URI Honors Colloquium welcomes national political correspondent

John Nichols, of The Nation magazine, to discuss the effects of economic inequality on the 2016 U.S. Presidential election

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John Nichols

KINGSTON, R.I. – October 24, 2016 — John Nichols , a pioneering political blogger who writes for The Nation magazine as its national affairs correspondent, will speak Tuesday, November 1, at the URI Honors Colloquium, “Inequality and the American Dream.”

Nichols will discuss the role of inequality – both economic and at the donor level – in the 2016 U.S. Presidential election at the free public lecture at 7 p.m. in Edwards Hall, 64 Upper College Road.

Nichols, a frequent guest on radio and television programs as a commentator on politics and media issues, says the 2016 Presidential election is much more than a clash of personalities, or even of ideologies. The country’s radical economic transformation — due to globalization, de-industrialization, a digital revolution and an automation revolution — has left tens of millions of voters in a desperate and shaken circumstance. They are searching for explanations and leadership, and they are willing to look in unexpected and even unsettling directions.

At the same time, a political process defined by big money, narrowly-defined political parties and status-quo media, seeks to “manage” change in ways that always worked in the past — but that don’t work anymore. No matter what the final result, the 2016 election is the first election of the next era in our politics. Everything is changing. This, whether we like it or not, is the new normal.

The University spoke with Nichols about this election cycle:

Q: It seems as though a large segment of the American populace has been left behind by factors, such as globalization, de-industrialization, a digital revolution and an automation revolution. This group appears to be among Republican Presidential nominee Donald Trump’s most vociferous supporters as they look for someone to help turn around their situation. Given recent polling, if Trump should lose, where does it leave these disaffected citizens?

A: I think it goes beyond Trump. Many younger people who feel they are being left out of the next economy gravitated toward Bernie Sanders in the primary season; some of them will sit the fall election out, while many will vote for Hillary Clinton not as an embrace of her candidacy but because Trump’s approach frightens or disgusts them. It is my sense that the Sanders voters were (and are) every bit as frustrated as the Trump voters. Both groups have been looking for something more from our politics – even if they do not agree on how to get it. Trump backers love the notion of going back to what they believe was a better time for them and for the country (“Make America Great AGAIN”); Sanders voters have been savvy enough to recognize that going backward is not an option and they have looked to shape a fairer and more humane future.

No matter what the fall election result, these disaffected and disenchanted Americans are not going away. In fact, with the rapid growth of automation, their numbers will grow. It is unwise to label them “deplorable” or to dismiss them as millennials looking for “free stuff.” The next president needs to begin to address the next economy in ways that recognize (and address) the tensions and fears that the 2016 election has revealed.  That will be difficult not just because many of the challenges are overwhelming but because corporate special interests and major donors to both parties will continue to use their influence to try to game economic decision-making to their advantage.

Q: Citizens United v. FEC effectively took the shackles of corporate campaign donors, introducing big money into the Democratic process. What effect has this had on this election cycle?

A: The Citizens United ruling (along with related Supreme Court decisions) reshaped our politics so that money is seen as more important than ideas. This does not mean that big money defines every election in every way. For instance, Sanders was able to remain competitive with the support of millions of small donors. And Trump was able to hold his own in the primaries with free media and minimal spending – although that calculus does not seem to working for him in the fall race. But it should be noted that the candidate who has raised the most money is now leading in most presidential polls; and that money is a definitional factor in congressional races across the country.

The race to raise money, or to counter the influence of money, has made our politics more vapid and inconsequential. Major issues are not raised or addressed; candidates of both parties are encouraged to mute and distort their positions to appeal to the same pool of self-interested big donors. This has, in particular, warped discussion of economics so that those discussions have little meaning for most voters. At the same time, candidates are encouraged to utilize lowest-common-denominator messaging in order to get the biggest bang out of 30-second commercials and free media. Instead of expanding and improving the discourse, money in politics (and the reaction to that money) tends to narrow and diminish the discourse. And at this critical moment in our history, we cannot afford a narrow and diminished politics.

Q: What changes have we already seen during this election cycle and what changes do you foresee in the aftermath of this unique (to put it modestly) presidential election?

A: We have seen in this election the triumph of celebrity. Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump did not become celebrities because of this campaign; they started the campaign as celebrities and have essentially run as such. This is very different from the past. We have had celebrity contenders before (Dwight Eisenhower, Ronald Reagan and, arguably, John F. Kennedy). But in the past they bent to the serious demands of the political discourse. That is no longer the case. The current campaign is overwhelmingly personality based. That’s a bad turn in a democratic republic.

Even more troubling is the decay of a media system that once attempted to inform and inspire citizens to be their own governors but that now simply chases after ratings and clicks. The decline in advertising revenues for old media, and the failure of those revenues to shift to new media, has created a dumb-beast media system that relies on candidates to feed it a daily diet of vitriol. This is a crisis for a democratic republic.

Q: Widespread fear and distrust of Washington has led to a large segment of voters turning to a candidate who promises an authoritarian approach to government. How does one square support of an authoritarian candidate by voters who distrust the government?

A: Disappointment with government is widespread. Distrust of government is far less common. There are a few principled Libertarian Party advocates who really do distrust government. And some genuinely progressive Democratic and old-right Republican stalwarts raise the right concerns about assaults on civil liberties. But, for the most part, what is seen as distrust of the government is actually intense partisanship. In effect, partisans on each side so despise their foes that they cannot accept government controlled by those foes.

Polling tells us that Democrats and Republicans are relatively united in their sense that big government is needed to do big things. The problem is that partisans disagree on which big things are priorities — the military-industrial complex versus a social-welfare state; corporate subsidies versus food stamps.

As the United States becomes less secure economically, we will see more space opened for authoritarian candidates who promise that they have all the answers. The counter to this is not an alternative authoritarianism, but rather a sharp pivot toward a new politics that has two components: a.) honest recognition of emerging economic realities that most politicians do not choose to discuss (often because they are beholden to donors who created and now maintain a failed status quo) and b.) an openly and ardently expressed determination to change our politics and our governance in order to respond to these new economic realities. Sanders attempted to articulate this, but with mixed success because he did not go as far as he needed to when discussing the challenges posed by the digital revolution, automation and the gig economy.

Q: Is there a way to address the structural dilemmas of the 2016 election to prevent future elections from becoming such a maddening process? If so, how?

A: Yes. We need to radically reform how our campaigns are run and how they are covered. We need to consider fundamental changes to our existing system that will require amendments to our constitution (that’s the easy part) and much deeper thinking about what it means to be a democracy (that’s the hard part).

Our politics cannot continue to be shaped and defined by partisan and media elites. It must extend from the great mass of citizens. This is not a call for cheap populism. In fact, it is quite the opposite. Populism, even at its best, tends to operate from the top down (dynamic candidates “leading” their followers). What we need is informed engagement by all Americans in the raising of issues, in the shaping of campaigns and in the constant work of governing.

The United States must have a constitutionally-defined and protected right to vote. We also must amend the constitution to allow citizens and their elected representatives to control against a politics that is shaped by big money. But those are simply starting points. We must eliminate gerrymandering and look at new voting systems that can make all elections competitive. And we need to identify and support new models for sustaining independent and fearless journalism that challenges every candidate, and every citizen, to get serious about the issues. Ultimately, if we rise to the occasion, we will renew the discussion of how to shape a functional democracy that Franklin Delano Roosevelt initiated more than 70 years ago with his visionary Second Bill of Rights address.

Nichols’ blog posts have been circulated internationally, quoted in numerous books, and mentioned in debates on the floor of Congress. He is a contributing writer for The Progressive and In These Times, and he is the associate editor of the Capital Times, the daily newspaper in Madison, Wis. His articles have appeared in the New York Times, Chicago Tribune and dozens of other newspapers.

Author Gore Vidal says of Nichols: “Of all the giant slayers now afoot in the great American desert, John Nichols’s sword is the sharpest.”

Nichols is a frequent guest on radio and television programs as a commentator on politics and media issues. He was featured in Robert Greenwald’s documentary, “Outfoxed,” and in the documentaries “Unprecedented,” “Call It Democracy” and “Orwell Rolls in his Grave.”

The keynote speaker at the 2004 Congress of the International Federation of Journalists in Athens, Greece, Nichols has been a featured presenter at conventions, conferences and public forums on media issues sponsored by the Federal Communications Commission, the Congressional Progressive Caucus, Consumers International, the Future of Music Coalition, the AFL-CIO, the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition, the Newspaper Guild and dozens of other organizations.

Nichols is the author of The Genius of Impeachment, a critically acclaimed analysis of the Florida recount fight of 2000; Jews for Buchanan, and a best-selling biography of Vice President Dick Cheney, Dick: The Man Who is President.

With Robert W. McChesney, Nichols has co-authored the books It’s the Media, Stupid!, Our Media, Not Theirs, Tragedy and Farce: How the American Media Sell Wars, Spin Elections, and Destroy DemocracyThe Death and Life of American JournalismUprising: How Wisconsin Renewed the Politics of Protest, from Madison to Wall Street, and their latest, People Get Ready: The Fight Against a Jobless Economy and a Citizenless Democracy. McChesney and Nichols are the co-founders of Free Press, the nation’s media-reform network, which organized the 2003 and 2005 National Conferences on Media Reform.


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