The modern Republican Party

In late 1981, when I was in the fifth grade, I had an assignment to write a letter to a famous person. I chose Ronald Reagan. In my letter I told him that I thought he was doing a great job as president, among other lines of praise.

I received a response a few months later, thanking me for my letter and "for being my friend."

I don't know what happened to that letter. One thing I do know, though, is the betrayal I felt four years later, when I watched him making a speech on television. The part of this speech that stood out at me was his use of the word "liberal" as though it were an insult.

There was a Mad Magazine article from a few years prior that highlighted the differences between liberal and conservative in a humorous way and I knew that I leaned more liberal than conservative, although I would be quick to point out that neither liberals nor conservatives have any "lock" on either the truth or the best solutions to a given problem.

That speech motivated the teenage version of me to take a much more honest look at the Ronald Reagan I had praised a few years earlier. Indeed, the praise my nine-year-old self heaped upon him stemmed entirely from the understanding that he wanted to cut taxes and not even from the consequences of those tax cuts. And I didn't like much — if anything — that I saw in this new assessment of the man who would remain the president for more than two years still.

For two side notes to this assessment, I strongly suspect that my high school bully hated that I did this, and my feelings towards Michael Dukakis's campaign stop in my high school skewed in his favor at about the same time.

It shouldn't be a surprise, then, that I registered as a Democrat when I reached the voting age of 18 in 1990. The only election since then that I've missed, was in 1993 when I was an exchange student in Russia.

I still maintain that neither liberals nor conservatives have a lock on the best solutions. I am open to trying most proposed solutions and will reject only the ones that are too costly to implement, too unlikely to succeed, or which have been demonstrated not to work. (Easy example: the problem of teenage pregnancy. Comprehensive sex education has been demonstrated beyond any doubt, to reduce the rates of both of teen pregnancy and STD infection. It is the correct solution. Abstinence only education fails at both and is unnecessarily expensive.)

So this means that, despite my official registration as a Democrat, I am open to voting for other political parties, even the Republicans. I watched in horror throughout the 90s as members of the Republican Party followed Reagan's lead in using the word "liberal" as an insult, as if that were the end of the debate. An ad hominem attack that, if you leaned to the left, shouldn't even be thought of as an insult.

I further watched the GOP cling to the thoroughly disproven hypothesis that tax cuts for the richest members of our society somehow creates jobs and spurs economic growth. What it does do is allow them to hide their money away and keep it to themselves while offering relatively few benefits to the rest of the country, especially at a time when the infrastructure is crumbling and ethnic hatred is on the rise.

Then came 2004. Senator Arlen Specter (R-PA), was running for reelection as the senior senator from Pennsylvania. I liked the man, having met him on at least two occasions previously. He had some ideas I didn't entirely care for but for the most part, he served the state and the country well. He received a primary challenge from a congressman named Pat Toomey, who modeled himself as being similar to my other senator, Rick Santorum.

Now let me make it clear that at no time during his twelve years serving as my junior senator (1995 to 2007) did Mr. Santorum say or do anything of note that made me think of him as deserving of an important position within the government. If he represented the future of the Republican Party, then I expressed my concern for that future.

So that scared me about Pat Toomey. And it frightened me even more to have to watch Sen. Specter hew rightward to fend off the challenge from Toomey. Although Specter did fend him off, the vote was far too close for me to feel comfortable. It was at that moment that I realized that I could not, in good conscience, vote republican.

This was not an automatic giveaway to the democrats, mind you, but that feeling has persisted for thirteen years now, and the Republican Party has only gotten worse in the intervening years.

I know I've said this already in this essay, but it bears repeating: neither liberals nor conservatives have a lock on the best solutions. We should not categorically dismiss any proposal or policy solution on the basis of either the identity of the person proposing it or whether the proposal is considered "liberal" or "conservative". (Those two terms are quite fluid anyway… Ideologically, for example, Barack Obama seemed to hew relatively close to the opinions of Dwight D Eisenhower but regularly got criticized by Fox News for being among the most liberal presidents in history.)

So Reagan started the vilification of his political opposition. The two Bushes fostered it. It spread to the House of Representatives when Newt Gingrich became speaker of the house but his successor as speaker, Dennis Hastert, made things worse by creating a new rule that effectively rendered the minority party in the house impotent.

And now we have a legitimate Nazi in the White House, next to a white supremacist, at the hand of a president who based his entire campaign on xenophobia and white resentment. After the tragedy in Charlottesville, VA last weekend, Trump couldn't call out the people who were responsible because they're the only ones who still support him unequivocally.

Donald Trump doesn't love his country. He loves himself and little else. He himself is a symptom, a natural progression from the enmity that started within the Republican Party nearly 40 years ago.

More than a month before the election, I wrote that, of all major party candidates for the presidency in American history, Donald Trump was the least deserving of any votes. I'm not going to say "I told you so" but I will say that I may have been too kind to the man in that essay. He's a disgrace and an embarrassment to the office he holds, his political party, and his country.

Movieguide’s New Low

I've written before about the Christian movie review site Movieguide. I've come to expect dishonesty if it furthers their worldview but they've got a new article that's appalling even by their standards.

Entitled "Wake Up Google," I first thought (hoped?) that maybe they'd take a stand for simple human decency and condemn the so-called Google manifesto that's been circulating on social media for about the past week. That manifesto is the stuff of another essay, but I'll just say that diversity is almost always a good thing and you look stupid if you try to argue otherwise.

No, Movieguide is up in arms about the supposed hypocrisy of Google for simultaneously supporting The Equal Justice Initiative while lobbying congress in opposition to changes to the controversial Communications Decency Act of 1996.

Let's ignore, for a moment, that whatever lobbying is done by Google's parent company, Alphabet, is completely unrelated to its social outreach. But the CDA is problematic on simple first amendment grounds. If any right guaranteed by the constitution is sacrosanct, it's the freedom of speech. No matter how outrageous the speech is, it is protected. It's why we have the right to protest outside of military funerals with signs reading "god hates fags." If that kind of speech is legally protected, I can't imagine what wouldn't be.

Certainly not pornography. And the CDA is thinly veiled censorship. When you hear people say things like "what about the children?" you know they don't know how to protect their children from some of the less desirable aspects of the world and/or things the children are not yet old enough to see and hear. Google is right for not wanting to expand the CDA.

Movieguide then goes on to list six murder victims in defense of their position that we need to get violent pornographic images off the internet. Since they didn't provide any links to their stories, I decided to google their stories (ironic, I know…). And damn, did they mislead its readers about what happened in their cases.

What do the six victims have in common besides being female? First off, they were all citizens of the UK, which means that nothing related to changes to American law would have made a difference in their cases. Five of them were strangled, and the sixth we simply don't know how she died because her body was never found and the killer isn't talking. Of the other five killers, only one could claim to be influenced by violent pornography he found online. But even he said that he was interested in erotic asphyxia before he found the porn of it. And the sex was consensual with his girlfriend/victim as he choked her. He went too far and pleaded guilty to manslaughter. He was convicted of murder anyway.

I get that sites like Movieguide are big on censorship and they have no use for sexually charged imagery. But let the truth get in the way of a good narrative when the lie serves your purposes much better?

Huh?

When I was in high school, I had the privilege of going to a university-level lecture on one occasion (at a local university). The topic of the lecture was Abraham Lincoln. I remember two aspects of the man's life that stuck out at me from that lecture:

  • In his younger days, he and his lawyer friends debated "why men have tits" and came to the conclusion that it has to do with contingencies in case men should ever bear children
  • After a rainy night, he looked out the White House window and declared that "there's enough mud and bullshit out there to make a politician."

The point of both of these points is to disabuse people of popular contemporary imagery that results in a tendency to lionize, if not deify, our sixteenth president. Lincoln's critics in his day perceived him as a joker and a buffoon (at times with good reason). One critic called the Gettysburg Address "silly, flat, and dishwatery" and referred to the man who presented it as "a man who must be pointed out to foreigners as president of the United States." (Although, given that the daguerreotype was a relatively new invention at the time, that's probably a true statement of all of his predecessors, too…)

I mention this because Donald Trump made a comment during a recent rally where he said he's been more presidential than anyone other than Lincoln. And that seriously raises questions of what it means to be "presidential".

I've pondered things like this before. Without regard to what else may or may not be true about the 44 unique people to claim the title of "President" (including their ability to perform the duties and the quality of the job done), it's probably fair to say that some were more presidential than others.

There are some names that, if you know nothing else about them, just sound like they could be a president. Thomas Jefferson. James Madison. James Buchanan. Or more recently, John Kennedy or Bill Clinton. Others, not quite so much. Martin Van Buren. Millard Fillmore. Richard Nixon. Barack Obama. The name Donald Trump feels like it could be somewhere in the middle. Probably below James Polk but above Grover Cleveland.

Then there are just certain looks that seem presidential. There's a certain mythology to the iconic images of presidents who have gone on to appear on our currency or have dedicated memorials to their legacies, that they look presidential. And it's hard to argue against that. Would Andrew Jackson be perceived as "presidential" if he didn't appear on the $20 bill? (We may learn in a few years…) What about Teddy Roosevelt and his appearance on Mount Rushmore? (With erosion, we'll probably find out in a few million years.) With the possible exception of Gerald Ford, we haven't had any truly presidential looking presidents since JFK.

What about grand oratory and passionate, moving speeches? This is one of the arenas where a president can truly shine, both on his own and with the assistance of speechwriters. And I'm talking about the whole package: the words themselves, the tone of voice, the gestures and body language. Both planned speeches and off-the-cuff remarks. There have been some truly remarkable speeches in presidential history. The beauty of the Gettysburg Address is its simplicity. Which speeches have the most memorable lines? "Steer clear of any permanent alliances" (George Washington's farewell address). "We have nothing to fear but fear itself." (FDR's first inaugural). "Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country." (JFK's inaugural). "There's nothing wrong with America that can't be cured by what's right with America." (Bill Clinton's first inaugural…)

I could probably go back significantly further back in history than I am, but in the post-World War II presidents, there has been a huge disparity between the democratic presidents (who, as a whole, were excellent orators), and the republican presidents (who, with the exception of Ronald Reagan, have gotten progressively worse at giving speeches). I remember commenting on a news forum in January, 2002, after George W Bush's state of the union address (the first such speech after September 11), that his delivery turned an otherwise interesting speech into a cure for insomnia. Trump has to be near the bottom of the pile here, and that's saying a lot.

Presidential? Trump could be, but he sure isn't acting like it now….

What does it mean, anyway?

There’s an excellent article over at The Washington Post, that points out — accurately — that we need to stop throwing around the word “treason” in the context of any parts of the political scandal that currently engulfs the White House, or any aspects of what is increasingly looking like many illegal activities that culminated in Donald Trump’s electoral victory last November.  Whatever crimes were committed in the greater process, treason is not one of them.   

The definition of treason is outlined in article 3 of the Constitution. And nothing done by anyone associated with the Donald Trump campaign — even if every allegation against everyone happens to be true — rises to the level of treason by simple virtue of the fact that we are not at war with Russia.   

So yeah, there are lots of crimes worth exploring.   They range from campaign finance violations to conspiracy, to obstruction of justice, to perjury, to countless other crimes I can’t even begin to guess.  But treason is not one of them.   So we really shouldn’t bandy that word around in the context of the election or the Trump White House.   

But at least the word “treason” has a practical working definition.  There’s another word — a phrase actually — that is being used a fair amount that doesn’t even have that.   The phrase is “constitutional crisis.”  I’ve always interpreted the phrase to mean a situation that the constitution doesn’t address in terms of how to govern (and Wikipedia seems to back me up on this) but all too often we see it in the capacity of infighting within the government and when there are scandals that could affect the day-to-day performance of government activities.  When Bill Clinton was impeached a lot of people called it a constitutional crisis and I thought back then that it wasn’t a crisis.  Indeed, it might have been a personal crisis for Clinton himself, but the constitution definitely allows for it.   

That’s not to say there haven’t been constitutional crises in American history:

  • In 1841, William Henry Harrison died a little over a month after taking the oath of office, and the constitution didn’t have any provisions as to what should happen upon the death of the president.  There was no shortage of people who argued that his Vice President, John Tyler, didn’t automatically become president, and the appropriate title would have been interim president or caretaker or, mockingly, “His Accidency”.  From a purely legal perspective, this question wouldn’t actually be resolved until more than 120 years later with the passage of the 25th Amendment (after the death of the most recent president to die in office).
  • In 1861, following the election of Abraham Lincoln, several states seceded from the Union and formed the Confederacy.   The constitution did not (and still doesn’t) provide for any circumstances under which a state may secede from the union and even before the election there were actually three schools of thought with regard to secession: those who felt that states have the right to secede, those who felt that states don’t have the right to secede but the federal government has no authority to prevent it, and those who felt that states don’t have the right to secede and the federal government is empowered to prevent it.   (If that second school of thought sounds wishy-washy to you, welcome to the presidency of James Buchanan.)
  • In 1876, the actual electoral vote count was in dispute and it was only actually resolved with a compromise tied to the end of the post-Civil War reconstruction.   

There have been others, but they were usually resolved relatively quickly.   Whatever is going on at the White House, at all levels, it’s not a constitutional crisis.  There’s certainly no real leadership going on, and I’m actually quite thankful that Trump isn’t actually getting much of his racist, xenophobic, sexist, myopic agenda to pass, but it’s not a constitutional risks.   

I do wonder, though, if the people who are truly in legal trouble (and I include Trump Jr in that group) realize the trouble they’re in.   There’s a scene in the recent HBO movie The Wizard of Lies, in which Bernie Madoff (played by Robert De Niro) goes off the rails on his eight year old granddaughter because she was asking simple questions about Wall Street.  Madoff was a man who knew for years the damage he was going and the stress finally got to him.   I can picture Don Jr acting the same way right now…

One subset of the greater healthcare debate

Healthcare has been a topic of discussion — and in many cases strong disagreement — in American political debate for more than eighty years now.  FDR, who profoundly altered the direction of the US economy during his tenure as president, was unable to make headway on healthcare.  LBJ got the first meaningful changes in healthcare thirty years later with Medicare and Medicaid.  Then no meaningful changes until the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010 (also known as Obamacare).  

I want to believe that the best analogy to Obamacare, whatever becomes of it, is that of a stepping stone.  A step forward from what we had but not the end solution.   Not unlike, for example, the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy towards gays in the military.   While preferable to completely disallowing gays from military service, it still was too small a gesture and was destined to be discontinued.   

It seems to me that, given the current state of debate on health care, the democrats and republicans are trying to appeal to two very different constituencies.   I haven’t seen statistics that demonstrate which constituency is larger but my gut tells me that the group targeted by the blue team is larger.  And I am actually sympathetic to both groups of people.  

At the heart of this divide is the individual mandate provision in the ACA.  Insurance companies recognize that covering pre-existing conditions would be something that will yield more outlays (pretty much by definition) so their choices would be to deny coverage or find something that will increase the money they’re bringing in.   And there are basically two sure  ways of doing that: increase individual premiums or get people who might not need insurance onto their rolls of the insured.  

So the democrats are, generally speaking, in favor of the individual mandate.  People don’t want to lose their healthcare simply because of a pre-existing condition.  This also has the added benefit of driving down premiums for everyone since the health insurers are bringing in more money from everyone required to have it.  

The republicans are against the individual mandate, seeing it as unnecessary government intrusion into people’s day to day affairs.   Outside of the libertarians who would get rid of every piece of government regulation, this is appealing to the young and healthy individuals who, given the choice, wouldn’t have any health insurance at all because they’d perceive it as a drain on their already limited financial resources.  

There may be some room for criticism of the people who don’t want health insurance because of its cost, in that they’re clearly not thinking of a future when they won’t be so young and healthy, but that criticism can definitely wither against the argument that thinking of the long-term future is meaningless if they can’t afford dinner today.  And I’m not unsympathetic to this problem.  

Neither is the ACA, which has provisions to help those who can’t afford health insurance, to buy it.  But these provisions are also problematic because the bar might be too low for qualifying, or other regulations could limit the amount people might be entitled to, in the form of assistance.  And the current White House has shown little interest in making it easier for those people to have quality health insurance.  

So we have two very clearly delineated sides in this debate and the two parties have chosen their sides.  Whichever side emerges on top in this debate, they will rightly continue to have grievances against the other side.  The solution to this problem is both straightforward but fraught with other problems: take the mechanism for paying for health care out of the hands of the individuals and insurance companies by incorporating it into the tax structure (not unlike the disposal of garbage in many municipalities).   That’s what they do in Canada, France, England, and many other countries…

Before we do that, though, how many jobs would be lost in such a massive disruption of an industry as large as health care?   Most hospitals employ more administrators than nurses, after all, because they’re needed for dealing with the insurance companies.  

Freakonomics is losing its luster 

I remember reading the book Freakonomics by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner when I had to fly to Nebraska for work.   I thought it was an interesting, occasionally fascinating read.  The most controversial aspect of the book is that it postulates that perhaps the reason why violent crime plummeted in the early 1990s, was because of legal abortion starting in the 1970s.   

While I can think of easily a hundred reasons why a woman’s right to choose abortion should be kept legal, I like this argument only because it gives conniptions to those who oppose abortion.   But regardless of that point, I thought it was a fascinating study in looking for real connections that might not be immediately obvious.  

Dubner has been the host of a weekly podcast based upon the book (and its less compelling follow-up, Super Freakonomics) for nearly seven years.  I’ve been listening to the podcast almost since its inception.   And it has had some fun moments in these past seven years: the story of a fake restaurant that exposed the fact that wine “experts” probably don’t know what they’re talking about, extreme foodies who make bizarre meals like turning a whole T-bone steak dinner into something the size of a bean, even getting ahead of some trends, like the service oriented economy and streaming music services.   

A couple of weeks ago, I had a blog entry inspired by an episode of the podcast.  But that episode is a part of a disturbing trend right now.   Four of the last five episodes were not really up to the standards I’ve come to expect of the show.  

It started with the kid gloves with which Dubner interviewed former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer.   Whatever else Ballmer is or is not, he’s not a great steward of the companies he has run.   The culture he created at the software behemoth almost ruined the company, and it’s still struggling to get out of that.  The interview completely glossed over his tenure at Microsoft other than to needle Ballmer over his prediction that Apple’s iPhone wouldn’t sell.   

Then came the interview with Steve Hilton.  (Maybe Steve Dubner just likes people who shares his first name…)  I don’t need to rehash my comments from my earlier blog entry but the kid gloves were on again, not just for not calling Hilton on his myopia, but also for not criticizing him for leaving his country in the aftermath of the vote he orchestrated to the results he sought.

I’ll give a pass to the next episode, which was dedicated to the CRISPR gene editing tool.  Insightful and neither overly optimistic nor filled with scare tactics.  We need more science communication like this.  

The next two episodes were both released this past week, and by the end of the second part, I was ready to throw something at Dubner, when he interviewed Charles Koch.  While this interview did grant some insight into why I agree with him and his brother on some issues (most notably immigration) and even why he occasionally pursues tax policies that would cost him more money than he pays now, I can’t accept some of the places where Koch should be held more accountable, despite Dubner’s mysterious silence.  

The first and most glaring part of Koch’s position is how often progress is stymied by “special interests”, both from the left and from the right.   Given the lack of detail he provided in terms of what qualifies as a special interest, I have to assume he meant anyone who doesn’t want what he wants.  We all have interests and we all think we’re special.   I’d like to think my interests (fortification of the wall between church and state, being good stewards of the environment, not allowing the free market to run roughshod over those most in need) aren’t really all that special and, to be blunt, in the best interests not only of me and my family, but also in the best interests of the country.   

The second part is his pride in being opposed to legislation like Sarbanes-Oxley.   This law was passed after the accounting scandals in companies like Enron and WorldCom.   Indeed, all financial regulations that are codified in the law — be they the laws passed in the 1930s under the New Deal, or the regulations on Wall Street in the 1980s, or more recent laws like Sarbanes-Oxley — are there because the people we trusted with our money, were doing things that were, at best, untoward with that money.  

You can argue that that’s true of all laws: they’re generally passed because someone did something they shouldn’t have done even though it was technically (up to that point) legal.    In the state of Delaware, it’s illegal to go fishing on horseback.   You can almost see how that law came about: someone (probably a male-type person) did just that, but the horse got spooked when he caught a fish.   He got injured, possibly losing his fishing pole in the process, and sued for damages and/or a new fishing pole.   The law almost writes itself after that.  

Koch also pointed to HillaryCare as a reason why he first became politically active in the 1990s. While I’m not trying to argue that Hillary’s proposals back then were perfect, I don’t quite understand why health care should be treated as a commodity to the extent that it is.  But that’s the stuff of another blog entry, especially given the current debates on capitol hill.  

Next week’s Freakonomics episode will be a repeat of an episode first aired a couple of years ago.  I hope Dubner turns the ship around on this podcast, since the quality of the shows has not been good of late.  I don’t mind listening to people I disagree with.  I do mind when they’re not challenged on such obvious topics as what we’ve seen with Ballmer, Hilton, and Koch in the past month.   

Can we please do away with referenda?

Last week on the Freakonomics podcast, host Stephen Dubner interviewed Steve Hilton, one of the architects of last year’s Brexit vote.  One of the tidbits of that interview was Hilton’s disillusionment not at the result of the vote (which is what he wanted: for Britain to leave the EU) but instead at the reasons why people voted to leave the EU (anti-immigrant sentiment and a misplaced nationalism, which he didn’t want).

I’m willing to look away from his myopia for the purposes of this blog entry.   (If this essay were more focused on the Brexit vote itself, he wouldn’t be so lucky.)

But he made an interesting and important point that I’m not completely unsympathetic to: his quarrel with the EU was a direct result of the fact that the centralized government was appointed and not elected.  He used the analogy of the United States: each individual state is autonomous, but we still vote for the president and the congress.  That doesn’t happen with the EU.  

I suspect that particular bit of resentment isn’t unique to Britain.  But is the solution to that problem a complete withdrawal from the union?  Why couldn’t he lobby to change the way the EU’s leadership is chosen?   If he is being intellectually honest, then, I have to assume he feels the same way about the UN and NATO.   He didn’t say.  

But Brexit is emblematic of a greater problem that democracies have to face: the fact that allowing the voting public to make serious policy decisions via referenda is, more often than not, counterproductive.  (If I’m being my most polite.)

At its surface, it feels like it should be the opposite.   After all, if you put questions of the future of the community directly into the hands of the people, that seems like the ideal future state of a democracy.   (Even the word “democracy” comes from the Greek, meaning leadership or government by the people…)

But that’s the real failing of a referendum: a democracy depends upon an informed electorate and even the most informed of us, we can’t possibly know everything we need to know before we step into the voting booth.  And a referendum has two pain points to it: the wording of the question and the limitations of it being a yes/no question.   

Think of the hypothetical referendum that asks the question “would you support a tax increase in order to turn the community into a Paradise by every sense of the word?”  There are three kinds of people who would vote “no” on this question: the curmudgeons who want everything to get worse, the people who already think it’s perfect, and the people who stopped reading after the word “increase”.

Think of all of the votes around the US prior to the Obergefell v Hodges ruling in 2015 that legalized same sex marriage.   Almost all of the referenda in the various states, went against allowing same sex couples to get married.   Why?  If you aren’t gay, allowing gay couples to marry is something that you should be, at worst, ambivalent to.   I’m sure there are some gay people who don’t want to be allowed to marry, but there’s no way they could be enough to swing the results of the referendum away from that privilege when you look at the size of the greater electorate.  

Now magnify that to something at a much larger scale, like Brexit or a vote to secede from a greater union/nation-state (I’m looking at you, Scotland, Quebec, and even Basque).   With all of the moving pieces that need to go into the implications of such a dramatic change, is it ever truly fair to expect such a dramatic policy initiative to be driven by asking literally everyone a yes/no question?   Especially when there could be other options that haven’t been put to a vote at all.   A hundred people voting “yes” could offer a hundred different reasons for their vote.  

The very fact that so many aspects of the US Constitution are still being litigated and in need of interpretation — nearly 230 years after it was first ratified — is proof that no one can truly know all of the implications of a vote.  (Although the Third Amendment isn’t litigated very much.   I guess we got that one right…)

I have no problem with any time the leaders of a democracy want to know if they are steering the country in the right direction and opening questions up to a general vote.   But the voters are under no duty or obligation to uphold the foundational documents and intents of the community or nation, the way the leaders are.  For that reason alone, referenda should never be binding.  

And if you’re just polling the people to know how they’re feeling, why not use the professional pollsters rather than going through the timing and expense of an election?