JULY 2018

Takeaways from the Aspen Ideas Festival: Political Spotlight, Part II

Category: Managing Directors, Portfolio Management

By Doug Cohen, Managing Director, Portfolio Management

Please see Part I of my political spotlight from the Aspen Ideas Festival.

The following are my key observations from the speakers of the remaining sessions that I attended on the themes of American Democracy and Globalization.

Is the First Amendment Obsolete?

Tim Wu — Law Professor Columbia Law School

1) The First Amendment was originally articulated in an era when speech was scarce and expensive. Today, speech is abundant and cheap because of the internet. It’s getting attention that can be challenging, which can give rise to the expression of strong, polarizing viewpoints. China and Russia have been at the vanguard of controlling speech during the internet era via “flooding”—an overabundance of false information (often from people paid to post it) that is designed to drown out the truth—or via “troll armies”— designed to target individuals and specific issues such as Russia’s actions during the 2016 election.

2) The US has only embraced true free speech over the last 50 years or so. During World War I, prominent politicians were imprisoned for advocating against joining the war effort. However, the post-McCarthy era increase in free speech has been challenged by the internet. Some journalists now may feel they are putting themselves at personal risk by expressing provocative views.

3) In terms of what needs to change going forward, just as the government was required by the courts to respect the rights of unpopular speakers in the pre-internet era, the government must make it clear that it will protect journalists by prosecuting those who threaten them. Also, the main tech platforms (e.g., Google, Facebook, Twitter) that have essentially stumbled into journalism by accident need to formulate clear journalistic ethics that respect freedom of speech but also weed out “fake news” (defined as deliberate lies).

--A key question that was not addressed: How do colleges (for example) balance the perceived need for “safe spaces” versus the right to free speech when banning (often right-leaning) speakers?

Settlers in the Most Contentious Place on Earth

Wajahat Ali — New York Times op-ed contributor; lawyer; playwright; and former TV host for Al Jazeera America

1) On the morning that the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Trump administration’s so-called travel ban, Mr. Ali said this was “clearly a Muslim Ban,” while acknowledging that North Korea and Venezuela were included. His view is that the ruling is essentially a gift to ISIS in terms of demonstrating that America is against devout Muslims and that it takes the US back to 1953 before Brown vs. The Board of Education. He noted the irony that the three Jewish judges were all in the dissent.

2) Based on his extensive interaction with both Palestinians and Israeli Settlers, Ali believes that the two sides have a consistent ability to see the worst in each other. Whatever similarities the two sides may have (hummus, kosher/halal food, circumcision) are dwarfed by mutual distrust. Ali was harshly criticized by Palestinians for violating the BDS movement and even engaging with Israelis—“normalizing a brutal occupation.”  Palestinians in turn appear to be in denial about the reality that Israel is not going to disappear and that many of the settlements are designed to survive any kind of peace agreement.

3) Ali sees three possible outcomes: (i) a two state solution, (ii) a one state solution (which would threaten Israel’s long-term viability as a Jewish state given prevailing demographic trends), or (iii) the status quo which will enact a large spiritual and moral cost on Israel. He says that Israel should not be overly confident that it will maintain strong support in America as Evangelicals may not remain as pro-Israel as they have been. He also highlights that most Arab countries, including most recently Saudi Arabia, have essentially sold out the Palestinians.  In essence, he seems to believe a two state solution is most likely, but not any time soon.

--A key question that was not addressed: “Given that the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza quickly led to a Hamas-led government sworn to Israel’s destruction, how can the Israeli’s be confident they will get a partner truly committed to peace if they withdraw from the West Bank?” (This question was asked by an Israeli attendee but was essentially dismissed as a “talking point” and not answered).

It All Comes Down to the Voters

Celinda Lake — President of Lake Research Partners; pollster and political strategist for progressives

Eric Liu — Founder and CEO of Citizen University

Mimi Marziani — President, Texas Civil Rights Project

Chrstine Matthews — President, Bellwether Research and Consulting

Arturo Vargas — Executive Director, National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials

1) The old adage is still true: it’s all about turnout. There is clear early evidence that the Democrats are more heavily engaged in this election cycle due to Trump opposition. There is a notable wildcard in that 18 year old voters are being engaged like never before, in part due to reaction to the tragic shootings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida this past winter. The surge in female candidates may also be indicative of an increase in female turnout, particularly among younger women who tend to lean left.

2) There was a view that overly restrictive voter registration challenges turnout (e.g., strict limitations on voter registration drives in states such as Texas and photo ID laws that may discriminate against young people and people of color).

3) The unfortunate reality is that in an increasingly divisive political environment, it’s the angry folks that tend to turnout. They are often voting against prevailing leaders and policies more than for a given candidate and his/her policies. However, Trump does have certain policies that appeal to his base that will encourage them to vote, but the early evidence from the recent primaries is that incumbents are likely to face heavy opposition from dissatisfied constituents.

--A key question that was not addressed: “Will the African-American and Latino voters that turned out in heavy numbers for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012—but not to the same extent for Hillary Clinton in 2016—be re-energized for the 2018 mid-terms?  

Who Gets Mad? Race, Gender, and the Politics of American Anger

Brittney Cooper — Associate Professor, Women’s and Gender Studies Department at Rutgers University; Author, Eloquent Rage: A Black Feminist Discovers Her Superpower

Michael Kimmel — SUNY Distinguished Professor at Stony Brook University; Author, Healing from Hate: How young Men Get Into and Out of Violent Extremism

1) This was a provocative session that lived up to its title in terms of highlighting anger about perceived racism and sexism in America. The full content is available on podcast by “In the Thick.”

2) There was heavy emphasis on white male anger, including the view that many white men unfairly believe that their jobs and lifestyles have been negatively impacted by women and minorities. It was noted that a higher percentage of American whites than blacks feel they have been discriminated against. This allegedly ignores the historic “white privilege” that has provided them with an unfair advantage over time.

3) The panelists clearly believe that President Trump’s election has exacerbated tensions throughout American society. In addition, there were comments that the media is less diverse than it was prior to September 11, 2001, that black anger is not respected, and that Bill Clinton played to white supremacists during his presidency.

--A key question that was not addressed: Can minorities be racist and can women be sexist?

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