GOING TO EXTREMES

31
October

Extremists receive considerable attention these days, the fringe frequently overshadowing the middle.  Isis, which proclaims the restoration of the Caliphate while gobbling up large swaths of territory certainly does.  Same with climate change  deniers who reject overwhelming evidence that human activity is producing unsustainable global warming.  Proponents of economic austerity receive a respectable hearing as they argue that recovery and growth can only be achieved by draconian budget and deficit reductions.  Strong Libertarians who insist upon a sharply reduced role for government are highly visible as are extreme anti-government elements who’ve labelled the National government, the “enemy”.  Pro gun activists are widely quoted in opposition to most every government regulation of  weapons and in favor of arming nearly all citizens.  Anti-abortion zealots have a platform from which to urge conferring “personhood” upon fetuses and banning nearly all abortions.

While the views of Americans tend on most issues to cluster in the middle, extremists often capture the headlines, their  beliefs accepted as legitimate entries into the public conversation.  The media is partially responsible for this.  It thrives on controversy and thus welcomes strident voices that challenge majority opinion.  For example, when most all climate scientists believe global warming represents a real threat, many question why media discussions often include climate change skeptics.  When a standoff occurred between a Nevada rancher and federal officials  over grazing rights,  reporters rushed to the scene and remained there in order to record the threatening actions of his armed anti-government backers..

Extremists are easily identified, can be classified with relative ease.  Moreover, their messages often are simple – “no gun regulation”, “no abortion“, “end the debt”.  Those occupying the center of public discussions ordinarily assume positions more nuanced more amenable  to compromise.  And extremists are anything, if not bold – establish the Caliphate – government is the enemy – the embryo is a person – guns for all.  And uncompromising.  Strong gun advocates are prepared to challenge any and all efforts to restrict firearms possession.  Isis will execute anyone who does not adhere to their articles of faith.

While the general public rejects extremists and their messaging, still there may be a grudging and unspoken respect for these groups.  After all, in an era of political apathy and widespread passivity these people have defied the existing order, have spoken out, often stridently, and taken a stand , rejected compromise.  Because many of the issues are complex and not easily resolved, simple solutions, already noted, are welcome.  While many confess to powerlessness, the activism, dedication and organizational skills of extremists can seem impressive.

But the middle must hold.  Men and women of good will, relying on solid information, speaking out with confidence and clarity, people who acknowledge the diversity of interests in play and are willing to accept less than perfect  legislation  must lead the conversation and determine the outcome.

 

WHERE WE STAND

21
August

The late three-time mayor of New York City, Ed Koch’s favorite line was “How’m I doing?”  Why not apply that question to the United States and see how our nation measures up on a variety of core issues.  Granted each one is inherently complex and often controversial so simplification is inevitable.  Full disclosure requires notice that a liberal lens has been applied to all that follows.

As to the scale employed here – One, represents a dismal state of affairs and ten, a most desirable one.  Obviously everyone is invited to score this for themselves. Continue reading

WHITES NEED NOT WORRY

12
August

America has always been a white man’s country.  From the beginning white people were the majority and whiteness represented the absolute prerequisite for leadership.  People of color were kept in their place a place quite apart and subordinate to those who held the reins of power.  African-Americans and Native Americans, Asians, Mexicans, etc., were relegated to the margins of society as were legions of newcomers (viz., the Irish; later the Italians) initially  perceived as not actually white.

Until recently white rule went unchallenged except for one brief period in the past..  That occurred in portions of the post-Civil War South during Reconstruction.  Blacks were now free and, given the vote, might have used that leverage to gain office and unseat white politicians, many of whom had been disenfranchised because of their support of the Confederacy.  White response to this potential threat was swift and devastating.  The fear of black “rule” led to repeated acts of intimidation and violence and, given the inability of the Federal Government to protect black citizens, to continued white dominance throughout the region.  Southern whites would not be challenged again for over a century.  Continue reading

PROVE IT

8
July

Who hasn’t seen a war movie in which a prisoner refuses to divulge any information other than his “name, rank and serial number”, as prescribed by the Geneva Convention?  But nowadays most of us are obliged to offer far more by way of identification.  Consider the following examples:

  • Once a highway patrolman pulls you over, you know what to expect.  Your license, registration and insurance forms better be available.  Otherwise be prepared for a flurry of tickets.  You’ll pay even more if your vehicle inspection sticker has lapsed.
  • Before a doctor, lab or hospital ER will “see you”, you’d best have your health insurance cards in hand.  Otherwise you may be denied admission, and experience long waits or be obliged to pay dearly for the services.
  • Don’t have a boarding pass to present at the airport gate?  Until you do you won’t be getting on the plane, or into that country without a passport.
  • Until you show school authorities paperwork confirming that your child has been vaccinated he or she is likely to be kept out of the classroom.
  • Try entering many commercial or government buildings.  You won’t get far until you’ve been photographed and are wearing a badge displaying your name and picture.
  • Unless they can produce a school ID, or have a key, students and faculty will be denied entrance to many college facilities.
  • Applying for a job?  You’ll probably be asked to bring along a copy of your diploma to the interview.
  • In an ever increasing number of states, those intending to vote will be required to first show a valid photo ID.
  • Purchasing a pack of cigarettes or ordering a drink at the bar?  You’ll need proof of age (whether valid or bogus) before you will be served.
  • Your credit card must first be “swiped” before the hotel or motel desk clerk will hand you the room key.
  • And what may be the oldest form of personal identification – a library card.   You’ll not be taking out any books without one (but don’t forget your regular ID or household electric bill in order to obtain that library card!)

The list goes on.  But what does it mean – that we’re expected to carry around a lot more cards and documents proving our identity, eligibility and compliance with ”official” requirements?  Our society has doubtless become more complicated, fearful and vulnerable, and, as a consequence insists upon greater controls, “proof” and a closer scrutiny of individuals.  DO NOT TRUST – VERIFY.  The message is unmistakable.

THE CAMPAIGN

5
June

Just recently I plunged into a local political campaign, volunteering my time and efforts to elect our County Executive.  The Republican candidate had, in the previous election unseated the Democrat – who was then the incumbent but was now running again – by just 386 votes out of 235,000 cast.  The Democrat had, by his own admission, conducted a low energy campaign, influenced, he concedes, by polling numbers which showed him comfortably ahead.

He would, he vowed, not repeat this error.  Notwithstanding the advantage of incumbency and the Republican’s formidable campaign apparatus, I had high hopes.  Their candidate was bland and uninspiring; his record at best mediocre, especially in view of the pressing needs of the County – decaying downtowns, young people leaving the area, escalating property taxes and debt, diminished growth rates, etc.  No surprise since he represented a venerable political machine which, to retain power, had long relied on a time-tested formula – reward loyalists, dispense jobs, grant contracts to generous contributors and, with minor adjustments, do just enough to keep the government functioning.

Still, I was heartened by “inside” information which, among other things, revealed how the current regime had manipulated the books, installed in high offices friends, family and political supporters – many embarrassingly unqualified, scuttled numerous valuable programs and proved indifferent to the needs of the most vulnerable residents.

Continue reading

CAMPAIGNING

1
May

I’ve been kicking around the local political scene out here in the burbs for decades.  Come election time we mobilize our less than intimidating forces and dutifully mount campaigns to defeat the opposition.  Trouble is, we have little idea which of our electioneering efforts are effective.  Tactically opportunistic, we’re inclined to go off in many different directions and assume that each additional effort provides some marginal benefit.  As an election grows closer, here’s what we do.

The lawn sign has long been a staple of suburban electioneering.  Stuck into the ground it announces to passersby that:  1. There is an election coming up; and 2. That neighbors of yours are willing to disclose their preferences.  The goal is to place signs along busy roadways and intersections so as to maximize their impact.  There is also the belief that large numbers of signs create a favorable climate and a sense of momentum for your candidate.  Signs are somewhat problematic, however, insofar as they do topple over and, more commonly, are stolen by the opposition.  Billboards and wall posters are much like lawn signs, except that they are notably larger and considerably costlier.  Key locations must be reserved for obvious reasons, including that of denying them to the opposition.

Both sides flood the mails with fliers during the period before election day.  Candidates’ credentials and accomplishments are highlighted and nasty, overblown accusations are hurled against opponents.  The problem here is that few people actually read this stuff or accept the charges at face value.  Moreover, because it is regarded as a subspecies of junk mail, it is widely resented, and from all indications, immediately tossed away.  Television ads represent a far more ambitious and costlier approach.  They tend, on the local level at least, to be consistently amateurish and shrill, and are no doubt regarded with the same indifference and skepticism as product commercials.

At the grass roots, there’s nothing more basic than dropping off campaign literature at the doors of individual homeowners.  Block by block, up and down stairs leading to the front door, our operatives slip this material under doormats (to prevent them from being blown away).  They are, however, usually neutralized by the fact that the opposition often does likewise.  No doubt homeowners regard these as a nuisance, unwanted shreds of paper they must pick up and dispose of.  Of far greater effectiveness is a personal appearance in the neighborhood by the candidate for a “walk around”.  Knocking on doors and encountering people on the street, he or she can “press the flesh”, and engage directly with voters.  Everyone is usually friendly, promises support on election day, but of course there are no guarantees.  This face-to-face ritual bolsters candidate confidence, but is extremely time consuming.  And because people are often not home it is unlikely that many voters can be brought into the fold in this manner.

Recently the “robo” call has come into play.  These devices allow a recorded message to be dispatched to limitless numbers of home phones.  People may pick up and listen to the first such call, but when others arrive, which they always do, most no longer pay attention.  More effective are calls from prominent politicians endorsing our candidates.  Even local elections may feature messages from the President of the United States our U.S. Senators or the Governor.  How flattering.  Imagine getting a call from such luminaries.  How much more effective will this technique be when these devices improve to the point that the caller can address you by name and inquire about the well-being of family members!  Could be a game changer.

So, there you have it.  Not knowing what really works leads campaign managers to try everything.  That’s good for democracy, plus a welcome boost to local economies.

BALLOT BLUES

27
March

It’s sad, but true.  Think of all that it took to challenge and overthrow the Divine Right of Kings and to dismantle the exclusive power and privileges claimed for ages by aristocracies in one land after another.  It required centuries before the “people” finally asserted themselves, insisted that they were the ultimate authority and that they would exert their power by voting at popular elections.  As suffrage expanded in the United States (for example, most states initially imposed property requirements for voting), more and more people gained access to the polls, and through regularly scheduled elections the opportunity to select candidates to represent them.  Over time, in one nation after another, elections rather than inherited privilege, military coups and dictatorial rulers became the legitimate means of transferring governing power from one group to another.  Eventually, unless elections were conducted, no one could claim they were legally authorized to hold public office.

Alas, the election process itself has been subverted again and again.  Those holding power have devised numerous ways to undermine the process, to tilt the balance in their favor.  Elections continue but the system will be manipulated to ensure a predetermined outcome.  Rival campaigns will be permitted, but the outcome will never be in doubt.  In Iran, for example, before candidates qualify for the ballot they must be vetted by religious authorities.  Almost always, scores are denied the opportunity to run.  In other places, opposition campaigns have been disrupted, their leaders jailed and supporters denied, often forcibly, entry to the polls.  Then there are elections that are postponed, under some pretext, when candidates representing opposition forces seem poised to win.

Fraudulent vote counts are frequent.  When the number of votes cast in a district exceeds the total of registered voters, ballot stuffing is the likely explanation.  On the other hand, when opposition votes “disappear” and are not counted, we can assume that ballot boxes have been removed and destroyed.  Of course, people can vote any way they please, but it is the government that presents the “official” results.  Claiming victory for themselves and defeat for the opposition often settles the matter.  That’s especially the case when no independent authority or outside poll watchers are present to challenge the results.  Many of the current rulers in the former Soviet Republics, now independent nations, seem to proceed in this matter, claiming eye-raising majorities for themselves.

The United States, the birthplace of broad suffrage rights, has itself fallen victim to election charades.  Complex and excessively legalistic registration laws (which result in millions upon millions of ineligible unregistered voters), restrictive voter ID regulations, the broad exclusion of former prison inmates and an overwhelming majority of gerrymandered districts dominated by one party have kept voting participation at disappointingly low levels.  While elections determine our leaders, low turnouts are all too common.  Consequently, most of those elected to office are rarely the choice of the majority of potential voters in each district.

Maybe it was too good to be true, only a matter of time before popular rule would be subverted, rendered ineffective.  High turnout elections, fairly conducted, are the essential fuel of participatory democracy.  We’d better act now to safeguard this precious process.

POLITICS

6
March

Everyone bad mouths “politics”.  Who would dare defend dirty tricks, rigged elections, backroom deal making, base appeals to popular prejudices, empty slogans, false promises, legislative gridlock and the corrosive influence of money upon the system?  Just as the preparation of sausages is not for the squeamish, politics, we’re told, has little in common with church picnics.  But have we tampered with the jury?  Have we really allowed the defendant his day in court?  Would it be sufficient to say giving birth is a bloody, painful, even agonizing experience without acknowledging the end result?  The problem is we’ve allowed one aspect of politics to define the entire process and we’ve paid a price for our cramped view.  Let me offer a more expansive and potentially more useful definition.  Here’s what’s going on.

Politics as Circus:  This is mostly what the public sees and reacts to and what turns it off.  Manipulated district lines – campaigns that descend into the gutter – incumbents re-elected again and again – politicians feathering their own nests – powerful lobbies calling the shots – pointless parliamentary maneuvering – legislative discussions with few in attendance – Legislation that gets watered down, critical components stripped away – It’s not a pretty sight but it’s not all there is.

Politics as Platform:  Issues of all sorts spill out continuously upon our society as groups advocating one course or another attempt to attract the public’s attention and advance their cause.  It is, however, only after specific issues enter the political arena, become incorporated into the platform of individual politicians, or party organizations that they gain momentum, stand a chance of becoming public policy.  Politics provide an invaluable forum, sets the terms of discussion and can at times transform slogans into legislation.  The efforts of civil rights demonstrators eventually bore fruit in the Civil Rights and Voting Right Acts of the mid-60s.  Environmental organizations left their mark on legislation curtailing the pollution of our waters.

Anti-abortion groups succeeded in getting numerous state legislatures to introduce specific requirements before abortions could proceed and organizations in favor of limiting the rights of gay Americans helped win passage of the Defense of Marriage Act.  To promote your cause, it’s best to go political.

Continue reading

POLITICAL CAPITAL

26
December

Article II of the U.S. Constitution is devoted to the Presidency, spelling out Executive  responsibilities and powers.  No mention, however, can be found there regarding an often vital source of presidential power, namely POLITICAL CAPITAL.  And what is that you ask?  Well, it’s sort of an enhancement an additional  gear available to presidents who’ve been elected by sizable majorities or who are very popular, or have achieved significant triumphs, whether on the battlefield, the legislative chambers of Congress or in the field of diplomacy.  It provides a cushion when the going gets tough.  It’s like having money in the bank.  In recent years it was president George Bush who  laid claim to this valuable political additive.  After winning re-election in 2004 he announced that, “I earned capital in this campaign, political capital, and now I intend to spend it.”

Lots of folks subscribe to this idea of political capital, but admit it’s a somewhat vague and elusive concept.  For example, how much can one claim to have?”  Is it in any way quantifiable?  Can it be calculated in terms of dollars and cents, size of legislative majorities, level of public popularity?  All of these?  Can it be stockpiled?  Replenished?  Who determines how much political capital is available at any particular point?  The media?A President’s staff? Public opinion polls or a gaggle of political science professors?

Is political capital something one simply can bask in or have added to your net worth?  Or must it be spent, i.e., use it or lose it?  And if a president chooses to spend it should it be on a single substantial goal or is it  better to have parceled it out in support of several less ambitious objectives?  Bush, you may recall, put most of his chips on the table in an effort to begin privatizing Social Security.  That didn’t get very far.  And he was left with most of his political capital depleted.  Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York State, on the other hand, riding a wave of substantial public approval chose early in 2013 to stake a chunk of his capital on stricter gun regulation.  He got what he wanted from legislators, but took a pounding in public opinion polls, which presumably reduced the political capital available to him to advance other reforms.  In all likelihood president Obama had little desire to make a strong push for gun legislation until the tragedy at Newtown, Connecticut.  He was, therefore, obliged to play his hand “prematurely”,  and in this instance his capital dwindled rapidly, turned out to be insufficient..

Just as we track the S&P 500 or consumer confidence or the price of gasoline at the pump, we should in view of what has been said here be able to develop a political capital index (PCI) for our presidents.  Like Intrade, the political futures platform, it could become a daily trading market for investors and speculators.  More significantly, it could lend substance to political calculations offering clues to which items on a president’s agenda may actually be achievable.

MORE OR LESS

12
November

Have you noticed how often policy discussions present a clear divide between the advocates of “more” and those urging “less”.  Take for instance the debate on gun violence.  For many the  answer is obvious.  To them “more” is the solution.  Increase the number of weapons in circulation and the “bad” guys will think twice about using them.  “Less” guns, opponents insist, is the reasonable response to the scourge of armed violence in the U.S.

What is it that distinguishes the “more” people from those insisting upon “less”?  Some part of it surely is spite, even defiance such as one might expect from a child.  Told he’d better do a certain thing, he proceeds to do the opposite.

“More” is often dismissed as excessive, unnecessary.  Take sleeping.  To those recommending “more” sleep, opponents counter that it leaves you tired and lethargic, wastes time and may even signify depression.  Americans generally make do with “less” sleep – been doing it for years.  “More” homework, we’re told, makes a better prepared student.  Others campaign for “less”.  Reduce the pressure on kids, they declare, and allow them to pursue other interests.  A similar divide exists over testing.  “More” testing sharpens skills and provides a better gauge of student capabilities and teacher performance.  Others consider”less” to be better.  An overemphasis on testing distorts the purposes of education.  Same divide regarding exercise.  The “more” the better keeps you fit and healthy.  “Less” wear and tear, others say.  Besides, exercise can become addictive.  Just go for a walk.

Divergent opinions on the economy and growth often produce intense “more” or “less” debates.  Consumers need to spend “more” to prop up the economy and prevent business slumps.  But others counter that “less” spending is needed to reduce personal indebtedness and increase individual saving rates.  “More” government debt during economic slowdowns is how you restart the economy.  “Less” deficits make more sense, we’re told, because it channels more money into the private sector, increases business confidence and reduces government interest payments.  The tax controversy mirrors these arguments.  Raise “more” tax revenue in order to fund government services.  But “less” taxes we’re informed will accelerate consumer spending, spur economic expansion and prevent government from assuming unnecessary obligations.

On another front, we hear on the one hand that the future energy needs of America require us to drill “more” in order to uncover new supplies of oil and gas.  Not so, say opponents.  Continued reliance on fossil fuels only delays the days of reckoning.  “Less” drilling is essential so we can focus upon developing alternative energy sources.

“More” or “less” frequently distinguishes Liberals from Conservatives.  Liberals generally favor “less” disciplinary measures whether in the home, school or court, whereas Conservatives incline to “more” discipline and harsher punishment.  Conservatives generally favor “more” guilty verdicts and jail time, whereas Liberals prefer “less” convictions for minor infractions and sentences that are “less” severe. When it comes to government regulation of the private sector there are few shadings Conservatives are most comfortable with “less” regulation; whereas Liberals believe circumstances usually require “more” oversight.

So, consider your position on the issues of the day.  You’ll likely discover that on most “more” or “less” is where you’ll be.