life" but rather about the importance of suffering. Carrying an unwanted pregnancy to term, therefore, offers an opportunity for that redemptive suffering. And since the goal of these fundamentalists is that we all be saved according to their formula, forcing women to have these babies makes perfect sense.

Perhaps a better way to understand the theology of anti-choice fundamentalism is remember the circus that erupted during the Terry Schiavo fiasco. The very same crowd the pickets in front of Planned Parenthood turned their energy and resources to keeping the vegetative Schiavo alive not despite the fact that she would never recover, but precisely because she never would. She suffered; her husband suffered; it was all good for them.

And if those protesters who greeted President Obama in South Bend have their way, we'd all suffer too.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

A Surge of Magical Thinking

Perhaps it is too early to declare the much-vaunted troop escalation in Iraq (dubbed by George Bush the peppier-sounding "surge" which has been dutifully parroted by the press) a failure. But that judgement is no more precipitous than the near-immediate declarations of "success!" made by virtually everyone.

The troop escalation has been called a success because it has been credited with bringing about a dramatic drop in violence in Iraq. Because of this, the troop escalation has been just about the last thing Bush loyalists and Iraq war cheerleaders can hang onto. They have so desperately wanted something here to work in what has otherwise been an abject failure that they almost immediately seized on the troop escalation, and its architect, David Petreaus. Chirpy Republican apologist David Brooks recently called the troop escalation Bush's signature success and one of the most courageous decisions made by any president.

We should acknowledge, however, that correlation is not necessarily causation - Iraq had descended into what should have been called a civil war; civil wars have their own gruesome dynamics and the decrease in violence may also correspond to the exhaustion of warring parties; and despite the troop escalation, Iraq remains one of the most violent, dangerous places in the world. And, of course, many of the warring parties in Iraq put down their weapons because the US Army paid them to - once the money stops, who knows what will happen?

The larger point is that reducing violence was never supposed to be the goal of the escalation. Getting the violence under control was a means to an end. It was supposed to create the space for the political process to work. And the results here, while perhaps not yet a failure, surely don't look like success.

In the past week, Prime Minister Maliki seems more and more like he is consolidating power in purely sectarian ways, shutting out other players, who, in turn, have access to fighters and weapons. And a new round of bombings have been deadly enough to land on the front page of the papers, rather than in the middle. Iraq, to judge by the news coming out of there right now, seems no closer to peace and stability than it was a year ago.

Many people have made the analogy between Iraq and Vietnam, and there are haunting similarities. But it has always seemed to me that the better, and even more horrifying, analogy is Cambodia. Once a prosperous and stable country - in the 1960s it was a net exporter of food - Cambodia was brought to ruin once the Richard Nixon and Henry Kissenger orchestrated secret (and illegal) bombings in their pursuit of North Vietnamese soldiers. Just as Iraq was turned into a proxy in the "war of terrorism," Cambodia was the collateral damage of our feckless Vietnam adventure.

Once American troops left Southeast Asia in 1975 Cambodia descended into a fratricidal civil war which ended with the triumph of the Khmer Rouge. Cambodians thus went from bombing raids, to civil war to genocide in just under a decade. It has not really recovered in the thirty years since (it still must import food each year, for example).

American troops must be withdrawn from Iraq. But as we prepare to pull them out, we ought to use the remaining time there to push for political solutions rather than simply congratulating ourselves on the "success" of the troop escalation. No one can envision where Iraq might be in 30 years, but then no one envisioned what became of Cambodia either. Perhaps we can learn something from that tragedy.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

"Experts Agree. . ."

"Ed Meese is a pig."

More than twenty years ago that pithy little phrase made its way onto buttons and t-shirts. A bicycle messenger in DC happened to be wearing such a shirt when he made a delivery to the Justice Department. He was promptly arrested. Such was the nature of the First Ammendment under Attorney General Edwin Meese.

You remember Ed Meese right? The pudgy, not-the-brightest-bulb-in-the-chandelier that Reagan made Attorney General? Long before Alberto Gonzalez stained the Justice Dept. Ed Meese served as a Reagan's friend and ally during the Iran-Contra scandal and subjected Justice Department employees to ideological litmus tests.

Meese's legacy has been much in evidence these past few weeks as the Obama Administration has released the torture memos. These memos have removed whatever doubt might have remained about the brutalities committed by the Bush Barbarians. We tortured. We did it repeatedly. We invented legal excuses to justify those act that makes the reasoning of the Spanish Inquisition look positively profound.

Perhaps Meese's most famous utterance (or maybe it's just the one I remember most bitterly) was his pronouncement that anyone arrested by the police is almost surely guilty. He had little patience for the notion that one is innocent until proven guilty. That was just liberal nonsense. The ethos embodied by Meese drove Americans into a get-tough-on-crime frenzy. Three strikes and you're out. Lock 'em up and throw away the key. After a generation of Meesian-style justice, the United States now leads the world in incarcerations.

Senator Jim Webb, for one, thinks it's time we re-examined our entire penal system. And increasing numbers of states are finding that they simply can't afford to pay for what many have called "the prison-industrial complex."

Those who still defend torture have essentially invoked Meese's principle. If you've been arrested and thrown into Guantanimo or some black site somewhere you are probably guilty of something. Or will be guilty of something in the future. So we can torture you. Phil Musser, for one, recently insisted that he walked through Guantanimo and could just tell these were guilty people.

The scandal of torture has specific roots in the Bush administration's key players and in their response to 9/11. But those roots grew in a cultural soil tilled by Ed Meese: the comtempt for due process, the impatience with things like habeus corpus, the presumption of guilt before innocence, the substitution of politics for the law.

For a generation now, the Meesian "you can't ever be tough enough on crime" position has been hugely successful politically. I suspect that as we now confront the fact that we tortured people, defenders of torture - like virtually all House republicans - will move from definitional squabbles and term-parsing (what we did wasn't really torture, it was something else) to embracing torture as perfectly justified, just like throwing people in jail for life for minor drug possession. After all, you can't be too tough on terrorists. Even if you torture them.