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In a piece for the Atlantic on the debut of Stephen Colbert’s new late night gig, Megan Garber leverages some scholarship from Pablo Boczkowski’s News at Work: Imitation in an Age of Information Abundance, which positions the thriving competition and rampant imitation prominent among journalists as impetus for our desires to instantly consume—and then avoid acrimonious public conversations about—breaking news (especially that of the political kind). Garber sees Colbert as a song-and-dance Charlie Rose, rather than a David Letterman, and goes on to frame his debut as part of the slow creep of politics into entertainment and entertainment into politics, ultimately noting Boczkowski’s discussion of chatting about politics with our peers.
[P]olitics and late-night comedy have long been happy, if occasionally awkward, bedfellows. Clinton, saxophoning with Arsenio. Bush, chatting with Leno. Obama, chatting with ferns. But Colbert was, in subtle but significant ways, different. He wasn’t treating Jeb as a celebrity, giving him an easy opportunity for free, and content-free, media; he was treating him as a person who is running for political office. He was actually interviewing him. He was trying to have a conversation with him about things that directly affect people’s lives. (Same, to some extent, with George Clooney, Colbert’s first guest: The two talked about acting and movie-making, but they also talked about Darfur.)
You could think of all that as a kind of mission creep, politics seeping into entertainment; you could also, though, think of it as entertainment making its way into politics. Productively. Part of Donald Trump’s popularity has to be explained by his refusal to acknowledge a distinction between the two. And part of why politics has become so polarized, while we’re at it, is likely that we’ve come to see the workings of government as things that exist separately from the rest of our lives. The sociologist Pablo Boczkowski talks about the reluctance many people have to talk about politics in a work environment
, where such discussions can create unnecessary acrimony; instead, we silo ourselves, discussing the issues of the day, for the most part, with people we know will pretty much agree with us.
That’s not a good thing, for people or for democracy. And Colbert’s latest debut suggested that late-night comedy might actually play a role in fixing it.
To read more about News at Work, click here.
An excerpt from an exchange between Ta-Nehisi Coates and Jamelle Bouie on Twitter yesterday, in which (among many other things, which each deserve further explication to do justice to their conversation, so check it out in full here) they discuss the relationship between “the submerged state” and race in the United States:
To read more about Suzanne Mettler’s The Submerged State: How Invisible Government Policies Undermine American Democracy, click here.
An excerpt from Who Freed the Slaves?: The Fight over the Thirteenth Amendment
by Leonard L. Richards
WEDNESDAY, JUNE 15, 1864
James Ashley never forgot the moment. After hours of debate, Schuyler Colfax, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, had finally gaveled the 159 House members to take their seats and get ready to vote.
Most of the members were waving a fan of some sort, but none of the fans did much good. Heat and humidity had turned the nation’s capitol into a sauna. Equally bad was the stench that emanated from Washington’s back alleys, nearby swamps, and the twenty-one hospitals in and about the city, which now housed over twenty thousand wounded and dying soldiers. Worse yet was the news from the front lines. According to some reports, the Union army had lost seven thousand men in less than thirty minutes at Cold Harbor. The commanding general, Ulysses S. Grant, had been deemed a “fumbling butcher.”
Nearly everyone around Ashley was impatient, cranky, and miserable. But Ashley was especially downcast. It was his job to get Senate Joint Resolution Number 16, a constitutional amendment to outlaw slavery in the United States, through the House of Representatives, and he didn’t have the votes.
The need for the amendment was obvious. Of the nation’s four million slaves at the outset of the war, no more than five hundred thousand were now free, and, to his disgust, many white Americans intended to have them reenslaved once the war was over. The Supreme Court, moreover, was still in the hands of Chief Justice Roger B. Taney and other staunch proponents of property rights in slaves and state’s rights. If they ever got the chance, they seemed certain not only to strike down much of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation but also to hold that under the Constitution only the states where slavery existed had the legal power to outlaw it.
Six months earlier, in December 1863, when Ashley and his fellow Republicans had proposed the amendment, he had been more upbeat. He knew that getting the House to abolish slavery, which in his mind was the root cause of the war, was not going to be easy. It required a two-thirds vote. But he had thought that Republicans in both the Senate and the House might somehow muster the necessary two-thirds majority. No longer did they have to worry about the united opposition of fifteen slave states. Eleven of the fifteen were out of the Union, including South Carolina and Mississippi, the two with the highest percentage of slaves, and Virginia, the one with the largest House delegation. In addition, the war was in its thirty-third month. Hundreds of thousands of Northern men had been killed on the battlefield. The one-day bloodbath at Antietam was now etched into the memory of every one of his Toledo constituents as well as every member of Congress. So, too, was the three-day battle at Gettysburg.
If Republicans held firm, all they needed to push the amendment through the House was a handful of votes from their opponents, either from the border slave state representatives who had remained in the Union or from free state Democrats. It was his job to get those votes. He was the bill’s floor manager.
Back in December, Ashley had been the first House member to propose such an amendment. Although few of his colleagues realized it, he had been toying with the idea for nearly a decade. He had made a similar proposal in September 1856, when it didn’t have a chance of passing.
He was a political novice at the time, just twenty-nine years old, and known mainly for being big and burly, six feet tall and starting to spread around the middle, with a wild mane of curly hair and a loud, resonating voice. He had just gotten established in Toledo politics. He had moved there three years earlier from the town of Portsmouth, in southern Ohio, largely because he had just gotten married and was in deep trouble for helping slaves flee across the Ohio River. He was not yet a Congressman. Nor was he running for office. He was just campaigning for the Republican Party’s first presidential candidate, John C. Frémont, and Richard Mott, a House member who was up for reelection. In doing so, he gave a stump speech at a grove near Montpelier, Ohio.
James M. Ashley, congressman from Ohio. Brady-Handy Photograph Collection, Library of Congress (lC-Bh824-5303).
The speech lasted two hours. In most respects, it was a typical Republican stump speech. It was mainly a collection of stories, many from his youth, living and working along the Ohio River. Running through it were several themes that tied the stories together and foreshadowed the rest of his career. In touting the two candidates, he blamed the nation’s troubles on a conspiracy of slaveholders and Northern men with Southern principles, or as he called them “slave barons” and “doughfaces.” These men, he claimed, had deliberately misconstrued the Bible, misinterpreted the Constitution, and gained complete control of the federal government. “For nearly half a century,” he told his listeners, some two hundred thousand slave barons had “ruled the nation, morally and politically, including a majority of the Northern States, with a rod of iron.” And before “the advancing march of these slave barons,” the “great body of Northern public men” had “bowed down . . . with their hands on their mouths and mouths in the dust, with an abasement as servile as that of a vanquished, spiritless people, before their conquerors.”
Across the North, many Republican spokesmen were saying much the same thing. What made Ashley’s speech unusual was that he made no attempt to hide his radicalism. He made it clear to the crowd at Montpelier that he would do almost anything to destroy slavery and the men who profited from it. He had learned to hate slavery and the slave barons during his boyhood, traveling with his father, a Campbellite preacher, through Kentucky and western Virginia, and later working as a cabin boy on the Ohio River. Never would he forget how traumatized he had been as a nine-year-old seeing for the first time slaves in chains being driven down a road to the Deep South, whipping posts on which black men had been beaten, and boys his own age being sold away from their mothers. Nor would he ever forget the white man who wouldn’t let his cattle drink from a stream in which his father was baptizing slaves. How, he had wondered, could his father still justify slavery? Certainly, it didn’t square with the teachings of Christ or what his mother was teaching him back home.
Ashley also made it clear to the crowd at Montpelier that he had violated the Fugitive Slave Law more times than he could count. He had actually begun helping slaves flee bondage in 1839, when he was just fifteen years old, and he had continued doing so after the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 made the penalties much stiffer. To avoid prosecution, he and his wife had fled southern Ohio in 1851. Would he now mend his ways? “Never!” he told his audience. The law was a gross violation of the teachings of Christ, and for that reason he had never obeyed it and with “God’s help . . . never shall.”
What, then, should his listeners do? The first step was to join him in supporting John C. Frémont for president and Richard Mott for another term in Congress. Another was to join him in never obeying the “infamous fugitive-slave law”—the most “unholy” of the laws that these slave barons and their Northern sycophants had passed. And perhaps still another, he suggested, was to join him in pushing for a constitutional amendment outlawing “the crime of American slavery” if that should become “necessary.”
The last suggestion, in 1856, was clearly fanciful. Nearly half the states were slave states. Thus getting two-thirds of the House, much less two-thirds of the Senate, to support an amendment outlawing slavery was next to impossible. Ashley knew that. Perhaps some in his audience, especially those who cheered the loudest, thought otherwise. But not Ashley. Although still a political neophyte, he knew the rules of the game. He was also good with numbers, always had been, and always would be. Nonetheless, he told his audience to put it on their “to do” list.
Five years later, in December 1861, Ashley added to the list. By then he was no longer a political neophyte. He had been twice elected to Congress. Eleven states had seceded from the Union, and the Civil War was in its eighth month. As chairman of the House Committee on Territories, he proposed that the eleven states no longer be treated as states. Instead they should be treated as “territories” under the control of Congress, and Congress should impose on them certain conditions before they were allowed to regain statehood. More specifically, Congress should abolish slavery in these territories, confiscate all rebel lands, distribute the confiscated lands in plots of 160 acres or fewer to loyal citizens of any color, disfranchise the rebel leaders, and establish new governments with universal adult male suffrage. Did that mean, asked one skeptic, that black men were to receive land? And the right to vote? Yes, it did. And if such measures were enacted, said Ashley, he felt certain that the slave barons would be forever stripped of their power.
Ashley’s goal was clear. The 1850 census, from which Ashley and most Republicans drew their numbers, had indicated that just a few Southern families had the lion’s share of the South’s wealth. Especially potent were the truly big slaveholders—families with over one hundred slaves. There were 105 such family heads in Virginia, 181 in Georgia, 279 in Mississippi, 312 in Alabama, 363 in South Carolina, and 460 in Louisiana. With respect to landholdings, there were 371 family heads in Louisiana with more than one thousand acres, 481 in Mississippi, 482 in South Carolina, 641 in Virginia, 696 in Alabama, and 902 in Georgia.
In Ashley’s view, virtually all these wealth holders were rebels, and the Congress should go after all their assets. Strip them of their slaves. Strip them of their land. Strip them of their right to hold office. Halfhearted measures, he contended, would lead only to half-hearted results. Taking away a slave baron’s slaves undoubtedly would hobble him, but it wouldn’t destroy him. With his vast landholdings, he would soon be back in power. And with the right to hold office, he would not only have economic power but also political power. And with the end of the three-fifths clause, the clause in the Constitution that counted slaves as only three-fifths of a free person when it came to tabulating seats in Congress and electoral votes, the South would have more power than ever before.
When Ashley made this proposal in December 1861, everyone on his committee told him it was much too radical ever to get through Congress. He knew that. But he also knew that there were men in Congress who agreed with him, including four of the seven men on his committee, several dozen in the House, maybe a half-dozen in the Senate, and even some notables such as Representative Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania and Senator Ben Wade of Ohio.
The trouble was the opposition. It was formidable. Not only did it include the “Peace” Democrats, men who seemingly wanted peace at any price, men whom Ashley regarded as traitors, but also “War” Democrats, men such as General George McClellan, General Don Carlos Buell, and General Henry Halleck, men who were leading the nation’s troops. Also certain to oppose him were the border state Unionists, especially the Kentuckians, and most important of all, Abraham Lincoln. Against such opposition, all Ashley and the other radicals could do was push, prod, and hope to get maybe a piece or two of the total package enacted.
Two years later, in December 1863, Ashley thought it was indeed “necessary” to strike a deathblow against slavery. He also thought it was possible to get a few pieces of his 1861 package into law. So, just after the House opened for its winter session, he introduced two measures. One was a reconstruction bill that followed, at least at first glance, what Lincoln had called for in his annual message. Like Lincoln, Ashley proposed that a seceded state be let back into the Union when only 10 percent of its 1860 voters took an oath of loyalty.
Had he suddenly become a moderate? A conservative? Not quite. To Lincoln’s famous 10 percent plan, Ashley added two provisions. One would take away the right to vote and to hold office from all those who had fought against the Union or held an office in a rebel state. That was a significant chunk of the population. The other would give the right to vote to all adult black males. That was even a bigger chunk of the population, especially in South Carolina and Mississippi.
The other measure that Ashley proposed that December was the constitutional amendment that outlawed slavery. A few days later, Representative James F. Wilson of Iowa made a similar proposal. The wording differed, but the intent was the same. The Constitution had to be amended, contended Wilson, not only to eradicate slavery but also to stop slaveholders and their supporters from launching a program of reenslavement once the war was over. Then, several weeks later, Senator John Henderson of Missouri and Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts introduced similar amendments. Sumner’s was the more radical. The Massachusetts senator not only wanted to end slavery. He also wanted to end racial inequality.
The Senate Judiciary Committee then took charge. They ignored Sumner’s cry for racial justice and worked out the bill’s final language. The wording was clear and simple: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime, whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”
On April 8, 1864, the committee’s wording came before the Senate for a final vote. Although a few empty seats could be found in the men’s gallery, the women’s gallery was packed, mainly by church women who had organized a massive petition drive calling on Congress to abolish slavery. Congress for the most part had ignored their hard work. But to the women’s delight, thirty-eight senators now voted for the amendment, six against, giving the proposed amendment eight votes more than what was needed to meet the two-thirds requirement.
All thirty Republicans in attendance voted aye. The no votes came from two free state Democrats, Thomas A. Hendricks of Indiana and James McDougall of California, and four slave state senators: Garrett Davis and Lazarus W. Powell of Kentucky and George R. Riddle and Willard Saulsbury of Delaware. Especially irate was Saulsbury. A strong proponent of reenslavement, he made sure that the women knew that he regarded them with contempt. In a booming voice, he told them on leaving the Senate floor that all was lost and that there was no longer any chance of ever restoring the eleven Confederate states to the Union.
Now, nine weeks later, the measure was before the House. And its floor manager, James Ashley, expected the worst. He kept a close count. And, as the members voted, he realized that he was well short of the required two-thirds. Of the eighty Republicans who were in attendance, seventy-nine eventually cast aye votes and one abstained. Of the seventeen slave state representatives in attendance, eleven voted aye and six nay. But of the sixty-two free state Democrats, only four voted for the amendment while fifty-eight voted nay. As a result, the final vote was going to be ninety-four to sixty-four. That was eleven shy of the necessary two-thirds majority.
The outcome was even worse than Ashley had anticipated. “Educated in the political school of Jefferson,” he later recalled, “I was absolutely amazed at the solid Democratic vote against the amendment on the 15th of June. To me it looked as if the golden hour had come, when the Democratic party could, without apology, and without regret, emancipate itself from the fatal dogmas of Calhoun, and reaffirm the doctrines of Jefferson. It had always seemed to me that the great men in the Democratic party had shown a broader spirit in favor of human liberty than their political opponents, and until the domination of Mr. Calhoun and his States-rights disciples, this was undoubtedly true.”
Despite the solid Democratic vote against the resolution, there was still one way that Ashley could save the amendment from certain congressional death. And that was to take advantage of a House rule that allowed a member to bring a defeated measure up for reconsideration if he intended to change his vote. To make use of this rule, however, Ashley had to change his vote before the clerk announced the final tally. He had voted aye along with his fellow Republicans. He now had to get into the “no” column. That he did. The final vote thus became ninety-three to sixty-five.
Two weeks later, Representative William Steele Holman, Democrat of Indiana, asked Ashley when he planned to call for reconsideration. Ashley told him not now but maybe after the next election. The trick, he said, was to find enough men in Holman’s party who were “naturally inclined to favor the amendment, and strong enough to meet and repel the fierce partisan attack which were certain to be made upon them.”
Holman, Ashley knew, would not be one of them. Although the Indiana Democrat had once been a staunch supporter of the war effort, he opposed the destruction of slavery. Not only had he just voted against the amendment—he had vehemently denounced it. Holman, as Ashley viewed him, was thus one of the “devil’s disciples.” He was beyond redemption. And with this in mind, Ashley set about to find at least eleven additional House members who would stand their ground against men like Holman.
To read more about Who Freed the Slaves?, click here.
By: Kristi McGuire,
Blog: The Chicago Blog
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“Can We Race Together? An Autopsy”*
by Ellen Berrey
Corporate diversity dialogues are ripe for backlash, the research shows,
even without coffee counter gimmicks.
Corporate executives and university presidents are, yet again, calling for public discussion on race and racial inequality. Revelations about the tech industry’s diversity problem have company officials convening panels on workplace barriers, and, at the University of Oklahoma spokespeople and students are organizing town-hall sessions in response to a fraternity’s racist chant.
The most provocative of the efforts was Starbucks’ failed Race Together program. In March, the company announced that it would ask baristas to initiate dialogues with customers about America’s most vexing dilemma. Although public outcry shut down those conversations before they even got to “Hello,” Starbucks said it would nonetheless carry on Race Together with forums and special USA Today discussion guides. As someone who has done sociological research on diversity initiatives for the past 15 years, I was intrigued.
For a moment, let’s take this seriously
What would conversations about race have looked like if they played out as Starbucks imagined, given the social science of race? Can companies, in Starbucks’ CEO Howard Schultz’s words, “create a more empathetic and inclusive society—one conversation at a time”? A data-driven autopsy of Starbucks’ ambitions is in order.
Surprisingly, Starbucks turned its sights on the provocative issue of racial inequality—not just feel-good cultural differences (or, thank goodness, the sort of “respectability politics” that, under well-intentioned cover, focus on the moral flaws of black people). Most Americans, especially those of us who are white, are ill-informed on the topic of inequality. We generally do not recognize our personal prejudice. We routinely, and incorrectly, insist that we are colorblind and that racism is a thing of the past, as sociologist Eduardo Bonilla-Silva has documented. When we do try to talk about race, we usually resort to what sociologists Joyce Bell and Doug Hartmann call the “happy talk” of diversity, without a language for discussing who comes out ahead and who gets pushed behind.
Starbucks pulls back the veil on our unconscious
How to take this on? Starbucks opted to tackle the thorny issue of unacknowledged prejudice—the cognitive biases that predispose a person against racial minorities and in favor of white people. The company intended to offer “insight into the divisive role unconscious bias plays in our society and the role empathy can play to bridge those divides.” The conversation guide it distributed the first week described a bias experiment in which lawyers were asked to assess an error-ridden memo. When told that the (fictional) author was white, the lawyers commented “has potential.” When told he was black, they remarked “can’t believe he went to NYU.”
Perhaps this was a promising starting point. Americans prefer psychological explanations; we like to think that terrorism, poverty, obesity, and other social ills are rooted in the individual’s psyche.
A comforting thought: I’m not racist
We also do not want to see ourselves as complicit in the segregation of our communities, workplaces, or friendships. We definitely don’t want the stigma of being “racist.” Even white supremacists resist that label. So if it’s true that we can’t see our own bias, as Starbucks told us, we can take comfort in our innocence.
Starbucks’ description of the bias experiment actually took the conversation where it never seems to venture: to the advantages that white people enjoy. White people get help, forgiveness, and the inside track far more often than do people of color. But Starbucks stopped before pointing the finger at who gives white people these advantages.
The rest of Race Together veered off in a confused direction, mostly bent on educated enlightenment. The conversation guide was a mishmash of racial utopianism (the millennials have it figured out!), demography as destiny (immigration changes everything!), triumph over a troublesome past (progress!), testimonies by people of color (the one white guy is clueless!), statistics, inspired introspection, and social network tallies (“I have ____ friends of a different race”!).
Not your daddy’s diversity training
Companies have been trying to positively address race for decades. Typically, they do so through diversity management within their own workforce. Their stated purpose is to increase the numbers of people of color in the top ranks or improve the corporate culture. Most diversity management strategies, however, are far from effective (unless they make someone responsible for results), as shown by as sociologists Alexandra Kalev, Frank Dobbin, and Erin Kelly. Corporate aggrandizement and the façade of legal compliance seem as much the goals as actual change.
Race Together most closely resembled diversity training, which tries to undo managerial stereotyping through educational exchange, but this time the exchange was between capitalists and consumers. And it bucked the typical managerial spin. Usually, the kicker is the business case for diversity: this will boost productivity and profits. Instead, Starbucks made the diversity case for business. Consumption, supposedly, would create inclusion and equity. That would be its own reward. There was no clear connection to its specific business goals, beyond (disgruntled) buzz about the brand.
What were you thinking, Howard Schultz?
Briefly, let’s revisit what made Starbucks’ over-the-counter conversations so offensive. Starbucks was asking low-wage, young, disproportionately minority workers to prompt meaningful exchanges about race with uncaffeinated, mostly white and affluent customers. Even under the best of circumstances, diversity dialogues tend to put the burden of explaining racism on people of color. Here, baristas were supposed to walk the third rail during the morning rush hour without specialized training, much less extra compensation. One sociological term for this is Arlie Hochschild‘s “emotional labor.” The employee was required to tactfully manage customers’ feelings. The most likely reaction from coffee drinkers? Microaggressions of avoidance, denial, and eye-rolling.
The alternative, for Starbucks so-called “partners,” was disgruntled defiance. At my local Starbucks, when I asked about these conversations, the manager emphatically said, “We’re not participating.” The barista next to her was blunt: “We think it’s bullshit.”
Swiftly, the company came out with public statements that had the air of faux intention and cover-up, as if to say, “We’re not retreating; we’re merely advancing in the other direction.” Starbucks had promised a year of Race Together, but the collapse of the café stunt made an all-out retreat more likely: one more forum, one more ad, then silence.
This doesn’t work…
Race Together trod treacherous ground. The research shows that diversity training backfires when it attempts to ferret out prejudice. It puts white people on the defensive and creates a backlash against people of color. For committed consumers, Starbucks was messing with the equivocally best part about capitalism: that you can give someone money and they give you a thing. For activists, this all smelled wrong (i.e., not how you want your latté). Like co-opted social justice.
… Does anyone in HQ ever ask what works?
Starbucks was wise to shift closer to the traditional role of a coffee house—the so-called Third Place between work and home that Schultz has long exalted. Hopefully, the company looks to proven models for productive conversations on race. Organizations such as the Center for Racial Justice Innovation push forward discussions that recognize racism as systemic, not as isolated individual attitudes and bad behaviors. This helps to avoid what people hate most about diversity trainings: forced discourse about superficial differences (“are you a daytime or nighttime person?”) and the wretched hunt for guilty bad guys.
According to social psychologists, unconscious bias can be minimized when people have positive incentives for interpersonal, cross-racial relationships. Wearing a sports jersey for the same team is impressively effective for getting white people to cooperate with African Americans, as shown in a study led by psychologist Jason Nier. The idea is to not provoke white people’s fear and avoidance of doing wrong. It is to motivate people to try to do what’s right by establishing a shared identity
Starbucks also needs to wrestle with its goal of “together.” That’s not always the outcome of conversations about race. Political scientist Katherine Cramer Walsh found that participants in civic dialogues on race commonly walk away with a heightened awareness of their differences, not with the unity that meeting organizers hope to foster.
Is it better to abandon ship?
Despite its missteps, Starbucks, in fact, alit on hopeful insights. Individuals can ignite change, and empathy and listening are starting points. The company deserves some applause for taking the risk and for its deliberate focus on inequality. Undoubtedly, working-class, minority millennials could teach the rest of the country something about race (and executives something about company policy).
The truth hurts
But let’s be clear about what Race Together was not. It was not about addressing institutional discrimination. In that scenario, Starbucks would have issued a press release about eliminating patterns of unfair hiring and firing. It would have overhauled a corporate division of labor that channels racial minorities into lower-tier, nonunionized jobs. It might very well have closed stores in gentrifying neighborhoods.
Those solutions start with incisive diagnosis, not personal reflection. (The U.S. Department of Justice did just that when it scrutinized racial profiling in traffic stops and court fines in Ferguson, Missouri.) Those solutions require change in corporate policy.
To make Race Together honest, Starbucks needed to recognize an ugly truth: America’s race problem is not an inability to talk. It is a failure to rectify the unfair disadvantages hoisted on people of color and the unearned privileges that white people enjoy. Corporations, in their internal operations, are complicit in these very dynamics. So, too, are long-standing government policies, such as tax deductions of home mortgage interest (white folks are far more likely to own their homes). And white Americans may not want to hear it, but racial inequality is, in large measure, rooted in our collective choices: where we’ll pay property taxes, who we’ll tell about a job lead, what we’ll deem criminal, and even when we’ll smile or scowl. Howard Schultz, are you listening?
*This piece was originally published at the Society Pages, http://www.thesocietypages.org
Ellen Berrey teaches in the Department of Sociology at the University of Buffalo, SUNY, and is an affiliated scholar of the American Bar Foundation. Her book The Enigma of Diversity: The Language of Race and the Limits of Racial Justice will publish in April 2015.
screenshot from AP video of Baltimore protests on April 26, 2015
N. B. D. Connolly, assistant professor of history at Johns Hopkins University and author of A World More Concrete: Real Estate and the Remaking of Jim Crow South Florida, on “Black Culture is Not the Problem” for the New York Times:
The problem is not black culture. It is policy and politics, the very things that bind together the history of Ferguson and Baltimore and, for that matter, the rest of America.
Specifically, the problem rests on the continued profitability of racism. Freddie Gray’s exposure to lead paint as a child, his suspected participation in the drug trade, and the relative confinement of black unrest to black communities during this week’s riot are all features of a city and a country that still segregate people along racial lines, to the financial enrichment of landlords, corner store merchants and other vendors selling second-rate goods.
The problem originates in a political culture that has long bound black bodies to questions of property. Yes, I’m referring to slavery.
To read more about A World More Concrete, click here.
Edward H. Miller’s Nut Country: Right-Wing Dallas and the Birth of the Southern Strategy explores how a coterie of civic-minded operatives, backroom business brokers, evangelical leaders, and other representatives of the far-right generated a populist movement based on the dollar, the Bible, and an anti-civil rights agenda that would remake the Republican party in their own image, beginning at home in Dallas. Below follows a brief excerpt from a Q & A Miller did recently with the Dallas Morning News. You can read it in full here.
In our politics today, what do you hear of the tone that dominated Dallas in the middle of the last century?
I see it echoing throughout the presidential campaign. It’s safe to say that a lot of the incendiary speech has certainly trumped the careful deliberation among the right, and conspiratorial thinking that was long a characteristic of “Nut Country” in the 1950s is very much in vogue today. Donald Trump consistently doubts the legitimacy of President Obama’s birth certificate. The apocalyptic doomsday rhetoric that ultraconservatives like H.L. Hunt, Dan Smoot, W. A. Criswell used is very much part of politics today. This does little to improve our public discourse. When I hear people like Lindsey Graham say he’s running for president because the world is on fire or Glenn Beck mention that the passage of Obamacare means the end of America as we know it, it does remind me of the frenzied style, the over-the-top dialogue that really characterizes the features of the Dallas ultraconservatives.
To read more about Nut Country, click here.
“And the great owners, who must lose their land in an upheaval, the great owners with access to history, with eyes to read history and to know the great fact: when property accumulates in too few hands it is taken away. And that companion fact: when a majority of the people are hungry and cold they will take by force what they need. And the little screaming fact that sounds through all history: repression works only to strengthen and knit the repressed.”
Heat wave as repression? Not an exact science. But something about the sweltering temperatures this weekend (the feeling of exodus, perhaps, but not migration) prompted a return to The Grapes of Wrath. 1936 was the year that set many of the record temperatures in the United States that we’re now dabbling in breaking; it was also the year of the coup d’etat that triggered the Spanish Civil War (farewell, Abraham Lincoln Brigade!), and a massive sit-down strike by the United Auto Workers in Flint, Michigan. In the middle of the Dust Bowl’s prairie-afflicted sandstorms and the Depression, our wealth inequality peaked and would remain at the highest levels the country had seen, until just prior to the Too Big to Fail crisis (2007).
In July of 1995, a similar wave struck Chicago. NASDAQ topped 1000, we tried to “disarm” Iraq, and a slow municipal response converged with the elderly poor living in the heart of the city, ushering in unprecendented deaths (over 700) and procedural calamity.
Eric Klinenberg’s Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of a Disaster in Chicago explores the social, political, and institutional organs of the city that made this urban disaster so much worse than it ought to have been:
“Today if you ask Chicagoans about the heat wave they will likely tell you that not all the deaths were ‘really real.’ That’s a direct legacy of the politics of the disaster.”
More from Eric Klinenberg, in an interview that further engages the consequences of natural disaster, human error, and social unrest here.
Joseph Cropsey—American political philosopher; distinguished service professor emeritus in the Department of Political Science at the University of Chicago; dedicated teacher; and coeditor of the “Strauss–Cropsey Reader” (History of Political Philosophy), a staple in universities for fifty years—died last week at the age of 92.
Cropsey completed his PhD in economics at Columbia University in 1952, with a dissertation on the work of Adam Smith, one of his lifelong scholarly interests (in addition to interstitial aspects in the works of Plato and Karl Marx, the figure of Socrates and issues of philosophical sobriety, and the limitations and entrapments of modern liberalism). By 1957, Cropsey was at the University of Chicago (after stints at the CCNY and the New School) as a Rockefeller Foundation Fellow, following Leo Strauss, who would become his most significant collaborator, and assist in his intellectual turn from economics to political philosphy.
The University of Chicago News Office reports on their intellectual partnership:
Strauss encouraged Cropsey to examine texts deeply. “When Strauss was at the head of his class, sitting up there, he would at a certain point say, ‘What does this mean?’ When I have to deal with a text of Plato, I have constantly to be asking myself, ‘What does that truly mean?’ Until one comes to grips with the question, one has not done one’s duty to the object or to oneself,” he told Dialogo.
Cropsey continued teaching at Chicago until 2004, garnering the Quantrell Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching, serving on 134 PhD dissertation committees, and directing the John M. Olin Center for Inquiry into the Theory and Practice of Democracy.
In addition to the History of Political Philosophy, Cropsey authored and edited numerous volumes. Among those are Thomas Hobbes’s A Dialogue between a Philosopher and a Student of the Common Laws of England, an invaluable later writing by Hobbes, and Plato’s World: Man’s Place in the Cosmos, which culminated Cropsey’s lifelong work on the philosopher.
The dissemination of a war against terror has depended on a locution full of historical and contemporary ironies, for terror began its lexical life as the policy of the state, and wars are traditionally waged by states, so the war against terror can be (and has been) deciphered as the war of the state against itself. But international events are not the only sources of interruption of or distraction from the working out of memorial vocabularies for the dead of 9/11. There is also the ongoing negotiation between commerce and commemoration at the WTC site, a process that pits the declared obligations of memory and due respect against those of a future civic life, both economic and cultural. It is easy to cast the moguls of Manhattan as insensitive and materialistic, but the memorial process has also been aggressively suborned by the politicians, whose avowed respect for the dead is not beyond suspicions of present and future self-interest. Debates about the use of the site have not been unmarked by the assumption that the dead should bury the dead and thus by an embarrassingly hasty inclination to get on with life. Many residents have made it clear that they do not wish to live in a national memorial emptied of retail, full of tourists by day and deserted by night. On the other side, melancholic extremes can also be identified among some of the survivor families and other involved groups who want the site to remain always a shrine to the departed.
. . . .
The event we call 9/11 has a past that we can rediscover, a present that we must monitor, and a future we can project. Many of us who were addressing even the most circumscribed of publics—our students or fellow academics—felt the urge, in the immediate aftermath of September 11, 2001, to make a statement, to testify, to register a response, to initiate some sort of commemoration. Many of those responses to the form of grief, sorrow, shock, and above all, self-recrimination at the appearance of carrying on as before. The rhetoric veered wildly between sympathy and self-importance—as if it were a moral duty that each of us should speak—but what was notable was the need to register awareness of some sort. Many people all across America, not only those who knew one of the dead or knew someone who knew someone, reported feelings of acute personal anxiety and radical insecurity, but there was never a point at which this response could be analyzed as prior to or outside of its mediation by television and by political manipulation. With the passage of time it may come to appear that 9/11 did not blow away our past in an eruption of the unimaginable but that it refigured that past into patterns open to being made into new and often dangerous forms of sense.
—from 9/11: The Culture of Commemoration by David Simpson (2006)
The devastation wrought by Hurricane Sandy to the Mid-Atlantic and Northeastern United States, the Caribbean, and Eastern Canada continues to exceed early damage estimates, with almost 66 billion dollars in losses currently anticipated for the US alone, and a death toll of 253 afflicting seven nations. In his recent book The Human Shore: Seacoasts in History, John R. Gillis articulates—and even anticipates—how our relationship to the sea has begun to take on new and potentially catastrophic dimensions. Accounting for more than 100,000 years of seaside civilization, Gillis argues that in spite of mass movement to the coasts in the last half-century, we have forgotten how to live with our oceans. Applying this knowledge to our tenuous responses to this most recent disaster, Gillis explains how a shift in education, awareness, and planning might yet allow us to learn the lessons necessary for sustainable coinhabitance with the seas. You can read more of his thoughts on what we can do below.
“History Has Lessons for Post-Sandy America” by John R. Gillis
In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, Americans are finally beginning to ask themselves whether or not it might be advisable to build up to the edge of the sea. It is dawning on us that we are dealing with a human-made rather than natural disaster. The surge of populations to the sea has been accelerating in recent decades and losses have begun to mount astronomically as expensive properties, encouraged by federally-subsidized insurance, crowd the seashore. On American coasts, a culture of coping—the product of thousands of years of human habitation, on shores that began in prehistoric Africa and ultimately circled the globe—is rapidly vanishing.
Our ancestors knew not just how to live on the sea, but with it. They came there to enjoy the most productive environment the world could offer: in terms of what the land could provide, as well as the even-richer marine biota located just offshore. First as hunters and gatherers, and later assisted by sail and ultimately steam, coastal societies generated social and economic resources greater than their inland neighbors. In the early modern period, it was by means of seaborne empires that Europe extended its world dominance. The United States was born coastal, discovered and settled by sea. In 1837, Alexis de Tocqueville predicted for the young republic a glorious maritime future. The opening up of the North American continent ultimately turned this country inward, but it has always been multishored, facing out toward the Atlantic, Pacific, and the Gulf.
America’s native people had been farmer-fishers. The Europeans who followed them were similar in their orientation to both land and sea. These settlers, like the hunter-gatherers they replaced, were highly mobile, moving alongshore in search of their livelihood. They built dwellings of light, transportable materials and when they settled permanently, they confined themselves well back from the sea, often facing away from what they knew to be its ever-present dangers. These people were not risk-averse, but they were well-informed and cautious about the ways of the sea. Their beaches were strewn with wrecks, as testimony to the uncontrolled power of the oceans to take, as well as give, life. They did not ask to be rescued but instead coped as communities.
In the late twentieth century, older coastal inhabitants have been largely displaced by interior populations who have come to shore to recreate rather than earn their livings. These new residents have confined the fishers to a few small ports, taking over the beaches between, and clearing away even the memories of working life, not to mention the life-and-death struggles that once played out on the seas. Today, the beach is supposed to be the place where we get away from the world—and even the thought of its troubles. Fishing villages have now been turned into some of the world’s highest-priced real estate, forcing fishers and clammers to live elsewhere, as they commute to the few working waterfronts that still exist. In most places, these have been replaced by what John Cheever called a “second shore,” ports of “antique shops, restaurants, and tea shops.”
Gone are not only the old coastal peoples but their well-developed cultures of risk and coping. Risk has been displaced to the national treasury; coping is left to governments at the state and federal levels. This new coastal generation no longer knows how to live lightly on the shores or how to construct portable buildings that can be removed from the path of danger. Earlier generations knew the sea to be an ever-present risk, but did not treat it as an enemy from which there can be no retreat. Americans now fly flags in the face of hurricanes and resist the pulling back of lighthouses threatened by beach erosion as a betrayal of national sovereignty.
The first response of politicians to Sandy—to restore and rebuild in place—was not at all promising, but there is still time for wiser counsel. Already there have been calls for risk to be gradually shifted from the government to property owners. Instead of quick fixes like manufacturing bigger sea walls and expensive storm barriers, we can wait for nature to do its part by rebuilding barrier islands and wetlands. But we also need to do our part by educating the public on the history and culture of risk and coping. We can do the first by taking financial responsibility for our own mistakes. The second can be accomplished by sensible coastal planning and new building codes that are informed by the history of local resilience, which has much offer if we are only willing to consult its long record.
John R. Gillis is the author of The Human Shore: Seacoasts in History; Islands of the Mind; A World of Their Own Making: Myth, Ritual, and the Quest for Family Values; and Commemorations. A professor of history emeritus at Rutgers University, he now divides his time between two coasts: Northern California and Maine.
By: Kristi McGuire,
Blog: The Chicago Blog
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In wrapping of the year’s best-of-2012 lists, we couldn’t help but single out the University of Chicago Press titles that made the cut as reads worth remembering. With that in mind, here’s a list of our books that earned praise as cream of the crop here and abroad, from scholarly journals, literary blogs, metropolitan newspapers, and the like. If you’re looking, might we (and others) recommend—
A Naked Singularity by Sergio De La Pava
A World in One Cubic Foot: Portraits of Biodiversity by David Liittschwager
Alive in the Writing: Crafting Ethnography in the Company of Chekhov by Kirin Narayan
And Bid Him Sing: A Biography of Countée Cullen by Charles Molesworth
The Art of Medicine: 2,000 Years of Images and Imagination by Julie Anderson, Emm Barnes, and Emma Shackleton
Bewilderment by David Ferry
Book Was There: Reading in Electronic Times by Andrew Piper
Dangerous Work: Diary of an Arctic Adventure by Arthur Conan Doyle
Dreaming in French: The Paris Years of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, Susan Sontag, and Angela Davis
The Last Walk: Reflections on Our Pets at the End of Their Lives by Jessica Pierce
Other Criteria: Confrontations with Twentieth-Century Art by Leo Steinberg
- announced as a book of the year by the Art Newspaper (originally published in 2007: TIME WARP)
The Romantic Machine: Utopian Science and Technology after Napoleon by John Tresch
The Sounding of the Whale: Science and Cetaceans in the Twentieth Century by D. Graham Burnett
The Structure of Scientific Revolutions: Fiftieth Anniversary Edition by Thomas S. Kuhn
- made Nature magazine’s Top Twelve of 2012 list
The Timeline of Presidential Elections: How Campaigns Do (And Do Not) Matter by Robert S. Erikson and Christopher Wlezian
Vegetables: A Biography by Evelyne Bloch-Dano
included as one of the best books of 2012 by Audubon magazine
You’ll Know When You Get There: Herbie Hancock and the Mwandishi Band by Bob Gluck
When you think about Wikipedia, you might not immediately envision it as a locus for a political theory of openness—and that might well be due to a cut-and-paste utopian haze that masks the site’s very real politicking around issues of shared decision-making, administrative organization, and the push for and against transparencies. In Wikipedia and the Politics of Openness, forthcoming this December, Nathaniel Tkacz cuts throw the glow and establishes how issues integral to the concept of “openness” play themselves out in the day-to-day reality of Wikipedia’s existence. Recently, critic Alan Liu, whose prescient scholarship on the relationship between our literary/historical and technological imaginations has shaped much of the humanities turn to new media, endorsed the book via Twitter:
With that in mind, the book’s jacket copy furthers a frame for Tkacz’s argument:
Few virtues are as celebrated in contemporary culture as openness. Rooted in software culture and carrying more than a whiff of Silicon Valley technical utopianism, openness—of decision-making, data, and organizational structure—is seen as the cure for many problems in politics and business.
But what does openness mean, and what would a political theory of openness look like? With Wikipedia and the Politics of Openness, Nathaniel Tkacz uses Wikipedia, the most prominent product of open organization, to analyze the theory and politics of openness in practice—and to break its spell. Through discussions of edit wars, article deletion policies, user access levels, and more, Tkacz enables us to see how the key concepts of openness—including collaboration, ad-hocracy, and the splitting of contested projects through “forking”—play out in reality.
The resulting book is the richest critical analysis of openness to date, one that roots media theory in messy reality and thereby helps us move beyond the vaporware promises of digital utopians and take the first steps toward truly understanding what openness does, and does not, have to offer.
Read more about Wikipedia and the Politics of Openness, available December 2014, here.
Americans tend to see negative campaign ads as just that: negative. Pundits, journalists, voters, and scholars frequently complain that such ads undermine elections and even democratic government itself. But John G. Geer here takes the opposite stance, arguing that when political candidates attack each other, raising doubts about each other’s views and qualifications, voters—and the democratic process—benefit.
In Defense of Negativity, Geer’s study of negative advertising in presidential campaigns from 1960 to 2004, asserts that the proliferating attack ads are far more likely than positive ads to focus on salient political issues, rather than politicians’ personal characteristics. Accordingly, the ads enrich the democratic process, providing voters with relevant and substantial information before they head to the polls.
An important and timely contribution to American political discourse, In Defense of Negativity concludes that if we want campaigns to grapple with relevant issues and address real problems, negative ads just might be the solution.
“Geer has set out to challenge the widely held belief that attack ads and negative campaigns are destroying democracy. Quite the opposite, he argues in his provocative new book: Negativity is good for you and for the political system. . . . In Defense of Negativity adds a new argument to the debate about America’s polarized politics, and in doing so it asserts that voters are less bothered by today’s partisan climate than many believe. If there are problems—and there are—Geer says it’s time to stop blaming it all on 30-second spots.”—Washington Post
Download your free copy of In Defense of Negativity here.
Watch “The Bear,” one of those 30-second spots (less an attack ad, and more a foray into American surrrealism) produced for Ronald Reagan’s 1984 presidential campaign, below:
How Many is Too Many?: The Progressive Argument for Reducing Immigration into the United States
by Philip Cafaro
How many immigrants should we allow into the United States annually, and who gets to come?
The question is easy to state but hard to answer, for thoughtful individuals and for our nation as a whole. It is a complex question, touching on issues of race and class, morals and money, power and political allegiance. It is an important question, since our answer will help determine what kind of country our children and grandchildren inherit. It is a contentious question: answer it wrongly and you may hear some choice personal epithets directed your way, depending on who you are talking to. It is also an endlessly recurring question, since conditions will change, and an immigration policy that made sense in one era may no longer work in another. Any answer we give must be open to revision.
This book explores the immigration question in light of current realities and defends one provisional answer to it. By exploring the question from a variety of angles and making my own political beliefs explicit, I hope that it will help readers come to their own well-informed conclusions. Our answers may differ, but as fellow citizens we need to keep talking to one another and try to come up with immigration policies that further the common good.
Why are immigration debates frequently so angry? People on one side often seem to assume it is just because people on the other are stupid, or immoral. I disagree. Immigration is contentious because vital interests are at stake and no one set of policies can fully accommodate all of them. Consider two stories from among the hundreds I’ve heard while researching this book.
* * *
It is lunchtime on a sunny October day and I’m talking to Javier, an electrician’s assistant, at a home construction site in Longmont, Colorado, near Denver. He is short and solidly built; his words are soft-spoken but clear. Although he apologizes for his English, it is quite good. At any rate much better than my Spanish.
Javier studied to be an electrician in Mexico, but could not find work there after school. “You have to pay to work,” he explains: pay corrupt officials up to two years’ wages up front just to start a job. “Too much corruption,” he says, a refrain I find repeated often by Mexican immigrants. They feel that a poor man cannot get ahead there, can hardly get started.
So in 1989 Javier came to the United States, undocumented, working various jobs in food preparation and construction. He has lived in Colorado for nine years and now has a wife (also here illegally) and two girls, ages seven and three. “I like USA, you have a better life here,” he says. Of course he misses his family back in Mexico. But to his father’s entreaties to come home, he explains that he needs to consider his own family now. Javier told me that he’s not looking to get rich, he just wants a decent life for himself and his girls. Who could blame him?
Ironically one of the things Javier likes most about the United States is that we have rules that are fairly enforced. Unlike in Mexico, a poor man does not live at the whim of corrupt officials. When I suggest that Mexico might need more people like him to stay and fight “corruption,” he just laughs. “No, go to jail,c he says, or worse. Like the dozens of other Mexican and Central American immigrants I have interviewed for this book, Javier does not seem to think that such corruption could ever change in the land of his birth.
Do immigrants take jobs away from Americans? I ask. “American people no want to work in the fields,” he responds, or as dishwashers in restaurants. Still, he continues, “the problem is cheap labor.” Too many immigrants coming into construction lowers wages for everyone— including other immigrants like himself.
“The American people say, all Mexicans the same,” Javier says. He does not want to be lumped together with “all Mexicans,” or labeled a problem, but judged for who he is as an individual. “I don’t like it when my people abandon cars, or steal.” If immigrants commit crimes, he thinks they should go to jail, or be deported. But “that no me.” While many immigrants work under the table for cash, he is proud of the fact that he pays his taxes. Proud, too, that he gives a good day’s work for his daily pay (a fact confirmed by his coworkers).
Javier’s boss, Andy, thinks that immigration levels are too high and that too many people flout the law and work illegally. He was disappointed, he says, to find out several years ago that Javier was in the country illegally. Still he likes and respects Javier and worries about his family. He is trying to help him get legal residency.
With the government showing new initiative in immigration enforcement—including a well-publicized raid at a nearby meat-packing plant that caught hundreds of illegal workers—there is a lot of worry among undocumented immigrants. “Everyone scared now,” Javier says. He and his wife used to go to restaurants or stores without a second thought; now they are sometimes afraid to go out. “It’s hard,” he says. But: “I understand. If the people say, ‘All the people here, go back to Mexico,’ I understand.”
Javier’s answer to one of my standard questions—“How might changes in immigration policy affect you?”—is obvious. Tighter enforcement could break up his family and destroy the life he has created here in America. An amnesty would give him a chance to regularize his life. “Sometimes,” he says, “I dream in my heart, ‘If you no want to give me paper for residence, or whatever, just give me permit for work.’ ”
* * *
It’s a few months later and I’m back in Longmont, eating a 6:30 breakfast at a café out by the Interstate with Tom Kenney. Fit and alert, Tom looks to be in his mid-forties. Born and raised in Denver, he has been spraying custom finishes on drywall for twenty-five years and has had his own company since 1989. “At one point we had twelve people running three trucks,” he says. Now his business is just him and his wife. “Things have changed,” he says.
Although it has cooled off considerably, residential and commercial construction was booming when I interviewed Tom. The main “thing that’s changed” is the number of immigrants in construction. When Tom got into it twenty-five years ago, construction used almost all native-born workers. Today estimates of the number of immigrant workers in northern Colorado range from 50% to 70% of the total construction workforce. Some trades, like pouring concrete and framing, use immigrant labor almost exclusively. Come in with an “all-white” crew of framers, another small contractor tells me, and people do a double-take.
Tom is an independent contractor, bidding on individual jobs. But, he says, “guys are coming in with bids that are impossible.” After all his time in the business, “no way they can be as efficient in time and materials as me.” The difference has to be in the cost of labor. “They’re not paying the taxes and insurance that I am,” he says. Insurance, workmen’s compensation, and taxes add about 40% to the cost of legally employed workers. When you add the lower wages that immigrants are often willing to take, there is plenty of opportunity for competing contractors to underbid Tom and still make a tidy profit. He no longer bids on the big new construction projects and jobs in individual, custom-built houses are becoming harder to find.
“I’ve gone in to spray a house and there’s a guy sleeping in the bathtub, with a microwave set up in the kitchen. I’m thinking, ‘You moved into this house for two weeks to hang and paint it, you’re gonna get cash from somebody, and he’s gonna pick you up and drive you to the next one.’ ” He seems more upset at the contractor than at the undocumented worker who labors for him.
In this way, some trades in construction are turning into the equivalent of migrant labor in agriculture. Workers do not have insurance or workmen’s compensation, so if they are hurt or worn out on the job, they are simply discarded and replaced. Workers are used up, while the builders and contractors higher up the food chain keep more of the profits for themselves. “The quality of life [for construction workers] has changed drastically,” says Tom. “I don’t want to live like that. I want to go home and live with my family.”
Do immigrants perform jobs Americans don’t want to do? I ask. The answer is no. “My job is undesirable,” Tom replies. “It’s dirty, it’s messy, it’s dusty. I learned right away that because of that, the opportunity is available to make money in it. That job has served me well”—at least up until recently. He now travels as far away as Wyoming and southern Colorado to find work. “We’re all fighting for scraps right now.”
Over the years, Tom has built a reputation for quality work and efficient and prompt service, as I confirmed in interviews with others in the business. Until recently that was enough to secure a good living. Now though, like a friend of his who recently folded his small landscaping company (“I just can’t bid ’em low enough”), Tom is thinking of leaving the business. He is also struggling to find a way to keep up the mortgage payments on his house.
He does not blame immigrants, though. “If you were born in Mexico, and you had to fight for food or clothing, you would do the same thing,” Tom tells me. “You would come here.”
* * *
Any immigration policy will have winners and losers. So claims Harvard economist George Borjas, a leading authority on the economic impacts of immigration. My interviews with Javier Morales and Tom Kenney suggest why Borjas is right.
If we enforce our immigration laws, then good people like Javier and his family will have their lives turned upside down. If we limit the numbers of immigrants, then good people in Mexico (and Guatemala, and Vietnam, and the Philippines …) will have to forgo opportunities to live better lives in the United States.
On the other hand, if we fail to enforce our immigration laws or repeatedly grant amnesties to people like Javier who are in the country illegally, then we forfeit the ability to set limits to immigration. And if immigration levels remain high, then hard-working men and women like Tom and his wife and children will probably continue to see their economic fortunes decline. Economic inequality will continue to increase in America, as it has for the past four decades.
In the abstract neither of these options is appealing. When you talk to the people most directly affected by our immigration policies, the dilemma becomes even more acute. But as we will see further on when we explore the economics of immigration in greater detail, these appear to be the options we have.
Recognizing trade-offs—economic, environmental, social—is indeed the beginning of wisdom on the topic of immigration. We should not exaggerate such conflicts, or imagine conflicts where none exist, but neither can we ignore them. Here are some other trade-offs that immigration decisions may force us to confront:
- Cheaper prices for new houses vs. good wages for construction workers.
- Accommodating more people in the United States vs. preserving wildlife habitat and vital resources.
- Increasing ethnic and racial diversity in America vs. enhancing social solidarity among our citizens.
- More opportunities for Latin Americans to work in the United States vs. greater pressure on Latin American elites to share wealth and opportunities with their fellow citizens.
The best approach to immigration will make such trade-offs explicit, minimize them where possible, and choose fairly between them when necessary.
Since any immigration policy will have winners and losers, at any particular time there probably will be reasonable arguments for changing the mix of immigrants we allow in, or for increasing or decreasing overall immigration, with good people on all sides of these issues. Whatever your current beliefs, by the time you finish this book you should have a much better understanding of the complex trade-offs involved in setting immigration policy. This may cause you to change your views about immigration. It may throw your current views into doubt, making it harder to choose a position on how many immigrants to let into the country each year; or what to do about illegal immigrants; or whether we should emphasize country of origin, educational level, family reunification, or asylum and refugee claims, in choosing whom to let in. In the end, understanding trade-offs ensures that whatever policies we wind up advocating for are more consciously chosen, rationally defensible, and honest. For such a contentious issue, where debate often generates more heat than light, that might have to suffice.
* * *
Perhaps a few words about my own political orientation will help clarify the argument and goals of this book. I’m a political progressive. I favor a relatively equal distribution of wealth across society, economic security for workers and their families, strong, well-enforced environmental protection laws, and an end to racial discrimination in the United States. I want to maximize the political power of common citizens and limit the influence of large corporations. Among my political heroes are the three Roosevelts (Teddy, Franklin, and Eleanor), Rachel Carson, and Martin Luther King Jr.
I also want to reduce immigration into the United States. If this combination seems odd to you, you are not alone. Friends, political allies, even my mother the social worker shake their heads or worse when I bring up the subject. This book aims to show that this combination of political progressivism and reduced immigration is not odd at all. In fact, it makes more sense than liberals’ typical embrace of mass immigration: an embrace shared by many conservatives, from George W. Bush and Orrin Hatch to the editorial board of the Wall Street Journal and the US Chamber of Commerce.
In what follows I detail how current immigration levels—the highest in American history—undermine attempts to achieve progressive economic, environmental, and social goals. I have tried not to oversimplify these complex issues, or mislead readers by cherry-picking facts to support pre-established conclusions. I have worked hard to present the experts’ views on how immigration affects US population growth, poorer workers’ wages, urban sprawl, and so forth. Where the facts are unclear or knowledgeable observers disagree, I report that, too.
This book is divided into four main parts. Chapters 1 and 2 set the stage for us to consider how immigration relates to progressive political goals. Chapter 2, “Immigration by the Numbers,” provides a concise history of US immigration policy. It explains current policy, including who gets in under what categories of entry and how many people immigrate annually. It also discusses population projections for the next one hundred years under different immigration scenarios, showing how relatively small annual differences in immigration numbers quickly lead to huge differences in overall population.
Part 2 consists of chapters 3–5, which explore the economics of immigration, showing how flooded labor markets have driven down workers’ wages in construction, meatpacking, landscaping, and other economic sectors in recent decades, and increased economic inequality. I ask who wins and who loses economically under current immigration policies and consider how different groups might fare under alternative scenarios. I also consider immigration’s contribution to economic growth and argue that unlike fifty or one hundred years ago America today does not need a larger economy, with more economic activity or higher levels of consumption, but rather a fairer economy that better serves the needs of its citizens. Here as elsewhere, the immigration debate can clarify progressive political aspirations; in this case, helping us rethink our support for endless economic growth and develop a more mature understanding of our economic goals.
Part 3, chapters 6–8, focuses on the environment. Mass immigration has increased America’s population by tens of millions of people in recent decades and is set to add hundreds of millions more over the twenty-first century. According to Census Bureau data our population now stands at 320 million people, the third-largest in the world, and at current immigration rates could balloon to over 700 million by 2100. This section examines the environmental problems caused by a rapidly growing population, including urban sprawl, overcrowding, habitat loss, species extinctions, and increased greenhouse gas emissions. I chronicle the environmental community’s historic retreat from population issues over the past four decades, including the Sierra Club’s failed attempts to adopt a consensus policy on immigration, and conclude that this retreat has been a great mistake. Creating an ecologically sustainable society is not just window dressing; it is necessary to pass on a decent future to our descendants and do our part to solve dangerous global environmental problems. Because sustainability is incompatible with an endlessly growing population, Americans can no longer afford to ignore domestic population growth.
Part 4, chapters 9–11, looks for answers. The chapter “Solutions” sketches out a comprehensive proposal for immigration reform in line with progressive political goals, focused on reducing overall immigration levels. I suggest shifting enforcement efforts from border control to employer sanctions—as several European nations have done with great success—and a targeted amnesty for illegal immigrants who have lived in the United States for years and built lives here (Javier and his wife could stay, but their cousins probably would not get to come). I propose changes in US trade and aid policies that could help people create better lives where they are, alleviating some of the pressure to emigrate. In these ways, Americans can meet our global responsibilities without doing so on the backs of our own poor citizens, or sacrificing the interests of future generations. A companion chapter considers a wide range of reasonable progressive “Objections” to this more restrictive immigration policy. I try to answer these objections honestly, focusing on the trade-offs involved. A short concluding chapter reminds readers of all that is at stake in immigration policy, and affirms that we will make better policy with our minds open.
How Many Is Too Many? shows that by thinking through immigration policy progressives can get clearer on our own goals. These do not include having the largest possible percentage of racial and ethnic minorities, but creating a society free of racial discrimination, where diversity is appreciated. They do not include an ever-growing economy, but feature an economy that works for the good of society as a whole. They most certainly do not include a crowded, cooked, polluted, ever-more-tamed environment, but instead a healthy, spacious landscape that supports us with sufficient room for wild nature. Finally our goals should include playing our proper role as global citizens, while still paying attention to our special responsibilities as Americans. Like it or not those responsibilities include setting US immigration policy.
* * *
Although I hope readers across the political spectrum will find this book interesting, I have written it primarily for my fellow progressives. Frankly, we need to think harder about this issue than we have been. Just because Rush Limbaugh and his ilk want to close our borders does not necessarily mean progressives should be for opening them wider. But this is not an easy topic to discuss and I appreciate your willingness to consider it with me. In fact I come to this topic reluctantly myself. I recognize immigration’s contribution to making the United States one of the most dynamic countries in the world. I also find personal meaning in the immigrant experience.
My paternal grandfather came to America from southern Italy when he was twelve years old. As a child I listened entranced to his stories, told in an accent still heavy after half a century in his adopted country. Stories of the trip over and how excited he was to explore everything on the big ship (a sailor, taking advantage of his curiosity, convinced him to lift some newspapers lying on deck, to see what was underneath …). Stories of working as a journeyman shoe repairman in cities and towns across upstate New York and Ohio (in one store, the foreman put my grandfather and his lathe in the front window so passers-by would stop to watch how fast and well he did his work). Stories of settling down and starting his own business, marrying Nana, raising a family.
I admired Grandpa’s adventurousness in coming to a new world, his self-reliance, his pride in his work, and his willingness to work hard to create a better future for himself and his family, including, eventually, me. Stopping by the store, listening to him chat with his customers, I saw clearly that he was a respected member of his community. When he and the relatives got together for those three-hour meals that grew ever longer over stories, songs, and a little wine, I felt part of something special, something different from my everyday life and beyond the experience of many of my friends.
So this book is not a criticism of immigrants! I know that many of today’s immigrants, legal and illegal, share my grandfather’s intelligence and initiative. The lives they are creating here are good lives rich in love and achievement. Nor is it an argument against all immigration: I favor reducing immigration into the United States, not ending it. I hope immigrants will continue to enrich America for many years to come. In fact, reducing current immigration levels would be a good way to insure continued widespread support for immigration.
Still, Americans sometimes forget that we can have too much of a good thing. Sometimes when Nana passes the pasta, it’s time to say basta. Enough.
When to say enough, though, can be a difficult question. How do we know when immigration levels need to be scaled back? And do any of us, as the descendants of immigrants, have the right to do so?
Answering the first question, in detail, is one of the main goals of this book. Speaking generally I think we need to reduce immigration when it seriously harms our society, or its weakest members. The issues are complex, but I think any country should consider reducing immigration:
- When immigration significantly drives down wages for its poorer citizens.
- When immigrants are regularly used to weaken or break unions.
- When immigration appears to increase economic inequality within a society.
- When immigration makes the difference between stabilizing a country’s population or doubling it within the next century.
- When immigration-driven population growth makes it impossible to rein in sprawl, decrease greenhouse gas emissions sufficiently, or take the other steps necessary to create an ecologically sustainable society.
- When rapid demographic shifts undermine social solidarity and a sense of communal purpose.
- When most of its citizens say that immigration should be reduced.
Of course, there may also be good reasons to continue mass immigration: reasons powerful enough to outweigh such serious social costs or the expressed wishes of a nation’s citizens. But they had better be important. And in the case at hand they had better articulate responsibilities that properly belong to the United States and its citizens—and not help our “sender” countries avoid their own problems and responsibilities. Reversing gross economic inequality and creating a sustainable society are the primary political tasks facing this generation of Americans. Progressives should think long and hard before we accept immigration policies that work against these goals.
But what about the second question: do Americans today have a right to reduce immigration? To tell Javier’s cousins, perhaps, that they cannot come to America and make better lives for themselves and their families?
Yes, we do. Not only do we have a right to limit immigration into the United States, as citizens we have a responsibility to do so if immigration levels get so high that they harm our fellow citizens, or society as a whole. Meeting this responsibility may be disagreeable, because it means telling good people that they cannot come to America to pursue their dreams. Still, it may need to be done.
Those of us who want to limit immigration are sometimes accused of selfishness: of wanting to hog resources or keep “the American way of life” for ourselves. There may be some truth in this charge, since many Americans’ interests are threatened by mass immigration. Still, some of those interests seem worth preserving. The union carpenter taking home $30 an hour who owns his own house, free and clear, or the outdoorsman walking quietly along the edge of a favorite elk meadow or trout stream, may want to continue to enjoy these good things and pass them on to their sons and daughters. What is wrong with that?
Besides, the charge of selfishness cuts both ways. Restaurant owners and software tycoons hardly deserve the Mother Teresa Self-Sacrifice Medal when they lobby Congress for more low-wage workers. The wealthy progressive patting herself on the back for her enlightened views on immigration probably hasn’t ever totaled up the many ways she and her family benefit from cheap labor.
In the end our job as citizens is to look beyond our narrow self-interest and consider the common good. Many of us oppose mass immigration not because of what it costs us as individuals, but because we worry about the economic costs to our fellow citizens, or the environmental costs to future generations. Most Americans enjoy sharing our country with foreign visitors and are happy to share economic opportunities with reasonable numbers of newcomers. We just want to make sure we preserve those good things that make this a desirable destination in the first place.
All else being equal, Americans would just as soon not interfere with other people’s decisions about where to live and work. In fact such a laissez-faire approach to immigration lasted for much of our nation’s history. But today all else is not equal. For one thing this is the age of jet airplanes, not tall-masted sailing ships or coal-fired steamers. It is much quicker and easier to come here than it used to be and the pool of would-be immigrants has increased by an order of magnitude since my grandfather’s day. (In 2006, there were 6. million applications for the 50,000 green cards available under that year’s “diversity lottery.” ) For another, we do not have an abundance of unclaimed land for farmers to homestead, or new factories opening up to provide work for masses of unskilled laborers. Unemployment is high and projected to remain high for the foreseeable future. For a third, we recognize new imperatives to live sustainably and do our part to meet global ecological challenges. Scientists are warning that we run grave risks should we fail to do so.
Americans today overwhelmingly support immigration restrictions. We disagree about the optimal amount of immigration, but almost everyone agrees that setting some limits is necessary. Of course, our immigration policies should be fair to all concerned. Javier Morales came to America illegally, but for most of his time here our government just winked at illegal immigration. It also taxed his paychecks. After two and a half decades of hard work that has benefited our country, I think we owe Javier citizenship. But we also owe Tom Kenney something. Perhaps the opportunity to prosper, if he is willing to work hard. Surely, at a minimum, government policies that do not undermine his own attempts to prosper.
* * *
The progressive vision is alive and well in the United States today. Most Americans want a clean environment with flourishing wildlife, a fair economy that serves all its citizens, and a diverse society that is free from racism. Still, it will take a lot of hard work to make this vision a reality and success is not guaranteed. Progressives cannot shackle our hopes to an outmoded immigration policy that thwarts us at every turn.
Given the difficulties involved in getting 320 million Americans to curb consumption and waste, there is little reason to think we will be able to achieve ecological sustainability while doubling or tripling that number. Mass immigration ensures that our population will continue growing at a rapid rate and that environmentalists will always be playing catch up. Fifty or one hundred years from now we will still be arguing that we should destroy this area rather than that one, or that we can make the destruction a little more aesthetically appealing—instead of ending the destruction. We will still be trying to slow the growth of air pollution, water use, or carbon emissions—rather than cutting them back.
But the US population would quickly stabilize without mass immigration. We can stop population growth—without coercion or intrusive domestic population policies—simply by returning to pre-1965 immigration levels.
Imagine an environmentalism that was not always looking to meet the next crisis and that could instead look forward to real triumphs. What if we achieved significant energy efficiency gains and were able to enjoy those gains with less pollution, less industrial development on public lands, and an end to oil wars, because those efficiency gains were not swallowed up by growing populations?
Imagine if the push to develop new lands largely ended and habitat for other species increased year by year, with a culture of conservation developed around restoring and protecting that habitat. Imagine if our demand for fresh water leveled off and instead of fighting new dam projects we could actually leave more water in our rivers.
And what of the American worker? It is hard to see how progressives will succeed in reversing current powerful trends toward ever greater economic inequality in a context of continued mass immigration, particularly with high numbers of relatively unskilled and poorly educated immigrants. Flooded labor markets will harm poorer workers directly, by driving down wages and driving up unemployment. Mass immigration will also continue to harm workers indirectly by making it harder for them to organize and challenge employers, by reducing the percentage of poor workers who are citizens and thus able to vote for politicians who favor the poor, and by limiting sympathy between the haves and havenots, since with mass immigration they are more likely to belong to different ethnic groups.
But it does not have to be this way. We can tighten labor markets and get them working for working people in this country. Combined with other good progressive egalitarian measures—universal health care; a living minimum wage; a more progressive tax structure—we might even reverse current trends and create a more economically just country.
Imagine meatpacking plants and carpet-cleaning companies competing with one another for scarce workers, bidding up their wages. Imagine unions able to strike those companies without having to worry about scabs taking their members’ jobs. Imagine college graduates sifting through numerous job offers, like my father and his friends did fifty years ago during that era’s pause in mass immigration, instead of having to wait tables and just hope for something better.
Imagine poor children of color in our inner cities, no longer looked on as a problem to be warehoused in failing schools, or jails, but instead seen as an indispensable resource: the solution to labor shortages in restaurants and software companies.
Well, why not? Why are we progressives always playing catch up? The right immigration policies could help lead us toward a more just, egalitarian, and sustainable future. They could help liberals achieve our immediate goals and drive the long-term political agenda. But we will not win these battles without an inspiring vision for a better society, or with an immigration policy that makes that vision impossible to achieve.
To read more about How Many is Too Many?, click here.
By: Kristi McGuire,
Blog: The Chicago Blog
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The 2012 class of Guggenheim Fellows was announced this week by the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, inciting some exuberant responses on the part of several winners (check out Terry Teachout’s Twitter feed). The Guggenheim has long been hailed as the “mid-career award,” honoring scholars, scientists, poets, artists, and writers, who have likely published a book or three, professed a fair amount of research, and are actively engaged in projects of significant scope. The fellowship possesses some tortured origins—(John) Simon Guggenheim, who served as president of the American Smelting and Refining Company and Republican senator from Colorado, seeded the award (1925) following the death of this son John (1922) from mastoiditis (Guggenheim’s second son George later committed suicide, and more infamously his older brother Benjamin went down with the Titanic). Among this year’s crop (we dare say more forward-leaning than previous years?) is a roster of standout “professionals who have demonstrated exceptional ability by publishing a significant body of work in the fields of natural sciences, social sciences, humanities, and the creative arts,” affiliated with the University of Chicago Press: Creative Arts Christian Wiman, editor of Poetry magazine and author of three poetry collections, coeditor of The Open Door: [...]
What follows below is a list of proper nouns mentioned by Alan Gilbert, author of Black Patriots and Loyalists: Fighting for Emancipation in the War for Independence, during an interview with 3 AM magazine:
Richard Gilbert, United States, Harvard, World War II, Wobblies, Schenley Industries, New York, Ayub Khan, Pakistan, Little Rock, Central High, New York Times, South Africa, Emma, Democrats, Taj, Americans, Adamjee, East Pakistan, West Pakistan, Ashraf Adamjee, Wouter Tim, Marx, Indian Ocean, Chestertown, Maryland, Freedom Summer, Walden School, New York, Andy Goodman, James Cheney, Michael Schwerner, Vietnam War, Bernard Fall, Denis Warner, Jean Lacouture, Stanley Hoffmann, Barrington Moore, French, German, English, Government 1a, Carl Friedrich, Max Weber, Adam Smith, Emile Durkheim, Sigmund Freud, David Hume, I. F. Stone, Herbert Marcuse, McGeorge Bundy, May 2nd Movement, London School of Economics, Ralph Miliband, Labour Party, Ecole Normale, Paris, Althusser, Montesquieu, Das Kapital, England, Michael Walzer, Dita Skhlar, Artistotle, Hilary Putnam, John Rawls, Dick Boyd, SDS, Alan Garfinkel, Forms of Explanation, Norm Daniels, Cornell, Nick Sturgeon, Richard Miller, David Lyons, American Council of Learned Societies, Marx’s Politics: Communists and Citizens, Leo Strauss, Karl Loewith, the Right, Adolf Hitler, Plato, Thomas Hobbes, J. J. Rousseau, Alex Rosenberg, the Iliad, Simone Weil, Chicago, Africa, Obama, Bin Laden, Goldman Sachs, Tunisia, Egypt, Greece, Spain, Occupy, Carl Schmitt, Political Theology, Karl Loewith, Constitution, Bob Goldwin, Mike Malbin, Dick Cheney, Scott Horton, Eugene Shepperd, Michael Zank, William Altman, Shylock, Fagin, Hannah Arendt, Martin Heidegger, Brown vs. Board of Education, Charles Percy, Cuba, the American President, Bradley Manning, Iraq War, Americanism, Evangelicism, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Awlaki, Jack Balkin, Ron Paul, British Tories, Andrew Sullivan, Bob Barr, Condi Rice, Democratic Individuality, Magna Carta, Law Lords, Catholic Church, Spirit of the Laws, Gilbert Harman, Socrates, Meno, American South, Ku Klux Klan, John Woolman, John Laurens, Thomas Peters, Black Patriots and Loyalists: Fighting for Emancipation in the War for Independence, Lincoln, Thomas Hobbes, George Washington, Gabriel Prosser, the Republic, Thrasymachus, the Adamjee Jute Mill, Brian Leiter, Bangladesh, Hilary Putnam, Democratic Individuality, Martin Luther King, Thich Nat Hanh, Vienna, Jean-Paul Sartre, Charles Taylor, Vichy, the Riviera, G. A. Cohen, the Communist Manifesto, Engels, the Eighteenth Brumaire, Genealogy of Morals, Politics as a Vocation, 11th Thesis on Feuerbach, Mayor Bloomberg, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, National Labor Relations Act, Flint, San Francisco, Harry Bridges, National Guard, Wisconsin, May Day, the Second International, Haymarket, Civil Rights Acts, Vincent Harding, Memphis, Must Global Politics Constrain Democracy, International Working Men’s Association, Hans Morganthau, George Kennan, Robert Gilpin, Robert Keohane, John Brown, Frederick Douglass, Walt Whitman, Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Michel Foucault, A Theory of Justice, Rupert Murdoch, Jacopo Arbenz, Guatemala, ITT, Salvador Allende, Law of Peoples, David Levine, Blackwater, Xe Corporation, Yitzhak Perlman, Stradivarius, C. P. Snow, Henry Giroux, Max Planck, Denver, Koch Brothers, National Public Radio, Mitt Romney,
Forty-eight years ago today, then-president Lyndon Johnson formally introduced his platform for the “Great Society” at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor’s commencement on May 22, 1964. Coined by speechwriter Richard N. Goodwin (who also wrote for Robert F. Kennedy—he’s still living, and is the spouse of historian Doris Kearns Goodwin), the Great Society sponsored a series of social initiatives that helped Johnson win election later that fall in a landslide victory, and many of them—decades later—remain with us today, including Medicaid, Medicare, and the Older Americans Act.
Several agencies and institutions were first endowed by Great Society–funded legislation, including the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. Among the landmark legislation passed in Johnson’s term was the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964, Civil Right Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the Civil Rights Act of 1968; the Social Security Act (1965), the Food Stamp Act (1964), and the Immigration and National Services Act (1965); and, the Elementary and Higher Education Act (1965), the Higher Education Act (1965), and the Bilingual Education Act (1968). The Cigarette Labeling Act. The Motor Vehicle Safety Act. The Clear Air, Water Quality, and Clean Water Restoration Acts and Amendments. These legislative endeavors, voted into law by the Eighty-Ninth Congress (the Johnson Administration submitted eighty-seven bills to Congress, and Johnson signed eighty-four, or 96 percent, perhaps the most successful legislative agenda in U.S. Congressional history), were imperative enough to twentieth-century American life that we don’t need to footnote their contributions (or, sluggish sigh: maybe we do). So, too, with the organizations that sprung up through GS–helmed research initiatives and public partnerships: Head Start, the Job Corps, VISTA, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and National Public Radio.
W. J. T. Mitchell, writing in Cloning Terror: The War of Images, 9/11 to the Present, writes the following on the origins of the phrase “war on terror,” tracing it to the nineteenth-century’s “war on tuberculosis”:
The metaphor was updated by Lyndon Johnson’s “war on poverty” and Richard Nixon’s “war on drugs” (another war, incidentally, that has proved to be endless and unwinnable). All these “wars” were properly understood in quotation marks, as serious efforts to solve systemic problems in public health. LBJ did not envision the bombing of poor neighborhoods as the way to conduct a war on poverty. (The drug war, on the other hand, is well on its way down the slippery slope toward literalization as military action.)
From Politicians Don’t Pander: Political Manipulation and the Loss of Democratic Responsiveness by Lawrence R. Jacobs and Robert Y. Shapiro:
The Declaration of Independence was animated by a demand for “consent of the governed” and the promise of popular control has inspired a long and, at times, violent struggle for the right to vote by all Americans, the full and equal right to freedom of speech and assembly, and other essential rights.
Does the American government respond to the broad public or to the interests and values of narrowly constituted groups committed to advancing their private policy agendas? On one side lies democratic accountability; on the other a closed and insular government that is ill-suited to address the wishes or wants of most citizens. When politicians persistently disregard the public’s policy preferences, popular sovereignty and representative democracy are threatened.
|The responsiveness of national policymakers to what most Americans prefer has declined and remained low for almost two decades.
Can we rely on competitive elections to fend off muted responsiveness to centrist opinion? After all, congressional Democrats suffered stunning setbacks in the 1994 elections following Clinton’s campaign for an unpopular health care reform plan and the Republicans’ congressional majorities were reduced in the 1996 and 1998 elections after they pursued policies that defied strong public preferences. We argue that electoral punishment may not be enough to improve the public’s influence on government: the responsiveness of national policymakers to what most Americans prefer has declined and remained low for almost two decades despite electoral setbacks to Democrats and Republicans. Politicians have worked hard to obscure their true positions and to distort the positions of their opponents, which makes it hard for the electorate to identify the policy positions of elected officials and to punish politicians for pursuing unpopular policies. In addition, most members of Congress today attach greater electoral importance to following the policy goals of party activists than responding to centrist opinion. The bottom line is that most politicians are keenly motivated and amply skilled at evading electoral accountability for long periods. Their success has impaired our system of accountability and sullied the quality of citizenship by eroding public trust and fuelling the news media’s increasing focus on political conflict and strategy rather than on the substantive issues raised by government policy.
Our analysis should not be confused, however, with naive populism. We recognize that the sheer complexity and scope of government decisions require elite initiative, at times without public guidance. And, on occasion, elites may need to defy ill-informed and unreasoned public opinion in defense of larger considerations and, instead, rely upon the public’s post hoc evaluations of their actions and their arguments justifying their actions. Franklin Roosevelt’s arming of mercha
Unless you’ve been sleeping under a rock (under Iraq? Unforgiveable pun?), yesterday’s Supreme Court decision to uphold the majority of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA), ruled in the National Federation of Independent Businesses v. Sebelius, likely caught your attention. Despite attempts to repeal the act by both the 111th and 112th Congresses, the Court determined that the government mandate for health care was a tax, and thus fell under Congress’s taxing authority, with the caveat that the federal government could not withhold Medicaid funds in their entirety to states that refused to comply with Medicaid expansion. The Washington Post has a helpful electronic cheat sheet that explains how the legislation will affect you directly in the months and year to come, based on the type of insurance you do or do not carry, your income, and household status. With that in mind, we asked scholar Beatrix Hoffman, author of Health Care for Some: Rights and Rationing in the United States since 1930, to weigh in on Court’s ruling in light of her own research on America’s long tradition of unequal access to health care. Her thoughts follow below.
A Historic Ruling for Health Care
The Supreme Court shocker that (mostly) saved the Affordable Care Act adds a new chapter to the history of health-care reform in the United States. As we heard frequently throughout the debates, several presidents and numerous politicians have proposed national health-care plans in the past. Over the course of nearly 100 years, only Lyndon Johnson was successful, with the creation of Medicare and Medicaid in 1965. Then, when Congress passed the Affordable Care Act (ACA) in March 2010, Barack Obama achieved the most sweeping reform in history. Yesterday, just a single vote by Chief Justice John Roberts saved the entire law from being declared unconstitutional.
This was the first time that national health-care reform faced a constitutional challenge. Medicare was funded through a payroll deduction, which (the Supreme Court just reminded us) was fully within Congress’s power to tax. Medicare’s framers deliberately grafted their new health-insurance program for the elderly onto a popular, efficient, payroll-tax-based system that already existed and was fully constitutional: Social Security.
President Obama and the members of Congress who wrote the Affordable Care Act broke with this successful reform tradition by rejecting the option of expanding Medicare or otherwise building on existing tax-based social insurance programs. Believing such an approach to be politically unfeasible, they instead opted for the “individual mandate,” which requires the uninsured to purchase private health insurance, an idea that originated in a conservative think-tank and was first applied in Massachusetts under then-Governor Mitt Romney. Despite this dramatic political compromise, the individual mandate did not succeed in capturing the votes of the Congressional opposition—not a single Republican voted for the Affordable