Category Archives: Public Policy and Governance

Got A Brown Shirt?

Our kids all tend to be snarky. (I have no idea where they get that….)

At any rate, when a reader shared an article from Slate about the Federalist Society, it immediately reminded me of a long-ago exchange between my youngest son and another lawyer. My son had just returned to Indianapolis to practice law, and a colleague had invited him to join the local chapter of the Federalist Society. He’d declined, saying “Sorry, but I don’t have a brown shirt.

At the time, characterizing the Federalist Society as fascist was (arguably) unfair. As Dahlia Lithwick and Richard Hasen write in the linked article,

There’s nothing nefarious about like-minded people coming together to debate the issues of the day from a particular political perspective and to network with others of a similar mindset. (That’s the model of the American Constitution Society too, which engages in this activity from a progressive perspective and where we have both spoken.) Nor is there any question that groups of like-minded lawyers can and should gather together to mentor young attorneys and steer them into networks and eventually careers that will fulfill them. There’s been a recent controversy over whether it is inappropriate for federal judges to formally be a part of the Federalist Society, or the ACS, but even if these judges gave up their formal ties, the fact remains that the network and pipeline of clerkships and judgeships would remain intact. Again, none of this is new or particularly scandalous; Until recently, the biggest difference between the Federalist Society and ACS was less what they were doing and more that the former was simply better at it.

Until recently.

The article was a troubling report on what we might call “spawn of the Federalist Society.” A Senate report released by Senators Chuck Schumer, Debbie Stabenow, and Sheldon Whitehouse documents how a right-wing legal network spawned by the Federalist Society has–in Lithwick and Hasen’s words– gone “full Trumpian,” morphing from an organization of principled conservatives  into a secretly-funded cabal spouting conspiracy theories such as the myth of widespread voter fraud, and how Leonard Leo, co-chairman of the Federalist Society, has been spearheading the effort to fill the federal judiciary with judges who are likely to rule in favor of secret, monied interests.

The Senate Democrats’ report details how an interlocked group of anonymous donors have been directing the judicial nominations process through media and lobbying campaigns. Many of these campaigns, including the Judicial Crisis Network, have ties to Leo, who has twice taken a formal “leave” from the Federalist Society to advise President Trump on his Supreme Court nominations, then hopped back into his old post, while boasting that his organization was in firm control of the nominations process.

According to Lithwick and Hasen, while the Federalist Society continues to claim that it is uninvolved in politics, policy, or judicial nominations, and the group avoids taking “official” positions on such matters, Leo (who has effectively directed the group until very recently) has developed “a network of political groups, none of which disclose their donors, funded at about a quarter of a billion dollars.”  That money has mostly been used to help Mitch McConnell seat so-called “conservative” (and frequently unqualified) judges on the federal bench.

Judicial Crisis Network –one of the organizations in that shadowy network– spent $7 million opposing Merrick Garland, $10 million to support  Neil Gorsuch (targeting ‘vulnerable Democrat Senators’), and another $10 million in advertising to support Brett Kavanaugh. And nobody knows where the money came from.

More recently, that shadowy network has engaged in a new initiative: an effort to engage in political dirty tricks to help keep its cronies in power.

But the big news today is where that conservative network is heading: Their activities now go well beyond dark money political hardball into conspiracy mongering and election-meddling efforts around the November presidential elections that endanger our democracy.

And while this is happening, the Trump administration is rolling back the rules that would require these organizations to disclose their donors….

If there isn’t a blue wave in November, what is essentially a bloodless coup will have succeeded–making my son’s snark about needing a brown shirt terrifyingly true.

 

It’s A Political Divide, Not A Class Conflict

You’ve got to give Republicans credit–they’ve been really good at framing disputes among the various Democratic Party factions in ways that are most likely to create negative stereotypes appealing to independent voters.

The term “identity politics,” for example, is a not-very-veiled negative reference to activists emphasizing the interests/concerns of their (usually marginalized) groups–African-Americans, women, LGBTQ folks.

Working class activists are frequently accused of waging “class warfare.”

For some reason, Evangelicals aren’t pursuing “identity politics,” and crony capitalists aren’t waging class warfare; they are usually referred to more politely–if at all– as “interest groups.” But I digress.

In a recent column for the New York Times, Michelle Goldberg pointed out that the multiple columns arguing that lockdowns pit an affluent professional class that can mostly work from home against a working class that must risk its health in order to put food on the table are badly mischaracterizing the situation.

Writing in The Post, Fareed Zakaria tried to make sense of the partisan split over coronavirus restrictions, describing a “class divide” with pro-lockdown experts on one side and those who work with their hands on the other. On Fox News, Steve Hilton decried a “37 percent work from home elite” punishing “real people” trying to earn a living. In a column titled “Scenes From the Class Struggle in Lockdown,” The Wall Street Journal’s Peggy Noonan wrote: “Here’s a generalization based on a lifetime of experience and observation. The working-class people who are pushing back have had harder lives than those now determining their fate.”

The data says this is horse manure.

One recent survey found that, overall, 74 percent of Americans agreed  that the “U.S. should keep trying to slow the spread of the coronavirus, even if that means keeping many businesses closed.” Among respondents who’d been laid off or furloughed, 79% agreed.

Other research has determined that economic status isn’t what drives American disagreement over Coronavirus policies. It is “identity politics,” true, but the identity involved is  political.

Donald Trump and his allies have polarized the response to the coronavirus, turning defiance of public health directives into a mark of right-wing identity. Because a significant chunk of Trump’s base is made up of whites without a college degree, there are naturally many such people among the lockdown protesters.

 As Goldberg notes, what seems like attractive “liberation” to many comfortable people chafing at confinement is experienced as compulsion by those returning to riskier jobs. In a number of states, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that re-opening (usually in defiance of advice from public health officials) is prompted by the governor’s desire to avoid emptying out the state’s unemployment reserves.  (If an employer reopens but a worker doesn’t feel safe returning and quits, the employee can no longer collect unemployment benefits).

Goldberg argues that it is actually the financial elites that are eager for everyone else to resume powering the economy.

“‘People Will Die. People Do Die.’ Wall Street Has Had Enough of the Lockdown,” was the headline on a recent Vanity Fair article. It cited a banker calling for “broad legal indemnification for employers against claims related to the virus” so that employees can’t sue if their workplace exposes them to illness. Here we see the real coronavirus class divide.

Bolstering Goldberg’s version of reality are reports that the presumably “working class” protestors clamoring (often with guns and Confederate flags) for an end to the lockdowns are actually far-right operatives, many not even from the states in which they are protesting, and that nearly half of the twitter accounts urging reopening are bots.

We still have “identity poliitics.” But in the age of Trump, our identities have become almost entirely political.

 

Their War Is With Modernity

The Guardian recently reviewed David Frum’s forthcoming book, “Trumpocalypse.” Frum, as most of you will recall, was the speechwriter who penned George W. Bush’s “Axis of Evil” accusation; whatever lingering concerns I may have had about his judgment, however, have waned, thanks to his work as a “Never Trumper.”

In “Trumpocalypse,” Frum makes the case that Trump has gutted the rule of law and institutionalized “white ethnic chauvinism.” The article notes that Frum’s journey is emblematic of an ongoing political realignment, in which the GOP has increasingly embraced white rural voters and steadily lost college graduates and suburbanites.

One of the points Frum emphasizes has reinforced my own belief that America–and for that matter, the rest of the world to varying degrees–is undergoing a paradigm shift.

The concept of paradigm shift originated with Thomas Kuhn, an American physicist and philosopher, to explain why people working within a particular worldview or scientific framework cannot understand explanations of works produced under a preceding or different framework. Fundamental changes in basic concepts make genuine communication impossible.

Frum’s book quotes the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan for the proposition that it is “culture, not politics, that determines the success of a society,” and he identifies specific aspects of the culture Trump’s base believes it is defending–especially, as he says,  the belief that by supporting Trump, they are defending a “distinct way of life”, one challenged by modernity.

I think this is the key to understanding what is otherwise inexplicable: how any rational individual could look at the operation of Trump’s administration, with its massive corruption and overwhelming incompetence, and still support him.

Support for Trump is how people who are profoundly threatened by modernity say “Stop the world, I want to get off.”

That reaction against modernity, which is characterized by increasing secularism, explains why religious fundamentalists make up so large a part of Trump’s base. Secularism, in this sense, isn’t necessarily the absence of religious belief, but it is the absence of a certain type of religious belief. It refers to the ability of science to explain phenomena that biblical literalists attribute to God (remember when Bill O’Reilly defended religious belief by saying “the tide goes in, the tide goes out–who knows why?” We do know why.)

In my 2007 book “God and Country: America in Red and Blue,” I examined differences between religious folks I dubbed “Puritans” and those I identified as “modernist.” Among other things, Puritans tended to believe that Christianity requires capitalism–that in a sense, God was Adam Smith’s “Hidden Hand”– and that poverty was evidence of moral defect.

Modernity is also undermining economic fundamentalism. Rutger Bregman was the  historian who told the zillionaires at Davos a couple of years ago that they would be more effective at fighting poverty if they paid their taxes. Time had an interview with him, focused on his new book, “Humankind.” Bregman argues that the core beliefs about human nature that justify exploitative capitalism are simply wrong, and that we are coming to recognize that fact.

The old fashioned “realist” position has been to assume that civilization is only a thin veneer, and that the moment there’s a crisis we reveal our true selves, and it turns out that we’re all selfish animals.

Bregman disagrees, asserting that, over thousands of years, people have actually evolved to be far more collaborative and kind. He also points out a central lesson of the pandemic: as governments make lists of so-called vital professions, those lists don’t include hedge fund managers or captains of industry. It’s the (underpaid) garbage collectors and the teachers and the nurses who turn out to be people we can’t live without.

Our assumptions about human nature matter, because those assumptions guide the design of our institutions, and the design of our institutions encourages behavior that is consistent with the assumptions.

One of the big differences between religious and economic fundamentalists on the one hand, and modernists on the other, is the inability of the fundamentalists to tolerate ambiguity. As both Frum and Bregman make clear, however, modernity absolutely requires the ability to reject “either/or” “black/white” versions of reality.

As Bregman says,

I don’t live in that binary world. Sometimes markets work best, sometimes the state has the best solution. During the Enlightenment, there were brilliant thinkers who realized that, if you assume most people are naturally selfish and you construct the market around that, sometimes it can actually work for the common good. I just think that in many cases, it went too far. What many economists forget is that this view of humanity, the so-called “homo economicus,” can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Or, as Frum notes, “politics can change a culture and save it from itself”.

That’s the politics of change–the politics that Trump’s base hysterically rejects.

 

 

 

 

The Real Objection To Vote By Mail

I have some truly brilliant Facebook friends who regularly enlighten me.

For example, I have been puzzled by the degree of opposition displayed by Trump Republicans to voting by mail. The research shows pretty conclusively that vote by mail  doesn’t benefit either party (although it does increase turnout, and there are those who believe that larger turnout benefits Democrats.) It just seemed odd that the Trumpers would get so hysterical– and spend so much time and energy– fighting mail-in ballots.

Now I understand.

One of my Facebook Friends is David Honig, an Indiana lawyer whose posts are always informed and perceptive. However, his post this week–in which he answered the “why” question–was especially brilliant, because he cut through all the speculation and explained what is really motivating Republican opposition to vote by mail.

If people mail in their votes, robocalls to black communities telling them the election has been rescheduled, or their polling place changed, won’t work.

If people mail in their votes, robocalls to black communities on election day, telling voters to relax, the Democrat has already won, won’t work.

If people mail in their votes, calling out the “Militia” to intimidate voters won’t work.

If people mail in their votes, a “random” road block near a black neighborhood on election day won’t work.

If people mail in their votes, closing down the polling places in predominantly black neighborhoods, and leaving the only polling place miles from the populace, without any public transportation, won’t work.

As David argues–pretty persuasively– this isn’t about managing expectations, or creating an argument about errors in the vote in the event of a close Trump loss. This is about Republicans not being able to use their usual tactics– their time-honored strategies to suppress minority turnout on election day–to eke out a win. (The links will take you to recent examples of those tactics.)

GOP opposition is about the fact that vote-by-mail would eliminate most of the cheating we actually see every election.

As one of my sons pointed out in a comment, an additional problem Republicans have with voting by mail is that it returns the system to good old-fashioned paper. Voting by mail, with paper ballots, eliminates concerns about computer hacking and (with many of the newer voting machines) the lack of paper backup.

With “vote by mail” there is a paper trail that can be checked for accuracy in the event of a dispute or recount.

Ironically, it turns our that the arguments about vote by mail actually are arguments about voter fraud– just not in the way Republicans are framing it.  Vote by mail is a way of preventing fraud–preventing games the GOP has perfected and played for years–preventing voter suppression tactics that are every bit as fraudulent as casting an unauthorized or impermissible ballot. When we talk about rigging an election, these are the methods that have been used for years to do the rigging.

Ultimately, vote by mail isn’t just about preventing the spread of disease, or about accommodating the schedules of working folks, or even about facilitating the casting of more thoughtful and considered ballots, although it will do all of those things. It’s about keeping elections honest.

I just didn’t see it before.

No wonder the Trumpublicans oppose it.

A Picture’s Worth A Thousand Words…

Sometimes, visuals convey more information than text. As the old saying goes, a picture is worth a thousand words.

As our mentally-ill President pretends he knows what he’s talking about and brags about what a “great” job his administration has done, and as too many states are fudging the numbers of dead and dying so that they can open much too quickly, a reality check is in order.

These pictures are from EndCoronavirus.com.They show the progress of various countries in combatting the pandemic. Spoiler alert: America is far–far--from being number one.

These countries do best:

 

A second, nearly equal number of countries, was shown at the link as “almost there.”

The third set was “Countries that need to take action”–i.e., countries doing the worst:

Picture this the next time Trump declares that we’re doing more testing than any other country–we aren’t, not even close–or that we’re ready to “re-open.” Better still, if you happen to come across Trump’s tweet about his proposed new motto–“Transition to Greatness”–click on this URL of the same name for the real story.

If his perverse refusal to listen to experts or learn only threatened the morons who insist that their “liberty” entitles them to ignore your safety, I might be inclined to say “let them go for it!” Unfortunately, they are endangering the rest of us.

As a friend pointed out recently, their “liberty” doesn’t allow them to drive 100 miles per hour on city streets, or to dispense with wearing clothing in public, either. Until they understand the legitimate limits of individual liberty, the “land of the free” won’t be free of the Coronavirus.