Category Archives: Random Blogging

A Not-So-Brave New World

So Trump took New Hampshire. A man who could hardly be more unfit for public office won a primary election held by one of America’s major parties.

This paragraph from a recent post on Political Animal pretty much sums up the situation–and the inability or unwillingness of the media to cover it accurately:

To make better predictions about electoral politics, traditional pundits need to look in the mirror and revise their assumptions about the electorate. Americans in both parties are afraid for their futures and fed with up the current system, the Republican Party has become far more extreme on the right than the Democratic Party on the left, and the GOP electorate specifically is far more demographically isolated and less interested in small-government conservatism and far more driven by racial animus, authoritarianism and cultural backlash than most centrist pundits care to admit.

Despite all the abuse aimed at the “lame stream media” and its perceived bias, most traditional media reporters and pundits have a deep-seated urge to be seen as “playing fair”—to focus on conflict, yes, but to avoid any impression that they are playing favorites. That determination leads to what has been called false equivalence: party A does something truly awful, and when party B does something wrong that most of us would consider far less troubling, the reporter paints them as equally wrongheaded. “They both do it.”

But they aren’t equivalent.

The truth is that today’s GOP bears virtually no resemblance to the party I worked for for 35 years.In 1980, I won a Republican Congressional primary; I was pro-choice, pro separation of church and state, pro public education. That would never happen today. Today’s Republican party is dominated by inflexible ideologues and proud know-nothings; it has become home to unashamed racists and would-be theocrats. The flaws of the Democrats—and there are many—pale in comparison.

There have been other times in America’s history when one or another party has “gone off the rails.” We can only hope that we are seeing the crest of this particular wave of paranoia and anti-intellectualism. (Kasich–arguably the only sane Republican candidate– did come in second.) But we can’t defeat the forces of fear and reaction unless we name them for what they are—unless we stop pretending that this is just another instance of “politics as usual.”

It isn’t. It’s ugly and it’s very, very dangerous.

Slightly Better Than Herpes….

Today is the New Hampshire primary. Before Marco Rubio’s robotic debate performance, he was expected to do well in New Hampshire, thanks to the perception that he is one of the more “moderate” candidates.

As John Favreau points out in some interesting observations about Rubio in the Daily Beast, that perception is erroneous.

It’s silly to pretend otherwise: As a Democrat, I’d rather run against Ted Cruz than Marco Rubio.

But that’s like saying I’d rather run against herpes than Marco Rubio. Of course I would. I don’t care that Ted Cruz may be smart and strategic. He’s also creepy and cruel, according to just about everyone who’s ever had the misfortune of knowing him for longer than 10 minutes.

Favreau notes the reasons that most Americans–at least, those who haven’t paid close attention to the train wreck which has been the Republican Presidential primary season–consider Rubio the candidate who could give Hillary (or Bernie) a genuine run for the office. He lists Rubio’s “positives,” including his youth, an appealing personal story and, given his background, a possible/theoretical  appeal to Latino voters.

Mostly, however, pundits attribute Rubio’s greater “electability” to a widespread perception that he falls into the “moderate” category. But as Favreau points out, that’s sort of like saying that next to Hitler, Mussolini was a moderate.

Because Trump and Cruz have moved the goalposts on what it means to be bat-shit crazy in a primary, the press will confuse Rubio’s moderate temperament with moderate policies, of which he has none. Rubio was once described as the “crown prince” of the Tea Party. He has a 100 percent rating from the NRA. He’ll appoint justices who will overturn the Supreme Court’s gay marriage decision. He opposes abortion with no exception for rape or incest. He opposes stem cell research and doesn’t believe in climate change. He’d send ground troops to Syria and trillions in tax cuts to the rich.

It is extremely unlikely that anyone championing those policies can be elected President. Voter ID laws and SuperPacs can only do so much. Gerrymandering can insure control of the House of Representatives, but not the Presidency.

How has the party of Eisenhower, Nixon (who despite his flaws understood governance and foreign policy) and even Reagan (who would be far too liberal for the current party base) come to this? And what will the outcome be?

The real problem for all of us— Democrats, Independents and those rational Republicans who haven’t yet thrown in the towel— is that the implosion of a once-responsible, genuinely conservative political party is a body blow to effective government. This country desperately needs adult conversations, thoughtful consideration of different policy approaches to the actual, real-world problems we face and a nuanced understanding of the systems within which those problems must be addressed.

These people want to be important. They want to rule; they don’t want to govern.

 

 

 

The Death of Thoughtfulness?

A Minnesota colleague whose insights I respect, has an academic blog. Recently, he shared a post in which he summarized an aspect of contemporary life that keeps many of us up at night; he titled it “The Death of Thoughtfulness.”

As we watch an increasingly bizarre Presidential campaign–dominated on the Right by authoritarian know-nothings to whom the term “thoughtful” would never be applied and on the Left by voters impatient with complexity —his essay seems especially pertinent.

The post was lengthy, and I encourage readers to click through, but these paragraphs seemed to me to capture the essence of his—and my—concern:

The world is not black and white but it  is lived in shades of gray.  Solutions to America’s or world problems are not as simple as just send in the marines, cut taxes, or carpet bomb.  There are no silver bullets to fix the economy, bring about world peace, or eliminate poverty.  We live in a complex world with complex problems and understanding both and possible solutions require thoughtfulness about recognizing the limits of any one idea or policy proposal.

Yet simple-minded dogmatism is what sells.  Recently I attended a conference  of student college journals.  One of the speakers was a representative from a major media news service.  When one of the students asked how they could get more media attention for their journal the response from the news service was simple: Take a point of view and press it no matter what, even if extreme.  The advice was that to be successful you had to have a simple, clear perspective and argue it to the extreme.  It was not about being thoughtful or making clear careful distinctions–just take a position and advocate it, facts be damned.

The question we face—and by “we” I mean the whole world, including but not limited to the United States—is whether polities dominated by people demanding bumper-sticker solutions to complex and often highly technical problems can recapture what my colleague calls “thoughtfulness” and I would label intellectual humility.

When a United States Senator brandishes a snowball and claims it refutes climate change, when a candidate for the highest office in the land blithely promises to “carpet bomb” nations with which we are adverse, when outrage and pompous machismo are said to be signs of strength while considered, rational approaches to policy are sneeringly dismissed as evidence of weakness….we’re in trouble.

Big trouble.

How Gerrymandering Gave us Donald Trump (And Bernie, too)

Last night was another Republican debate, this time minus “The Donald.” It’s difficult to believe that this assortment of wannabes is the best a once-serious political party can muster.

How have we come to this?

David Brooks, the conservative columnist for the New York Times, is a thoughtful observer of the American scene, and while (in my opinion) he often misses with his analysis, he also often contributes to our understanding of the America we inhabit.

In a recent column, Brooks honed in on the public’s pervasive feelings of powerlessness:

The Republican establishment thinks the grass roots have the power but the grass roots think the reverse. The unions think the corporations have the power but the corporations think the start-ups do. Regulators think Wall Street has the power but Wall Street thinks the regulators do. The Pew Research Center asked Americans, “Would you say your side has been winning or losing more?” Sixty-four percent of Americans, with majorities of both parties, believe their side has been losing more.

These days people seem to underestimate their own power or suffer from what Giridharadas calls the “anxiety of impotence.”…

There are, as Brooks points out, many reasons for these perceptions of powerlessness, and certainly not all of them are political. That said, however, a case can be made that one of the great frustrations fueling the palpable anger in today’s electorate is the realization by so many citizens that their votes don’t count.

The American message has always been that we have political choice. If we don’t approve of the behavior of our political representatives, we can vote them out. Increasingly, that’s not true; gerrymandering has produced Congressional districts that would re-elect dead people if they ran with the correct political label.

At the federal level, the House of Representatives is unrepresentative of the American public, and likely to remain that way. In the last Congressional cycle, Democrats garnered a million more votes than the Republicans who nevertheless remain firmly in control—and, thanks to checks and balances—able to obstruct and defeat policies favored by a popularly-elected President.

I’ve written previously about the lack of competitiveness that gerrymandering produces, and about other deleterious consequences of the practice. Brooks points to one I omitted: the frustration experienced by citizens who feel—with considerable justification—that they have no voice.

Plagued by the anxiety of impotence many voters are drawn to leaders who pretend that our problems could be solved by defeating some villain. Donald Trump says stupid elites are the problem. Ted Cruz says it’s the Washington cartel. Bernie Sanders says it’s Wall Street.

When voters feel powerless, they are vulnerable to simple messages, identifiable villains, and candidates who channel their anger.

If history is any guide, that has never turned out well.

A Useful Metaphor

You’d have to be living in a cave to escape all the hype about the new Star Wars movie. I rarely go to movies, but even I felt the need to see this one—if only to hold my own with my grandchildren.

For the record, I thought it was a pretty mediocre movie. I have always thought that Star Wars was space opera with great special effects, rather than inventive science fiction, but I think I understand the appeal of the franchise.

It’s the good guys against The Dark Side.

In real life, the lines are not so simple. Most people are neither saintly or unremittingly evil. (As a friend of mine likes to say, incompetence explains so much more than conspiracy.) In  many situations, determining right and wrong can be complicated. But—probably for that very reason— we humans tend to pine for bright lines, for simple demarcations between “us” and “them”—with “us” being the good guys and “them” the bad guys.

Of course, there really are “bad guys.” Sometimes, those we label “bad” are simply misguided, or mentally incapacitated  (or really, really stupid), but there is no denying that there really are a lot of malevolent people in the world—not to mention the assholes, the self-aggrandizing, self-centered power-seekers who aren’t affirmatively evil, but who don’t care about the harmful consequences of their actions.

These days, in various arenas and more often than we like to admit, the “bad guys” seem to be winning, and winners are attractive. Political psychologists tell us that people like to identify with winners, to climb onto the bandwagon of popular opinion.

In real life, we are challenged to reject the affirming mindlessness of the mob— to refuse to go over to The Dark Side, no matter what the temptations or inducements—and to do so without becoming “bad guys” ourselves.

Draw your own political analogies….