Politics for the People December Column on IVN

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REVIEW: Jon Meacham’s “The Soul of America” Gives Americans a Much Needed History Lesson

Here’s a passage that brings historians’ public value to life: “The only way to come to understanding is by knowing the history that has shaped us,” writes Jon Meacham in his evocative, The Soul of America (p. 259).
What Meacham asserts is profound. What appears to be new in America’s politics is often anything but. A more likely description, Meacham contends, is that it’s the newest episode of ‘America’s eternal struggle.’
“I’ve wondered why the next generation can’t profit from the generation before,” Meacham quotes a flummoxed Harry Truman. “But they it never does until people get knocked in the head by experience.” (p. 259)
So true: Live it and know it. But let’s wish it were otherwise. If Americans could actually learn from history and practice accordingly—especially now, living as we are, in the Age of Trump—we’d be so much better off as a nation.But they don’t. And that’s what makes this book so important: Meacham tells many Americans ‘what they never knew.’

If history were truly our guide, then each and every time we scream—“Trump! There he goes again! –we’d appreciate what may be the most poignant passage of Meacham’s book: “And yet and yet—there is always an ‘and yet’ in American history.” (p. 103, bolding added)

America’s script, Meacham argues, is a constant yin and yang—of taking two steps forward (sometimes one) and one step back (sometimes two). He describes it as “the war between the ideal and the real, between what’s right and what’s convenient, between the larger good and personal interest” (p. 7).

Each American president engages in that very same struggle. For example, LBJ exerted moral leadership when he signed The Civil Rights Act—knowing full well that he was likely signing over the South to the Republican Party. Richard Nixon showed a very different temperament—and paid a steep price—when he conspired in Watergate.

Then there was Andrew Jackson, the president who took a Hobbesian view of the presidency (that is, every single day is a war). Jackson, whom Meacham describes as “the most contradictory of men,” ”spoke passionately of the needs of the humble members of society…and made the case for a more democratic understanding of power.” But he (also) “massacred Native Americans in combat, executed enemy soldiers, and imposed martial law” (p. 29), while constantly blaming others and expressing self-pity with regularity.

I’ve come to see Woodrow Wilson—once my presidential hero—in that contradictory way, too. Wilson led America during the era of suffrage triumph and argued vociferously for what eventually became the United Nations. But he also squelched free speech through The Sedition Act (1918) and was adamant about keeping African Americans out of government (they don’t have ‘the intelligence,’ he surmised).

Thank goodness we had activists then (as we have today) that got into Wilson’s face and fought him every step of the way. Alice Paul (my new hero) is one example.

But neither Jackson nor Wilson—add Nixon to that list, too—was a one-off. “If we expect trumpets to sound unwavering notes,” Meacham observes, “we will be disappointed. The past tells us that politics is an uneven symphony” (p. 103).

Consider this: for all the great things FDR did for America, keep in mind that he interred Japanese-, German-, and Italian-Americans during WWII. And he wouldn’t support anti-lynching legislation—despite Eleanor’s constant urging—concerned that he’d lose Congressional votes for his New Deal.

Of course, many of us would trade Wilson or FDR for Donald Trump in a heartbeat. Trump—an extreme version of the losing side of what Jon Meacham calls, “the battle for our better angels”—is the reason he wrote this book: “I am writing now,” Meacham scribes, “not because past American presidents have always risen to the occasion but because the incumbent American president so rarely does,” p. 13).

But staying true to the theme of this important book, Meacham doesn’t see Trump as unique. In many ways, he’s a 21st Century version of that damnable 20th Century figure, Senator Joe McCarthy.

It’s a valid comparison, too. “Our fate (as a society) is contingent upon which element—hope or fear—emerges triumphant,” Meacham writes (p. 7). Lincoln and Obama exuded hope. McCarthy and Trump peddled fear. That’s why—to better understand Trump—it’s advisable to learn more about McCarthy.

“He (McCarthy) exploited the privileges of power and prominence without regard to its responsibilities,” Meacham writes. “A freelance performer who grasped what many ordinary Americans feared,” McCarthy knew that “the country feared Communism…and he fed those fears…. A master of false charges, of conspiracy-tinged rhetoric, McCarthy could distract the public, play the press, and change the subject—all while keeping himself at center stage.” (p. 185)

Sound familiar? Well, there’s more. Even after McCarthy was disgraced publicly, polls showed that 34% of Americans still supported him (p. 201). And McCarthy’s primary advisor—Roy Cohn—later advised a young, New York real estate developer … named Donald Trump (p. 206).

What does Meacham’s work mean for independents? For an answer, I recommend reading the book’s conclusion, “The First Duty of an American Citizen” (p. 255-272). In it, he offers a recipe for response—and two of five ingredients speak directly to what it means to be Independent.

Respect facts and deploy reason: Being able to uncover facts, weigh facts, and come to a reasonable conclusion requires cognitive skills and stick-to-itiveness. It also requires the capacity to disassociate claims from claimants, especially claimants who masquerade as Pied Pipers. To do otherwise, Meacham writes, “is to preemptively surrender the capacity of the mind” (p. 268). The take-away message: think independently.

Resist tribalism: “Wisdom generally comes from a free exchange of ideas, and there can be no free exchange of ideas if everybody on your side already agrees with one another,” Meacham observes (p. 268). Put another way, ‘following the party line’ has costs—not only in terms of constraining the idea pool, but by infecting the public domain with (what I call) the politics of affiliation. To wit: you must go along to get along, especially if you want to get ahead in the party. The take-away message: act independently.

The bottom line is that Jon Meacham’s book is an important read—especially today. Yes, today is probably another chapter in what Meacham calls our ‘eternal struggle,’ but it’s an especially ornery one. To address it effectively, we must learn from the past. But that’s no small order in a society where a lot of folks don’t read much or at all; don’t engage in multifaceted political dialogue much or at all; and get a good share of their news (if not all of it) from friends, social media, and 24-hour ‘news’ networks.

Sadly, there isn’t a lot of depth, understanding, and perceptivity across America today. That makes it easy for the public to be duped, and duping opened the door for Donald Trump.

But duping doesn’t serve democracy—not the kind the Founding Fathers had in mind; not the kind you embrace; and not the kind America needs to be that “Shining City on the Hill” Reagan referenced during his valedictory (1989).

It would be a mistake, though, to conclude that the character of our nation rests solely—even primarily—on the back of the person in The White House. Meacham, among others (Ralph Waldo Emerson, too), believes that it rests with the character of the people (p. 40).

Character. Leading for the public good.

The time is now. The stakes are high. There aren’t alternatives, Eternal Struggle or not.

Mary Bowser’s Secrets Are Ours

A Review by Frank Fear

Reading engages you. You start and stop, reflect, make notes, ponder, and visualize, interacting with the text all the while, slowly and progressively.

That experience intensifies when reading historical fiction. You imagine what it was like “back then,” speculate what you might have done, and ponder what the story means in contemporary terms.

Historical transposition was my specialty while reading The Secrets of Mary Bowser. The academic in me enjoyed learning about an important historical figure. But vocation, I soon found, was trumped by something more powerful.

I’ve known hundreds of ‘Mary Bowser’s’ in my life. None of them was as bold in character or as important in history, but they did important things, still.  

Some ‘Mary Bowsers’ turned their backs on privileged positions with institutional accouterments. Others fought from within—as Mary did—as ‘guerillas of the bureaucracy.’

All of them jettisoned chains that had once entrapped them. They stopped playing the role of ‘made-up self’—a self that ‘assumed the position’ and parroted ‘the party line.’ And they all experienced that’ moment: “Enough!” “No more!”

Mary’s ‘secrets’ are theirs, too—and ours—in a collective sense. That’s because social activists share much in common, irrespective of time, place, or issue.

Reaching that conclusion made it possible to align Mary’s story (see text quotes that follow) with stories I’ve heard over the years.


At the start, Mary and others thought their evolution wouldn’t be difficult.

“I been a slave wishing for freedom my whole life. Being a free woman play-acting as Secrets of Mary Bowser Bk Coverslavery can’t be harder than that.” (p. 48)

But they soon found it wasn’t easy—even after discovering they had companions on this new journey.

“I knew Miss Bet was playing a necessary part in front of our fellow passengers, that she was reminding me of the need for me to play my part as well. But her words stung me hard. As we took our seats, my head hung heavy with loneliness.” (p. 55)

Life quickly turned on its head.

“All my childhood, we in the house were allied in constant conspiracy with Miss Bet. I learned from watching Mama and the rest to smile and nod at her, but then roll eyes and mimic her words once her back was turned…. Now here I was in the North, and about the first thing I had to do was defend her, and to a colored woman.” (p. 66)

It was easy to be angry at this, angry at that, and—especially—angry at self.

“I was angry at that weasel-faced woman for sending me back to that bench, angry at the Quakers for having such a bench at all, angry at the elderly colored man for sitting on that bench for five decades or more…. But I was most angry at myself, for forgetting what Mama and Papa taught me, the thing that guided every moment of my life in Richmond…. I berated myself for not remembering their most important lesson.” (p. 116)

It would have been SO much easier if the targets of angst were always up to no-good. They weren’t, though. They were flawed, though. They’d talk about the real world as if they really knew something about it. But what they offered came mostly from privilege, not practice.

“The slavery I was born into…was very different.” (p. 126)

So how did Mary and my colleagues respond to hogwash? They learned to parse words carefully, that’s what. Speaking out/acting up less was better than speaking out/acting up more—even when egged on.

(Theodore to Mary)

“Your audacity that evening was quite impressive. I was longing to say something to that lot of pompous fops myself.’” (p. 138)

“They’re as predictable as parrots, repeating the same dull phrase over and over.” (p. 144)

“You are as fresh and unspoiled as the first breeze of spring coming through the window of a house that’s been shut up all winter.” (p. 148)

Political viability required cultivating the art of ‘picking one’s spots.’

Yes, the old life was easier. This new life, on the other hand, was chock full of unknowns, risks, and dangers.

“The first time I ever saw McNiven, I’d feared what threat he might be, to Mr. Jones and to me. Now because of him, I’d been in the greatest true peril I ever knew—but he’d had as much to do with getting me out of it as with putting me into it.” (p. 179)

Rather than wilt under pressure, though, they drew strength from peril—strength that was apparent in language. Expressed lyrically, their words were uplifting, grounded in values and lathered with principles.

“We hear folks speaking of compromise, and containing slavery, and preserving the Union. But what is to be compromised, contained, or preserved, for the husband who has a wife in slavery, the mother who has a daughter in slavery, the brother or sister, the child a father?” (p. 198)

“John Brown dies this morning. But Dangerfield Newby is already dead. John Brown did a great thing in the name of justice. But Dangerfield Newby did as great a thing in the name of love. John Brown is an exemplar to many in the struggle to end slavery. But Dangerfield Newby is a hero of our own. It is his death we must mourn, must honor, and must be ready to die ourselves, if need be.” (p. 201) 

This new life was about convictions—convictions shared with kindred spirits, including people they never dreamed would become allies.

“When I first met McNiven, I couldn’t have imagined I’d take pride or comfort in knowing he meant for us to ally together. But back then I couldn’t guessed I’d ever connive to travel back across the Mason and Dixon’s line, either.” (p. 213)

Those associates stood tall, always in opposition to others’ backpedaling and intransigence.

“Compromises. Congress would continue carrying on with its compromises…. Decades and decades of them, and every one made to protect slaveholding.” (p. 229)

How inspiring! It confirmed that ‘the cause’ was right, proper, and just.

“The thing that seeps so sweet and warm it makes you feel like every day is the first day of spring.” (p. 241)

Exuberance was necessary, too. The fight wouldn’t end quickly, no ‘sixty-day war’ (p. 284) would it be. Persistence was required, especially when defeat seemed imminent.

What then?

“I wasn’t about to give up so easily. After all, Mama raised me on a steady regimen of stealth and surreption, especially when it came to doing right by those in need.” (p. 266)

“…Mr. Ralph Emerson’s Essays. I had read them years before, in Philadelphia…. Mr. Emerson’s theme of following one’s moral purpose rather than succumbing to the weight of social convention was inspirational.” (p. 268).

Flowery prose wasn’t enough, though. Skills and capacity were. Getting progressively better at playing one’s role was required to counter “their” ingenuity.

“Sketched on the bottom of the missive was the oddest-looking maritime conveyance I’d ever seen. She had no sails, and most of the hull sat below the squiggly marks meant to show the waterline…. The Virginia was an iron-clad monster of the sea.” (p. 298)

And they did just that.

“A balloon big enough to life men into the air and carry them over the battle lines, so they may observe the Confederate defenses.” (p. 317)

Going to that next level of proficiency often came after a ‘hot button’ was pushed. It fueled anger. The use of duplicitous language was one trigger:

“We do not fight for slavery…. We fight for the right of States to govern themselves.” (p. 311)

Self-serving assertions were another:

“Everything will return to how it was.” (p. 318)

But the worst moments came …

…when they aided what they were fighting against…

“Papa was likely…making bayonet stocks for Confederates to use to impale the very men who were fighting to make him…free.” (p. 334)

…when they recognized that the fight was about many things, not just one…

 “What was smallpox but another form of suffering in a world full of pain and misery? ….Colored or white, the infectious corpses of the smallpox dead met the same ignominious end—the incinerator….” (pp. 343, 346)

…when they realized this fight was unending.

“I realized how vulnerable negroes were, even in their own houses in the North…. Freedom from slavery, maybe, but clearly not freedom from harm.” (pp. 363, 364)

In the face of all that, how far would they go for ‘the cause’? Not as far as you might speculate. Ethics prevail.

“What you describe is a despicable act, and if it occurred as you say, there is no excuse for it. But there is no excuse for us to behave their way, either.” (p. 395)


Do Independents have a role to play in these dynamics? You bet.

Unencumbered by strictures that otherwise constrain, Independents are society’s best hope for championing ‘the cause,’ that is, serving the public good. There is no higher calling in America’s politics.

Mary understood that.

You do, too.

Many others will.

“The past is the present, isn’t it? It’s the future, too.” Eugene O’Neill

(Cited by L. Leveen, Reader’s Guide, #12, The Secrets of Mary Bowser)



Frank A. Fear is professor emeritus, Michigan State University, where he served as a faculty member for thirty-year years and worked in various administrative positions for nearly twenty years. Find him on Twitter @frankfear and on Tumblr, “For the Public Good”.  Frank also writes about issues that intersect sport and society. You can read him at The Sports Column.


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Sunday, June 3rd at 7 pm EST.

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The Secrets of Mary Bowser


Reader’s Forum–Frank Fear

Book Image

A Friend Helped Me Write This Review  

Sometimes you need a friend. Writing this review was one of those times. I could go only so far with it. I needed help. But before I get to my friend’s part, let me share what I have to say.

I recommend Greg’s book to anybody who’s thinking about running for elective office as an Independent. It’s an especially good read for newcomers to the political scene. They’ll read about the personal experiences of a person who has experienced the fire of American politics.

I also think readers will find Greg’s work to be illustrative of the ills that face America politically. I especially like the way he writes about “The Legislator-Industrial Complex” (p 182-183)—how politicians shift positions to fit the direction of political winds…and the campaign money that comes with it.

But, truth be told, I wanted more than Greg had to offer. I found the book’s sub-title—“how to restore the American Dream”—to be hyperbolic. And while Greg’s critique of the current political system is good, I had read most of it earlier and elsewhere (e.g., “money is the mother’s milk of politics” (p. 141).

Most importantly, I stumbled over a number of Greg’s assertions. One example is his contention that the Democratic Party has become progressively liberal (p. 155). A bond that connects me with many of my Independent friends is that we believe the mainstream Democratic Party has evolved into a centrist party. It’s not liberal enough. That’s why we left it.

More concerning, though, is Greg’s numerous categorical statements about Independents. Here’s one example (p. 23): “…one of the real strengths of Independents—they’re able to approach an issue with an open mind and see all sides of an issue.” That contention doesn’t jibe with my experience (some do, some don’t). And Chapter 12 is full of assertions that need to be validated. That includes what Greg claims about “The Shared World View of Independents” (pp. 261-263), “Shared Independent Principles” (pp. 263-265), and “The Independent Approach” (pp. 265-266).

That’s when I turned to a friend for perspective. In response, she told me something that I hadn’t thought about before.

“To be independent is not always the same as being an Independent,” she pointed out.

To make the case, she talked about the student organizing movement underway in the wake of the Parkland tragedy. “Those students are showing what it means to be independent,” she asserted. “What’s more, they aren’t addressing any, old topic. It’s the dicey, tumultuous politics of gun control where progress of any kind is agonizingly slow and treacherous.”

“I get it!” I responded. “They’re operating in a different paradigm from politics as usual.”

“For sure,” my friend said. “In the conventional paradigm, there’s the Independent option vis-à-vis the Republican and Democrat options. But when you think about politics that way, danger lurks. The Independent option can end up looking and acting like a political party, especially if the primary goal is getting more and more Independents elected.”

“Gosh, that’s business as usual,” I responded. “Yes, it is,” she said. “What America really needs is a radical political movement—a radical movement to change the status quo of America’s politics.”

“Ok,” I said. “And one of those pathways involves everyday Americans organizing for change.” “You bet!” she responded.

“Think about it,” she continued. “The Parkland students didn’t come to their organizing work by way of extensive background or even with much aforethought. What’s more, they aren’t in authority positions. They don’t represent any organization or group. They’re independent political actors speaking up, acting out, and demanding change—not as politicians, but as political activists—motivated by personal experience with a brutal act.”

“Gosh!” I said. “Americans everywhere can do what those students are doing, and they can do it on any issue they choose.”

“Yes, that’s right,” said my friend. “Sick and tired of political inaction, they’re assaulting the formal political system through good, old-fashioned people-power.”

“What do you make of that?” I asked.

“I’d say they’re doing their part to restore The American Dream.”


frank-fearFrank A. Fear is professor emeritus, Michigan State University, where he served as a faculty member for thirty-year years and worked in various administrative positions for nearly twenty years. Find him on Twitter @frankfear and on Tumblr, “For the Public Good”.  Frank also writes about issues that intersect sport and society. You can read him at The Sports Column.




A Declaration of Independents

How We Can Break the Two-Party Stranglehold and Restore the American Dream


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To My Pen Pal About Poverty in America


To My Pen Pal About Poverty in America

By Frank Fear

A Review of $2.00 a Day:

Living on Almost Nothing In America

By Kathryn J. Edin and H. Luke Shaefer

My critiques of America are misguided, so my pen pal tells me. I underestimate America’s greatness and overplay its challenges. He is dedicated to helping me “understand.”

Yet another of his missives arrived a few weeks ago. It came at a time when I was reading, $2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America (by Kathryn J. Edin and H. 836ad-2-a-dayLuke Shaefer. Boston: Mariner Books, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015).

It made me think about an omission in our discourse. My pen pal has never brought up the topic of poverty in America, not even once. Perhaps he thinks we’ve solved it. Maybe it’s not a priority for keeping America great.

Either way, he’s not alone in looking elsewhere. Poverty has fallen off America’s radar screen. We hardly even use the word these days. We prefer talking about tax cuts or referring to “working Americans.”

What a difference from the days of my youth! In 1964, President Johnson Lyndon made his intent clear and expressed it directly. He declared “A War on Poverty.”

What changed? Starting in the 1970’s, Governor (later president) Reagan had a bee under his bonnet for the “evils of welfare.” He promulgated his angst visually with the image of “The Welfare Queen.” Later, President Clinton signed a bill ‘reforming’ the welfare system.

Well, America got reform. And it American changed … for the worse.

“How so?” my pen pan will certainly ask. I’ll respond by quoting $2.00 a Day (p. xxiii).

“America’s cash welfare program that caught people when they fell—was not merely replaced with the 1996 welfare reform (note: Clinton’s reform); it was very nearly destroyed. In its place arose a different kind of safety net, one that provides a powerful hand up to some—the working poor—but offers much less to others, that is, those who can’t manage to find or keep a job. This book is based on what happens when a government safety net is built on the assumption of full-time, stable employment at a living wage combines with a low-wage labor market that fails to deliver on any of the above. It is this toxic alchemy…that is spurring the increasing numbers of $2-a-day poor in America.” 

That’s why (I’ll tell my pen pal) it’s precisely the right time for poverty to re-emerge as a public policy priority. $2 a Day should be the rallying call for that movement. “There can be no exceptional America (an image that my friend believes in so thoroughly) if that circumstance remains a reality,” I’ll write.

Misguided public policies need to be corrected, I’ll continue. We need to name, and then proclaim, those policies for exactly what they are … heartless. What we need today, I’ll write, is for American patriots to step forward—just as Marian Wright Edelman did in 1995 when she chastised President Clinton in an “open letter” published in The Washington Post. In that letter, Edelman quoted Franklin D. Roosevelt’s powerful admonition: “Better the occasional faults of a government that lives in a spirit of charity than the constant omission of a government frozen in the ice of its own indifference.”

I’d then remind my pen pal of a conversation that I had with another colleague nearly thirty years ago. The colleague had been invited by then-President George H.W. Bush to serve on the commission to plan the Points of Light Foundation. “Points of Light?” I asked emphatically over dinner one night. “It sounds like a bait-and-switch, a flowery label used as a ploy – a ploy to reduce government support for those who need it most–to get people “off the government dole.”

My pen pal will bristle at that assertion, just as my other colleague did that night. But I’ll be prepared to bolster my argument by drawing on another passage from $2.00 a Day (p. 102).

“Private charity in America is often viewed as the little engine that could. It chugs along admirably, providing billions of dollars in aid to the poor each year…. Yet, even in America—and even for those who are adept at gleaning all that private charity has to offer—it can’t even begin to replicate, much less replace, what the government does. Private charity is a complement to government action, something that bolsters the government safety net.”

Charity is important. Self-help efforts are vital. But government support is the cornerstone. It’s not the cornerstone now – and that needs to change in a responsible, progressive way.

How so?” my pen pal will certainly ask. In response, I’ll offer three steps as proposed in $2.00 a Day (see Conclusion: Where, Then, From Here? Pp. 157-174).

The first step is to scrap the term, “reform.’ Welfare needs to be replaced. That’s not a new idea, I’ll tell my pen pal. It was the cornerstone of David Ellwood’s influential thinking from twenty years ago. It needs to be resurrected.

The second step is to ground a replacement strategy in four American values: 1) autonomy of the individual, 2) the virtue of work, 3) the primacy of the family, and 4) a desire for community. Basing policies on those pillars will go a long way toward integrating the poor in society, rather than separating them from society – the unfortunate reality that exists today.

The third step is to put in place policies that accomplish three outcomes: 1) provide opportunities for all to work, 2) enable parents to raise kids in a place of their own, and 3) strengthen the financial safety net so that people never go without.

I have faith in what Eden and Shaffer propose, I’ll say, because I believe it’s the foundation of good public policy.

He’ll scoff at that declaration! I know he will. Why do I think so? One reason is what I learned from reading a provocative article written recently by Kevin Quealy, published in The New York Times. Quealy talks about how political elites influence public opinion, especially with regard to topics that are complex, technical, or off-the-radar screen.

The political elites to whom my friend pays attention don’t talk about poverty. They talk about cutting taxes, bolstering corporate America, reducing government regulations, managing budget deficits, correcting trade imbalances, curbing terrorism, bolstering defense … but never, ever about poverty.

Poverty has been handled. It’s being dealt with by non-profits, churches, and philanthropists. “We in America are nearer to the final triumph over poverty than ever before in the history of any land. The poor-house is vanishing among us.” Herbert Hoover, August 11, 1928.

I’ll tell my friend that he’s misguided, that America needs to respond in a prudent, humane way. America can’t possibly be great if people are living on $2 a day.

Don’t you agree?

Frank A. Fear is professor emeritus, Michigan State University. Frank is a frequent contributor to the LA Progressive and also writes about issues that intersect sport and society. You can read him at The Sports Column at http://www.thesportscol.com/category/frank-fear/  He is a long time independent and active with Independent Voting.


A Letter from a Friend in Response

Hi Frank,

What can I say?

I think your article is brilliantly written in the most honest, clear and down to earth way. A humane and compelling format/conversation with “the other”. No demonization. No negating. Very intimate and political, touching and smart-a powerful personal/political organizing piece!

You locate poverty (the unspoken and criminally ignored white elephant in our country and in the world) structurally and not as a new phenomenon that we can just blame on one party – or the other – or on one leader or the other.  Poverty is institutionally located within a quagmire of ongoing unjust, inhumane policies that have and are destroying millions of lives, families, children, every day. And as you say, which must be thrown out and replaced-not reformed.

As a longtime political activist, I see the – up from the ground -National Independent Political Movement (IV.org) -working in concert with the many groups and individuals nationwide to build together to bring about this change!

Between your distribution networks and ours, I hope your piece reaches endless numbers of people hungry for a humane and sane direction to follow in this period.

Thank you Frank.

Kindest regards,


junehirsch solo

June Hirsh is an organizer with IndependentVoting.org. She lives in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village.


 Please Join the Politics for the People Conference Call

With Kathyrn Edin

We will be discussing:

$2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America

Sunday, December 3rd at 7 pm EST

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Frank Fear Reviews Evicted

REVIEW: Matthew Desmond, Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, New York: Crown Publishers, 2016[1]


By Frank A. Fear, professor emeritus, Michigan State University


“Whatever our way out of this mess, one thing is certain. This degree of inequality, this withdrawal of opportunity, this cold denial of basic needs, this endorsement of pointless suffering—by no American values is this situation justified. No moral code or ethical principle, no piece of scripture or holy teaching, can be summoned to defend what we have allowed our country to become.”  (p. 313)

Eloquently phrased, so valid and compelling in substance…. Those words gave me great pause for thought.

I thought about America. How did it get this way? I thought about me. How can I make a difference?

The most sobering thought of all was this: nothing Matthew Desmond writes about is new.

At various levels we know severe poverty exists in this country. But most of us live a world apart—apart occupationally, economically, socially, and institutionally. But it’s different geographically. Wander a bit from Main Street or the suburbs. You’ll find it. And it’s closer than you think … often too close for comfort.

Desmond’s book should make us feel uncomfortable. He helps us confront this “other reality” in vivid and sometimes raw terms.

For me, the most discomforting part of the book was Desmond’s treatment of profit. There’s money to be made in the slums. Landlords, lenders, and other actors profit on the backs of vulnerable people—people living hardscrabble lives who don’t always know what tomorrow will bring.

Exploitation, now there’s a word that has been scrubbed out of the poverty debate,” Desmond writes (p. 305). I won’t forget that phrasing.

I didn’t read Evicted from cover to cover. I read Part One (through p. 107) to get grounded. Intrigued by the study design, I then turned to the end of the book and read about Desmond’s methodology (“About This Project,” pp. 315-336). Wondering about Desmond’s overall conclusions and recommendations I next read “Epilogue: Home and Hope” (pp. 293-313).

I used Epilogue as the foundation for reading the rest of the book. I highlighted (literally so, by marker) supporting documentation (the material cited in footnotes) and connected that evidentiary material to vignettes about people and relationships. Connecting those two domains—data about poverty (important to me as social scientist) with stories about poverty (important to me as citizen activist)—made the book come alive.

After finishing the book I spent time thinking about the meaning of Evicted. I concluded that it’s a Call to Arms. We must do more, and do better, as stewards of the commonwealth. Desmond says as much:

“Working on behalf of the common good is the engine of democracy, vital to our communities, cities, and states—and, ultimately, the nation. It is “an outflow of the idealism and moralism of the American people, wrote Gunner Myrdal.” (p. 294)

What might we do to serve the common good? I offer two recommendations. The first has to do with our role as benefactors. The second pertains to our role as political actors.

As Benefactors. A benefactor is a kindly helper. Millions of Americans are benefactors in the fight against poverty. We serve by volunteering time and giving money to America’s nonprofit agencies.

Not all agency work is the same, though. A good share of the work involves providing people relief from poverty and some of it targets the causes of poverty. If you’re like me then you’ve devoted more attention to relief and less to cause-remediation.

When I served as president of a municipal food bank I watched the client roll grow. More people needed food assistance. Many were children. Many were senior citizens. Many were “new kinds of people,” people you wouldn’t ordinarily associate with hunger, such as out-of-work professionals.

How could this be happening in America, I thought? I wasn’t the only person asking that question. And many times I heard this answer: “There will always be poor people in America. Our moral responsibility is to tend to their needs.”

Relief services certainly have a place. But raising more money to provide relief services to more and more people is an endless routine. It capitulates to the forces that cause hunger. And it makes benefactors problem responders, not problem solvers.

I believe America needs to reinvigorate its efforts to address the causes of poverty. One way to do that is by concentrating more time and money on agencies, programs, and services that target the causes of poverty by addressing those causes directly.

But it isn’t easy to identify those initiatives. Why? First, many evaluation systems only use financial indicators to judge nonprofit merit and quality (e.g., % of budget devoted to administration). Fiscal accountability is important, but it only gets at how agencies operate. Second, resources to help Americans make nonprofit choices don’t always do a good job of differentiating among diverse initiatives. Disparate activities are often lumped in a generic category, such as “Fighting Poverty.”

We need to be inquisitive and discriminating, first, then declarative and active, next. Volunteer. Serve on a committee. Become a board member. Make targeted financial contributions to projects with high impact. Endow a program to make a long-term difference.

I’m more convinced than ever—thanks, in part, to reading Evicted—that we must speak openly and passionately about shifting primary emphasis in this country from relief to remediation. Then we must act.

As Political Actors. Nonprofit initiatives are important, but local, state and national-level policies represent the cornerstone of transformation. With that in mind I very much like Desmond’s proposal—to expand the housing voucher program (pp. 308ff).

Sadly, though, poverty isn’t a primary concern politically in this country — and it hasn’t been a primary concern for nearly a half century. That’s why we don’t have the policies we need to attack poverty aggressively.

What a difference that is from the America of my youth! Poverty was on the national radar screen in the 1960s: we had a “War on Poverty.” Then the focus shifted substantially—from a progressive stance emphasizing commonwealth to a neoliberal ethic accentuating individual achievement.

“Capitalism … /has been celebrated/… not only as a wealth-generating engine,” David Brooks wrote recently, “it also … / became/ … a moral system, a way to arouse hard work, creativity and trust.” The creed? Focus on what you can get for yourself. “Everyone else can take care of themselves.”

The political rhetoric shifted correspondingly, too, from a Kennedy-esque “what I can do for my country” to cries for cutting taxes, shrinking government, and trimming regulations—three pillars of The Reagan Revolution. We hear those same cries today.

For decades, neither major political party made poverty a priority—even though data have shown clearly and consistently that a good share of America is being left behind. It’s the same in this election cycle. Poverty has been an off-and-on topic, mostly off, and sometimes back on, largely as a result of external pressure.

In September The New York Times Editorial Board published an opinion piece entitled, “The Failure to Talk Frankly About Poverty.” Hillary Clinton followed with plan to help America’s poor, but that plan was evaluated as lacking when compared to what other Western countries have done and are doing (e.g., Great Britain).

Part of the challenge is the way political parties go about their business. They use a routine I call “The Three P’s”Philosophy, Policies, and Programs. Party partisans talk about values they hold (Philosophy), the legislation they’ve enacted in the past and are pending today (Policies), and initiatives they’ve funded or intend to fund (Programs). Data and expert opinion are used to support the contention that America is “better off” (or at least improving) because of the party’s work. Then, on the flip side, party partisans use the Three P’s to argue that America has been hurt by what the other party stands for, has done in the past, and proposes to do in the future.

This either-or routine is patently familiar, the stuff of which stump speeches, party platforms, and candidate-authored Op Ed’s are made. That routine is connected intractably to what Desmond writes about poverty on pp. 316-17. For Conservatives the poverty narrative is mostly about individual deficiencies (e.g., having children out of wedlock). For Liberals the focus is largely on structural forces (e.g., loss of manufacturing jobs).

Desmond proposes another way of framing the poverty debate, a way that makes more sense to me as a Progressive—not just substantively, but morally as well. He sees poverty as a relationship involving poor and rich (emphasis added):

To understand poverty…I needed to understand that relationship. This sent me searching for a process that bound poor and rich people together in mutual dependence and struggle. Eviction was such a process.” (p. 317)

Desmond’s approach acknowledges that we (not just “they”) have a problem. It emphasizes our collective responsibility to serve the public good. And it’s a much-needed antidote to neoliberal self-centeredness.

How might we help that type of thinking grow and bear fruit? The first step is creating broader awareness of what’s going on—to become “Desmond’s Disciples,” as it were. But spreading the gospel won’t be easy. Survey data reveal that a majority of Americans (almost 70%) believe that people are responsible for their own welfare. And over 70% of those surveyed are pessimistic that poverty can be eliminated—even if the government made poverty a high priority.

Because change won’t come easily, I believe in approaching change as a political endeavor. What political acts might we take? Here are several examples.

Host a reading circle in your home with Evicted as common reading. Better yet, contact your local library and offer to organize a reading group in your community.

Write an Op Ed about Evicted for your hometown paper. Describe what’s going on in America and discuss its implications. Follow that up by writing a series of pieces about poverty, the plight of people, and what we can do—as everyday Americans and as a country—to address it.

Become knowledgeable about poverty-related legislation that’s before your state legislature and Congress. Identify representatives who support or oppose policies that lift people out of poverty. Endorse those who do. Volunteer to work on their campaigns. Speak out against those who don’t support poverty legislation. A good way to express support and oppose is by writing Letters to the Editor of your hometown newspaper.

Affiliate with local, state, and national-level poverty-focused organizations. Work with others to advance a political agenda that addresses poverty directly.

The bottom line: Do what you can and as much as you can. Lives hang in the balance.

If you think that interpretation is an exaggeration, consider what Jennifer Senior wrote in her review of Evicted:

“How can you hang on to a job, send your child to school, or build roots in a community if you are constantly changing homes, each one more dilapidated and dangerously located than the next?”

Repeat those words to anybody who questions your activism.

Would they want to live their lives that way? Certainly not. If they did, would they want others to care about them? Probably yes.

We should care about those who live this way—today, right here, in America. And we should do something about it.

So let us.

[1] SYNOPSIS (from Amazon.com): “Matthew Desmond’s Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City is a sociological study of evictions, housing, and homelessness in Milwaukee. The book follows the lives of a number of tenants and landlords in order to examine how access to housing affects the poor. Desmond also includes historical background, statistics, and research findings to provide context for his narratives…. /The study shows that/…eviction is hugely disruptive, and those who are evicted face loss of property, intensified poverty, and an erosion in quality of housing. Evictions also disrupt jobs, and may increase depression and addiction. It’s not only that poverty contributes to housing precarity; housing precarity contributes to poverty. Moreover, a home can spell the difference between stable poverty, in which saving and advancement are possible, and grinding poverty, in which one staggers from crisis to crisis.”



Politics for the People Conference Call

With Matthew Desmond

Sunday, October 23rd at 7 pm EST

Call In Number: 641 715-3605

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Why Independent Voters Matter

Below is an excellent article by Frank Fear published a couple of days ago in the LA Progressive.  A refreshing take on who independents are and how critical opening up the primaries is.  As Frank puts it,

Why Independent Voters Matter



Reminder: Politics for the People

Conference Call With Hedrick Smith

Sunday, June 19th @ 7 pm EST

(641) 715-3605   Code 767775#



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