Browsing the archives for the American History category.


Correct Remembrance

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American History

Well, it’s that anniversary again. Somehow I woke up today with the phrase “correct remembrance” in my head. This is taken from Buddhism. The Sanskrit term is samyak-smriti (in Pali, samma-sati), and it is often translated “right mindfulness.” But it could just as accurately be “correct remembrance.”

Mindfulness, of course, is trendy now. Popular mindfulness is all about being here now; staying in the present moment without getting lost in daydreams, worries or plans. And it is that.

But the Buddha also spoke of remembrance. Part of this is correctly remembering that none of us will escape sickness, old age, death and loss. It’s also the case that if you are mindfully attending to current events, you will remember them correctly. Otherwise, you won’t.

Eyewitness testimony is notoriously unreliable. Memory is not like re-playing a video recording. Memories change over time. Sometimes what you think is your memory is something planted in your head that you heard from someone else. It really isn’t that uncommon for people to remember things that didn’t happen, or that didn’t happen the way they remember it.  (See Scientific American on this point.)

Today all kinds of people are “remembering” 9/11. Most were watching on television. The “truthers,” of course, remember all kinds of things that differ from what I saw with my own eyes. By now they’ve grown a whole mythology about 9/11 that has completely replaced any resemblance of verifiable fact, and they can’t be dissuaded from it.

But there’s also the blanket blaming of “religion.” I see memes on social media showing the twin towers with the words “imagine no religion.” But this is incorrect remembrance from people who never bothered to understand the roots of Middle East terrorism.

The 9/11 terrorists were hardly devout Muslims; it was recorded that several of them drank and liked to go nightclubbing. They were fanatics, yes, but not religious ones. Their core grievances had more to do with politics, with history, with western hegemony threatening their cultures, and probably with personal issues also. Religion was just the box they put their grievances in.

And, in a similar way, religion has become the  simplistic, one-size-fits-all scapegoat for violence in the world today. I’m not saying there is no connection at all, but if you study each situation in detail you find that the core issues, the real fanatical grievances that drive violent mass movements these days, are not religious issues. Religion is used to erect a facade of righteousness around the real sources of fanatical rage. It also can be used to absolve perpetrators (in their minds) of blame for what are really acts of depravity and hate.

The truth is, if religion disappeared tomorrow, people would just find other boxes. If the 20th century should have taught us anything, it’s that violent and fanatical mass movements can be formed around politics, nationalism, and ethnic identity. Religion isn’t necessary. Of course, it is regrettable that religion doesn’t seem to help, either, except on an individual level.

By now we’re way past correct remembrance of 9/11. As soon as it happened, people were putting the events through their own conceptual filters, which is way not mindful. By now hardly anybody remembers 9/11. What we recall are our ideas about 9/11. Not the same thing.

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Abraham Lincoln Was Not a Third Party Candidate

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American History

I keep seeing a really stupid meme showing Abraham Lincoln’s face with the words, “In 1860 I was third party. Was your vote wasted?” Obviously, this is meant to encourage people to vote for fringe candidates Jill Stein or Gary Johnson. It’s also the kind of derp that comes from people not being taught history.

In the 1860 elections, the Republicans not only took the White House; they also won a majority of seats in both the Senate and the House. That’s a third party?

Yes, the Republican Party was relatively new, but it was never really a “third” party. Here’s the history:

Let’s go back to 1850. We aleady were locked into a two-party system, and the two major parties were the Democrats and the Whigs.

The Whig party imploded in 1854 over the issue of slavery. Pro-slavery Whigs mostly joined the Democrats. Anti-slavery Whigs and some other factions met later that year to form the beginning of the Republican Party.

In the 1856 elections the Republicans won 90 out of 237 seats in the U.S. House, and they held 15 seats in the Senate, so the Republican Party very quickly took the place of the defunct Whigs to become one of the two major parties. It was never really a “third” party.

In 1860, the Republicans nominated Lincoln and the Democrats nominated Stephen Douglas. But Democrats in slave states were pissed off at Douglas for supporting the statehood of Kansas as a non-slave state, so the southern Democrats met separately to nominate John Breckinridge. The Democratic Party split in half, in other words. And finally there was a party of “third way” types who were anti-secession but didn’t take a position on slavery; this was the Constitutional Union party, which nominated John Bell. There were some other parties in the running but they didn’t win any electoral votes.

Historians today consider Breckinridge and Bell to be the “third party” candidates in that election, and Lincoln and Douglas were the major party candidates. Any freshman-level American history textbook would tell you this.

With the votes split four ways, Lincoln won 39.8 percent of the popular vote and 180 out of 303 electoral college votes, which at the time was enough to give him the victory without it going to the House. Douglas came in second in the popular vote but fourth in the electoral college.

Once again, in 1860 the Republicans also won the majority of seats in both the House and Senate, which is one of the things that triggered the secession crisis. In 1860, the GOP wasn’t just one of the two major parties; it was the dominant party.

On the other hand, a party that’s been around for many years but has never elected anyone to Congress and is (currently) running at about 4 percent in national presidential polls — yeah, I’m talking about the Greens — really is a third party and in no way, shape or form is in the same position as the Republicans in 1860. I hope that’s clear.

Yes, this record shows us a new party becoming very successful, but note that the Whig Party had to die first. As long as the two major parties we have now are both intact, third parties are not likely to achieve the same success.

Update: For some of you not catching on — We’re locked into a two-party system because of the way we hold elections. Our political system supports only two major parties at a time, period, especially at the national level. This article explains why that is pretty well, and also explains why it would probably require amending the Constitution before third parties can become viable. People have been trying to establish successful third parties since the 1830s, and not one has lasted very long. See also a blog post I wrote about this awhile back.

So you started off with the Whigs and Democrats; the Whigs fell apart, and a portion of the Whigs re-formed into the Republicans, while most of the rest of the Whigs joined the Democrats. The Republican Party was basically an update of the Whig Party. Because of those circumstances, the Republicans were able to step into the niche formerly occupied by the Whigs and become one of the two major parties fairly quickly. Most of the guys elected in 1860, including Lincoln himself, were well known to the public as former Whigs.

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History Challenge: Who Was the Most Qualified Presidential Candidate EVER?

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American History

I’m not asking who was the best POTUS, mind you. Just which candidate for the office had the most impressive resume. He wouldn’t have had to be elected, even.

I ask because of this exchange on Facebook, which I repeat here word for word.

Some Guy: Have you been listening to the media know-nothing pundits and Hillary Clinton detractors critical of her foreign policy speech, denouncing her lecture as more of an attack on Con man Trump’s total lack of any qualifications to be President.

Well, Any sane person would know she is correct, Trump is not even fit to visit the White House much less live there.

Hillary was outstanding and proved without any doubt that she is indeed the best qualified person to ever seek the Presidency.

Me://the best qualified person to ever seek the Presidency.// EVER seek the Presidency? (No sir, no cult of personality here, sir.) Seriously, her qualifications beat Trump’s by several miles, although you could say the same thing about an order of french fries. But best qualified person EVER? Don’t you think that claim is a tad overboard?

Another Person: No – her education and experience make her the best qualified candidate in history. That’s resume – not personal, partisan opinion.

Some Guy: Barbara, Who would you say was better qualified than Hillary and why????

Me:Just as an example, there was another POTUS who was a U.S. senator from New York and who was re-elected, but then resigned before the second term ended to become governor of New York. He also served as Secretary of State, and achieved some notable diplomatic successes. He also served a term as Vice President of the United States before being elected President. I’d say that guy was qualified up the wazoo. And that guy was Martin van Buren, one of our more mediocre presidents.

Some Guy:Okay, So what was his record for service to the community before he went into public office, anything close to Hillary’s involvement.

Me: Having beat the socks off you in the resume department already — he was an attorney with an active law practice in his early career, and then worked his way up in local and state politics before running for the U.S. senate. He was a “surrogate” or probate court attorney, then New York State attorney general, then a New York state senator. Clinton’s resume can’t hold a candle to this guy’s. But they didn’t do “community service” in the early 19th century.

Another Person: how does a mediocre president beat a candidate was on the editorial board of the Yale Review of Law and Social Action?

Worked on Senator Walter Mondale’s subcommittee researching migrant labor?

Was a professor at the University of Arkansas School of Law?

Is a former civil litigation attorney?

Served as the director of the Legal Aid Clinic at the University of Arkansas School of Law?

Was the first female chair of the Legal Services Corporation which helps ensure everyone has equal access to justice under the law, despite inability afford it?

And first female partner at Rose Law Firm.

Co-founded the Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families?

Was named twice as one of the hundred most influential lawyers in America by the National Law Journal?

(Btw – such an honor is rarely bestowed upon criminals or incompetents. Just sayin.)

That her entire career has been spent as a strong advocate for families and solid track record includes leading a task force that reformed Arkansas’s education system as First Lady of Arkansas?

That – as FLOTUS – she was instrumental in the creation of the State Children’s Health Insurance Program, the Adoption and Safe Families Act, and the Foster Care Independence Act?

Or who – with her husband – has spent the years since she was FLOTUS – establishing the Clinton Foundation – a non profit whose mission is to help the poor and disadvantaged around the world realize their potential and build better lives.

They also work to improve global health, reduce preventable diseases, create economic opportunity and growth, help communities deal with the impact of climate change – and to increase opportunity for women and girls.

The Clinton Foundation is recognized and highly respected around the world and here in the US – even – grudgingly – by the GOTP -as a tireless and powerful advocate for the vulnerable.

It receives donations from

DONALD TRUMP

Bill and Melinda Gates

The Rockefeller Foundation

The Coca Cola Company

The Elton John Aids Foundation

Anheuser Busch

Hewlett Packard

The Kingdom of Norway

The Commonwealth of Australia

The Government of The Netherlands

The Government of Sweden

To name just a few…

Or who – as Secretary of State – has a solid track record in international relations and policy?

Played a key role in finding and taking down Bin Laden – and authored the agreement that brought the Iranians to the negotiating table for the deal that the entire P5+1 endorsed, along with most of the rest of the world?

Or who is respected and admired around the world – as this illustrates:

http://youtu.be/ECNQDqMoAjw

Don’t like her policies? Fine.

But anyone running around snarking about not trusting her, claiming she’s a RHINO – after 20+ years of being the target of relentless, hateful Republican bs – is either not paying attention or too dumb to vote.

Name ANYONE else – in EITHER party – with a resume even close to hers.

Just ONE.

Take all the time you need.

Me: Pad it all you like — and most of that is padding, especially the stuff about the Clinton Foundation — but Martin Van Buren’s resume at the time he became POTUS was a hell of a lot more impressive than Clinton’s. And his record as Secretary of State is a lot better, I’d say. No coup in Honduras, no stupid intervention in Libya. He did some good stuff that helped folks gain peace and prosperity. I assume you can google and find that for yourself. However, the Yale Law Review didn’t exist until after he died, and like most attorneys of his time he became an attorney through self-study and apprenticeship. It was a different world.

And my point, of course, is that while Van Buren’s resume was outstanding, he was a very middle-of-the-road POTUS who served only one term. And that was just one guy I picked at random.

Some Guy: Barbara, You just cited his professional record, good, but was he opposed to slavery, did he reach out to women, children, the middle-class and the poor or was he just another white male President who ignored the great sin of slavery and just went along to get along. Now, to me, any one who turned his/her back on human slavery can do no good, but you have a right to your heroes.

Me: I already said he was a mediocre POTUS. And he’s no hero of mine. I am just pointing out that, on paper, his resume at the time he became POTUS was simply outstanding. Successful lawyer, state senator, state attorney general, state governor, U.S. senator, U.S. secretary of state (and a pretty good one), vice president of the United States. Those are just the high points; there are some other jobs/appointments he had here and there as well. His political views, some of which which I consider fairly awful, are beside the point. We’re just talking qualifications — as (Another Person) said, “That’s resume – not personal, partisan opinion.”

The fact is, if you take the time to go back and look a the details of his many offices held and what he did in them, van Buren really did have an astonishing record of accomplishments before becoming one of the most average presidents in U.S. history.  (See his Wikipedia page)

Now, if you’re talking about a guy with a sterling background in doing charitable acitivism stuff, Herbert Hoover is your man. He was internationally known for his humanitarian relief efforts.  A great many other presidents have had amazing records of accomplishment before they became POTUS, which is sorta kinda how you become POTUS.  I’d have a hard time finding someone who was a total deadbeat and became POTUS, actually.

As I’ve said  before, this is cult of personality stuff. It’s not “normal.”

But who else had a kick-ass resume before becoming POTUS that beats Clinton’s?

Update: Thinking about it, Abraham Lincoln’s resume wasn’t that great. He’d been a lawyer and U.S. Representative. He’d been a militia captain in the Black Hawk Wars and said later most of the action he saw involved swatting mosquitoes. He got noticed because of his debates and speeches more than anything else. The guy was a slacker.

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The “Neos”: Neoliberalism, Neoconservatism

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American History, conservatism, Democratic Party, liberalism and progressivism, Republican Party

As long as we’re defining terms — see Liberal, Neoliberal and Progressive: What Words Mean — here’s a really interesting article by Corey Robin called “When Neoliberalism Was Young: A Lookback on Clintonism before Clinton.”

Now, neoliberalism, of course, can mean a great many things, many of them associated with the right. But one of its meanings—arguably, in the United States, the most historically accurate—is the name that a small group of journalists, intellectuals, and politicians on the left gave to themselves in the late 1970s in order to register their distance from the traditional liberalism of the New Deal and the Great Society. The original neoliberals included, among others, Michael Kinsley, Charles Peters, James Fallows, Nicholas Lemann, Bill Bradley, Bruce Babbitt, Gary Hart, and Paul Tsongas. Sometimes called “Atari Democrats,” these were the men—and they were almost all men—who helped to remake American liberalism into neoliberalism, culminating in the election of Bill Clinton in 1992.

I confess I don’t remember hearing the term “neoliberal” before the Clinton era. This is from “A Neoliberal’s Manifesto” by Charles Peters, published in Washington Monthly, May 1983:

We still believe in liberty and justice for all, in mercy for the afflicted and help for the down and out. But we no longer automatically favor unions and big government or oppose the military and big business. Indeed, in our search for solutions that work, we have to distrust all automatic responses, liberal or conservative.

Third Way, anyone? I haven’t read it yet, but I understand that Peters and his Manifesto are called out in Thomas Frank’s new book Listen, Liberal. And not in a good way.

Robin continues,

In the hands of neoliberalism, it became fashionable to pit the interests of the poor not against the power of the wealthy but against the working class that had been made into a middle class by America’s unions. (We still see that kind of talk among today’s Democrats, particularly in debates around free trade, where it is always the unionized worker—never the well paid journalist or economist or corporate CEO—who is expected to make sacrifices on behalf of the global poor. Or among Hillary Clinton supporters, who leverage the interests of African American voters against the interests of white working-class voters, but never against the interests of capital.)

What comes through clearly in Robin’s piece, and also in this 2006 interview of Charles Peters by Ezra Klein (reading between the lines, anyway) is that the main thrust of neoliberalism was and is to throw the working class under the bus in favor of investors and entrepreneurs. The original neoliberals were, above all, anti-union, especially public sector unions. Weirdly, they seemed to think that union members had become too advantaged and were somehow hurting people on the lower rungs of the ladder. But then they also turned around and wanted Social Security to be means tested.

It’s difficult to make sense of what truly drives this contradiction, whereby one liberalism is criticized for supporting only one segment of the population while another liberalism is criticized for supporting all segments, including the poor.

It could be as simple as the belief that government should work on behalf of only the truly disadvantaged, leaving everyone else to the hands of the market. That that turned out to be a disaster for the truly disadvantaged—with no one besides themselves to speak up on behalf of anti-poverty programs, those programs proved all too easy to eliminate, not by a Republican but by a Democrat—seems not to have much troubled the sleep of neoliberalism. Indeed, in the current election, it is Hillary Clinton’s support for the 1994 crime bill rather than the 1996 welfare reform bill that has gotten the most attention, even though she proudly stated in her memoir that she not only supported the 1996 bill but rounded up votes for it.

The neoliberals were and are devoted to an ideal of pragmatism:

Note the disavowal of all conventional ideologies and beliefs, the affirmation of an open-minded pragmatism guided solely by a bracing commitment to what works. It’s a leitmotif of the entire manifesto: Everyone else is blinded by their emotional attachments to the ideas of the past. We, the heroic few, are willing to look upon reality as it is, to take up solutions from any side of the political spectrum, to disavow anything that smacks of ideological rigidity or partisan tribalism.

That Peters wound up embracing solutions in the piece that put him comfortably within the camp of GOP conservatism (he even makes a sop to school prayer) never seemed to disturb his serenity as a self-identified iconoclast. That was part of the neoliberal esprit de corps: a self-styled philosophical promiscuity married to a fairly conventional ideological fidelity.

Robin also discusses another self-identified neoliberal, Marty Peretz, who for many years was owner of The New Republic, another allegedly liberal publication. Robin points out that Peretz’s positions often seemed to be plucked from the Republican Party platform, including his adamant Zionism. Which allows us a nice segue into the other neos, the neoconservatives.

A little appreciated fact about neoconservatives is that the founders of the movement were mostly liberals and Democrats. Yes, liberals and Democrats. New Deal, Cold War Democrats. I understand a few of them were even ex-Trotskyites.

Neoconservatism began in the 1960s and 1970s in part as a reaction to the New Left, particularly the Marxist and antiwar factions of the New Left and the candidacy of George McGovern in 1972. They also opposed Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society programs even though they were supportive of the older New Deal programs.

Make of that what you will.

The core membership of the original neoconservatives were a group of Jewish intellectuals who worried the U.S. would grow weak on defense, particularly against the threat of Communism. This was not atypical of Cold War liberals. One not-Jewish founding neocon was Sen. Henry “Scoop” Jackson, something of a prototype of the Cold War Democrat. He was a good New Dealer and supporter of unions, civil rights and social welfare programs. He was also pro-military buildup and was a big promoter of military action against Communism, such as the Vietnam War. A number of neocons have cited Scoop Jackson as an influence. These include two of  his former Senate aides, Paul Wolfowitz and Richard Perle. (See also Andrew O’Hehir’s comparison of Scoop Jackson and Hillary Clinton.)

By the 1980s, most neocons had become Republicans, inspired by the tall-in-the-saddle rhetoric of Ronald Reagan.  And as the threat of Global Communist Domination faded away, the neocons came to be obsessed with the threat of Global Islamic Domination, or something.

How do we define “neoconservative” now? I like this discussion by Jack Hunter in The American Conservative.

The “neocons” believe American greatness is measured by our willingness to be a great power—through vast and virtually unlimited global military involvement. Other nations’ problems invariably become our own because history and fate have designated America the world’s top authority.

Critics say the US cannot afford to be the world’s policeman. Neoconservatives not only say that we can but we must—and that we will cease to be America if we don’t. Writes Boston Globe neoconservative columnist Jeff Jacoby: “Our world needs a policeman. And whether most Americans like it or not, only their indispensable nation is fit for the job.” Neocon intellectual Max Boot says explicitly that the US should be the world’s policeman because we are the best policeman.

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) heartily champions the neoconservative view. While virtually every other recognizably Tea Party congressman or senator opposes the Libyan intervention, Rubio believes the world’s top cop should be flashing its Sherriff’s badge more forcefully in Libya—and everywhere else. …

… Rubio’s flowery rhetoric is worth noting because neoconservatism has always been sold through the narrative of America’s “greatness” or “exceptionalism.” This is essentially the Republican Party’s version of the old liberal notion promoted by President Woodrow Wilson that it is America’s mission to “make the world safe for democracy.”

If you think about it, this really is an extension of older, pre-Vietnam liberal ideas about foreign policy. It goes back to the great Teddy Roosevelt, who wanted to make the U.S. a great global power and increase its influence and prestige in the world. It goes back to Franklin Roosevelt’s leadership in World War II. You could argue it has ties to the Truman Doctrine and John F. Kennedy’s attempts to push back Communism.

You could also argue that in neoconservatism the American exceptionalism thing has morphed, or maybe metastasized, into a caricature of itself. Instead of coming from a place of noble intentions, in the neocons it comes from a place of bigotry and fear. I’ve argued in the past that neoconservatism is pro-active isolationism, attempting to use force to spread American hegemony so the world won’t be so scary and foreign. This is nothing like the Roosevelts, or Truman, or JFK. But you could see how those earlier liberal presidents might have inspired it.

If, in the end, it sometimes seems the neolibs and the neocons are as much alike as different, it’s because they are both weeds that grew out of the same pot. so to speak. They both originated on the Left or Center-Left. Both movements were reacting to events in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. Both movements moved right and either adapted Republican ideas while remaining in the Democratic Party (the neolibs) or else they just flat-out became Republicans (the neocons).

Somewhere in his seminal work The Vital Center, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr argued that political ideologies shouldn’t be thought of as just lying along one axle, from left to right. It’s more like a circle. Taken to extremes, extreme Left and extreme Right meet each other and end up in totalitarianism.  Similarly, I say that neoconservatism and neoliberalism are not at all polar opposites, but rather like two sides of the same coin. They aren’t identical, but neither are they all that different, and it’s not at all impossible for the same politician to be some of both.

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Liberal, Neoliberal and Progressive: What Words Mean

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American History, Sanders and Clinton

Much of our current political discourse suffers because so many people are using words without fully appreciating what they mean. For example, some use progressive and liberal as synonyms, although they really aren’t (although there’s a lot of overlap). There’s also confusion about the difference between liberal and neoliberal. And there’s tons of confusion about socialist.

Note that what follows are standard definitions; I am not making these up. However, this is just a brief overview. I don’t have time to write a book. So if I’ve left out a detail you think is important please just add it to comments.

Liberal. The meaning of liberal as a political term has changed over time, and in the United States it came to have a slightly different meaning from how it is used elsewhere.  But let’s review:

Classical liberalism, which originated in 18th century Europe, emphasized civil liberties — the old Rights of Man — and political freedom. Classical liberals were also the original free market capitalists.  Adam Smith and his Invisible Hand were classical liberals.

Social liberalism, which evolved later, is classical liberalism with the added belief that government really needs to address poverty and joblessness and that sort of thing rather than wait around for the Invisible Hand to fix it. This is basically the European view of social liberalism.

FDR took American liberalism in a different direction, basically injecting a whole lot of American progressivism into it (see discussion of progressive below). I recommend this essay by Eric Alterman, “How Classical Liberalism Morphed Into New Deal Liberalism.”

European liberalism is essentially a centrist political philosophy, but under FDR it was pulled leftward, putting it somewhere between social liberalism and European socialism as it existed at the time. And, of course, FDR pretty much kicked the free-market, laissez-faire aspects of classical liberalism to the curb. By steering a course between pure European liberalism and pure socialism, FDR found a way to maintain capitalism without allowing it to become oppressive and exploitative of the people. Well, of a lot of people.  FDR liberalism was very much about making robust use of government to give working people a hand up so they could make a better quality of life for themselves (with the acknowledgment that nonwhites were left out of much of this, to appease southern politicians).

In the 1960s, liberalism took up the cause of equal rights for all people, and in doing so sometimes worked against New Deal liberalism. Much of the New Left was against unions, for example, because of racial discrimination by unions, and New Deal liberalism was very pro-union.  Although some of the leftie-leftie fringe of the New Left was Marxist, most new leftie liberal 1960s-era hippies weren’t that tuned into economic issues, as I remember it.  Equal rights and civil liberty, yes; Vietnam, no.  And marijuana. That’s about it.

Until Vietnam there had been nothing intrinsically anti-war about liberalism, note. FDR certainly hadn’t been anti-war.  Indeed, a lot of Cold War liberals were on the hawkish side, promoting a robust military buildup to fighting the threat of global communist takeover. Democratic party insiders were opposed to nominating the anti-war McGovern in 1972, and when he lost big– partly because he got little help from his party — the lesson Democrats took from that was that pacifism is for losers.

But one of the ghosts of the Vietnam era a lot of us still have clanking about in our heads is that liberalism is pacifistic and conservatism is militaristic, and while that might be true most of the time these days, that’s a relatively recent development. And a ghost clanking around in the heads of many American conservatives is that liberalism is communism, which is nonsense on steroids.

Neoliberal. Neoliberalism is a reactionary sort of liberalism that repudiates social liberalism and tries to go back to something like classical liberalism. As Europeans use the word neoliberalism, Ronald Reagan was a neoliberal. See especially this essay by George Monbiot, “Neoliberalism — the Ideology at the Root of All Our Problems.”

American neoliberals tend to be social liberals but economic conservatives. They’re fine with equal rights and civil liberties for individuals, but they lean toward conservative and libertarian ideas about economies and markets.  It is argued that a neoliberal’s commitment to civil liberty is entirely for the individual and ignores social reality. Basically, neoliberals are people who champion your right to live your life as you wish while they favor trade policies that will devastate your community and ship  your job to China.

Another way to put this is that neoliberals are liberal but not necessarily progressive. So let’s look at progressivism.

Progressive. Progressive as an American political term was born in the late 19th century. The original progressive reform movement focused on three foundational positions:

  1. Getting the corruption of money out of politics, especially in regard to political machines and bosses.
  2. Getting more people directly involved in politics; making political processes more transparent. For example, the direct election of senators (17th Amendment, ratified 1914) was a progressive accomplishment.
  3. Using government regulation to protect the people; for example, enacting child labor laws and providing for safety regulations for food and drugs.

Progressivism in America from the start tended to go hand in hand with social liberalism. Women’s suffrage was a progressive cause. The Great Migration was encouraged by progressivism. But while white progressive reformers called for putting a stop to lynching, I’m not aware they did much to address segregation or racism generally. Maybe they did, and I missed it.

Teddy Roosevelt, one of the original patriarchs of American progressivism.

Teddy Roosevelt was both a product and a patriarch of the original Progressive Movement. Teddy worked to get the corruption of money out of government, you’ll recall, and he also worked to protect the environment and was opposed to the business monopolies that he saw as blood-sucking parasites. A lot of Teddy’s ideas were folded into FDR’s liberalism. Those Roosevelt boys did a lot of good for America.

But while, in America, progressivism and liberalism tend to run in the same circles, they aren’t exactly the same thing. In America, traditionally, liberalism is mostly about equal rights and civil liberties, while progressivism is mostly about social and government reform and economic justice. As we see with the neoliberals especially, a person can be all in favor of your rights to an abortion or the right to get a cake made for your same-sex wedding, but still not be particularly progressive.

Socialism. While we’re at it, I might as well bring up the “s” word.  The word socialism refers to a whole range of political-economic ideas; I don’t think there is any one form of “socialism.” There are, instead, a bunch of different socialisms.

American right-wingers will never get beyond the abecedarian (yeah, that’s a word; look it up) notion that socialism is the same thing as communism, and of course all communism is Marxism. This is right up there with saying dogs are mammals, so all mammals are dogs. Tell that to a wingnut, and he’ll assume you mean all mammals are dogs. But I digress.

Because of right-wing idiocy we haven’t been allowed to have a sensible conversation about socialist views and policies since about, well, ever. The Big Lie we’ve been taught is that socialism is all about central control of the economy, which of course is the road to totalitarianism, per the Austrian School economists. But most socialisms don’t advocate central control of the economy. And most socialists are fine with democratic representative government and with civil liberties and personal freedom and all that. But, as I said, there are many socialisms.

Even if you pull out the “democratic socialists” from the rest of the “socialists,” there’s still a continuum. While Bernie Sanders calls himself a democratic socialist, some political scientist types says he’s really not, but more of an FDR-era Democrat Party liberal. See “What Does Sanders Mean by ‘Democratic Socialism?'” and “Bernie Is Not Socialist and America Is Not Capitalist.” So there’s that. But at least he’s helping to take the stigma out of the “s” word so that we can have conversations about it.

I’m bringing this up because I keep seeing people use these words very sloppily. In particular the conflation of liberalism and progressivism covers a lot of sins, since it’s very possible for a politician to score high by standard liberalism measures while being weak on progressivism. This is basically where we are with the mostly neoliberal Hillary Clinton. Sanders is both liberal and progressive. Trump is neither. So let’s try to keep this straight.

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The Great Democratic Party Schism

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American History, big picture stuff, Democratic Party, liberalism and progressivism, Sanders and Clinton

In all my years of being a voter I don’t think I’ve ever felt so alienated from the Democratic Party as I do now. In some ways, this year has been worse than 2008.

It has struck me for some time that the Clinton and Sanders supporters are not only disagreeing; we’re speaking different languages. We’re approaching the campaign with entirely different sets of assumptions and values. For this reason, it has been impossible to communicate with each other.

And, frankly, I don’t think this is some temporary blow-up that will be soothed over by Fall, for next year, or ever.

I already tried to explain some of this rift through Moral Foundation Theory (“The Clinton-Sanders Divide and Moral Foundation Theory“) without realizing that real social science types had done a more researched analysis already. See “The Moral Foundations of the Presidential Primaries.” There’s also a somewhat dumbed-down version of this with less detail at Vox.

If you don’t remember Moral Foundation Theory, it basically is an analysis of the moral values and assumptions we carry around in our subconscious that causes us to make the political and moral judgments that we make. If you want to understand how Sanders and Clinton supporters differ, see this chart:

The colored bars that show positive or negative values represent six moral foundations, and you can see a stark difference between the two groups. An explanation of the colored bars, left to right:

  • Blue: Care/Harm – Being kind, nurturing and protective of other people.
  • Green: Fairness/Cheating, or Proportionality/”just deserts” – Treating people in proportion to their actions. The authors of the study say that in this case, “Sanders supporters also stands apart from Clinton’s supporters (and libertarians), in rating proportionality much less relevant to their moral judgments. This aligns with Sanders’ proposing greater expansions of government social welfare programs and higher taxes on the wealthy in comparison to Clinton.”
  • Orange: Liberty/Oppression – Individual liberty and protection from tyranny.
  • Red: Loyalty/Betrayal – Being patriotic and loyal to one’s group, family and nation.
  • Purple: Authority/Subversion – Respecting leadership, tradition and authority.
  • Gray: Sanctity/Degradation – Living in an elevated way and avoiding disgusting things, foods and actions; placing a high value on “traditional” sexual mores, for example.

In most Moral Foundations texts I’ve read, these six values also measure liberalism/conservatism, as shown on this graph:

The graph leaves out the “liberty” value for some reason, but you get the picture — liberals and conservatives value different things. And Clinton supporters appear to be more conservative, as a group, than Sanders supporters.

In particular the difference shown in the red, purple and gray bars has been really evident. Clinton supporters place much higher value on loyalty to the Democratic Party and to their candidate than Sanders supporters. I keep hearing Clinton supporters say of Sanders  “He’s not a real Democrat,” as if this was a trump card; but to Sanders supporters this is meaningless. Recently Clinton supporters have been shocked because Sanders has not been immediately forthcoming with an endorsement of Clinton, never mind that the primaries aren’t over. Clinton supporters also score much higher in authoritarianism and “sanctity” than Sanders supporters (although not nearly as high as most Republicans).

Reaction to this video reveals a lot. It’s like a Rorschach test. Sanders supporters (like me) basically heard Clinton brush us off as inconsequential maggots unworthy of her consideration. Clinton supporters were furious that Sanders is not jumping through the usual party loyalty hoops. But, as I’ve explained elsewhere, even if he did endorse Clinton that’s no guarantee his supporters would transfer their support to her. See above about authoritarianism; Sanders supporters aren’t wired that way.

And somewhere in here we might find the answer to the mystery of why African American voters so heavily favored Hillary Clinton, which makes absolutely no sense to me given her record. I’ve yet to hear an explanation that made sense, other than that black voters don’t think Sanders is electable. My hypothesis is that African Americans on the whole score more conservatively on the Moral Foundations scale, which would make them predisposed to favor Clinton, but I don’t know that for a fact.

But here is another chart to consider:

I picked this up from “Bernie Sanders Is (Still) the Future of the Democratic Party” by Matt Yglesias. The Clinton campaign has been trying — fairly successfully — to frame the Democratic contest as between white men and everybody else. But that’s a plain lie. It’s between younger voters and older voters. This data is from February; I understand that in the more recent primaries Sanders’s numbers have improved among young nonwhite voters to be at about the 50 percent mark.

And I say Democrats ignore this at their peril.

Much of Sanders’s support grew out of a long-simmering frustration with the Democratic Party itself. But a lot of us old folks stuck with it, because we remember what it used to be. (See “Why the Democratic Party Is in Bigger Trouble Than It Realizes.”) But the young folks don’t remember JFK or even Jimmy Carter. They are frustrated that neither party represents their point of view.

Quoting Matt Yglesias,

Hillary Clinton’s campaign — and, frankly, many DC journalists — has been repeatedly taken by surprise by the potency of some of Sanders’s attacks, because they apply to such a broad swath of the party. But this is precisely the point. Sanders and his youthful supporters want the Democrats to be a different kind of party: a more ideological, more left-wing one.

As Clinton put it in the most recent debate, “Under [Sanders's] definition, President Obama is not progressive because he took donations from Wall Street; Vice President Biden is not progressive because he supported Keystone [the pipeline]; Sen. Shaheen is not progressive because she supports the trade pact. Even the late, great Sen. Paul Wellstone would not fit this definition because he voted for DOMA.”

To Clinton, Democrats are the party of progressives, and so stuff that Democrats routinely do is, by definition, compatible with being progressive.

But though Democrats are certainly the more left-wing of the two parties — the party of labor unions and environment groups and feminist organizations and the civil rights movement — they’re not an ideologically left-wing party in the same way that Republicans are an ideological conservative one. Instead, they behave more like a centrist, interest group brokerage party that seeks to mediate between the claims and concerns of left-wing activists groups and those of important members of the business community — especially industries like finance, Hollywood, and tech that are based in liberal coastal states and whose executives generally espouse a progressive outlook on cultural change.

Sanders’s core proposition, separate from the details of the political revolution, is that for progressives to win they need to first organize and dominate an ideologically left-wing political party that is counterpoised to the ideological right-wing Republican Party.

It’s gotten so that when we use the words liberal and progressive we don’t mean the same things by them.  As Yglesias says, the more conservative Clinton supporters consider themselves to be “liberal” because they are Democrats, as if “Democrat” and “liberal” were synonyms, even though they might score as centrist or conservative on the Moral Foundation measure. In their minds, electing Hillary Clinton would be “revolutionary” and “progressive” because she’s a woman, never mind that she’s the insider’s insider and the Queen of the establishment.  To them, because they are liberal on social issues they are completely progressive, even if they are utterly unconcerned about income and wealth inequality and wouldn’t know Thomas Piketty from Tyler Perry.

Jeffrey Feldman thinks that the biggest cause of the Great Schism is class consciousness. I’m not sure it was really the healthcare debate that created this shift, but here is what he says:

… some version of economic class consciousness began sweeping through the Democratic Party in that debate on healthcare. That debate from 2009 focused people on the idea that policy was controlled by an elite class that has emerged in the neoliberal global economy. In prior class consciousness debates, this elite class might just have been called “capitalists,” but in the post-2009 version, it has become associated with something called the “Davos crowd” or just “Davos,” meaning: the group of powerful, wealthy, jet-setters who attend the Swiss economic summit and others like it, who believe in the free market ideology of globalized neoliberalism, and who are able to command virtually unlimited resources.

These figures exist in both parties. The healthcare debate, however, led many in the Democratic Party to rethink the basic dualism of the American political landscape. It was in that 2009 healthcare debate that many Democrats began to see themselves as engaged in a battle more urgent than the thousand year struggle against Republicans: a battle against the Davos crowd for control of “our” party.

…What happened in this Presidential primary between Sanders and Clinton is that the dynamic of the single issue debate–which led to new awareness of intra-party struggle in 2009–was elevated to a much broader debate by refocusing on the financial sector as a whole.

Now, more and more people underwent the same transformation because the arguments about the control of big finance over politics and government seemed clearer or more convincing. This was coupled with the clearest contrast to date of this kind of problem being described since 2009: a top tier candidate who went from having Middle Class wealth to having money on part with the Davos crowd almost entirely by accumulating honoraria from the Davos crowd. And this clear example gave Sanders a unique power in the Democratic Party: his explaining the problem in the Party–which journalists had been pointing out–suddenly had the power to reach a vast audience via an ongoing national campaign–and to turn him into a transformative figure.

In my experience, this issue with global corporatism or predatory capitalism or the “Davos crowd” or whatever you want to call it is not on the radar of most Clinton supporters at all. I never see them address it. They’re stuck in thinking about technocratic answers to particular problems, not about any sort of sweeping change to the status quo.  They’re in love with the word “pragmatism,” which in effect means ignoring the big problems while focusing on tweaking the little ones. And, unfortunately, a lot of the Sanders supporters on social media do not articulate this well beyond calling Clinton names like “corporate whore,” which really isn’t that accurate. So there’s no real exchange of concerns, just name-calling.

A lot of what’s happening in this primary season is the result of the abandonment by both parties of working-class Americans. Even more than that, it’s the abandonment by both parties of youth. All the meanness and greed and tight-fistedness and corporate-centric values are hitting them hardest of all. In today’s America, young people are a resource to be exploited, not invested in. And among the student loans, unpaid internships, disappearance of blue-collar jobs, on-demand and other insecure and exploitative employment, they are feeling the effects of global corporatism/predatory capitalism more intensely than us old folks.

And, rightly, they’re getting pissed. Sanders gets them. Clinton doesn’t. They know that all they’re going to get from her is tweaks and platitudes, and it terrifies them.

And they are pissed.

Unfortunately, you can get cats to march in formation before you can get young liberals focused on any kind of directed, disciplined long game.  Right now they’re all over social media planning a third-party run for Sanders (often with the People’s Front of Judea Green Party), which would be stupid on several levels, and which I am confident he will not do. The way forward is in taking over the Dem party at all levels, replacing the neoliberals and centrists with actual progressives. It will take a few election cycles (I keep making this speech every few years), but it’s do-able if people can work together to do it.

Otherwise, we may be looking at the Democratic Party’s last hoorah. I hate to think what rough beast might take its place.

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Why the Democratic Party Is in Bigger Trouble Than It Realizes

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American History, big picture stuff, Democratic Party, liberalism and progressivism, Obama Administration, Sanders and Clinton, self-destruction

Regarding the perpetual complaint that young voters don’t turn out for midterm elections, which gives Congress to Republicans — yeah, I used to complain about that too. But try to imagine what the Democratic Party must look like to younger voters.

I’m old enough to remember when Harry Truman and Eleanor Roosevelt were still alive and still influential in party politics. I was in middle school during the Kennedy Administration. For all his flaws regarding Vietnam, Lyndon Johnson initiated genuinely progressive domestic programs. I was in high school when Bobby Kennedy ran for President and was assassinated. I cast my first vote for POTUS for George McGovern. So that’s the Democratic Party I remember — flawed and messy, but still a vehicle for doing the right thing, at least part of the time.

But that party died a quiet death some time back. I’m not sure that other people my age realize this. The Democratic Party now is closer to where the Republicans were during the Nixon Administration than they are to being the party of Truman, Kennedy or even LBJ.

But at least the Nixon Republicans sort of stood for something. You knew where they were coming from. The current party Democratic Party stands for nothing.

I’m not sure when it happened, exactly, but sometime between the McGovern blowout in 1972 and the election of Bill Clinton in 1992, the party of FDR, Truman and Kennedy died. Clinton ushered in a fundamental change in the Democratic Party that made it about winning elections on the Right’s terms. It became the party of lowered expectations, learned helplessness and “at least we’re not as bad as they are.” But what does it actually stand for any more, as a party?

I recently got into a sad discussion about how the party abandoned the legacy of FDR. I mentioned FDR’s great 1941 State of the Union address — the “Four Freedoms” speech. This encapsulates what the party should still stand for, I said. A Clinton supporter dismissed this as ancient history. You want to have it both ways, she said. You keep saying it’s not 1972 any more, and now you want to go back to 1941. The Democrats have moved on.

So I quoted this portion of the speech:

Certainly this is no time for any of us to stop thinking about the social and economic problems which are the root cause of the social revolution which is today a supreme factor in the world.

For there is nothing mysterious about the foundations of a healthy and strong democracy. The basic things expected by our people of their political and economic systems are simple. They are:

Equality of opportunity for youth and for others.

Jobs for those who can work.

Security for those who need it.

The ending of special privilege for the few.

The preservation of civil liberties for all.

The enjoyment of the fruits of scientific progress in a wider and constantly rising standard of living.

These are the simple, basic things that must never be lost sight of in the turmoil and unbelievable complexity of our modern world. The inner and abiding strength of our economic and political systems is dependent upon the degree to which they fulfill these expectations.

Personally, I think anyone who wants to call himself a REAL DEMOCRAT ought to memorize that passage and recite it daily.

FDR continued:

Many subjects connected with our social economy call for immediate improvement.

As examples:

We should bring more citizens under the coverage of old-age pensions and unemployment insurance.

We should widen the opportunities for adequate medical care.

We should plan a better system by which persons deserving or needing gainful employment may obtain it.

And we’re still working on that stuff. Maybe we’ll always be working on that stuff. As technological and economic conditions change, we’ll have to keep adjusting. But it’s hard to even talk about some of these things now, never mind work on them. We’ve done something about health care, although we need to do more. But looking ahead I don’t see any plans from most Dems except to try to stop what we have accomplished from being further eroded.

Roosevelt went on to say that people would be required to pay more taxes to make these things happen. He was re-elected later that year anyway. And no, Pearl Harbor hadn’t been bombed yet.

In the future days, which we seek to make secure, we look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms.

The first is freedom of speech and expression–everywhere in the world.

The second is freedom of every person to worship God in his own way–everywhere in the world.

The third is freedom from want–which, translated into world terms, means economic understandings which will secure to every nation a healthy peacetime life for its inhabitants–everywhere in the world.

The fourth is freedom from fear–which, translated into world terms, means a world-wide reduction of armaments to such a point and in such a thorough fashion that no nation will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbor–anywhere in the world.

That is no vision of a distant millennium. It is a definite basis for a kind of world attainable in our own time and generation. That kind of world is the very antithesis of the so-called new order of tyranny which the dictators seek to create with the crash of a bomb.

Compare/contrast to right-wing calls for carpet bombing the Middle East to get rid of ISIS. For that matter, compare/contrast to Hillary Clinton’s “vision” of dealing with ISIS. It’s all about military and anti-terrorist options. There’s no vision there.

Now, some would say that Pearl Harbor and the subsequent war proved FDR hopelessly idealistic. I don’t think so. These ideals lived on in programs like the Marshall Plan, which helped secure a lasting peace in western Europe and which is the sort of thing that would never get past a right-wing Congress today, and which the current Democratic Party would never even dare propose. And FDR was a great war president and hardly a pacifist weenie, btw.

We have to acknowledge that FDR didn’t always live up to his own ideals — the Japanese-American internment, for example — but that doesn’t mean the ideals themselves were wrong.

As I’ve written elsewhere, there’s a good argument to be made that in 1992, Clintonian “triangulation,” moving Right to finesse the Reaganites on their own turf, was the only way a Democrat could have won the White House. But it’s time to drop that strategy now, because it’s holding us all back. The current Dem establishment, never mind Hillary Clinton herself, is stuck in the past and ignoring the realities of the current political climate, which is that the Republican Party is falling apart and the young folks are hungry for a more assertively progressive left-wing party that actually stands for something other than technocratic responses to whatever problems arise. Which is all Hillary Clinton knows.

And when some of us start talking about a real progressive vision, the Clintonistas dismiss us as naive “purists” who don’t understand what’s practical. I guess by their definition FDR wasn’t practical (see: New Deal; victory in World War II).

But y’know what? We’ve complained for years about how younger voters don’t turn out for midterm elections and let the Republicans take over Congress. I’ve complained about that, too. But try to look at the Democrats through their eyes. They don’t remember Truman or Eleanor Roosevelt or even George McGovern or Hubert Humphrey.  They remember the Clintons. They see Democrats in Congress that sell out liberal values a large part of the time, and who can’t effectively push back against right-wing craziness. Even President Obama — who has done a lot more good than he’s given credit for — has disappointed them often by trying to make “Grand Bargains” with the Right that would have compromised essential “safety net” programs. And his foreign policy hasn’t been all that great, which is largely Clinton’s doing, IMO.

From that perspective — what’s there to vote for? Why bother?

Again, I always do trudge out and vote, if only because the Dems are not as bad as those other people. But the Dems have been coasting on we aren’t as bad as they are way too much and way too long. It’s like they’re using the Republicans to hold us hostage — vote for us or they’ll shoot your dog. And then most of them go about being way too compromised by money and lobbyists and not really responding to the people.

No, they aren’t as bad as the Republicans. But maybe the young folks are right for not settling. And if the Democratic Party doesn’t change, I wonder if it can survive.

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No to Third-Party Presidential Runs

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American History, Sanders and Clinton

Now that the Democratic nomination is nearly out of reach for Bernie Sanders, a lot of his supporters are feverishly calling for him to run as an independent candidate. He’s not going to do that, because he’s smart enough to know better. But I thought I’d explain why, knowing I’m going to be ignored as some cranky old stick-in-the-mud by the young folks.

One, there have been eleven significant third-party presidential runs in American history, plus I don’t know how many obscure candidacies.  Most of the time the third-party challenger won so few votes it made no difference to the outcome. The most successful third-party challenges caused the two most popular candidates to split the majority vote, and the third most popular candidate won the election (see 1912, which was good or bad depending on how you feel about Woodrow Wilson). Note that the winner-take-all with no runoffs way we run elections makes this outcome nearly inevitable if a third-party candidate attracts significant numbers of votes.

Over the years there have been a great many third-party contests for governorships and congressional seats, and only a tiny fraction (about 2 percent) of the independent challengers have won.

Of presidential third-party candidates, the most successful were —

  • Theodore Roosevelt, 1912, Progressive Party, won 27.39 percent of the vote
  • Millard Fillmore, 1856, American Party, won 21.54 percent of the vote
  • Ross Perot, 1992, Independent, won 18.91 percent of the vote
  • Robert LaFollette, 1924, Progressive Party, won 16.62 percent of the vote
  • George Wallace, 1968, American Independent, won 13.3 percent of the vote
  • Martin van Buren, 1848, Free Soil Party, won 10.13 percent of the vote

(I left out 1860 because it was such an anomaly. The demise of the Whigs in 1854 and the split in the Democratic Party between northern and southern factions made the whole thing a chaotic mess. The chaos benefited Abraham Lincoln, who won with less than 40 percent of the vote. The remaining 60 percent of the votes were split among the two Democrats and the candidate of the Constitutional Union Party — sort of the “Third Way” of its day. Although there have been several multiple-candidate elections, I believe the 1860 election was the last one in which more than three candidates split electoral college votes. You might also remember that the 1860 election had some, um, interesting repercussions.)

The remaining candidates finished in the single digits. Anyway, I submit that unless we institute some kind of run-off election system, a candidate outside of the two-party system has no chance. If Teddy Roosevelt couldn’t do it, ain’t nobody gonna do it. People genuinely loved Teddy.

Might a third party presidential run, even if unsuccessful, play any role in building a lasting movement? Again, I don’t see it. It hasn’t happened yet. Note that Teddy’s Progressive Party of 1912 was an entirely different organization from Bob LaFollette’s Progressive Party of 1924; they just happen to share the same name. Ross Perot tried again in 1996 with a Reform Party, which he and others had hoped to turn into a permanent movement. It may still exist in some form, actually.  Other than the election of Jesse Ventura as governor of Minnesota in 1998, they don’t appear to have accomplished anything.

So, there’s nothing in history to show us that there’s anything to gain by attempting a third-party presidential run. Such an attempt most probably would use up a lot of money and energy and accomplish nothing.  Plus, I must gently suggest that if Sanders couldn’t win enough votes to secure the nomination — however that happened — he’s not exactly a sure thing in the general, much as we might wish otherwise.

Note that Bernie Sanders himself would probably argue that he didn’t run because he wanted to be President, but because he wanted to push the country Left. Eyes on the real prize, folks.

Another option is to build a party from the ground up that might someday displace one of the other two. That’s happened once before, when the Republican Party stepped into the niche vacated by the Whigs in the 1850s. Given the current state of affairs it’s not impossible that something like that could happen again, so I wouldn’t put that option completely off the table. But it’s a long shot.

And the other option is to keep organizing and supporting progressive candidates running as Democrats, and eventually taking over the party. This is possible. But it won’t happen overnight.

However, I do hope a sustained organization can come out of this election, because I think there will be much political upheaval in the next few years that might offer opportunities if we are ready. And please note that I’m not talking about doing anything violent. But if the Democrats continue to be weakened by their internal issues and stubborn resistance to acknowledging the will of the people, opportunity might arise.

Having said all that, I know some will want to ignore me and will prepare all kinds of charts and data to show that Bernie really could win the general election as an independent candidate.  If you live long enough, eventually you learn that not everything you want to believe really is true.

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Nancy Reagan, 1921-2016

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American History

I’m sure she’s already ordered new china and is planning to replace the celestial draperies.

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The Constitutional Anchor Baby Crisis, Revisited

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American History, Wingnuts Being Wingnuts

On the Right the Shiny Object de la semaine, if not du jour, is birthright citizenship. This is the legal right to citizenship of all babies born in the U.S. regardless of the status of their parents. From time to time conservatives get whipped up into a Nativist frenzy and demand that birthright citizenship be ended, and now is one of those times.

It’s widely believed that birthright citizenship is established by the 14th Amendment, and that it would take a constitutional amendment to change it. But many on the Right deny this. They don’t think the 14th says what it says, and they think birthright citizenship could be ended through an act of Congress. For example, Edward J. Erler wrote in National Review,

A correct understanding of the intent of the framers of the Fourteenth Amendment and legislation passed by Congress in the late 19th century and in 1923 extending citizenship to American Indians provide ample proof that Congress has constitutional power to define who is within the “jurisdiction of the United States” and therefore eligible for citizenship. Simple legislation passed by Congress and signed by the president would be constitutional under the Fourteenth Amendment.

I don’t have time to write a long post explaining why Erler is wrong. Fortunately, I already wrote that post, more than five years ago. In the earlier post (The Constitutional Anchor Baby Crisis) I respond to a George Will column that made nearly identical arguments to Erler’s. And those arguments are taken pretty much wholesale from the minority opinion in United States v. Wong Kim Ark, 169 U.S. 649 (1898) . The detail that Will and Erler both hope nobody notices is that the majority opinion in Wong Kim Ark disagreed.

Erler also tries to argue that Wong Kim Ark only applies to children born of legal aliens, but I read the Wong Kim Ark opinion, and that’s not apparent to me. For one thing, I’m not sure “illegal aliens” was conceptualized then as we conceptualize it now. In any event, Wong Kim Ark was a man born in the U.S. to Chinese laborer parents who were considered “subjects of the Emperor,” at a time when Chinese laborers were strictly excluded from the U.S.  But Wong Kim Ark claimed citizenship by right of birth, and the Court agreed with him.

So here’s most of the earlier Anchor Baby post, and you can substitute “Erler” for “Will” if you like.

Now, most legal experts say that because of the 14th Amendment, Congress does not have the power to deny citizenship to so-called “anchor babies.” Doing this would require a constitutional amendment. But righties are arguing no, because the 14th Amendment doesn’t say what it says. This argument was presented by none other than George Will a few days ago, and it is a tortured argument, indeed. But when I read Will’s column I didn’t have the time to research what he was saying to see if it could hold mayonnaise, never mind water.

But lo, yesterday, while researching something else entirely, I ran into a discussion of United States v. Wong Kim Ark, 169 U.S. 649 (1898) (see also Wikipedia discussion of Wong). Wong Kim Ark was a man born in the United States of ethnic Chinese parents. At the time, the Chinese Exclusion Act was in effect. You probably remember that this barred anyone of the Chinese “race” from entering the U.S., and it denied citizenship to ethnic Chinese people already in the U.S. Wong challenged this law, and in a 6-2 decision the Supreme Court agreed with Wong, and said he was a citizen of the United States by virtue of being born here. And it seems to me there’s a made-for-television movie script in there somewhere.

Anyway, as I read about the Wong decision I realized that the dissenting argument in the Wong case is exactly the same argument being made today by Will and the Republican lawmakers.

The dissent was based on an interpretation of the phrase “subject to the jurisdiction thereof.” Will and the two SCOTUS dissenters (John Harlan and Melville Fuller) say this phrase means “and not subject to any foreign power.” In their dissent of Wong, Harlan and Fuller point out that native Americans were (at the time) not citizens of the U.S. because the Civil Rights Act of 1866 had given citizenship to “all persons born in the United States and not subject to any foreign power, excluding Indians not taxed.”

This act became law just two months before the 14th Amendment was proposed. So, the argument is, this wording gives us insight into where lawmakers’ heads were at the time. And thus, if the parents are subjects of a foreign power, then their baby born in the U.S. is not eligible for citizenship. This was the dissenting opinion in Wong in 1898, and Will repeated this same argument in his Washington Post column. Will doesn’t bother discussing that pesky Wong majority opinion, however.

Will argues further,

What was this [the jurisdiction phrase] intended or understood to mean by those who wrote it in 1866 and ratified it in 1868? The authors and ratifiers could not have intended birthright citizenship for illegal immigrants because in 1868 there were and never had been any illegal immigrants because no law ever had restricted immigration.

As far as I know, the Chinese Exclusion Act was the first attempt to render any sort of immigration illegal, and it didn’t become law until 1882. Congress had passed an earlier version of the exclusion act in 1878, but this was vetoed by President Hayes. But the Wong majority decision says plainly that an act of Congress making Chinese immigration illegal, and denying citizenship status to ethnic Chinese, did not override the clear language of the 14th Amendment.

So, whether Will and the Republican lawmakers like it or not, SCOTUS already nixed their argument.

The majority opinion in Wong is based partly on English common law, which said that babies born in England are English, with the exception of the children of diplomats and children born to hostile forces occupying English territory.

In addition, at the time native American tribes were not considered subject to U.S. jurisdiction and were therefore not citizens. Another case decided in 1884 (Elk v. Wilkins, 112 U.S. 94) had declared that a native American who left his tribe and went to live in a white community didn’t automatically get citizenship, although he could be considered a citizen if he went through whatever naturalization process existed at the time and paid taxes.

Will leans heavily on the example of non-citizen native Americans to argue that the 14th Amendment was not intended to confer citizenship to babies of foreigners who happened to be in the U.S. at the time. But the Elk decision (which Will doesn’t mention, either) did not consider Indian tribes to be foreign states. A tribe was an alien political entity which Congress dealt with through treaties, but not the same thing as a foreign nation.

So, it seems to me the Wong decision — the majority opinion, anyway — more closely speaks to the circumstance of babies born in the U.S. to illegal immigrants than does the Elk decision. And I think I just blew by nerd blogging quotient for the day.

Update: Read more about Wong Kim Ark in “The Progeny of Citizen Wong.”

And thank goodness for archives.

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