Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Our great divide.

Early in January 1960, Senator John F. Kennedy announced for the presidency — eleven months before the November vote.  Barack Obama did so on May 2, 2007, about seventeen months before his.  This March 28th Ted Cruz tweeted, “I’m running for president”, almost nineteen months before we go to the polls.  So here we are, engulfed in another endless campaign season.  Call it broken or what you will; the system is certainly out-of-control.  Consider the recent May 7th UK vote.  Their campaign spans about three weeks.  Victor David Cameron presented his credentials to the queen the morning after and had a cabinet in place within days.   Our post election transition takes over two months. 

Why do we do this to ourselves?  Why are our public officials and aspirant officeholders in perpetual campaign mode?  Of course, vanity and wanting desperately to hold on is a factor, but these days money looms largest.  It takes bundles to run for even relatively modest offices.  So most of today’s candidates are well healed or just plain rich.  Citizen United further exacerbated an obscene dollar chase.  Billionaires with vested interests are given license to effectively select candidates and then underwrite their campaigns.  For sure they want something in return.  If the Justices who voted to gut campaign finance reform don’t feel some ruling-remorse for what they let out of Pandora’s box; shame on them.  All these years after, Richard Nixon, whose high crimes sparked campaign reform, comes out the winner.  It’s not Nixon’s posthumous victory that’s so painful, but that we all are the losers.  I don’t think it’s overstated to say that the new world of so-called “silent primaries” puts our democracy at great risk.  One can only hope that what has been set in motion will be reversed.

As we look toward 2016, the country faces many fundamental and vexing problems at home and abroad.  I fear, and with good reason, that few of them will be seriously addressed during the campaign.  We don’t have serious public conversations, especially in election seasons where beauty contests, gotcha moments, purposeful vagueness and polling scorecards rule the day.   Led by a headline seeking media, we seem to care more about a candidate’s stumbling over some question or an embarrassing line written in one among thousands of emails than where they want to take the nation in the future.  Rather than engaging in substantive discussion, our presidential candidates engage in superficial posturing.  The contest boils down to a version of “trivial pursuit”, something that is both maddening and fraught with danger.  No wonder the officeholder often is not necessarily the person we thought we had elected.

In the endless months ahead there will be plenty of time to address some of the issues that confront us as a nation.  The world is a vastly different place than when JFK took the oath on a frigid January 1961 day and even since Obama stood before an unprecedented crowd in 2009.  The latter tells you something about the time in which we now live.  For this writing I’d like to focus on a single problem that in some ways may most endanger our present and future.  It’s one that is unlikely to get much, if any, airtime in the presidential contest.  I’m talking about our great divide.

On July 27, 2004 a young and relatively unknown Illinois legislator running for the US Senate burst upon the national scene with a career making speech at the Democratic Convention.  To my knowledge, he is the only keynoter — Democratic or Republican — whose address propelled him into the White House.  Barack Obama spoke of America coming together, “E pluribus unum, out of many, one.”  But he said, “even as we speak, there are those who are preparing to divide us, the spin masters and negative ad peddlers who embrace the politics of anything goes.”  It was a notion that he rejected. “…I say to them tonight, there's not a liberal America and a conservative America; there's the United States of America.  There's not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America; there's the United States of America.”  Tracing Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign and his early years in the White House, I think this idea of unity — this hope for unity — expressed the very core of his political being.  Would that it had been shared.

It’s hard to pinpoint precisely when the great divide took shape, but it raised its ugly hear most conspicuously during the Clinton years.  Despite winning two terms and his current popularity, Bill Clinton was plagued from the start with often-fabricated scandals and, not being a scion of the “ruling class”, challenges to his legitimacy.  The bitterness rose to a new crescendo with Newt Gingrich’s provocative “Contract with America”.  If Republicans questioned Clinton’s legitimacy, Democrats felt that same about George W. Bush’s effectual elevation by what they considered a blatantly partisan Supreme Court decision.  That feeling dissipated somewhat following 9/11 but divisiveness was soon rekindled by the president’s “are you with me or against me” rhetoric and attitude in the wake of Iraq.  Obama’s election, challenged again as illegitimate — how could a black man (not one of us) be president — only widened the divide.  It was the exactly opposite of what he wanted.

Obama’s 2004 clarion call for “one America” wasn’t merely rhetorical.  It was visceral.  I have come to believe that he was, and sadly continues to be, the wrong messenger.  Why?  Because the great divide doesn’t have as much to do with political affiliation or conflicting ideologies as one might think.  Rather (as suggested earlier posts), it reflects a reaction, also visceral, to the specter of current and impending change.  It is disruptive change that challenges the assumed “order”.   Things are just not what they have always been.  This doesn’t mean that politics and ideology don’t influence our view of change, but that to some degree the lines are far more blurred and complicated than broad-brush labels suggest.  In facing this particular kind of change, you may understand why Obama is probably the wrong messenger.  Simply put, he personifies exactly what has so unsettled many Americans.  He is the looming probability that white citizens will lose their majority and for some that Christianity — his faith is always questioned — and indeed religion is losing ground.  Add to this that assumed “eternal” institutions are being redefined.  It just drives us crazy.

Not me, you’ll say and perhaps with some justification.   But don’t pound the table in your indignation, because fundamental change is something that universally unnerves.  We may commend or even promote it in the abstract, but we’re concurrently wedded to our “way of life" and the comfortable/familiar status quo.  Just last week the NY Times reported on the 200 highest paid public company CEO’s.  Forget for a moment the out of proportion and indeed obscenity of these numbers.  What stands out, again, is that only 13 women make the cut.  No surprise, their average salary was 9.4% less than men in comparable jobs.  What does a CEO look like?  Well he is predominantly white elected by — you guessed it — a largely white male board.  Presidents just don’t look like Obama, nor do “first families” look like his.  (If you want to see an unvarnished expression of that, consider the horrendous tweets sent to him this past week.)  Again, you’ll say “not for me”, but close your eyes and honestly picture the image that matches the titles CEO and US President.

The world is changing disruptively in real time and it’s more than our emotions can take.  We know what should be, and damn it; those who see it differently are a bunch of luddites.  We know the truth and it’s clear what they claim is nothing but a vapid misguided forgery — on its face, something totally illegitimate.  So we tune into Bill O’Reilly or, yes, Rachel Maddow, largely for self-vindication, cheering most loudly when offered our favorite red meat.  We judge what is said, by who says it — consider the source — not by its content.  In fact, we don’t even wait to hear the argument.  If it’s coming from the right brand, we’re on board, no questions asked, all in.  If it’s coming from the “other side”, we just assume its something we oppose.  And we’re quick judge and also to write off anyone who strays fro the path.  Translate that, says something contrary to our views on some particular issue.  Take, when columnist Tom Friedman, a darling of progressives, supported the Iraq war.  That single issue position lost him some “loyal” readers even though his analysis and stands on a host of other issues were in line with their own thinking and views.  Even more so, if we’re liberal, we don’t bother to read conservative writers, no matter the subject.  We don’t want to be “upset” — translation again: to be challenged.

Okay, so we’re divided.  What’s the big deal?   Well this kind of division is a potential killer — paraphrasing John Dean, “a cancer on the country”.  Just take a look at what’s been going on, or more accurately not going on, in Washington.  The vitriol and animosity is so extreme that government is at a virtual standstill.  People complain — and rightly so — of expanding executive power, but the dysfunction of Congress has given license to presidents taking actions on their own.  The Supreme Court, once a place where justices would often surprise or would evolve over time, seems now to be a place of only firmly fixed (as in concrete) ideologically driven views.  It is deeply divided and probably for the same reasons.  We’ve learned not to expect purely judicious decisions, an open reading of the facts and the law.  Our main concern is which party will control the White House the next time a seat opens up.

We’re unlikely to have a thoughtful and satisfying election cycle because candidates are expected to fulfill their ideological mandates.  You won’t hear one nominee say to another, “what an interesting point, I’ll really have to consider that.”  Oh yes, they will mouth that their opponent comes to her or his views out of honest conviction, but they can’t fool us.  They won’t really mean it.  For them, and for too many of us, everything is a zero sum game.  Our debate, and that’s what everything is, has lost any sense of mutual respect or, more importantly any evidence of the slightest self-doubt or humility.   We know the answers; we possess the truth — end of story.  We’re participants in and committed to the great divide.   After Obama’s failure to bridge the gap with his one America speech and first term efforts, we seem to have given up and given in.  So it’s unlikely that anyone will be taking up divisiveness, much less raising a unity flag, in 2016.  That’s predictable, but at some point poison water kills.  The problem won’t just go away.  Someone will need to step up to the plate. Hopefully someone from our fading status quo majority will have the courage to be that person, to essentially say, “I’ve changed my mind.  It’s time to embrace the future.”  Yes, the great divide and how we might overcome it won’t be a subject for discussion in 2016.  That’s too bad because, above all else, it may be our most pressing problem.