What I’m Reading: The Truths We Hold

The surest sign somebody’s considering a run for executive office is the publication of their combination memoir/manifesto. The Truths We Hold follows the model of Barack Obama’s The Audacity of Hope even more closely than I expected–it’s as though it’s been updated to critique the Donald Trump years instead of the George W. Bush years. Both books do a beautiful job of capturing the massive scale of contemporary problems we face while still expressing optimism and an unshakeable faith in American values. If you, like me, question that such values still exist in post-2016 America, it’s good to be reminded of them as we go into the next election.

After admiring Kamala Harris’s skillful questioning of people like Brett Kavanaugh, I was excited to see her amongst the 2020 Democratic primary candidates and I was keen to find out more about her. There are definitely some similarities between her upbringing and Obama’s. They were both raised by strong, academic (Shyamala Harris was a breast cancer researcher, Ann Dunham had a PhD in anthropology and worked in microfinance development) single moms, both of whom they lost to cancer in the early stages of their political careers. They both grew up travelling internationally and developing a worldview that’s more cosmopolitan than that of the average American (she visited grandparents in India and Jamaica, Obama lived in Indonesia). They both earned law degrees and have a strong public service ethos.

Significantly at this stage in the primaries, both candidates have been considered “unelectable”. Back in May, Samantha Bee pointed out that questions of “electability” only seem to face the female candidates, like Warren, Harris, Gillibrand and Klobuchar. Early polls ranked Biden, Sanders and O’Rourke as the most “electable” candidates, despite the fact that they have all lost elections and primaries in the past. The ladies have not.

Kamala Harris has won every race she’s ever run–for San Francisco’s District Attorney, California’s Attorney General, and her current U.S. Senate seat. Yet the pundits still say she’s not as “electable” as Biden or Sanders (who’ve both lost previous bids for the presidency). Harris addressed this claim at a recent rally in Iowa:

I’m not the only one who’s noticed the similarities between Harris and Obama–a few months ago, this Vanity Fair piece described Republicans who feared the prospect of Harris running for president because they saw her as “the next Obama”. In the same way that it would have been great to see Obama debate Trump and stand up against his birther conspiracy mongering face-to-face, I would love to see Kamala Harris use her prosecutorial skills against Trump in a debate. She speaks so eloquently and persuasively in her book about his litany of crimes–intentionally cruel policies of separating families and detaining kids in cages, Islamophobia, cuts to public services and tax breaks for the wealthy, transphobia, sexism, racism, actual confession on tape of sexual assault, unwillingness to condemn white supremacists/KKK/neo-Nazis, etc. It was sometimes overwhelming to read this book, to see it all written down in one place, rather than just getting a constant trickle from the 24/7 news cycle. But her no-nonsense approach, her determination and her optimism helped to balance that out and restore some degree of hope in the end.

While there are several candidates in the primaries that I would be quite excited to support in next year’s election, Kamala Harris is my current frontrunner.

Campaigning in Spanish: se habla español, pero conoce el votante latino?

This morning I saw a great BBC video on the use of Spanish in US Presidential campaigning, and whether it’s genuine outreach to Latino voters, or just lip service. The use of Spanish language material in campaigns is nothing new–I remember George W. Bush’s slow, heavily accented attempts (though his English wasn’t always very fluent either), Tim Kaine‘s more confident delivery of Trump takedowns en español, and even Jackie Kennedy spoke Spanish in an advert for JFK’s campaign in 1960.

While it seems like a lovely gesture, is it an empty one? As the BBC video points out, candidates attempts at speaking Spanish do not necessarily mean anything in terms of policy or genuine outreach. It may also be a bit annoying to bilingual Latinos and Latinos who are only fluent in English (like the only Latino candidate, Julián Castro, who is not actually fluent in Spanish).

What can candidates do to reach out to Latino voters, besides putting their English-language website into Google Translate (as the video suggests two of the current candidates did)? Here are 5 suggestions:

  1. Address the Latina pay gap: In the US, Latina women earn 53 cents for every dollar a white man earns.
  2. Make higher education more accessible and affordable: the college enrollment rate for Hispanic students has risen in recent years, but they are still less likely than other demographics to enroll in four-year and selective institutions.
  3. Healthcare: Like most Americans, Latinos want a better healthcare system. “In 2014, 26.5% of Hispanics were uninsured as compared to 10.4% of non-Hispanics under age 65. The gap was higher for persons aged 65 and over: 4.4% among Hispanics, compared with 0.5% among [non-Hispanic Whites].” (Velasco-Mondragon et al., 2016)
  4. Combat pollution and climate change: A recent study found inequality in air pollution generation/consumption in the U.S. “[A]ir pollution is disproportionately caused by white Americans’ consumption of goods and services, but disproportionately inhaled by black and Hispanic Americans.” (NPR story, original study here: Tessum et al., 2019)
  5. Gun control: In the current era of frequent mass shootings in the U.S., Latino voters generally support gun control legislation. “Hispanic registered voters nationally say they prefer gun control over the rights of owners by a margin of 62%-to-36%, as do black registered voters by a margin of 71%-to-26%, according to the survey. By contrast, white registered voters choose gun owners’ rights over gun control by a margin of 59%-to-39%.” (Pew survey)

The important thing for candidates to remember is to actually listen (don’t just assume you know what issues matter to them) and to not take voting blocs for granted (remember to go to Wisconsin and Michigan this time).  ¡Sí se puede!

US Soft Power Reassessed

Joseph Nye’s recent piece, American Soft Power in the Age of Trump, picks up on the key themes of his previous foundational work on soft power and acknowledges some of the problems America’s image abroad is facing in the Trump era. Even just a few months into the Trump presidency, Pew global attitudes surveys were showing steep declines in U.S. favorability ratings around the world. When asked to rate their “confidence in the U.S. president to do the right thing regarding world affairs”, 31 of the 37 countries surveyed had double-digit declines between Obama and Trump:

From: Richard Wike, Bruce Stokes, Jacob Poushter and Janell Fetterolf, U.S. Image Suffers as Publics Around World Question Trump’s Leadership, Pew Research Center, 26 June 2017, p. 4

It’s interesting, too, to note that Russia reported a huge improvement: Only 11% had confidence in Obama, while 53% have confidence in Trump–a 42 point increase. Fifteen countries had that kind of dramatic reversal in opinion (more than 41 point decreases), but Russia was the only country that had it in that direction.

Without using the phrase itself, Nye picks up on the dangers of Trump’s “America First” policies. Blatantly telling the world that we’re putting our interests above anyone else’s needs, or even above the common good, is clearly detrimental to our image abroad and certainly undermines American soft power.

“Domestic or foreign policies that appear hypocritical, arrogant, indifferent to others’ views, or based on a narrow conception of national interest can undermine soft power. For example, there was a steep decline in the attractiveness of the US in opinion polls conducted after the invasion of Iraq in 2003 . In the 1970s, many people around the world objected to the US war in Vietnam, and America’s global standing reflected the unpopularity of that policy.”

From: Joseph S. Nye, Jr., American Soft Power in the Age of Trump, Project Syndicate, 6 May 2019

Nye ends his piece on a somewhat optimistic note–America’s image abroad has recovered before and it will recover again–but personally, I think it’s still very much endangered. If Trump gets re-elected in 2020, the world will think the American people support him (not an unreasonable conclusion), and that America is accurately described by those qualities in Nye’s list–hypocritical, arrogant, indifferent to others’ views, and promoting policies that are based on a narrow conception of national interest.

I’ve been following a few of the 2020 candidates on the Democratic side on social media, and the comment sections are very worrying. So much abuse and animosity from Trump supporters, and any Democratic supporter who comments with anything positive faces abuse, as well. Whether they are real people or trolls (or real trolls?), it is concerning. These social media platforms are not a space for discussion of the issues, which is a shame–they should be able to function as a sounding board for candidates to elicit voters’ views on policies and to figure out what issues matter most to voters. Instead, these spaces become littered with insults, abuse, swearing, American flag emojis, and hashtags like #Trump2020.

I’m not sure what the solution is, but the 2020 election is an important factor in our consideration of U.S. soft power, and its future resurrection or continued decline.