Welcome to Becoming a Citizen Activist ColumnI have been writing Citizenship Politics since September 1996, although it was published as Urban Politics up to September 2020. Initially, my focus was on Seattle and regional politics. Since leaving the Seattle Council, I’ve focused on national political and social trends. The Citizenship Politics newsletter is emailed out up to three times a month. As of April 2021, there are 10,000 subscribers; 70 percent are university faculty at over 250 universities and colleges throughout all fifty states. Subscribers can cancel at any time by replying “Unsubscribe Citizenship Politics” in the Subject Line. If you or a friend do not currently receive it, you can subscribe by scrolling down to the bottom of my home page http://www.becomingacitizenactivist.org and submitting your email address.

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Making a case for Legalizing Psychedelics

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Written by Nick Licata | Originally published on 9/11/2021


 

Making a case for Legalizing Psychedelics

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Peter Dejong, The Associated Press

 

Aside from issues that rightly dominate print headlines and social media, there is an inconspicuous national movement arising: legalizing psychedelics. 

This movement may cause many boomers to smirk as they conjure up memories of Dr. Timothy Leary, the iconic advocate for using psychedelics. He coined the phrase, “Turn on, tune in, drop out.Such skepticism also greeted the advocacy for legalizing marijuana, renamed more accurately as cannabis. In the sixties, it was unthinkable that possessing cannabis would be legal.

Fifty years ago, the jails were filled with Black citizens for smoking cannabis. Even in liberal California, after forty years of anti-cannabis laws, Black people were imprisoned ten times more often for possessing marijuana than other racial groups. As recently as 2010, cannabis arrests accounted for 52 percent of all drug arrests. Nearly eight million people were arrested on pot charges from 2000 to 2010, with cannabis arrests accounting for 52 percent of all drug arrests. And 88 percent of those arrests were for simple possession.

Nevertheless, despite police pursuing those arrests across the country, popular sentiment on using cannabis began shifting. In November 2012, Washington State and Colorado, through initiatives, became the first two states to legalize personal use of marijuana for adults twenty-one and over. Washington’s passed with 56 percent of the vote, and the majority voters in some of the most conservative regions of the state voted in favor of legalizing. 

Long before those votes, the path toward legalizing cannabis occurred through approving its use for medical purposes. California effectively legalized medical cannabis in 1996, when voters approved Proposition 215 by a 56–44 margin. By 2016 most states had legalized the medical use of cannabis, reaching 36 states in 2020.

Psychedelics are following the same path as cannabis did in being legalized. Advocates for both drugs argue that they provide medicinal properties to relieve pain, particularly in end-of-life treatments. That approach worked for cannabis. An April 2021 Pew poll found national support at 91% for the medical use of cannabis. 

But in taking that path, advocates for psychedelics don’t post any LSD signs. That’s probably because the history of LSD is embedded in the sixty’s colorful and anti-establishment counterculture. As a result, advocates emphasize plants, like psilocybin mushrooms, peyote, ayahuasca, and iboga. All of them have psychoactive chemicals that profoundly affect consciousness, like LSD.

These plants are categorized as entheogens, historically associated with religious ceremonies that predate the sixties by hundreds if not thousands of years. Consequently, much of the legislation advocates pursue the use of the term entheogens and not psychedelics.

At the local, state, and congressional levels, legislation has been introduced that sets the stage for using entheogens for treating illnesses. As is often the case in rolling out most progressive legislation, cities are at the forefront. Even though they have fewer financial resources than state or federal governments, their proximity to tackling local issues encourages more citizen involvement to initiate creative solutions. Moreover, if their efforts are successful, they help push the need for state initiatives and congressional hearings. 

Denver was the first city in the U.S. to decriminalize psychedelics. In the spring of 2019, Denver residents passed Initiative I-301 by a razor-thin margin. It directs police via ordinance to treat enforcement of laws against the possession of psilocybin mushrooms as their lowest priority. Although it did prohibit the city from pursuing criminal penalties related to the use or possession of psilocybin mushrooms, they remain illegal under state and federal laws. It also allows police to continue to enforce laws against the distribution and sales of psilocybin mushrooms.

Oakland became the second city when their city council unanimously passed legislation to decriminalize psychedelic mushrooms in the summer of 2019. Oakland’s law extended coverage beyond psilocybin mushrooms so that possession of mushrooms and other plants and fungi containing psychoactive substances would also be decriminalized.

The following year, Washington D.C.  also ran an initiative in the fall of 2020 to decriminalize “natural psychedelics.” It catapulted to victory with 76 percent of the vote.

Portland residents didn’t have to go the initiative route or lobby the city council because, in November 2020, 56 percent of Oregon voters approved initiative 109 to legalize psilocybin mushrooms for medical use. In that same election, initiative 110 passed. It decriminalized small amounts of drugs, including psilocybin and lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), among other drugs. 

In Seattle, the city council is working to decriminalize psychedelics citing new research, that show psychedelics can help treat mental health disorders like drug addiction, depression, and PTSD. Seven of nine council members signed a letter asking the Overdose Emergency and Innovative Recovery (OEIR) task force led by the grassroots organization VOCAL-WA for recommendations for liberalizing the use of entheogens. The task force released a one-page summary headed by the suggestion that penalties should be removed for controlled substances.

Except for Spokane, Washington, which was going to file an initiative to decriminalize psychedelics, the most visible and successful efforts have occurred in larger cities dominated by liberal or democratic politics. That demographic profile is also found in the smaller cities hosting large universities such as Santa Cruz, CA, Cambridge, MA, and Ann Arbor, MI. Those cities also liberalized their drug enforcement policies that include psychedelics. 

The decriminalization movement needs to attract voters beyond a liberal constituency to sustain a national movement. Advocates in cities that are more purple than blue may find passing legislation more difficult. For instance, in Spokane, Washington, which has many Republican voters, advocates have had to ease back on their efforts. They just don’t have as large or as active a constituency as the more successful cities in changing the laws. 

However, passing more initiatives in blue cities will build momentum for states adopting more liberal legislation. That is a similar path that cannabis took. Oregon was the first state to liberalize cannabis laws through decriminalization in 1973, and it took 26 years for the first state, California, to legalize medical cannabis. By 2021, 46 states have legalized cannabis for medical use. In 11 states, it is legal for recreational use.

Denver’s initiative to decriminalize psychedelics seems to have influenced public opinion in Colorado. A survey conducted by RBI Strategies & Research showed that some 50% of Colorado voters would support measures to expand psilocybin decriminalization throughout the state and legalize psychedelic mushrooms statewide. Colorado’s state legislature even passed the HB19-1263 law, which went into effect in March 2020, changing personal possession of any Schedule 1 or 2 drug in Colorado from a felony to a misdemeanor. However, other states have yet to adopt such legislation.

              On the federal level, Congress and the presidency have not addressed the issue of decriminalizing psychedelics. However, Democrats have introduced legislation on liberalizing drug policies. For example, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., filed an amendment to a large-scale appropriations bill in 2019 to end the prohibition of federal money being spent on “any activity that promotes the legalization of any drug or other substance in Schedule I” of the Controlled Substances Act. It didn’t pass then or in 2021, but it gained about 50 “yes” votes on the second vote.

              This year Reps. Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-NJ) and Cori Bush (D-MO) are sponsoring the Drug Policy Reform Act (DPRA) to decriminalize personal use and possession of drugs. Most importantly, it would shift federal drug policy from the Department of Justice to Health and Human Services. 

Republicans in CongressCongress have generally opposed lessening restrictions on personal drug use. However, their constituency seems to be more open to it. For instance, according to a 2017 Gallup poll, most Republicans support legalizing cannabis for the first time.

Outside of politics, serious research is being conducted on the potential use of psychedelics like psilocybin to address health issues. Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research has increased its research in this area of study. Somewhat surprisingly, in the fall of 2018, under the Trump administration, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration granted psilocybin “breakthrough therapy” designation for its potential to help with treatment-resistant depression. In addition, this year, the Harvard Law School launched the Project on Psychedelics Law and Regulation (POPLAR) to inform legislation and help clinicians promote safety, innovation, and therapeutics in the medicinal use of psychedelics. 

Political progress is being made despite State and Federal reluctance and resistance to changing the laws. However, with the emerging scientific and academic commitment to research the possible benefits of psychedelics, politicians will be more comfortable making changes. 

It took over 40 years of constant grassroots efforts to get where we are today on using cannabis legally, but advocates need a long-range game plan.

Cannabis’s success was partly due to the eventual recognition of how the enforcement of anti-cannabis laws resulted in minorities, particularly the Black community, who bore the brunt of arrests and imprisonment. However, the situation with the use or possession of psychedelics is different. First, it is not a street drug. Second, arrests for possession and sale of psychedelics are minuscule to what they were for cannabis.  According to the non-profit Drug Policy Alliance, only an annual average of 0.1% of the U.S. population reported using any drug under the “hallucinogen” category (including psilocybin) within the last 30 days between 2002 and 2014.

Consequently, decriminalizing psychedelics is an invisible issue for two organizations with the largest and most active communities engaged in social justice issues, the NAACP and the Human Rights Campaign. Local Progress, a national network of over a thousand progressive local officials, focuses on other urban justice issues. However, they support the Drug Policy Alliance efforts urging the Biden Administration to focus on harm reduction and abandon criminalization.

Monica Bridges, Co-Chair for Education and Outreach of Decrim Nature Seattle (DNS), an advocacy group that supports ending the prohibition of plant-based psychedelics, spoke out on how the role of psychedelics can help cities tackle addiction and generational trauma. “This is about developing community. I’ve seen a lot of this Western mentality, where people want to extract the compound, put it in a pill, monetize it, and then think that’s going to cure everything. But it’s not just the medicine. It’s the embodiment of the medicine in relation to community.”

A strategy for building a national movement should support psychedelics to address a community’s social justice issues and the individual’s freedom to explore their creative consciousness. Both activities recognize that citizens in a functioning democracy should control their lives in a safe and non-oppressive manner. This dual approach can bridge the ideological divide in our nation by refocusing on an issue that can work for the greater good regardless of one’s party affiliation.  

Ironically, the genesis to decriminalize out-of-date repressive drug laws emerged from what the media often characterized as the disruptive sixties. But then, it was an era where students encouraged the nation to look at the status quo and ask, “Can’t we do better?” That spirit did not die. Instead, it remains alive and the driving force for demanding more accountability from our leaders to protect our citizens’ welfare and freedoms. I cover the history and legacy of this era in my just-released book, Student Power, Democracy and Revolution in the Sixties (by Cambridge Scholars Publishing).

What is to be done about America’s growing disparity in wealth?

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Written by Nick Licata | Originally published 8/24/2021


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                                                                                                     lumber baron William Carson’s Victorian Mansion built 1886 – photo by N. Licata

Over the past year, new research has shown how a phenomenal accumulation of wealth has become concentrated among just 1 percent of Americans over the last four decades.

If that trend continues, our future as a democracy will come to an end. So, the first step is to recognize it, and the second is to address it now.
This trend was quantitively demonstrated in a RAND Corporation paper, Trends in Income From 1975 to 2018 by Carter C. Price and Kathryn Edwards. They used a time-period agnostic and income-level agnostic measure of inequality that relates income growth to economic growth. A summary and commentary of their work by Nick Hanauer And David M. Rolf is readily accessible to the public in Time. 
The RAND study shows how from 1947 through 1974, real incomes grew close to the rate of per capita economic growth across all income levels. Since then, Americans whose wealth was already in the top 1 percent have received a much larger share of our nation’s economic growth. At every income level up to the 90th percentile, wage earners receive only a fraction of what they would have received if the inequality ratio had held constant from 1974.
In real wages, this means that an employee today with a median individual income of $36,000 would receive an additional $28,000 using the CPI as a measurement of growth. That comes out to an additional $10.10 to $13.50 an hour on top of the current wage.
Critics point out how the growing gap in wealth among Americans is not a random economic trend but a politically driven plan to protect a select group’s capital and their ability to increase it through manipulating our democratic decision-making process.
Political scientists Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson, in Let them Eat Tweets: How the Right Rules in an Age of Extreme Inequality, argue that the Republican Party has merged plutocratic economic priorities with a right-wing populist appeal that threatens American democracy. In a YouTube interview referencing decades of research, Hacker and Pierson explain the doom-loop of tax-cutting that characterizes the Republican strategy.
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse believes that approach is undermining our democratic government. His presentation during the confirmation hearings of Amy Coney Barrett to the U.S. Supreme Court details how untraceable money from people “with practically unlimited resources have [manipulated] that most precious of American gifts—the vote.” It’s not just the popular vote they are attempting to control but also the votes in Congress to protect and expand their wealth.
A ProPublica piece by Justin Elliott and Robert Faturechi Secret IRS Files Reveal How Much the Ultrawealthy Gained by Shaping Trump’s “Big, Beautiful Tax Cut” uncovered confidential IRS records. They show billionaire business owners deploying lobbyists to make sure Trump’s 2017 tax bill was tailored to their benefit.
Wisconsin Republican Sen. Ron Johnson threatened to vote “no” on Trump’s tax cut unless it included a pass-through provision as tax relief for “small businesses.” The reporters connected that tax break to two families of the largest donors to Johnson’s and Trump’s campaigns. They contributed around $20 million just to groups backing Johnson’s 2016 reelection campaign. That is a lot of money, but they also netted $215 million in tax deductions in 2018 alone from Johnson, altering Trump’s original tax-proposed package. Elliott and Faturechi’s finding was based on lobbying and campaign finance disclosures, Treasury Department emails and calendars obtained through a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit, and confidential tax records.
Why haven’t revelations like these prompted a populist movement to redirect these types of tax benefits to the shrinking middle class? Unfortunately, that potential political movement has been hindered by a narrative, primarily pushed by the Republicans, that any increase in a tax will lead to less money in the average voter’s pockets and less freedom in their daily lives. Republicans adhered to that message in opposing any new tax on the wealthiest to help fund President Biden’s legislation investment in our dilapidated infrastructure, disregarding that it would have created a more robust economy and more significant employment opportunities.
A tax on the top 1% or even the top 10% of the population does not lessen the income of wage-working families. However, the growing wealth gap is not seen as important by those families. Polls of voters show that the distribution of wealth lands near the bottom of their concerns. This attitude may be partly due to the perception that to close this gap, socialism would result, which the Republicans repeatedly link to the authoritarian governments of Russia or China.
However, the two biggest communist governments in the world are experiencing the same growing wealth gap within their populations as the largest capitalist country in the world. Why is that? Even though Russia and China pledged to create an egalitarian society and the U.S. professes to protect individual freedoms, all three have removed or reduced regulations on their domestic market that would stop elites from monopolizing it. These elites may come from inherited wealth or political party status or just individuals working within each country’s economic system. The result is the same: a concentration of capital resources among fewer people is happening in both communist and capitalist countries.
For a moment, let’s look at what is happening in Russian and China. The grandest and longest experiment in eliminating the excessive concentration of wealth would be the Soviet Union. As the Soviet economy was formed, the royalty and the farmers who owned their land were stripped of their property, if not personally eliminated, because they hindered the creation of an egalitarian society. In some ways, that objective was achieved. For example, in the 1970s, the Soviet Union was heralded as a nation that had succeeded in providing more housing for its citizens than the U.S.
However, thirty years later, a new wealthy elite has emerged that rules Russia. Timothy Snyder, in On Tyranny, argues that the Russian oligarchy came to power after 1990 due to the efforts of President Vladimir V. Putin. They remain in control, not only destroying that country’s democracy but working to destroy democracies elsewhere.
China, the world’s largest “communist” nation, and like Russia communist in name only, is now struggling with how to contain its wealthy oligarchy, according to an article in Foreign Affairs by Anko Milanovic, a professor at the London School of Economics. Milanovic believes that “Inequality has become the Chinese system’s Achilles’ heel, belying the government’s nominally socialist tenets and undermining the implicit contract between the rulers and the ruled.”
The number of billionaires in Russia and particularly China has mushroomed. Beijing has more billionaires than New York City. If Hong Kong is politically merged with China, the U.S. will drop behind China in the number of billionaires. Russia currently has the fifth-largest number of billionaires in the world. Neither China nor Russia come close to having a democratic government or society, so the public has limited opportunity to close their wealth gap.
Some historians argue that there will always be some variation in the distribution of wealth in a society. In Sapiens A Brief History of Humankind, Yuval Noah Harari notes that it may have begun when agriculture replaced foraging about 10,000 years ago. The resulting surplus food begat a “pampered elite.” Promoting the concentration of wealth in a society is rarely acclaimed as a goal by the rulers. Nevertheless, a history of revolutions initiated by the disenfranchised seems to always result in sustaining some noticeable gap in wealth among the population.
So, what is to be done about America’s growing disparity in wealth? As long as we have a functioning democracy that allows the public to shape our laws effectively, we can halt the growth of the existing wealth disparity and even reverse it. Our political parties must educate the public that it takes resources to maintain a stable society.
When the wealthiest do not contribute their fair share of resources, that society will witness populist movements pushing for radical and usually expedient but undemocratic changes. Coming from either the left or the right, they will support more opportunities to improve people’s lives. But, without a solid democratic framework that promotes the civil rights of all citizens, like encouraging the right to vote, their changes will not halt the emergence of powerful, wealthy elites, as is what is happening in Russia and China today.
The path forward is through establishing a fair tax structure to stop excessive wealth, and hence political power, from being accumulated by just a sliver of the population. There must be a tax system that does not reward speculation more than wage labor, as ours does now. Any political party stubbornly resisting a tax on those ablest to pay is traveling a fool’s journey into a long dark tunnel with no satisfying end in sight.

 

Trumpite multimillionaires push white ethnic nationalism while undermining democratic governance

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Written by Nick Licata | Originally published 8/11/2021


 

unnamed (7)Supporters of President Donald Trump gathered outside the office where ballots were being counted in Phoenix on Nov. 6.  Credit…Adriana Zehbrauskas for The New York Times

            Recently there has been extensive reporting on how a select group of the wealthiest Americans promotes Donald Trump’s accusation that he won the election, referred to as the Big Lie. Nothing new here.
However, the current reporting shows how multimillionaires, foundations, and news media stars use white ethnic nationalism to protect an unregulated market economy. An economy that best serves the richest from being tapped to fund government programs, like providing greater economic opportunities for the shrinking middle class. In that effort, a new role model for this strategy has emerged, the anti-immigration and anti-democratic Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.
            The New Yorker’s Jane Mayer ignited a new round of discussing how the role of money in politics is undermining our democratic institutions. Her piece The Big Money Behind the Big Lie has received strong endorsements from other reporters, two of which are Esquire’s Charles P. Pierce and Dartagnan of the Daily Kos.
Mayer exposes who is behind the half-year-long Presidential election ballot recount in Arizona, despite no evidence that one was needed. She begins with the multimillionaire founder of Overstock.com, Patrick Byrn, who financed the film “The Deep Rig.” It claims that Joe Biden supporters, including Antifa members, stole the 2020 Presidential election. According to Mayer, “the film’s director, who had previously made an exposé contending that the real perpetrators of 9/11 were space aliens.”
The film is relevant to the Arizona recount because it introduces Doug Logan, the CEO of Cyber Ninjas, a Florida-based company that consults on software security. Logan asserts that CIA agents, among other “deep state” bureaucrats, have intentionally spread disinformation about the election. He warns viewers that, “If we don’t fix our election integrity now, we may no longer have a democracy.”
Ignoring this attitude or because of it, the president of the Arizona State Senate, Karen Fann, put Logan’s company in charge of the “forensic audit.” His firm had never performed an election audit. They took months to complete an analysis of Arizona’s Presidential election vote. In July, the company released figures on how they funded the audit. They reported that private donations covered 97 percent of the cost. Public funding was $150,000; private funding was nearly $5.7 million. The identifiable funding groups were ones that have promoted false claims that the election was tainted. Do you think that might have influenced the auditors?
The attempt by Trump supporters to find fraud in their audit is not rationally justified by the data available to the public. For example, although the Republican Governor, Doug Ducey, certified Biden’s victory in Arizona, state and federal courts rejected fraud claims, two previous audits of Maricopa County, Arizona’s largest county, found the count had been accurate. That county went for Biden by more than two points.
Back in May, even the Republican-majority board of supervisors of Maricopa County in a public meeting called the audit a “sham” and a “spectacle that is harming all of us.” The Board Chair called the recount a “grift disguised as an audit” because Trump supporters raised funds for the recount without any public oversight on how the donated money was spent.
In August, a new report further weakened the justification for a recount. A team of three experienced election auditors using public records showed that Biden beat Donald Trump during every day of voting in the presidential election in Maricopa County, Arizona.
The researchers consisted of two from Clear Ballot, a federally certified election auditing and technology firm, and an experienced Arizona Republican Party election observer. They also discovered that the number of Arizona disaffected Republican voters who voted for Biden was over four times greater than the statewide margin of Trump’s vote loss to Biden. In other words, Biden won in Arizona because many Republicans voted for Republicans running for lower public offices but not for Trump.
So, why the need for a recount since there is so much evidence that the election was a fair one and no evidence to support the Big Lie that it was stolen? The answer is that the Republican Party needs Donald Trump’s populist appeal to turn out white voters in their primaries. And just as important, multimillionaire business owners will donate unlimited amounts to elect a Trump Republican candidate. So, the white voters believe they have someone who will protect their social interests and the business owners get someone who will protect their financial interests.
For both groups, servicing the economic needs and protecting the civil rights of everyone through mandated government regulations is seen as dangerously changing the status quo. They cannot believe that most Americans were so stupid to have voted for Biden, who would undoubtedly make their lives worse off. There must have been a conspiracy to steal the election from Trump. The only way to get Trump back in office is now to show how he lost the election through fraud.
Besides identifying individual multimillionaires Byrn and Logan, Mayer also identifies a couple of private foundations funding efforts to show that the election was stolen from Trump. The Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation’s website notes that a guiding principle is to “combat efforts to undermine economic freedom.” However, it has funded efforts over the last six years to find fraud in elections that have elected people who threaten that free market.
Mayer says Bradley’s track record shows how it has “become an extraordinary force in persuading mainstream Republicans to support radical challenges to election rules.” The foundation’s endowment of $850 million has funded a network of groups spreading fear about election fraud. Since 2012, when Barak Obama ran for his second term, the Bradley Foundation spent $18 million supporting eleven conservative groups involved in election issues.
Mayer also identifies the Heritage Foundation as one of the leaders in the well-funded movement to constrain access to voting. The Bradley Foundation is its third-largest contributor. Both foundations are now pursuing an objective that Paul Weyrich, one of Heritage’s founders, openly stated, according to Nancy Maclean in her book Democracy in Chains, “I don’t want everybody to vote. As a matter of fact, our leverage in the elections quite candidly goes up as the voting populace goes down.”
The Heritage Foundation’s Election Law Reform Initiative is headed up by Hans von Spakovsky, who worked in George W. Bush’s Justice Department, using the Voting Rights Act, to prosecute purported fraud by Black voters and election officials. Afterward, he was a lawyer for the Public Interest Legal Foundation, which immediately filed a suit against Maricopa County, alleging that a Sharpie-using voter had been disenfranchised. However, Arizona’s Republican attorney general concluded after a day of investigation that the Sharpie story was nonsense.
The camaraderie between Trump and the Heritage Foundation led to at least 66 Heritage Foundation employees and alumni receiving positions in the Trump administration. According to Jonathan Mahler of the New York Times Magazine, both share the same constituencies. Much like Trump’s, Heritage’s constituency is equal parts donor class and populist base. Its $80 million annual budget depends on six-figure donations from wealthy Republicans. The Foundation website claims to have voluntary support from more than 500,000 members, but there is no breakout of how much they provide to the foundation’s budget.
Appealing to aggrieved white Americans and frightened wealthy Americans is a dynamite formula for blowing up our democracy’s institutions. The passion of a reactionary populist movement and the deep pockets of the richest can dismantle any government trying to shift services and resources to those who have not been sufficiently receiving them.
And that is why Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has become the hero of this nation’s most-watched right-wing populist, Fox News host Tucker Carlson. He treated his 3 million viewer audience to a whole week of broadcasting from the Hungarian capital. In addition, Tucker personally met with Orbán and each posted photos of their meeting on social media.
He was in Budapest to address a conference of Mathias Corvinus Collegium. The New York Times reported that Orbán granted $1.7 billion (about one percent of Hungary’s GDP) to it to train a new generation of conservative elite across Europe.
However, like Orbán and Carlson, radical conservatives have relabeled a “conservative” as a proponent of primarily protecting the way of life for some racial or ethnic groups who fear other such groups from disrupting or destroying it. Immigration is the touchstone of such a fear in Hungary and America for them.
Carlson tweets that at the rate of immigration coming into Hungary, “unless something changes dramatically, there will be no more Hungarians.” Orbán’s solution, which Carlson applauds, is “helping the native population to have more children.” They both accuse liberals of supporting a policy to “import a replacement population from the Third World.” Sound familiar? Something like building a wall between America and Mexico. No need to stop Canadians; they’re one of us.
Orbán has embraced ethnonationalism (“Hungary for the Hungarians”) in opposing immigrants coming into his country who are not Hungarians. He also uses this perspective as a defense of “Christendom” against Islam and to save white Christian European Heritage from the corrupting influence of liberalism that accepts gays and women as equal citizens. Orbán banned gender studies from higher education and, in 2020, ended the legal recognition of transgender and intersex people.
Through these and other policies, he proudly hailed Hungary as an “illiberal democracy,” which he has recently renamed “Christian democracy.” But, unfortunately, the democracy component in either version has shriveled as Orbán has carefully undermined an independent press.  Reporters Without Borders listed Orbán as one of the world’s 37 “press freedom predators,” arguing that he “has steadily and effectively undermined media pluralism and independence since being returned to power in 2010.”
Hungary’s judiciary has also been severely compromised. When Orbán’s political party, the Fidesz, achieved a supermajority in parliament, they promptly changed the constitution to expand its constitutional court, which decides whether laws passed by parliament are constitutional. Orbán filled the new seats with Fidesz loyalists while also forcing all judges over the age of 62 to retire. He then filled their seats with Fidesz-friendly jurists.
Orbán and his party’s institutional changes have led to charges that Hungary is on the road to becoming an authoritarian state.  The European Parliament voted three years ago, in September 2018, to label Orbán’s government a “systemic threat to the rule of law.” More restrictions on traditional liberal freedoms have occurred since then.
Could this be America’s future if Donald Trump returns or Trumpites come to have a supermajority in congress?  Carlson asked his TV audience, “Should we follow Hungary’s example?” while lauding Hungary’s pro-nationalist and increasingly restrictive laws on personal freedoms.
An alliance of the very rich, the Christian white ethnic-nationalists, and the right-wing media are working very hard to win over the Republican Party to that cause. They appear to be succeeding.

Author of ‘After Cooling’ discusses Freon’s legacy and the societal cost of air conditioning

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Written by Nick Licata | Originally published in the Seattle Times on 7/27/21


 

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Eric Dean Wilson

In opening Eric Dean Wilson’s book, “After Cooling: On Freon, Global Warming, and the Terrible Cost of Comfort,” I was prepared for a lot of data on how the Freon gas created a huge hole in our ozone layer and had threatened our human survival.

But Wilson goes beyond the technical explanation of how Freon (and other gases that have replaced it) still threaten our environment. Instead, he shows how our faith in the ability to cool the world without environmental repercussions is still with us. In an interview, Wilson unveils how our marketplace-driven economy creates a consumer culture where air conditioning has become a necessity underlying that faith.

“After Cooling” begins with an unusual insight — the public initially resisted the idea of cooling air for personal comfort. It was too strange to attract buyers.

Here are more insights gleaned from a conversation with the author. Answers have been edited for length and clarity.

Licata: How was the public sold on the idea that feeling comfortable was OK?
Eric Dean Wilson: There had been only a slow growth until the AC industry, in response to World War II, hitched the comfort of air conditioning to work efficiently. Suddenly you could work at all hours and in all temperatures. It was vital because it integrated comfort into the Protestant work ethic.

You wrote that the history of air conditioning reveals something essentially American. What makes it uniquely American?
Americans had to justify using air cooling as something other than just pursuing comfort. We needed to believe that cooling was useful to do something else. Initially, Europe mocked the U.S., and air conditioning didn’t catch on anywhere else in the world.

What has changed so that much of the rest of the world is now also pursuing air conditioning?
It’s not just our technology that has been exported, but also our cultural bias that conflates discomfort with the danger of being uncomfortable. For instance, we do have physiological limits. We die when we’re too cold, and we have a stroke when we’re too hot. But humans can tolerate a wide range of temperatures.

Historically, heat tolerance and strategies for cooling have varied throughout the world. When our technology goes worldwide, so does our cultural bias that requires a narrow range of temperatures to be comfortable and safe.

The American model of comfort is replacing other, more responsible ways of beating the heat. As a result, most new buildings are designed to provide a uniform temperature for all, regardless of what the local population had considered normal and safe.

You argue that air conditioning has increased the gap between social classes, as defined by race. You use the American South as an example of where enjoying air conditioning in a hot and humid climate did not contribute to everyone’s improved comfort. How did racial divides grow with air conditioning?

Air conditioning became a pretty insidious tool for racial segregation. With the coming of movie theaters, which were segregated by law in the South and often segregated by the social custom in the North, the segregation of races was both spatial and thermal. White patrons sat on the ground floor, which was cooler and better air-conditioned, while the Black patrons sat in the balcony, which was stuffier, more crowded, hotter, and less air-conditioned.

More recently, neighborhoods segregated by race make it easier, [for instance] when power grids are burdened on hot days, for power companies to cut off power to primarily Black or Latino neighborhoods to preserve the whole grid.

You write that “the regard for public space and community well-being all but vanished.” How did that happen?

At the end of the 19th century, there was a birth of gorgeous public parks and spaces as part of an ethos that access to well-designed public gathering spaces benefits a city’s general population. A century later, we started seeing the shuttering of those spaces into privately controlled areas. That development occurred before air conditioning began.

When AC became available, it was concentrated in large commercial spaces where you had to spend money to stay cool. Consequently, movie theaters or shopping malls received air conditioning, while there were far fewer public spaces providing shelter from the heat. Libraries are the major exception to this.

You quote theorist Fredric Jameson as saying, “It is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism,” and with capitalism come assumptions of limitless progress and infinite energy. Are there any other economic systems handling the idea of comfort better?

Unfortunately, there is no outside of capitalism. But that doesn’t mean it’s the best option. If we think it is, it’s simply Panglossian logic: It must be the best of all possible worlds! That’s illogical. I believe smaller communities that have attempted to retain a precapitalist idea of the commons are the last stronghold.

It’s not that the world before capitalism was Edenic. Certainly not. But they kept the possibility of living differently. That possibility of difference — an act of imagination — is crucial.

You write that the most significant problem going forward is that we haven’t curtailed our insatiable appetite for comfort, and we do not have free energy to meet an ever-growing demand.  So, what do you lay out as a positive and effective way forward to avoid destroying the Earth for human habitation?

We need to transition to renewables as swiftly as possible. But there are still many unknowns connected to extraction. Wind turbines and solar panels still need precious metals, the mining of which destroys communities in less industrialized areas. We don’t know how to keep air travel without using fossil fuels. Some claim it’s possible, but the point is that when you expend condensed energy to overcome time and space like that, the power must come from somewhere.

I don’t have a master plan. I wish I did, but I know that our solutions come in concert with dialogue from communities who keep getting the short end of the stick. When we center on the most vulnerable, we all win.

 

The Party of Fear vs. Party of Hope

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Written by Nick Licata | Originally posted 7/14/21 on the Medium


 

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 Former President Donald Trump addresses supporters during a “Save America” rally on July 3 in Sarasota, Fla. (Phelan M. Ebenhack for The Washington Post)

Both the Democrat and Republican parties employ Fear and Hope messaging in marketing their campaigns.

The Republicans present Fear like a paperback novel you can’t put down. Will you be murdered on an evening stroll by someone who doesn’t look like you? And did you notice there’s more of them moving into your
neighborhood?

For the Democrats, Fear is like a chapter in an assigned textbook. There are x number of guns in America, unless we reduce them by 10%, thousands of lives will be lost by gunshot wounds.

Hope is treated similarly by the parties.

Under the influence of Former President Trump, Republicans treat Hope like a weapon: we must fight the Democrats, in the hope they don’t turn America into a Socialist prison. Republicans hope to go back to a peaceful era when there were fewer problems and fewer troublesome minorities.

Democrats’ most passionate messaging is wrapped around hope. But to be effective it must go beyond producing thoughtful position briefs, as Hillary Clinton and Elizabeth Warren excelled in releasing. Former President Obama grasped that there was a popular yearning for more a more open and just society than any previous president since President Kennedy. They both gave hope to those that wanted the nation to move forward as a community to improve everyone’s life. They did it through projecting hope in a personal way.

However, fear and hope are emotions, not separated from facts but not confined by them either. Each party cherry picks the data and the real-life experiences that reinforce their positions.

Debates between candidates rarely sway the general public. It is the listener’s expectations that frame their judgement of a debate. Since the 1960’s the Democrat Party has gradually and uniformly adopted liberalism. While the Republican Party has done the same in embracing  conservatism.

These philosophical differences have led each party to encourage expectations that define hope and fear in diametrically opposite ways. For Democrats, hope is an expectation that life can be better for all through change. For Republicans, fear is an expectation that life will be worse for them if changes are made.

The nation’s demographics show an aging population and a greater ethnic diversity. Democrats argue that these growing cohorts deserve new social, political and economic laws to meet their needs. Those changes will benefit the national community-at-large. It is not a sum-minus view where someone’s gain is another’s loss.

However, that is exactly how the Republicans see it. As a result, Republicans are receiving a wave of populist support, particularly from white males who perceive that they have the most to lose, regardless of their economic status. The clash between the two parties comes down to a class between individualism and communitarianism.

Democrats have not appreciated that individualism has been a central national value since our founding. It is directly tied to protecting our liberty and freedom from an authoritative government.

For the original thirteen colonies, the King of England had been the enemy. Trump Republicans now see the federal government as the enemy. New laws passed by the Democrats are characterized as oppressing their individual freedoms, such as owning any type of gun or choosing not to wear Covid virus-filtering health masks.

Democrats on the other hand, embrace a communitarian approach that emphasizes a community’s welfare above that of any individual. This has led them to encourage an increase in the federal minimum wage and restrict the use of chemicals like Freon that destroy the environment and ultimately the public health.

Individual businesses may suffer a loss of profits from these new measures. That result is where the concerns of individualism and the interest in promoting a free market converge. The individual should be allowed to accumulate wealth even though the community may suffer from such activity.

In sum, each party’s messaging, that is based on fear or hope, reflects an underlying cultural perspective that prioritizes either the defense of an individual’s rights or protection of a community’s welfare.

This conflict has been politically manifested and executed from the beginning when a national federal framework for the United States of America was created. It attempted to balance the powers of individual states and those of the central government.

Our future has been guided to the extent that state rights or constitutional rights rule. It’s a question of whether the status quo can be altered nationally or for just self-selected states. That struggle began when each state originally possessed a level of sovereignty thar far exceed what they can muster today.

The high point for emphasizing state sovereignty was reached when the Supreme Court in 1857 issued the 7–2 Dred Scott decision – five of the nine justices were from slave owning families.

The following year, the Democratic senator Stephen A. Douglas and Republican challenger Abraham Lincoln, debated the correctness of the court’s decision. Douglas accurately explained that the court declared “that each State has the right to settle the question of suffrage for itself, and all questions as to the relations between the white man and the negro.” Hence, Blacks could be enslaved indefinitely or until a state decided to set them free.

The Civil War defined the moment when state’s rights as an exercise of sovereignty ended. They were part of something larger, the Union, and they could not withdraw from it. Consequently, they were forced to end slavery, against their will.

Limiting state’s sovereignty has since been pursued by the Supreme Court as demonstrated by two landmark decisions, reached over two generations ago.

The court’s 1954 unanimous opinion in Brown vs Board of Education ending racially segregated public schooling by states was inherently unequal and a violation of constitutional rights. In the Roe vs Wade case, the Supreme Court ruled 7-2 that the US Constitution protects a pregnant woman’s liberty to choose to have an abortion without excessive state government restrictions.

Identifying the issue of state’s rights is necessary to show that it has been used as a tool by conservatives and now the Republicans to push a philosophy of individualism. The Republican Party hopes to turn the nation back to an era of tranquility for people, the preponderance of whom were of European decent.  There is no fixed period, but it is one that would come before the Supreme Court curtailed state’s power with decisions like Brown & Roe.

For Republicans, hope is closely tied to the fear of losing the freedom to live as one wishes, without any federal government interference. The right to carry a loaded gun is now a touchstone for measuring freedom. Ironically the other touchstone for state’s rights, is their ability to effectively deny a woman’s right to control their bodies. That contradiction is explained away by conservatives as a religious conviction which has a higher authority than government.

The differences in the parties’ messaging are already shaping the crucial 2022 November elections, which will select one third of the Senators and all of the Representatives.
At Trump’s first post-election rally, held in Lorain County Ohio on June 26, a 32-year-old physical therapist, was interviewed by NPR at the rally. She said that it was scary not having Trump as president.

The role of fear remains strongest among Republicans and conservative independents. For them, without a strong leader to stop the Democrats, bad things will happen.

Under the influence of former President Trump, Republicans now tend to hold loud rallies feeding that fear. If Democrats remain in control of congress their individual freedoms and liberties will be stripped away.

The only barrier the Republicans have is that the majority of state legislatures are controlled by conservative Republicans. But if the Democrats win a clear majority in congress, new legislation will accommodate voters who want dramatic structural changes.

That is why Republicans oppose retaining past measures that have encouraged voting. Those improvements led to Joe Biden becoming president and they could bring out new voters in deep red states like Georgie, where the Republicans lost two US Senate seats.

Democrats also fear the Republicans, but rather than holding rallies they issue policy papers about how Republican’s social and economic policies favor the few over the many. That disparity will only get worse if we don’t adjust government programs – discussion groups follow. Which party’s delivery attracts lines of people waiting to attend their events?

Democrats do not have to mimic the scare tactics of the Republicans to win elections. However, they must energize their constituents to the same degree.

To accomplish that feat, they need to unabashedly promote community welfare while protecting the livelihood of everyone regardless of racial identity. In particular they must acknowledge that independent businesses must be assisted in some manner during a period of transitional change toward a society that is less stratified by race and income.

A message of hope can beat a message of fear, if it provides a clear road ahead.

Can Biden’s Infrastructure Plan Peel-Off Blue-Collar Workers from the Republicans?

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Written by Nick Licata | Originally posted 6/20/21


 

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CSA-Printstock/Getty

 

For the first time in four decades, we have a new national holiday, the Juneteenth National Independence Day. It celebrates the liberation of Black American slaves from the last city enslaving them in Galveston, Texas.

All the Senate Republicans, and all but fourteen of the Republicans in the House, voted in favor of establishing the holiday. Rep. Matt Rosendale, R-Mt., released a statement before the vote that captures Republican concerns that are festering within their ranks: “This is an effort by the Left to … celebrate identity politics as part of its larger efforts to make Critical Race Theory the reigning ideology of our country.” As a result, Republicans have begun a national campaign opposed to teaching Critical Race Theory in public schools and in some state universities.
However, Michael Eric Eyson, author of Long Time Coming, told MSNBC that June 19 as a national holiday would not have happened without CRT moving people to grapple with race in our history and having to deal with it now.
Rosendale and Eyson’s comments reveal a divide in this nation from when the first African slaves were brought into the North American Colonies in 1619. It is a battle over who has the political power to interpret our nation’s history and shape our future. Critical Race Theory is the current battleground.
Stephen Sawchuk, in a May issue of Education Week, aptly captures both sides in this struggle when he asks, “Is “critical race theory” a way of understanding how American racism has shaped public policy, or a divisive discourse that pits people of color against white people?” However, he quickly notes, “the divides are not nearly as neat as they may seem.”
Standardized history textbooks often credit the Civil War as the final resolution in achieving political equality of former African slaves as U.S. citizens. But some critical historical elements are often ignored.
First, by our constitution, “All persons born in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States.” Importing slaves was outlawed in1808. One could argue that all slaves born in the U.S. after 1808 could be considered citizens.
Second, the 13th amendment passed nearly 60 years after the last slave was admitted. According to the Stanford School of Medicine’s Ethnogeriatrics: in 1860, only 3.5 percent of the slaves were over sixty. Consequently, over 95 percent of the slaves were technically already U.S. citizens since they were “persons born in the United States.”
Third, the Constitutional Convention declaring that three-fifths of the slave population would be counted for determining representation in the House of Representatives. This measure acknowledged slaves as persons and not simply property like livestock.
Even though the constitution recognized and allowed slavery, it was silent on the status of the slave’s children. A legal argument could have been made that those children automatically were citizens and that their continued enslavement was a violation of their constitutional right.
Why wasn’t that legal avenue taken? Because the slave-owning states could stop any such legislation in Congress. They were disproportionately represented in the House of Representatives.  Sixty percent of their slaves figured into the number of representatives that they could send to Congress. In addition, they could influence the makeup of the Supreme Court to the extent that the court’s Dread Scott decision would forcibly send a free slave in a non-slave state back to a slave state to be shackled again.
When considering these conditions in our history, one can understand why Eyson says that CRT began with legal scholars who saw that systemic racism was embedded in the law. He concludes that our laws have not been a neutral arbitrator on race relations.  Those biased laws extend from the federal to the state to the municipal level.
And that brings us to where we are today. The fear, spearheaded by the Republican Party, is that CRT demeans America by suggesting that our laws since colonial days have been biased against black slaves and then their decedents. After the Civil War, that bias was most evident in the national politics in the presidential elections of 1868, which blatantly raised the fear of blacks having more political power than white voters.
To some degree that happened, the participation of Black voters was critical for Republican Ulysses S. Grant being elected president. The Democrats, whose motto was “This is a White Man’s country, let White Men Rule,” ran Horatio Seymore. He lost by 305,000 votes; however, a half-million newly enfranchised Black men voted for Grant. Seymore had supported the Crittenden Compromise, which would have guaranteed slavery in the constitution to end the Civil War.
Despite Grant winning, the former slave-owning states instituted laws that effectively eliminated Black political and economic power. They passed segregation and Jim Crow laws that ignored two constitutional amendments that they were expected to accept as a condition to being back into the Union. Those were the Fourteenth Amendment of 1868 granting Black Americans the rights of citizenship and the Fifteenth Amendment in 1870 giving Black American men the right to vote.
When the South went about adopting Black Codes designed to “replace” Black’s slavery with some as close to it as possible, Northern States moved onto other concerns. Black Americans outnumbered and lacking the resources to fight against stronger forces were abandoned to go it alone in trying to achieve full citizenship.
But CRT goes far beyond the machinations of the Southern slave-holding states. It raises questions of how laws at all government levels have hindered Black Americans’ power to exercise citizenship on par with white citizens. And that theory assaults the American narrative that we have been taught, America is the land of opportunity for all.
When CRT attacks that storyline, it is seen as betraying our traditional image of a great, generous, and unique America. This tradition is based on the belief that a market economy can best provide those opportunities. Critical Race Theory appears to threaten the sanctity of preserving an unregulated marketplace when it shows how slaves were commodities in the market and the source of significant profits to their owners.
Professor Matthew Desmond at Princeton University wrote how the combined value of enslaved people exceeded that of all the railroads and factories in the nation. Cotton was the nation’s most valuable export grown and picked by enslaved workers.
Two professors reviewing the 1860 census data reported that the median wealth of the wealthiest 1% of Southerners was more than three times higher than for the wealthiest 1% of Northerners. However, after the slaves were freed, who were considered personal property, the top 10% of the Southern wealth distribution experienced a 90% drop in the value of their personal property, while real property wealth was cut approximately in half. Consequently, the wealthy oligarchy of the South was crippled, but not down.
For the next 100 years, the new stratum of upper South wealth persuaded the white working poor that the freed Black slaves and their offspring would take jobs away from them. It was a fear also publicly expressed by many white workers in the North.
Due to the power of state’s rights, what followed was a torrent of segregation and Jim Crow laws in many states. The segregationist influence was also a powerful voting bloc in Congress that lasted from the 1870s to the 1960s. They almost defeated President Lyndon Johnson’s Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Before then, segregationists pushed FDR’s federal programs to deny services to Black citizens. Columbia University historian Ira Katznelson has documented, it was mainly at the behest of Southern Democrats that farm and domestic workers — more than half the nation’s black workforce at the time — were excluded from New Deal policies, including the Social Security and Wagner Acts of 1935 (the Wagner Act ensured the right of workers to collective bargaining), and the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, which set a minimum wage and established the eight-hour workday.
These are historical facts. Conservatives may not want to dwell on them or even discuss them. However, what frightens them is the Theory of Critical Race, which links the long-lasting effects of slavery with systemic racism ingrained in America’s laws. The laws that have shaped our politics, culture, and social relationships.
Conservatives believe this all-encompassing perspective has turned an enjoyable movie about our history into a horror show on whites oppressing Blacks. According to an Education Week analysis, that anger has resulted in legislators in 21 states, as of June 16, introducing bills that would restrict teaching critical race theory or limit how teachers can discuss racism and sexism. Five states have signed these bills into law. Opposition is not just concentrated in the South.
Idaho Republican legislators cut $2.5 mill from their 2022 state budget from colleges and universities, citing the teaching of CRT, which “seeks to highlight how historical inequities and racism continue to shape public policy and social conditions today.”
They also passed a bill that bans the teaching of critical race theory in public and charter schools and universities in the state. But according to Republican Sen. Carl Crabtree, one of the sponsors, they declined to define critical race theory in the bill because “everybody has a different view” of what the term means.
Crabtree was honest. There is no set definition of Critical Race Theory because, as a theory, it is constantly changing. It’s been around for forty years. As any social, political, or legal theory ages, there will be multiple interpretations. That’s true of theories originating from either the left and the right: constitutionalism, socialism, and all the “isms” have spawned schools of thought that debate how to describe what they believe.
Oklahoma Republican Gov. Kevin Stitt signed a bill into law that prohibited teaching that “individuals, by virtue of race or gender, are inherently racist, sexist or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously.” From what I’ve read, CRT does not focus on individuals being racist but institutions that promote policies that discriminate against people of color.
For example, Kiara Alfonseca of ABC news wrote in her piece “Critical race theory in the classroom: Understanding the debate” that CRT “analyzes benefits white people have in society, which is sometimes referred to as “white privilege.” This refers to the concept that white people continue to be protected from the effects of systemic race-based discrimination because of their skin color.” That may result in a white person feeling guilty. But that’s up to the individual.
However, advocates of CRT may also be undertaking a “mission impossible” in trying to convince most people in a nation that they must do something to help a minority which may result in fewer benefits to themselves. A noble and just pursuit, but one that doesn’t have many successful historical incidents to rely on for a proven path forward.
Another approach articulated by Kimberlé Crenshaw, a founding critical race theorist and Columbia Law School professor is to see critical race theory as a discipline that seeks to understand how racism has shaped U.S. laws and how those laws have continued to impact the lives of non-white people. It’s an approach that opens a discussion about what has happened in the past and how it continues to affect everyone.
However, Stephen Sawchuk makes an astute philosophical observation that may just cut to the core of why there is so much resistance from some to CRT. He maintains that CRT is an extension of postmodernist thought, which is “skeptical of the idea of universal values, objective knowledge, individual merit, Enlightenment rationalism, and liberalism—tenets that conservatives tend to hold dear.”
If CRT is rejecting those beliefs, then it has a steep hill to climb. Because universal values, objective knowledge, etc., are held dear by more than just conservatives. They are pretty much the groundwork of our society. Such an approach would put C.R. Theory on the defensive. Advocates would be forced to describe what beliefs would replace them. It doesn’t seem like a winning strategy for converting the entire nation to a new theory to live by.
On the other hand, many of the CRT critics make claims that the proponents don’t make. Such as trying to indoctrinate children that the United States is inherently wicked. Or, when a Republican Texas lawmaker believes “the term “white privilege” blames children for actions of racism in the past and says critical race theorists believe if someone can’t acknowledge white supremacy or white privilege, then they are racist.”
If that approach were taken, CRT would be accused of identifying individuals as racist if they disagree with the theory. Some advocates may say those things, but as I pointed out, all theories have multiple and conflicting believers. Taking quotes from one or two people does not define an entire theory.
What is needed at this time is recognizing what has occurred in the past and how it has shaped our present reality. That is not a theory, so much as an exercise in understanding and thinking. It is a rational process that many of us do hold dear. And it can lead to changing the laws so that we treat one another as citizens within a democratic and just society.

Can Biden’s Infrastructure Plan Peel-Off Blue-Collar Workers from the Republicans?

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Written by Nick Licata | Originally published on the Medium on 6/3/21


The Democrats have been losing blue-collar voters for the last decade; this legislation could reverse that trend.

workers

The Democrats and the Republicans are struggling over Biden’s infrastructure plan as a play for how each party can appeal to blue-collar workers. The Ds argue that this plan will promote good-paying jobs. The Rs can’t argue against creating better jobs, so they counter with the fear that it could bankrupt businesses and put people out of work. It’s a defensive position that lacks the more vital positive message that the D’s can make.
The R’s do fear that Biden is aiming to cleave blue-collar employees off from the Republican’s base by framing the debate as one of creating jobs versus padding the profits of corporations. His infrastructure legislation is cleverly titled the American Jobs Plan to address their primary concern, keeping and getting jobs.
Focusing on the economy is the pathway that Biden is taking to deliver that message to the Trump voters. A Pew Research survey of 12 issues asked voters to rank them by importance. It showed that 88 percent of Trump voters considered the economy the number one issue; the next closest issue was immigration at 74 percent. Meanwhile, Biden supporters ranked the economy as fourth at 72 percent; the number one issue was health care at 84 percent.
Blue-collar concern with the economy is reflected in that  “President Trump garnered his highest vote shares in counties that had some of the most sluggish job, population and economic growth during his term,” according to an analysis done by the Washington Post. These are areas that blue-collar jobs have been shrinking in the last decade. The regions with sinking economies have led them to be dissatisfied with a Democratic Party supposed to protect their economic interests.
As a result, blue-collar workers identifying as Democrats have declined. An NBC survey found that drop was by 8 percentage points, while the number who call themselves Republicans has increased by 12 percentage points in the last decade. That trend is not limited to white workers. From 2010 to 2020, there was an increase of 13 percent of blue-collar Hispanics identifying as Republicans and a 7 percent increase of Black blue-collar workers. The totals are still minimal, but if they represent a long-term shift to the Republican Party, the Democrats will start losing more elections.
A critical factor contributing to the loss of blue-collar jobs is the weakened condition of unions to promote pro-worker legislation. Just over half of the state legislatures have passed right-to-work laws. Unions lose membership and funding to support candidates under these laws. Meanwhile, there are fewer restrictions on how businesses can raise funds and influence elections. As a result, fewer government efforts being made to improve employee benefits, rights, and wages. Those improvements are dependent on business owners seeing a self-interest in promoting them.
Biden cannot interfere with the state legislatures, but his American Jobs Plan could help workers in businesses with federal contracts. Michael Lotito, an attorney with Littler in San Francisco, explained that if the AJP is passed, “federal government contractors will benefit from trillions in new spending” because they would get contracts to build new roads and bridges. He said, “The president will want that money to go for good union jobs. All federal contractors should expect … including neutrality agreements, no unresolved unfair labor practices outstanding and a positive position on unions in general.”
Biden and the Democrats are still engaged in negotiations with the Republicans in determining if they can agree on some type of infrastructure plan. At this time, no agreement has been reached with the moderate Republicans. Even if an agreement is reached, there are some progressive Democrats who may vote against the compromise if it does not provide enough assistance to workers. In other words, the Republicans could just neuter the Democrats’ threat of appealing to the blue-collar workers by cutting some sections of the AJP. The Democrats would then be left with a plan lacking any significant job creation or security and nothing to point in the next round of congressional elections.
If a defanged AJP is offered and fails to pass, there will be a lot of finger-pointing. It will be difficult for either party to send out a clear message that the failure to pass a plan was the other party’s fault, particularly if members within each party are divided on the votes.
However, if Biden pushes for something close to the original plan, a Republican filibuster will sink it. Then the Republicans will be the party that stopped the train from delivering the goods. They will be accused of being incapable of governing and getting anything done. Biden can point to the dozens of meetings he has had with individual Republicans as proof that he was willing to meet and talk with them. That approach will not sway most conservative voters, but it may be enough to bring back some blue-collar voters into the Democratic fold.
Reactionary Republicans are not sitting on their hands. They are actively campaigning now against the AJP by reaching out to the voters. One group outside of the parties leading the charge in attacking Biden’s plan is The Job Creators Network. A few billionaires started it to fight federal legislation protecting employees from business owners interfering in their efforts to certify forming a union. In 2019 they collected $3.8 million in contributions, more than twice the amount they raised in 2016.
They have established a Job Loss Joe tracker “to calculate the employment opportunities that Biden has or is planning to throw under the bus.” Their website claims, “President Biden has already killed thousands of jobs with the stroke of a pen and has countless other job-killing policies in the pipeline, including the idea to more than double the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour.”
Biden’s American Jobs Plan is more than just about building bridges and roads; it’s about allowing working families an opportunity to obtain greater economic power by providing them the freedom to organize into bargaining units if they choose to do so. Regaining that opportunity without owners interfering would bring America back when organized labor provided blue-collar workers with a higher standard of living than they have now. To pay for the creation of new jobs, Biden’s infrastructure plan needs to be funded.
The Republicans are adamant in protecting the significant tax cuts provided by President Trump to big businesses. As reporter Christopher Cadelago noted in Politico, the Biden administration will not levy new fees on people earning less than $400,000, particularly as Republicans will not reverse Trump’s tax cuts. The AJP can provide decent-paying jobs to blue-collar workers if big businesses, which have seen their profits grow during the pandemic, are willing to shift their excess profits back to those who have worked to make America great.

Teach Civics In Schools or Face More Insurrections

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Written by Nick Licata | Originally published on the Medium on 4/28/21


 

Special Note for classroom use – any portions of this essay may be reprinted freely. 

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G/obalstock/iStock

Ignorance Does Not Lead to Freedom

The slogans of the January 6 insurrections who stormed the Capitol demonstrated much passion. But they had little understanding of how a democratic government works. Nor did they care to find out.
Foreign terrorists did not manipulate them. They earnestly believed as President Donald Trump told them that day and for weeks beforehand, that Congress was about to trample on their freedom and liberty. Most of them could have been your white neighbors.
Thomas Jefferson in a letter to a friend pointed out that the lack of an educated populace leads to the expectation that they can be both ignorant and free in a state of civilization and open to demagoguery.  Jefferson wrote they expect “what never was and never will be.” That unrealistic expectation is at the crux of why our nation’s schools must teach civics so that as adults, they understand what is possible in a democracy and the principles that sustain it.

Schools are failing to graduate future citizens of a democracy
“Schools are failing at what the nation’s founders saw as education’s most basic purpose: preparing young people to be reflective citizens who would value liberty and democracy and resist the appeals of demagogues.” This was the conclusion reached by Richard D. Kahlenberg and Clifford Janey in their joint Century Foundation report released in 2011, “Putting Democracy Back into Public Education.” The foundation is a nonprofit public policy research institution supporting a mix of effective government, open democracy, and free markets.
An Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania survey taken in 2014 found that many citizens are unaware of how their government works. Only 36 percent of those surveyed could name all three branches of the U.S. government, and similarly, 35 percent could not name a single one. Four years later, their 2016 survey found that only 26 percent of Americans could name all three branches of government. Is this a rising tide of ignorance on how our government works? And at the same time, there is a wave of growing anger at the government not working.
Lacking knowledge not only makes our citizenry ineffective for making government accountable, but it leads to distrusting democracy altogether. Kahlenberg and Janey noted that a 2011 World Values Survey found that, “When asked whether democracy is a good or bad way to run a country, 17 percent said bad or very bad, up from 9 percent in the mid-1990s. Among those ages 16 to 24, about a quarter said democracy was bad or very bad, an increase of one-third from a decade and a half earlier.”
Without going into why so many young adults think democracy is bad, the fact that so many do suggest that our core democratic cultural values are slipping away.

Civics is about cultural values, not just elections
Damian Ruck’s December 2019 Nature research article, “The Cultural Foundations of Modern Democracies,” revealed that stable democracies tend to rest upon two cultural foundations: openness to diversity and civic confidence.” In other words, to survive, democracies must be “tolerant towards minority groups” and that “civic institutions, including government and the media, [must] command the confidence of the people.”
Teaching civics in schools should build confidence in a democratic government to be representative and tolerant of all citizens. However, civics could be selective in the historical information provided to students and thus as politically biased. Consider how former President Trump’s 1776 Commission and the New York Times’s 1619 Project have been viewed.
In September 2020, Trump announced he would establish a 1776 Commission to promote patriotic education. He wished to combat the “result of decades of left-wing indoctrination in our schools.” The 1619 Project was cited as an example where “the Left has warped, distorted and defiled the American Story.”
On November 2, the day before the 2020 elections, Trump by executive order established his 1776 Commission. The day before the January 6 insurrection, the commission of 18 members met for the first time.
No professional historians were included. The commission chair was Larry Arnn, president of the private conservative college Hillsdale College and a founder of the far-right Claremont Institute. In the spring of 2020, the institute tweeted, “The notion that everything to the right of Communism is fascism remains a fixture in the minds of Communists and other radicals. Marxist ideology lets them do that.”
On January 18, 2021, two days before the end of Trump’s term and only thirty days after the commissioners were appointed, they released a 41-page “The 1776 Report.” It came without citations or footnotes and no identification of its primary authors.
The report promoted “Patriotic education.” Trump, and seemingly most of the commissioners, felt that schoolteachers who echoed the New York Times’ 1619 Project theme were attacking the country’s founders and principles of freedom and liberty. The Times said to the contrary, its 1619 Project’s aim was “to reframe the country’s history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of our national narrative.” The 1776 Report, reflecting Claremont Institute’s political orientation, saw the Project as an expression of progressivism which they considered an “ism” like fascism and Communism.
Nikole Hannah-Jones received the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for Commentary when she kicked off the 1619 Project with an essay headlined: Our democracy’s founding ideals were false when they were written. Black Americans have fought to make them true.
Her article is a polemic on the evils of slavery buttressed by extensive historical data. That evil began with the 400,000 enslaved Africans sold into America before the international slave trade was abolished. Although they formed one-fifth of the young nation’s population, they were treated as property that “could be mortgaged, traded, bought, sold, used as collateral, given as a gift and disposed of violently.” They built the plantations of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison, they laid the foundations of the White House and the Capitol, and they made vast fortunes for white people North and South. They fought in every American war, with the first person to die fighting the British in the American Revolution being Crispus Attucks, a fugitive from slavery.
Teaching history is not the same as teaching civics, but the study of a nation’s government must address its development over time. America became a nation-based Thomas Jefferson’s idea that it was a self-evident truth that all men are created equal with certain unalienable rights, such as life and liberty.
Some scholars disagreed with how Hanna-Jones summarized the span of history covering the role of slavery in shaping this nation and found fault with some historical references. However, the criticisms of her essay were far fewer than the broadside that academics unloaded on the slapped-together 1776 report. Was it logical for Trump and his commission to consider Hanna-Jones unpatriotic? All she did was describe the inhumane conditions of the slaves’ lives, their positive contributions to everyone else’s welfare, and how some colonialists opposed British rule because losing slavery would hurt their businesses and the economy.
The conservative Heritage Foundation ran an article “The New York Times Begins Correcting the Historical Record on “1619.” They characterized the correction as evidence that the integrity of the 1619 Project was flawed. The correction was minor. It read: A passage has been adjusted to make clear that a desire to protect slavery was among the motivations of some of the colonists who fought the Revolutionary War, not among the motivations of all of them.
The 1776 Report and the 1619 Project represent a long-standing cultural division in this nation in determining a civics curriculum. Conservatives highlight the written principles of the American revolution and believe that emphasizing our nation’s dependence on slavery is a deliberate slight to honoring our civic heritage. Liberals insist that slavery created civic institutions and a culture that still divides our country along racial lines.
The challenge is to teach students how government functions and how democratic principles that are the foundation of our unique republic must guide government functions to administer justice fairly to all citizens. The current efforts at promoting civics education focus primarily on the mechanics of governing.

Civics education is fragmented and incomplete
According to The Center for American Progress, only nine states and the District of Columbia require one year of U.S. government or civics. Thirty-one states only require a half-year of civics or U.S. government education, and ten states have no civics requirement. Since decisions are made by each state or school district, there is no required national coordination on fundamental principles or topics to be covered by civic classes.
The constitution leaves public school education in the hands of the states. Consequently, there is no federal jurisdiction to make civics a requirement or identify what the subject matter should be. Federal financial aid only amounts to 8% of the total cost to run the nation’s public schools, according to national data collected for the 2017-18 school year. The remainder of the funding is about evenly divided between educational districts and states. Most K-12 federal funding goes to the most economically vulnerable students through the National School Lunch Program and the Title I program. The money goes for social assistance, not educational programing.
To reach some standard measurement of civic education, 17 states require high school students to pass the U.S. citizenship exam before graduation. Unfortunately, the exam is heavy on dates and minutiae. It does nothing to measure comprehension of the principles underlying our republic.
Other states take more of a hands-on approach by allowing credit for community service, although almost none require it. Only Maryland and the District of Columbia require community service and civics courses for graduation. Surveys have shown that states with the highest rates of youth civic engagement tend to prioritize civics courses. Ten states with the highest youth volunteer rates have a civics course requirement for graduation.
Nonprofits have stepped up to expand the discussion to include the principles of seeking social justice as part of our heritage. One of the most significant collaborative efforts is an alliance of 36 nonprofit, nonpartisan organizations that formed the Civics Renewal Network, which grew out of the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania. Their primary function is offering free online classroom resources for civics education, much of it available for teachers through the one-stop website www.civicsrenewalnetwork.org.
Another successful effort has been iCivics which offers free lesson plans, games, and interactive videogames for middle and high school educators.  By 2015, the iCivics games had 72,000 teachers as registered users, and its games had been played 30 million times.
Sandra Day O’Connor, whom President Reagan appointed to the Supreme Court, left the iCivics organization as her legacy. Unlike many other efforts, iCivics is committed to unveiling the larger context around institutional racism, saying “that civic education must be transparent and explicit about racism if we want young people to engage civically as partners going forward.”

Teaching Civics Nationally Will Not be Easy
By far, the most ambitious plan underway to bring a reasoned approach to teaching civics is the Educating for American Democracy Roadmap. It is sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities and the U.S. Department of Education. The roadmap is not a national curriculum nor a set of instructional standards. Instead, it recommends approaches to learning civics.
The Educating for American Democracy initiative involves over 300 academics and educators. An executive committee of seven, including the executive director of iCivics, Louise Dubé, coordinate the effort. They have an ambitious plan to reach 60 million students by 2030 and provide them with access to high-quality civic learning opportunities. Over 100,000 schools have been designated as “civic ready” with a Civic Learning Plan and resources to support it.
This effort places civic lessons in the context of our country’s complex cultural history that championed liberty and freedom while still enslaving people for over 200 years. Changing culture is a thousand times more difficult than changing politicians and even governments. However, instead of preaching a singular view, this initiative encourages debate and exploring the need for compromise to make constitutional democracy work.
While this roadmap may serve as a template for teachers willing and able to teach civics, it is still a long way off from establishing any federal standards or recommendations for topics to be covered in civic classes. The last time that was tried, in 1994-1995, the Senate rejected the National History Standards proposed by the National Endowment for the Humanities/ U.S. Department of Education by a vote of 99 to 1.
In line with tradition, Trump said that the federal government should protect and preserve State and local control over their schools and curriculums. His administration opposed imposing a national curriculum or national standards in education.
But Trump went further by rejecting the Common Core curriculum, which state governors and school districts created, not the federal government. The curriculum specified what students should know at each grade level in the fields of math and reading. Since 2010, 41 of the 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia had adopted the curriculum. Although, as of 2015, five states had repealed Common Core, and additional state legislatures were repealing its use in their state.
States were encouraged to adopt the Common Core by the feds providing waivers from the No Child Left Behind Act. However, that act was replaced by the Every Student Succeeds Act in 2015, which prohibits the federal government from coercing States in any way from adopting the Common Core and any similar academic standards. Unless that law is amended or a new one passed, there will be no required national curriculum for teaching civics in public schools. Efforts to share a common civics standard will continue to be limited to nonprofits encouraging states and school districts to coordinate their efforts.
Improving our civics education is no easy task. Our country’s federal model delegates power to the states to control public education. The word “education” appears nowhere in our constitution. Within their boundaries, only states can mandate a civics curriculum. Teaching civics that promote democratic cultural values, such as tolerance and inclusivity, would have to be approved by state legislatures, many of which are currently limiting access to the ballot box.
Federal government democracies worldwide face a similar challenge, although all democracies need to teach civics. Charles Quigley, the Executive Director of the Center for Civic Education, summarized that need. “Democracy requires more than the writing of constitutions and the establishment of democratic institutions. Ultimately, for a democracy to work, it must lie in the hearts and minds of its citizens. Democracy needs a political culture that supports it.”
We need citizen-led organizations to work together to strengthen our political culture and to lobby state legislatures.  Our founding principles must be aspirations and guide our daily lives in being more tolerant and respectful of others. Suppose we can couple those principles with providing knowledge on the nuts and bolts of how our democracy works. In that case, we should be able to avoid future insurrections based on Twitter-born conspiracy theories.

How Can Hate Speech, Conspiracy Theories, etc., be Banned on Social Media?

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Written by Nick Licata | Originally posted on the Medium on 4/13/21


 

trump-paper

The legal answer to that question depends on how the courts treat the status of social media providers. The political answer depends on who and what you want to ban? The fragile Democratic control of Congress faces a steep challenge in passing legislation to answer these questions. And they must get the courts to accept their solution as not infringing on First Amendment rights.

Let’s look at regulating free speech on social media from the perspectives of the courts and Congress. The first is concerned with legal precedents, the latter with the politics of passing legislation. But both are about determining who will exercise political power in defining what can of free speech is allowed on the internet.

            The Courts Perspective 

Two years ago, in March 2019, the Congressional Research Service issued an analysis of Free Speech and the Regulation of Social Media Content.  Quite simply, social media sites provide platforms for content originally generated by users. According to the CRS review of court decisions, social media has been treated “like news editors, who generally receive the full protections of the First Amendment when making editorial decisions.” In effect, these private companies can remove or alter the user’s content and determine how content is presented: who sees it, when, and where.
For instance, the major social media players, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube banned or suspended Trump’s accounts because they determined his accounts increased the risk of violence after inciting protesters to march on the Capitol. Data would seem to back up that concern.
Before Trump was banned, research by a global human rights group Avaaz, and The New York Times, found that during the week of November 3, there were roughly 3.5 million interactions — including likes, comments, and shares — on public posts referencing “Stop the Steal.”
Erik Trump and two right-wing bloggers accounted for 200,000 of those interactions. After that period and before January 6, Trump was the top poster of the 20 most-engaged Facebook posts containing the word “election,” according to Crowdtangle. All of his claims were found to be false or misleading by independent fact-checkers.
Facebook has also banned many other accounts. One of the largest groupings consists of anti-vaccination sites which post a wide range of baseless or misleading claims about vaccines and covid. Facebook removed more than 12 million pieces of content, including false narratives about covid-19 being less deadly than the flu and that it is somehow associated with a population-control plot by philanthropist Bill Gates. To date, no social media user posting this misinformation has succeeded in forcing the media services to carry their anti-vaccine messaging.
Most recently, SCOTUS (The Supreme Court of The United States) unanimously moved to vacate a lower court ruling which found that former President Trump violated the First Amendment. He had blocked people who had criticized him in the comment threads linked to his @realDonaldTrump Twitter handle.
However, Justice Clarence Thomas voiced his concern in a 12-page opinion, saying, “We will soon have no choice but to address how our legal doctrines apply to highly concentrated, privately owned information infrastructure such as digital platforms.” Conservative columnist George Will seconded Thomas’s concerns, without identifying a solution. Both seem to imply that conservatives are not getting a fair deal on these platforms.
Conservative’s concerns about being discriminated against could be addressed by treating these social media giants, and perhaps other providers, as common carriers like licensed broadcast companies.  Based on this designation’s past application, providers could be at legal risk if they refuse to post a users’ material, such as misinformation or hate speech.
A more restrictive classification would result if they acted as a state actor. That would occur if they served as an open public forum that mimics a government-like function. According to CSR’s analysis, under this designation, that entity would have to protect its users’ free speech rights before making any editorial changes.  In other words, users of the platforms would have a First Amendment constitutional guarantee of free speech, leaving providers little wiggle room for denying a user access to the public.
If the providers remain as private companies acting as an editor of publishing other’s works, the case is harder to make that the First Amendment applies to the users. This is because constitutional guarantees generally apply only against government action, not private actions.
As social media sites continue to ban or suspend users who are posting misinformation that endangers public health or incites violence toward others, such as hate speech, the Supreme Court is more likely to be drawn into that discussion. They will have the last word determining how much the government can regulate social media without violating the First Amendment.
Aside from what SCOTUS may do, Congress is already in the process of drawing up legislation to address the many non-constitutional users claims that the courts reject because of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. That law provides immunity to providers as long as they act “in good faith” in restricting access to “objectionable” material.

            The Political Perspective 

At the crux of any congressional action is Section 230, which says that content creators, referred to as users, are liable for the content they post online. Therefore, hosts are not liable, such as Facebook, Twitter, Google, and other major social media platforms. There are exceptions for copyright violations, sex work-related material, and federal criminal law violations, but no one is contesting these exemptions.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation calls this section “the most important law protecting internet speech.” Because the courts treat these private companies as editors, they can create rules to restrict speech on their websites. For instance, Facebook and Twitter have banned hate speech, even though hate speech is protected under the First Amendment.
Section 230 garnered the attention of both former President Trump and now President Biden. In April 2018, Trump signed the FOSTA bill, which was intended to fight sex trafficking by reducing legal protections for online platforms. However, no evidence has surfaced that the law has diminished online sex trafficking.
Two years later, following a kerfuffle with Twitter, Trump released an executive order in April 2020 which asked regulators to redefine Section 230 more narrowly, bypassing Congress and the courts’ authority. Trump also encouraged his federal agencies to collect political bias complaints, which conservative groups had been making. The agencies’ findings could justify revoking a sites’ legal protections.
After Biden was elected, Trump pushed for complete abolition of Section 230, even threatening to veto the National Defense Authorization Act unless it included a repeal of the law. Biden is also not a fan of Section 230. As President-elect, Biden favored revoking Section 230 completely, saying in January 2020 that Facebook and other social media sites are “propagating falsehoods they know to be false.” As of April 11, Biden has not proposed any legislation.
Congress has not been sitting on the sidelines. While Presidents Trump and Biden suggested revoking Section 203, lawmakers instead aim to eliminate protections for specific kinds of content. They also question how social media algorithms have been used to attract more eyes to a platform without concern for the misinformation and the hostile political environment they help create.
The chief executives of Facebook, Google, and Twitter appeared before Congress during the Trump administration and did so again in March 2021 during the second full month of Biden’s administration. In the past, congressional members were interested in anti-trust issues, child sex abuse, and prostitution ads.
This time it was different. Facebook Inc’s Mark Zuckerberg, Sundar Pichai of Alphabet Inc, and Twitter Inc’s Jack Dorsey were aggressively questioned by Democrats on how they handled misinformation and online extremism. Republicans continued to accuse the companies of censoring conservative voices. Strangely very little was said about Trump being banned from their sites. Republicans also demanded that the tech companies protect children and teens from cyberbullying and social media addiction.
Rep. Mike Doyle (D-Pennsylvania) attacked the social media giants for using algorithms that promote attention-grabbing disinformation. He said, “You are picking engagement and profit over the health and safety of users. Your algorithms make it possible to supercharge these kinds of opinions.” A Next TV reporter wrote that a former Facebook exec told House members at a hearing last September that their site, at least in the past, was designed to promote content that drives engagement, even if it was misinformation, conspiracy theories, and fake news.
Other Democrats also focused on reducing the platforms’ incentives for promoting attention-grabbing content, including disinformation and misinformation.
At March’s hearing, Rep. Anna G. Eshoo (D-Calif.) discussed her bill, the Protecting Americans from Dangerous Algorithms Act. It would amend Section 230 to remove tech companies’ protections from lawsuits when their algorithms amplify content that leads to offline violence. As written, the restriction would only apply to platforms with 50 million or more users. The Parler website, which has only 20 million users as of January 2021, would be excluded, and it has a significant user base of conspiracy theorists and far-right extremists. While this legislation has over a dozen Democratic co-sponsors, as of March 23, there were no Republican co-sponsors listed.
However, two significant pending pieces of legislation have bipartisan support pending in the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation.
The Platform Accountability and Consumer Transparency (PACT) Act is co-sponsored by Sens. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) and John Thune (R–South Dakota).
The PACT Act imposes new obligations on platforms based on their revenue and size. It requires them to maintain a complaint system, phone line and produce a transparency report. It also requires users to make complaints in good faith. Consequently, providers would be permitted to filter complaints about spam, trolls, and abusive complaints. And providers would have to review and remove illegal or policy-violating content promptly to receive Section 230 protections.
The other pending legislation is the  See Something, Say Something Online Act of 2021. The co-sponsors are Sen. Joe Manchin (D-West Virginia) and Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas).
It would require interactive computer services to report suspicious transmissions that they detect and show individuals or groups planning, committing, promoting, and facilitating terrorism, serious drug offenses, and violent crimes to the Department of Justice. Providers would have to take “reasonable steps” to prevent and address such suspicious transmissions. Failure to report a suspicious transmission would void their use of using Section 230 as a defense from being liable for publishing one.
There may well be more legislation introduced given that there is bipartisan sentiment to tighten regulations, particularly on the social media platforms that appear to monopolize that medium. But Republicans and Democrats differ in their priorities. Republicans have emphasized fighting issues like sexual exploitation and various addictions on social media while taking less interest in stopping political misinformation concerning elections, covid-19, and vaccinations. Democrats have those issues in reverse order of priority.
I expect that Republicans will use former U.S. Attorney General William Barr’s letter to Congress in September 2020 to guide what changes to pursue in Section 230. Barr acknowledges that this section enabled innovations and new business models for online platforms of social media.
He makes several suggested adjustments, some are reasonable given as he notes,  “many of today’ s online platforms are no longer nascent companies but have become titans of industry.”  The largest digital platforms dominate markets; Facebook has roughly 3 billion users, and Google controls about 90 percent of the market in its field.
Barr captures the fundamental political tension in regulating social media’s ability to select what to post. He writes: “Platforms can use this power for good to promote free speech and the exchange of ideas, or platforms can abuse this power by censoring lawful speech and promoting certain ideas over others.” This last condition captures the Republican’s belief that social media has discriminated against conservative ideas.
However, a recent poll shows that while majorities in both parties think political censorship is likely occurring on social media, this belief is widespread among Republicans. Ninety percent of Republicans and independents who lean toward the Republican Party agree with this view. And 69 percent of this group say major technology companies generally support the views of liberals over conservatives, compared with 25% of Democrats and Democratic leaners believing that the industry is biased in favor of conservatives.
Researchers have found no evidence to support these conservative grievances. “I know of no academic research that concludes there is a systemic bias – liberal or conservative – in either the content moderation policies or the prioritization of content by algorithms by major social media platforms,” said Steven Johnson, an information technology professor at the University of Virginia McIntire School of Commerce.

Moving Forward

Some adjustments in moderating content are needed and supported by both liberals and conservatives, Republicans and Democrats. As I have shown above, their perspectives do not agree on what type of bias needs to be addressed. Section 230 will most likely be amended and not discarded. Without some liability protections, our significant social media infrastructure on the web would be in chaos. But to continue with the current situation will only continue to generate the spread of conspiracy theories and political violence.
The bi-partisan legislation so far introduced will make some minor adjustments. They will clarify the responsibilities of both the hosts and the users on the platforms. However, they should go further in setting up a process or establishing a nonpartisan body to expedite the adjudication of any disagreements regarding the veracity of a user’s material.
These types of legislative solutions will lessen the necessity of SCOTUS entering into the fray. Their intervention would be the least desirable path to take in this era. Given the court’s ideological composition, their decision will most likely subject to attack as being biased. It would likely result in a more divisive political climate and fuel the growth of conspiracy theories.

Media Monopolies Amplify Conspiracy Theories

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Written by Nick Licata | Originally published 3/28/21


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NBC News

While Congress was in session, the Capitol’s violent invasion illustrates the power of conspiracy theories to grip average Americans.

 

The FBI believes that most who violently broke into the Capitol were convinced that the election was stolen from President Donald Trump. Studies of those rioters (see The inspired terrorists …were your neighbors) concluded they were largely middle-class ordinary Trump supporters who were inspired mainly by extremist narratives and conspiracy theories.

At the heart of any conspiracy theory is that some group secretly controls the government to manipulate our lives. That belief goes back to the beginning of our nation.

 

Past conspiracy theories have shaped national politics

 

One of the earliest significant conspiracy theories was in opposition to President Andrew Jackson’s re-election in 1832.  Jackson, the founder of the Democratic Party, was accused of following the Masonic Order’s directions. The Masons are a secret society whose membership at that time consisted mainly of wealthy North-Eastern businesspeople. Many Constitutional Convention attendees, and three presidents, Washington, Monroe, and Jackson, were Masons.  Conspiracy theorists formed the Anti-Masonic Party, which eventually evolved into the Whigs and then the Republican Party. I guess one could say that a conspiracy theory gave birth to the Republican Party.

The most recent conspiracy theory shaping our national dialogue goes back to the 1950s with McCarthyism and the John Birch Society. Both U.S. Senator Joseph R. McCarthy

and the Birch Society made unfounded accusations that a vast communist conspiracy existed within the U.S. government. Many federal employees and elected officials, including

Republicans, like President Dwight D. Eisenhower and Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren, were accused of being in cahoots with it and hence were disloyal to the nation. This logic is a similar accusation that President Trump and his supporters levied against those not accepting that Trump won the election.

 

 

Media monopolies have the biggest megaphones for shaping public beliefs

 

Freedom of the press is guaranteed in our constitution. It is understood to mean that the government does not control it. Anyone can publish what they wish in the marketplace of ideas. However, the constitution is silent on what happens when a few hawkers dominate the marketplace, and the free press is effectively narrowed to those controlling the most presses.

When analyzing the relationship between public media and the government, the role of social media providers, like Facebook and Twitter, must be considered separately. The Congressional Research Service issued a legal analysis of how federal courts and laws extend special protections from lawsuits, which are not available to public media. Consequently, I will not discuss how social media providers relate to media monopolies and conspiracy theories.

With that issue put aside, the owners with the most presses have more eyes viewing their newspapers, T.V. networks, cable stations, and listening to their radio stations. In essence, they have the freedom to create and distribute information that could be fictitious or slanted to benefit their own financial and political interests. Two examples of this practice stick out: one from a hundred years ago and the other occurring today.

William Randolph Hearst’s newspapers made money and built readership by promoting sensationalist and distorted news. His efforts whipped up the public sentiment to help cause the Spanish-American War of 1898. At his peak in 1935, he owned 28 major newspapers and 18 magazines and several radio stations, movie companies, and news services. His total readership amounted to about 12 – 14 percent of the entire daily newspapers’ readership in the mid-1930s.  In 1936, he accused President Roosevelt of being a Socialist, Communist, and Bolshevik and carrying out a Marxist agenda.

Hearst is a mere blip on the scale of Rupert Murdoch’s media empire. In

2000, Murdoch’s News Corporation owned over 800 companies in more than 50 countries, with a net worth of over $5 billion. Among his newspaper holdings are the Wall Street Journal and the New York Post. His T.V. flagship is Fox News, which according to Statista, the combined number of primetime viewers for CNN and MSNBC were only 81% of Fox’s share in Q4 2020. According to Nielsen Media Research, in 2020, Fox had its 19th consecutive year as the number one cable news network in total day and primetime viewers. Commentators on Fox receive some substantial credit for convincing 70% of Republicans that Biden and radical-socialist Democrats stole Trump’s election.

 

Legislation has helped create media monopolies

Over the last forty years, Congress and Presidents have contributed to the consolidation of media ownership and weakening the public’s access to balanced news reporting. The federal government had provided a more level playing field among the media owners. Thom Hartmann points out in American Oligarchy,the telecommunications laws from the 1920s and 1930s kept most newspapers, cable systems, internet providers, and radio and T.V. stations locally owned to prevent oligarchs from asserting singular control over information and news across our nation.”

In other words, laws made it a bit more difficult for them to use the free press to benefit their financial interests. The monopolies use their press as a powerful megaphone, which is as good as a large donation to a political campaign, and it is not reportable.

For instance, Ronald Reagan’s campaign team credited Murdoch’s paper, The New York Post, for his victory in New York in the 1980 United States presidential election. Once in office, Reagan “waived a prohibition against owning a television station and a newspaper in the same market.” Murdoch directly benefited because it allowed him to continue to control The New York Post and The Boston Herald while expanding into television

Reagan then vetoed a Democratic preemptive attempt to codify the Federal Communications Commission’s Fairness Doctrine into legislation. Afterward, he had the FCC abolished it. The Doctrine was established in 1949 to “devote broadcast time to the discussion and consideration of controversial issues of public importance.” In 1949, the FCC issued a report that established broadcast licensees’ duty to cover controversial issues in a fair and balanced manner. The Congressional Research Service identified the Doctrine’s essential requirement to be that broadcasters “devote a reasonable portion of broadcast time to the discussion and consideration of controversial issues of public importance” and “affirmatively endeavor to make … facilities available for the expression of contrasting viewpoints held by responsible elements with respect to the controversial issues.” However, it only applied to broadcast licenses, not cable, satellite, and Internet platforms.

A further slide into enabling the growth of monopolies was the Telecommunications Act of 1996. President Bill Clinton enthusiastically signed after the Telecom industry lobbyists had spent tens of millions of dollars on both parties’ legislators getting the bill to Clinton’s desk. Hartmann concludes that the Act “wiped out those protections for local media, turning our nation’s cable systems, internet service providers, newspapers, and radio and T.V. stations over to a small handful of media oligarchs.”

The result was an acceleration of concentrating the ownership of media outlets. In 1983, 90% of U.S. media was controlled by 50 companies; as of 2011, 90% was owned by just 6 companies, and in 2017 the number was 5.

The spread of conspiracy theories has consequences

Because of their broad reach and centralized editorial command, media monopolies supply oxygen to spreading conspiracy theories to the public.  They attract more viewers/readers than just reporting boring factual news. Conspiracies don’t cost much to produce. Once some bare-bones facts are tossed into the narrative, no further research is necessary. Think of conspiracy theories as clickbait for attracting anyone wanting to know who is behind the screen manipulating the truth.

Consequently, there is less need for real journalists doing investigative reporting. Brier Dudley, the Seattle Times Free Press editor, mentions a 2018 study that found declining local political news coverage reduces citizen engagement. The decline in local coverage is due in large part to the dramatic reduction in newsroom staffing.

According to the executive outplacement firm Challenger, Gray, and Christmas, in 2019, there was a record loss of 16,160 newsroom jobs lost, a 200% increase in losses over a year. And Pew Research Center reported on top of that; the previous decade saw a 51% loss. The cumulative effect is that opinion-makers have replaced paid journalists over this period in print and even more widely in social media. News based on journalistic ethics is being replaced by opinion leaders who pick portions of facts that support their position.

This trend is that the difference between facts and opinions is blurred, and trust in all media and government sinks. According to the 21st annual Edelman Trust Barometer, (January 2021), which measures confidence in institutions, Americans’ trust in the media and government has fallen to a historic low.

However, business is the only institution perceived as both ethical and competent, with more than half in the Edelman survey (53 percent) believing corporations are responsible for filling the information void. There is a slight irony here that some corporations benefit from conspiracy theories that significantly reduce government oversight of corporate activities.

Another significant survey found similar results. A report assembled by Gallup and the Knight Foundation surveyed 20,000 Americans in the three months before Covid 19 hit America. The report found that roughly three-quarters of the respondents believe the owners of media companies are influencing coverage. Fifty-four percent said reporters intentionally misrepresent facts, and 28 percent believe reporters make the facts up entirely.

Nevertheless, news media is either critical or very important for a functioning democracy, according to 84 percent of Americans. That need is not being met if conspiracy theories undermine the public’s trust in our government and mainstream media. Knight Foundation’s senior vice president Sam Gill, said the report’s findings revealed shattered confidence in America’s news media and were “corrosive for our democracy.”

Laws fighting misinformation can lead to authoritarian governance

The U.S. faces a challenge in sustaining our media’s independence from government control while serving our citizen’s desire to have reliable factual based news media. The trend for the last four decades has seen the concentration of ownership in the media that distributes anti-democratic conspiracy theories.

But to fight this trend, we must avoid what Hungary’s parliament, dominated by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz party, adopted. With a vote of 137–53, they passed a law to allow the government to jail for up to five years “anyone who intentionally spreads what the government classifies as misinformation.”

This law resulted from Orban’s financial allies creating a vast propaganda machine to enable his Fidesz party to retain control of the nation’s government. In 2019, a team of European Union NGOs specializing in press and media freedom reported on how Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s government has been treating the press. They concluded that without introducing the overt authoritarian laws that Russia and China have instituted to censure their media, Orban had constructed a pro-government media empire. As a result, large parts of the public are denied access to critical news and reliable information. An uninformed electorate can easily be swayed by who has the loudest megaphone.

So, what steps are needed to avoid Hungary’s draconian legislation and still hinder a political party or a nation’s leader from colluding with media monopolies to overshadow access to reliable news to the public?

Legislation can diminish the extent of conspiracy theories

            Congress is considering proposals to address some issues that have contributed to the spread of conspiracy theories. One of them is the downward trend in the number of journalists and outlets in the print and digital media platforms that had produced original local journalism. U.S. Reps. Ann Kirkpatrick, D-Arizona, and Dan Newhouse R-Wash. have proposed the Local Journalism Sustainability Act (HR 7640). It was introduced in July 2020; as of November, it had 78 co-sponsors (20 Republicans and 58 Democrats).

Although it might seem odd that Republicans support this legislation, its primary thrust is to provide economic incentives to help publishing businesses. The bill allows individual and business taxpayers certain tax credits for the support of local newspapers and media. Specifically, individual taxpayers may claim an income tax credit of up to $250 for a local newspaper subscription. The bill also allows local newspaper employers a payroll tax credit for wages paid to an employee for service as a journalist and certain small businesses a tax credit for local newspaper and media advertising expenses.

The Missouri Press Association representing 229 newspapers in Missouri, which is approximately 99.5% of all newspapers, strongly supports the Local Journalism Sustainability Act. Their Executive Director of the Missouri Press Association, Mark Maassen, spoke at a public forum noting that “nearly 36,000 employees and newspapers have been laid off, furloughed, or have had their pay reduced during this (Covid 19) crisis.”

He strongly recommended that its members contact their members of Congress in support of the legislation.

With over 99% of local papers in Missouri supporting the legislation, Missouri Republicans may find it awkward to oppose it. All but one of their six Republican congressional representatives objected to the certification of the election results in conformity with the election was stolen conspiracy theory. Will they vote to eliminate local jobs or be influenced by the media monopolies to oppose it?

U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash, the Senate Education Committee’s new 2021 chair, issued a report in October 2020. It recommended that a limited antitrust exemption from Congress be granted to news publishers to allow them to collectively negotiate for better terms with the tech platforms. Senate Bill 1700, the Journalism Competition and Preservation Act, which was introduced in 2019, would allow for that. The News Media Alliance trade association, representing approximately 2000 newspapers and multiplatform digital services, helped write the bill.

The bill currently sits in the Senate Judiciary Committee. It has significant bipartisan support, with both Senators Mitch McConnell [R-KY] and Sherrod Brown [D-OH] becoming co-sponsors of the bill in 2020. One of the most ardent believers that the election was stolen from Trump is Senator Josh Hawley of Missouri. He sits on the Committee and will have to vote to pass it out of the Committee or not. The Missouri Press Association could play a role in moving him to vote it out of Committee. Former Democratic presidential candidates Cory Booker and Senator Amy Klobuchar and the new Georgia Senator Jon Ossoff are part of the Committee’s membership. Their combined high national profiles could mobilize support for this senate bill and the related House Bill (HR 7640). Chairman Dick Durban will decide when to bring it up to a vote.

The bipartisan support for both the House and Senate bills must argue that the nature of maintaining a free press has been handicapped with the introduction of new social media technology, which has lower labor costs and reaches a broader audience. The result is that they have fatter profit margins for distributing opinions instead of distributing news based on facts and in-depth research.

Another change would be to resurrect the Federal Communications Commission’s Fairness Doctrine that required stations to “program in the public interest.” It required an equal division between local and national news. More importantly, stations that aired “editorials” from owners or management had to be balanced by an outside source with a different perspective. Those changes would have to be initiated by the FCC. Currently, the commission is evenly between Democrats and Republicans. Biden will appoint another a fifth commissioner to give the Democrats a majority.

 

In Summary

 

The above legislation and regulatory changes will require a significant public education effort to overcome resistance from an expected well-funded lobbying campaign by the media monopoly owners. Even if these measures are passed, it will require ongoing monitoring of the media to assure that these minimal steps to provide balanced reporting are followed.

Failure to pass these laws or enforce them will result in the continued unchecked proliferation of conspiracy theories being broadcasted throughout the public media. As we have witnessed, that practice foments fractionalization of our national principles and distrust in a democratic society.