Category Archives: Public Policy and Governance

Keeping Americans “Mad As Hell” 24/7

I don’t regularly read Mother Jones, so I had missed a profoundly important analysis by Kevin Drum that ran in that publication last October. I’m indebted to Gerald Stinson for sharing it.

Drum asks: why are Americans so angry? He notes that the anger is almost entirely political (most of us aren’t mad at our families, friends, plumbers)…

Research suggests that our “national temper tantrum” began in 2000, and Drum methodically investigates–and discards– the usual explanations for that vitriol. He demonstrates that Americans are no more addicted to conspiracy theories than we ever were, for example. (Hofstadter wrote about American paranoia back in 1964, after all.)

He also discounts the role of social media, while acknowledging that–like all new forms of communication–it has had a political effect. When we examine how social media affects what we learn about politics, he writes:

This obviously depends on how much political news we get from social media in the first place, which turns out to be surprisingly little—at least when it comes to actual articles or broadcast segments, not hot takes from your Uncle Bob.

And then there’s that pesky timeline: social media can’t explain something that started 20 years ago.

Drum also makes short shrift of the argument that we’re all mad because everything has gotten worse. It hasn’t, and he shares data showing that Americans’ opinions on virtually every aspect of our communal lives has remained constant–albeit with two very troubling exceptions. One is the rise of White grievance:

White respondents believe that anti-white bias has been steadily increasing. And the American National Election Studies, among other polls, have showed this belief in so-called reverse racism is overwhelmingly driven by white Republicans. This trend starts before 2000, but it’s growing and is an obvious candidate to explain rising white anger—as long as there’s something around to keep it front and center in the minds of white people.

The other is a precipitous collapse of trust in government.

If the “usual suspects” don’t explain our current fears, hatreds and political divisions, what does? Drum’s conclusion: Fox News.

When it debuted in 1996, Fox News was an afterthought in Republican politics. But after switching to a more hardline conservatism in the late ’90s it quickly attracted viewership from more than a third of all Republicans by the early 2000s. And as anyone who’s watched Fox knows, its fundamental message is rage at what liberals are doing to our country. Over the years the specific message has changed with the times—from terrorism to open borders to Benghazi to Christian cake bakers to critical race theory—but it’s always about what liberal politicians are doing to cripple America, usually with a large dose of thinly veiled racism to give it emotional heft.

As Drum notes, rage toward Democrats means more votes for Republicans. Creating that rage is what Fox does.

As far back as 2007 researchers learned that the mere presence of Fox News on a cable system increased Republican vote share by nearly 1 percent. A more recent study estimates that a minuscule 150 seconds per week of watching Fox News can increase the Republican vote share. In a study of real-life impact, researchers found that this means the mere existence of Fox News on a cable system induced somewhere between 3 and 8 percent of non-Republicans to vote for the Republican Party in the 2000 presidential election. A more recent study estimates that Fox News produced a Republican increase of 3.59 points in the 2004 share of the two-party presidential vote and 6.34 points in 2008. That’s impact.

As we saw earlier, the past couple of decades have seen a steady increase in the belief among white people—particularly Republicans—that anti-white bias is a serious problem. Fox News has stoked this fear almost since the beginning, culminating this year in Tucker’s full-throated embrace of the white supremacist “replacement theory” and the seemingly 24/7 campaign against critical race theory and its alleged impact on white schoolkids. This is certainly not all that Fox News does, but it’s a big part of its pitch, and it fits hand in glove with Trump’s appeal to white racism…

Thanks to Fox News, conservative trust in government is so low that Republican partisans can easily believe Democrats have cheated on a mass scale, and white evangelicals in particular are willing to fight with the spirit of someone literally facing Armageddon.

You really need to read the whole, lengthy analysis.

Drum concludes “It is Fox News that has torched the American political system over the past two decades, and it is Fox News that we have to continue to fight.”

But he doesn’t tell us how.

Speaking Of Privacy…

I’ve never been particularly concerned about my data privacy–at the university, the tech support people drove me nuts with their log-in protocols and automatic encryption of “sensitive” emails. Like most Americans who pretty much live online, buy online and communicate online, I recognized that there is a tradeoff between convenience and some degree of exposure, and–again, like most Americans–it was a tradeoff I was (and still am) willing to make.

Government surveillance is another matter entirely.

Governing Magazine recently reported on activities being conducted–mostly surreptitiously–by ICE. Those activities are truly dystopian.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement has crafted a sophisticated surveillance dragnet designed to spy on most people living in the United States, without the need for warrants and many times circumventing state privacy laws, such as those in California, according to a two-year investigation released Tuesday by the Georgetown Law Center on Privacy & Technology.

Over the years, privacy law experts and civil rights activists and attorneys have accused ICE of overreach in its surveillance tactics directed at immigrants and Americans alike, but the Georgetown report paints a picture of an agency that has gone well beyond its immigration enforcement mandate, instead evolving into something of a broader domestic surveillance agency, according to the report, called “American Dragnet: Data-Driven Deportation in the 21st Century.”

The report outlines the extent into which ICE has gone in order to form a large-scale surveillance system that has reached into the lives into ordinary people living in the U.S. Skirting local laws intending to protect individuals’ privacy, the agency has turned to third-party outfits— utility companies, private databases and even the Department of Motor Vehicles in some states — to amass a trove of information from hundreds of thousands of Americans and immigrants to target people for deportation.

This surveillance network isn’t some penny-ante operation; the article says that ICE spent “an estimated $2.8 billion between 2008 and 2021 on new surveillance, data collection and data-sharing initiatives.

ICE was established after the Sept. 11 attacks, and given sweeping powers to fight terrorism and enforce immigration law. Since its formation, the article tells us that without much oversight, the agency has collected data on hundreds of millions of Americans. It has frequently been accused of crossing legal and ethical lines to “weave a vast surveillance system,” according to the Georgetown report.

“I was alarmed to discover that ICE has built up a sweeping surveillance infrastructure capable of tracking almost anyone, seemingly at any time. ICE has ramped up its surveillance capacities in near-complete secrecy and impunity, sidestepping limitations and flying under the radar of lawmakers,” said Nina Wang, policy associate at the Center on Privacy & Technology and a co-author of the study.

Anti-immigration Americans who might be tempted to shrug this off because it’s “only targeting illegal immigration” shouldn’t be sanguine. Thanks to the methods being used to collect the information, the agency has data on pretty much anyone who has ever applied for a driver’s license, driven on the nation’s roads, or contracted with their local utilities to get access to heat, water and/or electricity.

Among other findings, the report documents that ICE has drivers’ license data for 3 in 4 adults living in the U.S.; has scanned at least 1 in 3 of all adults’ driver’s licenses with face recognition technology; can track the movement of vehicles in cities that are home to nearly 3 in 4 adults; and can locate 3 in 4 adults through their utility records.

What was that famous quote from Martin Niemoller? “First they came for the socialists…”

The fact that one federal agency has clearly “gone rogue” would be less chilling if the United States wasn’t in the midst of a concerted effort by the Right to replace democratic norms with a Neo-fascist regime. The GOP has been transformed in to a White Nationalist cult that is all too ready to embrace Storm Trooper methodologies, and while its MAGA base represents a distinct minority of Americans, thanks to gerrymandering, the Electoral College and other antiquated electoral systems, it’s able to exercise far more power than its percentage of the vote would otherwise allow.

Worse still, we find ourselves in this position at a time when we no longer have a Supreme Court majority willing to protect settled precedents and  the rule of law.

If Donald Trump (or one of his clones) wins the Presidency in 2024, do you have any doubt that he would make use of the ICE surveillance data to stamp out dissent and punish his opponents?

Reading this report in the wake of the Buffalo massacre raised another chilling question: why hasn’t ICE used its data to fight domestic terrorism? How deeply are MAGA bigots already ensconced in this clandestine agency?

How far down the road to autocracy have we come?

 

Learning From Portugal

Over the past few years, American politicians have been (grudgingly) coming to terms with the fact that the nation’s much-touted “War on Drugs”–a war almost as massively expensive as those fought by the Pentagon–has consistently proven to be a failure.

Years of research that documented that failure have pointed to the fundamental flaw in American drug policy: a failure to properly categorize.

That failure wasn’t just the lumping of relatively harmless recreational marijuana in the ranks of  truly dangerous substances, although that was bad enough. (As pro-pot activists liked to point out, alcohol and cigarettes, both legal, account for far worse health problems– there have been zero deaths attributed to pot.)

By far the worst “category” problem was the decision to attack drug abuse as a criminal justice issue rather than a health issue.

Portugal doesn’t make that mistake, and as years of research have demonstrated, properly characterizing drug abuse as a medical problem has allowed that country to achieve far more success in managing it.

Decades ago, the United States and Portugal both struggled with illicit drugs and took decisive action — in diametrically opposite directions. The U.S. cracked down vigorously, spending billions of dollars incarcerating drug users. In contrast, Portugal undertook a monumental experiment: It decriminalized the use of all drugs in 2001, even heroin and cocaine, and unleashed a major public health campaign to tackle addiction. Ever since in Portugal, drug addiction has been treated more as a medical challenge than as a criminal justice issue.

After more than 15 years, it’s clear which approach worked better. The United States drug policy failed spectacularly, with about as many Americans dying last year of overdoses — around 64,000 — as were killed in the Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq Wars combined

In contrast, Portugal may be winning the war on drugs — by ending it. Today, the Health Ministry estimates that only about 25,000 Portuguese use heroin, down from 100,000 when the policy began.

The number of Portuguese dying from overdoses plunged more than 85 percent before rising a bit in the aftermath of the European economic crisis of recent years. Even so, Portugal’s drug mortality rate is the lowest in Western Europe — one-tenth the rate of Britain or Denmark — and about one-fiftieth the latest number for the U.S.

As the linked article notes, if the U.S. could meet Portugal’s death rate from drugs, that would equate to saving one life every 10 minutes. That’s almost as many lives as those that we lose now to guns and car accidents combined.

Many people are also coming to Portugal to explore what a smarter, health-driven approach might look like. Delegations from around the world are flying to Lisbon to study what is now referred to as the “Portuguese model.”

“This is the best thing to happen to this country,” Mario Oliveira, 53, a former typesetter who became hooked on heroin 30 years ago, told me as he sipped from a paper cup of methadone supplied by a mobile van. The vans, a crucial link in Portugal’s public health efforts, cruise Lisbon’s streets every day of the year and supply users with free methadone, an opioid substitute, to stabilize their lives and enable them to hold jobs.

Methadone and other drug treatment programs also exist in the U.S., but are often expensive or difficult to access. The result is that only 10 percent of Americans struggling with addiction get treatment; in Portugal, treatment is standard.

In the U.S., we don’t treat. We punish. And we aren’t deterred by the fact that punishment doesn’t work.

Many years ago, when I was Executive Director of Indiana’s ACLU, I made a speech to a large audience–I no longer recall what the event was–and included a critique of American drug policy. When an audience member suggested that we just weren’t being tough enough, I asked what seemed to me to be a very reasonable question: If there was a doctor who had performed 100 operations and every single one of his patients had died, would you agree that he just needed to do the same operation again? Would you go to that doctor?

What I call Americans’ “category problem” is influenced by our national inability to separate concepts of sin and crime. We saw that same confusion with prohibition–drunkenness is sinful, so we outlawed booze, making no distinction between social drinking and alcoholism. Drug addiction is sinful, so let’s not bother to distinguish between use and abuse, and let’s not look at evidence about cost-effective ways to address abuse…

The public health approach arises from an increasingly common view worldwide that addiction is a chronic disease, perhaps comparable to diabetes, and thus requires medical care rather than punishment. After all, we don’t just tell diabetics, Get over it

Portugal’s approach isn’t perfect. But it’s rational.

 

 

An Accidental Insight

My husband and I were on a cruise ship for two weeks, on our way to Amsterdam where we  visited our son. Anyone who has taken one of these trips across the Atlantic can attest to the fact that Internet access–when available–is maddeningly slow and intermittent. It’s also expensive. On our cruise, connecting to more than one device at a time was costly, so I was unable to make planned use of my Kindle by accessing those of my books that reside on “the cloud.”

As a result, I inadvertently encountered some important research.

A couple of years ago, I had downloaded a book on the “Submerged State,” a title issued by Chicago Studies in American Politics. I’m embarrassed to admit that I’d read very little of it. (One of the enduring problems with academic research is academic language, which tends to be dense and inaccessible to all but the most determined readers…)

Since my vacation novels were unavailable, I decided to be determined, and to revisit it.

The authors make a basic–and very important–observation: thanks to America’s penchant for small government, conservatives have been able to give us governance that–despite being every bit as costly and ubiquitous as it it is elsewhere– is “uniquely invisible.”

They define the “submerged state” as policies and programs that function by providing incentives, subsidies or payments to private organizations or households to encourage or reimburse them for conducting activities deemed to serve a public purpose.

The result is that we have channelled a preponderance of the government programs that benefit citizens through private and nonprofit intermediaries, and that practice has had some very negative consequences: it has obscured the extent to which many of these policies enrich the already affluent; it has kept ordinary Americans from recognizing the role of government in their lives while allowing the programs to be “plainly evident” to the special interests that reap the rewards; and worst of all, by obscuring government activities and their positive consequences, it has reinforced anti-government attitudes.

In short, by “submerging” the operations of government, we have kept most citizens blissfully unaware of the ways in which government makes a positive difference in their lives.

The researchers considered a number of programs with varying degrees of visibility; they then surveyed recipients in order to evaluate their awareness of the benefits they receive, and recognition that those benefits originate from government.

Most of the citizens who had saved substantial dollars thanks to the home mortgage deduction, for example, claimed never to have been beneficiaries of a government program. Students whose federal loans are serviced by lending institutions are frequently unaware that those dollars come from (or are guaranteed by) government, and that eligibility and interest rates are considerably more favorable as a result.

Tax policies like Obama’s “Making Work Pay” are so obscure that the general public often  thinks rates have been increased when they have actually been lowered, leading to a pertinent question: can a reform be considered successful if it goes unnoticed?

Policy debates are also hijacked by widespread ignorance of the extent of government’s actual current role.For example, while many Americans know that the country spends more per capita on health care than any other nation, few of us are aware that government already foots most of the bill (estimates range from 56% to 70%), and that a program of national health care–with its vastly lower administrative costs– would be unlikely to cost much more.

The book has numerous other examples, but what I found most important was the researchers’ conclusion about the effects of non-visible governance on democracy. As they emphasize, an idea fundamental to democracy  is the premise that people are citizens, and citizens are active participants in governance. Participation requires that they be reasonably aware of what their elected representatives do on their behalf–that they should be in a position to form opinions about policies and be able to be involved in the political process. The submerged state, however, empowers interest groups and disempowers the public.

A couple of quotations that sum up the central point of the book:

The idea that public policies should reflect the will of the majority of citizens is a basic principle of representative democracy. Yet in the case of the submerged state, many citizens lack basic information, and public officials fail to provide it.

And

As long as public officials criticize government but persist in channelling public resources surreptitiously through private means, Americans will be deluded.

I guess I should thank the inadequacy of oceanic internet for a deeply instructive–if very depressing–read.

The Rear-View Mirror

Like many who read this blog, I get the Letter from an American from Heather Cox Richardson. Richardson is a historian, and the great benefit of her Letters is that they provide what I like to think of as a look in humanity’s rear-view mirror.

Driving a car requires checking the traffic behind us in order to navigate the road ahead. History serves much the same purpose (which is one of the many, many reasons why the rightwing hysteria over teaching the country’s history of racism is so deranged…)

A few days ago, Richardson shared an “aha” moment.

It has been hard for me to see the historical outlines of the present-day attack on American democracy clearly. But this morning, as I was reading a piece in Vox by foreign affairs specialist Zack Beauchamp, describing Florida governor Ron DeSantis’s path in Florida as an attempt to follow in the footsteps of Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, the penny dropped.

She proceeded to outline the political currents prior to the election of Trump: the evolution of today’s GOP into the pro-oligarchy party, following what she described as the usual U.S. historical pattern to that point– “in the 1850s, 1890s, 1920s, and then again in the modern era, wealthy people had come around to the idea that society worked best if a few wealthy men ran everything.”

Each of those periods was a reaction to the expansion of civil equality. Richardson reports that wealthier Americans protected their privileged status by playing on the racism of  poorer white male voters– telling them that passage of laws protecting equal rights was really a plan to turn American governance over to immigrants or to Black or Brown Americans.

The idea that poor men of color voting meant socialism resonated with white voters, who turned against the government’s protecting equal rights and instead supported a government that favored men of property. As wealth moved upward, popular culture championed economic leaders as true heroes, and lawmakers suppressed voting in order to “redeem” American society from “socialists” who wanted to redistribute wealth. Capital moved upward until a very few people controlled most of it, and then, usually after an economic crash made ordinary Americans turn against the system that favored the wealthy, the cycle began again.

When Trump was elected, the U.S. was at the place where wealth had concentrated among the top 1%, Republican politicians denigrated their opponents as un-American “takers” and celebrated economic leaders as “makers,” and the process of skewing the vote through gerrymandering and voter suppression was well underway. But the Republican Party still valued the rule of law. It’s impossible to run a successful business without a level playing field, as businessmen realized after the 1929 Great Crash, when it became clear that insider trading had meant that winners and losers were determined not by the market but by cronyism.

Trump deviated from the usual cycle in one way–he didn’t care about enriching the oligarchy, only about enriching himself, his toadies and his family. Despite his  repellent personality and embarrassing ignorance of government and policy, he was especially dangerous because he turned the Republican base into a cult that no longer respected the rule of law.

Richardson warns that Trump’s deliberate destabilization of faith in our democratic norms is especially dangerous because it creates space for two right-wing, antidemocratic ideologies. Two current Republican governors model those ideologies: Abbott in Texas, who is pursuing the South’s Civil War insistence on “states’ rights,” and DeSantis in Florida, who is emulating Viktor Orbán’s “soft fascism.”

Orbán has taken control of Hungary’s media, ensuring that his party wins all elections; has manipulated election districts in his own favor; and has consolidated the economy into the hands of his cronies by threatening opponents with harassing investigations, regulations, and taxes unless they sell out.

DeSantis is following this model right down to the fact that observers believe that Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill was modeled on a similar Hungarian law. DeSantis’s attack on Disney mirrors Orbán’s use of regulatory laws to punish political opponents (although the new law was so hasty and flawed it threatens to do DeSantis more harm than good).

Richardson counsels us to look in that rear-view mirror–to access the knowledge and tools that history provides to defend democracy from the ideology of states’ rights.” But she also warns that, because the rise of “illiberal democracy” or “soft fascism” is new to us, we need to understand how it differs both from Trump’s version of autocracy and from the old arguments for states’ rights.

At risk of over-extending my somewhat strained analogy, Orbanism represents a massive pothole on the road to democratic self-governance and civil liberty–a pothole requiring us to drive carefully and keep our eyes on the road– ahead and behind.