Monthly Archives: March 2016

On opponents and enemies

In a comment on a recent post of mine, I was called a “domestic enemy”.

I realize that emotions are running high in the presidential campaign, but we need to work hard to avoid this kind of thought and language on all sides of the political debate.

When you face enemies, you engage in war. War, ultimately, knows no bounds and always results in atrocities and deaths.

We cannot see our fellow Americans in this way.

Instead, despite all inclinations to do otherwise, we must see one another as opponents.

When you face opponents, you try to defeat them. Now, things can get heated when we face opponents. Sadly, there is always the possibility of violence. Politics is about things that deeply matter to people. It is about their identity. And defending that can lead to strained emotions. But your fellow Americans remain opponents. You try to defeat them. But you do not seek to kill them. You do not seek to destroy them.

Words have impact. While they can never hurt you physically, they can certainly incite behavior that does. We must choose our words carefully.

Shutting down Trump rallies and justifying our freedoms

I believe in freedom of speech. I believe in freedom of assembly. It’s an important part of liberalism that unpopular, obnoxious, and noxious views are allowed to be expressed and heard and that people who share them are allowed to gather together. Among the classic reasons given for this position are that it promotes individual liberty; it allows citizens to consider and dismiss failed and unjust viewpoints; and, in turn, it reinforces successful and just viewpoints. That’s the political theory.

However, I also applaud the protestors who are risking their safety by going to Donald Trump rallies and, yes, even causing some of them to be shut down.

How do I square that?

While it might be tempting for a liberal such as myself to simply see action against Trump as self-justifying, I think it’s important to articulate how rights should be exercised, and while die-hard Trump supporters might be unpersuaded, there are many other people who might have similar concerns and be open to justifications.

The answer is basically this: Because freedom of speech does not mean that you are completely free from the consequences of your speech.

The U.S. and its people allow an incredible amount and range of free speech. Take a look around the world, and you’ll quickly get a sense of how tolerant, lenient, and forgiving of a people we are.

But some speech simply breaches the limit that Americans are willing to tolerate. They then exercise their right to free speech and assembly to rise up in opposition. The citizens who are protesting Trump’s racist, xenophobic, violence-inciting speech are doing precisely that. This is how our system wrestles with extremes. I abhor the violence that’s taken place in these events. I especially regret that police officers have gotten hurt. But in other countries, these issues would be settled through the barrel of a gun. I’d trade our chaos for open war any day.

By the way, Donald Trump seems to understand very well that there are consequences to speech. After all, he routinely threatens to sue people who criticize him. And he even wants to “open up” well-established law regarding the freedom of speech and the press. Sometimes the consequences of Trump’s speech come in forms that don’t work in his favor.

The U.S. Needs More Political Parties. Here’s How.

U.S. politics seems to be at pivotal moment in which the traditional political duopoly is being openly questioned. Over the objections of party leaders, Donald Trump is running away with the Republican nomination by using authoritarian appeals to attract new and old nativist, xenophobic supporters. Bernie Sanders is activating many new, young voters and others with a vision of making the U.S. more like the social democracies of the Nordic countries, over the objections of centrist Democrats.

In the end, only one candidate will win in each primary, of course, thanks to our use of so-called “winner-take-all”  or “first-past-the-post” voting systems. The metaphorical post in this case is the formula of 50% plus one. If any given party’s candidate gets half of the total plus one more vote, that candidate and her or his voters get everything – all of the voice, all of the privileges, all of the power. The other nearly half of the people? They get nothing.

This kind of voting system is often praised for creating a form of political stability. It forces voters with diverse and sometimes contradictory views to compromise and rally behind one party and candidate in hope of making the magic number. Now, I have no problem with compromise. In fact, no democracy can function without it. But this system also has the effect of driving us into having only two large, viable parties. By viable, I mean a party has enough of a reasonable, fair shot at winning elections that the other parties have to take its existence into account. Yes, I know, we have a variety of small parties and occasionally a third-party presidential run, but their chances of success are slim to none.

So why is the two-party system such a big problem? I believe it causes many people to give up on politics because they feel like their viewpoint, their values, their policies can never get a hearing in our representative institutions. Many voters are being energized because of the very real possibility of seeing their voice finally expressed through one of the major parties – for good and for ill. But, inevitably, because of winner-take-all systems, many of them will go home disappointed.

So, what’s the solution? There are three parts.

Ranked-Choice Voting

The first part goes by two names: either “ranked-choice” or “instant run-off” voting. Here’s a short (1:30) video from Minnesota Public Radio – via the electoral reform group FairVote – that will give you a quick outline:

To summarize, you get to vote for, say, your top three choices of candidate in ranked order. If no candidate gets a clear majority of first-choice votes, the candidate with the fewest first-choice votes gets tossed out. But that candidate’s voters still have influence! Their second-choice votes now flow to that candidate, who could then get the majority. If not, the process continues until you have a winner that most people saw as being one of their top choices. (Such a process, by the way, might have helped stop Donald Trump from taking over the Republican primary by allowing the “establishment” candidates to coalesce their fractured support in each primary.)

Proportional Representation

Even with ranked-choice voting, you don’t necessarily get more political parties. For that you need a form of proportional representation. Again, I turn to FairVote for one example of such a system:

As a quick summary, instead of single-winner, smaller districts, you would have multiple winners in bigger districts. If there is a sizable political minority within an area, their chances are pretty good that they would get at least one representative.

Easier Ballot Access

But even ranked-choice and proportional representation don’t get you more parties. You also need easier ballot access. Laws in many states make it very hard for a new party to win the right to get on the ballot. And, of course, who makes the laws? The already established parties. Let’s be honest. Practically no one really wants truly stiff competition – not in business, not in life, not in politics. And once they have power, fewer people still are readily willing to give it up. Both parties are content to hold on to what they have and keep the contest simple.

Dreaming Big

Are any of these reforms to our political system actually going to happen? Probably not. Entrenched interests are very powerful, so we’re likely stuck – for a long time, at least – with a system from which many, if not most, American citizens feel alienated. But this appears to be the year of big dreams – whether it’s Medicare for All or Mexican walls – so what’s the harm in adding one more to the mix? All that’s at stake is a true representative democracy that’s actually worthy of the name.

P.S.

By the way, it is possible to have perhaps too many parties. Like the U.S., other representative democracies, like India (the world’s largest, remember) and Norway (as a recent Norwegian acquaintance told me) also have political paralysis either because of the number of parties or enough parties won’t come together to create a viable coalition under their parliamentary systems. There is no magic solution to the design of political systems – only occasional tweaking when it’s clear that one system has run its course.

P.P.S.

Here are a couple of defenses of the two-party system.

How you, poor Republican, can have your cake and eat it, too.

So, you’re a self-identified Republican. You see membership in the Republican party as a deep part of who you are. Frankly, I have a hard time with that kind of party loyalty. While I tend to vote for Democrats, I don’t self-identify as one.  But, regardless, that’s not you. For you, being a Republican, matters.

Republicanlogo.svgThat’s too bad, because, man, this is a hard time to be a Republican. Your party has gone bat sh*t crazy over Donald Trump. The rest of your presidential contenders aren’t exactly inspiring. And a Clinton – a Clinton! – is the front-runner for the Democrats. Sad times.

But tell you what, here’s my plan for how you can avoid the crazy, but still get to be a loyal Republican. It starts with just writing off the presidential race. This is tough to swallow, I know, but unless something dramatic happens, Trump will be your nominee. Join with other Republicans who have already said they will not support a Trump candidacy, although you can prove you’re better than your cowardly other presidential contenders by actually meaning it. And let your friends know what you’re doing.

Now, I’m not saying you have to vote for a Democrat. No, I know you better than that. Just don’t vote in the presidential race. Instead, just keep the U.S. House. That should be easy because there’s very little chance the Democrats can win that back, and with the U.S. system of government, it only takes one branch of elected government to shut the whole thing down. You’ve proven that. Also, you can make yourself feel better by retaining your lock on state legislatures and governorships. Boy, if there’s something you know how to do, it’s prove the incompetence of the Democrats at the state level. And of course, with that, you get your lock on the U.S. House through gerrymandering.

See, you have so much to be proud of. Yes, it’s true that your party became the vehicle for a xenophobic, KKK-attracting, Constitution-shredding, authoritarian demagogue who likes to use presidential debates to brag about the size of his dick and is already degrading our reputation internationally. But that’s not your Republican party. You can do a service to your party, your country, and your world by just sitting this presidential race out. Take your lumps. And revel in the still considerable power you have.

Flee to Canada? Nope, I’m not going anywhere.

Look, I realize when people talk of moving to Canada should Donald Trump become president that it’s often meant all in good fun. But let me say, quite seriously, that I have no intention of going anywhere. I will remain an American citizen and, to co-opt the phrasing of the Tea Party buffoons, take my country back — back from the bigots, plutocrats, and warmongers who are a threat to my nation and the world.

Don’t get me wrong. I certainly see a lot of room for improvement in the United States. But living overseas for my spouse’s work, as I do now, has only made me better appreciate America’s promise — a promise that includes a relatively free and stable society, economic opportunity, and a government that does a pretty good job of respecting individual liberties. (Believe me, if the armed militants in Oregon had tried something like that in many countries, they would have gotten a real sense of what “tyranny” feels like.) It’s not for nothing that roughly 138 million people want to move to the U.S.

And even for those that don’t want to move to the U.S., what it does matters tremendously. It remains, for now, the leading nation of the world. Again, living overseas, I have had many detailed, knowledgeable conversations about American politics with citizens of other countries. Frankly, it’s shocking how well informed they are. And they get no voice whatsoever in deciding who the leaders of the U.S. will be, even though they have to live with the consequences.

The fact is that being a citizen of the United States is a precious gift — a powerful gift— most likely bestowed upon you simply as an accident of your birth. Personally, I will not surrender that gift to reactionaries. And that’s no joke.

Is Donald Trump popular?

One fun part of living overseas is getting to talk to people from other countries about U.S. politics. So, there I am in a bar talking to a Belgian and German, and I get asked, “Donald Trump is very popular, isn’t he?” Frankly, that’s a pretty embarrassing question to have to get asked about your country, but there’s no sense in ignoring it, either.

Yes, he’s popular in some ways. He was a successful reality TV host. Oh, and I almost forgot, he’s the front runner in the Republican nomination contest. The Super Tuesday results seem to provide more evidence there. But the field is heavily divided. Check out these stats:

Trump has only won about a third of popular vote. It is possible that, in a two-person race, he might have been the second choice of many of these voters, but he’s clearly not most Republicans’ first choice. Also, he’s deeply unpopular among the larger U.S. electorate, with Huffington Post Pollster showing that 58% of people don’t like him. And averages of polls on hypothetical match-ups with Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders at RealClearPolitics show him losing (though not always with as comfortable of a margin as you would hope).

So, Trump’s success so far is a blot on America’s reputation, but he is most certainly not popular.

That said, there is the very real possibility that he will get the Republican party nomination. And that is a dangerous state of affairs. At a certain point, the tribal loyalties of political party membership could conquer reason. Republicans might end up voting for him simply because of that “R” next to his name. And anything can happen during an election. There’s no telling what madmen with means will do – be it dark or stupid. Despite Trump’s lack of popularity, Inauguration Day could be an ugly affair, indeed.