Tag Archives: election

How Did We Get Here and Where Do We Go Now?

This semester, I am teaching an elective course that I “invented” some years ago; it is called “Individual Rights and the Common Good,” and the readings and class discussions center on the proper role of the state, and the optimal balance between respect for individual autonomy and the needs/interests of the society.

Because it is an elective, the students who choose to enroll tend to be engaged, and the discussions have generally been thoughtful and substantive.

The class meets on Tuesday nights, and Tuesday–today– is election day. In consideration of that fact (and, admittedly, the probability that several of them would skip class in order to watch the returns), I decided to forego our usual class meeting in favor of an effort to connect the more abstract principles we have been discussing with the very immediate realities of America’s political environment.

Here is the assignment I gave them. What would your answers be?


The 2016 election campaigns have been among the most contentious in our history, and have displayed wide—perhaps unbridgeable–disagreements among Americans not just about the comparative merits of individual candidates, but about the proper role of government and the nature of the common good.

Our next class is scheduled for election day. As these campaigns conclude, and in lieu of holding that class, I am asking you to consider the opposing views and attitudes that have been revealed during the course of these campaigns, and to write a 2-3 page essay addressing the following questions:

  • How would you characterize the Presidential candidates’ visions of the common good/national interest?
  • How would you describe their respective approaches to balancing protections of individual rights against the interests of the country as a whole?
  • In the wake of the election, how do you see Americans resolving our very different perspectives and deep disagreements? (In other words, given the incredibly acrimonious nature of the campaigns, do you see efforts at reconciliation or continued animosity, and in either case, with what result?)
  • In your opinion, what is driving Americans’ current partisan polarization and anger?

Here’s the Choice

Absent a “November surprise,” this will be my last post about the 2016 Presidential race.

A friend shared a litany that pretty well sums up Donald Trump’s bona fides:

Donald Trump is facing multiple charges of defrauding students at Trump University, one case with a Court date set for November 28, 2016.

Donald Trump is facing a December 16, 2016 Court date to answer for claims he raped a 13 year old girl.

Donald Trump is the subject of multi-state investigations, uncovering fraud and self-dealing related to his Trump Foundation.

Donald Trump has a history of thousands of lawsuits against him over his business practices, in which he bankrupted small businesses and cheated employees.

Donald Trump has a long and well-documented history of harassing and disrespecting women.

But by all means, let’s talk about Hillary Clinton’s emails.

Despite the loose use of the word “scandal,” what Clinton continues to be criticized for was her use of a private server for non-classified official emails, a use inconsistent with State Department rules. Period. Not for leaking state secrets, not for dereliction of duty, not for any sort of malfeasance. (Ironically, James Comey is currently being criticized for precisely the same behavior–ignoring agency rules.) The reason Clinton’s server use was an issue was concern about the possibility of a security breach caused by either the use of that server to transmit classified material (which would have been illegal) or a successful hack; thanks to the FBI investigation, we now know no such breach occurred. (It is yet another irony that the State Department’s network has been hacked, and more than once.)

Let’s stipulate that–as Clinton herself has admitted– she shouldn’t have made that decision, and she shouldn’t have been defensive about it when it was discovered.

Hillary Clinton may be the most-investigated public servant ever, and despite having been the object of right-wing conspiracy theories for over thirty years, she has never been found to have violated any law. She has had a distinguished career as a lawyer, in the United States Senate and as Secretary of State and has been a tireless crusader for women and families.

To paraphrase P.J. O’Rourke, when she’s been wrong, she’s been wrong within normal parameters.

Voters in this election have a choice between a highly qualified woman who–being human–has made mistakes of judgment, and a thin-skinned narcissist with zero relevant experience or knowledge and a documented history of fraud, sexual assault, unscrupulous business practices and frightening volatility–a man with no discernible policy positions who has based his entire campaign on insults, ludicrous assertions of his own superiority, and not-so- thinly-veiled appeals to racism, xenophobia, misogyny and anti-Semitism.

There is no equivalence. This is not a “lesser of two evils” choice. One candidate is amply and demonstrably qualified; the other is simply unthinkable.

If Hillary Clinton had killed Vince Foster, she would still be the better choice.

Then What?

In two weeks, Americans will finally go to the polls. The fat lady hasn’t sung, but she’s humming, and unless every reputable pollster in the U.S. is monumentally wrong, Donald Trump will lose by a very substantial margin.

What we don’t yet know is how much damage the Orange Disaster will do to the “down ticket” races. For the sake of the republic, I’d like to see the Democrats take both the Senate (likely) and the House (not so likely), because otherwise, we are likely to continue the partisan gridlock that has prevented the federal government from functioning at anything but a bare minimum.

When the only thing Republicans can agree on is the need to block anything and everything proposed by a Democratic President, it’s no wonder judicial vacancies (at all levels) go unfilled, only stopgap budgets get passed, decaying infrastructure goes unattended and even urgently needed responses to public health crises are months late.

Whatever the contours of the next Congress, however, the GOP will face an immediate quandary. Can the party be stitched back together? Can its three distinct elements–the white nationalists, the Religious Right and the business/”country club”/establishment wing–continue to coexist in the same political organization?

An article by the Brookings organization suggests that the Republicans take a lesson from British Prime Minister Theresa May, who recently laid out what Brookings described as “a bold plan to reform her country—and her party.”

Prime Minister May framed her party’s task as creating what she calls a “Great Meritocracy”—a country “built on the values of fairness and opportunity, where everyone plays by the same rules and where every single person—regardless of their background, or that of their parents—is given the chance to be all they want to be.” It shouldn’t matter, she said, “where you were born, who your parents are, where you went to school, what your accent sounds like, what god you worship, whether you’re a man or a woman, or black or white.” But if we are honest, she concluded, we will admit that this is not the case today.

Back when I was a member of a very different GOP, those sentiments may not have been universally embraced by the party’s rank and file, but the commitment to meritocracy and the rule of law were at least Republican talking points.

Working-class conservatism can be nationalist without being nativist or isolationist, Mrs. May insisted. It can reassert Britain’s control over immigration without endorsing prejudice against immigrations. It can reassert sovereignty over Britain’s laws and regulations without withdrawing from Europe or the world. And it can respect success in the market while insisting that the successful members of society have commensurate responsibilities to their fellow citizens.

I was particularly struck by the following quote from her speech, because it echoed populist themes that tend, in the U.S., to come from the Democrats:

 So if you’re a boss who earns a fortune but doesn’t look after your staff, an international company that treats tax laws as an optional extra . . . a director who takes out massive dividends while knowing the company pension is about to go bust, I’m putting you on notice: This can’t go on anymore. A change has got to come. And . . . the Conservative Party is going to make that change.

As I’ve noted repeatedly, the United States desperately needs two adult, responsible political parties. We don’t have a parliamentary system; there is very little likelihood of a third party–new or existing–emerging to fill the void that is the current GOP.

That said, I don’t see how the Chamber of Commerce members coexist with the David Dukes and the Roy Moores. I don’t see how a party that sneers at the very enterprise of government and views large (and growing) segments of its fellow citizens with disdain and explicit bigotry can expect to win elections.

I guess we just need to stay tuned…

Politics and the Press–Redux

Last night, I participated in a panel discussion focused in part upon the role of the press in the 2016 election cycle.

In my brief introductory remarks, I began by noting that the course in Media and Public Policy that I teach every two years requires an entirely new syllabus every time I teach it, because the media environment and the way we citizens get our information is constantly changing.

I also emphasized the difference between MEDIA and JOURNALISM. We are marinating in media, but we are losing what used to be called the journalism of verification. And I ticked off some of what I see as the consequences of this new reality:

  • The competition for eyeballs and clicks has given us a 24/7 “news hole” that media outlets race to fill—far too often prioritizing speed over accuracy.
  • That same competition has given us sports and gossip and opinion—often wildly inaccurate– rather than the watchdog journalism that informs citizens. It’s cheaper to produce, and (let’s be honest) those are the things people click on and watch.
  • We still have national coverage but with the exception of niche media, we have lost local news. The reporters with institutional memory who produced it are gone. There’s virtually no coverage of either the Indiana statehouse or the City-County building—instead we get the “beer beat,” telling us where to party on the weekend.
  • Most troubling of all is the “filter bubble.” The Internet has exponentially expanded our ability to live in a reality of our own creation, where (in defiance of Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s famous dictum) we can indeed choose our own “facts.” Political psychologists call this behavior “confirmation bias.” We used to call it “cherry picking”—the intellectually dishonest process of picking through information sources from the bible to the U.S. budget looking for evidence that confirms our pre-existing beliefs.

As I tell my students, the sad state of journalism is ultimately our fault. The media is giving us what sells. If a naked Kardashian gets more clicks than articles about school vouchers, naked Kardashians are what we’ll get. When Donald Trump’s inane insults and kindergarten antics make money for the media, the media gives us nonstop Trump.

How all this will affect the 2016 elections is anyone’s guess, but a recent report from Harvard’s Shorenstein Center isn’t comforting.

The report shows that during the year 2015, major news outlets covered Donald Trump in a way that was unusual given his low initial polling numbers—a high volume of media coverage preceded Trump’s rise in the polls. Trump’s coverage was positive in tone—he received far more “good press” than “bad press.” The volume and tone of the coverage helped propel Trump to the top of Republican polls.

The Democratic race in 2015 received less than half the coverage of the Republican race. Bernie Sanders’ campaign was largely ignored in the early months but, as it began to get coverage, it was overwhelmingly positive in tone. Sanders’ coverage in 2015 was the most favorable of any of the top candidates, Republican or Democratic. For her part, Hillary Clinton had by far the most negative coverage of any candidate. In 11 of the 12 months, her “bad news” outpaced her “good news,” usually by a wide margin, contributing to the increase in her unfavorable poll ratings in 2015.

Now, if Clinton’s negative coverage consisted of actual news, emerging information that had not already been exhaustively covered, that would be appropriate. But as the report notes,

Whereas media coverage helped build up Trump, it helped tear down Clinton. Trump’s positive coverage was the equivalent of millions of dollars in ad-buys in his favor, whereas Clinton’s negative coverage can be equated to millions of dollars in attack ads, with her on the receiving end. Of the eight news outlets in our study, Fox News easily led the way. Clinton received 291 negative reports on Fox, compared with only 39 positive ones, most of which were in the context of poll results that showed her with a wide lead….

What accounts for Clinton’s negative coverage? One reason is the schizophrenic quality of journalists’ coverage of a “front-running” candidate. It is the story of a candidate with a solid lead, which is the main source of the candidate’s “good news.” There is, however, a less positive aspect to a frontrunner’s story.  The candidate is typically described as overly calculating and cautious—the implication is that the candidate is withholding something from the voters. And if the frontrunner loses support in the polls—a virtual certainty given the artificial boost that comes from high name recognition in the earliest polls—the narrative tilts negative.

We voters have to rely on the media for our information about the candidates. But in this media environment, in this time and place, we need to be very careful consumers of what passes for news.

Two Different Worlds

I keep thinking about that old song that began “Two different worlds, we live in two different worlds….” I don’t remember most of the lyrics, but it ended with something to the effect that the singer was longing for the day when “our two different worlds are one.”

Yeah–me too.

In the wake of the election, in addition to the usual recriminations and finger pointing, there has been a wave of “petitions” to the White House, demanding the right of states to secede.  The conspiracy nuts have been working overtime, generating dark, brooding theories about Obama’s plans to destroy America. Evidently, his incomprehensible victory at the polls is the sign of the apocalypse. Or something.

Meanwhile, in that other world–the one I thankfully inhabit–there are signs that the fever has broken. Congressional Republicans are sending grudging signals that they may consider cooperating to do the public’s business. Rightwing pundits are sounding a bit less intransigent–Hannity is “evolving” on immigration, and Bill Kristol concedes that a small increase in millionaires’ tax rate probably won’t kill the economy. Janesville, Wisconsin–home of Ryan the Rigid–just passed a ordinance extending domestic partner benefits to city and library employees. (It passed 6-1.) Little by little, inhabitants of the real world are going about the business of reconciliation.

What does that say about the “other” world? The one where the Kenyan Socialist Muslim is plotting to confiscate all the guns and destroy liberty as we know it?

There’s a theory that during periods of rapid social change, when societies are experiencing “paradigm shifts” to accommodate those changes, significant numbers of people are unable to make the conceptual change. As their existing worldviews get more and more “out of sync” with the world around them, their behaviors become more and more “maladaptive.” They are less and less able to cope with the world as it is, and their response to that cognitive dissonance gets more bizarre.

Eventually, of course, those who cannot adapt–disproportionately folks in my own advancing age bracket–will die off.  And for a while–at least until the next paradigm shift–those two different worlds will be one.