Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Putting 'Em To The Test

I was invited to speak to a local Rotary Club the other day about money in politics, and with the election right around the corner I ended up talking mostly about election spending in general and all the repugnant campaign advertising in particular. I told them I could think of no other industry that would risk advertising this way.

As I stood at the podium, over my left shoulder was a banner bearing Rotary's "Four-Way Test." Is it the TRUTH? Is it FAIR to all concerned? Will it build GOODWILL and BETTER FRIENDSHIPS? Will it be BENEFICIAL to all concerned? The club president was struck by how miserably campaign ads fail the test all four ways, and said so. He was speaking for the group, to be sure. I told them today's politicians don't fare any better on the test after they are elected and turn to governing.

Reflecting on that recent meeting got me to thinking about the common creed I wrote last Friday, and I came up with a five-way test based on that creed and applied it to today's major parties.

Are the parties of, by and for COMMON FOLKS? Not hardly. A royalty has taken over American politics and lords over both parties. Commoners are politically homeless.

Do they demonstrate COMMON DECENCY? Not by a long shot. Both sides seek power through campaign advertising that almost always is misleading and deceptive and often is downright untruthful. It is fantasy to believe power sought dishonestly will lead to decency in governing.

Do they use COMMON SENSE? Rarely if ever. One prime example is the national debt, where one party says cut social programs but increase spending on defense and keep cutting taxes for the wealthy, while the other puts social programs off limits, won't cut defense much but is willing to increase what the superwealthy pay in taxes. Neither's math adds up to anything close to a balanced budget. On climate change, one party is in complete denial and the other is afraid to speak forcefully much less act decisively. One is scary, the other scared. Together, they guarantee the biggest environmental threat of our time if not in all human history doesn't get discussed. Makes no sense considering its importance, but it doesn't come up in debates. Solutions aren't on the to-do list.

Do they find COMMON GROUND? Um, no. They are polarized to the point of dysfunction. The extremists among them regard compromise as a profanity. Moderates are on the verge of extinction. Statesmanship has become an alien concept. The use of wedge issues to divide us has been raised to an art form.

Are they working for the COMMON GOOD? Another failing grade. Time and again government policies are skewed to benefit the few at the expense of the many. The gap between the rich and the rest keeps growing. Income inequality in America is reaching historic proportions.

We need at least one party that owes its allegiance to the whole of society. We need a Common Party.

When we get one, the difference will be black and white.

Friday, October 26, 2012

A Common Creed

Another time for nose holding is nearly upon us, another time when "none of the above" would win more than a few elections in America if such a ballot option existed. Twice before such widespread alienation and dissatisfaction brought about a major resculpting of the political landscape, and both times Wisconsin was on center stage in these dramas.

Yesterday's post focused on how a repeat performance might symbolically manifest itself. Today's turns to possible substantive manifestations. The following thoughts are offered as a reminder of what is missing in politics and a plea to search for a better way and imagine what is possible.

We are commoners.

We believe the biggest problem facing Wisconsin and all of America today is a political system that caters to a few at the expense of the many. At the root of this problem is political corruption – a pervasive, systemic corruption that plagues us with “leaders” who are not free to lead and leaves our country paralyzed when it comes to dealing with the most challenging issues of our time.

We believe the way politicians seek public office in this day and age – with advertising that is routinely misleading and often downright untruthful – is immoral and destructive to civic life. Power sought through dishonest means cannot possibly lead to just and honest policymaking or clean and open government.

We believe in a free market, not a market manipulated to favor the most politically privileged participants in our economy.

We believe in all-for-one economics – policies ensuring that the fruits of a vibrant economy benefit the whole of society. We are equally committed to rural revitalization and urban renewal. Instead of subsidizing global conglomerates, efforts to stimulate the economy should emphasize community-based small enterprise development, empower local entrepreneurs and cooperatives, and enable us to once again grow together rather than growing apart. We believe supply-side economic theory has it wrong. Demand, not supply, is the primary driver of economic growth. Trickle-down policies have been a miserable failure, never producing more than a trickle for the masses and producing grotesque economic inequality and the slow but steady extermination of the middle class.

We believe government is necessary to a civil and just society and prosperous economy. But we insist on a limited government – one that is as small as possible and only as big as required to do what society needs done collectively. Government programs that work should be supported and ones that do not should be reformed or ended. Most importantly, what government does must serve the broad public interest and promote the common good, not just benefit those who lavishly fund election campaigns or have high-priced lobbyists advocating on their behalf.

We believe in living within our means and paying for what we get today instead of mortgaging the future and saddling generations to come with our debts.

We believe in one-for-all taxation. We see no need for new taxes, but insist that everyone pay the ones we already have. There should be one tax system that applies equally and fairly to all, not two as is effectively the case today – one for the wealthy and well-connected enabling them to avoid paying their fair share and another for the rest of us without the tax shelters and escape hatches.

We believe we are all in the same boat and will sink or sail together. We believe in waging war on poverty, not poor people. We believe it is everyone’s right to pursue material gain and accumulate wealth, but vigorously object to its use to buy government favors or special treatment.

We believe in aspiring to intelligence, not belittling it. Becoming well educated and learning to think critically should be valued and expected, not feared or obstructed. Education is our best hope for building a better and more prosperous future, and our best weapon against economic and social decline.

We believe in science. And we believe we all have a duty to respect nature and take care of the air, water and land. Environmental protection is not the enemy of economic development. A healthy economy and healthy planet must go hand in hand. We believe there are three bottom lines in business. A truly productive and successful company is one that is financially profitable, one whose workers and customers are treated justly and well, and one that is a responsible steward of natural resources.

We believe in the free exercise of religion. In the interest of safeguarding this freedom, we believe in the separation of church and state, as state intrusion into religious practice intolerably threatens the freedom to worship while church influence over governing poses a grave and unacceptable danger to democracy.

We believe in the right of privacy and placing trust in individuals to make their own life choices and in families to serve as the moral backbone of our society. The limited government we insist on should not only be restrained in matters of the economy, it should be unintrusive with respect to our personal lives, morality and sexuality.

We believe in standing for and working to guarantee the basic human rights of all people regardless of race, gender, class, physical condition or sexual orientation, including all those enumerated in the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights and in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights approved by the United States of America and ratified by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Brands And Breeds And Subversive Deeds

Monday I suggested that maybe the time has come for a new political brand. Then I got to wondering how the donkey ever became the symbol of the Democrats and the elephant the emblem of the Republicans. Thanks to the wonders of the Internet, the answer came in no time.

The donkey's association with the Democrats dates all the way back to 1828. During Andrew Jackson's presidential campaign his opponents called him a jackass, which amused Jackson and inspired him to use the image of the strong-willed animal on his campaign posters. Later, cartoonist Thomas Nast used the Democratic donkey in newspaper cartoons and made the symbol famous.

Turns out Nast also had a hand in enshrining the Republican elephant. In an 1874 cartoon, Nast drew a donkey clothed in lion's skin, scaring away all the animals at the zoo. One of those animals, the elephant, was labeled “The Republican Vote.” That's all it took for the elephant to become the enduring symbol of the Republican Party.

So here we are in the 21st Century and the logos of the two major political brands are 19th-Century creations. What exactly are their relevance in this day and age? Donkeys are known to be stubborn, not especially bright, but possess great endurance. Elephants are slow moving, powerful and are said to have long memories. Today neither animal does a thing for the average American. Wait a minute, maybe these are apt symbols after all.

If a compelling case for a new political brand is building – and I think it is, what with the swelling ranks of the politically homeless and their utter dissatisfaction with both major parties – then what should it be?

A good symbol needs to be familiar, instantly recognizable and memorable. And, well, symbolic. Sticking with the animal theme, what could be a better fit here in Wisconsin than the cow? Cows are synonymous with Wisconsin and our state's strong work ethic. They are a damn sight more useful day to day than either donkeys or elephants. They help nourish our children, and us grown ups too.

Imagine this new brand gets established and a whole new breed of candidates begin challenging Republicans and Democrats alike – not as a third party but as a first-party insurgency in GOP and Democratic primary elections. You can hear the rallying cries already. Put the Cow in the Capitol!  Kick Their Ass!  Throw the Trunk in the Junk!

There has to be substance behind the symbolism of a new brand. A new political breed needs to stand for something new and different. And it needs a name. Some thoughts on that tomorrow....

Monday, October 22, 2012

From Third To First

Clearly the current political landscape is stomach turning for most if not nearly all citizens. That’s why the ranks of the politically homeless have grown so. Pew Research Center findings show that the number of Americans who refuse to align with either major party is at its highest level in 70 years. That speaks volumes about the disillusionment so many feel about politics and those in power.

The question is what to do about it. Neither major party is seen as working for the common good or doing what’s best for America. They are seen as working for the narrow, wealthy interests that fund them. This leads more than a few to pine for a third way.

The problem is that third parties in this country are destined to fail. Third parties fail because, well, their aim is to make it so we have three parties. For better or worse, ours is a two-party system. It is not a parliamentary democracy.

Third-party movements also routinely fail because they organize to the left of the Democrats or to the right of the Republicans. Thus they largely operate on the political fringes, and only meaningfully compete for the votes of a small part of the electorate. Put another way, they seek to clip a major party’s wing but don’t try to cut its heart out.

Third-party aficionados rightly lament that their fate is sealed by the fact that we have winner-take-all elections. They have a point when they say that if we had proportional representation or instant runoff voting or one of its variants, things would be different.

Such reforms would greatly benefit society and improve our democracy. The Democracy Campaign has advocated this kind of reform for nearly a decade. But how do you get from point A to point B? How do you get proportional representation or rank-order voting or a none-of-the-above ballot option? Any of these reforms would have to be passed by a legislature controlled by the major parties and signed into law by an executive from one of the major parties. The major parties would have to agree to weaken themselves and threaten their grip on power. Not bloody likely.

So the rules are rigged against third parties and changing the rules won’t happen without the consent of the two major parties. How then do you loosen their stranglehold?

An answer can be found right here at home. Attempts to create alternatives that can shake the major parties to their foundations have succeeded a couple of times in Wisconsin’s history, but in each case they were what I would call first-party movements, not third-party movements.

First-party movements do not aim to give us three parties. They force one of the two existing major parties to either adapt or perish. One time a major party got replaced. The other time both major parties were reformed.

In the time of slavery, the Whig Party was one of the two major parties in America. The Republican Party was born here in Wisconsin out of frustration over the lack of a true anti-slavery party and eventually drove the Whigs to extinction.

And then out of the cauldron of bank failures and economic depression in the 1890s, the Progressive Party rose to challenge the Republicans and Democrats. That first-party movement didn’t end up replacing either, but reformed both. Both parties developed predominant Progressive wings. Teddy Roosevelt was elected president as a Progressive Republican. Woodrow Wilson won the presidency as a Progressive Democrat. The nation's character, and Wisconsin's in particular, were fundamentally reshaped.

The lesson from the history books is to stop hoping for three parties and start focusing on creating one that is worth a damn. You do that by creating some competition in the form of a new political brand and then go to battle in major party primaries to win voters over to that new brand.

To be both constructive and successful, the brand can’t be an appeal to the fringes, it has to be a threat to the major parties by strongly appealing to the heart of the electorate. It also can’t be a resurrection of an old political brand. The Progressive label, for example, doesn't means what it once did; the term is now loaded. If there’s a new political brand to be created, it needs a new name.

Rather than trying to run candidates on a separate party line on the ballot, leaving them vulnerable to the spoiler and wasted-vote phenomena, why not compete directly with the major parties in their own primary elections? Most people who end up voting for Republicans or Democrats are actually politically homeless. Most hate both parties. Create some competition within each party. Give people an appealing new option within each party.

In private industry, if a product is out there and no longer seems to meet the needs of consumers, some competitor jumps into the market with a new and improved product. The same principle needs to be applied to politics, in a realistic way that takes into account the way the American system is structured.

Third-party organizing has been tried many times, and many times it has failed. First-party organizing has been tried twice – when enough people were feeling alienated and politically homeless – and two times it succeeded in producing major political realignment and reform. Maybe we are approaching another such moment when the established political arrangement can be subverted from within. Maybe the time has come for a new political brand. What might that brand look like? More on that soon....

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Our Mouseland

Ever get the feeling we're a nation of mice ruled by cats?

The question is unquestionably pertinent to the times we live in, but I am hardly the first to ask it. It was far more famously posed by the late, great Canadian statesman Tommy Douglas. Douglas was no ordinary politician. The CBC, Canada’s national television network, named him “The Greatest Canadian” in 2004, based on a viewer survey. Yet he is known by few if any Americans despite being grandfather to the Hollywood actor Kiefer Sutherland.

Douglas was elected to Canada’s House of Commons in 1935 and served with distinction there for nine years. He then left federal politics to become Premier of Saskatchewan in 1944. One of the many highlights of his time as Premier came near the end of his 17-year tenure when his administration established the continent’s first universal health care program in Saskatchewan. Word of the success of the province’s medicare program spread like wildfire and quickly got the attention of the federal government, which in 1966 created a national health care program modeled after Saskatchewan’s.

Douglas was beloved as much for his homespun gift of gab as for his formidable accomplishments in the political arena. He was a master storyteller, and his speeches often took the form of fables. He was especially fond of telling his audiences a fable called “Mouseland.” He spoke of a nation of mice governed by cats. The masses either chose black or white cats as their leaders, but never their own mice. The laws of the land were always good ones – for cats.

We’ve become well acquainted with Tommy Douglas’s Mouseland. An American royalty has control of our government. Us mice keep choosing cats to rule us. Sometimes red ones, sometimes blue. But regardless of their color, the laws they write and the programs they establish are all good ones – for cats.

Monday, October 01, 2012

Clear And Colorless

Over the weekend I went with my family to a science fair on the University of Wisconsin campus. There was everything from a way-over-my-head display on stem cell research to a crash-dummy demonstration of how much force is behind those highlight-reel hits by football players, which not coincidentally was next to a multimedia presentation on concussion research. Among the highlights of the fair was a Bill Nye the Science Guy type of show put on by Lebanese-born chemistry professor Bassam Shakhashiri featuring lots of explosions and other neat tricks.

At one point, Dr. Shakhashiri called attention to several long cylinders containing liquids of different colors. Before making them erupt like volcanoes, he pointed to each one and asked the audience what color the liquid was. For the first, quite a few shouted "blue." When he pointed to another, children and adults alike called out "red." He pointed to another containing what looked like water and asked again for his audience to identify the color. I mouthed the word "clear," and probably a dozen others gave the same answer out loud.

Professor Shakhashiri scolded us, noting that all of the liquids were clear but this last one was also colorless and further admonished us that clear and colorless are not the same thing. I learned this weekend what I should have already known, but for my own lackluster effort that earned only a C in high school chemistry.

Just as there is a difference between clear and colorless, there is a difference between freedom and democracy. We live in what unquestionably qualifies as a free and open society. There are undeniably some troubling assaults on essential liberties that must be beaten back, but overall we enjoy a great deal of social and economic freedom, especially when compared to most of the rest of the world.

At the same time, our democracy is quite ill. In a healthy democracy, political power is widely shared. Today in America, real power is concentrated in the hands of a very few. Most people believe their voices aren't being heard and a great many are convinced their votes don't count for much.

This is the American paradox. We are both free and increasingly undemocratic. We can more or less do as we please, but we have little or no say over anything important.

This is the genius of America's ruling class. They avoid the pitfalls that regularly ensnare two-bit dictators and authoritarian regimes by allowing us substantial freedom while still exercising near-full control over the direction of public debate and public policy. They do it by owning the information and systematically propagandizing the population. And they do it by working us and entertaining us to death, keeping us free but perpetually distracted while they go about accomplishing their aims. Those aims cost us a great deal, but we either don't notice or don't care because we freely occupy ourselves with an anesthetic combination of work-a-day responsibilities and trivial pursuits.

An open society is precious. Freedom is worth paying a steep price to have. But so is democracy. Trouble is, many if not most among us aren't worrying too much about democracy's sickly condition because they don't distinguish between the freedom we have and the democracy we don't.