Pantsuit Politics talks LGBTQ Politics with Kim Mellen

Editor's note: A long time ago Kim Mellen, a devoted listener and activist, reached out to the show and offered her perspectives if we ever wanted to discuss LGBTQ issues. I decided to take her up on it. Last week, while everyone was freaking out over the firing of Jim Comey and the Yates/Clapper testimony, Kim and I had a long chat on the phone about the past and future of LGBTQ politics in America, where the next fights are, how age shapes your political vigilance, and where conservatives fit into the social policy equation. This is part of our conversation. 

Do you think that LGBTQ people by nature are more politically active than your average citizen? Do you think activism is a necessity for LGBTQ folks? Or conversely, is inactivity viewed as a luxury?

100% I think we’re more politically active. We have seen an uptick in people’s engagement, and donations to organizations protecting LGBTQ rights. I don’t see that going down anytime soon. Locally in Atlanta our Human Rights Campaign chapter has endorsed John Osoff in the 6th district. There is a lot of support behind organizations and candidates fighting for LGBTQ rights. You see information getting passed around and it starts linking into every community. The thing about our community is it’s truly representative of the entirety of our populations. We’re men and women, rich and poor, black, white, hispanic. It really covers the spectrum. There is a lot of community engagement and there is a lot of fear in the community right now, and that in turn spawns engagement. You see that in other groups too. Professionally you’re seeing lawyers organize, which is crazy.

But to me personally, engagement isn’t new. I have always been politically engaged. The first time I went to D.C. I cried as an adult, it was kinda dorky. The last two election cycles have in particular really provoked a big uptick for me. After the Supreme Court passed Obergefell v. Hodges, the marriage equality measure, in our local and state groups we started looking at the shifts in local policies because that’s where the real damage was being done. I remember when Act Up got started in the Reagan era, and Harvey Milk, and representatives in the political space being recognized and listened to. It breeds a culture of activism. We have to be active. If we’re not, we get nothing. Even with marriage equality. In North Carolina, and Tennessee, and Texas, and Mississippi, the legislation that happens at the local level is really what will affect and impact your life. People are paying attention. With the wave of younger progressive people coming into the political space, it’s been an interesting time to watch that come together. The energy, Dante, it just feels different. Just talking to people in the neighborhood. It’s always present.

Do you find there to be an age disparity with LGBTQ folks fighting for their rights? And what I mean is, for younger people who have grown up in what is a nowhere near perfect, but more demonstrably progressive America, does the fight not feel as real or as urgent as say, someone who grew up in the height of the Christian Right in the 80s?

Yes, definitely. I see that even with my wife Rebecca and I. We are 14 years apart. She grew up knowing a more open society, her generation, they started that big shift. They are all gender fluid and all that stuff. I graduated high school in 1986, knowing what it was like to drive to a bar and know that you might be arrested. I’ve been run off the road for holding hands with my girlfriend in a car when people saw us at a stoplight. I’ve been pulled out of a car by young guys thinking I was a guy, and when they saw I wasn’t they just kind of let me go. Everything now feels like a physical blow, and it’s just different. When Rebecca and I talk, I’ll explain it to her and she’ll say stuff like “That actually happened to you?” There is a difference generationally in how people are feeling this in the community. It doesn’t detract from any age group getting into the fight. People telling their stories like they’re hearing now. Those who lived through the Reagan era, and the AIDS crisis. I never thought I’d see marriage equality in my lifetime and if I did I thought it wouldn’t happen until very late in my life. It doesn’t make the progress less tangible. But I think the young people are seeing that the fight is never really over, and there’s still so much work to be done.

What do you say to straight people or people outside the LGBTQ community that have viewed the incoming Trump era and said, you know I don’t know what they’re so afraid of?

My emotional reaction is not very nuanced. It’s a big fuck you. And that’s from my gut. I would point people to all kinds of places you can find news in the LGBTQ community. There are links on the HRC’s website. The ACLU has information on cases that I’ve been involved in. Source your own research but here is where you can go to find it. Ten trans women of color have been killed just this year due to hate crimes. TEN. The hate, and the danger, it’s around you everywhere you look. It impacts my life every single day. You things that most people don’t even think about my wife and I have to think about, like whether she can make medical decisions with me, not even talking about children and parental rights, just making medical decisions together.

It’s one story at a time and one person at a time. I keep watching all these things happen and the only way I’ve ever made an impact with people is to sit and talk to them and meeting them where they are and not apologizing for that. After talks it’s usually, I understand you a little bit better and I hope you understand me a little bit better. I have a boring mundane life. I am married to the woman I love. I go to work, pay my taxes. You know it’s basically the same as everyone else’s, but sometimes it takes real conversations to get people to see that.

LGBTQ for a long time has, from a national politics perspective, been focused on sexuality. But now it seems more and more the gender portion of the acronym is moving into the spotlight. Gender is a really tough thing for people to wrap their heads around, is it like that even for folks within the community?

I think there are some people in the community that struggle to understand that experience. Even if you don’t fully understand it, protecting their rights becomes about appreciating someone’s right to exist as they are. Transgender people, there’s so much to unpack there. I can’t fathom the experience they have or that they go through. But I can understand what it feels like to be different, and viewed as “other” and not fit in and not feel comfortable as myself because I couldn’t be my true self. I couldn’t imagine my entire life, as an open and out lesbian, under that weight. I don’t need to experience being transgender to know that weight, and fight for people to never have to live with it.

Where is the next fight for LGBTQ rights?

It is definitely in the area of trans rights. It’s the bathroom bills that are coming out. At the state and local level is where it gets really scary and the feds have basically passed these issues on to the states, and at the local level discriminatory legislation can happen much quicker. Adoption is now on the table. Tennessee just signed into law the invisibility law, NC is trying to work on the repeal of HB2. Texas has lots of adoption laws on the books. It’s definitely centered around trans and family and keeping the more “traditional” definition of what a family is and getting it enshrined into law.

What do the words religious freedom mean to you?

It means you have the freedom to practice a religion unencumbered by anyone or government. Practicing your religion means gathering in your church, or mosque, or synagogue. It doesn’t to me mean that if you run a business, that you can use scripture to discriminate against people. Practice your religion. Then when you step into the public space you can’t deny people coverage, or service, or anything based on religious freedom just like you couldn’t based on the color of their skin. The religious freedom argument is a license to discriminate and there is no other way to look at it.

Why do you think religious freedom has been used as a weapon, even as its legal justification to discriminate keeps getting challenged. Socially and economically too, we’re seeing more and more activism against religious freedom bills that aim to discriminate.

Freedom is to be free of that kind of discrimination, really. But when you say religious freedom it feels like something that is being taken away. It immediately positions it as a removal of freedom. It’s all about things being taken from you by the “other.” At the heart of it, it’s racism and sexism and homophobia, and xenophobia driving that sentiment in the GOP. There’s always this concept of the “other.”

It seems to me though, that the party shift under Trump might draw some focus away from LGBTQ folks as the "other." Trumpism to me is more of a nationalist movement, so is there an argument to saying that there is less of a stereotypical social conservative bend to this administration and its supporters?

Well, there is the David Duke segment of that base and there’s obviously the alt right, but you’re probably talking about the Fox News watcher. They just have a different enemy. They’re riled up about Muslims, or illegals. They have bigger “others” to deal with at the moment. It just happens to be our turn not to be in that crap pile for that segment of the population.

Who are the political heroes and heroines in the LGBTQ community?

Barney Frank. Tammy Baldwin. Barack Obama. Although he’s not really in the party right now. The progressive caucus is leading there, but getting more people at the table is happening slowly but surely at the federal level. But it’s going faster at the local and state levels. In ATL we have 3 openly LGBT people in city commission, we have an openly LGBT mayoral candidate about to run in Atlanta. That campaign is set to start soon. I realize Atlanta is a bubble comparatively in the South, but it’s happening. That race is going to heat up. We’ve got some old time Georgia candidates, some black candidates. It will be an incredibly diverse race.

If you don’t have a seat at the table you don’t have a voice, even though you have people advocating for you. Those are two very different things. It’s all about perspective right?  We have Tammy Baldwin in the Senate. There is a guy in the house, but his name is slipping me at the moment. There might be 2 openly LGBTQ representatives at the federal level, and 2 out of 535 is pretty poor. One openly sitting Senator. I think that is starting to shift. Maybe not at the federal level, but it’s coming.

Do you think we’ll see an open president?

Not in my lifetime. It make me a little sad to say it but I don’t think so.

You’ve categorized a lot of things tonight in terms of your lifetime. Considering the gains that have already been made and what you’d like to continue to see, if at the end you could give a recap, what would a lifetime of progress look like for you?

The further away I get from it, I think it’s really gratifying to see how the community itself has grown and changed and embraced the more marginalized sections of even our own community. I think it’s only going to continue, and as we get coalitions built with other marginalized communities. Now you’re going to get into my liberal Democratic side where we’re all one and everyone is beautiful, but you know I really believe that! Seeing a younger generation coming into life without the same hang ups that I have has been a wonderful thing to see, you know? Just people being more comfortable with who they are and being able to live as they should - that and a female president are things that I would look back on and feel very proud of. I’d also look back on two political moments, and they are both Obama inauguration speeches. When he said we’re looking forward to welcoming our LGBTQ brothers and sisters so they can enjoy equal rights, and when he said Stonewall to Selma my jaw dropped. To hear that in the inaugural, it was unbelievable to someone like me.

It’s common to associate LGBTQ folks with the Democratic Party, but we know there are conservatives too. What do you see as the future of the conservative movement within the LGBTQ community? And moreover, conservative politics in relation to it? There is a lot of talk that young cons are really not as concerned with some of the social aspects of the last 30 years of GOP politics. Could you see a shift that brings the country closer together on social policy?

There’s continued talk of that and I would love a movement. The younger conservatives are what might ultimately save the party. They really are talking about policy issues not social issues, and policy issues should really define a party. I think I would like to see that. It’s a truer representation of what government would be and what governing is. The conservative movement within the LGBTQ community will always survive, and unfortunately it presents itself in some ugly ways. You obviously still have the dominant white male and everything that comes with that, even in the gay community. You still have elements of sexism and racism and all that. People that are born and raised in these gentile environments - which is my experience in the South - they really believe they’re better than people. They believe that I’m white so I’m important or I’m a man and people are interested in what I have to say. It tends to coalesce around a certain kind of individual, and it tends to be white men. I think there are a lot of people really concerned with government and not social issues. Democrats can get there too. We have a lot of policy points that have nothing to do with who you love or who you marry. It will be interesting to watch, to see the younger conservative members of our community and their evolution.

My last question. Are we doing a good enough job of covering LGBTQ issues on the show? And if we’re not, what would you like to see us cover?

Y’all do a great job of bringing issues to light and talking about the social fabric of politics. Of course it’s always done in a fair and loving way. I’ve never felt left out listening to the show or participating in the community. Something I would like to see though, The Democrats have just reintroduced the Equality Act, maybe do a show on what that means? The Equality Act basically inserts sexual orientation and gender identity into the civil rights protected classes and grandfather’s us in so we don’t have to fight these constant battles to get the next protection on the books.

Would it essentially be a re-shaping of the 14th amendment?

Well the 14th amendment says you can discriminate based on race, religion, etc. so yeah, in essence we are talking about adding to the 14th amendment. It expands the categories of public accommodation. It amends the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to include sexuality among the prohibitive categories. That takes all these discriminatory cases running around in cities and states and throws them right out the window.   


 

Digesting the Democratic Party with Bryn Behrenshausen

Editor's note: Bryn worked on the Hillary Clinton GOTV effort in the 2016 campaign, is an active participant in North Carolina state politics, and is one of Pantsuit Politics' most devout followers. He and I have often had short Twitter conversations about the direction of the Democratic Party and different ideas of what liberalism is or isn't in the modern era. I wanted a conversation that spanned more than 140 characters so I called him this week to chat. 

If you were a doctor, how would you assess the health of the Democratic Party right now?

I’d say we are pretty much healthy, we’ve got high cholesterol and some other things that we need to address immediately - we’ve got some things we need to work on. This conversation is going to happen any time you lose a presidency to another party and you’re recovering afterwards. I think people are over playing this. We don’t have one central figure to lead the party, but I am also of the mind that we don’t need to have one central leader. I think we need a couple leaders and those are emerging. Keith Ellison and Tom Perez are trying, and they don’t always go about things the way I would but they are making an effort to get out there and talk to people and that’s a good start. I think they need to get some more diverse people in that ring, I saw a lot of push back about them running around with Bernie Sanders because he’s not technically a Democrat. It’s a lot easier to move the furniture when you’re inside the house instead of shouting about where it needs to be from the outside. He needs to shit or get off the pot. You can’t use the Democratic apparatus - and I was sucked into that message of screw the Democrats – and not be trying to move the party in a positive direction. I’ve had some time to realize that that’s not productive.

I know you were one of the show’s most devout Bernie Sanders supporters early in the 16' campaign. Obviously that feeling has changed. Was this the first time you’d voted in a national election? What was your tie to the Democratic Party prior to 2016?

I voted before this election. I voted out of civic duty and wasn’t engaged. It was the 2012 election. Unfortunately I did not vote for President Obama in 2012. I voted for the Libertarian candidate in 2012. In order to understand how I became a Bernie supporter is to understand my background. My dad is a staunch libertarian and my mother voted with my dad. She was the stay at home mom, took care of the kids. They used to joke that she was internal affairs and he was external affairs. Neither of them ever had a good thing to say about Dems or Republicans, especially the Clintons. But obviously I got older and started questioning my beliefs about my own morals and beliefs on religion. I wouldn’t even say that was college that did it, my college wasn’t political. Everyone talks about liberal colleges; I went to a hick school in Central, PA. I took a class in state and local government and had a fantastic teacher that really brought home bi-partisanship, she was middle of the aisle. As I started getting more into the issues I started to form more liberal ideals and Bernie Sanders came along and being on Twitter and seeing the post of him taking the really brief press conference stuck with me. He came out and said “I’m running for president, Ok now I have to get back to work.” I started seeing other friends sharing posts, and I thought “He’s talking about all the things that I care about!” I was so pre-disposed to being against the Clintons and I failed to take it upon myself to learn about Hillary. I was drawn into that whole “against the establishment mentality.” All I heard growing up was nothing works. They’re all corrupt. They all suck. That’s quite a hill to get over when you are trying to vote into one of the parties. It resonated with me.

There’s so much talk of Sanders’ role in the future of the party because of this “Bernie v. Hillary" split. What, if anything, comes of that fissure? Do Democrats have to fix it, or bring along those folks for future success?

What I have come to realize is that we are a two party nation, and it’s going to take a significant amount of other things to happen to make that not the reality. In the immediate future if we want progressive ideas and progressive policies that the Democratic party is the best apparatus for that. I am no longer for this notion that he is going to be an independent. People can debate his effectiveness in office, but he does have the energy. We need to make sure that as Democrats that we have a message of things that we are for. I am very much against Trump. I spend a considerable amount of time criticizing Trump but that isn’t going to win us the election. That is proven. I did an exit interview when I worked with the Clinton campaign, and I said that I felt too much of our time was spent being against Trump, especially people who are engaged. The last thing people want to hear is “This guy sucks, vote for me.” And I think targeted messaging is important. We want a platform of Democratic ideas that can benefit everyone but things need to hit harder for certain groups of people. Talking about raising minimum wage in middle class suburbia doesn’t really resonate. When you have a town hall of all white people in middle America, a message of the importance of diversity isn’t going to hit home. It will carry more weight in those diverse areas.

What policies, not ideals or values, policies, are at the heart of the Democratic Party?

What the top priority should be is jobs, but you know so many things are interlinked. Being the clean energy party, being the next generation jobs party. Being the economic party of the 21st century. How do we face unemployment, and low income jobs, and this growing economy where automation is an increasing reality? I think it’s important to understand that to say “what is next?” Trump convinced people that they were losing their jobs to immigrants, and to get more jobs we’ll just control immigration. For Dems we need to figure out what is our plan for providing jobs or income. Do we need to explore UBI to ensure everyone has their needs met, as we enter this next round of work? Does a job look like 40 hours a week? At least have that conversation within the party. There is a candidate that is running for congress in Mass, her name is Brianna Wu, and her big platform is we need to focus on jobs and how to handle jobs in the face of automation. I’m not the one who has the solution to this, but smarter people need to talk about it. We need to find a message for how are we going to get people jobs. With clean energy, here are all these jobs we can provide. If we can give people jobs and feel like people are getting something from it, hopefully we can get a win there.

How do you reconcile the idea that if jobs are at the heart of the party, it seems the dividing line, or the litmus test for what it means to be a Democrat or a progressive always seems to come down to social issues. One break from the party line on a social issue can really cause trouble from the tribe, so it if all the issues are weighted equally, can we be a party of tiered values?

We’ve had these discussions. If we could drop the social issues from politics, I’d love to have discussions about economics and foreign policy. If you care more about the social issues but are economically conservative you have no party, but what I want to see Is if you’re going to run as a Democrat, you’ve got to be pro choice. It needs to be firm, do you support a woman’s right to choose? It has to be yes. I don’t think it should be the central issue of anyone’s campaign really, if you are personally pro life, great, but it’s not the government’s role to limit a woman’s right to an abortion. You don’t have to be out there every day talking about it. It shouldn’t be this hard. Bernie has all these litmus tests for himself with Wall Street, and you’re not a real progressive if you don’t scream about Wall St. all the time, but when it comes to a woman’s right to make decisions about her own body, he says maybe we can be lax on that. I am trying to get better about diversifying along race lines and gender lines. When they hear that you’re willing to compromise on their rights, that’s a real affront to them. I would love to be cheering for Bernie, but when he does this, he has such a narrow set of issues, but everything else is “I don’t really care about that.” There are issues that he missed. Anyone can be a Democrat. There is no litmus test to being in the Democratic party. But if you’re going to run and get the financial backing and the grass roots energy from the party, but you’ll at least have to be pro choice.

Do we as liberals have an exclusivity problem?

We are seeing that in both parties right now. Within the GOP they are fractured on the Healthcare bill. Democrats are having the same problem legislatively. It would be interesting to see healthcare being debated as like one wing of the party being staunch single payer and the other wanting minor reforms to Obamacare. Part of the problem is everything is a national issue right now. All of these house races and special house races everyone is focused on them because it’s the next way to resist Trump and so everyone is still campaigning for their issues instead of listening to the district. Let’s have their representative respond to them. It’s this challenge of having a national platform they’re trying to move forward with while balancing that locality reality. Can we have a Bernie Sanders style candidate win in Montana or Kentucky? Probably not. It depends on the issue. I was saying today that I wish less focus was put on abortion. If you are not a real staunch and loud supporter of a woman’s right to choose and that we are going to shut you down.

Oh I don’t necessarily mean within the party, I mean culturally. I’ve noticed a lot of infighting because of stuff like what companies people patronize or where people eat. I’ve literally seen friendships end because one person found out the other ate at Chick-Fil-A. Is the list of rules to be a “good” liberal too long?

This is something I am challenging myself on. I am “woke” enough to not take offense to people saying you’re doing this wrong, or you’re using the wrong phrase. We should not be just destroying people for not being “woke” enough. I’m not the person who is going to say “You still eat at Chick-Fil-A? Well screw you.” I get it, they are a conservative company that I have problems with but if a buddy wants to get lunch at Chick-Fil-A, I’ll probably go. If it’s really an issue someone can always say, “Hey maybe we can eat somewhere else because I have a problem with this.” I don’t like Wal-Mart. I don’t like their corporate culture and they don’t treat their employees well. My wife, she shops there, I’m not going to tell her where to shop, but I don’t shop there. It’s up to you if you want to make that call. Everyone has their passions. Some people are more worried about Walmart, or using a credit union over Wells Fargo because they fund the Dakota Access Pipeline. Our problem is that we shout at people instead of explaining. Twitter is a big cause of that. It’s easy to bang out a snarky response to someone on Twitter rather than having a long conversation. I can have five tweets to explain my point or I can just say fuck you and move on. We have lost this kind of ability to discuss in better.

Yeah, where I view the disconnect is that as a culture, liberals have lost their sight of government. Because really that’s what all of this is about right? The idea that my party is in favor of a certain role for government. Where I’m trying to get is how do we transform back to a party that used to have a concrete idea of how government ought to run, and less on how people should think, or believe? Getting out of the idea of a right and wrong way to live, and more of a right and wrong way of governing. There are ways to continue to espouse a value system, but it has to be through government, not in spite of it. In my experience, what someone’s cultural values are have less bearing on how they may view government that most liberals tend to believe.

Many of the reasons I am a Democrat or a liberal is because I have a real problem with conservative ideology and specifically religious ideology. I don’t think we’re going to abdicate our social responsibility as a party to equality, to gender equality, LGBTQ equality, race equality, etc. As long as there is the religious right that is going to want to discriminate against those groups, the progressive left are going to be the warriors against that. Until the right side of the country grows out of some of those ideals, the left are not going to go back to just being a party of social safety nets. The word is that younger conservatives are more socially liberal. I would challenge that with some of the things I’ve seen, but if that holds true, the great because as soon as we get the right side more socially liberal then we won’t have to fight all the time. Democrats are focused on the people, and equality, and that is the main focus right now of the party. I don’t see that going away or not being a significant part of the party’s platform until we stop having to defend equal pay legislation, having to defend anti-gay “religious freedom” legislation. Trump is planning to sign some executive order on religious freedom in a nod to Mike Pence.

How do we get those conversations back to government related conversations though? Because they aren’t always that, the “Deplorables” line comes to mind.

She quantified it. And that rubbed people the wrong way, including people in my own family. She wasn’t talking about half of the Republican party, she was talking about the alt-right, Pepe types on Twitter. But she quantified it. Democrats believe in government solutions for a lot of things, we believe in protecting its citizens including discrimination.

I think a lot of the conversation is what as a society we deem right and wrong, and if you want to be an advocate for a societal change, put it in the context of government. We spend too much time saying, this is what we’d want the government to do, or what we’d want the government to look like. The smug liberal article, I had problems with it when I read it. I think there were some important points to take away from it. You are right in that we like to watch the late night comics who are shitting on Trump on backwards conservative ideology, and I consume quite a bit of it. If we want to start winning again we have to put that on pause and I want to represent what we want legislatively. That is something that liberals need to get better at. Republicans aren’t really any better about it. Donald Trump sure wasn’t talking policy on the campaign trail. I am in the camp that considers his election a fluke and not the norm. People are really pissed off at the government and try some crazy out there person. People want to hear specifically what you’re going to do. Here’s how we want you to change your life.

Conservative media tends to be the poster boy for tunnel vision attitudes toward politics. The ultimate echo chamber. What would you say to someone who say liberals also have a media problem?

Liberal leaning news outlets like MSNBC, the New York Times, etc go out of their way to bring in conservative voices, Trump alternate reality voices. They’ve hired Megyn Kelly, they have some conservative hosts. Look at NYT’s issue with the climate stuff. Liberals go out of their way to give alternate voices, even if its at the detriment to their own interests. Putting Jeffrey Lord on CNN, or hiring Corey Lewandowski. That is not raising the level of debate. That is just increasing the drama or peddling lies or half truths. Every news agency is going to mess up, but having people who are intentionally out there who are ignoring the truth or the facts giving them those voices, it just goes to show how liberal news outlets are trying. I see Joe Scarborough as a reasonable voice of what you might call a traditional Republican. I don’t have a problem listening to Joe Scarborough talk about policy. But when they have Trump die-hards coming on to spout this and that, their audience is not Trump supporters, they aren’t going to pick up viewers there. Liberal leaning news agencies don’t suffer the same level of bias that Fox News or Brietbart might suffer from. If we want to pick on places like HuffPo or the Daily Beast, those are absolutely liberally bent. If you read it with that understanding then that’s fine. The NYT, and the Post make conscious efforts to have moderate voice. You know the thing about the “liberal” news media is that facts aren’t liberal conspiracies. They report the news. Is it a reality that more of the people in the media lean to the left? Probably. I don’t think they’re starving for conservative voices. I don’t see the news as liberal news. MSNBC, Larry O’Donnell is very left. But again you have Brian Williams who is fawning over military weapons during the coverage of the Syria attack. Anyone who calls MSNBC a liberal news network when they are potentially going to bring on Hugh Hewitt to me is overstating it. Katy Tur, Kasey Hunt, their anchors are pretty straight up. Katy Tur was under attack by Trump and kept it professional. But not in the way that Fox News feels like state TV. You’ve heard Obama staffers say time and time again “we didn’t have a great relationship with the press either.” The press, if you’re a president, is  there to be hard on you. They aren’t just out to make conservatives look like idiots unless they say idiotic things.

The victimhood propagated by conservative media is troubling too. With the media diet I have, I never feel like an immigrant coming into this country is hurting my chances of moving up, or making my money, I don’t feel like someone practicing Christianity is somehow restricting my ability to be an atheist. I don’t feel like because people of other religions exist that I feel threatened. They already feel victimized. You are the victim of liberals. You are the victim of immigration. You are the victim. I don’t feel like MSNBC perpetuates that idea.

Are there conservative viewpoints that you find compelling?

I have been raised to fend for myself. I have personally conservative fiscal values. I pay for what I need to. Anything left over I put into savings and divvy it up however I want. I have good money practices in general. I don’t know if it’s conservative or liberal, but personal fiscal responsibility is something I lean to. And when it comes to foreign policy it’s a little hard to figure out what the go to is. I am not an isolationist, but I am not an interventionist. Square that, I don’t know? I might have some more conservative views like having an adequate military. Jill Stein wanted to cut the military down to a quarter of its size, I think that’s crazy. I think the military expansion that Trump and McCain are calling for isn’t really necessary. I believe in government. But I’m not a big government person, I’m an efficient government person. I would be open to closing agencies that aren’t needed anymore with a compelling argument. I am for trimming government waste. When I hear about the amount of money that gets dumped into the Pentagon simply for bureaucracy. I will give credit to conservatives, they want to trim government waste. But I don’t think that means simple talking points, just slashing away at budgets haphazardly. It kind of depends on the issue. The roles are reversing right now. The Dems are heralding in states rights, and Trump is talking about sweeping federal policies when it comes to enforcing immigration with local police forces. Fed government shouldn’t be telling them how to police. I like nationwide standards for things. I am a big public education proponent. Do I think we maybe need some more tailoring to neighborhoods and states or whatever to make sure education is applied properly at the local level? Someone in FL shouldn’t have a fundamentally different education from someone who lives in Maine, or Wisconsin. It’s all different levels of what is state controlled and what is not. I don’t think discrimination laws should be states issues or marriage laws should be a state issue. Some states just abdicate their responsibilities.

What do you want your party to look like in 2018 when the midterms roll around?

 I want a party that is organized and running candidates in every house race that we can. I want a fund raising apparatus that supports all those candidates that are running. We have to put our resources and distribute them smartly. Anyone that runs as a Democrat, if they can meet those certain criteria to run they should get funding. Distributing info on who is running and where, so that we have the best chance of picking up more seats. We are hurting at the state level too. We need to take back state houses. Less infighting in 2018 within the party. I would like us to put away the 2016 primary. If I have to have one more argument over Bernie and Hillary. Hillary is done. She ain’t running anymore. Josh Barro pisses me off so much about the Clintons. We have other people to focus on. What I really want to see is turnout. We need to accept that our generation is failing its civic responsibility to be engaged and informed and vote. We need to put pressure on our friends and peers to be informed enough to vote. Are you registered to vote? We need to start making it more of a social faux pas that you didn’t vote than it is to talk about politics. Our generation takes for granted our democracy. I know I did. People say “I don’t want to read the news, it’s too depressing. I don’t need to be bothered with that.” Life was simpler and more enjoyable when I didn’t care. The hardest thing was arguing Samsung vs. Apple. You don’t need to be an activist but you need to be engaged. Don’t take it for granted. When I see 25% millennial turnout when all of us are complaining about Trump. I’d like to see 90% millennial turnout. Realistically it would be nice to see 40 or 50%. The pressure needs to be on, high voter turnout in the midterms. If we ever had a better catalyst than Trump I can’t think of one.

 

 

What the hell is going on with journalism? I wanted to know, so like a good reporter, I asked.

Editor's note: Dr. William McKeen is an American author and educator. He is a professor and chairman of the Department of Journalism at Boston University, and was formerly a professor and head of the Department of Journalism at the University of Florida, where I served as his student and teaching assistant. Dr. McKeen is also a noted biographer of Hunter S. Thompson, the journalist that broke all the rules. There's nobody I know better qualified to speak about the current state of the media, so I called him. We spoke for about an hour on Trump, journalism, why reporters are having trouble understanding America, and Hunter. Here is part of our conversation. 

On a scale of 1-10, how would you rate the media’s overall coverage of the Trump administration through 100 days? Does it meet your journalistic standards? Who is doing the best job, in your opinion?

It’s so inconsistent, I’d probably say 5. Some publications have done a wonderful and fierce job and those are the usual suspects – The New York Times, The Washington Post, Time, etc. I was glad to see The New York Times broke its practice of never using the L word (lie). They finally said it’s not a euphemism, it’s a fuckin’ lie. One of the more exciting things to watch these days is the Washington Post. It’s really been reinvigorated. I have some friends that are working there that are over the moon excited by what The Post is doing. The morale is high. What is really worrying me is that he’s being covered these days by, mostly television, as a normal president. He’s not a normal president. He’s an aberration. He is dangerous. He is a demagogue. He is proof that you don’t need to be very smart to make money. I don’t think he has any real depth of understanding about our political system or our foreign relations. We had some of that kind of coverage, at the beginning, and directly after the election. Now it’s been 3-4 months and now the press is kind of covering it as if it’s normal. I get the Times at home every day and the Boston Globe. The Globe has been doing a great job of covering the nuts and bolts of government. It reported that Trump has only actually nominated people for something like 1/6 of the positions in the cabinet, and we’re at the 100 day mark. Why is this happening? I see that in the Times and the Post and the Globe, and I don’t see that across the board. That ought to be the lead story across the nightly news. I see I think what we are seeing is when normalizing, they are doing their regular agenda based coverage. The 'what is happening'' instead of the overall story, which is the incompetence of the government. If it’s not along the usual lines, then the press kind of falls flat and doesn’t know how to behave.

One of the main criticisms leveled at journalists in the current era is bias, favoritism, pushing a clear agenda. Can you describe for our community exactly what lengths journalism academia goes to to ensure that stuff isn’t the case.

Well the adage has always been that we train people or reinforce the idea of getting both sides, but more and more we have to realize there are many sides. One of the news values that draws people to storytelling and journalism is conflict. The political conflict now is between the president pushing a certain agenda and the opposition pushing back. At a certain level you have to cover that. But traditional news values aren’t working with this administration, because it’s such an aberration. People think the press is out to get him. I do know that’s not the case. What I do believe is that he’s his own worst enemy, with his disregard and arrogance and such. And I think that needs to be shown. If people who voted for Trump don’t like the way he’s being treated, they should look at what is upsetting them, and that’s that journalists are reporting what they’re seeing and observing. I understand how people feel about that, if I was on the outside of it maybe I couldn’t see the truth.

Speaking of truth, what is your take on the truth? How do we know a good source anymore? How do we recognize the truth?

We’ve been dealing with that this whole semester. I doubt we’ve gone a period of two weeks without some kind of major convocation out-of-class to focus on helping people recognize truth, vs untruth. We flew in the editor of Politifact to describe their fact checking process. We had Sopan Deb, a reporter, come in and talk about being arrested at a Trump rally. We had women reporters talking about the danger they feel in covering Trump. It’s energized journalists but now we’re also painted as the enemy. So a lot of it comes down to skepticism. Being online if you see this particular statement, don’t believe it, don’t accept it as fact. Finding out fact vs. fiction is going to involve research which people are really not willing to do. I have done it too. I have passed along information that was untrue. I’ve been fooled. And when it has happened I immediately delete the post and tell people I’m sorry. I think there will be more and more fact checking sites. If you can’t verify a statement, you can approach a site like Politifact and ask them to check it out – that’s what they do and they have a transparent process. What I’m advising is we have to use much more caution, but are people really going to do that? When an untruth is discovered we have to do our best as journalists to quickly either lay claim one way or another whether it’s true or not. I don’t really understand the motive behind sites posting deliberate untruth, possibly because I believe that people are good.

Do you think news outlets, especially print outlets have a greater responsibility to educate their readers on the firewall between the newsroom and the editorial board? When I see people use the bias or fake news attack, they typically point out opinion pieces. But there seems like there’s a disconnect between the two sides of the media coin?

That’s long been a problem. People would refer to a column I wrote and call it an editorial. We take for granted that the audience understands our jargon and what we do as journalists. To somebody who has no background in journalism they have no clue what an op-ed piece is. News outlets need to keep people informed on what we as journalists do. The NYT has changed the 2nd and 3rd page of its A section to be not only an index of what is in the paper, but there is a piece in there and a blog that goes with it, a podcast, that explains the reporting of this particular story or the background and the decisions that were made. I wish more people would notice that. I don’t want us to become only this inward looking, self-centered institution. But we do need more explanation. This goes into the press’ inability to see what was happening before the election. I went on a trip this summer to the Midwest with my sons. I am one of those people who just starts talking to strangers, and the whole way I felt that I was reporting. I came back and said to my friends, Trump is going to win. And to the outside world he was imploding. In the liberal fortress of Massachusetts, the thinking was “no way in hell.” I think part of the problem is journalists only talk to each other. They’ll get the quote they want, but they won’t understand the person they’re talking to. And they only interview the usual suspects, people that hold office, people that have status, people in positions of power. I would make the reporters work out of little store front offices, and live in the community. Journalists only talking to other journalists is a big problem we have right now. They talk to the same people who reinforce their own beliefs. Part of journalism is providing an account of living.

Name one quality you think is necessary for the survival of journalism? What is the biggest problem you see in the industry?

There is more to journalism than just covering speeches and meetings. One of the overlooked components is observation, but we are too much in this stenographic mode. We need more interviewing, getting different points of view. The press needs to become more reflective in terms of diversity, gender diversity, minority diversity. We’re not really reflective right now of our society. That’s a fundamental change that needs to happen no matter what. As a consequence of that change we’ll have better reporting about “real people.” That sounds like a Trump thing to say, but there were people in this election who voted for change no matter what the cost. I heard so many times on the road ‘We need to shake things up in Washington.’ I think Hillary had the intellectual capabilities and was much better prepared, but we never got a pulse on that fear. That’s not what all those people out there wanted. They wanted a bull in a china shop. They wanted to destroy the status quo. There are certain elements of the status quo that are working, and if they are going to be changed they need to be changed in a more fluid and gradual manner. The press needs to be better prepared to cover society. One of the tenants we try to teach is not to ignore people. Irritate, infuriate, and inform. That’s our motto as journalists.

Will we ever get back to a place where the media is trusted again? Were we ever there?

Just this week I did a lecture about CBS News and Walter Cronkite and while he was on the air he was the most trusted person in America, even more than the president. Journalists are never going to win a popularity contest because by our nature we are always going to bring the bad news. We’re interested in aberration, and we’re interested in things that are odd or different. There is a natural tendency for the public to figuratively kill the messenger or blame the messenger. We can’t counter this by just replacing bad news with happy news. Our job is to look at the problems and what a reporter ought to do is point out a problem. What an editorial writer ought to do is point out a problem and propose a solution and point a finger at the person who can affect that change. A columnist like Thomas Freidman, every mover and shaker reads his column, so journalists do have a function in the opinion side of the equation. One of the most ferocious journalists right now is Charles Blow of the NYT. He’s just been eviscerating the president. We don’t want to be beloved, but we do want to be trusted. If we can show that it was done with care, and precision, and that it’s verifiably true – people will accept it. We can be respected for that ability. People say, ‘These must be terrible times for you?’ I see in students, the ones that are really serious about it, they have an almost ministerial view of journalism, like this is “my calling.” There’s almost a fervor to it. I sense that in my favorite news sources and it makes me very proud to be part of the tribe.

The current political battle, to me anyway, seems to be less conservative vs. liberal, Republican vs. Democrat, and more establishment vs. anti-establishment. Are the legacy journalism outlets by default elitist? Is legacy more of a hindrance than a help in this era?

That’s a very good question. I do think that doing what I do, we’ve “academ-icized” journalism. When I started reporting early in my career in the 70s, there was only one person in our newsroom who had actually taken a journalism class. But post Watergate everyone wanted to be like Bernstein and Woodward and topple governments. But before that people came from all sorts of backgrounds. We have produced generations of journalists who are kind of out of touch with the typical average American in the Midwest or the Southwest or what have you. We’ve produced people who are extremely well educated and adept, but they go out on the streets and don’t know how to talk to people. I would never want to slam a generation because if anything the generation that needs to be slammed is mine. But if there was one knock on this generation it’s they’re afraid to talk to people. There is too much of a fraternization between journalists and the government when their allegiance is really toward the governed.

A medium is a way of conveyance. What we are talking about are institutions who have decided the they are going to pass on information. The internet has leveled the playing field. To be a voice in the marketplace of ideas even 20 years ago went like this: Do you have something to say? Ok now, do you have 30 million dollars? It got to be such an expensive enterprise. The internet was a leveling of the informational playing field, and the bad thing was that it leveled the playing field. Consuming information, especially today, It requires a savvy. But to the unsophisticated internet consumer sources like Breitbart and the NYT have the same level of legitimacy. When you have legacy media, you know the process. I know that someone researched it, wrote it, passed it to an editor, people fact checked it, made decisions on whether to publish it, so when it reaches me I can reasonably believe it’s accurate. I don’t know how to do this, but somehow we have to educate consumers on what is trustworthy. I don’t understand why people want to believe things they know are wrong.

If Hunter S. Thompson were alive today, what would his role be in the Trump era? I believe you’re one of the few people uniquely qualified to give this answer.

First of all if Hunter S. Thompson were alive today he would kill himself. One of the things that drove him to commit suicide, among other things, was that he was so depressed following the election of president George W. Bush, he chose an irresponsible way to alleviate that misery. I would want to know what he had to say. His muse in his lifetime was Richard Nixon, and his greatest writing was his revulsion for Nixon. It didn’t have to do with his personality which is what some people believe, you know, despite his image HST was extremely patriotic. He loved the documents that preserved freedom and any time he saw someone insulting those documents it infuriated him. Nixon violated the law but it was behind closed doors, but Trump does it in public. Hunter would have despised this president. You can tell by the way Trump treats people in his life. When he is somewhere with Melania, he doesn’t have any regard for her, walks in front of her, he has no courtesy, no manners, no couth. And when it comes to his political ignorance there are so many things Hunter would be compelled to comment on. People always ask me what Hunter would say and my answer is ‘Who knows?’ Deep down he was a good ol’ Southern boy. He wasn’t as enlightened as some of his followers would expect, but if he chose not to kill himself I think you’d see the journalistic equivalent of Nero setting fire to Rome. He’d untangle a wire clothes hanger, take some weenies, put them on a stick and enjoy the barbeque and the fall from grace that is currently happening.


 

 

A Response to Christopher, Who Says We Are Fake News

Hi Christopher, 

You've written a message to me that is similar to messages I've received from others, so it felt like a good time to respond. Since you take the time to listen to every single podcast of ours (understanding that you are not a fan), I'm going to take the time to respond to every point you've raised here. 

Let's start with your subject line: "you are fake news." Actually, Christopher, we aren't news at all. We are two people expressing opinions on the news. Separating opinions from fact is really important. We do our best to discuss the news as responsibly as possible based on all information available to us, but we are doing so from disclosed positions of bias. 

I'm not sure what false narratives we are putting out like clockwork the days after they are debunked, but I can assure you that is not our intention. Certainly, the news changes and situations evolve between the time we record our podcasts and the time they air. But, we are never trying to espouse information that is false. If you also take the time to look at our show notes, we link to sources we are citing for the propositions we're discussing. I'm making an assumption--perhaps an unfair one--that the sources we cite, such as The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, Politico, Vox, and the National Review, all qualify as fake news in your mind. We cite those sources because we believe the journalists at those outlets check their sources and do their best to print accurate, if not always unbiased, information. It's the best we feel we can do. 

Christopher, listen to this point because it's very important: it crosses my mind on a daily basis that all the things that create fear in me about President Trump are exactly why you voted for him. I'm not confused in any way about that. 

I assume on the "known criminal" point you are referring to Hillary Clinton and that the deaths that you're citing refer to Benghazi. While we are discussing debunked false narratives, maybe you'd be interested in checking out this, this, this, and this. I don't like what happened in Benghazi. I grieve for the loss of life, and I am saddened by the failures that contributed to this tragedy. I also do not agree with your characterization. 

Let's talk about Russia. We believe there is ample evidence that Russia aided in a propaganda campaign designed to influence our election. We believe there are concerning ties between the Trump campaign and Russia. We have not talked about it recently because the FBI is investigating the matter quietly, as is appropriate. The House has not held public hearings. The Senate is working out the staffing and resources it will devote to an investigation. We will talk about it again when there is something for us to discuss. Again, we aren't reporters, so we are not in a position to provide updates on ongoing investigations until those stories are written by multiple outlets.  

We also recognize that there is tension between the Trump administration and the Russian government over certain foreign policy issues. That Russia could have wanted Trump to be president and have tension with President Trump can both be true. As a listener, you might be familiar with this kind of theme from us--nuance is our deal. I'm not sure to whom or for what you think we should apologize, but we're not going to be doing that. We will provide updates on this situation as more information is available. I sincerely hope that those updates will sound something like, "actually everyone, there WAS lots of smoke but no fire." That would be best for America, and I am keeping my fingers crossed.

Finally, if two women talking politics from the houses in which they raise children, pay taxes, and contribute to their communities as well as they can is "irresponsible and dangerous to our nation," I have to question what kind of nation it is that you're interested in living in. Regardless, we share it with you. So, I'm acknowledging your views, and you can continue to acknowledge mine. Or not. That's the beauty of America. 

Take good care,

Beth

 

An update on Syria from Kerry Boyd Anderson

On Friday's show, Beth spoke Kerry Boyd Anderson for a discussion of the humanitarian, military, and political crisis unfolding in Syria. Here are Kerry's updated thoughts on the most recent developments, which we will be discussing more in-depth on Tuesday. 

The Trump administration has done a 180 on its attitude toward the Assad regime. The same officials who last week said we need to accept the political reality of Assad in power are now saying he needs to go. On the one hand, I'm thrilled that they now understand the brutality of the regime and its role in driving the conflict. At the same time, I'm stunned that they seem to have just discovered this. While this week's chemical weapons attack was a particularly large one, it was not the first chemical weapons attack (nor the first apparently to use sarin) and is certainly not unique in terms of the regime's targeting of civilians and brutality against them. Surely, the president, the secretary of state, and the ambassador to the UN are not just now learning that the Assad regime systematically targets children after six years of such behavior, which has been well publicized.

In terms of military action, I'm still digesting the news on this. I was probably wrong on Tuesday when I said that I expected little response from the administration, but still we should be careful not to get wrapped up in the administration's particular form of drama. Little may come of this - a couple missile strikes on some minor Assad targets wouldn't be a huge deal necessarily, if that's what they do. On the other hand, a lot may come of this, given that the Russians are involved, and any action against the Assad regime would be a huge policy change. It's very possible that I'll feel supportive of whatever the administration chooses to do, as I think the US should have acted more resolutely against the regime before. At the same time, I'm deeply concerned about the incredibly fast change in policy on risky, complex issues. The administration is behaving as though there is suddenly new information about the Assad regime and now the US has to respond, when in fact the regime has been incredibly brutal and violating international law all along. What has changed is the Trump administration's view, which was directly in contradiction last week, and I'm still trying to figure out why.

Meanwhile, I wonder if we're now going to let some of those "beautiful little babies," as our president accurately calls them, into the US as refugees. 

More Perfect Unions

The capacity of the human body to function despite being a collection of individual cells, organs, and systems is amazing. We walk around, tens of thousands of organisms working together as one, collections of nerves and fragility and power. 

Marriage is much like a body. Individuality and collective oneness coexist. Things like our shared sense of humor and curiosity about the world around us form the heart space of my marriage, our shared sense of responsibility the head. Our divergent feelings about money and how to load the dishwasher are more intestinal in nature. 

The body is also an apt metaphor for workplaces. There is circulation, the flow of energy, inputs and outputs. Like muscles, bones, joints, and connective tissues, different departments working together accomplish impressive feats, wield unknowable power, and suffer tremendous pains. Just as in the body (and as in marriage), seemingly unrelated parts profoundly influence each other and the whole. 

Which brings me to Mike and Karen Pence. The Washington Post profiled the Second Lady, reprising a 2002 report that Vice President Pence “never eats alone with a woman other than his wife and that he won’t attend events featuring alcohol without her by his side, either.” Predictable controversy ensued, which Sarah and I dismissed on the podcast. We agreed that this practice, while not for us, is standard evangelical fare and none of our business. I also pointed out that judging people based on religious practices such as this one could lead to dark places because of the way we impose our personal beliefs—even and especially those born of ignorance—onto one another. 

The majority of listeners who have weighed in fervently disagree, pointing out, in a nutshell: 

  • that practices like Mike Pence’s limit the professional opportunities of women in the workplace 
  • that given Mike Pence’s role, he needs to have a high degree of flexibility to take private meetings with women 
  • that this practice reflects an attitude of objectification towards women that is problematic

I concede all points (especially the last point—and I find the attitude it expresses toward men equally troubling; if women are nothing but sexual objects that men find constantly and inescapably tempting, then men must be no greater than their desires and utterly incapable of self-control, in which case, I’d prefer they not run our country…but that’s another blog post), and I understand why our listeners are upset. I also remain unwilling to be outraged by the choice the Pences have made in their marriage and how those choices impact others. 

The workplace is always plagued by small and large illnesses, injuries, and discomforts that arise from people’s idiosyncrasies. Even the most high-functioning office has its equivalent of mild osteoarthritis—you mostly feel good, but then it rains, and the same pain that you’ve dealt with hundreds of time before returns. 

Of course the Karen Pence Rule impacts the women in Mike Pence’s workplaces. Workplaces are rife with exclusive behavior caused by the peculiarities of their inhabitants. An executive's smoking habit disadvantages the non-smokers who aren’t bonding with him during afternoon breaks. People form important business relationships over religion and the absence of religion, over having or not having children of certain ages, over the love of sushi or not. Some men will only meet with women behind closed doors, which can go wrong very fast and also be completely innocuous. Some men will never meet with women behind closed doors for fear of accusations of misconduct. Highly confidential information is discussed in bathrooms. Imagine being the non-drinker in environments where happy hour is code for strategic planning.

What we believe are individual decisions, personalities, and experiences dramatically change what happens around us. Bitterness about a botched performance review turns to a broken arm. A dispute over the unpleasant aroma of burned popcorn turns into a department’s flu. Egos can be cancerous. As much as we think we can wall off our impact, we unintentionally and substantially and often unfairly alter the experiences of those around us.

That unfairness often requires those on its receiving end to make adjustments. Like everyone else, I’m reacting to the Pence drama from my lens of experience, as a woman who has worked in a high-stress, male-dominated professional environment for my entire career. Dining alone with men and attending events where alcohol is served without my husband have been important to my career. If my male boss could not meet with me alone behind a closed door, it would be difficult for both of us. But, we would figure it out…just like people figure out the smoking and the drinking and the bathroom meetings and the burned popcorn every single day. We would go on as we go on with hundreds of non-ideal impositions created by the humanity of the workforce.

Recognizing and accepting imperfection doesn’t mean we abandon efforts at creating more inclusion and fairness. There are some behaviors and traits so corrosive that they violate true, universal non-negotiables, and we should constantly try to bring awareness and sensitivity to the rest. But perspective is important. I can imagine highly-marginalized individuals laughing at (or disgusted by) the superficiality of some of the slights I’ve described as workplace problems. This is why I think it’s so important to triage issues while thinking daily about the exercise and nutrition and care we’re providing for our bodies, marriages, and organizations.

I’m not outraged by the Pences because there will always be unfairness and inconveniences and all-out toxins in the workplace. I’m also not outraged by the Pences because I’ve never seen outrage solve a problem in the body, in my marriage, or in a workplace. In all of these organisms, outrage seems to exacerbate pain and facilitate disconnection. What has solved problems is a sense of oneness. Recognizing that my rights end where someone else’s begin, recognizing how a policy change in the IT department will make life harder in Accounting, recognizing how the frustration I carry home from the office impacts my husband which impacts my children—in every way that I look for unity, I find more perfect unions. So I won’t judge the Pences. I will hope instead that they can recognize the ways in which their personal beliefs, decisions, and actions impact others and make a little more space for beliefs, decisions, and actions that they don’t quite understand. 

 

 

 

Borrower Beware: The Risks Of Federal Student Loan Forgiveness

Editor's note: This is Laura Lima's first contribution to the Pantsuit Politics blog. She is a Doctor of Physical Therapy who specializes in women's health in Orlando, FL. 

In 2009 I was accepted into the Duke University Doctor of Physical Therapy program. I knew I’d be incurring a large amount of student loans but I felt comfortable in my decision because I knew that this was an investment in my future. After all I had graduated debt free after going to state school on scholarship. I felt empowered to take on more sizable debt. I had the fortune of coming from a financially stable family with good role models. My older sister had also chosen to go to a private university for graduate school and borrowed from the federal government to be able to do so. I had inherent comfort and knowledge in the pros and cons of this decision. However, unfortunately not everyone can be so lucky. There was absolutely no pre-loan counseling offered when taking out the $56,000 dollars per year over 3 years I’d need to complete the program plus living expenses. But that was OK, I knew what I was getting myself into because people close to me had experience with borrowing large sums of money. I was prepared to pay half of my salary to loans for an indefinite period of time. I was investing in my career and a future that would be free of financial stress. I will never forget one of the last days of grad school when a financial counselor came to our classroom and handed out our final loan statements. Etched in my memory is seeing multiple classmates begin to cry at the six-figure number that stared back at them. It was a sobering moment to say the least. We all should have been happy to be finally completing our doctorate and begin our lives as professionals.  We couldn’t help but think “Oh God, what have I done?.”

But then there was a light at the end of the tunnel. In 2007, the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program, was enacted. Essentially, if you worked in a public service job, which included a variety of non -profit organizations and government entities, for 10 years while making qualifying payments to the program, the balance of your loan would be forgiven at the end of that interval of time. This was the only option for some of my classmates. It was either enroll in the program or spend over $2000 per month in some cases repaying their loans for the next 30 years. I have to say this sounded like a pretty attractive option. In our case, a “qualifying payment” meant enrolling in something called income driven repayment. In short, you would pay a substantially smaller monthly amount based on the amount of money you made. Instead of spending thousands per month on loans, the number would dwindle to only hundreds.

Taking the plunge

So with all of our futures ahead of us. We all started to make decisions about our career paths. Many of my friends chose to forego higher paying jobs in private institutions for positions which qualified for the loan forgiveness program. I actually did end up taking a job in a non-profit organization in Orlando, but I never enrolled in the loan forgiveness program. In many of our cases, our debt was so great that enrolling in income based repayment meant that our prescribed monthly loan payments wouldn’t even be enough to cover the monthly interest on our loans. Essentially this meant that my principal amount would grow over the life of the loan. I just was not comfortable with the idea of my loan growing. In the back of my mind I was fearful that something wouldn’t work out and I’d be left with an astronomical amount of student loans. I thought about worst case scenarios. What If I got injured and was unable to work? What if something happened that made it impossible for me to meet the requirements of the program?

My fears were validated by a recent article in the New York Times. Since the program was enacted in 2007 and required 10 years of service, the first potential beneficiaries are getting ready to see the Department of Education make good on their promises. Unfortunately in some cases they are being told that the requirements for qualification are actually more subjective than originally advertised. The article cites a lawsuit in which institutions that were previously compliant with the program requirements were retroactively deemed unqualified.

Well there goes that plan. Thousands of borrowers made big decisions as new members of the workforce banking on this program and quite literally put their future in the hands of the federal government to give them ultimate financial freedom. It wasn’t just a matter of choosing where we worked. It was a time commitment as well.  I immediately thought about how this would affect my ability to start a family, to save for a home, my ability to find a job that didn’t just meet requirements but also fulfilled my aspirations which led me to this career path in the first place. I personally know several people who have also felt geographically limited because a place where they would love to live doesn’t have any jobs which qualify.

Unfortunately this is a risk that many people simply have to take and the uncertainty of this federal program is likely to adversely impact some of the borrowers with the most to lose. I was lucky to be able to begin paying down my loans through traditional methods but I fear for my colleagues and future borrowers, some of which could be burned if the program either ever goes away entirely or changes its requirements.

When it comes to loans, knowledge is power

As a new mom of a beautiful 6 month old boy, I think about how I will coach him in the future when he is thinking about his educational choices and later his career options. With the great recession, many of the members of my age group were encouraged to stay in school, pursue advanced degrees, and in too many cases take on unsurmountable amounts of debt in the hopes of getting better jobs and increasing our earning potential. The days of working through school are over so the only option for many people to pursue their dreams and earn advanced degrees is to commit to this unfortunate reality. This doesn’t just affect those in my profession. I know physicians, lawyers, and businesspeople who have all found themselves in the same boat. Recent revelations about the federal forgiveness program puts a new spin on the politics of personal responsibility. The educational and professional decisions my generation has and will make have potentially dire, unintended consequences. Will the sacrifices we’ve made be rewarded? Can we rely on our government to keep its word? Is our post-recession generation being served by public service? These answers are becoming increasingly unclear.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Justice of a Peanut Butter Sandwich

Editor's note: Katy Stigers is a listener and first time contributor who grew up a dyed-in-the-wool Republican, swerved left, and ended up somewhere between Sarah and Beth. 

My least favorite food in the entire world is a peanut butter and honey sandwich. In fact, when my husband first offered to make one for me, I looked at him as though he’d offered to smash one in my face like a cream pie.

My three younger sisters also despise these sandwiches. We aren’t allergic to peanuts or honey or gluten. It’s because when we were in school, that’s what the cafeteria served when your lunch account had too many “charges” on it.

Last September, a cafeteria worker in a school near Pittsburgh resigned when she was required to take a lunch away from a child at her school because of the policy where students with balances over $25 were served a substitute lunch. (Those children will someday refuse to eat a cheese sandwich on untoasted bread.)

I wasn’t upset at the school system because Wylandville Elementary will have to pay for the food somehow, just like my old school did. If there is any sort of accountability, many parents, if they can, will figure out how to pay for the lunches. But, some of those kids’ parents can’t pay. Those parents are probably working, like mine were. They may not qualify for reduced price or free lunch because they actually have jobs, and have stretched their budget as far as it will go to purchase housing in a great district so their child (me) can go to a great school, instead of one that’s on the verge of collapse. The result is that sometimes the lunch account gets behind.

Peanut butter and honey sandwiches didn’t ruin my life (which is great, by the way, thanks largely to my excellent education). But they do give me a small window into he gaps between ideology, policy, and people’s lives.

There’s nothing wrong with eating a cold sandwich once in a while. I knew why my lunch was different, but no one ever shamed me. I like to think it’s because we had a sense of community, of neighborliness, of simply all being in the same boat. The worst thing that happened is I really don’t like honey on peanut butter, but blackberry jam is just fine. And it was just—in the sense of “justice”—for the school to substitute a less expensive option for the hot food.

That’s what our government owes us, justice. We can’t expect more from law. Because if the woman holding the scales is not actually blind, she’s certainly a candidate for Lasik.

If we want to be seen, we need neighbors. From them we might hope for mercy, compassion, and grace. Not because we’re entitled, but because somewhere we’ve all had or will need it given to us.

Despite the thick skin I earned eating a different lunch, what actually formed my character was the kindnesses of people who gave me what I couldn’t earn in compassion, dignity, and sometimes a pair of shoes or a book at the book fair, as well as the knowledge that my parents were doing everything they could to take care of me and my sisters.

Abraham Lincoln’s Brother

Abraham Lincoln’s relationship to his step-brother illustrates what conservatives idealize as appropriate social care. Lincoln once turned away his step-brother for $80 (about $3000 today). He wrote to him that he’d not ever seen him do “a good whole days’ work in any one day.” And so he says no to yet another loan. But he offers his brother John a chance. He says, for every dollar earned in the next year “either in money, or in your own indebtedness, I will then give you one other dollar.” (Letter to John Johnston - http://housedivided.dickinson.edu/sites/lincoln/to-john-johnston-december-24-1848/ )

One of the reasons this example comes across as compassionate, not cold, is because Lincoln knew his brother. They grew up together. They stayed in touch. Lincoln cared about his nephews. (Read the letter, he tells brother John to look for work that is close to home, to stay clear of get-rich-quick-schemes, and cautions that the young boys are learning from their father each day.) Lincoln was a progressive micro-financer.

An intensely relational effort by faith-based groups is what I suspect George W. Bush had in mind when he was advocating compassionate conservativism. Or, to paraphrase Bush 41, a thousand points of Lincoln. I’m not yet convinced that scaling that kind of help, or addressing the myriad structural issues facing the poor, isn’t too much to ask of the faith-based or non-profit sector. Many organizations are already trying to pull themselves up by the bootstraps while helping others do the same.

I think healthcare is the best example of the conflict between justice, mercy, and grace in our administrative, technologically-enabled, age of dislocation. Kafka would surely recognize the insanity of the labyrinth that the hospital statement, provider bill, co-insurance requirements, and patient responsibility reminder sent to a patient with a high deductible may literally be the death of them.

When my coworker, who prides herself on common sense, “no-waste” thinking about government ponders welfare fraud (in the generic way that many of us lump social assistance programs together as “welfare”), she doesn’t have a stereotype in her mind. The person working the system is her relative, whom my colleague knows from childhood. A person she believes (probably correctly) is unwilling to work and has found a doctor willing to diagnose a disability. This is one of many examples my coworker has in her mind of those who aren’t deserving of assistance because they won’t lift a hand to make things better. When she thinks of “the people the program helps,” she knows she herself has overcome poverty and difficulty “without the system.” Devising a matching-grant scheme like Lincoln’s isn’t her solution. Who has the resources for that? Besides, it wouldn’t be fair.

My parents really disliked the word fair. “You don’t want fair,” they’d scold. However, it’s one of the watch words of our time. Fair gets you rules, and myopic Justice-lady, and not a whole lot of what anyone actually needs, because we’re so worried about those who don’t deserve any help we miss those for whom it would be life changing.

With our justice glasses we can’t see the people who live next door are our neighbors, and we can’t imagine that other folks might be our neighbors (in the Biblical sense) too.

Trying To “Tough Love” Our Neighbors

The weight of J.D. Vance’s memoir Hillbilly Elegy has moved many who, until now, couldn’t understand the point of view of rural voters. Perhaps similarly, Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, has shared another facet of African American life otherwise unknown. But for quite a few there isn’t any need to read Vance or Coates because they are living those lives themselves every day.

Where I see the gap between theory and practice is that we’re making policy for those we think we know, using the blunt force of law’s heavy scales. But we aren’t thinking about those we don’t know, who might just do better with a bit mercy and grace.

Both progressives and conservatives have to deal with the fact that some of us are watching John Johnston’s in our own lives and expecting them to measure up to our own inner-Lincoln. Living just on the rough edge of rural Appalachia my friends and neighbors have seen all the misuse of Medicaid, disability, and so forth that they can stomach. They don’t want to pay for it anymore. If we use the coercive power of the government to move resources around, surely it makes sense to keep those closest to the problems eagle-eyed on the implementation. But, on the other hand, some communities are overwhelmingly poor and need folks on the other side of the country to fund their solutions. How big is our boat?

A few months after the Pittsburgh cafeteria storm, during the silly season of judgment in the internet echo chamber, a member of the Twitterati had a brilliant idea. The school couldn’t provide mercy but Ashley C. Ford could (http://www.today.com/parents/tweet-inspires-thousands-pay-school-lunch-debt-t107730_). She tweeted out to her followers that “a cool thing you can do today is try to find out which of your local schools have kids with overdue lunch accounts and pay them off.” Approximately 20,000 retweets later, hundreds of thousands dollars have been paid on overdue lunch accounts. That helps kids, and balances school budgets with no slack.

The Old Testament in the Hebrew Bible (which starts off with the law…) speaks of this as a jubilee.

Who knew your neighbors were on Twitter?

When your neighborhood is small enough you have a sense of who needs those peanut butter and honey sandwiches, who doesn’t, who would benefit from a Lincoln-esque matching program, and who needs a kick in the pants. It’s a real shame that by unleashing the power of capitalism to enable coast-to-coast commerce we’ve had to unravel the fabric that, as least in our historical imagination, held us together like a warm blanket. Jobs will leave coal country. San Francisco will be expensive as heck. Our neighborhoods now are just subdivisions or mid-term investments, not anything like communities. There are great big challenges. It might be a start to try and perceive where our neighbors might need us. Try and think about what a big difference it might make to pay of the lunch account of a kid you don’t know, but who might be living a lot like you did. And, perhaps, there’s a bit of grace that we can use Twitter, of all things, as a tool for mercy.

5 Wednesday Observations From An Already Wild Political Week

photo credit: The Associated Press

photo credit: The Associated Press

1. The White House and Republican lawmakers like Devin Nunes really need to stop pretending they don't know who Roger Stone, Mike Flynn, Carter Page, and Paul Manafort are, or downplaying their involvement with the Trump Campaign. The facts are the facts. Carter Page worked as a foreign policy advisor to the campaign. General Mike Flynn also worked closely with the campaign and practically never left Trump's side for many months before being appointed to NSA. And despite what Sean Spicer would like us to believe, Paul Manafort ran the Trump campaign for 122 days, including at the time of his nomination at the RNC. Managing a campaign is not a "limited role" and 122 days is not a "limited" amount of time when you consider Bannon was campaign CEO for just 82 days. (More on Manafort below). C'mon y'all. We're smarter than this. You're smarter than this. It might be best to just keep quiet at this point and let the investigation run its course. 

2. Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse said earlier this week that Judge Neil Gorsuch should be confirmed "100-0." While I don't necessarily agree that he should be unanimously confirmed, I've listened to most of the hearing to date and must say aside from a couple of key philosophical differences on some of Gorsuch's past decisions, the Democratic opposition to Gorsuch took a big hit this week as his interview wore on. Gorsuch has been calm, warm, articulate, and independent. He's practically tripped over himself to distance his ideologies from Trump, to prove his allegiance to the rule of law, to put the constitution above politics, and to prove he's an impartial adjudicator. Here's the thing, the Democrats have to be very careful here, because on its face Ben Sasse's statement is more true than false. Gorsuch is qualified, experienced, and he's crushed his hearing. The only obstacle to his appointment at this stage would be the Merrick Garland grudge, and that grudge is looking less and less valid as the hearing wears on. Plain and simple, the Democrats gave Gorsuch a hearing, so they should go ahead and give him a vote, too. How that vote shakes out remains to be seen, but I would think it unwise to drive the stake too far into the ground on this particular nomination, especially with all the chances to capitalize on the unforced errors that loom with the Trump administration. Chuck Schumer has suggested delaying a vote until the conclusion of FBI investigation. That move hedges too much on a Democrat-friendly finding in that investigation. Follow the process. Show you value norms, and vote on Gorsuch, Dems. 

3. Donald Trump is losing his bully status - and fast. Director Comey and Admiral Rogers this week essentially made Donald Trump's wiretapping claims a cold case. That was significant for two reasons. One, it proved the president once again ran down a rabbit hole that reeked of conspiracy only to find nothing. And two, because Comey and Rogers publicly and authoritatively discredited Trump - along with the Intelligence committees in both houses - they defanged his Twitter bite. Republicans aren't scared of his weaponized Tweet storms anymore, and they showed it on Tuesday. Freedom Caucus members were threatened, and they promptly called the president's bluff. The AHCA is likely to be Trump's first major policy failure (I'm not counting the EOs on travel because they haven't included Congressional input). He can't bully his way out of a bad bill, and he can't Tweet away the seats of Republican lawmakers he doesn't like. Healthcare, as expected, is an albatross. Healthcare, as expected, is an issue that perks the eyes and ears of voters. It doesn't just pique their interest, it has their full attention. As Rep. Thomas Massie from Kentucky said yesterday, he got 274 calls from constituents asking him to vote "no" on AHCA, and 4 to vote "yes." A bill that unpopular will never be undone with brute force. You're in Washington now Mr. Trump, not a boardroom, and lawmakers answer to their voters. We may be reaching unprecedented levels of cynicism that push us farther and farther away from actually believing that fact, but occasionally it's redeemed. The AHCA opposition is proving it.

4. I'm no expert in optics or public relations, but if you're the Rex Tillerson and the State Department it's proooobbbably not the best idea to cancel a meeting with NATO and replace it with a nondescript trip to Russia the same week the FBI confirmed the Trump campaign is under investigation for possible coordination with Russian interference in the 2016 election. Just sayin'

5. Expect the investigation to take a while. There's going to be a pressing urge from media and Democratic lawmakers to "Maddow" any and every detail that drops from now until the conclusion of the probe. As content consumers we can't bite. This is going to be long. It's going to be thorough. And above all else, it's going to be close to the vest. If Comey's testimony taught us anything, it's that 6 months is short in the grand scheme of counter intelligence investigations, and he's not gonna say jack squat about it. That means media outlets and investigative reporters are going to try their best to fill in the blanks, i.e. today's AP report on Paul Manafort. Is it important information? Sure. Should we be consuming it? Absolutely. Is it going to lead to some monumental breakthrough in the investigation? Probably not. I guarantee you if the AP knows it, the FBI knows it too, and if it was the missing piece to break the case wide open, we'd know about it. Get comfortable in your seats, y'all. Grab some non-perishable snacks. Get some beers on ice.  It's gonna be a while. 

Letting Maddow Marinate: Some Substance Behind The "Non-Story"

Last night was perhaps the most significant insignificant live TV moment to date in the Trump presidency. Everyone tuned in. Everyone waited patiently for Rachel Maddow to take a leisurely, Maddow-like stroll through the cliff's notes of her months-long reporting on Trump's possible Russian ties. And everyone (mostly) left feeling like they'd just sat through every M. Night Shyamalan movie not named The Sixth Sense, i.e. overwrought plot, no big payoff. 

This column will not comment on the merits or faults of Maddow's execution, timing, hype, general show format, or any other litany of rapid-fire criticisms hurled at her throughout Tuesday night's broadcast. We're less than 24 hours out from the live event and that territory has already been slashed and burned. Instead I wanted to share what kernels of insight we can take away from the otherwise unpalatable nothingburger that was the 2005 1040 reveal. I stumbled upon a thread that brings up some valid points if you strip away some of the far-reaching logic peppered in. Sam Abramson is a columnist for Huffington Post Politics, so as always, consider the source. 

Point #1, though it fails to clarify that there is still no evidence Trump did so willingly, is valid. The statement released by the White House prior to the MSNBC broadcast essentially verified the authenticity of the documents, and leads to points #2, #3, and #4. The WH when given wind of breaking news has shown a propensity to immediately comment (see 9th Circuit decision). Those comments in turn prove that Trump's excuse for not disclosing his taxes is and always has been a front. We also now know that it's likely more tax info will "find its way" to news outlets and they are emboldened to run with it. Point #5 is more speculative than genuine, but we are in an era of feelings, and it's not out of the realm of possibility that Trump's skeptics will lean on this return (whether correct or not) as the first crumb in the trail leading to nefarious places. 

Point #7 is interesting because it does raise the concept of the Alternative Minimum Tax, "a supplemental income tax imposed by the United States federal government required in addition to baseline income tax for certain individuals, corporationsestates, and trusts that have exemptions or special circumstances allowing for lower payments of standard income tax," into the national conciousness. Why is that important? I'm not sure people care so much as to whether he paid it or not in 2005, but more the important question would be in point #8, or how it could affect his tax policy making. If the public knows his tax plan, which advocates for the removal of the AMT, could directly benefit his personal wealth in drastic ways, could it put more pressure on Congress come tax reform time? That remains to be seen. 

This run of tweets I find particularly poignant, mostly because they categorizes the event for what it will mean, not necessarily what it meant. What we learned from Maddow's break was actually kind of good for Trump. We learned he actually paid taxes, and in a larger percentage than public perception would suggest. Overall that's a win for Trump. BUT, Maddow's show did bring Trump's taxes from the sidelines back to center court. Both Maddow's blog and David Johnston's sites crashed due to traffic volume. People want to know, and now Trump can't dismiss that. The White House also perhaps made the knee-jerk misstep of responding too quickly and defensively to the breaking news, inadvertently validating the documents and setting the precedent that any further documents will also require public comment. That begs the question, "Can you pick and choose when to lend credibility to tax documents when they leak, especially when the credibility of the president and staff has already been challenged in numerous, verifiable ways? Can the WH control the tax narrative?" 

The answer in the short term is "No, it cannot." And that's a big problem going forward. It's reasonable to believe the pressure will increase on the administration to answer more questions about Trump's taxes. It's also reasonable to believe more details/leaks will likely complicate the nature of the answers the administration can give. Last night was a softball over the plate for the White House, and it made a timid, jerky swing and was able to foul tip it safely away. But what happens when the sharp curveball comes? We'll need more than a haphazardly drafted statement and contradictory morning tweets from the president to clarify those records. Eventually if records are released, with no avenue for WH recourse, Trump will be in a war of attrition. Either pull back the curtain of transparency, or have it nibbled away bit by bit by ravenous lawmakers and voters. This story might not have been the whopper Maddow & company hoped for, but they got the pilot light on the grill lit. Now we just have to wait and see how hot it gets. 

 

5 Steps To Creating Financial Stability in a Politically Uncertain Time

Editor's note: Matt Becker is a listener and founder and CEO of Mom and Dad Money, a fee-only financial planning service dedicated to helping new parents make money simple. This is his first contribution to the Pantsuit Politics Blog

In November 2013, I lost the only full-time job I’d ever had. At the time, my wife was staying home with our 1-year-old son and our second boy was due in a month. We had no income and increasing expenses.

Like any reasonable person would do in my situation, I decided to start a business - from scratch - without even the official certification I needed to operate it.

If that sounds crazy, well, that’s because it kind of was! Taking on the responsibility of starting a business, supporting a family, and bringing a second child into the world all at the same time was more than a little stressful. And I haven’t even mentioned the fact that we decided to move cross-country just a few months later. (Yeah, I know.)

But from a financial perspective, it wasn’t a reckless decision. My wife and I ran the numbers and determined that we had plenty of runway to give this a shot without jeopardizing our family’s financial security.

We’d spent years making financial decisions designed to give us maximum flexibility, and this was the moment where it was paying off big time. It was the rainy day everyone waits for.

There’s Always Uncertainty

Life is full of both opportunities and obstacles.

Some of them are exciting, like the opportunity to stay home with your baby, change careers, start a business, or travel the world.

And some of them are scary, like losing a job, needing major home repairs, or wondering what crazy thing our President or government is going to do next.

We live in a particularly uncertain time right now. There’s always an adjustment period with a new administration, but many people are more worried than normal about what the next four years will bring in terms of the economy, healthcare insurance options and cost, national security, and even basic human rights.

Those are all valid concerns and we should absolutely be paying attention to them. But there’s only so much you can control and it’s impossible to know how all of this will evolve over time and how it will affect you.

What you can control is the financial foundation you build in the face of this uncertainty. Because while money can’t buy happiness, it can certainly buy you the flexibility to deal with whatever happens on your own terms.

Here are 5 steps I’ve taken to create financial flexibility in my own life, and that you can use to give yourself more options in times of uncertainty.

1. Spend Less Than You Earn

My friend JL Collins likes to share the parable of the king’s minister and the monk. You can read his version of it here, but the main message can be summed up in this exchange:

Minister: “You know, if you could learn to cater to the king you wouldn’t have to live on rice and beans.”

Monk: “If you could learn to live on rice and beans you wouldn’t have to cater to the king.”

Most people think of limiting their spending as a hardship, but there are a big benefits to consistently spending less than you earn:

  1. It’s easier than you think - Humans are adaptable and money doesn’t lead to happiness. You might feel short-term pain from cutting back, but you’ll quickly get used to it and be perfectly content.

  2. You can save - We’ll talk more about saving in just a bit, but it’s the biggest key to creating financial options and it’s only possible when you spend less than you earn.

  3. You have more opportunity to make positive life choices - It’s easier to switch to a single income, change careers, or go back to school if you have fewer financial obligations. It’s also a lot less stressful to stop for ice cream on the way back from soccer practice.

  4. You can weather bigger storms - Thinks like losing a job or need a big car repair are easier to handle when you have more room in your budget.

  5. It’s not all about cutting back - Negotiating a raise, earning money on the side, or otherwise increasing your income are all powerful ways to give yourself more flexibility.

The bottom line is that spending less than you earn is likely to make you happier, more relaxed, AND open up more opportunities for you and your family.

2. Build Basic Savings

I’m a huge fan of building up a sizable cash cushion in a basic savings account.

On the one hand, that money can help you deal with big expenses you didn’t see coming without having to resort to debt or otherwise blowing up your budget.

And on the other hand, that money is available to help you take advantage of opportunities that come your way. My wife and I used our savings account for our basic expenses while I built my business up.

Either way you look at it, having money safe and sound in a savings account gives you a lot of flexibility.

3. Protect What You Can't Lose

My wife and I have more insurance than just about any of my friends.

We both have life insurance. I have disability insurance. We have an umbrella liability policy. And of course we have health insurance (thanks Obama!).

All of these insurance policies protect us from financial risks we couldn’t handle on our own. And with those safety nets in place, we have more freedom to take chances in pursuit of a life that makes us happy.

Because at the very least, we know that our family will always have the financial resources to handle its basic needs.

4. Pay off Debt the Smart Way

I hate debt with a passion. Every dollar I owe to someone else keeps me beholden to them and restricts my ability to make my own choices.

If you can avoid debt, do it. And if you have debt, figuring out how to pay it off as quickly and efficiently as possible will save you money and create more flexibility for you and your family.

There are a lot of debt repayment strategies, but my favorite is to pay off your highest interest rate debts first. And the reason is simple: it saves you the most money and gets you to debt-free soonest. Any other approach costs more and takes longer.

I like this free spreadsheet for creating a personal debt repayment plan.

5. Invest in Your Financial Independence

I love my job. Every day I get to help real people make good financial decisions so they can build a happy, healthy, and enjoyable life. There’s nothing I’d rather be doing.

But eventually I’d like to get to a point where I no longer need to work in order to support my lifestyle. This point is traditionally called “retirement”, but I prefer the term financial independence.

To me, financial independence is simply the point at which you’re able to make decisions based on what makes you happy rather than what makes you money.

Financial independence could lead to retirement, but it might simply free you to work on projects purely for the fulfillment and enjoyment they provide. And you could get there in your 60s, but there are plenty of people who are able to reach this point in their 50s, 40s, and even their 30s.

No matter what financial independence looks like to you, getting there requires investing. It means contributing to your 401(k) at least up to your full employer match. It means contributing to IRAs and other investment accounts. It means investing in a simple portfolio of low-cost index funds.

By taking advantage of the tax breaks these accounts provide and the long-term returns of the stock market, you can eventually create so much flexibility that no one can require you to do anything.

That’s true financial independence.

One Step at a Time

The five steps above are a lot to take on, especially if you’re new to the whole personal finance thing. Even I’m not fully taking advantage of all of them, as my wife and I are still trying to get back on track with investing as grows closer to what it used to be.

The key to creating more financial flexibility is taking it one small step at a time. Maybe start by trying to cut back on one expense, then redirect that money to a savings account each month. If you can repeat that process a few more times, you’ll quickly build up some significant regular savings. Give it a little more time and you can move on to getting insurance, paying off debt, and investing.

It’s not always easy to take these steps, but remember that what you’re really doing is buying yourself the freedom to make your own decisions, no matter what life throws your way.

Trump's Congressional Address: America's Working Relationship Is At Stake

The first month of Donald Trump's presidency can largely be summed up with one word: relationships. The American media, public, and government officials alike have all taken to various platforms to psychoanalyze, scrutinize, and assess the health of Donald Trump's various relationships - whether it's his feud with the press and the intelligence community, his potential ties to Russia, his factional family inside the West Wing, his real family outside of it, his sometimes diplomatic, sometimes awkward relationship with U.S. allies, or his complicated relationship with information. The bedrock beginnings of his most important relationship of them all, however, will happen tomorrow night at 9 P.M. when president Trump addresses his co-workers. 

To this point, members of Congress have taken a variety of non-committal and deflective stances toward the Trump administration, and for the most part, who could blame them? When Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell see Trump, they see a signature on a tax cut, or a repeal of the ACA, much like Sylvester the Cat looks at Tweety Bird and sees dinner. The president they'll watch Tuesday night, to them, is a means to an end. Anyone paying attention to Republican congressional leadership knows that they'd love to ignore Trump if they could, but he is figuratively the largest elephant in a room full of elephants. Why is this conversation so important? Because he won't be addressing fans, or a red meat crowd at CPAC, or a room full of wealthy donors, or his guests at Mar-a-Lago. He'll be looking square in the face of the people (Republicans and Democrats) he needs to help him "Make America Great Again." And for Congress, the relationship with the man at the podium and his agenda is one that will likely define a generation of American politics. This open monologue to Congress (an equal branch of government to the executive and judicial branches despite what Stephen Miller says) will set the working standard for the next four years. 

Will Congress be able to work with Trump, or will they have to waste valuable energy working around the distractions he creates?

Will they be able to coalesce around a singular legislative vision for the country?

Will the president implore them to get to work, so the power and volatility of the executive branch is diminished, not only for this administration but for the next?

Will Congress make that a priority for themselves if the president doesn't?

Will the calls for unity from Trump be a mere bone to toss out randomly in speeches and press conferences to maintain appearances, or will he use this address to find issues where Democratic ideas can be a valued and respected?

Will he set the agenda and goals for how his new "business" will run? Or will he continue to shut them out in favor of a less-experienced, less stable inner circle? 

Will he discuss gridlock and congressional disapproval, and lay out a plan to reverse both trends?

As midnight strikes on Wednesday morning, we may find all of these questions unanswered, and some likely unposed. But if there is one moment where Trump can erase some of the blunders and early unforced errors of his presidency it is tomorrow night. I hesitate to call whatever that speech might look like a pivot. We are far beyond the point of hoping for or expecting a pivot. A focus on working order, though, is still not only possible, but plausible. It won't take much effort from Trump to steer a ship veering dangerously away from a place resembling governance back on course. He fancies himself a business man, and there's no better time for him to get down to business. And he must remember, the country will be watching.

Aside from the hardest core Trump supporters, the public is tired of hearing about fake news and the media. The daily judgement of what is reported on a day-to-day basis by this administration doesn't do one damn thing to make an American life better. It doesn't add one job. It doesn't insure one sick person. It doesn't fix one structurally deficient bridge. It doesn't stop one terrorist. It doesn't solidify one foreign relationship. It doesn't fill one glass of lead filled water with clean water. It doesn't empower one small business owner to expand. It doesn't help one student get a better education. It doesn't help one graduate pay down their debt. It doesn't help one person practice their religion safely. It doesn't heal one broken bond between a community and its law enforcement. It doesn't stop one shooting death. It doesn't do one thing to reduce our dependency on fossil fuels. It doesn't help support one service person abroad or here at home. It doesn't help establish free and fair trade. It doesn't help one family afford a home. 

Aside from the hardest core Trump supporters, the public is tired of hearing about the 2016 election, Hillary Clinton, and the margin of victory. The public is tired of hearing how nobody believed in "the movement." All those issues I listed in the last paragraph? None of them get addressed by touting electoral margins of victory either.

Aside from the hardest core Trump supporters, the public is tired of hearing "believe me" and "trust me" because, so far, there isn't much from the administration to believe or trust. It has been wholly unable to synchronize a collective message or agenda. It has rushed multiple executive orders and conflated motion with the idea of progress. It has made promise after lofty promise, with not so much as a whisper of Congressional consensus on policy that can be put forward. And if the Republican town halls are any indication of just how tired that public is of getting rhetoric instead of answers in regard to those speedy promises - a war of attrition is already underway.

My guess is also, Congress is tired of hearing media talk, election talk, and "believe me" too. Republicans are in "bigger fish to fry" mode, and Democrats are trying to unify around the resistance movement (the effectiveness and direction of that movement TBD). Everyone in Congress has more important conversations to have, more important work to do, and more important obligations to the American people. The ones relishing and engaging in Trump's pettier posturing will probably regret it come 2018.  

At Pantsuit Politics we love a productive conversation, and no matter which side of the political fence you stand on, more stagnation is something we should all vehemently reject. If you've ever been on a conference call that ends with a concrete plan, you know that invigorated feeling you get when you sit back at your desk. Your notebook is full. Your to-do list is in front of you. Your cube lighting looks a little less fluorescent. The clock feels a little less taunting. Even if all the meetings before that one were a disaster, all it takes is one great one to change perceptions, change the culture, get things moving forward. Even Trump's biggest opponents want to see someone focused more on his work and his country work than himself. They want to see the bare minimum of selfless effort the highest office of public servitude requires. They want to see him realize the purpose of the presidency. 

Purpose - real purpose - is a powerful feelingIf Trump can find it between now and his first address to Congress, dignified leadership might not be a lost cause after all. 

Politics and Meditation: I Promise We Aren't Crazy

After we finished recording our episode, Resistance and Backlash, I realized that Sarah and I resolved our conversation by deciding that meditation is the answer to polarization--a conclusion that probably prompted loads of eye-rolling or at least confusion. While we always try to offer something that you don't exactly find on cable news, we stepped way out of the mainstream this time and have some explaining to do to those of you who aren't sitting in stillness every day. 

One of our core realizations in creating episodes of Pantsuit Politics is that political conversation has to be about personal growth to be effective. If you're engaging to convince other people of anything, you're pushing against rope. Meditation is a key contributor to personal growth for both Sarah and me. Meditation teaches you to observe your own thoughts, and that sort of mind-management has become an essential part of my political thinking. 

For example, this morning, I was thinking about universal basic income in the shower (WEREN'T YOU?). I decided that UBI is a good option even for fiscal conservatives (doesn't it have to cost less than the bureaucracy wrapped around loads of other social programs?) and libertarians (doesn't it honor the personal freedom and inherent autonomy of people better than our current welfare system?). Then I heard myself thinking, "of course, there are the crazies who think all taxes are forms of stealing." 

"The crazies." Not exactly nuanced. 

I paused, and I methodically took myself through the logic that a reasonable human being might use to determine that we should not have to pay any taxes. I do not agree with that reasonable human being, but I can see that argument and think about that person with respect. 

Catching these moments of thought loops and mental laziness makes a major difference in the way I interact with information and people. I'm trying to consistently check in with my "observer" self before I tweet something snarky, unfair, unsubstantiated, or generally unproductive. When we receive emails that rip into me for something I've said on the show and I feel this flash of heat or sickness in my body, I've started labeling that feeling almost immediately and letting it go. I read the message, experience the sensation, and tell myself, "Beth, you are allowing a person you've never met to make you feel inadequate right now. Stop." It's pretty effective.

And when someone I do know and usually love says something that I find shocking, I let myself experience that sick feeling then say, "Beth, you hate what this person is saying, and you love this person, and also this has nothing to do with you."

This is all to say that when we know our minds better, we can engage in conversations without devolving into rage, sarcasm, or estrangement. And, we aren't the only ones who think so. Gunilla Norris expresses it more effectively than I can: 

Within each of us there is a silence
—a silence as vast as a universe.
We are afraid of it…and we long for it.

When we experience that silence, we remember
who we are: creatures of the stars, created
from the cooling of this planet, created
from dust and gas, created
from the elements, created
from time and space…created
from silence.

In our present culture,
silence is something like an endangered species…
an endangered fundamental.

The experience of silence is now so rare
that we must cultivate it and treasure it.
This is especially true for shared silence.

Sharing silence is, in fact, a political act.
When we can stand aside from the usual and
perceive the fundamental, change begins to happen.
Our lives align with deeper values
and the lives of others are touched and influenced.

Silence brings us back to basics, to our senses,
to our selves. It locates us. Without that return
we can go so far away from our true natures
that we end up, quite literally, beside ourselves.

We live blindly and act thoughtlessly.
We endanger the delicate balance which sustains
our lives, our communities, and our planet.

Each of us can make a difference.
Politicians and visionaries will not return us
to the sacredness of life.

That will be done by ordinary men and women
who together or alone can say,
“Remember to breathe, remember to feel,
remember to care,
let us do this for our children and ourselves
and our children’s children.
Let us practice for life’s sake.”

Let us practice for life's sake. So, download the Calm app, friends. You won't be sorry; you'll be more nuanced. 

Secrets Don't Make Friends...Or A Stable Government

Editor's note: Jason is an avid listener of the show and frequent contributor to the blog.  He is a U.S. Air Force Officer, and his views expressed are entirely his own and not that of the United States Air Force or the DOD.  Follow on Twitter @jbbakes3

I have a new found appreciation for print journalists with deadlines. I told Pantsuit Politics editor Dante Lima late last week that I could get him something for this week dealing with some current foreign policy and national security issues. It was going to serve as sort of a primer/commentary on our policies and dealing with allies and the importance of such.

Then as I was getting into bed Monday night, my phone buzzed and the news alert stated that National Security Advisor Michael Flynn was resigning.

Edit.  Select All.  Delete.

Now, I find myself writing down some thoughts about how Retired General Michael Flynn helped everyone who took the under on number of days he’d last cash their bets out.  The position had previously been held for an average of 949 days.  Mr. Flynn gave it the old comrade try and got to 24. In Russia, job resign you!  That was forced, I’m sorry.

The White House is in pure chaos, and even Trump’s harshest critics should not take joy in this.  Aside from the fact that an American National Security advisor was lying to his bosses and is possibly compromised by the Russians, North Korea is expanding their missile program, the aforementioned Rooskies are ignoring treaties and deploying missiles, Yemen is limiting our ability to conduct raids to hunt terrorist leaders, and the refugee ban is bolstering ISIS recruiting numbers.

Were all of this being handled professionally and in good order, this would be the time where all of my Republican friends reminded me they said it would be ok. I told you he’d change. I told you he’d surround himself with the right people. I told you that you had nothing to worry about, I told you that it would be fine and we had to vote for our team to beat the email lady. Instead?

Absolute, crickets on a quiet rural night, silence. 

I’m not going to continue to preach, I’m going to ask you all for a favor. In the name of Pantsuit Politics nuance, and keeping faith with everything I’ve ever written here about partisan politics, I ask this of you:

Please let our system work. Is it not so far? Judges are pushing back on the ban, patriots in our intelligence community are not being bullied into ignoring wrong doing, and our right to a free press is presenting the information. We live in a country where in the past week alone, our courts used their checks and balances, and the press of a free society brought to light issues that brought actionable wrong doing to the surface. Nobody was dragged from their home, nobody was locked up, and no blood was shed. As you think to yourself these are unprecedented times also ask yourself this: In the long history of this world, how often are such violate disagreements handled with the rule of law and the upholding of governing documents?

Tell your elected representatives you want answers and demand accountability.  Stay informed and be aware of current events, your rights, and what you can do with them, but let the system work. As badly as I want to see this issue investigated from top to bottom, I just as badly want it to be the end of it. I sincerely hope that a full investigation reveals that Flynn acted alone, lied, was caught, and our President dealt with it. I believe the time and resources spent doing such a thing would be well spent in the name of establishing some much needed order on the National Security front.

If IC members exposed secrets and methods that could compromise the position and safety of our officials and operations, then they too have to be investigated. Two wrongs don’t make a right. And if the investigation leads elsewhere? Well then we need to know that too. It’s not just about asking questions anymore, it’s about finding answers – answers our country desperately needs to maintain order and integrity.

If You Can't Prove There's A Problem, You Can't Fix It - The Defense of Data Collection

Editor's note: Evi Roberts is a listener and Master of Public Administration candidate at Ohio University's Voinovich School of Leadership and Public Affairs. In the interest of full disclosure, I have marketed the MPA program for the Voinovich School in a past life, but I no longer do and was unaware of this relationship until Evi emailed me this post. 

The Pantsuit Politics call for writers is rather timely as I am looking to spread the word about a piece of harmful legislation that has been introduced into Congress. Senator Mike Lee (R-UT) has proposed a bill on behalf of the Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs committee - Section 103 of the proposed Local Zoning Protection Act - which would cease access to and collection of federal data on disparity indicators related to race and access to affordable housing. 

Put simply: the data used by governmental agencies, academic institutions, non-profit organizations and private sector companies regarding affordable housing and racial disparities would no longer be collected, and access to existing data would be denied.

This data is necessary to assess the potential and evaluate the actual impact of policies, regulations, and legislation that affects racial minorities and low-income individuals.

It's necessary to support grant applications by organizations seeking funding to address racial and economic disparities.

It's necessary to understand the health and wealth of a community, as well as the social inequity its denizens may be experiencing.

It's necessary to track how different demographics fare under the Trump presidency, and to confirm or disconfirm the narratives Trump tells us regarding inequitable treatment on the basis of income and race.

I'm concerned because if this legislation is passed, Ben Carson, the unqualified and inexperienced new head of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, will be responsible for creating and writing the regulations to implement this legislation.

Researchers and community organizers - the people on the ground working to improve lives in their communities - know that if there isn't data, you can't prove there's a problem and you certainly can't fix it.

I'm concerned the Local Zoning Protection Act could usher in a wave of additional bills that dismantle other valuable data collection practices which now provide barriers to protect communities from unequal policies and have the potential to expose Donald Trump. Because there is no easier way to "prove" one's competency than to erase all other indicators to the contrary.

I urge listeners to call their congresspersons with the following message:

"I am your constituent from [location] and I want to strongly encourage [rep name] to oppose the "Local Zoning Protection Act, S. 103 which seeks to suppress data regarding racial disparities and segregation. This is an attempt to hide how the most vulnerable people in our country are not being counted. Please do not support this bill."

We have word-of mouth stories and media documentation of police brutality, and sexual assault, and starvation, and a hundred other narrative-based indicators of inequity, but unless we have data to back up our claims, it is easy to dismiss those concerns. For people like you, and me, and many Pantsuit Politics listeners, data is the foundation of our worldview, the neutral arbiter to which I turn when I need answers to controversial questions. If we lose access to this information, then we will never truly know the consequences of Donald Trump's administration, and citizens on both sides of the aisle should be concerned about that. 

Please see https://www.congress.gov/bill/115th-congress/senate-bill/103/text for the complete bill. Scroll down to section 3 for the details regarding data collection practices.

I'm Gonna Let It Shine: Why Now Is A Time To Show Christianity's Potential

Editor's note: This blog was submitted by listener and progressive Christian, Lacey Weil. This is her first time writing for the Pantsuit Politics blog. 

American Christianity is in crisis. It seems that those who speak the loudest are also the ones who sound the least like Jesus. Let's take for instance conservative Facebook phenom, Tomi Lahren. The 24-year old host of TheBlaze.com's "Tomi" seems to pop up weekly on my feed with her infamous Final Thoughts, a segment dedicated to what can only be described as a rant against the liberal agenda. Millions watch as she rails against Black Lives Matter, immigrants, feminists, Islam, and Hollywood elites. But it's not the content of the video that doesn't sit well with me, it's the last 10 seconds. She finishes every Final Thoughts segment with "God bless".

Here is a young woman, who is smart and savvy with mass appeal using her platform to further enrage her base and then calmly signing off with a simple "God bless." I imagine every video with an asterisk of conditions: *with the exception of protesters, liberal snowflakes, immigrants, Hollywood elites, the mainstream media, on and on. The Jesus I know doesn't have a list that long. The Jesus I know doesn't have a list at all.

You see, I'm Christian. I haven't always been, in fact for the first 20 years of my life, I wasn't much of anything. I didn't grow up in the "Church" or have very many religious friends. But I sure had thoughts about what it meant to be Christian.

I saw Christians rallying around the California bill, Prop 8 that would solidify the state constitution to reflect marriage as between a man and a woman. Not between the several gay couples I knew growing up that reflected love, compassion, and a dedication to their family.

I saw Christians fight against science. While working on the California Youth Leadership Council on environmental concerns, there were always people at any meeting or demonstration denying climate change and scientific facts.

I saw Christians exclude people who didn't look like them, or talk like them, or pray like them.

I saw Christians do a lot of things that were not, in any way, Christ like.

And then I started going to church, reluctantly. I liked the band and I liked being around kids my own age and I liked feeling like I was learning a little something on a Sunday morning. And then, all at once, I started liking church. And I started liking Christians.

I have been battling ever since what it means to be a Christian and what it means to be one in our culture. I hesitate to tell people I go to church, or that I think Jesus is freaking amazing because I'm embarrassed of my fellow Christians. I'm embarrassed to be associated with people who use Jesus to wound. I'm ashamed to have the same label as someone who believes words inside the Bible can ever be used against another human being.

I refuse to be against another human being. So instead, I'm going to be against the church. Or at least the church who has turned away so many people for not being enough. The entire point is that we are all enough. We belong to each other.

I'm a Christian who believes same sex marriage is beautiful and holy.

I'm a Christian who believes that my Muslim neighbors have the same rights to pray any way they like, just as I do.

I'm a Christian who believes that if we don't stand together with #BlackLivesMatter, than we are sending a profoundly selfish message that only our lives matter.

I'm a Christian whose heart breaks wide open thinking about a child in Syria being turned away from all this country has to offer because we are afraid.

I don't have all the answers, hardly any of them in fact. But I know that Christianity and Christians have so much potential in this period of turmoil to show what the church is really about. I worry there are thousands of people like me, watching what high profile Christians like Tomi Lahren are doing, and equating it with the church. I'm afraid they will watch her say that Lena Dunham looks like a boy, or that people who mourned the defeat of their candidate were cry babies and think that the "God bless" send off at the end is not for them.

Trust me when I say, the blessing is for you even if Tomi Lahren isn't.

I feared that this election cycle would turn me off of Christianity entirely. It did the exact opposite. Don't let the loudest voices in the room stifle the growing masses of progressive Christians who are ready to stand with the most vulnerable amongst us. That is exactly what Jesus had in mind for his followers.

Betsy DeVos Was Confirmed. Be Encouraged

Editor's note: Lee Williams is a marketing copywriter, blogger, activist, and friend of the pod. His work has been featured in The Huffington Post, but this post was written from the heart on his personal Facebook page. He has gladly allowed us to publish it. 

If I were to explain today’s Senate confirmation of Betsy DeVos to my sixteen-month-old son, I’d tell him, with great emphasis, that nothing is promised in this world. Not even a free education. And any hope we place in the hands of our fellow men and women — even the idyllic hope of doing the right thing — is a hope placed in shifty hands.

We should never look to others as our key to better place in this life. They are as undependable as they are unpredictable. Instead, I’d direct him to look within himself, his faith, interests, hopes, dreams, and goals; to chart life by his own path, pave his own way, and learn to define it by his own means.

That’s truly what education is — it’s an enlightened experience within a body of knowledge. And it’s going to take a lot more than a bunch of bureaucrats to prevent that from happening — no matter how many school vouchers they allow, which schools they give funding, and what class structure they benefit.

But one thing for certain: You cannot expect people to “do the right thing.” That’s an objective phrase. For some, the right thing is a definition that marginalizes others, builds up walls, and keeps the refuse of the world out. The “right thing” may be rooted in fear and profit and upheaval.

He’ll know, after our conversation of conversations, that his education isn't controlled by the hands of a few; it's his and his alone. And it doesn’t begin or end at a brick-and-motar building — it’s just a part of the journey. That journey, like elections, administrations, or appointments, are just flashes in the pan of life. And it is our responsibility as parents, teachers, mentors and friends, to inform that journey with enlightenment.

A bureaucrat can’t do that.

A presidential appointee can’t do that.

A budget decrease can’t do that.

But if each one teaches one, then my friends… that is a true step forward in the life of any child. We can all do that.

Be encouraged.

The Pigskin is Now Political: How Donald Trump Undercut The Super Bowl and the NFL

In 1966, John Lennon famously said the Beatles were more popular than Jesus. It was a powerful and politically charged statement about the cult of personality and popular culture overtaking an institution, and in some ways, Lennon wasn't wrong. 

Some have compared the NFL to a religion in the U.S., and I wouldn't go that far, but the surge in popularity the league has seen since the 90s is unprecedented in sports. Nearly every franchise in the NFL is now valued over a billion dollars. Fantasy football used to be something dorky kids like me and my high school friends used to play (hint: it wasn't cool then, probably still isn't cool now). Now you'd be hard pressed not to find everyone and their mother, brother, friend's boyfriend, and mechanic's cousin in a league. The billion dollar contracts the NFL holds with Fox, CBS, and ABC/ESPN have cemented it as not only America's last reliable source of advertising real estate, but the dying breath of live TV as a necessity. 

The league has endured multiple domestic violence scandals and cover-ups, controversies surrounding concussions, player bounties, and players kneeling for the Star Spangled Banner. And through it all, it seemed nothing could topple the league. That was of course until Donald Trump. 

I have been watching the NFL since I was 12 years old, and in the nearly 2 decades of Super Bowls I can never remember one with less fanfare than today's game. There's only one logical reason. Donald Trump and the coverage surrounding him have swallowed everything. 

Numerous NFL reporters like Bill Barnwell, Rick Reilly, Michael Silver and Jason LaCanfora are now tweeting more about politics than they are about the NFL. Players have taken this moment to embrace activism in a league that is practically allergic to "distractions." The New England Patriots - who were once considered the heroic embodiment of American courage in the 2002, post-9/11 Super Bowl - are now akin to the NFL's "axis of evil." The Patriots' popularity was plummeting anyway, first for the smugness, second for the cheating, third for the winning. But now with Patriot brass like QB Tom Brady, head coach Bill Belichik, and owner Robert Kraft coming forward as Trump supporters, the nail has been hammered into the coffin of the Patriots' popularity. 

This evening, America's most important game will take place. It's a moment where everyone stops to watch, a unique and unifying event for American sports, commercialism, and to a lesser extent, pride. Football is our sport. Nobody else in the world plays it like us. Nobody else in the world loves it like us. Yet, the "big game" is not to be overshadowed by Trump's big ego. Halftime shows usually involve A-list performers and the most expensive commercials. For most it's the only part of the spectacle worth caring about, and never, almost ever, is a political figure even thought of in association with the Super Bowl. Donald Trump, however, is not to be outdone by the NFL. His pre-taped interview with Bill O'Reilly will air before the game, and it's likely to make more headlines tomorrow than even the most outrageously exciting finish the game could have. When the eccentricity of Lady Gaga is certain to take second fiddle to Trump's thoughts on Iran during a Superbowl, you know we've reached an undeniable cultural shift. 

Politics used to stay out of sports. Sports used to be the oasis for the politically disinclined. Not anymore. Those worlds are clashing. When constitutional crisis is in the daily vernacular, when tweets have the possibility to trigger trade wars (and real wars), when our allies no longer know where we stand, and when the judicial branch and a free press are under siege from the West Wing, men tackling each other for sport suddenly seems even more trivial than we ever could have imagined. 

Donald Trump may not be bigger than Jesus, (or the Beatles), but he's bigger than the NFL and he wants to make sure you know it. 

 

I'm a Confused Democrat: Reconciling Resistance and Reality In The Trump Era

The resistance is here. It's time to grab a sign. I've spent a lot of time thinking about what I'd write on mine if I was heading to a protest or a rally, or any one of the dozens of mass mobilizations that have come to symbolize the resistance and I've settled on one.

Don't Fail Us Again. 

Some of you may be thinking, that's an odd sign for the resistance. But isn't the point to voice whatever displeasure or conflict you see in the current political climate? If that's indeed the case, then my sign is directed straight at my party. 

I want with every fiber of my being to give in to my greatest impulses and direct my anger and frustrations solely at Donald Trump, but I can't get there. His administration has had a more disastrous start than even most bed-wetting liberals had in mind. It's been a sloppy, disorganized messed peppered with leaks and internal dissent, seemingly void of any clear hierarchy of influence, and as hasty and impulsive as the most tenuous days on the campaign trail. It's been draped in Donald Trump's eternal vanity - a cloak so heavy and suffocating that he botched slam-dunk presidential moments honoring fallen CIA members, Black History Month, Holocaust Remembrance Day, and The National Prayer Breakfast. He's in 2 weeks brought more global uncertainty to the United States' standing as keepers of a wider liberal order than George W. Bush and Barack Obama did in 16 years. He's incited needless bickering with one of our largest trade partners and one of our most trusted allies. And yet, despite it all, this isn't his fault. 

My liberal friends are going to hate this rambling from me. They often talk about how we liberals tend to purity test ourselves into oblivion. My dad says the Democrats are too weak, and that we need to stoop to the Republicans' level in order to win. And they may be right, who knows? Maybe I'm naive for thinking that this isn't about governance, or principles, but it's really just a power struggle and the sooner I come to that realization the better off I'll be. But the resistance isn't helping lift my spirits because I fear that the Democrats are taking pages from the same playbook that got us into this place of powerlessness. We're demanding our elected officials to spend the bread crumbs of political capital they have left on meaningless opposition stances in battles we simply can't win right now. 

A march isn't a vote. A protest isn't governance. And no matter where I look within my party I see the same faces, espousing the same tactics that don't win. Tom Perez is Mitch McConnell with a D next to his name. Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer are too entrenched in the same petty squabbles they've been fighting for years in the halls of Congress like chickens pecking at each other. Elizabeth Warren has her moments when she's focused. Cory Booker tries too hard. And above all, they are still playing the politics of being better people. AND IT'S NOT WORKING.

Take the Muslim Ban, for example. What is the heart of the issue? In my mind, the Muslim Ban is a misguided solution to the problem of easing public fears on national security. And whether real or not, the perception for millions of Americans is that we're not as safe as we once were and extremism is a threat. What has been Democratic leadership's response - more tone deaf calls of bigoted politics, un-American values, questions of who we are as a nation. It's philosophical, it's moral, but it's not a solution. It is a strategy that once again, like much of the entire campaign, says what we're against, what we don't want to be, than what we are. We're still trying to be the "best" people in the room, not the most helpful. Like it or not, Trump saw a perceived problem with the voters he was speaking with, and he gave them an answer. 

What I'd say to Democrats is this: lead with the solution to the problem. Ease the perceived fears of the public first. Tell Americans how good we already are at vetting refugees (2 arrests of conspiring to commit terror since 9/11 despite allowing 750,000 refugees globally). Tell us about our strategic partnerships with forces within those Muslim majority countries that will be harmed by this policy. Tell us about the deployed service men and women who will now be in greater danger due to a perceived war on Islam in extremist camps. Show them the propaganda the ban is creating. Don't be afraid to get REAL. The best thing to come out of a Democrat's mouth since the ban is from Chris Murphy, who said "This policy is going to get Americans killed." It's a compelling entry point to the safety issues this policy will cause, not fix. Go above and beyond by instantly proposing added vetting measures for extra security that wouldn't include a ban. Give an ALTERNATIVE. Show the American people that this isn't a choice between A and B, like the Trump administration wants to make it - i.e. "We are either safe with this policy, or doomed without it." Instead, say we can protect our people, protect our values, and uphold the moral obligation to do our part in the world. But I really can't continue to support a party whose main stance is we're better than you. 

I want the Democratic party to be better. I want real leadership. One that is more focused on organizing and less on settling scores. I want real organization that mobilizes emotion into votes. I want us to win back seats - the right way - through better policy solutions for Americans. I want a better message. Inclusivity and a big tent is great, but if you aren't articulating why Democratic ideas lead to better outcomes, everyone in the tent is still stuck in neutral. I want us to stop looking backwards. The GOP played dirty pool to get to where they are, but now they hold all the cards so let them own this mess that's brewing, and be there with a mop and bucket for the American public when they call "clean up on aisle 1600." I want strategy. And reform. And decisiveness. 

I want to be able to say I joined the resistance, and I got more from it than just a lousy sign.