Topics in American Politics

Starting on March 30, I’ll be presenting a lecture series on Topics in American Politics at the Lokal Cafe in Colonial Williamsburg. In the first session I’ll discuss how slavery influenced the writing and ratification of the Constitution and the ways this impacts American politics today.

Later lectures will cover the expansion of civil rights and how this helped lead to the sorting of US political parties, the ways interest groups and gerrymandering polarized US politics over existential issues, and Russia’s efforts to influence US elections.

Please contact me at rss (at) foggybottomline (dot) com if you have questions or would like more information.

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More on the Scandals in Virginia Politics

A few weeks have passed since scandals shook up Virginia politics, starting with the news that Governor Ralph Northam’s Eastern Virginia Medical School (EVMS) year book page included a photo of two men at a party.  One of the men in the photo wore a KKK costume, the other blackface.  Governor Northam could not, in the moment, definitively say he was not one of those people.  So Northam admitted he may have been in the photo, then retracted that admission the next day.  

Democrats in Virginia, myself includedlined upto ask the Governor to resign.  It got worse after his “Moon Walk” press conference, and speculation started about who Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax would appoint to take his place as LG after he took Northam’s place.  But then the second scandal popped: accusations of sexual harassment against Fairfax. This shifted discussions to succession in Virginia, and scenarios that would put House of Delegates Speaker Kirk Cox in the Governor’s mansion.  Soon enough a third shoe dropped:  Attorney General Mark Herring volunteered that he had once appeared in blackface himself. 

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Ralph Northam Should Resign – Updated

UPDATE: Governor Northam held a press conference this afternoon and walked back his admission last night that he was in the picture:

“I believe now and then that I am not either of the people in this photo. This was not me in that picture. That was not Ralph Northam.”

https://www.cnn.com/2019/02/02/politics/northam-racist-yearbook-photo/index.html

Northam went on to say that he gave photos to the yearbook staff, did not participate in assembling his page, did not purchase a copy, and hadn’t seen it in thirty years. Publication blindsided him.

Maybe the yearbook staff placed the photo in question on Northam’s page by mistake and he genuinely did not know about this until yesterday. Which of course begs the question: why admit to being one of the people in the picture unless you remember wearing blackface or a KKK costume but cannot remember a specific? Someone out there might have photos of me that I’d prefer never became public, but I know one thing with 100% certainty: no picture of me in blackface or a KKK outfit exists. I’ve never worn either. Ever.

Northam’s admission that he wore blackface for a dancing contest, which he won with a Michael Jackson impersonation, doesn’t help. Dressing up like Jackson was common enough at the time – Jackson was on the Jackson’s Victory Tour and at the height of his fame. But he could have performed without the shoe polish makeup, and his claim that he “only used a little because it’s hard to get off” means he was familiar with the blackface concept (and likely knows photos of this exist that he wanted to get out in front of).

Perhaps we shouldn’t hold Governor Northam responsible for the photo appearing on his page – this kind of mistake happens. And I very much hope that Governor Northam was not in the photo. But I’m not sure it matters any more, even if this turns out to be a right wing hit job using a doctored photo or yearbook. That he couldn’t vehemently deny this based on his own memory says quite a lot. Northam’s denial this afternoon muddies the waters. But resignation remains the right course.

Original Post:

Learning that Governor Ralph Northam apparently attended a party in either blackface or a KKK costume during his time in medical school flabbergasted and disappointed me.   

Like everyone, Northam is at least in part a product of the time and place of his upbringing, and his Eastern Shore youth and Virginia Military Institute college career apparently included problematic attitudes on race.  Whatever his thinking on racial equality today, the Governor clearly had no problem joking about terrorizing or making fun of people of color in 1984.  I would hope that Northam’s time in the US Army and as a pediatrician lead to some personal introspection and change.  

But if he has truly adjusted his attitudes about human beings not like him he could have owned his past and used it as a way to help Virginia confront its own problematic history of slavery and resistance to desegregation.  He could have turned it into a teaching point about ways to move America to racial equality.  Instead, Ralph Northam either hoped no one would discover this disgusting photograph or forgot it altogether – which is problematic in itself.  

It matters because racial discrimination is America’s original sin.  Colonization of North America by Western Europeans depended on the labor of chattel slaves, most of them Africans.  America’s founding generations constructed our version of Capitalism on slavery and included clauses in our founding governing document specifically designed to protect slavery in some states.  The Electoral College, equal state representation in the Senate, and the Second Amendment all have roots in the need to protect slavery in order to secure ratification of the Constitution by slave states.  

We still pay for this sin – or at least people of color still pay.  Even after the end of de jure slavery, de facto slavery in the form of Jim Crow lawsredlining and housing discrimination, voter suppression, and depression of education opportunities through segregated schools has kept families of color from building wealth and participating fully in American society.  Efforts by white elites to socialize poor whites to fear poor blacks after the Civil War shows its effects through American attitudes about social safety nets and immigration still today.  I don’t mean to suggest that the United States has not been a force for liberty and justice in the world.  But America becomes more exceptional as such a force when we live by example for others, and we cannot do this without confronting this very real and very problematic history.

None of us has a perfect past, free of troubling actions, decisions, or attitudes.  We all change as we grow, and I seriously doubt that Ralph Northam still holds views on race that would allow him to attend a party dressed in blackface or a KKK costume.  He almost certainly has changed his attitudes about racial equality.  As he became a prominent pediatrician and then politician, he had a unique opportunity to help Virginians have a discussion about its racial history and how people like him could overcome their past and help us move forward together.  This may not have won him the Governorship, but it would have helped make Virginia a better place to live.  Sadly, he forgot his past or chose to bury it instead.

This morning, Governor Northam will hold a press conference and will likely resign. He should.

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Gun Violence and Virginia’s General Assembly

Virginia’s General Assembly this session has already killed some important gun violence prevention legislation. Let me say that again: Republicans in Virginia’s legislature have blocked passage of popular policies that would help prevent gun violence without also interfering with the right of law-abiding citizens to keep and bear arms. 

The Senate Courts of Justice Committee killed SB1034, which would have created a Class 1 Misdemeanor for purchasing more than one handgun in a 30 day period.  Since it would have exempted several classes of gun purchasers, including anyone with a valid concealed handgun permit and anyone buying a handgun in a private sale, it’s not clear how this would interfere with the right of any law-abiding Virginia resident’s right to “keep and bear arms.”  Besides the obvious point that the Second Amendment says nothing about just how many arms a citizen has a right to “keep and bear,” I personally wonder why anyone would want to purchase more than a dozen weapons of any kind in a given year.  But since most citizens qualify for concealed permits, and any citizen could make as many private purchases as time permits, it seems that this legislation would have one important effect: making mass purchases of firearms for transport to states with more restrictive firearms laws slightly more difficult.  This does, in fact, happen.  And Virginia can help stop it.

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Sunday Morning Coffee, 20 January 2019

What I read while having my coffee this morning:

Over at Emptywheel, Marcy Wheeler lays out the reasons why Robert Mueller’s Special Counsel Office pushed back on the BuzzFeed story claiming that Donald Trump directed Michael Cohen to lie to Congress.  It boils down to a need to rehabilitate Cohen’s credibility in the event Mueller calls him as a trial witness and to protect the Mueller team’s reputation as a tightly-run ship that doesn’t leak.  If you want to keep up with developments in the Mueller investigation, by the way, you should read this website daily.

“Boys in ‘Make America Great Again’ Hats Mob Native Elder at Indigenous People’s March” reads the headline in the New York Times.  On a field trip from Covington Catholic High School in Kentucky to participate in the March for Life yesterday, these thugs surrounded and mocked the man, a Vietnam War veteran, screaming “Build that wall!”at him while he played a ceremonial song.  In the video you can see many of them making fun of him while one punk stood in front of him smirking.  We’ve seen this look before, as Ruth Graham points outat Slate, and it’s yet another example of Christians completely ignoring the core teachings of their faith.  Or maybe these boys are just from families who don’t want their kids in desegregated public schools.

Perhaps in an effort to distract the media from yesterday’s Women’s March, Donald Trump offered temporary relief for Dreamers and other limited immigration changes in return for the $5.7 billion he wants to build a border wall.  This pleased no one, including Ann Coulter, who whined that conservatives “…voted for Trump and got Jeb!”  Of course, Trump is worried enough about what Coulter and other immigration hardliners thinkthat he felt the need to respond on Twitter.  I spend a good bit of time trying to figure out how conservatives think, and I’m frankly wondering how this works for them.  They complain constantly about ineffective government but think it can successfully complete a massive project like a thousand-mile long wall. They whine every day about government spending, deficits, and debt but happily advocate borrowing tens of billions of dollars for a wall that won’t solve the problem anyway.  And they prioritize property rights over community needs but don’t seem to mind that a border wall project on Trump’s scale would require confiscation of private land in the millions of acres.  Could it be racism all the way down?

On a somewhat lighter note, at least one Harvard scientist seems to think an object first spotted by University of Hawai’i astronomers could be an interstellar probe sent from another galaxy.  If so, whoever is behind it must have started the project quite a long time ago.  Since we’ve launched a few of these ourselves, it’s hardly beyond imagination.  Wonder what our interstellar counterparts will think as they watch Voyager 1 fly by?

And finally, today is the penultimate week of National Football League play.  If I were in Las Vegas (or Virginia had already legalized sports betting) I’d take the Chiefs giving up threeand the Rams getting three and a half points.  And the over on both.

Enjoy the rest of your Sunday.

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More Equal Rights Amendment Thoughts

Virginia’s State Senate has passed SB 284, a resolution ratifying the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) by a 26-14 vote.  Republicans, including my Senator (Ryan McDougle) cast all 14 no votes.  The House version, HJ 577, now sits in that body’s Privileges and Elections Committee. It’s not clear yet whether the Chair of that Committee, Delegate Mark Cole, will even allow a vote, and I’d be surprised if he lets this out of his Committee.

The ERA seemed on a fast track for ratification when Congress sent it to the States in 1972. Large bipartisan majorities supported it, as did President Nixon (and later Presidents Ford and Carter).  Then Phyllis Schlafly organized a “STOP ERA” campaign to protect what she and other conservative women saw as female privilege.  Schlafly and her supporters argued that the ERA would eliminate gender-specific protections against drafting women for military service and forcing them to share public restrooms, as well as “dependent wife” benefits under Social Security.  Largely a religious movement, these activists also believed in a social structure dominated by men.  Their attacks on the ERA focused on the ways it could hurt women by limiting the ability of government to protect women from abuse by men who had more agency and power within this structure, but their true goal included protecting traditional male and female social roles.  

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Equal Rights Amendment

Virginia Ratify ERA Party4Parity in Richmond.

Virginia’s General Assembly opened last Wednesday, and Virginia Ratify ERAactivists spent the day lobbying legislators in support of ratifying the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA).  Late in the day they gathered to thank supporters, including legislators and Attorney General Mark Herring.  Elected officials took the stage, but grassroots activists owned the room.

Congress sent the ERA to the States in March 1972 with a seven-year deadline.  If approved by 38 of 50 States by 22 March 1979, this language would become part of the Constitution:

“Section 1.Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.

Section 2.The Congress shall have the power to enforce, by appropriate legislation, the provisions of this article.

Section 3.This amendment shall take effect two years after the date of ratification.”

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Transportation

A week before Christmas, John Massoud wrote about a Virginia Transportation Construction Alliance (VTCA) poll at The Bull Elephant.  The poll shows strong public support for levying tolls on freight trucks or spending taxpayer funds to improve Interstate 81 in the western part of Virginia.  Massoud rightly points out that the VTCA is a lobbying group with an interest in highway construction funding and we should take the poll with a grain of salt (I have not looked into the methodology).  Still, he offers no solution to the mess I-81 has become and instead rejects the idea that government can be trusted with “my money.” We need infrastructure that helps Virginians efficiently move themselves and the products we make and sell, so I thought this would be a good hook to share some thoughts on transportation issues in the Commonwealth.

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Federal Judge Rules ACA Unconstitutional

A Federal District Court judge for the Northern District of Texasruled the Affordable Care Act(ACA) unconstitutional on Friday night.  Judge Reed O’Connor, a George W. Bushappointee, wrote that “[the] Individual Mandate can no longer be fairly read as an exercise of Congress’s Tax Power and is still impermissible under the Interstate Commerce Clause—meaning the Individual Mandate is unconstitutional.”   

Because the Supreme Court in 2010 allowed the individual coverage mandate to stand as a tax, and Congress reduced the tax to zero in 2017, Reed argues, the entire law violates the Constitution since Congress has no power to require coverage except as a tax.  Democrats will of course appeal this decision and may have the stronger argument.  The ruling ignores the fact that Congress simply changed the tax rate – the tax itself remains in place.  Until outright repeal, the law still rests on exercise on the power to tax even as Congress exercises its discretion by applying a zero rate.  It’s also not clear that the entire law fails without the mandate.  The US Supreme Court will of course adjudicate this question – and when it does all eyes will turn to Gorsuchand Kavanaugh.

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Predictions from The Bull Elephant – and a Few of My Own

Contributors and staff at The Bull Elephant have predicted the outcome of today’s elections and they deliver about what you’d expect from true believers.  Most think the GOP will hold the House and some think Republicans will pick up 3 or more seats in the Senate, with one suggesting a 60-seat majority.  Many argue that Corey Stewart will outperform polls and one thinks he could have won with more help from the Republican national and state parties.  Almost all think Barbara Comstock will lose, but few think any other Democrats will win Virginia House seats they aren’t heavily favored to win (e.g., Don McEachin [D-4]).  Continue reading

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