Tag Archives: politics

democracy and its discontents…

There are few things I detest more than cynicism.

It’s not that I begrudge anyone’s lack of belief in the integrity of a system or idea.  That, I can deal with (been there myself, more than once).  It’s the inevitable tone of condescension you hear in the words of all cynics, and the patronizing smile those are words are being spoken through.  It’s the smug, satisfied way in which cynics express the presumed hard wisdom of their perspective — and not so much judging others for having a different one, but rather just pitying their naiveté.  It’s the fact that fueling this cynicism is almost always a self-crafted narrative that says, “How adorable that so many of you are still such sincere believers… if only you had my insight, you’d see how pointless it all is.”  It’s defeatist.  It’s downright nihilistic.  And I can’t stand it, in myself or others.

Salon.com‘s Andrew O’Hehir dropped a giant, smoldering bombshell of cynicism this weekend, aimed squarely at those of us determined not to give up this mid-term election without a fight.  The title (leaving nothing to the imagination):  Yeah, the GOP is evil and will win — but the midterms are meaningless.

The reader is then met with a piece of columnizing that perfectly demonstrates the yawning gap that occurs when an intelligent person considers himself (and may, in fact, be) insightful about politics, but has no notion of (or is simply ignoring) the very real challenges of actual governing.

There are three points that I found particularly problematic, beginning with the piece’s tagline–

1.) “It’s the Party of Fear’s turn this year, and that blows.  But the cast of clowns in DC doesn’t really run the show.”

I’m just going to look at the first part right now (we’ll get to the second half later).

There is a fundamental myth of electoral politics that Americans have got to disabuse themselves of, and that is the idea that when one politician, or party, is in power then the responsible thing to do in the next election is give the “other guy” a turn.  Well, to paraphrase The West Wing‘s inimitable Josh Lyman — this is politics, not tee-ball.  The “other guy” doesn’t just automatically get to step up to the plate, they have to earn it.  There should never, ever be any concept of “turns” in American politics (though, admittedly, that does seem to be the GOP’s preferred method of nominating presidential candidates).

Elections should — must — be won based on the party’s ideas, and the GOP’s ideas have been demonstrably proven, time after time after time, to be morally bankrupt and utterly destructive for the country.  Why on earth would we ever give in to the notion they are now due a “turn”?  Especially as the establishment-vs-Tea Party civil war continues unabated and their cohort of candidates seems to get more ludicrous with each passing cycle?

2.) “[The Democratic Party] has no clear mission or agenda beyond being less pathological than the opposition party, whose appeal rests largely on racial panic, xenophobia, and anti-government paranoia, and whose only visible agenda is obstructionism.  It should be obvious to everyone who isn’t a profoundly deluded partisan loyalist that nothing that could possibly happen in the 2014 midterm elections will change any of that.”

First, I fervently contest the notion that the Democratic Party lacks any singular vision other than being the “less crazy” ones.  There are myriad issues — the minimum wage, fair pay for women, the DREAM Act, renewable energy, climate change, gun safety, student loans, women’s health — which show the Democratic Party to be forward-thinking and far more willing to represent the needs of those Americans who lack the lobbying power of Wall Street or the NRA (even if Senator Warren has to drag some her colleagues kicking and screaming along the way).

But let’s move beyond that and consider O’Hehir’s declaration that the mid-terms won’t change anything.  Certainly, they will have no affect on those qualities of the GOP which he enumerates (and his description pretty much nails it).  But maybe — just maybe — the country has a chance to avoid, or at least minimize, the effects of the GOP’s theatrics, which have brought us such hits as just-for-show investigative hearings, constant debt-ceiling brinksmanship, and an all-out government shutdown.  (Remember the shutdown?  It happened just about a year ago.  The GOP stopped funding the government to try and keep the Affordable Care Act from going into effect.  It didn’t work.)

And, as a side-note, I can’t help but notice that disaffected liberal voters seem more interested in punishing the president for his, in their view, disappointing performance than in holding the GOP accountable for the absolute havoc they have wrought upon this country by their infantile, anything-Obama-likes-we-hate approach to governing.  Which is just irresponsible.

 3.) “It’s Political Punditry 101 to view widespread public apathy as both cause and symptom of a diseased political culture, and that’s at least partly true.  But declining to participate in an empty ritual that changes nothing is an entirely rational response…”

Here, O’Hehir cites fellow Salon columnist Joan Walsh’s description of politics as “an endless feedback loop of futility:  little or no policy change leads to a discouraged electorate, which ensures little or no policy change, which guarantees more voter apathy.”  Of course, O’Hehir believes that the lack of progress on matters of policy is not a fault of a broken political system, but is instead that political system’s actual goal (this points back to how “the cast of clowns in DC” aren’t really running things… don’t worry, we’ll get to that at the end).

But regarding the apathy, and the “feedback loop of futility”, there is a question that goes unasked (perhaps because O’Hehir doesn’t believe it’s worth posing):  namely, who bears the burden of breaking that cycle?

My answer, at least, is that it must be the voters.  It is the voters who must constantly engage in the process of weighing and measuring our political representatives, and sending them home when they have been found wanting.  But it is an ongoing process.  Rather than putting all their electoral hopes and dreams into one candidate, or one election — believing that this one, this time will change things “for good” — and then turning away disgusted when those hopes and dreams aren’t fully (or even remotely) realized, American voters have to stay committed to the process, year to year, cycle to cycle, understanding that each election is just one step in an unknowably long journey.  It is demanding, and it is frustrating.  But it is the cross we bear for the privilege of self-government.

*****

Why all this pessimism?  Are elections really so entirely incapable of accomplishing anything?  For O’Hehir, the response is undoubtedly yes, because elections only affect the people occupying Congress and the White House, which are not, in fact, the power centers of our American government.  The real power — and this view is not O’Hehir’s alone — lies in the “deep state”, a semi-official conglomeration of private and government bodies manipulating world events, just barely out of sight, based on a set of priorities that remain unperturbed by electoral outcomes.  (For more information, start with Mike Lofgren’s vital essay on the subject, which O’Hehir cites as well).

This, then, is why the “cast of clowns in DC” — and, by extension, the process by which we put them there — is a gigantic waste of time to O’Hehir.  Because the decisions they make, or fail to make, won’t change the course of events being dictated by the NSA-Wall Street-Silicon Valley ménage a trois.  Further, because the deep state is so inextricably embedded, and it relies for success on continuity in policy (we mustn’t rock the boat!), the American people are guaranteed a lifetime of political stasis.  No proposal of substance that dares disturb the deep state’s steady course will ever be considered even on the table — though we’ll still get pretty diversions like gay-marriage and reproductive rights.

“If we were voting,” writes O’Hehir, “for or against candidates who were willing to address the power of the deep state, or at least to disclose and discuss it openly, then the midterm elections might mean something.”

Really?  Nothing else matters?

I don’t mean to minimize the significance of the issue — the depth and breadth of the national security apparatus in post-9/11 America is, to me, as much a threat to democracy as any external enemy.  But to argue that it is the only issue worth the effort of voting?  That’s simply a bridge too far for me.

*****

O’Hehir calls elections an “empty ritual.”  And he’s entitled to feel that way.  But I maintain that elections only become empty rituals when Americans decide to accept them as such.  And, ironically, it is when Americans have accepted them as such that dangerous institutions — like the deep state O’Hehir is so concerned about — are truly free to do their will, no longer bothered by pesky, educated voters who actually give a shit.

And, as far as I’m concerned, liberals refusing to vote while saying “it doesn’t matter anyway” are just the same as the conservatives who campaign on the ineffectiveness of government then spend their time in office doing everything within their power to make government ineffective — all they do is declare prophecies which they themselves fulfill, and all the while saying snidely, “I told you so,” as the rest of us continue striving for something better.

 

 

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on election night…

After the last two presidential election cycles ended, I had to put myself in a media blackout.  Particularly after Bush’s re-election.  In the fall of 2004, I had gotten to the point where I was consuming political information at such an overwhelming rate that I wasn’t even processing it even more.  I would eagerly monitor the changing electoral projection map in each new issue of Newsweek.  My evenings began with Crossfire and ended with The Daily Show.  I had a blog then, but my posts ended abruptly mid-October, simply because I couldn’t take the time to stop and reflect on what I was consuming.

So when it all came to a screeching halt after Sen Kerry’s concession speech, it was a complete shock to the system.  I stopped reading the newspaper, and didn’t turn on my television for any type of programming whatsoever until well after Christmas (once the Southeast Asian tsunami hit and I was shamefully reminded that there was more to the world than American politics…).

2008 wasn’t much better.  Up until late October of that year, I had been working nearly full-time as a caregiver for an elderly gentleman who did little more than change the channel between C-Span and CNN.  I didn’t exactly discourage him, either.  I was addicted to the coverage, craved more of it every day, and even when I left his house I’d rush home and check the HuffingtonPost and MSNBC before doing anything else with my evening.  Granted, I had more reason to be optimistic then.  So much so that my husband and I threw and election night party (figuring we’d probably feel the need to drink regardless of the outcome — luckily the drinking was celebratory).  But I still had to cut myself off from most media for several days at least.  I gave myself one exception:  as I cleaned up from the party the night before, I played, as loud as I could stand it, the original Broadway cast album of Tony Kushner and Jeanine Tesori’s virtuosic masterpiece Caroline, or Change.  I had always loved that piece, but its truth rang more fully that day than it ever had before.

At any rate, I’ve deliberately taken a different tack this year.  Yes, I’ve had more than my share of spats on Facebook (who hasn’t?).  And I still definitely spend a disproportionate amount of time at my computer reading as many news sources as I can stand.  But there’s definitely a change.

I’m more willing, and able, to stop.  To shut the laptop and call it a night.  To get up and practice at the piano for a couple of hours instead of trolling Facebook for a fight.  To let the world of political punditry go on without me (I doubt they’ve noticed, anyway).

Today, I was folding and putting away some laundry, and it occurred to me, “No matter who wins this election, I will still have to wash, and fold, and put away the laundry, tomorrow, next week, next year.”  Just like that.  Life will go on.

Now, it might not go on entirely as I’d like it.  I have not lost my conviction that elections can, and do, have a real impact on our day-to-day lives.  But — and this expanding perspective is likely the ONLY thing I appreciate about getting older — I feel more certain than ever that the world will keep turning, and that the human race will keep trying, however haltingly and imperfectly, to achieve a free and just world.

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and now for some local politics…

Tomorrow, May 3, is the Democratic mayoral primary, which — given that in no way, shape, or form is a Republican ever going to get elected to lead this city — will essentially determine who the next Mayor of Bloomington, Indiana will be.

I’ll admit, I don’t normally spend much time on too many local issues:  I consider myself a temporary member of the community; my focus is more on national policy; etc.  But I’ve really taken time to consider this choice, because I really do love Bloomington and I’ve come to care about the community it is and will become. Not to mention the fact that local politics has so much more an impact on my day-to-day life than the issues I normally spend my time thinking (and trying to write) about.

My instinctive reaction was to support the status quo.  And there were plenty of reasons to do so, not the least of which is my incredible appreciation of the incumbent mayor, Mark Kruzan, for his dedication to the arts and their place in the community.  The creation of the  Bloomington Entertainment & Arts District (BEAD) and his leadership during the Waldron Arts Center debacle last year are just two of the most significant demonstrations of his belief that not simply acknowledging but cultivating the arts is vital to keeping Bloomington dynamic and appealing.

Further, not knowing much about challenger John Hamilton at first, I was tempted to think “Hey, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”  I mean, there’s a reason Kruzan’s campaign slogan is ‘We’ve Got A Great Thing Going!’.  He’s shown in various ways — the B-Line trail; again, the establishment of BEAD; the incredible fiscal health of the city — that he is capable of building and maintaining a thriving, successful community that a broad and diverse population can proudly call home.

So, confronted with that, why would a voter decide to change course?

It’s easy to understand the desire for change when, as a voter, you disapprove of the course taken by the incumbent.  It’s much harder to justify a shift in leadership when things are going well.  Why rock the boat?  Why risk jeopardizing the progress made in favor of exciting, yet unproven, ideas for the future?

Well, that’s what I’ve been asking myself for the last several weeks, and I’ve come up with the following conclusions:

 First, while it’s tempting to stick to the status quo (I promise, no ‘High School Musical’ reference intended…), it is important to remember that every institution, at some point, requires a surge of new ideas and energy.  In bad times, we simply call it a course-correction and accept it as necessary.  During a period of successful leadership, however, we have to consider the possibility that, even though current leadership may continue doing a fine job, different leadership might do even better.

But second, and more important, I don’t worry that Hamilton — a proven progressive — would reverse any of the accomplishments of the last eight years, and is in fact uniquely qualified to build on them and continue to improve the quality of this community.  I look especially to his time spent leading the Indiana Department of Environmental Management, which gives him invaluable experience managing and protecting natural resources.  This will enable him to act as a much-needed, sustainability-oriented counterweight to the surge in development Bloomington has experienced over the last few years.

Further, he has several specific, imaginative proposals that I believe would go a long way to enhance Bloomington’s standing as a progressive community and make it a national model for sustainable growth, such as:

  • Sustainable Jobs and Greening Downtown Funds — using existing city funds, matched with outside investments, to enable local businesses to grow while sticking to eco-friendly principles
  • Importing the “Cleveland Model” — encouraging the development of employee-owned co-ops
  • GreenScore and tiered water rates — making public building-by-building energy usage data, and tying water rates to levels of usage

At a time when Bloomington is growing at an incredible rate — ranked Indiana’s sixth-largest city in the most recent census — it is important to me that the person leading Bloomington through this period be someone who considers sustainability not just a popular policy but a guiding principle.

This is the dilemma I have as a voter:  I have only respect and gratitude for the work Mayor Kruzan has done for the city I’ve called home for just shy of a decade.  But in any community — local, national, global — sometimes you reach a juncture where, even when previous leadership has inarguably done a good job, what will benefit the community most is a shift towards a different set of skills and priorities.

 I believe Bloomington is at that juncture, and that John Hamilton is the man to lead us through it.  And for that reason, he will be getting my vote Tuesday morning.

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the gay enthusiasm gap…

See, stories like this really infuriate me.

Now granted, I’m not in any way out to dismiss or diminish the disappointment felt by large portions of the queer community.  I feel that same disappointment to a certain degree.  The President’s insistence that he supports same-sex “civil unions” but not same-sex “marriage” just seems like catering to the country’s religious communities.  His administration’s argument that they are appealing the DADT ruling because they are bound to uphold and defend existing law wears incredibly thin.  But let’s be honest — we have in the White House the most gay-supportive president in the nation’s history.  That’s an admittedly low bar to overcome, true, but we should take a deep breath and think about the long-term repercussions of taking out our frustrations against the President and his party at the ballot box.

The plea of Democrats to the queer community is, basically, the plea to unenthusiastic Democratic voters of all orientations — the change hasn’t come fast enough, but stick with us and it will come eventually.  It’s not exactly a heart-stirring battle cry — it’s simply the cold hard truth.

Because, let’s face it, while we may feel as though Democrats have, time and time again, thrown us under the bus, we know for a fact that Republicans are determined to keep us at the back of the bus.  So if there is really a significant enough part of the queer community that is willing to hand the House to Republicans out of their sense of self-righteous, victimized frustration, then they will be the ones to blame when whatever meager gains we have won disappear into thin air and the issues still facing us are dropped to the bottom of the “to-do” list.

If we abandon the President at this moment simply because we haven’t gotten enough, fast enough, all we’re doing is shooting ourselves in the dick.

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to the south carolina democratic party…

Okay, I know, when I started this blog I said I wanted to avoid the type of knee-jerk, gut reaction posting that typifies a lot of political blogging — but I really have a problem with this.

If you don’t feel like reading the story that’s linked, here’s the gist — the South Carolina Democratic Party has launched a new website, www.nikkigoesnational.com, for the purpose of painting Mrs Haley as nothing more than a national spotlight-seeking starlet who cares more about cable-television appearances than governance of the state of South Carolina.

South Carolina Democrats — shame on you!

First, your site’s domain name refers to Mrs Haley in the first person.  That’s just tacky.  Not to mention disrespectful.  I’m old-fashioned enough that I hold myself to higher standards when it comes to referring to public figures — you should too.

Second, in case you have forgotten, our current president was dragged through piles of mud during his campaign because of his celebrity, and those of us in the Democratic camp didn’t appreciate it very much.  Perhaps it doesn’t behoove you to level the same manner of attack.  Perhaps it looks a little two-faced.

Third, as a South Carolina native living out-of-state, I would much rather see Mrs Haley representing my home state in the national media than the recent lineup of schmucks like Gov Sanford, Sen DeMint, and State Sen Knotts.  Do I like her politics?  No.  Do I particularly want her to be the next governor of South Carolina?  Absolutely not.  But do I have a problem with her bringing some positive media attention to my can’t-get-much-more-humiliated home state?  Not one damn bit.

Finally, you have so many ways to oppose Mrs Haley without resorting to the sort of shallow, petty politics of which this website is such a childish example — not the least of which is her endorsement by Sarah Palin, or her popularity with the Tea Party, or the absolutely clueless destructiveness of the policies supported by them all.  Maybe you might be better off focusing there instead of trying to be too cute by half?

Think it over.

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ladies and gentlemen…

I am confused.

Apparently, Senator Arlen Specter (D-PA), in the course of a radio segment, told Representative Michelle Bachmann (R-MN) that she should “act like a lady.”

And, apparently, this was insulting, demeaning, and degrading towards Bachmann and all women.

What?!?

So, here’s the story, as related by The Hill’s Blog Briefing Room:

 A radio debate between Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter (D) and Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann (R) on Thursday grew especially heated when the senator told the conservative congresswoman she ought to “act like a lady.”

As Bachmann finished describing tax policies she would ideally pursue in 2010, Specter began his response, criticizing the congresswoman for dodging the original question. That discussion became tense, as Bachmann continued to talk over Specter, prompting the Pennsylvania senator to charge: “Now wait a minute. I’ll stop and you can talk… I’ll treat you like a lady. So act like one.”

“I am a lady,” Bachmann replied.

The conversation continued, with the two prodding each other about “prosperity,” until Bachmann interrupted Specter once more.

And, once again, the Pennsylvania Democrat fired back his line: “Now wait a minute, don’t interrupt me. I didn’t interrupt you. Act like a lady.”

Bachmann replied in kind, noting, “I think I am a lady.” And Specter, sensing this line of attack was going nowhere, said: “I think you are too, that’s why I’m treating you like one.”

Now, before addressing the on-air exchange directly, I’d like to make a point regarding social etiquette.  In a polite society, there are titles we afford one another.  It is an exercise of formality, so as not to appear too familiar, which would be vulgar.  For example, I address older adults with whom I am not close as “Sir” or “Ma’am”, like my mama taught me.  These are titles we use when addressing someone in particular.  To address someone more generally, in Anglo-American culture, we use the terms “lady” and “gentleman”.  As in, “The gentleman across the room is wearing a finely cut waistcoat,” or, “Would the lady care to accompany me to the Auxiliary Ball Friday evening?”

Okay, so maybe titles are a little archaic, particularly considering the ultra-casual, insta-friendly culture we find ourselves in nowadays.  But I, for one, appreciate the formality.  I absolutely hate, for instance, when political candidates address each other by first name in debate.  No, Governor Palin, you may not call me Joe.

Particularly in politics, it is necessary to maintain a level of etiquette and decorum  in order to ensure that debates never get too personal.  In fact, the United States Congress has rules to that effect, explained so eloquently one day by no less than Senator Robert Byrd (D-WV), perhaps the greatest living authority on the history and customs of the Senate, who rose one day to express his displeasure at the particularly vicious tone of debate:

Let Senators be aware that we Senators must, and should, address one another in the third person.  And the reason for this:  it minimizes the chances of having on display bad tempers.  Are Senators aware that Senators should address one another not in the second person, but rather in the third person?  Is the Senator from Timbuktu aware of that rule?  Is the Senator from West Virginia aware of the rule?  Yes.  The Senator from West Virginia, Mr. President, will take his seat.

But I digress.

The point is, we have, as a culture, standards of behavior to which we hold ourselves and others.  These standards are based on a general understanding of politeness and good taste.  And, when we refer to people who uphold those standards, we do so with particular labels — ladies and gentlemen.  To be called a lady or a gentleman, is to be recognized, in a way, for exhibiting a proper social manner.  To be exhorted to “act” like a lady or gentleman is to be called out for your rudeness, coarseness, or otherwise reprehensible behavior, with the implicit request to make the necessary changes in your behavior at once.

I say all this to point out that, if Rep. Bachmann was behaving rudely, there is absolutely nothing untoward about Sen. Specter’s remarks.  Now, whether or not her behavior was actually rude could possibly be debated.  But if she was in fact speaking over the Senator, then she was behaving no better than a common television pundit, and I, for one, expect better of my country’s elected representatives.

But the question has to be asked:  if the situation had been reversed, and Sen. Specter had interrupted and spoken over Rep. Bachmann, would anyone have batted an eye if she had responded, “I’ll treat you like a gentleman, so act like one”?  I sincerely doubt it.  And why?  Perhaps because it is acceptable for a woman to call out a man on his inappropriate behavior but not the other way around.  Or, rather, perhaps it is that “lady” is simply too fraught a word to be used, even when properly done so.  But then, how should the Senator have expressed his dissatisfaction with her manner?  If he had simply said, “Quit being rude,” would this never have been an issue?  Or would certain parts of our population, always so eager to get offended, be incensed that he actually had the nerve to point out that her behavior is, both in that particular interview and as a politician in general, completely unacceptable?  Or, even further, is rudeness of Bachmann’s variety simply to be tolerated now, without any resistance or comeuppance?  I certainly hope not.

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political candor and its consequences…

Massachusetts Senate candidate Martha Coakley has apparently created a stir by giving a refreshingly candid response to a question about religious freedom in the workplace.

On the subject of conscience clauses  — which allow health-care workers to deny delivery of a service if that service runs counter to their religious belief — Coakley said:

  “…the law says that people are allowed to have that.  You can have religious freedom but you probably shouldn’t work in the emergency room.”

So, clearly, she’s telling Catholics they shouldn’t work in the emergency room, right?

Wrong.

First, although the question specifically mentioned Catholics and their opposition to birth control, her response is more broadly directed, acknowledging religious freedom in general for all manners of faith.

But second, and more important, is the fundamental truth of what she’s saying — if there is a line of work in which you would be faced with the dilemma of doing your job but violating your religious faith, you should find another line of work.

Here is my reasoning:  if I show up at a hospital needing a blood transfusion, I expect that the men and women employed by that hospital will perform that blood transfusion; and they will do so because it is their professional obligation to provide care.  Now, the counter argument would be — I assume —  that religious obligation trumps professional.  But that is exactly the point.  If your faith is such that it would prohibit you from fulfilling your duties, then you hurt both your faith and your profession by being there and you should strive to find a work environment that does not present such a conflict.

Granted, I am biased on this issue as I am not, in general, supportive of so-called “conscience clauses”.  There’s enough of a cold-hearted capitalist in me that if you come to me asking for a job, I’m going to expect you to do that job; and if there is something that renders you incapable of doing the job I hired you for, you will no longer work for me.  Further, as much I will respect your devotion to your faith, and understand your need to abide by it, I will expect you to understand that my only concern as an employer is that you do your job.

Attorney General Coakley should be commended for speaking hard truth on a matter where there is far too much deference to a self-righteous religious community.

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