Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Promises Not Yet Kept

“For all those whose cares have been our concern, the work goes on,
the cause endures, the hope still lives, and the dream shall never die.”
—Senator Ted Kennedy,
1980 Democratic convention concession speech

To be an American is to be an optimist. How else can you explain the whole of American history, from its original settlement to its Revolution and Constitution to its becoming the most powerful and inspirational nation in the world? It has never been an easy journey, but it has been a continuous one, always moving towards “something better for myself and others.” But an optimist can also simultaneously be a realist. How else can you explain the idealism of the Founding Fathers juxtaposed against the necessary steps to start an independent country and a radically new form of government? Or adopting a Bill of Rights for the individual citizen while instituting a strong central government of national laws? Or Abraham Lincoln bending those laws to hold our country together against the divisive issue of the slavery of other human beings? Our idealism inspires us to determine where we seek to go as a country, and to believe that we can get there. Our realism shows us how to get there, which demands that we continually measure how far we have gotten and how far away still is our destination.

Our Declaration of Independence states our inspirational goal in its first paragraph: “… that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.” It affirms that as an American we all start out with an equal shot at those inalienable rights. It does not guarantee that each of us will accomplish those goals, but America is obligated to give us that chance at it. To that end, our Constitution provides a framework for how these rights will be effected: by forming “a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for our common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.”

If our aspiration is clear, the same cannot be said about its realization. In the everyday lives of the people, our shortcomings glare in the spotlight of history and current events. That requires us to make a full accounting of our progress, because we have fallen short of our goals. We do this accounting not to minimize or denigrate the very real and substantive accomplishments we have made as a nation over the years, but to refine our current targets and to reenergize our efforts.

The most glaring shortcoming started in our beginning with the importing of hundreds of thousands of African men and women, and subsequently their descendants, to be slaves in the economic service of Colonial masters. Another major shortcoming was written into that Declaration of Independence, which said that “all MEN are created equal,” not only skipping over the enslaved Africans but also the half of our country made up of women. It also skipped over a good number of free men who would come to be deemed as unsuited for full civic rights due to a lack of education, or property ownership, or some other contrived qualification.

So the tug-of-war between our national inspirational self and our actual realized self was there from the beginning. Over the years, we continued to alternate between establishing barriers to the full rights of citizenship, and then to selectively tearing down those barriers. From the barriers set in place to the Africans and to women, we would move on to building barriers to Native-Americans through broken treaties, land seizures, and their forced removal to new, confined reservations. Reservations that would be illegally reclaimed when previously unknown economic value was discovered on the lands (e.g. gold in the Black Hills; oil in Oklahoma). Next would come barriers for the Spaniards and Mexicans who originally occupied the lands of the Southwest and California.  The welcomed anticipation of U.S. citizenship from Mexican dictatorship devolved into yet another version of “native” subservient status.

In the mid-1800s through early 1900s, barriers were focused on immigration status. First came the Irish escaping the potato famine; then came the Asians seeking work; during and following WWI came the Eastern Europeans; and in the 2nd half of the 1900s came the Middle Easterners and Central Americans. In spite of Lady Liberty’s welcoming words, each group encountered new barriers directed at them. Each was met with some forms of cultural, economic, employment, housing, education, safety, religious, and civil liberties exclusion rather than the embrace of freedoms. Immigration and ethnic exclusions often went hand-in-hand with the great economic divide between the super-rich and the destitute poor from the 1880s on.

In spite of breaking down many of these barriers, these exclusions still exist today for far too many of our diverse Americans. Each of these groups can rightly claim “progress made” over the last 150 years; each can also point to the incompleteness of that progress. Today’s battles for women are focused primarily on issues of equality, comparable workplace pay, safety from sexual assault, and control of their own medical and physical decisions against rules established predominantly by men. For African-Americans and Latino-Americans, it is a return focus on voting rights and economic opportunity – a regression from 50 years of progress made. Religious neutrality for all Americans is under siege. Resistance continues against gender-neutral equality in lieu of traditional social relationships.

It is often hard to understand why we continue to put such barriers to human growth in place – barriers often instituted by people whose ancestors were once barred themselves. It is as if extending the American benefits to others is seen as a net loss to the extender, when in fact the giving ultimately comes back around to ourselves. Yet when we may be prone to feel discouraged by what seems to be a never-ending effort, we do well to remember the progress made: the ending of slavery by law, and by war at the cost of 600,000 lives; universal free public education; women’s right to vote; Social Security and Medicare underpinnings for the young and the elderly; the G.I. Bill’s pathway to the middle class; Civil Rights legislation of the 1960s; the ban of discrimination in housing, employment, education and public accommodations; the Constitutional decision for the legality of same-sex marriage; college enrollments mirroring the demographics of our population; the rise of minorities into the middle class.

It is all in process, but it is a process of progress. It should not have to be this hard. But perhaps for some greater purposefulness, it may need to be. Nevertheless, we commit to continuing to move forward.

“Each generation goes further than the generation preceding it
because it stands on the shoulders of that generation.
You will have opportunities beyond anything we've ever known.”
—President Ronald Reagan

Thursday, March 22, 2018

America's International Surrender

“Observe good faith and justice towards all nations;
 cultivate peace and harmony with all.”

George Washington, Farewell Address

For its first 125 years, America lived a very internally focused life. Memories of continual wars for empires in Europe and the Middle East were still fresh in American minds. America instead concentrated its energies on becoming a legitimate country, creating its new democratically elected government, establishing its laws and institutions, and expanding its reach across the continent with new member states. Foreign wars intruded on occasion: we successfully fought the War of 1812 and the Mexican War. Given the geographical isolation provided by the vast Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, we minded our own business and avoided the destructive entrapments of other countries.

That began to change around 1900 when big businesses saw new opportunities for profit by gaining control over foreign resources and markets. It would be an economic conquest, principally into South & Central American nations and the Pacific islands. Sugar, rubber, and produce were among the bounty; buying up local businesses and properties were the weapons. When America defeated Spain in the Spanish-American War, America gained new resource-rich colonies principally in Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines. A new “American Empire” had begun, in spite of vigorous objection and debate by many concerned Americans. Businessmen held the power; they brought several presidents on to their side; the U.S. Army subdued and controlled the foreign territories – often brutally – against local insurgents and revolutionaries seeking freedom from our domination. President Theodore Roosevelt’s Panama Canal epitomized the whole adventure.

We continued to avoid entanglements with European conflicts until near the end of WW1, when Germany attacked U.S. ships and threatened war against us. We reluctantly entered the fray; our presence turned the tide to victory with our allies. Then we packed up and went home, disillusioned by the whole adventure. President Woodrow Wilson tried to use the occasion through his “14 Points” to create a new League  of Nations for peace, but Americans wanted no part of it. They had done the job that needed to be done, and went back to their isolationist views.

Unfortunately, the “war to end all wars” did not. “America First” isolationists held the day through the 1930s Great Depression amid new rounds of wars breaking out across the globe. That changed with Pearl Harbor and a total commitment to defeat the Axis forces. A year before WW2 ended, President Franklin Roosevelt began to look ahead and plan for a post-war world that would begin to end the centuries of misery and desolation from constant conflict. Further, America – which had led the way militarily – would now lead the way toward peace. The deaths of millions of soldiers and civilians – many suffering horribly cruel fates – demanded a new direction. And a new leader.

First came rebuilding the rubble and devastation of Europe to remove a principal motivation for war. Japan’s government was reconstituted to forbid future warring. Standing military alliances were created to ensure permanent protection for diverse member states. Democratic governments replaced despots and returned power to the citizenry. Global colonies of Europe and America became independent nations. International trade and financial structures were expanded; nationalist barriers were reduced. Poverty as a principle cause of war was recognized. America – the wealthiest and strongest post-war country – supported these noble efforts financially through gifts of foreign aid, and militarily by strategically distributing its troops across the globe. “The America Century” began.

As with most noble causes, it was not all smooth sailing. The “cold war” with Russia dominated many foreign strategy decisions for 40 years. We aligned ourselves with too many minor despots who played us for money vis-à-vis Russia. We occasionally threw our weight around and acted as the “bad big brother,” too often telling other nations what to do instead of working with them. Clandestine operations against governments we did not like (e.g. Iran, Chile) put us at odds with our promises. A “draw” war in Korea, then Viet Nam, and now Afghanistan and the Middle East, have left many Americans exhausted with our international role.

In spite of our failures and continuing problems yet to be solved, there have been many successes. There has been no breakout of a major land war except in the volatile but contained Middle East arena. Health, education, and income statistics globally are all to the better, though much still needs to be done. The European Union has transcended a thousand years of conflicts. The Berlin Wall came down; the USSR broke up into separate independent nations; Northern Ireland is finally at peace. Notwithstanding their birth pangs, new nations have come onto the scene asserting their distinctive identities. We see many other success stories – both big and small – happening alongside the steps backwards. Whatever relationship strains continue to arise, we are still talking more than we are shooting at each other.

The key to these and future international successes is contained in three words: Stability, Cooperation, and Leadership. World security and international finance hate surprises. Stability calms people’s concerns, allows them to reasonably forecast the future, and permits plans made to become plans accomplished. Stability requires Cooperation, the majority of people heading towards the same general destination, helping one another out, even if moving separately. Cooperation requires at least one standout leader: pointing the direction; marshalling the effort; offering a plan or method; inspiring by example. 12 post-war U.S. Presidents in sequence made that commitment to Leadership, however flawed some of their detailed plans. On balance, the world is in a better place thanks to each of their collective efforts. It is against this backdrop of consistency that our international role must be measured.

Thus came Donald Trump, our 13th President in this sequence. In his first year in office, under the mantle once again of “America First,” American Leadership in the world has been pulled back. State Department positions and foreign embassies are unfilled. Cooperation has been replaced by “go it alone,” leaving Stability hopelessly mangled. Donald Trump has turned the established world framework upside down. He prefers 1:1 deal-making rather than multi-lateral coordinated actions. We are scraping multi-national trade agreements (e.g. NAFTA; TPP); as a result, other nations are going it alone, signing agreements among themselves without American participation. We abruptly recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital after 70 years of consistently not doing so, a move condemned by most of the world and damaging negotiations for the elusive Middle East peace. We are the only nation among 200 not participating in the Paris Climate Accord, even though America led drafting the initiative and no nation is forced to accept climate mandates. We have threatened to unilaterally cancel military commitments (NATO; SEATO; various Russian missile agreements; Iran nuclear limitations).We are instituting new trade tariffs “to protect American jobs,” even though they will ultimately make foreign goods more expensive for American consumers and will protect virtually no net American jobs. We were once the welcoming beacon of hope for refugees and immigrants looking for a better life for themselves and their families. Now we are shutting our door to their creative talents based upon their racial background, falsely accusing them of all being “terrorists.” We treat Russia with kid gloves even as we pull the rug out from under our principal allies.  In the void of our Leadership departure, China and Russia are happily positioning themselves to fill the gap we are leaving behind.

It may all play well with the American home audience for now. But nervous world leaders are already quietly writing us off, ignoring us, going their own way. We have traded Stability for chaos, and given up Leadership to be a follower. The full ramifications of our abrogation of Leadership will not be clear for a while. When they are clear, it will likely be too late to recover.

Each nation is at its own unique position with respect to its development and maturation. Therefore progress in our global civilization is inevitably erratic. But for the last 75 years, America has been able to reasonably articulate and embody where we all need to go together. 50 years from now when historians review the American Story, they will likely point to 2017 as the beginning of the end to America’s preeminence. No country’s prominence in the world lasts forever, as the forgotten empires of Greece, Rome, and England demonstrate. It seems quite surprising to see America’s time for world Leadership come to such a deliberate but early end.

©   2018   Randy Bell   

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

The Arming Of America - Part 2

Part 1 of this essay ended by posing the question, “So in the face of this super-imposing Goliath, what can a young David do?” Let us consider ten possible answers to that question, a mix-‘n-match stew of potential actions an individual or group could take.

Build Alliances: Find and partner with anyone who shares your concerns. Emphasize linking with other survivors and families of victims. Along with the 3000 students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, it is estimated that since the Columbine school shooting in 1999, around 150,000 people have been directly involved in a shooting episode in their school. Many of those people are now voters; many are parents; some are nearing middle age and positions of leadership. Tell their stories. Keep the conversations personal; those are the most effective. And remember … not all NRA members support the extreme views of their leadership. There are many responsible hunters and recreational sportspersons, both NRA members and not, who support keeping inappropriate firearms out of the hands of the unqualified. Find them; connect with them; listen to them; find some common ground.

Raise a War Chest: If the NRA is going to spend $50M, then $100M in counter-fundraising is needed because they have a head start. The rich who say they side with this cause need to pool their money in one place – not spread it around – to become an even bigger Goliath. More Mike Bloombergs need to pony up, and those people are out there. The goal is to take away a politician’s financial incentive to be funded by the gun manufacturers / NRA, versus being funded by “the good guys.” Politicians’ loyalties run shallow, so a better offer can and needs to be made.

Non-billionaires can contribute what they can, and/or organize fundraisings, to support the existing organizations doing the best they can with woefully under-matched funds (e.g. Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence; Americans for Responsible Solutions [Gabby Giffords]).

Open Disclosure: PAC contributors like hiding in secret. Push for state-level legislation requiring PACs to disclose the principal donors paying for their advertising. This will never pass Congress, so follow California’s lead for new model legislation to shine the spotlight on these backers.

Fight From Within: The NRA claims “5M” members. If you are already a responsible gun owner and not a member, then consider joining them. Yes, this may sound counter-intuitive. But the NRA claims to represent “gun owners,” but in fact they represent only some gun owners. Join the organization, and then work to change it from the inside. Open the books, change the extreme leadership, engage conversations with other members to search for the middle ground. The downside is new short-term membership money for the NRA. The potential upside is long-term control and redirection of the organization away from its entrenched leadership. Be that insurgent “fly on the wall.”

Boycotts: History has shown that boycotts and public pressure campaigns towards business corporations on social issues can sometimes be successful. Dick’s Sporting Goods just announced a unilateral decision to stop selling assault rifles, and you can boycott those stores that include guns as part of their floor space. Also mount campaigns towards major corporations to disconnect any relationship they may have with the NRA, as the First Bank of Omaha (America’s biggest privately-held bank) and Enterprise Holdings Inc. (Enterprise, Alamo, and National car rentals) recently announced. Letters to big corporations can sometimes still be effective.

Marches: By all means, march. Public demonstrations make a difference by showing raw numbers. It keeps an issue visible and alive. Expect a lot of lip service in response, because no politician or business likes the optics of arguing with grieving parents and siblings and friends. Back in the office and the boardrooms, nothing will likely change. March anyway.

Disarm the Rhetoric: Expect the tired old “war horse” arguments (mentioned previously) to be rolled out at every opportunity. They are all refutable, for reasons that will be described in a subsequent essay. Just know that when you hear them, it tells you who the speaker truly is, and that s/he is not really in the conversation versus speaking someone else’s “talking points.” Nevertheless, have your responses refuting these excuses at the ready. Stop talking in the negative about “gun control,” etc. Replace these with positive messages (e.g. “stop the killing”; “gun safety”; “common sense gun ownership”).

Legislative Priorities: Pick THREE, and only three, very specific priorities for action. In every communication with a legislator or candidate, ask them: a) whether they support each of them, and if not, what instead; b) what they are actually doing – concrete actions – to effect these priorities. Ignore the fuzzy non-answers and “we’re studying this” response. They are simply trying to distract us and get themselves off the hook in the moment, and do not deserve our support. Keep these priorities very simple (e.g. minimum age limit to purchase; eliminate bump stock accessory; background checks for ALL gun sales from ANY source). Too many priorities, and/or too difficult issues, will simply make it easy to bog the process down, ignore the proposals, and continue to do nothing. If a politician cannot clearly and publicly sign on to three simple and specific priorities without qualification, s/he will never do anything of real substance.

Contact Your Legislator: President Trump, should he try, will find out very quickly what President Obama learned: very little about gun regulation can be done by the Executive Branch alone. This is due to numerous laws preventing them from acting passed by prior Congresses that essentially neutered federal agencies from effective oversight. So efforts need to be focused on Congress and state legislators.  That is where the NRA and NSSF are focused.

Write your Congressperson (snail mail is often more effective than email); visit their offices; make phone calls; sign online or paper petitions. They may choose to not open their mail, or shut down their email account or voicemail. But keep trying. Their strategy will be to wait you out until you give up. Which of you will have the greater patience and perseverance?

Voting: Many battles will be lost. But this time some may actually be won. In the end, it will come down to employing the strongest of all tools in the kit: voting for candidates who truly support our interests. That means getting involved in the boring, tedious work of politics and campaigns. If eligible to vote, then do so in each upcoming election (primary and general). If not, volunteer to work on campaigns, organize discussion forums, hand out information, work voter registration tables. It is all about showing up. Gun violence has been and is a national concern, but it has never been a defining election issue. This year, it needs to be made a litmus test for one’s vote. Off-year elections – and 2018 is one – historically have a notoriously low turnout dominated by the extreme and passionate voters, while others sit home. If this current effort and momentum cannot be maintained until November 2018 – for nine more months – then this in fact is yet just another die-on-the-vine moment.

Pragmatically, it is unlikely that any real change in federal or state legislation will happen in 2018. Most politicians will elect to sit tight and wait until November to see whether this momentum is real or not. So a 3-step approach, using the action steps described above, needs to be employed. 1) Make guns an overriding priority issue for elections by showing visible strength in numbers; 2) Identify on which side of the fence each politician is; 3) Vote out the detractors, vote in the genuine supporters. If this happens in sufficient numbers, then the change we are awaiting for will come in 2019 with a new Congress and new state legislatures.

All that said, know that this is not really about fighting a logical argument. It is not about trying to change political opinion. It is not about trying to raise a collective conscience. It should be about those things. Instead, it is actually about trying to overwhelm cash, and political funding, and business economics that are against the cause for responsible gun ownership and a reduction in the current unrestrained arming of America. It will require a total commitment to reverse the benefits of the NRA/NSSF support and convert it to be a liability in the voting booth. But that is the only way things will change. Our idealism must motivate and energize us. Realism must guide us. God speed us in this critical endeavor.

©   2018   Randy Bell   

Sunday, February 25, 2018

The Arming Of America - Part 1

“The gun lobby’s interpretation of the Second Amendment is one of the greatest pieces of fraud … on the American people by special interest groups that I have ever seen in my lifetime.  The real purpose of the Second Amendment was to ensure that state armies – the militia – would be maintained for the defense of the state. The very language of the Second Amendment refutes any argument that it was intended to guarantee every citizen an unfettered right to any kind of weapon he or she desires.”
Warren Burger, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, 1969-1986,
appointed by Richard Nixon, conservative Republican, gun owner

It has been gut-wrenching once again to watch this latest episode of inexplicable mass violence: the shooting of high school students and their teachers in Parkland, Florida. We have heard the usual “hearts and prayers” messages – now so trite they have become virtually meaningless. The calls for new gun laws have also become a virtually meaningless exercise. And our new common foe – the mentally ill – are blamed even as we cut mental health budgets and loosen their ability to buy a firearm. Some are still willing to point to any culprit besides the real  one: the unrestrained arming of America.

Nevertheless, it is refreshing to hear a few exceptions this time. A small number of Republican politicians saying “enough” and breaking with their party line. Or the major Florida Republican donor saying “no more donations” until something – anything – is done. Or the voter who mailed a check to her Congressman in the amount of “hearts and prayers” written on her check to illustrate the tone deaf hypocrisy of their words. And then there are “the kids” themselves, the Parkland survivors and their compatriots.  Young people are the disproportionate share of the victims of these shootings, predominantly perpetrated by other young people who are not always mentally ill. (To the extent that any killing, and any other forms of violence, are not inherently mentally ill.)

These articulate young people are promising to make their own run at Change. Maybe they can succeed where Newtown and Las Vegas and other parents could not. I wish them well in their efforts. I am not one who seeks to stomp on people’s enthusiasm and idealism. But I do believe in knowing one’s opponent well before you go into a debate with them. So students and others taking up this cause, be aware of what the landscape for your venture truly looks like. We need to steel ourselves for the long hard road to be traveled. Examine closely the playing field and the numbers; we need to know what we are up against. Remember that this is not just about school shootings – as horrific as those are. Aurora was a movie theater; Orlando a night club; Las Vegas an open-air concert. All Americans have a reasonable right to live in a safe environment.

The backbone of resistance to any gun legislation of any kind comes from two principal sources. The first is the National Rifle Association (NRA), the high-profile public face of “gun rights” ostensibly made up of everyday gun owners. The second is the National Shooting Sport Foundation (NSSF), a low-profile gun industry trade group (based in Newtown, CT!) made up of: businesses who manufacture firearms; sellers and dealers of firearms and accessories; recreational sporting facilities.

The NRA is notoriously secretive about its actual financial and membership numbers. As of 2016, they claimed that over 20% of American adults own a gun, and that “5M” of those are NRA members (unverified). They raised approximately $350M in revenue across all of its various sub-entities, including an estimated $130M from member dues. It is estimated that they spent around $3.6M in direct lobbying fees, and almost $600K in direct donations to political candidates (amounts being limited due to federal campaign contribution restrictions). But indirectly (primarily through their secretive PAC operation), they spent around $50M in advertising and support for their preferred candidates, including $30M to support Donald Trump and $20M to GOP Senate candidates – including $6M to Senator Burr (NC) and $2-$3M each to Senators Rubio (FL), Blunt (MO), Young (IN) and Portman (OH). Those outsized donations do not come without expectations for services in return. If those services are not delivered, the NRA keeps their politicians in line by threatening to support another candidate in their GOP primary that will be dominated by voters further to the right. So far, they have gotten a good return on their investments based upon the votes and speeches of those politicians.

The NRA’s gameplan is simple and consistent. First and foremost, fight EVERY restriction or limitation that is proposed; allow no crack in the armor, no matter how seemingly trivial. When a shooting tragedy occurs: a) express concern; b) blame the shooter; c) offer token support for some action step (e.g. “arm the teachers”); d) work behind the scenes to kill any really substantive proposal; e) generally lay low, and wait for the public outcry to subside and move on to other issues. On an ongoing basis, keep flooding the airwaves, public discussions and advertising with a fixed stable of old warhorse slogans and code phrases: “The 2nd Amendment”; “Our Constitutional Right to Bear Arms”; “guns don’t kill people, people do”; “they are coming for your guns”; “it’s a mental health problem”; “laws won’t stop criminals from getting guns”; “arm yourself to protect yourself  (teachers, homeowners, businesspeople).” These and other knee-jerk fear words and excuses are long-practiced and deeply embedded in the political conversations. But their simplicity, and constant unanswered drumbeat, is effective.

The NSSF claims 12K member organizations, raised $36M in income, and spent $3.5M in political lobbying, and gave grants totaling $236K to local gun organizations and projects. It claims that the firearms industry collectively has a $51B impact on the American economy and supports over 300K jobs. Those numbers are a definition of “big business”; the NSSF will fiercely protect that business, and the jobs they represent, however they need to.

It is the reality of this economic / political juggernaut that America is up against. The battle to be fought for sanity tactically has to recognize the linked interconnection of: 1) the firearms industry’s sales revenues, combined with 2) that industry’s (and others’) political donations shepherded through the NRA to key federal and state politicians to obtain legislation that will shield their legal liabilities while maintaining / increasing their sales, with 3) the inherent priority of their funded politicians to be reelected and retain their (and their Party’s) base of power. It is not a battle over morality, common-sense, safety, constitutional rights, or rational debate. One still needs to debate on those points, but understand that they are not mind-changers. Rather, it is about cash, power, and winning elections. Like it or not, as nonsensical as it may seem, that is the ground on which one must fight the battle. It is this linkage that has to be broken, because if one link fails to hold, the whole structure collapses.

So in the face of this super-imposing Goliath, what can a young David do? That discussion will be the focus of the forthcoming Part 2 of this essay.

©   2018   Randy Bell   

Thursday, February 15, 2018

The Trump Supporter

In November 2016, to the surprise of many – including the candidate himself – Donald J. trump was elected President of the United States. His election and presidency have been called into question by many on numerous fronts. There are issues of personal character that would doom most politicians; issues of policy, to the extent that he has a consistent policy for more than a day; issues of leadership as he relies on bullying, insult and disrespect towards anyone who stands in his way. Nevertheless, his approval rating holds steady in the mid-30s% – albeit a record low contrasted with other previous presidents. But he holds a solid bedrock of support in spite of his moral / ethical / divisive shortcomings.

“Trump Supporters” gave Trump his 2016 victory, and he remains indebted to them. I said early in 2016 that to truly understand the Trump phenomena, the real meaningful American story was not Trump himself but his adherents. If one is opposed to Donald Trump, then one is obligated to find a proper understanding of the base that supports him. Yet who are they? To lump them together and call them simply “Republicans” is inaccurate. Rather, they are a community of diverse interests committed to their own separate agendas, loosely affiliated for expediency because there is no other place for them to go. Given an alternative, or a failure of Trump to deliver on their expectations, they would be gone. More precisely, Trump Supporters break down into roughly three groups.

Group 1 Trump Supporters include the despicable neo-Nazis, racists and fringe conspiracy believers who have been invited into “respectability” by Trump’s racial, anti-immigrant, anti-government and anti-media rhetoric. These neo-Nazis look to attack the judicial decisions of the past 70 years reaffirming America as a place where all citizens are treated equally and respectfully. They see America as a haven only for those of white Western European descent, that all others are the cause of America’s problems and their own personal failures. They are also ready to believe any imagined plot that comes along pitting the government against its citizens; outright destruction of the government is a prime objective. It is hard to imagine any common ground between this small but vocal and disruptive group and the rest of America. Ostracism is still the best response, but Trump still needs, and has a fairly safe lock on, their votes.

Group 2 Trump Supporters include those who see Trump as the opening for their individual social / political / religious / economic agendas. After years of government being the bulwark against these agendas, Trump promises to pull out such roadblocks, open the floodgates, and go down the road of unrestrained, selfishly myopic pursuits with minimal concern for “the greater good.” Legislative Republicans close their eyes and make the choice to “bargain with the devil,” despite risking long-term permanent damage to the Republican Party brand as 2016 voters drift away. Even though few have confidence, trust or respect in Trump, they suffer in silence for now and get done what they can while they can on their long-delayed political agendas. Further, many fear that crossing Trump will mean their defeat in the 2018 Republican primary elections by ultra-conservative Trump supporters who will likely determine Republican Party nominees without regard for their chances in the general election.

In addition, Wall Street sees opportunities to roll back the restrictions placed on them after their 2008 financial implosion. Energy companies and western ranchers see public lands becoming available for exploitation. Real estate developers see a rollback of “impact statements” and other regulations to let them build what and where they want. Businesspeople seeking cost cutting, price-setting / market domination, trade protections, and further monopolistic efforts see avoidance of previous levels of oversight. Religious leaders ignore Trump’s irreligious and immoral words and actions to get favorable legislation and judges – turning to Caesar to give them what God apparently has not delivered. For these businesspeople, clergy, and politicians, it is all about holding your nose and blinding your eyes to achieve personal wins from a man you pray your son would never become. For this group, the only interest is self-interest – and Santa Claus lives at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Group 3 Trump supporters include those people who feel that the last two decades have decimated the Promise of the American Dream for them. They are not “despicable” or selfish people. They are angry people who feel their needs and views have been ignored, even ridiculed, certainly unresponded to during the past three presidencies. They feel that government has gotten too intrusive into their lives, has built too many limitations on their business and private affairs. They sense that providing opportunities to others, however well-intentioned, has come at the expense of limiting opportunities to them. They have seen the economy and GDP grow steadily for some while they sit stagnant at the margins. They have seen America – the dominant post-WWII world leader – seemingly slide from its preeminence. Their future, once assured, now seems a future in doubt.

All of this happened while they have struggled to feed, clothe, educate and raise their families, and hold on to a way of life that had once worked for them, their parents, and their grandparents. It is one thing to aspire for cleaner air from new kinds of energy sources; it is another to throw thousands of life-long coal workers out of the only job they know with no recourse – a job they took in good faith because America said it needed electricity. Change is the enemy, not a friend, and government / big business / society have been all about change. They cross demographic groups, though are concentrated in older, white, males with less formal education. Having previously felt powerless to stop these trends, they now see an opportunity to reverse that course and make their agenda the country’s agenda.

Donald Trump spoke for their anger; still speaks for their frustrations, however coarsely; and affirms the “global and national conspiracy” that seems determined to work against their interests. Willing to ignore his excesses, his disrespectful conduct and his untruths, in 2016 they saw an opportunity to speak up and be noticed by voting for a man who would speak for them. Given that he was expected to lose, such a protest vote seemed safe. Many were as surprised to wake up and find out that he had become their president. They are now slow to discard Trump, even as each day shows him to be the fraud that Mitt Romney once accused him of being, because there is still no other alternative voice.

Who is principally responsible for creating this block of Trump supporters? The recent Congresses of the United States who have accomplished little over these past years, and less as each year comes and goes. Today, politics override governance; the quest for power rolls over the need for governance and solutions. People of all stripes are hurting, even though for different if not conflicting reasons. From DACA kids to soccer moms to farm families, they see politicians strutting around just trying to save their own jobs; living lives of special privilege and exemptions versus everyday Americans; taking “back door” money representing special corporate and institutional interests; working part-time days; avoiding tough decisions; failing to fund and budget the country properly; listening only to voters on one side or the other of the political spectrum; avoiding speaking the truth to the citizenry; raising doomsday alarms while doing nothing to prevent it; supporting partisan causes and prioritizing Party loyalty over national good. In the past, some Trump Supporters voted Democratic, some Republican. Today they share an anger at the institutions that are failing them. In fact, many non-Trump voters feel the same frustration and anger at our non-performing government, but just do not see Trump as the answer.

The Group 1 Trump Supporters need to be called out and pointedly rejected by all Americans at every opportunity. They are the antithesis of what America is and aspires to be. The Group 2 Trump Supporters need to be fought at the ballot box, in the courts, in local government, and in the marketplace competition for our dollars to move them back to “common good” versus “personal good.” But the Group 3 Trump Supporters need attention, dialog, and support from non-Trump Supporters. They are neighbors, just another part of the American Story. People may not see eye to eye on everything; may live different lifestyles and have different beliefs about some things; may get in each other’s way at times. But we all want to be left alone to get on with living our lives in peace; at our core we are not all that different. None of us really wins if we cannot find ways to balance our beliefs, accommodate each other, and work together. It all starts with being of good character, acting from better intentions, while being considerate and helpful to others. It is the spirit of middle-ground compromise that has made our democracy work from its beginning. Is that really so impossible for us to do now?

©   2018   Randy Bell               


Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Our Divided Nation - Part 2

“First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.”
Mahatma Gandhi

Part 1 of this blog posting was a brief look at some of our internal conflicts and divisions since our founding. That review affirmed that America has always had its debates, its divisions of belief, its continual adjustments of what “America” means and aspires to be. We are highly unlikely to ever escape this heritage. Instead, the questions are a) how to manage our divisions in such a way so as to not tear ourselves apart and collapse, and b) how to build on our divisions towards something better for all. We will not succeed by futilely trying to eliminate conflict. We will succeed by following the precedent of our Founders in developing better skills at working together to resolve conflicts.

We continue this discussion with another brief review – i.e. where we are today. As a result of our current divisions, collective solutions are rarely found; our progress as a nation is near-frozen in place. In the last seven presidential elections, in only three did the winner get 50% or more of the popular vote; two elections were won in the Electoral College with less than the majority popular vote. Today, minimalistic short-term gains are hailed as major agreements; small-minded thinking edges out big-picture vision and creative aspirations. We have not passed a real national annual budget in years, versus a series of short-term “continuing resolutions” that keep spending on a status quo with no hard decisions made. The evil economic Armageddon of budget deficits is swept under the rug in the pursuit of a Christmas tax cut for (supposedly) everyone, a cut that disguises rewards to special interests and is built upon a disproven economic theory called “trickle down.” Paying taxes is resented, but the benefits and services received back from those tax payments go unrecognized and unappreciated. The states paying the least taxes receive back the most in tax benefits; the “reddest” conservative states advocating a limited role for government make up the bottom ratings of most all economic and social measures.

With our institutions, many supposedly “non-profit” charities, hospitals and cultural organizations have become de facto for-profit bodies. Public education, the traditional path to upward mobility that most of us benefited from in our youth, is being progressively defunded and devalued. Basic medical care is a “benefit” requiring employment, or affordable only by the very wealthy; medical expenses remain the primary cause of personal bankruptcies. Government regulations protecting Americans’ health, economic competitiveness, and the environment we live and play in, have become a nasty nuisance to be shredded in the acquisition of unrestrained business profit; one person’s stifling regulation is another person’s safety valve protection.

Ex-Speaker Newt Gingrich declared war on the federal government in 1995; Majority Leader Mitch McConnell upped that ante with a “Party over Country” strategy in 2008 with his “oppose everything Obama” stance; Democrats now exercise their own tit-for-tat negative block voting. Lying, ridicule, and character assassination have replaced substantive debate; facts are “fake news” in order to hide uncomfortable truths. Science has been downgraded into personal opinions.  Name-calling and slurs of all types dominate headlines; ugliness has found its voice, as exemplified at Charlottesville. “Enemies” are seen all around us – the government, the media, corporations and businesses, religions, entertainment. A minority of rogue actors discolor most all professions, including politicians, medical and pharmaceutical executives, police and the law.  The pursuit of power and wealth, rather than substance, drives the political landscape. The strategy is to emphasize our divisions, even creating division where there was none, thereby giving voice to extreme positions on all sides instead of searching for common ground. National and international leadership is defined as “loyalty above all” and just telling people – and other nations – what to do, rather than inspiring them by positive example appealing to our better selves. One cannot effectively lead with mid-30s% approval ratings; a nation cannot be properly governed with a 55-60% voter turnout.

“We have met the enemy, and it is us.”  Pogo (comic strip character)

How do we get out of this discouraging mess? By remembering our history. We have come out of tough times before, and we can come out of these times also. But history also tells us that it will not happen automatically, by default. We have to work hard to find our way out. We have to make it happen, not wait for someone else to do it for us. In many ways, living under Kings/Queens was easier: they simply made a decision, the royal court carried out the decision, and the people did what they were told without question. Governing was someone else’s job. Thirteen English colonies rebelled against that system, and had the audacity to say “we will govern ourselves.” Whether we are actually capable of doing it for ourselves has always been a key question inherent within our Constitution. It is a key question now facing us in these times.

Our solutions start with each of us acting as we wish our government and politicians to act. If we decry the partisanship environment, then what are we doing each day to act bi-partisanly? If we decry a lack of civility in our national conversations, what are we doing each day to speak civilly to one another? If we decry others’ lack of respect for our concerns, what respect are we showing for their concerns? If “they” are so wrong, what are we also possibly wrong about? If we are so right, what are “they” potentially right about? When our politicians state falsehoods in their quest for votes, do we challenge them for their proof and present our proof? Do we hold them – and ourselves – accountable for the hypocrisy that is spoken and acted? When political candidates talk about wanting to “work across the aisle,” that answer is usually obfuscated rhetoric designed to avoid the bi-partisan question while implicitly blaming “the other guy” for not cooperating. Instead, demand specific ideas for specific legislation or action, or ask for specific examples of bi-partisan actions (e.g. jointly sponsored legislation) and vote against that candidate if s/he does not provide them.

We do not change things by sitting on the sidelines. We do not change things by clinging to our own self-righteous convenient beliefs, challenging others without challenging ourselves. We do not change things by thinking small and avoiding the larger picture. I suggest we search out and find the broad and substantive thinkers. Discern between those people truly sacrificing in order to do good, and those demagogues and charlatans seeking our attention and money to benefit themselves. Choose to be part of a national conversation, not a shouting match. Call out and reject that which is said and done that is not acceptable and respectful conduct.

Nothing worthwhile will be accomplished while we are just insulting and yelling at each other. Seek the evidence; listen before speaking; find the worthwhile substance in opposite opinions. Then we can conclude, speak factually without malice, provide substantive ideas instead of complaints, and finally – act.  Perhaps in that process we can figure out what kind of a country we truly are: the nasty selfish country we seem to have dangerously become, or the generous welcoming country we have always aspired to be.

“Be the change you wish to see in the world.”  Mahatma Gandhi

Are we just interested in making noise, or making things work for one another. Are we in fact what we object to? Or are we what we aspire to see and be?

©   2018   Randy Bell     

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Our Divided Nation - Part 1

“A house divided against itself cannot stand.”   Abraham Lincoln

It is no secret that our nation is a highly divided one. At times, it is quite bitterly and antagonistically so. People seemingly cannot find agreement in much of anything. Except for calls for stricter background checks on gun purchases, an end to Donald Trump tweets, and the low esteem held towards Congress, almost everything else is within no more than a sliver of percentage points for/against.

Unfortunately, little is being done to end this divide – or at least lessen the degrees of division. Few are willing to budge from their positions; compromise is a deadly sin; right and wrong are absolute, with no gray shadings. I win; you lose. I could care less about your needs and concerns as long as I get what I want. My life and success is defined by obtaining wealth. Selfishness is supreme. This is what it often feels like in American conversations today.

The situation can feel quite hopeless, that this is the worst America has been, and there is no way out. But in fact, the way out of this negative environment starts with recognizing that we have been here before, sometimes in even worse circumstances and fractured divisiveness. Nevertheless, we are still around, alive and kicking, still trying to figure out how to make this “representative democracy” thing we call America work.

America has always been divided. Whereas most other countries have a relative homogeneous culture, America was populated from the outset as a common home for uncommon peoples. It provided a place for immigrants from diverse histories, cultures, ethnicities and ambitions. From that combustible mix, differences are part of our national legacies. Whether we, or any nation, can synthesize such a combustive mixture into a shared cooperative whole – “united we stand” / “e pluribus unum” (out of one, many) – has always been our national challenge.

The “United” States of America is some part actuality and some part myth. Our first two English-based colonies were driven by completely different goals: Jamestown, a pursuit of wealth; Plymouth, a pursuit of religious practice. (Reciprocal religious tolerance was not a high priority; at various times, religious discrimination by parts of Protestant America has been directed against virtually all other religions and varying religious thought.) Those two ideas – the secular and the religious – have been fighting with each other (and within themselves) since our beginning. During our Revolution against England, around half of the country were Tories favoring staying with the King. Our admired and unique Constitution barely passed the votes of all thirteen colonies. The slavery issue, the continual fights over balancing small state/big state representation, and the degree of power to be given to the new central government, almost broke the back of Constitutional unity. But we found the necessary compromises, and our Constitutional Nation was able to begin.

Political parties – never envisioned by the Founders – showed up just a couple of years into Washington’s first term (to his continual frustration), thereby formalizing and institutionalizing our divisions. The remaining old guard Founders were aghast when the government was turned over to the “common man” in 1828, a political revolution led by Andrew Jackson. After years of trying to compromise on slavery and states’ rights, we had our most divisive time in our history – the American Civil War. It was a “hot” war, not a political debate, pitting families against families, neighbors against neighbors. 11 of 34 states pulled out of our Union; 600,000+ died (our most costly war); the southern economy and its political and social systems were wrecked; we had our first presidential assassination. Separation and mistrust were embedded into the Southern cultural DNA. 150 years later, the after-affects are still influencing and distorting today’s conversations. But we did reunite; our union was preserved; together we limped forward.

Division continued. The mega-wealthy “robber barons” of the late 1800s gave rise to the Labor movement of the working people trying to rebalance economic power. There was racial and immigration ugliness throughout the next century. Then came the Great Depression, an unequaled economic devastation of this country, fueled by the unbridled and unregulated pursuit of wealth gone awry. We were deeply divided over how to end that Depression, with competing economic theories that are still debated today. It was an event that defined that generation’s thinking, and redefined the formal structures and expectations of government forever after.  The Depression ended; racial and ethnic intolerance did not.

We were divided as World War II spread over the globe. Do we get in, or do we stay out as the “America First” peace and isolation movement demanded? Pearl Harbor answered that question and reunited the country’s divides. Our swagger and self-confidence from our victory in that War gave way to a Cold War and Iron Curtain, the threat of nuclear annihilation, and the fear of Communism. “Reds” were everywhere as citizens turned against fellow citizens out of fear stoked by self-serving demagogic politicians. It was the time of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), Senator Joe McCarthy’s “big lies,” “red baiting,” blacklists / unproven accusations / reputations and careers destroyed by innuendo. In spite of the dark times at home, America led the free world, though often using highly questionable methods.

Our modern civil rights movement began with President Harry Truman’s executive order to desegregate the military in 1948, followed by the Supreme Court’s outlawing of school desegregation in 1954 (“Brown vs. Board of Education”). The promise of equality encountered the demand to actualize that equality. It was yet another re-scrambling of the social order and our sense of social right and wrong. Racial division and the drive towards integration were bitterly fought among the general populace and established order. For the first time in our history, Presidents Dwight Eisenhower and John Kennedy used federal troops to protect protestors instead of the usual power structures in place. At times it was a violent fight: crowd beatings, murders, bombings, burned out Freedom Buses, political assassinations. The movement gave a venting to 300 years of African-American inequality, and opened new movements of their own: gay rights; women’s equality; Native-American rights. America was split apart on numerous fronts, the way forward elusive if not hidden.

Our civil rights fights segued into an anti-war movement that became its own war in the name of peace. “We had to destroy the village in order to save it” became the defining oxymoron of the times, and America often felt like “the village” being destroyed. There was generational division between young and old, between older vets and young draftees, between government and citizens as more and more war lies were revealed. The meaning of patriotism itself was intensely debated. The hostile times led to a Constitutional Crisis; President Richard Nixon and his first Vice President Spiro Agnew resigned over their separate criminal actions, and a number of inner circle players went to prison. The public has never since trusted its government – or each other –in the traditional way. Division, and a loss of faith in our trusted institutions, became entrenched. Yet the country and its institutions held, thanks in no small part to the reconciliation efforts of Presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter.

So why this trip down the darker alleyways of America’s Memory Lane? Certainly not to denigrate the American Stories of inspiring accomplishments and the expressions of our greater humanity. These improbable stories are even more extraordinary when viewed against the hurdles and resistance they often had to overcome. The meaning of Roy Moore’s recent defeat for Alabama’s U.S. Senate seat is even more significant in the context of former-governor George Corley Wallace – the poster boy for segregation during the 1960s civil rights movement.

Our past is the fuel that drives us to our future. Left unchecked, the past is our future. If we remind ourselves of our history, and ground our decisions within that context, then how do we assess where we are now? Where do we go from here? That will be the discussion in the forthcoming Part 2 of this blog posting.

©   2018   Randy Bell