Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Celebrity culture takes over politics: A reality TV flop endorses a reality TV star for president

By Marc Jampole

That reality television flop Sarah Palin was endorsing reality television star Donald Trump for the office of president of the United States has been known since late August, when Mint Press covered it. The Mint Press story said that in return Trump might give Palin a cabinet-level position in his administration. Fortunately or unfortunately, a lot of Mint Press stories are ignored by the rest of the news media. In this case, the story never mentioned a specific endorsement speech.

At the time I wrote, “The news is pure hot air—the insubstantial stuff of which the celebrity news is constituted. Everyone knows that there is no way Trump will get nominated by the Republicans, and if he runs as an independent, there is no way he will win the election.”

Fast forward to two weeks before the Iowa caucus and half of what I predicted may turn out to be false. We may very well see the Republican Party nominate Donald Trump as its presidential candidate. 

Nothing has changed about the incompetent Palin. She has managed to become a has-been in three professions—politics, reality TV and news-casting. Palin disappeared from the political radar, I think, because her ignorant opinions and frequent misstatements scare off all but the small base of rightwing Christian fundamentalists who were always her primary audience. For that base to matter to Trump or any other candidate, there would have had to have been a larger audience for Mamma Grizzly’s reality show. As it turns out though, Palin’s name matters a little bit in Iowa. Her second attempt at endorsing Trump comes the same day that Iowa Governor Terry Branstad asked Iowa caucus-goers to vote for anyone but Ted Cruz. The push-and-pull of Palin and Branstad so soon before the caucus may help Trump defeat Cruz, which would mark the beginning of the end of the Canadian’s candidacy.

The announcement itself was pure Barnum & Bailey. Someone living off a long-tarnished reputation endorsed someone known to the American people primarily as a business celebrity. This was the perfect Kodak moment for the 2016 campaign, which represents the apotheosis of American celebrity culture. Since the 1960 election of John Kennedy with fewer than 50% of the vote, the news media have gradually taken the focus of their election coverage away from issues and placed it on the same concerns that dominate celebrity news: Gotcha’s and mistakes. Personality clashes. What others think. Family life. Hobbies. Speaking style. Charisma. Skeletons in the closet. Long-time grievances and jealousies. Insulting other candidates. The latest popularity contest. The race for money. 

In every election, ever more time and space is devoted to “celebrity issues” and ever less time to economic, social, international and environmental issues. Moreover, since the turn of century, at the same time the media has been celebritizing our news, reality TV in all of its formats has grown to dominate broadcast and cable television.

Today’s announcement thus marks the final stage in the blurring of political news and celebrity entertainment. It is an announcement that resonates as loudly in the world of reality TV as it does in the world of politics.

Virtually every cable news show made the Palin-loves-Trump announcement the focal point of news coverage for the day. An army of pundits and experts appeared, each spinning the announcement to support his or her own opinion or speculation on where Iowa and New Hampshire voters, the Republican Party and the country are headed and why. Lots of hot air with very little content. Imagine an “American Idol” in which the judging took 50 times longer than the singing, and instead of three judges, there are 60 or 70.

Treating the nominating process as if it were a reality show distracts the American public from considering carefully what the candidates say they will do. It keeps us from realizing how bad the Republican program is for anyone who isn’t rich and privileged, because we’re too busy analyzing the gotcha’s and trying to figure out if the non-Trumpeteers will coalesce behind Cruz, Rubio or someone else. In the process, each candidate becomes redefined as a celebrity brand that we can describe in a few sentences, as opposed to the pages it would take to describe their positions on important issues.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Whither The Base?

As I watch the Republican three ring circus I’m tempted, like many Americans, to turn to news coverage. It’s a coping mechanism I suppose; the last breaths of a politico drowning in front of something he’s never seen before and cannot explain.  And as I watch the mainstream a troubling thought continues gnawing at me. Every talking head keeps yammering about the Republican base.  Which candidate will best appeal to the Republican base?  How big is the Republican base in vote-rich states? How does the Republican base feel about Donald Trump?  How will the base react to the Trump/Cruz slap fight?  These, and myriad base-related questions are discussed by TV experts, guests, and even candidates on an endless, 24-hour loop. But I often find myself wondering if a Republican “base” exists in the way that we’ve always understood it to.  Just so I’m clear; I’m defining “base” as the largest group of voters in a party that pretty much agrees on various fundamental issues even if they may disagree on certain niche issues.  For fun and clarity, here’s my idea of a Democratic “base” voter: they recognize the lunacy of “trickle-down,” they don’t think one is “playing the race card” just because one mentions race, they are incredibly unlikely to believe in a War on Christmas, they care very much about poverty and access to healthcare, and they don’t believe the President is a secret Kenyan/Muslim/Commie-Nazi, etc.  You could probably throw a few more common ground issues in there and *bam* there’s your generic Democratic base voter.  They exist.  I know this first hand.
I’m not so sure about the Republican base. Donald Trump can and will out-racist all but the most hardcore racists.  But some of his economic comments (and his policy, vague as it is) are suspiciously populist. In fact, a group of self-identified “Fiscal-First” Trump voters were asked to examine Sanders and Trump in a purely economic light, and many supported the Bern for economic reasons though they were quick to note that Sanders would never make it out of the Democratic Primary.  
So what happened? There used to be a recognizable Republican base. In fact, they marched in virtual lockstep. Nightmarish proof was the last RNC. A creepily named Reince Priebus presided over a dutiful crowd of fellow travelers. The trains ran on time. The appropriate dog whistles were blown. Aside from a few true libertarians (i.e. not just people embarrassed to admit to being Republicans in polite company) whose presence seemed even stranger bathed in the harsh light of so many very republican Republicans, everyone was basically in agreement with everyone else.  It was the perfect antecedent to the DNC, where, as always, everyone found a way to politely argue about everything.   I even wrote about the weirdly stark contrast at the time.
Now things seem completely turned upside down. I’ve always agreed with retired 4 Star General and Secretary of State Colin Powell’s famous quote, “My Party is full of racists,” and, in quite moments I wonder if I’m giving his party a fair shake. But, excluding the very small group of Trump economic voters, who say they’d be just as happy to vote for Bernie Sanders, the common denominator among Trumpsters seems to be their unadulterated racism. That, and they, like Sanders supporters, seem sick of playing what feels like a rigged game as the middle class rockets closer to being renamed the high-end poor. The creeping problem is that Sanders will point out that systemic poverty disproportionately crushes minorities. He’ll do so until his crazy looking hair seems to be rebelling against his head, and his accent begins to make him sound like some sort of gangster alien. Trump, in contrast, never seems to mention that the poor are far more likely to be anything but white. Or, if he does mention the hue of poverty, he chalks it up to an epidemic of losers. Moochers. There’s always a reason for the impoverished to remain trapped in poverty.  They deserve it.  
We could write this off as a fringe candidate getting away with being a lunatic if the craziest things Trump’s said cost him voters. But rather than costing Trump voters his attacks on every minority seem, statistically at least, to earn him followers. The Mexicans=rapists press conference, followed by the still inexplicable “who’s doing the raping” phone call sent his campaign into hyper-drive. Just about every time he’s attacked an ethnic group he’s surged. 
The lulls come when he abandons this garbage and actually tries to address other issues. Again, it’s detrimental to his numbers when he isn’t being outlandishly racist. So what can we conclude when the front runner’s best strategy is to shout the most offensive thing rattling around in his head? Yes, one could point out that Ted Cruz is threatening Trump, but Cruz expresses the same racist ideology. Cruz just does so in a generally nicer, slightly veiled way. It’s politically calculated racism that contrasts well with howling Trump racism. That means we can, as part of our trip down the Republican rabbit-hole, remove the Cruz voters who are just afraid of sending a clown into a general election.  We can also remove the Trump economic voters … though some still seem uncomfortably comfortable with leaving out the racial component of poverty. We can do all of that and we’re still left with a huge group of “Republican” voters. A colossus of Cruz and/or Trump supporters. A base, if you will. So that is what the modern Republican party, writ large, has become.  

Were they always this way? I’d like to think not. The Dixiecrats aren’t that far removed from memory. I’d like to think that pre-Obama/secret Kenyan hatred, modern Republicans were not this racist and xenophobic. I’m desperate to find another reason—any other reason—why the two most anti-minority candidates are collectively crushing the field.  Unfortunately, the staggering weight of just about every metric combined with all the evidence seems entirely stacked against me. There is one hateful issue that the base now agrees upon. It even rallies around it. There simply isn’t any other conclusion to be drawn.      

Mainstream media loves illogical articles that blame liberals for the ills created by conservatives

By Marc Jampole

In a self-righteously overwrought article that blames liberals for the lack of gun control laws, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof either makes a classic rhetorical mistake or employs a reliable propaganda trick: stating that just because two things happened at the same time, one caused the other. In algebraic terms, the flaw unfolds thusly: A is true, B is true, therefore A caused B.

In “Some Inconvenient Facts for Liberals,” Kristof points out that since 1993, gun homicides have dropped by 50% while gun ownership has increased by 50%. Kristof wants us to believe that the increase in the number of guns in circulation led to a decrease in gun homicides.

But he’s wrong, and he may know it.  Note that Kristof refers only to gun homicides: all gun deaths and injuries are up over the past 20 years, whereas all homicides are down, not just gun homicides. Two years ago, Oliver Roeder, Lauren-Brooke Eisen and Julia Bowling of the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School, released What Caused the Crime Decline?, which analyzed all of the possible factors leading to a decline in the crime rate using the most complete reports and advanced computer modeling techniques. Among other interesting revelations, the trio found that enactment of looser gun laws had absolutely no effect on the crime rate. Also note that statistics from around the world demonstrate that when private gun ownership increases, so do homicides, deaths and injuries from guns.

Instead of citing a statistic out of context as Kristof does, if we look at the totality of available evidence, we must conclude that if the number of guns had not increased in society gun homicides would have declined even more than they did over the past 25 or so years.

Kristof wonders, at least rhetorically, why legislatures don’t pass anti-gun legislation, when most Americans want stiffer gun laws, including 74% of National Rifle Association (NRA) members. He answers his own question, blaming liberals for antagonizing gun owners by coming across as “supercilious, condescending and spectacularly uninformed about the guns they propose to legislature.”

His two examples of being uninformed don’t prove anything: 1) He says the New York State legislature was uninformed when it passed legislation banning gun magazines holding more than seven bullets, when for most guns, the magazine always holds more than seven bullets. All that proves is the legislators were covering all bases. 2)  He points out that assault weapons accounted for only 2% of guns used in crimes and references without citing a study that found that only 2% of all guns used in crimes were assault weapons. Kristof wants us to draw the conclusion that the fuss about reinstituting a ban on assault weapons is wasted effort and shows the ignorance of liberals. The online edition of the Times thankfully provides a link to the study, by three University of Pennsylvania researchers. Titled, “An Updated Assessment of the Federal Assault Weapons Ban: Impacts on Gun Markets and Gun Violence, 1994,” the study states that assault weapons account for a large share of police killings and public mass murders, again demonstrating that liberals were not uninformed. Congress knew when it passed the temporary ban on assault weapons in 1994 that it would reduce police and mass shootings, and it did, for the ten years it was in effect.

As to the charge of superciliousness and condescension, Kristof provides not one shred of evidence, not one quote, not one attitudinal study, not one Internet word analysis.  He’s just tarring liberals with some unpleasant adjectives. His ad hominem attack on those who favor gun control conveniently shifts that blame for our loose gun laws to the “supercilious” liberals and away from the NRA and the multitude of politicians on the state and federal level who pig out at its all-you-can-eat money trough.

Kristof declares that he is sympathetic with those advocating tighter gun control laws. He writes that “Americans are absolutely right to be outraged at the toll of guns.” He agrees we need to reduce the carnage from guns, and proposes what he calls a new strategy, to take a “public health approach.” Essentially he wants to stop talking about “gun control” and start talking about “gun safety.” As if changing one word is going to completely rebrand the gun control movement and make it more palatable to the NRA, whose supporters—weapons manufacturers—depend on selling the myth that the only way to be safe it to own a gun and carry it with you everywhere.

Kristof is a fool if he actually believes that if “liberals” had presented the proposed ban on selling guns to suspected terrorists as a “safety” measure instead of a “control” measure” the NRA would have signaled their legislative factotums to vote “yes” or those factotums would have felt secure enough in the desires of the electorate to defy the NRA. No way.

Near the end of the article, Kristof calls for universal background checks for anyone wanting to purchase a gun. Why he supposes calling such a new law a “gun safety” measure will matter to the NRA and legislators remains a mystery.

In short, Kristof’s column is nonsense, the sole purpose of which is to blame liberals for something that is not their fault. The mainstream news media seems to love these articles by centrists or self-loathing liberals that fault liberals and progressives for their inability to pursue their political agenda. Perhaps the self-loathing liberal motive shows up so often media because the owners of mainstream news media tend to be corporations and ultra-wealthy. Like Kristof’s, these articles typically neglect the power of money, influence and control of the news media to subvert the desires of the American people, not just when it comes to gun control, but also on economic, educational, tax and healthcare policies.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Editorial: The Race Gets Serious

Enough progressive Democrats are feeling the Bern that Hillary Clinton is feeling the heat in what has become a real race for the Democratic nomination for president. Clinton has watched her commanding lead in the polls evaporate as the Iowa caucuses approach on Feb. 1, and while she still can count on the party establishment, Bernie Sanders has the momentum, particularly among younger voters who are attracted by his populist insurgency.

Polls show Sanders has positive favorability ratings, while Clinton and the leading Republican candidates, Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, have negative favorability ratings. Sanders also performs better than Clinton in matchups against Trump and other potential Republican nominees.

However, Bill and Hillary Clinton have been pounded by right-wing media for two dozen years and since Hillary has embarked on her own political career the wingers have targeted her anew. House Republicans set up the House Select Committee on Benghazi, the eighth committee to investigate the attack on the US diplomatic mission and a CIA compound in Benghazi on Sept. 11, 2012. After the first seven congressional probes failed to uncover wrongdoing, House Republicans in May 2014 set up the Benghazi committee, taxpayer-financed, to take down the former secretary of state, as House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy admitted. It has proceeded with leaks of damaging documents and testimony, often taken out of context, and the proceedings have dragged into the election year, raising concerns that a final calumny will be issued shortly before the November 2016 election.

Even the New York Times embarrassed itself with reports claiming that Clinton may have committed crimes with her use of personal email for official government business. Those reports were later debunked.

Clinton has survived these attacks, while Sanders has been largely ignored by the corporate media. If the Vermont independent senator takes the lead in the Democratic race you can expect the corporate media to catch up with reckless reporting on what Sanders’ brand of “democratic socialism” might mean for America if he makes it into the White House.

We understand that Sanders represents a 21st-century update of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. He would strengthen and expand Medicare and Social Security; he’d re-regulate Wall Street and crack down on reckless megabankers; he’d replace “free trade” bills that enable multinational corporations to move manufacturing jobs out of the country; he’d provide free public education through the university level.

These populist positions enjoy the support of majorities — in some cases supermajorities — of the American electorate. But when Fox “News” and right wingers on the “mainstream” news channels get done with Sanders, he’ll be depicted as the second coming of Josef Stalin. Meanwhile, real capital-S Socialists have little use for Sanders because they see him as too willing to work with capitalists and support military interventions overseas.

Sanders also has rejected the use of “super PACs” run by allies to supplement the resources of the official campaign, nor will he take corporate or PAC contributions for his own campaign. So Democrats would have to rely on a campaign financed by small-time contributors — a million of them contributed $73 million in 2015 to keep the Sanders campaign afloat so far. (Clinton raised $112 million for her campaign during 2015. She also raised $18 million for the Democratic National Committee and state Democratic Parties nationwide, and she has super PACs working on her behalf.) But Republicans are prepared to spend more than a billion dollars to beat whoever the Democrats put up.

This is not to say that Sanders’ professed socialism or his reliance on principles is bad, but potential supporters need to recognize what they’re getting into. Many older Democrats remember what happened when a principled liberal senator and war hero from South Dakota (George McGovern) was swept into the Democratic nomination in 1972 by a grassroots campaign that relied on youthful supporters. Then McGovern ran up against an unscrupulous incumbent in the general election who used every dirty trick he could to gain an advantage. Richard Nixon won every state except Massachusetts and D.C. as he rolled to re-election

If you want to shake things up in the Democratic Party and on Wall Street, Bernie is your man — and you don’t need to apologize to anybody for supporting him. If you want a center-left Democrat who had a progressive voting record in the Senate but with whom Wall Street is comfortable, a candidate whose vulnerabilities have been pretty clearly identified and who is willing and able to raise millions of dollars and accept the assistance of super PACs to combat the right-wing attacks that will only get worse, Hillary is your woman.

Either one of the Democratic frontrunners is far better than anybody the Republicans have to offer. So get out to your caucus or vote for your candidate and let the best candidate win.

Obama Should Have Dropped the Mike

President Obama delivered a solid valedictory State of the Union Address to Congress on Jan. 12. He was trying to set the terms of the debate for his final year in office, while knowing that any initiatives he proposes will be received with disdain by the Republicans in charge of the House and Senate and deep-sixed.

Obama allowed himself a boast that the US has the strongest, most durable economy in the world. We’re in the midst of the longest streak of private-sector job creation in history, with 14 million new jobs, an unemployment rate cut in half and the auto industry thriving seven years after GM and Chrysler faced bankruptcy. And he’s done this while cutting deficits by almost three quarters — all while Republicans were insisting it couldn’t be done.

We wonder if Obama was messing with the Republicans when he announced that he would like to see the equivalent of a “new moonshot” to cure cancer. We expect to see a cancer advocate appear on Fox News expressing concern about the downside of Obama’s war on cancer.

President Obama expressed regret “that the rancor and suspicion between the parties has gotten worse instead of better. I have no doubt a president with the gifts of Lincoln or Roosevelt might have better bridged the divide, and I guarantee I’ll keep trying to be better so long as I hold this office.”

We think Obama sells himself short. If the South had seceded again in the runup to Obama’s inauguration, instead of Republicans simply vowing to oppose everything he proposed, Dems might have kept control of Congress and Obama could have passed more bills.

When Franklin D. Roosevelt took over the Presidency in 1933, Democrats controlled 64% of Senate seats and 73% of the House. And those numbers increased over the next couple elections — during their peak during 1937-38, Dems controlled about 80% of seats in both chambers. Even with many of them being southern conservatives, the partisan advantage helped FDR when it came to reforming federal programs to help working people survive the Depression.

Obama had a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate for about 14 weeks in 2009. In that time Democrats managed to pass a stimulus bill that kept public works projects going around the nation, bailed out GM and Chrysler with loans that saved more than a million auto industry jobs and helped pull the economy out of the tailspin. And Dems passed the Affordable Care Act and the Dodd Frank bill regulating Wall Street. Republicans fought them at every step.

Finally, Obama called for Congress to approve the Trans-Pacific Partnership. He said it would protect workers and the environment and support good jobs in America. Organized labor and environmental advocates disagree that the TPP will do any such thing. They say they were excluded from negotiations while representatives of multinational corporations were welcomed into the talks. Republicans probably will wait until after the election to take up the agreement. Now is the time to buttonhole your congressmember and if he or she is a Dem urge a vote for American workers and against the TPP. If your congressmember is a Republican, demand a vote against the trade bill negotiated by the Kenyan dictator. Whatever works. — JMC

From The Progressive Populist, February 1, 2016

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Selections from the February 1, 2016 issue

COVER/Quint Forgey
Evangelicals drive Ted Cruz in Iowa

The race gets serious; Obama should have dropped the mike


Obama, Plato and why leaders lead

RURAL ROUTES/Margot McMillen
We have the right to remain active

Pipeline promoter’s lawsuit might boost trade pact opponents;
New Louisiana governor expands Medicaid on first day;
US solar industry creates more jobs than oil & gas extraction;
Oklahomans sue frackers over earthquakes;
Good jobs report for December;
Bernie Sanders gets MoveOn endorsement;
Americans are happier and angrier than ever;
Major coal company files for bankruptcy;
Public sector unions brutalized at Supreme Court ...

Gun lobby gets what it wants: fear

2016: When the voting starts

2015: The year the GOP got conned

Shutting the door

Immigration is still making America great

Red altert: A cultural flatline? 

After Paris, our work continues

HEALTH CARE/Joan Retsinas
Medicare Part D: Rethinking public-private

Who will prevail in climate change debate?

Born in the USA?

Populism and its antithesis

Governments, markets, entrepeneur success

Another apology for Congressman Steve King

Sanders socialism, then and now

Four reasons for labor to cheer in the South

Searching for housing gets curiouser

The surefire method to defeat terrorists

Martin Shkreli: My person of the year

and more ...