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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. 

classroom stock

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


mediamonopolies

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.

 

The inspired terrorists who invaded the Capitol were your neighbors!

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Written by Nick Licata | Originally published 3/7/2021


 

image1

 Photo credit: Sebastian Portillo/Shutterstock.com

The major networks and cable news channels largely ignored research findings showing who were the “incited terrorists” that invaded the Capitol. Instead, they focused on those who had “planned” the violent break-in. While the FBI considers both groups to be domestic terrorists, research shows the “incited” people may be your neighbors.
Both the liberal and conservative TV media covered the event by asking who was responsible for organizing the attack and for not properly preparing for it.
The liberal stations tended to focus on the more clearly identified militant terrorist groups, like the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers as the on-site leaders. After vehemently criticizing the siege of the Capitol, the conservative commentators managed to accuse the Democrats, particularly House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, for failing to protect the Capitol from the Trump rioters. They made little mention of the various right-wing militant groups that were in front of the mob.
Before reviewing several studies that identify who the insurrectionists were, it’s essential to realize the level of danger to our democracy that January 6 presents in the long term. FBI Director Christopher Wray’s testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday, March 2, provides a needed perspective on that danger. Wray was appointed by President Trump and is a registered Republican. He is no liberal.
He said that the FBI considered the behavior of those who illegally entered the Capitol to disrupt Congress as criminal activity and viewed their actions as “domestic terrorism.” He told the Senate committee that their actions were “on the same level with ISIS and homegrown violent extremists.”
Republican Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas asked Wray: How about the dangers also from foreign-influenced terrorists? Wray explained the two groups “have a lot in common with each other.” He labeled those that are not inspired by foreign jihadists are domestic violent extremists who are inspired by domestic sources.
Wray did refute Trump and some Republican senators’ notion that the rioters were leftist-terrorists or were disguised as Trump supporters. The FBI had not seen “any evidence of anarchist violent extremists or people subscribing to Antifa in connection with the 6th,” he said. And he added, there was no evidence that there were “fake Trump supporters” in those that stormed the Capitol.
After dispatching those myths, Wray presented a more nuanced depiction of the thousands who participated in the march to the Capitol and invading the building. He said, “there are sort of three groups of people involved.” The largest group were “peaceful, maybe rowdy protestors, but who weren’t violating the law.” They had received minimal attention from the liberal press.
The second group “may have come intending just to be part of peaceful protest, but either swept up in the motives or emotion or whatever, engaged in a kind of low-level criminal behavior. Trespassed, say on the Capitol grounds, but not breaching the building.” He viewed them as taking the opportunity to engage in criminal conduct but were not violent. Their activity would still be addressed, but he was in no hurry to do so.
He said the third group is the smallest numerically. They were the people who breached the Capitol grounds and engaged in violence against law enforcement in an attempt to stop Congress from conducting their constitutional responsibilities. Some came with plans to engage in violence that the FBI considers domestic terrorism; others were “inspired” to attack the Capitol and had didn’t have membership in an organization.
I believe the third group should be seen as two clusters. One cluster consists of “strategic terrorists” who were the ones who came with a plan to DC. The second cluster would become “inspired terrorists,” who may not have planned what they would do once they arrived in DC like those in the second group. But like 70% of Republicans, they firmly believed that Trump had won the election.
President Trump addressed this cluster of supporters while Congress was in the middle of confirming Biden as president, telling them that the election is about to be stolen. His invited speakers told the crowd it’s time to fight. Aren’t these the conditions for inspiring those listening to stop, at any cost, what they saw as an illegal transfer of power?
Two important studies have been recently released that takes a closer look at the insurrectionists’ makeup, and one looks closely at who makes up the MAGA Movement. Together they point to something that the TV commentators didn’t dwell on; there is a growing domestic anti-democracy movement. Before addressing how pro-democracy proponents should respond, it is best to understand what the studies reveal.
A study by Robert Pape, a political-science professor at the University of Chicago, and Keven Ruby, Senior research associate of the Chicago Project on Security and Threats, supports the view that average citizens acted as inspired terrorists. The Chicago study found that more than half of the arrested Capitol rioters came from President Joe Biden’s counties in the 2020 presidential election. And Biden won the fewest total counties – of any president-elect. “Most people thought right after the insurrection that these insurrectionists are coming from the reddest parts of America. That’s just not the case,” Pape said.
In February, the Chicago study analyzed 193 people charged with being inside the Capitol building or breaking through barriers to enter the Capitol grounds. However, keep in mind that there were roughly 800 people who entered the Capitol, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has opened more than 400 case files and 500 grand jury subpoenas. There may be many more inspired terrorists to be charged.
The researchers in reviewing court documents described the majority of those investigated as “normal Trump supporters—middle-class and, in many cases, middle-aged people without obvious ties to the far right.” They joined extremists to form a violent mob “in an attempt to overturn a presidential election.”
Meanwhile, those charged who had some connection to gangs, militias, or militia-like groups such as the Proud Boys, Oath Keepers, and Three Percenters made up only one-tenth of the Capitol arrestees the researchers studied. The rest of the arrestees had no connection or previously expressed support for those groups. Overall, some 85% of the Capitol rioters who were studied were employed, and about 40% were business owners or held white-collar jobs.
In early March, a research report was released as the Preliminary Assessment of the Capitol Hill Siege Participants by the Program on Extremism at the George Washington University. Its findings were similar to the Chicago Project’s, although they reviewed more court records of people charged in federal courts for their involvement. The broad demographics of the 257 investigated revealed that their ages averaged in the forties. There were 221 men, 86%, 36 women, 14%, and they came from 40 states, 91% coming from outside the DC metro area. And 33 had military backgrounds.
This study divided those charged into three categories. The smallest (12.8%) represented the apex of organizational planning by domestic violent extremist groups for and on January 6They fall into the category of “militant networks.”
The next largest category (33%) consists of “organized clusters,” which are small, close-knit groups of individuals who allegedly participated in the siege together. They were comprised of family members, friends, and acquaintances. The study found that they were “Inspired by ideological fervor,” and that they “lacked top-down direction from a domestic violent extremist organization but jointly coordinated their travel to DC in groups of like-minded believers.”
The largest category (55%) are the “inspired believers” who were “neither participants in an established violent extremist group nor connected to any of the other individuals who are alleged to have stormed the Capitol.” Nevertheless, they did participate in the siege of the Capitol and were criminally charged. They were “inspired by a range of extremist narratives, conspiracy theories, and personal motivations.” They would belong to Wray’s smallest group and would be the same as the inspired terrorist cluster that I described. They would also be what the Chicago study found to be middle-class normal Trump supporters.
The Panel Study Of The MAGA Movement, conducted by Christopher Sebastian Parker, Professor, University of Washington, and Rachel M. Blum, Assistant Professor, University of Oklahoma, is a more extensive, in-depth completed survey of 1,981 MAGA supporters. The survey was conducted just before and right after January 6. It was designed to assess the attitudes and behavior of the people who consider themselves part of the “Make America Great Again” movement.
Details on data collection and sampling methods are provided here. In brief, their findings are aligned with those of the other two studies.  The MAGA movement’s demographic composition is overwhelmingly white, male, Christian, retired, and over 65 years of age.
The survey showed that MAGA supporters are attracted to groups that include gun rights, charities, pro-police, anti-lockdown, pro-life, and “stop the steal.” They’re extremely politically active, all support the Republican Party. However, only about 60 percent are solid Republicans; the rest either “lean” Republican or Independent. The vast majority blamed Antifa for the Capitol Riots, not Trump. Parker and Blum concluded that the MAGA movement is a clear and present danger to American democracy.
When a democratic government loses the middle class’s trust by believing in conspiracy theories, we see normal folks supporting radical anti-democracy solutions. The demographics of those that tried to overthrow Congress’s functions on January 6 reflect the same significant portion of the German population that abandoned its Weimar Republic and the Social Democrat Party, which had been Germany’s largest party.
The pro-business middle class and small business owners repeatedly voted for putting Germany’s National Socialist Party into power in the 1930s. Similarly, that same population has been a strong Republican constituency. In Hitler’s Social Revolution: Class and Status in Nazi Germany 1933-1939, David Schoenbaum notes that the entrepreneurial middle classes were the Nazis’ leading political clientele as the Nazis’ railed against the government and big business.
A large radicalized anti-democracy movement’s potential is likely to remain even if Trump diminishes his control over the Republican Party. However, the actual number of politically active people in that movement may still be relatively small. For instance, the best estimate of the total number attending the multiple Trump rallies and marches is between three-thousand and ten-thousand, according to Stephen Doig, a data journalist and journalism professor at Arizona State University.
The 2017 Women’s March (440,000 people) and the 2018 March for Our Lives demonstration (200,000 people) were massively larger. If the size of a rally or a march matters, many more citizens are willing to demonstrate their support for the democratic process than attack its legitimacy. With the FBI recording an increase in domestic terrorism, there a growing trend to attack the government’s legitimacy.
FBI Director Wray said that while some of the Capitol riot defendants have apparent affiliations with white-supremacist ideology, many defendants appear to have been motivated by anti-government ideologies. Within the MAGA Movement, an anti-government philosophy is pursued through a network of people and organizations associated with the Trump campaign. One example is Rebecca Mercer – who founded Parler; which is a major site for posting far-right content, antisemitism and conspiracy theories, like QAnon.
What percent of the millions in the MAGA movement might be inspired to repeat the January 6 attack on the Capitol if they had a leader they trusted, like Trump. Short of that, they could continue to support voter suppression measures that narrow the voting poll to mostly white voters. This would erode democracy to the point of being a mere façade of what it proposes to be. As the Chicago study said, “Targeting pre-2021 far-right organizations alone will not solve the problem.” We have to reach those who are potentially inspired terrorists.
Congress needs to pass legislation to reverse our media’s increased monopolization, including social media, so they are not used as weapons against our democratic governance. And there must be greater outreach to our youth and all citizens in understanding how citizenship works in a democratic society to protect everyone’s interests.
In future pieces, I will discuss how these two objectives are currently being addressed and what further steps to take to make them useful and lasting.

Thom Hartmann takes on ‘The Hidden History of American Oligarchy’

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Written by Nick Licata | Originally published on 2/11/21


The Hidden History of American Oligarchy

Syndicated talk show host and bestselling author Thom Hartmann returns with a new book, The Hidden History of American Oligarchy — Reclaiming our Democracy from The Ruling Class.

This book is the latest in Hartmann’s Hidden History ten-book series. He analyzes the most significant political, social and economic obstacles of today by placing them in a historical context.  And, for each, he provides tangible calls to action to address them.
          American Oligarchy is a short, pithy book, easy to dive into and read. I spoke with Hartmann about his book’s analysis of the past, current, and possible future struggles to keep our democracy alive.

Q. You begin your book by saying, “Democracy is the rule of, by, and for the people: oligarchy is the rule of, by, and for the rich.” You recount how America has had times when an oligarchy almost obtained complete power over the nation. The first followed the cotton gin’s invention, which gave birth to a “rigidified oligarchy that eventually challenged the power of the nation itself.” That threat led to the Civil War.
You see outgoing President Donald Trump as part of today’s oligarchy. On Jan. 6, Trump incited his supporters to invade the U.S. Capitol. Are we on the verge of another Civil War?

A. I think not. History tells us that civil wars almost always come out of a failure of governance. When the government can no longer provide for the people’s basic safety and needs, a giant vacuum is created to spread conspiracy theories, fringe parties, secessionist movements, and, ultimately, civil wars. The U.S. headed in that direction under Trump because he had gutted government services and federalized local police. The Biden administration had stopped that drift, well before we got to consider a civil war.

Q. A second turning point in stopping an oligarchy from running the country was when the Great Depression led straight to the New Deal and major anti-oligarchic reforms. Is the growing information technology industry, including social media giants, contributing to another oligarchy ascendancy?

A. Yes. If you look at the tech revolution, which started in the 1980s, and looks at past tech innovative improvements, there are huge similarities. They initially brought on greater widespread wealth, a larger middle class, and increased wealth concentration. But they all created a new norm, where the less-skilled folks fell out of the labor market.
For instance, the Industrial Revolution had produced the Roaring ’20s, which saw the top 10% become wealthier. Meanwhile, the wages below them went down during that same period, leading to the Great Depression and World War II. Those crises were resolved mainly by the Roosevelt administration’s economic and social reform policies.
The tech revolution that started in the 1980s resulted in more low-paid workers and a concentration of wealth at the top. The middle class saw their wealth expand for one or two generations. However, their prosperity is now shrinking as the new form of production has become more common to operate. When the middle class hurts, conspiracy theories grow.

Q. If the Biden administration can make the same kind of changes that the Roosevelt administration did, the middle class’s financial condition should improve significantly and stop America’s oligarchy from expanding. History shows that many countries have come under the control of a ruling oligarchy. Can America be an exception?

A. We were the first country in the world founded on an idea rather than genetics. Although there was a large component of genetics, you don’t find it in the Constitution or the documents of the [Founding Fathers]. They intentionally dismissed or de-emphasized it because they were aware that they were taking on a giant experiment. They learned from the Roman and Greek democracies’ experiences and from what they knew from the Native American communities.
Then they based America on the ideas of John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, that man can govern themselves. While it has been imperfectly implemented, it’s such a cool and contagious idea that in the 200 years since our founding, nearly half the world’s countries have adopted that idea. But we have to work to keep that idea alive.

Q. About half of Americans voted for Trump. Why don’t they see him as part of the oligarchy? They believe his policies are benefiting them. Does this attitude hinder building support for democratic values?

A. Most voters are single-issue voters. They don’t view the broader issues. Republicans understand this better than the Democrats because the Democrats keep looking at policies, while the Republicans are looking at constituents. Republicans pitch the most important issue for each group. For instance, anti-gun control rhetoric for folks wanting to keep their guns, or anti-abortion talk for pro-life religious groups, and so on. Each group ignores everything else.
If we can make democracy a single issue for voters, we can defeat oligarchies. For instance, longtime Republican Steve Schmidt, who was Sen. John McCain’s presidential campaign manager, is now a Democrat because he doesn’t care about any other issue other than saving our democracy.

Q. What do you mean when you say that Trump and his Republican supporters are “planted in the soil of neofascism and tyranny”?

A. This is not just about the individual behavior of a particular politician. Fascism is the merger of corporate and state interests, which exhibits belligerent nationalism. We have witnessed a past president and a political movement that fostered fascism. President Andrew Jackson and Vice President John C. Calhoun empowered fascism in the Southern United States.
The America First [Committee] was a huge fascist movement in the [the 1940s], with hundreds of thousands of members. Trump’s actions also move toward concentrating money and political power in the hands of the few. I devote the last part of my book to what specific steps we can take to break the oligarchy and restore democracy. We defeated those past efforts, and we can do it again.

Biden’s Biggest Challenge Stems from Inheriting Trump’s Legacy: More Countries Wanting Nukes

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Written by Nick Licata | Originally published on 1/29/21


NuclearWeaponsReady

Nuclear-Weapons-Ready-To-Launch courtesy of Campaign For Nuclear Disarmament

Former President Donald Trump had placed the United States on the runway to take off on another nuclear arms race. Trump threw out two treaties that held Russia and the U.S. in check. It also deterred other nations from developing nuclear weapons over the last thirty years.
President Joseph Biden cut the throttle by agreeing to a five-year extension with Russia on their remaining nuclear arms treaty: the New SALT Treaty. But that single act is not enough to keep the U.S., Russia, and other countries, from flying off to seek security in possessing nuclear weapons. There must be a plan.
First, a quick review of the Trump administration’s actions is in order. On August 2, 2019, the United States formally withdrew from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. It required the United States and the Soviet Union to verifiably eliminate all ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges between 500 and 5,500 kilometers. With these range restrictions, missiles from Russia’s furthest western and eastern boundaries could not reach the lower 48 states or Hawaii.
The 32-year-old treaty initiated an intrusive inspection regime, including on-site inspections, to maintain compliance. Over the past decade, the United States and Russia have charged the other country with not complying with the INF Treaty. Trump decided to “terminate” the agreement accusing the Russians again of noncompliance. As a non-sequitur, Trump also said he had concerns about China’s missiles. China is not part of the INF treaty; that concern could have been dealt with separately.
In May of this year, Trump said he was also pulling out of the 30-year-old Treaty on Open Skies. That treaty has reduced the chances of an accidental war between Russia and the United States by allowing reconnaissance flights over the two countries. Trump accused Russia once again of not complying with a treaty.
In this instance, he added that “… there’s a very good chance we’ll have a new agreement or do something to put that agreement back together.” The national security adviser, Robert C. O’Brien, issued a statement saying that the Trump administration would try to reach a new arms-control agreement with Russia and China. However, Trump left office without putting anything on the table to show the Russians or the Chinese.
President George W. Bush started to walk away from nuclear-arms treaties before Trump. In 2001, he withdrew the U.S. from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (ABM) with Russia. Bush sought to build a massive missile defense system.
Ironically, three former Republican presidents successfully negotiated the three nuclear-arms treaties that Trump and George W. Bush dumped: President Nixon on the ABM, President Reagan on the INF, and George H. W. Bush on the Open Skies. However, since President George W. Bush, most Republicans in Congress have not shown interest in avoiding a nuclear-arms race.
The passage of the New START (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty) under President Obama in April 2010 is a perfect example. While the Senate approved it by 71 to 26, over two-thirds of the Republicans voted against it. Even so, the current START pact, which Biden would extend, has been endorsed by six former secretaries of State who worked in Republican administrations and by past presidents from both parties.
On his first full month as president, Trump criticized the New START treaty as a “one-sided deal” and a “bad deal.” That position was undermined by an aggregate data report published by his State Department, which may have been removed from the website where it was to be posted. That report showed that the treaty was working and that both countries kept their strategic nuclear arsenals within the treaty’s limits.
This year Trump said he was trying to negotiate a shorter extension for New START than the five-year option built into the treaty to be approved by both countries. Russia’s legislative body, the Duma, has approved the five-year extension.
Meanwhile, Trump had failed to do so because he tried to include China in the treaty, as had tried to do in the Open Skies Treaty. China refused, and Trump’s envoy wasted months trying to change their mind. Biden’s team has kept their eye on the ball. It’s Russia, not China.  Biden officials have said that Moscow’s arsenal “is at least ten times the size of China’s.”
Biden’s approval of the extension does not need the Senate’s approval. But if the treaty is amended, it could be considered a new treaty subject to a two-thirds vote for Senate approval. And that would not have happened unless the new treaty dramatically conformed to any conditions the Republicans demanded.
Biden’s decision to extend New START avoided real consequences that Trump would have invited by scuttling the last strategic nuclear arms treaty with Russia. First, it would have allowed both countries to deploy an unlimited number of nuclear-armed submarines, bombers, and missiles.
Second, by significantly growing our nuclear arsenal, federal funds could be diverted from rebuilding our crumbling infrastructure. Third, it would have encouraged non-nuclear weaponized nations to begin to develop them. The Washington Post reported that American military leaders recognize this danger and supported the New Start Treaty.
But those dangerous trends remain real possibilities. Biden must publicize them enough to build support for promoting a national campaign to reduce the chance of a nuclear war. That may be the only way to overcome congressional Republican’s reluctance to negotiate any arms agreements.
With more than 10,000 nuclear warheads on Earth, avoiding nuclear war is an issue recognized by the international community. U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres videotaped a message saying, “Nuclear weapons pose growing dangers, and the world needs urgent action to ensure their elimination and prevent the catastrophic human and environmental consequences any use would cause.”
To that end, the first-ever treaty to ban nuclear weapons entered into force on January 22, President Joe Biden’s first day in office. The U.N. General Assembly initially approved The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons in July 2017. But it did not become adopted as international law until 50 countries ratified it, and as of today, there are now 62.
Officially it bans nuclear weapons. However, none of the nine countries known or believed to possess nuclear weapons — the United States, Russia, Britain, China, France, India, Pakistan, North Korea, and Israel — support it. Neither does the 30-nation NATO alliance support it.
This treaty has good intentions, but without any authority to enforce it, a replay of what happened after World War I is certain. At President Wilson’s insistence, the League of Nations’ creation was codified as part I of the Versailles Treaty ending the war. The League was a “general association of nations established to afford mutual guarantees of political independence and territorial integrity of all nations…”
Even with those guarantees, the U.S. Senate refused to have the U.S. join it. If it had, nations belonging to the League would still have ignored its disarmament objectives since they were based entirely upon “goodwill.” There was no enforcement mechanism. Such is the case with the current treaty prohibiting nuclear weapons.
However, one existing successful treaty does not have an enforcement mechanism and is a multinational agreement. The treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) went into force in 1970. One-hundred ninety-one nations are party to the treaty, including five who have nuclear-weapons. What keeps it going is that there is a review of the treaty’s operation every five years.
The underlying success of the NPT has been an understood bargain that the non-nuclear states would not develop the bomb in exchange for the existing nuclear weapons states reducing and ultimately eliminating their arsenals. As a result, Michael O’Hanlon, the Director of Research at Brookings Institute, states that current nuclear arsenals are only about one-fifth the size of what they were a half-century ago.
Nevertheless, the U.S. and Russia are still the central nuclear-weapons states, accounting for more than 90% of the total number of warheads on Earth today. None of the other seven known nuclear-weapons states, including China, has more than 300. North Korea has the smallest amount, approximately between three and five dozen.
The danger now is that our current political climate is moving away from reaching compromises. The lack of getting them creates an unstable environment and contributes to the spreading of nuclear weapons. Trump removing the U.S. from the INF treaty and the Iran Treaty, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), has contributed to this condition.
Robert Einhorn, a Senior Fellow in Brookings’ Foreign Policy Division, believes that not only are the NPT’s disarmament goals at risk but now there are fears that the number of nuclear-armed states could increase.
Einhorn believes that if the U.S. does not return to JCPOA, Iran will consider leaving the Non-Proliferation Treaty. In response, the Saudi crown prince says the Kingdom will acquire nuclear weapons if Iran does. Then we have President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan asking why other countries’ have nuclear weapons, and Turkey has none.
Meanwhile, Trump’s one-on-one relationship with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has not produced any positive changes. In fact, the Congressional Research Service issued a January 2021 report that said, “Recent ballistic missile tests and an October 2020 military parade suggest that North Korea is continuing to build a nuclear warfighting capability designed to evade regional ballistic missile defenses.”
Biden must avoid weakening existing treaties, which could lead to a free-for-all race to build nuclear weapons. He needs to reassert the U.S.’s role as a leader in negotiating new nuclear-arms treaties. Four presidents successfully played that role, Nixon, Reagan, H.W. Bush, and Obama. Our last president just walked away from that leadership role. Biden has the opportunity to make once again the U.S. the voice of reason in reaching complicated treaties.
The first step to grabbing the world’s attention would be to re-engage with other nations in making the Iranian treaty work better for everyone. If we remain on the sidelines, skirmishes between countries could lead to multiple nations seeking to possess nuclear weapons.
Without treaties, those conflicts could trigger nuclear wars. We are not an island. We will suffer if there is any use of nuclear weapons. The cost of lives to us will be many times greater than what we endured with the covid pandemic.

The Big Lie Strategy for Grabbing Political Power.

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Written by Nick Licata | Originally posted on 1/2/21


 

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Thousands of supporters of Sen. Joseph McCarthy (R-Wisc.) filled the lower sections of Madison Square Garden in New York on Nov. 29, 1954, rallying to his cause. (AP)

The big lie shaking this nation for the past seven weeks is that Trump won the election by a landslide. It is a lie. President Donald Trump and his many lawyers have not produced even a shred of evidence to support that claim before our judicial system.
No court has found substantial fraud or miscounts in any of the 60 lawsuits Trump and his allies have brought before them. Eighty-eight state and federal judges, appointed by members of both parties, came to those decisions. Chris Krebs, who was appointed by Trump to head up Homeland Security’s Security Agency, tweeted that “59 election security experts all agree, ‘in every case of which we are aware, these claims have been unsubstantiated or are technically incoherent.” After that tweet, Trump fired him.
According to a New York Times analysis, Trump’s allies did not even formally allege fraud in more than two-thirds of their cases. And yet, Trump has almost daily repeated the same lie that millions of more voters cast their votes for him over former Vice President Joe Biden.
A significant portion of our citizens do not see Trump’s declaration as a lie. Polls show that seventy to eighty percent of self-identified Republicans believe that he did win the election or that it was stolen from him. That group now includes at least one Republican from the House of Representatives and one from the US Senate, who will challenge Biden’s lawful election.
Their actions are Trumps’ last attempt to strip Biden of electoral votes when Congress meets in a joint session to officially accept each state’s electoral vote tally. What has historically been a ceremonial procedure, having taken less than 30 minutes at times, may now drag on for a half-day or more.
Sen. Josh Hawley’s (R-Mo.) challenge is not raising allegations of widespread fraud, but that Pennsylvania failed to follow their own mail-in voting rules. It’s the same claim that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court dismissed. In its ruling, the court said that the plaintiff’s request to throw out some 2.5 million mail-in ballots was made after the votes had been tallied and their preferred presidential candidate lost the state.
Trump tweeted cheerfully Sunday evening Dec. 27, “See you in Washington, DC, on January 6th. Don’t miss it.” He will inevitably lose the vote because there is still a plurality of congressional Trump supporters who do not wish to destroy the Republican Party or our election process to appease him. However, it will force every Republican in the House and Senate to go on the record affirming or denying Biden’s win. Trump has threatened to punish the Republicanswho do not support his claims when they come up for re-election.
How did we get to this place in the history of our republic? No president has ever denied that the election was lawful. No sitting president has ever refused to recognize the newly elected leader of the nation, claiming that it was impossible for them to have lost, like President Trump has claimed.
There are two underlying beliefs among Trump supporters that have sustained the lie that Trump won the election. The first belief is that all politicians lie. So, what if he does lie a bit, it’s just another politician telling lies. The Democrats are exaggerating his statements because he’s doing what we want done not what they want done. The second lie that Trump supporters believe is that the Democrats cannot be trusted to protect our freedoms since they are radical-leftists who want to convert America into a socialist country.
Let’s dive into each of these beliefs and see how they square with what we know for certain.

All Politicians Lie – So What?       

Politicians do often lie, or more likely exaggerate what they will do, or what their policies can do.  Critics have attacked both former President Barak Obama and current President Donald Trump for not telling the truth about their signature pieces of legislation, the Affordable Care Act and Build the Wall.  Each is guilty but in different degrees.
Obama said something to the effect “If you like your health insurance plan, you can keep it.” OK, so there wouldn’t be any change – right? Obama was not specific enough, at least in that quote, as to how ACA would work.
Obama was “truthful” to the extent the ACA maintained the employer-based health insurance system through which a plurality of Americans is covered.  If you add those, at the time, on Medicare, Medicaid, VA, and public employee plans, the vast majority of people would, truthfully, be able to keep what they have. Those details were explained in public by Obama’s staff and were in written form for all to observe. While that quote was inaccurate, the truth was not hidden. The details were available to the public and publicized.
In comparison, Republicans argue that Donald Trump, as a presidential candidate kept his promise that he would build a wall between our country and Mexico. He said we are in an emergency situation, however, the number of people crossing into the US from Mexico is down 90% from 2000. How do you have an emergency when the apparent threat to our security has been shrinking, not expanding? Is that a lie or just an exaggeration?
When Trump launched his presidential campaign in June 2015 he promised, “I will build a great, great wall on our southern border and I’ll have Mexico pay for that wall.” He repeated that promise at his rallies. Since his election, the southwest border wall was extended from 654 miles of primary barriers to 657 miles as of this past summer – that’s right, 3 miles.
That’s because as of late June 2020, 184 miles of dilapidated primary barriers were replaced with updated fences. And an additional twenty-nine miles of new or raised structures were built on the secondary barriers, which back up the primary walls. All-weather border patrol roads, lighting, cameras, and other surveillance technology were also added. However, Mexico has not contributed a dime to this project, while American taxpayers have contributed over $4 billion on border barrier planning and construction. Was it a lie that Mexico would pay for the wall? Or was it just an optimistic promise?
There are dozens of politicians from both parties who have made exaggerated and false promises – enough to write a very long book. However, they all were limited to specific policies, programs, and projects. It’s the second type of lie that opens the door to questioning the legitimacy of how a democracy should be governed. The cornerstone of that lie is promoting an exaggerated fear and the government’s inability to provide safety from it.

Big lies promote an existential fear and a belief that our democracy will die unless they win.            

Trump has played the fear card as adroitly as Republican Senator Joe McCarthy did in the 1950s. Both divided the nation between citizens who are enemies and those who are patriots. Enemies are labeled as communists or socialists, with liberals now being called far-left radicals who want to destroy this country. The two Georgian Republican Senators who have embraced Trump’s claims are facing two strong Democratic challengers. The Republican Senators have been running ads attacking the Democrats using these labels.
Historians and popular commentators paint McCarthy as one of the most feared and hated politicians in America. However, Yale history professor Beverly Gage points out that at the peak of his influence, McCarthy boasted a 50 percent approval rating. Gage reminds us that McCarthy, “as with Trump, not everything he said was false, but the constant slippage between truth and lies served to destabilize the national conversation and upend political norms.”
A handful of Republican senators rebuked McCarthy in 1950 in a declaration that McCarthy’s promotion of “fear, ignorance, bigotry, and smear” had turned the Senate into “a forum of hate and character assassination.” The rest of the Republicans silently tolerated him, particularly after they swept to victories in both congressional offices and retook the White House in 1952.
This is a similar behavior we are witnessing today as the Republicans did far better in the congressional races than either they or the Democrats had expected in this year — despite Trump losing the presidential race. Knowing that the core pro-Trump Republican base can determine who will win their party primaries, almost all Republican members of congress have gone mute on Trump’s blatantly false statements. Consider the one he tweeted in all caps on Christmas Eve, “VOTER FRAUD IS NOT A CONSPIRACY THEORY”. Voter fraud is not a conspiracy theory, but Trump claiming that he won by over 7 million votes, is based on his own conspiracy theory.
The Republicans finally censured McCarthy in 1954 when they recognized that he posed a real threat to democratic institutions. He had begun accusing just about anyone of being a communist who did not agree with him, including Republicans. Unlike Senator McCarthy, who was a mere subcommittee chair holding meetings, Trump is President of the United States. He is the leader of the Republican party and holds rallies with tens of thousands of attendees.
Republican Senators did not recognize McCarthy-like behavior when Trump fired or attacked his critics, including Republican governors and senators, who did not support his accusations of election fraud. With very few exceptions, Republican congressional leadership not only refused to censure his action, but many continued to support his fantasy that he won the election.  Or, at least, they argued that he should have won if the system had worked properly.
Through his daily tweets, Trump has commandeered the national theater of politics. His supporters speak off the same script he uses when he exits the stage. Like when McCarthy was censured, Trump will say that a corrupt and self-interested Washington establishment violated the constitution by not stopping Biden from stealing the election.
Historian Gage foresees that no matter how much Trump may recede from the media, the “tens of millions of Americans whose identities and aspirations are wrapped up in …Trumpism” will continue to influence our nation’s future. She does not mention that their continued influence will depend on sustaining and spreading the belief that our democracy is dying. It is a belief that is shared by both the far right and the far left.  The far-right argues that Biden stole the election. The far-left believes elections are not worth the effort to participate in. Both move toward believing that no federal election is fair.
There is an element of truth in recognizing that there is no perfectly fair election. But to argue that all elections are corrupt and stolen because they are unfair is to promulgate a lie, as much a lie as Russia’s Putin claim that his nation’s elections are democratic. Civic leaders and politicians across the spectrum must not succumb to ignoring the facts and replacing them with unsubstantiated beliefs. They must speak out and protect our election process and not toss it out when their candidate does not win. That is the only way to sustain our democracy.
As Hannah Arend wrote in her Origins of Totalitarianism, people become subject to tyranny when they can no longer distinguish “between fact and fiction” and when the differences between true and false no longer exist.

Is a fascist movement developing here?

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Written by Nick Licata | 12/17/20


 

 

After Joe Biden won the presidential election, there has been a proliferation of right-wing Trump rallies. Is this a movement to discredit our democratic institutions?

ProudBoys

Proud Boys march during a rally for President Trump on Saturday in Washington. (Evelyn Hockstein for The Washington Post)

Since the media declared that former Vice President Joe Biden won the presidential election, right-wing Trump rallies have declared that the election was a fraud and Trump’s win was stolen from him.

Historian Timothy Snyder in his book “On Tyranny” argues that institutions preserve our decency. They do not protect themselves. They fall if citizens do not protect them.

The Trump-appointed Director of Cybersecurity, Chris Krebs, was fired because he announced the vote across the nation “was the most secure in American history.” Krebs has since filed a lawsuit charging that Trump has initiated a campaign of intimidation, retaliation, and threats against Republicans.

Those are the Republicans who as state officials administered their elections. Trump attacked them for refusing to back up his unsubstantiated claims of massive election fraud. The national leadership of the Republican Party did not step forward to protect them. They were silent.

Trump, as president of our democratic republic, should be our national leader in citizenship. Instead, he has repeatedly refused to recognize that every judge he has asked to overthrow Biden’s victory, including judges he appointed as true conservatives, has concluded that his claims of fraud are baseless.

A couple of thousand pro-Trump anti-election protestors marched and rallied in Washington D.C. on Saturday, Dec. 12, two days before the electoral college made the president’s loss official. Washington Post journalists described them as maskless rallygoers cursing the Supreme Court, President-elect Joe Biden, and even Fox News for not recognizing Trump’s victory. Trump tweeted his support of the demonstration, “Wow! Thousands of people forming in Washington (D.C.) for Stop the Steal. Didn’t know about this, but I’ll be seeing them! #MAGA.”

Police estimate that the crowd included about 700 Proud Boys wearing their colors of yellow and black, with a number of them dressed in body armor and helmets. Trump had previously asked them to “stand down and stand by,” hinting that he may need them to engage in some sort of physical struggle to assist him. The Proud Boys were reported to have marched through downtown in military-like rows, shouting “move out” and “1776!” At some point, they burned a “Black Lives Matter” banner belonging to the Black community’s historic Asbury United Methodist Church.

Despite the Proud Boys being accused of damaging four Black churches in DC, strong Christian beliefs appear to sustain Trump’s campaign to overturn the election. Addressing the gathering, conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, the host of Infowars, spoke of God and how Joe Biden “will be removed one way or another.” Another speaker, Black right-wing podcaster David Harris Jr., said if there were a civil war, “we’re the ones with all the guns.” Harris is a devout Christian who rails against authoritarian statism, secularism, and socialism as threats to a free society.

Protestor Ruth Hillary, 58, a pastor from California, is a prime example of the spirited foot soldier in Trump’s camp. In an interview with Washington Post reporters, she said she would continue protesting and holding up her sign, “Stop the Steal”, as long as the president believes she should. If he accepts a defeat, then she would too, “But right now, this is a Godly protest.”

Trump has founded and propagated an anti-democratic populist movement that appears more loyal to him than to our democracy. His supporters repeatedly proclaim that they are simply defending our constitution. But the verbal defense of a constitution or a republic, without acknowledging that both are sustained through a stable democratic process, is not enough to avoid moving toward tyranny.

One can trace this faulty, if not devious, strategy back two thousand years when Caesar Augustus became Rome’s first emperor without ever proclaiming that he was. Instead, he took the title of first citizen, assuring the Senate that his efforts were to save the republic, not to terminate it. We know how that went. The republic died and never returned.

In the period between the two world wars, fascism was created by Benito Mussolini, who had become disillusioned with socialism. Like any ideology or “ism” there will be many competing definitions. But in the end, all ideologies have a cluster of features that describe them.

Author and professor Eco Umberto provides a list for fascism in his 1995 essay titled Ur-Fascism (Eternal Fascism). He begins by noting that fascism creates a cult of tradition which leads to a belief that there is no need for additional learning, the truth has already been spelled out. Tradition is elevated to the point of conflicting with the scientific approach of critical thinking. Using a verifiable truth to argue against a traditional but unproven truth is seen as the work of a liberal intelligentsia betraying traditional values.

Consequently, we see protestors opposed to: (1) wearing face masks to mitigate the spread of the covid-19 pandemic because it’s just like the flu; or (2) reducing industrial pollution to avoid climate change because the climate is always changing: and (3) accepting verified election results because it’s impossible that a Democrat campaigning from a basement office could get more votes than a president drawing in tens of thousands to his rallies.

Umberto sees fascism as seeking to build a consensus by exploiting and exacerbating the natural fear of difference. In other words, it is an appeal against the intruders, those who are new to our community, like immigrants, or who have been here but are seen as different, like people of color.

Those divisions easily lead to separating the general population into either deserving or undeserving communities. This is an attitude that has historically appealed to a frustrated middle class, and I would add a working-class as well, particularly when suffering an economic crisis or feeling politically humiliated. The economic crisis of the working class has been unfolding for over forty years as its members’ wealth and standard of living has at best stagnated, if not shrunk. And, who likes to be called a deplorable or an un-woke, ignorant person?

Another feature of fascism that is relevant to today’s political environment is what Umberto describes as an obsession with a plotThat would be the conspiracy of the Deep State that predates President Trump and can be traced back to the John Birch Society that saw communists everywhere, including Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower.

The conspiracy of communists still lives on for Georgia Republican Senator Kelly Loeffler. She has repeatedly referred to her Black Democratic opponent Rev. Raphael Warnock as “radical liberal” often adding socialist to the label and accusing him of supporting communism. To the average Georgian voter, being accused as a communist is as close as it gets to being a national enemy. The Trumpite movement has been described as populist, but Umberto sees fascism as promoting popular elitism. Those that belong to it are the best citizens, those that do not are considered the enemy, whether accused of being a communist, a radical, or a liberal.

The above features that Umberto identified as conditions that could lead to a fascist movement are certainly present. Many if not most of them have been in America for a long time. But we have not before now had a significant homegrown fascist movement dramatically threatening our democracy. I think that is largely due to the durability of our citizens’   belief in our democracy. While politicians will come and go, those we like and those we don’t, we believe that the electoral system will continue to function. That is why democracies are a threat to authoritarian leaders.

A fascist movement above all opposes democracy. When the authoritarians took over Russia, Germany, and Italy, the first thing they did was to either abolish their legislative bodies and their independent judicial system or take them over with ideologically acceptable functionaries. Trump’s ability to throw out a legitimate election is hindered by not having an organization large enough and strong enough to do either. He could personally intimidate only so many Republicans.

Still, the Republican Party is currently under his sway, particularly at the federal level. So much so that 126 House Republicans signed onto an amicus brief submitted in the Supreme Court case seeking to overturn Biden’s victory. The most conservative Supreme Court in the past seventy years unanimously rejected Trump’s appeal.

As I wrote before, he will still try to overturn the popular vote when the electoral votes must be counted by Congress. And he will fail, even though his White House advisor Stephen Miller told Fox News that “an alternative” group of electors was voting in the contested states and were sending “those results to Congress.”

Trump’s final loss will not stop him from fanning opposition against our electoral process. Are his actions contributing to an emerging fascist movement? There’s not a real movement, yet. At this point, there are no organized national paramilitary groups like the Free Corps that existed in Germany after WWI, but from the beginning of our nation’s founding, there has been an anti-democratic subculture.

However, at times a political personality emerges who taps a well of discontent that cares less about how a democracy should work.  Donald Trump did it brilliantly, according to former long-time Republican strategist, Rick Wilson, author of Running Against the DevilTrump exploited the grievance culture with messages that have powered past fascist movements, “Everyone is coming to get you.” and “You will be punished for not believing the right things.”

The task of defeating fascism requires addressing these messages through understanding the problems of all communities and working with them to arrive at workable and just solutions. That approach will take determination, persistence, and time in order to sustain our democracy. These are tasks that both parties must pursue.

Trump’s Last Chance – Pence Counts the Electoral Votes

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Written by Nick Licata | 11/25/2020


 

The last avenue available to Trump for winning the election is using the Electoral Count Act of 1877. This law puts Pence in the driver’s seat.

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EVAN VUCCI /  AP

Conservative journalist Geraldo Rivera told Fox News on Sunday, Nov. 22, that he had talked to President Donald Trump the previous week. He described Trump as a realist and a proud person who will finally concede once all the avenues to reversing the results of the election have been closed.

The catch, however, is that his vice president, Mike Pence, could keep one last avenue open for a Trump win. It would seemingly be legal and playing by the rules. It would also violate our democratic norms but, as I have written elsewhere, Trump’s politics discard them — to the detriment of our republic’s stability.

The last avenue available to Trump is using the Electoral Count Act of 1877. This law mandates how electoral votes are counted by Congress following a presidential election. It would allow Pence to throw the election to Trump. It would be the final ploy, as his two other strategies — court challenges and rogue Republican legislatures — are failing.

His first strategy was to get Biden’s vote count reduced through court rulings. So far, Trump’s lawsuits have failed to overturn Biden’s popular votes in any state. Trump has lost or withdrawn 22 challenges to the voting procedures in courts around the country. He has slowly retreated from pursuing legal cases in five swing states that Biden won: Nevada, Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin.

The remaining lawsuits are likely to face the same fate as the recently decided one that challenged Pennsylvania’s election results. There, the conservative District Judge Matthew Brann — who was a former chair of the county Republican Committee and active in the Federalist Society and the National Rifle Association — wrote in his decision that Trump’s campaign had used “strained legal arguments without merit and speculative accusations” in trying to negate the millions of Pennsylvania votes that had already been counted.

Trump’s second strategy was more convoluted and even less likely to succeed. He appealed to Republican-controlled state legislatures in key states to conclude that Biden’s majority popular vote in their state was a result of fraud and therefore not legitimate.

The Trump Campaign had hoped to replace Biden’s electors with ones supporting Trump. But Republicans in at least Michigan, Georgia, and Arizona legislatures, at this writing, have rejected Trump’s allegations of massive fraudulent voting. The leaders of these legislatures have all maintained that their elections were as fair as any in the past and that Biden’s win should be certified.

Nevertheless, these defeats have not deterred Trump from still claiming he won the election. On Monday, Nov 23, after he allowed Emily Murphy, head of the General Services Administration, to finally gave Biden access to the normal transition information that a president-elect would receive, he tweeted, “Our case STRONGLY continues, we will keep up the good fight, and I believe we will prevail!”

There is only one path left for Trump to win. It depends on the fact that Mike Pence will be the presiding officer of a joint session of both Congressional houses on Jan. 6, 2021.

His task under the Electoral Count Act is to announce the electors from each state that have been won by each presidential candidate. This procedure occurs in every presidential election and is usually a mere formality.

However, the Electoral Count Act describes how that count should proceed when there are competing slates of electors being sent to Congress from one or more states. The law has never really been tested.

Commentators throughout history have considered it “very confused, almost unintelligible,” a law that “invites misinterpretation,” its language “turgid and repetitious” and finally with central provisions that “seem contradictory.”

The best example of the act’s inability to deal with what could become a major constitutional fight is its ambiguity as to the solution when multiple slates of electors are sent from a state. In that case, the House and Senate are expected to vote separately on which slate to accept. But the two bodies may or may not agree on whether the slate certified by the governor should count or that no slate should count.

To make matters worse, the law states that in the joint session it would take only one representative and one senator to object to a state’s slate of electors. If the two bodies do not agree, it’s an open question whether the presiding officer (i.e., Pence) of the reconvened joint session could break the tie.

Other details of what is required are not spelled out in the law. For instance, if there is an objection, must there be an alternate slate of electors proposed, and who would have the standing to propose them? Could there simply be an objection asserting that no slate from a particular state be recognized due to an irreconcilable voting irregularity?

The parliamentarian could rule on these procedures, but that ruling could end up going to the Supreme Court, where conservatives hold a 6–3 majority.

The bottom line is that, if Trump truly does not care if the Republican leadership wishes him to concede defeat, he could still tie up the electoral counting process. All he needs are a couple of supporters within Congress to object to the elector slates in enough states to deny Biden 270 electoral votes.

Is this a far-fetched scenario? Perhaps, but then again, have we ever had an incumbent president string out an election when losing by such a large margin in both the popular and electoral votes? The answer is no. This would have been unthinkable. But here we are.