Tag Archives: obama

Remaking LGBT America: by the numbers

Trigger warning: heterosexism, cissexism

Social media went abuzz yesterday with the announcement that the 2020 census will not ask respondents whether they are LGBT. Many reported the news in a somewhat sensationalist way, mistakenly implying that the census would not count LGBT people at all.

Rather than an overt tool of anti-LGBT policy, this decision to continue to not ask for LGBT people to self identify echoes a more quietly delivered executive order Trump made on Monday. The order focused on data collection rather than LGBT people themselves – leaving intact Obama-era protections of certain LGBT workers while completely dismantling the regulatory process designed to document and thus prevent discrimination.

The issue here is deceptively simple. Many took the census announcement as a declaration that LGBT lives are too unseemly or undesirable to discuss on the census. Rather than that kind of cold sneer or haughty disgust, the explanation offered by the census’ director is tepid, measured, and legalistic. As he put it, “there must be a clear statutory or regulatory need for data collection” which he and others did not see as merited on this issue. In the history of both of these data collection projects, critics have asked for observation and study. The purpose of that is to demonstrate that anti-LGBT sentiments and practices exist and therefore understand how to challenge them. Thompson made quite clear that that’s simply not a consideration for the Trump administration.

Frankly, that shouldn’t be a surprise. Trump branded himself throughout the Republican primary as atypically amicable with LGBT people, even as he held us at arm’s length. What many cisgender and straight observers of that often seemed to miss was the expectation of what he would receive in return for that – not only did he assume we would be desperate to support him for the slightest tolerance but he expected us to curtail our experiences with anti-LGBT policies and attitudes to what he needed.

In his hands, anti-LGBT animus became not a common experience in this country, but a marker of foreignness. The reality that most LGBT Americans experience bigotry more regularly and acutely from other Americans is an inconvenience to the grand narrative Trump wanted to paint. Now, in the halls of power, he is doing what he can to disarm LGBT people of the overwhelming data that shows that.

lgbt-population.png
The Movement Advance Project constructs maps like this above one of the estimated overall LGBT population in different states without census data, as it has never been collected as part of the survey, from here.

Beyond his quixotic bid to build LGBT support, there’s an implicit threat buried in all of this. There is, as of now, supposedly no need to collect that data. What that admits is that the facts on the ground could change. If LGBT people become understood as not a group to hide the data from, but to gather it on, then perhaps they would put it back on the census. Or, failing that, let slip the dogs of war – Republicans in state government are already pushing to reinstate pre-Lawrence laws or similarly invasive and hostile measures, especially against transgender people.

The choice the administration is giving LGBT people is a simple one – obey or become reacquainted with survellir et punir. The self-styled deal-maker is offering LGBT people one: accept the quiet and private anti-LGBT bigotry that pervades the country or prepare to feel the heat turn up again.

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Sanders’ lost opportunity in appealing to California

As Hillary Clinton’s delegate count creeps towards a hard fought win, Bernie Sanders’ campaign has increasingly hung their hopes on one state alone – California. It might seem like a curious choice. Racially diverse and a part of the Democrats “blue wall,” California seems more comparable to Illinois, New York, or Pennsylvania – all states Hillary Clinton won. Sanders’ support has largely come from more predominantly White states, both within and outside of typical “blue states” with his wins admittedly coming from places as socially different as Oregon and West Virginia.

In spite of breaking the pattern so far, there’s a certain logic to it, particularly if Sanders returned to the rhetoric he used when first launching his campaign. California was initially touted by many as a success story for the implementation of Obamacare, but the longer term frustrations with putting it in place have created an untapped political market in the state that could be decisive if addressed well.

Like all states, California’s experience with Obama-era health care reform boils down to effectively three big picture changes:

  • Health care providers and health insurance companies face greater obligations to their patients and customers, but in exchange those customers are required to have coverage.
  • In order to help people who would have trouble paying for that coverage, medicaid and other assistance programs are given greater resources and more people are deemed to qualify for their assistance.
  • In order to make accessing and assessing insurance plans easier for everyone who can pay for that coverage, those plans will be helpfully listed on online-accessible exchanges.

That seems simple enough, right? At first, California avoided most of the pitfalls and hangups that other states experienced with putting together those initiatives – the state didn’t drag its feet to expand Medi-Cal or leave it to the federal government to build the online exchange’s website. The system worked. The public health care available was enough of a carrot and the threat of a tax penalty for lacking coverage was enough of a stick, and so in 2014’s open enrollment alone 1.9 million people applied for coverage through Medi-Cal and 1.3 million people purchased insurance through the exchanges.

Hopefully you noticed the discrepancy there. People too poor to afford insurance asked the state to provide it for them, and waited a decision. People with enough wealth to buy it bought and had it, end of story. This wasn’t an abstract demonstration of class inequality. This was about access to health insurance, at times to cover chronic or vital health problems. People died from lack of care while the wait list ballooned into the thousands.

Worse yet, the exchanges and Medi-Cal application system – although tied together into one system – would permit people to apply for Medi-Cal, and only that program, if they met the income standards to do so (see answer 9). Lower income people were literally obligated to wait, and denied access to expensive care in the name of protecting them from the cost. Meanwhile, the question of whether they would be liable under the tax penalties for lacking coverage while waiting for an answer from the state remained hanging in the air.

For all its horrifying flaws, with court rulings and administrative decisions this privatized public health insurance model has seen some improvement. Many Californians do, at the end of the day, want to retain the Covered California system, but there is a sizable chunk of the electorate that could stand to hear some talk about how to shake up the system for the better. Looking at the numbers of applicants and enrolled, as a raw number it’s probably a bigger one that is open to criticism of it, even while wanting the system to exist in some form. That’s a tricky place to articulate, where we need this public system but with different ideas underpinning it, but whoever describes it first could become surprisingly popular in California.

Bernie Sanders seemed prepared to be that candidate and speak in that way towards the beginning of the primary campaign. His messages on how he envisions health care policy still speak to many of the fundamental problems a “success story” like California has seen under Obamacare. Health care, under the PPACA, has not become an essential human right that the state must guarantee, but only a public good it will guarantee you if you demonstrate adequate need. The practical application of that – that by the thousands people have to wait for that assessment to occur – is a nightmarish reversal of any talk about inalienable rights, which the Sanders campaign continues to use. In short, the implication in some of Sanders’ statements, that he would reduce or even dismantle the application process for publically-provided health care, taps into the precise flaws and frustrations with the system as is in a place like California.

But, as of now, those have stayed just implications. To be frank, it’s unclear how much any president can or would be able to shape a redesigned ACA that would address that problem. Sanders might actually have a greater ability to champion that within the legislature, and to the extent that he has, could rely on replaying clips of that in a last minute ad blitz in California. He has less than a fortnight for that now. Can he pivot back to that discussion and articulate this nuanced point about a flaw within a means-tested public health care system? It might already be too little and too late.

The featured image for this article is of the California State Senate Chamber in Sacramento, California.

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In the aftermath

Trigger warning: terrorism, abortion, sexism, war, racism, police violence, violence against protesters

In the past couple of months, almost every region in the world has been rocked by a shocking and violent event. When writing about those, it feels like an easy trap to fall into where almost all coverage is about the immediate happenings, and the wake they have left behind is swept under the rug. Here’s a Friday Let-Me-Link-You rundown of some shocking and interesting observations that might otherwise have fallen through the cracks.

Making abortion a visible part of life

Following the Black Friday shooting at a Planned Parenthood in Colorado Springs, many have asked how that might affect the public discussions on abortion and the on-going debates about various new restrictions on access to abortion and other reproductive health services. On Tuesday’s episode of Podcast for America, Rebecca Traister appeared as a guest, and highlighted recent and more long term coverage she has done on how the changing types of participants in public office has begun to alter the way these medical procedures are talked about.

At its core, she noted that not only are more (cisgender) women in prominent political positions, but that they are increasingly women of color and women from more difficult economic backgrounds. Able to raise their personal experiences in debates, they have helped transform abortion in public consciousness from a “dirty” thing “those people” do into a messy thing that many do.

Assad: the greatest threat in Syria?

Just as that shooting in Colorado has brought abortion rights and anti-abortion violence to the fore in the US, the attacks in Paris reignited predominantly Western interests in resolving Syria, as a hypothetical means of preventing further attacks in their part of the world. In light of that, President Obama’s staunchly anti-Assad policy has come under criticism, with a number of political powers all but declaring that they prefer Assad’s dictatorial regime to the violent start-up of Da’esh.

An image put together by the anti-Da’esh and anti-Assad Syria Campaign and shared on Facebook this week by the German activist group Zentrum für Politische Schönheit (ZPS) clarifies that anti-Assad policies’ roots. As it shows, a vast majority of deaths in Syria have been from Assad’s forces:

deaths assad daesh(From here.)

Like many Obama administration policies, there is a very logical political and moral calculus behind the choice. In this case, all lost lives – Syrian and Western – are understood as tragic, and when tallied up it’s recognized that one of the greatest threats to life in general isn’t necessarily the flashiest or even the ones terrorists deliberately designed to shock.

South Africa Internet Availability: closing the floodgates

Meanwhile, international and local media in South Africa continue to pick apart what exactly happened at an October student protest in Cape Town that caught a lot of attention for its White participants’ attempt to shield protesters of color from the police. The underlying motivations behind the protest highlight familiar problems in higher education throughout the world – that tuition hikes are particularly affecting the poor and Black and particularly poor and Black, that the children of non-academic university staff are no longer guaranteed certain tuition benefits reinforcing class inequalities, and that the campus and curriculum valorize a colonial past.

That said, the history of Apartheid weighs heavily, and gravely concerns the many protesters who were born after the overtly legally-sanctioned racial hierarchy in South Africa was dismantled.

The Washington Post noted recently that this student protest was particularly innovative for South Africa in how it used modern social media to create discussion spaces, organize, and articulate activist goals. More than simply an importation of a global protest model, that also showed a reversal in terms of which parts of South African society could most easily use an online medium in political activity:

Social media has been a growing influence in South African politics for a while: think of how former opposition party leader Helen Zille (of the opposition party Democratic Alliance, or DA) has become known for tweeting from the hip, and landed her in trouble for unguarded remarks. Zille’s twitter dominance of course reflected racial disparities (then still largely skewed to the small white minority) in Internet access and use in South Africa. Not for long, though. Zille and the DA were gradually deposed by the Economic Freedom Front’s (EFF) Twitter smarts (especially that of its young MP Mbuyiseni Ndlozi and its leader Julius Malema) and what passes for#BlackTwitter in South Africa.

The government of South Africa appears to be rallying against these changes, according to an assessment of proposed legal changes published by Access Now earlier this week. The increasingly diverse twitter landscape in South Africa has motivated the creation of a “a series of new crimes for unlawful activity online” which just on the heels of this major protest would “pose a risk to freedom of expression”.

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Anti-refugee Democrats: the other third party

Trigger warning: terrorism, islamophobia, racism

As I noted earlier this week, Republicans and other conservatives have essentially fallen over each other to trot out different versions of the same reaction to the attacks on Paris. They’ve prescribed more war, more hostility towards people of differing backgrounds, and more authoritarian state surveillance and controls. It’s basically a parade of what they have been pushing since the 9/11 attacks if not earlier, with the major shifts overt that time having just being about how overt or subtle they are with the policies they have in mind.

Within the US, the Democrats on the other hand, as a kind of quasi-left-ish coalition, have been inharmonious with one another. In New Hampshire, Governor Maggie Hassan was the only Democratic governor to join the rush to declare refugees would not be welcome in their state. A series of Senators – Chuck Schumer, Dianne Feinstein, Joe Manchin, and Harry Reid – publicly called for greater oversight and potentially even a moratorium on accepting asylum-seekers from Syria and other affected countries. As with more issues than many want to admit, there is a wing within the Democratic Party that differs from the Republicans not much on policy and more on volume and style.

2015-11-17_1342

(Modified from here, more information on the Mayors here.)

Of course, the loose coalition that makes up the Democratic Party in the US has plenty of other circles, some of which have made it quite clear that they are not going to sit quietly on this issue. Among other moved by that was President Obama himself, but he was joined recently by Senator Elizabeth Warren and Representative Tammy Duckworth.

This brings to light a more mild version of the divisions within the Democratic Party which former presidential candidate Jim Webb made obvious earlier this year. There is a quite clear split here within the Party, and it’s not just the comparatively rural and White voters of Appalachia who have maintained a different Democratic Party with different responses to racially-charged issues. For every Webb, Manchin, and Reid, there is a Feinstein, a Schumer, or another Democrat from a comparatively urban and diverse state.

Elizabeth Warren’s 2012 win is enlightening on this. Beyond her indigenous ancestry, it explains why she falls into a group more commonly filled with people like Obama and Duckworth who have more constant and direct experiences with being racialized and profiled. It also explains how her opponent, Scott Brown, was even able to win in Massachusetts in the first place – because he appealed to the same type of constituencies that continue to empower Feinstein, Schumer, and others in “blue states”.

Courtesy of the Election StatSheet, here’s how her win in 2012 was distributed across the state of Massachusetts:

Massachusetts 2012 county results

The bulk of her support came from the core of the Boston area (9.0 percent and 23.8 percent margins), with a smaller bump from the Springfield area in the western part of the state (6.3). Since this is New England, she also picked up slim margins in some of the comparatively rural parts of the state. Massachusetts residents have already picked up at this point on who that means drove her win to success: in the urban centers, people of color and the poor; in the rural west, the younger and more academic-minded.

What’s more remarkable is that Brown received a large amount of support in spite of the blue tilt felt across the state. It was concentrated, as the map shows, in the immediate environs of Boston.

The nearby suburbs of the state’s largest city are known for their wealthy and White demographics, but are by and large understood as still quintessentially “Massachusetts”. Whatever local preference towards Democrats, they pulled the lever for Brown to the tune of a more than ten point advantage. That part of the electorate, no matter their liberal bona fides, votes in the name of their personal bottom line. That can prop up a unique Brown-type Republican that goes a bit less directly on social issues and emphasizes economics, as well as the Schumer or Feinstein style of Democrat, who prioritizes security and spending over reforms or even moments of basic charity towards refugees.

Brown’s initially successful election (in 2010) primarily with the support of this group is not as much as a fluke as one might think. With the Republican base increasingly hostile towards a moderate wing seen as Republicans “in name only,” many Republicans have sought to triangulate between appealing adequately to the radicals and this constituency. This has been woven into the rhetoric and policies of Scott Walker and John Kasich among others – with the intent to create a smooth passage through both the base-driven primary and the general election (which tends to call for a broader coalition).

In some ways that echoes the efforts of many Democrats during the Clinton years, when the progressive base was labeled as electorally inadequate to win, but also indispensable. A certain portion of the Democratic Party never stopped doing that, even as the “Warren wing” emerged as a viable alternative to that somewhat convoluted centrism.

One question this leaves is whether these moderates are viable in the long term. That’s often presented as a party-unique question, but with increasingly viable constituencies outside of this group, few prominent politicians necessarily need their vote. Typically well-off but not necessarily wealthy on the scale of those who bankroll modern campaigns (and tend to have more eccentric political ideas), they’re also not financially necessary to the electoral process. What’s more, if a centrist Democratic wing and a centrist Republican wing will compete over their votes, it’s unclear that any useful collection of votes could coalesce around their specific interests.

That circumstance might lead many to expect a breakout third party, motivated by a kind of economics-light libertarianism. So far, that political bloc has been able to maintain a shocking amount of power without forming a third party. Instead they play kingmaker with their ability to deliver the votes necessary to enact their policies with shifting group of situationally-aligned co-supporters. They can rely on more radical Republicans to support them on most tax policies. They can rely on more radical Democrats to begrudgingly bail out banks or other industries to keep the country’s metaphorical lights on.

In terms of a vision of what different parts of politics or the economy could look like, they can’t lead, but they can still get most of what they want and leave everything else to die out in a committee as a “partisan” or “extremist” idea with inadequate support. For that matter, since they’re representing people who are, more or less, comfortable with things as they are, they don’t really need an idea of how to change the country. Intermingled with that comfort is a certain concern though: someone could muck everything up. So, this a political group that while somewhat ambivalent on social policies is more than happy to hear out extremely conservative views on race, religion, and civil liberties the moment security becomes the focal issue for any number of voters.

So, the Democrats who already have fallen in line with the majority of Republican governors or are speaking the same way as many conservative commentators have revealed a lot about themselves. Their willingness to act so cavalierly on security issues speaks to the interests they seek to protect and the ways in which those targeted by security systems don’t look like their constituents. They’re a unique class of Democrats, motivated by underlying economic and racial factors, that may make their politics incompatible with the broader Democratic Party’s in this era of the ascendant Senator Warren and President Obama.

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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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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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Whose protest is driving the conversation on climate change?

Trigger Warning: colonialism, climate change

Recently, many activist spaces and organizations in wealthy, early-to-industrialize nations have been prioritizing action on global climate change, and have even seen some response from among others, the Obama Administration itself. As I’ve noted before, both colonized people living within those parts of the world and people living with the fallout of centuries of colonialism and other policies in other areas have much more at stake in this warming world, have done much less to create the current situation, and unfortunately have significantly less international power to influence the developing crisis. That doesn’t mean they aren’t trying, however.

Hurricane Danny's projected path into the Lesser Antilles this weekend or MondayHurricane Danny is expected to make landfall in the Lesser Antilles before this coming Monday, from here. More info here.

Most visibly, Archbishop Desmond Mpilo Tutu, famous for his anti-Apartheid activism in his home country and more recent HIV/AIDS activism, has publicly called on United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and Barack Obama to set even more ambitious targets for declining greenhouse gas output – specifically a total cut of emissions by 2050. His open letter to those two officials is not only being circulated but presented as something that any interested person can also sign in support. Public protest actions within the countries most responsible for the global warming are important, but it’s important to also center the voices of people in the broader world who have a different language to describe the nature of the problem.

The featured image is of some of the indigenous participants in the 2014 People’s Climate March in New York City, from here.

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Balmy congressional climes

Trigger Warning: racism, colonialism, climate change

President Obama began this month with a coordinated political message about climate change. Over the course of his presidency, he has emphasized the need for action on that environmental issue among others and been criticized for it. Until this point, however, he has had difficulty directly confronting the US’s responsibility for the warming climate. Instead, his most visible policy action has been inaction – his mild mannered blocking of the Keystone Pipeline. More quietly, his administration has dramatically increased federal investment in environmentally friendly power sources, but that seems like a mild alteration of policy rather than a concrete effort to change the environmental impact of the United States.

The newly released climate plan builds on the expected returns from that increased federal funding of wind, solar, and other more or less carbon-neutral energy sources. The expected fruits of those investments are to be harvested with a reduction in electricity producers’ carbon outputs to just over two thirds of 2005’s levels by 2030. The regulatory system is merely an expansion of existing limits on other chemical pollutants, namely Mercury, Sulfur, and Arsenic. It also incorporates guidelines in public planning, anticipating increasingly destructive climate conditions to existing infrastructure, which will be implemented with a task force of state, local, and tribal leaders. In short, it avoids almost every major pitfall to the Republican statements on climate change during the 2012 election from the bafflingly unrealistic expectations to open disregard for indigenous communities and other specific populations particularly at risk of existing climate change impacts.

Is that enough though? The pragmatic nature of the climate plan sets distant goals, deliberately to provide the private industries significant time to comply with the announced regulations. There is a history of that sort of long term program ending up derailed, as the US’s backing out of the Kyoto Protocol (and that plan’s other failures) demonstrates. Careful, meditated action has its strengths, but on this particular issue it has a history of justifying apathy and further kicking the can down the road. While something of a defining characteristic of Obama’s technocratic style, as with other issues (such as health care reform), his measured reforms fail to damper Republican and conservative hostility to solutions on this and other problems.

Almost immediately after Obama’s announcement, former congressional representative Bob Inglis critically stated his regulation-minded program was anathema for Republicans. Instead, he floated a vague “fix” of the economics, which he finally specified would mean a carbon tax matched with a corresponding tax cut would be what Republicans could support, or at least not vote block. Alex Wagner, hosting the program he was a guest on, called him out on the duplicity almost immediately – “If we’re talking about you know poison-pills or language that is just kryptonite, do you think this President would have more success saying the word ‘tax’? Or Republicans for that matter would have more success pushing for a tax, rather than regulation?”

Inglis, who has been out of office since 2011, didn’t skip a beat and immediately had an alternative for Wagner, Obama, and anyone else motivated to address climate change. He offered, “How about this deal. [Obama or another democratic leader should say] we’ll give you the votes for pricing carbon dioxide, and you, Speaker Boehner, choose the corresponding tax cut.” Shifting the discussion from regulations to direct taxation doesn’t really make sense, especially since a commodity tax is difficult to predict the revenue of, so creating a predicted counter-revenue tax cut will actually be near impossible. Of course, that’s not the point, which is gaining leverage. In essence, what can the demand for action on climate change do for congressional Republicans?

Residents of Kiribati piling stones and sandbags to stave off rising ocean waters, from January 2015Kiribati residents have taken as of the past year to piling stones and sandbags to stave off rising ocean waters in the low-lying nation of islands in the Pacific, from here.

It’s fitting that the wealthy in the industrial world can not only economically profit from the putting of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere but also reap political capital from almost any and every plan to reduce that output. The rhetorical context that makes that possible has its own history. Any and all responses to the looming threats of climate change have to responsible, reasonable, and essentially adult. They have to emphasize, as Obama’s announcement did, that they will act on that problem while also “lowering energy bills, ensuring reliable service, and paving the way for new job-creating innovations”. There has to be no objectionable element, no cost, no difficulty, no discomfort. Even when that is promised, it won’t be believed, and another, new, slightly tweaked version of the same sort of policies can be held up as the actually feasible policy.

Inglis’ new idea is to push for other policy desires (for more tax cuts, in this case) to be fulfilled at the cost of each and every action on the threat of climate change, but expect to see that bog standard congressional Republican tactic (recall the government shutdown) increasingly applied to desperately necessary action on climate change.

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The Fourth Estate

keith simmons

From here.

President Obama is still making waves over his speech last week in Cleveland, where among other ways to dismantle the power of large donors over elections he noted:

In Australia, and some other countries, there’s mandatory voting.  It would be transformative if everybody voted.  That would counteract money more than anything.  If everybody voted, then it would completely change the political map in this country, because the people who tend not to vote are young; they’re lower income; they’re skewed more heavily towards immigrant groups and minority groups; and they’re often the folks who are — they’re scratching and climbing to get into the middle class.  And they’re working hard, and there’s a reason why some folks try to keep them away from the polls.  We should want to get them into the polls.  So that may end up being a better strategy in the short term.

Demos immediately noted the accuracy to his statement with a statistical look at how both the typical electorate is wealthier than the general population and non-voters of all income levels are less invested in protecting that class’s interests. Quite a few critical responses were less rigorous, like Matt Lewis’ in the The Telegraph. Like most counterpoints it ultimately had one fear at the core of it. As Lewis put it, “While I don’t want to live in a nation where only land-holding white males get to vote, I also don’t want to live in a nation where my vote is effectively canceled out by someone who has neither the inclination nor the information to cast an informed ballot.” That’s a fairly emotional reaction born out of an assumption, that the comparatively wealthy, White, and conservative electorate (within which Lewis is fairly normal) is simply the best one to make political choices.

The American Spectator at least attempted to craft a logical defense of that assumption in their response. Their claim rested on two citations – a Pew Research Poll and a paper affiliated with the American Political Science Association. Both establish political “ignorance” in a fairly unimpressive way. Why should knowledge about the political party membership of historical (or even present) figures matter much in a country with individual candidate races? Why is an ability to define the three branches of federal government key to a political understanding of who is the best candidate? The latter even points out among less powerful groups women outperform men when it comes to “local politics and ―’gender relevant’ issues that are directly pertinent to women’s lives, such health care, abortion policy, or women’s representation in local, state, and national government.” It seems like these tests may be biased towards information that’s less relevant for the many marginalized groups both in their daily lives and in voting booths.

Education systems both in the US and around the world have long confronted this issue, from here.
Education systems both in the US and around the world have long confronted this issue, from here.

But even if we assume this presumption of ignorance among the less powerful is true (which it very well may be), there’s a very real concern to be had over journalists treating it as an inevitable fact. As members of the Fourth Estate, it’s arguable that they have a duty to inform the entire public, in a way accessible to and relevant for differing subgroups. How much of the “ignorance” gap is a reflection of an ineffective media, owned by influential interests, guided by dominant ideologies, and populated by members of generally empowered groups? If members of that group are unhappy with their impact on the electorate (particularly a highly participatory one), then they could always… do their jobs.

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The threat of the executive order

If you’re on the Howard Dean-affiliated Democracy for American email list, you’ve probably already seen this image, which they sent out seemingly yesterday to their thousands (if not million plus) of subscribers:


(Literally anything?)

Huh. Now if that isn’t a symbol for our times. Not in that executive orders are more common (they aren’t), but that they’ve become necessary for basic political functions. In the 1980s and 1990s (and even the often called dysfunctional Bush years), the United States paid its bills, kept the lights on, and even updated the image of who was working and living in the United States. The legislature had it’s moments of inane or counter-productive behavior (Clinton’s impeachment seems like it shouldn’t be forgotten), but on the hold, governance was shared between a presidency, a congress, a high court, and numerous other functional elements to a political system.

That no longer exists. The threat of a executive order has been one of the sticks shown off in attempt to force congressional action on the debt ceiling, and similar attempts have now been made with regards to policy on indefinite detention, immigration, and now even the minimum wage. In a twisted way, the president has come to rely on (among other persuasion techniques) threatening to do everything himself in order to goad Republicans in Congress into action, which unfortunately only convinces them to dig in their feet harder (the better to oppose his “radical” policies!).

We’ve lost any semblance of a consensus that we as a country are viable in our current form, mostly because of rising conservative alternative theories. The resurfacing popularity among many Republicans of establishing a golden standard, of dismantling the Federal Reserve, of reversing Civil Rights victories, of overturning Roe, and of letting the US default on its debts and watch its federally-insurance banks go belly up in order to cleanse the economic system do not exist in isolation from each other. They tell a story of a long-negotiated political consensus about how the US economy and political system can and should be set up suddenly finding itself under attack in innumerable ways. It is likewise not an accident that secession is suddenly on the table again.

Within the context, it’s not just a useful threat to say that the President will keep those previously agreed-upon systems running. It’s also comforting to the people who would be protected by them. And it becomes unfortunately necessary to note that, comforting or not, executive orders have largely remained an overly polite bully pulpit for Obama, rather than an actual tool used to maintain (or even broaden) basic equalities and freedoms. Detainees are still waiting for their freedom in Guantánamo. Employees of anyone other than government contractors are still waiting for a raise. And the debt ceiling fight is threatening to come back again.

Systems are self-reinforcing, but only to a point. After a while, they need more than just a gentle nudge to keep them going. They need to be invested in and supported. How much longer will “good enough” be good enough?

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State of the Union 2014

As usual, please follow along with my comments on twitter to President Obama’s State of the Union address tonight, at 9 pm Eastern / 6 pm Pacific.

There’s been a few hints as to what we can expect tonight, but the most solid are coming from the think tank Demos, which released this informational graphic today (warning it’s large):

Continue reading

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The year that class apparently stopped mattering

TW: classism, racism, nativism

2012 was a fascinating year, especially from a perspective within the United States. There’s a long history of residents of this country telling ourselves that we’re a classless society, or failing that a country where opportunity is ubiquitous and untainted by social and political biases. Last year, and particularly the presidential election over the course of it, seemed like something of an abrupt end to that, with Romney’s 47 percent video solidifying class as inevitably one of the salient identities and the post-election analysis often becoming fixed on how rapidly support for the Democrat Obama transformed into support for the Republican Romney at around $50,000 per year per household in most states.

romney in a pile of money

(It was also a golden age of photoshopped images of Mitt Romney, for obvious reasons, from here.)

This past year something else happened, however, particularly in how the media analyzed issues. In short, class completely disappeared from the conversation. In some cases, the absence of class in how representative sets of groups were selected was appalling obvious, with Ron Fournier’s perceived look into the heads of current students he expects to lead the country in the future being a particularly vivid example. That the class of those he talked to (never even directly about the issue, it seems important to add) was a force that could bias them to a certain view on government was something Fournier never broached in his article. While he could obliquely reference their class status as easing their launch into “public service”, he couldn’t imagine it as something that shaped their opinions, their experiences, and ultimately their politics. It’s not that the economic system is invisible, just people’s status (that is, class) that apparently was to his eyes and ears. Likewise, the result was that the differing positions held by poorer young people weren’t considered.

Fournier was just an undeniable example of this phenomenon. Earlier in the year, in fact, Obama’s State of the Union address reflected a similar disrecognition of how his language divided immigrants into those that worked desired jobs and hence were imagined to be “highly-skilled” and even “entrepreneurs” and those that, ostensibly, are neither of those things as a result of them being unwanted. The reality that many undocumented immigrants are badly wanted as laborers by US-based businesses, but precisely because they can be exploited economically and socially, wasn’t acknowledged in the slightest. Much like the high school students with less affluent backgrounds, their reality (and hence, their political interests and needs) were outside of the discussion.

This failure to consider how class intersects with nearly all political issues didn’t merely erase poor people from the discussion, but actively distorted a number of historical figures records while they were remembered this year. From Nelson Mandela to Martin Luther King Jr, the class politics of a number of Black political figures were totally removed from public political memory, often as a part of otherwise remaking them into figures useful to White commentators. The former was done an additional disservice before his death, by BBC reporting that disregarded the economic reality of historical and modern South Africa, largely again by means of erasing the poorest residents of that country (who remain the indigenous Black communities) in order to make a political point that seemed stolen from White nationalists.

In a lot of formal and official discussions, 2013 was a year of class needlessly receding from the discussion, which often took any type of look at the beliefs, ideas, and even existence of the poorest people with it.

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This is a GOP shutdown

Between the Tea Party affiliated (and Sarah Palin and Ted Cruz inclusive) protest in front of the White House yesterday and the various online efforts to label this as “Obama’s shutdown”, it’s understandable that people may begin (or have already begun) to be somewhat confused about who precisely is causing the current shutdown. Let’s make it clear – it’s the Republicans. They created this shutdown. They urged this shutdown. They’re maintaining this shutdown.


(The barricades from the WWII Memorial, which protesters removed and then proceeded to throw at the fence surrounding the White House, from here.)

We could start that discussion with how it was a group of House Republicans in addition to Senator Ted Cruz who popularized in their political circles the idea of refusing to fund the government for the (then-coming, now-here) fiscal year, but that’s been known and that should be known. What’s less commonly recognized however, is that Republicans not only took that course of action, but in the process of that metaphorically locked the door behind them so that it’s near impossible for Democrats to resolve this issue by an up-or-down vote on the House floor. Instead, any such measure has to be brought forward by either House Majority Leader Eric Cantor or a designee of his choice, as per a rule resolution (specifically applied to this legislation, and some argue, in violation of House rules) passed right after the government shutdown.

That’s, unfortunately, a risky proposition since Cantor has in his nearly thirteen years in the Senate only sponsored 76 bills – just over five year. The last time he introduced a bill was April 9, 2013 – a date after which almost every other sitting member of the House has proposed at least one if not several prospective bills. Obviously, this renders the Democrats negotiations with comparatively moderate Republicans moot, since they could sway any number of representatives and fail to bring any bill to the floor without Cantor’s approval.

Ironically enough, the math suggests that several Republican House members voted in favor of giving away their ability to bring forward a modified budget before swinging in favor of Democratic proposals. The rule resolution passed with only nine Republicans voting against it and one failing to vote, meaning that at best ten Republicans now regret their vote (assuming that Nancy Pelosi’s claims of small but significant Republican support aren’t exaggerated).

Perhaps instead of throwing barricades at the White House in anger at President Obama, Republicans who want the WWII Memorial reopened should take up their quarrel with Eric Cantor, on whom this entire shutdown hinges?

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Uncivil War

TW: “suicide” as a metaphor

So the federal government shutdown is now more than a week old, with seemingly no end in sight, and honestly, why should we expect there to be any such thing? As Ryan Lizza explained with liberal references to extremist Republicans as “suicidal” in the New York Times:

As with Meadows [the House member who popularized the idea of a shutdown], the other [pro-shutdown]-caucus members live in places where the national election results seem like an anomaly. Obama defeated Romney by four points nationally. But in the eighty suicide-caucus districts, Obama lost to Romney by an average of twenty-three points. The Republican members themselves did even better. In these eighty districts, the average margin of victory for the Republican candidate was thirty-four points.

In short, these eighty members represent an America where the population is getting whiter, where there are few major cities, where Obama lost the last election in a landslide, and where the Republican Party is becoming more dominant and more popular. Meanwhile, in national politics, each of these trends is actually reversed.

Lizza points to a less metaphorically troubling article but more condescending one by Charlie Cook at the National Journal, where he detailed the situation:

Between 2000 and 2010, the non-Hispanic white share of the population fell from 69 percent to 64 percent, closely tracking the 5-point drop in the white share of the electorate measured by exit polls between 2004 and 2012. But after the post-census redistricting and the 2012 elections, the non-Hispanic white share of the average Republican House district jumped from 73 percent to 75 percent, and the average Democratic House district declined from 52 percent white to 51 percent white. In other words, while the country continues to grow more racially diverse, the average Republican district continues to get even whiter.

As Congress has become more polarized along party lines, it’s become more racially polarized, too. In 2000, House Republicans represented 59 percent of all white U.S. residents and 40 percent of all nonwhite residents. But today, they represent 63 percent of all whites and just 38 percent of all nonwhites. In 2012 alone, Republicans lost 11.2 million constituents to Democrats (a consequence of not only the party’s loss of a net eight House seats but also the fact GOP districts had grown faster in the previous decade and needed to shed more population during redistricting). Of the 11.2 million people Republicans no longer represent, 6.6 million, or 59 percent, are minorities.

Now, if you had to come up with a word for this, gerrymander would probably be the first off of your tongue (and it was the first off of Cook’s and Lizza’s), but examine the racial politics here for a second longer – what Republicans have essentially created a distinctive portion of the country and now feel entitled to allow its politics to dictate the entire country’s. Or should I say countries’? Is this a bit of covert secession, complete with the expectation that comparatively urban as well as racially and regionally diverse populations will kowtow to rural, White, and predominantly Southern interests?


(The Republican-catering media knows what the Zeitgeist is for that part of the country, from here. And yes, Drudge used the 2008 electoral college map in a story from 2012.)

Much like before the first US Civil War, the interests and political solutions touted by different populations have been aligned with different political parties, different classes, and even different regions. For some time now, we’ve been in a time of divergence. The shutdown is just another installation of that, and it’s just the sort of thing that can’t “run its course”, because it has so much historical and political momentum.

In a very scary sense, that’s what might have begun now more than a week ago. The most extreme Republicans have fashioned a miniature country within the US of their own likeness out of odds and ends. With more and more people of color living in this country and more and more Whites at the least being less enthusiastic about this near-exclusively White political coalition, however, they’ve had to scribble together all sorts of unusual districts to make it work, for just 80 seats in the House.

The trade off there may be a part of our saving grace, since there’s no clear center of operations for a secessionist movement to coalesce around. Still, that seems to have been replaced with battle lines drawn through 32 states instead of between them.

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Shutting down

From 9 pm to 9:30 pm Eastern Time, today (September 30, 2013) Chris Hayes will be taking questions on Facebook. I’ll be posting a few if you’re interested. This will be updated based on his responses.

So, in case you haven’t already heard, the government is shutting down, and I’m skeptical about the possibility that this will lead to a more moderate Republican Party. If anything, as with the last time a shut down led to a new Republican leadership emerging, more radical people (whether openly or more covertly) seem likely to step forward. The ship has likely sailed for the Republican Party and it no longer can attract more moderate voters (outside of crisis situations, where moderates cease to be moderates, so it just proves that rule).

My concern is twofold, however, namely that this isn’t just going to change Republicans for the worse, but also Democrats. For instance, here’s an email I received from Barack Obama last week (I’m so special!):

(From my emails.)

Likewise, Organizing for America, arguably the closest to a motivational wing of the Democratic Party nowadays, has swung from ad campaigns selling obamacare to advertisements on MSNBC’s online programming that directly discuss the gall of the Republicans to shut down the government in order to get their way on health care reform. From seeking out donations to scoring political points, there’s a certain laziness and hence reliance on Republican ineptitude. In a word, the Democrats seem to be increasingly invested in the dysfunction that many Republicans appear to be revealing in.

The little partisan distinction between the party that wanted problems and the party that wanted solutions is disintegrating, with both beginning to profit from flawed policy. If only the average people were as much a part of this win/win situation.

6:30 Chris Hayes states that he doesn’t see any potential Hastert to Boehner’s Gingrich outside of Eric Cantor, but also that all government provisions (namely government work retirement pensions) should pay out in full, just not in a timely manner (as skeletal staff would be ubiquitous in clerical departments).

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