How Ignorant Are We?

Some years ago, Newsweek’s cover story was “How Ignorant Are We?” The article reported on results of citizenship surveys–the sorts of data I share regularly (probably too regularly) on this blog. The surveys focused on knowledge of the Constitution, Bill of Rights, and the structures of our government, basic elements of the legal environment we share.

A recent episode in Lafayette, Indiana–home of Purdue University–illustrated yet another area of civic ignorance. As reported in the local paper, a Purdue University engineering student was denied the purchase of an over-the-counter cold medicine because employees of the local CVS pharmacy “looked at his Puerto Rican driver’s license and told him he needed a valid U.S. ID, before pressing him about his immigration status.”

They didn’t know that Puerto Rico was part of the United States, and didn’t believe him when he told them he was a citizen. And it wasn’t simply one clerk. After the initial encounter (during which he showed her his passport!), the young man left; he came back later to see whether a shift supervisor or manager could help, but he received the same line about corporate policy and his “immigration status.”

The student’s mother posted about the incident, attributing the question and the disbelief to racism.

What caused this employee to ask him for his visa?” Payano Burgos wrote in a Facebook post that was still gathering steam this weekend in West Lafayette and Purdue circles. “Was it his accent? Was it his skin color? Was it the Puerto Rican flag on the license? Whatever triggered her to discriminate against my son embodies exactly what is wrong in the United States of America today.”

I’m unwilling to entirely discount racism, but I think the more likely explanation is–again–civic ignorance. There have been reported incidents in which people have assumed that New Mexico is a foreign country, or a part of Mexico. (And as we know, the President was building his wall on the border between Colorado and New Mexico…)

In a recent speech to Indiana’s Library Federation, I shared the following statistics:

In 2014 only 36% of the American public could name the three branches of government. In 2017, only 24% could. Surveys have found that fewer than half of 12th graders are able to describe the meaning of federalism and that only 35% of teenagers can correctly identify “We the People” as the first three words of the Constitution. In a survey by the Carnegie Foundation, just over a third of Americans thought that, while the Founding Fathers gave each branch of government significant power, they gave the president “the final say,” and just under half (47%) knew that a 5-4 decision by the Supreme Court carries the same legal weight as a 9-0 ruling. Almost a third mistakenly believed that a U.S. Supreme Court ruling could be appealed, and one in four believed that when the Supreme Court divides 5-4, the decision is referred to Congress for resolution. (Sixteen percent thought it needed to be sent back to the lower courts.)

We can add to that enumeration the widespread (if not statistically determined) lack of knowledge about American geography.

I guess the answer to Newsweek’s question is: very.

 

Talk About Conflicts Of Interest….

A recent report issued by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) finds that President Trump has 2,300 conflicts of interest. (For some reason, I’m having trouble linking to the report, but it’s easily Googled.)

We see a number of vague accusations of this administration’s “corruption,” but that all-encompassing description doesn’t tell us what the improprieties are, or why the behaviors are unethical. As a result, we are in danger of normalizing them.

The most common definition of a conflict of interest is a situation in which a person is in a position to derive personal benefit from actions or decisions made in their official capacity. CREW puts meat on the bare bones of that definition. The report begins with an explanation of the importance of divestment and the reasons for it.

Prior to President Trump, every modern president divested their business interests before entering office. For decades, this norm of presidential conduct has served as an important signal for both Republican and Democratic administrations to show that, as the nation’s most powerful and prominent public servant, the president would not put personal financial interests before the interests of the country. Divestiture also served as an assurance to the public that the president would not open himself up to undue influence from special interests and foreign governments that might use his businesses as a way to curry favor with him and his administration.

And Trump?

The president has visited his properties 362 times at taxpayer expense during his administration, sometimes visiting multiple properties in a single day. The number of days he’s spent time at a Trump-branded property account for almost a third of the days he’s been president.

One-hundred eleven officials from 65 foreign governments have visited a Trump property.

CREW has recorded 630 visits to Trump properties from at least 250 Trump administration officials. Ivanka Trumpand Jared Kushner are the most frequent executive branch officials to visit Trump properties, other than the president himself. Jared has made 28 known visits, while Ivanka has made 23.

Members of Congress have flocked to President Trump’s properties: 90 members of Congress have made 188 visits to a Trump property.

President Trump has used the presidency to provide free publicity for his properties, which he still profits from as president. As president, Trump has tweeted about or mentioned one of his properties on 159 occasions, and White House officials have mentioned a Trump property 65 times, sometimes in the course of their official duties.

Political groups have spent $5.9 million at Trump properties since President Trump took office. In more than a decade prior to his run for president, Trump’s businesses never received more than $100,000 from political groups in a single year.

Foreign governments and foreign government-linked organizations have hosted 12 events at Trump properties since the president took office. These events have been attended by at least 19 administration officials.

There is much more.

Trump’s behavior has been a truly shocking departure from that of previous presidents, but in all fairness, the expectation that government officials will avoid both conflicts and the appearance of conflicts has been eroded over the years by practices in the Senate.

An article a few weeks ago in The Guardian focused on those practices.

As they set national policy on important issues such as climate change, tech monopolies, medical debt and income inequality, US senators have glaring conflicts of interest, an investigation by news website Sludge and the Guardian can reveal.

An analysis of personal financial disclosure data as of 16 August has found that 51 senators and their spouses have as much as $96m personally invested in corporate stocks in five key sectors: communications/electronics; defense; energy and natural resources; finance, insurance and real estate; and health.

The majority of these stocks come from public companies, and some are private.

Overall, the senators are invested in 338 companies – including tech firms such as Apple and Microsoft, oil and gas giants including ExxonMobil and Antero Midstream, telecom companies including Verizon, and major defense contractors such as Boeing – in the five sectors as categorized by Sludge.

As the article noted, this ownership is not illegal, but such investments raise real questions about lawmakers’ motivations.

We have a lot of work to do.

In 2020, Americans’ first priority must be delivery of an overwhelming, crushing defeat to Trump and the obsequious Republicans who continue to enable him.

Our second must be a wholesale “clean up” of government– reform of electoral systems and governmental structures that facilitate unethical behavior, from state-level gerrymandering and voter suppression, to Senate-level conflicts of interest.

 

Doug Masson Quotes The Federalist

Doug Masson is a lawyer in Lafayette, Indiana, and one of the most thoughtful and erudite Indiana bloggers. He has a post on the Democratic primary that is well worth reading in its entirety–and with which I entirely agree–but I was particularly struck by this quotation from Federalist 68

Nothing was more to be desired than that every practicable obstacle should be opposed to cabal, intrigue, and corruption. These most deadly adversaries of republican government might naturally have been expected to make their approaches from more than one quarter, but chiefly from the desire in foreign powers to gain an improper ascendant in our councils. How could they better gratify this, than by raising a creature of their own to the chief magistracy of the Union?”

The “desire in foreign powers to gain an improper ascendant…by raising a creature of their own to the chief magistracy of the Union.”

Whatever propaganda Republicans employ to dismiss the findings of the Mueller Report or denigrate America’s Intelligence operations, the evidence is overwhelming that Russia raised a creature of its own during the 2016 election. That evidence was recently confirmed by a bipartisan report from the Senate Intelligence committee, about which I will report more fully in due course.

As Doug says, Trump is “emotionally fragile, intellectually bankrupt, and utterly corrupt”.

He believes that the office of the Presidency is there to serve him rather than the other way around. His trading on public resources to induce foreign powers to meddle in our elections was exactly the kind of thing the Founders were concerned about when they wrote the Constitution.

Most readers of this blog have already joined me in my determination to “Vote Blue No Matter Who,” (I would personally cast my ballot for a potted plant if it was the alternative to Trump) but that doesn’t mean that most of us don’t have favorites in–and opinions about– the Democratic Primary. At this point in the process, I find myself agreeing with Doug’s analysis.

For my part, I don’t mind Biden, but I like Mayor Pete and Elizabeth Warren. I don’t have strong feelings about Bernie himself, but his online supporters have been fairly off-putting in a way that doesn’t seem nearly so common for supporters of other candidates. In a perfect world, I should be comparing policies, but Presidential campaigns are won or lost on the basis of personalities. The electorate says they care about policy, but when it comes time to vote, they mostly don’t understand the policies and have shaped their understanding of the policies to conform with their personality preferences. I may have better than average understanding of some of these issues, but ultimately, I don’t know enough about the ins and outs of federal laws, rules, and regulations to truly assess the candidates’ plans beyond a pretty superficial level. Nevermind the fact that whatever they propose will have to navigate the legislative process. I’m going to have to trust that the person will do the best they can and will generally make sound decisions.

I have previously called Bernie and Biden analog candidates for a digital age. Either would be immensely preferable to Trump, but I would prefer to see both of them as honored elder statesmen. I love Elizabeth Warren, but I worry that she would make a fairly easy target. Plus I’d hate to see her leave the Senate, where she has been such an effective voice for fairness.

And I really love Mayor Pete.

I’m ready to turn this country over to a new generation–to the people who will have to live with the results of the economic and environmental decisions they make, who grew up with and understand the immense impact of technology on everyday life, and who have the intellect and energy that the Presidency requires and that the current President so clearly lacks.

The men who wrote The Federalist and crafted our Constitution were young. I Googled it, and it turns out that many of the Founding Fathers were not yet 40 years old in 1776. The average age of the signers of the Declaration of Independence was 44 (Ben Franklin undoubtedly raised the average!), but more than a dozen of them were 35 or younger.

The impressive Jacinda Ardern of New Zealand was born in 1980 and elected at age 37, and Emmanuel Macron of France just turned 41.

On the other end of the spectrum, I’m Bernie’s age, and most days, I need a nap.

All that said–whoever emerges will have my activism and my vote. Whoever it is won’t have Russia’s.

 

Now It’s Coal Ash

The Trump administration has announced its intention to roll back an Obama-era regulation that limited the leaching of heavy metals like arsenic, lead and mercury into water supplies–heavy metals that are produced and leach into groundwater from the ash residue produced by coal-fired power plants.

I wrote about the dangers of coal ash back in 2015, quoting the Hoosier Environmental Council when they were bringing in a coal ash expert to speak at their annual “Greening the Statehouse” event.

Coal ash has special significance for Indiana, since the state leads the nation in the number of coal ash waste lagoons. There is arguably no person better in America to speak to this issue than Lisa Evans. As a coal ash expert with twenty-five years of experience in hazardous waste law, Lisa has testified before the U.S. Congress and the National Academies of Science about the risks of coal ash and federal & state policy solutions.

The Obama Administration addressed those very real risks by passing new regulations in 2015; now, a series of newer rules expected from  the Environmental Protection Agency (courtesy of the former lobbyists now running the agency) will substantially weaken  regulations meant to strengthen inspection and monitoring at coal plants, and requiring plants to install new technology to protect water supplies from contaminated coal ash.

The E.P.A. will even exempt a significant number of power plants from any of the remaining requirements, according to quotations from people familiar with the Trump administration plan.

According to one report, 

Coal ash, the residue from burning coal, is stored at more than 1,100 locations around the nation, with about 130 million tons being added each year. Unlike emissions of carbon dioxide, which many climate science deniers consider a good thing, nobody doubts the dangers of the chemicals in coal ash—including arsenic, lead, mercury, and selenium, among others. All are associated with birth defects and stunted brain growth in children. But the list of damages they can cause is far longer and includes cancer, heart damage, lung disease, respiratory distress, kidney disease, reproductive problems, gastrointestinal illness, and behavioral problems.

Hundreds of ash storage pits don’t even have a simple liner to help prevent toxins from leaching into waterways. According to a 2010 EPA assessment, people who live within a mile of unlined coal ash ponds have a 1 in 50 risk of cancer. That’s more than 2,000 times higher than what the EPA considers acceptable. Tainting of the water mostly happens in a trickle. But, occasionally, as in the 2008 Kingston Fossil Plant’s sudden release of 1.1 billion gallons of coal slurry in Tennessee, or the leakage of 82,000 tons of coal ash into North Carolina’s Dan River, the contamination comes in a catastrophic rush.

Environmental activists criticized the 2015 rule, arguing that it fell short of what is needed to effectively deal with coal ash, and failed to classify the ash as a hazardous waste, which it obviously is. It was a step forward, however.

For every forward step taken by the Obama Administration, however, Trump’s “best people” take two steps back.

Like so many efforts being made daily by the Trump Administration, this move prioritizes the bottom line of industry over the health and welfare of citizens. In this case, that preference is especially galling, because it is intended to help an industry that is dying–and dying  thanks to market forces, not excessive regulations. Nor should its death be lamented: coal is a contributor to climate change, and the relatively few remaining jobs in coal mining are unacceptably dangerous.

Once again we are reminded that nothing this administration does–nothing–advances the common good, or makes environmental or even business sense.

Hope And Fear In Rural America

At this point in America’s political history, it’s a rare person who hasn’t seen those ubiquitous red and blue maps. Different states show different voting patterns, but there is one element the political maps all have in common: cities with a half-million residents or more are all bright blue, and rural areas are all red.

Suburbs may be turning purple, but not rural America.

A number of political operatives have been counseling Democrats to engage with rural voters, to try to bridge the cultural divide between “cosmopolitan” urbanites and “resentful” rural dwellers. My own response to those entreaties has ranged from tepid to cold–after all, wouldn’t it be a waste of resources better deployed on efforts to turn out the millions who didn’t bother to go to the polls in 2016? Given what I have read about the deep connection between rural voters and the GOP, outreach to those precincts seemed–and still seems–unlikely to change many votes.

That said, an eloquent column from the New York Times has made me reconsider.

George Goehl runs a federation of community-based organizations across the country that bring poor and working-class people together to win economic and racial justice, and he has a warning: when liberals and progressives ignore rural Americans, they clear the way for the White Nationalists who are already there.

This summer I visited a bunch of small towns across the country, and I saw signs that white nationalists are becoming more active. Just drive by the town square in Pittsboro, N.C., at 5 p.m. on any given Saturday and you are likely to seewhite nationalists rallying to protect a Confederate monument.

This weekend, I’ll head back home to southern Indiana, where members of the 3 Percenters, a far-right militia, showed up with guns and knives at the Bloomington Farmers Market earlier this year. The leader of the white supremacist organization American Identity Movement even paid a visit. I’ve been organizing for 20 years in rural communities and have never seen this level of public activity by white supremacist groups.

Goehl’s organization works in both urban and rural communities, and he warns against the assumption that rural minds cannot be changed.

As part of this work, our organizers had over 10,000 conversations with people in small towns across the country over the past year. We spoke with neighbors in Amish country, visited family farms in Iowa and sat on front porches in Appalachia — communities that have experienced hard economic times and went solidly for Donald Trump in 2016.

Although these communities may be fertile ground for the Trump administration and other white nationalist organizations, they are also places where people can come together across race and class to solve the big problems facing everyday people. That starts by recognizing one another’s humanity — and with honest conversations….

For those who have given up on rural communities: Please reconsider. So many of these places need organizing to win improved conditions. Despite the stereotypes, rural people are not static in their political views or in the way they vote. Single white rural women and young rural white people represent two of the greatest leftward swings in the 2018 midterms, moving 17 and 16 points respectively toward Democrats. They played a key role in Democratic wins across the Midwest.

Goehl concedes that a substantial number of rural residents are “as racist as you would expect,” and notes the resurgence of the KKK in rural America. On the other hand, he insists  that plenty of rural folks reject efforts to foster racial resentments.

In June of 2018, my organization’s affiliates staged nearly 780 rallies across the country to protest the family separation crisis. Half of the rallies were in counties that voted for Donald Trump. Small towns like Angola, Ind., and Ketchum, Idaho, with populations of 8,000 and 2,700 respectively, were among the communities that came together to support migrant families.

People followed those rallies with rural cookouts, deep in so-called Trump Country, to gather and talk about family and the plight of migrants, and pass the hat to post bond for migrant families.

It’s good to be reminded that no constituency is monolithic. Turning those red expanses blue, however–or even a pale shade of purple–still looks like a very steep climb.