A portrait of Louis Brandeis on the cover of Time magazine on October 19, 1925.
Before he was an associate justice on the Supreme Court of the United States from 1916 to 1939, Louis Brandeis was a progressive lawyer fighting the big monopolies, or trusts, of Gilded Age America. He termed the corrosive effect on democracy of unrestrained business practices “The Curse of Bigness”, and after he joined the Supreme Court he maintained his interest in restraining business interests from trampling the rights of ordinary citizens.
Now President Biden has appointed Lina Khan to the chair of the Federal Trade Commission, and her appointment signals a return to the principles of Louis Brandeis. Lina Khan is an antitrust lawyer and legal scholar who, as a student at Yale Law School in 2017, wrote an article called Amazon’s Antitrust Paradox. The article drew widespread attention for her ideas about how the conventional wisdom of the past 50 or so years regarding regulation of the marketplace based on consumer prices no longer applied in the age of Amazon, a company willing to engage in predatory pricing and use vertical integration in order to stifle competition and monopolize the marketplace.
A profile of Lina Khan in Time from October 17, 2019.
Prior to Ms. Khan’s appointment, another antitrust lawyer and legal scholar, Tim Wu, joined the Biden administration as a Special Assistant to the President for Technology and Competition Policy on the National Economic Council. Mr. Wu is known for helping to write the first network neutrality rules in work for the Federal Communications Commission in 2006. In 2018, he wrote The Curse of Bigness: Antitrust in the New Gilded Age, a book which paid homage to Louis Brandeis and his antitrust work of the Progressive Era.
A Climate Strike protester with an anti Bezos sign in London on February 14, 2020. Photo by Flickr user Socialist Appeal.
With these two people now in key positions in the federal government, perhaps efforts to rein in, or even bust up, big technology companies such as Amazon, Google, Apple, Facebook, and Microsoft, will finally be undertaken seriously and with persistence. In the past, these Big Five technology companies have largely escaped with slaps on the wrist after fitful investigations into their practices.
Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg answered questions from Brandeis University students at an event in January 2016 commemorating the 100th anniversary of Louis Brandeis being nominated to the Supreme Court by President Woodrow Wilson.
As Louis Brandeis understood, and as is apparent from the writings of both Lina Khan and Tim Wu, setting regulatory boundaries for these behemoth businesses not only ensures they act fairly in the marketplace, but protects democracy from their tendency to squash individual liberties when they conflict with their self-interest. And the bigger and less competitive these companies become, the more their self-interest consumes everything in their vicinity, like a beast that can’t stop growing and must swallow anything in its way.
An unofficial remix of the 2021 songs “Bezos I” and “Bezos II”, written and performed by Bo Burnham for his album and Netflix special,Bo Burnham:Inside. Warning: foul language.
Dr. Scott Atlas, a neuroradiologist with no credentials in the public health field, has found favor with the current president because as a member of the White House Coronavirus Task Force he says what the Egoist-in-Chief wants to hear when he listens to scientists. Dr. Atlas is not an idiot, in other words – he’s an ego masseuse, an important qualification as far as the current president is concerned.
White House medical advisor Dr. Scott Atlas delivers his remarks during a press conference on September 16, 2020, in the James S. Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House. Official White House photo by Tia Dufour.
What follows is a very short list of doctors and scientists, some better than others, to be sure, but all more or less qualified for the Man Baby’s pandemic science team.
Bill Nye, better known as Bill Nye the Science Guy, at the May, 2017, Montclair Film Festival in Montclair, New Jersey. Photo from the Montclair Film Festival.
Phil McGraw, better known as Dr. Phil, in a stock photo.
Mehmet Oz, better known as Dr. Oz, at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, on January 27, 2012. Photo from World Economic Forum.
Robert Young as Dr. Marcus Welby in the television program Marcus Welby, M.D.. 1973 publicity photo from ABC Television.
DeForest Kelly as Dr. Leonard ‘Bones” McCoy in the television program Star Trek. 1970 publicity photo from NBC Television.
Ted Geisel, better known as Dr. Seuss, seated at a desk covered with his books. 1957 photo by Al Ravenna for the New York World Telegram and Sun newspaper.
Jonathan Harris as Dr. Zachary Smith poses next to the Robot in the television program Lost in Space. 1967 publicity photo from CBS Television.
Color lobby card for the 1931 black and white film Frankenstein, directed by James Whale and featuring Colin Clive as Dr. Victor Frankenstein and Boris Karloff as the Monster. Card from Universal Studios.
A Dr. Evil impersonator at a Dell Computers presentation in January, 2007. Photo by Flickr user Edans.
The Muppet Show characters Dr. Bunsen Honeydew and his laboratory assistant, Beaker, at a March, 2007, event for the Muppet Mobile Lab. photo by Flickr user Dawn Endico.
Groucho Marx as Dr. Hugo Z. Hackenbush in the 1937 film A Day at the Races, directed by Sam Wood and starring the Marx Brothers. Publicity photo by Ted Allan for MGM Studios.
In this scene from the 1964 film Dr. Strangelove, directed by Stanley Kubrick, Peter Sellers plays both Dr. Strangelove and President Merkin Muffley, and George C. Scott plays General Buck Turgidson. The current president is not at all like President Muffley in his reasoned assessment of the options available to him in a crisis, but more closely resembles General Turgidson, whose simple-minded grasp of issues is limited to his primal and self-serving interests.
The lack of capacity for critical thinking among some of the American electorate is nothing new. The French traveler Alexis de Tocqueville famously noted it in the late 1830s in the two volumes of his book, Democracy in America. Almost 130 years later, the American historian Richard Hofstadter remarked upon it in two of his works from the early 1960s, Anti-intellectualism in American Life, and The Paranoid Style in American Politics. Both of Hofstadter’s works still apply today in complementary fashion as the 2020 election nears and Clueless Leader and his cult followers on the far right drop in greater and greater numbers off the edge of reality into the realm of psychotic fever dreams.
Mike Caulfield’s “Four Moves and a Habit” method for the detection of Fake News online. Infographic created by Shonnmharen.
The great difference between now and the early 1960s, when Hofstadter wrote about the propensity of some people for ignoring facts that didn’t fit their world view, is that those people now have access to the internet and to social media, where they can spread their diseased notions like a contagion. Rumors that once took days or weeks to spread, and in the process may have fizzled out when confronted by facts, now spread in minutes and hours in a continuous onslaught that drowns outs facts. For those too intellectually lazy to engage in critical thinking, there has never been a better time for finding spurious rumors to prop up their dangerously bonkers ideas.
Most of the rumor mongering conspiracy theorists with dangerously bonkers ideas are now, and have always been, on the far right of the American political spectrum. It’s an ongoing feature of American life that the ruling class demonizes the far left because they rightly suspect the far left would overturn the cushy lifestyle of the ruling class if they could, and to help them turn the focus of hatred and suspicion upon the far left the ruling class has always had willing allies, or rather dupes, among the far right. Useful idiots.
These are the kind of people who adhere to QAnon conspiracy theories about the evil character of Democrats and Antifa partly out of credulity since they want to believe the stories, and partly because it titillates them that most reasonable adults, and particularly liberals, are outraged and appalled by the stories. For a third of the American electorate, an incapacity for critical thinking is displayed as a badge of honor, not of shame.
Too many right wing delusionists are willing, even eager, to use violence when they don’t get their way. In this they are aided and abetted by the ruling class, who use them as a cudgel against the far left and anyone else who questions the established capitalist order. Terrorism in this country has almost always come from the far right, not the far left, and for nearly four years now the current president has winked and nodded at right wing terrorists in this country. He has filled a powder keg with dangerous fantasies and then recently lit the fuse with his call out to right wing terrorists ahead of the election.
A sketch from a January 1979 episode of Second City Television, starring Andrea Martin, Catherine O’Hara, and Dave Thomas. In 2016, 52% of white women voted for the Republican presidential candidate, someone who would be incapable of understanding this SCTV sketch as satire.
For Richard Hofstadter in his examination of American history there have been breakdowns in what may be considered the consensus of political views reconciling economic and cultural differences (though he himself chafed at being lumped with the post World War II era “consensus” historians), but only one failure of consensus, and that led to the Civil War. Perhaps hope can be found in the realization that the truly dangerous right wing terrorists in this country are fewer in number than they would have everyone else believe. If the current president somehow gains four more years in power, however, that glimmer of hope may go dark because more violent reactionaries will become ever more emboldened, growing their numbers to become a visceral threat, sinister and close.
No matter how incompetently the current president handles crises, from the toll taken on the nation’s health and economy by the coronavirus to the nationwide protests in response to the police murder of George Floyd, his supporters, followers, and enablers continue giving him a free pass. No evidence makes an impression on them.
The coronavirus is a plot by Democrats to make the current president look bad! No, he makes himself look bad, in the same way that those pants don’t make you look fat – your fat makes you look fat. And the George Floyd protesters need to be dominated in the streets, because that’s what a strong leader does! Never mind that it is the behavior of a tinpot dictator, not the leader of a nation of laws guaranteeing the freedoms of speech and peaceable assembly.
A Flat Earth map drawn in 1893 by Professor Orlando Ferguson of Hot Springs, South Dakota. Looks rather like a roulette wheel. From the collection of the Library of Congress.
There’s the word “peaceable” that reactionaries have hung their hats on for centuries as an excuse to violently quell protests. If only some of the protesters can be goaded into violence by agents provocateurs planted among them by law enforcement agencies or private reactionary groups, then the police employees in riot armor can have license to start swinging their clubs and firing tear gas canisters and rubber bullets into the crowds. In the ensuing confusion, it’s difficult for reporters or other independent investigators to locate and prove the identity of the provocateurs.
Boy making a rainbow with spray from a garden hose in Charleston, South Australia in January 2019. Photo by Photwik.
Too many people believe, in the end, only what they want to believe, and do not care to trouble themselves any further with truthful details. It’s simpler that way, comforting really. Observational evidence will not convince them to change their minds. To use an example from the natural world, through the years many gardeners and even some professional horticulturists have believed that watering plants in sunshine will scorch the plants’ leaves on account of a supposed magnifying lens effect from water droplets.
Not only has this myth been scientifically disproved, but the evidence there is no validity in it is plain for anyone to see who has watered annual flowering plants tightly packed in a hanging basket or pot. No escaping getting water on the foliage there, and those plants appear to get along alright, and better than they would if the worried gardener had withheld the spray of water waiting for a cloudy day. Yet many continue to believe, because they would rather believe the story their mind and culture invents for them than what the plants themselves are showing. We’re alright! Thanks for the water on a hot, sunny day! Here’s a rainbow for your trouble!
The First Continental Congress of the American Colonies sent a petition to King George III on October 25, 1774, requesting he redress their grievances against the British Parliament related to the Coercive Acts passed in response to the Boston Tea Party of December 16, 1773. The king ignored the petition, and consequently the colonists’ march toward revolution picked up momentum over the next year, resulting in the beginning of hostilities in the spring of 1775. Petitions were the primary recourse of the American Colonists in dealing with their British rulers across the Atlantic Ocean since they had no official representation in Parliament, hence the slogan “No taxation without representation.”
The nation’s founders regarded the right to petition the government as so essential to a free society that they included it in the First Amendment, adopted in 1791. They made the right explicit despite the reality that citizens of the United States, unlike colonists under the British Empire, had official representation in the government. James Madison, who was largely responsible for drafting the Bill of Rights, understood that while the people had representation in government, their representatives may not be responsive to the wishes of all the people, and that therefore the people required another, independent outlet “for a redress of grievances.”
The unresponsiveness of government representatives to the people has rarely appeared as evident as it does now, when it seems representatives are responsive mostly to the wishes of corporate contributors to their election campaigns. Polls do not necessarily give lawmakers an accurate idea of how some of their constituents are feeling about issues because responding to pollsters is a passive response to a pollster’s sometimes tailored questions. Poll sample sizes are also often ludicrously small on account of the expense and difficulty of polling. Pollsters claim they conduct their surveys based on well-researched principles in order to achieve accurate representation from small sample sizes, but there are plenty of examples to cite in demonstrating that taking polls is as much art as it is science, and not at all infallible. For one example, look at how inaccurate the polling was in several key Rust Belt states in the weeks before the November 2016 presidential election.
Emmeline Pankhurst, leader of the Woman’s Suffragette movement in England, arrested outside Buckingham Palace in London while trying to present a petition to King George V in May 1914. Photo from the British Imperial War Museum.
Signing a petition is an active measure taken by citizens numbering in the thousands or millions, as opposed to a select few hundreds or thousands responding passively to a pollster. Citizens mostly seek out petitions on their own initiative, or are made aware of them by friends or family, or by reading the news. The relative ease of signing a petition online, compared to signing one circulated door to door, does not discount that people are participating in the political process instead of waiting for someone to ask their opinion. The distinction is not a small one. Yes, physical participation in a protest weighs far more than signing an online petition in getting the attention of government leaders and the society at large, but an online petition nonetheless demonstrates that the people signing it are paying attention. Numbers have always given weight to petitions, and in the internet age it is possible for millions of people to make their wishes known to their representatives within days of a petition’s first appearance.
The petitions currently circulating urging United States House of Representatives legislators to impeach the occupant of the Oval Office are an excellent demonstration of the need of the people for an outlet to make their wishes known to their government. To anyone paying attention honestly to developments originating from the White House since January 2017, it has long been obvious that impeachment and conviction of the current president would be necessary sooner or later to uphold the rule of law. The nation’s legislators, however, always conscious of political calculations and of the interests of their big money donors, have been dragging their feet to avoid having to put themselves on the line in upholding the oath they took to preserve and defend the Constitution.
Captain Queeg, the character played by Humphrey Bogart in the 1954 film The Caine Mutiny, was obviously unstable, but nonetheless discharging him from his command was quite difficult because the captain of a vessel at sea is by necessity an autocrat whose authority is fully backed by a nation’s institutions. For all that, Captain Queeg was not a corrupt grifter with contempt for democratic institutions and a sneering disregard for the norms of civil discourse, and in comparison to the offenses of the current president, Queeg’s official transgressions were minor.
In other words, members of Congress have a constitutional duty to impeach this president for high crimes and misdemeanors he has engaged in too obviously for them to ignore any longer. Whether he will be convicted in the Republican-controlled Senate is anyone’s guess at this point. It probably depends on whether political calculations indicate to at least a few key Republican senators that the time has come at last to throw the president over the side, at which point many of the rest will scramble to get on board.
If millions of American people had waited politely for a pollster to ask them if impeachment was necessary, instead of taking matters into their own hands and petitioning their representatives, Congress might still be dithering, possibly all the way up to Election Day 2020. The current president may not get convicted in the Senate and removed from office before then, but it’s important that public hearings in Congress shine a light long enough and brightly enough on the corrupt and unethical practices of his administration that even the most disengaged voters will have to listen. A brick wall, no matter who constructed it, can keep people from hearing their government at work as well as keep government leaders from hearing the people, but now that representatives have finally listened to people engaged enough to petition them, it’s important that the rest of the populace listen honestly to the arguments for impeachment, and honest engagement requires more than checking an often lopsided Facebook news feed, a far sloppier way of exercising one’s civic duty than signing an online petition. — Vita
Political centrists such as Bill Maher, the television talk show host, firmly believe that in order for Democrats to defeat the current president in the 2020 election they must choose a centrist candidate. In a recent debate on his show with documentary filmmaker Michael Moore, Mr. Maher, among his other claims promoting his view, stated that President Barack Obama ran as a centrist in his 2008 campaign and that is why he won. Mr. Moore disputed this, stating that Mr. Obama ran as a progressive populist and had the courage to list his middle name “Hussein” on the ballot. The two bet the cost of a trip to Hawaii on the resolution of their dispute.
A mural replica in Silverton, Oregon, of Norman Rockwell’s Freedom From Want painting, one of a series he did in 1943 illustrating the Four Freedoms articulated by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Photo from the Oregon State Archives. While Mr. Rockwell was depicting an ideal promulgated by a liberal Democratic president, his choice of models and their placement in a hierarchy at the family dinner table fits in well with the current conservative mythos of how Americans should look and comport themselves.
It’s not clear who was right about the middle name issue and therefore who won the bet, but in any event it hardly matters since the important point is that Mr. Obama ran his campaign from the left of center and then governed from the center. In national defense matters, such as expanding his predecessor’s drone attacks around the world and vindictively pursuing whistleblowers like Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden, Mr. Obama was to the right of center. His stance toward governing should have been clear early on from his appointments of Wall Street insiders like Timothy Geithner and Lawrence Summers to oversee the economy.
Barack Obama was never a fire-breathing liberal and never claimed to be one, though he did allow a lot of wishful thinking from liberal Democrats who wanted to believe he was more liberal then he was. They projected their wishes and hopes onto him, and being a politician he naturally turned that to his advantage. That wishful thinking can be glimpsed in the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to Mr. Obama in 2009 after he had done hardly anything to merit the award other than not being President George W. Bush. Members of the Norwegian Nobel Committee do not vote in American elections, of course, but like liberal American voters weary of the belligerence and disregard for human rights of the George W. Bush administration, they were eager to project their hopes onto Mr. Obama.
Bill Maher has similarly profited from the projections of many liberals, who seem to think a person who is for the legalization of marijuana and against the policies and tenure of the current president cannot possibly be as reactionary as he really is in many ways. He is reactionary in his statements about Muslims and about gender politics and about how he believes political correctness is more corrosive to our democratic republic than the rapaciousness of capitalist exploitation. Most of all he is reactionary in his repeated assertions that no one to the left of himself among the Democrats can defeat the current president in 2020 because he believes most Americans are firmly in his, Bill Maher’s, camp on most everything that matters.
From Woody Allen’s 1977 film Annie Hall, a diversity of viewpoints and attitudes, some more subdued than others.
Mr. Maher is wrong about the politics of most Americans, as he is wrong about his other more distastefully retrograde beliefs. Michael Moore pointed out in their debate how Mr. Maher’s assessment of where most Americans reside on the political scale was wrong, and that they are more liberal within the Democratic Party than the Party establishment cares to acknowledge. None of Bill Maher’s views would matter if it weren’t for how they are often cited by conservative media and politicians as supporting their agenda and given extra weight by them because they are supposedly expressed by a liberal. It suits their cause to have a “house liberal” of sorts.
The fiction of Mr. Maher’s liberalism is propped up also by uncritical viewers on the left who give his pontifications on Democratic politics more respect than they deserve. Reactionary centrists such as Mr. Maher are uncomfortable with the infighting that always prevails among Democrats, and they see it as giving aid and comfort to the other side while weakening their own. People like Bill Maher may as well decry the spots on a leopard. Dissension is in the nature of liberal Democratic Party politics; it’s what differentiates them from the other side, too many members of which fall obediently into line like good little authoritarians.
Journalist Glenn Greenwald in a December 2016 appearance on The Jimmy Dore Show. Warning: one naughty word.
Bill Maher is like the brother-in-law at a large family dinner where all the members are squabbling in a free wheeling manner, and he sits there with a slight smirk, believing he’s smarter than he really is and eager to toss out a snarky remark to show he’s superior to what’s going on around him at the table. He and people like him, with an authoritarian streak in their character despite the liberality of some of their views, cannot understand how argument and dissension strengthen, not weaken, Democratic Party politics, and ultimately democracy itself. Falling in line without questioning is for autocrats and their followers. The ancient Athenians were not without their fair share of faults, but today most people recognize their society, noisy and argumentative as the scenes at their family dinner tables might have been, as more worth honoring and emulating than the authoritarian society of the Spartans, who fell in line and did as they were told by their “betters”.
Recently an Etsy entrepeneur started marketing “Make America Greta Again” caps, “Greta” being Greta Thunberg, the young Swedish climate activist who has been in the news lately after her speech at the United Nations in New York City and her participation in the Climate Strike, which she inspired with the Fridays for Future school strikes she started a year ago. The entrepeneur, Johan Hansson, claims 100 percent of the profits from cap sales will go to Greenpeace, and if that is indeed the case, then it appears his primary goal in making the caps is trolling the current president and his followers, the MAGA crowd.
Mr. Hansson did not think up the slogan for his caps, which has shown up on placards at climate change protests since Greta Thunberg became an internationally famous figure, but he did think to put the slogan on caps that look exactly like the original MAGA caps. The typography and colors are the same, and all Mr. Hansson had to do was switch around two letters. It’s a clever twist, and as for trolling the trolls it is bound to be effective. The question is whether that is the best way to read the science behind climate change, as Ms. Thunberg continually stresses is the driving force of her activism, or whether it is merely a satisfying way to get under the skin of MAGA people by giving them a dose of their own medicine.
Greta Thunberg speaks at the May 2019 Austrian World Summit Climate Kirtag (or Fair). Photo originally posted to Flickr by the Austrian Foreign Ministry. Like the enlarged image of Ms. Thunberg on the screen at the left of the stage, her influence on the climate debate has grown in the past year such that journalists and politicians have attributed the tripling of seats gained in the Austrian parliament by the Green Party in the September 2019 election to what they call “The Greta Effect”.
The problem is not the altered slogan itself, but in how the design of the new cap mimics the original so closely that even from several feet away most people would be unable to distinguish the difference. The original MAGA cap has over the course of a few years become strongly associated with hatred and hatefulness, and the wearers delight in how its appearance “owns the libs”, or trolls them. For MAGA people, that’s part of the fun of wearing the cap. Since the new cap looks exactly the original from a distance, most reasonable people, associating the wearer with hateful beliefs and often unpleasant behavior, would probably steer clear, under the assumption the wearer is a devoted follower of the current president, a hateful person who often exhibits unpleasant behavior.
MAKE AMERICA GRETA AGAIN
Fellow MAGA travelers, on the other hand, upon companionably sidling up to the wearer of a cap with a slightly changed slogan, may not even notice the difference until the wearer gives out unexpected opinions or points out the change to them. The old trick of switching two letters in a familiar word derives its surprise from how often people will gloss over the change in their minds and never even notice it.
MAKE AMERICA GRETAAGAIN
Trolling trolls may seem satisfying at first, but the long term result is like that of a wrestling match between a person and a pig in a muddy pen (once considered a fun event at county fairs), in which the person ends up filthy and exhausted, and the pig is happily in his or her element. The altered slogan would probably serve its ultimate, positive message of taking action against climate change better by rising above the muck where the current president and his followers wallow in hatred and hatefulness. To do that with the slogan on caps, perhaps changing the color or font or point size of “Greta” would make all the difference in signaling to friend and foe alike that the original was only a point of departure, and a lowly one at that. Maybe change colors of the cap and the typography of “Greta” entirely so that it stands apart, the way Greta Thunberg herself has demonstrated in dealing with the trolls. Nothing infuriates trolls more than not being taken seriously and having their distractions ignored as reasonable people go on about the business of taking serious action on real problems, and that can give climate activists some measure of satisfaction in denying the power of climate change deniers in MAGA caps.
A federal judge ruled recently that the city of New Orleans violated the First Amendment rights of street artist Cashy D and property owner Neal Morris when the city censored a mural painted by Cashy D on Mr. Morris’s property for the NOLA (New Orleans, Louisiana) Mural Project. The mural in question quotes off camera remarks made by the current president when he was still a private citizen to Access Hollywood host Billy Bush. Those were the infamous “grab ’em by the p*ssy” remarks. For the mural, Cashy D painted pictograms to stand in for some of the words, and it was supposedly one pictogram in particular that some citizens and the city objected to, taking their case to court.
In a case like this, it’s probably impossible to separate politics from concerns about public display of lewd images. People engage in political displays on their own property all the time, the most prevalent example being electioneering signs. Those signs typically do not contain lewd images or profane language, though it’s possible some homemade versions might. Art displayed on private property where it can be viewed by the public is often subject to local zoning and nuisance regulations. The NOLA Mural Project artwork is a political statement expressed on private property within public view, and any lewd images and profane language it contains are directly related to the quotation from the political figure the creators are criticizing.
A Gay Pride Festivus Pole and Nativity Scene on public display on private property in Deerfield Beach, Florida, in 2015. Photo by DavidCharlesFLA.
Simple as the language of the First Amendment to the Constitution appears, it is amazing how many different interpretations it has engendered over the years. It would seem fairly cut and dried, but obviously it is not, according to the nation’s judiciary. First Amendment cases decided one way by a lower court are often as not overturned by a higher court, an outcome that wouldn’t appear likely if it were not for the fallibility of judges and the judicial process, and the malleability of the law itself.
The current president may have made his foul remarks in private as a private citizen, but the way the American political game is played, he and his history became fair game once he entered public life, and remarks like those quoted in the Cashy D mural are indicative of his character, or lack of it, and become part of political discourse, their very offensiveness being the whole point of the mural. Political expression on public view from a private space is subject to interpretation and possible censure by the public, and its merits are therefore best judged on a case by case basis in the courts, as they should be, and not by bureaucrats and politicians in city halls around the country.
“Let me know when the jail sentence starts.”
— Kellyanne Conway’s contemptuous response to a reporter asking about her repeated violations of the Hatch Act.
Of course White House counselor Kellyanne Conway knows perfectly well there are no criminal penalties for violating the Hatch Act since it is purely an administrative prohibition. Government employees can be reprimanded or fired for violating the Hatch Act, or assessed a fine up to $1,000. There are other disciplinary penalties that the Office of the Special Counsel (OSC) can recommend as well, but none of them include filing criminal charges. The difficulty in disciplining Ms. Conway, however, is that the Hatch Act as currently constituted only allows the OSC to recommend to the president that he fire her, and can do nothing on its own to remove her because she is a political appointee. As applied to Ms. Conway then, the Hatch Act is toothless as long as the president backs her, and she is also very well aware of that fact.
The Hatch Act was pushed forward in 1939 by New Mexico Senator Carl Hatch in response to overt politicking on the job by employees of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) under the Democratic presidential administration of Franklin Roosevelt. It is interesting to note Senator Hatch was a Democrat. Apparently the sentiment at the time was that putting a stop to politicking by federal employees on the taxpayers’ dime was worth bipartisan support. Congress has amended the Hatch Act twice since 1939, though always the toothless nature of the penalties for higher ranking government officials has stood, and as a result presidents have often refused to abide by disciplinary recommendations left up to their discretion.
Kellyanne Conway speaks to the press outside the West Wing of the White House in May 2019. Official White House photo by Tia Dufour.
It’s no surprise the current president has dismissed the recommendation by the OSC that he fire Kellyanne Conway for her repeated violations of the Hatch Act and her disdain of ethics restraints. She is the kind of person he likes best – loyal to him and, when speaking for the administration, a bullsh*t artist, for lack of a more polite phrase which adequately describes her role and abilities. “Spin doctor” doesn’t quite convey her proficiency at spewing outlandish lies, a talent for which her only rival is her boss, the current president. The Oval Office occupant has couched his objection to the OSC recommendation as a violation of Ms. Conway’s free speech right, a dubious argument the Supreme Court has shot down numerous times before in regard to enforcement of the Hatch Act. Government employees are free as always to speak their minds on their own time, but in their official capacity they work for everyone in the country, not merely one political faction.
The people staffing the current presidential administration have little regard for the rule of law as applied to them, and certainly not for an Act dealing with professional ethics that has no legal bite to it. This attitude and tone is set by the current president, for whom laws and ethics and the truth are malleable when applied to him and those he likes. Past presidents and their staffs had at least some little sense of shame, which is apparently what Congress hoped for in 1939 when they passed the original Hatch Act in 1939. Congress must have hoped for voluntary compliance under the pressure of public shame and political calculations. They did not foresee an administration that behaved utterly without shame and invented alternative facts.
Michelle Wolf comments on Kellyanne Conway in this clip from a February 2017 episode of The Daily Show, hosted by Trevor Noah. Warning: foul language.
The worst actors in the current administration, such as Kellyanne Conway, have nothing but contempt for any rules that cannot threaten them with prison if they don’t comply. She and the president she serves are going to do the right thing only when it suits them to do so, not if it only serves the interests of the country. Recently some Democrats in Congress have put forward a bill to amend the Hatch Act in order to redress the lack of enforcement power of the OSC when pursuing complaints against senior political appointees. If the bill passes, presidents will no longer be sole arbiters in such cases. If the bill passes and Kellyanne Conway continues violating the Hatch Act by advocating partisan political issues in her official capacity, she still won’t end up in jail, but she and her boss may have to pay some real political consequences, which is the only thing they understand . . . maybe.
“Climate is what we expect, weather is what we get.”
— Mark Twain (1835-1910)
Some sociologists have disproved the widely held notion that people become more conservative as they get older, and while that may be the case, and therefore old does not necessarily equal conservative, statistics verify there is still a generation gap between the percentages of older and younger people who vote. Old people turn out to vote in a higher percentage for their age group than young people do in their age group. Old for our purpose here is over 50, which encompasses Baby Boomers, the Silent Generation, and the Greatest Generation. Young is under 50, which includes Generation X, Millennials, and Generation Z.
The two largest demographic groups of voting age are Baby Boomers and Millennials. In this year, Millennials will surpass Baby Boomers in numbers as Baby Boomers continue dying out. For all that, the voice of Baby Boomers at voting time remains louder than that of Millennials, because the percentage of Baby Boomers who vote remains higher than the percentage of Millennials who vote. Baby Boomers remain in control of the leadership and apparatus of both major political parties, and that led to the debacle of the 2016 presidential election.
The March for Our Lives protest took place on 24 March 2018 in Washington, D.C., and other cities, when hundreds of thousands of students and others marched to demand common sense gun control in the wake of deadly school shootings in the United States. Photo by Mobilus In Mobili.
In the Democratic Party, leadership foisted Hillary Clinton on everyone, and she turned out to be a candidate with little appeal to voters outside of the Coasts and the big cities, a fact that polling consistently pointed out heading into the election, but which the Democratic leadership chose to ignore. For the Republican Party, the crowded field of candidates in the early primaries allowed the demagogue who eventually overtook the field to win with vote percentages only in the teens and twenties, and with that he was able to pick off his rivals one by one, aided by high amounts of free media coverage for his outrageous comments and behavior.
In the end, we got the president we deserved, we meaning all of us, voters and non-voters alike. A dismal statement, but one we need to come to terms with by election day in November 2020. It seems we have all overestimated the liberal leanings of Baby Boomers as a group, and perhaps popular culture is responsible. News coverage of Vietnam War protests in the 1960s and ’70s, the enormous changes in fashion and entertainment, the weekly confrontations on television’s All in the Family between Baby Boomer Mike “Meathead” Stivic and his Greatest Generation father-in-law, Archie Bunker, all may have contributed to a perception of Baby Boomers as liberal overall.
Looking at national Democratic Party leadership since Baby Boomers took over with the election of Bill Clinton as president in 1992, it’s difficult to deny they are in most ways more conservative than their predecessors of the Greatest Generation and particularly going back to Franklin Roosevelt (FDR) a generation earlier. Presidents Kennedy and Johnson were certainly more liberal than Bill Clinton. FDR’s policies would be considered dangerous socialism today, which is why candidates like Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, whose policy proposals are in line with what FDR might have done, are considered too far left by Democratic Party leadership, and therefore unelectable.
Enumerating goals can be difficult, as demonstrated here in a television skit by Monty Python’s Flying Circus.
In the Republican Party, attitudes have shifted so far right since Baby Boomers took over with leaders like Newt Gingrich and Dick Cheney that even Richard Nixon, in whose administration Mr. Cheney first took part, might not have a chance to be elected president these days as a Republican. Too liberal! Dwight Eisenhower, in whose administration Mr. Nixon served as Vice President in the 1950s, would be considered by today’s Republican Party leadership, and assuredly by the MAGA (Make America Great Again) crowd, as a RINO (Republican In Name Only), despite the era he presided over being the one they pine for.
There is no evidence to suggest Millennials are overall more liberal than Baby Boomers, but unlike Baby Boomers they do appear willing to act on the most pressing concerns for humanity, starting with climate change. Unless we take action on climate change now, nothing else matters. Next is growing wealth inequity, because that leads to many other problems, among them being affordability of health care for all. Population growth also needs to be addressed, because Earth’s resources are not infinite, much as delusional capitalist economic modelers like to pretend otherwise.
A satirical public service announcement from the Knock the Vote project. Warning: foul language.
Down the list but hanging over every creature on Earth is the bugaboo of all generations alive since 1945 – nuclear weapons. Nuclear weapons are down the list because while they are obviously capable of ending everything quickly, they may be the hardest nut to crack on account of their continued proliferation being due to human nature. Addressing these problems requires becoming informed, and voting as well as activism, and it is up to Millennials to rise to the challenges their forebears have been reluctant to grasp. It’s time for Baby Boomers to let go of power if they cannot or will not contribute to battling the world’s most pressing problems, though we know it’s human nature to cling to power, and usually the grave provides the only means of separation.