This video frame grab provided by Senate Television shows Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) speaking on the floor of the Senate on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, March 6, 2013. (AP Photo/Senate Television)
The Republican Party needs to broaden its appeal beyond whites, argues Rand Paul, who, as the Washington Post reported, is now organizing in all fifty states for a potential run at the presidency. No doubt he’s correct. But if the senator renowned for his libertarian principles is to spearhead this change, he has some political soul searching to do.
Speaking recently at UC Berkeley, Paul told the famously liberal audience that demographically the GOP must “evolve, adapt or die.” Seeming to take his own advice to heart, Paul also used the occasion — a talk on domestic surveillance — to chastise President Barack Obama for ignoring civil rights era lessons.
“I find it ironic that the first African-American president has, without compunction, allowed this vast exercise of raw power by the NSA,” Paul said. He explained, “J. Edgar Hoover’s illegal spying on Martin Luther King and others in the civil rights movement should give us all pause.”
If this were a one-off comment, it might seem like a cheap shot, but it’s part of a larger pattern of outreach. Paul spoke last year at the historically-black Howard University; has touted “economic freedom zones” in Detroit and is collaborating with Eric Holder, the nation’s first African-American attorney general, in order to reform prison sentencing practices that disproportionately harm blacks.
Nevertheless, when it comes to making his politics palatable to nonwhites, Paul faces deep challenges.
One problem — but not the biggest — is Paul’s close working relationships with racists. Back in 2009, Paul’s senate campaign spokesperson had a Myspace webpage that included a comment tied to the Martin Luther King holiday that read: “HAPPY N***ER DAY!!!” above a photo of a lynching. While someone else might have posted the comment, it remained on the staffer’s page for nearly two years.
Then in 2013, Jack Hunter, Paul’s social media director — and the co-author of Paul’s 2011 book on the tea party — was uncovered as the “Southern Avenger,” a radio shock jock who regularly donned a mask emblazoned with the Confederate flag and had a long history of making racially inflammatory statements, including praising Abraham Lincoln’s assassin for having his heart “in the right place.”
Under pressure, Paul reluctantly fired both offending parties — but did so while denying any racism on their parts. Back in 2009, he absolved his staffer of having “any racist tendencies,” while last year he protected Hunter for two weeks before finally letting him go and blaming the media. “He was unfairly treated by the media, and he was put up as target practice for people to say he was a racist, and none of that’s true,” Paul said. “None of it was racist.”
Beyond the problem of Paul’s close affiliation with these bigots, his inability to see them as racists suggests a huge blind spot with respect to racism — and this is a more fundamental problem, for this blinkered vision will make it almost impossible for Paul to grapple with how racial resentment fuels support for the libertarian politics he fervently espouses.
Paul presents overweening government power — especially at the federal level — as the paramount threat to ordinary Americans. If he is to popularize this message, though, Paul has to face an ugly fact: libertarianism has attracted substantial popular support not despite its occasional association with racists, but because of its ugly racial undertones.
Where white supremacists once commandeered government to enforce their appalling vision, the civil rights movement recruited government to promote integration. Government efforts to outlaw discrimination and to promote inclusion in schools, workplaces and neighborhoods became key to the effort to move the country toward racial equality.
But in response, libertarian ideas flourished, for anti-government rhetoric provided a seemingly neutral basis for opposing “race mixing.”
Pioneering this new use of libertarian rhetoric in his 1964 campaign, the Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater endorsed “states’ rights,” ostensibly a position on federal-state relations, though at the time all understood the target was federal efforts to push school integration. Goldwater also championed “freedom of association,” which purported to preserve the rights of property owners to exclude whom they wished, though in practice this meant the right of white establishments to bar minorities.
Today’s libertarian politics descends directly from this tradition. Illustrating the continuity, as recently as 2010, Paul himself endorsed the “freedom of association” argument, criticizing the 1964 Civil Rights Act for unjustly limiting the rights of private property owners. Paul put his position most succinctly in an earlier criticism of the Fair Housing Act: “A free society will abide unofficial, private discrimination — even when that means allowing hate-filled groups to exclude people based on the color of their skin.”
To his credit, Paul has since renounced those positions and frequently proclaims his opposition to racial discrimination. But as his responses to the controversies surrounding his staffers suggest, he still has a long way to go. Paul must grapple with why his small-government message resonates with so many whites — and if, for a sizeable number, the motive is a continued opposition to integration, then Paul must face this squarely if he is to craft a more inclusive party.
Ian Haney López is a law professor at UC Berkeley, a senior fellow at Demos and the author of Dog Whistle Politics: How Coded Racial Appeals Have Reinvented Racism and Wrecked the Middle Class. Follow him on Twitter: @dogwhistlerace
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) came under attack this weekend from former CIA Director Michael Hayden for the Senate Intelligence Committee report on the CIA’s use of torture after 9/11. Hayden said that Feinstein, who heads up the committee, “wanted a report so scathing that it would ensure that an un-American brutal program of detention interrogation would never again be considered or permitted.”
“That motivation for the report may show deep emotional feeling on the part of the senator, but I don’t think it leads you to an objective report,” Hayden said. Following those comments, Feinstein defended herself saying that the only direction she gave her staff “was to let the facts speak for themselves.” She added that the intelligence committee voted 11-3 to declassify the report, which has yet to be released.
In an op-ed, WaPo’s Eugene Robinson called Hayden’s comments “sexist smoke” that detract from what appear to be “appalling” facts on the nature of America’s torture program. He goes on to explain why the release of the report is critical:
Forgive me for getting emotional, but this is an outrage.
It was Justice Louis D. Brandeis who remarked that “sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.” Torture is a stain on this nation’s honor that can be bleached away only by full exposure. Feinstein’s committee spent years finding out what really happened. I should have a right to know what my government did in my name.
The Post last week cited unnamed sources as saying the Senate report concludes that the CIA “misled the government and the public” about the torture program. According to The Post, the agency downplayed the “severity” of its interrogation methods, overstated the significance of some prisoners and took credit for information that detainees had actually surrendered under legal, non-coercive questioning.
If America’s torture program turns out to be worse than we knew, as Robinson suggests, then we would expect — and should hope — to see more “emotional” responses in the future.
The Washington Post reported that an official who read the Senate Intelligence Committee’s document said that almost all of the critical threat-related information from Zubaidah was obtained when he was questioned at a hospital in Pakistan — that is, before he was interrogated by the CIA and waterboarded 83 times.
In fact, several officials who read the report said the CIA’s most valuable intelligence against al-Qaeda had little, if anything, to do with “enhanced interrogation techniques.”
Anger, outrage and sadness would seem to be an appropriate response to that.
Gardening is changing. Until recently, modern landscaping and gardening was oriented more toward maintaining lawns and decorating beds with flowers and shrubs. In order to keep the grass green and exotic decorative plants alive, gardeners relied on liberal doses of water as well as chemical fertilizers, pesticides and “weed killers,” such as Roundup Ready.
At one time a young man was paid, one day a week, to help Olly with the garden at The Birches. We did not realize that he was using herbicide on the lawn to get rid of moss and other small weeds, as well as a particularly vicious pesticide to deal with the snails and slugs. When we found out, we were horrified. About six months after we dispensed with his services, we heard, for the first time in several years, the bang, bang, bang of a song thrush smashing open snails against a rock. Gradually other birds reappeared, and now the whole area is protected for conservation and the use of chemicals strongly discouraged. So many people are concerned about the terrible environmental degradation of our planet, and so often they feel helpless and hopeless in the face of all that is wrong. The most important thing, as I am constantly saying, is to think about small ways in which we can make a difference — every day. And people lucky enough to have gardens can truly make a difference by maintaining the land in an environmentally friendly way.
Right now the biggest new gardening trend in the United States is the elimination of fertilizer-dependent and water-draining grass lawns. Instead, gardeners are discovering the joys of creating more environmentally friendly habitats with native trees and plants — those that have been living in the area for hundreds of years and are adapted to the climate.
My botanist friend Robin Kobaly is an advisor to people who want to grow drought-tolerant gardens with native plants in the Southwest. She says that people are especially enthusiastic about native plants when they live in arid areas, but even in other parts of the country, where there’s more rainfall, gardeners are getting sick of the amount of water it takes to keep grass lawns green. At the moment, gardening with drought-tolerant native plants is just a popular eco-conscious trend. But soon, five to six years from now, Robin believes, “it will be imperative for everyone to change how they landscape and garden as the overriding reality of the lack of water becomes apparent.”
Jane Goodall on Environmentalism
This new gardening movement not only reduces water waste but also provides an attractive habitat for the local wildlife. Last month Gombe videographer Bill Wallauer wrote to tell me about how he and his wife, Kristin, were transforming their “typical ridiculous American lawn” into a native plant habitat for bees and other insects and birds and a whole host of small creatures.
Bill put in a stream, a pond and a wetland for water-loving plant species. He created two areas of high-wildlife-value shrub species, planted numerous coneflower and aster species and is propagating native grass.
“My favorite spot is our beautiful native-woodland-wildflowers area, which has species like wild ginger, wild leak, and trillium,” he recently wrote to me. So far he has recorded 37 bird species in their “tiny little backyard.”
I have to say that while it may seem small to him after the wilderness of Gombe, it is clearly rather large compared to the postage-stamp-size gardens that most people have — if they have a garden at all. But even the smallest of gardens can make a difference for the wildlife that is struggling to survive. Almost everyone I meet wants to save wild animals and insects, but they often don’t realize how important it is to preserve the anchors of the wildlife community — the native plants.
Dance of the Honey Bee
In urban areas where the gardens and yards are often small, some communities are joining together to create wildlife havens. There is, for example, the “Pollinator Pathway” in Seattle — where a group of neighbors have transformed the scruffy strips of grass in front of their homes, between the sidewalk and the street, into a mile-long bee-pollinator corridor, planted with native plants that attract and nourish bees. Other neighborhoods and individual properties are havens for migrating birds. Robin tells her gardening clients, “Think of your garden as a gas station for migrating birds, a place where they can fill up their tanks — they can’t migrate if they don’t have fuel.”
It is exciting to think that our gardens can be part of a growing effort to restore health to our planet. To this end, enormous efforts are also being made by young people all around the world through the JGI Roots & Shoots program.
From all appearances the two enjoyed their conversation and explored thoughts and opportunities. It was nourishment to my spirit to see their smiles. But some have asked, “What did it accomplish?”
While we won’t know the result of any single action, I see hints of good steps forward. First, it seems that Pope Francis’ commitment to those who are left out of the global economy lifted the conversation from rule-bound fear to sharing a vision of something new. Pope Francis speaks of this change candidly, saying that we need to create an economy of inclusion. This economy would put people (not profits) at the center of decision-making. This candid Gospel-based vision seemed to nourish our president. But it is challenging in a country that is so obsessed with the “bottom line” that the Congress fears raising the minimum wage so that people who work full time do not end up still living in poverty. MORE
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie speaks at the Republican Jewish Coalition, Saturday, March 29, 2014, in Las Vegas. Several possible GOP presidential candidates gathered in Las Vegas as Sheldon Adelson, a billionaire casino magnate, looks for a new favorite to help on the 2016 race for the White House. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)
A series of pro-corporation Supreme Court decisions and the latter’s disingenuous equation of money with speech, including Citizens United, have turned the United States from a democracy to a plutocracy. It is not even a transparent plutocracy, since black money (of unknown provenance) has been allowed by SCOTUS to flood into elections. These developments are not only deadly to democracy, they threaten our security. It is increasingly difficult to exclude foreign money from US political donations. We not only come to be ruled by the billionaires, but even by foreign billionaires with foreign rather than American interests at heart. MORE
The school-to-prison pipeline, to my mind, is the most insidious arm of this country’s prison-industrial complex. Under the guise of protecting our children, we push many of them out of school and into prisons, limit their opportunities, fail to and/or undereducate them, all while feeding our addiction to mass incarceration and retribution that is not justice at all. That the students who find themselves funneled into the school-to-prison pipeline are predominantly black is further proof that the United States system of racist oppression chugs along through the rhetoric of colorblindness.
Now that we have the niceties out of the way, let’s talk about what really makes the school-to-prison pipeline the worst. MORE
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, left, and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo call on a reporter during a news conference in the Red Room at the Capitol on Monday, Jan. 27, 2014, in Albany, NY. The two have clashed over the future of charter schools.
The following just in as the New York State Legislature responds to the pressure of a multi-million dollar advertising campaign demanding free space for privately-managed charters. Also, the billionaires behind this ad campaign have given handsome sums to Governor Cuomo and other key politicians.
Cuomo has received at least $800,000 from the charter advocates. Under the legislation, the charters are given the right to expand as much as they want, without paying rent, pushing out the public school that once was sited in the building. The charters can afford to pay their CEO half a million dollars, but they can’t pay the rent. They can pay millions for attack ads on television, but they can’t pay the rent.
House Budget Committee Chairman Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) takes part in a San Antonio Hispanic Chamber of Commerce event, Thursday, January 23, 2014, in San Antonio. Ryan said House Republicans will tackle immigration reform in pieces rather than the Senate's comprehensive approach. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)
These days, a favorite talking point of Republican Congressman Paul Ryan’s is calling for an “adult conversation” about poverty.
“It’s time for an adult conversation,” he toldThe Washington Post.
“If we actually have an adult conversation,” he said in remarks at the Brookings Institution, “I think we can make a difference.”
The problem is that a prerequisite for any adult conversation is telling the truth and it is there the congressman falls monumentally short.
In addition to Rep. Ryan’s recent, racially-coded comments about “our inner cities” where “generations of men [are] not even thinking about working,” his rhetoric around policy should raise red flags for anyone — including the media — assessing his credibility.
In addition to Rep. Ryan’s recent, racially-codedcomments about “our inner cities” where “generations of men [are] not even thinking about working,” his rhetoric around policy should raise red flags for anyone — including the media — assessing his credibility.
A report from Emily Oshima Lee, policy analyst at the Center for American Progress Action Fund, examines the hatchet job Rep. Ryan did on Medicaid in his 204-page account of antipoverty programs that The Washington Post generously described as a “critique.” Indeed, Ryan’s report — which would have been flagged by my excellent 10th grade English teacher for misrepresenting and cherry-picking data — is a dangerous disservice to a public which has neither the time nor the staff that Ryan has at his disposal to delve into literature assessing antipoverty programs.
Lee notes that Ryan misuses research to imply that Medicaid coverage leads to poorer health — that people enrolled in Medicaid will have worse health than those with private insurance and the uninsured.
“The privately insured comparison is patently unfair because these people tend to be higher income and that comes with a whole host of health privileges,” said Lee.
She notes that Medicaid enrollees tend to struggle a lot more with chronic conditions and illnesses than other populations.
“A large body of literature identifies various social determinants of health, including socioeconomic status and living and work environments, as risk factors for poor health outcomes,” writes Lee, in my opinion admirably resisting the temptation to add, “duh.”
As for the uninsured being healthier — it would be one thing if Ryan were making an “apples to apples” comparison, but he’s not.
“The uninsured is a diverse group and doesn’t only include low-income individuals. It may include people who are high-income and don’t really want insurance but can afford health services, and lower-income people who may not have previously enrolled in insurance for a number of reasons — including cost and not having any real health issues,” Lee says. “But again, to imply that Medicaid is somehow making people worse off is absurd.”
Ryan also argues that Medicaid coverage has little positive effect on enrollees’ health. But as Lee points out, Ryan conveniently overlooks studies showing an association between Medicaid and lower mortality rates; reduced low-weight births and infant and child mortality; and lower mortality for HIV-positive patients, among other heath benefits.
“In general, we need more data to accurately assess the effect of Medicaid coverage on people’s health,” Lee continues. “But several studies do indicate positive health and non-health effects of coverage — such as increased use of preventive care and greater financial security.”
Despite Ryan’s shabby work when it comes to antipoverty policy, the media repeatedly seems willing to overlook it.
Rep. Ryan also plays on fears of low-income people abusing the welfare system when he asserts that Medicaid coverage improperly increases enrollees’ use of health care services, including preventive care and emergency department services. Ryan makes this case too by comparing Medicaid enrollees to uninsured people, who, as Lee writes, “are less likely to use health care services due to significant financial barriers.”
“Presenting data that Medicaid enrollees use more health services than the uninsured affirms that insurance coverage allows people who need care to seek it out,” writes Lee, “and that being uninsured is a major barrier to receiving important medical care.”
Further, one of the two studies Ryan references explicitly states that “neither theory nor existing evidence provides a definitive answer to… whether we should expect increases or decreases in emergency-department use when Medicaid expands.”
Despite Ryan’s shabby work when it comes to antipoverty policy, the media repeatedly seems willing to overlook it. That’s another strike against the prospects of a truly adult conversation about poverty — in addition to honesty, it requires accountability.
House Budget Committee Chairman Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) speaks at the Conservative Political Action Committee annual conference in National Harbor, Md., Thursday, March 6, 2014. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
Our political class is feuding about whether Rep. Paul Ryan is a racist. Rather than fearing that this donnybrook degrades political discourse, we should welcome it.
Ryan sparked the controversy when he blamed poverty on “a tailspin of culture” in our “inner cities,” while invoking for support Charles Murray, notorious for postulating the genetic inferiority of blacks. Within hours, Rep. Barbara Lee rebuked Ryan for launching “a thinly veiled racial attack.”
Let me come clean: I wrote Politico’s “Is Paul Ryan Racist?” piece, so I’m hardly impartial. But there are also a couple of ironies behind that title that directly demonstrate why we should welcome the row over whether Ryan is racist. MORE
A few years ago, when I was blogging at Education Week with Deborah Meier, a reader introduced the term FUD. I had never heard of it. It is a marketing technique used in business and politics to harm your competition. FUD stands for Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt. The reader said that those who were trying to create a market-based system to replace public education were using FUD to undermine public confidence in public education. They were selling the false narrative that our public schools are obsolete and failing.
This insight inspired me to write Reign of Error, to show that the “reform” narrative is a fraud. Test scores on NAEP are at their highest point in history for white, black, Hispanic and Asian students. Graduation rates are the highest in history for these groups. The dropout rate is at an historic low point. MORE
You stayed up late watching election results on TV. By the time you went to bed, the Republicans had won five of the six Senate seats they needed to take control of both houses of Congress. As the networks called each state for the GOP, it felt like a trap door had opened beneath your feet, like a Munch scream, like a nightmare — a nauseating, slow-motion wreck you were powerless to prevent.
Too rattled to sleep, you reached for the melatonin. Then, when you wake up in a sweat, the real nightmare begins. Republicans are jubilant. Their campaign was all about getting even. Now it’s time for some traffic problems in Fort Barack.
It doesn’t cushion the blow when you find out how hollow their mandate is: Fewer than 20 percent of registered voters voted for them. This, in a country where 33 percent reject the idea of evolution. It only infuriates you more when you learn that the electorate was older and whiter than the country. And that the combined population of states where Republican senators ousted Democrats was less than the population of California. And that some victory margins were under a thousand votes.
They won. It turned out not to matter that fact-checkers and satirists called Pinocchio, pants-on-fire and bullsh*t on their ads. Or that the economy is improving, millions of previously uncovered Americans now have health insurance and we haven’t gone to war in Syria, Ukraine or anywhere else neocons have been itching to entangle us.
All that will matter is that the Senate Republican majority will be even more obstructionist than the Senate Republican minority, and they will have the House Republican majority as enablers. They will repeatedly repeal the Affordable Care Act. They’ll strip the Environmental Protection Agency and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau of staff and powers. They’ll outlaw abortion, gut food stamps even further, block a path to citizenship for 12 million immigrants and cut taxes on the 1 percent. The only thing stopping them will be Democratic filibusters. But fear of losing the next election will be on many minority minds, so a united opposition is not a given, and Democratic caving, depicted as high-minded bipartisanship, will no doubt send some odious Acts to the Oval Office.
Which the president will veto, and which one hopes will lack the two-thirds required to override. The result — the most optimistic scenario — will be epic gridlock. White House initiatives will be dead on arrival in Congress, and Republican laws will be interred in the Rose Garden. This will be particularly good news for the plutocrats whose billions are now funding the 2014 national disinformation campaign; stasis is their friend.
Last week, President Obama anticipated getting “clobbered” in the midterm elections. On Sunday, Nate Silver changed his Senate forecast from a tossup to a slight Republican advantage. Maybe these predictions will terrify enough Democratic donors to cough up now and enough Democratic voters to turn out in November. But are dystopian prophecies, including mine, ever really a deterrent? I’m afraid that not even the declaration by Oklahoma Republican Jim (The Greatest Hoax: How the Global Warming Conspiracy Threatens Your Future) Inhofe that he’ll be in charge of the Senate environment committee if they win; or the thought of Chuck (“There are a lot more Scalias and Thomases that we’d love to put on the bench“) Grassley chairing the judiciary committee, or of armed services and foreign relations manned up by Lindsey Graham and John McCain — won’t be enough to energize Democrats.
The only way to increase the turnout of the base is to speak to its heartbreak.
Drones. Spying. No tax on carbon pollution. No immigration reform. No gun control. No public option. No campaign finance reform. No bankers behind bars.
Every Obama supporter has a list of disappointments with the administration, and a list of excuses for them — the Republican House, the NRA, political reality — that don’t cut it. Democrats won’t hold the Senate by getting a percent or two more of swing voters than Republicans, because it’s supporters, not undecideds, who turn out for midterm elections. Their only hope is to increase their passion. The young, the women, the blacks and Latinos who vaulted the president into the White House in 2008, and who had nowhere else to go in 2012, will not be rushing to the polls in 2014 unless President Obama gives them — gives us all — big reasons to fight for him, not just against them.
Insiders tell me, “Just wait until after the mid-terms, he’ll be free to pull out all the stops.” But why should a full-throated Obama who’ll get nothing from a future Republican Congress be more appealing than an Obama who gets nothing from Congress now? In his 2014 State of the Union, he said he was going to act “with or without Congress.” What’s he waiting for?
I’m sure someone has a spreadsheet showing that Democrats have a better chance of holding the Senate if Obama waits until after the election to cancel the Keystone XL pipeline. Surely some operative has numbers saying that approving the Keystone XL now is his only hope of holding on to seats in Alaska, Louisiana, Montana and West Virginia. But polls about hypothetical presidential actions can’t forecast passion very well. Political wildfire is still, thankfully, unpredictable.
I’d rather wake up on Nov. 5 sick at losing the Senate, but proud that Obama and the Democrats did all they could to make climate change, gun control, immigration and big money big issues, instead of losing because they were too afraid of losing to win.
Marty Kaplan is the Norman Lear Professor of Entertainment, Media and Society at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism. His uncommonly broad career has also spanned government and politics, the entertainment industry and journalism.
House Budget Committee Chairman Rep. Paul Ryan(R-WI) a member of the House Ways and Means Committee, holds a copy of President Barack Obama's fiscal 2014 budget proposal book as he questions Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Kathleen Sebelius on Capitol Hill. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
While attention focuses on Paul Ryan’s remarks about inner city culture, another dog-whistle theme continues its slow roil: food stamp abuse. More even than Ryan’s twisting narrative, the brouhaha around food stamps helps make clear that conservatives seek to conjure a much bigger bogeyman than “lazy” minorities.
Ostensibly worried that too many people prefer welfare to work, House Republicans this January stripped $8.6 billion from the food stamp program. This threatened to reduce monthly food assistance by an average of $90 per family — from households that are barely hanging on, with average gross monthly incomes of just $744. Yet far from conceding defeat, states are joining battle by adjusting their programs in ways that evade the cuts, bringing the food stamp debate back.
Just last week, House Speaker John Boehner warned that “states have found ways to cheat, once again, on signing up people for food stamps,” and he implored his colleagues “to stop this cheating and this fraud from continuing.” Cheating and fraud constitute stock themes in the conservative assault on food stamps — tropes applied indiscriminately to both recipients and government. And therein lies a clue to the real target.
Ronald Reagan’s Racially Tinged Stump Speeches
To see the actual agenda clearly, though, it helps to reach back to Ronald Reagan, for he perfected today’s conservative assault on food stamps.
Reagan frequently stumped by sympathizing with the anger of voters waiting in line to buy hamburger, while some young fellow ahead of them used food stamps to buy a T-bone steak. With this tale, Reagan invoked the stereotype of the welfare recipient who abuses government benefits to live in luxury (Reagan’s other version: welfare queens).
The comedian Jon Stewart recently compiled a montage of contemporary conservative talking heads spinning just these sorts of yarns about food stamps. It would have been funnier if people weren’t actually being pushed into hunger.
Going to the racial dimensions of these hackneyed fictions, when Reagan initially told the T-bone steak story, he identified the food stamp abuser as a young “buck,” a term then commonly used among Southern whites to refer to a strong black man. This veered dangerously toward open racism, and in any event proved unnecessary. Even after Reagan dropped that term from future renditions, the racial element continued just below the surface, with welfare recipients implicitly colored black.
But this was not a simple plot to demonize minorities. Rather, Reagan had another scapegoat in mind, and here we come to the heart of dog-whistle politics. Ostensibly, even more than grasping minorities, the greatest enemy of the middle class was liberal government. After all, it was government that was reaching into taxpayer’s pockets and wasting their hard-earned dollars.
By “darkening” government itself, Reagan provided the kindling for a taxpayer revolt that ostensibly would cut off funds to the lazy and irresponsible — but that in fact generated enormous windfalls for the very rich. In the 1980s, by one estimate, the top 1 percent of Americans reaped tax cuts worth a trillion dollars, and they’ve received a further trillion dollars from the Reagan tax cuts in each ensuing decade.
Tax cuts for the very rich were just the beginning. By trashing safety-net programs as massive giveaways to undeserving minorities and thereby engendering a general hostility toward government, the right has systematically attacked New Deal programs across multiple domains — from education and housing to marketplace and workplace regulation — undoing in area after area the policies that once promoted an equitable distribution of wealth.
Perhaps to understand the full devastation wrought by modern racial politics, we should bring forward another figure from the shadowed background of the T-bone steak story: the cashier. In the 1970s, she was more likely to be unionized and relatively well-paid, with good benefits. Today, whether white or black or some other race, she is likely working without union protection for a minimum wage whose value has sharply fallen and that cannot sustain a small family above poverty. Indeed, like many Wal-Mart employees, it’s the cashier who today is on food stamps.
When House Republicans war against food assistance, just as when Ryan tilts at government poverty programs that don’t work because of a tailspin of culture in our inner cities, their real target is progressive government. Yes, race-baiting superficially aims at minorities and hits nonwhite communities hard, including the 24 percent of food stamp recipients who are black. But just as cuts to food aid also afflict the 38 percent of program participants who are white, dog-whistle politics savages Americans of every race.
And it devastates every class, too, for this sort of racial politics doesn’t just slam the poor, it imperils all who are better off when government protects the broad middle rather than serves society’s sultans. When conservatives blow that dog whistle, government is the target, and you’re a likely victim.
Ian Haney López is a law professor at UC Berkeley, a senior fellow at Demos and the author of three books. His writings have appeared across a range of sources, from the Yale Law Journal to The New York Times. Follow Ian Haney López on Twitter: @dogwhistlerace
Last month, an estimated 10,000 gallons of the coal-processing chemical MCHM, along with an unknown amount of a second substance called PPH, spilled into West Virginia’s Elk River — just upstream from a municipal water intake that serves nine counties. Freedom Industries, the company responsible for the spill, neglected to report it, despite some residents claiming to have smelled the chemicals as far back as December. After repeated complaints of a strong licorice-like smell, state inspectors literally followed their noses to the source. It wasn’t until many hours later that the water company and government agencies finally warned residents to avoid any contact with water — aside from flushing toilets and putting out fires.
In the seven weeks since the disaster that has left 300,000 people unsure about the safety of their water, confusion and anger have mounted and an estimated 400 people have been sent to the hospital. While government and industry have been slow to respond to the needs of the people, some remarkable community organizing has taken place, drawing on West Virginia’s long, proud history of grassroots work for environmental and economic justice — including powerful work against the abuses of the chemical and coal industries responsible for the spill.
Only a few hours after news of the spill began trickling out, a grassroots group called WV Clean Water Hub had already begun organizing water deliveries through its Facebook page.
Only a few hours after news of the spill began trickling out, a grassroots group called WV Clean Water Hub had already begun organizing water deliveries through its Facebook page. That quickly turned into a massive community-organized effort supported by new volunteers, as well as long-established grassroots groups in West Virginia — including Aurora Lights, Coal River Mountain Watch, Keeper of the Mountains Foundation, Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition and RAMPS. By working to identify communities in need of clean water and supplies, as well as connecting affected communities with volunteers and donors, this wiki-style relief effort has filled the gap left by larger relief organizations.
“There is so much bureaucracy [at the larger relief organizations] that communities fall through the cracks,” said Nate May, a volunteer organizer with WV Clean Water Hub. “We’re hearing directly from the people who need the water. Someone will post on the Facebook page that they need water and we’ll make a meme out of it. Then someone else will post when they can deliver some.”
In many communities, the water was officially declared safe for all but pregnant women within a week of the spill, but residents are still experiencing adverse reactions to touching or smelling the water coming from their taps. Some government officials recommend against exposure, while others just say to be cautious.
“The stories that get me the most are the stories of mothers with children who are sick and asking why the state is not considering it an emergency,” said Jen Osha-Buysse, a volunteer organizer with Aurora Lights. “I have spoken with many families who haven’t been able to work in the weeks since the chemical spill. They can’t just not buy water, but they also can’t afford to buy food or pay heating bills in the freezing weather.”
The WV Clean Water Hub has been led largely by environmental groups, which can be a source of tension in communities that have been split by the “jobs vs. environment” myth perpetuated by the coal industry.
The WV Clean Water Hub has been led largely by environmental groups, which can be a source of tension in communities that have been split by the “jobs vs. environment” myth perpetuated by the coal industry. However, the crisis has inspired many to ignore politics. For instance, landscaping companies have donated the use of their trucks, while schools, Girls Scouts, local unions, doctors’ offices and others have collected donations of water and baby supplies.
“We don’t want to polarize or politicize it,” May explained. “The concern is if we make it about our issue, then it feels like missionary work or like we’re trying to buy people, but clean water is an unconditional right.”
While some volunteers have encountered a few sharp questions from self-identified “coal-huggers,” the reception has largely been warm.
“Giving out water has been a way to connect on a personal level and share that we both are fed up by the government and no longer trust the people in charge,” May said.
Beyond the massive effort to deliver clean water, there has been an unprecedented surge of interest in organizing for long-term solutions.
“Shortly after the spill, we started a weekly roundtable of progressive groups in Charleston,” said Cathy Kunkel, an independent policy consultant on West Virginia energy issues and the founder and co-editor of OurWaterWV.org. “At first our focus was just on sharing information because there was so much misinformation. Now we are looking at what a longer-standing coalition with long-term political goals might look like.”
One outcome of these new partnerships was a protest hosted by the NAACP and Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, where hundreds of consumers reverse-billed the water company that serves the nine counties affected by the spill. While the West Virginia American Water Company might be seen as an unwitting victim of the spill, the international for-profit company’s blundering response has included sending tankers full of the polluted water into communities instead of usable relief water and providing only a $10 credit to customers and businesses. The action to recoup the costs of having to drive miles to collect drinking water, do laundry and take showers is just one of many examples of groups from different, often isolated areas of work coming together on this issue.
In addition to the coordination of long-standing groups, there has also been an overwhelming amount of spontaneous community organizing, including the formation of a rainwater catchment organization, a moms for clean water group, various organizations of concerned small businesses and even a fashion show to raise money for water deliveries. These diverse responses reflect the diversity of the communities that have been impacted. While the coal and chemical industry have caused toxic water in isolated rural areas for decades, this time, reporters covering the story, public health experts and even Public Service Commission employees in charge of water regulation are all personally dealing with blue-tinted water that smells distinctly like licorice.
“Unless you work for a coal industry attorney, this spill has hurt your business and your lifestyle,” Kunkel said. “We’re trying to maintain a calendar at OurWaterWV.org and it’s been a challenge. The day of the water company protest, there was another protest at the school board because several schools were opened just to be closed again after students and employees got sick from the water. It’s powerful to see so much organizing.”
According to Kunkel and others organizing in the area, the work has begun to focus on long-term goals over the last seven weeks, even as many organizers are exhausted with the toll of working at an emergency pace for weeks on end. Groups have outlined clear steps for politicians to take towards enforcement of existing regilations for the chemical and coal industries as well as beginning a campaign to engage the Public Service Commission, which regulates West Virginia American Water, to ensure that residents’ health is put before water company profits.
“The relationships we developed through distributing water are an entry into working for longer term organizing in the communities,” May said.“We’re not saying, ‘I told you so.’ We’re asking, ‘What are the problems you’re facing besides the water? What happens when we draw lines between these problems?’”
Both experienced and new activists realize this is an important moment for West Virginia and they are working to create long lasting momentum for change at the structural level.
“I’ve been thinking about pronoia — the opposite of paranoia — the belief that the world is in a conspiracy for your well being,” May explained. “We assume that when we turn on the tap, someone is making sure the water is clean. Maybe this magical naive thinking is kind of necessary for a civil society, but we can’t assume that the world is out to help us when that is not in the self interest of the people in charge.”
Dana Kuhnline has worked against mountaintop removal coal mining and other forms of extreme extraction since 2005. She loves healthy communities, clean water and great jokes.
As universities turn toward corporate management models, they increasingly use and exploit cheap faculty labor while expanding the ranks of their managerial class. Modeled after a savage neoliberal value system in which wealth and power are redistributed upward, a market-oriented class of managers largely has taken over the governing structures of most institutions of higher education in the United States. As Debra Leigh Scott points out, “administrators now outnumber faculty on every campus across the country.”  There is more at stake here than metrics. Benjamin Ginsberg views this shift in governance as the rise of what he calls ominously the “the all administrative university,” noting that it does not bode well for any notion of higher education as a democratic public sphere. 
Henry Giroux on the School-to-Prison Pipeline
A number of colleges and universities are drawing more and more upon adjunct and nontenured faculty — whose ranks now constitute 1 million out of 1.5 million faculty — many of whom occupy the status of indentured servants who are overworked, lack benefits, receive little or no administrative support and are paid salaries that increasingly qualify them for food stamps.  Many students increasingly fare no better in sharing the status of a subaltern class beholden to neoliberal policies and values and largely treated as consumers for whom education has become little more than a service. Too many students are buried under huge debts that have become a major source of celebration by the collection industry because it allows them to cash in on the misfortune and hardships of an army of indebted students. Under the regime of neoliberal education, misery breeds a combination of contempt and source of profits for the banks and other financial industries. Jerry Aston, a member of that industry, wrote in a column after witnessing a protest rally by students criticizing their mounting debt that he “couldn’t believe the accumulated wealth they represent — for our industry.”  And, of course, this type of economic injustice is taking place in an economy in which rich plutocrats such as the infamous union-busting Koch brothers each saw “their investments grow by $6 billion in one year, which amounts to three million dollars per hour based on a 40-hour ‘work’ week.”  One astounding figure of greed and concentrated power is revealed in the fact that in 2012, the Koch brothers “made enough money in one second to feed one homeless woman for an entire year.”  Workers, students, youths and the poor are all considered expendable in this neoliberal global economy. Yet the one institution, education, that offers the opportunities for students to challenge these anti-democratic tendencies is under attack in ways that are unparalleled, at least in terms of the scope and intensity of the assault by the corporate elite and other economic fundamentalists.
A number of colleges and universities are drawing more and more upon adjunct and nontenured faculty — whose ranks now constitute 1 million out of 1.5 million faculty — many of whom occupy the status of indentured servants who are overworked, lack benefits, receive little or no administrative support and are paid salaries that increasingly qualify them for food stamps.
Casino capitalism does more than infuse market values into every aspect of higher education; it also wages a full-fledged assault on public goods, democratic public spheres and the role of education in creating an informed and enlightened citizenry. When former presidential candidate Sen. Rick Santorum argued that intellectuals were not wanted in the Republican Party, he was articulating what has become common sense in a society wedded to narrow instrumentalist values, ignorance as a political tool and a deep-seated fear of civic literacy and a broad-based endorsement of the commons. Critical thinking and a literate public have become dangerous to those who want to celebrate orthodoxy over dialogue, emotion over reason and ideological certainty over thoughtfulness.  Hannah Arendt’s warning that “it was not stupidity but a curious, quite authentic inability to think”  at the heart of authoritarian regimes is now embraced as a fundamental tenet of right-wing politicians and pundits and increasingly has become a matter of common sense for the entertainment industry and the dominant media, all primary modes of an education industry that produces consumers, smothers the country in the empty fog of celebrity culture and denounces democracy as tantamount to the enemy of free-market fundamentalism. How else to explain the willingness of so many people today to give up every vestige of privacy to the social media, the government and anyone else interested in collecting data for the most despicable and anti-democratic purposes. Self-interest does more than embrace a new culture of narcissism; it empties out any viable notion of the social, compassion and the ethical imagination.
Right-wing appeals to austerity provide the rationale for slash-and-burn policies intended to deprive government-financed social and educational programs of the funds needed to enable them to work, if not survive. Along with health care, public transportation, Medicare, food stamp programs for low-income children and a host of other social protections, higher education is being defunded as part of a larger scheme to dismantle and privatize all public services, goods and spheres. The passion for public values has given way to the ruthless quest for profits and the elevation of self-interests over the common good. The educational goal of expanding the capacity for critical thought and the outer limits of the imagination have given way to the instrumental desert of a mind-deadening audit culture. But there is more at work here than the march toward privatization and the never-ending search for profits at any cost; there is also the issue of wasteful spending on a bloated war machine, the refusal to tax fairly the rich and corporations, the draining of public funds for the US military presence in Iraq and Afghanistan and the ongoing consolidation of class power in the hands of the 1 percent.
The passion for public values has given way to the ruthless quest for profits and the elevation of self-interests over the common good. The educational goal of expanding the capacity for critical thought and the outer limits of the imagination have given way to the instrumental desert of a mind-deadening audit culture.
The deficit argument and the austerity policies advocated in its name is a form of class warfare designed largely for the state to be able to redirect revenue in support of the commanding institutions of the corporate- military-industrial complex and away from funding higher education and other crucial public services. The extent of the budget reduction assault is such that in 2012 “states reduced their education budgets by $12.7 billion.”  Liberals and conservatives justify such cuts by pointing to declining revenues brought in by the state but what is missing from this argument is that one major reason for the decline is because of right-wing policies and legislation that lowers the taxes of the rich and major corporations. Of course, the burden of such reductions falls upon poor minority and other low-income students, who will not be able to afford the tuition increases that will compensate for the loss of state funding. As the political state is replaced by the corporate state, tuition rises, the ranks of the poor expand, more social problems are criminalized and the punishing state blooms as a default register for potential dissent.
What has become clear in light of such assaults is that many universities and colleges have become unapologetic accomplices to corporate interests, values and power and in doing so increasingly regard social problems as either irrelevant or make them invisible.  The transformation of higher education in the United States and abroad is evident in a number of registers. These include decreased support for programs of study that are not business-oriented; reduced funds for research that does not increase profit; the replacement of shared forms of governance with rigid business management models; the lessening of financial support for academic fields that promote critical thinking rather than an entrepreneurial culture; the ongoing exploitation of faculty labor; and the use of purchasing power as the vital measure of a student’s identity, worth and access to higher education.  In addition, many universities are now occupied by security forces whose central message is that dissent and protest, however peaceful, will be squelched through violence. Leftover weapons from the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan have found a home on many college campuses that increasingly look as if they have become potential war zones. These weapons stand as a grim reminder that they could be used against all those students who question authority, imagine a more democratic role for the university and connect learning to social change. Universities are increasingly becoming dead zones of the imagination, managed by a class of swelling bureaucrats, inhabited by faculty who constitute a new class of indentured, if not sometime willing, technicians and students who are demeaned as customers and saddled with crippling debts. Not all faculty and students fit into this description. Some raise their voices in protests, others enjoy the benefits of being accomplices to power and others get lost in the orbits of privatized interests or academic specialization. The university is a site of struggle and beset by many contradictions, but I don’t believe it is an exaggeration to say that higher education since the late 1970s has been hijacked by a mix of political and economic fundamentalist forces that have worked hard to empty it of what it means to truly educate young people to be knowledgeable, critical, thoughtful and sensitive to the plight of others and the larger society. Most importantly, higher education too often informs a deadening dystopian vision of corporate America and old-style authoritarian regimes that impose pedagogies of repression and disciplined conformity associated with societies that have lost any sense of ethical responsibility and respect for equality, public values and justice. The democratic imagination has been transformed into a data machine that marshals its inhabitants into the neoliberal dream world of babbling consumers and armies of exploitative labor whose ultimate goal is to accumulate capital and initiate faculty and students into the brave new surveillance/punishing state that merges Orwell’s Big Brother with Huxley’s mind-altering soma.
Universities are increasingly becoming dead zones of the imagination, managed by a class of swelling bureaucrats, inhabited by faculty who constitute a new class of indentured, if not sometime willing, technicians and students who are demeaned as customers and saddled with crippling debts.
One consequence of this ongoing disinvestment in higher education is the expansion of a punishing state that increasingly criminalizes a range of social behaviors, wages war on the poor instead of poverty, militarizes local police forces, harasses poor minority youths and spends more on prisons than on higher education. The punishing state produces fear and sustains itself on moral panics. Dissent gives way to widespread insecurity and uncertainty and an obsession with personal safety.  Precarity has become an organizing principle of a social order so as to legitimate and expand the ranks of those considered disposable while destroying those public sites that give voice to the narratives of those marginalized by race, class, gender, sexuality and ideology. Public places are now militarized and those spaces once designed for dialogue, critique, informed exchange and dissent are occupied by the police and other security forces who have become the most visible register of the surveillance-security state.
Political, moral and social indifference is the result, in part, of a public that is increasingly constituted within an educational landscape that reduces thinking to a burden and celebrates civic illiteracy as foundational for negotiating a society in which moral disengagement and political corruption go hand in hand.  The assault on the university is symptomatic of the deep educational, economic and political crisis facing the United States. It is but one lens through which to recognize that the future of democracy depends on achieving the educational and ethical standards of the society we inhabit. 
This lapse of the US public into a political and moral coma is also induced, in part, by an ever-expanding, mass-mediated celebrity culture that trades in hype and sensation. It is also accentuated by a governmental apparatus that sanctions modes of training that undermine any viable notion of critical schooling and public pedagogy. While there is much being written about how unfair the left is to the Obama administration, what is often forgotten by these liberal critics is that Obama has aligned himself with educational practices and policies as instrumentalist and anti-intellectual as they are politically reactionary and therein lies one viable reason for not supporting his initiatives and administration.  What liberals refuse to entertain is that the left is correct in attacking Obama for his cowardly retreat from a number of progressive issues and his dastardly undermining of civil liberties. In fact, they do not go far enough in their criticisms.
Obama’s educational commitments undermine the creation of a formative culture capable of questioning authoritarian ideas, modes of governance and reactionary policies.
Often even progressives miss that Obama’s views on what type of formative educational culture that is necessary to create critically engaged and socially responsible citizens are utterly reactionary and provide no space for the nurturance of a radically democratic imagination. Hence, while liberals point to some of Obama’s progressive policies — often in a New Age discourse that betrays their own supine moralism — they fail to acknowledge that Obama’s educational policies do nothing to contest and are in fact aligned with, his weak-willed compromises and authoritarian policies. In other words, Obama’s educational commitments undermine the creation of a formative culture capable of questioning authoritarian ideas, modes of governance and reactionary policies. The question is not whether Obama’s policies are slightly less repugnant than his right-wing detractors. On the contrary, it is about how educators and others should engage politics in a more robust and democratic way by imagining what it would mean to work collectively and with “slow impatience” for a new political order outside of the current moderate and extreme right-wing politics and the debased, uncritical educational apparatus that supports it. 
The transformation of higher education into an adjunct of corporate control conjures up the image of a sorcerer’s apprentice, of an institution that has become delusional in its infatuation with neoliberal ideology, values and modes of instrumental pedagogy. Universities now claim that they are providing a service and in doing so not only demean any substantive notion of governance, research and teaching, but also abstract education from any sense of civic responsibility. Higher education reneged on enlightenment ideals and lost its sense of democratic mission, but it also increasingly offers no defense to the “totalitarianism that haunts the modern ideal of political emancipation.”  Driven by an audit culture and increasingly oblivious to the demands of a democracy for an informed and critical citizenry, it now devours its children, disregards its faculty and resembles an institution governed by myopic accountants who should be ashamed of what they are proud of. The university needs to be reclaimed as a crucial public sphere where administrators, faculty and students can imagine what a free and substantive democracy might look like and what it means to make education relevant to such a crucial pedagogical and political task. This could be a first step in taking back higher education as a precondition for developing a broad-based social movement for the defense of public goods, one capable of both challenging the regime of casino capitalism and re-imagining a society in which democracy lives up to its promises and ideals.
7 For an excellent defense of critical thinking not merely as a skill but as a crucial foundation for any democratic society, see Robert Jensen, Arguing for Our Lives(San Francisco, City Lights Books, 2013).
8 Cited in Richard J. Bernstein, The Abuse of Evil: The Corruption of Politics and Religion since 9/11 (London: Polity Press, 2005), Pages 7-8.
10 See, Henry A. Giroux, The University In Chains: Confronting the Military-Industrial-Academic Complex (Boulder: Paradigm, 2007).
11 See, for instance, Robert B. Reich, Slashed Funding for Public Universities Is Pushing the Middle Class TowardExtinction, AlterNet, (March 5, 2012). For a brilliant argument regarding the political and economic reasons behind the defunding and attack on higher education, see Christopher Newfield, Unmaking the Public University: The Forty-Year Assault on the Middle Class (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2008).
14 Zygmunt Bauman, The Individualized Society (London: Polity, 2001), Page 4.
15 See, for instance, Rebecca Solnit, Rain on Our Parade: A Letter to the Dismal Left, TomDispatch.com (September 27, 2012). TomDispatch refers to this article as a call for hope over despair. It should be labeled as a call for accommodation over the need for a radical democratic politics. For an alternative to this politics of accommodation, see the work of Stanley Aronowitz, Chris Hedges, Henry Giroux, Noam Chomsky and others.