The truth can hurt—tell it anyway

One of my first jobs after graduating from college was hosting a weeknight radio talk show in Austin, Texas.  This was the early 1980s and Austin was both politically and socially a very liberal town, yet over time I found a higher-than-expected percentage of conservatives among my audience on a radio station that played rock and roll the rest of the day.  I did interviews when an interesting guest was available—Madalyn Murray O’Hair came to the studio one night, had Timothy Leary on the phone once—but often it was an open line to talk about, and debate and argue, topics in the news.  I enjoyed the give and take with people who had a different opinion and were willing to make their case, and to listen to mine and respond on the merits.  I fancied myself left of center but not crazy; I had more than one caller who complimented me for being funny and so reasonable…for a liberal.

This was as a new American conservatism was eclipsing the old one: William F. Buckley, Jr.’s worldview was being subtly undermined and overwhelmed by the Moral Majority appeal to right-thinking Christian evangelicals who were urged to get involved and install their religious beliefs as secular law.  America was a Christian nation after all, they were told, so it was the right thing to do; any fancy intellectual arguments, or any point of view that sprung from a differing interpretation of the will of God, could be safely ignored.

And here we are.  Give the radical right credit: they played the political game on its own terms, they played it smart, and they won.  A lot.  We have the same American states, same U.S. Constitution and structure of government, and at least on the surface we have the same tradition of respect for the rule of law, for freedom of speech, for individual liberty and societal responsibility, as we did forty or more years ago.  But it’s not the same.

I try to be optimistic.  I believe that each new generation of Americans is more committed than the last one to the “liberal values” of racial and gender equity and equality, and the free exchange of ideas, and freedom of religion as well as freedom from religion, and that the fearful closedmindedness at the heart of the professional patriots of today will force their movement to wither and become the appendix of the American political system: present, but useless.

But in the meantime, I think the far right senses that its time is running out, and it’s desperately grabbing at any opportunity to maintain relevance and power, going all out to fortify their calcified beliefs in law and install like-minded judges to protect those gains.  Here in my state of Texas this week, a state legislator who is running in the Republican primary for attorney general has initiated “an inquiry into Texas school district content,” which is to say, he’s using his state house committee to investigate the books that public schools use to teach our kids.  (The vice chair of the committee says the panel never took a vote on this; she learned about it from a local school official.)

Attached to [Matt] Krause’s letter was a 16-page list of books published from 1969 to 2021 that included “Between the World and Me” by Ta-Nehisi Coates and “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness” by Michelle Alexander. Other books on the list deal with issues of race, gender identity and sexuality.

The Fort Worth Republican asked school leaders to identify where copies of the listed books were located in school libraries and classrooms and the amount of money districts had spent on them.

He also asked districts to identify any other books or content that address human sexuality, sexually transmitted diseases, or any material that “might make students feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress” because of their race or sex.

The far right is very good at creating a villain where none existed, then using that villain to whip up fervor among those who don’t know any better.  Think Joe McCarthy, but with a broader canvas.  In this case, appealing to the good Christian souls who don’t have a racist bone in their bodies to battle the evildoers who would indoctrinate the innocent little schoolchildren of Texas into thinking the unthinkable: that the racism of the present as well as of the past, including not just the toleration of human slavery but the promotion and protection of it in law and custom, has tangible effects that all we experience today.

Well, everyone’s entitled to their opinions…how they act on them is another thing.  In the Washington Post this week, Michael Gerson makes the point that only one side in the current ideological dispute in America is threatening the future of our country:

In a country of 330 million people, one can find plenty of anarchist rioters, Marxist college professors and administrators who use tolerance as a club to beat those they deem intolerant. But judging their threat as equivalent to that of the populist right is itself a threat to the country. At some point, a lack of moral proportion becomes a type of moral failure.

My main concern here is with previously rational and respectable conservatives who are providing ideological cover for the triumph of Trumpism on the right. Often some scruple prevents them from joining fully in former president Donald Trump’s gleeful assault on democratic legitimacy. So their main strategy is to assert that leftist depredations against democracy are equivalent. If both sides have their rioters and petty autocrats, why not favor the rioters and petty autocrats whose success will result in better judges?

But here’s the rub: By any rational standard, both sides are not equivalent in their public effect.

Only one party has based the main part of its appeal on a transparent lie. To be a loyal Republican in 2021 is to believe that a national conspiracy of big-city mayors, Republican state officials, companies that produce voting machines and perhaps China, or maybe Venezuela, stole the 2020 presidential election. The total absence of evidence indicates to conspiracy theorists (as usual) that the plot was particularly fiendish. Previous iterations of the GOP tried to unite on the basis of ideology and public purpose. The current GOP is united by a common willingness to believe whatever antidemocratic rot comes from the mouth of an ambitious, reckless liar.

Only one side of our divide employs violent intimidation as a political tool. Since leaving the presidency, Trump has endorsed the view that the events of Jan. 6 were an expression of rowdy patriotism and embraced the cruel slander that the Capitol Police were engaged in oppression. Turn to Fox News and hear hosts and guests referring to a coming “purge” of patriots, alleging that the left is “hunting” the right with the goal of putting conservatives in Guantánamo Bay, and speaking of “insurgency” as a justified response.

Only one political movement has made a point of denying the existence and legacy of racism, assuring White people that they are equally subject to prejudice, and defending the Confederacy and its monuments as “our heritage.” This is perhaps the ultimate in absurd bothsidesism. My side suffers from economic stagnation and the unfair application of affirmative action. Your side was shipped like coal and sold like cattle; suffered centuries of brutality, rape, family separation and stolen wages; and was then subjected to humiliating segregation and the systematic denial of lending, housing and justice. Who can say which is worse?

Gerson is not the first to make this point; it needs to be made more often, with volume and clarity.  This is not a “both sides of the story” thing where you intimate that the two sides just have a philosophical difference of opinion.  And here, journalism has let us down.

The practice of journalism in America has changed over the centuries, if not necessarily evolved and improved.  I come out of the post-Watergate era of journalism education, which taught us to get “both sides” of a story and not favor one over the other.  It was not that a reporter could not have a personal opinion on a topic, it was just irrelevant—the goal in writing a story was to uncover facts and context and assemble them into a narrative for the reader so he or she could better understand an issue and come to their own opinion about it.

Of course, the truth is there have always been more than two sides to most stories, and any reporter’s worldview influences how they go about the uncovering of facts and context.  Editors are there to help smooth that out so the final product is accurate, and fair, and enlightening.  But in the end, the journalism is done for the benefit of the customer: the reader, the listener, the viewer.  We sure as hell are not there to campaign for any politician, yet for generations politicians and their supporters have accused reporters and their employers of being unfair: if you write bad things about me, you’re against me; you’re biased.  It doesn’t matter whether the “bad things” are in fact true, or that the reporter or the paper routinely publish “bad things” about all candidates from all parties.  (From our perspective, those are all good stories!)

But over the years, some outlets—many of them—developed a preemptory defense against accusations of unfairness: report facts, but don’t add context that leads to a judgment about the participants; then they can’t accuse you of being unfair.

Of course, they still can and do make the accusation, so the strategy is flawed on its face.  But in a tragic example of the law of unintended consequences, that acrobatic effort to produce “neutral” journalism is failing the customer.  As Jackie Calmes writes in the Los Angeles Times, in the case of national politics today it is failing the country.

I started to chafe at false equivalence a quarter-century ago, as a congressional reporter amid Newt Gingrich’s Republican revolution. One party — his — was demonstrably more responsible for the nasty divisiveness, government gridlock and norm-busting, yet journalistic pressure to produce seemingly “balanced” stories — pressure both ingrained and imposed by editors — prevented reporters from sufficiently reflecting the new truth.

By 2012, as President Obama dealt with the willful obstructionists, conspiracists and racists of an increasingly radicalized Republican Party, political scientists and long-respected Washington watchers Thomas E. Mann and Norman J. Ornstein put the onus for the dysfunction squarely on the GOP in their provocative book “It’s Even Worse Than It Looks.” Significantly, they implicated journalists: “A balanced treatment of an unbalanced phenomenon is a distortion of reality and a disservice to your consumers.”

The ascension of Donald Trump four years later should not have been such a surprise. With his continued hold on the Republican Party in the Biden era, Mann and Ornstein’s admonition is truer than ever.

Yes, it’s critical for political journalists to remain fair and balanced, in contrast with the right-wing network that cynically co-opted those adjectives. And, yes, variations on the word “lie” justifiably made it into the mainstream — something I never thought I’d see, let alone write — to describe what comes out of Trump’s mouth whenever his lips move. Sadly, that was progress.

(snip)

This is a Republican Party that is not serious about governing or addressing the nation’s actual problems, as opposed to faux ones like critical race theory.

Healthcare costs, child care, climate change, income inequality, you name it — Republicans don’t even acknowledge the problems, let alone propose solutions. Statewide candidates from Nevada to Virginia echo Trump in claiming that addressing (nonexistent) election fraud is, as he put it in another statement Wednesday, “the single most important thing for Republicans to do.”

Republicans in Congress scandalously opposed a bipartisan commission to investigate the Jan. 6 insurrection, which threatened them as well as our democracy. They won’t support a must-pass increase in the nation’s debt limit, despite the trillions of debt that they and Trump piled up. Yet it was Sen. Charles E. Schumer of New York, the Democratic majority leader, who came in for pundits’ rebuke last week when he lambasted Republicans for flirting with a default, just after they’d allowed a temporary debt-limit measure to pass. What was he supposed to do? Celebrate the Republicans’ “bipartisanship” in defusing, only until December, the dynamite they’d lit under the economy?

On Saturday, the Senate’s most senior Republican, Sen. Charles E. Grassley, gleefully accepted Trump’s endorsement for reelection at a rally in Iowa where Trump repeatedly lied that he’d beaten Biden. The next day on “Fox News Sunday,” the second-ranking Republican in the House, Rep. Steve Scalise of Louisiana, repeatedly refused to say that the election was not stolen from Trump.

Democrats can’t be expected to deal with these guys like they’re on the level. Nor should journalists cover them as if they are.

Attention American citizens, time for another quick reality check

Only the people who are employed in America’s political-industrial complex can afford to keep up with all this stuff day to day to day, but some of it you just can’t avoid knowing about.  The Republican candidate for president is:

–seemingly sabotaging one of his own alleged rhetorical strong points–that he will hire “the best people” to take care of America’s problems–with almost every personnel move he makes:

Trump’s campaign has been a roiling, noxious, dysfunctional mess from the start, characterized by public feuds, subject to sudden leadership changes and unable to fulfill key functions (like actually having a campaign apparatus in key states). And Trump’s personnel selections have been both instructive and disastrous.

–finding yet another new way to demonstrate his ignorance of American ideals:..

…more concerning than Trump’s usual lack of specificity was his declaration that “We should only admit into this country those who share our values and respect our people.”

(snip)

what, exactly, are “our values”? I’m betting you and I have some differences of opinion when it comes to what we value. But the good news is, the Founders accounted for that with the First Amendment, allowing for all kinds of different beliefs. Whatever Trump values, citizenship — much less entry into the country — does not require you agree with it.

What citizenship does require, in addition to service, is that immigrants “support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic.” So, if by “our values,” Trump means our laws and Constitution, we’ve already got that covered, Donald. You can take the day off.

But of course, that’s not all Trump means.

contributing to the long-simmering “confusion” of much of the American voting public:

Trump, who says he doesn’t read much at all, is both a product of the epidemic of ignorance and a main producer of it. He can litter the campaign trail with hundreds of easily debunked falsehoods because conservative media has spent more than two decades tearing down the idea of objective fact.

If Trump supporters knew that illegal immigration peaked in 2007, or that violent crime has been on a steady downward spiral nationwide for more than 20 years, they would scoff when Trump says Mexican rapists are surging across the border and crime is out of control.

If more than 16 percent of Americans could locate Ukraine on a map, it would have been a Really Big Deal when Trump said that Russia was not going to invade it — two years after they had, in fact, invaded it.

If basic civics was still taught, and required, for high school graduation, Trump could not claim that judges “sign bills.”

The dumbing down of this democracy has been gradual, and then — this year — all at once.

–and causing a freak-out in the conservative media that wouldn’t have been believed just a year ago:

throughout the election season, it has appeared that Republicans have fielded more attacks from their supposed friends on the right than their political opponents on the left. It’s an incidental twist, considering how Republicans helped foster the growth of the conservative news media in order to avoid the skewering of mainstream journalists.

Instead, it appears their plan of using friendly pundits to tap directly into the vein of red-blooded Americans sympathetic to their political views has backfired. That has boosted the candidacy of Donald Trump

And all of that was just last week!

Nevertheless, each day I read that there are still plenty of people who supported Trump in the primaries and are still behind their man, no matter anything on that list up there or the fact that he seems to be backing off some of the strong rhetoric–and outrageous positions and promises–that (presumably) won him their support in the first place.  In fact, it’s becoming more clear that those people aren’t much interested in the details of what he’s had to say during the campaign so far:

Boz says illegal immigration is a problem, but when it comes to policy, he trusts Trump to figure that out. “Whatever he wants to do, I’ll back him. That’s all I can say. It’s tough,” Boz says.

Inside, Judy Callahan, 69, says she’s preparing to retire from her job as a hospice cook — and devote her free time to volunteering for the Trump campaign. Wearing a red “Make America Great Again” hat, Callahan says she has supported the real estate developer from the beginning.

“I just love him — I love every second of him,” she says.

Callahan says she opposes amnesty and wants Trump to be “strong” on immigration, but it doesn’t bother her that his policy positions can sometimes seem unclear.

“I listen to half of what Trump says,” Callahan explains. “And then I move on because you have to get people’s attention.”

The Onion has been able to describe this new reality most effectively:

“Do you really think you’re going to come up with some new criticism of his policies or his preparedness that will finally make us reconsider our votes?” Gallagher continued. “Please, you should all just save yourself the effort.”

The loyal Trump supporters said their message was directed at everyone who has actively sought to convince them that voting for the real estate mogul is against their own interests, a group that includes current and former members of Congress, members of past Republican administrations, America’s NATO allies, human rights advocates, the pope, and many veterans, as well as their own families, friends, and coworkers. The candidate’s backers added that, considering how they have already gone along with everything he has said and done in the 2016 election cycle, those trying to communicate Trump’s shortcomings to them should “quit wasting their breath.”

Furlough Journal: Blaming the guilty

Welcome to the first full day of my unexpected fall vacation.

As a contractor for a federal agency I’m technically not on furlough right now during this partial government shutdown, like my civil service colleagues are, but we can’t use our government offices or any government equipment to do our work, and I’m just not feeling it about doing the work from home.  (Maybe tomorrow, while I wait for the guy to come to service the heater…I, too, have a spouse who has some ideas about the best use of my time!)

First of all, I got to sleep late, and that should never be underestimated as a means of improving your state of mind.  Then I got to read the papers (in print and online) rather than skimming through them.  Not surprisingly, at least in the mainstream press, there seems to be plenty of criticism for the extremist Republicans in Congress who are responsible for more than 800,000 government employees getting some unplanned, unpaid leave.  They constitute well less than one-half of the party that controls one half of one third of the government, and yet their temper tantrum over the Affordable Care Act—a fight they have lost in Congress, at the ballot box, and at the Supreme Court—has brought a good portion of the government to a halt.  On the other hand, it’s bought me extra time for golf, so…

Of particular interest this morning was The Washington Post, where the notoriously-conservative editorial board has finally gotten off the fence and stopped with the “there’s plenty of blame to go around” bull and identified the guilty party: “the Republican leaders of the House of Representatives are failing. They should fulfill their basic duties to the American people or make way for legislators who will.”

Republicans have shut much of the government in what they had to know was a doomed effort to derail the Affordable Care Act. That law, in case you’ve forgotten in the torrent of propaganda, is hardly revolutionary. It is an effort to extend health insurance to some of the 40 million or so people in this country who have none. It acts through the existing private-insurance market. Republicans tried to block its passage and failed; they hoped to have it declared unconstitutional and failed; and they did their best to toss Mr. Obama out of the White House after one term in order to strangle it in its cradle, and they failed again.

They’re entitled to keep trying, of course — though it would be nice if someday they remembered their promise to come up with an alternative proposal. But their methods now are beyond the pale.

After months of refusing to confer with the Senate on a budget proposal, they have demanded a conference committee to keep the government funded for six weeks. They are rejecting a budget extension that includes limits on federal spending — the so-called sequesterthat they insisted on [my emphasis; PR] and that Democrats oppose. In a particularly shabby piece of faux populism, their final proposal Monday night included a measure to deprive congressional aides, many of whom earn considerably less than the esteemed members, of the subsidy to purchase health insurance that employers routinely provide.

E.J. Dionne:

The issue here is not that Congress failed to reach a “compromise.” The Democrats already have compromised, lopping some $70 billion [this number has been updated from an earlier version] off their budget proposal, to the dismay of many liberals. That was meaningless to a tea party crowd that seems to care not a whit about the deficit, despite its fulsome talk. It will be satisfied only if Congress denies heath-care coverage to some 25 million Americans, which is what “repealing Obamacare” really means.

It needs to be said over and over as long as this stupid and artificial crisis brewed by the tea party continues: Financing the government in a normal way and avoiding a shutdown should not be seen as a “concession.” Making sure the government pays its debt is not a “concession.” It’s what we expect from a normal, well-functioning, constitutional system. It’s what we expect from responsible stewards of our great experiment. The extremists who have taken over the House do not believe in a normal, constitutional system. They believe only in power.

Even conservative Michael Gerson, who argues that the tea party elements refuse to accept reality:

We are no longer seeing a revolt against the Republican leadership, or even against the Republican “establishment”; this revolt is against anyone who accepts the constraints of political reality. Conservatives are excommunicated not for holding the wrong convictions but for rational calculations in service of those convictions.

(snip)

This is reinforced by the development of an alternative establishment — including talk-radio personalities, a few vocal congressional leaders and organizations such as FreedomWorks and Heritage Action — that creates a self-reinforcing impression of its power to reshape politics (while lacking much real connection to the views of the broader electorate).

(snip)

The problem for Republicans (as Democrats found in the 1970s and ’80s) is that factions are seldom deterred by defeat. Every loss is taken as proof of insufficient purity. Conservatives now face the ideological temptation: inviting an unpleasant political reality by refusing to inhabit political reality.

If he’s right, imagine what we’ll see just a few weeks from now when Congress comes up against another highly politicized decision: increase the nation’s debt limit or allow the possibility of government default on payments.  I don’t think I’ll be able to just take a vacation from that one.

In the spring a young man’s fancy also turns to baseball and cars; politics is getting in the way

Yep, another great day: sunny skies and highs in the low 80s in southeast Texas, got a ticket for my first game of the new baseball season tonight, made some good progress with a new swing thought out on the driving range yesterday, and I’m about a week away from trading in a serviceable but boxy and uninspiring VW for a very low mileage Honda two-seater—just the kind I’ve always loved and used to drive—while lowering my costs in the process!  With Rick Santorum’s exit from the GOP presidential primary, I’m hoping we can all enjoy a period of relative campaign quiet, too, but here’s something to roll around in your head before Mitt Romney and Barack Obama, and the permanent political class, use up all the oxygen.

It has looked like, from the vantage point of today, that come November we voters would face a choice between the radicalism that defines today’s Republican Party or another four years of divided government and damn little constructive effort on crucial economic issues.  Even the most moderate-seeming Republican candidate, Romney, was disavowing anything in own past that smelled of reasonableness and compromise, to appeal to the extremists who make up most of the GOP primary voters.  But the need for that should be over now, absent a mind-boggling resurgence from Newt Gingrich or Ron Paul or a last gasp charge to the convention from Sarah Palin or someone of that ilk to rally the “true conservatives.”

But even as Romney starts to redefine himself to appeal to the less ideological among us, Republicans will have a quite a slog in front of them if they wish to broaden their appeal beyond those who’ve already drunk the Kool-Aid.  Former White House speechwriter and senior policy adviser Michael Gerson says it’s not just a matter of trying to counter the Democrats’ “war on women” meme: “The GOP’s main problem is not the contraceptive issue; it is the perception that it has become too ideological on many issues.”

Women and independent voters have seen a party enthusiastically confirming its most damaging stereotypes. The composite Republican candidate—reflecting the party’s ideological mean—has been harsh on immigration, confrontational on social issues, simplistic in condemning government and silent on the struggles of the poor. How many women would find this profile appealing on eHarmony?

This is the hidden curse of the Republican congressional triumph of 2010. Republican activists came to believe that purity is all that is necessary for victory. But a presidential candidate, it turns out, requires a broader ideological attraction than your average tea party House freshman.

From an academic standpoint it will be interesting to see if and how Romney and the more traditional Republican elements work to sand the scary edges off of their primary campaign messages, to widen their appeal and entice the plurality of American voters who don’t ritualistically identify with the Republican or Democratic parties; those are the people who will decide this election.  (The Obama campaign isn’t going to make it easy, already working to reinforce Romney’s “severe” conservatism and other primary campaign highlights.)  Gerson argues that “Mainly, women and independents want some reassurance that Republicans give a damn about someone other than Republican primary voters. It is not a high bar. But Romney needs to start somewhere…”.  I’ll check back in after Memorial Day to see how he’s doing.