Saturday, November 21, 2015

Minneapolis, Black Lives Matter, and the Failures of American Urban Policy

            Minneapolis is a microcosm for urban America.  Especially so when it comes to failed urban policy.   The confrontation and controversy between its police and people of color  provide a case study for much of what is wrong in how America responded to the race riots of the 1960s, opting instead to adopt a militaristic approach to urban poverty and racism as opposed to seeing the roots in a lack of economic opportunity and inequality.
            Urban American burned with racism and poverty in the summer of 1967.  Across the country from Newark to Watts race riots gripped America as African-Americans protested discrimination.  Minneapolis was no exception.  In response, President Johnson convened a study of the causes of these riots, asking too for policy recommendations.  The  National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, better known as the Kerner Commission, declared that along with frustrated hopes surrounding the unfulfilled promises of the civil rights laws:

White racism is essentially responsible for the explosive mixture which has been
accumulating in our cities since the end of World War II. Among the ingredients of this mixture are:
* Pervasive discrimination and segregation in employment, education and housing, which have resulted in the continuing exclusion of great numbers of Negroes from the benefits of economic progress.
* Black in-migration and white exodus, .which have produced the massive and growing concentrations of impoverished Negroes in our major cities, creating a growing crisis of deteriorating facilities and services and unmet human needs.
* The black ghettos where segregation and poverty converge on the young to destroy
opportunity and enforce failure. Crime, drug addiction, dependency on welfare, and
bitterness and resentment against society in general and white society in particular are the result.

The Kerner Commission called for the enactment of comprehensive and enforceable federal open housing laws, placing low and moderate income housing outside of ghetto areas, and building six million new and existing units of decent housing. Instead of taking this approach that treated urban unrest as one rooted in racism and poverty, the response instead was twofold.  First, the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968 defined the riots as a problem of law and order, ushering in the gradual militarization of policing in urban areas, especially as a result of the Nixon-Reagan war on drugs and then with Bill Clinton treating the crime spike of the 1990s with the placing of 100,000 more police of the streets and increasing prison sentences for many offenders, most of whom happened to be African-American males living in segregated concentrated poverty neighborhoods.
            Second, in 1969 while serving as Nixon’s urban affairs adviser, Daniel Patrick Moynihan sent the President a memo suggesting: “The time may have come when the issue of race could benefit from a period of 'benign neglect.”  Effectively with this memo the second civil rights revolution was coming to an end in America.  The Great Society programs meant to address poverty were scaled back, culminating with Clinton signing a 1996 law reforming welfare.  Race in general came to be ignored as an issue to be addressed with anything more than laws declaring America to be a color-blind society.
            Fifty years later, the failures to responded adequately to the problems the Kerner Commission originally described, and the path that instead was taken, is where America is now, including Minneapolis.  Since 1967 Minneapolis has failed to desegregate is schools and neighborhoods, it has persistent problems of poverty and concentrated poverty, and mayors have repeatedly put downtown  development ahead of promoting economic opportunity in the neighborhoods.  And now one can see how the militarized approach to crime and disorder pits the police against communities of color, precipitating the confrontations in Minneapolis and across the country.

            Black Lives Matters’ demands seek to reset the clock, placing America back in a place similar to where the country was in 1967.   Instead of responding to racism and poverty with bullets and neglect, BLM calls for both demilitarization of policing and social justice.  Whether this time Minneapolis, Minnesota, or the United States will respond correctly is yet to be seen.  And whether the tactics of BLM, which too seem to mimic those  used fifty years ago and which failed to make racism and social justice the core policy issues, will work this time, too are yet to be seen. 

Sunday, November 8, 2015

The Crisis of Mainstream Republicanism (and why the Democrats are not far behind)

There may be a simple reason why Bush, Christie, and Kasich are doing so poorly and Carson and Trump so well, at least by comparison–mainstream Reagan Republicanism is exhausted and bankrupt.
There is a terrific piece recently in Politico by Michael Lind that makes that point.  The mainstream Republicanism that Bush and Christie are part of is indebted to Reagan.  He makes a good point but I argued the same point five years ago. The battle to build the Reagan brand of Republicanism had  its roots in Goldwater’s victory over Rockefeller.  As I stated then:

The contemporary battle for the Republican orthodoxy begins in 1964 when Barry Goldwater challenged the Rockefeller wing of the GOP for dominance. Goldwater’s “Extremism in defense of liberty” speech was a repudiation of the accommodation with the New Deal that Eisenhower, Javits, and the Rockefeller wing had reached. Goldwater may have lost the election but he propelled the GOP in a direction that first triumphed with Reagan’s victory in 1980 and his inaugural speech declaration that government is the problem, not the solution.

The Reagan coalition blended together often contradictory movements of economic liberty and social conservatism. The former requires a minimalist state protecting individual choice, the later requires an activist one second-guessing freedom. While ideological, it was still willing to compromise within its party and with Democrats, producing notable and important legislation such as the 1986 tax reform and the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act. From 1980 to 2008 the Reagan brand is what defined the party. But beginning with the presidency of George Bush in 2001, and clearly by its end the Reagan brand had worn thin and when McCain ran and lost in 2008 it was clear that Reaganism was dead. Obama’s victory, along with Democratic gains in 06-08, signaled that change. For whatever it meant, it was preferred to Reaganism.
Reaganism was a brand–anti government, anti-taxes, and in so many ways, really anti working class, even though ostensibly its rhetoric was populist.  It won over the white working class, the Reagan Democrats, the then Archie Bunkers of the world, mostly because of either the perception or reality that the Democrats were no longer on their side.  Reaganism was successful because of its powerful narrative and because of the weak one Democrats had.

I also argued back in 2010 that the Reagan brand was exhausted, dead by 2008 with the Palin-Bachman remaking of the party.  That remaking is essentially complete, leaving Bush and Christie out.
But the remaking failed to win in 2008 and 2012.  It is still failing yet the mainstream Republicans have yet to figure this out.  Neither the Reagan version nor the one that emerged should be able to hold  white working class America, the group that has seen its economic position gradually erode more and more.  Trump’s success speaks to the failure of both the Reagan and Palin-Bachmann brands of Republicanism.   Trump may not have a plan to help white working class America, but he taps into a sentiment and angst that so far neither the Republicans nor the Democrats have addressed.
There is no good reason why either verison of  Republicanism (Reagan or Palin-Bachmann) should be able to hold on to white middle America  except for the fact that the Democrats have yet to articulate a plan and narrative that speaks to them.  Enter Sanders. The Sanders-Clinton split in the party in part is about the failure of the Democrats to speak to white working class America, suggesting that the Bill Clinton-Obama party brand too may be exhausted. That is the story for another blog another day.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Politics, Lies, and Journalism: Why the Public Does Not Care If Politicians Lie

            American politicians and public officials lie.  George Bush lied about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, Bill Clinton about not having sex with Monica Lewinsky.  Politicians before and after them have lied.  But something seems different about the 2016 US presidential race so far.  The scope of lying seems unprecedented, as is the reaction to the media when it calls out candidate fiction.  The most recent example–Ben Carson’s lie about having being accepted at West Point andthe backlash by him and others against the press, claiming reporters are out to get him.
            First, what is a lie?  It is intentionally saying something one knows or should know to be false with the intent to deceive.  This should be contrasted from a mistake. I may believe something to be the case when it is not and if a state that then it is not a lie, only a mistake.  Lies can also be the withholding of critical or material information.  I tell you only part of the truth and not the “whole truth” as we swear to declare when testifying in court under oath.  There are also “white lies” such as “Yes Virginia there is a Santa Claus.”  They are still lies but the motive may be honorable, or at least not malicious.
            Generally we consider lying to be wrong.  We lie in order gave advantage for our self in a world where others act on the belief that we are telling the truth.   For Kant, lying is wrong because we make an exception for our self a general rule that says everyone should tell the truth. Honesty is necessary for trust, to be able to get along with others, and to encourage reliance upon others.  Live in a world where no one can trust one another and quickly we would fall into a Hobbesian state of nature.
            Lies have been a part of politics since the days of ancient Greece.  In the Republic Plato wrote of the noble lie–a story to tell people about the origins of social classes in order to justify political  relations and authority.  Rousseau too speaks of political lies in his Discourse on the Origins of Inequality, as does Dostoevsky in his tale of the Grand Inquisitor in Brothers Karamazov.   In perhaps the single best book ever written about political lies, Sissela Bok in  Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life,  argues against the claim that politicians or public officials can lie in the name of the public good.  In a democratic society, lying to the public is wrong because it make you–the public official–the sole arbiter of what is the public good.  That is the task of elections and the people who are sovereign.  Additionally, lying to the public undermines political legitimacy and it fails to treat the public with respect.
            But the lying we are seeing in 2016 is not of the kind above. What we are seeing are not lies in the alleged public interest.  Instead they seem to be lies about one’s autobiography or about the state of the affairs of the world.  For example, Carly Fiorina has lied both about the contents of a Planned Parenthood video and the percentage loss of jobs for women under Obama. Some have argued she has also lied about her career and working her way from secretary to CEO.  Marco Rubio has been accused of lying about his family and the flight from Cuba under Castro.  Hilary Clinton is accused of lying about everything if you listen to some.
            In 2016 we are seeing a different type of lie, along with the reaction to it.  Collectively, the Republican presidential candidates are at least in denial if not lying about global warming and its causes. Some are lying about their tax plans or their political records. All of them, but especially Trump, seem to be lying about who the unauthorized immigrants  (illegal immigrants) are and what impact they have on the economy.  The type of lies here are ones where even if they have made a mistake initially, the scientific or other evidence is overwhelming and when confronted with the facts, they should change their claims.  But they do not.  They remain  fastened to their denials.  Few want to call this a lie.  Some might say a candidate is wrong or misinformed on an issue.  Yet when individuals intentionally repeat information or make statements they know or should know are false, that is a lie.
            But why do they lie?  There are many reasons, both psychological and political.  Perhaps it is ego, self-aggrandizement, or even the seduction of power. These lies are done to help them win elections by appealing to the prejudices or beliefs of some voters.  There is a pure instrumentality to these lies.  But most people don’t seem to consider these statements lies.  Exactly why is perplexing.  Maybe public expects politicians to lie.  Or on some matters of public policy voters too are confused or they view political statements no more than mere statements of belief–akin to saying “tomorrow will be a better day.”  Or maybe the public simply accepts candidate exaggeration–perhaps no different than when people lie on their own resumes.
            Yet usually even if the public does not treat candidate statements about political issues as lies  traditionally personal statements about one’s autobiography are viewed differently.  Most voters can understand personal lies–claims that one did or did not do something in private life.  Nixon lying about his involvement in Watergate is a good example.
            Traditionally the role of the media in the United States is to seek the truth and publicize it.  The Jeffersonian idea of democracy requires a free press to provide the critical information the public  needs to know in order govern and make choices.  The press also has a watchdog function, serving to uncover corruption and public deception in order to hold the government accountable.  The gold standard of journalism, as well documented in All the President’s Men, is to provide two sources to corroborate facts.  In fact, the job of a journalist is about publishing the truth by gathering and weighing the facts.  Real journalism is not simply reporting what two sides say–such as what the Democrats and Republicans assert–but determine what is truth and print it.  There are many economic reasons and pressures why the press often no longer does this, instead simply pandering to the prejudices of their audience into order to maximize revenue.  As a result, public trust in the media is low.
            Now enter Ben Carson.  By all accounts he has repeatedly lied about being accepted to West Point.  He never applied, never was accepted.  The media reported that and now they are looking into  other claims he has made about his upbringing.  Why?  If Carson is making his life story his political  narrative he has placed it into the public domain for scrutiny.  The press has a right to investigate it.  Had Carson not made his personal life public then perhaps the press should not care, especially stories about who Carson was in his youth.  But Carson is putting his personal character into  political and public display, thereby making his lies relevant to his fitness for office.
            No surprise Carson is angry at the press for effectively calling him a liar. More surprising is  the public backlash against the media, with some claiming they are out to get Carson.  Some of the reaction is political, some a product of the declining trust in the media.  Some of it is cognitive dissonance, where supporters will dismiss information contrary to what they believe. One reporter  I know calls this faith-based politics.  No matter what the facts are one holds fast to one’s beliefs.  My candidate did not lie, the media is out to get him.
            Social media does not help.  Who know what percentage of what is found on Facebook is even close to the truth.  Facebook facts simply confuse more, sow doubt, and appeal to the ignorance, intolerance, and paranoid style of American politics that historian Richard Hofstadter wrote about.   Nor does the American educational system help–increasingly it fails to do what the it should do–force students to confront ideas that challenge their prejudices.  And the courts do not help–striking down lies regulating political lies.

            So where does this take us?  In the 2016 presidential election lying seems everywhere but it also seems no one is bothered by it.  No one really thinks that truth exists or that anyone really tells the truth, or that it does not matter.  Abraham Lincoln may have been wrong–perhaps you can deceive all of the people all of the time, and that no candidate (or group in politics) need fear the sanctions associated with lying.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Fred Thompson and the Lessons of the CNBC Debate: It’s not Real it’s Politainment

So what might the death of politician-entertainer Fred Thompson and the complaints surrounding the recent CNBC debate have in common?  Quite simply, they are proof that the line between politics and entertainment have disappeared, producing what I have called for 17 years a politainment culture where the lines between news, politics, and entertainment have disappeared.
Fred Thompson was a Republican US Senator and presidential candidate, as well as an actor most famous for his role as the Manhattan DA Arthur Branch in Law & Order. (Recall how the original DA Adam Schiff, played by Steven Hill was a takeoff of the real Manhattan DA Robert Morgenthau).  Less anyone forgets, Thompson served nobly as legal counsel to Senator Howard Baker during the Watergate hearings.  Thompson glided easily between television acting and politics, with his presidential run, though unsuccessful, bolstered by his Law & Order fame.  The point is that Thompson was able to use his acting, entertainment, and political skills and persona throughout his multiple careers, often making it difficult to separate fact from fiction, reality from drama, politics from entertainment.
Enter the CNBC Republican debate. The RNC has pulled out of future debates with NBC  because of complaints of gotcha questions; they candidates more or less have said the same.    Behind their sorted complaints is a simply one–the debate was not supposed to be a debate, it was supposed to be a staged media event.  They candidates really did not want to be asked tough questions they simply wanted free air time and opportunity to say what they wanted without being grilled or held accountable for their actions.  For them the  presidential debate has turned into what the national conventions have become–choreographed infotainment for the party (the Democrats are the same with this expectation).
Yet somewhere along the way the reporters at NBC forget this.  They came to the debate thinking it was, well a debate, and that they as journalists should ask real questions, sort of.  By that, while on the one hand the CNBC reporters treated it like a real debate NBC too knew it was a media event and it had to sell time and generate an audience.  One is not going to do that if you ask serious questions about the economy and national defense, or at least ask these questions in a serous way.  Instead, the CNBC reporters asked questions in a style meant to provoke.  After all, given the media success of the Fox and CNN debates, the ante had been upped and if CNBC did not continue in the pattern of good entertainment that the previous GOP debates revealed then the worst possible thing could have happened–ratings failure and irrelevance.
Both CNBC and the GOP candidates came to the debate last week understanding all this.  Ostensibly it was a debate, in reality it was entertainment competing against other amusements such as the World Series.  Fox was so criticized for the first debate and claims that it has become nothing more than the media arm of the Republican Army.  Maybe that is its business plan, but do not forget that all the networks have a business plan that is basically blurring entertainment and politics.  All of them face similar bottom lines.  News divisions have become as dependent on the entertainment factor of politics as politicians have.  Trump figured this out this year first, but Fred Thompson understood it years ago and his passing is simply a reminder of the how politics has evolved into politainment.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Ben Carson’s America

With Ben Carson taking the lead over Donald Trump in Iowa and perhaps nationally there will be new media focus on him in the third Republican debate.  So far he has not gotten much scrutiny, but that will soon change.
            What does Ben Carson’s America look like?  In many ways perhaps not so different from that of Trump’s, Fiorina, and most of the rest of the Republican presidential field.  More style than substance has distinguished the various GOP candidates from one another, but in so many ways they share along with the congressional Freedom Caucus (the Tea Party) faith in what I shall call the five Cs: Conservatism, Constitutionalism, Capitalism, Christianity, and Caucasianism.  It is these five Cs–especially let’s call them the Five Fundamentalist Cs–that really is the core of  what Ben Carson’s America looks like.
            Carson’s campaign slogan is “Heal, Inspire, Revive.”    Ted Cruz’s is  "Reigniting the Promise of America.”  Trump’s is “Make American Great Again.”  All three speak to an America in decline, one that has drifted away from it basic principles or values.  They want to bring America back to an ideal they once saw in the US but which they see having slipped away, especially under Obama.  It is a retro image of America–no, not a benign Norman Rockwell one–but nonetheless one that  looks at the country with a halcyon view of the past.  It is less looking at the world though rose colored glasses or one that has golden tones.  It is instead that world of the five fundamental Cs.
            It is a conservative America, one hostile to change and resistant to new ideas, especially those based on science and reason.  Thus it is an America that denies global warming, ignores the reality about immigration, cannot come to grips with the fact that vaccines work and do not cause autism, and questions whether other countries have ideas from which we can learn.  But on the other hand, Clinton sold us out in Benghazi, Planned Parenthood got rich selling dead baby parts, and Obama is a Muslim who is not an American citizen.
            It an America of constitutionalism.  No, not a constitutionalism that generally emphasizes individual rights but one of limited government, especially a federal government.  It is a belief that all government is wrong, but especially the federal government since the New Deal, and there is a need to strictly enforce the Constitution to limit the size of the government.  It detests presidential power–at least as used by Obama–and selectively wants to give absolutism to the Second and Tenth Amendments–but sees no constitutional impediment to waterboarding or restrictions on government spying on its own citizens in the interest of national security.  Nor does the Fourteenth Amendment means what is says when it declares all who are born in the US are citizens.  And even if it does mean that, we should change it in the interest of getting the Constitution right in terms of what it is supposed to mean.
            It is an America of capitalism.  It is no coincidence that the Declaration of Independence and Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations (the book giving the first expression and description of capitalism) both came in 1776. Markets are good, government is bad. Who needs regulation, such as the Clean Air Act or the Clean Water Act, as Trump recently remarked.  Business can figure out how to protect the environment much in the same way that the Obamacare is not needed because the private sector can find better ways to insure more people than the government can.  We do not need to tax the rich, the benefits of capitalism will trickle down to all of us.  Welfare disincentivizes the poor and crowds out charity, taxes discourage individuals and businesses from investing, and left to its own devices, privatized government services will do it faster, better, and cheaper than all those lazy overpaid government workers.
            It is an America that is Christian. God Bless America. We are one nation under (a Christian) God.  Muslims are not welcome and are suspect, especially unfit to be president.  Jews are tolerated, and non-mainstream Christian faiths such as Seven Day Adventists are not really Christian.  The Constitutional Framers never intended a separation of church and state.  Government should be able to enforce morality, ban abortion, prevent gays and lesbians from marrying.  Christians should be able to invoke the First Amendment to discriminate, to refuse to provide for birth control for women, and force everyone to pray in public school.  With God on our side America can again be a great nation–just let’s not remind anyone about all the times true Christian politicians have been caught with their pants down.
            Finally, it is an America that is Caucasian (and male). Especially ironic in part for Carson.  But it wants a color-blind America–or at least one that says that the only color that matters is white and that all of us should act that way.  It denies racism still exists, all lives matter and not Black Lives Matter, and that police target racial minorities.  We need to erect a big wall across American borders (Even Canada for ex-candidate Walker) to keep not just the illegals out but perhaps also to keep all immigrants out.  America was better when it was almost all white, but now immigration is flooding America with lazy, welfare-dependent rapists and murders who just want to come to the US to steal our jobs.  Oh, except for those agricultural jobs, according to Carson, that pay so low that no real American’s want them.
            Ben Carson’s America is what they think the country was like 50 years ago.  Or maybe 100 years, of perhaps what it was in 1787 or 1776.  It was an America where God made America a shining city on a hill where rich white guys ruled and where everyone else knew their place, whether it was on the plantation, in the kitchen, or working for the businessman who knew best how to invest his money and provide for us all.

            This is Ben Carson’s America.

Friday, October 23, 2015

A Day in the Life of Black Minnesota: What Black Lives Matters Minnesota Wants to Say But is Not Being Heard

Do Black lives matter in Minnesota?  Despite being a state with a progressive, tolerant, and egalitarian reputation, the group Black Lives Matter (BLM) has repeatedly demonstrated to highlight the racial disparities and discrimination in Minnesota.  Their demonstrations deserve attention yet it is not so clear that their message is being heard by policy makers and voters.
            A generation ago political scientist Andrew Hacker wrote Two Nations: Black and White, Separate, Hostile, Unequal.  It documented an America divided racially, pointing not just to the housing and educational segregation between Blacks and Whites, but also to how this divide affected the many other ways the two races experience life, including the way they experience the criminal justice system and pop culture.  Blacks and whites live in different worlds, consume different foods, watch different television shows, movies, and music.  They also interact with the government and policy makers in very different ways.  This is true in Minnesota too.
            A range of studies point to the different ways Blacks and Whites live in Minnesota.  For Whites, the economy is generally good, home ownership high, the schools among the best in the country, and the police professional and respectful.  White students in Minnesota have among the best SATs in the country, living up to the myth of Lake Wobegon where all of them are above average.  Unemployment for Whites is among the lowest in the country, incomes among the highest.  Yet for Blacks, it is a tale of two cities; it is another or different Minnesota in which they live.
            Consider first education and housing.  Nationally almost 30 years ago American Apartheid  by Douglas Massey and Nancy Denton  described a nation as segregated as the Jim Crow era. More recently Myron Orfield’s Institute for Metropolitan Opportunity 2015 report “Why are Twin Cities so Segregated” points to a persistent residential and educational segregation  patterns in the seven county metro area.  Blacks live in high or concentrated poverty neighborhoods in Minneapolis or St Paul and in a few inner ring suburbs.  These are areas with high crime, high and persistent unemployment, few services, and weak schools.  Yet there is nothing really new in this report: Twenty years earlier studies by the Institute on Race and Poverty pointed to the same conditions, finding the Twin Cities to be among the most segregated metropolitan areas in the country.  But the power of the Orfield study is documenting how a generation later, despite policies of open enrollment and charter schools, little has changed the educational segregation.  Moreover the report points to a retreat from fair share housing, and the political pressures from the housing and educational community that have exacerbated segregation.
            Now look at education specifically.  Minnesota Department of Education data point to Blacks and other students of color scoring 30 points or more lower on achievement tests compared to whites.  US Department of Education data demonstrates Minnesota near the bottom of the list in on-time high school graduation rates for Blacks, with an overall 67% graduation for Black males (compared to 90% for White Males) according to the 2015 Schott Foundation for Public Education report.  The Black White male graduation gap is one of the highest in the country.  Finally, a 2014 study found Black students ten times more likely to be suspended or expelled from Minneapolis schools than White students.
            Third, look at income and unemployment.  A 2013  Minnesota Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights report found the unemployment gap for Blacks to be three times that of Whites.  A 2015 report by the Center for Popular Democracy found the report to be nearly four times, second worst among states in the nation, only behind Wisconsin.  And 2015 US Census data point to Minnesota as having one of the highest Black White gaps in medium family income in the nation.
            Finally, consider how Blacks experience the criminal justice system.  Nationally Nina Moore’s 2015 book The Political Roots of Racial Tracking in American Criminal Justice describes the existence of two criminal justice systems in America–one for Whites and one for Blacks.  The criminal justice system Blacks experience is one where they are more likely to be stopped, detained, searched, shot, and imprisoned than whites.  This is the reality that BLM Minnesota has sought to highlight. Marie Gottschalk’s Caught: The Prison State and the Lockdown of American Politics evidences Minnesota as having the worst Black-White incarceration ratio in the nation. Michael Tonry at the University of Minnesota has reached similar conclusions.
            The picture is not pretty for Blacks in Minnesota.  Blacks and Whites dwell in separate worlds in Minnesota and experience schools, housing, education, the economy, and the criminal justice system differently.  Their worlds are separate and unequal.  This is the sobering message that BLM Minnesota wants to articulate, yet how effective have they been?
            BLM Minnesota takes it tactics from a page in Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter From the  Birmingham Jail.”  There he writes of the power of use of nonviolent direct action to create a ”crisis and establish such a creative tension that a community that has consistently refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue of discrimination.”  For King, direct action creates a crisis that opens the door to negotiation–it forces White policy makers to act.  This means protests at Mall of America, the State Fair, or seeking to shut down the TC Marathon, with the aiming of forcing a crises and bringing white privilege to the bargaining table.  It’s a great theory, and it worked once, but it is no longer so clear that such a strategy will work.
            For one, so far BLM Minnesota has not brought policy makers to the table. Yes Governor  Dayton and Mayor Coleman have met with them but no policy commitments.  There is also no evidence that state legislators are moving.  Second, as Randall Kennedy’s recent “Lifting as We Climb” essay in Harper’s Magazine suggested, the tactics being used by Black activists today departs dramatically from those 50 or more years ago, and instead of gaining attention of White America, it is alienating them.  The media and public reaction to the State Fair and TC Marathon protests reveal how the BLM protests overshadowed their message.
            But second, Nina Moore points to how even if one reaches policy makers and forces them to the negotiation table, public attitudes and electoral strategies create disincentives for policy makers to dismantle racially discriminatory policies.  Instead, protests such as at the Fair or Marathon reinforce a get tough on crime strategy that only makes matters worse racially.  Needed instead are electoral strategies to change the political incentives.

            Finally, even King’s “Letter From the Birmingham Jail” noted how perhaps the greatest impediment to civil rights reform is the white moderate who says “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action.”  It is the white moderate, here the vast majority of white Minnesotans, who pose the biggest challenge to BLM Minnesota.  They are the ones who need to be won over.  It is they who need to pressure the policy makers to negotiate and change, but so far BLM Minnesota has failed to craft a message and set of tactics to sway them.  Instead, arguably they have done little to succeed with them, raising serious doubt that they have even begun to succeed in making the case for why Black lives should matter in Minnesota.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

What does it mean to be a Democratic Socialist? (And Why Bernie Sanders may not be one)

So what is democratic socialism?  Both the Washington Post and NY Times recently tried to answer that question. In the first Democratic presidential debate candidate Bernie Sanders described in part what it means for him to be a democratic socialist:

And what democratic socialism is about  is saying that it is immoral and wrong that the top one-tenth of 1 percent in this country own almost 90 percent - almost - own almost as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent.  That it is wrong, today, in a rigged economy, that 57 percent of all new income is going to the top 1 percent.

That when you look around the world, you see every other major country providing health care to all people as a right, except the United States.  You see every other major country saying to moms that, when you have a baby, we're not gonna separate you from your newborn baby, because we are going to have - we are gonna have medical and family paid leave, like every other country on Earth.

For Sanders, economic justice and leveling the opportunity and income gap between the rich and poor is what part of what it means to be a democratic socialist.  Yet historically the term has meant  more that economic justice, it also included democratic control of the economy.

Democratic socialism emerges as a political movement in response to Karl Marx’s criticism of capitalism in the mid nineteenth century.  To simplify, Marx had argued that the core problem of capitalism was  a class exploitation and struggle between the bourgeoisie and proletariat where the latter sells labor power which is extracted as surplus value by the former.  The bourgeoisie own the means of production and over time in their race to maintain profits they increasingly replace human labor power with machines, they drive down wages placing more and more individuals into poverty.  This process creates an economic crisis, intensifying class struggle, and eventually creating conditions for a capitalist struggle.  As the theory was eventually amended by Engels, it suggested an economic inevitability for the revolution.  With Lenin, the communist party would serve as a vanguard movement to lead the revolution.  As further amended by Stalin, this party in practice was highly undemocratic.

Starting in the late nineteenth century individuals such as Eduard Bernstein in Evolutionary Socialism argued that the revolutionary tactics and economic inevitability of the revolution were not  practical or certain.  He and others agreed with much of the basic criticism of Marx but instead tied the future of a classless society to parliamentary democracy.  Specifically, the emphasis was upon linking universal franchise to socialist ideals with the hope that socialism could be brought about by elections.  For Bernstein, socialism was an ethical imperative, it was about treating everyone with respect, and it was grounded in the French Revolution ideas of promoting “Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity.”  It was taking the ideals of political liberalism and translating them into economic democracy.  In effect, workers would have democratic control not just of the government but of the economy.

There was serious debate over whether parliamentary socialism was possible, with writers such as Rosa Luxemburg, Karl Kautsky, and Leon Trotsky reaching various conclusions.  But the core argument about what constituted democratic socialism centered on democratic control of the marketplace–it was democratic control of capitalism.  It was about ensuring that workers and not capitalists made decisions about what to invest, not letting the choice simply remain in the boardrooms of corporate executives.

The dividing line between democratic socialism and what we might call enlightened capitalism or liberalism is significant.  John Stuart Mill’s Principles of Political Economy argued that social injustices could be addressed by simple redistribution of economic resources–the classic welfare state.  Here the government would tax the rich and redistribute economic resources, or use its power to improve the economy.  Eventually this would be the Keynesian economics of the New Deal and Great Society.  It is state capitalism for the benefit for middle class and poor, but it is still capitalism.  Yes, the government can act and manipulate the economy for the benefit of the people, but it can also do that for the benefit of the rich.  This is what the US government has essentially done for the last couple of generations, and this is the criticism that Sanders is leveling. 

In so many ways, Sanders is a left liberal following Mill and Keynes–we can use state capitalism to augment  economic redistributions–but he is not a democratic socialist in the classic meaning where the emphasis is upon democratizing both the political and economic systems.  It is about subordinating market choices and the free market to serving democratic imperatives.

Michael Harrington was perhaps America’s finest theoretician of democratic socialism.  He was one of the founders of the Democratic Socialists of America.  His book The Other America in the early  1960s is one of the clearest criticims of American capitalism and it inspired many.  But in his Socialism Past & Future he crisply defines democratic socialism as:

[D]emocraticization of decision making in the everyday economy, of micro as well as micro choices.  It looks primarily but not exclusively to the decentralized, face-to-face participation of the direct produces and their choices in determining the matters that shape their social lives.  It is not a formula  of a specific legal mode of ownership, but a principle of empowering people at the base...This project can inspire a series of structural reforms that introduce new modes of social ownership into a mixed economy.

Democratic socialism is not the central state planning of the economy where the government owns  all the businesses.  It is as Alec Nove describes in the Economics of Feasible Socialism a variety of business types, but all are connected by the idea that there is democratic control over basic economic choices.  What China has with its state-owned enterprises is not socialism, it is state capitalism, and mostly to the benefit of a few.  Few Chinese have much say over the economic choices being made in that country, one where there is a sharper and sharper class divide.

Democratic socialism for Harrington, and Dorothy Day, as well as Norman Thomas, Eugene Debs, and Emma Goldman, is also as Bernstein argued, infused with ethical imperatives about respecting human dignity and the banner of individual rights as articulated by classical writers such as John Locke and John Stuart Mill. Democratic socialism would assail  the power of the rich and of corporations in America, contending that is not enough just to tax them and redistribute wealth.  Instead, it is about saying they do not get to make the political and economic choices that govern the rest of society.  It is saying that the people get to own the economy and decide for themselves.  Capitalism does not dictate how democracy operates, it is vice-versa.

This is what democratic socialism has historically meant. Hillary Clinton is not a democratic socialist.  Nor is Obama.  Both are state capitalists. Sanders may or may not be one or he may be redefining what the term means.  But orthodox democratic socialism is something different than what Sanders described in the first Democratic Party debate.