Tag Archives: omens


Readers of this blog frequently send me articles I am unlikely to have seen; often, those are from their local papers (where such papers still exist). I keep the ones I find interesting in a file, and from time to time, I review them.  Often, the saved articles no longer seem relevant, but sometimes, the opinions expressed and predictions made are even more meaningful than when I first saw them.

That was the case with “Early Warning Signs,” an essay from the Madison, Wisconsin Capital Times. Published in March of 2021, the essay began

You’ve likely grown numb to daily outrages by the Republican Party of Donald Trump. You’ve given up hope that at some magical moment, when some line is crossed, masses of educated, intelligent people who identify as Republicans will gently slap their foreheads and say enough is enough.

Enough of the lies about stolen elections, the denial of facts and the rejection of expertise. Enough with a party that has morphed from being about personal responsibility and limited government to one primarily about grievance.

The author then looked back, to see whether incidents” that seemed innocuous at the time” might actually have been “harbingers of catastrophic dysfunction.” He identified three: the vast number of threats to the life of then-candidate Obama that required Secret Service protection much earlier than had been the case with previous Presidential candidates; John McCain’s choice of Sarah Palin as his running mate; and the rise of  Rush Limbaugh and “hate radio.”

The volume of threats against Obama–then a little-known Senator–was very clearly prompted by the racism and racial grievance that has become far more visible since his Presidency.

Here in 2021, one can see the direct line from there to a party whose white supremacist faction carries Confederate flags, including inside the U.S. Capitol during the Jan. 6 insurrection. Is it any wonder that after eight years of fury about a Black man being president that those boiling with racial hatred would come to worship a racist like Trump?

The choice of Palin–and especially the GOP base’s response to that choice– was the moment when it “became OK for a politician to just exalt in ignorance.” The author quoted Obama’s recent book:

“What became abundantly clear as soon as Sarah Palin stepped into the spotlight was that on just about every subject relevant to governing the country she had absolutely no idea what the hell she was talking about,” he wrote.

“I noticed from the start that her incoherence didn’t seem to matter to the vast majority of Republicans; in fact, anytime she crumbled under questioning by a journalist, they seemed to view it as proof of a liberal conspiracy.”

Like they did with Ronald Reagan years earlier, Republicans said the self-described “hockey mom” had “good instincts” and would grow into the job, Obama wrote. “It was, of course, a sign of things to come, a larger, darker reality in which partisan affiliation and political expedience would threaten to blot out everything.”

As the essayist noted, it’s a straight line from Palin to Trump and to Marjorie Taylor Greene and her ilk.

With his choice of a third omen, the writer echoed my frequent lament about the sea-change in America’s media environment, a change foreshadowed by  the emergence of Rush Limbaugh. As he noted, Limbaugh  sounded “Trumpian 25 years before Trump became president.”

Limbaugh introduced a formula for ratings success that many others would ape: giving voice to the cultural grievances of older, uneducated White guys. After the creation of Fox News–which was specifically and very consciously aimed at the anger of that same demographic–it became acceptable to openly express, and defend, ignorance, racism, homophobia and misogyny.

And so here we are.

There may have been other signs, other omens we missed, but it’s hard to argue with the three chosen by this writer. That, of course, leads me to wonder what omens we are currently missing.

The overturning of Roe is clearly one of those–but will it trigger a return of respect for women’s autonomy, or a march toward Gilead?

The revelations of the January 6th Committee could prompt a return to serious, democratic governance–or fail to halt the next coup effort by proponents of the Big Lie.

The astonishing overreach of the Supreme Court’s hobbling of the EPA  (not to mention the ability of all executive branch agencies to issue regulations) could generate  environmental energy–or be a harbinger of planetary doom.

That’s the problem with omens–you can’t tell where they’re pointing until after the fact.


The Times They are A-Changing…Maybe

I spend a lot of time–way too much, actually–scanning the news and following current policy debates. Part of that is my job; when you teach in a school of public affairs you are expected to keep abreast of those affairs. Part of it is morbid curiosity.

Anyone who is surveying the current American landscape  can certainly find plenty of reasons to be depressed, and I share many of those reasons on this blog. But here and there it is also possible to detect more positive signs, indications of a counter-narrative to the anti-intellectualism, nativism and fundamentalism that makes sound policy so difficult. (I  realize that many of our more shrill ideologues don’t consider these omens good news…)

If, as many historians suggest, there is a political pendulum that moves America from Left to Right and back again, we may be seeing the leading edge of a swing back from the far, far Right where it has been for several years, back toward the rational center. 

Recently, the Upworthy site posted eleven reasons to be optimistic about America’s future. The list began by noting that, a mere eleven years ago, only one state (Massachusetts) had marriage equality; now all of them do.

For all of the hysteria over the Affordable Care Act–aka “Obamacare”–the number of uninsured Americans has declined over 30%. The teen pregnancy rate is the lowest it has been in 25 years. The smoking rate has been cut in half.  Life expectancy is up.

Unemployment is down, and efforts to raise the minimum wage are beginning to gain traction. The use of renewable energy, especially solar energy, has grown significantly, and a majority of Americans take climate change seriously and want government to address it.

Like previous “Great Awakenings,” the most recent wave of extreme religiosity has abated considerably; the latest survey results from Pew find nearly 25% of Americans unaffiliated. Bernie Sanders draws enormous crowds of voters concerned with growing inequality. Activists have mounted an energetic effort to pass a constitutional amendment overturning Citizens United. New movements like Black Lives Matter are bringing needed attention to the persistence and consequences of American racism.

Even in the Middle East, there are signs that should encourage us. Reuters reports that thousands of ordinary Iraqis have taken to the streets of Baghdad to protest government corruption and to demand a secular state and an end to Sunni or Shia control of government.

There’s much more.

Genuine social change doesn’t come peacefully, of course. We may be in for a rough time, not unlike the turbulent 60s. But surely, a measure of social unrest is preferable to continued acquiescence with inequality, plutocracy and fundamentalism.