Why Hillary Clinton’s shift to the left makes some liberals so mad

Published: Quartz (March 30, 2016)

With many months to go before the conclusion of the US presidential primaries, battles lines in the Democratic party have become deeply entrenched. Just as right-wingers love to claim that Hillary Clinton is a radical liberal disguised as a moderate, so too are many progressives inclined to see her as a conservative corporatist whose liberal stances merely pander to the Democratic Party base. This is partially because her 2016 campaign received contributions from various wealthy interests. But it also stems from the clear way that her ideology has evolved from centrist to progressive over the past quarter-century. It is tempting to characterize this evolution as proof that she lacks core convictions—especially if one is a Bernie Sanders supporter or a jaded liberal.

But there is another way of looking at Clinton’s ideological past. At a time when the Republican Party is being overtaken by the kinds of socially regressive attitudes fueling Donald Trump’s impending nomination, Clinton’s success among a majority of Democrats demonstrates how our party has evolved with the times.

First, a brief history lesson. It’s important to remember that the Democratic Party entered the 1990s having just lost its third presidential election in a row. Ronald Reagan’s landslide victories were widely interpreted as having pushed America to the right. A movement of so-called New Democrats concluded that the party of Franklin Roosevelt needed to move to the center to accommodate this reality.

Clinton’s success among a majority of Democrats demonstrates how our party has evolved with the times.

When a New Democrat named Bill Clinton won the presidential nomination in 1992 and was subsequently elected, and re-elected, the zeitgeist among Democrats in the post-Reagan era became one of acquiescent centrism. For eight years, this new brand of liberal worked cautiously to try and create a more progressive society—economically prosperous, technologically innovative, and maintaining the ethos of diversity it had cultivated since the 1960s—while still not going as far left as they could have.

The original Clintonian ideology reflects this outlook. Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell didn’t allow LGBT service members to openly serve in the military, but it was better than the previous anti-gay ban. NAFTA may have disempowered American labor and welfare reform may have increased extreme poverty. But these un-progressive acts were matched by progressive ones, including raising the minimum wage, passing the Family and Medical Leave Act, and creating the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP). Hillary Clinton herself underwent an evolution at this time, chucking the pugnacious progressivism that had defined her career in the 1970s and 1980s and moving to the center with her husband. Whether this shift was in accordance with the dictates of the time or out of sincere conviction, only she knows for sure.

While this mindset may have been an effective governing tool, it bred apathy among mainstream Democratic voters. The 1996 presidential election was the first to have turnout fall below 50% since the 1920s. And the 2000 election—in which left-wing defections to Ralph Nader helped George W. Bush defeat Al Gore, despite losing the popular vote—wasn’t much better.

The 1996 presidential election was the first to have turnout fall below 50% since the 1920s.

The tragedy of September 11th scarred Americans so badly that many went along with the Bush administration (at least at first) when it waged a controversial war in Iraq and eroded our civil liberties. Meanwhile, the economy remained sluggish. And when the financial crisis hit late in Bush’s second term, the same government that had cut taxes for the rich focused on bailing out the banks rather than helping ordinary Americans. Marginalized groups—particularly non-whites, women, the LGBT community, and the poor—realized that they weren’t being represented in positions of power throughout society.

It was during this time that Democrats began to truly move to the left again, in large part because of young people. As a Pew Research poll published in February explains: “From 2000 to 2015, the share of Democratic and Democratic-leaning registered voters describing their political views as liberal increased by 15 percentage points, from 27% to 42%.”

As an undergraduate at Bard College (a school the Princeton Review once deemed the most left-wing university in America), I recall this phenomenon clearly during the presidential candidacy of Barack Obama. When he first emerged on the political scene during the 2004 Democratic National Convention, Obama appealed to myself and my peers as a statesman who seemed to embody diversity and multiculturalism. He opposed Bush’s unpopular foreign policies and vowed to eliminate a status quo that favored the rich.

From 2000 to 2015, the share of Democratic-leaning voters describing their political views as liberal increased by 15 percentage points.

He was certainly a change from the parade of safe Democratic candidates we’d seen in previous election cycles: Clinton, Al Gore, and John Kerry. While Bard may have been ahead of the curve in 2004, by the time the last of my Bard friends graduated in 2008, much of the party had come to resemble our campus. Obama had seized the nomination from Clinton by holding her New Democrat concessions, such as supporting the Patriot Act and the Iraq War, against her.

Viewed through the lens, it’s possible to remain convinced Hillary Clinton’s move to the left is an act of deliberate deceit or insincere expediency. And yet, this belief disregards the other option: that the same conditions that pushed Democrats to the left could just as easily have had the same effect on Clinton, whose career as a major figure in national politics covers the same period.

Certainly my own views have evolved considerably from the 1990s through the present. I too supported the Iraq War at first, and at one point I might have nodded along with Clinton’s now infamous “super predator” comments, whereas I now actively support the ideals of the Black Lives Matter protesters.

If Democrats are going to hold up ideological consistency as the chief measure of worthiness, no one is going to be found worthy.

Does this change invalidate my current pro-civil rights stances or beliefs on foreign policy non-interventionism? I would say absolutely not. It merely reflects my ability to grow and mature intellectually.

I would imagine that this is true for many Democrats who’ve been politically conscious in turn-of-the-millennium America, including our own president. When Barack Obama first took office in 2008, he supported the Defense of Marriage Act and Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. It wasn’t until public opinion began to take a pro-gay rights turn that he followed suit. Even Sanders, despite his reputation for ideological purity, has flip-flopped on issues like gun control, first voting for granting gun manufacturers legal immunity and opposing mandatory waiting periods before switching sides. He also voted for the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, the same law that Clinton has been so heavily criticized for (and which sparked her super-predator comment).

In short, if Democrats are going to hold up ideological consistency throughout the decades as the chief measure of a presidential aspirant’s worthiness, the chances are that no one is going to be found truly worthy of high office.

Of course we should hold Clinton accountable for her past policy mistakes. And it is perfectly logical that many progressives (including myself) might initially opt for a more liberal alternative in the primaries. That said, this attitude becomes illogical when—in the name of trying to choose the candidate most likely to implement liberal policies—we reflexively distrust anyone whose record shows any type of shift.

While evolution could indicate craven expediency, it could also simply indicate the candidate has an open mind.

While such evolution could indicate craven expediency, it could also simply indicate that the candidate in question has an open mind, or at least has been willing to adapt to the political realities of his or her time. If this is the mindset we would prefer applied to ourselves, it is patently unfair and unrealistic to fail to extend it to others—particularly in an election like this one, in which the stakes are so high.

The Obama era alone has brought about the election of the first African-American president, a broader proliferation of movements for racial justice, a significant economic improvement from the nadir of the 2007-2008 financial crisis, an end to the war in Iraq, the national legalization of same-sex marriage, and the passage of comprehensive health care reform, to name only a few achievements. If Clinton is elected in November, we will also be able to add the election of our first female president to that list.

We cannot know for sure whether she is a centrist in disguise or simply a politician and human who changed her opinion on major issues, along with millions of Americans. But she deserves the benefit of the doubt. If we are unwilling to give her that, then we implicitly deny America’s main progressive party—and millions of its voters—the ability to make progress as well.

My Political Review of “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice”

Published: Salon (March 29, 2016)

The reviews are in for “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice”… and they aren’t good. It currently scores a 29 percent on Rotten Tomatoes and a 44 on Metacritic, with the general consensus being that it has a muddled and confusing plot, an over-reliance on special effects, and so many characters that it’s hard to feel emotionally invested in anything that happens on screen.

Yet despite this critical shellacking, “Batman v. Superman” is arguably resonating with audiences (emphasis on the word “arguably”). Certainly its record-breaking $166.1 million opening weekend indicates widespread interest and positive word-of-mouth, although its relatively low Cinemascore of B – on par with duds like “Catwoman” and “The Green Lantern” – suggests this initial enthusiasm may eventually cool into a tepid response.

Nevertheless, if we’re going to understand why “Batman v. Superman” has been so successful among moviegoers (at least thus far) despite the overwhelmingly negative critical response, it is necessary to examine the movie’s political message – or, more precisely, how that message has shaped audience perception of the film.

First, a word about the screening I attended, which fortunately for me had an audience which didn’t hesitate to loudly proclaim its opinions. When Superman complained to his mother that humans weren’t appreciating his services, someone behind me sarcastically muttered “Oh boo hoo.” Later on, when an anti-Superman protester spray painted “False God” on a statue of the titular hero, an elderly gentleman a few seats to my left muttered “Yep” and audibly gasped when the vandal was charged with terrorism and a hate crime. During a fight scene between Batman and Superman, a friend who joined me at the screening whispered, “How can Batman be a good guy? Everything he’s doing is motivated by hate.” Finally, as I left the theater, a little boy asked his mother who he was supposed to root for, since “both of them weren’t very nice at all.”

In short, this was an audience that didn’t just enjoy the film as an action-packed spectacle, but genuinely picked up on and appreciated its attempts at conveying deeper themes. Some may have loved the movie and others may have hated it, but there is no question that all of them (or at least the vocal ones) had strong reactions to its political subtext.

Yet what exactly was that subtext? If the critics are to believed, “Batman v. Superman” is only so much sound and fury signifying nothing. Alex Abad-Santos of Vox denounced it as “a stupidly beautiful, hollow movie,” Salon’s own Andrew O’Hehir wrote that Snyder “seems kinda dumb,” Adam Howard of MSNBC reassured fans that “a Trojan horse for fascism, it is not,” and Alyssa Rosenberg of “The Washington Post” insisted that “I’m all for looking for meaning in blockbuster movies, but those films need to work a lot harder than ‘Batman v. Superman’ does to earn the right to our consideration.” While most critics have commendably tried to play down accusations of a totalitarian or right-wing bias, they have generally done so by insisting that the film isn’t deep enough to have a coherent philosophy at all – a slap in the face to Warner Bros. and DC executives who, ironically enough, expressed concern that “Batman v. Superman” would flop because it was “too smart” for general audiences.

Given its bombastic and overly self-serious tone, it’s understandable that critics would be inclined to malign it, but their attitudes are a tad unfair. “Batman v. Superman” may lack the social commentary of “The Dark Knight” trilogy or bold iconoclasm of “V for Vendetta,” but it does have an ideology – namely, its distrust of power. To Batman and many residents of both Metropolis and Gotham, Superman is a self-appointed overlord whose complete unaccountability makes him an existential threat to humanity, regardless of his claims that he only wants to help. Indeed, the film opens by revisiting the controversial Metropolis fight from “Man of Steel,” one that many critics noted would have resulted in hundreds of thousands of civilian casualties, showing how the stupendous loss of life (and Superman’s callous disregard for it) motivates Batman’s hatred. Of course, in Superman’s eyes, Batman is nothing more than a vigilante, someone whose ability to operate above the law speaks not to his superior moral qualities but rather the corruption of a police department that refuses to prosecute him. And when we see Bruce Wayne branding criminals with the Bat logo, it’s hard to disagree with Superman’s assessment.

Coming from a movie in which one character declares that “on this earth, every act is a political act,” it’s obvious that these political messages were included by design. Regardless of their political affiliation, director Zack Snyder and screenwriters David S. Goyer and Chris Terrio have created an operatic superhero film that abhors the real-world consequences which would ensue if superheroes actually existed. In the “Batman v. Superman” paradigm, it doesn’t matter that those wielding the power think of themselves as virtuous – whether sent from above with a divine destiny or crawling the streets to protect the innocent – because “in a democracy, good is a conversation, not a unilateral decision” (to quote the movie’s idealistic United States Senator played by Holly Hunter).

This isn’t to say that “Batman v. Superman” is a masterpiece of political commentary, or even that its message is always presented effectively. Aside from shots of anti-Superman protesters carrying protest signs modeled after the anti-Mexican rhetoric that contaminates our discourse today, there isn’t much of an exploration of xenophobia vis-à-vis Superman’s origin story (a missed opportunity in any ostensibly politicized Superman parable). There are similarly fleeting references to drone strikes and civil liberties violations, all dutifully ticked off as vestiges of a security state run amok before quickly forgotten. The movie does include commendably strong female characters like Lois Lane and Wonder Woman, but they receive such insufficient attention that they barely make an impact (a shortcoming more likely attributable to its cluttered narrative than outright sexism).

At the same time, there is actually something very intelligent, even subversive, about a superhero film that is so brazen in challenging the political legitimacy of those who would-be superheroes. It is the central conflict that drives the narrative and keeps the audience engaged in the on-screen action, even if the flat characters make it hard to invest on a deeper level. This isn’t a movie that simply includes those elements to make itself seem more profound; without that political subtext, the film barely exists at all.

While it remains to be seen whether this political message will give “Batman v. Superman” the same timelessness as other blockbuster political parables from the superhero genre (again, think “V for Vendetta” or “The Dark Knight”), I suspect it goes a long way toward explaining why many audiences are connecting with it. For better or worse, the movie uses two well-known contemporary mythologies – that of the Batman and Superman characters – to ask provocative questions about whether we can trust concentrations of great power. Critics may deride these attempts as incoherent or simplistic, but if John and Jane Q. Public are intrigued by them, then perhaps we should hesitate before dismissing them outright. After all, any movie that tries to make its audience smarter isn’t completely devoid of merit.

When cultural historians look back on cinema circa 2016, they will likely marvel at our growing ambivalence toward the superhero characters who have become so popular over the past couple decades. Later this year “Batman v. Superman” will be joined by “Captain America: Civil War,” another movie in which two iconic superheroes feud over ideological differences about concentrations of power (this time Captain America and Iron Man). There is a mass catharsis at play here, a phenomenon in which the anxieties toward demagogues and potential demagogues – liberals and conservatives can fill in their own blanks here with the names of their least-favorite politicians – is being reflected back to us on the silver screen.

This, politically speaking, may be the most important takeaway from “Batman v. Superman.” It may be a good movie, a bad movie, or anything in between, but it is without question an important film today, and a quintessential product of the America we inhabit.

The Wall of Hate

Published: The Good Men Project (March 29, 2016)

Let’s talk, for a moment, about the Wall of Hate.

It may not look like much, but it was enough to grab my attention as I walked home from the Fairchild-Martindale Library at Lehigh University. Various students were standing in front of it with markers, scribbling words that I could not as of yet discern, and several more were present to hand out pamphlets and talk to curious passersby. I asked one such student, Aleksandra Popova, and she agreed to email me more details about the movement (which she co-founded with Brishty Khossein, Arnie Diamond, and Sydney Bagley). Her response deserves to be republished in full:

We hope that our event fosters conversations among Lehigh students on the topics of diversity and inclusion, highlighting the impact that individual words and actions have on our campus culture. Going forward we hope our event helps acclimate Lehigh students to having difficult conversations on sensitive topics.

Global Citizenship is a four-year interdisciplinary certificate program that emphasizes the various dimensions of a student’s educational development. The program incorporates academic courses, travel experiences and extracurricular activities to encourage global-mindedness in multiple areas of a student’s life. As a senior in the Global Citizenship Program you are required to conduct a Capstone project that reflects on their personal concept of global citizenship as it relates to a specific topic in their individual disciplines.

As a Global Citizenship Capstone group we want our project to be an outlet for students to vocalize their concerns about the campus climate. We believe that open dialogue and facilitated conversation about controversial topics will be an effective method of addressing and reflecting on community concerns, and we want to instill confidence within students that change can come from within the community. We would like to see community members feel comfortable opening up about their experiences at Lehigh in a public forum, and mobilize students to take action in instilling changes that they’d like to see in the community rather than remaining passive. Ultimately, a few days of open dialogue cannot create sustainable change – the conversations must continue into the future.

It’s become popular these days to ridicule the concept of “microaggressions,” but the Wall of Hate amply demonstrates why this term is still relevant. Even though individuals who say things like “Tell all of your people they should vote” and “You’re pretty for a black girl” and “That’s so gay” (all of which I found on the wall) may not view their words as particularly hateful, they carry enough weight that those who hear them can feel belittled and marginalized long after they were first uttered. While I’d agree that it’s dangerous for the PC left to shame unintentional transgressors (and everyone deserves the benefit of the doubt regarding their intent, at least until it can be demonstrably proved otherwise), the Wall of Hate isn’t about humiliating those who harbor prejudice. The goal here (at least from my vantage point) is to draw attention to comments that, though perhaps made innocuously, really aren’t so harmless. That’s why students throughout the campus could be found congregating around the Wall of Hate, writing about their own experiences with prejudice so that others could learn from them.

As I walked away from the Wall of Hate, I found myself oddly inspired by what I had seen. At a time when prejudices continue to divide the nation and could even produce our next president (looking at you, Donald Trump), it’s encouraging to see so many young people taking a stand against these hatreds. Even better, they have found a way to speak out that is creative and provocative, encouraging others to participate and share their stories. This is what campus protest should look like – and I, for one, would love to see more of it.

The Danger of Ideologues

Published: The Good Men Project (March 26, 2016)

“The only index by which to judge a government or a way of life is by the quality of the people it acts upon. No matter how noble the objectives of a government, if it blurs decency and kindness, cheapens human life, and breeds ill will and suspicion—it is an evil government.”
– Eric Hoffer

I posted this quote not only because I agree with its contents, but because it perfectly encapsulates my reason for not considering myself to be an ideologue, either liberal or conservative. Ideologues on both sides are prone to making a terrible mistake – i.e., they start to care less about whether their policies are adequately serving important human needs than they do about the strictness with which those policies are hewing to a set of abstract philosophical concepts.

The problem with the two major ideological movements in this country is that both tend to jettison this goal as soon as they conflict with their preexisting partisan belief systems. My affiliation as a liberal derives from the fact that the left seems less inclined to do this. For all of their faults, modern progressives tend to sympathize with the poor instead of seeking ways to blame them for their own misfortune; to seek equality for marginalized groups instead of profiting off their oppression; and to embrace science and intellectual progress instead of clinging to blind faith. By contrast, we live in a society where the primary conservative political institution (i.e., the Republican Party) has become so obsessed with implementing a puritanically right-wing economic agenda – not only for the purpose of pleasing its wealthy backers, but also in the name of adhering to a dogma that simplistically demonizes all state economic intervenionism – that it will minimize, dismiss, misrepresent, and even justify the existence of widespread economic suffering (e.g., unemployment, working poverty, sub-par quality of life for the socioeconomically disadvantaged in areas such as housing and health care, inequitable access to means of socioeconomic mobility including affordable and decent education, etc.) What’s more, the growing power of cultural reactionaries within the right-wing has caused conservative thinkers to violate many of their own avowed principles in order to violate the civil liberties of individuals who run afoul of their prejudices (e.g., Mexicans, Muslims, women, homosexuals, inner-city minorities).

This is not to say that liberalism is free of comparable offenses against common sense and decency. By far the worst among these is a knee-jerk antipathy against America, one that causes many on the left to not only support distorted and contextually myopic interpretations of our nation’s history and legacy, but also to blatantly sympathize with our country’s enemies, even ones whose actions violate basic humanitarian precepts (e.g., the sympathy and/or support among many leftists for Joseph Stalin in the 1930s and 1940s, Ho Chi Minh during the Vietnam War, Saddam Hussein and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad during the Bush Era, and Hugo Chavez today). While the radical leftists who hold such views are hardly as influential within the Democratic Party as the far right remains among Republicans, they can still be seen peddling their doctrine among fringe politicians, throughout the media, and on college campuses.

There are many reasons why this problem exists within ideological movements: Egos can become so invested in an ideology’s correctness that, even after an idea has been discredited, steadfastness becomes an emotional need based on pride rather than an intelligent opinion based on reason. Political battles can reach such a fevered pitch that partisans lose sight of larger issues and bigger pictures. Hatreds and irrational biases that cannot be openly expressed without receiving widespread condemnation take on more socially respectable forms and integrate themselves into mainstream belief systems. People can make honest mistakes.

Regardless of why it happens, however, there are two simple questions you can ask yourself to determine when it is happening. Would a given ideology, if implemented, promote the welfare and guarantee the rights of all people, support common decency, and value the inherent integrity of every human being? Does it work to avoid breeding irrational suspicion, prejudice, and maliciousness? I am under no illusions as to the fact that any ideological movement can ever honestly answer each of those questions in the affirmative, but this is one of those unattainable goals toward which all should nevertheless strive. Until the unlikely day arrives when one of them reaches it, I will maintain a healthy skepticism not merely toward all ideologies, but toward all ideologues.

Does hashtag activism work?

Published: The Daily Dot (March 24, 2016)

There was an interesting debate at the University of Pennsylvania this week. TheFoundation for Individual Rights in Education, or FIRE, hosted a panel discussion on the effectiveness of hashtag activism.

The debate featured Zeynep Tufekci, an assistant professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and Zellie Imani, an educator whose protest career was forged in the literal fire of the Ferguson protests.

Indeed, there have been many hashtag movements–Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, the Arab Spring, KONY 2012. Yet as I listened to the discussion, I kept waiting for conservative movements to be mentioned as well, only to be struck by their conspicuous absence.

While the points raised at the debate on whether hashtag activism works were often quite insightful (more on those in a moment), the omission of right-wingInternet movements from their analysis speaks to a deeper flaw in the progressive mind’s understanding of online social activism. It is an error that, if gone uncorrected, could leave the far left vulnerable to the far right in the future.

Hashtag movements often struggle with the tactical changes necessary to meeting changing conditions, instead ‘hitting a wall at the first big turn.’

Ideologically speaking, Tufekci and Imani seemed pretty closely aligned, and neither questioned the efficacy of hashtag activism in drawing attention to various issues and campaigns. Tufekci’s main concern was that, because hashtag movements grow up so quickly and thus bypass traditional institutional mechanisms, they wind up being less effective in implementing concrete policy goals. What’s more, as evidenced by Occupy Wall Street and KONY 2012, hashtag movements often struggle with the tactical changes necessary to meeting changing conditions, instead “hitting a wall at the first big turn.” By contrast, Imani pointed to concrete legislative achievements associated with the Black Lives Matter movement (such as mandatory body cameras on police officers in many states), as well as how early online civil rights protesters successfully pressured Florida police officers into arresting George Zimmerman (who was ultimately acquitted).

Similar contradictions exist in the world of right-wing hashtag activism. The Tea Party movement was largely incubated online, with the movement using social media to oust Republican incumbents and fuel a GOP takeover of the House of Representatives in the 2010 midterm elections. Tea Party conservatives alsodominated Twitter during the 2012 election cycle, with the top five political hashtags of the year all belonging to conservative causes: #tcot (top conservative on Twitter), #teaparty, #gop, #romney, and Mitt Romney.

At the same time, as with left-wing hashtag campaigns, the right-wing movements weren’t always effective. The 2012 elections, after all, were a disaster for the Republican Party, and an argument can even be made that the radicalism of Tea Party candidates in key races helped keep the Senate out of the GOP’s reach in 2010.

Of course, none of this matches the biggest Twitter phenomenon in politics–Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. “One of the most central tools to Trump’s penny-pinching campaign is Twitter,” observes Amber Phillips of the Washington Post. “The 69-year-old uses the tool like a digital native, more prolifically than any other presidential candidate and arguably with much more skill.” This has allowed Trump to spend comparatively little money on traditional forms of advertising and politicking, instead garnering media attention with a series of provocative statements that have captivated the world of American politics. As a result, theself-proclaimed “Ernest Hemingway of 140 characters” has managed to conquer the Republican presidential nomination despite the fierce opposition of his own party’s establishment. “Trump is comfortable ceding every character to his rhetorical flourishes,” writes Amanda Hess of Slate, in a piece that brilliantly deconstructs exactly what makes Trump’s tweets so effective. “They work so well, the actual content hardly matters.”

This goes a long way toward demonstrating why, if one is going to have a comprehensive discussion about hashtag activism, it is absolutely necessary to include the conservative movement in that conversation.

Each side of the ideological spectrum is going to determine our future as a country, and so it behooves us to pay attention to both of them.

By being unaware that another side of hashtag activism flourishes, the political expert class put itself in a position to be totally blindsided by the success of Trump’s presidential campaign. Similarly, by failing to examine how social media-driven movements like the Tea Party can both take major strides toward achieving their goals (i.e. turning the House of Representatives in 2010) and hinder their own progress (i.e. costing themselves the Senate that same year), the FIRE debate overlooked an intriguing angle of the larger debate about hashtag activism successes and failures.

It is interesting that, throughout the night, both Tufecki and Imani made repeated references to the protest movements of the 1960s. This was entirely appropriate, as the 1960s and early 1970s was a chronological focal point for progressive activism in the United States, including the civil rights protests, the anti-Vietnam War protests, and countercultural activity in general. Because each of these movements utilized new forms of media like television to mobilize supporters and attract attention, and because each had a mix of successes and failures, it made a great deal of sense to compare the current period in American progressive history with its most obvious immediate antecedent.

Yet if we are to truly learn from the 1960s, we must start by remembering that ours is not the only voice that can use new technologies for potent political effect. After all, the 1960s were also the decade that begat the modern far right, starting with Barry Goldwater’s Republican presidential campaign in 1964 and continuing with a wave of right-wing campus radicalism that ultimately produced many of the modern conservative movement’s current leaders. The same can be said of our own time. Even as laudable movements like Black Lives Matter and Occupy Wall Street attract our attention, less than noble endeavors like Trump’s campaign also strive for power in this country.

Each side of the ideological spectrum is going to determine our future as a country, and so it behooves us to pay attention to both of them.

Why I Write About Asperger’s Syndrome

Published: The Good Men Project (March 24, 2016)

When my first article was picked up by Mic in February 2012, I thought that my dream of becoming a political columnist had finally started to come true. I wasn’t wrong, but I never anticipated one turn that my career was destined to take. Although I still love writing editorials on political and social issues, I also find that more and more often I discuss Asperger’s Syndrome – a condition that I have had for as long as I can remember.

I write about being a high-functioning autistic (HFA) for three reasons:

  1. The only way our situation can improve is if we insist that it become part of the larger conversation about human rights.

Based on my own experiences and what I’ve heard from other HFAs, it’s pretty clear that the biggest challenge facing people with Asperger’s Syndrome is that so few people are aware of our struggles. When you are born with an inability to effectively read social situations, when your mind is wired to process information and emotions and to execute tasks in a fundamentally different way from most other people, you are bound to face misunderstanding, intolerance, and discrimination your entire life. If we want this to stop, our only option is to make sure that the rest of the world knows what we’re experiencing and what they are doing to us.

  1. The brain is the final frontier of human knowledge.

When I was a child, my neurologist once told my parents that “what we know about the human brain can fit on the head of a pin.” Although cognitive sciences have made enormous strides since the late 1980s, there is still much progress to be made, and one of the best ways to advance our body of knowledge is for everyone with an atypical neurology to shed light on their experiences. Even if the people doing this are only contributing to lay literature instead of formal medical or scientific journals, their words can still be picked up by scholars and used to yield insights about the human condition.

  1. It has been cathartic for me.

Most writers are familiar with the axiom that we often write best when we turn inward instead of looking outward. If the popular reaction to my articles on Asperger’s are any indication, this is still very much the case, but what I never anticipated was how much I grew as a person in the process. By analyzing my struggles in such a public forum, I made peace with aspects of my life that had tormented me for years. Similarly, by receiving such positive feedback from other autistic individuals throughout the world, I realized that I wasn’t alone, and was able to let their words help me as much as mine (hopefully) assisted them.

There isn’t much more for me to add right now. I never expected to find myself performing self-vivisections for the world on a regular basis, but I don’t see myself stopping anytime soon. Even if I wanted to, I don’t think I could… or should. Now is as good a time as any to explain why.

Obama needs to stop undermining Sanders

Published: Salon (March 22, 2016), The Good Men Project (March 19, 2016)

Shame on you, President Obama, for trying to undermine Senator Bernie Sanders’ campaign.

As The New York Times reported on Thursday, Obama privately told a group of Democratic donors in Austin, TX that they needed to unite behind Hillary Clinton because Sanders would soon have to end his presidential bid. “Mr. Obama acknowledged that Mrs. Clinton was perceived to have weaknesses as a candidate, and that some Democrats did not view her as authentic,” Maggie Haberman and Michael D. Shear wrote. “But he played down the importance of authenticity, noting that President George W. Bush — whose record he ran aggressively against in 2008 — was once praised for his authenticity.” According to those in attendance, the president’s comments seemed to be intended “as a signal to Mr. Sanders that perpetuating his campaign, which is now an uphill climb, could only help the Republicans recapture the White House.”

Let’s go through the reasons why Obama is wrong here.

1. Clinton isn’t necessarily the best candidate to defeat Trump.

This point doesn’t require a lot of explanation, so I’ll get it out of the way now: Whereas polls show Clinton ahead of Donald Trump by 10-to-13 points, they show Sanders ahead of him by 15-to-18 points. Granted, these are both hefty margins, and a case could be made that Sanders’ numbers would fall if voters became more familiar with his democratic socialist views (more on those in Point #3). Nevertheless, the conventional wisdom that Clinton is a more practical choice than Sanders isn’t particularly wise at all.

2. The Democratic primaries are by no means over.

In order to be nominated, a Democratic presidential candidate needs to win 2,383 delegates. Although Clinton seems to be two-thirds of the way there at 1,614, 467 of those are superdelegates – i.e., individuals chosen by party leaders rather than through a primary or caucus election, and who can choose whomever they want. Most importantly, whereas elected delegates are bound to support their candidate at the national convention, superdelegates are free to change their mind at any time and for any reason. Consequently, Clinton’s solid delegate total is actually 1,147, whereas Sanders (who only has 26 superdelegates in his corner) comes in a close second at 830.

None of this is intended to downplay Sanders’ disadvantage. Even political analysts who theorize about how he could pull off an upset have acknowledge that, although he is likely to win many of the upcoming primary and caucus states, the prevailing demographic trends within the party strongly suggest that he can’t broaden his base of support enough to wrest the nomination away from Clinton. Nevertheless, an election isn’t over until every vote has been counted, and Sanders is close enough to Clinton right now that it’s premature to write him off.

3. Sanders isn’t just a candidate – he is a cause.

Although Clinton and Sanders are closer to each other ideologically than many of their supporters would like to admit, Sanders is not in this race merely to satisfy his own ambition. There is a good reason why the Vermonter refers to himself as a “democratic socialist” – he is much more left-wing than Clinton on a wide range of social, economic, and foreign policy issues. If it wasn’t for Sanders, income inequality wouldn’t be featured nearly as prominently in Democratic political discussions, and considering Clinton’s well-known coziness with Wall Street, there is a strong possibility that breaking up the banks wouldn’t have been brought up at all.

In addition to making this a better primary race, Sanders’ presence in the campaign could also make Clinton a better president. Recent history is littered with the names of Democratic presidents who were pushed to the left when progressive insurgents challenged them in the primaries, from Franklin Roosevelt (who proposed his second New Deal in part as a response to the radical candidacy of Huey Long) to John Kennedy (who became more outspoken in favor of civil rights after the issue was brought to the fore by Hubert Humphrey). While Sanders has already succeeded in pushing Clinton to the left, his continued presence in the race will make it clear to her that his ideals aren’t transient. If Clinton wants the support of his followers – and, for that matter, to demonstrate her authenticity – she needs to deliver on the progressive values that she now advocates in no small part because of Sanders.

4. Obama’s own experience contradicts his argument.

Perhaps the most galling thing about Obama’s comments is their lack of self-awareness. Does he not recall a certain idealistic United States Senator who, despite being virtually unknown outside of progressive circles, waged a grueling presidential primary battle against Hillary Clinton? A man who, because he was widely dismissed as unelectable, was frequently told that campaigning against Clinton was only increasing the likelihood that a Republican would occupy the White House for another four years?

Of course, the roles eventually reversed in the 2008 presidential election; after Obama took the lead in the primaries, Clinton was the one being told to drop out for the good of the country. Yet despite each candidate being urged to leave the race due to the other one’s presumed “inevitability,” it turned out that the fierce primary battle didn’t cause them fatal damage when it came time for the general election.

It’s understandable why Obama prefers Clinton over Sanders. Both philosophically and practically, a Clinton presidency would constitute an effective third term for Obama, validating his presidency and extending his policy agenda for at least another four years. If he wants to come out and endorse Clinton, he has every right to do so. However, by working behind the scenes to effectively deny Sanders his chance at being nominated, Obama is committing an unfairness not only to Sanders, but to the Democratic Party itself. Regardless of whether we choose Clinton or Sanders, that decision should be left up to us. We don’t need our own president putting his thumb on the scales.

Clintonism deserves its due

Published: The Huffington Post (March 21, 2016), The Good Men Project (March 17, 2016)

Whenever I talk to potential voters who doubt Hillary Clinton (not outright oppose her, mind you, but simply have reservations), I find there are two arguments which are most likely to convince them to develop a more favorable view of her potential presidency. One is the possibility that not turning out to give her an extra vote will help elect Donald Trump; the other is that, when all is said and done, she was the single most influential adviser to one of the most consistently popular presidents in modern history – her husband, William Jefferson Clinton. While the former is great for scaring them away from The Donald, I find that one of the best ways to convince voters to want a term for Hillary is by arguing that it’s tantamount to a third one for Bill.

Unfortunately, there is an ongoing trend to convince the general public that they must reevaluate that favorable assessment. While this was predictable given the growing possibility of a Clinton restoration, unfortunately the effort seems to be working. Clinton’s current favorability rating has been down to 53-56 percent since the start of the year, despite remaining solidly in the ‘60s through most of the Obama era. This is especially troubling because Democratic liberals – often Bernie Sanders supporters – are contributing to it as well. Most conspicuous among them right now is author Thomas Frank, who wrote an editorial for Salon criticizing Bill Clinton’s presidency for its policies on welfare reform, free trade, and expanding America’s police state and prison complex. While these are valid criticisms and deserve to be discussed, there is a pervasive implication that they’re also somehow sound reasons for liberals to not vote for the likely Democratic ticket in November. That development would be very dangerous indeed, not only because it deprives Democrats of one of their chief assets in defeating Trump, but because it does a disservice to a legacy that – though flawed – still deserves considerable credit.

We can start with Clinton’s venerated economic record, which like the rest of his presidency is flawed but still quite impressive. Unemployment fell from above seven percent to less than four, median wages increased, the financial market boomed, the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) grew by an average 3.8 percent, inflation stabilized, and poverty declined. Although extreme poverty began to grow in part because of Clinton’s cuts to welfare programs, those reductions were part of a broader policy of fiscal discipline that led to one of the most widely discussed aspects of the Clinton era – namely, how a Democratic president managed to balance the federal budget and erase the federal deficit.

When it came to foreign policy, it’s important to remember that the Clinton administration was a brief period stretching from the end of the Cold War to right before the September 11th attacks. Consequently it was a period of relative geopolitical peace, perhaps the closest to a complete Pax Americana that our nation will ever experience. It was in this climate that Clinton pushed through a range of important social legislation, including raising taxes on the rich (remember that budget surplus?), stopping more than half a million people from getting illegal guns with the Brady Bill, passing the National Violence Against Women Act, creating the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP), raised the minimum wage, and guaranteed unpaid leave for all American workers.

Of course, if you read editorials like the one by Frank (an excerpt from his book “Listen, Liberal,” which I admittedly have not read), you’d have a much different view of these achievements:

Why was it, I wondered, that we were supposed to think so highly of him—apart from his obvious personal charm, I mean? It proved difficult for my libs. People mentioned the obvious things: Clinton once raised the minimum wage and expanded the Earned Income Tax Credit. He balanced the budget. He secured a modest tax increase on the rich. And he did propose a national health program, although it didn’t get very far and was in fact so poorly designed it could be a model of how not to do big policy initiatives.”

The Brady Bill, the National Violence Against Women Act, and the wide range of positive economic indicators aren’t mentioned here at all, while his other landmark progressive legislation is dismissed with either glibness or deliberate diminution. Nowhere is there a due appreciation for the fact that Clinton was one of two Democratic presidents in the forty year span separating Richard Nixon’s first year in office from George W. Bush’s last (1969 to 2009). During that period, American politics underwent a major shift to the right, with the Democratic Party best embodied by the political impotence of presidents like Jimmy Carter and failed candidates like Walter Mondale and Michael Dukakis. Into this scene strode Clinton, a charismatic Democratic president who, despite losing control of Congress two years into his presidency and surviving a trumped up impeachment effort, managed to actually get things done in a prosperous and peaceful America. To all but the most partisan or jaded, this must be acknowledged as a feat of considerable dimension.

This isn’t to dismiss the meat of Frank’s essay, as most of his criticisms are valid. Clinton did deregulate derivatives and the telecommunication industry, which played a major role in the banking crisis of the late ‘00s. His successful push for the North American Free Trade Agreement resulted in almost 700,000 jobs being shipped overseas, while his support for so-called “anti-crime” legislation helped make the American police and prison state as hellish as it is today. That said, disproportionately emphasizing Bill Clinton’s mistakes – at least in the context of this particular presidential election – risks creating the illusion that Hillary Clinton shouldn’t politically benefit from her association with the legacy of his presidency. This would be unfair even if it wasn’t an election year, but it becomes borderline suicidal in a contest as serious as this one. The Clinton style of government, however flawed, is being juxtaposed with some pretty frightening alternatives on the Republican side.

I personally view Clinton’s achievements as best embodied by Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. By forbidding homosexuals from openly serving in the military, it perpetrated a terrible injustice; by eliminating the outright ban on homosexuality in the military, though, it simultaneously constituted an important step forward. That is the alternative on one side… and Trump is the other. While Trump’s quasi-fascism doesn’t in its own right redeem Clintonism, it does help put it in a more nuanced perspective. The Clinton presidency, like all presidencies, was very flawed, but that doesn’t diminish the good that President Clinton did, even when that good frequently came in a cracked package. Few American politicians are overwhelmingly good or overwhelmingly bad; most contain a mixture of positive and negative qualities, with the burden falling on voters to discern which ones are more important within the choices presented to them.

For liberals, there are plenty of legitimate criticisms of what Clintonism has stood for in the past, but that doesn’t mean we should ignore or diminish the good in the process. If we do that, we risk being just as simplistic in our approach to politics as Trump supporters – and, in the process, leading America into an Age of Trumpism.