Sen. Bernie Sanders, the lifelong crusader for economic justice now running for the Democratic presidential nomination, has serious civil rights movement cred: he attended the historic 1963 March on Washington, where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and a quarter million people changed the country’s course when it came to race. It would be wrong and unfair to accuse him of indifference to issues of racial equality.
But in the wake of his picture-postcard campaign launch, from the shores of Vermont’s lovely Lake Champlain, Sanders has faced questions about whether his approach to race has kept up with the times. Writing in Vox, Dara Lind suggested that Sanders’ passion for economic justice issues has left him less attentive to the rising movement for racial justice, which holds that racial disadvantage won’t be eradicated only by efforts at economic equality. Covering the Sanders launch appreciatively on MSNBC, Chris Hayes likewise noted the lack of attention to issues of police violence and mass incarceration in the Vermont senator’s stirring kick-off speech.
These are the same questions I raised last month after watching Sen. Elizabeth Warren and New York Mayor Bill de Blasio hail the new progressive movement to combat income inequality at two Washington D.C. events. Both pointed to rising popular movements to demand economic justice, most notably the “Fight for $15” campaign. Neither mentioned the most vital and arguably most important movement of all, the “Black Lives Matter” crusade. (Which is odd, since “Fight for $15″ leaders have explicitly endorsed their sister movement.) And the agendas they endorsed that day made only minimal mention, if they mentioned it at all, of the role that mass incarceration and police abuse plays in worsening the plight of the African American poor.
Looking at the overwhelmingly white Bernie Sanders event last week, I saw it again: the rhetoric and stagecraft employed by white progressives whom I admire too often –inadvertently, I think — leaves out people who aren’t white. Of course, Sanders’ home state of Vermont is 96 percent white, so his kickoff crowd predictably reflected that. But his rhetoric could have told a more inclusive story.
So could Elizabeth Warren’s. I love her stirring stories about her upbringing: the days when her mother’s minimum wage job could support a family, when unions built the American middle class, and when Warren herself could attend a public university for almost nothing. Like a lot of white progressives, she points to the post World War II era as a kind of golden age when income inequality flattened and opportunity spread, the result of progressive action by government. I’ve written about the political lessons of that era repeatedly myself.
But the golden age wasn’t golden for people who weren’t white. Yes, African American incomes rose and unemployment declined in those years. But black people were locked out of many of the wealth-generating opportunities of the era: blocked from suburbs with restricted covenants and redlined into neighborhoods where banks wouldn’t lend; left out by the GI Bill, which didn’t prevent racial discrimination; neglected by labor unions, which discriminated against or outright blocked black members. (That’s why I gave my book, “What’s the Matter with White People?”, the subtitle “Why We Long for a Golden Age that Never Was.”)
Conservatives look back at those post-World War II years as a magical time when men were men, women raised children, LGBT folks didn’t exist or stayed closeted, and the country was white. Progressives point to the government support that created that alleged golden age, but they too often make it sound rosier than it was for people who weren’t white. In fact some of those same policies of the 1950s helped create the stunning disparities between black and white family wealth, which leaves even highly paid and highly educated African Americans more vulnerable to sliding out of the middle class.
All of this leaves white progressives vulnerable to charges that they don’t understand the political world they live in today. “I love Elizabeth, but those stories about the ‘50s drive me crazy,” one black progressive told me after a recent Warren event.
Dara Lind points to Sanders’ socialist analysis as a reason he’s reluctant to focus on issues of race: he thinks they’re mainly issues of class. She samples colleague Andrew Prokop’s Sanders profile, which found:
Even as a student at the University of Chicago in the 1960s, influenced by the hours he spent in the library stacks reading famous philosophers, (Sanders) became frustrated with his fellow student activists, who were more interested in race or imperialism than the class struggle. They couldn’t see that everything they protested, he later said, was rooted in “an economic system in which the rich controls, to a large degree, the political and economic life of the country.”
Increasingly, though, black and other scholars are showing us that racial disadvantage won’t be undone without paying attention to, and talking about, race. The experience of black poverty is different in some ways than that of white poverty; it’s more likely to be intergenerational, for one thing, as well as being the result of discriminatory public and private policies.
Ironically, our first black president has exhausted the patience of many African Americans with promises that a rising economic justice tide will lift their boats. President Obama himself has rejected race-specific solutions to the problems of black poverty, arguing that policies like universal preschool, a higher minimum wage, stronger family supports and infrastructure investment, along with the Affordable Care Act, all disproportionately help black people, since black people are disproportionately poor.
At the Progressive Agenda event last month, I heard activists complain that they’d been told the same thing: the agenda will disproportionately benefit black people, because they’re disproportionately disadvantaged, even if it didn’t specifically address the core issue of criminal justice reform. (De Blasio later promised the agenda would include that issue.) But six years of hearing that from a black president has exhausted people’s patience, and white progressives aren’t going to be able to get away with it anymore.
Hillary Clinton could be the unlikely beneficiary of white progressives’ stumbles on race. The woman who herself stumbled facing Barack Obama in 2008 seems to have learned from her political mistakes. She’s taken stands on mass incarceration and immigration reform that put her nominally to the left of de Blasio’s Progressive Agenda on those issues, as well as the president’s. Clinton proves that these racial blind spots can be corrected. And American politics today requires that they be corrected: no Democrat can win the presidency without consolidating the Obama coalition, particularly the African American vote.
In fact, African American women are to the Democrats what white evangelical men are to Republicans: the most devoted, reliable segment of the party base. But where all the GOP contenders pander to their base, Democrats often don’t even acknowledge theirs. Clinton seems determined to do things differently, the second time around. The hiring of senior policy advisor Maya Harris as well as former Congressional Black Caucus director LaDavia Drane signal the centrality of black female voters to the campaign. In a briefing with reporters Thursday in Brooklyn, senior Clinton campaign officials said their polling shows she’s doing very well with the Obama coalition, despite her 2008 struggles – but she’s taking nothing for granted.
Pointing to Warren and Sanders’s shortcomings when it comes to racial politics doesn’t mean they’re evil, or they can’t learn to see things with a different frame. But they’re going to have to, or they’ll find that the populist energy that’s eclipsing Democratic Party centrists will be dissipated by racial tension no one can afford.
By: Joan Walsh, Editor at Large, Salon, May 31, 2015
“The Tax Rates That Don’t Cause Bernie Sanders To ‘Flinch'”: About As Radical As Republican Plans To Slash Taxes On The Wealthy
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) is many things, but subtle isn’t one of them. Take a look at these comments the Democratic presidential candidate made to CNBC about higher taxes on the wealthiest Americans.
“These people are so greedy, they’re so out of touch with reality,” he said. “They think they own the world…. I’m sorry to have to tell them, they live in the United States, they benefit from the United States, we have kids who are hungry in this country. We have people who are working two, three, four jobs, who can’t send their kids to college.
“Sorry, you’re all going to have to pay your fair share of taxes,” he asserted. “If my memory is correct, when radical socialist Dwight D. Eisenhower was president, the highest marginal tax rate was something like 90 percent.”
That last part is true, by the way. In the 1950s, when Republicans were far more interested in deficit reduction than tax breaks, Eisenhower was committed to helping pay off World War II-era debts. He kept Roosevelt’s 90% top marginal rate in place, and the post-war economy boomed anyway. (It wasn’t until JFK in 1961 that Washington approved a “peace dividend,” and even then, some Republicans of the era balked, still preferring to focus on the debt, not tax breaks.)
But Sanders’ support for similar rates is so far from mainstream norms that his comments strike much of the political world as somehow bizarre. The New York Times noted with incredulity that the Vermont senator “doesn’t flinch over returning to the 90 percent personal income tax rates of the 1950s for top earners.”
Over at Salon, it led Simon Maloy to raise a good point: “We’ve become so accustomed to historically low rates of taxation for the wealthy that when someone like Sanders comes along and says the rich can and should pay a far higher rate, people assume he’s out to lunch.”
The flip side to the dynamic is that while reporters and pundits raise their eyebrows at the notion of dramatically increasing the tax burden on the wealthy, absurd and irresponsible tax cuts for top earners are now just assumed to be a given when it comes to Republican policymaking. Several current Republican candidates for the presidency have laid out plans that would eliminate capital gains taxes and the estate tax while cutting the top income tax rate. […]
The thrust of GOP policymaking is to redirect an even greater share of the nation’s wealth to the already engorged few sitting at the top of the income ladder. Sanders is proposing instead that we funnel some of that wealth away from the rich and toward the middle class. And while we’re supposed to “flinch” at a high rate of taxation for income, a zero percent rate on investments is taken in stride.
I think that’s right. Sanders’ position is clearly far from the traditional menu of tax-policy options, so far that he practically sounds like a visitor from another country (if not another planet). We’re accustomed to hearing national figures talk about raising taxes on the rich a little; we’re not accustomed to hearing them talk about raising taxes on the rich a lot.
But what Sanders is proposing is about as radical as Republican plans to slash taxes on the wealthy by hundreds of billions of dollars. It just seems more extreme because our expectations have begun to adapt to a ridiculous GOP wish list that we’re confronted with all the time.
By: Steve Benen, The Maddow Blog, May 28, 2015
With a lush spring came cruel days. The Philadelphia train wreck happened only a hundred miles up the tracks from the Baltimore riots. Is the wind of history, the zeitgeist, on the job as we face the 2016 presidential race?
If so, it’s worth noting that Jeb Bush, the Republican frontrunner, spent days defending older brother George W. Bush, the former president, and the long war he started in Iraq. The younger brother was a one-man off-key Greek chorus.
In defending the decision to go to war based on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction — a claim proved false — the former Florida governor kept saying, “my brother.” Like we the folks are all in with the Bush family? It’s not as if we enjoy fond memories of a presidency defined by 9/11.
To return to the Baltimore and Philadelphia scenes, equidistant from the Mason-Dixon line. Those shocking sights, from April to May, told us that business as usual is taking a tragic toll. The Northeast infrastructure is old, getting older. So are Baltimore’s sad-sack slums, visible from a moving Amtrak window as a train zips up to New York. Lives are on the line. Stressed rails reach a breaking point. And if we let things languish in policing and income inequality, heat will rise on the streets. Plain as that.
But Jeb Bush, the leading Republican candidate (all but declared) had nothing nice to say, no sympathy note to send from his alternate universe. He astonished even friendly media at Fox News and conservative pundits by a doomed defense of “my brother” and his administration’s aggression in starting the Iraq War — still playing out. But as we know from previous Bush family dramas, loyalty to the tribe comes first. Nearly all Jeb Bush’s foreign policy advisors were on his brother’s A list, too.
After several stumbles on whether he would have invaded Iraq as president in 2003, Jeb Bush finally conceded that would be a bad idea. Yet he’s echoed his brother’s bluster and blunder by speaking to the issue with the veneer of a sneer. Why “re-litigate” the past? Many were puzzled at how little thought Jeb Bush gave to the biggest question facing his quest — and bedeviling his brother’s legacy. (If his brother started it, hey, how bad could it be?)
By nature, the busy Bushes don’t spend a lot of time lost in thought or looking back: “No regrets” could be the family coat of arms. Now we know Jeb Bush is no exception. Contrary to claims he’s his own man, he often invokes his last name, stating his brother is his “closest advisor.” Oh brother.
When war goes wrong, it’s in the distance. Here at home, something strange went awry seven miles north of Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station. A Northeast Regional train came around a bend, speeding at over 100 mph. The derailment devastated and bewildered swaths of the East Coast and beyond. Philly is a handsome city — with the Victorian zoo, the river boathouses, the Museum of Art. The city responded with great compassion and care to the injured and the dead that night. Brotherly love.
Eight beating hearts on that train were gone in a split second, torn from their plans, dreams, loved ones. All eight bodies were found in the wreckage. One victim, Rachel Jacobs, and I are alumnae of Swarthmore College in Philadelphia. She was 39. Somehow she seemed a long-lost friend.
Everyone knows safety improvements and infrastructure investment are overdue (except Congress.) Those old railway bridges over the bountiful, wide Susquehanna River? Sure, it’s easy on the eyes, crossing over the river. The most peaceful way to travel is now freighted with anxiety.
Here’s the thing this spring asks, starkly. Did our country get derailed at a reckless speed? Was Iraq akin to the curve in North Philadelphia?
The next president should address buttressing transportation, income inequality and beleaguered cities with fresh imagination and ideas. Whether a President Jeb Bush could do all that and regain our moral stature in the world community is a bridge too far. He’s failed the test of character.
The younger Bush is not the one to lead us out of our predicament, safe toward home.
By: Jamie Stiehm, The National Memo, May 22, 2015
Earlier this week, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, along with a gaggle of bored reporters and some boldfaced names in the progressive movement, unveiled a “Progressive Agenda to Combat Income Inequality.” Much like the media event that accompanied its unveiling, the agenda is supposed to be understood as a kind of 21st-century, liberal version of the storied “Contract with America,” the PR stunt that, as legend (erroneously) has it, rocketed Newt Gingrich and the Republican Party to power after the 1994 midterm elections. As my colleague Joan Walsh reported on Thursday, this backward-looking attempt to lay out a forward-looking platform for the Democratic Party did not go entirely according to plan.
Which is not to say it was a failure. In fact, for a photo-op held during a non-election year in May and headlined by a relatively unknown local politician, the unveiling of the agenda probably got more attention than it deserved. Even so, as Joan relayed from the scene, there was some tension at the event — and not only because President Obama’s hard sell of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) is driving some liberals to distraction while making others defensive. Sure, the agenda does call on lawmakers to “[o]ppose trade deals that hand more power to corporations at the expense of American jobs, workers’ rights, and the environment,” which is basically how the TPP is described by its foes. But that discord was for the most part kept under the surface.
The real reason de Blasio’s stab at playing the role of Progressive Moses was a bit awkward (despite going much better for him than it did for Ed Miliband) is knottier and harder to ignore. And it didn’t only trip up Hizzoner, but also marred a same-day Roosevelt Institute event on “rewriting the rules” of the economy, which was keynoted by no less a figure than Sen. Elizabeth Warren. It’s an issue that’s long dogged the American left, and the United States more generally, and it’s one that will not go away, no matter how fervently everyone may wish. It is, of course, the issue of race; and as these D.C. left-wing confabs showed, it will dash any hope of a liberal future unless the “professional left” gets deathly serious about it — and quick.
If you haven’t read Joan’s piece (which you really should), here’s a quick summary of how race wound up exposing the fault lines of the left at two events that were supposed to be about unity of purpose. Despite American politics becoming increasingly concentrated over the past two years on issues of mass incarceration and police brutality — which both have much to do with the legacy of white supremacy and the politics of race — neither de Blasio’s agenda nor the Roosevelt Institute’s report spend much time on reforming criminal justice. To their credit, folks from both camps have agreed that this was a mistake and have promised to redress it in the future. Still, it was quite an oversight — and a shame, too, because it justifiably distracted from an agenda and a report that were both chock-full of good ideas.
I wasn’t in the room when de Blasio’s agenda or the Roosevelt Institute’s report were created, but I feel quite confident in saying that the mistake here was not a result of prejudice or thoughtlessness or even conscious timidity. I suspect instead that ingrained habits and knee-jerk reflexes — born from coming of age, at least politically, in the Reagan era — are more likely to blame. Because while the radical left has been talking about and organizing around racial injustices for decades, mainstream American liberalism, the kind of liberalism that is comfortably within the Democratic Party mainstream, is much less familiar with explicitly integrating race into its broader vision.
Let me try to put some meat on those bones with a concrete example also taken from earlier in the week. On Tuesday, President Obama joined the Washington Post’s E. J. Dionne, the American Enterprise Institute’s Arthur Brooks, and Harvard’s Robert Putnam at Georgetown University for a public conversation about poverty. And while you’d expect race to come up — what with the African-American poverty rate being nearly three times that of whites, the African-American unemployment rate being more than two times that of whites, and the African-American median household income being barely more than half that of whites — you would be incorrect. As the Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates noted in response to this strange conversation, “the word ‘racism’ does not appear in the transcript once.”
Again, it strikes me as unlikely that simple bigotry is the reason. A more probable explanation is that mainstream American liberals like Obama and Dionne (Brooks is a conservative and Putnam is not explicitly political) have become so used to tiptoeing around white Americans’ racial anxieties that they cannot stop without a conscious effort. For the past 30-plus years, mainstream liberalism has tried to address racial injustice by focusing on the related but distinct phenomenon of economic injustice. The strategy, as Coates puts it, has been to “talk about class and hope no one notices” the elephant in the room, which is race. And for much of that time, one could at least make a case that the strategy worked.
But as I’ve been hammering on lately in pieces about Hillary Clinton, the ’90s are over. What made political sense in 1996 doesn’t make nearly as much sense today. Like the Democratic Party coalition, the country is not as white as it used to be. And the young Americans whose backing liberals will need to push the Democrats and the country to the left are the primary reason. If it was always true that the progressive movement could not afford to take the support of non-white Americans for granted, it’s exponentially more true now, when the energy and vitality of the progressive movement is so overwhelmingly the product of social movements — like the Fight for $15 or #BlackLivesMatter — driven by people of color.
As Hillary Clinton seems to understand, a key component of smart politics is to meet your voters and your activists where they are, rather than where history or the conventional wisdom tells you they should be. For the broader progressive movement, that means shaking off the learned habits of the recent past — and, more specifically, overcoming the fear that talking forthrightly about unavoidably racial problems, like mass incarceration, will scare away too many white voters to win. Economic and racial injustice have always been seamlessly interconnected in America; but as leading progressives learned this week, the time when liberals could talk about class but whisper about race is coming to an end.
By: Elias Isquith, Salon, May 16, 2015