Saturday, November 10, 2018

Barricades Blocking The Ballot Box

In the years between 1776 and 1789, our political ancestors accomplished two significant revolutions. The first was a military revolution securing our independence. The second was a governance revolution that established that people had a right to govern themselves through elected representatives. This new government would be a republic, based upon the will of the people as expressed by their periodic vote. Therefore, voting is the fundamental definition, and the basis for the existence, of our republic. When a qualified voter is hampered, the authority and very basis of the country is lost. So our moral and civic imperative is to take every possible step to ensure that each eligible voter is able to vote in as simple and accessible a manner as possible. Unfortunately, all too frequently that has not been the case, as the rules and mechanisms for voting have been skewed for political advantage on behalf of one political candidate, party, or societal group – including in the 2018 election.

The rules and responsibilities for voting are a “layered” responsibility, distributed yet interconnected among federal, state, county and local governments. The federal government establishes the qualifications for elected federal officials, and it establishes the definitions and processes for U.S. citizenship – a mandatory status across the country for voting (U.S. Constitution, Article 1, section 8). The Constitution also mandates that each State similarly use a republican form of government (Article 4, Section 4).

Beyond these basics, the federal government generally defers voting decisions and mechanisms to the states, and whoever is an eligible voter for state offices is also an eligible federal voter. In the beginning of the Republic, most states limited voter eligibility to white, adult, property-owning males. The “property-owning” requirement was ultimately dropped, but the other criteria were kept; federal amendments subsequently expanded access and made it more consistent:

-14th Amendment, 1868: “All persons born or naturalized in the United States  … are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State may … deny any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”

“The right of citizens … to vote shall not be denied …”: “on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude” -15th Amendment, 1870; “on account of sex” -19th Amendment, 1920; “by reason of failure to pay any poll tax or other tax” -24th Amendment, 1964; [for 18 or older] “on account of age” -26th Amendment, 1971.

Within these overriding federal requirements, voting processes are carried out in the individual states as they see fit. Typically, the state legislature sets some ground rules, and divides the state into federal and state districts for elective offices. The state Secretary of State, usually through a state-level Board of Elections, oversees the state-wide mechanisms and timeframes for voting, and certifies the official ballot. County &/or local election Boards register voters, organize the precincts – including determination of voting sites and the technology(ies) to be used – and conduct the actual voting and counting. This pyramidal hierarchy allows for desirable flexible and discretionary decision-making across the levels, but opens the door to inequities, rogue actions, and a diffusion of responsibility. This has certainly been the case in Election 2018.

Gerrymandering Political Districts: Political districts are defined every ten years by state legislators who have a conflict-of-self-interest in drawing these maps to favor their own voters. This practice has been going on for over 200 years, but has reached its zenith over the past decade. It is one of the greatest current threats to our democracy, and requires a separate essay on its own to discuss fully. Suffice it to say that my adopted state of North Carolina has become a poster child for what is wrong. District maps look like a Salvador Dali painting; cities, college campuses, even city streets are inexplicably divided to break up concentrations of similar voters; Congressional seat outcomes by party have no proportional relationship to total votes cast (1,748,173 Democratic votes – 51.5% of the total – elected 3 seats – 23%; 1,643,790 Republican votes – 49.5% – elected 10 seats – 77%). Federal and state judicial rulings have overturned district lines drawn, but issued too late to be applied to the 2018 election. It has been a decade long fight wasting millions of dollars. Similar lawsuits have been filed in Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Wisconsin.

Voter Fraud: Claims of illegal voters and massive voter fraud have been made without evidence. According to studies by Arizona State University and The Brennan Center, cases of voter impersonation were .0003% to .0025% of votes cast in 2012-2016. (“One is more likely to be struck by lightning than represent another at the polls.”) Only a handful of voter fraud cases have been successfully  prosecuted. In 2016, almost all state Secretaries of State denied any substantive problem exists. Donald Trump’s special commission to investigate this “problem” disbanded due to a lack of interest and substantiation. A non-problem needs no “solution.”

Voter ID: These days we have to show a picture ID to conduct many daily services, so showing an ID when voting can seem reasonable. But as usual, the devil is in the details. What will constitute a valid form of ID? A driver’s license (not everyone drives); a college ID; a hunting license; a special state-created ID (how do you widely distribute and pay for those without it being a new poll tax)? States are inconsistent on this question, and the answer often smacks of favoring the lifestyle of favored voters (e.g. in Texas: hunting license-yes; college ID-no). Finally, how does a state philosophically reconcile requiring an ID to vote when such cannot be required for mail-in and absentee ballots? Theory and practice collide.

Voter Registration: In 2018, the Georgia Secretary of State was also the Republican nominee for governor in a tight race against an African-American female Democratic candidate. As Secretary of State, he sat on and suppressed over 50,000 new voter registration forms – 70% from black constituents – refusing to process or respond to them. An additional 3000 registrations were set aside due to a new “exact match” rule. The judiciary overruled him on this blatant conflict of interest and demanded that these forms and ballots be processed. (His last-minute charge – without proof – that the state Democratic Party hacked the Georgia voter database was appropriately widely derided.) 

Dirty Tricks-1: Kansas also had a Secretary of State that was the Republican nominee for governor. (He was the same individual that Trump picked to chair the now-defunct voter fraud commission.) Dodge City is an Hispanic-majority city. The local County Clerk shut down the ONE central voting site – the Civic Center – that had previously served all 13,000 voters. (The average for Kansas is one site for every 1300 voters!) Claiming that the original site was “inaccessible due to construction work,” she then moved the site outside the city limits to a place one mile from the nearest bus stop. A judge agreed with the lawsuit filed to reverse this action, but ruled that it was “too late to change it without causing even more disruption.” (In fact, there was no construction happening at the Civic Center.)

Dirty Tricks-2: North Dakota’s small population includes a substantial number of Native-Americans living on reservations, and who were the margin of victory for a Democratic Senator elected in 2012. It is the only state that does not conduct an advance voter registration. At the last minute, the Republican-dominated Board of Elections instituted a rule that voters show an ID that included the specific street number of their address – even though the reservations do not assign such to their residents – affecting around 5,000 potential voters. Once again, a judge agreed with the lawsuit filed to reverse this action, but ruled that it was “too late to change it without causing even more disruption.”

Voting machines changing people’s votes in Florida and Texas; reducing the number of polling sites and/or the days of early voting; long lines and inoperable voting machines. All are examples of barriers instituted to affect either one’s right to vote, or the ability to access and express that vote. It is said that when you cannot win on the strength of your position or your argument, then simply change the rules in order to win. We clearly have politicians more than willing to change those rules to win at any price.

We have had 200 years of suppression and barriers to voting in America, most invented during our slavery period or the Reconstruction Era after the Civil War. Many of us thought such nefarious activities were now behind us in favor of inclusiveness and fairness. Instead, it appears that we still have a way to go. When we undercut voting, we undermine democracy itself. Voter suppression, in its myriad forms, is a real occurrence and genuine issue facing us today. With that understanding, we should begin preparing now for Election 2020.

©   2018   Randy Bell     

Saturday, October 27, 2018

The Call To Vote

For the past two months, I have been traveling around giving a series of presentations to various audiences based on my latest book “Conversations With America.” The book is a collection of essays drawn from the eleven years of this social commentary blog site. But the essence of my in-person presentation is our need to start a different kind of national conversation than what is occurring today. It is a call to stop just arguing with each other in tirades that accomplish little to nothing, but instead to start truly listening to what each other has to say in order to find a new common ground that we can build upon. While the current tour has been a forum for me to share some thoughts with others, it has also been a wonderful opportunity to listen to the diverse questions and thoughtful comments people have shared with me in return. (See the schedule of these events on the “Program Offerings” tab at This direct input has also been supplemented by listening to interviews by thoughtful journalists with people across the political spectrum, as well as discreetly overhearing conversations in restaurants, stores, and other locales among everyday people living everyday lives.

The biggest takeaway to date is how concerned, and truly engaged, our citizenry is in the current social / political landscape. Regardless of which “side” one is on, this is an engagement fueled by frustration; anger; distaste over our political style, language and process; a feeling of powerlessness over decisions and events; a distrust of our neighbors; and a sense that our America has lost its way. Simultaneously with this sense of engagement, many are also worn out from the daily non-stop headlines coming out of Washington, D.C. that swamp time for local and personal life priorities. A time of quiet for all seems badly needed.

The last eight years have been a brutal assault on our nation’s ability to conduct a civil discourse among ourselves, find shared solutions across divergent opinions, and identify some common goals that we can wrap our arms around together. While a given individual may feel that s/he has “won” an occasional battle or achieved a particular objective, those brief moments of victory yield only a fleeting moment of satisfaction as the country quickly moves on to the next headline, the next battle. We spend little genuine time thinking and planning in-depth for how to work with and resolve our national issues. Instead, we make a cursory, quick decision, check it off as “done,” and hurry on to the next item calling for attention. The result is that our issues either come back on our plate to be readdressed once again, or our short-sightedness causes a whole new set of unforeseen domino problems. (Witness the continuing minefield of our legal and illegal immigration issues.) The dog is so busy chasing his tail for the appearance of momentum, he can’t see the steak bone lying just outside his view.

After the last two years of this political meandering, we now have the opportunity for the American people to pause this merry-go-round, assess where we are, determine where we want to go, and communicate these decisions back to our “leaders.” Our next Election Day in America is November 6th, 2018. They call this an “off-year” election because there are no presidential candidates on the ballot. But our current President’s words and actions are very much on the ballot in absentia, as well as the aspirations of those would like to take his place in 2020; that is the special purpose of each off-year election. Through our votes for the entire U.S. House of Representatives seats, and 1/3rd of the Senate, we fill out the national report card for how our leaders are doing, and thereby how we ourselves are doing. Given that we have been pulled apart in two diametrically opposite directions these past two years, that report card, that directional signal, is more important than ever before.

People need to vote. Whatever our political opinions, whatever our personal grievances, they need to be expressed at the ballot box – the place, the action, the voice that speaks the loudest and is the most effective. We need to take stock not just of our politics, but of ourselves. After all of the discordant speeches, the rallies, the letter-writing, voting takes the temperature of the times and reports back to all of us as to where we collectively stand – for better or for worse. As a country, where we have been standing thus far is with each foot firmly planted on separate pathways. In that configuration, it is hard to walk forward in any direction.

In 2014, our previous off-year election, just over 1/3rd of registered voters voted. It was the worst off-year voter turnout since WWII. Mathematically, the priorities and future direction of the country were then determinable by only 18% or more of voters (even less of a percentage of eligible voters!) – a pitiful minority of the citizenry. This is not how democracy is supposed to work. This is not meeting our civic obligation. This is not giving needed counsel to our government about where we collectively seek to go. This is not honoring the right and privilege of voting that our ancestors marched, fought, and died for.

On November 6th, please Vote. Each of us needs to be heard from. The future course of your life, and the fate of your aspirations, may very well depend on it.

©   2018   Randy Bell   

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

The Professor And The Judge

In the fast-moving matter of Christine Blasey Ford v. Brett Kavanaugh in the courtroom of public opinion … For the benefit of our exhausted, battered country, may I suggest that it would behoove us all to inhale a deep breath, take a big step back, and all get down off of our respective soap boxes on the opinionated sidelines of this divide. Our knee-jerk instinct is either: pronouncing Judge Kavanaugh guilty of being a dangerously evil predator rapist while proclaiming the sainthood of Professor Ford’s timely story; or conversely affirming Judge Kavanaugh to be a pillar of model character while judging Professor Ford to be a seeker of headline publicity regarding a decades-old fabricated story. Neither premature opinion is helpful to anyone.

Currently, we are all spectators and speculators to this controversy, at best. An objective and impartial investigation is clearly needed. It should be expeditiously effected, but without artificial time deadlines that would cast doubt on the perception of fairness, thereby tainting the Court for years to come. A responsive process is hopefully being set up, ideally with that rarest of things – bipartisan political support – guiding that effort non-politically (versus the painful Anita Hill / Clarence Thomas politicized confrontation of 1991). We need to give such a process a chance to work, and let the details of these conflicting stories be sorted out one step at a time, without prejudice. And then we can draw our conclusions when and as appropriate, such conclusions likely to be difficult to come by. That is (or used to be) the American Way.

And to the men seeking to engage in this conversation, I urge particular caution. In my blog essay “Perspective on Sexual Assault” (“” dated 10/15/2016), I talked about how we males have minimal comprehension or comparative insight on this topic as it lives endlessly in a woman’s world. Few of us ever experience a sexual assault; few carry the lifetime wounds, isolation and powerlessness that arise from such events; few have to continually live within necessary and forced boundaries of conduct for one’s physical and mental protection. So we would do better to avoid more stupid comments about what we would have done, or what any woman should have done, in such instances. These situations are barely on our radar, or life experience, for understanding.

It should come as no surprise that a process that started from a fully political basis should now be ending as a painfully political exercise.

©   2018   Randy Bell     

Friday, August 31, 2018

Taking A Knee

America is fortunate to have a rich portfolio of icons and rituals that help remind us of our past, and connect with each other in the present. As fixed as these things are in our mind, we sometimes forget that these have their own history, have changed in format and usage, and are more tradition than rigid civic dogma.

On June 14, 1777, the Second Continental Congress resolved that the national flag of the United States include thirteen stripes, alternately red and white; with thirteen stars, white in a blue field, “representing a new constellation.” Flag Day is now observed on June 14 of each year. Initially, the specific layout of the flag was up to each flag maker. Francis Hopkinson of New Jersey, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, designed the 1777 flag which became the basis for all subsequent official designs. (There is no documented evidence to the mythology that Betsey Ross made the first flag as requested by George Washington.) On April 4, 1818, Congress determined that a new star would continue to be added when each new state was admitted, but the number of stripes was fixed at 13 to honor the original 13 American colonies.

The song “Yankee Doodle Dandy” was the primary patriotic song during our Revolutionary War. But in 1813, Francis Scott Key wrote a poem commemorating the defense of Ft. McHenry in Baltimore from British bombardment. His brother-in-law used the poem as lyrics to a song by English composer John Stafford Smith. That poem and song became known as “The Star Spangled Banner.” In 1899, the US Navy officially adopted "The Star-Spangled Banner,” and in 1916, President Woodrow Wilson ordered that it be played at military and other appropriate occasions. In 1930, the Veterans of Foreign Wars started a petition to officially recognize the song as the national anthem; five million people signed the petition. In 1931, President Herbert Hoover signed a bill officially adopting "The Star-Spangled Banner" as our national anthem – in spite of concerns about the song’s “singability.” 

A Pledge of Allegiance was first composed in 1887 by Civil War veteran George Thatcher Balch, a teacher of patriotism in New York City schools. Balch's pledge was embraced by many schools, by the Daughters of the American Revolution, and by the Grand Army of the Republic. The basis for the Pledge we use today was composed in August 1892 by Francis Bellamy, a Baptist minister and Christian Socialist. Bellamy’s Pledge was first published in the children's magazine The Youth Companion. A Columbus Day event honoring the flag was promoted by James Upham, a marketer for the magazine, and endorsed by the National Education Association. In June 1892, Congress and President Benjamin Harrison decreed that a flag ceremony and the new Pledge be the center of forthcoming October 12 Columbus Day 400th anniversary celebrations in public schools.

In 1923, a National Flag Conference of 68 organizations came together and created The United States Flag Code that established rules for display and care of the flag. This Code is a U.S. federal law, but the penalty for failure to comply is rarely enforced. That same Conference further called for the universal adoption of a modified Bellamy pledge. Congress officially recognized this Pledge on June 22, 1942 during WW II, but eliminated the “Bellamy salute” form of salute to the Flag. It was too similar to the Hitler salute that had developed in Nazi Germany, so the American salute was change to the current hand-over-the-heart position. The rules for saluting the flag are also codified in the United States Flag Code.

These icons and rituals, and their place in American life, has continually evolved over time. The playing of the “Star Spangled Banner” during the seventh inning stretch  of Game One of the 1918 World Series between the Red Sox and Cubs is often cited as the first instance that the anthem was played at a baseball game. The tradition of performing the national anthem before every baseball game began in World War II as part of promoting patriotism for the war effort.

In 1943, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled (“West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette”) that requiring the Pledge of Allegiance in public schools violated the First and Fourteenth Amendments. West Virginia had passed legislation requiring all students to perform the Pledge and Flag salute. Parents contended that the law infringed upon their religious beliefs, which they said required them not to engage in these secular practices. The Court stated that the key issues were the principles of freedom of thought and government by consent. The ruling declared that "no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein."

In 1951, in the height of the Cold War / anti-Communist fervor, the Knights of Columbus Catholic organization began to include the words "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance. The movement spread; Congress amended the Pledge accordingly;  President Eisenhower signed the bill on Flag Day, June 14, 1954.

In 1990, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled (“United States v. Eichman”) that prohibiting the burning the flag conflicts with the 1st Amendment right to freedom of speech and is unconstitutional. In 2008, wearing a flag lapel pin became a de facto requirement for all politicians, lest one be accused of not adequately demonstrate their patriotism in their campaigns. We now have Facebook postings calling for reciting the Pledge in classrooms (along with prayers from some never-defined religious source).

Why is this history and background important? Because when we begin to fight with each other about their use, and make them controversial merely for political manipulation and partisan gain, we need to remember how we came to these symbols in the first place. I grew up saying the Pledge every day in grade school. I doubt I suffered any damage from doing so. I am also not sure it made me any more American, because there was never any context given around that rote ritual. I suspect our current young people will turn out fine either way.

The kneeling before NFL games is a little trickier an issue, and has created much emotional controversy. This act of protest begun by Colin Kaepernick in 2016 was never about disrespecting our flag or our military – until Donald Trump inappropriately and incorrectly claimed it was. Rather, the kneeling was specifically to protest excessive police violence targeted toward African-American communities. One can choose to be on either side of that debate, but statistically and anecdotally it is a perfectly proper subject for attention and discussion.

Yes, a case can be made that an athlete’s right of free speech – if not obligation – entitles him/her to speak out on important social issues. However, such speech may legitimately be subject to timing and appropriateness. On game day, each player is an employee of a corporation. For any of us, “on company time and using employer resources” can be reasonable limitations to our right of free speech, requiring us to exercise our Free Speech Right in a more “public” venue on our own time. Then again, we might question why the National Anthem is being played at all at a for-profit commercial event – where the NFL charges our military for displaying its honor guard for the “presentation of the colors,” and where sports team owners seek to conflate sports with Americanism, and fandom with patriotism (e.g. “America’s pastime”).

The right of protest is fundamental to our American heritage, starting with the Boston Tea Party, the Stamp Act boycotts, and our Revolution itself. Protesting using our symbols of Americana as a focus may make us uncomfortable, but protests are about confronting uncomfortable truths. From that vantage point, kneeling to the music of our National Anthem, or abstaining from reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, does not disdain our flag, military or country. In fact, it celebrates the gift from our military that protects our right, our Constitutional freedom, to redress our government and our Country for their shortcomings.

The kneeling issue, and the surrounding protests of the protests, call upon each of us to express our patriotism from a more personal and generous place within. We should not merely be puppets on a politician’s strings, letting ourselves be emotionally and intellectually manipulated in support of a false patriotism. We created our American icons and rituals by our choices. It behooves us not to let ourselves become captured nor ruled by them.

©   2018   Randy Bell   

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Campaign Lessons From Donald & Hillary

Remember the Election Days of the past? After months of campaigning, accusations and speeches, people would show up at polling sites and make their decisions on leaders and issues. On that particular Tuesday in November, we said, “we have spoken; we have decided; let us move forward.” For better or worse, we went about governing anew.

Not so with Election 2016. Almost two years later, that election is still going on unendingly. The declared winner – Donald Trump – cannot seem to accept his victory. He continues to attack Hillary Clinton (“lock her up”) and accuse her of all kinds of (disproven) misdeeds. Illegal  interference in the campaign by Russia on his behalf, charges of collusion in that interference, plus the loss of the popular vote count, has paralyzed him into a constant campaign to legitimize his victory. He is the President that cannot stop being the candidate.

Similarly with Clinton. She wrote her obligatory book “What Happened,” even though she appears to not know. She has her laundry list of evil doers who sabotaged her: James Comey’s FBI pronouncements; the Russian hack of Democratic servers; lack of full support from the Bernie Sanders Democrats and the Obama coalition turnout. Clinton continues to complain about “it was other people’s fault.” Trump continues to complain “I don’t get credit for winning.” Actually, the 2016 election turned on several fundamental issues:

1. Both candidates were highly unpopular. Going in, Trump had the highest unfavorability rating in modern history. But Clinton was not far behind him. It resulted in a significant “lesser of two evils” decision by many voters.

2. 2016 was a “change” election. Approval ratings for Congress and both political parties are depressingly low. More Americans now designate themselves “Independent” than either political party. Most Americans are frustrated and angry, and feel that government – federal, state, and local – is not working for them. Many of them were hungry for something different – radically different. Trump’s campaign was built on top of Congressional ineffectiveness.

3. The internal fabric of the country has been changing quickly and dramatically. Economic wealth is not flowing fairly to all Americans; more wealth is moving to the top of the income scale, while middle-class income stagnates. Unemployment rates are low, but many workers have been forced into lower-paying jobs, and a cross-section of “old technology” jobs are disappearing with no alternative employment in sight. “Traditional Values” Americans feel threatened by a rapidly changing national demographic profile and social structure, changes supposedly preventing them from enjoying their personal lifestyle, freedoms and beliefs. (Ironically, many of these same Americans do not recognize that millions of “other” citizens have felt unaccepted by these Americans, and unable to live their life fully, for generations).

4. Against this electoral backdrop, Trump was the new political face, the outsider, who promised to change America’s direction and resolve the ignored grievances. Clinton was the old face, the continuation of the “more of the same” status quo. Trump may have been an inexperienced, reckless, morally-questionable candidate. But given how entrenched the established political structure was, an even bigger shake-up force was needed. Clinton was not seen as that force. Trump was, so many voters decided to take the risk. Besides, how much damage could he do?

5. Clinton took her constituency (and the election) for granted and played only to her Party’s left wing. She built her campaign on simply running against Trump and his character issues and outrageousness. She never spoke to the genuine concerns of those who were hurting and frustrated – many of whom were not “incorrigible,” racist or anti-American. Trump identified those hurts, spoke to these angers and frustrations, articulated the dissatisfaction with ineffective government, and exploited these fully (if not shamefully). Clinton painted all Trump supporters as the worst of the worst. She completely missed those who may have been appalled at Trump’s words and actions, but saw Clinton turn a deaf ear to their concerns – concerns about an unrecognizable future, and a fear of losing out in that future.

There are a number of 2016 election lessons to learn from Trump and Clinton. Republicans are in a quandary. The “change voters” that ultimately decided to go with Trump have not changed their minds or their expectations. For the rural middle class, the members of the “old economy,” and the “traditional values” and evangelical communities, Trump is still the only significant one speaking to their concerns and angers. They continue to believe him because they have no other choice. So even if they have to hold their noses at his words and actions, there is no other place for them to go. In the short term, they are getting some things they want (e.g. conservative justices). What they have yet to see is whether Trump can truly deliver substance for them over time, or whether his unconventional presidency will ultimately backfire on him (and us).

Similarly, Republican politicians and their traditional constituents are getting some things they want (e.g. tax cuts, deregulation, pro-business policies). That, plus a fear of Trump supporters who now dominate Republican Party voters, keeps them mute in spite of Trump’s conduct and his negative attitudes towards stalwart Republican orthodoxy: e.g. strong on NATO/defense, free trade, “orderly” government process. Whether Trump’s cozying up to dictators or instituting trade wars adversely affecting his base will change his support remains to be seen.

For Democrats, finding a strategy to engage the voters seems elusive. No central spokesperson for the Party has emerged, creating a cacophony of diverse voices. (A generational change is clearly needed; Sanders, Biden and Pulosi are not the future answers.) They have not found a unified message to rally around to reach out to the disaffected voters they lost in 2016. Instead, they are still just running against Trump as if that is sufficient enough. It is not. In the voting booth, people do not vote “against.” They vote “for.” Unless Democrats create a reason to vote FOR them, the “big blue wave” predicted in November may well turn into a dry creek bed.

Trump’s problem is that his rhetoric will burn out over time. Americans are not tolerant of repetitive drama; “The Donald Show” will become the old fad as people gradually tire and tune him out. Even if the Mueller investigation absolves him of any personal wrongdoing, Trump’s support will collapse if his promises go unkept. Traditionally, most new presidents accomplish the majority of their agenda in their first two years. That timeline is almost up.

Democrats have high energy and expectations for this fall. But one should never underestimate Democrats’ ability to snap defeat from the jaws of victory. An unfocused campaign, built solely upon rejecting the evil Trump, might bring out their base, but it will not win over the needed Independents or reclaim the former Democratic voters who moved to Trump. If focusing on the pragmatic, such inflammatory things as promising to impeach Trump, or instigating full-blown protests against his Supreme Court nominee (a battle already lost in November 2016), are counterproductive tactics. They will only help Trump bring more of his base to the polls to “protect their guy.” And in off-year elections, it is all about getting the larger share of the traditionally low turnout. Instead, just leave it to Trump to generate his own personal criticism against himself by his continually stepping on his own toes. Democrats need to avoid negative attacks on Trump or stroking the hot-button issues of his base. As tempting as it may be, as frustrated as they are, in 2018 Democrats need to focus on an issue-based campaign, focusing on “local” issues not national ones, explaining “here’s what we would do instead”– the positive message – and “these are the end results of where Trump policies are taking us.” These are the questions voters have. It is unclear that Democrats have those answers.

It is all about winning the Independent voter. The “left out” voter. In 2018 and 2020, Trump will rerun his 2016 campaign and outrages, and for now most new Republican candidates will attach their campaigns to him. Will the Democrats rerun the Clinton campaign? Or will they find a message that peels away those forgotten voters and brings them back? Will 2016 be our model for future political campaigns to come, or will voters (hopefully) insist on a different model?

“I am not a member of any organized political party. I am a Democrat.”
Will Rogers, American humorist

©   2018   Randy Bell                 

Monday, July 16, 2018

The Political Education Of Donald Trump

Joe McCarthy was a polarizing figure in the political life of the 1950s. A WW II veteran – nicknamed “Tail-Gunner Joe” for his service in the Army Air Corps – in 1946 he was elected to the U.S. Senate from Wisconsin. Ambitious, looking for a way to achieve political fame and power, he found his niche in the pervasive fear of mid-century America: Russian Communism.

America had just led its allies to victory in world history’s most destructive war, but this victory was followed with an insecure peace. Former ally Russia was now our biggest opponent in something called a “cold war.” Determined to “bury America,” Russia was attacking us through espionage, domination of Eastern Europe, support of “proxy wars,” and the development of nuclear arms on parity with America. China had been lost to the Chinese Communists; Communist-led revolutionaries in Viet Nam were fighting for “independence,” threatening all of Southeast Asia to turn Communist. Internally, dissenters against U.S. government policies were accused of being unpatriotic, if not treasonous. A new House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) was investigating Communist infiltration of labor unions and government agencies. Spies potentially lived behind our neighbor’s door, ready to subvert the values and security of the country.

Americans’ fear of an unseen (and unproven) menace to their way of  life – a life markedly improving in the aftermath of WW II – was a crucible ripe for exploitation by demagogues and power-seekers. Enter Republican Senator Joe McCarthy. In the early spring of 1950, McCarthy made a statement to a group in Wheeling, West Virginia, that was carried into the news media: “While I cannot take the time to name all of the men in the State Department who have been named as active members of the Communist Party and members of a spy ring, I have here in my hand a list of 205 that were made known to the Secretary of State as being members of the Communist Party and who, nevertheless, are still working and shaping the policy in the State Department.” (McCarthy never made his list of 205 available to the public. Most of the names were years-old accusations which had been largely disproved or settled. Over time, his list continued to shrink, ultimately down to just over 50 names.)

The statement made national headlines, and McCarthy was off and running, having found his new career as the “defender of America” against the Communist Conspiracy. What he had not found were any facts or proofs to substantiate his conspiracy claims – a lack which appears to have not troubled him in the least. Along the way, McCarthy proved to be a master of the “big lie” method of political propaganda: 1) identify a dominating fear in a specifically selected audience; 2) make some attention-getting and outrageous statement, without regard for factual accuracy, directed to that audience; 3) repeat that statement over and over until the extraordinary becomes the ordinary; and 4) promise to be the “savior” of the original base fear. Repeat the process as often as needed. The problem: how to keep it all going against the constant need to stack one big lie on top of another.

What followed was four years of “guilt by accusation,” by smear, by a complete disregard for due process, and unceasing attacks on government institutions – all packaged up in bags labeled “patriotism” and “conspiracies.” The list of McCarthy’s injustices is well known, and beyond the scope of this essay, but should be required reading for every current American. Finally, following a disastrous McCarthy-led Congressional Committee hearing investigating the U.S. Army in 1954, the once powerful McCarthy, who had held mesmerizing sway over public opinion, began his long fall. His Republican Senate colleagues, most of whom had been silent throughout his unprincipled conduct, now began to break ranks with him. In spite of McCarthy’s continuing approval by 1/3rd of the country, on December 2, 1954, the Senate voted to censure him by a vote of 67 to 22 (including 22 Republicans). No longer the center of public attention, McCarthy died from hepatitis and liver failure on May 2, 1957. Thusly, Joe McCarthy’s spotlight finally went dark, even as its afterglow would continue to influence the country for years to come.

Roy Cohn, a young attorney from New York City, served as McCarthy’s chief of staff (and “fixer”) throughout this reign of political assault. As such, Cohn had a first-hand view of McCarthy’s motives, strategies, tactics and outcomes. After McCarthy’s demise, Cohn observed about his boss: “He was selling the story of America’s peril. He knew that he could never hope to convince anybody by delivering a dry, general-accounting-office type of presentation.  In consequence, he stepped up circumstances a notch or two.” Cohn also said, “Undoubtedly, the [Army] hearings were a setback. But there were perhaps more fundamental reasons for his decline. By the time the hearings ended, McCarthy had been at the center of the national and world spotlight for three and a half years. He had an urgent universal message, and people, whether they idolized or hated him, listened. Almost everything he said or did was chronicled. Human nature being what it is, any outstanding actor on the stage of public affairs – and especially a holder of high office – cannot remain indefinitely at the center of controversy. The public must eventually lose interest in him and his cause. And Joe McCarthy had nothing to offer but more of the same. The public sought new thrills … the surprise, the drama, were gone.” Cohn concluded: “I was fully aware of McCarthy’s faults, which were neither few nor minor. He was impatient, overly aggressive, overly dramatic. He acted on impulse. He tended to sensationalize the evidence he had – in order to draw attention to the rock-bottom seriousness of the situation. He would neglect to do important homework and consequently would, on occasion, make challengeable statements.”

After McCarthy’s death, Roy Cohn returned to his law practice in New York City, fully versed in his mentor McCarthy’s tactics. Fifteen years later, Cohn took on a new client, a young real estate developer looking to start up business in Manhattan. The client’s name: Donald Trump.

Roy Cohn first met Donald Trump socially in the early 70s, and took an immediate shine to the young man. Roy Cohn offered to serve as Donald and his father Fred’s legal counsel when the Trumps were sued by federal prosecutors for refusing to rent apartments to African-American tenants. Cohn attacked, countersuing the government, ridiculing the government’s case, though eventually settling by agreeing to provide such rentals in the future. Thereafter, Donald Trump became a Cohn client in his own right, with Cohn serving as legal counsel (and intimidator) for most of Trump’s business deals. Along the way, they also created a deep personal relationship, spending much social time together. Cohn introduced Donald to the New York scene – the movers and shakers – and opened needed doors for his business deals. (In 1979, it was Cohn who introduced Trump to Roger Stone, a long-time Republican political operative.  Stone’s work with the Trump 2016 presidential campaign is now a focus of Special Counsel Mueller’s investigation.) In his legal work, Cohn used all the McCarthy techniques of intimidation he had learned so well at McCarthy’s side. Now, an eager Donald learned them as well from Cohn.

Cohn died from AIDS in 1986, shortly after being disbarred for “unethical, unprofessional, and particularly reprehensible” conduct. Trump subsequently remarked on his relationship with Cohn (and his expectations of the role of his lawyer), “Roy was an era. They either loved him or couldn’t stand him, which was fine ... he was a very good lawyer if he wanted to be. He’s been vicious to others in his protection of me ... If I summed it up in one word, I think the primary word I’d use is his loyalty.”

Cohn’s last lover and partner, Fred Fraser, observed of Cohn and Trump: “I hear Roy in the things [Trump] says quite clearly. That bravado, and if you say it aggressively and loudly enough, it’s the truth – that’s the way Roy used to operate to a degree, and Donald was certainly his apprentice ... having trained or mentored someone who became president, that would have been quite exciting for Roy.”

It has been said that a Joe McCarthy could not happen again in America. Yet political bloodlines can run deep. We look around at our political landscape today. Any Questions?

(With particular appreciation to Jon Meacham, “The Soul of America,” and Jonathan Mahler and Matt Flegenheimer, “McCarthy Aide Helped Shape Young Trump,” New York Times)

©   2018   Randy Bell

Thursday, July 5, 2018

Past Words For Current Times

The 1920’s. A time variously nicknamed “The Roaring Twenties” and “The Jazz Age.” Coming after the end of WW I – “The Great War to end all wars” – it was a time characterized by excess. The destructiveness of the War shocked many of the American doughboys who went to Europe to fight in the stalemate trenches. It was a Valley of Death that broke the “can do” spirit of many, and/or infused a “live for today” attitude in others. The experience made for a time ripe for unbridled responses to take hold in America, not all of them good ones.

During the Roaring Twenties, the corporate barons that emerged in the 1880s were still running the economy, if not government itself. Getting rich was the order of the day, pursued with gusto by financial barons, corporate giants, and, increasingly, everyday Joes alike. But it was not just economic excess. Women had finally won the right to vote, which stoked not only a new sense of legal freedoms but also social ones – it was the age of the independently-spirited “flapper girl.” Prohibition ended the people’s access to alcoholic drink – except that it didn’t. Booze flowed freely in speakeasies and private homes, supplied by organized crime and moonshiners. It was one big party time, danced appropriately to the frenzied moves of the Charleston.

But there was also a darker underside to this national party. The American borders had become porous with immigrants coming in. During 1900-1920, it was Southern and Eastern Europeans knocking on America’s door, most all passing through the processing station at Ellis Island. Many Americans felt vulnerable to all these “non-English” people who seemed to threaten the cultural and economic landscape – if not the very security – of the country. Calls for tighter immigration limits grew ever louder as many felt that their government was not doing enough to stem this flow. Growing numbers of people looked for an alternative force to speak for them and push back – forcibly if necessary – on these open doors. They found that alternative in the Ku Klux Klan (KKK).

The Klan had originally risen from the collapse of the South after the Civil War. In the 1870s and 1880s, it had terrorized the newly freed ex-slaves. It promoted the role of White Southerners by reinstalling de facto slavery through economic servitude, “legal” disenfranchisement, and systematic killings with impunity. By the end of the 19th century, the Klan’s influence had faded. But the replacement cultural and legal structures it had created endured, set firmly and inalterably in place. Its resurrection always stood ready to be recalled to active duty.

The 1920s was a time of fear of the immigrant, fear of the loss of one’s cultural identity, fear of an impotent government sworn to protect its citizens and keep them safe, and fear of attack on “America’s religion” (i.e. Christian Protestantism) by competing religions, scientific reasoning and discovery, and the forsaking of traditional infallible religious teachings. In such times, a substantial number of Americans turned to a reborn Ku Klux Klan. This time the Klan was not just contained within the South; it became a national organization. Guided by the tactics, hate literature and “social theories” of its predecessor, this new Klan offered itself as the balance against “these undesirables” who they characterized as dangerous enemies, criminals, lesser human beings, immoral people intent on subverting True Americans. To expand their message and recruitment, they combined this new hate with the Klan’s historical prejudices against African-Americans, Catholics and Jews. Great numbers of followers across the country, estimated at over four million, were drawn into this new KKK, including Congressional politicians seeking money and (re-)election. The strength of the Klan was graphically exemplified in August 1925 when a march on Washington down Pennsylvania Avenue attracted more than 35,000 thousands of white-robed but bare-faced Klansmen.

Yet many people chose to fight back by speaking up against this national travesty: principled politicians, journalists and writers, members of the judiciary, religious leaders. Congress investigated the Klan in 1921, producing no great conclusions or restraints; the ensuing publicity both advanced and hindered the Klan’s popularity. In these times, when American values, principles, and the traditions of our Founding documents seemed in danger of being lost, someone was clearly needed to remind us of who America – and Americans – truly are.

Republican Calvin Coolidge was born in the simple rural countryside of Vermont. He made a political name for himself as mayor in Northampton in western Massachusetts, subsequently as governor of Massachusetts. Vice President Coolidge became our 30th President upon the sudden death of Warren Harding. The thoughtful but taciturn Coolidge – nicknamed “Silent Cal” – was decidedly pro-business, most famously remembered as saying “the business of America is business.” He is less frequently quoted for his follow-on qualifying words: “The chief ideal of the American people is idealism. I cannot repeat too often that America is a nation of idealists. That is the only motive to which they ever give any strong and lasting reaction.”

As America’s national hate and fear of “others” grew during the 1920s, it was the quiet Coolidge who used his infrequent public words to remind the country of a most important lesson. As historian Jon Meacham relates in his excellent book “The Soul of America,” a man had written to Coolidge that, “It is of some concern whether a Negro is allowed to run for Congress anywhere, at any time, in any party, in this, a white man’s country.” Recalling that half a million black men had served in the recent War, Coolidge spoke in response:

“The suggestion of denying any measure of their full political rights to such a group of our population as the colored people is one which, however it might be received in some other quarters, could not possibly be permitted by one who feels a responsibility for living up to the traditions and maintaining the principles of the Republican Party. Our Constitution guarantees equal rights to all of our citizens, without discrimination on account of race or color. I have taken my oath to support the Constitution. It is the source of your rights and my rights. I propose to regard it, and administer it, as the source of the rights of all the people, whatever their belief or race.”

Subsequently, Coolidge told an American Legion convention in 1925:

“If we are to have … that union of spirit which is the foundation of real national genius and national progress, we must all realize that there are true Americans who did not happen to be born in our section of the country, who do not attend our place of religious worship, who are not of our racial stock, or who are not proficient in our language. If we are to create on this continent a free Republic and an enlightened civilization that will be capable of reflecting the true greatness and glory of mankind, it will be necessary to regard these differences as accidental and unessential. We shall have to look beyond the outward manifestations of race and creed. Divine Providence has not bestowed upon any race a monopoly of patriotism and character.”

Sometimes in the midst of hatred, prejudice or fear, it takes great courage to speak clearly against the popular tide. Calvin Coolidge was a President who knew the value of not speaking often, but making one’s words count for something worthwhile. It is leading not by the quantity of words issued daily, but by their quality and substance. These messages from almost 100 years ago, in times similar to our own, warrant being repeated today.

©   2018   Randy Bell