These D.C. Shenanigans Don’t Interest Me

The recent indictment of a prominent Washington political lobbyist, Paul Manafort, is prompting a rapturous response from some. Even though the criminal charges have nothing to do with last year’s election, those who wanted Hillary to win are now convinced that impeachment (Remember that Russian collusion!) is right around the corner. However, there are others who, even if not thrilled with President Trump’s policies or personality, are notably cooler to the idea. Me? With apologies to Rhett Butler—and as much as it pains me to say this—I don’t give a damn.

If you ever needed further proof that Washington, D.C. is a world utterly separate from the one we downtrodden peasants occupy, you need only to listen to the self-important chatter emanating from the banks of the Potomac regarding this non-story about a non-issue that is nonsense.

Given that we already know our federal government is a hopelessly corrupt conglomeration of back scratchers and influence peddlers masquerading as public servants, I am going to guess that I am not the only one who finds it impossible to work up to the target level of outrage. Listening to supposedly sane commentators froth at the mouth concerning the notion that lobbyists might not be the most honest of God’s creations reminds me of Captain Renault in the movie Casablanca fulminating about the doings at Rick’s Cafe: “I am shocked—shocked—to find that gambling is going on in here!”

The outrage machine will, however, continue to grind on for as long as it is good business to do so. Anger and investigations encourage donors to write checks, so that is as good a reason as any to try to gin up a story about an apparently corrupt lobbyist into the latest iteration of “the scandal of the century”. If you read many of the reactions in the media, one notable undercurrent is that these investigations and indictments might—at least temporarily—interfere with the real business of Washington insiders: Making obscene amounts of money by selling access to executive, legislative, judicial, and (most important of all) regulatory power brokers. Working for the public good is just fine—as long as it does not interfere with personal profit.

A short list of what our federal government should be preoccupied with might include right-sizing operations in order to stop driving our nation into ever more catastrophic debt, holding agencies and departments accountable for producing measurable public benefits, devising cost-effective strategies for dealing with our crumbling infrastructure, reforming the cesspool of campaign finance, strengthening our military to meet a host of new and disturbing dangers, and pushing back against the many threats to our rights to privacy and free speech. If you can’t focus on your jobs, just get gone for good—for the good of us all.

If I want to watch stupid people engaging in stupid behavior, I can tune into countless reality television shows where dysfunction is worn like a badge of honor. I (perhaps unreasonably) expect more from my national government—particularly in light of the many problems we face today. Perhaps a few high profile prosecutions will provide some minor temporary benefit that will help to support the illusion that real change in a culture of entrenched corruption is at last at hand, but I strongly suspect that much stronger medicine will be necessary to heal what ails our country. Occasionally sacrificing someone of middling importance on the prosecutorial altar does not absolve our nation’s capitol of its many sins. There is far more to answer for regarding the many messes we are in today due to neglectful—or actively damaging—leadership in Washington.

However, feel free to enjoy the D.C. circus of empty rhetoric and feigned concern if that is to your taste. However, I am certain I am not the only American who just does not care—and wants the whole crowd of crooks and cuckoos out of our lives as soon as possible. I can’t say that many of them will be missed.

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Do You Feel Safe Yet?

One aspect of our world today that is not commented upon enough amid all the noise of the news cycle is the 24/7 monitoring of our daily activities. A great deal of the ever-present peering into our personal lives is tied to our commercial and financial activities; some of this surveillance is protecting us from fraud, but a much larger portion is designed to better understand our spending habits in order to sell us more junk we don’t really need with money we don’t actually have. However, the more worrisome monitoring of our lives is that which supposedly protects us from international criminals and terrorists—and which has turned us all into germs parked under a very big microscope.

I suppose it is a perverse tribute to the power of the algorithms embedded into the very fabric of our lives today, but we are continually made aware of needs we did not know we even had thanks to the pop up ads on our browsers. Even the helpful viewing suggestions on Netflix are busily compiling a list of our dreams and desires drawn from our viewing profiles, which will immediately be used by businesses to prod us into even more spending and track our purchases down to the very last stick of chewing gum. Although I appreciate it when my credit card company calls to check whether I just purchased lawn furniture in a store five states away from where I actually live, I twitch a bit when I am called about an item I’ve bought that was flagged simply because it fell outside my “purchasing profile”. I realize I’ve probably fallen into a blandly predictable pattern in my life, but need I be reminded by MasterCard just how boring I have become?

Even within my four thin walls, my electronic footprint of daily activities, helpfully logged by my devices and Internet service provider, are keeping a fine record of my life, activities, and thoughts. Sometimes, just to be a rebel, I will pull a physical book off a shelf or search for information on Google that does not interest me in the least—simply to screw with the system. This is my mild and ineffectual revolt against Big Brother. Of course, fifty years from now we might all be grousing about the government-mandated technology embedded in our refrigerators that chastises us when we don’t eat enough leafy green vegetables, so perhaps I shouldn’t complain so much about the tyranny of our technology today.

However, the oddest aspect of our conversations when we talk about the constant spying into everything we do is just how much of it is justified by the need to keep us secure in a seemingly ever more insecure world. Having entertained myself this morning by counting all the cameras that recorded by daily bus commute to work—and will today monitor my movements on my college campus throughout the day—I cannot help but contemplate how little privacy I have once I step outside the walls of my home. How sad is that?

However, all of the snooping that swirls around our daily lives and spending pales in comparison with the broad and disturbing reach of the national security state’s ceaseless sifting of our activities.

We are, of course, regularly reassured that international drug lords and bloodthirsty terrorists are being foiled by the alphabet soup of federal and state government agencies vacuuming up every facet of our lives with little concern for our confidentiality. However, since the passage of the Post-9/11 Patriot Act, we also have seen an explosion in the number of private corporations that work under government contract and spy on every aspect of our existences and the world around us. According to an article in The Nation last year, the “intelligence-contracting industry… is worth about $50 billion.” Just to give that huge but amorphous number some context, this means that private companies engaged in all manner of surveillance are today an economic behemoth with roughly the same revenues and reach as FedEx.

This translates into the political punch necessary—via campaign contributions, consulting fees, and promises to locate jobs in key legislative districts—to perpetuate their power and further expand their mandates. Therefore, we can be reasonably certain that no one with any actual ability to influence contracting or legislation will ever, ever suggest that our national security apparatus needs to be trimmed—there is simply too much money sloshing around the system for it to be otherwise. All those wonderful taxpayer-subsidized paychecks have rendered this sprawling and largely unaccountable system impervious to change or reform, which is exactly what often happens when our government decides it is time to “protect” us—the functional outcome is that the livelihoods of many others are forever protected at our expense.

I am certain that all manner of fanatics and dead-enders have been stopped by a suspicious phone call, bank withdrawal, or illegal left turn that was identified and flagged in a database somewhere. However, this might not be as comforting as we might like to believe. The recent horrific sniper attacks in Las Vegas, which left at least 59 dead and 527 people injured, should give us pause for reasons that go beyond the terrible facts of the crime. The shooter apparently smuggled both a veritable arsenal and an unbelievable amount of ammunition into a major downtown hotel in a city that might have more cameras per square foot than almost any other in the United States. As frightening as the actions of this madman where, the perhaps even more scary fact is that none of the surveillance technology nor the people tasked with operating it had a clue about what was going to happen—until it did.

The inevitable response to this incident and so many like it has, of course, been a call for yet more monitoring, restrictions, and expanded governmental powers to protect us. No one who hopes to win an election is ever going to say that they are simply incapable of protecting everyone from the random horrors of life. This would to call into question the broad purpose of government as it has come to be defined over the past century, an increasing powerful and intrusive set of overlapping entities that claim to be able to keep us safe and happy if we fork over enough tax money.

As the regulatory and police powers of the state have increased and sought to save us from the anxieties generated by foods with insufficient fiber, people who might disagree with us, and sharp scissors, the obvious failures mount up—and the only ones who seem surprised are those who still somehow believe that the solution to every problem is to give government (wait for it!) yet more regulatory and police powers. This is, ultimately, a circular and self-defeating fool’s errand. Even if we put a camera inside every home, a cop on every corner, and a microchip in every individual, we will still not be safe from life because life is an inherently unsafe and potentially upsetting endeavor. Even the best choices sometimes have bad outcomes, and random weirdness and cruelty will never be eliminated from our world no matter how many forms we are required to fill out.

Frankly, I am perfectly willing to forgo the illusory security provided by living my life under the camera’s unblinking eye. Perhaps something bad will happen to me or someone whom I love as a result, but such is life. In fact, it might be much more of a life—exciting, risky, and completely ours to navigate—than the silly and scolding simulacrum we now have. Just as G-o-d is unable to prevent all of the pain that is part of life, so can we be certain that G-o-v cannot insulate us from every potentially dangerous situation, object, or person. This might seem awful to some, but perhaps we simply have to live our lives, deal with the consequences—and whine a little less about the uncertainty of it all.

 

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 Chicago, 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.

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.

Big Money Politics Helps Produce Political Extremism

People have been complaining about the corrupting influence of political contributions forever, and it is true that the escalating costs of running for state and national political offices have turned our elected officials into full-time fundraisers—for themselves. Given the many millions of dollars it might today cost to campaign for a Congressional or Senate seat—and setting aside the astronomical $850 million spent by the two major party candidates during the 2016 Presidential race—it is apparent that we now have a government of the rich, by the rich, and for the rich.

It is an open question just how much of the daily struggle of the average American actually gets through to candidates who are cosseted by campaign contributors handing them gobs of money. This does not become less of a problem after they are sworn into office. Upon being elected, officials immediately start to raise the dollars necessary to hold their seats, eclipsing the daily work on behalf of constituents—whose troublesome needs eat into the time that must be spent raising campaign funds.

However, the power of incumbency at least makes raising money easier because political favors now can be granted in exchange for campaign contributions, which are certainly a pernicious form of peculiarly legalized bribery. As the costs of political campaigns keep increasing, the importance of your opinion to your elected representative is ever more related to the size of your bank balance, the “pay to play” politics that disgusts most Americans. We are, sad to say, now all forced to live by the Golden Rule: “Those who have the gold make the rules.”

There is, however, another problem beyond the capture of our political institutions by wealthy individuals and interest groups—and it is helping to tear apart our nation.

Campaign fundraising used to be built around two basic appeals. On the one hand, you could attempt to appeal to the more elevated human traits of empathy or sympathy. An example of this approach might read as follows:

“Your contribution will give this puppy a warm bed tonight.”

Of course, if you really wanted to motivate potential contributors, a more crisis-laden approach was often more effective:

“Unless you contribute, this puppy will die tonight.”

If, however, you are running for political office today and need oodles of money in order to compete, a more sensationalistic and confrontational approach is preferred:

“UNLESS YOU CONTRIBUTE, MY OPPONENT WILL MURDER THIS PUPPY TONIGHT!” 

See the problem? The ongoing need for cash to keep today’s mega-million dollar campaigns afloat inevitably pushes all political discourse to the extremes because this is what best motivates contributors. Candidates can no longer afford to be gracious, reasonable, or moderate. All political opponents are now by grim necessity depicted as horrible brutes, and all opposing policy ideas are certain to result in lingering death, massive destruction, and the breakdown of civil society—because to say otherwise would not persuade anyone to write a check. Every election cycle is now Armageddon—the ultimate confrontation between good and evil—and each campaign season only further reinforces these venomous attitudes.

Big money politics have, of course, become an even worse problem over the years because of both inane Supreme Court decisions that have privileged wealthy donors and the sheer recalcitrance of officeholders who love the fundraising opportunities of incumbency and are allergic to reforms. However, reform we must if we are to have any hope of rescuing our nation from extremist politics and speech because campaign cash does more than just buy influence: It is itself a major driver of the political extremism that is both stalling our political processes and sidetracking legitimate national needs—all the while turning neighbors into enemies. Unless we can find a way to reduce the extraordinary costs now associated with political campaigns, we are likely condemned to yet more divisive and damaging political speech that will continue to hollow out the shrinking center of our national dialogue.