Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Election 2012 - The Political Parties

Almost 1½ years after the pre-primary Republican campaign began, and nearly five months of de facto general election campaigning between each of the “presumptive” candidates, Republicans and Democrats finally have their official candidates for president.  The farcical, surreal, but always entertaining comedy that was the Republican primary season is behind us.  In exchange is the audio torture of hundreds of millions of dollars spent on negative advertising and untruths to buy the general election for one of the candidates.  At a time of many new emerging democracies across the globe, we the creators of “popular self-government” are certainly proving to be a lousy role model for these global transitions in government.

Political parties were never envisioned by the writers of our Constitution.  Certainly there were deep divisions of strongly-voiced opinions among those Founders.  But they did not foresee those divisions manifested into formal organizations of political operations.  Organizations that function as a virtual 4th branch of government, but were never defined or sanctioned in the Constitution.  But this sub-government defines the reality and functioning of our government as much or almost more than the three branches that are legally constituted – much to the chagrin of our early leaders.  As George Washington stated in his Farewell Address, “[The spirit of party] serves always to distract the public councils and enfeeble the public administration.  It agitates the community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms; kindles the animosity of one part against another; foments occasionally riot and insurrection.”

In the 150 years since the Civil War, the Republican and Democratic parties have thoroughly dominated our elections (with some occasional short-lived 3rd-party attempts).  For the first 70 years of this period the Republicans held a virtual lock on the government.  Then three successive presidents in the Roaring Twenties oversaw the country’s collapse into its worst economic depression and ushered in 12 years of Democratic President Franklin Roosevelt.  Thereafter in post-WWII modern America, Americans have emphasized “balance” in their voting, automatically ceding their ballots to neither party: 6 Democratic presidents accumulating 32 years in the White House; 6 Republican presidents accumulating 36 years.  One might conclude that Americans are a fickle lot, or instead that they simply like keeping both parties in check.

Over time, each party has changed its political posture in many ways, even while they retain their classic brands of “Republicans for the rich businessman” and “Democrats for the disadvantaged little guy.”  Republicans freed the slaves and guaranteed voting rights to blacks and women by constitutional amendments, while Southern Democrats sought to extend de facto slavery.  Yet today’s Republicans are shamelessly attempting to block eligible voters from voting, while Democrats are resisting these efforts.  Republicans fought a war 150 years ago to hold the Union together against Southern Democrat attempts at secession; today’s Republicans speak incessantly in favor of “states’ rights.”  Corporate and workplace regulation and anti-monopoly laws were instituted by Republican presidents Teddy Roosevelt and William Taft, and environmental regulations were greatly expanded by Richard Nixon.  Today’s Republicans argue that deregulation is the savior step for economic recovery, even as stories of corporate corruption or dangers to the American public are reported weekly.  Republicans continually vocalize about the interference of “big government,” yet it is today’s Democrats who are fighting against laws invading our privacy and encroaching against our civil liberties.  And amidst all the pontificating about financial responsibility, it was the three Republican presidents starting with Ronald Reagan who exploded our deficit spending and national debt – leading us into this current greatest of recessions.

President Obama is absolutely correct that Election 2012 represents as distinctive a political choice as we have seen in decades.  A choice not just for president and vice president, but for state and local governments and decisions on how we choose to live our lives.  As much as Mitt Romney would like to talk only about jobs and the economy, the Republican ascendancy of 2010 has wreaked huge upheavals in the states with assaults on voting rights and redistricting, marital rights, religious rights, public education, and government infrastructure and services – all hidden under the umbrella of supposed “financial reform.”  Financial reform is needed, yes.  But that should not be used to hide a radical social agenda that marches us backward from being a progressive, just, opportunistic, and safe society in the 21st century.  As president-wanna-be Newt Gingrich observed, Americans dislike radical social engineering from the right as much as they dislike it from the left.

For me personally, when I look at the Republican Party of today, all of these “policy” issues pale next to one overriding issue.  Democrats are often rightly accused of bad messaging skills, undisciplined strategizing, over-reach and excess in government programs, and a knee-jerk instinct for a government response to solve virtually all economic and social shortcomings.  But over these last four years, at a time of severe economic and human crisis potentially just one step away from a free-fall collapse, at least they have tried to DO something.  Because some significant things have needed to be done, and done quickly, with the patience to allow those somethings to bear long-term fruit.  In these moments of universal need, affecting in one way or another Americans of all income levels and situations, a collective response has been needed for the collective good.  But instead, today’s Republican Party chose to turn its back on its proud traditions and to ignore the needs of the American public.  It decided to simply become the “party against” for the sole objective of just being against.  Politics and a grab for political power, wrapped in a willingness to say anything regardless of its truth, has been the openly declared priority of this Party.  Even the term “conservative” has been tossed upside down to become something that would be unfathomable to the conservative heritage of Goldwater and Reagan.

That decision to conduct a self-serving revolt instead of to achieve solutions for the American people has been a total breach of public trust and a violation of ethical responsibility.  For that failure to put the American people first, forgiveness is not yet warranted.  But accountability is demanded now.

“If I could not go to heaven but with a (political) party, I would not go there at all.”  (Thomas Jefferson)

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

The Arab Summer

The past few weeks, Americans have been shocked by a wave of anti-American demonstrations erupting unexpectedly in a number of countries across North Africa, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia.  Most Americans have been supportive of the “Arab Spring” upheavals against ruling dictators that have occurred over the past 21 months.  But these recent coinciding events have left many, as Secretary of State Clinton said, “trying to make sense of the senseless.”  And these events have sowed potential seeds across America for more indiscriminate anger and prejudice against Muslims in general.

Such seedings are unwarranted.  When the American Embassy in Cairo discovered the existence of an inflammatory anti-Muslim YouTube video, it quickly issued a statement (before any violence had occurred) that said simply (and correctly) that “[we] condemn the continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims.”  Mitt Romney alternately made an ill-informed and ill-advised political criticism in the wake of the subsequent demonstrations that “an apology for American values is never the right course.”

I have no idea what “American values” Mr. Romney was referring to in his campaign statement.  Or what “apology” he thinks was even made.  I know that I value very much the freedom of everyone to practice their religion of choice without interference, obstruction or denigration.  I value that each person is equal in the law and in God’s eyes, and thereby deserves respect as a valued human being.  I know I value freedom of speech, but accept that this freedom is limited by the responsibility to avoid harming others.  These are the very values implicit in our government’s statements.  Which of these values would Mr. Romney have us retract?

As for making an apology, apologies are perhaps due to much of the Muslim world by the Western powers.  We have collectively treated Islam and its Muslim followers with unwarranted contempt and disdain for a thousand years.  Even though their Koran calls for worshiping the same God as Jews and Christians; treats the Jewish and Christian teachings as righteous and from God; commands that Jews and Christians who faithfully adhere to their religious teachings are to be respected and honored – Christians have labeled Muslims as “the infidels” for a millennium.  Christians fought religious Crusades against the Muslims for two hundred years.  In the last 100 years following World War I, the West has sought to hold the Arab/Muslim communities as virtual economic and political hostages – a subservience Western countries would never tolerate.  We have exploited their wealth (mainly oil) until countries have gradually regained control over their own resources.  We have covertly overthrown legitimate popular governments when they refused to follow our direction.  We supported cruel dictators with arms and dollars – arms and dollars used to suppress their populations and keep them poor and un-empowered – and then looked away as long as they sided with us instead of Russia.

Hillary Clinton stated that “America had nothing to do with the making of this [YouTube] film.”  Americans understand full well that this film is protected by our First Amendment right of freedom of speech.  But we are speaking that distinction to millions of people who have never known freedom of speech, i.e. the freedom to speak separately and independently from one’s government.  How can we expect these masses to understand such a fine distinction about an individual right that has been completely outside of their own personal and cultural experience?

We pontificate about the supposed “cultural and educational backwardness” of many Muslim societies, lumping all Muslims and Muslim-dominated countries together as if one homogeneous peoples.  But we skip over the excessive functional illiteracy still present in America.  We decry the stories we hear of Muslim family violence, but domestic violence inexplicably rages every day in America.  We protest the limited rights of Muslim women, but our Roman Catholic, Southern Baptist, and many Evangelical and other religious branches continue to operate on a male-dominated / female-subservient inequality in faith and family.  American hate groups claiming to be Christians act in terrorist ways against their fellow citizens of different color, faiths, and lifestyles; both good Christians and good Muslims each get lumped together with the aberrational thugs in their midst.  American political power and economic wealth is increasingly weighted to only a select few businesspeople, politicians, and clergy in a hierarchy not unlike many Middle East countries.  Yet most Americans never mentioned in our headlines go about their daily lives honestly and law-abidingly while trying to be helpful to others, horrified by our own violence against each other – just as we see with people across the Muslim world.  Jesus’ guidance to “judge not lest you also be judged” is highly applicable here.

We Americans have so much to be proud of about this country and our efforts to try to make lives better and more just.  But an honest look in the mirror of self-examination would show us many reasons for overseas Muslims to rightly resent us even as they also admire us for other reasons.  Even our support for their freedom revolutions has been limited by many to “as long as they believe and act like us.”  After centuries of such attitudes and treatment toward these fellow men and women, we should not be surprised at their short fuses over what we may see as insignificant circumstances.  When we “walk around in another’s [Muslim] shoes,” supposedly simple rights and wrongs begin to look a whole lot less simple.  It is like continuing family tensions over long-ago hurts, rubbed raw over years of neglect alternated with exacerbative needling, exploding in a disproportionate argument at a suddenly unexpected moment.  We fear the latent anger of the beast we helped to create.  We need only to look at our own history of attitudes and conduct toward African-Americans and Native-Americans to see the truth of this.

We need to recognize that a bond between American and Muslim cultures and countries must come from people connecting directly with people; observing their right to self-determination over their own affairs; taking time to truly understand the great religion of Islam and respecting their choice of faith; and helping to end Muslim poverty, desperation and hopelessness in favor of a better life.  The same things that American people seek.  We who barely understand how differently people think and live from one region of America to another should remember that Cairo, Egypt is not Cairo, Illinois.  Given that most Americans have never set foot in a Muslim country, we can barely begin to fathom how extraordinarily different their daily life is than in America.

We often forget that our American Revolutionary War took eight years to complete, resulting in a confederative government of thirteen individual states (“tribes”) barely able to work together or collectively decide anything, disrespected and ridiculed by the international community.  A government so weak that four years after the War’s end its potential collapse pushed our Founders into a Constitutional Convention to finally create this strong central government that has now stood for 225 years.  As the Arab Spring moves into the Arab Summer of new governance, we need to extend the same understanding and patience to these various Muslim communities as was required in establishing our new country.

As John McCain eloquently stated, “I know many Americans may feel a temptation … to distance ourselves from people and events in Libya, and Egypt, and elsewhere in the Middle East … We were right to take the side of the Libyan people, and others in the region who share their peaceful aspiration.  And we would be gravely mistaken to walk away from them now.  To do so would only be a betrayal of everything that [Ambassador] Chris Stevens and his colleagues believed in and ultimately gave their lives for, but it would also be a betrayal of America’s highest values and our own enduring national interest in supporting people in the Middle East who want to live in peace and freedom.”  Those are the true American values that need no apology.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

The Truth Of Lying

Awhile back, standing in the well of the Senate while proposing to eliminate government funding to Planned Parenthood, Senator John Kyle (R-AZ) stated, “90% of Planned Parenthood’s funding goes toward providing abortion services.”  In fact, the percentage was @10% or less.  Nevertheless, when challenged about this egregious error of fact, Kyle released a now-infamous reply that “what I said was not intended to be a factual statement.”  Somehow that rationale was supposed to excuse his glaring lie.

Shortly after Paul Ryan gave his acceptance speech as the Republican nominee for Vice President – a speech riddled with false statements – former mayor Rudy Giuliani tried to explain away those errors in an interview by saying, “When someone gives a speech, not every fact is 100% accurate.”  I guess this includes when someone gives his/her speech of their lifetime for the history books for which they had weeks to prepare.  (Versus a meandering off-the-cuff ad lib address, a la Clint Eastwood.)  Funny, I always thought a “fact” less than 100% accurate was no longer a fact.

We all understand that at times in political campaigns truths will compromised, context will be omitted, and logic will be stretched beyond recognition.  That is a shame, because it is during political campaigns that the public is most often paying attention to the issues of governance, and good information on which to make substantive decisions is critically needed.  We accept this “stretching” of truths, intended to create an electoral advantage, as just another one of our sad realities of life.  Just as we discount much of the other advertising that we hear about the many evils of “Brand X.”

But when a politician seeks to unabashedly lie about things, knowingly ignoring today’s realities of videotape, fact-checking researchers and internet information sharing, it shows either a woeful ignorance of today’s media world and/or a shortage of character and a willingness to deceive that insults the public trust.  Such is the case with Mr. Ryan’s speech, for which he has been appropriately called out.  For example:
  • Ryan accused President Obama of failing to deliver on a presidential promise to prevent the closing of a GM plant in Ryan’s home state.  Except that no such promise was made, and the plant’s closing was announced and competed all within George W. Bush’s presidency.
  • Ryan claimed that Obama has removed the work requirement within welfare programs that was adopted in the Bill Clinton years.  Not at all true, as all responsible news media (and Clinton himself) have confirmed.
  • Ryan has accused Obama of not supporting the Simpson-Bowles deficit report that Obama had commissioned.  But Mr. Ryan failed to mention that he was a member of that same Commission, voted against its findings and recommendations, and refused to allow it to be brought up and considered in his House budget committee.
  • Ryan has accused Obama of taking $716 billion out of the Medicare program “to pay for Obamacare.”  He left out that this reduction was based on reduced payments to health care providers, not Medicare enrollees, based upon expected productivity and other gains.  And Ryan pointedly failed to mention that he has also proposed the same transfer in his latest House budget proposal.
  • Finally, Ryan has laid responsibility for America’s credit downgrade solely on Obama, omitting that he himself was one of the leaders of House Republicans in creating the debt/budget standoff of a year ago. It was the only time that the raising of the debt ceiling and the protecting of our collective credit rating had been held hostage by Congress under any Republican or Democratic president.
The selection of Paul Ryan as Mitt Romney’s running mate has been a curious story unto itself.  Ryan is certainly the darling of the conservative Right for his willingness to outspokenly go out on a limb without apologies in support of drastically reducing government programs and services.  And make no mistake: budget cuts are exactly that – reduced dollars going into the hands of business people and consumers (and voters).  Americans who love the idea of lower taxes and reduced spending also want NO reduction in the services, business contracts, and grant monies that now come to them.

The reality is that Paul Ryan’s role to Mitt Romney in 2012 is the same as Sarah Palin’s was to John McCain in 2008 – but with the major difference that Paul Ryan has both intelligence and substance.  Nevertheless, like Ms. Palin, Ryan is there to provide political energy and “star power” in support of the nominee on top who has minimal such attractions.  He is there to shore up support from a party base that fundamentally distrusts the conservative credentials of their top-of-the-ticket nominee.  Ryan is a man with a detailed track record of significant conservative proposals.  But having made Ryan his appointee, Romney now spends his time disavowing those same proposals.  And Mr. Ryan now no longer speaks of those proposals or his convictions in order to hide the differences between the two men.  It is as if those ideas that are required to convince the Republican base are anathema to moderate and independent Americans who will ultimately decide the election winner.  So why would Romney select Ryan as his choice in the first place, only to then quietly disavow what Ryan stands for?  And why would Ryan choose to give up the very independence and honest-speaking position that endeared him to his followers in the first place?  The attraction to power can certainly do harsh things to one’s character.

We all understand the “attack dog” role of a Vice Presidential nominee.  And we understand the stretching of truths that occurs in political campaigns.  But Americans are struggling right now, painfully trying to figure out the next step in their individual and collective future.  People need solid and truthful information to answer their difficult questions.  Questions that are actually of far greater importance than who will be the winners and losers in November’s election.  There are political candidates who choose to cross a fine but critical line of outright lying to the American people in a deliberate attempt to hide truth for political gain.  Such unethical conduct makes it more difficult for all of us to intelligently and accurately find our way.  Perhaps we should just shrug our shoulders and dismiss all of this as simply “campaign rhetoric.”  But if a person – regardless of their political party or viewpoints – chooses to step across that ethical line as a candidate, should we not then assume that they will believe that that choice of action is politically permissible?  And that as an elected official they will then continue that pattern of lying to the public?