Tag Archives: usa politics

Long arcs, bending

“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” – Martin Luther King Jr.

TW: racism, antisemitism, heterosexism, cissexism

I haven’t written much on here because, in spite of a quick look into what went wrong, I have felt woefully wordless. I don’t know that I have answers. I glued my attention to Trump early on in the Republican primary – something that many have held accountable for his meteoric rise. I kept the focus on him as the field narrowed, holding my ground that his visions were an American take on fascism.

His rise, his fall, his uselessness, his usefulness, held my pen captive for months. If anything on the internecine Clinton-Sanders competition I played referee, doling out criticisms on the basis of who seemed to be least examined at the moment. Their contest was secondary – whoever won had to win the ultimate battle, against an age-old adversary hostile to women in control of their own bodies and Jewish existence.

Well, he won. Sanders lost the primary. Clinton lost the general. Any hypothetical in which he would have won in her place was simply that – conjecture. But the allure of that was clearly strong to many, on a deeper level than asking who should have won the primary. It became about what should have been the focus of conversation.

Like many on the outside of the Republican hegemony, the repeated question of whether identity politics had eclipsed “economics” rang like a death knell – as if the clean water Standing Rock and Flint wanted was a resource disconnected from their racial demographics, as if LGBT rights do not cut at their core to cohabitation and hence housing and related industries, as if mandated health coverage of birth control and transgender transitioning care had affected no savings.

Decrying identity politics rarely sounded like a call for including a class consciousness in the politics of the day. If anything, it sounded like looking past some of the most economically deprived people in the country, on the basis of some or all of their identities, chosen or thrust upon them. Are we really supposed to believe that people spraypainting swastikas on walls are motivated by economic problems first and foremost?

ucd-swastika
A swastika, painted on a UC Davis residence, per Shaun King.

All of this was complicated for me by a more immediate sense of insecurity. At my new job, which was also keeping me occupied with something other than writing here, my coworkers were a motley crew of the terrified. A few days after the election, we held a visit for a recently departed member of the team – an Ashkenazi Jewish woman whose father escaped the Holocaust thanks to an integrated military unit and some elbow grease applied to a sealed train car in Nazi-occupied France. Gathered around the table with her were a Black Coptic Christian, people of color with temporary visas, LGBT people, Black people, Latin@ people, and others. The anxiety was tangible, and thirty minutes later it would spill out into the street – as other residents of the Bay Area blockaded almost every major street in a spontaneous expression of the same or similar terrors.

At the core of that terror is at least one question – which is whether it was actually true. The thing itself comes in a million colors, a thousand flavors, untold variations, but what we expected was some sense that this country was salvageable, this country could change, that this country was capable of more than it appeared. For the some among us, that means a capacity to think of women as its highest leaders. For others, that means a rejection of ethnic cleansing as social and economic policy. For others still, maybe that belief suddenly so fragile and subject to destruction was that the moral arc of the universe bends, and it bends towards justice, and it is slow but don’t doubt it. Well, this is a hell of a twist in another direction, shouldn’t we have a moment of doubt?

This doesn’t feel like a failure of the moment. This feels like running up against a wall. This feels like finding out something about the system. Something inescapable. Something unassailable. Some undercurrent that reversed, some tide that has decided to go out after so many years of going in.

Perhaps this cuts to the core of what the call for a refocusing of Democratic strategy sounds like to many of us. It doesn’t sound like shift in priorities, but a clarification of what has long loomed threateningly – that the White working class, and arguably a more specific slice of America than even that, thinks it stands to gain by other vulnerable people’s loss. Feeling like we’re suffocating under that idea, that may not sound new or radical, but it truly is. Historically, the White working class has on the whole checked the aspirations of wealthier White people.

Those expressions have at best inconsistently worked to the benefit of people of color, but a connection is hard to deny. Even at its most toxic – in the populist revolt Andrew Jackson rode into presidential office and later mass ethnic cleansing of much of the South – it easily mutated into other populist expressions of the day, including abolitionism. Whether the uniquely working class expressions of populism were always inclusive of a concern for what would happen to the newly freed slaves, is of course a reasonable concern. But the populist influence was undeniable, in that stymieing the wealthy often meant helping people of color and other groups categorically excluded from power.

What’s intriguing about US history is how every period you look to sees a similar level of success for working class politics and the politics of people of color – from abolitionism’s and populism’s fever pitch in the late antebellum, to the Gilded Age’s nadir in Jim Crow amid racist immigration quotes if not bans, and ultimately in a populist resurrection in the form of the New Deal and Civil Rights Movement (while trade unions brought integration into White political conversations). Maybe this isn’t a long arc, so much as a loose correlation between populism and egalitarianism.

Yet, that’s changed. We still have a White working class, which has begun to be defined culturally rather than economically by a social rejection of LGBT people, women’s rights, and other racially-loaded and not-so-loaded litmus tests. That labor politics leave open the door for discussing the unique needs of particular classes of labor – racialized, gendered, and so on – is increasingly less clear. In terms of symbolic representation, supposed the powerless apotheosis of identity politics, a narrowly defined White working class is at its greatest visibility – having been credited with Reagan’s wins, George Bush’s anemic win and ultimate loss, the turn towards Clinton, the close successes of George H. W. Bush, Obama’s rustbelt victories, and now Trump’s minority coalition win.

In short, it feels like gravity has stopped working, and a fundamental force in the universe has suddenly begun operating by another, still curious logic. A White working class at least generally hostile to the wishes of wealthy White elites has suddenly played a pivotal role in ushering in the wealthiest cabinet in history, after decades of almost erratic political behavior. That their questioning of the class structure opens doors to people of color and others endangered under the social and economic rules (mostly blatantly LGBT people, disabled people, Jewish people, women, and others) has suddenly been cast into doubt.

Perhaps, that’s the nature of this post-election, in which all sorts of things have been called projection. These distinctively vulnerable populations have no reason not to identify this concern – that the White working class has shifted its priorities in a way dangerous to those who wish they had their status. That’s a mirror image almost of what the supposed champions of the White working class have articulated as feeling – that they’re forgotten and left behind in a future accessible to people of color (among other marginalized groups). Yet, it’s the White working class that seems to be doing that to the jeopardizing, perhaps unrealized even, of other working classes.

The past fifty years have seen a sweeping transformation, but it is hard to perceive of it as that, from the other end of it. The historical record suggests a change within the politics of the White, and increasing cisgender and straight, working class – towards their advancement by means of undermining others struggling, and specifically away from organizing in ways that other vulnerable people stood to benefit from.

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Post Mortem

Most of us are asking – what on earth just happened? I have my own share of questions, namely how such an urban-focused primary created such a rural-based general campaign. With this new electoral map, however, I think there’s one conclusion we must discuss: this is the nationalization of what’s been called “the southern strategy”.

Somewhat rapidly, a section of national media has pushed back on understanding this as neatly tied together by former industrial workers in the Midwest switching party alignments. The Washington Post provides some of the best county-level data in maps like this:

d to r swing counties.png

While, yes, this casts doubt on a narrow connection between deindustrialization and racial radicalization, in many ways it suggests a broader dissolution in the upper Midwest – of a one unionized, White, largely Democrat-aligned, working class. Mechanization and globalization have given that group a bit of a one-two punch economically, and perhaps the instability that’s fostered has accelerated another recent trend – the decline of union membership and union support among them. Much of their local economic and social structure – which created nationally distinctive voting patterns – is gone now… so perhaps too are their Democrat-aligned ways.

It’s important to note that White people in much of the rest of the country went through this process long ago. It’s essentially the Southern Strategy writ large – that politicians can appeal to the distinctively White anxiety that people of color are getting a greater piece of the pie to distract us from political and economic conditions shrinking the pie overall.

That this is seen as a uniquely Southern phenomenon is a bit of a shame – it’s long been a huge factor in the inland West and Great Plains regions too among other corners of the country. Obama’s time in office, although one in which he has been soundly elected and reelected, has seen this strategy march to the north and east. First, it spread across Missouri, Tennessee, Kentucky, and West Virginia, but now, as the Post’s map shows, it’s progressed starkly into Ohio, Iowa, and it’s beginning to reach into Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and even upstate New York.

Minnesota is feeling these effects too – but like New York or Illinois, it’s buoyed by a huge urban center that makes up such a large portion of the state population that this mainly rural change can’t quite swing the state. It’s possible that with more extensive urban turnout this effect would have been similarly masked in Michigan and Pennsylvania. That may have already happened in 2012 and perhaps even 2008. It’s possible that this is a more dramatic map than what the new electoral equilibrium actually is. It’s also possible that this realignment among rural White voters isn’t complete, and that Democratic returns may continue to decline in rural areas in northern states, particularly in Minnesota, New Hampshire, and Vermont.

There are a couple of hazily antithetical options the Democratic Party has before it. Michael Moore and a variety of other commentators from the Upper Midwest have argued that “the people” need to “take over the Democratic Party“. It’s unclear what that means, but to recapture the demographic that’s proven so comfortable with racist sentiment seems impractical. While they may yet be won back with economic populism, that group has largely voted in such a way that shows they increasingly prefer economic racialism. Even if they personally see no benefits, they might prefer knowing someone else experiences greater or more severe economic losses.

As noted earlier, low turnout in this election was a particularly urban phenomenon in increasingly majority-minority districts, exacerbated perhaps by the top of the ticket having such a history of collusion with racist policies. Likewise, while the self proclaimed yet shockingly White progressive wing of the party often speaks favorably of ending those policies, they haven’t delivered. Worse yet, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have both discussed a willingness to work with a Trump administration on infrastructure and other economic policies. A large chunk of White academia appears to be lining up behind those racialized economics.

Those “progressive” politics ignore the ways in which Trump’s economic vision is predicated on furthering the patterns by which those benefits are primarily or even only available to White people. If a portion of the Democratic Party can demonstrate a commitment to lower income people of color – who are the reason Democrats still carried the working class in this presidential election – maybe turnout surges, the margins move back into the Party’s favor in Michigan and Pennsylvania, and continue to improve in Arizona and Georgia. That is the new direction of real economic populism in this country, which now has a working class that is largely if not a majority of color.

Key among the provisions the Democratic Party must work on in those and other states to tap into the new demography of this country, however, are the twin pair of disenfranchisement and incarceration. Trump won not only those states but also Florida, North Carolina, and more due to the racist reality of who has the right to vote. If that changes, so does the map, into one that fully takes advantage of the emerging rural-urban split by opening up southern and southwestern states with growing and diversifying urban centers. This is a strategy that’s already changed the map – transforming Nevada and Colorado into strikingly Democratic-leaning states based off of just two key cities – Las Vegas and Denver.

Democrats have a choice between a strategy like that, which is based off of forging ahead with new economic and social realities in the country, or attempting to recapture some rural White voters. In opting for the latter, there are some jobs that potentially could be brought back to the United States from the other countries they are now performed in, but even outside of the questions of how to do that, there’s the reality that that’s not where many of these disappearing jobs have gone. Huge numbers of them have been lost to automation, without any sort of imaginable reversing “fix”. What’s more, many of the jobs this once unionized rural White working class are still here and they’re still doing them.

Seeking to turn back the clock on not only off-shoring but also technological advancement and race relations seems not only a tall order, but a futile effort to salvage a fading voting pattern among a shrinking number of people in only one region of the country. That would be an intriguing response to an election where the Democrats were charged with not thinking enough about all demographics.

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What parts of congress to watch

One of the most fascinating moments in Sunday’s debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump was this exchange, concerning the checks and balances that glue together our federal government:

CLINTON: Well, here we go again. I’ve been in favor of getting rid of carried interest for years, starting when I was a senator from New York. But that’s not the point here.

TRUMP: Why didn’t you do it? Why didn’t you do it?

[…]

CLINTON: Because I was a senator with a Republican president.

TRUMP: Oh, really?

CLINTON: I will be the president and we will get it done. That’s exactly right.

TRUMP: You could have done it, if you were an effective — if you were an effective senator, you could have done it. If you were an effective senator, you could have done it. But you were not an effective senator.

[…]

CLINTON: You know, under our Constitution, presidents have something called veto power. Look, he has now said repeatedly, “30 years this and 30 years that.” So let me talk about my 30 years in public service. I’m very glad to do so.

It gives us a stark contrast between the two of them, and their comparatively normative political approach and Jacksonian strongman theory of politics respectively. But it also serves as a reminder that try as they might neither candidate would really be capable of governing alone. They’re not running for a dictatorial position, just a key linchpin in a bigger political system. So, who else should we watch in the coming weeks?

REPUBLICAN BACKLASH: AGAINST TRUMP OR AGAINST STATE GOVERNMENTS?

The Democrats face a steeper climb than the Republicans in both the House of Representatives and the Senate, given that they have to make up for lost seats from the 2014 midterm election and consolidate large enough supermajorities to overcome procedural blocks – namely the Senate’s filibuster.

Luckily for them, however, in several Republican-held seats they now can run something of a double-hitter against those GOP incumbents. Several Republican-run state governments have been embroiled in serious scandals or become nationally embarrassing over the course of the same election year as the national nomination of Donald Trump for president. Republican-leaning voters are in many corners of the country divided as to which candidates to support. What’s more, the competition between national figures within the Party has left many of them with contradictory queues in terms of how to vote.

These dynamics play out in similar ways in various parts of the country. In Kansas, there’s Governor Brownback’s Republican state administration which has bankrupted basic state services. In Michigan, it’s that Governor Rick Snyder (R) is implicated in mass water contamination. Likewise, in Maine Republican governor Paul LePage seemingly says a new outrageous thing each day.

In four, key, Republican-held congressional districts in those states, the GOP has a slight advantage given that most voters are White and suburban-dwelling, but the compounded scandals have chipped away at their lead. The effect has made KS-02, MI-06, MI-07, and ME-02 all unexpectedly more competitive than originally perceived because of how toxic the Republican Party has become in those places.

THE CALIFORNIA DEMOCRATS: THE CONTINUING MARCH FROM THE SEA

I wrote quite a bit about this dynamic often overlooked in the national press in the last presidential cycle, in 2012. As national politics are coalesced around a pluralistic and urban Democratic Party and a nationalistic and rural Republican Party, the electoral map in California has fallen into a predictable pattern of by and large a blue coast and a red interior. With more congressional districts than any other state, it’s both a block of vital votes in the House that can’t be ignored and something of a microcosm of national political trajectories. When a party does well nationally that blue-red divide tends to shift within California locally.

In 2012, that meant a consolidation of the coast as almost entirely Democrat-held and an expansion into more contested seats right along the dividing line. Two of the districts I covered specifically in that year seem relevant again, with Democrat Ami Bera in CA-07 yet again desperately trying to maintain a blue outpost deep within redder territory and Republican Jeff Denham in CA-10 likewise trying to stave off the steady march of Democrats from the sea to the Sierras.

Further south, however, three other races seem to present interesting tests of this red-blue competition as well. In CA-24, along the southern central coast, Democrat Lois Capps is stepping down, leaving an open seat in one of the more White, rural, and centrist portions of the coast. That poses a question of just how durable Democratic holds on the coast necessarily are.

Meanwhile, in CA-25, Republican Stephen Knight is the last congressional GOP office-holder in any part of Los Angeles county. In a district that is now majority minority, his reelection bid cuts to the core problems faced by elected Republicans – both in California and nationally. Finally, in CA-49, Republican Darryl Issa is running to keep one of the few remaining coastal outposts of the California Republican Party. Can he keep it? Or has an endorsement of Donald Trump been too much even for him?

RURAL, WHITE, GERRYMANDERED… AND RADICAL?

Even with those and other districts in which scandals and demographic transitions give Democrats at least a fighting chance, more seats must flip to change party dominance in Congress. If this proves to be a wave year, and it may very well be, there’s scattered rural districts around the country which seem poised to jump – but it’s not clear in what direction. Angry at an increasingly wide cultural gap and less enthused given the particularly anemic economic recovery, voters in these places seem ready to sabotage the Republican Party by going for Trump, but also ripe for a Sanders-style democratic socialism.

In PA-16 and VA-05, Republican lawmakers may have set themselves up for failure under these types of electoral conditions. Both are suburban-rural and White majority districts, designed to help boost the number of Republican-held districts in their states overall. That type of electoral math has great dividends when the electorate remains predictable, but populist sentiment has prompted voters to behave in ways that many party elites found baffling. While both districts are Republican-leaning, their current GOP representatives are not seeking reelection, adding yet another dose of unpredictability.

Many of those same underlying conditions rear their head in NH-01, but there’s an additional surreal flavor. Arguably one of the most unstable districts in the country, it’s alternated between Democrat Carol Shea-Porter and Republican Frank Guinta as representatives since 2006. In the past few election cycles, neither has held it for more than one of the congressional terms (which only last two years). They’re the two major party candidates this year once again. While the district leans right, and with a more rural and White composition it feels quite Republican, Shea-Porter has historically won it each recent year there’s been a presidential race. This election will test that pattern.

Among these types of districts, NY-19 stands out as defined less by dissatisfaction with the Republican Party and attraction to a type of political agitation more at home among the Democrats. It noticeably has more consistently leaned to the left of these other districts in both national and local races. This year, Zephyr Teachout who previously ran to the left of Andrew Cuomo for New York Governor, will try to capture the Hudson Valley area seat by running a Sanders-type Democratic campaign emphasizing economic equality and opportunity. Combined with yet another Republican incumbent not up for election, this is yet another test about how the Democratic Party might be able to reclaim support ceded for many decades to cross-over vote to the Republicans.

…AND THE SENATE?

You’ll note, that all of these places to look at are congressional districts, not Senate seats, like what Clinton held. That’s because the Senate seems to be approaching heat death. For months now, the most likely outcome of the Senate races has appeared to be a deadlocked 50-50 division, with the Vice President casting the tie-breaking vote. So much for looking back to the house for an answer to where policy comes from. Maybe it’s buried in a classically overlooked spot on the Presidential ticket.

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Into the general

The post-convention speculation has begun, but perhaps we should heed Nate Silver’s advice to wait a little longer, a smidgen more past the 100-day mark until the general presidential election. To tide us over, let’s talk about the map that Clinton and Trump find themselves confronted with. Here’s one I drew up based off of how different voting blocs in the electoral college have cast their votes since 1992.

2016-07-31_1130

To put it simply, there’s two complimentary groups of voting blocs, who can on occasion get caught up in the excitement for a candidate that wins the country as a whole, but by and large, vote consistently for a particular political party’s candidates. After drawing up categories of voting blocs based on that, there emerges a third group – those who never demonstrated a clear preference for one major party or another, and overwhelmingly voted with the electoral college’s result as a whole.

Briefly, let me explain the logic behind using this time period. The fall of the Soviet bloc has receded in most people’s memory, but it actually doesn’t seem that far of a stretch to view it as a slate-cleansing point.

As an event, it cuts to a core change within the Democratic Party – the movement from progressive capitalism in the styles of Roosevelt and Johnson towards the more centrist economics of Clinton and Obama. Unions disintegrated, protectionism faded, and the Democrats redirected their attention away from structuring the economy in general and towards resolving dysfunctional outcomes case by case. The demonstration of the Soviet model’s failure on the global stage, no doubt, played a role in the transition. Liberation was curtailed to inclusion, and environmentalism mutated into today’s green capitalism.

While the Democrats’ sought a new future to imagine, the Republican Party changed the tone in which they viewed the past. By the 1980s, it had been captured by the conservative movement which very openly expressed interest in returning most social practices to a part true and part mythologized past. That remains one of the motivating concerns of most people in the conservative movement – a return to the social arrangements before Roe v Wade, before the Civil Rights Act, before Lawrence v Texas.

Under Reagan that was an optimistic expectation, a simple step back before continuing to evolve as a nation along preferred conservative lines. Under George Bush that idea had begun to sour. Once the fall of the Soviet Union occurred, large sections of the Republican base were on the verge of open revolt – a clean return to the Pax Americana they thought they remembered was increasingly out of reach. That bred a sense of desperation, and out of that came most of the support for Ross Perot, the perceived recapturing of the Republican Party with George Walker Bush, the Tea Party movement, and even now Donald Trump’s candidacy. As others have said, Republicans’ morning in America has become their midnight darkest – a paranoia that began in the early 1990s.

Even as both of these broad portions of political thought in the US rethought their positions, their voters became more consistent and more polarized. So, in that way, the 1992 presidential election was the first of a series of nationwide demonstrations of a new voting pattern. Born out of the earlier party realignment driven by Johnson’s Civil Rights Act and Nixon’s Southern Strategy, the past six elections have been the crystallization of those dynamics.

2016-08-01_1859.png

The math of this model can help paint a particular picture of what strategies Clinton and Trump can draw on. Forget the parties, their political histories, their precisely constituencies – it’s just red, blue, and everyone else.

Thinking of it in those terms, there’s three groups of electoral voting blocs with their own strengths and weaknesses:

  • Team Blue: This group tops out at 246 electoral votes, just a mere 24 votes short of a win. It’s not just the biggest of the groups, but it’s also the one with best retention. The other team has only poached one of its voting blocs one time – which is only worth 4 votes. Although durable and large, it still falls short of a win on its own and suffers from not having many inroads to winning the support of other electoral blocs, making it possible for it to strike out at convincing anyone else (think 2004).
  • Team Red: Topping off at 219 electoral votes, this set of electoral voting blocs is not as close to a win as the leading team, but it’s a much closer second than the distant third. It holds a track record of getting three times as many electoral votes against popular Team Blue candidates than vice versa. What it has in better appeal, however, it lacks in stability, with a fully majority of its components’ votes having gone Blue at one time or another (occasionally multiple times).
  • Team Consensus: A mere 73 votes, this is the smallest group. In part because it plays kingmaker between the two teams, its preferences as a whole are the best predictor of which candidate in a given year will win. Those preferences aren’t to be treated as loosely shared either – in half of this time period’s elections they’ve voted unanimously for the electoral college’s winner. The most likely outcome after that has only seen one defector among them. As the smallest of these blocs within the electoral college however, it can’t fully capture either party’s interest because it’s mathematically impossible to win with it alone.

A sort of a political rock-paper-scissors has emerged here. Blue is big and dependable but has to convince others to come along, Red is almost as big and great a pulling in outside support but perpetually at risk of its coalition disintegrating, and there’s a powerful bloc outside of the two which adeptly supplies the votes to put either over the top but can only choose between these two larger factions’ preferences.

electoral college weighted proportionality

What does this mean for this year’s nominees? More than anything else, it shows how Clinton has followed conventional thought on these political realities and Trump has eschewed that sort of traditional approach.

For Team Blue’s leader (that’s Clinton), the biggest concern within this electoral model is to invite in of Team Consensus and encourage defections from Team Red as much as possible. That’s been followed through on – as she’s selected her running mate from a recurrently defecting Red bloc (Virginia), who is fluent in the minority language common to one of the largest ethnic groups in several Team Consensus blocs (New Mexico, Colorado, Nevada, and Florida all are among the most Latin@ states in the country).

Meanwhile, Team Red’s leader faces a two-front conflict: to maintain a lead in the many states that threaten to break from the pack as well as to bring in support from outside of that group. During the primary contests earlier this year, I noted that Trump appealed more strongly to voters inclined towards the messages of Team Red but living in areas that skew Blue, particularly compared to his rivals. Since then, many have noted that Trump biggest gains have largely come in the form of unexpectedly effective performances in swing states amid news about unusually anemic support for him from Republican bastions.

Don’t worry, someone else did the math and this isn’t a party realignment (at least, not yet). We’ll have a more direct answer to that come November, but the difference is speaks to is more that between Clinton’s and Trump’s strategies. The former is playing the game the way you’re expected to, in spite of the difficulties is poses. The latter, however, seems frustrated by the differences he must balance, so he’s trying to upend the table they’re competing on.

With him now breaking an unspoken rule of every would-be president – don’t criticize the immediate family of a fallen service member – he truly is betting on the possibility that this contest can play out differently than anyone expects. No matter what, this speaks to the kind of temperament he has as a person, but he took seriously the possibility that he could win states no Republican has in my lifetime (namely Pennsylvania), something Clinton never appeared to considered even with unusual polling statistics coming out of Utah and Mississippi. He’s the kind of person who’s quick to set his heart on something, and ignore any signals about what is necessary to give up to reach it.

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Boulversement

The news this week has seen a couple of stunning reversals, where tides turned or sometimes even more shockingly refused to.

google protest

A collaboration of almost every major name in left-leaning political action protested in front of Google’s headquarters yesterday morning. Credo, UltraViolet, Bend the Arc, ColorOfChange, and Daily Kos all sent representatives with a clear message – that Google, or more specifically Google-owned YouTube, shouldn’t provide streaming services for the Republican National Convention this year, at least as long as Donald Trump is the presumptive nominee.

In this day and age, conventions are less of a formal process and generally more of a three-day long political advertisement describing the Party’s and particularly the Party’s presidential nominee’s vision for the country. In that light, even with Trump facing more scrutiny than typical at the convention, it still would be more of a platform for him than vehicle for voters to become informed about his policies. In light of that, this protest followed in the footsteps of similar calls for him to not be a guest on various news programs and for several companies to divest from his businesses and television shows.

google protest 2.jpg

Unfortunately, not long after the protest Google announced that YouTube would indeed be the streaming service available for this year’s Republican convention.

Big Money oozes down ticket

While sponsors and service-providers might not have been so skittish over the prospect of a presumably Trump-nominating convention, many high profile donors have been as noted in an article on Wednesday on Reclaim the American Dream. Terrified of Trump’s potential to alienate voters from the party as a whole, a huge rush of donations has already gone in conservative circles to state-level races, and sometimes even more locally.

Author Hedrick Smith points out that the funds involved are already reaching extremely high numbers more typically associated with national campaigns:

Conservative donors have contributed nearly 70 percent of the $707 million in SuperPAC money raised to date, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. In the hot senate races in Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, SuperPacs, Candidates and parties on both sides have raised war chest that already total from $23 million to $32 million in each state.

Many of these states will in all likelihood still see extensive advertising from presidential campaigns, but the level of wall-to-wall saturation associated with those types of candidates is already promising to become more common with senatorial races, and maybe even more local ones as well.

Distorting democracy

In this jaded age, it’s easy to look at that rush to support Tea Party freshmen senators with unprecedented donations and simply see it as a reflection of the problems in our post-Citizens United electoral system. Unfortunately, these sorts of structural flaws have long been with us and for many years now have been redirecting electoral outcomes away from their expected course, as detailed in a Demos report on Chicagoan politics released yesterday.

Some of the findings in the report catalog what’s long been said about local races with a lot of money put into them: that much of it comes from outside of the communities holding the elections, and that it biases candidates towards business and upper class interests. Interestingly, it also showed that among the large donations that are still made in-community, at least within Chicago they overwhelmingly come not only from White residents, but from White residents living in wildly disproportionately White parts of the city.

Against a telling gender gap as well, what this report showed is how systemically disruptive these large donations tend to be. It not only is an opportunity for outsiders to sway local decisions to their favor, but just another vehicle for uniquely powerful local voices to assert their narrow vision of how their city is and what their city could be. That’s how the city that rioted against Trump’s appearance can also have a leadership that pursues racially-charged policies that sound quite akin to his.

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Wasn’t me

In the past week, a few allegations of wrongdoing jumped back into the spotlight. From a failure to prevent mass lead poisoning to data journalism steadily descending into propaganda-crafting, almost everyone’s been predictably quick to shift blame elsewhere.

A humbling experience

That’s how still sitting Michigan governor Rick Snyder has described the medical crises in Flint. In his own words, they’ve been a “humbling experience” – for him naturally, the most important person in these cavalcade of missteps. From initially a story of rampant cost-cutting and the widespread destruction of local government in predominantly Black communities across Michigan, Snyder has recast the disaster that has left thousands of children exposed to horrifying levels of lead as a tragedy centered on him.

Like an archetypal king hypnotized by advisors with vile designs, Snyder is the true star of this story for having been misled by staff who supposedly convinced him that he would receive alarmist messages about Flint’s water supply. Snyder’s own intentions couldn’t be more clear, since part and parcel with this retelling of the catastrophe is labeling responsibility for the crisis as having been taken.

Whoopsy

Over the past year, calls for raising the minimum wage in many corners of the US as well as nationally have become an almost omnipresent part of the political discussion. More quietly but just as persistently, the popular demand for living wages reflective of the emerging economy has been met by pessimistic predictions of spiraling inflation and anemic employment. To arbitrate between the two, many have turned to data-driven journalists and academics, hypothetically armed with statistics and motivated by a zeal for unveiling the objective truth.

Except, that hasn’t happened. One of the most widely circulated looks into the economic outcomes of raising the minimum wage, penned by economics professor Mark Perry, has fallen under criticism for having drawn from multiple data sets while comparing Seattle (which raised its minimum wage) compared to the surrounding metropolitan area (which didn’t). This may sound minor, but this reads less like mixing together data to reached a more complete picture and matching figures to create the desired result. The goal was never to describe what was happening as a result of the new law, it was to manufacture a glossy statistical justification for a particular take on raised minimum wage.

Perry’s response since the writing of that and other articles describing this and other problems with his research has been to edit the charts in question, noting that the information comes from disparate data sources that aren’t ideal to cavalierly compare. He’s also added an addendum arguing in essence that there’s nothing to see here.

Not caught… not yet

In a bit of lighter news, Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts) and Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) have taken the news that no US nationals appear to be implicated in the leaked Panama Papers to heart. They’re now asking the Justice Department to more carefully investigate the matter to make absolutely sure that that’s the case.

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Good news

Trigger warning: indefinite detention, electoral disenfranchisement, racism

The past few weeks have seemed like a bit of a parade of bad news – with Donald Trump’s ascendancy in the Republican primary among other worrisome events. Recently, however, there’s been a few small but significant changes that can give us hope.

Think of the children

After the number of unaccompanied children crossing into the US peaked in 2014, the public’s attention to the issue has steady declined. Even as fewer children have ended up in the overcrowded and dangerous detention facilities scattered across the southwest US, those already here have largely faced a toxic mixture of judicial neglect and increasingly unrealistic orders for them to leave the country.

A new report from Generation Progress touches on the issues that I and others noticed were looming problems just as the crisis began – that very few of these cases have assigned lawyers or even translators. Concerned Senators and Representatives have stepped in with new federal legislation requiring more extensive availability to those services as well as more thorough accountability for the agencies overseeing these detention facilities and court proceedings. Unfortunately, as long as the Senate and House are Republican-controlled, these reforms are unlikely to become law.

The day’s wages

In New York and California a similar tentative step forward, in this case on the minimum wage, has unfolded. In both progressive-leaning states with large labor pools, local activism was sufficient to push for incrementally raising the wage floor. In New York, the main determinant will be regional, with New York City proper seeing its wages move up the most quickly, followed by outlying parts of the urban center, and lastly other parts of the state. To a certain extent, that reflects cost of living, although across the state that will catapult minimum wage workers from $9 an hour into a more manageable economy. In California, the changes will be tailored more to the type of business, with smaller companies given slightly more time to adapt.

072814-minimum-wage_map
(Changes have so far been concentrated in states with minimum wages higher than the federal minimum wage, however. Image modified from here.)

Many commentators have viewed this as a reflection of the populist politics fueling Senator Sanders’ presidential run, but the piecemeal approach in both California and New York is more reflective of the gradual and contextual increases advocated by Secretary Clinton. Far from outside of these policy victories, Clinton took part in the celebratory rally put on by New York Governor Cuomo in her adoptive state.

Who counts the voters

Whether at the state level or federally, these different movements aimed at improving the quality of life have relied on elected leadership. In short, they have needed at least the possibility of voters caring about these issues to motivate political action. The capacity for that to happen as evenly as possible with the population of a district was upheld 8-0 by the Supreme Court on Monday in Evenwel v. Abbott.

This case was launched by the Project for Fair Representation, which previously played a role in an unsuccessful challenge to affirmative action and a fruitful dismantling of the electoral pre-clearance system. The racial dimensions of their work are deliberate and striking, and Evenwel was no exception. The Cato Institute (known for its own relationship with racist, colonialist, and antisemitic ideologies) published a rather flowery amicus curiae on behalf of the plaintiffs in Evenwel where they argued-

Once again this Court finds itself at the intersection of the VRA and the Fourteenth Amendment. The parties here are caught in the inevitable trap of (1) maintaining majority-minority districts under complex, overlapping standards and (2) administering electoral schemes that do little to advance racial equality while doing much to violate voter equality— the idea that each eligible voter’s vote should count equally. In the background of this conflict, there lurks a cacophony of precedent and oft-conflicting court administered standards that have arisen from Section 2 cases. Basic constitutional guarantees of equal protection inherent in the Fourteenth Amendment— such as OPOV—are getting lost in this thicket.

Avoiding racial discrimination under these circumstances is particularly difficult in jurisdictions where “total population” and “citizens of voting age population” (CVAP)—standard metrics for evaluating whether a district violates OPOV—diverge due to varied concentration of non-citizens. As with the tensions amicus Cato has described before, jurisdictions navigating between the VRA’s Scylla and the Constitution’s Charybdis are bound to wreck individual rights—here, voter equality—on judicial shoals.

The reality that redefining electoral districts across the country by either eligible or registered voters would cast aside representation for people ineligible to vote or unregistered (who are largely people of color) is only indirectly considered. It’s framed as an unfortunate cost needed to make each vote cast equally contested by candidates – a pipe dream as turnout can easily inflate a given voter’s power or swamp their decision in a sea of others’. These organizations, all too recently comfortable with the legal realities of Apartheid, were pushing for a milder version of the same multi-tiered political system, where there are people represented and people beneath consideration.

Perhaps most tellingly, the case here sought a structural response to the reality that millions of people are disenfranchised – while being incarcerated (and depending on the state, afterwards as well), for being undocumented or otherwise non-citizens, or from the inaccessibility of the voter registration system. Instead of asking why those people are beyond the pale of electoral participation and what could be changed about that, it treated their exclusion as an accepted given to be worked around.

Luckily the Supreme Court saw things differently, and as the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund described it:

Upwards of 75 million children—13 million of whom are Black—not yet eligible to vote would have been counted out of the redistricting process had appellants prevailed. Indeed, appellants’ case threatened to take America’s redistricting process back to nefarious periods in our democracy similar to when Black people were counted as 3/5ths of a person for redistricting purposes and expressly excluded from the body politic.

The Court’s decision today vindicates the “one person, one vote” standard, which rightly takes into account Census-derived total population counts when apportioning voting districts. This standard has been applied universally for over 50 years by all 50 states and the thousands of localities within them. Moreover, this clear understanding of “one person, one vote” is already regarded as America’s “de facto national policy” in legislative redistricting, enjoying overwhelming, bipartisan support among state and local governments. Today’s decision reaffirms the guiding logic of this inclusive standard, which fosters access to electoral representation and constituent services for all people, regardless of race, sex, citizenship, economic status, or other characteristics, or whether a person chooses to or is able to vote.

That vision of participatory democracy is the engine that’s helping to drive these modest steps towards a fairer political and economic system. This newly post-Scalia Supreme Court has made clear that they favor that understanding of how this country could organize itself.

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Genocide, Global Warming, and Garland

Dramatic announcements abounded this week, suggesting what issues to watch in the coming days.

Da’esh declared genocidal

On Monday, the US House of Representatives unanimously passed a measure that declared that the targeting of religious and ethnic minorities in parts of Syria and Iraq occupied by the Islamic State was genocidal. Several Christian advocacy groups, with varying relationships with the region, have taken this as something of a political victory, although the ramifications remain unclear – genocide is a crime, and there now exists a complex set of international courts designed to evaluate allegations of it.

As one interesting essay published by the Centre for Research on Globalization on this issue noted-

Using the word can itself be a moral assertion, and with that assertion comes the requisite action.  At least this is the theory – words generate expectations and the need for a physical component. Designating a conflict as genocidal triggers a range of obligations, as implied by the Genocide Convention itself.  The lawyers have to be mobilised; the police and military arms of the state must be readied for capturing the offenders, and more importantly, the imperative to take humanitarian measures might involve the use of armed force.

In short, it is telling that the clearest stipulation in the measure is that political figures “should call ISIL atrocities by their rightful names: war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide.” When it comes to actually responding to the reality of the violence it only vaguely suggests that “member states of the United Nations should coordinate urgently on measures to prevent further war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide in Iraq and Syria.” The language seems to suggest that both peacekeeping and international court activity are possible as a response, but this is only one stop in a longer conversation about what the US and and should do in the region.

California’s starting to hint at a carbon-neutral economy to come

After years of negative predictions about the Californian economy and expectations that economic alternatives capable of mitigating climate change come from English cities with names like Grimsby, Mother Jones has taken an in depth look at the emerging carbon-neutral economy in the state:

The sun bears down almost every day, and as the valley floor heats up, it pulls air across the Tehachapi Mountains, driving the blades on towering wind turbines. For nearly eight years, money for renewable energy has been pouring in. About seven miles north of Solar Star, where sand-colored hills rise out of the desert, Spanish energy giant Iberdrola has built 126 wind turbines. French power company EDF has 330 turbines nestled in the same hills. Farther north, the Alta Wind Energy Center has an estimated 600 turbines. Together, these and other companies have spent more than $28 billion on land, equipment, and the thousands of workers needed to construct renewable-energy plants in Kern County. This new economy has created more than 1,300 permanent jobs in the region. It has also created a bonanza of more than $50 million in additional property taxes a year—about 11 percent of Kern County’s total tax haul. Lorelei Oviatt, the director of planning and community development, says, “This is money we never expected.”

What’s more, the things that made the Californian economy such a nice target of criticism were basically what made this possible:

“You need the coercive power of government,” he told the crowd. One of the reasons why California’s utilities already get so much of their power from renewables, he said, was because “they have no choice. The government said, ‘Do it, or you’re going to pay huge fines.'” Brown likes to upend the standard argument about government regulation gumming up innovation. To him, it’s the opposite: Regulations push businesses to try new things.

How about that? The full article warns that the state’s regulatory bodies anticipate setting even more ambitious goals for the next decades, which it remains to be seen if California can meet.

Garland’s shoe-in

A cavalcade of House Republicans have accidentally opened up that they might bother to confirm Merrick Garland, Obama’s nominee to replace the late Antonin Scalia. The catch is that they are willing to do that provided the Democratic nominee wins in the general election in November, accepting the more moderate and older Garland over a hypothetical younger radical. Garland’s nomination on March 16 would then wait until November 8 at the earliest for confirmation or rejection. That “best case” would weigh in at a 236 day wait – easily a record in US history.

2016-03-18_1458(The most recent nominations, from here.)

In fact, the only nomination to that office that was more than half that amount of time was Louis Brandeis’ which clocked in at 125 days. His was tied up in part because of his connection to many then radically progressive causes, exacerbated by the fact that, as one fellow Justice put it, “the fears of the Establishment were greater because Brandeis was the first Jew to be named to the Court.”

Garland, since he is also Jewish, wouldn’t be a similar first for the court, and actually was selected as an alternative to one – Sri Srinivasan, who would have been the first Hindu nominee. Likewise, although comparatively liberal in contrast to the Justice he would replace, he is in no way intimately tied to today’s radical causes – his primary work has been in fairly normal prosecutor duties related to terrorism. Will Republicans really wait that long to make the choice they expect they’ll have to make anyway?

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Building Better Districts

Things are beginning to heat up not just in the Presidential primaries, but in more local elections around the US as well. While the writing has long been on the wall for some of the most effectively gerrymandered districts of Virginia Republicans, it wasn’t clear who would necessarily be the biggest loser in a similar campaign for better district boundaries in Florida.

It looked like Democrat Corrine Brown might actually be the most threatened sitting representative by the redesign of her district. As a “dump” district designed to absorb Democratic-leaning Black voters making most nearby districts more easily won by Republicans, her individual interest in keeping her familiar district aligned with those of the state’s Republican Party. Worse yet for the Democrats, the idea was floated that Brown’s district might be expanded into a neighboring district held by fellow Democrat Gwen Graham. In short, an effort to redraw Florida’s districts so there wouldn’t be such a marked difference between districts seemed like it might just exacerbate that problem.

The new congressional map has been released and Brown actually appears to have avoided that worst possible outcome. Her prior district contributes nearly forty percent of the population in her new one, but so does the former tenth district. Her personal political charm will be put to the test with a largely new electorate she has to appeal to. Whether it’s Brown herself or one of her primary challengers who becomes the Democratic nominee, the new district won’t have lost much of its Democratic-leaning character. By one estimate it will be at least a D+10 to the former district’s D+16.

There’s some similar shuffling of populations that will happen to other Democrat-held districts further south within the state, but the ultimate results are more or less the same. While this might disrupt individual Democratic office-holder’s local support, it’s unlikely to cost the Democratic Party as a whole any of these seats. In an odd way, the increased jockeying within the Party might create an environment in which better candidates rise to the forefront of the Democratic Party in Florida.

That is not an apt description of how the redistricting is going to affect Republican representative Daniel Webster. His tenth district doesn’t appear to move very far on the map, unlike Brown’s radically reinvented district. Some of the more rural western parts of it are shaved off, however, and the district incorporates parts of Orlando which were previously carved out of it. The subtle changes are in high enough density areas to make a huge difference: not even forty percent of its original population is still in it.

2016-01-29_13452016-01-29_1342.png
(Left – the former 10th District, Right – the new 10th District. From here.)

This isn’t the kind of situation that Brown finds herself in either, where her losing the district would almost certainly be to another Democrat. Webster’s district is, by most counts, going to be almost as Democratic-leaning as Brown’s new one, and at the cost of most likely zero current Democratic-leaning districts.

While an extremely moderate Republican might be able to shed their skin in classic Floridan political fashion, Webster is fairly fringe. Recently, he was the Freedom Caucus’ alternative to Paul Ryan (R-Wisconsin) for Speaker of the House. One of the Webster’s premier political accomplishments dates back to his years within the Florida state government, where in 2008 he pioneered a set of anti-abortion restrictions that would ultimately become the widespread requirement of a transvaginal ultrasound. Walking that back to appeal to a roughly D+10 district seems rather unlikely.

This might be the future of representative reorganization in the US: Democratic complacency getting a bit of a shake-up and Republicans falling by the wayside of an electorate that they don’t reflect.

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Who’s on third?

I’ve touched on this topic before, that what Trump is appealing to is something that fundamentally succeeds under a democratic system better than what most of his competitors in the Republican primary are offering. At least, within the Republican Party itself, it’s more durable. With Trump leading in the polls, that might sound like basic commonsense, but it also says something far more meaningful and darker about the future of the Republican Party.

What they’ve carefully crafted over the past several decades, with Southern Strategies and Moral Majorities, are ultimately brokered deals. Those are between an electoral bloc motivated by causes artfully directed away from economic populism and a smaller set who call the shots on anything with economic relevance. This was the playbook up through the recent Bush administration – which was headed by something of a cultural representative. His accent was pretty unconvincing to many, but just trying to use one aligned him with one cultural element in the country, which remains a large electoral bloc if not plurality of voters.

His upper class background spoke to the demarcations within that Republican arrangement – if not one of he was from and familiar with the few powerful donors and representatives who held key positions and dictated economic policy. That description of his administration might sound odd, and it is incomplete in how it leaves out the inescapable and protracted debates on marriage equality and abortion. The presence of two distinctive, at times radically so, policy conversations has been the Republican modus operandi for decades. Trump has disrupted that clear boundary between the two and the larger system that created that.

spirit justice.jpgRemember when all national discussion stalled to talk about the Spirit of Justice statue and her exposed breasts? Image from here.

Most clearly, his economic policies, like most of his politics, are taken as much as possible from the reactionary cultural groups tapped into by Republicans for years. Even on “social” issues, he’s touched the live wires that few other Republicans would – ones like immigration which while often talked about in terms of language and identity are impossible to have a substantive policy on without huge economic ramifications, many of which are unfavorable to major Republican donors.

In a nutshell, what I’ve said about that before is that, electorally, what he’s doing works. The prior Republican set-up requires constantly shifting public discussion from issue to issue, with each one manufacturing new ways of understanding the issue that must be bleached of any economic impact. It relies unsustainably on an ability to simultaneously engage and distract the same set of voters and supporters. Trump is just adjusting the Party, making it into something that doesn’t depend on both democratic support and undemocratic leadership at the same time.

One of the conclusions of that, however, is that he isn’t an interloper “robbing” Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio or Chris Christie or anyone else of their rightful nomination within “their” Party. He’s adapting the Party from within, alienating some who don’t understand or admit the weaknesses inherent in its prior structure, but ultimately expressing the same politics in a more internally cogent way. Trump is Republican and a plurality of Republicans for months now have supported him in national polling.

Donald_Trump_by_Gage_Skidmore_3.jpg
(Credit to Gage Skidmore.)

Earlier this week, I saw the first major news headline to recognize what that means:

It’s the Republican “establishment” which would be running as the third party. Trump is the apparent Republican nominee. He is the seeming representation of Republican political philosophy. One of the responding tweets described the bluff being called in other terms

Hopefully this is a realization that a number of people – who had the personal freedom to tune out of the “cuture wars” and write it off as a distraction – will have. Whoever in politics is still operating with that theatrical use of social issues, which always was done in a way dangerous to some, they’re no longer a major party.

The most prominent voices still using those terms aren’t just promising the moon like before, but meaningfully articulating what they want done nationally. The Republican Party’s paper tiger form wasn’t working, and Trump and others have decided to opt in favor of an actual tiger instead.

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Writing on the wall

Trigger warning: climate change, racism

On a number of issues, the writing showed up on the wall this week, portending a variety of impending conflicts.

With the news breaking that a longer term spending agreement couldn’t be reached, the US congress entered a second round of week-long spending negotiations on Wednesday. Chief among those popularly blamed for the failure to reach some consensus was Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wisconsin). While he was able to pass a bill today, his initial inability to break with the familiar patterns in prior Speaker John Boehner’s years at the helm suggests that the dysfunction in Washington isn’t entirely gone, and unlikely to easily resolve itself.

In the broader national scope, an interesting examination of where Donald Trump’s presidential candidacy draws strength from cast some ominous shadows. Trump’s supporters have long been identified as those acrimoniously done with US politics in general. Quoting a practically prophetic October analysis of Trump, it was noted that he has thrived on being distinctive, even at the cost of being offensive to some outside of his target audience.

What this speaks to is what others have discussed outside of the Trump phenomenon: the increasing polarization of political parties in the US and gradual emergence of the Republicans as more than just a political bloc but a cultural (and increasingly racially distinctive) faction. Taken together, the warning is clear – Trump has uniquely sought to capitalize on that process, encouraging politics that deliver on a certain portion of the country’s demands, rather than a consensus. Those are the politics that lead to undemocratic reigns or contentious civil conflicts.

climate_change_paris_ap_img(From here.)

Lastly, the world appears to be repeating familiar mistakes in responding to climate change. The agreements forged in Paris recently are impressive, arguably more so than many expected to come out of the process. But, identically to the Kyoto Protocols, they’re nonbinding promises. We’ve been down that road before, and hopefully can remember what exactly went wrong.

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The second of the three spirits

This is the third post in this series. You can read the first chapter’s post here, the second chapter’s post here, or the full series.

Just as last week’s chapter began with Scrooge alone in bed, this one does too. Once again, Scrooge has shrunk back from a message critical of his actions. First he retreated somberly and almost automatically to bed after meeting Marley’s ghost, but now, he has also more aggressively shut out the warning from the Ghost of Christmas Past.

That spirit had shown him something that pained Scrooge – his own steady transformation into the person he is at present. Although the seeds for self isolation and miserliness had always been in him, a lengthy series of choices led him to embrace those parts of his life, and be pickled in his own vitriol and contempt.

Isolated in his room again, awaiting yet another spirit, he’s beginning to have something of a change of heart, however. After awakening in bed, he doesn’t passively await the spirit while insisting they won’t come. Instead, “finding that he turned uncomfortably cold when he began to wonder which of his curtains this new specter would draw back, he put them every one aside with his own hands, and lying down again, established a sharp lookout all round the bed.” Previously impervious to cold and socially withdrawn, him being spurred to interaction by a chill shows the beginnings of a changed nature.

This spirit, perhaps reacting to Scrooge’s inching towards a return to social life, awaits him this time around, in the next room. The light emitted from him eventually draws Scrooge from bed – again, having him relinquish his isolating tendencies – and Scrooge walks in on the spirit. The spirit makes a luxurious first appearance, which is often lovingly rendered in stage and video adaptations:

“It was [Scrooge’s] own room. There was no doubt about that. But it had undergone a surprising transformation. The walls and ceilings were so hung with living green that it looked a perfect grove; from every part of which bright, gleaming berries glistened. The crisp leaves of holly, mistletoe, and ivy reflected back the light, as if so many little mirrors had been scattered there, and such a mighty blaze went roaring up the chimney as the dull petrification of a hearth had never known in Scrooge’s time or Marley’s, or for many a winter season gone. Heaped up on the floor, to form a kind of throne, were turkeys, geese, game, poultry, brawn, great joints of meat, sucking pigs, long wreaths of sausages, mince pies, plum puddings, barrels of oysters, red-hot chestnuts, cherry-checked apples, juicy oranges, luscious pears, immense twelfth-cakes, and seething bowls of punch, that made the chamber dim with their delicious steam. In easy stat upon this couch, there sat a jolly Giant, glorious to see, who bore a glowing torch, in shape not unlike Plenty’s horn, and held it up, high up, to shed its light on Scrooge, as he came peeping round the door.”

Where the Ghost of Christmas Past appeared before Scrooge almost faded – a mixture of forgotten good moments and ignored negative ones – this spirit comes as a loud proclamation of what Scrooge is missing out on. His bounty appears before Scrooge as physical and even edible. As they go on another Christmas tour, through the present holiday not Scrooge’s past, he seems to imply it isn’t ultimately one that you have, let alone eat. Instead, it’s one that you share.

As they travel, Scrooge witnesses the spirit blessing a number of meals, of all different sorts of people, and this conversation happens between them:

“‘Would [the blessings] apply to any kind of dinner on this day?’ asked Scrooge. ‘To any kindly given. To a poor one most.’ ‘Why to a poor one most?’ asked Scrooge. ‘Because it needs it most.'”

With that, they begin a rather harrowing look at how the other half lives, which Scrooge so casually dismissed from concern in the first chapter. The tour begins with Scrooge’s own underpaid clerk, who is cheerfully reunited with his eldest daughter, who has moved out of home to be a milliner’s apprentice. Even amid the joy in seeing her, however, the tone of the day has somber moments. Scrooge’s clerk had previously been at Church with his youngest and disabled child – Tiny Tim.

When discussing him with his wife and eldest children, his “voice was tremulous when he told them [about their morning at Church] and trembled more when he said that Tiny Tim was growing strong and hearty. His active little crutch was heard upon the floor, and back came Tiny Tim before another word was spoken, escorted by his brother and sister to his stool beside the fire, and while [Scrooge’s clerk], turning up his cuffs – as if, poor fellow, they were capable of being made more shabby – compounded some hot mixture in a jug with gin and lemons, and stirred it round and round”.

This is the life that someone in comparatively good economic standing could have in Scrooge’s time. He is not ensnared in poverty and hardship – which will be seen later – but he and his family live with constant interruption, reminding them of how fragile their lives are and how economically vulnerable they remain. Nothing, I think, shows this better than the description of their Christmas dessert as they bring it out:

“A great deal of steam! The pudding was out of the copper. A smell like a washing day! That was the cloth. A smell like an eating house and a pastry cook’s next door to each other, with a laundress’ next door to that! That was the pudding! In half a minute Mrs. Cratchit entered = flushed, but smiling proudly – with the pudding, like a speckled cannonball, so hard and firm, blazing in half of half a quartern of ignited brandy, and bedight with Christmas holly stuck into the top. Oh, a wonderful pudding!”

Unlike others, soon to be seen, the Cratchits do live with a certain amount of material comfort. But even in their celebrations there are the looming prospects of how much they must do (and soon) to maintain what little good things they have, making even a pudding not just a triumph but one that reminds them of a series of different economic activities. In our era in which the presence of basic comforts is so routinely used to cast doubt on the seriousness of economic vulnerability or limitation, this stands out as a profound portrayal of how living without enough, even a small amount less, is debilitating.

The labor they need to perform permeates even their rest days and the ominous threat of costs that can never be fully covered – most obviously proper nutrition and otherwise treatment for Tiny Tim. Scrooge, watching these private moments is moved, and asks if Tiny Tim will live, presumably meaning to a reasonable, adult age.

“‘I see a vacant seat,’ replied the Ghost, ‘in the poor chimney corner, and a crutch without an owner, carefully preserved. If these shadows remain unaltered by the Future, the child will die.'”

He then gives Scrooge something of a ticking clock, by implying it is most likely to happen before the following Christmas. Scrooge is horrified to hear this, only to have the spirit hurl his words back at him: “‘If he be like to die, he had better do it, and decrease the population.'”

From this, the spirit guides Scrooge through miners’ and sailors’ Christmas celebrations, showing those in even more precarious standing and with even less to celebrate with than Scrooge’s clerk and his family. In this, Scrooge sees the faces of those he had so coldly called expendable surplus lives the day before.

They travel everywhere, however, and ultimately see Scrooge’s nephew’s celebrations. The games at their party ultimately culminate in a kind of older version of twenty questions, in which it is ultimately revealed that the moody animal that walks the streets of London is revealed to be none other than Scrooge, who declined to join them.

Scrooge laughs off the joke, showing a previously unseen sense of humor, but an often overlooked exchange comes about after that reveal among the guests. “[S]ome objected that the reply to ‘Is it a bear?’ ought to have been ‘Yes,’ as an answer in the negative was sufficient to have diverted their thoughts from Mr. Scrooge, supposing they had ever had any tendency that way.”

What’s suggested here are two things – that Scrooge has become a distant and often overlooked subject to many of these people and that when he is considered, it’s not entirely in human terms. It’s at that point that Scrooge sees something also curiously between human and animal protruding from his accompanying spirits cloak. “‘It might be a claw, for the flesh there is upon it,’ was the Spirit’s sorrowful reply” before he lifts the hem of its robe, showing “two children, wretched, abject, frightful, hideous, [and] miserable.”

ignorance and want final
From here.

The spirit disavows parenthood of them, saying that they belong to men. He introduces them: “‘This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware of them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow, I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased.’

Often, this is read as a warning that those with fewer resources – for education or more immediate wants and needs – are a scowling, almost subhuman threat if left unfed. Reading this immediately after Scrooge himself is noted to be similar at the edge of humanness and has come to grips with his ignorance of what life in poverty is like, however, it seems more as though Scrooge is the clawing child. He maybe be threatened by the “Doom” written upon him, but he is also the unsavory and dangerous threat himself.

This is the second spirit’s last moment with Scrooge, for it then disappears at the stroke of midnight, leaving him alone except for “a solemn Phantom, draped and hooded, coming, like a mist along the ground, to him.”

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The F Word: Revisited

Before taking the risk of making what isn’t just about Trump sound like it’s just about Trump, let me quickly remind you of some facts. There are anti-Muslim and anti-Mexican elements in American popular culture, which Trump and others have tapped into to gain political support. The Republican Party’s leadership and Trump’s competitors as a result haven’t actually condemned him for his past or recent comments. In fact, their failure to chime in with Trump in agreement has come under fire within certain parts of the conservative media.

These political ideas, about who can enter or live within the US, knit together a worryingly familiar set of policies. They are the path to success within the Republican Party’s presidential primary and a means to an amount of popularity in broader US politics as well. Even as we recognize the larger context, it seems necessary to note exactly what the political appeal that Trump is. I was one of the earliest to note there is a word commonly used to describe those politics. It is fascism.

During the Bush years, anti-fascist activist David Neiwert penned a series of essays which today read like a careful examination of the different political movements at that time which have ultimately evolved into Donald Trump’s base. One of them attempted to wrestle with one of the most common features in looks at fascism – the various competing lists of fascist political goals, attributes, and policies. There’s not much of a consensus on what a fascist looks, talks, and thinks like.

I think his choice of the ultimately best one, which is also one of the most specific, might be of use when looking over Trump’s rhetoric and plans and doing as Rachel Maddow asked earlier this week – deciding if we can use the word fascism to describe them (spoilers: you can). Neiwert recommended we listen to Oxford professor Roger Griffin in times like these. Griffin’s definition is a full paragraph that we can properly sink our teeth into:

Fascism: modern political ideology that seeks to regenerate the social, economic, and cultural life of a country by basing it on a heightened sense of national belonging or ethnic identity. Fascism rejects liberal ideas such as freedom and individual rights, and often presses for the destruction of elections, legislatures, and other elements of democracy. Despite the idealistic goals of fascism, attempts to build fascist societies have led to wars and persecutions that caused millions of deaths. As a result, fascism is strongly associated with right-wing fanaticism, racism, totalitarianism, and violence.

We can easily break that apart into a few different elements: a call for the regeneration of the country, the basis of that being a policing of who can be assimilated or otherwise included in the nation, which necessitates certain forms of repression and disruption to democratic norms. As Neiwert summarizes it, “palingenetic [phoenix-like in rebirth] ultranationalist populism.”

Here’s how The Donald, his followers, and his competitors stack up against that worldview:

Make America Great Again

trump-announce

From here.

His slogan, borrowed from Reagan, is now purchasable on hats, on t-shirts, and bumper stickers. As its origins make clear, almost everyone runs for office with improvements in mind, potentially restorative ones even, but the centrality his campaign gives this phrase does mirror the fascist appeal towards national rebirth.

What little policy specifics Trump has currently doled out hit the exact same note as well – calling for an overhaul of US policy towards China (currently “a typical example of how politicians in Washington have failed our country”), the administrative pile-up at the Veterans’ Administration (“when Donald J. Trump is president, it will be fixed – fast”), and on immigration (present policies “must change”). On taxes, he showcases his plan as a restoration of competitiveness:

“Politicians in Washington have let America fall from the best corporate tax rate in the industrialized world in the 1980’s (thanks to Ronald Reagan) to the worst rate in the industrialized world. That is unacceptable. Under the Trump plan, America will compete with the world and win by cutting the corporate tax rate to 15%, taking our rate from one of the worst to one of the best.”

Gun policy is just about the only issue he doesn’t quite sound this way on, but even there he’s suggested reworking the background check system, instituting a national right to carry, and encouraging concealed weapons in military facilities. After all, when making “America great again, we need a strong military” meaning”we need to allow them to defend themselves” which entails conceal-carry apparently. The resurrection of the nation makes a guest appearance in the end.

Woven into almost everything he does are familiar tropes to almost every major Republican candidacy these days – a witnessing of others feeling stung by being cheated by a broken system, appeals to a better time this country could see again, and so on. None of that is particularly unique to Trump, or unique to fascists, but it’s just one key rhetorical and ideological aspect of their politics that he has similarly centered.

Morning in America: for whom?

So all of the major candidates, especially in the Republican primary, have made their case for how to rework this country into something more efficient, more fair, and just generally better. What Trump has done, at a unique decibel level, is make it incredibly clear that his better world has reserved seating. He literally launched his campaign while making that clear:

Part of what’s made some of the shock over his recent comments seem silly is that he’s been saying this sort of thing all along. He entered the arena blaring this message: that the improvements he promises to work for will come at a price and that’s millions displaced. An emerging plurality in the Republican primary appear to have answered him that that’s not a cost at all as far as they’re concerned.

His more recent statements on Muslims just expand the scope of who, in his theoretical presidency, would be drawn on the other side of a line of acceptance. This cuts straight to the ultranationalist core of fascism. The line demarcating the inside and the outside has to be strictly applied in most historical forms of fascism, and it tends to create elaborate metrics to allow a tight boundary indeed.

The omnipresent role that that issue plays in his campaign is unique within the Republican field. The degree to which he departs from his fellow candidates, however, is not very large. Questions of which broad swathes of the world’s population are beyond the pale are just answered a little more narrowly by the rest of the field.

Marco Rubio is certainly encouraging people to think of essentially all Muslims in that way as well, but not as interested in a Trump-like heavy handed set of immigration and entry policies. Jeb Bush has gone on record in favor of restrictions on Muslim refugees and said quite a few things about “anchor babies.” Arguably, Trump’s successful jump to the top of the polls while fixating on this type of discussion has paved the way for them and others to speak similarly.

Fie the constitution

Trump’s most recent comments of that caliber advocate a set of policies that are pretty unambiguously not legal. While his prior policy proposals have largely stayed within legal lines, he has been curiously cavalier with how he talks about basic constitutional freedoms.

There are the regular conventions – a disdain for the media, which is an essential check within our democratic system – but also a troubling recurrence of intimidation and assault on protesters by his supporters, which Trump has pretty much encouraged. It’s even led to a near death.

Just as there’s been a race to match Trump on immigration and related policies, at least one competitor has tried to match him on illegal demands. Ben Carson all but argued for a religious test for someone to become president – a flagrant violation of the First Amendment’s ban on religious tests for political office.

While Trump and Carson stumble on some rather large and obvious questions of legality, there’s a more casual disregard for democratic convention that’s permeated the Republican primary. A small amount of bucking trends and tradition is probably healthy, but the party establishment and Trump have painted themselves both into a corner. Trump continues to not so subtly hint he might break with the party’s process and make an independent run. The party, meanwhile, has tried to keep hold on him and other candidates all the more tightly in response.

In US politics, our parties are more of a pragmatic organization solution than strictly part of our democracy or constitutionally recognized, let alone mandated. That said, disrupting their normal process could, arguably, have an undemocratic effect, in terms of upending expectations that primary and general voters can have about candidates. In that light, Trump’s fight with party leadership and their own interest in changing around party rules and standards to either accommodate or challenge him both represent a casual departure from democratic norms.

That’s the same “just do what needs to be done” mentality that when applied to constitutional and human rights can lead to dark places, particularly when imbued with the zeal of someone saving their country from an Other which fills them with rage, disgust, and terror.

Popularity contests

Speaking of other candidates playing catch-up with Trump, there’s one element of the definition that Neiwert’s three word summary catches and Griffin’s paragraph misses: populism.

Here’s where Trump and the rest of the Republican field most dramatically part ways. While he has promised not to threaten Social Security and other key entitlement programs, almost everyone one of his competitors has suggested something similar. Their tax plans vary a little less neatly, but Trump’s has the distinction of most overtly appealing to the working and middle classes, to a degree that few others really do.

Before someone starts calling Trump a Democrat plant, realize he’s still to the right of Democrats on those and other economic issues. Particularly the Warren wing of the Democrats stands in sharp contrast with him on questions of international corporate tax policy, but their party as a whole is generally fixated on growing and increasing entitlement and pension programs (although, often, not by much). Amid expansion-minded Democrats and restriction-minded Republicans, Trump sticks out oddly, seemingly wanting to keep things as they are more or less.

Within the American political landscape, there’s arguably a large chunk of the electorate who could be described as populists, more than liberals or conservatives. They’re often explained as those who tend to skew towards tradition and other conservative points on social issues, but favor economic redistribution and other liberal policies economically. It’s often bemoaned that members in that group who vote Republican aren’t voting in their own self interest. It’s seldom asked why they’re doing that.

Arguably, part of what Trump has done is very careful tilt his policies in that groups direction. He’s not asking them to give up their benefits to Republican cuts, and his racially-charged campaign is arguably encouraging fears in that group that the Democrats will ask them to give their benefits over to someone scary and different.

One of the recurring questions in this campaign has been the dumbfounded demand of how Trump catapulted himself to the lead in the Republican primary, later replaced with asking how he’s stayed there. Here’s an answer: he’s better replicating this fascist checklist, primarily in terms of a few economic populist policies (available to those on the right side of the nation’s social, cultural, economic, and political boundaries). There’s a ghoulish impulse that taps into, of thinking that if there’s fewer mouths to feed, there’s more for me.

Pairing that with ultra-nationalist rhetoric allows him to maintain significant support among conservatives, but while also being uniquely appealing to many populists sometimes turned off by conservative economic policy prescriptions. They have to be populists who don’t mind extremist rhetoric, or, ones vulnerable to being whipped into fear or anger in the midst of ultra-nationalist fervor.

The language used, particularly when paired with disdainful talk for “political correctness” also helps pick up a scattered group of extremist conservatives, and potentially even some populists, who aren’t scared off by conservative economics but want more intense conservative social policies. In short, it spreads the support thin, but it also picks up support in demographics boilerplate Republicans were potentially overlooking.

The fact that fully stitching together this fascist policy plank helps someone leap to front-runner status within the Republican primary should give you and hopefully everyone in this country pause. Donald Trump isn’t just arguing for fascism on the campaign trail and, unrelatedly, leading in the primary. His articulation of an essentially fascist collection of policy proposals and rhetorical tricks created his lead. He’s giving the kind of people who vote in the Republican primary what they want, and what they want, looks to be fascism.

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The first of the three spirits

This is the second post in this series. You can read the first chapter’s post here or the full series.

When we last left Scrooge, he had shrugged off the bizarre supernatural experience he had had and gone straight to bed. His procession to bed is described hastily and vaguely, leaving an impression that he is drawn to bed by a strange gravity.

Pushing the weird interpretations of what is happening to him to the side, it does come off like he’s avoiding. Considering how much he has cut himself off from the world in a kind of pre-death, it’s hard to see how he wouldn’t have adopted avoidance strategies, to maintain his separation from people. Now, however, he’s using it to put distance between himself and a fantastical mix of supernatural sights and experiences.

Having cut himself off from the world, Scrooge wakes up from his sleep woefully confused. He remembers it as having been in the wee hours of the morning that he had gone to bed, but it’s the chime of twelve, presumably midnight’s, that wakes him.

Curious explanations come to him – that he’s slept through the day into Christmas night, that it’s the apocalypse and all has become night – but none of that really seems to fit. Because he has no one in his home with him, there’s no one to clarify what time or even day it is. Oddly, it doesn’t occur to him to reach out and find someone to help make sense of his incomprehensible reality. Keeping himself cloistered has become so second nature that he can’t call for help from others to make sense out of the inexplicable.

His isolation and madness are interrupted by the chime of one, which Scrooge greets by stating that “nothing else” has come.

“Lights flashed up in the room upon the instant, and the curtains of the bed were drawn. The curtains of the bed were drawn aside, I tell you, by a hand. Not the curtains at his feet, nor the curtains at his back, but those to which his face was addressed. The curtains of his bed were drawn aside; and Scrooge, starting up into a half-recumbent attitude, found himself face to face with the unearthly visitor who drew them”

Who had barged into Scrooge’s room? This is one of those details that almost every video adaptation I’ve seen has failed utterly in. Here’s how the original describes it – yes, that is the pronoun used:

“It was a strange figure – like a child, yet not so like a child as like an old man, viewed through some supernatural medium, which gave him the appearance of having receded from the view and being diminished to a child’s proportions. Its hair, which hung about its neck and down its back, was white, as if with age; and yet the face had not a wrinkle in it, and the tenderest bloom was on the skin.”

Its paradoxical nature is felt even in its accessories:

“It held a branch of fresh, green holly in its hand and, in singular contradiction to that wintry emblem, had its dress trimmed with summer flowers.”

In spite of this explosion of oddity directly into Scrooge’s face, there’s one particularly attribute Scrooge first admits is oddest about it: the light that poured from its crown (which he presumes is why it carries an extinguisher, like for a candle, at its side like an unworn hat). After a moment, another aspect of it eclipses that, however:

“For as its belt sparkled and glittered, now in one part and now in another, and what was light one instant at another time was dark, so the figure itself fluctuated in distinctness: being now a thing with one arm, now with one leg, now with twenty legs, now a pair of legs without a head, now a head without a body, of which dissolving parts no outline would be visible in the dense gloom wherein they melted away. And, in the very wonder of this, it would be itself again, distinct and clear as ever.”

This is some unsettling, intrusive spirit that enters into Scrooge’s personal space in the midst of him being confused about unexplained events. Confronted with that kind of compounded oddness, Scrooge reacts in a telling way. He attempts to shut off contact.

“Perhaps Scrooge could not have told anybody why, if anybody could have asked him, but he had a special desire to see the Spirit in his cap and begged him to be covered.

The spirit brushes off the request and makes it clear that it is there to shine and benefit him. It takes him by the hand and pulls him into what for many is a familiar romp through Scrooge’s past.

What’s often lost in adaptation’s at times perfunctory tour through Scrooge’s past are the ominous signs that he was being pushed into the type of bitter and isolated old age he now finds himself in. While Scrooge was not always distant from others and prone to separating himself, the patterns of that were foreshadowed ominously even in his childhood.

The first Christmas memory of Scrooge’s that he and this spirit visit shows him unvisited by family at school during the holiday, abandoned by friends, and mistreated by school staff. Confronting that past is a difficult process for Scrooge.

“It opened before them, and disclosed a long, bare, melancholy room, made barer still by lines of plain deal forms and desks. At one of these a lonely boy was reading near a feeble fire and Scrooge sat down upon a form and wept to see his poor forgotten self as he had used to be.

In the next memory, in which his sister fetches him from exile at his school, one of the revealed aspects of his life is that his father instilled him and others with a doubt that they would be loved and respected. Without any assurance of appreciation and dignity, Scrooge has nothing to trust in but what he himself can create – potentially through purchases.

Even as these early childhood memories of neglect and ultimate inclusion march past, his early adulthood full of apprenticeships and other economic arrangements shows him curiously on the periphery of the holiday celebrations. The full blown avoidance of social interaction that highlights his later life was prefigured in a slower retreat earlier in life. He slid out of the social sphere, into more extreme isolation.

While his retreat had in some sense started, he was active enough in the world that he remembered certain lessons well. The spirit goads him into explaining the financial returns on the Christmas feast thrown for him, a fellow apprentice, and almost everyone else working in the shop’s vicinity.

“[The shop owner] has the power to render us happy or unhappy, to make our service light or burdensome, a pleasure or a toil. Say that his power lies in words and looks, in things so slight and insignificant that it is impossible to add and count ’em up; what then? The happiness he gives is quite as great as if it cost a fortune.”

Charles Dickens, who himself had worked for a short time as a child laborer, is making the case for an economy centered on human wants and comfort, and what’s more having it tumble out of Scrooge’s mouth. In both Dickens’ time and ours, that’s a contested point. Then and now, resources are tightly concentrated in the hands of a few, and the basic security and happiness of almost everyone else is simply a cost to be questioned.

This can be seen in the on-going debate about whether healthcare is a human right. It’s also visible in the proliferation of work environments in which everything possible is done not to benefit the workers – with wage theft, stagnant wage growth, a proliferation of unpaid positions, and debates over the continuation of pension and entitlement programs. One of the first policy questions to come before the current Speaker of the House, Paul Ryan, was about family leave, and his answer was entirely in that vein: that work in general should be structured to allow or even encourage everyone’s happiness is silly. His time with his family is a privilege he would like, however.

By the time his Christmas memories reach what the book describes as his prime years, Scrooge’s face has “begun to wear the signs of care and avarice.” His silent participation had begun to be eclipsed by an as-yet unnamed “eager, greedy, restless motion”. As his older self witnesses him parting ways with his almost-wife, his younger self shows the signs of someone beginning to withdraw from the broader world.

That woman looks “with steadiness upon him,” and asks, “tell me, would you seek me out and try to win me now?” The book describes how his younger self in the moment “seemed to “yield to the justice of this supposition, in spite of himself.” Guided by the spirit, his older self sees him retreating inwards, cutting his ties.

That is the conclusion he unfortunately reaches in adulthood, from seeds sown in his childhood. He echoes the cheapness that his old schoolmaster tended towards – who served stale food to him and his sister and offered a servant something even worse. The coldness of his father, who sent him away for school, returns in his chilly romance. His own dead-like nature has begun to emerge after his sister has ominously disappeared from his Christmas memories.

From that memory between him and his unnamed romantic partner, they look in something akin to horror on a Christmas he had been elsewhere. On the Christmas of Marley’s death, his would-be-wife and her actual husband enjoy a Christmas with their children and speak of him briefly. Her husband had seen him “quite alone in the world” in passing earlier that day.

Overcome by the children he never had and the wife he never married, Scrooge begs that the spirit shield him from this tour of his past, only to look on it and see “a face in which, in some strange way, there were fragments of all the faces it had shown him.” Scrooge’s own tumultuous, unstable past has come to confront him, and he fights it, grabbing “the extinguisher cap and by a sudden action pressed it down upon [the spirit’s] head.”

Ghost_of_Christmas_Past

From here.

He buries his past just as he cuts off his connections in the present, and leaves himself alone to avoid those in worse places than him. He finds himself in his room again and falls into a deep slumber, just like after meeting Marley’s ghost.

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The ends justify the means

Paris has remained the center of international attention after the coordinated terrorist attacks on November 13, in part because of the looming climate talks that have now begun. In light of recently stoked fears of panic and chaos, a large-scale and officially recognized protest was prevented from occurring. Many have questioned whether the shutting down of the primary demonstration – planned months in advance to be one of the largest mobilizations in the world on this issue – was an opportunity for the many heads of state meeting today, seized with the justification of anti-terrorism.

For all the fears of a creeping police state, unleashed by counter-terrorism but focused squarely on silencing political dissent, the marchers appear to have gotten most of their goals. Various commitments (yeah, considering how Kyoto went, you can roll your eyes at that) have already been agreed to by major international players. For those who wanted to physically protest and fight the French state, opportunities for that have been available too, although probably not ones they wanted.

2015-11-30_1946
(From here.)

One detail curiously lost in the paranoia about a steadily expanding French surveillance system that can easily curtail civil liberties (which isn’t really unfounded), is the US’s own strangely undemocratic stance. President Obama has embraced a legal framework designed to allow him, or any future president, to move the US towards its emissions commitments without congressional approval. If you remember the reaction to his executive actions on immigration, you can already see how that could potentially play out.

There is an unfortunate way that this does reflect negatively on him. Instead of deciding that it was possible to win a majority in the Senate that supported collective action on this issue, his administration has opted for a strategy that’s essentially undemocratic. Admittedly, this is in some sense to be expected – the losses of the Democrats in the midterm elections in 2010 and 2014  made any other tactic untenable, especially given the memory of how the Kyoto Protocols went over in the US Senate last time around.

The US Senate is, as I’ve said before, at the heart of how the US democracy isn’t representative of the political ideas and considerations of a solid majority of US voters, let alone residents. To those familiar with the millenia-old ancient Greek understanding of tyranny, this situation might be eerily familiar. Representative structures hijacked by powerful and enfranchised groups can be opposed by populist pressure, in the form of what ultimately amounts to a dictator’s answer to their illusion of democracy.

This is one of the ways that representative governments have historically fallen – when achieving something that resembles a democratic, populist outcome requires jettisoning or even dismantling the established, at least nominally democratic process. For modern Western states, this is perhaps best understood in the phantom of Napoléon, the quintessential revolutionary turned emperor.

Amid the fears that even a zealous commitment of the current goals would only modestly curb climate change, the haunting warnings of The Hunger Games universe seem apt. In those book series, set in a distant future in North America, President remains the title of the head of state, but is unambiguously a dictatorial position. The cultures and economies in that dystopia reflect among other things the damage wrought by climate change, which is implied to have helped dictatorial figures retain control, enforcing among other things, restrictions aimed at having positive environmental effects.

Before anyone reading this thinks I’m falling into a kind of pop culture rebuke of doing anything about climate change, let me assure you I’m not. The true horror here isn’t that President Obama is the next Napoléon. His elaborate work-around for dealing with the Senate isn’t to amass power within his own political office and deal with climate change or any other problems himself. Instead, his effort is to support the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and other non-government organizations, which can circumvent the political requirements of a treaty.

This is less dictatorship and more privatization. We’re not a modern democracy, at risk of the revolution becoming an empire. We’re a post-modern democracy, in danger of cutting the state into private structures beyond democratic check.

Perhaps, France’s police, pushing protesters to the ground and throwing tear gas canisters, are less of a sign of things to come and more of a historical holdover. Instead of populist politics finding their expression in hands of just one person – and hence corroding democratic processes – or a lumbering or even misguided “democratic” government, we’ve entered a new era in which the state actually cedes power. For all their deep flaws, either of those options at least have some basis in popular consensus. The libertarian future being hinted at here has little to no democratic oversight.

The iconic images of undemocratic rule – of an all powerful state – might only just be that, icons, infused with political meaning only within a specific cultural context. We’re in a brave new world, in which the power of the few doesn’t necessarily control or even want to control the state.

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