big ideas, politics

By the People, For the People

No Known RestrictionsMartin Luther King Jr.

Recently, I noticed–during a television commercial in which an S. C. Johnson representative was telling us that their products are both environmentally friendly and effective–that by consumer demand “green” in becoming essential for business. Not because laws were passed that mandated that S. C. Johnson make less harmful cleaning products, but because the public wanted–or was perceived to have wanted–this.

One thing that has come up a lot in the Democratic race for president, though usually obliquely, is the difference between bottom up and top down change. Hillary Clinton has sold herself as the woman to face down the special interests and get things done in Washington. Barack Obama has sold himself as a man who can bring the American people to his side and get change by the sheer force of popular demand.

When it is discussed, it’s usually mentioned that Mr. Obama was once a community organizer in Chicago. And that community organizing works by convincing lay people to get involved or change their position, not by playing games in the center of power.

There is also mention of the great Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who famously fought with President Johnson over civil rights legislation. And when told that he didn’t have the votes to get his legislation passed headed back out to the street, proclaiming that all he needed was more action, more organizing, more public attention and hence, public outcry.

And indeed, it’s hard to deny that without such action popular support would not have been behind the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts. The point that people, having seen the injustice of Jim Crow segregation and the outright racism of many whites would not and could not tolerate the injustice was made, as The Race Beat pointed out, long before the movement, by Swedish sociologist Gunnar Myrdal.

Now, the movement could not have changed everything on its own. Bottom up organizing has hundreds of inherent problems. Surely some businesses may have given in to popular demand and ended segregation if they’d not been legally mandated to do so, but it’s highly unlikely that it could have been eliminated so radically and swiftly without action from the powerful. And the powerful are, far too often, insulated and safe from the will of people.

It’s also important to remember that S. C. Johnson ad. And though it’s very possible that the company is truly committed to environmental preservation and the citizen’s safety, without external verification such ads could be simple greenwashing. The people must depend on the powerful for such verification.

The two method of change, by the people and for the people, are not mutually exclusive. The will of the people, in legitimate honest and open democracies changes who is powerful. And who is powerful influences strongly what is done for the people.

Surely something is to be said for Senator Clinton’s insistence that Barack Obama’s vision of change may be empty. But if this campaign has shown us anything, it’s that when given truly open and democratic control of their leaders, the majority of the people get who they want and the changes they seek. It simply does not work the opposite way.

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politics

About Super Tuesday

Josh ThompsonSuper Tuesday Voters

Let’s recap: A lot of people in a lot of states participated in presidential nominating contests yesterday. Though no one expected Huckabee to win anything, he did. And no one expected that McCain would be derailed; he was not. No one expected that the Democratic race would have a decisive conclusion; it does not. Ms. Clinton won more large states–as was expected–while Mr. Obama won more total states. What that means for conventional wisdom, delegate counts, and the public at large is still unclear.

And now let’s stop talking about it. And talk about how, again, I want to reconsider my support of this whole process. Well, not really. This time I still like the process. I like that average people are choosing these candidates and not merely a few party elites. I like that these candidates are becoming better understood by the people they so desire to lead. It’s not a bad process.

But I’m really really wondering what else we’re missing as we do all this. How much more attention would Kenya be getting if we didn’t worry so much about this game? How much more attention would be given to Tadic’s reelection in Serbia? How much more attention would have been paid to the skirmishes for Chad’s capital of N’Djamena?

How much more would we worry about President Bush’s proposed budget for 2009? Or about the efficacy of the stimulus package that Congress is putting to a vote? Or that the attorney general still refuses to say anything meaningful about waterboarding or torture?

The answer seems to be, upon reflection, not much. Those international stories are surely too obscure to get much attention in American media even on the slowest day of the year. And the domestic news is being ignored because the country has lost almost all confidence in–and perhaps more importantly, concern about–President Bush and all that he may or may not be attempting to do in his final year.

So perhaps it’s not so bad, the way that we’re flooded with campaign coverage. Surely some worthwhile things that would otherwise get coverage go missing while the media works to satiate our seeming unending hunger for presidential punditry, however oversimplified, overdramatic, or just plain weird.

But this country is in the process of making an important decision, and it’s not so bad that media outlets are trying to help us make the right one. We will, after all, let this person run our country for the next four years. Perhaps it’s not so bad making sure they are everywhere we look before we make that choice.

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politics

Savage Politics

Marc Nozell (cc)No Mudslinging

I admit it. I was wrong. I don’t like it. I don’t like this whole mess one bit. This presidential campaign has already disappointed me. A lot.

Last time I addressed the presidential nomination process, I called it “exhilarating.” And though I did hesitate to use the word at the time, I decided it was good enough. Now I’m certain that was never the right word for this process. I would be remiss if I didn’t admit that when I wrote “exhilarating,” the “conventional wisdom” stated firmly that Barack Obama and John McCain were going to win their respective nominating contests. And at the time, the two men were both saying the right things.

Fast forward two weeks. We have continuous semantic sparring between Mr. Obama and Mr. and Mrs. Clinton about truly petty concerns, perhaps most notable is Mr. Obama’s unimpeachable statement that Mr. Reagan changed the country. The discussion is nearly as far divorced from the candidate’s real words as the earlier confrontation about what Mrs. Clinton had to say about Martin Luther King, Jr. and Lydon Johnson.

Both of these disputes are purely superficial. It’s true that the Civil Rights Act couldn’t have passed without hard work by white politician like Mr. Johnson. It’s also true that Mr. Reagan’s vision inspired and transformed the country. The fact that either of these statements gave rise to all the confrontation and vitriol it did is a testament to our broken political discourse. To our collective inability to, to borrow Mr. Obama’s words, disagree without being disagreeable.

Who is to blame for all of this? There’s little question that NBC, who held the Democratic debate eight days ago, intentionally tried to create a fight over Mrs. Clinton’s Johnson comments. But there’s also no question that the candidates willingly bickered and sniped during Monday’s debate on CNN. To varying degrees we could easily blame “the media,” the candidates, and voters.

The Republican contest has seem much less mired in semantics, but that’s probably because the leading candidates all have distinctly different views. Mike Huckabee is certainly less economically conservative–and more willing to pander to Confederate flag fans–than Mr. McCain. Mr. Guilliani’s certainly more socially liberal than either Huckabee or McCain. And whatever Mr. Romney stands for today, you can be certain that it’s not the same as anyone, even his former self.

In a sad way, the fights among Democrats are a clear symptom of how much the candidates–and the party as a whole–agree upon. Unable to have a meaningful fight about anything but their health care plans, the media and the candidates have had to look for smaller points to harp on. Mr. Obama’s had to repeatedly insinuate that he’s being double teamed because Mrs. Clinton can’t handle him alone. And Mrs. Clinton has drudged up some scandalous-sounding issues about one Mr. Rezko.

Though I still agree that this process is good, I’m no longer enamored with it. It’s this type of knock-down drag-out everywhere-you-look conflict that turns so many people off of politics. And if I’ve learned nothing else in the past two weeks, I now know better why people say they hate this beast.

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politics, USA

Moderating the “Undocumented” Issue

corazón girlDallas Protest March

They have a lot of names. Invaders. Spics. Terrorists. Wetbacks. Identity thieves. Less harshly, illegal aliens. Illegal immigrants. Undocumented workers.

They have been, over the last few years, one of America’s most important political flashpoints. Derided by some as simple lawbreakers who deserve no rights or preference. Praised by others as hardworking immigrants in the greatest American tradition that deserve a full place at the table.

Efforts to solve the problem that by various estimates includes 12 million, 17 million, or 20 million people have failed. After efforts to pass moderate reform laws twice failed, George W. Bush’s executive branch decided to make it appear that their Immigration and Customs Enforcement arm was serious about the problem. Raids on employers followed, with the brunt of the effort harming lay workers and the not the corporations that employ them.

This has brought the president some greater credibility with the “law and order” conservatives who seem to oppose any reform that doesn’t involve building a giant wall between the United States and Mexico and forcibly deporting all the undocumented.

But the Republican presidential field now lacks a member of that group. Colorado Representative Tom Tancredo–the immigration opponent–ended his presidential bid last month and threw his support behind the Massachusetts governor who had been accused (accurately it turns out) of running a “sanctuary mansion.” This detail came out in the same debate in which it was unveiled that the other governor, Mike Huckabee, didn’t oppose giving scholarship to the children of the undocumented. And the former mayor of New York City, like most other mayors of large American cities, had run a “sanctuary city.” John McCain, perhaps worst of all, twice supported the president’s push for moderation on the issue.

The Democrats’ history on the “undocumented” issue is much harder to pin down, current and former Senators that they (almost) all are. But Hillary Clinton fell into the fray about New York’s failed plan to license all drivers, legal citizens or not.

The whole issue has long been mired in two competing narratives, neither of which tells the whole story.

From the far right comes the narrative of inhuman criminals who are here to steal jobs. These Mexicans–they’re rarely seen as anything “white”–have broken the law by coming here, broken the law by living here, and broken the law by working here. The only way to make sure they leave never come back is to assure that their life in America is an impossible hell. We’ll have to assure they’re deprived government services, the right to work, and probably arrest a lot of them. And we’ll have to build a giant wall to make sure they never come back.

From the far left we get the narrative of the deprived and desperate economic refugees from an impossible life in Mexico. They’ve come here with hope and hard work in mind. They’re vital parts of their communities and should be treated with respect. Citizenship should be made available to them, as should larger quotas so people don’t have to come to America illegally.

The stark contrast between the two views is clear. As is the impossibility of a détente between them.

The country will not solve the problem unless the two views are rectified. And there are only two ways for that to happen. Moderates to win control of power in Washington, or the most determined partisans realizing that their views make them look like ham-handed buffoons (I doubt the latter will ever occur).

Americans do need to raise legal immigration levels, especially from Mexico and central American countries that have supplied most of the tide of illegals. They need to recognize that their immigration enforcement system is badly broken and in need of systematic repair. They must recognize that amnesty is not the answer, but also that a long wait, big fines, and a thorough background check is not amnesty.

Progress on this issues has been halting and frustrating. And though I sincerely hope that the new year and new president (I know that doesn’t officially happen until 2009, but it effectively happens in November) will bring a wiser political class with greater willingness to accept compromise and moderation, I recognize that I may be waiting some time.

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