Sen. Cory Booker is down in the 2020 polls — and yet has long seemed poised for a breakout moment. He is more qualified than some frontrunners, quite popular among Democratic activists, and the last black candidate with a decent shot after Sen. Kamala Harris’s withdrawal. He’s an acceptable choice to many people across the party’s big ideological divide.
He’s also been somewhat difficult to peg on the ideological spectrum. Slate’s Jordan Weissman, who plans to vote for either Sens. Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders, recently called him “the best moderate in the field.” But is calling him a moderate right? It’s true that Booker has a record of centrism on some economic issues, particularly relating to education and finance, but he also co-sponsored the Green New Deal resolution. He’s the most progressive candidate in the field on criminal justice, and a vegan who recently proposed legislation aimed at shuttering factory farms.
I decided to call up Booker and find out what he really believes. But instead of talking about policy specifics, I engaged Booker on his big-picture view of the world. Does he think liberal democracy is under threat in America? What does he make of the rise of “socialism” on the American left? Are critics right that Democrats are focusing on identity politics too much? How does his veganism fit into his broader worldview?
Booker described a vision centered on the political value of “justice,” drawing on both Jesse Jackson’s 1988 presidential run and Obama’s 2008 victory as models. Booker emphasized what he terms “the intersectionality of all life”: the idea that humans of all backgrounds, as well as non-human animals, are bound up in webs of mutual interdependence.
“We share a common destiny,” Booker says. “You cannot have one sector of our country held down without the whole country being lowered as a result.”
What follows is a transcript of our conversation, which ranges from problems of short-termism in American capitalism to W.E.B. DuBois’s “psychological wage” to philosopher Peter Singer’s theory of the expanding moral circle. It’s been edited for length and clarity.
I want to start with a question that’s been bothering me for a while: Can we talk about the GOP as a party that’s committed to core basic values like democracy, individual rights, and the rule of law?
I have been very confused by the modern Republican Party, especially now in the time of Donald Trump, where a lot of the values that they speak to seem to be being butchered by the policies that are coming out, and even the rhetoric now that’s coming out. It is very difficult for me to even think of the Republican Party as having any kind of governing philosophy that is informing policy and decisions, when in the time of Trump, it just seems to be more transactional and corrupted by the interests of large concentrations of wealth.
The problem is that this kind of thing tends toward some kind of autocratization, right? Look at a country like Hungary, where you have institutionalized corruption as a means of propping up a ruling elite. How should we think about similar threats to American democracy?
I have deep, deep concerns about the shifting toward oligarchic power, especially after decisions like Citizens United that are allowing even more exertion of power and corruption within our political system. We see that these corrupting forces are already having a pretty significant effect on our democracy.
The powerful corporate interests now are actually undermining the very ideals of capitalism and entrepreneurship. New business starts are going down in our country; short-termism within our [economy] is allowing forces of greed to even undermine the interests of capital allocation.
We have now seen an economy where someone who is being born now has less of a chance to make it. Ninety percent of baby boomers did better economically than their parents. Now it’s down to 50-50 for a millennial.
So can you see why a lot of people in my generation are starting to become more sympathetic to socialism?
Gosh, I know that — and we could discuss the word “socialism” if you want.
As a guy that lives in a black and brown community, the framing from my culture and my community is just one of justice.
From my perspective, one of the biggest economic instruments of suppression in our country has been the criminal justice system that Michelle Alexander rightfully calls the new Jim Crow. Blacks are stunningly disempowered in the electoral system. And voting rights and criminal justice issues, all of these things are also wound into economic rights. Villanova researchers did a study about America having 20 percent less poverty [had mass incarceration not occurred].
These are justice issues [more] than the issues that often are bandied about by political elites.
These are issues of economic justice, of environmental injustice, of criminal injustice, of equal access to health care, to education, disparate treatment in everything from school discipline to hiring practices in this country.
This justice framing is really interesting to me, especially as a counterpoint to language like “socialism.” It seems to sidestep or play into — depending on who you’re talking to — a style of politics that’s been derisively referred to as “identity politics” by critics on both the left and the right.
What do you make of the discourse surrounding “identity politics” and its role in the current Democratic coalition?
My talking about justice is not in any way a politics of identity. It’s a politics of trying to create again this understanding that we’re all in this together — that you cannot have a nation that’s [divided] along racial lines and think that you are going to have a nation of strength economically, morally, and competitively on a global context. We’re a nation that does best when we tear down walls of division or inequity and build larger coalitions.
The Democratic Party is a party that does best when it revives what Jesse Jackson called the Rainbow Coalition, what many people now call the Obama Coalition.
So you reject the argument that focusing on and highlighting the marginalization of minority groups is divisive in any way? Because a lot of the critics say, “Well, you can’t have the shared politics of national unity that you’re describing so long as you continue to talk about specific groups through the lens of their particular, non-universal experiences.”
Well, I think that the capacity of our country to understand that addressing injustice and inequity in certain racial groups is a national cause. I just think we underestimate that, and our history speaks to a different understanding. You had the abolitionist movement based upon this ideal that the dignity and humanity of black Americans who were slaves cannot be denied without it somehow affecting the humanity of white Americans. You had incredible sacrifices by Quakers who were willing to put their very lives at risk to help build coalitions with black slaves and escaped slaves to build the Underground Railroad.
We’re not defined by the wretchedness and bigotry and hate that we’ve seen in every chapter of our politics. We are always defined, I think, by the willingness and ability of our country to create coalitions to overcome that. I think that you do not make this a better America when you try to sweep injustices, whether they be racial or religious injustices or gender-based injustice, under the rug. I think you actually weaken America when you don’t speak to that truth.
I think a lot about W.E.B. Du Bois’s concept of the “psychological wage” of whiteness. You know, the theory that people derive psychological satisfaction and benefits from being members of the dominant group. How do you deal with that as a problem out there among the electorate? Or do you think that’s the wrong way to think about things?
I think it’s just too simplistic of a description of our society as a whole. It seals people within permanent boxes of judgment, as opposed to understanding that we are all people in evolution.
You and I, right now, are two men having this conversation. [One could] say the totality of our being is binary, either we are sexist or we are not. That’s opposed to recognizing that you and I must wrestle with the sexism that is within the larger society consistently, or we are contributing to it, or complacent in the face of it.
People are not binary. People are all always in development, always in struggle. We are a nation always struggling to manifest the best of our ideals.
[House representative and civil rights icon] John Lewis once told me the story of a man who actually beat him up during the civil rights movement coming to his office with his child and asking him for forgiveness. Lewis told me that he did so, and how important it is to extend to people forgiveness in a recognition of their humanity and their ability when they are willing to own up to their injustice, their ability to grow — and how, in many ways, his humanity and that man’s humanity were interwoven and interdependent.
This is why I caution the Democratic Party, who wants to put every Trump voter in some kind of binary box and cast a condemnation upon them, as opposed to recognizing not just their dignity and humanity, but how our well-being as a country is interdependent, and how we need each other. As we descend as a culture into deeper and deeper tribalism, where we hate each other just because we vote differently, that in itself could be our demise — unless we start finding ways to reignite in our culture those ideals of grace and forgiveness and truth telling. That is ultimately the pathway for our salvation.
When you talk about that, I actually think of a concept developed by one of your constituents, the Princeton philosopher Peter Singer and his idea of the expanding moral circle, that over the course of time we can open and broaden our minds through moral improvement as not just individuals, but as a collective, to giving status and standing to different groups.
Now, you’re a vegan. Do you think, as Singer does, that the next frontier in our fight for equality is the moral status of animals and improving them on a social level?
Your animal question is so … God, I would love to do a whole [interview] on this.
I don’t think people understand how destructive corporate multinational animal agriculture is to our environment. It’s the main reason for rainforest destruction and the poisoning of our water systems. The way we are doing it is so divorced from our heritage of animal agriculture in this country.
It’s not just these massive CAFOs [concentrated animal feeding operations, a.k.a. factory farms] and the treatment of animals, which would shock the [conscience] of anybody in our country. But it’s also our own survival as a species being deeply compromised by the way that animal agriculture has now evolved into corporate culture, affecting everything from fast fashion all the way to the corporate monopolies that are driving down relative wages in this country.
I believe that our food systems can be made more robust, that farmers can be the pathway out of climate crisis — that there’s so many ways to do this right that can elevate human well-being with a consciousness toward our treatment of animals and our treatment of the environment as a whole.
There are two issues here that are sort of connected because they’re about the moral frontiers of our politics. One is about the way that we treat each other and the way that hostile partisanship has taken hold over our minds, and the other about how we can expand our circle of moral concern to nonhuman animals.
What can we do concretely as a polity to deal with these kinds of issues of moral status and consideration for each other and other beings? Is it just a rhetorical thing? From our leaders, I mean, not just civic organizations. Or are there policies that can change the very way that we think about our moral world?
It’s not either-or, it’s all of the above. I’ve seen this on multiple occasions: The more we know, the better we do.
[Think of] the concept of bycatch in the world of fishing, these massive nets picking, killing, and casting back into the sea 50 percent of what they pick up. The CAFOs right now in places like Duplin County [in North Carolina], which are causing out-of-control respiratory diseases and cancers in low-income communities. I mean, the more we know, the more these practices are exposed, the better we will do. So yeah, leaders that can help to expand understanding are often the leaders that help better motivate change.
I just think that all of the things that you talked about really keep speaking towards not just the intersectionality of humans, but the intersectionality of every aspect of our planet. If we are going to sustain ourselves as a species — and this is both our economic prosperity as well as our very lives and existence — we have to start having policies that are far more conscious to that intersectionality of life itself.
ICRC Humanitarian Law & Policy blog: The grand scheme: power and politics in the climate crisis – World – ReliefWeb
Even in the midst of a pandemic, during a seemingly endless cascade of events, climate change remains a defining issue. Its effects are even more severe for people affected by conflict and violence, who find themselves navigating the collision of war and environmental crises. How can the humanitarian community work with affected people to design policies and practices that have an impact?
In this post, Malvika Verma, a project development officer for ACTED Sri Lanka and India, argues that to strengthen climate action in conflict settings, a solid understanding of people’s vulnerabilities and adaptive capacities must be informed by the bigger picture – an analysis of pre-existing circuits of power and political relationships.
Read the full blog post here
How Giving Up Ableist Insults Can Help Heal Our Politics – Forbes
The long struggle to unlearn ableism may have an unexpected side benefit. It could help us make today’s politics and public discourse a little less toxic.
American politics were never as friendly as we like to think they once were. But they have felt particularly nasty for quite a few years now – that’s not just our imaginations. Most of us have a vaguely-defined but strong and understandable desire to “go back” to a kinder, less tense and corrosive dialog with our neighbors and fellow citizens – in person, on social media, and especially in politics.
How do we achieve civility when real issues divide us? Our conflicts are more than just rudeness and pointless rivalry, although we have more than enough of those, too. Real grievances need airing, and real injustices cry out for accountability. Does civility mean compromising on our own or other people’s humanity and worth? Should human rights be open to debate? Is bipartisan harmony really better, if we simply agree on who will remain oppressed and precisely how much? When the stakes of political argument are real and life-altering, harmony and bipartisanship for their own sakes seem a little less important.
Still, we aren’t wrong to crave a bit more mutual respect and a more chill atmosphere in politics. The trick is figuring out how to get there without simplistic difference-splitting or unilateral surrender. How do we make our politics more polite and respectful, while still standing firm for our beliefs and working on real solutions to our difficult problems?
One way we might start rebuilding respect without backing down on substance is to give up one specific and popular rhetorical style. We might stop calling our political opponents “stupid” and “crazy.” It seems like a small thing. But we might find that kicking the habit of insulting people based on intelligence and sanity is a remarkably low-cost way to lower the temperature of politics, and turn us away from petty name-calling so we can focus on the conflicts that really matter.
It’s not just about banning two words, “stupid” and “crazy.” It’s about weaning ourselves off the entire approach of criticizing opposing political views by calling those who hold them unintelligent or irrational. It’s taking care to stop calling people “idiots,” “morons,” and “dummies” – or calling them “nuts,” “certifiable,” and “insane.”
It’s what most of us seem to do when we are so frustrated by “the other side” that we can’t even describe exactly what’s wrong. We slap a label of “stupidity” or “insanity” on it, and rely on deeply ingrained, fundamentally ableist contempt and fear to do our arguing for us. We know it’s not the most noble form of debate. But it’s so common and, frankly, often so emotionally satisfying that giving up the practice won’t be easy. We will need good reasons to give up this easy and seductive brand of name-calling.
First of all, it really is ableist. “Stupid,” “crazy,” and their equivalents may or may not insult a particular disabled person in any given situation. But these terms always support the core ableist assumption that intellectual impairments and mental illnesses are inherently bad and invalidating. We use intelligence and rationality this way in political arguments because of the widespread belief, or maybe just a habit of thinking, that intellectually disabled and mentally ill people don’t have ideas worth listening to – that they are worthless and dismissible. If those ableist assumptions really weren’t there, the words wouldn’t have the same power and effect, and we wouldn’t be so in love with using them against our political foes.
But these insults and labels aren’t just offensive to people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, or those with mental illness. And they aren’t just harmful in the way they uphold ableist assumptions about people with those disabilities. Labels and insults based on intelligence and mental illness also add more pointless rancor and incivility to our politics and public discourse. These kinds of insults further foul our already hateful political discourse this without any compensating benefit to anyone, including those of us who use them.
They make political conflicts personal, distracting us from real issues and ideas of consequence.
They aren’t in the least persuasive or helpful to better understanding, because they short circuit real discussion of substantive issues.
Instead of helping us explore the outlines and contours of our disagreements, they signal superiority, contempt, and dismissal.
Using mental illness diagnoses for political and ideological purposes also has a dark history, including in Soviet Russia where political dissidents were often branded as “mentally ill” and detained, based partly on the idea that only an “insane” person could disagree with approved doctrines.
Meanwhile, calling actual cruel, bigoted, violent people – and both extreme anarchists and authoritarians too –“insane” or “stupid” lets them off lightly. It also distracts us from more serious and specific problems like racism and other forms of bigotry, and from political violence which brings literal harm and suffering, and threatens the core of democracy itself. It’s much easier to call racists and terrorists “idiots” and “lunatics” than to contend with the deeper things that actually drive their thinking and actions.
Over several decades, intelligence and mental illness insults, both explicit and implied, have also fueled two of the key narratives of our current political divide:
First there is the perceived conflict and unbridgeable cultural gulf between “elite” liberals who think conservatives are ignorant, unintelligent, or mentally ill, and “heartland” Americans who feel disparaged and looked down upon by “costal, liberal elites.” Like all stereotypes, these are often exaggerated. But judging by rhetoric alone, at least some of the Left’s contempt for the Right really does seem based on perceptions of intelligence and sanity.
It’s a theme heard loudly and explicitly in pretty much every speech at a Trump rally, and further illustrated by numerous stories on Fox News and other conservative media outlets. And it’s a narrative heavily reinforced from both Left and Right through whole sectors of popular culture, from music to comic books, and from movies and TV shows to comedy acts and beer commercials.
Then there is a kind of mirror version of this conflict, in which a certain strain of conservative or libertarian believes themselves to be the smart ones, grounded in a more logical, objective, and honest form of intelligence and rationality that overly emotional, hopelessly indoctrinated liberals lack. They don’t believe that they just happen to be smarter and more rational than liberals. A particular type of intelligence and rationality is at the heart of their own perceived political identity, as is the supposed “stupidity” and “irrationality” of their opponents.
This is most notable in the niche popularity of “rational” or “skeptical” communities on social media and especially YouTube, much of which in the last several years has moved to the Right politically and is driven by contempt for “social justice warriors” of the Left. Again, their core argument is that they are smart and rational, while left-wing “Social Justice Warriors” are “dumb” and “illogical.”
In both cases, intelligence and rationality are championed as the ultimate validations, while stupidity and insanity are the ultimate put-downs. Roughly speaking, “both sides” really do seem to do it, though it’s rarely an even match. The point is that there seems to be a broad consensus across the political spectrum that it’s both a fact and a strong argument to call your political opponents “stupid” or “nuts.”
This specific brand of rhetoric is just one of many factors fueling incivility. Giving it up won’t solve everything. But it is a factor, and moving away from it may be one of the easiest ways to foster a better political atmosphere, because it doesn’t involve any real concessions from anyone.
By at least trying to move to less ableist rhetoric, we may find that we are contributing to civility. If we stop insisting that we are smarter, mentally healthier, or fundamentally better people than our opponents, it won’t undo our substantive conflicts. But it could remove part of what makes our natural divisions wider: contempt for the other, and the feeling that the other holds us in contempt.
Unlike other changes and trade offs, this one should be relatively easy, or at least simple. We really can stop calling our political opponents “stupid” or “crazy,” or any words for judging intelligence and sanity. Instead, we can refocus on criticizing ideas, actions, and arguments, with evidence and compelling counter-arguments.
It won’t end ableism, and it won’t create total harmony in politics. But it could reduce the sum total tonnage of both ableism and political rancor in everyday life. It seems worth a try on both counts.
'It's a Minefield': Biden's Pick For Health Secretary Faces Abortion Politics – NPR
As President Joe Biden works to overhaul U.S. health care policy, few challenges will loom larger for his health secretary than restoring access to family planning while parrying legal challenges to abortion proliferating across the country.
Physicians, clinics and women’s health advocates are looking to Xavier Becerra, Biden’s nominee to run the Department of Health and Human Services, to help swiftly unwind Trump-era funding cuts and rules that have decimated the nation’s network of reproductive health providers over the past four years.
But Becerra’s in the middle of confirmation hearings this week. And though he fought the Trump administration’s family planning restrictions as California’s attorney general, he will, if confirmed by the Senate, face a U.S. Supreme Court dominated by Republican appointees, plus other increasingly conservative federal courts that have backed efforts to restrict reproductive health services.
The leader of Biden’s Health and Human Services team will also have to contend with an energized anti-abortion movement — a movement eager to leverage political power in red state legislatures to finally achieve its decades-long quest to ban abortion outright.
Any Biden administration efforts to preserve the right to an abortion and other family planning services could set up new legal battles between the federal government and states.
“It’s a minefield,” says Mary Ziegler, a law professor at Florida State University who has written extensively about the history of the nation’s abortion debate.
“Expectations on both sides are extremely high,” she says. “And the Supreme Court may force the issue to the top of the agenda if it does something aggressive to restrict abortion.”
The outlines of the brewing showdown came further into focus Tuesday as Becerra faced opposition from a number of Republicans on the Senate health committee on the first of two days of confirmation hearings.
“For many of us, your record has been … very extreme,” Sen. Mike Braun, R-Ind., told Becerra at the hearing, accusing him of being “against pro-life.” More than three dozen groups opposed to abortion rights have urged the Senate to reject Becerra, who has been a longtime advocate for abortion rights and federal support for contraceptives.
By contrast, Becerra has drawn strong support from abortion rights groups, which have applauded his efforts challenging Trump restrictions on family planning services. “He will be a great partner,” says Alexis McGill Johnson, president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America.
Becerra, whose wife, Dr. Carolina Reyes, is an obstetrician, is scheduled to appear before the Senate Finance Committee on Wednesday, after which his nomination is expected to move to the floor of the Senate next week for consideration by the whole body.
Successive presidential administrations since the 1980s have restricted or expanded federal support for family planning, depending on which party controlled the White House.
But tensions between the two sides intensified under President Donald Trump, making the task before Biden and Becerra that much more delicate.
Trump, who relied heavily on political backing from religious conservatives, moved more aggressively than his GOP predecessors to curtail access to abortion and clamp down on federal funding for clinics that provide reproductive care.
Organizations such as Planned Parenthood that long received federal money through the half-century-old Title X program were forced out of it when the Trump administration effectively barred recipients of federal aid from providing abortions or counseling women about the procedure.
That move, in turn, led to widespread staffing cutbacks at clinics across the country and huge drops in the number of people able to get family planning services, according to health care providers.
“We’re seeing so many fewer clients,” says Brenda Thomas, chief executive of Arizona Family Health Partnership, which coordinates the state’s Title X program. Thomas said the number of patients in Arizona’s program dropped 24% in 2019 after the Trump administration issued the new rules; it then declined an additional 40% in 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic further hampered services.
In Missouri, a provider operating three family planning clinics left the program, leading to a 14% decrease in patients getting services through Title X, according to the Missouri Family Health Council.
And in California, the Title X restrictions led to a 40% reduction in patients in 2019, says Lisa Matsubara, general counsel at Planned Parenthood Affiliates of California.
Like many other family planning advocates, Matsubara says Biden needs to do more than just reverse the cuts. “We don’t want to just, like, go back to what it was before the Trump administration,” she says. “We’re really looking and hoping that the administration really takes the necessary steps to expand access.”
Biden has pledged to rewrite the family planning regulations so clinics providing reproductive health services can return to the program.
Within days of taking office, Biden issued an executive order to reverse other family planning restrictions imposed by the last administration, including rescinding what’s come to be called the global gag rule that prevented international aid groups that receive U.S. funding from counseling pregnant patients about abortion.
Rolling back some federal policies, like the restrictions on international aid, are relatively simple. Biden and Becerra likely also could quickly reverse Trump-era restrictions on mifepristone, a pill used to induce abortion early in a pregnancy.
But rewriting rules on funding for family planning or reissuing other complex regulations could be considerably more fraught, experts say.
“Both sides have really learned how to maximize use of courts,” says Alina Salganicoff, who directs women’s health policy at the Kaiser Family Foundation, a health policy nonprofit. (Kaiser Health News is an editorially independent program of KFF.)
“If anyone understands the legal challenges, it’s Becerra,” Salganicoff says. “But these are thorny issues. There are questions about how the Biden administration can move forward and how fast. And there’s no question they are going to be sued.”
After taking office, Biden said his administration would review the Title X restrictions, which are also under review by the Supreme Court.
As California attorney general, Becerra sued to stop the Trump administration rules. The case was rejected by lower federal courts, though a separate lawsuit in Maryland challenging the rules was successful, setting up the case for the Supreme Court.
Last month, the court issued its first abortion-related decision since Trump appointee Amy Coney Barrett replaced Ruth Bader Ginsburg, upholding a Trump-era rule that blocked mail delivery of mifepristone.
Many legal experts see more substantial court fights on the horizon as conservative-leaning states pass increasingly restrictive abortion laws.
Just last week, South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster, a Republican, signed a bill barring abortions as soon as a fetal heartbeat can be detected with ultrasound, or about five or six weeks after a pregnancy begins.
The South Carolina law was temporarily blocked by a federal judge after Planned Parenthood filed a lawsuit.
The Supreme Court has never upheld a law as restrictive as South Carolina’s. But the high court is the most conservative it has been in decades, raising the prospect that justices may reconsider the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, which recognized the right to an abortion.
That could force Biden — and potentially Becerra — to step much more directly into efforts in Congress to safeguard abortion rights, says Ziegler, the Florida law professor.
“There will be huge pressure on the Biden administration to do big, bold things,” Ziegler says.
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