The Power Of Malevolence

Situations I am powerless to change make me crazy. Like most “control freaks” (my children’s all-too-accurate accusation), I’m okay with life problems that are fixable; tell me the only way to solve X is to climb mountain Y, and I’ll pull on my hiking boots. But the problems that most frequently make their way onto this blog are of a different order.

I think I have a lot of company among the ordinary citizens of this country and world. Unlike the self-styled revolutionaries on the radical Right, who far too often think possession of an AR 15 makes them powerful, we see ourselves as well-meaning individuals with very limited abilities to effect social or political change–as small cogs in the machineries of our respective societies.

Some individuals, however, do exercise disproportionate power–and the ways in which they do so illuminate an important imperative– the need to dismantle global oligarchies. For every “nice” billionaire whose philanthropies the powerless applaud and encourage, a darker mogul is making the world a much worse place.

Rupert Murdock is a prime example. A while back, an essay by Thom Hartmann in Common Dreams enumerated the multiple ways in which Murdock has worked to destroy democracy worldwide. Here’s the lede:

What country in its right mind would allow a foreign entity to come into their country, set up a major propaganda operation, and then use it to so polarize that nation that its very government suffers a violent assault and its democracy finds itself at a crossroads?

Apparently, the United States. And we’re not the first, according to former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd.

Writing for The Sydney Morning Herald (the Australian equivalent of The New York Times) Rudd called Rupert Murdoch and his rightwing news operations “the greatest cancer on the Australian democracy.”

“The uncomfortable truth is,” Rudd wrote, “since the coup of June 2010, Australian politics has become vicious, toxic and unstable. The core question is why?”

Hartmann points out that Murdoch’s empire isn’t really a news organization–that it most resembles and operates as a political party, “acting in pursuit of clearly defined commercial interests, in addition to his far-right ideological world view.”

Brexit–which is currently wreaking economic havoc in the UK–would never have passed without the propaganda promulgated by the newspapers and media owned by Murdock in that country.

In the U.S., Fox News has from its inception been the political echo chamber of the far Right. It’s unlikely that the GOP’s devolution into the Trump party would have occurred without Fox’s deliberate campaigns of misinformation and propaganda.

Murdoch’s positions aren’t at all ambiguous, Rudd noted. They’re simply pro-billionaire/pro-oligarch and thus, by extension, anti-democracy.

“In Australia, as in America,” he wrote, “Murdoch has campaigned for decades in support of tax cuts for the wealthy, killing action on climate change and destroying anything approximating multiculturalism.
“Given Murdoch’s impact on the future of our democracy,” Rudd added, “it’s time to revisit it.”

Hartmann quotes Steve Schmidt, former advisor to George W. Bush and John McCain, and now a “Never Trumper”:

“Rupert Murdoch’s lie machine is directly responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Americans, the poisoning of our democracy and the stoking of a cold civil war. There has never been anything like it and it is beyond terrible for the country. Bar none, Rupert Murdoch is the worst and most dangerous immigrant to ever arrive on American soil. There are no words for the awfulness of his cancerous network.”

What Hartmann’s essay does well is illuminate the danger oligarchies pose  to the planet and those of us who live on it. When a few people control the overwhelming majority of wealth and power in a society, it is suicidal to simply hope for their benevolence.

What Hartmann’s essay fails to do is offer a remedy–and that brings me back to my opening admission. What do we do–what can we do– about the cancer of Fox “News” and its clones? Past comments have stressed the importance of education in critical thinking, and that is surely part of the long-term answer.

If we make it to the long term.

We need to cut the oligarchy off at its knees sooner rather than later–and that will require a significant  increase in tax rates for the oligarchs, along with an international effort to eradicate the various tax havens that allow these predators to hide their assets.

That won’t happen in the U.S. until the mindless cult that was once a political party is resoundingly rejected.  At this point, our overriding need is to defeat the GOP monster that Murdock’s excessive power has created and maintained.

All individuals can do is work to get out the vote. It will have to be enough.


The Youth Vote

There are two very important things to know about that imprecise data point we call “the youth vote.” There is substantial agreement about one of those things, and equally substantial disagreement about the other.

The data is convincing when it comes to the political preferences of young Americans: they lean Left to a marked degree. Actually, we can argue about the definition of “Left,” since in former, saner times, much of what we now call Left used to be considered pretty moderate, but we are where we are–and where we are is with a youth cohort likely to vote overwhelmingly Democratic.

There is far less agreement on the second issue–turnout. Will that youth cohort appear at the polls in numbers sufficient to make a real difference?

A number of older Americans–some of whom comment here–have been permanently soured by past performance. Until very recently, young people (variously identitified as those 18-29 or 18-35) have been less likely to vote than their elders (although older Americans haven’t exactly overwhelmed their polling places either.) And–like curmudgeons in ages past– some older Americans are simply Archie Bunkers when it comes to any aspect of the nation’s youth.

Whatever the merits of the contending arguments, and whatever the age range considered “youth,” turnout by younger voters will obviously be very important in the upcoming election cycle, so I did a moderately deep dive into the data, and found evidence that turnout among young voters has increased in recent elections. Obviously–as those investment analyses always warn us– past performance is no guarantee of future behavior,  but charting trends can suggest a trajectory.

The following data, pulled from the United States Census Bureau and other reputable sources, shows that, in 2018 and 2020, there was a notable increase in voter turnout among young people compared to previous years.

According to the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE), in the midterm 2018 elections, youth voter turnout (which CIRCLE defines as turnout by ages 18-29) reached 36%. That isn’t exactly a “wow” number, but then neither is 50.3%, which is the percentage of all eligible voters who turned out in 2018. Youth turnout actually equalled the 36 percent of eligible Americans who had bothered to cast ballots in 2014.

What is more significant than the percentage of young people who voted in recent elections is the fact that youth turnout has substantially increased compared to previous midterms.

In the 2020 presidential election,  estimated youth turnout rose to 52-55%, a pretty significant surge in engagement.

For obvious reasons, both youth and older voter turnout have increased more sharply in swing states. In states like Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, where the 2016 presidential election was decided by incredibly slim margins, there were notable increases in youth voter participation. The 2020 primary elections witnessed a surge in youth voter turnout compared to previous primary cycles in Texas, California, and North Carolina,for example.

Civic engagement isn’t confined to vote turnout, of course. Over the past decade or so, we have seen increasing activism among young Americans on behalf of social and political issues. Engagement in movements such as Black Lives Matter, and organizations advocating for climate change and gun control has grown–and absent substantial progress on those and similar issues, there is no reason to expect a return to previous levels of apathy.

Youth turnout is important because it is a lopsidedly Democratic age cohort, but what really struck me as I looked into these numbers was the pathetic civic performance of us older Americans. Yes, many young folks have historically ignored their civic duty to vote, but so have millions of their parents and grandparents.

Older Americans haven’t exactly been civic role models.

The fact that only 50% of eligible Americans cast ballots in 2018 can’t all be attributed to vote suppression. Instead, it signals a lack of what we used to call “civic virtue.” When half of those entitled to vote don’t bother, we elect the buffoons, ignoramuses and Neo-Nazis who appeal to small but passionate slices of the voting public–constituencies that do turn out.

The 36% of youth who voted in 2018 matched the 36% of all registered voters who came to the polls in 2016. I personally think both of those percentages are shameful.

Maybe we should emulate Australia, where voting is mandatory. Punishment is relatively minor– failure to cast a ballot will result in a small fine–but the result is a culture that encourages voting, and an electoral result that more closely mirrors the actual preferences of the population.

As we’ve seen, when only culture warriors are motivated to vote,  we get “lawmakers” like Tommy Tuberville and Marjorie Taylor Green. I’d like to say we deserve better, but given our levels of civic participation, maybe we don’t.


Getting Out The Vote

Several years ago,  my husband and I took a week-long cruise on a small boat that accommodated only eleven passengers. One of those eleven, as it happened, was a retired professor of public administration from Australia, and we had several fascinating exchanges about policy differences between our two countries.

One of those differences involved elections.

In Australia, the law requires  that every citizen vote. I initially recoiled at that suggestion; surely, people too disinterested to go to the polls  unless required to do so would cast uninformed ballots…but the more I thought about  it, the more Australia’s system appealed to me.

Many democratic countries evidently require people to vote, and fine those who don’t.  (Actually, as I understand it, what is mandatory is appearance at the polls. In many systems, there is apparently something akin to a “none of the above” option that will fulfill the legal obligation.)

Requiring citizens to vote would help ensure that election results mirror the preferences of the entire population, not just those sufficiently motivated to express those preferences at the polls. At least some percentage of the currently disengaged would take more interest in government and politics–knowing that they would have to cast a ballot, at least some Americans might make an effort to know something about the people on that ballot and (gasp!) even the system within which they aspire to operate.

Arguably, universal turnout would require candidates to craft more inclusive messages, since targeting an ideological sliver would no longer be the path to victory. (Targeting one’s base is one reason for our currently polarized politics.) Candidates and parties would also save a lot of money and effort currently spent on get out the vote efforts.

So what are the cons, the arguments against mandatory voting?

Requiring people to vote would assure the participation of low-interest, arguably uninformed people, “alphabet voters” who would simply check a box in order to avoid a fine. (You can lead a voter to the polls, but you can’t force him to think.) Even a token fine would fall most heavily on the poor and disadvantaged–the very people who have difficulty getting to the polls in our current system.

At least one scholar has suggested that–rather than making voting mandatory (which America will do when pigs fly)–we should work to make elections more competitive, because turnout increases when voters have meaningful choices. Gerrymandering currently makes that solution untenable.

Gerrymandering is also a huge disincentive to voting; when you are convinced your vote won’t count, you are understandably less likely to make the effort. And because Republicans have been far more successful in gerrymandering (not that Democrats don’t try–they just aren’t nearly as good at it), the people who are least likely to vote are the people most likely to vote Democratic.

A recent study of turnout should be filed under “read it and weep.”

A new study from BYU and the University of Virginia analyzed 400 million voter records from elections in 2014 and 2016 and found that minority citizens, young people, and those who support the Democratic Party are much less likely to vote than whites, older citizens, and Republican Party supporters. Moreover, those in the former groups were also more likely to live in areas where their neighbors are less likely to vote.

“We’re finding that the circumstances of other citizens who live around you plays an important role in voter turnout,” said Dr. Michael Barber, BYU professor of political science and co-author of the study. “Much of the country is segregated—especially by race and partisanship. Minorities are more likely to live around other minorities who are also less likely to vote. The same is true of voters of both parties. These patterns can create a situation that results in persistent patterns of lower turnout in certain communities for a variety of reasons.”

The study found that, in 2016, White citizens voted at a rate of between 9 and 15 percentage points higher than Black citizens, Asian citizens, and Hispanic citizens. In 2014, the gaps were even higher, with Whites voting at a rate 9 to 18 percentage points higher than minority groups. There were similar gaps in political party turnout, with Republicans  more likely to vote than Democrats.

Unsurprising but depressing, the data also confirmed that the voting rate of citizens 60 years old or older was roughly 40 percentage points higher than that of citizens 30 years old or younger.

If those demographic gaps in turnout narrowed–or, with mandatory voting, disappeared– a significant number of districts that have been gerrymandered by partisans would no longer be safe–after all, the people drawing district lines must depend upon previous turnout data. They have no way of knowing the political preferences of the people who didn’t bother to vote.

Increased turnout could save American democracy.


Ideology And Climate Change

Most of Australia appears to be on fire. The extent of the devastation is hard to comprehend–as this is written, 24 people have been killed, 15.6 million acres burned (so far), hundreds if not thousands of homes destroyed, and an estimated billion animals killed.

Yet, as Vox reports, government officials in Australia continue to downplay the link between climate change and the wildfires– Prime Minister Scott Morrison insists that the country doesn’t need to do more to limit its greenhouse gas emissions. The government is apparently willing to shirk its duty to protect the population and the environment in order to protect the country’s powerful mining sector.

There’s a strong scientific consensus that links climate change to the number and severity of the wildfires.In its 2018 “State of the Climate” report,  the Australian Bureau of Meteorology warned that climate change had already ushered in a long-term warming trend and was also responsible for changes in rainfall that increase the risks of wildfires.

It isn’t only Australia. The effects of climate change are appearing everywhere. In Indonesia, the capital city of Jakarta is sinking so quickly that officials are working to move it to another island. Pictures of Venice are heartbreaking. Other examples abound.

Here in the United States, the Trump administration is responding by rolling back numerous environmental measures that had been put in place both to combat pollution and address climate change. It sometimes seems as if the administration is trying to poison the air and water and actually accelerate climate change.

Sane people faced with an existential threat don’t behave this way. What explains it?

The Roosevelt Institute attributes this inexplicably destructive behavior to neoliberal ideology.

In Transcending Neoliberalism: How the Free-Market Myth Has Prevented Climate Action, Roosevelt Fellow Mark Paul and Anders Fremstad of Colorado State University present a coherent account of how neoliberalism has contributed to inaction. To do so, they explore three tenets of neoliberal ideology that have stymied action to address the climate crisis:

Decentralize democracy: A feature of the neoliberal order in the US has been the systematic decentralization of government. Neoliberals have promoted federalism to address “government failure” and subject the state to market forces, exacerbating the race to the bottom in climate policy.

Defund public investment: Neoliberals dismantled the Keynesian consensus that the state has a major role to play in providing public goods, stabilizing the macroeconomy, and solving coordination problems. In the neoliberal order, government investments are rejected as expensive and wasteful, crowding out productive private investments.

Deregulate the economy: Neoliberalism has launched a concentrated attack on government’s ability to regulate the economy. Ignoring the ability of regulations to positively shape markets, neoliberals dismiss government intervention as “red tape” that merely increases the cost of doing business.

Those tenets of neoliberalism have been mainstays of Republican policy at least since Reagan. To them, however, you have to add the rabid anti-intellectualism of the Trump administration–an anti-intellectualism married to an obsessive determination to undo anything Barack Obama accomplished. Trump has persistently worked to drive scientists out of government agencies, despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that those agencies’ effectiveness depend upon sound scientific evidence.

As the New York Times, among others, has reported,

In just three years, the Trump administration has diminished the role of science in federal policymaking while halting or disrupting research projects nationwide, marking a transformation of the federal government whose effects, experts say, could reverberate for years.

Political appointees have shut down government studies, reduced the influence of scientists over regulatory decisions and in some cases pressured researchers not to speak publicly. The administration has particularly challenged scientific findings related to the environment and public health opposed by industries such as oil drilling and coal mining. It has also impeded research around human-caused climate change, which President Trump has dismissed despite a global scientific consensus.

What is it that Neil DeGrasse Tyson always says? Reality doesn’t care whether you believe it or not.

If climate change makes the Earth uninhabitable–a result that is looking more and more likely– the cause will be stubborn ignorance and the willful elevation of ideology over evidence.


I’ll Walk/Ride With You….

I probably wouldn’t have followed the hostage-taking incident in Sydney, Australia so closely, but my middle son is currently visiting the city. (Knowing his mother–and being a good son–he called even before I’d heard the  news reports, telling me “don’t freak out, I’m nowhere near where this is occurring.”)

We now know that this horrific episode, which cost two innocent people their lives, was not a terrorist act, at least in the political sense; it was a solitary crime comitted  by a mentally-deranged individual. Still, as Reuters reported, the perpetrator’s move to force hostages to display an Islamic flag ” immediately raised hackles in some quarters.”

A man shouting anti-Islamic abuse near the cafe during the standoff was moved on by police, while Muslim community leaders reported women wearing the hijab had been spat on.

Then something heartwarming happened:

Inspired by the Twitter hashtag “I’ll ride with you”, some commuters heading into the city for work on Tuesday gave their support to Muslims who might feel vulnerable amid concerns about a blowback after the hostage drama.

The hashtag was trending around the world, popping up across Asia, Europe, Africa and North America as it featured in more than 300,000 tweets. Actor Russell Crowe, who grew up in Sydney and keeps a home here, added his star power to the campaign.

Sydney is home to around half of Australia’s 500,000 Muslims.

The hashtag began trending on Twitter ahead of the evening commute on Monday, sparked by a Facebook post by Sydney woman Rachael Jacobs who described her encounter with a Muslim woman who took off her head covering: “I ran after her at the train station. I said ‘put it back on. I’ll walk with you’.”

That prompted other Sydneysiders to take to Twitter, detailing their bus and train routes home and offering to ride with anybody who felt uncomfortable, using the hashtag “Illwalkwithyou”.

On Tuesday morning, Jacobs said she was overwhelmed with the campaign she had inadvertently started: “Mine was a small gesture because of sadness that someone would ever feel unwelcome because of beliefs.”

I’d like to believe that something similarly spontaneous and reassuring could happen in the United States–that enough of us would put aside the stereotyping and suspicion of people with whom we don’t share beliefs or skin color or other tribal markers, to see each other simply as humans to whom we should offer reassurance and support.

I’d like to believe that, but given the animus permeating today’s environment, I’m not sure I do.