Institutional Fluidity

I am a student of history. That’s what I do. I love it. I love the digging and the finding. I love the aggregation of large amounts of information and working to put the pieces together into a story that makes sense of all of the stuff. Piles of papers, notes, clippings, books, texts, documents, in the last year these have become my life.

I know it is going to be some time, quite a long time, until a historian is really able to make something coherent out of the mess that is the 2016 campaign season, but I am going to put forth a thought as a jumping off point.

Let me say first that I do not think the two-party system is going anywhere anytime soon. The only way that such a thing might happen would be if as older party loyalists pass on, younger generations, such as millennials,  refuse the temptation to power that the two major parties provide. The easy part is resisting the temptation. What proves infinitely more difficult is organizing any coherent opposition, and for that to happen one must find a group of people with similar interests and ideas large enough to successfully shift the balance of power. With the splintering of various degrees of laissez-faire, libertarian conservatives, socialist-leaning liberals, and moderate pragmatists who do not allow a particular ideology to frame a debate on a particular issue making up a plurality of the electorate, especially over the last few years since 2012, it seems that the time is right for a real challenge to the two-party structure. However, due to multiple divisions among unaffiliated voters, it is improbable.

Conservatives lost their chance when the Republican party failed to heed the words of Barry Goldwater concerning its adoption of Christian conservatism that began with the rise of the Moral Majority of Jerry Falwell in the 1970s and the Christian Coalition of the 1980s-90s. Liberals have not yet lost their chance, but are working on it as the Democratic party perpetually juggles an infinite number of issues that always need to be addressed right now and places them all under the umbrella term “progress.” This is all assuming that the two parties continue appealing to their present constituencies.

Which brings us to the theory of realignment. This is not to suggest that this will be a realigning election, yet there are those that believe it could very well be. What I am illustrating is the fact that the two parties, though structural institutions, are fluid and forever amending themselves in order to garner more voter support. Fact number one that has to be remembered is that the primary goal of a political party is to win elections. In order to do so, a party must attract voters, and the only way to do that is to make the party attractive to the most voters possible in a given district, state, region, or country (the beauty of federalism). This one principle must be remembered when talking about political parties.

An example…

During the Great Depression, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Democratic party managed to splice together a diverse coalition of the white working class (labor unions), urban-ethnic minorities, African Americans, and traditional southern Democrats with memories of the Old Confederacy. This coalition managed to hold together throughout the Depression, World War II, and into the 1950s and 60s. With the progression of the civil rights movement, which had been carried on parallel throughout the period, the coalition reached its breaking point at the height of the movement, from the Brown decision in 1954 on integration and ultimately the passage of the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act of 1964 and 1965, respectively. White racial conservatives in the South and middle-class moderates nationwide began leaving their party and joined the Silent Majority that supported Nixon who preached, not without a little irony, the same law and order mantra heard from the Republican presidential nominee in 2016. The realignment began in the late 60s and culminated in 1994 with the Republican takeover of Congress, three decades after passage of the CRA and forty years after Brown. Since Nixon’s election, Democrats have struggled to build a lasting coalition as strong as that built by FDR.

The story is really much longer and much more interesting than presented here, but this is all to say that the parties are always on the move, always looking for ways to attract new voters, and always seeking a way to win elections.

So in a nutshell, these are (some of) the historical forces at work that make third-party contests so difficult in American politics, which brings me back to my original point, making sense of this mess that has become the 2016 campaign season.

For the Republican party, it seems too simple. The party has been absent from the executive branch for eight years and is desperate to regain power. The most blatant demonstration of the historical forces at work within the party is the nominee’s choice for vice president. Donald Trump’s choice of Mike Pence, an unapologetic Christian conservative with distinctly differing social views than Trump, clearly shows the strength of Christian, social conservatism within the Republican party, without which the party cannot succeed in its continued want for power. Yet, many Republicans still are not on the Trump bandwagon, and conservative independent voters seem less than excited about the party’s ticket, not to mention traditional conservative intellectuals such as William Kristol, George Will, and Charles Krauthammer.

For Democrats, the party finds itself divided much in the same way the Republican party divided during the 2008 and 2012 elections with the rise of the Tea Party. Many find themselves, for one reason or another, dissatisfied by the party. With the party’s chase for middle-class votes, working-class Democrats (primarily white) find themselves wanting things that the party is not giving them. Party loyalists lay the blame at the feet of the opposition, but that is only because the opposition has had more success in swaying public opinion in its direction and rallying those voters to the ballot box in their favor. The party has been working for nearly fifty years to figure out how best to maintain its new coalition, made up of a diverse array of people from all walks of life and origins, and the primary between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders has shown the divisions not only within the party, but among unaffiliated liberal voters the party wants to, and needs to, attract. The selection of Tim Kaine as Clinton’s running mate exemplifies the party’s strategic attempt to hold its constituency together. He is a southern Democrat (Barack Obama is the only Democrat not from the South who has succeeded in a national campaign since John F. Kennedy’s election in 1960, whose running mate hailed from Texas) who proclaims strong Christian values and gives a nod to the business community, while advocating for the rights of minorities, particularly African Americans and Latinos, as well as the LGBTQ community.

On the surface it all seems simple, but the study of society, especially one as culturally diverse as the United States, is rarely as simple as it seems. I have been working on a question concerning this for a solid year, and I am still finding pieces that fit somewhere in a puzzle that has no clear image as a guide to the solution. Different ethnicities, faiths, sexual orientations, genders, generations, and class interests (just to name a few) all bring varying points of view into social discourse and fuel the political dialogue necessary in order to bring to fruition the idea of self governance. Just like the two-system, society is fluid and ever-changing. The President stole a bit of my thunder in his convention speech when he noted the framers’ cause of forming  not a perfect union, but a “more perfect Union,” a union that is always looking for ways to make itself better. Can the two parties maintain their power and stave off the challenges presented by disaffected voters in order to achieve this noble purpose? It is too early to tell, but, as I said before, it seems probable.

At the moment, a plurality of voters claim no affiliation to either of the parties. How will the parties react, and, in turn, how will voters respond? I am suffering from campaign fatigue, but I will more than likely continue to pay attention, especially come November when I cast my vote. It will not be my vote I am thinking about, though. I will be looking at everyone else’s, too.









Minority Report

I am not sure, but I think this may be my first post concerning a current political issue, other than elections, that is being talked about in the news and my corner of the social/digital universe.

If you live under a rock, or just do not pay attention to news or politics, here is the gist. There are international talks underway concerning the nuclear development program in Iran (I know, right? When aren’t there international talks concerning the nuclear development program in Iran?). The United States, Russia, China, Germany, France, and the United Kingdom are attempting to negotiate a deal with Iran, which is beginning to sound promising.

A little while back the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, came and spoke to the Congress of the United States at the request of House Speaker John Boehner, not the President. Following the speech, freshman senator Tom Cotton wrote an open letter to the  “Leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran,” which has, predictably drawn considerable criticism. Just do a google search for “letter to Iran,” and see for yourself.

Having read the letter, and doing my very best to keep my bias removed from this line of thought, I can see where the writer is coming from, and the point he is trying to convey. However (there is always an however), the way the letter is written reeks of condescension. It reads as a mini-lecture on American civics given to middle-schoolers. I cannot comprehend the level of self-importance that the language conveys.

The writer, and those that signed, are members of a collective body whose voice is supposed to be singular. They each are one member and one vote within a body of one-hundred. At best, the body can be interpreted as representatives from 50 individual states. Even then, they are a delegation of two. Yet, one sovereign body it is, as defined by the Constitution, Article I. Forty-seven senators, including the writer, signed the letter that is written on a piece of paper with the letterhead “United States Senate, Washington, DC 20510.”

Trying to look beyond the patronizing language sent to leaders and the head of state of another sovereign nation, there is another level of self-importance over which I cannot get. Forty-seven signatures beneath a letter written beneath a letterhead representing one body made up of one-hundred delegates. Do the math. Forty-seven out of one-hundred is forty-seven percent. That is not a majority. How self-involved does one have to be to believe that what is decidedly less than a majority represents the opinion of a collective body?

Had the senator written this letter under his office’s letterhead, I could understand that. But, by using the letterhead of the United States Senate, he, and the other signers, attempted to use the august body of the Senate to give greater credence to a minority opinion and their individual benefit. Yet, nowhere in his letter does he stipulate that this point of view is of the minority.

I believe it would serve the senator from Arkansas well to have any other open letters he wishes to send to leaders or heads of state written by his communications staffers. Yes, he may very well be representing the interests of his constituents in Arkansas, but when he is attempting to represent the Senate of the United States, he is representing many more people, and, clearly, according to the number of agreeing signatures, the minority in this case.

I do not know if this is the first case of a minority opinion being sent on official United States Senate letterhead to leaders of another nation, but it sure as hell should be the last.

Partisan rhetoric aside, the minority opinion does not represent the opinion of a body that represents the whole country. It would do well for Mr. Cotton and the forty-six other senators that support him, including the two from my state, to remember that. The Senate was not established to represent individual or minority points of view. In the Senate, the majority rules.

A Change in the System

As I sit here waiting for the snow to start falling again, I’m thinking about this article I just read concerning a certain presidential hopeful. I’m not going to post the article here or talk about the particular hopeful candidate. I think we are all a little tired of campaigning and electoral politics, especially in my home state of North Carolina. We just finished with a very bitter and what seemed like a never-ending campaign season.

Now, I love politics. I do. I especially enjoy studying political history. What I am not a fan of is current electoral politics. Emotions get involved and warp the debate that should be based on reason. Then the shouting and finger pointing start, along with snide and pithy remarks that go on and on and on and on and on. It gets old and boring and accomplishes nothing beyond expanding the commenters’ own ego and hubris. We’re all guilty of it. I know I am, at least, and I admit it. Why is it so damn hard for others to do the same?

Imagine how much more civil the process can be if we set our egos and emotions aside and simply talked to one another concerning our opinions. If we stopped allowing politicians and their ilk to bring our emotions into the varied debates, they would stop. If we turned off our televisions and radios when their emotion provoking advertisements came on, they would stop spending money to have them broadcast. The web ads are more difficult, but are easily ignored, and sometimes can be blocked.

The fact of the matter is that politicians themselves, as well as their biggest supporters, have more than enough ego to push their side of the debate. It is our job, no, our responsibility to take their ego out of the equation and attempt to work the problem out rationally, without the influence of emotion or ego.

Another fact is that a particular political platform is not going to please or benefit everyone. Let’s get real about it. According to the United States Census Bureau, the total population for the United States plus Armed Forces overseas through January 2015 was 320,366,579 people. 320. Million. People. That’s a lot of people to please. A lot. Of people. To please. A lot of personalities to influence. No one person, no one party, no one policy, no one law is going to please or influence them all.

Oh? We are a representative democracy? or a Federal Republic? or a Constitutional Republic? Whatever label you want to put on it? So, it takes a majority to set policy and such, a majority being 50% plus 1. Half of 320,366,579 is 160,183, 289.5. That’s still 160 million people to influence or persuade.

But not all of those 320 million people are eligible to vote. Okay. According to the United States Election Project, the voting age population was at 245,712,915 people for the general election of 2014. Half of that is 122,856,475.5. That’s still a lot of egos to influence. But, only 81,687,059 ballots were cast for the highest office on the ballot. Only two-thirds of those even eligible to vote cared enough to do so.

Though not a presidential election year when more voters go to the polls, these numbers illustrate a couple of possibilities, one of which being apathy. People just do not care. Another is that a lot of folks assume that their congressional representatives will win their seats with little to no contest. The incumbency rate averages safely over 80% for representatives and over 75% for senators, so voters tend to stay home for midterm elections thinking their vote will not sway too much one way or the other.

The last possibility that I will mention here goes along with the first possibility that people just don’t care, and that is voter fatigue. A lot of us are just tired of elections. The election cycle never, ever ends. Campaigning never goes away. It is an endless and vicious cycle, and we are tired of it. l say “we,” because I do not think I am alone in this. I no longer watch the news, and very rarely listen to, or read, it much anymore. Well, I probably read or listen more than the average person, but not anything like I used to do. It’s not news anymore. There is little “new” in the news. It is the same story with different characters and different wording, but the plot never changes. Who wants to keep track of that? And with most news outlets, especially those driven by profit motives, mixing news with opinion and commentary, the news is not news anymore. It is simply an orchestrated pandering for like-minded viewers, readers, and listeners. This pandering is nothing more than free campaign contributions given by a given media outlet to the candidate or political cause of its choice, thus continuing the already endless campaign cycle. What it almost seems like is that there is little governance occurring within our system, giving way to the tiresome cycle of unending campaign pandering and electioneering.

And that brings us back to the emotional and ego driven side of electoral politics and the necessity to go beyond the emotional and reach for the rational, to put aside egos and that intoxicating feeling of being right. We can force a better and more constructive conversation. The office seekers are not going to change the conversation for us. We have to demand it. We have to make it known that we are tired of it. The absolute best way to do so is to stop. Stop contributing to a system that does nothing but indulge your ego. Turn the channel if you watch the 24-hour news cycle. Force media outlets to report news, real news, not opinion or commentary. Use your own thoughts to construct an opinion or frame of mind rather than ruminating on something that someone else has already said. Take your own thoughts and use them when having a constructive dialogue concerning a political issue or official instead of bloviating the same tired talking points that someone else has put together. Doing so can reinvigorate our citizenry and bring about an enjoyment of participating in our primary civic responsibility of self-governance.

We” are the government, not the media or elected officials. Elected officials are supposed to represent our wants and needs. We supplement the ideas and we give the political will. It is not the other way around. The media is not there to shape opinion with commentary, but to report factual information. Hold the media to its responsibility. If you see a program giving commentary, turn the channel and do not go back to it. If you read a news article that provides commentary or opinion presented as fact, go to another website or throw the periodical in the trash.

It can be done. I am as big a political junkie as anyone I have ever met. I watched the 24-hour news cycle like it was a religion. I read the news like I could not get enough of it. I have not watched the news on television in going on three years, maybe longer. I have not consistently read news on a major media website in about the same amount of time. I may click on a link here and there if there is an article that is really newsworthy, but as far as taking one, or even two outlets as the political and civic gospel? No, I do not do it anymore.

Ask your own questions and find your own answers. With such an amazing tool as the internet, it does not take much time to do, and the more you do it, the easier it becomes. Scrutinize and criticize on your own terms. Stop letting others do it for you. Information feeds knowledge and knowledge is power, real power. Stop letting others dictate what information is important and take it upon yourself to do so.

Do you know what scares those in power most? It is not an armed citizenry, but an educated citizenry that has the ability to process information and use that information for its benefit. Information and knowledge can do more to challenge authority than any other weapon. And that is how you bring about change to a system that desperately needs changing.