Frankenstein’s Monster

The rains have stopped in South Carolina, but dams continue to break or fail, leaving several counties in continuing states of emergency. Water levels are still rising in many parts of the state as rainfall drains from Appalachian foothills, replacing already high levels of water in lower areas. With seven deaths from drowning and some truly haunting images of caskets floating away in floodwaters, South Carolina residents, currently fairly middle of the pack in the US on questions about climate changes relevance and seriousness, may have a renewed focus on the issue and what can be done about it.

Coincidentally, that renewed interest is coming about just after a guest appearance by Neil deGrasse Tyson on Bill Maher’s weekly program. On the subject of terraforming other planets, Tyson made the argument for (re-)terraforming Earth itself instead:

While the broader outlines of his argument – that we may soon have the technology and knowledge to allow us to repair some forms of environmental damage or change that currently vex us – is one that gives many people hope, there is a worrying conclusion these ideas might lead some to. In a nutshell, if we can fix the Earth, what’s the harm in breaking it in the first place?

Just as rigorous as Tyson’s point but less directed towards a popular audience, a consensus has begun to grow within many parts of the scientific community. Most recently this took the form of a concern that the natural analogue for a leading tech-fix to climate change – atmospheric aerosols – has complex and largely negative effects on freshwater availability in the broader world’s climate. For the millions of people worldwide who already are experiencing global warming induced water shortages, the implication that the “solution” to the problem might just compound their current predicament is hardly a reason to hope.

I suspect Tyson understands these concerns, but I hope he can highlight it more prominently. Terraforming another planet is not a simple thing, but neither is terraforming our own. The ultimate enemy here isn’t specifically climate change. It’s carelessness. Any presented solution has to acknowledge and tackle that specifically, or else we will be lurching from global warming to another slow motion disaster of our own making. Next week, while I watch and liveblog the Democratic debate, I won’t be hoping for the candidates to discuss global warming, but for them to indicate how they can lead us away from the recklessness that led to this current situation, and into something more nuanced and patient.

The featured image for this article is from here.

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Onwards and upwards, but not for all

Trigger warning: gun violence, racism

Yesterday, ten people died and seven were injured in a shooting at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon. Motivated by the public outcry, President Obama gave a speech on the event and the issues it raises yesterday which still dominates my newsfeed and in all likelihood yours as well. He laid out a basic argument for gun control and against a hypervigilance for over-regulation of firearms and related weapons:

We talked about this after Columbine and Blacksburg, after Tucson, after Newtown, after Aurora, after Charleston.  It cannot be this easy for somebody who wants to inflict harm on other people to get his or her hands on a gun.

And what’s become routine, of course, is the response of those who oppose any kind of common-sense gun legislation.  Right now, I can imagine the press releases being cranked out:  We need more guns, they’ll argue.  Fewer gun safety laws.

Does anybody really believe that?  There are scores of responsible gun owners in this country –they know that’s not true.  We know because of the polling that says the majority of Americans understand we should be changing these laws — including the majority of responsible, law-abiding gun owners.

That is understandably deeply moving. It taps into one of the great beliefs in the United States about this country – that we are an evolving country, tethered by traditions but not ensnared by them. We can – and do – blaze forward, the story goes, changing ourselves in order to make life better. This story is sometimes about this type of regulation on a product, but can also come in the form of appeals to how the franchise has expanded, widening the voting population towards something today considered to be an approximation of universal suffrage. Obama is, I suspect, quite consciously marrying those two tales together, crediting the ostensibly safer and healthier life of the average US citizen to the theoretically democratic achievements of this country. We can literally vote ourselves to safety.

Unfortunately, it’s increasingly unclear that any part of this narrative is true. Past regulations on firearms and present day regulations on cars and other products Obama later mentions were opposed at almost every step by a major industry if not several. Those two are some of the most successful campaigns for that matter. Even as cars have reduced the dangers in an accident, they’ve gotten better at concealing their emissions, disguising the threat they pose to a stable and useful climate for us and ultimately everyone else in the world. Almost all of these improvements are rooted in economic bottom lines. It’s better to make a product that doesn’t easily and regularly kill your customers – that’s just basic business sense. But longer term damage to its consumers, to their descendants, and to the broader world can just be “externalities“, at least for much longer than that other kind of threat.

When it comes to more general issues of social and economic security that same statistics crop up repeatedly showing that many problems have lingered or even worsened. Food insecurity remains prevalent in the US. Union membership – long a bulwark for lower and middle classes to protect their interests – has drastically declined, as has (for that and other reasons) the political effectiveness of unions. Fear of poverty, of want, and of homelessness are barely considerations in the economic and political system in which we live, and so have at best been allowed, and at worst encouraged as “motivation“. The idea that we have become safer than those before us downplays these concerns and denies the observable reality that sometimes things actually have gotten worse.

Suffrage, still full of historical holes like felon disenfranchisement, has recently taken a hit from the dismantling of the pre-clearance system. Already, Alabama appears to be coordinating mass suppression of voters of color in advance of the 2016 election with no effective federal oversight. Other states are likely to follow suit. Even before that structural link in US democracy crumbled, we were already facing an effective plutocratic check on at the very least national elections, and by one study’s standards, were no longer a democracy, but rather an oligarchy. A majority of people in this country – citizens or not – might want basic regulations on weapons, but does that mean anything? For years, in spite of popular outcry, it hasn’t.

katrinaNew Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, from here.

Further along in his speech, Obama presented what he viewed as a few analogues to what he hopes we could accomplish on gun control, saying among other things, “When Americans are killed in floods and hurricanes, we make communities safer.” One needs only point to Katrina as an example of how limited those improvements often can be. Over a thousand died, and over a million were displaced. More valued populations threatened by later hurricanes have been better protected, so perhaps the government learned something from that disaster. But those lessons learned in catastrophe haven’t been applied to repair the still hurting (and specifically Black) communities in New Orleans, but to preserve the business centers of Houston and the greater New York area. In fact, as the devastation of Hurricane Katrina created the opportunity for a wealthier and Whiter demographic to move in and replace dead or displaced residents, parts of New Orleans seem poised to attain a similar status, only without the people who originally lived there.

Progress appears to be a privilege, increasingly reserved only for some in this society. It seems vital that we ask who gets left behind, and not only when the answer is “almost everyone.”

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Render unto the constitution that which is the constitution’s

Trigger warning: abortion, racism, xenophobia

To anyone familiar with the video game Bioshock Infinite, the strange nexus between American iconography and local versions of Christianity is familiar territory. The game leads the player through a cultish, pseudo-separatist society within a 1912 steampunk United States, which allows it the game to take familiar archetypes of American art and culture and particularly religion, remix them in new ways, and reintroduce American viewers to those motifs in a new light. One of the themes most clearly highlighted is the quasi-godlike status of the “founding fathers,” particularly George Washington, whose images live on as icons the powerful can use to validate their ideas.

To some players, the idea seemed a bit odd or even laughable. And then a Tea Party group apparently found an uncredited screenshot from the game and used it in precisely that same way depicted in the game.

tea party bioshock posterThe image in question.

That could maybe be laughed off as a funny happenstance – actual nationalistic imagery and fictional nationalistic imagery are surprisingly easy for people to confuse. Certain responses to today’s hearing on Planned Parenthood, however, suggest that that deeper confusion, between prophets and framers or sin and illegality, is perhaps something real that Bioshock Infinite reflected rather than invented.

Unfortunately the original tweet has been deleted, but you can see some of the larger context here, as one anti-abortion activists asked supporters of Planned Parenthood to show him where the constitution grants the right to an abortion:

Since then the same person tried an almost identical argument with a slightly modified point:

Naturally, the constitution in and of itself doesn’t do either of those things. The constitution barely lays out much in the way of day-to-day laws, regulating what is personal autonomy and what is interpersonal responsibility on virtually any issue. The vast majority of those issues are regulated by a thick bedrock of common law built upon by centuries of jurisprudence and legislation – processes carried out by authorities given that power under the constitution, but the results of which are only loosely described by the constitution itself.

Asking for “constitutional proof” of much of anything leads to very broad interpretations of seemingly innocuous phrases. Its preamble’s call to “create a more perfect union” has been used to argue against a right to secede. Almost every legal right or limitation you encounter in your daily life in the US is informed by something beyond the constitution itself.

But that is a view of the constitution rooted in not only reading it as a constitution rather than codex, but also as a legal document rather than quasi-religious one. Particularly in the US, there are many versions of Christianity where the Bible is understood as effectively containing all moral lessons and to some even all knowledge in existence. While arguably rooted in a historical effort to hone Christians’ focus back onto the original stories within the Bible, that popular religious belief inflates all arguments into a struggle to find specifically biblical justification. Now, doesn’t that sound familiar?

Of course, few people have read the constitution fully and fewer have read the Bible cover to cover (and even fewer still with all the apocrypha and related “optional” parts). These convictions that the right to an abortion or marriage equality or any number of other policies are in part rooted in a conviction that these texts say what you want them to say. There’s even a small dollop of fear in the zealousness, that perhaps they are getting it wrong and these truth-telling texts don’t say exactly what they would like.

I suspect that that might be part of what motivates them to not bother with reading them. It’s Schrödinger’s faith – if you don’t read the wording you can imagine it backs up exactly what you want it to. That’s how there can be so many glossing over the constitution’s first section’s call for the country’s people to “establish justice” and “promote the general welfare,” as much as the Bible’s demand for justice to “roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” and for “you who is without sin” to be the first to condemn another.

Someone check the skies – maybe Bioshock Infinite was right about the floating city too.

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No Third Party Needed

With current Republican Speaker of the House John Boehner’s announcement this morning that he will resign by the end of October of this year, the US has come to the close of an era. Fittingly, while Boehner’s initial plan was simply not to seek reelection and leave at the end of his current term, the perpetual upheaval within the Republican caucus has prompted him to step down not only from his leadership position within it but as a member of congress in any capacity.

Initially swept into his current prominence by the 2010 election and perceived as a staunch conservative, his inability to usher in the type of policy prescriptions expected of him alienated him from a large portion of his own party. Even as he settled more comfortably into a more “moderate” wing, his rule remained anemic. Its end isn’t all that surprising given past contentions over whether Republicans, mostly motivated by conservative ideals, should support his continued leadership.

To a certain degree this is the fruition of those prior conflicts, with one of the comparatively less extreme members of the Republican Party picking up his ball and going home. The inevitable question is who will replace him, but a key consideration seems to be missing from the public conversation. Boehner in part rode off of momentum as the person already in the job during his reelection as Speaker. While some Republicans presented ideological challenges either to his decisions or for his position, few strategically sought to replace him because his place wasn’t all that enviable.

Crafting a consensus between increasingly hostile portions of the same political part is not only difficult but had seemingly become entirely unrewarding under Boehner’s watch. The most level-headed assessments of who could replace Boehner implicitly recognize that and ask who could best mobilize off of already having that type of role in Congress to be an acceptable if not terribly desirable Speaker for a majority of representatives. In short, who can reproduce Boehner’s careful triangulation between extremist roots, moderate palatability, and party procedural inevitability.

Maybe the Republican and Democratic caucuses in the House of Representatives will return to their historical norm of reaching stable their own stable consensus on their nominee for Speaker before the official vote, allowing the current Republican majority to prevail without whomever they pick. Potentially, even if that fails, a similar outcome to the last vote on Speaker could happen where an acceptable candidate can be found in spite of shifting certainties in their suitability – most likely a resigned selection of current Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA).

That said, with the more internally stable Democratic Party gerrymandered into a permanent minority and the Republican Party only increasing in internal divisions if Boehner’s departure is any indication, it’s unclear who could actually fashion a majority in the House – and that would paralyze the body. It can only proceed to voting on any other issue after the selection of a new Speaker whenever a new one is needed. Within the US’s pseudo-parliamentary system, this is the closest equivalent to a hung parliament.

The US has weathered this sort of dysfunction before, namely immediately proceeding the Civil War when between Republicans, Democrats, and various other factions, no single party held a majority in the House. Similar conditions cropped up briefly in the early twentieth century when either the Progressive or Farmer-Labor parties held crucial votes needed by either the Republicans or Democrats for form a majority. In all of those cases political divisions within the US had already led to the development of a three-party system. At least on the surface, that’s not the current case.

The modern hostility to third parties (for, among other things, creating those types of problems) has prevented that sort of dissolution of the Republican Party into overtly competing factions. Instead, two increasingly diametrically opposed groups have taken their contest for power into their primaries and struggled to work with a divided assortment of elected officials among those who clear the general elections. As a result, the US may soon see the level of administrative dysfunction associated with having three parties, but none of the open discussion of issues that division typically prompts with the competition hidden for the most part in local elections and primaries.

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Corbyn and Sanders

Jeremy Corbyn’s successful election as opposition leader within the UK Labour Party’s shadow government has caused quite a lot of buzz within the broader anglophone political world. In that highly visible position he will be the one to detail Labour’s rhetorical and policy alternatives to the current conservative UK government. As arguably the most liberal person running a plausible campaign for the position, this suggests the possibility of a bold turn left within the Labour Party and arguably many centers of non-right political power in the UK. With Sanders, a registered independent and self-described socialist, running in the Democratic Presidential Primary in the US and similar rumblings within Canadian politics it seems as though further left political figures are coming out of the woodwork around the world, but especially in English-speaking circles.

These changes have not been without their critics of course, as many have decried the these comparatively leftist politicians are “unserious” or “unreasonable” compared to center-left figures they threaten to replace. As Matt Bruenig asked last week, there’s a structural question that raises: what exactly are further left politicians supposed to do? In both the party leadership elections within UK parties and in the presidential primaries and generals in the US, the systems offer only two choices for them: to compete within the center-left in in-party elections or outright against it as a separate party. In either case, they are inevitably challenging the center-left for control of policy, and face criticism for jeopardizing the advancement of a center-left alternative. It’s presented as a kind of making the perfect the enemy of the good by the center left, but as a necessary test of a careful approach’s merits by those to the further left.

Of course, as Bruenig points out, that push-and-pull between gradualism and radicalism within a broader left coalition assumes that the center-left and left share common goals. Ultimately politicians like Sanders and Corbyn want to entirely restructure society in a way that dramatically recontextualizes or even overhauls the procedures under which they compete with more centrist candidates. Is that true of their rivals?

bernie sanders revolutionFrom here.

Beyond these issues of political process, it seems relevant to ask what counts as “reasonable”. The comparatively moderate portions of left wing coalitions treat it as a self evident truth that they’re more electable and realistic. Both the US and UK are facing epidemic levels of disengagement. It’s unsurprising that that’s the case given how parties from center-left on towards the right have largely failed to tackle some of the most systemic difficulties for the average person – global climate change, the economic downturn, and globalization. As some have pointed out, its specifically the poor who are most likely to disengage from electoral politics, and that’s at least in part because there are few to no parties or major figures addressing their concerns with viable solutions.

Arguably the recent political success of comparatively far right politics in both the US and UK (and many other countries) have demonstrated the power that rightwing parties can harness simply by offering a response to those problems, not even necessarily a logical or actionable one. In general, lower income voters still skew towards left-center parties, but that exists within a general vacuum of more leftist alternatives.

An electoral landscape shaken up by higher rates of participation would drive political discussion most likely towards the left, but that would threaten the fragile consensus that has allowed the center-left to become so powerful. Corbyn and Sanders are essentially moderate compared to the politicians who might follow them if they’re able to enact policies that would enable greater political participation. The need to prevent that sort of constituency “escape” to the left is a reason for the center-left to make common cause with the center and right and frame themselves as an end-point of reasonableness even if that reinforces on a rightwing view of the broader political world and discourages leftwing activism. Power is more important than change, for some.

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Trump doubles down

Trigger warning: islamophobia, racism, genocide

By this point you’ve hopefully seen the brief clip of Donald Trump in New Hampshire being asked a somewhat rambling question, which to make matters worse he interrupted. What was asked went something like this:

“We have a problem in this country. It’s called Muslims. We know our current president is one. You know he’s not even American. Birth certificates, man. But anyway, we have training camps [of Muslims] growing where they want to kill us. That’s my question – when can we get rid of them?”

Many others besides me immediately flashed back to a similarly confused question that then presidential nominee John McCain had to field about the very same Barack Obama, in which he was called an Arab and implied to be a Muslim. There are so many familiar parts of this – the use of Muslim as an inherent signifier of lesser or no value, the casual implication of genocidal mass killing, and the paranoid fixation on Obama apparently at the heart of a vast conspiracy. Donald Trump knows how to capture a Zeitgeist, but there is something this statement and the reactions to it will reveal.

In the coming reaction to his statements, something of a nation-wide test is going to be unknowingly conducted. When McCain haltingly rejected the fears of the woman who had approached him there were dual reactions among his supporters. For some, this signaled that what had attracted them to the McCain-Palin cause was not necessarily going to be entirely backed by its future administration. For others, this signaled worryingly about who their political camp had let inside the gate and, as Sarah Palin demonstrated, hold increasingly prominent and powerful positions within the party.

After that, the Republican fold actually lost a lot of supporters, who decided the conservative outfit no longer represented what they thought it did if a woman asked a question like that. Alternatively, the continued campaigns of people like Donald Trump meant that very few of those disappointed that McCain didn’t agree actually left the party. They might not have voted for McCain, but they remained active Republicans in other arenas.

What Trump has presented here is in part the fallout of that. When a sizable percentage of a major party leaves because of racist rhetoric, you’re only left with the racists (and also, only the racists to appeal to, as Trump’s broader primary success shows). We’re not just before the general so any straggling defectors won’t be from the party, but will be most likely to other candidates. The real question is, what are their numbers? How many people are left in the Republican Party that neither tolerate nor personally endorse these ideas about people of color, Muslims, and a score of other marginalized groups? Are they significant enough – numerically or otherwise – in the Republican Party to affect the nomination process?

The reality is that the answer to that is probably no, because of the process that has occurred to a large extent since the most recent Bush Administration. The Republican Party has bled supporters since then, alienated at times not just but socially unaccepted language about vulnerable groups, but because they themselves are members of the groups attacked. Muslim communities themselves in the US once leaned towards Republicans. The reality that has left Republican candidates with is to go big, like The Donald himself, or go home. There’s virtually no other constituency left within the party, at least one which can meaningfully challenge its power or numerically best it. The Republican Party can only turn out candidates who act this way because those are the candidates it wants.

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The Five Most Crucial Moments in Last Night’s Debate

Trigger warning: anti-immigrant rhetoric, racism, linguistic imperialism, slavery, abortion, colonialism, islamophobia

Last night, fifteen candidates in the Republican Presidential Primary appeared on CNN over the course of two debates lasting five hours. Almost every word said by their entire group will cast longer shadows than I think most realize, not only through the primary, but into the general election. In such a crowded and raucous field, these individual statements are going to define how many people think about the Republican Party and will play a key role regardless of whether the candidate who said them is necessarily nominated. Here are the five that stood out to me as most emphatically defining the party and its eventual nominee to the general public.

Lindsey Graham didn’t dogwhistle quietly enough

In the lower tier debate round, a number of candidates were asked to speak at greater length on immigration policy than those in the upper tier. For many, the trick was to both avoid alienating statements about immigration that could harm their favorability with many ethnic communities or that would mark them as opposed to the heavy-handed approach to immigration that appears to have built Donald Trump a base of support overnight.

Lindsey Graham intriguingly attempted to not only triangulate between those two diametrically opposed constituencies but also stress the policy desires of business interests within the Republican coalition with the argument that immigration is necessary to maintain economic efficiency. That third consideration may have been too many balls in the air for him to juggle properly, and led to him speaking a bit less indirectly to the racial and ethnic dimensions of anti-immigration sentiments within the Republican Party. As Graham himself put it-

I have a little different take on where the country is going on this issue. Number one, in 1950, there were 16 workers for every retiree. How many are there today? There’s three. In 20 years, there’s going to be two, and you’re going to have 80 million baby boomers like me retiree in mass wanting a Social Security check, and their Medicare bills paid. We’re going to need more legal immigration. Let’s just make it logical. Let’s pick people from all over the world on our terms, not just somebody from Mexico. […] We’re not going to deport 11 million people here illegally, but we’ll start with felons, and off they go. And, as to the rest, you can stay, but you got to learn our language. I don’t speak it very well, well, look how far I’ve come? Speaking English is a good thing. […] I never met an illegal Canadian.

Part of what this reveals is that the comparatively pro-immigration business wing of the Republican Party is quite comfortable with racially and ethnically charged devaluing of specifically Latin@ immigrants, but more broadly immigrants of color in general. That isn’t precisely groundbreaking, but potentially Graham made that obvious to people who hadn’t seen or realized it before. Their alternative to a total restriction on immigration is a restitution of sorts of the historical immigration policies the US has had, which encouraged the “right kind” of immigrants. Whether that will as neatly translate into racially and ethnically “desirable” immigrants as it historically has remains to be seen, but the emphasis on racial and ethnic contrasts between Canada and Mexico that Graham relies on seem to suggest that that’s the case.

With Graham failing to subtly reassure the anti-immigrant parts of the Republican base without telegraphing the racially and ethnically-charged nature of his immigration platform, you would think his dodge and miss would have led to an outcry. According to the google analytics, however, he captured most of the attention over the course of the lower tier debate. He failed to come off as being motivated by legality rather than race and ethnicity in animus towards immigrants, but he managed to appeal to two other typically Republican constituencies: White nativists and the business community. If that benefits him, that will confirm for many hesitant voters what the Republican Party stands for and what policies it as a cultural force wants to advance.

Did Carson just say he wants to reintroduce slavery?

Speaking of the ultimate fate of the millions of undocumented people in the country, Ben Carson touted his plan for them in more extemporaneous detail that he previously has. On the face of it, it’s quite garden variety Republican policy. The currently undocumented people in the US can’t receive citizenship directly without penalty because that would be “jumping the line” or something similar in the eyes of anti-immigrant groups. Carson takes a page from both the compassionate conservative and business community however, and rejected at least the official language of deportation or the immediate hostility towards a guest worker program. The policy carved out by those separate rejections is that immigrants will be offered a guest working program with potentially the eventual ability to apply for citizenship, but with a number of restrictions placed on that to make it as inaccessible for them as possible.

What Carson added last night to that was the florid image that this workforce bereft of the benefits of citizenship would be toiling, specifically, in the fields. The tone of it calls into question whether those guest worker statuses would permit them much latitude in choosing the nature of their work, their employer, and other basic rights taken for granted by many. In effect, they would constitute a legally captive labor force with slim chances dependent on others’ mercy to be granted protections and liberties purported for all but actually reserved for a few.

slaves in fieldUnnamed slaves in a field by an uncredited photographer. From here.

Does that strike anyone else as sounding familiar?

Unlike Graham, Carson isn’t auditioning to make it out of the lower tier of candidates but is rather attempting to maintain his upper-to-middle-of-the-pack status. What’s more, he has to do this as a Black man in a primary election defined by voicing anger, something he may not be able to do without facing negative repercussions others wouldn’t. From those two facts spring a selection of uncomfortable possibilities.

However these statements affect his rank will speak loudly about what exactly it means to be a Republican and more generally vote or support for any of them. Beyond that, they are also a reflection of the historical amnesia and detachment from present realities to be a plausible Black Republican candidate. Simultaneously, this is showcasing to the broader public the policies desired within Republican circles and reflecting the limitations and requirements put upon Black people within those spaces.

Fiorina tried tapping into Trump’s base’s anger

Just before the first debate I tweeted a couple of questions that I wanted anyone reading to keep in mind while watching. One of the most important in retrospect was-

With Carly Fiorina rising from the lower tier and Carson’s surge to second place in many polls, those two candidates seemed both best poised to use their momentum to capitalize on any weakness by Trump. The actual answer to this appears to have been, intriguingly: both.

Carson focused on being an affable contrast to Trump, down to a very even-tempered and counter-conflict personality. He was careful to appear to be that directly towards Trump as well, potentially shaving support off of Trump’s by being policy-wise similar but potentially more palatable from a social standpoint.

Fiorina, alternatively, wasn’t interested in playing the good cop to Trump’s bad cop. She worked to outdo Trump himself in channeling the anger that catapulted him to the front of the polls. She used that far more strategically, building to a fiery crescendo that drew some of the biggest applause of the night:

While Carson may have made some small in roads with a careful play, Fiorina took a big risk in trying to bottle Trump’s base’s anger and redirect it, largely not towards Latin@ immigrants but towards comprehensive healthcare and Iranians. The hostility towards those seen as less important and less socially valuable is maintained, but put to work in ways that safely advance Republican policies more directly in line with the party’s economic elite, in terms of dismantling the health provisions for low income women and boldly insisting on absolute fidelity towards US interests by other countries.

Part of Trump’s whole appeal is that he is breaking the establishment’s mold, so it’s unclear that Fiorina’s play won’t backfire. Keep your eyes peeled to see if the party’s core can camouflage itself with the periphery’s fiery emotions.

The first casualty is the truth

For many this is unsurprising. Everyone expects politicians to fudge the truth in their favor. What’s more, to be fair it can be pretty difficult to be on-call to speak with complete accuracy on all sorts of topics the way they must. That said, the stretched truths in this debate reflect a growing problem within Republican politics, however, where the entire basis for a set of policy decisions is a complete fabrication. The problem is no longer a lie that’s convenient but that’s the entire foundation of a political stance. Immediately after Fiorina’s denouncement of a Planned Parenthood video a whole slew of tweets like this one went out:

The supposed torture of a not only viable fetus, but one that was living after being aborted should, in a reasonable world, tip people off that what’s being stated isn’t true. Not only did that false anecdote prompt invective and applause, however, but it’s the emotional crux at the heart of the fierce demands for absolute defunding of Planned Parenthood.

My own personal version of this was the insistence that not only do most countries not have “birthright citizenship” but that, according to Trump, Mexico is one of them. In a word, that’s wrong.

More generally, while most of the world does indeed have its citizenship system based in jus sanguinis (family background) rather than jus soli (location of birth), the normal state of things in mainland countries in the Americas is to have a basis in jus soli – only Colombia is an exception to that. So, while there is a technical global rejection of that, the hemisphere-wide norm is one that the US fits. The idea of us being strange in terms of that and specifically different from Mexico is, however, the basis of an argument for undoing our legal standards for how citizenship is passed down to specifically target communities of recent immigrants.

One both issues, major candidates are not only stretching the truth, but creating an idea of what is true to validate a political stance that has made them wildly popular. I’ve written before about the unrealness of politics in the US and an emerging post-truth politics, but this is a jolting resurrection of those attitudes after they proved rather useless in the 2012 elections.

Rand Paul endorses secular dicatorships

For those who have been reading this blog for many years, you might remember my misgivings with the libertarian counter to standard Republican security policy. In a nutshell, the criticisms don’t seem to be motivated by much concern for the people most likely to experience violence justified in the name of “national security” so much as fear that that violence is likely to eventually be used against other groups or otherwise is poorly supervised. Rand Paul has long been the most visible example of those types of pseudo-dovish politics on a national stage. He didn’t disappoint on that last night when he explained-

[S]ometimes intervention sometimes makes us less safe. This is real the debate we have to have in the Middle East. Every time we have toppled a secular dictator, we have gotten chaos, the rise of radical Islam, and we’re more at risk. So, I think we need to think before we act, and know most interventions, if not a lot of them in the Middle East, have actually backfired on us.

The possible concern for how US military interventions negatively affect people in the targeted countries is papered over with the fear that they jeopardize if not undermine other US policy objectives. Out of the mouth of the libertarian candidate, supposed speaker for liberty in the room, comes a defense of secular dictatorships in the Middle East, which outside of Syria have by and large operated with significant US support. This is the alternative within the GOP’s major candidates to a neoconservative crypto-colonial approach towards the Middle East: a selective mix of that and a more historied colonial attitude that democracy is a privilege we can deny other nations. That not only limits the debate in that room but speaks to what the limits of the Republican Party’s policies are.

A transcript of the main round of the debate can be found here, and a transcript of the initial round here.

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Upcoming liveblog

The second debate in the Republican presidential primary will be held tomorrow, with a first round of less popular candidates at 3 pm Pacific and a second main debate at 5 pm Pacific. Like usual, you can follow along to see my reactions and thoughts on it on twitter, here.

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When your name is mud, find someone dirtier

Trigger warning: heterosexism, sex work, pedophilia

Just after 3 in the morning on Friday of last week, a sex scandal involving two unfaithful Michigan legislature senators came to a close with Cindy Gamrat having been removed of office by a Senate-wide vote and resigned and Todd Courser having resigned (after repeated attempts to also vote him out). The details of this are comparatively run-of-the-mill, with a fairly similar sex scandal – once again, between two socially conservative members of an upper midwest legislature – having broke at almost the same time. Courser’s handling of the situation was marked by a unique damage control campaign though, which has been widely described as an attempt to create confusion and doubt around his alleged sexual misconduct.

While there’s a number of details in these stories that are meant to show Courser as debauched, not all of them even sexual, the use of him being purportedly bisexual should give observers pause. If nothing else, it reflects a comparatively unquestioned form of heterosexism lingering throughout the US. The very details of his concocted self-smearing are built off of devaluing images of gay, bisexual, and other non-straight men as sexually and otherwise out of control. These are the stereotypes that fed into a resignation that the effects of HIV among those communities are inevitable as well as justified denying marital rights to them (among others). His highly public use of them reflects how many people not only still believe them but actively seek to use them.

While the deceitful nature of Courser’s efforts have been revealed, it’s curious how intriguingly effective his claims have been over some media. As the New York Daily News described it – he “planned to muddy his own name to save Gamrat”. Seemingly one of the worst case scenarios his plan attempted to deal with was to bank on the nature of his sex scandal actually being between him and a woman not him and a man, and that’s precisely the straight, romantic terms in which it at least once managed to be framed on the national stage. That’s a reassurance that relies specifically on degrees of security and safety and value being reserved for straight people and their relationships.

Fueling that are those stereotypes. In a broader view, he chose to use one small slice of a treasure trove of stereotypes, one tailored to be more outrageous for many than his own flaws he feared would be revealed. The larger pool of those ideas about non-straight people, however, gives him and all other straight people an entire system of support. There’s a sort of Goldilocks quality to the varied ways that regularly happens. Courser relied on the assumption that gay men and bisexual people are too promiscuous (compared to straight people) but other straight people can also turn to the belief that lesbian women are overly committed or even zealous (compared to straight people). There are also echoes in Courser’s email of the framing of gay men and bisexual people as too risk-taking (compared to straight people), but in other times and places it’s more useful to say that lesbian women are too risk-averse (compared to straight people).

Straight personal histories like Courser’s emerge out of those and other comparisons as the middle-of-the-road. Even with their flaws and problems, they can become an alternative that’s safe, stable, reasonable, and fulfilling in all the ways non-straight people miss the mark. Precisely which non-straight people have which faults is actually irrelevant and even interchangeable, because that’s not the point. Anti-lesbian rhetoric can just as easily frame lesbians as inadequately committed in their relationships compared to overly committed. The point isn’t a consistent or realistic depiction of these various non-straight groups, just to create an image of them that frames them as negative extremes that straight people better balance.

Ultimately, because Courser was exposed, this event could be revealing of that and related thought processes that many straight people have and even regularly rely on. As not only the New York Daily News but even John Oliver’s piece show, that’s something that few straight people or people of any sexuality in the mainstream media are comfortable with or capable of doing. It’s easier to laugh at or otherwise find entertainment in this, as something fantastical, rather than a common social practice. That’s certainly a lot safer than examining one’s own life and actions and considering if you ever rely on non-straight people being the mud that makes your name look clean in comparison.

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One bird with one stone

Trigger warning: racism, electoral discrimination

I have been sick most of this week and sadly stuck inside at home as a result. Probably the only good thing to come out of that, however, was that I was able to directly participate in a twitter conversation held by the organizers for VoterVOX on Tuesday. Hosted on that group’s hashtag, they had a discussion about, as they put it – creating “a polyglot democracy” through community-centered translation services. Part fundraising drive, part introduction of the new foundation, and part overture about the coming struggle to define and structure the 2016 US elections, there were a lot of interesting hints about what to expect to see more of.

One of the most enlightening stories shared in the twitter conversation was one by Sabrina Hersi Issa, who has had VoterVOX widely credited as her brainchild more than anyone else’s. She explained-

An essential and defining part of VoterVOX is that it’s a response to a type of racism built into the structure of US democracy. While there’s linguistic inequalities experienced by basically all people whose first or most comfortable language isn’t English, VoterVOX is designed to increase and improve participation for people who specifically speak languages originally spoken in Asian and Pacific Islander communities. As pointed out in the conversation and on VoterVOX’s fundraising page, people of Asian ancestry are one of the fastest growing demographics in a number of key states – Nevada, Arizona, Georgia, and North Carolina. With the looming 2016 elections, VoterVOX is poised to address the shared needs of a diverse set of communities who may have quietly become a hugely important voting bloc.

Of course, there is a broader context here, as 2016 is likely to be a distinct electoral terrain for people of color. The protections of the Voting Rights Act (VRA) have come under fire, and the Supreme Court dismantled the standards of pre-clearance (which have long been a barrier to racial electoral discrimination). VoterVOX’s emphasis on specific forms of linguistic disenfranchisement seeks to expand the arsenal against racial inequality at the polls even while a broader protection for marginalized communities has been lost – which was an active force in among other states, Arizona and Georgia. The capacity of indigenous communities to use VoterVOX remains to be seen, as will whether it can create a political environment that reinforces the rights of largely English- or Spanish-speaking Black and Latin@ communities. The origins of VoterVOX are in different communities than those, and it has been shaped by those communities’ needs.

That said, a two-front fight of combating both access being compromised by linguistic discrimination and other attempts to discriminate against communities of color could be quite effective. That could challenge the types of electoral discrimination resurrected by the gutted VRA while also addressing the more subtle and namely linguistic-based forms that flourished even under pre-clearance. In short, there are two different fights for meaningful access to the polls for communities of color in the US as anxieties around the 2016 elections build. VoterVOX is an innovative attempt to tackle one of them, but only one of them. Its specialization means that it will be very effective at what its designed to do, but it also means that it’s only meant to address one of them.

Full disclosure, I am in the process of donating to VoterVOX myself. If you are similarly interested, here is their IndieGoGo page, which is where the featured image for this article is from.

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Tugging Clinton along

For several months this has been the comparatively cynical leftist view of Bernie Sanders: that his campaign is a shell game. His purpose in the otherwise largely uncontested Democratic Presidential Primary is to create excitement within liberal and specifically economically populist political circles that can then at least in part be ceded to Hillary Clinton when she (inevitably, the theory goes) becomes the nominee.

There’s been multiple responses to that among the communities targeted by that supposed campaign. Some have insisted that Sanders is the only candidate they would support so that strategy wouldn’t work. Others have staked out positions more critical of the current system – particularly on racial inequality – than Sanders, suggesting he himself would need his radical bona fides challenged. Perhaps most commonly however, people have noted that even if he or his campaign only hope to influence the election and not have him run in the general election or even win, he can still have an effect not just on popular support for the Democratic Party but on policy. The most common form of this has focused on language. The hope is that he will force Clinton into policy promises or even more broadly will change the type of questions asked of candidates in all primaries.

That’s the exact note hit by one piece hosted by the Campaign for America’s Future: that Sanders’ “hope was to ‘trigger the conversation’ about the way the economic and political system is rigged by the billionaires and their corporations. He wanted to begin a movement around a vision of how the country could be run for We the People instead of a few billionaires and their giant corporations”. You’ll notice the lack of detail, because public discussion this early in the campaign policy does tend to be pretty vague and broad. While Sanders’ campaign has led in the primary at providing details about their planned policies, few other campaigns have reached near that level of specificity or had either critics or the media ask for that. Even assuming that Bernie can pressure the rest of the Democratic field into talking similarly to him he’d have to stick in the race long enough for detailed policy rather than general rhetoric to be standard in order to put pressure on other campaigns, namely Clinton’s.

In the past week or so we’ve not only finally started to reach that time in the primary, but Sanders deliberately testing the waters to see if that dynamic of forcing other people in the primary to the left on policy can work. Clinton’s eventual adoption of a plan similar to Sander’s proposal for how to make higher education more financially accessible came with a months-long lag time. Sanders originally presented his plan in May, with the aims of it being to increase the number of people with college degrees and decrease the economic hardships for those who are in the process of attaining one. In August, Clinton capitulated on that issue and discussed a draft of a similar plan that more specifically emphasizes reducing overall student loan burdens rather than enrollment and graduation, Sanders’ focuses.

Two days ago, Sanders pressed the issue further by stating that he would pay for his plan with a tax on financial industry transactions. Today, he doubled down while circulating a petition in support of his Workplace Democracy Act – which is designed to promote unionization and related labor organization. In short, he’s testing the nature and scope of his influence after having eventually gotten Clinton to present her own version of a policy plan similar to his. Martin O’Malley appears to even be possibly doing his own pushing on the front-runner Clinton, by urging the US to embrace a more humanitarian policy on refugees. Whether these efforts can hone their ability to lead Clinton into advocating for these types of policies remains to be seen, as does that these promises can actually materialize into political action in office.

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At a crossroads for LGBT politics

Trigger warning: heterosexism, cissexism, transmisogyny

The recent politicking around a Kentucky county clerk’s refusal to provide any marriage licenses (as long as she would have to hand them out to same-gender couples) has a strangely familiar feel to it. Jim Obergefell, the titular plaintiff in Obergefell v. Hodges, gave his pen to the Human Rights Campaign to call for signatories in support of the various couples denied marriage licenses by her. It’s intriguing to note that not all of the couples involved in the suit against their county clerk are even same-gender. While the shows of support for all of them are quite kind, these are marriage-minded politics that treat the relevant needs and rights of LGBT people as an important but added on complication.

The comments on a YouTube video of one of the same-gender couples being denied their license makes it clear how peripheral their status as LGBT is within this understanding of what’s happening. Instead, as they make clear, it’s about love, or civil service standards, or almost any other reading of the situation that downplays their identities which fall outside of hetersexist and cissexist norms and creates LGBT politics that put the focus on something other than being LGBT.

2015-09-04_1319From here.

This isn’t to deny the importance of accessing among other basic civil services and rights, marriage, for LGBT people. But there’s a well-worn specificity here, that among the various legal statuses and processes, marriage is beyond central, it’s dominating. From the image conscious use of a figure in the fight to expand marriage rights to the political focus on making the use of those marriage rights as accessible as possible, the marriage centered notion of what are LGBT rights appears to have just been reborn in a post-Obergefell era with the HRC as midwife. Far from clearing the air and recasting the structure of how LGBT people will politically interact with each other and the cisgender and straight mainstream, this casts a doubt on the transformative effect of the spread of marriage equality.

It wasn’t clear that this was going to be the outcome a scant few months ago. Even the HRC itself engaged in a membership and donation drive in August that emphasized that their upcoming legal focus would be on anti-discrimination measures for LGBT people in workplaces, schools, and other spaces. Marriage was a part of their program, but it was mainly part of a broader set of rights compromised by civil discrimination with a clear indication that other forms of discrimination would likely take up a larger portion of the discussion. Securing the right to marry specifically was a distant concern, presented as one that would mostly concern electing supportive candidates rather than confronted the already elected, like Davis.

The HRC wasn’t alone in dipping a toe into a less marriage-focal set of LGBT politics. The Victory Fund, which has long fundraised to increase LGBT representation in local and state governmental bodies, sought support for two lesbian candidates for Nashville’s city council in late July. Caitlyn Jenner came out and began conversations both between trans and cis people and within the trans community about trans visibility. Over the summer she also drove a national conversation on trans athletes. I have myself been personally involved in efforts to redesign California state parental laws – which deliberately intended to make them more accessible to both married and unmarried LGBT parents.

Even on the other end of these and other issues of LGBT rights, there were the perennial debates about trans women’s legal right to use women’s restrooms and the Family Research Council began to prepare for fights around particularly workplace-focused anti-discrimination measures. The post-Obergefell terrain of both LGBT and anti-LGBT politics was vast and open to discussions that extended beyond marriage and marriage rights, and yet the HRC has apparently decided to fight the same battle once again on the same terms with the same names even.

This kind of complaint – that LGBT politics are dominated by a debate over marriage to the exclusion of other issues in large part because of the HRC’s political choices – is itself pretty stale to many LGBT people because this has been such a recurring problem. Beyond that overwhelming sense of familiarity, however, this is a structuring set of priorities within our communities. As I noted last week, part of what I was advocating for in California was that LGBT parents didn’t have to pay additional costs to parent – to conceive, to adopt, to be safe, secure, and stable families. In sharp contrast to that, David Moore, one of the people denied a marriage license by Davis, was broadcast on national news reminding her: “I pay your salary.” This echoes how he and by extension all other LGBT people are expected to financially bargain for acceptance. This specific type of marriage-focused politics seem like they’re quite capably reinforcing the idea that we should pay more to access what is a right for cisgender and straight people, and encouraging LGBT people to think in those terms. After all, that very line of thought came out of Moore’s mouth.

In short, we have been standing at a crossroads within LGBT politics. We can broaden our communities’ conversations, imagine a brighter future, and hopefully ultimately build that better world. We can have a political sense of self that moves past “I pay your salary” to one where it doesn’t matter what one pays, we’re still human and we still have rights. Or we can perpetuate what feels like little more than a remix of the same debate about marriage, with the same socio-economic implications for LGBT people, the same limits, and the same pitfalls. The rights of a mix of same-gender and male-female couples in Rowan County, Kentucky, are already being spoken for and advanced by organizations that fight for civil rights on a broader platform, namely the ACLU. Why does the HRC need to have to repeat the same priorities, the same focuses, the same conversations that lead to the same places when someone else can advance them?

As of this writing, Kim Davis’s county office has been handing out marriage licenses to the long-waiting couples. They still don’t have her signature on them, which a county official has said will be valid without that. Davis is facing jail time for refusing to perform mandatory duties to her clerk position. The fight for this specific form of this specific right for this specific license in this specific county appears to be near its end. Maybe the HRC and other LGBT organizations will have another chance to choose what they will prioritize how they will prioritize it from here on out. Maybe this isn’t a post-Obergefell world, but a post-Lund one.

This article’s featured image is of David Moore and Rowan County Clerk Kim Davis from an earlier confrontation in July, from here.

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The “it” issue

Trigger warning: abortion

It’s back. Abortion, the thorny intersection of bodily autonomy and medical care, is rising to prominence again as a defining political issue in US politics and specifically in the coming 2016 elections. Today, the Center for Reproductive Rights filed a court case with the US Supreme Court to strike down a Texan law, designed to make operating a medical center that provides abortions legally all but impossible. One potential outcome of the case, if taken up by the Supreme Court, is an end to the widespread use of these laws in many states to reduce the number of centers offering abortion. This wasn’t merely a routine legal conflict, however, but a deliberate and public first shot in the coming political and legal fight over rights and access to abortion and related medical services. After all, the Center for Reproductive Rights drew up an image (presumably ahead of the filing) which asks people to share the news and image on Facebook:

center for reprorights image 9-3From here.

It’s not just those in favor of maintaining or expanding reproductive rights and their accessibility that are spoiling for a fight. Also today, the Family Research Council sent out their semi-daily “Insider’s Guide to Pro-Family News” which highlighted a post they had published on their blog yesterday. It continues the anti-abortion argument that ending federal support for Planned Parenthood’s broader organization wouldn’t necessarily affect access to medical care by noting the prevalence of Federally Qualified Health Centers and other locations where non-abortion parts of health care are available in many areas largely neglected by the US’s broader health system. It notes one fact however: that these clinics can more or less match Planned Parenthood in access to all but one federally-guaranteed medical procedure – abortion. The implicit message is clear, that that’s not a medical procedure that needs to be accessible.

Unlike other recent versions of this fight, the ability to access and the right to have an abortion are inescapably central to the current political debate. While prior discussions have been derailed from arguments over the use of birth control to defenses of the other uses of that for hormonal regulation and other medical needs, what is being zeroed in on by both sides in the on-going discussion is how directly threatened access to abortion is. This is the byproduct of a curious dualism in US politics. The right to an abortion is indisputably provided for, yet the details of accessibility of that medical procedure are hardly an afterthought. Anti-abortion activism has exploited that discrepancy for years – from demanding that no federal funds be used to directly finance abortion to the setting up of countless “crisis pregnancy centers” and picket lines. There is an organized movement in the US to make abortion financially, physically, and now legally difficult to access. In fact, the increasing inclusion of specifically anti-abortion clinics among federally-funded clinics is a key part of that effort, as a recent Vice documentary showed:

That is part and parcel with the Family Research Council’s response, down to the potential inclusion of those types of clinics among alternative medical providers to Planned Parenthood. What has been constructed over the years is an incredibly well distributed medical care system, within which it’s entirely possible to ask for an abortion but nightmarishly Kafkaesque to actually find a provider. With that continuing abuse of the split hairs between “theoretical right” and “accessible right”, the implicit argument – about whether there is a right to abortion being accessible – is now advancing to a highly visible court battle. What’s more, that’s coming to the fore just as a congress looking for a contentious issue to use in the looming government shutdown, and following that a federal election. Get ready to talk about abortion because it’s going to be inescapable while the US is forced to consider whether that division between the right to an abortion and the right to access an abortion can stand the test of time.

The featured image for this article is Debra Sweet’s image of an unnamed pro-choice protester in 2012, viewable here.

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Denali denial

Trigger Warning: racism, colonialism, slavery, the Confederacy, genocide

Yesterday, President Obama announced that the US Board of Geographic Names would no longer refer to Mount McKinley, the highest peak in North America, by that name but rather by the indigenous Athabaskan name, Denali. This is actually a purely federal change that follows the renaming of the south-central Alaskan mountain by the Alaskan Board of Geographic Names, which began officially using the original name in 1980. In fact, Republican Alaskan Senator Lisa Murkowski praised the change while noting that the mountain had been known as Denali for centuries.

Denali_Mt_McKinleyMount Denali’s highest point is 20,237 feet above sea level and has the largest mass of a single mountain in the world.

Even this largely symbolic reclamation of US land has prompted hostility and racism on the part of many commentators, however. Conservative news sites like Breitbart had their zingers ready, even including “Obama has now solved all the world’s problems, and decided against his second choice [of a name], Mt. Trayvon.” More seriously however, they noted (apparently in disagreement) that “President Obama has obviously attempted to undo many of McKinley’s accomplishments” such as stifling indigenous rule in Hawaii and otherwise expanding the US’s colonial rule and spheres of influence – namely over Cuba. Snopes already has a helpful page up explaining that Denali doesn’t mean “Black Power in Kenyan” (among the inaccuracies there – Kenyan is a nationality, not a language). Iowan Republican Senator Steve King joined the fray as well, seemingly under the impression that the name was somehow constitutionally mandated:

The change has tapped into a clear hotbed of paranoia that White historical figures won’t be remembered (or at least honored with monuments and other named sites). What’s feared instead is that present and historical Black people or indigenous cultural figures and concepts will be. These fears are being expressed in the midst of White people organizing to preserve emblems of and monuments dedicated to the Confederacy. As the New Yorker described one meeting led by Donald Trump supporter and White nationalist Michael Hill:

When Hill took the stage, he told his compatriots that the recent lowering of the Confederate flag was just the beginning. Soon, he warned, adopting the unspecified ‘they,’ they will come for the ‘monuments, battlefields, parks, cemeteries, street names, even the dead themselves.’ The crowd was on its feet, cheering him on. ‘This, my friends, is cultural genocide,’ he said, adding, ‘Often, as history has shown, cultural genocide is merely a prelude to physical genocide.’

Denali was renamed to honor the President of a conquering people – a statement of White power –  and so it’s been imagined that it now being renamed by the first Black President must similarly be a statement of Black power. To even hint at addressing the pain of conquest and enslavement that is American history is interpreted as having to mean redirecting and recreating those pains. Slavery and colonization were genocidal, realizing that’s the case isn’t, but denying that difference is politically necessary for many.

Breitbart posed a question in their coverage of this: “when will President Obama change the name of the American Southwest to Aztlan [sic]?” Much like the belief that Denali means “Black power” in “Kenyan” this reveals not only a colonial ignorance (it’s spelled Aztlán, is a more specific location than the entire Southwest, and has a specific importance in Aztec history) but also a strange paranoia. What is the problem with recognizing the indigenous group’s names for various parts of that land? What does it threaten and why should anyone care? The cord struck struck for many by these name changes show something vulnerable is being exposed.

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Nixon’s legacy

Trigger Warning: anti-Black racism, segregation, imperialism

While there are growing signs that Donald Trump’s front-runner status in the Republican Presidential Primary is vulnerable, he remains a formidable contender for the time being. The specific language he has turned to in the past few weeks has increasingly hinted at the archetypal modern Republican politics he has tapped into in order to catapult himself to the front of the pack in a crowded primary. Although powerful, for many what he said might sound like an innocuous phrase – “silent majority”.

Specifically, he has repeatedly stated that his popularity within the primary is a reaction on the part of that “silent majority” which is using him in part of a broader effort at “taking our country back.” He tweeted using that specific wording before heading to an event in New Hampshire, but there was a recurrent focus on that language and the concept of a “silent majority” in the midst of some sort of return when he appeared in Alabama and in South Carolina. There’s a uniquely Southern political reading of this buried deep within, but the true political legacy Trump has remixed is a non-regional one. The interplay between the particular Southern appeal but also a more general sense of loud reaction bursting out of a “silent majority” recalls one particular Republican candidate from long before the more typical models of Reagan and the Bushes.

nixon rockwellNorman Rockwell’s portrait of Richard Nixon, from here.

If Nixon seems particularly odd and out of place in modern Republican politics, it’s for good reason. This forgets that Reagan and other major conservative icons were in many important ways the heirs of a Republican-centered political movement. There’s the familiar appeals to Goldwater’s brash rejection of the New Deal and fear of the Grand Society, but what’s forgotten is how Nixon took those comparatively extreme, election-losing perspectives and repackaged them. Part of that was of course the Southern Strategy – the deliberate appealing to White voters motivated by anti-poverty programs but also racist sentiments – but it was also picking at the threads of moderate and centrist political discomfort with a changing political landscape in which many new voices were increasingly audible. Nixon himself didn’t even the phrase “silent majority” – but he plucked it from a labor organizer’s mouth, and both made it popular and augmented his popularity with it. In many ways, the “silent majority” is a concept used to validate those breaking their ties with progressive and left-populist coalitions in favor of a more conservative, less radical alternative.

Of course, for the people who lived that history or have studied it, it’s clear what politics were actually advanced by Nixon and his successfully supportive “silent majority”. His administration organized coups in countries that democratically elected socialists, sold arms in a way that sowed the seeds for the horrifyingly overmilitarized Middle East of modern day, and carved out the modern and geographically-rooted face of racial segregation in the US. The political promise that held together his cobbled political support base was to give them what they secretly, desperately, silently wanted. The political toxicity that continues to hang over his name shows how untrue that ultimately was. Still, in many ways that has remained the Republican national coalition – a number of groups united in feeling under siege by a specific process of changing standards of what’s acceptable. Trump is reinventing himself to better fit the part (if by nothing else, recasting himself as a deeply devout Christian), but from the costume he’s slipping into and the stage he’s acting on, there’s a political heritage that he’s manipulating here.

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