Exposing The Fraud That Is Richard Spencer

Exposing The Fraud That Is Richard Spencer

Reprinted with permission from Washingtonmonthly.


White nationalism is real scary, but white nationalism, it turns out, cannot bear too much scrutiny. So much of its power depends on the rest of us not knowing much about the people advancing it.

Case in point is Richard Spencer. The Washington Post called him the poster boy of white nationalism. He coined the term alt-right, celebrated the installment of Steve Bannon in the White House, and founded a so-called think tank to promote white nationalism. He even gave it a respectable sounding name, National Policy Institute.

He’s also the guy who was famously punched in the side of his shaved head during President Trump’s inauguration. A video of the assault went viral. It went by various names, like “Nazi Punching.” I have enthusiastically shared the video with my stamp of approval.

Spencer is an effective spokesman for white nationalism, because he embodies its perceived traits without invoking images of the boogie men of its past. Instead white hoods and robes, he’s clean cut, well dressed, and highly educated. Instead of speaking a twangy local yokel, he’s speaks in a flat authoritative tone akin to CBS News.

His genius is leveraging that appearance to enhance his credibility among the unsuspecting while blasting the moral decay of American civilization. Most importantly, he leverages his appearance to project strength, because strength is the central tenet of white nationalism.

On Twitter last week, he attacked conservatives:

You get the idea.

But all this changes in light of facts. Those facts came to us some weeks ago courtesy of the Center for Investigative Reporting in partnership with Mother Jones. And here are the facts:

Richard Spencer lives on his family’s fortune. That wealth in part comes from owning, for generations, huge tracts of land used in growing cotton. That cotton is subsidized, like many farming operations, to maintain prices by the federal government.

Moreover, Spencer dropped out of graduate school and does not appear to have held down a real job before founding his “think tank.” No one knows where he got the money to found it. The National Policy Institute has lost its tax-exempt status.

What do we make of these facts?

For one thing, it’s hard to maintain the veneer of strength and purity when you are vulnerable to accusations of being a mama’s boy. (His parents are evidently mainstream Republican who dislike their son’s embrace of fascism, but not enough, apparently, to cut him off.)

For another, it’s hard to maintain an image of authenticity as the one true voice of an oppressed white people when your money comes from mommy and daddy, instead of a deep pool of contributors who might nominally represent a truly democratic yearning. White nationalism ends up taking a back seat to his carefully constructed image and in doing so risks revealing Spencer as being a fraud.

He’s vulnerable not only to attacks from the left.

Recall that former presidential candidate Mitt Romney and the Republicans gained a lot of traction some years ago by framing the country’s future as a choice between “takers and makers.” In Spencer is a man who never had a real job, who failed to complete his education, who lives on his parent’s bank account. He’s the idle rich to the left. He’s a parasite to the right’s captains of industry.

White nationalism remains a threat. I don’t have to explain why. But democracy can survive it as long as democracy has a free press, free speech and the political courage of an informed citizenry.

John Stoehr

John Stoehr is a lecturer in political science at Yale, a business columnist for Hearst Newspapers, an essayist for the New Haven Register and a U.S. News & World Report contributing editor.


Drive The Wedge, Democrats

Drive The Wedge, Democrats

Reprinted with permission from USnews.
By John Stoehr

I find Steve King to be a insightful indicator of what’s going on inside the far-right wing of the Republican Party. Not because he’s smart. Not because he’s important. But because the Iowa congressman tends to view politics in stark black and white instead of more opaque sepia tones.

King admitted in 2015 to the real reason hard-liners like himself are opposed to immigration reform: President Barack Obama, he said, “is importing millions of illegal aliens, who, when they arrive here, he thinks, and he’s right, they are undocumented Democrats. The next phase of this is to document these Democrats so they can vote. This is a raw political power move.”

Obama wasn’t importing anybody. But otherwise King was right. Naturalized immigrants, or their natural-born children, would likely over time vote Democratic. A raw political power move, maybe. This was astute political analysis underneath a layer of racism.

King was equally helpful last week. On a conservative radio show, he warned President Donald Trump that he had better deliver on the anti-immigrant platform he campaigned on or risk losing his base. King noted that Steve Bannon, the president’s chief strategist, appears to be increasingly marginalized. The millionaire former head of Breitbart News was the visionary behind the president’s nationalist agenda.

Unfortunately, for him, Bannon picked a fight with Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner. Blood is thicker than water to this president, so Bannon is now on the outside looking in. In his place is economist Gary Cohn, a former Goldman Sachs CEO and, according to King, Trump’s “pro-immigrant” adviser. King told his interviewer: “People are policy. So whenever I see those kind of appointments come in place, I do get concerned about it.”

It would be easy to dismiss King’s remark as the racist drivel that it is. King has advocated for mass deportations, even of adults who were brought here as children and whose only country is the United States. But if we’re really deeply listening, racist drivel can be politically insightful – and helpful to Democratic strategy. As with King’s 2015 remark, there’s more here than meets the eye.

Who is Trump’s base? The answer is rooted in what nationalism means. Does it mean anti-immigrant or pro-white American worker? Or both? If purely anti-immigration, King has little reason to fret. Trump has had a lock on the hardcore racist vote since the day he first cast doubt on the legitimacy of the country’s first African-American president. Trump’s administration is eminently capable of executing a passel of nativist policies. Hardcore racists are going to support Trump no matter what happens to Bannon.

But without Bannon, there is no significant voice in the Trump administration that represents, or at least pretends to represent, the white working class, a key part of Trump’s base. All that remains are the nativists like U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions and the billionaires like Cohn.

This is a huge problem for Trump, because without an economic message, the respective factions of his administration risk affirming everything the opposition is saying about the president – either he’s a racist or his in thrall to moneyed interests.

Without Bannon’s populist messaging, even if it’s populist in name only, Trump’s base risks being irreparably wedged, because white working-class voters did not support Trump due to racist appeals alone. They want something in exchange for for their support. They want good jobs and a return to prosperity.

This is the political danger of running an explicitly racist campaign. The “other” isn’t real. It’s a rhetorical device intended to inflame racial resentments. Even if Trump were to deport all 11 million undocumented immigrants, it would make no positive difference in the lives of his supporters, because the “other” isn’t real. Deporting immigrants is to them like deporting an abstraction. Meanwhile, life continues to suck for the white working class, and Trump is too incompetent or too weak politically to do anything about it.

Despite much fanfare, the Trump administration’s regulatory changes, especially dismantling Obama’s environmental rules, are essentially a sop to the energy industry and the Republican Party’s donor class. His rule-gutting may have some trickle-down effect, but hardly enough to mitigate the despair felt by Trump’s white working-class base. The president’s photo-ops with corporate heads are only that. Good public relations, not effective jobs policy.

About the only economic agenda Trump could pursue that would truly give the white working class what it wants is a massive and historic $1 trillion investment in the country’s rapidly deteriorating infrastructure. That was Bannon’s brain child from the get-go, but we have heard nary a word about it during the president’s first 100 days.

Even if Bannon were not marginalized from the White House’s sanctum sanctorum, his boss would need the Democrats to make infrastructure happen. But the Democrats have little need to compromise with a president increasingly weakened by scandal, incompetence and the baked-in insanity of his own party.

How can the Democrats appeal to the white working class without surrendering the hard-fought gains among women and minorities over two decades? This is how. Trump’s base is increasingly wedged. The Democrats need to wedge it further. They don’t have to return to their former days as the working man’s party. But they do need exploit what is going to become a baneful wedge issue.

There is overlap, obviously, but there are serious differences between hardcore racists who support the president no matter what and the working-class white voters who are seeking tangible results from a candidate who promised far more than he could possible deliver.

Using a combination of policy proposals, like “Medicare for all,” and messaging, like “health care is a right,” the Democrats can drive the wedge down more deeply, picking off white working-class voters here and there as they rebuild their winning coalition.

The Democrats are already on their way to this end. They have proposed an alternative infrastructure bill, one that would truly empower the working class of all races. They have the policy. Now comes the right message and, more importantly, finding the right messenger.

As I said, Steve King isn’t smart and isn’t that important. But he’s good at telling us what Republicans fear most. Time will tell if the Democrats are listening, and if the base of the party will allow it.

Against the Rich And Racist

Against the Rich And Racist

Reprinted with permission fromUS News.

Given that Donald Trump won the election on a surge of turnout from white working-class voters in Michigan, Ohio and other states that campaign strategists for President Barack Obama once called a “Midwest firewall,” you’d expect the Democrats to compete hard for those voters in the midterm elections of 2018.

That is not turning out to be the case. Instead, party leaders have identified dozens of House Republicans who they believe are vulnerable. These Republicans represent affluent, white and nominally conservative suburban districts outside big cities, like New York City and Philadelphia, and in blue states like California, all districts Hillary Clinton won by a mile.

This strategy is no doubt baffling to some, especially progressives who have demonstrated power through grassroots direct action and through intense lobbying of Democratic senators who are now emboldened to filibuster Judge Neil Gorsuch, the president’s nominee for the Supreme Court. No doubt Bernie Sanders is pulling out what’s left of his hair. This party, he memorably said, has forgotten how to talk to working people. Of course, they are courting Republicans!

The so-called left will see the Democrats’ strategy as another instance in which the working man’s party betrayed the working man, and they will use it to defend their indefensible attacks against the only candidate in November who could govern responsibly, lead competently and do so in everyone’s name.

The so-called left will see the Democrats’ pragmatic play for GOP voters lukewarm on Trump as yet more evidence that the Democratic Party is sucking up to the international neoliberal order. That’s not just wrong, it’s insane, and what we can expect from a so-called left whose views of politics is purely and perversely theoretical. Even so, there’s something to this.

While targeting suburban Republicans in the short-term is prudent, the Democrats must find, in the long term, a way to reach white working-class voters without abandoning their anti-racist and anti-sexist positions. Despite the Obama coalition’s grave apprehensions, the Democrats must compete for every vote, even those of a white working-class that empowered a lying, thieving, philandering sadist who is on course to betraying them. I believe the Democrats can do it and they can do it without returning to bigotry-blind centrism.

First, let’s remember why white working-class voters supported Donald Trump: resentment. Resentment of female empowerment. Resentment of minority achievement. Resentment of the language of female empowerment and minority achievement (aka “political correctness”). All of the above are well-known, but less well-known, because it’s hard to see it through the smog of bigotry and white identity politics, is the resentment of class. To many Trump voters, Hillary Clinton was the distillation of all of the above.

She was powerful, rich and successful, but most of all, she represented an elite caste, a mysterious group of political power-brokers whose interests will lead to working-class ruination. Liberals may find this hard to comprehend, but I’ve come to think that, to many working-class voters, there wasn’t much difference between Hillary Clinton and a “vulture capitalist” like Mitt Romney. In other words, just as Obama in 2012 ran a populist campaign against a rich man, Trump in 2016 ran a populist campaign against a rich women.

That white working-class voters chose a billionaire as their class warrior is not ironic, nor it is reason to think white identity politics is the only thing binding Trump to his supporters. In their view, his wealth is different from Romney’s. Romney made his name tearing apart manufacturing firms that were the backbone of working-class communities. Trump made his name in real estate. It made him politically independent. It freed him of party loyalties and special interests. It gave him the means to smash the Establishment. Wealth wasn’t a liability, as it was for Romney. It was a key asset.

 But there was always a stipulation: that Trump use his power to serve the working class. While the president has made broad gestures to that end, by meeting with the heads of major corporations and by gutting environmental regulations that he and every Republican for decades has said stifles job creation, it is not clear how long the ruse will last. Eventually, reality will set in, and when it does, Trump will cease to be a class warrior. He will be just another old fat rich guy. He will be no more immune to the resentments of the white working-class than Mitt Romney was.

The Democrats can hurry that along. They can remind voters that this White House is packed with millionaires and billionaires. They can highlight the growing gap between Trump’s words and his deeds. But they can do something else, and it’s here where I see the Democrats finding a practical solution to their political paradox.

On the one hand, they must serve a minority base, voters appalled by white nationalists rising to prominence inside and outside the administration. On the other, as I’ve argued, they must find ways to reach white working-class voters. Luckily, the white nationalists offer a solution. It turns out that very prominent white nationalists are also very rich.

Steve Bannon is Trump’s chief strategist and former head of Breitbart News, the house organ of white nationalism. He’s a multimillionaire. Richard Spencer is the hip young face of white nationalism. He lives off his parents’ fortune, a fortune enriched by government subsidies. Samuel Jared Taylor is Spencer’s mentor and editor of American Renaissance, a white nationalist journal. Taylor is a proud graduate of Yale College.

To be sure, many white working-class voters saw nothing wrong with Trump’s overt bigotry, but I’m certain none would raise racism to the level of political philosophy, partly because philosophy is not what working-class people do and partly because working-class people would find almost nothing in common with the likes of Spencer, who lives off mommy and daddy’s bank account.

Republican strategy is so effective because the Republicans always manage the find a boogie man. The socialists. The government. The gays. The whatever. It works, because the Republicans win by dividing, not uniting, the opposite of Democratic needs. But this time, the rise of an extreme political ideology, white nationalism, has created a rare opportunity for the party of the people. The Democrats don’t need to choose between fighting the rich or fighting the racists. In this administration, they are one and the same.

GOP Infatuation With Defunding Planned Parenthood Could Exact Heavy Price

GOP Infatuation With Defunding Planned Parenthood Could Exact Heavy Price

Reprinted with permission from CT Viewpoints.

With the election of a Republican president and control of the U.S. Congress by Republicans, you’d think Planned Parenthood is in trouble. Defunding the reproductive health organization has been for years a rallying cry among Republicans, especially Christian conservatives opposed to abortion. With the GOP now in power, it would seem the tide has finally turned.

It hasn’t. In fact, Planned Parenthood has the advantage.

What gives Planned Parenthood the advantage is the insistence among leading Republicans to tie together two things that should not be tied together if Republicans hope to protect their majority. They evidently believe their majority, especially in the House, is impervious, because they have linked the defunding of Planned Parenthood (to the tune of $500 million) with their proposed replacement for the Affordable Care Act.

The Republican Party has always been between a rock and a hard place when it comes to the health care law. Though often called Obamacare, the program is a fundamentally conservative creature that maintains a role for private health insurers when a saner public policy scheme would have been Medicare for All.

So whatever they proposed, the path was always going to be treacherous. But when the Republicans rolled out a replacement Tuesday called the American Health Care Act, it was clear the very same people railing against “death panels” for eight long years still have no idea what they are doing.

The proposed law would cut $600 billion out of the federal budget, but almost all the savings would go to the very affluent. Meanwhile, subsidies to ordinary people would vanish. In their place, the Republicans aim to offer tax credits to buy private insurance. The new law would also repeal the mandate requiring everyone to buy insurance or pay a penalty.

In terms of policy, this is not smart. Subsidies allowed millions to pay for insurance upfront. Under the new plan, people would have to wait for reimbursement after Tax Day. This won’t work. Most Americans can’t pay for insurance now and wait to be paid back later. They do not have ready cash.

Nixing the “individual mandate” means healthy people will leave the insurance pool, leaving sicker people behind, which will in turn raise the cost of health care for everyone, even those already covered. House Speaker Paul Ryan habitually uses the phrase “death spiral” to describe Obamacare. The real death spiral awaits if the Republicans pass this bill.

But policy isn’t why Republicans —specifically, Republicans representing affluent white suburban districts won by Hillary Clinton — are worried. These Republicans face no fallout from constituents getting major tax cuts. They have no fear of constituents losing health insurance, because their affluent white suburban supporters do not require federal subsidies. But there is one thing these Republicans fear, and fear gravely.

An overt assault on women.

If you defund Planned Parenthood, you send a signal to all of your female voters that women’s issues don’t count. That’s what freshman congressman U.S. Rep. John Faso, who represents parts of the Hudson Valley, told the GOP leadership last month during a retreat. He said: “We are just walking into a gigantic political trap if we go down this path of sticking Planned Parenthood in the health insurance bill. If you want to do it somewhere else, I have no problem, but I think we are creating a political minefield for ourselves —House and Senate.”

The Democrats are banking on it. If they stay unified in the Congress, they can squeeze vulnerable blue-state Republicans. The Democrats need 24 seats to retake the House in 2018. You can bet every Republican like Faso has a big fat imaginary bull’s eye on his back.

The minefield isn’t limited to the U.S. Congress. Republican leaders in blue states are concerned, too. Fight for tax relief all you want, the thinking goes, but please please pretty please don’t enrage the women. That’s why GOP Gov. Charlie Baker, of Massachusetts, is talking about replacing whatever might be lost in federal funds with state funds. That’s why Republican moderates are asking the party leadership to decouple Planned Parenthood from health care reform, because if you insist on tying them together, the party may end up losing twice.

There may be another way of looking at this, and it’s upside down. There is no win for the Republicans in repealing and replacing Obamacare. As I said, it is already a conservative program. The party has distorted reality so much that austerity freaks like the Club for Growth, Americans for Prosperity, and Freedomworks are already opposing it. So are powerful nonpartisan groups like the American Medical Association and the AARP. If the Republicans mess this up, they will suffer, big league. They may pay a price for gutting Planned Parenthood, but the price will surely be higher if they foul up health care reform.

Which is why some think there’s a reason the GOP leadership insists on coupling Planned Parenthood with replacing Obamacare. If they were separate, the party would have no one to blame when they foul up health care reform. But by poisoning the replacement plan with a defunding plan, they can blame their failure on a familiar foe, Planned Parenthood.

It would be genius if it weren’t so short-sighted.

John Stoehr is a lecturer in political science at Yale and a New Haven resident.

IMAGE: Anti-abortion activists (L) rally next to supporters of Planned Parenthood outside a Planned Parenthood clinic in Detroit, Michigan, U.S. February 11, 2017. REUTERS/Rebecca Cook

White Men Are The Real ‘Special Snowflakes’

White Men Are The Real ‘Special Snowflakes’

The white nationalists I sometimes encounter on Twitter have an expression for militant liberals like me who care about the greater good, the suffering of the vulnerable, and the liberties guaranteed to everyone by the Bill of Rights.

It’s: “Special snowflake.”

It’s supposed to be a put-down, like I’m too delicate to handle being told “the truth” about “how things really are” by men (usually men) who “aren’t afraid to tell it like it is.” If I object to his slur-filled bile-spewing, then I’m too fragile.

Like a snowflake.

I don’t make a habit of engaging with white nationalists. It comes with being a newspaper columnist. The bigotry isn’t always obvious. After I wrote about Samuel Jared Taylor, a Yale alum who’s now among the most influential white nationalists, a concerned reader wrote to ask: “Don’t you care about your own people? What is happening to us?”

By “your people,” he meant white people.

And yes, I am.

I’m concerned that the real special snowflakes are not racial minorities, Jews, Muslims, women, or LGBTQ people. These are among the toughest people I have met, people who have endured all manner of stigma that by accident of birth I have not endured. Indeed, by the same accident, I merely have to be mediocre to be great. Meanwhile, my female and non-WASP counterparts must be great to be mediocre.

But these people are tough. It’s white men I worry about.

We are special snowflakes.

Westport is sponsoring an essay contest on the topic of white privilege. Its diversity council is encouraging schoolchildren to look inward and consider the sociopolitical advantages of being white. Westport is overwhelmingly white as well as affluent. It’s worth noting the topic was not racism.

To the surprise of organizers, white privilege turned out to be touchy-touchy. The touchiest were white men. News of the contest sparked outrage on social media. Westport resident Bari Reiner, 72, told the AP that he was “offended” by the question of white privilege. “It’s an open town,” he said. “There are no barricades here. Nobody says if you’re black or whatever, you can’t move here.”

That’s true, but why “offended”?

Asking Westport schoolchildren to consider white privilege is like asking the sons and daughters of billionaires to consider the wealth and power they were born into. Yes, white privilege is not necessarily material privilege. But socially and politically speaking, being white is a huge advantage. All white men are born on third base. But most of us think we hit a triple.

When reminded of this, however, our feelings are hurt. You have to understand: We’re sensitive. We’re special.

Like a snowflake.

Westport has not cornered the market in sensitivity. Plenty of white men, and plenty of white men who voted for President Donald Trump, exhibit similar sensitivities.

After Trump ordered a ban on immigrants from seven Muslim countries, National Public Radio went to upstate New York, where I grew up and where most of my family still lives. A reporter found a guy rejoicing over the Muslim ban. Why?

“I feel that if a Muslim woman wants to move into this country, she needs to leave her towel home,” he said, according to the NPR report.. “Because the reason this country is here and safe today is because of Jesus Christ. We were one nation under God.”

If a man claiming to be Christian was confident in his faith, and was confident in the Constitution’s protection of his free exercise, there wouldn’t be much need to worry about Muslims, no matter how many hijabs they wear.

Living in a diverse society is hard work, and reconciling differences demands courage. One way to begin is by sponsoring an essay writing contest. Topic: How to help white man understand what’s going on.

We may be like snowflakes.

But we don’t have to be.

John Stoehr is a lecturer in political science at Yale and a New Haven resident.

IMAGE: U.S. President Donald Trump is greeted by Vice President Mike Pence and House Speaker Paul Ryan (R) as he arrives to speak at a congressional Republican retreat in Philadelphia, U.S. January 26, 2017.  REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

The ‘Coastal Elites’ Are Reclaiming The Mantle Of God And Country

The ‘Coastal Elites’ Are Reclaiming The Mantle Of God And Country

This commentary was originally published in CT Viewpoints.

Since Election Day, a story has been told about those of us who live in Connecticut or along the coasts or who voted for the Democrat. We are told that we don’t get it. We don’t understand the working class or rural culture — the Real America.

We are “coastal elites,” we are told. Obsessed with “trigger warnings” and political correctness, we have lost touch with America’s fundamental values. I’m so done with this story.

Thank God, I’m not alone.

Democrats, liberals, and other “coastal elites” have begun taking back the mantle of God and country that has been denied them since 1980. With Ronald Reagan’s ascent, no one could be more patriotic than a Republican, according to Republicans. But with an authoritarian’s ascent, the Republicans are forfeiting, eagerly, the exclusive claim they once had to “restoring” the Constitution.

Last Friday, President Donald Trump signed an executive order closing the borders to people from seven Muslim nations. He fulfilled a campaign promise, the Muslim ban. It doesn’t beef up security. It doesn’t enhance screening. It simply excludes Muslims, and validates everything our enemies say about America. Some have tried spinning the ban into “temporary suspension,” but Trump himself called it “the ban.”

That alone would satisfy any reasonable definition of a religious test, an indefensible practice in a democracy claiming to honor and protect individual liberty. But there’s more to this. Trump made clear his preference for Christians. That’s not just a religious test. That’s the establishment of a religion — an abomination.

That’s why Connecticut Sen. Chris Murphy and other Democrats said the ban is “illegal.” They plan to introduce legislation to stop it. That’s why Sally Yates, the acting attorney general, said Monday the Justice Department would not defend the ban in court. That’s why the Democratic National Committee said, after Trump fired Yates Monday, that he “cannot silence the growing voices of an American people now wide awake to his tyrannical presidency.”

Let’s say that again, with feeling.

The Democrats are accusing a Republican of tyranny.

They are right.

The first freedom enumerated in the Bill of Rights is the freedom to worship as you wish. “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” The founders believed an agnostic government would permit religion to flourish, and they were right. The U.S. is singular among western nations for its widespread religious practice.

How often did Republicans suggest that Barack Obama was a lawless, illegitimate president who threatened freedom? How often did they suggest Democrats, and liberalism generally, stood opposed to God and country? Republicans voted over 60 times to repeal the Affordable Care Act. They suggested repeatedly and shamelessly that “Obamacare” was another name for tyranny.

Obamacare was not tyranny. It was a blessing. But when actual tyranny occurred this weekend — when the president prioritized Christianity; when his administration implemented a religious test for entry; when border authorities duped legal residents into surrendering their green cards; when presidential power beggared due process, and separated children from mothers — these “constitutional conservatives” were deafening in their silence.

If Trump’s executive order raised questions about appropriate levels of vetting, there would be two sides to this story. There would be two views, arguing over the same facts, both legitimate, both representing constituencies. But this is not one of those issues.

The only way a religious test could have two sides is if one side stood for democracy and the other stood for something that is not democracy, something that does not value religious liberty. In other words, we have arrived at moment in which Republicans will defend the indefensible, and in doing so, they betray not only conservative principles but the Constitution they say they love.

Meanwhile, we the “coastal elites” are actually defending the God-given right to worship as you wish, actually fighting against the religious test of immigrants fleeing God-forsaken lands, actually protesting Trump’s unthinkable establishment of a religion.

We haven’t lost touch with fundamental American values.

Trump and the Republicans have.

John Stoehr is a lecturer in political science at Yale and a New Haven resident. 

IMAGE: U.S. Senator Chuck Schumer talks to journalists after attending the Senate Democrat party leadership elections at the U.S. Capitol, November 16.

Killing Obamacare Would Kill Jobs

Killing Obamacare Would Kill Jobs

The Republicans are masters of communication. When it comes to the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, they have marched in lockstep and spoken with a clear loud voice:

“Obamacare is a job killer!”

Over and over, we heard it. During Mitt Romney’s run for the White House. During the eleventy-million times the US House passed repeal. During the 2016 Republican primary.

Last January, Texas Senator Ted Cruz said: “We have seen now in six years of Obamacare that it has been a disaster. It is the biggest job-killer in this country.” President-elect Donald Trump ran with it. His victory came partly from a vow to kill off that terrible, horrible, no good, very bad, job-killing Obamacare.

They were wrong.

Anecdotal evidence suggests a small percentage of small businesses closed up shop, stopped hiring, or laid off workers rather than provide health insurance for employees. But the law did not cause widespread job loss. Since the Great Recession ended, we have seen 70-plus months of steady job gains, most full-time.

So Obamacare is not a job killer.

But killing Obamacare would kill jobs.

If Trump and Congressional Republicans were to repeal without replacing Obamacare, millions of full-time jobs would vanish. Lawmakers would trigger a painful contraction of economic output. And they would send federal expenditures through the roof.

According to the nonpartisan Commonwealth Fund, repeal without replacement would cost 2.6 million jobs nationally, $1.5 trillion in Gross State Product and $2.6 trillion in business output. States would lose tax revenues upwards of $48 billion.

In Connecticut, 36,000 jobs could vanish, most in health care but many in other sectors of the economy. Gross State Product could contract by more than $23 billion (GSP was $253 billion in 2015). The state could lose $747 million in tax revenue.

California, with the country’s largest economy, would be hit hardest. Some 334,000 jobs would be lost. Gross State Product would shrink there by more than $208 billion (GSP was $2.48 trillion in 2015). The state could lose $6.8 billion tax revenue.

That’s nothing compared to the human toll. Some 20 million people are now insured under Obamacare (300,000 more this year than last). Ironically, most are from red states. The nonpartisan Kaiser Family Foundation found a greater number (6.3 million) benefiting from the health care law living in Republican congressional districts, with the highest concentration in Florida, North Carolina, Georgia and Utah.

Deepening the pain is that repeal would be an annual $7 million tax cut, on average, for America’s top 400 households. In other words, repeal would comfort the healthy and comfortable.

Killing Obamacare would also lead to new federal spending. The law curbs the ballooning cost of Medicare. If you reverse the law, you reverse spending cuts to Medicare. If you reverse spending cuts to Medicare (the federal government’s largest expenditure next to Social Security), spending will soar.

This, in addition to concern for the health and well being on constituents, is why even Tea Party budget-hawks in the House are getting nervous about repeal. After years of longing to slay this shibboleth of the Nanny State, the Republicans could end up triggering a recession while deepening the dread deficit.

But honestly. Republicans already knew that Obamacare was not a job killer. It was not “government-run” health insurance. There never were “death panels.” It was all a big play to win.

We know this because Republicans sometimes tell the truth by accident (a “gaffe” if you will). In 2012, Mitt Romney was asked why he wasn’t giving hardliners the cuts they wanted.

He said: “If you take a trillion dollars out of the first year of the federal budget, that would shrink GDP over 5 percent. That is by definition throwing us into recession or depression.”

I don’t know how Trump and the GOP are going to square this. Maybe they need to come clear. We lied to you, dear voter. Obamacare and the Affordable Care Act are the same thing. If we do what you ask of us, we’d hurt you — and ourselves.

I’m not holding my breath.

John Stoehr is a lecturer in political science at Yale and a New Haven resident. He can be reached at johnastoehr@gmail.com.

Why Political Journalists Can’t Take Criticism

Why Political Journalists Can’t Take Criticism

Published with permission from Washington Monthly.

I get why Washington journalists respond to criticism in partisan fashion. When readers complained last week about a botched AP report, they were mostly supporters of Hillary Clinton. Naturally you’re upset, the reporter thinks. You don’t like news that reflects poorly on your preferred candidate.

By now, we know that report was wrong.

It claimed that half of private individuals who met with Hillary Clinton while she was secretary of state were also donors to the Clinton Foundation. But Clinton met with hundreds of people, public and private. Worse, the AP reporters used as their villain in a story of corruption a Nobel Prize-winning economist who’d known Clinton for more than 30 years.

This is old news, but the Washington media continues to disappoint. On NPR this morning, “Morning Edition” host Steve Inskeep asked Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake if he shares Clinton’s view on immigration. According to Trump, Inskeep said, his opponent favors “open borders” and “amnesty.”

This is an example of a statement that’s technically accurate, but entirely misleading. And dangerous. Yes, Trump has said, time and again, that Clinton wants “open borders” and “amnesty.” It’s also true that this claim exists only the realm of fantasy. Indeed, in an interview — just yesterday — NPR’s Mara Liasson told Inskeep those claims were false.

Journalists, I believe, are beholden to the truth. If they are unwilling to pay deference to the authority of the truth, even when that deference conflicts with the profession’s other guiding principles, there isn’t much point in being a journalist.

Again, I understand why reporters respond to criticisms in partisan fashion. It’s natural. Indeed, I was sympathetic to Business Insider’s Josh Barro when he quipped on Twitter that Clinton supporters are among the whiniest supporters.

But in this case, vocal complaints by Clinton supporters are not empty. They are based on something. They are based on demonstrable instances of journalistic malfeasance.

Journalists of Steve Inskeep’s high caliber say they privilege getting the facts right, as they should. But holding them accountable to those standards can be nearly impossible.

I got in touch with Inskeep on Twitter this morning to make him aware of his mistake. (I do not subscribe to the childish claim, as Glenn Greenwald does, that the American media is in the tank for one or the other candidate). It was an honest mistake. So I asked: Will you be offering a clarification?

I didn’t expect Inskeep to reply. When he did, it was not a good faith exchange between journalists about the concrete facts of the matter. He offered instead a series of bewildering deflections, obfuscations, and, to be frank, playing dumb.

Here is some what he said:

“The recording shows me noting that Trump claims his ‘opponents’ favor ‘open borders.’ I then ask Flake, a reformer, if he does.”

(Yes, we know this.)

“Nowhere was a false charge simply repeated unchecked.”

(Actually, that’s precisely what you did. You said as much.)

“Doesn’t asking a question allow someone to state their true position? Should we never ask?”

(Flake’s position is beside the point. The question was based on an NPR-reported falsehood. How about a clarification?)

This is Hannity’s technique interviewing Trump, whom he backs. But as a journalist I prefer to let Flake give evidence.

(I didn’t know what to say. The presumption here would seem to be that a politician is responsible for the truth.)

I know how it feels. I hate — just purely blindly hate — being called out for a mistake. Mistakes chip away at a journalist’s credibility. Credibility is a journalist’s lifeblood. Ideally, it would be better for the journalist never to be aware of it.

But that’s not the world we live in. Indeed, we live in a world in which a candidate for the presidency of the United States can give a policy speech on immigration based on the fever dreams of nativist-white nationalists, and the entire media apparatus does not report that it is unadulterated racism.

We need a better media.

We’ll see if that begins with a minor clarification.

John Stoehr is a lecturer in political science at Yale, a journalism fellow at Wesleyan, and US News & World Report contributing writer.

Photo: Hillary Clinton speaks during a campaign event with Vice-President Joe Biden in Scranton, Pennsylvania. REUTERS/Charles Mostoller

Trump Can’t Meet His Own Standards

Trump Can’t Meet His Own Standards

Published with permission from the Washington Monthly

Critics were right Wednesday in blasting CNN commentators for describing Republican Donald Trump as presidential. He had given remarks beside Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto. As the Washington Posts’s Greg Sargent predicted, he didn’t vomit. He didn’t urinate. So … he’s presidential!

In fairness, this is a judgment based on Trump’s own standards. Those standards, of course, are very, very low. When he rose above them, voila! Even Bill Kristol, he of never-ever #NeverTrump, thought he looked pretty good.

The problem in my view is when commentators make judgments independent of Trump’s standards. For instance, that it was OK for him not to tell Peña Nieto his country would pay for a wall along the US-Mexican border.

I’ll get to the facts in a moment. Meanwhile, this is not Trump’s standard. His standard has always been that Mexico will pay. He has said that to media. He has said that to allies. He whips up crowds with a feverish call and response.

So when he said that they had not discussed who would pay for the wall, that should have raised a fat red flag. On the one hand, you could say he looked presidential. On the other, you could say he had his chance but choked.

I know that’s sounds uncharitable. Indeed, if this were any other candidate, I would say no way no how should a candidate visit a foreign country to make extraordinary demands of its leader. But that is precisely Trump’s way.

He savaged Republicans for exhibiting weakness. He knee-capped “low energy” Jeb Bush. He humiliated “Little” Marco Rubio. He memorably blamed Mitt Romney for losing to Obama in 2012. He said Romney choked under pressure.

These are Trump’s own standards: One, making Mexico pay for the wall. Two, making Mexico pay because only he has the strength to make Mexico pay. Everyone else is weak.

That facade fell to pieces Wednesday, or should have. Trump said during questions that he and Peña Nieto had not discussed payment. That was a choke, and bad enough. But it turns out they had discussed payment. Peña Nieto flatly told him that Mexico would not do any such thing.

So: Not only did he choke, he lied about it. Not only did he lie about it, he lied about getting played — by a man shorter than he, a man classier than he, a man who rises above petty demonstrations of machismo. Trump looked plain weak.

Remember, these are not my standards. These are Trump’s. More importantly, these are standards his supporters demand, and they may (fingers crossed) prove to be his undoing.

Later that same day, Trump held a rally in Arizona during which he presented his clearest vision of immigration policy. He restated that Mexico will pay for a wall.

“They don’t know it yet, but they will,” he said.

That statement should have deepened the impression that Trump is all talk. It should have given the impression that, like every bully, he becomes unglued in the face of strong opposition but returns to form when surrounded by people whose greatest wish is for him to demonstrate dominance.

The next day, Peña Nieto again took to Twitter to reiterate: Mexico will not pay. Let’s hope this lasts till November.

The Democrats are now trying to turn his greatest strength — the illusion of strength — into his greatest weakness. If he is made to look small at the presidential debates, he’s done. That can only be done if he’s held to this own standards.

John Stoehr is a lecturer in political science at Yale, a journalism fellow at Wesleyan, and US News & World Report contributing writer.

How The Clinton Foundation Became A ‘Scandal’

How The Clinton Foundation Became A ‘Scandal’

Twenty years ago, James Fallows wrote an essay for The Atlantic called “Why Americans Hate the Media.” Fallows’ thesis was illustrated today by the political media’s coverage of the release of emails associated with Hillary Clinton while secretary of state.

His thesis was this: Instead of reporting the policy positions of candidates, and assessing their merits, the political press tends to abdicate its responsibilities in favor of reporting “politics.”

Put another way, instead of telling Americans the truth of the matter, anchored in observable reality and concrete fact, the political press tends to chase after “appearances,” “atmospherics,” and “optics.”

The outcome of this is the politicization of everything.

Let me explain.

The Washington Post yesterday reported that on three occasions Clinton’s top aide Huma Abedin was contacted by donors to the Clinton Foundation asking for favors. The outcome of one was a meeting. The outcome of the others was nothing. That’s it.

More specifically, Doug Band, a chief executive at the Clinton Foundation, emailed Abedin about meeting with a Crown Prince of Bahrain. According to the Wall Street Journal, Abedin chided Band for not going through “proper channels.” After doing that, the prince got a meeting with Clinton. Nothing was reported of its substance.

Band contacted Abedin on behalf of U2’s Bono and sports executive Casey Wasserman, both foundation donors. Could Clinton help Bono promote an overseas charity event? “No clue,” Abedin said. Could Clinton help fast-track a visa for a British soccer player? Abedin said she had reservations. Band said never mind. No visa resulted.

That’s the story. In other words, there is no evidence from these emails to support claims by Judicial Watch, a right-wing group, or Donald Trump that the Clinton Foundation was rife with pay-for-play.

Yet our media isn’t saying this.

Instead, it is playing up Clinton’s “struggle” to figure out a way to “handle” the controversy and its challenging “optics.” Never mind that quid pro quo means something for something. In this case, the emails show the opposite–favors requested, favors denied.

Now, some are asking whether executives at the Clinton Foundation should be making these requests at all, and I think we can all say that no, they should not. If I can’t get an audience with the nation’s top diplomat, why should Bono just because he gave a lot of money?

But that’s how power works. We know this. We also know that very rich people often believe they are entitled to access to power by dint of being very rich. Like it or not, that’s the norm. In other words, rich people will ask for favors just as the sun rises in the east, sets in the west. The question is how do you deal with that ethically.

It turns out, pretty well. Thanks to a lawsuit brought by Judicial Watch to unseal these emails in an attempt to damage Clinton’s campaign, we know that Huma Abedin did a good job. As political blogger Kevin Drum over at Mother Jones noted:

“What’s really noteworthy about the most recent email releases is that they demonstrate a surprisingly high level of integrity from Hillary Clinton’s shop at Foggy Bottom. Huma Abedin was tasked with running interference on favor seekers, and she seems to have done exactly that.”

I don’t expect reporters to make such judgments, but I do expect them to do their jobs, which brings me back to Fallows’ classic essay. Americans expect the media to do something no one else can do: report what politicians say, but also assess and report the truth.

In the case of this so-called “scandal,” assess whether there is any merit to Trump’s assertion that the emails prove Clinton is for sale. If that’s true, the emails should show us. But they don’t. Indeed, they show the opposite, a team that’s surprisingly ethically aware.

But reporters covering the campaign are not saying that.

It gets worse.

When reporters abdicate their duties, they created an environment in which everything has the potential to be political, even the truth.

When reporters didn’t report, for instance, that Judicial Watch is indeed a right-wing group, it was left to Clinton’s campaign spokesman to say it. As soon as he did, he legitimized Judicial Watch’s toxic effort, because his remarks were seen as partisan.

When reporters didn’t conclude there was no basis to Republican claims that Clinton’s State Department was accessible to the highest bidder, it was left to a State Department spokesman to say it. As soon as Mark Toner uttered the words, he validated the accusation.

This story was a no brainer. All reporters had to say was say: Trump said blah blah blah, but it doesn’t look like there’s anything to it.

But they didn’t.

No wonder, as Fallows said, Americans hate the media.

Photo: Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton tapes an appearance on the Jimmy Kimmel Show in Los Angeles, California, August 22, 2016.  REUTERS/Aaron P. Bernstein

There’s No Such Thing As Not Voting

There’s No Such Thing As Not Voting

Published with permission from The Washington Monthly

Now that Donald Trump is the apparent nominee for the Republican Party and Hillary Clinton has a nearly insurmountable lead over Bernie Sanders for the Democratic Party’s nomination, we can expect to see in the near term an explosion of commentary by pearl-clutching pundits lamenting the moral impossibility of choosing between the lesser of two evils.

In March, John R. MacArthur, publisher of Harper’s, wrote in the UK’s Spectatorthat the rational voter would choose none of the above: “Of course I won’t vote for Donald Trump,” he said. “He’s a wolf in wolf’s clothing. But all around me I hear liberal sheep rustling in the fields, preparing to rationalise their vote for Hillary. I’d rather spoil my ballot by writing in ‘Jeremy Corbyn’ — and take my chances with the wolf.”

On Thursday, Rachael Larimore, a Republican and Slate senior editor wrote that Trump is loathsome, just awful, but she’s not voting for Clinton either. Trump is a “jerk” and “hypocrite” who foments racism. Clinton is “shameless,” “underhanded,” an ambitious elitist—and let’s not mention that “her primary fashion influences seem to be Communist dictators.”

Oh, FFS.

These people appear to take themselves very seriously. They appear upright and moral, distraught for their country. They also appear to think voting is like shopping, as if the object of purchase speaks volumes about who they are, how they are seen by others, and who they want to be.

Bosh. Voting is a political strategy. It’s civic participation. It’s about citizenship, not individualism. Participate or don’t, but don’t tell us sitting on the sidelines makes you a better person. Don’t tell us how serious you are, how rational, how moral, by your choosing “none of the above.”

Truth is, there’s no such thing as not voting.

Inaction is action, like it or not.

In 2000, novelist David Foster Wallace covered the Republican primary for Rolling Stone. He wrote that not voting is just what political parties want, because not voting means less interference from the governed. The parties are “keenly aware that it is in their interests to keep you disgusted and bored and cynical and to give you every possible psychological reason to stay at home doing one-hitters and watching MTV on primary day.

“You either vote by voting,” Wallace continued, “or vote by staying home and tacitly doubling the value of some diehard’s vote.”

Part of keeping you “disgusted and bored and cynical” is the idea that the candidates are the same, that there is no differences between Republicans and Democrats. This idea comes from the media’s habit of being fair and balanced in its coverage. It comes from Americans’ innate distrust of politicians. It also comes from politicians gaming the electorate.

Blaming major parties for the country’s ills was for a long time the stock-in-trade of third-party candidates, like H. Ross Perot, Pat Buchanan and Ralph Nader. Increasingly, the same rhetoric originates from party insiders, most prominently this year from Donald Trump, Ted Cruz and Bernie Sanders. Virtually every talking point makes “Washington” the boogieman of American politics, as if every popularly elected official were the same.

Such rhetoric can be powerful. David Axelrod, President Obama’s former adviser,recalled in Believer, his memoir, that Obama’s message took “aim at excessive partisanship and special-interest power that all Americans, except those in Washington, recognized as obstacles to progress.”

It may work again. Republican Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska is laying the groundwork for a 2020 run by being the most vocal opponent of Donald Trump. On Facebook Wednesday, Sasse railed against “partisanship and special-interest power” by writing an open letter to “Majority America.”

Sasse wrote: “Washington isn’t fooling anyone—neither political party works. They bicker like children about tiny things, and yet they can’t even identify the biggest issues we face. They’re like a couple arguing about what color to paint the living room, and meanwhile, their house is on fire.”

Of course, reality is more complex. The parties are empirically different.

If you want lower taxes on the rich, or higher, there’s a party for you. If you want less government spending, or more, there’s a party for you. Pick an issue, any issue: abortion, gun control, financial regulations, military affairs, national security, family law. You name it, there are distinct and sometimes irreconcilable differences within and between the parties.

Parties moreover are crucial to organizing the business of government. If it were possible for someone outside the parties to be elected president, that person would face grave difficulties, because it takes a party to run the country. That voters choose individuals for president is almost beside the point, because presidents represent the values and policies of their party.

I wouldn’t normally make too much of pundits. But the idea of choosing none of the above is despairingly widespread. The political media is already making a lot of the fact that Trump and Clinton have the lowest favorability ratings of any two candidates running for president in the modern history (though Trump consistently polls much lower than Clinton). Such reporting distorts reality. Their ratings are low because the parties haven’t yet consolidated around the candidates. Once they do, their favorability is likely go up (at differing rates of increase).

But blaming the media is beside the point. Many of our problems could be solved if every person who can vote did vote. Liberals and conservatives complain about big money in politics. They complain about an oligarchy running the country with little to no effort to seek the consent of the governed. But they also complain when they don’t get candidates that meet their standards. America deserves a better set of options, they say.

Well, as William Munny once said, “deserves” got nothing to do with it.


John Stoehr is a lecturer in political science at Yale and the 2016 Koeppel Journalism Fellow at Wesleyan.

Photo: Republican U.S. presidential candidate and businessman Donald Trump speaks to supporters following the results of the Indiana state primary at Trump Tower in Manhattan, New York

What We Get Wrong About Presidential Power

What We Get Wrong About Presidential Power

Published with permission from The Washington Monthly.

It’s not every day news events follow the contours of a new book’s prevailing conceit. That’s what’s happening with Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders’ insurgent campaign for the presidential nomination of the Democratic Party. His populist message is that the party of the people has failed the people, and that one of those most emblematic of that failure is his rival, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Qualifications for the presidency, Sanders has further suggested, don’t come from being born into a ruling family, or, in Clinton’s case, from being married to a former democratically elected ruler. Qualifications come from believing in the right ideology. On April 6, he said:

“I don’t believe that [Clinton] is qualified if she is through her super PAC taking tens of millions of dollars in special-interest funds. I don’t think that you are qualified if you get $15 million from Wall Street … I don’t think you’re qualified if you supported almost every disastrous trade agreement.”

Those are the broad outlines of Thomas Frank’s new polemical, Listen, Liberal: Or What Ever Happened to the Party of the People. In it, the author of What’s the Matter with Kansas? mounts a scathing indictment of the Clintons and their Democratic Party. He writes:

“This book has been a catalogue of the many ways the Democratic Party has failed to tackle income inequality, even though that is the leading social issue of the times, and its many failures to get tough on the financial industry, even though Wall Street was the leading culprit in the global downturn and the slump-that-never-ends. The larger message is that this is what it looks like when a lefty party loses its interest in working people, the traditional number one constituency for left parties the world over.”

Like Sanders, Frank believes the crisis was wasted. The Democrats did not break up the big banks; re-implement the 1933 Glass-Steagall Act, which walled off commercial accounts from banks’ investments; or nationalize banks to create public utilities. They did not, as less moderate president like FDR or LBJ would have, save us from the tyranny of economic royalists.

While the people demanded justice, the Democrats offered a technocratic band-aid. Worse, the populists said, the many provisions of the 2010 Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform Act wouldn’t be felt for years.

So the Tea Party insurrection of 2010 wasn’t seen as a political setback for the Democrats so much as a failure of conviction—and that failure, Frank writes, continues to haunt the American people to this day.

“Even if the Democrats do succeed in winning the presidency in 2016 and the same old team gets to continue on into the future, it won’t save us,” Frank writes. “While there are many great Democrats and many exceptions to the trends I have described in this book, by and large the story has been a disappointing one.”

Ever since the parties realigned in 1960s-1970s, left-wing populists have pined for the day when Democrats would return to their working-class roots. Thomas Frank, the founding editor of The Baffler, is one such populist. But such pining is a misreading of history fueled by nostalgia. The Democrats remain the party of the working class. Instead of mostly white men, though, the working class now comprises mostly minorities and women.

The Democratic coalition does include progressive elites, but that inclusion is not ipso facto a betrayal of class interest, as Frank would have it, so much as a reflection of faction. Factions form uneasy coalitions to fight common foes despite harboring grave doubts about each other. The party moreover didn’t abandon working class white men. Many if not most working class white men, hammered by stagflation and disillusioned by the Democrats’ full embrace of civil rights, abandoned the party.

For Frank, the real problem appears to be that progressive elites have any place at the table with the working class. That is enough, Frank says, to have “wrecked the Democratic Party as a populist alternative.”

Populists are ambivalent about power. Those who have it are not to be trusted. Those who have it must change the world. This especially applies to Democratic presidents. Lars-Erik Nelson, the late columnist for the New York Daily News, brilliantly called this “the illusion of presidential omnipotence.” For populists like Frank and Sanders, pretty much everything that’s wrong with the country can be pinned on the chief executive, because presidents is seen to have more power than they actually have.

Nelson did not suffer magical thinking. In reviewing Dead Center: Clinton-Gore Leadership and the Perils of Moderation, by FDR scholars James MacGregor Burns and Georgia S. Sorenson, for the New York Review of Books, in 1999, Nelson wrote that President Bill Clinton is seen as “guilty … not because he is a knave or a fool, but, just as bad, because he is a centrist who shunned the radical changes and bold solutions that a more energetic and partisan leader could have achieved.”

“[Burns and Sorenson] complain that he has failed to solve urgent national problems, and they attribute this failure to his centrism, which they regard as an inherently flawed ideology, because it is incapable of effecting great transformational change.”

That sounds familiar.

In Listen, Liberal, Frank describes President-elect Barack Obama, as the financial crisis is beginning to unfold, as a “living, breathing evidence that our sclerotic system could still function, that we could rise to the challenge, that could change course. It was the perfect opportunity for transformation.” Yet, Frank says, that transformation didn’t happen.

So Obama and the Democrats failed.

But what could they have been done differently? While he excels at calling the Democrats to account, Frank falls short in offering policy recommendations, even rough sketches of policy. There are none.

Populists don’t take such questions seriously, because such questions assume that knowledge, method, and procedure are more important than believing in the righteousness of the cause. Frank is no exception.

Indeed, one wonders what would happen if Frank were put in Sanders’ place when the candidate was interviewed by the editorial board of the New York Daily News. After reiterating moments in his stump speech when he calls for the break up of big banks, Sanders was pressed for more detail. What would such banks look like after you broke them up, the editors asked.

Sanders: “I’m not running JPMorgan Chase or Citibank. … It’s something I have not studied, honestly, the legal implications of that.”

Frank and Sanders are right in one very big way—inequities of wealth, income, and power threaten our lives, livelihoods, and republican democracy. All of us need big bold ideas and the political courage to see them realized. Being right in one very big way is the primary strength of populism. Progressives do the work, but populists are the voices of conscience, the moral scolds, the screaming Jeremiahs.

But they are wrong too.

The current president has done more with more resistance in the name of progress than any president since nobody knows. Along with flawed-but-good health care reform, financial regulation, and sustainable energy policy, Obama has achieved: gender-equity laws; minimum wage rules for government contractors; a labor relations board that serves labor; and a tax rule barring corporate “inversions.” And he formally ended two wars.

Populists and progressives need each other, like it or not. Together they have over nearly eight years forged a strong foundation on which the next Democratic president can built a brighter future.

Photo: Supporters of Democratic U.S. presidential candidate Bernie Sanders react to the primary election results in the states of Florida, Ohio and Illinois during a campaign rally in Phoenix, Arizona March 15, 2016. REUTERS/Nancy Wiechec

John Stoehr is a lecturer in political science at Yale and the 2016 Koeppel Journalism Fellow at Wesleyan.

Is Bernie Really The Anti-Politican?

Is Bernie Really The Anti-Politican?

This article was originally published in The Washington Monthly

Bernie Sanders has campaigned as the anti-politician. Much of his message is based on the conceit, even as he takes funding from those who work for fossil-fuel interests, even as he dodges questions about his tax returns.

There’s actually nothing wrong with those things per se. But Sanders acts as if Hillary Clinton is the only more-of-the-same politician, even though she released eight years of tax returns, even though she gets money, as Sanders does, from people who work for oil and gas companies, not from the companies themselves.

It’s time to set aside purity tests. They are unbecoming. Especially for Sanders.

Let’s consider his biggest weakness: guns.

When it comes to the priority of gun control to the base of the Democratic Party, Sanders is the outsider looking in. Sanders has in fact a mixed record, but that’s not enough. So the former secretary of state has made much of the fact that he voted against her husband’s proposal in the early 1990s to stiffen background checks in gun sales. Sanders opposed the Brady bill no fewer than fives times.

Sanders has explained his position, and others like it, in terms of constituency.
He has for decades represented Vermont, a state with a strong gun culture of hunters, hobbyists, and firearms manufactures. It has few laws regulating guns. His voting record is the result, he says, of listening to the will of the people.

“Bernie’s response is that he doesn’t just represent liberals and progressives,” said his former chief of staff, Anthony Pollina, in a 1991 interview with a Burlington newspaper, explaining Sanders’ views. “He was sent to Washington to present all of Vermont. It’s not inappropriate for a congressman to support a majority position, particularly on something Vermonters have been very clear about.”

That sounds like Sanders. What the people want, the people get.

But the rationale can’t justify every pro-gun vote, particularly a major piece of legislation that gave legal immunity to gun sellers and firearms manufacturers. If a gun is used to commit crimes, the seller or maker can’t he held liable, according to a provision of the 2005 Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act.

This is the same provision being tested in federal court by the families of the 20 schoolchildren massacred in 2012 in Newtown, Connecticut. The plaintiffs say that Remington’s Bushmaster AR-15 rifle, used by Adam Lanza to blast into Sandy Hook Elementary School, was designed and marketed for one purpose: to kill.

Sanders has defended his vote, saying that it doesn’t make sense to hold manufacturers liable for the criminal behavior of legal consumers. That’s fine, but his vote had the real consequence of protecting gun sellers and firearms manufacturers. It wasn’t for “the people.” It was for Vermont’s business elite.

Now that Sanders is running for the presidency, he has been under increasing pressure, especially from the Clinton campaign, to recant. In Iowa in January, he told an audience: “I think we should take another look at that legislation and get rid of those provisions which allow gun manufacturers to act irresponsibly.”

Clinton pounced, calling this flip-flopping, and the Politifact concurred.

To be sure, there’s nothing wrong, per se, with a Senator serving powerful business interests in his home state. And there’s nothing wrong with flip-flopping if circumstances demand it—if, say, your constituency goes from a rural state populated by white hunters to a racially diverse and urbanized America. A purist could accuse him of pandering, but really, Sanders didn’t have a choice.

But there is something wrong with the claim that Sanders is more authentic than his opponent, that he is the anti-politician while Clinton is the embodiment of everything that’s wrong with the two-party system, and that he’s the solution.

That’s nonsense. Sanders is a political animal.

Let’s stopping fooling ourselves.


John Stoehr is a lecturer in political science at Yale and the 2016 Koeppel Journalism Fellow at Wesleyan.

Photo: Democratic U.S. presidential candidate Bernie Sanders speaks during a rally at Key Arena in Seattle, Washington March 20, 2016. REUTERS/David Ryder 

The Coin-Toss Victory — And Other Hillary Clinton Myths

The Coin-Toss Victory — And Other Hillary Clinton Myths

Hillary Clinton did not win the Iowa caucuses with a coin toss. She didn’t “win” at all. Not really. Delegates in Iowa are allotted proportionally. She won half. Bernie Sanders won half.

Yes, some of those delegates were decided by an obscure rule requiring the toss of a coin, and Clinton’s winning of the coin toss was something of a mathematical improbability. But she did not “win” and Sanders did not “lose” in Iowa, because “winning” and “losing” are meaningless terms in a situation in which the candidates split the delegate count right down the middle.

“Winning” and “losing” are meaningful terms in two ways. One, if Clinton won a runaway majority of delegates. For instance, if she won 70 percent and Sanders won 30. Two, if delegates are allotted according to the winner-takes-all rule. In that case, the candidate winning more than 49.5 percent wins all the delegates.

Only in the latter situation would it matter that Hillary Clinton mathematically improbably won a handful of Iowa delegates with a coin toss. But that is not the situation, and so all the controversy over the Iowa coin toss amounts to a lot of noise.

That doesn’t explain the cause of the noise, however. One cause is naturally our national media, which tends to treat every state contest as if it were winner-takes-all. I’m guessing that tendency comes mostly from the professional need for a kind of shorthand. “Win” and “lose” aren’t the only misused electoral terms. Even The New York Times this week conflated “primaries” and “caucuses.”

Another cause of noise is ignorance. Many Americans unfortunately don’t know how their federalist system works. This is amplified by international news outlets covering the campaigns.

Nominating elections are won and lost state by state. Some have primaries. Some have caucuses. Some primaries are closed, for party members only. Some are open. Democrats can vote for Republicans, and vice versa. Some states choose not to legally bind their delegates to candidates. They can change candidates at the convention. Both parties have what are called “super-delegates,” who can pledge themselves to whomever they wish regardless of winners. Such party officials serve as a bulwark against an “excess of democracy.”

Even as candidates fight from state to state, the real objective in their minds is the total number of delegates needed to secure the nomination. Achieving that number means ginning up enthusiasm, especially among base voters in early states like Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada, because the more energy generated, the more likely they are to win the Big One.

But part of me suspects the social-media hysteria over Clinton’s “coin toss victory” stems from the deep distrust of Hillary Clinton and her husband among left-liberals on the margins of the Democratic Party. They already believe the Clintons are crooks. A coin toss deciding who gets some Iowa delegates only confirms that perception. A barrage of media reports saying that Clinton beat Sanders by a hair only arouses a sense of rage that’s always already there.

I have been unconvinced that Clinton’s fiercest critics are motivated by sexism, but it’s hard to keep dismissing the claim. And I’m not just talking about what clothes she wears, her awkwardness on camera, or her clearly staged spontaneity.

Clinton, like the rest of the Democratic Party, has progressed enormously over the course of eight years under the leadership of Barack Obama. But Clinton’s detractors believe she’s stuck in the 1990s, a decade whose politics are unrecognizable in today’s Democratic Party. The Democrats are more progressive, more diverse, and more unified on issues than they have been in decades.

Yes, politicians can and do pander. They say things today. They’ll say the opposite tomorrow. But in Clinton’s case, that’s not flip-flopping. It’s the inevitable result of having a long public career. As Harry Enten noted last year at FiveThirtyEight, Clinton was liberal by the standards of the 1990s and she remains liberal. I’d go farther to suggest that thanks to the president and now Bernie Sanders, we have a Hillary Clinton who is more liberal than ever.

That probably will not appease her critics. Once a minion of Wall Street, always a minion of Wall Street, even as the Dodd-Frank financial reform law she supported is shrinking too-big-to-fail banks. The law’s capital-reserve requirements are preventing those big banks from being as profitable as they were. They are breaking themselves up. As president, Clinton could sit on her hands while the reform law continued to make for a more stable economy.

But there’s something about Clinton that her critics evidently know to be true, something that defies fact and history, something that’s universal and timeless and immune to concrete circumstance — and it’s that implacable belief that I find most troubling.

Photo: Bernie Sanders (left) greets Hillary Clinton after the Democratic presidential debate at Drake University. Mandatory Credit: Rodney White/The Des Moines Register via USA TODAY Sports

John Stoehr is the Koeppel Journalism Fellow at Wesleyan University and a lecturer in political science at Yale.

When Police Brutality Goes Viral

When Police Brutality Goes Viral

One might find little reason to hope after seeing a video of a white police officer in suburban Dallas terrorizing a bunch of African-American high-schoolers at a pool party. It was the latest in a string of videos to reveal the gross misconduct and institutionalized bigotry among police officers that African-Americans routinely face. In light of yet more evidence, how could anyone hope for a future in which racism stopped being so destructive?

But there is reason, abundant reason, to hope.

Not too long ago, an episode in which a white cop manhandled an African-American girl and drew his sidearm on African-American boys would have boiled down to points of view: what the kids said happened and what the cops said happened. In past courts of law, as well as past courts of public opinion, deference was almost always paid to police officers, who, as we are reminded, lay their lives on the line every day in the name of duty.

That’s no longer the case.

The ubiquity of digital video cameras has worn down—in mere months—the monopoly on information, and high levels of public trust, that police departments have historically enjoyed. In years past, no one would have doubted that Michael Slager, a police officer in North Charleston, South Carolina, was forced to kill a black man in self-defense. But thanks to video evidence, we know Slager shot Walter Scott in the back in cold blood. He was indicted by a grand jury on a murder charge on Monday.

Over the weekend, social media networks erupted in outrage after video emerged of a police officer in McKinney, Texas, slamming to the ground a black teenager calling out for her mama, and pointing his pistol at black teenage boys fleeing in terror. On Monday, McKinney’s police chief denounced Cpl. Eric Casebolt’s behavior as “indefensible” and launched an investigation. On Tuesday, Casebolt resigned in disgrace. Depending on the results of the investigation, he may face criminal charges.

There’s more good news.

Casebolt was responding to a report of a fight breaking out at the pool. The fight is alleged to have been started by two adult residents of the McKinney subdivision, a white man who is reported to have told the African-American students to go back to the ghetto, and a white woman who was video recorded punching one of the teenage girls in the head.

BuzzFeedreported that the man, Sean Toon, had slandered the students before later claiming that he feared the worst (he won media attention for holding up a sign thanking “McKinney PD for keeping us safe”). The Guardian newspaper this week revealed Toon’s criminal history of assault with a deadly weapon and torturing barnyard animals for kicks.

The Dallas Morning News, meanwhile, reported that the woman accused of starting the confrontation, Tracey Carver-Allbritton, had been furloughed by Corelogic, a financial data firm that contracts with Bank of America, because it was embarrassed by her behavior. It told The Dallas Morning News that it “does not condone violence, discrimination or harassment and takes conduct that is inconsistent with our values and expectations very seriously. … We have placed [Carver-Allbritton] on administrative leave while further investigations take place.”

Video evidence has unveiled to white Americans what is blindingly familiar to nonwhite Americans. With each revelation comes new levels of distrust, even among white Americans, who historically have little reason to suspect being suspected; and with each viral video comes a new opportunity to forge multiracial alliances to effect political change.

And that change is coming.

Since Michael Brown’s death last summer, criminal charges have been brought against cops in South Carolina, in Baltimore and, most recently, in Cleveland, where a judge on Thursday found that probable cause existed to charge two city police officers with murder and negligent homicide, respectively, in the shooting death of 12-year-old Tamir Rice.

In less dramatic though no less important circumstances, a state’s attorney in Cook County, Illinois, brought perjury charges against four police officers who claimed reasonable suspicion in arresting a 23-year-old man on drug possession charge. Video evidence, however, contradicted their claims, infuriating a circuit court judge. “All officers lied on the stand today,” she said. “All their testimony was a lie.”

In responding to a disturbance, Cpl. Eric Casebolt made a decision. Confront the white adults bringing violence to black high-schoolers swimming in the community pool or confront the black high-schoolers. Casebolt, like many cops before, took the path of least resistance.

For someone in a position of power, someone accustomed to having a monopoly on information, someone whose public statements are rarely questioned, it’s plainly easier to push around a bunch of black kids, whose word does not carry as much weight as his, whose accusations of police brutality would scarcely raise an eyebrow in the court or the media.

Confronting black kids, even drawing a weapon on them, is much easier than confronting white adults about their rank and ugly racism. And in the past, there was nothing for a police officer to lose. Not so now.

Thanks to a video taken by a white boy shocked to witness such hostility toward his friends, there is much at stake. In this new age of ubiquitous video, cops should think twice before choosing the path of least resistance.

John Stoehr (@johnastoehr) is a lecturer in political science at Yale. Follow him on Twitter and Medium.

Here’s Why Republicans Never Have An Alternative To Obamacare

Here’s Why Republicans Never Have An Alternative To Obamacare

June may be the cruelest month.

The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to rule soon on a case involving tax rebates for the purchase of health insurance. The impact of this ruling cannot be overstated.

The Affordable Care Act allows states to create their own health insurance markets through which state residents can buy policies. Depending on income and other individual factors, residents may be eligible for tax rebates for the purchase of insurance. If a state declines to establish its own exchange, state residents may still buy government-subsidized insurance through the federal exchange (healthcare.gov).

Without these tax rebates, however, health insurance would become too expensive for many otherwise healthy policyholders, driving them out of the market. If those healthy policyholders left, prices would skyrocket for those who remained, especially the sick.

The more prices soar, the more people leave.

The more people leave, the more prices soar — and the more sick people are forced out.

About 9 million residents in more than 30 states may be affected by the court’s ruling. Many could die because they can’t afford insurance, as they did in the old system before President Barack Obama and congressional Democrats passed this law in 2010.

Among actuaries and policymakers, the above description is called a “death spiral” — the slow, and then precipitous, unraveling of a health insurance market after a keystone (federal tax rebates) has been removed. If the U.S. Supreme Court rules in favor of the plaintiff in King v. Burwell, all of the above could happen, and fast.

You’d think the GOP would be happy with the judicial branch doing what the legislative branch could not. No Republicans voted for the law. Mitt Romney campaigned on repealing it. House Republicans have voted to repeal it more than 60 times. Virginia congressman David Brat recently said the health care law, also called “Obamacare,” was crippling the U.S. economy, making it more like Communist North Korea’s.

But now that the Supreme Court is poised to strike down parts of the law, the Republican Party’s leadership appears to be in a state of paralysis. If the justices rule in favor of the government, conservatives will rage. If they rule in favor of the plaintiff, the GOP, having control of both chambers of Congress, will be responsible for doing something to save a health care system, and individual lives, spinning out of control.

There is little evidence the Republicans will do anything.

Indeed, on Monday, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy said in essence that the Court’s conservatives are on their own. “Don’t expect us to predetermine the Supreme Court,” he said. “We have to first see what their decision is and what we have to solve.”

Why no action? Party leaders probably want to avoid appearing culpable. In doing nothing, the party can plausibly blame the Court for what will be an actuarial disaster. 

Rank-and-file Republicans, however, disagree.

They believe that doing something, anything, will reassure the high court’s conservatives that it’s OK to invalidate key provisions of the health care law without fear of jeopardizing the lives and security of an estimated 9 million Americans. Florida congressman Tom Rooney told the Wall Street Journal that “if we look like we are caught flat-footed, we may be putting into the justices’ brains that the opposition is not ready.”

But the opposition isn’t ready. It never was.

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In a new report, the American Academy of Actuaries found that nothing the GOP has proposed will stop “the massive disruption of the health care marketplace that would result from a ruling against the Obama administration,” according to The Hill newspaper.

The Republicans have proposed eliminating the “individual mandate,” but if healthy individuals are not required to buy insurance, only the sick will be left in the risk pool. That, the report found, would “threaten the viability” of the entire market.

The Republicans have also proposed extending tax rebates temporarily, but that, the report found, would only “delay the market disruption.”

Moreover, a ruling against the Obama administration would be detrimental to the insurance industry itself. Companies cannot adjust rates mid-year, the report said, so a sudden change in the law may trigger huge losses. “That’s really the biggest worry for most us working in the field,” Cathy Murphy-Barro, the author of the report, toldThe Hill.

Thing is, it’s unlikely the Republicans will ever be ready.

There is no conservative alternative to a conservative law.

The framework for the Affordable Care Act was devised decades ago by conservative policy analysts searching for a free-market alternative to government-run health care. The result of their search was something very much like the Affordable Care Act. In other words, the law we have now is what conservative Republicans wanted back then.

This is why Republican proposals for replacing the law sound like what’s already in the law. Indeed, the Republicans, including those who brought King v. Burwell, have been seeking the destruction of a conservative law built on conservative principles.

One would hope that reason would prevail among Supreme Court justices.

Don’t hold your breath.

During oral arguments in March, administration lawyers tried to explain the “death spiral,” but Justice Antonin Scalia was dismissive. He said, “If the consequences are as disastrous as you say, so many million people without—without insurance and whatnot, yes, I think this Congress would act.”

John Stoehr (@johnastoehr) is a lecturer in political science at Yale. Follow him on Twitter and Medium.

Photo: SEIU International via Flickr