An Accurate Diagnosis

Last week, President Biden spoke at the opening of the John McCain library. In an impassioned address, he drew a bright line between the Republican Party of John McCain and others with whom he’d worked in a bipartisan fashion, and the MAGA crazies who now dominate the party. 

The entire speech was excellent, and if time permits, it’s worth clicking through and reading it all, but a couple of paragraphs really stood out to me–striking me as especially accurate diagnoses of where we find ourselves today.

“[T]here is no question that today’s Republican Party is driven and intimidated by MAGA Republican extremists. Their extreme agenda, if carried out, would fundamentally alter the institutions of American democracy as we know it.”

The MAGA Republicans, Biden said, are openly “attacking the free press as the enemy of the people, attacking the rule of law as an impediment, fomenting voter suppression and election subversion.” They are “banning books and burying history.” “Extremists in Congress [are] more determined to shut down the government, to burn the place down than to let the people’s business be done.” They are attacking the military—the strongest military in the history of the world—as being “weak and ‘woke’.”

They are “pushing a notion the defeated former President expressed when he was in office and believes applies only to him: This president is above the law, with no limits on power. Trump says the Constitution gave him…’the right to do whatever he wants as President.’ I’ve never even heard a president say that in jest. Not guided by the Constitution or by common service and decency toward our fellow Americans but by vengeance and vindictiveness.”

Biden spoke at a time when rational Americans were facing the intransigence of MAGA House Republicans who were clearly enthusiastic about forcing a government shutdown (and later, furious with McCarthy for working with Democrats to avoid it.), Their  “impeachment hearing”–a hearing at which their own witnesses testified that they had no evidence of wrongdoing–was a pathetic attempt to distract the public from their refusal to do the jobs they were elected to do.

Those who read and comment on this blog probably share my reaction to the utter insanity of all this: disbelief. Who are the people who still support these extremists? How is it possible that any American citizen listens to Trump’s increasingly demented word salads and thinks, yep, that’s the guy who ought to have control of the nuclear codes?

How is it possible that roughly a third of Americans remain Trumpers?

The answer is pretty chilling.  It turns out that–in addition to racism– a lot of Americans are nuts.

Back in 2016, polling found  that twelve million Americans believed alien lizard people rule us.

According to a Public Policy Polling survey, around 12 million people in the US believe that interstellar lizards in people suits rule our country. We imported that particular belief from across the pond, where professional conspiracy theorist David Icke has long maintained that the Queen of England is a blood-drinking, shape-shifting alien.

That research was conducted in April. In November, Trump was elected…

As the article pointed out, there are a number of equally…let’s just say unsupported…beliefs endorsed by millions of Americans.

Around 66 million Americans believe that aliens landed at Roswell, New Mexico; around 22 million people believe that the government faked the moon landing; and around 160 million believe that there is a conspiracy surrounding the assassination of former US president John F Kennedy.

In the years since 2016, we’ve seen the growth of various QAnon conspiracy theories, Bill Gates’ chips in Covid vaccines, vaccines causing autism…etc. etc.

Who are the people most susceptible to these beliefs?

Researchers say feelings of powerlessness and uncertainty trigger a need to believe in conspiracies. Or, as one scholar is quoted,

Conspiracies are for losers … 

“I don’t mean it in the pejorative sense, but people who are out of power use conspiracy theories to strategically alert their side to danger, to close ranks, to salve their wounds,” Uscinski explains. 

According to another researcher, belief in a conspiracy theory–alien lizards, the existence of Q, the ‘real purpose’ of vaccination– is a strategy fearful people use to regain a sense of control, even if the conspiracy theory is unrelated to what caused the lack of control in the first place. Conspiracy theories allow  a person to make sense of what they see as otherwise senseless or unfair in the world they inhabit, and allow them to restore some sense of control.

Bottom line, there are millions of Americans for whom logic, evidence and demonstrable facts are irrelevant. And they vote.


Bumper-Sticker Politics

Watching the January 6th Committee’s first hearing reinforced a concern I’ve had for some time–a concern that had re-emerged just a few days ago at a fundraising event for our local Indianapolis prosecutor.

American politics has devolved into the battle of the bumper-stickers–an exchange of slogans and sound-bites that ignore the genuine complexities of law and governance–and I am increasingly worried that as a result, we have lost the ability to engage in responsible self-government.

I was reminded of the superficiality of our political discourse by a question and answer at the fundraiser I referenced. It came during a discussion about efforts to combat gun violence. The prosecutor, Ryan Mears (disclosure: I am an enthusiastic supporter) was asked about the efficacy of “Red Flag” laws, and he launched into a detailed explanation of the strengths and significant weaknesses of Indiana’s version–why his office had found that mechanism to be far less useful than we might otherwise think.

Someone then asked him how to deliver that information in a pithy sound-bite.

Of course, it simply isn’t possible to reduce a relatively complicated explanation to a slogan that would fit on a bumper-sticker, but the question perfectly reflected the state of today’s political debate, where vague labels are substituted for information.

That state of affairs is what makes the job of the January 6th Committee so fraught. Give Trump and his extremist (and generally mindless) minions credit for understanding that far too many Americans don’t want to understand the mechanics of governance .(For that matter, it was clear that Trump was profoundly ignorant of–and uninterested in–the work of governing as opposed to the perks of power). Ever since January 6th, with the enthusiastic assistance of propagandists for the Right, they have emulated those zoo monkeys who throw poo at each other, shouting slogans like “Stop the Steal,” despite overwhelming–and easily accessible– evidence that no “steal” had occurred.

Trump is still at it. Thursday, just before the televised hearing,  he tweeted  on his Truth Social platform that “the Jan. 6 Capitol attack “was not simply a protest, it represented the greatest movement in the history of our Country to Make America Great Again.” Anyone who saw the newly-released footage of the carnage has to be appalled by his enthusiastic support of a vicious mob bent on spreading death and destruction on his behalf.

The challenge for the Committee is thus formidable: how do you present a year’s worth of complicated fact-finding in a comprehensible way to people accustomed to responding to sound-bites and believing paranoid pronouncements? As one of the numerous “day after” stories noted, the committee had to “weave together thousands of hours of testimony, tens of thousands of documents, more than 1,000 different people they interviewed — and make it all coherent, compelling and as concise as Congress can be.”

That’s a high bar. Thursday night, they met it.

The Committee clearly understands America’s limited attention-span, and lack of patience for discussions of legal intricacies and legislative procedures. The initial hearing–effectively, the “opening statements”– marshaled evidence and testimony into a compelling storyline. No one who watched that initial hearing with a mind even partially open could honestly dispute the basic facts: Trump knew he’d lost the election, because his own people had repeatedly told him so. He lied anyway. Worse, he knowingly plotted to overturn the election results, cheered on the violent extremist groups, and would have done nothing to save the life of the Vice-President who had obediently slobbered at his side for four years, but who found committing treason for him a step too far. (I have despised Mike Pence for years, but credit where credit is– surprisingly–due…This time, he was a hero.)

The remaining Committee hearings will not be televised in prime time, so they may be less compelling and less viewed. The crazies and True Believers of the far Right will continue to tune them out. Even with the clear and convincing road map the Committee has provided, some of our fellow-citizens will find the information more complicated than they are used to, or inconsistent with their biases, or both, and will thus dismiss it.

The presentation of this evidence will not only show us whether proof of an attempted coup is enough to wake previously disconnected Americans to the very real danger of becoming an autocracy. It will also test the ability of citizens to understand realities that cannot be conveyed via  bumper-sticker.

Fingers crossed……


The Love Of Money

The Guardian recently had an article with the headline “How the Koch Brothers Built the Most Powerful Right-Wing Group You’ve Never Heard Of.”

Actually, most regular readers of this blog–at least those who comment–have heard of Americans for Prosperity, and understand what it is intended to do. But with midterms rapidly approaching, it may be useful to revisit what we know about the organization.

The article began by recapping Scott Walker’s attacks on Wisconsin’s public-sector unions.

At first blush this might seem like a years-old local issue in a US state that rarely lights up the international headlines. Yet events in Wisconsin are crucial to understanding how a little-known, billionaire-funded organization, called Americans for Prosperity (AFP), has tilted American politics to the right. It is intertwined with, and rivals in size, the Republican party itself.

Where did Walker’s ultra-conservative labor agenda come from? As a candidate, Walker barely mentioned collective bargaining or union busting. And we know this plan did not come from voters. Before the legislation popped up on the agenda, Wisconsinites generally supported collective bargaining. Nationally, only about 40% of American adults favor curbs to public sector bargaining rights, and in Wisconsin, this minority level of support was about the same.

The article in the Guardian was the product of a group of Columbia and Harvard-based researchers who spent five years investigating precisely how the Koch brothers have used Americans for Prosperity to influence US politics, and especially how they have managed to destroy unions. (The Koch’s desire to make lasting changes to the American political system requires permanently weakening organizations supportive of liberal candidates and causes – especially the labor movement.)

That war on unions, waged by politicians like Walker who are beholden to the brothers, has largely succeeded.

Since the passage of the anti-union bill, public union membership rates in Wisconsin have plummeted by more than half, falling from around 50% in 2011 to around 19% by 2017. With fewer members and revenue, the political clout of the labor unions has fallen sharply. Campaign contributions by teachers’ unions to state and local races have fallen by nearly 70%.

In presidential elections, Democrats lose around three percentage points after the passage of anti-union legislation, and turnout dips by around two points. So while there are many factors that might explain Donald Trump’s surprise win in Wisconsin in 2016 by a mere 23,000 votes, a weaker labor movement less able to turn out Democratic voters might have been one important contributor to Trump’s victory.

As the article points out, wealthy people have always thrown their weight around to influence elections and policy. What is new, and painfully effective (especially at the state level) is the rise of organized big donor collectives through which hundreds of billionaires and millionaires invest in organization-building intended to change the electoral landscape.

Organized political mega-donors can get much more leverage through persistent organizations than from scattered, one-time contributions to particular politicians.

The Kochs are fantastically wealthy and their generous funding of Americans for Prosperity has allowed them to influence policy in ways that have increased that wealth. It has been a very good investment for them.

The article is lengthy, but well worth reading in its entirety. I do think the following paragraphs sum up the threat Americans for Prosperity poses to working-class Americans and to democracy itself:

The Koch brothers have created a vehicle that is perfectly positioned to reshape American politics. AFP focuses on both elections and policy battles at all levels of government, from city councils to Congress and the White House. Although its activities are mostly centrally directed from its headquarters in Virginia, AFP has active local, state and regional offices that reflect the federated nature of US politics. And even though grassroots participants do not have much say in the direction of the group, AFP has nearly 3 million citizen activists signed up to mobilize for candidates and policy causes. Activists participate in rallies or protests and contact elected officials at the direction of more than 500 paid staffers nationwide.

Taken together, AFP’s grassroots volunteers and staffing rival those of the Republican party itself. However, AFP is not a free-standing political party – but instead is an extra-party organization that parallels and leverages Republican candidates and office-holders. By providing resources to support GOP candidates and officials, and exerting leverage on them once elected, AFP has been able to pull the Republican party to the far right on economic, tax and regulatory issues.

The Koch network has retarded the implementation of the Affordable Care Act–especially the expansion of Medicaid in states like Missouri and Tennessee. It has succeeded in rolling back state efforts to address climate change in Kansas and West Virginia, and of course, it has succeeded in passing state and federal tax cuts that have primarily benefitted wealthy individuals and companies.

The love of money evidently leaves no room for consideration of the public good.