August 29, 2020

Responsible Voting

Opinion writers for The New York Times have been commenting daily on the just-ended party conventions. Each writer has offered opinions on the best and worst moments of the four-day presentations. Mostly, the commentary was unremarkable; I agreed with much of it and could usually sympathize with the rest. But the evaluation of the final day of the Republican convention upset me. Well, one remark upset me.

Matt Labash, writing in the “What Else Mattered” section of the Times piece, offered the following:

The R.N.C. was as dispiriting as the D.N.C. At a time of multiple crises, when we most need good, honest leadership, we instead get relentless dishonesty. Democrats lie about “peaceful protests,” as cities are torched and ransacked. Republicans lie about Covid-19, a virus we didn’t even know existed 10 months ago, but which is now our third-leading killer, having taken nearly 185,000 American lives. These are the choices, folks: bunco men vs. flim-flammers. Bloods vs. Crips, engaged in gang warfare for its own sake. I, for one, will be voting my conscience, which dictates that I can’t vote. Not this cycle. Why reward the bastards?

Labash’s other remarks were not flattering either. I haven’t bothered to look up what he said about the DNC, but from what he wrote following the last day of the RNC, I assume it wasn’t positive. What upset me, though, was how he ended the above paragraph:

I, for one, will be voting my conscience, which dictates that I can’t vote. Not this cycle. Why reward the bastards?

This brought to mind something Katy Tur once said on MSNBC. Tur had been tasked by her network to cover the Donald Trump candidacy in the 2016 campaign. That hardly seemed a plum assignment at the time, but, as it turned out, she got to follow the man who would become the next President of the United States. Tur was able to observe the Republican standard-bearer, as they say, up close and personal. Additionally, Trump occasionally singled her out by name as a representative of the fake-news press.

What Katy Tur said after the election was that she hadn’t voted. Apparently, this was out of some perverted notion of journalistic objectivity. I thought that she, of all people, was in the perfect position to see Donald Trump as the lying hate-monger he is. As a well-educated professional woman, could she not see that Trump was a danger to the Republic and that it was her civic duty to vote for Hillary Clinton? Well, apparently not. Journalistic objectivity was no excuse for her behavior.

Matt Labash, on the other hand, offers a different, even weaker, excuse for not bothering to vote. He is practicing bothsidesism. Seeing hypocrisy in the presentations of both the Democrats and the Republicans, he concludes, in effect, that the two parties are equally corrupt and not deserving of his vote. He claims a moral superiority in this position. In reality, though, his position is like that of Trump himself when he spoke of good people on both sides of the Charlottesville demonstrations. If Labash cannot see a world of difference between the Republican and Democratic candidates this year, he is too clueless to be writing opinions in the Times. In fact, if he is indeed that oblivious to the obvious, perhaps it is best that he not vote!

I am impressed neither by Tur’s reasoning nor Labash’s. I should also mention a line of reasoning similar to Labash’s that is also dangerous to our democracy. Some voters take the pox-on-both-your-houses position and vote for a third-party candidate or write in the name of some non-candidate. This is yet another way of shirking one’s responsibility as a citizen. When neither of two candidates in an election meets one’s standards, the responsible action is to vote for the better of the candidates. Not voting for the lesser of two evils risks electing the greater of the two evils.

Let me illustrate how my reasoning works in practice. In an election between Donald Trump and Jack-the-Ripper, one has a moral obligation to vote and to vote for Jack.

August 27, 2020

To the Black Lives Matter Folks: Don‘t Screw Things Up

 I am in sympathy with the Black Lives Matter movement. Blacks have suffered from seemingly racist policing in this country, in addition to suffering from multiple forms of systematic discrimination over nearly a century and a half. Demonstrations demanding change are unquestionably justified.

The best hope for change that makes black lives truly matter is the election of Joe Biden and Kamila Harris, along with Democrats running for the House and Senate. Ironically, recent Black Lives Matter demonstrations have the potential to play into the hands of the Trump/Pence ticket. Trump wants to be the law-and-order candidate, and his insincere promise to quell civil unrest could tip the election in his favor. This would be a disaster for blacks (and most of the rest of us). Four more years of Donald Trump could destroy our democracy.

Whereas it is important to exercise the right of protest, demonstrations must not be allowed to get out of hand and degenerate into rioting and looting. Although demonstrators have not necessarily been responsible for recent civil disturbances, it is critical that they not encourage violence, whether intentionally or not.

Here are some ideas about what Black Lives Matter leaders can do. They can make sure that, to the degree possible, no local laws are violated. Demonstrators should not carry weapons of any kind. As much as possible—this gets harder as the days get shorter—demonstrations should be limited to daylight hours. Signs are hard to read at night, and it is too easy for mischief to begin in darkness. Demonstrations should have a well-understood purpose and should have enforced start and end times. Operations that last into the night court trouble—trouble from demonstrators themselves, trouble from unsympathetic infiltrators, and trouble from the police. Specific members of the team should be tasked with looking for troublemakers, documenting problems on camera, and reporting misbehavior to the authorities.

If these rules make demonstrating less satisfying, so be it. We must show citizens, particularly white citizens, that we are determined to press for change to make our country better and that we are not trying to tear it down.

Please don’t give Donald Trump the one issue most likely to appeal to white voters, even those white voters leaning toward voting for the Biden/Harris ticket. As many have observed from both the Democratic and Republican perspectives, the 2020 election is likely to be the most important election of our lifetimes.

August 21, 2020

Unequal Justice

 As is my habit, I listened to NPR this morning. I was struck by a remark by newscaster Korva Coleman on the 9 A.M. newscast. Introducing a brief story about the imminent sentencing of Lori Loughlin and Mossimo Giannulli, she informed listeners, “They could spend months behind bars.”

Months! Imagine that! The rich and connected pay a half-million-dollar bribe to get their two daughters into the University of Southern California, and they may spend months in jail. Had they been a couple of black youths who robbed the corner liquor store of $200, they likely would have been sent to prison for years. Those black miscreants would have lacked the legal services Loughlin and Mossimo can afford.

Of course, rich people don’t knock over liquor stores; they commit nicer, “white collar” crimes. They employ expensive lawyers, and, if convicted at all, they receive light sentences in country-club prisons or are confined for a time to their own mansions with their own hired help.

For now, I want to ignore the privilege or the lack of privilege that individual lawbreakers may have experienced in life, as well as the effects—both positive and negative—of incarceration. Instead, I want to consider the crimes themselves.

Robbing a liquor store is decidedly antisocial and deserves punishment. Bribing college officials to advance the prospects of your unqualified children is also damnable. How do these crimes differ?

The robbers appropriated property not their own and directly terrorized an innocent party or two. Assuming the robbery was not part of a widespread crime wave, most people are inclined to pay little attention to it and do not feel personally terrified. People might even have some sympathy for the underprivileged defendants.

The rich who practice bribery to achieve their desires terrify no one. What they do, however, is undermine the mechanisms of civil society. Whereas the robbers disobey society’s rules, those who illicitly use their wealth and position to obtain what they do not deserve both disobey society’s rules and subvert faith in the fairness of society itself. They are, I think, of greater danger to the body politic. And they go to prison (maybe) for just months?

The penalties we impose for various crimes are, to put it nicely, screwed up. People are incensed by some particular crime and call for unreasonably harsh sentences that lawmakers dutifully enact without consideration of the seriousness of the infraction with regard to other infractions. In general, “violent” crimes and crimes likely to be committed by the underclasses are harshly punished, and the crimes of the wealthy and well-connected are subjected to only modest punishment.

It is time to rethink all sentences for crimes, ranking them according to the harm they inflict and specifying punishments commensurate with that harm. This should be carried out at all levels of government.

August 20, 2020

Progressive Should Be Thankful for Joe Biden

 I’m beginning to find progressive voices lamenting the moderation of Joe Biden tiresome. In the abstract, I would like to have a more liberal president than Mr. Biden. But I want a candidate in 2020 who has a fighting chance of actually being elected. Having experienced the political whiplash that resulted from the 2016 election, I find it hard to believe that Americans would relish the prospect of replacing a fascist with a person the president, with at least a modicum of justification, would surely call a socialist. (He will call Joe Biden and Kamala Harris socialists, but he will not be widely believed.)

Let’s be real. Much of what many Democrats would like to accomplish will be, at best, difficult. Success will depend critically on what happens in Senate races in November.

The highest priority of a Democratic president must be to return sanity competence, and integrity to the federal government. That is to say, the president must undo the depredations visited upon the Republic by President Donald Trump. (See “The Biden Agenda before the Biden Agenda.”) This is a project that can largely be accomplished by the chief executive.

If Democrats take both the White House and the two houses of Congress in November, they may indeed be able to check off some of the items on the progressive to-do list. But before the ship of state steams off in the direction of the rising sun, its listing must be corrected before the deck reaches the waterline. This job will largely fall to President Joe Biden.

Progressives should do what they can to elect like-minded senators and representatives, and they should be grateful for having a Joe Biden at the top of the ticket. Moderates and conservatives can vote for the Democratic ticket without serious misgivings.

August 14, 2020

Trump-Pence Slogans

In 2016, the slogan of the Trump-Pence campaign was “Make America Great Again.” The implication was that, in 2016, America had ceased to be great, but that it had been great at some past time. It was never clear when, in the Trump-Pence universe, America was last great, but Democrats concluded that that fabled time was probably the 1950s, when whites were prosperous and blacks knew their place.

This year, somewhat predictably, the GOP slogan is “Keep America Great.” Democrats, of course, believe that the Trump administration has run the nation into the ground, so that “Make America Great Again” could logically be this year’s Democratic slogan. “Keep America Great” is, at best, disingenuous.

I began thinking of possible Trump-Pence slogans that would be scrupulously honest. That’s an unconventional concept for political rhetoric in general and an especially peculiar one for Republicans. But one can have some fun with the concept. I want to offer the GOP some signs that could capture the actual thoughts and intentions of its standard-bearers.

Trump is already trying to label the Democratic ticket as “socialist.” This is absurd. Although the Democratic Party has certainly moved left in recent years, Joe Biden and Kamala Harris hardly represent the far-left wing of the party. We can expect the Republicans to weaponize the “socialist” label. Here’s a possible sign:

FIGHT SOCIALISM

One of Trump’s most conspicuous efforts has been the elimination of federal regulations. His administration has also been lax in enforcing existing laws and regulations. The GOP faithful love this stuff, as they have a basic dislike—hatred even—of government. Trump‘s base sees every law or regulation as a limitation on freedom. This will please them:

LESS GOVERNMENT/MORE FREEDOM

In 2016, Trump made much of his intention to keep foreigners out of the country. He began his campaign with outrageous charges against Mexicans. This year, the campaign could be equally outrageous but might opt instead for subtlety. This seemingly innocuous sentiment suggests, in the Trump universe, keeping foreigners out and deporting the undocumented people already here:

AMERICA FOR AMERICANS

Trump had planned to be able to boast of a prosperous economy in the 2020 campaign. It was always questionable how much Trump was responsible for a strong economy, and fate dealt the president a nasty blow. The economy, as a result of the ongoing pandemic and the administration’s failure to deal with it effectively, has been sent into the toilet with little prospect of improvement in time to be of much help to the GOP ticket. Trump cannot brag about the financial health of the country, but he can assert that the economy is more important than, say, the health of school pupils:

ECONOMY FIRST

Trump not only values the economy over the health of Americans (and especially of children, who don’t vote) but he also values economic health over the environment and the regulations intended to protect it. Many Trump supporters would resonate to this message:

JOBS BEFORE TREES

The Trump administration has been characterized by disdain for competence. Cabinet secretaries have been selected for their political contributions rather than for their subject-area knowledge and experience. Trump’s disdain was even more in evidence as he dealt with (or failed to deal with) the pandemic. The president has refused to pay attention to medical and scientific experts. Instead, he seems to believe that he is the world’s greatest expert on every conceivable subject. Alas, America has always supported an anti-intellectual strain that can make a virtue of Trump’s dislike of experts:

FREEDOM FROM EXPERTISE

Black Lives Matter demonstrations have given Trump an opportunity to bring out the ever-popular law and order Republican theme:

LAW & ORDER

Black Lives Matter also suggests a more obviously racist slogan. Alter all, in Republican voting, black lives really do not matter:

WHITE LIVES MATTER

A surprising initiative from the Trump administration is the campaign against mail-in voting. Given that Trump himself votes by mail, this effort is decidedly insincere. The strangest component of this crusade has been the attack on the United States Postal Service. The Trump-Pence ticket could try to minimize the significance of the anti-USPS effort:

WHO NEEDS THE POST OFFICE?

Trump believes in family, albeit only his own. He could claim otherwise, suggesting a softer side of the president. This suggests:

FAMILY FIRST

Trump came into office arguing that we should have more friendly relations with Russia. Even President Obama attempted to “reset” U.S.-Russia relations, after all. Trump’s studied avoidance of ever saying a negative word about Russia or Vladimir Putin and his willingness to accept Putin’s word over that of his own intelligence services has been incomprehensible. This suggests a slogan that perhaps not even his most ardent supporters will fully appreciate:

MAKE RUSSIA GREAT AGAIN

Trump has eagerly taken credit for positive developments, even if his actions have not been the cause of them. (The rising stock market is one of his favorite “accomplishments.”) On the other hand, he seems incapable of taking responsibility for negative events or for actions that have the potential to turn out poorly. For example, rather than taking charge of the production and distribution of personal protective equipment needed by medical and other workers, he left the matter to governors. Those governors found themselves outbidding one another for PPE. Here is one slogan that certainly captures the Trump philosophy of governance, but it might not be popular, even with the true Trump believers:

AUTHORITY WITHOUT RESPONSIBILITY

We are unlikely to see any of these proposed Trump-Pence slogans, with the possible exception of “Law & Order.” It is worth thinking about what honest slogans of the GOP ticket might be. As Trump literally lies more often than he tells the truth, however, honesty will not be much in evidence in the 2020 presidential campaign.

August 8, 2020

Vote in Pennsylvania

 I believe that the November 2020 election is the most important election in my lifetime. It is probably also the most problematic, given the ongoing pandemic, Republican attempts to restrict voting, and the president’s efforts to discourage mail-in voting.

Vote in Pennsylvania LogoThe upcoming election is of greatest importance for three reasons. First, we need to remove the proto-fascist Donald Trump from the White House. Second, if a President Biden is to be able to change the direction of the country, we need a Democratic Congress. Democrats need to hold the House and flip the Senate. Finally, state elections are crucial because the state legislators we elect will redraw electoral districts, a task that fell primarily to Republicans after the 2010 census and result in gerrymandering that assured that Republicans sent more people to Congress even in states where Democratic voters were in the majority.

The main message I want to send to my fellow Pennsylvanians is this: VOTE. Vote as though your life depends on it, but try to do so without actually putting your life in jeopardy. You can vote in person, of course, though this is potentially risky because of the coronavirus. It is better to vote by mail. It is no longer necessary to provide an excuse for doing so. Any voter can vote using a mail-in ballot.

The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania has conveniently provided a Web site that provides all the information you need to vote. From that site, you can register to vote, check your registration, request a mail-in ballot, and find additional information related to the voting process. That Web site can be found here:

https://www.votespa.com/

Here are some important dates you need to keep in mind:

  • The last day to register to vote if you are not already registered is October 19, 2020. Most people will be able to register on-line (see above link).
  • Applications for mail-in and absentee ballots must be received by your county election office by 5 p.m. on October 27, 2020. You must be registered to submit an application. Most people can apply on-line (see above link).
  • Ballots must be received by your county election office by 8 p.m. on election day, that is, November 3, 2020. Having an earlier postmark doesn’t count if your ballot is not received by that time.
Rules are slightly different for active-duty military personnel (see above link).

There are few compelling reasons to apply for an absentee ballot, which requires that you offer a reason for not voting in person. You can request a mail-in ballot simply because you want one. (This is a recent—and welcome—innovation.)

Finally, I offer some advice:
  • If you are a resident of Pennsylvania and you are not registered, register to vote as soon as possible.
  • If you are unsure about your voter registration, you can check it on-line.
  • If you are registered, even if you think you will want to vote in person, request a mail-in ballot right away. If you choose not to use it, you may still vote in person.
  • If you are going to vote by mail, fill in your ballot as soon as you get it and mail it to your county election office. (It can be hand-delivered if you prefer.) You can hold onto your ballot for a time if you are uncertain how you want to vote, but be keenly aware that your ballot must arrive on time to be counted. Do not rely on the swiftness of the U.S. Postal Service.

Remember: Democracy does not work if people don’t exercise their right to vote.

August 1, 2020

The Biden Agenda before the Biden Agenda

Joe Biden has articulated his plans and objectives for addressing myriad matters—the environment, education, women, gun violence, you name it. Each topic is treated on his Web site in a longish essay, not simply in a list of bullet points.

As of August 1, 2020, Donald Trump’s Web site is quite different. It is compact and concerned primarily with fund-raising. Only two issues are dealt with, and neither page treating one of these issues is linked to from what passes as the home page. The issues carry the titles “Drain The Swamp” and “Stand Against Antifa.” Apparently, these are the two most vital issues facing the nation in the Trump universe. Each page is virtually devoid of seemingly relevant text and, like the home page, concerns itself primarily with fund-raising.

What is the president’s plan for the environment, for civil rights, for prison reform, for the COVID-19 pandemic? Who knows! In fact, when questioned about his goals for a second term, Donald Trump could only speak of his natural talent and the failings of his enemies, most notably John Bolton. Trump never answered the question asked. However, his goals presumably include enriching himself and his friends through government action, continuing the dismantling of democratic institutions, alienating our allies, and enjoying the fellowship of foreign despots. Interestingly, the Republican Party has decided not to devise a new platform for the 2020 campaign but to simply reuse the platform from 2016. The party wasn’t going to get any fresh ideas from their current standard-bearer anyway.

Laudable though his intentions are, Joe Biden’s most important and urgent task is one that, out of political politeness, he is no doubt reluctant to publicize. Like a parent facing widespread devastation caused by a precocious but destructive toddler left alone in the house too long, Joe Biden must concentrate on cleaning up Trump’s messes. He must quickly build an administration comprising men and women of experience, competence, and unswerving loyalty to democracy and the rule of law. He must reassure our allies that a steadfast United States of America is back and that its flirtation with fascism is over. The Biden administration must begin re-implementing regulations annulled by its predecessor and seek to enact the most important ones into law. A Biden Justice Department needs to drop its support of anti-democratic conservative litigation and turn its attention to police department misconduct and the crimes of Donald Trump and his cronies.

Once the ship of state is diverted from its course toward the rocky shoals of autocracy, Joe Biden, his administration, and—it is to be hoped— a Democratic Senate and Democratic House of Representatives—can renew the goal of perfecting our Republic and again becoming a beacon of freedom in an increasingly dark and perilous world.

Enough.