The Sorensen Monologues

Populism vs. Populism

I’ve been wanting to talk about the word “populism” for a while, as it’s been abused so much in political discourse lately that it has become meaningless and, I would argue, misleading. The term has always been a bit nebulous — a positive interpretation is “ordinary people vs. the powers that be” or “the grassroots.” A less charitable usage is “politicians pandering to the masses” or “rabble-rousing,” which is in itself an implicit critique of democracy’s potential excesses — giving the people what they want without regard to the soundness of the policy.

Nowadays, the term is used routinely by journalists to refer to two movements that are pretty much opposites; it has become an empty word that lets journalists off the hook from actually having to describe the content of the political movements to which they are referring. Trump (and Bannon and other right-wing authoritarian leaders around the world) is often referred to as a “populist” because he displays faux concern for the working class and a resentment of science and education, but his policies are in fact grotesquely elitist. If by “populist” we mean whipping up resentment against immigrants and people of color, then we should say that. Otherwise, “populism” is just a lazy euphemism for racism.

Put another way, “populism” has become a tool for false equivalence between corrupt oligarchs and progressive leaders who operate in the traditions of enlightened democracy.

It’s Okay if You’re a Republican!

Back in the early aughts, the term “IOKIYAR” — It’s OK If You’re A Republican — was thrown around a bit in progressive quarters online, but I rarely see it anymore. IOKIYAR referred to the double standard by which Democrats and Republicans are judged in the media and the court of public opinion. In short, Republicans can simply get away with stuff that Dems can’t. Consider it a “boys will be boys” approach to politics (the dynamic is, in fact, heavily gendered). Repubs gonna Repub. What are you gonna do? God forbid Hillary Clinton risk national security with a private email server. But Mitch McConnell blocking cybersecurity bills to prevent election hacking in 2020? Whatevs.

For more on the election security issue, this Vox article provides a summary. If you missed E. Jean Carroll’s sexual assault allegation against Trump (corroborated by two other journalists), that’s here. And the video clip of Oregon State Senator Brian Boquist threatening police is here. I didn’t have enough space to mention right-wing militias shutting down the Oregon Capitol with violent threats, but that happened too. IOKIYAROWWG! (It’s OK if You’re a Republican — or a Wingnut With Guns!)

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The House Is Too Damn Big

This was inspired by a Wall Street Journal article that was published in March, but for some reason went viral over the weekend. The article specifically discusses multi-million dollar dream homes in the Sunbelt that aren’t selling:

For their retirement in a suburb of Asheville, N.C., Ben and Valentina Bethell spent about $3.5 million in 2009 to build their dream home: a roughly 7,500-square-foot, European-style house with a commanding view of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

The Bethells said they love the home but it now feels too big, especially since their adult son visits only about once a year.

“It now feels too big.” WHO COULD HAVE KNOWN? Meanwhile, an entire generation stuck with student loan debt, capricious contract work, and sky-high real estate prices, can’t afford to buy at all. And the minimum wage remains $7.25/hr, where it was last set a decade ago.

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Base-less Strategy

To be clear, I’m talking about the party leadership here and not the candidates themselves, many of whom are doing a good job of articulating a progressive vision. Last week we learned that Washington Gov. Jay Inslee had requested a debate devoted to the issue of climate change. The DNC said no, with the bizarre excuse that a president must be able to “multitask” (with a focused debate apparently being an example of not multitasking). To make matters worse, the DNC threatened to punish candidates who did engage in such a debate. According to Inslee, “they explained that if we participated in anyone else’s climate debate, we will not be invited to future debates. This is deeply disappointing.”

I can see the argument that many Americans have been so deluged with BS from right-wing media about the climate crisis that there is some risk of alienating those voters, but I don’t think we’re going to move forward in any meaningful way by kowtowing to disinformation and self-censoring; that’s a short-sighted approach. The DNC’s plan to punish candidates who do participate in a climate debate is just beyond stupid. I thought some of the animus directed at the DNC in 2016 was a bit conspiratorial and overblown, but now they’re practically begging the party faithful to loathe them.

My motivation here is not to create a destructive circular firing squad, but to criticize these bad ideas in the hope that the leadership will improve. It seems some strategists are only capable of perceiving the risk of alienating hypothetical swing voters, but ignore the great risk of alienating the base. You don’t win elections with milquetoast waffling. And if the planet is to survive, we’re going to have to talk about it.

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Twitter for Introverts

To my Twitter friends who tweet a lot: I’m not talking about you! I mean, not really. What inspired this cartoon is this tendency for Twitter to constantly show me tweets by certain people I don’t follow (through retweets and trending topics), while almost never showing tweets from less-active people I actually do follow. Generally speaking, I find the quiet folks in the latter group far more interesting than the first, which tends to be dominated by mediocre media people. Oftentimes the humans I find the most fascinating — like Alison Bechdel — barely tweet at all. I realize I can manage what I see through the mute button and lists, but the fact remains that Twitter algorithms rely on engagements, which create a self-reinforcing cycle that elevates high-volume opinion-spewers. (Implicit bias also plays a role in who gets retweeted, as well as a certain degree of NY-DC media insularity.)

Twitter is, unfortunately, the space where professional visibility happens nowadays. I can’t change that, but at least I can fantasize about a different kind of public commons where quiet people RULE.

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Fake Facebook Videos Throughout History

As most people have heard, a slowed-down video of Nancy Pelosi that made her appear drunk or mentally troubled went viral recently. The White House, in what appears to have been a coordinated effort, promulgated the smear that Pelosi was losing her marbles. Facebook refused to remove the video, claiming they’d reduced its distribution, but according to the Root it was still getting comments from confused viewers, and failed to have any fact-checker warnings.

This goes beyond merely inaccurate spin or false “reporting.” Seeing is believing, and manipulated video is about bending reality itself. While the Pelosi video alteration was relatively low-tech, the technology of “deep fakes” — digitally-constructed fake video — is improving, and almost certainly will pose grave Orwellian challenges in the future. Samantha Bee did a good segment on deep fakes for the “Not the White House Correspondents’ Dinner” special. It’s worth watching if you want to learn more.

A number of well-meaning people have suggested that it’s not Facebook’s job to remove such content, and who’s to say what is true or false, and there is no absolute rule that would apply to everything, so therefore we can do nothing. This just shows how much norms have been eviscerated. Facebook is a media company profiting off of news delivery. This is a high-profile case of disinformation and character assassination with major political import. You do what any ethical news outlet would do. You apply basic journalistic principles and remove it! Facebook removes plenty of content all the time (let’s just say it has a complicated relationship with the female breast), so it’s not like they don’t interfere already.

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Fantasy Joe Biden

OK, so I did give in to the temptation to make a Game of Thrones reference. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the show, Arya Stark has shape-shifting capabilities and, to put it gently, does not suffer fools. I like the idea of Arya taking over Biden for a while. The thing is, I didn’t want to imply that she’d killed Biden, so I had to explain that somehow, and, well, if you look at photos, the man clearly has had some work done. I don’t actually hate Biden, but I do think he’s the wrong candidate for this moment, and his propensity for saying gratuitously stupid things (such as having no empathy for an entire generation saddled with crushing student loan debt in a time of record inequality while facing insane housing costs and apocalyptic climate change) is worrisome. I get that some voters like happy talk about working together with Republicans, but I don’t think this sets us up well for standing up to the revolutionary assault on democracy currently being waged by the GOP.

If Biden becomes the nominee, there will be a time to rally around him — but right now I think it’s useful to examine the candidates’ shortcomings. I criticize not to destroy, but in the hopes that his campaign will do better. Otherwise, this country is toast.

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End Of The Roe

Several states are now passing radical anti-abortion laws, with the express goal of taking the fight all the way to a sympathetically pre-modern Supreme Court. Alabama is on the verge of enacting a near-total ban with no exceptions for rape and incest. Yesterday, SCOTUS issued an ominous ruling against stare decisis that many legal experts are saying lays the groundwork for overturning Roe.

How did we get here? Partly, I would argue, from reproductive justice being continually marginalized as “not hard news” — unlike, say, tariffs! (Incidentally, I’ve seen a couple terrible political cartoons now depicting trade war with China as an earth-scorching Game of Thrones dragon. I don’t care how much fun it is to draw dragons, I promise I will never do that to you.) Also, some of us were VERY, VERY WORRIED about the Supreme Court in 2016, predicting that this was going to happen, and it felt like those warnings were met with a collective shrug. I think many people still underestimate the dark times ahead. Seriously, working on this cartoon gave me the creeps.

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Candidate Time Machine

I’d vote for any of these candidates against Trump, of course. I do think people are overestimating Biden’s electability — there’s an enthusiasm gap there that poses a risk, and he’s said some awfully stupid stuff. You can’t say Trump is an aberration and unrepresentative of the GOP in 2019 after voter purges, Merrick Garland, acceptance of Russian interference in our elections, and countless other gross violations of democratic norms. And no, Dick Cheney is not a “decent man.”

I don’t object to trying to win over white working class guys in diners — indeed, I support the 50-state strategy espoused by Howard Dean some years ago. I do think they’ve been somewhat mythologized at the expense of other working class voters. I couldn’t help but notice who was prominently featured in this emotionally-powerful Sanders ad about the Lordstown, Ohio GM plant closure, compared to the considerably more diverse set of Lordstown workers who appeared in this NY Times article (scroll down through all the photos).

The role of Trump’s affluent and middle-class supporters has also been rendered invisible. The $70,000 figure came from this oft-quoted Nate Silver post; while rural voters do tend to support Trump, we often forget it was suburban whites who really put him over the top. Only a third of Trump supporters had incomes under $50,000; another third earned $50,000-$100,000 and the remaining third made over $100,000. How often do we hear about Trump’s huge base of six-figure earners? Other studies suggest that better indicators of Trump support are education levels and fragile masculinity.

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More Maladies of the Information Age

I figured I’d take a break from The Horrors this week, something I could certainly use, and you probably could too. In calmer years past I drew more cultural strips, which are political in their own right, even if political cartoon traditionalists don’t see it that way. I may start doing a few more of these in the months ahead.

I have personally encountered all of the problems illustrated in this cartoon, the most recent one being Game of Thrones spoiler panic. The hubbo and I broke our longstanding rule of not paying for cable TV and signed up for HBO Now with a Roku (CHEAP!) so we could watch the final season of Game of Thrones without people on Twitter ruining it for us. But I haven’t had a chance to watch the latest episode yet, and I feel like I can’t check social media until I do.

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Not Helping, Mueller Report Edition

Ugh, the dumb takes on the redacted Mueller Report are flying from every direction. Mueller himself is partly to blame, for entrusting Republicans in Congress to conduct oversight and for speaking in elliptical bureaucratese that leaves itself open to spin and gross failures of reading comprehension. The report’s damning evidence was greeted by weak messaging from the Democratic leadership, with Steny Hoyer timidly saying impeachment was “not worthwhile” and Nancy Pelosi in Belfast stating that, while on a Congressional delegation overseas, “We do not leave the country to criticize the president of the United States.” She promised to follow up on the report, but I mean, come on. Can you imagine this ho-hum response from Republicans if Democrats sought and received help from Russia to win an election? I’m not saying the Dems have to commit to impeachment (though I believe Elizabeth Warren’s response was morally just). But at least show some proper outrage and say “THIS IS APPALLING!”

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The New York Post Cover Generator

As you’ve most likely heard, Rep. Ilhan Omar gave a speech to the Council on American-Islamic Relations after the New Zealand massacre, in which she addressed Islamophobia and the tendency for all Muslims to be blamed for the actions of a few extremists. Here’s the key passage:

Because here’s the truth — here’s the truth: Far too long, we have lived with the discomfort of being a second-class citizen, and frankly, I’m tired of it, and every single Muslim in this country should be tired of it. CAIR was founded after 9/11 because they recognized that some people did something and that all of us were starting to lose access to our civil liberties. So you can’t just say that today someone is looking at me strange, that I am going to try to make myself look pleasant. You have to say, “This person is looking at me strange. I am not comfortable with it. I am going to go talk to them and ask them why.” Because that is a right you have.

Right-wing activists latched onto the phrase “some people did something,” stripped it of its context, and dishonestly presented it as though it were Omar’s definitive statement on 9/11. The heinous New York Post cover blared “REP. ILHAN OMAR: 9/11 WAS ‘SOME PEOPLE DID SOMETHING'” — suggesting a very different sentence with a different meaning than the actual quote. As if to illustrate her very point about Islamophobia, they showed a photo of planes hitting the twin towers and accused her of lack of sympathy for the dead. Now she faces a barrage of death threats herself.

A couple thoughts here. First, there’s nothing wrong with what Omar said! She spoke in abstractions in the service of larger logical point about blaming the many for the actions of a few. She was basically saying “x did y, and everyone who looks like x gets blamed for it.” She didn’t need to go into the horrors of y. As Elizabeth Spiers says in her critique of the vile Post cover: “She was not talking to an audience full of children or idiots. Everyone in the room knew what happened on 9/11, and everyone knew it was unspeakably horrible.”

Second, the extremist Rupert Murdoch types creating these manufactured controversies are only part of the problem. Just as bad are people trying position themselves as “centrist” and “reasonable” by arguing that Ilhan did something wrong, but it’s not as bad as the NY Post and Fox News said, or talking about her as a “vector of controversy,” or some such holier-than-thou nonsense. These people are feeding the problem

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Jen Sorensen is a nationally-published political cartoonist. She is a 2017 Pulitzer finalist and recipient of the 2014 Herblock Prize and a 2013 Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award.