It’s All About Race

I’ve been working my way through the numerous books–both the physical ones and the ones on my Kindle–that have been piling up on my nightstand, and I’ve just finished How Democracies Die. It’s a book that has generated a lot of discussion, for obvious reasons. The two scholars who wrote it in 2018, Steven Levitsky and Daniel Zimblatt, have spent their academic careers focusing on the ups and downs of democratic governments around the globe. That focus has allowed them to draw conclusions about the normative elements that serve as guardrails protecting democratic institutions, and about the signs  warning of democratic collapse.

There’s a lot to absorb from the book’s copious descriptions of democratic failures in a wide variety of countries–and the authors make no bones about the reality of the threat to American institutions posed by Donald Trump and the MAGA movement. It’s all pretty grim–and entirely persuasive.

That said, I was particularly struck by one of the book’s central observations–probably because it confirms my strong belief that support for Trump/MAGA is almost entirely rooted in racism.

About halfway through the book, the authors identified two democratic norms that are essential to a functioning democracy: mutual toleration and institutional forbearance. In other words, acknowledging the legitimacy of one’s political opponents, and “forbearing” to abuse or over-use institutional weapons like the filibuster or Mitch McConnell’s legal but shockingly undemocratic theft of a Supreme Court seat. Extreme polarization erodes those norms; as they write, when societies sort themselves into political camps whose world-views aren’t just different but mutually exclusive, toleration becomes harder to sustain.

When the authors analyzed what had allowed America’s politicians to sustain basic democratic norms for a period running roughly from the collapse of Reconstruction through the 1980s, they came to a very troubling conclusion–that during that time period, “The norms sustaining our political system rested, to a considerable degree, on racial exclusion.” To the extent that America operated with bipartisanship and experienced reduced polarization during that extended time period, those outcomes “came at the cost of keeping civil rights off the political agenda.”

In the final paragraph of Chapter Six, they write

America’s democratic norms, then, were born in a context of exclusion. As long as the political community was restricted largely to whites, Democrats and Republicans had much in common. Neither party was likely to view the other as an existential threat. The process of racial inclusion that began after World War II and culminated in the 1964 Civil Rights Act and 1965 Voting Rights Act would, at long last, fully democratize the United States. But it would also polarize it, posing the greatest challenge to established forms of mutual toleration and forbearance since Reconstruction.

That paragraph confirms what a growing body of research has verified–and what any semi-sentient observer can see. The election of Barack Obama unleashed the overt expression of formerly-suppressed hatreds. It seeded the growth of White Christian nationalism, the huge reaction against anything seen as “woke,” the efforts to de-legitimatize efforts at inclusion–and explains the utter inability of most reasonable, non-racist Americans to understand the animus and fury of the MAGA movement.

That paragraph explains so much–as does a sentence in the final chapter, in which the authors concede that it is “difficult to find examples of societies in which shrinking ethnic majorities give up their dominant status without a fight.”

Even a cursory look at the current crop of GOP nominees up and down the various state ballots shows them publicly expressing opinions that would have been met with horror not all that long ago. Anti-Black, anti-Semitic, homophobic…meanwhile, the numerous Republican campaigns expressing hostility to immigration from the south hardly bother to veil their racism.

It’s been a long time since the Civil War. It’s been a long time since the South was able to dismantle Reconstruction. These days, the country’s accelerating social and demographic changes are making it increasingly difficult to maintain the dominance of White Christians. It’s the recognition of–and hysterical reaction to– that reality that explains Trump and MAGA. How Democracies Die warns us of the way that movement threatens not just social peace/tolerance, but the continued operation of America’s democratic institutions.

I keep thinking about that slogan “The South will rise again.”

It did. It’s now called the Republican Party, and How Democracies Die documents a lesson we have yet to learn: the persistence of this country’s deep-seated racism poses an existential threat to human decency, civic equality and the continuation of American democracy.


Race, Religion, Money And Vouchers

The nefarious effects of educational vouchers continue to be documented. 

The Washington Post recently reported on a study confirming what a number of prior studies have suggested: that an unexpected rise in racial segregation is largely attributable to the expansion of school voucher programs.

Ahead of the 70th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s landmark 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, a study being released Monday shows a pronounced increase in school segregation since 1988, particularly in large school districts with significant numbers of Black students.

Overall, school segregation between Black and White students has increased by 25 percent since 1991 in the 533 large districts serving at least 2,500 Black students — a significant increase but nowhere near the decline that occurred in the aftermath of Brown, according to the study. (Of note: the paper makes clear that most of the school segregation in the United States is driven by demographic differences between districts, not within them.)

The study found that the problem was not housing segregation, although that certainly helps explain school segregation, because housing has become less segregated since 1991. It also found that rising school segregation isn’t driven by economic inequality, which has also declined over this period.

The researchers point to two specific policies: federal courts releasing school districts, including Charlotte-Mecklenburg, from obligations to desegregate schools beginning in significant numbers in the late 1990s; and school-choice policies that let parents pick what school their children attend.


Vouchers don’t just promote racial segregation–they also facilitate religiously-based polarization. I have previously written about Indiana’s voucher program, which sends millions of tax dollars to predominantly religious schools. A recent report from North Carolina underlines the role of school choice programs in siphoning public funds from public schools and sending them to religious schools, especially those aligned with conservative Christian churches and activists. Those schools have received hundreds of millions of dollars in state government funding in recent years.

Democrats in North Carolina have criticized the private-school voucher program for taking money — and students — away from public schools and sending them to private schools, where there’s often little public accountability for academic success, and where schools are free to engage in discrimination or hire people without credentials as teachers. Republicans defend offering families the choice of where to educate their children.

The report notes that several of these schools are “unabashedly Christian,” including one that has  

an application form that instructs potential families to provide the name and phone number of their pastor, detail which church ministries they’re involved in, and agree that their child can be expelled if the family doesn’t attend church services at least once a week.

If the data confirming that voucher programs promote racial and religious divisions weren’t troubling enough, a recent Brookings study confirms that–despite pious pronouncements about vouchers enabling poor children to escape “failing” public schools–vouchers have become another handout to the wealthy. The research looked at Arizona, one of several states where Republican lawmakers have created or expanded private-school choice programs to give nearly all students, regardless of their individual need, public funding to attend private schools.

In 2022, Arizona lawmakers opened the program to all students, including those already attending private schools. EdChoice touts the current iteration of the program as the “first to offer full universal funded eligibility with broad-use flexibility for parents.”…

The list of allowable expenses for Arizona’s ESA program is long. It includes everything from tuition and fees to backpacks, printers, and bookshelves. Overall, about 63% of state funds are being spent on tuition, textbooks, and fees at a qualifying school, with “curricula and supplementary materials” (12%) being the next largest expense.

And who, exactly, is benefitting from this taxpayer largesse?

We looked to publicly available data on Empowerment Scholarship Account recipients to get a clearer picture of who is receiving ESA funds. If, in fact, affluent families are securing the lion’s share of ESA funding, that would raise obvious questions about whether these programs are exacerbating rather than mitigating inequities in school access…

The researchers used a number of methods to determine where the funds were going, and the results were unambiguous:

In other words, regardless of the SES measure used (poverty rate, median income, or educational attainment), we see similar patterns in who is obtaining ESA funding. More advantaged communities are securing a highly disproportionate share of these scholarships.

Vouchers were supposed to improve educational outcomes for poor children. The programs have not only failed to improve learning outcomes, they have increased racial segregation, facilitated religious discrimination, and been a windfall for the wealthy (many of whom already had children in private schools), all while robbing the nation’s public schools of desperately needed resources.

They’ve been a civic and educational disaster.


A Civics Lesson, Or Why I Love Jamie Raskin

Watching today’s House of Representatives too often reminds me of farce: Marjorie Taylor Greene and her ilk are so lacking in gravitas, so proudly ignorant, so strident as they parade their various prejudices and display their utter unfitness for elective office, the show they put on tends to overpower recognition of their more serious and/or able colleagues.

One of my favorites in that latter group is Jamin Raskin. I’ve followed Congressman Raskin since before he was first elected, actually–many years ago, my husband and I were in Washington, D.C., catching up with former Mayor Bill Hudnut and his wife Beverly. Bev was then in law school, and introduced me to her Constitutional Law professor, who–among other things– shared my obsession with civic literacy, and had produced a book for use by high school government teachers. That professor was Jamin Raskin.

During his tenure in Congress, Raskin has frequently called upon his academic background to explain America to his dimmer colleagues. One of my favorite examples was when he told an excessively pious lawmaker, “When you took your oath of office, you placed your hand on the Bible and swore to uphold the Constitution. You did not place your hand on the Constitution and swear to uphold the Bible.” (He recently repeated this to Mike Johnson, the current Speaker, who has frequently opined that “the bible comes first, before the Constitution.”)

He taught another lesson when he spoke out against the censure of Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib, who had made remarks that echoed long-time anti-Semitic tropes. In a press release, Raskin–who is Jewish–

urged the House to respect and protect the right to political free speech granted under the First Amendment and the Speech or Debate Clause by not using the House disciplinary process to punish Members’ political speech; warned of the chilling effects that politicizing and weaponizing the House’s censure mechanism would have on the speech of all Members; and noted that, in the history of the House of Representatives, the overwhelming number of censures have been for conduct, like taking bribes, embezzling funds, assaulting other Members, engaging in mail fraud, and having sex with pages, and that the only kinds of speech that have ever been punished have been true threats of violence, fighting words on the floor towards other Members, and incitement to insurrection and secession, none of which are protected by the Constitution and none of which are implicated here.  

Raskin’s legal skills were evident when he managed Trump’s second impeachment.

And recently, when Congressman Glenn Grothman attempted to lecture Raskin on a perceived distinction between a “republic” and a “democracy,” Raskin outdid himself, providing Grothman with a history lesson.

The link is to CSpann, and I urge you to click through and watch Raskin deliver that brief but powerful lesson.

Raskin’s work ethic has been obvious, as he has continued to work during a recent bout with cancer and the unimaginable pain of losing a son to suicide. 

There are undoubtedly other Jamie Raskins in “the people’s House,” with whom I’m unfamiliar. I focus on him because I’ve met him, because he actively defends important constitutional values,  and because his wit and intellect and work ethic have all been particularly impressive, but I am confident that for every MTG, Jim Jordan, Paul Gosar and Jim Banks there are two or three serious elected Representatives trying to do a good job for their constituents at a particularly contentious time.  (The recent bipartisan booing of MTG on the House floor was a welcome indicator that those individuals are as tired of performative politics as I am.)

Perhaps–if and when Americans tire of confusing political gravitas and legislative capacity with celebrity–we will be able to replace the Christian Nationalist “God squad” and other self-important know-nothings with people who are actually familiar with the Constitution and serious about producing legislation to improve Americans’ lives, and strengthen democratic values.

Like Jamie Raskin. 


Using The Jews

The sudden concern over anti-Semitism being expressed by far-Right politicians is jarring to anyone with even a cursory knowledge of the GOP fringe’s historic hatred. When Christian Nationalists suddenly express a desire to “protect” their Jewish neighbors, it’s not just disconcerting–it’s ominous.

Granted, there has been a sharp and troubling rise in anti-Jewish incidents, and there are good-faith efforts to address that phenomenon. Even those good-faith efforts can be misplaced; as Congressman Jerry Nadler explained in the Washington Post, despite being an observant Jew, a strong supporter of Israel and a member of Congress who has spent a career fighting antisemitism, he voted against the recent Anti-Semitism Awareness Act.

I voted against it, as did several other Jewish members of Congress. While I support the sentiment expressed by its sponsors, this bill does nothing to fight antisemitism in any meaningful way. Instead, it merely tinkers with definitions and could ultimately make investigating antisemitism on campuses more difficult in the future. In addition to trampling the free-speech rights of students and professors, this bill was disingenuously designed to split the Democratic caucus and score cheap political points.

Nadler’s final sentence refers to the fact that the far Right’s sudden, pious concerns over anti-Semitism are anything but good-faith. As the New York Times recently reported, several of the prominent Republicans who have labeled campus protests “Leftist anti-Semitism” have mainstreamed anti-Jewish rhetoric for years.

Debate rages over the extent to which the protests on the political left constitute coded or even direct attacks on Jews. But far less attention has been paid to a trend on the right: For all of their rhetoric of the moment, increasingly through the Trump era many Republicans have helped inject into the mainstream thinly veiled anti-Jewish messages with deep historical roots.

The conspiracy theory taking on fresh currency is one that dates back hundreds of years and has perennially bubbled into view: that a shady cabal of wealthy Jews secretly controls events and institutions contrary to the national interest of whatever country it is operating in.

The current formulation of the trope taps into the populist loathing of an elite “ruling class.” “Globalists” or “globalist elites” are blamed for everything from Black Lives Matter to the influx of migrants across the southern border, often described as a plot to replace native-born Americans with foreigners who will vote for Democrats. The favored personification of the globalist enemy is George Soros, the 93-year-old Hungarian American Jewish financier and Holocaust survivor who has spent billions in support of liberal causes and democratic institutions.

The linked article provided a number of examples, including Trump’s 2023 email to supporters containing “an image that bears striking resemblance to Nazi-era cartoons of hook-nosed puppet masters manipulating world figures.” The Times review found that just in the last year some 790 emails from Trump to his supporters invoked Mr. Soros or “globalists” conspiratorially, a meteoric rise from prior years, and that House and Senate Republicans increasingly used “Soros” and “globalist” to evoke anti-Semitism, “from just a handful of messages in 2013 to more than 300 messages from 79 members in 2023.”

The lengthy Times article provides numerous other examples. An equally in-depth article in The Guardian is titled “Campus protest crackdowns claim to be about antisemitism – but they’re part of a rightwing plan.” The article acknowledged the legitimate discomfort of Jewish students on campus, but noted that it has been used to justify “a powerful attack on academic freedom and First Amendment rights that long predates the student encampments – part of a longstanding rightwing project to curb speech and reshape the public sphere.”

The pro-Palestine movement has also provided cover for the right to expand its attack on protest – a project advanced significantly after the Black Lives Matter protests in 2020….Alongside this effort to tar protest as terrorism, the right is seizing on the emotions inflamed by Israel’s war to make headway in a longstanding offensive on education. Over the past several years, the GOP has sought to meddle in the academic freedom of universities, which they allege are indoctrinating students into “woke”, leftwing ideology. This is perhaps most dramatic in Florida, where, in a bid to control access to history and information, Governor Ron DeSantis has all but remade the public liberal arts college New College in his image, and has introduced the Stop Woke Act, curtailing what teachers can teach on topics of race and gender.

I’d love to believe that Rightwing politicians like Indiana’s Jim Banks have suddenly awakened to the dishonesty and danger of anti-Semitism, but Jews are clearly being used as a convenient tool in their ongoing attack on an open society–and like most Jews, I know that I am only safe in a truly open society.


Can We Spell “Quid Pro Quo”?

A number of media sources have reported on a recent meeting between Donald Trump and fossil fuel company executives, at which Trump–often described as a “transactional” personality–offered a deal: if the industry would put a billion dollars into his campaign, once elected, he’d get rid of government efforts to combat climate change.

These reports triggered a couple of immediate reactions for me: (1) “Transactional” is a nice word for acting like a mob boss. And (2) the reports should ease Democratic anxieties about young people potentially deserting Biden; the younger generation is (quite properly) the population most concerned with climate change.

Even the New York Times–which has been the traditional news source most likely to normalize Trump’s behaviors– reported on the proposed “transaction.”

Former President Donald J. Trump told a group of oil executives and lobbyists gathered at a dinner at his Mar-a-Lago resort last month that they should donate $1 billion to his presidential campaign because, if elected, he would roll back environmental rules that he said hampered their industry, according to two people who were there.

The executives who attended were from ExxonMobil, EQT Corporation and the American Petroleum Institute, which lobbies for the oil industry. According to the Washington Post, the dinner was organized by oil billionaire Harold Hamm, who has for years helped shape Republican energy policies.

Mr. Trump has publicly railed for months against President Biden’s energy and environmental agenda, as Mr. Biden has raced to restore and strengthen dozens of climate and conservation rules that Mr. Trump had weakened or erased while in office. In particular, Mr. Trump has promised to eliminate Mr. Biden’s new climate rules intended to accelerate the nation’s transition to electric vehicles, and to push a “drill, baby, drill” agenda aimed at opening up more public lands to oil and gas exploration.

Over a dinner of chopped steak, Mr. Trump repeated his public promises to delete Mr. Biden’s pollution controls, telling the attendees that they should donate heavily to help him beat Mr. Biden because his policies would help their industries.

“That has been his pitch to everybody,” said Michael McKenna, who worked in the Trump White House but did not attend the event in Florida.

Mr. McKenna said the former president’s appeal to the fossil fuel industry could be summed up as: “Look, you want me to win. You might not even like me, but your other choice is four more years of these guys,” referring to the Biden administration. He added, “The uniform sentiment of guys in the business community is ‘We don’t want four more years of Team Biden.’”

When asked for comment, a Trump spokesperson attacked President Biden, accusing him of being controlled “by environmental extremists” and “forcing Americans to purchase electric vehicles they can’t afford.” Actually, although Biden has pursued a robust climate agenda, he has balanced climate concerns with accommodation of America’s energy needs.

Mr. Biden has frustrated the fossil fuel industry by pursuing the most ambitious climate agenda in the nation’s history. He has signed a sweeping law that pumps $370 billion into incentives for clean energy and electric vehicles and has enacted a suite of tough regulations designed to sharply reduce emissions from the burning of oil, gas and coal.

This year, the Biden administration paused the permitting process for new facilities that export liquefied natural gas in order to study their impact on climate change, the economy and national security.

But the fossil fuel industry has also enjoyed record profits under the Biden administration. Last year, the United States produced record amounts of oil. And even with the pause in new permits for gas export terminals, the United States is the world’s leading exporter of natural gas and is still on track to nearly double its export capacity by 2027 because of projects already permitted and under construction.

Mr. Biden has also approved several oil and gas projects sought by the fossil fuel industry.

He has authorized an enormous $8 billion oil development in Alaska known as the Willow project. He also granted a crucial permit for the Mountain Valley Pipeline, a project championed by Senator Joe Manchin III, a West Virginia Democrat, despite opposition from climate experts and environmental groups. Last month, undeterred by opposition from climate activists, the Biden administration also gave approval for an oil export project in Texas known as the Sea Port Oil Terminal.

That’s clearly not enough for our fossil fuel overlords, who may well accept the “deal” Trump is offering.  As one wag posted on X (formerly Twitter):

A second Trump term may involve suspension of the Constitution, the purging of the civil service, and the military deployed in American streets. But what will it mean for gas prices?