RIP GOP?

I keep encountering people who share with me their (agonized) conviction that Trump will be re-elected. Admittedly, it’s a fear that keeps me up at night–despite my life-long belief that most Americans are good, sensible people, and despite consistent polling that shows a majority of citizens disapprove of him.

It isn’t an entirely unreasonable fear; thanks to the Electoral College, gerrymandering, vote suppression, Russian bots and the various electoral games at which the GOP excels, it can happen. The strength of turnout in November by voters determined to “vote blue no matter who” will tell us whether today’s optimism or pessimism is justified.

That said, I recently became aware of some polling that should cheer us up.

Stan Greenberg is a longtime Democratic pollster, and he predicts both massive turnout and a massive defeat for Trump and for the GOP generally. A column in the Los Angeles Times reports the basis for his optimism.

The columnist begins by conceding the possibilities for defeat: maybe the Democrats will self-destruct at their convention, for example.

Maybe vote suppression by Republicans will succeed. Maybe Tulsi Gabbard will run as a third-party candidate and draw enough votes in a few key states to give the election to Trump. Maybe Trump will lose the popular vote by millions — again — but squeak through in the electoral college by a few thousand.

Despite those possibilities, the column notes that Trump has done nothing to expand his base–and cites Greenberg and others for data showing that the GOP’s base is considerably smaller than that of the Democrats.

Almost half of registered voters (48%) say they are certain they will vote against Trump, while only a third (34%) say they are certain they will vote for him.

The Democratic strategist and pollster Stan Greenberg has a whole book about why Trump will lose (with the great title R.I.P. G.O.P.). He asked voters in a 2016 election day poll whether they could handle an unexpected expense of $500. A majority of unmarried women said they could not. They are unlikely to agree with Trump’s claims about his tax cut benefiting everybody, and unmarried women make up a quarter of the potential electorate.

On many of the issues Americans care most about, Trump is consistently on the wrong side. An increasing majority of people, as Greenberg points out, believe “immigration benefits our country,” up from 50% in 2016 to 65% today. An increasing majority — now more than 60% — believe that the government should play a bigger role in addressing our problems, especially in healthcare. Free college tuition and a wealth tax have widespread support.

But what about the Electoral College? Hillary Clinton was ahead in all the national polls, and won nationally by nearly three million votes. What about Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin?

Of course 2016 showed that we need to look beyond the national polls, and focus on the swing states. But there, too, the news is encouraging. In Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin, since Trump took office, his net approval ratings, which started out on the plus side, have fallen — disastrously. In Pennsylvania they decreased by 17 points, in Wisconsin by 20 points, in Michigan by 22 points. In the midterm voting, those three swing states all elected Democrats in 2018. Wisconsin elected a Democratic governor to replace a Republican, and reelected a Democratic senator; Pennsylvania reelected a Democratic governor and Democrats there took three House seats away from Republican incumbents. In Michigan, which the Democrats lost to Trump by 11,000 votes, the Democrats had a huge victory in 2018, sweeping the elections for governor and senator and flipping two House seats. Voters also banned gerrymandering and created automatic voter registration, which together will bear fruit in 2020. All this explains why I’m quite certain we’ll be free at last from Donald Trump on Jan. 20, 2021.

A lot can happen between now and November. We can’t afford to rely on this or any other analysis– we can’t let our guard down. We have to keep working hard and do everything in our power to get the vote out.

But these are good numbers and good omens. Fingers crossed…

 

Could You Pass That Test?

According to several news outlets, a Justice Department inquiry into Hillary Clinton (launched some  two years ago at the insistence of conservatives unsatisfied with the results of multiple previous investigations) has effectively ended. Investigators found no wrongdoing, and (off the record) law enforcement officials said they never expected the effort to produce much of anything.

This inquiry was conducted by a Trump Justice Department headed by Bill Barr, not exactly a friendly group of investigators.

I’ve lost track of the number of investigations that have been conducted into Hillary Clinton’s activities. Whitewater. Bengazi. “But her emails!”

When I saw the headlines confirming that–once again–the investigators had come up empty, all I could think about was a joke my mother used to tell: an elderly woman goes into the butcher shop. She picks up a chicken, lifts each drumstick and sniffs under it; then she smells under each wing. Finally, she smells the cavity, turns to the butcher and says “Mr. Butcher, this bird stinks.”

To which the butcher replies, “Lady, could you pass that test?”

Partisans and others are certainly entitled to dislike Hillary Clinton, or to criticize her demeanor or campaign. Disagreement with her policy positions is clearly fair. But the intensity of the animus she arouses, and the persistence with which Republicans have hounded her–and continue to demonize her three years after she lost the election and (from all appearances) retired from political life– are so hysterical and disproportionate that you have to wonder just what is going on.

The obsession isn’t new, and it didn’t begin with her campaign for the Presidency. Throughout her public life, Clinton has been held to a standard that wildly exceeds expectations applied to male political figures. I can think of any number of male politicians who have exhibited every behavior and characteristic for which Clinton has been excoriated; none of them excited the level of vitriol that has been directed at her.

It is also worth noting that a substantial number of those male politicians have been found guilty of various levels of misbehavior–including crimes–while the incessant investigations into Clinton have uncovered nothing more culpable than occasional carelessness.

It is just impossible to see this relentless campaign as anything other than rank misogyny.

I am hopeful (although not entirely convinced) that Clinton generated that level of sexism simply because she was in many ways the first: the first First Lady to reject the traditional decorative and submissive role, the first to carve out a high-profile political career separate from that of her husband after leaving the White House; and the first woman to be the Presidential nominee of a major political party.

I am hopeful (although unconvinced) that in the wake of Clinton’s candidacy, the passage of time, the number of women in the Democratic Presidential primary, and the explosion in the number of women elected to positions at all levels of government have combined to moderate the sexist hostility that prompted the tsunami of vitriol directed at Clinton.

I am fearful that I’m wrong.

Donald Trump’s base is composed almost entirely of white Christian men who see Trump as their protector against the uppity blacks and pushy women whose demands for equality threaten their historic dominance. They became unhinged when an African-American was elected President, and it’s likely they will be equally threatened if it looks as if a woman is about to be elected.

Meanwhile, Hillary has emerged exonerated from yet another actual witch hunt– conducted by men who most definitely couldn’t pass that test.

 

Ideology And Climate Change

Most of Australia appears to be on fire. The extent of the devastation is hard to comprehend–as this is written, 24 people have been killed, 15.6 million acres burned (so far), hundreds if not thousands of homes destroyed, and an estimated billion animals killed.

Yet, as Vox reports, government officials in Australia continue to downplay the link between climate change and the wildfires– Prime Minister Scott Morrison insists that the country doesn’t need to do more to limit its greenhouse gas emissions. The government is apparently willing to shirk its duty to protect the population and the environment in order to protect the country’s powerful mining sector.

There’s a strong scientific consensus that links climate change to the number and severity of the wildfires.In its 2018 “State of the Climate” report,  the Australian Bureau of Meteorology warned that climate change had already ushered in a long-term warming trend and was also responsible for changes in rainfall that increase the risks of wildfires.

It isn’t only Australia. The effects of climate change are appearing everywhere. In Indonesia, the capital city of Jakarta is sinking so quickly that officials are working to move it to another island. Pictures of Venice are heartbreaking. Other examples abound.

Here in the United States, the Trump administration is responding by rolling back numerous environmental measures that had been put in place both to combat pollution and address climate change. It sometimes seems as if the administration is trying to poison the air and water and actually accelerate climate change.

Sane people faced with an existential threat don’t behave this way. What explains it?

The Roosevelt Institute attributes this inexplicably destructive behavior to neoliberal ideology.

In Transcending Neoliberalism: How the Free-Market Myth Has Prevented Climate Action, Roosevelt Fellow Mark Paul and Anders Fremstad of Colorado State University present a coherent account of how neoliberalism has contributed to inaction. To do so, they explore three tenets of neoliberal ideology that have stymied action to address the climate crisis:

Decentralize democracy: A feature of the neoliberal order in the US has been the systematic decentralization of government. Neoliberals have promoted federalism to address “government failure” and subject the state to market forces, exacerbating the race to the bottom in climate policy.

Defund public investment: Neoliberals dismantled the Keynesian consensus that the state has a major role to play in providing public goods, stabilizing the macroeconomy, and solving coordination problems. In the neoliberal order, government investments are rejected as expensive and wasteful, crowding out productive private investments.

Deregulate the economy: Neoliberalism has launched a concentrated attack on government’s ability to regulate the economy. Ignoring the ability of regulations to positively shape markets, neoliberals dismiss government intervention as “red tape” that merely increases the cost of doing business.

Those tenets of neoliberalism have been mainstays of Republican policy at least since Reagan. To them, however, you have to add the rabid anti-intellectualism of the Trump administration–an anti-intellectualism married to an obsessive determination to undo anything Barack Obama accomplished. Trump has persistently worked to drive scientists out of government agencies, despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that those agencies’ effectiveness depend upon sound scientific evidence.

As the New York Times, among others, has reported,

In just three years, the Trump administration has diminished the role of science in federal policymaking while halting or disrupting research projects nationwide, marking a transformation of the federal government whose effects, experts say, could reverberate for years.

Political appointees have shut down government studies, reduced the influence of scientists over regulatory decisions and in some cases pressured researchers not to speak publicly. The administration has particularly challenged scientific findings related to the environment and public health opposed by industries such as oil drilling and coal mining. It has also impeded research around human-caused climate change, which President Trump has dismissed despite a global scientific consensus.

What is it that Neil DeGrasse Tyson always says? Reality doesn’t care whether you believe it or not.

If climate change makes the Earth uninhabitable–a result that is looking more and more likely– the cause will be stubborn ignorance and the willful elevation of ideology over evidence.

It Isn’t Just Hanging Chads…

Americans are slowly becoming aware of the ways in which partisan redistricting and vote suppression are torpedoing the democratic ideal of “one person, one vote.” In the absence of something egregious like Florida’s “hanging chads,” however, we are still less likely to recognize the partisan effects of ballot design.

A recent article from the Washington Post focused on that issue.

It’s a political truism: The candidate whose name appears first on the ballot has an advantage over the competitors listed below. That’s not just folklore — numerous studies around the country have shown that candidates who are listed first receive more votes. The advantage is so marked that in Illinois, one of several states where ballot position is based on the order of filing, candidates wait in line overnight to gain the top spot.

I can attest to the accuracy of those studies. When I first became politically active (back in the Ice Age), Indiana awarded ballot positions alphabetically. A gentleman who had changed his name to Aaocker was a perennial candidate for a number of offices. He always ran in Republican primaries (back then, Marion County was solidly Republican), where turnout was lower, and he could be counted on to skim some 2000 votes from the others on the ballot.

I’ve lost track of Indiana’s current approach to ballot placement–I leave it to a reader to enlighten us–but ballot order is a state decision, and it varies widely from state to state. In November, a federal court blocked a ballot order law in Florida; that law automatically gave the top position in every race to the candidate of the last-elected governor’s party.

As a result of that law, Republican candidates have been listed first in every race on every ballot in the state for the last two decades. In 2016, Donald Trump’s name appeared before Hillary Clinton’s. In 2018, Ron DeSantis was listed above Andrew Gillum in the gubernatorial race, and Rick Scott was listed above Bill Nelson in the election for U.S. Senate.

The court found that first place on the ballot was worth five percentage points, and noted that Trump had defeated Clinton by just over one percentage point, that DeSantis won by four-tenths of a point, and Scott beat Nelson by just one-tenth of a point.

Florida Republicans are appealing the decision.

As the article points out, if the appeal is successful, we will face a situation not unlike redistricting; just as states manipulate district lines to advance partisan interests, states will approach ballot design from a similarly partisan perspective.

Without any judicial check, changing election rules for partisan advantage will become a tool for both parties. For example, the newly elected Democratic majority in Virginia could provide that Democratic candidates are listed first and Republican candidates are listed third. New Jersey could pass a law allowing Democratic candidates to be listed first with their party affiliation but limiting all other candidates to an alphabetical order without any party identification. New York could retain straight-ticket voting for Democrats but not for Republicans. Massachusetts could allow longer voting hours for registered Democrats than Republicans.

The fact that voters go to the polls so unprepared that they vote for the first name on a ballot’s list is depressing. When good government organizations urge people to vote, they are really encouraging them to cast an informed vote. But–as in so many areas of contemporary life–there’s a wide gap between the real and the ideal.

Allowing partisans to use that gap to undermine the choices of voters who are informed is cheating. But good sportsmanship is so last century….

 

Rats And Sinking Ships

Well, there’s good news and bad news, and it’s the same news.

Daily Kos quotes Politico for the following:

The exodus of top Defense officials under Team Trump continues. In the weeks before Christmas, five senior Pentagon officials resigned their posts for unclear reasons. Now Defense Secretary Mark Esper’s chief of staff, former Army intelligence officer Eric Chewning, has delivered his own resignation.

As the article notes, these multiple departures–especially the most recent one, coming after the Iranian assassination–don’t usually occur during periods in which the nation appears to be gearing up for a military crisis.

Behind the scenes, though, Esper’s office appears to be in turmoil. A Foreign Policy report on Sunday revealed that Trump Defense Secretary Esper had cut senior Pentagon leaders out of the loop on the Suleimani assassination, and that the Joint Chiefs of Staff were not consulted or briefed on the operation ahead of time. “The usual approval process, the decision-making process, did not occur,” an anonymous defense official told FP.

The motivations for these departures are unclear: people may be leaving for reasons ranging from simple frustration with the chaos in Trump’s Defense Department to unwillingness to be part of  an administration that is morally and functionally defective–the latter motive suggesting the old phrase “rats leaving a sinking ship.”

According to Merriam-Webster, that idiom is used in reference to people abandoning an enterprise once it seems likely to fail. The phrase has shown what the reference book calls “great linguistic tenacity,” having been in regular use for over four hundred years. Its persistence is probably attributable to the consistency of the human impulse to “bail out” when a ship–or enterprise–is going down.

In this case, the likelihood that career public servants are departing an administration with which they don’t want to be associated is a sign that a number of career people in the so-called “deep state” have scruples.  The resignations send a message (not that the Trump cabal is capable of receiving or interpreting such messages) that they disagree with the decisions–and the decision-making process– of the current regime. (And what we are discovering about that process is terrifying. An Iran expert formerly with the State Department tweeted out what he is being told by those who remain in the agencies.)

These principled departures are the good news.

The bad news is that the consistent stream of resignations by sane, moral and experienced officials during Trump’s tenure–resignations that have not been limited to the Department of Defense– means that there are even fewer adults left to moderate an unhinged President and counter the assortment of religious zealots and criminals that make up his administration.

According to the Brookings Institution, as of January of 2020, turnover in the administration’s so-called “A Team”–senior positions  just under cabinet secretaries–has been 80%. The Brookings article includes several charts describing the positions and identifying the individuals who left; interestingly, they count each position on the “A Team” only once. So “if multiple people hold and depart from the same position (e.g., communications director), only the initial departure is tracked/affects the turnover rate.”

In other words, turnover has actually exceeded that 80%. (The report also includes a chart showing the serial departures.)

And that turnover is calculated, obviously, for positions that have been filled. As of January 6th, Trump hadn’t even bothered to nominate candidates for 168 of the 741 key administrative positions that require Senate confirmation,

Ask anyone who runs an organization–for-profit, nonprofit or governmental–how constant staff turnover and the attendant loss of institutional memory not only hobbles the organization’s ability to perform, but hinders its ability to recruit competent replacements.

When the people who are left to run the government are ill-equipped to do so–when they are inexperienced, ignorant, delusional or beholden to special interests–all bets are off.

We are in uncharted–and very dangerous–territory.