He Who Frames The Issue..

I keep thinking about a line from that old Burt Bacharach song–“What’s it all about, Alfie?” After all, figuring out what it’s all about–framing the correct issues– could be the most important task humans face.

We don’t do it well.

I used to tell students that what three years of law school teaches is: “He who frames the issue, wins the debate.” It’s a maxim that the GOP clearly understands.

  • Is the massive assault on trans children an effort to use a wedge issue to political advantage in our ongoing culture war? Or is it, as Republicans piously claim, an effort to “protect” children?
  • Are the various efforts to prevent schools from teaching accurate history and/or providing thought-provoking reading material mechanisms to control the educational narrative, or are they intended to “empower parents”?
  • Does “school choice” allow parents to select schools that are best for their children? Or are such programs a way to circumvent the First Amendment’s Separation of Church and State, so that tax dollars can flow to religious institutions?
  • Are laws forbidding mask mandates efforts to protect our precious individual freedoms, or do they represent dangerous pandering  to the GOP’s anti-science base?
  • Are the gun nuts in the legislature really protecting Americans’ “2d Amendment” rights? (I can’t even come up with an alternate framing rooted in policy–in my view, lawmakers who want to protect kids from “inappropriate” books but not from being murdered by firearms are mentally disordered.)
  • And of course, there’s the mother of all dishonest framing–abortion bans that will inevitably cause the deaths of large numbers of women masquerading as “pro-life” measures, rather than the anti-women efforts grounded in religion and misogyny that they clearly are.

You can probably come up with a number of similar examples of laws defended on the basis of X that are really expressions of Y.

I thought about the multiple examples of GOP excellence in framing when I read that Michigan’s Governor had signed a bill overturning that state’s brilliantly misnamed “Right to Work” law. Right to Work laws are one of the most successful examples of dishonestly “framing the issue” in order to win the debate.

Talking Points Memo recently reported on the decades of successful marketing that gave so many states these laws.

On its face, who’d object to a “right-to-work” law?

By that token, and divorced from its substance, who wouldn’t be “pro-life”? Who quibbles with the assertion that “all lives matter,” or that markets should be “free”?

Right-wing activists have historically been good at branding, at characterizing even policy positions that restrict rights as postures of freedom and advancement.

“Right-to-work” laws are a seminal example of this marketing technique. They have nothing to do with guarantees of employment, but allow those in unionized jobs to opt out of paying union dues — while the unions are still required to provide services, like representation in disputes with management, even to those non-paying workers.

These laws have become the topic of national conversation, as Michigan is poised to repeal its version, the first state to do so in over 50 years.

The article noted the origins of the phrase and the trajectory of its subsequent marketing.

There is some dispute as to the phrase’s origins, but most point to anti-union Dallas Morning News editorial writer William Ruggles as coining the modern usage. In his 1941 Labor Day column, he called for a constitutional amendment to prohibit the “closed shop” or “union shop” — workplaces where unions can negotiate a contract that includes union membership as a condition of employment.

His column reportedly piqued the interest of Vance Muse, an avowed white supremacist who was working for various racist, anti-Semetic and anti-union campaigns — including a push for a “right-to-work” law in Arkansas (the name for the legislation courtesy of a Ruggles suggestion). That effort was successful: Arkansas became one of the first states to pass a right-to-work law, along with Florida.

“Opponents to unionism in the South discovered this brilliant rhetorical phraseology, and they began to propagandize on it,” Nelson Lichtenstein, a professor who directs the Center for the Study of Work, Labor, and Democracy at the University of California, Santa Barbara, told TPM.

 From the beginning, this marketing campaign had a distinctly libertarian bent. It was meant to evoke the idea of individual freedom, that workers should get to pocket their hard-earned cash that would otherwise go to union dues.

Interestingly,  states with right-to-work laws are almost all the same states that have outlawed abortion. As the article notes, advocates for both are extremely good at marketing themselves, and at getting their chosen rhetoric to be adopted by the mainstream.

Meanwhile, Democrats keep using slogans like “defund the police.” No wonder we have minority political control.

Are We There Yet?

I often think about that old quote asserting that “there is nothing new under the sun.”

Of course, there are obviously lots of things that are “new under the sun,” (these days, AI comes to mind) but the very human tendency to use words as labels or weapons, rather than as tools for communication, isn’t one of them. That probably began when the snake sold Adam and Eve on eating the apple.

The problem is, when we use words as  signals or epithets, rather than transmittals of descriptive content, it becomes very difficult to engage in meaningful conversation,  let alone political debate.

Today, terms like “fascist” and “woke” are used to label political opponents rather than to describe particular beliefs or behaviors .

Much like “woke,” (which apparently means “not members of my MAGA tribe”) “fascist” tends to cover a lot of political ground. Which leads me to that saying about nothing being new under the sun, at least when it comes to political discourse.

Back in the day, right-wingers scorned undefined “liberals,” turning the word into a negative accusation. As a consequence, those of a liberal political bent began to self-identify as “progressive.” And as long as I can remember, those on the political far right have reliably labeled any and all social programs as “socialism,” depriving that term of any descriptive use.  Etc.

When words lose their meaning, it becomes very difficult to assess where we are as a nation. Are we on the road to totalitarianism? Fascism?  Given the Supreme Court’s current fondness for returning questions of fundamental rights to the various (and very different) states, is it even possible to talk about a “we”?

What triggered me, and led to this disquisition, was an article warning that America was  dangerously close to fascism.  (My immediate take, for what it is worth, is that the farce that is our current Congress defies comparison to any coherent system.  It’s as though we elected the Keystone Kops.) Like so many articles of the sort, this one didn’t bother to define fascism–but how do we answer the question “are we there yet” unless we know where “there” is?

In my little book Talking Politics, I offered definitions of these very fraught terms.

As I noted, socialism may be the least precise of these political labels. It generally gets (mis)applied to mixed economies where the social safety net is much broader and the tax burden somewhat higher than in the U.S.—Scandinavian countries are an example. Those are more accurately called welfare states, or examples of democratic socialism, since genuinely socialist systems are those in which a fairly autocratic government owns the means of production. It is really important to draw that distinction. When Republicans scream about “socialism,” what they usually warn against is communism; socialism can be an “interim step” toward communism.

Communism begins with the belief that equality is defined by equal results; this is summed up in the well-known adage “From each according to his ability; to each according to his needs.” All property is owned communally, by everyone (hence the term “communism”). In practice, this meant that all property was owned by the government, ostensibly on behalf of the people. In theory, communism erases all class distinctions, and wealth is redistributed so that everyone gets the same share.  In practice, the government controls the means of production and most individual decisions are made by the state. Since the quality and quantity of work is divorced from reward, there is little incentive to innovate or produce, and ultimately, countries that have tried to create a communist system have collapsed (the USSR) or moved toward a more mixed economy (China).

Fascism is sometimes called “national Socialism,” and people who are unaware of history (and ignorant of political philosophy) sometimes get them mixed up, despite the fact that fascism differs significantly from socialism. The most striking aspect of fascist systems is the elevation of the nation—a fervent nationalism (MAGA??) is central to fascist philosophy. There is a union between business and the state; although there is nominally private property, government controls business decisions. Fascist regimes tend to be focused upon a (mythical) glorious past, and to uphold traditional class structures and gender roles as necessary to maintain the social order.

Fascism generally involves a radical authoritarian nationalism, with fascists seeking to unify the nation through the elevation of the state over the individual, and to mobilize the national community through discipline, indoctrination, and physical training. Nazi Germany and Mussolini’s Italy are the most notable examples of Fascist regimes.

Now that we’ve defined our terms (and noted some disquieting parallels), we can ask: where are we heading? And I sure hope  we’re not there yet.





It’s Not Just Gerrymandering

Give credit where it’s due–Republicans are so much more strategic than Democrats. Of course, maintaining minority control requires certain…techniques.

Talking Points Memo recently reported on Texas’ state takeover of Houston’s schools , in an update of an academic article that was first published in The Conversation by an NYU political science professor.

School takeovers are supposedly efforts to improve public school performance. (Although thirty years of that pesky thing called evidence says takeovers fail to do so.) In Texas, however, the usual justification for takeover–that the  school district is failing–was absent; the district was actually doing reasonably well.

It seems that in 2015, Texas’ Republican-dominated legislature granted the state authority to take over an entire school district if a single school in that district failed to meet state standards for five or more years.

 Although the state has given the Houston Independent School District a B rating, it plans to take over the Houston schools because one school, Wheatley High School, has not made sufficient progress since 2017.

Houston has 280 schools serving over 200,000 students. It employs roughly 12,000 teachers. Wheatley High School serves some 800 students, and employs 50 teachers. Why take over an entire system based on the performance of fewer than 1% of the district’s student/teacher population?

Good question, and that NYU professor has an answer.

In order to understand the logic of the planned state takeover of the Houston schools, it pays to understand the important role that schools have played in the social, political and economic development of communities of color. Historically, communities of color have relied on school level politics as an entry point to broader political participation. School-level politics may involve issues like ending school segregation, demanding more resources for schools, increasing the numbers of teachers and administrators of color, and participating in school board elections.

The process of gaining political power at the local level – and eventually state level – often begins at the schools, particularly the school board. For instance, before Blacks and Latinos elect members of their communities to the city councils, the mayor’s office and the state legislatures, they often elect members to the school board first.

In virtually all Red states, Republicans are heavily dependent on White rural voters to retain power, and they gerrymander accordingly. But in states like Texas (and even, in some analyses, Indiana) population shifts mean that in a few years, racial districting won’t be sufficient.  Houston is the largest urban center in Texas; it’s at the forefront of the growing demographic challenge to the GOP’s grip on state power.

The nine-member Houston school board is reflective of the community it serves. It has three Latinos, four African Americans and two white school board members. This, in my view, is what has put the Houston public school system and school board at the forefront of a battle that is really about race and political power.

The Houston public school system is not failing. Rather–according to the article– Republican Gov. Greg Abbott, together with Education Commissioner Mike Morath and the Republican state legislature, has manufactured an education crisis to prevent people of color in Houston from gaining the sorts of experience and exposure that could eventually translate into statewide political power. (Immediately after the takeover, Abbott and his gang threw out all the board members.)

Takeovers aren’t as effective as gerrymandering, but ulterior motives are far less visible…..

What makes this scenario seem so improbable is that it requires considerable strategic smarts; from my Indiana vantage point, Gregg Abbott is a lot meaner than he is smart. But then I think about the massive gerrymandering that Republicans managed to pull off  in 2010, extensively detailed in the book “Ratfucked.” There were highly sophisticated–and undoubtedly highly paid–  political consultants who managed that very successful multi-state operation.

Maybe the Texas takeover is just part of the GOP’s unremitting war on public education, but the article makes a pretty compelling case that it’s part of the party’s ongoing effort to retain political control–control that is threatened by demographic shift.









Schedule The Funeral

One of the negative aspects of aging–what you might think of as the “flip side” of an otherwise welcome longevity–is the steady loss of friends with whom we shared companionship and memories. Those losses can make it more difficult to cope with the other challenges that come with age, especially the accelerating cultural shifts that require an ability to adapt to new norms.

A void is left when what was familiar is no longer there–whether the loss is of people, social norms, or institutions that have been longstanding parts of our lives. 

Take politics.

Most of us fail to appreciate the role that political activity plays in the socialization of millions of Americans. In cities and small towns alike, people volunteer on campaigns, work at the polls on Election Day, hold or attend “meet and greet” events, and generally see themselves as foot soldiers for a chosen political party.

What do they do when that chosen party dies?

In a recent Substack letter, Robert Hubbell focused me on that question.

Hubbell noted three news items: Trump’s post calling for”death and destruction” if he is indicted (reminiscent of his January 6th “Be there, it will be wild,”); death threats received by Manhattan D.A. Alvin Bragg; and a delegation led by Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, to January 6th defendants in pre-trial detention, characterizing them as “political prisoners.” 

He then wrote:

 If the Republican Party was not irretrievably broken, its leadership would have condemned Trump’s statement—and the death threat to Alvin Bragg and Marjorie Taylor Greene’s visit to the January 6th defendants. Instead, they have remained silent.

When a reporter showed Jim Jordan a copy of Trump’s post predicting “potential death and destruction,” Jordan responded that he “can’t read well without his glasses.” Jim Jordan is a craven, depraved coward whose career should have ended with a comprehensive investigation of allegations at Ohio State.

 But here we are. Trump can tease violence and Greene can glorify insurrectionists because there is no Republican Party infrastructure capable of enforcing decorum, decency, or discipline. Instead, grifters and demagogues have appropriated its decaying scaffolding to festoon their campaigns with an aura of respectability they neither have nor deserve. The miscreants who roam the abandoned halls of the house Lincoln built will say and do anything without fear of condemnation or consequence—at least from the Republican Party….

The Republican Party no longer exists in any meaningful sense. It is an empty vessel hijacked by the lowest common denominator of demagogues with the cunning or connections to secure a place on the ballot.

It is simply no longer possible to deny that a mindless, frenzied, hateful mob has replaced a once-respectable political party. Today’s GOP is dominated by the Jim Jordans, Lauren Boeberts,  Marjorie Taylor Greenes and numerous others who don’t understand American government and don’t care to learn.

Actually, if it wasn’t so sad, it would be funny. Following the train derailment in Ohio, twelve GOP Congressmen sent a letter hotly criticizing Transportation Secretary Buttigieg for the performance of  “DOT’s National Transportation Safety Board.” Buttigieg was “alarmed to learn” that those elected officials didn’t know that the NTSB isn’t part of the Transportation Department;  it’s an independent agency.

Republican elected officials don’t feel the need to understand how the government is organized, or how it is supposed to work, because their entire agenda is limited to waging culture war and stirring up fear of the “Other”–attacks on defenseless trans children and civil servants (“deep state” villains), efforts to return LGBTQ citizens to the closet and women to the kitchen,  and constant, vicious assaults on non-Whites and non-Christians as “woke” enemies within.

Last Wednesday, Talking Points Memo published a long look at Mark “Bigg Smoke” Robinson, the sitting lieutenant governor of the Tarheel State, and the likely next Republican candidate for Governor.

Our story focused on his prolific Facebook oeuvre, which includes attacks on the LGBT community, Jews, Blacks, and immigrants. Along with the extremism, Robinson also posted a slew of conspiracy theories about the “Illuminati,” the “New World Order,” and even the moon landing.

Robinson’s digital archive is like a road map of the extremely online modern right-wing radicalization cycle. He was constantly posting, often many times a day. We searched back through several years of his extensive social media presence and saw how he went from Obama-era cable news scandals, to going viral at gun events, and eventually descending into full-on, QAnon-adjacent, pro-Trump rage.

It’s disorienting when we realize that an old friend or familiar acquaintence is gone forever. But the Republican Party we once knew no longer exists.There isn’t even a slight pulse.

It’s past time to schedule the GOP’s funeral–like all decomposing bodies, this one is emitting a putrid smell.



Connecting The Dots

Pew has recently reported on the global eruption of anti-Jewish incidents.

Jewish people were the targets of harassment in 94 countries in 2020, with incidents ranging from verbal and physical assaults to vandalism of cemeteries and scapegoating for the COVID-19 pandemic….

The U.S. hasn’t escaped that worldwide rise.  Violence focused on Jews and other minorities tends to spike in times of social and civil turmoil, and unscrupulous politicians are always willing to stoke the flames. (DeSantis recently  labeled New York DA Alvin Bragg a “Soros-funded” prosecutor, a reference clearly intended to suggest to the anti-Semitic Right that–while Bragg is Black– Jews are to blame for Trump’s expected indictment.) 

For obvious reasons, anti-Semitism is something I take personally. It is also a type of hatred I’ve found difficult to understand–so a recent podcast in which Yascha Mounk interviewed Jonathan Greenblatt, head of the Anti-Defamation League, was very enlightening.

In that Persuasion interview, Mounk raised several questions that have always bedeviled me. For example, the usual explanation for Christian hatred of Jews is religious–rooted in the bogus “Jews killed Jesus” accusation. (I always want to respond  by pointing out that Jews lacked the power to kill anyone; it was the Romans, dammit!) (We also don’t have space lasers…) But if you look at a survey of some of the worst eruptions of anti-Semitism–in the Inquisition and  Nazi Germany, for example– it becomes obvious that  conversion to Christianity doesn’t erase the hatred.

As Mounk noted,

If it’s purely religious, then it should be the case that the moment you convert that there should be no prejudice against you, you should be fully accepted. But if it has an ethnic, racial, and perhaps in certain ways, cultural element, then you go on to say, “Well, OK, you’ve converted, but you’re still a Jew.” Now, obviously, that’s true in the Holocaust: many, many murdered Jews were Protestants and Catholics, had been baptized, and the Nazis didn’t care.

The  whole conversation was edifying , but one observation by Greenblatt triggered an epiphany for me.

What’s different is that anti-Semitism, as the Holocaust scholar Deborah Lipstadt has written, is a kind of conspiracy theory about how the world works that posits that the Jew, the Eternal Jew, in some way is responsible for whatever is wrong. Colorism, we call it racism today, isn’t new. It’s been going on for thousands of years. But that’s where someone feels superior to someone else. Anti-Semitism is “the Jews who are responsible for controlling business, manipulating government, the world’s wars, cheating me,” whatever. There’s a set of recurring myths that seem to cross cultures—that have been reinforced, again, by different sociocultural forces over time—that keep this alive. But I think the conspiratorial nature of anti-Semitism makes it very different. We’re living in a time that is shaped by social media, where we’re trapped in our filter bubbles in a world where everything has become relative. Conspiracy theories are often the coin of the realm in a world in which nothing can be believed and in which anything is possible. People always feel like something is working against them. We shouldn’t be surprised that anti-Semitism not just festers but flourishes in a world in which systems also seem to be failing. Our politics are failing. Markets are failing. Our expectations aren’t being met. That creates the kind of space where populist demagogues come in and their typical toolbelt is blame: “Well, it’s not your fault. It’s the fault of the Jew.” And so the conspiratorial dimension of anti-Semitism, which, again, I think is somewhat unique, because of its recurring nature and how amorphous it is. The immigrant takes your job. The welfare queen takes your money. But the Jew does all of it. 

Until recently, I hadn’t really thought about the prevalence–and enduring political utility– of conspiracy theories, or the recurring role they play in offering comprehensible “explanations” of complicated realities. It has only been with the advent of social media and the Trumpers that I have come to appreciate the role that conspiratorial beliefs play in society, and the way they fulfill the very human need to simplify a bewildering social environment, to understand why-why is my life going the way it is?  Why does that person make more money, or have more friends, or [fill in the blank] than I do?

For many people, ambiguity is intolerable. Such people desperately need to construct a simpler world–preferably, a world where “people like me” are clearly good and others are just as clearly evil. They need to believe– in an ideology, or religion, or a comforting conspiracy theory that tells them who to blame for their problems.

 Conspiratorial world-views require villains. Presumably, with space lasers…