Monthly Archives: November 2016

On Climate Change, No Defense Allowed

pentagon

According to Reince Priebus, President-elect Donald Trump’s chief of staff, the Trump administration’s official position on climate change will be denial. If true, I’m saddened, but not shocked.

When conservatives deny climate change, I am often tempted to suggest that they check in with two groups they usually identify with: Middle American farmers, and the US military.

The relationship of farmers to climate change is tricky. Most say it is happening (when you’re raising crops, it’s hard to ignore changing temperature zones and increasing extreme weather), but then, a majority do not blame it on human activity. On top of that, studies have shown that farmers’ views on the subject depend on how much trust they have in their sources of information (generally speaking, less trustworthy sources include the federal government, mainstream media, and environmental groups, while agribusiness, farm associations and the farm press are considered more trustworthy). So the trust factor skews farmers’ beliefs on what causes climate change away, somewhat, from human activity, though all farmers do no not think in lockstep and some do put more faith in scientific evidence presented by environmental groups or the mainstream media. The important point is that most of them do agree that climate change is real.

So if Trump and his campaign staff were the ones listening to these folks, they weren’t listening very hard. Or now that he has won, Trump and his advisors who are pushing far-right cabinet appointments just don’t care. Both seem likely.

As for the Defense Department, there is nothing tricky about its position on climate change. For some time now, the Pentagon has been in the vanguard on this issue, arguing that global warming presents clear threats to US national security, and that the military needs to be planning accordingly. This is the Department of Defense’s job, to study evidence of potential future risks and take concrete steps to counteract them. And earlier this year, the department put a plan into action, issuing a directive that assigned specific duties to specific officials to prepare for climate change, covering areas like infrastructure, weapons procurement, and disaster response.

What did the Republican-led House of Representatives do in response to this directive? It passed an amendment prohibiting the department from spending any money to put its plan into effect. Not a single Democrat voted in favor of the amendment, but the Republicans outnumbered them.

For as long as I can remember, we have been told that the Republican Party is the only party that gives top priority to our national security interests. The evidence has not always supported this assertion, and many would argue that the top priority over the years has been enriching military contractors. Today, we have a Republican Congress that won’t spend money on national security for no other reason than it collides with the party’s larger priority of denying climate change. And now, they have a president on their side.

Who knows, maybe they’ll stop making their bizarre, scientifically ignorant arguments against the measurable reality of global warming, and just say “I’m with Stupid.”

Copyright 2016 Stephen Leon

 

Before Fox and Fake News, It Was Daddy’s Job to Indoctrinate the Racism

cadillac2

The headmaster of the prep school was a former military man, and the overall atmosphere was conservative to the point where few of the more liberal faculty members dared or bothered to voice their opinions. Instead they went about their business teaching math or English or history, coaching lacrosse or baseball or ice hockey, sitting at the ends of long wooden tables at meals to ensure that the young men seated with them learned the manners they would need later in their lives of privilege, making sure the students on their hall had their noses in their books until lights out, and gathering at one of the local pubs a couple of nights a week to unwind.

I wasn’t much different, but it was the middle of the Reagan presidency, and if I hadn’t realized I leaned left before, it was starting to come out. My students noticed, and soon I was known to them—somewhat affectionately, I think—as “Mr. Liberal.” Some of them seemed conservative, occasionally reciting some right-wing wisdom they had been spoon-fed back home. Others seemed apolitical, concerned more with normal teenage preoccupations like sports and girls and impressing their peers with sarcastic remarks in class. Then there was Paul.

A fairly quiet, serious kid from Memphis, Paul wasn’t shy when it came to expressing his conservative views. And he took a liking to me, singling me out as his sparring partner. I returned the favor, challenging him (not too aggressively, he was only 15 or 16, and I didn’t want to make him angry and earn myself a trip to the headmaster’s office) with ideas and points of view he might not have considered before. It actually was quite fun, sort of a political chess match, and I came to really like Paul. I don’t know what became of him, and I left the school after a year.

One thing that stayed with me is the story he told me one day of his father packing him in the car and driving him around Memphis (cue Springsteen’s “Your Hometown”). As his father drove through African-American neighborhoods, he told Paul to count all the Cadillacs, just in case he ever felt a twinge of compassion, which the memory of all the luxury cars would quickly extinguish—because the blacks in these neighborhoods could never afford Cadillacs unless they were drug dealers or welfare cheats.

I do recall from the ’70s and ’80s the stereotype that blacks were particularly fond of Cadillacs, and observed that there appeared to be some truth to it. (Even the ’70s blaxploitation films acknowledged the place of Cadillacs and other luxury sedans as status symbols in black culture.) And apparently, statistics on car buying during this era do bear out that African-Americans were proportionately more likely to purchase Cadillacs than whites were. Does that mean they were all drug dealers and welfare cheats? Of course not.

And as always, there’s a story behind the stereotype.

General Motors was on the verge of ceasing all Cadillac production in 1932, when a company official named Nicholas Dreystadt made the audacious proposal to market the cars to blacks. Prior to that, corporate policy had been to not sell Cadillacs to blacks at all. But there was a small, growing black bourgeoisie of doctors, small businessmen, boxers and entertainers, and Dreystadt had noticed, while working as Cadillac’s service manager, that a surprising number of blacks were bringing the cars in for service. Unable to purchase the vehicles themselves, they had paid whites to front for them and buy the coveted cars. As Ed Cray wrote in The Chrome Colossus, “Dreystadt had investigated this unexpected phenomenon and found that the Cadillac was the only success symbol the affluent black could buy; he had no access to good housing, to luxury resorts, or to any other outward signs of worldly success.”

Dreystadt’s foresight turned the Cadillac division around and inspired other businesses to market to minorities. And as more and more blacks earned enough income to afford the cars, the love affair with the Cadillac grew. The Cadillac became the status symbol of choice for many upper- and middle-income blacks, who did not move out of predominately black neighborhoods en masse just because they had taken a few steps up the economic ladder, in part because of the long-persistent barriers to moving into more affluent, white neighborhoods.

Meanwhile, by the late ’60s, white, conservative critics of welfare had created the fictional but enduring stereotype of black “welfare queens” who drove Cadillacs, despite the reality that poor blacks were less likely to even own a car than any other segment of the population (which helped keep them poor, but that’s another story).

So by 1980, what Paul was seeing through his father’s car window seemed consistent with the racist stereotypes now embedded in the nation’s conservative consciousness. The stereotypes were inaccurate, though I’m not sure Paul’s father understood that any more than his son did. They saw what they wanted to see. Today all they’d have to do is troll Facebook to find the sites and stories that line up with their worldview. I’m tempted to give Paul’s father credit for actually driving them through real neighborhoods to observe real scenes. The problem was that they didn’t know what they were looking at. And I tend to doubt they would have believed any information that would have conflicted with the conclusions they had already drawn—which sounds suspiciously like the world we live in today.

Copyright 2016 Stephen Leon

 

Did the Democrats Screw Up the Election? It’s Not That Simple

chuck-todd

I groaned through my tears when Chuck Todd, desperate to understand why Hillary Clinton’s insurmountable lead was crumbling, told election-night NBC viewers that “rural America is basically screaming at us, ‘Stop overlooking us!’ ”

Here it comes, I thought: The Democratic Party has to move back to the middle, stop yapping about renewable energy, stop coddling Black Lives Matter, stop worrying about which bathroom to use, and start appealing to the Average Joe on the shrinking farm in Wisconsin or in the unemployment retraining program in Pennsylvania.

By the way, I care about those guys. I want them (and all of us) to have decent incomes and healthy, productive lives. The Democratic Party should care about them and do what it can to help them, and also court their votes.

Within reason.

Some pundits have indeed argued versions of the italicized passage above. But never mind that for a moment. Let’s talk about the electoral map.

***

In terms of presidential campaigning, most states don’t really matter. California, New York, Illinois, and Massachusetts aren’t going red anytime soon, while lots of smaller Southern and Western states are red as red can be. Texas, Georgia, and Missouri are still red, but time will tell.

Currently, there are only a dozen or so “swing states,” and the most important ones this year were Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Florida, which all went to Trump by razor-thin margins (Michigan, still not official, could tip back to Clinton, but it won’t change the overall outcome). Combined, that’s 75 electoral votes, and they made all the difference. Trump won Florida, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania by about 1 percent each; he currently leads Michigan by a scant 0.2 percent.

Barack Obama took all four of these states in 2012. Almost 10 percent of the Michigan vote shifted Republican this year, with about 8 percent shifting Republican in Wisconsin and 6.5 percent in Pennsylvania—all with relatively little change in voter turnout. Florida’s voter turnout increased by 11 percent this year, but its voters shifted Republican by only 2 percent.

What does it all mean? I don’t think anyone knows with pinpoint accuracy—probably a perfect storm of several things: 1. Overconfident Democratic strategists could have done more to secure these states, and blew it. 2. Some angry white males—and females—were energized by Trump’s message. 3. In the cities especially, Obama supporters, black and white, did not turn out in the same numbers for Clinton. 4. Clinton was attacked relentlessly for alleged ethics violations, which did not amount to anything but probably cost her votes, especially after FBI Director James Comey stirred up the hornet’s nest a little over a week before the election. 5. On top of all that, some fraction of voters still won’t vote for a woman president.

And what if the election was stolen? The notorious election investigator Greg Palast says it was, and cites both early exit polls (before they were “conformed”) and voter-purge operations as proof that Clinton should have carried several swing states, including not only Michigan but also Arizona and North Carolina. If Palast is too incendiary for you, I would suggest at least reading this interview with Jonathan Simon, an “election forensics” expert who (unlike Palast) does not claim to have proof, but observes that a consistent “red shift” from exit polls to final vote counts, which happened again in states where the voting apparatus is controlled by Republicans, is not consistent with sampling and margin-of-error issues in which the errors should, statistically speaking, move in both directions and mostly cancel out.

On the ground, there were election-day irregularities reported in states like Michigan, where would-be voters were turned away for not having IDs they were not legally required to show, and Wisconsin, where the state’s restrictive voter ID law was struck down, then reinstated, with the state promising to issue free IDs, which never materialized. While there are no hard data on the number of voters turned away in Michigan, observers in Wisconsin say the number of voters disenfranchised (as many as 300,000) cost Clinton the state. (Trump’s Wisconsin margin of victory stands at 0.9 percent, or 27,257 out of 2,791,677 votes cast; in Michigan, his lead now is a mere 11,612 out of 4,547,998 votes cast.)

Taking all of the above into account, it is quite possible that Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party actually ran a sound campaign, good enough to win, only to be derailed by some combination (choose as many items as you like!) of overconfidence, racist anger, misogyny, scurrilous ethics attacks, voter disenfranchisement, and vote-count rigging. And by the way, she still won the popular vote, at last count by more than a million votes.

***

Now, back to “Average Joe” America.

A few days ago, Bernie Sanders said, “It is not good enough to have a liberal elite. … I come from the white working class and I am deeply humiliated that the Democratic Party can’t talk to the people where I came from.” I respect Sanders immensely, and he clearly believes the white working class can fit under the umbrella of his core progressive values. But listen to others making this plea, and the underlying message is not so progressive—sometimes even thinly veiled code for going back to the way America used to be, if you know what I mean.

Joan C. Williams, writing in the Harvard Business Review about how liberal elites don’t understand the working class, says that Hillary Clinton epitomizes the “smugness of the professional elite. … Worse, her mere presence rubs it in that even women [emphasis hers] from her class can treat working-class men with disrespect. Look at how she condescends to Trump as unfit to hold the office of the presidency and dismisses his supporters as racist, sexist, homophobic, or xenophobic.”

Besides the twisted logic (Donald Trump clearly is not working class—does she mean that a woman, by gender definition, is condescending even if she criticizes a billionaire?), the passage seems to apologize for all of the phobias and “isms” it cites—and it especially drips with how-dare-she sexism regarding the “mere presence” of Clinton as a tough-talking candidate. What was she supposed to do, keep quiet and offer to bake them all cookies?

Williams admonishes the Democratic party elites to understand why the white, working middle class resents the poor (I believe most educated people, especially those in politics, DO understand this—but what are the Dems supposed to do about it? Cut social programs so the middle class doesn’t feel so bad?). She suggests that Democrats stop prioritizing cultural issues like LGBT rights. And she criticizes liberals for their overzealous attention to police brutality and their attempts to identify and combat racism. “Avoid the temptation to write off blue-collar resentment as racism,” she writes.

Really? You could just as easily say “Avoid the temptation to write off blue-collar racism as resentment.” If you resent people because of their color, and don’t want them in your neighborhood because of their color, and think they don’t deserve whatever they have because of their color—and you vote for a candidate because says things about minorities and immigrants that make it sound like he’s on your team—that’s racism.

As the United States becomes steadily more multicultural, and as increasing numbers of younger citizens reject their elders’ cultural biases (and in some cases outright bigotry), the Democratic Party should be the party of inclusion, with principles that are far more progressive than those of the opposition party, and also, unavoidably, somewhat more progressive than those of the average working-class male in Middle America. We can find more common ground without giving up those principles.

And, as I’ve tried to argue, even this election shows that we don’t have to.

Copyright 2016 Stephen Leon

 

The People Have Spoken

voting-booths

About 1 percent of all eligible voters said they wanted Jill Stein, or Evan McMullin, or their dog, or someone else you never heard of, to be president.

About 1.8 percent of eligible voters said they wanted Gary Johnson to be president. His running mate might not have been one of them.

About 25.8 percent of eligible voters said they approve of misogyny, racism, xenophobia, random threats of violence, and random groping, and that they like that their president is no more qualified for the office than they are.

About 25.9 percent of eligible voters said they wanted Hillary Clinton to be president. That’s about 266,000 more people than voted for Donald Trump, in case you didn’t realize that the candidate with the most votes doesn’t necessarily win.

About 45.5 percent of eligible voters said they were too busy, or too lazy, or too apathetic to vote, or in some cases, to register to vote. Or they just forgot. As for their thoughts on the direction the new president takes the country in the next four years, they said, “Whatevs.”

Copyright 2016 Stephen Leon

 

The Day After

vote-map

I woke up and quickly checked my phone to confirm what I pretty much knew before I went to bed. I asked the boys, still sleepy, if they wanted waffles with Nutella. I went downstairs, toasted the waffles, spread the Nutella, and sat down at my laptop.

Harry (14) was the first one down.

“Trump won,” I told him.

“I know,” he said, looking at me as he passed. “Are you mad?”

Was I mad? Good question. Even now, about eight hours (and dozens of news stories and Facebook posts) later, I’m not sure how to describe how I feel. It’s as if 17 different emotions are having a tug-of-war inside me to see who prevails, and all I can feel is the knot they’ve created in my stomach.

I know some folks are just plain furious; I’ve seen their rants on Facebook. Others already are in move-on mode, urging people to find inner peace and nurture their loved ones and figure out what they can do to make a difference in the days and months ahead.

I suppose I’m somewhere in between those sentiments, but also somewhere outside them. I’d like to say I’ve never felt this way before—Trump being uniquely and grotesquely unqualified to be president, and all that—but it wouldn’t be true. I was coming of age politically when Reagan was elected, and that hurt. So did his presidency (and the middle class has never really recovered). George W. Bush in 2000 also hurt, complicated by the fact that Florida was stolen. And his legacy? Terrorism, endless wars, and the worst economic crash since the Great Depression.

A few days ago, I was on the phone with my sister discussing what even then seemed unthinkable, and I joked about moving to Canada. My son Farrell (10) overheard me, and very anxiously asked me if we would have to move if Trump won.

“No,” I assured him. “I was joking. Don’t worry. Not going anywhere.”

At the time, of course, I still didn’t think Trump could win. Last night, looking over my shoulder as I watched the news unfold on my laptop, the boys saw numbers that looked scary and asked me about them. I said things like, “The heavily Democratic votes from the cities don’t come in until later. We’ll see.” But also: “Trump is doing better than expected.”

Lots of people today are asking, “How do I explain this to my children?”

Of course, that’s for every parent to figure out. Tonight my kids might ask more questions, and I’ll answer them the best I can.

“How did it happen?” I’ll try not to make it too complicated, but it is complicated. I will name five or six things I think contributed to Clinton’s defeat. I might even teach them the word “xenophobia.”

“What’s he gonna do as president?” That one’s a little easier, because all I have to say is “No one really knows.” Trump has said a lot of really awful things to get elected, and he knew he was building up a passionate following by saying those very things. Given the kind of person we have come to know him as, it’s not a stretch to doubt his sincerity on many issues. Does that mean Trump could revert to being the liberal (more or less) that he once was? That would be one hell of a joke on everybody—especially those who voted for him for the most deplorable of reasons. But I’m not banking on it. I’m not banking on anything.

“Who voted for Trump and why?” I’ve gone through this litany before: affluent party loyalists protecting their self-interest, white supremacists and other bigots and xenophobes, and some regular-joe, conservative-leaning folks who may not be nasty like the louts we’ve seen on videos of Trump rallies, but nonetheless believe all the negative things (real or not) they’ve been spoon-fed about Hillary Clinton.

Oh, and one other thing. One other big thing that probably sealed Trump’s very narrow margin of victory.

By now you probably know that the popular vote for the two major-party candidates was split almost exactly in half (edge to Hillary—thank you, Electoral College). So all of the voters who usually vote Democratic, or who might have this time because Trump was such a pig, but just couldn’t bring themselves to vote for a woman, or for this woman, pretty much threw the election to Trump. I do not yet know whether any polls have found a good scientific way to measure misogyny in voting habits (I’m all ears if anyone has), but I know anecdotally that there are still men (and women) who are very uncomfortable with women in positions of power. As one woman related online today, she has spoken with people who would or “should” have voted Democratic, but who backed out by saying something like “both candidates are evil.” And “all I was really hearing was ‘I can’t vote for a woman, but especially not a woman that doesn’t act like I feel a woman should.’ ”

Hillary Clinton, you are smart, experienced, and effective, and you were extremely qualified for this job. Because you were qualified and also because you would have been the first woman president, many of us supported you enthusiastically and wholeheartedly (even if we supported Bernie Sanders first). You had to fight against ethics charges that never panned out, and standards and stereotypes that are not applied to male candidates. You made a courageous effort, and half of America thanks you for it. We are truly sorry.

It rained today here in upstate New York (someone’s little girl said “The whole world is crying”).

I haven’t cried; besides the obvious, it hasn’t been such a bad day. I fixed a doorknob that had been loose for months. I watched my cat, who used to poop in the corners of rooms, use the litter box he has finally grown accustomed to. And after several failed attempts since Sunday (Subaru owner’s manual no help), I finally figured out how to change the time clock in my car.

Next, I am making dinner for the boys and myself. I have always found cooking to be one of the most soothing things I do. Still undecided on a sauce for the chicken, but I’ll get there. And it will be good, and the boys will like it. And the sun will come up tomorrow.

Copyright 2016 Stephen Leon

 

Trump Voters: Who Are You?

trump-10-16

George H.W. Bush, Barbara Bush, George W. Bush, Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice, George Shultz, Robert Gates, John McCain, Jeb Bush …

I think you know where I’m going with this. And the list of Republicans who oppose Donald Trump for president (and in many cases have endorsed Hillary Clinton) is far longer than the tip of the iceberg mentioned above. Now it is worth noting that former presidents, senators, state department and CIA officials, etc. have the advantage of having viewed the workings of government from the inside, and recognize how unpredictable and potentially catastrophic a Trump presidency would be. Still, it seems almost unbelievable that so many Republican voters are staying on board the Trump warship that they actually are keeping this race close.

Who are these people?

If you are reading this, by now you’ve read plenty of other assessments of who is supporting Trump and why. For what it’s worth, I’ll offer my own reading, broken down (yes, at the risk of oversimplifying) into four broad categories. Pay special attention to number four, which probably overlaps the other three.

1. There are lots of educated, affluent conservatives who will vote party line and their perceived self-interest no matter who the tax-cutting standard bearer happens to be. They don’t care how obnoxious and racist Trump is. They don’t care about his tax returns, his shady business dealings, or his Putin love, and they can overlook his pussy-groping escapades (and probably avoid this subject with their own daughters). They care only that he will help them preserve and increase their wealth—and nominate conservative Supreme Court justices. And they are the chief reason Trumps’ support base skews above average on income, which surprises liberals who assume his supporters are mostly “poor white trash.”

(To be fair, I’ve portrayed this group as one-dimensionally selfish and callous, and it’s never that simple. I know there are many voters in this category who are decent people. Normally I can understand how educated conservatives and I reach vastly different conclusions. Not this year. How an educated person can believe Trump is fit to be president is mind-boggling to me. These are strange days indeed.)

2. A Facebook friend helped me make a distinction between the next two categories. The voters I’ve lumped into group no. 2 are people you and I know and probably get along with—hard-working, decent people, concerned (like most of us) about their futures and their children’s futures. They are less educated and simpler than the first group. They identify as conservative and have a natural disdain for liberals in general and Hillary Clinton in particular. And because they generally agree with the slant of Fox, that’s where they get their news—or worse, from Fox’s hideous offspring, the hundreds of blatantly distorted or just plain fake conservative websites that barrage them with all of the horrible things Obama and Clinton have done to them or will do, if she’s elected. And they believe it. So where they take this misinformation is pretty easy math to follow.

(I am sorry if my assessment of these voters sounds condescending. I truly believe this demographic exists and is very vulnerable to misinformation. And I believe the explosion of fake, distorted, unvetted news sources—and the alarming frequency with which their stories are shared online—is, perhaps paradoxically, a huge step backward for democracy.)

3. In an earlier post, I wrote that I refuse to judge people I don’t know. That is how I want to be, but this election has made it difficult. In short, if you support Trump precisely because he has made bigotry and hatred cool again, if you agree with him that Muslims should be deported and Mexicans kept out and blacks put back in their place, and that it’s okay to threaten violence against people who are going to vote for Hillary or with whom you simply disagree, than maybe you truly are deplorable. In your case, it’s not that you are too sheltered or gullible to question whether Fox or the fake news sites are lying to you—it’s that you have a belly full of hate and you actively seek like-minded outlets to spread the word. And while my parting shot here applies somewhat to the second group, it applies 100 percent to you: Ignorance is a choice.

4. And now, the elephant in the room: misogyny. It’s 2016, and there are still men who have a visceral dislike of women who seek to occupy positions of power. And the double standards applied to Clinton because she is a woman are astounding. Women who break through the glass ceiling, or threaten to, stoke a very primal fear of emasculation among some men. I have no doubt that it hurt Clinton in the 2008 primaries against Barack Obama–especially with liberal white men who had no trouble accepting the cool black guy as their next president. Misogynistic fear of powerful women even affects some women who are more comfortable with the old traditional structures. For a deeper examination of the subject, read this essay in the Atlantic: http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2016/10/fear-of-a-female-president/497564/.

And in the meantime, get out and vote Tuesday—especially if you live in Ohio, Florida, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Arizona, or Nevada. Or anywhere else, really.

Copyright 2016 Stephen Leon