Faith, politics mix on Martin Luther King Jr. Day
Monday’s Martin Luther King Jr. holiday found leaders still wrestling over his contested legacy against the backdrop of a presidential election year.
Republicans told a sometimes cool crowd at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta that they were honouring King’s civil rights legacy of service and political empowerment. But Democrats found more favour by highlighting the ways they said the current political and social order calls for more radical action in line with King’s principles.
Monday’s speeches at King’s onetime church were just one slice of the political struggle in Georgia, where Democrats believe they can make further inroads in the Republican controlled state, aided by diverse in-migration and a suburban backlash against U.S. President Donald Trump.
Up for re-election this year, Trump sought to stamp his own mark on the commemoration. He and Vice-President Mike Pence made a brief visit to the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in Washington. Earlier in the day, Trump sent a tweet noting that it was the third anniversary of his inauguration: “So appropriate that today is also MLK jr DAY. African-American Unemployment is the LOWEST in the history of our Country, by far. Also, best Poverty, Youth, and Employment numbers, ever. Great!”
Black unemployment has reached a record low during the Trump administration, but many economists note economic growth since 2009 has driven hiring. The most dramatic drop in black unemployment came under former president Barack Obama. Despite economic success, polls find most African American voters regard Trump with distaste.
In Atlanta, Republican U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler, appointed earlier this month by Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, said her upbringing on an Illinois farm was touched by King.
“Dr. King’s call to service, to sacrifice, to put others first, it shaped our home and inspired us to ask what Dr. King asked the world. ‘What are you doing for others?’” Loeffler said.
One of Loeffler’s Democratic opponents in a November special election could be the Rev. Raphael Warnock, the current pastor at Ebenezer, which King and his father once led. Warnock, without mentioning Loeffler by name, said that honouring King means more than just voicing “lip service” on one weekend a year.
“Everyone wants to be seen standing where Dr. King stood. That’s fine, you’re welcome,” said Warnock, who could soon announce a Senate run. “But if today you would stand in this holy place, where Dr. King stood, make sure, that come tomorrow, we’ll find you standing where Dr. King stood.”
Of King, Warnock said that “too many people like to remember him and dismember him at the same time” calling Georgia “ground zero for voter suppression” and citing the failure of the state’s Republican leadership to fully expand the Medicaid health insurance program.
Others agreed with him, with keynote speaker Rev. Howard-John Wesley of Alexandria, Virginia, telling attendees that “we have lost the radicality” of King’s vision, talking about how King attacked the Vietnam War and the unequal American economy at the end of his career.
Loeffler made no mention of Trump or the Senate impeachment trial, but Democratic U.S. Rep Hank Johnson did, drawing applause when he mentioned impeachment and saying American democracy is “in grave danger.”
“Our communities are once again finding themselves on the front lines of fighting to protect our very republic,” Johnson said. “And it can be easy, brothers and sisters, in moments like these to despair. But even in our darkest hours, the legacy of Dr. King is a hope that dawn will come.”
Georgia’s Republican Secretary of State, Brad Raffensperger gamely took the stage, seeking to build confidence that his office supports broad voter participation and that the state’s new voting machines will guarantee a fair vote. Democrats led by former gubernatorial nominee Stacey Abrams have attacked his actions.
“Every voter gets one vote. We all have a voice. We all count,” Raffensperger said.
King’s daughter Bernice spoke about the King holiday becoming a day of service, “a day on, not a day off.” She said the holiday needs a broader vision.
“A day on is not enough. What we need is a light on, committed to working vigilantly to build the beloved community,” she said. “A light on encompasses a commitment not just to service but to systemic change as well.”
The same kind of wrestling over what King means in the present moment was taking place elsewhere, with Pence speaking Sunday at a church service in Memphis, Tennessee.
Pence spoke at the Holy City Church of God in Christ about King’s religion and how he “challenged the conscience of a nation to live up to our highest ideals by speaking to our common foundation of faith.”
Acknowledging the nation’s divisions, Pence said that if Americans rededicate themselves to the ideals that King advanced while striving to open opportunities for everyone, “we’ll see our way through these divided times and we’ll do our part in our time to form a more perfect union.”
As a presidential election looms this fall, divisions rankle, according to recent opinion polls.
Among black Americans, more than 80 per cent said last year that President Donald Trump’s actions in office have made things worse for people like them, while only 4 per cent said they thought Trump’s actions have been good for African Americans in general. That’s according to a poll conducted by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.
Colby Cosh: Here it is – your quadrennial 'American politics is weird' column – National Post
The actual, real, honest-to-God voting part of the U.S. presidential nominating process will begin with the Iowa state precinct caucuses on Feb. 3, two weeks from Monday. Every four years, at around this time, I rediscover the astonishing opacity of this process and marvel anew. The Iowa caucuses themselves, which have been the paramount preoccupation of American politics for months, serve as an excellent example.
You may have seen C-SPAN footage of the weird precinct caucus goings-on. These incorporate no balloting. Instead, you see small roomfuls of enthusiasts forming physical groupings, chatting about who they ought to support, and then merging smaller “non-viable” groups until the number of groups matches the number of delegates to be sent further on in the process.
“Further on to where?”, you may ask. To the Iowa Democratic Party county conventions, silly; but those don’t happen until March 21. These conventions send delegates to the party conventions for each congressional district (on the morning of April 25), and also to the state convention (June 13).
The actual makeup of the Iowa delegation to the national convention isn’t fully decided until that last date — yet an estimate of the statewide “result” will be provided magically on the evening of the 3rd. Even if no candidate drops out before the district and state conventions, this guess isn’t exactly set in stone. If there are dropouts, the final Iowa vote in the national roll call may look nothing at all like the estimates from the evening. Yet it’s these semi-fictitious, inferential estimates that will actually influence the course of the race in the other 49 states (and in the non-state delegations).
From a Canadian standpoint it all seems like a hell of a way to run a country. We have come to regard party leadership-election procedures as not only a matter of public interest and inquiry, but as something for which political parties should be positively accountable. Fine details of leadership votes are widely discussed. Everybody interested in politics knows, for example, that the federal Liberals and Conservatives both give equal weights to all federal ridings (somewhat controversially for the latter), and that the New Democrats use direct one-man-one-vote, having abandoned the old system that gave separate weight to “affiliates,” mostly labour unions. We all spent a week discussing the anomaly in the 2018 Ontario PC race (wherein electoral weighting allowed Doug Ford to prevail despite winning fewer votes overall and fewer ridings than Christine Elliott).
Would you know, as a news consumer, that American political parties are nothing like this? The idea of weighting delegations strictly according to Electoral College numbers was abandoned down south not far into the 20th century: both parties learned that it made some sense to down-weight states they had no hope of winning in the general election. (A key moment was the Republican national convention of 1912; a resurgent Teddy Roosevelt had cleaned up in scattered primaries, which were still a novelty, but Taft won on the strength of Southern support, and the party ripped apart.)
The Democratic Party now allocates delegates to states by a formula that is only half pure electoral weight. The other half of the coefficient (yes, there’s a coefficient) is based on the Democratic vote for president in the past three elections, which leads to pretty big distortions. Further bonuses are available to states that vote later in the cycle (in order to discourage a pell-mell race among the states to the front of the nomination calendar) and to states that “cluster” primary dates with those of neighbours.
This means many states have a Democratic convention delegation out of whack with both their population and their heft in the Electoral College. The American press rarely if ever discusses this, and it takes digging to find the details. Texas, with its 29 million souls and 38 electoral votes, is scheduled to have 261 nominating votes on the floor in Milwaukee. New York, home to 19 million people and 29 Electoral College votes, receives extra credit for Democratic loyalty and for having its primary in late April: it will send 320 delegates.
This goes to show how the slowly evolved party rules can lead to puzzling outcomes, since Texas should have a closer statewide presidential race than New York and often figures prominently in Democratic psephological dreaming. Of course, in the normal course of events, it is all decided before the delegates assemble. No one ever has any reason to care about the sizes of New York’s or Texas’s delegations per se.
And no one ever will, unless we get another “brokered” major party convention — one that begin with the identity of the candidate for president not yet decided. This hasn’t happened since 1952, and isn’t probable now. But if it were to happen, it would probably be on the Democratic side — where almost all states now hold primaries and divide their delegations in proportion to the raw vote — in an election year with a crowded field, a Republican incumbent, and no clear Democratic frontrunner. I’m just sayin’.
• Twitter: colbycosh
College-Educated Voters Are Ruining American Politics – The Atlantic
Many college-educated people think they are deeply engaged in politics. They follow the news—reading articles like this one—and debate the latest developments on social media. They might sign an online petition or throw a $5 online donation at a presidential candidate. Mostly, they consume political information as a way of satisfying their own emotional and intellectual needs. These people are political hobbyists. What they are doing is no closer to engaging in politics than watching SportsCenter is to playing football.
For Querys Matias, politics isn’t just a hobby. Matias is a 63-year-old immigrant from the Dominican Republic. She lives in Haverhill, Massachusetts, a small city on the New Hampshire border. In her day job, Querys is a bus monitor for a special-needs school. In her evenings, she amasses power.
Querys is a leader of a group called the Latino Coalition in Haverhill, bringing together the Dominicans, Puerto Ricans, and Central Americans who together make up about 20 percent of the residents of the city. The coalition gets out the vote during elections, but they do much more than that.
They have met with their member of Congress and asked for regular, Spanish-speaking office hours for their community. They advocate for policies like immigration reform for Dreamers and federal assistance in affordable housing. On local issues, the demands are more concrete. Dozens of the group’s members have met with the mayor, the school superintendent, and the police department. They want more Latinos in city jobs and serving on city boards. They want the schools to have staff available who can speak with parents in Spanish. They want to know exactly how the city interacts with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Querys is engaging in politics—the methodical pursuit of power to influence how the government operates. If she and the community she represents are quiet and not organized, they get ignored. Other interests, sometimes competing interests, prevail. Organizing gives them the ability to get what they want. Much as the civil-rights movement did, Querys is operating with clear goals and with discipline, combining electoral strategies with policy advocacy.
Unlike organizers such as Querys, the political hobbyists are disproportionately college-educated white men. They learn about and talk about big important things. Their style of politics is a parlor game in which they debate the issues on their abstract merits. Media commentators and good-government reform groups have generally regarded this as a cleaner, more evolved, less self-interested version of politics compared to the kind of politics that Querys practices.
In reality, political hobbyists have harmed American democracy and would do better by redirecting their political energy toward serving the material and emotional needs of their neighbors. People who have a personal stake in the outcome of politics often have a better understanding of how power can and should be exercised—not just at the polls once every four years, but person to person, day in and day out.
In the United States, political habits vary significantly by race and education. In a 2018 survey, I found that whites reported spending more time reading, talking, and thinking about politics than blacks and Latinos, but blacks and Latinos were twice as likely as white respondents to say that at least some of the time they dedicate to politics is spent volunteering in organizations. Likewise, those who are college-educated report they spend more time on politics than other Americans—but less than 2 percent of that time involves volunteering in political organizations. The rest is spent mostly in news consumption (41 percent of the time), discussion and debate (26 percent), and contemplating politics alone (21 percent). Ten percent of the time is unclassifiable.
Furthermore, the news that college-educated people consume is unlikely to help them actively participate in politics because, as the Pew Research Center has found, they are more likely than non-college educated Americans to rely on national rather than local sources of news. Daily news consumers are very interested in politics, so they say, but they aren’t doing much: In 2016 most reported belonging to zero organizations, having attended zero political meetings in the last year, having worked zero times with others to solve a community problem.
What explains the rise of political hobbyism? One important historical explanation is the culture of comfort that engulfs college-educated white people, a demographic group that is now predominately Democratic. They have decent jobs and benefits. There has been no military conscription for some fifty years. Harvard’s Theda Skocpol argues that as the percent of Americans with a college degree has increased over time, they have come to feel less special, less like stewards of their community, less like their communities depend on them. As the college-educated population has grown over time, community participation has, surprisingly, plummeted.
In other words, college educated people, especially whites, do politics as hobbyists because they can. On the political left, they may say they fear President Trump. They may lament polarization. But they are pretty comfortable with the status quo. They don’t have the same concrete needs as Querys’s community in Haverhill has. Nor do they feel a sense of obligation, of “linked fate”, to people who have concrete needs such that they are willing to be their allies. They might front as “allies” on social media, but very few white liberals are actively engaging in face-to-face political organizations, committing their time to fighting for racial equality or any other issue they say they care about.
Instead they are scrolling through their news feeds, keeping up on all the dramatic turns in Washington that satiate their need for an emotional connection to politics but that help them not at all learn how to be good citizens. They can recite the ins and outs of the Mueller investigation or fondly recall old 24-hour scandals like Sharpiegate, but they haven’t the faintest idea how to push for what they care about in their own communities.
If you think the status quo in politics isn’t great, then the time wasted on political hobbyism is pretty tragic. But political hobbyism is worse than just a waste of time. As I argue in my new book, Politics is for Power, our collective treatment of politics like a sport incentivizes politicians to behave badly. We reward them with attention and money for any red meat they throw at us. Hobbyism also cultivates skills and attitudes that are counter-productive to building power. Rather than practicing patience and empathy like Querys needs to do to win over supporters in Haverhill, hobbyists cultivate outrage and seek instant gratification.
In the Democratic Party coalition, racial minorities have long operated in tension with the well-educated, cosmopolitan wing of the party. It’s a tension between those who have concrete demands from politics and seek empowerment, versus those who have enough power that politics is more about self-gratification than fighting for anything. Only if you don’t need more power than you already have could you possibly consider politics as a form of consumption from the couch rather than as a domain of goals and strategies.
In the 1950s and 1960s, there was a brief movement of activism by “amateur” or “club” Democrats, as they were called. These were middle-class white professionals who met regularly in well-to-do neighborhoods to talk about politics and push a liberal agenda, including civil rights. A criticism levied against these groups was that they were all talk. In 1967, for instance, in their book, Black Power, Kwame Ture (formerly Stokely Carmichael) and political scientist Charles Hamilton wrote that African-Americans have tried for too long to work with groups like the club Democrats. The authors argued that liberal white professionals didn’t really value black empowerment, often actually impeded black empowerment, and failed to understand the life-and-death consequences for political power. “Let black people organize themselves first,” they wrote, “define their interests and goals, and then see what kinds of allies are available.”
Liberal white hobbyists living in well-to-do white enclaves, especially in blue states, might look at politics today and think the important stuff is happening elsewhere—in poorer areas of their own state, in swing states, in Republican states, in Washington—anywhere but where they live. Ture and Hamilton saw this pattern back in the 1960s. “One of the most disturbing things about almost all white supporters,” they wrote, “has been that they are reluctant to go into their own communities—which is where the racism exists—and work to get rid of it.” Fast forward to the present day—to a world of increasing inequality in resources, where rich neighborhoods will feature yard signs claiming everyone is welcome but where zoning rules claim otherwise: If you don’t think there is any work to do in your own town in advancing the cause of racial equality, you are not looking very hard.
In immigrant communities, minority communities, in poor communities, politics is about empowerment. When politics is about empowerment, like it is for Querys, community service and political engagement are closely connected. Helping parents navigate school systems, helping neighbors fill out government forms, making sure families have healthcare and food and security—this is both community service and a fight for basic human needs. Those needs can also be served through attaining political power. And how does one gain power for their values, in the way that Querys does? By working in local organizations that demonstrate to a community of people you care about their needs. Then, when an election comes or an important meeting happens, the community shows up. That’s is the basic formula. That’s real politics. It’s precisely the kind of work that political hobbyists expect someone else to perform while they nod along to MSNBC.
College-educated hobbyists can engage in real politics too. They’ll need to figure out what needs are unmet and how they can serve them. They’ll need to find local organizations in which they can serve. More fundamentally, they’ll have to figure out which communities they’re willing to fight for. As things stand, their apathy suggests that they already have figured that part out.
This article was adapted from Hersh’s upcoming book, Politics Is for Power: How to Move Beyond Political Hobbyism, Take Action, and Make Real Change.
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