Friday, November 20, 2015

The GOP's Latest Fascism

Donald Trump long ago stopped being a joke and began representing a serious threat to our country.  From the beginning, I argued that his campaign could be characterized as fascist, and that in this he represented not an aberration within the Republican Party, but a trend.
This week, Trump decided to dispense with the pretense at decency and embrace one of the more obvious attributes of fascism in general, and Nazism in particular.  In an effort to seek scapegoats for economic and international crises, Trump turned first to Latinos in the U.S.  Now, in the wake of the terrorist attack on Paris, he is turning his hate on a new target, American Muslims.
In a recent interview, Trump declared that he would do “unthinkable” things to monitor U.S. citizens on the basis of their religion.  Asked whether “registering Muslims in a database or giving them a form of special identification that noted their religion” would be options, Trump replied that these would all be options.
Suggesting that American Muslims should carry a form of ID referencing their religion clearly evokes the darkest moments of Nazi Germany and its persecution of German and European Jews. 
But the bigotry and Islamophobia that this represents is nothing new for Trump and his supporters.  Months ago, an audience member at one of Trump’s rallies said, “We have a problem in our country, it’s called Muslims.  We know our current president is one”.  Trump did not take the decent approach of calling the man out for his Islamophobia, and simply responded, “Right”.
The audience member escalated, calling for ethnic cleansing when he said, “We have training camps growing where they want to kill us.  That’s my question.  When can we get rid of them?”
To this, Trump replied, “We’re going to be looking at that.”
So here we have the spectacle of a presidential candidate, in a country dedicated to the notion of inequality, to a separation of church and state, and to republican democracy, saying that he will “look into” both a form of ID designed to distinguish members of a religious community from the general population on the basis that they constitute a threat to our country, and a policy of somehow “getting rid of” members of that community, through unspecified means.
But Trump is in good company within his party.
One of the GOP’s “reasonable” candidates, Marco Rubio, said that he might pursue a policy of shutting down Mosques in the United States.  Ben Carson equated Syrian refugees, fleeing a catastrophe created in part by the foreign policy of the United States, with “rabid dogs”.  Chris Christie said that even orphans under the age of five, from Syria, needed to be kept out of the U.S. 
In addition to preaching hatred, ignorance, and paranoia, these politicians are failing to recognize the relationship between their own party’s behavior over time, and particularly its promotion of an aggressive, imperial foreign policy, and the actual threats the U.S. faces.

Scapegoating U.S. citizens of particular ethnic or religious groups is disgusting, wrong, and commits the Republican Party to the abandonment of key laws and protections in our country and on a path to committing some very dark deeds.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Hillary Clinton on Higher Education

For the second time in as many primary debates, Hillary Clinton launched an attack on the notion of free public higher education.  Her rival, Senator Bernie Sanders, has proposed a plan to make public universities free, by way of reducing student debt and creating more opportunities for would-be students in the U.S.
While Clinton has her own policies for addressing student debt (and while Sanders’ policy prescriptions are imperfect), she has mocked and attacked the principle of free public universities.  Her line of attack thus far—calculated to win cheap applause—has been to say that the taxpayers shouldn’t be paying for Donald Trump’s kids to go to university.
There are, needless to say, some problems with this line of reasoning.  And the problems with this reasoning shed light on an even larger problem, at least for those of us resigned to seeing the Democratic Party as our best institutional tool at the national level for trying to make the U.S. a more equal and just society.  Hillary Clinton, the candidate who many want to lead that party into a national election next year, either doesn’t understand something as elementary as a social contract and what makes a public institution public, or else is seeking to undermine and un-do public institutions.
At a first glance, there seems to be something just and logical about claiming that the taxpayers—a term that brings to mind middle class families—should pay to send Donald Trump’s kids to school.  These “taxpayers,” after all, might very well be struggling, and by his own admission, Donald Trump is a very, very rich man.
But Donald Trump is also a taxpayer.  And based on his wealth, he is a taxpayer who should be contributing enough to the public education system to pay not only for his own kids, but for a great many other people’s kids to attend public university for free under the kind of plan envisioned by Sanders.
That’s what a public good ought to be.  A service—like university—provided at no cost to members of society irrespective of their parents’ wealth through contributions from the taxpayers.  Needless to say—although clearly Hillary Clinton does need to hear this—those contributions are proportionate to the wealth of individual taxpayers.
In the first debate, Clinton bragged about working when she went to college, and said “I think it’s important for everyone to have some part of getting this accomplished,” adding that she “would like to see students work 10 hours a week.”
This demonstrates another series of misunderstandings on Clinton’s part, in part about the cyclical nature of the social contract, and in part about the changes in higher education that have occurred since she was a student.
The notion of a cross-generational social contract, that underpins the historic principles of free education and other features of welfare states that enhance the lives of their citizens means that people make the most substantial contributions to the maintenance of public goods and institutions when they have the ability to do so.  When they are younger or older, those requirements wane, and then they are supported by older or younger generations who have taken over as the primary economic contributors to the public welfare.
Therefore, although in a system of truly public higher education (wherein the taxpaying public supports qualified students to attend university at low or ideally no cost) students are not paying tuition and fees to “have some part of getting this accomplished” (as Clinton elegantly put it), they will, later in life, contribute towards the “free” education of others.
Thus, everyone is playing their part, just at different points in their lives.  And if Donald Trump’s kids were able to attend a public university for free, that would be because their father was paying significantly, through his taxes, into a system of public higher education, along with other taxpayers, whose contributions would be proportional to their income and other earnings.
The second problem is with Clinton’s “I worked through college, while walking uphill through snowstorms—both ways!” comment.  Using her experience from the mid-1960s to make intelligent commentary on public policy 50 years later is tin-eared and in this case more than a little silly.
When Clinton was a university student (at a private university), tuition at the country’s preeminent system of higher education, the University of California, was $0.  Today, tuition at the University of California runs at over $12,000, with an estimated total annual cost of over $30,000.  Hillary Clinton, in other words, is speaking as a member of a generation who benefited tremendously from a massive investment in truly public higher education. 
So having benefited from a generous social contract, and generations of taxpayers who invested in giving their generation free access to the world’s best universities, and the opportunities and economic advantages associated with that attendance, Clinton’s generation, and politicians like Clinton, have kicked away the latter, and are asking today’s generations of students to make significant contributions to paying their own way at a time in their lives when they are economically vulnerable, and are asking them to take on significant workloads.
I understand that in the eyes of many, there is virtue associated with work.  Work is good for its own sake, and working while going to college is a sign of strength and responsibility.
I also understand, as someone who has been teaching university students for six years, that asking students to work significant hours while they study is a really bad idea.  Students become distracted, their studies take a back seat, they become overwhelmed by the work, and they miss out on the opportunity to take a few years of their lives to think and learn systematically in an environment designed to foster and support critical thinking.  They miss out on opportunities for research that will make them more competitive on the job market and more proficient at the skills they are honing as they study.  They will miss out on the opportunities to associate with people from other places who have other perspectives.  Asking students to stretch their finite energies and time between work and study—particularly when we have, in the past found ways to ensure that this didn’t have to be the case—undermines many of the benefits associated with higher education.
Hillary Clinton is very clearly not stupid.  She knows how the social contract works.  She understands what public institutions are.  She must know something about the experience of students in today’s poorly-funded and costly public universities.
So I can only conclude, in light of her comments, that she doesn’t support the traditional social contract between generations, and doesn’t believe in truly public institutions. 
That’s fine.  Those are legitimate if ultimately unfortunate and misguided political positions.  But Hillary Clinton, while adopting these regressive positions, is casting herself as a leading progressive, and is competing in the primary of a party ostensibly committed to the defense of public institutions.

So Clinton’s attacks on public higher education, her deceitful rhetoric, and her repudiation of the social contract, are further evidence of her hypocrisy and further evidence that she is advocating a right-wing approach to public policy that is the last thing the U.S. needs at this stage.  All those voters, from whichever party, who are committed to public higher institutions, a fair social contract between the generations, and public institutions at large, should turn away from Clinton and the Republicans, and take a more serious look at Bernie Sanders, the candidate who is unafraid to discuss the benefits of a generous, healthy welfare state.

Discussing Democratic Socialism

Senator Bernie Sanders has recently declared his intention to make a speech explaining democratic socialism—the ideological and policy framework underpinning his presidential campaign—to an American public conditioned to see anything containing the word “socialism” as a threat to the country’s way of life.  Sanders’ speech on Thursday will be a welcome addition to what has become a stale political debate over the past decades, hemmed in by the policy dogmas associated with unchecked capitalism and its mythical “free market”.

In the course of his campaign, Sanders has invoked other countries that he argues practice forms of “democratic socialism,” including Denmark, Sweden, and Norway.  Central to his case has been the argument that far from being a dangerous pipe-dream, democratic socialism represents a viable political formation, which exists in other countries.

Noted U.S. historian Eric Foner, whose work has involved recapturing long-hidden voices in U.S. history, had some advice for Sanders as to how to discuss democratic socialism.  He encouraged the Senator to drop Denmark and “embrace our own American radical tradition…talk about our radical forebears here in the United States.”  Foner lists the likes of Thomas Paine, William Lloyd Garrison, Frederick Douglass, Abby Kelley and the various parties that have served as institutional vehicles for radical political advancement in the United States.

Foner is on to something, inasmuch as Americans tend to be xenophobic, and balk at the idea that they can learn something from other parts of the world.  From a rhetorical standpoint, there is probably value in calling attention to this tradition of radical or socialist thought in the United States.

But the approach that Foner advocates misses one crucial thing.  Sanders’ goal as a presidential aspirant is to convince the public not simply that they can relate to the ideology ostensibly at the heart of his campaign—and I would argue that what Sanders is actually advocating is a form of moderate social democracy—but that this is a system of organizing polities, economies, and societies which can work and has worked.

For this reason, it is both helpful and important to be able to invoke those societies—no matter the ways they might differ in size or demographics or in political structure from the United States—which have used different, and to some eyes radical, political principles in order to create a society that is more equal, more just, more free than our own.  Sanders needs to be able to convince people of the fact that social welfare doesn’t kill jobs, destroy industry, squash innovation, or make automatons of people.


So while invoking radicals of the American past who helped our country to make progress in combatting social and economic inequality is a good thing, it is equally if not more important to explain how as a broad ideology, that would serve as the basis for policymaking in a Sanders Administration, democratic socialism is something practical and workable that has yielded tremendous benefits for a great many people in other parts of the world.  

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Democratic Debate Illustrates Void in Foreign Policy Thinking

Shaped as it was by yesterday’s horrifying terrorist attacks in Paris, tonight’s Democratic Party primary debate exposed the impoverished state of coherent, intelligent, and forward-looking thought about international affairs in the Democratic Party.  While none of the three candidates offers the same toxic mix of casual and catastrophic violence, xenophobia, and rank ignorance as the GOP, they had nothing like a coherent, progressive, imaginative policy agenda for thinking about and acting on the major challenges facing a world wracked by violence.
There were, however, substantial differences in the ways in which the three candidates reflected on events, viewed recent history, and deliberated about how to contend with global terrorism.
Clinton invited us to think about history and invoked a history of U.S. “victimization” by history.  But a truly historical perspective would ask us to think about why the U.S. has been attacked over the years, and whether our behavior has created some of these threats.  They did not, after all, emerge from nowhere.  In contrast, Sanders invoked the history of U.S. efforts at regime change around the world, and connected these to terrorism and instability.  I know whose grasp of historical evidence and critical thinking would earn the better grade in my history class! 
However much better his instincts on foreign policy might be than Hillary Clinton’s, Bernie Sanders was nonetheless again incoherent and garbled.  He needs to do far more work in developing a thoughtful, progressive, pro-active foreign policy for a variety of important reasons.
Martin O’Malley was similarly disjointed in attempting to outline an international policy agenda.  He identified the lack of human intelligence as central to the countless failures of U.S. foreign policy making in the past years.  That is incredibly na├»ve, and overlooks the far more important role of a dysfunctional worldview and an over-mighty security state in mangling our ability to engage rationally with the world.
Nonetheless, no candidate was as frightening as Clinton when it came to articulating a foreign policy, not least because of her record.  We know Clinton as a supporter of the illegal, immoral, and disastrous war in Iraq.  We know her as the Obama administration’s strongest civilian advocate for regime change and war in Libya, Syria, and elsewhere in the Middle East.  We know her as a reactionary who, as Secretary of State defended dictators and autocrats against the democratic uprisings of the Arab Spring and helped to ensure, through her defense of them, that those uprisings were failed or mangled in many instances.  We know her as a defender of unconscionable Israeli colonialism that endangers the lives of Palestinian subjects and Israeli citizens alike.  We know her as a defender of Morocco’s indefensible colonialism in Western Sahara.  And we know her as the public servant who attacked as a traitor Edward Snowden, who shed light on the terrorism and abuse of the security state she has helped to enlarge.
Tonight’s debate offered further evidence of the dangerous nature of Clinton’s worldview.  She blamed the rise of ISIS on the Iraqi government and the Assad government in Syria.  Neither of those governments are blameless.  But to omit mentioning that the event most responsible for the creation of ISIS was the war in Iraq that she voted to authorize, and then never critiqued except along managerial lines, is appalling. 
Clinton also referred to former Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi as the “Muslim Brotherhood president” in Egypt who was “installed”.  The reality, as Clinton should recall since she was Secretary of State at the time, is that Morsi won an election, and was “elected”, not “installed”.  She might not care for the Muslim Brotherhood.  But the choice of president was Egyptians, and not hers.  But I can understand her reluctance, given the effort she expended in undermining Egypt’s democratic uprisings and defending the dictator Mubarak’s regime in the name of “stability”, small comfort to the Egyptians who perished or whose rights were extinguished under his 30 year regime.
When asked how to confront ISIS and other instances of terror, Clinton invoked the Authorization for Use of Military Force passed after 9/11, suggesting that it was sufficient to authorize a president’s military response to ISIS.  This is deeply disturbing.  AUMF gave Bush the authorization to “use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001”.
ISIS is in some regard connected to 9/11, inasmuch as the Bush Administration used it to gain public support for their invasion of Iraq and lied about connections between Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein in order to persuade irresponsible and frankly ignorant representatives like Hillary Clinton to write them a blank, bipartisan check for the war that created ISIS. 
But the idea that a 2001 authorization for the pursuit of those individuals who attacked the U.S. 14 years ago can grant the president the authority to wage war against any terrorist group in 2015 is absurd, makes a mockery of the law, and demonstrates how quick Clinton would be to abuse Bush-era laws and take the U.S. into new wars. 
Clinton’s foreign policy record should be subjected to far more critical scrutiny by both Sanders and O’Malley, and the media.
Sanders was less hesitant than in previous debates to criticize Hillary Clinton, and having identified her vote for the Iraq war as a mistake with dire consequences, he also called attention to her long-term ties to Wall Street.
Clinton took umbrage, and whined about having her integrity impugned.  Sanders must have used a microscope to locate and question her integrity, given her career of hypocritical, regressive, flip-flopping, neo-conservative war-mongering, and sympathy for the irresponsible financial industry. 
Sensing that she was on the defensive, Clinton actually went so far as to invoke 9/11 as the reason for Wall Street’s support for her campaigns over the years to the tune of more than $35 million (her total haul of corporate money is far higher). 
Hillary Clinton once again revealed herself as the most right-wing of the three candidates when it came to social welfare.   She refused to acknowledge healthcare as the right that it is in much of the world, as opposed to the privilege that the over-priced and under-performing healthcare sector is the U.S.
She also proved her regressive credentials when it came to higher education.  The moderator criticized Bernie Sanders’ plan to make public higher education free by citing a 63% graduation rate across colleges.  This low rate, the moderator suggested, was a good reason not to “waste” money on making that education free
What Sanders should have said but didn’t is that a significant reason why a large number of college attendees have difficulty in completing their degrees is the high costs and massive debt associated with higher education.  Many students drop out because of this debt, and others leave their degrees unfinished as their college careers drag out over too many years because of the need to work as they study.
Investing in higher education, and making it free—as it was in many states for many years—is a good way to equip students with the tools to finish their degrees and emerge unencumbered by crippling debt.
For the second debate running, Hillary Clinton angled for cheap applause, framing her opposition to free public higher education as an opposition to taxpayers paying for Donald Trump’s kids to go to college for free.
But the very definition of public higher education is a system in which ALL students, irrespective of their parents’ wealth, attend college for free, supported by the taxpayers at large, who pay into that system according to their wealth.  Until the likes of Ronald Reagan came along, this was the model in California, home of the country’s—and arguably the world’s—best system of public higher education.
There were important moments during the domestic policy sections of the debate.  But I was most struck by the initial, lengthy foreign policy discussion.
It left me disheartened.  The Democratic Party has ceased to be—if it ever was—an entity which has anything resembling a moral or coherent world view, any sense of history, or an ability to hit back at the narrative our security state has constructed about the place of the U.S. in the wider world.  The Party is increasingly being pulled to the left in economic terms, and this will be to the long-term benefit of our public.  But none of that progressive momentum has filtered into thinking about international affairs, institutions, or innovations, and I fear for our country and our world.
In the past week, events in Beirut, Paris, and elsewhere have illustrated some of the dangers—regularly on display, often un-reported—that define the lives of too many people in the world.  They have illustrated the inadequacy of our global institutions, our policy frameworks, and our leadership to address our global crisis with anything resembling long-term or thoughtful policymaking.  The U.S. must play a role in whatever changes occur in this sphere.  And while the Republican Party offers nothing but naked violence, I see little better coming from a morally and intellectually impoverished Democratic Party based on tonight’s debate.