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Democrats’ Big Tent is Stretched to the Breaking Point

Remember when elections were fun? Each candidate put on their game face and brought their best to the table in attempt to outwit one another on the campaign trail. Candidates promised voters the world — touting how they intend to help families, jobs, education and national security to name a few.

Those days are gone. The old dogs of the Democrat party, in particular, have become visibly cynical. President Biden sternly gazed over onlookers at a recent speech, warning that a vote for a Republican might as well be a vote for an election-denying political extremist. Donald Trump may out of office, yet the post-traumatic stress disorder rages on. Americans may have more pressing concerns — like how to afford their skyrocketing food, energy and housing costs — yet the MAGA-inspired fearmongering continues at MSNBC, CNN and in the pages of The New York Times and The Washington Post. The social media echo chamber does its part to amplify our dire “reality” — which sets the stage for still more self-fulfilling political prophecies of the same.

America is in a funk. For the political establishment, the culprit is not inflation, crime, yet another COVID-19 variant, diesel shortages that threaten to plunge the Northeast into a deadly winter— or even the prospect of “nuclear Armageddon” in Ukraine. The real problem? Democrats refuse to share power with Republicans.

While it is not unusual for Americans to be subjected to hefty-dose of negativity in an election year, what has changed in recent years is that social-media saturated Americans endure election-year mudslinging 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. It is enough to make anyone cynical, with a majority of Americans convinced, according to a recent poll, that Democracy is in trouble. What is more, when politicians and pundits take to social/media year-around to peddle an endless stream of alarmism, it leaves very little room to raise the ante in the run-up to an election without straying into the weeds of the absurd and downright hysterical.

If nothing more, the Midterm 2022 elections will answer the $64,000 question: Will voters take the bait?

Judging by the furrowed brows and weary looks on the faces of those who have carried the Democratic party the longest, the jig may soon be up. Take, for example, former First Lady and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, wide-eyed and sounding a familiar alarm: Republicans, she warned, “literally have a plan to steal the 2024 election”.

Even the formerly unflappable President Obama is not immune. The Barrack Obama many of us remember in the mid 2000s carried himself with optimism, flashed a million-dollar smile and transfixed voters with his knack for oration. The Obama of 2022 hit the campaign trail on behalf of Democrats with doom and gloom on the mind. The positive attitude that carried the former president over the electoral finish line not once but twice — financial crisis notwithstanding — has been replaced with a wagging finger. Like his former vice president and secretary of state, campaigning on behalf of 2022 Midterm election candidates has been less about “bringing out the vote” as opposed to an attempt to scare up the vote.

For Democrats, fear is apparently the only tool left in the toolbox.

If the transformation of “The Big Tent” to The Big Party Poopers has left you, too, shaking your head, you are not alone.

What the heck happened?

The economy, for one. But beyond that, Democrats’ devotion to identity politics has left the party fractured and at times incoherent. The DNC has left moderate Democrats, Independents, undecided voters, anti-war voters and faith-and-family-oriented Black and Hispanic voters behind as they battle for the loyalties of a tribalized constituency. Effectively, there is no fringe element within the Big Tent that the party refuses to appease. Nothing is off the table, be it proposals to give convicted felons and non-citizens the right to vote, to ghoulish proposals that go further than any Western country to allow “birthing persons” to abort full-term infants.

In the name of protecting transgendered rights, similarly, Democrats are blazing new trails — just not on behalf of adults. Democrats have instead set their sights on youth with gender dysphoria — with some lawmakers going so far as to argue that parents who refuse to support a child’s chemical or physical alteration should be charged with child abuse. Because Democrats’ default position is an apparent belief that parents cannot be trusted to help their children navigate their way to adulthood, the civil rights frontier in 2022 consists of things like championing the right of minors to adopt a different gender identity at school, under the affirming tutelage of teachers and administrators. So fearful are Democrats that parents do not have their child’s best interests, that progressives are working to enshrine into State, if not ultimately Federal law, the right of children to receive “gender affirming care” (hormonal/surgical gender transition) even without parental knowledge or consent.

In pursuit of what was once called political correctness — known today as “woke” — the modern Democratic party would appear to be in a race to the bottom in attempt to accommodate a never-ending list of diverse — yet nonetheless competing — identity groups. Democrats’ prevailing approach to politics and policy all but demands that anything and everything conservatives oppose, liberals must absorb into the Democratic fold with little thought as to whether or not such “inclusion” is politically advantageous. Americans, to cite another example, are under mounting pressure to redefine what constitutes a sexual predator. Those whom our society once readily and without controversy identified as deviants, creeps and pedophiles, irrespective of how we (or they) may vote, are quietly being rebranded as Minor Attracted Persons (MAP) — yet another fringe identity group that is hellbent on hitching a ride into the mainstream on the Democrat party’s broad coattails.    

Trying to keep everyone in the Big Tent happy means, increasingly, keeping no one happy at all. Democrats, for instance, have begun to lose their most reliable supporters — feminists — many of whom object to biological females being knocked out of the running for scholarships, thanks to liberals’ fear of offending a “micro minority”: transgendered athletes. The very women/girls Democrats past fought to protect via Title IX of the Civil Rights Act are being elbowed out of the way, they argue, by new-and-improved transgender females who, among other things, have been given carte blanche access to women/girls’ sports — and locker rooms — even in the absence of gender transition surgery.

The woke wing of the party has backed mainline Democrats into a corner in which saying No for the sake of preserving credibility among mainstream American voters is off limits. Translating social justice objectives into action, for example, in practice means that prison populations must be emptied into the streets in the name of antiracism. Whereas criminal justice reform advocates started out by promoting sensible reforms — to reduce prison overcrowding and eliminate “three strikes” inspired penalties for nonviolent offenders, antiracism advocates, bound by an ironclad commitment to equity, have dedicated themselves to reform — if not abolition of the prison system entirely — at all costs. Tragically, proponents of such equity make little or no distinction between first-time offenders and repeat, violent felons who abuse their get-out-of-jail-free cards to kill family members and terrorize their communities — often within hours of release from police custody.

Progressive politicians and leftist district attorneys who prioritize ideology over real-world consequences have taken the Democratic party to a place that is not merely offensive to conservatives but unrecognizable to Independents and Blue Dog Democrats. How, for example, do we call it “social justice” if the marginalized communities the Democrat party claims to represent disproportionately stand to become victims of progressive soft-on-crime policies? Assuaging white guilt by vowing to end mass incarceration is no more a form of reparations than abolishing broken windows policing for petty offenses such as public intoxication has delivered on the promise to free up law enforcement to “go after the real criminals”.

However one may feel about these trends, this much is clear: Democrats risk shooting their electoral hopes in the foot by weighing in on ever-more complex, personal and private matters, thereby churning out an endless stream of social and political wedge issues. Agreed-upon aspects of the social contract — in which parents, not politicians, decide how best to raise their own children — have come under assault from the party that non-ironically insists that political extremism is the exclusive domain of the far Right. (One wonders, as an aside, if liberal politicians and pundits ever hear themselves talk? If one subscribes to “traditional values”, it generally translates to the status quo — as in refusing to abandon established customs and values — not attempting, as progressives and self-described radicals do, to re-imagine a litany of issues from law enforcement, gender identity and the nuclear family to any other number of legal and cultural fronts.)

If the far Left could be made to understand their policy failings as much as the far Right has been urged to understand theirs, a liberal epiphany might go something like this: Ideology, no matter how well intended, is not synonymous with progress. Refusing to accept observed, reproducible and irrefutable reality on its own terms — because academic theory and associated ideology are in the driver’s seat of progressive public policy — harms society to the extent it doggedly refuses to acknowledge when the effect (consequence) that follows from the cause (public policy) undermines the stated goal. If, say, the goal is to right the wrongs of systemic racism, dumbing down the public education system so that minority students “feel good” while receiving a lesser quality education in the belief that academic excellence is inherently “white” — effectively a whites-only pursuit! — amounts to an even more insidious form of institutionalized racism.

In short, Democrats have stretched the Big Tent so thin over the past three decades that it is now on the verge of a breaking point. And that begs a question:

How many elections are Democrats willing to risk before they appreciate that to embrace identity politics is to become beholden to everyone yet paradoxically answerable to none?

For liberals, the cost of enablement in the belief that “tolerance” is a political panacea has come home to roost: Not every fringe is worthy of inclusion. Not every academic theory should be mainstreamed. Not every crime should be decriminalized. Not every lifestyle is deserving of becoming the next civil rights battleground. If, for example, Americans overwhelmingly agree that child predators are pariahs, extending the diversity and inclusion umbrella to MAP proponents is hardly a hill worth dying on.

How do Democrats reclaim their party for the mainstream? It begins with reaffirming core principles. At its core, social and therefore political stability is derived from education, economic opportunity, personal integrity and intact marriage and family units. If instead of elevating society to a better place, decades of Democrat-dominated institutions and academia-inspired public policy experiments have paralleled rising levels of homelessness, crime and declining proficiency on the part of K-12 students, it is no longer reasonable, rational or responsible to project blame on political opponents.

Rather than double down in effort to save face, mainline Democrats must insist that their party return to the drawing board.

The American K-12 public education system is by no means a bit player in the downward spiral of poverty, crime, drug abuse and homelessness that has erupted from coast to coast. Accepting the status quo within failing inner-city public schools, arguably, is the single-most best example of systemic racism in 21st Century America. Absent a path out of poverty created by a fully accountable K-12 education system, taxpayers are effectively “investing” in the school-to-prison pipeline. To this end, broken homes do not arise, chiefly, as a result of mass incarceration — but the soft bigotry of low expectations in which at-risk children are thrown away by “the system” at the early stages of life, left with few resources by which to form intact families and thereby go on to enjoy the social mobility afforded by a stable, dual-income household later in life.

The institutionalized racism academic theory proposes as a root cause for mass incarceration and related social ills all but ignores the role of political cronyism and therefore fails to acknowledge the “culture of entrenched interests” as a factor not only in inequality and racism but the broader threat of national decline. “First principles” in effort to improve outcomes within marginalized communities remain unchanged, however, no matter how we assign blame: Community investment, safer streets, pro-family resources (after-school programs, churches, jobs training, etc.) and a fully accountable K-12 education system. These are commonsense objectives liberals and conservatives, alike, can and indeed must agree upon.

To reform a decades-old legacy of Wrong Outcomes, the first order of business, no matter who comes out on top November 8, must be to overhaul the K-12 public school system. Reform does not mean making new demands on teachers’ limited classroom time to promote the social justice objectives embedded in critical race theory and gender theory. It means, simply, first things first: Accountability for under-performing schools.

American political leaders, without fear or favor to status-quo defending interests, must insist that educational outcomes matter again.

The duality of patting schoolchildren on the back with one hand while simultaneously working against the interests of academic excellence to “flatten the academic curve” (racial inequalities) by discontinuing gifted programs and/or taking aim at Advanced Placement classes — if not also barring educators from suspending students who disrupt the learning environment — must be seen for what it is: A defense of mediocrity. And the new face of racism.

Rather than risk this if not future elections — while blaming Republicans for the hole in which they find themselves — Democrats must be willing to engage in serious soul searching. For starters, how is equity a noble social justice goal if the practical consequence of equity-driven public policy is to cement the disadvantages that under-served communities already contend with in the misguided belief that public safety and academic achievement are rooted in “whiteness” and therefore racism?

Liberals need to take a step back and appreciate, if nothing more, this much: Beyond the confines of ivory tower academia, diversity, inclusion, equity and antiracism-derived public policy measures have, collectively, begun to play to the broader electorate as an excuse for local, State and federal governments to work themselves out of the most basic functions of good governance: a functional criminal justice system, a functional public education system and an internationally-competitive economy.

The take-home message is not to deny that inequality and associated social ills exist, rather that woke policy solutions are often as flawed as the systemically racist practices they seek to replace. Is there anything more “systemic” about racism, after all, than the classist double standards for the prep-school offspring of the coastal elite in contrast to declining expectations for the children of the poor, Black, brown and the American middle class at large?

What happened to the Democrat party? The answer may be as far away as China — or as close as the nearest mirror. Republicans, to be sure, have their own problems with extremists among their ranks. But Democrats have some housecleaning to do of their own.

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What Comes Next: The Change Within

If you do not quite grasp how the occupied zone in downtown Seattle, known as CHOP — formerly known as the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone (CHAZ) — relates to George Floyd’s death, social media calls to “defund the police“, HBO’s decision to pull “Gone with the Wind” and recent flashpoints around historic statues and monuments, you are not alone.

The denizens of CHOP not only wish to dispense with law enforcement but prisons and even courts. Objectives include drug decriminalization, disbandment of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), dismantling of immigration courts, and the legalization of undocumented migration (“open borders“). Media has grappled with how to cover this latest chapter. Some reporters have described CHOP as a “commune“, others as a “street festival” — both of which have drawn the ire of participants, many of whom identify as activists.

Mainstream media has been slow — reluctant, even — to connect the dots between academia, social justice advocacy, legal system reformers and street activism. The backstory is long — decades long — and controversial. Broadly put, the scenes unfolding on our streets reflect less the late Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s nonviolent approach to Civil Rights — although his actions have since been interpreted through an “anti-Capitalist” lens — and more the revolutionary roots of Black Liberation.*

Liberationists’ embrace a Marxist view of Abolition, a key goal of which is to tie America’s “original sin” of slavery to capitalism.

“The new history of slavery seeks to obliterate the economic and moral distinction between slavery and capitalism, and between the South and the North, by showing them to have been all part of a single system”, Nicholas Lemann for The New Yorker writes, in “Is Capitalism Racist?“.

Criminal justice reform is, perhaps, the most widely recognized facet of contemporary Abolitionism. Proponents of “defund the police” do not merely wish to redirect law enforcement funds into community programs. To them, law enforcement is a manifestation of white supremacy — irrevocably illegitimate.

Prof. Willem De Haan, a University of Amsterdam criminologist, writes “Abolitionism emerged as an anti-prison movement when, at the end of the 1960s, a destructuring impulse took hold of thinking about the social control of deviance and crime…. Crime’ is a social construction, to be analysed as a myth…. As a myth, crime serves to maintain political power relations … Abolitionists do not share the current belief in the criminal law’s capacity for crime control. They radically deny the utility of punishment and claim that there can be no valid justification for it…. They discard criminal justice as an absurd idea.”

While it may be tempting to dismiss modern Abolitionism as a product of a radical fringe, it is anything but.  Its analytical framework rests upon Critical Race Theory, which explicitly promotes activism as a goal. CRT has made inroads into numerous fields of study within academia over the past two decades: criminal justice, feminism, African American studies, critical whiteness studies, political science, economics and American studies, among others. CRT, in a nutshell, evaluates the world through a hierarchal lens comprised of white oppressors and non-white victims. On the heels of Black Lives Matter, which was founded in 2013 to counter police brutality, activists within various movements have found common cause. To cite one of the better known examples, philanthropists and presidents, alike, have called for an end to mass incarceration in recent years.

“The broadening bipartisan consensus on the need for criminal justice reform offers promise to build on this trend, and we intend to exploit it” [p. 31],  documents a U.S. Programs board meeting of the Open Society Foundation, a George Soros-backed nonprofit that supports many similarly-aligned interests. “The path to ending mass incarceration requires fundamentally changing laws that inappropriately criminalize certain conduct …. We believe continued support of a group of key partners working nationally is essential to maintain the broad call for substantial reform, but recognize that most reform activity must take place at the state level. … Our strategy includes efforts to […] correct the public perception of crime survivors … and shift the culture of prosecution” [p.32]. Crime victims, the board wrote in 2015, have a “disproportionate influence” on criminal justice [p.33].

“This is what we have been waiting for”, says Angela Davis, author, activist, self-described Communist, onetime prisoner and longtime University of California Santa Cruz college professor, of Black Lives Matter. “All of this is connected and I think that is a moment when there is so much promise, so much potential. Of course we never know what the outcome is going to be, we can never predict the consequences of the work that we do. But as I always like to say, we have to act as if it is possible to build a revolution and to radically transform the world.”

If we can right the wrongs of oppressors past by radically transforming our present legal, political and economic systems, some would argue not only that the benefit outweighs the risk — but that it is a moral imperative.

What is less clear to the Abolitionist occupiers of CHOP, and their ideological luminaries in academia and activism, is this: What comes next?

Cultural revolutions, historically, come not just with ideals but bloodshed. Even if reform prevails over revolution, social upheaval is all but assured. The evidence is mounting: Take, as an example, the rising momentum in favor of pretrial release, cashless bail and sentencing reform. If the rate at which our legal system changes is faster than the rate at which alternatives are in place — mental health services, diversionary programs, drug treatment and similar — it is all but inevitable that intractable social problems, once largely papered over by our overcrowded prisons, will accumulate, instead, on American streets. Already, this trend is evident. Early release from prison, to untreated, decriminalized drug addiction and/or few job prospects, can serve to increase homelessness, which in turn lends itself to public health crisis. The ensuing blight precipitates a vicious cycle of declining property values, “white flight” (re-segregation), falling tax revenues, waning economic development and, ultimately, shortchanged public schools. A hasty attempt to empty the prison system, in this manner, is all but certain to set in motion a death spiral that will make it that much more difficult to advance the cause of social justice and racial equality in the years to come.

Good intentions are not enough. We cannot afford to underestimate the downstream impacts of top-down change.

Perhaps the most tragic of these unintended downstream consequences is the loss of morale suffered by communities into which repeat offenders are released. A recent New York City incident provides a foreshadowing: while passing on the street, a man cold-cocks a 92-year-old women, causing her to tumble to the ground where she strikes her head on a fire hydrant. The assailant is alleged to have committed 103 prior offenses, some of which were sexual offenses, with only a “desk ticket” (citation) to show for his latest run-ins with police.

While the notion that prisons are ill suited to deal with institutional racism, class disadvantage, drug addiction and mental health issues is true, replacing one broken system with another — to the extent our best solutions hinge upon a patchwork of unproven or underfunded alternatives — may backfire. A rough transition is bound to temper enthusiasm for reform, which may give rise to public calls in the years to come for a return to “tough on crime” policing.

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Altering the criminal justice side of the “coin” faster than we implement broad and effective community services for at-risk populations, on the flip side of the coin, is the gotcha of Abolitionism. Redistribution of wealth, another goal of Abolition, is presumably the means by which these thorny problems are solved, but — beyond the fact that a shift from capitalism to revolutionary socialism faces steep resistance — activists’ “no pain, no gain” approach may very well define an entire generation of youth, who are condemned to grow up in communities thrust into turmoil for the sake of an unassailable ideal — a pretext to a messy, if not narcissistic, social experiment.

Abolitionists have no answer to a cruel paradox: Because we have failed to come far enough in pursuit of a more perfect union, things must get worse before they get better — if they get better.

The desire for social change must be weighed against its real-world consequences. No matter how many felony offenses are reclassified as misdemeanors for the sake of reducing incarceration rates or improving on-the-books crime statistics, violence is still violence and crime victims are still crime victims. The philanthropist-backed ACLU goal to reduce prison populations by 50 percent threatens to reverse over 25 years of reductions in violent crime, induce employers, large and small, to vacate blighted, less profitable communities, erode job prospects — which is itself a risk factor for rising crime — and, perhaps most ironically, undermine efforts to redistribute dwindling tax-revenues to social services, jobs programs and healthcare. This is why the “What comes next?” question must be answered — not after every conceivable historic American figure is scrubbed from our public spaces but before — in a manner that non-authoritarian political adherents of any stripe should embrace: openly, honestly and collectively.

Rather than place our hopes in an army of nonprofits — or hold out for a ne’re-to-be-realized Marxist-socialist nirvana! — activists would be better served to petition their billionaire benefactors, who collectively own more wealth than 4.6 billion of earth’s ~7 billion citizens, for direct investment into under-served communities by which to achieve the greatest amount of good with the least amount of harm in the shortest period of time!

Righting the wrongs of structural inequality and institutionalized racism is a righteous goal. And yet its success will be limited by the fallout: people who should be in jail, instead return to the streets, speeding up the rate not only with which they are free to re-offend but to encounter police — in sometimes deadly ways. Abolitionism in recent years has begun to see more success than anything by which to replace the function of the criminal justice system as we know it, however broken that system may indeed be.

Simply breaking off the other end of the “pipe” — the criminal justice system — in what sociologists call the school-to-prison pipeline, is to treat symptoms rather than causes.

Do we need prison population reductions? Yes. And yet mass incarceration is but a symptom. The “disease” is what goes on every day in our communities: schools that fail to produce students who are prepared for living-wage jobs and the administrators, politicians and disempowered parents who fail to hold them accountable. The nexus between racism, poverty, addiction and crime within urban America is an insidious one in which a parent, rather than science fairs and soccer practices, is instead resigned to gang violence and truancy. Above all, however, this illness is linked to fatherless homes, a leading risk factor for early encounters with the criminal justice system, particularly among males. Criminal justice system encounters make it difficult for individuals who have been incarcerated to turn their lives around, making it that much more difficult to find and keep jobs. As such, one might logically expect to see broad-based investments in better education, mental healthcare services and drug treatment programs, alongside job training and placement programs, for those who have been incarcerated. Instead, even as nonprofits turn out study after study on the barriers facing the incarcerated, the broader success of this effort thus far lies in legal system reform — success that outpaces effective community services and interventions.

The order in which social justice goals are pursued and achieved is paramount. Cart-before-the-horse transformation, which in practice lowers public safety, are certain to set the stage for public backlash. Success on the legal front, minus robust efforts to improve quality of life measures within disadvantaged communities, succeed, chiefly, in “burden-shifting” from prisons to communities.

There is no practical way around it: When “prison problems” are externalized, support for prison reform, let alone the more ambitious goals of Abolition, will wane. Burden-shifting threatens to accelerate social, psychological and economic harms — a knockout punch to public morale. An uncontrolled descent into lost community investment, poor economic development, declining property tax revenues, program cuts and underfunded schools threatens to conspire, if not by design by default, to oppress the next generation — in which case minority youth, and urban America more broadly, will disproportionately bear the brunt.

Noble intentions on the part of social justice advocates, Abolitionist or otherwise, are not enough. We cannot erase, burn, bargain, buy or lobby our way out of human suffering — be it physical, psychological or spiritual — any more than we can rewrite an unjust past. By now, the fallacy of a Big Philanthropy-meets-Big Activism “formula” for change should be clear: Top-down change is slow. It favors an endless parade of “middlemen” who staff think tanks and nonprofits in effort to parlay academic theory into “re-imagined” public policy. Such broadly-coordinated efforts are bound to engender public skepticism, if not opposition, on political grounds.

As conversations about race are conflated in the public mind with radical political agendas promoted by CRT proponents, Black Liberation adherents, Abolitionists and others, it places communities of color in a tough spot — one in which their struggles are appropriated for purposes they may not fully appreciate or endorse, yet are forced by the unseen hand of Big Philanthropy to “own” as a race-based political identity. This is why a simpler and more transparent version of change is called for: If we sincerely care about those who have the smallest voices, who are neither privileged nor criminal, the tangled web of political activist “causes” will be de-cluttered in favor direct-investment into disadvantaged communities — to change lives, not merely laws; to invest in opportunity today, not merely the public policies of tomorrow.

We cannot change our racial identities. We cannot change our history. We cannot change the reality that no matter what structural solution we may imagine, the results will only be as just as the people who pull the levers of power — no matter what we may call that system of policing or government. Governments, by their very definition, operate by imposing rules — and yet they have little influence upon whether hearts and minds will change to favor a more just and equitable world. When we sweep back the curtain on the Abolition debate, the reconciling we must do as a people is more spiritual than it is political. And so, in the midst of these emotionally-charged times, we must reclaim a simple truth: A good deed is apolitical. Do the right thing for yourself, your family, your neighbor, your community, your country. It may seem too small of an effort to count but it does: Change begins with us.

It is indeed time to demand a better world — this time from the inside out and the ground up.

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Resources

* “We are trained Marxists” | The Real News

Antifa violence is ethical? This author explains why | NBC News