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Bernie Sanders, the Media and 2020

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Assuming Bernie Sanders decides to announce another presidential run, he’ll be helped by the fact that he’ll now be the front-runner in the Democratic primaries: Joe Biden is the only potential foe with similar name recognition.  No other Democrat has the grassroots activist base that Bernie does through his organization, Our Revolution, plus numerous Bernie-related organizations like Organizing for Bernie, which has already started campaign organizing.  Nonetheless, he will need to make some campaign adjustments this time around.  Vermont’s prodigal son lost the Democratic nomination to a historically weak candidate (who subsequently was defeated by a senile game-show host).

Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party ruthlessly undermined Sanders’ chances, going so far as to consider smearing the Jewish Sanders as an atheist in religious states’ primaries, receiving leaked debate questions ahead of time, and smearing his supporters as sexist “Bernie Bros” (which Hillary recycled from her 2008 campaign against Obama and his “Obama Boys”).  There’s no evidence that the Democratic Party will be any more welcoming of Sanders this time around, what with the myopic centrism that party stalwarts Pelosi and Schumer continue to trot out in the face of an undeniable progressive swing within the party.

Bernie Sanders likewise faces a strong obstacle in the mainstream media (MSM).  At first, they largely ignored his 2016 campaign.  When he was propelled to the public consciousness thanks to online media and word-of-mouth, the MSM switched gears to smearing Bernie non-stop.  This was most infamously evidenced on March 6-7, when the Washington Post ran 16 consecutive hit pieces against Bernie in 16 hours. Reasonable policy proposals like universal healthcare -which is a reality in every other industrialized nation- were dismissed as being “unrealistic”.  Pundits inevitably conflated Bernie’s policy platform with Venezuela and failed Communist (i.e. not democratic-socialist) regimes.  Bernie will doubtlessly face similar dishonest framing in the 2020 Democratic primaries.  The talking heads will proclaim that only a “realistic” candidate like Joe Biden or Kamala Harris can appeal to centrists and independents.  If Bernie wins the Democratic nomination, then the MSM will ratchet up the Nordic socialism=gulags framing, arguing that Trump, for all his flaws, helped to “revitalize the economy” via stock market growth and lowered unemployment.

Thus, Bernie Sanders needs to be much more aggressive for 2020.  Hillary had many glaring vulnerabilities that he courteously chose to ignore, like her “damn emails”.  Civility didn’t win him the nomination and, as Hillary learned in Nov 2016, it won’t win you an election against Trump.  Republicans win the White House by embracing a schoolyard bully mentality.  Reagan beat Carter and Mondale by framing them as liberal pansies; George H.W. Bush had the dog-whistle Willie Horton ad; his son used a similarly racist claim to defeat John McCain in the 2000 primaries, then twisted John Kerry’s decorated war service into a story of treason in 2004; Trump was the meanest meanie of them all.

Bernie doesn’t need to be a bully so much as a street fighter.  He will have to run an endless gauntlet: mischaracterization by the MSM, attacks from more centrist candidates, libelous attack ads from billionaires terrified of his reformist vision, and then the final boss, Trump.  The key will be to hit back every time- but through constructive criticism.  Any time someone tries to use Venezuela as a scarecrow against his platform, he needs to point out facts, like how every other industrialized country has universal healthcare.  If a candidate bankrolled by abusive-towards-employees companies like Wal-Mart and Amazon tries to label a $15 minimum wage as economic suicide, the Bernie campaign needs to point out that the minimum wage is $13.61 in Luxembourg and $18.93 in Australia.  If a columnist writes that Bernie “has a problem” with people of color, Bernie needs to point out that he has the highest approval rating among people of color… a margin that’s at least double that of any candidate besides Biden.

Luckily, Bernie has a circle of highly media-savvy friends who can help represent him on TV, social media and through op-eds, such as Nina Turner and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.  The Vermonter has had three years to analyze the arguments and smears used against each of his policy proposals and perceived electoral weaknesses.  The aforementioned Ocasio-Cortez has shown what kinds of arguments to expect against marginal tax rates, which are a necessity for any of Bernie’s major proposals.  In this particular case, you just have to do the hard work of explaining how marginal taxation works; since most Americans don’t understand such vagaries, they are susceptible to the pundits on Fox who imply that a billionaire’s entire income is taxed at the top marginal rate.

Such blatant dishonesty demonstrates the need to hit back at the media, in particular.  Trump beat the MSM smear machine through radical lies.  Sanders can do likewise, but through radical honesty.  The Sanders team not only needs to correct the record whenever someone in the media lies about or mischaracterizes one of Bernie’s positions, but explicitly point out the bad intentions of the pundit.  Trust in the US media has been declining for decades and spikes especially hard during election years.  In 2016, a record low 1 in 3 Americans expressed trust in the media.  Trump understood this reality and used it to frame himself as a hero fighting the corruption of the corporate media.

Bernie has the credibility, through his remarkable ideological consistency and refusal to accept corporate donations, to point out that six corporations control 90% of the US media and that they are incentivized to attack his reforms.  These six companies depend on ad money from Big Pharma, the military industrial complex, the oil companies and the health insurance companies to survive, and must therefore attack anyone who threatens these financial interests.  Bernie can point out that these six new corporations uncritically published the bogus intel that got us into the Iraq War, called torture “enhanced interrogation”, proclaimed that the economy was doing fine right before the recession hit, dropped the ball on covering the Standing Rock protests, etc.  Americans want to vote for someone who embodies the word “leader”: someone willing to stand up to the corrupt establishment that wrecked the economy and created endless wars in the Middle East, and someone willing to speak hard truths.  Trump did the former and convincingly pretended to do the latter and thus won the necessary credibility among voters.

The Bernie campaign must be similarly strict in regards to rival candidates.  As the frontrunner, everyone will be aiming at the target on his back.  Letting a dozen-plus make uncontested shots against you can easily lead to death-by-a-thousand-cuts.  In the poll position, one shouldn’t strike preemptively.  When attacked however, a counter-punch must be considered on the bases of the strength of the attacker and the attack.  For example, if Kamala Harris starts intimating that Bernie is disconnected from voters of color, he would be justified in responding, based on the potential harm of the smear and the prominence of the opponent.  Bernie could respond by pointing out that Harris (while CA Attorney General) fought against repealing the death penalty, marijuana legalization, police brutality accountability and overturning the convictions of 600 wrongfully accused.  If Biden tries to lecture Bernie about “electability”, he can respond by pointing out the former VP’s tone-deaf defense of oligarchs, school segregation and bashing of young people.  By establishing a good clap-back game early on, Bernie can scare candidates (especially weaker ones) into avoiding him.  Trump was able to develop this helpful aura during the GOP primaries; his rivals tended to focus either on attacking weaker candidates or toadying up to Trump in an attempt to win over his supporters.

Fortune favors the bold.  You don’t win the US Presidency by letting your opponents drag your name through the dirt.  Bernie is exceptional at explaining- and selling- his policy goals to sold-out arenas.  He’s still vulnerable with centrists and the politically disengaged.  Thus, he must be willing to not only articulate, but defend, his vision.  Bernie and his base have been smeared as racist, sexist, out of touch, delusional, weak on foreign policy, Communist and a thousand other things.  The anti-Bernie hit pieces are already appearing on TV and in the newspapers and he hasn’t even declared his campaign yet. Bernie must respond to criticism with constructive counter-criticism by pointing out the hypocrisy and laissez-faire fallacious arguments of his opponents.  Americans want to vote for a fighter… someone who will fight for them.

Russell Whitehouse is Executive Editor at IntPolicyDigest. He’s also a freelance social media manager/producer, 2016 Iowa Caucus volunteer and a policy essayist.

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Wendy Sherman’s China visit takes a terrible for the US turn

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Photo: Miller Center/ flickr

US Deputy Secretary of State, Wendy Sherman, had high hopes for the meeting in China. At first, the Chinese side did not agree to hold the meeting at all. The reaction had obvious reasons: Antony Blinken’s fiasco in Alaska left the Chinese disrespected and visibly irritated. This is not why they travelled all the way.

So then the State Department had the idea of sending Wendy Sherman instead. The US government actually needs China more than China needs the US. Sherman was in China to actually prepare the ground for Biden and a meeting between the two presidents, expecting a red carpet roll for Biden as if it’s still the 2000s — the time when it didn’t matter how the US behaved. Things did not go as expected.

Instead of red carpet talk, Sherman heard Dua Lipa’s “I got new rules”. 

That’s right — the Chinese side outlined three bottom lines warning the US to respect its system, development and sovereignty and territorial integrity. In other words, China wants to be left alone.

The bottom lines were not phrased as red lines. This was not a military conflict warning. This was China’s message that if any future dialogue was to take place, China needs to be left alone. China accused the US of creating an “imaginary enemy”. I have written about it before — the US is looking for a new Cold War but it doesn’t know how to start and the problem is that the other side actually holds all the cards

That’s why the US relies on good old militarism with an expansion into the Indo-Pacific, while aligning everyone against China but expecting the red carpet and wanting all else in the financial and economic domains to stay the same. The problem is that the US can no longer sell this because there are no buyers. Europeans also don’t want to play along.

The headlines on the meeting in the US press are less flattering than usual. If the US is serious about China policy it has to be prepared to listen to much more of that in the future. And perhaps to, yes, sit down and be humble.

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Why Jen Psaki is a well-masked Sean Spicer

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When Sarah Huckabee Sanders showed up on the scene as White House Press Secretary, the reaction was that of relief. Finally — someone civil, normal, friendly. Jen Psaki’s entry this year was something similar. People were ready for someone well-spoken, well-mannered, even friendly as a much welcome change from the string of liars, brutes or simply disoriented people that the Trump Administration seemed to be lining up the press and communications team with on a rolling basis. After all, if the face of the White House couldn’t keep it together for at least five minutes in public, what did that say about the overall state of the White House behind the scenes?

But Psaki’s style is not what the American media and public perceive it to be. Her style is almost undetectable to the general American public to the point that it could look friendly and honest to the untrained eye or ear. Diplomatic or international organization circles are perhaps better suited to catch what’s behind the general mannerism. Jen Psaki is a well-masked Sean Spicer, but a Sean Spicer nevertheless. I actually think she will do much better than him in Dancing With The Stars. No, in fact, she will be fabulous at Dancing With The Stars once she gets replaced as White House Press Secretary.

So let’s take a closer look. I think what remains undetected by the general American media is veiled aggression and can easily pass as friendliness. Psaki recently asked a reporter who was inquiring about the Covid statistics at the White House why the reporter needed that information because Psaki simply didn’t have that. Behind the brisk tone was another undertone: the White House can’t be questioned, we are off limits. But it is not and that’s the point. 

Earlier, right at the beginning in January, Psaki initially gave a pass to a member of her team when the Politico stunner reporter story broke out. The reporter was questioning conflict of interest matters, while the White House “stud” was convinced it was because he just didn’t chose her, cursing her and threatening her. Psaki sent him on holidays. Nothing to see here folks, move along.

Psaki has a level of aggression that’s above average, yet she comes across as one of the most measured and reasonable White House Press Secretaries of the decade. And that’s under pressure. But being able to mask that level of deflection is actually not good for the media because the media wants answers. Style shouldn’t (excuse the pun) trump answers. And being able to get away smoothly with it doesn’t actually serve the public well. Like that time she just walked away like it’s not a big deal. It’s the style of “as long as I say thank you or excuse me politely anything goes”. But it doesn’t. And the American public will need answers to some questions very soon. Psaki won’t be able to deliver that and it would be a shame to give her a pass just because of style.

I think it’s time that we start seeing Psaki as a veiled Sean Spicer. And that Dancing with the Stars show — I hope that will still run despite Covid.

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As Refugees Flee Central America, the Mexican Public Sours On Accepting Them

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Authors: Isabel Eliassen, Alianna Casas, Timothy S. Rich*

In recent years, individuals from Central America’s Northern Triangle (El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras) have been forced out of their home countries by extreme poverty and gang violence. While initial expectations were that the Lopez Obrador administration would be more welcoming to migrants, policies have slowly mirrored those of his predecessor, and do not seem to have deterred refugees. COVID-19 led to a decrease in refugees arriving in Mexico, and many shelters in Mexico closed or have limited capacity due to social distancing restrictions. Now that the COVID-19 situation has changed, arrivals could increase again to the levels seen in late 2018 or 2019, with overcrowded refugee centers lacking in medical care as potential grounds for serious COVID-19 outbreaks.

Mexico increasingly shares a similar view as the US on this migration issue, seeking ways to detain or deport migrants rather than supporting or protecting them. For instance, Mexico’s National Immigration Institute has been conducting raids on freight trains to find and detain migrants. Public opinion likely shapes these policies. In the US, support for allowing migrants into the country appeared to increase slightly from 2018 to 2019, but no significant majority emerges. Meanwhile, Mexican public opinion increasingly exhibits anti-immigrant sentiments, declining considerably since 2018, with a 2019 Washington Post poll showing that 55% supported deporting Central Americans rather than providing temporary residence and a 2019 El Financiero poll finding 63% supportive of closing to border to curb migration.

New Data Shows the Mexican Public Unwelcoming

To gauge Mexican public opinion on refugees, we conducted an original web survey June 24-26 via Qualtrics, using quota sampling. We asked 625 respondents to evaluate the statement “Mexico should accept refugees fleeing from Central America” on a five-point Likert scale from strongly disagree to strongly agree. For visual clarity, we combined disagree and agree categories in the figure below.

Overall, a plurality (43.84%) opposed accepting refugees, with less than a third (30.08%) supportive. Broken down by party affiliation, we see similar results, with the largest opposition from the main conservative party PAN (52.90%) and lowest in the ruling party MORENA (41.58%). Broken down by gender, we find women slightly more supportive compared to men (32.60% vs. 27.04%), consistent with findings elsewhere and perhaps acknowledgment that women and children historically comprise a disproportionate amount of refugees. Regression analysis again finds PAN supporters to be less supportive than other respondents, although this distinction declines once controlling for gender, age, education and income, of which only age corresponded with a statistically significant decline in support. It is common for older individuals to oppose immigration due to generational changes in attitude, so this finding is not unexpected.

We also asked the question “On a 1-10 scale, with 1 being very negative and 10 very positive, how do you feel about the following countries?” Among countries listed were the sources of the Central American refugees, the three Northern Triangle countries. All three received similar average scores (Guatemala: 4.33, Honduras: 4.05, El Salvador: 4.01), higher than Venezuela (3.25), but lower than the two other countries rated (US: 7.71, China: 7.26) Yet, even after controlling for general views of the Central American countries, we find the public generally unsupportive of accepting refugees.

How Should Mexico Address the Refugee Crisis?

Towards the end of the Obama administration, aid and other efforts directed at resolving the push factors for migration in Central America, including decreasing violence and limiting corruption, appeared to have some success at reducing migration north. President Trump’s policies largely did not improve the situation, and President Biden has begun to reverse those policies and re-implement measures successful under Obama.

As discussed in a meeting between the Lopez Obrador administration and US Vice President Kamala Harris, Mexico could adopt similar aid policies, and decreasing the flow of migrants may make the Mexican public respond more positively to accepting migrants. Lopez Obrador committed to increased economic cooperation with Central America days into his term, with pledges of aid as well, but these efforts remain underdeveloped. Threats to cut aid expedite deportations only risks worsening the refugee crisis, while doing little to improve public opinion.

Increasingly, the number of family units from Guatemala and Honduras seeking asylum in Mexico, or the United States, represents a mass exodus from Central America’s Northern Triangle to flee insecurity. Combating issues such as extreme poverty and violence in Central American countries producing the mass exodus of refugees could alleviate the impact of the refugee crisis on Mexico. By alleviating the impact of the refugee crisis, refugees seeking asylum will be able to navigate immigration processes easier thus decreasing tension surrounding the influx of refugees.

Likewise, identifying the public’s security and economic concerns surrounding refugees and crafting a response should reduce opposition. A spokesperson for Vice President Harris stated that border enforcement was on the agenda during meetings with the Lopez Obrador administration, but the Mexican foreign minister reportedly stated that border security was not to be addressed at the meeting. Other than deporting migrants at a higher rate than the US, Mexico also signed an agreement with the US in June pledging money to improve opportunities for work in the Northern Triangle. Nonetheless, questions about whether this agreement will bring meaningful change remain pertinent in the light of a worsening crisis.

Our survey research shows little public interest in accepting refugees. Public sentiment is unlikely to change unless the Lopez Obrador administration finds ways to both build sympathy for the plights of refugees and address public concerns about a refugee crisis with no perceived end in sight. For example, research in the US finds public support for refugees is often higher when the emphasis is on women and children, and the Lopez Obrador administration could attempt to frame the crisis as helping specifically these groups who historically comprise most refugees. Likewise, coordinating efforts with the US and other countries may help portray to the public that the burden of refugee resettlement is being equitably shared rather than disproportionately placed on Mexico.

Facing a complex situation affecting multiple governments requires coordinated efforts and considerable resources to reach a long-term solution. Until then, the Central American refugee crisis will continue and public backlash in Mexico likely increase.

Isabel Eliassen is a 2021 Honors graduate of Western Kentucky University. She triple majored in International Affairs, Chinese, and Linguistics.

Alianna Casas is an Honors Undergraduate Researcher at Western Kentucky University, majoring in Business Economics, Political Science, and a participant in the Joint Undergraduate/Master’s Program in Applied Economics.

Timothy S. Rich is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Western Kentucky University and Director of the International Public Opinion Lab (IPOL). His research focuses on public opinion and electoral politics.

Funding for this survey was provided by the Mahurin Honors College at Western Kentucky University.

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