Absence of Trust

In the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision to uphold the Affordable Care Act, I was once again reminded of how painful it has become to watch what passes for political discussion/debate in this country.

We have always had disputes about policy, about the proper role of government and the reach of the federal courts. We always will have those disagreements, and that’s how it should be. What is qualitatively different about our current discourse is the degree of suspicion and paranoia that characterizes it.  Americans simply do not trust the motives of those in government, and as a result of that distrust, we are unwilling to grant that honorable people of good will can come to different conclusions about the problems we face.

In Distrust, American Style, I investigated the sources and consequences of that distrust. The sources were easy enough to identify: for the past two decades, we’ve seen massive betrayals by businesses and Wall Street, scandals in institutions ranging from churches to major league sports, obscene amounts of money being spent on lobbying for legal advantage and more recently, poured into Super Pacs. There are undeniable reasons for our current levels of cynicism and distrust.

The problem is, when citizens don’t know who they can trust, they don’t trust anyone, and politics becomes impossible.

Yes, there are bad corporate actors–but there are also scores of good corporate citizens. Yes, there are politicians who are “on the take” and/or beholden to those who finance their campaigns, but there are also many, many good public servants who genuinely are trying to do the right thing. Yes, there are judges whose ideology drives their decision-making, but there are many more who divorce their policy preferences from their responsibility to faithfully apply the law.

Wholesale distrust makes for toxic politics.

It is one thing to disagree with President Obama’s priorities and policies–quite another to suggest, as “commentators” on Fox News and others regularly do, that he is a Kenyan Muslim Socialist who wants to destroy the United States. It’s one thing to disagree with Senator Lugar, quite another to suggest that his ability to work with Democrats on national security issues makes him unfit to hold office. You may disagree with the Court’s analysis of the healthcare law (although very few people seem to know enough about the actual law to form a reasoned opinion), but to suggest that Chief Justice Roberts is a “traitor” or (more bizarrely) that his opinion was flawed because he takes epilepsy medication is to embrace paranoia.

We have reached such levels of derangement that we no longer believe anything we don’t want to believe–and thanks to technology, we can choose to inhabit media environments that reinforce our most unhinged conspiracy theories.

We don’t trust the “lame stream” media (or what is left of it). We don’t trust businesses or unions. We don’t trust the courts. We don’t trust the President, Congress or the Supreme Court. Increasingly, we don’t trust each other.

This is no way to run a country.

It won’t be easy, but rational people need to insist on measures that will make our governing institutions trustworthy again–beginning with more transparency and more control of money in politics. If we can restore a measure of basic trust in the good will of those we elect, perhaps we can begin to calm the crazy and actually talk to each other again.

Failing that, maybe Prozac in the water supply??


A Couple of Gloomy Observations

Yesterday, I got a phone call from an old friend. Unlike most of my other Republican friends, who have been appalled by the Lugar-Mourdock results, he was euphoric. Why? Because Mourdock “is a bomb thrower! He’ll go to Washington and he won’t play the game!”

Also yesterday, a commenter to one of my recent blogs on the subject questioned the idea that Lugar had moved to the right during his long career. Why, he had voted for the President’s Supreme Court Justices and the bailouts, and supported the Dream Act! How could he be conservative?

If there is any lesson to be learned from the expression of these sentiments, it is that political advertising is effective, especially when coupled with an audience’s lack of understanding of basic democratic (note small d) governance. The examples cited by the commenter as evidence that Lugar is really a “moderate” who (in the opinion of my Republican friend) “played with the liberals” amount to little more than a regurgitation of Mourdock’s ads. Three or four examples were plucked from a 36-year career and relentlessly pounded on; voila! the man’s a  squishy bipartisan compromiser. And compromise is bad, bomb-throwing and intransigence are what we need!

The people expressing these opinions aren’t uneducated. But they  were clearly swayed by an unrelenting ad campaign fueled by lots of Super Pac money.

I don’t worry about two people with uninformed opinions.  Nor do I fault these folks for not doing the research necessary to counter the 30-second sound-bites.

But I am deeply worried about the extent to which billionaires and Super Pacs will influence the millions of equally uninformed voters in November.


Indiana’s Hangover

Well, we’ve had our “party”–yesterday was Primary Election day.

Today, we have to live with the hangover.

The most troubling result, of course, was the defeat of Dick Lugar by an embarrassing know-nothing unworthy to polish his shoes. I have posted several times about the pathetic campaign run by a once-towering statesman. Truth be told, Lugar has moved steadily to the right as the party’s base has migrated to the fringes, and a dignified retirement might have rescued his legacy. That said, to see a man of genuine stature defeated by a cartoon was hard to take.

Add to that ignominious defeat the victories of equally noxious GOP congressional candidates in safe districts–districts where the Primary is for all intents and purposes THE election–and Indianapolis and Indiana can kiss all of the good PR we generated from the SuperBowl good-by. By our dingbats we shall be known….

The open question is: what will Hoosiers do in November? Will we confirm our status as a buckle on the Bible Belt, electing Mike Pence (who, in his years in Congress, never managed to pass a single bill, but spent LOTS of time talking about what God wanted) and Tea Partier Richard Mourdock? Or will we come to our senses?

The Democrats running for Governor and Senator are, by national standards, conservative. (As my youngest son says about the Gregg-Pence matchup, we have a choice: we can go back to the 1950s or the 1590s.) Joe Donnelly is a “blue dog.” Neither will satisfy true progressives. But both are good people, savvy and compassionate and vastly preferable to Pence and Mourdock.

To all my Republican friends who voted for Dick Lugar, and all my Democratic friends who swallowed hard, took a GOP Primary ballot and did likewise, let me echo the Facebook message posted this morning by a friend from Lafayette: Our job is to ensure that there is NEVER a Senator Mourdock. To which I’ll add: or a Governor Pence.

The last thing we need is “hair of the dog.”


Living in Indiana

Yesterday, a county election board ruled that Dick Lugar isn’t eligible to vote using the address of the house he sold in the 1970s. (The board declined to find criminal intent, since the Lugars had relied upon opinions issued by two Attorney Generals.)

I’m not about to delve into the question whether the board–which evidently relied on its own attorney’s analysis of the relevant statutes–was right or wrong. But it’s hard not to wonder what’s really going on with this particular line of attack.

This morning’s Star editorialized

Such is the state of politics in 2012. Instead of building a philosophical and intellectual case as to why Richard Mourdock is a superior candidate, the Republican primary challenger’s campaign and his supporters have instead chosen to wallow in side issues such as the status of Lugar’s residency.

The easy reply to that observation is that it would be pretty hard to build a case for Mourdock being a superior candidate; the man is a bad joke.

The attack on Lugar’s residency is obviously intended to drive home the argument that the Senator is out-of-touch. (Whatever the technical legal resolution, the “optics,” as the political types say, are awful–and effective.) Being out of touch, having been in Washington too long, are time-tested themes of many campaigns, and whether this one has taken the attack a step too far will ultimately be decided by primary voters who will either agree with the charge or recoil from the way it has been pursued.

I have been saddened by Lugar’s pandering to the ever-more-rabid GOP base, but I am even more saddened and appalled by what that base considers evidence that Lugar is out of touch. The list of complaints includes things like supporting nuclear arms negotiations, voting for the President’s Supreme Court nominees, and being willing to compromise with the Democrats from time to time in order to get the nation’s business done.

In other words, they want to remove him for being a sane (albeit very conservative) lawmaker who actually understands what elected officials in a democratic system are supposed to do.

I’m not sure that I live in Indiana any more. Politically, it feels more like the Twilight Zone.


Essential Reading

This morning’s column by David Brooks is a dead-on accurate description of what has happened to the GOP.

I was going to excerpt a paragraph, but I couldn’t decide which one, because Brooks goes from pointed observation to perfect analogy and back. (He notes that the primaries haven’t been about policy differences; rather, they’ve been a “series of heresy trials.”)

David Brooks is exactly the sort of thoughtful conservative who used to exemplify the Republican Party, back when I was an active member of the GOP. Now–next to the raging troglodytes and the culture warriors and the know-nothings who want to keep kids out of college and repeal the Enlightenment–he is an anachronism.

He has a lot of company.

Read the column. And weep.