A Guide to Understanding Polls

Photo by Trending Twitter Topics from 10.10.2019, Creative Commons

I’ve had a difficult relationship with polls for most of my journalistic career. This reached its apex (or nadir if you look at it that way) years ago when I wrote a column encouraging people to lie to pollsters.

Lying, I argued, would skew the polls and force politicians to make decisions based upon their instincts and their actual principles. I was deluged with angry emails from pollsters at various companies who denounced my attempts to convince people to lie as being “anti-democratic.”

Well, I’m not sure it was anti-democratic, but over the years I have come around to understanding the reason why politicians and others use polls. We live in a big, complex society. If you’re running for national office (or even for a local office that covers a large area) it’s almost impossible for you to speak to every one of your constituents about their concerns.

In this case, polling can provide you with a guide to how the public views particular issues or how they perceive a politician’s efforts to solve important problems or champion important initiatives.

There’s one problem.

People don’t understand polls. People don’t know how they work, how they are taken, who’s doing the polling, how you determine if you can trust a poll or not and how much a particular poll is worth versus another poll.

Over the years I’ve had the opportunity to speak or listen to some of the best minds on polling in Canada and United States. Based on the things that they told me and what I have heard them say, I offer this guide to helping people better understand polls and the roles they play in our democracies.

1) One poll is a snapshot, not a movie

The idea for writing this guide came to me when a friend messaged me on Facebook about a new CNN poll that showed Biden in trouble in battleground states. A devoted Democrat, he was worried that this signaled trouble ahead for the Biden campaign.

Maybe. Maybe not. One poll is a snapshot. Never totally believe what one poll alone tells you. There are so many different conditions that can affect the results of one poll that it’s only a snapshot of a particular moment in a political campaign. This is true whether in Canada or the United States.

What you want to do is look at polling averages – the aggregate of several polls over a period. For instance, I pointed out to my friend that if you look at the average of a number of polls taken in battleground states over the past few months, Biden actually had a lead of 3 to 5 points in many of them. If future polls continue to show trouble for Biden in battleground states, then he should worry.

But one single poll basically means little in the long run.

2) National polls in the United States are useless

Well, maybe not useless, but they don’t mean much. The brains behind Democratic and Republican campaigns pay scant attention to national polls. They are much more interested in state polls. Since America basically elects a president based on the electoral college, a politician can be doing very well in national polls and still lose the election.

Take 2016. Final polls showed Hillary Clinton winning the national popular vote by 2% to 3%, which she did. But since the president of the United States is not elected on a popular vote but by the electoral college, she lost because she did not carry enough states.

It’s a bit different in Canada and Britain where a national poll can give you a better idea of how political parties are doing with public. In Canada you still need to pay attention to the vote in the Prairies versus the vote in Ontario, for instance, but you can trust a national poll more than you can a similar poll in the United States.

Again, that’s only one poll. If a lot of polls show that advantage, then you can take it to the bank.

There are also some important questions that you need to ask about each poll that you consider:

A) Who did the poll?

There are good polling organizations and there are bad polling organizations. It is unfortunate that too many media outlets when referring to recent polls don’t bother to tell you much about the organization that did a poll.

For instance, Ron Elway, the chief political correspondent at NPR, taught me that Quinnipiac was one of the best pollsters in the business especially in its coverage of states like Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania. Why? They’ve been doing it for a long time and so over the years have ironed out errors in their methods.

You can also put your trust in a Marist poll or Survey USA poll, organizations that have received consistently high marks for their lack of bias in polling and the way they conduct each poll. On the other hand, any poll that you see from TCJ Research or Strategic Vision treat with a huge grain of salt. These polls almost always skew as many as 2-4 points towards Republicans.

B) How many people did they poll?

Randomness is the key to good polling. Normally, to achieve a statistically good sample of the public you need to interview at least 1000 to 1200 participants. That gets harder and harder these days because fewer and fewer people are willing to take part in polls.

When pollsters interview fewer people, the results are harder to trust. That’s why it’s important to pay attention to the statistical error of the poll. For instance if a pollster only interviews 400 to 500 people about a candidate or an important question and the result has a high error rate of 5% or more that means if the poll was something like 49% in favor and 51% against the question, the real result could be anywhere from 54% in favor and 46% against to 44% in favor and 56% against. Those are dramatic differences.

(Note: A friend read this and added something I had forgotten about the margin of error. To quote Pew “A margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points at the 95% confidence level means that if we fielded the same survey 100 times, we would expect the result to be within 3 percentage points of the true population value 95 of those times.”)

A poll with a relatively small number of participants can give you a hint about how people feel about a politician or a particular issue, you just shouldn’t bet your house on the result.

C) Who did they ask?

In a political poll, you want to know if the poll was done of registered voters or likely voters. You get a much truer picture of a campaign when you interview likely voters. These are people who are, as the phrase says, likely to vote in election. Since the United States has such a lousy turn out in elections (be they federal, state, or municipal) somebody can be registered to vote but that doesn’t mean they’re going to go to the polls.

Good pollsters have ways to determine the difference between a likely voter and a registered voter by asking them questions like: did they vote in the last election, have they ever written a letter or an email to their local media, have they ever participated in a campaign, do they know the location of their polling station, etc.

So a poll that says 54% of registered voters support Donald Trump versus a poll that says 54% of likely voters support Joe Biden would be good for Trump but great for Biden.

D) How was the question asked?

The way pollster asks a question will often determine the way the participant will answer it. Good pollsters ask the same question in several different ways to get at the participant’s real views.

Bad pollsters do what are called “push polls” where they ask questions in such a way that they’re pushing you to answer in a fashion that suits the politician or the organization behind the poll.

Politicians and big corporations are infamous for doing push polls in order to produce a result that they like and then spread it among the media, who too often don’t bother to ask how the poll was conducted or how the questions were asked.

E) How was the poll weighed?

Pollsters weigh polls to try to produce a truer result. For instance women and seniors tend to answer the phone more often, which can skew the sex and age ratio of the poll. So they weigh (or adjust) the poll to better match the actual sex and age demographics of the public. Or they might oversample a group to get a more representative result. Good pollsters will include this information in their methodology explanations included at the bottom of each poll.

F) What is the pollsters’ history of success or failure?

I refer you to Nate Silver’s Pollster Ratings where he and his team at fivethirtyeight.com regularly look at the history of each polling organization in terms of successful polling of particular issues, how many polls the pollster has conducted and how the polls are conducted (live, land-line phone, internet, cellphone).

This is a great help to determine the difference between a well-known pollster who has conducted many polls and a fly-by-night organization that pops up to produce polls that favor a particular candidate or issue. It helps to know the success rate of polling predictions because that gives you a better picture of how you should view the poll.

An organization that has a 90% success rate (like Survey USA) should be given greater credence then a poll from an organization that only has a 70% success rate (like Survey Monkey).

G) The shame factor

People do indeed lie to pollsters. This is particularly true in a poll that concerns an unpopular politician or an issue such as racism or misogyny. Or in an exit poll taken the day of an election. If the person being surveyed actually holds racist or misogynist views, they may lie to the pollster about their positions creating a false result.

Pres. Trump benefited from this factor in 2016 particularly after his “grab them by the pussy” remarks. At that time voting for Trump was not seen as a particularly popular thing to do, even though a lot of people wanted to do it. It was also a factor in exit polls. So when a pollster asked if they supported Trump, many people who did said no.

So what does all this tell us about polling? I would recommend you read Nate Silver’s book “The Signal and The Noise” which looks at how polling is done and how predictions made by pundits and politicians often bear no semblance to reality.

Polling may not be a great way to determine how we feel about politicians or controversial issues in, but it may be the best way that we have going forward.

Science and the Battle Against Dogma, Superstition and Conspiracy Theories

Scientists at work. (Photo by Polina Tankilevitch from Pexels)

“Every great advance in natural knowledge has involved the absolute rejection of authority”
– Aldous Huxley

Science upsets things.

Science told us that man was not the center of the universe. Science then told us that man was not even the center of the galaxy. Science told us that the earth was not flat and that man evolved from a simple creature that crawled out of the mud billions of years ago. Science gave women control over their reproductive cycles. Science took us to the moon.

Science has of course done so much more, but these particular scientific achievements deserve mention because of the havoc they caused. And continue to cause. Many of these achievements are still rejected in the 21st century by people who cling desperately to dogma, superstition and conspiracy theories like a thread-bare teddy bear.

Whether the religious deniers who insist the world was only created about 6000 years ago and that dinosaur skeletons were left by a god as a kind of cosmic joke or those insist the earth is flat because that is what their eyes tell them and anything that undermines that belief is a “conspiracy” to hide the truth or those people who insist we never went to the moon because, well, we didn’t or we were just trying to fool the Soviets, they all deny science because if they accepted what science had achieved their imaginary worlds would be turned upside down.

Science asks questions. Constantly. Even about accepted science. Good science is constantly upsetting the apple cart, even among scientists.

Authorities hate questions. They prefer the known order, the ‘right’ way of thinking. Dogma. If authority tell the public this is the truth, then that is the truth, even if it isn’t.

Authorities of any political ideology hate science. The Soviets suppressed knowledge that did not conform to their communist ideology, just as China does today. Conservatives have suppressed science through the ages.

Which is why conservatives and the far-right in America have worked so hard to undermine science and knowledge almost since the beginning of the country. While founding fathers like Franklin and Jefferson were certainly men of science, the people who came after them largely were not. The men (and it was men back then and even mostly now) who controlled power and authority …and money… hated science because it so often acted as an antidote to their formulas to achieve more power and money.

Denials don’t matter

As we head further into the 21st-century science has never been more important than it is now. It has also never been under such a sustained attack from the right. Whether the issue is climate change, vaccines that have saved billions of lives, less polluting forms of new energy to replace fossil fuels, or how to combat a world-wide pandemic, science constantly fends off attacks, most of them ridiculous.

But here’s the thing about science. You can deny it all you want but that doesn’t change the data or what will happen. GOP governors and senators can hide data that blows up their lies or try to prevent scientists from speaking out. The president can lie about infection rates or try to peddle snake oil about “potential cures.”

It doesn’t matter.

The oceans will still rise. The infection rate will still grow. More businesses and people will choose new forms of energy. Discoveries will continue that show the earth’s age is about 5 billion years in a universe about 15 billion years old. Women will still continue to use contraception. Vaccines will still save billions of lives.

Conservatives and authorities can change. The Catholic Church that once jailed Galileo now not only champions his theories but accepts a “divinely inspired” form of evolution. A Catholic priest first formulated the idea of a “Big Bang” start to the universe. Things that many people once viewed as magic are now seen as everyday natural events – thanks to science.

Dogma. Superstition. Conspiracy theories. These are the enemies of humanity, which often try to masquerade as “the truth.” But they will always lose in the end. It may take a while, but science will not be denied forever.

Science is still the best bet humanity has for prolonged survival. Which is why every time authority seeks to undermine science it must be challenged and confronted. Not just by scientists but by all people who understand its value and importance.

Another Case of Constitutional Stupidity

Costco store. (Photo by ccPixs.com)

Late last week, the national retailer Costco announced that starting today, May 4, you could not go into a one of their stores without wearing a mask. This made Costco the first national chain to enact this kind of measure. In announcing the mask requirement, Costco said they were doing it to protect both shoppers and their employees. (Costco also announced limits on the amount of meat customers could buy.)

As I write this, Costco stores have yet to open, but you can count on one thing happening for sure. A potential customer without a mask will try to get into the store, loudly complaining about their Constitutional right to enter the store mask-less. This being America, one or more of these people may pull on a gun on anyone standing near the front of the store telling people they can’t enter unless masked. (It’s already happened in Ohio involving other stores.)

I’m sorry to inform these “good and patriotic” Americans but they DO NOT have a Constitutional right to go into Costco without a mask if Costco says they must. No right. Nada, Zippo, Zilch. Rein.

Costco is a private business, and as such can decide to do whatever the hell it wants to do. It could make a rule it will only allow customers to enter if they are wearing a clown nose. (My guess is that this would hurt business and so it’s unlikely.)

This is yet another case of Constitutional Stupidity, a condition that affects too many Americans particularly those on the right. It is the belief that you can do or say anything you want to in America and there will be no consequences. While it is true that you can do and say anything in America (if it’s legal), consequences are a WHOLE different issue.

I‘m a naturalized US citizen. In order to achieve citizenship, I had to study the heck out of the Constitution, US history and the way governments work at all levels. They really do quiz you on this stuff at your interview and they don’t only ask softball questions.

Like many other naturalized citizens, I ended up knowing a lot more about this stuff than the average American who can barely remember studying it in high school. What they do remember has been twisted in weird ways by watching too much Fox News or listening too frequently to Rush Limbaugh.

Here’s how it works (for those people who believe they have a Constitutional right to not wear a mask in Costco).

You have the right to unfettered political speech, to petition the government or to peacefully assemble (as the protesters in Michigan or elsewhere did) without the fear that (like in Russia or Iran) the secret police will show up at your door in the middle of the night and take you away, never to be seen by your family again.

You have the right to protest a government action. People who complained that Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine’s order for everyone to wear a mask out in public violated their rights may have had a point, which is why he probably rescinded it. Sometimes these protests don’t achieve the desired result as in Michigan (Gov. Whitmer basically ignored them), but people still have the right to protest.

However, if your boss decides that this speech or action is a deterrent to his or her business, you could find yourself out on your ear. You can sue them for wrongful dismissal, but in a suit of this kind your boss has a chance to show what they did was lawful, depending on your terms of employment or state/federal laws. But there are very few protections for workers.

While the government can’t throw you in jail for saying President Trump is a lying, misogynist, racist, phony creep, or stop you from going to the Michigan legislature with your AR-15 to protest, if your employer depended on federal government for work, for instance, they tell could you to stifle it.

At that point, the choice is yours. You can continue to protest, even if it costs you your job or your company business. Or even risk arrest if you push the point too far on private property, like a Costco store. Or you can shop at a store other than Costco that does not require a facemask and take your chances with COVID-19. Many people will.

But private business are not subject to many of the same restrictions that any level of government is. So yes, Costco can tell you that you cannot enter their store without a mask, and they are NOT violating your Constitutional rights.

Will Roy Cohn Cost Trump the Presidency?

Sen. Joseph McCarthy chats with his attorney Roy Cohn during Senate Subcommittee hearings on the McCarthy-Army dispute in 1954. (Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. New York World-Telegram and the Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection. http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3c14995)

He’s there at every key moment of Donald Trump’s presidency – the ghost of Roy Cohn.

You sensed him as Trump attacked the Mueller report or during his impeachment trial. You sense his presence when Trump is caught in one of his many lies or when he attacks the media and his critics during one of his rambling, self-aggrandizing rally speeches or tweet-rages so loved by his cult followers.

Roy Cohn is perhaps best known for being Sen. Joe McCarthy’s henchman who specialized in character assassination during the anti-communist hearings of the early 50s. McCarthy was ultimately exposed as the brutal and ruthless bully and liar that he was. Cohn, however, like all weasels, slid out the back way and eventually became a powerful lawyer in New York.

“You knew when you were in Cohn’s presence you were in the presence of pure evil,” said lawyer Victor A. Kovner, who had known him for years, told Vanity Fair in 2017.

Cohn met Trump in 1973 and became Trump’s “spiritual “mentor and consigliere. Trump would sometime call Cohn 15-20 times a day, seeking advice.

For author Sam Roberts, the essence of Cohn’s influence on Trump was the triad: “Roy was a master of situational immorality . . . He worked with a three-dimensional strategy, which was: 1. Never settle, never surrender. 2. Counterattack, counter-sue immediately. 3. No matter what happens, no matter how deeply into the muck you get, claim victory and never admit defeat.” As columnist Liz Smith once observed, “Donald lost his moral compass when he made an alliance with Roy Cohn.” – Vanity Fair 2017

Cohn died in 1986 of AIDS. He was 59. Yet his hold over Trump’s psyche remains long after his death. Journalists from New York who knew both men said during the presidential campaign of 2016, Trump started to use some of the same language as Cohn. “That meant the BIG LIE was coming,” one remarked.

When Trump fumed after then attorney-general Jeff Sessions recused himself from the Russia investigation, Trump asked “Where is my Roy Cohn?”

Cohn’s advice has served Trump well. So far. He is president (which he loves to remind people for some reason). But even advice like the kind given by Cohn has an expiration date and the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed that for Trump.

A key moment was last Thursday when Trump spoke of the disinfectant cure that could be injected to stop the spread of the virus. Universal condemnation followed. The makers of these products put out alerts asking people not to do this as it was dangerous. Governors told stories of how people were phoning health help lines asking if they could do it.

And comedians went to town on Trump, never a good sign.

What did Trump do? True to his Cohn-based ideology, he lied, denied he had done anything wrong and tried to blame others. First, he said he was being sarcastic. (Why would a leader of a nation make that kind of a ‘sarcastic’ remark at this time in history?) Even the normally uber-friendly Fox News didn’t buy that.

Then he denied he had asked Deborah Birx, the head of the White House Coronavirus task force about the disinfectant idea when there was video tape of him doing that in front of the entire nation.

Trump should have listened to his advisors who wanted him to do fewer of the daily White House coronavirus briefings. Trump, however, missed the cheers from his many rallies, and ignored this advice. He craved the attention of the TV audience, bragged about his ratings and would ramble for as long as two hours at a time.

He failed to appreciate the difference between the adulation of a pro-Trump crowd and a setting where reporters could ask tough questions and not everyone watching the briefings was a Trump Cultist.

Trump also seems to have forgotten that Cohn didn’t get away with it. In 1986, a few weeks before his death he was disbarred. He bragged about being a tax cheat, but the IRS was closing in on him. And Trump also seems to have forgotten that Cohn’s legacy is of a cheat, a liar, and, well, an unethical bastard. He hated gays, Jews and lawyers – all of which he was himself.

Trump has reached that moment as well. He trails Democratic challenger Joe Biden nationally and in key battleground states, even though Biden’s been forced to campaign from his basement. He seems unable to effectively deal with the pandemic because the pandemic doesn’t give a hoot about what Roy Cohn taught Trump.

Yet Trump applies that Cohn ideology in every situation. But it’s not working with this one and Trump seems unwilling to try a new approach. It’s Cohn all the way to the bottom.

So, in a not so strange way, Roy Cohn, who helped Donald Trump become president, may also help him lose the presidency.

It Can Happen Here

It can happen, even in a quiet place like Nova Scotia. (Photo by Geoffrey Fairchild)

If it had happened in Virginia, it would not have shocked me so much. Not that you are ever prepared for a mass shooting. But as one of my children neared the end of their high school days and there had been a couple of reports of gun-related problems in our community, I was secretly glad that school had been canceled as a result of COVID-19.

When you are a parent of a child in school in America, you live daily with the grim thought that it could happen here.

But Nova Scotia? Where I’m from? I had lived in Nova Scotia for 35 years and I never knew a single person who owned a gun. Not one. In Virginia, there are five gun shops within twenty miles of where I live.

So when I heard that a gunman had killed at least 22 people, including an RCMP officer, during a 12-hour murder spree on Sunday across a section of the province, I was honestly deeply stunned. Not that mass murders don’t happen in Canada, but they are rare and Ontario or Quebec loomed in my mind as the places where this kind of violence could happen. Not Nova Scotia.

The reality is, however, that it can happen in Nova Scotia. The individual who decides to kill people for whatever reason is difficult to stop. The knife attack at a Japanese subway stop that kills a dozen people or the terrorist attack that kills dozens of people with a truck in France are no different than a murder spree with a gun that that kills 22. Only the numbers change. People are murdered regardless of the reason.

What does matter is what you do to prevent these gun attacks from happening regularly. Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, to name just three countries are far ahead of the United States when it comes to preventing gun violence.

April may be the first month in decades that the US does not have a school shooting. The reason? Only one – there is no school. If school were still in session, you can bet there would have been at least one or more gun-related mass murders at schools in the US.

The “Sound of Freedom”?

Canada does not have the equivalent of a 2nd Amendment in its Charter of Rights and Freedoms. And it does not need a 2nd Amendment. Canadians (like the citizens of the countries mentioned above) are not obsessed with firearms. Recently someone posted in a local community online email group that the sound of someone having target practice with an assault weapon in their backyard (I hear it almost every day where I live in Virginia) was “the sound of FREEDOM!”

What a load of codswallop. I have always been puzzled why Americans so strongly link “freedom” to the right to own a gun rather than the right to vote. But here we see a fundamental difference between the US and Canada (and almost every democratic nation on the planet).

Many Americans don’t trust government. (For me, this is most obvious when it comes to health care. Americans don’t want a single payer system because they don’t want the government running their health care. That will take away their “liberty.” Never mind the other democratic nations in the world who have universal health care and seem to have as much liberty as the US.)

So American gun rights activists and far-right conspiracy theorists believe that they need to be armed to the teeth because you never know when the “deep state” will try to take over America. Conservative media outlets magnify this issue every chance they get.

The issue of gun ownership is also as cultural as it is political. Take Switzerland for example. It’s a country with very high gun ownership.

“People grow up [in Switzerland]in a very different culture around firearms. They’re taught to treat firearms responsibly,” according to University of Toronto professor Jooyoung Lee, an authority on gun ownership and gun violence. “They’re socialized into a world where the firearm is understood as part of his duty to a country. It’s part of serving the military. They take classes to work on marksmanship.”

Canadians, by and large, have a greater trust in their elected representatives and don’t seem to be so paranoid about a “secret” government take over.

Canadians do own guns. There were about 2.5 million firearm licenses given in Canada in 2018. In 2018, Stats Can reported that 249 Canadians were killed by guns, far the most by hand guns.

While there more gun violence in Canada than Switzerland, Canadians share with the Swiss a culturally responsible attitude toward guns that seems to be missing in the US.

All of which makes what happened in Nova Scotia seem so bizarre and out of place.

Sadly, we live in a world where we need to accept these risks. We can reduce them (as in Canada, Australia, or New Zealand) but we can never eliminate them. No matter where we live.

All Changed, Changed Utterly – The End of ‘Normal’

Telecommuting will become the main way to work. (Photo by Goblinbox)

I’ve been thinking of these lines from W.B. Yeats’ poem “Easter 1916” for a few days now. People long for a return to “normal,” back to the way things were before the pandemic. But we are not going back to “normal.” Not by a long shot. Whether COVID-19 plays out this summer, this fall, next winter or not until 2021, things will not be the same, some in good ways, some in bad.

What normally takes the public, both here and around the globe, time to accept or to adapt to has been rushed into acceptance. Here are a few of the changes that are probably going to last.

The expanded use of televisits to doctor’s offices

COVID-19 won’t mean the end of going to the doctor’s office, but many people will now use telemedicine to deal with less serious ailments. This may also provide a lifeline for small/rural communities who are losing their health clinics and hospitals. Rather than driving miles in a car to reach medical care, patients will first do a video call with a physician or physician assistant who could determine if they do need more serious medical care.

Universities will see a similar strong shift to online

Professors who have fought against the use of technology in their classrooms are being forced to use it if they want to teach at all. More students will see the advantages of taking online classes, particularly in terms of reducing student debt. Universities will need to up their games to keep pace.

The other possible outcome is that student tuition will disappear. Universities who want to lure students to campus to pay for room, board and extras will need to give them a financial reason to do so. Zeroing tuition or dramatically lowering it will be the best way to accomplish this.

America will have a single payer health care system within a decade

Although support for this option had already started to grow, the damaging effects of COVID-19 and the lack of proper health care among large segments of the population will make it easier for progressive politicians to sell the idea to a previously wary public.

There are detractors, of course, but the longer COVID-19 lasts and the more people it infects, the weaker the arguments against single-payer become.

Telecommuting will become the way we work full-time rather than an option

There will always be people who’ll want to ‘go to the office’ and bosses who want them to do that, but the pandemic has turned telecommuting from a part-time option to a full-time possibility. Greater telecommuting and more flexible hours for those who do want to go to the office will also ease the burden on public transport and the density of the public.

It’s also hard for controlling basses to argue that work isn’t being done when everyone is working from home. Plus the added benefits to the environment, reduced daily traffic, the price of gasoline and an employee’s bank account.

Oil won’t hit $60-$80 a barrel again

While people will probably surge out of their homes after “stay-at-home” orders are lifted, it will take many years for most people to overcome the psychological fear of infection. Especially for international travel by airline or cruising. (Cruising may never totally recover.) So less oil will be used. And the oil “end game” between Russia and Saudi Arabia, made worse by COVID-19, will keep prices depressed for years.

It will be easier and safer to stay at home. Add in changes because of telecommuting and by the time people get over their hesitation to travel, alternative energies will have a much larger footprint around the world.

The end of the handshake

It’s hard to say what will replace it (a slight nod or a namaste-like greeting?) but it has gotten really bad press in the past few months. Most people will stop doing it by 2030, if not sooner.

Finally, America will no longer be the dominant nation on the planet

Things were already trending towards China. But the election of Donald Trump in 2016, the way he has handled this pandemic and the way China has reached out to nations around the world to help even as the US has dramatically stepped back its international role have accelerated this change.

China will undoubtedly take heat for the way it initially failed to notify the world about the virus, but as Obama chief-of-staff/Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel once said, ”Never let a good crisis go to waste.”

Almost as soon as Trump announced he was putting a hold on funding for the World Health Organization, China stepped in to say it would pick up the financial slack. And this is not the first time the Chinese government has done this. (For instance in Italy, China no longer thought of as the origin of COVID-19 but as a nation that reached out to help Italy. The same is true of Serbia and Poland.)

While there is little doubt that the Trump administration will spend the next few months attacking China, it will be too little, too late. COVID-19 will speed up the decline of the US as a world power and speed up the ascension of China.

Will “a terrible beauty” be born because of all these changes? Only time will tell.

A Tale of Two Countries

Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry provides an update to the media on COVID-19 in BC. (Province of BC)

If an American wants to understand how leadership and unity make a difference in the fight against COVID-19, they do not need to look across the globe to countries like South Korea, New Zealand or Singapore. Instead, they should shift their gaze to the north of the border.

The American public has, by and large, truly done a magnificent job in the battle against this virus in the past few weeks. When medical experts first projected that COVID-19 could kill as many as 100,000 to 200,000 Americans it was based on an estimation that only 50% of Americans would observe social distancing. Instead, those same experts have been able to drastically lower the possible death count to around 60,000 because more than 90% of Americans have engaged in social distancing.

American media regularly cover the stories of the heroes of the COVID-19 battle – the doctors, the nurses, the truck drivers, the grocery store workers, the postal workers, the delivery people – who literally risk their lives to care for people or try to help the country maintain some semblance of normality.

The problem is at the top.

When you look at the differences between the way politicians in Canada and the United States have responded to the COVID-19 crisis, the differences could not be more jarring.

Let’s start with the leaders.

In the United States you have Donald Trump who relentlessly blames others for his poor response to the virus. He ignored repeated warnings. He has confused Americans with misinformation and a lack of leadership that was made plain in his statement that he takes “no responsibility” for his country’s chaotic and slapdash response to this emergency.

Trump has consistently sent out signals that he cares more about how COVID-19 will affect the stock market and his reelection than he does about the American people, and his actions and the actions of his closest advisors reinforce this belief. One only needs to read the extensive and thoroughly reported piece in Sunday’s N.Y. times to realize how badly this administration has handled the crisis.

Oh Canada

In Canada, meanwhile, there has been some valid criticism that perhaps Justin Trudeau’s government also reacted too slowly to the initial reports of the spread of COVID-19. The difference is, however, what happened afterwards.

While not the most popular politician in Canada’s history, and struggling with a minority government after the last election, Trudeau has largely been everything you want a leader to be. He has been a voice of reason and encouragement to the Canadian people.

For instance, read this speech about his government’s economic plan to help Canadians. While on the one hand it delivers information about this policy initiative, on the other hand the speech can only be described as stirring, particularly the ending where Trudeau refers to how the older generation of Canadians helped build Canada to be what it is today and that it is up to younger Canadians to protect them and that heritage.

It stands in stark contrast to Pres. Trump’s tweets about his favorable “ratings,” his jokes about “models” and his attempts to blame anyone and everyone about his administration’s problems with COVID-19.

There are other important differences between Canada and United States.

One is the cooperation in Canada between the federal government and the provincial governments. A recent column by Peter Loewen, professor of political science and at the Munk School of Global Affairs & Public Policy at The University of Toronto, Taylor Owen, associate professor of public policy at McGill University, and Derek Ruths, associate professor of computer science at McGill University described it this way:

So far, Canadian political action around the COVID-19 pandemic has seen more cooperation between the federal and provincial governments than we have seen at any other point since 2015. Ministers are actively avoiding criticism of one another and are largely focused on the same goals. Indeed, much has been made of the camaraderie between Doug Ford [Conservative premier of Ontario] and Chrystia Freeland ( Liberal Deputy Prime Minister of Canada and federal minister of Intergovernmental Affairs], and it has overshadowed larger political concessions, like Ontario all but laying down arms in its political opposition to a carbon tax.

Public Health Officials the New Canadian Heroes

Another important difference is how Canadian politicians have deferred to the health experts and science. This is particularly seen in the role that Canada’s public health officers have played in the crisis. They have literally become rock stars.

Officials like British Columbia’s Dr. Bonnie Henry, Prince Edward Island’s Dr. Heather Morrison, Québec’s Dr. Horracio Arruda or the Chief Public Health Officer of Canada Dr. Teresa Tam have been lauded by Canadians of all stripes for their clear, unambiguous daily briefings about COVID-19.

These public health officials have been free to give Canadians the straight goods – that means they are honest when things are bad and straightforward about what Canadians need to do in order to reduce the effects of COVID-19. They have earned the overwhelming support of Canadians.

Meanwhile, America’s Dr. Anthony Fauci, who has been lauded by many, was recently forced to accept protection from the Health and Human Services department because of the many death threats against him. It also appears he had started telling a little too much truth for Trump.

Finally, Canadian politicians, regardless of their political affiliation, deserves to be applauded for their willingness to stand back and let the people who know what they’re talking about have the center stage. It’s also been encouraging to see how politicians have not attacked each other but have done their very best to work together in a time of crisis.

No one is naïve enough to believe that this will continue forever. But the fact that it is happening is important.

To some degree it reflects the differences between the philosophies of Canada and the United States. In Canada it’s “peace, order and good government” while in the United States it’s “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

Most of the time, people will choose life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. But in a moment when our ability to work together matters if we are going to defeat the menace of COVID-19, peace, order and good government might be the better choice.

Several Republican Governors Step Up to Meet the COVID-19 Challenge

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan at Ft. Meade, MD in 2015. (Photo by Nate Pesce)

If you only listened to Donald Trump, you would think all Republicans have stuck their heads in the sand about the COVID-19 crisis. That all Republicans believe there is little value in social distancing, that all Republicans oppose vote-by-mail, that all Republicans want to “open up” the country before the end of April.

To be sure, many far-right Republicans are doing just that. Republicans in Wisconsin, in a blatant act that sought to undermine democracy and expose hundreds of thousands of people to illness, refused to change the state’s election day for primaries and local elections. Republicans in Kansas overrode the Democratic governor’s orders to only allow limited church services and allowed large gatherings, even though three hot spots in the state had been traced back to people attending religious gatherings.

Meanwhile, it’s easy to applaud the actions of Democratic governors like New York’s Andrew Cuomo, Washington’s Jay Innslee, California’s Gavin Newsom or Michigan’s Gretchen Whitmer. They have been some of the most outspoken and active governors in the United States in the fight against COVID-19.

There have also been, however, several Republican governors who have also been outspoken and consistently on the ball as well, despite efforts by officials in the Trump administration to get them to “back off and quiet down.” Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine, Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker and most of all Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan have, sometimes quietly and sometimes quite noisily, made the point that the coronavirus pandemic is a very serious one and that the federal government has not done enough to help the states.

Other Republican governors like Nebraska’s Pete Ricketts and New Hampshire’s Chris Sununu have supported vote-by-mail (despite Trump’ attempts to undermine it) to deal with their state’s primary or with the possibility of voting that way in November to protect the inhabitants of their states.

Trump’s RINO

Maryland ‘s Larry Hogan in particular has drawn Trump’s ire. Trump is desperately trying to make people forget how badly he handled the initial stages of the battle against COVID-19 and only focus on what he says about how he’s dealing with it now. Trump is very thin-skinned when anybody points out that he’s underperforming or his past mistakes, even if they do it politely.

To Trump, Hogan (the current head of the National Governors’ Association) is a RINO (Republican in Name Only) because he dares to say out loud and regularly that the federal government is not doing a very good job responding to COVID-19. If you don’t support Trump’s views of the virus or his attempts to rewrite his previous lies and misstatements (in the spirit of “Trump uber alles”), then you can’t be a REAL Republican.

To his credit, this has not deterred Hogan. Perhaps he wears Trump’s scorn as a badge of honor. Or perhaps he knows that Trump blames everyone but himself for his numerous failures, so he’s merely the latest in a long line of Trump’s COVID-19 scapegoats.

As Trump continues to lie, blame others for mistakes and promulgate bad information about the coronavirus, and his poll numbers continue to fall and his reelection in November becomes increasingly doubtful, don’t be surprised if you see more Republican governors stray from Trump’s gang of sycophants and minions.

The Gaslighting of America

By Rer Isi Rer – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15986064

Gaslighting is a tactic in which a person or entity, in order to gain more power, makes a victim question their reality. It works much better than you may think. Anyone is susceptible to gaslighting, and it is a common technique of abusers, dictators, narcissists, and cult leaders.

Psychology Today, November 2017

And Donald Trump.

Most people have probably heard the term gaslighting and might have some idea that it was the title of a movie. It was, in fact, a 1938 play, later made into two movies, one in 1940 and one in 1944. The ’44 version with Charles Boyer and Ingrid Bergman is probably the best know version. It is the story of a psychotic, manipulative husband who tries to convince his wife that she is going mad in order to seize control over her fortunes.

Here are the 11 of the tactics used by gaslighters to manipulate their victims, taken from the article mentioned above:

    They tell blatant lies.
    They deny they ever said something, even though you have proof.
    They use what is near and dear to you as ammunition.
    They wear you down over time.
    Their actions do not match their words.
    They throw in positive reinforcement to confuse you.
    They know confusion weakens people.
    They project.
    They try to align people against you.
    They tell you or others that you are crazy.
    They tell you everyone else is a liar.

It is very hard to read that list and not think, “My god, that is Donald Trump.”

Upping His Gaslighting Game

Although he has been doing it since his inauguration, Tuesday Donald Trump made his boldest attempt to gaslight America. Despite all the video and audio evidence to the contrary, he told reporters (during his daily version of the Five O’Clock Follies) that he had always known how bad the coronavirus would be.

He was just being a “cheerleader” for America.

You’ll need to excuse my language, but this is pure, farm-quality, odoriferous BULLSHIT.

A “Potsie in the White House” as Joe Scarborough put it, alluding to the Happy Days character who was a high school cheer leader. America doesn’t need a “cheerleader.” It needs a leader who will be honest with the American people and give them the facts that they need to protect themselves and their families. But Trump is and has always been a cheerleader for only one entity – himself.

Trump was no more being a cheerleader for America than Nigel Farage championed Brexit because he only wanted to improve Britain’s National Health Service. It’s not necessary to recount the number of times Trump showed little or no care about Covid-19 in January or February, despite the tsunami of warnings aimed at the White House from a variety of sources, including his own advisers.

The point is that Trump is trying to gaslight America (with the help of right-wing media) into doubting what we saw and heard and only accepting his version of events.

Perhaps we saw this more clearly than ever this week when he attacked an inspector general for doing her job when she pointed out problems hospitals were having acquiring supplies, etc. If you don’t unquestioningly spout Trump’s versions of events, then you are a liar, not very good at your job or/and a member of the ‘Deep State.’

Fortunately, most Americans don’t seem to be buying his snake oil. While he enjoyed a small burst of support at first, that has flattened or decreased. While there is no doubt a group of people, the Trump cultists, who would believe him if he said the oceans had vanished overnight, it appears that other Americans trust their own eyes and ears rather than what Trump is telling them to believe.

Be assured, however, this will continue – probably long after Trump is voted out of office on November 3rd this year. As Trump turns down the gaslight a little more every day, he tries to convince us we are all going blind and mad and he is the only sane one left.

Don’t believe him.

Covid-19’s Best Friend – Religion

In Bnei Brak, a suburb of Tel Aviv, where 95% of the residents are Ultra-Orthodox Jews, as many as 40% of the residents are infected with Covid-19. Ignoring the pleas of Israeli authorities and instead listening to the directions of their religious leaders who told him there was nothing for them to fear from the Coronavirus because God would protect them, Ultra-Orthodox Jews continued to gather in large numbers and even violently protest against measures designed to force them to accept social distancing.

In Louisiana and Florida in the United States, three Christian evangelical pastors have consistently refused to stop holding large church gatherings. This even though all three men have been charged by the police with not following public orders against large gatherings. Tony Spell, of Life Tabernacle Church in Baton Rouge not only dismissed the charges but insisted he would hold an even larger gathering on Easter. When asked by the media why he would not follow the governor’s warnings, Spell replied “We have a mandate from the word of the Lord to gather together.” Like all Trumpistas, he believes the pandemic is “politically motivated.”

Hobby Lobby, the right-wing Christian-owned arts and craft store in the US tried to evade orders to close in various states calling itself an “essential business.” David Green, the founder of Hobby Lobby, in a message to employees, said God had told his wife Barbara to push ahead and He would protect them. Hobby Lobby has since been forced to close all stores and furlough all workers…without any pay.

In the Iranian city of Qom, a group of “angry radicals” raided the shrine of Fatima Masumeh after the doors had been locked in order to protect the public against the spread of the Coronavirus. These radicals saw the closing of this shrine and others as a betrayal of their Islamic beliefs and called for an end to restrictions. They, of course, insist that their belief in God will protect them.

While organizing an all Sunni gathering in Lahore, Pakistan, Muhammad Ashraf Asif Jalali, a Pakistan cleric, insisted that “no man can get sick as per the will of God” and that if anyone did get sick at his conference the government should “hang him.”

In India, where Prime Minister Modi has imposed at least a three-week lockdown, members of his Hindu-supremacist party are still planning religious festivals.

In South Korea, a Christian evangelical doomsday church known as the Shincheonji Church of Jesus (which of course believes it is the one, true church – don’t they all) held a meeting in Daegu in early February where thousand of people sat closely packed together to pray. Their religious leaders would not let them wear face masks and told them they didn’t need to fear the disease. One 61 year-old woman, known as a super spreader, infected so many of her co-religionists, she is responsible for half of the Covid-19 cases in South Korea.

As a reporter in one Middle Eastern newspaper put it in a statement that applies to the entire world “Fundamentalist forces have a vice-like grip on the hearts and minds of large swathes of the global population.”

Misleading Their Followers

This is not a tirade against religion. While I don’t personally follow any religious tradition and don’t think that any amount of prayer will protect you from Covid-19 if you are a “covidiot,” it’s easy to see the value of religion in a time of global confusion. When people don’t know if they’ll get sick or if they’ll lose love ones or friends to the disease, religion provides an important measure of support. At a time when any port in a storm makes it easier to deal with this life-threatening cataclysm, religion can play a constructive role for many people.

It is not, however, a good thing when religion is used by unethical and despicable religious leaders to increase their power over their followers and to insist that they know better than science. Ultimately, all these charlatans fall back on the same claim – God will protect you. These religious leaders want us to believe that they have a direct line to the creator of their choosing who is giving them special instructions to hold these large gatherings or to ignore safety warnings.

Well, the Lord helps those who help themselves. It is perfectly possible to continue to practice religious beliefs by yourself in a time of global uncertainty. On the other hand, listening to these phony religious blowhards of any creed, who instruct followers to gather in large numbers, can become a death sentence for them or for others that they know and love.

It’s time for authorities in all countries to crack down on these religious hooligans. When we face a situation where a person’s religious beliefs can ultimately infect or kill many others, the religious belief must be superseded by the safety of others.