A simple agenda for the next Democratic government

The Democratic Party has little power in the U.S. right now. Its rival, the GOP, controls all three branches of the federal government as well as most of the statehouses. This situtation is not unprecedented, and in fact it might be exactly what one would expect after 8 years of a Democratic president; opposition parties typically gain seats, like Democrats themselves did during the latter half of the George W. Bush presidency.

While we can probably count on the normal ebbs and flows of American political cycles to deliver a Democratic majority in one or both houses of Congress by next year, we can’t take for granted that Democrats will pursue an optimal agenda once in control. Let me present a few ideas that I think should be front and center in 2019 and beyond:

  1. Expansion of the Affordable Care Act, with a public option, risk corridors, and federalized Medicaid services, along with Medicare buy-in for Americans 55-64.
  2. Federal legalization of marijuana for all purposes.
  3. Statehood for Puerto Rico and D.C., even if it means abolishing the legislative filibuster to get it through.
  4. Higher taxes on corporations and the super-rich (basically anyone making $400k or more a year). In addition to higher marginal rates, loopholes such as the one for carried interest (which is a windfall for Wall Street) need to closed.
  5. More legal immigration to offset a stagnant birth rate and ensure the sustainability of programs for the retired and elderly; fewer arbitrary rules for deportation, such as making trivial errors on paperwork.
  6. The abolition of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Customs and Border Patrol (CBP). These agencies were created during the post-9/11 hysteria of the Bush administration and they have become ethnic cleansing police organizations committed to a nativist agenda that materially benefits no one.
  7. The impeachment of Supreme Court Justices Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch. Thomas is a known harasser who never should have been seated; Gorsuch was appointed by a president who handily lost the popular vote, in place of the nominee of a previous president who never even received a Senate hearing.
  8. Hell, maybe even the rollback of judicial review itself, which Thomas Jefferson famously opposed after Marbury v. Madison.
  9. National legislation for maternity leave.
  10. Prohibition of right-to-work laws.
  11. Prhobition of voter ID laws, as required by both the 15th Amendment and the Voting Rights Act.
  12. Make Election Day and the Monday preceding it federal holidays.
  13. Expansion of Social Security benefits.
  14. Trillions of dollars in new infrastructure spending, without much reliance on public-private partnerships.
  15. Aggressive environmental policies, including carbon taxes on big polluters and the preservation of national monuments and parks from drilling/exploration.

This is just a start. Democrats are facing an ascendant right wing that is more powerful and extreme than at any time since the 1920s. They can’t afford to shy away from decisive actions and big visions.


World War I and inequality

Income inequality is an inescapable topic in American political discourse in 2017. It’s probably more accurate to talk about “wealth inequality,” though, since the most influential elites and corporations derive the bulk of their monies from the passive appreciation of assets (like stocks and bonds), rather than from paychecks. That quibble aside, why is inequality an issue worth talking about? Let’s look back to an event that ended a century ago this year – the First World War.

On the eve of World War I, the top 1% of British residents controlled a staggering 70 percent of its wealth. Similar gaps prevailed in France and Germany. These nations were the pivotal actors of the conflict, with Russia, the U.S., Austria-Hungary and Italy its secondary players. Inequality was an essential feature of all the pre-WWI societies in Europe and North America that had just emerged from the Gilded Age.

At the same time, many of these countries were in fact empires, overseeing vast territorial holdings spanning the globe. The U.K. and France were the preeminent colonial powers, but almost every industrialized country at the time, from the U.S. to Japan, had gotten in on the game starting in the late 1800s (indeed, the Anglo-Russian struggle for contorl of Central Asia was called “the Great Game”).

Inequality and imperialism were interrelated. With so much of all the western world’s wealth controlled by so few, there was an oversupply of money seeking out an inadequate amount of investment opportunities. The surplus of investible assets was driven by poor domestic aggregate demand stemming from inequality; hence, the need to continually look abroad for speculative openings offering high returns.

More specifically, colonial empires and massive militaries were the direct consequences of the disproportionate influence of a tiny, wealthy set of elites driving major policy decisions. Incidents such as the First Moroccan Crisis illustrated the high stakes of holding onto remote territory. Meanwhile, expansionism into Africa and Asia was reinforced by the growing power of corporate monopolies and cartels seeking to broaden their market pentetration to global scale.

We all know how World War I was resolved, with Germany in ruins, Russia converted to the USSR, and the U.S. with a newly assertive role in global politics, at least temporarily. But we don’t know how the next such crisis of inequality and imperialism – namely the one occurring right now – will end.

Since the Asian financial panic of the late 90s, the global economy has been dominated by speculative bubbles that were products of too much capital chasing too few opportunities. After Asia, there was the dotcom bust in 2001, the housing meltdown in 2008, and the current absurdities in crypto currency (e.g., Bitcoin) and Silicon Valley (raw water, anyone)?

Along the way, there has also been considerable consolidation in virtually every industry in the U.S. Mega mergers of hospitals, telecoms, retailers, etc. have concentrated growing amounts of power in fewer hands. Gigantic corporations including Microsoft, Comcast, AT&T, and Amazon, far from being forces for progress and inclusion as their modern PR-tailored images might suggest, have now aligned themselves with the far right-wing of the Republican Party to ensure low corporate tax rates. This is why you can’t separate the business aspects of the GOP from its racism; business supports provides the resources the party needs to exploit disadvantaged groups on other fronts.

Big business was central to the chaos that preceded WWI, primarily through its stake in colonial empires and military spending. Decades later, German companies were pivotal in convincing President Paul Von Hindenburg to appoint Hitler as chancellor, despite the latter’s defeat in the 1932 presidential election and his party’s lack of a governing majority in the Reichstag. It was big business, not the people led by “populism,” that enabled the most destructive warfare of all-time.

I’m not saying we’re heading for another 1914-1945 cataclysm. We should be wary, though, of how inequality is surging at a time when corporations are consolidating and supporting politicians who also favor enormous mlitary spending and possible adventurism in theaters such as Iran and North Korea.


Thoughts on Alabama

Remember the “Blue Wall?” If you’re unfamiliar with the term, it referred to the set of northeastern and midwestern states, spanning Maine to Minnesota, that had predominantly favored Democrats in presidential elections between 1988-2012. These states, representing traditional blue domains such as New York as well as pivotal swing territory such as Pennsylvania and Ohio, were thought to protect any Democratic candidate from losing the popular vote by providing a substantial Electoral College cushion. Here’s a look at the Blue Wall:

Screen Shot 2017-12-16 at 10.57.30 AM

A few caveats:

  • Ohio has voted with the winner of every presidential election after 1960 and is sometimes not included in the Blue Wall, but I’m including it since Democrats have not proven they can win presidential elections without it yet.
  • Minnesota hasn’t voted for a Republican for President since 1972, the longest such streak for any blue state.
  • Iowa and New Hampshire were both won once by George W. Bush.

The 2016 election shattered the Blue Wall, with Donald Trump becoming the first GOP candidate since the 1980s to carry Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. He also decisively won both Iowa and Ohio, peeled off one of Maine’s electoral votes, and came very close to taking New Hampshire and Minnesota.

Oddly, I thought of the Blue Wall this week when Doug Jones defeated Roy Moore in the Alabama special election for the remainder of the term originally won by Jeff Sessions in 2014.  Alabama is the quintessential piece of the new Solid South, meaning it is as reliably red as any state on the map.

The old Solid South was a bastion of Democratic support, voting reliably for the slew of failed Democratic presidential candidates from the 1870s to the 1930s. Back then, the Democratic party was still attached to its segregationist roots. While this southern bloc stuck with FDR, it began to fragment in 1948 by giving its votes to Strom Thurmond’s Dixiecrat ticket. It then backed the unpledged elector slate in 1960, Barry Goldwater in 1964, and George Wallace in 1968. Richard Nixon’s 1972 landslide cemented the Solid South as the foundation of national GOP success.

Jones put a significant dent in this Red Wall, running from Texas to West Virginia, by defeating Moore. Among the former Confederate states, there were currently only 3 Democratic U.S. Senators prior to Jones’ victory, and 2 of them are from Virginia (Tim Kaine and Mark Warner); the other is Florida’s septuagenarian ex-astronaut Bill Nelson. Moreover, among the ex-Confederacy, every state except Virginia and Louisiana had a GOP trifecta at the end of 2017, meaning one-party control of its governorship, state senate, and state house.

With all of this context, I feel like the Jones upset is even more significant than Scott Brown’s special election victory over Martha Coakley in Massachusetts in 2010. Brown became the first GOP U.S. Senator from Massachusetts since the 1970s upon his seating. However, Republicans have sustained statewide success in the Bay State in recent years. Mitt Romney served as its governor from 2003-2007 and its current governor, Charlie Baker, is also GOP. Meanwhile, until Jones, Alabama hadn’t:

  • Elected a Democrat to any statewide office since 2008, when an ex-lieutenant governor was elected public service commissioner.
  • Elected a Democrat to the U.S. Senate since 1992, when current senior Senator Richard Shelby was reelected, only to switch over to the GOP in 1994
  • Elected any non-switcher Democrat to that body since 1990, when Howell Heflin – who relished Confederated “heritage” and was one of only two D votes against the Family and Medical Leave Act – won a third term.

In other words, Alabama had basically never elected a Democrat who fit the party’s modern mold as a progressive institution detached from its southern roots. Moreover, Alabama has been dominated by forces of reaction for centuries, having been central to the founding of the Confederacy (the first CSA capital was Montgomery, where the founding congress met), Jim Crow laws, the Thurmond campaign, the Wallace campaign, the anti-civil rights terrorism of the mid-20th century (Bull Connor et al.), the rollback of the Voting Right Acts (via Shelby v. Holder, a Supreme Court case that began in the Birmingham suburbs), and the election of Trump (his first big rally in 2015 was in Mobile).

The symbolism of Jone’s victory is also remarkable. A year ago, his seat was held by Sessions, a hardliner who was once denied a judgeship by Ronald Reagan for being too racist, who was lambasted by Coretta Scott King herself in a letter to the Senate, and who was the first sitting U.S. Senator to endorse Trump. Sessions ran unopposed in 2014, garnering 97% of the vote, and now he’s U.S. Attorney General; his seat will be occupied by a pro-choice, pro-Social Security, pro-net neutrality Democrat from 2018 onward. By winning, Jones also crushed the mythology around the political acumen of Steve Bannon (who vigourously supported Moore) and laid waste to the notion of Alabama as a place where Trump was unusualy popular and influential (he somehow endorsed the losing candidate twice in this race, first in the GOP runoff, then in the general election).

Practically speaking, Jones’ win also flips the idea that the 2018 U.S. Senate map is particularly daunting for Democrats. They now only have to gain 2+ seats and protect all or most of their own to take the chamber. This is easier than it sounds. The following GOP seats are in big trouble:

  • Arizona: the retiring Jeff Flake could easily allow the radical Kelli Ward to capture the GOP nomination against House Democrat Krysten Sinema, in state Trump carried by a slim 47-44 margin last year.
  • Nevada: Dean Heller has pissed off everyone by first opposing and then supporting Obamacare repeal, plus his state was carried by Hillary Clinton in 2016.
  • Tennessee: an open seat, this race could pit popular ex-governor Phil Bredesen (D) against House GOPer Marsha Blackburn.
  • Texas: somehow, Ted Cruz is even less popular in Texas than Moore was in Alabama, and he already has a credible and well-funded opponent in U.S. Rep Beto O’Rourke.

Meanwhile, yes, Democrats are defending numerous seats, including 10 in states Trump carried. But that’s not as bad it seems. Even these red state Dems are quite popular and lack top-tier opposition in many of these races. For example, Sherrod Brown (Ohio) will likely get a rematch against Josh Mandel, whom he comfortably defeated last time; Nelson (Florida) might not even have to face current Republican governor Rick Scott, who has hesitated about entering; and Joe Manchin (West Virginia) has held statewide office for more than a decade and never been in a close contest.

There’s also possible trouble ahead in both Arizona and Mississippi, both of which have octagenarian senators (John McCain and Thad Cochran, respectivley) who could resign or, given their well-documented health issues, die at any moment. We already discussed the issues for Republicans in the increasingly swing-y Arizona, but it’s worth mentioning that Mississippi has the largest percentage of African-Americans of any state (37%); for comparison, Alabama has 25%. Democrats routinely get 40-45% in statewide elections in the Magnolia State and could likely compete with a major turnout campaign and a poor GOP candidate, such as perennial contender and neoconfederate Repubclian state senator Chris McDaniel.

2017 has been a horrible year in many respects. The Alabama results provide some hope for a more sane government in the years ahead.

What Gabriel Harvey really said about Shakespeare and Oxenforde

Against all odds, Gabriel Harvey’s obscure Latin verse work Gratulationes Valdinenses has become a sacred text of conspiracy theorists everywhere – namely, the uniformed mistaken into thinking Edware de Vere (the 17th Earl of Oxford, who often signed as “Oxenford(e)”) wrote the works of William Shakespeare (he did not). Grautlationes Valdineses contains insincere orations to noblemen – including Oxenforde and his father-in-law, Cecil Burghley (incidentally NOT the model for Polonius from Hamlet) – when they were visiting nearby Audley End in 1578, as members of Queen Elizabeth’s court.

They love this string of words in particular, in the poem for Oxenforde:

vultus tela vibrat

Their preferred translation: “thy countenance shakes spears.”

There’s no way that’s right or that it means what they want it to.

First, this is a wishful translation, both in a technical and a contextual sense. My Latin is worse than my Greek, but “tela” is more often translated “arrows” – Oxenforde’s biographer, Alan H. Nelson (who notably doesn’t believe Oxenforde was Shakespeare) has rendered it as “your glance shoots arrows.” It can refer to “weapons” generally, too. The “vibrat” is also a red herring since it’s tempting to read it narrowly with reference the English derivation “vibrate,” instead of considering its multiple possible meanings.

Moreover, Harvey was de facto translating from English into Latin, since English was his first lanugage. It’s worth trying to understand what English idiom Harvey was attempting to render in Latin. Luckily, we have examples from both Thomas Dekker and Shakespeare himself [emphasis added]:

Dekker: “And do thine eyes shoot daggers at that man…”

Shakespeare: “I will speak daggers

Considering this Elizabethan idiom and Nelson’s translation, Harvey’s words likely have the thrust “your glance shoots daggers.”

This verse was written in 1578. Blank verse drama, in the form of Christopher Marlowe’s Tamburlaine, was still a decade away. Even in the impossible scenario that the “shakes spears” traslation is accurate, there’s no playwright of the same name to refer to.

Harvey also thought very little of Oxenforde. Here’s what he wrote years later, in English, about him [emphasis added]:

No words but valorous, no works but womanish only,
For life Magnificos, not a beck but glorious in show,
In deed most frivolous, not a look but Tuscanish always
His cringing side neck, eyes glancing, physnomy smirking.

Notice the reference to “glancing,” riffing on “vultus” as a Latin rendering of “glance.”

In contrast, he made this testimony about Shakespeare in 1601:

“The younger sort takes much delight in Shakespeares Venus, & Adonis: but his Lucrece, & his tragedie of Hamlet, Prince of Denmarke, haue it in them, to please the wiser sort.”

Harvey was contemporarenous with both Shakespeare and Oxenforde (and outlived both of them by many years, until 1631). It’s clear he knew they weren’t the same person.


The Shakespeare authorship “question,” answered

[begin parody]

Did Jonathan Swift really write Gulliver’s Travels? Sure, it says “by Jonathan Swift” right there on the spine, but there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that he lacked the life experience or learnedness we would expect from the creator of such a sophisticated work of fiction. For example, despite the novel’s elaborate descriptions of Japan and other locales far from Swift’s native Ireland, there’s no record of Swift having ever set foot in the Land of the Rising Sun. Moreover, what are we to make of the attribution to “Lemuel Gulliver” on the original title page? Who was this Gulliver and why did he have to keep his authorship hidden behind the allonym “Jonathan Swift”? His letter to his “Cousin Sympson” re: the 1735 edition also raises some troubling questions for proponents of the traditional Dubliner school that attributes the texts to Swift; the Nottinghamian school that recognizes Gulliver himself as the true author has no such issues and also accepts the harsh truth that no mere clergyman and pamphleteer like “Jonathan Swift” could produce these works of genius.

[end parody]

If you’ve made it this far, you’re probably confused. What I just ran through was a variant on the centuries-old “question” about the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays and poems, only applied to another major English-language author (Jonathan Swift). The case for doubting that William Shakespeare wrote the works attributed to him is no stronger than the same one for Swift. It is only a “question” insofar as why anyone bothers to keep asking it.

Starting in the 1800s, a quintessential constituency of reactionaries – i.e., amateur historians who hated democracy, National Review columnists, and grad students who faked large portions of their dissertations – has tried in vain to prove that anyone other than Shakespeare himself wrote the literature unambiguously bearing his distinctive name. The original “real Shakespeare” was Sir Francis Bacon, who was followed over the years by Christopher Marlowe and, most prominently, Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford.

All anti-Shakespearean conspiracy theorists – the Baconians, the Marlovians, and the Oxfordians – have an impossible task in front of them:

  1. Demonstrating that the historical Shakespeare – a writer, actor, and theater shareholder documented in numerous interconnected contemporaneous records – did not write the Shakespearean canon.
  2. Demonstrating that their candidate did write it, despite all these candidates (except Marlowe) having no proven ability as literary writers or even as people interested in the theater.
  3. Explaining why the individual works aren’t explicitly credited by anyone to their favored candidate.

On point 1 alone, there is no reason to dispute the accepted attribution. Shakespeare had access to everything he needed to be a successful Elizabethan and Jacobean playwright, including a grammar school education that would have included background in Latin and history as well as a career as an actor in the troupe that performed his plays. The Shakespearean canon doesn’t exhibit any advanced technical knowledge that would have been inaccessible to Shakespeare, nullifying a persistent claim by anti-Shakespeareans. Like the other playwrights of the era, he was a middle-class striver who relied heavily on sources to write plays for money. His lifespan would have allowed him the opportunity to bridge the divide between the very different Elizabethan and Jacobean theaters and work with a wide variety of collaborators from Marlowe to John Fletcher. The evidence for his authorship is overwhelming. Seriously.  Take a look.

Point 2 is almost moot given the rock-solid point 1. Let’s look at it anyway for humor’s sake in regard to Oxford, the most popular alternative candidate. None of Shakespeare’s work is attributed to the Earl of Oxford. Oxford’s vast correspondence mentions no interest in theater or connection with any plays, let alone Shakespeare’s. His own poetry is in a dialect and in forms rarely – but usually never – used by Shakespeare, plus it’s no good. He died in 1604, before one-third of the canon was written; he would not have lived to see vital events such as the Gunpowder Plot that informed Macbeth, the Atlantic Hurricane that inspired a key source for The Tempest, or the rise of Fletcher, who wrote half of The Two Noble Kinsmen. While conspiracy theorists love to slander Shakespeare as an “unlettered wool and grain merchant,” there’s a strong case that Shakespeare was actually better educated than Oxford himself, who had merely honorary degrees, was dismissed by his tutors, and concerned himself extensively with the tin mining business. Oxfordians love to denigrate this caricature of “Shaksper” based on inconsistent spellings of his name, even though such variant spellings were routine across all classes and were used by their own candidate, who most frequently spelled his name “Oxenforde.” Oxfordianism is full of such projection.

Enough about Mr. Oxenforde. Regarding point 3, why would any of the plays be wrongly attributed to Shakespeare? There was no reason for aristocrats to keep their names hidden; Sir Thomas Sackville and others published under their own names.

The authorship “question” arose from an approach to literary criticism that doesn’t square with the nuances of Renaissance England: assuming that an author’s lived experience can be obviously extracted from his or her work. Writers from T.S. Eliot to John Keats have disputed this notion in one way or another, and it’s a poor fit for an era in which so much material was recycled. For instance: Hamlet, Long pointed to as some sort of autobiographical sketch of the various alternative candidates, is borrowed from many sources, although the nomenclature of “Hamlet” instead of “Amleth” is a distinctly Warwickshire (where Stratford-upon-Avon is located) phenomenon.

Anti-Shakespeareanism is also interconnected with anti-liberalism, and not just because the idea that a middle-class person cannot produce great art (but a rich person can) is odiously conservative. I mean, it’s no coincidence that Joseph Sobran was an Oxfordian conspiracy theorist. Eric Idle connected these dots in his own parody of the authorship “question” by quipping “What are liberals so afraid of?” The right answer is: nothing, since Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare.