Friday, September 17, 2021

Why Did Politico Publish a Hit Piece on Jennifer Rubin?

One of the reasons I've always been interested in the NeverTrumpers is that I too was once immersed in conservative politics. Questions began to emerge - one often leading to another. Rather than deny those questions, I thought them through. The process was gradual, but eventually I found myself on the other side of the political spectrum. 

It might be a bit of projection, but I see the same process happening with the NeverTrumpers. Due to the insanity of Donald Trump, it came a lot quicker for most of them. But someone like David Frum started the break years ago, as was evidenced by his column titled "Waterloo" in which he explained how the Republican Party had been captured by right wing media.

One of the columnists who went through a more abbreviated process was Jennifer Rubin from the Washington Post. She was an avowed Republican who couldn't stomach Donald Trump. I watched as she began to ask questions, coming to the conclusion in late 2017 that the GOP couldn't simply be rebranded, it needed to be junked. Here is how she described her former party:

If there is a single idea animating Trump’s GOP, it is that “blood and soil” (or race and religion, if you prefer) — not the American creed (“All men are created equal…”) — is the defining feature of the United States. Whatever else that is not white and Christian is foreign, alien and a threat to “real America.” Whether in day-to-day politics, foreign affairs or domestic policies, there is no right and wrong, only them and us. That’s Trumpism in a nutshell.

Regardless of how you feel about Rubin's conversion, she was spot-on. 

I say all of that because on Thursday, Alex Thompson and Nick Needzwiadek at Politico's "West Wing Playbook" decided to launch an attack on Rubin. They suggest that she has become one of the White House's most reliable defenders and have a big problem with that. The evidence they provide: White House staff sometimes tweet her articles. They go on to say that this is because "she usually backs up the administration."

OMG - an opinion columnist who often agrees with a president! What an affront to journalism! Of course, Thompson and Needzwiadek don't provide any specifics about where Rubin and the president were wrong because being accurate or inaccurate is not the issue. For them, real journalism means that you are required to find fault with both sides. 

The authors then engage in a typical Politico pattern of reporting on a whisper campaign from anonymous sources suggesting that Rubin has stoked divisions within the Post newsroom. Here's a quote from one of their sources at the Post:

“She is an opinion columnist and does not represent the newsroom,” said one Post reporter. “I think our news coverage has been pretty sharp toward Biden on a number of fronts — immigration, Afghanistan, etc. — and we have a lot of good reporters. Jen Rubin is not a good representation of the news coverage of the Washington Post. I have been asked before if I hate sharing a newsroom with her... I reply that I don't.”

Now that's the kind of journalism Thompson and Needzwiadek applaud. Being "sharp toward Biden" is what "good reporters" do, regardless of accuracy. 

From there, things get even worse. The authors point out that they reached out to Rubin to get a response. Initially she ignored them. But recently she sent them an email with the subject line: "OFF THE RECORD." They quoted the whole thing anyway, justifying it by saying that they hadn't agreed to conduct an off the record conversation. So the folks who are attacking Rubin for her style of opinion journalism decided to reprint private communication that she clearly identified as off the record. What blazing hypocrites they are!

Since they've already published Rubin's email, it is worth noting that she is also spot-on in her assessment of Politico (emphasis mine).

How utterly predictable that Politico would run the zillionth hit piece on a prominent woman, especially one candid in her critiques of Politico's hysterical, clickbait style of coverage. The notion that I am polarizing in a newsroom (as opposed to any of the dozens of other opinion writers) is a "take" only Politico could come up with — by of course running around to ask the question in the first place. I trust the Post's superb news side folks spend zero time thinking about me (as is entirely appropriate).

Of course, the Politico piece was picked up by right wing sites like Fox News and Red State. It also garnered applause from Tucker Carlson's favorite guest, Glenn Greenwald. So if, as I suggested recently, the new owners of Politico want to pattern it after their European tabloid by mainstreaming the far right, the publication is already well on its way to fulfilling that goal. 

It is worth wondering why Politico chose to go after Rubin when they could have chosen other targets at the Post like NeverTrumper Max Boot, or perhaps a liberal opinion columnist like Jonathan Capehart who also tends to agree with the Biden administration. This is the kind of dilemma women often face. They have to wonder if attacks like this are motivated by sexism. Rubin suggests this isn't the first time Politico went there when she wrote that this would be their "zillionth hit piece on a prominent woman."

I've been clear for a while now that Politico is a big part of the problem with mainstream media. Commenting on the fact that the publication has recently been bought the German media company Alex Springer, Perry Bacon suggests that Politico bears some responsibility for the fact that political journalism drifted off course. 

Politico largely embraced the prevailing orthodoxies of political journalism, particularly in its early days — it was Beltway-focused, obsessed with not offending Republican readers, sometimes resembled sports coverage and its leading reporters were nearly all White. It was in many ways just a faster, more interesting version of how politics had long been covered...For more than a decade, not only did Politico keep gaining strength, but the entire political media became more like Politico.

And this is where things went wrong. It was (and is) fine to have a publication focused on insider politics. But it was not ideal when The Post, the New York Times and many other major mainstream news outlets drifted toward this model — and when they did so was particularly problematic.

The Politico approach is probably fine if you are covering parties and politicians who share some values and norms...But early in the Obama years...the most important stories in American politics were the deepening polarization of the American electorate along cultural and racial lines and the growing radicalization of the GOP. But a Politico-ized national political press was both largely unwilling and in some ways unable to center its coverage on those realities.

Bacon ends his piece on an upbeat note, suggesting that the presidency of Donald Trump shook up those norms. But as this attack piece on Rubin demonstrates, that is not the case at Politico. For that publication, woe be to any columnist who shuns bothsiderism in favor of making rational arguments.

Thursday, September 16, 2021

The Overlooked Crime: Domestic Violence

Republicans and their enablers in the media have been telling us that we should be worried about a dangerous rise in crime over the last couple of years. Of course, this is all meant to not only take us back to the failed "tough on crime" policies of the past, but is also meant to put a halt to any notion of police or criminal justice reform. The best defense of against these claims are facts and data.

The first thing to note is that national statistics differentiate between violent crimes and property crimes. Here's what the numbers are telling us about what happened in 2020:

Violent crime was up 3.3% in 2020 compared to 2019, according to preliminary data from the FBI’s quarterly Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) system. This includes a 25% increase in the homicide rate. The recent uptick in violent crime is a change from more than 30 years of decreases in property and violent crime. Data shows crime spiked across all categories in the early 1990s and have steadily decreased since with few exceptions. Meanwhile, property crime decreased by 7.9% in 2020.

While violent crime was up 3.3%, property crimes continued to decline. As that quote indicates, the rise in violent crimes was driven by a 25% increase in homicides. That is the issue we all need to focus on. 

As German Lopez explained, we don't know what caused the increase in homicides in 2020. But most researchers are pointing to three possibilities:

1) The Covid-19 pandemic: The coronavirus caused massive disruptions in American life, from the economy to education to entertainment. With all this change in human behavior, there’s a good chance that people changed something in their day-to-day lives that led to more violent crimes, shootings, and murders. Experts don’t necessarily know what that something might be yet...

2) The protests over policing: After the police killing of George Floyd, America was rocked by months of protests over police brutality. Initial rioting at some protests led to a brief spike in nonresidential burglaries in late May, but that quickly subsided and doesn’t explain the increase in violent crime; instead, experts cite breakdowns in police-community relations...

3) More guns, more gun violence: In 2020, Americans bought a record number of guns, likely in response to the chaos and fears that engulfed the year. The research is consistent on this point: More guns lead to more gun violence.

While Republicans will want to focus on #2 and claim that calls for police accountability are actually to blame, it seems clear that a combination of #'s 1 and 3 could be lethal, and just might point in a direction no one is looking. 

When we think of homicides, our minds have been trained to envision criminals (usually black or brown men) shooting at each other or innocent victims. We rarely hear that one quarter of homicides every year are the result of domestic violence and the majority of those involve a gun. Furthermore, the risk of homicide is three times higher when there are guns in the home. 

What happened in 2020 was a recipe for disaster. For months we were confined to home while gun sales skyrocketed. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to come up with a pretty solid hypothesis about what happened. But you won't get there unless/until you are willing to recognize that many homicides are the result of domestic violence. For example, as much as I appreciate the work of German Lopez on issues like this, take a look at how he described the impact of the pandemic on murder rates:

When people, especially teenage boys and young men, lack the right social connections and have a lot of free time on their hands, they’re more likely to get into trouble — spending time when they’d be at work or school on gang or other illicit activity, possibly to make ends meet or to socialize. As the pandemic shut down much of day-to-day life, including schools and some sectors of work, those circumstances were more likely in 2020, and may have led to more violence.

He can envision young men being more likely to engage in "gang or other illicit activity," but doesn't even mention the possibility of increased tensions in the home leading to domestic violence.

We all know that the vast majority of the victims of domestic violence are women. As long as most crime reporters, police, and politicians are men, it is likely to continue to be a crime that is overlooked when pontificating about the rise in homicides.

Tuesday, September 14, 2021

The Antidote for Projection: Empathy

One of my favorite columns from Steve Benen is the one he wrote back in the spring of 2011 about Karl Rove's "affection for projection."

Karl Rove has a special, some might call it “pathological,” quality as a political pundit. More than anyone I’ve ever seen or heard of, Rove identifies some of his own ugliest, most malicious, most pernicious qualities, and then projects them onto those he hates most...

A lesser hack might find it difficult to launch political attacks that are ironic, wrong, hypocritical, and examples of projection, all at the same time, but Rove is a rare talent.

At this point, Rove's talent isn't so rare. As Martin Longman suggests, the entire Republican Party is projecting their nefarious motives onto Democrats. For example, the party whose president incited an insurrection on January 6th is accusing their opponents of tyranny. As we learn more about how intelligence about what was coming on January 6th was stymied or ignored, they are the party that is accusing their opponents of manipulating intelligence on the Taliban. Similarly, the party whose governors are doing everything they can to block efforts to prevent the spread of COVID are now blaming their opponents for the continuation of its spread. I could go on, but perhaps you get the point.

The recovering therapist in me wants to diagnose what is happening here. It is possible that, in the case of someone like Karl Rove, this is a calculated strategy. It is meant to disarm criticism of your side by jumping the gun and accusing your opponent of the same nefarious motives and deeds. In that case, mainstream media's addiction to "bothsiderism" is part of the package. That is precisely why right wingers hatched the whole idea of a threat from antifa as cover for their connection to extremist white supremacy groups.

But projection is also an interesting psychological phenomenon. As Longman writes:

We have to guess about what other people are thinking and what motives lie behind their actions. Our best reference point is what we’d likely feel or do in similar circumstances. If our feelings or actions would be unacceptable, then we’re likely to think other people would have a similarly problematic reaction. 

Another way of looking at the Republican attachment to projection is that using oneself as a reference point to explain the motivations behind someone else's behavior is pretty common. Since Republicans were willing to let the global economy tank during the Great Recession in order to rob their opponent of any accomplishments, they are prone to believe that their opponent would use a pandemic for political gain. Longman's point is that this is why Republicans don't understand Democrats. 

Democrats are capable of some cynical political ploys but they would never try to gain power by helping a deadly virus proliferate. The record is clear, too, that the Democrats will act to shore up the economy in an emergency even if it will help their political opponents. Remember, when the big banks needed to be bailed out in lead-up to the 2008 election, it was the Democrats who stepped up and took the heat.

With that said, it is important to note that human beings have the ability to understand the motivations of people who are different from them. It requires two things: (1) listening, and (2) empathy. I am reminded of something Barack Obama wrote in "The Audacity of Hope."

I am obligated to try to see the world through George Bush’s eyes, no matter how much I may disagree with him. That’s what empathy does—it calls us all to task, the conservative and the liberal … We are all shaken out of our complacency.
Empathy was a major theme for Obama. You might remember that, prior to nominating Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court, he said that he wanted someone with “empathy” for “people’s hopes and struggles.” One of the former president's most important speeches was the one he gave on Martin Luther King Day in January 2008 at Ebenezer Baptist Church. It was all about our empathy deficit.
I’m not talking about the budget deficit. I’m not talking about the trade deficit. Talking about the moral deficit in this country. I’m talking about an empathy deficit, the inability to recognize ourselves in one another.

Of course, empathy is one of those soft, squishy things we write off because it's a woman's thing that doesn't have any place in a man's world of hardball politics. But I am convinced that if we are ever going to understand why our country seems to be riding off the rails these days, we're going to have to come to grips with how and why we wound up with such an empathy deficit, especially (but not exclusively) on the right. 

I suspect that it has something to do with this country's excessive focus on individual liberties over community responsibilities. That is precisely the ugliness we're seeing play out with anti-vaxers and anti-maskers. Everything is about their own "freedoms" with no thought whatsoever for how their actions affect others. 

On a final note, this empathy deficit is also one of the main contributors to the persistence of white privilege. We tend to project our own experiences onto people of color and find their actions confusing at best and problematic at worst. The work of anti-racism begins when we listen with empathy.

In the end, I don't have any grand solutions for how we overcome this addiction to projection rather than empathy when it comes to dealing with opponents. But what I DO know is that it is critically important that we understand the circumstances we're dealing with. This is just one more example of how the job of liberals is harder and why it is important to reject the messaging strategies embraced by Republicans. 

Saturday, September 11, 2021

What We Should Be Talking About on the Anniversary of 9/11

I wrote the piece below in September 2016, just two months before the election of Donald Trump. But it is as relevant today as it was five years ago. 

Fifteen years ago this Wednesday Congress passed the Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) Against Terrorists. Just three days after the attacks on 9/11, it passed unanimously in the Senate and only one member of the House - Rep. Barbara Lee - voted against it. If you have some time, I suggest that you listen to her accounting of that decision that was part of RadioLab's broadcast called "60 Words" (the number of words contained in the AUMF).

The reason those 60 words are so important is because they changed the way this country deals with terrorism - and it is still in effect 15 years later. If you remember, prior to that time, terrorists like Ramzi Ahmed Yousef (WTC bombing) were apprehended and tried in our court system. The 2001 AUMF launched the Bush/Cheney "global war on terror" which not only led to the war in Afghanistan, but was used to justify things like torture and the prison at Guantanamo Bay.

Of all the legacies of President Obama, his handling of that war is likely to receive the most mixed reviews. But his critics on the left have consistently missed the mark by arguing against his approach from the perspective of civil liberties. That ignores the sea-change that happened when this became a war. From that perspective, it would be helpful to review what has happened and where we stand today.

It is interesting to note from the get-go that President Obama attempted to re-name the "global war on terror." Take a look at how Dick Cheney reacted to some of the differences he was noticing in 2009.

Cheney was concerned that the President was taking the country back to dealing with terrorism as a law enforcement problem. A couple of months later in May 2009, he and Obama gave dueling speeches about their different approaches to combating terrorism. In his speech, President Obama talked about ending the use of torture and his plan to close Gitmo. But he also said this:
Now let me be clear: We are indeed at war with al Qaeda and its affiliates. We do need to update our institutions to deal with this threat. But we must do so with an abiding confidence in the rule of law and due process; in checks and balances and accountability. For reasons that I will explain, the decisions that were made over the last eight years established an ad hoc legal approach for fighting terrorism that was neither effective nor sustainable -- a framework that failed to rely on our legal traditions and time-tested institutions, and that failed to use our values as a compass.
In other words, the war would continue - but within the bounds of "our legal traditions and time-tested institutions." As such, it was the 2001 IUMF that AG Eric Holder relied on to defend the administration's use of drones.
In response to the attacks perpetrated – and the continuing threat posed – by al Qaeda, the Taliban, and associated forces, Congress has authorized the President to use all necessary and appropriate force against those groups. Because the United States is in an armed conflict, we are authorized to take action against enemy belligerents under international law. The Constitution empowers the President to protect the nation from any imminent threat of violent attack. And international law recognizes the inherent right of national self-defense. None of this is changed by the fact that we are not in a conventional war.
Then in May 2013, Obama gave one of the most important speeches of his presidency. Here is how he introduced the conversation we need to be having:
Now, make no mistake, our nation is still threatened by terrorists. From Benghazi to Boston, we have been tragically reminded of that truth. But we have to recognize that the threat has shifted and evolved from the one that came to our shores on 9/11. With a decade of experience now to draw from, this is the moment to ask ourselves hard questions -- about the nature of today’s threats and how we should confront them...

So America is at a crossroads. We must define the nature and scope of this struggle, or else it will define us. We have to be mindful of James Madison’s warning that “No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.” Neither I, nor any President, can promise the total defeat of terror. We will never erase the evil that lies in the hearts of some human beings, nor stamp out every danger to our open society. But what we can do -- what we must do -- is dismantle networks that pose a direct danger to us, and make it less likely for new groups to gain a foothold, all the while maintaining the freedoms and ideals that we defend. And to define that strategy, we have to make decisions based not on fear, but on hard-earned wisdom. 
The President went on to discuss repealing the 2001 AUMF.
So I look forward to engaging Congress and the American people in efforts to refine, and ultimately repeal, the AUMF’s mandate. And I will not sign laws designed to expand this mandate further. Our systematic effort to dismantle terrorist organizations must continue. But this war, like all wars, must end. That’s what history advises. That’s what our democracy demands.
The headlines after that speech were astounding:

The End of Perpetual War
"This War, Like All Wars, Must End"
Obama Lays Out a Plan to End the War Against Al Qaeda 

Unfortunately that speech was soon forgotten as the threat of ISIS emerged and the war on terror was given new life. That is the state of the situation that President Obama will pass on to his successor.

If Hillary Clinton wins in November, she will face the same kind of excoriation that Republicans have launched at Obama for any terrorist attack either here at home or in places like Paris. Rather than rallying around our Commander-in-Chief (as the entire country did after 9/11), it is clear that Republicans will use an attack to inflame anger and fear against her. Because of that, Clinton's administration will need to be just as vigilant or be blamed for the consequences. So it is hard to imagine any president making another move to end the war on terror. In the wrong hands, it is a recipe for disaster.

As President Obama outlined in 2013, that poses some difficult questions - ones that need to be answered based on hard-earned wisdom rather than fear. The threat of terrorism is real (although not nearly as large as too many Americans assume). But being perpetually at war poses a threat as well. On the anniversary of 9/11, that is what we should be talking about.

Friday, September 10, 2021

How the Failure of Bush's Presidency Led to MAGA

When the media started obsessing over the drop in Biden's approval rating - practically declaring him a lame duck president - I thought it would be interesting to look at what happened to the approval ratings of past presidents during their first nine months in office. I found exactly what I expected. 

According the the aggregate of polls at FiveThirtyEight, Biden began with an approval rating of 53% and has dropped 8 points to 45%. Here's how it looks for previous presidents during their first 233 days in office:

  • Trump went from 45.4% to 38.8%, a drop of 6.6
  • Obama went from 68% to 51.1%, a drop of 16.9
  • Clinton went from 54% to 44.2%, a drop of 9.8
George W. Bush's approval rating doesn't provide a good comparison because it skyrocketed about this time after the 9/11 terrorist attack. 

What this data shows is that there is nothing unusual about a drop in presidential approval ratings once they stop campaigning and start governing. 

But while I was looking at those numbers, I noted something else. When George W. Bush left office, his approval rating was historically low at 27.8. Of the previous 12 presidents, the only one who even comes close is Richard Nixon, whose approval rating was 24.8 when he resigned over the whole Watergate scandal. Even Trump ended his one term at 38.7. For other two-term presidents, Obama left office with a 54.8 approval rating, Clinton was at 63.2 and Reagan was at 63.1.

Even most Republicans disapproved of Bush's performance at the end of his second term. But that's hardly surprising - given the debacle of Katrina, the war in Iraq, and the collapse of the economy. On every front imaginable, GOP policies had been an abysmal failure. 

It was in that context that we elected this country's first African American president - who exuded not only hope, but competence. He had gained notoriety for his speech at the 2004 Democratic Convention, where he said things like this:

In 2008 Democrats not only won the presidential race, they picked up 8 seats in the Senate and 21 in the House. In other words, Republicans were in deep trouble. Their policies had failed miserably, leading to a huge electoral loss. This was a critical moment for the GOP.

At that point, it would have made sense for Republicans to step back and re-examine their policy priorities, just as Democrats had done after the 1972 election. On the other hand, it wouldn't have surprised anyone if the GOP had simply doubled-down on their policy priorities with new messaging (ie, continue to be the post-truth party). They did neither. Michael Grunwald explained what they DID do: 
[They held] secret meetings led by House GOP whip Eric Cantor (in December 2008) and Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell (in early January 2009) in which they laid out their daring (though cynical and political) no-honeymoon strategy of all-out resistance to a popular President-elect during an economic emergency. “If he was for it,” former Ohio Senator George Voinovich explained, “we had to be against it.”

That is how the GOP became the post-policy party focused solely on grievance politics and culture wars. In other words, it is why they went from the party of Ronald Reagan to MAGA nonsense. 

Tuesday, September 7, 2021

How the Right Wing Has Weaponized Philanthropy

The Supreme Court handed down its decision on Citizens United in January 2010. But a strange thing happened during the next two presidential elections. Flush with dark money, Karl Rove developed a plan for outside groups to invest $1 billion in 2012 to unseat President Barack Obama and turn the Senate Republican. But all of that money produced a 1% return on their investment. According to Politico, big donors were not happy. Then in 2016, the big money king of the Republican primary, Jeb Bush, saw his candidacy go nowhere. At least in presidential elections, the dark money train was a total bust.

There are some signs that big money donors have changed their game plan. It's not that they've completely stopped spending money to elect their favorite politicians. But they're looking elsewhere to reach their goals. These days we're seeing reports like this one from the the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel pop up all over the country.

A loose network of conservative groups with ties to major Republican donors and party-aligned think tanks is quietly lending firepower to local activists engaged in culture war fights in schools across the country.

While they are drawn by the anger of parents opposed to school policies on racial history or COVID-19 protocols like mask mandates, the groups are often run by political operatives and lawyers standing ready to amplify local disputes.

In a wealthy Milwaukee suburb, a law firm heavily financed by a conservative foundation that has fought climate change mitigation and that has ties to former President Donald Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election helped parents seeking to recall Mequon-Thiensville school board members, chiefly over the board’s hiring of a diversity consultant. A new national advocacy group, Parents Defending Education, promoted the Wisconsin parents’ tactics as a model.

The conservative foundation referred to in the paragraph above is the Bradley Foundation. To get some idea about what these dark money groups are up to, let's focus on what they're funding these days. With all of the focus on groups like the Koch brothers, you might not have heard of the Bradley Foundation. But according to the Center for Media and Democracy, they are one of America's largest right wing foundations, "with $835 million in assets as of June 2016, the Bradley Foundation is as large as the three Koch family foundations combined."

During the confirmation hearings for Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett, Senator Sheldon Whitehouse offered a clinic on how dark money was pulling the strings of Republican efforts to stack the courts. If you haven't already watched his 28 minute presentation, I highly recommend that you do so. The Bradley Foundation was featured prominently, donating to conservative groups that (1) select court nominees, (2) run public relations efforts on the nominee's behalf, and (3) bring court cases and orchestrate the filing of amicus briefs. So yes, we can blame Republican senators for stacking the courts. But dark money going to groups like the Federalist Society and the Judicial Crisis Network explain how its being done. 

According to investigative reporter Jane Mayer, the Bradley Foundation also invested heavily in promoting the so-called "Big Lie" that the 2020 presidential election was stolen from Trump. Mayer calculates that since 2012 the foundation has spent some $18 million on groups tied to voter suppression legislation, and most recently on stoking false fears of a stolen election. It has been a generous funder of a list of groups working to promote the Big Lie, including the Heritage Foundation, ALEC (American Legislative Action Council), Federalist Society, Honest Election Project (formerly the Judicial Education Project), Election Integrity Project California, FreedomWorks’ National Election Protection Initiative, True the Vote and Turning Point. It is also worth noting that Cleta Mitchell, who was on Trump's "find me 11,780 votes" call with Georgia election officials, serves on the board of the Bradley Foundation.

Since 2003, the Bradley Foundation has annually awarded up to four $250,000 cash prizes to “distinguished individuals whose extraordinary talents have influenced American scholarship and debate.” Recipients have drawn heavily from the opinion pages of the Wall Street Journal, including Paul Gigot, Kimberly Strassell, and Peggy Noonan. Other recipients include Roger Ailes, George Will, Michael Barone, and Bret Stephens.

Based in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, the Bradley Foundation has a long history of attempting to undermine both public education and labor unions. Michael Grebe, the CEO and president from 2002-2016, chaired Scott Walker’s campaigns for governor, as well as his run for the White House in 2016.

Mary Botari writes that one of the major goals of the foundation "appears to be pursuing a highly partisan game plan: funding an “infrastructure” on the right that benefits the Republican Party, while at the same time attempting to crush supporters of the Democratic Party." Internal documents she reviewed  "discuss the creation of 'grassroots organizations that argued for and defended the reforms in public discourse,' the funding of 'public interest legal groups that argued for and defended the programs in court,' and 'investigative journalism that doesn’t rely on old or new organs of the left and is able to stand on its own.'”

On the partisan nature of these activities, Jane Mayer commented that "this appears to be more evidence that a few powerful private foundations are weaponizing philanthropy for their own private political purposes. The government gives charitable foundations tax breaks in exchange for furthering the public good. Instead, it sounds as if the Bradley Foundation has been furthering the good of its own political agenda. It really begs some serious legal questions.”

Keep in mind that the Bradley Foundation is just one of the dark money groups that is "weaponizing philanthropy for their own private political purposes." But this all helps explain the frustration PoliticalGirl articulated about messaging.

The right wing not only has an entire network of sites devoted to spreading their propaganda. They also have millions of dollars in dark money being poured into doing things like stacking the courts, attacking public education, and building an infrastructure to benefit the Republican Party. 

So Democrats can criticize their own elected officials for not being as good as Republicans at messaging. There might even be some truth to that. But let's be clear about how the dark money game is being played today. For the most part, these groups are not as focused on funding political campaigns. Instead, they are weaponizing philanthropy to fight their culture wars and gain political advantage. That's what Democrats are up against. To engage in the battle means being clear about what the opposition is up to.

Monday, September 6, 2021

Democrats Must Reject the Way That Republicans Wield Power


The sign above showed up on my Twitter timeline recently and it is not hard to understand why. A theme that seems to reverberate among Democrats is that, as the old saying goes, they "bring a knife to a gunfight." The sentiment is that Republicans fight ruthlessly while Democrats tend to follow the rules. 

One of my favorite political commentators, Paul Waldman, weighed in on this theme with a piece titled, "The harsh truth of this moment: Republicans understand power. Democrats do not."
We’re seeing what a profound difference there is in how Democrats and Republicans view power. When Democrats have it, they’re often apologetic, uncertain and hesitant to use it any way that anyone might object to. Republicans, on the other hand, will squeeze it and stretch it as far as they can. They aren’t reluctant, and they aren’t afraid of a backlash. Whatever they can do, they will do...

[Republicans] do not quake at the prospect of the electorate’s displeasure, especially when they’ve done so much to ensure that the will of the electorate can be thwarted with the right combination of gerrymandering and voter suppression. They know what they want, and they’ll do what’s necessary to get it.

And Democrats? They fret and worry, they restrain themselves, they recommit to norms the other side has already trashed, they live in fear of political repercussions that never come. And their own goals languish while Republicans turn America into a darker, meaner, crueler place.

This assessment gets at what might be the biggest meta challenge Democrats face today. So it is important for us to think as deeply about process as we often do about policy. 

There is some truth to the notion that Democrats tend to worry too much about backlash. I suspect that comes from an assumption that voters know the truth and are willing to hold bad actors accountable.  As former Republican congressional staffer Mike Lofgren noted, the GOP has based their strategies on a very different assumption.

There are tens of millions of low-information voters who hardly know which party controls which branch of government, let alone which party is pursuing a particular legislative tactic. These voters' confusion over who did what allows them to form the conclusion that “they are all crooks,” and that “government is no good,” further leading them to think, “a plague on both your houses” and “the parties are like two kids in a school yard.” This ill-informed public cynicism, in its turn, further intensifies the long-term decline in public trust in government that has been taking place since the early 1960s – a distrust that has been stoked by Republican rhetoric at every turn (“Government is the problem,” declared Ronald Reagan in 1980).

The goal for Republicans is to stoke distrust in the government, so they are more than happy to ensure that voters remain cynical. But underlying everything in the Democratic platform is the idea that government can play a positive role in addressing the challenges we face today. That's why, back in 2005, Barack Obama wrote that "our job is harder than the conservative's job."

I firmly believe that whenever we exaggerate or demonize, or oversimplify or overstate our case, we lose. Whenever we dumb down the political debate, we lose. A polarized electorate that is turned off of politics, and easily dismisses both parties because of the nasty, dishonest tone of the debate, works perfectly well for those who seek to chip away at the very idea of government because, in the end, a cynical electorate is a selfish electorate...

Our goal should be to stick to our guns on those core values that make this country great, show a spirit of flexibility and sustained attention that can achieve those goals, and try to create the sort of serious, adult, consensus around our problems that can admit Democrats, Republicans and Independents of good will.

Since Obama wrote that we've watched Republicans demonstrate a willingness to do everything in their power to block any sort of consensus around the problems we face. So perhaps it's time to stop worrying about a backlash. Knowing that Republicans will employ lies and disinformation campaigns regardless of what Democrats propose, it is time to go for broke on policies that will actually work to address the challenges we face, which is exactly what Biden, Pelosi and Schumer are doing.

But what about the specific tactics Republicans employ. Should Democrats embrace those as well? I say a profound "no" to that one. That doesn't mean being apologetic, uncertain, or hesitant. It simply means abiding by "the rule of law," even when the opposition does not. Specifically, it means everything from telling the truth to abiding by laws that handicap our side...until they can be overturned legally. It means holding out the ideal of having an informed debate about our differences, even as the opposition lies and demonizes our positions. 

Waldman suggests that Republicans know how to wield power. If you are willing to throw away our democracy, I guess there's some truth to that. The GOP is engaged in an all-out assault on the truth and is attempting to undermine government institutions. Politicians and citizens are threatening everyone from election officials to school board members. They're working to suppress the vote and gerrymander congressional districts. On the heels of a violent attack on our Capitol to overturn an election, they are continuing to threaten violence if they don't get what they want. That is the kind of tyrannical power Republicans are wielding. 

At this point, Democrats are the last line of defense against that tyranny. It is critical that at least one party upholds our democratic ideals. Without that, we sacrifice everything. 

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