Tuesday, November 30, 2021

How the GOP Became the Party of Selfishness

Living through the Covid-19 pandemic, one thing that has stood out to me is the selfishness of right wingers. From day one back in 2020, they failed to grasp that a pandemic is a community event that requires us to not only take care of ourselves, but to be concerned about each other. For example, wearing masks has limited effect in protecting us from catching Covid, but is mainly recommended as a way to avoid passing it on to others. In response, right wingers oppose wearing a mask because it supposedly limits their own "freedom." That is the definition of selfishness.

All of this is especially troubling in that it often comes from those who claim to follow Jesus. When asked which was the greatest commandment, he said it was to "love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind." He went on to say that the second greatest commandment was to "love thy neighbor as thyself.”

But the truth is that the kind of selfishness we're seeing has been baked into conservative ideology for a long time now under the guise of worshiping individualism. At it's root, it is a rejection of democracy. For example, Marshall Ganz once summarized what Alexis De Tocqueville found when he visited our fledging democracy back in the 1830's.

[H]e saw that we had learned that choices a few people make about how to use their money could be balanced by choices many people make about how to use their time.

But only by joining with others could we come to appreciate the extent to which our fates are linked, gain an understanding of our common interests, and make claims on the political power we needed to act on those interests.

To avoid the kind of aristocracy that had flourished in Europe prior to our founding, self-government meant that collective action by citizens could balance the choices a few people make with their money. That is the heart of democracy, which inherently poses a threat to the power of aristocrats. 

More than any other president, it was Ronald Reagan who undermined this concept of self-government with his focus on the idea that "Government is not the solution to our problems. Government is the problem.” With that messaging, our government was no longer "us," but a "them" that represented a problem to be conquered. That has consistently remained the underlying message of Republicans.

By now you might have forgotten that all of that became a focus during the 2012 presidential race between a community organizer and a hedge fund manager. It all started when Barack Obama said this during a campaign event in Roanoke, Virginia:

Look, if you've been successful, you didn't get there on your own. I'm always struck by people who think, well, it must be because I was just so smart. There are a lot of smart people out there. It must be because I worked harder than everybody else. Let me tell you something -- there are a whole bunch of hardworking people out there. 

If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you've got a business -- you didn't build that. Somebody else made that happen. 

The Internet didn't get invented on its own. Government research created the Internet so that all the companies could make money off the internet. The point is, is that when we succeed, we succeed because of our individual initiative, but also because we do things together.

Mitt Romney and Republicans immediately jumped on the line, "you didn't build that," claiming that Obama was hostile to free enterprise. They made it the cornerstone of their convention that year.


While not naming the Republican messaging directly, Obama responded with a speech at the Democratic Convention dedicated to the idea of citizenship. 
We honor the strivers, the dreamers, the risk- takers, the entrepreneurs who have always been the driving force behind our free enterprise system, the greatest engine of growth and prosperity that the world's ever known.

But we also believe in something called citizenship — citizenship, a word at the very heart of our founding, a word at the very essence of our democracy, the idea that this country only works when we accept certain obligations to one another and to future generations...

We, the people — recognize that we have responsibilities as well as rights; that our destinies are bound together; that a freedom which asks only, what's in it for me, a freedom without a commitment to others, a freedom without love or charity or duty or patriotism, is unworthy of our founding ideals, and those who died in their defense.

As citizens, we understand that America is not about what can be done for us. It's about what can be done by us, together through the hard and frustrating but necessary work of self-government. That's what we believe.

That builds of something Obama said during the 2008 campaign.

In a way, Obama was terribly prescient about the Republican focus on "freedom," reminding us that a focus only on "what's in it for me" is unworthy of our founding ideals.

That line  - "America is not what can be done for us. It's about what can be done by us" - pretty much encapsulates the ideal of self-government as the enactment of democracy. It goes to the heart of what might be the foundational difference these days between Democrats and Republicans. 

What we have, once again, are two stories of America. One is dedicated to the uniquely American idea of "rugged individualism" that, in isolation from citizenship, leads to the kind of selfishness we've witnessed from right wingers during this pandemic. It's all about "me" and "my freedom." The other says that, in addition to that kind of individualism, we have obligations to one another and can act on those interests "together through the hard and frustrating work of self-government." As Obama said on another occasion, "the single-most powerful word in our democracy is the word 'We.' 'We The People.' 'We Shall Overcome.' 'Yes We Can.'" 

Sunday, November 28, 2021

The Exhausted Majority

On November 8, 2016, many of us were shocked that Donald Trump prevailed in the Electoral College and became the 45th president of the United States. For the next four years, we absorbed one shock after another. They came so fast that sometimes it was impossible to react to all of them, but we watched a POTUS do things like lie over 20,000 times, claim there were good people on both sides of a white supremacist rally, suggest that the previous administration had tapped his phones, refer to black and brown immigrants as coming from "shithole" countries, separate families who were seeking asylum, ignore a pandemic, and suggest that perhaps we should inject bleach into our veins. It all ended with an orchestrated coup to overturn an election. 

An overused meme these days is to say something controversial and then suggest that we "let that sink in." For most of us, Trump's presidency was so shocking that we still can't let it all sink in. 

Nevertheless, we elected Joe Biden as president and gave Democrats bare majorities in both the House and Senate. But armed with a right wing media network, Republicans continue to send shock waves into the body politic. For example, the premier propaganda channel, Fox News, has fully embraced the white supremacist great replacement theory, Republicans are combating every effort to get Covid under control, local elected officials (particularly school board members) have been physically threatened, and a young man who killed two protesters is being hailed as a hero.

Frankly, for those of us who live in the reality-based world, our shock absorbers have been been tested on almost a daily basis and it is exhausting. As a result, on one side of the political divide are the collective narcissists who, after decades of fear-mongering, live in a constant state of hyper vigilance. On the other side is an exhausted majority. Dan Rather recently wrote about the latter.

We get to a point where the exhaustion is itself exhausting. And I firmly believe that the forces who seek to undermine our society, who seek to pit us against each other for their cynical gain, see exhaustion as a potent weapon at their disposal. The more exhausted people who care about solving difficult challenges become, the more uncertain success in these endeavors becomes. And I suspect many of you sense this as well. And find it exhausting.

The message to those of us who are feeling exhausted is that, while vigilance is necessary, it is critical that we occasionally take a break because "resilience is a perspective that requires rest as well as determination."

It is also helpful to understand what's going on because our addiction to bothsiderism would suggest that people on either side of the political divide are the same. But that's not the case. Those of us who rely on science, reason, and logic are not reacting out of fear, which is the "juice" that drives collective narcissists. 

Even more importantly, we're not the ones garnering headlines in a media environment that is driven by instant reaction and outrage. That creates the impression that our voices don't matter and the shock troops are winning. But I don't believe that's the case. As an example, I could point to the fact that right wingers got all of the attention in the run-up to the 2017 elections, primarily with their threats to school boards. But according to Ballotpedia, they lost 72% of the school board races they contested nationally. Similarly, anti-vaxers are the ones making headlines, but 70% of adults have had at least one shot and 60% have been fully vaccinated.

Among the exhausted majority are those who simply expected Biden to fix everything immediately because the impression they get from news stories is that he has the power to do so. For example, here is Dan Balz at the Washington Post writing about Biden's "failure" when it comes to the pandemic.

Biden’s hope to vaccinate the overwhelming majority of the population has fallen short, leaving a patchwork of vaccinated and unvaccinated states and regions within states. Political divisions over the president’s policies, particularly his vaccine requirement for many companies, are worse than ever...After a premature claim by the president in July that the pandemic was mostly behind us and that people would soon have their freedom back, the delta variant struck hard. Now reality has taken hold.

Here's what the president actually said in July:

Two hundred and forty-five years ago, we declared our independence from a distant king. Today, we’re closer than ever to declaring our independence from a deadly virus...

Don’t get me wrong, COVID-19 is — has not been vanquished. We all know powerful variants have emerged, like the Delta variant, but the best defense against these variants is to get vaccinated.  

My fellow Americans, it’s the most patriotic thing you can do. So, please, if you haven’t gotten vaccinated, do it — do it now for yourself, for your loved ones, for your community, and for your country.

The irony is that if Biden was the tyrant right wingers claim him to be, he wouldn't have to be pleading with Americans to get vaccinated. Honest journalists would affirm that, in a democracy, a president isn't all powerful, which would lead them to report on the forces that are aligned against him (ie, Republicans).

The benefit of that kind of reporting would be that Americans would be better informed about the positions of both parties. But even more importantly, they would be more inclined to understand that real power comes from voting for those who align with our values. 

So if you are feeling exhausted, please take a break from news and politics as often as you feel the need to do so. But while Republicans try to do everything they can to make voting more difficult, it is the one thing we can't take a rest from. 

Tuesday, November 23, 2021

The Danger Posed by Right Wing Collective Narcissism

It became obvious a while ago that Donald Trump has some serious mental health issues, focused mostly on Narcissistic Personality Disorder.  But one of the problems with our current mental health system is that it tends to focus on individuals, failing to take context into account. When it comes to understanding the election of Trump, a study by Agnieszka Golec de Zavala, a senior lecturer in psychology at the University of London, started to fill in the gap.

“Political campaigns, especially those that use conspiracy beliefs as a tool to mobilize their electorate, are likely to mobilize collective narcissists. We found that American collective narcissism was linked to the conspiratorial mind-set and this relationship strengthened during the 2016 presidential campaign in the U.S,” Golec de Zavala told PsyPost.

“In another study, we found that collective narcissism was the strongest, after partisanship, predictor of voting for President Trump.”

So what is "collective narcism?" Here is how it was defined by Golec de Zavala:

Collective narcissism occurs when an exaggerated, inflated, and unrealistic view of the in-group compensates for creeping feelings of loss of dominance and declining importance, while also displaying a hypersensitivity to any out-group threats to the in-group’s image. Perhaps most relevant is the research showing a propensity for the in-group to aggressively retaliate and revel in the out-group’s misfortune when the in-group is criticized or feels insufficiently recognized or respected.

As Trump was preparing to run for president, white supremacists Richard Spencer tapped into how he was exploiting those "creeping feelings of loss of dominance."

“Trump, on a gut level, kind of senses that this is about demographics, ultimately. We’re moving into a new America.” He said, “I don’t think Trump is a white nationalist,” but he did believe that Trump reflected “an unconscious vision that white people have – that their grandchildren might be a hated minority in their own country. I think that scares us. They probably aren’t able to articulate it. I think it’s there. I think that, to a great degree, explains the Trump phenomenon.”

Keep in mind that collective narcissism doesn't depend on an actual loss of dominance, but a fear that it will happen, as Peter Hall, a professor of government at Harvard, explained.

The people most often drawn to the appeals of right-wing populist politicians, such as Trump, tend to be those who sit several rungs up the socioeconomic ladder in terms of their income or occupation. My conjecture is that it is people in this kind of social position who are most susceptible to what Barbara Ehrenreich called a “fear of falling” — namely, anxiety, in the face of an economic or cultural shock, that they might fall further down the social ladder,” a phenomenon often described as “last place aversion."

In other words, fear - not reality - is the culprit. That is precisely what right wing outlets like Fox News are promulgating with their embrace of replacement theory. As psychologist Nick Carmody explains, it is important to know about "the effect that fear......especially disinformation-induced fear......has on the collective human psyche."

From a neurobiological standpoint, the more evolved, cerebral cortex is located the furthest from the primitive brain stem....and contributes to the functions that make us distinctly human such as reason, judgment, and perhaps even our conscience because of its role in awareness/consciousness.

But fear is a primal response that originates in the amygdala, which is located closer to the primitive brain stem. Fear is an evolutionary response that helps guarantee survival. An animal relies on fear to instinctively engage a "binary" fight or flight response to survive. If there is any delay in cognitive processing, the animal risks being defeated in battle if it hesitates to “fight”....or risks being caught in “flight” if it hesitates to flee. Fight or flight requires animals to react first, and then think later, if at all. This is what has been occurring in American politics.

Decades of fear mongering/demagoguery have conditioned people’s primitive fear responses to be in a constant state of “hyper-vigilance” (not unlike PTSD)....which causes them to see enemies everywhere.....and to view everything as a "threat" to their survival. Demagogues have incited people to fear minor “threats” to status..., wealth, and lifestyle...

As a result, “threats” to a white, Christian, unregulated gun-owning society is equated to a literal existential threat to survival.

That is precisely the response Republican politicians are triggering with statements like this:

“The left’s ambition is to create a world beyond belonging,” said Hawley. “Their grand ambition is to deconstruct the United States of America.”

“The left’s attack is on America. The left hates America,” said Cruz. “It is the left that is trying to use culture as a tool to destroy America.”

“We are confronted now by a systematic effort to dismantle our society, our traditions, our economy, and our way of life,” said Rubio.

Obviously, "the left" is the out-group that poses an existential threat to the in-group of collective narcissists. 

All of this forms the basis of grievance politics, which focuses on how right wingers are victims, whose way of life is under attack from the left. Here's the goal:

The reality is that it’s not about actual victimhood. It’s about perceived victimhood, and the need to keep 45% of this country in a "hyper- vigilant" state of perpetual victimhood...

The byproduct of this perpetual state of victimhood is that a number of otherwise decent people are incited into such an irrational emotional state that they not only tolerate intolerance....but, in some cases, they’re willing to embrace inhumanity.

That is where things get dangerous.

In our society, there is a belief that victims have a right to take extreme measures to defend themselves, up to and including, deadly force. In the law, there is a common law principle called the "Castle Doctrine" that allows people to use reasonable force (including deadly force) to protect themselves against an intruder in their home. This doctrine was codified by state legislatures with “stand your ground” statutes that expanded it to include public places.

As Lance Mannion once explained, Christian nationalists need to feel persecuted (emphasis mine).

[I]t feeds their self-pity and sense of entitlement, and it gives them their excuse...If they are under attack, then they’re free to fight back.

According to these folks, victims not only have the right to defend themselves, they have the right to strike preemptively to protect themselves. That is precisely what the defense attorneys in both the Kyle Rittenhouse and McMichael/Bryan trials claimed. In the same way, the January 6 insurrectionists believed that they were the victims of a stolen election, which justified their attack on the Capital. So we see this mindset creeping in to our culture as a justification for the escalation of violence on the right.

All of this is frightening and I have no idea how the story ends. But one thing I do know: if Democrats simply focus on policies (an appeal to reason and judgement), it isn't going to break through this fear-induced collective narcissism. To be honest, I don't have a lot of answers about what will break through. It's just clear to me that the place to start is to better understand what we're dealing with. 

Monday, November 22, 2021

A President for ALL Americans

Interior Secretary Deb Haaland recently tweeted two intriguing photos. 

I didn't recognize the picture on the left. It was apparently taken in 1948 after passage of the Pick-Sloan Flood Control Act, which was the federal government's attempt to "control" the Missouri River. It called for a series of dams, including the Garrison Dam, which created the 200-mile-long Lake Sakakawea. As a result, 436 of Fort Berthold Reservation's 531 homes, as well as every square foot of the enviable farmland tilled by the people of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara nations, were flooded. Initially the tribes fought back.

But these arguments were no match for the government’s determination to tame the Missouri and spare any ill effects being visited upon its constituent white farmers—who owned less than 10 percent of the land lost to the series of dams the Pick-Sloan Flood Control Act of 1944 installed above Yankton, South Dakota. The rest was all Indian land.

Out of options, the tribes accepted the government’s offer of $5 million in exchange for their homeland. At the signing ceremony on May 20, 1948, in Washington, D.C., the bureaucrats were straight-faced. The suit-clad tribal chairman, George Gillette, stood just to the right of Interior Secretary Julius Krug, crying into his hand.

Gillette was right to weep. The affected tribes went from a thriving community to one that experienced an 80% unemployment rate. 

That is the kind of story racist right wingers don't want taught in our schools because it could make white people feel uncomfortable - never mind how it affected Native Americans. 

The picture Haaland posted on the right took place as she and tribal leaders witnessed Biden signing proclamations that restored the original boundaries of Bears Ears, Grand Staircase-Escalante and Northeast Canyons, and Seamounts National Monuments. It was Secretary Haaland who shed tears that day, but for the opposite reason. 

That is a reminder that, without much notice from mainstream media, Biden is following in Obama's footsteps when it comes to fulfilling the promises he made to our native brothers and sisters. In addition to restoring monuments and naming the first Native American to a cabinet position, here are some of the things the Biden administration has done in its first year:

  • The CARES Act allocated $8 billion for tribes to combat COVID-19.
  • The infrastructure bill allocated $31 billion to tribes for health care, housing and education programs.
  • Two Native American women have been nominated (and confirmed) to serve on federal courts.
  • The first Native American, Charles Sams, has been confirmed to head the National Park Service.
  • The president signed an executive order "Improving Public Safety and Criminal Justice for Native Americans and Addressing the Crisis of Missing or Murdered Indigenous People."
  • The Annual White House Tribal Nations Summit (initiated by President Obama) has been revived.
Given this country's history with Native Americans, nothing makes me more proud of my support for this president than watching him keep these promises. Biden is demonstrating what it means to have a country for ALL Americans, a future for ALL Americans, and a president for ALL Americans.

Saturday, November 20, 2021

What Democrats Can Learn from Obama and Abrams About Winning Back Working Class Voters

After the presidencies of Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, conventional wisdom focused on geography, suggesting that Democrats needed to nominate a (white male) Southerner in order to win. Then in 2008, along came Barack Hussien Obama - who wasn't only Black, he was born in Hawaii and lived in Chicago. Conventional wisdom shifted to demography and the "emerging Democratic majority" made up of people of color, women, and young people. The election of Donald Trump in 2016 shifted all of that to class, with a focus on the need for Democrats to win back white working class voters. 

Perhaps you'll excuse me if I take that latest bit of conventional wisdom with a grain of salt. These predictions have never been right - perhaps because they're constantly looking at the past rather than the future. 

Nevertheless, the fact that Terry McCauliffe lost the governors race in Virginia has sparked a whole new emphasis on the latest conventional wisdom about class. Perry Bacon calls it white appeasement, David Shor calls it popularism, and Ruy Teixeira, who once chronicled the "emerging Democratic majority," has now done an about-face and adopted right wing talking points about Democrats needing to drop a focus on "wokeness." 

Given the structural advantages Republicans have in our elections, the base of their argument is not completely wrong. Here's Bacon:

Certainly, there is a real case that Democrats need to prioritize wooing White voters — and by whatever means necessary. The Republican Party is growing increasingly radical, raising the stakes for the country in the 2022 and 2024 elections. Even as the United States becomes more racially diverse, White Americans remain about 70 percent of voters overall and make up an even larger bloc in key swing states such as Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. Democrats can’t win presidential elections or control of the Senate if they lose too many White voters to the GOP.

So if Democrats need to woo white voters (especially working class white voters), the question is "how do they do that?" Bacon posits that a certain amount of white appeasement is necessary (think Sister Souljah). But as he suggests, that can also be problematic.

[T]he limits and dangers of Democratic White appeasement are serious and substantial. Past policies adopted by party leaders to appeal to White voters have hurt people of color in deep and lasting ways. And many of those moves didn’t actually attract many White voters, either. Centering White voters now could push the Democrats away from a recent positive trajectory that includes increasingly embracing candidates of color and aggressive efforts to address racial inequality.

Heading into the 2020 midterms, Shor's focus is on congressional races. Here's how Ezra Klein summarized his prescription:

Shor has built an increasingly influential theory of what the Democrats must do to avoid congressional calamity. The chain of logic is this: Democrats are on the edge of an electoral abyss. To avoid it, they need to win states that lean Republican. To do that, they need to internalize that they are not like and do not understand the voters they need to win over. Swing voters in these states are not liberals, are not woke and do not see the world in the way that the people who staff and donate to Democratic campaigns do.

All this comes down to a simple prescription: Democrats should do a lot of polling to figure out which of their views are popular and which are not popular, and then they should talk about the popular stuff and shut up about the unpopular stuff. “Traditional diversity and inclusion is super important, but polling is one of the only tools we have to step outside of ourselves and see what the median voter actually thinks,” Shor said.

In an explanation of Shor's popularism, Nate Cohn focuses on Barack Obama's 2012 campaign as a model. 

[Shor's] also clear in believing that the Obama '12 campaign is the model for Democrats. As far as he's concerned, that was the last time Democrats thought in a popularist--tactical--way, including about salience/messaging on race, immigration, culture...And I think it's pretty easy to see the Obama campaign as an exercise in popularism. Its core message in the Midwest was to tout the autobailout and attack Romney as a corporate raider who would outsource jobs and hollow out the middle class...Obama didn't exactly shy away from talking about liberal cultural issues. But it is true that they weren't the central question of the election, either.

For his recommendations, Teixeira relies on the conclusions of a study about working class voters conducted by Jacobin/Center for Working Class Studies/YouGov.

Working-class voters prefer progressive candidates who focus primarily on bread-and-butter economic issues, and who frame those issues in universal terms. This is especially true outside deep-blue parts of the country. Candidates whose campaigns focused primarily on universalist policy issues such as jobs, health care, and the economy performed better than those who focused on group-specific policies, such as racial justice or immigration. In addition, woke messaging decreased the appeal of other candidate characteristics. For example, candidates employing woke messaging who championed either centrist or progressive economic, health care, or civil rights policy priorities were viewed less favorably than their counterparts who championed the same priorities but opted for universalist messaging. 

But here's the dilemma Democrats face: It is clear that Republicans will continue to run on racial grievance (with Senator Hawley adding male grievance to the mix). It worked pretty well for them with the election of Donald Trump, but more recently in the Virginia governors race against a fairly moderate white guy. According to Shor and Teixeira, Democrats should simply ignore all of that because their positions on race and gender are unpopular with working class voters. 

One of the main problems with these recommendations stems from the assumption that working class voters are responding to policy issues and that Democrats can win them back with a focus on things like jobs, health care, and the economy. That completely ignores the appeal of grievance politics, as well as messages like those we heard from Republican politicians at the recent National Conservatism Conference.

The politicians’ speeches were like entries in the catastrophism Olympics:

“The left’s ambition is to create a world beyond belonging,” said Hawley. “Their grand ambition is to deconstruct the United States of America.”

“The left’s attack is on America. The left hates America,” said Cruz. “It is the left that is trying to use culture as a tool to destroy America.”

“We are confronted now by a systematic effort to dismantle our society, our traditions, our economy, and our way of life,” said Rubio.

All of that is backed up daily by right wing media propaganda. 

While it's true that Democrats shouldn't completely cede to Republican messaging, simply ignoring it isn't an option either. Furthermore, in documenting coverage of the 2016 presidential race, the Berkman Klien Center at Harvard found that the media focused on supposed Clinton scandals and Trump's "issues."


So even if Democrats ignored the issue of immigration (something both Shor and Teixeira recommend), that doesn't mean it won't emerge as a hot topic.

Going back to Cohn's example of Obama, there are two things Democrats can learn from him to improve their chances with working class voters. In order to combat the apocalyptic lies coming from right wingers, they can emulate the most important speech Obama ever gave - the one at the 50th anniversary of the march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama.
What greater expression of faith in the American experiment than this, what greater form of patriotism is there than the belief that America is not yet finished, that we are strong enough to be self-critical, that each successive generation can look upon our imperfections and decide that it is in our power to remake this nation to more closely align with our highest ideals?...

The American instinct that led these young men and women to pick up the torch and cross this bridge, that’s the same instinct that moved patriots to choose revolution over tyranny. It’s the same instinct that drew immigrants from across oceans and the Rio Grande; the same instinct that led women to reach for the ballot, workers to organize against an unjust status quo; the same instinct that led us to plant a flag at Iwo Jima and on the surface of the Moon.

It’s the idea held by generations of citizens who believed that America is a constant work in progress; who believed that loving this country requires more than singing its praises or avoiding uncomfortable truths. It requires the occasional disruption, the willingness to speak out for what is right, to shake up the status quo. That’s America...

For we were born of change. We broke the old aristocracies, declaring ourselves entitled not by bloodline, but endowed by our Creator with certain inalienable rights. We secure our rights and responsibilities through a system of self-government, of and by and for the people. That’s why we argue and fight with so much passion and conviction — because we know our efforts matter. We know America is what we make of it...

Selma shows us that America is not the project of any one person. Because the single-most powerful word in our democracy is the word “We.” “We The People.” “We Shall Overcome.” “Yes We Can.” That word is owned by no one. It belongs to everyone.

Jon Favreau once said that "every election is a competition between two stories about America.” Obama's speech is a story of America that counters the one being told these days by right wingers.

Jamele Bouie once pointed to something else we can learn from Obama. I'll warn you that it can seem counter-intuitive at first. But he makes a great point. He suggests that, to the extent that Republicans make these elections about race and identity, candidates of color might be the best option. That's not simply because they'll automatically win with voters of color, "but because they won’t have to demonstrate the same social solidarity" (emphasis mine).

Like Obama, they can stay somewhat silent on race, embodying the opposition to [Trump's] racism rather than vocalizing it and allowing them space to focus on economic messaging without triggering the cycle of polarization that Clinton experienced.

In many ways, that is what Ed Kilgore noted about Stacey Abram's "new Democratic coalition."

African-Americans in the South have struggled to construct two-way biracial coalitions within the Democratic Party, and when they could it often required conspicuously nonprogressive messages. As the parties have continued to polarize, that path has become less viable than ever. There just aren’t that many white swing voters to whom to “reach out,” as the saying goes.

But the very different strategy pursued by Stacey Abrams looks like the future of biracial Democratic politics in the South: a strongly progressive (though not abrasively so) African-American who can expand turnout among a rising minority population while still appealing to increasingly liberal white Democratic and independent voters as well.

As an example of what that looks like, here's an excerpt from the speech Abrams made after winning the Democratic primary for governor of Georgia (emphasis mine).

We are writing the next chapter of Georgia’s history where no one is unseen, no one is unheard and no one is uninspired. We are writing a history of Georgia where we prosper together…For the journey that lies ahead, we need every voice in our party and every independent thinker in the state of Georgia…That is why we are here to ensure that all Georgians, from farmers in Montezuma to mill workers in Dalton, know that we value them. So that educators in Sparta and airport workers in College Park know that we see their efforts. So that former prisoners across our state who are working towards more know that we believe in their redemption.

Of course, Abrams didn't win that election (perhaps due to Republican voter suppression). But at least in part due to her efforts, Biden won the state two years later and Georgia elected Raphael Warnock as their senator. 

What worked in Georgia might not be effective in every red or swing state. But to the extent that Democrats must figure out a way to appeal to working class voters, there are lessons we can learn from Barack Obama and Stacey Abrams. 

Wednesday, November 17, 2021

The Dangerous Chasm Between Perception and Reality

According to Thomas Edsall, opinion columnist at the New York Times, Democrats shouldn't simply panic heading into the 2022 elections, they should go into shock. Here's how he introduces his case:

The rise of inflation, supply chain shortages, a surge in illegal border crossings, the persistence of Covid, mayhem in Afghanistan and the uproar over “critical race theory” — all of these developments, individually and collectively, have taken their toll on President Biden and Democratic candidates, so much so that Democrats are now the underdogs going into 2022 and possibly 2024.

While I have to agree with Edsall that things look bleak right now, a quote he presents from Robert Shapiro tells the story.

Biden and the Democrats have had almost all bad news: the pandemic is still going; the economy has not picked up in terms of perceptions of the expected increases in employment and economic growth not on fire; perceptions of what happened in Afghanistan; what has happened on the southern border; high crime rates, all amplified in news reports. It is all perception, and the latest is the increase in inflation and gas prices that people see/feel. The critical race theory controversy and perceptions of Democrats being too woke and extreme. The bad news is overwhelming.

Notice how many times Shapiro refers to "perceptions" - at one point suggesting that much of the bad news for Democrats has been amplified in news reports. A review of Edsall's examples confirms that analysis.

Edsall eventually zeros in on the pullout from Afghanistan as the place the perceptions of Biden's incompetence all started. But as I've written previously, that was a narrative created by the media

Here's what you'll find at the link Edsall provided about "the persistence of Covid."

The U.S. government’s overall response to the pandemic has been criticized, and state governments have also come under fire for enforcing rules that were not tough enough and lifting restrictions too early. However, the country’s vaccination rollout has so far been a success, with the U.S. one of the countries with the highest number of vaccinations administered worldwide.

Of course, the Biden administration was in charge of the successful vaccination rollout, even as it has been Republican governors that failed to enforce rules and lifted restrictions too early.

Similarly, the whole panic about a "crisis" at our southern border has been a lie propagated by right wing news sources and amplified by mainstream media. But here's the story that isn't getting as much attention (emphasis mine):

After a major influx of migrants overwhelmed the southwestern border throughout much of the spring and summer, unauthorized crossings in October were down for the third straight month, federal authorities announced on Monday, with the number of Haitians plummeting by more than 90 percent.

Even in telling that story, the reporter fails to note that border crossings have always tended to be cyclical, picking up during spring/summer and then dropping in the fall/winter. It is also important to note that the numbers being reported are for border apprehensions. That is significant because of a major change underway with migrants on our southern border. In the past, they have primarily been undocumented immigrants (mostly from Mexico) who wanted to evade apprehension and enter the country to work. But currently they are refugees, which means that they present themselves to authorities requesting asylum. Is it any wonder that apprehensions are up significantly?

Finally, Edsall includes inflation and supply chain shortages as part of the bad news for Democrats without mentioning skyrocketing employment and rising wages. That's pretty typical in news reports. The fact that there is a perception that the economy is in bad shape right now is amplified by this dichotomy:

Americans are spending like crazy, but Consumer Sentiment is at a 10-year low. Here's how Reuters reported on the numbers for retail sales in October:

The solid report from the Commerce Department on Tuesday suggested high inflation was not yet dampening spending, even as worries about the rising cost of living sent consumer sentiment tumbling to a 10-year low in early November. Rising household wealth, thanks to a strong stock market and house prices, as well as massive savings and wage gains appear to be cushioning consumers against the highest annual inflation in three decades.

The media's fixation on doom and gloom, despite Biden's accomplishments, was captured by Tyler Pager, who recently wrote that the president is not being gloomy enough. Eric Boehlert noticed and responded.

The [Washington] Post basically hit Biden for not inciting general panic with his public comments regarding the challenges the U.S. faces today, as we come out of an unprecedented global pandemic, which has scrambled economies around the world.

Doesn’t this feel like a media trap? If Biden had spent his first year in office leaning into doom-and-gloom rhetoric, it’s almost certain outlets like the Post would criticize him for it and ask why can’t he be a more optimistic leader, like Ronald Reagan.

In all of my years of watching politics, I've never seen the chasm between perception and reality this big. That is primarily because right wing media paints Biden as an incompetent fool on a daily basis, while mainstream media is addicted to bad news with no context. The combination of the two presents a distorted reality.

It has become conventional wisdom to accuse Democrats of having a messaging problem. There's probably some truth to that. But when the entire weight of the news media is pushing against your message, the deck is stacked.  

Monday, November 15, 2021

Democrats Organized and Won Big in 2021 Local Races

The 2021 elections were almost two weeks ago and the narrative about them has solidified: they were a disaster for the Democrats. Now the airways are filled with stories of doom and gloom for the party in 2022 and 2024, along with myriads of advice for what Democrats need to do differently. We'll take up the latter shortly. But first, let's take a look at the story you're not hearing about the 2021 elections.

All of the attention has been on the statewide governors elections in Virginia and New Jersey. That is understandable from the media's perspective, due to their focus on the national level. But if the purpose has been to highlight doom and gloom for Democrats, perhaps it would be helpful to examine what happened at the local level. 

Apparently there isn't a lot hard data on the overall picture. But when it comes to school board races - which were such a huge issue - here's what the Washington Post reported:

Ballotpedia, a website that tracks U.S. politics, identified 96 school districts with a total of 302 seats up for election where social issues and the coronavirus response were major campaign issues. That includes, for example, questions of mandatory masks in school, comprehensive sex education, rights for transgender students and how race is taught in classrooms...

Ballotpedia found that candidates who took conservative stances on race, gender and pandemic issues did not win most of their races. Of the 275 candidates that Ballotpedia was able to label, about 28 percent of the winners had taken a conservative stance.

 If those numbers are reflective, they represent an abysmal showing for right wingers. 

As Mike Hixenbaugh, who covers these issues for NBC noted, the results were mixed. But here are some of the stories (primarily in suburban districts, which were the focus) that were only covered my local news:

‘Critical race theory’ divides, then unifies Guilford as Republican school board candidates are defeated

Conservative candidates defeated in Waukee school board elections

Incumbents win Mequon-Thiensville School District recall election

Conservative school board candidates overwhelmingly lose at Summit polls

Anti-Mask, Anti-Mandate, Anti-Critical Race Theory School Board Candidates in Northeast Ohio Fared Poorly on Election Day

Voters in tense York Suburban race reject conservative candidates focused on masks, CRT

In the run-up to the election, we heard a lot about the suburban moms who were organizing on the right - primarily because they were featured on Fox News and other right wing sites. But CNN joined the fray and did a post-election interview with four white suburban moms who ostensibly voted for Biden and then switched to the Republican, Glenn Younkin, in the Virginia governors race. 

Apparently none of these moms were aware of the fact that in March 2021, Democrats passed the American Rescue Plan (with zero support from Republicans). It contained $122.7 billion for schools with a focus on providing funding for schools to open safely along with set-asides for after school and summer programming to address the learning loss issues created by school closures. Either the CNN reporter was unaware of that fact, or she simply failed to bring it up. 

What we haven't heard as much about are the suburban moms who are organized on the left to combat right wing efforts. We know that these women played a crucial role in the run-up to the 2018 blue wave election. They're still at it. One such group calls themselves Red Wine and Blue. Their Facebook page is filled with stories like this:

You may have heard about Dublin, Ohio –– a fast-growing, diversifying suburb north of Columbus that voted strongly for Romney in 2012 and for Trump four years later. But in 2020, the community delivered a 10 point WIN for Biden. And in 2021, they FLIPPED two school board seats!

How did it happen? Well things in Dublin didn’t change overnight, and they certainly didn’t change on their own. 

Last school year, an Instagram account called “Dear Dublin” was formed after the murder of George Floyd. The account allowed students to anonymously share stories of how they’d encountered racism in school –– no matter how difficult it was to hear. Soon teachers, administrators, and allied students took notice and began working together to create change in their schools.

Of course, these moms took notice too. They heard the cries of students in their community and began organizing to promote equity in the school district. They even took their movement to the polls by supporting two women running for school board against well-funded right-wing opponents.

In the end, BOTH WOMEN WON. They didn’t duck when confronted with anti-CRT and anti-LGBTQIA+ rhetoric. Instead, they listened to their community, stood up for their values, and addressed the issues head on.

To capture how stories like this were missed, take a look at what happened in Georgia.
In Georgia’s November 2, 2021 statewide municipal elections, Democrats gained a net total of more than 30 seats and counting...Candidates in DPG-targeted races flipped 41 seats in 21 counties across Georgia, while Republican candidates picked up just 6.

Democrats’ strong showing this election cycle – from metro Atlanta to rural Georgia – is testament to the unprecedented grassroots enthusiasm our party has been building across the state for years. After flipping crucial municipal seats in 2019, voting to send a Democrat to the White House for the first time in 28 years in 2020, and flipping both U.S. Senate seats blue earlier this year, Georgia Democrats’ momentum is still growing. The 2021 municipal elections show that with strong candidates, strategic organizing, and early investments, Georgia Democrats are well-positioned to continue mobilizing voters and flipping seats throughout the state in 2022 and beyond.

It is worth taking some time to think about how we'd be talking about 2022 and beyond if these stories garnered as much attention as the ones we've been hearing about ad nauseam for the last two weeks.  

Wednesday, November 10, 2021

What the Media Isn't Telling Us About the Economy

With a better-than-expected jobs report and passage of the infrastructure bill, Friday was a banner day for the Biden administration. That caps an impressive list of accomplishments for the 46th POTUS in less than a year.

Given that the economy is a top concern for most voters, all of that should be good news, right? But according to Neil Irwin at the New York Times, that is not the case.

Americans are, by many measures, in a better financial position than they have been in many years. They also believe the economy is in terrible shape...

Workers have seized the upper hand in the labor market, attaining the largest raises in decades and quitting their jobs at record rates. The unemployment rate is 4.6 percent and has been falling rapidly. Cumulatively, Americans are sitting on piles of cash; they have accumulated $2.3 trillion more in savings in the last 19 months than would have been expected in the prepandemic path. The median household’s checking account balance was 50 percent higher in July of this year than in 2019, according to the JPMorgan Chase Institute.

Yet workers’ assessment of the economy is scathing...The reasons seem to be tied to the psychology of inflation and the ways people assess their economic well-being.

It would be interesting to know what Irwin meant by the "psychology of inflation." We know that right wing media has pretty much ceased reporting on anything else related to the economy - doing its job of riling up their MAGA base. But the truth is that mainstream media is part of the problem too. A couple of recent examples from CNN illustrate the problem.

Here's a story that garnered a lot of attention last week:   

Evan McMorris-Santoro went grocery shopping with a family of 11 (2 parents and 9 kids) and billed it as a story about "what it actually means to live in America right now." Much of the reaction was about buying 12 gallons of milk a week. But that misses the point. The real problem was the suggestion that the price of milk had gone from $1.99 to $2.79. As Kevin Kruse asked, "when was the price of milk $1.99?" Here's what the U.S. Inflation Calculator reports:

But as Aaron Gordon reports, by focusing on groceries, the entire segment was off base.
Ironically, dairy is actually benefiting from among the lowest rates of inflation at the moment, with the BLS reporting dairy prices have risen just .6 percent over the last 12 months...

But it’s not just about milk. While food prices are increasing, they’re not doing so at an especially alarming rate. According to the most recent Consumer Price Index released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, food prices have indeed gone up a bit, with grocery store prices up 4.5 percent year over year. A healthy rate of inflation is typically regarded as around one to two percent. But it’s also far from crisis levels.

What CNN omitted from the story is that, as a typical middle class family with 7 kids, the Stotlers would be getting $1,400 to $2,100 per month as part of Biden's child tax credit. That would go a long way towards addressing the issue of inflation.

Even more egregious was this tweet from CNN's Wolf Blitzer on Tuesday. 

Apparently that particular gas station is near CNN's Washington, DC office. But local residents were quick to point out its reputation. 

Charlotte Clymer broke the whole thing down here, pointing out that the national average for a gallon of regular is now $3.41, almost 90 cents per gallon cheaper than Blitzer's example. 

None of this is to suggest that inflation isn't a problem. President Biden acknowledged that in a statement about the economy: "Inflation hurts Americans pocketbooks, and reversing this trend is a top priority for me." But as Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg explained, when it comes to the economy, good news often comes with bad.

One of the drivers of inflation is that, as we begin to recover from both the pandemic and the recession it caused, people are back to work and wages are rising. As a result, demand is surging. When demand exceeds supply, prices go up. That's economics 101. Inflation will likely persist until the supply side catches up.

That is the story the media should be telling. Instead, we're getting outright lies from right wing sources and contextless exaggerations from mainstream media. Do you suppose that helps explain the anxiety voters are feeling?

Tuesday, November 9, 2021

Right Wing Media Is Fueling a Savage Rage

Following the January 6th insurrection, school board members have been threatened, while the F.A.A. has recorded more than 4,900 reports of unruly passengers this year. Reuters just reported on the threats being made to election officials.

In Arizona, a stay-at-home dad and part-time Lyft driver told the state’s chief election officer she would hang for treason. In Utah, a youth treatment center staffer warned Colorado’s election chief that he knew where she lived and watched her as she slept.

In Vermont, a man who says he works in construction told workers at the state election office and at Dominion Voting Systems that they were about to die.

“This might be a good time to put a f‑‑‑‑‑‑ pistol in your f‑‑‑‑‑‑ mouth and pull the trigger,” the man shouted at Vermont officials in a thick New England accent last December. “Your days are f‑‑‑‑‑‑ numbered.”

All of this comes as PRRI reports that "Almost one-third of Republicans say they think violence may be necessary to solve the problems facing the United States."

That is why a report from a TPM reader who lives in central Virginia - "industrial strength Trump country" - captured something important.

Yesterday’s election unsettled me, a lot. Despite decisive wins across the board a palpable, consuming rage drives Republican energy here, a rage that mere victory will not sate.

There’s a savagery in the opposition to President Biden and to the Democratic Party and its voters that seems to bubble up from a deeper well.

What is driving that savage rage? I suspect that Jen Senko, who made a documentary titled "The Brainwashing of My Dad" in 2015, has the answer.  


Here is what Senko recently told Chauncey DeVega:
My father was seduced by the anger and the excitement...There are very persuasive big personalities pushing my father's buttons and those of the audience in general. And you know what? That feels good. There is an addictive quality to anger like that. It was exciting for my father. It also provided him a group to belong to.

When asked about people contacting her with similar stories, here is what Senko said they all have in common:

One of them is anger. The relative, the loved one, the friend, whoever it may be, suddenly is angry more and more, it's their predominant mood. These people also become very argumentative. Many of these people who are watching Fox and are part of the right-wing echo chamber are incapable of having conversations that somehow do not turn to politics. They become obsessed with this new right-wing way of thinking. It becomes the person's mission. It is all of who they are.

I was reminded of an article by a young conservative, Richmond Ramsey, back in 2011.

I don’t know when it happened, exactly, but [mom] began peppering our conversation with red-hot remarks about President Obama. I would try to engage her, but unless I shared her particular judgment, and her outrage, she apparently thought that I was a dupe or a RINO...

I mentioned to a friend over beers how much Fox my mom and dad watched, and how angry they now were about politics.

“Yours too?!” he said. “I’ve noticed the same thing with mine"...

I started to wonder how common this Fox Geezer Syndrome was. I began to poll conservative friends of my generation who had right-wing parents. At least eight different people – not an Obama voter among them, and one of them actually a George W. Bush political appointee in Washington – told me that yes, they had observed a correlation between the fevered emotionalism of their elderly parents’ politics, and increased exposure to Fox News.

These days, its not just Fox News. Rage addicts now have a plethora of fear-mongering publications to turn to, along with social media, OAN and Newsmax. If you've ever tried having a conversation with someone who depends on those news sources exclusively, you have some idea of how pointless it can be.

Within the epistemic bubble created by these right wing media outlets, the rage has developed into a kind of collective narcissism. Scott Barry Kaufman describes how that differs from tribalism.

Golec de Zavala defined [collective narcissism] to me as “a belief that the exaggerated greatness of one’s group is not sufficiently recognized by others,” in which that thirst for recognition is never satiated... 

Collective narcissism is not simply tribalism. Humans are inherently tribal, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Having a healthy social identity can have an immensely positive impact on well-being. Collective narcissists, though, are often more focused on out-group prejudice than in-group loyalty. In its most extreme form, group narcissism can fuel political radicalism and potentially even violence. But in everyday settings, too, it can keep groups from listening to one another, and lead them to reduce people on the “other side” to one-dimensional characters.

One thing to keep in mind about all of this is that it is a social/psychological phenomena as much as it is political - which might help explain why the mainstream media has been so woefully negligent in connecting the dots about this most serious threat to our democracy. But make no mistake about it: a sizable portion of this country is being whipped into a savage rage by the lies right wing media is feeding them on a daily basis.

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