The Two-Party System

“If I could not go to heaven but with a party, I would not go there at all.”
– Thomas Jefferson to Francis Hopkinson, 1789

“There is nothing which I dread so much as a division of the republic into two great parties, each arranged under its leader, and concerting measures in opposition to each other. This, in my humble apprehension, is to be dreaded as the greatest political evil under our Constitution.”   -John Adams to Jonathan Jackson (1780)

“I hate the two-party system”  -David Roebuck (1974-2017)

In an earlier post I argued that money was corrupting the American political system.  Another corrupting influence is the stranglehold the Democratic and Republican parties have on elections and, consequently, governing. The truth is that these two parties have so much control that third parties will have almost no chance of winning elections unless the two major parties allow it. They have a very effective political monopoly and they decide whether to allow other players in to the game. This monopoly is not good for America.

You might respond that having only two parties is OK because they are very different and offer legitimate options for the voters, and you would be at least partially correct. There really is a clear difference between the parties; at least there is a difference in their platforms.  Any standard first-year textbook in American government will tell us that:

  • The  Democratic Party is liberal and the Republican Party conservative.
  • Democrats favor a more active government that attempts to solve social problems whereas Republicans favor passive government that lets the economy and social forces solve problems.
  • The Democratic Party is pro-choice and Republicans oppose abortion.
  • Democrats favor more gun control, Republican oppose it.
  • Democrats favor more government regulations, Republicans disagree.
  • The Democratic Party’s economic policies are more Keynesian (government spending to stimulate the economy) whereas the Republican Party tends to favor “supply-side” policies that focus on producing more so consumers will invest in the economy by buying stuff (this is a terrible over simplification on my part).
  • Democrats tend to focus more on environmental regulations.
  • Republicans tend to spend more on the military.

The list of differences, at least on paper, is much more extensive.  So what is the problem?  The parties are obviously different, right?

Maybe.  But:

  • Both parties have contributed almost equally to the national debt.  For example, the debt increased 68% under Barack Obama and 101% under George W. Bush.
  • Both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump took huge donations from large banks and corporations to fuel their campaigns.
  • As of 2015, of the top ten wealthiest members of Congress, five were Republicans and five were Democrats (the top 50 wealthiest were worth at least $7.28 million each).
  • The wealthy tend to benefit regardless of which party is in power.  Under Barack Obama the top 1% gained 95% of the wealth created.
  • Both favor capitalism though their views on who should profit from the economy may differ.
  • Both parties are more than willing to spend your tax dollars on projects for which they can take credit (via “earmarks”) and gain voters’ support, whether or not the projects are necessary.

The truth is that although the parties do differ in the types of issues they tend to support, both are dominated by big bucks and are, consequently, less likely to focus on the needs of the masses.  Further, they both benefit from the current system and have no reason to promote reform.

The two major parties currently hold 533 of 535 Congressional seats.  Congress has a 22% approval rating and, as I’ve said previously, I wonder what that 22% is seeing that the rest of us miss.  The Democrats and Republlicans also hold 7,312 of 7,383 state legislative seats.  So the truth is that we can blame both parties for the national debt (almost $20 trillion), the failing infrastructure, air pollution, wars, problems with criminal codes, poorly funded state universities, and the crushing impact money has on American politics.

There are various  reasons the two parties retain control over the political system.

  • They are in control of drawing legislative districts and are more than willing to gerrymander those districts (draw the districts to favor their parties).
  • They write the election rules and do so in such a way that third parties have trouble winning.
  • They also write the campaign finance laws that benefit their parties.
  • They have the advantage of historical name recognition because they have dominated since the mid 1800s.  It is thus difficult for minor parties to gain acceptance.
  • They can use governmental resources such as free postage to keep in touch with voters, and this also helps with name recognition.

I can think of only two ways a successful third party could emerge.  First, if a widely loved and respected individual decided to lead such a party (I cannot think of any such individuals today).  The other way is by establishing a grassroots movement and begin electing third-party members at the lower levels of government.  In my mind a viable third party would need to be focused more on common sense than ideology and would be moderate in nature because most Americans do not identify with ideological extremes.

I firmly believe that until such a party emerges nothing will change because the Democrats and Republicans have nothing real to gain from changing the system they dominate.

And for anyone who might argue that the system isn’t broken, I have only one question: Do you really believe Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton were the best choices available out of 330 million Americans? They rose to the top of their parties.

  • http://www.shmoop.com/political-parties/quotes.html
  • http://www.washingtonsblog.com/2011/07/the-founding-fathers-tried-to-warn-us-about-the-threat-from-a-two-party-system.html
  • https://www.thebalance.com/us-debt-by-president-by-dollar-and-percent-3306296
  • http://www.nj.com/politics/index.ssf/2016/11/trump_and_clinton_share_same_special_interests.html
  • http://media.cq.com/50Richest/
  • http://www.westernjournalism.com/political-parties/
  • http://dailysignal.com/2017/02/01/congressional-ban-on-earmarks-hasnt-stopped-pork-barrel-spending/

Government For The People

“…Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed…”  (Declaration of Independence)

“…We the people…”  (First three words of the United States Constitution)

“The great object of the institution of civil government is the improvement of those who are parties to the social compact.” (John Quincy Adams)

“Government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”  (Abraham Lincoln)

In our hearts we want to believe that governments at all levels (local, state, national) exercise their powers based on some notion of what is good for “we the people”.  Consequently, we believe,  laws are passed with our best interest in mind and that they benefit society as a whole.  There is no doubt many laws do in fact serve society well.  Speed limits on highways, laws requiring the regular inspection and overhaul of airplanes, restrictions on dumping pollutants into the air and water, and limits on corporate monopolies all protect us in one way or the other.  Using such examples we might assume government does actually work in the people’s interest.

An extensive 2014 study concluded otherwise.  Researchers at two universities (Northwestern and Princeton) examined about 1,800 laws passed by the government in Washington over a twenty year period and compared those laws to the public’s preferences.  They determined that government’s decisions rarely favor the “common” American but almost always  favor the “economic elite” instead.  They did find that policies (laws) are much more likely to pass when support is favored by groups from all economic levels, and this is frequently the case, so in those instances the common folks are represented.  More significantly, however, if the elite class opposes a measure it has only an 18% likelihood of passing.  They also conclude that “the average citizen or the ‘median voter’ has little or no independent influence on public policy” when average voters’ preferences contradict those of the wealthy elite.

The authors’ conclusions: “The central point that emerges from our research is that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence.”

Is this a surprise?  Probably not.  The argument certainly predates C. Wright Mills’ 1956 conclusion that “all the power’s in the hands of people rich enough to buy it” or Charles Beard’s 1912 conclusion that “The fundamental division of powers in the Constitution of the United States is between voters on the one hand and property owners on the other”.  In fact our Founders themselves created a type of class system when they refused women and minorities the right to vote, had the president chosen by an electoral college over which voters had no influence, had the U.S. senators appointed by state legislatures rather than elected, and affirmed a system only allowing white male property owners to vote.

It would be difficult to argue that a great deal has changed.

  • If you have ever fought with insurance companies over worker compensation claims you probably learned very quickly that the work comp laws favor the insurance companies (and were possibly written by them).  My wife and I have personal experience with this.
  • When large banks or major industries suffer catastrophic losses (frequently because of mismanagement) the government will often bail them out, but it doesn’t do so for small companies, homeowners facing foreclosure or students with loan debt.  I am in no way arguing that government should bail out any of these folks, but if we believe in capitalism I’m not sure government should be bailing out failing companies.
  • Oh…and when we bailed out the banks in 2008/2009, $1.6 billion went to the executives of those banks.  The top five Goldman Sachs executives pocketed a total of $242 million at a time when taxpayers were saving their company.  Your. Tax. Dollars.
  • The Constitution’s “Takings Clause” allows governments to take private property via eminent domain for “public use” by providing “just compensation”.  Much of this makes sense because society needs highways, for example, so government must have a mechanism for taking property required for building them.  However, in Kelo v City of New London (2005) the Supreme Court expanded the Takings Clause to allow government to take property for “economic development”.  Ms. Kelo’s property was seized to make room for a pharmaceutical company’s new building, a plan that was later abandoned.  So Ms. Kelo was without her property and the property was ultimately not used. Similar abuses of eminent domain have occurred across the country, and the local property owners are always the loser. In Boonville, MO, about twenty minutes from my house, the city granted eminent domain power to a company to force the sale of property so a casino could be built over the objections and legal challenges of property owners.
  • Each year there are numerous examples of corporations that earn billions in profit but pay no taxes.  In fact many of these actually receive a rebate from the IRS (see the ctj.org link below).  I’m not sure about you, but I’m fairly certain my good Uncle (Sam) takes a good portion of my income every two weeks.
  • As of 2017 the first $127,200 of income is subject to the Social Security tax.  Yes, I realize that this is quite a bit more than the average American earns, but it also means that a person earning $50,000 per year will pay exactly the same amount as someone earning millions (or billions).  In that respect the Social Security tax has a greater adverse affect on those with lower incomes.

Similar examples abound.

Before you start calling me a flaming liberal or socialist, you should know that concerns over this disparity and consequent income inequality cross ideological and income boundaries.  Last spring Charles Koch, the conservative billionaire who has historically supported conservative candidates and causes, told ABC News that the economic system is rigged in favor of the wealthy and that the U.S. tax code does in fact offer “corporate welfare” to companies such as his.  He and Warren Buffett, the world’s third richest person, have argued for years that the tax codes are unfair and that the wealthy should be paying more in taxes.

Income inequality matters, and it matters more now than possibly any time in history.  The steady economic growth since the 1970’s has not affected all income groups equally.  The truth is that during the last forty years the rich have truly become richer while incomes for the poor have not significantly improved.  Many Americans still live in poverty, and that number would be much higher were it not for government “safety net” programs (SNAP, TANF, SSI, etc.) that have actually reduced the number of people living in poverty since the 1960’s in spite of the growing income gap.

So why does this income inequality matter?  A 2015 piece in The Atlantic concluded that in addition to the obvious inability to buy things, including necessities, the folks at the bottom of the income scale suffer in at least three ways.  First, the growing disparity in incomes has led to “residential segregation” as a result of the growing number of people living in poverty-stricken neighborhoods, and it self-perpetuates because these folks and their children have difficulty finding a way out of those neighborhoods.  Second, children growing up in poor families generally have limited access to higher quality education throughout their lives.  Finally, the authors conclude that children in these neighborhoods also have less access to “enrichment goods” and fewer social networks, and studies demonstrate they are more likely to suffer from “toxic stress” resulting in hampered brain development and lower earning potential. The authors conclude that policies reducing taxes on the rich (eliminating the estate tax, for example) increase the burden on the poor and, interestingly, often harm the children of the wealthy because they lose incentive to be productive, an idea argued by wealthy philanthropist Andrew Carnegie and others in the 1800s.

In addition, there is evidence that other social ills such as crime and unplanned teenage pregnancy are more closely associated with income disparity than with poverty itself.

These are powerful arguments for seeking ways to close the income gap.  I’m not optimistic that such alternatives will be actually sought in the current political environment where money dominates politics (the topic of an earlier post).

 

  • https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/perspectives-on-politics/article/div-classtitletesting-theories-of-american-politics-elites-interest-groups-and-average-citizensdiv/62327F513959D0A304D4893B382B992B
  • http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/northamerica/usa/10769041/The-US-is-an-oligarchy-study-concludes.html
  • http://www.newyorker.com/news/john-cassidy/is-america-an-oligarchy
  • https://global.oup.com/ushe/product/the-power-elite-9780195133547?cc=us&lang=en&
  • http://www.cbsnews.com/news/16b-of-bank-bailout-went-to-execs/
  • http://thehill.com/blogs/congress-blog/246691-eminent-domain-abuse-violates-private-property-rights
  • http://www.forbes.com/sites/realspin/2013/06/28/its-time-for-congress-to-actively-condemn-eminent-domain-abuses/#43f6f6c130aa
  • http://www.mdn.org/1997/STORIES/DOMAIN.HTM
  • http://ctj.org/ctjreports/2015/04/fifteen_of_many_reasons_why_we_need_corporate_tax_reform.php#.WKz2q4WcFpd
  • http://www.cbpp.org/research/poverty-and-inequality/a-guide-to-statistics-on-historical-trends-in-income-inequality
  • https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2015/06/what-matters-inequality-or-opportuniy/393272/
  • http://www.businessinsider.com/the-negative-effects-of-income-inequality-on-society-2011-11

 

The Drug Problem

Until about six years ago what I knew about America’s drug problem was what was reported in the news. I assumed drug abuse and addiction were isolated and only impacted a relatively small number of people. Then the real world came crashing in and we had to help our 19 year-old son enter a substance abuse program because of his struggles with opiates and other drugs. As a consequence I now know a great deal about the drug crisis facing our country, much more than I ever wanted to know, and I am certain that our current approach to solving that crisis does not work.

One response offered when this topic is broached is that an individual chooses to start taking drugs, and that is certainly true. However, a reliable national survey indicates that some children are abusing drugs by the age of 12, meaning they likely started even earlier. Our own son started smoking marijuana at 12, and we had absolutely no clue. When he was in his late teens we realized he was smoking weed, but we thought the use was rare and we had no idea he had turned to harder drugs until a few months prior to helping him find treatment (which, by the way, he asked for). And yes, I’m in tears as I write this because the pain parents go through in this situation is indescribable. I also hurt for the eight friends my son has lost to overdose. The ones I knew were great kids, just like our son.  I also weep for others who still struggle every second of every minute of every day; you can take me at my word when I say that a large majority hate their lives and want desperately to quit.

Anyway, are we really going to hold children responsible for the mistakes made at age 12 or earlier even though we know that continued use over time makes quitting ANY drug difficult? I don’t want to be held responsible for all the stupid stuff I did in my late teens (and maybe early twenties), much less for the things I did at 12.  And today I’m a coffee addict and have been for 40 years, and if I try to quit I know the consequences (Because I have tried. Dumb idea!). Apply that challenge 1,000 times over to drugs that are 1) very, very, very enticing and 2) much more addictive, and I’m amazed anyone ever wins the battle.

Here are some other relevant facts:

  • Deaths from drug overdose reached an all time high in 2015 (the latest year for which statistics are available), with about 50,000 deaths reported. The number of drug-related deaths more than doubled between 2002 and 2015.  The number of deaths from opioid overdose  rose 2.8 times during that period, with more than 30,000 deaths. And the number of heroin-related deaths reached about 13,000 in 2015, a number 6.2 times higher than in 2002.
  • As of 2014 it was estimated that our economy suffers about $700 billion each year because of tobacco ($295 billion), alcohol ($224 billion), and illegal drugs ($193 billion). These result from required medical care, lost productivity, and crime.
  • In 2013, the last year a nationwide survey of almost 25 million Americans was conducted, 9.4% of the population over 12 admitted to using illegal drugs during the last month. Almost 20 million had smoked marijuana in the last month, up more than 5 million from the 2007 survey (and remember that this drug is still illegal in most states).
  • About 54% of current drug users started use as teenagers. Most began with marijuana.
  • According to the 2013 survey 22.7 million Americans needed drug treatment but only 2.5 million received that treatment.

So our current approach just isn’t working. It perfectly describes the definition of insanity generally attributed to Einstein (though he likely borrowed it): “Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”. It is time to try something else.

A 2014 Pew poll found that 2/3 of Americans believed those arrested with illegal drugs should be offered treatment options rather than incarcerated, yet today 46% of federal prisoners (more than 82,000) are incarcerated for drug-related crimes. For comparison, the next highest number of federal prisoners was convicted on “weapons, explosives, or arson” charges, and they comprise only 16.8% of the federal prison population. On the state level, about 16% of prisoners are serving time for drug offenses (as of 2015). So punishment remains a major option when dealing with drug offenders.

Please understand that I am very “law and order” minded and I argue for severe punishment for violent offenders or others of whom we are afraid, but I’ll address that another time. If a drug offender is also charged with a related crime such as robbery, assault, or vehicular homicide, I want that offender off the streets. However, if the offender is only committing a crime of drug possession or minor dealing, I’d address it another way. On a personal note, by the way, I hope there is a special unpleasant cranny in the afterlife for heroin, meth, and illegal opioid sellers, and I’d punish them severely in this life as well because they are murderers.

I know this sounds counterintuitive, but according to my sources (I’ve gotten to know a lot of teenagers during the last few years), it is easier for those under age 21 to purchase illegal drugs than alcohol because drug dealers don’t care how old the buyer is whereas the convenience store doesn’t want to lose its selling license and bars don’t want to lose their pouring license. Of course we could crack down even more on selling alcohol to those who are under 21 (I would probably change that to 18 if I had my way, but that is for another discussion) by making liquor licenses expensive and making it almost impossible to regain a license lost for selling to underage customers.

I would also legalize marijuana (and I am NOT promoting its use), regulate the heck out of it to ensure growers were not mixing in addictive chemicals (as was done by tobacco companies), charge large sums  for selling licenses, and impose strict penalties for selling to minors. There is little doubt that continued use of the drug is harmful, that it is especially harmful to adolescents whose brains are still developing, and it is dangerous during pregnancy. So is consuming alcohol (yet I still enjoy the IPA). Adults should be able to make the choice whether to use it but children should not. I repeat what I stated earlier; kids have no trouble at all buying marijuana now even though it is illegal.

I would not legalize other drugs but I would decriminalize them, and I would always favor treatment options first. Many states have been experimenting with “drug court” options for non-violent possession and minor distribution cases in recent years, and they have been very successful. Recidivism rates are drastically reduced and crimes that often accompany drugs have been reduced as much as 45% over other sentencing options. Drug courts require those convicted to seek treatment, and the judge monitors success (the one convicted is subject to random urinalysis and other testing). I know kids who have turned their lives around because of drug court. It works much better than sending someone to prison at a cost of $30,000 per year where he or she learns about a lot of other cool crimes to commit upon release.

The bottom line is this: Treatment does not always work, but it does work for a good number of addicts.  The war on drugs is a failure by every significant measure, and both liberal and conservative media outlets have reached that conclusion.  Even the Law Enforcement Action Partners (LEAP), an organization created by law enforcement officers, argues for abandoning the unwinnable war.  Let’s try something new and use a portion of the war on drug money for treatment.

Oh, and our son who entered treatment at 19?  He has been clean and sober since May 13, 2011 and is now a drug counselor working with young people to help them overcome dependency. Treatment saved his life and is saving countless others. And the truth is I would not change a thing because the experience has strengthened me as a person and our relationship as a family. I’m just happy and fortunate that our son survived.

https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/preventing-drug-abuse-among-children-adolescents-in-brief/chapter-1-risk-factors-protective-factors/when-how-does-drug-abuse-start-progress

http://www.webmd.com/mental-health/addiction/drug-abuse-addiction#1

America’s New Drug Policy Landscape

https://www.bop.gov/about/statistics/statistics_inmate_offenses.jsp

https://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/p14_Summary.pdf

https://www.drugabuse.gov/related-topics/trends-statistics

http://www.livescience.com/48171-marijuana-research-health-effects-review.html

http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/health-and-families/features/is-cannabis-dangerous-a-review-of-research-over-the-last-20-years-says-yes-9780679.html

http://www.nadcp.org/learn/facts-and-figures

http://www.foxnews.com/world/2010/05/13/ap-impact-years-trillion-war-drugs-failed-meet-goals.html

Drug Policy

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_additives_in_cigarettes

 

 

 

 

 

Rejecting Facts: Our Greatest Threat

People have a habit of inventing fictions they will believe wholeheartedly in order to ignore the truth they cannot accept.” (Author Libby Bray)

A tendency to ignore science and reason and rely on revealed truth (only received by ordained clergy) led Western society in to the 1000-year medieval period which lasted roughly from the time the Roman Empire fell through the Renaissance.  Intellectual life, philosophy, and art were largely controlled by the Catholic Church. In the end the church initiated “Crusades” to expel Muslim infidels from the Holy Lands and to punish those considered to be enemies of Christianity.  At least one million and possibly as many as nine million people died. To put it simply, the progress of Western society was largely, though not entirely, stifled during this 1,000 year period and, to a very large extent, a reliance on science and reason led the way out.   

Today there is a segment of society that seems willing (and eager) to once again let others think for them rather than thinking for themselves, and this too imperils society.  I will not speculate on the size of this segment, but it seems fairly large these days.  In some cases the accepted intellectual authorities are religious leaders, but more commonly they are political pundits, politicians, or other commentators.  To be clear, I accept religion and spirituality as means to personal fulfillment and, potentially, as a route to the eternal.  I do not accept those as grounds for public policy or governmental action because I lack faith in those pundits and politicians (or others) who claim to understand a divine plan. 

I prefer accepting science, with all its faults and warts.  Science as a method is sometimes wrong and has at times been used for ill purposes (when scientists “proved” there was no link between tobacco and cancer with research funded by tobacco companies, when scientists said MMR vaccines led to autism, nuclear weapons, etc.) or had unintended consequences (plastics that harm sea life, antibiotics and opiate pain killers that are over prescribed, etc.), but science has also led to cures for many diseases, taken us to the moon (no, that was not produced in a Hollywood basement), made it possible for me to Facetime with my children who live hours away, given us running water and sanitary sewage systems, and made it possible for you to read this blog in your pajamas. It has made the workplace safer, made life more convenient (I really like my automatic espresso machine), made traveling from place to place feasible, and proven that the Earth is not really the center of the universe.  Science, reason, and common sense can also more effectively guide government’s policy decisions, but the rejection of science and, honestly, common sense seem to once again dominate a portion of the loud crowd.

As a consequence of this willful lack of awareness currently burdening a portion of society, facts and truth often seem to matter less than feelings and emotions.  Examples:

  • If I “feel” that EPA’s impact on society is negative I choose to ignore the agency’s demonstrable accomplishments such as the elimination of DDT, reduction of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide that were polluting streams, having lead removed from gasoline, reducing auto emissions, reducing air pollution at a time our economic production tripled, and all the other improvements resulting from EPA’s regulations.  And yes, I am well aware of the agency’s occasional overreach as well.  Overreach is a common bureaucratic malady which I will address in a future post. 
  • If I “believe” crime is on the rise, I ignore the facts that prove otherwise.
  • If I’m convinced that Barak Obama’s Middle East policy was a success or that Donald Trump did not really mock a handicapped reporter in spite of proof to the contrary (my father was handicapped so this one was personal for me), then my belief means more than the facts.  Conversely, if I “believe” Obama’s presidency was an abysmal failure or that all of Trump’s nominations are inadequately prepared, I’m once again ignoring facts. 
  • If I’m angry about President Trump’s efforts deporting illegal immigrants, was I also angry when President Obama set the record with two million deportees during his first five years and 2.5 million overall?
  • If I believe Obama is a Muslim and not a natural born American citizen I am ignoring demonstrable facts and relying on uninformed information.  And the Framers in Article VI of the Constitution stated that “…no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States”, so even if he is a Muslim it should not matter.  Our Founding Fathers clearly did not want religion to be a factor.  We can’t just follow the Constitutional passages we like and ignore the others because the facts contradict our wishes. 
  • If I believe Hillary Clinton was consistently truthful, I myself am willfully ignoring the truth.
  • If I believe illegal immigrants are taking millions of jobs from Americans and driving down wages I am ignoring arguments to the contrary.
  • If I believe the solution to improving America’s education system is to spend more money, I’m refusing to acknowledge the more serious problems.
  • If I believe millions of people voted illegally in 2016 although no evidence supports that claim I’m just gullible. 
  • If I believe GMOs are automatically bad for me I’m ignoring the fact that nine out of ten scientists from the American  Association for the Advancement of Science disagree.

Yes, it is easier to let others think for us because they will tell us what we want to hear. In other words they offer information that supports what we already believe. This is referred to as “confirmation bias” and is, in my opinion, more dangerous to America than all other threats combined because it keeps us from accepting truth. If we vote for a certain candidate we refuse to accept the truth of that official’s mistakes and flaws regardless of their magnitude.  If government makes a decision with which we disagree we refuse to accept facts contradicting our beliefs.  If someone on “the other side” makes a public statement we dismiss it without considering its merits.

I’m not claiming that I am immune to confirmation bias.  Nobody is.  We are all influenced by our preconceived notions and biases, but we should at least do our best to be objective and consider alternative points of view as long as those points of view are reasonable and grounded in fact. And we should not accept pundits or politicians telling us things that are obviously false just because what they  tell us fits our preferred  narrative.

Because I am an optimist by nature I honestly believe that almost everyone is capable of logical reasoning, but being logically reasonable requires much more effort and a segment of society is unfortunately unwilling to exert the required effort. Do they prefer a return to medievalism?

 This week’s sources:

Fixing the American Government

When people learn that I’ve studied American politics more than forty years, one question they often ask is what I would change to begin improving the state of American politics, and the answer is actually quite simple; remove money from the equation.  Stop allowing corporations and wealthy individuals to have so much control over who wins party nominations and, ultimately, elections.  Last year $1,312,110,914 was raised for the presidential races alone (yes, that is over a billion dollars).  Another $1,035,693,928 was raised for the 435 House of Representatives seats (again, over a billion dollars) and $787,814,300 for the 33 vacant Senate seats.  The grand total raised last year was…a whole bunch of money.

Here are a few interesting facts.  In 2016, a little more than 70% of all donations of more than $200 came from .5% of the population, .08% gave all donations greater than $2,700,  and 100 individuals or organizations contributed at least $2,272,500 or more EACH.  Interestingly, 30,677 individuals or organizations donated to both parties, apparently hoping to gain influence regardless of the winning party.

What are the consequences of these huge campaign donations? There is honestly no way to be absolutely certain, but it is reasonable to assume that large donors expect to gain access and influence.  And even if the connection between money and influence cannot be conclusively proven (I doubt many elected officials will actually admit that their decisions are based on donations), it certainly seems obvious that it could be a corrupting influence.  If those capable of contributing huge sums are in fact receiving favors that you and I don’t enjoy, I would argue that this contradicts the notion that everyone’s vote should count equally, enunciated in a number of Supreme Court decisions.

A related problem is campaign money’s chilling influence on the notion of fair and competitive elections.  Members of Congress and other elected officials can raise huge sums of money, even in non-election years, and keep that money in their “war chest” (bank account) to use in future elections.  In 2016 fifty members of Congress had at least $1,313,688 in the bank (Paul Ryan had $9,098,873).  Let’s say that Professor Dave decided to run against Representative Blaine Luetkemeyer (R-MO) in last year’s election (he actually represents a different district and I’m offering no critique of his effectiveness; just go along with me here).  Then I learn that Representative Luetkemeyer has $1,858,861 in the bank (which he did), and  I know he can begin spending it when a serious challenger appears.  Professor Dave looks at his bank account (which has MUCH less than $1,858,861) and decides that he will pass on the opportunity to run for this office.  It happens.  I know it does because I know very intelligent and capable people who chose to not pursue an office because of the amount of money required.

How did we get to the point that money is so important that the two 2016 candidates for District 19 of the Missouri Senate, for example, raised $3.6 million to win a seat that pays the winner about $36,000 per year?  In 1976 the U.S. Supreme Court decided that money equals speech, and speech is protected by the 1st Amendment.  The Court thus ruled that limits on the amount people  can contribute to an election are an unconstitutional denial of their speech.  In a 2010 case the Court struck down limits on campaign spending by corporations and unions, ruling in essence that these groups could spend an unlimited amount of money promoting candidates as long as the money wasn’t given directly to the candidate’s campaign.  Money, money, and more money.

To change this requires ether 1)  The Supreme Court to have a change of heart and reverse it’s interpretation of the Constitution, or 2) a Constitutional amendment reversing the Court.  I’m not optimistic.  My ultimate solution would likely be unpopular with many (most?) folks, but I’d like to find a way to follow the British model that limits the amount spent by providing public and equal funding for Congressional and presidential campaigns.  I am a dreamer, but until we remove money as the motivating factor in American politics we will not be able to effectively address all the other issues facing our political system such a gerrymandering, healthcare reform, protecting the environment, or improving our infrastructure.

 

The Neil Gorsuch Nomination

In general, The Constitution may be interpreted in one of two equally valid ways. “Originalists” believe the document should be interpreted narrowly and focus on the strict meaning as intended by the Framers. This approach is not necessarily tied to traditional “liberal” or “conservative” camps, but refers more to an interpretive approach. The second approach is viewing the Constitution as a “living document” that must be shaped over time because of evolving social and economic forces. Article V of the Constitution provides for an amendment process, but those who espouse this second approach find that formal process too slow and unwieldy to deal with a rapidly changing society, and they offer the scarcity of amendments (27 since 1791) as evidence.

Both approaches are valid and easily defended. Both also have faults. A problem with originalism is that the Framers wrote the Constitution 230 years ago and could not possibly have envisioned me composing this document on a word processor or you reading it online. Nor could they have envisioned America’s developing social structure, the consequences of industrialization, a need for a rapid response in military crises, or using dogs and helicopters to find illegal drugs. In other words, expecting legislators and judges to apply a 230 year old document to modern issues is problematic.

Considering the Constitution a living document is also perilous. At what point is the Constitution stretched too far? How closely should governmental decisions be tied to the original text? What is to stop judges from being legislators themselves and interpreting the Constitution so broadly that it becomes a meaningless piece of paper?

For a number of reasons I won’t explain here (maybe in a later post) because the explanations would consume quite a bit of space,  I’ll just say I tend to accept the second approach. In Gompers v United States (1914), Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes succinctly summarized this approach by stating “Provisions of the Constitution of the United States are not mathematical formulas having their essence in their form, but are organic living institutions transplanted from English soil. Their significance is not to be gathered simply from the words and a dictionary, but by considering their origin and the line of their growth”. Like Holmes, I believe judicial decisions are not formulaic and must sometimes shape the Constitution to contemporary circumstances.

Judge Neil Gorsuch, President Trump’s first Supreme Court nominee, is an originalist in the mold of Antonin Scalia. I disagree with his approach to interpretation and, consequently, with a fairly large number of his decisions. However, he should absolutely be confirmed by the Senate unless some currently unknown moral or ethical shortcomings are discovered. His resume is impeccable and his experience is noteworthy. He graduated from Harvard, Columbia, and Oxford. He clerked with two Supreme Court justices. He served in private practice with a highly reputable law firm. He was confirmed to the U.S. Court of Appeals by unanimous Senate voice vote in 2006. After his confirmation I will almost certainly complain about his votes on the Court and criticize opinions he writes, but he is highly qualified for the position.

I know there are those who argue that the Senate should have considered President Obama’s nominee, Garland Merrick, during its 2016 session, and I agree. However, I disagree with holding up the appointment of a qualified jurist simply because of retribution or petty partisan politics.

In some future post I’ll probably offer arguments regarding the proper role of American courts and Constitutional interpretation, but my purpose here is to argue for Neil Gorsuch’s confirmation.

A House Divided

In 1858  Abraham Lincoln voiced what was at that time a controversial prophesy of America’s future. Reflecting on America’s division caused by slavery, Lincoln stated that “A house divided against itself cannot long endure”, a phrase attributed to Jesus in the Gospels and echoed by philosophers through the ages. Though not facing any specific issue as urgent as was slavery, today’s America is deeply divided. Can we long endure?

The causes of this division are debatable, but its reality is fairly clear. A few examples should suffice:

  • 46% of Americans say things in America are going very well or fairly well while 53% say they are going pretty badly or very badly. I assume both sides accurately assess their stations in life.
  • 86% of Americans believe America is more politically divided than at any other time in our history (even more divided than during the Civil War?!). What is worse, most folks don’t expect it to improve in the coming years.
  • The division between rich and poor has grown to the point that today those in the top .10% possess more wealth than the combined wealth of the bottom 99%
  • Economic opportunities for ethnic minorities remain elusive. According to Forbes (2016), “It would take black families 228 years to amass the same amount of wealth white families have today, if average black family wealth continues to grow at the same pace it has over the past three decades. For the average Latino family, it would take 84 years to catch up.”
  • We are divided politically. In the 2016 presidential election Donald Trump received about 46.1% of the votes and Hillary Clinton 48.2%, but 42% of America’s eligible voters did not vote. Further, 28% claim to be Republicans, 25% are Democrats, and 44% are independents.
  • Only 51% view the Democratic Party favorably and 47% view the Republicans favorable.
  • 63% of Americans disapprove of the job Congressional Democratic leaders are doing and 50% disapprove of Republican leadership. Congress has a 19% approval rating (and I honestly wonder what that 19% is seeing that the rest of us are missing).
  • 45% think President Trump is moving too fast in addressing America’s problems, 10% say not fast enough, and 35% say he moving at about the right pace.
  • For 39% of our fellow citizens football is their favorite sport but only 1% claim tennis as favorite (I’m finally a one percenter!)

The list of our differences is quite lengthy. Americans are divided over hot-button issues such as abortion, gun control, environmental protection, education policy, healthcare policy, the best breed of dog (Boxers), and crunchy v creamy peanut butter (crunchy!). Is this new? Absolutely not.  Our Framers were divided over state v federal power, the role of the courts, agrarianism v industrialization, and which bird should become our national symbol. We have been divided throughout our history, so what has changed?

Character (or lack thereof) and mass media. We’ve always had those who behaved in an uncivil manner or who accepted outrageous ideas but, as with today, they were the minority and we could largely ignore them because their reach was limited. Now those people have an easy voice and are willing to use it.  They can disrupt social media with their repulsive ideas or snide remarks, they can spew hate because news websites open stories to comments, they can gain national media attention by staging a demonstration regardless of the cause, and they can attack others whom they’ve never met from the comfort of their living room easy chair via the internet. Because this has become pervasive, a segment of society has now seemed to accept as commonplace politicians being disrespectful to each other (and to those who do not support them), media personalities and others spreading false information which followers accept at face value, and the notion that attacking others verbally is socially acceptable.

How can we change this? One person, one civil response, one opinion based on reason and fact at a time. The pace of change may be glacial, but with this “us v them” mindset which currently divides our house, we cannot long endure.

Today’s Sources:

Introduction

Featured

 

There is no scarcity of political and social commentary these days, but the scarcity of CIVIL political and social commentary is troublesome. I hope this blog can help fill that void. If you have grown tired of reading vitriolic commentary where people tend to shout (well, e-shout) and call each other names, this might be the blog for you.  If you have grown tired of finger pointing, blaming, scapegoating, and mindless commentary, this might be the blog for you.  If you want the opportunity to read ideas that contradict your own, but in a civil manner, this might be the blog for you.

I’m a political scientist (don’t judge) and administrator at a liberal arts college in the American Midwest, and I’ve been in academia since 1978 (you can read a brief personal bio in the Basic Information section). My liberal students think I’m conservative and my conservative students think I’m liberal.  The truth is that traditional liberal and conservative labels no longer work, but we keep holding on to them as if they are sacred.

I start from the premise that very few public policy decisions are based on objective data; most are just written on a whim to satisfy the constituent of the moment or in response to a specific event (gun control after a school shooting, environmental laws after an oil spill, etc.). It seems obvious to me that policy choices should be somewhat clear when science or data DO support a conclusion, and that could happen much more often than it currently does .

Here are the basic rules for my blog:

  • I will offer ideas, often controversial, and will cite objective data (when available) supporting an argument.  Other times I will offer a personal view and defend it.  You may then offer counter arguments or ideas.  Be assured that you may change my mind because I know I have not yet cornered the market on political truth.
  • No responses may attack an individual, use coarse language, or be otherwise belligerent or hostile.  If you cannot post a comment without using such terms as libtard, extra chromosome, stupid, snowflake, wingnut, loser, Hitlerian, moonbat, conservatard, Neanderthal, or mouth breather, please find your idea fix elsewhere. In fact, I think the discourse will be much more thoughtful if we don’t even refer to “left-wing” or “right-wing” ideas.  They are just ideas.  The question is whether the ideas bear scrutiny.
  • Uncivil posts will not be approved for publication (Sorry. I do not like censorship but I dislike discourteous conversation even more).

I do understand that these rules will eliminate a segment of society, people who enjoy being rude and who refuse to engage in civil debate, and I’m perfectly fine with that. I’m fairly certain most of you look forward to debate without those folks as well.

My goal is to post ideas at least twice each week, but posts may be more frequent as public events unfold. Some posts will be long (hopefully not too long), and others will be shorter. I will always provide sources when I cite statistics or other specific information, but I don’t plan to bother with formal citations unless my academic colleagues reprimand me.

I hope this endeavor will be successful because I’m weary of the current state of political discourse.  If you enjoy reading and participating I hope you will let others know so we can try to spread this radical idea of civility. If you don’t enjoy it, keep it to yourself!!