Guns, Violence and Us

The US Constitution and the Bill of Rights lay out fundamental rights guaranteed to all people in our nation, from free speech and the free exercise of religious beliefs to freedom to assemble and the right to bear arms.  None of these rights, however, are absolute or unconditional.  They can’t be, because any one right must be tempered or constrained by the boundaries other rights create.  The right to assemble does not mean that five hundred people can gather on your front lawn, because it’s your property and you get to choose who comes and goes.  The right to free speech does not include shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theatre, causing a stampede, or knowingly making false accusations against another person publicly.  The freedom of religion does not enable Muslims in Dearborn to mandate fasting for the community until sundown, or Pentecostals in Tennessee to write the dress codes for girls attending public schools.


Rights come with responsibilities, one of which is to understand and respect the necessary limits imposed by other rights.


And yes, this applies to the Second Amendment.  Or at least it is supposed to.  Increasingly it’s clear that for many people, the Second Amendment trumps all others, becoming an absolute and unconditional right; one that can’t be limited in any way.  Putting aside the very important question of whether or not the framers intended it to be an individual right – it speaks of a “well regulated militia” after all – gun ownership is now, for many on the political right, the very essence of freedom.  But that’s a relatively recent development.


As Steven Rosenfeld points out in “The NRA Once Supported Gun Control”, for most of the organization’s nearly 140 year history, sensible gun control legislation was not only tolerated, but encouraged by the National Rifle Association.  This included help in crafting and passing both state and federal gun control laws, from FDR’s time through the early 1970s. 


Things changed with new NRA leadership beginning in 1976, when it began to make the case that the Second Amendment was an absolute right and therefore, any efforts to limit guns, gun sales, gun capacity or gun ownership were unconstitutional.  Before too long we arrived at where we are today, with guns as symbols of freedom, as an essential bulwark against government tyranny.  Where any and every firearm limit – armor-piercing bullets, short waiting periods, bump stocks and assault-style weapons, ‘Red flag’ laws to remove guns from an abuser -  every single one is fought as an existential battle.


Something else happened from the late seventies to the present day:  An extreme right wing emerged in our politics and culture, distorting history, rewriting the role of citizens, deifying the market, attacking immigrants, the poor, African Americans and many other ‘others’, and taking the long-standing American belief in individualism to its logical, and utterly anti-social conclusion.  This is how we got to Stand Your Ground laws; to protecting domestic abusers; to a white nationalist, neo-Nazi movement that is both growing and increasingly lethal; to on-line embrace of the darkest and most cynical conspiracy theories; to real world taunting, harassing and threatening of the victims of gun violence, including many of the parents of the Newtown kids; to the absurd argument that only good guys with guns can stop bad guys with guns.

And to where the right to assemble is undermined by the fear of mass shootings.

 We urgently need to pass universal background checks, a national red flag law, and limits on gun size and magazine capacity.  All of those things will save lives, with minimal inconvenience for gun owners like myself.  But we also need a ‘political revolution’, to quote Bernie Sanders, one that begins the long and difficult challenge of reinvigorating our economies and communities, of restoring citizenship, and perhaps for the first time, building a society based on empathy and love.  It’s an absurd proposition, given both our history and the present moment.  But what other options do we have?

Can We Shop Our Way to a Better World?

Over the years, I’ve noticed two distinct groups of people among my friends and allies:  “Activists”, people who strive to change policy, who organize campaigns and protests, who get involved in elections; and “localists”, folks who focus on what they do in their own households and communities, often including efforts to build better local economies and food systems.   One of the things that differentiates these groups is the question of how we shop and how we eat.  Localists tend to see that as a very important issue, both morally and practically.  Activists tend to downplay the significance of shopping choices in building a better world, or just as often, simply don’t think about it.


I know many folks who defy these categories, people who are both politically engaged yet very conscious of what they do in their local economies and how their shopping impacts the world.  And I love you guys!  But unfortunately, you’re the exception to the rule.  In my experience, most localists avoid (or even abhor) politics and social change work, while most activists minimize or ignore the importance of our shopping habits.


Briefly then, here are five things I hope you’ll consider:


1.     Localism works, helping to support and build better food systems and more diverse local economies.  But it’s not enough, as we surely can see from our present state of politics and public discourse.  It hasn’t “added up” to a more just and democratic world.

2.     Activism, for social change, for justice and workers, for the environment is critically important, now more than ever.  But…

3.     While activism tends to happen in spurts, in campaigns, we eat – and for most of us, shop – every day.  We participate in the marketplace almost constantly and most of what we earn pays for the goods and services other people/companies produce.

4.     How we participate in the marketplace, what, where and how we shop is about more than just fulfilling needs or meeting preferences.  It is our investment.  When we buy from Amazon, we are investing in one of the largest, most powerful and dominant corporations on the planet.  Only slightly less so for Walmart, Tyson, CVS and others.

5.     If we want our localism to add up to a better world, we need to get engaged in the social and political world, to move our elected representatives and policies to support the healthier, more resilient communities we’re working to build.  If we want our activism to have impact, we need our shopping habits to embody and support the policies we’d like to see.  It’s utterly counterproductive to protest Monsanto and call for challenging monopoly power in the US while buying from – investing in - Amazon or the corporate food system we so dislike.


Changing habits isn’t easy, and there’s no doubt that shopping locally, responsibly is both more challenging and more expensive in many of our communities.  But for a lot of us, local farmers markets are a great place to start.  And don’t just go there for a couple of items.  Go there to shop, to buy as many of your groceries as you can.  And while you’re in town, visit and support other local businesses.  Let’s invest much more in our neighbors, much less in corporate giants.

The Three Epic Lies that Put Corporate Giants on Top

There’s little doubt that the biggest corporations are on the top, with extraordinary economic and political power in the United States.  Levels of corporate concentration in everything from the meat industry to the media are at unprecedented levels; corporate CEOs routinely make two hundred, three hundred times more than their rank and file employees; and the political clout they wield through lobbyists and political donations ensures, as Marten Gilens has shown, that their priorities carry far more weight with elected officials than what the majority of American citizens desire.

Though many people aren’t happy about the current level of corporate dominance, we tend to see it as just a side effect of a global economy that rewards the most innovative and efficient businesses.  But it is much more than that.  


The truth is that Three Epic Lies, concocted at different times over the past century and a half, have paved the way for this corporate aristocracy we are now living with.  In different ways, they’ve been codified in law or risen to become the conventional wisdom, dominating how institutions, academics, politicians and the courts view the limits and responsibilities of corporations in our nation.


Three huge, Epic Lies, each one of profound importance; taken together they’ve made corporate control of our economy and politics almost inevitable.  So, let’s take a look, starting with a Supreme Court Clerk more than a hundred years ago.


In 1881, Leland Stanford was ticked off.  California had just passed a tax on property owned by railroad lines and Stanford wasn’t going to let his company, Southern Pacific Railway, pay any more than they had to without a fight.  So, he pushed the claim that the new tax was discriminatory because his giant corporation was protected by the 14th Amendment to the US Constitution, enacted in 1868 to establish the personhood of African Americans.  This case came to be known as Santa Clara County v Southern Pacific Rail Line (UCLA law professor Adam Winkler details this history in a March 5th, 2018 piece in The Atlantic).


Stanford had friends in high places, including Supreme Court Justice Stephen J Field.  In the Santa Clara decision, notes from the Justices’ deliberations show that the high court declined to rule whether or not corporations should be granted ‘personhood’, enraging Justice Field.  But no matter.  The Court Clerk, JC Bancroft Davis – himself a former Rail Line company president! – wrote in his summary that the Court had decided that “corporations are persons… within the 14th Amendment.”  They’d done no such thing, but this was how the decision was characterized.  By the court clerk.


A few years later in a separate case, Justice Field stated that corporations are persons, saying that “It was so held in Santa Clara v Southern Pacific Rail Line”.  The Court’s clerk had said this, not the Justices; Field knew it, but he ‘cited’ the decision regardless.  And courts have been doing so ever since then, building on the logic of “corporate personhood” all the way to the culminating case of Citizens United in 2010.  A wealth of legal precedent at the highest level, all founded on a lie.  That’s the first Big Lie.


About four decades later, the second Big Lie was born, arising out of the Michigan Supreme Court’s settling of a dispute between Henry Ford and the Dodge brothers. The latter were shareholders in Ford Motor Company.  When they decided to start their own car company, Ford attempted to withhold paying their dividends, as he didn’t want to help capitalize a competitor.  Ford Motor Company, which was not publicly traded at that time, argued that they needed the money to lower prices to consumers and pay better wages to their employees (In truth, they had plenty of money for both).


The Michigan Supreme Court sided with Horace and John Dodge, ordering Ford to pay the dividends owed.  The court’s official opinion – the “holding” – was quite limited in scope.  But in a tangential comment they opined that “…a business corporation is organized and carried on primarily for the profit of the stockholders.  The powers of the directors are to be employed for that end.”  Tangential observations such as this – mere dicta, they’re called – are neither a necessary part of the court’s ruling, nor are they legal precedent, as Lynn Stout makes clear in her remarkable book, The Shareholder Value Myth.  They are musings, a sidebar.  Nowadays we might call it a rant.


But guess what?  That’s exactly what this sidebar observation from 100 years ago has become:  The foundation for the widely held view that publicly owned corporations have the legal duty to maximize returns to shareholders, trumping all other considerations, from employee well-being to environmental stewardship.  In fact as Stout observes, “There is no solid legal support for the claim that directors and executives in US public corporations have an enforceable legal duty to maximize shareholder wealth.  The idea is fable.”  And it’s the second Big Lie.


Giving corporations the rights of people has helped corrupt our politics, making a mockery of “one person, one vote” and enabling similar legal absurdities, such as equating unlimited expenditure of money with unlimited free speech.  Insisting that corporations are legally bound to maximize profits – short term profits, no less – above all else has further concentrated wealth and power among a tiny group of investors and CEOs.  And it has helped create an economy of collateral damage, to people, communities and the land.


But wait, there’s more.  One more Big Lie that has greased the skids for corporate dominance of our economy and politics.  This one started in the 1960’s, coming to fruition in the 1980’s, the result of the relentless drive of Supreme Court wannabe, Robert Bork.  This third Big Lie has pulled the rug out from under anti-trust laws and their enforcement, enabling seemingly endless merger mania and corporate concentration in nearly every sector of our economy.


The Sherman Act of 1890 was the first significant piece of federal legislation to tackle monopolies.  Named for Senator John Sherman, the law sought to stem the growing power of Standard Oil Company and other huge “trusts” of that era.  It took some time before the federal government began to implement the law, but by the early years of the 20th Century, enforcement led to the break-up of behemoths like Standard Oil, and the preclusion of corporate concentration through mergers and buyouts.  This was the norm for the ensuing 70 years, where a consensus held that monopolies were bad for the economy and dangerous for our democracy.

As Tim Wu describes in The Curse of Bigness, Bork set out to re-write history, beginning with his 1966 article, “Legislative Intent and the Policy of the Sherman Act”. In this piece, and his arguments over the next two decades, Bork declared that the original intent of the Sherman Act was simply to protect “consumer welfare” and nothing more.  In other words, mergers could be stopped only when it was determined that prices to consumers would likely rise.  Bork made the case that this is what Senator Sherman and Congress had intended.  But as Wu makes clear, nothing could be further from the truth.  In fact, Sherman had spoken of the “inequality of condition, of wealth, and opportunity” that arose from monopolies, stating further they created “a kingly prerogative, inconsistent with our form of government”. 

Undaunted by history and truth, Bork pushed on, moving his simplistic argument from the margins of the debate to the Supreme Court, which cited Bork in a 1979 decision declaring that “consumer welfare” was to be the standard by which corporate concentration should be judged.  Over time, this new – and false – understanding of Congress’ original intent became the accepted measure by which mergers and monopolies would be judged. Stop them if they will likely raise prices, otherwise there’s nothing the government can do.   The third, very Big Lie had prevailed.

The corporate takeover of the US economy and, to a large degree, American politics was not inevitable.  Neither was the notion that corporations, which are granted a public charter, after all, are legally obligated to maximize shareholder wealth, subordinating any and all responsibility to the public.  We are where we are, rather, because of Three Big Lies that have enabled the extreme concentration of economic and political power that is our status quo.  Let’s name those lies – that corporations are people, that their sole purpose is to enrich their shareholders, and that we can’t stop them from getting bigger unless they’ll raise prices – for what they are: false, absurd and un-American. Let’s unravel the misleading claims that gave rise to them, and then let’s fight like hell to take them down and begin to restore our economy and our democracy.





Krugman's Rural Despair Misses the Mark

I have a great deal of respect for Paul Krugman, but his March 18th New York Times piece, “Getting Real About Rural America” badly missed the mark. Like fellow Times analyst, Eduardo Porter, Krugman begins with the premise that “nobody knows how to fix rural America.”  In point of fact, a consensus has begun to emerge about a range of strategies that work in rural communities, based on economic revitalization success stories from the Midwest to Central Appalachia, where I live.  And we don’t just know what works; it’s also increasingly clear what doesn’t, including specific policies and strategies that are crushing the people and the economies of the countryside.  Here then are four challenges to Mr Krugman and the many other analysts wondering aloud what the heck is wrong with us folks in the boonies.

First, while the economic and social problems of rural America are indeed real, they’ve become the default narrative for city-dwelling commentators and experts, overshadowing tangible progress and effective solutions.  In Appalachia for instance, the poverty rate has been cut in half since the launch of Great Society programs in the early 1960’s, and the number of “distressed” counties has dropped from 295 to about 90 (Appalachian Regional Commission).  This improvement, even as three out of every four coal jobs have been lost.  Nationwide, according to USDA’s Economic Research Service, rural unemployment rates dropped from 10.3% in 2010 to 4.4% in 2017, during which time 650,000 net new jobs were created.  And while too many young people continue to leave, 2017 actually saw a net increase in population for rural counties.  Broadly speaking then, things are getting better across many parts of rural America, albeit much too slowly and sporadically. 

Second, things are getting better in large part because, well, some people do know how to fix things in rural areas.  Like Brandon Dennison in southern West Virginia, whose Coalfield Development Corporation is successfully putting miners and others back to work with comprehensive, hands-on training in solar installation, deconstruction and sustainable farming. Or Bren Smith, whose ecologically restorative vertical ocean farming system is being adopted by fisherman along the east coast.  Or the folks at We Own It, whose work to reform and open up the leadership of Rural Electric Cooperatives has begun to redeploy some of the $3 trillion in assets REC’s hold to better serve their members and communities. Or the innovators at Windustry, who for more than a decade have been helping farmers, public schools and rural communities increase their stake in community wind power, part of the larger wind industry on course to pay nearly a billion dollars annually to rural landowners by 2030 (Presidential Climate Action Program).   

Brandon, Bren and hundreds of others like them, are catalyzing new and better approaches to local economic development in rural communities across the US, usually with meager outside investment from the public or private sector.  Jobs are being created.  Local wealth is being developed.  Ecosystems are being reimagined as community assets, rather than a source from which to extract and export wealth.

Third, as bottom up strategies emerge and mature across rural America, they frequently must confront a lack of sustained investment along with contemptibly bad federal policies that restrain or undermine them.  The sense one gets from reading Krugman’s piece is that, like the former East Germany, extraordinary sums of money have been spent in rural communities with little to show in return.  The reality however is very different.  An analysis by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation revealed that between 1994 and 2001, the feds actually spent between two and five times more, per person, on community and economic development in urban versus rural areas, a disparity that has changed little to the present day.  And it’s no better in private philanthropy, where a 2011 Economic Research Service report showed that rural communities garnered less than six percent of foundation grants, even though one fifth of the population lives there.  Bottom line: There are plenty of effective initiatives in rural communities, but a paucity of capital to support them.

It’s not just a lack of direct investment in rural areas.  Even more destructive are long standing trends in federal policy that promote wealth extraction, economic concentration and undermining of the local economic base.  In an outstanding article in Washington Monthly, Claire Kelloway describes how extreme levels of market consolidation have resulted from the lack of anti-trust enforcement and the weakening of laws to combat monopolies.  This of course is an enormous problem for the country as a whole, but in rural regions, it is destroying farmers and sucking the life out of small towns. As Kelloway points out, “Farmers are caught between monopolized sellers and buyers.  They must pay ever higher prices to the giants who dominate the market for the supplies they need, like seed and fertilizer.  At the same time, they must accept ever lower prices from the giant agribusiness that buy the stuff they sell, like crops and livestock.” 

When three companies control well over half of the global seed market, and four enormous packers account for 85% of the meat that comes to US markets (USDA), farmers are like serfs, with falling incomes and astronomical debts.  And it isn’t just food monopolies.  Thousands of community banks – the engine of lending in rural communities – have closed or been bought up by regional megabanks, further eroding the base of local capital.  The obeisance of elected officials and the courts to monopolists, the enormous subsidies expended to lure huge, cash-rich corporations to small towns, and the accelerating privatization of public spaces, lands and functions ensure that building strong, self-reliant rural economies is a rare and heroic task.

My fourth and last challenge is simply this: That Mr Krugman broaden his sources and stop relying on assessments from people who neither live in nor understand rural America.  Talk to the folks at the Center for Rural Affairs or the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, or the practitioners at Coastal Enterprises, the Mountain Association for Community Economic Development or the Federation of Rural Cooperatives.  Or me.  What you’ll quickly learn is that rural America is neither a monolith nor a region ‘left behind’ by the dynamic folks in the big cities.  Rather, it’s the place from where most of the food, fiber and energy upon which we all depend originates.  And it is home to hundreds of innovators, problem solvers and entrepreneurs who do know how to make things better.  They just need real investment, and an end to wealth extraction facilitated by federal policy and an endless stream of bad advice.

Read it here on the Stansbury Forum.

The Green New Deal – A Compelling Idea that Challenges Both Parties

For the past two months, I’ve been one of several people across the state working to flesh out what a Green New Deal might look like in the Commonwealth.  By early April, we should be ready to begin sharing our vision and ideas for a GND, and soliciting your thoughts, hopes and concerns.  I’ll talk more about this in our March newsletter, but If you think there might be interest in your community, please let me know.

Whether at the state or national level, a Green New Deal could take a number of different forms, with various policies and strategies for implementation.  Whatever those come to be, one element is essential:  It must be ambitious, both in scope and urgency.  Why?  First, because the economic model we’ve used for the past 40 years isn’t working for the majority of Americans, even more so for young people, rural communities and people of color.  Our low unemployment rates mask a whole range of very serious problems, from low and still-stagnant wages, to extraordinarily high student debt, from staggering levels of inequality to infrastructure decay and deficits (especially in rural places).  We should, and we can build an economy that works for everyday people.  That shouldn’t be a radical idea.

Of equal urgency is the rapidly growing problem of climate change, increasingly impacting coastal cities, fisherman, farmers, and vulnerable communities across Virginia and the nation. From the International Panel on Climate Change to our own federal agencies, the most knowledgeable scientists are sounding the alarm bells.  More accurately, they’ve been sounding the alarm bells, for a good twenty years.  The ‘worst case’ models they’ve been putting forward are looking increasingly likely.  So, it’s essential that we start taking  truly serious action, both to reduce the rate of change and to prepare for it.

A Green New Deal is not the only thing we could do to address emissions and climate change.  And it’s not the only strategy for creating better jobs, more widely shared prosperity and a people-centered economy.  But it is the only approach I know of that does both.   For 40 years, most Americans have been losing ground economically, even as the economy has grown six times faster than our population.  During that same period, this same trickle-down economy has dramatically increased our carbon emissions and launched us on the road to severe changes in the climate and our environment.  If a GND offers a roadmap for a better economy and a restored, sustainable ecosystem, what the heck is wrong with that?

Well, no surprise here, but there’s plenty of resistance from many of our political ‘leaders’.  It’s by far the strongest on the Republican side, where everyone from Donald Trump on down is trashing a GND as “big government”, even “socialism”.  Our own 9th District Congressman has stated his complete opposition to the idea for those reasons and, it appears, because he thinks everything is going just fine as is.  In his recent newsletter, he focused on one GND goal - getting millions of residential and commercial buildings weatherized and retrofitted for improved energy efficiency.  Mind you, McKinsey and Company estimated that this would save American homeowners at least $50 billion annually; for the economy as a whole, it would save $1 trillion by 2030.  Yet Mr Griffith focused not the billions of dollars we could save and the tons of emissions we would prevent, but on fear that a commitment to making most of our buildings more energy efficient would be draconian government intrusion.  His preferred path, like nearly all of his party colleagues, is more of the same – tax cuts for the wealthy, environmental deregulation, and complete reliance on the market to figure it out.

There is strong and growing support for a GND among Democrats, but not without many naysayers.  Too many Democrats are casting the Green New Deal as ‘unrealistic’, ‘too expensive’ or ‘pie in the sky’.  Why would Democrats resist an economic strategy likely to foster better jobs, address injustice and fight climate change?  In my assessment, it is the culture of incrementalism that has overtaken the Democratic establishmentThomas Frank’s book, Listen Liberal makes a compelling case that the Democratic Party, particularly since the Clinton years, has increasingly become the party of intellectual elites, of political insiders and of technocrats.  That is to say, people who embrace incremental change rather than transformative action.  That’s part of why we got Dodd Frank – and in a few short years, a return of megabanks behaving recklessly - rather than a renewed Glass-Steagall Act and limits on bank size.  Many of these same Democrats are also resisting Medicare for all.  And now, the Green New Deal.

As a pragmatist myself, I appreciate others who work for real, concrete change, and who recognize that we can’t always get what we want (apologies to Mick Jagger).  Nevertheless, very large, entrenched problems that have been going on for decades, call out for ambitious, creative solutions.  For far-reaching yet practical strategies that make a big difference.  I believe that the Green New Deal offers that potential, and I sure don’t believe that cautious incrementalism will win public support or address the enormous economic and ecological challenges we face.



Flaccavento for Congress, Post-Election Meeting: Summary of Brainstorming on Next Steps

During a meeting on December 3rd, the group of approximately 50 people brainstormed a range of possible ‘next steps’ and other actions that might be undertaken, following the campaign.  That list is attached as part of a meeting summary.  The list below includes those same ideas, organized into five groupings.


Local Actions

  • Update VAN - Voter Activation Network – list to improve accuracy (One county core group intends to do this by mailing notes to all strong and leaning Dems, and independents)

  • Flacc Volunteer Core Group members join and strengthen local Democratic Committees (DCs)

  • Local DCs do tangible work in community (food drives, etc) to help improve reputation of Dems

  • Make local DCs more inclusive, diverse through outreach/engagement with African Americans, millennials and others

    • Consider using the Dialog on Race as a model for this

    • Reach out across ‘Red-Blue divide’ as well, using Dialog on Race approach

  • Surface, support candidates for local offices

  • Local core groups contact Virginia Organizing to look at forming new local chapters of VO

Regional Actions

  • Undertake ‘deep canvassing’ in different parts of the region, that is, canvassing to build trust, to listen to people’s concerns and potentially to educate folks on specific issues or campaigns, rather than based on VAN and a specific candidate

    • This might include a focused effort in the coalfield counties, as the power of coal companies continues to wane

  • Create a ‘Resource directory’ on line that includes groups/resources/events/information at both local and regional level (Could include national groups as well)

  • Develop and implement a ‘multi-media’ approach to help educate and engage folks in the region, especially Republicans and people not currently engaged

    • Set up a speakers’ bureau (possibly focused on the Rural Progressive Platform, bottom up economics, as well as other issues and ideas)

  • Develop our own alternative media, likely beginning with podcasts

  • Reach out to students and millennials, not just during campaigns

National Actions

Reach out to, advocate with the national Democratic Party to push for more understanding, involvement with rural communities

  • Revive and disseminate the Rural Progressive Platform

  • Develop a ‘Rural Progressive Think Tank’ to help lead and support the effort to strengthen progressive ideas and strategies in rural areas (possibly other goals as well)

  • Reach out to conservative think tanks in efforts to find common ground

Legislative Actions

  • Support efforts currently underway to fight gerrymandering, including:

    • Support for legislation in the VA House – HB 1641 (would allow absentee voting without voters needing to have a justification for it) and HB 1658 (would create a pilot, ‘vote by mail’ program in VA)

    • Support, involvement with One Virginia 2021 (Advocates for fair redistricting in the state)

  • Make calls for Christian Worth, the Democratic candidate running in a special election on December 18th that could bring Virginia’s House to 50:50 (contact Daniel Shearer if you’re willing to make calls –

  • Support Yasmine Taeb, who is running against Dick Saslaw in the Democratic Primary for his House seat, as he is heavily supported by Dominion Power

  • For 2019, consider focusing on a few or even one House of Delegates and VA Senate seat, utilizing the races as opportunities for voter education, with strong, broad support for the candidate(s)

Issues (on which people would like to focus)

  • Public education – support, financial support and other advocacy for public schools, better teacher pay, etc, especially in rural areas

    • It was noted that Virginia Organizing is already working on this issue, locally and at the state level

  • Climate Change – we must begin to raise this critical issue with urgency

  • Find or develop better ‘frames’ through which we can discuss abortion, guns and other hot button issues

    • New frame on abortion might emphasize our commitment to children, moms, the elderly and students

Post-Election Reading List

Since my campaign ended, I’ve been catching up on my reading.  As usual, I’ve mostly chosen books that, as my son Josh once said, “add to my sense of moral outrage”.  Oh well.

Among the most eye-opening of these have been two, Ta-Nehisi Coates’ We Were Eight Years in Power and Joan Isenberg’s White Trash:  The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America.  At one level, these highly persuasive books offer fundamentally different premises about inequality and injustice in our nation.  White Trash, as you might expect, focuses on poor and working-class whites and their centuries-long disparagement, economically, politically and culturally.  Isenberg documents this systematic marginalization of folks, originally referred to as “waste people”, going all the way back to Jamestown and the earliest European settlements.  Rather than being an aberration in need of periodic correction, the author reveals how class is baked into America’s DNA, our language and our economic system, from its founding to present times.

Coates’ focus is on the foundational role that white supremacy has played in our nation’s history from the outset, and to a shamefully significant degree, still does today.  The “eight years in power” references two periods in American history when the levers of power began to open, significantly, to African Americans:  The first occurred during Reconstruction following the Civil War’s end; the second was 2008 – 2016, when Barack Obama was president.  While there have certainly been other times when civil rights and racial justice advanced in the US, these two moments stand out, both because they seemed to offer opportunities for fundamental change, and because both were greeted with enormous and violent opposition, as they unfolded and immediately after.  While the severity of the backlash to the gains black people made were far more severe following Reconstruction, Trump’s ascendency likewise has galvanized indignation at the prospect of real equality for African Americans, and unleashed a backlash against all things Obama within the right wing of the political establishment.  Through the essays in his book, Coates makes clear how integral, distinct and enduring white supremacy has been in our country. 

These two extraordinary books together raise urgent and troubling questions: Can we truly overcome systemic racism, in this country?  Can the myth of a color-blind and classless society in the United States ever come to fruition?    And can we accomplish these things not just in our words – where we still have a long way to go – but more importantly in serious, tangible economic and political gains for poor and working class folks of all colors?  I honestly don’t know.  But both Ta-Nehisi Coates and Nancy Isenberg compel me to recognize how enduring injustice has been in our country, and to keep working, in my personal, economic and political life to overcome these core elements of what it means to be an American.  I’m guessing that many of the people who supported my congressional campaign, and those of you committed to building on that effort share these convictions.  Let’s keep at it, and let’s find better, more effective ways to get there.

VA 9th post-election poll results

Flaccavento Campaign:  Summary of Post-election Poll Results

 The Flaccavento for Congress Campaign commissioned a post-election poll in an effort to better understand the reasons Anthony was defeated by a margin of nearly 2:1 by Morgan Griffith, a weak incumbent who ran a lackluster campaign.  The phone poll was conducted by Public Policy Polling, based in North Carolina, on November 16/17, 2018, ten days after the election.  Seven hundred voting households were contacted, well beyond the 400 HH minimum suggested for a population the size of the 9th District.  All findings below pertain solely to the 9th District of Virginia.

What follows is a summary of the poll’s findings, along with some other takeaways from post-election data, including turnout rates and results in specific counties and cities.


Top line poll results:


  • The margin of victory for MG vs AF on election day was 65:35. This was corroborated by the poll which put the margin at 63:33 (4% were unsure or voted for someone else)

  • This margin also dovetails almost exactly with Donald Trump’s job approval rating in the 9th district, with 66% of poll respondents approving of his performance, more than double the 30% who disapproved

  • Survey respondents were asked their reasons for voting for MG, with seven choices given, along with “other/not sure”.  The same question was asked twice, to allow them to give their top two reasons.  Three reasons rose to the top, both as their first choice and as their top two choices:

o   “Liked MG’s policies on things like abortion & guns” (First choice – 39%; first and second combined – 54%)

o   “Wanted to support Pres Trump” (First choice – 25%; combined – 41%)

o   “AF was too liberal” (First choice – 17%; combined – 36%)

  • The fourth most common choice, well behind the top three, was

o   “Happy with how things are going/didn’t want to make a change” with 10%/22%)

  • Wasn’t familiar enough with AF to vote for him” received only 3%/5%.

  • Two other choices that had very low selection rates were: “Always vote Republican” and “My church/pastor encouraged me to vote Republican”.  These are likely lower than is actually the case, as many people would likely not believe, or not want to believe that they always vote the party line, or that their political choices are a direct result of their church’s influence.

  • Asked if they had attended any of the town hall meetings or otherwise met or spoken with AF during the campaign, a surprisingly large 20% said yes, while 77% said no.

  • Demographic information from the poll:

o   44% identified as Republican, 31% as Independent and 25% as Democrats

o   53% were women, 47% men

o   81% identified as rural, 14% as suburban and 5% as urban

o   As with other polls, this sample skewed towards middle aged and older people, likely because of reliance on land lines, with 76% of respondents 46 and older.

Other interesting findings:


  • Views of Trump

o   95% of people who voted for him in 2016 still approve of his job performance, with only 3% disapproving. 

o   Among women in the 9th, an extraordinary 61% approve of Trump’s performance, with only 36% disapproving 

o   Trump also had a 21% approval rating among Democrats and an astounding 50% approval among people aged 18 – 29

  • Women

o   In addition to comparable rates of approval for Trump, female respondents gave the same top three reasons voting for MG, in nearly equal percentages to the overall sample.

  • Race

o   93% of African Americans in the survey disapprove of Trump’s performance and 79% indicated they voted for AF (only 7% voted for MG)

  • Age

o   Trump’s approval rating climbed as age of respondent increased, with the highest approval rating – 70% - among people 46 – 65.  Trump’s approval declined modestly to 63% among people 66 and older

o   MG’s strongest base of support, surprisingly, was among people 30 – 45, with 69% voting for him, declining slightly with age, down to 60% among those 66 and older

o   Millennial respondents (18 – 29) also favored MG over AF, by a margin of 54% to 46%.  Note that this result seems at least somewhat skewed, given our margins of victory in Radford and Blacksburg.  However, it’s worth considering that the millennial vote is far from overwhelming for Democrats in the 9th.

  • Those attending town halls or otherwise met/spoke with AF

o   AF won among those attending a town hall or otherwise meeting AF by 50% to 47% (I guess I should have held 1000 town halls…)

o   Interestingly, 49% of this group approve of Trump while 51% disapprove

  • Poll respondents who voted for AF

o   59% were women

o   31% attended a town hall or otherwise spoke to AF

o   18 % voted for Trump in 2016 and 14% continue to approve of his performance

o   9% identified as Republicans, 32% as independents and 59% as Democrats



 Voter Turnout

As everyone knows, voter turnout increased significantly across the country and the Commonwealth, where 59% of registered voters voted in 2018, up from the mid 40% in the past two mid-terms.  However, while voter turnout in the 9th increased, it was the lowest of all congressional districts at 53%.  Other findings:


  • Comparing voter turnout in 2012 – AF’s first run and a presidential election year – with voter turnout in 2018, we expected lower overall numbers for the midterm. Nevertheless, the drop off in voter turnout between 2012 and 2018 was much higher for Democrats than Republicans

o   Compared with 2012, Republican voters declined by 13%, while the decline in Democratic voters was nearly double, down by 25%

o   In Washington County (AF’s home county), the difference was even more striking: Republican voters declined by 9% while Dem voters fell by 35%

  • Looking at counties where the campaign had a particularly strong presence – several and well attended town halls, very strong core groups, persistent activities, letters to the editor, canvassing and phone banking – the same pattern of higher Democratic voter decline persisted, in spite of what appeared to be very strong energy at the ground level.  This included the counties of Floyd (Rep decline of 6%, Dem decline of 12%), Grayson (R – 1%, D – 35%), Dickenson (R – 20%, Dem – 50%), Wise (R – 25%, D – 43%), Pulaski (R – 11%, D – 23%) and others.  The only exception was the city of Salem, which saw Republican voters decline at twice the rate of Dem voters, 22% vs 11%.

  • Discouragingly, AF lost by comparable margins across the 9th, regardless of the strength of the local effort in place



From the election results themselves, the turnout numbers and the poll results, I’d offer the following thoughts regarding the reasons behind such a resounding loss:


1.     It was not due to lack of name recognition or general knowledge of me or my campaign.  Fewer than 5% of people cited this on the poll, and I lost in counties with the strongest campaign presence by virtually the same margins as in less traveled spaces.  And besides, I lost overwhelmingly in my home county, where I’m pretty well known (and to my knowledge, generally well-regarded).

2.     I do not believe the problem was messaging or “preaching to the choir”.  I hope to test this more through focus groups, but I believe our message had broad, non-partisan appeal and that it was delivered more and more effectively than MG’s message.

3.     Related to the above, it’s clear from the numbers that MG’s voters were in no way confined to working and lower income working people, or to men.  He also won strongly among women.  To have won by 2:1, he almost surely also got significant support from professionals, middle class people and those with college education.

4.     The power of Trump, combined with a fear and or loathing of Democrats around key ‘big issues’ (abortion, guns, likely immigration as well) seems the most likely reason for the loss of this proportion.  At present, this appears more important to voters than local/regional issues, or the performance of their congressman.




Yes! Magazine: "Why Rural America Isn't a Lost Cause for Progressive Ideals"

An excerpt from a new piece at Yes! by Ivy Brashear: 

"Rural politicians across the country are buying into a new way of campaigning, with platforms that might sound more aligned with those of college students living in Berkeley, California, than former miners from the central Appalachian coalfields. They’re talking about raising the minimum wage, universal health care, debt-free college and investing in local assets, like natural landscapes and small business development, instead of industrial recruitment."

Read the full article here. 

And read the full Rural Progressive Platform here. 

What's different about the New Economy?

While there is no one definition for the “new economy”, most folks working in this field would probably agree on a few basic elements that distinguish this economic approach from the current dominant economic model.  I’ve attempted to summarize those below.

Six Elements of Emerging New Economies, Contrasted with the Dominant Economy

1) New economies are more just, work better for people.

The dominant economy has used tax, trade and patent policy to greatly favor huge corporations and the very wealthy over small businesses and working people, leading to extreme levels of wealth concentration at the top alongside stagnant wages for working and middle class people, and growing poverty.  The very wealthy pay lower taxes on much of their income than do teachers and truck drivers; giant corporations pay an effective tax rate that is 6 – 8% less than what small businesses pay.  Trade policy grants corporations the right to sue nations, states and communities over health and environmental protections. You can’t make this stuff up.

In the new economy, small businesses and family farms create more jobs per dollar of sales; by purchasing from other local businesses, they create ‘economic multipliers’ that add much more value to the local economy than do chains and big boxes.  New corporate forms, such as the Benefit Corporation, which commits a business to positive social and environmental outcomes as well as financial profit, are also emerging in the new economy, with over 1000 nationwide.  Some localities have begun to use Community Benefit Agreements to hold big corporations legally accountable for the promises they make.  These and many other creative measures ensure that economies work for people, not the other way around.

2) New economies are more diverse, less dependent on outside corporations, foreign markets.

The dominant economy rests on two core assumptions:  that prosperity requires endless growth, and that jobs and income for the many ‘trickle down’ from the top, so long as taxes on this group are low.  In actuality, the record of the past 60 years demonstrates unequivocally that lower taxes on the wealthiest and on the biggest companies have not made for a bigger economic pie; and economic wealth, rather than trickling down has been sucked up from working people, community banks and small businesses.  There are many reasons for this, but one of them is the subsidies we provide to big boxes and big business, averaging over $100 billion per year.  The results?  Several studies have shown how communities with a diverse array of local businesses are stronger economically and socially, with better incomes, higher employment, and lower rates of poverty, incarceration, health problems and substandard housing, than those dependent upon a few big employers.

In the new economy, small to mid-size businesses take hold that build on the assets of their place, including music, art and culture, farms, forests and fisheries, the outdoors, historic downtowns and more.  Local business associations, like the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies (BALLE) help strengthen these local enterprises and increase the connections between consumers and producers.  Instead of spending millions of dollars to entice a big box chain, resources are redirected to homegrown businesses and entrepreneurs, making for more resilient economies and communities.

3) New economies build broadly-based prosperity, real wealth from the bottom up.

The five biggest Wall Street financial institutions own more than twice the capital of all the community banks in the nation combined.  Yet these mega banks direct very little of their resources towards local prosperity:  The community banks, with just half the assets, provide more than twice as much lending to local businesses.  Big banks, especially since the overturning of the Glass-Stegall Act, concentrate on generating high returns for the biggest, wealthiest investors, often through the use of derivatives and other means that don’t produce tangible wealth.

In the new economy, capital is refocused towards small to mid-sized businesses, towards infrastructure that enables farmers and entrepreneurs to add value to their products, and towards technologies and businesses that meet real needs, such as affordable, green housing, renovated buildings and revitalized downtown business districts, and regenerative farm and food enterprises.  Cooperatives, Employee Stock Ownership options, community land trusts and community-owned energy systems are among the means used to broaden prosperity, while increasing the productivity of businesses.

4) New economies fit within the ecosystem, recognizing limits rather than depending upon endless growth.

The dominant economy both depends upon endless growth and assumes that it is possible forever into the future.  Yet serious limits confront us, from enormous declines in groundwater reserves, to an 80% reduction in productive land per capita, worldwide.  And of course, there’s climate change and the consequences of too much carbon in our atmosphere – drought, floods and severe weather, sea level rise and more.  In spite of these increasingly serious problems, the dominant economy fights all environmental regulation and assumes that technology and ‘the market’ will fix things.

In the new economy, our places, our ecosystems are understood to have limits, but also to present new and better ways of meeting needs and creating work.  From organic farms and restorative fishery systems to super energy efficient building systems and solar and wind power companies, the new economy is spawning products and services that meet people’s needs with far less impact on the environment.  Complementing that is a growing emphasis on urban and community design that makes our towns and cities more walkable, more bike-able and more enjoyable.

5) New economies focus more on meeting real needs, fostering innovation in the process.

The dominant economy has been enormously productive and has made countless products much more affordable for ordinary folks, from cars to computers.  However over the last thirty years or so, it has also become increasingly dependent upon what is called financialization, that is a focus on money and monetary products as a central part of the economy and the policy guiding it.  This has led to what David Korten calls “phantom wealth”, where trillions of dollars of ‘assets’ are traded on Wall Street, making a small group of people spectacularly rich, while real assets – bridges, roads, high speed rail, rural health clinics, waterways and agricultural lands – are neglected and fall into decline.

In the new economy, there is a strong focus on addressing real needs and doing so in a way that helps people and communities to become more self-reliant.

Business incubators and accelerators help local firms be more competitive, more innovative.  Poor communities, from Detroit and Buffalo to Appalachia and the Southeast launch community gardens, urban farms, and ‘green development zones’.  New techniques and systems enable farms to simultaneously increase their productivity while pulling excess carbon from the atmosphere. Businesses put people to work in reclamation of disturbed land, urban brownfields and energy efficient housing.  Lower income people gain access to healthier foods through mobile markets and farmers market EBT initiatives.  In the new economy, the driving question shifts from “Where are the jobs?” to “What work needs to be done?”

6) New economies cultivate citizens, not just consumers.

The dominant economy is now a consumer economy, fundamentally dependent upon more and more people buying more and more stuff.  At the same time, the belief in private, market-based solutions to a whole host of societal problems – from prisons to public schools – has become increasingly commonplace.  Alongside both of these developments is the reality of widespread cynicism, even disgust with politics and government.  Taken together, these trends have convinced many people to give up on civic, political or even neighborhood engagement, believing that their opportunities as well as their responsibilities play out almost entirely as consumers.  

The new economy welcomes the creative force of the marketplace and encourages people to use their dollars to support businesses that reflect their values.  But it recognizes that this is not enough; that in order to have an economy that works well for all people, and that is sustainable into the lives of our grandchildren and beyond, we also need a vibrant democracy and honest public debate.  Many new economies are therefore emerging alongside community based media, arts and theater that give voice to folks from all walks of life.  The revival of public squares, parks and community centers has facilitated both new commerce and broader public participation.  The work of Policy Link and other organizations is helping to find ways to revitalize communities economically without falling into the trap of gentrification and even greater racial segregation.


*Originally published at