Who Should Vote?

As the election nears — you can smell it a mile away! — I thought it appropriate to repost a piece I wrote two years ago that deals with the question of whether or not everyone should “get out and vote.” The push will soon be on, and there are solid reasons this year, especially, to get folks off their butts and into the voting booths (where, we will hope, all will be Kosher). To be sure, the vote this November may determine whether or not this Republic is capable of being saved! But there remains the question about the qualifications that ought to be demanded of those who determine the folks that are given the reins of power in this country. And that question is worth pondering.

The British fought with the issue of suffrage for much of the nineteenth century. How many people should be allowed to vote? It seems such a simple question, but it has numerous ramifications, twists, and convolutions. At the outset, when this nation was first founded, we followed the British example: men with property can vote, but no one else. The idea was that men with property had a vested interest in what their government did or didn’t do. It seemed to make sense. But like the English, we also fought with the issue of extending the suffrage.

One of the best sources to read about this issue, oddly enough, is novel by George Eliot: Felix Holt The Radical. It focuses close attention on the issue of extending the vote in Great Britain to many who were disenfranchised at the time. But the key issue, which the hero brings into sharp focus, is why the vote should be extended to the illiterate and unpropertied (the question of extending the vote to women was shelved until later!). Leaving aside the issue of ownership of property, the question is central to any meaningful discussion of the strengths and weaknesses of democracy. After all, why should those who cannot read and write, who cannot possibly become well informed about the issues of the day, be placed in a position to vote on those who make laws? In Eliot’s novel, Holt takes the “radical”position that all male citizens would be allowed to vote, since everyone has a vested interest in the laws his government passes, whereas his conservative opponents argue the contrary position: only those with the demonstrated ability to understand the issues should be allowed to vote on those who will decide the fate of the nation. As Eliot has one of her Tory clergymen say in the novel:

“There’s no end to the mischief done by these busy prating men. They make the ignorant multitude the judges of the largest questions, both political and religious, till we shall soon have no institution left that is not on a level with the comprehension of a huckster or a drayman. There can be nothing more retrograde — losing all the results of civilization, all the lessons of Providence — letting the windlass run down after men have been turning at it painfully for generations. If the instructed are not to judge for the uninstructed, why, let us set Dick Stubbs to make the almanacs and have a President of the Royal Society elected by universal suffrage.”

In this country we insist upon testing those from other countries who wish to become citizens, but we allow that any child born in the United States can vote upon coming of age, regardless of any other qualifications. In days long gone by, young people growing up in this country took a civics class as a normal part of their high school curriculum in which they learned about the machinations of the government — or at least how many Senators each state has. But no more. In fact, many high schools have gone away from any requirements whatever and allow the students to select most if not all of the courses they want for the four years they are within their hallowed halls. Civics is no longer taught and as result, the young not only do not know how to read and write, they know nothing whatever about the history of their own country or how the government works — the government that they will help select when coming of age.

The situation is complex, but the issues it raises are worth pondering at a time when the democratic system we are all so fond of is beginning to show signs of breaking down. It becomes more and more apparent each day that large numbers of disaffected people simply don’t want to have anything to do with politics (for  good reasons, in many cases) and that by default the wealthy who have hidden agendas are placed in a position to “call the shots.” This hardly amounts to a democratic system; as I have noted in past comments, it is more like an oligarchy, government of the wealthy.

The problem of suffrage, therefore, gives birth to the interesting question whether everyone should vote and if so what qualification they should have, if any. As things now stand, in the interest of –what? — equality, we allow anyone at all to vote as long as they were born in this country and are of age or have passed their citizen’s test. That, in itself, is a problem. But added to it is the thought that despite the fact that it is so easy to vote (too easy?), more and more choose not to do so or vote based on the promises, soon to be broken, of some clown who has no qualifications for office at all.

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Straw Woman

There is an informal fallacy in logic that is committed with great frequency. It is called a “straw man argument.” It occurs when person A misrepresents the argument put forward by person B and attacks the misrepresentation — which is always a weaker form of person B’s original argument. Thus, I might argue that you should stop smoking because there is a very high correlation between cigarette smoking and lung cancer, and despite the fact that a strict cause between cigarette smoking and cancer has not been shown — due to the fact that some people smoke and do not get lung cancer and some who do not smoke  get lung cancer anyway. You might then say, “oh, I see what you’re saying. You’re saying that there really is no risk in smoking because no one has been able to show a causal relationship between the smoking and lung cancer.” In this replay we see the “straw man,” a weaker (distorted?) form of my argument that is easier to attack because it is vulnerable.

A similar sort of thing is taking place in today’s political contest for the office of president of the United States. The opponents of Hillary Clinton have created a “straw woman,” a fictional person who closely resembles the female form of the devil (Trump has actually called her that, among other things!) and who is in no way like the original. This fiction is easy to attack because she embodies evil, is ambitious, dishonest, weak, and determined to bring the country down about her ears.

Now, I don’t know the “real” Hillary Clinton but from what I have read, despite her flaws, she is nothing like the creation of the Tea Party and Donald Trump. But since the real Hillary will be hard to beat, the creation has taken her place in the minds of a great many voters who now hate the woman and would not vote for her even if she could walk on water.

We tend to believe what we want to believe, of course. So it is easy to “sell” this fictional person to the voters of this country who almost certainly fear strong women in their lives in order to sell them their own fiction, a man who “tells it like it is” and offers us his proven expertise as a successful businessman and a refreshing alternative to politics as usual. Clearly, this is a fiction and nothing like what we know about the man himself. But it is a fiction that “sells” and in the minds of a great many people is preferable to the straw woman they have grown to hate and fear.

To be sure, attacks on politicians whose image has been created for us by marketing experts are always terribly weak, though commonplace. Such attacks tend to miss the mark because we have no way to know precisely who those people are and what they will do when elected to public office. Such is the case with Hillary Clinton — and Donald Trump, to be honest — because the straw woman has become the main figure in the target practice that has become politics. Create the image you want to hate and start slinging mud. That’s now the name of the game.

As responsible voters, we must do whatever we can to put aside those caricatures and try to see who the people running for office really are: listen carefully to what they have to say, “vet” them to know as far as possible how much experience they have had and what sort of track record they have thus far. We must rely on the media, which is a problem, but there are sources that are known to be unreliable (e.g., Fox News) and there are sources that are known to be reliable (e.g., the New York Times, CNN, and PBS — or even the BBC). The latter sources are more likely to present us with a true picture of the candidate than are the former. But, in the end, we must be as sure as we can be that the person we vote for is the person himself or herself and not a straw image that will hurst into flames as soon as elected.

Formula For Success

So, you wanna be president, eh? I have some tips for you garnered from years of looking and listening at key holes. These are some of the things successful politicians do to win voters — especially voters that would put them in the White House. Pay close attention!

  1. Exude confidence. Appear to be in charge. You want to convince your listeners that you have everything under control, are cool under fire, and will achieve greatness.
  2. Know your audience. Know what they want to hear and tell them precisely that. It’s not about what is true, it’s about what people want to hear.
  3.  Repeat. Again, repeat. If you say something several times people will believe it is true, whether it is or not. Indeed, truth is not the issue, it’s all about what people want to hear and saying it enough times that they will believe whatever you say.
  4. Appeal to emotion. Don’t try to overwhelm your audience with facts. Facts will just confuse people. Know your audience and know what they fear and what they desire. Exploit their known prejudices: play on them. Then probe. And repeat.
  5. Deal in generalities. Don’t get bogged down in specifics. People don’t what specifics anyway. They want clichés and formulas, no matter how vapid or even how untrue. Richard Nixon won his way into the White House by telling folks he “had a plan” for getting us out of Viet Nam. He never said what that plan was, because, as it turned out, he had none. But people believed him because it was what they wanted to hear (refer back to point #2 above).
  6. Smile, look sincere, and pause for effect after saying something your audience responds to favorably — as though you knew what they were thinking.
  7. Never, ever admit you were wrong. Don’t change your mind even if it has been shown that what you said was a bald-faced lie. Stick by your guns and attack those who insist that what you said was untrue. People prefer their candidates to be self-assured, even if they are chronic liars. They won’t recognize a lie anyway and very few of them will bother to check your “facts” to see if they are true.
  8. Pander to your audience. Give them more credit than they deserve. As a group they may have a collective I.Q. of 73.6 but treat them as though they are brilliant and wise enough to make you their choice for president.
  9. Attack your opponents at every opportunity. Blame every problem on them, especially if something terrible has just occurred, and assure your audience that if you were president this sort of thing would not have happened and will never happen again if your are elected. Your opponents can do nothing right. Stress that. Don’t worry whether or not this is true because, as said above, the audience doesn’t care about the truth, they want to hear what they already believe is true.
  10. Keep it short. K.I.S.S. No long sentences. No logic. No lengthy explanations with data and evidence to support. Remember that your audience has the attention-span of a cocker spaniel and act accordingly.

Buying A Government

The wealthy Republicans who recently attempted to buy the government of the United States for millions of dollars are sitting and licking their wounds. If you look quickly you can see them over there sulking behind the trees. There’s no doubt their attempt to buy the Presidency and the majority of the Senate didn’t work out as they had planned — this time. But they will be back and next time they are determined to spend more money and win. A recent article by Robert Reich gives the details of the last political campaign and the plans the Republicans have for the next go-round, but there are a few things I might add.

As Reich notes, Sheldon Adelson, who owns the Las Vegas Sands Corporation and has a net worth reported to be $21.5 billion spent around $100 million of his pocket change  mostly on lost causes this time around. But he knows about gambling, he has bottomless pockets, and he has pledged to win the pot next time. He has already started interviewing Republican candidates for the next run at the Presidency. Hold on to your hats.

Adelson (like the Koch brothers who spent $400 million of their own money in the last election) is determined to get a government in place that will make sure people like him are permitted to increase their already obscene wealth even more — to rid themselves (and the rest of us) of those pesky Federal agencies like the E.P.A. and regulations that are, from their point of view, an expensive nuisance — and from our point of view necessary for our  health and well-being. The Koch brothers reportedly support an organization called the “American Legislative Exchange Council” that funds politicians around the country to make sure they get into key positions in state governments and then in return push the items on the Koch agenda. The end justifies any means.

Money is power and it always has been. And there have always been wealthy men and women (mostly men) who push their own agendas and do whatever they can to get weak people they can control into positions of power. But the game has changed in this country after the “Citizens United” decision by the Supreme Court that eliminated spending limits on political candidates by individuals and corporations in the name of “free speech.” This has raised the stakes considerably.

It does appear we are playing with a stacked deck. Not only that, but the game that is now being played follows house rules and the house is owned by people like Adelson and the Koch brothers. It really isn’t fair, but our cries of outrage and anger will almost certainly fall on deaf ears. As Reich says in concluding his article, there really are only two viable alternatives to help us avoid the coming purchase of our government by the very wealthy:

As income and wealth become ever more concentrated in America, the nation’s billionaire political investors will invest even more.

A record $6 billion was spent on the 2012 campaign, and outside groups poured $1.3 billion into political races, according to data from the Federal Election Commission and the Center for Responsive Politics.

That’s why Citizens United v. the Federal Election Commission has to be reversed – either by a Supreme Court that becomes aware of the poison it’s unleashed into our democracy, or by a constitutional amendment.

It’s also why we need full disclosure of who contributes what to whom.

In a word, if we want to stay in the game, “Citizens United” must either be overturned by the Supreme Court (unlikely) or we must hope that a Constitutional amendment can be passed to throw out the ridiculous decision that ruled corporations to be persons. And, clearly, there should be spending limits in all political elections. I guess the ball’s in our court.

In Abe’s Footsteps

A fascinating article in USA Today (11/29/12) suggests that some members of our Congress have seen the film Lincoln and have learned from it how to do their job. Right! Believe that and I have some farm land in the Everglades that I want to sell you. These people clearly do not know how to do their job and watching a Hollywood film isn’t going to solve the problem. It’s called “grid lock,” and our government has a bad case of it. The framers had one eye on the English system of government when they were writing our Constitution; they should have kept both eyes on their model. Unlike the English, we are unable to call time-out and hold new elections when the government reaches an impasse such as the one they are stuck on at present. Lincoln to the rescue!

Senator Dick Durbin (D-Ill) is convinced he learned valuable lessons from the film — which depicts Lincoln’s struggles to get the Congress to agree to the Emancipation Proclamation. “We want to prove that democracy is not chaos,” he said on MSNBC recently. “That’s what we have to prove to this generation.” Hot Damn!!  This is exciting stuff, though it is not clear who the “we” refers to. The film needs to be required of all members of Congress. It’s not sufficient that Dick and a couple of his friends saw the movie.

As we all know the Congress is facing a crisis, which has been called the “fiscal cliff,” to scare the crap out of the rest of us. The Republicans have pledged themselves not to raise taxes — especially on the wealthy who helped them get elected. On the other hand, the Democrats are unwilling to cut social programs that many see as unnecessary and expensive ways to encourage leeches who know only how to put their hands out and take from the rest of us.  But with their eye on Lincoln and their hearts true as steel, they will soldier on in the knowledge that progress (which “is never made by pure means”) is just around the corner and we will avoid the cliff altogether.

There are any number of problems with all this of course. To begin with, there are those who think the drastic cuts in programs — including “defense” — are essential and would not be a bad thing. And the tax increases are long overdue, especially on the wealthy who may in fact be the ones with their hands out. In any event, there is considerable disagreement among experts as to whether or not we will break our collective neck if we fall over the cliff. It is a gamble, to be sure. But it is not the big hairy monster that has been held up before our eyes to scare us to death. More importantly, Congress shouldn’t have to see a movie about Abraham Lincoln to learn how to do its job. This is ludicrous. But when we reflect that these people for the most part know only how to get themselves elected it stands to reason they might draw a blank when it came to the question: what do I do now?

Lincoln was a genius at working with people he disagreed with. He kept an open mind, had infinite patience, and was willing to listen to opinions that differed from his own. It is not clear that today’s politicians can do any of these things. They seem to spend all their time garnering votes and listening to those who think like themselves; they refuse to open themselves to new ideas. As Martha Moore said in USA Today, “It could be seen as alarming that a movie is needed to remind Washington that legislation requires both leadership and compromise.” Alarming, to be sure. But not surprising when we recall that these people are professional politicians who are loyal to the monied interests that got them elected and are focused almost entirely on the next election. Governing this country is not their primary interest or something they are fully qualified to do — whether or not they watch a film about the greatest president this country ever had.

What He Said!

[ This is a bit of a cop-out. But I spent Thanksgiving with my son and his family and wasn’t able to write a blog. But after seeing the feeble response the last two days I may stop blogging altogether. I must say I liked the time away from the computer! In any event, I am “borrowing” this editorial because I couldn’t have said it better myself. I hope I don’t get sued.]

LET’S MAKE FEBRUARY “NATIONAL GOVERNING MONTH.”

By Jeff Greenfield

Did you know that Hillary Clinton has a commanding lead in the Iowa caucuses, just 162 weeks or so away in 2016? That’s what POLITICO reported—“exclusively,” no less—60 hours or so after President Barack Obama was re-elected.

Did you know that Republicans are optimistic about re-taking the Senate in 2014, what with 20 Democratic seats in play compared with only 13 GOP seats? The Washington Post offered up a detailed look at the field in September, two months before the 2012 races had been decided.

Did you know that Republicans Marco Rubio, Paul Ryan, Jeb Bush, Mitch Daniels, Chris Christie and John Thune might run for president next time, along with Democrats Andrew Cuomo, John Hickenlooper and Martin O’Malley?

Now I know what you’re thinking: Here comes another rant deploring these worthless exercises in political prognostication.

But friends, the truth is I have given up the ghost. The forces that propel the political community into premature evaluation—or is it electoral dysfunction—are simply too powerful to withstand. Would-be candidates have money to raise, consultants to hire. Those in the congressional minorities gaze wistfully at the perquisites of sub-committee chairmanships and dream of wielding a gavel and holding forth on Sunday talk shows.

As for the political press: nothing better encapsulates our sense of priorities than a single sentence spoken by one of the nation’s best-known journalists who had a front-row seat during Obama’s first term.

“I’ve been waiting for this day for three and a half years!” this correspondent exulted from Des Moines last January, on the morning of the Iowa caucuses.

(I am preserving anonymity because those sentiments could have been expressed by dozens of others.)

Taxes? Budgets? Two wars? Yeah, yeah, but this is Iowa, baby!

So, rather than emulating King Canute and beseeching the tide of campaign-centric obsession to recede, I offer instead a more modest proposal: Let’s make February 2013 National Governing Month.

For that one month, let’s have our elected officials agree not to appear at any political gathering; not to fund-raise; not to hold committee hearings whose chief purpose is to embarrass the other party. Let’s have the president agree to a similar set of restrictions.

Instead, for the entire twenty-eight days, let the folks we just elected to run the government . run the government.

Instead of running across the street from the Capitol to offices where it’s legal to make money-begging calls, members of the House and Senate would stay at the Capitol, possibly even trying to discover some common ground.

Instead of churning out press releases, Tweets, blogs, and talking points, the army of political operatives would find other work to do — perhaps cleaning up public parks.

As for the press, the First Amendment does seem to preclude any official sanction for political gas-baggery. Still, it is at least possible to imagine that reporters might be shamed into temporary silence when a normally effusive political community collectively said, “Don’t you know this is National Governing Month? Call me March 1st.”

Okay, maybe that “shame the press” idea is overreaching.

But we are, I think, already getting a sense of what National Governing Month might offer us in the way of a more substantive, less overtly politicized political atmosphere.

When Congress and the White House built the political Doomsday Device known as “sequestration,” with its toxic brew of spending cuts and tax hikes, the assumption was that getting really close to the “fiscal cliff” would be unthinkable. With that cliff only weeks away, some serious analysis about the priorities of government and the nature of the tax burden has begun to dominate the conversation.

Now imagine making that kind of conversation a permanent part of the political calendar. Who knows? In those 28 days of National Governing Month, it might even occur to folks that dreaming about next election might not be the most productive use of time and energy.

Well, this is a fantasy.

Birds Of A Feather

A recent story on CNBC and picked up by Yahoo News about David Siegel, C.E.O. of Westgate Resorts, deserves a comment. The man wrote to his employees and told them that if Obama is reelected he may have to downsize and they might lose their jobs. He insists that this is not extortion, but let me quote him directly as this is a key issue:

Siegel stressed that he wasn’t out to intimidate his workers into voting for Romney. “I can’t tell anyone to vote,” he said. But he wants to make sure his workers made an informed choice. “I want my employees to be educated on what could happen to their future if the wrong person is elected.”

In a word: this is not a threat, but if you vote for the “wrong person” you may need to find another job. The man has obviously never heard about the law of contradiction. He simply wants to “educate” his employees. And apparently his weakened reasoning ability is only exceeded by his hypocrisy. He warns against wasteful government spending and yet this is the man who built “Versailles,” reportedly the largest house in America, at a cost that sent him into a financial tailspin resulting in personal sacrifices he now brags about. As the article puts it, “[Siegel and his wife] became symbols of outsized spending, debt and real estate in America. But when the company started buckling under $1 billion in debt during the crisis, the Siegels’ home went into foreclosure and was put up for sale. They cut back on the jet, took the kids out of private school and gave up some of their staff.”

He claims he has turned things around by getting “lean and mean”  (by cutting back on the jet and taking his kids out of private school?) and wants the country to do the same thing. Like so many very wealthy people in this country, this man prides himself on the fact that he made it “on his own.”  As he told his employees in his letter, “. . .people like me who made all the right decisions and invested in themselves are being forced to bail out all the people who didn’t. The people who overspent their paychecks suddenly feel entitled to the same luxuries that I earned and sacrificed 42 years of my life for.”  So many of the very rich simply don’t get it: they really don’t know what it means to struggle and go without. This is becoming a familiar story; the stereotypes just keep tumbling out.

Siegel blames “Obamacare and increased taxes,” which he predicts will follow the president’s reelection, for the projected reduction of some of his 7000 employees. But he ignores the salient fact that among developed countries Americans pay the fewest taxes in the world. The proposed increase in taxes to be paid by the wealthy in this country under Obama would be about 39% — almost exactly what they were under Clinton when the country knew unprecedented economic growth. Additionally, this country is near the bottom of the developed nations in health care, one of the few “civilized” countries without some sort of national health care system — discounting the Affordable Care Act which is in its infancy. And the number of poor grows daily while “Obamacare” in its brief existence has welcomed thousands of the sick under its umbrella — people who had previously been uninsured. The system is not perfect, heaven knows, but it is assuredly a step in the right direction.

What is particularly disturbing about Siegel’s actions are the echoes of Mitt Romney’s dismissal of the 47% of the people in this country who, in his words, have become dependent on the government. Romney famously said it; Siegel simply stands in his shadow and nods his head. The man stoops to extortion and he has a dismissive attitude toward the poor in this country whom he lumps together as leeches and bums — ignoring the fact that many of his 5000 employees who lost their jobs during his “lean and mean” period are probably among their numbers. Shit happens, and it often happens to gifted and highly motivated people who just may happen to work for people like David Siegel.

At a time when the world needs compassion and understanding it is troubling to read about a man who brags about his own success while he threatens others as he denigrates those who struggle simply to keep their heads above water.

Imagine If You Will

Let’s imagine a bright, fairly wealthy woman in her 40s named Dorothy who decides to go into politics. She has genuine concerns about rising costs of education, global warming, the environment, and the economy. She is a women of strong principles and is convinced that she can help improve her world. In order to run for office, she must attach herself to a political party, of course, since the costs of running a campaign these days are prohibitive — even for a woman who is fairly well-healed as Dorothy happens to be. So, let’s say, she decides to run as a Democrat since she has always tended toward the left a bit and that party seems to be more in sympathy with her concerns.

At this point, we must speculate, but we can make some pretty good guesses: she will have to adopt the party’s agenda as her own, even though she doesn’t agree with all of the items on that agenda. She’s not overly fond of the health care plan the party has endorsed, for example. And their stand on the environment strikes her as weak. But in order to get into the fray, she must accept the party’s agenda. Thus she starts by making a compromise. Or two. Then she meets with wealthy people who want to support her candidacy and as she needs their financial support she agrees to push for several of the items high on their agendas if she is elected. So she makes a few more compromises in order to bring those people along with her.

You get the picture? As she progresses along the path toward election she makes compromises here and there until the agenda she embraces in the end bears little resemblance to the one she started out with. She reasons that once elected she will be able to pursue those things she holds dear. In the meantime, she is focused on her election. As the days and week pass, she begins to realize that once elected she will need to continue to focus on her reelection as that becomes necessary if she wants to remain active in politics. In a word, the election and the reelection become the main focus of Dorothy’s attention and the compromises she has made along the way necessitate that she become a tool of those who have helped her get where she is. Without their assistance, she never would have gotten to first base And she will never get reelected: she owes them all. That’s the problem, isn’t it? Her personal agenda gets swallowed up in the frenzy of becoming elected and then staying in office.

This is a fictional example, of course, but I am convinced there is truth in fiction, even fiction of my own invention.  I suspect this little fiction isn’t far from the truth and if so it would explain why there is so much disenchantment especially among the young about politics in general and disillusionment about certain candidates who have been a disappointment once elected to public office. We now have a breed of professional politicians who are expert at getting elected (and making the compromises necessary to do that) and whose main goal once in office is to remain there. Socrates said long ago that it is not possible for a person to enter the political arena and retain their integrity. I suspect he was right.