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White Working Class Blues – posted 6/18/2017 and published in the Concord Monitor on 6/26/2017

June 18, 2017 Leave a comment

Social science research does not often make news. One exception was the study by two Princeton University researchers, Anna Case and Angus Deaton, which showed that middle-aged white Americans were dying younger. In their study, they showed that suicide, alcoholism, and drug overdoses are an increasing problem for middle-aged white people, aged 45-54.

The trend is uniquely American and it is country-wide. There is not a similar process going on in other advanced industrial countries. It flies against a history of public health improvement.

The rise in mortality is being largely driven by those with a high school degree or less.

Case and Deaton do not attribute the trend to any single factor. They write,

“The deaths of despair come from a long-standing process of cumulative disadvantage for those with less than a college degree. The story is rooted in the labor market, but involves many aspects of life, including health in childhood, marriage, childrearing and religion.”

The researchers concluded that the overall life prospects for white middle-aged people without a BA have declined over time. They state that stagnation in wages and in income have bred a sense of hopelessness.

The story shows a parallel rise in self-reported midlife morbidity. There was a significant decline in the fraction reporting excellent or very good health and a corresponding increase in the fraction reporting fair or poor health. The increase in poor health was matched by increased reports of pain, serious psychological distress, difficulties with activities of daily living and alcohol use.

So what are we to make of this? I see the trend as connected to the loss of the American Dream. The myth was that if you work hard and play by the rules, you can get ahead. While there always are exceptions, that has not turned out to be true for a huge number.

The trend Case and Deaton describe needs to be situated inside our economy of economic inequality where the top 10%, and especially the 1%, reap all the economic gain. Overall, white working class people have not fared well. The prospects for landing secure, good-paying jobs with benefits have lessened over time. Low-paying, no-benefit jobs are more the norm.

The suicides, the increased alcoholism, the opiate overdoses, like what we have seen in New Hampshire, are all about the hopelessness and grim future prospects.

It does nothing to diminish the fight against racism to acknowledge new trends. So often the dilemma of white working people gets counterposed against Blacks or immigrants. I think it is valid to separate how the white working class has fared. By white working class, I mean those who work for wages whether they are blue collar or white collar. I am not talking about the professional managerial class.

I do not see either political party as speaking to the needs of the white working class. There is a lack of empathy and a cultural distance. It pains me to acknowledge that the Republicans have done a better job appealing to the white working class than Democrats have. Republicans have talked about jobs and they have pursued the white working class vote aggressively. Trump talked about forgotten Americans and it is hard to argue with that. They have been forgotten.

The irony is that prior to the election, the closest Trump ever came to working class people were caddies at his golf courses or possibly food servers at Mar-a-Lago and his other resorts. Trump’s track record with the working class is a history of stiffing contractors and blue collar trades people. He has a history of being a businessman who repeatedly failed to pay his workers and then doggedly fought paying in court.

We are at a watershed moment now for Democrats. Democrats need to step back and reevaluate their program and their message. All the losses should force a reexamination. It is like when your football team keeps losing. At some point, you need to fire the coach. The Democrats keep rehiring the coaches who lose and they fail to recognize the importance of new blood.

They lost the Super Bowl. Are they going to keep doing the same thing?

In the last election, Hillary Clinton could not articulate a persuasive rationale for why her election would improve the lives of working people. More than the Russians or Comey, that was her downfall. Saying she was more qualified than Trump did not cut it with voters. Neither did attacks on Trump’s character, no matter how justified.

Part of what the Democrats need to look at is how they have failed to reach white working class voters across all the states. They should not be losing so badly in rural and small town America. The Clinton campaign was far too ready to write these voters off even though many of them inhabited key battleground states. Her failure to even campaign in places like Wisconsin was inexcusable.

I fault the Party – not just the Clinton campaign. The problem is hardly new. The infamous “basket of deplorables” comment by Clinton did not come out of nowhere. It followed Obama’s 2008 comment about bitter people who cling to their guns or religion. The elitism and condescension have a history in the party.

Attacking Trump is a grossly insufficient strategy.

It may seem obvious but the Democrats need to seek the white working class vote. A good start would be tackling economic inequality. They need to be far bolder in projecting a vision of pro-worker change. Milquetoast ideas of reform are not what is needed now. On the economy, Bernie Sanders was far closer to the program the Democrats should push.

A remedy for much of the despair is a meaningful plan to rebuild America with a 21st century green economy. The Democrats need to credibly argue for a full employment economy, single payer national health insurance and much more affordable housing. Only that kind of powerful plan will break through the cynicism and get the millions who never vote to the polls.

As Democrats work out a new program, they need to keep in mind that two-thirds of Americans do not have college degrees. They need to speak to this group, not just those with a BA degree.

The Democratic Party needs a rebirth. Whether that happens, we shall see.

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Trump Versus The Rule of Law – posted 6/3/2017 and published in the Concord Monitor on 6/7/2017

June 3, 2017 Leave a comment

Possibly the most worrisome aspect of the Trump presidency has been disrespect for the rule of law. Since I know there are many who will disagree with this view, let me be specific.

In the first travel ban case, the government lawyer representing the President argued that Trump’s executive order was “unreviewable”. In a government founded on separation of powers, the argument is remarkable. Trump is arguing the power of a president is absolute and cannot be challenged.

In response, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the President’s argument was “contrary to the fundamental structure of our constitutional democracy”.

When Judge James L. Robart, a George W. Bush appointee to the Federal Court in Washington state, initially enjoined the travel ban, Trump called him a “so-called judge” whose decision was “ridiculous”. Trump tweeted “if something happens, blame him”.

No judge is beyond criticism but name-calling and ad hominem attack by the President on a federal court judge is debased. It is an assault on the judge’s legitimacy and on separation of powers. Trump’s tweets are a sad substitute for a reasoned argument.

When Judge William Orrick blocked the plan to strip federal funding from sanctuary cities, Trump blamed the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, not realizing Judge Orrick was a Federal District Court judge. Trump then suggested that the Ninth Circuit needs to be broken up because he does not like its rulings.

The reaction is juvenile. Courts deal with a myriad of issues and it is guaranteed that there will be rulings to make everyone unhappy. I see Trump’s attack on the Ninth Circuit as an attack on an independent judiciary. He wants courts who will only rule his way.

During the campaign, Trump criticized Judge Gonzalo Curiel for his rulings in the Trump University fraud case. Trump complained Curiel was “Mexican” and “was giving unfair rulings”. Judge Curiel is a U.S. citizen born in Indiana. Trump said that he favored building a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border and Curiel could not be fair in the Trump University case because of his Mexican heritage.

Criticizing a judge for being “Mexican” is transparently racist. Even worse, it reflects a poor understanding of the need for a modern judiciary to be diverse so that it is representative of the public served. There is a legacy of racism the law must overcome and Trump appears to be unaware of that.

In the second travel ban case, Trump’s lawyer argued that the Court should ignore all the things he said during the campaign and only consider if the travel ban mentioned Islam. At issue was whether the travel ban violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

Trump had previously said on the Christian Broadcasting Network that his travel ban was designed to favor Christian refugees over Muslim refugees. He also famously called for a ban on all Muslims entering the United States. Ignoring these statements is like whitewashing reality and courts cannot simply ignore context.

Trump has expressed dissatisfaction with the First Amendment. Recently, in an interview with ABC’s Jonathan Karl, Reince Priebus, White House Chief of Staff, said that the administration was considering an effort to amend the First Amendment. Trump has long wanted to increase the liability of journalists.

Calling reporters “enemies of the American people” and calling news outlets “evil” does not reflect an understanding of the First Amendment which expressly guarantees freedom of the press. I think physical assaults on reporters like the attack on the Guardian’s Ben Jacobs occur, in part, because of Trump’s demonizing journalists. Constant berating can unhinge human behavior and lower the bar.

In an interview on Fox News to discuss his first 100 days as president, Trump denounced the constitutional system of checks and balances as “archaic”, saying “it’s a really bad thing for the country”.

Certainly, as I noted, judges are not beyond criticism but the way criticisms are offered and the substance of the criticism matter. Trump appears to want to be an all-powerful autocrat like Putin or Erdogan. Leaders like that do not have to contend with checks and balances.

I found it telling when Trump gave President Duterte of the Philippines a shout-out for the war on drugs Duterte has conducted. Trump said,

“I just wanted to congratulate you because I am hearing of the unbelievable job on the drug problem.”

During Duterte’s presidency, according to Human Rights Watch, more than 7000 Filipinos have been disappeared by government death squads. They have carried out vigilante killings with no due process for the victims. It is appalling for an American president to green light extra judicial murders in any country.

The fact that our judiciary has not rolled over and has performed its constitutional duties admirably is maybe the most encouraging aspect of the response to Trump’s authoritarian tendencies. At the same time, lawyers and law students stepped up, volunteering and setting up legal clinics at airports to assist airline passengers. At least part of the Bar has been galvanized.

Where countries have headed down an authoritarian road, one reason has been the failure of lawyers and the judiciary to oppose the creeping authoritarianism. Lawyers and judges may both be subject to opportunism and careerism. The perception of personal advancement and desire for business profit can lead to cowardly choices. Rocking the boat, in the face of advancing authoritarianism, has a history of being both professionally and personally dangerous.

I do want to make clear that I do not see Trump”s disrespect for the law as a total outlier among American presidents. Over the last 50 years, since at least Vietnam, Executive Branch overreach has been a continuing theme that implicates both political parties. From Watergate to torture, rendition and black sites to drone assassinations and kill lists, there is a degree of continuity. Trump has upped the ante though.

Historical experience shows the necessity for the rule of law and an independent judiciary, regardless of the political party in power. It remains to be seen how far down the authoritarian road Trump will go.

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