Category Archives: Demise of Politics?

Future Tangles with the Past

Hourglass on Ocean Beach. Amazon.com

The Future Tangles with our Past

Recently I read that high school students who have lived through the Pandemic mainly choose to live in the Present, letting the Future fend for itself. They are not willing to trust they will be around tomorrow, so why plan for it?

Frightening! 

Some are still willing to slug through calculus or biochemistry or trigonometry to prepare for careers in engineering and medicine. But that is not a large number.

 Those parents who are able are speeding up their plans for retirement, now more aware that life is short. Why not begin to enjoy the benefit of one’s efforts as soon as possible, not knowing what the future may bring?  While others are still struggling to feed and educate their children today.

Many of us vaguely remember the “Before Times,” as some call them, and are not certain that we can return to what now seems to be the distant past. Frankly, the times of being crammed like sardines into stadiums, music venues, and offices are not as appealing as they once were and will require mental and physical retrofitting.

While we are thinking about the future, will we be able to blindly return to following one political party or another out of habit or will we require something more?

“Identity politics” some call it, following along with a particular label because it is what you have always done, blind allegiance to the Dems or the GOP Party. Not because you believe what it stands for. But because you feel a part of the group.

Originally the parties were considered “shortcuts” that provide a range of choice between alternatives of action. “The act of choosing a party is the act of choosing whom we trust to perform our values across a vast range of issues that confront the country,” according to Ezra Klein, who believes the most valuable opportunity to influence the course of public affairs is in their choice of a party. He authored “Why We’re Polarized.

The rub can be traced to 1923 when Idaho Republican Senator William Borah said: “Any man who can carry a GOP primary is a Republican. To Borah it did not matter if the guy (then they were all guys) believed in free trade, states’ rights, or every policy of the Democratic Party.

Move to the 1950s when the positions of the two political parties became muddled as much by regional thinking and historical perspective. Voters could not define the party by the beliefs of their individual candidates. Democrats in Minnesota ran liberal candidate Hubert Humphrey, while in South Carolina the same party put uber-conservative Strom Thurmond on the ballot, both in Senate races.

Without the restraint of party unity, some argued political disagreements escalate. Debate on issues, like health care, motivates supporters and turns them against opponents. But in the end, issues get aired and resolved. Divisions get deeper and angrier.

Think about 1964 or consider this if you were not around for that initial foray into the political ring we encounter today. Republican Presidential Candidate Barry Goldwater promised an election that “would not be an engagement of personalities, but an engagement of principles.” But the conservative wing of the GOP got hung up with purity and worked diligently to “expel the moderate wing” of the party, forgetting they would need them to win the election. Goldwater got creamed by Democrat Lyndon Johnson.

George Romney, then moderate Republican governor of Michigan who would be a candidate for President in 1968, (and the father of Mitt Romney, who ran for President on the GOP ticket in 2008) outlined his disagreement with Goldwater’s “take no prisoners” approach.

After the Goldwater disaster, George Romney wrote his Republican colleagues: “Dogmatic ideological parties tend to splinter the political and social fabric of a nation, leading to government crises and deadlocks, and stymie the compromise so often necessary to preserve freedom and achieve progress.”
Think about that.

Interesting that Mitt felt it necessary to brand himself as “severely conservative” during the 2008 Presidential Campaign. And he went down, not as severely, but lost his bid never-the-less. In 2021, Mitt has taken sides again, more as a moderate, perhaps taking a longer view, sees the impact of following the former President down a purist rabbit hole could have on our democracy.   

Shortly the Republicans in the House will stage another “purity contest.” This one based on whether a House leadership position should be held by a conservative woman (Liz Cheney, daughter of a Republican VP under Bush II) who has been vocal in her opposition to Trump and his continuing cries of “foul” over the final tally of the now fading 2020 Presidential Election. She also objects to the former President’s role instigating the June 6 insurrection at the Capitol.

Fear that Trump would back a Primary challenger against them weakened the knees of many Republican House members who voted against accepting votes cast for Joe Biden. Nevertheless, the election results were approved on a vote of 306-232 at 2:15 am on the long day-into-morning of January 6-7, 2021.

William Faulkner, a writer who I suffered through in college, but respect more with age, wrote: “Memory believes before knowing remembers. Believes longer than recollects, longer than knowing even wonders.” He noted that “the past is never truly past, but it returns through haunting and repetition.”

Ezra Klein, Why We are Polarized. New York: Avid Reader Press, 2020. In November Klein resigned as editor-at-large at VOX to become a New York Times columnist and host of a political podcast.

Stay tuned for interesting thoughts on what percent of the country is fully invested in the political divide (six percent). And how the rest of us can help pull the needle from the far walls. What can be done to give thinking a chance and avoid having the noisiest among us rule.

Civility: Can We Bring it Back?

Man with paint roller attempts to cover danger and division with a fake background of blue sky and white, fluffy clouds. 740 imgcache.rev.le74eobe66fbeA6

Returning from the 100th Anniversary celebration for the League of Women Voters in San Antonio, I thought about the relentless struggle of the women who fought for the right to vote,–something we take for granted today—but many forget to exercise. Now the League works to register America’s voters and ensure we have the same right the women fought years for and finally received when the 19th Amendment was ratified by 36 states in 1920.

What does voting have to do with “civility”? One answer might be: everything. The ability to conduct a fair election without verbal use of people, places, or things has become a challenge. One might be tempted to chalk it up to the last election cycle, but if we’re honest, we’ve been sliding along the slippery slope of bad manners and “saying almost anything to get elected” for some time now. Window dressing, painting the situation over with a fake azure blue sky and white fluffy clouds will not solve our problem.

A dose of civility could be in order. Some say they learned how to behave in public from their parents—how to introduce themselves, pass the plate to the person on the right, how to be excused from the table, listening before breaking in with your two cents. And saying nothing if you have nothing “nice” to say. In Texas and other Southern states, children learn respect when they’re taught to respond to adults: “Yes, Mam,” or “No, Sir”– a practice that irritated me at first, thinking it pertained just to elders. Now I’m proud that this act of civility continues to hold, at least here in Texas.

Many of America’s seniors remember “Civics” class as the place we studied about mayors, governors, and presidents, acted out the steps in passing a bill through Congress, and often learned that our public schools, parks, and rec centers were paid for mainly by state or local taxes. Now that these classes are gone, basic knowledge about government has disappear from many states, making it much easier for shifty candidates to sway the opinion of unschooled and sometimes lazy Americans, who do not double check politicians’ statements or question their promises.

Yet demonizing the opposition does not serve our purposes. India’s former leader Mahatma Gandhi reminded his followers: “We must resolutely refuse to consider our opponents as enemies.” That serves only to strengthen their resolve, doing nothing to bring us together after the election.

When Being Civil was the Civil Thing to Do
If we look back to another time of political stress prior to the Civil War, we find surprising examples where people of opposing political perspectives were willing to help each other in time of need. When Jefferson Davis (future President of the Confederacy) served as Secretary of War under President Pierce, Varina Davis became critically ill late in her second pregnancy. A paralyzing snowstorm hit Washington, preventing her nurse from reaching her. New York Senator William Seward, who strongly opposed slavery and would serve as Lincoln’s Secretary of State during the Civil War, picked up the nurse in a horse-drawn sleigh pulled by his own fine horses and delivered her to the Davis residence. Both survived and Varina, who would become a journalist after the war, had three more children with Davis.

The Founders’ descendants and their families, struggled at times to maintain decorum with opposing politicians. Firebrand Abby Adams, married to Charles Francis Adams– the son of President John Quincy Adams and grandson of President John Adams–became a popular guest in Washington with many political friends, including staunch anti-slavery proponent, Charles Sumner, prior to the war.

Abby accepted invitations from popular Washington hostess and Southern sympathizer Rose Greenhow, whose views were well known from her articles in the New York Herald.   Mrs. Adams voiced her own views at one of Greenhow’s soirees and “waded right into the hottest political topic of the day,” declaring John Brown of Harper’s Ferry a “holy saint and martyr.” Rose, equally quick on the draw, shot back, “he was a traitor and met a traitor’s doom.” Such was dinner conversation in the late 1850s. Gossip moved along at a dramatic clip. Widow Greenhow would spend time in the Old Capitol Prison, which held Confederate spies.

While no American forts are under fire or cannons lit today, civil words are at a premium and distaste for the actions of an opponent are turning politics from a natural component of life into a blood sport, where the vitriol saps voters’ interest in participation. Democracy’s future waivers in a country where 59 percent of the people are turned off by politics and the number of voters declines. (2017 Civility study by Weber Shandwick Powell Tate and KR Research)

Too easily we forget that the Constitution revered by Americans grew out of The Great Compromise of 1787, imperfect in its own way, but a point from which the nation could begin. Those at the Constitutional Convention kept their eyes on the nation they wanted to create. More than two centuries later, the stakes have risen with a population that has grown from 2.8 million (1780) to 329 million people (2019), bringing a complexity of education, transportation, health care, commerce, agricultural, social service, and government issues beyond the scope of Colonists.

Taking the first steps
How do we start to roll back from the brink? In Maine, Craig Foster began a “Make Shift Coffee House,” where people with opposing views meet to learn from others and drink good coffee. Citizens for Reviving Civility in Arizona believes that listening to others is the key. Reflection, not reaction, works well to avoid debating issues and eventually move on to solving more difficult problems over time.

Better Angels, a national citizens’ movement works to reduce polarization by bringing liberals and conservatives together, face-to-face, to understand each other beyond stereotypes, forming red/blue community alliances, and teach practical skills for communicating across political differences. (More than a thousand people have participated in over thirty states).

Founder David Blankenhorn says the group’s goal is not to get people to change their views, but to get people to listen well to one another. “If you listen well,” he explains, “and if you try to understand—and if you’re confident that people are going to listen to you—you become a human being, friendship develops despite the political differences, and the rancor goes down.”

In Duluth, Minnesota, Speak Your Peace: The Civility Project began in 2003 to address political tensions caused by economic decline, plants closing, and rising anxiety. Proponents were quick to point out it was not a campaign to end disagreements, but one to improve public discourse by reminding the community of the basic principles of respect. They are inclusive, welcoming all groups of citizens working for the common good. The group looks for opportunities to agree, encouraging participants to avoid contradicting others’ because they can, to accept individual responsibility by looking in the mirror before pointing fingers at others.

Phillip Browne, vice president-communications, offered tips to help restore civility in the National Notary Association’s Notary Bulletin:
• Seek out a variety of news sources with different perspectives
• Allow others to speak and listen closely to build mutual understanding
• Seek common ground in your conversations
• Avoid rumors and don’t jump to conclusions or assume you know another person’s
perspective or next word will be.

Wehner in The Death of Politics mentions Calvin Coolidge, who warned his countrymen not to just ward off the dangerous elements that threatened government, “Our hope lies in developing what is good.” Interestingly enough in that 2017 survey of Civility 94 percent reported they “always” acted in the interest of “civility,” which may indicate we are almost there or have even farther to go than we thought! Here’s to drinking coffee or tea together, toasting “civility” . . . then working slowly to come back from the brink.


——————
Peter Wehner’s book, The Death of Politics (New York: HarperOne, 2019) inspired this column and included stories not just about America’s problems, but ways we can work together to solve them.
“New York Senator William Seward picked up the nurse..” Cokie Roberts, Capital Dames, (New York: HarperCollins, 2015), p. 59. The week after Roberts died it seemed appropriate to remind myself this NPR trailblazer also studied and wrote about the roles of strong American women in history .
“Holy saint and martyr,” Ibid. p. 69
“Our friends who positively hate him…” p. 76
Better Angels Help Communities Ease Political Tensions,” CBS This Morning, March 26, 2018, on YouTube, https//www.youtube.com/watch?v=5mLDgtUuK34
In Duluth, Speak Your Peace, Duluth Superior Area Community Foundation, “Speak Youth Peace: A Civility Project,” http://dsaspeakyourpeace.org/index.html
Civility tips from P.M. Forni’s book: Choosing Civility.
Phillip Browne, National Notary Association’s Notary Bulletin, October 2017 Members routinely notarize documents for clients of all backgrounds, across all issues.
https://national-notary.org/notary_bulletin/civility-in-crisis/
“How to Teach Civics in School,” The Economist, July 6, 2017,
https://www,economist.com/democracy-in-school

Demise of Politics or Politics on Steroids?

The gloves are coming off in the political battle between Republicans and Democrats.

The word “politics” now comes covered in green slime, piling on with every evil word, contradictory statement (previously called “a lie”), and rolled eye at an opponent. The sense of political life as a profession has been on a steep decline for several years, but now politics appears to be on a downward roller coaster ride headed for a brick wall. No political party appears to get a pass on this. It’s the last thing you would recommend as a calling for a son or daughter. ”Why get caught up in all that? You could ruin your reputation.” 

Complicates life for a sincere candidate who wants to represent the concerns of the people in their district or state. And even harder for someone who doesn’t want to be lumped with the “in-it-for-me” candidates. No doubt many of those entering political races in the past were required to have an out-sized ego in order to overcome the jabs and barbs anticipated in modern politics. Unless a candidate has gobs and gobs of personal funds that they’re willing and able to throw into the contest to purchase advertising—digital and broadcast—they’ll be spending hours and hours cozying up to wealthy people they don’t know (and might not care to otherwise).  

In 2012 Each Senate Candidate Spent $410,476,451

An average Senate candidate in 2012 (last figures available from Maplight) spent $10,476,451—that’s per candidate—one-third of the Senate are elected each year. That comes to a continuous fund-raising of $14,351 per day.  The most expensive Senate race in 2012 belonged to Senator Elizabeth Warren, who spent $42 million to defeat Scott Brown in Massachusetts.  Congress and statehouse elections cost $6.3 billion in 2012, according to Maplight.

Prior to that election, in 2010, the Supreme Court voted to complicate political spending, agreeing to allow U.S. corporations to spend unlimited amounts of money in elections. This would not be the first time that “unlimited money” would create chaos in any American system. With money comes influence, an influence John Q. Citizen cannot match. Decision making begins to float away from “the people” as in “government of the people, by the people for the people,” as defined by Lincoln in the Gettysburg Address as he worked to pull a nation back together. 

Thirty-five years ago, I left my role as a Senate aide and never looked back, though I continued to work in communications in DC until 2014. When I moved to Texas, truth be told, I didn’t mention working in DC, fearing what expletives or disparaging words I might hear from people across the table. Prior to working on the Hill, I’d worked as a reporter, if not a noble profession, then not something we’d hide from the neighbors and whisper to the kids. No one picked apart our stories (except maybe an editor) or called us out as “crooked” or “liars.” When a journalist’s story came into question, it was judged individually on its own merits or demerits. One journalist does not make up the press gallery, but then we knew calling out the entire press corps and questioning the viability of every story left the public without a counterbalance to politicians’ statements. Something a free nation depends upon.   

Checks and Balances Worked in the Past

When we’ve had a wily President in the past, say Nixon, the media-government contest got heated in the lead up to the Pentagon Papers release and Watergate, but the stories came out and the public had an opportunity to make their own decisions. It didn’t devolve into a he-said-she-said contest that passes for fast-paced political coverage these days.   

Congress, America’s chief political body, has been on slow-go because of the split between the Democratic House and the Republican Senate nearly since the inauguration in 2017. But now as both political parties throw venom, the question will be whether or not the States follow their example or work to serve their own constituents throughout what promises to be a nasty 15 months until the November 2020 elections.  

Decisions about the future of American Politics depend as much on us as on the politicians themselves. What will voters be willing to accept from their leaders?  Will we work in our individual states, attempting to ignore the shenanigans, working to solve the issues at home, waiting for a more productive future? Will we fall into the trap of divisiveness? What will be required of the media in order to restore their role as the Fourth Estate, necessary for an informed public?  As others have said, it will be a bumpy ride, but it will be up to us to create America’s political life and determine if we can melt the slime to show its value when politics is not played like a blood sport. 

Stayed tune next week for a discussion of   How Politics Could Change (for the Better)