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The Worst Article of the 2016 Election Cycle: June 7, 2015 Edition

[ 174 ] June 7, 2015 |

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Beltway elites love the myth of the undecided voter. By which of course they mean white voters who lean conservative. That Hillary Clinton is following Barack Obama’s path of understanding the American electorate and focusing on getting out the base rather than appeal to voters in West Virginia and North Dakota who are going to vote Republican anyway is the topic of this fretting New York Times article.

This early in the campaign, however, forgoing a determined outreach effort to all 50 states, or even most of them, could mean missing out on the kind of spirited conversation that can be a unifying feature of a presidential election. And it could leave Mrs. Clinton, if she wins, with the same difficulties Mr. Obama has faced in governing with a Republican-controlled Congress.

Yes, clearly a spirited conversation is going to convince heavily gerrymandered districts in Texas and Pennsylvania and Georgia to vote for Democrats! That’s clearly the ticket for Democrats to retake the House. How come no one has thought of that one before?

To the architects of the Obama strategy, Mrs. Clinton’s approach is not mere homage: It is unavoidable, given that there are few genuine independents now and that technology increasingly lets campaigns pinpoint their most likely voters.

“If you run a campaign trying to appeal to 60 to 70 percent of the electorate, you’re not going to run a very compelling campaign for the voters you need,” said David Plouffe, a top Obama strategist who has consulted informally with Mrs. Clinton.

Yes. That’s because the people who ran Obama’s campaigns were not stupid.

Mrs. Clinton has said repeatedly that she does not want a lonely victory in 2016; she wants to elect Democrats down the ballot. A group of her senior aides met recently with officials at the Democratic House, Senate and governor campaign arms to brief them on the aides’ research and plans for her message and organization. And Senate Democrats are hopeful that she will lift their prospects, because there is considerable overlap in crucial states: The results in Colorado, Florida, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio and Wisconsin will almost certainly determine both who wins the White House and which party controls the Senate.

Oh, so this is a super smart strategy Hillary is using then?

“Go ask Al Gore,” Senator Joe Manchin III, Democrat of West Virginia, said about the risk of writing off states such as his, where Democratic presidential candidates prospered until 2000. “He’d be president with five electoral votes from West Virginia. So it is big, and it can make a difference.”

Centrist Democrats also worry that focusing on liberal voters could lead to a continuation of the problems Mr. Obama has faced with a Congress elected by a vastly different subset of the nation.

“That’s not good for the country,” Mr. Manchin said, adding that he hoped Mrs. Clinton would “come to the middle” if she became president.

Of her campaign, he said, “If they get her too far over, it’s going to be more difficult to govern, it truly is.”

Other rural-state Democrats are sending not-so-subtle messages.

“I think that we always appreciate when people want to kind of talk to the whole country and listen to concerns, and I think farm country is critically important,” said Senator Heidi Heitkamp, Democrat of North Dakota.

Yes, clearly Joe Manchin and Heidi Heitkamp are the real Democrats Hillary should be listening to. After all, their states with a combined 8 electoral votes are clearly going to put Hillary over the top. I mean, sure Al Gore could have gotten over the top with West Virgina’s votes. And he could have also gotten over the top if Ralph Nader didn’t have an ego the size of Texas or if, I don’t know, the Supreme Court didn’t throw the election to George W. Bush. And note that none of this has anything to do with strategy. Manchin says “it’s not good for the country.” Why not? Heitkamp says “farm country is critically important.” To what? Certainly not to Hillary Clinton getting elected president.

“The president is the one person who potentially could be the unifying figure in the country,” said H. W. Brands, a historian at the University of Texas at Austin. “And if the president or a presidential candidate basically writes off 40 states, then how in the world do the people in those 40 states feel like they have a stake in that person or that election?”

I’m embarrassed for my profession there. Who was the last president that unified America? Eisenhower? This is just lazy and ridiculous.

The rest of the article just goes on in this way. In the end, for all that Beltway pundits want to believe that Democrats convincing white conservatives to vote for them is the only strategy to victory because they are the real Americans, it’s just not the case. Hillary (or hey, maybe Bernie!) wins by motivating the base, focusing on winning necessary close states where they have inherent advantages, and maybe pressing to expand the map to North Carolina, Arizona, and Georgia while holding on to Wisconsin and Ohio and Virginia. If I thought Hillary campaigning in Louisiana would actually lead to Democratic downticket victories there, I’d support it. But I just don’t see it. Better to focus on high voter turnout among the base.

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Corporate Control Over Museums

[ 10 ] June 7, 2015 |

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I visited the Smithsonian U.S. history museum last week and was amazed at how corporate-controlled it has now become. I am working on a larger article on this topic that I’m hoping gets published somewhere with a larger audience, but in general, with major museums lacking the government funding they once had, the turn to corporate donors severely affects the stories they tell and undermines challenging visitors in any way. As the rest of the English-speaking world seems determined to follow the United States into a world of corporate-dominated right-wing government, it’s not too surprising to see corporate influence in those nations’ museums as well.

If you’d like to see how oil giant Royal Dutch Shell (one of the largest multi-national corporations in the world’s history) uses its corporate philanthropy to subtly change the core direction of potentially adversarial content at a renowned science museum educating millions, here’s your chance.

How Shell came to sponsor the London Science Museum’s “Atmosphere” program that, according to its director, emphasizes as much about what we don’t know about climate science as what we do know, is a story pulled straight from the well-established corporate public relations playbook.

When confronted with science, evidence and facts that aren’t especially helpful to your company’s bottom line – the playbook says to change the focus, or sow doubt about the certainty of the science. It worked for years for the tobacco industry. Big companies, like Shell, have clearly learned from its successes (and failures).

….

Science Museum and Shell officials talked about the need to agree on the “big changes” to the exhibit’s focus until it was finalized. “I’ve spoken to the (science) team and they will have a think about David’s comment,” a museum official wrote to Shell in one such exchange. “If there is a possibility of big changes, would you be in a position to indicate them now?” a museum official wrote to Shell in another instance.

In response to media coverage of its own internal documents on the Shell sponsorship, the museum’s director, Ian Blatchford, wrote in a blog post Monday that the public should be satisfied that it retained final editorial control over the exhibit. Shell made suggestions, yes, but museum officials made the final decisions.

But Blatchford’s response actually captures perfectly what Shell hoped it would achieve by paying for the exhibit. It talks about the science of climate change and what we know. But it also focuses on what we don’t know.

“Shell was a major funder of Atmosphere, our climate science gallery which provides our visitors with accurate, up-to-date information on what is known, what is uncertain, and what is not known about this important subject,” Blatchford wrote. “The gallery has been hugely popular since it opened four years ago and has now been visited by more than 3 million people.”

Naturally, if you are Shell, you are going to fund an exhibit that is beautiful and full of technology and over which you have editorial control that makes sure that visitors come away thinking there is so much we don’t know about climate change so why attack the oil companies. One can question how much influence museum exhibits have on shaping visitors beliefs, but for many visitors who do not follow the politics of climate change, this is one of the most intensive bits of exposure to the issue they will ever see. So of course Shell is going to target this exhibit to get its side of the story told.

Book Review: Michael Wolraich, Unreasonable Men: Theodore Roosevelt and the Republican Rebels Who Created Progressive Politics

[ 10 ] June 7, 2015 |

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Robert La Follette

I tend to choose books for review here rather randomly, often picking something off the new book shelf at my university’s library. So when I saw Michael Wolraich’s new book, I knew nothing about it. I was intrigued and a bit worried I would dislike it. I had two basic reservations. The first is the all too common worry the professional historian has for the popular history: that it would be a hagiography focusing strictly on outsized personalities and ignoring the larger and complex context of the time that creates change. Second, the title worried me, as it could have turned out to be a partisan book making Republicans themselves out to be the inherent creators of positive change in society.

While my first concern was only partially allayed, the second certainly was. Unreasonable Men is a very good book. Yes, it is personality driven and doesn’t really get into much detail about the tumult for reform at the grassroots in this country. But given that, Wolraich gets at the right personalities in the right ways. The cast of major characters are as follows: First, Rhode Island senator Nelson Aldrich. The prototypical Gilded Age senator, Aldrich stood as a leader of the Standpatters, the group of conservative Republicans determined to let no reform change the era of corruption and corporate rule they presided over. The classic Aldrich move was the a provision he inserted into the Payne-Aldrich Tariff removing the tariff on imported art so J.P. Morgan could bring his art collection to the U.S. without paying taxes. Now that’s senatorial service!

Second there is Joe Cannon, the dictator of the House. Cannon became Speaker in 1903 and inserted himself as the head of the Rules Committee, granting himself complete control over everything that went on the in the chamber. As conservative as Aldrich, Cannon determined to not allow the growing reform movements to make any meaningful change in the country.

Third is Theodore Roosevelt. Wolraich accurately portrays Roosevelt as a conservative with an innate sense of shifts in public opinion and who could switch positions himself without even realizing it. Distrustful of Populism and distrustful of the other reformers in Washington, Roosevelt believed himself a true moderate, bringing just the right amount of change to the political system. His outsized personality made him a very popular figure through his highly publicized actions, but he frustrated most progressives by his close relationships with corporate leaders and his highly restricted ideas of how much change should happen.

Fourth is William Howard Taft. A member of the Republican Old Guard and a man deeply committed to law and order, on some issues like trustbusting he would prove more effective than Roosevelt, but Wolraich portrays him as completely out of his depth as president. An utterly inept politician who completely misread the times he lived in, he quickly became unloved soon after taking the Oval Office, not only alienating Roosevelt but making himself a nonentity for reelection, probably even before Roosevelt decided to run on the Progressive Party ticket.

Finally, the hero of the book is Robert La Follette. Fighting Bob was an iconoclast, willing to attack anyone who stood in the way of the reform he demanded. He began leading a group of Midwestern Republicans determined to stand up to Aldrich, Cannon, and the rest of the aging Gilded Age elite. With his opponents underestimating him in his early years, he managed to move from governor to the Senate, bringing the winds of reform to Washington.

Describing all the details of how the reformers led by La Follette transformed the Republican Party and the nation could make for a very long post. In short, La Follette’s uncompromising long game approach to politics meant that by not worrying much about the next election, he slowly built allies and took positions that appealed to the growing reform demands among the American people. His attacks on corporate power first divided the Republican Party, undermining hardliners like Aldrich and helping to lead to the ousting of Cannon by George Norris through creating space for reformist Republicans and Democrats to unite on certain issues. This moved the Republicans as a whole to the left, but by 1912 created a highly fractious party where conservatives like Taft and Elihu Root desperately tried to hold off Roosevelt and La Follette. These two had bitterly split over their mutual presidential ambitions, especially since even a popular figure like La Follette could in no way hold off the Roosevelt tide after he threw his hat in the ring.

La Follette helped create the atmosphere of 1912, when even Taft was relatively reformist compared to the Republicans of fifteen years earlier. Woodrow Wilson of course won that election, with Taft just giving up after Roosevelt left the party. Wilson’s own rise summed up the era, as  the New Jersey conservative Democratic establishment believed he was one of them and then the governor completely turned on them. Wilson was a Progressive in his own right, albeit one who did not really trust government much more than he did corporations. At least in Wolraich’s telling, 1912 is not possible without all the work La Follette accomplished over the previous decade. Not that the Democrats nominating a Progressive was inevitable. Wilson came quite close to losing the nomination to Missouri’s Champ Clark and only won on the 46th ballot when William Jennings Bryan threw his support to Wilson due to his disgust with Tammany Hall working for Clark.

Oddly, the only point I was ever really that unhappy with the book was in the last couple of pages. Wolraich gets Roosevelt’s death date wrong (he says it is January 5, 1920 when it is January 6, 1919). Not a big deal maybe but something that should have been fact checked somewhere along the line. Second, he claims that Aldrich “is the forefather of a progressive political dynasty” that includes Jay Rockefeller and Nelson Rockefeller. The claim for this rests not on policy grounds (as despite his somewhat unintended influence on major Progressive legislation such as the income tax, which he originally offered as a constitutional amendment to avoid it passing Congress and which he thought would never be ratified, and the groundwork he laid late in his life for the Federal Reserve, the man was a rock-ribbed conservative until the end), but that his daughter married John D. Rockefeller, Jr. I’m not sure that the random fact that his daughter married into the Rockefeller family gives him anything more than a family connection to later Rockefellers in public service.

Wolraich claims that “history offers a solution to our modern political dysfunction.” (x) If that’s true, which is arguable, what is the lesson here? I would argue that strident opposition to the current system combined with thinking about long-game politics, visualizing the change we want to see and working toward it through the political system but regardless of the next election, may be a useful lesson. That doesn’t mean elections don’t matter, but they don’t solve our problems and focusing only on that goal, as Theodore Roosevelt did and as a whole lot of progressives do today, can make creating long-term change much harder. Ultimately for Wolraich, that’s why La Follette is the more noble political leader, even if Roosevelt has his face blasted into a South Dakota mountain.

FIFA Labor Standards

[ 28 ] June 6, 2015 |

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Minky Worden argues at Human Rights Watch that while corruption is a major issue, the new FIFA director needs to prioritize worker safety in building World Cup facilities.

FIFA’s (non-corruption) problems are legion. Migrant workers shouldn’t toil in deadly heat to construct monumental stadiums: no sports fan wants to watch from seats that workers died to build. Sponsors shouldn’t want to promote games in repressive countries that threaten and jail critics. Journalists shouldn’t be beaten and jailed for reporting on abuses tied to the World Cup. Women shouldn’t be banned from watching football matches.

Whoever takes over in FIFA’s top job should act fast to end the abuses against migrant laborers building infrastructure for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, where workers are bound by an oppressive sponsorship system known as kafala. The new leadership should also insist that ahead of the 2018 World Cup, Russia prevents the rampant exploitation of migrant workers that the government tolerated for years before last year’s Sochi Olympics.

The recent trend of repressive leaders wanting to host mega-sporting events is one to stop. China, Qatar, Russia, Azerbaijan, and Kazakhstan want to host global contests because it brings the chance to burnish reputations and divert media attention from domestic problems.

As democratic states move away from hosting giant sporting events thanks to the enormous burdens they place on local infrastructure, taxpayers, and the everyday lives of those who live around them, repressive states are becoming more attractive to FIFA and the IOC. That portends a real risk of workplace deaths for those laboring on these sites. The international sporting community must make labor standards a priority in assessing the suitability of a nation to host these events.

Of course, not deciding on these sites by which nation gives voting members the biggest bribes wouldn’t hurt.

Baby Cages

[ 61 ] June 6, 2015 |

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If there’s one reason to study the 19th century, it’s to learn lessons on how to raise children. Today’s children are so spoiled, what with their education and not working and playing sports and 8th grade graduation parties and the like. Parents today pay for babysitters instead of just locking the kids in the bedroom for the night. Craziness. If the baby won’t go to sleep, why not dose it with opium? And if the child is in the way, how about hanging it in a cage outside your tenement house window?

Why study the past if we can’t learn lessons for the present?

Corporate Standards

[ 8 ] June 6, 2015 |

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Patagonia is receiving some kudos for taking steps to clean up its supply chain. After investigating conditions in its supply chain, mostly at factories in Taiwan, it discovered all the usual problems, including forced labor and slavery. It has set new standards for its suppliers although a compliance mechanism is not really in place yet. Inspections are promised at least.

That’s all a positive step, but I must remain pessimistic that it will lead to much. Patagonia itself bragged that the Obama administration called them in to talk about these new plans, but Walmart was at the meeting as well and we know that it has taken a lead among American industry to do nothing about sourcing problems, including refusing to sign on to standards adopted by European companies in the wake of Rana Plaza. Walmart refused because it feared being held legally accountable.

So whatever Patagonia is doing may in fact be positive. But the point is that a) we won’t know except whatever the company tells us and b) it does not seem that workers themselves will have any power to demand dignified lives. The whole system exists upon the goodwill of Patagonia executives. No fundamental change to injustice can take place if it rests on the goodwill of the powerful. It must be codified into the legal code. If Patagonia really wants to take responsibility here, it needs to also work toward creating a system where not only it but its rivals will have their supply chains be accountable to legal frameworks to ensure that forced labor, unsafe working conditions, sub-minimum wage pay, and other terrible realities of the global race to the bottom are fixed.

I certainly hope Patagonia is taking real steps to improve the lives of the workers making its apparel. But we should not accept the company at its word, nor should we take comfort in the belief that corporations can meaningfully reform supply chain exploitation on their own.

Why Ag-Gag Bills Exist

[ 29 ] June 5, 2015 |

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Above: Pig waste lagoon

While Out of Sight is primarily about international production and how the global race to the bottom protects companies from accountability for their sourcing practices because consumers don’t see them, I have a chapter on food that makes the point that a lot of agriculture can’t leave the U.S. for a variety of reasons, including that some crops only grow in certain places, the cost of shipping meat around the world, freshness issues, etc. But agribusiness still tries to conceal the costs of their production. The most heavy-handed way they have tried to do this in recent years is through ag-gag bills that make it a crime to record the treatment of animals in factory farms, which has been a method animal rights activists have used to publicize the horrors of animal treatment. It’s an extremely dangerous precedent because if agribusiness can make it a crime to have evidence of what happens in their facilities, why can’t every employer do the same?

Anyway, as you might guess, the leaders behind these efforts are not nice people. One is Andy Holt, a farmer and representative in the Tennessee legislature who sponsored that state’s failed attempt to pass an ag-gag bill, a bill which I am sure will be reintroduced in some form. Why would he support such a bill? To protect himself from his own bad behavior.

Tennessee representative Andy Holt, former hog farmer and sponsor of the state’s failed ag-gag bill, created quite a stink when he dumped 800,000 gallons of pig manure into the streams and fields surrounding his hog farm. Holt’s lagoons were apparently overflowing with waste and Holt’s response was simply to dump the waste in the waters and lands nearby, with no regard for the environment or the law.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recently sent a letter to Holt indicating that absent good cause it would take formal civil enforcement action against him. According to a Memphis news source, Tennessee state officials were considering taking action against Holt at the time this happened, but were “discouraged by upper management” from doing so.

Shocking that the state would fail to prosecute one of their own…. It’s examples just like this why corporations prefer state-level regulation to federal. The states are just easier to buy off and control.

Mapping LA Sprawl

[ 29 ] June 5, 2015 |

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If you like cool visualizations of how sprawl in Los Angeles occurred by noting the age of every building in the city, then this is for you.

Can We Stop the Trans Pacific Partnership?

[ 8 ] June 5, 2015 |

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Probably not at this point, but we have to try. Maybe the fact that the Senate fast track bill funded assistance for workers who will lose their jobs thanks to the TPP from Medicare money will convince House Democrats to unite with the Obamahaters to torpedo it. I suspect that won’t work, but maybe.

Focusing on the actual labor conditions of the nations we are encouraging companies to move American jobs to in this agreement certainly can’t hurt. I rarely agree with Bob Menendez about much of anything concerning American foreign policy, but his recent conversion to including minimal labor standards like not engaging in human trafficking is welcome. The recent discovery of mass graves at human trafficking camps on the Malaysia-Thailand border has convinced him that Malaysia should be dropped from the TPP. Given that it is one of the most important nations in it, evicting Malaysia would be a very big deal and would set precedents for nations to uphold labor standards in trade deals that could be expanded to include more stringent policies on goods that will then be sold in the United States.

It’s a hard fight, but we have to try anything to kill the TPP.

What a Glorious Anniversary!

[ 60 ] June 5, 2015 |

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A year ago this week, the Working Families Party decided to endorse Andrew Cuomo for governor. He made “promises” to promote parts of the WFP platform. Guess how that worked out!

From a strict scorecard perspective, the fact is that none of the legislative items that were supposed to have been part of it—from a full women’s equality package, public financing of elections and decriminalization of marijuana, to the Dream Act and a statewide minimum wage indexed to local markets—have become reality.

Same for the political goals: The Independent Democratic Conference is still allied with the Senate Republicans, and the mainline Democrats are still in the minority.

What happened?

W.F.P. says the governor simply broke his end of the bargain.

“The promises Governor Cuomo made would have amounted to a real difference in the lives of millions of New Yorkers,” the party’s New York State director, Bill Lipton said in a statement to Capital. “He didn’t keep his promises.”

Clearly no one could have seen this coming!

The WFP not only made a mistake in endorsing Cuomo, but it was an obvious mistake that many commenters noted at the time, including myself. It was terrible politics and it will take a long time for WFP to live it down.

Condiment Wars, Revisited

[ 237 ] June 4, 2015 |

What Cheer Tavern in south Providence already had a legitimate claim to the best bar in the state. And then they gave me this menu tonight:

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I like this place even more.

Post-Prohibition Whiskey Raids

[ 23 ] June 4, 2015 |

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I’ve long said that the passage of the 18th Amendment was the worst day in American history, but even after Prohibition was repealed in 1933, states and counties could continue to ban the sale of liquor. Doing so incentivized people to fill the gap by producing their own. Here’s a good series of photos of cops busting bootlegging operations in Alabama over the decades, including the photo above, from 1964.

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