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Jamelle Bouie | The Nation

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Jamelle Bouie

Jamelle Bouie

 Politics, wonkery and everything in between.

Race, Millennials and Reverse Discrimination

The most commonly said thing about the “Millennial” generation is that it’s more diverse and more tolerant than its predecessors. Millennials are more likely to be persons of color, more likely to show acceptance of same-sex relationships and more likely to have diverse social connections. With that said, none of this means that we’re somehow immune to problems of racism, prejudice and privilege.

Indeed, you don’t have to look far for examples of young people acting with an eye toward ignorance. There’s the “ironic racism” of Girls writer Leslie Arfin, the incredible outpouring of hate toward African-American actors in The Hunger Games and the annual stories of kids who throw blackface parties or complain about Asian students for existing.

All of this is lead in for a new survey from the Public Religion Research Institute, which polled adults aged 18 to 24 on everything from religion and morality to economic issues and the 2012 election. They also posed questions on race and ethnicity: Does government pay too much attention to the problems of blacks and other minorities? Is “reverse discrimination” a problem in today’s society? Is demographic change a good thing for American society?

The results weren’t heartening. Overall, 46 percent of Millennials agree that the government pays too much attention to the problems of minorities, with 49 percent who disagree. 48 percent also agree that discrimination against whites is a genuine problem. When you disaggregate by race and count only white Millennials, the picture is much worse.

A solid majority of white Millennials, 56 percent, say that government has paid too much attention to the problems of blacks and other minorities. An even larger majority, 58 percent, say that “discrimination against whites has become as big a problem as discrimination against blacks and other minorities.”

The pollsters at PRRI don’t try to tease out what this actually means, and honestly—as an African-American myself—it’s hard to figure out. Discrimination against minorities takes many forms, and most are easy to identify. There’s the overt bigotry of day-to-day life, the subtle discrimination of laws and institutions (the arrest rate for black men, the predatory lending aimed at minority communities) and the miasma of racist ideas that flow through our culture and sit in our subconscious, ready to act.

These things might hinder white Americans in a spiritual sense, but it’s absurd to say that they have a material effect on the prospects of white people. If you are white in the United States, almost everyone in a position of power or influence looks like you. You won’t be questioned if you find yourself in a nice part of town, you won’t be the picture of criminality, and few people will ever question your right to take government help. Cops won’t give you a hard time as a matter of course, and no one will ask you to speak for white people as a whole. Sports fans won’t go apoplectic and shower you with racial slurs because you scored a goal. The list goes on.

A quick note for those of you who will say that all of these things have happened to you. I’m not saying that individual white people are immune to being hassled by the cops, or being followed in a store. What I am saying, however, is that none of that will happen on the basis of your skin color. Being white doesn’t carry a host of negative assumptions. It’s considered neutral. Being black (or Latino) does, and that’s the difference.

With all of that in mind, I don’t quote understand how anyone could plausibly say that discrimination against white people is a problem in the same way that it is for minorities. But if I had to hazard a guess as to why a majority of young white people believe it, here is what I would say:

Because many young people are either in college or preparing to go to college, affirmative action is a salient issue, and there’s a widespread perception that minority students have an easier time of getting into school. Of course, this isn’t true at all; affirmative action adds racial (and ethnic, and gender, and religious) disadvantage to the collection of things that colleges examine when determining an applicant. There are no quotas and it doesn’t guarantee entry; a bad candidate is a bad candidate, regardless of their race. But if a Latino student and a white student are equally matched, the university might lean towards always choosing the former.

(Another note: just because the white student didn’t get in doesn’t mean that someone took “their” spot. Colleges don’t owe spots to students, and if you don’t get in to the school of your choice, the college took nothing away from you. With or without affirmative action, the odds of getting into a selective college are low).

What's more, we live in a culture where honest conversation about race is rare, especially among white people, where it’s surrounded by fear and anxiety. For many white kids, if not most, racial conversations are limited to a few units in elementary and middle school. Otherwise, they’re left to fend for themselves, which either leads to a sense of privileged obliviousness—i.e., you live and act as if this were a “colorblind” world, despite the fact that color matters for many people—or confusion and resentment.

Indeed, at the end of the day, Americans do a terrible job of teaching our history, and an even worse job of teaching our awful racial history. By and large, slavery is treated with appropriate horror, but everything after that is passed over and ignored. In my experience, students—white or otherwise—are ignorant of the violence and economic oppression that characterized much of the black experience for the better part of a century. Racism is morphed into a personal force—represented by Bull Connor or George Wallace—and there’s no attempt to show the economic and social effects of Jim Crow and segregation.

For a lot of young white people, I think, racism has become completely untethered from history. They’ve been taught “colorblindness” sans a sense of what it means to grow up in a country where white supremacy was once the ruling ideology. “Reverse discrimination,” then, is a catch-all for frustration at rules they don’t understand (white people can’t say the “N-word”), and double standards that seem unfair (e.g., “Why can’t we have White History Month and a White Entertainment Channel?). It’s understandable, but also a little depressing.

Dogwhistling From the Romney Campaign?

At The Washington Monthly, Ed Kilgore makes the case that Mitt Romney’s latest slogan—“Obama Isn’t Working”—is a racial dogwhistle:

Many regular folks seeing or hearing this slogan, personalized as it is to the president, are most likely to take it very literally: Barack Obama could fix the economy, but is too lazy to try. People in politics who blow dog whistles invariably deny it and usually express great umbrage at the very suggestion they don’t mean exactly what they are saying and nothing more.

But in this case, it’s the most obvious meaning that is objectionable, and it’s not reasonable to expect everyone to understand the slogan is really just a gesture of appreciation for the artistry of Margaret Thatcher’s wordsmiths, or of some sort of innocent, nostalgic anglophilia.

This is the first time I’ve heard the slogan, and I’m inclined to agree; taken literally, “Obama isn’t working” means that he’s lazy. In fact, as Kilgore points out, the meaning becomes even more clear when you consider that the Romney campaign constantly attacks Obama for taking vacations and playing golf. I imagine that I’ll get flak for this, but I don’t think it’s unreasonable at all to say that this is a clear attempt to evoke the stereotype of lazy, shiftless blacks.

This is frustrating for two reasons. First, racial dogwhistles are the lowest form of political combat. It’s shameful and dishonorable to play on racial fears for the sake of electoral gain, and that’s true on both sides.

Second, if true, it’s indicative of a broader attempt by the Romney campaign to play “I’m rubber, you’re glue” with the president. Romney constantly attacks Obama for “dividing” the country with “class warfare,” while at the same time, using a slogan that stirs ancient resentments. I’m not one for campaign outrage—it’s boring and tiresome—but this, I think, is genuinely problematic.

The Attack on Liberal Legitimacy

We don’t know how the Supreme Court will rule on the Affordable Care Act, but if it chooses to overturn the law, E.J. Dionne’s assessment of the court’s behavior this week will look very apt:

This is what conservative justices will do if they strike down or cripple the health care law. And a court that gave us Bush v. Gore and Citizens United will prove conclusively that it sees no limits on its power, no need to defer to those elected to make our laws. A Supreme Court that is supposed to give us justice will instead deliver ideology.

Taken in isolation, a decision to cripple or overturn the health care law is objectionable—the mandate falls within Congress’s established power to regulate interstate commerce, and the theoretical argument against it proves too much—but doesn’t necessarily threaten the Court’s legitimacy. Supreme Court justices are human, and this wouldn’t be the first time that they made an ideologically-driven decision. But if you place the Court’s (potential) action against Obamacare in the context of the last two decades, then it paints a more alarming picture.

In 1992, a Democratic president was elected for the first time in more than a decade. Almost immediately, an invigorated right-wing—driven by anger at the previous Republican president—tried nearly everything in its power to derail Bill Clinton’s first term. Soon thereafter, they won an unprecedented victory in the House of Representatives and doubled-down on their efforts, resulting in a government shutdown. But this backfired, and public disgust (coupled with a rapidly improving economy) put that president back into the White House for a second term.

Of course, this couldn’t stand at all, and over the next three years, the right-wing and its allies in Congress launched a baseless witch hunt against the president, culminating in impeachment over the “scandal” of lying about an affair (distasteful, but not illegal). Unfortunately for the right, Clinton managed to hang on and finished his presidency as one of the most popular figures in American politics.

Luckily for conservatives, they had a second chance at sabotaging a Democratic politician. Rather than allow the state of Florida to continue its recount in the 2000 election, the Supreme Court effectively ruled that Florida should just give the election to George Bush. This was a nakedly partisan decision, and the movement conservatives on the Court knew it—they all but said that this was a one-time event that shouldn’t be held as precedent.

After eight years of a Republican presidency, a Democrat won—again—and this time with a solid majority of the popular vote. Moreover, he came in with huge majorities in Congress and a real sense that the public was on his side. Even still, conservatives rallied to deny him forward movement, using procedural rules to block legislation and nominees, then blaming the president for the resulting gridlock and inaction. When, in spite of this, Democrats managed to pass a historic piece of legislation—the Affordable Care Act—which guaranteed health care coverage for every American, the right-wing immediately attacked it as unconstitutional, ignoring both its origins in conservative think-tanks, and the fact that the structure of the bill was pioneered by a Republican governor.

What is more, by this point in time, the right wing had gained control of the Republican Party as well as a critical number of votes on the Supreme Court, which brings us to this week, where it became clear that those justices are willing to overturn the bill for the sake of an ideological victory.

To me, this isn’t the story of a well-functioning political system—it’s an attempt to deny legitimacy to one side of the political spectrum whenever it gains power. Short of forfeiting elections–or passing right-wing legislation—there’s nothing that Democrats can do to satisfy movement conservatives. Duly elected Democratic presidents are attacked as illegitimate—Barack Obama had to show the public his birth certificate—and legislation passed by duly-elected Democratic lawmakers is attacked as unconstitutional.

A lot of progressives have responded to the Court’s conservatives with a promise to double down and push for single-payer health care in the years and decades to come. But if this is what we’re dealing with—a powerful right wing that doesn’t accept the legitimacy of liberal lawmakers or ideas—then I’m honestly doubtful whether there’s anything we do that can pass constitutional muster with the opposition. Put another way, just because conservatives decide Medicare is constitutional now doesn’t mean that they’ll feel that way if liberals manage to create Medicare-for-all.

The broader question, I suppose, is this—if our majorities don’t count, and our laws don’t either, then what does?

The Post-Racial Delusion

Writing in The New Yorker, Jelani Cobb says that the shooting death of Tayvon Martin was a powerful reminder that the United States is—and has been—far from the post-racial paradise that we’d like to imagine:

…the shooting death of Trayvon Martin…did not so much raise questions as it confirmed suspicions: that we remain stratified or at best striated by race, that “innocent” is a relative term, that black male lives can end under capricious circumstances, and that justice is in the eye of the beholder—ideas that are as cynical as they are applicable. At this juncture, events in Sanford, Florida, suggest the benefit of the doubt in the shooting of a black teen-ager extends even to unauthorized, untrained, weapon-toting private citizens who pursue unarmed pedestrians.

This can’t be stressed enough. What most people remember about the 2008 presidential election is Barack Obama, and what most people remember about Obama is hope, change and the promise of a post-racial America. The thing about that, of course, is that Americans weren’t uniformly optimistic about the post-racial future. In a poll released that summer, Gallup asked Americans if they thought “that relations between blacks and whites will always be a problem for the United States, or that a solution will eventually be worked out?” 59 percent of whites—expressing the racial optimism of the era—said that a solution would eventually be worked out.

Among African-Americans, the results weren’t so clear. Only 50 percent said that a solution would eventually be worked out; 49 percent were confident that relations between blacks and whites would always be a problem in the United States. Even still, compared to years past—where more than 60 percent of African-Americans were pessimistic about race relations—this was a large move toward the Obama-inspired optimism of white America.

Unfortunately, the last few years have been a mixed bag. The good news is that African-Americans have reached the heights of American political life. The bad news comes from all angles. Blacks are still under-represented across the political spectrum—there is one African-American among the 150 senators and governors in the United States—and they are still most likely to suffer from a whole host of socioeconomic ills.

Black people have also been reminded that status isn’t a shield against racism. Barack Obama is the most powerful man in the world, but hasn’t stopped opponents from attacking his legitimacy, demeaning his heritage and questioning his citizenship. Hell, it remains profitable for demogagues to capitalize on the racial fears and anxieties of many people—the careers of Glenn Beck and Andrew Breitbart are a case study in how to race-bait for fun and gain.

To echo Cobb, Tayvon Martin is simply the most vivid example of the things that actually define race relations in this country. It should be said that Obama himself understands this. To wit, he offered a few powerful words this morning, commenting on the case. Here’s what he said:

…my main message is to the parents of Trayvon. If I had a son he would look like Trayvon. I think they are right to expect that all of us as Americas are going to take this with the seriousness it deserves and we will get to the bottom of exactly what happened.

The Case for Progressive Federalism

One of the problems for demographic minorities of any stripe is that, in a country where the federal government is the locus for a huge array of policy making, their attempts to exercise power are often thwarted. African-American members of the House may hold positions of seniority, but they are rarely in a position to bring policy in their direction, because of the reality of the legislative process; most congresspeople—most Democrats—won’t vote for policies that specifically benefit blacks or other minorities.

Writing for Democracy Journal, Heather Gerken uses this fact to highlight a key problem with the progressive approach to minority rights—namely, that ignores the extent to which autonomy and authority are crucial to empowering minorities. And with that, she makes a careful and fascinating case for a new progressive federalism, that guarantees the rights of minorities, while giving them the opportunity to empower themselves. Here is the crux of her argument (I apologize for the lengthy blockquote; you should really read the whole thing):

However, when one turns to the question of winners and losers, the limits of the diversity paradigm are clear. While the diversity paradigm guarantees racial minorities a vote or voice on every decision-making body, it also ensures that they will be the political losers on any issue on which people divide along racial lines. Racial minorities are thus destined to be the junior partner or dissenting gadfly in the democratic process. So much for dignity.

Minority rule, in sharp contrast, turns the tables. It allows the usual winners to lose and the usual losers to win. It gives racial minorities the chance to shed the role of influencer or gadfly and stand in the shoes of the majority. Local institutions offer racial minorities the chance to enjoy the same sense of efficacy—and deal with the same types of problems—as the usual members of the majority. Minorities get a chance to forge consensus and to fend off dissenters.

Rather than keep minorities as junior partners in a national government, Gerken wants progressives to embrace decentralization as a way for minorities to enjoy majority status for themselves. And beyond the sense of community efficacy that comes with this, there’s a practical reason for this strategy; by debating, compromise and passing policies that benefit their communities, minorities move dissent away from rhetoric and toward action, and can place key issues on the national agenda. This goes for progressive concerns like same-sex marriage—which became part of the national debate, in part, because of the actions of states and localities—as well as conservative ones like border control and abortion.

Because Gerken’s piece is exceptionally thoughtful, I’m not going to rush to judgment; I want to give it the time it deserves. For now, though, I have two thoughts. The first is that this is a powerful argument; giving minorities a chance to demonstrate the substance of their arguments through local rule is a powerful tool in the fight to change policy on a national level. Black unemployment is persistently higher than unemployment for any other group; are there policy solutions that are impossible to pass in Congress, but could be tried on a local level? You can ask these same questions for everything from climate change to educational reform.

But there are obvious concerns. Would national majorities use empowered local communities as an excuse to shy away from broader problems? And would this renewed federalism become, again, a tool for oppression? I can imagine a world where a majority-Latino community creates school districts that specifically cater to Latinos, but this comes with uncomfortable echoes of “separate but equal.” Of course, quasi-segregation for the sake of empowerment is different than outright segregation for the sake of oppression. But it’s something to consider.

In any case, I really recommend that you read the whole piece. At the very least, it will give you something to think about, and there’s a good chance that I will return to the subject with further thoughts.

The Majority-Majority Future

A survey released last week from the Pew Research Center features fascinating new data on interracial relationships in the United States. According to Pew, the “share of new marriages between spouses of a different race or ethnicity increased to 15.1% in 2010, and the share of all current marriages that are either interracial or interethnic has reached an all-time high of 8.4%.”

At the same time, public acceptance—and support for—interracial marriages has continued to grow. 43 percent of Americans say that the increase in interracial marriages has been a change for the better in our society, compared to the 10 percent who disagree.

As for the marriages themselves, the picture is a little different than what you would expect. Asian-Americans have the highest intermarriage rate, at 27.7 percent, followed by Hispanics (25.7 percent), African-Americans (17.1 percent) and whites (9.4 percent). 43.3 percent of all intermarriages in 2010 were Hispanic/white, making that the most common pairing. “Other mixed” took second place 30.4 percent, followed by white/Asian—which were 14.4 percent of all pairings—and white/black, which were 11.9 percent of all intermarriages.

It’s a common enough belief among liberals that demographic changes will give them a built-in advantage in national elections. The Latinoization of the Southwest—and the nation’s growing Asian population—is said to herald an age where liberals can build majority political coalitions in states that were once conservative strongholds. But race and ethnicity are very fluid, and even with the growing population fo Asians and Latinos, it’s not at all clear that the United States is on a straight path to majority-minority status.

This is where intermarriage rates are important. Of the children produced by Hispanic/white or Asian/white pairings, how many will be considered Asian or Hispanic, and how many will be seen as simply white? Far from becoming a country where a majority of the population belongs to a racial minority, it’s entirely possible that the United States becomes a country where “white ethnics” include people with Latino or Asian heritage, as well as people of Irish or Italian descent.

Of course, the American racial landscape goes beyond white/black/Latino/Asian. Which is why it’s important to understand the extent to which the racial divide is non-black/black, rather than black/white. On every measure—from income and education to housing and health—the distance between blacks and everyone else is large and enduring. And upwardly mobile immigrant groups have always defined themselves in opposition the descendants of slaves as part of the effort to enter the American mainstream. This is lot less straightforward in practice; sometimes, political circumstances force an immigrant group to define itself in terms of its ethnic identity, which can have lasting effects. We saw this with Irish Americans in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, and we’re seeing it unfold with Latinos.

Even still, if this dynamic continues into the twenty-first century—and the current pattern of intermarriage suggests that it will—then we’ll find ourselves in a familiar place. Some immigrants will “become” white, and others won’t, but—as always—everyone will define themselves in contrast to African-Americans.

Puppets and Boogeymen

Rick Tyler, Newt Gingrich’s former communications director, was on a roll last night during his appearance on The Rachel Maddow Show, when he attacked the show’s titular host for noting the racial coding behind the former House Speaker’s recent rhetoric. As Maddow pointed out, Gingrich’s attacks on Obama for being an “entertainer” and a “food stamp president” evoke negative beliefs about the “place” of blacks in American society, as well as their willingness to work and contribute to society.

Rather than address the charge—which has been made in detail by observers across the political spectrum—Tyler defends the Republican Party as the “real” party of civil rights (and pretends as if the last sixty years of political history never happened), and presents the Democratic Party as the chief impediment to black advancement. See for yourself:

It actually gets much worse than this, to wit:

The Democrats have failed in the public schools with the African-Americans, they abort their babies, they’ve nothing to lift them out of poverty, and you know what, I hear all the time that the Democrats have these great intentions, but their policies fail.… Maybe we should try our policies that put people back to work, and not give them a handout, tell them to live in public housing, shut up, collect a check and vote for Democrats.

This was all punctuated by an assertion that mediocre films like Red Tails are necessary because black children don’t have any positive role models in their lives. (Which, I imagine, would come as a surprise to many black people, myself included.)

With rare exceptions, this country has never been able to talk about the position of African-Americans with any amount of maturity, nor has it tried to understand black people as individuals who make choices and respond to their environment. Instead, African-Americans are either pathologized—problems of poverty, for example, become “black problems” and culture failures—or treated as a passive, collective mass.

Rick Tyler’s rant hits both bases. First, he takes American problems—pervasive joblessness, inadequate schools etc.—and treats them as exclusive to black communities. Then he presents the Democratic Party as an entity that has tricked them into dependency, as if black people aren’t intelligent or proactive enough to recognize their political interests.

Put another way, in Rick Tyler’s world, it’s not that the Republican Party has alienated African-Americans with racially inflammatory rhetoic and hostile policies, it’s that black people have—somehow—been cowed into submission by their liberal overseers. It’s an insulting and condescending narrative that, unfortunately, is common among conservative politicians, activists and voters. Herman Cain, for example, presented himself as the latter-day fugitive who, in his words, “escaped the Democratic plantation.”

Indeed, the Republican primary has been drenched in this rhetoric. As Jeffrey Goldberg points out for Bloomberg, if you were to listen to GOP presidential candidates, congressman and radio personalities, here’s what you would conclude about African-Americans:

Black people have lost the desire to perform a day’s work. Black people rely on food stamps provided to them by white taxpayers. Black people, including Barack and Michelle Obama, believe that the U.S. owes them something because they are black. Black children should work as janitors in their high schools as a way to keep them from becoming pimps.

The depressing thing about this rhetoric is that it isn’t likely to change. It’s not just that a mostly-white Republican Party is running against a black president, or that the core of the party resides in the states of the former Confederacy, where racial appeals still have plenty of currency.

The GOP is increasingly a party of older, whiter Americans who jealously guard their own benefits for fear of redistribution to the “undeserving.” And long as that’s true, there will always be traction in attacking “welfare queens,” “strapping young bucks,” and the assorted black boogeymen of right-wing fever dreams.

Obama Stakes His Claim to the Middle Class

This afternoon, President Obama went to Shaker Heights, Ohio, to announce his decision to appoint Richard Cordray director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Cordray, who formerly served as the state’s attorney general, has been on the nomination docket for more than six months, and has maintained solid support from a majority of the Senate. The problem, of course, was Republican opposition. It’s not so much that GOP senators were unhappy with Cordray as that they oppose the CFPB itself. But rather than submit Cordray to an up-or-down vote, they opted to block his nomination through filibusters and other procedural methods. What’s more, in order to keep Obama from making a recess appointment, they kept the Senate in continuous “pro forma” sesssions.

But Obama isn’t required to honor such sessions, and today he ignored the Senate and gave a recess appointment to Cordray. This was a bold move from the president, who tends to defer to Congress, and hasn’t made much hay about the GOP’s refusal to confirm his nominees.

Of course, Obama wasn’t in Ohio just to announce a recess appointment, which aren’t particularly novel, as far as presidential actions are concerned. More than anything, his trip to Ohio was a campaign stop—the first of the new year—and one where he expanded on his populist message. “The financial people have armies of lobbyists looking out for their interests. You need someone to look out for yours,” he said, explaining his support for the bureau. And in a jab at Republican obstruction, Obama declared, “I’ve got an obligation to act on behalf of the American people, and I’m not going to stand by while a minority in the Senate puts party ideology ahead of the American people.”

Obama has already doubled-down on this stance; the White House has already confirmed that Obama plans to install his picks to the National Labor Relations Board, which has been under fire from Republicans for its willingness to work with and support the rights of workers.

Obama is clearly trying to goad the GOP into attacking his moves to improve the position of workers and ordinary Americans. Indeed, the president wants a fight, and more importantly—given the public’s enthusiasm for his populist message—he stands to gain from one.

It should be said that there was a narrow political advantage to this as well; not only did it pre-empt coverage of the Republican primaries but it underscored the extent to which Mitt Romney is very vulnerable to this avenue of attack. As a former vulture capitalist who continues to profit from his former profession, Romney is the spitting image of Wall Street excess. Moreover, he’ll be running to defend policies that enrich the wealthy—like himself—at the expense of everyone else. A general election that’s fought on the interests of the middle-class is one where Romney is at a disadvantage.

How Republicans Can Reach African-Americans

Rick Santorum on how he plans to improve life for American families:

“Having that strong foundation of the faith and family allows America to be in a position where we can be more free,” Santorum says. “We can be free because we are good decent moral people.”

For Santorum that means cutting government regulation. Making Americans less dependent on government aid. Fewer people getting food stamps, Medicaid and other forms of federal assistance—especially one group.

“I don’t want to make black people’s lives better by giving them somebody else’s money,” Santorum begins. “I want to give them the opportunity to go out and earn the money and provide for themselves and their families.” [Emphasis mine]

Santorum did not elaborate on why he singled out blacks who rely on federal assistance. The voters here didn’t seem to care.

There’s an easy answer for why Santorum singled out African-Americans as opposed to whites—the widespread perception that blacks are the main beneficaries of federal assistance, despite the fact that whites make up the bulk of Americans who receive income assistance. Of course, Santorum isn’t the only Republican in the race who has a problem with racism. Ron Paul has his widely discussed newsletters, Newt Gingrich has his comments on low-income children and Rick Perry has the “niggerhead” ranch.

In other words, if Republicans want a shot at winning a non-trivial share of the “black vote,” then they should shy away from presidential candidates who casually express racism on the campaign trail or elsewhere.

Ben Nelson's Christmas Gift to America

The Senate might hail itself as the “world’s greatest deliberative body,” but like all democratic institutions, it has had an incredibly mixed history, with moments of genuine achievement—the Civil Rights Act of 1964, for instance—tarnished by moments of cowardice and moral failure, like the Iraq War. If you can say anything about the tenure of Nebraska senator Ben Nelson—who announced his retirement this afternoon—it’s that he strove to embody the worst of the Senate during his two terms in office.

During the Bush presidency, in addition to his support for the Iraq War and the Patriot Act, Nelson voted to restrict marriage rights for gay couples and to make reproductive healthcare more difficult for women. He voted against legislation to raise the minimum wage, against attempts to increase Pell Grants and for the 2005 bill to make bankrupcy proceedings more difficult for ordinary Americans.. He voted to reauthorize the Patriot Act, and voted in support of the Military Commissions Act of 2006 and its draconian attacks on civil liberties for detainees (and everyone else). He voted against President Bush’s bill for comprehensive immigration reform, and voted in support of a bill to establish English as the official language of the United States.

During the Obama presidency, Nelson turned his loathsome behavior up to eleven, as he obstructed the stimulus bill and worked with Republican senators Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins to needlessly strike tens of billions in aid to state governments. As a marginal vote in the Democratic caucus, Nelson was key to the passage of healthcare reform in the face of unified Republican opposition. True to form, he used that power to extract ridiculous concessions from President Obama and in the process nearly scuttle the bill. Since then, he has done everything he could to undermine liberals in Congress, from coming out against provisions in financial reform (that he voted for), to dragging his feet on “don’t ask, don’t tell” repeal (he eventually voted for it), to acting as a constant deficit scold, urging President Obama to ignore unemployment and sluggish growth in favor of austerity.

With his parochialism and narrow concern for his own influence, it’s no exaggeration to say that Ben Nelson represented the worst of the Senate. His retirement is a good thing for Congress and a good thing for the country.

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