The Hangover

 

The question at the heart of the movie from which I am taking the title of this commentary—“What the hell happened last night?”—is perhaps an apt description of the state of the Democratic Party today. It seems to me that a lot of energy is still being expended trying to figure out “what happened” last year to derail the dream of a liberal utopia where the party would never end. Watching Hillary Clinton now wander the country like Marley’s ghost, rattling her chains and bewailing her fate, one has to wonder when those who are still stunned by the election of Donald Trump—and the many sharp policy turns his ascendancy represents—are going to snap out of their stupor and fully engage with the many changes now afoot.

To say that the political and social Left in America is in an exceedingly surly mood is putting it mildly. Having convinced themselves in 2008 that the election of Barack Obama signaled the beginning of an inevitable electoral wave that would permanently put their policies in place, most were stunned when the tide receded and Democrats suddenly found themselves with the lowest percentage of state and federal elected officeholders since the 1920’s. As much as those who voted for Hillary Clinton like to comfort themselves with the fact that she received more popular votes, the basic problem still remains that Secretary Clinton was running for President of the United States—not Empress of New York or Queen of California. Watching the middle of the nation turn bright red on Election Night, leaving only isolated blue redoubts on the coasts and Chago, liberals were left to curse the grim math of the Electoral College and cling to the hope of still elusive proof of Russian collusion, neither of which has yet yielded much beyond cranky sound bites on CNN and MSNBC.

And so the hangover began.

To say that the Democratic Party has a long road to recovery on a national level is like saying someone who has been run over by a truck—and is now sporting a body cast—is a little under the weather right now. Locked out of power in D.C. and many states, Democrats have resorted to erecting the moral equivalent of a spite fence by continually castigating Republicans for their hateful ignorance while reassuring themselves that today is all nothing but a bad dream that will pass when they awaken to find Trump is finally indicted and removed from office.

This might not be the wisest course of action. If the Democratic Party is going to rebound sooner rather than never, it seems three specific actions would get them off to a good start:

Elevate the next generation of leadership—immediately.  It is time to finally admit that the folks who lead you down the road to ruination need to be replaced. The “Chuck and Nancy” show in the Senate and the House has clearly run its course, and the next tier of loyal Capitol Hill lieutenants who have also helped to propel today’s electoral meltdown are little better. The time for a shake-up is right now. The longer the Democrats wait and keep fresh talent on the shelf, the longer it will take to turn around their national fortunes.

Prioritize. The Democratic agenda that has developed over the past few decades boils down to the following: “Everybody should be given everything they want (unless it is a bottle of pop or a Nativity scene) by the government for free every time they ask for it—and no one need suffer from an opinion contrary to our own regarding the need for this.” As a result, our nation has ended up with a tottering and financially unsustainable big government monster that has turned the Democratic Party and its supporters into an easily caricatured herd of pettifogging bureaucrats who seem to have their noses in everybody’s business—all while gleefully belittling those whom they don’t like. It is little wonder that so many voters are ditching them. It’s time for a thorough discussion to distinguish what is important from what is tangential. After this is done, Democrats can pick a few signature issues and rebuild their tattered brand. However, if they plan to continue to be all things to all people (except for, of course, those people whose opinions and values they don’t like), the Democratic Party can expect a long stretch in the wilderness.

Talk less and listen more. One of my father’s favorite sayings was this: “You’ve got two ears and only one mouth—that should tell you something.” The unfortunate Democratic propensity for telling everyone (very loudly) why they are wrong has not won a lot of votes recently. It might be better to put down the mocha lattes and spend some time around voters who don’t live in New York, San Francisco, or a college town. Someone who disagrees with a core Democratic tenet is not necessarily a disagreeable individual; it is simply a fact that their beliefs are being informed by different life experiences, values, and judgments. Most people are fairly reasonable and are willing to have a sensible discussion on a variety of issues; if, however, your conversational style tends to leap into sneering condescension directed toward those whose beliefs differ from your own, you’re going to have a hard time convincing anyone. Moreover, sometimes you just have to adjust to the possibility that—incredible as it might seem—you are just plain wrong. That’s a bitter pill for some to swallow, but that might be just what is necessary to prompt a Democratic renewal.

Will any of this happen? I hope so. Thoughtfully planned and executed government policies play a major role in improving our daily lives and ensuring a bright future for our nation, and we need cooperative and respectful dialogue to create a better tomorrow for our citizens and our country. Most importantly, given the broad range of challenges ahead, we need voices from across the political spectrum involved. It is not healthy for our country to have the electoral math so skewed in one direction, and a reinvigorated and resurgent Democratic Party could play a significant role in promoting programs that would ensure a more broad-based prosperity.

However, to be honest, I don’t yet see this happening. The Democratic finger-pointing and purity tests seem still to have to run their calamitous course. However, I humbly offer this blueprint for a path forward. If my suggestions turn out to be wrong, so be it. I offer them for whomever might care to listen—from one concerned citizen to another.

 

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Our Intolerantly Tolerant Nation

Since a bitter and divisive Presidential election last year, we have been embroiled in seemingly never-ending bitter and divisive protests regarding healthcare, immigration, court nominations, higher education, law enforcement, public health, gender and identity politics, K-12 education, religious liberty, gun control, free speech, and virtually every other aspect of governmental policies and their many—often unfortunate—intersections with our daily lives.

Now we have a new imbroglio, which this time concerns the behavior of some NFL players during the playing of the national anthem. This issue has been thrust onto center stage—at least for the moment—by President Trump’s blunt comments regarding the parentage of players who participate. This is not the first—nor will it be the last—instance of public protests dividing our nation. We have become shockingly expert at communicating nothing while supposedly making our points clear.

Each separate protest about any particular issue that is important to some group of individuals—given shape and sharpened by single-issue interest groups before being whipped into a merry froth by sensationalistic media outlets chasing eyeballs—has its own fraught history and contentious present. However, many of these matters have a common lineage: a celebration of the individual’s absolute right to self-expression and self-determination. To a degree that is sometimes startling in its scope, we have elevated the all-encompassing but ultimately amorphous concept of “tolerance” to the center of all our decision-making processes. Therefore, any idea, belief, or policy that sets boundaries, presumes judgment, or fails to wholeheartedly endorse the full range of human beliefs and behaviors is subject to attack as being an expression of “hate” against one group or another.

Tolerance is, of course, a fine and reasonable ideal because it provides an often necessary brake on our human tendency to form instant and lasting impressions of people and situations. Those who are quick to judge are many times equally slow to listen, so a commitment to tolerance can help to mediate between our preconceptions and reality, which can many times help to facilitate communication and understanding.

However, “tolerance” can also be used as a bludgeon to silence viewpoints with which we disagree. The assumption that all disagreements are rooted in mindless hatred and ancient bigotries is both an intensely comforting—and exceedingly lazy—approach to the many complexities of human life. It allows for a smug certainty that absolves one from even bothering to consider alternate viewpoints. If we occupy a safe space where our values and behaviors are beyond the reach of discussion or evaluation, we can blithely go through our lives assured that we are right and the rest of the world—or at least that portion that does not share our social media space—is just plain mean and wrong. Beyond this, any attempt to present or argue a contrary viewpoint is, should my interlocutor persist, an assault upon my personhood that empowers me—to assault you right back.

Is it any wonder that civil conversation about any issue seems ever more impossible with each passing day? Even a topic as previously anodyne as the weather is now enveloped in white-hot emotions about the truth and scope of global warming. I find it no surprise that we now spend all of our time peering at our phones and avoiding eye contact. It’s a great way to hide out.

I worry about the many issues that now crop up around campus speech and ask myself how higher education is supposed to thrive when the very act of asking a provocative question can result in the academic equivalent of shunning. I see our two major political parties growing more polarized and wonder how we can ever work together to find reasonable compromises to the many problems besetting our nation and world. I read the increasingly angry screeches that have now become the mainstays of our mainstream media’s analyses and shudder at the apparent absence of any ability to examine an opposing viewpoint without resorting to ad hominem attacks meant to harm rather than elucidate.

However, a commitment to “tolerance” will solve all our difficulties, right?

I increasingly suspect that tolerance—as both a value and strategy—will solve little. The problem becomes obvious when you wade a little deeper into the National Anthem protests in the NFL. On the one hand we are asked to respect the individual rights of players to “take a knee” to bring attention to discriminatory police behavior that targets African-Americans—so let’s be tolerant, people. However, given that this all takes place during the playing of the National Anthem, many patriotic Americans find this form of protest to be intolerably disrespectful to the flag and our nation. Which belief or behavior is more deserving of our tolerance? Do we accept a protest that offends many or back those who demand we show respect for the flag? Who is more deserving of our support in this situation—and a host of many more where our tolerance is loudly demanded? Given that any discussion of values or (gasp!) right and wrong will “privilege” one point of view or another, the only certainty in this situation and others like it is that we will continue to argue—forever.

Tolerance—and the moral relativism it encourages—is all fine and good when confined to a college classroom where we are asking students to open their minds to contrasting viewpoints as an academic exercise, but it fails miserably when it sails out into a nation where actual people might become actually angry when someone insults the actual values that inform their actual lives. If we insist tolerance is our highest value, one person’s morality will always be another’s bigotry, so we are now locked into a cultural cage match with no winners and no losers—only unceasing conflict.

Hence, we have become Protest Nation. Now that the volume of our shouts has superseded our quiet respect for common cultural values and signifiers—flag, faith, and family—that somehow managed to carry us into the middle of the last century, little remains beyond our anger. How very sad. In the course of discovering and celebrating our wondrous individuality over the past fifty years, we have forgotten our most basic responsibility to one another: simple, common courtesy.

As much as I would like to support the individual right to self-expression, I find the NFL player protests to be flawed in concept and pointless in practice. Sometimes you just have to stand for the anthem as a demonstration of national respect. I’m probably not the only person annoyed with virtue-signaling and empty, insulting public posturing. It’s time to stop behaving like self-important brats and rejoin Team USA.

I might not sound tolerant, but I am being honest.

 

The War No One Wants

Listening to President Trump’s address to the United Nations General Assembly this week, I was struck—as were most who listened—by his emphasis on the utility and importance of the nation-state. Moreover, the obligatory call for plodding international cooperation to solve the problems facing our world was largely absent, and Trump plainly asserted that his decisions would be entirely guided by the what is in the best interests of America. None of what he said was a surprise—but I am certain it was quite a shock to an inert U.N. bureaucracy long inured to inaction.

Given that the most pressing threat facing the world today is North Korea’s terrifying habit of firing ballistic missiles here and there—while they are also busily preparing future nuclear payloads—it is not surprising that President Trump’s harshest words were saved for Kim Jong-Un, whom he derisively described as “Rocket Man”. Mr. Trump’s message was clear and pointed: If the threat continues, the United States will obliterate North Korea. His language lacked the diplomatic nuance and caveats we typically associate with political speeches, but it certainly got everyone’s attention.

I do not believe our Commander-in-Chief has gone Dr. Strangelove on us. His bellicose rhetoric is both understandable and reasonable.

First, Trump is reassuring our allies that—if all else fails to deter North Korea—the United States will not hesitate to act unilaterally to remove an obvious threat to world peace. Although our allies may soothingly speak in public of the need for caution and dialogue regarding military force, I guarantee they will quietly provide any logistic and intelligence support we need to bring stability to the strategic situation. A nuclear North Korea with a viable payload delivery system is the world community’s worst nightmare, and the size and power of America’s armed forces provides protection for a great many nations other than our own.

In addition, the President is speaking to North Korea’s two biggest protectors and benefactors—Russia and China—so that they understand the time for dawdling is over. Mr. Trump wants both these nations to use their economic and political influence to prompt policy changes in Pyongyang. There are both strategic and historical ties that bind Russia and China to North Korea and have lessened their willingness to pressure their client state up to this point, but neither wants bombs to fall. Each realizes that American military power—and the American political and economic influence that would follow from any use of force—would be a catastrophe for their long-term regional interests. Moreover, given that China shares a very long border with North Korea (and Russia a much smaller one), each nation realizes that war with the United States would produce an overwhelming flood of refugees that neither wants to face.

Finally, Mr. Trump is speaking to the North Korean military and intelligence commands, which control the institutions that keep Kim Jong-Un in power. If they believe that the reckless actions of their leader run the risk of bringing down disaster and destroying them, there will be changes—don’t have the least doubt. It might be something as overt and clumsy as a coup, but I would bet against this unless it is the very last resort. Having built up their leader to god-like stature through propaganda directed at their citizens, I believe it is more likely—should the forcible removal of Kim Jong-Un ultimately prove necessary—that he will (tragically) expire from a sudden illness, his dying words a poetic paean to his beloved people and a command to obey the will of his “designated successor”.

It might be worth remembering that, as much as we might like it to be otherwise, negotiation and compromise have their limits. Sometimes the raw exercise of power is necessary to secure peace. It may not be humane or artful, but sometimes punching your antagonist in the nose is your most effective recourse. Just as all Americans do, I hope that war with North Korea can be avoided. However, should this be the last and only option available, we need to remember that the decision to pull the trigger was forced upon us by the stupidity and duplicity of others—which has sadly often been the case throughout our history.

The DACA Dilemma

President Trump’s decision to end the DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) program, which had prevented most deportations of those brought here as children by parents who entered the country illegally, ignited a firestorm of condemnation this past week. One would certainly have to be hard hearted to not sympathize with the plight of those who are “American” in every way except their citizenship, and most Americans seem to be in favor of federal legislation that will offer a path to citizenship for those who meet certain criteria. The very fact of the DACA program, penciled into existence as an executive order by President Obama in 2012 after Congress failed—yet again—to pass comprehensive immigration legislation, speaks to both the complexities and contradictions that bedevil any resolution to this issue.

The most obvious complexity surrounding those children, adolescents, and (now) adults who were temporarily protected from deportation by DACA is that many in Congress fear granting special status or even outright citizenship to them is essentially a reward to the parents who smuggled them into the United States—and may encourage other foreigners to do exactly the same to secure U.S. citizenship for their children.

I am old enough to remember the “one-time-only” amnesty during the 1980’s Reagan administration that was supposed to fix this problem—once and for all. The crux of the problem is that rewarding people for any bad behavior will—even if you wag your finger forebodingly—only encourage more of the same. Providing an express route to citizenship for those who were protected by DACA will likely serve as an irresistible temptation for yet more undocumented parents to smuggle their equally undocumented children over the borders in the years ahead—count on it.

Any legal solution is guaranteed to anger advocates on either side of this issue. If we grant a loophole in established immigration law, parents with children will continue to have a huge incentive to sneak into the country. If we establish an arbitrary cut off—for example, if we provide permanent residency or citizenship only for those who arrived before DACA was first established—we can expect protests from both those who arrived afterward and were led to believe they would be protected from deportation indefinitely and those states that are most impacted by illegal immigration and expected President Trump to honor his campaign pledge to end the DACA program soon after he was elected. If we move to immediately enforce the law and simply deport all those who are residing here illegally now that their DACA protections are gone, it would obviously be wrong to ask those individuals to suffer due to the lack of permanent fix to a supposedly compassionate temporary policy that has now left them without both home and country.

Of course, whatever the outcome of this debate, we must remember that DACA was not a law—it was an administrative bandage put into place by President Obama that was of questionable legality and completely ignored actual Federal law. One of the reasons President Trump has ended the DACA program now is that his administration was about to be sued by states that wanted it ended immediately—and very likely would have prevailed in court. The six month delay in enforcement that he has insisted upon will at least provide a window for Congress to finally craft a permanent legal solution to this issue that will combine compassion and common sense.

Cue the contradictions.

As is the case with most thorny issues, this one is made yet more difficult by both politics and money. Those on both sides of the debate on this matter are often compromised by self-interests that lie just beneath the surfaces of their sanctimonious rhetoric. If this were merely a matter of providing a reasonable solution that balances practicality and the eternal American promise of fair play, it would likely have been resolved long ago.

Up until recently, organized labor and their supporters in the Democratic Party were totally adverse to the idea of an illegal immigrant amnesty because it was presumed the net effect would be to take away jobs from Americans and depress wages. However, now that Democrats are anxious to firm up the electoral firewall that so spectacularly failed Hillary Clinton last year, support for immigration—both legal and illegal—has become a litmus test for the Party and it members, who presume this issue will work to their advantage with a fast-growing Hispanic population and animate their core of liberal voters. Not surprisingly, Republicans are allergic to creating more potential Democratic voters in states like California, Texas, Illinois, New York, and Florida that are both heavy on electoral votes and packed with individuals affected by a DACA repeal. Whatever else is said by politicians on both sides of this issue, any solution to the problems posed by DACA and its repeal is affected by cold calculations regarding electoral loss and gain.

The monetary component of the problems regarding DACA—and most other immigration issues—is that many major employers in localities and states across the nation are heavily dependent on foreign workers. Tech companies in California and elsewhere—Apple, Google, Amazon, and Facebook among others—are anxious to keep open their pipeline to computer programming and software design talent from abroad, and they are terrified of any effort to restrict immigration or ramp up enforcement of existing laws because it might impact their ability to move new products and services to market and decrease their amazing profitability. On the flip side, industries that need a steady stream of compliant and near-invisible employees to perform dirty and often dangerous jobs—seafood and meat processors, hotels, restaurants, and un-automated factories being the most visible examples—worry that the loss of illegal immigrant labor will lead to wage pressures that will erode their sometimes marginal profitability. Our high-flown rhetoric is often contradicted by our base economic needs.

The political and economic factors that warp any discussion about immigration—legal or otherwise—have always been with us, and passing laws that are both practicable and humane will always involve compromises that will leave few happy and many dissatisfied. However, compromise we must. For either side in this debate to continue to press for pointless ideological purity is to condemn us all to partisan and damaging arguments that could leave us no further along to reaching a resolution that will allow those who grew up feeling like “Americans” to become Americans in fact—under a Federal law that will, we hope, be both fair and Constitutional.

We Need To Remember We Are All Americans

 

Here in America we have managed to create a vibrant and enduring government of interlocking local, state, and federal systems that over the centuries have provided an unprecedented degree of prosperity and security and helped our nation and citizens navigate both crises and changes. Our never-ending fussing, feuding, and fighting over the shape, scope, and expense of government has helped to create a nation that is the envy of the world, but our successes have not come without pain, heartache—and even bloody civil war.

However, our relationship with our government seems to have become dramatically strained—and estranged—over the past few decades, and many now wonder how we will emerge from our current conflicts unscathed and whole. In order to get to the root of the all-encompassing sense of dissatisfaction and unease that plagues our country today, the question that we must address seems to be a very basic one: Can our government hope to obtain the consent of the governed when our citizens now embrace such widely varying—and perhaps fundamentally irreconcilable—ideals? Are secessionist movements in states such as California signs of healthy debate or worrisome symptoms of political, social, and cultural fragmentation that could eventually rend our nation?

America has always been a country rife with contradictions. We are a nation peopled by immigrants and their descendants, yet we have always imposed limitations on immigration. We are a nation whose founding documents extol freedom and liberty, yet we permitted indentured servitude and legalized outright slavery when we finally gained our independence from England. We claim to support democracy around the world, yet we often have found it convenient to tolerate tyrants. We believe ourselves to be the most peaceful of people, yet we have spilled—and continue to spill—much blood abroad.

Perhaps a necessary part of being an American is to more often—and more insistently—remind ourselves that we are inherently flawed because we are human. To expect perfection is to perhaps forget our earthly limitations. As hard as we have tried to live up to the noblest ideals of our nation, we have not always been successful, but one could reasonably and persuasively argue that no nation in history has ever worked longer and harder to surmount its weaknesses and mistakes. As a result, we are generally able to both acknowledge our errors and celebrate our achievements. It is, in fact, often the case that each are simply two sides of the same American coin, and the more sensible among us recognize this maddening conundrum.

There is, unfortunately, a tendency today among many to see only one side of this coin. Some see reasonable restrictions on immigration—and the enforcement of existing laws—as outright hatred and nothing but. Others see a tragic past of slavery but cannot acknowledge the equally tragic civil war that both ended it and forged a new national identity. More than a few condemn us for failing to topple every dictator, yet they conveniently forget the barriers that sometimes make this impossible. Too many excoriate our country for making wars, but they refuse to credit the sacrifices made by the men and women of our armed forces that ensure the freedom to complain about our government and its policies—and have provided this same privilege for many millions more around the world. Perhaps those who focus so intently upon the contradictions within our history should also take a look at the contradictions within their own hot emotional reactions and cold academic analyses. To casually and cruelly deride those who insist upon the importance of our nationhood as an expression of pride and place is to disrespect those who choose to wave the flag. Worse yet, this sort of blind hatred of our country fails to recognize the power of our national identity to bind us together as a people—and incorrectly conflates patriotism with fascism.

No matter how one feels about President Trump’s policies or personality, it must be acknowledged that a particular section of his Inaugural Address, which was widely panned by many smug media commentators, was absolutely correct: “At the bedrock of our politics will be a total allegiance to the United States of America, and through our loyalty to our country, we will rediscover our loyalty to each other. When you open your heart to patriotism, there is no room for prejudice.” I realize that patriotism is today greeted by some with the same incredulity and confusion that an 11 year old feels when encountering a rotary dial phone, but focusing more on our shared purpose rather than obsessing over our inevitable differences might provide a way out of the echo chamber of identity politics that now confounds us. If all parties in a negotiation can act like Americans who have America’s best interests at heart, we may still be able to pull together and solve our many problems. However, should we continue to approach one another like competing armies intent on obliterating an enemy, we can expect—and likely deserve—nothing more than the anger and gridlock that stymies even the most judicious efforts at dialogue and reform.

Americans have over the past couple of centuries enshrined the concept of government as a creation of the common consent of the governed. Although the leaders we select may occasionally be creatures of entrenched political and economic interests who see representative government as nothing more than a ready mechanism for power, profit, and plunder—or are simply outright fools not worthy of our trust—we have learned that elections are by far the best method available to select whom we want to govern. We need to remember that the ballot box is an expression of our national priorities, not a place for our petty vendettas to play out. Perhaps we are today too oddly jaded, too overly sophisticated, and too bizarrely suspicious of one another to do anything other than celebrate our treasured individuality. If this is so, we likely deserve the dismal future of governmental failure peeking out over the horizon because we can’t see beyond the tips of our own precious noses—and remember that we are all Americans.

I hope we can stop treating our neighbors across our nation as strangers and enemies. The incredible efforts of those struggling to deal with the catastrophic effects of Hurricane Harvey should be a lesson to us all. Moreover, we should recognize that, for all its problems both past and present, our government—federal, state, and local—is doing incredible work to help the victims of this storm regroup and recover. We can—and must—build upon this fine example of sacrifice, hard work, and cooperation to deal with the many other problems facing our nation. To continue to throw rocks at one another because our values or priorities may differ is to wallow if what separates us rather than focus on the responsibilities we all have to our country and to one another.