What Works?

by Joan Harvey

Everyone at every moment is guided by what he sees most clearly—compounded with what he sees least clearly. —Paul Valéry

And while this show is going in public, in the background, the wrecking crew is working. —Noam Chomsky

Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar is proposing a new nickname for his agency: the “Department of Life.” An agency, as Ilyse Hogue of NARAL has pointed out, that was a primary architect of putting children in cages at the border.

More frightening is Attorney General William Barr’s announcement of the “Presidential Commission on Law Enforcement and the Administration of Justice.” Under the guise of uncovering “opportunities for progress, improvement, and innovation,” the commission is a thinly veiled move toward increasing the power of the federal government to extend law enforcement and interfere with local decisions. An Executive Order recommends study of:

  • The challenges to law enforcement associated with mental illness, homelessness, substance abuse, and other social factors that influence crime and strain criminal justice resources;
  • The recruitment, hiring, training, and retention of law enforcement officers, including in rural and tribal communities;
  • Refusals by State and local prosecutors to enforce laws or prosecute categories of crimes;
  • The need to promote public confidence and respect for the law and law enforcement officers; and
  • The effects of technological innovations on law enforcement and the criminal justice system, including the challenges and opportunities presented by such innovations.

Then we have the new travel ban. The first ban restricted travel from Iran, Libya, Syria, Yemen, and Somalia, as well as Venezuela and North Korea. Recently six more countries have been added: Eritrea, Sudan, Tanzania, Kyrgyzstan, Myanmar (where the Muslim population is fleeing genocide), and Nigeria. The ban bars a quarter of Africa’s population from applying for immigrant visas to the U.S. Recently Iranians, including American citizens, were singled out at the border in Blaine, Washington and subjected to questioning about their political and religious beliefs.

The Federal Election Commission is down to three members, not enough for a quorum, and so cannot enforce campaign finance violations.

Every member of Trump’s human rights commission is an anti –LGBTQ activist.

The complete wreckage done to environmental laws and regulations is of huge concern. Environmental protections have been stripped from streams, wetlands and groundwater. Rules on climate change, air pollution, chemical pollution, coal mining, oil drilling and protection of endangered species have been gutted or eliminated. The administration has opened public lands in Utah’s spectacular red rock country to oil and gas drilling. Nearly 100 environmental rules and laws have been eliminated or rolled back.

To make all this destruction palatable, there is a billion-dollar disinformation campaign to spread disorienting lies among the public.

As John Meacham has pointed out, Trump is now essentially a monarch. Brookings Institution Fellows and authors Susan Hennessey and Benjamin Wittes agree: “Trump wants the executive to look more like an absolutist monarchy, with all of the glory and unfettered power that entails.” What makes the current presidency truly unprecedented, they say, is how Trump “combines a seething vindictiveness with a total lack of interest in governing.”

Trump even has architecture in his sights. A draft of an executive order called “Making Federal Buildings Beautiful Again” would require federal buildings in Washington and elsewhere in the country to be built in a classical style, inspired by Greek and Roman architecture, eliminating modern design. We’re familiar with his tacky, gilded, “dictator style” taste, a taste Fran Liebowitz has referred to a poor man’s idea of a rich man. Maybe in the next few years we will all be paying rent in a gigantic theme park kingdom named Trumpland.

These things are just the tip of the iceberg, and have led many into a necessary and desperate attempt to diagnose the problem and occasionally to propose fixes. We need to be clear: for any change to happen in this country, acquiring power is essential. We can’t mess around. In spite of the many books and articles on how to do this, we’re still faced with the reality that winning the next election against a corrupt president with a deeply unfavorable rating seems uncertain.

Given the amount of money in politics, rigged voting machines, hacked voting machines, voter suppression, gerrymandering, the electoral college, disinformation, and distraction, there doesn’t seem to be any way to predict how the presidential race will come out, even if a strong Democratic opponent should emerge. Still, we continue to believe the Democrats have a chance. In a comprehensive look at voters, 3 Quarks Daily author Ali Minai writes “We also have the evidence of elections held since 2016 – all of which have shown huge moves towards the Democrats. In the 2018 elections, Republicans were decimated across the board in U.S. House and statehouse elections.”

Minai lists three things to beat Trump in the next election.

  1. Keep the Democratic base united and excited, not taking them for granted, and minimizing leakage to third parties.
  2. Hold on to the new parts of the Democratic coalition that have fueled post-2016 victories.
  3. Counter Republican disinformation and voter suppression aggressively.

But at the moment, Democrats and the Independents who don’t like the current administration are far from united. Ezra Klein has written that because the Democratic party is far more diverse than the Republican party, their job is much more difficult. “[W]inning the Democratic primary means winning liberal whites in New Hampshire and traditionalist blacks in South Carolina. It means talking to Irish Catholics in Boston and atheists in San Francisco. It means inspiring liberals without arousing the fears of moderates.” But, judging from my friends and Facebook contacts and my Twitter feed, people have been splitting into groups that actively dislike each other. And this has little to do with policy. Bernie people can’t forgive Warren for her comments that Bernie said a woman can’t win, and that in the last debate she accused him of taking money from PACs. Some also believe she simply stole his ideas. In their turn Bernie people have thoroughly alienated many Warren people as well as many others. In Des Moines the night before the caucus a Bernie acolyte led a chant that went

“When I say ‘Fuck,’ you say ‘Warren!’”

“Fuck,” he yelled. “Warren,” the audience answered back.

He did the same with all the other candidates. A CU student with a Warren bumper sticker reported being chased in her car by a guy with a Bernie sticker who gave her the finger whenever she stopped. I think these events are rare, but I do know many people alienated by the sometimes cult-like following Bernie attracts.

On the other hand, Hillary’s remarks about Bernie have caused the old bitterness to spring up again, as have all the establishment attacks on him. Bernie’s endorsement by Joe Rogan has further alienated some African Americans who weren’t happy about his record and relationship with their communities in the first place. Biden’s loss at the Iowa caucus was a relief to many who have thought for a long time he is off his game, but many still think he’s the best bet. Klobuchar and Buttigieg are unpopular with lefties, and have poor records on the environment and climate. Many people worry that Bernie’s socialism won’t play well in a general election, and don’t like his views in general, and so are getting behind Bloomberg (who is rapidly rising in the polls). They use the terrible defeat of Corbyn to support their views. The refusal of the DNC to listen to the young progressives who back Bernie could backfire completely. Allowing Bloomberg into the debates now, without the fundraising requirement that other candidates like Julian Castro and Cory Booker had to follow, already seems blatantly unfair. I’m already hearing from many Bernie supporters that Bloomberg is just like Trump and they’d never vote for him. Just as on the right, people are dividing into teams, attacking their opponents, and ignoring any falsehoods or weakness in their own position. And allowing people to cross over for primaries allows Republicans to choose the candidate they think has the least chance of beating Trump, can skew results, and doesn’t change the number of Trump voters on Election Day.

The writer, historian, and activist Ibram X. Kendi has spent a lot of time thinking about which strategies successfully lead to change, and which do not. While his strategies are directed at defeating racism, they are applicable to all areas where policies work against people. Toward the end of his graceful, generous book, How to be an Antiracist, he writes:

Racist power believes in by any means necessary. We, their challengers, typically do not. . . We care the most about the moral and ideological and financial purity of our ideologies and strategies and fundraising and leaders and organizations. We care less about bringing equitable results for people in dire straits, as we say we are purifying ourselves for the people in dire straits, as our purifying keeps the people in dire straits. As we critique the privilege and inaction of racist power, we show our privilege and inaction by critiquing every effective strategy, ultimately justifying our inaction on the comfortable seat of privilege.

 On the other hand Judith Butler speaks for holding to a more idealistic vision:

Take the example of electability. If one takes the view that it is simply not realistic that a woman can be elected President, one speaks in a way that seems both practical and knowing. As a prediction, it may be true, or it may be shifting as we speak. But the claim that it is not realistic confirms that very idea of reality and gives it further power over our beliefs and expectations. If “that is just the way the world is,” even though we wish it were different, then we concede the intractability of that version of reality. We’ve said such “realistic” things about gay marriage before it became a reality. We said it years ago about a black President. We’ve said it about many things in this world, about tyrannical or authoritarian regimes we never thought would come down. To stay within the framework of Realpolitik is, I think, to accept a closing down of horizons, a way to seem “cool” and skeptical at the expense of radical hope and aspiration.

Sometimes you have to imagine in a radical way that makes you seem a little crazy, that puts you in an embarrassing light, in order to open up a possibility that others have already closed down with their knowing realism.

I confess to being somewhat torn between these two positions, but because these times feel so desperate, I’m siding more with Kendi (who would not necessarily disagree with Butler, but here I’m using his words for my own purposes). Power by any means necessary. For example, an activist friend passionate about climate and global warming is working to get donors to promise to make contributions only to candidates who have pledged to take no fossil fuel money (over $200 per donation). She feels it is the only way to move candidates toward a position that will actually make a difference. Whereas I’m of the mind that right now the main thing is get Democrats elected to stop the menace in the White House, and that if they need fossil fuel money to beat a Republican, at this point they should take it. For example someone signing this pledge could not donate to Stacey Abrams.

To achieve anything right now, Democrats also need to win the Senate. This is where my own inclinations are in conflict with what might be necessary. In Colorado, the Republican incumbent, Cory Gardner, has an approval rating of just 36%. He’s been described by the New York Times as a senator in trouble. Colorado went very blue in the last election, so although he will have a huge war chest, there’s an extremely good chance he’ll be defeated. The popular middle-of-the road DNC-backed candidate, former governor John Hickenlooper, has by far the most name recognition and most money of all the Democrats competing for this office. But there is one progressive candidate, Andrew Romanoff, who has a fair bit of name recognition and some money, who is better on many of the issues I care about, and who might have a chance against Hickenlooper. The other eight people running on the Democratic side have no chance. But two are women of color, one of whom is queer, and there is also a young woman who is a scientist, so many progressives feel it is better to support those women than to back a white man who might have a stab at beating Hickenlooper. Which gets me to Kendi’s point about purity and strategy. If the pure thing to do is to support a woman of color, but the end result is a centrist Democrat as Senator, isn’t that self-defeating? Not getting behind the one progressive who has a chance decreases the chances of a progressive in the Senate, a progressive who could actually work on campaign finance reform, which would in the long run help women candidates and POC.

But, as I thought further about this, I also realized that although Romanoff, with unified progressive support, could quite probably beat Gardner, he wasn’t nearly as sure a bet as Hickenlooper. Which made me wonder if there wasn’t perhaps an underlying, perhaps unconscious, perhaps cynical, perhaps realistic, belief among progressives that, as Hickenlooper is the most likely to beat Gardner, it doesn’t matter what progressive candidate is backed, because splitting the vote will actually increase Hickenlooper’s chances of winning the caucus and primary (in Colorado we have, very confusingly, both) and therefore of winning a seat in the Senate. And that is the real goal.

Unlike in many states, in Colorado we feel we still have a functioning democracy. Our Secretary of State has worked to make our voting easy as well as secure. Paper ballots are delivered by mail, and one can register to vote through the day of the election. Last election the state governement turned overwhelmingly blue. The main thing that worked, and worked very well was the very unglamorous work of registering people to vote and then going door-to-door day after day to get out the vote. This is backed up by political forecaster Rachel Bitecofer:

Bitecofer’s theory, when you boil it down, is that modern American elections are rarely shaped by voters changing their minds, but rather by shifts in who decides to vote in the first place. . . .The real “swing” doesn’t come from voters who choose between two parties, she argues, but from people who choose to vote, or not (or, if they do vote, vote for a third party).

When I’ve questioned people passionate about Warren or Bloomberg or Buttigieg or Bernie, almost all say they will vote for whoever the candidate is. But my nightmare scenario is that Bloomberg is the candidate, Tulsi Gabbard goes third party, the Bernie Bros feel, rightly or wrongly, that once more the establishment has cheated them, they vote for Gabbard in protest (many of them love her in spite of her troubling record), and once more Trump wins. Or even without her, they’re angry enough that they don’t vote at all. And we lose the youth vote for the future of the Democratic Party. But if across the country there is a huge get-out-the-vote movement and Bernie people can be persuaded to vote blue even if the candidate happens to be Bloomberg, and Bloomberg people vote blue even if the candidate is Bernie, and everyone else dismayed by Trump votes blue no matter who the candidate is, then, in my opinion, we have a chance.