What Leadership Looks Like

President Biden does not have the rhetorical gifts of Barack Obama. He isn’t a natural teacher like Bill Clinton, who can explain — ex tempore, no less — the most abstruse concepts in clear and unpatronizing language. He can’t twist congressional arms to pass legislation the way LBJ could like no other before or since. But anyone who paid close attention to his first address to Congress would have recognized real leadership. If it went unnoticed, perhaps that’s because for too long we have been without it.

The opinion pages and TV pundits and bloviators have all had their say; I’ll wager that few if any noticed this gem, tucked into his introductory remarks:

Universal public schools and college aid opened wide the doors of opportunity. Scientific breakthroughs took us to the moon. Now we’re on Mars, discovering vaccines, gave us the internet and so much more. These are investments we made together as one country. And investments that only the government was in a position to make. Time and again, they propel us into the future. That’s why I propose the American Jobs Plan, a once-in-a-generation investment in America itself. This is the largest jobs plan since World War II.

[Emphasis added.] Investments that only the government [can] make: This is a subtle rebuke to Republicans and free-marketeers. There are in this world some things that only government can do. It isn’t enough to hope that ambitious capitalists will undertake the basic research that leads to so much more; it isn’t sufficient to believe that government regulation is ipso facto oppressive and that corporations can better regulate themselves, with no ill public effect.

Just this past week, Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) opined that, “No policymaker would allow a company to dump toxic waste into a river upstream of a thriving town he is charged with governing.” This is like saying that no company would ever prioritize its profits over the interests of its customers by, say, cutting corners on workplace safety or using poisonous food additives. Except that it happens all the time. Rubio represents a political party ideologically opposed to government regulation of any kind. The only part of his statement that rings true is its cognitive dissonance.

Things only government can do. This gets at the very purpose of government, of good government. Republicans might be fond of quoting Jefferson — “That government is best, which governs least” — but they emphasize least while paying little or no attention to best. They know quite well that “least” doesn’t mean, as little as humanly possible; it means, just enough to get things right. There are things only government can do: provide for the general welfare and common defense, for example.

But really, that isn’t enough: good government should be aspirational — “We choose to go to the moon”1; good government should rise to the occasion; and good government should set new goals for itself as a nation, for its people’s betterment. Some great things aren’t ever going to be done by the private sector; some things, these things, only government can do.


  1. John F. Kennedy, address at Rice University, Sept. 12, 1962.

The Unthinkable

My Apple News feed includes headlines from Fox, to the mild consternation of my children. “Why do you want to do that to yourself?” Because I want to know what they’re saying; because it can be entertaining (in a Jerry Lewis kind of way); because the tenor and content help illuminate the why and how of our riven social fabric.

A few days ago the clickbait headline screamed: “A woman was angry because of the long wait at the Burger King drive-thru window. Then she did the unthinkable.” Hoping to be surprised, I clicked. I was not surprised that she opened fire through the window. Nor did I think this in any way unthinkable. It was, in fact, all too thinkable: it was in fact exactly what I thought.

A very modest suggestion: Let’s start using words to mean, well, what they actually mean.  An angry woman who arrives at the drive-thru window and pays for the next ten cars? As unthinkable as it is unlikely. That woman shooting into the store? Neither surprising nor unimaginable. This kind of event has become so common it’s not just not unthinkable, it barely attracts any attention any more. We are benumbed: a mass shooting in Boulder is neither unthinkable nor unimaginable.

A woman opening fire through a fast-food drive-thru doesn’t move the needle on our emotional, intellectual, and political outrage. That is precisely the problem — and precisely what the NRA wants.

Cognitive Dissonance (GOP Encore Edition)

Senator Josh Hawley (R-MO) has announced that come Wednesday (6 January 2021) he will object to the certification of the Electoral College result. Purportedly 140 Republican members of the House will do the same. This is not simply madness, it is shamelessly attempting a coup d’etat. Here. In the United States of America, where we fancy ourselves a beacon of liberty to the world, champions of democracy and justice. Does it get any worse than this? One wants to believe, desperately, that it does not. One is certain, after the egregious anti-democratic behavior and unabashed self-dealing of the last four years, that it does, it can, and it probably will. With just over a fortnight left in this worst of all possible administrations, the damage gets worse every day.

The immediate damage is deliberate, and seeks to hamper and hinder the incoming Biden administration even before it gets started (as described here by Dana Milbank in the Washington Post). But the more lasting damage will be to our body politic generally, and — ironically, fittingly, and most deservedly — to the Republican Party specifically. The intellectual rot appears irreversible: when elected officials question not simply the legitimacy of an election, but the legitimacy of their own election, something is very wrong indeed. Apparently “democracy” and “free and fair election” are malleable terms. Fair elections are those in which “our guy wins” whereas any other result is ipso facto the result of unimaginable corruption and conspiracy.

But now come Hawley and with him Ted Cruz and ten more fully Trumpified senators who say they will not accept the outcome, as will 140 Republican members of the House. These people were elected on the very same ballots as Biden, and the inconsistency of their own twisted logic seems to bother them not one whit. We are forced to contemplate two, and only two, alternatives: that these elected officers are too stupid to realize the full implications of their false claims; or too craven to care. And which is worse in a public servant? Do we prefer them feeble-minded, or unscrupulous? Each of these dozen senators was invited to explain on television why they will not accept Biden’s clear victory; each and every one refused the invitation or declined to answer it. To dimwitted and unprincipled we evidently must now add rude. (That a sitting senator would refuse an invitation to appear on television is in itself another oddity.)

Forty years ago the GOP threw its principles overboard in order to win elections: in the place of conservative policy ideas that could be discussed, tested, and adopted (or discarded) as appropriate, the party adopted slogans and demonstrably false claims — the language of ad agencies and mountebanks. Tax cuts will increase revenue! Competition is a magical cure-all for all things political, economical, and educational! New immigrants — to this literal nation of immigrants — are coming to take your jobs! Politics became, in other words, a game. It was no longer about compromising to improve the lives of citizens and constituents; it was about winning elections and achieving, holding, and keeping power.

Decades of empirical evidence haven’t been enough to wipe away these failed ideas, emotional triggers masquerading as  public policy. Our society, our country, our world have all suffered needlessly as a result. We should all hope that the GOP’s most recent self-inflicted wounds prove at long last to be fatal.

Don’t Seat Them

Elections have consequences, intended and unintended. Into the morass of post-electoral fire-breathing and pearl-clutching comes a resolution introduced by Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-NJ).  Relying on the Constitution — which the MAGA crowd claims to revere — Rep. Pascrell has a simple proposal to deal with the 126 House members who signed on to the bogus Texas lawsuit: Don’t seat them in the next Congress. Section 3 of the Fourteenth Amendment says, in plain language, that they are ineligible to serve in federal office. Elections have consequences, after all. And those who would subvert our elections should pay a price.

The message to Democrats should be: Ignore the inevitable and insincere wailing about “persecution for political beliefs” that will follow. Don’t seat them. Ignore the tortured justifications for the over fifty lawsuits brought by the Trump campaign or its water carriers: there is no legally or judicially cognizable case and your complaints have been summarily dismissed by every court that has heard them. “We have a right to be heard in court” is not an excuse for willfully wasting time and money. It’s not a lost cause, and certainly not a noble one. It is an attempt to subvert democracy itself and install a permanent government of plutocrats and autocrats. Elections have consequences.

Republicans, we should note, are fond of repeating that elections have consequences. But let’s be clear: when Mitch McConnell piously intones that phrase, he means only the elections that keep him in the Majority Leader’s chair. The elections, in other words, that enable him to stymie legislation so desperately needed by the people of the United States — such as a second COVID relief bill that would enable people to pay their rent and put food on their tables; that would keep small businesses afloat and people employed; that would ensure sufficient PPE for health care workers, that would help the country get through the next perilous year with the coronavirus. But instead of useful legislation he peddles lie after lie after lie. “Compromise,” to McConnell, means, “Come meet me where I stand, while I keep walking backwards.” The House passed a $3 trillion relief bill; McConnell wanted half that; House negotiators moved to $2 trillion and McConnell wanted half that; now the bill on the table is $900 billion, and passage is in doubt. Politics is the art of the possible, but McConnell cynically moves the goal posts and then blames his Democratic opponents for failing to compromise.

Democrats, you have been playing the GOP’s twisted messaging game for a generation. Take charge, explain in plain language what is going on, and exact a price for the GOP’s sedition. Don’t seat them. Change the game, and make new rules. People will notice; you might even improve your majority. Elections have consequences, right?

Enough, Already

Seriously, enough. Enough of the frivolous lawsuits, the fraudulent claims of fraud, the fact-free fits of faux outrage. In the five weeks since Election Day, we have seen the same play fifty times: the Trump campaign screams about nonexistent fraud and sues to have election results reversed; absent any actual facts and any plausible legal theory which would allow the disenfranchisement of millions — for no reason other than the litigant doesn’t like the election result — the court summarily dismisses the case. Trial courts will have none of it; appellate courts won’t allow it; and the United States Supreme Court refuses to hear the case.

In the latest episode of this outlandish opera buffa is brought to us by the state of Texas, which wants to sue the states of Wisconsin, Georgia, Pennsylvania, and Michigan in the US Supreme Court. What possible cause of action might Texas have? Ken Paxton, the Texas attorney general, has concocted the notion that these four states somehow damaged the Lone Star state when they changed their election rules to allow universal mail-in ballots — something which Texas surely could have done, as well, but chose not to.

Per The New York Times:

The lawsuit, filed by the Republican attorney general of Texas and backed by his G.O.P. colleagues in 17 other states and 106 Republican members of Congress, represents the most coordinated, politicized attempt to overturn the will of the voters in recent American history. President Trump has asked to intervene in the lawsuit as well in hopes that the Supreme Court will hand him a second term he decisively lost.

The suit is the latest in a spectacularly unsuccessful legal effort by Mr. Trump and his allies to overturn the results, with cases so lacking in evidence that judges at all levels have mocked or condemned them as without merit. Legal experts have derided this latest suit as well, which makes the audacious claim, at odds with ordinary principles of federalism, that the Supreme Court should investigate and override the election systems of four states at the behest of a fifth.

Of course, there will be no end to this farce: it has proved far too profitable for Trump, for whom a debt load of about $420 million comes due in the next year. Since Trump almost certainly hasn’t the cash, isn’t capable of writing a book worth a nine-figure advance, and has spent his 74 years avoiding spending his own money when grift and suckers are available, he has turned his electoral loss into a fundraising opportunity: donations to his “stop the steal!” fund are directed, in essence, into his own pocket. His credulous supporters don’t read the fine print and won’t believe anyone who has.

That the demands to invalidate the electoral results require a feat of dizzying mental gymnastics, cognitive dissonance on a scale rarely if ever seen, doesn’t seem to bother these self-styled defenders of democracy one whit. Consider: the election was rife with fraud on a massive scale, but only on the top line of the ballot. All the down-ballot races — races which the 126 members of Congress now clamoring for SCOTUS intervention won — were magically legitimate. It defies law, it defies logic, and it defies any real sense of patriotism, which would put country over party and long-term civic goals above short-term self-interest.

That this suit is without merit (and beyond redemption) hasn’t stopped Republican attorneys general of seventeen other states from seeking to join the fun — despite the irrevocable certification of election results in all fifty states. This is an unabashed attack on the core and fabric of democracy; it is, in a word, seditious: We don’t like the result so we must find a way, any way, to undo and overturn it. And if we can’t do that, can we at least undermine public confidence in all electoral outcomes? (We don’t care if it undermines our own victories as long as we can seize power and maintain control of the levers of government.)

This is not representative self-government. It is reprehensible self-serving. Enough, already. Republicans, you lost. Sit down, shut up, and muzzle your Dear Leader. He is doing the Republic great harm — and you, too, if you gave a care to history.

Bad Faith

Just prior to Election Day a friend observed that we’re going to need new laws and new structures to prevent the corruption, self-dealing, and looting of the public treasury that have been the hallmarks of the Trump administration. “We can’t have ‘acting this’ and ‘acting that,’” my friend said. “We need to ensure accountability.” I told him that the laws already exist, and have for some time: but that enforcement is up to the Congress and the courts. With the Senate operating as a wholly-owned subsidiary of Trump, Inc.; and with a significant fraction of the Federal bench occupied by Trump appointees, the likelihood of anything actually being done is vanishingly small.

The problem isn’t that laws and structures don’t exist. The guardrails haven’t done much guarding these last four years, proving to be not such solid railings or firm barriers; rather, it turns out they are just suggestions, only as strong as public outrage and the other branches’ willingness and ability to enforce standards of behavior that have served the Republic well for two-hundred and forty-four years. I mention both “willingness” and “ability” because — as it turns out — the current administration has decided that the rules that have applied to every predecessor do not apply here. They have defied both congressional demands and court orders with alacrity, zealously undermining the institutions of democratic self-government while loudly claiming to speak “for the people.”

Well, the people have spoken and Donald Trump has been fired. He claims — falsely, as always — to have won with a “record” number of votes; and yes, his tally was indeed record-setting: more than ever for a second-place candidate. And let’s be absolutely clear: Biden’s victory was decisive, a margin of six million votes — nearly four percent. In an age when many elections are won and lost on razor-thin fractions, four percent is a landslide.

But the presidential falsehoods and GOP bad faith continue unabated: Dozens of failed lawsuits in multiple jurisdictions and attempts to strong-arm state elections boards and legislatures in Republican-led states will not change the outcome but they will undermine public confidence in elections, to the point where — as comedian Sarah Cooper tweeted recently — voters are asking courts to ignore the will of the voters. Reduced to its starkest terms: elections are legitimate if “we” win, but fraudulent if “they” win.

Of course it’s a bad faith argument. The essence of democracy — of voting — is that the outcome isn’t going to please everyone, all the time. Sometimes you win; sometimes you lose. That’s how the system works (when it works). Or as Christopher Krebs — fired last week for bucking Trump’s message that the election was fraught with fraud — noted last year, the purpose of elections is to convince the loser that he lost. This isn’t how we normally think about voting, but it’s dead on. Trump knows he lost; the people around him know he lost; Republican officials at all levels know that he lost. That they continue to sow doubt and stir up mistrust; that they say either nothing at all, or demur quaintly about “rights” to pursue false claims in court, says far more about them than it does about the actual results. They would cling to power by any means possible, the people be damned.

In 1982 the Republican candidate for New York’s 20th Congressional District (Upper West Side) lost overwhelmingly, 85%-15%. Of his defeat he remarked: “The people have spoken. The bastards.” If only today’s GOP could accept electoral outcomes with as much grace and dignity.

Hysteria

A friend writes that in her deep-red part of the country yet another conspiracy theory is taking root: The Biden-as-Trojan-horse gambit, the Far Left’s way of sneaking Kamala Harris into the Oval Office. In this fervid fever fantasy, a frail Biden will not fill out much of his term and Harris is a progressive darling who will enact Medicare for All, raise the minimum wage, and destroy the American Way Of Life by implementing the Green New Deal.

Hearing these fears I was at first dismissive: Harris is neither Bernie Sanders nor Elizabeth Warren, nor is she Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, Ayanna Pressley, or Ilhan Omar. And while I personally favor a more progressive agenda, I also recognize that politics is the art of the possible (see here and here): it does no good, and in the end considerable harm (in lost time, lost energy, and lost opportunity for compromise), to advocate — for example — universal government health insurance if the proposal will be met by unreasoned and unrestrained emotional resistance. “Medicare for all” isn’t socialism any more than automobile insurance or monthly condominium maintenance fees. It isn’t a terrible prospect and would likely save considerable lives and dollars. Opponents have been unable to articulate any real and substantive objection, ranting instead about keeping Government away from the doctor-patient relationship. (They seem to have no problem with insurance companies coming between you and your doctor, but that’s a discussion for another day.)

None of this analysis will help my friend convince her friends and neighbors that their fears are irrational and overwrought. Paraphrasing Jonathan Swift, you can’t reason a man out of a position he didn’t reason himself into. Or, as the Federalist congressman Fisher Ames, of Massachusetts, characterized such strongly held opinions:

They will not yield to argument; for, as they were not reasoned up, they cannot be reasoned down. They are higher than a Chinese wall in truth’s way, and built of materials that are indestructible.

With all Trump’s palaver and frothing at the mouth about impenetrable walls, Fisher’s turn of phrase seems particularly apt today. Since 1980 the GOP has excelled at convincing people to vote against their own self-interest, often by screaming, “Socialism!” Democrats would do well to better understand the emotional buttons the GOP has mastered.

And Republicans: If your best path to electoral victory is through voter suppression, what does that say about your policies? This segment from NPR’s On the Media is as chilling as it is eye opening. Of course every “legal” ballot should be counted.  We should all — all — be worried about a political party that defines “legal” as “for us” and “illegal” as “for them.”  If you doubt that characterization — which I admit sounds outlandish — take a look at the situation in Georgia, whose two sitting United States senators are calling for the resignation of the Secretary of State (whose job includes election oversight). Why? Because this fellow Republican didn’t deliver the election to them. Instead, he did his job and counted the votes.

Fatigue (III)

It was a few months ago that Keegan-Michael Key, appearing on “A Late Show with Stephen Colbert,” said he was exhausted. It was early June, immediately after the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers, and he was expressing frustration with the racial imbalances — what we have come to understand, since then, as systemic racism — and seemingly never-ending inequality in this, the Land of the Free, where it is self-evident that all men are created equal. Aren’t they?

We are all exhausted: By the unrest and inequality; by the ineptitude and incompetence; by the needlessly high death count; by the lies; by the scandals; by the grift and self-dealing. We are exhausted, simply exhausted, to the point where we are too fatigued to lift a finger let alone raise our voices in anger and cry out together, as one, “Enough!” But the truth is that fatigue is not simply a by-product of the never-ending insults to our national integrity; nor are we exhausted only because we lack the energy, at the end of each long day, to push back against a government and executive appointees who will help themselves but not the people they work for and serve. Corrupt officialdom gives “self service” a whole new meaning.)

As we have seen with the child-separation policy, where the cruelty is the point: The exhaustion and fatigue are the point. Benumb us with your outrages, your corruption, your inhumanity, your incompetence, your sheer stupidity, and we will lack the energy to rise up and strike back. We simply don’t know where to begin: With emoluments? Children deliberately orphaned? Corrupt cabinet secretaries? Incompetent senior advisers? The executive branch of our government has become a criminal enterprise, eagerly aided and abetted by a senate majority that clings to power for its own sake and not for what it can do to improve constituents’ lives. The entire theory and purpose of our representative government has been turned upside down and inside out.

Despite best efforts to convince us otherwise, we are not powerless. We are not voiceless. We are not insignificant. E pluribus unum isn’t just a fancy phrase on our coins. Out of many, one; in unity there is strength. A single vote is an inaudible  whisper, but 250 million together is a category 5 hurricane that cannot be ignored. We don’t have to agree on everything — and we shouldn’t. We won’t always agree on the meaning of the First Amendment, nor of the Second, nor of the Fifth; we won’t always agree about gun policy, welfare policy, education policy, or foreign policy, but we must be able and willing to discuss them, honestly and openly, without resort to name-calling and demonization. We all want a stronger, better, more equal United States. Our ideas about how to achieve those goals differ. We have to re-learn how to talk to each other, and how to compromise.

But despite our differences we should, at a minimum, be able to agree that deliberate cruelty is wrong; that foreign interference in an election is an affront to voters of every political persuasion; that bribery is a crime no matter what the circumstances or who the actors. We should be able to agree that health care and education are rights, not privileges, and that they should be guaranteed by a government for the people. And we should be able to agree that if government of the people ceases to be both by the people and, most of all, for the people, then it is no longer legitimate and must be replaced.

This Tuesday, vote. Vote like your life and your liberty depend on it — because they do. Vote to restore government by and for the people. Vote for humanity and basic decency. Vote to end the madness.

Fatigue (II)

Fatigue comes in many forms, and from multiple causes. The jingoists who have appropriated the flag and other national symbols as their own are fatigued, to be sure; but they misdiagnose the source. The rest of us — by which I mean the great majority of the American people — are also numb. Doubly-numb, in fact: for outrage fatigue settled in many months ago, probably early in 2018. As E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post observes:

Trump has, for the past four years, used the sheer breadth of the scandals that surround him to numb the public. No one focused long enough on any single outrage for it to do the damage even one comparable disgrace would inflict on any other politician.

It’s something we’re all familiar with and yet have been too fatigued to analyze or articulate. With so many outrages weekly, and often daily, we have neither the time nor the patience nor the sheer force of will to do more than commiserate: offenses against custom and institutional practice; offenses against families; offenses against ordinary decency. Offenses, most often, against our laws and the rule of law. We have been watching a slow-motion train wreck and have felt powerless to stop it: the people in power, in coequal branches of government, are content to do nothing so long as they get their judges and their tax cuts.

The price to this nation, Senators, was far too high. And you have sold your souls far too cheaply.

Fatigue (I)

A graph published this week in The New York Times documents the unacceptable reality: in the United States, today, the number of new infections daily is double what it was at the end of March — not long after Trump declared that cases would “soon be down to zero.”

Graph from NY Times 10/19/2020 with link to article.
Click the image to open the article.

We — the public — are seven months into this pandemic. The White House, with its intelligence briefings as far back as late December, has had ten months: more than the full gestation of an infant human or a calf, and nearly enough time to birth a horse, a llama, an elk, a seal. Given where we are today I believe its fair to say we will be lucky to return to something like a pre-pandemic normal some time before an elephant conceived in January 2020 is born, which would be next September or October.

And yet: Movie theaters are reopening, restaurants are back to serving indoors, and there is no shortage of people who still believe that their rights are trampled if they are obliged to wear a mask to protect the health of others. Of course this begs the question: Why is your right to be a jackass superior to everyone else’s right to avoid infection? The selfishness (not to mention the ignorance) is astonishing. Let’s be clear: the fact that our lives are slowly, even cautiously, returning to normal is hardly good news. It is a sign, rather, that after seven or eight months people are becoming desperate for some reassurance that it will all soon be over. It will not — and the fatigue currently driving people into the streets, into stores and restaurants, into the cinemas and health clubs, is almost certain to prolong, not curtail, our national suffering. A second wave is coming.

And yet: The people evidently most chafed by stay-at-home orders and mask protocols (“Don’t tell me what to do!”) evidently take their marching orders from a would-be autocrat. These are the people who plotted to kidnap the governors of at least two states to “protest” public health initiatives. Put another way: the self-styled patriots who object loudly to state authorities protecting the public health (by issuing mask mandates and requiring social-distancing protocols) have no objection to their “strong” leader deciding, on his own, who is worthy of state protection, who can stay, who must go, and who should go to prison. The human capacity for cognitive dissonance is without limit.

Trump himself called out the fatigue problem — as always, without a trace of irony or self-awareness — in a conference call with campaign staff: “People are tired of COVID. Yup, there’s going to be spikes, there’s going to be no spikes, there’s going to be vaccines. With or without vaccines, people are tired of COVID. I have the biggest rallies I have ever had and we have COVID. People are saying whatever, just leave us alone. They’re tired of it.” Of course people are tired of it: not the hearing, but the living. It has gone on for seven unnecessarily long months. Most other countries — including developing and third-world nations — have returned to a semblance of “normal” without the threat of spikes or the cloud of super spreader events. “But it came from China!” Aside from being factually suspect (the virus spread to the US from Europe, not China) it isn’t a reason for inaction. Blame-shifting might be effective to avoid responsibility among the more credulous; it never yet actually solved a problem.