Monday, 30 March 2020

Refuse the blue pill AND the red pill

The oligarchy is seizing full control; Trump is a sideshow horror

At times of crisis, our deeply flawed bipedal species casts its alarmed, doe-eyed glance to the alpha male who best performs the virile leader act, issues orders, and browbeats dissidents into silence. While some of my friends shake their heads in amazement at Trump’s rising approval ratings as he drives the ship of state over a waterfall, they fail to notice their own hero worship for the other team. Clan loyalty, another humanoid weakness, poisons the critical faculties.

Unable to rally around bumbling Joe, who appears to be hiding in a cave under the Delaware River, members of the educated and erstwhile prosperous Democrat base have developed a crush on New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, who appears nightly on TV positioned strategically positioned in front of a tower of medical supplies. This has the same psychological effect as the flower display that greets you upon walking into any upscale supermarket: you associate flowers with freshness and unconsciously assume the edibles around the next aisle have just now popped out of the ground. Similarly, Cuomo’s boxes of hospital gowns and respirators, his stand-ups in front of hastily thrown-together field hospital units, reassure those desperate for normalcy that Daddy is taking care of us.

ABC News called Cuomo’s speeches “a source of comfort, calm and inspiration,” perhaps hinting indirectly that the other guy’s nightly comments aren’t. ABC doesn’t know—or doesn’t bother to find out—that Cuomo simultaneously is attempting to slash Medicaid spending in the state rather than pass wildly popular levies on the 0.1%, including taxes on yachts and stock buybacks. Cuomo’s stubborn determination to further undermine healthcare for the poorest New Yorkers in the midst of an epidemic merits no real scrutiny from the same reporters who cast themselves as lonely victims of meanie Trump’s fake-news baiting comments.

Meanwhile, “serial corporate predators,” in Marshall Auerback’s term, are once again welcomed to feed at the public trough to an even more grotesque degree than they did 11 years ago when Obama stood between the bank goons and the pitchfork-wielding masses—in his own words. The Orwellian-termed CARES (Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act) does not direct the vast resources suddenly made available to the productive economy. Rather, it liberates the plutocrats from any responsibility for their mismanagement of the economy over the last decade and rewards their criminal fecklessness with a gigantic wave of free cash while tossing a meaningless crumb to the 99%. A more apt title for the legislation would be CROCODILES, the Coronavirus Raiding Opportunity for Corporate Oligarchs and Delinquents.

It is instructive to retrace the role of the Democrat “opposition” in this historically shameful episode. To do so is a required corrective for the “Vote blue no matter who” fantasists. I insist on this point because of my recent experience issuing a very mild and eminently deserved criticism of Cuomo on Facebook and watching the red-faced outrage among people who think that Trump is the disease facing our society rather than merely a superficial symptom and that any criticism of the blue team is an act of treasonous self-indulgence.

To take a tiny and almost laughably minor aspect of the $2 trillion corporate boondoggle, we were somberly assured by Pelosi’s troops that the Democrats had valiantly charged into battle against the GOP, Inc., and won “oversight” of the staggering slush fund hastily arranged to bail out the executives who have proved so incompetent at capitalism. This is familiar. The 2009 salvage operation created an office known as SIGTARP, the Special Inspector General for the Troubled Asset Relief Program, “an independent audit watchdog” set up to root out the usual trifecta of “fraud, waste, and abuse” in the portion of the federal aid package explicitly created to “preserve home ownership.”

Recall that the suffering induced by Wall Street included millions of victimized homeowners deeply underwater in their shiny new homes and unable to pay for them. Eight million people lost them while the bankers were being made hole and enjoying a new round of bonuses. Now, let’s hear from the guy who actually took on the IG job, Neil Barofsky, as he details what happened as the original $700 billion face value of congressional aid ballooned into a secretive $23.7 trillion of largesse, almost none of which reached homeowners. Here is Barofsky in his 2012 book Bailout: An Inside Account of How Washington Abandoned Main Street While Rescuing Wall Street describing a conversation with Herb Allison, Assistant Secretary of the Treasury (under Geithner), as the SIGTARP work started to uncover evidence of criminal misbehavior:

Allison: “Neil, you’re obviously very talented, with a bright future, but you’re hurting yourself. This job isn’t going to last forever. Have you thought at all about what you’ll be doing next? Out there in the
market, there are consequences for some of the things that you’re saying and the way that you’re saying them.”

[Barofsky] Having failed to achieve the desired response by holding up the spectre of homelessness for my wife, my soon-to-be-born daughter, and me, Allison shifted course.

“Well, is it an appointment you might be looking for? Something else in government? A judgeship?”

Barofsky hilariously and depressingly outlines in the book how the Obama White House and Geithner specifically did everything under the sun to undermine any attempt to hold the guilty responsible for stealing poor people’s equity. This happened under the Democrats. And we’re supposed to believe that some lame-ass oversight auditor is going to have better luck with the Trump people? Conveniently, Trump promptly told Nancy Pelosi to cram it, just in case anyone was harboring a lingering doubt about their plans to amass ever greater mountains of cash on the public dime.

The bill also suspends the Freedom of Information Act for the Federal Reserve so that no one can ever dig around in the emails to find out where all the loot went. And Bloomberg reports that the slush fund will be outsourced to BlackRock, a wealth fund that already manages half a trillion in assets. Steve Mnuchin, who should be in prison for his role in the housing collapse (but isn’t, thanks to Kamala Harris’s negligence) is the cabinet officer in charge. And on and on.

So no, Austerity Andrew is not the knight errant du jour riding in to save us from the insatiable maw of the Trumpian dragon. Read his treacly rhetoric at the daily photo op news conferences: it’s as vapid and meaningless as anything trotted out by Trump, only delivered with a smidgen more credibility since, in contrast to the chaos in Washington, someone actually seems to be running the state. He’s a convenient foil to distract you from the main action, the good cop who offers you a soda after the beating you’ve just sustained in the back room from the real enforcers. But after you’ve swallowed the blue pill and agreed to take the plea, they’ll all gather at the pub to celebrate how they played you.

You can always file an appeal.

Wednesday, 25 March 2020

“How you gonna pay for it?” A neo-liberal shibboleth gets naked

“shibboleth”–any custom or tradition, including a word or phrase, that distinguishes one group of people from another; password or means of group identification or affinity.

In the Hebrew Bible, the part starring God as warlord. the Gileadites tried to keep the Ephraimites out of their territory by making them pronounce an “sh” word, namely “shibboleth,” because the Ephraimites’ language didn’t have that sound.

Each suspect had to try saying the word, and getting the “WRONG!” buzzer at this form of ancient “Jeopardy” caused your head to be separated from your neck. The Holy Bible duly reports that “40 and 2 thousand” tongue-twisted Ephraimites bit the ample Palestinian dust while YHWH looked on benignly. Thus spake the Lord at Judges 12:5—6, and so did the ancients teach us to exclude dangerous foreigners from the holy circle.

Current examples abound, but one popular shibboleth we haven’t heard lately is, “How are you going to PAY for [insert measure to improve human well-being]?? A parade of debate monitors insisted that Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders answer this pressing question of financing healthcare for all when they dared to suggest that for-profit insurance companies should not occupy an entrance gate between our doctors and ourselves.

Yet, now that everyone is equally threatened, including rich people, by a disease, the idea that money must be found for medical procedures, supplies, infrastructure, or personnel is strangely absent. Perhaps that’s because the “money” was there all along, as proven by the sudden appearance of $2 trillion of it at the waving of a U.S. Treasury wand.

What the COVID-19 experience is demonstrating—not that the lesson will be learned by our thick-headed species—is that money is a social construct and, in a country with its own currency, is never limited any more than a bowling alley has a limited number of strikes or a baseball game a limited number of home runs. The U.S. Treasury “pays for” things it wants to buy via the issuance of a U.S. Treasury check that says, You now have X number of dollars in your bank account.

What could be (and now clearly is) lacking are the INPUTS that that money is desperately eager to buy: the masks, gowns, hospital beds, nurses, gurneys, interferon injections, medical researchers, respirators, fentanyl drips, and other wonderful things that could stave off mass illness and death. Despite guidelines against price gouging, hoarding, and queue-jumping by the rich, prices for those scarce items will inexorably rise because as a society we decided not to put a priority on stockpiling them.

It has nothing to do with where the money will come from.

Wednesday, 18 March 2020

Will we ever finally get over blaming Russia for what we are doing to ourselves?

The Justice Department dropped its case against the Russian troll farm accused of using social media to propagandize Americans, a key component of the massive campaign to convince us that Trump only got himself in office through the nefarious machinations of a foreign power.

Those convinced that this is true will continue to believe so, just as their Republican counterparts still think Saddam Hussein was responsible for 9/11. When something has been pounded into you for months and years via once-credible spokespeople like Rachel Maddow and echoed as Revealed Truth on all sides, it’s pretty hard to retain any skepticism.

Remember how hard it was to doubt Colin Powell’s solemn assurances that Iraq was sitting on a stockpile of terrible weapons? Or to dismiss Condi Rice’s ominous invocation of a “mushroom cloud” as the smoking gun we couldn’t afford to await?

DoJ argued in its Motion to Dismiss the case against the St Petersburg-based Internet Research Agency that the meanie Russians had used our courts to dig into U.S. measures to combat their activities. Gosh golly, they responded to the indictments by asking for the evidence! How dare they! And no Harvard-graduate U.S. Attorney could have anticipated they would do that.

Further pursuit of the charges, said the Feds, would have revealed super-secret Sources & Methods that our nation’s safety can’t possibly share in a court of law. Why they decided to use the indictment process, which entails exposing precisely those things, they don’t explain.

I will, though: the indictments were a PR exercise designed to reinforce the narrative that Trump benefited from Russian activities to win the presidency. They fulfilled their purpose, and millions of citizens are convinced that Putin—not Hillary’s lousy politics, terrible campaign, and fatal hubris—shoehorned Trump into the White House.

Few will have read the Mueller report revealing that his three-year investigation did not dump the anticipated juicy string of indictments onto an eager Beltway but instead barely emitted a faint, popcorn fart after successfully distracting us from 45’s real crimes. Trump’s repeated insistence that he did not collaborate with Putin to fix the election turned out to be one of the few actually true things he’s ever said.

Nonetheless, Very Serious People continue to refer to the “Russian hacking” of Hillary’s emails despite the utter lack of any evidence to this effect. Julian Assange sits in a British dungeon facing extradition to the American Star Chamber and disappearance into the deep well of the vengeful security state based on this falsehood while hundreds of journalists—whose core activity is threatened by his prosecution—sit idly by.

For the record, Assange and Wikileaks have insisted from the beginning that the emails came to them via a domestic source, were not hacked, and had nothing to do with Russia. But you’ll never hear a mainstream commentator seriously entertain the possibility that that might be true.

Instead, we’ll continue to get further conspiracy theories from organs like the New York Times, which just Monday published a story with this fanciful headline: “Can Russia Use the Coronavirus to Sow Discord Among Americans?”

We aren’t facing a mammoth public health disaster because of the rolling catastrophe of four decades of neoliberal politics, nor for the dismantling of public health planning, nor because of our dysfunctional and inhumane healthcare system, nor due to the starving and discrediting of government action and the public sphere, nor because of the wholesale shipping of our industrial base to China, nor the seizure of the economy by leeching financiers, nor the complete takeover of greed as the guiding principle of our collective life. Oh no, none of this is at fault: only bad, evil Russians determined to ruin us by stealth.

I have a suggestion: whenever in the future we hear from any source that Russian interference/meddling/hacking/trolling or what-have-you is afoot in the land, let's ask ourselves what entirely home-grown crime is being covered up.

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Friday, 13 March 2020

Flights to Safety

When Wall Street tanks or enters a manic-depressive phase like this week’s dizzying see-saw with wildly gyrating prices up and (mostly) down, the financial press promptly describes a “flight to safety” among the investment professionals who populate that arena. This means they massively purchase safe haven assets such as high-quality bonds, Treasury bills, and other low-yield but conservative instruments with low price volatility.

In less troubled times, these same money managers will shop around for riskier but potentially far more lucrative purchases like low-rated bonds including junk, foreign shares, bundled loans, derivatives of mind-numbing complexity and variety, and of course individual stocks that they can pick based on their mysterious formulae for crystal-ball gazing.

Once the storm passes, the cash mavens then gingerly re-enter the risk marketplace and start pulling their gazillions out of the virtual safe deposits and re-enter the vast casino of modern finance. This time, however, a nagging worry has popped up in some of the accounts: one of the “safe” havens, which should be showing a rise in value given the huge increase in demand, is also sagging along with all other asset categories. Thirty-year U.S. Treasury bonds, instead of appreciating with the influx of new cash, started to drop along with stocks.

This isn’t supposed to happen, because markets: there, increased demand must always and ever lead to higher prices in this, the best of all possible worlds. Why isn’t this week’s “flight” not generating the expected rise in such a supposedly “safe” asset?

One need not possess specialized knowledge of financial markets to see that this is an anomaly with possibly significant implications. We can await expert analysis that should emerge in due course, but for now let’s assume that we are back in a familiar terrain: that of “no one knows anything.” We’ve been through enough recently to know that we assume the existence of any expertise at the top at our peril—beyond, that is, the obvious expertise among our feckless leaders in arranging for their own short-term advantages.

The stock market is historically overvalued to an insane degree and has been for years since the masters of our universe decided not to alleviate the debt burden weighing down average folks but rather to pour giga-buckets of hot cash into the financial system to buoy up prices of all that magical money-paper as well as real estate. (Home prices in many U.S. cities are now above the values of the pre-crash housing boom.) Near-zero interest rates, “QE” (quantitative easing, or money flooding), share buybacks, tax breaks for the uber-wealthy—all these tactics deployed to the delight of the 1%, the 0.1%, and the 0.0000001% have created a steady boom in electronic wealth that hovers in the ionospheric peaks of our skewed income distribution chart. Virtually none of it seeps or oozes down (a Reaganite trickle would feel like Niagara Falls at this juncture) to the beleaguered wood-hewers and water-drawers long since abandoned by both the major parties.

Thus the flight to a dubious safe harbor falters as the Federal Reserve doubles down on the Obama-Trump strategy and pumps an additional $4 trillion into the financial system in hopes that the gaping hole in Wall Street’s dike can be plugged before the entire island of Manhattan is flooded. Will it work? No one knows.

Speaking of flights and safety, Boeing is hoovering up nearly $14 billion from an urgently arranged credit line with major banks just as its stock price nose-dived 18% in a single day (March 11). The metaphor is rude but fair given Boeing’s poor performance in keeping its airplanes from falling out of the sky with passengers secured buckled into their seats. The company needed the cash infusion because it has systematically impoverished itself through share buybacks to the tune of $46 billion in the last seven years. This lucre flowed to owners of Boeing shares as the stock price tripled but did not contribute to things like, um, building safe airplanes.

Actually producing a good product wasn’t necessary since the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) had been muscled into passivity through years of intimidation and ideological (gummint-is-the-problem) abuse from Washington. Boeing essentially was allowed to police itself, and its managers regularly browbeat and threatened the company’s own engineers to force them to sign off on dubious work.

Now that the damage is done, Boeing scrambles to reassure nervous passengers that it actually does know how to build an aircraft that remains aloft. The problem, however, is that the U.S. has so lost credibility as a regulatory agent that European, Chinese, and perhaps other aviation authorities won’t accept the FAA’s imprimatur and will conduct their own reviews—and who knows when? Boeing is so screwed that it may end up flying into the loving arms of the Federal Government for succor and the inevitable socialism-for-the-rich bailout now that it has earned an “F” in market economics.

It’s easy to sneer at corporate incompetence and investor panic, but they’re hardly alone in seeking flights to safety. Voters, too, are obsessively focused on their fear and loathing of Trump as a symbol of all that is wrong with the country’s current trajectory and manifest an agonizing desire to fly, fly away. I witnessed it directly and in person on the campaign trail in three states where voters insisted that fear was the appropriate guiding principle for their vote this spring and later this fall. Fear of Trump, of course, but also fear of other voters and their presumed fearfulness of the Sanders program, fear of socialism and fear of other people’s fear of socialism. Ironically, young Democrat voters, who have perhaps the most concrete motive for fear—fear for their own futures—are the least cowed.

The decisive swing by the Democratic party electorate to a Biden candidacy is surely another flight to supposed safety, a safety of nostalgia for happier, saner times. It is also a flight backwards, toward a different narrative with its own fantasies, albeit less crude than the Trumpian variety, personified by Biden, a hoary symbol and also a serial fabulist in his own right. And it is a flight toward continued passivity, the hope that someone up there in the distant realms of power will somehow manage to right the creaky ship of state without any major effort from the citizenry. Like the scramble for long T-bills, this flight to safety will provide only short-term relief.

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Friday, 6 March 2020

On the doorsteps of the Carolinians, part 3

I wrote the following just after the South Carolina primary but before the Super Tuesday reversal that anointed Joe Biden as the Democrats’ choice. I hesitated to publish this on-the-ground account because I had a sneaking feeling that I wasn’t putting my finger on anything substantive.

In the aftermath of the disappointing showing by Bernie and the truly astonishing mopping up operation by the figurehead Biden, many astute commentators have parsed what I consider the main conclusions: that the Sanders call for revolutionary change is not resonating with the Democrat base as needed for him to win; that voters place a huge priority on defeating Trump; that the Obama glow still illumines its alumni; and that the media-establishment narrative on the need for a consensus figure is persuasive.

Prediction is treacherous, and I was as surprised as anyone as the revival of the hollow Biden campaign. That said, Biden’s candidacy is just as hollow now as it was in Iowa when the Bernie offices were flooded with enthusiastic youthful volunteers and Biden’s looked like canasta night at the senior center (when they weren’t closed entirely). Biden won huge majorities in states he never visited and had no “ground game” or door-knocking and calling squads. He’s a construction of the political/media class, an entity still enjoying sufficient credibility to draw in the bulk of Trump-loathing voters.

I don’t think the upcoming primaries will change much, and though I encourage everyone to continue pitching in, I’ll be turning my primary attention back to my issue-based activities, public education about single-payer healthcare, judicial reform, housing, and whatever other topics that arise among the organizations I belong to. I’ll watch Biden pursue the White House and, should it occur, his presidency from the sidelines. Those who insisted Bernie should not be the candidate can now step up and pitch in to convince the electorate, including those 100 million who don’t bother to vote at all, that Joe is their man. I don’t envy them the task.

(Voters lined up (?) at the county courthouse, Bennettsille, South Carolina, Feb. 29, 5 p.m. Still two hours of voting time left.)

(MARION, SC) -- The late polls were right though too conservative about Biden’s blowout victory in South Carolina. No way around the fact that it was a defeat for Bernie’s strategy and a sharp disappointment to his volunteer platoons. (There will be more.) In retrospect, we saw plenty of evidence on the ground about where things were headed.

Local South Carolinians told us—and we quickly confirmed—that people here prefer not to disclose their political inclinations or their voting choices unlike the Iowans who are much greater enthusiasts of the candidate yard sign. Canvassing, therefore, is quite different as the key datum, i.e., how sympathetic an individual is to your guy on a scale of 1 to 5, is hard to extract in the few seconds people permit for the front porch exchange. As voting day approached, we were handed lists of supposed “1”s and “2”s, meaning people committed or leaning towards Bernie. They turned out to be wildly optimistic.

People smiled graciously and said they would certainly consider voting for our guy, saying “Yes sir, he sounds great, that’s certainly right,” etc. But after two decades in Latin America, I know how easily people can make you think they agree with you when they don’t. It’s not fibbing when too blunt disagreement is considered a bit rude.

Furthermore, I’m told that race is pretty important in this state, how about that? Turns out that a white guy knocking on the door of African-American households is not a guarantee of warm fuzzies though people are rarely impolite. Younger people, especially men, often took an interest in the campaign and Bernie’s positions, and the exit polls suggest that Sanders did okay with them. But the level of disconnection, disbelief, skepticism, and enforced ignorance about the entire electoral process was pretty stunning.

In addition, black South Carolinians have been massively criminalized if our anecdotal experience is at all typical. We would routinely encounter two or three formerly incarcerated citizens in the course of a morning, and nearly all of them assumed they could no longer vote at all. (They can in South Carolina if their parole is completed, and they re-register.)

After a week of roaming the back roads of the state, I return to a key component of Bernie’s campaign and his theory of social change: getting elected is just a step and perhaps not even the most important one. Before and after any polling takes place, permanent, relentless, and well-informed mobilization of large numbers of people around concrete demands is required for there to be any chance of achieving reforms, much less revolutionary changes.

South Carolina, as we were repeatedly advised, has little tradition of civic activism, and the historical reasons for that aren’t hard to guess. The state’s Democrat base, African-Americans, are gerrymandered into safe black-majority districts, as few as possible, and have far less influence on state or national politics than they should despite the presence of a black politician here and there. A good number of potential voters told us that they don’t think much of elections or their results and stay away from the whole process. I suspect many more of those who promised to go to the polls yesterday feel the same way.

(Statue of the Confederate soldier, downtown Bennettsville, SC, on primary voting day, 2020)

Friday, 28 February 2020

On the Doorsteps of the Carolinians, part 2

Polls have shown Joe Biden enjoying a major spike just hours before South Carolina’s Feb. 29 primary even before an endorsement by the influential leader of the state Democrats, James Clyburn, the third-ranking Democrat in the House of Representatives.

If the surveys prove to be accurate, South Carolina Democrats (60% of whom are African-American) will turn out to support a prime mover of the Draconian federal crime bill of 1994, friend of segregationist stalwarts like James Stennis, Strom Thurmond, and Jesse Helms, enabler of credit card usury and restrictions of debt relief through bankruptcy, and cheerleader for the Iraq and other foreign wars for which black service personnel are prime cannon fodder.

But no matter! Clyburn [pharmaceutical industry donations $1.09 million over 10 years] invoked the Obama years when Biden basked in the reflected glory, and that’s enough for many voters here who are surprisingly disconnected from the electoral process unlike, for example, the Iowans who generally revel in the attention paid to them every four years. In our rounds through a variety of neighborhoods here in the 7th Congressional District (Florence, Myrtle Beach), we have found that a good number of people have only a vague idea of what is taking place tomorrow. For example, it’s not unusual for respondents to promise to go to the polls and cast a vote for “the Democrat” as if the contest were the general election eight months away rather than a primary to decide who “the Democrat” should be.

We’re told that people here are culturally resistant to disclosing their voting preferences and for good reason given the long history of voter suppression and general hostility from organs of the state. (We’ve had the cops called on us for canvassing, as have at least two other teams in Myrtle Beach.) So some of the “undecideds” may in fact be people who don’t support Bernie and simply don’t want to be rude, in local terms, by saying they like someone else.

Nevertheless, Sanders has a substantial following in the state, especially among young and educated voters, unlike four years ago when Hillary dominated among African-Americans. There's some support for him when we hit more rural and poorer neighborhoods though the voters who have a clear idea of how his politics diverge from the rest of the field are in the minority.

That said, our conversations with dozens of potential voters suggest that a whole lot of people are simply going to make their final decision only when they walk into the voting booth. That weakens all informed predictions, including those of the pollsters. More importantly, it outlines where the social movement that Bernie hopes to stimulate and lead has its work cut out for it. Our local informants say that South Carolina doesn’t have a tradition of the kinds of social and advocacy organizations that could channel the many demands that these marginalized and ignored communities could make to improve their conditions. That's a task for the other 365 days of the year.

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Monday, 24 February 2020

On the Doorsteps of the Carolinians: Will Bernie Go 4 for 4? Part 1

(BENNETTSVILLE, SC) -- South Carolina was supposed to be Joe Biden’s firewall, his sure-win state. But the Feb. 29 primary here is now so clearly in play that the former VP is no longer even claiming that he has to win to remain a viable contender. That’s quite a descent from his early 27-point poll advantage over second-place Kamala Harris (remember her?) Biden’s early strength stemmed from the fact that the Democratic Party voter base in South Carolina is 60% African-American (whites here are overwhelmingly Republican and Trumpist), so Biden benefited from having been Obama’s #2. That may prove to be thin gruel rather than a breakfast of champions.

The view from our peripatetic, on-the-ground door-knocker navigating his clipboard and Minivan canvassing app is that the numbers being tossed around from the pollsters aren’t reliable given the significant level of detachment of large swaths of the potential voter pool from the whole primary process.
South Carolina is a far cry from Iowa and not just because of its mild temperatures. In our brief introductory outings, we have found a much less engaged populace, voters who have enjoyed far less outreach from any of the multiple campaigns slugging it out for a decent showing, and an enormous—almost shocking—level of undecideds.

We arrived last weekend on a Bernie Bus originating in the Philadelphia area and hit the back streets of Bennettsville and Cheraw, small municipalities in the northwestern part of the state. Marlboro County, according to our locally based driver, is considered by some to be the cradle of the Confederacy since its government was the first to ratify the Articles of Secession that led to the attack on Fort Sumter.

The housing structure in many areas follows a typical Southern pattern: larger, more prosperous houses on a main street surrounded by tiny and often ramshackle cottages just a couple hundred yards away. These are the southern black enclaves for whom Jim Crow remains very much part of historical memory. When I commented to a group of friendly men barbecuing on Saturday afternoon that our co-canvasser was South African where people had died for the right to vote, one replied, “You don’t have to go to Africa to be reminded of that.”

As we went door to door, we encountered polite but often wary residents: at one house our team heard someone inside say, “There’s white people coming!” and shut the door. From the looks of the neighborhoods, visits from clipboard-bearing Caucasians rarely precede beneficial announcements. Some residents flatly (even proudly) refused to contemplate participation in voting for anyone, and we would often meet men who couldn’t even if they so desired—due to a felony conviction.

That said, plenty of our interlocutors were highly focused on getting rid of a certain resident of Washington, D.C., though the idea that they could have a direct role in choosing who would lead the opposition to him seemed to take many by surprise. One marvels at the level of civic instruction in local schools if indeed any takes place.

As a result, name recognition was a huge factor in voting intentions, at least among those few who had any. Tom Steyer has soaked the airwaves and mailboxes here and probably will reap a significant percentage. Biden is someone everyone knows, so people queried by pollsters could easily say yes to him merely by not knowing anything about the others. But that doesn’t translate into any solid commitment to him or even to the showing up at the voting booth.

One exception we noted was the frequent support for Bernie among young, especially male voters, a reflection of Bernie’s overall strength in this demographic. Others heard us out and expressed agreement though it’s hard to know how much to make of their cordial receptiveness.

Two incidents illustrated something about what life is like here. As we were getting ready to send off the weekend crew back to Philly, a small group of us stood in a parking lot with Dwayne, the main Bernie organizer based in Myrtle Beach. Dwayne is a hefty black dude with a beard and dreads, and Sophie, one of the travelers heading off to the train station, is a willowy, blond 20-something. The mere combination was enough to trigger a call to local police by a passer-by convinced he was witnessing sex trafficking before his eyes. An amused cop arrived on the scene, shook all our hands, and trundled off shaking his head over the foolishness. We, on the other hand, were not laughing.

Meanwhile, an exchange heard at the local Warlmart suggests how people in this deep red territory may prefer to resolve their existential needs rather than await action from an indifferent if not openly hostile state. An African-American store worker greeted a young family who were obviously acquaintances or perhaps co-parishioners, asked after their welfare and that of relatives, and made a general offer of assistance, “anything you need, just ask.”

The speaker insisted that this was not friendly rhetoric, and the shoppers nodded. When you can’t count on anything from the guys downtown, mutual assistance surely is a much safer bet. Under such conditions, why should voting for a change of portrait in the mayor’s—or the president’s—office be a priority?

P.S. Joe Biden's support in Iowa was invisible when I spent a week there in January. South Carolina is a repeat. The only Biden signs we saw anywhere were placed, like this one, in front of houses where no one lives or along a remote rural crossroads. The crumbling old mansion sporting a Biden sign is an apt symbol of his visible presence.

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