New Podcast Episode: Margaret Sanger NYC Sites, Day 3, Part 1

Margaret Sanger with Fania Mindell inside Brownsville clinic, forerunner of Palanned Parenthood, Oct. 1916, public domain via Library of Congress

Margaret Sanger with Fania Mindell inside Brownsville clinic, forerunner of Palanned Parenthood, Oct. 1916, public domain via Library of Congress

Listen to this podcast episode here or on Google Play, or subscribe on iTunes

Thursday, October 20th, 2016

I get out in decent time to start the day’s explorations, just after eight, but it’s not long before I realize I’m tired and hence, a little cranky. My friends and I watched the third Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump debate last night and some of the commentary which followed, then finally went to sleep very late after we talked about what we just watched, and other things. I’m mostly on New York time now, but not quite.

The abortion issue came up almost immediately in the debate since the first question from the moderator was about the Supreme Court and the appointment of justices. Trump pledged to nominate only strongly anti-abortion candidates. Clinton was adamant that Roe v. Wade and laws protecting women’s access to birth control and abortion (with appropriate limitations) be upheld. Clinton also strongly endorsed Planned Parenthood, praising the services it provides and criticizing all efforts to defund it. I, for one, am grateful to Planned Parenthood, the organization that Margaret Sanger founded…. Read the written version here

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

On Authoritarianism And Civilization, by Neil Roberts

W.E.B. Dubois, Photograph taken by J.E. Purdy in 1904, public domain via Library of Congress

W.E.B. Dubois, Photograph taken by J.E. Purdy in 1904, public domain via Library of Congress

In 1890 the young W.E.B. Du Bois delivered the Harvard University Commencement address “Jefferson Davis as a Representative of Civilization.” Du Bois focused on a central figure of nineteenth-century America as he prophesied the meanings of freedom, democracy, and what American life — or more accurately, civilization — would look like over the next hundred years and beyond for the white world, the black world, and other non-white populations that hitherto occupied spaces outside the epicenters of civil and political society.

Born in Kentucky, Jefferson Davis held the offices of U.S. Representative and Senator for the state of Mississippi and later Secretary of War under President Franklin Pierce. Following Pierce’s failure at the 1856 Democratic National Convention to acquire Presidential re-nomination support from party delegates, Davis ran again, won, and went back to Congress as a Senator. Yet with the 1860 election of Abraham Lincoln and escalating distrust between South and North, Davis resigned his Senate post.

After ensuing Southern secession, Davis assumed the Presidency of the Confederate States of America, maintaining the position until the Civil War’s end. Davis had poor health much of adulthood and detractors internal to the Confederacy. While underestimated by peers and despised by several prominent Confederate politicians and generals, he nevertheless forged an obedient coalition and crafted a resolute model of governance and rule. Although Davis lived until the post-Reconstruction year before Du Bois’s speech, his thoughts and actions as Confederacy President provided core teachable moments.

Du Bois considers Davis a person whose self-conception is that of “a typical Teutonic hero” and whose notion of leadership personifies “the idea of the Strong Man.” By ‘Strong Man,’ Du Bois means a leader espousing “[i]ndividualism coupled with the rule of might.” The Strong Man, suffuse with strength, privileges the “I” and self-assertion over the “Thou.” The Strong Man bolsters civilization through “stalwart manhood and heroic character” on the one hand and “moral obtuseness and refined brutality” on the other. The Strong Man often relies on disgruntled and violent mobs, adherents who are, as Hannah Arendt observes, angry masses that feel excluded from previously accessed corridors of politics, believe their standing is society has evaporated compared to the prior generation, loathe heterogeneous society as is, and cry out for the homogeneous order the Strong Man promises. The Strong Man’s patriarchal idea of civilization is intimately tied to racial orders, and it is his vision of a future world that augurs the consolidation and regeneration of the white race above all other races.

Du Bois contrasts the Strong Man with the ‘Submissive Man,’ characterized by weakness, a commitment to truth, and desire to acquiesce to the Thou, the You, the part of personhood not obsessed with the image of the being reflected back in the mirror. Whereas the American Teuton, of which Davis is exemplary, is indicative of the Strong Man, the Negro is for Du Bois the archetypal Submissive Man Davis dismisses.

Ironically, the Strong Man and Submissive Man need one another, their diametrically opposed views notwithstanding. Otherwise, the polity they inhabit devolves into despotism or slavery, and not merely for those emboldened at any given time with the might and right of state.

Jefferson Davis, “the peculiar champion of a people fighting to be free in order that another people should not be free,” missed the inseparability of the I and the You. He refused to admit the ways we’re interconnected, in relation, despite our pluralistic and differential conceptions of the free life and in spite of attempts by agents of state and their lackeys to interfere, dominate, segregate, deport, and annihilate.

Davis’s Strong Man hubris spawned a vitriolic, angry, white nationalist, revolting mass. It also led to his downfall, the Confederacy’s decline, and American civilization as he conceived it, in large measure due not only to abolitionists but also the actions of fugitives and slave agents catalyzing its genesis. It didn’t, however, obliterate the wages of whiteness and political philosophy of white supremacy in the post-1865 polity. Du Bois documents this in The Philadelphia Negro, The Souls of Black Folk, “The Souls of White Folk,” and, most notably, Black Reconstruction in America, as do scholars such as C.L.R. James, Frantz Fanon, Annette Gordon-Reed, and Nell Painter. This last point haunts us today.

Authority and authoritarianism undergird Du Bois’s prognostications. An agent with “authority” demands dogged obedience, compliance, and dispelling of ressentiment urges by the subjects of sovereign command. “Authoritarianism” is the structural macropolitical systemization of a type of statecraft designed by what Theodor Adorno and collaborators call an authoritarian personality. It is a hierarchical social, political, and economic order militating against egalitarianism. Moreover, as Arendt notes in “What Is Authority?” we shouldn’t confuse authoritarianism with tyranny, for “the tyrant rules in accordance with his own will and interest, whereas even the most draconian authoritarian government is bound by laws.”

Du Bois wrestles with Jefferson Davis’s legacy because Davis oversaw a confederation based on slavery and apparatuses of unfreedom enshrined in jurisprudence. Du Bois cautions against ambivalence, nihilism, and avoidance of the afterlife of chattel slavery, first since modes of enslavement sanctioned by law mutated and have been upheld at different junctures by authoritarian personalities, though not always in the public sphere by the prime executive. An amplification of these chilling effects occurs when the entity wielding authority — whose public beliefs defend racism, sexism, xenophobia, chauvinism, and rabid masculinity — is Commander-in-Chief. Second, struggle, resistance, and abolitionist challenges to authority and authoritarianism are as much a tradition as the tradition their actions seek to dislodge. Never forget that.

Our current moment is unprecedented. Yet past lessons offer signposts for future judgments and decision-making. President-elect Donald Trump entered campaign 2016 a noted businessman, consummate reality TV performer, and political chameleon. In the process of winning the Republican primary and shockingly defeating Hillary Clinton, Trump clarified certain issues and left many policy positions open-ended.

What’s incontrovertible is Trump’s authoritarian personality. Only time will tell what type of authoritarian President Trump will be, Jefferson Davis reincarnated or otherwise. And if his senior administrative appointments are any indication, particularly the ghastly selection of avowed white nationalist Stephen Bannon as top White House advisor, then we’d be foolish to assume Trump’s stated public beliefs and campaign promises are one big bluff. Parrhesia is hard to digest.

We have a choice in the Age of Trump: ignore history and our intrinsic abilities for action, thereby reifying the authoritarian order Trump very much plans to implement. *Or* protest. Petition. Resist authoritarianism and its mob enforcers. Organize. Unlock our political imaginations. Believe firmly our actions can match our convictions.

‘American Democracy’ is an unrealized and perhaps unrealizable Platonic ideal, but democracy in America, in the hemisphere, and in the globe, measured by nodes of progress, are attainable. Progress, as with regress, comes in stages. And like freedom, the theory of relativity, and quantum mechanics, the meaning of progress and attendant strivings for it begin with acknowledging a foundational phenomenon: perpetual flight.

Flight operates betwixt, between, and beyond the options of Strong Man and Submissive Man. “Human” progress, a consequence of ongoing marronage, beckons us.

This piece was published in the African American Intellectual Historical Society Blog on December 4th, 2016

~ Neil Roberts is an associate professor of Africana Studies and a faculty affiliate in Political Science at Williams College. He is author of the award-winning Freedom as Marronage (University of Chicago Press, 2015) and the collaborative work Journeys in Caribbean Thought (Rowman & Littlefield International, 2016). Roberts is presently completing A Political Companion to Frederick Douglass for The University Press of Kentucky, and he is President-Elect of the Caribbean Philosophical Association. Follow him on Twitter @neildsroberts. (Bio Credit: AAIHS Blog)

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

The Morning After Election Day 2016

3f86f-ballot2bbox2bclosed2bprotestI watched the election results roll in last night on the same sofa and in company with the same good friends as eight years ago when Barack Obama was elected the first black president of the United States. As the night wore on, our dearest hopes that we would see the first woman elected president of the United States were dashed, to the deep disappointment of everyone in the room. Trump was elected president. It was clear to me that though all believe that women should have equal chances of being elected president, the gender of the candidate was not foremost in their minds last night. It was the misogyny, racism, crass materialism, and bullying personality of Trump and his followers that must be defeated, showing the world that our values are much better than our new Twitter-troll-in-chief might have you believe.

My friends are nearly all liberal, my family mostly conservative. Some of my loved ones are rejoicing, some are mourning, and probably, given the new president’s coarse speech and demeanor, checkered past, and nonconservative positions on many issues, more were at least as glum as they were glad.

For some of my religious family members, I believe they did not vote for Trump because they like him, admire him, or agree with him on many issues. They voted for Trump while holding their noses at his attitudes toward women and minorities, his coziness with Putin, his anti-free-trade positions, his hiding of his tax returns. For them, abortion is by far the most important issue at stake, so the candidate that will nominate anti-abortion Supreme Court justices and oppose Roe v. Wade is their only viable choice. I understand their position: if you truly believe abortion is legalized murder, then the candidate that will likely to most to change the law in this regard must be their candidate. But that doesn’t mean they like having to vote for him.

Other people I know and love do sincerely admire Trump, dismissing some of his worst behavior as mere indiscretions, excesses of the vitality and exuberance that made him the go-getter they see him as: the man of the people who made himself rich in the can-do, hard-working, all-American way. For myself, I have a hard time seeing how exactly how the actual Trump fits in with this perception: his primary business is building luxury amenities for the wealthy, funding it at the beginning with piles of money he didn’t earn; he’s repeatedly exploited bankruptcy laws to the fullest which allowed him to escape personal responsibility for his bad investments while stiffing his contractors, the hard-working Americans that he’s supposed to represent; the things he does have made are often built from cheap Chinese steel and with low-paid Chinese, not American, hands; he starred in a reality TV show where he showcased his ‘business acumen’ by glowering behind a big shiny desk in a too-big suit, repeating generic self-help platitudes that convey no real guidance or information at all. In other words, he is just business-as-usual. But like so many Americans, they fell for his brand, the heavily marketed, glossy persona that the media lap up because he’s just so entertaining.

For me, what the Presidential candidates represent often does take priority over what they do, since they do not run the country on their own. Many of the qualities and principles that Trump represents to people are, I think, even uglier than what he’s said and done, which is often bad enough. But it seems that what he doesn’t represent is what got him into office: he doesn’t represent the establishment and he doesn’t represent the multicultural cosmopolitanism of the new information-centric world. And he doesn’t represent what’s been called the feminization of our culture, as machismo, militarism, and hyper-individualism slowly erodes from our national character. Hilary Clinton largely represented this feminization, the idea that the state also exists as a facilitator of care, for promoting health and education, of taking in those that flee to us for help, nurturing the young and the disenfranchised so that all have an equal shot or, if you happen to be a casualty of the capitalism most of us benefit from, you’re not out on your ear. And she represented it in a way that the strong mom does: idealistic yet practical, ruthless if need be in defense of her brood. Clinton has flaws, perhaps as many as Trump, but they are flaws of excess in the pursuit of greater and worthier things than self-aggrandizement and self-indulgence. But women, traditionally, are not allowed to have flaws, not if we are to be admired and promoted to any position of influence. For men, that’s just, well, part of being a man, part and parcel to being strong, bold, and getting things done.

I wish we could have shown the world last night that we believe in women too, that our girls do have the same chance of becoming president as anyone else, and they could do so by being women, unapologetically, able to succeed to our fullest potential whether or not we have flaws too.

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

Photobook: Are Politics Dirty? Then Call in the Cleaning Woman

Cleaning Women Against Dirty Politics photo at Museum of the City of New York, 2014 Amy Cools

Cleaning women against dirty politics suffragists photo in Activist New York, a 2014 exhibition at the Museum of the City of New York. 

What would these women think of Hillary Clinton, a savvy politician who has used what many consider dirty political tricks to get where she is now, the first female presidential candidate of a major political party? Is it necessary for a woman to get her hands dirty to make it to the top in our still aggressively male-centric, hyper-competitive political arena? Is it fair to call her tactics ‘dirty’ when the same sort of tactics are often considered run-of-the-mill political strategies when used by men? Like it was for our first black president, it seems that we expect our first female presidential candidate to be a paragon of virtue and stoic strength, without any of the human quirks and blemishes we might normally forgive in the traditional white male candidate.

One thing that’s struck me: many people, especially men, are hugely critical of Clinton for staying with her husband after he was caught cheating on her, saying it amounts to an endorsement of such behavior and shows that she’ll do anything to keep political power. But I don’t hear these same criticisms of other women in the political arena in similar situations: Jackie Kennedy, for example, or Eleanor Roosevelt. These women are often thought of as virtuously faithful for doing the same thing, and the latter, especially, used the political power she retained from staying in the marriage to accomplish many worthy things. I hope Clinton, mired as she is in the harsh and often dirty arena of American politics, will do likewise.

I took this photograph while in New York City in October 2014 following the life and ideas of Ernestine Rose and Elizabeth Cady Stanton; to read more about these great women, click here.

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, entirely supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

A Moral and Political Critique of Democratic Primary Debate Arguments of 2015, Part 2

This is the fourth installment of my examination of the arguments presented by presidential primary candidates of both major parties.

As with the previous posts, the debate transcript selections are in red, and my own remarks in black. I leave out introductions, banter, moderator comments, lines which indicate audience response, some purely empirical claims, and other parts that don’t directly pertain to the political and moral ideas considered here. The parts I leave out are indicated, as usual, by ellipses.

From the CNN Democratic presidential primary debate, October 14th 2015 (continued)

The source of the debate transcript which follows is the New York Times, at
Participants: former Governor Lincoln Chafee, former Governor Martin O’Malley, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Senator Bernie Sanders, and former Senator Jim Webb
Moderators: Anderson Cooper, Dana Bash, Juan Carlos Lopez, and Don Lemon

COOPER: …And welcome back. …I want to talk about issues of race in America…

WILKINS [guest]: …My question for the candidates is, do black lives matter, or do all lives matter?

SANDERS: Black lives matter. And the reason — the reason those words matter is the African American community knows that on any given day some innocent person like Sandra Bland can get into a car, and then three days later she’s going to end up dead in jail, or their kids are going to get shot. We need to combat institutional racism from top to bottom, and we need major, major reforms in a broken criminal justice system in which we have more people in jail than China. And, I intended to tackle that issue. To make sure that our people have education and jobs rather than jail cells…

O’MALLEY: Anderson, the …Black Lives Matter movement is making is a very, very legitimate and serious point, and that is that as a nation we have undervalued the lives of black lives, people of color. When …we we burying over 350 young men every single year, mostly young, and poor, and black, and I said to our legislature …that if we were burying white, young, poor men in these number we would be marching in the streets and there would be a different reaction.

I’ve seen many people respond to the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement’s motto with a sign, or Twitter post, or internet meme reading ‘All Lives Matter’. It seems clear that those offering these responses are taking advantage of an easily derived self-righteous-sounding motto to skirt the issue while making it clear where their sympathies lie …not with the black lives lost and ruined by failed policies and cultural attitudes left over from our slave-owning past. Of course all lives matter, and I would add to those who use the latter slogan, please don’t insult the intelligence of your fellow citizens by pretending they don’t believe that too. The whole point is that our practices and policies have indicated that for far too many Americans, black lives don’t appear to matter enough, and this movement’s slogan is meant to point out that ugly fact. The ‘Black Lives Matter’ motto is powerful because of how simply and directly it highlights the often stark difference between how black people often fare than other people in so many spheres of American life.

A couple of years or so ago, conservative pundit Bill O’Reilly spent a lot of time talking about the issue of black Americans and crime, since the media debate was raging especially hotly around stop-and-frisk policies, black-on-black violence, mass incarceration of black people, violent confrontations between police officers and black people, and so on. O’Reilly placed the blame solely on culture: in his view, it could all be blamed entirely, or at least mostly, on violent rap lyrics, baggy clothes and hoodies, drugs, and other… ahem, peculiarities of black culture, with which he seems very uncomfortable.

I’ll give O’Reilly the benefit of the doubt a little here: culture could have something to do with it. It probably, actually, does. But it has nothing to do with the fashion choices of young black men, which is no more or less anti-authoritarian than those of other youth subcultures, and it doesn’t let our society off the hook, far from it. And it doesn’t at all justify his implication that the flawed policies of our police and justice systems aren’t to blame.

You see, if you don’t want kids to be brought up in a culture where they think going to jail is normal, practically even a rite of passage, than don’t institute policies that make it more likely they’ll grow up in families and neighborhoods where so many are incarcerated. For decade after decade, as demonstrated by masses of data we’ve collected on the subject, black people have been subject to a different kind and degree of law enforcement than white people, over our entire history. (Same goes for many other groups, but not for as long and to the same extent overall.) Black people are pulled over for minor infractions (real or invented) more often than white people, stopped and frisked more often, are directed to prison rather than treatment more often, receive tougher sentences, and so on and so forth.

The drug war has been especially hard on black citizens: while drugs are used at about the same rates in every racial and economic group, the laws are enforced far more rigorously against black people. I wish, for instance, police officers would prowl the frat rows of every wealthy college town in America and throw those drug offenders in prison at least as assiduously as they do in predominantly black and / or poorer neighborhoods, if they must do it at all. If they stopped and frisked there, image what a haul they’d get every weekend night! But of course they don’t. They don’t want to ruin those bright young lives for mistakes they made while in their foolish youth and throw them in jail for every little minor infraction, lowing their chances of getting a decent job, ever. But black youth must live to a higher standard. Whether or not they had the advantages of security or wealth when young, whether or not the fathers, mothers, uncles, aunts, brothers, sisters, or neighbors in their lives were wealthy, middle class, poor, or ever had been in prison, they must never make the same mistakes as those frat kids, or in fact most ordinary people who live it up and do illegal things from time to time, or else.

There are black criminals who are just as bad as any other criminals, who injure or kill police officers unjustly, for just doing their job protecting all those in their care. That’s true of people of all races, in any population. But in a society that incarcerates people to an obscene degree, even for minor infractions that arguably shouldn’t be illegal in the first place, and enforces the law disproportionately and often more harshly against black people, it shouldn’t be a shock or surprise that so many run-ins between police officers and black people turn violent.  I just hope that one day it will be a matter of shock and surprise that we kept going about it all wrong, in the same way, for so long.

COOPER: …Secretary Clinton, …Senator Sanders wants to break up the big Wall Street banks. You don’t. You say charge the banks more, continue to monitor them. Why is your plan better?

CLINTON: Well, my plan is more comprehensive. And frankly, it’s tougher because of course we have to deal with the problem that the banks are still too big to fail. We can never let the American taxpayer and middle class families ever have to bail out the kind of speculative behavior that we saw…. So I’m with both Senator Sanders and Governor O’Malley in putting a lot of attention onto the banks….

SANDERS: Let us be clear that the greed and recklessness and illegal behavior of Wall Street, where fraud is a business model, helped to destroy this economy and the lives of millions of people…. Check the record. In the 1990’s …when I had the Republican leadership and Wall Street spending billions of dollars in lobbying, when the Clinton administration, when Alan Greenspan said, “what a great idea it would be to allow these huge banks to merge,” Bernie Sanders fought them, and helped lead the opposition to deregulation….

CLINTON: …I have thought deeply and long about what we’re gonna do to do exactly what I think both the senator and the governor want, which is to rein in and stop this risk. And my plan would have the potential of actually sending the executives to jail. Nobody went to jail after $100 billion in fines were paid…

The Clinton administration seemed to buy into the same optimism that had fueled the Reagan years and the Golden Age: let the market run free, there’s lots of money to be made with the new kinds of financial market tools we have, knock down those pesky regulations and let the market regulate itself with consumer choice, and the bad products and practices will weed themselves out through self-destruction.

Well, we’ve learned that while all too many don’t regulate their own greed, the bad practices do self-destruct sometimes… the problem is, we can’t let them, because when and if they do, they can also sometimes take everyone else down with them. So, we bail out the bad actors to protect the innocent. Out of caution, or out of our almost cringing deference to Business, they mostly go unpunished, and so it goes, boom and bust, the good years awash with raging confidence, the bad with consternation, blame-slinging, and assurances that ‘this time, we’ve learned our lesson!’ And none of the worst offenders, those whose behavior did most to destroy the livelihoods of those who did not behave irresponsibly, seldom go to jail, or even forfeit enough money to stop being wealthier than most. Woody Guthrie sang: ‘Some will rob you with a six-gun, and some with a fountain pen.’ If you want to steal from people, even to the point of destroying them, just don’t do it with a gun (or while black, for that matter). You might get off scot-free.

COOPER: Senator Sanders… congressional leaders were told, without the 2008 bailout, the U.S. was possibly days away from a complete meltdown. Despite that, you still voted against it. As president, would you stand by your principles if it risked the country’s financial stability?

SANDERS: Well, I remember that meeting very well. …Hank Paulson, Bernanke came in, and they say, “guys, the economy is going to collapse because Wall Street is going under. It’s gonna take the economy with them.” And you know what I said to Hank Paulson? I said, “Hank, your guys — you come from Goldman Sachs. Your millionaire and billionaire friends caused this problem. How about your millionaire and billionaire friends paying for the bailout, not working families in this country?”

I understand the practical need for corporate protection, which allows a business to work on a bigger scale while shielding the business owner from personal financial liability. It allows the business to take more risks, which can lead to much more innovation than if they were forced to be cautious out of self-preservation. But here’s the thing: it can, and does, undermine the sense of personal responsibility in relation to doing business. For many, business is an honest endeavor, even, as a good friend of mine pointed out recently, almost altruistic: you listen to what the people care about, what they want and need, and you spend your day doing your best to make sure they get it. But for others, they’ve come to take it for granted that doing Business means that you have to take risks but that you shouldn’t personally have to pay for doing do. We need to keep this in mind, and tailor our policies accordingly: anytime someone ask society to let them to avoid being held financially responsible for the results of their choices, be wary. The motives may be benign, but the incentive to cheat, avoid regulation, exploit others, and gamble is a significant one, so we must be ready to shut down these attempts to game the system. Perhaps we should set a financial cap on financial immunity, or determine a level or quality of harm that’s too egregious for the protections of incorporation to remain in place.

BASH: …Senator Sanders, you’ve mentioned a couple of times you do have a plan to make public colleges free for everyone. Secretary Clinton has criticized that in saying she’s not in favor of making a college free for Donald Trump’s kids. Do you think taxpayers should pick up the tab for wealthy children?

I’m with Sanders on making college free for everyone, regardless of income, because Thomas Paine convinced me. I recently wrote a piece examining Paine’s ideas for a sort of basic income, a certain dollar amount that everyone receives early in life as seed money for their life’s work, and a stipend for old age. Paine thought everyone should receive it equally, rich and poor, not only because everyone would pay into it with taxes, but more importantly, it would avoid the deep sense of unfairness that so often fuels class division. Sanders’ plan for equally free college for everyone is great for these two reasons and for a third: it would promote an excellent cultural value, that we value education so much for its own sake, that we want everyone, equally, to have free and equal access to it, regardless of background or perceived need.

*Listen to the podcast version here or on iTunes

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and is ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

A Moral and Political Critique of the Democratic Primary Debates of 2015, Part 1

This is the second installment of my examination of the arguments presented by presidential primary candidates of both major parties. I began the series with selections from the second Republican debate (I decided to skip the first mostly because there are so many debates to consider, I thought I’d wait until the polls had settled in, so to speak, indicating the field of candidates more likely to succeed), and I continue here with the first Democratic one.

As with the first, the debate transcript selections are in red, and my own remarks in black. I leave out introductions, banter, moderator comments, lines which indicate audience response, some purely empirical claims, and other parts that don’t directly pertain to the political and moral ideas considered here. The parts I leave out are indicated, as usual, by ellipses.

From the CNN Democratic presidential primary debate, October 14th 2015

The source of the debate transcript which follows is the New York Times, at
Participants: former Governor Lincoln Chafee, former Governor Martin O’Malley, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Senator Bernie Sanders, and former Senator Jim Webb
Moderators: Anderson Cooper, Dana Bash, Juan Carlos Lopez, and Don Lemon

COOPER: Welcome. I’m Anderson Cooper. Thanks for joining us….

WEBB: …You know, people are disgusted with the way that money has corrupted our political process, intimidating incumbents and empowering Wall Street every day, the turnstile government that we see, and also the power of the financial sector in both parties. They’re looking for a leader who understands how the system works, who has not been co-opted by it, and also has a proven record of accomplishing different things....

As you many remember from Huckabee’s comments in the first Republican debate examined here, mainstream Republican politicians are joining Democrats in denunciation of the corrupting influence of vast amounts of money flooding into the political system from a relatively few special interests and extremely wealthy individuals, and of the revolving-door relationships between our political institutions, lobbyist groups, and the finance industry. Many say that just because individuals and businesses freely decide to donate money, and that ex-politicians are routinely offered lucrative jobs by the same firms that lobbied them and donated to their campaigns, that doesn’t mean that they’re necessarily corrupted, guided by the will of their donors and potential employers instead of their constituents and their own best judgment.

But even if it’s true that most politicians are not purposefully corrupt, it’s already a well researched, well documented fact that gifts and donations have much more influence over one’s decisions than one might realize, even if one’s honestly trying not to let it happen. A few years ago, I read up on various studies of the ways that funding, gifts, and personal visits from sales representatives of pharmaceutical companies influence what physicians are more likely to prescribe and even worse, influence the outcome of clinical drug trials. And while the studies generally failed to find direct evidence that most researchers or physicians purposefully tailored their decisions or research to the financial interests of the funders, donors, or sales reps, the influence was clearly indicated, likely based on the unconscious desire to reciprocate real or perceive goodwill, and / or the bias in favor of perceived expertise. If you have a large amount of money to invest, or a team of sales reps with a convincing story to tell on your payroll, you have to know what you’re doing, right?

Human psychology being remarkably consistent, it’s nearly certain that politicians are subject to the same psychological phenomena. Lobbyists can be considered the political analogues of the sales reps, and donors the analogues of the research funders and pharmaceutical company gift-givers. And while the sales reps, lobbyists, funders, and donors may have good arguments, may be in the possession of good information, or may be driven by entirely noble motives, it’s still the case that their influence can crowd out other arguments, other evidence, and other interests which should have equal consideration.

COOPER: …Secretary Clinton …plenty of politicians evolve on issues, but even some Democrats believe you change your positions based on political expediency. You were against same-sex marriage. Now you’re for it. You defended President Obama’s immigration policies. Now you say they’re too harsh. You supported his trade deal dozen of times. You even called it the “gold standard”. Now, suddenly, last week, you’re against it. Will you say anything to get elected?

CLINTON: Well, actually, I have been very consistent. Over the course of my entire life, I have always fought for the same values and principles, but, like most human beings — including those of us who run for office — I do absorb new information. I do look at what’s happening in the world….

Clinton is right to point out that politicians, like all human beings, should remain ready and willing to learn, be open to new evidence, consider new and better arguments as they are presented, and be able to change their minds as warranted. Charges of ‘flip-flopping’ are often hurled at political candidates to portray their changes of mind as signs of dishonest maneuvering and weakness of will. But this isn’t always the case. A famous examples of a politician changing their mind on an important issue is Abraham Lincoln, who originally thought that preserving the political Union between the states took priority over the abolition of slavery. Another is Barack Obama, who originally thought that legal marriage should exclusively remain heterosexual, with civil union being an acceptable separate but equal institution for gay couples.

This being as it may, when a politician changes their mind, just like anyone else, it should be for very good reasons. And because they represent the people, they need to explain these changes of mind, to be open and honest to their constituents, especially when the change of mind might affect the voters’ choice of representative.

COOPER: Secretary Clinton, though, with all due respect, the question is really about political expediency. Just in July, New Hampshire, you told the crowd you’d, quote, “take a back seat to no one when it comes to progressive values.” Last month in Ohio, you said you plead guilty to, quote, “being kind of moderate and center.” Do you change your political identity based on who you’re talking to? 

CLINTON: No. I think that, like most people that I know, I have a range of views, but they are rooted in my values and my experience…

COOPER: Just for the record, are you a progressive, or are you a moderate?

CLINTON: I’m a progressive. But I’m a progressive who likes to get things done.

Clinton is not only representing herself as a practical politician, she’s making a larger point: while it’s important to be idealistic and to remain committed to one’s values, it’s also important to remember that if you can’t compromise when necessary, those ideals and those values will do no practical good because they’ll never be realized in public policy.

While I’m more than halfway with her on this, I still think we need a president, a Congress, and a Supreme Court who demonstrate a stronger commitment to a nobler political vision. With the notable exception of legalizing gay marriage, it’s been too long since our elected leaders exuded the moral strength necessary to lead us in accomplishing spectacular things like ending slavery, giving women the vote, establishing worker’s rights, instituting a New Deal, building a comprehensive and cutting-edge infrastructure, taking us to the moon. We’ve become cynical, expecting our politicians to squabble and block one another’s efforts at every turn while our infrastructure crumbles, healthcare costs soar, our middle-class dwindles, gun violence runs rampant, the earth warms as we continue to generate energy with old polluting technology, our education system becomes ever less effective, special interests take over our political system with enticements of massive amounts of money and cushy job offers, costly American military interventions take out bad leaders only to have worse ones rush in to fill the power gap, the war on drugs continues to fail while encouraging the rampant growth of violent cartels here and abroad, and more Americans are incarcerated than in any other nation.

As a result of this cynicism, too many of us have become hopeless and apathetic, staying away from the polls, content with venting our discontent and disillusion on social media. I’m not totally with those who hold a bleak view of the loss of civic engagement in our country: young people volunteer and donate at encouragingly high rates, and are vocal about their opposition to social ills such as racism, sexism, greed, violence, rampant incarceration, and so on. Still, if we care about doing the most good systematically and in the long run, I think it more important to begin with taking our political system back. A lot of the volunteering and donating is needed precisely because our political system is failing so many people.

COOPER: …Senator Sanders. A Gallup poll says half the country would not put a socialist in the White House. You call yourself a democratic socialist. How can any kind of socialist win a general election in the United States?

SANDERS: Well, we’re gonna win because first, we’re gonna explain what democratic socialism is. And what democratic socialism is about is saying that it is immoral and wrong that the top one-tenth of 1 percent in this country own almost …as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent. That it is wrong, today, in a rigged economy, that 57 percent of all new income is going to the top 1 percent…

COOPER: …You don’t consider yourself a capitalist, though?

SANDERS: Do I consider myself part of the casino capitalist process by which so few have so much and so many have so little by which Wall Street’s greed and recklessness wrecked this economy? No, I don’t. I believe in a society where all people do well. Not just a handful of billionaires….

For all Sander’s optimism on this point, socialism remains a hated word in the United States, and not for bad reasons. The largest socialist states of the 20th century did not act in the interests of their people as much as they acted in the interest of their leaders and their political ideology, with some exceptions. Yes, the Cuban health care system did and does better by their people, as a whole, than that of the United States: more people have access to good affordable health care, more people live healthier lives, and less people are financially ruined by a diagnosis of a serious disease. Yet the political rights of those in most socialist states are severely restricted if existent at all, and the average citizen remains relatively poor as their economies stagnate and the wealth and power are concentrated in the hands of a few. We can say the same historically of most modern socialist states, past and present: Cuba, the Soviet Union, China, East Germany, and so on.

However, here’s the key point about democratic socialism as Sanders describes it: all of those oppressive socialist states lack the ‘democracy’ element, even though it’s often part of the government’s official name. In those states, most people have no political voice or representation whatsoever, and their nations’ social, political, and economic systems are organized strictly along ‘top-down’ lines. A few political elites impose their will on the people unopposed, and any opposition is quashed with the justification that it was motivated by disloyalty ‘to the people’ or to the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat.’ Those that wield the power may describe lofty goals and proclaim that everything they do is according to the abstracted will of the people, but the actual people themselves are not allowed to participate in their own governance.

Democratic socialism is very different in principle and practice than socialism as commonly understood, if carried out as Sanders describes. Its public institutions are required to remain accountable to the people and its elected leaders subject to voter recall. It’s not a top-down system in the way authoritarian socialist regimes are for two reasons: there’s many points of view and sources of information that are brought to bear, not just the ideology of a single person or small political elite, and its policies and projects are implemented, constrained, and carried out by elected representatives and/or more directly by voters. Ostensibly, the democratic republican system we already have is this sort of government, but democratic socialists disagree because of the outsize influence of a few wealthy, powerful private interests. The reason why Sander’s party emphasizes ‘socialism’ in their name is because, they say, political systems dedicated more to individual liberty than to the well-being of its people inevitably fail in both.

In a market system, according to this view, the individual pursuit of profit will inevitably often work to the public’s detriment, whether or not individual capitalists have good or bad motives, because of the inherent incentives. Keeping an eye always on the bottom line keeps them off the plight of others, including that of the underpaid worker, or of the community’s lands being polluted, or those who can’t afford a necessary good or service (such as healthcare) because of price fixing, or the citizen who’s not being represented because of the money and influence that rigged the political system in the capitalist’s favor. Throughout history, both before and after regulations were put in place to protect the rights, health, and safety of citizens and the environment, there have always been a large percentage of capitalists who are greedy, who don’t care how the way they do business affects others, and they will always ruin it for everyone else, overrunning the system in their ruthlessness and making bad practice par for the course: exploiting those who need jobs but can’t find good ones, setting up grossly polluting factories wherever they’re not prevented from doing so, colluding with other businesses to fix prices and wages, forming monopolies, co-opting government to make laws in their favor, gambling in financial markets until they crash, and so on. And because these bad actors take over the system, other businesses must adopt these same bad practices in order to remain competitive and survive. That’s why, democratic socialists say, we need certain key goods and services to be controlled by public institutions that are accountable to the people, not just to the balance sheet, to investors, or the conscience (or lack thereof) of one individual.

Whether or not a well-run, truly democratic socialist state as would be more successful than a market-driven one remains to be seen. There are encouraging results in nations with mixed economies, such as the Scandinavian countries that Sanders hold up as his models, but the United States presents two important challenges these countries don’t face: it’s way more ideologically and ethnically diverse, and it’s way, way bigger. There are other much larger and more diverse countries who’ve nationalized a few but very important goods and services such as healthcare, like Canada and most modern European states, with very good results. Of course, they have their problems too, but that’s true of every system that has ever been devised. So the question’s not whether which system is perfect, it’s which one is better, and which one comes with a set of problems we find more tolerable to live with.

COOPER: We’re going to have a lot more on these issues. But I do want to just quickly get everybody in on the question of electability. Governor Chafee, you’ve been everything but a socialist. When you were senator from Rhode Island, you were a Republican. When you were elected governor, you were an independent. You’ve only been a Democrat for little more than two years. Why should Democratic voters trust you won’t change again?

CHAFEE: …I have not changed on the issues. I was a liberal Republican, then I was an independent, and now I’m a proud Democrat. But I have not changed on the issues…

COOPER: ….Senator Webb, in 2006, you called affirmative action “state-sponsored racism.” In 2010, you wrote an op/ed saying it discriminates against whites. Given that nearly half the Democratic Party is non-white, aren’t you out of step with where the Democratic Party is now?

WEBB: No, actually I believe that I am where the Democratic Party traditionally has been. The Democratic Party, and the reason I’ve decided to run as a Democrat, has been the party that gives people who otherwise have no voice in the corridors of power a voice….

I’ve been hearing the argument a lot: the Republican party is moving ever farther right, so the Democratic party feels compelled to keep moving more to the center in order to appear the moderate, reasonable choice. Clinton’s platform is the model of this, and it looks like Chafee and Webb agree. Sanders appears to be the one candidate who’s an unapologetic, leftist liberal.

COOPER: Senator Webb, thank you very much. Let’s move on to some of the most pressing issues facing our country right now…. We’re going to start with guns. The shooting in Oregon earlier this month, once again it brought the issue of guns into the national conversation. …Senator Sanders, you voted against the Brady bill that mandated background checks and a waiting period. You also supported allowing riders to bring guns in checked bags on Amtrak trains. For a decade, you said that holding gun manufacturers legally responsible for mass shootings is a bad idea. Now, you say you’re reconsidering that. Which is it: shield the gun companies from lawsuits or not?

SANDERS: …Let’s also understand that back in 1988 when I first ran for the United States Congress …I told the gun owners of the state of Vermont…, a state which has virtually no gun control, that I supported a ban on assault weapons. And over the years, I have strongly avoided [supported?] instant background checks, doing away with this terrible gun show loophole. And I think we’ve got to move aggressively at the federal level in dealing with the straw man purchasers. Also I believe, and I’ve fought for, to understand that there are thousands of people in this country today who are suicidal, who are homicidal, but can’t get the healthcare that they need, the mental healthcare, because they don’t have insurance or they’re too poor. I believe that everybody in this country who has a mental crisis has got to get mental health counseling immediately. 

Sanders is making the same argument here as most Republican candidates are now making, that when it comes to dealing with certain categories of gun violence, we should turn our focus to mental health and economic issues and away from gun control. While it’s true that there’s a lot of gun violence associated with mental illness and poverty, I think it’s a distraction. In fact, I don’t believe that Sanders and the Republicans would make this argument if they didn’t feel politically compelled to concoct some ad hoc justification for gun-friendly policies they ascribe to for other reasons. Even for people who believe in expansive rights to gun ownership, the fact that there’s far more gun violence in the United States than in all other first-world countries demands a more comprehensive explanation to be convincing.

So why don’t I buy the argument blaming lack of mental health care? For one thing, many or even most of the people known to have some kind of mental issue before the shootings were receiving treatment, or had access to it they were not availing themselves of, so far as I could tell from the news reports. In other cases, others only discover that people are violently mentally ill after they’ve shot up a theater or killed themselves. I agree wholeheartedly that everyone should have access to mental healthcare and to decent-paying jobs, and that it’s likely that gun violence would be somewhat mitigated if that were the case: some people’s mental illnesses would be discovered and hopefully successfully treated before resorting to violence, and others would be able to live in safer neighborhoods and stay out of the illicit drug trade, for example.

But all the free mental healthcare and jobs in the world will not solve the one problem that we all face when in comes to gun violence: when people have easy access to guns when they’re under the sway of some emotion, be it insanity, greed, anger, fear, excitement, zealotry, vengefulness, territorialism, or just carried away by the fun they’re having at the time, they are easily able to wreak death and destruction with the simple squeeze of a trigger, especially in a culture where guns are regarded as the best and only solution to so many problems. And other times, these deaths arise out of nothing more than sheer carelessness, ignorance, or bad luck while a gun was in hand. The trick is to mitigate the harm we can do each other out of the excesses of our variable human nature by limiting access to guns, and by changing our cultural attitudes to them. The former may very well lead to the latter.

COOPER: Do you want to shield gun companies from lawsuits?

SANDERS: Of course not. This was a large and complicated bill. There were provisions in it that I think made sense. For example, do I think that a gun shop in the state of Vermont that sells legally a gun to somebody, and that somebody goes out and does something crazy, that that gun shop owner should be held responsible? I don’t. On the other hand, where you have manufacturers and where you have gun shops knowingly giving guns to criminals or aiding and abetting that, of course we should take action.

COOPER: Secretary Clinton, is Bernie Sanders tough enough on guns?

CLINTON: No, not at all. I think that we have to look at the fact that we lose 90 people a day from gun violence. This has gone on too long and it’s time the entire country stood up against the NRA. The majority of our country supports background checks, and even the majority of gun owners do. Senator Sanders did vote … for this immunity provision. I voted against it. …It wasn’t that complicated to me. It was pretty straightforward to me that he was going to give immunity to the only industry in America. Everybody else has to be accountable, but not the gun manufacturers….

O’MALLEY: … here tonight in our audience are two people that make this issue very, very real. Sandy and Lonnie Phillips’… daughter, Jessie, was one of those who lost their lives in that awful mass shooting in Aurora. …A man had sold 4,000 rounds of military ammunition to this — this person that killed their daughter, riddled her body with five bullets, and he didn’t even ask where it was going. And not only did their case get thrown out of court, they were slapped with $200,000 in court fees because of the way that the NRA gets its way in our Congress…

While I laud the principle of personal responsibility of individual gun purchasers that seemingly informs the argument against increased liability for gun companies, it also has a serious practical downside: it removes one extra layer of protection for the public when gun manufacturers and sellers are not sufficiently motivated to ensure they operate reliably and have enough safety features, and to choose not to sell guns to people they have reason to believe won’t be a responsible sellers or owners. And, of course, it fails to apply the principle of personal responsibility to the gun manufacturers and sellers. Perhaps if everyone, not just the gun owners, but everyone involved was faced with the prospect of having to take responsibility for their part in contributing to gun violence, it would be substantially reduced.

I’ve offered a suggestion before that may sound oddly anachronistic, based as it is on the actual wording of and history behind the Second Amendment, but hear me out. The text of the Second Amendment reads: ‘A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.’ When we read this, we tend to mentally cast aside the militia part, since originally the Second Amendment was informed by the infant United States’ aversion to the institution of a standing army, relying on state militias instead, which is no longer the American system of defense. However, if the right to gun ownership was contingent on belonging to a militia, or to modern equivalents such as the military, its reserves, and police forces, than all lawful gun owners would be, if the institution was well-regulated as it should be, publicly accountable and suitably trained. Maybe, then, a literal reading of the actual wording of the Constitution can offer a solution to our dilemma. As written, the phrase ‘the right of the people to keep and bear Arms’ is a subordinate clause to ‘A well regulated Militia’. So maybe we should likewise subordinate the right to keep and bear arms to whether one does belong to a modern equivalent of a militia.

SANDERS: …We can raise our voices, but I come from a rural state, and the views on gun control in rural states are different than in urban states…

O’MALLEY: …Senator, it is not about rural — Senator, it was not about rural and urban …We were able to pass this [in Maryland] and still respect the hunting traditions of people who live in our rural areas….

WEBB: …We need to keep the people who should not have guns away from them. But we have to respect the tradition in this country of people who want to defend themselves and their family from violence…

The right to self-protection is emphasized the most, on both sides, in arguments about gun rights, with the possible exception of deterrence, emphasized by many conservatives. I have serious doubts about both of these, mostly based on lack of evidence in its favor. We have higher gun ownership rates than most countries in the world, yet we have higher levels of gun violence. Even controlling for cultural attitudes (such as in Canada, which also has a high level of gun ownership rates but much lower levels of gun violence), we should see a general, consistent correlation over time and place between high levels of gun ownership and low levels of violence. Yet when we compare the United States with other countries, and we compare states with each other, we find that higher levels of gun ownership almost always correlate with higher levels of gun violence. There are a few exceptions, such as Germany and South Dakota, but when these are the exception rather than the rule, the explanation is almost certainly to be found elsewhere.

So, if protection of the life of citizens is the goal, it is not accomplished by instituting policies which usually lead to more deaths. I think, again, the real reasons so many Americans cling to the right to own guns have entirely to do with cultural and historically based norms.

I’ll go ahead and end this first critique of the Democratic debates here. In the next installment, I’ll skip the foreign policy part of this debate since it’s covered more thoroughly in a later one, and pick back up where the discussion turns to civil rights issues and the Black Lives Matter movement.

To be continued….

* Listen to the podcast reading of this piece here or on iTunes

Political Maneuver or Not, I Think Hillary’s Call for Automatic,Universal Voting Registration Is a Great Idea

As you may know, I am a staunch advocate of voting: I think voting rights should be expansive, that as a nation we should encourage and facilitate voting as much as possible, and that voting is not only a right, it’s responsibility.

When we don’t vote, we do an injustice to ourselves and our fellow citizens by failing to uphold our democracy, we act as pawns of those who try to limit access to voting (in recent years, these efforts have been especially aimed at minorities, the poor, the elderly, and the young, go figure), and we betray those whose labor and personal sacrifices made it possible for us to vote in the first place. Next time you feel lazy or tempted by Russell-Brand-style ‘principled’ slacktivism, think of Frederick Douglas, Carrie Chapman Catt, and Miguel Trujillo, and imagine how lame you’d sound if you had to stand before them and explain why you’re sitting out on voting day.

Hillary Clinton’s call for universal, automatic voter registration addresses both the rights and the responsibility aspects of voting, and outlines some concrete steps we can take to support both. Her proposal, to automatically enroll every citizen as a voter when they turn 18 unless they opt out, and to extend the time window for voting, has many things going for it, and few against it:

– it reduces the chance of voter fraud because everyone will be enrolled; if anyone tries to vote more than once, or as an individual who doesn’t really exist, they’ll get caught by the system. While voter fraud is actually very rare nowadays, many people just feel better about elections that are more likely to be as close to 100% free of voter fraud as possible. In recent years, voter fraud been more of a right-wing issue than anything, so honest Republicans should support the idea. And if they object to universal voting registration as being somehow too invasive or imperious, well…

– it’s no more or less invasive than any other ID laws (passports, state ID, etc). Universal voter registration could be done by the federal government, but if this idea is too scary, it could become a national requirement for states take on the responsibility. If each state can be responsible for making sure every adult has an ID, it’s not too much of a stretch that they could tie this into voter rolls.- it makes voting more accessible to working people. Honest Republicans should like this as much as anyone from any other political party, for obvious reasons: it would help the hardworking, taxpaying, . As it is, it’s often very hard for working people to get to the polls on the one day they’re open, often only during work hours and/or the time they drop their kids off and pick them up from school; this is especially true for people working in healthcare, in emergency services, in low-paying jobs where people can ill afford even an hour off, and so on. Universal voter registration would make sure that busy working people are already signed up to vote in case they can grab some time to run down to the polls, and will make it that much easier to create an electronic voting system that will allow everyone to vote when and if they can. (I still think the fact that voting days are not holidays is a shame and an embarrassment to a nation that touts itself as greatest democracy in the world.)

– and voting, generally, makes for a smarter, more just society, since it not only helps ensure that the rights of every citizen are respected, but that information about the circumstances, beliefs, and interests of the entire citizenry, necessary for crafting wise and fair policy, is revealed as fully as possible. The more people who can more easily vote, then, the better. And not just the working people: it should include the poor, the elderly, the disabled, the formerly incarcerated… every single citizen whose fate, like it or not, is intertwined with our own.

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!


Sources and inspiration:

Keith, Tamara. ‘Returning to Roots, Clinton Lays Out Proposal to Expand Voting‘. It’s All Politics, NPR. June 4, 2015.

Levitt, Justin. ‘The Truth About Voter Fraud.‘ Brennan Center for Justice website, November 9, 2007.

Merica, Dan and Eric Bradner. ‘Clinton calls out GOP opponents by name on voting rights’, CNN website, June 5, 2015 Clinton calls out GOP opponents by name on voting rights