Bobo has delivered himself of a whine called “Identity Politics Run Amok” in which he moans that politics is no longer about argument or discussion; it’s about trying to put your opponents into the box of the untouchables. As usual Bobo will be followed by what “gemli” in Boston had to say to him. Mr. Bruni has a question in “Crying Wolf, Then Confronting Trump.” He asks whether Democrats exhausted their alarm before they needed it most. Prof. Krugman, in “Black Lead Matters,” says Poisoning kids is a partisan matter. Here, gawd help us, is Bobo:
Once, I seem to recall, we had philosophical and ideological differences. Once, politics was a debate between liberals and conservatives, between different views of government, different views on values and America’s role in the world.
But this year, it seems, everything has been stripped down to the bone. Politics is dividing along crude identity lines — along race and class. Are you a native-born white or are you an outsider? Are you one of the people or one of the elites?
Politics is no longer about argument or discussion; it’s about trying to put your opponents into the box of the untouchables.
Donald Trump didn’t invent this game, but he embodies it. His advisers tried to dress him up on Wednesday afternoon as some sort of mature summiteer. But he just can’t be phony.
By his evening immigration speech he’d returned to the class and race tropes that have defined his campaign: that the American government is in the grips of a rich oligarchy that distorts everything for its benefit; that the American people are besieged by foreigners, who take their jobs and threaten their lives.
It’s not that these two ideas are completely wrong. The rich do have more influence. There are indeed some foreigners who seek to harm us. It is just that Trump (like other race and class warriors) takes these kernels of truth and grows them into a lie.
Trump argues that immigration has sown chaos across middle-class neighborhoods. This is false. Research suggests that the recent surge in immigration has made America’s streets safer. That’s because foreign-born men are very unlikely to commit violent crime.
According to one study, only 2 or 3 percent of Mexican-, Guatemalan- or Salvadoran-born men without a high school degree end up incarcerated, compared with 11 percent of their American-born counterparts.
Trump argues that the flood of immigrants is taking jobs away from unskilled native workers. But this is mainly false, too. There’s an intricate debate among economists about this, but if you survey the whole literature on the subject you find that most research shows immigration has very little effect on native wage or unemployment levels.
That’s because immigrants flow into different types of unskilled jobs. Unskilled immigrants tend to become maids, cooks and farm workers — jobs that require less English. Unskilled natives tend to become cashiers and drivers. If immigrants are driving down wages, it is mostly those of other immigrants.
Trump claims the rich benefit from immigration while everyone else suffers. Doctors get cheap nannies, everyone else gets the shaft.
This is false, too. The fact is, a vast majority of Americans benefit. A study by John McLaren of U.Va. and Gihoon Hong of Indiana University found that each new immigrant produced about 1.2 new jobs, because immigrants are producers and consumers and increase overall economic activity.
A report from the Partnership for a New American Economy found that immigrants accounted for 28 percent of all new small businesses in 2011. Between 2006 and 2012, over 40 percent of tech start-ups in Silicon Valley had at least one foreign-born founder.
The cities that are doing best economically work hard to attract new immigrants because the benefits are widely shared. As Ted Hesson points out in The Atlantic, New York, Chicago, Houston and Los Angeles account for about 20 percent of America’s economic output, and in those places, immigrants can make up as much as 44 percent of the total labor supply.
Identity politics distorts politics in two ways. First, it is Manichaean. It cleanly divides the world into opposing forces of light and darkness. You are a worker or an elite. You are American or foreigner.
Seeing this way is understandable if you are scared, but it is also a sign of intellectual laziness. The reality is that people can’t be reduced to a single story. An issue as complex as immigration can’t be reduced to a cartoon. It is simultaneously true that immigration fuels American dynamism and that the mixture of mass unskilled immigration and the high-tech economy threatens to create a permanent underclass.
Second and most important, identity politics is inherently the politics of division. But on most issues — whether it is immigration or the economy or national security — we rise and fall together. Immigration, even a reasonable amount of illegal immigration, helps a vast majority of Americans. An economy that grows at 3 percent would help all Americans.
Identity politics, as practiced by Trump, but also by others on the left and the right, distracts from the reality that we are one nation. It corrodes the sense of solidarity. It breeds suspicion, cynicism and distrust.
Human beings are too complicated to be defined by skin color, income or citizenship status. Those who try to reduce politics to these identities do real violence to national life.
Of course, he had to work in some “both sides do it…” Here’s what “gemli” had to say about his moaning:
“You know things have gotten out of hand when conservative pundits start telling the truth. The only reason Republicans are upset with Trump is that he lays their message bare, without providing the usual camouflage of finesse and plausible deniability.
Republicans clutch a bible and talk the talk about family values and jobs for Americans. Yet we know immigration isn’t a scourge that is taking jobs from Americans. In 2011 Georgia Republicans tried to put their mouth where their money is and passed laws that prevented immigrants from harvesting crops. Those crops rotted in the fields.
We know Republicans don’t care about family values, or real families for that matter. Just two years ago Republicans accused President Obama of domestic Caesarism and threatened him with impeachment when he issued an executive order to prevent cruel summary deportation of millions of illegal immigrants that would have separated parents from their children.
The right has reviled Mr. Obama as the antiChrist, but in fact he’s the antiTrump. Every decent, compassionate act that Obama has performed, from providing affordable medical care to treating LGBT citizens as human beings, has been met with virulent attacks from so-called compassionate conservatives.
The rich oligarchy that distorts everything for its benefit has every right to feel threatened. All the poisons that lurk in the Republican mud have hatched out, and they have taken the form of Donald Trump.” Nice “I, Claudius” reference there… Now here’s Mr. Bruni:
Conservative commentators and die-hard Republicans often brush off denunciations of Donald Trump as an unprincipled hatemonger by saying: Yeah, yeah, that’s what Democrats wail about every Republican they’re trying to take down. Sing me a song I haven’t heard so many times before.
Howard Wolfson would be outraged by that response if he didn’t recognize its aptness.
“There’s enough truth to it to compel some self-reflection,” Wolfson, who was the communications director for Hillary Clinton’s presidential bid in 2008, told me this week.
In fact, he finds himself thinking about it a whole lot: how extreme the put-downs of political adversaries have become; how automatically combatants adopt postures of unalloyed outrage; what this means when they come upon a crossroads — and a candidate — of much greater, graver danger.
“I worked on the presidential campaign in 2004,” he said, referring to John Kerry’s contest against George W. Bush. He added that he was also “active in discussing” John McCain when he ran for the presidency in 2008 and Mitt Romney in 2012.
“And I’m quite confident I employed language that, in retrospect, was hyperbolic and inaccurate, language that cheapened my ability — our ability — to talk about this moment with accuracy and credibility.”
Did Democrats cry wolf so many times before Trump that no one hears or heeds them now?
That’s a question being asked with increasing frequency, though mostly in conservative circles and publications. An essay by Jonah Goldberg in National Review in late July had this headline: “How the Media’s History of Smearing Republicans Now Helps Trump.”
In Commentary, Noah Rothman has repeatedly examined this subject. He wrote back in March that when “honorable and decent men” like McCain and Romney “are reflexively dubbed racists simply for opposing Democratic policies, the result is a G.O.P. electorate that doesn’t listen to admonitions when the genuine article is in their midst.”
“Today,” he added, “they point and shout ‘racist’ into the void, but Democrats only have themselves to blame for the fact that so many on the right are no longer listening.”
I think he’s being more than a bit disingenuous about the potential receptiveness of the right — or the left — to anything that the other side says in this polarized, partisan age. There hasn’t been all that much listening for some time.
Also, the Democratic condemnations of McCain and Romney weren’t as widespread and operatic as the ones of Trump.
And this is a two-way street. Republicans paint a broad spectrum of Democrats as socialist kooks, and Obama has been as strong a magnet for hyperbole as any politician in my lifetime. Let us not forget Dinesh D’Souza’s 2010 book “The Roots of Obama’s Rage,” or Newt Gingrich’s assertion that “only if you understand Kenyan, anticolonial behavior” can you grasp Obama’s method of governing, or Trump’s insistence that Obama produce his American birth certificate.
The sad truth is that we conduct the bulk of our political debate in a key of near-hysteria. And this renders complaints of discrepant urgency, about politicians of different recklessness, into one big, ignorable mush of partisan rancor.
What stands out in this presidential campaign aren’t the alarms that Democrats are sounding about the Republican nominee but the ones that an unusual number of Republican defectors are. That’s what’s unfamiliar. And that’s what’s wounding Trump.
Democrats were indeed dire about Romney, even though many of them, including President Obama, now speak of him fondly, as a Republican whose prescriptions might be flawed but whose heart is true.
Four years ago, he was a bloodsucking capitalist vampire whose indictment of Obamacare was ipso facto proof of his racism. In The Daily Beast, he was called a “race-mongering pyromaniac.” On MSNBC, he was accused, by a black commentator, of the “niggerization” of Obama into “the scary black man who we’ve been trained to fear.”
Romney was supposedly out of touch with reality — never mind that he had governed a blue state, Massachusetts, without cataclysmic incident — just as McCain was described, in some quarters, as a combustible hothead who couldn’t be allowed anywhere near the nuclear codes. He was Trump before Trump, which makes Trump less Trump.
And those are just the presidential candidates. Plenty of other Republicans have confronted charges of florid racism and incipient fascism that apply to some of them infinitely better than to others. Gradations disappear. Distinctions vanish.
Important words are hollowed out, so that they lose their precision and their sting, and exist mainly to perpetuate a paralyzing climate of reciprocal hatred between political parties.
After Clinton’s 2008 campaign, Wolfson went on to work for New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a Democrat who became a Republican and then an independent. He’s still in the former mayor’s employ, as a senior adviser.
That’s the vantage point from which he has watched Trump’s ascent, and from which he’s making some crucial observations.
“It’s only when you find yourself describing someone who really is the definition of an extremist — who really is, essentially, in my opinion, a fascist — that you recognize that the language that you’ve used in the past to describe other people was hyperbolic and inappropriate and cheap,” Wolfson said.
“It doesn’t mean that you somehow retrospectively agree with their positions on issues,” he added. “But when the system confronts an actual, honest-to-God menace, it should compel some rethinking on our part about how we describe people who are far short of that.”
“We should take stock of this moment,” he said, “and recognize that our language really needs to be more accountable and more appropriate to the circumstances.” I hope we do.
And now here’s Prof. Krugman:
Donald Trump is still claiming that “inner-city crime is reaching record levels,” promising to save African-Americans from the “slaughter.” In fact, this urban apocalypse is a figment of his imagination; urban crime is actually at historically low levels. But he’s not the kind of guy to care about another “Pants on Fire” verdict from PolitiFact.
Yet some things are, of course, far from fine in our cities, and there is a lot we should be doing to help black communities. We could, for example, stop pumping lead into their children’s blood.
You may think that I’m talking about the water crisis in Flint, Mich., which justifiably caused national outrage early this year, only to fade from the headlines. But Flint was just an extreme example of a much bigger problem. And it’s a problem that should be part of our political debate: Like it or not, poisoning kids is a partisan issue.
To be sure, there’s a lot less lead poisoning in today’s America than there was back in what Trump supporters regard as the good old days. Indeed, some analysts believe that declining lead pollution has been an important factor in declining crime.
But I’ve just been reading a new study by a team of economists and health experts confirming the growing consensus that even low levels of lead in children’s bloodstreams have significant adverse effects on cognitive performance. And lead exposure is still strongly correlated with growing up in a disadvantaged household.
But how can this be going on in a country that claims to believe in equality of opportunity? Just in case it’s not obvious: Children who are being poisoned by their environment don’t have the same opportunities as children who aren’t.
For a longer perspective I’ve been reading the 2013 book “Lead Wars: The Politics of Science and Fate of America’s Children.” The tale the book tells is not, to be honest, all that surprising. But it’s still depressing. For we’ve known about the harm lead does for generations; yet action came slowly, and remains highly incomplete even today.
You can guess how it went. The lead industry didn’t want to see its business cramped by pesky regulations, so it belittled the science while vastly exaggerating the cost of protecting the public — a strategy all too familiar to anyone who has followed debates from acid rain to ozone to climate change.
In the case of lead, however, there was an additional element of blaming the victims: asserting that lead poisoning was only a problem among ignorant “Negro and Puerto Rican families” who didn’t fix up their dwellings and take care of their children.
This strategy succeeded in delaying action for decades — decades that left a literally toxic legacy in the form of millions of homes and apartments slathered in lead paint.
Lead paint was finally taken off the market in 1978, but then ideology stepped in. The Reagan administration insisted that government was always the problem, never the solution — and if science pointed to problems that needed a government solution, it was time to deny the science and bully the scientists, or at least make sure that panels helping set official policy were stuffed with industry-friendly flacks. The administration of George W. Bush did the same thing.
Which brings us back to the current political scene. What with everything else filling the airwaves, it may be hard to focus on lead poisoning, or environmental issues in general. But there’s a huge difference between the candidates, and the parties, on such issues. And it’s a difference that will matter whatever happens to Congress: A lot of environmental policy consists in deciding how to apply existing laws, so that if Hillary Clinton becomes president, she can have substantial influence even if she faces obstruction from a Republican Congress.
And the partisan divide is exactly what you would expect.
Mrs. Clinton has pledged to “remove lead from everywhere” within five years. She probably wouldn’t be able to get Congress to pay for that ambitious an agenda, but everything in her history, especially her decades-long focus on family policy, suggests that she would make a serious effort.
On the other side, Mr. Trump — oh, never mind. He rants against government regulations of all kinds, and you can imagine what his real estate friends would think about being forced to get the remaining lead out of their buildings. Now, maybe he could be persuaded by scientific evidence to do the right thing. Also, maybe he could be convinced to become a Buddhist monk, which seems about equally likely.
The point is that the divide over lead should be seen not just as important in itself but as an indicator of the broader stakes. If you believe that science should inform policy and that children should be protected from poison, well, that’s a partisan position.