Behind the Misleading Labels

One of my pet peeves–okay, one of the aspects of American political debate that absolutely drives me up the wall–is the substitution of labels for adult argumentation. We see the use of labels to dismiss factual disputes from all parts of the political spectrum, with right-wingers accusing Democrats–and even moderate Republicans– of being “socialists” and”Marxists” and left-wingers calling everyone to the right of Bernie Sanders   “fascists.”

In fact, I just did that too–I labeled by using the terms “left” and “right”–terms that aren’t remotely accurate. What passes for the far left in the U.S. is middle-of-the-road in Europe and elsewhere, and while we have definitely seen a growing number of American fascists, most of the screamers on what we think of as the political right are just our usual, garden-variety racists and White Nationalists.

These right and left labels are especially misleading, because what constitutes left and right in American politics has shifted. Dramatically.

I’m an excellent example. When I ran for Congress in 1980, as a (pro-choice, pro-gay-rights) Republican, I was routinely labeled “too conservative.” Today, I’m just as routinely accused of being a lefty/ socialist,  although I haven’t changed my political philosophy. (I have changed my positions on a couple of issues, as a result of learning more about them, but I haven’t changed my underlying approach to issues of liberty and the role of government.)

In other words, while I stood philosophically still, the popular definitions of “left” and “right” changed. The Overton Window shifted.

In a recent column, Paul Krugman considered how–and why– that change occurred.

As anyone with a living braincell has observed, today’s GOP bears little to no resemblance to the party I once belonged to, and its transformation from a respectable center-right political party to the irrational and frightening cult it has become is a vivid illustration of how misleading those labels really are.

Krugman reminds us that the change occurred over many years; Trump was just the most recent manifestation. He rquoted congressional scholars Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein, who warned us in 2016 that the GOP had become “an insurgent outlier” that rejected “facts, evidence and science” and didn’t accept the legitimacy of political opposition. And he noted a 2019 survey of international political parties intended to determine their commitment to basic democratic principles and minority rights. The G.O.P., the survey found, “looks nothing like center-right parties in other Western countries. What it resembles, instead, are authoritarian parties like Hungary’s Fidesz or Turkey’s A.K.P.”

Such analyses have frequently been dismissed as over the top and alarmist. Even now, with Republicans expressing open admiration for Viktor Orban’s one-party rule, I encounter people insisting that the G.O.P. isn’t comparable to Fidesz. (Why not? Republicans have been gerrymandering state legislatures to lock in control no matter how badly they lose the popular vote, which is right out of Orban’s playbook.) Yet as Edward Luce of The Financial Times recently pointed out, “at every juncture over last 20 years the America ‘alarmists’ have been right.”

Why has this happened?

Krugman compared the GOP transformation to populist emergences in Europe, and found those comparisons unhelpful. His ultimate conclusion was persuasive.

It’s a puzzle. I’ve been spending a lot of time lately looking for historical precursors — cases in which right-wing extremism rose even in the face of peace and prosperity. And I think I’ve found one: the rise of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s.

It’s important to realize that while this organization took the name of the post-Civil War group, it was actually a new movement — a white nationalist movement to be sure, but far more widely accepted, and less of a pure terrorist organization. And it reached the height of its power — it effectively controlled several states — amid peace and an economic boom.

What was this new K.K.K. about? I’ve been reading Linda Gordon’s “The Second Coming of the K.K.K.: The Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s and the American Political Tradition,” which portrays a “politics of resentment” driven by the backlash of white, rural and small-town Americans against a changing nation. The K.K.K. hated immigrants and “urban elites”; it was characterized by “suspicion of science” and “a larger anti-intellectualism.” Sound familiar?

OK, the modern G.O.P. isn’t as bad as the second K.K.K. But Republican extremism clearly draws much of its energy from the same sources.

And because G.O.P. extremism is fed by resentment against the very things that, as I see it, truly make America great — our diversity, our tolerance for difference — it cannot be appeased or compromised with. It can only be defeated.

It’s hard to argue with Krugman’s diagnosis. It’s even harder to see just how the rest of us can recapture our governing institutions. If we don’t, however, in short order that “fascist” label will become horrifyingly accurate.





A Concise Diagnosis

In an aside in a recent column about the January 6th hearings, Jennifer Rubin really summed up the current crisis (or more accurately, crises) in American governance.

Trump utterly failed the country; his successor is stymied by a radicalized opposition determined to see him fail. The Senate is gridlocked by a minority party wielding the filibuster to, among other things, preserve voter suppression and subversion laws. The Supreme Court has been overtaken by rank, radical partisans whose decisions cannot be defended on the merits and whose public utterances and tone lack any semblance of “judicial temperament.” We seem stuck because structural advantages for the minority (the Senate, the electoral college, the right-wing Supreme Court) make real reform impossible.

Rubin’s main thrust was the meaning of the very real heroism displayed by poll workers Ruby Freeman and Shaye Moss. (The column was written before the even more impressive bravery displayed by Cassidy Hutchinson this week.)

Unlike a number of the witnesses called by the committee, these two women–mother and daughter–weren’t high-ranking members of the administration or Department of Justice, people who might lose a current job but would have little trouble finding new ones. Freeman and Share are ordinary citizens who were doing some of the low-paid jobs essential to the operation of democratic elections. Rubin is certainly correct in lauding the courage they displayed both in doing those jobs accurately and in testifying; her point was that they served the country just as surely as our military does, and that we need civilians “like Ruby Freeman and Shaye Moss in public life if we are to muddle through a dangerous and disturbing period in our history.”

I don’t disagree, but I remain fixated on the quoted paragraph, because it succinctly sums up the challenges we currently face–and their magnitude.

I’ve written several times about the filibuster, and how its current use differs substantially from its historic one. The wrongheaded protection of what the filibuster has become allows a minority of lawmakers– who have been elected by a minority of voters– to veto the demonstrable will of the great majority of American citizens.

I need not reiterate the evidence showing how drastically the current Supreme Court has deviated from what was thought to be settled jurisprudence. To use a term beloved by a former vice-presidential candidate, the Court’s majority has “gone rogue.” To the extent that Americans were relying on the judiciary to protect fundamental rights, the Court’s current majority has signaled repeatedly that such reliance is misplaced–at least, so long as that majority fancies itself a religious tribunal rather than a court of law  bound by precedent and serving a theologically and ideologically diverse population.

In the final sentence of that quoted paragraph, Rubin alludes to what has become my most pressing–and depressing– concern: the obsolescence of much of America’s electoral and governing systems.

I doubt we can ever do anything about the fact that electing two senators from every state, irrespective of massive disproportions in population, means that very soon 70% of the Senate will represent 30% of the population. So long as our rogue court continues to protect partisan gerrymandering, lawmakers in both houses will continue to be answerable primarily–indeed, overwhelmingly– to rural Americans. The difficulty of amending the Constitution means we are probably saddled with the Electoral College for the foreseeable future–I don’t hold out much hope that the National Popular Vote Compact will be ratified by states having the necessary 270 electoral votes. (I would love to be wrong!)

The only remedy I can see would be a massive turnout in November repudiating the GOP –turnout large enough to allow Democrats  to get rid of the filibuster and pass a number of remedial measures–most importantly, the voting rights act. That law  would–among other salutary consequences– outlaw gerrymandering. Congress could also add Justices to the Court, diluting the power of the Court’s radical theocrats.

Are the Democrats perfect? Certainly not. But they’e a thousand times saner than the cult that is today’s GOP. If that cult loses badly enough, it will either be reformed from within, by genuine conservatives like Adam Kitzinger and Liz Cheney, or go the way of the Whigs.

Either way, We the People could then go back to arguing over our policy differences, rather than the survival of the republic.

In a very real way, Rubin was right: America’s future depends on ordinary citizens–those who do their jobs, and especially those who cast their votes to rescue the Constitution and Bill of Rights from the autocrats and theocrats. I’m clinging by my fingernails to the hope that there are enough of those citizens…

The Supreme Court Has Made Me A Liar

This week, the United States Supreme Court laid waste to 20 years of lectures I gave my students.

I used to explain the importance of stare decisis–the importance of a predictable and stable legal system based on fidelity to the rule of law. I explained that the Founders used lifetime appointments to the federal judiciary to shield judges from political pressures and allow them to engage in dispassionate evaluation of the law and facts of the cases before them. And I emphasized that–while statutes can be passed to confer and protect rights– statutes are much more easily overturned than rights secured by the Constitution.

Mitch McConnell’s Court has proven me wrong on all counts.

Stare decisis? Precedent? What are those to determined judicial ideologues? Mere minor impediments to be brushed away by finding that they’d been wrongly decided and followed.

What about those lifetime appointments? Thanks to a Senate dominated by politicians determined to appoint political cronies, those lifetime appointments have become protection against removal–giving  Justices who have clearly subordinated ethics and dispassionate evaluation to political ideology free reign to wreak havoc with the rule of law.

it was appalling enough when the religious tribunal that constitutes today’s Supreme Court majority overruled Roe v. Wade –a fifty-year precedent–using language that clearly signaled the coming of an all-out assault on other rights. That decision followed a victory by the gun lobby that overturned a New York statute that had been in place for over 100 years, and was equally dismissive of the plain language of Justice Scalia’s decision in Heller.

As if the case from Maine requiring vouchers to be spent at religious schools wasn’t a clear enough message that the majority was coming for the Establishment Clause, the Court drove that message home: the tribunal ruled that a public school corporation must allow a football coach to deliver performative prayers on the football field’s 50-yard line–a clear endorsement of religion, and a radical departure from over 100 years of First Amendment jurisprudence. That decision created a hole in Jefferson’s “Wall of Separation” big enough for the Christian Taliban to drive through, and arguably put prayer back in the nation’s public schools.

(More solicitude for religion: the Court ruled that Texas would violate religious freedom if it executed a death row inmate without allowing his pastor to touch him and pray aloud with him. Evidently, killing him didn’t pose any religious problem–or constitute a “pro life” inconsistency…)

But this radical Court didn’t stop with those UTurns in the law. Yesterday, it eviscerated   the ability of the EPA to act on urgent environmental threats–again, despite precedents to the the contrary. In yet another 6-3 decision, the Court limited the Environmental Protection Agency’s authority to set standards on climate-changing greenhouse gas emissions for existing power plants. A Guardian editorial said the ruling “means it may now be mathematically impossible through available avenues for the US to achieve its greenhouse gas emissions goal.”

Evidently, these Justices don’t have grandchildren who will have to live in a society upended –or possibly just ended–by climate change.

There were other, less publicized offenses against the rule of law.

Wednesday, the Court dramatically increased the power of states over Native American tribes. That result –a win for Republican officials in Oklahoma–required ignoring the Court’s own 2020 ruling that had recognized an expanded tribal authority. (That particular affront was too much even for Justice Gorsuch, who–for once–departed from the lockstep radical majority.)

In another 6-3 case demonstrating the selective nature of the majority’s concern for life (the concern apparently evaporates at birth) the court found that the Biden administration’s vaccine-or-testing mandate for large employers was not lawful.

The New York Times has a rundown of this appalling session, with additional cases.

This recitation brings me to my final error: telling my students that constitutionally protected rights are more stable than rights protected only by statutes.

Congress can–and must–codify the rights this illegitimate Court has trampled, as well as those it is clearly threatening. It also needs to add Justices chosen by a President who actually won the popular vote. But in order to do those things and take other critical steps, Democrats must win in November, and they must win control of the Senate in sufficient numbers to make Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema irrelevant.

Off-year elections almost always favor the party that doesn’t control the White House. If the GOP wins even one house of Congress this year, it is not hyperbole to say that the Constitution and Bill of Rights are effectively over. Neutered. Irrelevant.

Vote Blue no matter what. We can argue about gas prices after we save the Republic.


Fact, Analysis, Opinion

I’ve repeatedly used this platform to complain about the deficits of what have been called “ghost” newspapers, like the remnants of our local Indianapolis Star. Unlike the 2000+ papers that have simply disappeared over the past several years, ghost papers still exist, but in a form that is no longer adequate to the needs of the community. Here in Indianapolis, the Star (never a particularly good newspaper) no longer bothers to inform the public about the various agencies of local or state government; it devotes its reduced reporting resources mainly to sports and entertainment, with occasional forays into “human interest” stories. As a result, significantly fewer people look to the Star as a common source of information for residents of central Indiana.

(I’m happy to note that the Star’s deficiency has sparked creation of a new nonprofit covering the Statehouse: the Indiana Capital Chronicle. May they prosper!)

The loss of local newspapers hasn’t just deprived us of local news. It has also deprived us of analyses of that news, columns and letters to the editor expressing a variety of opinions over the meaning and significance of the matters being conveyed.

The Star is a Gannett paper (which explains a lot about its sorry state), and it turns out that Gannett isn’t simply uninterested in providing local communities with needed information.A reader recently sent me a column (snatched from behind a paywall) outlining Gannett’s recent decision to minimize inclusion of analysis and opinion.

Gannett, America’s largest newspaper chain, recently recommended changes to its affiliates’ opinion pages. There will be fewer syndicated columnists and letters to the editor and no more editorials that, in Gannett’s words, “tell voters what to think.” Gannett’s directive noted that editorials and opinion columns are among the most frequent reasons that readers give for canceling their subscriptions, and many of the chain’s opinion pages across the country are poised to cut back production or fold up shop in response.

It is certainly the case that devoting editorial pages to opinions focused on national events adds to our current American polarization. But as the writer noted, space devoted to opinions on local matters has the opposite effect–it brings readers’ attention back to the local community and strengthens local connections. He insists–I believe correctly–that Gannett and other newspaper owners should “reinvest in what makes an opinion page work: amplifying local voices, presenting a diverse array of opinions in a respectful way, and serving as their community’s public forum.”

A local newspaper’s main advantage in today’s sprawling media marketplace is its geographic focus: Nobody covers a community as thoroughly as its newspaper, even today. The opinion page is an essential part of that coverage because it seeks out and organizes a diverse array of community perspectives. It is the least “professional” part of the newspaper: a place where you can learn about the issues facing neighbors, community leaders, and elected officials in their own words. Unlike the neighborhood Facebook and NextDoor groups that so often fill in local news deserts, where the brashest and most extreme voices rise to the top, an opinion page is edited according to journalistic ethical standards of fairness, accuracy, and fact-checking.

Opinion columns and vetted letters to the editor aren’t the sort of “opinions” that litter Facebook and Twitter–posts that are all too often little more than insults and/or invective.

Good opinion writing is analytical–it is based upon the factual reporting, but goes beyond the surface to explore the significance of the reported facts and opine about their likely meaning and possible consequences. Opinion writers almost always come with a bias or point of view, and good opinion writers are explicit about their ideological commitments, but they also come with background in the subject-matter that allows them to illuminate what the bare recitation of “who what where when and why” cannot.

There’s a reason they are sometimes called “think pieces.”

The author of the column from which I’ve pulled these quotes–a journalism professor–points out that effective columnists are trained in the art of observation. And as he says, a talent for connecting storytelling with current events makes an impression on readers that the bare recitation of facts usually doesn’t.

Studies show that op-eds can have enduring persuasive effects — a rare finding in studies of the media — and can set the political agenda for citizens and elected officials alike. Local columnists can use their reputation and intellectual freedom to explore deep, complex, and oft-ignored community histories or serve as respected watchdogs to protect consumers and citizens.

The evisceration or outright loss of local newspapers over the past couple of decades has deprived us of a critically important asset–a forum informing us about our local government, business and community–and now, of informed opinion probing their significance.



Speaking Of America’s Decline…

As long as we’re talking about the decline of America’s political life, let’s talk about Herschel Walker– a human representation of that decline.

Walker–for those unfamiliar with him, as I happily was until recently–is the Republican candidate for Senate in Georgia. His nomination owes much to America’s obsessions with both sports and celebrity; he was evidently once a good football player.

At least he was good at something…

I can’t describe Walker any better than The New Republic.which headlined the linked story with a question: Is Herschel Walker Running to be the Senate’s Dumbest Liar?

Last month, the two-time All-Pro running back from the University of Georgia won the Peach State’s Republican Senate primary. A rabid right-winger, Walker has fully backed Trump’s claims that the 2020 election was stolen, going as far as to say that Joe Biden didn’t get “50 million votes.” (Biden received more than 80 million.) He has urged revotes in a number of close states, including Arizona, Pennsylvania, and his home state. In chilling fashion, he called on Trump to conduct a “cleansing” of the country in the days leading up to Biden’s inauguration.

Walker is, even by recent GOP standards, an absolute firehose of lies. He’s also, to put it bluntly, absolutely godawful at lying. His deceptions seem to arrive in the news pre-collapsed—they are easily uncovered and incredibly numerous; his falsehoods have been repeatedly revealed over the last several months. At this point the “False Statements” section of his Wikipedia page is longer than the one recounting his ongoing campaign to be Georgia’s next senator.

The article enumerates a number of the lies Walker has peddled. For example, he has boasted that he was proprietor of a food service business that was a “mini–Tyson Foods,” claiming that it employed more than 100 people and generated nearly $100 million in sales. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that the company’s profits were less than $2 million; that Walker didn’t own or run it, but had simply licensed his name to the business; and it had only eight employees.

In February, meanwhile, Walker boasted that “I still have about 250 people that sew drapery and bedspreads for me.” That sounds impressive! There’s just one problem: It isn’t. While Walker has claimed on his website that “[Herschel Walker Enterprises] and Renaissance Hospitality provides major hotels, restaurants and hospitals with custom fabric bedding, drapery and window treatments,” the truth is that Renaissance Hospitality doesn’t exist anymore—it dissolved a year ago. Moreover, Walker didn’t even own the business—a friend did.

There’s lots more. On several occasions, Walker claimed to have worked in law enforcement, although he never did. He has repeatedly railed against single-parent families, especially absent Black fathers.  Small  problem: The Daily Beast initially revealed that Walker has a son, now 10 years old, whom he never sees, and subsequently found others–there are (at least) three children for whom Walker is an absentee father

The portrait that emerges is a pretty simple one: The guy is a liar and a dummy. Walker spouts off in interviews and the campaign trail, inflates his successes, and makes bold claims that are comically easy to disprove. His campaign occasionally acknowledges them or tries to walk them back—it acknowledged the parentage of his son, for instance—but Walker has managed, either by wit or by accident, to keep following the Trump North Star, charging forward, headlong into the next incident. This candidacy is ultimately a test of how much Trump broke our politics—and how much a lesser facsimile of the former president can lie again and again and still succeed in American politics. Perhaps our politics are sturdy enough to survive it. It’s still no fun watching voters have to stomach this sort of stupidity and deceit.

If Walker was just a one-off, that would be dispiriting enough; he is, after all, the nominee of a major party for the Senate of the United States. But he has lots of company. (And let’s be clear, virtually all of the bumbling, moronic, ego-driven narcissists who embarrass America daily come from the once-Grand Old Party. Marjorie Taylor Green, Louie Gohmert, Paul Gosar, Lauren Boebert…In the Senate, you have Tommy Tuberville (who didn’t know there were three branches of government), James Inhofe…and those are just the ones who come immediately to mind.)

Dick Lugar is spinning in his grave.

How did American politics descend from debates over the common good and sound policy–from issues of governance–to today’s version of “let’s make a deal.”? When did celebrity come to be more important than competence, anger and bile more important than intellect, self-aggrandizing bluster more important than verifiable truth?

For those of us who are worried that the country is in decline, the rise of the idiocracy is compelling–albeit depressing– evidence.