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