Tag Archives: Politics

The Political Crisis, January 2019 update

We’re about two years into the nightmare reality of Donald Trump’s presidency. An opposition party is about to take charge of the US House, breaking up the unified Republican control of Congress which has buttressed said nightmare reality. This seems like an appropriate time to take stock of the larger situation.

For better or for worse, though, I find that I have already written a lot of what I might say at this point. Overall I think my long-read assessment from late 2016 remains valid, particularly the emphasis on Trump as a symptom of the crisis more than its cause. My first thoughts on the midterms seem like they cover their significance fairly well: while they offer a measure of relief, it seems like mostly relief of symptoms. They don’t even solve the crisis—I think everyone anticipating that Trump is going away soon will be disappointed—let alone constitute solutions to the deeper long-term problems.

In terms of deeper solutions, the best evidence that I can see is the progress in overcoming gerrymandering. In the same year that Democrats miraculously won a House majority considered impossible under the 2011 maps, reformers made substantial progress toward a 2021 redistricting that is more fair rather than less. That’s meaningful, and positive.

Unfortunately this update also includes a number of cautions against optimism on that basis. As in the larger picture, it feels like progress to date has forestalled catastrophe in redistricting, but has not won the struggle. Detailing this could really be a separate post, so for the time being I will emphasize the serious threat of recent gains being reversed by the worsening situation in the federal judiciary.

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Stages of political activism

Throughout “#TheResistance” I have perceived many similarities between it and my own initiation into political activism at a local level, commenced about two years before a nationwide counterpart.

It seems worth examining the possibility of some broad patterns.

A Crisis moment probably launches many political activist careers, unfortunately. Most people, from what I can tell, seem in fact to spend their entire lives largely disconnected from politics and government, not perceiving any compelling reason to get involved. But sometimes, something happens to alarm some minority of a community with the realization that “this can not be right!” An activist is conceived.

The reliance on crisis to spur political activism is depressing, given how much it tends to mean that one only begins playing after falling way behind. One may pick up on it immediately, or only a bit later, but eventually one realizes that during one’s years of political somnolence, bad people consolidated a lot of formal power and laid plans which are probably quite advanced by the time one tries to stop them.

I suppose that the birth of an activist is when some of these people find one another and begin to organize for some form of political activity.

Protest is usually the first stop for organized opposition. In the short term there is little else for most people to do in the kind of crisis situation described above. So: signs, banners, public demonstrations, chants; voicing objections at public meetings, as well as on every other open channel; trying to engage more of the public with leaflets, letters to the editor, social media, etc. Petitions of one sort or another often circulate in this stage, often to little effect.

As a whole, vigorous protest does seem to worry people in power, at least when it’s new. Some times an idea is even withdrawn, more or less completely, in response to protest. More often protest just slows things down, at most.

Meanwhile, organizing usually proceeds along familiar lines. Activists  formalize their pop-up association to some extent, with a name, meetings, leadership, some sort of record-keeping, e-mails and other communication.

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Feral Government

Occasionally the founder of Lakewood’s local newspaper makes reference to “feral” government, usually though not always in a local context.

It’s an informal concept, but I think the phrase says enough to be meaningful. Feral government is indifferent to… anything, really, except the desires of the individuals with power. Feral government does whatever it can get away with, which often turns out to be a distressing amount.

The rules and systems which we might like to think prevent governments from going feral depend a lot on voluntary forbearance, on a willingness to respect “norms” and to play fair. The legal system and other formal systems of oversight and enforcement are generally reactionary and slow, at best.

Feral government is related to “Constitutional hardball,” i.e. going to extremes on what can be done within the letter of the law (as interpreted by the most favorable judges one can find and confirm). Feral governments practice such hardball, but may also dispense with rules entirely.

Republicans in Washington have basically been a feral government for the past two years. (Not just the Trump administration, but the McConnell-run Senate as well.) In recent days, Republicans in multiple state governments have gone alarmingly feral, with state legislators ramrodding through bills to e.g. kneecap incoming Democratic governors. Some have even admitted that their actions are nothing more than a refusal to accept election results which don’t leave all power in their party’s hands.

Right now the Republican Party is the major contributor to America’s feral government problem. Overall, there’s no party equivalence there.

But, responsible legitimate government is fundamentally a matter of principle. When a government goes feral it must be resisted and held accountable. I try to uphold that principle, even if the party involved is mine.

Three years ago today was a low point in a period of feral government, here in Lakewood; I opposed it at the time, I have opposed it since, and even as I become more active within the same party as many who were involved, I will continue to call it for what it was.

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Party secretary

Thursday night, the Lakewood Democratic Club* elected me to be secretary for 2019-20.

Thanks everyone who supported my second bid for elected office, ever.

Twenty years ago, I made an almost literally last-minute bid to be president of Harwood House in the residence halls at Iowa State University. I won a plurality in the three-candidate election which followed. I took office at the beginning of my junior year, aged 20, and went on to be probably just about the best president which Harwood ever had. (Not making this out to be a stupendous accomplishment, but for what it’s worth that is my honest non-exaggerated estimate.)

I’m now 40, and in January I will presumably take office as Democratic Club secretary (barring some low-odds circumstance like the club disbanding first). Time flies.

I’m also two-for-two in bids for elected office, and in a sense for asterisks. First time out, as noted I only won with a plurality. This time, I campaigned diligently for members’ votes, only for the other candidate to withdraw 24 hours before the meeting, with the result that I was unopposed and waved in by voice vote.

Oh well. In politics, one is grateful for victories as and where one finds them!

* Now that the club is officially a PAC, it is for practical purposes basically a city party. Thus I title this post “party secretary” because the sound of it amuses me.

Context and Ohio Democrats

Ohio. Something of a disappointing outlier in an election where Democrats did well in neighbors Michigan and Pennsylvania, in addition to the nation as a whole. So for about a week we have been gradually starting a conversation about what this means, and what if anything is to be done.

Here’s the entire conversation for Democrats IMO: This is political party strength in Ohio since 1978, courtesy of Wikipedia.

Democrats in blue

As best I can judge, Ohio Democrats have not had a useful statewide organization since the mid-1980s, at which time presumably the party was coasting toward its early 1990s capsizing.

Since then?

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Post-Election Thoughts Nov. 2018

The Economist examined the question of whether or not America is “ungovernable” nearly nine years ago. At the time they concluded no, and blamed Barack Obama. By four years ago, their tut-tutting confidence had slipped a bit. I have documented that slide before.

Another cycle of presidential and midterm elections has now passed. I don’t know what The Economist may have to say at the moment; I don’t read the site regularly now that it’s tightly paywalled.

I, however, am left with a stronger than ever sense that America is ungovernable, at any rate in the sense of a capacity to organize at large scale and lead a substantive program of reform.

What is the point of any of the shouting, struggling, attempted organizing and counter-organizing, etc., etc.? I realize that things take time, but what has been the point of anything during the past 20 years in American politics?

In the 1990s, I can perceive the entrenchment of a neoliberal program, in broad terms. I may not approve of it, but I can at least identify a possible program of reform which (starting some time earlier) was still viable across multiple elections.

Since then…?

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The senator from truthiness

As of late August 2018, American politics has become so debased that people fall over themselves praising the integrity, civility and honor of someone who:

  1. attempted to bring an aggressively know-nothing, say-anything internet troll into the White House before deciding to occasionally criticize another one who actually made it there;
  2. made much fuss about the senate and “regular order” before voting to approve a massive betrayal of serious policymaking;
  3. chuckled at his own “joke” of singing “bomb bomb, bomb bomb-Iran” in response to a serious question about policy.

This isn’t really a record of decency or any of those other things; it’s a record of “decenciness.” As with “truthiness,” it provokes an emotional feeling of genuineness, which large numbers of people happily embrace as being just as good as a substantive, reasoned case, if not better.

Teaching leadership: more things we missed

Looking back on whether or not the 1990s were really a missed opportunity, I have concluded that it’s difficult to say that such was more true of that period than of others.

Which doesn’t mean that reexamination offers no lessons. Among those which it suggests, to me, hollowness in our society’s political leadership lessons seems prominent.

In my late 30s, it seems like I’m engaged in a self-study course in political leadership theory and practice, covering a lot of material that should be basic but which I just have not encountered before. It seems also like I’m not alone in this.

Two pieces of personal context also suggest that there is indeed a hole in what our culture teaches: First, I actually paid attention to most of the curriculum throughout my years in school. Second, in this area I even showed interest; in high school I spent a week immersed in something called the National Young Leaders Conference.*

Yet looking back, I nonetheless reached my 30s with an understanding of how democracy works that can’t be called complete even in outline form. If this was the case even for me, is it any wonder that America’s politics seem to have broken down?

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The 1990s: Some things we missed

After nagging at me for years, a 1996 comic book’s suggestion that the 1990s would prove to be a lost opportunity, for humanity, feels like it at last warrants a serious evaluation.

A month after summoning myself to get around to that, though, I wonder now if the moment of opportunity is relatively illusory. It seems like both I, personally, and the concentric circles of groups to which I relate should have done more. Should have responded to a relatively crisis-free and prosperous moment by pursuing ambitious reforms, and deep cultural and institutional renewal. It seems like we might indeed have launched a golden age had more of us been more generous, and more active in trying to solve problems bigger than our own personal concerns.

But it occurs to me that this is less of a special moment than a regular failing of human history. Many eras “might have been the prologue to a golden age” if people were more generous and more engaged in reform.

I look at e.g. today’s high school student activists and compare them with myself and most peers, immersed as we were in comparatively trivial pursuits. We should have done better, attempted more at least. But I’m not sure what prompt we overlooked. I was concerned by problems that seemed to threaten my personal life directly; arguably so are today’s students except that e.g. those problems now include heavily armed crazies shooting them.

Perhaps older people should have been more responsible, perhaps leaders of some sort really did drop the ball. After tossing around various possibilities for how, though, many still seem applicable to broad human history not just the 1990s.

I think it’s possible, though, that a few fundamental errors of the 1990s do represent a “wrong turn” particular to that era. Ironically, it has also occurred to me that another pop-culture artifact that wasn’t even trying to be especially serious might sum them up. From Austin Powers, 1997:

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Crowded life, sparse commentary

So much going on. Yet so much of it is political, and taking to my personal blog (which is barely more than a diary) to comment on that seems kind of naive.

Not that I wouldn’t write a long, indulgent post expressing my views on e.g. Lakewood’s political tug-of-war that is now into its fourth consecutive year. But given how much my days are packed with the kind of inelegant campaign activity that actually reaches people, I suppose I just can’t bring myself to expend the effort required by any kind of deep essay.

I’m currently doing… a lot of work for two candidates for state representative, plus some work for another, and for two state senate candidates. I’m writing, for publication, where it makes sense… the latest LO included my promo for next week’s Lakewood Dem Club meeting, and an article encouraging support for Issue 1. (It also includes an ad I designed for one of the rare nonpolitical clients.)

Last week I made a day trip to Detroit for political organizing.

I dream of capturing once more a life beyond all this. But certainly not before May 8, and probably not for some while after that, really.

Oh well. This morning is relatively calm, and I was going to jot down some thoughts about The Infinity War (comic book series) stirred up by recent ballyhoo for the big feature film… then I found that I already wrote such a post three years ago. So.

¯\_(ツ)_/¯