Talk Radio Europe: Discussing American Politics

The Symptoms of a Society Coming Unhinged

My latest Psychology Today article is called “Beware America’s Shocking Loss of Empathy: The Symptoms of a Society Coming Unhinged.” It considers whether dwindling empathy might be responsible for the dysfunction that is plaguing the country, particularly in the political realm. I hope you enjoy it.

The Establishment and the Rich Took Down Bernie in Massachusetts

While the Sanders campaign is expressing satisfaction at Super Tuesday’s results, there was one major disappointment in the mixed bag of returns: Bernie lost Massachusetts, a state that was considered within grasp, in a squeaker. A breakdown of the results shows that there were two main factors contributing to the Sanders loss: the Democratic establishment and the state’s richest communities. If either one of these two factors had not worked against him, there’s little doubt that the Bay State would have been solidly in the Sanders column.

The map of election results (available here at the Boston Globe) tells the whole grim story. Geographically, Sanders carried most of the state, but the areas that Clinton did carry–Boston and its most affluent suburbs–reveal the two big factors at work.

Clinton won Boston by a wide margin with big help from the party establishment. She had the vital support of Mayor Marty Walsh, who rallied with Clinton on the eve of the election and helped deliver a 20,000 vote victory in the city. Given that Clinton only won the entire state by 17,000 votes, the mayor’s support was obviously critical. Sanders, of course, had no support from major party leaders in the state.

Beyond Boston, the geography is the narrative. The aforementioned map shows that Clinton’s dominance outside of Boston was limited to the state’s most affluent towns. In fact, of the state’s 25 wealthiest communities–Weston, Dover, Carlisle, Sherborn, Sudbury, Wellesley, Winchester, Manchester, Lexington, Boxford, Wayland, Concord, Brookline, Newton, Needham, Westwood, Southborough, Medfield, Lincoln, Boxborough, Cohasset, Hingham, Marblehead, Hopkinton, and Belmont–Clinton carried 24 of them, and most by wide margins of at least 10 to 15 points or greater. (Only Boxford went to Sanders.)

Simply put, Clinton won Massachusetts because rich Democrats pulled it into her column. The vast majority of the state’s 351 municipalities went to Sanders, but if you want to find Clinton strongholds just follow the money. And in a race that was decided by less than 1.5 percent of the vote, the richest towns going heavily for Clinton were enough to put her over the top. These folks may call themselves liberals, but please spare them all that Bernie rhetoric of wealth disparity, corporate power, and money in politics. Can’t the poor just get jobs at Whole Foods?

As Clinton was sweeping the South and racking up wins on Super Tuesday, the Bay State was understandably considered important to Sanders for reasons of momentum if nothing else. A victory in the bluest of blue states would have been a big prize, and one less victory for the Hillary juggernaut.

If Sanders is taken down, it’s only appropriate that the One Percent and their close cousins, wearing the label of liberal Democrats, would do it. That’s what Bernie gets for trying to play nice with a party that is probably too far gone to be saved.


Senator rips up our complaint letter

Our American Humanist Association legal center sent a letter to a state senator from Arkansas this week, telling him that his plans to erect a Ten Commandments monument at the state capitol are unconstitutional.  I guess it would be an understatement to say he was unpersuaded.

The senator, Jason Rapert, took to Facebook to post a video, in which he rambles for over 18 minutes, insisting that we are the bad guys of course. At about 14:30, he rips up our letter, making it perfectly clear that he’s going to continue with the project. The video is here.  (One apt and humorous detail that’s hard to miss: throughout the video, Fox News is on the television in the background.)

More information about our complaint letter, including a link to the letter itself, can be found here. Rapert leads a national caucus of religious conservative legislators known as Appeal to Heaven, which says governing the nation according to “biblical principles” is part of its mission.

Hillary Clinton and the Limits of Acceptable Opinion

In a piece today for Truthout, I discuss the underlying dynamics of the Clinton-Sanders contest. Despite her recent rhetoric of economic populism, Hillary Clinton is not seen as a threat by the corporate establishment that actually owns and runs the country. I use a concept known as “the limits of acceptable opinion” in discussing how power brokers maintain control over a population. That phenomenon is on display in this election. Full story at this link.

How Bernie Sanders Americanized Socialism

Ronald Reagan, arguing against an early Medicare bill in 1962, framed the issue as one with stark ideological implications. If the proposal passes, he warned, “behind it will come other federal programs that will invade every area of freedom as we have known it in this country, until, one day we will awake to find that we have socialism.”

God forbid—socialism! Americans of that era understood that such a path was a threat to their way of life, a passport to misery, as Reagan explained: “[O]ne of these days you and I are going to spend our sunset years telling our children, and our children’s children, what it once was like in America when men were free.”

Such ideological arguments, where socialism was seen not only as bad policy but as philosophically dangerous and threatening to fundamental American freedoms, were common in American politics for most of the twentieth century. Blurring the lines politically and rhetorically, conservatives could disparage any proposal that was even mildly socialistic as a slippery slope toward Soviet-style collectivism and totalitarianism. As such, even in the wake of successful legislation that brought about valuable governmental safety nets—from Social Security in the 1930s to Medicare in the 1960s—the word “socialism” remained generally taboo in American politics.

This ideological framing is key to understanding the recent success of Bernie Sanders. Given America’s historical phobia toward socialism, few would have imagined that Sanders, a self-described socialist, could make a serious run for the presidency. But so far he has proven conventional wisdom wrong, and he’s done so by packaging his socialism in a manner that embraces a quintessential American value—pragmatism—that repels ideological labels and imagery.

In presenting his agenda to the American public, for example, Sanders utilizes language that is rooted in the practical, offering not a comprehensive worldview but solutions to practical everyday problems such as low wages, the cost of education, and access to healthcare. Sure, Wall Street and the “richest one percent” are targets of criticism, but absent is any grand socialist vision of an egalitarian society.

Notably absent as well is the use of common socialistic semantics—direct references to “class struggle,” for example, or even any express call for workers to unite. Nobody would expect Sanders to use Marxian rhetoric predicting the eventual collapse of capitalism, but in fact any use of the word “capitalism” at all is extremely rare in his messaging. In his high-profile speech last fall at Georgetown University explaining his socialism, for example, the world “capitalism” was never mentioned.

Observers as far back a de Tocqueville, writing in the 1830s, have noted the American preference for the practical as opposed to the theoretical. Abstract theories and comprehensive worldviews rarely resonate in America, whereas real-world issues are instead paramount. Thus, Sanders speaks not of theory but of facts, realities of everyday life: “Millions of Americans are working longer hours for lower wages,” he repeatedly says, generating nods of approval from his audiences. (Interestingly, although of course Sanders has close ties to labor, the weakening of unions over the last generation is reflected in his rhetoric. There’s little talk of strikes or collective bargaining in his speeches, but instead just general allusions to “working men and women” and the need for a living wage.)

To millions of Americans who are too young to remember the Cold War demonization of socialism, and to many others who remember it but have outgrown such thinking, the Sanders “socialist” agenda offers nothing but sensible real-world policy. Sanders voters aren’t adopting a new ideology, but sizing up the political choices and realizing that core Sanders themes—that the system is owned and controlled by corporate interests, for example, and must be fixed—make sense.

After all, to today’s American the idea of healthcare for all is not so much a socialist concept as a practical one. If progress means anything, doesn’t it mean that a developed society should be able to provide healthcare for everyone? Is anyone seriously going to argue that doing so will create some kind of nanny state? That’s absurd, and anyone with half a brain knows it. Universal health care can hardly been seen as a slippery slope to gulags and forced collectivization.

Sanders maintains this pragmatic approach in discussing all issues, from campaign finance reform to raising the minimum wage. There is no ideological manifesto in his campaign arsenal, but only appeals to fairness and decency. “Nobody who works forty hours a week should be living in poverty,” he has said repeatedly, in tweets, stump speeches, and interviews.

It also helps that Sanders’s socialism is a soft socialism that doesn’t even contemplate public takeover of industries, which to many would be the litmus test for true socialism. As he has said himself, what he proposes is more of a European-style socialism that provides strong safety nets and emphasizes quality of life for all.

It may have a European influence, but what Sanders peddles is distinctly Americanized socialist politics. After all, unlike his European counterparts Sanders has no viable socialist party through which to work to deliver his egalitarian agenda. Using the Democratic Party to sell socialism is like using the Republican Party to sell evolution or church-state separation—you can do it, but such thinking is not really at home there.

Sanders has succeeded in doing so, at least so far, by presenting his agenda in practical terms that show it is as American as apple pie. He realizes that twenty-first century Americans expect a society where there benefits of technology and progress are reasonably available to all. In saying so he is the heir of FDR, not Lenin.

Americanized socialism doesn’t mean a classless society, but it does mean that everyone gets a fair shake and nobody falls through the cracks. It means when you work you can expect a decent wage; it means a society that appreciates and emphasizes education; and it means a society where corporate interests are subservient to human interests, not vice versa. Contrary to what Reagan suggested, a nation that offers such assurances is not less free, but more.

Fighting Back the Right: Reclaiming America from the Attack on Reason

Sanders photo by Nick Solari

On Religion, Lots of Contrast

My latest Psychology Today article is entitled “On Religion, Sanders and Clinton Differ Sharply.” The two Democratic candidates present starkly different religious views and, unlike most GOP candidates, neither Clinton nor Sanders really cares to talk about their personal religious beliefs in much depth. Bernie doesn’t call himself an atheist, but his view of God  and religion is far from that of a tradition theist. Hillary, on the other hand, actually seems to have some religious views and practices that are downright conservative. As the Iowa campaign approached the finish, she was starting to wear those religious credentials on her sleeve a bit more. No surprise there. The Psychology Today piece is here.

Dangerous Anti-Intellectualism in American Politics

My latest Psychology Today piece discusses the anti-intellectual trend in American politics. Donald Trump is the obvious example, though there are plenty of others as well. Demagoguery, emotional appeals, the dismissal of facts, tribalism and militarism — these are some of the dangers that arise when there’s a complete abandonment of reason in political discourse. The full article is here.

Trump photo by Gage Skidmore, flickr

Darwin Day Resolution Introduced In Congress

In a move that is sure to displease fundamentalists and social conservatives, U.S. Representative Jim Himes (D-CT) has introduced a Darwin Day Resolution in anticipation of Charles Darwin’s 207th birthday on February 12, 2016.

Rep. Himes stated, “Charles Darwin’s ground-breaking and world-changing work has left an indelible mark on the way human beings view the world and our relationship with it. Through his tireless observations and unique perspective on the world, Darwin made incredible breakthroughs toward revealing the origins of life and the fundamental genetic structures that make up every organism. Scientists are still building upon his legacy today, enhancing the fields of medicine, biology, environmental studies and the social sciences. The world owes a debt of gratitude to this pioneer, and today we celebrate his life and contributions.”

Darwin Day is a project of the American Humanist Association and is celebrated nationally and internationally as a day to promote reason and science. More information on the resolution can be found at the AHA’s site here.

It’s great that this resolution has been introduced in Congress, but wouldn’t it be even better to see it pass? You can ask your member of Congress to co-sponsor and support the Darwin Day Resolution via this link.


Pfizer’s Irresistible Urge to Merge

In hindsight, I suppose it’s no surprise that the maker of Viagra would have an urge to merge. But when American pharmaceutical giant Pfizer announced merger plans this week with a smaller company headquartered in Ireland, the arousal Pfizer initiated had nothing to do with flaccid appendages. Widespread criticism of the deal erupted from various corners, as politicians and commentators decried the deal as a brazen tax-dodging ploy.

The details of the merger are indeed unsavory. Even though Pfizer is the bigger company, and even though the post-merger entity will be led by Pfizer’s management, the deal is being arranged in a way that, on paper, has the smaller Irish company, Allergan, taking over Pfizer. This creative “inversion,” as it’s called, will enable the new company, which will be legally based in Ireland but operationally still very much American, to avoid significant American tax liabilities.

The Pfizer-Allergan deal illustrates a point that I make in Fighting Back the Right: Reclaiming America from the Attack on Reason, on why democracy and sensible public policy are struggling in America. The system is dysfunctional, catering to large institutions and ignoring the interests of real humans, because the general population has been disempowered in a number of ways. Meanwhile, major corporations have accumulated so much wealth and power that they can do what they want, when they want, where they want, with very little stopping them. In such an environment, democracy becomes a sham.

Pfizer has made billions by popularizing the term “E.D.,” originally using retired senator Bob Dole in ads to inform American men, often during televised football games, that “erectile dysfunction” is a problem to be discussed publicly. It was awkward at first, but the E.D. commercials are familiar to us now, so that we hardly bat an eye as we sit with the family watching ads that promise potent results while warning of side effects that might alarm him and her. The once-private subject is on the public agenda, even if we may still cringe at getting that uncomfortable question: “Daddy, what’s a four-hour erection?” From a public health standpoint, most would applaud open discussion of these issues, though we can still question the drive to market E.D. products aggressively, especially when done by playing to male insecurities (i.e., “Are you ready?”)

What America really needs, however, is a senator who will talk openly of another acronym: ECP, or excessive corporate power, a vitally important issue that is largely ignored in public dialogue. The Pfizer inversion shows us with no uncertainty that multinational corporations are obsessed only with their own self-interest, utterly incapable of national loyalty and unburdened by moral concerns. ECP directly or indirectly relates to almost every major problem we face: climate change, environmental degradation, the loss of jobs overseas, militarism, health care, anti-intellectualism, and even crime and gun violence. The issue of corporate power belongs on the national agenda.

As I’ve said elsewhere, ECP is not something we should blame corporations themselves for—they are designed to do nothing but seek power and profit, so blaming them is akin to blaming a lion that is let loose in a city for the devastation that occurs. The blame rests with those responsible for securing the lion; or in the case of ECP, those responsible for regulating corporate power.

Ultimately, it is we the people, though our government, who are responsible for regulating corporations, but in real life we simply have not been up to the task. We are far outmatched, in terms of money, time, resources, and will, by the corporate entities that we’re supposed to control. This is why virtually all the lawyers and lobbyists in Washington work for corporate interests, not the interests of you and me. Corporations know exactly what participatory democracy is, and they take it seriously. They immerse themselves in policymaking far beyond the level of ordinary citizens.

Until ECP is recognized as a key issue in political discourse, we can expect little progress on the public policy front. The lion must be put back in the cage, and until then we can only try to minimize damage. In the meantime, there are a few points about ECP that all those concerned should consider:

Don’t confuse ECP with wealth disparity. When we talk about economic issues, particularly in the context of the rich and powerful Wall Street sector being a problem, we often hear about wealth disparity and the much-maligned “One Percent.” This is perfectly understandable, but it’s important to realize that ECP is a systemic problem that requires independent consideration apart from the issue of wealth disparity. There’s no question that ECP contributes to wealth disparity in numerous ways—by squeezing workers, overpaying executives, exporting jobs, and creating speculative wealth that is not grounded in real value, to name a few—but it should be understood as a distinct problem of its own.

ECP is not the product of any evil genius. When we have problems in society we like to have bad guys to blame them on, and progressives can certainly point to many villains: the Koch brothers, the neocon hawks, the Christian right, and others. The problem of ECP, however, is not the brainchild of any evil villain. ECP occurs due to the very nature of corporations. As I’ve said before, if corporations are people, their psychological profile is narcissistic and sociopathic.

Eliminating corporations is not the answer. Let’s be real. We aren’t going to solve the problem of ECP by eliminating corporations, or even nationalizing most of them. We need major change, not just mild reforms, but we need to carefully consider the framework within which major change can happen.

We can acknowledge the positives that corporations deliver. We can recognize that corporations produce most of the products and services that make modern living possible. But that doesn’t mean we should dismiss the negatives as we have in America over the last generation. Left uncontrolled, corporations will naturally seek profit without regard to national loyalty, the environment, the health and well being of workers, or the safety of consumers. It is their very nature to pursue their own self-interests—which is always defined in terms of revenue and profit and nothing else—relentlessly, with singular focus.

For this reason, to the extent corporations must be considered “people” under the law, we should keep their psychological profile in mind—they are totally self-absorbed, void of any innate empathy or compassion, and hungry for power and wealth and nothing else. The systemic pressure for increased earnings, coupled with the bureaucratic maze that is inherent in large organizations, makes them capable of malfeasance that most individuals would never imagine committing. A tobacco executive would never personally hand out cigarettes at his kid’s school, but tobacco companies will aggressively market their products, even to youngsters, when they can get away with it.

We shouldn’t be surprised that a corporation would quickly abandon American residency if it means avoiding taxes. That’s the nature of corporations, and we need to wake up to it.

For more, see Fighting Back the Right.

Twitter: @ahadave


Photo: Kisser’s Embrace by Cristiano Betta