Friday, January 29, 2016

Electorate 2016

Finally. After months of endless talk about the politicians, the barrage of up-and-down poll numbers, and glazing over at numbing TV images, we now get to hear from the really important speakers. The voters. The responsible souls who get up off their couch, sign off from Facebook, step out from the comfort of their homes and regularity of their workplaces, interrupt their normal routine, and make the trek to the polling places and caucus sites for these primary-stage elections. These are the people whose opinions actually count, because they are opinions connected to action. Their words will be important to hear. Much has been written about the “angry voter,” but more needs to be said. Because those voters, not the candidates, are the real reason that all the normal rules of campaigning have gone out the window.

Yes, the voters are angry. But that explanation is too simplistic and does them a disservice. The breadth of their anger is wide, over many soapboxes of complaint. Their anger is also deep, engendering full-blown collective anger and outright disgust. There is a complete lack of confidence in the status quo, a lack of faith in what is around the corner awaiting us, a sense of beleaguered aloneness that no one is looking out for one another anymore, a judgement of a general failure of leaders and institutions across the spectrum. “A better life” seems to have been way-laid and replaced by “a dangerous life.” Nowhere does there seem to be a pathway, a mechanism, a person to move us back into forward progress.

Today, the country is deeply divided on virtually all issues. Public opinions are typically split somewhere between 55/45%, Supreme Court decisions are regularly split 5/4, congressional votes are by straight party line, all reflecting a nation unified about next to nothing. Yet in those rare instances when the nation does come together on some idea (e.g. 90% support for expanded background checks and closing loopholes for gun purchasers), still no action is taken. The 3C’s – Consensus, Compromise, and Common ground – have disappeared. Our apparent powerlessness to control our own future has made a sizeable portion of Americans very, very angry, transcending “liberal /conservative” labels.

Whether one thinks that they were noble ventures or maddening follies, President Bush’s two expensive wars have left the country financially underwater and emotionally empty, with a sense of little to show for it and facing years of future repercussions. 15 years after 9-11, the country feels no safer from terrorists. The world’s most powerful government, economy, and military seem incapable of meeting our basic needs as things seem to spin unendingly out of control. People feel trapped by: illegal immigration; wanton murders by domestic and foreign terrorists as well as everyday kooks and criminals; income stagnation for middle-Americans versus exponential gains for the extremely wealthy; social fabric changes that are either too much/too soon or too little/too late; a dysfunctional Congress owned by corporate America and their lobbyists; political game-playing and divisiveness from our politicians in lieu of solving pressing critical problems.

What is fascinating is how upside-down/inside-out the American voting population is today. Contradictions abound; few issues are clear-cut. We have constant rhetoric about left-wing liberals and right-wing conservatives, but these labels are becoming increasingly less meaningful. Some people protest government infringement on their religious rights, yet often their proposed solution is to limit the religious rights of others. Almost every American decries the increase in senseless killings of their fellow citizens, but many seek to eliminate the killing by arming citizens within a blanket of weaponry. Hard fought equality and civil rights battles thought to have been addressed and settled years ago seem to have gone back to the future, as cities and courtrooms and legislative battles imitate the difficult days of the 1960s. Both major political parties are being driven by the far ends of their ideology, with an absolutist mindset intolerant and indifferent to their political opposite.

More and more Americans are sick of the chaos in the world and being drawn into these “local” fights. Yet compassion for victims and cries to demonstrate “American leadership” keep dragging us in. America’s infrastructure is falling apart and our social safety net for the less fortunate is under constant attack. Yet our tax dollars go into a sacrosanct and growing military budget primarily driven by commitments overseas and the awarding of purchasing contracts to businesses. Americans’ sense of fairness has been substantially undermined as middle-American small businesspeople and entrepreneurs play by the market rules and pay their prescribed taxes, while large corporations and the affluent get special favors and exemptions in conducting their operations while paying only a fraction of their tax obligations. Average citizens were thrown out of their homes in bankruptcy thanks to the Wall Street-induced recession, while those same Wall Streeters were bailed out and suffered no consequences for their negligent and illegal actions. Our prison population does not reflect the real demographics of our lawbreakers.

Yet in the midst of the contradictions, surprising alignments sometimes still happen. Democrats and Libertarians unite against excessive government snooping; Evangelicals and tree-huggers align to save the planet; politicians compromise and reject the concept of “shutting down government” as a legitimate budget process.
“The American Way” has been split into a series of meandering roads leading to no clear endpoint. What does unite most Americans is that our political structures and politicians have simply not been working for a long time. So the usual hollow political talk that “I’m wonderful and have all the answers” is no longer believable and does not fly this year. Until now, the voices of the voters have been throttled silent. Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders have each given voice to the respective sides of these angry Americans, albeit each speaks a very different voice. The depth of anger within the citizenry has been strong enough to marginalize traditional “establishment” candidates, with their usual campaign platforms and ads, into sidebar, irrelevant players.
This is the reality of the electorate in the 2016 campaign. A reality that candidates of either party and any agenda ignore at their peril. But there is a vast swath of independent, middle-road voters that will ultimately hold the key to the final result in November. This fall they will have their own set of issues, perhaps a reverse anger at the barrage of harsh noise that has been coming at them for months. Is there a potential leader who can transmute all of this American anger into a new American promise? One who can find a middle path to unified and effective governing? It is hard to see one through the stagecraft, intellectual fog, and verbal noisemaking assaulting our eyes and ears daily. Let the primary voting begin.
©   2016   Randy Bell     

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Trumpeting Trump

“Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal.”   (1 Corinthians 13:1, KJV)
In the 1970s, pop artist Andy Warhol famously predicted that in the future, everyone would have their own “15 minutes of fame.” 30 years later, the Internet, social media, 24x7 cable news and so-called reality shows, combined to provide the catalyst and forum for that prediction to come true. As a result, many people of minimal talent and of little consequence to my learning and experience have been escalated into our national headlines. We had “Joe the plumber” commenting on national politics in 2008; a minor but hateful preacher in Florida gaining international attention by burning copies of the Qur’an; another preacher in Iowa recently advocating the killing of all homosexuals, while attracting presidential candidates to his rallies; and endless “political pundit” filling air time in spite of their dubious credentials. In fact, the only credential each of them shares is outrageousness – the willingness to say or do something so out of our social norms that their very audacity is deemed worthy of our notice. They engage us as the 21st-century version of the circus freak show attraction.
Into this theater of the amateur hour comes Donald Trump, Republican candidate for President of the United States of America. Trump, who is well beyond his allotted 15 minutes, generates the most controversy and incomprehension of this election season. Originally dismissed as side-show entertainment, he now stands a real chance of winning the nomination. The mood of the voters, the election calendar of which states vote when, and the rule change to “proportional delegate awarding” all work in his favor. People (domestic and world-wide) have struggled to explain the Trump phenomenon. His willingness to say anything far beyond a normal politician’s disregard for truth, the absence of any substance in what pretends for policy positions, his  unwillingness to admit error in the face of corrective facts, and his tactic of vocalizing hate and disrespect against everyone who does not resemble 1950s-America, are all frightening for a leading candidate for President. Moderate-minded people ask, how does one explain Donald Trump?
Actually, explaining Trump is not that mysterious. Donald Trump is first and foremost about being Donald Trump. Doing what it takes to glorify Donald Trump. All else is secondary to that overriding goal. Always has been, always will be. So we should not kid ourselves that Trump is in this race to benefit you and me. Trump lists his occupation as a real estate developer, a builder of expensive playgrounds in which the rich can indulge. But that is hardly the true case if you look at where his corporate time is actually spent. Trump’s real occupation, and the source of his billions, are from being an exceptionally successful “brander” – building economic value in a name that people are willing to pay for. We have Trump towels, Trump golf courses, and Trump hotels so that we, the public, can vicariously share in the aura of his success and wealth by drying off with his towels, putting on his golf greens, and staying in his hotel rooms that are of no better quality than many other competitors. Donald Trump is no different than Martha Stewart, Tiffany’s, and George Foreman’s BBQ grill. It is the same hucksterism. It is not about the substance. It is just all about media attention, which has to be replenished constantly. Donald Trump, a trained master of media attention, is the highly successful Kardashian of politics.
Today, media attention most often simply requires being outrageous. And no one does outrageous better than Trump. To do outrageous successfully, there are three component parts required. First, find a topic that resonates well with a deeply frustrated but minority audience. This is your hook and beginning audience. Second, make a statement containing three components: speak the here-to-fore unheard angry words your audience wants to say; identify an early target to blame for their anger, an unequal scapegoat that is unable to adequately defend itself; propose a simple “solution” within one easily rememberable and repeatable sentence – truthfulness and practicality deemed irrelevant. Third, no matter the criticism of your statement, stick to your guns and do not back down an inch. In fact, repeat the message over and over again until it begins to sound both true and now doable – at which time your opponents will be forced to treat it as a serious statement that requires a response. It is a classic textbook way to attract attention and appear to have substance. It is a textbook that has been read extensively by many manipulators of public opinion, particularly in pre-WWII Germany. It is a textbook Donald Trump has read carefully and practiced for 30 years.
2016 is the perfect storm for the time of the outrageous. The electorate, from top to bottom and left to right, are incredibly angry. At world events; at shrinking economic opportunity and the loss of fairness; at either too much or too little social change; at the threat of violence from foreign enemies or neighborhood thugs; at the unwillingness or inability of elected leaders to solve problems instead of rewarding themselves. Enter a brash billionaire financially beholden to no one, unrestricted by the rules and restraints of others, and a master of media manipulation. These are the combustible ingredients set to kindle an all-consuming fire of outrage.
The resulting fire has sucked the oxygen out of this election. Sucked the oxygen out of the campaigns of the other candidates of both parties as they get swept up into the Trump vortex, forced to react to or emulate his tactics. Republican Party leadership is in anguish over the potential of a Trump nomination and the potential long-term negative impact for the Party. Yet in many respects they have only themselves to blame, having spent the last eight years incessantly declaring the imminent doomsday of America. Such rhetoric helped to create much of the fear, expectations, and frustrated anger that Trump is now exploiting so successfully.
In the 1950s, when the country was consumed by the Cold War and suspected Communists hiding in every corner, Joe McCarthy, a little-known junior senator from Wisconsin, came forth. For years he terrorized innocent citizens by his outrageous lies of traitorous Communists supposedly lurking in the Federal Government. His list of suspects was never revealed; he never proved his allegations. Bus as his accusations went unproven, it required him to constantly invent new and more outrageous accusations to keep the momentum (and his headlines) going. The beast of his own making required constant feeding. Until one outrage became one too many. He was finally called out by Edward R. Murrow, the most respected journalist of the day, along with Boston attorney Joseph Welch, who – in televised hearings defending the U.S. Army against McCarthy’s latest attacks – asked McCarthy, “Senator, have you no shame?”
It is easy to simply give voice to anger, and to insult others as being incompetent and “stupid,” to stoke passion and divide anxious people. But that is not true leadership, and leadership is what we expect from our president. Leadership is the ability to transform anger into positive action, and to bring differing perspectives and ambitions into cooperative movement. Can we really picture Donald Trump standing in the well of Mother Emanuel Church or addressing the parents at Sandy Hook after a shooting tragedy? Speaking for America to world leaders at the United Nations? Making national life-or-death decisions about using our military troops and weaponry? Welcoming new immigrants and citizens at the Statue of Liberty? Presenting a future vision and agenda for America in a State of the Union address?
In the long term, it is not about Donald J. Trump. It is about us. Over time, Americans have always moved away from our fears, angers and self-centeredness, and toward our better selves, our more noble aspirations, our moral obligations, our sense of a shared community.  Will America tire of the Donald Trump show and his simplistic insults over the next ten months? Is there a journalist today of Murrow’s standing, able to ask the great showman of the outrageous, “Donald, have you no shame?”
“The Americans will always do the right thing... after they've exhausted all the alternatives.”
(multiple attributions)
©   2016   Randy Bell     

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Surveying The Terrain - Election 2016

For the duration of 2015, I purposefully chose to avoid writing about the upcoming 2016 presidential election. Not that there was any lack of something to write about. Quite the contrary, the absurdist theater we have been presented thus far invites plenty of comment, and much comment has already been made. Public interest in the individual campaigns is remarkably high this far in advance of November’s election day. But after six months of rising and falling, jousting for position, fairly inane “debates,” and histrionic attention-getting efforts, the true selection process of voting now begins to draw near. And so also begins the time for more serious observation of this year’s version of our quadrennial civic spectacle.

The Democratic nomination race has been a more typical unfolding. Five candidates started; three remain, one of whom has already overly extended his time in the minor spotlight. To the surprise of many, Bernie Sanders has made it a legitimate competition. Then again, Democrats have always loved their “knight in shining armor” underdog candidate who, in the end, inevitably loses. But Bernie has thankfully spotlighted some genuine economic issues that have needed serious discussion. In the process, he has rightly held Hillary Clinton accountable for her positions and given her campaign machine a needed test drive. In the end, Hillary is still on track to win the nomination, barring some major mishap. Unfortunately, she brings a lot of old baggage and too-canned persona with her, with a large segment of Americans preset against anything she says or does. A general election win is not a given.

The contrasting Republican campaign is in near-chaos. The party that prides itself on election discipline and early consensus has displayed neither, as the normal political rules have been annihilated. A mind-boggling 17 candidates announced for the race. Five have already left, including two former governors (Perry, Pataki), plus two sitting governors (Walker, Jindal) and a U.S. senator (Graham). The remaining twelve candidates include two former governors (Huckabee, Gilmore) and a former senator (Santorum), Huckabee and Santorum being retread candidates from 2012. All three of these should retire soon from the dimming spotlight given the public’s lack of interest in their campaigns. That would leave nine candidates remaining who still believe they can win.

Of these nine, they divide themselves into two camps: the insider “establishment” candidates, all with elected experience, trying to run more traditional campaigns; the “outsider” candidates who are willing to say any negative nonsensical thing against other people, or the government they seek to head, that will get them attention. The establishment candidates (Christy, Kasich, Bush, Rubio) are all clustered at the bottom of the opinion polls, running flat-footed against the tidal wave of the outsiders. Rand Paul, also at the bottom, goes his own quixotic way living in his own political bubble, consistently ignored and generating surprisingly little excitement. Clearly, political and governing experience is not an attraction in this election year. For the outsiders, Donald Trump has been the dominate storyline and poll getter given his willingness to say anything, insult everyone, and bully his competition.  (More on this in a future posting.) The rest of the outsider pack (Cruz, Carson, Fiorina) have shifted their poll numbers up and down and traded positions over the months. But as a group, these outsiders have consistently captured 60-70% of Republican polling. There is no denying the mood of the Republican Party rank-and-file members today. Meanwhile, the Republican National Committee and many large donors sit on the sidelines scratching their heads in disbelief, frozen in place.

Media coverage has been an unsurprising disappointment yet again. In this age of the 24x7 cable news beast that must be fed, TV executives are happy to present anything that keeps viewers tuning in and their networks in business. Hence politics and election contests have become full-blown entertainment packages. For instance, political debates of highly mixed quality and professionalism are presented as sporting events complete with their own dramatic titles and theme music – “who will win / who won?” Poll standings 18 months before the election are used to make hard decisions about candidate exposure and media share. Hence campaign strategy focuses little on substantive discussion in favor of what outrageous or combative statement can be made that will top the next news cycle. The job of our free press is supposed to be to present the candidates fairly to us so that we can learn about them and their perspectives, and then to hold them accountable for the loose talk they inevitably say. Instead, the media’s singular focus on the “horse race” has turned them into deciders, not informers. We are the worse off for that.

Concurrently, not-so-social media will be in full bloom during this campaign. Twitter, Facebook and the like will be primary direct mail venues versus traditional mailings and even TV ads. In addition, unofficial armies of opinionated citizens will do their own surrogate campaigning on behalf of their favorites. All of these digital bytes will rain down personal opinions and share candidate “mistakes” in viral nanoseconds. However, it is all likely to be for naught, as most social media sharing is from the “likeminded already convinced” to the “closed mind already made up.” Social media makes many frustrated commentators feel better in the moment, but it changes very few minds.

The truth is, our problem is not with our candidates, as divisive and lacking as they may often be. Our problem is that we have lost a shared consensus about what America is or should be. And without such consensus, politicians will continue to simply pander to our divisions while offering no real unifying ideas for the future. The real question before us is, what does being a citizen of America truly mean? Do we have any agreement about our core values; our commitments to, and expectations of, each other; our willingness to leave each other alone when warranted; or our appropriate role in world events? Instead of talking about any one candidate or another, we need to be answering these most substantive and fundamental questions facing America that our sloganeering candidates are avoiding.

Actions and decisions flow out of principles. We need fresh, open and thoughtful discussions about our principles rather than continuing to yell back and forth about such things as building walls, whom to bomb, whom to limit guns to, whom to let enter the country, who’s funding to cut, who’s taxes to raise, and what our governments should or should not be doing. Future posts planned for this blog will hopefully encourage and inform such discussions.

©  2016   Randy Bell