Ryan J. Suto's Blog

02 December 2016

Politics is Perception

The political games the Republicans are playing leave the Democrats with no strategy moving forward

The Out-Party Game

Recently President Barack Obama pointed out that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and the GOP figured out something very important during the Obama presidency: most Americas either don’t know or don’t care about the nuance of how government works:
And the problem is, is that the general public is not following the intricacies of the legislature and they’re not interested in who’s to blame, they just want to see stuff done. And the one guy they know is the President of the United States, so if things don’t get done, that can advantage the politics of the other party.
Americans know that the president is in charge of the government, and so if they are told that the government is not working, and they don’t see it working, it must be the president’s fault.
This is how the Republican Party survived — and actually thrived through — eight years of obstructionism in Congress. By blocking nominations, budgets, and legislation — much of which that would have actually helped their own constituents, and some of which Trump has championed as his own — the GOP was able to convince enough Americans that the resulting ineffective governance was Obama’s fault all along. He is the president, after all, and he is responsible for getting things done. Republicans were able to ignore a Supreme Court nominee for eight months, along with 90 other judicial nominations, without any electoral punishment — and they knew they could do it, because not enough Americans concern themselves with esoteric notions like structural democracy.

The In-Party Game

Now Trump is showing the next phase of this strategy: pure theatre. First, Trump claimed credit for keeping a Ford plant in the US that wasn’t actually slated for closure or relocation. Now, he claims to be saving jobs at a Carrier plant which actually amounts to a state tax break deal from the governor of Indiana — soon to be Vice President Mike Pence — and still allows for jobs to be shipped to Mexico.
But most Americans don’t read beyond these headlines. They don’t understand or care about the details, such as an incoming president’s legal inability to unilaterally provide incentives for an individual firm to change their financial decisionmaking. And Trump knows this. He knows that his Tweets and his statements will create headlines that will get tens of millions of views, whereas the resulting fact-checking and counter-arguments will merely get thousands of views among his supporters. Further, he and the GOP have already convinced 86% of Republicans that the ‘mainstream media’, the ones best positioned to uncover the facts behind his claims, are untrustworthy.
Like a lucky hat during a baseball game, Trump supporters will cling to these superficial displays as the cause of all that is good while overlooking the bad — or likely blame it on Obama. No rigorous investigation of cause-and-effect will take place. And without hold of either the House or the Senate, the Democrats have little ability to even use the Repbulican’s obstructionist playbook. They have little ability to undermine the empty theatrics of the Trump Administration that will echo among his supporters.
The Democrats cannot count on Trump’s scandals or failures to shake his support come 2020. If Trump keeps up his smoke and mirrors theatre and Americans take them at face value, the next election may actually be more ‘post truth’ than 2016.

13 September 2016

Five MENA policy challenges that go beyond ISIS

The current US presidential campaign debate on Middle East policy has focused disproportionately on the US response to the Islamic State (ISIS or IS). This series will focus instead on five alternative Middle East policy challenges facing the next president. Each post below has been originally published at LobeLog.

Five issues ignored during the 2016 presidential election

Amid an election full of outlandish statements, Twitter spats and ad hominem accusations, many important problems facing America have failed to grace headlines. I address five of them in a series on Fair Observer:

1. The Harm of Judicial Elections in America

2. Suspicion in America: Creating a Problem for a Solution

3. Landscape of Inequality: How America Funds Public Schools

4. Continuing Opacity: Surveillance Under the Next Administration

5. The Fairytale of America and its Lost Civic Ideals

01 September 2016

Kaepernick and American-ness

There are two major issues underlying the dialogue surrounding Colin Kaepernick’s decision to remain seated during the national anthem: 1. Race and 2. Symbolism.

1. Our society questions the American-ness of People of Color more readily than the American-ness of white people.

I can't count how many times I've heard Asian Americans asked, ‘OK, but where are you REALLY from?”, when their family has lived in the US longer than mine has. Or heard fans of Mexican soccer criticized for a lack of patriotism in a venomous way that fans of European soccer are not. Remember when even elected officials questioned the American-ness of a US-born black presidential candidate, but uttered nothing about his white opponent who was actually born abroad? Or perhaps when a former president suggested administering loyalty tests to Muslim Americans.

In our society, if you aren't an English-speaking white Christian, you have the burden of proof to show your American-ness.

2. Americans are fiercely protective over our symbols: the flag, the Constitution, the pledge of allegiance, the national anthem. Our Founders are held as not wealthy aristocrats who bright and ambitious, but prophets, bestowing upon us words and ideals beyond the tampering of mere mortals. We have been uniquely hesitant to modify our Highest Law, having only done so on 18 occasions since 1787. While others insult America and its military, like Donald Trump, they are careful to not deviate from reverence of national symbolism. When any public figure denies the sanctity of these symbols, they face quick reproach from many corners. 

Both of these issues are symptoms of the same sickness: insecurity. Americans are insecure about what it means to be American. Like a paranoid lover, we desire uncritical loyalty. Like a worried child we clench tight the words of our Founders as though they are the strands of our safety blanket.

This insecurity is at least partly caused by the many Americans who provide demographics as the identity of American-ness: Anglophone, white, Christian. And as those demographics dwindle, anxiety rises. Unfortunately for them, demographics are transient; human migration is the most stable truth of our short history.

As Americans continue to react to the contemporary model of globalization—which has temporally trailed reactions in the Middle East, Asia, and Europe—our collective identity must be more resilient than demographics and more flexible than worship of parchment from a horse and buggy generation. 

17 August 2016

The man who talks most about winning is an expert in losing

Don’t be surprised that Trump has been peddling reasons for his eventual loss, stating that the election will be rigged against him. Don’t be surprised when he focuses more on maintaining an intense following rather than softening his message, only feigning attempts to gain wider appeal. And don’t be surprised that he’s cozy with ultra-right, and largely successful, media figures like Steve Bannon.

The man who has remained in the public eye through four bankruptcies knows how to lose. He’s not preparing his first 100 days as president, he’s preparing his next business, to be deployed on Wednesday, November 8th. Will he start a media outlet? A new TV show? Or a consulting firm? Only time will tell, but this much is true: Trump is prepared to lose the election, and profit from it as much as possible.

This attitude is indicative of corporate America: blow smoke to inflate worth or value as much as possible and use leverage to negotiate/set-up a golden parachute, so that when you get exposed you land with more than you had originally. It’s bark with no bite, it’s style without substance, but in business and in politics, it seems to work far longer than it should. 

08 July 2016

White America: how did we get here?

Since the time of honest racial segregation in America—when whites wrote down race-based rules of exclusion—we have been formulating modes of dishonest segregation: denials of equality and inclusion in areas such as housing, criminal justice, employment, interpersonal relationships, and private organizations.

Once institutionalized, this dishonest segregation becomes subconscious for us whites: we do not create race-based rules, we just live by the status quo. We are not racist, after all, we just call balls and strikes. We're objective when pressing charges, citing criminal statistics, administering standardized tests, drawing political districts, or selecting the best candidate.

Many whites were born into this dishonest America: told that ours is a diverse country, only to be raised in all-white neighborhoods and sent to local property tax-supported, largely white schools, with few opportunities placed in our laps to have black friends.

By the time Rodney King made the news, we had to learn of the goings on of our own country from strangers on the screen—we had no loved ones who experienced institutionally tolerated racial prejudice or violence. We knew no faces on which to see pain. We had no connections.

Twenty years later, and what has changed? Inequality remains. Informal segregation remains. This is still a dishonest America. Whites only know more because there are more cameras, not because of an increase in interracial neighborhoods, places of worship, or other voluntary activities or organizations.

This reality does not create people without tolerance, it creates people without empathy. It is difficult, and perhaps unnatural, to feel empathy for a group excluded from your childhood, education, community, and workplace—especially when you are simultaneously told they are not actually being excluded.

Our crisis today is not that us whites are any more racist than anyone else, it is that we do not engage in empathy. We see a country that functions reasonably well for us and fail to ask how well it works for others. Whites need to view #BlackLivesMatter not as implying other lives do not matter, but as a plea for empathy, a plea to help create a country that works just as well for others as it does for us.

Our crisis tomorrow is that any unrest—any threat to change the status quo, any risk of this country continuing to work as well for us as it did in our childhood—will push white people to increasingly blame others. In accepting the Republican nomination for president in 1968, Richard Nixon stated, “When a nation that has been known for a century for equality of opportunity is torn by unprecedented racial violence … then it's time for new leadership for the United States of America.” Nixon could not have possibly been talking to black America, fresh off the heels of a century of Jim Crow and the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He was talking to white people—the same people presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump excites by the promise of making America great again.

As we did in 1968, we risk looking to a presidential candidate who promises to restore order and, implicitly, ensure that America continues to work well for us whites.

We do not need to make America great again for us white people. We do not need to tell ourselves that police officers are increasingly targets of violence. We do not need more excuses to dig our heels into the status quo. We need to begin a social evolution in which our influence is real: we must listen to how America works for all minorities—Black, Latino, Muslim, LGBTQIA, Disabled, women, etc. Real understanding will foster empathy between communities, allowing for the creation and promotion of more inclusive spaces, institutions, and policies. Through listening to the voices, pain, and strife of our fellow Americas with whom we may not live, work, or pray, we can begin to create the nation we were raised to believe we already had.  

27 April 2016

7 Goals for Progressive Millenials

Progressive voters under 30 years famously helped President Barack Obama take the presidency in 2008. Similarly, throughout this campaign they have been unquestionably the largest supporters of Senator Bernie Sanders—presently the only 2016 candidate who Millenials view favorably. But after last night’s results in Maryland, Pennsylvania, and elsewhere, the nomination of former Secretary Hillary Clinton as the Democratic candidate for the presidency is now all but inevitable, leaving millions of young progressives disappointed. However, the future of progressivism cannot be about any singular candidate, and much work remains for those who wish to give our children a more compassionate and just America. The following 7 goals are where those who #FeelTheBern can turn to continue the fight.

1. Vote this November.
While the Democratic primary has been more substantive than the other side, a majority of young progressives who support Sanders still feel hesitance toward Clinton. However, she is the closest in policy and priority to Sanders of any other candidate this election. A Clinton victory in November would protect women’s rights, ensure another progressive on the Supreme Court, and raise the waters for down-ticket progressive support, such as Congressional candidate and Sanders supporter Zephyr Teachout. Even the most anti-Hillary progressive should consider her come November; the alternative—Donald Trump—is simply too disastrous.

2. Bottom-up governance.
It is well-documented that Democrats have failed at electing people not named Barak Obama over the past decade, allowing the GOP to control the House, Senate, 70% of state legislatures, and a majority of governors. At the federal level, since the 2010 midterm elections we have seen how difficult making progress can be with a Republican-dominated legislature. And while progressive Millenials like to dream nationally, the mechanisms for enforcing many of our policy positions—from universal healthcare (including mental health) to education reform—lie at the state and local level. Perhaps more importantly, state elections are the only place where redistricting and criminal justice reform can occur. If progressives do not think and act locally, we will continue to be politically out-flanked by conservatives for a generation.

3. Structural reforms.
Before going straight to emotion-laden policy goals like immigration, a woman’s right to choose, and gun control, the new progressive generation needs to focus serious energy on structural improvements to how the game of politics is played. Overturning Citizens United and the intricacies of primary voting has grabbed our collective attention, but there has been less rage about the gutting of the Voting Rights Act and the legalized voter suppression which followed it. Just as important are reforms for judicial elections: while the framers of the U.S. Constitution prohibited elections for federal bench, states—where over 90% of all cases are heard—have free reign to decide how to select their own judges. Former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor and organizations such as the Brennan Center for Justice have spoken out about the influence of seeking reelection has on how judges decide cases.

4. Criminal justice.
The frequent murders of unarmed black men and mass shootings in 2015 have rightfully made criminal justice an important topic for 2016. Common sense gun control, reforming the training and diversification of police forces, and cultural changes at both the national and community level must be achieved if we hope to reduce the instances of similar tragedies in the future. Further, progressives should push for sentencing reforms which no longer target communities of color, as well as oppose the expanse of privatized prisons (though Clinton seems to hold a mixed position here). For Millenials, moving beyond President Obama should mean opposing the continued expanse of government surveillance which he continued from the Bush Administration, as well as the discriminatory Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) initiative.

5. Social justice.
Movements like #BlackLivesMatter have worked to push social justice to the fore of our national discussion leading up to the 2016 elections. Coming to age during these time have made Millenials particularly sensitive to ethnic and racial inequalities. Young progressives of all colors should be allies of communities which have been marginalized, disenfranchised, and underserved. While much of this remains cultural change which cannot be legislated, progressives can make policy accomplishments by fighting poverty, rejecting xenophobic immigration policies, requiring equal pay for equal work, advancing disability rights, and accepting more refugees from war-torn countries. And while the Supreme Court delivered a major victory for gay rights, the “religious freedom” bills—legitimized discrimination—being introduced in state legislatures throughout the country show that work remains undone.

6. Equal economic opportunity.
This was the central issue of the Sanders campaign, and it behooves those most effected, those with college debt or little work experience, to continue the fight. To properly address the causes of income inequality, we must look to expanding early education, public school finance reform, and college affordability. These achievements will allow future generations of disadvantaged Americans to compete on a more level ground than exists now. For the present workforce, we must continue advocating for more progressive tax structures, increased employee rights, such as paid parental leave, benefits for part-time workers, and a living wage for all full-time employees.

7. Principled foreign policy.
Lastly, progressives must support policies abroad which are in line with our founding principles of democracy and human rights—yes, even for the Palestinians. The United States must lead by example in supporting these ideals while conforming to domestic and international law, in contrast to the Cowboy Diplomacy of the Right. This stance requires measured and limited use of an efficient Department of Defense which protects Americans without unnecessary expenditure. And those who serve us must be treated with the respect they deserve when they come home, including educational and employment opportunities, mental and physical health services, and an expanded Transition GPS (Goals, Plans, Success) program.

These 7 goals can help to frame and structure the energy and passion that Millenial progressives have shown in support of Senator Bernie Sanders. While his 2016 presidential candidacy has little hope of succeeding, the policy stances Sanders brought to the fore—income inequality, education reform, and limited military force—are worthy of carrying beyond 2016 to create a future in which our generation can believe. 

28 February 2016

Xenophobia Has No Place in America

Posted on Fair Observer.

On January 16, Amine Aouam was battered on the streets of Philadelphia so badly that he regained consciousness in the emergency room. His transgression? Speaking Arabic. Last November, two men were temporarily barred from boarding their flight in Chicago, causing delays and involving airport security. What was their suspicious behavior? Speaking Arabic. In October, Said Othman was stabbed in Brooklyn, and in February 2015, a man was attacked in Dearborn, Michigan. Speaking Arabic was also the provocation in these acts of violence and hate.
This pattern troubles me, as it should trouble all Americans. These attacks are not isolated and cannot be ignored; they are the implicit consequence of the vitriolic rhetoric that has surrounded Islam and Arabs this election season.
These men, along with countless others whose victimization has gone unreported, bear the burden created by the xenophobic and opportunistic rhetoric and policies proffered by many of our public figures.
While neither Arab nor Muslim, I cannot help but feel that my family has been attacked when I read of such ignorant hatred. My late grandmother was born in 1922 to immigrants who, like all who freely came to these shores, arrived in hopes of living a better life.
An oft-told story of Grandma’s involved social rejection from other children at school because her family spoke Polish at home. Facing ostracization, she vowed to no longer speak her parents’ language. While Grandma regretted not passing on her Polish heritage, her commitment to America never waned. She proudly recalled her time working in a factory in central New York as part of the ubiquitous war effort during World War II.
Yet my repulsion from such bigotry goes beyond my family’s past—they feel like attacks against my family’s future, as well. My fiancée is an Arab Muslim, heiress to the same rich cultural tradition of the aforementioned victims in Philadelphia, Chicago, Brooklyn and Dearborn. Like Grandma, she was raised in a bilingual household that welcomed everyone with open arms and open hearts. If we have a son, he might look like Amine or sound like Said. Will I have to worry for his safety, simply for speaking his mother’s language?
This must be the same worry that every Arab parents faces in America today. Xenophobia and ignorance have once denied my family’s access to the benefits of bilingualism. Do not allow it to happen again.
In every area of American triumph, there are the fingerprints of the hard work and unique insights of new Americans. They are grateful for new beginnings and bring with them the experiences and lessons of the lands they left, enriching the lives of us all. Despite this, since before our founding, conflict between newcomers and those already here has, unfortunately, been a tradition on this land.
But if Americans wish to derive pride as a nation built by and composed of immigrants, refugees, pilgrims and slaves, this is unacceptable.
So let us begin a new American tradition. Let us marginalize the bigots who use hatred as a political tool. Xenophobia should not be an effective tool in America. Let us be not only a diverse people, but an open and accepting people as well. Let us celebrate the cultural and religious flexibility that the founding ideals allow, and embrace our differences, not denigrate or diminish them.
Instead of denying Muslim refugees and attacking Arabic speakers, we should show them współczucie, the Polish word for compassion. That is how Grandma, who loved irrespective of race, religion and even sexual orientation, would have wanted it.

The Presidential Race We Deserve

The political discourse of shouting, speaking in platitudes, making vague and nebulous claims, blatant lies, mis-information, and xenophobia has dominated this election cycle. Individually none of this is new in politics, but they are combined and accentuated to create the worst political discourse that I can remember. While it is easy to blame particular candidates, demographics, or industries, the blame for the degradation of our national politics lies with We The People.

First, political campaigns react to nothing more strongly than polls, perception, and donations. No political candidate could afford repetitious lying or unapologetic scapegoating if there were either financial or electoral consequences. Relatedly, the ubiquitously vilified American media are largely, at the bottom line, private corporations which aim to turn profits. Contemporary coverage and narratives are more often driven by our desires than by civic duty. Our clicks and views tell outlets what stories will lead to greater ad revenue and bigger audiences.  

Next, our understandable frustration with our economy, foreign policy, and other issues has turned the American people against anyone with prior political experience. This is an erroneous approach. By analogy, if an airplane crashes due to pilot error, no one would fire the pilots and hire accountants—instead, better pilots would be employed. Likewise, we should not replace our current politicians with surgeons, businessmen, or preachers, but instead with better politicians. Indeed, when a plane crashes, hundreds can die in an instant, but when a country is led by misguided policies, thousands can die in needless violence, hunger, or disease. The aversion of the American people toward those with even a basic understanding of legislation and governance has decreased the political discourse among presidential candidates and will undoubtedly decrease how we are served by our government.

Last, and perhaps most importantly, we have allowed ourselves to under-fund crucial programs in civics and humanities at both primary and secondary levels. By viewing education as merely a means to employment, teaching only performance on standardized tests, and obsessing over science and technology education, we habitually let our children down by ignoring coursework and lessons which instill citizenship. Studying the humanities, for example, has been shown to increase empathy, a trait badly needed in our public discourse about immigrants, refugees, and Muslims. Greater requirements and resources for courses in history, political science, and government would create a more informed, more engaged, and more diverse electorate than we have now. More knowledgeable voters would have a greater ability to discern fanciful promises from practical solutions, and have a greater understanding of the context and contents of our Constitution.

From school funding decisions to clicking sensationalist headlines, and from tolerating xenophobic statements to shunning policy nuance, we have built a political discourse that reflects the worst in us. In this election, our candidates represent how little we collectively think about and pay attention to public policy. In order to change our politics, we must change ourselves. Thomas Jefferson tasked us to do so, famously writing, “An educated citizenry is a vital requisite for our survival as a free people.” It may be too late to change 2016, but by improving our civic knowledge and engagement, we can lay the groundwork for a better 2020 and beyond.

05 January 2016

The “Citizens for Constitutional Freedom” Claim to Defend the Constitution. Here’s Why They’re Wrong.

Three days ago, a group of armed individuals took occupation of the United States Fish and Wildlife Service's Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, a federal building in remote Oregon. They did so on behalf of fellow ranchers who recently turned themselves in for setting fire to federal land. In both traditional and social media, a national debate has emerged as to how the government should address this situation, and whether those involved are protesters, occupiers, terrorists, insurgents, or a militia. While these are important discussions, at the heart of the matter is an invocation of the U.S. Constitution which has largely been overlooked.

Cliven Bundy, one of the individuals, has argued, “The United States Justice Department has NO jurisdiction or authority within the State of Oregon, County of Harney over this type of ranch management.  These lands are not under U.S. treaties or commerce, they are not article 4 territories, and Congress does not have unlimited power.” Thus, Bundy and the others view the federal government’s ownership of the land as unconstitutional. As such, they have now labeled themselves Citizens for Constitutional Freedom.

The relevant clause in Article IV of the Constitution that Bundy referenced reads, “The Congress shall have Power to dispose of and make all needful Rules and Regulations respecting the Territory or other Property belonging to the United States…” Bundy proffered no further explanation as to why the refuge does not fall under this language. Regardless, the acquisition of control of federal land within states has long been settled in Supreme Court cases such as Hutchings v. Low, 82 US 77 (1872) (affirming the constitutionality of Yosemite National Park) and Alabama v. Texas, 347 US 272 (1954) (“The power over the public land thus entrusted to Congress is without limitations. And it is not for the courts to say how that trust shall be administered. That is for Congress to determine.”). Supreme Court decisions are law, which only can be overturned by later Supreme Court rulings or constitutional amendments, not by armed occupation.

As such, allow me to suggest an alternative label for the “Citizens for Constitutional Freedom”: criminals. Under 25 CFR 11.411 a person is liable for criminal trespass if he or she “knowing that he or she is not licensed or privileged to do so, he or she enters or surreptitiously remains in any building or occupied structure.” The refuge has now been closed, and they remain in the building. Further, they have the aggravating circumstance of possessing firearms within a federal building while committing a crime, as proscribed by 18 U.S.C. §930(b), which could land them up to five years in prison.

In the United States, processes and institutions exist for the redress of grievances. Government structures are of course not always well-functioning, and civil disobedience is a route other Americans have taken in order to initiate structural changes. However, civil disobedience does not come at the end of a gun barrel. It comes willing to accept the punishment and actions of the state as a means to show onlookers the injustice of the law. By being armed, and declaring a willingness “to kill and be killed”, these individuals present a threat to any federal authority who might arrive to lawfully remove the group from the premises.

Ensuring governmental authority remains limited is an important part of American citizenship, but the “Citizens for Constitutional Freedom” would gain more sympathy if they had a credible claim. They treat the Constitution as a legal code, expecting the document to anticipate all governmental actions in 4,543 words. However, John Marshall wrote in McCulloch v. Maryland 17 US 316 (1819) that a Constitution contains the “great outlines” of a legal system. So when we read the document looking for absolutist interpretations, “we must never forget that it is a Constitution we are expounding.”

The Constitution is not a static document, but comes to us through centuries of adjudication and interpretation. Ignoring the text and the path it has taken since 1787 renders one’s interpretation and analysis incomplete. Our political discourse would benefit greatly from more detailed and nuanced discussions around both the strengths and flaws of our foundational legal document. Committing armed trespass while making vague constitutional references injects no such detail or nuance, and only further obfuscates how the Constitution influences our interactions with each other and our government.