Monday, July 29, 2019

This Ain't Populism

Language is indeed the first casualty of war. Or social movements.

Take Populism. Please. When people feel that elites and government operatives are disregarding their concerns, they will turn to politicians who promise to restore the power rightfully to them. It sounds so romantic and democratic and in some cases can right the wrongs and re-balance the power structure in society. Populism as it's being practiced now, though, is getting frightening.

In Brazil, populism is being used as an excuse to cut down more of the Amazon rain forest in the name of economic growth and jobs. In Poland, it's being used as an excuse to demonize the LGBTQ community and to paint them as unpatriotic and a danger to the morals of society. In England, Boris Johnson was elected Prime Minister on a platform that will result in that country leaving the European Union, whether there is a deal with the resat of Europe or not. There are more examples, with Hungary, the Philippines, and India being the more relevant. In every case, the people have elected, or given their consent to, governments that are far more nationalistic, restrictive, phobic, and strident than we've seen since World War II.

President Trump continues to call himself a populist and a nationalist, but his appeal is narrow and much of his message clashes with the reality of what's happening in the country. The economy is producing jobs, but he's had to bail out the farmers to the tune of $16 billion in order to safeguard them from destructive tariffs that are severely hurting their trade with China. But corporations are gaining more powers by the month as his administration peels back regulations that served to protect ordinary Americans from pollution, faulty products, predatory lenders, health care protections, and safety protocols.

As in other countries, though, the president has sided not with the majority of the people, but with the narrow group that elected him, labeling anyone who opposes him as less than patriotic and a danger to society. He seems to believe that demonizing groups who have traditionally had less power in this country will bolster his credentials as the champion of real America, whatever that is. And of course, he's said that if you don't agree with his vision of the country, then you should leave. Or go to Baltimore.

What I would really like to see is the president proposing some solutions. How can we fix the problems that plague both rural and urban areas of our country? More specifically, what happened with this great infrastructure initiative that the president was supposed to propose, fund, and lead? Last I heard, he met with Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer for five minutes, then bounded out of the Oval Office and began complaining about the two of them.

This is an issue that has appeal across party and geographical lines, but there is no leadership from the federal government. We need upgrades to airports, highways, trains and bridges that would put more people to work and would increase productivity because people would be able to get to their jobs more efficiently and with reduced delays. Perhaps other countries would invest further if they knew we were investing in ourselves. The president should be leading this, but he is not.

Democrats should take up this issue, along with health care, as the leading issues in the campaign. Every candidate needs to be talking about these every day and reminding the country that the White House is not doing anything to help. Drop the impeachment talk. Stop being baited so easily every time the president decides he wants to play the race card. Turn the discussion around: Ask the president what he's doing to solve the problem. Remind the country about what he's not done. Perhaps I'm more naive than most, but I can't help but think that his attacks on Americans who are minorities or women will backfire with the majority of American voters.

In the end, this election will turn on whether people believe that their lives are better than they were before the previous election. That's the case that Democrats need to make. I'm not saying that they should ignore the noxious things the president says about his opponents or offenses he might have committed. Just don't let them define the campaign. Keep the focus on the issues that a majority of people care about.

For more, go to or Twitter @rigrundfest

Sunday, July 21, 2019

No Steps Forward, Four Steps Back

"Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel."

It struck me that telling people with whom you don't agree should leave the country is both one of the most anti-American and, well, American phrases we have in our political lexicon.

It also struck me that here we have a president who bathes in conspiracy theories, was elected on a platform that pointed out how terrible everything was in the country under Presidents Obama and Bush, and made an inauguration speech that talked about carnage in the cities, but nobody told him to go back to...wherever.

Because telling someone to leave the United States is also the last refuge of those who have trouble with the idea that we actually live in a representative democracy, and that it's a messy form of government. That you have to tolerate offensive speech. That as a leader, you must be responsible for your actions and the actions other take in response to your leadership. Telling someone to leave is intellectually lazy because then you don't have to engage that person in a debate or take ownership of your ideas in a discussion or an argument.

What truly bothers me the most, though, is the number of people who see that asking someone to leave the country because they are criticizing it is a legitimate response. It is not. And as I've said before, I don't hear the president asking white Democrats or undocumented people from Russia, Poland or any other European country to leave.

In the end, though, Democrats have to rise above this and not get into a fight on the president's terms. He's not going to run for reelection on issues that might make this country better. He's going to fight the small fight against people, not for ideas. Democrats have to run on how they are going to make this country better, and how most people's lives will become more productive, less stressful, and more focused on improving ourselves, our environment, and our culture.

Remember that 54% of the voters in 2016 voted against Donald Trump. They need to be reminded why. And those who voted for him but see him for the divider that he is must be reminded why they should vote for a Democrat in 2020. That's the goal. The only goal.

Lose sight of it at your peril.

For more, go to or Twitter @rigrundfest

Sunday, July 14, 2019

The Raids on Common Sense

When all you have is fear, then that's how you live. The president has set today as the day that I.C.E. raids on undocumented immigrants will begin. As policy, this is terrible. As an expression of a governing philosophy, it is unconscionable. But it makes sense when you consider that the president sees no difference between undocumented people and those from immigrant families who serve in Congress. They are both threats, illegitimate, the "other."

I will not go as far as some of the Democrats running for president and say that crossing the border should be decriminalized, or even say that undocumented immigrants who cross the border and don't abide by the laws or skip their hearings or commit crimes should be allowed to stay in this country. After all, Barack Obama's administration deported more people than any other president in our history. What I am saying is that we need laws and procedures to make sure that people who have contributed to this country are treated with some respect, and that their children, whether they are citizens or not, should be given every opportunity to stay in the United States rather than to be sent back to a country that is dysfunctional and/or dangerous.

The key, though, is to reform the immigration system. It is interesting to note that the most hostile, anti-immigrant, xenophobic president we've had in a long time is the one who presides over a border that is in chaos. In large part that's because he is all talk and precious little action, and he has no idea how to garner the public and political support he needs from all segments of the country in order to get Congress to act. This is obviously a shortcoming that spans all issues, but since this is the one that got him elected, you'd think that he'd work more assiduously on it. He seems to think that executive orders and heated racist rhetoric will solve the problem.

It's made it worse.

Therefore, the raids. When in doubt, use the power of the militia. That's the manner in which he's run the country as president. It's made us more rigid, more divided, less compassionate, and decidedly not great.

For more, go to or Twitter @rigrundfest

Sunday, July 7, 2019

The Income Gap and Education

We talk so much about the differences between the ultra-wealthy and everyone else that sometimes we miss the smaller, but far more potent, differences within the middle class. And when those differences affect young children, the ramifications become far more discriminatory. An article today shows this in glaring fashion.

It concerns prekindergarten programs that cater to lower and middle income residents in states and districts that don't have universal instruction. Wealthier families who can afford all-day prekindergarten can take advantage of what many child psychologists and educators already know; that play-based programs that give children the opportunity to interact with their peers, teachers, and a challenging curriculum are more prepared for kindergarten and further learning. Those families that cannot afford these programs now have other options, including an online program that requires a child to use the program for a short time each day. There's no interaction with other children, but students do get a fun, game-based introduction to letters and numbers.

The verdict? It's better than nothing.

Is that really the standard we want to use for American children? The extent to which American society tolerates the gross inequalities in education is scandalous. Money and property values determine the quality of instruction a child is eligible for, and states have to make other choices about education, health care, elderly care, roads, hospitals and other expenditures that are vital to other citizens. For a family to have to settle for an online experience because they lack $164 dollar per week for the more inclusive and educationally sound experience treats children unequally and sends that child to a school system that might not have the resources that will allow them to catch up.

The Trump Administration will certainly do nothing to bridge this gap, save for relying on the same market forces that have created the problem in the first place. More jobs and higher wages will help, but that should not be the deciding factor in whether any child gets a quality education.

Democrats need to support universal prekindergarten programs, and most of the presidential candidates do, and also need to make sure that all children have access to the technology they need in order to compete. This all starts with closing the income gap and ensuring that all school districts have the personnel and programs they need to serve their communities. That also includes smartphones, though, apparently, that can lead to other problems.

The learning gap is already wide. We don't need the income and technology gaps to make it insurmountable.

For more, go to or Twitter @rigrundfest