Monday, December 19, 2016

Let’s Focus on Unconstitutional Emoluments, Not "Russian Hacking"

On the eve of the Electoral College voting, it seems fairly obvious that the much vaunted effort to persuade several dozen of Donald Trump’s electors to vote against him will fail. Despite the sincere, well-meaning efforts of a wide spectrum of liberals, the effort seems to have made little headway, at least as far as I can tell. From my perspective, the greatest rhetorical mistake that liberals are making right now is the unjustifiable obsession with “Russian hacking” – which has been far too central to the case for asking the electors to overturn to the results of their states. This concern is appealing to elite Democratic establishment figures, because it builds bipartisan bridges with their fellow foreign policy establishment elites such as John McCain. It fits perfectly with a frame of mind that loves an appeal to the authority of traditional institutions, such as the Central Intelligence Agency, as well as (for many) a wistful return to the Cold War consensus of shared anti-Russian sentiment and fearmongering. More than this, what I find most outrageous is that the event most closely connected with the Russian government--the leaking of the Podesta DNC e-mails--is such an unbelievably poor issue on which to take a stand for the illegitimacy of an election. For the sake of argument, let’s postulate that the CIA is correct in its allegations about Russian involvement in the leak (but don’t forget that citizens should never trust the CIA’s word without proof on anything). But what were the Podesta e-mails about? Some were just airing the petty personal insults and gripes of DNC elites and certain elite media figures, but others clearly turned out to be leaks that were in the public interest, revealing their misdeeds and corruption. Michael Tracey makes this point cogently. So perhaps we should be thanking the Russians for helping shine a spotlight on this (although it remains a valid point that we would also benefit from equivalent hacks at the RNC, which would undoubtedly show similar, if not greater, corruption)? However, very few would seriously make the case that the Podesta e-mails were important to swing voters in the industrial Midwest. Yes, in a very small way they reinforced the (true) perception that Hillary Clinton and the DNC elite are corrupt, but they were a minor blip. In no way, except in elite establishment bubble world, can their hacking and revelation constitute a crisis of democracy. They certainly don’t constitute “hacking the election” in any serious sense. (If we discover that anyone, Russians or otherwise, was hacking into actual computer vote counting machines, that would be a completely different story, of course!) Donald Trump’s wide-ranging international business ties, including Russia but also many other places as well, are a much greater source of likely future systemic corruption and constitutional unfitness for the presidency. It now seems almost certain that he will be violating the “emoluments clause” of the constitution from his first day in office, and his laughably inadequate proposed solutions--having his children run his business empire, for example--will be both substantively and constitutionally insufficient. The problem, of course, is that you can’t overturn some election results simply because something is “likely” to happen. But once Trump takes office, an impeachment seems to be a very real possibility, unless he dramatically changes how he approaches potential conflicts of interest. (Interesting side note: Some have claimed maybe Trump can't divest his holdings into a blind trust, because he is so highly leveraged with loans that his net worth is less than zero--an intriguing theory!) Now, obviously, the public rhetoric can’t be about “unconstitutional emoluments,” which is a mouthful and incomprehensible jargon to most people. “Foreign bribery” might be a more straightforward shorthand that most people will understand. At a more substantive level, I have no doubt that most Americans, regardless of their vocabulary, understand that Presidents need to be making decisions for American interests, not for linking their own (and their families’) pockets. We just came through an election in which a great many people distrusted the other major candidate because of her corruption, including the Clinton Foundation’s solicitation of donations from foreign governments and leaders. It isn’t that great a step from this to a visceral awareness of how corrupt Trump’s dealings will be. It seems highly likely that grounds for impeachment will be available sometime soon after his inauguration. The only question is: should we wait until he loses popularity for some terrible policy decision, such as privatizing social security or cutting Medicare—in order to insure that people are primed to find his removal from office a welcome prospect—or should we pounce right away?

Monday, December 05, 2016

Working class & billionaires against urban professionals

Drawing on the Jacobin article by Matt Carp, the title of this post I think captures the current political alignment. Why would the working class--especially in this case the white working class--see a political ally in a billionaire real estate developer / serial liar? Partly it's that Trump can mimic signs of tribal membership, like being a class A jerk to women, generally enjoying pissing people off, and that sort of thing.

But also I think the series of tweets by Chuck Wendig, which I found via Daring Fireball, gets at the psychology pretty well, at least for a certain sector of the white working class. Basically, they don't like the poor or professionals, because neither of them want to work for a living.

How do we win enough of these folks back to the Democratic fold in the next four years? Well, some are probably lost causes--deeply bigoted, racist, or otherwise committed to jerkery. The Democratic party can't really appeal to them without damaging its existing coalition, which we don't want to do.

Confronting Trump and the Republicans on policy grounds, rather than trying to participate in the media circus Trumpers thrive on is probably also a good idea. And having policies that truly address the problems of the working class is also a good idea. But I'm not convinced that most voters really know or care much about policies.

What we need is a candidate who can speak like a member of the working class. Not like a jerk, as Trump does, but as someone who can be respectful and still show himself to be a member (or at least potential member) of the working class tribe. As Trump I think has demonstrated, what you say is far less important in American politics than how you say it. Sad, but probably true.

I think it would also help if the party put forward something more than just a set of policies. What we need is a platform calling for larger reforms--a complete overhaul of the political system. My shortlist of needed reforms: 1) abolish the electoral college and elect presidents via national popular vote; 2) run elections for national office through a national governmental agency, and take them away from the parties--the ballot and election regulations would be determined by the national agency, and election districts delineated by the Census Bureau; 3) elections for national office would use an instant run-off voting method instead of first-past-the post.

This might require amending the constitution. Fine. While we're at it, let's also 1) limit terms of Supreme Court members so that every president gets to name at least two justices; 2) declare that constitutional rights apply only to individual human beings, not corporate entities; 3) abolish the Senate; 4) double the size of the House of Representatives.

Saturday, December 03, 2016

Does the long arc of history bend toward justice?

Despite the recent election, the world--and probably the United States with it--is probably in better shape in most ways today than it has ever been. More people are living better, levels of poverty worldwide are falling, and we've made tremendous strides in protecting the rights of minorities. But I wonder now if we have reached peak civilization. My faith, in Martin Luther King's words, that "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice," is not as strong as it used to be.

The rise of liberal democracies, and concomitant increases in political freedom and living standards, may, in the long run, prove to be largely a 20th-century phenomenon. What we have witnessed in other countries, like Hungary, Poland, Turkey, and now (to a lesser extent, so far) in Britain and the US, may be signs that the world is returning to its pre-1900 baseline of mostly unfree societies, where wealth and political power are almost entirely within the hands of the extremely wealthy.

Yes, that's not going to happen with one lost election. But I worry that the world's response to the challenge of maintaining the 20th century's progress will be like its response to climate change--halting, myopic, deliberately sabotaged, and, to the extent that it has been effective at all, probably too little, too late. We may be at the proverbial hockey stick of authoritarianism, oligarchy, and plutocracy.

Monday, November 28, 2016

A Working-Class Politics Is Inherently Diverse

Perhaps the most maddening aspect of the rear-guard action of elite Democratic pundits defending the primacy of "identity liberalism" with a focus on language, speech, and symbolism, at the expense of shifting to a more robust working-class politics of common interests against the wealthy and powerful, is that the American working-class is obviously very diverse.

In fact, I'm sure everyone in this conversation is well aware that non-white racial and ethnic groups are over-represented in any definition of the working class, such as among workers without college degrees or those making less than any specified level of income. So why doesn't this obvious reality lead all Democrats to embrace a return to the party's working-class roots?

That is the topic for another day, and clearly there is a lot of self-interest on the part of professional class pundits and establishment Democrats of all races and ethnicities, but the Trump election tells us that we can no longer sweep this class divide within the Left-liberal coalition under the rug. As Matt Karp's brilliant article this morning in Jacobin details quite nicely, Clinton gained dramatically on Obama's performance in all the best off upper middle class professional and wealthy enclaves of the country while falling in working-class areas, among both whites and non-whites.

For non-whites this more often meant staying home, while the disillusioned white working-class divided between those who stayed home and those who switched to Trump. To be sure some fall-off in black voting, in particular, can be attributed to a rebound effect from the unusually high turnout for Obama. But the striking divergence between professional-class black areas, which pushed to even higher levels for Clinton, and the working-class black areas, which fell off noticeably, indicates that this rebound cannot be the whole story.

There is a class politics going on that cuts across all races and ethnicities. I remember back during the primary, as a Sanders supporter, how much comment there was on his relatively worse performance in less affluent black and Latino enclaves (though he did better with all younger voters, as well as with those who were living in more integrated areas rather than in segregated enclaves, particularly among Latinos). Overall, in retrospect, it seems that the turnout was depressed in these areas overall due to massive alienation and detachment from the political process, and Sanders's message never really had enough time build momentum there, and many people misread this somehow as black and Latino enthusiasm for Clinton, which the general election proves it obviously was not.

However, what was equally striking at the time, but much less commented on, was Clinton's enormous relative success in affluent and upper professional class enclaves, such as southwestern Connecticut, Westchester County, Manhattan, the nicest Boston suburbs, Silicon Valley, and elsewhere. These areas not only maintained their enthusiasm for her, but expanded upon Obama's performance quite substantially, as Karp's article details clearly. Clinton's coalition was a considerably more affluent, college educated, and comfortable group of people, compared to any Democratic voter base in my lifetime, and almost surely throughout the entire history of the Democratic party outside of the Old South.

Where can we go for here? Can the Democratic Party reclaim its working-class base, fully realizing that this is an inherently diverse and multi-cultural group of people? The good news is that the same kinds of universalist policies that can avoid the divisiveness of pitting group against each other and instead raise up all working-class people together--and, not incidentally, disproportionately this will help blacks, Latinos, Native Americans, and other non-white groups, given the demographics. (Notably, however, it will not particularly help the most affluent and privileged members of these groups, many of whom are obviously speaking with quite a different voice as part of the Democratic establishment rather than in solidarity with the much larger base of their groups who are in the working class--though of course for every detestable Cory Booker, Jamelle Bouie, or Joy Reid there is a Keith Ellison, Ben Jealous, or Nina Turner, so just like among whites, there are some nationally visible figures who care deeply about class and universalist politics!)

What would a concrete politics of defending the diverse working class with universalistic politics look like? One sign of hope is the recent push by Bernie Sanders to call Donald Trump's bluff on his pledge during the campaign to pressure Carrier to keep its manufacturing jobs in Indiana rather than move them to Mexico, and to protect American workers rather than just doing the bidding of large corporations. If you've seen the viral video of workers being told of the outsourcing and impending layoffs, you will know that both non-white and white workers are there hearing the same horrible message, and reacting with outrage.

But rather than letting Trump off the hook, or allowing him to broker some shady backroom deal, Sanders has introduced legislation to make this a matter of policy through an Outsourcing Prevention Act, which would make this a general policy rather than just a political prop. This is exactly the kind of politics we need--letting the working-class of America know that we are firmly on their side, and simultaneously holding Trump's feet to the fire on an issue he is unlikely to be able to deliver on, while keeping his GOP establishment partners satisfied.

A funny thing about Trump's election: so far the only concrete policy change has been the end of the lamentably awful, anti-worker (and anti-environment) Trans-Pacific Partnership. Trump himself mentioned it as the first item in his recent transition video on his priorities upon taking office. But now he has committed himself to maintaining a pro-worker trade policy (less so on the pro-environment, admittedly) and a robust defense of working-class politics in the Democratic Party will make it difficult for him to simultaneously keep his pledges and satisfy the GOP. He is backed into a corner now, and we need to cheer on people like Bernie Sanders who are making clear that we once again want to be the party that defends the (increasingly diverse) working class of America.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Thanks, Obama!

Before the end of Thanksgiving weekend, I did want to post a link and brief response to a really great recent Salon article by the ever-reliable Paul Rosenberg: "Giving thanks for the Barack Obama we had — and imagining the one who could have done so much more" Rosenberg captures very well my own "glass half full and half empty" sentiments about the Obama years.

As he points out, the greatest problem was that he failed to seize the moment and realize the full potential, especially early in his presidency. But another thing that strikes me is how much Rosenberg's list demonstrates the potential of a universalist economic program for the common good, rather than the demands construed as being from narrow identity groups. Yet many of the things Rosenberg cites would have improved the conditions not only for the white working class but also for the non-white working class.

It's interesting to think about how our politics might be different today if he had taken on Wall Street more vigorously, pushed for a larger economic stimulus, truly invested in a robust Green New Deal, helped struggling homeowners more than bankers, and strengthened unions. If he had tried these things--and even if the GOP had blocked him on some of it--would Trump have found it so easy to peal away white working-class voters and to turn black and Latino working-class voters into non-voters? As Rosenberg points out, it is important to think about this because it bears directly on the debate over the direction we should go now by reinforcing--with very specific policy examples--where we went wrong during the past eight years in our failure of ambition on the Democratic side. So, with Rosenberg, I give thanks for Obama--especially on the Iran deal, thawing relations with Cuba, leading us out of economic disaster, and supporting cultural shifts toward gay and lesbian equality, among other things--but we should not shy away from a sober assessment of where Obama went wrong.