Monday, July 10, 2017

Would You Look at the Actual Science? Please?

My last column, “Global Warming in a Nutshell,” drew a brief comment from a reader named David Cutright.  In case you missed it, he wrote:

You conveniently ignore discussion of any other theories as to the cause of Global Warming, and they ALL are theories. The other issue is that every solution proposed, including the Paris Accord, sends trillions from the US to other countries while allowing those other countries to continue to increase CO2 production for several years without a significant reduction in Average Global Temperatures.

At this point in our planetary history, given the mounting danger posed by global warming, it feels irresponsible to let such claims go unchallenged. 

I don’t know Mr. Cutright, although I remember a long letter chock full of attacks on global warming that he wrote several years ago to the editor of the Hur Herald.  I assume he is sincere and well-meaning, even though almost nothing he writes is trustworthy.    

With that as background, here’s a more analytical take on his comment.

He says that I “conveniently ignore” alternative theories for what might be causing global warming, implying that I deliberately left out legitimate alternatives.  If I understand him correctly, that would be all other theories, because one theory is apparently as good as another.  They’re all just theories, you know.

That’s nonsense, of course.  All theories aren’t equally plausible, and when a theory is proven wrong by advances in science or real-world observations, it’s discarded.  Theories that consistently match the facts, on the other hand, are called “robust” by scientists, meaning they’re very likely to be true.

So either he doesn’t understand how science works, or he has missed the point of my column.  Or maybe he’s just so bent on making his own points that mine might as well be written in water.   

Although he didn’t specify what other theories he had in mind, the chief alternative explanations for what’s causing global warming have been: 1) solar activity, and 2) variations in heat coming from Earth’s core.  For several years climate contrarians were keen on the solar activity theory—the idea that an increase in sunspots and solar flares has been causing Earth’s temperature to rise.

But neither of those theories matches up with real world observations.  Solar activity has actually been declining while temperatures have been rising.  And only a relatively small, steady amount of heat actually flows from Earth’s core to its surface.  So those theories have been invalidated by the evidence.  That’s why I ignored them. They no longer belong in the conversation.  Like the theory that the universe revolves around our home planet, they’ve been added to science’s scrap heap.

By contrast, there is an abundance of evidence confirming that our planet is steadily warming, that rising levels of greenhouse gases are responsible, and that it is humans who are boosting those levels.  My column laid out these steps, each backed by links to the underlying science. 

Because of their familiarity with that evidence, scientists who focus on climate overwhelmingly identify the greenhouse effect as the engine driving modern global warming.  

In fact, in a number of surveys, about 97% of those highly-qualified specialists have confirmed that this particular theory fits the facts.  All of the major scientific organizations in the world, with not a single exception, say the same thing.  As we laypeople would put it: It’s true.

It’s ironic to have Mr. Cutright complain that I’m ignoring other (discredited) theories—and then himself ignore the entire body of my column, as well as the science which undergirds it.  Instead he attacks the Paris Accord, which I didn’t mention at all.  (Rather than get sidetracked with that issue, I’ll take it up in my next column.)

Each item in my “Global Warming in a Nutshell” column was drawn from mainstream science and, as I’ve mentioned, was linked to supporting documentation.  Everything in Mr. Cutright’s comment and his earlier letter to the editor is drawn from the familiar grab-bag of denialist talking points, and none of it is sourced or supported.  

Mr. Cutright has obviously invested a good deal of time in studying denial literature.  But the more he “learns,” the less he actually knows, because all of that accumulated misinformation blocks him from learning the genuine, high grade science that would call it into question.  The shelves of his mental warehouse are crammed with half-truths, cherry-picked facts, and outright lies.  There’s no room on the shelves for anything else.  

That’s a real loss.  The world needs people with his passion and initiative.  But it needs them to to be operating from a sound scientific basis. 

Mr. Cutright’s comment, as brief as it is, as well as his earlier letter to the editor, are fair samples of what the denial industry eventually produces.  Their strategy is to ignore the actual peer-reviewed science, smear those who promote the science, deflect the argument, and keep throwing out the same lies over and over again.  Their hope is that the public will mistake the confusion they've created for actual debate within the scientific community about what causes global warming.  

But there is no scientific debate.  None.  Just a barrage of anti-science propaganda created by highly paid PR firms, bankrolled by fossil fuel billionaires, and parroted by their political front men.  Well-meaning though he may be, Mr. Cutright is serving as their agent.  As our climate situation becomes increasingly desperate, that makes him an unwitting agent of ignorance and evil, nudging us toward disaster.

If you’re going to weigh in on global warming, you have a moral obligation to first familiarize yourself with the peer-reviewed research related to it, as well as the current state of understanding among climate scientists.  Otherwise you’re at the mercy of any con man, zealot, or flimflam artist—and your own biases.

Monday, June 26, 2017

Global Warming in a Nutshell

Last week the 29th anniversary of James Hansen’s historic appearance before the U.S. Senate’s Committee on Health & Natural Resources passed by virtually unnoticed.  Hansen, a climate scientist with NASA’s Goddard Institute of Space Studies, testified back on June 23, 1988, that “Global warming has reached a level such that we can ascribe with a high degree of confidence a cause and effect relationship between the greenhouse effect and observed warming.”

Hansen added, ''It is already happening now.’’

The year of Hansen’s testimony—1988—was warmer at the time than any other year in the global temperature records, which began in 1880.  Now, it doesn’t even make the top ten.  So far our new century has seen 16 of the top 17 warmest years ever recorded, with each of the last three years setting a new all-time record.  That is not a natural progression.

For 29 years now we have been officially on notice that global warming is taking place and poses serious threats to life as we know it.  And for 29 years, as global temperatures have climbed, we have been unable to muster a serious response.

The core science linking the greenhouse effect and global warming can be summed up in three logical steps:
  • Carbon dioxide (CO₂) and other greenhouse gases trap heat by absorbing infrared radiation.
  • The amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is steadily increasing, so more and more heat is being trapped, thus warming the planet.
  • Human production of carbon dioxide is almost entirely responsible for the increased carbon dioxide levels, and hence for much of the warming.

All three of these steps are easily verifiable.  They are based on settled physics and indisputable measurements.

When air sampling began at the remote Pacific island of Mauna Loa, back in 1958, carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was at a level of 280 parts per million (ppm).  This year the CO₂ level reached 410 ppm.  That is a 48% increase of heat-trapping CO₂ in less than 60 years, and the level is still climbing.  Look no further for a reason the world is heating up.

An instrument called a mass spectrometer is used to measure the CO₂ and other gases in the air samples from Mauna Loa and other centers around the globe.  Since CO₂ emitted by the burning of fossil fuels lacks a carbon isotope called C14, the mass spectrometer can tell us how much of the CO₂ being added to the atmosphere is from human burning of fossil fuels.   The answer is: virtually all of it.  

Claims that we don’t know whether human use of fossil fuels is responsible for global warming are false.  The science demonstrating that they are false has been known for years.  As James Powell has written, “Unlike people, isotopes do not lie.”

Most people now understand that we need to transition away from CO₂-producing fossil fuels and adopt clean, renewable forms of energy that don’t load the atmosphere with more greenhouse gases.  What they may not be aware of is how quickly we need to cut greenhouse gases, and how deep those cuts must be.

Here’s the problem.  The ocean, plants on land, and other carbon absorbers can only take up about half of the CO₂ humans are currently producing each year.  The other half goes into the atmosphere, where different portions last for differing amounts of time.  The brutal, seldom-discussed reality is that twenty percent or more of the CO₂ humans produce annually will remain in the atmosphere for tens of thousands of years.  That 20% annual addition, on a human scale, is close to permanent.

So to stabilize CO₂ levels in the atmosphere, most of the goals and timelines being set by governments at all levels don’t come close to doing the job.  Even ambitious-sounding goals actually result in dumping more and more gas into the atmosphere, where a good deal of it will remain long term.  

The numbers are simple and straightforward.  If we cut CO₂ emissions by 20%?  Then 30% will still go into the atmosphere, CO₂ levels will keep on climbing, and more long-term warming will be locked in.  Cut emissions by 40%?  Then 10% will still worsen the problem.  Every year we don’t cut emissions to 50% of current levels, we’re making things worse.  Much worse.

In short, the minimum realistic goal is to cut CO₂ emissions by 50%, and the realistic timeline is as soon as humanly possible.  Then we can taper down toward zero emissions.  We can’t afford to settle for cuts that are easily palatable.  Our realism should be rooted in physical reality, the real-life consequences of continued greenhouse buildup.  The deadly heat waves, drying out of soils, increased flooding, more violent storms, mass migrations of plant and animal species, melting of ice caps and glaciers, and all the rest of it.

What we think of as “other issues” keep pressing themselves on us.  Health care.  Terrorism.  Poverty.  Immigration.  Hunger.  

The fact is, global warming will worsen every one of these dramatically, on a planetary scale, and will do irreparable harm in many other ways.  Global warming is the biggest, most comprehensive threat the world faces.  Dealing with it must become the number one priority on our political agenda. 

© Tony Russell, 2017

Monday, March 13, 2017


I’m sitting in front of my computer reading part of an interview last Thursday with Scott Pruitt, the new head of the Environmental Protection Agency.  The article includes a photo of Pruitt, with a placard in front of him reading “Hon. E. Scott Pruitt.”

Before being named to the EPA post, Pruitt was the Attorney General of Oklahoma.  In that position, one of his main accomplishments was bringing fossil fuel corporations and lobbying groups into the Republican Attorneys General Association. He also acted as a conduit for Devon Energy, Oklahoma’s largest oil and gas firm, when he sent a letter to the EPA accusing it of federal overreach.  His contribution was the signature; attorneys for Devon Energy actually wrote the letter.

The Republican AG group welcomed its fossil fuel funders by forming a nonprofit called the “Rule of Law Defense Fund.”   The fund had the deliberately vague purpose of pursuing “issues relevant to the nation’s Republican attorneys general.”  Pruitt is a board member.  The organization has received at least $175,000 from the Koch brothers’ Freedom Partners super PAC.
That is the background for Pruitt’s astonishing statement in his interview: “… no, I would not agree that [carbon dioxide is] a primary contributor to the global warming that we see.  ... we don’t know that yet  ... we need to continue debate and continue the review and the analysis."

This is a familiar industry line.  First with the tobacco industry, now with the fossil fuel industry.  “We don’t know that cigarettes cause cancer.”  “We don’t know that burning oil and gas and coal causes global warming.”  “The science is uncertain.”  “We need further studies.”  Et cetera.  What is so sickening is hearing these words from the head of the EPA.

Debate, review, analyze ....  What they really stand for is delay, delay, delay.  The longer an industry fights off action, whether it be on smoking or climate change, the longer the money rolls in… and the more people die from lung cancer or unprecedented flooding or heat stroke or climate-driven drought.

We do know that humans' burning of fossil fuel is driving our current global warming, and have known it with certainty for decadesThere are few things more firmly established in modern science than the primary role of human-generated carbon dioxide in causing the planetary warming we’re experiencing.  Pruitt might as well have claimed that there is no proof that Earth is round, that we need to keep debating and reviewing and analyzing that issue.  

But there’s no money in pushing a flat Earth agenda; there’s plenty of money available for people like Pruitt, who will swap their integrity for a few lies about climate change (and the high positions and salaries that reward their willingness to spread those lies in front of cameras).  

What are the consequences of lies about global warming?

Rising sea levels moving steadily inward on beaches and coastal plains around the world.  More intense, deadly heat waves that have already killed thousands.  The death of coral reefs and bleaching of many more, even in the most remote, pristine areas of the planet.  Ever larger and more intense forest fires, thousand-year floods, and mega-droughts.  The looming extinction of untold numbers of plant and animal species.

And that’s just a brief sample.  What Pruitt and this administration are furthering is death, loss, suffering, and destruction across a wide swath of the planet—while their supporters cheer on the madness.

This is Esau’s trading of his birthright for a mess of pottage that long since turned foul and rotten.  I’m thinking again of that placard in the photo of Pruitt.  We use the title “the Honorable” so routinely.  So cheaply.  Few things could be more dishonorable, and more despicable, than carrying lies for such a morally indefensible cause.  

© Tony Russell, 2017

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Hypocrisy or Democracy? The DNC Has a Fateful Choice

The Democratic National Committee will choose a new chair at its February 23-26 Winter Meeting in Atlanta.  That choice will be a fateful one.  

Despite being the smaller party, Republicans hold the country in an iron grip.  Their dream of dismantling New Deal social programs is within reach.  They’re racing to accelerate global warming by mining, drilling, and burning all the fossil fuels they can lay their hands on.  They seem bent on stripping millions of families of health care, threatening more millions of immigrant families, and demonizing 3.3 million Muslims who are our fellow students, co-workers, neighbors, and friends. 

A lot of responsibility for that falls on the DNC’s shoulders. The party’s collapse this past election was obviously a stunning rejection of Hillary Clinton.  But the rejection wasn’t just personal, it was systemic.  Millions of voters were turned off by the party’s hypocrisy and the DNC’s subservience to corporate money.  

Let’s tell it like it is.  The DNC gamed its own system, killed enthusiasm, and drove huge numbers of newly-engaged voters out of the campaign.  They ushered Hillary Clinton into the nomination and the party over a cliff.

What needs to be fixed?

Don’t underestimate the problems.  The less difficult fixes are managerial, and even those will require major effort to accomplish.  But after one of the most humiliating defeats in U.S. history, all of the candidates for chair agree they need to happen.  Those fixes include:

  • reviving the 50-state (plus 7-territories) strategy; 
  • pouring substantial resources into making the party competitive in state and local levels; 
  • contesting races up and down the entire ticket rather than beginning and ending at the top; 
  • supporting, not starving, progressive candidates; 
  • listening to the grassroots.  

Publicly, that’s all the candidates are willing to discuss.  The corporate wing of the party wants to keep it that way.  What they don’t want is to own their part in the problem.

It was the corporatists who abandoned Howard Dean’s 50-state approach, sucked the money and support away from downticket efforts, and sought out lobbyists and big-dollar donors—and they don’t intend to change their ways.  

The corporatists’ basic pitch in framing the DNC’s choice of a new chair is a bureaucratic two-step.  1) The party needs to bury its “philosophical differences” over big donors (i.e., keep on living off corporate handouts), ignore the outrageous abuses of the last campaign, and unify.  2) The best fit for heading the rebuilding job is a good manager who will reach out and rebuild the party at its lower levels. 

In other words, their recipe for success is a better-run version of the status quo.  

Why is that not enough?

That argument may sound plausible.  But it won’t work. In fact, it’s actually a recipe for further disaster. 

Young people, working class people, and people of color deserted the party in droves this last election.  Even the shock of a Donald Trump administration won’t be enough to bring them back unless there is major systemic change—starting with the chair. In their encounters with the Democratic Party last primary season, attempts to squelch them were every bit as ugly and undemocratic as Republicans’ efforts to suppress minority votes. They’ve had it with the cynicism and hypocrisy of corporate Democrats.

Beyond that, there are structural problems plaguing the DNC like multiple cancers--the caucus system, the superdelegate system, and the core issue destroying the party: its dependence on donations from corporate lobbyists. 

What really needs to be fixed? 

The DNC is sick.  It has an addiction to corporate money.  And your dealers don’t stop coming around just because you’ve lost your house, been fired from your job, and been rejected by your kids.  You’re the dealers’ mealticket, and in their own way, they’re as sick as you are. 

As any addict or member of an addict’s family will tell you, recovery begins by acknowledging that you have a problem.  That was Bernie Sanders’ role in the last campaign.  He was the unlikely young boy who blurted out—in a Brooklyn accent—that the emperor wasn’t wearing any clothes.  The wonder wasn’t just that Sanders couldn’t be bullied or bought; it was that he actually talked about Wall Street and corporate money as corrupting democracy.  He broke the party’s sick silence.  It was the greatest contribution he could have made to the party—and the party turned it down. 

Once the silence was broken, volunteers poured into Sanders’ campaign.  His massive support via small donations was unprecedented.  Hundreds of thousands of those same folks, along with other energized, passionate people, are now out jamming airports, filling our cities’ streets, and hounding members of Congress.  They’re pouring millions of dollars into the ACLU.  Do the powers-that-be in the DNC actually believe that managerial fixes will satisfy people’s demands for change?  

As crazy as that sounds, they may.  Never underestimate addicts’ ability to delude themselves. 

How do things look at the moment?

Early on, Keith Ellison, a strong progressive and early Bernie Sanders supporter, was the clear frontrunner to become the new DNC chair.  But the party’s Clinton/Obama corporate wing, threatened by the prospect of real reform, pushed Tom Perez into the race.  Perez, ex-Labor Secretary under Obama and one-time prospect to be Hillary Clinton’s running mate, is now Ellison’s main competition.

Unfortunately for Perez, he had a temporary lapse into frankness.  He told county leaders in Kansas, “We heard loudly and clearly yesterday from Bernie supporters that the [party’s primary] process was rigged, and it was. And you’ve got to be honest about it. That’s why we need a chair who is transparent.”  

His straight talk was quickly followed by a humiliating flurry of tweets in which he claimed he “misspoke” and that “Hillary became our nominee fair and square, and she won more votes in the primary—and general—than her opponents.”  

That Clinton won more votes is obviously true; that she won the nomination “fair and square” is a lie.  Emails released via Wikileaks, as well as the debate schedule, the stacked deck in debate questions, and the abuses in party caucuses all confirmed the process was rigged. 

By now we all cringe each time Kellyanne Conway debases herself by excusing or lying about yet another vile thing Donald Trump has said or done.  But here’s Tom Perez doing the same thing, flip-flopping at Clinton’s command. 

The speed with which Clinton//Wall Street forces were able to pull Perez’s strings and jerk him back into line is all we need to know about his fitness for the job. The last thing the DNC needs is a male version of Debbie Wasserman Schultz at its helm.  Nevertheless, Perez now claims he has the support of at least 180 DNC members.

Keith Ellison has been low key, presumably because he’s trying not to poke a stick in the eye of people he’ll need to work with if elected.  But Sam Ronan’s late entry into the race is a plus for Ellison because the young Ohio vet is making Ellison’s case for him, putting 2016’s rigged nomination front and center and demanding the DNC hold itself accountable.

Ellison’s bid has also been bolstered in the last few days by a strong endorsement from Ray Buckley, who dropped out of the race.  Of key importance here is that Buckley is not only the chair of the New Hampshire Democratic Party, but also President of the Association of State Democratic Chairs and Vice Chair of the DNC.  He has been engaged in Democratic politics since he was eight years old and is widely respected.  His endorsement carries a lot of weight.

If the DNC blows this one, it can kiss the party’s future—and ours—goodbye.

What can you do?

Call your state’s members on the DNC.  If you can’t find out who they are, get their names and contact info from your state’s Democratic Party office.  Don’t put it off; time is short.  Tell the DNC members what you want and who you support.  Let them know the public is watching, and expects real reform.

© Tony Russell, 2017

Monday, February 20, 2017

“I’m Going to Have to Wear That Phrase Like Sackcloth”

“Kellyanne, good gracious!  What’s wrong with you, honey, you look terrible!”

“Please, I don’t need to hear that.  I already know.  I’ve been having trouble sleeping, and I get up in the morning exhausted. Everybody at work is going non-stop, and it makes me look like a slacker to take time off, but I had to take a break.”

“What’s the matter, sweetie?  What is it?  Are you ... you and George aren’t having problems, are you?”

“No, no, nothing like that.  George and I are fine.  He’s been great.  It’s... it’s my job.”

“Oh, we’ve been so proud of you, Kellyanne.  You were always such a hard worker.  Picking blueberries all those summers.  We knew you’d make something of yourself.  And you have.  First the president’s campaign manager and now Counselor to the President!”

Awkwardly:  “That’s the problem, really.  I’m not proud of myself anymore.”

“Why in the world not?  You’ve worked hard for everything you’ve got.  You’re an American success story, honey.  You earned a law degree, you started your own polling business, and now you’re working in the Oval Office!”

Eyes turning downward, her voice quivering:  “Right.  And I felt good about those things and about myself.  But now, every day, I have to go on TV and lie in front of millions of people.  I cringe.  I toss and turn for hours every night wondering what stupid lie I’m going to have to go out and defend the next day.”

“What are you saying, Kellyanne?”

“Oh, I shouldn’t be telling you these things, but you’ve always been there for me.  Please don’t repeat this to anybody.”

“You know you can depend on me, Kellyanne.  What is it, child?”  

“He just makes things up, he contradicts himself, he exaggerates so much that he’s like a three-year-old.  It was sort of fun for a while.  It was lively and different from all those canned speeches and scripted talking points, you know?   But he can’t help himself; it’s like a disease.  He lies nonstop.”

“Well that’s his problem, isn’t it?”

“That’s not how it works.  I’m his spokesperson.  What am I supposed to do when he claims he had the biggest inauguration crowd ever and there are all these photos that show huge empty spaces on the Mall?  When he claims thousands of people were bused from Massachusetts to vote in New Hampshire illegally, but there’s zero evidence to support that claim?  When he says that he’ll release his tax returns when the audit is completed, and then after the election says he won’t release them?  When he says that Mexico will pay for the wall and then it turns out we’re going to pay for the wall?  He lies about important stuff and he lies about trivia!  And then I have to go on TV and double down on the lies.”

Sympathetically.  “Have you been going to confession, Kellyanne?  Don’t you think it would help to unburden yourself and do an act of contrition?”

“I’ve thought of it, but I’ve been avoiding it.  What am I going to say?  That I know I’m sinning, but I’m going to keep on doing it because that’s basically what my job consists of?  That I go out and lie, day after day, in order to defend a president who lies, day after day?”

“Come on, Kellyanne, this isn’t like you.  Buck up.  You can figure your way out of this.  You were Phi Beta Kappa in college!”

“Don’t remind me.  When I came up with that phrase ‘alternative facts,‘ I thought it was clever.  Now it just sounds idiotic.  When people hear my name, that’s what they think of--that cheesy way to recast a lie.   I’m going to have to wear that phrase like sackcloth for the rest of my life.  Then there was that horrible ‘Bowling Green massacre’ fiasco.  And that Fatal Attraction skit on Saturday Night Live to top things off.” 

“I saw a clip of that, Kellyanne.  I thought it was mean.  You’re nothing like that woman.”

“It stung.  But the bottom-line is, it’s true.”

“What do you mean it’s true?  You’d never go after somebody with a knife.  Don’t be silly.”

“Of course I wouldn’t attack anybody with a knife.  But I’ve been acting just as crazy as Glenn Close in the film.  I’m attached to this man who uses me but would drop me like a red-hot horseshoe if it suited him.  I’m sick enough to go out and humiliate myself time and time again, for his sake, when I don’t mean anything to him.” 

“Is it really that bad?”

“It’s worse.  Have you been watching when I go on TV news shows now?  I’m a laughing stock!  I start to offer some explanation for the latest whopper from the White House and TV hosts just cut me off.  Or giggle uncontrollably.  Do you know how embarrassing that is—to have some veteran TV person unable to stop giggling because what you’ve said is so ridiculous?  I’ve even been banned from Morning Joe—Morning Joe, for crying out loud—because of my ‘propensity to bring forth falsehoods on multiple occasions’.” 

“Oh sweetie, that must really hurt.”

“I’m starting to go numb.  When somebody acts as if what I’ve just said is nonsense, I don’t even have a comeback.  I catch myself staring at them for a minute like ‘Don’t make me do this again, will you not?  Please?’”

“Kellyanne, it sounds as if you hit rock bottom when you reached the top.”

“What do you mean?”

“It’s like that monkey trap, where the monkey sticks her hand through a hole to grab a banana and then traps herself because she won’t let go.  Maybe you need to start asking yourself what your success is worth.”

© Tony Russell, 2017

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

“If We Could Change Ourselves”: The DNC and Transformational Change

The Democratic sweep of 2008 built on an overwhelming public hunger for a shift in the direction the country was moving.  In a skillfully crafted campaign, Barack Obama presented himself as the personification of hope and change.  He and the party turned pent-up demand for a more equal society and a less belligerent foreign policy into a smashing victory.  Obama swept into office along with Democratic majorities in both the House and Senate.

Yet as soon as he was inaugurated, Obama installed a Wall Street-selected cabinet and economic team, and chose Rahm Emanuel—an abrasive cynic, former investment banker, and pipeline to donors and powerbrokers—as his Chief of Staff. The new Democratic administration failed to deliver the kinds of change people had voted for, and its Congressional majority rapidly eroded.

The Republican sweep of 2016 drew on an even greater public hunger for a change of course.  Donald Trump ran as a bull-in-a-china-shop outsider who would break up a rigged system, shred trade agreements that had devastated American factories and their workers’ lives, and “Make America Great Again.”

By contrast, Hillary Clinton ran as the embodiment of the status quo.  She  downsized voters’ expectations, preaching incremental change in tiny steps.  And instead of an inspirational campaign slogan, she offered “I’m with Her”--a tone-deaf choice that focused attention exclusively on herself.

The new Republican administration, like the 2008 Democratic administration, immediately set about disappointing the voters who put it into office.  But unlike Democrats in 2008, Republicans are bulldozing their brutal agenda through with the throttle wide open.  It’s change on a mammoth scale, but it’s not the change people were hoping for.  Instead it’s a return to the robber barons‘ heyday at the turn of the last century.

So whether the Democratic Party recognizes it or not, the election of a new DNC chair pivots on a double-barreled question:  Will the DNC offer change, and what kind of changes is the party willing to commit itself to? 

The first part is easy: Change is coming.  The second part is what the election of a new chair is all about.

Will it be a limited, strategic change that mainly involves reinvesting in local and state party structures?  That’s the kind of change the party’s establishment wants.  That’s what they’re offering with Tom Perez.  It’s what they were offering with Jaime Harrison too before he dropped out and threw his support to Perez.

The change Perez and Harrison represent is from the top down.  Perez was recruited by Obama and Clinton insiders once it looked as if Keith Ellison was going to win the DNC job. Perez appears to be a decent guy, but his constituency is the insiders, the lobbyists, the big donors, and the network they’ve built up inside the DNC.  Harrison, also a likable and capable person, is a lobbyist with The Podesta Group, formed by Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager John Podesta and his brother.  The Podesta Group is the primary funnel for corporate cash into the top levels of the DNC.

Keith Ellison represents transformational change, change from the bottom up.  He voices the hopes and dreams of ordinary people as well as the overwhelming majority of young people.  He represents a bridge between what the party is and what it needs to become.  The party needs him, or someone like him, in ways it may not appreciate.  

Ellison is on the right side of history.  He’s on the right side of opportunity, equality, and salvaging democracy.  He’s on the right side to draw in fired-up citizens eager to be put to work. He’s on the right side in terms of holding the party together. 

Contrast Ellison’s openness with that of Marcel Groen, chair of Pennsylvania Democrats, who responded to the groundswell of emails and calls he was receiving in support of Ellison by announcing his support of Perez. Groen wrote, “You don’t want 300 people calling you and telling you what to do.”  

You don’t?  

That’s a head-scratcher.  Isn’t input from the grassroots what the party is now claiming it wants?  

Being flooded by calls from energized, passionate people should be an organizer’s dream. It’s the key to rebuilding the party at the county and state levels.  It’s democracy at work.  And you respond by thumbing your nose at people, telling them to shut up and get lost?

That kind of rejection is more than spiteful.  It’s also short-sighted and counter-productive. It alienates people who are fired up to do good work, and it instantly pulls the plug on a vast reservoir of untapped energy.  It opens the door to numerous challenges in Democratic primaries, and maybe even to the development of a vote-siphoning third party. It shouldn’t have to be said that for people who are claiming that party unity is critical, this is not the way to go about it.  

Gandhi once wrote, “If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change.”  That’s true not just of individuals; it’s true of political parties as well. 

© Tony Russell, 2017

Friday, February 19, 2016

“If Sand Can Glow in the Dark”

Corpse in street of Nagasaki, the day after the atomic bombing
Photo by Yosuke Yamaha
August 10, 1945

We were about ready to get started with our book group when the doorbell rang again.  “Pardon me,” I told the others, and hurried to the door.  When I opened it, I stood there for a minute, unable to recognize the person standing there.

“Well, aren’t you going to let me in?” came a plaintive voice.

“Liz!” I exclaimed.  “I couldn’t figure out who you were!  What’s with the dark glasses and the head scarf and turned-up collar?  Are you on the lam from the cops?”

“It’s not funny,” she said, as I took her coat and hung it up.  “How would you feel if you were a Republican nowadays?”

“Oh Liz,” I said, giving her a quick hug.  “Come on in.  It’s not your fault.  Nobody is blaming you for all the vile things your candidates in the presidential debates are spouting.”

She stepped into the living room as tentatively as a kid dipping a toe in a lake in December.  But she brightened up when the other women greeted her with a chorus of “So glad you could make it!” and other cheerful welcomes.  

“Thank you all so much,” she said with relief.  “I was afraid I was going to be a pariah.”

“I know things have really been going downhill,” I said, “but has something pushed you past the tipping point?”

“I guess you haven’t seen the news this morning,” Liz said.  “The Southern Poverty Law Center tracks all these white supremacists and other hate groups.  They’ve been doing it for years now.  This morning they released a report linking the extreme anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant rhetoric pouring out of our GOP primary debates with attacks on Muslims and a major growth spurt among hate groups.  God, I’m so embarrassed.”

“You shouldn’t take it personally,” said Lynn gently.   “We know what kind of person you are.  When Donald Trump says that people coming here from Mexico are basically drug dealers and criminals and rapists, we know you feel the same way we do--that Trump’s claim is a hateful, despicable, racist lie.  And when he says he would bar all Muslim foreigners from entering the United States, we know you’re as appalled as any other decent person.”

“I appreciate your support so much,” said Liz miserably.  “But after he said those things, plus the insults and bullying and boasting and all kinds of crude sexist comments about Carly Fiorina’s face and blood coming out of Megyn Kelly’s ‘wherever’--what happened?  He went straight to the top of the party’s polls.  I couldn’t believe it.  I kept asking myself, ‘What’s that say about the GOP I’ve belonged to for over twenty-five years?’”    

“I feel for you,” said Nora.  “When Marco Rubio got all hysterical claiming that Obama was dividing the country because the president went to a mosque in Baltimore and talked about inclusion, I thought the top of my head would blow off.  Obama tries to pull people together and Rubio accuses him of trying to divide us.  That’s grotesque.  It's Orwellian doublespeak if I’ve ever heard it.  No offense, Liz,”  she added quickly.

“I have to say that when the Republican candidates tried to outdo each other on how they would torture suspected terrorists, I couldn’t help but think of you.  In a sympathetic way,” Ann added as Liz flinched.

“I did too,” I admitted.  “When Trump said ‘I would bring back a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding,’ and Chris Christie said waterboarding isn’t torture and he would use it, and Marco Rubio threw in that he’d ‘haul captured terrorists to Guantánamo Bay’ and ‘find out everything they know,’ I just had to turn off my TV in disgust.  I said to myself, ‘I hope Liz isn’t watching’.”

“Thanks, Patty,” Liz murmured.  “Unfortunately, I was.”

“I guess I bottomed out when Ted Cruz gave his plan for fighting the Islamic State," said Ruth.  ‘We will utterly destroy them.  We will carpet bomb them into oblivion,’ he said.  Doesn’t he understand that he’s talking about wiping out whole cities of men, women, and children?  Or doesn’t he even care?  I kept thinking, ‘Poor Liz.  How can she handle being associated with men like these?’”

“Of course he understands!” said Lynn.  “After Trump said that to fight terrorism you need to take out their families--and he said it three times, just for emphasis--it was like they were in a contest to see who could be the most bloodthirsty.”

“Well in that case, Cruz was the winner,” said Nora.  “He got as extreme as you can get when he talked about going nuclear, and gloated about it.  Remember when he said, ‘I don’t know if sand can glow in the dark, but we’re going to find out.’  This is the favorite candidate of evangelical Christians, mind you, bragging about his eagerness to obliterate whole populations with atomic bombs.  These guys don’t seem to have any boundaries.  I don’t mind telling you, they scare the hell out of me.  I shudder to think of one of them actually becoming president.  I can’t imagine being in your place, Liz.”   

Liz bowed her head.  “A huge chunk of the people in my party are eating this stuff up.  It just floors me,” she confessed.  “Where are the normal, sensible people that made me a Republican in the first place?  It’s as if I walked out of my childhood home and wandered into a facility for the criminally insane.  I feel so guilty.”

“You haven’t done anything wrong, Liz,” said Nora kindly.

“Oh, I should have spoken out, I know it.  But I kept telling myself, who would listen to me?  I’m a nobody.”

“Nonsense,” said Dorothy firmly.  “If there’s one thing we all agree on, it’s that we’re each a somebody, not a nobody.  You didn’t create this mess, but you’re caught up in it.  We all sympathize with the situation you’re in.  But it’s time to stop feeling sorry for yourself and decide what you’re going to do about it.”

© Tony Russell, 2016