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US Political Observations for October, 2018

By Herb Bowie

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Vote in 2-18

In this brief pause between primary season and the general US midterm elections in November, I thought it might be fitting to offer up a few suggestions to those of us who will be participating, whether as candidates or as voters.

Consider All Three Phases of Politics

Football coaches are fond of saying that their teams have to win in all three phases of the game: offense, defense and special teams.

Politicians should be equally cognizant that they have to win in three distinct phases: fund-raising, vote-getting, and then, finally, actually governing. Of these, fund-raising and vote-getting seem to take the most time, often with little energy left for the actual business of governing. Another difficulty is that the first two often call for candidates to sharply differentiate themselves from others, while the third one always requires an ability to compromise and to work together with others.

It is exceedingly difficult to find political leaders who can do all three of these things reasonably well, but it is a goal we must all strive towards.

Voters Choose Champions over Platforms

It is clear that voters these days are not motivated by party platforms, but by champions who promise to go to battle for them. In terms of well-defined sets of stances on major policy issues – these things that used to be called platforms – both Democrats and Republicans seem equally confused. But whether we’re talking about Donald Trump or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, voters are united by a desire for passionate, outspoken candidates who will take on the establishment to do battle for them.

It is also true that this appeal is easier to garner at local levels than at the national level. But Trump’s victory in 2016 also made it clear that this motivation can be a deciding factor at the national level as well.

The Importance of Local Identity

When it comes to choosing champions, voters want candidates who both reflect and promise to defend a sense of local identity for their constituents. Depending on the election, this can be a regional identity or a national identity. But politicians overlook such a sense of identity at their peril.

Globalism has its place – there are problems that cannot be solved locally, such as global warming – and global trade is essential for all of us. And many of us are used to seeing the United States as so strong and wealthy that we can afford to be endlessly generous to other nations. But these sorts of views need to be tempered by a strong and visible defense of our national interests.

Support the Rule of Law

When the rule of law is undermined, one of the critical underpinnings of our entire society is weakened. In the long run, all members of a democracy lose when leaders show disrespect for our written codes of conduct. This is true whether we’re talking about immigration, taxation or voting.

A Clear Stance on Immigration is Unavoidable

It is true that the United States is a country of immigrants. It is also true that the US population now has its highest share of foreign-born people since 1910. Given these two facts, it is easy to rouse popular sentiment either for or against immigrants and immigration. However, stirring up these sorts of emotions tends to be destructively divisive, both in the short-term and in the long-term, both for the country and for the electorate.

However, it should be relatively easy to take a position that is acceptable to most people on both sides of this controversial issue:

  • We need tight control over our borders, to enforce a minimal flow of illegal immigrants. And we need to be able to demonstrate the effectiveness of such control.

  • We need a transparent, coherent, consistent policy regarding legal immigration, and one that takes our national interests into full account.

  • We need to find a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants who are otherwise law-abiding, and children of those immigrants, who have been here so long that they have become de facto Americans.

I can’t see anything difficult about defending a position based on these three points, and I find it hard to believe that most Americans would have difficulty with such a position.

Fight for Better Government, Not More or Less

Many of our political battles seem to be fought over the question of whether we should have more or less government. Eh? What about the issue of better government? And then right-sizing government as part of the process of optimizing it?

When we focus so much attention on having more of the same, or less of it, we seem to neglect the more important issue of how we can make our government more effective and efficient. If we focus on improvement first, then the issues of scale should be easier to resolve.

Only Bureaucrats Like Bureaucracy

Especially at the federal level, too much of the government’s operations have come to seem to the general public like expensive, unfeeling, out-of-touch bureaucracy. Part of the problem here is that leaders of our executive branches – governors at the state level, and our president at the national level – seem to be focused on everything but running the large, complex organizations that they head.

What we need here, it seems to me, is some new governmental campaign, to be promoted both internally and externally, promoting the following ideas:

  • We need to see clear, measurable, demonstrable progress in efficiency and effectiveness, in all facets of our government. It’s not enough to just keep doing the same thing day after day, month after month, year after year. Every executive in every major corporation in the world has annual improvement goals, and significant parts of their compensation are tied to meeting those goals. Is something similar happening in the halls of our government officials? If so, I haven’t heard anything about it, and so a better job needs to be done of reporting progress on these goals to the public. If nothing like this is happening, then it’s beyond time to start.

  • We need stories, and stories need heroes. Someone needs to be telling stories of the great things being done by our government, and the great people who are doing them. I could tell you about my mail carrier, Elliott, who has been faithfully making his rounds on my block ever since I moved here eleven years ago, and who never fails to engage me in amiable conversation when I meet him. But why am I not hearing other stories, about other heroes, who work for our governments? Politicians would do well to take a look at Frank Capra’s Why We Fight series made for American soldiers in WW II. In today’s climate, we need to hear such clear and moving explanations of what our government is doing for us and why on a regular basis.

  • Government needs to have a friendly face. The recent video done by the Seattle police did more to increase my sense of civic pride than anything else I can think of recently. People need to see the faces of those who are working for them, and they need to see them in a reassuring, uplifting context.

We Need to Level the Playing Field with Big Business

For many years now, our national playing field has favored big business over labor, community and the safety of consumers. I’ve written more extensively about this issue in another piece recently. But the excesses of the Trump era have made all of this even worse. We urgently need to tilt things back towards a better balance, but in a way that doesn’t go too far in the other direction. We need to respect the traditional American values of fair rewards for hard work, and of creating ever more value for ourselves and each other. And we need to be open, gradual and transparent about changing the rules to make them work equally well for everyone. But we have to right the ship before it keels over so far that it goes under.

Support Families and Family Planning

You can’t have a strong society without strong families, and we need to do a better job of supporting them. But family planning is an important means of strengthening families. It is only the rantings of the religious right – not the truly religious – who have convinced us otherwise.

Back in 1966, Martin Luther King Jr. commented:

For the Negro, therefore, intelligent guides of family planning are a profoundly important ingredient in his quest for security and a decent life. There are mountainous obstacles still separating Negroes from a normal existence. Yet one element in stabilizing his life would be an understanding of and easy access to the means to develop a family related in size to his community environment and to the income potential he can command.

This obvious truth now needs to be defended, not just for people of color, but for everyone. Attacks on family planning from the right need to be seen for what they are: just one more way to hinder social mobility, to make sure the rich stay rich, and the poor stay poor.

We Need Functional Legislatures

The amount of angst we routinely feel over the leanings of our courts is an implicit condemnation of our broken legislative machinery. After all, if we had laws passed by our legislatures that clearly expressed our political will, then we would not need to lose sleep over questions of how our courts will choose to interpret vague wordings that were put in place decades or even centuries ago.

Getting our legislatures back on track will require at least the following:

  • Reasonable Limits on Campaign Fundraising: If legislators have to worry about fund-raising during every day of their terms, then they won’t be able to focus on their real jobs.

  • A Renewed Spirit of Compromise: We need bipartisan legislation that focuses on creating the most good for the most people, and in order to achieve that we need legislators willing to think (and discuss) outside of the narrow bands created by political labels and sound bites.

  • Restrictions on lobbying: I want legislation written by the people I elect, and the people who work for them. I don’t want more legislation written by lobbyists solely motivated by representing the narrow interests of their deep-pocketed stakeholders.

  • Enhanced Legislative Responsibility and Accountability: We need legislative bodies who realize that they are responsible for continually improving the entire body of laws that fall within their purview – not just for pushing one or two pet projects.

Published 2018 Oct 04