What You Can Do

By James Kwak

Several of my friends, some of whom I haven’t spoken with in a long time, have reached out to me over the past week to discuss what to make of last week’s election. I imagine this is happening with a lot of people.

Although I don’t have any simple answers, I do have some thoughts on what we can do in response to the prospect of Donald Trump and the Republicans controlling the entire federal government, as well as a large majority of states. But first, we need a short detour—for a bit of perspective.

Maurice Walker is a fifty-five-year-old man with schizophrenia whose only income is $530 per month in Social Security disability payments. On September 3, 2015, he was arrested by police in Calhoun, Georgia for being a “pedestrian under the influence”—something many of us have been guilty of at one time or another. If Walker had been able to come up with $160 (something most people reading this blog could do in seconds), he would have walked free. Instead, he was locked up in jail, without his medication.

The City of Calhoun has a fixed bail schedule, in which the amount of bail is set for each offense, without regard for ability to pay. People arrested for misdemeanors cannot see a judge until the next Monday court session (which would have been eleven days for Walker, because the next Monday was Labor Day). This means that, among those arrested on the same charges, poor people are locked up for several days while rich people walk out of jail. This violates the Constitution. In Tate v. Short, 401 U.S. 395 (1971), and Bearden v. Georgia, 461 U.S. 660 (1983), the Supreme Court has held that the Constitution prohibits policies that systematically result in the incarceration of indigent defendants while allowing those with money to go free.

And yet it happens. Of the more than 600,000 people in jail in this country (not counting those in state or federal prison), 70% have not been convicted of anything and hence are legally innocent. Many of them are behind bars solely because they cannot afford to buy their pretrial release.

Being locked up before trial doesn’t just mean you lose a few days of freedom. Will Dobbie, Jacob Goldin, and Crystal Yang are studying the impact of pretrial incarceration on trial results and long-term economic outcomes. They find that people who are released are 27% less likely to be convicted and 28% less likely to plead guilty than people who stay in jail—which makes perfect sense, since you are more likely to plead if it’s your only way to go home and see your family. These effects are even larger for defendants charged with misdemeanors and those with no prior offenses in the previous year. In the long term, pretrial release increases by 27% the likelihood that people will be working three to four years later, with a larger effect for those who were working at the time of arrest. Again, this is obvious: If you miss work because you’re in jail, you could lose your job; and if you plead guilty to get out of jail, the conviction makes it harder for you to find work.

(For those worried about sample selection issues—that is, people who make bail are different from those who don’t—this study takes advantage of the fact that bail judges are quasi-randomly assigned in Philadelphia and Miami. The relative harshness of the judge is the instrument for pre-trial release.)

Maurice Walker was lucky. He got a lawyer. In fact, he got some of the best: Sarah Geraghty and Ryan Primerano of the Southern Center for Human Rights, and Alec Karakatsanis of Equal Justice Under Law. Walker was arrested on a Thursday evening. The next Tuesday, his lawyers filed a class action lawsuit against the City of Calhoun; Walker was released the next day. On January 28, 2016, a federal judge sided with Walker:

Any bail or bond scheme that mandates payment of pre-fixed amounts for different offenses to obtain pretrial release, without any consideration of indigence or other factors, violates the Equal Protection Clause. . . .

The bail policy under which Plaintiff was arrested clearly is unconstitutional.

The city is appealing the case to the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals; the Department of Justice, the American Bar Association, and the Cato Institute have all weighed in on Walker’s side.

What does Maurice Walker have to do with last week’s election?

The sad truth is that many people in the United States already had very tough lives before November 8. Besides Walker and the thousands of people in jail because they are poor, they include Cleopatra Harrison, a domestic violence victim who was threatened with jail because she could not pay a $150 “victim assessment fee” assessed by a court; A.J. and hundreds of other children who face criminal charges in juvenile court without being represented by a lawyer, in violation of the right to counsel; Aron TuffWilmart Martin, Andre Mims, Jeremiah Johnson, and other people sentenced in Georgia to life in prison without the possibility of parole for nonviolent drug offenses (all of whom are African-American); and Tim Foster, who was sentenced to death by an all-white jury after the prosecutor struck every African-American from the jury pool.

There is an ocean of injustice out there. Many of the people harmed by it are poor, minorities, immigrants, or some combination of the above. I only know about the examples above because I’m on the board of the Southern Center for Human Rights, which took all of those cases and was able to help all of those clients. There is no doubt much, much more injustice of which I am unaware.

The perspective is this: Things didn’t suddenly go from wonderful to awful on Tuesday night last week. For many people, they were already pretty bad. A Trump presidency will no doubt make things worse. There will be more hate crime; more deportations of people whose only crime is wanting to work hard and make a better life for their children; more and higher hurdles for women who want an abortion; more people without health insurance; more gun violence; and more hungry children unable to rely on food stamps.

These are all problems that our country had on the morning of November 8, and there are already organizations dedicated to helping the people who face them. As I said, I’m on the board of the Southern Center for Human Rights. We had a board meeting and benefit dinner in Washington last week. And while no one was happy about the national election, it didn’t change what the organization does; it just meant that the struggle will be that much harder for the next four years.

So if you want to “do something” about President Trump, the first thing you can do is donate money to some of the organizations that actively protect people’s civil and human rights. If you’re inspired to give money to the Southern Center, I can assure you that it won’t be wasted; we have some of the best lawyers anywhere, working as hard as they can for remarkably little money. (Today, November 17 is Georgia Gives Day, too, if you prefer to give that way.) But there are many other worthwhile groups out there: the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, the ACLU (perhaps particularly important given Trump’s attempts to intimidate the media), Planned Parenthood, or your local food bank, soup kitchen, or homeless shelter, among many others. At the end of the day, ordinary people will be the victims of the Trump administration, and they will need your help.

That’s the point I wanted to make today, but I imagine that’s not where you expected this post to end. So I’ll add a few words about the other thing that we need to do: take back at least partial control of our government(s). That is a much more difficult issue. You might say that Hillary Clinton lost by only 107,000 votes; by that measure, we only need a slightly better candidate, a slightly better message, or slightly better luck to win in 2020.

More realistically, however, with the small-state bias of the Senate (and the forbidding 2018 electoral map), gerrymandering in the House, and overwhelming Republican dominance of state governments, Clinton’s loss reveals how weak the Democrats already were. This is what I wrote back in June:

Republicans are apoplectic at the idea that Hillary Clinton could appoint the deciding justice to the Supreme Court, but the smart ones realize that she will be able to accomplish little else; even if by some miracle Democrats retake the House, Republican unity will suffice to block anything in the Senate. Democrats, by contrast, are terrified because a Republican president means that they will get virtually everything . . . : not just the Supreme Court, but a flat tax, new abortion restrictions, Medicaid block grants, repeal of Dodd-Frank, repeal of Obamacare, Medicare vouchers, and who knows what else.

The Republicans are dominant not just because of Trump, but because of the decades of work that preceded him: promoting the ideology, cultivating the funders, motivating the base, building the media empire, stocking the judiciary, weakening unions, undermining campaign finance rules, buying state elections, redrawing districts, and suppressing the vote. Yes, Trump was an unlikely leader to take them over the top. (And yes, he is popular among white supremacists.) But even if he hadn’t, the GOP would still be just one election away from a sweep of the White House and Congress.

There is a raging debate right now over the identity of the Democratic Party. I don’t to argue the specifics of that debate right now. But if we want to compete, we need more than a new, focus-grouped brand that can win 51% of the popular vote in a general election. We need an ideology that can mobilize millions of new voters and motivate thousands of people to run in races for school board, town council, state assembly, and state senate, all over the country. We need a long-term political movement, not a quadrennial scramble to demonize the other guy just enough so voters pick our guy.

I don’t know how to create that movement. So all I can recommend, on a personal level, is that you find people whom you believe in—on all levels of politics—give them money or volunteer for their campaigns, and throw your little bit of weight into pushing the party in what you think is the right direction. (Or, if you’re up for it, run for office yourself.) It’s not a great answer, but there is no magic bullet.

23 thoughts on “What You Can Do

  1. “So all I can recommend, on a personal level, is that you find people whom you believe in—on all levels of politics—give them money or volunteer for their campaigns, and throw your little bit of weight into pushing the party in what you think is the right direction. (Or, if you’re up for it, run for office yourself.) It’s not a great answer, but there is no magic bullet.”

    May I be so bold as to recommend that the right response is not simply to push harder from our side, but rather to try and change how politics works. Liberals got “our side” into office in 2008, and for a brief time even 60 votes in the Senate and a House majority. That got the ACA, Dodd Frank, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the Paris Accord, etc. And yet, because the underlying pattern and structure of American politics has not changed, all of that progress can now be reversed.

    Don’t just push your side against the other. The whole notion of competitive and adversarial political competition needs to be replaced. This will take legislation and legal victories, but it will also take a cultural change that will need to start from the bottom and not the top. If we want a lasting victory that lasts more than 4-8 years, we will need to fix ourselves first, efface our egos, make sure we are open-minded and willing to listen and engage in genuine dialogue in the spirit of helping the country. To me that seems like a genuine cure for the disease, not a short-term fix for only a portion of its symptoms.

  2. Politics is lost, and there a law for “u” ins, and a law for “we” ins, and they aint the sang law!

  3. Ron’s recommendation of Jane Mayer’s book is spot on. I’d also suggest Thomas Frank’s “Listen Liberal” to see how D’s have mastered self-sabotage.

    IMHO, the long game means willing to accept the defeat of corporate D’s so the party understands weak, plutocrat-friendly candidates don’t cut the mustard.

  4. But there is a “magic bullet”, but the Democratic Party has become too disingenuous to load it into their rifle. In fact, there are many ‘magic bullets’. First, they need to show concern for solving the corruption issues by pushing real hard for campaign reform. The fact that Trump… the ‘law and order’ guy, who is also the ‘support the military’ guy, is able to also pull-off the antithetical ‘anti-establishment’ status, as a billionaire no less, is just one very salient indication of just how ‘pro-corruption’ the perception of the Democratic Party has become.

    Then, from a ‘genuine’ anti-corruption platform, another ‘bullet’ could be aimed at the enforcement of the worker protection provisions in the NAFTA/CAFTADR. Thus… some upward pressure on minimum wage requirements in the member nations, and some genuine concern about the well-being of illegal immigrants, and of workers of all nations, could restore the Democratic Party as the worker’s party.

    Then, to signal further solidarity with employees, as opposed to employers, a sincere effort to pass the Employee Free Choice Act could be another bullet.

    Then, instead of the feigned concern for immigrants, legal and otherwise, and instead of pretending to be anti-corporate with opposition to the TPP, the Democrats could strive to improve the labor markets in the global marketplace. The TPP has the best labor protections ever devised*, and the International Labor Organization has been given a monitoring role which could allow for any necessary enforcement via sanctions. Thus, access to the US markets could be used for leverage (Colombia’s stock market grew faster than any other the year after gaining free access to US markets via a trade treaty), and the Democratic Party could then be the champion of labor on a global basis.

    Then, the Democrats could take a stance on immigration issues by adjusting immigration quotas in accordance with the demand for labor (see: US history), but from a humanitarian posture. When there is double-digit unemployment, which has happened twice in the past decades, it makes absolutely no sense to add as many as a million immigrants to the labour markets. So here are more bullets, but bullets that may be made unnecessary if the working conditions were to improve in other nations. And the leverage our markets offer… could make this possible, if only the political will were there to first take on the corruption issues, and that could make the good aspects of trade treaties… outweigh the bad aspects (ISDS is not, ‘as bad’ as many seem to think). And, if corporate power were to be reined in, many more ‘bullets’, such as those regarding environmental issues, are then there for the taking.


  5. While I agree with what you say, I am going to ring the following bell for as long as I can. The Comey letter coming a week before the election swung the presidency to Trump. This, in my opinion, was a very American coup. No letter, no Trump.

  6. “promoting the ideology, cultivating the funders, motivating the base, building the media empire, stocking the judiciary, weakening unions, undermining campaign finance rules, buying state elections, redrawing districts, and suppressing the vote”

    With the exception of weakening unions, those things have also been done by Democrats also.

  7. I’ll preface what I say in that I am an independent who has voted both Democrat and Republican (and I’m also an MIT grad). But what a sob story from Mr. Kwak! It does not take an MIT education to understand very simple solutions to the “issues” you raise:

    1) While I feel for Mr. Walker’s condition, that is NOT an excuse for being “pedestrian under the influence”. And no, many of us have NOT “been guilty of such at one time or another”. Disability is not an excuse to break the laws by which the rest of us must abide. Nor is destitution: if you can’t pay $160 (or whatever the fee is), then even more reason to NOT BREAK THE LAW! Additionally, why should BAIL have any regard to a person’s ability to pay? If I’m poor, should that mean I have more liberty to break the law??

    2) “If you miss work because you’re in jail, you could lose your job; and if you plead guilty to get out of jail, the conviction makes it harder for you to find work”. Agreed, that’s obvious. The solution, regardless of ability to pay, is to stay out of jail in the first place! That’s not partisan politics – that’s simply personal responsibility

    3) “The sad truth is that many people in the United States already had very tough lives before November 8.” Any guess as to why given the last eight years of law-bending executive mandates and detached-from-reality policies? The mere fact that something as ludicrous as a $150 “victim assessment fee” exists is a testament to big government overreach – something that the Trump administration will seek to abolish.

    4) “There will be more hate crime; more deportations of people whose only crime is wanting to work hard and make a better life for their children”. As far as I’m aware (and I follow U.S. politics pretty closely), never has Trump suggested he’s against immigrants wanting to come to this country to work hard and find a better life. But, just like my mother who immigrated from Colombia, my mother- and father-in-law who immigrated from India, and my grandfather who immigrated from Norway, people need to do it LEGALLY! It’s not that difficult – simply enforce the laws we already have!

    5) “At the end of the day, ordinary people will be the victims of the Trump administration, and they will need your help”. There are clear reason why Trump soared to a surprise victory and why the Republican control both houses of Congress. Bottom line is that the broken, big government politics of the left have failed miserably. And who have they failed the most? It’s the “ordinary people” of this country who spoke loud and clear on Election Day.

    It’s time to step back and take a sober view of just what has happened to our democracy, and why change in Washington is desperately needed. No doubt, Trump has some serious flaws (and what president hasn’t?). But there is a cliff looming in the distance for the U.S. And with skyrocketing debt, bigger government, increasing regulations, and a rotten system that enables corrupt career politicians, that cliff is closer than many people think. It’s time we think rationally about how to save our country from that eventual demise.

  8. KJL, the so called “law” is the problem, its not the solution to anything anymore except perhaps its own destruction. I wont go into details, but even MIT is guilty of law abuse, when they arrested members of Rossi’s cold fusion team for having a nickle powder they then claimed was a controlled substance, they later dropped the charges but only after the project was sent overseas to resume the construction of the machines. Why did this happen, because the gvt couldnt find a way to control the energy produced through a patent.

    This place is as evil and corrupt as ever and MIT is a part of the problem, not the solution. The country is going down the crapper in flames, enjoy the few moments you have left, you cant win the political battle, there is no political solution to today problems, the problem has to be removed physically, and it will be.

  9. Hillary Clinton was a very unpopular candidate who ran the wrong sort of campaign and she still won the popular vote despite Wikileaks, Comey etc.

    Sanders probably would have won. Trump beat the Republican establishment and their candidates like Jeb by being populist and harping on immigration and trade. Looks like President Trump will just push through the usual Republican agenda. Will this discourage his populist backers? To what extent?

    We need authentic populists to lead the left, not polished politicians backed by Wall Street. We need Democrats to deliver policies that work, not the TPP or brag that they brought down the deficit.

  10. I live in a “safe” Republican Congressional District in eastern Pennsylvania where Democrats don’t even make a serious attempt to unseat the incumbent, Charlie Dent, even though the county went for Clinton because of Allentown’s high Spanish population. What can I do?

  11. Bill,
    Perhaps the Democrats have done nothing to damage the unions in a direct sense, but they did abandon their post. The following is from the Atlantic article which I provided a link for above:

    “After Humphrey’s loss to Nixon, Democrats formed the Commission on Party Structure and Delegate Selection, also known as the McGovern-Fraser Commission, which sought to heal and restructure the party. With the help of strategist Fred Dutton, Democrats forged a new coalition. By quietly cutting back the influence of unions, Dutton sought to eject the white working class from the Democratic Party, which he saw as “a major redoubt of traditional Americanism and of the antinegro, antiyouth vote.” The future, he argued, lay in a coalition of African Americans, feminists, and affluent, young, college-educated whites. In 1972, George McGovern would win the Democratic nomination with this very coalition, and many of the Watergate Babies entering office just three years later gleaned their first experiences in politics on his campaign”.

  12. KJL,
    I would have thought that an MIT education might have allowed you to think more comprehensively. But, according to your logic: “If I’m poor, should that mean I have more liberty to break the law??”, as one becomes wealthier, then, one should be increasingly enabled to break the law? In other words, by your logic: “if you can’t pay $160 (or whatever the fee is), then even more reason to NOT BREAK THE LAW! “, it must follow then that the less burdonsome the penalty

  13. I too have a degree from MIT (EE, course 6.1). It would be a mistake to consider my alma mater a very challenging school, IMHO.

  14. To those above who argue that the Democratic Party brought this on themselves, I would agree. They didn’t fight back against the radical right propaganda and even allowed themselves to be corrupted by the ideas and money. They weren’t paying close attention to the threat.

    Here’s a link to a 2 minute C-SPAN clip of Kellyanne Conway saying just that and at the very end obliquely telling us what their next goal is. If you pay close attention, I think you will be very frightened.


    You can’t put more blame on the victim than the abuser.

  15. Ron,

    The Dems spent more than any campaign ever, and had what has often been described as the best organized campaign in the history of the world, and they managed to control the narrative far better than their opponents, and yet you think that they were not “paying close attention”?

    Then too, the perception of Trump being ‘anti-establishment’, was assailed from every conceivable direction, and with ‘dog-whistle-based’ accusations of racism, misogyny, and so on, nearly all of which being nothing more than spin.

    Enforcing the existing laws on illegal immigration, and protecting our labor markets, became race-related ‘radical nationalism’. So… the “radical right-wing propaganda” that you believe was not fought back against was mostly created by spin from the Democrats, and so why would they fight against what they perceived as beneficial to their cause? Is it not more likely that the Dems have simply outed themselves as disingenuous insofar as part of their traditional constituency is concerned? (see my response to Bill)

  16. I don’t understand what book you are referring to? In any case though, I do a great deal of reading and I choose the material carefully. And I’m not interested in anything that speculates on ‘dog-whistle’-based assumptions, nor do I see any actual reason to be fearful… except that which pertains to the Democrats not facing up to ‘their’ shortcomings, as opposed to their seeming propensity to focus on what is now out of their control.

    The US will now be subjected to a conservative shift and that may be a good thing. Historically, over the past hundred years or so, these rightward shifts nearly always end with economic calamity. But we do learn things, and so it goes.

    But for now, the Dems need to do some serious soul searching, not speculative blaming in advance with the very type of propagandist truth twisting that got then where they are.

  17. Apparently, this comment section is not part of the material you choose to read carefully. The book I’m referring to is mentioned in the post two above your first. Sorry, I thought you knew.

    I understand now why you’re not fearful.

    You say, “The US will now be subjected to a conservative shift and that may be a good thing. Historically, over the past hundred years or so, these rightward shifts nearly always end with economic calamity.”

    In your view the cure for calamity is greater calamity. I believe a right wing complaint of the 30’s was that the depression had not been allowed to complete its work.

    You follow that with “But we do learn things, and so it goes.” What?? (rhetorical question)

    You can have the last word. I’m done.

  18. Ron,
    Sorry for not scrolling farther up the board, that was rather dumb on my part. No need for sarcasm though, after-all, “Read the book” is not very compelling or polite. And your post including that link was 4 days ago, so why would you think that I “knew”?

    Perhaps ‘you’ think your comment is memorable for whatever reason, but when I did go back and read it just now…it is just one more pointless comment out of hundreds that I have read since you first posted it. Your notion that goes: “Yup, radical libertarians have been undermining government for decades. Liberals need to play the long game”, is, frankly, common folly that seems to exclude about 3K years of known history, during which the oligarchical “undermining” has always existed. So…your comment, just got another chuckle followed by a ‘duh’, but not much to remember there.

    As for your other presumptuous jab: “In your view the cure for calamity is greater calamity”, I ask: what calamity exists now? Since 1981 the number of people living in extreme poverty has fallen at a record pace, by percentage and by number, and in the US, poverty usually comes with running water and free food, and sometimes flat-screen TVs and etc.

    And unlike the righties who you seem to associate me with, it is not that I believe that any “work” needs to be completed; but instead, that I know we have learned how to mitigate the damage. For example, instead of raising interest-rates like they did after the Crash of ’29, we now know better, and we are learning the benefits of keyboard capital (QE and what ‘could’ follow). So, while understanding the Repugs propensity, and historical pattern, for causing economic downturns, I am in fact playing “the long game”.

    Besides, how else do we bring some logic back to the labor markets? More than a million immigrants per year with double-digit unemployment and a falling participation-rate, after decades of stagnant wages, well, that ‘was’ against all logic.

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