Wednesday, 11 January 2017

The Obama Mug

This is my Obama mug.

I bought it almost exactly 8 years ago today. It's an official Obama/Biden Inaugural mug. When I bought it, it had a gold seal on it commemorating the 2008 inauguration. I was in DC with a ticket to the ceremony, and to the Ball. I thought it was cool.

It was cool.

Unfortunately, it didn't take long for the shiny gold to wear off - someone put it through the dishwasher, and the mug lost it's sparkle. It became just another mug.

But over time, I came to see that it was NOT just another mug. Did you ever buy something and find that it is just... quality? Somehow better made than other items in its category? A wool coat that's just warmer and yet softer and yet more sturdy than others you have owned? A particular pen that just flows its ink more elegantly than any other? This mug was like that.

The mug was heavy in the hand. Thick and pleasant to drink out of. Just the right size for the right amount of coffee. Shorn of its shiny gold trappings, it got on with the job of being a mug and it did so exceptionally well.

It became my favorite mug. I drank from it almost every day of my life, and almost every day of my life it made me subtly happier. I had good days in that time. And I had bad days in that time. The mug didn't solve all my problems. I didn't expect it to.

But, by God it is a good mug.

Fortunately, mugs are not subject to term limits, so hopefully I will be able to drink from my mug for many years to come.

Tuesday, 8 November 2016

Hope is a choice.

I don't know about you, but I have not been enjoying 2016 so far. It's been a pretty hard slog for me, personally and professionally. My husband and I have both had some health problems. (Don't worry, we're fine.) My Gramma died. Here in the UK, people voted narrowly to leave the European Union, which actually affects me a fair amount since I've been living here since 1999 under my husband's EU treaty rights.

And, of course, there has been the US Election. Which has felt like a slogging grimly uphill through a thicket of brambles while being repeatedly punched in the face. If I made the mistake of turning on the news, odds were good that I would be watching violence break out at a political rally. In America! All over social media I was watching minority groups be attacked, called rapists, being threatened with banning from even entering the country based on their faith. In America! If I read a newspaper, I might be reading about the possibility that one of the major party candidates was being directly supported by a totalitarian out of Russia. In America! And then I see that the Ku Klux Klan has openly and excitedly come out in support of one of the candidates, embracing his slogan as their own. Ah, yes. In America. In 2016 America. 

And the things we do to women. I've had to listen over and over again to one of the candidates talk about how he likes to sexually assault women. I've had to listen over and over again to insulting, demeaning, and outright cruel things said to and about women by one of the candidates. His words blown up so large and playing on repeat so often that these insults overwhelm any words that have ever been spoken by the other candidate. 

The candidate who is a woman. 

The candidate who is a brilliant, hard working, determined woman. 

The candidate who has been working her tail off to make America a better place her entire life. The candidate who got herself elected to the US Senate, where she took her seat alongside Republican men who had been attacking and insulting her for years. The candidate who astonished these men by being hard working, smart and good at her job. The candidate who somehow found the mental toughness within her to work with those men and do some good in the world. 

The candidate who in 2008 won more votes in the Democratic primary than anyone ever had before... and still lost. The candidate who went to work for the man she lost to and set out to travel around 170 countries as Secretary of State, laying the groundwork for the Iran nuclear deal, for the end of the Cuba embargo, and earning the respect of world leaders and foreign policy specialists alike. 

The candidate who stood onstage what that other guy - the guy with the insults and the attacks on minorities, and the hotline to Russia, and the endorsement by the Ku Klux Klan, 3 times for 90 minutes each, and crushed him beneath her heels, with a smile and a calm demeanor, and a command of policy that no one could ignore. 

So today, on election day, 2016, I am done with feeling bad. I am done with feeling anxious or angry or scared. I'm done with doubt and defensiveness and doom-mongering. 

Today I have realised that we do not HAVE to feel this way. It's up to us whether we spend time with the ignorant bully who doesn't believe our country is great, or with the smart, hard working woman who knows that when we work together, all things our possible. It is our choice.

As Americans go to the polls today, I am putting aside my anxiety and choosing to feel the love and admiration that I have for the American people, who I know to be decent, kind and inclusive people. Republicans, Democrats or Independent - I know that we a nation of people who pitch in when our neighbour needs a hands. People with a passion for fairness and justice. People who are full of optimism and belief in our future. 

Today, I choose to feel hopeful. Because I am so excited that starting tomorrow, we can pu taway all this ugliness and we can get to work. Just imagine it. Believe in it. 

I'm ready. Vote well, America. 

Thursday, 21 April 2016

What should Bernie Sanders supporters do if he does not win the nomination?

Senator Sanders likes to talk about a political revolution in this country. I suspect a lot of the folks who aren't supporting him for President still agree that some of these broken systems need root and branch reform, and that we should be bolder about tackling them.

Or maybe that's just me.

Anyway, one of Senator Sanders more avid supporters popped up on Facebook to say that "He said that the "party needs to pay attention to the people and not the other way around." He says that he is feeling less committed to the Party now than ever before - despite being a lifelong Democrat.

I think this person has got it exactly backwards. If Team Sanders wants change, let them stay in and fight for it. In the country at large, they face nearly insurmountable obstacles to realising some of these objectives (although one or more Democratically appointed Supreme Court justice could some of them quite a bit easier). But in the Democratic Party, the door is wide open to them - not only do they have the existing support of a huge swathe of Democratic voters and leaders, they also would have a Clinton campaign team eager to bring those voters with her and willing (I suspect) to find common ground ahead of the general election.

There has never been a better time for a Democratic Socialist to commit himself to the Democratic party.

Which is no doubt the reason why Senator Sanders himself (who is no fool!) just did exactly that.
“If Sen. Sanders is not the nominee, will he stay in the Democratic Party forever now,” Bloomberg Politics’ Mark Halperin asked.
“Well, he is a Democrat. He’s said he’s a Democrat, and he’s gonna be [supporting] the Democratic nominee, whoever that is,” Sanders campaign manager Jeff Weaver told Bloomberg Politics’ “With All Due Respect.”
“But he’s a member of the Democratic Party now for life?” Halperin pressed.
“Yes, he is,” Weaver said. “Yes, he is.”
Or, as I told my Bern-feeling friend:

That's your prerogative, of course, but it's not an attitude that's likely to win you much support amongst Democratic primary voters. Anyway, I don't understand this false dichotomy you have created here: there is "the people" and then there is "the party"? Nonsense. There is ONLY the people, and some of them - many of them the people who care most passionately about a progressive future - join and work for the party. Some of those people run for office. And if some of the people don't like the things that those people running for office for their Party say and do, they get to make their case - by campaigning or speaking up, or running against them. If those people don't happen to win it's not because "the people" are being shafted by "the party", it's because the people in the party disagree with them. That's the breaks. And Hillary knows that better than anyone, because having lost crushingly after earning a ridiculously large number of votes last time around, she didn't hesitate to throw herself body and soul behind supporting the person who beat her. I expect no less of Bernie if he should lose (as looks likely) and would expect Hillary to do just the same again if she should lose (as is still possible). If your position is that Bernie (for instance) would be winning the race hands down if only Independent voters could vote in this election, then it seems to me the more logical approach is to spend the next 4 years moving heaven and earth to get those Independents INTO the party - because a small shift in party activists can make a huge impact on the party's positions. But if, instead, Bernie supporters are so frustrated with a losing outcome that they leave the party and start running third party bids, then that's certainly their prerogative, but it leaves the Party entirely in the hands of the folks they disagree with and excludes them from power more or less indefinitely. Which is a choice you can make, but it seems contrary to your stated objectives here.

Thursday, 14 April 2016

The Reason Donald Trump Would be the Worst Imaginable President. No, the OTHER Reason...

Image result for donald trump violence at ralliesYou may have been noticing lately how Donald Trump's casually violent rhetoric and eager embrace of racism and xenophobia is (surprise, surprise!) inspiring an unseemly amount of casual violence, racism and xenophobia.

That's what makes him almost the worst imaginable person to be a Presidential candidate, let alone his Party's nominee, let alone actually serving as Head of State to the most powerful nation in the world. Just the reality of this man travelling around the country stoking up violence and hatred everywhere he goes is already making his candidacy something pretty close to a security threat.

But that's not even the most fundamental reason why Donald Trump would be a unprecedentedly terrible President.

The most fundamental reason is that he has no interest in, capacity for, or understanding of any of the elements of actual job description for "President of the United States".

You can get an early glimpse of how profoundly true this is, by reflecting on this fact:

His team are losing delegates because the don't understand how the delegate selection process works.

In a number of states, and in a number of different critical ways, Team Trump has been spectacularly behind the ball on actually securing delegates. For background - you need to know that winning a state primary or caucus is only step 1 of the Democratic Delegate selection process. Step 2 is getting your supporters elected to fill those pledged delegate seats in state party conventions.

But Trump has not got his eye on this ball.

In Colorado, they forgot to tell their supporters which delegate candidates to vote for, and it cost him delegates.

In Illinois and Texas, Trump supporters refused to vote for Trump-supporting delegate candidates with minority names, costing him delegates.

And in many other states, Team Trump doesn't seem to have showed up to the party conventions, leaving supporters of other candidates to be elected as delegates - which matters enormously because although they are pledged to vote as per the statewide vote on the 1st ballot, they can do whatever they like on the 2nd. It will cost him delegates.

To be fair, the Democratic Party Delegate Selection process is hard work. It's a byzantine, complicated process rife with insider-y rules and obscure pitfalls.

But you know what? So is the Presidency. In fact, that's MOSTLY what the Presidency is. Most of that job is about appointing a Deputy Secretary of Agriculture who will submit annual reports in compliance with Congressional Mandates. It's on very rare occasions about taking bold moves to shake up the international system, but far more often it's about carefully calibrating your foreign policy organisation to not pointlessly offend an ally or unintentionally trigger tariffs against our imports. On a good day, it might mean opening up markets to more of our goods, or moving forward a piece of legislation that furthers your agenda.

But most of the job is... a JOB. A management task, that requires leadership of a detailed, highly constrained, limited organisation (the US Federal Government) that operates in this way precisely because it is massive, because every action it takes has huge consequences, and because the many many stakeholders involved have diverting, often diametrically opposing interests.

Does that sound like something that Donald Trump, given what we know of him, would be any any way minimally competent at doing?

Of course not. So, although we must keep pointing out that this man is a dangerous xenophobe whose contribution to the national debate has been almost entirely defined by being spectacularly wrong (ahem: remember that Trump got into politics in the first place to demand the President's birth certificate - because he never met a loopy conspiracy theory he didn't like) it's also worth noting that he transparently has none of the minimal qualifications of the job. Including, apparently, even a basic understanding of how it works.

Monday, 7 March 2016

The case for Bernie... a few words from our friends on the other side

Note: As you may have seen in my previous post, I recently declared my intention to vote for Hillary Clinton in the Democratic Primary. I feel good about that decision, but I know a lot of people that I like and respect wound up coming to a different conclusion. One such person is my former Obama London co-chair Rob Carolina, who became Chair of Democrats Abroad during my second term as Vice-Chair of that organisation. Rob is not only a very smart guy but also a good friend. For that reason I wanted to give him the opportunity of representing the many thoughtful and dedicated Democrats I've spoken to this year who are Feeling the Bern. 

Guest Article: Why I Voted For Bernie
Rob Carolina

I voted for Bernie Sanders in the Democrats Abroad Global Primary. I feel it's important to explain my reasons to the many friends I made within the Obama campaign and Democrats Abroad UK.

Like everyone in the Democratic Party, I found myself confronted with two very competent, experienced, and viable candidates for the office of president. Secretary Clinton's accomplishments are many. Her wide experience includes the White House, the US Senate, and the State Department. A talented lawyer, over her years of public service she has taken each brief, mastered its complexities, and delivered positive results.

Senator Sanders, in contrast, has spent a large amount of his time in politics as an isolated voice advocating the merits of democratic socialism. He spent decades warning of the consequences of America's emerging winner-take-all culture and the slow drift away from the New Deal crafted by President Franklin D Roosevelt in the 1930s.

This distinction is the key to my decision. Our nation, and the grand experiment begun at its founding in the 18th Century, faces a new existential crisis. Our country increasingly resembles the dysfunctional countries that my late father visited as the international finance director for a large US multinational firm in the 1970s. Returning to our Midwestern suburban house from trips abroad, my father (a life-long Republican) would often lament that the society he had visited was "one of those places where 1% of the people own 99% of everything". He felt there were few good prospects for such places where the vast majority of the population was virtually powerless. He celebrated the America that he knew – as a World War II veteran, beneficiary of the GI Bill, and Ohio factory worker who moved from his blue-collar assembly line job to a senior management role – as a more equitable society with meaningful prospects for social mobility.

Four decades after my father's international travels, and two decades after his death, many of the places he visited have made tremendous strides in building a middle class and strengthening democratic institutions. In that same time the United States has also changed. A small circle of the truly rich have grown more distant from their fellow Americans while accumulating for themselves a massive increase in the percentage of our nation's wealth. We have more or less abandoned any pretence of asking people to consider "what you can do for your country". We've adopted a winner-take-all approach to every aspect of our lives and careers, providing ever-growing rewards to an ever-diminishing group of "winners", while classifying anyone who fails to reach the top of the pyramid as a "loser" – saddling them with crushing student debt, or crushing medical debt, or both, and with no viable opportunity to try again. The social safety net that remains is so filled with holes, and exists so close to rock bottom, that even people who are caught in its grasp often do not survive the fall.

I've already attended the funeral of one friend from my generation (Generation X) who was crushed by our society's newfound heartlessness. I've read the obituaries of others.

One of the most important jobs of the President of the United States is to offer a hopeful vision for the future of our nation. The successful candidate must then rally our nation, move closer to that vision, and defend that vision against those who wish to deny us that same dream. This ability to offer a compelling vision is what distinguishes great leaders from great managers. As many others have written, Dr Martin Luther King, Jr captured the national imagination and changed the political landscape by proclaiming, "I have a dream." He did not announce, "I have a plan". This is the difference between leadership and management. Leaders inspire our collective devotion to reach the promised land, even if they don’t yet know how or when we will get there.

I have no illusions that any Democratic president taking office in 2017 will have the magical ability to sway the US Congress into some semblance of rationality or even reasonability. President Obama began his time in office attempting to find accommodation with the Republican Caucus. This is one of the many reasons I supported him. But he was rebuffed time and again by those who engage in hostage-taking politics. Witness the recurring threats of falling from fiscal cliffs, the resulting downgrade of US sovereign credit rating, failure to hold confirmation hearings for multiple executive branch appointments, and a growing logjam of judicial appointments that wreaks havoc with our criminal and civil justice systems.

President Obama discovered that he was not negotiating with a disciplined and principled group of people sharing a core of common values. Rather, he found himself sitting opposite an unruly mob who were uninterested in compromise and happy to allow harm to our nation for the sake of personal political expediency. His negotiating tactics changed. The new reality demanded a harder line, and our president moved to take it.

Any Democratic president taking office in 2017 must be prepared for the worst political ride in US history. But to make a difference, that president cannot fail to keep faith with the core values that carry them into office. Our current national nightmare of unprincipled gridlock caused by unprincipled demagogues will only come to an end when the Republican Caucus decides to clean its own house, bringing a renewed vigour to discussing the health of our nation as a whole – or when it is replaced by something else. It will not be fixed by more rigorous discipline within the Democratic Party. Nor will it be aided by a policy of "triangulation" that merely confuses the inequitable with the inevitable.

Senator Sanders has spent his career giving voice to a vision for the future of America. When he started, this was a message that most Americans were not ready to hear. In those days, the most pressing existential threat to America was the Cold War and the potential for nuclear annihilation. Most of us at that time simply did not have a clear sense of the economic and social future of our country and the long-term damage that was about to be created by the "Reagan Revolution". Americans of my generation, born in the mid-1960s and 70s, have witnessed both the birth of Reagonomics and the terrible toll that it has taken on our society. American generations younger than mine are also worried about the bleak prospects for their future. They are right to worry. It's been a rough ride for my generation. It is already worse for theirs.

The key to winning a presidential election is not only mobilising the base of one's own party. It is equally important to persuade outsiders. What America needs is a political leader for all of the people of the United States. Yes, someone who can rally the support of the Democratic base by demonstrating adherence to our shared set of values. But also someone who can gather support from the growing plurality of Americans who do not identify strongly with either major US political party.

A vast and growing part of the American population has begun to fear, with justification, that their future is bleak. That those comfortable with the status quo  are leaving them behind, voiceless and unprotected. That their concerns are ignored by the establishment represented by both major US parties.

An America with little hope for the future is not America at all.

Donald Trump has already exploited this fear to drive a wedge through the heart of the Republican Party. Mr Trump's powerful appeal to the powerless can only be defeated by a passionate, intrepid champion with a better inclusive vision for America's future. Unless we promote a candidate who can passionately advocate a vision that restores this same hope of an America in which everyone can enjoy a better future, then we have failed to lead and we risk failure at the polls in November.

This is not the time to move to the centre. We are at one of those turning points in history where, as Yeats wrote, "Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold." We (as a party) must confront the reality that this is not merely an election of left versus right as we traditionally define these terms. The "centre" of that 1-dimensional axis is a political desert. A place that exists on a map, but nobody lives there.

Here now is the new American politics. Those who can articulate and respond to the fears (and hopes) of the rising tide of the powerless and politically unmoored will find success in our democracy. Those who believe that the simple left-right labels continue to define us as a nation will struggle as this once accurate barometer no longer forecasts the political weather.

Nine years ago when I started my support for Barack Obama, foreign observers who had lived in the US in the 1970s and 80s told me with confidence that America could never elect a black man as President of the United States. As we saw in 2008 and 2012, America has changed.

Today some tell me that America will never elect a president who openly promotes a vision of democratic socialism. (They seem to ignore that we already did this in the 1930s, 40s, and 60s.) I agree that in the 1970s, 80s, and 90s, America was not ready for a president like Bernie Sanders.

But once again, times have changed. America is ready for Bernie. So am I.

Rob Carolina
Co-Chair, Obama London (2008- )
Chair, Democrats Abroad UK (2011-15)

P.S. In voting for Bernie, I find myself (for the first time in many years) disagreeing with my good friend and Obama London Co-chair, Karin Robinson. Karin has already written a heart-felt article about her choice to vote for Hilary Clinton. I respect her views, as always, and thank her for consenting to my request to publish this essay here on the same pro-Obama blog she founded so many years ago when we first campaigned together.

Monday, 29 February 2016

If you are choosing between two great candidates, choose the Democrat. Or: How I stopped worrying and learned to love Hillary Clinton

This is the Hillary Clinton endorsement that I was never sure I’d write.  Getting myself to the point where I was certain enough of my vote to be able to write it has been the most complex and, frankly, emotional political journey that I’ve even been on. And, I suppose, in a real sense, we are only at the beginning of that journey – paddling though the last stretch of calm waters and catching our first glimpse of the waters ahead.

Now, this essay will only be relevant to those of you who are convinced progressives. If you are a wavering general election voter, looking to be convinced that the Progressive vision of America must be our future, then look away now – but come back later, I will have much more to say to you in the run-up to November. (I’m looking at you, Dad.)

So, fellow progressives, now that we’re among friends… let’s talk. It’s been a roller coaster the last 7 and a bit years, hasn’t it? On the one hand, if you’re anything like me, you wake up every morning a little bit grateful that Barack Obama is in the White House, but your heart sinks every time you turn to the news and see how they treat him. If you’re anything like me, you thank your lucky stars that we managed to do so much (a pretty effective stimulus package… intergalactic leaps in LGBT rights… health care reform! Hosannah in the highest, the first comprehensive health care reform package anyone’s been able to deliver in the 100+ years that we’ve been trying!) before Congress was taken over by a cavalcade of outrage merchants who hate the government they serve in. (Selfloathing, thy name is Tea Party.)

And now, you look at the unseemly freak show that is the Republican primary, and wonder when someone is going to shout April Fools and admit that it’s all an elaborate and, frankly, tasteless practical joke. President Donald Trump. No. It can. Not. Happen. Apparently, it falls to us not only to save the nation from this angry-without-a-cause mob, but actually to save them from the consequences of their own actions. So be it. It won’t be the first time life was unfair to progressives.

OK, enough background. We know what the stakes are, and we know that they are vast.

We also know that failure is not an option, except that it is. Losing is inconceivable, but plausible.

On the Democratic side, we are divided. Divided on substance. Divided on a sincere and well-considered difference of opinion that is not at all easy to resolve, and that I find splits my own convictions down the middle. On the one hand, Hillary Clinton and her supporters are arguing for a politics of pragmatism. They suggest, and not without foundation, that holding on to the considerable gains progressives have made recently is already a form of victory. They say that safety is radicalism here, because we are about to see the tipping of the Supreme Court, the locking in of health care reform, and demographic trends favour our case for immigration reform. They stipulate that we are in an era of political gridlock, and they promise to do everything in their power to 1) hold the line and 2) make incremental advances where we can. I find that to be a compelling analysis, and thus a fairly appealing promise.

On the other hand, Bernie Sanders and his supporters say that the problems of this country go beyond what we have yet begun to solve. They point out – rightly – that to our shame, economic inequality is becoming crippling, that the richest are getting richer, and the middle class is being squeezed out of existence. They argue that we need a bolder politics, a genuine revolution that can begin to reverse these trends, and they further argue that there are entrenched interests even within our own party system that must be combatted if we are going to make progress. I also find that to be a compelling analysis, and at least an INTRIGUING promise.

If we combine these two analyses (because they CAN be combined), we arrive at vision in which much change is needed, but very little change is possible. In which gridlock is inevitable, but devastating.

I’ve spent months wrestling with this choice of candidate, and in the course of that consideration the big surprise to me has been how much I have come to like and admire Bernie Sanders as a person. I fully expected in the course of this race to find that he was a bit kooky, a bit unserious, a bit starry eyed. He’s none of those things. In fact, he’s got an amazing record for being right about things progressives care about long before America comes around to our point of view. He’s been right on civil rights and segregation, he was right on LGBT rights (watch this amazing video of him standing up for LGBT soldiers back in 1995), he was right about the war in Iraq. He’s never compromised his principles, and bless him for that.

But here’s the thing... Bernie’s not saying that you should vote for him for President because he’s been pure in his ideals through all or his career. He’s arguing you should vote for him for President because he is in the best position to lead a movement that will fundamentally change the nature of politics and economics in this country. And he needs to do that in a world where it is not conceivable that any Republican or right-leaning public official of any kind will cooperate in any way with any efforts in this direction that any progressive might make.

Here in the UK, we have recent experience of what happens when the Left throws it’s support to an ideologically unimpeachable maverick. Jeremy Corbyn, the new leader of the Labour Party, is a lifelong rebel against the compromising instincts of his own party, a perfectly uncompromised and consistent man who has always been well liked by his party and whom even his opponents agree is a man of integrity and principle. He’s also led Labour so far from the possibility of being elected that the Conservative government has decided it is fully inconstrained. Jeremy Corbyn promised that he could leverage his Party leadership into a transformation of this small-c conservative country into the Socialist utopia of Labour’s dreams. There is evidence that instead of his promised political revolution, he has secured an unbreakable Tory majority for the foreseeable future.

It’s a cautionary tale, and reinforces my belief that there is no secret path to peaceful revolution laying behind the door marked, “Authenticity of the Left”.

So, let’s leave aside for the moment the question whether a political revolution is even possible. Let’s talk first about business as usual – What will it take for the next President to do the job of President?

Well, it will take ruthless Party discipline, for a start.

But Bernie Sanders is not even a member of the Party he seeks to lead. His purity of principle, which I admire, prevented him from joining the compromised, imperfect Democratic Party. As a self-described democratic socialist, he was the only socialist in Congress. 26 years after he became the first, he is still the only socialist in Congress. Put bluntly, that doesn’t sound like a record of creating transformative progressive political movements.

Does Hillary Clinton have a record of leading progressive movements? Well, she has a record of leadership, for sure. In the Senate, in the White House as First Lady, and as a powerful Secretary of State – everywhere she’s gone, she seems to have accrued to herself a roster of highly loyal, highly capable people.

I don’t think she’s the right person to lead a political revolution. I don’t think SHE thinks she’s the right person to run a political revolution.

But she’s a great person to lead Democrats.

Look, I’m a member of this Party. I’m a proud member of this party, even on the days when this party does not make me proud. I was a member of this Party even when many of its members were to the right of me on LGBT rights, even when its leaders voted for a war I thought was a terrible mistake, because I believe that creating a coalition of people with enough shared values to work together for the general interest is how political change happens. I do not believe it happens overnight, I do not believe it happens simply or easily. And I really, really, don’t believe it happens by transitioning the one and only avowedly socialist member of government directly into the White House.

Hillary Clinton also believes that political change happens through hard work, and within the coalition of the Democratic Party. And she’s been in the dirt negotiating towards that change for decades.

On a personal level, I always say that when I vote for President I want to vote for someone who is better than me. Smarter than me, tougher than me, with better judgement than me. One way in which I know Hillary Clinton is a better person than I am is how insanely relentlessly she perseveres. I’ve watched her over the years work with Republican Senators who called her insulting names during her husband’s impeachment. I watched her go to work with the man who beat her in the 2008 Primary, I’ve watched her go back and face the same electorate again. She’s not a natural politician – she’s said so herself.

So why is she doing it? Why face so much punishment and loss of dignity? I think that if you apply Occam’s razor, the simplest explanation is her own: she says she has always felt called to service. She says she’s been fighting for a vision of a better, fairer America since she was a young woman at Wellesley. Her path to that America hasn’t always matched up step by step with the path I would have taken. But I am entirely aligned with her about the mode of transport (if you’ll forgive the analogy…) – change within, and THROUGH the institution of the Democratic Party. Being in the room when hard decisions are being made within a coalition is important. Some of the most powerful changes that can be made in politics happen at the local, state and national party level, when activists show up to canvass and call, but call out their leaders for not being good enough on the issues they care about. When activists and make things tough for the Party leaders until those leaders finally GET that they have to take these activists concerns seriously. Hillary’s been in those rooms for longer than I’ve been alive, and she’s been on both sides – she’s been the activist fighting for feminism, and children’s rights, and reform. And she’s been the party leader, listening and adapting. I respect that process. We need more of it.  
Bernie Sanders has clean hands, the utmost integrity, and no credible way to deliver what he promises.

My vote for Hillary Clinton is a vote of respect for her personally. But it’s also a vote of confidence in the Democratic Party – in the ideas of the Democratic Party, but also the idea of the Democratic Party. Under all circumstances, the next President must be a Democrat. My preference is that the next President has always been a Democrat.

Wednesday, 7 October 2015

Freedom from Firearms... A British Perspective

Tragically, America has just suffered another mass shooting leaving more of our fellow citizens grieving lost family members. Even more tragically, that sentence could stand unaltered for every week of President Obama’s second term to date. The President is visibly, understandably, commendably outraged about this, and unwilling to pretend this violence is merely coincidental or beyond our control.

Unfortunately, despite many efforts, so far he has been equally unable to do anything to stop this bloodbath. In part, this is because he has been blocked at every turn by an obstructionist Congress. But even more so, it is because those lawmakers in their turn are guided by an American gun culture that has been growing if anything stronger and less constrained even as the horrors of gun violence have been growing more terrible and tangible.

Americans – at least, a very large minority of Americans – just love our guns. But more than that, we have been taught to believe in the IDEA of our guns. Firearms in American culture aren’t piece of sporting equipment, a tool for hunting, or even a means of self-defence. They are regarded as a civil right, second only to the freedom of speech in the Bill of Rights.

The usual thing is for politicians arguing for gun control to pay deference to this idea first, before talking about how we might slightly limit this right at the margins. When I commentate on US politics, I also find myself operating within these parameters, “We’re not talking about repealing the 2nd amendment, but the Founding Fathers talked about a WELL REGULATED militia… Surely banning grenade launching machine guns from sale to toddlers would count as a reasonable regulation. That’s all we’re talking about here!”

But it’s time to come out of the closet on this. I’ve been telling a lie of omission. Because I just, in no way, regard access to deadly firearms as a right to which a free citizenry are entitled. I’ve always been vaguely uncomfortable about that belief, just on the grounds that I know you should always be wary of the impulse to take away rights that you personally don’t happen to value (hello there, male anti-abortion extremists!).

And I’ve hesitated to write about gun control issues too much in the past. Because, there’s a symphony of shouting every time this issue comes up, and what can I have to add?

Well, on reflection, I do have something to add, and I hope it might be of use to my friends back home who haven’t yet given up on the idea that we might be able to do something about this problem.

As President Obama, and many others have pointed out, the United Kingdom is one of those countries where we’ve actually changed our gun laws – most recently, as a reaction to a terrible mass shooting in Dunblane, Scotland. Death by gun is now vanishingly rare in the UK, but 100 years ago firearms were as unrestricted here as they are in America today.

If firearms are a civil right, then they are a civil right that has been deeply constrained here in the UK. And yet, I have never had the sense that British people feel that they are making any kind of sacrifice or difficult trade-off in surrendering their “right to bear arms”.

Perhaps, though, there was more to this than I know. If firearms are a right to be treasured, and if (as the NRA argues) they are vital for personal self-defence, then logically some people must feel less safe and less free for the absence of the guns.

I asked British people on Facebook and Twitter to answer the following question:

I got dozens of heated responses. By far the most common was along these lines:

So people are afraid of this idea. Very much so.

A few other common threads came through, as well:

·         Emigration: Lots of folks said they’d leave the country. I pushed back on some of these, asking them whether they would REALLY leave behind friends and family, or if that was just a knee jerk reaction. Most said on balance that it probably was a knee jerk response, but stressed that they would feel genuinely uncomfortable, and that was not the sort of country in which they wanted to live.
·         Confusion: Loads of people wondered why on earth such a thing could ever happen. “No one wants this,” someone wrote. There was a general sense of bafflement as to why such a thing would ever be contemplated, even as a hypothetical question.
·         Crime Escalation: Several people mentioned that they either live in “dodgy neighbourhoods” or have been the target of crime before, and the prospect of the bad guys they know having access to weapons was terrifying. One friend wrote, “My home in Brixton would be a scene from a nightmare. Desperate teenage boys with no hopes and little to lose - the knives already take a lot of lives, guns would turn that number into hundreds. And me? I'd probably be dead. The long arm of the law did a blinking good job of protecting me when I left a relationship with a rather nasty person. If he could have got a gun I think his pursuit of me would have been fatal.”
These were the most common reactions, and they were very, very consistent. But there was another, minor thread of the discussion that I hadn’t expected, and that really made me think about this in a new way.
·         But Guns ARE Legal: Several folks reminded me that it IS of course possible to buy a gun here. You just need to have a “good reason” to do so. Several people told me that they themselves had shot or owned a weapon at one time, that it is possible to do so responsibly, but that even as gun users themselves, they would never want “American style” gun ownership. One friend wrote: “I have shot for fun a few times and can appreciate the enjoyment in this, but this is a world away from people freely walking around with guns. Geoff Robbins (named with permission) wrote to me on Twitter as follows:

I was intrigued by this, so I wrote back to learn more.

I became fascinated by this, partly because it exposed such a gap in my own assumptions. Guns are so rare here that I always just think in terms of “guns are unlawful”. Even the cops don’t carry guns! (Well, mostly.)

But they aren’t of course. They are just very tightly and strictly regulated. They are a privilege that can be earned.

Suddenly I had a LOAD of questions. How would I go about getting a gun if I wanted one? What counts as a “good reason” for having one under British Law? Who actually issues gun licenses, and what’s the process?

So I looked into it a bit. In a nutshell, here’s how gun ownership operates in Britain:

There is No Right to Have a Weapon for Self Defence

This is probably the biggest difference between the US and the UK. In Britain, you are not allowed to arm yourself specifically for the purpose of protection against future possible attack. This doesn’t just apply to firearms – you aren’t allowed to carry around knives or mace or anything that is specifically intended to be used as a weapon in case of attack. This isn’t the same thing as saying you don’t have a right of self-defence – you do. If you are attacked, you do have the right to fight back with whatever materials are at hand. To use a concrete example, you would not be allowed to carry a kitchen knife with you in case someone attacks you, but if you ARE attacked in your kitchen you are free to grab a knife and use it provided that this defence is “reasonable”. That means, if someone is grabs your purse and runs off, you’re not allowed to come after him with the knife.

This is the aspect of British gun law that seems most alien to American sensibilities – and it really is quite an extraordinary difference in beliefs. Essentially, in Britain you sign up to a social contract that says collective security (knowing that no one is armed) is more important than an individual right to be armed in defence. One reason this works here is because, as seen by my social media responses, there are very few people here who believe carrying firearms would make them personally safer.

This principle is also important, because so many other things follow on from it within the system of laws – if there’s no right to self-defence, then the “good reasons” to be armed are limited to things like hunting and sport. And there is then no good reason whatsoever to need a loaded weapon in your home at all times.

Some Types of Guns are Totally Banned

This part of British law actually isn’t all that alien to American thinking – we have banned certain types of firearms before both nationally, for instance assault weapons under the Clinton Administration, and locally, for instance the handguns ban in DC (the fact that both of these measures were overturned is just… depressing evidence that this issue is really freakin’ hard in America).

In Britain, assault weapons, automatic weapons, and handguns are simply banned outright. Permanently and nationally.


The licensing system for firearms warns that it takes a minimum of 8 weeks to achieve a license – which sounds like a long time in the context of America’s raging debate over 48-hour waiting periods, but two months isn’t actually that long to wait. Typically it takes longer to get a driver’s licence.

Medical Checks 

As part of your firearms application in Britain, you must declare any illnesses that may affect your ability to safely use the weapon – and this includes any mental illnesses, such as depression.

What’s more, you are asked to provide the details of your doctor, and to waive medical confidentiality for the purpose of allowing the police to confirm this information with them.

Criminal Convictions

You have to declare any criminal convictions, including those which are already “spent” (i.e., you have served your time and are no longer under parole). In most cases, a serious conviction will prevent you from being able to get a license, but even traffic convictions must be reported.

You have to supply contact details for 2 people not related to you who have known you for at least 2 years so that the police can follow up with them as references.

Security Arrangements

You have to confirm how you will be securing your weapon, and whether you will do that at home or at another location (e.g., at a gun club).

Good Reason

And finally, my favourite condition: there has to be a reason why you want or need a gun. “I want one” is not good enough you must have a specific purpose in mind. And since, as we’ve already discussed, having one for self defence is not a lawful reason, that basically means your evidence for a “good reason” is likely going to be limited. As the Metropolitan Police explain in their guidance for applicants:

“To acquire or possess firearms or ammunition under Section 1 of the Firearms Act 1968, you have to provide evidence that you have a good reason to do so. This applies to the grant, renewal or variation of a firearm certificate. This evidence can take several forms: permission to shoot over land or membership of a target shooting club, or a booking or invitation to go deer stalking are examples, but these are not exhaustive.”

One little hiccup – if you plan to go hunting with your weapon, you also need to provide the name of a person who has given you permission to shoot on their land. Remember, you can’t just go into the public woodlands to hunt. So you need a landowner who can confirm your right to hunt there.

As a result, of course, guns are now pretty much the purview of serious hunters or sportsman and there just aren’t that many of those.

One Facebook friend who has worked in government told me, if you “go back and look at the media coverage of the debate about the firearms ban post-Dunblane. There were two piece of legislation, the Firearms (Amendment) Act 1997 (John Major) and the Firearms (Amendment) (No. 2) Act 1997 (Tony Blair). From recollection, one of the arguments that got particular currency was that the legislation would make it really difficult for Britain to compete in shooting events in the Olympics, because competitors would be unable to train in this country. I remember thinking that the fact anyone was making such a niche argument at all was a sign of how utterly marginal guns are to British cultural identity. Big contrast to America where cultural identity (not just the arguments about individual freedom) is a huge part of the issue.


So, laws and culture both play a huge role in the way that our two societies have coped with firearms, no doubt. And here in Britain, there is a complex network of laws that reinforce and maintain a strong aversion to widespread gun ownership. If my fellow Americans want to know now they might restrain guns more through laws, Britain offers a wide range of restrictions and regulations that they could consider. But even more, it offers a culture that has fully rejected general access to firearms for reasons of personal security and societal stability.

We’ll need to learn that lesson too, if such laws are ever going to work.

Final parting statistic: here are the respective gun deaths per 100,000 people in the UK and the US respectively.

Author’s note: For those of you who have been wondering where this blog has been over the last few years – I abandoned it after the 2012 campaign, since President Obama had no further campaigns to run and I had a life to live. You may be interested in my personal blog over at Unworthy Thoughts, on Tumblr. And you can always follow me on Twitter: @karinjr

Friday, 27 July 2012

How bad was Romney's first day in London?

It has been widely reported already in the US that Mitt Romney's first foreign trip as a US Presidential candidate... did not go well.

But my suspicion is that a lot of my friends in America who are accustomed to "he said, she said" news coverage might suspect that this disaster is being blown out of proportion by the schadenfreude of delighted Obama supporters.

As your woman on the ground here in the UK, I want to assure you: IT REALLY IS THAT BAD. Here below are the Romney headlines in every British Newspaper this morning.

Firstly, here's the cover of the Independent:

In case you can't read it, that says: "Ready. set. go! (Whatever Mitt Says)"

And here's the article inside the paper:

"Romneyshambles: Mitt begins his trip with a swipe at London"

Here's the Daily Mirror:

"You're Rom, Mitt! PM Hits Back at Games Doubter"

Here's the Guardian:

Brutally reading: "Mitt falls at the first hurdle"

And here's the Sun (just a few pages in from the traditional topless women - I know... classy):

It says: "Mitt the Twit: Wannabe President in Games Insult"

And here we have the Times:

"Romney loses his way with gaff about the Games"

Saturday, 12 May 2012

Gay Marriage Won't Change the Meaning of Marriage. But it will Change the Meaning of Gay

If you have been avoiding all news sources for the past week, you may have missed the moment when President Obama came out and expressed his personal support for allowing same sex couples to marry.

As it happens, the President made this statement while I was attending a reception for US citizens at the American Embassy. We were required to surrender all electronic devices before going in, so I walked in knowing that the President was expected to make some sort of statement about this issue, then walked out an hour later, checked the news and had the uncanny sensation that the world had changed while I was inside.

That probably seems melodramatic. After all, in terms of policy - the President's statement changes little. Perhaps nothing. President Obama has long been on the record stating that believes there should be no difference whatsoever in the law between committed same sex couples and married straight couples. He favoured a version of civil unions that would offer full legal protection to these couples. But, of course, the president's views on this are not especially relevant since decisions about the issuance of marriage license are made at a state level - and although some states (including most recently New York) have recently allowed gay couples to marry, others are moving in the opposite direction. Including, of course, North Carolina - which only the day before the President's statement had overwhelmingly voted in favour of a referendum that  would add a prohibition against both civil unions and gay marriage directly into the state constitution. (It has been noted that the last time North Carolina amended their state constitution, it was to ban interracial marriage. Plus ca change...)

So why, then, this sense that the world was in some way fundamentally different now?

I think back to my first year of college - in 1992. That was the year Bill Clinton became President. It was the  year I turned 18, and voted for the first time, and lived on my own for the first time. It was also the first time I met anyone who was openly gay. Actually, I met a lot of people who were openly gay or bisexual that year. And thank goodness I did, because it instantly cured me of the embarrassing crime of being unreflectively homophobic. And I do mean instantly. I grew up in a small town at a time when no one of high school age was openly gay (although I now know, several of the people I knew well in high school were closeted gay. Oops.) so I never had the opportunity of getting to know anyone who identified as a sexual minority. But the very instant that I realised some of my new friends were gay or bisexual, I flipped - like a coin toss. These people were great! Funny, and kind. Smart and interesting. Mature sometimes, ridiculously silly others. They were the sort of friends I'd been searching for all my awkward teenage years.

In the Spring of that year, I marched in a huge gay rights parade in Washington, DC, on a beautiful sunny day. I remember that Ellen DeGeneres, who at that point was a relatively minor stand up comic, gave a speech referencing her own lesbianism so openly that several years later when she officially came out of the closet I was really confused ("I thought we all knew that?").

But even in the sunniest mood on that sunny day, I never would have imagined that just 20 years legalised gay marriage would be the mainstream and reasonable position of a popular and centrist US President. At that time homosexual acts were still illegal in many states (this was before the Supreme Court Deciaion in Lawrence V Texas that protected the right to private sexual acts). Employment discrimination was relatively routine against gays and lesbians. A teacher at my high school who I only later on realised must have been gay was so fiercely closeted that he visibly panicked when I ran into him with a male friend at an out of town theater. Goodness. He must have been terrified - it wasn't that uncommon then for teachers to be fired or "encouraged" to resign if they were found to be gay.

We were just coming off the worst years of the AIDS crisis, and I remember that the AIDS quilt was brought to the Capitol and spread out in the Mall between the Washington and Lincolm memorial.

The goals of the gay rights movement then seemed on the one hand so modest, and on the other so unreachable - essentially... to be left alone. "Please don't discriminate against us." "Please allow us to serve in the military."

The idea of the government providing formal legal protection to gay couples in the form of civil unions was at that time considered pretty extreme. And there were many on the left who opposed the idea of gay marriage at all. Because, in their view, marriage was an elite bourgeois institution perpetuating gender stereotypes and unrealistic ideas of lifelong monogamy. Or some such nonsense.

Basically, both the left and the right agreed about one thing - being gay would never be "normal". Gay people would never settle down in suburbs and raise children. They would never marry in a church. They would never file a joint tax return. They would be cursed (in the right's view) or privileged (in the left's view) with a perpetual existence of lifestyle nonconformity.

Now, there's nothing wrong with living a transgressive life. If you want to enact in your life a non-monogomous relationship model, or if permanent commitment isn't for you, or if you just don't buy into any of the prevailing norms about family formation - good for you. Go forth, be free - live your life and best wishes.

But at the time, I think most of the people at that DC march believed that so-called normality would never be an option for them. That whatever their own inclinations may be, the best gay people could hope for was to be tolerated.

But today, we have come so far as a country that the President of the United States - in an election year - can come out and say gay people should have the option of being celebrated and honoured for their commitment. Because, putting aside all the legalities - that's the function of marriage. It is for society to affirmatively honour, respect and support the commitment of two people to each other. That's why so many marriage ceremonies include a moment when the priest asks the congregation to make vows to the couple. Because, to steal a phrase from Hillary Clinton, it takes a village to enact a marriage.

Famously, around the same time that I was marching in Washington for gay rights, President Clinton was agreeing a "compromise" that would allow gays and lesbians to serve in the military - so long as they lied about who they were. A couple years later, under duress, he signed the so called "Defence of Marriage Act" which has the perverse effect now of preventing couples who are legally married in some states from having their marriages recognised elsewhere.

What President Obama did this week was historic - not because it was radical, but because it was... normal.

He made both a common sense and a compassionate argument. How could he, a man whose parents' marriage would have been illegal in many states of the Union at the time he was born, explain to his daughter why the parents of their friends should not be allowed to marry? He couldn't. Of course he couldn't. The more you think about it, the more it makes sense.

Mitt Romney says he not only won't support same sex marriage - he won't support civil unions (which even President Bush said he could support).

Mitt is living in a different America than the President is. An America that looks a lot like that closeted small town I grew up in. It's a worse America. I am so glad that I moved out of that place in my mind so many years ago, and I'm so glad to move forward with the President into a new America where equality can be real and meaningful.

Friday, 27 April 2012

The Democrats Abroad Global Primary Starts Next Tuesday...

Reblogged from my Left Foot Forward article, posted today:

With all the attention on next week’s mayoral elections, and the expectations of a disappointing result for voters on the left, perhaps progressives can take comfort in another election that will be taking place in London and across the UK: the vote for Barack Obama here in Britain.

From May 1-6, more than 6 million American voters who live overseas will have their first and only chance to cast a ballot in person for Barack Obama, and to choose the delegates who will represent them at the Democratic Convention in North Carolina.
Why does this matter? Well, first and foremost, this overseas primary will be one of the first tests of Democrats’ ability to bring back the voting coalition that won us our sweeping victories in 2008.
As a Regional Field Director for Americans Abroad at that time, it was my job to increase voting participation from American voters living here in Europe. The Obama campaign understood that Americans living abroad have historically had difficulty voting, and have often been underrepresented at the polls. In 2008, however, we achieved an astonishing 750% increase in our confirmed Democratic vote.
With the resurgence of the American right, and the Republican Party’s worrying efforts to suppress the vote by introducing restrictive new voting laws across the country, it is now more important than ever before that the Democrats are able to bring underrepresented voting groups back to the polls.
The overseas vote can be a secret weapon in this fight, as a large group of voters that not only vote Democrat in record numbers, but who can make a difference in scores of close races, from Virginia to Pennsylvania to Michigan to Florida, because they will cast their November ballots in their home states, and who – moreover – are invisible to pollsters. Democrats living abroad will not show up in any voting projections until the one that counts, on election day.

Yet the challenge of organising these voters is significant. The 50 states have different rules for voting in federal elections, and although much progress has been made of late in increasing voter access for Americans living abroad, one recent change to the law means that states that were previously required to keep overseas voters on their rolls for two full election cycles now may
require a fresh ballot request each election year.

As such, Democrats Abroad is making a major push for voter registration and ballot requests this year. We’ve tried to make it as easy as possible by creating – a one stop shop for all overseas registrations and ballot requests.

Here in London on May 1st, we are pulling out all the stops, offering live music, speeches, American flags in abundance, and one simple message: vote here to make a big difference back home.