Category Archives: Uncategorized

Why We Can’t Have Nice Things

Jay Cost always seems to come across as a bit to cynical for my taste, but he does make a valid point in his latest column.  He comments on the recent article by Washington think tankers Norman Ornstein and Thomas Mann who basically blame the GOP for the current partisan atmosphere.

Cost doesn’t buy that and in a way explains why there is less bipartisanship in Washington:

The American political process is starting to break down because of major changes to the political economy of this country. For half a century after World War II, the economy grew at such an incredible pace that we could have low taxes, high social welfare benefits, and a low deficit. This was one of the major reasons why there could be bipartisanship. Economic growth bankrolled these “great” compromises. It had very little to do with the foresight, courage, or moderation of the pols in Washington. They were just riding the wave generated by the private sector.

But all that seems to be over now. For more than a decade (not just the Great Recession but going back to 2000), economic growth has been far below its postwar average, and too low to keep the old regime afloat. You can’t have low taxes, high spending, and low deficits when the economy can’t break 3 percent growth.

This is something the D.C. establishment still does not seem to get. For years, their “farsighted,” bipartisan compromises were possible because the guys with the green eyeshades told them that the economy would grow to fill the gaps that they couldn’t fill. But now the economy can’t do that – so we have a mind-bogglingly large deficit and increased polarization in the political sphere.

I think Cost is wrong in saying that things like courage, foresight and moderation don’t matter (interesting how conservatives that like to tout values all the time, abandon them when it suits their interest).  That said, I also think that bipartisanship doesn’t happen in a vacumn.  One of the reasons we were able to get things like Medicare was because we could afford it in ways that we really can’t these days.  Also, the economy was humming along with growth rates we can only envy.  So, in such an environment, parties could compromise.

But when the economy is not growing as well and when the grand bargain of the past stops working, then we are going to get what we have now.

None of this means we should act nastily towards each other, but it does mean that even if we were to elect more Democrats as Ornstein and Mann suggest, we wouldn’t have a nicer Washington because the major factor of the economy is still there making it hard for everybody.

The Not-So-Strange Death of Americans Elect

So we finally got word that Americans Elect, the centrist political party that wasn’t a political party threw in the towel after failing to attract a candidate run against the two major party candidates.

Color me not surprised.

The endeavor attracted a lot of news coverage and had a lot of big names (former politicos) supporting it, but the premise of trying to build a centrist political movement all on the internet failed.

Ross Douthat, writing for the New York Time’s Campaign Stops column wrote that part of the problem with the golden unicorn that is a centrist third party is that it tends to be too insiderish, made up of the ruling establishment of both parties:

The founders of Americans Elect, like the Unity ‘08ers before them, clearly pined for a candidate in the mold of New York’s billionaire mayor: A center-left technocrat, more hawkish on deficits and pro-business than the average Democrat, but more socially liberal and less taxophobic than the average Republican. Such a candidate’s platform would presumably amalgamate various unsuccessful bipartisan forays from the last ten years: The Bowles-Simpson deficit reduction plan, comprehensive immigration reform and tax reform, the cap-and-trade program that John McCain once backed and then abandoned, and so on.

Some of these ideas are good ones; some are not. But all of them have much more purchase among elites and insiders and power brokers in the Wall Street-Washington corridor than they do among the kinds of disaffected voters who usually propel third party campaigns, and give them their populist, anti-establishment edge.

Unlike Douthat, I do think a more centrist party could emerge as a force in American politics.  I just don’t happen to think it’s going to happen by creating a dazzling website and hoping the best candidate drops out of the sky from heaven.

Even in this age of Facebook and Twitter, political action is still very much a grassroots affair.  All you have to do is look at how the 2008 Obama campaign or the Tea Party to see that politics is inspired from the bottom up, not top-down, which is what Americans Elect was trying to do.

If a real centrist party is to emerge, it has to do a few things:

Be known for a few issues.  If I say “Tea Party” most folks could tell me what they are all about, which is less government and less spending.  If I say”Occupy Wall Street” you would say something about raising taxes on the richest one percent.  If I saw “Americans Elect” you’d say…what?  I really didn’t know what they stood for except that they didn’t like all the fighting and wanted people to play nice.  Civility and bipartisanship are good things, but they don’t make a political movement.  The far left parties that won in Greece placed their focus on being against austerity and gave people a reason to care.  Any centrist movement here has to do the same thing, give people a reason to want to support them.  It could be on the deficit or the environment or what have you, but it needs to propel people get engaged.  Americans Elect was basically getting people to hit the “like” button ala Facebook.

The Internet is a Tool, not magic. Unity’08 and Americans Elect had this kooky premise that the power of the internet would choose a candidate.  There is a sort of odd magical thinking among centrists when it comes to the internet.  As noted in Tech President a few days ago, it’s the Field of Dreams Fallacy, if you build a political campaign, they will come.

The Field of Dreams Fallacy (“if you build it, they will come”) plagues all sorts of expensive, half-baked projects in online politics. A few years ago, dozens of interest groups looked at the success of social networking sites like Facebook and became convinced that they should launch their own, branded social networks. Millions of dollars later, it turned out that they were all building virtual ghost towns. Technology alone doesn’t create political communities. If your members are already happily on Facebook, they’re unlikely to divert that time and spend it on a Sierra Club- or NRA-specific social network instead. The real successes in online politics comes at the intersection of motivated communities-of-interest and supportive technological platforms. (emphsis mine)

Americans Elect was founded on the gimmicky premise that the power of the Internet would “break the gridlock of Washington” by letting online citizens vote in their own non-party primary. Set aside the obvious flaws in that premise (putting a candidate on the ballot does not elect them to office. Electing a president doesn’t remove the gridlock-inducing Senate filibuster.). An awful lot of citizens already vote in primaries — Mitt Romney has received over 5 million votes in the Republican primaries, and he’s constantly criticized for being unpopular. In a country of 311 million mostly-disaffected citizens, one can certainly make that case. The promise of Americans Elect is that the Internet be a bridge to involvement for the rest of us.

And we see how that turned out.

Internet sensations like the 2008 Obama Campaign were successful because they connected the already motivated to an electronic platform.  In the case of Americans Elect, the medium was the message or no message and it failed.

Politics is about connections.  The thing that makes political movements successful is getting a bunch of like-minded passionate people together and organizing them into a cohesive group.  Politics is really a communal practice, where individuals come together to form groups based on certain shared issue.  Americans Elect was where individuals came and…were still individuals.  There was no group formation (which generally happens offline).  Americans Elect is a new age kind of thing that is centered around the idea that politics can be a solo affair.  But for any movement to get anywhere, it needs some buy-in, someway to take individuals and make them part of a larger group.

So, not that Americans Elect is history, there is already talk about 2016.  So I leave wide-eyed centrists with a lot of money with this advice:

If you want to have a viable centrist party, do it the old-fashioned way: find a charismatic candidate.  Focus on a few things.  Give up the idol of bipartisanship and be more about ideas.  Get your nose out your laptops and set up discussion groups in coffeeshops around the nation.  Study the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street to find out how movements really act.  Look at how other centrist parties around the world operate.

But please, for the love of God, don’t spend millions on a fancy website and slick PR to promote a miracle that will never happen.  What that shows is that centrists are a joke and not serious.

The Long, Slow March

The news this week of President Obama finally “coming out of the closet” on same sex marriage seemed to frame the issue in very stark, partisan terms: Democrats good, Republicans bad.  It didn’t help that GOP Presidential candidate Mitt Romney fired back with his opposition to gay marriage.

The GOP is not where the Dems are on this issue.  You can’t try to dress up that pig.  But it’s also important to remember that there is a slow, but building movement of folks in the GOP who support gay marriage.  And it’s also important to remember that one GOP Senator was instrumental in allowing gays to serve openly in the military.

Change can come slowly, but change does happen.  It may seem pointless at times, but I think one day in the very near future, there will be a GOP candidate for president who will voice support for same sex marriage and no one will bat an eye.

Is that a silly thing to believe?  Stranger things have happened- like a President actually coming out in favor of same sex marriage.

The Persistence of Racism

Ross Douthat lends his voice to the recent firing of conservative writer John Derbyshire from the National Review for a racist article.  He approves of the firing and the offers this take on racism as a counter to a point made by Conor Friedersdorf:

This future is unlikely to be as ugly as the past, because the case for formal segregation and overt racial discrimination isn’t going to come back. Nor, as I’ve said before, do I think that race is going to be the controlling cleavage of 21st century America: Already, I think religion, political ideology and social class can trump the color line as a source of polarization and division, and I expect that pattern to continue.

But I can think of a half-dozen reasons why public expressions of race-based hostility (of all sorts, not just against African Americans) might become more common, not less, as the America of the Boomers gives way to the America of the millennials. These reasons include the Internet’s tendency to make the taboo not-so-taboo anymore, our growing chronological distance from the institutional injustices whose successful overthrow made racism taboo in the first place, our culture’s obsession with genetic theories of just about everything, the fracturing of the Christian common ground that undergirded at least some of the belief in human equality, the way that diversity seems to increase social mistrust, the social gulf that increasingly yawns between upper-class whites who are invested in a multiracial society and lower-class whites who feel like losers in it, the potential growth of a grievance-based white identity politics as America becomes majority-minority, and the fact that white guilt over slavery and segregation — the foundation of the anti-racist consensus at the moment — will necessarily be a weaker cultural force in a country that’s more Hispanic, more Asian, and more non-white in general.

 

It kind of gets to a point that I’ve been thinking about for a while: racism will in some form or another always be with us.  It’s not because America is somehow fundamentally more racist than other spots on the globe.  I think for a variety of reasons-from increasing diversity to the stagnation of the lower white middle class and the isolation of the black underclass- racism will continue to be a problem in American society.  We aren’t going back to Jim Crow, but I think economic and social forces will bring rhetoric like Derbyshire’s out into the open.

The Beginning of the End on the Gay Marriage Wars

It seems the GOP is waking up to the reality that same-sex marriage is becoming more commonplace and that it’s not the winning wedge issue it once was:

It’s been one of the swiftest shifts in ideology and strategy for Republicans, as they’ve come nearly full circle on same-sex politics. What was once a front-and-center issue for rank-and-file Republicans — the subject of many hotly worded House and Senate floor speeches — is virtually a dead issue, as Republicans in Congress don’t care to have gay marriage litigated in the Capitol.

Even more than that, Republican leadership has evolved, too. It has quietly worked behind the scenes to kill amendments that reaffirm opposition to same-sex unions, several sources told POLITICO.

It’s not like the GOP has become a bastion of progressiveness on gay rights, but there has been an evolution in the political approach — and an acknowledgment of a cultural shift in the country. Same-sex relationships are more prominent and accepted. There are more gay public figures — including politicians — and it’s likely that many Washington Republicans have gay friends and coworkers. Just as important — there’s also a libertarian streak of acceptance on people’s sexuality coursing through the House Republican Conference.

One thing I’ve learned over the years is that change, especially in the Republican party is slow, but it is also most certainly steady.

Adventures in Civilian Police Work

Mike Dwyer:

Last summer I happened to look out the front window of my house just a little after dark and saw a car at the end of my street. The car was driving in slow circles and obviously looked a little suspicious. After five minutes of this the car stopped circling and drove slowly back down my street and then parked in the middle of the median, headlights shining on my neighbor’s house. At this point I decided to go outside and watch a little more closely. I went to the bedroom and grabbed the phone, a flashlight and my pistol. Then I sat on the front porch and waited. After about 10 minutes of observing, my neighbor’s daughter came out of the house, jumped in the car and they left. The driver, probably in his mid-teens, was just waiting for his girlfriend and acting like a jackass with his car. He was also black.

Tod Kelly’s post about the Travon Martin saw some traffic this weekend and the conversation still continues. I wanted to relate these stories to share one person’s perspective on the matter. What I recognize now is that in both cases I was only one or two bad decisions away from finding myself in the same situation as the shooter in the Martin case.

Just Press Play

When I was a teenager, my dad would constantly fret when I went out with my friends, who tended to be white girls.  Dad was always trying to tell me to be careful and like most teens, I didn’t get what he was trying to tell me.  I knew he grew up in Jim Crow-era Louisiana, and that he faced a lot of discrimination because he was a black man.  In my mind, that was decades ago, and besides, these girls were my friends.  I wasn’t planning on harming them and didn’t think people would see me as a threat.

Over the years, it did start to dawn on me that people do see you as a threat.  Also over time, a “tape” starts playing in your head.  As a black man, heck, if you are black, your head is filled with stories about how the world operates for African Americans, especially African American males.  There is talk about learning to be careful and at some level to not really trust others especially white folk.  The tape is filled with both recent and long-ago history of how African Americans are treated and every black person is armed with this tape.

Every so often, something happens in the wider culture that starts this tape rolling and it provides context to the a current situation.  Now this tape is not a rational process and sometimes it’s wrong.  But the tape plays nevertheless and sometimes overrides our rational mind, which can ignore things that don’t fit what the tape is saying.

I think that in the Trayvon Martin case, African Americans are in many ways rushing to judgement about what happened that night between Martin and George Zimmerman.  Conservatives have rightly pointed out that it is far more common for an African American to be struck down by another African American than a white man gunning down blacks.  But what they miss is how this case taps deep into the psyche of African Americans and therefore posits an emotion-filled response.

There are a few things that makes the “tape” start to play.

Young Black Man vs. White Man.  When you look at the photos of the young cherub-faced Martin up against a Zimmerman photo of him in an orange jumpsuit, I think it immediately causes a visceral response in blacks.  It reminds them of cases like  Emmett Till.  In the 1950s where a young black boy from Chicago was in Mississippi visiting relatives and was killed by white men because he whistled at a white woman.  Yes, 1955 Mississippi is not 2012 Florida, but like I said, this isn’t rational, it’s emotional and the juxtaposition of an African American teenager and a white man provokes reactions.  And yes, Zimmerman is part Hispanic, but in the minds of African Americans, that doesn’t factor in.  The tape says black vs. white and that is what many will follow.

The Police.  Let’s face it: black folks get nervous around the cops even if they haven’t done anything- I know I do.  We’ve had a long history of not-s0-good relations with the police and the actions or inactions of the Sanford, FL Police brings up that emotional history.  I do wonder why they didn’t arrest Zimmerman following the shooting and we will probably find out why in the coming days or weeks.  It might have been simple incompetence or the law wasn’t clear.  But even if there are legitimate reasons, the image of not arresting a white man for killing a black teenager looks bad, really bad to blacks.  Again, it’s the history of how blacks have been treated by the police and the law and how whites sometimes got away with murder quite literally. I’m not saying that we should arrest Zimmerman immediately, specific charge or not, but I am saying that is part of the angry demands to arrest Zimmerman stem from past history and the emotions that spring from that history.

Welcome to the South.  African Americans have a love/hate relationship with the American South.  On the one hand, it’s seen as our ancestral home and many of us still have a relative or two living “down South.”  The most recent census data shows blacks are moving back to the South after decades away in Northern cities.

On the other hand, it’s also a place where we have a not-so-good history.  There was that whole hey-let’s-treat-black-people-like-property thing, and then after the end of slavery there was yet another century of second-class status under Jim Crow.  If Trayvon had been killed in the North, part of me thinks it wouldn’t have the emotional pull that it does taking place in Florida.  And yes, even though it doesn’t act like it at times, Florida is in the South.

Rod Dreher wrote how experiences can cloud our judgement.  This is what he said in regard to a case of abuse in his life and how it related to the Penn State scandal where an associate of longtime coach Joe Paterno was sexually abusing young boys:

I think about how completely outraged I was last year over the Jerry Sandusky case at Penn State. How volcanically disgusted I was at how Penn State students rioted in anger over the way the university treated Joe Paterno. How frustrated I was over the culture of denial at Penn State that appears to have allowed Sandusky to sexually prey on boys for years. With some distance from that time, I think about all the emotions that case brought forth from within me — emotions that had to do with what I regard as the worst trauma I’ve ever gone through — and how it became virtually impossible for me to consider that any of the major figures from that case might not be guilty. That red-headed coach in particular, Mike McQueary. I was ready to be judge, jury, and executioner on that guy, and I couldn’t see how anybody could see this matter differently. Wasn’t the truth obvious? If you doubted it, I was emotionally certain that you were blinded by your loyalty to Penn State.

That was wrong of me. McQueary may eventually be proven in court to be guilty of some criminal charge, or may be at least shown to have been a man of no moral integrity. But I didn’t know that at the time, and I still do not know that. The truth was, I judged McQueary guilty because the facts, as presented in the grand jury report, did not reflect at all well on him, and — more importantly — the facts fit a template that I carried in my head about how institutions allow children to be sexually abused to protect their public image and the powerful, well-connected people within the leadership of those institutions. Obviously, this was a big lesson I took from my experience of the Catholic abuse scandal, and it was a lesson I took from the two adult chaperones who walked out of a hotel room when I was 14, and a group of boys were trying to take my pants off to humiliate me in front of their girlfriends. Me begging the adults for help. Them stepping over me and leaving the room rather than confront the cool kids. That was my template. It’s why I reacted so strongly to the Catholic scandal that I could no longer say I believed in my Catholic faith. It cut too deep. It’s also why I would not be able to serve on a jury in a child sexual abuse case. I am, I think, incapable of being impartial in these matters, despite my best efforts. I feel so strongly about this stuff that even when I think I’m being impartial, I’m not. I didn’t see clearly how much emotion affected my judgment about Mike McQueary until after enough time had passed to let the emotions die down. I am absolutely certain that the same dynamic is at work in the Trayvon Martin case.

We like to think that we are rational beings that can make decisions regardless of our emotions.  In reality, we are very emotional beings that for good or for ill can have their judgement clouded by overwhelming memories, be it a communal historical memory or an individual one.

For a number of reasons, the Trayvon Martin case has revealed a deep wound in the African American psyche and it’s going to take a long time for it to heal.

Trayvon Martin, Job and the Grace of Silence

When Job’s three friends heard about all this disaster that had happened
to him, they came, each one from his home—Eliphaz from Teman, Bildad
from Shuah, and Zophar from Naamah. They agreed to come so they could
console and comfort him.

When they looked up from a distance and didn’t recognize him, they wept
loudly. Each one tore his garment and scattered dust above his head
toward the sky.


13They sat with Job on the ground seven days and seven nights, not
speaking a word to him, for they saw that he was in excruciating pain.

-Job 2:11-13 (Common English Bible)

Maybe I’m just becoming a cold-hearted troll, but it’s become harder for me to get so easily riled up about things like I used to. I don’t feel the need to always have to “speak out” all the time about things.

That wasn’t always the case.  More often than not, I would be out saying something about anything.  I would frequently blog about whatever was the injustice and just get my words out.

Somewhere along the way, I decided to not make immediate judgements- to just speak out.  I have a lot more questions than I do answers and because of this, I am less willing to just speak my mind.

The recent tragedy concerning Trayvon Martin has a lot of people talking. There’s a lot that one could talk about here: racism, the role of young black males in American society, gun control or lack thereof and so on.  I know that it’s common for pastors and even moreso for black pastors to speak out on events like this, but I’m still holding my tounge, unwilling to somehow speak to the moment.

The reason I don’t at this point is because there is so much that is unknown in this case.  We have a lot of pieces of what happened between Martin and his alleged shooter, George Zimmerman, but we don’t really have a clear story.  While many may think otherwise, the details of this case are still being learned.  What seems so obvious might not be. Blogger Doug Mataconis has some notes that sometimes the rush to judgement has had tragic results:

There may be more evidence out there that has not been made public,
which is the primary reason why making judgments based only on what’s in
the media is a mistake. Sadly, because the police work here was pretty
shoddy, there is likely some crucial forensic evidence (such as pictures
of Zimmerman immediately after the incident, the clothing he wore that
night, results of blood work for drugs and alcohol on Zimmerman, and
physical (blood) evidence that was on Zimmerman after fighting with
Martin) that prosecutors are never going to have access to, and that’s
unfortunate. Perhaps there’s enough here to get an indictment, and my
guess is that if the State’s Attorney who has been appointed by Governor
Rick Scott to take over this case wants to get an indictment for
Manslaughter or 2nd Degree Murder she will get it. But that’s where we
should leave things, in the hands of the legal system.

There is a disturbing tendency in high profile criminal cases for the
public, egged on by the constant media coverage and the incessant drone
of the talking heads, to rush to judgment long before it’s warranted.
We saw it happen in the Dominique Strauss-Kahn case only to see those
charges dismissed when the accuser’s credibility collapsed like a house
of cards. We saw it happen in with Richard Jewell, who was hounded,
tried, and convicted, by the media of the Centennial Park bombing in
Atlanta in 1996 only to be completely cleared of all charges. It
happened to former Reagan Administration Labor Secretary Raymond
Donovan, who was charged on multiple racketeering counts only to be
acquitted, at which point he famously asked “Where do I go to get my
reputation back?” It happened to the parents of Jon Benet Ramsey, who
spent years being accused int he public of their daughters brutal rape
and murder even though the evidence linking them to the crime was as
flimsy as possible. It’s happened to people who aren’t famous too, of
course. Just ask Cory Maye or Cameron Todd Willingham. Of course, Willingham might not answer because Texas executed him for a crime he didn’t commit.

But the thing is, we want to try to make the events fit our own templates to further our own agendas.  We try to hunt and look for whatever shred of evidence about silly things like Trayvon smoking marijuana and use that to paint him as some crazy thug.  We want to use some words said during a 911 call to paint Zimmerman as soon kind of suburban klansman.  For some reason, we don’t want to simply wait and see what the facts bear out.  No, we already have the “facts” and are ready to fashion stories based on whatever spin we can get from those facts.

There is a small part of me that would like to talk about how it is to be black man in America and how people can view you as a threat even when you’re not.  But for some reason, I just don’t feel like adding more words to the cacophony.  I don’t know if my words are going to make a difference and frankly, I don’t know-we don’t know the whole story yet.

The Bible tells of the story of Job, a man who was afflicted with tragedy upon tragedy.  He lost his fortune and his children.  When his friends heard of what happened, they came over and tore their clothes in a sign of mourning and sat with Job in silence.  Later on, Job’s friends start to talk and it might have been better had they kept quiet.  Their words were not helping Job.  More and more, they blamed Job for what happened-trying in their own way to spin what happened to a conclusion that was satisfying to them.  Job later rebuked his friends for not helping him when he so needed help.

There will be time for judgement later.  For me, right now, what I feel is sadness that a young life was ended too soon, another man’s life will change forever, and that a nation doesn’t know how to talk and listen to each other.  For me, now is the time for mourning and silence- not grandstanding.