Archive

September 23rd, 2016

Could the erosion of trust in government be at an end?

    One of my running themes in recent years has been Americans' erosion of trust in authority and what that means for the body politic: its effect on perceptions of the Supreme Court, the rise of conspiracy theories, the emergence of a post-truth political era and the overall decay of American democracy. The polling data, particularly from Gallup, is pretty clear about the trend lines. Compared to 20 or 50 years ago, the only government or nongovernmental institution that has seen an unambiguous increase in trust has been the military.

    In the post-9/11 era (with a brief exception after the 2008 crisis), the only direction in which trust in institutions has gone has been down. So Monday's new numbers from Gallup are interesting:

    "Americans express as much or slightly more confidence in each of the three branches of the federal government than they did in 2014 and 2015, when their confidence fell to record or near-record lows. Public confidence in the judicial branch has recovered to 61% after slipping to 53% in 2015. Meanwhile, since 2014, confidence in the executive branch has climbed eight percentage points to 51%, and confidence in the legislative branch has improved seven points to 35%."

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Vote As If It Matters

    Does it make sense to vote for Gary Johnson, the Libertarian candidate for president? Sure, as long as you believe two things. First, you have to believe that it makes no difference at all whether Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump moves into the White House — because one of them will. Second, you have to believe that America will be better off in the long run if we eliminate environmental regulation, abolish the income tax, do away with public schools, and dismantle Social Security and Medicare — which is what the Libertarian platform calls for.

    But do 29 percent of Americans between 18 and 34 believe these things? I doubt it. Yet that, according to a recent Quinnipiac poll, is the share of millennial voters who say that they would vote for Johnson if the election took place now. And the preponderance of young Americans who say they’ll back Johnson or Jill Stein, the Green Party nominee, appear to be citizens who would support Clinton in a two-way race; including the minor party candidates cuts her margin among young voters from 21 points to just 5.

    So I’d like to make a plea to young Americans: your vote matters, so please take it seriously.

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Trump, Grand Wizard of Birtherism

    So, on Friday the Grand Wizard of Birtherism against President Barack Obama admitted that birtherism was bunk, not by apologizing for his prominent role in the racist campaign — no, that would have been too right — but by suggesting that he deserved credit for dousing the flames he’d fanned.

    This man is so low he’s subterranean.

    Donald Trump said Friday: “Hillary Clinton and her campaign of 2008 started the birther controversy.”

    That was a lie. There is no evidence Hillary Clinton and her campaign either started or took part in the efforts to question the location of Barack Obama’s birth.

    He continued: “I finished it.”

    That was also a lie. Well after it had been established that the president was born in this country, Trump continued to traffic in speculation to the contrary, all the way up to and including this year.

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September 22nd

The stories this museum will tell

    Lewis Fraction never imagined that his death would help inspire work toward a museum on the Mall.

    "Brother" Fraction and I were mentors in a church youth program when he died 20 years ago, just shy of his 60th birthday, leaving behind a wife and four grown children. While at his home to comfort his family and remember his life, I was struck by the stories told by the elders gathered there.

    Stories about the myriad joys of youth - the courtship rituals, old dance steps, swooning over Sam Cooke. Stories about all-black, one-room, ramshackle schoolhouses and the nurturing but stern teachers who presided over them. Some described never seeing a whole piece of chalk or a new textbook - just broken bits and beaten-up books handed down from white schools. There were stories about countless indignities, major and minor, and the psychological wounds they inflicted.

    Magnificent stories. Awful stories. Profound stories.

    As we drove home that evening, I asked my wife, "Why don't we have a museum to tell all of those stories?"

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Spiro Agnew's ghost

    Spiro Agnew is remembered for pleading no contest to tax evasion charges related to bribery and resigning as Richard Nixon's vice president. But his signal political achievement was igniting a campaign that endured for more than four decades painting the mainstream media as biased, liberal and elitist.

    Anti-media sentiment had long been bubbling on the right when Agnew targeted what were then the Big Three television networks for representing "a concentration of power over American public opinion unknown in history."

    "The American people would rightly not tolerate this kind of concentration of power in government," Agnew declared in a 1969 speech in Des Moines. "Is it not fair and relevant to question its concentration in the hands of a tiny and closed fraternity of privileged men, elected by no one, and enjoying a monopoly sanctioned and licensed by government?"

    Agnew was unrelenting. With help from William Safire and Pat Buchanan, gifted Nixon speechwriters (and, later, columnists), he coined many memorable phrases, including the alliterative "nattering nabobs of negativism."

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Trump starts sweeping out his barn

    As Donald Trump heads into the last seven weeks of the presidential campaign, he is trying to clean up the various lies, exaggerations, insults and bigotries that have fueled his White House bid from the start.

    His latest effort is his very tardy attempt to get off the table his wholly unfounded claim that Barack Obama was not a native-born American, and hence illegally elected president in 2008, long after Obama produced the official certificate verifying his birth in Hawaii..

    Almost laughably, Trump treated his admission of gross error as merely a minor matter of no consequence, as if he were correcting a misspelling. He declared he had chosen not to continue the smear, perhaps in the vain hope of boosting his dismal support among African-American voters.

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Trump quits 'birtherism,' but not lying

    News Flash: Donald Trump now believes that President Barack Obama was born in the country of which he is president.

    That news may be a relief to the president, although I doubt that he was losing much sleep over it.

    After a night of oddly competing statements from Trump and his own campaign team, the Republican presidential nominee's announced three things at his new Washington, D.C., hotel.

    Two of those things were false. "Hillary Clinton and her campaign of 2008 started the birther controversy," he declared on Friday morning. "I finished it. I finished it."

    No, there's no evidence that his Democratic rival Hillary Clinton or her campaign had anything to do with starting birtherism, as PolitiFact found in 2015.

    But the bizarre "birther" movement was fading in 2011 when Trump, the TV star and real estate developer, gave it new life through his well-developed capacity for self-promotion.

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Americans, stop talking yourselves down

    I arrived in the United States in 1996 as a foreign correspondent for the Economist. Like many young journalists from Europe, I was instantly won over by the country's infectious optimism. By most objective measures, the United States was as unequal, class-bound and divided as my own Britain; but it differed fundamentally in its outlook. For some strange reason, nearly all Americans perceived themselves as "middle class." They believed, without asking for evidence, that things were improving - or that if they weren't, they would. It was as though the entire nation had been subjected to a particularly uplifting course of cognitive behavioral therapy. Smother feelings of resentment. Will yourself to be upbeat.

    Two decades later, Americans are in danger of succumbing to the opposite mentality. The sunny affability of Ronald Reagan has been displaced by Donald Trump's dystopian rants about the United States "losing"; the nation's real challenges are blown out of all proportion by a toxic public discourse that accentuates the negative. Suddenly, privileged, cosmopolitan Americans are obsessed with how much they are resented by their compatriots. A supposedly classless society is seized by its internal divisions.

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Would You Hide a Jew From the Nazis?

    When representatives from the United States and other countries gathered in Evian, France, in 1938 to discuss the Jewish refugee crisis caused by the Nazis, they exuded sympathy for Jews — and excuses about why they couldn’t admit them. Unto the breach stepped a 33-year-old woman from Massachusetts named Martha Sharp.

    With steely nerve, she led one anti-Nazi journalist through police checkpoints in Nazi-occupied Prague to safety by pretending that he was her husband.

    Another time, she smuggled prominent Jewish opponents of Nazism, including a leading surgeon and two journalists, by train through Germany, by pretending that they were her household workers.

    “If the Gestapo should charge us with assisting the refugees to escape, prison would be a light sentence,” she later wrote in an unpublished memoir. “Torture and death were the usual punishments.”

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Why College Rankings Are a Joke

    Shortly before the newest U.S. News & World Report college rankings came out last week, I got a fresh glimpse of how ridiculous they can be — and of why panicked high school seniors and their status-conscious parents should not spend the next months obsessing over them.

    I was reporting a column on how few veterans are admitted to elite colleges and stumbled across a U.S. News subranking of top schools for veterans. Its irrelevance floored me. It merely mirrored the general rankings — same institutions, same order — minus the minority of prominent schools that don’t participate in certain federal education benefits for veterans.

    It didn’t take into account whether there were many — or, for that matter, any — veterans on a given campus. It didn’t reflect what support for them did or didn’t exist.

    It was just another way to package and peddle the overall U.S. News rankings, illustrating the extent to which they’re a marketing ploy. No wonder so many college presidents, provosts and deans of admissions express disdain for them. How sad that they participate in them nonetheless.

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