Friday, June 10, 2016

On the Pyramid and the Scaffold

A few days ago, once it became clear that Clinton would win the Democratic nomination, I posted this to my Facebook page:

Yes, it was a little snarky, and that may have obscured what I consider to be the main point. I have seen many of Sanders' supporters positing outlier scenarios by which he could still win the nomination (and the party resources that come with it), but to me, Sanders is much better positioned to spearhead the movement his campaign has jump-started without all the trappings of the Oval Office. The presidency is a high profile position, but whenever the election draws nigh, and candidates start making grandiose pronouncements of what they will do in office, we all seem to collectively forget how severely limited its powers can be (especially in terms of domestic policy) in the face of an unfriendly Congress.  As my post reminded everyone, the Congress that will be elected this fall will not be friendly to a Democratic president, as the House districts that we currently have are structured such that the GOP can retain its majority there even if their candidates collectively receive far less than 50% of the total House votes cast. In the sort of polarized environment we currently find ourselves in, any Democrat in the Oval Office will need a solid base of support to stand firm in the face of the restoked conservative hate machine. Clinton has an experienced, well organized, battle tested, and determined army of professionals and volunteers in her corner. She also has strong ties to many Democrats currently in Congress as well as others in positions of power and influence. In short, she has a pyramid. 

Also, as those of us who have seen all those memes from Sanders' supporters well know, Clinton is a master of the dark political arts that will be needed to get anything at all done until new districts take effect prior to the 2022 mid-terms. Rather than a mark against her, to me this makes her the quintessential Rooseveltian "woman in the arena": one who is not afraid to get her hands dirty if it will accomplish something worthwhile, and who does not let the perfect become the enemy of the good. 

Sanders, on the other hand, has...a good start. He has something, that is certain, but exactly what that something is or what it might become is unclear. What he really has is a scaffold. Around eight years ago Obama also had a scaffold, but unfortunately the building it attempted to construct had a weak foundation and as a result the energy and enthusiasm that attended his victory in 2008 did not carry over when he was not on the ballot two years later. This missed opportunity ensured his presidency became one of maintaining a wedge under that not-quite-Sisyphean boulder of progress rather than trying to push it further up the hill. What will Sanders try to build with his scaffold? Hopefully a new skyscraper that is transparent, democratic, and less influenced by money. 
If you want the ideal office holder, you first have to create the system that will produce one, and as I and many other have noted, the current system does not do this. So for now let Clinton fight the (almost) hopeless battles; she is well trained for it, and may even enjoy it to a certain extent. More importantly, she gives Sanders and his supporters the cover they need to do the nitty gritty, state level organizing and lobbying that must happen to enact the necessary systemic changes that will de-polarize our political discourse, and enable us to meaningfully tackle the issues that we collectively face. Clinton's pyramid may not be everything that you want, but it is the bulwark you will need to safeguard you as you create whatever it is that will replace it.  

Monday, February 22, 2016

So you are frustrated with the primaries...

To anyone out there who may be frustrated with how the two major political parties run their nominating processes, please remember the following:

1. Nothing in the federal or state constitutions dictates how political parties are managed. The parties are entirely free to conduct their internal affairs as they see fit. You have every right to complain if you think those affairs are managed poorly or their processes do not reflect the will of "the people", but they are under no obligation to listen to you.

2. The reason party "insiders" can control the nominating process is because they have been there for years and have accumulated the expertise and influence to either work the existing party system to their advantage or change the system to such a degree that their interests have a greater say in what goes on.

3. Systems do not change overnight, so if you are just beginning to realize 1 and 2, you have a couple of options: a) get involved in a party and put in the time and effort necessary to become an insider; b) start your own party from scratch, where you can have an immediate influence on how it is structured and what positions it campaigns on.

4. If you choose b), realize that the way our current electoral system is set up is a huge factor in why things currently are the way they are. The dominance of the two major parties is a result of how we conduct our elections. In our history "third" parties have either i) been flash-in-the-pan movements (often coalescing around a single charismatic personality) that quickly petered out, or else ii) gained such momentum that they ended up displacing one of the existing major parties. That process may take a decade or two, but then you just have two major parties again. If you choose to start a "third" party without also working to change the rules that define our electoral system (primarily single-member districts and plurality voting) the odds are overwhelming that your party will end up in category i). (How many of you remember Ross Perot?)

5. Changing those rules is a daunting, but not impossible task, and much of the work to accomplish it will need to be done at the state level. Pulling the lever for Sanders on one side or Trump on the other will not be sufficient. Neither are "insiders" and neither will be able to wield much influence over the other levels and branches of government that will need to be on board to implement their agendas. You can piss and moan all you want about this on social media, but that will not change the facts on the ground.

6. Regardless of whether you choose a) or b) above, know that it will likely take at least 20 years for your work to produce any tangible results, but either is preferable to c) staying uninvolved and uninterested in the matters that will determine what sort of life is possible for you and for future generations.

Good luck!

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

On Gerrymandering and how to fix it

I've made a few Facebook posts recently about how one of the two major reforms (with the other being ranked-choice voting) that will make our government more representative and allow for a greater diversity of views is non-partisan redistricting. Congressional districts are redrawn by state legislatures every 10 years based on the results of the most recent census, and for a long time whatever party happened to control a state's chambers would draw district boundaries to maximize their ability to win future elections, a practice known as gerrymandering (after a 19th century politician from MA). Over time this has resulted in most districts being "safe" ones by lumping voters together into districts based on their partisan leanings and likelihood of voting, a process that has become more and more sophisticated and precise as the data and the computer programs analyzing it have grown exponentially. The results of this have been an average re-election rate above 90% for incumbent representatives, and the continued stranglehold of the two major parties on our electoral process through the primary system, where potential candidates are vetted by a narrow slice of extremists in both parties rather than the general voting public.

When you have district boundaries drawn to enable more competitive elections, people will correctly conclude that their individual vote will have more of an influence and will thus become more likely to vote, and may even pay more attention to the issues at stake leading up to it. So if one of your priorities is increasing voter turnout, becoming an advocate for non-partisan redistricting absolutely has to be on your plate. Since redistricting occurs at the state level, this means 50 separate efforts to make sure independent or non-partisan groups control the process when it will next take place prior to the 2022 election cycle (the first after the 2020 census is complete), but thankfully they are already underway in many states and a few have made substantial progress. Here is a good rundown on what the present condition of reform efforts are in states where they exist, and just a few days ago there was a very promising ruling from the 4th Circuit Federal Court of Appeals on a particular egregious bit of gerrymandering in North Carolina. I am hopeful that these efforts will continue to grow, even if there is not much that can be changed before the election this November, where it is almost certain that Republicans will maintain their current sizable majority.

For decades the moneyed interests and their conservative allies have been playing the long political game and are presently reaping their rewards. Progressives would do well to adopt a similar perspective and realize that transformational change will not happen overnight, nor will a single candidate, even if they become president, be enough to make it come to pass.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Some thoughts on the Democratic race

I haven't waded much into the Bernie/Hilary debate as of yet (note: because I am a sane person, this is the only question that interests me when it comes to the presidential race) because I honestly do not have a strong preference for either, and they both have qualities I admire. But from my perspective gained from years of study at the undergrad (poli-sci major) and graduate (Masters in Public Policy from the Humphrey School of Public Affairs​ in 2010) levels I am more in the Hilary camp for the following reasons:

- As the Obama administration should have taught anyone, you can have all the lofty ideas in the world as president, but without a Congress willing to work with you, your chances of implementing your agenda are greatly reduced. Due to the failings of the present electoral system (gerrymandered districts and plurality voting) it is nearly certain that the GOP will retain control of the House this fall. The Senate could tip either way, but likely not strongly toward either side. Thus getting any meaningful legislation passed will continue to be an uphill battle, and I think that Hilary has a better chance of success with this due to her experience and existing connections. For better or worse, she knows how to manipulate the levers of power as they are currently constructed, and, importantly, will be more willing to compromise to get things done.

-In a very personal sense, Hilary has lived with the GOP hate machine for 20+ years and knows what is coming. All of her negatives are, at this point, out in the open and she has learned to artfully deflect the inchoate rage her very existence inspires among the RWAs* to make them look like the blubbering fools that they are. I have no idea what skeletons are lurking in Bernie's closet, but I am not so naive to think that he does not have them and that they won't be brought to light in classic "October Surprise" fashion should he be the nominee, with potentially disastrous results.

-Not that Bernie would drag us back, but I do respect Hilary's foreign policy experience and am pretty certain she will build on the accomplishments Obama has made in restoring respect for the US around the world. Having been Secretary of State, Hilary is already used to dealing with the shady characters that have leadership positions in other nations and knows their pressure points. She is also well acquainted with both the potential and the limits of diplomacy in protecting our interests.

None of this is to say I dislike Bernie, or that I think he would be a bad president, but his election would not be a panacea for all of the problems we currently face as a nation. I get that Bernie inspires a lot of people, so did Obama. But the people who showed up for Obama in '08 and '12 sabotaged his presidency by not showing up in '10 and '14. And in order for Bernie's agenda to be fully implemented there would need to be changes at all levels of government, changes that would take several years to implement even in the most favorable of political environments, and sustained work from people committed to bringing those changes about. Showing up at the ballot box every four years is not enough, and while I am willing to give Bernie's people the benefit of the doubt, Hilary's people have a bit more of a track record for doing that out-of-the-spotlight grunt work that gets things done. Also, since a lot of Hilary's people are Boomer women on the verge of retirement, this means they will have a lot more time to devote to the activist work that can bring about better futures for their grandchildren.

Lastly, whoever wins the Democratic nomination, do not, I repeat for the love of Ted Kennedy DO NOT ask Elizabeth Warren to be your running mate. As a progressive I love her, but as a pragmatic progressive I love her most where she is right now: holding the fraudsters and crooks accountable from her increasingly powerful perch in the Senate. Making her VP would effectively hamstring her formidable expertise by putting her in a position where she would not have nearly enough influence on the issues when and where it matters, and it would remove one of your most important allies from Congress right when you need them most. Do yourselves a favor and pick one of the Castro brothers (Julian preferably) instead.

*Right-wing authoritarian

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Carl Sagan Day 2013: Making peace with uncertainty

Once again it is the day to remember and celebrate the life and vision of Carl Sagan. Along with Isaac Asimov and Gene Roddenberry, Sagan was one whose works had a profound impact on my younger self and opened my eyes to what an immense, fascinating, and dangerous place this Universe is. There is not a day that goes by when I do not remind myself that we live under the most precarious of circumstances, and that the conditions which support our existence could change drastically with little notice. Neither of these realizations paralyzes me, though, mostly because there is little I can do to alter this situation and spending energy worrying about gamma ray bursts, potential asteroid strikes, or black holes is not terribly productive. What they do promote, however, is first a great sense of gratitude at the fact that I am here, living life, and still have the chance to make a difference for the better in the lives of the people and other creatures with whom I share this narrow strip of biosphere; and second a coming to terms with the undeniable fact of uncertainty.

We do not have all the data, we cannot predict the future, and in those limited areas where we do have some ability to make a relatively educated guess about how things really are, it is only because people like Carl Sagan spent their lives in long study, observation, experimentation, analysis, and synthesis. The scientific method in action often entails going down lots of blind alleys and dead-end streets, lots of painstaking trial and error, and lots of staring at your results until at last that flash of insight hits. It also means humbly accepting the possibility that you might be wrong. But the great thing about science is that of all human institutions it has by far the best track record of figuring out its mistakes, admitting them, and correcting them. Scientists are proven wrong on a pretty regular basis, but you know who proves them wrong? Other scientists! Not some guy typing in his basement at 2 AM. And just because one hypothesis doesn't pass muster it doesn't mean that any competing one is by default correct. Irish comedian Dara O'Briain summed it up best:  "Science knows it doesn't know everything; otherwise, it'd stop. But just because science doesn't know everything doesn't mean you can fill in the gaps with whatever fairy tale most appeals to you."

In his life and writings, Carl Sagan exemplified this openness to possibility and acceptance of uncertainty. He cultivated his sense of wonder but also applied the rigors of the scientific method to weed out the ideas that could not pass the evidence test. As the saying (often attributed to him, but likely coined long before) goes, he had an open mind, but not so open that his brains fell out. Like any person, he had his faults (some say he smoked too much weed, but I don't consider that a negative), but if you are looking for someone who actually lived to put up as a role model, you can't go wrong with Carl Sagan. Happy birthday, far traveler. You left us too soon, but your life and work continue to inspire and motivate those of us who appreciate science to stand up for it amid the cacophony of ignorance that dominates most of public discourse today.

From the stars we came, and to the stars we shall return.

But of course it also helps to keep this in mind as well:      

Saturday, April 20, 2013

What a week, man.

So like most of the rest of the country, I followed the events that played out in Boston this week with great interest. I have both family and friends living in the city and its surroundings, none of whom were directly affected by Monday's tragedy, but were definitely inconvenienced by Friday's lockdown. While I am glad that both of the identified suspects are now accounted for, the hunt for the younger brother that consumed most of the daylight hours yesterday left a very bad taste in my mouth, particularly after I learned that the suspect would not be read his Miranda rights.

I have little sympathy for Dzokhar Tsarnaev, who appears at this point to have been the willing accomplice to his older brother's plans for mass murder. He may not have been the primary instigator, but he went along with it and whatever a court of law finds him guilty of it will be well deserved. However, as the first "terrorist" attack on U.S. soil since 9/11/2001, this offers us the chance to do things correctly when it comes to the legal process and to show to the rest of the world that the blundering and overreach that followed in the wake of 9/11 will not be repeated. Unfortunately, the shutdown of a major American city to apprehend one suspect, and to then state the intention to not read that suspect (who last I heard is still in serious condition), who is a U.S. citizen, the rights he is entitled to as an accused person under the law if and when he recovers tell me that the police state is still alive and well in the supposed land of the free. I hope cooler heads prevail here, and that we eventually do stay true to our principals, but events thus far have not inspired much confidence.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Camp Quest blows up the internet

So the internet (or at least my particular corner of it) has been blowing up since about this time yesterday about an incident involving Camp Quest Oklahoma and a Tulsa area restaurant that agreed to host a fundraiser for them, but then aborted it an hour into the event (it was supposed to go from 4-8 PM) when the owner claimed to have just found out that the camp served children primarily from non-religious families and that most of its volunteers identified as (gasp!) atheists. As many of you know, I have for many years volunteered on the board of Camp Quest of Minnesota as well as the national organization Camp Quest Inc., so this has really touched a nerve with me. To see a fellow camp franchise treated in such a poor fashion is incensing and serves as a reminder of exactly why I devote so much of my free time to the Camp Quest movement. I am not sure what was going through the restaurant owner's head when he decided to pull the plug on the event (and as always in a controversial situation like this there are conflicting reports of what exactly was said to the CQ OK organizers), but apparently he claims that he had no idea of what Camp Quest was really all about until he saw the flyers that patrons were bringing in to take part in the fundraiser. Flyers that he (or his staff) had approved weeks before the night of the event. And of course the owner has gone on the record saying that he was motivated to abort the fundraiser by his "Christian philosophy".

Appropriately this owner is now neck deep in a PR shitstorm of his own making because, as anyone who has been paying any attention at all to recent history knows, that is what now happens when you openly engage in anti-atheist discrimination. If he had called the CQ OK folks the day before the fundraiser, or even a couple of hours before it started to tell them he had issues with letting a bunch of paying customers who also happened to not believe in any god through his doors, that would have been defensible (but just barely). The true cravenness here is squashing the event after it had already begun, when some people had already come to the restaurant, had eaten and paid for their meals with the expectation that 10% would go to CQ OK, and had left; and people who had already invested time and energy to attend the fundraiser were arriving and had to be told it was not happening. Now I am not sure how good the food is at Oklahoma Joe's BBQ in Broken Arrow (note that there are other restaurants in other cities that have the same name, but are NOT affiliated with this one), but I imagine most of those planning to attend had scheduled their evening around the fundraiser and were at least expecting a decent meal as part of the bargain. So not only has this guy shortchanged needy kids (the money raised was to help fund scholarships for campers), but he has screwed up a bunch of people's dinner plans and proven himself to be a lousy businessman in the process. He deserves everything that is coming to him.

Finally, while it pains me that the CQ OK folks had to go through this, and I and other volunteers try our best to keep Camp Quest as a whole away from the front lines of the culture wars (camp is nothing if not a safe haven for kids from just this type of assholery, many of whom have to endure some version of it on a daily basis), there is at least the silver lining that because of the publicity this is generating, CQ OK is going to take in a massive amount of money (including a $5000 matching grant from the Stiefel Foundation) that will dwarf what the proceeds from the original fundraiser would have been had it not been marred by this act of idiocy.