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Unlimited Learning offers virtual program on healthier political discussions

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Lakes Area Unlimited Learning offers an online Zoom program at 1:30 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 11, on “Zooming Toward Healthier Political Discussions.”

King Banaian, dean of the School of Public Affairs at St. Cloud State University, will focus on the different languages that progressives, conservatives and libertarians speak that distort debate and divide. He will teach techniques that will help viewers speak all three languages with an outcome of a more rational, less heated political discussion and a better understanding of political differences.

Banaian is a professor at SCSU, specializing in the economy of central Minnesota and the state. He was a District 15B legislator from 2011-2013, and has a frequent podcast on KYCR where he “makes economic science a bit less dismal.” He will refer frequently to Arnold King’s book, “The Three Languages of Politics,” as a helpful resource.

Lakes Area Unlimited Learning welcomes people to sign in for the Zoom program by sending your email to andrewthook@hotmail.com before the Aug. 11 program.

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How Republicans Undermined Ex-Felon Voting Rights in Florida

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MIAMI — Jeff Gruver voted for the first time ever in March, casting an enthusiastic ballot for Bernie Sanders in Florida’s presidential primary.

He was planning to vote for Joseph R. Biden Jr. in November until he found out on Friday he would not be voting at all. A federal appeals court ruled that Floridians with felony criminal records like himself would be ineligible to vote unless they paid back all their outstanding court fines and fees — in his case, at least $801.

He does not have the money. And he does not want to take any risk that his vote could be deemed illegal. Like more than a million other former felons, he has found that even an overwhelming 2018 vote in favor of a state referendum to restore voting rights to most people who had served their sentences does not necessarily mean that they will ever get to vote.

Instead, how a landmark vote to restore former felons’ rights in Florida ended up gutted last week is a cautionary tale about the messy process of citizen-led ballot initiatives and how a dominant political party can exert its power long after voters have spoken on Election Day.

“The political climate in Florida — it just kind of feels rigged by one group in power over the other,” said Mr. Gruver, 34, who runs a homeless shelter in Gainesville and more than a decade ago did a total of about 10 months in jail for cocaine possession and violating the terms of his probation.

The roller coaster for people like Mr. Gruver has played out like this: Nearly 65 percent of Florida voters approved amending the State Constitution to restore the franchise of former felons, excluding those convicted of murder or sexual offenses, but the state’s Republican lawmakers and governor severely restricted the effort. A 2019 law requiring the payment of court fines and fees was found unconstitutional in May, but the appeals court overturned that ruling less than two months before the presidential election. Five of the six votes to uphold the additional requirements for the restoration of voting rights came from judges appointed to the court by President Trump.

When voters passed the referendum, known as Amendment 4, civil rights groups celebrated what was billed as a potentially game-changing expansion of the electorate in the nation’s biggest battleground state. White people like Mr. Gruver represent a majority of the state’s former felons. But Black residents are disproportionately represented: More than one in five potential Black voters in Florida were barred from casting a ballot.

Nearly two years later, most former felons remain shut out of the ballot box over their inability to pay legal financial obligations. Of the about one million former felons in Florida — a conservative estimate — at least three-quarters owe court debt. Between 70 and 80 percent are indigent and unable to pay.

And even those who can pay face a Catch-22: Because there is no central database of court fines and fees, it is difficult or impossible to establish how much anyone owes. As of May, the state had failed to process any of the more than 85,000 voting registration applications submitted by former felons since Amendment 4 passed in late 2018.

“It has been a very long slog to change public opinion on the re-enfranchisement of felons, and it took millions of dollars and a lot of effort to get that initiative passed,” said Nathaniel Persily, a Stanford University law professor. “The idea that felons would then have to pay money in order to vote after being enfranchised is depressing.”

In the past year, the governors of Kentucky and Iowa — the only remaining states that disenfranchised all former felons — signed executive orders restoring voting rights to those who have completed their sentences, including parole and probation. Unlike Florida, neither required payment of fines, court fees or restitution. The fines and fees in Florida fund the routine operations of the criminal justice system and are not restitution payments to crime victims.

Florida is hardly the only state where legislators have taken aim at a measure that voters had approved.

Missouri’s Republican-controlled Legislature has placed a constitutional amendment on the November ballot that bills itself as a package of clean-government reforms but actually undoes a 2018 amendment that took redistricting out of the Legislature’s control and gave it to a nonpartisan state demographer. Utahans narrowly voted in 2018 to make political map-drawing a nonpartisan affair, only to see that state’s Republican Legislature water down the measure to allow politicians to retain effective control of the process.

And a host of legislatures nettled by voter-approved initiatives in 2018 have passed laws making it substantially harder for citizens to get initiatives on the ballot.

Florida’s Amendment 4 said voting rights would be automatically restored for former felons “after they complete all terms of their sentence including parole or probation.” Once the measure took effect in January 2019, felons started registering.

Few expected that anywhere close to a million newly eligible voters would immediately begin casting ballots. But proponents of Amendment 4 thought the measure was self-executing, meaning that no additional legislation was required. Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, and the Legislature, which Republicans have controlled for more than two decades, had other ideas.

As the end of the 2019 legislative session neared, legislators tacked on the requirement for former felons to repay outstanding court fines and fees to an unrelated elections bill. Republicans argued the restrictions were reasonable because proponents of Amendment 4 said in court testimony and campaign websites before the 2018 election that court fines and fees would be repaid, though none of those costs were cited in the ballot text.

“The way the Legislature dealt with this impacts everyone equally,” said State Senator Jeff Brandes, a Republican of St. Petersburg. “You have to complete all terms of your sentence, period, and we don’t look at Republicans or independents or libertarians separately.”

But Franita Tolson, a University of Southern California law professor and expert on elections law, said the financial costs to cast a ballot and the fact that Florida has no mechanism in place for former felons to verify if they have outstanding court debt harkens to poll taxes imposed after the Civil War.

“That was the whole point of poll taxes in the post-Reconstruction era: It was about keeping people away from the polls, not about paying the tax,” she said.

Indeed, in May, Judge Robert L. Hinkle of the United States District Court in Tallahassee ruled that the Legislature’s provisions amounted to an unconstitutional poll tax.

The DeSantis administration, relying on the shifting politics of the courts, appealed. It requested that the 11th Circuit consider the appeal en banc — that is, that it be heard by all of the court’s judges instead of the usual three-judge panel — because of the case’s exceptional importance.

The appeals court granted the state’s request, which proved hugely consequential: A previous three-judge panel from the 11th Circuit had unanimously sided with the former felons in February after they requested a temporary injunction to keep the Florida law from taking effect. But two of those judges have senior status, which excluded them from the en banc hearing. So the former felons lost two friendly judges and instead faced 10 jurists, five appointed by Mr. Trump, who were not bound by the previous panel’s earlier decision.

Instead of granting a permanent injunction, as Judge Hinkle had at trial, the majority of the en banc appeals judges — including all five Trump nominees — ruled 6 to 4 that the lower court judge had misapplied the law.

Requiring former felons to pay back every court cost “promotes full rehabilitation of returning citizens and ensures full satisfaction of the punishment imposed for the crimes by which felons forfeited the right to vote,” Chief Judge William H. Pryor Jr. wrote for the majority.

Julie Ebenstein, a senior staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union’s Voting Rights Project and one of the plaintiffs’ lawyers in the case, said justice should have nothing to do with the ability to pay fines and fees.

“The idea that they are somehow insufficiently rehabilitated because they aren’t wealthy, that just struck me as absurd,” she said.

The appeals court also ruled that Florida did not have to create a uniform system for former felons to know if they owe any court debt, a conclusion that struck Justin Levitt, a voting law expert at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles and former deputy assistant attorney general for civil rights in the Obama administration, as wrongheaded.

“The notion that Florida has a right to disenfranchise you because all terms and conditions must be met, but we’re not telling you which terms are left to meet?” he said. “That’s Lucy pulling the football away from Charlie Brown. And there’s no law in Lucy pulling the football away. That’s just cruelty.”

The state’s elections division and 67 clerks of county courts have struggled since the referendum passed to put a patchwork of systems in place to try to screen former felons for their eligibility. Florida will issue advisory opinions to individuals who ask about their cases, but only 12 have been posted to the Division of Elections website.

The uncertainty has led to speculation for months that perhaps a wealthy philanthropist could step in and pay off former felons’ financial obligations en masse. The clock has almost run out for the 2020 election — the voter registration deadline is Oct. 5.

It is not certain whether either party would benefit disproportionately from a restoration of voting rights, but one name sometimes invoked has been the billionaire Michael R. Bloomberg, who ran in this year’s Democratic presidential primary and has vowed to spend $100 million in Florida to help Mr. Biden win the state.

“We are looking at a variety of different ways to spend our money,” said Howard Wolfson, an executive with Bloomberg Philanthropies and an adviser to Mr. Bloomberg. “We are aware of this issue.”

Patricia Mazzei reported from Miami, and Michael Wines from Washington.

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Koalition politics – Koalas almost bring down an Australian state government | Asia

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How is arguing with Trump voters working out for you? | US news

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Their children hold signs that read, “God hates fags.”

I was a child when their family, the extremist group called Westboro Baptist church, began picketing in Kansas in 1991. Driven by patriarch Fred Phelps’s homophobic interpretation of the Bible, they quickly became infamous for wielding shocking slogans and shouting lurid insults in public spaces.

It would be easy to write them off as monsters – a familiar impulse in today’s political climate, particularly toward supporters of Donald Trump. But, with democracy itself on the line this election year, we must remain open to the possibility of transformation.

I saw Westboro for the first time in the late 90s at the University of Kansas. I was a first-generation college student who had inherited no family political tradition. We were working in wheat fields when better-off families were attending civic events or reading opinion pages. In that void, I had absorbed a vague, moderate conservatism from the prevailing culture of my Reagan-era childhood and adolescence at the dawn of conservative talk radio.

On the typically liberal campus that was challenging my ideas, Westboro was a frequent, well-organized presence at the LGBTQ+ pride parade, music concerts or lectures. Over the previous decade, they had traversed the country to disrupt all manner of events, including the funerals of American soldiers and the murdered gay man Matthew Shepherd. But KU – “gay U”, some Kansas conservatives liked to call it – was just down the road from their home in Topeka, so students like myself saw them often.

“Fags die, God laughs,” read one sign. Later, in response to the 2001 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center– deemed punishment for a culture increasingly accepting of queerness – “Planes crash, God laughs.”

The content of their message was horrifying, but the tone with which they shared it – smiling, smug self-righteousness, casting pity on us who weren’t saved – was repugnant, as well. Their vitriol had the opposite of its intended effect, raising my awareness as a heterosexual, cis-gender woman of the trials faced by my LGBTQ+ peers.

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By the time I graduated in 2002, my politics had significantly altered. I arrived deeming affirmative action unfair; after a sociology class for which I researched the impact of one’s race, gender and economic status on life outcomes, I concluded that affirmative action was right as rain. I arrived with no concept of worker rights, all but erased from consciousness in my union-busted state; after reading early 20th-century documents of the labor movement for an American literature class, I realized that I had been born near the bottom of a socioeconomic ladder my country kept insisting didn’t exist. I arrived believing I could be at once socially liberal and fiscally conservative; after excelling on campus while paying my own way through school and then graduating into poverty for lack of social capital – while watching less motivated, less capable children of affluence walk into prestigious internships and lucrative jobs – I viewed the so-called free market, welfare reform and low taxes as a thoroughly rigged system that only progressive measures could remedy.

To be clear, for all the claims to the contrary about universities, there was no agenda to convert me to liberalism. The professors who questioned my conservative ideas did so respectfully and gave me As. Organizations such as the College Republicans were a visible presence.

Rather, my information sources and environment expanded. Upon reviewing these new discoveries, I converted myself.

Plenty of students make no such shift. Conservatism remains ever-available for those attending universities, as evidenced by the countless far-right college graduates currently running this country. According to Pew Research Center, 51% of men who voted for Republican congressional candidates in 2018 held college degrees. While the Westboro group is hard to pin along modern party lines, their signature argument is decidedly far-right – and most of its leaders are credentialed attorneys. Conversely, millions of Americans without college degrees develop progressive views by way of informal education: reading, observing, life experience. It was not higher education that changed me but my willingness to change.

Among those born to bad or limited information – the flawed narratives of history books, the blinders of privilege, or propaganda on their parents’ televisions and car radios—there are those who will stick with existing beliefs regardless of what they are shown. But there are those who would reconsider, and we need them more than ever.

Megan Phelps-Roper would have been in her early teens, holding one of those hateful signs, when I passed her family on the way to class. Like me, she attended public schools and consumed popular culture. But, where my formative years were carved by mainstream influences – Catholicism, the nightly news, waiting tables – hers was the stuff of cults.

Her grandfather was the charismatic, zealous leader demanding commitment and claiming a monopoly on truth. Doubt and dissent were discouraged, sometimes through abuse. Shame and guilt were devices of control, and those who left were cut off from communication. Phelps-Roper participated in a family protest against homosexuality for the first time at age five.

As she came of age, Phelps-Roper’s ability to assess information had been thoroughly perverted. Westboro acted not out of hate but out of love, her elders taught her, to warn mortals of their sins so that they might repent and avoid eternal damnation.

At the age of 26, however, Phelps-Roper would make a much larger and braver leap than my political shift from center-right to solid left. In 2012, she left Westboro – her lifelong idea system, her only identity and nearly her entire family.

Just as the cruel signs she once held probably convinced few who saw them, it was not angry condemnations of her ideas that moved her toward the truth. It was, rather, a handful of friendly strangers on Twitter, including a Jewish man who responded to Phelps-Roper’s antisemitic provocation. Sensing the humanity beneath her inhumane behavior, they thoughtfully pressed her with intellectual and philosophical debate over the course of several years.

“People had grace for me when I seemed not to deserve it the most,” Phelps-Roper told PBS’s Amanpour & Co. last year after the release of her memoir, Unfollow. “The fact that they were able to suspend their judgments long enough to have those conversations with me completely changed my life. So now instead of me being out there with Westboro creating new victims, I’m working for healing and change to try to repair some of that damage.”

I noticed that, in her writings and interviews about her experience, Phelps-Roper does not favor the term “cult”. I asked her whether, perhaps, she found the descriptor accurate but not constructive.

Phelps-Roper conceded that the term is accurate enough, even though some common features of cults are not true of Westboro, such as money-making schemes or sexual ownership of women by the leader.

“‘Cult’ is definitely a convenient shorthand that rapidly conveys the gist of the situation at Westboro and communities like it: a small, fringe group that exerts an inordinate amount of control over its members, exalting itself to special status via claims of unique access to truth,” Phelps-Roper told me via online message.

All the same, she confirmed that she doesn’t use the term because it shuts down communication channels.

“People tend to dismiss cult members as crazy or stupid, rather than complex human beings like everyone else,” she said. “That makes compassion and real understanding more difficult, and it can give us a false sense of security that we’re not subject to the same kinds of forces that draw people into these groups and keep them there.”

Plus, Phelps-Roper explained, she can’t get through to her family by lobbing labels that make them bristle.

“I want to reach Westboro members – to help convince them that there are other, better ways of living in the world,” she said. “If I use a needlessly pejorative word like that to describe people who are earnestly trying to do what they believe is right, I’m throwing obstacles in my own path and making change even more difficult than it naturally is.”

There has been much discussion in recent years about the extent to which liberal America should or should not have empathy for, say, economically distressed Trump voters. Some encourage compassion about the hard lives that made some of them vulnerable to political fearmongering. Others might point out that plenty of Trump voters are doing just fine in the coddled world of whiteness and that, regardless of their reasons, we should practice zero tolerance toward agents of oppression.

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The strongest position contains both truths. We can acknowledge that destructive ideas have roots deeper than the individuals who hold them and yet firmly denounce such ideas. To hear Mary Trump tell it in her new memoir, her uncle is severely dysfunctional in part because of his upbringing. But the purpose of her story is not to engender sympathy for our current president, “the world’s most dangerous man”. It is to show how he was made – revealing that the problem is not the current president but, rather, what patriarchy, corporate greed and white supremacy can make out of an innocent child born in the belly of all three.

You can be intellectually woke without being awakened to the largest truth: that we are all connected, enemies and allies alike. The United States is teetering toward authoritarianism. Are you still lecturing strangers on social media? Are you still shouting at a family member that they’re wrong? How is that working out?

If you want to stop fascism, the efficient mission is not to attack the opposing side. It is, rather, to be the opposite of Donald Trump: a defiantly open heart who protects and bolsters valid information systems required for people to truly decide for themselves about all that he and his movement represent.

If you think such information is a given in the world we are living in, you are mistaken.

Many white people believe the current president is a good man. Are they irrational, some perhaps even disturbed? If they have valid news sources, then by my estimation, yes.

But many do not. They live in spaces inundated by decades of rightwing propaganda and intentional manipulation of their fears.

Not everyone targeted by disinformation falls for it, and such experiences are not an excuse for racist, sexist, xenophobic views and political choices. But they are a reason.

In March, 63% of Fox News regulars, polled by the non-partisan Pew Research Center’s Election News Pathways Project said the president’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic was “excellent”. Just 23% of average Americans – and a mere 2% of MSNBC regulars – agreed.

MSNBC and Fox News’ treatment of facts is not analogous. The former comments with a liberal slant, while the latter now amounts to state television for a Republican White House. But both sides of the American political divide have allegiances to information sources that affirm their existing beliefs.

Meanwhile, false information masquerading as fact is a common feature of our times. Most misinformation disseminated online during the 2016 election had a pro-Trump slant, and recent research studies have suggested that misinformation is most concentrated among conservative media consumers. However, researchers at the University of Colorado published a report last May indicating that a substantial number of leftists share false or misleading information, too.

Let’s acknowledge that today’s cultural chasm is driven by social media streams and cable “news” programs. It is easy, in such a splintered media ecosystem, to maintain a closed system of unfalsifiable beliefs in which inconvenient facts become “fake news”.

Some of today’s most dangerous misinformation concerns a public health crisis. What accounts for those who, say, insist that the Covid-19 pandemic is a hoax and thus refuse to wear a mask?

According to a research report from the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, the strongest predictors of belief in Covid-19 conspiracy theories are not educational attainment or political affiliation but, along with partisan and ideological motivations, “a psychological predisposition” to dismiss experts and doubt mainstream narratives about major events.

But to what is this predisposition owed? We enter treacherous territory when we diagnose something inherent about a person to explain her partisan leanings. A major research study in 2016 debunked oft-cited studies claiming causality between personality and politics. It is self-aggrandizing for the well-informed, though, to declare that gullibility is innate and that proponents of misinformation are just dumb. Here we find the fatal flaw of self-congratulatory liberalism.

When presented with evidence of, say, lower salaries for women and higher incarceration among people of color, liberals rightly reject the notion that these outcomes result from innately lower aptitude, laziness and corrupt character. We rightly point to the oppressive conditions of a racist, sexist state to explain such data. In other words, we understand that the system failed the person, not the other way around. Yet we place ideological identities in no such environmental context.

What if our systems failed the media consumers who are, for myriad reasons, easily taken by political lies? Underfunded public schools could be teaching media literacy and civics but are forced to prioritize testing-driven curricula while providing basic needs such as food and healthcare. Underregulated, profit-driven social media companies have focused on mining user data rather than stopping malicious spread of false information on their platforms. Understaffed publications of the free press have, amid efforts to adapt to the digital media economy, turned news into salacious, conflict-driven clickbait to maintain the bottom line.

We must approach the current political crisis less like a valid debate and more like the treatment of a toxic stream along which extremist factions swirl into themselves like eddies. You and the person you’re arguing with don’t even share a common set of definitions, let alone discussion frameworks or worldviews. No movement can win in the 21st century without this understanding as a foundation.

To clear that toxic stream, we need robustly funded schools with civics curricula that activate participation in democracy, tell the story of all peoples, admit our often brutal history as a nation, and incorporate 21st-century media literacy as an essential tool of citizenship. We need government crackdowns on big tech’s complicity in the spread of misinformation. We need new, less compromised business models encouraging media members to be government watchdogs rather than generators of advertising revenue.

But information is only part of the solution for what ails our country. Political scientists have long noted the role of emotion in political behavior, and logic will not sway positions that were not formed through logic. Many Trump voters were moved not by facts but by the feelings their outrageous leader incites. As conservative analyst Bill Kristol recently tweeted, reacting to news that the Republican National Committee will merely endorse “the President’s America-first agenda” in lieu of any new platform, “It’s no longer the Republican party. It’s a Trump cult.”

Here we can learn from those like Phelps-Roper, who have freed themselves from irrational worldviews. Reaching past someone’s biased influences, as her story of unlikely Twitter friendships reveals, requires not just better information but a non-confrontational, even respectful tone in conveying it.

Members of oppressed groups should not be expected to do this work, of course, which is at best emotional labor and at worst physically dangerous. But what about would-be cultural bridge-builders protected by privileges such as whiteness and wealth? Should they bother?

Yes. Nationally, voters are breaking ranks from “Trumpism”, disavowing their lifelong party or finding belonging with “never Trump” Republican groups like the Lincoln Project.

My state government contains several elected officials who left the Republican Party and became Democrats in recent years—including a viable 2020 candidate for a U.S. Senate seat held by Republicans since 1919.

From 2014 to 2018, during which the Black Lives Matter movement successfully forced a national reckoning about race, the portion of white Republicans who said government spends too little on improving conditions for Black Americans more than doubled, rising from 14 to 33%, according to a report from the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.

We should value justice over unity. But there is more unity to be had than you might think from watching the news. People change, and privileged Americans who can help them do so play an important role in this pivotal moment.

As Phelps-Roper says in her much-viewed Ted Talk, the Twitter friends who helped her see the light “didn’t abandon their beliefs or their principles – only their scorn. They channeled their infinitely justifiable offense and came to me with pointed questions tempered with kindness and humor. They approached me as a human being – and that was more transformative than two full decades of outrage, disdain and violence.”

If someone who dislikes this notion has changed someone’s mind through contempt and condescension, I’d love to hear about it. The opposite is more likely to be true, in my experience. The confronted person digs in, defends, doubles down.

In a July opinion piece for the New York Times, Charlie Warzel described a Senegalese medical anthropologist sent by the World Health Organization to Guinea, where residents were resisting public health guidance during the Ebola epidemic in 2014. He spent a long time listening, rather than lecturing, and realized that the people “weren’t selfish or anti-science. They were scared and felt stripped of dignity by officials who didn’t respect them or understand their traditions.”

While US “anti-maskers” of the Covid-19 pandemic are a different bunch, understanding their motives is necessary to successfully reach them.

“You cannot force public trust,” Warzel wrote of the current health crisis. “You have to earn it by being humble and transparent, and by listening.”

Is such humility warranted in the face of terrible actors, those who not only refuse to wear a mask but refuse to accept the value of entire groups of human beings?

If an equitable, non-violent society is our goal, ideologies that seek to dismantle unjust power structures such as white supremacy and patriarchy are unequivocally better than those that do not. There is no moral equivalence between the neo-Nazi and the Black Lives Matter protester, or the feminist marcher and the men’s rights activist. Some ideas are superior to others.

But even if your ideas are superior, I am asking you to consider that you did not arrive at them because of your innate superiority. Depending on your level of social and racial privilege, you arrived at them because of your life experiences, your information sources, your community influences. Even a psychological predisposition toward rational thinking, if this a valid possibility, is just a bit of good fortune you did nothing to earn.

If you had been born into the Phelps family, would you have thought your way out of Westboro? At what age? Twelve? Eighteen, when you left home? Twenty-six, by way of social media? Forty-four, better late than never? How about never? For many the answer thus far is never.

That’s an extreme example, I hear you say. Children of cults are one thing, but a Trump voter has free will in their decisions.

True. Yet if you’d been born white, in a homogeneously white place, with Fox News on every television and Rush Limbaugh on every car radio for your entire life, would you be a liberal or even a centrist today? Maybe, but not without knowing the hard truth that people who think monstrous things often are not, at their core, monsters.

Nope, I hear you say. I am better than a Trump voter. I’m sure as hell better than a Nazi.

On the level of ideas, well, yes. But why? Is it because something about them is naturally defective? You yourself would have been one of the good ones in Germany, correct? Because something about you is inherently better?

If that all sounds right, be careful. The seed of everything you’re fighting is inside you.

Sarah Smarsh’s new book, She Come By It Natural: Dolly Parton and the Women Who Lived Her Songs, will be published in October 2020. She lives in Kansas

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