The Good Times by Russell Baker

Russell Baker wrote a column for The New York Times for many years. At least at the beginning, it was called “Observer”. He presented his observations, usually humorous, on whatever he felt like writing about. I loved it. That’s why I read his first memoir, Growing Up. It dealt with his boyhood in America before World War 2. I loved Growing Up too.

When he died last month at the age of 93, reading his obituary in the Times made me want to read his second memoir, The Good Times. It sounded really interesting. After college, he got a job as a police reporter for The Baltimore Sun. He worked his way up to being the paper’s London correspondent, and then covered Congress and the White House for the Sun and the Times. The story ends when he began writing his column in 1962 (something he did for the next 36 years).

I didn’t enjoy The Good Times as much as Growing Up. Baker’s wartime and college experiences weren’t that interesting. Neither was his job as a reporter in Baltimore. I thought he’d tell great stories from those days, but he mainly discusses his relationships with his demanding mother and the imposing editors he worked for.

It doesn’t even sound like he had a good time until he and his family moved to London. That’s when the book got interesting, maybe because London and Washington are more interesting than Baltimore. If I had to do it over again, I’d start with the second half of the book.

One other thing. Reading the book, it wasn’t clear why he called it The Good Times. Baker never seemed to be have a very good time except for his year in London. Then I got to this passage at the end of the book. He contrasts his career with the careers of the great reporters who covered the war, which, from a journalistic perspective, was a “great story”:

Well, of course, in my time as a reporter, which was from 1947 to 1962, there were not many great stories to broaden a newsman and deepen his character. Those were the good times, from the summer I started at the Sun in 1947 to Dallas in 1963, at least compared to what had gone before and what came afterward. They were especially good times if you were young, ambitious, energetic and American. Being young makes all times better; being American in that brief moment that was America’s golden age of empire made it the best of any time that ever was or will be. Provided you were white. Good times, though, are not the best times for a reporter.

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Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America by Nancy MacLean

If you want to understand American politics, read this book. Professor MacLean is the William H. Chafe Professor of History and Public Policy at Duke University. Democracy In Chains was a finalist for the 2017 National Book Award and was named by The Nation as the most valuable book of the year.

The book is “deep history” because MacLean delves into the relatively obscure career of an American economist named James Buchanan. She shows how Buchanan’s teachings, beginning in the 1950s, were adopted by right-wing ideologues and eventually came to dominate the thinking of wealthy, powerful and well-connected Republicans all over America.

She uses the phrase “radical right” because today’s Republican Party is radically different from the Republican Party of the 1950s. The party’s leaders used to be conservative. Now they’re bound to an ideology that elevates property rights over almost all other considerations.The party’s guiding principal is that any infringement on a person’s right to accumulate wealth is inherently unfair. Human freedom consists in making money and holding on to it. Nothing is more important when it comes to political policy. In fact, taxation is only justified for national defense and otherwise maintaining order. This is not a conservative position. It’s a so-called “libertarian” position that translates into extreme policies unacceptable to most Americans.

There is indeed a “stealth plan”. MacLean shows how this plan was developed,  and how it was paid for by people like the billionaire Charles Koch. Its goal is to make the United States a very different country. She explains how various academics, lawyers and political operatives, often working for right-wing publications, business groups or think tanks, have been working together for decades to move America to the right, while being secretive about their ultimate goal.

Their many public goals are well-known by now. These goals include lower taxes for the wealthy, minimal regulation of business activity, less funding for social programs (the ones that can’t be eliminated entirely), greater influence of money on our politics, and the privatization of as many government services as possible, including schools, prisons and the military. They also support ever-increasing spending on the military budget and fewer restrictions on the police, so that everyone, here and abroad, is kept in line.

Their overarching goal is much less publicized. It’s to interfere with majority rule. The economist James Buchanan argued strongly that the majority cannot be trusted. Most people want the government to do things that benefit the nation as a whole. They like well-funded public schools, well-maintained public roads, government assistance for the poor, decent medical care for the sick, and clean air and water for everyone.

But those things have to be paid for. That means the government has to collect taxes. Taxes, however, are unfair, since they involve taking property (i.e. money) from people who would rather keep it. Therefore, Buchanan and his ilk concluded, the wrong people should not be allowed to vote. And if the majority does vote for “non-libertarian” policies, the courts should rule those policies unconstitutional. Thus, we see voter suppression and gerrymandering, and undemocratic actions like changing the rules so that newly-elected Democrats will have less power when they take office.

At times, the story MacLean tells is hard to believe. But the story is true. I’ll conclude with an example and a summary from Professor MacClean:

Again and again, at every opportunity he had, [Buchanan] told his allies that no “mere changing of the political guard will suffice”, that “the problems of our times require attention to the rules rather than the rulers. And that meant that real change would come “only by Constitutional law”. The project [i.e. the stealth plan] must aim toward the practical “removal of the sacrosanct status assigned to majority rule”... [184].

“Who will care for America’s children and the elderly”, [historian Ruth Rosen] asks, now that … “market fundamentalism — the irrational belief that markets solve all problems — has succeeded in dismantling so many federal regulations, services and protections?” But the cause [i.e. the plan] would argue that it has answered that question over and over again: You will. And if you can’t, you should have thought of that before you had kids or before you grew old without adequate savings. The solution to every problem … is for each individual to think, from the time they are sentient, about their possible future needs and prepare for them with their own earnings, or pay the consequences [221].

That is the kind of thinking we, the majority, are up against.

Democracy in Chains

Publishers and book critics sometimes say a particular book is one that every American, or every thinking American, or every American who cares about such and such, should read. I’m reading one of them now. If you want to understand U.S. politics, you should read Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America. It’s by Nancy MacLean, a professor of history and public policy at Duke University.

MacClean explains how a small group of libertarian and conservative academics began a movement in the 1950s that eventually led to the rightward shift in American politics. So many on the right are so deeply committed to low taxes, privatization, deregulation and making it hard (for some people) to vote because, to borrow a phrase from John Maynard Keynes, they are “the slaves of some defunct  economist[s] … distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler[s] of a few years back”.

This radical right-wing agenda favors property over democracy. They hate the idea that a majority of voters can elect politicians who will interfere with a rich person’s right to accumulate and keep as much stuff as possible. As a result, they look  for ways to dilute the majority’s ability to effect change….

More at Whereof One Can Speak.

Ladies and Gentlemen, Our President

Putin is a thug who has his opponents and critics jailed and murdered. He annexed Crimea. He interferes in elections, contributes to war crimes and has stolen millions, probably billions, from the Russian people. This is him arriving at a ceremony in France attended by our president and foreign leaders.

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Meanwhile, the global, man-made phenomenon that our president says is a hoax gets worse every year. Among the results: California has never had such terrible fires.

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Your Free, Zero-Calorie Post-Midterm Election Update

If you watched news reports on Tuesday night, you may have gotten the impression that the Democrats had a somewhat disappointing election. You may have gotten the same impression if you read reactions from some of our best-known journalists on Wednesday morning. Quoting Dan Rather:

I’ve noticed some confusion about how elections work. People vote on (and now often before) Election Day. And those votes are counted. All of them. Sometimes it takes a while. Then, and only then, you know who won.

From Jennifer Rubin’s “Three Days Later, Hey, the Republicans Really Did Get Clobbered”:

It turns out the 2018 midterm elections were pretty much a rout. Counting all the votes makes all the difference in the world.

In the House, as of this writing, the Democratic gains are up to 30 with about five more races still to be called — in which Democrats are leading. A gain of 35 seats would be the largest House pickup for Democrats since the first post-Watergate midterm election in 1974.

The Democrats picked up seven governorships, with Stacey Abrams, as of now, still fighting to make it to a runoff in Georgia, and Andrew Gillum trailing by 0.4 percentage points, enough to trigger a recount in Florida.

In the Senate, Democrats may not quite have pulled off an inside straight, but they had two aces — in Nevada and Arizona. With 26 seats to defend, many in red states, it now looks as if their losses will be small. Democrats won in Nevada and are now poised to pick up a seat in Arizona. In the latter, Rep. Kyrsten Sinema surged into the lead as additional Maricopa County ballots were counted.

Meanwhile, Democrats have an outside chance to hold on to Florida. There, Republican Gov. Rick Scott leads by only 0.2 percentage points over Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson. If Sinema and Nelson win, Republicans, in a year with the most favorable map in recent history, would pick up only a net of one seat (52 to 48); if Sinema wins but Nelson doesn’t, Republicans would only eke out a net gain of two seats (53 to 47). That’s simply remarkable considering they had to defend incumbents in the following states Trump won, in some cases by double digits: Indiana, Ohio, Wisconsin, Montana, Florida, Michigan, Missouri, West Virginia, Pennsylvania and North Dakota. As conservative Quin Hillyer put it, one would reasonably expect “Republicans on this map, in this economy . . .  [to gain] at least five seats, with six or seven more likely than three or four.”

Simply because Trump [and other observers] did not see all these losses on Election Night does not make them any less real or consequential for Republicans. Put differently, outside the deepest-red enclaves, Republicans took a beating up and down the ballot.

… States also passed ballot initiatives to raise the minimum wage, to expand voting [and Medicaid] access and to legalize marijuana; you have to wonder whether Trump and his ilk realize they are in retreat politically and policy-wise.

From her “The Real ‘Real’ America”:

For over two years, Trump and his Fox News helpmates have perpetrated the fraud that only they are the voice of “the people.” That’s what authoritarian regimes and their followers always say. Trump spent two years talking almost exclusively to and for his core group. Sure enough, he can get them out to vote in Missouri, Indiana and North Carolina. But they aren’t a majority of voters nationwide; not even close. His demagoguery, lies, cruelty and incompetence — what his supporters ignore or even relish (he’s our liar!) — the majority, a large majority, of equally real Americans despises.

The 2018 midterm elections are a reminder that presidents and parties have to talk to the whole country. The midterms are also a lesson that victimology only goes so far.

There are true victims in America — opioid addicts, gun victims, sexual assault survivors, cancer patients, victims of police misconduct, children without stable homes. The 70-year-old white male in the top 10 percent of income earners isn’t a victim, no matter what Sean Hannity tells him. You’re not a victim if someone tells you “Happy Holidays” or you hear a “Press 2 for Spanish” option on the phone. You’re not a victim if more and more Americans don’t “look like you”; looking like you has never been a qualification for citizenship. You’re not a victim if gays marry or transgender kids get to use the restroom of their choice at school. The price of living — the requirement of living — in a diverse democracy is tolerance, self-discipline, civility and a minimal amount of civic comprehension.

If Tuesday was about anything, it was a restatement that no American is more real than another. Yes, the majority of Americans are decent, tolerant, fair-minded people, and no one should sink into self-pity and grievance based on their inability to dominate the culture, economy and politics. We are all in this together; we deserve leaders who understand that.

Ballots are still being counted from California to Florida despite Republican efforts to interfere. The Five Thirty Eight site now projects the Democrats will have gained 37 seats in the House. That’s enough to begin restoring sanity when the new Congress convenes in January.

The “Caravan” That Made It All the Way to Pittsburgh (8 Days)

If you’re wondering how it happened, Adam Serwer of The Atlantic explains how the president’s hysterical response to a group of Central Americans seeking asylum in the US led to eleven people being murdered in a Pittsburgh synagogue. It’s a sad but familiar example of how right-wing nonsense is spread through the usual channels and then poisons the reality-based media as well:

Much of the mainstream press abetted Trump’s effort to make the midterm election a referendum on the caravan. Popular news podcasts devoted entire episodes to the caravan. It remained on the front pages of major media websites. It was an overwhelming topic of conversation on cable news, where Trumpists freely spread disinformation about the threat the migrants posed, while news anchors displayed exasperation over their false claims, only to invite them back on the next day’s newscast to do it all over again.

In reality, the caravan was thousands of miles and weeks away from the U.S. border, shrinking in size, and unlikely to reach the U.S. before the election. If the migrants reach the U.S., they have the right under U.S. law to apply for asylum at a port of entry. If their claims are not accepted, they will be turned away. There is no national emergency, there is no ominous threat. There is only a group of desperate people looking for a better life, who have a right to request asylum in the United States, and have no right to stay if their claims are rejected. Trump is reportedly aware that his claims about the caravan are false. An administration official told the Daily Beast simply, “it doesn’t matter if it’s 100 percent accurate … this is the play.” The “play” was to demonize vulnerable people with falsehoods in order to frighten Trump’s base to the polls.

Nevertheless, some took the claims of the president and his allies seriously. On Saturday morning, Shabbat morning, a gunman walked into  the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and killed 11 people. The massacre capped off a week of terrorism, in which one man mailed bombs to nearly a dozen Trump critics, and another killed two black people in a grocery store after failing to force his way into a black church

Prior to committing the Tree of Life massacre, the shooter, who blamed Jews for the caravan of “invaders” and who raged about it on social media, made it clear that he was furious [with] a Jewish group that helps resettle refugees in the United States. He shared posts on … a social-media site, expressing alarm at the sight of “massive human caravans of young men from Honduras and El Salvador invading America thru our unsecured southern border.” And then he wrote, “[the Jewish group] likes to bring invaders in that kill our people. I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I’m going in”.

Mr. Serwer points out that “the shooter merely followed the logic of the president and his allies: He was willing to do whatever was necessary to prevent an ‘invasion’ of Latinos planned by perfidious Jews, a treasonous attempt to seek ‘the destruction of American society and culture’.” He concludes:

The apparent spark for the worst anti-Semitic massacre in American history was a racist hoax inflamed by a U.S. president seeking to help his party win a midterm election. There is no political gesture, no public statement, and no alteration in rhetoric or behavior that will change this fact. The shooter might have found a different reason to act on a different day. But he chose to act on Saturday, and he apparently chose to act in response to a political fiction that the president himself chose to spread, and that his followers chose to amplify.

As for those who aided the president in his propaganda campaign, who enabled him to prey on racist fears to fabricate a national emergency, those who said to themselves, “This is the play”? Every single one of them bears some responsibility for what followed. Their condemnations of anti-Semitism are meaningless. Their thoughts and prayers are worthless. Their condolences are irrelevant. They can never undo what they have done, and what they have done will never be forgotten.  

Note: Two days after this latest massacre, the same right-wingers are portraying the “caravan” as a major threat to America.

Help put a stop to this. Vote for Democrats up and down the ballot in next week’s election.

How It Is and How It Got This Way (27 Days)

Most of us tend to give people the benefit of the doubt. We expect the average person to behave properly. Not perfectly, but generally to follow the rules of society. To help those in distress, to keep promises, to tell the truth. That’s why we’re willing to ask people for help instead of fearing they’ll take advantage of us. It’s why we take promises seriously. It’s why we pay attention to what other people say.

Then something like the Kavanaugh nomination comes along. Even after we’ve been exposed to dirty politics repeatedly, we still find it hard to believe that people — such as members of the Senate — who claim to value truth and justice — especially people who are viewed as “moderates” — will ignore those values. Some do rise to the occasion. Too often, we’re disappointed once again.

I kept hoping that two or more Republican senators would vote “no”. It’s still hard to believe that only one decided not to vote “yes”. I’m not crazy, so I wasn’t sure we would win. But I still thought there was a possibility as various Republicans expressed their “concerns”. I thought maybe they’d give each other courage. 

It’s still hard to accept that some politicians lie and otherwise practice bad faith so easily and so frequently. I blogged about a long article a few days ago that helped me understand how they’re able to justify their behavior to themselves:

If you believe, as my old friends now believe, that Poland will be better off if it is ruled by people who deserve to rule—because they loudly proclaim a certain kind of patriotism, because they are loyal to the party leader, or because they are … a “better sort of Pole”—then a one-party state is actually more fair than a competitive democracy. Why should different parties be allowed to compete on an even playing field if only one of them has the moral right to form the government? Why should businesses be allowed to compete in a free market if only some of them are loyal to the party and therefore deserving of wealth?

Why shouldn’t you lie in order to put the members of your group in power? Since the people on your side or in your group deserve to be in charge and make the important decisions, why shouldn’t you lie in order to get on the Supreme Court? Or vote “yes” to put that liar on the Supreme Court for the rest of his life?

Garrett Epps writes a “Requiem for the Supreme Court”:

[The Supreme Court’s] decisions were [often] controversial. Many people considered many of them wrong. But this was the nation’s Court; its decisions were rooted in the Constitution and in a shared interest in national unity.

Throughout all of this, Democratic and Republican appointees on the Court clashed, crossed, and formed coalitions. Neither those who praised it nor those who cursed it regarded the Court as the instrument of party politics.

But that idea began to fray…

One party made the Supreme Court a partisan issue. First Richard Nixon and then Ronald Reagan made attacks on the Court part of Republican Party dogma….But I think no fair-minded person could deny that a major barrier was crossed in 1991 when a Republican president, for political reasons, appointed a justice [Clarence Thomas] who was manifestly unqualified for the office, and who faced numerous, credible claims of sexual misbehavior as a government official. It was hard to watch the nominee testify in October 1991 without concluding that Anita Hill had told the truth and that Thomas had lied. But the administration pushed ahead regardless. This was the first major step over a dangerous threshold.

The next step came in 2000, when five Republican appointees on the Court extended its authority to decide a national election, in defiance of federal statutes, the Constitution’s text, and their own frequently expressed pieties about “our federalism.” The Court has aggressively made itself part of partisan politics, but even then, some of the justices who dissented were Republican appointees.

Partisanship sputtered for the next decade and a half. John Roberts was confirmed as chief justice with the votes of 22 Democrats––half of the party’s Senate caucus. Samuel Alito was the object of an attempted filibuster by Democrats, but was still confirmed with four Democratic votes. Sonia Sotomayor won nine Republican votes; Elena Kagan got five Republican votes and lost one Democratic vote. Justice Anthony Kennedy continued to move back and forth within the Court across partisan lines.

As the new Court settled in, people began to wonder whether the wounds of 2000 might be closing.

Then, in 2016, Justice Antonin Scalia died.

President Barack Obama, facing a Republican Senate, carefully nominated a moderate whom even Senator Orrin Hatch had previously designated as acceptable to both sides. But then the rules changed. Scalia’s seat, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said, would not be filled, no matter what. Republicans had a majority in the Senate and could use it for any purpose they wished—including making the Supreme Court seat a plum partisan patronage job to be filled after the next presidential election. Republican nominee Donald Trump assured Republican voters that he would appoint justices who would “automatically” overturn Roe v. Wade. To make this clearer, he released a short list of nominees, in effect putting their names on the presidential ballot beside his. Another threshold was crossed: a Court seat was a partisan prize, its holders subject to popular vote.

That brings us to the last few weeks in Washington, when the Senate Judiciary Committee met under the pretext that it would listen to testimony from an ordinary American, Christine Blasey Ford….The debate and the vote that followed were not about the Court, not about the law; they were about the Republican Party. They were about teaching the rest of us that we cannot refuse what Trump and McConnell want. They were a demonstration that in the new order there is no individual, no norm, no institution not subject to the control of the ruling party.

Brian Beutler analyzes “The Trumpification of the Supreme Court”:

Even before he stood accused of sexual assault, Kavanaugh was a totem for the forces of dishonesty and bad faith, angling to deceive his way into power by hiding and lying about his career and his agenda.

Kavanaugh has been systematically misleading the Senate since 2004. Rather than own up to his history as a partisan activist lawyer, he disguised his life’s work with spin and outright lies. He disclaimed his role, as an associate White House counsel, in helping to confirm some of the most controversial circuit court judges on the bench. He feigned ignorance of the lawless torture and warrantless wiretapping policies of the Bush administration, and then counted on Republicans in the Senate and the White House to conceal his complete record. He knowingly trafficked in stolen Senate Democratic records to help coach Bush judicial nominees, and then lied about it, concocting the flimsiest of excuses, and offering the Democrats whose documents were stolen not a single word of remorse.

Despite this background, he laughably insisted to the Senate in 2004 that his “background has not been in partisan politics.”

Kavanugh’s appointment is thus an extension of Trump’s contempt for U.S. governing institutions as anything other than instruments of raw partisan power.

Erwin Chemerinsky describes “A Very Tarnished Court”:

Conservatives [have fulfilled] a quest that began with Richard Nixon’s campaign for president in 1968 and intensified during Ronald Reagan’s presidency: putting a staunch conservative majority on the Supreme Court. But the way that they have accomplished this has greatly tarnished the Court, perhaps irreparably. It is impossible to know the long-term consequences of this, but the Court and how it is perceived will never be the same.

….This will [be] the most conservative Court since the mid-1930s, with five justices at the far right of the political spectrum. No longer will there be Republican appointees like John Paul Stevens or David Souter, or even a moderate conservative like Lewis Powell, Sandra Day O’Connor or Anthony Kennedy.

What is stunning is that each of the five conservative justices—Clarence Thomas, John Roberts, Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch, and Kavanaugh—came on to the Court in a manner that lacks legitimacy. Each is a disturbing story, but even worse, cumulatively they make it clear that the current Court is little more than an extension of Republican power plays in a way that never has occurred in American history.

He then recounts the ugly events that put Thomas, Roberts, Alito, Gorsuch and now Kavanaugh on the court. He concludes:

Any one of these events would be a hit on the Court’s legitimacy. But to have the entire majority of the Court there only because of shameful behavior inevitably will tarnish the Court.

It is unclear at this moment how it will matter that the Court will be clearly perceived as an extension of the Republican Party. Maybe it will lead to a crisis of legitimacy for the Court, as occurred in the mid-1930s. Perhaps at some point it will lead to open defiance of the Court. Maybe it will cause the Democrats to try to increase the size of the Court if they have control of the presidency and Congress after the November 2020 elections. [Note: the Constitution doesn’t say the Court should have nine members. It had 10 in 1863.]

The only thing that is certain is that conservatives will gain control of the Court as they have long desired—in the process, irreparably hurting the institution by the way they have accomplished this.

Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun. It also grows from the ideas of defunct economists. In the United States, for now, it still grows out of ballots cast and properly counted. 

The next election is 27 days away.