Sunday, June 25, 2017

Law Enforcement Dominates Queer Democrats’ Meeting

City Attorney Mara Elliott, Sheriff Candidate Dave Myers Speak


Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

 Dave Myers

Mara Elliott

Kevin Beiser

Jordan Beane

Bryan Pease

Law enforcement issues dominated the June 22 meeting of the predominantly Queer San Diego Democrats for Equality at the Joyce Beers Community Center in Hillcrest. San Diego City Attorney Mara Elliott, a progressive Democrat whom the club endorsed for that position in the general election, was the featured speaker and addressed a wide range of issues, from her struggle to get the City Council to join Gavin Grimm’s Transgender rights case to the increased burden her office is facing from changes in state law that reduced many felony crimes to misdemeanors.
But there was also an intense presentation from Dave Myers, a 30-year veteran of the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department who’s risen to the rank of commander — and who is currently running for sheriff against incumbent Bill Gore. Myers presented himself as a solid law-enforcement professional, and he said that if he’s elected one of his major priorities will be to make the sheriff’s office more transparent — as Elliott is working to do with the city attorney’s office. But Myers is also openly Gay, and he said that if he wins the race he’ll be the first openly Gay male sheriff ever elected in the U.S.
After briefly explaining what the San Diego County sheriff’s office does — it runs the county jail system and serves as the police force for the unincorporated areas of the county — Myers blasted his boss, Gore, and said if he’s elected the public will learn a lot more about how the sheriff’s office actually functions. “We now have a sheriff who does not want you to know what’s going on,” Myers explained. “For 10 years the sheriff did nothing about suicides in the county jails until the county grand jury called him on it. He has boasted that the county jails are the largest mental health treatment facilities in San Diego County. I think that’s wrong. Law enforcement can be part of the solution, but we have to offer people more than just incarceration.”
Myers acknowledged that former San Diego Assemblymember Lori Saldaña was in the audience, and he seized on a question she’d asked city attorney Elliott earlier about what can be done to make sure rape kids are tested sooner. “Bill Gore is on record opposing the bill in the state legislature to require testing of rape kits,” Myers said. He said part of the problem with Gore is that he came to the sheriff’s department after a 30-year stint at the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), which in Myers’ view means he not only doesn’t understand how local law enforcement works, he’s “reactive,” seeing law enforcement’s role as punishing crime rather than preventing it.
“Bill hasn’t spent one day in a patrol car,” Myers said. “He hasn’t implemented body cameras. Law enforcement began as a means of preventing crime. I’m still working every single day down the hall from him.” Asked what his top three priorities would be if he were elected, Myers said number one would be “inclusion: creating a department that looks like the community. We have no Asians or Latinos in the leadership.”
Asked what could be done to stop law enforcement officers from killing or shooting people of color, Myers said that he would want to build “cultural competency” among his officers and “get people out in the community.” He said the San Diego Police Department already does some of this, including bringing police academy graduates to the LGBT Community Center to help them get familiar with the issues facing San Diego’s Queer community. “The Sheriff’s Department doesn’t do this,” Myers said. “It was only after several complaints that Gore addressed LGBT concerns, and then only in the leadership settings” — not among rank-and-file officers.
Myers won the club’s endorsement unanimously, as did San Diego Unified School District board member Kevin Beiser. He gave a short talk focused mostly on the layoff notices the district had sent out because of a shortfall in the district’s budget. This is a ritual the district goes through whenever it looks like they won’t have enough tax revenue to balance the budget: teachers and staff get layoff notices but those don’t necessarily mean they’ll be laid off. Beiser’s solution was to push the district’s older employees to leave voluntarily through an “early retirement incentive,” which will not only keep enough teachers on duty to hold down class sizes, it will also save the district money because retirees who were at the top of the salary schedule will be replaced with younger hires making less money.
Beiser also told the club that San Diego Unified has been a leader on environmental issues. “We banned styrofoam lunch trays, converted our school buses to run on biodiesel fuel, and we want to make San Diego the most solar-dependent city in the U.S.,” he said. Beiser noted that when San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer wanted to give a press conference in front of a solar panel array to dramatize the city’s commitment to renewable energy, the location was a school district property.
Another issue Beiser talked about which most people usually don’t think of as a school concern is lead in the water supply. “We worked with the city to get all the schools tested for water quality in six weeks,” he said. “Out of 230 sites, we only had two with elevated lead levels, and those have been mitigated.” Beiser said that the district is also working to lower lead levels in sites that are within the state standards because, as he put it, “There are no safe levels of lead.”
Beiser also pointed to his leadership on the anti-bullying policy he pushed through in 2011 and got approved by the board unanimously. “When I was board president we extended it to Transgender students,” he said. “Then we created the first student affairs office for LGBT students to train staff and support GSA [Gay-Straight Alliance] clubs. We now have GSA’s in all our district’s high schools and virtually all of our middle schools. We have forms where you can report being bullied online. We also have done great work protecting Muslim students. I couldn’t have done all this without your help.”

Mara Elliott: Taking Up Transgender Rights

City Attorney Mara Elliott began her presentation to the Democrats for Equality by describing her successful drive to get the San Diego City Council to file an amicus curiae (“friend of the court”) brief to the U.S. Supreme Court in the case of Gavin Grimm. Grimm is a female-to-male Transgender person in Gloucester County, Virginia who in his senior year of high school asked to use the men’s restroom on campus. He got permission from the principal, but the school board later overruled this and passed a policy stating that students would have to use the restrooms “limited to the corresponding biological genders.”
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) took up Grimm’s case and sued in federal court. They won a decision at the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals based on a policy from the Obama administration that public schools receiving federal funds couldn’t discriminate against Transgender students that way. The city of San Francisco filed an amicus brief before the Supreme Court, which had agreed to hear the Gloucester County school board’s appeal, and organized other cities in California to join the case.
At first Elliott didn’t think she’d have a problem getting the San Diego City Council on board. After all, she said, “we have a couple of laws on the books that protect Transgender expression.” But when she took it to the City Council, “all hell broke loose,” she recalled. City Councilmember Chris Cate accused Elliott of “bringing divisive ‘D.C. politics’ to San Diego” and saying that instead of getting involved in outside litigation, Elliott should focus on “shutting down illegal marijuana dispensaries and combating sex trafficking.” Eventually the Council did join Grimm’s case on a party-line vote. All five Democrats on the Council — Barbara Bry, Chris Ward, Myrtle Cole, Georgette Gomez and David Alvarez — voted to join the case. Republican Councilmember Scott Sherman voted no, Cate and Mark Kersey abstained and Lorie Zapf wasn’t at the meeting at all.
Elliott may have won the battle at the City Council, but Gavin Grimm lost the war at the Supreme Court. The real villain was — who else? — President Donald Trump, who in the meantime had got rid of the Obama-era policy Grimm and his ACLU attorneys had relied on in his lawsuit. The Trump administration left it up to individual states to decide whether to force Transgender students into the restroom of the gender they don’t identify with or present as, and the Court accordingly withdrew consideration of the case and canceled the already scheduled hearing last March.
Grimm’s case isn’t the only issue on which Elliott has crossed swords with the Trump administration. “The other amicus request we got was when a government entity asked us to join a challenge against Trump’s travel ban,” she said. “That is not constitutional, and San Diego is a very welcoming city. So we were identified as a city that would have interest in that lawsuit. I thought this is something I need our Council to hear about and support. At the time we brought that case, we had a student who was unable to return to the United States from his holiday over the December break, so we were directly impacted. We also had 14 companies that said, ‘We can’t hire some of the individuals we need to hire. This is not going to work. My concern, too, is that we’re a border city, and we have a lot of travel with Mexico. So if you permit a ban like that on seven countries, what’s to prevent a ban like this from standing and perhaps closing out some of our neighbors?”
Once again, Elliott got called out on joining the case by two Republican Councilmembers who said she should resign because “these are not local issues. Neither [the Grimm case nor the travel ban] are local issues.” But she felt confident that these are local issues, because San Diego has a reputation as “a welcoming city” and had already passed policies defending the rights of immigrants and Transgender people. Elliott has also held press conferences about hate crimes, as well as an issue you might not think would be on the city attorney’s radar screen: poaching. She’s moved aggressively against abalone and lobster poachers to protect these endangered species. The big problem in enforcing the laws against poaching is, not surprisingly, finding the poachers; “We have cameras on our waterways, but not as many as we need,” she said.
California law splits the job of prosecuting crimes between county district attorneys, who try felons, and city attorneys, who handle misdemeanors. But the line between the two got blurred big-time when California voters passed Proposition 47, which reclassified a lot of crimes formerly considered felonies — especially nonviolent drug offenses — as misdemeanors. What’s more, it applied retroactively — so a lot of people who had been given felony sentences were released earlier than expected because their crimes were no longer felonies and therefore they were let out once they’d served the length of a misdemeanor sentence.
During her presentation, Elliott said that instances of domestic violence in San Diego had risen 23 percent over the last year and a half — and, responding to a follow-up question from this reporter, she blamed it largely on Proposition 47. She said the early releases of convicts under the proposition may have “put a lot of people on the street” who, among other things, abuse their spouses and families. One of the programs she’s instituted against domestic violence is to train the police “on recognizing victims of strangulation, because they often become victims of murder.”
Elliott admitted she’s had resistance from police and others who tend to under-report rape and domestic violence, and in particular who classify date rapes as “domestic violence” so the perpetrators won’t face the serious charges they deserve. Lori Saldaña questioned Elliott, as she would Myers later in the meeting, about what she can do to make sure victims’ rape kits get tested faster. The problem, Elliott said, is money, and she thanked Saldaña for lobbying the city to budget for it.
Asked about the city’s war on homeless people, and in particular the sweeps through downtown in which homeless people’s tents and belongings are confiscated and destroyed, Elliott said that’s not supposed to be happening. In 2011 a federal judge approved the settlement of a lawsuit brought against San Diego by the ACLU and a group called the Isaiah Project, which requires that if police clear out an encampment of homeless people for any reason, they’re supposed to give 72 hours’ notice and preserve the homeless people’s belongings and take them to the Isaiah Project’s storage facility, which can also be used by homeless people who need a place to keep their possessions while they look for work or attend treatment programs. (See “If they’re just throwing things away, they’re in violation of the settlement and we need to know about that,” Elliott said.
Elliott, not surprisingly, saw this issue as a subset of the general problem involving homeless people and what the city is — or isn’t — doing about them. “We’ve all been very slow,” she admitted. “My office is serious about getting homeless people off the streets. We have six attorneys, a litigator and staff working on abatement issues. We’re just the attorneys, but I want us to make sure our policies are legal and we have the resources to implement them. We’re getting support from the County of San Diego. There are certainly ways things could be better.”
One of the things Elliott is proudest of is that she’s doing the community outreach she promised during her campaign, having her deputies meet with citizen groups throughout the city. She’s also proud of setting up outreach programs to keep people who’ve just been released from custody for misdemeanor crimes from re-offending by helping them find work, treatment if they have alcohol or drug or mental issues, housing and whatever other assistance that will keep them from returning to jail. Like Myers, she sees the job of law enforcement as being as much about preventing crime as punishing it.
Elliott got a rather hostile question criticizing her for endorsing Republican Summer Stephan to replace Bonnie Dumanis as San Diego County District Attorney. The questioner also criticized State Senator Toni Atkins for endorsing Bill Gore for re-election as county sheriff over Dave Myers, though Myers hadn’t yet announced when Atkins endorsed Gore. Both Gore and Stephan were appointed to their jobs by the San Diego County Board of Supervisors after their predecessors resigned.
It’s a frequent pattern in San Diego politics: an officeholder who wants to leave office and wants a particular person to succeed them steps down before their term is up so their anointed successor can get appointed to the position and run as an “incumbent.” In the 1990’s voters in the city of San Diego passed a city charter amendment to stop this — it prevented anyone who accepted a midterm appointment to the City Council from running for the same seat in the next election — but the practice is still perfectly legal in county government.
Elliott defended her endorsement of Stephan, partly because no Democrats have announced for the race, and partly because the two have known each other for decades. “I went to the same law school,” she said. “Her sister works for me. We work together on domestic violence and I need her help. I don’t agree with the process (by which Stephan was appointed), but I endorsed the person for what she’s achieved.”
The club also heard from two Democrats running against Lorie Zapf for District 2 on the San Diego City Council. Jordan Beane, a former lobbyist for the San Diego Chargers, said the hearing on the Gavin Grimm amicus filing wasn’t the only city meeting Zapf didn’t bother to attend. “She missed the vote on Soccer City, she missed the hearing on the Mission Bay rollercoasters — which are in her district — and she missed the first meeting of the San Diego County task force on homelessness,” he said. “In view of her voting record, though, maybe we’re better off when she doesn’t show up for work.”
Attorney Bryan Pease, who’s also going after Zapf’s City Council seat in next year’s election, talked about his own experience standing up to Donald Trump at the campaign rally in 2016 where protesters were blocked by police from coming anywhere near the event. “I stood in front of 200 riot cops and said they were violating the Constitution, and they arrested me,” he said. “I also sued to save the La Jolla seals. My specialty is knowing how to get things done. We need evidence-based solutions to the homeless problem and we need to confront SDG&E so we can set up our own community-based power authority.”

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

The Scalise Shooting and Washington’s Other Follies


Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

“‘A house divided against itself cannot stand.’ I believe this government cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved — I do not expect the house to fall — but I do expect it will cease to be divided.  It will become all one thing or all the other.”
— Abraham Lincoln, Springfield, Illinois, June 16, 1858

On June 14, 2017 a 66-year-old man named James Hodgkinson crashed a group of Republican Congressmembers and aides practicing for the next day’s annual Congressional baseball game, one of the few things Republicans and Democrats still do together in our highly polarized capital. He brought a gun with him and, when he was told the people practicing at the field in Alexandria, Virginia, were Republicans, he started shooting them. One of the people he shot was Representative Steve Scalise (R-Louisiana), who as House majority whip was the third highest-ranking official in the House leadership.
It was because of Scalise’s importance to the House of Representatives’ leadership that the two real heroes of the event, Capitol Police officers David Bailey and Crystal Griner, were present at all. As a member of the House’s upper echelons, Scalise rates 24/7 protection from the Capitol Police, whereas rank-and-file Congressmembers are pretty much on their own. Once they realized what was going on, Bailey and Griner engaged the shooter in a gun battle, and while both were wounded — Bailey seriously, Groner critically — they were able to direct the shooter’s fire away from his intended targets until D.C.’s own city police came on the scene, joined the battle and ultimately killed Hodgkinson.
The Alexandria shooting, which left four injured and Scalise in critical condition facing multiple surgeries to get his body working again, wasn’t the only mass shooting in the U.S. that day. At the other end of the country, in San Francisco, a disgruntled ex-employee of United Parcel Service (UPS) showed up at his former workplace with a UPS uniform and a gun. He fatally shot three drivers and then turned his gun on himself.
And that wasn’t the only suspicious incident that took the lives of innocent people in a major urban area on June 14. A giant apartment building in London called the Grenfell Tower went up in flames, killing at least 30 people. No one yet knows whether the fire was accidental or deliberate, but given what’s been happening in Britain lately — at least three recent major terrorist attacks, two in London and one at Ariana Grande’s tour concert in Manchester — it’s understandable that a lot of people in the U.K. are wondering whether this was yet another attack.
Though embattled British Prime Minister Theresa May (who just lost a major election and is holding on to power by the skin of her teeth) has promised an aggressive government response, protesters have taken to the streets demanding justice for the Grenfell victims as well as more money to help the survivors. The British government has arrested a 43-year-old man named Omega Mwaikambo, not for any involvement with the fire but for posting video of a man leaping out of the building onto his Facebook page. More recent reports on Grenfell (see have said the fire was an accident but have blamed the building management, the British government and others for allowing the building to become more vulnerable to catastrophic fire.
The Alexandria shooting was inevitably compared to an incident that had taken place 6 ½ years earlier in Casas Adobes, Arizona, a suburb of Tucson. On January 8, 2011 U.S. Congressmember Gabrielle Giffords (D-Arizona) was hosting a public appearance at a Safeway parking lot which she called “Congress on Your Corner.” A 22-year-old man named Jared Lee Loughner approached her with a gun and shot her in the head. She survived, but suffered so much brain damage she eventually retired from Congress. Five people died in the attack, including federal judge John Roll, Giffords’ staff member Gabe Zimmerman, and nine-year-old girl Christina-Taylor Green.


When I first heard of the Alexandria shooting, my first reaction was relief that no one, other than the alleged shooter himself, had died from it. My second reaction was hope that Congressmember Scalise will not only survive his injuries, but will do so in good enough shape that he — unlike Gabrielle Giffords — will be able to continue in Congress. My third reaction was a brief glimpse of hope that now that it’s happened to a Republican Congressmember as well as a Democratic one, maybe, just maybe, this will break the logjam through which Congress has been unable to pass any sensible gun legislation that just might keep deadly weapons out of the hands of crazy people.
No such luck. Indeed, one of the most fascinating aspects of Alexandria is that no one is talking about any sort of rational gun legislation emerging from the horror. We’ve seen mass shooting after mass shooting in this country — Columbine, Aurora, Sandy Hook, the list goes on and on and on — and nothing has broken the stranglehold the National Rifle Association (NRA) and other pro-gun nitwits have on our politics. Indeed, the Alexandria shooting happened just four days before NBC-TV was scheduled to air an interview between Megyn Kelly and Alex Jones, far-Right radio commentator and owner of the InfoWars Web site, who has become notorious for saying the December 14, 2012 mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut was a hoax cooked up by the Obama administration and the alleged victims were really “child actors.”
America is in love with guns. Our national mythology centers around the successful conquest of the American West because we had guns and the Native people we took the country away from didn’t. Every mass entertainment medium in the U.S. — movies, TV, books, records, theme parks — promotes armed conflict and violence as the way to solve all problems. Four U.S. Presidents have been assassinated, and scores of others, from Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman to Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan, have been the victims of unsuccessful attempts.
And America’s love of guns has only grown and deepened in recent years. The U.S. Supreme Court has interpreted the Second Amendment — “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed” — as if it has nothing to do with militias and everything to do with allowing Americans to own just about any sort of firearm they want. The NRA used to support some restrictions on private ownership of guns — notably background checks to keep them out of the hands of the mentally ill — but as their political power has grown, so has the hardness of their line, to the point where they oppose reasonable gun restrictions they once supported.
“Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun,” Chinese revolutionary and Communist premier Mao Zedong once famously said. In the U.S. not just political power but personal validation seems to grow out of the barrel of a gun. The NRA has definitively won the battle over whether there will be any meaningful limits on Americans’ access to firearms. After the June 3 terror attack on London, in which the perpetrators mowed down some of their victims with motor vehicles and stabbed others to death, President Trump snottily tweeted, “Do you notice we are not having a gun debate right now? That’s because they used knives and a truck!” Brits responded that the attacks would have been even more horrific, and the death toll far higher, if it were as easy for private citizens to get guns in their country as it is in ours.
It says volumes about how deep America’s love affair with guns runs that Mexican drug cartels send their people across the border to the U.S. to buy guns because Mexico has effective anti-gun laws and we don’t. One of the big reasons George W. Bush became President after the 2000 election and Al Gore didn’t was the NRA mounted anti-Gore campaigns in Tennessee and West Virginia, successfully carrying those states for Bush. In what was otherwise a razor-thin election, Gore therefore became the first major-party Presidential nominee since George McGovern in 1972 to lose his home state. Had he carried Tennessee, he would have been President and Florida wouldn’t have mattered.
Likewise, Hillary Clinton lost the Presidency to Donald Trump in large measure due to gun-rights supporters who repeated over and over again that if elected, “Hillary is going to take your guns away.” It got so bad that she attempted to neutralize the attacks by having herself photographed with a hunting rifle. Just as the rise of the radical religious Right has made it impossible for anyone to be elected to high public office in the U.S. without believing not only in God, but in an interventionist God who takes a direct role in human affairs and can be appealed to through prayer (which would disqualify most of the authors of the U.S. Constitution, who were Deists), the rise to power of the NRA and its supporters has made it impossible for anyone to be elected in the U.S. without acknowledging the power, legitimacy and rightness of the gun lobby.


The combination of an armed citizenry and a highly polarized political environment has a lot of potential outcomes, all of them bad. In the U.S. in the 1850’s it at least took the form of an organized conflict between the federal government and 11 secessionist states, which ended in the pro forma abolition of slavery in the U.S. — though the North eventually pissed away the victory it had so dearly won on the battlefields of the Civil War, and within 20 years or so African-Americans were once again a second-class population, bereft of political rights and reduced to an economic status as close to slavery as Southern state governments, landowners and businesses could get away with.
In Germany in the late 1920’s and early 1930’s it took the form of pitched battles between Right- and Left-wing militias in the streets of the major cities, which the Right ultimately won. They ended up ruled by a dictator, Adolf Hitler, who promised to unify the country, end the partisan divide and make Germany great again. The result, of course, was World War II and the Holocaust.
More recently we’ve seen the price of the deadly combination of political polarization and an armed citizenry in Rwanda, Congo, Serbia, Bosnia, Iraq, Syria and everywhere else in the world where those two conditions coexist. If we haven’t seen violence and all-out civil war in 21st century America yet, it’s only because so far only a few crazies are doing the actual shooting. The rest of us are arguing about it over social media and grabbing one incident or another to propagandize for our own causes and attack our political adversaries.
When Gabrielle Giffords was shot a lot of American progressives immediately blamed it on the hatred and venom regularly spewed forth by Right-wing talk radio and Web sites like the one sponsored by former Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin, which showed a graphic of certain Democratic Congressmembers with cross-hairs over their faces as if someone with a telescopic rifle was aiming at them. The Right, in turn, said the shooter had been a lone nut and they shouldn’t be blamed because he’d gone crazy, shot up a public meeting, killed a federal judge and wounded a Congressmember.
The Alexandria shooting puts the shoe on the other foot. Unlike Jared Lee Loughner, James Hodgkinson left a trail a mile long on social media depicting his hatred of the rich and the Republican Party for enabling them. One of the photos of him that’s circulated since the attack shows him with a sign calling for a return to the ultra-high income tax rates (up to 90 percent) in place during Franklin Roosevelt’s Presidency. He was apparently involved in one of the Occupy camp-outs and volunteered for Bernie Sanders’ Presidential campaign — though Sanders, after the attack, made a statement that was both heartfelt and obligatory: “Violence of any kind is unacceptable in our society.”
At least some people on the Right have been consistent. In a commentary published in the Los Angeles Times June 16, National Review contributor Dan McLaughlin wrote, “The blame for violent acts lies with the people who committed them, and with those who explicitly and seriously call for violence. People who just use overheated political rhetoric, or who happen to share the gunman’s opinions, should be nowhere on the list.”
Others haven’t felt the same way. In a tweet, pro-Trump talk radio host Bill Mitchell said, “The Left in this country is ushering in a new #CultureofViolence where violent hate is the new normal.” Mitchell added that these Leftists were “DomesticTerrorists.”
Another Right-winger, Harlan Hill, linked the Alexandria shooting to the New York Public Theatre’s current production of Shakespeare’s play Julius Caesar, in which the actor in the title role is costumed to look like Trump. “Events like these show EXACTLY why we took issue with NY elites glorifying the assassination of our President,” wrote Hill, whose message was retweeted by Donald Trump, Jr. The younger Trump had already led a successful campaign to get major corporations like Delta Air Lines and the Bank of America to pull their funding from the New York Public Theatre in protest against the production.
Not that blaming political violence on real or perceived political adversaries is anything new in America. When Abraham Lincoln was murdered and his vice-president, Tennessee Senator Andrew Johnson, took over, Johnson’s opponents said that “the Rebellion has been vaulted into the President’s chair.” America’s third Presidential assassination, the killing of William McKinley in 1901, was widely blamed on publisher William Randolph Hearst because when the assassin, Leon Czolgosz, was arrested, he had clippings of Hearst’s anti-McKinley editorials in his pockets.
It’s become a cliché to say that growing numbers of Americans in 2017 have taken traditional political disagreements to new levels, not just arguing with people whose politics differ from theirs but actively hating them. The U.S. used to have stable party alignments that lasted for decades: the Republicans won all but four of the 14 Presidential elections between 1860 and 1928, and the Democrats won all but two of the seven between 1932 and 1964. Since the passage of the 22nd Amendment, formally limiting the President to two terms, no major party has won more than three Presidential elections in a row — and only once had a party had a streak even that long (the Republicans, with Ronald Reagan in 1980 and 1984 and George H. W. Bush in 1988).
The rapid-fire alternations not only in control of the White House (the Democrats from 1992 to 2000, the Republicans from 2000 to 2008, the Democrats from 2008 to 2016 and the Republicans from 2016) but Congress as well (the Republicans from 1994 to 2006, the Democrats from 2006 to 2010, the Republicans from 2010 in the House and 2014 in the Senate) have led to a situation in which each party attempts to mobilize its base and push through as much of its program as it can before the pendulum swings back and puts the other major party in charge. As American politics have evolved in the modern era, the battle lines have become harder and the demand for all-out victory ever greater, to the point where Republicans and Democrats deny the legitimacy of any process that leaves the other party in charge.
Absent an immediate short-term crisis that directly threatens the entire country — like the 9/11 terror attacks at the beginning of George W. Bush’s presidency and the economic collapse at its end — the parties these days show virtually no interest in compromise. And this is a good deal more true of the Republicans than the Democrats. Republicans so totally opposed Bill Clinton as President that they looked for something — anything — on which to impeach him and remove him from office, and they found it in his ham-handed attempt to lie his way out of a sex scandal. Democrats, probably because of the dubious way in which George W. Bush won the presidency in 2000, claimed with virtually no evidence that his 2004 re-election was equally rigged.
When Barack Obama took office as president in 2009, he actually made overtures to the Republicans, hoping he could ease the partisan divide in D.C. and get some things done that would have broad-based support. The Republicans were permitted to offer 170 amendments to the Affordable Care Act — though ultimately not one Republican voted for the final bill. Instead Obama was greeted with a scorched-earth opposition that seemed to take its cue from the song Groucho Marx sings in the movie Horse Feathers: “We don’t care what he has to say/It makes no difference anyway/Whatever it is, we’re against it.”
It got even worse when the Republicans regained control of the House of Representatives in 2010 and the Senate in 2014. Formerly noncontroversial measures to keep the government open turned into bitter pitched battles and periodic government shutdowns. Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell refused to hold hearings on Obama’s last U.S. Supreme Court nominee — and, with far less publicity, on 100-plus nominations Obama had made to lower Federal court judgeships. His hope, eventually fulfilled, was that he could keep those judicial vacancies open until a Republican would be elected President and could use them to pack the courts.
Now Donald Trump is President and he has solid Republican majorities in both houses of Congress — and they’re using this power to eliminate, root and branch, everything Obama tried to accomplish. Obama was for the Paris agreement on climate change? Trump pulled us out of it. Obama wanted the financial industry regulated so the masters of Wall Street would have a legal obligation to put their clients’ interests ahead of their own; virtually the first thing Trump did in office was to put an end to that. Obama wanted the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to safeguard Internet neutrality so the giant corporations that control Americans’ access to the Internet couldn’t use it to promote their own businesses and politics at the expense of everyone else’s; Trump put an end to that and picked FCC commissioners whose policies will turn the Internet into as much an exclusively Right-wing preserve as talk radio.
As Ronald Brownstein pointed out in a June 15 column on the Atlantic Web site (, the Republicans who control the House and Senate “have advanced deeply conservative policy proposals — with House Republicans voting to repeal the major financial regulations approved under former President Barack Obama, and Senate Republicans working in private toward a plan to repeal Obama’s Affordable Care Act. … In both chambers, GOP leaders have rejected even pro forma negotiations with Democrats to order to advance a legislative program centered on repealing a wide array of Obama-era actions. Trump’s executive orders have likewise centered on undoing his predecessor’s regulations program, particularly those limiting the carbon emissions linked to global climate change.”
In his article, “This Is Not Populism,” from the June 2017 Monthly Review — which argues that Trump’s politics and policies actually represent a new form of fascism — John Bellamy Foster goes even farther in describing Trump’s and his administration’s ideological commitments. “In addition to the well-known ‘Muslim ban’ and the proposed wall across the U.S.-Mexico border,” Bellamy Foster writes, “the Trump administration has pressed for ‘deconstruction of the administrative state’ … the gutting of environmental protections and scientific agencies; the elimination of most federal regulations on business; a trillion-dollar increase in infrastructure spending; a huge rise in military spending; the effective elimination of Obamacare; the end of Net neutrality; and steep cuts to taxes on corporations and the rich. Trump has filled his Cabinet and advisory positions with a ghoulish ensemble of billionaires, Wall Street insiders, hard-line generals, alt-Right ideologues, and climate-change deniers.”


Of course, people on both the American Right and Left have been saying those sorts of things about each other for decades. In the 1930’s, the Right charged that President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal was destroying individual liberty and freedom and bringing America under Communism by stealth. In the 1960’s Southern Democrats opposed to racial equality and the civil rights movement said that Northern Democrats and their Republican allies were trampling on the sacred ground of “states’ rights” (also the justification Democrats in the 1860’s had used to proclaim their “right” to leave the Union so they could still own Black people as slaves). In the 1980’s American liberals and progressives saw Ronald Reagan as the destruction of everything they held dear — the person who would destroy what welfare state existed in the U.S., would wipe out the power of organized labor, and would so extensively arm the world that there would be a World War III.
More recently, the Right saw Bill Clinton — actually an accommodationist, centrist President who moved the Democratic Party closer to the “Washington consensus” of corporate capitalism über alles and some crumbs thrown here and there to the working classes — as the devil incarnate. Billionaire financier and Right-wing activist Richard Mellon Scaife funded something called the “Arkansas Project,” which involved sending minions armed with cash to Clinton’s home state to find people who would be willing to share derogatory information about Bill and Hillary Clinton. Most of the people they offered money to didn’t have any derogatory information about Bill and Hillary Clinton, but that wasn’t a problem: they just made some up and happily got their hands on some of Scaife’s money in return. The lies spread about the Clintons by the “Arkansas Project” have proven remarkably durable; they got quoted over and over and over again by Right-wing media during the 2016 campaign and were a major factor in Hillary Clinton’s defeat.
When George W. Bush became President by fiat of the U.S. Supreme Court in 2000, it was the Left’s turn to demonize the current President. He was ridiculed as a know-nothing idiot, a puppet with either Dick Cheney or Karl Rove pulling his strings. He was denounced as a war-monger and as an incompetent weakling who couldn’t even manage the government response to Hurricane Katrina, much less keep the entire economy from collapsing at the end of his term. Had it not been for the 9/11 attacks and the “he’s the only President we’ve got” unifying effect from them, which for several years made criticizing Bush seemed downright un-American and pro-terrorist, the vituperation against Bush would have been even worse than it was.
Then the U.S. replaced Bush with Barack Obama, a (half-)Black short-term Senator with an exotic name, and the Right-wing propaganda machine really went into full swing. A bizarre movement, led by the man who would become Obama’s successor, claimed that Obama wasn’t even U.S.-born — an obvious metaphor for the visible way in which Obama was different from the 42 men who had served as President before him. Obama was denounced as a puppet of 1960’s white radicals or Muslim imams or goodness knows who else — like most conspiracy theories, the anti-Obama jeremiads were longer on imagination than coherence — and while the Right was denouncing him, the Left was treating him the way they had Clinton, as a sell-out whose obeisance to Wall Street and the globalist “trade” agenda were greasing the skids for total corporate control of the U.S. and the world.
Vigorous political debate is one thing. Demonizing your opponents and treating them as the scum of the earth is quite another. The Rube Goldberg political system the framers of the U.S. Constitution put together was designed deliberately to put as many roadblocks as possible in the way of sweeping change from either Left or Right. It also contained many undemocratic features, because the framers didn’t like the idea of democracy and wanted to make sure the U.S. remained a representative republic, governed not directly by the people but by carefully selected officials whose superior education and understanding would enable them to give the country not so much what the people wanted as what they needed.
One reason the Republican Party has been so much more successful than the Democratic Party in recent years is that the Republicans have shrewdly exploited all the undemocratic features of the U.S. Constitution — the Electoral College, the apportionment of two U.S. Senators to each state regardless of its population, and the sweeping powers the Constitution gives state legislatures to draw Congressional districts and to determine just who is, and who isn’t, eligible to vote. The Republicans have responded to the demographic challenge against them — the way sectors of the population (young people, poor people, people of color) likely to vote Democratic are growing faster than those likely to vote Republican — not by changing their message to broaden their appeal, but by passing laws against so-called “voter fraud” that are designed to keep people who won’t vote Republican from being able to vote at all.
The Republican Party is also the beneficiary of a decades-long ideological project that has made it a remarkably coherent and consistent party, libertarian in its economic philosophy (opposed to government regulation of business, environmental and labor protections, and committed to the destruction of the big social insurance programs one by one — first the Affordable Care Act, then Medicaid, then Medicare and finally Social Security) and at the same time highly authoritarian in its social attitudes, particularly in its belief that government ought to determine who should be able to have sex with whom and how they’ll be allowed to deal with the consequences of that. It’s taken over a century — the process started when Theodore Roosevelt was denied the Republican nomination in 1912 and ended up running for President under a new party that was in many respects more progressive than either the Republicans or Democrats — but today the Republican Party is a consistently Right-wing party with no room for progressives, liberals or even moderates.
As we saw from the way the so-called “moderate” House Republicans caved on the vote on the American Health Care Act — passing the final bill even though, in an effort to appease their Right-wing base, instead of answering the “moderates’” criticisms of the original bill they actually made it worse, and the “moderates” voted for it anyway — to be a Republican in the U.S. in 2017 means to endorse a pro-corporate, anti-worker, anti-environment, anti-science, anti-people of color, anti-women, anti-Queer agenda. That’s why I’ve said in previous endorsement editorials in Zenger’s Newsmagazine and on this site that any Democrat is better than any Republican, and why I’ve called to an end to useless, counterproductive, destructive attempts by progressives and Leftists to form or maintain alternative parties. Like it or not, the Democrats are the only game in town for Americans at all to the Left of the Republican mainstream.
And the Democrats certainly have their problems. Ever since the Reagan years, the Democratic party has been fundamentally divided between a pro-corporate “centrist” wing and an anti-corporate progressive wing. Indeed, the division goes back even farther than that historically — at least to the 1920’s, another period of Right-wing ascendancy in American politics which the Democrats responded to by splitting into pro-business “moderates” and pro-labor, pro-social welfare progressives.
The modern-day corporate Democrats emerged as part of the effort to keep the party’s Congressional majorities — and the huge campaign donations and lobbyists’ favors they brought in — following the realigning Presidential elections of 1968 and 1972, in which Right-wing candidates Richard Nixon and George Wallace smashed the New Deal coalition and revealed that vast swaths of the American working class that had traditionally voted Democratic had been brought to the Right by the Republicans’ shrewd exploitation of their racism and cultural conservatism.
There have been three major battles between the corporate and progressive wings of the Democratic Party in the last two years: the fight for the 2016 Presidential nomination between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders; the fight for the national party chair between Tom Perez and Keith Ellison early this year; and, more recently, the fight for the California state party chair between Eric Bauman and Kimberly Ellis. In all three cases, the progressive — Sanders, Ellison, Ellis — came heartbreakingly close to winning, but lost.
In another sort of political system, one more open and democratic — like Germany’s, which allocates its national legislature proportionately so you can vote for an alternative party and have a shot at real power instead of just throwing your vote away — that would be the signal for the progressives to bolt the Democratic Party and start a new one of their own. But in the U.S., where both laws and traditions constrain electoral politics into two and only two significant parties, that would be a sure route to political suicide and oblivion.
So we have an ideologically consistent Republican Party and an ideologically inconsistent Democratic Party, riven by contradictions to a point where many voters say they vote Republican simply because they know what the Republicans stand for, whether or not they agree with it, while they don’t know what the Democrats stand for. And we have a political environment in which the Right and the Left — large segments of them, anyway — have explicitly endorsed political violence as a way to achieve their ends.
Leftists at UC Berkeley, with the tacit support of the city’s elected government and its police force, successfully suppressed the free-speech rights of Right-wing journalists Ann Coulter and Milo Yiannopoulos. Instead of taking them on in open debate, so-called “Black Bloc” activists kept them from speaking altogether — and city officials and police cooperated in this suppression by telling Coulter and Yiannopoulos they could not guarantee their safety, thereby giving the “Black Bloc” mobs veto power over who can and cannot speak within Berkeley’s city limits. That was not only offensive and wrong morally, it was dumb politically. It played right into the hands of the Right, whose master political narrative is that it is they who are the oppressed minority being hounded into silence by sinister, evil progressives.
And yet the Right has done this, too. It was apparent when Donald Trump, as a Presidential candidate, not only encouraged his supporters to use violence against people who heckled at his rallies but promised to pay for their legal defense if they were arrested for doing so. It was seen on the eve of the Montana special election for Congress, in which the Republican candidate head-butted a journalist who tried to ask him how he stood on the American Health Care Act. Not only did the Republican win the election anyway, but on the night he declared victory he gave a pro forma apology to the journalist he’d assaulted — and his supporters booed him because they thought an attack on a representative of the “liberal media” was something he should be proud of, not something for which he should feel he had to apologize.
One other factor is increasing both the propensity and the seriousness of political violence in the U.S.: the Internet. Thanks to the power of social media, conspiracy theories on both extremes that used to lurk in the shadows now flourish in the light of day. What’s more, news coverage on the Internet generally is extraordinarily self-selecting; the major access sites all base their results on “algorithms” that basically assume that once you have read something, you will want more of the same. If you log on to Fox News, the search engines will direct you to Breitbart, InfoWars and other Right-wing sites, many of them dealing in conspiracy theories. If you visit The Nation, the engines are likely to send you to The American Prospect, Daily Kos, Tom’s Dispatch and other Left-wing sites.
The result of Internet news coverage has been to negate the old saying that “you’re entitled to your own opinions, but not to your own set of facts.” What people who get most of their information from Fox and other sites to the Right think is “really” going on in the world is going to be profoundly different from what people who get most of their information from The Nation and other progressive sites. The Left and the Right online increasingly peddle two wildly different and incompatible sets of “facts,” and what’s more they represent that they are telling the “truth” and the other side is lying.
Meanwhile, the influence of the mainstream corporate media — newspapers like the New York Times, Washington Post and Los Angeles Times, and networks like NBC, CBS and ABC — is dwindling. They used to be regarded as impartial purveyors of objective truth; now, as they recede in importance and influence and more ideological news sources grow in importance, the mainstream media are routinely criticized by both sides — by the Right as part of a “liberal media” conspiracy to deceive the American people, and by the Left as witting or unwitting dupes of their corporate paymasters.
So we have an increasingly polarized country in which citizens are becoming more extreme in their views — and more emotional about their politics. People who used to say they “disagreed” with people on the other side of the political fence now say they “hate” them. They’re also becoming more self-segregating: more and more accounts are circulating of people who make friends only with people who agree with them politically, and this only got worse after the 2016 election when a lot of liberals and progressives started saying it literally made them sick to be around people who had voted for Trump.

The combination of factors — a more polarized citizenry, less willing to agree with each other even on the very existence of objective facts; a less rational and more emotional level of political discourse; a Republican ruling elite crafting major bills in secret because, as Senator Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) told the Los Angeles Times, “We have zero cooperation from the Democrats, so getting it [out] in public gives them a chance to get up and scream”; and also a country that is increasingly awash in guns — makes for a very explosive and dangerous political environment in which innocent people may literally find themselves being killed in the crossfire of partisan battles. To paraphrase Joseph L. Mankiewicz’ famous line for Bette Davis in the film All About Eve, “Fasten your seatbelts — it’s going to be a bumpy century.”