American factions are coming together over drones

It has been said that America is polarized politically, but now an issue has emerged that is uniting conservatives and liberals, rightists and leftists, tea party activists and occupy Wall Street types:  Concern about drones.

Virtually all of these factions are praising Rand Paul’s filibuster protesting the Attorney General’s ruling that American citizens on American soil are subject to being zapped from above by drone technology.  All are opposing establishment-types from both parties who hail the new military technology.

Might this herald a new political consensus around civil liberties?  How about a Bill of Rights agenda, which would uphold the conservative causes of religious freedom and gun rights AND the liberal causes of freedom of speech and expression?

Are there other issues that might serve as a similar rallying point? [Read more...]

Politics as Dante's Inferno

Literature professor that I am, I appreciate this application of the unutterably great Dante to today’s political and cultural woes.  It’s by Henry G. Brinton, pastor of Fairfax Presbyterian Church, who got it published in USA Today:

In Inferno, hell is cold at its deepest levels, not hot. People are frozen in place, eternally. Nothing ever changes. . . .

The hell that Dante envisions is a series of concentric circles, containing the souls of people being punished for a variety of sins. His poem is “the drama of the soul’s choice,” according to English crime writer and poet Dorothy Sayers. The seriousness of the sin increases as the observer moves downward from the first circle to the ninth; for instance, the residents of the second circle are being punished for lust, while the souls in the ninth are suffering for treacherous fraud against individuals and communities. . . .

In Dante’s frozen ninth circle, there are two damned souls who do not face each other. Instead, they are pressed together chest to back, with one gnawing the back of the other’s head. I think of my Facebook friends who send blistering political messages, containing insults that they would never deliver face to face. . . .

Says Peter Hawkins of Yale Divinity School, a Dante scholar, “Among the many things lost at this depth is the notion of e pluribus unum, one out of many.” Here, private egos run wild, with no chance of healthy partnership.

In this ninth circle, the man who is eating the other’s head is an Italian count who was betrayed by an archbishop and locked in a tower to starve to death. The two men are traitors who represent corruption within both the state and the church, but what locks them in hell is the hatred they chose in the last moments of their lives. Dante is reminding us that we don’t have to choose that path.

We can all choose to do better, right along with the characters of The Divine Comedy. As the story moves from Inferno to Purgatorio to Paradiso, the focus of the characters shifts — they gradually move from looking at each other to gazing upward toward “the love which moves the sun and the other stars.”. . .

Politics is so often a zero-sum game, with one candidate’s gain coming from another’s loss, but Dante offers a heavenly ideal of sharing and mutuality. “In the Paradiso,” says Alan Jones, dean emeritus of Grace Cathedral Episcopal Church in San Francisco, “love is the only ‘commodity’ that isn’t diminished by sharing.”

via Column: When politics freezes over – USATODAY.com.

It’s the likability, stupid

The economy is in the toilet, unemployment is over 8%, our foreign policy is a mess, and President Obama’s approval ratings are dismal.  And yet, polls show him still running neck-and-neck with Mitt Romney, if not a little bit ahead.  How can that be?

You might recall my theory–articulated, for example,  here, in which I predict an Obama victory– that in our postmodern times the majority of the American people vote for a candidate not primarily because of ideology, policy ideas, nor issues of any kind.  Such appeals to objectivity and even to pragmatism are the stuff of modernism.  In a postmodern democracy, the main factor is which candidate voters “like” the best.   That is, the candidate voters consider to have the most pleasant personality.

Consider the winners over the last few decades:  Obama vs. McCain; Bush II vs. Kerry; Bush II vs. Gore; Clinton vs. Dole; Clinton vs. Bush I; Bush I vs. Dukakis; Reagan vs. Mondale; Reagan vs. Carter.  Doesn’t my theory hold?  Now before that, the theory doesn’t apply, since in those modernist days Carter could beat the more likeable Ford, and Nixon could beat the more likable McGovern and Humphrey.  Of course, not everyone agrees in whom they like, but this also explains the antipathies that also are factors in elections:  Lots of people just cannot stand George W. Bush, a visceral feeling that goes far beyond rational assessment, associated with feelings about privileged rich kids, frat-boys, and smug right-wing Texans.   Obama’s cerebral, detached, professorial personality makes some people dislike him while making others like him.

My theory in the past has been somewhat tongue-in-cheek, but now there is actually data to support it!  From Karen Tumulty, writing in the Washington Post:

If you believe the polls, it would appear there is one big factor standing in the way of Mitt Romney being elected president: Americans don’t like him as well as they do Barack Obama.

That was confirmed again in a new USA Today-Gallup survey in which respondents gave Romney higher marks on the economic issues, which voters say they care most about this year. But President Obama crushed Romney — 60 percent to 30 percent — on the question of which of the two was more likable.

In April, a Washington Post-ABC News poll found an even larger gap, with 64 percent of those surveyed describing Obama as the friendlier, more likable candidate, and only 26 percent saying that about Romney. . . .

In every presidential election for the past two decades, the candidate viewed as more likable was the one who won.

via Romney’s problem: Americans don’t like him as much as Obama, polls say – The Washington Post.

Romney is just hopeless when it comes to social graces.  He goes to England for the Olympics and instead of the glad-handing pleasantries that are called for on such an occasion insults his hosts by worrying about security and labor problems and wondering if the country is ready to put on the show.  Never mind that the British people have been expressing the same concerns, but this is just a social awkwardness that Romney keeps showing.

It has become campaign dogma that “It’s the economy, stupid,” and there is evidence that economic conditions are the major factor in the elections, above.  I hope that’s the case, that the American people will look to objective considerations of some kind, but I wonder if they will.  Then again, the likability of Obama as compared to Romney might be a close call.

Politics swallowing up the task of governing

We touched on this with the bill prohibiting sex-selection abortion, but here it is again, reported in a matter-of-fact way:

Democrats will bring to the Senate floor on Tuesday the Paycheck Fairness Act, a bill that is supposed to help close the wage gap between men and women.

The measure will fail, as intended, because at its core it is not so much a legislative vehicle as a political one intended to embarrass Republicans and help President Obama and congressional Democrats with female voters in November.

Democrats are making an obvious connection between the two as the ‘war on women’ loses traction as an election issue.

The bill, which needs 60 votes to clear procedural hurdles, faces almost certain defeat because most Republicans plan to vote against it. But Obama and Senate Democrats are hoping those votes will give them the opportunity to paint congressional Republicans as hostile to women’s interests.

The strategy is part of an increasingly common practice in Congress of moving legislation aimed solely at producing political results. For House Republicans, the strategy means votes to roll back parts of the Obama 2010 health-care reform bill or votes to highlight rising gasoline prices.

In the Senate, Democrats believe a sustained focus on women’s issues should help them maintain a slim majority after the November elections.

via Paycheck Fairness Act expected to fail – The Washington Post.

“The measure will fail as intended”!  The purpose of the legislation is just to score political points by embarrassing those who vote against it.   Of course, bills before the legislature often have a political sub-text.  But here Congress isn’t even trying to govern.  The members are only trying to get re-elected with seemingly no thought of the constitutional purpose of their institution; namely, to govern the country.

In defense of politics

“Politics” has become a dirty word.  As in: “It’s just politics.”  “They are just playing politics.”  “He’s just another politician.”  This is understandable, but also dangerous.  So says Alec MacGillis, an editor at the New Republic,  who examines a number of recent decisions derided as “political” by liberals and conservatives, showing that it was a good thing that lawmakers had to take the political process–that is to say, voters–into account.  Some of his comments:

It’s not surprising that “political” is an insult. Congress is gridlocked, with a 10 percent approval rating, and the 2012 campaign ads are doing their best to turn voters off.

But there is something troubling about the extent to which our leaders have made politics their bogeyman. Most important issues, from reproductive health to clean-energy investment, are riddled with politics — as they should be. They involve serious questions about what the country values and where it wants to invest its resources. To suggest that one’s own side is free of politics is not only sanctimonious, it’s also destructive. Demonizing politics leads Americans to disengage further from the sphere where big decisions are made, ceding the political realm to the very people who denigrate it at every opportunity.

Politics in its highest form has noble roots, going back to the Greeks — it is the art of government, of ordering life among a people. . . . .

Whatever one thinks about the wisdom of that decision, it was rightfully a political one. Who would we rather have making these decisions — our elected representatives, acting with the input of experts such as FDA scientists but also with an ear to their constituents, or the experts alone? The experts often have their own biases, such as industry ties. Elected officials are at least somewhat accountable to all of us. . . .

Our tendency to view the “political” as something separate from, rather than intrinsic to, the public sphere has side effects. For one thing, it contributes to the laughable distinction in our campaign finance laws between political action committees, which must disclose their donors, and affiliated nonprofit groups, which do not have to, as long as their attacks on candidates revolve around “issues,” not elections. But of course, the nonprofits’ issue ads are no less “political” than the PACs’ explicitly campaign-oriented ones.

But the biggest cost of our indiscriminate disparagement of all things “political” is its potential to further alienate Americans from a process they already have all too much reason to abandon. My time on the campaign trail this season has reminded me that there are few things more disheartening than meeting some of the countless people who have given up on politics — more often than not, people who have a major stake in the outcome. They spit the words out — “It’s all just politics” — with a disgusted wave, as if there were no connections between what they see happening in Washington and their lives, when there are in fact so many. And who can blame them, when they hear the word spoken with the same disgust by the practitioners in the field?

via From Solyndra to birth control, everything’s political. And that’s okay. – The Washington Post.

Local Election Day blues

Where I live, we are just voting today for local elections.  We just have a state senator to pick and a number of county offices.  But for the last several months we have been subject to getting multiple automated phone calls a day conducting polls, demonizing opponents, and scaring us into voting for particular candidates.  Opposition research, negative campaigning, and hyperbolic rhetoric have trickled down into local elections.   (The last robocall I answered insinuated that one candidate’s support of the 2nd Amendment made him liable for the shootings at Virginia Tech.)  Apparently, local candidates are hiring out of state firms to provide these political services.   (I answered an automated call from Olympia, Washington, telling us who to vote for in a race for county sheriff!)

The theory is that local government is closer and more responsive to individual citizens, who elect their neighbors to represent them in public office.  National government, by contrast, is more remote.   Reformers are calling for a smaller central government with more power devolving to state and local governments.

But what if state and local governments are likewise dysfunctional, bound just as much to special interests and oblivious to the civic virtues?

It is true that local issues often finesse the liberal/conservative polarization that has paralyzed the national government.  The divisions in many local governments are on the order of “pro-development” (uniting free-market pro-business conservatives and pro-jobs liberals) vs. “anti-development” (uniting conservatives who want to preserve the pristine character of the community and anti-capitalist environmentalists).  Although I don’t see a civic consensus being possible with that kind of polarization either.

Perhaps this kind of political strife is intrinsic to democracy.  Still, having lived in a number of communities not all that different from where I live today, I don’t remember local elections being like this.


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