Category Archives: Random Blogging

A Depressing Analysis

Despite overwhelming relief at the victory of the Biden/Harris ticket, those of us horrified by Donald Trump and his enablers are still coming to terms with the fact that some 70 million people voted for four more years of the disaster we’ve just experienced.

Unlike those Republicans who continue to insist that up is down and Trump was somehow cheated out of a win, we live in the real world. We recognize that those 70 million votes were cast. The question is: why?  Trump’s hardcore base is demonstrably racist, but surely, America isn’t home to seventy million racists willing to dispense with functional governance so long as dark-skinned people and “foreign elements” are kept in their place.

Will Wilkinson considered that question in a recent column in the New York Times. He identified three factors that made the election difficult for the Democrats: partisan polarization, obscured by the inaccurate polling; the strength of what he labeled the “juiced” pre-Covid-19 economy; and the success of Mr. Trump’s denialist, open-everything-up nonresponse to the pandemic.

How could a president responsible for one of the gravest failures of governance in American history nevertheless maintain such rock-solid support? Democracy’s throw-the-bums-out feedback mechanism gets gummed up when the electorate disagrees about the identity of the bums, what did and didn’t occur on their watch and who deserves what share of the credit or blame.

When party affiliation becomes a central source of meaning and self-definition, reality itself becomes contested and verifiable facts turn into hot-button controversies. Elections can’t render an authoritative verdict on the performance of incumbents when partisans in a closely divided electorate tell wildly inconsistent stories about one another and the world they share.

Wilkinson looked at Trump’s war of words against governors and mayors — especially Democratic ones — who refused to risk their citizens’ lives by allowing economic and social activity to resume, and to Republican messaging that defined the contrast between the parties’ approaches to the pandemic as a battle between individual freedom and over-reaching government.

The Republican message couldn’t have been clearer: Workers should be able to show up, clock in, earn a normal paycheck, pay the rent and feed their kids. Democrats were telling the same workers that we need to listen to science, reopening is premature, and the economy can’t be fully restored until we beat the virus. Correct! But how does that help when rent was due last week?

Make no mistake, it was unforgivably cruel of Republicans to force blue-collar and service workers to risk death for grocery money. Yet their disinformation campaign persuaded many millions of Americans that the risk was minimal and that Democrats were keeping their workplaces and schools closed, their customers and kids at home, and their wallets empty and cupboards bare for bogus reasons.

Democrats fell into the trap Republicans set with their dogged refusal to do anything about the uncontained pandemic. Wilkinson concluded that the “spell of polarization” turns every issue into a clash of political identities. As a result, “real” Republicans largely dismissed the pandemic as a hoax, a dismissal that conveniently excused the President’s manifest failure to deal with it.

This rings true to me–so far as it goes. But political polarization alone does not and cannot explain why millions of Americans chose to occupy an alternate reality and to dismiss evidence that was staring them in the face.

Constructing a world where the deaths of one’s neighbors are attributed to something–anything– other than COVID, a world in which a President’s too-obvious-to-ignore lack of competence is a sign that he’s being hobbled by the “deep state,”a world  in which that President’s lack of humanity is explained away as “telling it like it is,” a world where science is “elitist” and warnings from doctors are politically-motivated efforts to diminish the President–such a  world requires a media infrastructure.

There are multitudes of alternate reality purveyors:  websites and cable channels and talk radio hosts willing to confirm the accuracy of your preferred “facts” and the superiority of your chosen tribe.  Trump will go, but that media infrastructure will stay.

I think I need a drink.

 

 

 

About That Reading List…

After I described my course on Individual Rights and the Common Good in a previous blog, several readers asked if I would post the reading list.

Because I’m at home with limited access to both my office and memory, I don’t have the complete list, but here are those I do have: Thomas Smith, Aristotle on the Conditions for and Limits of the Common Good, from Volume 93 of the American Political Science Review; John Locke’s Second Treatise of Civil Government (Chapters 9 and 10); DeTocqueville’s Democracy in America (Book 2, Chapters 27, 28 and 29) and an essay “DeTocqueville on Individualism” from a website titled The Laughing Agave; John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty (Chapter One); John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice (not the book, but an excerpt published by the journal Philosophy and Public Affairs in the summer of 1985; The Procedural Republic and the Unencumbered Self, by Michael Sandel, from the journal Political Theory in 1984; Liberalism, Community and Tradition by Joel Feinberg, from Volume 3, #3 of Tikkun; Church, State and Women’s Human Rights, by Martha Nussbaum, from Criterion: A Publication of the Divinity School of the University of Chicago; cases considering the rights of LGBTQ persons against claims of religious liberty: Bowers v. Hardwick, Romer v. Evans, Lawrence v. Texas and Obergfell v. Hodges, and cases I don’t have in front of me balancing property rights against nuisance laws and other governmental regulations.

The official course description was: Considers the tension between individual and majoritarian rights in our constitutional system, and the effects of that tension on the formulation of public policy.

The course was an investigation of that tension–the right of citizens to personal autonomy, on the one hand, and the equally strong human need to be part of a cohesive community, on the other.

As I pointed out in the course syllabus, the fundamental issue in political philosophy–as well as in day-to-day governance–is who decides? What sorts of decisions must government be empowered to make, and which must be left to the individual? Answering that, of course, requires that we explore many other questions–what do we mean by “the common good?” How much social consensus is necessary for a government policy to be considered legitimate?

Can public policies encourage the the development of an inclusive “we” from America’s increasingly diverse “I’s” without violating fundamental individual rights?

The class was cross-listed, meaning that both undergraduates and graduates could enroll. Because it wasn’t a required class, it attracted students who were actually interested in exploring those questions. It was fun to teach–or more accurately, to introduce them to what important thinkers have said about these issues, and to serve as a discussion guide.

As I listened to the political debates Americans have been having this year, I’ve really missed the kinds of thoughtful analyses and debates I heard from my students. Conspiracy theories that provide easily identified “bad guys” and heroes, religious dogmas that impose answers rather than helping adherents wrestle with important questions, insistence upon categorizing everyone as “us” or “them” –these are all hallmarks of a flight from genuine engagement and civic responsibility.

I have hopes that with Biden’s election, and his choice of competent adults to head the agencies charged with doing the people’s business, we can emerge from the embrace of ignorance, the corruption and the bigotry of this horrible four-year experiment with government by tantrum, and approach policy argumentation the way most of my students did.

For those of you who wanted the reading list–I hope you’ll let the rest of us know your reactions as you plow through!

 

 

 

More Evidence That Being Rich Doesn’t Necessarily Mean Being Smart…

I was alerted to this lawsuit by Juanita Jean,  although it has since been pretty widely reported.

It has so many satisfying aspects…

It seems that one of the wealthy fat cats supporting Donald Trump sent a lot of money–two and a half million dollars, to be exact– to “True the Vote,” to support that organization’s lawsuits to overturn the results of the election. Given the uniform failure of those suits–most of which have been withdrawn for admitted lacks of any evidence of fraud or wrongdoing– he wants his money back.

As Juanita Jean writes,

Those kinds of fights are a Democrat’s dream, especially if you personally know one of the people involved and have had fights with them before.

The person Juanita Jean personally knows is a co-director of True the Vote named Cathy Engelbrecht. Engelbrecht used to be her neighbor, and Juanita reports that she

“would hold meetings all over the county with mostly old people at churches and fleece them for money explaining how we Democrats cheat in elections.  Then she got volunteers from her rich Republican friends with clipboard to go “monitor” voting places in black and Hispanic precincts.”

Juanita Jean may be able to recite chapter and verse about Cathy Engelbrecht (there’s more at the link), but those of us who live in Indiana can counter with tales of Engelbrecht’s Hoosier co-director, Jim Bopp.

Indeed, these two seem made for each other.

Until he actually won the Citizens United case, (a case that presented the Court’s majority with an opportunity to reinforce an ideological bias) Bopp was a predictable and annoying joke in Indiana’s legal community–one of those “Christian” lawyers who could be counted on to insert himself in “culture war” lawsuits or any effort to moderate the lopsided power of the GOP. (Bopp and the organizations with which he’s affiliated–Right to Life, Focus on the Family– know what God does and doesn’t want. Presumably, God wants Republicans to  gerrymander, suppress votes, and take buckets of money from unidentified sources…) Bopp’s most fervent–and successful–efforts have been against campaign finance laws.

With True the Vote, Bopp has confirmed that his skills, such as they are, are political, not legal. As one legal blog reports, Fred Eshelman, the owner of a healthcare-focused investment company, took the Houston-based non-profit at its word when it promised results.

The complaint in the case alleges that Republican “powerhouse lawyer” James Bopp promised to file lawsuits in the seven closest battleground states, serve state election officials with subpoenas, and use the resulting data to flag irregularities.( Bopp’s status as a “powerhouse” is wholly dependent upon his victory in Citizens United-the lawsuit that opened the floodgates to corporate money in elections through the rise of super PACs.)

Eshelman asserts that he repeatedly requested information about the lawsuits filed by True the Vote..

But Eshelman notes that the memos, reporters and whistleblowers never came, and all that he received in their place were four complaints filed in four states: Wisconsin, Michigan, Georgia, and Pennsylvania. All of the complaints were voluntarily dismissed, in a decision the investor claims had been made “in concert with counsel for the Trump campaign.”

In the Wisconsin case, Bopp promised that “evidence will be shortly forthcoming” before withdrawing their complaint without that evidence on the morning of the hearing.

Well before the election, reports by The New York Times and numerous other media outlets, had made it abundantly clear that True the Vote was simply one of the many Republican efforts at vote suppression.

All of which leaves me with a question: why does someone who has so much money he can send two and a half million dollars to an organization do so without bothering to vet either the organization or the people running it? Anyone who is even slightly acquainted with political reality knows that in-person vote fraud is virtually unknown in the U.S.–and that overturning a Presidential election by alleging such fraud is about as likely as capturing the tooth fairy.

Granted, there’s something satisfying in watching the opportunists and bottom-feeders turn on each other. The Germans call it schadenfreude.

But cases like this tend to confirm that having lots of money isn’t a measure of IQ.

 

 

Nostalgia And Reflection…

It seems appropriate to be reflective on this very challenging Thanksgiving. Especially, perhaps, at my stage in the life-cycle.

As we approach the end of a truly horrible year for everyone, I am also approaching the end of what has been a genuinely rewarding and satisfying career. Not my only career–I’ve had several (my mother used to say I didn’t have a resume, I had an itinerary…) After twenty years of “professoring,” I will retire from the faculty of the O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs at Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis at the end of the current semester, which is next month.

There are all sorts of emotions that surface at times like this. When I joined the faculty at what was then just SPEA–the School of Public and Environmental Affairs–I was conflicted about my separation from the Indiana affiliate of the ACLU, which I had directed for the preceding six years. (You can know that it is time for a change, and still be emotionally connected to a position. It’s like realizing that your baby has grown up and needs to be independent.)

Teaching at the university–my “portfolio” was law and public policy–has taught me so much. Far more, I’m sure, than I was able to impart to my students. Those students, by and large (there were definitely exceptions) gave me reason to hope for a kinder, better country and world–as I have said in many of the posts to this blog, I would turn the world over to the younger generation in a heartbeat! They didn’t always come into my classes with sound understandings of America’s history or legal traditions (okay, that’s being kind), but they came with good values and open hearts, and a desire to make the world better.

One of the things I will always be grateful for was the freedom the school gave me to design my classes and create new ones. Aside from my “Law and Public Affairs” classes, I created and taught Media and Public Affairs–originally, as a team teaching effort with Jim Brown, the then-Dean of the Journalism School, and later with others, including John Mutz, former Lieutenant Governor of Indiana. (I used to say it was a new preparation every year, because it was a different media every year…)

There were several other courses that I made up. One of my favorites was “Individual Rights and the Common Good,” basically a philosophy of government course.

I’ve just begun going through the detritus of the past twenty years, and I found my notes for that class. I was struck by the fact that the issues it focused upon were the same ones that consume discussions on this blog: what is government for? If–as Aristotle said–the good society is one that facilitates human flourishing–what should such a society look like? What do we mean by “human flourishing”? How should such a society be governed? What is the common good?

And of course, there is the constant question of balance–what concessions must  individual rights make to the maintenance of the common good? (Could there be a better example of that tension than the one we see in the current, ugly politicization of mask wearing?)

As I leafed through my teaching binder for Individual Rights and the Common Good, I scanned the readings I’d assigned–beginning with Aristotle, proceeding through De Tocqueville and Rawls, Feinberg and MacIntyre and ending with several Supreme Court cases that put legal flesh on the philosophical “bones” of theory.

As I scanned the readings, I was struck once again by De Tocqueville’s observation that “Individualism is likewise dangerous to society because when a large segment of the population is isolated and indifferent to the welfare of those around them, they become unwilling and then unable to band together to prevent tyranny.” In my classes, we discussed this observation, the important differences between individualism and selfishness, and the meaning of De Tocqueville’s next sentences: “Equality puts men side by side without a common link to hold them firm. Despotism raises barriers to keep them apart.”

I will really miss hearing what my students think about America’s prospects in the wake of our recent, close encounter with despotism. For that matter, I will miss my students. A lot.

But when it’s time, it’s time.

Happy Thanksgiving to all of you.

Our Non- Industrial Revolution

Not long after the 2016 election, The Atlantic published an article investigating the cultural effects of higher education, or more accurately, how the financial benefits attributable to a college education were contributing to the growing urban/rural cultural divide.

The article began by describing two individuals from Indiana–a small-town resident with a high school education (80% of rural Americans lack a college degree) and an Indianapolis resident with a degree.

The article used the very different lives and prospects of those individuals to illustrate what it termed the  “diverging fates of two parts of America in the past two decades.”

Half a century ago, economic opportunity and upward mobility were available to many white Americans, regardless of where they lived and what kind of education they had. They could graduate from high school and find a job at a local factory and make a good wage, or graduate from college and sit behind a desk and make a slightly better wage. About 90 percent of kids born in the 1940s earned more than their parents did, according to work by Stanford economist Raj Chetty. But beginning in the 1980s, the returns on a college education started growing, and more of the benefits of economic growth started accruing to only those with an education, as those without an education saw their opportunities shrink.

The gulf between those with a degree and those without has led to a politically consequential divergence between Americans who live in cities and those who populate the country’s struggling rural regions.

For a century leading up to 1980, poorer regions were catching up to richer regions of the country in terms of wages, as an oversupply of workers in richer regions drove wages down, while an undersupply in poorer regions drove wages up. But this “convergence,” as economists call it, petered out with the rise of computers.

Ever since the 1980s, computers have made some people more productive and others economically obsolete. The data shows that healthy regions with educated workers began to do better and better. ( Remember Richard Florida’s The Creative Class?) This divergence  had geographic implications: people with college degrees are more likely to move to metropolitan regions, attracted not just by better job opportunities, but by the presence of other people like them.

Almost half of college graduates move out of their birth states by age 30, according to Enrico Moretti, an economist at Berkeley. Only 27 percent of high school graduates do. As booming cities draw in new college-educated workers, employers seeking these workers follow, and cities continue to gain strength like magnets. This improves the prospects of everyone in the region, including those without college degrees. The working-class strongholds that once prospered without college-educated workers, on the other hand, are doing worse and worse, as computers and robots replace the workers whose jobs haven’t been sent overseas, and, as a result, an oversupply of labor brings down wages for everyone still there.

One of the striking consequences of increasing educational and economic separation is that the winners are becoming more and more different from the losers. One scholar who studies this phenomenon calls it the “Great Divergence.” “

The consequences for small towns and rural regions are dramatic–and dire. Those consequences include high unemployment rates,  skyrocketing numbers of poor mental health days, the Opiod epidemic, increasing numbers of suicides, and shorter life expectancies.

The Industrial revolution–also disruptive–introduced manufacturing jobs that didn’t require advanced training and education. The current “revolution” is focused on innovation and knowledge, rather than on the production of physical goods. As the author notes, companies that produce physical goods today can send those jobs overseas or automate them, a reality that has further depleted job opportunities for high school graduates.

The most pressing problems created by urban/rural economic disparities are political and cultural. The data shows that Trump’s base is largely located in areas where jobs are vulnerable to outsourcing or automation. He  “performed well among voters without a college degree, and in places where full-time employees don’t earn very much.” Democrats, on the other hand, are overwhelmingly supported by those who live in urban areas and increasingly by inhabitants of suburbia. Extreme gerrymandering has given rural voters an edge, despite the fact that they are numerically a minority. How long that will last is uncertain.

What isn’t uncertain is the cultural gulf between those two Americas.

Our “bubbles” aren’t all digital. They are also geographic. And I have no idea how to answer the most important question posed by this situation: what should we do to ameliorate it?