Conscience of a Conservative by Jeff Flake – TwoMorePages Book Review

Conscience of a Conservative by Jeff Flake – TwoMorePages Book Review

{Edited Preface: Like The Words of Radiance review, this one has two voices. This time, I read the book along with my good friend Rachel, and she’s shared her thoughts below in blue.

Funnily enough, Jeff Flake had an unexpected announcement while we were coming up with our thoughts. I wrote all of my thoughts *before* his announcement and Rachel wrote all of them *after*, so there will be a slightly interesting dichotomy in timing and verb tenses. Enjoy!}


So I’ve been reading a lot of political books lately given our…unique political climate. Senator Bernie Sanders’s book was cool, if a bit preachy. Senator Al Franken’s book was hilariously entertaining, while also being on point with his messaging.

But in order to prevent myself from living in an echo chamber, I thought it important to read something from a conservative viewpoint. On a recommendation from my buddy, Eric Kuhle, on our Acadia National Park trip, I picked up Jeff Flake’s book, “Conscience of a Conservative.”

It was way better than I thought it would be. And, surprisingly, it read *really* similarly to Al Franken’s “Giant of the Senate book.” The main difference wasn’t one of topics, but of tone. Whereas Franken’s book carried a mostly comedic tone, Flake’s come off in a very serious manner. The only time he really tries to be funny is when he points out the absurdity of some of the situations he has been faced with as a US Senator.

Hi! Rachel here. I picked up this book on a recommendation from Edmund and, I have to admit, I honestly enjoyed it. It was short, witty, to-the-point and a breath of fresh air in an otherwise very smothering political atmosphere. Was it a little preachy? Yeah, of course, it’s a book written by a politician. Was it necessary? Absolutely. 

On Bad Information and the Threat to Democracy

For instance, the third chapter of Flake’s book is titled “On Bad Information and the Threat to Democracy”. Compare that with Franken’s chapter “Lies and the Lying Liars that Tell Them”. You could have dropped one persons’s chapter into the other verbatim and aside from a slight change in tone, I would never have noticed. For instance, compare the following statements from each of their books:

Whatever the source, a steady diet of bad information, conveyed in bad faith, can over time become a serious threat to democracy. Over time, a determined effort to undermine the very idea of truth softens the ground for anti-democratic impulses.

-Jeff Flake

I know I’m sort of farting into the wind on this. But I hope you’ll fart along with me. I’ve always believed that it’s possible to discern true statements from false statements, and that it’s critically important to do so, and that we put our entire democratic experiment in peril when we don’t.

-Al Franken

or these statements from each of their books:

There was once a time in politics, as well as in journalism, when in order to be serious and credible, you had to observe a baseline fidelity to empirical truth. And if you made mistakes – or worse, if you were a bad actor and got things wrong on purpose – you suffered real consequences. Violate the public trust, and you paid a steep price. The higher up the food chain you went, the more serious and credible you were expected to be.

That order seems to have vanished.

-Jeff Flake

All of this to say that I care a lot about people in politics telling the truth. And even considering all the horrible things Trump got away with during the campaign – mocking a disabled reporter, attacking a Gold Star family, referring to Mexican immigrants as “rapists” and “drug dealers,” calling for Muslims to be banned from our country – I still can’t believe he got away with lying so much.

Frankly, it made me wonder whether, sadly, the war was over and the liars had won.

-Al Franken

I’ll give credit where credit is due. Flake is an eloquent writer. While his prose is more fancy than Franken’s, they basically had the exact same message. And remember that they are on pretty staunchly opposite sides of the political aisle.

THE TRUTH MATTERS. AND AGREEING ON WHAT IS PROVABLY TRUE OR FALSE MATTERS.

Look on my facebook wall and you’ll see that I don’t shy away from political debate. But you’ll notice that until someone tries to use “#FakeNews” to discredit something that they disagree with, I try to be relatively cordial, trying to address the specific points that we are disagreeing on vs assuming that they are dumb.

Just because we disagree doesn’t make either one of us stupid. I fully agree with Day[9] when it comes to internet arguments, and try to approach discussions that way.

But try to discredit anything you disagree with as “fake” not because it’s actually fake, but because it disagrees with you? Now I’ll treat you like an idiot child.

If you treat everything that you disagree with as “fake” and then ignore it, how are we supposed to have a reasonable discussion? Your mind can’t be changed, and you can’t support your argument with provable facts. Why are we even talking?

It was very heartening to see Senator Flake, a staunchly Republican Senator, agree that facts are important.

Perhaps most destructive of all, we haven’t ever had an occupant of the White House who so routinely calls true reports that irk him “fake news” while giving his seal of approval to fake reports that happen to support his position.

It is madness to turn ourselves inside out in an attempt to make reality comport with an alternate reality, just because someone in power would like us to.

It was further heartening to see him call out Trump specifically for what infuriates me about him – calling everything that disagrees with him “fake” while automatically praising anything that agrees with him, regardless of its validity.

I’d go further down this rabbit hole, but I already did in my review for Franken’s book, so no need to rehash that here.

Only in anti-democratic propaganda states do we see “alternate facts” successfully compete with the truth for primacy. Only in such states do we see a sustained program of bad information emanate from the highest levels of the government. This, as I will continue to point out in the course of this book, is not a conservative value. And as conservatives, we simply cannot carry on as if it is not happening.

As someone who grew up staunchly conservative and who has become sickened at what now passes as conservative, it’s nice to know that there’s still someone home who has the ability to think critically. And that if Flake thinks this, surely other Republican Senators and House Representatives do as well.

I wholeheartedly agree with Edmund’s analysis above. While always a liberal, I too grew up in a pretty conservative extended family and I have watched the Republican party and its conservative affiliates leap to the right and leave my family behind, bewildered and all of a sudden pretty liberal. (Shout out to all the Southern Baptist conservative Texan families out there who have rejected this administration as well…oh wait, no one else? Ah well.) Senator Flake analyzed the situation fairly aptly: The Republican Party, “following the lead of a candidate who had a special skill for identifying ‘problems,’ if not for solving them…lurched like a tranquilized elephant…” with no solution or moral code in sight.  That’s a pretty damning indictment of someone who will continue to work on behalf of the Republican Party for another year and a half. 

On Fox News

I fully expected to receive the “Do you believe the President is a citizen?” question, and sure enough, when the question came, I said that if we wanted to be taken seriously, we had to stop indulging in ugly conspiracy theories. Those words were met with a choros of boos.

When a conspiracy theory becomes litmus-test orthodoxy, objective reality is at risk.

The truth is the truth, and anything else is a waste of time. Still, to be booed because I didn’t subscribe to a right-wing conspiracist fantasy about our first African American president is a sobering experience indeed.

The impact of the support of the absurd birther theory regularly received on certain shows on Fox News cannot be overstated. In fact, the impact of the conditioning that the minds of American conservatives receive on some of these Fox shows cannot be overstated.

That last paragraph was something I had not expected to read AT ALL in a book written by a conservative senator. That was an amazingly pleasant surprise.

So kudos to Jeff Flake, calling out bullshit where he sees it.

I know that one of the big hullabaloos about him writing this book at all was that he put himself in danger of losing re-election, not from a democratic challenger, but from a primary challenger. And I think that danger is very real, given that he calls out the idiotic ideas that galvanized the extremes of his party’s own base (who are the ones who usually vote in primaries). So again, major props to Jeff Flake.

Way to stick to your principles, Flake. I really hope you’re not punished for it from within your own party, that smart conservatives actually read your book and show up to the Primary voting booths.

So I’m adding to this review a few days late and it looks like my prediction that Flake would drop out has come true. I haven’t quite come to terms yet with how I feel about that. This is a man with whose policies and voting records I vehemently disagree.  This is a man who voted 91% of the time with the Trump Administration’s policies. But as much as I disagree with this, I can’t really blame him – Flake is a staunch conservative who borders on libertarianism, of course he would vote this way. 

However. This is also a man who wrote in his condemnation of the modern Republican party, “We hold out our hand, expecting our share of nonwhite votes, and yet we give these Americans too few reasons to come our way. Instead, we demonized them, marginalized them, blamed them for our country’s problems…” That statement right there? Incredible. A member of the modern Republican party being able to critically diagnose his party’s failings in this regard is almost unprecedented. 

On Globalism and Free Trade

Seemingly overnight, the word globalist became a grave insult among people in my party who also called themselves “conservative.” I remember a right-wing blog post during my election t the Senate that said I had “been seen in the company of globalists in Paris, France.”

Quel scandale! Globalist as opposed to what, exactly? A provincialist? A parochialist? A localist?

In this country, we are less than 5% of the world’s population. We are 20% of the world’s economic output. And if we don’t trade, we don’t grow. Given the alternatives, I’ll take the globalist moniker, thank you.

One of my favorite snippets of the book came in his chapter about Free Trade. It’s one of the few times that he comes off as comedic and, imo, the perfect amount of snarky.

Yes, Flake! This is something that has been driving me up a wall for years. When on earth did we decide that being a “globalist” or internationalist was such a bad thing? Did we learn nothing from World War 1 or World War 2? Let’s just set this straight. No, the U.N. is not out to take over the world and ruin American lives. No, isolationism is not the best way to solve problems. No, understanding other cultures is not going to undermine your own. No, attempting to make peace through treaties and diplomacy is not a symbol of a country’s weakness. And no, globalization and trade and international relations ARE NOT A ZERO SUM GAME. They’re just not. 

As someone who grew up with the notion that free trade makes everyone richer and better off, the whole “protectionism” vibe that we’ve been seeing with the election of Trump, the potential election of Marie LePen in France, and the whole BrExit fiasco has been super puzzling for me. Who votes to cut off their nose to spite their face? Well, a lot of people apparently.

Free trade is a lift-all-boats phenomenon, and that is precisely what free-market economics is all about. It provides for the most efficient use of capital…It is precisely because we have taken advantage of globalization that we have the standard of living that we have.

In America, it’s even weirder, because, to me, the party that is about hands-off government and laissez-faire economics should be the party that is all about open borders and free trade. IT MAKES EVERYONE RICHER, so why wouldn’t the pro-business party be all for it?

His condescension at the idiot members of the Republican party that seem to be for protectionism, those idiot members who use globalist with a negative connotation perfectly encapsulates how I feel about them. DO YOU NOT LIKE MONEY? WHY WOULD YOU BE FOR TRADE WARS?

On Thinking About What You Say

In politics, it is difficult to win an argument with complexity and facts when the other side offers easy answers and free stuff without worrying about the details. This is largely how Donald Trump vanquished the Republican field in 2016.

Candidate Trump was giving – and we, the Republican electorate, bought – the late-night infomercial: “Health Care for Everybody! Much Better, at a Fraction of the Cost! Free Border Wall! Super-Colossal Trade Deals! But Wait! There’s More!!”

This doesn’t need much commentary by me. It is just straight up funny, while being OH-SO-TRUE.

Trump promised his electorate the world, and those of us who questioned how the fuck he was going to do things that seemed mutually exclusive like make health care better while simultaneously making it cheaper while simultaneously covering more people were brushed off. And then of course, when push came to shove, came “Nobody knew health care could be so complicated.” Yeah, “nobody.” /s

Exactly. As a Political Science major a little piece of me dies inside any time a politician or layman tries to say that a policy is bad because it is too long or complicated. There really isn’t ever such a thing in politics as an easy solution. In fact, there is a whole branch of political science devoted to something called Wicked Problems: problems that have incomplete or contradictory information, a plethora of people and interest groups involved, a large economic burden, and interconnections with other problems and policy areas. So yeah, the legislation that is the most detailed, comprehensive, thought-out, and analyzed is probably going to be the best legislation to pass. And yeah, we all knew health care (and literally any other policy arena) was going to be complicated. 

On Checking the Powers of the Executive Branch

I was puzzled when the new president’s senior adviser Stephen Miller – who was also credited with a principal role in the development of the travel ban – appeared on national television and announced that “our opponents, the media, and the whole world will soon see as we begin to take further actions, that the powers of the president to protect our country are very substantial and will not be questioned.” Will not by questioned? Really?

Presidential power should be questioned, continually. That’s what our system of government, defined by the separation of powers, is all about. It shouldn’t matter whether the president belongs to my party or to another one.

Besides, I’m from the West. Questioning power is what we do.

Aside from entertaining Jeff Flake’s mic drop there at the end (Woooh! West USA!), I was very happy to see that Senator Flake understands that the legislative branch is there not to serve at the leisure of the President, but to work alongside him/her, and to provide a check on executive power when it is over-reaching.

Contrast that other Republican lawmakers literally saying that our representatives “work for the President” instead of their own constituents.

Once again, a little piece of me dies every time I hear a politician – on either side of the aisle – say they serve the interests of the President. No you don’t. Please, just read the Constitution once. That’s all I ask. And while Flake has voted incredibly frequently for the President’s agenda, and while I disagree with most of it, I believe that *he* believes he is voting in the best interest of those who elected him, not the President. 

The Senate must be the saucer that cools the coffee, as George Washington is said to have told Thomas Jefferson.

A case in point early in the new presidency was President Trump’s increasing pressure on the Senate to dispense with the filibuster for legislation so that he might be able to get his program through the Senate without concern about achieving consensus.  Such a move would turn the Senate into just another majoritarian body just like the House of Representatives, thus forfeiting its reputation as a deliberative body at all, much less the world’s greatest. At that point, it might be fair to ask: Why have a Senate at all?

That is not how constitutional democracy works. And it’s not how the United States Senate works, either.

How willing would the Republicans be to go along with the President? Would we be willing to change the institution for short-term gain? We all consider ourselves institutionalists, but what will we do when the President starts tweeting, scolding us for obstructing his agenda?

What happens if there is a tax bill which isn’t getting any Democratic support? Will we stand up and say no, we’ve got to be bipartisan, we’ve got to work for it and pick up the necessary votes? Or will we scrap the rules?

I will not support any such effort to harm the Senate. It is a line I cannot cross.

 

I was pretty pumped when I read the above section in his book. And then I went to google and found out that he did indeed vote on completely partisan things like removing the filibuster to put Gorsich on the Supreme Court. And he voted for the terrible Republican health care bill. And he voted to put Devos as Secretary of Education.

So…partial credit. Good rhetoric, no matching action. :/

But maybe he’ll be better going forward? I hope so.

Maybe. I’ve probably studied politicians and Congress too much to have much faith in them but maybe now that Flake has completely severed his ties with the President and the scary wing of his party he’ll be more inclined to buck them. 

On Conviction of Conservative Beliefs

Never has a party so quickly or easily abandoned its core principles as my party did in the course of the 2016 campaign. And when you suddenly decide that you don’t believe what had recently been your most deeply held beliefs, then you open yourself to believing anything – or maybe nothing at all.

Why did we do that/ And how did it happen? How did conservatives betray conservatism? Or worse: how did we embrace incoherence?

The quick answer: We did it because it was cheap and easy and the real world is hard and defending a principled position to voters is harder still.

His introspection into what has happened to the Republican party over the past decade, but ESPECIALLY in the 2016 election was especially poignant in my opinion.

It is a testament to just how far we fell in 2016 that to resist the fever and stand up for conservatism seemed a radical act.

I often wonder what Barry Goldwater would make of the current state of his party and of American politics more generally. I am confident that he would not be pleased or amused.

The party of Lincoln would now likely be unrecognizable to the Great Emancipator.

I don’t even recognize the current Republican party. It’s not the same party that I grew up with, *that I was a part of* in my younger years. It’s funny now to me that I’m considered “so liberal” when I don’t feel like I’ve really changed that much. didn’t change – the party did, bringing the needle *so far to the right* that apparently now I’m liberal?

When did it become a conservative value to place party over country?

When did it become a conservative value for your elected official to do/say something because he has an R next to his name, but not okay for someone else to do/say a similar thing because he as a D next to his name?

When did it become a conservative value to turn a blind eye towards lies and misinformation?

When did it become a conservative value to be okay with consorting with foreign powers during an election?

So it’s refreshing to see that at least one (and hopefully more) Republican lawmakers feel the same way, that their party has changed, and not for the better. They may not all have the courage of conviction that Jeff Flake has, who may or may not be committing career suicide by breaking ranks and publishing this book; but I want to believe that some at least are smart enough (and sane enough) to realize what is happening to the Republican party.

It’d be nice to be able to “come home again” and be able to agree with a Republican on political topics without having to believe such silly things as “Obama wasn’t a US citizen” or “Climate change isn’t real”.

When your raison d’etre stops being How can we hold to the principles of limited government and economic freedom? and becomes How can we hold on to this majority for one more cycle? then you’ve become the very thing that you’re supposed to be against.

In this era of dysfunction and collapsed principle, our only accomplishment is painstakingly constructing the argument that we’re not to blame and hoping that we’ve gerrymandered ourselves well enough to be safe in the next election.

We decided that it was better to build and maintain a majority by using the levers of power rather than the art of persuasion and the battle of ideas. And we have decided that getting nothing done is okay.

There are many on both sides who like this outcome so much that they think it’s a good model on which to build a whole career. (Edmund insertion: *Cough Ted Cruz*) Far too often, we come to destroy, not to build.

Moreover, I like how he spends entire chapters talking about the foundations of good governing, and how poisonous the current Republican party’s stance on governing is for the country.

TARP was actually a modest price to pay to forestall a global depression. My vote against the bill is a vote that I still regret.

Here’s what mattered: At a moment of national and global crisis, that vote was an abdication of my responsibility as a member of Congress.

For instance, he goes into detail about how stupid it is to “Vote No, but hope yes” (on the TARP bill), and about how he is ashamed to have done so in the past.

He talks at length about how bipartisan legislation used to be passed, and about how wholly partisan victories are shallow, because they’re just as easily overturned in the next election cycle without bipartisan support. He uses specific examples of attempts at good, enduring legislation, successful or otherwise, and it’s not all to make himself look good – some of his examples he isn’t even involved in.

I have to agree with everything above. I think it is remarkable that a sitting politician could come out with such a damning expose of his entire party and I admire him for that. It was interesting that he agreed with Franken when he traced part of the start of the Republican Party’s decline to Newt Gingrich. Both Flake and Franken wholeheartedly condemned Gingrich for bringing to light the vicious underbelly of the Republican Party. Flake’s condemnation of Gingrich echoes my concerns with many of today’s politicians: “Newt, whose talents for politics exceeded his interest in governing…” This is extremely on point. As someone who one day would like to enter the world of politics, it worries me that many politicians seem to prize their ruthlessness and cunning over their concern and care for their constituents. 

Conclusion

I am a proud conservative and a lifelong Republican. That does not make the Democrats my enemies. America has too many real enemies to indulge such nonsense.

It’s good to not demonize the people on the other side of the political aisle, and this book helped me a ton in that respect. The similarities between Jeff Flake’s book and Al Franken’s book were eye opening to me. If two senators that are that different from one another politically can agree on things like that, it gives me hope for the future.

This book helped me greatly in that respect. It’s good to know that not all Republicans are Trump supporters who are ignorant to logic.

It’s great to know that not all Republican lawmakers have abdicated their responsibility in understanding that the legislative branch doesn’t work as an arm of the executive branch.

It’s fantastic to know that some of them like Jeff Flake have such strong conservative convictions that they’re willing to put themselves out there and risk their own re-election to help lead their party’s return to sanity.

I think it’s really interesting that once Republican legislatures are free from the shackles of worrying about re-election, they say and do sane things. Like Bob Corker. or John McCain.

Of course, relying on Senators not worrying about re-election to keep Trump in check is not sustainable. So I do hope that Jeff Flake, like his idol Goldwater (whose book Flake based his own book on), sparks a conservative revolution, one that affects the ranks of normal congressmen and women that *are* seeking re-election.

Now, more than ever, America’s separation of powers is what is keeping her afloat. But that requires legislators like Jeff Flake to have the conviction to stand up for their conservative ideals rather than act as servants for Trump.

And maybe more than that, I hope it helps spark activism amongst more moderate conservatives, ones who look around and see that things ARE INDEED NOT NORMAL AND NOT OKAY. I plan on giving this book to some of my more conservative, older friends. They’d be much more likely to read a book by the Republican Senator from Arizona than the Democratic Senator from Minnesota. I don’t know if it’ll work, but I sure hope it does.

I could not agree more. The only way to escape our political malaise is to educate ourselves. Jeff Flake’s book is a good first step in this direction. I can only hope that his actions support his words. 

 

Advertisements

Al Franken, Giant of the Senate – TwoMorePages Book Review

Al Franken, Giant of the Senate – TwoMorePages Book Review

Kudos to Rachel, who turned me onto this book. I wouldn’t have read this without her recommendation, and my life would have been much less rich for it.

Al Franken is hilariously insightful. It’s like one of the correspondents from the Daily Show became a Senator. I really enjoyed his insights into the workings of the Senate, complete with plenty of tangible real world examples.

For instance, I always felt like this Congress was more obstructionist, but I was never quantified it. I didn’t realize that 40% of all cloture votes in US Senate History were called by Mitch McConnell alone, just to delay progress so that Obama couldn’t get credit for things. McConnell called for cloture votes on some things that would eventually pass 98-0! He called cloture on bills that he himself ended up voting yes on! HOW STUPID IS THAT?

But more than that, his take on the difference between Congressional behavior just a few decades ago compared to Congressional behavior now was interesting, specifically his take on the specific drivers that caused that change in behavior.

His discussion of various facets of policy was passionate. It was like he took the words and arguments straight from my head, replete with the righteous anger of being lied to over and over again.

One of the tenets of his book is that a strong failing of Democrats is messaging. This book? Definitely the antithesis of that. Strong, direct, entertaining, and to the point.

 

Operation Curdle

“On this day,” Obama declared in his inaugural address, “we gather because we have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord. On this day, we come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn-out dogmas that for far too long have strangled our politics.”

To which Mitch McConnell basically responded, “Oh yeah? Well, screw you, buddy!”

The way I see it, Republicans had three options for how to deal with the new political reality they faced in January 2009.

Option 1: Recognize that the new President was hugely popular and had a mandate from the American people to deal with a series of pressing crises, and ask, ‘How can we help?’

Option 2: Recognize that the new President was hugely popular and had a mandate from the American people to deal with a series of pressing crises, and say, ‘Congratulations, but we have some political standing too, and we’re going to make you come to the table and negotiate. So let’s sit down and work out something we can all live with.’

Option 3: Focus on reducing his popularity, refuse to respect his mandate, and as for those pressing crises? Not only are we not going to help him solve them, we’re going to do everything we can to prevent him from solving them, and then we’re going to blame him for failing to solve them. In fact, after a while, we’re going to start blaming him for creating the problems in the first place!

Democrats and Republicans had faced this dilemma many times before, but never before had anyone ever chosen Door Number 3.

And then, having enjoyed making a big show out of refusing to help the President succeed, Republicans then turned to making a big show out of complaining that he had failed.

In reality, he hadn’t. The stimulus kept us from falling into another Great Depression, and created millions of jobs. But it took awhile to kick in, and it wasn’t as strong as President Obama and Democrats wanted (or as economists had called for). It’s hard to get people excited about avoiding a hypothetical depression when you’re slowly muddling through a huge recession.

Let’s just start off with the meat of things, shall we? I really liked Al Franken’s perspective as a Democratic Senator in the midst of Obama’s first term, a term that brought with it the Great Recession.

More than any other subject I ever studied, I loved economics. One of these days, I want to teach economics. It’s fun; it affects people; and it makes sense. One of the basic tenets of basic macroeconomic theory is that that GDP (Gross Domestic Product) = C (consumer spending) + G (government spending) + I (investment spending) + nX (net exports). (I still remember that Mr. Santucci!)

Going into 2009, C in that formula was falling off of a cliff. People were scared. They were losing their jobs, and so were spending less, making industry stall and making more people…lose their jobs. See how that’s a shitty cycle?

In Econ 201, you learn that the total monetary supply = M (Total amount of money in circulation) * V (velocity of money, how often money changes hands). Going into 2009, the value of V was dropping *so much* that the US economy was experiencing deflation *despite* printing trillions of dollars and increasing the value of M. The only realistic way to stop that is with a strong increase in overall spending. Well, as we just learned before, consumer spending wasn’t going to do that (and in fact was falling as a result of the falling total monetary supply), so you have to get *government* spending to pull us out of that hole. You increase G in C + G + I + nX.

I remember being livid at the time at people saying “We should have just let all the banks fail.” No, that’s how you decrease the velocity of money EVEN MORE and make the economy EVEN MORE DEFLATIONARY, putting us into an even DEEPER RECESSION.

And I remember having to politely say “A statement like that shows a profound misunderstanding of basic economic theory” instead of what I wanted to say: “Are you insane?! Have you even seen the rate at which the velocity of money is declining?! Do you even understand the implications a drop in velocity of that magnitude? No, of fucking course not, because you’re too stupid to understand what that even means. All you know is that ‘Government intervention = bad, herp derp.’ ”

I will defend to my last days the necessity of government intervention in 2009. Anyone in their late 20s or early 30s was a direct recipient of that government intervention. Our thriving economy now is a direct result of that aid. So if you’re someone like me, who is doing relatively well now, and you want to complain that “the government should not have intervened in 2009”, know that deep down, I truly want to punch you in the face and make you retake economics, you ungrateful imbecile.

So to read about Al Franken’s experience in the Senate itself trying to get that through was interesting. He could have been the 60th vote to help push through a better, $1 trillion dollar stimulus (instead of a $.7 trillion one that took longer to work), but his election was held up because of a recount. It still boggles my mind that he won by less than 200 votes. That’s insane.

The stimulus had been a successful test run of the Republican strategy: Abdicate their responsibility to govern, obstruct the President’s agenda, complain that things weren’t getting better, and wait for Americans to get fed up so they could profit politically as his expense. Operation Curdle was well under way.

And that brings us to what Al Franken so affectionately refers to as “Operation Curdle”, an unfortunately very successful political maneuver. Fuck things up, blame it on the guy in charge even though you’re the reason it’s fucked up, and then somehow score political points with it.

In a rational world, this would never work. It 100% relies on the stupidity of the governed to be too dumb to see through your charade. The fact that it *does* work, and works *so well* makes me question my faith in the intelligence of people.

On hundreds of occasions, the minority would use a parliamentary procedure called “forcing a cloture vote” simply to waste everyone’s time. They did it more than ever before in history; in fact four out of every ten cloture votes in the history of the United States Senate up to 2014 came in the eight years that Mitch McConnell served as minority leader.

In most of the situations there wasn’t actually anything to debate. McConnell would force cloture votes on ridiculously noncontroversial stuff.

So it was not uncommon for us to file a cloture motion on a Monday for a vote on say, a noncontroversial district court nominee, only to have the nominee confirmed with an overwhelming majority (in one case by a 98-0 vote) late on Thursday evening. That’s right – Republicans would routinely filibuster things that they’d then turn around and vote for.

What made it worse that McConnell had made his intentions clear by actually saying, “The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.” Not making sure that kids get a great education, not creating millions of good jobs, not even getting our deficit under control. No, his first priority was about Republicans winning the next presidential election. I wasn’t shocked that he thought that. I was just appalled that he actually said it.

Like how is this okay? Congress had been around for more than 225 years through 2014. And Mitch McConell, by himself has 40% of the cloture votes under him? That is brazen obstruction.

Which brings us to…

 

“But that’s Washington for you” – Politiphobia

And the thing was, ordinary Americans who weren’t themselves rabid partisans saw all this happening and blamed both sides. I was always amazed when I would go around Minnesota and meet people who didn’t follow national politics that closely but who knew that Republicans had been extremely uncooperative during the Obama administration. “I know,” I’d say, “it’s awful.”

“Yeah,” these people would often respond. “But that’s Washington for you.”

These folks didn’t reach that conclusion without some help. Many political reporters can’t seem to write a sentence about a problem without casting at least some blame onto both sides. Congressional Republicans knew that, and made hay with it. McConnell and his friends consistently blamed Obama for the partisanship of the Obama years, managing to suppress their giggles all the while.

After eight years of refusing to help the President govern – in fact either years of actively trying to make the country ungovernable – Republicans hadn’t just created a monster within their own ranks. All that inaction and gridlock helped to create a nation of politiphobes, people who (correctly) felt like they were being left behind in the economy and (correctly) felt that the political system was broken and rigged against people like them and (extremely incorrectly) felt that everyone who had anything to do with politics was more or less equally to blame.

But perhaps the worst side effect of Operation Curdle isn’t from people who refuse to believe that anything is wrong. It’s from people that agree with Franken and me that something is wrong but that blame both sides for it.

Even today, I’ll hear people say “Oh, well they all suck, what are you going to do?” or “I think politics has always been like this. It’s just being reported more now.”

WAIT. FULL STOP. WHAT?! NO.

There is quantifiable evidence of specific and malicious wrongdoing by one party over and over again. Gerrymandering is how Republicans control 2/3’s of seats in state and national legislatures despite consistently only garnering just south of 50% of the popular vote. Mitch McConnell led 40% of all cloture votes IN US SENATE HISTORY.

Trump, our idiot Republican President, consistently lies to our face over and over and over again. In the same amount of time that Trump was under investigation for possible collusion with Russia AND had fired Comey to obstruct said investigation, literally the only thing that Fox News could come up with to discredit Obama was that he liked to eat his burgers with fancy mustard.

But you want to blame *both sides*? How in the wut…? How are these things even remotely equal?

I know Democrats aren’t perfect. No party or person ever was or ever will be. But if you’re going to paint all politicians from both parties with that broad of a brush, you’ve created a perverse incentive for politicians to just go balls to the wall with unethical obstruction.

It’s like if the penalties for murder or speeding in your car were the same. Well, I’m already speeding, so I may as well go murder that guy I really hate? It doesn’t make sense.

Why is this worse? Because the people that are die hard party line people are basically always going to vote Republican no matter what. This last Presidential election proved that the Republican party could basically put up a completely unqualified candidate, one who routinely lies, who had no experience in government, who is openly prejudiced, and those people would still vote for him.

Look no further than the millions of people who didn’t think Trump was a particularly good candidate, but *still* voted Trump because he had an (R) next to his name. Nothing is ever going to change those minds or votes.

But other people, smarter people, people with the ability to think critically and see when they’re being lied to? If they become politiphobes and distance themselves from politics altogether because “both sides are bad”, this only amplifies the voices of the aforementioned.

Republicans tend to do *much* better in low turnout elections. They have a motivated base that consistently votes Republican basically no matter what. Not voting is like a Republican half-vote.

So it’s a Republican victory if they can obstruct everything, and then have people blame BOTH parties for it.

It’s frustrating for me, as someone who pays attention and doesn’t like getting lied to; but it’s got to be *mind-blowingly frustrating* as a sitting Senator like Al Franken, trying to do your best despite the gridlock, and STILL getting the blame for said gridlock.

Several of my good friends seem to have fallen into this politiphobe mindset, and hey – at least it’s better than being a die hard party line person no matter what. But I really do wish they’d look into things some more and see that one party seems to consistently be on the wrong side of things more than the other. Please don’t paint both sides with the same brush.

 

Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them

The distinctly antigovernment Limbaugh / Gingrich agenda swept in a significant number of radical Republicans and with them a partisan enmity that has just grown even worse over the past two decades. In addition to the nastiness, there seemed to be a new willingness to lie about the basic facts.

Even after the Rush book came out, I kept noticing conservatives in the media saying things that were recklessly, provably false. And every time I noticed it, it would drive me bananas. No matter how many times it would happen, it would engender the same visceral reaction every time. “You can’t just lie!” I would yell, to no one in particular. “You can’t!” But they did.

I’ve struggled sometimes to succinctly define why I’ve turned so anti-Republican as I’ve grown older. It should be the opposite, right? I mean, I grew up Republican in a conservative suburb of Houston; several of my friends and their families are conservative; I honestly don’t feel like I’ve changed *that much* from my childhood. So what happened?

Al Franken helped me put my finger on it. I hate being lied to.

All of this to say that I care a lot about people in politics telling the truth. And even considering all the horrible things Trump got away with during the campaign – mocking a disabled reporter, attacking a Gold Star family, referring to Mexican immigrants as “rapists” and “drug dealers,” calling for Muslims to be banned from our country – I still can’t believe he got away with lying so much.

Frankly, it made me wonder whether, sadly, the war was over and the liars had won.

And one party seems to consistently lie over and over. This is the party that put Trump into office AND CONTINUES TO DEFEND HIM; all he ever seems to do is lie, from stupidly petty ones like “I had the biggest inauguration crowd ever” to more serious ones like “I didn’t have any contact with Russia” when it is so provably true that he had business dealings there.

This is the same party that blamed Obama for the partisan atmosphere in Washington that they themselves created; the same party who said  “There is certainly long historical precedent for a Supreme Court with fewer justices.” when it came to Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland, but then turned around and used the nuclear option to push through their own nominee in Gorsuch; the same party that said the Affordable Care Act would have “Death Panels”.

Lies. The Republican party and Trump specifically have normalized them, and that is maddening to me. His election was 100% verifiable proof that you could be caught lying “with your pants on fire”, and somehow it doesn’t matter?

Trump has deployed a variety of methods to debunk debunkings that have proven startlingly effective. The first and most common is to simply ignore the correction even when confronted with it.

This is why he’s continually planting the seed that the media is dishonest. It renders statements of contrary fact highly suspect, because you tend to hear those via the media:

Trump: The US murder rate is at a 45 year high.

You: That’s wrong. The FBI says that it’s at a 50 year low.

Trump Supporter: Uh-huh, the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report. Where’d you hear that?

You: CNN

Trump Supporter (sarcastic): Ah, okay. CNN, right. And they always tell the truth. Come on, man! Wake up!

I have no problem having political discussions with my conservative friends. Discussions are healthy – it’s how viewpoints change and new information is presented. Not living in an echo chamber is important.

I *do* have a problem when the crux of their defense is calling anything they disagree with #FakeNews.

That’s not a freaking discussion. That’s the equivalent of a person plugging their ears and going “LALALA. If I can’t hear you, it’s not true.” How are we supposed to discuss things if literally everything you disagree with is “fake”? if we can’t agree on basic facts like the DoJ saying that the murder rate is at a 50 year low? Or that Comey straight up said he thought he was fired because of the FBIs investigation into possible Russian ties to Trump’s campaign?

If you reply saying something factual is #FakeNews just because you don’t like it or because it disagrees with you, that is infuriating. And I very much think less of you for it.

But I really think that if we don’t start caring about whether people tell the truth or not, it’s going to be literally impossible to restore anything approaching a reasonable political discourse. Politicians have always shaded the truth. But if you can say something that is provably false, and no one cares, then you can’t have a real debate about anything.

I know I’m sort of farting into the wind on this. But I hope you’ll fart along with me. I’ve always believed that it’s possible to discern true statements from false statements, and that it’s critically important to do so, and that we put our entire democratic experiment in peril when we don’t.

I firmly believe that you can draw a straight line from Rush Limbaugh through Fox News through present-day websites like Breitbart and the explosion in “fake news” that played such a big role in the 2016 campaign. And that’s how someone like Trump can wind up in the Oval office.

I love that Al Franken went into detail about how frustrating it was that it seemed (seems?) like the truth doesn’t matter anymore.

I love how he explored how Trump isn’t a one off aberration, but a culmination of the result of Republican support tactics over the last two years, specifically the last 8 years under Obama. How lying about things that were 100% false (like Obama not being born here) somehow increased their own support base, and that after being proven wrong, nothing bad happened to them.

I found his insights into how this endangers our entire democracy especially poignant. If we can’t agree on what is provably true or false, how are we ever going to agree on anything? For that matter, how will we ever govern?

 

Pivoting

Probably the most ridiculous political skill I had to learn was how to “pivot,” a term which basically means “not answer questions.”

His chapters describing how he had to change his behaviors as he became a politician were really interesting, both in contrast to how little President Trump has done in that regard, and in just straight up spelling out in what ways he had to act differently.

Honestly, I’m not sure I could ever learn how to “pivot” as he described above, or just straight up not answer questions asked of me. It seems so counter intuitive, and yet his stories of how he got misquoted and burned when he tried directly answering baiting questions showed how necessary it was.

So kudos to him.

 

Ted Cruz

Here’s the thing you have to understand about Ted Cruz. I like Ted Cruz more than most of my other colleagues like Ted Cruz. And I hate Ted Cruz.

Rachel mentioned that the chapter devoted to shitting on Ted Cruz was her favorite. And I can easily see why. It’s amazingly funny.

The problem with Ted isn’t that he’s humorless. It isn’t even his truly reprehensible far-right politics. No, the problem with Ted – and the reason so many senators have a problem with Ted – is simply that he is an absolutely toxic coworker. He is the Dwight Schrute of the Senate.

“Clinton’s own Department of Justice did a study of the assault weapons ban and concluded that it doesn’t work.” -Ted Cruz

“No it didn’t. Actually, what the report said was there wasn’t enough data to reach a conclusion, because the study was conducted only two years after the ban was implemented.” – Al Franken

“Just go read the report.” – Ted Cruz

…later, after looking up the report

“Our best estimate is that the ban contributed to a 6.7% decrease in total gun murders between 1994 and 1995, beyond what would have been expected in view of ongoing crime, demographic, and economic trends. However, with only one year of post-ban data, we cannot rule out the possibility that this decrease (in gun murders) reflects chance year-to-year variation rather than a true effect of the ban.” -Justice Department Report

“Well, I guess you owe me an apology.” -Al Franken

“Why?” – Ted Cruz

“Well, the last time we spoke, you said that anybody who is for the assault weapons ban is engaged in sophistry.” -Al Franken

“No I didn’t” -Ted Cruz

And that’s when I realized that Ted Cruz was really something special.

It’s hilarious that Ted Cruz has an entire section devoted to how shitty of a person he is. Not just how shitty of a Senator he is, but specifically how terrible of a person he is.

If nothing else, this book is worth reading specifically for the Ted Cruz chapter.

Ted Cruz isn’t just wrong about almost everything. He’s impossible to work with. And he doesn’t care that he’s impossible to work with. And that’s why, even when the choice was between Ted Cruz (who was a sitting member of the United States Senate) and Donald Trump (who was Donald Trump), establishment Republicans couldn’t bring themselves to rally behind Cruz.

Hahahaha.

 

Conclusion

My story, the one you’ve just finished reading, is a small part of a bigger story – the story of how progressives picked themselves up off the mat and made an epic comeback.

And now we have to do it again. This comeback starts with standing up for our values and making it clear that no president has a mandate to spread bigotry or roll back the clock on progress. It continues through next year, when we have a chance to punish Republicans for enabling this disaster and take back governorships and state legislatures all across the country.

Meanwhile, we can hold President Trump accountable for everything he does – and not just that, we can hold accountable every single Republican who enables him, so that when we kick him out, we can kick them out too.

There’s a part for you to play in the next great progressive comeback story. But only if you can keep from losing your mind or getting so discouraged that you quit before the comeback even begins.

Al Franken’s final chapter is fantastic. It’s uplifting, motivational, and channels all of the anger and frustration that we as readers just experienced in the preceding chapters into something positive.

In the beginning months of Trump’s Presidency, I read about (and experienced) “outrage fatigue.” Every week, Trump would find some new way to make a mockery of the office, the rule of law, or the country. Hosts like Stephen Colbert, John Oliver, Samantha Bee, Trevor Noah all made the joke that the first couple of months of Trump’s Presidency felt like years and that we had all aged rapidly for it.

I worried that this fatigue would eventually spread. By the time the 2018 mid terms rolled around, would people be so tired they wouldn’t bother caring anymore? Would this all be a new normal? And that was terrifying…but I was so tired.

Books like this give me hope, inspire me to do more. So Kudos to you, Al Franken. Between you, Bernie Sanders, and Kamala Harris, I have Senators and leaders that I can look up to, especially since my own (Ted Cruz (ugh) and John Cornyn) suck so much.

Thank you Al. And thanks again, Rachel, for being my inspiration to read this book. You rock.

Our Revolution by Bernie Sanders – TwoMorePages Book Review

Our Revolution by Bernie Sanders – TwoMorePages Book Review

In light of our recent election results (*le sigh*), I decided to continue down my foray of non-fiction for a little while longer, this time with a book written by none other than Presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders.

My first concern when reading this book was that it would be ghostwritten, and I’m pretty happy to report that based on my cursory research afterwards, it seems like Bernie Sanders did indeed write this book. I kind of got hints of that while I was reading in the way he said things, but some ghostwriters are really good at matching tone, so I couldn’t be 100% sure.

I didn’t know much going into the book, and mostly expected a recap of his experience running through the democratic primaries. There was definitely some of that, probably about 25% of the book, but most of the book dealt with the issues that were near and dear to his heart. Indeed, now that I’m done, it feels like this was Bernie’s platform in a nutshell. The entire 2nd half of the book goes point my point with what he thinks is wrong and, more importantly, how he would fix it.

It’s sad that in today’s political climate, it seems that complaining is given equal weight to problem solving, so that second part (HOW HE WOULD FIX IT) is especially poignant to me. Do I agree with everything he said? No, but that’s unrealistic to agree with everything. I was impressed with the thought that he had clearly put into his positions and his proposed methods of dealing with them. Honestly, after reading his stances on the current state of the US, and how entrenched those positions are, I don’t know how he gets up every morning. The weight of that would crush me, but it seems to drive him.

 

Takeaways and things I’ve learned

The Citizens United decision hinges on the absurd notion that money is speech, corporations are people, and giving huge piles of undisclosed cash to politicians in exchange for access and influence does not constitute corruption.

(1) I’ll admit I was not politically active enough to *really* know what Citizens United was all about until I read this book. And damn, is it damning. It is basically legalized corruption and bribery, and allows big donors to basically buy elections.

It allows unlimited money in politics so that way one person with deep pockets can in essence get laws made that are favorable to themselves. Whaaaat? It seems so unabashedly dystopian that I can’t wrap my head around how this is a real thing, in real life, and not something concocted in a fiction book I’m reading.

Bernie went into great detail about how had he become President, his biggest priority was in nominating a Supreme Court Justice that would be against Citizens United, and about the mechanics of just how you can use money to corrupt politics and legislation.

Sigh, what could have been…

(2) Republicans tend to win elections with low voter turnout. I’ve never fully understood why those drives to “get out the vote” seemed so important. Seems like you’d end up with a 50/50 split of people voting for one party or another, but end up with the same proportion. Now I know that’s generally not the case, not only because younger voters tend to skew more liberal / progressive, but because conservative voters tend to vote no matter what whereas younger voters only tend to vote when they are excited and involved in the political process.

He cited the 2014 mid term elections as a strong example, where even though the country was better in every way since 2010, very few people came out to vote (lowest voter turnout since WWII!) and Republicans took several seats in both the Senate and House.

The truth is that when people come into a room, or a gymnasium or an arena, and the look around them and see all the other people in that venue sharing those same views, they come away strengthened and energized. They are not alone.

(3) Rallies actually do matter. Sure, they matter more in smaller states, like Vermont, where there are just straight up fewer people, but they do matter. I’ve always internally wondered why candidates bother with in person rallies instead of just making sure they have a clear and concise message and broadcasting that as well as possible. I’ve personally never made a decision based on a rally, but based on Bernie’s anecdotes, they worked, and they worked really well for his campaign.

Moreover, his point was that they worked not only in persuading people that attended the rallies, but in encouraging them to become more politically active, reaching voters like me that have never attended a rally. Interesting.

Throughout the campaign, from late November to the end of my campaign, I defeated Trump in 28 our of 30 national polls, almost always by double digits.

(4) In the aftermath of the election, one thing I kept reading over and over was that Bernie would have done better against Trump than Hillary had. I originally attributed this to spilled milk revisionist history, but when I delved deeper, I was surprised to see that this claim was backed up with factual data. 28/30? Damn.

Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Michigan were the key democratic states that Clinton lost in her bid for the Presidency, and they were states with an overwhelmingly rural population where I think Sanders message would have come across a lot better, especially in light of the fact that he spent time doing rallies in rural areas, much moreso than either Trump or Clinton did.

 

Reading more about his experience in the democratic primary makes me further upset about how it all went down, about how the press repeatedly counted Superdelegate votes before they even voted when reporting the lead that Clinton had, disincentive people from even going to vote. By the time that the California primary rolled around, most media outlets had already reported the primaries over. I didn’t realize that at the time, and that sucks.

You could feel the frustration in his tone when he recounts his experience there. Ugh, and now I’m frustrated too. Stupid DNC…I now feel like *you’re* partly responsible for this Trump Presidency.

Look at that ABC number again: 261 minutes devoted to campaign coverage this year, and less than one minute of that has specifically been for Sanders.


In fact, I was gently faulted by some for having excessive “message discipline,” for spending too much time discussing real issues. Boring. Not what a successful modern campaign was about.

(5) I never realized just how biased the media had been in covering his campaign until I saw the numbers laid out. And to see how much more airtime the mainstream media gave Trump vs any more rational candidates, ESPECIALLY SANDERS, is infuriating.

Like the whole “Bernie would have done better than Trump” rhetoric I saw post election, I originally attributed any arguments I saw about Bernie not receiving enough press coverage to spilled milk. And just like that example, I’m proven wrong by specific numbers. How…in the what?!

 

His political stances

The rest of the book basically went into his political stances:

  • How our current political climate is basically an oligarchy where the richest people wield a bigger amount of power than I even thought
  • The state of our domestic infrastructure and how he proposed to fix it (and finance said fixes!)
  • Climate change is fucking real, and how he would have encouraged further renewable power generation
  • A single payer health care system is the best and cheapest long term solution for anyone earning under $500k a year
  • The TPP is bad for the middle class, and should be repealed
  • Criminal justice and how the disproportionate treatment of minorities vs Caucasian people is bad for society as a whole
  • 90% of the media is controlled by 6 companies, and they filter what message gets out to most people. This damages the foundation of democracy.

 

It’s too bad this book didn’t come out during the democratic primaries. It would have helped his messaging a lot, though I also understand the argument that most voters would not have taken the time to read 450-ish pages of his stances and experiences, perhaps it would have changed the minds of a few people, or some people like me could have made a tl;dr version that circulated on the web equally as well.

As I write this review, I feel frustration/anger at the DNC and the media for trivializing his campaign and focusing on stupid things like emails instead of issues, which Bernie stubbornly insisted on emphasizing. It makes me genuinely angry to read about just how stacked the deck was against him in the democratic primary.

Since inauguration day, I’ve grown so much more angry and bitter than I thought possible at people who voted for Trump (not at conservative voters, but specifically who voted for Trump). I see him dismantling efforts at combating climate change, at seeing him censor censor any agencies that dare say that climate change is real, at seeing him trot out his press secretary to tell bold faced lies (oh, wait, I’m sorry “alternative facts” is the phrase that KellyAnne Conway would prefer) and expecting us to believe it.

And my heart weeps to see what kind of person we could have had instead. Though they were both considered “anti establishment”, you could not set up a more stark foil than Trump and Sanders.

Sanders’s closing message is supposed to be one of hope, one that’s supposed to inspire me and other readers to go out and change things, to be involved, and to make the world a better place with something similar to his vision.

And maybe one day I’ll be able to at least re-read the closing message and feel that way. Because right now I sure don’t feel hopeful.