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.

With his Supreme Court nominee, Obama chooses the path of least resistance

Published: The Daily Dot (March 16, 2016)

President Barack Obama announced his appointment to replace the late Justice Antonin Scalia on the Supreme Court on Wednesday. His choice is Merrick Garland, one of the most conservative judges ever chosen by a modern Democratic president.

The Internet doesn’t seem particularly impressed. Perhaps this is because Garland doesn’t have much in the way of a record when it comes to the typical divisive issues facing a Supreme Court nominee, like privacy, abortion, the death penalty, and affirmative action. As a judge in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit for the past 19 years, Garland mostly dealt with regulatory issues.

Frankly, the topic that’s getting the most attention is the man’s name. Literally. We can start with my personal favorite:

“Dang, Obama went with Merrick Garland? I was hoping he’d go for Smithery Bramble or Shawshank McNoodle”

This may be the star of the show, but there are plenty of runners up. Some have offered commentary on how he would be just one more white guy on the court:

“Names That Are Whiter Than ‘Merrick Garland’
1. Cholmondelay Golf-Clubb
2. Stanford Wharton Yale III
3. Trey Amusant
4. Dickie Mayflower”

Others associated his unusual name with fixtures of popular culture:

“merrick garland sounds like a minor character on nashville”

Some just had fun with it:

“Merrick Garland sounds like the name of a small forward who takes a lot of charges at Duke”

“Merrick Garland sounds like a brunch spot where eggs are $26”

While these tweets are certainly creative and humorous, they obscure the important details surrounding Garland’s selection to the nation’s highest court.

For one thing, he is a choice that Republicans will have a difficult time opposing on his merits. Sen. Orrin Hatch, the longest serving Republican member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, told the conservative site Newsmax last week that he thought Garland was the judge Obama should pick.

“[Obama] could easily name Merrick Garland, who is a fine man,” the Utah Senator commented, adding that “he probably won’t do that because this appointment is about the election. So I’m pretty sure he’ll name someone the [liberal Democratic base] wants.”

If Obama had wanted to inspire his base or guarantee a liberal legacy on the bench, he would have gone in a much bolder direction.

Indeed, seven Republicans currently in the Senate voted to confirm Garland to the U.S. Court of Appeals to the D.C. Circuit in 1997—including Hatch, Dan Coats of Indiana, Thad Cochran of Mississippi, Susan Collins Maine, Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, John McCain of Arizona, and Pat Roberts Kansas. If nothing else, Garland is certainly a pick that the Republican Party will have a hard time opposing without seeming blatantly partisan.

At the same time, there isn’t much to recommend Garland beyond these practical considerations. His other noteworthy characteristics after all, are the fact that he’d be unusually old for a Supreme Court judge (63), which makes it less likely that he would have as many years on the bench as most judges. And he oversaw two high-profile terrorism cases, the Oklahoma City bombing and Ted Kaczynski, also known as the Unabomber. This, along with Garland’s comparatively conservative record and bipartisan appeal, makes him the perfect candidate for twisting GOP arms. If Obama had wanted to inspire his base or guarantee a liberal legacy on the bench, he would have gone in a much bolder direction. Garland, by contrast, is aggressively uninspiring.

But with the Republicans threatening to refuse to even hold a vote on Garland’s nomination until a new president is elected, Obama has clearly chosen the someone who might make it easier to reach across the aisle in the final months of his presidency.

My hunch is that this may bode ill for Garland’s prospects. On the one hand, Obama isn’t wrong in assuming that the Senate Republicans will be in a tough spot trying to justify opposing a vote on Garland’s confirmation. Aside from a strongly liberal position on gun control (which has already received criticism from the right), Garland’s record mostly involves esoteric regulatory matters that rarely stir up strongly held emotions. While leaning to the left, his reputation is generally that of a meticulous researcher who tries to find consensus between his colleagues. In the words used by Judge John Roberts during his confirmation hearing in 2005 to become chief justice of the Supreme Court, “Any time Judge Garland disagrees, you know you’re in a difficult area.”

Obama has clearly chosen the someone who might make it easier to reach across the aisle in the final months of his presidency.

Unfortunately, Garland’s blandness will make it difficult for the left to rally behind him with a force equal to that which can be anticipated by the Republicans who will oppose him. If Obama had gone with D.C. Circuit Judge Sri Srinivasan, he could have inspired progressives by appointing the first Indian-American and first Hindu judge to the bench; the same can be said of Attorney General Loretta Lynch, who would have been the first African-American woman to receive that honor. Similarly, Obama could have chosen a strong liberal voice like U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Paul Watford, who has taken courageous stances on hot button issues like opposing lethal injections and defending illegal immigrants.

Instead, Obama seems to have opted for the path of least resistance.

How Obama is using pop culture to transform the Oval Office

Published: The Daily Dot (January 3, 2016)

In the most recent episode of his hit webseries Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, Jerry Seinfeld featured a guest who is not a professional comedian: President Barack Obama. At one point in the show, Seinfeld asked the president what was his most embarrassing moment in office so far. “This may be it,” Obama joked.

The thing is, though, that some other Hollywood figures agree with him. “A president should have a little more dignity,” comedian David Spade said in a TMZ video after Obama recently appeared on the NBC reality show, Running Wild with Bear Grylls. “I realize Woodrow Wilson went on Dancing with the Stars once. But what president is doing reality shows? It just seems weird to me.”

Yet while Obama’s critics argue that he’s demeaned his office by appearing on these shows, the fact remains that in our increasingly media-driven times, it is not only politically beneficial but often necessary for presidents to use their power ofcelebrity–and, quite often, do so with positive results.

Perhaps the most famous example of this was the first televised presidential debate in 1960 between John Kennedy and Richard Nixon. By being widely declared as the winner because of his more telegenic appearance, Kennedy cemented the importance of celebrity in American political culture. His erstwhile opponent took this message to heart in his own successful presidential campaign eight years later, shaking up his image as a dull stiff with an unexpected cameo on the popular sketch comedy TV program Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In.

Before long, it became clear that Reagan’s movie career–and the motion picture business in general–had a profound effect on the president’s policies.

By 1980, the American public had grown so accustomed to blurring the lines between celebrities and politicians that it elected a former Hollywood actor, Ronald Reagan, to the White House. Before long, it became clear that Reagan’s movie career–and the motion picture business in general–had a profound effect on the president’s policies. His love of the Star Wars movies inspired the nickname for one of his signature defense programs (the Strategic Defense Initiative), as well as his tendency to refer to the Soviet Union as the “evil empire.” And many of his speeches were peppered with quotes from Dirty Harry, Back to the Future, and the Rambo movies (after seeing the latter, Reagan remarked that the next time American hostages were taken overseas, “Now I know what to do”). Indeed, Reagan’s belief that the American military should focus on preemptively thwarting hostile missiles could be traced to one of Reagan’s own film roles–the 1940 Warner Brothers movie Murder in the Air–in which the young actor played a Secret Service agent who stopped a foreign spy from stealing a similar program that would “make America invincible in war and therefore be the greatest force for peace ever invented.”

By the time Bill Clinton was wooing young voters with a saxophone solo on The Arsenio Hall Show, there was nothing particularly novel about a president immersing himself in America’s pop culture milieu. That said, while David Spade is correct in his assessment that Obama has taken this trend to another level, the president has for the most part demonstrated how the power of political celebrity can be a positive thing.

Sometimes he has used this solely for educational purposes. For example, during his appearance on Mythbusters in 2010, Obama challenged hosts Jamie Hyneman and Adam Savage to test Archimedes’ solar death ray, an alleged weapon developed by the ancient Greek scientist that used giant mirrors to reflect sunlight toward Roman ships and set them aflame (it didn’t work). In his appearance onRunning Wild with Bear Grylls, Obama explored the Alaska wilderness and discussed the effects of climate change.

Even his laid-back exchange with Seinfeld contained educational moments, with Obama offering insights into the mundane details of presidential life and enlightening viewers about one of his favorite presidents, Theodore Roosevelt. “Teddy Roosevelt would go up to Yellowstone Park for like a month and nobody knew where he was and nobody could get in touch with him,” Obama explained, before wistfully adding, “Can you imagine that?”

That said, Obama’s use of celebrity has occasionally been not just informative, but historic. In 2014–back when it seemed like the Affordable Care Act was doomed to fail because not enough young people were enrolling–Obama agreed to a suggestion by actor Bradley Cooper that he appear on the online comedy seriesBetween Two Ferns with Zach Galifianakis. Although the 6-and-a-half minute skit mostly consisted of the president exchanging barbs with his deliberately discourteous host, it also told viewers how they could enroll in Obamacare’s insurance exchanges – and was a rousing success. Not only was the skit subsequently nominated for an Emmy Award, but it garnered 33 million viewersand–along with a promotional campaign by basketball star LeBron James–helped lead to a last-minute surge in enrollment that ended with 7.1 million people signing up on federal or state exchanges.

If they use it responsibly, the nation can benefit enormously; if they use it improperly–whether by promoting ignorant ideas or deliberately cultivating prejudices–it can be a destructive force.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that there aren’t downsides to presidents behaving more and more like celebrities. The explicitly racist presidential campaign of current GOP candidate Donald Trump has been enabled by the billionaire’s celebrity status, first as a self-promoting real estate mogul in the 1980s and 1990s and then as a reality TV star in the 2000s. What’s more, the success of his presidential campaign has been fueled by his savvy manipulation of media, as Trump has shown himself adept over and over again at providing ratings-friendly entertainment with his various inflammatory comments. Just as Obama has used the platform of presidential politics to promote health care reform or educate the public on scientific matters, so too has Trump used it to fan the flames of racial bigotry.

Perhaps the lesson here, then, is that the power of celebrity should be viewed as just that–a form of power that politicians can wield as they see fit. If they use it responsibly, the nation can benefit enormously; if they use it improperly–whether by promoting ignorant ideas or deliberately cultivating prejudices–it can be a destructive force. Either way, there is little question that Obama has transformed the office of the presidency with his use of celebrity. The challenge for his successors is whether they will make this a positive or negative precedent.

Obama’s low-income broadband initiative could change the lives of millions of Americans

Published: Daily Dot (July 16, 2015)

If equality of opportunity is to be a reality in this country, we need to recognize that it is impossible for anyone to be competitive in our modern economy without access to the Internet. That’s why President Obama’s new program to subsidize broadband for low-income families is such an encouraging step forward in addressing the systemic problems of millions of Americans.

“In this digital age when you can apply for a job, take a course, pay your bills, order pizza, even find a date, the Internet is not a luxury, it’s a necessity,” Barack Obama explained as he introduced the proposal in Durant, Oklahoma.

Known as ConnectHome, Obama’s plan is expected to reach 275,000 public housing communities in 27 cities throughout the country, including the Choctaw tribal nation. To accomplish this, the government has partnered up with private corporations, including Google, Sprint, CenturyLink, GitHub, and Best Buy (which will provide free training and technical support).

This is rolling out in conjunction with the administration’s larger pledge to provide high-speed broadband and wireless Internet to 99 percent of American schools by 2017 (200,000 of the public housing residents who will receive Internet access under ConnectHome are under the age of 18), as well as reduce poverty in general.

“It’s American ingenuity that created the Internet,” Obama told his audience in Oklahoma, “and the notion that we will leave some Americans behind… while other countries are racing ahead, that’s a recipe for disaster.”

And make no mistake about it: When it comes to Internet access, millions of Americans are being left behind. According to the last census, one out of four Americans don’t have Internet access at home. As a recent survey by the Pew Research Center demonstrated, much of this disparity can be explained as the product of class differences.

“Adults living in households with an annual income of at least $75,000 a year are the most likely to use the Internet, with 97 percent of adults in this group currently reporting they are Internet users,” the Pew report found. “Those living in households with an annual income under $30,000 a year are less likely to report Internet usage, with 74 percent of adults doing so now.”

Make no mistake about it: When it comes to Internet access, millions of Americans are being left behind.

Lawrence E. Strickling, head of the Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration, put it even more starkly during a speech at the Brookings Institution, a left-of-center think tank: “Americans who don’t have access to the Internet are increasingly cut off from job opportunities, educational resources, health care information, social networks, even government services.”

Part of the problem is that, as a survey of Internet availability by the New America Foundation’s Open Technology Institute found, American consumers tend to pay higher prices for slower speeds than consumers in other countries. Then there is the issue of availability—according to the FCC, 19 million Americans don’t live in communities where high-speed Internet access is an option at all.

Finally, there is the simple fact that lacking Internet access becomes a cyclical issue. “Less than half of the poorest American households have a home Internet subscription, and they face real barriers when trying to lift themselves up and better their lives because of it,” explained Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julian Castro during a conference call with reporters.

In other words, not having Internet access makes it harder for these Americans to obtain high-income employment—the absence of which, in turn, makes it less likely that they will be able to afford the Internet access that would significantly help them improve their quality of life.

Unfortunately, this problem exacerbates other inequalities in our country. We can start with race: Of all the demographics monitored by the Pew survey, Asian-Americans were by far the most likely to have home Internet access as of last year (at 97 percent), followed by non-Hispanic whites (at 85 percent), Hispanics (at 81 percent), and non-Hispanic blacks (at 78 percent). This data roughly corresponds with what we know about the racial income gap that continues to hold back communities of color.

Similarly, the Pew survey found that while 95 percent of adults with college or graduate degrees have home Internet access, that number falls all the way to 66 percent for those who haven’t completed high school. Finally, a brief by the Council of Economic Advisers in 2013 determined that low-income rural regions in America—particularly throughout the South and Southwest—have disproportionately low rates of home Internet access.

Ever since the passage of the High Performance Computing Act in 1991 created the World Wide Web and digital revolution that we know today, there has been endless talk about how the Internet would transform the world forever.

According to the FCC, 19 million Americans don’t live in communities where high-speed Internet access is an option at all.

Since that time, the world has seen the rise of over 3 billion active Internet users and unique mobile phone owners, as well as over 2 billion active social media accounts. The Internet has been instrumental in electing presidents, sparking political revolutions in the Middle East, and stimulating more than $1.5 trillion in business-to-consumer sales through e-commerce as of 2014. No one can deny that it has changed the world—or that it’s continuing to do so.

At the same time, it’s important to remember that these online changes are still susceptible to the same variables that perpetuate injustice offline. Because people with lower incomes are at a disadvantage when it comes to obtaining access to other resources that could help pull them out of poverty, it stands to reason that they will encounter similar struggles when trying to take advantage of the innumerable resources offered by the Internet.

That’s why, for anyone who truly believes in the potential of this medium, we continue to democratize Web access—and this program is just a start.

Until every man, woman, and child in America can easily access the Internet from the comfort of their own home, the cyberspace revolution will be incomplete. Considering all the positive change that the Internet has already encouraged—to say nothing of what it could continue to do in the future—this would be an unspeakable tragedy.

 

The ‘Paranoid Style’ of Alex Jones: Why the right-wing ‘Jade Helm’ insanity won’t go away – and why that’s extremely scary

Published: Salon (July 8, 2015)

Brace yourself: After months of frantic conspiracy theorizing, Operation Jade Helm is finally underway next week.

One week from today, one of the largest military training exercises in history — dubbed “Operation Jade Helm 15″ — will occur across seven southwestern states. According to Bastrop County Republican Party Chairman Albert Ellison, there is good reason for Texans to worry that Obama is secretly planning to use this event as an opportunity to take over the state, a conspiracy theory popularized by right-wing radio host Alex Jones earlier this year. “In the minds of some, he was raised by communists and mentored by terrorists,” reported Ellison to The Washington Post on Saturday, later adding “Obama has really painted a portrait in the minds of many conservatives that he is capable of this sort of thing.”

Make no mistake about it: Though it’s tempting to dismiss this type of hysteria as self-evidently absurd, it is dangerous — and needs to be called out as such.
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To truly understand what’s going on here — what, indeed, has been occurring since Obama first took office — one can start by looking at Richard Hofstadter’s classic 1964 article, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics”:

“I call it the paranoid style simply because no other word adequately evokes the sense of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy that I have in mind. In using the expression ‘paranoid style’ I am not speaking in a clinical sense, but borrowing a clinical term for other purposes. I have neither the competence nor the desire to classify any figures of the past or present as certifiable lunatics. In fact, the idea of the paranoid style as a force in politics would have little contemporary relevance or historical value if it were applied only to men with profoundly disturbed minds. It is the use of paranoid modes of expression by more or less normal people that makes the phenomenon significant.”

Although Hofstadter’s essay studied this phenomenon from colonial conspiracy theories about the Illuminati to McCarthysim and Barry Goldwater’s presidential campaign, the so-called “paranoid style” that has permeated the conservative movement during the Obama era is noteworthy in three ways:

1. It is fueled by racism.

Back in 2010, former Republican political advisor John Avlon coined the term “white minority politics” to refer to the anxiety “that President Obama represents the rise of a multicultural elite and the rise of a non-white majority in America.” The following year, a study led by Eric Hehman of the University of Delaware in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology found that respondents who specifically ranked Obama lower in “Americanism” were also more likely to possess racial prejudices.

“Due to prevailing norms of equality, most Whites attempt to avoid appearing biased in their evaluations of Blacks, in part because of a genuine desire to live up to their egalitarian standards, but also because of concern regarding social censure,” the report observed, making it necessary for latent racist attitudes to be expressed through rhetoric that doesn’t result in stigma — such as, say, claiming that Obama is ineligible to be president because he wasn’t born in this country, or is secretly a Muslim. Because these positions implicitly assert that Obama isn’t a “real American” like the 42 presidents who preceded him, this particular use of the paranoid style is uniquely designed to validate racially biased opinions.

2. It is consistent with a long tradition of right-wing paranoia in response to liberal presidencies… but this time, the purveyors of paranoia have more power than ever before.

There is nothing new about a liberal president being accused of covert Communism: Franklin D. Roosevelt was charged on a regular basis with attempting to destroy the free enterprise system through his New Deal programs, John F. Kennedy’s policies on everything from desegregation to American-Cuban relations were used to mobilize right-wingers against his perceived “treason,” and Bill Clinton spent most of his presidency fending off trumped up investigations thanks to the efforts of well-financed right-wing activists. As a scientific paper last year by John Hibbing of the University of Nebraska explained, extreme conservatives are more likely to be driven by a “negativity bias” that makes them hypersensitive to perceived threats in their environment. This in turn means that they are more likely to react to programs and proposals with which they might have reasonable disagreements as if they were existential threats instead of simply bad policies.
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Yet while this tendency has existed for decades (long enough that, if nothing else, it’s remarkable how so many conservatives haven’t noticed the pattern), Republicans during the Obama era have been unusually beholden to their party’s own extremist elements. As a result, this round of right-wing paranoia against a liberal president has managed to significantly corrode our political institutions, from Congress’s unprecedented obstructionism to our various debt ceiling crises. Even worse…

3. There have been violent repercussions.

Back in 2009, the Department of Homeland Security issued a report (which was subsequently leaked) warning that “the threat posed by lone wolves and small [domestic] terrorist cells is more pronounced than in past years” thanks to the election of the first black president, the aftermath of the 2008 economic collapse, and the fact that any liberal initiatives proposed by President Obama on hot button issues (e.g., gun control, abortion, immigration) would naturally provoke significant backlash. Although the report was initially met with such outrage that Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano ultimately apologized for it, the Southern Poverty Law Center reported “explosive growth” in right-wing extremism after Obama’s election, from the number of Patriot organizations (which rose from 149 in 2008 to an all-time high of 1,360 by the end of Obama’s first term) to the white supremacist web forum Stormfront (which saw its membership increase from under 100,000 to more than 300,000 within a similar period). There have also been numerous acts of domestic terrorism over the last five-and-a-half years perpetrated by individuals who specifically cited the fact of Obama’s presidency as at least part of their motivation, including:

• The shooting of three black immigrants (two fatally) in Brockton, MA on the day after Obama’s inauguration, which was intended as part of a larger series of attacks against African Americans, Hispanics, and Jews;

• The shooting of four police officers (three fatally) by an openly anti-Semitic pro-gun activist;
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• The shooting of two police officers (both fatally) by a man who was “severely disturbed” by Obama’s election;

• The fatal shooting of a security guard at the National Holocaust Museum by a white supremacist who claimed “Obama was created by Jews”;

• The fatal shooting of a man at a gun range by an anti-government extremist who wanted to steal the victim’s AR-15 to foment a coup against the Obama administration;

• The murder of a former GI and his teenage girlfriend by a right-wing militia that had been planning a killing spree which would culminate in a plot to assassinate Obama;

• The murder of four people in a multi-state killing spree by a pair of white supremacists who aimed to “reclaim our country”;

• Shooting at a Jewish Community Center that killed three people by a white supremacist who openly advocated assassinating Obama;

• The ambush and killing of two police officers in Las Vegas by anti-government radicals who wrote that Obama was “baiting the next civil war” with his gun control proposals.

Just to be clear: That’s a total of 20 people who were murdered by right-wing radicals who specifically mentioned Obama’s presidency as at least part of their motivation for killing — many of whom also hoped to kill the president himself.

None of this is intended to impugn the majority of conservatives, who criticize Obama based on his actual words and policies rather than the claims of the politically paranoid. In fact, the best possible outcome for American democracy would be one in which virtually all conservatives and liberals debate the important issues facing our country in a civil manner that focuses on real issues instead of hysterical fairy tales. Until that happens, however, the paranoid rhetoric coming from political leaders like Chairman Albert Ellison is incredibly alarming. Since the start of the Obama era, the paranoid style has been used to reinforce racial biases, undermine our government’s ability to perform its most basic functions, and even justify acts of violence. It’s time for us to identify that type of thinking for what it is — irrational, hateful, and dangerous to our republic.

Will the death threats against Obama force Twitter to get serious about security?

Published: Daily Dot (May 20, 2015)

When President Obama created a personal Twitter account earlier this week, he set a world record with near lightning speed: @POTUS became the fastest account to reach 1 million followers, hitting that mark in under five hours.

However, the president also received a lot of death threats just as quickly. While this may not constitute a record in its own right, it is certainly notable for another reason: As far as anyone can tell, no concerted effort has been made by Twitter to more effectively monitor this language and guarantee that those responsible for it are brought to justice.

Instead the site’s main response has been to delegate that authority to the Secret Service, although as House Oversight and Government Reform subcommittee chairman Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) has pointed out, “I don’t know if they’ve adapted to these new threats. The attacks are going to come, no matter what. Are there new and creative ways of detecting them? I’m not convinced they’ve tied those loops.”

Needless to say, this is a serious problem.

In theory, there should be no ambiguity about the fate of those who claim they’re going to kill the president. Not only does this violate Twitter’s Content Boundaries, a policy which states that “you may not publish or post threats of violence against others or promote violence against others,” but it is also a federal crime that can result in a prison sentence of up to five years.

As far as anyone can tell, no concerted effort has been made by Twitter to more effectively monitor this language and guarantee that those responsible for it are brought to justice.

Both Twitter and the federal government have cracked down on threatening the site’s users in the past. In 2010, two right-wing bloggers had their Twitter accounts taken down and were investigated by the Secret Service after posting threats against the president’s life during the height of the health care reform debate, while a 22-year-old man was sentenced to six months behind bars after posting a series of threatening tweets in 2013.

Unfortunately, threats against President Obama’s life have become so common that it’s virtually impossible to keep track of them, much less investigate and impose consequences on each one. The Secret Service has even resorted to openly asking Twitter users to report any messages “that concern you,” while anyone with a pair of eyes can see that many accounts which skirted the line between open threats and mere vitriol remain active.

A large part of the problem is Twitter itself. “Twitter is a breeding ground for social dysfunction, where you are lulled into a sense of community and camaraderie because everyone you follow and everyone that follows you are basically in agreement,” explained game designer Dave Rickey in a guest column for Zen of Design about the wave of misogynistic harassment from reactionary gamers that occurred last year (an incident better known as Gamergate).

Because Twitter users are so accustomed to seeing opinions that mimic—and thus validate—their own outrage, it is easy to be lulled into a false sense of security when it comes to breaking the law.

Making matters worse, Twitter is notoriously lackadaisical when it comes to implementing its anti-harassment policies. One study in 2012 found that over 15,000 bullying tweets are sent out every day, while a Pew Research Center survey taken the following year discovered that 40 percent of Internet users have experienced some form of online harassment—and of those, 66 percent reported that it occurred on a social networking site.

Threats against President Obama’s life have become so common that it’s virtually impossible to keep track of them.

Harassment and threatening language is not protected by the First Amendment any more than libel or slander might be—and what’s more, because Twitter is a private business, it has the right to remove any content that they wish. As Twitter’s CEO Dick Costolo admitted in an internal email that was leaked to the Verge last year, “We suck at dealing with abuse and trolls on the platform and we’ve sucked at it for years. It’s no secret and the rest of the world talks about it every day.”

While there is an obvious difference between bullying or harassing someone and threatening to kill them, the acrimonious atmosphere cultivated by sites like Twitter makes it easy for the former to slip into the latter—often by those who would otherwise have no intention of engaging in violent rhetoric or actions.

Indeed, a case could be made that many of the death threats against Obama are really intended to be just another form of bullying. It’s entirely possible that, instead of using Twitter as a way of warning the world of their murderous intentions, these tweeters are instead simply venting their hostility through an outlet that they believe is safe, perhaps even making it less likely that they’ll act out their emotions in the process (akin to the observation by Freakonomics authors Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner that violent movies decrease the potential for violence among viewers).

The problem, of course, is that even if most of the violent tweeters are simply blowing off steam, all it takes for bloviation to become tragedy is one Twitter user who is deadly serious.

And it’s not like there haven’t been real-world threats to President Obama’s life: By 2012 he had already become the most threatened president in American history. As of today, numerous schemes against his life have been foiled, from a plot in 2008 by a pair of white supremacists to go on a mass murdering rampage against black Americans that would culminate in Obama’s assassination and a shooting outside the White House by a crazed gunman in 2011 to a ricin letter sent to Obama by a pro-gun rights activist in 2013.

Making matters worse, Twitter is notoriously lackadaisical when it comes to implementing its anti-harassment policies.

In short, because there have been real efforts to take the president’s life, even insincere threats against him carry a grave weight that deserves to be taken seriously. While every American citizen has the right to criticize their president, that freedom must end when it leads to a credible risk to a human being’s life—and this would be true of any person, from the POTUS to the most ordinary citizen. Because of Obama’s unique status as a high profile target, however, it is necessary to be especially cautious when it comes to declared threats against him.

We can only hope that Twitter feels the same way—and is finally doing something about it.

How the Internet could force Barack Obama to back medical marijuana

Published: Daily Dot (April 23, 2015)

On Sunday night, President Obama backed Medical Pot Reform—and the Internet noticed.

Perhaps more important than the fact that the Internet is abuzz over Obama’s interview with CNN, however, is the fact that the Internet may be able to pressure him to do the right thing on this issue, which is especially crucial as Alabama considers backing medical marijuana. So why, at a time when Internet campaigns have been so effective in raising awareness on matters from feminism to racism, has marijuana legalization remained such a slow burner?

In their own way, the three aforementioned tweets each capture the most important talking points the Internet should be discussing after Obama’s interview. As the Guardian astutely observed, Obama has expressed support for a policy (i.e., reducing constrictions around the use of medical marijuana) that has support from libertarian Republicans like Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), as well as the traditional liberals in Obama’s own base.

Although the president hedged his bets by merely promising to “take a look at the details” of Paul’s Senate bill and only conceding that medical use of marijuana “may in fact be appropriate,” he emphasized that “the more we treat some of these issues related to drug abuse from a public health model and not just from an incarceration model, the better off we’re going to be.” Considering that critics of prevailing drug policy are highly critical of our harsh criminal punishments for drug offenders, this was an important stance for Obama to have taken, all the more notable because of its potential bipartisan support.

At the same time, when Obama talks about the need to “follow the science as opposed to ideology,” he is only half-right.

On the one hand, he is correct that science has proved there are numerous health benefits to marijuana use, and any society that claims to base its state policies on reason needs to take this knowledge into account when determining marijuana’s legal status. While his denunciation of “ideology” is no doubt partially directed at the often-hyperbolic rhetoric of the anti-drug crusaders, however, it could just as easily apply to the zeal of pro-legalization advocates.

When Obama talks about the need to “follow the science as opposed to ideology,” he is only half-right.

An important difference between the two sides must be noted: Even if scientific studies somehow demonstrated that regular marijuana use was a net negative for one’s health, there are plenty of unhealthy substances that the state doesn’t prohibit its citizens from using (e.g., cigarettes, alcohol, fast food). It is disingenuous to assert an equivalence, implicit or otherwise, between a pro-criminalization ideology that imposes subjective lifestyle preferences on others and the pro-legalization alternative, which champions individual liberty.

This brings us to Ventura’s claim that Obama “doesn’t have the balls to #legalize #marijuana.” Certainly it’s also important to appreciate that Obama has done more to liberalize America’s marijuana policies than any other president since cannabis prohibition went into effect in 1937. Not only did he decline to enforce federal drug laws in Colorado and Washington after those two states voted to legalize marijuana, but his Justice Department under Attorney General Eric Holder took bold measures to reduce and/or eliminate entirely tough mandatory prison terms for nonviolent drug offenders.

Then again, the president has traditionally approached the issue of marijuana legalization with great caution. His language in Sunday’s interview, for instance, was reminiscent of the position he articulated during his campaign for the United States Senate in 2004: “The war on drugs has been an utter failure. We need to rethink and decriminalize our marijuana laws. We need to rethink how we’re operating the drug war.”

This language may seem justified as politically expedient, but in light of Obama’s personal history, there is a level of hypocrisy to it. As an editor from the Washington Post discussed in 2012, Obama was himself quite the pothead in his own day, often spending time with a clique of friends informally dubbed “The Choom Gang.” Obama alluded to this himself in his 1995 memoir Dreams From My Father, where he wrote that when dealing with personal struggles, “Pot had helped, and booze; maybe a little blow when you could afford it.”

Obama has done more to liberalize America’s marijuana policies than any other president since cannabis prohibition went into effect in 1937.

It’s fair to assume that if Obama had been arrested for his use of these illicit substances back when he was a legally vulnerable teenager or twenty-something, he would likely not be sitting in the White House today (especially in light of the long-documented racial disparity in who gets incarcerated by anti-drug laws). While Obama presiding over the continued implementation of draconian anti-drug laws isn’t as flagrantly hypocritical as, say, President Warren Harding implementing prohibition while leaving the White House “awash in alcohol,” it’s still galling.

This is where the Internet could, theoretically, play a valuable role. A Pew Research Center survey found that 53 percent of Americans support legalizing marijuana; that number goes up among younger generations, including 68 percent of Americans between the ages of 18 and 34 and 52 percent of the next highest demographic, Americans between the ages of 35 and 50.

This corresponds neatly with the numbers of Americans who regularly use social media: As Pew Research informs us, 89 percent of adults ages 18 to 29 participate in digital culture, compared to 82 percent of adults ages 30 to 49, 65 percent of adults ages 50 to 64, and 49 percent of adults ages 65 and up. Indeed, Obama himself jokingly acknowledged this as far back as 2009, when a question about marijuana legalization received over three million votes in an open forum he held early in his presidency:

There was one question that voted on that ranked fairly high and that was whether legalizing marijuana would improve the economy and job creation. And I don’t know what this says about the online audience, but … this was a popular question. We want to make sure it’s answered. The answer is no, I don’t think that’s a good strategy to grow our economy. All right.

I suspect the president’s flippant attitude toward the perspective of Internet users reveals a great deal about why this issue hasn’t gained the traction of other causes that are popular online. Because of the cultural stigma attached to marijuana use, it is easy to take attention away from the serious civil liberty issues at play by its continued criminalization. Even though millions of Americans smoke pot and millions more believe it should be legalized, there remains the embedded assumption that this is simply not as “serious” an issue as many of the others currently being bandied about in our collective political discourse.

What’s more, despite the historic campaigns to legalize it in Colorado and Washington, there has yet to be a groundswell of national activism to end this prohibition on the scale of other recent civil liberties-based campaigns (e.g., those involving LGBT rights).

What makes this particularly tragic is that, if legalization advocates used the resources available online more effectively, they could pressure both Obama and future presidents into making real change. It is reminiscent of Franklin Roosevelt’s legendary response to labor leaders who attempted to persuade him to back a bill important to their cause: “I agree with you. I want to do it. Now make me do it.”

Can the Internet rise to that challenge?

It’s time for Obama to fight anti-gay bigotry in Indiana

Published: Daily Dot (April 2, 2015)

As Arkansas contemplates a “religious freedom bill” akin to the controversial measure recently passed in Indiana, one may very well wonder: What, if anything, can President Obama do about this? More specifically, can he use his power to issue executive orders—one that has already been utilized to historic effect throughout his presidency—to halt a movement of targeted discrimination against LGBT Americans? While #BoycottIndiana is working to mobilize an effort against the bill from a grassroots angle, it may be time for Obama to act.

Throughout his presidency, Barack Obama has utilized executive orders to make historic policy changes on matters ranging from immigration reform to fighting global warming. To understand what he can and can’t do in the case of Indiana and Arkansas, it is first important to recognize that there are three types of executive orders which he is capable of issuing.

First, there are National Security Directives. Earlier today, for example, the White House’s website introduced a new executive order that “authorizes the Secretary of the Treasury, in consultation with the Attorney General and Secretary of State, to impose sanctions on those individuals and entities” responsible for or complicit in cyberattacks against the United States and/or its citizens. Inspired by last year’s Sony hacking, these measures are a direct reflection of the executive branch’s constitutional prerogative on matters pertaining to national security. While this obviously doesn’t apply to the religious freedom bills, they’re worth mentioning as one of the categories of executive order at a president’s disposal.

More relevant here are proclamations, a special type of executive order that is generally ceremonial in nature. Last February, for instance, President Obama issued a proclamation declaring March 2015 to be Women’s History Month. Although this didn’t cause any major shifts in gender policy, it clearly demonstrated the president’s sympathy with feminist causes and provided women’s rights activists with a potential rallying point. Similarly, an executive proclamation celebrating gay rights or criticizing the states that wish to legalize homophobic discrimination might at the very least offer encouragement to LGBT activists.

Finally, there are executive orders that use that branch’s direct control of federal agencies and officials to issue directives about the execution of pre-existing laws or policies. This particular power has a long history of being used to advance the agenda of civil rights (see: Harry Truman’s integration of the Armed Forces, Dwight Eisenhower’s desegregation of southern public schools, and Lyndon Johnson’s ban on racial discrimination in federal housing, hiring, and contracting). On each occasion, the president circumvented congressional blocs that were hostile to the cause of human liberty and used his power to guarantee civil rights for an oppressed minority group.

Although only the president and his advisers can authoritatively speak to how the president might use an equivalent executive order to oppose these anti-gay measures today, it stands to reason that it lies within his power to act decisively. The main question is whether or not it would be appropriate for him to use this power.

To explain why this shouldn’t be done, let’s use process of elimination to rule out all of the potentially valid cases against the president taking such action.

The strongest argument to be made against the use of an executive order at this time is the fact that these bills have yet to work their way through the judicial branch. It may turn out that, just as circuit courts and the Supreme Court have advanced the cause of LGBT rights with rulings on various marriage equality bills, so too could they come to the rescue in stopping the religious freedom bills.

After all, the civil rights legislation passed in the 1960s clearly prohibits discrimination based on race, gender, and religious background. It would not be difficult for a rational jurist to conclude that sexual orientation should be folded into this original set of categories. Indeed, there is precedent for them doing so: Americans with disabilities are now protected by the civil rights measures, even though this wasn’t the case when they were initially passed.

The problem with this suggestion, though, is that the American judicial system is hardly known for its efficiency or speed. Months or even years might pass before a federal court actually looks at the Indiana and Arkansas laws. In the interim, countless LGBT Americans could continue to be turned away from businesses based on the simple fact of their identity.

Another possible solution has been ruled out by the unfortunate political realities of our time. In the past, a president who wished to fight a new form of discrimination might turn to Congress for assistance—just look at Lyndon Johnson and civil rights or George H. W. Bush with the Americans With Disabilities Act. But the current Congress is unlikely to team up with Obama on gay rights—or anything else. From the moment he took office, GOP leaders made it clear that they would not work with him out of deference to the hyper-partisanship (some would argue racism) of their base. This would make Obama’s task difficult enough under any circumstances, but it becomes even more so when you consider that the Republican Party has been at the forefront of the anti-gay rights movement from the get-go.

When all is said and done, the bottom line is that President Obama cannot in good conscience allow Indiana and Arkansas’ religious freedom bills to stand. At the very least, he has a moral responsibility to put his office on official record as being unalterably opposed to these measures, not only by speaking out against them but by exercising his powers to the fullest in working to repeal them.

Beyond that, however, he needs to reestablish the supremacy of the national government on all civil rights issues. This is not, as many of the bills’ supporters would have you believe, a question of states’ rights or protecting the individual liberties of specific religious groups. Since the days of the Emancipation Proclamation, our presidents have understood that their obligation to minorities who might be oppressed by power-mad majorities. If Obama fails the gay community at this time, he will be setting a precedent that will empower other discriminatory bullies in the future.

In closing, it is perhaps appropriate to return to an infamous anti-gay rights quote from the 2004 elections:

What I believe is that marriage is between a man and a woman … What I believe, in my faith, is that a man and a woman, when they get married, are performing something before God, and it’s not simply the two persons who are meeting.

The politician who uttered those words was the Democratic Senate candidate in Illinois, a fresh-faced young state legislator named Barack Obama. Over time, he evolved enough in his views to become the first sitting president to openly support gay marriage. That was undeniably admirable of him, but as the reactionary backlash captured by the religious freedom bills shows us, it wasn’t enough. Now it behooves him once more to place himself on the right side of history.