Dani McClain – The Nation
You could be forgiven for thinking the movement has gone quiet. But you’d be wrong.
On June 1, the right-wing blogger and avowed white supremacist Jason Kessler and other alt-right activists met for dinner on the patio of Miller’s Downtown, a popular burger joint in Charlottesville, Virginia. The dinner was two weeks after white nationalists had gathered in the city’s Lee Park, wielding torches as a kind of dress rehearsal for the mid-August “Unite the Right” rally that left counterprotester Heather Heyer dead and dozens more injured. According to local reports, members of the white-led group Showing Up for Racial Justice surrounded Kessler’s party that night at Miller’s, recording the gathering on their phones and shouting, “Nazi, go home!” At a nearby table sat University of Virginia professor Jalane Schmidt, who at the time was trying to establish a Black Lives Matter chapter in Charlottesville. As black passersby stopped and showed interest in the confrontation, participants in the SURJ action directed them to Schmidt’s table.
She considers that night to be her group’s first real meeting. Schmidt knew that many BLM chapters were founded in response to police shootings. “It begins in a crisis,” she told me. “In our case, it was the crisis of the alt-right organizing in our town.”
Despite reports to the contrary, the national constellation of racial-justice organizations loosely referred to as the Black Lives Matter movement is alive and well. It would be easy to think otherwise: BLM appears less frequently in the news than it did between 2013 and last year, when the movement responded forcefully in the streets and online to a string of black deaths at the hands of police. Now, when BLM is mentioned at all, it’s often because a member of the Trump administration is issuing a dog whistle to the president’s supporters, as was the case last month when Trump’s personal attorney forwarded an e-mail to conservative journalists characterizing BLM as “totally infiltrated by terrorist groups.” But even in more sympathetic portrayals, BLM is said to have lost or squandered the power it began building in July 2013 following George Zimmerman’s acquittal in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin. According to a recent BuzzFeed article, BLM is beset by debilitating internal rifts over direction and funding, preventing the movement from doing much at all to accomplish its aims.
But conversations with just over a dozen people in the movement suggest otherwise. BLM organizers are still in the streets in places like Charlottesville and Boston, where white supremacists mobilized this summer. From St. Louis, Missouri, to Lansing, Michigan, they’re engaging with electoral politics in new ways. And they’re taking the time to reflect on and develop new strategies for moving forward given the changed political terrain.
Trump’s election, like his campaign, brought a new fervor to efforts to crush black organizing and roll back the gains made during the Obama administration. Since last year, so-called “Blue Lives Matter” bills, which increase the penalties for offenses against police officers and in some cases designate them as hate crimes, have proliferated in state legislatures. Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced in late August that President Trump would sign an executive order again allowing local police departments to procure military gear like bayonets and grenade launchers. As president, Barack Obama had banned the transfer of such equipment after protesters and police clashed in Ferguson, Missouri, in the wake of Michael Brown’s shooting. State legislatures are also considering laws that make nonviolent public protest costly and, in some cases, deadly: Lawmakers have tried to pass legislation that limits civil liability for motorists who hit protesters with their vehicles, as well as other legislation that puts protesters on the hook financially for any police presence their demonstrations require. “We haven’t seen comparable policies and practices since the McCarthy era,” said Alicia Garza, a co-founder of the Black Lives Matter Global Network, when I asked her whether the Trump era demands a new approach to black organizing. “So, yes, our tactics do have to change.”
The tactics may be evolving, but the organizers I spoke with reminded me that in a “leader-full” movement such as this one—that is, one that prizes collaborative and decentralized leadership—no one individual or group is in a position to decide for everyone else what tactics to prioritize over others. Still, it was clear from my conversations that activists in leadership positions within BLM-affiliated groups were expressing much more interest in electoral politics than I’d heard in the past. “In the early stages of the movement, people were talking mostly about the criminal-justice system and a system of criminalization,” said Jessica Byrd, who runs Three Point Strategies, a consulting firm that she refers to as “the electoral political firm of the movement.” These days, black organizers are turning their attention to the electoral system as yet another social structure that places black people at a disadvantage. This means a new level of engagement in electoral politics as well as the interrogation of a system that diminishes black voters’ power through the antiquated Electoral College, voter-suppression measures, and laws that disenfranchise people with felony convictions. “As much as we need to change the people, we need to change the process,” said Angela Waters Austin of Black Lives Matter Lansing, whose chapter is coordinating a statewide get-out-the-vote and political-education campaign called Election 20XX. “What are the policies that continue to make a Donald Trump possible? If he did not get a majority of the popular vote, then why is he the president?”
As the 2016 presidential campaign unfolded, BLM activists gained a reputation for using disruption as a way to push the movement’s key issues. At the Netroots Nation conference that took place during the primaries, black activists famously interrupted the candidates’ forum with chants and heckles. At one point, Tia Oso of the Black Alliance for Just Immigration (the organization headed by Opal Tometi, one of BLM’s three founders), took the stage. Soon after, Democratic candidate and former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley stumbled with a tone-deaf proclamation that “Black lives matter. White lives matter. All lives matter.” Once Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders had the floor, “he talked over the protesters, got defensive about his racial-justice bona fides, and stuck to his [stump speech],” Joe Dinkin wrote on The Nation.com. After trying and failing to disrupt a New Hampshire campaign appearance by Hillary Clinton, a BLM Boston member asked her a halting, long-winded question that did the favor of making her response—“I don’t believe you change hearts. I believe you change laws”—come off as refreshingly sensible.
At the time, some progressives criticized these moves, blaming BLM for undermining Democratic candidates when the obvious threat, in their eyes, came from the Republicans. But to many black organizers, these disruptions were a principled way to hold candidates who claimed to represent their interests accountable. When I asked her whether she wished that Black Lives Matter had endorsed Hillary Clinton in the general election, Garza pivoted away from Clinton entirely and talked about how the Democratic candidates had bungled their BLM moment at Netroots. “When he was pressed, I wish that Bernie had said, ‘Of course black lives matter, and here’s what that means for me,’” she offered. Had Sanders discussed how “we function under a gendered and racialized economy” and done more to build relationships in communities of color, his run for president would have received more support, she added. The problem, in other words, is with candidates who alienate black voters, not with BLM’s refusal to play nice.
As the midterm elections draw near, organizers are laying the groundwork for two new initiatives—the Electoral Justice Project and the Black Futures Lab—that they say will address this alienation and transform the ways that black communities participate in the 2018 elections and beyond. And for Byrd and Garza, each of whom is behind one of these efforts, it is not the ascendance of Donald Trump that demands a new kind of black political power. (After all, despite the pressure that BLM activists put on Democratic candidates during the campaign season, 94 percent of black women voters backed Hillary Clinton, as did 82 percent of black men. Black turnout “did come down,” Kayla Reed, a movement organizer in St. Louis, acknowledged. “But Democrats are not investing in areas where they have a base.”) Instead, organizers told me, to understand the movement’s new energy around elections, you have to understand Tishaura Jones’s failed campaign for mayor of St. Louis.
In March, Jones—then treasurer of this largely Democratic city—narrowly lost the party’s mayoral primary, 30 to 32 percent. Just six weeks earlier, she’d been polling at 8 percent in a field of seven Democrats. The winner was the only white candidate in the pack with a sizable following. That Jones came from behind to lose by just 888 votes suggested that she’d been underestimated by the mainstream media and more established politicians. But the young black St. Louis residents who’d been energized by the protests in nearby Ferguson weren’t surprised by her near-win: They had been working hard for Jones behind the scenes, sensing support for her in black communities citywide and finding ways to build on it.
Members of the St. Louis Action Council, which was formed in the wake of the Ferguson protests, had started teaching themselves the ins and outs of voter organizing a year earlier, when they’d gotten involved in the race for St. Louis circuit attorney, the city’s top prosecutor job. They asked the candidates their positions on issues like cash bail, juvenile detention, and marijuana decriminalization, and decided to endorse State Representative Kim Gardner. Today, they claim some credit for getting Gardner into office, thereby helping to elect the city’s first black circuit attorney. “From Kim’s campaign to Tishaura’s campaign, we grew,” said Reed, who directs the St. Louis Action Council. “People trusted us more.”
In advance of the Democratic mayoral primary, Reed’s group partnered with other local community organizations to hold a January debate, during which they quizzed the candidates on issues like economic development and displacement, the school-to-prison pipeline, and the relationship between the police and black communities. According to Reed, some of the questions were an effort to determine how the candidates’ goals aligned with “A Vision for Black Lives,” the detailed policy statement that the Movement for Black Lives released in August of last year. (Reed also leads the Movement for Black Lives’ electoral organizing committee. The Black Lives Matter Global Network is one of more than 50 allied organizations that comprise M4BL.) For the young black organizers, Jones stood out: Her platform included a plan to place social workers inside police departments, and she rejected calls to hire additional officers. To Reed and others, Jones was embracing a “divest framework” that echoed “A Vision for Black Lives,” which calls for pulling resources out of “exploitative forces including prisons, fossil fuels, police, surveillance and exploitative corporations” and investing those same resources in “the education, health and safety of black people.”
The debate that Reed’s group co-hosted drew a crowd of 1,500, and 33 percent of those who participated in an exit poll indicated that they supported Jones, Reed said. So the St. Louis Action Council paid little heed to the 8 percent that Jones had polled just days earlier. “What we knew was that polls often do not speak to what’s actually happening in communities that are not [made up of] regular voters,” Reed told me. By this point, she added, she could feel the energy around Jones’s campaign in the communities where she works. But she knew that the campaign was doomed unless one of the other leading black candidates agreed to drop out of the race.
Once the St. Louis Action Council endorsed Jones, it threw its weight behind her for the next month, canvassing, getting out the vote, and partnering with the national civil-rights organization Color of Change to tell 20,000 St. Louis residents via text messaging that Jones was its endorsed candidate. In the end, it wasn’t enough. None of the other black candidates—all of whom were men, organizers point out—yielded to Jones, so the black vote was split and a white alderwoman named Lyda Krewson became the next mayor in a city in which black people comprise a slim plurality (49 percent), and in a region rocked by police shootings that have pushed questions of systemic racism to the fore.
Jones’s loss was a wake-up call to the movement’s leading organizers, and it made many of them prioritize bringing the power they’d built over the past four years into the electoral realm. “We should play out each one of those races not as a local race, but as a national race,” Garza told me. “Nationally, we didn’t mobilize for Tishaura. Tishaura should’ve been our Bernie. Stacey Abrams [a progressive black woman vying to become Georgia’s next governor] should be our Bernie.” That means offering hands-on, on-the-ground support, she said. “All of us should have been sending caravans of people to St. Louis to knock on doors if they wanted that.” Jones and Abrams aren’t the only candidates that Garza thinks the movement can support. Chokwe Lumumba, the black progressive who was elected mayor of Jackson, Mississippi, in June, is another; so are Pamela Price, running for district attorney in Oakland’s Alameda County, and Andrew Gillum, running for governor in Florida.
Identifying exciting candidates like these and deploying national resources to campaigns where they’re needed is just one part of an electoral game plan, Byrd told me. In November, she and Reed will launch the Movement for Black Lives Electoral Justice Project, an effort to educate and mobilize black voters that will kick off with town-hall gatherings in cities throughout the South and in what Reed calls “migration cities”: Midwestern cities with sizable populations of black Americans who moved north during the Great Migration. Voter education will be essential to these efforts. “We don’t understand what the [Justice Department] is doing, or what this executive order signed by Trump actually means,” Reed said. “We want to find a space to spark a continued conversation with a hope of getting more people to these midterm elections.”
Garza is launching her own electoral organizing project, called Black Futures Lab, this year as well. The $3 million initiative involves creating an institute where participants will learn how to craft and advocate for policy change, as well as recruiting and training candidates and campaign staff. “If we’re not making decisions about policy and about representation, if we are not creating our own independent, progressive political force to counter what is a potent backlash to our very existence, we’ll be gone,” Garza said, citing the imprisonment and exile that black-liberation organizers have faced throughout history. “Our ability to operate aboveground will be severely compromised.”
For BLM activists, the key to success is keeping these electoral efforts independent. “We’re not going to build a black-voter mobilization project because one candidate deserves it or the Democratic Party needs it,” Byrd said of the Electoral Justice Project. “Black people deserve it.”
None of this means that organizers will be stepping away from the tactics they used earlier in the movement. Last summer, after five Dallas police officers were shot dead after a protest and conservative commentators laid the blame at the feet of Black Lives Matter, BLM groups didn’t go quiet in an attempt to tamp down accusations that their actions led to the ambush. Instead, activists from Black Youth Project 100, Million Hoodies NYC, the #LetUsBreathe Collective, and elsewhere doubled down on direct action in the following weeks. They showed up at the police-union headquarters in lower Manhattan, at the Oakland Police Department, and in Chicago’s Homan Square, the location of a warehouse where police detained and interrogated thousands of people who had no proper legal representation. “For us, it was about telling a certain narrative,” said Charlene Carruthers of Black Youth Project 100. “Our movement has a clear vision that doesn’t center itself around individual police officers. Our groups were being blamed, without critical questioning of what we’d been doing for the past several years.” (The Chicago group’s activities should allay any doubts that black organizers can walk and chew gum at the same time: Earlier in 2016, BYP100 participated in the successful citywide campaign to oust State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez.)
There have been fewer street protests calling for police accountability in 2017—partly because, in the wake of Trump’s ascent to power, there have been protests about so much else. The anti-Trump resistance has no doubt borrowed from the massive antiwar marches of the early 2000s and the Tea Party protests in the first years of the Obama presidency, but BLM also provided a crucial blueprint, according to several of the organizers I interviewed. BLM normalized confrontation and direct action, and recognized the underlying issues at stake. “Black Lives Matter begins this moment talking about state violence, about militarization, fascism, authoritarianism,” said Dream Hampton, an informal adviser to some movement organizers. “We had all this analysis and framing that was absolutely correct.” And the fact that those “Black Lives Matter” T-shirts, yard signs, and chants continue to be seen and heard everywhere is further proof of the movement’s enduring impact. “‘Black Lives Matter is only rivaled by ‘Make America Great Again,’” Hampton observed. “Don’t act like the phrase itself isn’t worth its weight in gold.”
In Charlottesville, the phrase itself didn’t move Jalane Schmidt much at first. “A hashtag does not a movement make,” she remembers thinking. But once the “Vision for Black Lives” policy platform came out, she was impressed. Schmidt had felt frustrated as she followed the debates among local organizations regarding the city’s Confederate monuments over the past year and a half, with conservative preachers and a quiet, careful chapter of the NAACP serving as the official voice of black Charlottesville. The city was becoming a focal point of white-supremacist organizing, but the church leadership and legacy civil-rights organizations had suggested ignoring their meetings and torch rallies. So Schmidt decided that it was time to start a BLM chapter. “We saw a need to have another vehicle for black mobilization in town, given the situation that we had,” she said. At 48, Schmidt is older than the typical BLM activist; but as a queer black woman, she appreciated the role that other queer black women had played as the movement’s founders. Black Lives Matter was also the organization that was most consistent and outspoken in its claims to be unapologetically black. Schmidt thought she’d found a good fit.
At that first unexpected chapter meeting in Miller’s Downtown, held “right under the noses of the white supremacists,” Schmidt collected the names and contact information of local people interested in getting involved. As she and other core members learned about more alt-right and neo-Nazi rallies planned in their community, they reached out to national BLM organizers for guidance and support. David Vaughn Straughn, another core member of the Charlottesville group, remembered his frustration as he tried e-mail address after e-mail address listed on the BLM website—for organizers in New York, Chicago, Boston, Denver, and Washington DC, and on and on—and received no response. Eventually he made contact, and the fledgling chapter got on a call with Patrisse Khan-Cullors, a BLM Global Network co-founder, and Nikita Mitchell, BLM’s organizing director. But the conversations around strategy never clicked. “Organizing in a small Southern town is different from organizing in a big city,” Schmidt said. “In a big city, you can use these big, disruptive tactics and then fade back into the woodwork of 3 million people. Here, the people we might piss off—we’re going to have to work with them next week.”
There was also the question of whether their group would be allowed to carry a BLM banner during the “Unite the Right” counterprotests. Though the BLM Global Network doesn’t require local groups to clear their decisions about actions or tactics with the national group, it does require new groups wishing to organize under the Black Lives Matter mantle to go through a series of conversations and trainings before officially using the phrase in their name. According to Schmidt, she asked Khan-Cullors: “There are going to be all these white people there wearing ‘Black Lives Matter’ T-shirts, but we’re not allowed to [call ourselves a BLM chapter or march under a BLM banner]?” The national group at first said no, then reversed itself a few days before the events that would garner national attention for the eruption of violence and the displays of white-supremacist hatred. The Charlottesville group is still not an official chapter, but the BLM Global Network amplified its call to action on the national organization’s social-media channels just before the weekend of August 12. “Had that amplification been given sooner, I think we would have had more individuals coming down and helping us defend our city,” Straughn said. “I just wish I had more of a personal connection with somebody who could’ve got the ball rolling a little bit quicker.”
Khan-Cullors is open about her regrets. “It’s really unfortunate that we took too long” to respond to the black activists in Charlottesville, she told me. “It’s always hard to tell what needs a rapid response.” In my conversation with her, what at first might sound like bureaucratic pettiness came across instead as an expression of the difficulties that any national organization faces as it goes through the pains of rapid growth. The BLM Global Network has reason to tread carefully when it comes to authorizing new groups: It is now the target of two lawsuits brought by police officers in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, who claim that BLM has created an unsafe environment for law enforcement. Groups calling themselves BLM chapters, but lacking the training that Khan-Cullors and Mitchell offer, have engaged in actions—such as inflammatory chants picked up and broadcast by the media—that provide fuel for such legal claims. “You need to know what you’re getting yourself into once you start calling yourself a BLM chapter,” Khan-Cullors said of the responsibility she bears. “You’re going to get a lot of publicity. The right’s going to come after you. You’re going to need security.”
A highly visible four-year-old movement and the national organization that emerged from it are bound to stumble when it comes to providing resources, training, and support to places across the country faced with crisis. Nowadays, that feels like everywhere, and black organizers are meeting the challenge with a spirit of experimentation. Rather than creating chaos, they’re looking for a way out of it. “We are reflective of the needs of hundreds of thousands of people in this country who have been feeling that the government cannot and will not do its job,” said Shanelle Matthews, the communications director for the BLM Global Network. Electoral organizing, street protests, disrupting Democratic events, and crafting new and visionary policies are all ways to begin to meet the challenge, Matthews added. “However nimble we need to be to approach that, that’s what we’re going to do.”
The Decline and Fall of America (In Numbers)
By Tobias Stone* – Medium.com
Innumbers, a lot about the United States appears to be on the decline. Of course, you can focus on the positive numbers like unemployment and the stock market, but they do not excuse the statistics that are so out of keeping with America’s image as the world’s leading developed nation.
Trump ran on a message of making America great again, which puzzled people who were informed and not lost in conspiracy theories. America is already great and doing very well on many measures. The stock market is high, unemployment low. The great universities, and their associated cities, continue to push the boundaries of inventiveness, changing the future of humanity: from breakthroughs in space flight and electric cars to algorithms and AI. Yet America also has another story, one told in statistics, which is in conflict with the science, innovation, and industry that is truly great about the country. Ironically, while addressing these issues would be the most direct path to greatness, Trump is not addressing any of them and is actively making them worse.
When viewed together, the darker statistics paint a worrying picture of a country failing on some of the most fundamental measures that we?—?including Americans?—?would consider the foundations of a successful and advanced nation. These are the failings by which we judge other, less advanced nations, yet they persist in the United States itself.
And the painful truth about this story is that it cannot be pinned on Trump. Declines, as they appear in numbers, are deeply entrenched. Mistakes take a long time to show in the stats. The United States is suffering from systemic failures that go back decades. Neither Democrats nor Republicans carry the blame alone. While things were good under Obama, these individual trends, buried under a growing GDP and brilliant innovation, are as much his failure as that of Clinton, the Bushes, and Reagan.
But the biggest tragedy of this story is that many of the victims of these failings tried to bring around change by voting for a renegade who promised to make their country “great again,” and who has now entirely turned his back on them. Trump came to power at a time when he could have (if he were a completely different person, in a parallel universe) taken steps to correct some of these trends. A truly renegade leader committed to change could have built on the progress made by Obamacare and made sure everyone in the United States had access to health care, improving life expectancy. He could have ensured everyone had access to dental care, rather than to firearms. Instead, in his populist, selfish, ultracapitalist way, Trump looks set to accelerate this decline. Rather than bringing evidence-based policymaking to solve these problems, Trump leads an uneducated team that bring god and ideology into decisions that will decide people’s futures. That will be a tragedy for America and for Americans.
Where would you place a flag on a map when identifying a country that is ruled by a demagogue, who has his family sitting alongside him at state occasions, whose very beautiful “daughter-adviser” also runs a clothing chain, and whose son and son-in-law carry out unorthodox foreign policy negotiations for him; a country where people carrying guns are allowed to march in the streets under Nazi flags? There have been satirical comedies about fake-istan countries that fit this description. This is more Borat than leader of the free world.
An article about a recent report on income disparity in San Francisco ranked the city equal with Rwanda for its gap between rich and poor. Such comparisons are a trend that starts to emerge across U.S. statistics. The report found that:
This income inequality also has a racial component: the average white San Franciscan makes three times more money than the average black resident, 66 percent more than the average Latino resident, and 44 percent more than the average Asian resident.
This sort of imbalance is what countries look like before revolutions. Numbers like these are referred to in history books when they ask why that period in history ended. You only need to peer over at Venezuela for an idea of what can happen next. Or down to Charlottesville to see angry white men marching under Nazi flags, reminiscent of Germany in the 1930s. Those things are linked to societal imbalances and poor government.
What happened in Charlottesville was shocking on many levels, but for an English onlooker, the mere fact that any protest could make it that far when the protesters were armed and wearing combat gear, or carrying batons and shields, was astonishing. Forget the politics for a moment and ask yourself what sort of country doesn’t automatically arrest people who turn up to protest on the street carrying assault rifles? In Germany (and they are the experts), it is illegal to display any Nazi symbols or make a Nazi salute. In the UK, it would have fallen foul of laws against incitement to racism and violence.
Yet in the United States, white men can march in protest carrying guns and symbols of the deepest, darkest period of racial hatred in human history, and the only sanction they get is on Twitter. As people have pointed out, if young black men had marched through a town similarly armed and violent, they would presumably have been shot by the police, as they are for much less.
The big one, the statistic of statistics, is life expectancy. The United States ranks 31st in the table of countries by life expectancy, just one above Cuba (32), and well below most Western countries (UK is 20th; Canada is 12th). Life expectancy is an important measure when judging how a country is run, because at the end of the day, surely, keeping people alive is the most basic duty of a government. The United States does a worse job of this than bankrupt Greece, or Costa Rica. While Trump can’t be blamed for the trend, removing health insurance from more than 20 million of the most vulnerable Americans will make this worse, not better.
Within the life expectancy statistic is one of the United States’ darkest shadows, and one that runs contrary to the country’s claim to be a leading first-world economy: the maternal death rate. We always think that surviving childbirth is a miracle of modernity, capitalism, and economic success. Whereas giving birth used to be a serious risk to a mother, it is now relatively safe. As countries become more developed, maternal death rates drop. That is just a given, isn’t it?
The United States is the only developed country where maternal mortality is rising. Whereas 3.8 women per 100,000 die from childbirth in Finland, 26.4 women die in the United States. Women in the United States are three times more likely to die in the maternal period than their Canadian neighbors. This number of deaths per 100,000 has dropped significantly in all developing nations, and even in Russia, Vietnam, Romania, and Iran. It has risen only in places like South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and…the United States.
Again, Trump can’t be blamed for this, as such things are embedded in the longer-term provision of health care. But instead of taking steps to address this, which involves listening to doctors and scientists, Trump’s medieval court of science-deniers and conspiracy theorists are cutting funding for services designed to protect women and cutting health care provisions in general. This will only make it worse.
If anyone had any doubt about the link between funding for maternal health care and maternal mortality, they just need to look at Texas, where maternal death rates doubled in a two-year period, from 2011 to 2012, after the state legislature cut $73.6 million from the state’s family planning budget of $111.5 million. Consequently, Texas now has the highest maternal death rate in the developed world. This was a policy led by hard-right conservatives, who are also heavily influenced by religious and ideological beliefs and clearly not looking objectively at the evidence in front of them.
Linked to this, the United States has the peculiar distinction, for a developed nation, of having a religious fundamentalist influence on its politics and policymaking. Religious beliefs interwoven with health care policy leads to scientifically bad policy, which is evidenced by the situation in Texas.
A lot of the problems relating to maternal death rates stem from Christian beliefs around contraception and sex influencing policy that should be, and elsewhere is, led by science and facts. God sneaks into U.S. domestic and foreign policy to an extent that would seem bizarre to most Europeans. Again, the statistics tell a story.
Just over 70 percent of Americans questioned by the Pew Research Center identify as Christian, and 63 percent of Americans absolutely believe in god. One-third of Americans said the Word of God should be taken literally. The United States is a predominantly Christian, god-fearing nation. We see that in the way presidential candidates have to declare their love of god to the electorate, and how god is invoked in so many political debates and by the white Christian right to justify their racism and belief in white supremacy.
For context, 48.5 percent of the UK population declared they had no religion, with the number at 52 percent in Scotland. To a Brit, sitting in 21st-century London, it is hard to fathom that the country producing all the great science and technology, with some of the world’s greatest universities?—?pools of rational thought and evidence-based ideas?—?is a country in which over 60 percent of its people believe god is literally real.
To outsiders, it looks bizarre when Americans bring god and Christianity into political debate, policymaking, and foreign policy. To hear that an evangelical adviser to the president (even that he has one) has argued that God supports Trump attacking North Korea is shocking. Trump’s pastor, Robert Jeffress, actually said:
When it comes to how we should deal with evildoers, the Bible, in the book of Romans, is very clear: God has endowed rulers full power to use whatever means necessary?—?including war?—?to stop evil. In the case of North Korea, God has given Trump authority to take out Kim Jong Un.
Many Americans will be fine with this, because it’s a white preacher talking about the New Testament god, but when a fundamentalist Muslim cleric calls for a jihad against the United States, that is terrorism—shocking and backwards.
This religious extremism affects the United States now at the highest level, with Christian fundamentalists in senior government positions, including the vice president, but also those responsible for science-related areas of policy like climate change. When the most powerful country on earth veers toward the Bible instead of science books to form policy, the whole world suffers, as we have already seen in Trump withdrawing from the Paris climate agreement.
Another aspect of the new Trump-era America that is more reminiscent of a madeup-istan parody is the gerrymandering. Stories, like that of North Carolina, that we would elsewhere call blatant vote rigging, will astonish outsiders who think of the United States as “the land of the free” and a champion of democracy. It seems bewildering that this beacon of democracy, in which Republicans claim to be the ones safeguarding American freedom, has such profound examples of (primarily) Republican politicians manipulating democratic system like this. It damages the United States’ leadership globally when it tries to bring democracy to other countries.
Clearly part of this problem stems from education. People who are educated are more likely to use evidence to form arguments and are better equipped to weigh different points of view when building an opinion. And the United States’ statistics on education are another cause for concern. One would assume that the richest nation on earth, the world beacon of Western democracy, the world’s superpower, would be a country in which everyone was highly educated.
On education, the Pew Research Center writes that out of 71 countries, the United States sits in an unimpressive 38th in math and 24th in science. Among the 35 members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which sponsors the PISA initiative, the United States ranked 30th in math and 19th in science.
What we saw in Charlottesville were people who believe in ideas that have no basis in fact or history. Ideas that range from god saying they are superior to other races to scrambled logic about the economy, immigrants, and liberal ideas. Ideas that are based on this toxic mix of poor education and fundamentalist beliefs. Science education combats these ideas, as they are so clearly contradicted by even the smallest amount of knowledge.
And then there are the guns. Granted, other developed nations allow their citizens to own firearms, but the extent of gun ownership and gun usage in the United States dwarfs the rest of the developed world. Quoting a report in the American Journal of Medicine, CBS writes:
Even though it has half the population of the other 22 [developed] nations combined, the United States accounted for 82% of all gun deaths. The United States also accounted for 90% of all women killed by guns, the study found. 91% of children under 14 who died by gun violence were in the United States. And 92% of young people between ages 15 and 24 killed by guns were in the United States.
Other countries with this many guns, and this many gun deaths, are either at war or suffering a civil war. Again, as with life expectancy, these statistics are Second World. And as with the god question, the inability to process data and facts or the opinion of experts perpetuates the proliferation of guns, and gun deaths, in the United States.
Don’t get me wrong, this is not an anti-American rant?—?but surely it is anti-American to let the country slide backwards on so many different measures. Making America great must involve reversing these trends. America was founded on principles that clash with these statistics: A great America would be one where everyone had access to basic health care and dentistry, everyone was educated above a basic level, and everyone was treated equally and well. A great America would build policy on all the great science its universities produce. It would be a world leader in translating the latest knowledge into policy that improves people’s lives. It would be a beacon of Enlightenment thinking, as it was when it was founded.
The extent to which any rational discourse has failed to evolve in the United States is that people and politicians are still debating things like gun control, abortion, whether climate change exists, and whether a president should take his daughter to world summits. This is basic stuff. It gets in the way of real policy discussions on how to solve these very deep problems. I fail to see how a country like the United States can move forward and evade collapse when so much of the political discourse is still stuck somewhere between the Middle Ages and the Victorian era.
What is so disappointing is that Trump’s government seems intent on making all of this worse. As these statistics worsen, the United States will slip down more and more on global tables, finding itself uncomfortably on par with undeveloped, war-torn, undemocratic, failing states. At what point does it actually become one?
These statistics need to be reported as front-page news, confronted head-on, and discussed as a pattern, not as unrelated factoids. It falls to someone, to some political group, to shine a light on what is happening as shown in the data and to ask what it means and what to do about it.
I wonder how many on Trump’s team are familiar with these statistics. I wonder if the Republicans voting to take health care away from so many Americans know that their country has Second World life expectancy figures. I wonder if they would be proud of this. And if so, how? I wonder if the likes of Pence would argue back something about god and morality in his defense of the increase in maternal deaths in Texas.
Whoever takes on the mantel of opposing Trump needs to take this statistical picture and make it part of their campaign. The United States needs to confront the fundamental problems that have developed over generations and that will require radical, intelligent, informed policymaking. When Trump points at employment and GDP as a mark of his success, his opponents need to point to the numbers that read like a developing nation as a response.
*Entrepreneur, Academic, Writer. Medium member since Aug 2017