Divided We Fall

The late United States Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan once famously observed that “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.” This perfectly reasonable bit of wisdom seems lost upon our perfectly unreasonable age. Those with opposing beliefs see no event the same, so we are now defined by our disagreements and revel in the different and—as far as we are concerned—superior nature of both our own opinions and the sometimes questionable facts that inform them.

My worry is not only about our degree of political atomization, which is now so abundantly visible that it has almost descended to cliché. I also worry about the regional divides that have been building for many years—and which were starkly revealed on Election Night in 2016. Today’s Democratic coalition is mostly located on the coasts, college towns, and urban areas—elsewhere it is largely a sea of red.

This harsh reality explains a good deal of the unreality of the expert predictions leading up to Donald Trump’s thoroughly unexpected election victory. Pundits always live in big cities filled with like-minded Democrats on the east and west coasts—a scant 4% of voters in Washington, D.C., for example, cast their votes for Trump—so they were stunned down to their socks by the outcome. Call it the revenge of “flyover country” if you will, but the slack-jawed and occasionally tearful shock of the talking heads on network television spoke clearly and loudly on Election Night. We are, unfortunately, two nations living in two entirely separate worlds.

These divisions are exacerbated by media coverage that demonizes and denigrates those who hold opposing opinions. I am rather exhausted from reading articles that entirely skip reasoned analysis and instead focus on how someone has (these are, by the way, just from a quick browse of today’s online articles) “attacked, burned, scorched, destroyed, clapped back at, called out, or fired back at” another human being because they are a “kook, crook, dupe, hater, fascist, criminal, Nazi, fool, or idiot.” No wonder so many people now shudder when they see the front pages. Hurtful and harmful invective is now so thoroughly woven into our daily conversations that it is remarkable when we encounter grace and consideration, which is as about as sad an observation about the state of our nation as I can possibly imagine.

Inflammatory headlines and copy, sad to say, attract viewers and readers, so there is a built-in economic incentive that benefits media that are routinely rude, insulting, and unfair. In addition, the political interests of the most extreme are well-served by dehumanizing their opponents in order to attract equally outraged donors and followers. The unfortunate synergy that consequently arises between hungry media and angry partisans reinforces the worst in each, and those who adopt more moderate positions can expect to be ruthlessly and endlessly attacked by those at both fringes of the political spectrum—which serves only to squeeze the moderation right out of them.

My concerns have been increased by hearing accounts of people ditching social media because they simply cannot stand the levels of venom and vindictiveness that so many routinely display in their posts. The net result is to leave the dialogue to those who have the least interest in actual dialogue. What we see today is that famous couplet from William Butler Yeats poem, The Second Coming, in real life: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity.”

We are lost if thoughtful and fair-minded Americans, who are those most likely to forge and support the consensus solutions our nation needs to survive, retreat from our public forums. The grim solitary comfort to be found in growling at our glowing televisions pales in comparison to taking part in a national conversation that involves listening intently, speaking respectfully, and caring intensely. As much as we may sometimes be discouraged by the wild anger of others, we cannot allow ourselves to be driven to the political sidelines by those who care for little beside the sound of their own brittle voices. A chorus is most robust when everyone sings their parts together, and we should not be afraid to raise our own voices to create America’s song.

For those who frown upon such foolishness, please forgive my little flight of poetry. It is an outcome of my fears regarding the foreboding path ahead if we do not—I hope—find it within ourselves to remember that we are all Americans.

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A Supreme Problem

The three co-equal branches of the United States government—executive, legislative, and judiciary—each have their roles to play in the management and mission of our nation. However, the federal judiciary and its judges, whose role current Chief Justice John Roberts famously (and perhaps disingenuously) characterized as one of simply “calling balls and strikes” regarding the matters before them, has until recently clung to an air of impartiality—but those days are now gone.

People who study the Supreme Court assert that 5-4 split decisions are no more common than they once were, but now every close or controversial decision has become another component of the partisan battles that are the background music of our hyper-politicized nation. Moreover, the celebrity, notoriety, and visibility of today’s Supreme Court justices invites speculation regarding their personal and legal agendas. Unfortunately, the near anonymity that the justices once cultivated has been replaced by a public advocacy for which those are both sides of the many issues dividing the Court and our country are equally culpable.

It would have been much better if the late Justice Antonin Scalia has been a little less fond of celebrating his own conservative viewpoints and linguistic cleverness in his speeches and writing. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg—the “Notorious RBG” to her fans among liberals—foolishly interjected the Supreme Court into electoral politics in 2016 by openly criticizing the candidacy of Donald Trump and joking about moving to New Zealand if he were elected.

The abandonment of the circumspect silence that was once the glory of those who served on our nation’s highest court has thrilled some advocates, but this has also served to reduce the status and credibility of this branch of our government. This disintegration of the dignity once associated with the Supreme Court is evident in the ever more contentious confirmation battles over the past couple of decades. Supreme Court nominations are now yet one more piece of raw meat for partisan attack dogs to fight and growl over—and the perceived integrity of all our judicial processes are harmed as a result.

All of this makes me wary of the upcoming fight over seating a replacement for Justice Anthony Kennedy, who announced his retirement from the Supreme Court this week. Due to his unique position as the swing vote on so many cases before the court during his thirty year tenure, his replacement will likely become the deciding factor for a great many 5-4 split decisions in the years—and perhaps decades—to come. Given what is a stake, partisan fervor regarding the confirmation of President Trump’s nominee is likely to rise to levels that will make all our other fractious arguments seem mild by comparison. The net effect of this pitched combat will be to cement the public perception of the Supreme Court as just another governmental outpost of politicized and polarizing discord, which will likely irreparably damage its already tattered status and cause it to lose more of its most precious asset—the nation’s trust.

Given the vast and often unbridgeable social, political, cultural, religious, economic, and regional divides in our nation at the present time, it is not surprising that our nation’s courts have been asked to arbitrate the fights around the table at Thanksgiving. Because so many disagreements do not easily lend themselves to compromise—a women cannot, for example, have half an abortion—and communal values have been largely replaced by assertions of unfettered individual rights heretofore unprecedented in history, judges are more and more trapped in the unenviable position of acting as the arbiters of our nation’s morals. Setting aside the basic reality that humans tend to disagree about everything, this task is made yet more thankless and impossible by the fact that significant segments of our population are openly and loudly adverse the very idea of morality, viewing it as either a vestigial annoyance or a pointless guilt trip.

Courts can—and should—mediate regarding the application of laws, but can—or should—the courts continue to mediate in ever more granular and quotidian aspects of our daily lives? The evidence would tend to suggest they should not, but our nation’s courts have, nonetheless, tried their best to solve the conundrum of differing moral and ethical values by simply granting more and more “rights” that are divorced from any notion of responsibility. The problem with this approach—which has become more and more obvious over time—is that trying to create a civil society by allowing everyone to do as they please is like trying to fix the economy by printing more money. A period of euphoric happiness follows, but an inevitable and catastrophic crash will ensue—and the problems that follow are certain to be beyond easy or painless remedy.

We now live in a rudderless nation where we are free to be as self-centered, spoiled and entitled as we want without fear of either consequence or rebuke from individuals, institutions, or government. To express even the mildest disagreements with the behavior of others is today a sure sign of hateful intolerance—which must, of course, be adjudicated through the courts. To a certain extent I suppose inventing more and more rights is wonderful new business development for lawyers and judges, but it is also guaranteed to facilitate every sort dysfunction, infuriate those who act responsibly, and destroy any sense of community and common purpose by privileging the few at the expense of the many.

Supreme Court nominations matter. The tone the Justices set for the entire judiciary matters. However, unless the rulings by all levels of the courts re-establish some balance between what individuals contribute to society and what society can reasonably provide to individuals, expect the worse.

Been Down So Long….

“I’ve been down so long
Being down don’t bother me.
I’m gonna take all my troubles
Drown ’em in the deep blue sea.”
—from the album L.A. Woman by The Doors

A recent Gallup Poll found that a mere 38% of Americans believe that our nation is moving in the right direction—which is sad.  However, this represents a 12 year high for this number—which is astonishing.  Rarely have Americans been so discontented for so long.

A 12 year trip back in time brings us to the halcyon days of 2006.  George W. Bush was finishing his second term as President, and the “hope and change” presidency of Barack Obama was still two years in the future.  The failure of a comprehensive immigration reform bill led to massive protests, a deranged man killed 5 girls at an Amish schoolhouse, Iran and America were locked in a standoff regarding Iran’s nuclear weapons program, North Korea was developing missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads, Israel and Hezbollah were shooting at one another, and terrorist plots were launched and foiled.  Seems familiar, doesn’t it?

The Democrats won big in the midterm elections that year.  In 2006 voters were punishing President Bush over the bloody war in Iraq.  This year Democrats hope President Trump’s views on immigration, world trade, and polite conversation will lead to a repeat of their success at the ballot box.These past twelve years have featured the global economic meltdown of the Great Recession, two Presidential terms for Barack Obama, the rise of identity politics and Social Justice Warriors, the growth of a pervasive surveillance state, stark income inequality, gay marriage, a broad decline in civility coupled with an increase in rage, skyrocketing costs for life’s essentials, a growing political divide that has turned into a chasm, the failure of the inevitable and unstoppable Clinton campaign in 2016, a surprising summit with North Korea, endless investigations, escalating national debt, a slow motion national pension crisis, and the mutating growth of a form of entertainment known as the Kardashians.

If you ask ten different people, you will probably hear ten different explanations for the level of angst and anger that seems to now be the background music of American life.  Perhaps the only comfort we can take is that unhappiness seems to have become a global phenomenon.  People in many other nations seem frustrated for a wide variety of reasons—only some of which connect with our own concerns in America.

One could write a book—or many books—detailing the possible reasons for what ails the United States and its people at the present time, but I do have a theory that I believe provides a framework that explains a great deal: Many people now feel that their lives are beyond their own control, and this loss of control stems from two main sources: money and government.

First of all, despite living in the wealthiest nation in the world, we are more and more becoming debt slaves in order to finance the escalating costs of housing, education, and medical care.  Our financial futures can now be destroyed by a balloon payment on a mortgage, a student loan, or an illness—and the damage this causes today can stalk us throughout our lives in the form of ruined credit, aggressive debt collectors, and seized tax refunds.  In perhaps the most perverse twist of all, many Americans now end up in jail simply because they cannot afford to pay court-ordered fines, which basically means many Americans are being incarcerated for the singular crime of being too poor to live.  Except for the elite and connected few, we have truly lost control of our economic destinies as debt has washed over us—on both a personal and national level.

Moreover, multinational corporations now devastate the economies of entire communities by deciding to uproot a factory or office because they believe larger profits can be found with cheap labor overseas.  For those companies that continue to try to thrive in the U.S., wolves in hedge fund manager’s clothing often devour their thriving businesses and spit the bare bones into bankruptcy court when they are done.  The average worker is always the one who takes it on the chin; the top executives and hedge fund honchos take their bonuses and buyouts and hit the beach while those left behind form a line at the local food pantry.

In addition, government continues to circumscribe—many might say strangle—our lives.  More and more laws, rules, and regulations are enforced to shut down dissent and empower officials who want to dictate where we can live, what we can say, how we can raise our children, how our faith can be expressed, what we can buy, what ideas and information we can share, what natural resources we can consume, what we can eat, what we can drink, what we can smoke, what we can drive, what schools our children can attend, what we can throw in the trash—and even whether we can burn our own leaves in the fall.

Of course, not a single government mandate is actually intended to make us miserable; they are, after all, promulgated to promote the “greater good”.  However, their cumulative weight and intrusiveness—combined with government officials and experts who sometimes seem utterly oblivious to the needs and wants of the average person—is at turns annoying and maddening.

Given the many traumas we are repeatedly told the presidency of Donald Trump is inflicting on our nation, it seems odd that we have now hit a 12 year high—albeit a low one—regarding our attitudes toward the direction of our country.  I do not believe this is because Mr. Trump’s policies are universally popular—they most decidedly are not.  However, it seems to me that the pollsters and pundits are still failing to understand the populist fervor he has engendered among those who want—more than anything—to feel they can live their lives as they choose.

More than a bit of this voter enchantment with President Trump is, quite frankly, completely illogical.  A billionaire populist is an obvious contradiction, and some of his avowed policies may, in fact, end up harming those who are is his most fervent supporters.  However, he is perceived to be a man who fights back against the lousy and corrupt status quo, and this is a welcome relief for Americans who believe they have been kicked around for far too long. Despite the disdain of the media and entertainment elite toward Mr. Trump, voters are still standing in line for twelve hours for the chance to hear him speak, and they cheer him with the lusty enthusiasm of people whose faith has yet to be blunted by a sneering editorial in The Washington Post.

The perception of many of Mr. Trump’s supporters is that he is swinging hard—and landing body blows—against those who have long presumed to control their lives.  Every obscene or snotty celebrity or news media rant only strengthens their belief that he is their champion, and every pugnacious tweet he sends our berating his opponents thrills their downtrodden souls.  Those who cluck at his language and demeanor fail to understand that he is daily reinforcing the hardcore allegiance of those who neither drive a Prius nor ever plan to attend a performance of Hamilton on Broadway.

President Trump will never win over the most rarefied strata of our society, but his words and actions are giving hope to those who have long felt that control of their lives has been stolen from them by unknown and uncaring forces—and no one with a lick of good sense should ever dismiss the power and persistence of those who feel their hope finally has been restored.

Secrets and Lies

The recent arrest of a former Senate Intelligence Committee staff member—a veteran of almost 30 years in government service—on charges of lying to FBI agents investigating leaks of classified information surprised some.  However, what really churned the waters was the concurrent seizure of the phone and email records of The New York Times reporter to whom he had been allegedly leaking—but with whom he was most definitely having sex.  They don’t call Washington “The Swamp” for nothing.

This incident and so many like it speak to the inherent tension between government secrecy and a free press in a democracy.  That which government would prefer remains hidden has always been catnip for reporters, but it appears more and more the case that a symbiotic and worrisome relationship has developed between those in government and those working in the press—each seemingly tethered to fewer and fewer institutional norms or traditions.  Given that government cannot operate effectively in a glass house, both the leakers and those reporters who are anxious to disseminate secrets are playing a dangerous game that could have catastrophic consequences.

We generally find government information falls into three broad categories.  

First, we have information that can and should be made readily available to all: the cost of contracts, specific legislative and regulatory actions, court rulings, or initiatives of the Executive branch are obvious examples of information that is critical to the smooth functioning of democratic processes.  There are also categories of information that need to be carefully evaluated before they are made public; troop movements in wartime and active criminal investigations are obvious examples.  We don’t want to either compromise military operations and put lives at risk or allow crooks to escape before they can be apprehended and put on trial.

There remains, however, a third category of information that causes the most practical and ideological problems in an open and democratic society: that which cannot be revealed under any circumstances without causing perhaps irreversible harm to our nation and its people.  

The very existence of this final category of information is offensive to those who believe in absolute government transparency and deeply distrust the idea of government secrecy.  It must be acknowledged that the United States government—like every government in history—has sometimes tried to drop a veil of secrecy over information that would reveal neglect, malfeasance, or plain stupidity.  The question then arises whether revealing this information serves any public good or just causes further damage by either unnecessarily eroding public trust or politicizing what are, in the final analysis, nothing more than instances of human weakness or misjudgment.

Likely the two most famous examples of closely-held secrets revealed during the course of my own lifetime are the publication of the so-called “Pentagon Papers”, which allowed the general public to read the unvarnished political and military deliberations concerning the conduct of the Vietnam War, and the revelations surrounding President Nixon’s role in encouraging spying upon—and sabotage of—his political opponents, which led to his impeachment and resignation.  

In both of these cases the news media decided that our country and our citizens were best served by revealing the secrets and lies of our government officials.  We saw a long-term drop in our faith in government as a result—which is either healthy or harmful, depending on your point of view—but the issues at hand were clearly pertinent to both public policy and the operations of democratic government, so we needed to know the truth.  However, the facts associated with each case had far-reaching and long-term consequences for our country, so the editorial decisions to publicize this information were made only after long and careful internal deliberations concerning the complex balance between press freedom and our national interests.

That was then—and this is now.

Over the past 30-40 years journalistic standards have joined floppy disks on the scrap heap of history.  Our internet-driven 24/7 news cycle has produced a crazed bazaar of half-truths and one-sided opinions presented as facts.  As articles regarding personalities and perceptions—and snarky reactions to both—have continued to crowd out simple reporting in the quest for clickbait, any sense of proportion and decency has more and more been discarded.  Hence, “news” has devolved into just one more facet of our wacky entertainment culture rather than an enterprise where careful fact-checking and an unbiased presentation—combined with a deeply entrenched sense of reportorial responsibility—are considered normal and laudable.

Imagine, for example, if our current journalistic practices had been in place in the past.  Would the Manhattan Project, which developed the first atomic bombs during World War II, have stayed off the front pages of The Washington Post for long?  Would news websites be breathlessly reporting every twist and turn of the Cuban Missile Crisis based on leaks and the wildest unsubstantiated speculation—thereby driving our world even closer to the brink of nuclear war?  On a less elevated level, would some mistress of President Kennedy be providing a slurp by slurp account of their liaisons to 60 Minutes or The Tonight Show—perhaps while simultaneously hawking her new web store with its own line of “Presidential” lingerie for sale?

We need a responsible and inquiring press in a democracy—and many news outlets are still doing important investigative reporting that provides necessary accountability for government and government officials.  However, the disdain much of the American public feels toward journalism and journalists—which President Trump channels and amplifies for his own political purposes—is a direct outcome of the damage done by reporters who have turned themselves into partisans and provocateurs in order to advance their own careers.

There is an old saying in Washington: “Those who know don’t talk, and those who talk don’t know.”  We can add a codicil to this saying that is both a reflection of today’s reality and a warning: “and the public doesn’t know why so much talk leaves them knowing nothing at all….”

Jimmy Obama?

Leo Durocher, the baseball player and manager, once famously observed that “nice guys finish last”. His contention was that winning required one to get down in the dirt—and play dirty—when the situation required it.

I’ve been mulling over this comment as I consider the presidencies of Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama. Both had their successes and failures. Each was considered by their contemporaries to be very smart and able individuals—as well as very good and compassionate men. Each was, however, replaced by a successor who ran as their antithesis, promised an American economic renewal and shrinking of government power—and set about methodically erasing their imprint upon our nation.

Jimmy Carter’s first and only term found him clashing frequently with the entrenched powers in Washington and beyond, and his manner was frequently mocked by his political opponents, who characterized him as weak—and at times condescending. His presidency was sidetracked by the seizure of hostages at the American embassy in Tehran, and his chances for re-election were dealt a mortal blow by the catastrophic failure of the military rescue mission of those American hostages in 1980, which ended in an ignominious helicopter crash in the Iranian desert. Despite voter doubts about the bellicose temperament and character of his opponent in 1980, Ronald Reagan won a smashing victory, and over the course of his two terms in office put a deeply conservative stamp on domestic politics while pursuing a massive military buildup, high risk foreign policy adventures, and deregulatory actions that ushered in an unprecedented economic boom.

Unlike Jimmy Carter, Barack Obama was both embraced and celebrated by the entrenched establishment in Washington and beyond, and his smooth style and golden public speaking won him great favor with the nation’s media and entertainment elites. Seen as a new type of leader whose personal qualities transcended the muck of mere politics, he was able to inspire his allies—but he often foundered when the need for bare knuckle, backroom deal making was required to bully his opponents into submission. Gliding above the fray with a deeply cerebral (and at times condescending) manner, he often resorted to the use of executive orders rather than legislation to pursue his policies—certain that his legacy would be secured by the sheer infallibility of his ideas.

However, despite voter doubts about the bellicose temperament and character of his hand-picked successor’s opponent in 2016, Donald Trump won a smashing victory, and over the course of his (very possible) two terms in office will put a deeply conservative stamp on domestic politics while pursuing a massive military buildup, high risk foreign policy adventures, and deregulatory actions that have already ushered in an unprecedented economic boom.

Coincidence?

Direct comparisons between the presidencies of Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama are difficult because they were operating in completely different political environments with completely different economic and strategic challenges. I still remember wrapping myself in a blanket in order to study in my freezing college dorm room because oil was so ruinously costly and scarce that heat was considered a luxury; it is a far different energy environment today—America is now one of the world’s largest exporters of oil. Old school corporate and industrial muscle still ruled during the Carter presidency; Barack Obama was the “information economy” President who claimed American manufacturing jobs were gone for good, so everyone now needed to learn how to code. Jimmy Carter still had to contend with a confrontational and expansionist Soviet Union; the revamped Russian Federation is a still powerful but far less threatening presence—now our eyes are turned to the dangers posed by China and North Korea.

Jimmy Carter has built an influential and successful ex-Presidency that focuses on peacemaking, the eradication of tropical diseases, and building—often with his own hands—houses for the poor and homeless. However, our airport in Washington is Reagan National, and we still refer to the “Reagan Revolution” as part of our political discourse; for all his good intentions, Jimmy Carter often now feels like a placeholder rather than a President.

It is too early to assess the legacy of President Obama, but his penchant for executive orders over the hurly-burly of legislation left many of his signature accomplishments subject to reversal at the stroke of a pen. Just sketching some of the highlights of Donald Trump’s first 500 days in office offers a jaw-dropping litany of stark policy changes:

• The Paris Climate Accord—Gone
• The Iran Nuclear Agreement—Gone
• The Trans-Pacific Partnership Trade Deal—Gone
• The Affordable Care Act Individual Mandate—Gone

In addition, conservative federal judges (including one Supreme Court Justice) have been confirmed in record numbers, and President Obama’s patient and cooperative approach to economic and military affairs has been replaced by an extraordinarily combative style that is challenging international norms regarding long-established trade agreements with our allies—and is driving nuclear North Korea to the negotiating table with open threats of “annihilation”. Commentators have now begun referring to “Trump Time” to describe the hyper-accelerated pace of so much of his Presidency so far.

It is far too soon to evaluate the ultimate political impact of Barack Obama’s two terms in office, but it is perhaps not too early to wonder if his legacy will consist almost wholly of being our first African-America President. The anger that so many liberals feel over President Trump’s reversals of President Obama’s accomplishments is perhaps more and more tinged with fear. His brutal—and at times brutish—Presidential style has already reshaped the political landscape of our nation in ways that will be felt for generations to come, and the prospect of a second term—or even the mere completion of his first—fills his political opponents with terror.

Nice—Donald Trump is not. He may, however, be the living incarnation of Leo Durocher’s aphorism, and he could condemn Barack Obama to Jimmy Carter’s fate: a very nice guy whose Presidential legacy was gleefully stomped on by his successor—and then discarded.