Democratic Debates Are Very Senior Moments

Debates remain stale and milquetoast for very specific reasons

Publisher’s Riff

for more analysis, listen to Reality Check on WURD today at 4pm ET, streamed live at, in Philly on 96.1 FM / 900 AM | #RealityCheck @ellisonreport

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Many observers of the 2020 Democratic debates so far are looking for radical, even revolutionary, moments. Or, rather, moments in which both moderators and candidates will enthusiastically ask and answer questions on a wide range of complex and unaddressed social, economic and equity issues. Many watching want earnest and very deep dive solution-based discussions on not just healthcare, but on affordable housing, tackling wage inequality, eradicating systemic racism, eliminating labor discrimination, creating better schools and ways in which we reduce a stubbornly high low-income population. In essence, folks want these debates as an opportunity to really dig deeply into some serious quality of life issues.

That’s not going to happen. Look at what happened last night and it can't be said enough: not sure how MSNBC could brag about itself checking off Black culture box by holding this debate in Atlanta in a Black-owned Tyler Perry studio and, yet, have its moderators (including the Black one) fail to ask any question about voting rights and voter suppression. First question should be about a Georgia that recently experienced hundreds of thousands of purged and deleted Black voters. With 2020 on the horizon, for some reason, Democratic debate moderators are not prioritizing the issue despite its massive importance and should be called out on it. The issue was finally raised, but not until Cory Booker, eager to catch some kind of fire, pushed it after more than an hour skipping over it.

This is typical for these debates. The range of questions vary, but they’re lazy due to their confinement to what we see in cable news headlines and only what the hosts and producers of key shows want to talk about. Any topic that presents too much complexity or screams for urgency or some form of mass social protest is avoided. Climate crisis, for example, is another one of those topics where it’s as alarming as hell, but moderators still seem reluctant to drill on it and candidates clearly show they don’t have good answers for it. So, it only got the to-do list treatment yesterday evening.

Better course of action would be for the DNC and networks to do single issue debates. Dedicate an hour or two debate to having candidates square-off on and totally unpack on one specific issue category. The current tendency to jam every issue into one session is never fulfilling and never gives us a real sense that candidates have genuinely thought these issues through.

There’s a key reason for that: these are very middle-class, very 45+ years of age, very $50-$60K annual salary, homeowner affairs. The issue of taxes being drawn out of their paychecks, property, and retirement accounts become much more prevalent. Most don’t really want any major change to their healthcare, the current bureaucracy of it scares them enough; they just want healthcare that’s available and good. And, oh yeah, many of the older folks (especially the churchgoing ones) don’t particular care for all these young people around them smelling like weed - sorry: that’s just the perception.

Candidate campaign teams and advisors aren’t putting as much thought into energizing anything less-income or lower age. They’ll talk the game of doing such, but the dominants in the field, for the most part, will ultimately dance to the whims of a specific set of demographics.

It’s one of the reasons Joe Biden, comfortably ahead in many key polls, won’t budge to the Twitter-gentsia and seems unfazed (for now) at the lack of open support from the younger blocs. One can argue that Biden is even dismissive of the younger bloc. He’ll worry about it later. It’s another reason why late entrant Democratic establishment moderates like Michael Bloomberg and Deval Patrick think they’ve got some kind of shot.

Much of it has to do with key exit polling data from 2016 and 2018. A pattern emerges.

Here’s overall 2016 exit polling on age and income worth noting …

2016 early Democratic primary state exit polling …

Iowa (Clinton win)

New Hampshire (Sanders win)

South Carolina (Clinton win)

Nevada (Clinton win)


Fast forward to the 2018 midterms for overall national exit polling and we see that pattern on age and income, again …

Older voters are much more present and dominant in primaries and that’s what Biden is focused on right now. Younger voters show signs of spiking up in the general election, and any nominee will need them energized by that time - but, for now, it’s a bridge to cross when the eventual nominee gets there. And despite the claim that Trump’s 2016 win was the result of a “White working class” tilt in his direction, let’s not forget that he actually won most voters making over $50K or more.

How to Have an Urgent 2020 Census Talk

It's time to take gloves off on a very crucial Census in 2020

Publisher’s Riff

for more analysis, listen to Reality Check on WURD Mon - Thur, 4-7pm ET, streamed live at, in Philly on 96.1 FM / 900 AM | #RealityCheck @ellisonreport

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Judging from the flat and barely noticeable national conversation on the critical importance of needed mass Black participation in the Census, it’s business as usual from various community organizations who are rolling out campaigns eleventh hour.

The problem is that not only have these campaigns failed to achive an urgent, fevered pitch, but the messaging has not been crafted in such a way that makes the conversation relatable to the broader Black audience which needs all hands on deck for this exercise. Response to the urgency of the Census should be done in a way reminiscent of mass Black-oriented marketing successes such as Marvel’s Black Panther film and the first release of the Popeye’s franchise chicken sandwich.


That hasn’t happened, yet. The scheduled 2020 Census promises to - once again - dramatically decrease the official Black population in the United States. The consequences of this are both enormous and fatally dangerous to Black communities nationwide. This is, clearly, by design and reflects a centuries-long, ongoing and nefarious effort by the federal government to actively diminish and “disappear” the presence of Black people in the United States through any means at their disposal. Indeed, the Census has been weaponized in such a way. Take a look at undercount trends since 1950 …

We know the Census Bureau won’t take any major steps towards rectifying or correcting undercounts because it never has. In fact, it’s more involved in underfunding itself or looking for creative ways to streamline its mandated responsibility as opposed to doing it fully and comprehensively …

That burden of increased Census participation will fall on us.

This cannot be business as usual on the part of Black grassroots and community advocate infrastructure which includes large organizations such as the National Urban League, the NAACP and the National Action Network to name a few. Black churches should be mobilizing congregations every Sunday while every effort is made to reach every visible and/or known Black person in every venue including schools, barbershops, hair salons, nail places, parks, sports games, concerts, and through urban radio. That effort should coincide with or be attached to aggressive voter mobilization efforts. Instead, the Census conversation and campaign effort seems very grasstops at the moment; it’s a box checked off by social network groups, fraternities and sororities looking for community service points.

But, we can’t be cute about this. No stone should be left unturned. Every creative effort should be made to ensure every Black person possible is answering the 10-question Census, by 1) mailed questionnaire, by 2) phone or 3) online. Every effort should be made to ensure households know when to look out for their unique identifier in the mail, the ID they’ll need to take the Census online, which will look this …

… and to not consider if junk mail.

Yet, there are no visible signs of anything ambitious or a tipping point national moment where the public is freaking out over predicted mass undercounts of Black persons - and, yes, we should be freaking out about it.

Here are several key points to push when having that Census conversation:

Don’t Make Yourself Invisible

That’s pretty much what an undercount amounts to: making Black people disappear. And if you want the federal government, in collusion with state and local governments who rely on this “authoritative” data to consider you as not existing then, go ahead, be our guest and don’t take the Census. While we keep saying the national Black population is 13 percent, it’s really 15 percent or more.

The Census Bureau itself, in a casual “our bad” mea culpa, admitted to undercounts back in 2010 after the last decennial exercise …

Notice how the Black undercount was the most significant compared to all other racial groups?

Indeed, notice the states with the highest concentrations of Black residents are projected to experience the most drastic medium-to-high risk undercounts, according to the Urban Institute graphic below …

Fewer Black People = Less Political Representation

Don’t let obscure or very academic terms used to describe important elements of the Census put you to sleep. Stay alert. When you’re not counted in the Census, your community loses the 1) “apportionment” game - which means you lose Members of Congress to represent you in the Congress. Fewer members of Congress means you not only lose representation, but you just lost out on a chance at federal resources, responsiveness and money. In addition, you also lose the 2) “redistricting” game - which means the Congressional, state legislator or local lawmaker district you live in not only loses clout, but the fewer Black people counted in it means the lawmaker is conveniently less inclined to take you seriously … because, once again, he/she is under the official impression that, well, “there’s not that many of them living in my district, anyway.”

Your Community Will Get Fewer to No Federal Dollars

The last 2010 Census determined how nearly $700 billion in federal funds would get distributed to communities for everything from schools, roads, Medicaid, school lunches, grants and more. This 2020 Census raises that stake to $900 billion - and that doesn’t even include the appropriation of billions of dollars more policymakers will determine based on existing Census data. These are the top 10 federal programs most reliant on federal dollars from the 2010 Census, according to the Tax Policy Center

Undercounts Exacerbate “Gentrification,” the Affordable Living Crisis and Food Insecurity

Lots of people are upset about “gentrification” and the displacement of urban Black populations that happens as a result of higher rents, escalating housing prices and bad schools - but, no one is talking about participating fully in the Census as a strategy to help solve that.

It’s simple: the fewer Black people counted in a community gives landlords, real estate developers, employers, grocery stores, mass transit agencies and school districts a variety of excuses to make living standards that much harder for economically distressed and already strapped Black populations …

  • Rents are systematically raised because the impression, based on Census data, is that more middle-class White professionals who can afford higher rent have moved in.

  • Housing prices spike up and homes become unaffordable because, well, there is less of the financially-distressed population in that geographic space.

  • Businesses rely on Census data, as well, among one of several research tools to determine if it’s feasible for them to set up shop in a community. Fewer businesses in a community mean fewer market options and fewer jobs for people living in that community - meaning residents have to travel farther to get to a job. But, then …

  • Mass transit agencies cut bus routes and other services if they believe (or use the Census data to believe) they are fewer people in a community to service.

  • Grocery stores won’t build if it’s perceived the market conditions aren’t ideal, based on Census data, hence the expansion of food deserts leading to food insecurity … and, well, more “dollar stores” with unhealthy, cheap carcinogenic food to buy.

  • School districts are slow to invest in, renovate or improve neighborhood schools if Census data show fewer families and children to service.

The Census is the Most Important Thing in 2020

... and, it seems, we're not doing a damn thing about it

Publisher’s Riff

for more analysis, listen to Reality Check on WURD Mon - Thur, 4-7pm ET, streamed live at, in Philly on 96.1 FM / 900 AM | #RealityCheck @ellisonreport

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The three most important actions every American resident should take in 2020 are the following:

  • file taxes

  • vote

  • take the Census

Arguably, the most important of those three activities is full participation in the Census. This task is one of the most crucial, if not the most crucial, life-and-death or existential imperatives for Black people in the United States.

And, yet, there’s little noise being made about it. Collectively, Black communities are talking more about Colin Kaepernick’s beef with the NFL and Byron Allen’s lawsuit against Comcast than they are the Census - the latter which they have much more direct control over than the first two issues.

It’s easy for a topic as wonkish and technical as the Census to lost in the issue mix. After all, there’s so much else to talk about. But, it’s tragic and telling that the only time it has been a big deal is on the question of a “citizenship” question in the Census questionnaire. That question was settled - but, it had little to do with the much more egregious and dangerous possibility of yet another massive undercounting of the U.S. Black population. The Urban Institute projects an undercount of the national Black population as high as nearly 4 percent.

This is serious. The Constitution - Article 1, Section 2 - mandates a full count of all residents in the United States. Yet, since it’s start in 1790, the federal government has looked for every opportunity it could find to make the Black population in the U.S. as invisible and as powerless as possible through the decennial (every 10 year count). It’s done this through a variety of sinister methods over the centuries. Fighting back against this systematic effort simply requires a massive effort to ensure every last Black resident in the United States takes the Census - a very free (no-charge, no-fee), 10-question activity that shouldn’t take more than 10-15 minutes out of a person’s day. Where’s the outrage and where’s the movement?

So, What Exactly is a Crime?

Americans really have to ask themselves what constitutes a crime or an impeachable offense

Publisher’s Riff

for more analysis, listen to Reality Check on WURD Mon - Thur, 4-7pm ET, streamed live at, in Philly on 96.1 FM / 900 AM | #RealityCheck @ellisonreport

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As impeachment hearings continue, Americans should ask themselves a much more crucial and, arguably, central question: What exactly is a crime?

This is a fundamental question. It’s at the very core of the conversation surrounding misdeeds of the current president and why House Democrats decided to pursue an impeachment inquiry. And it’s because of that question that House Democrats really have no other option but to see the process through, as politically treacherous as that exercise might seem and as divided as the public is on it.

Critics and observers alike have cast doubt on whether Congressional Democrats’ case against Donald Trump stands on solid legal ground. Some even argue that what President Trump did was not a bribe. Many, even some legal scholars, suggest murkiness around the charge that a crime or a form of “impeachable offense” (since a crime isn’t necessary to charge such an offense) took place when President Trump imposed conditions on Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. What we do know is that it was highly inappropriate, undiplomatic and unprecedented, as we see from this very telling exchange during Wednesday’s first public impeachment hearing before the House Intelligence Committee …

COUNSEL DANIEL GOLDMAN: “Have you ever seen another example of foreign aid conditioned on the personal or political interests of the president of the United States?”

AMB. BILL TAYLOR: “No, Mr. Goldman, I have not.”

That cloudiness around whether or not this was a crime or an impeachable offense raises a key question all Americans should ask themselves: If this isn’t a crime or the type of behavior that warrants a punishment then what act does?

What are we saying in this particular case? Are we saying that an American president asking a foreign nation to publicly investigate an American citizen and political opponent in exchange for nearly a half billion dollars in military equipment - and putting national security at high risk - is not a crime or an impeachable offense? But, since Congress did impeach President Bill Clinton in 1998, are we then saying that an American president engaged in personally embarrassing sexual behavior inside the Oval Office - and then lying about it - is a crime or an impeachable offense? It’s why it’s essential, at every turn of the discourse, for media, lawmakers and voters to constantly reference the Clinton impeachment and to compare the behavior that was used to impeach that president then against the very dangerous behavior of the president now. Yet, the national conversation, for a variety of reasons, keeps skipping over that.

What exactly is our national definition of a crime? Americans, collectively, seem supremely confident they’ve answered this question considering the United States has the largest prison population in the world: over 2.3 million people in state, local, federal and juvenile jails and other types of imprisonment facilities.

Pie chart showing the number of people locked up on a given day in the United States by facility type and the underlying offense using the newest data available in March 2019.

Enough with the Nixon Impeachment Comparisons

The tendency to use 1974 as a predictor of outcomes in 2019 becomes pointless

Publisher’s Riff

for more analysis, listen to Reality Check on WURD Mon - Thur, 4-7pm ET, streamed live at, in Philly on 96.1 FM / 900 AM | #RealityCheck @ellisonreport

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Not only is this 2019, but it’s truly not 1974.

It should be a useful exercise to engage in a review of the impeachment hearings against then President Richard Nixon as a way to educate the public about how impeachment works. And the hearing rooms look similar. Yet, what we’re seeing quite a bit of now is observers feeling compelled to re-assess the Nixon impeachment inquiry as a prediction tool on two questions:

  1. At what point will public opinion swing dramatically against President Trump?

  2. And at what point will Republicans in both the House and Senate begin converting over to the side of Congressional Democrats?

Each question is based off two specific trends back in 1974, including the evolution of public rejection of Nixon over the course of that crisis, as Pew explores here

How Watergate Changed Public Opinion of Richard Nixon

And how the opinions and partisan loyalty of Republicans in Congress at that time gradually swung against their standard bearer, as FiveThirtyEight explains here

But, the tendency towards a 1974 throwback in an anxious effort to soothe or calm the uncertainty is pointless. Particularly when public support for or against impeachment looks like this

That’s pretty much a virtual tie once margin of error is added. In addition, there’s still quite a few undecideds, check YouGov for example …

Public opinion, along with House and Senate position, on the question of impeachment and removal is entrenched (as you can see from the Democratic and Republican voter totals above). It’s probably more logical to compare 2019 to the actual 1998 impeachment of President Clinton - but, fewer observers, for some reason, don’t like to bring that up as much. It’s difficult to characterize this current inquiry as a “fact finding mission.” There is a reigning mythology that somehow additional facts paraded before the American people will convert Trump voters and Republican lawmakers. That’s not going to happen, especially in an age where everyone has multiple media tools at their disposal to counter facts while turning lies into such. Already, Republicans are pushing the message that Democrats have wanted impeachment since the day after the 2016 election, so they finally got their moment, a so-called “sour grapes” argument that’s always worked with that base. And as much as the facts clearly show injurious conduct by the president, including corruption, bribery and other crimes, Democrats have now satisfied their base’s demands - but, will details of the Ukraine scandal resonate? Will the larger public get it?

Does it matter given the hyper-partisan environment we’re in? Probably not. It’s misguided to think that this will unfold similar to Watergate through multiple Republicans suddenly having a fresh moment of conscience “as more facts come out.” Too many smoking guns have already been fired; if that moment hasn’t happened by now, don’t expect it anytime soon. These impeachment hearings are a battle of stage performances, a battle between respective partisan bases and a battle to see which message resonates with the “Not Sures” … or those perpetrating as such.

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