Monday, December 14, 2020

The Never-Ending Election Ends

 So, at last, it is finally over. At least officially. Six weeks after Election Day; five weeks after the election was “called” and a victor was proclaimed; through five continuous weeks of rejected lawsuits and unproven claims of massive voter fraud; the United States of America finally and officially has a new President-elect. A legally constituted Electoral College did its job as prescribed in our Constitution. The U.S. Supreme Court tersely ended any and all attempts to have the judiciary overturn the Law and the Voters. It is now on to Inauguration Day, January 20, 2021 to make the job of our democratic election complete, and peacefully turn over the power and office of the President. It is as the Constitution and the citizenry demands.

Donald Trump would most certainly have it otherwise. Over the past six weeks, he and his band of unprincipled henchmen have pulled out all stops to deny the electoral reality; attempted to interfere with standard voting processes; spread false information about the voting  process and the result; disrupted voting-by-mail by dismantling USPS equipment and operating  policies; filed and  lost over 50 lawsuits to overturn the vote; and directly ordered (with mixed success) state election officials, executive officers and legislators to upend and reverse the vote. These actions culminated with the Attorney General from Texas (himself under state and federal investigations and an intra-office staff uprising over ethics and corruption issues) petitioning the U.S. Supreme Court to rule against four swing states over their election processes and results.  The petition was joined by approximately 20 other Republican AGs, and endorsed by over 120 Republican Congresspersons. To which the Supreme Court rightly said simply, “petition denied,” prompting the Texas GOP Chairman to propose that Texas secede from the Union! The Donald J. Trump political circus, led by his ringmaster Rudy Giuliani, has proven to be a national (and international) embarrassment for America – we the country that has previously defined what “democratic government” means. Senator Mitt Romney had it right when he called the whole affair “madness.”

Undoubtedly, in spite of the legal and political finality of this election, the noise from Trump will continue. The cries of a “stolen election” will be embedded in continuing subsequent Tweets and press releases. The question will be how much air time will be given to these self-pitying laments by the news media (other than Fox News and various right-wing talk radio hosts). Ultimately, Americans do not tolerate whiners and sore losers.

Certainly every political candidate has a right to pursue legal remediation when the accuracy or integrity of a vote is in question. Richard Nixon likely had legitimate reasons to question the vote from Mayor Richard Daley’s political machine in Chicago that gave Illinois to John Kennedy in the close election of 1960; Nixon instead chose to forgo pursuing it “for the good of the country.” Al Gore had a legitimate question about the vote in Florida in 2000; the Supreme Court’s decision giving the election to George W. Bush is still questionable in the minds of many.

If Donald Trump had EVIDENCE of impropriety in the 2020 voting, he certainly has had a right to pursue it accordingly. Except that after multiple election recounts have been completed, and virtually every lawsuit filed has been rejected, there is no such evidence. His continual lie of voter fraud accomplished no change in the outcome of the vote. Instead, it has served only to undermine the confidence, faith and trust of many Americans in our national government. It also has provided Trump with a misleading fundraising campaign resulting in a $200,000,000 haul for a personal slush fund donated by his aggrieved supporters. (As with all things Trump, self-enrichment, not public service, is the dominating motivation.) It is one more brick added to the wall of shame that is Donald Trump, further proof (if needed) that his first/last/always priority is Donald Trump – not his supporters, not the Country, not Democracy itself.

Meanwhile, the country will be left to pick up the pieces from this most unique of elections. It will now fall to Joe Biden to try to restore American government to its rightful place. Its place of decency in how we treat one another. Of bringing competent, professional people back into government to rebuild the hollowed-out shell Trump is leaving it in. Of fact-based decision-making and deliberate planning instead of self-rewarding, whimsical Tweets. Of acting within the legality and spirit of the Law, historical precedent, and respect for the historical purpose and the many achievements of America. The rebuilding of American government will take time and effort after suffering the wrecking ball attack on it by Trump. It will most certainly require installing the right new people into key, critical leadership positions. It will also likely take longer than just one presidential term to accomplish.

Unfortunately, there will be resistance from those politicians who believe that Trump’s way is the new way, a key to their political success. Out of fear of Trump’s retribution and for their own political careers, they will continue to voice support for the fantasy world Trump has invented to try to escape the historical label of “1-term, impeached, loser.” Trump will not go quietly into the night like previous ex-presidents. His continuous need for being the center of attention will not allow himself to be ignored. It will still be about being in the spotlight, making money, and demeaning and bullying his way through anyone who gets in his way.

In the end, the institutions of American democracy have thankfully held firm against Donald Trump’s assault. Now, the rest of us have a job to do. To get through the pandemic decimation of the country. To rebuild those sectors of our economy that have been hard hit. To help the many victims of the past year recover their lives. This will not be accomplished on the golf course. It will happen in a newly committed and staffed government focused on We, the People. Let us get on with the real job at hand.

5 weeks to Inauguration Day.

©   2020  Randy Bell    


Tuesday, October 6, 2020

The Trumpublican Party

My father was a life-long Republican. Pragmatically, it was not a particularly effective affiliation. We lived in the “solid South” wing of the Democratic Party. For a hundred years, that party was home for moderate working-class voters, as well as for post-Civil War Southerners enforcing Jim Crowe segregation – the Dixiecrat wing of the Democratic Party. The Democratic hold on southern political power was so complete that through the 1960s my father’s Republican vote never elected a Republican to office.

The national Republican Party was founded just before the Civil War. Anti-slavery was its main cause; Abraham Lincoln was its first President. After the North won that war, the wealthy of the country took hold of the Republican Party and never turned loose of it. Through the 1950s/1960s, political and financial control of the Republican Party was predominately located in the northeast, with a moderate Eisenhower its first president since The Great Depression. But the times were changing. Party control was moving westward; a new breed of conservative Republicans was emerging. Their political leader was Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater; their intellectual leader was Willian F. Buckley, founder of the National Review; their soul was given voice by author Ayn Rand; its spokesperson was actor/California Governor Ronald Reagan. Goldwater lost the 1964 presidential election by a landslide; the movement succeeded with Reagan’s election in 1980.

Meanwhile, the party’s voter base shifted underneath its leaders. Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act in 1965, thereby tearing down the Jim Crowe voting barriers in the South. For the Dixiecrats, it was the ultimate betrayal by their Party. In 1968, some found a new home in Alabama Governor George Wallace’s segregationist 3rd- party presidential run; others found it in Republican Richard Nixon’s “law and order” candidacy in the throes of the Viet Nam War and civil rights protests. Over approximately 20 years, the Democratic South migrated to become the new (and dependable) Republican South. The weeds of anger and distrust of the American federal government – planted in the post-Civil War Reconstruction period – were now rebirthed as the southern wing of the Republican Party.

Following Presidents Reagan and Bush, Newt Gingrich was elected Speaker after the Republican takeover of the House in 1994 after 40 years in the minority. Gingrich’s “Contract With America” was his declaration of war on the old politics. No more bi-partisan government solutions. It was now “our way or the highway,” either/or, me versus you. Republicans would now run the show on a “conservative” (i.e. not “Democratic liberal”) agenda. Where the Party had been built on a business-friendly / government-hands-off agenda, it would now rebuild itself on the new base of Republican voters by adopting a “social conservative” agenda tied to conservative Christian groups. Gingrich also changed the political vocabulary, breaking the norms of respectful debate by substituting personal insult and attacking opponents’ patriotism. Forced to resign due to personal and political ethical issues, the legacy of his impact on partisanship and negative speech in Washington remains today.

Gingrich left behind a new voter base firmly in residence in the Republican Party. It was a base that felt left out of government’s largess and political support, an unheard voice in the national conversation. The new agenda was driven by a desire to return American culture to the perceived way of life of the 1950s, which had been battered by the “progressive changes” instituted over the ensuing decades. Changes from the civil rights movement, women’s liberation, abortion, same-gender relationships, equal-pay and affirmative action in the workplace, environmental regulation. In response, a conservative agenda – and the politicians who would support it – emerged focused on issues such as religious priorities (e.g. prayer in schools and public places; favoritism on Christian religious observances); abortion; “traditional values” (including traditional gender relationships); issues of moral conduct; hyper-patriotism; 2nd Amendment gun rights. As always, there was the undercurrent of racial segregation and bias, now pursued through “back door” legal or policy mechanisms. Over time, this agenda expanded into two main themes: 1) a claimed right to do as one pleases (a decidedly un-Christian view), regardless of law and regulation promoting the common good, and 2) a paradoxical belief that all Americans should conform to one cultural and legal point of view – this conservative point of view.

This new conservative agenda was essentially held in check during the George W. Bush presidency. But after the election of Barack Obama in 2008, who personified the progressive political force, the new conservatives hit their stride. In 2010 the Tea Party Movement burst onto the scene, focusing their efforts first on purging the Republican party of its “old guard” members and replacing them with disciples of the new movement. These new-style Republicans once again took back the House (which they had lost in 2006), and subsequently the Senate in 2014. All that remained was to install one of their own in the White House, to accomplish control of both the Legislative and Executive branches.

Enter one Donald John Trump.  Compared to his 44 predecessors, never has one individual been less qualified to be President. But Trump has several skills useful in the 2016 election campaign: an ability to make himself as the center of attention; an absence of any core beliefs and principles; an ability to read people and play to their self-interests. Once he decided to run for President – the biggest center of attention of all – the new Republican base was just the vehicle he needed. And they likewise needed him.

It was, and is, a marriage of convenience. Trump is willing to present himself as whatever his voting base wants him to be in exchange for their votes. In turn, that base is willing to turn a blind eye and tolerate his personal and political life hypocrisies, his political incompetence, and his untruths in exchange for giving voice to their frustrations and agenda. Trump has their allegiance because no one else is speaking for them. In fact, it is not so much that the base is devoted to Trump, they simply have nowhere else to turn. Hence the intractable and almost inexplicable support given to him. Neither does Trump have any other voter base open to him. Trump and his base are thereby permanently wedded to one another.

So the Religious Right ignores Trump’s amorality in exchange for his advocacy of their morality agenda. Business owners ignore his business failures in exchange for his deregulation of economic controls and budget-busting tax reductions. U.S. senators overlook and rationalize his illegality in exchange for filling judicial vacancies with conservative jurists. Hate groups walk through the open door of “respectability” offered by Trump in exchange for their support. It is all about “making the deal”; each side gives and gets. Apparent fealty to Trump is actually fealty to the agenda – the marriage lasts only as long as Trump toes the line. If the line breaks, the fealty breaks.  Each party is the oxygen for the other.

Today, the “Republican Party” is now unrecognizable from its former self; the label “Republican” no longer has precise definition. It is now the Trumpublican Party, defined by one man. The existing Party structure provides the vehicle for Trump and his voters to carry out their political operation. Traditional institutional Republicans have been forced to the sidelines, or out of the Party altogether.  On the playing field sits the Trump Truly Faithful, reveling in the euphoria of their new power, convinced that their campaign against “government intrusion and failure” has finally come. In the cheering section are those who cannot endorse Trump the man, yet see personal or political benefit to going along for the ride. Then come the various hate and domestic terrorist groups basking their newly-found “respectability.”  This election will not only elect a President, it will also define the fate of this Republican Party.  If Trump wins, Trumpism and his coalition will stand for years. If Trump loses, Trump will be a temporary blip in the Party’s history. The Party will collapse into an inevitable blame game as a new power struggle ensues. Who will win, who will constitute the Republican Party in 2024, is a mystery waiting to unfold.

Early in the 2016 campaign, I said, “The real story here is not Donald Trump, even though that is where the attention is going. He is merely the mouthpiece, The real story that should be pursued is the Trump voter.” That is still where today’s discussion should be focused. What are they after? And why are they after it?” Four years later, we are still focused on the man. We should be focused on his voters. What drives them to their agenda? What is it that fuels their antagonism towards their government(s)? What happened to my father’s Republican Party?

4 weeks to Election Day, November 3.

©   2020   Randy Bell   


Tuesday, September 29, 2020

Trump's Campaign Strategy Revealed

 September 23, 2020. A reporter asks the President of the United States, “Mr. President, real quickly, win, lose or draw in this election, will you commit here today for a peaceful transferal of power after the election?” The President responded … “Well, we’re going to have to see what happens, you know that. I’ve been complaining very strongly about the ballots, and the ballots are a disaster. Get rid of the ballots [my emphasis] and you’ll have a very peaceful — there won’t be a transfer, frankly, there will be a continuation. The ballots are out of control. You know it and you know who knows it better than anybody else? The Democrats know it better than anybody else.”

This statement followed a statement made earlier in the day …“I think this [election] will end up in the Supreme Court. And I think it’s very important we have nine justices. But I think it’s better if you go [and confirm the Justice nominee] before the election because I think this — this scam that the Democrats are pulling — it’s a scam, the scam will be before the United States Supreme Court.”

There you have it: Donald Trump’s strategy for “winning” the election. Spoken and filmed from the lectern of the White House pressroom, for the record, for all to hear and see. For months, Trump has set the table for this strategy by consistently claiming that the upcoming election is a fraud. He has blamed the fraud principally on the expanded use of mail-in ballots (which is how Trump will be voting in Florida). If he does not win by the ballot counts of the 50 states, then tie up the election by burying it in endless legal challenges. Move the legal challenges to the Supreme Court, which will have a brand-new justice nominated and confirmed. With three Trump-appointed justices on the bench (quid pro quo expected?), and a 6-3 “conservative majority,” they will declare Trump the winner. Election done.

Will the strategy succeed? Who knows at this time. Given the unimaginable events of the past four years, anything remains possible. Apparently, even in America. The first line of defense against this gameplan? Go Vote. As soon as you can.

5 weeks until Election Day, Nov 3.

©   2020   Randy Bell   


Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Eligible, But Unable To Vote

 Voting is essentially a simple concept. Yet in the evolutionary journey of human civilization, it is one of the overriding reason America came into being. It is also a relatively new concept in the timeline of human civilization. In its basic form, there is a decision to be made that affects a Community of impacted people. It may be a decision regarding future direction, problem-solving, or ground rules of social order. Or it may be the selection of an individual(s) to take on a responsibility, or an ongoing job, on behalf of that Community. In either case, the mechanism is to bring the Community together en masse; discuss the background and pros/cons/options pertinent to the issue or selectee; then ask each person what they want to do about it (i.e. “vote”) – each person having an equal say with one another. The decision is determined by who gets the most affirmative votes. Done. Move on.

It is a straight forward basis for group decision-making, albeit not always an efficient one. Dictatorial decision-making, where one person decides for all, is certainly a far quicker process. In the right hands, at the right moment, in the right circumstance, it can actually be preferable. (E.g. in a foxhole while bombs are enveloping you is not a good time for voting.) But in the everyday management of or lives, group-think leading to group-decide usually works out best over time.

In a world history dominated by the rule of kings (and occasional queens), voting had a few trial runs. The Senates of ancient Greece and Rome gave a start at voting. They were somewhat successful, but the voters were limited to just a few wealthy men. A thousand-plus years later, the English took another step towards voting, adopting a Magna Charter which for the first time limited the absolute authority of the King, out of which gradually emerged a “Parliament.” Parliament consisted of a self-appointed rich Nobles class, and the King was still the unambiguous authority-in-charge, but Parliamentary consensus gradually grew in importance for the general governance of the realm.

Ultimately, it would take the fledgling new nation of America, drawing predominately from that English heritage, to make a “voting public” into a reality. Building on its precedence of colonial legislatures, voting in a decision-making body, and voting to select the members of that body, became the basis of American governance. Though not everyone in the Community was initially allowed to vote, the range of the population that was allowed – including everyday workers and tradespeople side-by-side with the rich landed gentry – was remarkable (and unprecedented  across the globe) for its time.

In the ensuing 232 years since our Constitutional founding, the right to vote has been enshrined as a fundamental definition, privilege and responsibility of American citizenship. It is the right to have an equal say in the decisions that affect us and the individuals who will carry out those decisions. In these same 232 years we have gradually moved to include those who were initially denied that right of citizenship, i.e. African-American former slaves, women, Native Americans, naturalized citizens. That correction has been long and painfully difficult. It took a civil war to free Black Americans from slavery and then Constitutional amendments expressly giving them citizenship and eligibility to vote. Yet it took another 100 years to pass the Voting Rights Act to remove the twisted legalistic and violent actions that served as barriers that continued to deny that vote. Barriers that included threats, murders and lynching of would-be voters; poll taxes, requiring one to pay for voting; literacy tests to keep supposedly “uneducated” voters (i.e. Blacks) off the roles. It took another Constitutional amendment 132 years after our founding to give women the right to vote; it would take another 50 years for women to actually run for elective office in substantial numbers.

Notwithstanding the long and too-often painful road to voter equality, the idea of the right of citizens to vote on the decisions that govern them, and to have proven the case for that idea by 232 years of experiential example, have been America’s gift to world civilization. Which is why current threats to that Noble Principle is all the more alarming: the overt attempt not to deny citizens their RIGHT to vote (as was our previous history), but an insidious surreptitious effort to deny citizens the ABILITY to vote that right.

In 2018, we saw numerous “dirty tricks” carried out to deny citizens’ access to voting. (See “Barricades Blocking the Ballot Box,” November 11, 2018, on this blog.) For example, we saw last-minute rule changes for voter registrations; moving of polling locations; redefining precinct boundaries to split voter turnout. Already in 2020 – complicated by the demands of the Covid-19 pandemic – we are seeing major reductions in the number of poll sites; attempted restrictions on access to mail-in ballots; deliberate acts by the President and USPS leadership to slow down and undermine mail-in ballot processing; interfering with people’s attempts to register to vote.

This is why vigilance will be required of all of us in Election 2020, regardless of our differing political views. Voting should be a non-partisan function of government; the rules governing our voting should not be made up as we go along to fit political party ambitions. We must be prepared to respond with lawsuits in the courts, protests on the ground, and showing up to vote in spite of the hurdles presented. And when we vote, we need to vote out those who seek to take away this most precious of our Constitutional Rights. We vote to affirm and protect our Constitution that so many have given so much to bequeath to us. VOTE.

6 weeks to Election Day, November 3.

©   2020   Randy Bell   


Tuesday, September 8, 2020

Headlines, Not Conversation

This first week of election activity proved to be a series of individual headline stories:

At a rally in North Carolina, Trump asked his voters to do a mail-in ballot AND then go vote at the polls. It is illegal in NC to vote twice. It is also illegal in NC to induce others to vote twice. He repeated the request at subsequent venues.

The latest addition to Trump’s Covid health team is a Fox News commentator who is a radiologist with no immunotherapy experience whatsoever. He is recommending that we stop testing everyone who is not in a “vulnerable group” (who isn’t in a vulnerable group?), so that “everyone else gets it and thereby becomes immune.” Trump has endorsed the idea. Pandemic solved?

Trump claimed that “94% of the deaths reported from Covid were actually caused by “other reasons.” Not true – per Dr. Anthony Fauci and the CDC.

Two public relations officials were fired from their positions at the Food and Drug Administration following Commissioner Stephen Hahn’s decision to walk back his recent claims about convalescent plasma being a treatment for Covid-19. The statement is medically unproven, per the vast opposing outcry from the national health community.

The CDC announced a change in their position on Covid testing. They said that healthy and asymptomatic people “can choose” whether to be tested after Covid exposure, but it is not necessary. After outrage from the national health community, the CDC walked it back.

Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden and his running mate, Kamala Harris, weren’t included on sample ballots provided by South Carolina’s Election Commission. The sample ballots were intended to “prepare voters for the coming November election.” An online version of the ballot has since been corrected.

Last March, Trump made an unpublicized visit to Walter Reed military hospital, explained as a “delayed part of his annual physical exam.” It was recently revealed that Vice President Mike Pence was told to be on standby to assume presidential powers if Trump underwent anesthesia. Anesthesia is rarely given during routine physicals.  In reaction to questions about this, Trump tweeted he “did NOT have a series of mini-strokes.” Who said anything about mini-strokes until Trump himself brought it up?

Trump has directed the Office of Management and Budget to crack down on federal agencies' anti-racism training sessions, calling them “divisive, anti-American propaganda.”

The Justice Department is preparing to charge Trump 2016 inaugural Vice Chair Elliot Broidy with illegal foreign lobbying. As an inaugural fundraiser, he sold to foreign clients his supposed influence with future presidential decisions. Broidy is already under investigation for payoffs he had made to silence his former Playboy mistress. Another portrait added to the burgeoning rogue’s gallery of ne’er-do-wells.

Evangelical Christian leader Jerry Falwell Jr., a strong vocal supporter of Trump on the Religious Right, resigned as President of Liberty University due to 3-way sex scandal including his wife and her lover.

Donald Trump paid a visit to Kenosha, Wisconsin, scene of street protests due to a Black American being shot seven times in the back at point-blank range, now in the hospital paralyzed from the waist down. The Governor and Mayor both asked Trump not to come – “like pouring gas on a fire.” Trump came anyway, posed for a photo op in front of a burned-out store, denounced street violence, and pledged to support “law and order.” The current owner of the store refused to appear in the photo op. Joe Biden subsequently visited Kenosha, visited with the victim’s family, and spoke to the victim on the phone. He subsequently publicly denounced the street violence, while also making the case for racial justice and police reform.

A litany of schools (K-12 and college) began opening for the fall in response to political pressure. Just as quickly, they began shutting down again due to rapid outbreaks of the Covid virus due to campus gatherings (colleges), or the lack of planning and adequate resources to keep teachers, staff and students safe (K-12). Parents are caught in the middle.

Meanwhile, Joe Biden began to come out of his Delaware basement to criticize Trump on the street violence (“This is Trump’s America, happening on his watch”), try to move conversation away from Trump’s “law and order” theme and back to the pandemic failures, and link the failing economy to Trump’s failure to first contain the Covid virus.

Michael Cohen’s book is being released, joining the recent parade of insider tell-all books including one on Melania by her once-best-friend, and niece Mary Trump’s insider family stories. There is at least full employment these days for lawyers and book publishers.

Perhaps most significantly, a news article in Atlantic Magazine quoted multiple unnamed sources accusing Trump on numerous occasions calling military personnel, and specifically those who have died or been wounded in service to this country, “losers” and “suckers”. Trump and the White House strongly denied saying that. The story, however, has been corroborated by multiple witnesses and news organizations.

What is wrong with this essay’s narrative? It is 90% about Donald Trump and his cohorts. And what is the theme that emerges from this litany of news headlines? That this is, and will be, the reality of the 2020 campaign. It will be a series of events, not a competition of ideas. The focus of the events will be driven by Trump; Joe Biden, whether he wants it or not, will be put into reactive mode, not proactive mode. Because that is the way Trump wants it. Good publicity; bad publicity; it is all about PUBLICITY. (“I don’t care what people say about me as long as they say something.” P.T. Barnum.) It is about being the center of attention, illuminated by the spotlights of the headlines, dominating the news cycle in any way possible. Grab a headline, good or bad, and the next day move on to a new headline so nothing sticks. It is all about controlling the narrative.

This analysis is not about political partisanship, it is about campaign strategy. A strategy by which 15+ Republican opponents were steamrolled by Trump in 2016. The question is whether it will work again, whether it will last with the American public, in 2020.

These are the times that we  live in. All these headlines happened in one week. A month of news in one week. And it was only just the first week of the campaign’s home stretch.

8 weeks until Election Day, Nov 3.

©   2020   Randy Bell   


Tuesday, September 1, 2020

Election 2020 Begins

 The two major political conventions have ended. The candidates and their running mates have been selected. The Party platforms have been adopted. (Well, at least for the Democratic Party. The Republican platform literally consists of three paragraphs, and says “RESOLVED, That the Republican Party has and will continue to enthusiastically support the President’s America-first agenda.” Fealty to the man, versus ideas and specifics for the benefit of the people.) Now is the time for the Election 2020 campaign to begin in earnest.

In spite of our ridiculous four year election season in America, in the end it all boils down to the final two months of electioneering. Goals, promises and ideas will emerge to cover the political landscape like wildflowers blooming in the spring. Charges, insults, and out-of-context – if not absolute – falsehoods will travel high speed over the various communication highways like the moonshiner driver predecessors of the NASCAR circuit.

The one truth that stands out? Notwithstanding the seeming hyperbole, this truly will be one of the most consequential and critical presidential elections in modern memory. In Donald Trump and Joe Biden, we have two radically different candidates for the office. One came into the job as the only historical candidate with no governmental, military, or non-profit experience; his only business experience was (is?) running a small family business. The other aspires to the job after over 30 years of government experience, including being the proverbial heartbeat away from actually holding the position. In Trump, we have four years of actual observation in how he views the Presidency, and his manner of executing that job. In Biden, we have his record as a U.S. senator and his performance as Vice President as the basis for imagining how he would perform. Donald Trump brings his lifetime background as a one-man “decider” and a self-proclaimed “fighter” into his version of the job, with little concern for American law, history, or governmental norms. Joe Biden was steeped in the old-school politics of collegiality in political debate – a collegiality seemingly long gone out of fashion – and respect for the traditions of government service, ceremony, and collective decision-making. We have seen the personal character of each man, character meaning “those things that we do when no one is watching.” Character is those things we choose to say about others; those ways we treat others; those ways we are truth tellers whose word is our bond; those ways we practice the human values and principles we have been taught for centuries.

There is much that could be said about these men, their goals, ideas and ideals over these next weeks of Election 2020. There is much that could be said about the kind of country America aspires to be. There is much that could be said about the world in which we will live our future. But as I have thought about all the potential topics for upcoming essays for this blog, and look at the multiple drafts-in-process essays sitting uncompleted (atypical), I wonder – does it really matter? At this point in our bitterly divided country, is anyone still listening to one another? Does anyone have even a minimum of genuine understanding what “the other side” thinks (“what is the matter with those people?”)?  Are we even capable of explaining WHY we believe what we do, versus just echoing the popular headlines and bumper stickers of our time? Are we only capable of arguing about which one of us is “right” versus which way we – and our country – will move forward?

At this point, I do not know if there are many truly “undecided” voters left. What remains to be said or seen in order to make up our minds? After being bombarded with all the words, mailings, TV ads, and social media histrionics to come, will that many minds be changed over the next two months? There will certainly be nothing pretty to see, little informative learning from the upcoming non-discussions. So the sooner it ends will perhaps be for the better. Perhaps the only real remaining unknown will be the question of engagement: how many, and who, will show up to make the judgment, the decision, about our collective future? And what will they ask for that future to be? We may choose to tune out the noise. But we still need to show up. Vote.

9 weeks to Election Day, November 3.

©   2020   Randy Bell   


Tuesday, August 18, 2020

From Riggee To Rigger

 They said it could never happen in America …

 In 2016, Donald trump claimed that the republican primary campaign was “rigged” against him by the Party establishment.  (The first in a long line of claims unsubstantiated by any proof.) Yet he won that Party’s nomination. The charge of rigging suddenly disappeared. It “just went away, like a miracle.”

 In the general election of 2016, Trump was expected to guaranteed lose to Hillary Clinton. So once again Trump pulled out the “rigged election” card to provide a face-saving way to buffer himself from that loss. Except that he once again won. And with that, the charge of rigging suddenly disappeared once again.

 It would be later that the FBI, the Mueller investigation, and the Senate Intelligence Committee would each conclude that Trump had more than a little help from the Russians to achieve his victory (“Russia, if you are listening …”). The cry of “rigged” then moved to the never-ending mantra of “hoax,” with four continual years of Trump attempting to justify the legitimacy of his election in spite of losing the popular vote of the country.

 Now we come to Election 2020, with the full power of the presidency to support a “no holds barred/no tools unutilized” campaign for reelection. This effort is happening on two fronts: 1) foreign interference once again, and 2) domestic voting. Trump revealed his openness to foreign assistance in his well-documented attempt to solicit Ukraine’s negative involvement in Joe Biden’s campaign, along with his public call in a White House lawn press briefing encouraging China to do the same, plus his interview with George Stephanopoulos which he declared he would welcome negative campaign information from foreign powers (despite the illegality of such an action). And by using Russian operators from his buddy Vladimir Putin to once again spread misinformation through U.S. social media outlets.

Meanwhile, domestically Trump is pushing the election levers to try to prevent voters from voting – specifically targeting likely Democratic voters. At the moment, this is predominately focused on blocking increased turnout through the expanded use of mail-in voting during this critical pandemic period, turnout which is expected to work against Trump and Republican candidates in general.

First, Trump mounted a propaganda campaign that expanded voting by mail would expand the likelihood of voter fraud – once again without offering any proof whatsoever and disputed by bi-partisan state Secretaries of State who conduct these elections. In fact, sates have been using voting-by-mail for years – for military personnel, U.S. citizens living abroad, and ill and disabled voters – without significant (non-existent) fraud issues. Even Trump, and several of his White House team, have voted by mail, and Trump has already requested a mail-in ballot for his Florida residency. Nevertheless, his “fraud” campaign continues on unrelentingly.

All of this propaganda campaign is on the front end of the mail-in voting battlefield. On the back end is an insidious effort to disrupt the mailing process itself, and thereby raise doubt about the reliability of the United States Postal Service to potentially deliver the ballots. Toward this end, Trump installed yet another unqualified loyalist minion and mega-donor named Louis DeJoy to be the new Postmaster General. Among DeJoy’s first executive acts – under the guide of cost-cutting needs – was to cut the USPS budget, overtime scheduling, and staffing levels, which immediately began to slow down delivery service. This was followed by the “Friday night dismissal” of nearly two dozen senior USPS executives and department heads, with no replacements made, thereby leaving himself in one-man charge. Next has come the unannounced removal of public mail drops, the dismantling and removal (and destruction) of million-dollar mail sorting machines, and new scheduling procedures which has mail trucks departing while unsorted mail is left behind. Then the announcement that all political mail, including ballot mailings, would henceforth be reclassified from automatic “1st class mail” (a priority) to “bulk mail” (low priority). Ultimately, in his usual arrogance that he can get away with anything he does, Trump declared publicly that this scenario is in fact intended to block expanded mail-in voting.

The Constitutionally-mandated USPS is a critical component of our economic, communications, product delivery, financial transaction infrastructure and way of life which Trump is willing to ignore in his self-focused drive to be reelected. The specter of a diminished USPS, during this Election 2020 is blatantly visible. And who is standing up to defend us against these near-criminal acts? Lawsuits from coalitions of state Attorneys General and/or Secretaries of State? Do we need to request that the Carter Center, which specializes in monitoring elections in 3rd-world countries, gear up to do the same here?  Certainly not our ineffectual Congress, who just left town on recess.

We have open, full-scale visible attempts by Donald Trump to rig the election. Incapable of articulating a persuasive political argument; a disastrous absence of leadership in defending America against a pandemic; an approval poll rating falling each week – the man who claimed to have been “rigged” has now become “the rigger.” We must therefore be prepared for more Trump maneuvers to come. When they do, we must be prepared to resist such challenges, be flexible in our personal responses, and find our own creative ways to ensure that our ballots are received and our votes counted. Regardless of our political party affiliation, our passion for any particular candidate or policy, this action by Trump is a substantive threat to the ideas and principles of democracy itself who should be resisted by all Americans.

They said it could never happen in America … But it is happening. Here. Now. In America.

11 weeks to Election Day, November 3rd.

©   2020   Randy Bell   


Tuesday, July 14, 2020

Constitutional Right To Covid-19

“Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.”  Judaism

I am getting really tired of those people that are protesting against wearing facemasks, social distancing, and avoiding large gatherings. They make inane statements  such as, “I trust my immune system to protect me,” or “this whole Covid thing is an overblown hoax,” or “this virus won’t affect me / my age group” (actual quotes!). Then, in a moment of ignorant defiance, they say some version of, “It is my choice to decide what to do, and my Constitutional Right to decide  what risk level I am willing to take.”

I will most certainly concede that it is every adult American’s freedom of choice to determine how they will respond to a potential danger – as long as the consequences of that risk decision stay only with that individual. That said, one does not have a right to such a unilateral decision if that risk also becomes my risk without my permission. In reality, all Constitutional Rights are granted with the obligation of Constitutional Responsibility. (We have a right to drive a car, but not when we Drive Under the Influence that puts other innocent drivers and pedestrians at risk. We have a right to possess a firearm, but not after we have committed a violent crime.)

“A man obtains a proper rule of action by looking on his neighbor as himself.” Hinduism

With Covid-19, if one contracts the disease, it is virtually guaranteed that s/he will infect numerous others, who will in turn infect more others, ad infinitum, regardless of whether symptoms are apparent or not. One’s voluntary risk decision thereby becomes the involuntary and unknowing risk decision for family members, friends, and strangers. As well, one is adversely impacting the efforts of numerous inadequately-supported health care professionals and emergency responders trying desperately to keep alive an overwhelming number of seriously ill people.

“… practicing virtue in order to benefit others, this man alone is  happy.” —Buddhism

So you can choose to rock climb with no rope; hang glide with no parachute; canoe over Niagara Falls with no helmet or life preserver; or do a solitary hike across the war-torn Syrian desert. Exercise your Right to choose your own risk. I may have a concern about your well-being, but you are free to be as stupid or smart about your life as you see fit. But when your claim of a Right of Risk attempts to negate my Right to Life and Liberty, you are required to surrender your Right of choice to a Responsibility to the Community that nurtures and sustains you.

No one is a believer until he loves for his neighbor, and for his brother,
what he loves for himself.” —Islam

Wear the mask. Keep your distance. If not for you, then for your parents, grandparents, siblings, spouse and children. Even in this independent-minded Land of the Free and Home of the Brave, it is not always about just us. It is also about our responsibility to others. Maybe, just maybe, in meeting that responsibility, we might even inadvertently benefit ourselves, and thereby avoid becoming yet another one of the very real statistics with “I Showed Them” or “I Should Have Listened To Them After All” carved on their tombstone.

Caring for one another. It is the challenge given to us that is shared by every major religion. It is such a simple challenge that we inexplicably continue to make so difficult to achieve.

“… that you love one another, even as I have loved you.” —Christian

©   2020   Randy Bell   

Friday, June 26, 2020

The Burden Of Our Heritage

Heritage. A small word packed with the breadth and depth of many meanings. It represents multiple ancestral lives, people with many backgrounds and experiences melding into one resultant individual. It includes stories from times past, often with little regard for accuracy. It is a hand-me-down litany of beliefs, conclusions, and “truths.” It nourishes, if not inflames, old wounds, unresolved grudges, bitter animosities. It glorifies that which has been ennobled – from the vantage point of the ennobler. It evolves from legacy into the cornerstone of one’s culture.

“Our Heritage” provides a bulwark against attempts to tell an old story through contemporary eyes. When difficult questions are asked of us about our view and understanding of past times, or how those past times reemerge in our current life, “It’s Our Heritage” neatly obviates a need to answer rationally or from one’s own fresh critical self-analysis. The past simply remains frozen in time, unmoving, unchanging, unassailable. As a result, WE remain frozen in time, unmoving, unchanging, our perceptions unassailable.

Nowhere is this idea of heritage more visible than with Southern Culture. It is an idea, an institution, currently under great scrutiny during this latest struggle over racial equality and justice, particularly as regards the African-American community. While virtually every ethnic group in America (except for the English) can point to a legacy of discrimination and intolerance in their American heritage, African-American heritage holds a special distinction in their story. Unlike other immigrants, African-Americans came here involuntarily – by kidnapping and thereafter into the bondage of slavery. 245 years of the structural buying and selling of them as merely “property” was followed by 155 years (so far) of de facto continued enslavement and 2nd-class citizenship. This is a current reality that needs to be, must be, changed. But “It’s Our Heritage” is one of the biggest obstacles to making that change.

A pause for full disclosure. I am a white Southerner by birth and my first two decades of upbringing. (I am now finishing off my last decades relocated back in the South.) I was born into a family and culture steeped in the Old South, including the Daughters and Children of the Confederacy organizations. It was a culture that operated within the “legal” Jim Crow restrictions and separation pervasive in those times. All the while, I was virtually oblivious to the racial segregation which surrounded me; “it was just the way things are.” I asked no questions, while my eyes (and mind) were shielded from what was standing right in front of me.

I was a voracious student of Civil War history in my youth. Like any good Southerner, I came to idolize the names and places and artifacts of that War – “the heroic war to defend the right of our state and its (white) people to live without outside interference (i.e. ‘Northerners’).” The destruction of that way of life by that war, combined with the forced redefinition of the South’s legal, political and economic structures, was a bitter pill to swallow. So when the hated ten years of Reconstruction ended, and the opportunity then presented itself, everything was moved back to the way it had been. Slavery was effectively reinstituted by disguised legal barriers, social isolation, educational disadvantage, and economic exploitation. To make this restoration of ante-bellum Southern life truly work, though, required “justifying” – i.e.  ennobling – the War. And the way to do that was to ennoble not the War, but the men who fought in it: “the patriots” – the husbands, sons and brothers of Southern families – who gave of themselves in service to their state and family. And so the statues and shrines went up across the South to honor “the men,” rather than slavery and the slaves, emblazoned with the adornment “Lest We Forget.” The statues served to cover over the continuing horror and maltreatment of Jim Crow domination of the “freed” slaves.

My great-great-grandfather was one of those ennobled heroes. As a teenager from Tennessee, a non-owner of slaves, he likely enlisted more out of peer pressure than a real conviction on his part. Nevertheless, he saw the War to its end, and I have no doubt that he fought valiantly and served honorably. After the War, he became owner of a general store, raised a large family, and ultimately wound up in California – a normal, unremarkable life far away from the War and its legacy. Samuel Carroll Lee is part of my personal and Southern heritage, and I honor his legacy as part of the family ancestry that created me. But that does not require me to honor the Cause that he fought for. It was the wrong Cause to fight. It is today the wrong heritage to honor and celebrate.

The South lost the Civil War. As it should have, as it was destined to do. Yes, there was a legal and philosophical argument about the rights of the States versus the Federal government. But men do not go to war over philosophical arguments. They go to war over power and wealth. Slavery represented Southern wealth. The South lost the war due to Northern over-powering manpower and armaments, and the lack of the right side of a moral and patriotic justification. Human slavery is a reprehensible concept, and the fact that it existed in world history for thousands of years did not justify it in America in 1860. It is an institution that cried out for redressing in the evolution of human civilization, and America was unforgivably one of the last to let it go.

My great-great-great-grandfather David Baggerly, Jr. from North Carolina also fought in a war as a teenager – the American Revolution that created this great Nation. However one might try to dress it up, Samuel Carroll Lee fought to undo David’s work, and to split this country into two parts. There is a word for the action of a citizen who wages war against our Nation: Treason. However right he thought it to be at the time, whatever was the call from his community, if one takes up arms against these United States we would appropriately charge them with treason, and/or designate them as an internal terrorist. I may feel compassion towards my ancestor(s) for doing what he thought was right at the moment, but he was wrong. And the consequence of his wrong-ness is not to ennoble him for that wrong, but to de-glorify his decision. Which means de-glorifying the statues and memorabilia we have erected and perpetuated over the last 155 years.

As history has shown us, great things can happen when a defeated country separates from its wartime misadventure and begins its future anew (e.g.  post-WWII Japan and Germany), rather than stagnates in “what was.” It is long past due that we Southerners move on from the stranglehold that “It’s Our Heritage” has trapped us under. “It’s Our Heritage” freezes us into a time and circumstance that is long past. That freezing prevents us from seeing the Truth of the past, and embracing the legal, social and moral demands of the present. There is a reconciliation with some of our fellow citizens that is right to do, and long overdue to do. We need to consign the past to the museums and halls of study where it belongs, that we might learn from our past, but not relive it. Honor our heritage not by what we may have believed was right yesterday, but by doing what is right today. We do this because it is right for African-Americans to finally participate fully in the Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness to which they have long been entitled. We also do this for us, because it is right to finally free ourselves from our own self-imposed enslavement to the burden of “Our Heritage.” We would do so in order that we may move forward and achieve the best of who we are. This is how I choose to honor my ancestor, Samuel Carroll Lee, in the true reality of the year of 2020.

(If interested in an additional relevant reading, click on this link for my previous blog essay “Assessing A Life Lived,” November 12, 2017.)

©   2020   Randy Bell   

Monday, May 25, 2020

The Challenge Of Covid-19

According to his official birth certificate, my Father was born in 1905 in a place called “Indian Territory.” Four years later, that Territory would become “Oklahoma,” the 46th American state, another chapter in the closing story of the Old West. Even at his earliest age, my father was cast into a lifetime of historical change that he could not have possibly predicted.

World War I (“The Great War”) broke out when he was 13. Too young to serve, he could only read about what was to date this most consuming war in world history. The death toll of a generation of young men the world over, occurring concurrently with the Spanish Flu pandemic, would combine to take millions of lives. Eleven years later at 24, the Great Depression hit America, an economic disaster the scope of which was unknown before and thereafter.  Around 25% (13 million) of the workforce were unemployed with no or limited income. Despite broad-ranging plans of response on various fronts, the Depression lasted over ten long years (versus our current 3-month shutdown from the Covid-19 pandemic). As a young professional CPA, my Father survived economic disaster, even as he personally lost his father to divorce and his youngest brother in a fatal automobile accident. Yet he could only watch as family and friends packed up and headed west to California, hoping for a better chance in life.

The Great Depression did ultimately end, but only due to, and replaced by, an even more deadly and altering World War II. Millions of military and civilian deaths ensued, with Europe and Asia left in devastated shambles. Too old for this war, my father fell in line with the new order of the day: rationing of food, gas, supplies, and services; wage and price controls; government mandated and directed manufacturing and economic controls. With the dropping of the atomic bomb in 1945 to end the war, world civilization and American life were forever changed. At that point, my father was 40 years old, the normal midpoint of life.

I have often wondered how those great international events shaped the perceptions of my Father and his contemporaries. Age and events precluded our conversation about such. Change, loss, uncertainty all combined to mark the first half of his life. How did he react? How did his thinking change? What conclusions did he draw about life’s challenges and how to respond to them?

“How will we respond?” was the challenge given to my Father’s contemporaries, and respond they did quite decisively and successfully. But it was a series of long-term demands that required patience, commitment, and cooperation. Today, America and the world are going through a shared pandemic called Covid-19. An invisible threat to our physical life, causing great upheaval in our comfortable daily routines. With Covid-19, our contemporary world did not see this threat arising, and we have found ourselves ill-prepared to respond to it.

In my Father’s time, political, military and health leaders defined their respective threat clearly, created a well-thought out plan of reaction, and marshalled the resources needed to achieve the plan. Within that focused framework, the American people were able to unify their individual efforts, find his/her slot in which to contribute, and share the burden of making the plan work.

In today’s America, however, there is no overarching top-down plan of response, no organized division of labor integrated into an effective whole, and therefore no unity of action. State-by-state, we are fighting fifty desperate and different wars against this public health attack. Meanwhile, our national government lurches from one scattershot hot idea to the next on daily basis, while the “leader” continues to disavow the plans of his own advisors. Amid all of the structural confusion, our citizenry is fractured, emulating the fractured response of our government to its own oft-changing directives.

We see the images of empty streets as people cooperatively stay at home to avoid infecting themselves or others. Or we see protestors armed with military assault weapons threatening local officials, state legislators and governors over their right to get a haircut or drink a beer. Somehow, the right to sit on a crowded beach, or attend a dining establishment, is deemed some kind of “constitutional right,” a demonstration of hallowed American freedom. Somehow our 1st Amendment right of religious freedom is distorted by some arrogant religious leaders’ belief that this includes a right to congregate inside a church building and risk infecting parishioners, as well as those with whom they later come into contact. (I suspect that such dubious claims of hardship and sacrifice would be quite a shock to George Washington, who had to watch his troops suffer a bitterly cold and ill-equipped winter at Valley Forge to secure those freedoms.)

Over many years, my Father and his contemporaries made commitments, endured genuine sacrifices, and worked together to survive – indeed triumph over – true threats to the American way of life. Millions of Americans today are trying to do the same, and their success stories are exemplary. Nevertheless, all of their efforts are threatened by bands of renegades that believe their individual desires trump a far greater community need. Yet it is sustained commitment to sacrifice for others that is the only path to defeating this virus and preventing its recurrence.

Our local Mountain Express weekly newspaper has been running a series of articles about life in Asheville NC a hundred years ago, gleaned from newspaper articles of that time. An article entitled “The Selfish and Selfless” quoted Dr. Carl V. Reynolds, the city health officer in 1919, saying regarding the Spanish Flu pandemic: “I have no desire to frighten Asheville or to create any unnecessary alarm. But I do feel the public should get a warning of the danger of failing to take steps to prevent a return of influenza here. The man who ‘takes a chance’ now by permitting himself and the other members of his family to disregard the opportunity to secure immunization against pneumonia will be, in my opinion, directly responsible for any deaths that may occur among his family group from influenza’s complications … Reynolds also stressed that fighting influenza required every citizen to be selfless. Too often, he proclaimed, ‘individual forgetfulness of … fellowman [drove people to fulfill their wants] at any cost, even risking self [health] and endangering others [so] that a selfish desire may be obtained.”

100 years later, we seem to be revisiting a similar experience with Covid-19, having apparently learned little about serious versus trivial sacrifice, and the need for shared responsibility for each other as the key to our mutual survival. We need to feel great compassion for those small business owners, entertainment / hospitality workers, and manufacturing employees working without proper safeguards. They are trying to survive through this heath and economic crisis, and need our full assistance consistent with public health needs. We need feel no such compassion for people complaining about not getting a haircut, or being able to dine out, or play beach volleyball. Complaints such as these are purely the arrogance of self over respect and consideration for the health and wellbeing of family and neighbors. There are times when Life is properly about “me”; these are the times when Life is properly about “us.”

A recent Facebook posting observed, “The ‘Greatest Generation’ of World War II sacrificed their lives [storming the beaches of Normandy and Iwo Jima] to defend America. We are being asked to sit on the couch at home. We can do this.” On this Memorial Day of 2020, we remember and honor those many who gave the ultimate sacrifice to protect this country. Surely we can make our own commitment to respond – with far less sacrifice  – to what is now being asked of us. Yes we can.

© 2020   Randy Bell               https//

Wednesday, April 22, 2020

A Covid-19 Kind Of Day

And so another day begins. The morning get-up routines have been completed, breakfast has been eaten, I am all dressed to meet the day. But what kind of today awaits me as we move through month two of a Covid-19 redefined existence?

Each today looks very similar to yesterday, and the now many yesterdays that came before. One of the normal life changes that occurs in “seniorhood” is that one’s schedule is less dictated by external requirements and institutions versus our own created calendar. There is a certain great freedom in that, but it is also an easy slide into a sameness routine – less distinction from one day to the next. “What day is today?” becomes a more frequently asked question. Covid-19’s stay-at-home requirement exaggerates that sameness even more. How does one fill the time, nurture one’s spirit, and generate enthusiasm in such a context?

We catch up on a thousand little household and personal to-dos that have been awaiting our attention for months (years?). We discover reading again, though the closed libraries and bookstores inconveniently thwart our intentions. Gasoline is cheaper than ever, but there are few places open to go to. A good time to start a new hobby – if you have the materials that you need. How many homes are good entertainment and educational respites for engagement, versus now relying on external venues for amusement? It is a good time to catch up with friends and family, though it must now be done digitally. It is less satisfying through technology, but it breaks up the easy slide towards isolation. The afternoon walk becomes the high point of this new adventure: sunshine, movement, nature, fresh air are all good, encapsulated in an unfamiliar but newly found “quiet” (relatively speaking). Sitting on the front porch, one greets the many neighbors (and often their pets) going by, most of whom having been previously unfamiliar faces. As I watch the day pass, I remind myself that I am a card-carrying member of the higher-risk Covid-19 age group; I am cautious, but not paralyzed.

That said, other people have a very differently filled day, even if they also experience a similar sameness. Some people are classed as “essential workers” employed at “essential businesses.” Generally these workers are: 1) those inadequately-supported health care workers fighting Covid-19 on the front lines (e.g. doctors, nurses, maintenance staff in hospitals / nursing homes / care centers; emergency and first responders; pharmacy employees); 2) those that are keeping our infrastructures open and functioning so the rest of us can stay home (e.g. food chain workers and servers; municipal service workers; home / transportation / financial servicers). Without them, our defensive systems would collapse. While they may be thankful to have employment, and an income to help support their families, it comes with an ever-present awareness that they could easily move from defender to patient with little warning. Yet they continue on, their personal worries tucked under their collective hats – save those occasional moments of desperately needed mental and emotional release.

Another group is the cadre of “at-home” workers. For some, this is a totally new experience which may or may not prove comfortable. Some people can be quite productive in this environment. Others are too easily distracted by the temptations of the home; some may react badly to the isolation and miss the “social” element of working in a central office with colleagues; some may find it difficult to do all work and communicating through technology tools. Perhaps they are also part of a family with children who must be homeschooled, entertained, or overseen. A family that is usually dispersed during the day may now find themselves suddenly together 24x7. It can be a combustible mix requiring a creative deftness instituted on the fly. But at least some employment and income can be continued, and thereby some commercial activities can be conducted for the community. The white collar workplace may be forever changed.

Which leaves another group of people living in limbo. For them, working at home is not an option. For employees, the job is gone; for small business owners, the building is shuttered. Yet unstoppable bills still must be paid, food must be bought, prescriptions must be filled, but “$0” only stretches so far. Many have minimal-to-no financial cushion to absorb this blow, have no idea when – or  if – jobs and businesses will return. Their paycheck-to-paycheck life is now a day-to-day decision about how to survive. The one-time $1200 stimulus check is helpful, but is only an already insufficient month’s pay for a minimum-wage worker; an even shorter timeframe for a previously higher-paid worker. They may spend their day on long lines at the food bank, while farmers dump milk and plow under crops for lack of market reach. They file unemployment insurance claims and applications for small business loans, but those offices are overwhelmed by the volume of millions of filings happening concurrently. So the checks are slow to arrive, if at all. And the next dinnertime comes all too soon.

Alongside this on-the-fly societal reinvention stand the Covid-19 deniers. It is a group that considers the whole pandemic an overblown phenomenon (if not hoax), blown out of proportion by the “fake news” media in search of a story filled with necessary villains. They quote statistics suggesting the Covid-19 numbers are less than other typical cyclical causes of health crises. Or they point to small numbers of cases/deaths in rural areas where they live so the probability of their being infected is assumed to be minimal. (It is unclear how many more than 800,000 Covid-19 cases / 40,000 deaths they require to qualify as an epidemic.) Or they protest the shutdown / stay-at-home program that is the only thing with hope of protecting them – or their neighbors.

I recently saw a Facebook post arguing that that America was simply overreacting to an everyday medical problem. That by giving into this disease by shutting down and staying home and not reopening the economy, Americans had become “soft,” or more specifically, had become “wimps.” I would suggest that that writer speak directly to some of the medical personnel and first responders who are showing up each day to tend to the sick. They fight everyday feeling as if they are carrying a sophisticated automatic rifle, but have only one bullet to use; they wait desperately for the cavalry to come to their rescue, but they never show. The “success” of their efforts is no longer measured by the number of people cured, but instead by how many less people died today. They are some of the most courageous people I know of. Or speak directly to some heads of families with no job and no income trying to hold mind and body together, but who understand why they are home. They are some of the most courageous people I know of. Or speak directly to the millions of Americans who are quietly cooperating with the social distancing and stay-at-home orders not because it is easy or convenient, but because they do it for their own good and for the good of others. They are some of the most courageous people I know of. Most importantly, speak to one of the sick or dying Covid-19 patients, alone in a cold institutional health facility, devoid of family or friends, trying to get through the day not knowing if they will survive this experience – 40,000 Americans have already died in just six weeks’ time. Theirs is a very different Covid-19 kind of day. They are truly some of the most courageous people I know of.

These are among the best of our citizens. All told, there’s not a wimp among them.

©   2020   Randy Bell   

Friday, April 10, 2020

Two Commentaries On Covid-19 Responses

Lieutenant General Todd Semonite. Remember that name. Imprint it on the very front of your brain. Why? Because he is the commanding general of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The Corps that moves stuff, builds stuff, puts it exactly wherever it is needed, on a short timetable. When they don’t have exactly what they need, they improvise – American ingenuity on display. That is their job, every single day. I have seen General Semonite interviewed twice now. A no nonsense, old school kind of guy. If you can be clear about what you need (as some governors and mayors are), he is totally focused on just getting the job done. “No” and “can’t be done” are not part of the vocabulary.

Thanks to General Semonite and his extended team, there are temporary, makeshift, and converted facilities going up as hospitals all over this country to respond to the Covid-19 onslaught on our medical centers. Convention centers, dormitories, and vacant hotels converted to overflow hospitals. Tent hospitals built on football fields, parking lots, any open space that can be used. Usually completed in less than a week. It is what the Corps does. And thereby, they demand our respect and admiration as part of the best of America.

This is what you get from true leadership in times of crisis. You turn to someone who has experience in getting done what must be accomplished. Who has a clear understanding of what is needed, what has to be brought to bear, what has to be done, and in what sequence. As President Lincoln turned to General U.S. Grant to defeat the Confederate Army and end the Civil War. As President Roosevelt turned to Dwight Eisenhower to end World War II in Europe; “Ike” then turned to General George Patton to spearhead the allied drive to push the Nazi army back to Germany. Whatever issues of personal character might legitimately be questioned about Grant and Patton, they were singularly focused on getting their assigned job done – no excuses, no distractions. General Todd Semonite appears to have all those similar qualities of leadership (without the character baggage). The leadership needed in these times. What do we get to fight this “war” against Covid-19? We get a responsibility-denier President who still thinks he is running a tiny family-owned business in Manhattan. He in turn appoints his son-in-law (Jared Kushner) to be our Covid-19 point man in background charge of the federal response – notwithstanding that he has NO experience in logistics, health and medicine, pandemics, crisis management, or running a multi-organizational operation.

The art of leadership is all about finding the right person (people) at the right moment to fit the right demand. Clearly defining the results expected, putting those people fully in charge, and then getting out of their way. We do not have anything close to that “right person in charge.” What we have got instead continues to be amateurs at the top, the skilled professionals below. As a result, many people are and will suffer in a variety of different ways. Some will unnecessarily die. Why?

On Tuesday April 7, Wisconsin held an election. Other states that had originally scheduled their elections for March and April long ago rescheduled them to May or June in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. The Democratic Governor of Wisconsin, together with the state Public Health Director, tried to postpone the election, but the state’s Republican legislative leaders sued to overturn the postponement. They won in the state’s Supreme Court and the federal Supreme Court. So the election went on.

Why the big push? Because on the ballot was one seat on the state’s Supreme Court, and the Republicans were pushing their conservative candidate to win it. At all cost. And the calculus was that a low voter turnout would favor their candidate. So the election went on, combined with other voter suppression tricks that have been employed in the 2016 and 2018 elections: reduced early voting days/hours; no expansion of mail-in / absentee voting; no extending of absentee voting deadline; moving or reducing polling sites – especially in Democratic-leaning Milwaukee. Nevertheless, voters turned out, many enduring average wait times of 2-3 hours. Putting themselves at personal health risk, standing six feet apart where possible, covered in masks where available, many of them senior citizens most-at-risk for vulnerable to Covid-19. Doing what they needed to do to exercise their right to vote. Mocking this risk, the Republican leader of the Wisconsin House posted a video claiming that “it is absolutely safe to go out and vote,” spoken while he was covered head-to-toe in full PPE gear.

Once again it was demonstrated what lengths some Republican Party officials will go to in order to win by manipulating the rules of game, rather than winning on the strengths of the candidate or the soundness of one’s political argument. Except this time it was not just about winning or losing an election. It was literally about risking one’s life in order to vote. This episode is yet another example of our longtime values, our respect for one another, being thrown in the trash can in favor of one’s selfish, personal, or political benefit. We are absolutely losing our collective minds as a Country.

©   2020   Randy Bell   

Saturday, March 21, 2020

A Virus Unleashed

Coronavirus. It is the dominant word of our time. The centerpiece topic of politicians and government administrators, medical and public health officials, and business owners and entertainment providers. It has swallowed up most all of the media attention, leaving other issues of importance near-voiceless. The major events just past – impeachment, weather catastrophes, election primaries, border wall immigration – seem years ago.

There is also the general public messaging, which similarly dominates space in the non-social media platforms. Typically, many (not all) Americans are aligning in polarized opposite camps of opinion. On one side are the doubters. For them, the whole coronavirus issue is simply overblown. Statistics are quoted comparing current/projected low coronavirus cases and deaths with our substantial cancer, heart disease, and “winter flu” (influenza) numbers. They dismiss – if not ridicule – people’s “herd mentality” and concerns as being out of proportion to “the facts.” Given this perspective, they report making minimal changes in their daily life due to this virus threat.

On the other side, people are expressly fearful, based on images seen and stories heard across the globe. Face masks, mandatory home confinement, deserted tourist venues, overloaded hospitals and medical facilities, empty grocery shelves. Charts with ever-growing, spiking numbers. In spite of other countries’ experiences, America wasted two months doing little to prepare for this eventuality. We had a “see no virus / hear no virus / speak no virus” phase; followed by no information, conflicting information, or inaccurate information; infused with misstatements, fantasy scenarios, and future promises (versus current actions). Few have been reassured, leaving people feeling on their own, dependent upon varying initiatives of individual state/local governments and officials left driving our response. In the midst of such confusion, fear set in.

As America finally begins in mid-March to truly gear up for this public health issue, there are several elements we should keep in mind in developing our perspective.

1. While statistics about other killer diseases are important to keep in mind, they are essentially irrelevant to this current experience. These other diseases are largely known items. We have years of study and mountains of data about them; they are generally predictable as to how they proceed; protocols for successful treatment – including some vaccines – are known or are continually emerging. Coronavirus – more specifically this Covid-19 strain – has none of this. It is a totally new sickness, with no track record, no data, no protocols, no “facts” of where it comes from or how it moves. We have no built-in antibodies, no vaccines, no known treatments. The real danger is not what this coronavirus IS, but what it COULD BE. It is this unknown-ness that is our real crisis, which means we are forced to “wing it” in the short term with educated guesses between worst case / best case scenarios. We are not just fighting a disease; we are fighting an unknown enemy – the hardest battle to fight and the hardest to organize against.

2. That said, data is coming in rapidly, and we are sorting through it as quickly as possible. Each day we know more, but it is an elusive, moving target. China and Italy give us a starting point of experiences – IF we elect to learn from them.

3. Are we overreacting to the significant closures and social distancing being rapidly introduced? It may seem so, especially in geographic areas (like mine) where there are (as yet) no confirmed cases. But Covid-19 is a stealth contagion. Once infected, it can take up to two weeks to show itself. It may even show no symptoms at all, but in that invisible state can still infect others. As it travels on its human host, this insidious disease is unknowingly transmitted to an increasingly wider audience – a sleeper cell that results in the sudden spiked curve of cases as seen elsewhere. Because one is “not sick” does not mean one is not contagious.

4. What is clear is that the relatively low number of current Covid-19 cases is statistically meaningless as a basis for projection and planning. We do not know the true number of cases because we have still not adequately tested our population – in spite of the early warnings we had. This is a collective failure of federal government (mis-)management. It reflects a lack of timely preparedness, collective organization, effective leadership, with scattershot solutions focused more on avoiding blame than solving problems. As of this writing, we are still well behind the demand for testing, analysis, planning, and delivery of needed resources to where they are needed. Planning accurate strategies to fight this virus is highly difficult when one lacks adequate intelligence about who the enemy is.

5. Much more could be said about this public health case study. The “lessons learned” post-crisis debriefing and analysis will be important to do. But the immediate conclusion for each of us is that we are in unknown territory here. We are fighting blind with inadequate knowledge and insufficient resources. Once again we face the age-old American conflict of values: do I do what is right for me, or do I do what is right for the community of which I am a part? If I think I am fine – even though I might not be – do I ignore the guidelines and go about my business? Or do I consider those who might be far more vulnerable to, and potentially injured by, my singular action? That is the moral question each of us faces.

For now, responsible state and local political and health leaders will continue to fight this battle as best they can – hopefully with increasing resources and support. Six months from now, perhaps we will know this virus more fully, and we can then judge how well we responded to this crisis with what we knew. Depending upon our outcomes, we may never know whether the Covid-19 threat was overblown, or our collective mitigating efforts stopped it in its tracks (as our “victim of our own success” experience mitigating the “Y2K” computer flaw threatening to shut down the world economy.) Knowing the reasons for “success” can be as elusive as knowing the causes of disease.

In the meantime, we need to remember our health professionals and volunteers, and our service workers who are keeping our country semi-functioning. They are seeking to defend us and provide comfort during these times. We are obligated to do the same for them. Simultaneously, we express our compassion to all the people being significantly impacted by this crisis.

©   2020    Randy Bell  

Wednesday, February 26, 2020

Democratic Primary Strategies

The American constitutional ritual of voting has begun. Five months of primary campaigning and voting will lead to a presidential nominee for each of the major parties. The Republican nominee is presumed already known. Yet in the crazy political world of Donald Trump’s daily turns and surprises, who continually snatches defeat by stepping on his own victories, anything is possible. (Future essays will discuss separately the Trump candidacy.) On the Democratic side, the ultimate victor is far from clear. Who the Party’s voters will choose, who the Party’s convention will select, can still go a number of different directions – and will be subject to the same currently-unforeseen twisting and turning events as Trump’s campaign.

Unlike the few Republican challengers against Trump, the Democrats started this campaign season with over two dozen candidates. By any criteria, it was as diverse a pool as could be imagined: age, race, gender, background, political / governmental experience, issue priorities, name recognition. By the start of primary season in February 2020, that number has narrowed to approximately six viable candidates: Joe Biden, Mike Bloomberg, Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren (with Tom Steyer in the wings).

From the initial pool of diversity, the survivors include:
-4 are aged 70+, 1 in her 50s, and 1 only slightly above the minimum age of 35
-4 are males, 2 are females
-all 6 are white, with no minority candidate
-4 are married, 1 is in a gay marriage, 1 has a long-term life partner
-3 are former mayors, 4 are current or former U.S. senators, 1 is a former Vice-President
-2 are from New England, 2 are from the Middle Atlantic states, 2 are Midwesterners
-2 are former Republicans, 1 an Independent (making his 2nd try), 3 are long-term Democrats
-all but 1 are millionaires through mega-billionaires
It is diverse, but hardly the expected resulting profile from the original candidate pool.

All candidates agree that priority #1 is to beat Trump in November. But who is best qualified to accomplish that goal is not clear among the candidates, the Party, and the voters, as each candidate has different strengths and weaknesses to match up against Trump. Huge turnout is accepted as the key to victory (as proven in the 2018 midterms). The ability to get that turnout will likely depend on several strategy considerations:

1. Hillary lost some key traditionally-Democratic states (e.g. PA, MI, WI) by narrow margins. Those states were key to Trump’s win. Some of that loss reflected Hillary’s neglect of those states and taking them for granted in her campaign. Some loss was simply Trump’s appeal to a portion of those voters. Then there was a large number of voters who were deeply opposed to Hillary personally and voted against her. How do Democrats get these voters back?

2. “Bread and butter / dining room table” issues won for the Democrats in 2018. While anti-Trump opinions were high, in the important Midwest it was moderate candidates stressing these close-to-home issues who won in previous Republican districts. They won enough to flip the House to Democratic control, and in 2020 they need to win those seats again to keep control.

3. Some Democratic voters are passionate about achieving a “radical change / big ideas” agenda on a quick timeline for America. The changes include economic restructuring, income redistribution, social justice and equality goals. Moderate Democrats also seek economic and social changes, but on more of a building-block basis of accumulating changes. Revolution versus evolution. Nether camp has sufficient numbers alone to win the November election outright. How will these two camps reconcile their differences and unify for November? In truth, all candidates agree on virtually all programmatic OUTCOMES, but simply differ in their methods. For example, Democrats share a desire for all children to receive needed healthcare, and there are multiple good ways to accomplish that. Quibbling now over mechanics and details is not helpful, versus demonstrating the leadership that will be needed to bring America together to accomplish these things later.

4. Each candidate has pledged to support the ultimate nominee, whomever wins. But which nominee(s) can unite the party, bridge the Left-vs-Moderate agenda divide, while still energizing an across-the-board turnout? Will Sanders’ and Warren’s supporters follow a moderate nominee? Will supporters of the four moderates follow a radical change nominee?

5. All candidates acknowledge defeating Trump is Priority #1. There are certainly many line-item reasons to do so. Who can most skillfully make the case AGAINST Trump’s actions and words over the past four years? Who can make the case to America FOR a Democratic alternative – a clear, clean, simple, succinct , but cogent case?

These are some of the overall strategy considerations for the candidates, their advisors, and the political consultants to consider. However, there are two overall dominating factors that loom over this election, and what can then be accomplished over the next decade.

First, the American public is tired. They are worn out and exhausted from the endless national political arguing and chaos. The constant Tweets, political maneuvering, personal attacks in lieu of serving constituents. The negative changes in the essence, ethics, and conduct of the Presidency. The dropping of yet one more bombshell shoe after another. The headline-dominating daily conversations about “what did the President do or say today?”

The vast majority of Americans are not looking to be so consumed by political or governmental conversations. They are looking to live lives focused on nurturing and providing for their families. Engaging with friends and their communities. Pursuing their personal, professional, and recreational goals. The “Washington Drama” is not where they want to put their attention. They long for the politicians to take care of the necessary political business, the government to provide the services promised, while the rest of us get on with our lives. The “Theater of the Absurd” has simply gone on too long. And Americans have always had a short attention span.

Second, as important as such topics as healthcare, climate change, immigration reform, economic fairness, and a host of other issues are, they are necessarily secondary to an even greater priority. Before taking on these notable issues, Trump’s replacement is necessarily going to have to face the need to first rebuild the foundations and structures of our government after all the change and damage that has been inflicted upon them. Trust in our governing institutions, respect for the rule of law versus person, and the everyday functioning of our governmental bodies and agencies – all carefully developed over 230 years – have all been strangled or ripped apart in just four years. We are now looking at a federal government hollowed out and decimated of knowledgeable professionals, and the breaking or elimination of orderly processes.

Before any grand agenda of new policies and programs can be put into place – no matter how seemingly desirable on their face – this destruction must be reversed and rebuilt. It will be slow, unglamorous, detailed, and painful work, requiring a steady hand. This work will likely consume the entire next presidential term – a significant factor for Biden and Sanders who would likely be a one-term president due to their age. (It is a transitional role similar to that admirably performed by Gerald Ford following the “long national nightmare” of Richard Nixon.) But until that reversal is done, and pride and integrity are restored, and American confidence and leadership are renewed, and our many competing groups find a way to respectfully talk and actually WORK together – we will be stuck where we are. One cannot build policy and program castles on a foundation of sand using broken tools with no workers on hand to operate them.

Until we restore America’s faith and trust in each other, along with the mechanics needed to accomplish the next extraordinary dreams of America’s story, talking about specific ideas and detailed programs is a fool’s journey aiming at a brick wall. Measured against that true priority, which one of those speakers on the Democratic debate stage can best lead us to our future? Which one has best demonstrated an ability to be truly inclusive and join people in working together? That is the important question for each of us to thoughtfully answer.

©   2020   Randy Bell