The People Affected by Harvey

A few days ago, in my last post, I wrote that Hurricane Harvey would last a few days, but the recovery would last years. However agonizingly long Harvey appears to be taking to inflict its misery on the Texas Gulf Coast, and now parts of southern Louisiana, it will go away. And then the real marathon will begin. People will have to face the necessity of reconstruction, both as individuals and as whole communities.

In writing about this now, I am crediting readers with a longer attention span than seems to be assumed of most Americans on social media today. I truly hope, however, that the news media does not forget about Harvey or the Gulf Coast as the recovery process grinds on over coming months and years. Certainly, most residents of the Texas coast will have little choice but to bear with the process, and ideally, they will participate. Recovery needs to be as participatory as possible to succeed fully.

FEMA teams managing the distribution of water, and meals for hundreds of semi-trucks at an incident Support Base in Seguin, Texas. Photo by Dominick Del Vecchio – Aug 29, 2017 (from FEMA website) 

It will not always be a pretty picture. The news media in recent days have been full of photographic and video evidence of the best aspects of humanity—people in boats rescuing neighbors and strangers alike, public safety personnel risking personal safety as they save people from flooded homes and transport them to shelters, and other heroic acts away from cameras and too numerous to count. People from other states and nations will contribute to disaster-related charities to help people they have never known and may never meet. Politics and race and religion will all take a back seat to saving lives and reducing suffering. For just a brief moment in history, we can stop shouting at each other long enough to care for each other and be proud of one another.

Several years ago, Rebecca Solnit produced an intriguing book, A Paradise Built in Hell, that explored many of the positive community-building relationships that emerge when people are challenged by adverse circumstances such as major natural disasters. It is a journalistic journey through the informal alliances and communities created by people under what seemingly are the worst possible conditions, but which challenge our humanity and force us to consider how we value those around us. It is an optimistic book that forces readers to rethink what it means to live through a disaster. I have always hoped that it would spark similar efforts among academic researchers, particularly in the social sciences, to study this phenomenon more closely. I think that is happening to some extent, but perhaps not nearly enough.

The Texas Gulf Coast communities stricken by Harvey will need as much of that spirit as they can muster to produce successful long-term recovery. Recovery takes years because, while no one wants to delay rebuilding unnecessarily, hasty rebuilding that fails to consider the failure points that allowed destruction to occur is even more undesirable. Under considerable time pressures, which researchers Robert Olshansky and Laurie Johnson, both wonderful friends of mine, have notably referred to as the problem of “time compression” in disaster recovery, planners and local and state officials will need to meet with constituents, hear their concerns, explain both the obstacles and opportunities involved in reconstruction, and ideally, inform the public process to help lead to a better outcome. During this time, minor and modest repairs may go forward while the bigger decisions, like where to buy out damaged properties, how to rebuild infrastructure and to what new standards, and how to produce a stronger, more resilient community to handle future disasters may need to undergo vigorous debate.

I point this out because, inevitably, and despite Solnit’s rosy scenarios in the context of community building, tempers will rise and people will need to iron out significant differences and widely varying perceptions of the causes of, and solutions to, the damage that occurred. There will surely be some debate about Houston’s sprawling development patterns and relative lack of development controls. There may be debates about strengthening building or zoning codes or, in Houston, the absence of zoning. If there is any echo of Hurricane Sandy, there may be discussion of a greater role for green infrastructure in mitigating hazards, though that alone would have made only modest difference in the flooding from Harvey, but it might have helped.

More importantly, people will have undergone trauma that will make them deeply and justifiably emotional about the disruption of their lives. They will bring that trauma, and a need to vent and share their fears and anger, to public meetings. Public officials will need to exhibit patience because, as Christine Butterfield, another good friend who served as community development director in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, during and after the 2008 floods, has noted, those public gatherings will be therapeutic. People may cry, they may yell, they may accuse. Most of all, they need to know that someone else wants to hear and share their pain. They want to know that someone cares. Once most have achieved that comfort level, they may be ready to move forward and discuss options for recovery. But first, community leaders must build trust.

Some people may never trust, and the rest of the community may need to move on. Life is not perfect. Human beings are not perfect. Recovery cannot wait forever, but it must demonstrate compassion and a commitment to social equity.

In a few weeks, the entire process will begin, and people will decide what role they want to play. Leaders will arise in unexpected places. Just last week, my students at the University of Iowa School or Urban and Regional Planning, during a field trip with which I launch my course on “Planning for Disaster Mitigation and Recovery” every year, heard from United Methodist pastor Clint Twedt-Ball, a co-founder and executive director of Matthew 25, a community organization that arose from almost nothing after the 2008 floods in Cedar Rapids to help rebuild 25 blocks of downtrodden neighborhoods in the city, raising money but also making tough decisions about what would work and what would not. Nine years later, his organization is still working to make a difference. Before 2008, Clint would confess, he knew next to nothing about floods or community development. My guess is that now he could nearly write a book. Who knew?

Watch Houston, and Rockport, and Corpus Christi, and all the other cities on the Texas Gulf Coast for both surprises and struggles, and mostly for deep human engagement in solving massive redevelopment problems the likes of which most of us will never have to confront. And be ready to cheer them on when good things happen. They are likely to need the encouragement from time to time.

Jim Schwab

A Brief American Declaration of Intelligence

Ignorance did not make America great. Ignorance will not make America great again. Let’s all vow to stop the glorification of #ignorance.


Like millions of other Americans, I have been deeply disturbed over the past week by the comments of President Donald Trump regarding the events last Saturday in Charlottesville, Virginia. I contemplated what I could possibly do or say in response to someone who seems to possess so little desire to educate himself on the basic issues of U.S. history or to consider the impact of his words on the people threatened by demonstrations of torch-bearing, bat-carrying, shield-wearing neo-Nazis chanting Nazi slogans and white supremacists and Ku Klux Klan members invoking the horrors of the Confederacy. I finally concluded there is no point in refuting someone who clearly cares so little for the truth. The truth, in his mind, seems to be whatever he wants to believe is the truth.

Instead, I posted the statement above earlier today on both Twitter and Facebook as an offering to those other millions of Americans who cherish equality and dignity and understand that compassion and truth are the foundations of a better future for our nation. If I can share anything with America, it is a gift for condensing the message in articulate language, and so that is what I tried to do here. It is what I can do for my country at a moment when it is pining for clarity of purpose. We need to honor intelligence and intelligent, thoughtful inquiry concerning the kind of nation we want to become. We must rise above hateful slogans.

One reason I titled this blog “Home of the Brave” was that I felt we should not accede to the appropriation of our national symbols and phrases by extreme right-wing forces at odds with democracy for all. We need to keep in mind the closing words of the Pledge of Allegiance: “one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

Those who want more, and those who want to dispute my perspective, can dig through the rest of this website, and the rest of this blog, and parse and dissect it to their hearts’ content. I have left a long trail by now. But for tonight, at this time, my three-word statement above is what I have to offer. Share it, retweet it, put it on your placard or bumper sticker. But please insist on intelligent dialogue.


Jim Schwab

What Is at Stake

Before I delve into the essence of this article, let me clarify one point for any potential Trump supporters reading this: No, I do not think Hillary Clinton is the perfect presidential candidate. But I also do not think she is “crooked Hillary,” whatever Donald Trump means by that, nor do I think she is so terrible as to be unacceptable. She has a number of admirable qualities balanced by some noticeable drawbacks, and she is and has been a very serious student of public policy. She is qualified and experienced. That is offset to some degree by some noticeable shortcomings, although the office of President of the United States has almost never been a denizen of saints. She is certainly not a threat to democracy or the democratic process, nor is President Barack Obama, despite right-wing attempts to demonize him. I can think of many presidents of both parties with whom I disagreed on specific policies without worrying about whether they jeopardized the future of the republic.

All that said, I do think Donald Trump has crossed numerous red lines that others before him have, out of principle and concern for the nation, chosen not to cross, which is why previous Republican nominees and presidents—the Bushes, John McCain, and Mitt Romney—have either rebuked his candidacy or repeatedly clashed with him. Two are of special concern.

First, the threat to jail his opponent, following up the litany at the Republican National Convention of “Lock her up!” regarding Hillary Clinton, shows a shocking disregard of the constitutional limits of the presidency. There is a reason no presidential candidate has made such a threat before, and it is not that no one was as crooked as Hillary. It is that it is not the job of the President to decide who is arrested, who is indicted, and who goes to prison. It is the job of the courts and law enforcement agencies, including the U.S. Department of Justice, to make that call. With regard to Clinton’s e-mails, James Comey, the director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and a Republican, has made the determination there was carelessness but not a crime, but it appears that Trump and his supporters will be satisfied only when they get the outcome they want. This weekend’s revelation that the FBI will examine the Clinton-related e-mails (which apparently were not to or from Clinton herself) found on a computer belonging to former U.S. Rep. Anthony Weiner and his estranged wife, Huma Abedin, a Clinton aide, has added no real substance to any accusations, Donald Trump’s hyperbolic implications notwithstanding. Trump himself is not entirely immune to prosecution on certain fronts, but it will not be Clinton who forces the issue. It will be the justice system at some level that will decide whether any charges have sufficient merit to justify such steps. Clinton knows far better than to wade into such a swamp even for political purposes.

What Trump’s rhetoric does, however, is dramatically reduce any apparent distance between the constitutional procedures at work in the United States and the more capricious workings of justice in authoritarian nations like Russia or Venezuela. That is a step into the abyss that should alarm any thinking, conscientious American. I say “apparent” because, while I absolutely believe the substantive differences between our political system and those in such nations is very real, Trump is erasing some of the appearance, and perceptions matter.

Second, the claims of a rigged election are despicable and based on nothing. Trump has offered no proof because there is none. Not only are there numerous studies, all cited repeatedly by the news media, showing only infinitesimal vote fraud at a level that would not even affect most municipal elections, let alone the presidency, but our electoral system itself is geared to prevent it. There is no national election system in the U.S. Elections are under the control of state-level Secretaries of State, for the most part, most of whom right now are Republicans. Why would Republican election officials be assisting a conspiracy to keep Donald Trump out of office? In any event, even they lack that power because the administration of elections is generally handled at the county level. The system is thoroughly decentralized. Both parties have long had poll watchers who monitor activity at polling places and can blow the whistle when something is awry. The number of people who would need to be party to a conspiracy in order to rig a national election successfully is so vast as to be laughable. My wife has been an election judge for Cook County. There are strict incentives for accuracy for poll workers on Election Day. The county clerk, David Orr, is a thoroughly honorable man who enjoys great respect.

It is important to recognize, however, that Trump’s allegations of a rigged election are not about the election. They are the desperate efforts of a man who has derided others as losers to deflect attention from the fact that his own inept campaign, hobbled by his own deep character flaws, has turned him into a seeming loser in a campaign he thought he could not lose. Unable to handle or accept responsibility for possible defeat, Trump is driven to find some cause outside himself to blame for it. The problem can never be Trump himself. If he is going down, he will try to take the system down with him. The problem is that he has too many followers willing to follow him into that abyss.

There are other characteristics of Trump that raise serious questions. His thin skin for criticism, which causes him to lash out, has made many people very uneasy with his candidacy. His behavior too closely resembles that of a schoolyard bully who has never matured or moved beyond a brand of egotistical narcissism that is deeply troubling. More experienced politicians with a better perspective on what matters, for instance, would easily have decided that Gold Star parents, through the loss of their child in this nation’s service, have earned the right to express their opinions and that it would be best to simply respect their feelings. Ohio Gov. John Kasich has said as much. But most other candidates would also have had more restraint—and respect for the U.S. Constitution—than to have made the comments about Muslim citizens that provoked the Khans’ objections to Trump in the first place. In the view of a bully, however, such criticism is intolerable and must be squashed.

I also must say that Trump violates one of my own fundamental values—my appreciation for factual accuracy and scholarship. I understand that almost no politician is likely to be entirely truthful 100 percent of the time, in part because no one lasts very long that way. But on the spectrum of perfect honesty versus indifference to the truth, Trump veers so far toward indifference that he has scared the wits out of many Americans who care about honesty. When I hear anyone, politician or otherwise, use hyperbolic rhetoric with words like “huge,” “everyone says,” “so many people tell me,” etc., I begin to cringe with a sense that the speaker is almost immune to the influence of serious information. As a writer and communicator, I understand the need to digest and focus and condense information for popular consumption, but this type of rhetoric is not about that. It is about disguising the speaker’s lack of commitment to learning and to understanding the importance of knowing what you do not know. When absorbing technical information outside my area of expertise, I may well ask an engineer or scientist to concentrate on the essentials without burying me in minutiae, but I still care about the accuracy of what I am learning. And I have learned, sometimes the hard way over the years, that the catch phrases I have cited above are typically those of a bullshit artist. This same reaction is undoubtedly what led CNN journalist Fareed Zakaria earlier this summer to publish his daring op-ed in the Washington Post, “The Unbearable Stench of Donald Trump’s B.S.

Is there any precedent for such a candidate? I think there is, but not where people have been looking. I have heard some comparisons to Mussolini or Hitler, and at one point wondered whether the former was an apt comparison. I think not. For one thing, despite his troubling rhetoric, Trump lacks the discipline both in his campaign and among his followers to imitate these fascist leaders. Fortunately, we see no brownshirts, no jackboots, not even a clear ideology. There is merely a campaign based on numerous grievances, some more legitimate than others, among a portion of the electorate that is hungry for a strong leader who they believe can “make America great again.” He is certainly firing up their fears and paranoia, and that may have some lasting consequences for both the nation and the Republican party. But it simply is not the same thing. Let’s dispense with that sort of hyperbole from the left.

Nor, despite Trump’s apparent admiration, is Russian President Vladimir Putin a valid comparison. Russians at the moment appear to prefer Putin’s strong, silent type of leadership over the brash, talkative role model that Trump embodies.

Instead, I would suggest that the real comparison lies south of the border, in the very nations that are supplying so many of the immigrants that Trump promises to wall out of the U.S. There has long been a style of Latin American politics known as “personalismo” in Spanish, for which there is not a direct translation in English, although “personalism” would be the apparent operative term. Personalismo is built around the messianic appeal of a charismatic leader who basically proclaims, as Trump famously did in the Republican convention this year, “I alone can fix it.” The appeal typically resonates with people who have grown deeply skeptical of the political system and its ability to solve deeply rooted problems. Examples could include Juan Peron in Argentina, and perhaps Eva Peron later as well, Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, Omar Torrijos in Panama, and Alberto Fujimori in Peru. One might even add the current example of President Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines. These leaders are quite distinct from leaders of the once frequent military juntas in Latin America, who were often distinctly uncharismatic and relied on guns, not votes, for their rise to power. Personalismo produces leaders who rise as a result of a rapid surge in popularity built upon rhetoric often eerily similar to “make America great again,” such as Chavez’s “Bolivarian revolution” or promises to wipe out crime and rebellion through strong-arm tactics. Personalist leaders often acquire military support, but it is not at the root of their popularity.

The problem is that such exercises in messianic leadership almost never end well. In fact, they almost always end badly and do little to strengthen democracy. If there are rigged elections, they almost invariably happen not in the rise to power, but as el lider’s popularity eventually declines and a need emerges to find ways to prolong his reign. This is largely the route being followed now by the remnants of Chavismo under the far less charismatic successor, current Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro. Losing power is tough to tolerate for a politician who rode to power on a wave of populist enthusiasm. However, as I noted earlier, the U.S. electoral system is loaded with safeguards against such an outcome precisely because it is federal and widely decentralized. Political systems in most Latin American nations have traditionally been more centralized at a national level.

Where does that leave us? The rise of a candidate like Trump, for one thing, does serve a purpose. It exposes the fact that a substantial portion of the U.S. electorate feels disenfranchised and disempowered at some significant level. While many are grasping at straws in embracing Trump as a problem solver, this does not mean the problems should be ignored. The loss of blue-collar jobs creates serious issues of social equity, and the rise of the Bernie Sanders candidacy in the Democratic party should have alerted Clinton to the fact that her presidency may face serious obstacles to success if she does not address them. Clinton could blunt the power of Trump’s following by finding ways to effectively handle the displacement of jobs in mining and manufacturing, but it will take a more deliberate effort than we have seen so far. Communities in places like Kentucky, West Virginia, and Ohio that have flocked to the Trump candidacy will be hard sells for such programs, yet no president—not even Trump if he is elected—is likely to reverse the long-term decline of coal, or the widespread systemic changes in the steel industry. Some communities will have to be helped to embrace a more promising future. But many of these workers have been offered little hope for a long time, and they are understandably frustrated. There are opportunities to address that frustration, however, and failure to do so will only breed more of the same cynicism that brought us to our current choices. What remains to be seen, if she is elected on November 8, is whether a President Hillary Clinton (or, for that matter, Donald Trump) has the capacity to be bold enough, and courageous enough, to confront this gap between reality and aspiration in a bid to erode such cynicism. And whether Republicans in Congress will help lead, get out of the way, or obstruct progress.


Jim Schwab

Voters Beware

Labor Day has passed in America, and that traditionally means presidential candidates launch their campaigns in earnest, though it is hard to say in reality when that transition occurred in 2016, if not immediately after the Republic and Democratic conventions. I cannot recall any respite, although it is clear that Donald Trump, the Republican nominee, has struggled to solidify the management of his race to the White House. He is, of the course, the newcomer, and Hillary Clinton has had time to practice this routine.

I have no great desire in this blog post to pontificate on the merits of the two candidates. It is clear enough that neither will enter the Oval Office unscarred and flawless, so it behooves voters to make some clear-headed determinations of just who they think is actually better, or even if they prefer to give the nod to a third-party candidate like Gary Johnson or Jill Stein. For the record, I will not kid anyone: I think Hillary Clinton has been far more serious and steady in her approach to the campaign, even if she is utterly human and far from perfect. But I can understand why many voters are uneasy or dissatisfied with their choices, though I also think that in a democracy, an imperfect choice is far better than none at all. Our republic has survived numerous mediocre presidencies, and some candidates who seemed less convincing at the outset in fact became some of our greatest, while others entered office with great expectations and produced great disappointment. I have read dozens of presidential biographies over the years. I know. There have been no saints in the White House, but there surely have been some heroes.

With that in mind, I want to bring to readers’ attention a solid piece of writing by a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter, David Cay Johnston. His book, The Making of Donald Trump, follows the candidate’s family and career across three generations, concentrating, of course, on Donald Trump as an adult, a businessman, and most recently a politician. If someone really wants to be fully aware of what he or she is getting in Trump as a presidential candidate, this is essential reading.

There are and will be numerous other books as a result of this unusual and unorthodox campaign. Many are and will be mediocre, no matter which candidate they profile, or whether they cover both or the campaign generally, because so often such books are either whole-hearted advocacies of one cause or another, or are hatchet jobs directed at opponents, or aim to fire up supporters with broad platitudes. I do not generally waste my time on them. Serious investigative journalism, however, is another matter because people of Johnston’s caliber respect facts, know how to ferret them out even when candidates prefer to bury them, and insist on the truth.

Johnston does all the above. We learn that Trump University has little to do with Trump personally but a great deal to do with ripping people off. Johnston details that the Trump Foundation made a donation to the campaign of Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi, which raises instant questions of illegality (foundations are not allowed to donate to campaigns) and propriety (Bondi was pondering whether Florida should join a suit against Trump University and declined). We learn that Trump has retained business associates with ties to organized crime. And these are but the beginning. There may be explanations for some of these situations, but I have not heard them. What I have seen on numerous interview shows on CNN, MSNBC, and other formats is a line of Trump surrogates regularly trying to deflect attention from these questions by pointing to some allegations against Clinton. That may seem like an effective tactic, but it is becoming transparently evasive, to the point where just yesterday I watched one of them, Boris Epshteyn, try to speak over another guest to drown out what he did not want to hear. Such behavior has taken political crudeness to new levels, even though we have all seen some of this before.

Johnston, in concluding his modest tome, says that he wrote about Trump mostly because he was introduced to him more than 25 years ago as a New Jersey reporter covering development in Atlantic City, where Trump was building a casino. Had he been in Arkansas instead, he notes, he might have written instead about Clinton. If I find a book of similar investigative quality that explores Hillary Clinton’s career, I will share it with readers because this campaign is important. But what is curious about Johnston’s conclusion is that he also reaches for a moral tone that sometimes escapes investigative reporters, who can become cynical over time, although the best invariably retain a strong commitment to unveiling the truth. But few would ring up this paragraph near the end of such a book:

Trump says he does not see any reason to seek divine forgiveness because he has done nothing wrong in his entire life, an oft-made observation so at odds with the most basic teachings of Jesus that I am at a loss to explain any religious leader embracing him. Trump’s own words are aggressively antithetical to the teachings of the New Testament. His understanding of the one Old Testament phrase he knows is warped at best. Now factor in his statements denigrating communion—“I drink my little wine, eat my little cracker”—and his fumbling pronunciation of Paul’s second letter to the believers in Corinth, and weigh them against his claim that he reads the Bible more than anyone else. These are signs of a deceiver.

He goes on to say that both Trump and Sen. Bernie Sanders “tapped into a frustration I have chronicled for decades,” and concludes that neither has the skill to address problems of inequality, and that while Clinton has both the skills and a history “on behalf of the less fortunate,” it may not be her top priority.

His afterword is dated July 4, 2016. The book has not been out for long.


Jim Schwab

Misusing the Populist Label?

Long ago, in a graduate urban planning course at the University of Iowa called “Collective Decision Making,” I had an interesting exchange of views with Professor Mickey Lauria, now at Clemson University. We are both much older than we were in 1982, so it might be interesting to reignite our brief debate over coffee or beer, but it was a friendly, if slightly testy, intellectual debate that has taken on some new meaning for me in the context of our current presidential race. Much of what I am seeing serves to reinforce my original beliefs, but it might just as easily serve to reinforce his as well. I just don’t know. What I do know is that, in objecting to the press describing Donald Trump’s rhetoric as populist, President Barack Obama seemed to land firmly on my side of the debate. I was pleased.

As I recall, and I am relying on an excellent but certainly not perfect memory, our classroom debate occurred in the midst of a discussion about some issue regarding the politics of public housing or low-income housing development in Minneapolis, where Prof. Lauria had acquired a Ph.D. in geography just five years earlier. Most of the details of the immediate issue are now obscure, but I recall that he made some reference to populism in a way that suggested it merely meant catering to popular sentiment, which, of course, can easily be turned against disadvantaged populations on issues like adequate housing. I objected by saying, “That just means anything goes.”

Mickey turned to me with a face that suggested some disbelief, even some cynicism, and replied forcefully, “Anything always has gone, Schwab.”

I insisted, in the face of his adamant response, that populism had some clear historical origins that rose above such a broad indictment, and that it was not as simple as catering to popular prejudice. I discovered that not everyone in the class was enamored of his take on the question, though I am sure I did not win all the endorsements that day, either. Mostly, I just deserved credit for offering and articulating another perspective.

It was a classic confrontation on the question of just how the word “populist” is used. Populism has certainly been denigrated by certain political scientists like Richard Hofstadter, author of The Paranoid Style in American Politics, and Anti-Intellectualism in American Life. And, heaven knows, American history has been full of such sentiments, which have gained and lost ground over time. Some of it is fed by nativist, anti-immigrant sentiments, but some also is fed by resentment of privileged elites, who sometimes can be blamed for stoking such resentment with their own brands of arrogance and condescension. Coming from a working-class family yet striving for higher education and intellectual achievements, believe me, I can see both sides of the debate. I can see both the grievances of many working-class people as well as the futility of the frequent search for easy answers that can dominate their thinking. And while the targets of resentment may vary among blacks, whites, Hispanics, and others, the temptation to latch on to easy answers is omnipresent in one form or another. It is often difficult for people to take time to think more deeply and to perceive that the world can be a very complex place.

But I have never seen that as an excuse for intellectuals to see populist politics as inherently naïve or to paint it with the broad brush of the ignorance of the unwashed. In the end, in my opinion, such attitudes about what constitutes populism concede far too much to the demagogues and manipulators among us because they then wear the populist label with honor when some of them clearly deserve opprobrium.

What Mickey Lauria almost surely did not appreciate, aside from my own undergraduate education in political science, was that I had specifically done my homework on the origins of populism as a political concept in American history. Part of this was due to my move to Iowa as executive director of the small but feisty Iowa Public Interest Research Group and connecting with the politics of agricultural protest during the emergence of the 1980s farm credit crisis. That subject eventually became the focus of my first book, Raising Less Corn and More Hell, for which I subsequently did a great deal more historical research over the next few years. But one book that had captured my attention was highly recommended by another urban planning faculty member at the time, Michael F. Sheehan, who later obtained a law degree to supplement his Ph.D. in economics, and then moved to Oregon as an environmental and public interest lawyer.

Democratic Promise: The Populist Movement in America, by Lawrence Goodwyn, had been a game changer for me in shaping my awareness of the role of protest politics in American history. It outlined the growth of the admittedly short-lived People’s Party in the 1880s and 1890s but led to the title of my first book, which came from a quote from Mary Elizabeth Lease, a Kansas populist politician of the time, who consistently told farmers that they needed to “raise less corn and more hell.” The populists essentially took over the state of Kansas in the early 1890s, a far cry from the Tea Party Republicanism that dominates there now. But their moment in the sun was relatively short. The party actually won electoral votes, largely in the West, in the 1892 presidential election, but the growing threat it posed also prompted Democratic leaders like William Jennings Bryan to engineer its absorption into the Democratic Party, where its voice became less distinctive. It articulated legitimated grievances against the industrial elite of its day, such as the railroad barons, but also worked in many instances across racial lines. It may be worth noting that similar grievances during the Great Depression prompted the emergence of the Farmer-Labor Party in Minnesota, which elected one governor, but which also was eventually absorbed into the Democratic Party after World War II in part at the urging of Hubert Humphrey.

The tragedy is that some of its leaders, like Lease, a suffragist who broke with the populists, became anti-Semitic, and suffered from self-importance, and Tom Watson of Georgia, who later descended into racist diatribes, succumbed to the enormous pressures to conform to the prejudices of the day, taking the easier route to public acceptance after the collapse of their third-party effort. But it must be said that others helped form the core of the emerging Socialist Party under the leadership of Eugene Debs. Others helped minimize elitist tendencies in the progressive movement by keeping its focus on issues of economic justice for the working class, exemplified later in the Wisconsin initiatives of Robert LaFollette.

There is no question that much of this poses problematic history and that its implications are subject to debate. But I also think that populism at least presented an articulate alternative for a large segment of public opinion that felt oppressed by powerful forces emerging in the post-Civil War American economy. I would also ask what movement for social justice has ever failed to experience its growing pains, including often severe backlash from the powerful interests representing the status quo. Think of the suffragettes, the civil rights movement, and gay rights. The big difference with populism was that it once threatened the status quo not just with demonstrations but with viable candidates for elected office. No wonder the powers of the day reacted so vehemently.

That leaves the question of what has become of the populist label. Is it now whatever we decide it means whenever someone like Donald Trump can rouse large audiences to an angry froth by scapegoating minorities, immigrants, and women who do not conform to his expectations? If so, we had best be careful about the mantle we are allowing such leaders to wear and what they will do with it, for it will then take on authoritarian and fascist dimensions. On the other hand, if we insist, as President Obama did, that there must be a strong element of actually positively representing and fighting for the interests of working people, we can deny Trump and his ilk a hero’s label they have not earned. Demonstrably, Sen. Bernie Sanders has made a clearer case for building an honest populist movement in this century, whatever the shortcomings of his campaign, which did far better than most people ever expected, most likely including Sanders himself, who seems in any case to prefer the label “democratic socialist.” Curiously, that self-description seems not to be hurting him politically, although most politicians would have run from that label in panic.

Many have argued that both Sanders and Trump mounted populist campaigns. I would argue that both tapped into a palpable anger at the nation’s current political leadership, but that, while one is opening old wounds, another is trying to heal them. One is focused largely on himself; the other is actually building a movement for social change.

As I did in 1982, I still argue that the way we use the populist label has serious political implications, and that using it loosely and thoughtlessly may have dangerous consequences for our national political dialogue. The news media, in particular, need to rethink this one. Unfortunately, many reporters have only a cursory knowledge of history.


Jim Schwab

Our National Farce

Sadly, a national farce is underway. I first commented on the evolving phenomenon last June on this blog, but it has metastasized and metamorphosed in the intervening months, trumping all other considerations as we choose a new leader of the world’s most powerful nation. I wish I could find a reason to write about anything else, but it just keeps staring me in the face this weekend because the farce found its way to Chicago.

I could not even escape it while eating dinner Friday evening with my wife at the end of a very busy week. Because she was coming downtown anyway, I suggested that we eat at Miller’s Pub, right next door to the Palmer House Hilton on Wabash Avenue, where, it so happened, protesters were greeting Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner during a Republican fundraising dinner. Given the stalemate between Rauner and the Democratic majority in the state legislature, there is undoubtedly plenty of reason for people to be upset. After all, the state still has no budget, and schools are getting no money. He insists on including some antiunion provisions in the budget, and the Democrats refuse. Checkmate. The losers are the students and teachers and the voters. But dramatic as that is, it is not my point.

Miller’s Pub is one of those busy, popular places with television screens on the walls, and while they are often filled with sports images or the usual news, Friday evening it was impossible to avoid noticing the train wreck associated with the other demonstration in town—the one at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) Pavilion. Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump had canceled a rally that attracted more than 25,000 people because among them were thousands of highly diverse protesters. The anti-Trump crowd consisted of young and old, black and white, Christians and Muslims, Hispanics—a veritable Chicago rainbow. In choosing the UIC Pavilion for a rally, Trump had situated himself amid Chicago’s diversity, much of which consists of populations he has insulted or offended in recent months during his rise to prominence. Many of the protesters stated they wanted to make clear that Chicago relishes its diversity and does not share his values. In my honest opinion, it is almost as if he wanted this result. The idea of actually engaging in dialogue with his critics, as most candidates do at some point, seems foreign to him, almost a sign of weakness. Only confrontation is acceptable for a man’s man. How sad.

What unfolded, however, exceeds even the bizarre standards of this year’s campaign, making it hard to stop tracking the news even on Saturday. Trump first explained that he had canceled the rally out of concern for public safety after consulting with the Chicago police. But interim Police Chief John Escalante said in a press conference that Trump had never talked to them before making that decision. Trump’s campaign claimed to have conferred with Cmdr. George Devereux, but the police said Devereux was responsible for security at Trump’s hotel, not the rally site. Is it that hard to just tell the truth?

We have a national campaign that begins to resemble a Jerry Springer television show in its ability to attract supercilious scuffles. Trump claims to want peaceful rallies, yet news reports can easily replay numerous scenes in which he has urged his followers to rough up protesters and even offered to pay their legal fees for doing so. Only a day before the Chicago contretemps, in Fayetteville, North Carolina, a Trump supporter had cold-cocked a protester who was being escorted from a rally by the police, leaving him with injuries around one eye. John McGraw, 78, now charged with assualt, said the protester “deserved it” and that next time they “might have to kill him.” Trump’s response? The day after Chicago, he was claiming that his supporters were “nice people” and that the protesters were “Bernie’s people,” referring to Vermont U.S. Senator Bernard Sanders, one of the two remaining Democratic contenders (along with former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton), whom Trump then derided as “our communist friend.”

If I were writing a wild fictional potboiler, the plot could not sound more contrived. I confess I am approaching a loss for words. I cannot recall a situation in my life where the leading candidate in either party has looked more like Benito Mussolini with his Blackshirts attacking those who disagreed with him. Trump has shown a complete incapacity to accept any responsibility for what Clinton rightly has labeled “political arson.”

What is sad is that a brand of political recklessness and disregard for truth that would have sunk almost any other candidacy in years past seems to buoy Trump in the eyes of his supporters. You can analyze this authoritarian phenomenon however you wish. There is little doubt in my mind that the divisive obstinacy of many Republican leaders in their reaction to President Barack Obama, in their willingness to remain silent in the face of nonsensical claims that he is a Muslim, that he was not born in the U.S., etc., has set the stage for this farce. They are now reaping the whirlwind.

Still, it was not inevitable, and it did not have to happen. There remains one man who, but for his own brand of narcissism and egomania, could take responsibility and change course. But as one commentator on CNN noted, Trump never backs down. And that is one very frightening characteristic for any potential occupant of the Oval Office. And they used to say it can’t happen here.

Maybe it can.


Jim Schwab

Will Rogers without the Humor

IMG_0202Back in the Great Depression, amid the New Deal, when the Republican Party was the very face of the Establishment, a good-natured, lasso-twirling Oklahoma humorist named Will Rogers quipped, “I belong to no organized political party. I am a Democrat.”

To some extent, amid a rebellion led by Sen. Bernie Sanders, a self-proclaimed democratic socialist from Vermont, that quip may still seem to hold true. But it is looking pretty tame alongside the free-for-all on the Republican side, where ideological dysfunction seems to reign supreme after years of fairly orthodox nominees leading its party into quadrennial battle. The Establishment is in some ways shaken to its roots.

The moment of silence Saturday evening following the death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia at the outset of an otherwise raucous Republican debate may have honored proper protocol, but it seemed almost anachronistic in some ways. The uprising within the party is firmly anchored within the conservative elements of the American working class. Polls have consistently shown that Sen. Ted Cruz and Donald Trump draw support from those with the lowest average levels of education within the party, and one can probably assume correspondingly low average income levels as well—if one excludes Trump himself, that is, who is clearly at the other end of the wealth spectrum but a far better self-promoter than any other candidate on the stump. There is irony in watching a multimillionaire real estate developer become the voice of right-wing working-class populism.

All the candidates honored the memory of Scalia, but it should be noted that he was no friend of the working class. His hide-bound originalist interpretation of the U.S. Constitution represented a particularly rigid brand of legal intellectualism that was increasingly out of touch with current American realities—and was intended to be. Originalism hews to the idea that the Constitution must be always interpreted in light of the intentions of the Founding Fathers, which may sound logical until one considers all the contingencies of American history that they could never have foreseen or even understood. I have seen this kind of originalism applied in the religious arena as well, trying to freeze in time the thinking of people like Martin Luther or others who themselves were revolutionizing the world’s thinking. It has always been hard for me to believe that the Founding Fathers, who themselves challenged the orthodoxy of the British monarchy, truly expected that their vision would be frozen in time for all who followed. Surely they understood the fluid nature of the revolutionary principles they enshrined in the new American system. I do not have to be a lawyer to see through the philosophical flaws in originalism, just as I do not have to be a theologian (but I am a Lutheran) to know that Martin Luther surely understood that he had set in motion with the Reformation certain forces that would lead to periodic reevaluation of the application of essential Christian principles over time. Modern American Lutheranism, fortunately, is for the most part more creative and dynamic in its spirituality than to follow an originalist path. Scalia, however, was a conservative Catholic whose originalism, curiously, did not strictly follow the separation of church and state advocated by Jefferson, Madison, and others. They surely never envisioned today’s Religious Right alliance between conservative Catholics and evangelicals. Those interested in a powerful dissection of the origins of this brand of politics, by the way, can read Thy Kingdom Come, a decade-old treasure by Randall Balmer, a politically liberal evangelical who is deeply critical of the submersion of evangelical religion within the right-wing Republican political agenda.

That point leads us back to the bifurcation to date of the rebellion within the Republican Party. Basically, despite some cross-over in both directions, the Cruz vote relies very heavily on evangelical support from the Religious Right, while Trump relies on a more secular brand of support from working-class Republicans who see jobs slipping away, have lost the unions that used to support their aspirations within the private sector, and who exercise a kind of knee-jerk patriotism with distinctively nativist roots. But, of course, evangelicals can be blue-collar workers, and vice versa, and some evangelicals surely also recoil at their constant media characterization as conservatives, as Balmer does. All that said, indications are that the two candidates, each posing as anti-Establishment, together have been commanding about half of the Republican caucus and primary vote, which means that traditional pro-business Republicans face an uphill battle to maintain control of their party.

What is interesting is that they also face a rather incoherent threat, if judged by the rants and promises of Trump, who seems to enjoy playing a disruptive, destabilizing role in the Republican debates that nonetheless serves very well to keep the focus on Donald Trump. Despite the deference to the Scalia legacy, the debates seem far from the traditions that planted him on the U.S. Supreme Court in the first place. A Reagan nominee, Scalia won enough respect for his professionalism to win unanimous confirmation from the U.S. Senate. Not one Republican candidate in the Greenville, South Carolina, debate noted the obvious fact that every Democrat at the time respected Reagan’s prerogative, although later they did feel Reagan had pushed things just far enough with the nomination of Robert Bork, who was persuaded to withdraw his nomination in the face of intense opposition. This year’s candidates all insisted that President Barack Obama had no right to nominate a successor to Scalia and that they had every right to block confirmation, even before knowing whose name he would submit. The intent, of course, is clear—to withhold that right until a Republican wins the White House in the fall.

But one wonders: Have they considered what they will do if, perhaps as a result of their current intraparty fratricide, they lose that election, especially if the general electorate recoils at granting them such a privilege? Will they pledge to block any Clinton or Sanders nominee for an entire term in office?

It is an intriguing quirk of the American political system, perhaps part of the original intent of the Founding Fathers, that judges of one persuasion often die during the terms of presidents with quite different philosophies, who then get to replace them for life. It cuts both ways, as any intelligent person has seen over time. The failure to contemplate where the logic of obstruction leads may be the truest indication of a disorganized political party.


Jim Schwab

It’s Okay to Fail (Sometimes)

Ascension Parish Strike SceneJust in case anyone out there is unduly impressed with my intelligence, I have a revelation: I flunked calculus in my first quarter of my freshman year in college. I was attending Cleveland State University on Kiwanis scholarship money, no less. Not that I really understood what hit me or saw it coming, and that’s the point. I entered with high SAT scores, and the guidance counselor duly noted that I had high placement scores for both Spanish and Mathematics. She recommended a fifth-quarter placement for Spanish though my three years in high school ordinarily equated to fourth-quarter placement. We ended up choosing more conservatively, and I aced both the fourth and fifth quarters of Spanish to complete my language requirement. I probably should have skipped that fourth quarter and taken the advanced placement. On the other hand, we stuck with the advanced placement in calculus, and it backfired. Not so good.

A little background is helpful, as it almost always is in understanding how and why any student performs at the college level. I entered the fall quarter on crutches because of an industrial accident late in the summer. I was earning money working in a chemical plant in a nearby Cleveland suburb, but the dome of an antimony kiln tipped over and trapped my ankle, which was fractured. I collected worker compensation for the next six weeks until the doctor removed the cast, at which time I hobbled for a while until I rebuilt strength in my left leg. That was certainly a distraction, but not a dire impediment. More importantly, but exacerbated by the injury, I had a tendency developed earlier in life not to reach out for help when I needed it, in part because of a stubborn tendency to assume I could figure things out, which I very often had done. I was in deep water in that calculus class, and by the time I realized I could not swim, I was drowning—even though the ankle had healed just fine.

In a subsequent quarter, I asserted some hard-working grit by getting permission to take 20 credits (the limit was 18), five courses instead of four, in order to regain the lost ground from that failed class. And I pushed my through that grinding schedule with respectable grades.

Failing that class, which may have cost me a renewal of the scholarship (I never found out), may have been vital, however, for my growth as a student. I worked two more summers in that chemical plant, which would only qualify as easy work if you enjoy such activities as unloading 50-pound bags of sulfur on a dolly from a railcar in 95-degree heat while wearing a face mask. I should note that my father worked there, too. He ran the garage and was the lead mechanic, repairing and maintaining all the trucks and forklifts and such. When I started college, he too was temporarily disabled. He was in the hospital with a disk injury that required lower back surgery that kept him out of work for six months. Suffice it to say that all the undergraduate tuition for my education came from my own savings from those summer and other seasonal jobs. Thank God for union wages. But it did mean that my education was for me a valuable commodity, hard earned and well paid for. Although I attended college from 1968 to 1973, in the midst of the civil rights, Vietnam war, and environmental protest era, and I did participate in all those causes, I was decidedly not inclined to get silly about drugs, sex, and parties because it was my money that was paying for that education. It makes a difference.

There is a certain right-wing mythology in American politics that says such self-reliance induces a conservative outlook in life. What it does, which has little to do with modern American conservatism in my opinion, is instill a strong dose of resilience and common sense. That may or may not lead to a conservative political outlook. In my case, it led to a strong identification with those struggling to get ahead and a willingness to balance the social scales better than we typically do. My intellectual curiosity drove me to learn more about other cultures and lifestyles and perspectives.

I should also add that I had a powerful hankering to write, one that has asserted itself repeatedly throughout my life and career. It seemed at first that majoring in English made sense; the university did not offer a major in journalism. I enjoyed reading Hemingway and Fitzgerald and 17th-century English novelists for a while, and the honors English classes in which I was placed were stimulating. But I soon realized that another part of me was itching to be born. In high school, perhaps in part because of nerdy tendencies, such as they came in the 1960s, I was somewhat withdrawn. Our high school was a high performer, and I was on an academic quiz show team, but no matter. I never felt that I fit in very easily, but I was president of the Writers Club and active in one or two other groups—but nothing major.

At Cleveland State, however, I quickly found that my inner extrovert was eagerly waiting to burst its shell, and the higher intellectual climate was just what I needed to find my comfort zone. I started doing less well in those honors English classes as I became heavily involved in campus politics, at one point running credibly but unsuccessfully for president of the student government. I founded Cleveland State’s first student environmental group and led it for three years. It was time to blend my academic studies with my real life aspirations, and I shifted my major to political science, which undoubtedly aided my GPA. Suddenly my activities and my studies bore some relation to each other. I could excel again.

None of this led to instant change. It led to perpetual evolution. It took years for many of the seeds planted in those college years to grow and mature, and failure contributed to that growth and maturation every bit as much as any success along the way. Someday I may need a whole book to relate the entire story, and right now I lack the free time to write it thoughtfully and thoroughly. But in all the discussion of resilient communities of which I am a part, I am at least willing to offer that, beneath all the intellectual definitions of resilience, some of us also harbor perspectives on resilience that are built on a solid foundation of personal experience. And in real life, those perspectives matter every bit as much in collectively defining resilience as any words in a dictionary or scientific report.


Jim Schwab



On Taxes and Public Trust

A very curious op-ed article appeared Monday (July 6) in the Chicago Tribune. Tom Geoghegan, best known as a liberal lawyer who represents labor unions, made a plea for more taxes. Not just any taxes for any reason, but “Tax me, please, so Illinois can compete.” Let me set the stage for this commentary.

First, we have a mayor who has been adhering religiously to maintaining property taxes at a relatively low level, compared to many suburbs, while struggling to make the city’s books balance amid pressure to keep the city’s pension funds solvent. Pension funds for both city and Chicago Public Schools retirees promise reasonably generous benefits that include a three percent cost-of-living yearly increase, which certainly beats Social Security in most years because its increases vary with the Consumer Price Index. (For the record, my wife is a Chicago Public Schools retiree.) These agreements have been in place for many years, but for many years the city and the school system have not met their obligations to fund these pensions adequately. The city is also making its perennial argument in Springfield that Chicago residents pay twice for pensions because their own teacher pension fund relies on local property taxes while all other systems in the state rely on state income taxes, which, of course, Chicagoans also pay. Suburban and downstate legislators counter that Chicago gets more of other types of state support because of higher numbers of families in poverty, an argument that strikes me as lame because Chicago is hardly the only city in the state with poor people.

Welcome to the twisted logic of politics in Illinois. We also have a constitutional provision that cements flat-rate income taxes in place. We could only enact a progressive state income tax by first amending the state constitution to allow such a thing. Meanwhile, Illinois is undergoing a bruising battle between a conservative rookie Republican governor, Bruce Rauner, and a legislature with large Democratic majorities in both houses. It is now July, and they have not agreed on a budget, and a judge has ruled that, without statutory authority in the form of an enacted budget, the state cannot pay its workers more than the federal minimum wage until this gets sorted out.

It is not apparent to me, or many others, that either the state of Illinois or the city of Chicago lack considerable wealth or the ability to pay their bills if we sort out our priorities and match spending with revenue. Rauner refuses to budge on the revenue until the legislature adopts at least some of his pro-business, anti-union agenda—he basically wants to make Illinois a right-to-work state—and the legislature is busy enacting budgets that necessarily entail large deficits, so Rauner vetoed their most recent attempt. A standoff is throwing Illinois into turmoil.

To be brutally honest, I could never hope in this short blog post to do justice to all the intricacies of this situation. I am providing only a broad outline of the conflict as background to the Geoghegan commentary. Basically, his perspective is that school closings driven by budget cuts drive middle-class residents to the suburbs for better schools for their children, which they pay higher taxes to achieve. In short, lower taxes make the city less competitive in attracting talent, resulting in a less competitive business climate. He bolsters his argument by pointing out that other big cities facing many of the same macroeconomic challenges have survived the recession and are thriving in ways that Chicago is not. And in ways that Illinois also is not. People in those other states pay higher, progressive income taxes that support public services that make their states and cities more competitive. In short, he says “blue states that collect higher taxes thrive and red states with lower taxes do not.” I am sure one can find some exceptions to his general rule, but he has a point. Taxes alone do not make a state less competitive, especially if used wisely to create better public education and amenities and infrastructure. All these things matter. Then comes Geoghegan’s clincher:

“Illinois is a blue state that tries to govern like a red state. And that’s why the state and its crown jewel, Chicago, are about to go belly up.”

So far, so good. Geoghegan concludes with his plea to “tax me, please,” to achieve better public solvency and make the state and city more competitive. But his article fails to answer or address the question of why a blue state would try to “govern like a red state.” There is an understandable, though also cowardly, fear among legislators and aldermen about raising taxes because there is public resistance. Some public resistance to higher taxes is always to be expected, but in many places it can be overcome with a solid explanation of how that money will be used or invested. It is when it is repeatedly misused or poorly invested that public suspicion becomes a cancer that afflicts the trust people must feel before they are willing to open their wallets to the state and city.

That is where a new book by Thomas J. Gradel and former Chicago alderman Dick Simpson becomes important. Simpson, now teaching at the University of Illinois at Chicago, was an independent who was once a thorn in the side of Mayor Richard J. Daley, the Democratic party boss, subject of the famous Mike Royko book, Boss, whose son Richard M. later ascended to the same office. Richard M. Daley retired before the 2011 mayoral election, when Rahm Emanuel was elected mayor. Corrupt Illinois is a no-holds-barred attack on the pervasive culture of corruption not only in the city but the entire state of Illinois, now famous for having sent two recent governors to prison, Republican George Ryan and his immediate successor, Rod Blagojevich, who ironically had promised to clean up the mess Ryan left behind. Instead, he created his own mess, including the attempted sale of the U.S. Senate seat vacated by President Barack Obama.

There is not room here to review the hundreds of cases of corruption the two authors discuss, stretching from the city of Chicago to numerous suburbs, including the notorious case of Cicero, to downstate communities where clerks and mayors have stolen public funds, to the state capitol, where matters now speak for themselves. What Gradel and Simpson document is the high, very high, cost of public corruption in the erosion of public trust. Taxpayers like to know that, when they fork over more money that is supposed to build roads and bridges or support schools or social services, that money will not end up illicitly in the back pocket of some operator tolerated by politicians who look the other way, or worse, pocket some of it themselves or find other ways to violate the public trust.

Moreover, this is not a partisan issue, as some would like to contend. Both parties have participated in the skullduggery in their own ways. The book supports an observation I have long shared in talking about other states with similar issues, like Louisiana: Once a culture of corruption takes hold, it becomes a bipartisan enterprise. The same can usually be said of the virtuous cycle of comparative honesty in states where such practices meet with immediate public condemnation. I have long encountered people who have difficulty believing me when I tell them that, when I once ran for city council in Iowa City while a graduate student at the University of Iowa, by city ordinance the limit on contributions by any individual to a candidate for a specific election was $50. There are no missing zeroes. It was 1983, but even allowing for inflation, that limit comes nowhere near the inflated sums that float around in Illinois elections. Public tolerance makes a huge difference.

Rauner attempts in his ham-handed fashion, driven by the personal certitude of a hedge fund millionaire, to pose as the enemy of the political class in Illinois. What he does not understand is that his pose might sell far better if he did not also make himself the implacable foe of organized labor and the minimum wage, and if he did not have such a tin ear about the damage his policies are doing to badly needed services for the poor, disabled, and mentally ill. That undermines any public sympathy he might otherwise muster for a legitimate campaign to root out public corruption, which seems at best to be only a secondary target.

If you do nothing else to understand the hole that Illinois has dug for itself, read this book. At times, Corrupt Illinois may seem repetitive, even slightly monotonous, unless you develop a perverse fascination with just how corrupt a state can become. That is because the authors have so much raw material to work with that it is a wonder they fit it all into just 200 pages. They try mightily to be concise and to the point, but the point they make is unavoidable. Until Illinois voters insist on cleaning up this mess, and their political leaders finally grow a conscience and respond, there is no way out of our current impasse.


Jim Schwab

Don’t Say Those Words!

Now suppose I go to Florida but decide never to utter the word “mosquitos.” Will that make the little buggers go away?

Or suppose I refuse to say “cockroaches.” Does that mean they would never infest my apartment or condo?

Finally, let us imagine that, on my trip to Florida, I never say the word “sunburn”? Would that make it possible for me to sit on the beach all day, unprotected, without suffering the consequences?

If those propositions sound absurd, then consider the moronic dictum of Florida Gov. Rick Scott, who apparently has decreed that state employees are not to use the words “climate change.” Presto. Problem solved! Climate change ceases to exist, all the science to the contrary be damned (for instance, the most recent National Climate Assessment).

The state of Florida, however, has a long and impressive history of dealing effectively and forthrightly with issues related to hazards. Not perfect, by any means, but far more impressive than most neighboring states. Florida provided significant guidance to its communities on planning for hazard mitigation, and then subsequently for developing plans for post-disaster recovery. It is the only state that enacted a requirement for coastal jurisdictions to develop such plans before disasters, called Post-Disaster Redevelopment Plans (PDRP), although Gov. Scott rescinded the mandate. Even so, the state still has encouraged local jurisdictions to adopt such plans. And before Scott became governor, the Florida Department of Community Affairs (now the Department of Economic Opportunity) produced guidance on the preparation of PDRPs. In addition, Florida issued an addendum to the PDRP guidance to address the threat of sea-level rise resulting from climate change.

Simply put, Florida has been much more proactive than most other states because Florida faces much bigger problems with coastal storms and flooding because of its peninsular geography. What the state has done has not only made a difference, but in many cases provided a model for others. In our new report from the American Planning Association on post-disaster recovery planning, we have cited it extensively, as has the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) in other guidance. But now the forward movement seems to have been slammed into reverse gear.

This is a shame, in part because, in my experience, Florida has enjoyed the ability in recent decades to attract high-quality public servants in the fields of environmental quality, urban planning, and emergency management. I have known many of these people, and they were top-notch under both Democratic and Republican administrations. One of them, Craig Fugate, is now leading FEMA. There is a problem, however, with retaining such people: You have to provide a rewarding work environment in which you are honoring, not insulting, the intelligence they bring to their jobs. Once you cross that line with measures such as the censorship of terms like “climate change,” the most likely result over time is a brain drain. Smart people have other places to go and better options for their careers than to be told what to think and what they can say. On the other hand, if, as has been alleged about much of the far right, the real goal is to cripple effective government and make it appear more incompetent than it needs to be in order to support an agenda that advocates a reduced government role, you may wish to foment the frustration with government that may result. I suspect, however, that the majority of American taxpayers, like me, would rather get the best public servants their taxes can buy, and one way to do that is to respect their insights into the problems they are trying to help us all solve. Scott’s response instead is to dismiss the issue from the public agenda.

The problem with trying to do that, especially in a dynamic state like Florida, is that he cannot hope to control the public debate in this way. He does not, for instance, control what can be said by officials in local government, including environmental engineers, planners, emergency managers, coastal resource managers, and others who must face problems like sea-level rise whether or not state employees are allowed to use certain words. Nor will it stop university personnel, including a wide variety of scientists, from discussing the issue. In fact, some, like David Hastings, a marine science professor at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, are describing the tactic as “Orwellian,” according to World Environment News. Sara Gutterman, of GreenBuilder, referred to it as “North Korean style censorship.” Even Newsmax notes, “The Florida policy is reminiscent of a 2012 law passed by lawmakers in North Carolina that prohibits the state from basing coastal policies on scientific predictions regarding sea level rise.” The article goes on to note that the Florida Department of Environmental Protection is charged with trying to combat the impacts of a problem that it is no longer allowed to name.

Enough local officials have been concerned about climate change in some parts of Florida to form a four-county Southeast Florida Climate Change Compact in which they have agreed to pool resources and jointly tackle the issues posed to several of the state’s most vulnerable counties. Those concerns extend naturally to the impacts of hurricanes, whose destructive impact can be magnified over time by eroding shorelines and rising seas. Having heard county executives and others from Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties, in particular, discuss these issues, there is no way that I can foresee their backing down, in the face of the real land-use and coastal protection dilemmas they face, from confronting the reality of climate change. But they clearly must do it without state support, although for now at least they certainly can expect moral and tactical support from the federal government.

We can only hope that this wave of unreality in states like North Carolina and Florida is ultimately short-lived. The science is far too advanced for this silliness to continue, no matter how much political red meat it provides in certain circles. The only way to create resilient communities is to openly confront, debate, and discuss the truth, and that cannot be accomplished by banning words from public discussion, a tactic worthy of certain dictatorial regimes where democracy is less well developed than it should be in the world’s most powerful nation. Some policies, in fact, deserve to be treated with scorn precisely because they undercut the robust public discussion that supports both resilience and democratic government. This is one of them.

Jim Schwab