What Can We Do About Guns?

In response to the massacre at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon, President Obama said:

This is a political choice that we make to allow this to happen every few months in America.  We collectively are answerable to those families who lose their loved ones because of our inaction.

I assume the President was talking to the majority in the U.S. Congress because average citizens do not agree with the longstanding political choice of doing nothing. Americans favor—and have always favored—strong legislation to oversee and restrict gun ownership: 93 percent favor a background check for every gun sale; 76 percent favor registration of all guns; 77 percent favor licensing of all gun owners.

Among these policy solutions, recent evidence demonstrates that handgun licensing can dramatically reduce crime and save thousands of lives. The Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research found that after Connecticut enacted a licensing law in 1995, gun-related homicides dropped 40 percent over the following decade. In contrast, five years after Missouri repealed its licensing law in 2007, there was a 25 percent increase in firearm homicides.

Gun licensing (especially if it includes a fingerprint background check) clearly saves lives and is overwhelmingly popular. It should be a top priority for gun policy advocates. And yet, we’re not even talking about it on the national level. Why?

Politicians are scared.

Elected officials perceive that support for gun restrictions can hurt their chances of reelection. In nearly every legislative district this is a false perception, but it is true that two state senators in Colorado were defeated in recall elections that were supposedly about gun laws. (They lost because of turnout, which may or may not have been affected by the gun issue.)

Even without the fear of losing, reasonable-minded lawmakers often support the National Rifle Association’s positions because a mean-spirited minority of extremists hector and threaten them. These lawmakers see no practical or political advantage in supporting new gun laws and have a real sense that their lives could become very uncomfortable if they favor background checks, much less gun licensing.

Whatever lawmakers are feeling, however, the President is right about guns. We have to do something. But to be practical about it, we cannot expect the U.S. Congress or conservative-led state legislatures to act, no matter how many massacres occur. So, as pragmatists, what can we do about guns?

First, we should work to persuade pollsters to ask the right questions. Pollsters make two fundamental mistakes: they assume that people understand the meaning of gun policy language (they probably don’t), and they assume that people know what laws are currently on the books (they certainly don’t).

For example, polls show that the phrase “gun control” has become less popular. But who cares? Voters strongly support background checks, registration and licensing, so obviously they do favor “gun control” as anyone in public policy understands the term. In short, such polls are meaningless.

And when poll respondents say that they don’t think gun laws need to be more restrictive, it’s because they assume such commonsense measures like background checks for all gun purchases are already on the books. These poorly-designed polls give politicians a misimpression about public opinion.

The fact is, nearly every time pollsters ask whether voters support a well-explained restriction on guns, they do. And it’s not just background checks, registration and licensing, Americans favor a ban on semiautomatic assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, they want to keep guns out of the hands of spousal abusers and the dangerously mentally ill, they want to require gun owners to store guns where children can’t get access, and they think penalties should be increased on those who sell guns illegally.

Pollsters are asking irrelevant, obsolete questions and are rarely asking about policy specifics beyond background checks. (When was the last time you read a poll about gun licensing?) Let’s persuade them to open their minds.

Second, we should work to make gun nuttiness into a political liability. Pro-gun lawmakers think there’s no downside to embracing extremism, so they do. Conservative congressmen and legislators are far to the right on guns compared to where they were in the 1990s. (Remember, Jim and Sarah Brady were Republicans.) They’re way outside the mainstream of public opinion.

Lots of candidates would say that every American has a constitutional right to own a machine gun. Lots would say that existing restrictions on gun purchases should be rolled back. Lots more would attack any law enforcement agency that dares to enforce gun laws. These are wildly unpopular opinions, but voters have no idea their representatives hold them.

Let us tell the voters. Nowadays it is quite easy for an anti-violence activist to encourage candidates to say crazy things. Asked a nutty gun question, right-wing candidates will likely assume the questioner is a fellow extremist and respond accordingly. We need to film those answers and put them up on the web.

Lawmakers who support the NRA are used to pretending moderation in general audiences and whipping up their base when they think nobody is listening, (like Romney and his “47 percent” comment). Let us expose the extremists and make everyone understand that there is only one side that is “moderate” on guns—us.

Third, we should put ballot initiatives on as many state ballots as possible. While lawmakers are scared of the NRA, voters aren’t. Extremists’ threats don’t work on average citizens. So we can win by letting the voters decide.

You may already know that in 2014 when voters in Washington had the chance to decide State Initiative 594 to apply background checks to all gun sales, the Initiative won by 59-to-41 percent. But most politicians and political consultants are astonished to learn that commonsense gun measures have a long history of winning ballot initiatives. In 1988, Maryland Question 6, a rather complicated ban on Saturday Night Specials, won by 58-to-42 percent. In 1990, Florida Proposition 2, the “Cool-It Florida” 3-day waiting period, won by 84-to-16 percent. In 2000, Oregon Measure 5, fixing the gun show loophole, won by 62-to-38 percent and Colorado Amendment 22, also fixing the gun show loophole, won by 70-to-30 percent.

This strategy can not only enact important gun safety laws in many states, it can force the NRA to divert resources away from electing ultra-conservative candidates. Our policies will surely win and their candidates will be more likely to lose.

What are we waiting for?


Pope Francis Suggests a Progressive Freedom of Religion

Last Saturday, Pope Francis delivered a homily at Independence Hall in Philadelphia. Billed as an address on religious freedom, conservatives hoped and expected the Pope to praise their hard-line opposition to abortion, contraception and LGBT rights. Right wingers could not have been more disappointed.

There was not a sentence, not even a word, in the Pope’s speech that cannot be embraced by progressives. We all understand that Francis wants Catholics to follow church teachings in their daily lives. But the Pope never said that Catholics should impose their religious beliefs on non-Catholics. In fact, he said the opposite.

The Pope called for toleration of other religions:

In a world where various forms of modern tyranny seek to suppress religious freedom, or try to reduce it to a subculture without right to a voice in the public square, or to use religion as a pretext for hatred and brutality, it is imperative that the followers of the various religions join their voices in calling for peace, tolerance and respect for the dignity and rights of others.

He called on Americans to respect the diversity of religious beliefs:

The religions thus have the right and the duty to make clear that it is possible to build a society where a healthy pluralism which respects differences and values them as such is a precious ally in the commitment to defending human dignity and a path to peace in our troubled world.

And he praised the example of Quakers for religious tolerance and brotherly love:

The Quakers who founded Philadelphia were inspired by a profound evangelical sense of the dignity of each individual and the ideal of a community united by brotherly love. This conviction led them to found a colony which would be a haven of religious freedom and tolerance. That sense of fraternal concern for the dignity of all, especially the weak and the vulnerable, became an essential part of the American spirit.

The Pope’s speech contained only four words of comfort to right wingers, “in all its stages,” in the following passage:

I take this opportunity to thank all those, of whatever religion, who have sought to serve the God of peace by building cities of brotherly love, by caring for our neighbors in need, by defending the dignity of God’s gift of life in all its stages, by defending the cause of the poor and the immigrant. All too often, those most in need of our help are unable to be heard.

But this is an exceedingly weak reed. Progressives also believe in “defending the dignity of God’s gift of life in all its stages.” Those of us who are pro-choice simply have a different religious belief about the stages of “life.”

Nowhere did the Pope encourage individuals who oppose birth control or abortion based on sincerely-held religious beliefs to bully other individuals who hold different religious beliefs. And that is the key.

If we are true to our American ideals, freedom of religion means that government cannot interfere with the right of each individual to think and act in accordance with his or her religious beliefs. Individuals are welcome to preach their beliefs and try to persuade others to voluntarily follow along, but it is wrong—and contrary to the spirit of the First Amendment—to have government impose any religious doctrine on those who do not believe in it.

Yet, Americans tend to sit back and allow extremists to say religious freedom while they mean the very opposite. When they pressure school boards to mandate the teaching of intelligent design in schools, when they erect monuments to the Ten Commandments in courthouses, when they seek to promote prayer in public schools, right-wingers assert it’s an exercise in religious freedom. But that’s completely backwards. Freedom is the absence of such government intervention.

More to the point:

  • In the matter of abortion, it is the pregnant woman’s religious beliefs that matter. The idea that personhood “begins at conception” is purely a religious doctrine, and a recent doctrine at that. Anyone who holds such a belief is free to follow it by not having an abortion oneself. But the meaning of freedom of religion is that one group cannot use government to impose religion-based policy on others. Religious freedom sides with the pregnant woman not preachers of anti-abortion dogma.
  • In the matter of contraception, it is the employee’s religious freedom that must supersede her bosses’ views on birth control. It’s the worker who has the right to freedom, not the company. In fact, it makes no sense to recognize a right of corporations to make any religious decisions (the Supreme Court’s loopy rulings not withstanding). Corporations are merely legal constructs; they are not people and don’t “believe” anything. Religious freedom sides with the employee not the employer.
  • In the matter of same-sex marriage, it is the loving partners’ religious freedom that controls. It is absurd to suggest that a county clerk can invoke freedom of religion to avoid doing her job. If signing marriage licenses for same-sex couples violates her own interpretation of her religion (a view shared by hardly any other Christian county clerks), she should simply resign. Religious freedom sides with the same-sex partners not some sanctimonious official who would stand in their way.

It is progressives who hold the high moral ground on freedom of religion—if only we would assert it as well as Pope Francis did.


What, if anything, is causing violent crime to increase?

Recently, the New York Times published a front page story headlined “Murder Rates Rising Sharply in Many U.S. Cities.” Much of the media have run similar reports, including USA Today, Reuters and Time.

First we must consider whether the storyline is entirely true. Both the Washington Post’s Wonkblog and FiveThirtyEight wrote analyses demonstrating that there is no uniform rise in violent crime across all or even most cities. According to data compiled by FiveThirtyEight, comparing similar periods in 2014 to 2015, homicides decreased or stayed the same in 23 of America’s 60 biggest cities.

Across all 60 of these cities, however, the number of homicides from January through mid-August increased from 2,963 in 2014 to 3,450 in 2015, a rise of 16 percent. And there have been undeniably significant increases in murder in Baltimore, Chicago, Houston, Louisville, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, New Orleans, Omaha, St. Louis, Tulsa and the District of Columbia.

It seems something awful is happening. Yet, we must cautiously qualify that statement. Since the late 1980s, murder, violent crime, and crime in general have all plummeted. The United States has become tremendously safer over the past 30 years—although no one really seems to know why

And we don’t want to alarm the public; they’re overly alarmed already. As the Gallup poll regularly demonstrates, for the past few decades, Americans have always believed that crime was increasing while it was actually falling—indeed, falling dramatically.


That said, is there a logical reason why homicide has increased significantly in cities like Baltimore and Washington, D.C. while other places like Philadelphia and New York have seen little change?

Advocates, law enforcement officials and mayors have offered up a variety of explanations. Some say it’s because there are so many guns on the streets, and that is true, but the supply has not changed in recent years. Some say the shootings are largely the work of offenders who have previously been in the criminal justice system, which is also true, but again there’s nothing new or different about it.

One particularly scurrilous claim is the idea of a “Ferguson effect,” that less aggressive policing has emboldened criminals. This is so lacking in evidence and so clearly based on emotion and ideology that it shouldn’t have to be dignified by a rebuttal. But just for the record, in nearly all of the cities that have seen a lot more homicides, there’s been no less aggressive policing.

Logic suggests that the cause has to be some factor that exists across the nation but might affect different cities differently. Could it be the recent precipitous increase in the use of synthetic drugs? Some of these substances, which are cheap and widely available in high-poverty neighborhoods, are believed to cause at least some users to become irrationally violent.

In Washington, D.C., it appears that people are rapidly escalating garden-variety disputes, as if they were out of their minds. Things that used to culminate in insults or fists thrown are now ending in gunfire. There is a reasonable amount of anecdotal evidence that synthetic drugs are a factor in the rise of violence in our Nation’s Capital.

If synthetic drugs are linked to violence, that could explain why some cities have a problem and others don’t. The active ingredients in these synthetic drugs, and their "normal" doses, are all different; the violence-inducing products could be especially prevalent in certain cities.

What is to be done? The most sensible course of action is study. Are synthetic drugs an important factor in recent violence, and if so, are there any workable policy solutions? Usually drug policy focuses, unsuccessfully, on blocking supply or punishing users. What about focusing on demand?

For example, one of the reasons people take synthetic drugs is they don’t show up in drug tests. If individuals are tested for drug use because they are in the parole or probation system, or their jobs mandate it, or the tests are required to receive social services, synthetic drugs may be seen as having an advantage over marijuana (which can be detected for many days or weeks). Are government-mandated tests for marijuana use doing anything other than driving up sales of much more dangerous synthetic drugs?


Common Core “results” aren’t actually test scores

A few states have now released results from the Common Core standardized tests administered to students last spring. The Associated Press recently published a story about it, and over the next couple of months we can expect a flood of press releases, news articles and opinion columns bragging about the “success” of these tests.

Idealog_(3).jpgBut nearly all the news and opinion pieces will be wildly misleading. That’s because Common Core “results” aren’t actually test scores. In fact, the numbers tell us more about the states’ test scorers than they do about schoolchildren.

Consider the AP story, for example. It says that, across seven states, "overall scores [were] higher than expected, though still below what many parents may be accustomed to seeing." But the only things that have been released are percentages of students who supposedly meet "proficiency" levels. Those are not test scores—certainly not what parents would understand as scores—they are entirely subjective measurements.

Here’s why. When a child takes a standardized test, his or her results are turned into a "raw score," that is, the actual number of questions answered correctly, or when an answer is worth more than one point, the actual number of points the child received. That is the only real objective “score,” and yet, Common Core raw scores have not been released.

Raw scores are adjusted—in an ideal world to account for the difficulty of questions from year to year—and converted to “scale scores.” A good way to understand those is to think of the SAT. When we say a college applicant scored a 600 on the math portion of the SAT test, we do not mean he or she got 600 answers right, we mean the raw scores were run through a formula that created a scale score—and that formula may change depending on which text of the SAT was taken. Standardized test administrators rarely publicize scale scores and the Common Core administrators have not.

Then the test administrators decide on "cut scores," that is, the numerical levels of scale scores where a student is declared to be basic, proficient or advanced. (Here are the cut scores for the “Smarter Balanced” Common Core test. As of August, the PARCC test hadn’t set cut scores.)

Now, when a news story says that proficiency percentages were "higher than expected," you should know what was "expected." The Common Core consortiums gave the strong impression that they would align their levels of "proficiency" with the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) nationwide standardized test. (That is, by the way, an absurdly high standard. Diane Ravitch explains that on the NAEP, “Proficient is akin to a solid A.”)

Score setting is a subjective decision, implemented by adjusting the scale and/or cut scores. If proficiency percentages are "higher than expected," it simply means the consortium deliberately set the scores for proficiency to make results look better than the NAEP's. And that is all it means.

It is no different from what many states did to standardized test results in anticipation of the Common Core exams. New York intentionally lowered and subsequently increased statewide results on its standardized tests. Florida lowered passing scores on its assessment so fewer children and schools would be declared failures. The District of Columbia lowered cut scores so more students would appear to have done well. Other states did the same.

The bottom line is this: The 2015 Common Core tests simply did not and cannot measure if students did better or worse. The "Smarter Balanced" consortium (with its corporate partner McGraw-Hill), the only one to release results so far, decided to make them look better than the NAEP, but worse than prior standardized tests. The PARCC consortium (with corporate partner Pearson) is now likely to do the same. It's fair to say the results are rigged, or as the Washington Post more gently has put it, “proficiency rates…are as much a product of policymakers’ decisions as they are of student performance.”

So in the coming weeks and months when consortium or state officials announce “proficiency” levels from Common Core tests, understand that these are simply not objective measurements of students’ learning.


Time to kill the death penalty

In February 2015, Pennsylvania issued a moratorium on executions. In May, Nebraska became the 19th state, and the seventh state since 2007, to abolish the death penalty. And weeks ago, the Connecticut Supreme Court ruled the death penalty unconstitutional, saying “…this state’s death penalty no longer comports with contemporary standards of decency and no longer serves any legitimate penological purpose.”

Nevertheless, states have executed 19 prisoners so far this year—15 of them killed by the states of Texas and Missouri alone. Texas, Missouri and Florida accounted for 28 of the 35 people executed in 2014. In contrast, 23 states and the federal government have not executed anyone for at least the past ten years.

There’s been quite a turnaround from the late 1980s and early 1990s when leaders opposed to the death penalty were afraid to speak out against it. At that time polls indicated that about 80 percent of Americans favored capital punishment while only 16 percent opposed it. The polls are better today, but, at least on the surface, Americans still favor the death penalty by a margin of two to one.

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Why is the generic conservative philosophy so popular?

First, let’s be clear: Americans like the concept of “conservative.” Nearly 40 percent of Americans—including nearly 20 percent of Democrats—identify themselves as conservative. And 62 percent of Americans—including 47 percent of Democrats—have a positive view of the word “conservative.”

Americans are also quite favorable to a generic description of “conservative.” A nationwide poll by Lake Research tested this description, based on a speech by Newt Gingrich:

We need to limit government and create space where private institutions, individual responsibility, and religious faith can flourish. That means less economic regulation and lower taxes, but it also means a return to traditional moral values, support for families, and protecting the sanctity of human life.

On a scale where ten means extremely convincing and zero means it is not convincing at all, Americans gave this statement a rating just below eight, with 39 percent rating this description a “ten.”

Even the Democratic base likes this conservative message—nearly 40 percent of them rank it a ten and only nine percent of Democrats give it a negative score.

A simpler way to describe the generic conservative philosophy is that is stands for “less government, lower taxes, free markets, strong military and family values.” Stated that way, hardly any persuadable voters oppose it.

Do you wonder why that message is so popular? There’s nothing wrong with it! Who wants a bigger or more expensive government than we need? Who opposes “free” markets (when understood as most Americans do)? Who can oppose a strong, effective national defense? Who is against morality?

It is not so surprising that these ideas are popular. What’s astonishing is that self-described "progressives" refuse to acknowledge it.


Worst state and local defeats so far this year

Our last blog listed some really great progressive victories in the states and localities so far this year. Now it’s time to face some grim music.

The fact is, state legislatures were more conservative in 2015 than they were in 2014, and far more conservative than they were in 2010. The 2010 and 2014 elections strengthened the right wing, and their leaders decided to take advantage of their new-found power.

Here are some particularly painful examples:

Guns—Progressives were pretty thoroughly out-gunned in state legislatures this year. Texas passed a law to allow concealed weapons permit holders to carry guns on college campuses and then legalized “open carry.” Kansas allowed residents to carry concealed firearms without a permit or any training. Wisconsin eliminated its long-standing 48 hour waiting period for purchasing guns and allowed off-duty and retired police to carry concealed weapons in public schools. Louisiana enacted legislation to allow the National Rifle Association’s “gun safety” program to be taught in elementary schools. Georgia allowed carrying of concealed weapons in government buildings. Mississippi directed that anyone can transport a loaded pistol without any permit if it’s in a purse, handbag, briefcase or satchel. Maine permitted residents aged 21 or older to carry a concealed weapons without any license. There’s more, but let’s turn to the good side of the issue: Oregon enacted a law requiring universal background checks covering nearly all gun transfers, the sixth state to do so over the past two years.

Discrimination against LGBT people—Despite the historic victory for marriage in the Supreme Court and fine victories in some legislatures, most state LGBT legislation enacted this year promotes discrimination. Yes, Indiana’s “Religious Freedom Restoration Act” was watered down following nationwide protests, but the final version—like another law passed in Arkansas—still encourages individuals and businesses to discriminate. New legislation in Michigan allows taxpayer-funded “faith based” adoption agencies to refuse same-sex couples. The North Carolina legislature overrode the Governor’s veto to assure court officials that they can refuse to participate in same-sex marriages. Oklahoma, Texas and Utah enacted measures asserting that religious and nonprofit organizations can refuse services for same-sex marriages. Kansas Governor Sam Brownback rescinded rules that had protected state employees from discrimination based on gender identity and sexual orientation. And Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal issued an executive order asserting that companies, individuals and nonprofits can discriminate against same-sex married couples.

Privatization of public education—The worst education law this year is Nevada’s creation of the broadest school voucher scheme in the country, giving any student’s family about $5,000 toward private school tuition or even home schooling. Nevada also enacted a tuition tax credit bill that allows corporations to offset state taxes with donations to private school scholarship funds. Arizona passed a measure that will give all children living on Indian reservations access to private school vouchers. Montana’s legislature a bill, without the Governor’s signature, to provide tuition tax credits for donations to private education. And the Ohio budget increases the amounts of taxpayer dollars that voucher programs will pay to private schools.

Social services—Kansas enacted cruel limits on TANF recipients, reducing cash withdrawals and banning TANF funds for a long list of uses, including some absurd items like cruises, swimming pools and tattoos. The Missouri legislature overrode a governor’s veto to ratchet down the length of time that a family can have social services benefits and ramp up the requirements for low-income parents to get job training, do volunteer work or complete high school and vocational education. Similarly, Arizona, as part of their budget, reduced the lifetime limit for TANF recipients to the shortest window in the nation—twelve months.

“Right to Work” and Prevailing Wage—Wisconsin a so called “right-to-work” bill, making Wisconsin the 25th state with such a regressive law in place. (A “right-to-work bill passed by the Missouri legislature was killed with veto.) Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner launched an effort to create “right-to-work” zones that would let employees opt out of paying “fair share” fees, although the state Attorney General has said this plan is illegal. The Indiana Legislature repealed the state's 80-year-old prevailing wage law, becoming the first legislature to do so in 27 years. Nevada enacted a law suspending the state's prevailing wage rules on school construction projects. And West Virginia eliminated prevailing wage requirements for construction of public improvements.

Reproductive Rights—From January to June, states enacted no fewer than 51 abortion restrictions—some are being challenged in court. Kansas and Oklahoma became the first and second in the nation to ban the dilation and evacuation procedure that is used for most second-trimester abortions (legislation that is almost certainly unconstitutional). Arkansas and Arizona passed legislation that requires doctors to lie to their patients, telling them that they could potentially reverse the effects of a medication abortion, even though there is no scientific merit to that assertion. Oklahoma and North Carolina required a 72 hour waiting period before a woman could obtain an abortion, while Arkansas and Tennessee imposed 48 hour waiting periods. Arizona passed legislation that bars women on the federal health care exchange from receiving coverage for abortions and adds new reporting requirements for clinics that perform abortions. The West Virginia legislature overrode the governor’s veto to ban abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy.


Six key progressive victories in the states and localities

With the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives controlled by the right wing, it’s no wonder that this Congress has been among the least productive in our nation’s history. But while Congress treads water, some real progress has been made in states and localities across America.

Progressive legislators, council members and commissioners are leading some cutting-edge policy debates and enacting a series of innovations, protections and reforms. Admittedly, conservatives have won most of the major state legislative battles this year—I’ll write about that next week. This week, let’s recognize some of the top progressive legislative accomplishments of 2015:

  1. Minimum Wage—Los Angeles became the largest city in America to adopt a $15 per hour minimum wage, following the lead of Seattle, San Francisco and Oakland, which passed such legislation last year. In addition, Kentucky Governor Steven Beshear, by executive order, set a new minimum wage for state employees. This builds on momentum from 2014 when minimum wages were increased in Alaska, Arkansas, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Nebraska, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Vermont and West Virginia.

  2. Earned Sick Leave—Oregon became the fourth state to mandate earned sick leave. Companies with ten or more employees will be required to provide up to 40 hours per year of paid sick leave. Similar legislation was enacted this year in Philadelphia; Tacoma, Washington; and Bloomfield, New Jersey making a total of 18 cities that have adopted earned sick leave.

  3. LGBT Rights—Advocates didn’t just wait around for the Supreme Court to rule, they achieved a variety of proactive victories. Utah enacted a ban on discrimination against LGBT people; Maryland expanded its preexisting LGBT nondiscrimination policy with two bills that make it easier for transgender people to obtain an updated birth certificate and prohibit health insurers from discriminating against same-sex couples when it comes to infertility coverage; and Oregon enacted a law that bans so-called “conversion therapy.” At the local level, the Fairfax, Virginia School Board enacted protections for transgender students and staff while Thurmont, West Virginia became the smallest town to enact LGBT anti-discrimination legislation covering housing, employment and public accommodations.
  4. Police Body Cameras—Responding to a series of incidents involving police, legislation facilitating the use of body cameras was enacted in the states of Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Maryland, Nevada, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Texas, as well a variety of cities. South Carolina’s law is the strongest, requiring all law enforcement agencies in the state to use body cameras.

  5. Death Penalty—The Nebraska legislature voted 30 to 19 to override the Governor’s veto and abolish the death penalty. Nebraska became the 19th state to repeal the death penalty and the 7th to do so since 2007. In Pennsylvania, Governor Tom Wolf suspended the death penalty pending review, saying the system was “riddled with flaws.”

  6. Voter Registration—In March, Oregon passed a path-breaking measure to automatically register to vote citizens who have driver’s licenses. This encouraged lawmakers in more than a dozen states to introduce similar legislation. Florida, New Mexico and Oklahoma enacted laws for online voter registration; 27 states and the District of Columbia now authorize online registration. Last but certainly not least, Vermont enacted a law to allow Election Day registration, jointing 13 other states and the District of Columbia.

These policies have the potential to encourage waves of change in the states, and ultimately at the federal level as well. But the fact is, progressives have historically spent less time and effort organizing at the state and local levels while right-wing organizations like the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) have provided strong, coordinated assistance to conservative lawmakers year after year.

It is long-past time for our movement to recognize these kinds of victories, as well as the leaders who made them possible.


The flag that offends 100 million Americans

We’ve had this discussion before. Over recent years, state and local governments have gradually recognized that flying the Confederate battle flag is offensive and inappropriate. For example, Florida took down that flag in 2001, and even South Carolina took a partial step, removing it from the top of the state capitol building.

Idealog_(3).jpgBut because of the horrific massacre at the Emanuel AME Church, perpetrated by a Confederate flag-waving racist, the issue is back—as well it should be.

Even Mitt Romney has now joined the debate, tweeting “Take down the #ConfederateFlag at the SC Capitol. To many, it is a symbol of racial hatred. Remove it now to honor #CharlestonVictims.”

The issue is simple, really. Symbols can express political values. The Statue of Liberty stands for freedom and a welcome to immigrants. A balance scale stands for equal justice under law. An olive branch symbolizes peace. What political values do the Confederate flag communicate to Americans?

A recent poll asked, “Do you see the Confederate flag more as a symbol of Southern pride or more as a symbol of racism?” Thirty-one percent said that flag is a symbol of racism. That represents about 100 million Americans who see the confederate flag as racist.

But, some might argue, more Americans (41 percent) answered the question with “Southern pride.” Shouldn’t we believe that flag’s supporters when they claim an innocent explanation? No. Those who display the Confederate flag are not stupid and neither are we. They know perfectly well that millions of people abhor that flag; they are displaying it, quite intentionally, to provoke.

After all, that was its purpose. The Confederate battle flag was hardly ever displayed from the end of the Civil War until the beginning of the civil rights movement in the 1940s and 50s. Segregationists and the Klu Klux Klan resurrected that flag—as historians tell us

as part of a massive resistance campaign against the civil rights movement. It wouldn’t exist in our national popular culture without this moment, when African Americans fought for their equality, and the battle flag was recovered and redeployed as a symbol of opposition to it. What was once a very blatant, full-throated defense of white supremacy has now become this gesture to heritage and history that is presented as though it has nothing to do with the civil rights movement. But it has everything to do with the civil rights movement.

There’s another poll by the Pew Research Center just a few years ago. They asked people, what is your “reaction when you see the Confederate flag displayed—positive, negative or neither?” Only nine percent of Americans answered “positive.” Thirty percent (almost identical to those who say the flag is “racist”) answered “negative,” and the rest said neither or don’t know. So very few feel positive toward display of that flag. Let me suggest the likelihood that means people are fully aware that the flag doesn’t symbolize Southern pride; people are smart enough to know that explanation is a fig leaf to cover up something ugly.

Ironically, it was just a couple of weeks ago when the state of Texas won a case in the Supreme Court by being on the right side of this issue. In Walker v. Texas Division, Sons of Confederate Veterans, Inc., Texas sought to keep the Confederate battle flag off of specialty license plates.

The state’s agency for specialty license plates explained why it rejected the Sons of Confederate Veterans’ proposed design:

[B]ecause public comments have shown that many members of the general public find the design offensive, and because such comments are reasonable. The Board finds that a significant portion of the public associate the confederate flag with organizations advocating expressions of hate directed toward people or groups that is demeaning to those people or groups.

If the state of Texas understands this, why doesn’t the state of South Carolina? And if the Charleston mass murderer understands that the Confederate flag represents his racist cause, why doesn’t everyone? Finally, if you sincerely believed that the flag symbolizes Southern pride but understood (as Texas does) that it is highly offensive to millions of your fellow citizens, wouldn’t you find some alternative way to communicate that pride?

It’s not something I say too often, but—Mitt Romney is right.


School evaluation that’s data driven—over a cliff

Last week, a very distinguished panel convened by the National Research Council published an Evaluation of the Public Schools of the District of Columbia. The report is 341 pages long and cost millions of dollars to produce. What’s most impressive about this Evaluation is how very far removed from reality it is.

The experts who contributed to the analysis relied principally on data sets that covered the city’s DC-CAS standardized tests, the NAEP nationwide standardized tests, and the local teacher evaluation model called IMPACT. They also considered other data such as graduation rates, attendance, dismissal, and teacher retention. The third of three major recommendations from this Evaluation cannot be denied: the school system needs to address the so-called “achievement gap,” which—as noted elsewhere—has been greatly exacerbated since “school reform” came to the District in 2007.

What are recommendations one and two? The first is to create “a comprehensive data warehouse.” The second is to pay for ongoing independent evaluation of this data. Really.

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