Assistant Professor of English, University of Michigan-Flint. I research and teach rhetoric, technology, and writing.
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Russia and Rot

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If Trump colluded with the Russians to influence the election, it would be a very bad thing. If said collusion provides a path to remove him from office, then that would be a good thing. That both of those points are true, however, does not detract from the equally true fact that liberal obsession with the Russia issue is a symptom of a much deeper blindness about the reality of our political situation.

Unless the Russians literally hacked into voting machines — which no one is alleging as far as I can tell — then their interference ultimately depends on finding a receptive audience. Putin did not and could not create such an audience. That is a completely home-grown phenomenon. Assuming the Russia story is true, it is undoubtedly bad that Putin was able to manipulate the American public with transparent bullshit, to the point that a vulgar incompetent bigot who has never held a job in his life could be appointed to the most powerful office on earth. No question, we’re dealing with something bad that we should be upset about. And yet surely the very fact that such a scheme was possible in the first place is the real problem. It points to a deep rot in American public discourse, of which anyone who has ever visited home for Thanksgiving was surely aware.

The Democratic leadership, it appears, has never visited home for Thanksgiving. The very fact that they could nominate Hillary Clinton in an election where literally everything the Democrats have achieved in the last eight years depended on keeping a Democrat in the White House shows how profoundly naive they are. One of the most notable symptoms of the rot in American political discourse is that approximately 40% of our fellow citizens will believe anything about Hillary Clinton, as long as it’s bad. They don’t even need to be directly presented with the evil deeds — they can piece them together from any available evidence, such as her campaign manager’s suggestion, leaked as part of the nefarious e-mails, that they go to a particular pizza parlor. This led to a viral story about how Hillary Clinton was running a child molestation club. The fact that this kind of obvious bullshit was not reported to oblivion on social media, the fact that reasonable conservatives did not shame their friends and relatives for sharing such a shameful thing, is a symptom of the rot.

It’s not fair to Hillary Clinton, but I don’t care about Hillary Clinton’s personal ambitions. The country was not worth risking for the sake of eking out a historic win for her. The hatred of 40% of Americans for Hillary Clinton is a fact, as is the fact that many of those Americans are college-educated suburban American women. I know one of those women: my own mother, who could never bring herself to vote for someone so vile as Hillary Clinton and who didn’t vote for Trump so much as against that woman. Alienating the Democratic base for the sake of reaching those women was delusional, just as assuming that once the Russia connections are revealed, surely Trump supporters will realize they were scammed is delusional. There was already ample evidence that Trump was running a scam. There has seldom been as much evidence for anything in all of human history. Is adding Russia into the mix going to tip the balance? We already know that many Trump supporters are all too eager to embrace Russia as an ally precisely because Trump is favorable to Putin — what do you expect to happen when they learn that Russia is helping their idol?

We may be past the point of persuasion here, at least when it comes to Trump’s person. There may still be room for persuasion when it comes to things that affect people’s lives — like health care, for instance, where there has been a groundswell of revulsion against the Republicans’ sick policy proposals. Against all odds, it would appear that the Rube Goldberg machine we know as Obamacare managed to convince many of our fellow citizens that guaranteeing access to health care is a good idea, a fact to which Trump testified through his transparent lies about replacing it with something “even better.”

We know there is only one possible policy outcome that is significantly better than Obamacare: single-payer healthcare. So naturally, the Democrats are digging in their heels and refusing to do anything that could change the brilliant policy that arguably cost them the House and, via the redistricting that Republicans controlled after 2010, all hope for the future. Obamacare is the thing that the Democrats did, and we need to respect that by doing nothing further. And this is vintage Hillary Clinton, who all but told us outright that she wasn’t going to patronize us by hinting that anything could ever get better.

America is already great! Can you blame the unwashed red-state masses who read the campaign as a declaration that the people they hate wanted them to hate Trump more? Yes, yes, they should have known. They should have woken up and stood in line and defied their communities and churches so that they could vote for the party of nothing, headed up by the person they’ve been trained to hate for the last twenty years. How could they have been so stupid? The only answer is to keep offering them nothing and telling them they’re stupid, until they finally come around.


Filed under: politics of the absurd



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betajames
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The university in the populist age

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Right-wing populism threatens the future of higher education, but remaining passive and retreating to a disinterested vision of the university will actually strengthen the attacks. Faculty have a responsibility to work in solidarity to fight back against these threats.

Right-wing populism has been on the rise in recent years, intensifying following the 2008 global financial crisis. 2016 marked a key moment in the right populist turn, with both Brexit and the US Presidential election constituting formal political legitimacy for right-wing populist leaders and movements. Despite widespread opposition following the election of Donald Trump—itself often taking populist forms—a range of right-wing populist forces continue to push forward. In both Europe and North America, anti-immigrant and anti-Islamic rhetoric and violence has escalated. Populist figures are giving voice to and emboldening longstanding racist and xenophobic currents in western societies. Other variants of authoritarian right-wing populism are also growing. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s government in Turkey has now dismissed over 7,000 academics and in some cases jailed scholars.

Not surprisingly, many academics fear populism. Distrust of elites, perhaps the primary defining feature of populism, is a threat to universities as they currently operate. The threat extends to those who make a living in postsecondary education, be they tenured professors, precarious contract faculty, or staff. Of course, populist attacks on the university are nothing new. Beginning as Plato’s training ground for elites, disagreements about the role of universities as sites of advanced education for the masses versus institutions for the aristocracy have long existed. Most recently in Ontario, the Mike Harris years were harsh for universities. As Paul Martin cut transfer payments to the provinces in the mid-1990s, Harris followed suit with a 25 per cent cut to postsecondary funding at a time when enrolment was growing. Budget cuts were facilitated by popular skepticism towards traditional academic research and an emphasis on the need for job relevancy in university programs. There were protests, but it was relatively easy for Harris to gut education spending (as opposed to healthcare) as he operationalized his populist Common Sense Revolution.

We noted the fluidity of the term populism in a 2014 article in Labor Studies Journal, in which we identified core elements of the term (e.g. anti-elitism, productivism, etc.). Despite the democratization of postsecondary education in Canada in the post-war period, universities remain vulnerable to right-wing populist agendas. Consider the everyday productivist attacks on public sector workers who allegedly produce nothing of value. These attacks extend to well-paid university faculty, often perceived as privileged elites with secure jobs and pensions, who are constantly scapegoated by both politicians and right-wing media. Academic research is written off as obscure, inaccessible, and simply not up to the task of addressing society’s real problems or of providing students with the skills they need for the labour market. Critics claim the only thing university education offers is mounting student debt and a degree that no longer leads to a middle-class job.

Populist attacks extend into the realm of conspiracy as universities are cast as breeding grounds for political correctness, the feminization of society, and Marxist thought police. Protests organized against campus visits by extreme right-wing public figures such as Ann Coulter, Milo Yiannopoulos, or Gavin McInnes are cited as threats to freedom of speech. Students fighting racism, colonialism, and xenophobia on and off campus spawn nativist backlash. Authoritarians craft the above narrative to strengthen their own cult of leadership and pave the way for funding cuts when they are in power, creating a nexus between right-wing populism and austerity. Indeed, these recent populist attacks are inevitably coupled with the longstanding and ongoing neoliberal transformation of the university. This transformation, supported by right-wing populism includes the casualization of academic labour and the shift away from tenure-stream appointments; increases in performance measurement; work intensification for all employees; and a top-down managerialism that undermines processes of collegial governance. All of this occurs in the midst of manufactured fiscal crises and escalating tuition fees.

Populist attacks on universities are not, however, merely external: they also come from within. As Steven Zhou has reported in articles for the CBC and Now Magazine, there has been an upsurge in racism on campuses in Canada, masquerading as right-wing populism. Our own campus at York University has recently seen both racist graffiti and alt-right recruitment materials. The University of Toronto’s Jordan Peterson has parlayed his refusal to recognize genderless pronouns into a freedom of expression crusade adored by the right. If we further consider that Kellie Leitch, one of the Trumpian contenders for the leadership of the Conservative Party of Canada, had an academic administrative career before entering federal politics, we see that right-wing populists do emerge from our own university ranks.

At the same time, there has been resistance from within universities by those who contest neoliberal and right-wing populist visions. Workers on university campuses have pushed back against casualization through union organizing, collective bargaining, and striking. Faculty associations have challenged the power of central administrations, questioning elitist and anti-democratic practices. Coalitions involving students and university workers have supported broader movements of resistance against economic injustice and racism, such as the recent successful strike of York food service workers against Aramark. There are signs that such movements will continue to grow, offering hope that alternatives to right populism and the neoliberal university remain possible.

Yet the struggle against current forms of authoritarian right-wing populism is only beginning. Our instincts may be to resist all populist attacks on universities, internal and external, but what if university workers and students embraced populism? Here, we are not suggesting any accommodation to right-wing populism, but rather a serious engagement with the underlying structures that make universities its fundamental targets. A counter populism must acknowledge the real disconnect between universities as sites of knowledge production and the broader public good. Imagining a progressive populist university as a means of resistance is possible.

First and foremost, a progressive populist university will have to seriously address the persistent elitism of the academy. While there has been ample work on democratizing the classroom and knowledge mobilization, this is far from a complete project. In the US case, it is argued that commodified universities are increasingly Platonized institutions where accessibility is limited, liberal education remains elitist, and academics have retreated into obscure, idealist research divorced from the issues facing communities. There will always be a place for theory for theory’s sake in academia, but research and teaching that engages communities is necessary and should be promoted. We are not speaking about communities as sites or objects of research, but rather about a research process that is deeply rooted in community-based concerns. Genuine academic-community partnerships are oriented towards addressing the interests of all those involved, not solely on producing measurable research outputs.

As to questions of tenured job security and academic freedom, these are interpreted as elitist privileges. There are countless opinion pieces and blog posts arguing that professors should abandon tenure as a Cold War relic and face accountability and job performance measures similar to other workers in precarious labour markets. However, there is another possibility not often considered: the expansion of employment security as a more universalized practice. Such an extension is realistic if one considers the popular support society has demonstrated for protecting whistleblowers and dissenters who witness wrongdoing. Viewing tenure only as a necessary protection for full-time academic workers simply fuels anti-elitism. Defending the tenure system requires the promotion of secure employment across labour markets as a more general social and economic goal. Here, faculty unions must go on the offensive and start building coalitions with teachers and other public sector workers to extend job security and academic freedom protections beyond the university walls.

A progressive populist university could channel anti-elitist politics towards the highly paid administrators who have ushered in neoliberal managerialism. In this case, a healthy distrust of administrative elites is warranted. Populist campaigns against exorbitant presidential and senior administrative salaries, the dramatic expansion of administrative ranks, the undermining of collegial governance, and investment in vanity capital projects may provide the means to reconnect universities with the broader public good.

Most academics rightly condemn conspiratorial thinking. Warnings about the supposedly evil machinations of elites cannot substitute for analyses of the systems of colonialism, capitalism, patriarchy, and white supremacy that right-wing populism seeks to reproduce. Yet, naming the institutions and actors that reproduce oppressive structures is a necessary part of any analysis. Universities can play a role in exposing those behind the right-wing think tanks who attack liberal education. In Ontario, proposals promoted by the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario to differentiate the university system into flagship, research, and teaching institutions can be addressed as a conspiracy to cut costs, devalue research, and tier the university system. This must be countered by revealing how this vision will produce a future system with grossly unequal universities incapable of confronting authoritarian power.

As white supremacy and nativism are entrenched in right-wing populism, so must a progressive populism construct a cosmopolitan ethos that recognizes universities as institutions with the power to build social justice. A clear stand must be taken to reject accusations that campus-based actions to counter the spread of hatred limit free speech. A progressive populist university creates space for campus coalitions that appreciate both the context of specific campus struggles and the importance of broader solidarity in achieving social justice across society.

Further, as counter to the current climate of xenophobia, universities can play a role in providing sanctuary for students and academics fleeing conflict zones. A progressive populist university would not only support these scholars, but also value their experiences as necessary to understanding and improving the global condition. At the same time, we should support racialized faculty who find themselves restricted from traveling to the US for research or large conferences—whether by the travel ban itself or due to conscientious objections and expressions of solidarity. This may involve a larger populist critique of US academic imperialism, especially as the global centre of intellectual exchange.

Building a progressive populism will require change, which must include a transformation of our faculty unions. First, faculty unions will have to stop acting like ancient guilds protecting the narrow interests of members. A start will be to reach out to contract faculty and start using the power we have to normalize employment relationships away from precarity. In the short term, this may involve unions shifting demands away from wages and working conditions and towards demands for more full-time hiring. Material sacrifices will have to made (especially by senior administrators). Failing to do so threatens the very existence of a full-time professoriate.

Second, community engagement must be taken seriously and must not be dismissed as a retreat to anti-intellectualism. Many researchers are already deeply engaged in community research and have been for decades. We must learn from others and work to accept different sources of knowledge as legitimate—whether they are from Indigenous groups, labour unions, environmentalist organizations, the business community, or community-based advocacy groups. These collaborative methodologies and relationships must be developed and heralded every time we are accused of disengaged, solitary, elitist research. Continuing in this direction will require replacing a narrow emphasis on academic publishing in specialized journals with a more expansive valuing of a range of research and dissemination activities.

Community engagement can extend into the university classroom. The intern economy has been critically challenged in recent years, as exploitative unpaid internships detached from real training have grown rapidly. Yet, students demand experiential learning opportunities outside the classroom. Such opportunities should be restructured in ways that contribute to meaningful training and skills development, and that expose students to other forms of learning.

Inevitably, this leads to the debate about whether a liberal education trains students for jobs or citizenship. A progressive populist university rejects this false binary. If we are educating students for their future lives, it should be for the many aspects of what that life might be—and of which work is just one consideration. Only emphasizing the Platonic intellectual life of students or their prospects for employment ignores their multiple material and social needs.

But who do we trust to usher in a progressive populist university? Here, we can turn to our unions; but we may require a more radical imagining of collegial governance than that which unions are trying to salvage in the face of growing managerialism. Efforts to contest the lack of transparency of administrative appointments and the centralization of decision-making are crucial. At the same time, we must not be overly nostalgic for past models of collegial governance that were flawed. Small groups (of mostly white men) determining policy and allocation of resources with (mostly white male) Deans was far from a democratic ideal.

If a progressive populism is to challenge the administrative elite of universities (and reduce the number of managers), we will have to rebuild our self-managerial capacities. Taking back our universities will involve educating faculty, students, and staff about university budgets and the strategic goals of the state. Fortunately, there are signs that this is happening, including in the efforts of campus coalitions working to develop alternative university budget models that expose the financial manipulations of university financial officers.

Remaining static and retreating to a Platonized university is not an option. Building a progressive populist university as a means of fighting back against right-wing populist attacks on our institutions may be a necessary strategy. In the face of the rising tide of right-wing populism, the very real threats of ongoing and further violence against racialized and im/migrant communities, and the potential for deeper tendencies of authoritarian austerity, reshaping the university in the age of populism is not just about the postsecondary system. Rather, the struggle constitutes an element of the most pressing political crisis of our time. Failure to push back against authoritarian right-wing populism now may very well lead us to the point of contemplating the university in an age of fascism. AM

Steven Tufts is an Associate Professor in the Department of Geography at York University; Mark Thomas is an Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology and Director of the Global Labour Research Centre at York University

The post The university in the populist age appeared first on Academic Matters.

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betajames
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Why the mayor of New Orleans had Confederate statues torn down

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New Orleans mayor Mitch Landrieu recently gave a speech about why the city chose to remove four Confederate monuments. Here’s a snippet from the transcript…it’s worth reading or watching in full.

The historic record is clear: the Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, and P.G.T. Beauregard statues were not erected just to honor these men, but as part of the movement which became known as The Cult of the Lost Cause. This ‘cult’ had one goal — through monuments and through other means — to rewrite history to hide the truth, which is that the Confederacy was on the wrong side of humanity.

First erected over 166 years after the founding of our city and 19 years after the end of the Civil War, the monuments that we took down were meant to rebrand the history of our city and the ideals of a defeated Confederacy.

It is self-evident that these men did not fight for the United States of America, They fought against it. They may have been warriors, but in this cause they were not patriots.

These statues are not just stone and metal. They are not just innocent remembrances of a benign history. These monuments purposefully celebrate a fictional, sanitized Confederacy; ignoring the death, ignoring the enslavement, and the terror that it actually stood for.

After the Civil War, these statues were a part of that terrorism as much as a burning cross on someone’s lawn; they were erected purposefully to send a strong message to all who walked in their shadows about who was still in charge in this city.

The presence of the monuments became something that was impossible for Landrieu and the city to ignore for any longer:

Another friend asked me to consider these four monuments from the perspective of an African American mother or father trying to explain to their fifth grade daughter who Robert E. Lee is and why he stands atop of our beautiful city. Can you do it?

Can you look into that young girl’s eyes and convince her that Robert E. Lee is there to encourage her? Do you think she will feel inspired and hopeful by that story? Do these monuments help her see a future with limitless potential? Have you ever thought that if her potential is limited, yours and mine are too?

Tags: Civil War   Mitch Landrieu   New Orleans   racism   war
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betajames
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sirshannon
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"It is self-evident that these men did not fight for the United States of America, They fought against it. They may have been warriors, but in this cause they were not patriots."

Eight Theses Regarding Social Media

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1. Social media are the fidget spinners of the soul.

2. Each social media platform is a drug we self-prescribe and consume in order to regulate our emotional life, and we are constantly experimenting with the cocktail.

3. Law of Digital Relativity: Perception of space and time is relative to the digital density of the observer’s experience.

4. Affect overload is a more serious problem than information overload. The product of both is moral apathy and mental exhaustion.

5. While text and image flourish online, the psycho-dynamics of digital culture are most akin to those of oral cultures (per Walter Ong).

6. Just as the consumer economy was boundless in its power to commodify, so the attention economy is boundless in its power to render reality standing reserve for the project of identity construction/performance. The two processes, of course, are not unrelated.

7. In the attention economy, strategic silence is power. But, because of the above, it is also a deeply demanding practice of self-denial.

8. Virtue is self-forgetting. The structures of social media make it impossible to forget yourself.

 




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Trump’s scorched-earth budget: $1.7 trillion in cuts to vital social programs

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Trump’s fiscal year 2018 budget, titled “A New Foundation for American Greatness,” is a 52-page declaration of war against the working class.
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In Trump's America, Infrastructure Is Not For the People

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President Trump’s 2018 budget proposal warns that ongoing neglect of America’s roads, bridges, and trains will have consequences. “If the United States continues to underinvest in infrastructure, we will continue to fall further and further behind our peers,” it states.

In the distant universe of nine months ago, such talk might have rallied Americans on both sides of the political aisle. Public money for stuff everyone uses! Huzzah! But the year is 2017, and America’s worst landlord sits in the Oval Office. When the White House clucks its tongue at the state of the nation’s failure to invest in infrastructure, it does not then go on to suggest that government should pay for infrastructure: “[S]imply providing more Federal funding for infrastructure is not the solution.”

There’s not a lot of explanation about why that is, but the budget does details which transportation funding sources deserve to be axed. The U.S. DOT faces a 13 percent slash to its total discretionary budget. Between cuts to Amtrak, regional transit grants, and a plug-pull to the ailing Highway Trust Fund, a theme emerges: Projects that can’t turn a dime don’t deserve federal taxpayer support. Which means most infrastructure projects. Fixing roads, building bridges, and running trains, it seems, is worthwhile only when someone can profit.  

Let’s start with the source of about 25 percent of public highway and mass transit spending nationwide: the Highway Trust Fund. The HTF is supposed to be stocked with fuel tax revenues, but it’s faced insolvency for years, as Congress refuses to raise the gas tax to keep up with rising construction costs and cars become more fuel-efficient. So Congress has had to stabilize the HFT by drawing from other pots.

Trump’s budget reduces HTF life-support by $95 billion by 2027. The budget expects that with such a withdrawal, “Highway Trust Fund outlays” will “conform to baseline levels of Highway Trust Fund revenues.” In other words, the administration will let it live on whatever tax revenues it’s designed to bring in.

Those numbers don’t add up. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that the Trust Fund will face a deficit of $139 billion by 2027 without additional infusions. So Team Trump seems to have forgotten $45 billion, somewhere. Chalk that up to the budget’s generally baseless accounting, perhaps.

Setting that aside, balancing the trust fund seems like a good idea. But this budget doesn’t propose a way to help it generate more revenues. So what happens the roads and transit systems that the fund is supposed to pay for?

For highways, the answer is lassoing capital from the private sector. Rather than directly fund many infrastructure projects, the administration plans to leverage $200 billion in public funds to incentivize “$1 trillion in private/public infrastructure investment” over the next ten years.

The alchemy that turns $200 billion into $1 trillion features nowhere in the budget. In a fact sheet on this “infrastructure initiative,” the White House explains it will “pursue” a number of strategies to nudge investors into the occasionally-lucrative road-building game. Mostly, it’s free lunch for private investors: For example, the administration hopes to lift the cap on how many tax-exempt bonds the government is allowed to sell to investors. They may also liberalize tolling policies, and allow companies to take over rest stops and other roadside amenities. They’ll expand certain federal grant programs, such as TIFIA, that are specifically designed for projects that can leverage private investment, using tax breaks.

“Trump budget trickle down: Cut direct spending from Highway Trust Fund and replace it with tax credits to elite Wall Street investors,” tweeted Kevin DeGood, the director of infrastructure policy at the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning think tank. Pretty much.

What happens to transit in a world where transportation is expected to be a revenue stream? The kinds of projects that entice corporate cash are largely limited to toll roads. Most transit systems require high public subsidies, and are rarely profitable. (We subsidize it, of course, because it creates all kinds of public goods, from displacing cars to reducing pollution to increasing economic mobility.) So no surprise to find transit on the chopping block elsewhere in Trump’s budget.

Support for Amtrak’s long-distance travel services is halved. The highly competitive TIGER discretionary grant program, beloved on both sides of the political aisle, is completely eliminated. (TIGER grants have often gone to transformative mobility projects in areas that don’t otherwise get a lot of federal support or can’t provide significant matching funds.) Money for the Federal Transit Administration's “New Starts” grants is also cut by roughly half; only projects that have already received the green light will be funded. That means many of the visionary urban transit projects that won over local voters at the ballots last November won’t get the support they planned on.

Indeed, the “New Starts” section of the budget manages to be both patronizing and seemingly ignorant of how those projects are supposed to be funded. “Several major metropolitan areas, including Denver, Los Angeles, and Seattle, have already begun to move in this direction by asking residents to approve multi-billion dollar bond measures to speed the delivery of highway and transit investments,” it states. “These regions realize waiting for Federal grant funding is not the most efficient way to meet their local transportation needs.”

But those regions are relying on federal dollars to match those local resources. “A lack of federal funds at current levels would impact Metro’s ability to deliver project promises in Measure M,” Joni Goheen, the head of communications at L.A. Metro, said in March.

Thin federal support for transportation projects isn’t really anything new, given how long the gas tax has been on the struggle bus. But this budget proposal—which may very well fail to pass Congress with a shred intact—makes a different statement. “Federal resources should be focused on making targeted investments that can leverage private sector investment and incentivize the creation of revenue streams where possible,” the budget states.

Such a philosophy goes beyond the GOP’s usual reluctance to fund transportation. It resists the notion that mobility is a public good. Instead, it becomes a funnel into someone else’s pocket.

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