Thursday, September 2, 2010

9 long-term choices for liberals

Going into the mid-term election, there are thousands of people trying to tell their party how best to approach the election. I am not one of those people. But I am someone who has a few ideas for the long-term conversation.

We always need to be thinking ahead. The rise of conservatism in the early 1980s and furthered in the 1990s was all due to diligent planning in the 1960s and 70’s. They came to the conclusion that they needed to make some choices and that they needed to make them together. Once those choices were made, everyone fell in line.

I’m not suggesting liberals adopt the conservative playbook. First, I don’t think most really want to, and second, we’d all be horrible at it. I am actually suggesting that they based their playbook on fundamental principles of change and that we can do the same. To do that, we have to make some choices of our own.

Before we begin, I use the term liberal intentionally. It’s not a bad word. If you prefer progressive, just insert it in yourself.

Reframed arguments
We begin by changing the way we argue about things and take the arguments out of conservative territory.

1. Responsibility
Conservatives don’t have the market cornered on responsibility, but they love to talk about personal responsibility and holding certain groups accountable. The problem with this view is that responsibility is targeted primarily at minorities, the youth, and teachers. At the same time, the same requirement is not expected of corporations, investors, business leaders, Congress, or upper-class families. Responsibility is discussed only in relationship to pregnancy, drug/alcohol use, credit use, and performance evaluations. It is rarely used to talk about taking responsibility for the environment, for our community, and for those that cannot take care of themselves. A move toward a broad platform of responsibility not only exposes the hypocrisy of Conservatism, it reveals the compassionate side of liberalism.

2. Budget Priorities
We have to admit that nobody likes taxes—but everybody loves investment. Nobody wants a handful of people determining what happens in our communities, but everybody loves flat roads and well-run infrastructure. Liberals can help reframe the notion of liberal budget priorities as being about sound, responsible investment with long-term benefits. It isn’t about the invisible hand, but the thousands of hands that make the roads on which you drive.

3. Simplicity
The moral Conservative shift was built on a doctrine of simplicity. If we don’t give kids condoms they won’t have sex. If we put drug users in jail, then there won’t be drugs. Regardless of their accuracy, they are effective as arguments because they involve an easy and intuitive leap. Liberals like evidence and complexity and accuracy. We can have all of those things. We just need to describe the complexity more simply. Kids have sex, so let’s keep them safe. Or our kids might have sex, so let’s help them make smart choices. Simple statements and honest to the position.

If you afford me a personal anecdote. I have this good friend from college. We were discussing abortion and taking opposing sides. After about 15 minutes of arguing, I had given him something like 10-15 arguments for keeping abortion legal. He gave me 2. And he thought he won. To “win,” he shifted the goalposts, rearticulated the same argument to look like a different one, and stood on definitive moral grounds. We don’t need to flood people with data, we just have to sound like we’re right.

The Law
Next, we move to the realm of law, courts, and legislation.

4. Interpretation
The problem with conservative court appointments of the last 30 years is not that the judges are conservative, but that many have an ideology that is inconsistent and ideologically repressive: something akin to a fundamentalist’s interpretation of Scripture. So let’s talk about the Constitution, about what we can reason, and what we can’t. Expose the problems with this interpretive strategy and say that we can’t stand for a narrow 1st Amendment for people, but a broad one for corporations; we can’t stand for statements about a literal interpretation of the Constitution, but then we legalize open-carry handguns (hint: no handguns in 1789). Let’s talk about the sensibility of judges and the importance of smart people on the bench with various opinions.

5. Sex
Moral conservatives claim to not want anyone to have sex outside of heterosexual marriage. Then they run around and have affairs, solicit young men in bathroom stalls, or otherwise sneak around and lie about their dalliances. In other words, the ideology is more important than the people. We know that this is bunk. Something like 98-99% of Americans that have had sex have done so at least once with contraception. And yet 60% of people are either Roman Catholics or Southern Baptist—two groups that oppose its use. Most people willfully ignore this teaching. And yet, moral conservatives feel compelled to advance it. The simple response is to continue to disregard it. Remind people that they are already using contraception. Remind people that it is the 21st Century and different modes of sexual expression are common place. But let’s take responsibility for the consequences of sex—before, during, and after the fact. If you oppose abortion, then put money into adoption services. If you oppose pre-marital sex, then give people something other than the Bible for why they shouldn’t be doing it right now. If you don’t want the government in your wallet, why do you want it in your bedroom?

6. Identity
This speaks to race, gender, ability, orientation, nationality, and is a catch-all for what it means to not be in the dominant group: relatively wealthy white people. Moral conservatives have used identity politics as a wedge issue and have matched with libertarian, meritocracy-types to keep the obstacles in place for minority and under-served groups. Instead of using heavy-handed moralism back, liberals could adopt a different strategy, taken from the new push in architecture: universal design. There is no reason to build a house or building that isn’t accessible to the physically disabled. To do so is to continue to ignore their presence among us. But, we can also see the sensibility of a door that anyone can go through, faucets and counters that anyone can use, etc. Teaching my two year-old to use the sink in my home required not just a step-stool, but a two-step stool. Thinking about the world in accessible terms is not anti-tradition—it’s simply smart and forward thinking.

The last piece is about money and the way we allow it to govern us.

7. Best Practices or Core Principles
For the last few decades, we have battled over political differences by highlighting our core principles. This is good. It now seems like its time to get back to best practices. I talked about simplicity in #3, and the arguments about sex and imprisonment are simplified arguments based on moral core principles of no pre-marital sex and the pursuit of high levels of incarceration. But wise people found the holes in both strategies: abstinence only education led to more pregnancies, not less; California’s three strikes law was catching people and locking them up for at least 10 years for, in one case, stealing a pack of gum. Both of these initiatives, intended to reduce the problem, actually expanded it, costing tax payers millions more per year to deal with the consequences. Let’s encourage logic and smart, best practices that both reduce the problem and encourage prudent fiscal priorities.

8. Main Street or Wall Street
Conversations about jobs seem to always turn to big corporations coming in and providing lots of jobs for a community. This has led to bidding between communities for who can wave the business taxes more. But the health of the American economy isn’t entirely dependent on corporations and the NYSE. In fact, we have allowed this charade to give corporations and stockholders enough power to hold our economy hostage. So let’s chuck it. We actually must choose to side with people. So, when in doubt, side with people. Worker safety complaints? Side with people. Consumer protection? Side with people. Workplace discrimination? Side with people. Environmental degradation? Side with people. Sometimes you have to side with people over siding with one person. Want to build a house on wetlands? Side with the people.

This will mean a rough road with many corporate interests and with groups like the Chamber of Commerce, but chuck it. Side with the people. We must take a consistent stand on the side of a strong, healthy, well-balanced population that has what it needs. Corporations are people? Unconstitutional.

9. Planning or Strategy
The last thing we have to do is adopt an ideology of long-range planning. Former Governor and DNC chair Howard Dean did that with his “50 State Strategy,” which was to invest money in every state, making more states more contestable, a big reason for Pres. Obama’s electoral victory. Liberals need to look beyond the next election and toward a long-term plan for liberalism (or progressivism if you prefer).

Instead of focusing our attention on each little move we have to make about each new issue that presents itself, we focus on the long-term plan. Taking the cost-prohibitive nature out of healthcare. Funding new initiatives for green technologies. Fighting for equality and the underserved. Seeking resolutions to international conflicts. Freeing up more time for families to spend together, enjoying the world around us. These are important goals and require more than a short-range election strategy. They require a plan. Kind of like this one.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Racism, Sexism, and Orthodoxy

I recognize that this is an ambitious title, and this short post could not hope to measure up to it. At the same time, I hope to show you three things and will make a brief comment after it.

First, head over to Ephphatha Poetry here to read a great post called "Imagine if the Tea Party Was Black" (by Tim Wise).

Second, read this article for a new example of what is found in the first.

Third, check out this strange international event with regards to the Presiding Bishop and the Archbishop of Canterbury.

You might find the third reading to be a strange bedfellow with the first two: what does a seemingly small slight to an American bishop have to do with systemic racism, open bigotry, and a venomous political climate? Well, in short, everything.

Inherent to the problems the Tea Parties are obsessed with, Conservative public officials and pundits rail about, and those charging forward with denominational separation of churches preach about is a sense of orthodoxy that is insular and personal to these groups. It isn't simply that they demand their way or the highway, they demand control of the highway as a means of securing their way.

Of course, some is uglier than others. Violence and threats of violence is nothing like a man telling a woman, who is his peer, that she must act differently than the men that preceded her. And yet, there is something identical: the safety of distance in the office. +Rowan can have someone tell +Katherine that she needs to do something, and we go along--it seems so official. For her to comply is her taking the high road, and all of us that express outrage, well, we're just the cretins. Racist pundits and politicians are similarly isolated from this because of their office in the public square, and the virtue of getting the 'home-field advantage' (an important power-differential at the root of racism). And it is all thrown under the auspices of 'orthodoxy'--the traditional understanding of the world. It's too bad that what is exposed in all three of these articles is that what is being called orthodox is nothing of the sort--old bigotry wrapped in brand new acts parading as traditional understanding. The very idea that one does something new invalidates their very terms of the debate.

My plea is the same for those in Tea Parties as it is for the Archbishop: the practice you want others to follow ought to be the one you use. Making a bishop take off her mitre or taking an AK-47 to a rally is unprecedented and makes you the one breaking from orthodoxy. And if orthodoxy is your primary argument, then you'll probably lose the debate.

But being right was never really the intention, was it?

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Reclaiming the Public Narrative: or why stupid things said for craven poltical game need to be called out for what they are

Let’s pretend I’m a sports analyst on TV. If I made fun of Albert Pujols for using a baseball bat to crush a fastball, you would laugh at me—calling my argument patently absurd. If I made fun of Drew Brees for winning the Super Bowl by throwing a football, you would not only look at me funny, but my own cache would evaporate instantaneously. In either scenario, would I be considered fit for sports commentary? Should I expect to be taken seriously? Wouldn’t the obvious obliviousness be exposed and called out? Isn’t it proper for journalists to decry public statements that are patently absurd?

So why is it that the former sportscaster Sarah Palin’s persistent attacks on Pres. Barrack Obama’s use of a TelePrompTer aren’t treated to such similar condescension? The facts of the matter are obvious:
  • Virtually every televised public speech uses this device. So, in other words, it is used by everyone, in politics or not.
  • Every president has used it for years. This includes all of them. Did I mention that there are no exceptions?
  • Every candidate in recent memory has used it on the campaign trail—again, no exceptions, including every presidential and vice presidential candidate in 2008.
  • Every sportscaster or newscaster uses a TelePrompTer to report the news.
In the current climate, it is easy to make this conversation a personal one. It is easy to take this away from the BIG facts in favor of the small ones. In the above description, I didn’t say as candidates, Misters Obama, McCain, Biden, and Mrs. Palin each used a TelePrompTer. I didn’t call her a hypocrite (even though I will gladly do so now) for attacking Obama for doing something that she herself does and will do in the future. But the very facts of the matter is that it isn’t an either/or; it isn’t a he-does-this and she-does-that scenario. It is an everybody-does-this/how-can-there-be-an-issue sort-of-thing. Everybody uses a TelePrompTer because it is the logical tool for enhancing the effectiveness of speeches. It is a cynical person who seems to therefore be suggesting that if Mr. Obama speaks well and uses one than she should therefore speak poorly and not use one. That’s her argument…if it were really about logic.

I doubt that Mrs. Palin does this out of logic or out of a sincere attempt to change the way politics are done. It is an attempt to make fun of the President and impugn his character. Making fun of something so trivial is Gutter Politics 101—because its obviousness means that comment is often left unsaid. Defending Mr. Obama’s use of the device rightly seems defensive while attempts to point out Mrs. Palin’s similar use of the device can clearly be used to construct an “they’re out to get me” schema. There is no political solution to this callous political strategy, but there is a clearly necessary historic solution—to laugh at her. Just as we would laugh at a sportscaster for suggesting a baseball bat is a stupid tool for the game of baseball, shouldn’t we collectively laugh at the suggestion that a TelePrompTer is the wrong tool for giving a speech? Isn’t the suggestion plain enough that we can all see the inanity of it?

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

The Massachusetts Race

Having only spent 9 months or so in Massachusetts, one would probably argue I shouldn't care who they elect. And in one way, I don't. If they today choose to elect a Republican, that's on them. If that breaks the 60-40 Democratic majority, it isn't the end of the world. What is actually the problem is who they would be electing. Take a look at Keith Olbermann's response from last night:

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Unqualified, fringe candidates, when liberal, are often characterized as dangerous and when conservative, they are characterized as fresh. I get that. But isn't the "fresh" breed of conservative seem just a tad more dangerous? Shouldn't we do everything in our power to prevent just this kind of candidate from getting elected? People are that willing to compromise their political principles just to stick it to a local tone-deaf politician? Are we that petty and small? I guess we're about to find out...