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On Life

Ruminations and provocations.

Filtering by Tag: Bernie Sanders

Lindsey Graham abandoned his conscience — or maybe he never had one

Stephen H. Provost

Dear Senator Graham,

I’m going to put this to you directly: What does Mr. Trump have on you?

I’ve been watching politics a long time. It’s a game in which opportunists routinely “adjust” their positions to catch latest updraft in public opinion. The man you tried to convict and remove from office two decades ago was famous for it. Governing by polls, they called it.

But we’re not talking about your run-of-the-mill Clintonian flip-flop here. We’re talking about a 180-degree turnabout in your opinion of a man he called a “race-baiting xenophobic bigot” and a “kook not fit to be president” just four years ago. Today, you’re one of his most avid supporters. This isn’t a flip-flop; it’s as a transformation that would make any good chameleon green enough with envy to stand out in the greenest rainforest.

A Washington Post story claimed you’d provided some answers to this question: You wanted to “be relevant” and declared, “If you don’t want to get re-elected, you’re in the wrong business.”

I’d say the more appropriate answer is, “If you don’t want to serve the people and the nation’s highest good, you’re in the wrong business.” And that’s what you’ve always said you were doing. You positioned yourself as a person of conscience and, whether or not people agreed with your conclusions, you crafted something of a reputation for following that conscience.

Until now.

Conscience, what conscience?

So, I’m sorry, but I don’t buy your explanation that this is simply a case of political pandering in an attempt to be re-elected. That kind of explanation that would work in explaining your typical, everyday political about-face, but this is something else. Plenty of other legislators fell in lockstep behind the “race-baiting xenophobic bigot,” but they were not the kind of people who boasted of working across the aisle and speaking with an independent voice. You were.

Take your colleague from Texas, Senator Cruz, for an example. He did an about-face on Trump, too – even after Trump threatened to “spill the beans” on his wife (whatever that meant) and smeared his father without justification. But let me point out two important distinctions: First, Mr. Cruz never had the reputation for integrity you cultivated and, second, his support of Trump hasn’t been nearly as public and vocal as yours has been.

I know you’re not a big fan of Senator Cruz: You once likened a choice between him and Mr. Trump in these terms: “It’s like being shot or poisoned.” So, in deference to that statement, I’ll choose a few other examples to illustrate my point: Your conversion regarding Mr. Trump isn’t politics as usual, it’s bizarre, even by Washington’s standards.

It’s tempting to say that, now that Trump’s in office, that you were, in fact, poisoned. But I suspect this poison emanates from within. Here’s why:

Hypocrisy writ large

I invite you, Senator Graham, to think of your colleagues who have earned reputations as people of conscience. Imagine if Bernie Sanders repudiated democratic socialism and became a Republican. Or Rand Paul started speaking out in favor of foreign intervention and tax increases. Imagine if the late Senator John McCain had started decided to oppose all campaign finance reform. These are men who, it’s clear, have held to their beliefs regardless of which way the political winds were blowing, and you depicted yourself as one of their number. If any of them did what I’ve just described, they would be labeled the biggest hypocrites in Washington.

But now, I’m afraid you’ve got that title all to yourself.

What you said about Trump being a “race-baiting xenophobic bigot” could have just as easily been said about David Duke. You know, the former KKK grand wizard. It was unequivocal. If you were wrong about it, you owe Mr. Trump the most abject of public apologies. If you were right, you owe that same apology to the American people. But since Mr. Trump doesn’t believe in apologies, and you are now one of his unapologetic disciples, I don’t expect you’ll issue one – even to him.

I’m even less optimistic you’ll offer one to the American people, and at this point, it doesn’t really matter, because that reputation you built as a “man of conscience” is pretty much toast. If your mysterious about-face regarding Mr. Trump hadn’t incinerated it, your willingness to stand by while he threw your supposed friend, Senator McCain, under the bus most certainly would have. Friends don’t act like that; assholes do.

Two possibilities

So, I’ll ask you again: What does Mr. Trump have on you? Think carefully before you answer, because if you say, “nothing,” there’s only one real alternative: That you were never a person of conscience in the first place, and it was all just a brazen act from the beginning. That would make you the worst kind of political troll. Worse than Clinton or Cruz or even Trump himself, because Trump – while a shameless con man – never pretended to be a man of conscience. You did.

That leaves us with two possibilities: First, that you are a true man of conscience who’s been undone by something so dark and despicable that you forsook that conscience and hitched yourself to Trump’s amoral bandwagon. I’m not talking about your rumored-and-denied homosexuality; that’s no longer (thankfully) the political or social liability it once was, even among Republicans.

This would have to be a whole lot more damaging than that. It would have to be downright humiliating. I have no idea what this sword of Damocles might be, and perhaps it doesn’t even exist. But if it doesn’t, we’re left with only one other option: that you never a man of conscience in the first place. That you’re an even bigger huckster than the “Art of the Deal” guy himself, and that your entire, well-cultivated image was nothing but a fraud from the outset.

Those are your choices. Think hard and choose wisely.  I’ll be waiting for your answer – not that I ever expect to get it.

 

 

 

 

The economy, identity politics and the collapse of neoliberalism

Stephen H. Provost

Back in August of 2015, activists with the group Black Lives Matter disrupted two rallies in Seattle for Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders. The group succeeded in keeping Sanders from speaking about his agenda.

The surreal part of all this is that the agenda in question wasn’t some far-right attempt to marginalize African Americans. It was just the opposite: It included such proposals as free college education and a $15 minimum wage – proposals that, if implemented, would have helped poor and working class African Americans more than anything the other major candidates were suggesting.

As of 2010, the poverty rates for African Americans were 27.4 percent, the highest among any racial or ethnic group. Yet despite this, African Americans overwhelmingly preferred Hillary Clinton over Sanders in the Democratic primaries, 76 percent to 23 percent. Some of this might have been chalked up to name recognition, and Clinton certainly had a stronger ground game among black voters.

But on policy, it’s hard to argue that Sanders’ proposals wouldn’t have done more to lift African Americans out of poverty than Clinton’s.

Meanwhile, Sanders actually won a slightly greater proportion of the white vote than Clinton did, appealing to many of the same working-class white Americans whose votes Donald Trump used as the touchstone for his victory over Clinton in the general election.

Where neoliberalism went wrong

So, what happened? Why did poor and working class blacks vote so overwhelmingly for Clinton in the primary, while poor and working class whites turned out in droves for Trump in the general election.

The answer seems obvious, although it won’t be popular among some of my readers: People on both sides of the racial divide have emphasized that divide to such an extent that racial identity has become more important in defining political allegiances than actual policy - even if that policy might help both sides.

Who benefits? Anyone wishing to maintain the economic status quo … which isn’t really a status quo at all, because the wealth gap between rich and poor has continued to grow. And it’s done so with both a Republican (George W. Bush) and a Democrat (Barack Obama) in the White House.

Before anyone yells “false equivalency” – an increasingly common and often fallacious rejoinder that’s intended to shame people into shutting their mouths – I’m not equating Bush’s catastrophic economic policies with Obama’s efforts, which did succeed in bringing the unemployment rate down substantially and stimulating an economic recovery. Few people would (or should) argue that even a sluggish recovery is better than the worst economic downturn since the 1930s, but neither should anyone turn a blind eye to the increasing wage gap and unabated downturn in quality of life for poor and working class Americans of all races.

Yet that’s precisely what the party regulars on both sides did. Jobs continued to be shipped overseas. Mainstream politicians on both sides of the aisle all but ignored the economically fueled Occupy movement. Everything was business as usual.

Going on the defensive

This might not have been surprising from the right, which has long taken a pro-business, anti-labor stance. What is more surprising is that the left hung working class America out to dry. Tired of being branded “socialists,” they stopped defending unions and started to look more and more like proponents of what might be called trickle-down light.

Then, when Sanders drew a large following not just despite but because of his self-identified socialism, they ignored it. And when Trump took up a populist tone in the general election, they tried to ignore that, too. Neither candidate fit into their preconceived notions about how Americans should behave.

Those preconceived notions originated with their decision to abandon the struggle for equality in favor of a struggle for identity. In doing so, they put a premium on lip service to various racial, ethnic and other groups while putting economic concerns on the back burner – even though it was those very concerns that could have united poor and blue-collar blacks, whites, Latinos, LGBT individuals, women and anyone else struggling to make a living.

The result? Low-income black voters weren’t comfortable with Sanders because, even though his policies would have benefited them more than Clinton’s, he didn’t speak the language of identity that the Democratic Party has spoken for more than two decades now. Low-income whites, meanwhile, were turned off by Clinton’s rhetoric precisely because it did put a premium on identity, rather than addressing their concerns about how to put bread on the table.

Neoliberals aren’t entirely to blame for this. Bigotry plays a huge role. African Americans face troubling issues that most white voters don’t have to deal with: social prejudice; police profiling; unjustly harsh sentencing and disproportionately high incarceration rates. The list could go on. Where neoliberalism has failed is in reacting to bigotry defensively, through identity politics, rather than going on the offensive to improve the lives of those targeted by the bigots.

Clinton and the neoliberal Democrats have spoken to these issues – all the while ignoring the economic issues that facilitate prejudice as much as anything else by locking people on the lower rungs of the economic ladder. As mentioned earlier, African Americans constitute the highest percentage of those at the bottom.

As economic status solidifies, so does social prejudice. Just look at the rigid Hindu caste system if you want to know where this process ends up.

Identity vs. behavior

Putting identity over equality is, of course, an attractive message to people who have been discriminated against based on the color of their skin, their gender, their sexual orientation. But there’s a difference between standing up for a specific group of people and standing up against bigotry, no matter how it manifests itself.

This is a crucial distinction. The former course, pursued by neoliberals, focuses on defending identity, while the latter focuses on ending bigoted behavior that targets people because of their identity, regardless of how or against whom it manifests itself. Ultimately, it’s not anyone’s identity that is – or should be – the issue, it’s the behavior of the bigot.

So, while the neoliberals have been preoccupied with defending something that shouldn’t need to be defended, guess what? The bigotry that’s been condemned for decades has become normalized. It’s still hard for me to imagine that the American people were so willing to elect a candidate such as Trump, who expressed such unapologetically prejudiced views. But even when the Democrats pointed this out, they were viewed by many as doing so not because they were against bigotry, but because they were trying to enforce the identity politics of political correctness. They came across as playing politics, rather than trying to further the cause of struggling Americans.

Voters, not candidates

Trump and Sanders had one thing in common, as pundits have frequently pointed out: They’ve branded themselves as populists, champions of ordinary, struggling, roll-up-your-sleeves Americans. Sanders lost in the primary because he was competing in a party that long ago abandoned its working-class roots for the sake of embracing identity politics. Trump won the general election precisely by repudiating this gospel of identity and focusing on the economy.

He cast himself as St. George, eager to the dragon of politics as usual, and the millions of voters believed him.

Yes, Clinton won the popular vote, but I’ve had yet to hear anyone argue that she did so by presenting a hopeful message to working-class America. The message she did spread in that regard was largely borrowed – reluctantly and less enthusiastically, it seemed – from Sanders. More likely, Clinton won the popular vote not because of her economic proposals, but because of Trump’s glaring deficiencies in experience, character and common decency.

Without these issues to contend with, it’s a fair guess that any candidate without Trump’s monumental flaws who succeeded in addressing working class concerns would have won the election in a landslide. Party be damned.

Not all Trump voters are bigots. Most of them aren’t. But they’re so concerned with an economic situation they actually share with many Democrats that they overlooked the unprecedented divisiveness of Trump’s campaign to vote for him. By the same token, not all Democrats are tone-deaf to the idea that fighting for equality is more important than clinging to the divisiveness of identity politics. If they were, more than 43 percent of the party wouldn’t have voted for Sanders, who remained in the hunt for the nomination into the summer. (This despite being a virtual unknown who lacked national recognition at the outset of the campaign, not being taken seriously by the media for months and facing active opposition from the party apparatus.)

The sad thing about all this is that bigotry and identity politics have succeeded in dividing Americans with shared economic concerns by pitting both ends against the middle. I have no doubt that, had Sanders won the Democratic nomination, he would have won many of the same voters who supported Trump in the general election, not because he and Trump are anything alike, but because so many voters who backed both men shared the same concerns.

If the 2016 election taught us anything, it’s that the candidates themselves don’t matter nearly as much as the concerns of the voters. We ignore them at our own peril.

As a nation, we can recognize that inequality is an issue that concerns us all. Or we can continue to be pawns in a game of divide-and-conquer that sustains both bigotry of the far right and the identity politics of neoliberalism while accomplishing little to address the shared concerns of those who are struggling.

The choice is ours. I hope we make the right one.

Trump's secret weapon: The marginalized American worker

Stephen H. Provost

Hillary Clinton’s mistake was not taking to heart the phrase that defined her husband's success in 1992: “It’s the economy, stupid.” That was a long time ago, but it’s not as though she hadn’t been reminded of that reality since then – by her opponent in the primaries, Bernie Sanders.

She didn’t listen to the fears and frustrations that working-class Americans were expressing through Sanders, so voters in the general election made her listen. By voting for Donald Trump.

Much has been made about James Comey's email letter, about questions concerning Clinton’s honesty and trustworthiness, about the “baggage” she brought to the race. She was, without question, a deeply flawed candidate with very low approval ratings. But to blame any of these factors for her defeat would be to miss the real message sent by voters who elected Trump.

Don’t forget: Trump’s approval ratings were even lower, and a majority of voters considered him poorly qualified to be president. It wasn’t as though they were ignorant of this and wanted to vote for arrogant narcissist who bragged about groping women and insulted veterans, disabled people and religious and ethnic minorities. Some of them, no doubt, did, and yes, that’s scary. These are the same people who are defacing property with Nazi and anti-immigrant graffiti in the election’s aftermath.

But I’m willing to bet the vast majority of Trump voters didn’t support him because of these views, but in spite of them. Sure, some closet racists have been emboldened by his victory. But I simply won’t believe that half the people in this country are a bunch of bigots with a secret desire to perpetrate violence on anyone who’s different.

A marginalized working class

It isn’t as though the Republican Party machine wanted Trump. They wanted someone who would continue to ignore the working class and kowtow to corporate interests (their initial choice, you’ll recall, was Jeb Bush).  Whether Trump’s campaign rhetoric about improving the lives of the working class was sincere or merely lip-service to America’s blue-collar workers remains to be seen. The proof will be in the pudding. Like most critical thinkers, I’ll believe it when I see it.

But the point is, whether it was sincere or a bunch of B.S., it worked. The Democratic Party apparatus threw its working-class base under the bus by ignoring Sanders’ critiques in the primaries and skewing the nominating process against him, in favor of Clinton. Sanders did such a good job of highlighting their concerns – based on decades of consistently doing so – that by the time Clinton agreed to adopt some of his ideas as her platform, it came across as a halfhearted, politically motivated case of “me too.”

That’s where the trust issues hurt her most. A lot of people simply didn’t believe she was sincere about helping the working class and ignored her ideas to do so – many of them lifted from Sanders’ campaign – because they seemed like just another case of political expediency. Clinton’s (and the Democrats’) credibility on this issue was so low that vast numbers of voters preferred a man from the billionaire class who has exploited his own workers in the past and run a series of apparent con games, such as Trump University.

That’s how low Clinton’s credibility was, because again, it isn’t as though voters didn’t know these things about Trump. It isn’t as though they approved of them. It’s just that they mattered a lot less than the hope, even a faint one, that Trump might actually improve their situation. Clinton failed to inspire such hope and represented the status quo – in part because of her status as the “anointed” establishment candidate and in part because of her record.

Sanders’ endorsement of her held little weight, because it was perceived as “what was expected” politically and more an attempt to stop Trump than a full-throated advocacy for Clinton. The damage had already been done in the primaries and long before that.

Trump makes the sale

The worst thing the Democratic Party leadership did in its nominating process was to actively promote Clinton as its candidate before she got the nomination. Not only did this seem to dismiss Sanders’ concerns about the working class – which Trump later appropriated – it also lent credence to Trump’s later claims that the system was “rigged.” Never mind that a general election is far different (and infinitely harder to control) than a primary election. The impression was there, and Trump exploited it.

He saw an opportunity and seized it.

It’s true that some working-class people are redneck racists. But most of them are just hard-working folks who got tired of going unrepresented by a Republican Party that long ago sold out to corporate greed and a Democratic Party that first stopped listening, then had the temerity to shush their spokesman within the party, Sanders.

Had either party listened to working Americans, we wouldn’t have Trump. Both parties were, and probably still are, tone-deaf to the concerns of the working class. They’re caught up in elitism, ideologies and feeling entitled to the support of people they’ve abandoned. This is what the voters told them by repudiating every establishment candidate in this election cycle.

If you’ve read my earlier entries, you know my opinions of Donald Trump; there’s no need to rehash them here, because they’re not the point. The point is that millions of Americans felt ignored, dismissed and taken for granted by the two political parties. They’re not just a “basket of deplorables,” as Clinton called them, or Mitt Romney’s 47 percent who don’t matter. They’re people with real concerns that the two major parties have failed to address.

This kind of thing has happened before. There have been populist movements under the likes of Huey Long, William Jennings Bryan, Ross Perot and even Teddy Roosevelt – but none of them (not even Roosevelt) won the presidency as populist candidates.

Trump did. That’s not an endorsement on Trump’s character or moral fiber, it’s an indication that Americans today are more fed up with the political establishment than ever before. They got mad as hell, and they weren’t going to take it anymore. That’s why Trump won.

That’s where we’re sitting where we are today: because it really is the economy, stupid.