Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Political Pundits Have It All Wrong: Americans Do NOT Shift Left or Right

After every presidential election, and after every contentious legislative debate, political pundits can be heard declaring that “Americans are becoming more liberal,” or “becoming more conservative,” as if our way of thinking about the world is so fungible that it changes like the weather. This idea of a shifting electorate seems to be accepted as fact, and quite frankly it is an insult to the thoughtfulness of the American people.

Today the thinking is that we have become more liberal as a nation, this being based on election results, polling, and the language of legislation. I am here to argue that this is a lie, and that the whole notion of a shifting electorate is a falsehood that demonstrates an incredible lack of understanding about the political philosophy of the majority of American people.
The American people, since our birth as a nation, are pragmatists, and pragmatism can rightly be said to be the political philosophy of our citizenry. Pragmatism is as much a political philosophy as conservatism, progressivism, or liberalism (in the modern sense). As pragmatists, Americans in the “center” will support whichever political party produces a policy solution that they believe will best address the issues being debated. By the same token, Americans will support whichever party has “proven” that their priorities (ie. Job growth, austerity) seem the more practical one to pursue. Rather than the center moving left or right, the left or right moves to the center.

The problem for Republicans, and this is a problem they have failed to address, is that they have move so far from the center that their “answers” never make it back there. Conversely, the Democrats have shifted so close to the center that they practically live there, and this has been the case since the emergence of the Democratic Leadership Council during the Clinton era. During the Bush years Republicans also lived near the center; it wasn’t until the emergence of the Tea Party that the Republican Party has shifted so far from the center that few if any of their positions are seen as pragmatic solutions to address our nation’s needs.
Independent and moderate American voters do not suddenly “think differently.” The parties “come to them,” and they determine which ideas seem more pragmatic. Americans are problem solvers, and they don’t care where the solutions come from. The Republican Party is disconnected from the center; they have purged their party of those members who “lived” near the center. Their belief that it isn’t their policies but their failure to communicate their policies is a fatal flaw in their thinking. The American people will NEVER become more conservative any more than they will ever become more liberal. The pragmatic center isn’t going anywhere; with few exceptions it never has.

If the Republican Party is to regain relevance on the national stage, it must “open its tent” to people that may share their values but don’t necessarily share their solutions or their belief in what issues are most important for a pragmatic nation to confront. Unfortunately, I have little faith they will do the right thing, and so refugees from the Party, people like me, will remain on the outside looking in.

The Constitutionality of Gay Marriage and Why the GOP Should Suport It

Although I consider myself a progressive and a Republican, I have always been somewhat reticent about using the courts to mandate social change. My sense is that issues engender broader and deeper acceptance when that acceptance sprouts from the grassroots. On the issue of gay marriage, or more correctly the “right to marry,” society is clearly showing a great capacity to no longer marginalize homosexuality and gay marriage. But some issues are so fundamental that it becomes necessary for the courts to lead and recognize the existence of rights basic to all citizens. The right to marry is such a basic right.

The Declaration of Independence provides the foundation for our nation’s existence, and the belief that all men have inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness would seem to embrace a right to marry. I see marriage as an element of the right to life and liberty, but It is also generally accepted that the statement “pursuit of happiness” was code for the right to property; it cannot be denied that marriage can be seen as a contract that includes the transfer of property during the life and with the death of the parties involved.
The Preamble to the Constitution reiterates the primacy of these rights; it is hard not to see the right to marry as one of the “blessings of liberty.” Further, the Bill of Rights includes several rights from which one can argue this right. The Ninth Amendment, which I realize many people scoff at, was included to insure that rights not listed are nonetheless inalienable rights reserved to the People. The right to privacy and the right to vote are often mentioned as rights embodied in the Ninth Amendment, so to is the right to marry.

It could also be argued that the First Amendment’s right to association might include a right to marry. It is hard for me not to think that the decision of someone to “associate” with one individual in perpetuity (at least in theory J ) not be a protected relationship.
The 14th Amendment’s right to equal protection also provides a strong basis for acknowledging a right for gay couples to marry. The question here is what standard of scrutiny the court decides to use, and I would think that since gender is clearly a consideration, especially in the right of lesbians to marry, that a heightened scrutiny standard would be appropriate. This would present a serious challenge to government’s power to exclude gays from marrying as it must prove an “important government interest in a way that is substantially related to that interest.” Thus government must demonstrate why it is important that they preclude gay couples from marrying. At this moment in history, given the fast pace of acceptance for gays in our society, this would be quite a difficult standard to meet, especially if we accept the growing evidence that homosexuality is an immutable characteristic.

I do have one concern: if there is a general right to marry, and if that right must include gays, could we not end up on a slippery slope where currently marginalized relationships, including some many consider perverse, also be tolerated if a right to marry exists. If homosexuality is an immutable characteristic, does it follow that being bisexual is as well. What if a bisexual wanted to marry both a male and a female; what justification could we offer that would not appear inconsistent with the arguments in favor of gay marriage. If marriage is no longer defined as “one man, marrying one woman,” are we now allowed to draw the line at “one person, marrying one person?”
I want to now turn to the question of whether the Republican Party should support gay marriage and the “right to marry;” frankly if they want former members like me to rejoin the Party I strongly suggest they do. In the past year several leading Republicans have expressed support for gay rights, including the right to marry, pointing correctly to the institution of marriage as something that promotes stability and fidelity. The institution of marriage has been in decline, and as a society we should be supportive of two people that choose to spend their lives together as a couple, especially if children are to be part of the equation. Conservatives believe in marriage, they see the importance of marriage, and it follows that they should expand the definition of marriage to include those making that commitment, regardless of their sexual orientation.

Gay marriage will soon be legal in all 50 states; there is no denying that is where the social winds are blowing. The Republican Party can continue to fight windmills, or they can join the real world, use the media to “prime the public” to their arguments in support of gay marriage, and slowly move towards the political center, that place most of us call “home.”


I Have A Dream: My Vision of a New and Improved GOP

In the past several years, more accurately since the rise of the Tea Party, the Republican Party has lost its way. More to the point, it has lost its membership, as people like me no longer feel welcome. In that time a purging has taken place, with the only remaining members being those identified- in some cases generously- as conservatives. There seems to be some sort of intellectualizing of the idea that Republican values and ideals can ONLY be expressed through a conservative perspective. As a matter of fact I’m listening to a Republican strategist right now on MSNBC that is making the continued mistake of conflating the conservative viewpoint of being representative of the entire Republican Party, and therein lays the crux of the problem.

 I am here to tell you that his view is wrong, and that there are “Republican values” that can be held consistently by both the conservative and more progressive wings of the Party. I know that because I am one of those progressives, and I was once a loyal member of the Party. For those who will listen, I would like to present those values and ideals that I believe the Republican Party should be espousing, that they should be promoting to the public as they seek to regain “market share” in the political sphere. They are values and ideals that would be attractive to a broad demographic, and they could even help make inroads in urban areas, currently little more than deserts to the GOP. I am going to limit discussion of individual issues like abortion, immigration, or gun control, as they should be somewhat tailored to reflect local culture and custom. This is also consistent with general Republican belief and consistent with, at least before the Tea Party came on board, the idea that governance requires negotiation and compromise in pursuit of pragmatic solutions to national issues.
What does it mean to be a Republican? What values and principles could conservatives and progressives both embrace? One is the idea of a limited but vigorous national government. Conservatives and progressives may differ on what issues the Party should emphasize, and that will no doubt be the subject of lively debate. The wisdom of our Founders must endure; their confidence in individuals-through their associations with others in the economic and social spheres- must be honored and promulgated. And their belief in federalism should be promoted through a relationship where the federal government “challenges” and rewards innovative states that meet federal goals and standards and continuously improves its citizens’ quality of life. Republicans must stop “bad mouthing” government as somehow in opposition to the People. We cannot have our elected officials damage the public’s perception of its government but instead do all that they can to make sure government is transparent, responsive, and representative or it will lose its legitimacy. The integrity of our institutions are essential if we are to truly honor the legacy of our Founders; this means foregoing efforts to “game” both the process for electing our representatives and the legislative process that creates our nation’s laws. The creation of our Nation was one history’s greatest experiments and I am horrified at the thought of Republicans actively trying to undermine our Founders incredible achievement.

  A second is the belief in fiscal restraint. Both “wings” of the Party agree that the body politic should not be seen as a bottomless pit, and that revenue should be judiciously allocated to accomplish short term needs and long term goals. Expenditures must be seen as investments in the American people; at the point where such expenditures are seen as creating dependence on the state then it must be reconsidered. This would apply to so-called “corporate welfare” as much as it does to individuals. Fiscal restraint does not mean being parsimonious nor overly austere. Democrats will continue to promote “demand side” policies, deficit spending, and the role of government in stimulating the economy when consumer spending and business investment contract. Republicans must accept this, but be the voice of moderation and discipline. Opportunity cost will be a hotly debated concept as Republicans seek to find the most productive uses for limited resources. Demonstrating restraint means that choices will be made, and it is important that as a result of those choices the Party does not appear aligned with those with the resources to care for themselves.
The legitimate use of military power is a principle consistent with these aforementioned values. The use of force should be limited to those situations where the national security of the United States is being threatened. This is not to be confused with our national interests, a much broader concept. This use of power necessarily includes the security of our borders and projects outwards to address other threats to our sovereignty. The Republican Party must not have an adventurous nature, nor should we believe that it is our sovereign duty to be the world’s watchdog. We must be willing to participate in military actions taken on behalf of the world community, but such actions must be multinational.

Economic mobility and economic efficiency are cornerstones of a well- functioning free market economy where participation is based on merit, where consumers are fully informed, and where businesses engage in honest competition. Opportunity for the poor to ascend upward to the middle class, and frankly for the wealthy and middle class to descend must be insured by the government in the name of justice and fairness. Support for a strong “entrepreneurial class” is inherent in this goal of economic mobility. There are an enormous variety of variables that affect an individual’s potential for economic success a nd mobility, and conservative Republicans must be willing to concede, for example, that a strong public education system and a strong public transportation system are important components of a free market that is fluid and fair. They must also resist efforts by small, well- organized special interest groups, or “distributional coalitions,” to borrow a phrase from Mancur Olson, from seeking the kinds of government protection that reduce efficiency, reduce aggregate income, and raise social costs. They represent a serious threat to both our economic and political systems.
Guaranteeing a dignified quality of life is another Republican value, one that is rooted in both the Declaration of Independence and our Constitution’s preamble. Whether this is provided through entitlements or earned benefits (these are not necessarily the same thing), adults, and especially children, have a right to lead a dignified life. These great documents are rooted in social contract theory, and as such they embody the belief that each individual, in exchange for giving up their absolute freedom and agreeing to abide by society’s rules, should not have to spend their life wanting for food, shelter, or good health. This concern for the dignity of the individual extends beyond these necessities, however, and includes actions by those empowered to maintain law and order within our communities. Dating back to Adam Smith, capitalism conceives of a role for government and it would be laughable to think otherwise, and providing a “floor” to support those less fortunate, those unable to care for themselves, and those that helped defend our nation. This notion of providing a “floor” is wholly consistent with the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the social contract theory on which they were derived.

Engagement in civic life is essential for the vitality and legitimacy of a democracy, and conservative and progressive Republicans can agree that participation in political and social institutions, both public and private, creates important connections between the People and its government, and between groups and individuals living in our nation. At a time of growing economic inequality, these connections are critical if we as a nation are to maintain its character and our belief that political institutions are truly being representative of the body politic. De Touqueville noted that this involvement in groups and organizations was unique, setting it apart from Europe and a quality that helps us maintain our special character. These connections are also important because Republicans tend to be averse to using the courts to “force” change on the citizenry, and more inclined to believe that change should evolve and percolate through the culture. As of late Republicans have been seen as the party trying to limit participation by particular groups, and that is unacceptable. We as Republicans should be trying to broaden and deepen participation, lest we turn our backs on our nation’s heritage and exceptionalism.
There are two more “value pillars” on which the Republican Party rests. One pillar is energy independence. Many years ago I read a wonderful essay in the Atlantic about whether the US should pursue a “staying on top” or “tending the front yard” economic policy in the global environment. If you believe as I do that tending the yard is a more appropriate, practical goal, then you can see why energy independence is so critical. In a world with dwindling natural resources and the potential for other nations to exploit their advantages, energy independence affords us a greater sense of autonomy and security.

The final ideal that Republicans of all political temperaments must agree is environmental integrity. The Republican Party must connect with both the past and the future, and the delicate nature of our environment must be acknowledged. It must also be acknowledged that the condition with which we leave our environment is as much a part of our legacy as the condition of our economy or political institutions. The Republican Party has a proud heritage as conservators of our nation’s natural beauty, and true conservatives, as well as progressives, need to embrace this important value. America the Beautiful is a wonderful song, it would be a shame if future generations had no personal connection to its words. Whether domestically or internationally, the government must take a leadership role in promoting environmental integrity for the sake of our own well-being and the ability of future generations to at the very least maintain the quality of life enjoyed by the People.

Earlier in this essay I posed the question “What does it mean to be a Republican?” I have suggested a series of ideals and principles that can be embraced by both conservative and progressive Republicans. They may and likely will differ on the issues that should be atop the Party agenda, and they may and likely will differ on what it considers reasonable proposals in the spirit of negotiation with Democrats and the formulation of pragmatic solutions to the issues facing government. Quite frankly, it is likely that the Democratic Party shares at least some of these principles and ideals. So why be a Republican if there is so little difference between the parties? The answer to that question may lay with the “talking points” of the Party; the values that Republicans believe should have primacy in this nation. It is these values that further distinguish Republican approaches to Democratic approaches. Think of these values as the lenses through which Republicans view our nation. Thought of in terms of a “bully pulpit,” these are the values that Republican leaders should be espousing as the keys to our strength as a nation and as a people.
Yes, we are a diverse nation, but let the Democrats harp on the differences between people. The Republican Party should be promoting the oneness and unity of Americans, those things we have in common that make us Americans. There is indeed something exceptional about America, and one of the great features of our nation, what made us unique from the time of our founding is that Americans don’t, in contrast to Europe for example, “think with our blood.” It is that thinking that gave us the Thirty Years War, one of the many great tragedies that befell people who think that way.

On economics, Republicans should be promoting policies that reflect the importance of economic mobility, that we pursue policies that will not make being poor a generational certainty. Domestically, this means making a strong commitment to what are historically considered to be the engines of innovation and growth, namely entrepreneurship and small business. These are values that will resonate in the inner city and help Republicans make inroads into our increasingly decaying urban areas. Internationally, our economic position should be to support free trade among equal partners, and fair trade among unequal partners. We should also be pursuing policies that require countries we trade with to improve working conditions and regulation to increasingly reflect the higher standards we maintain; the alternative is a reduction in wages and conditions in our own economy, something we should not do.
Education should also be an important talking point for Republicans, and though it is ok to continue pushing vouchers, vouchers and competition alone are not sufficient. Most Republicans probably don’t realize this, but charter schools were not envisioned as competition for public schools but as “laboratories” that would collaborate with our public schools. Our focus should be on urban schools, and Republicans should be encouraging less government intrusion and oversight. Instead, we should support a more entrepreneurial approach to education; liberating schools to operate more independently, as if they were themselves charter schools. We value liberty more than equality; we don’t want urban schools to be like suburban schools, we want them to be unique, innovative, and fully integrated into the community. Republicans believe that the private sector should play an active role in urban education, that teachers should receive performance pay, and that the curriculum should be less focused on “college for everyone” and more focused on providing a practical, skills centered curriculum.

Republican social values and ideals should focus squarely on the primacy of the two parent family and the importance of “middle class values.” There can be no denying that the degree to which we value these ideals is inexorably tied to our success as a nation. The importance of family values and middle class values cuts across socioeconomic and ethnic lines. This is a unifying issue for Republicans from the most conservative to the most progressive.
On social issues, a “broad tent” Republican Party will have views that cut a wide swath. As the more conservative of the two parties, I believe that social and cultural change evolves locally. And as the more libertarian party, it should favor the legalization of behaviors that pose no direct harm to others.

If my dream party were to take a position on abortion, it should be simply that, in light of changes in technology and the quality of health care, that Roe v. Wade should be revisited as being outdated. The trimester standard may no longer be relevant.
Gun control is an issue of “domestic tranquility” and subject to regulation in some form. I would like my party to support registration and a limit on the size of “clips.” Most importantly, I believe that all gun owners be required to purchase liability insurance for the guns they own.

My dream party is committed to energizing the democratic process by working tirelessly to increase participation. Recent efforts to “sanitize” the voting process are a slap in the face of our forefathers. If we truly believe that the people are sovereign and value then we must be promoting policies to increase voter participation and participation in increase civic participation. DeTouqueville noted that this engagement in civic organizations was one of the great features that distinguished us from the nations of Europe.
On foreign policy, the my Dream Party needs to embrace Washington’s concern with entangling alliances and adventures overseas. Since President Carter elevation of “human rights” as a primary value that we will help safeguard, and since the end of the Cold War, the use of our military has become a nightmare, opening us up to a whole menu of potential uses for our military. Whenever possible, we should support international rather than national uses of force, reserving military force to only those instances where our national security is being directly threatened. Our traditional military branches must not get entangled in conflict to the point where “mission creep” keeps us in places they should not be. This has been a real concern in the modern age. I personally we should advance the idea of creating a new branch of the military, one whose mission is “nation building.” They can do the work our current military is being asked to do once they have completed their traditional missions.

This is my vision of a “dream party,” and a vision I would like the Republican Party to embrace. Embracing these values and ideals would, I believe, attract new members and encourage those like me to return. They are values and ideals that cut across ideologies, where conservatives and progressives can both find common ground; these values and issues “tap into” the interests and passions of both ideologies within the Party.
A free market economy that believe entrepreneurism and small business are the engines of growth and innovation, supports economic mobility and fairness through a strong public education system, protects individuals and our environment through sensible regulation, provides a “floor” to assist those that have been disadvantaged by circumstances, supports those who have “earned benefits” through their hard work and contribution to our society, builds an infrastructure to make our economy efficient and allows its citizens great mobility, two parent family and middle class values, states rather than fed, greater

One of the enduring problems that Republicans must grapple with as it considers a role for government is that American history displays both a libertarian and a puritanical nature, resulting in a somewhat schizophrenic “upbringing” for our nation. There are few people who can consistently take a strict ideological view to all of these issues, nor should they. Political solutions in our nation reflect the overwhelmingly pragmatic inclinations of Americans. For a Party to succeed, it must have members that reside somewhere in the middle, or the Party risks drifting too far away from that place where most decisions are made.
I have a dream today, a dream for a party that reflects my values, interests and passions. The Republican Party was once that party, but no longer, and I wish I could be more sanguine about prospects for its return. The Party has been kidnapped and is suffering from a severe case of Stockholm Syndrome. I guess I will continue to dream.



Tea Party Fundamentalism and the Ruination of the GOP

As the CPAC Convention comes to a close, it is also clear that Republican thought has come to be closed too. If CPAC is an expression of conservative thought in the Party I once called home, I can only say that it will still be a while before I can return.

I do not begrudge conservative thought, and even though I consider myself a progressive Republican I certainly have much in common with my conservative brethren and their true conservative views. But what I was able to witness of the Convention through the media left me thinking that today’s conservative leaders demonstrate so little intellectual rigor and so little willingness to even acknowledge the legitimacy of other views that it is clear that the Republican Party has been coopted by the Tea Party, a narrow minded, self-righteous, fundamentalist group that has a poor understanding of our founding, poorly interprets the past, is paranoid about our present, and is unwilling to negotiate for a better future. If these are the people that have been deemed our Party’s intellectual leaders, the GOP might as well stand for the Greatly Offensive Party, or the Growing Obscure Party, or the Grimy Odiferous Party.
When I think of the Republican Party, I think of the party that gave us Lincoln, Roosevelt, Eisonhower, Reagan, and even Nixon on his better days. Who would Tea Partiers look to as their model president? Frankly, none of these men would, based on their policies, be acceptable leaders.

Tea Partiers masquerade as conservatives when they are in fact Reactionaries; it is analogous on the Left to Radicals masquerading as liberals. My problem was Tea Partiers goes beyond substantive differences and this is really where my true sadness for the future of the Party resides. Radicals and Reactionaries share a basic fundamentalist contempt for true discourse that makes them eerily similar to the Taliban, absent the stonings and dismemberments, though….
Tea Partiers would be more at home in a society where they could rule as dictators; at the very least they belong in a parliamentary, unitary system where they would stand a better chance of governing without the need to compromise, where they could scoff at dissent.

I wish the Tea Party would in fact form their own political party rather than wreak havoc on my Republican Party. The complete disrespect they show for our democratic process is both ironic and destructive, and it serves to not only destroy the essence of governance but the legitimacy of our institutions in the eyes of the average citizen. Their ascendency, like most else that is wrong with our political culture, was foreseen by Mancur Olsen, the late political economist whose work demands our attention. His work presents a picture of our democracy that is eerily prescient; the future he predicted is coming true, and I hope someone out there will take notice before it’s too late.


Narromindedness Isn't Limited to the Right

I am an avid believer in the principles espoused by Jonathan Rauch in his wonderful work Kindly Inquisitors.  The essence of the work is an affirmation of the idea that in democratic and capitalist society there cannot be a monopoly on the “truth,” that no one nor any opinion can be said to “end the debate.”

In a democratic society, there can be “no final say,” and that no one can have personal authority to determine what is true. Along with democracy and capitalism, this notion of “liberal science” is the third leg on which our society rests.
As I have regularly remarked, Tea Party Republicans are guilty of one particular type of assault on free thought, that being “fundamentalist” thinking. It is this mindset that continues to doom the Republican Party and preempt any effort to broaden the Party’s appeal.

I must admit, however, that I have spent far too little time challenging similar threats to free expression by the Left. Rauch terms these threats Humanitarianism and Egalitarianism. Included in these ideas is the belief that the views of “members of historically oppressed groups” can claim some sense of superior authority on issues affecting their group, and that they can “demand” that their views be incorporated into what we perceive to be true. These ideas go further in declaring that “words are like bullets,” and so challenging these beliefs is akin to an assault on their being, that they are “hurtful” and should not be expressed, such expression will in essence further marginalize and oppress these groups.
The issue of gay marriage is an issue that exemplifies this pernicious assault on free thought. It is true that there has been rather quick movement in our culture towards acceptance of “gay marriage,” with the latest Pew poll identifying 58% of Americans as favoring its legalization. This statistic has grown rapidly, but it in no way is overwhelming; opinion is still divided, with age being a significant variable.

The libertarian in me says “what the hell, if gays want to marry why should government preclude them.” And the conservative in me also supports gay marriage in that the idea of stable, committed relationships grounded in marriage is a positive thing for our society, whether hetero or homosexual.
The problem I have as a conservative is that I do not believe in using the law to “force” change on a culture- and in this sense I am thinking more locally- that is evolving to accept what is clearly evolving as an acceptable norm.

The problem, as I see it, is that advocates of gay marriage, and gay rights in general, are unwilling to engage in honest discussion, and see attacks on the idea as an act of prejudice and hate.
I am reminded of my days as a teacher and a unit I taught on discrimination. When the subject was gender, I had no problem engaging students in vigorous, intelligent debate. But when the subject turned to race, hands went down and voices died off. Students would actually approach me after class and literally apologize to me for not speaking; they were fearful of being labeled a racist if they offered any opinion that seemed to challenge what might be termed “minority views.”

It is difficult living in a society grounded in “liberal science;” it demands a level of acceptance and, yes, tolerance, that many people find difficult to offer. I am truly fearful of the nature of political discourse evident in our society. Debate is being controlled by those on the fringes and is being reinforced by today’s media, where narrow viewpoints are being expressed and citizens views are confirmed on tv and on radio; the people’s sense that they are right and others are wrong is now the norm.
I see little on the horizon to challenge this reality. The almost complete absence of true statesmen in either political party perpetuates this chilling of true discourse, making it more and more difficult for pragmatism, the true political philosophy of the masses, to control debate. When freedom of thought is compromised, can our democratic and economic institutions be far behind?