Sunday, November 19, 2017

Sunday Reading

We’re With Stupid — Timothy Egan in the New York Times.

It would be much easier to sleep at night if you could believe that we’re in such a mess of misinformation simply because Russian agents disseminated inflammatory posts that reached 126 million people on Facebook.

The Russians also uploaded a thousand videos to YouTube and published more than 130,000 messages on Twitter about last year’s election. As recent congressional hearings showed, the arteries of our democracy were clogged with toxins from a hostile foreign power.

But the problem is not the Russians — it’s us. We’re getting played because too many Americans are ill equipped to perform the basic functions of citizenship. If the point of the Russian campaign, aided domestically by right-wing media, was to get people to think there is no such thing as knowable truth, the bad guys have won.

As we crossed the 300-day mark of Donald Trump’s presidency on Thursday, fact-checkers noted that he has made more than 1,600 false or misleading claims. Good God. At least five times a day, on average, this president says something that isn’t true.

We have a White House of lies because a huge percentage of the population can’t tell fact from fiction. But a huge percentage is also clueless about the basic laws of the land. In a democracy, we the people are supposed to understand our role in this power-sharing thing.

Nearly one in three Americans cannot name a single branch of government. When NPR tweeted out sections of the Declaration of Independence last year, many people were outraged. They mistook Thomas Jefferson’s fighting words for anti-Trump propaganda.

Fake news is a real thing produced by active disseminators of falsehoods. Trump uses the term to describe anything he doesn’t like, a habit now picked up by political liars everywhere.

But Trump is a symptom; the breakdown in this democracy goes beyond the liar in chief. For that you have to blame all of us: we have allowed the educational system to become negligent in teaching the owner’s manual of citizenship.

Lost in the news grind over Roy Moore, the lawbreaking Senate candidate from Alabama, is how often he has tried to violate the Constitution. As a judge, he was removed from the bench — twice — for lawless acts that follow his theocratic view of governance.

Shariah law has been justifiably criticized as a dangerous injection of religion into the public space. Now imagine if a judge insisted on keeping a monument to the Quran in a state judicial building. Or that he said “homosexual conduct” should be illegal because his sacred book tells him so. That is exactly what Moore has done, though he substitutes the Bible for the Quran.

I don’t blame Moore. I blame his followers, and the press, which doesn’t seem to know that the First Amendment specifically aims to keep government from siding with one religion — the so-called establishment clause.

My colleagues at the opinion shop on Sunday used a full page to print the Bill of Rights, and urge President Trump to “Please Read the Constitution.” Yes, it’s come to this. On press freedom, due process, exercise of religion and other areas, Trump has repeatedly gone into Roy Moore territory — dismissing the principles he has sworn to uphold.

Suppose we treated citizenship like getting a driver’s license. People would have to pass a simple test on American values, history and geography before they were allowed to have a say in the system. We do that for immigrants, and 97 percent of them pass, according to one study.

Yet one in three Americans fail the immigrant citizenship test. This is not an elitist barrier. The test includes questions like, “What major event happened on 9/11?” and “What ocean is on the West Coast of the United States?”

One reason that public schools were established across the land was to produce an informed citizenry. And up until the 1960s, it was common for students to take three separate courses in civics and government before they got out of high school.

Now only a handful of states require proficiency in civics as a condition of high school graduation. Students are hungry, in this turbulent era, for discussion of politics and government. But the educators are failing them. Civics has fallen to the side, in part because of the standardized test mania.

A related concern is historical ignorance. By a 48 percent to 38 percent margin Americans think states’ rights, rather than slavery, caused the Civil War. So Trump’s chief of staff, John F. Kelly, can say something demonstrably false about the war, because most people are just as clueless as he is.

There’s hope — and there are many ways — to shed light on the cave of American democracy. More than a dozen states now require high school students to pass the immigrant citizenship test. We should also teach kids how to tell fake news from real, as some schools in Europe are doing.

But those initiatives will mean little if people still insist on believing what they want to believe, living in digital safe spaces closed off from anything that intrudes on their worldview.

A Test For Liberals — Amy Davidson Sorkin in The New Yorker.

At the press conference last week in which Beverly Young Nelson described how when she was a high-school student, in 1977, Roy Moore, the Alabama Republican nominee for the U.S. Senate, who was then a deputy district attorney, tried to physically force her to engage in oral sex with him, she also talked about her vote in last year’s election. “My husband and I supported Donald Trump for President,” Nelson said. “This has nothing whatsoever to do with the Republicans or the Democrats.” Yet Moore, and his campaign, wanted to make it exactly about that, even as other women came forward with charges against him. (As of last Friday, a total of nine had done so.) In a statement to the Washington Post, the campaign said, “If you are a liberal and hate Judge Moore, apparently he groped you. . . . If you are a conservative and love Judge Moore, you know these allegations are a political farce.”

From this perspective, the news, last Thursday, that Senator Al Franken, Democrat of Minnesota, also had misconduct allegations against him looked to some like an opportunity to test a similar formulation. Leeann Tweeden, a radio host, said that in 2006, two years before Franken ran for office, she joined him on a U.S.O. tour to Afghanistan and Iraq, and he kissed her during a rehearsal, although she told him not to. He later posed for a photograph in which he appeared to grab her breasts while she was sleeping, wearing camouflage gear and a Kevlar helmet. If you are a liberal and love Al Franken, would you decide—indeed, know—that these allegations are a political farce? The answer, properly and unambiguously, is no.

A number of Franken’s Senate colleagues, including Amy Klobuchar, also of Minnesota, and Elizabeth Warren, of Massachusetts, condemned his acts. Franken, after a first, halting apology, offered a fuller one, in which he said that he was “disgusted” by his own behavior and that he will coöperate with an ethics-committee investigation into the allegations. The committee, though, hasn’t sanctioned anyone in years. Last week, several women lawmakers reported that sexual harassment on Capitol Hill is pervasive, and that, as Representative Jackie Speier, Democrat of California, put it, the system for dealing with it is “a joke.” During the past twenty years, Congress has paid out seventeen million dollars to settle claims of harassment and other forms of workplace discrimination, while keeping those payments secret. Speier also said that there were two cases involving current members of Congress.

In some ways, the Franken story is a small, sad proxy for his party’s Bill Clinton problem. Last week, as more sexual-harassment and assault charges came to light, some people started looking again at a rape allegation that Juanita Broaddrick brought against the former President. In 1978, Broaddrick, a nursing-home administrator, met Clinton, at that time the Arkansas attorney general, for a business meeting in her hotel room—to avoid the press, she thought—and there, she said, he attacked her. (A lawyer for Clinton has denied this.) A colleague says that she heard the story from Broaddrick immediately afterward, when she found her with torn panty hose and a swollen lip.

Broaddrick’s story came out, in 1999, largely thanks to Lisa Myers, of NBC News, after Clinton’s acquittal in his impeachment trial—a case that grew out of a sexual-harassment suit brought by Paula Jones—and the charge was left unresolved. Early in the impeachment imbroglio, Hillary Clinton had attributed her husband’s troubles to “a vast, right-wing conspiracy.” There was a well-funded conservative effort to target the President, but, in this instance, the charge feels too close to Moore’s assertion that liberals simply believe one thing, and conservatives another.

When Clinton ran for President in 2016, she may not have gauged how profoundly Bill Clinton’s record with women would hurt her. Just a month before the election, after the “Access Hollywood” video emerged, in which Trump bragged about grabbing women’s genitals, he brought Broaddrick and Jones to a Presidential debate. Clinton dismissed this as a stunt, meant to throw her off her game. But the key audience for it was purple-state women, particularly middle-aged or older working-class women, who might identify with Broaddrick, or be receptive, based on their own experience, to the contention that, as Trump put it, Hillary was Bill’s “enabler.” (Polls after the election showed that Clinton performed less well with those voters than her campaign had hoped.) For others, Clinton’s decision to make her husband an active part of her campaign—and the potential First Spouse—constrained it.

Many factors played into Clinton’s defeat, but at that juncture Bill cost her heavily, by keeping “Access Hollywood” from costing Trump the election. As hard as it is to hear, particularly given the historic nature of Clinton’s candidacy and her laudable record on everything from climate change to children’s health, her nomination compromised the Democratic Party. There were other choices, early on; perhaps one of the fourteen Democratic women in the Senate in 2015 might have emerged. Voters in Alabama, where Moore is on the ballot in December—and in Minnesota, where Al Franken is up for reëlection next year—might remember that they have choices, too.

President Trump, for his part, tweeted that the “Al Frankenstien picture is really bad,” adding, “And to think that just last week he was lecturing anyone who would listen about sexual harassment.” Some of that “lecturing” has been directed, with good cause, at Trump himself; he shouldn’t expect it to end. Efforts, like the President’s, to act as though one transgression can cancel out another suggest that the problem is just one of calculating how many Frankens add up to a Moore—how many charges of groping for one of attempted statutory rape. There is no abuse-indulgence account that each party can draw on, though.

That is also true in assessing their ideologies. The national Republican leadership has, to an extent, backed away from Moore—the Alabama state Party has not—but it had earlier supported him even though he said that he did not believe that Muslims ought to be seated in Congress or that gays and lesbians should have basic rights. That shows not only who Moore is but what the G.O.P. has become. Franken has worked hard for progressive causes in his political life. But, here, too, whatever points that earns him, or his colleagues, are not spendable in some market in women’s dignity. The Democratic Party is better than that.

The Simplest Way — John Nichols in The Nation.

Republicans elites feel so entitled to the Alabama Senate seat that Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III vacated to become Donald Trump’s attorney general that they are meticulously neglecting the easiest strategy for keeping Roy Moore out of the Senate.

Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell has called on Moore, the scandal-plagued former judge who now faces multiple allegations that as a 30-something prosecutor he molested teenage girls, to quit the Alabama race. But Moore’s not quitting. In fact, he says McConnell should resign.

So DC Republicans are spinning complex scenarios for keeping Moore out of their caucus. The scenarios have grown increasingly arcane, and unworkable. But they keep coming.

There has been speculation that if Moore is elected in the December 12 special election, he could be seated and then expelled. But there’s no guarantee that it will happen. Expulsions are rare, and there’s a reason for that: A super-majority of senators—two-thirds of the chamber—is required to overturn an election result.

Then there are the proposed write-in campaigns: for Strange, for Sessions, for just about any Republican except Moore. But write-in victories are almost as rare as expulsions. And the wrong strategy for a write-in run could end up splitting the anti-Moore vote.

It’s likely that McConnell and his compatriots will proposing convoluted political “fixes.” But none of them will be certain, or in some cases even likely, to block the judge.

Moore faces a credible opponent in Democrat Doug Jones, a former US Attorney with a distinguished record of defending the rule of law and prosecuting the violent racists who were responsible for the 1963 bombing of Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church. He is running a strong campaign; indeed, some polls are now giving him the lead in this intense contest.

Jones has been endorsed by a number of grassroots Alabama Republicans; he is even running television ads featuring them.

There is a very long history in American politics of voters crossing partisan lines to reject candidates they object to—or to support candidates who impress them. The 1924 Democratic nominee for president, corporate lawyer John Davis, frequently endorsed Republicans who were running against Franklin Delano Roosevelt. There were “Democrats for Eisenhower” groups in the 1950s, “Republicans for Johnson” groups in 1964 and “Democrats for Nixon” groups in 1972. Bill Weld was elected governor of Massachusetts in 1990 because a lot of cross-over voters preferred his libertarian-leaning Republicanism to his Democratic opponent’s social conservatism. And Barack Obama ran in 2008 with a long list of endorsements from prominent Republicans and former Republicans.

There are contests where it is ethically necessary to put aside partisanship and back a candidate from another party. There are also times when it is politically practical to abandon your party line for one election.

The Alabama contest meets the ethical standard, and the practical standard. A few wise Republicans recognize this. Asked last week if he would support a Democratic candidate over Moore, Arizona Senator Jeff Flake replied: “If the choice is between Roy Moore and a Democrat — the Democrat, no doubt.”

Flake added: “I would literally — if I were in Alabama — I would run to the polling place to vote for the Democrat.”

The choice in Alabama, as its stands now, is between Republican Roy Moore and Democrat Doug Jones.

If Mitch McConnell and his Republican allies are serious about keeping a reprehensible Republican out of the Senate, they don’t need convoluted strategies. They need only to recognize the reality of their circumstance—and the logic of the electoral calculus that Jeff Flake had already explained.

Doonesbury — What it’s not.