The Beginning Of The End?

These days, optimism comes hard. But there are reasons for hope.

For one thing, despite the incredibly discouraging fact that upwards of seventy million Americans voted for a racist incompetent who posed an obvious danger to the stability of the entire world, eighty-one million voted otherwise.

And despite the fact that we are seeing something akin to a civil war between Americans who take the country’s aspirations for equality seriously and the White nationalists and their fellow-travelers who fear loss of unearned privilege, Georgia has elected a Black Senator. (It is equally notable that Georgia also elected a Jewish one, since–as the photos coming out of the insurrection at the Capitol illustrated–racism and anti-Semitism are inextricably entwined.)

An article in Time Magazine, published a mere two days after the assault on the Capitol, insisted that Southern resistance to Black equality is on the wane–that the South deserves a “New Political Story.”

The author referenced the fact that Ted Cruz–aka “Mr. Despicable”– had modeled his performative “objections” to the receipt of Electoral College votes on the “infamous and racist” Hayes-Tilden Compromise of 1876.  That “compromise” ended Reconstruction; it gave Rutherford B. Hayes the presidency in exchange for the removal of federal troops protecting Black citizens in the South.

That agreement led to a nearly century-long reign of racial terror that reinvigorated the Ku Klux Klan, subjected Black people to quotidian forms of racial terror and mob violence, violently ejected Black men from both government office and the public sphere through lynching and the threat of it, and subjected Black women to rape at the hands of ravenous white men.

The author says that it is this violent racial past–a past that I’m pretty confident is not taught in our nation’s history classes–  makes the Georgia Senate elections of Warnock and Ossoff so significant, and she counsels against accepting “the narrative that retrograde 19th and mid-20th century racial politics are winning.”

They are not. Do not mistake the death rattle for a victory cry. And do not let the war cries of angry white people drown out the resounding and clarion calls from Black women organizers and strategists and voters of color who have made clear that Trump’s America is not their America.

The article surveys other deep-south states and finds Black elected officials in previously unlikely places. And while she concedes that White backlash has often won the day, she insists that grassroots organizing and GOTV campaigns can prevent that result this time around.

The article made me think about the Darren Walker observation I shared previously, to the effect that democracy is the antidote to inequality. I truly believe that if every citizen who is entitled to cast a ballot is allowed to do so, White nationalists will lose. It isn’t simply because the ranks of Americans of color are growing, it’s because Americans of good will–Americans who embrace the unrealized aspirations of our constituent documents–outnumber those who are desperately clinging to their privileged status.

I want to believe that the ugliness we are seeing truly is a “death rattle” of a tribalism based on skin color, gender and religion. But I also know that people who fear a loss of status will not be defeated by warm thoughts, by sermons from authentic Christians, or by appeals to their own material self-interest. (Most of them define self-interest culturally, not economically.)

Stacey Abrams and other Black women in Georgia have demonstrated the way forward. Those of us who live in other “Southern” states (I would include Indiana in that cohort) need to take a page from her book. We need to identify the people of good will–of every color, gender and religion/non-religion–and get them to the polls. But we also need to abolish all of the structural impediments that have been erected to prevent or discourage people from voting–starting with gerrymandering.

As I keep saying, we have our work cut out for us.

 

The Future Of Trumpism

There’s little point in reiterating the obvious–that the insurrection at the nation’s Capitol represented a “security failure” that was very likely abetted by Trump sympathizers within the system. As an article in the usually staid and circumspect Foreign Affairs put it,

Law enforcement, which uses a heavy hand against Black Lives Matter protesters and prepares carefully to stop possible al Qaeda attacks, was apparently unprepared for the mix of white supremacists, anti-government extremists, conspiracy theorists, and other pro-Trump supporters who openly organized to “burn DC to the ground” to overturn an election at the behest of the president. Although it’s too early to point fingers, the Capitol Police and other security forces clearly have some explaining to do.

The ingredients of what we have come to call “Trumpism” are varied and complicated. Although virtually all of those ingredients include racist grievances, other social ills cause racial grievances to grow and metastasize. America’s gaping economic divide is certainly one of those, as is our demonstrably inadequate social safety net. (The irony here is that unwillingness to extend social welfare services to “those people” is a major reason for America’s lack of such a safety net. It’s all intertwined.)

Trumpism’s future will depend in large measure on whether the Biden Administration and those that succeed it can repair the major holes in our national fabric–not simply existing economic policies that are wildly favorable to those who are already well-off, but a range of  failings in areas as disparate as civic education, regulation of digital platforms, policing, environmental justice, and especially election laws.

People who have grievances– legitimate or not–are ripe for induction into what we might call the lost cause brigade. A recent New York Times op-ed by a historian issued that warning. She drew parallels between Trump’s lost cause and that of the Confederacy in 1865, and between Lee’s rhetoric after the South’s defeat and Trump’s.

Mr. Trump’s lost cause mirrors that of Lee’s. His dedicated followers do not see him as having failed them, but as a man who was failed by others. Mr. Trump best represents their values — even those of white supremacy — and the cause he represents is their cause, too. Just as Lee helped lead and sustain the Confederacy over four years, Mr. Trump has also been a sort of general — in a campaign of disinformation.

The author warned of the “dangerous consciousness” of Trump’s supporters, and predicted that– like Lee’s Lost Cause– it will not likely end. When Lee died just five years after the Civil War, the mythology about Confederate defeat was already growing exponentially. “The Lost Cause did not belong to Lee; Lee belonged to the Lost Cause — a cultural phenomenon whose momentum could not be stopped.”

Trump’s lost cause is the mythology he has created about voter fraud and fake news. Right now, that mythology is a “cultural and political phenomenon that shows no sign of ending,” because it has been aided and abetted by Republican members of Congress.

Whether the dire predictions in the Times column prove accurate will depend to a considerable degree on whether we can rein in a digital world still in its technological and cultural infancy. The ability of racists, conspiracy theorists and other lunatics to use the Internet to find each other and plan insurrections is more than worrisome, but there are also signs that the data they relinquish can be used to hold them accountable.

Apparently, before Parler was taken offline, a group of hackers captured  the personal data of upwards of  12 million of its users– white supremacists, QAnon adherents, Trumpists,  armed insurgents. ( Despite promises of anonymity, Parler was considerably less solicitous of users’ privacy than Facebook.)  Videos posted to the site captured GPS coordinates and the identities of rioters who carried their phones.  Hackers reportedly captured up to 70 terabytes of data, including users’ driver’s licenses, geolocations, deleted messages, and  videos.

What information technology will ultimately change, destroy or privilege is anyone’s guess.

Perhaps the most important predictor of Trumpism’s future, however, is whether America can finally eliminate gerrymandering. As Talking Points Memo reminds us:

It’s no coincidence that the vast preponderance of those who incited the insurrection by objecting to the counting of electoral votes were politicians who owed their perpetual re-election to gerrymandering. 

Granted, Trump owed his electoral success to the Electoral College, “a system that privileges a handful of unrepresentative swing states and renders the rest of the nation functionally irrelevant.” But the vast majority of Congressional Republicans who incited the insurrection owed their perpetual re-election to the gerrymandering that protects them from democratic backlash–but not from farther-right primary opposition.

Defeating Trumpism absolutely requires eliminating gerrymandering.

In A Way, It Really WAS Obama’s Fault…

Whether the current eruption of White Christian Nationalism is–as I profoundly hope– its “death rattle” and not a more permanent, dangerous fixture of our political reality, it may be useful to consider what has triggered its current malevolence.

The road from the Emancipation Proclamation has been a long one, for reasons a number of historians have documented. The resistance of White supremicists, abetted by racist politicians, consistently impeded progress and continues to do so. But little by little, as the boots of those supremicists lifted from Black and Brown necks and as people of color (and women) were able to access education and get hired to do non-menial jobs, the environment has– slowly– shifted.

It has become difficult, if not impossible, to ignore the fact that talent and diligence–just like ignorance and sloth– are pretty widely dispersed among all populations.

Over the years, women, Latinos and Black people who occupy positions of authority have become more prominent and plentiful. Faces in the media and academia, and among co-workers and bosses and neighbors, have become steadily more diverse. And then, for the bigots, the ultimate indignity: a brilliant, classy Black President and his equally accomplished wife were “in the face” of resentful Whites for eight long years.

One way they could diminish Obama was to elect a crude, ignorant, classless racist to succeed him, as if to say: “See. Even a dumb, mentally-ill buffoon can do that job. You aren’t so special.” Another was to oppose and mischaracterize efforts to remedy the still-potent remnants of official racism–to pretend that vote suppression was “prevention of voter fraud” or  to insist (falsely) that demonstrations by groups like Black Lives Matter were as violent as their own.

I don’t pretend to understand the attitudes or thought processes (if they can be dignified by describing them as “thought”) of people who believe that a mob of White vandals trashing offices and defecating on the floor of the nation’s Capitol are representatives of a “superior” population.

As the saying goes, I’m not a psychiatrist and I don’t play one on TV. I can only assume that what we are seeing is the inarticulate rage of people who are disappointed with their lives, who feel that the world is not according them the status and/or recognition to which they feel entitled, who have  comforted themselves with the notion that (as LBJ memorably put it) at least they were superior to Black people.

Take that comfort away, and they are truly bereft.

The question now is whether this most recent eruption will usher in any meaningful change. In the wake of the insurrection, there have been some encouraging signs that the determined “neutrality” of many people and businesses has been shaken. Donors are withdrawing support from several of the most culpable elected officials–those like Cruz and Hawley who clearly knew better but encouraged the uprising in hopes that indulging seditious fantasies would win them the support of Trump’s rabid base. The PGA will no longer authorize tournaments at Trump-owned golf courses. The Business Roundtable, the National Association of Manufacturers and even the rightwing editorial board of the Wall Street Journal are among those that have called for Trump’s resignation.

Will reaction to this shocking example of sedition go the way of the  “thoughts and prayers” responses to mass gun violence? Or will Americans finally, firmly reject racial and religious tribalism, and begin a final and vastly overdue commitment to civic equality?

I have hopes, but no crystal ball.

 

 

 

We Should See Clearly Now…

In the wake of the 2016 election, I was criticized by some very nice people for claiming that Trump’s win was all about racism. Those nice people–and they are nice people, I’m not being sarcastic here–were shocked that I would tar all Trump voters with such an accusation. But as my youngest son pointed out, Trump’s own racism was so obvious that the best thing you could say about his voters was that they didn’t find his bigotry disqualifying.

Conclusions of academic researchers following that election have been unambiguous. “Racial resentment” predicted support for Trump.

After the insurrection at the Capital, Americans simply cannot pretend that the profound divisions in this country are about anything but White Christian supremacy. We are finally seeing  recognition of that fact from previously circumspect sources.

Here’s what the staid numbers-crunchers at 538.com. wrote:

Much will be said about the fact that these actions threaten the core of our democracy and undermine the rule of law. Commentators and political observers will rightly note that these actions are the result of disinformationand heightened political polarization in the United States. And there will be no shortage of debate and discussion about the role Trump played in giving rise to this kind of extreme behavior. As we have these discussions, however, we must take care to appreciate that this is not just about folks being angry about the outcome of one election. Nor should we believe for one second that this is a simple manifestation of the president’s lies about the integrity of his defeat. This is, like so much of American politics, about race, racism and white Americans’ stubborn commitment to white dominance, no matter the cost or the consequence. (emphasis mine)

How about Darren Walker,  President of the Ford Foundation?

I have long believed that inequality is the greatest threat to justice—and, the corollary, that white supremacy is the greatest threat to democracy. But what has become clear during recent weeks—and all the more apparent yesterday—is that the converse is also true: Democracy is the greatest threat to white supremacy.

This explains the white backlash that has plagued American politics from its beginnings and throughout these last four years. It also casts a light on what we witnessed yesterday: A failed coup—an insurrection at the United States Capitol.

In his statement, Walker made a point that has been made repeatedly in the aftermath of that assault: If these had been protestors for racial justice–no matter how peaceful– rather than a violent and angry mob exhibiting “white pride” and grievance, the use of force by law enforcement would have been very different. 

Walker is correct: democracy–the equal voice of all citizens expressed through the ballot box–threatens White supremacy. That’s why, as demographic change accelerates, the GOP– aka the new Confederacy– has frantically worked to suppress minority votes, why it has opposed vote-by-mail and other efforts to facilitate participation in democratic decision-making.

Like almost everyone I know, I’ve been glued to reporting and commentary that has tried to make sense of what we saw. One of the most insightful was an article from Psychology Today that explained epistemic knowing.

After noting that “claims that the 2020 U.S. presidential election was illegitimate are widespread in Trump’s party,” despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, the author   focused on why people who should know better nevertheless choose to believe those claims.

He noted that he’d recently re-read To Kill a Mockingbird. As he reminds us, the book is about a black man being tried for rape in a Southern town. It becomes obvious during the trial that the accused didn’t do it–in fact, the evidence of his innocence is overwhelming. Yet the jury convicts him.

 The jury convicts Robinson of rape because at the heart of the case is whose word is believed: that of a white woman or that of a black man. In Lee’s Maycomb, it is important to the population that the word of the white woman be upheld as a more respected source of knowledge, even when this goes against the facts. What was at stake was not just this one particular case, but a larger principle: whose claims need to be respected….

When interpretations differ, people need to understand who to trust. They may choose to only nominate certain people, or certain kinds of people, to be worthy of giving interpretations worth trusting.

This is an illustration of “epistemic entitlement”–the choice of who is entitled to occupy the role of “Knower.” Who gets to say what’s true and false, what’s real and fake? 

Far too many Americans choose to believe White people over facts, evidence, and their “lying eyes.” 

Information Silos And The First Amendment

The First Amendment contemplates and protects a “marketplace of ideas.” We have no precedent for an information environment in which there is no marketplace–no “agora” where different ideas and perspectives contend with each other for acceptance.

What we have instead are information “silos”–a column in the New York Times recently quoted Robert Post, a Yale professor, for the observation that people have always been crazy, but the internet has allowed them to find each other.

In those silos, they talk only to each other.

Social media has enabled the widespread and instantaneous transmission of lies in the service of political gain, and we are seeing the results. The question is: what should we do?

One set of scholars has concluded that the damage being done by misinformation and propaganda outweighs the damage of censorship. Rick Hasen, perhaps the most pre-eminent scholar of election law, falls into that category:

Change is urgent to deal with election pathologies caused by the cheap speech era, but even legal changes as tame as updating disclosure laws to apply to online political ads could face new hostility from a Supreme Court taking a libertarian marketplace-of-ideas approach to the First Amendment. As I explain, we are experiencing a market failure when it comes to reliable information voters need to make informed choices and to have confidence in the integrity of our electoral system. But the Court may stand in the way of necessary reform.

I don’t know what Hasen considers “necessary reform,” but I’m skeptical.

I have always been a First Amendment purist, and I still agree with the balance struck by the Founders, who understood that–as pernicious and damaging as bad ideas can be–allowing government to determine which ideas get voiced is likely to be much more dangerous. (As a former ACLU colleague memorably put it, “Poison gas is a great weapon until the wind shifts.”)

That said, social media platforms aren’t government. Like brick-and-mortar private businesses, they can insist on certain behaviors by their customers. And like other private businesses, they can and should be regulated in the public interest. (At the very least, they should be required to apply their own rules consistently. People expressing concern/outrage over Twitter’s ban of Trump should be reminded that he would have encountered that ban much earlier had he been an ordinary user. Trump had flouted Twitter and Facebook rules for years.)

The Times column suggests we might learn from European approaches to issues of speech, including falsehoods and hate speech. Hate speech can only be banned in the U.S. if it is intended to incite imminent violence and is actually likely to do so. Europeans have decided that hate speech isn’t valuable public discourse– that racism isn’t an idea; it’s a form of discrimination.

The underlying philosophical difference here is about the right of the individual to self-expression. Americans value that classic liberal right very highly — so highly that we tolerate speech that might make others less equal. Europeans value the democratic collective and the capacity of all citizens to participate fully in it — so much that they are willing to limit individual rights.

The First Amendment was crafted for a political speech environment that was markedly different than today’s, as Tim Wu has argued.  Government censorship was then the greatest threat to free speech. Today, those, including Trump, “who seek to control speech use new methods that rely on the weaponization of speech itself, such as the deployment of ‘troll armies,’ the fabrication of news, or ‘flooding’ tactics” that humiliate, harass, discourage, and even destroy targeted speakers.”

Wu argues that Americans can no longer assume that the First Amendment is an adequate guarantee against malicious speech control and censorship. He points out that the marketplace of ideas has become corrupted by technologies “that facilitate the transmission of false information.”

American courts have long held that the best test of truth is the power of an idea to get itself accepted in the competition that characterizes a marketplace. They haven’t addressed what happens when there is no longer a functioning market–when citizens  confine their communicative interactions to sites that depend for their profitability on confirming the biases of carefully targeted populations.

I certainly don’t think the answer is to dispense with–or water down– the First Amendment. But that Amendment was an effort to keep those with power from controlling information. In today’s information environment, platforms like Twitter, Facebook, etc. are as powerful and influential as government. Our challenge is to somehow rein in intentional propaganda and misinformation without throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

Any ideas how we do that?