In the final week of the campaign, the Democrats are reduced to a series of Hail Marys and a string of unbelievable claims, one wackier than the next. The campaign “suddenly” went south for them when Karl Rove’s anonymous donors showed up. Next we heard that the voters were “scared” and not thinking straight. Then we learned that Democrats don’t really support Democratic leaders. Mississippi Democrat Gene Taylor revealed he didn’t even vote for Obama:
Mr. Taylor had heretofore kept that vote a secret, and perhaps it’s only a coincidence that he rolled it out amid the re-election fight of his career. The 11-term Member added that he won’t support Mrs. Pelosi for Speaker, another revelation considering his vote for her in 2009. “I’m very disappointed in how she’s veered to the left,” Mr. Taylor said, as if Mrs. Pelosi’s ideological predispositions were ever hidden.
Mr. Taylor joins a growing list of Democrats who voted for Mrs. Pelosi in 2009 but now profess to be shocked by her left turn. They include Idaho’s Walt Minnick, Pennsylvania’s Jason Altmire, Alabama’s Bobby Bright and Texas’s Chet Edwards, endangered incumbents all.
It’s somewhere between comical and insulting. The voters can figure out which are the D’s and which are the R’s. And they know that for all their protestations, the “moderates” and the “Blue Dogs” are simply Democrats who rubber-stamped the Obama-Reid-Pelosi agenda. And many of them are going to lose because they were led around by the nose by their liberal leaders and ignored their constituents. The aggrieved voters will exact their revenge next week.
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A Democrat by Any Other Name
Must-Reads from Magazine
Good intentions, tragic consequences.
Chicago, Illinois — Andy has little time to chitchat. There are hundreds of hot towels to sort and fold, and when that’s done, there are yet more to wash and dry. The 41-year-old is one of half a dozen laundry-room workers at Misericordia, a community for people with disabilities in the Windy City. He and his colleagues, all of whom are intellectually disabled and reside on the Misericordia “campus,” know that their work has purpose, and they delight in each task and every busy hour.
In addition to his job at the laundry room, Andy holds two others. “For two days I work at Sacred Heart”—a nearby Catholic school—“and at Target. Target is a store, a big super-store. At Sacred Heart, I sweep floors and tables.”
“Ah, so you’re the janitor there?” I follow up.
“No, no! I just clean. I love working there.”
Andy’s packed schedule is typical for the higher-functioning residents at Misericordia, many of whom juggle multiple jobs. Their work at Misericordia helps meet real community needs—laundry, recycling, gardening, cooking, baking, and so on—while preparing residents for the private labor market. Andy has already found competitive employment (at Target), but many others rely on Misericordia’s own programs to stay active and employed.
Yet if progressive lawmakers and minimum-wage crusaders have their way, many of these opportunities would disappear, along with the Depression-era law which makes them possible.
The law, Section 14(c) of the Fair Labor Standards Act, permits employers to pay people with disabilities a specialized wage based on their ability to perform various jobs. It thus encourages the hiring of the disabled while ensuring that they are paid a wage commensurate with their productivity. The law safeguards against abuse by, among other things, requiring employers to regularly review and adjust wages as disabled employees make productivity gains. Many of these employers are nonprofit entities that exist solely to provide meaningful work for the disabled.
Only 20 percent of Americans with disabilities participate in the labor force. The share is even smaller among those with intellectual and developmental disabilities. For this group, work isn’t mainly about money—most of the Misericordia residents are oblivious to how much they get paid—so much as it is about purpose and community. What the disabled seek from work is “the feeling of safety, the opportunity to work alongside friends, and an atmosphere of kindness and understanding,” says Scott Mendel, chairman of Together for Choice, which campaigns for freedom of choice for the disabled and their families. (Mendel’s daughter, who has cerebral palsy, lives and works at Misericordia.)
Abstract principles of economic justice, divorced from economic realities and the lived experience of people with disabilities, are a recipe for disaster in this area. Yet that’s the approach taken by too many progressives these days.
Last month, for example, seven Senate progressives led by Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts wrote a letter to Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta denouncing Section 14(c) for setting “low expectations for workers with disabilities” and relegating them to “second-class” status. The senators also took issue with so-called sheltered workshops, like those at Misericordia, which are specifically designed to help the disabled find pathways to market employment. Activists at the state level, meanwhile, continue to press for the abolition of such programs, and they have already succeeded in restricting or limiting them in a number of jurisdictions, most notably in Pennsylvania, where such settings have been all but eliminated.
While there have been a few, notorious cases of 14(c) and sheltered-workshop abuse over the years, existing law provides mechanisms for punishing firms for misconduct. Getting rid of 14(c) and sheltered workshops, however, could potentially leave hundreds of thousands of disabled people unemployed. Activists have yet to explain what it is they expect these newly jobless to do with their time.
Competitive employment simply isn’t an option for many of the most disabled. And even those like Andy, who are employed in the private economy, tend to work at most 20 hours a week at their competitive jobs. What would they do with the rest of their time, if sheltered workshops didn’t exist? Most likely, they would “veg out” in front of a television. Squeezing 14(c) program and forcing private employers to pay minimum wage to workers whose productivity falls far short of the norm wouldn’t improve the lot of the disabled; it would leave them jobless.
Economic reality is reality no less for the disabled.
Nor have progressives accounted for the effects on the lives of the disabled in jurisdictions that have restricted sheltered workshops. “None of these states have done an adequate job of ascertaining whether these actions actually enhanced the quality of life for the individuals affected,” a study in the Social Improvement Journal concluded last year. Less time in sheltered workshops, the study found, “was not replaced with a corollary increase in the use of more integrated forms of employment.” Rather, “these individuals were essentially unemployed, engaging in made-up day activities.”
Make-work is not what Andy and his colleagues are up to today at Misericordia. They complete real tasks, which benefit their fellow residents in concrete ways. “This work is training, but it also gives them meaning,” one Misericordia director told me. “It’s not just doing meaningless work, but it’s going toward something. We’re not setting them up to do something that someone else takes apart. This is something that’s needed.” Yet, in the name of economic justice, progressives are on the verge of depriving men and women like Andy of the dignity of work and the freedom of choice that non-disabled Americans take for granted.
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Reminding voters what Democratic governance means.
To paraphrase New York Times columnist Ross Douthat (with apologies), the less Republicans do in office, the more popular they generally become. That is, when the GOP exists solely in voters’ minds as a bulwark against cultural and political liberalism, it can cobble together a winning coalition. Likewise, Democrats regain the national trust when they serve only as an obstacle to Republican objectives. It’s when both parties begin to talk about what they want to do with their power that they get into trouble.
That is an over-simplification, but the core thesis is an astute one. In an age of negative partisanship and without an acute foreign or domestic crisis to focus the national mind, it’s not unreasonable to presume that both parties’ chief value is defined in negative terms by the public. Considering how little of the national dialogue has to do with policy these days, general principles and heuristics are probably how most marginal voters navigate the political environment.
Somewhere along the way, though, Democrats managed to convince themselves that they cannot just be the anti-Donald Trump party. Their most influential members have become convinced that the party needs to articulate a positive agenda beyond a set of vague principles. For the moment, Democrats who merely want to present themselves as unobjectionable alternatives to Trumpism without going into much broader detail appear to be losing the argument.
According to a study of campaign-season advertisements released on Friday by the USA Today Network and conducted by Kantar Media’s Campaign Marketing Analysis Group, Democrats are not leaning into their opposition to Trump. While over 44,000 pro-Trump advertisements from Republican candidates have aired on local broadcast networks, only about 20,000 Democratic ads have highlighted a candidate’s anti-Trump bona fides. “Trump has been mentioned in 27 [percent] of Democratic ads for Congress, overwhelmingly in a negative light,” the study revealed. In the same period during the 2014 midterm election cycle, by contrast, 60 percent of Republican advertisements featured President Barack Obama in a negative light.
There are plenty of caveats that should prevent observers from drawing too many broad conclusions about what this means. First, comparing the political environment in 2018 to 2014 is apples and oranges. Recall that 2014 was Barack Obama’s second midterm election, so naturally enthusiasm among the incumbent party’s base to rally to the president’s defense wanes while the “out-party’s” anxiety over the incumbent president grows. If Donald Trump’s job-approval rating is still anemic in September, it is reasonable to expect that Republican candidates will soft-peddle their support for the president just as Democrats did in 2010. Second, Democrats running against Democrats in a Democratic primary race may not feel the need to emphasize their opposition to the president, since that doesn’t create a stark enough contrast with their opponent.
And yet, the net effect of the primary season is the same. Democrats aren’t just informing voters of their opposition to how Trump and the Republican Party have managed the nation’s affairs; they’re describing what they would do differently. By and large, the Democratic Party’s agenda consists of “doubling” spending on social-welfare programs, education, and infrastructure, and promising a series of five-year-plan prestige projects. But Democratic candidates are also leaning heavily into divisive social issues.
The themes that Democratic ads have embraced so far range from support for new gun-control measures (“f*** the NRA,” was one New Mexico candidate’s message), to protecting public funding for Planned Parenthood, to promoting support for same-sex marriage rights, to attacking Sinclair Broadcasting (which happened to own the network on which that particular ad ran). A number of Democratic candidates are running on their support for a single-payer health-care system, including the progressive candidate in Nebraska’s GOP-leaning 2nd Congressional District who narrowly defeated an establishment-backed former House member this week, putting that seat farther out of the reach of Democrats in November.
In the end, messages like these animate the Democratic Party’s progressive base, but they have the potential to alienate swing voters. That may not be enough to overcome the electorate’s tendency to reward the “out-party” in a president’s first midterm election. And yet, the risk Democrats run by being specific about what they actually want to do with renewed political power cannot be dismissed. Democrats in the activist base are convinced that embracing conflict-ridden identity politics is a moral imperative, and the party’s establishmentarian leaders appear to believe that being anti-Trump is not enough to ensure the party’s success in November. All the while, the Democratic Party’s position in the polls continues to deteriorate.
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Meritocracy is in the eye of the beholder.
A running theme in Jonah Goldberg’s fantastic new book, Suicide of the West, is the extent to which those who were bequeathed the blessings associated with classically liberal capitalist models of governance are cursed with crippling insecurity. Western economic and political advancement has followed a consistently upward trajectory, albeit in fits and starts. Yet, the chief beneficiaries of this unprecedented prosperity seem unaware of that fact. In boom or bust, the verdict of many in the prosperous West remains the same: the capitalist model is flawed and failing.
Capitalism’s detractors are as likely to denounce the exploitative nature of free markets during a downturn as they are to lament the displacement and disorientation that follows when the economy roars. The bottom line is static; only the emphasis changes. Though this tendency is a bipartisan one, capitalism’s skeptics are still more at home on the left. With the lingering effects of the Great Recession all but behind us, the liberal argument against capitalism’s excesses has shifted from mitigating the effects on low-skilled workers to warnings about the pernicious effects of prosperity.
Matthew Stewart’s expansive piece in The Atlantic this month is a valuable addition to the genre. In it, Stewart attacks the rise of a permanent aristocracy resulting from the plague of “income inequality,” but his argument is not a recitation of the Democratic Party’s 2012 election themes. It isn’t just the mythic “1 percent,” (or, in the author’s estimation, the “top 0.1 percent”) but the top 9.9 percent that has not only accrued unearned benefits from capitalist society but has fixed the system to ensure that those benefits are hereditary.
Stewart laments the rise of a new Gilded Age in America, which is anecdotally exemplified by his own comfort and prosperity—a spoil he appears to view as plunder stolen from the blue-collar service providers he regularly patronizes. You see, he is a member of a new aristocracy, which leverages its economic and social capital to wall itself off from the rest of the world and preserves its influence. He and those like him have “mastered the old trick of consolidating wealth and passing privilege along at the expense of other people’s children.” This corruption and Stewart’s insecurity is, he contends, a product of consumerism. “The traditional story of economic growth in America has been one of arriving, building, inviting friends, and building some more,” Stewart wrote. “The story we’re writing looks more like one of slamming doors shut behind us and slowly suffocating under a mass of commercial-grade kitchen appliances.”
Though he diverges from the kind of scientistic Marxism reanimated by Thomas Piketty, Stewart nevertheless appeals to some familiar Soviet-style dialectical materialism. “Inequality necessarily entrenches itself through other, nonfinancial, intrinsically invidious forms of wealth and power,” he wrote. “We use these other forms of capital to project our advantages into life itself.” In this way, Stewart can have it all. The privilege enjoyed by the aristocracy is a symptom of Western capitalism’s sickness, but so, too, are the advantages bestowed on the underprivileged. Affirmative action programs in schools, for example, function in part to “indulge rich people in the belief that their college is open to all on the basis of merit.”
It goes on like this for another 13,000 words and, thus, has the strategic advantage of being impervious to a comprehensive rebuttal outside of a book. Stewart does make some valuable observations about entrenched interests, noxious rent-seekers, and the perils of empowering the state to pick economic winners and losers. Where his argument runs aground is his claim that meritocracy in America is an illusion. Capitalism is, he says, a brutal zero-sum game in which true advancement is rendered unattainable by unseen forces is a foundational plank of the liberal American ethos. This is not new. Not new at all.
Much of Stewart’s thesis can be found in a 2004 report in The Economist, which alleges that the American upper-middle-class has created a set of “sticky” conditions that preserve their status and result in what Teddy Roosevelt warned could become an American version of a “hereditary aristocracy.” In 2013, the American economist Joseph Stiglitz warned that the American dream is dead, and the notion that the United States is a place of opportunity is a myth. “Since capitalism required losers, the myth of the melting pot was necessary to promote the belief in individual mobility through hard work and competition,” read a line from a 1973 edition of a National Council for the Social Studies-issued handbook for teachers. The Southern Poverty Law Center, which for some reason produces a curriculum for teachers, has long recommended that educators advise students poverty is a result of systemic factors and not individual choices. Even today, a cottage industry has arisen around the notion that Western largess is decadence, that meritocracy is a myth, and that arguments to the contrary are acts of subversion.
The belief that American meritocracy is a myth persists despite wildly dynamic conditions on the ground. As the Brookings Institution noted, 60 percent of employed black women in 1940 worked as household servants, compared with just 2.2 percent today. In between 1940 and 1970, “black men cut the income gap by about a third,” wrote Abigail and Stephan Thernstrom in 1998. The black professional class, ranging from doctors to university lecturers, exploded in the latter half of the 20th Century, as did African-American home ownership and life expectancy rates. The African-American story is not unique. The average American income in 1990 was just $23,730 annually. Today, it’s $58,700—a figure that well outpaces inflation and that outstrips most of the developed world. The American middle-class is doing just fine, but that experience has not come at the expense of Americans at or near the poverty line. As the economic recovery began to take hold in 2014, poverty rates declined precipitously across the board, though that effect was more keenly felt by minority groups which recovered at faster rates than their white counterparts.
As National Review’s Max Bloom pointed out last year, 13 of the world’s top 25 universities and 21 of the world’s 50 largest universities are located in America. The United States attracts substantial foreign investment, inflating America’s much-misunderstood trade deficit. The influx of foreign immigrants and legal permanent residents streaming into America looking to take advantage of its meritocratic system rivals or exceeds immigration rates at the turn of the 20th Century. You could be forgiven for concluding that American meritocracy is self-evident to all who have not been informed of the general liberal consensus. Indeed, according to an October 2016 essay in The Atlantic by Victor Tan Chen, the United States so “fetishizes” meritocracy that it has become “exhausting” and ultimately “harmful” to its “egalitarian ideals.”
Stewart is not wrong that there has been a notable decline in economic mobility in this decade. That condition is attributable to many factors, ranging from the collapse of the mortgage market to the erosion of the nuclear family among lower-to middle-class Americans (a charge supported by none-too-conservative venues like the New York Times and the Brookings Institution). But Mr. Stewart will surely rejoice in the discovery that downward economic mobility is alive and well among the upper class. National Review’s Kevin Williamson observed in March of this year that the Forbes billionaires list includes remarkably few heirs to old money. “According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, inherited wealth accounts for about 15 percent of the assets of the wealthiest Americans,” he wrote. Moreover, that list is not static; it churns, and that churn is reflective of America’s economic dynamism. In 2017, for example, “hedge fund managers have been displaced over the last two years not only by technology billionaires but by a fish stick king, meat processor, vodka distiller, ice tea brewer and hair care products peddler.”
There is plenty to be said in favor of America’s efforts to achieve meritocracy, imperfect as those efforts may be. But so few seem to be touting them, preferring instead to peddle the idea that the ideal of success in America is a hollow simulacrum designed to fool its citizens into toiling toward no discernable end. Stewart’s piece is a fine addition to a saturated marketplace in which consumers are desperate to reward purveyors of bad news. Here’s to his success.
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Podcast: Donald Trump Jr. moves the ball forward.
We try, we really do try, to sort through the increasingly problematic “Russian collusion” narrative and establish a timeline of sorts—and figure out what’s real and what’s nonsense. Do we succeed? Give a listen.
Don’t forget to subscribe to our podcast on iTunes.
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A conspicuous lack of curiosity.
COMMENTARY’s Sohrab Ahmari has done invaluable work shaming the Western press for patronizing the Palestinian people and robbing them of their agency. We are told that the Palestinian population in Gaza is acting out in response to a blockade around that tiny piece of land, which has transformed the Strip into “an open-air prison.” Less is said about the actions that led to those blockades: Israel’s unprecedented removal of Jews from Gaza, the 2006 election (Gaza’s last election) that led to Hamas’s ascension, and the conflicts the Hamas-led government waged against Israel and Egypt. All of these things yielded the conditions with which Gazans struggle today.
But that was yesterday. Today, the political press has adopted a new narrative into which the old one has been subsumed. That narrative goes something like this: Israel’s violent response to the efforts of thousands of Palestinians to breach the Israeli border (with explicitly murderous intent) has marred not only the opening of the U.S. embassy in Jerusalem but the 70th anniversary of Israel’s founding. On front pages from Sacramento to Seoul, images of the bloodshed at the border were juxtaposed with pictures of American delegates happily dedicating the new embassy—implying without explicitly stating causality. For many in the commentary class, the temptation to surrender to emotion and condemn Israel for its actions has been too great to resist. Yet these positioning statements overlook many of the harder questions with which the political press should concern itself.
Among those questions are, for example, why Gaza? Yesterday’s events were not the first of their kind. Urged on by Hamas, Gazans began crowding the border with the intent to harass Israeli security forces as early as February. Those protests quickly became violent, when an improvised explosive device hidden under a Palestinian flag near the border wounded four IDF soldiers and ignited a night of Israeli retaliatory strikes on Gazan targets. Similar mass demonstrations followed in March and April, during which civilians crowded the Gazan border with the express intent to provide Hamas militants the opportunity to breach the fence.
Each time, those confrontations resulted in numerous casualties and several fatalities among Palestinians. No doubt, many of those fatalities were civilians; that is to be expected when civilians are explicitly placed in the line of fire. But just how indiscriminate were those deaths? Both Hamas and Israeli officials agree that 80 percent of the fatalities in April —26 of 32 dead—were identified as Hamas militants. As for yesterday’s confrontation, Hamas’s Internal Security Apparatus claimed that 16 of the dead were members either of their organization or the Palestinian Islamic Jihad. A Hamas official has since claimed that as many as 50 of the 60 who were reportedly killed at the border on Monday were “martyrs of Hamas.” As Gen. Martin Dempsey said during Israel’s 2014 incursion into Gaza, though they may at times be unavoidable, “The IDF is not interested in creating civilian casualties.” Some have suggested that Israel should have resorted primarily to non-lethal munitions—as they generally did, indicated by images featuring copious amounts of tear gas. The apparent targeting by snipers of suspected militants suggests that these fatalities were not the result of recklessness by individual IDF soldiers or a crowd control operation gone wrong.
So why haven’t we seen the mainstream Western press repeat Hamas’s Internal Security Apparatus’s claims when they take Hamas’s Ministry of Health’s assertions as though they were gospel? The notion that 1,400, 1,100, or 1,360 people were injured by “live fire” with less than 1 percent succumbing to their wounds defies logic and should be met with skepticism, but those figures are bandied about in the press without concern for their propagandistic effects. And why hasn’t the mainstream press noted the extent to which Hamas officials provided demonstrators along the “Great Return March,” the quickest routes by which they could infiltrate Israeli communities upon breaching the border fence? And why hasn’t more been made of the fact that Hamas actively lobbied Gazan civilians to converge on the border while simultaneously using those civilians as cover to launch attacks on the IDF using grenades and Molotov cocktails? Perhaps because to note these things would be to expose the extent to which the press has played precisely the role Hamas and their benefactors wanted them to play.
But it’s the dogs that aren’t barking that is the most interesting story to develop in the last 24 hours. It is also the Western media’s biggest blind spot. Extensive coverage was devoted to Turkey’s decision to respond to Monday’s border skirmish by withdrawing its U.S. and Israeli ambassador. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has long sought to unite the Islamic world behind Ankara, and Turkey’s outrage over Israel’s actions fits a pattern among majority Muslim nations. Or, at least, it used to. Precious little coverage in the West has been devoted to the non-response to yesterday’s events from Palestinian sponsors in Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Egypt. Indeed, Egypt has been conveying Israeli messages to Gazan officials in an effort to prevent the escalation of hostilities and to facilitate reconciliation between Hamas-led Gaza and its supposed brothers in the West Bank. Why? Because the West Bank’s sponsors in Riyadh are more closely aligned with Cairo’s priorities than Hamas’s benefactors in Tehran.
Indeed, as of last year, with America’s withdrawal from the nuclear accords and amid the rise of a competing Shiite power center in Iraq following the electoral success of Moqtada al-Sadr’s faction, Iran is feeling the heat. Tehran traditionally responds to domestic pressures by raising the temperature in the region. All of this is complicated and requires some modest familiarity with the Middle East, but it doesn’t take a regional expert to wonder why one Palestinian territory erupted and the other did not. If this was all really about Israeli behavior and the abuses of its government, why has the West Bank remained comparatively calm while Gaza has been on the brink for months? The answer is regional political dynamics, much of which has increasingly little to do with Israel.
Yet, from the press, we’ve seen fewer questions being asked than conclusions being drawn. “How DARE Palestinians be slaughtered,” National security reporter for the Daily Beast Spencer Ackerman sneered when American UN Ambassador Nikki Haley walked out of a rote series of attacks on Israel at the United Nations. The Atlantic Council’s Dr. H.A. Hellyer decried Jared Kushner’s “disgusting,” “disgraceful,” “victim blaming” and his failure to devote a portion of his speech commemorating the new U.S. embassy to condemning Israel. Rachel Maddow producer Steve Benen all but explicitly blamed President Donald Trump for the violence. And so on.
These reactions are the result of what must be a deliberate effort to internalize only half the story in Gaza—Hamas’s half.