Saturday, July 25, 2015

Barney Frank may be a Democrat, but he’s no democrat

Barney Frank: he should know better than this.
Former Massachusetts Congressman Barney Frank did a lot of good things in office. He served as a champion for gay rights, as he was the first Congressman to voluntarily come as gay, and the first to marry a same-sex partner while in office. He chaired the House Financial Services Committee, from which position he co-sponsored the Dodd-Frank Act, an important if bureaucracy-laden reform of the financial sector. Known for quick wit and a bluntness his admirers adored and everyone else despised (remember “trying to have a conversation with you would be like arguing with a dining room table” line in a town hall meeting on Obamacare?), Frank was regarded as one of the smartest and most eloquent politicians around.

Even his supporters would have to admit, however, that his cleverness sometimes smelled too much of glibness, pomposity, and privilege, and his ethics were, shall we say, not always beyond reproach. Since deciding not to run for re-election in 2012 and being passed over to fill the remainder of John Kerry’s Senate term when the latter was confirmed as Secretary of State, Frank has become the Democrats’ answer to Sarah Palin: a divisive has-been who can be counted on to say something controversial any time a microphone is within range. And that means that a lot of what he says is utter crap.

Witness, for example, this screed in Politico this week, urging supporters of Bernie Sanders (and, by implication, those of Martin O’Malley, Lincoln Chaffee, and Jim Webb) to be good little boys and girls and roll over and play dead so that the anointed Hillary Clinton can cruise to the nomination and be able to save all the millions of dollars donated to her campaign by her cronies on Wall Street and in the oil business for the general election. Needless to say, he doesn’t use precisely those words, but that is his clear intent.

Like his chosen candidate, Frank is more interested in wielding power than in making the right decision, and, again like HRC, he’s at best amoral about the process. Allow me to paraphrase Frank’s argument: “Finding a candidate the members of the Democratic Party want to support is of little concern. After all, what do they know? We should nominate the obvious choice, just like we did in 2008. Oops. Bad example. I mean, we should nominate the electable one, not the one with actual ideas, like we did in 2004, because that worked out really well. Oh. Well. We should nominate Hillary right now without all that messy input from… you know… voters, because… because I said so.”

Because it’s taken me a couple of days to get to this story, there’s already an excellent response out there from Cristóbal Reyes at Young Progressive Voices. Reyes does an admirable job of countering Frank’s anti-democratic impulses, and doesn’t pull any punches:
It is cynical to believe that hand-picking a candidate is preferable to allowing the people to choose, and egomaniacal to suggest that your allies will object to your truth simply because you had the audacity to speak it, even though there is next to no truth in your words. There is nothing tactical or strategic about it. The arguments are based on falsehood and speculation and protected behind the need for one such as myself to disagree, as if doing so will validate your nonsensical submission.
Still, whereas Reyes doesn’t concede the electability argument, he rightfully acknowledges that the media—occupied mostly by Clintonian faux progressives—are falling over themselves to declare Sanders unelectable. I think they’re wrong. This is not to say I’m predicting a Sanders presidency, but I’d say the only announced candidate on the Democratic side who has literally no chance of being elected President is Jim Webb, and even he might be in the running for VP.  That is, completely apart from the Stalinistic stench of Frank’s thesis, it’s also wrong on the facts.

Frank’s key assertion is this: “There is… no chance—perhaps regrettably—for Sanders to win a national election.” If I might channel Stevie Nicks for a moment, that argument is hauntingly familiar. Where HAS Curmie heard that before? Oh, yeah, it was the riff employed by Hillary Clinton herself (and, of course, the wannabe First Husband) to attract superdelegates when it was becoming clear that Barack Obama was the people’s choice (or, rather, the Democratic voters’ choice) for the Democratic nomination: “he cannot win.” Obama, of course, took 365 of the necessary 270 electoral votes that fall. Oops.

Curmie—in a previous blogging iteration—commented more than once on the 2008 election, specifically with respect to the “horserace” elements of the Democratic nomination process. On April 24, a mere three weeks after Clinton was using electability as an issue, I called on her to drop out of the race for two reasons: the nomination process was de facto over because Obama had a virtually insurmountable lead in actual delegates (as opposed to polls taken over six months before the Iowa caucuses), and because “he generally (admittedly, not always) fares better than Clinton in head-to-head match-ups with Senator McCain.”

Two days later, I posted a state-by-state analysis of which of the two candidates—Obama or Clinton—would have a better chance of winning. The result: a literal dead heat. A couple of weeks later still, when any candidate more interested in the country than in herself would have dropped out and endorsed her fellow Democrat, Hillary Clinton was running a borderline racist campaign, conflating “hard-working Americans” and “white Americans,” and sending the aptly named Harold Ickes out to say that Obama couldn’t win. Here’s Newsweek’s Suzanne Smalley:
[Ickes] stressed that if Obama can't win Florida or Ohio—both states in which he has polled less favorably than Clinton—then states like New Mexico and Nevada will take on more importance. And Ickes suggested Obama can’t win in those places either.
Obama, of course, won all four of those states.

By the way, it wasn’t until June, when the proverbial fat lady had not only already sung but also taken several curtain calls, that then-Senator Clinton finally conceded the obvious and withdrew from the race. It’s more than a little ironic—not to say disgusting—that Clinton minions are now calling on everyone to make way for her candidacy before a single vote has been cast, lest it hurt the party’s chances.

More to the point, just as was the case in the 2008 election, it’s not exactly clear that Clinton is indeed the more electable candidate. Saying it’s so doesn’t mean it’s so, and the evidence is certainly a good deal short of overwhelming. A Quinnipiac poll released this week, for example, shows that in three important swing states, Clinton and Sanders fare about equally well against three plausible GOP contenders—Bush, Rubio, and Walker. All three Republicans beat both Democrats in Colorado, Iowa, and Virginia. Clinton does better against Bush and Rubio in CO and VA, Sanders does better in IA; against Walker, Clinton does better in VA, Sanders in CO, and they’re the same in IA. Pretty much a wash in those terms, with a slight edge to Clinton.

But if we look past that bottom-line number, it certainly appears that Sanders has much better odds of improving his standing. In favorability, Sanders is at a -2 in CO, with a huge 39% not knowing enough about him to have an opinion; Clinton is at -21, with a 56% negative rating. In Iowa, Sanders is at +4, Clinton at -23, again with lots of DK/NA (don’t know/no answer) for Sanders and 56% negatives for Clinton. In Virginia, Clinton’s best state of the three, Sanders is at +1, Clinton at -9; the DK/NAs for Sanders are at 43%, and Clinton has 50% negatives. That gives Sanders an overall +1 between the three states to Clinton’s -18: nearly a 20 point advantage for Sanders.

Sanders is already in plus-territory in two of the three states, and needs only break even there with voters who don’t yet know much about him to stay ahead of Clinton in this metric even if every voter currently undecided about Clinton decides they like her. In Virginia, Sanders needs approval from only a slight majority of IDKs to best her there, as well.

The contrast is even starker in the “honest and trustworthy” metric. Clinton’s numbers are scary: -28, -26, and -16; her best state of the three, Virginia, gives her a 55% negative rating. Sanders? +17, +21, +26. Sanders wins this category by 45 points in Colorado, 47 in Iowa, and 42 in Virginia. Wow. Clinton does do a little better than Sanders in “strong leadership qualities,” averaging a +8 to Sanders’s +7. Anyone want to try to tell me that’s a significant difference?

True, a single poll doesn’t tell us much, especially if, as in this case, it’s not only very early but also likely to be an outlier. The Daily Kos’s Steve Singiser spells out some of the problems with giving too much weight to this data. (Interestingly, Singiser discusses only Clinton’s numbers, seeming to take Sanders’s at face value.) On the other hand, Quinnipiac is a well-respected polling operation, and whereas it’s likely they’re off a little, it’s unlikely they’re totally out in left field. In other words, it probably isn’t true that Clinton averages 54% negatives in the three states, but I’d be willing to bet they’re at least well into the 40s. And I’m virtually certain she’s in negative territory in the trustworthiness metric, too, although perhaps not by more than 20 points.

And there’s a new Gallup poll, too, this one nation-wide. It shows that Sanders has grown in both favorables and unfavorables since March (as would be expected). Meanwhile, Clinton’s favorables dropped and unfavorables climbed, leaving her at an overall -3. Sanders, meanwhile, is at +4, albeit with lower numbers than Clinton in both categories simply because she is better known. Clinton does have a substantial lead among Democrats, with an overall +56, compared to Sanders’s +29, but the ratios are almost identical: Clinton gets a favorable rating 4.1 times as often as an unfavorable one from Democrats expressing an opinion; Sanders is at 3.9. Moreover, Clinton’s positives are down since March among both constituencies who even might vote for her: down 5 points among Democrats and Democrat-leaning independents, down 6 points among non-leaning independents.

Indeed, Sanders is the only Democrat in positive numbers in favorability ratio, and there’s only one Republican, Marco Rubio, who can match Sanders in both raw and net favorability scores (Sanders: 24-20, +4; Rubio: 29-23, +6). Putative GOP front-runner Donald Trump, by the way, checks in at 32-56, -24. That’s the worst in either party by 17 points!

There’s no doubt that Hillary Clinton is the candidate to beat on the Democratic side. But she was eight years ago, too, and we know how that turned out. Indeed, it sort of speaks to desperation on the part of a purported front-runner that she and her surrogates are resorting to electability arguments before voting even starts, especially when the last time we heard about a Clinton primary opponent’s “unelectability,” he got a higher percentage of the raw vote than any Democrat since LBJ. So before we simply gift-wrap the nomination and present it to HRC like a donation to her Superpac, let’s see how those numbers look when more people know Sanders.

This is really about whether the voters are going to get a say or whether we just turn over the process to the power elites. Barney Frank should be ashamed of advocating for the latter.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

The Texas Board of Education, Propaganda, and the Threat to the Future

There have been two big stories in the recent past about the Texas Board of Education. Neither brings good news. Both, in fact, represent an all-out, open carried guns-blazing attack on public education in the state. These particular assaults come from the most frothing-at-the-mouth lunatics of the state’s GOP—the Democrats are terrible on education; the Republicans, by contrast, make them look like Solomon, Confucius, Socrates, Einstein, and Leonardo da Vinci rolled into one. Indeed, it is a rather profound testament to the skill, tenacity, perseverance, and general badassitude of literally thousands of teachers in this state that anyone entering Curmie’s university-level classroom knows literally anything that’s actually true… or the difference between fact and opinion.

Donna Bahorich, the new Chief Propagandist
Chair of the Texas Board of Education
First, Governor Greg Abbott, whose sole raison d’être, as far as Curmie can figure out, is to make us nostalgic for the idiot that is Rick Perry, named Donna Bahorich as the new chairperson of the TBOE. Had it been his desire to find the worst possible person for the job (and, let’s face it, it pretty much was), he could not have done much better.

The Texas Freedom Network (of which—full disclosure—Curmie is a member) is an organization that believes education ought to be a process of developing mental acuities, of refining critical thinking skills, and of distinguishing between actual academic disciplines on the one hand and religio-political mythology on the other. Here’s what their press release has to say about the Bahorich nomination:
If Gov. Abbott wanted to demonstrate that he won’t continue his predecessor’s efforts to politicize and undermine our state’s public schools, this appointment falls far short. The governor has appointed as board chair an ideologue who voted to adopt new textbooks that scholars sharply criticized as distorting American history, who rejected public education for her own family and who supports shifting tax dollars from neighborhood public schools to private and religious schools through vouchers. This appointment almost guarantees that the board will continue to put culture war agendas ahead of educating more than 5 million Texas kids.
Let me call your attention to something in this paragraph you might have missed. Bahorich home-schooled her own kids, then sent them off to private religious high schools. Yes, really. And she seems to think that’s a job qualification!

The outgoing chair, Barbara Cargill, is also an ideologue and a Bible-thumper, but at least she has taught in the public schools. (Of course, the fact that a science teacher would support creationism in public schools might be more disturbing than having a home-schooler do so.)

Even Republicans on the TBOE are raising eyebrows at the audacity of naming someone as singularly ill-suited for the job as Bahorich. Here’s Board member and former vice-chair Thomas Ratliff, for example:
Public school isn’t for everybody, but when 94-percent of our students in Texas attend public schools, I think it ought to be a baseline requirement that the chair of the State Board of Education have at least some experience in that realm, as a parent, teacher, something.
You know, that sort of makes sense to anyone with an IQ above room temperature. Of course, that leaves out a fair number of politicians (and, let’s face, that’s all TBOE members are).

The other headline isn’t really news. Rather, it’s the implementation of new standards in history textbooks that will take place this fall. The actual codification of those standards took place years ago, in an embarrassing display that Curmie wrote about in his very first essay in this blogging persona and then again a couple of months later. The entire process was a clown show from start to finish… you can check out some of the details in those posts from 2010.

Why this story has resurrected is only partially the imminence of the effects of these frankly silly and anti-intellectual standards: the new textbooks will be in classrooms in the fall. But one particularly idiotic suggestion in the TBOE’s laundry list of inanity has a new-found relevance. Here’s a paragraph from what I wrote in May of 2010:
The Board now lists “sectionalism” (whatever the hell that is) as the principal cause of the Civil War. Slavery? Third in line, behind states’ rights. The Venona papers, which prove basically that some of the people whose lives were ruined by HUAC and/or Joseph McCarthy were in fact guilty, are now credited with “confirm[ing]” HUAC “findings.” The conservative faction, generally all about required lists, shifted ground when Sonia Sotomayor was added to a standard on women’s contributions to American history… all of a sudden, that list is merely “suggested.”
You caught it, didn’t you, Gentle Reader? That first bit, about the causes of the Civil War? You see, I bet you thought the Civil War was about slavery, didn’t you? That’s because the Civil War was about slavery. Except in Texas: because although nobody really knows WTF “sectionalism” is, it was that, not the… um… you know… other thing, caused the war.

There’s a word for that line of reasoning, and it rhymes with fullbit.

Given the recent controversies over the Confederate battle flag, the Civil War in general has become a topic of conversation, and with it the insane notion, propagated by a whole lot of people who aren’t historians and precisely none who are, that slavery was only tertiarily related to the Civil War. This is akin to ascribing a cause of death to heart failure, while casually ignoring the bullet in the chest.

Alexander H. Stephens
At least he was honest about what he believed.
But don’t take it from me. Listen instead to the Vice President of the Confederacy, Alexander H. Stephens, who, presumably, was reasonably well acquainted with the relevant motivations of the participants:
…the new Constitution has put at rest forever all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institutions—African slavery as it exists among us—the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization. This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution….

Our new Government is founded upon exactly the opposite ideas; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and moral condition. [Applause.] This, our new Government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.
Is it just me, or is that pretty damned clear? There’s a reason Texas students are required to read Jefferson Davis’s inaugural address (which doesn’t mention slavery per se) but not this “Cornerstone speech.” That reason is precisely, unequivocally, and absolutely intentionally to present a distorted view of the past to undergird a 21st century political (and religio-political) agenda.  Call it indoctrination.  Call it propaganda.  But it sure as hell isn’t education.

By the way, Texas’s own secession document is absolutely clear, as well:
[Texas] was received as a commonwealth holding, maintaining and protecting the institution known as negro slavery—the servitude of the African to the white race within her limits—a relation that had existed from the first settlement of her wilderness by the white race, and which her people intended should exist in all future time.
The document goes on to detail the alleged atrocities committed by the “non-slave-holding states,” amounting essentially to “they don’t want us to have slaves anymore”:
…based upon the unnatural feeling of hostility to these Southern States and their beneficent and patriarchal system of African slavery, proclaiming the debasing doctrine of the equality of all men, irrespective of race or color—a doctrine at war with nature, in opposition to the experience of mankind, and in violation of the plainest revelations of the Divine Law. They demand the abolition of negro slavery throughout the confederacy, the recognition of political equality between the white and the negro races, and avow their determination to press on their crusade against us, so long as a negro slave remains in these States.
Nope, slavery sure wasn’t an issue. Not unless you count the 21 references to “slaves,” “slave-holding,” or “slavery” and the nine instances of “race” or “races” in that “Declaration of Causes” (by contrast, “rights” appears four times).

The proponents of the new standards are fools or charlatans or both, and this is troubling in two ways. First, and most obviously, these people have a lot of power, and their indoctrination attempts are far more successful than many people believe. Even in a “liberal” discipline like theatre, I often encounter students who proclaim that the US was founded as a “Christian nation” and evince utter contempt for those who argue that, say, slavery was an issue in the Civil War.

Equally important, however, is the erosion of the “brand” of Conservative. When Curmie was a lad, the two major political parties agreed on the value of education per se, on the need for funding of primary, secondary, and post-secondary institutions alike, and on the quest for truth. Sure, there were disagreements about priorities, and there were different interpretations of events. That’s what makes for a free and informed electorate. But there weren’t separate facts. They’re an invention of a new and vastly inferior breed of pseudo-conservative, a “conservative” who ignores actual facts when mythology better serves the short-term interests of one’s political cronies.

Evolution is the foundational belief in modern biology. Dinosaurs were long gone before any species bearing the slightest resemblance to ours existed. The earth is not the center of the universe. The authors of the Declaration of Independence (Thomas Jefferson), the Preamble to the Constitution (Gouverneur Morris), and the Constitution itself including the Bill of Rights (James Madison) all wrote specifically that the United States is not a Christian nation. And slavery was the primary cause of the Civil War. Facts.

It’s ironic, in a way, that the elephant should be the symbol of the GOP, because the facts are the elephant in the middle of the room, and every national Republican politician is trying very hard indeed to ignore that well-fed pachyderm. They—the ones who aren’t naturally stone stupid, at least—are engaging in a terrifying game of anti-intellectual chicken. They truly believe, to paraphrase Isaac Asimov, that their ignorance is as good as other folks’ knowledge. It is not. There are, of course, plenty of Republicans who aren’t idiots. But they’re not raising their voices even a little bit to insist that our students, the people who will be running the country someday, deserve better. They deserve the truth. And we as a society need to provide it or we will, to coin a phrase, perish from the earth.