The World Beyond the Tweets

July 25, 2017

News media look for succinct sound bites that encapsulate one’s message. Even so, Bush simplified political language considerably. Things were good or bad, the right or wrong thing to do. When Al Gore confronted him with carefully researched numbers, Bush simply responded that Gore’s was “fuzzy math.” That was a put-down; not an explanation. It gave people no reason to agree or disagree except the bare fact that Bush used a put down.

Even Bush tried to explain some issues in order to get public support. Unfortunately, the weapons of mass destruction claim was false, despite the lengthy explanation and pictures.

Trump clearly learned from Bush. He’s all about unsupported sound bites.  That’s why tweets work – there’s no room for explanations. The world, however, is more complex, and short tweets allow Trump to keep changing the subject, burying thoughtful responses behind a flurry of new issues.

That brings me back to two basic points: First, what he’ll do for you can’t be limited to a tweet. Behind his tweets are claims about what causes what, how things will happen, for whom, whether he will follow through or ever meant to. His tweets bully us to listen only to him, though there is nothing backing his claims. That is truly talking down to the American people, talking to us as if we can’t and don’t need anything to back up his claims.

My second basic point is that the world is more complex than a tweet.

Global warming will be expensive, forcing us to repair or rebuild infrastructure, care for the injured, leave flooded lands and rebuild homes, business, industry and the lives disrupted. It has bred extremism, disease and refugees in Africa and the Middle East by drying fertile land, burning crops, salinating and flooding coastal lands.  Yet Trump backs away from everything that would make it more manageable.

Trump claims global warming is a hoax. But the chemical and physical process by which carbon and methane trap heat and how much heating they force is very well established. Scientists have been measuring atmospheric changes in those greenhouse gasses and changing temperatures on earth with a variety of techniques. They’ve measured the loss of the Arctic and Antarctic ice shelves. So many studies by so many scientists have examined the problem in different ways that their consistent conclusions simply make Trump look like a fool, a sucker or a misanthrope.

One can willfully ignore climate change but the climate doesn’t ignore us. Even now, it’s making refugees of many island nations peoples, pushing families out of their homes in exposed areas of Hawaii, Alaska, New Jersey and Long Island. The climate is aggravating the refugee problem in Africa and creating serious problems for the free world. Storms have hit towns and cities across the country with a fury beyond living memory. Don’t be fooled by the receding waters after Hurricane Katrina made refugees out of New Orleanians and Hurricane Sandy brought New York City to a halt by flooding its subways. Those storms revealed how close we are to creating millions of refugees in our own country and destroying trillions of dollars of investment, jobs, and transportation networks that nourish our entire economy. Trump may ignore it. We can’t.

Leaders who understand the world in its complexity are crucial to our very survival. Like the Founders of America, I think immigration is a net plus, but I understand the feelings of social and economic dislocation. Aggravating the flow of refugees, however, sharpens those feelings of injury and is threatening the very institutions that have united and protected the free world since 1945. Yet Trump’s policies will aggravate the refugee problem and its consequences. This is a very dangerous game, whatever his reasons.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, July 25, 2017.

 


Trump’s Blue Collar Posturing

May 23, 2017

Alfred Lubrano’s father was a bricklayer in Brooklyn. As an adult, Lubrano became a newsman and author. In his book, Limbo: Blue-Collar Roots, White-Collar Dreams (John Wiley & Sons, 2004), Lubrano comments that in the blue collar world, “… there was no such thing as an unexpressed thought.” In the blue-collar world, it’s common to call each other names, to use strongly disparaging language, to describe ideas one dislikes as stupid or idiotic. There are three acceptable responses – suck it up, throw insults back or a punch in the nose. What is not acceptable is weakness. One acts; one does not complain.

It’s clear that much of the blue-collar world recognizes that behavior in Donald Trump and it makes them feel that they are on familiar ground, as if Trump is one of them. Trump has insulted virtually everyone – women, gays, Muslims, the press – and there’s nothing mild about his language. To a blue-collar family, he calls it like he sees it, perhaps because there is no apparent filter in his language, or even any delay. So it sounds like honesty. His language certainly does not convey any sense of sober second thought. He just comes out with stuff or seems to. And that combination of unfiltered strong language seems very comfortable in the blue-collar world.

So it seems very surprising to realize that Donald is also a wimp. Listen to him objecting to criticism: “no politician in history — and I say this with great surety — has been treated worse or more unfairly.” Interesting, that no politician, from Julius Ceaser to Abe Lincoln or John F. Kennedy, all of whom were assassinated, were treated worse, or from Andrew Johnson to Richard Nixon to Bill Clinton, all of whom faced impeachment were not treated worse. But what is more interesting, is that Donald Trump is a wimp. Poor Donald. He has been criticized. People disagree with him. The other party wants to defeat him at the next election. Nobody else has been treated so badly. And Donald wants us to feel bad for him. He wants to be a victim.

In the white collar world, where it is expected that one behave tactfully, speak accurately and show mutual respect, politics feels very rough and tumble. One has to handle criticism that would never be uttered in office politics. One’s statements are constantly twisted and taken out of context. A single procedural vote becomes a proxy for a carefully thought out policy and the bargaining that is part and parcel of the legislative process. But politicians rarely complain about how badly they are being treated – except Donald Trump. “No politician … has been treated worse or more unfairly.” Wow. Joe McCarthy kept charging the Truman Administration with disloyalty, but Donald has been treated worse. Reagan had to deal with charges of delaying the return of the hostages and hearings about his deal with Iran to fund the Contras in Nicaragua in order to get around a congressional ban. But Donald has been treated worse. Bill Clinton had to deal with a lengthy investigation of a clearly consensual sexual act and then an impeachment trial that was the result of a dismissed lawsuit brought against him so that he could be forced to answer wide-ranging questions. But Donald has been treated worse.

Poor Donald. May he find some place much more private than the White House to lick his wounds.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, May 23, 2017.


Polarizing America

January 31, 2017

I’d like to give my spleen a break for a week and talk about some of the dynamics that are polarizing  America, that neither side can solve because the problem is structural. Law has contributed with crucial changes regarding political parties, the media, the draft and residential segregation (which Brown did not prevent). I’d love to hear good suggestions for countering the polarizing effects of those legal changes.[i]

Primaries originally broke up state monopoly parties. We’ve long known that primary elections push candidates apart to appeal to their parties’ most committed voters. After 1968 the primary system became the exclusive method for nominating presidents, pushing the parties further apart.

In broadcasting, three networks controlled radio and television until Congress changed copyright rules, allowing cable television expansion to over a hundred channels, and niche broadcasting to separate audiences. The courts and Federal Communications Commission also killed the Fairness Doctrine, which required broadcasters to present a balanced presentation of controversial issues of public importance. Then Congress made it almost impossible to hold any internet company responsible for even the most outrageous falsehoods published on their systems. Those media law changes made it unnecessary to pay any attention to opposing views. Plus, instead of limiting damages for defamation, as Justice Marshall suggested, the Court gave media much more complete protection.

At the Federal Housing Administration, officials long refused to insure mortgages to African-Americans, regardless of income. That prevented African-Americans from joining the march to the suburbs, drove disinvestment in their existing neighborhoods, and pushed us apart.

The end of the draft has been huge. The military had drafted people without regard to wealth, class, or geography. President Teddy Roosevelt said “the military tent, where all sleep side-by-side, will rank next to the public school among the great agents of democratization.”[2] And indeed the soldiers came home with lifelong buddies from all over America. Arguments about the Vietnam war ended the draft and led to the so-called volunteer army, which doesn’t reach the same cross-section of America. That changed our attitudes toward each other, and how polarized we’ve become.

There were good reasons for the changes to the nominating system, the media, and the draft but the combined price has been to polarize us. Polarization matters. It blocks our ability to listen to each other, even to care about each other. And if we can’t care, the very notion of public welfare, what’s good for all of us, seems like self-pleading.

The market can’t pick up the slack; it fails in many ways. Worse, for market ideologues, democracy, the major counterforce to the market, seems illegitimate. In other words, the stakes are huge – the legacy of our Revolution, our Constitution, and our collective welfare. Somehow, we have to break down polarization, and restore what used to bring us together or find substitutes – for public schools, military service, media that reached across aisles, and integrated housing and communities.

I doubt the cat can be put back in the bag, especially in this polarized environment, but I’d love to hear good suggestions.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, January 31, 2017. For a more extensive treatment, see my Unfit For Democracy: The Roberts Court and the Breakdown of American Politics at 153-67 (NYU Press 2016) or Law and the Polarization of American Politics, 25 Georgia State L. Rev. 339 (2008).

[1] For a more extensive treatment, see my Unfit For Democracy: The Roberts Court and the Breakdown of American Politics at 153-67 (NYU Press 2016) or Law and the Polarization of American Politics, 25 Georgia State L. Rev. 339 (2008).

[2] Quoted in John Whiteclay Chambers, II, Conscripting for Colossus: The Progressive Era and the Origin of the Modern Military Draft in the United States in World War I, in The Military in America from the Colonial Era to the Present 302 (Free Press, Peter Karsten, ed., rev. ed. 1986).


Media Coverage of the Presidential Campaign

June 7, 2016

During this pledge drive, amid disputes about media coverage of the presidential campaign, it’s a good time to review how we got here.

The 19th century press was partisan; every party had their papers. Around the dawn of the 20th century, publishers and advertisers who wanted to reach people on all sides, shaped the era of the penny press and just-the-facts news, with opinion segregated onto separate editorial pages. News was supposed to be nonpartisan. It worked very well when the media put the cruel responses to the Civil Rights Movement into every home in America.

Nevertheless, even while Civil Rights and Vietnam glued Americans to the media, the press was still reeling from self-criticism about how it had allowed the infamous Senator Joe McCarthy to make unsubstantiated charges of treason and communist sympathies without appropriate debunking. And so was born the era of checking with targets for their response.

In broadcasting the FCC enforced the fairness doctrine, requiring balanced presentation of controversial issues of public importance. That sounds better than it was. I learned first-hand when the now defunct St. Louis morning paper blasted the Legal Aid Society there and we met with the editorial board of the afternoon Post-Dispatch. They told us that denials wouldn’t help, and would actually remind the public of the charges. Instead they would – and did – run stories about the good things we were doing.

He said-she said journalism or the more oblique but effective good-story-bad-story journalism could help to inform people on issues they follow closely with open minds. Otherwise it could be more confusing than helpful.

In this era, I believe Irving Kristol, himself a conservative, wrote an article saying the New York Times was both America’s best newspaper and not very good. His point was that reporters weren’t experts in the areas they were covering. Taking a man-in-the-street approach to stories helped reporters write for and speak to ordinary Americans but often at the cost of misunderstanding issues that experts could have untangled.

Sociologist Herb Gans wrote a book explaining that media bias rarely resulted from partisanship but from the ease of newsgathering from a few sources, like the White House, which gave those sources disproportionate access to the press.

By the time their work came out, Woodward and Bernstein had blown Watergate open and everyone tried to copy what we now call investigative reporting. That goes much deeper but involves the reporter or news outlet in examining controversial issues, laying themselves open to charges of bias by anyone who disagrees.

But legal rules changed and cable soon splintered the marketplace for news, now further splintered by digital media. As in the 19th century, Americans can choose what they’d like to hear, see or read and ignore the rest. Everyone can speak to their own choir with thunderous applause. More discerning and complex stories are often ignored or reduced to sound bites.

Donald Trump takes advantage of that by simply announcing his views in outrageous ways sure to catch everyone’s attention. While Joe McCarthy could make unsubstantiated charges without fear of press criticism, Donald Trump uses inflammatory rhetoric to get everyone’s attention above the din of press criticism.

I’m not convinced there is a perfect answer. Every campaign reflects the efforts of a new crop of politicians to game the media approach of their era. And in an effort to be fair, the press tries not to make candidate-specific judgments about how to cover campaigns – including Trump’s – but tries to cover them in standard ways.

If you listen closely on this station you will hear the residue of every method of journalism practiced in America for the last century. There are straight facts, he-said-she-said journalism, commentary, investigative reporting and a plethora of polling and analysis from every direction. This certainly is the thinking person’s station. Thank you WAMC.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, June 7, 2016.


Democracy Amid the Battle of the Oligarchs?

November 16, 2015

The Court recently decided that states can restrict campaign solicitation by judges but only judges. It left all the rest of its protections of economic privilege in place.

Inequality in the United States is making democracy increasingly unsustainable and unlikely. It also seems unlikely that Americans in sufficient numbers will rebel before it’s too late. The gun rights folk will, if anything, protect the current distribution of wealth, and enforce their prejudices. Liberals aren’t sufficiently united – there are race liberals, economic liberals, and big money liberals. That’s a big tent, not a movement. Conservatives believe in democracy in towns they control, and join the attack on giving the ballot to anyone else. They put institutions that they rule – specially chosen tribunals, faceless and ruthless markets – ahead of democratic government, hiding their contempt for democracy behind the claim that government, democratic government, is the problem. So behind all the hoopla of the Tea Party there is a real threat that this government of, by and for the people will perish from the earth.

Then what? At the turn of the last century democracy was rescued from abroad, by unrestricted immigration that turned into a tide of votes – organized by totally corrupt political parties but organized effectively. The corruption temporarily led the wealthy to put cleaning up government ahead of cleaning the pockets of the poor.

But here’s the point, when the wealthy and powerful take control of the whole shebang, political money, jobs, the media, only the wealthy can take it down. That means that democracy will return only when the wealthy battle each other – and when the Gods fight, the heavens rain fire.

What could start such a battle among the wealthy? Kevin Phillips wrote about the way that different national Administrations shifted wealth among sectors of the economy – from mining and manufacturing to oil and finance.[i] So one option is to take sides among the giants. We argue about football teams. Why not fight about who gets wealthy; maybe they can be sufficiently provoked to provide a little democratic space. Remember it was the kings of Spain and Portugal who restored democracy to their domains, not the Republican army.

Short of that, we could play for the patronage of the moneyed people, trying to figure out what little we can do for them so they will brush us the crumbs off their table. Welcome to the so-called democracies of Central and South America, often described as clientilistic democracies by political scientists. Democracies they are not. They are competing bands of hirelings and sycophants fighting for the right to root for the winning team and pick up the t-shirts, ball caps and plastic trophies of victory.

So are you on the oil, gas and pollution Koch brothers team? The casino team of Sheldon Adelson? The financial teams of Warren Buffet or George Soros? The electronics team of Bill Gates? Step right up ladies and gentlemen; it’s going to be a war of the Gods. There’ll be droughts, fireworks, earthquakes, and lots of blood, folks, so get yourselves on the right team.

We could try to pull the Supreme Court off the ramparts of privilege and regain control over the use of money in politics. Or we could hope for the best ‘til Brutus assassinates Caesar – though that could lead to consolidation of tyranny as it did for the Romans.

Can we rally to save the planet and save democracy? As we used to say in Brooklyn, before the Dodgers finally won the Series, “ya gotta b’lieve.”

Steve Gottlieb is Jay and Ruth Caplan Distinguished Professor of Law at Albany Law School and author of Unfit for Democracy: The Roberts Court and the Breakdown of American Politics (NYU Press 2016). He has served on the Board of the New York Civil Liberties Union, and in the US Peace Corps in Iran. This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, November 10, 2015.

[i] Kevin Phillips, Wealth and Democracy (Random House 2002).


Fund Drive Antics

February 3, 2015

We’ve got to keep WAMC going.

Do you realize what could happen if we don’t make it. That would be the time for all the rascals to do their thing because nobody would be watching. The Guv could let those schools have it if WAMC went off the air. Cops would have cover to get their killing done –if WAMC went off the air. Hey Skelos, and Hi-yo Silver, imagine what you could send your rich contributors if WAMC went off the air. Boehner, McConnell – it would be open season without WAMC. No, no, WAMC to the rescue.

Oh my God we’ve got to keep WAMC on the air or Palin will try to sell NY the Brooklyn bridge. There’s no time to lose.

Let’s keep those station chiefs working – there’s news to be reported.

And then there’s my barber – if Alan loses any more of his hair it will put Joe right out of business. Do it for the community. Do it for Alan. Do it for my barber. Let’s have a great fund drive.


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