A Little Perspective

There was never a single moment of the 2016 campaign when I thought Bernie Sanders would win. From the beginning, my support for the senator’s presidential campaign was about gaining more attention for the progressive economic agenda he championed, and moving the Democratic Party to the left. I knew this campaign was an act of going over the top and charging through No Man’s Land, and I never expected to make it to the other trench. I was just hoping we’d make it more than a few steps. My modest initial goal was for Sanders to have a greater effect on the party and on national politics than Dennis Kucinich.

Mission Accomplished! I am still in awe of how close Sanders campaign came to winning, and the influence he has achieved is miles beyond anything I thought possible. The best example of this is the contest for DNC Chair. It has come down to Sanders’ preferred candidate, Congressional Progressive Caucus Chair Representative Keith Ellison; and the administration’s choice, Labor Secretary Thomas Perez.

Perez is generally considered to be the best progressive in the Obama cabinet. Prior to a term at the Department of Labor, where he promulgated aggressive rules protecting the rights of workers to organize and to receive fair pay, he ran Eric Holder’s Civil Rights Division, where he was a champion of voting rights. This, ladies and gentlemen, is what the centrist establishment choice looks like in 2016.

In any other year, the establishment’s choice would be a corporate Democrat from the Blue Dog or Third Way wings of the party, while someone to Perez’s right would be the liberal alternative. This year, the leading contender is a left-populist African-American Muslim who heads the CPC. His opponent is literally the most progressive figure in the most progressive administration in decades. For the Sanders coalition, losing the race for DNC Chair would give us a better outcome than winning would have given us in any previous year.

If you had told me in 2014 that these would be the candidates, I would have said you were out of your mind. I certainly hope Ellison becomes the next DNC Chair, because it is important that the next leadership be as independent as possible from the disgraced outgoing party leadership, but in the bigger picture, that would be just the final 10% of the objective. That the contest has come down to Ellison vs. Perez means we’ve already gotten the first 90%. Factional jockeying aside, Tom Perez represents almost everything the Sanders wing could want from an ideological perspective*

Thank you, Bernie Sanders, for everything you have achieved.

*No, I do not believe Perez actually supported the TPP, any more than I believe Clinton actually opposed it. He was an Obama cabinet member when he expressed his suppport; what else was he going to say?


Donald Trump is a Scumbag Real Estate Developer

I am a city planner by training and experience. I have come across my share of developers over the past couple of decades as a staff planner and board member. Let me be the first to say that not all developers are scumbag developers. In fact, most developers are not. But there is a particular type of developer that anyone connected with planning or development would recognize as a scumbag developer. And they are of a type.

My purpose here is not to argue that Donald Trump has features that remind me of a scumbag developer and try to convince you that he is. It is an observation of established fact to say that Trump is a scumbag developer. The man hustles condo projects for a living, unethically. He uses other people’s money and credit on heavily leveraged projects while securing himself his payoff even if the project fails. It’s like saying Patrice Bergeron is a hockey player. My purpose instead is to describe what I have learned about scumbag developers, in the hope that someone might find some of my observations useful in understanding Trump’s behavior and thinking.

The scumbag developer is man, almost always with a father who was also a developer or landlord, who is driven by outsized appetites for money and for flattering attention from prominent people. He is a self-conscious striver for the position of community patriarch. Sometimes, this profile makes him manipulatable by people with actual class or power – the people he yearns so much to be accepted among. More often, it makes him creepy or worse with his female subordinates, which is one reason there are so few women in development.

What makes a developer a scumbag? Unfairness. In a regulated industry, the scumbag developer breaks rules not just to make a profit – they all do that when they can – but to get over on the other developers who cannot get away with as much. Getting 8 units on a lot that anyone else would only be allowed to build 5 on, or being able to offer a similar unit as your competitors’ for $8,000 less because some requirement was waived for you but nobody else; this is the heart of real estate scumbaggery. This is most commonly done through influencing regulators, money guys, property owners, or other stakeholders the developer needs, whether through intimidation, inducements or buddy-buddy relationships. Making someone in the political leadership an ally in order to bring pressure on people lower on the totem pole is common. Sometimes, among the smarter ones who work locally a lot, showy public displays of charity are used as investments to bank future support. This also ties in with the desire to be seen as a prominent and respectable member of the local elite.

What stops scumbag developers? Strong, independent institutions. Zoning laws that were written with the public interest genuinely in mind, implemented by regulators committed to good development practices, who are empowered by their political lords and masters to do their jobs professionally without undue interference.

Powerful, organized neighborhood opposition can stop even a well-connected scumbag developer. In those cases, it comes down to the relative power and influence of the neighbors vs. that of the developer. Media savvy and organizing are important for neighborhood groups, but realistically, the most important thing is connections, the same buddy-buddy stuff the developers draw on.

As alpha males of large appetites, scumbag developers often have some vice outside of their work, be it substance abuse, sex, religious zealotry, or some other field of addiction. Sometimes, this combines with the desire for elite acceptance to produce, for instance, giant art collections in the ownership of men who are complete cultural wastelands.

That’s about it for now. I’ll write more if anything else occurs to me.

Racism and Trump Voters

Like peanut butter and jelly.

But you know…one of the most important insights someone can gain about racism is that people who are not Klansmen, who are not ideological white supremacists constantly obsessed with racial politics, but who have other motives, even noble motives, can still contribute to a system of racism, and can even have their own racial baggage.

Unfortunately, many of the people who did so much to popularize this notion have now abandoned it in their commentary about the election. In the same circles in which that insight was so popular for so long, it has now become the conventional wisdom that contributing to the racist outcome in this election by voting for Trump means that an individual is a single-issue racism voter who could not possibly be won over by any other, non-racist political appeal.

I say they got it right the first time.

The Parallels Continue

Donald Trump supporters continue to claim that he won a huge Electoral College victory. In reality, his EV margin was historically low, in the bottom quintile for presidential victors over the course of American history.

I am reminded of the Hillary Clinton supporters insisting throughout the summer and fall, and some to this day, that she won a “landslide” primary victory, that “it wasn’t even close.” One famous article claimed that there was nothing notable about Bernie Sanders’ performance because it is common for there to be a leftist insurgent candidate in Democratic presidential primaries – an argument akin to claiming that there was nothing noteworthy about Dustin Pedroia’s 2008 MVP season because the Red Sox always field a second baseman. In reality, Hillary Clinton had the second-smallest margin of victory of any Democratic nominee since the party began choosing nominees through the electoral process.

Gaslighting about electoral margins. Denying the influence of an outside force that put a thumb on the scale for a preferred candidate. Fake news stories picked up and amplified by internet sources with a rooting interest. It all has me just about ready to throw a chair.

Deep Thoughts

The same faith in demographic determinism that lead people to declare that Donald Trump cannot win the election is leading them to declare that the Democrats cannot boost their share of the white working class vote back to the levels of 2008 or 2012.

But perhaps I’m being unfair. After all, haven’t we spent the past eight years marveling at the unsustainably high levels of white support for Barack Obama?