Saturday, November 28, 2015

The Train Wreck of Politics

Politics is like an attractive nuisance.  There are so many reasons why what politicians do annoy us, but nonetheless political junkies remain attracted to the stories in the news.  Yes politics has turned into entertainment and campaigns and elections often  seem like farces, but that should not distract us from the reality that politics and government are important.
Government does matter in terms of what it does and, while we often forget it, government in the US has accomplished a lot and made powerful positive differences in our lives.  Ranging from landing a man on the Moon, fluoridating water to improve dental health, or producing tap water, roads, bridges, and arresting the bad guys and putting out fires, government matters.  Free markets are fine in their place, but they have proved to be incapable of addressing many problems our society confronts. Having said all that as an important reminder to those who see government as bad or evil, there are several stories in the news this week that highlight what many see as the bad side of politics.

Trump: “Have you no sense of decency?”
The witch hunts of the 1950s McCarthy era crashed to a close on June 9, 1954.  After Senator Joe McCarthy during a public hearing made another allegation about someone’s political affiliations,  Joseph Welsh, chief counsel for the US Army retorted: “You've done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?”  Welch’s comments exposed the reckless and cruel attacks of McCarthy as nothing more than shameful rhetoric made for personal political gain.  Maybe Donald Trump has finally had his Welsh moment.
For months there has been a death watch as Trump insulted one group after another.  It has included military POWS, women, Muslims, non-mainline Christians, and now individuals with handicaps.  This latest was mocking a NY Times reporter’s physical handicap.  Till now the comments seemed not to hurt him.  Instead the controversies only gave him media coverage, giving him attention in ways that bullies get attention when they pick on someone.  It may still be the case that Trump’s latest comments will not hurt him long term and that he remains the favorite in the polls among Republicans.  Yet a recent Reuters poll shows a 12% drop in his support among Republicans in the last week.  Is it possible that he has finally reached a point where he has insulted enough Americans that he has crossed the line?  When do you think he will pick on orphans, kick a dog, or spit at someone?
Clearly something has changed.  Check out John Kasich ad where Trump is compared to Hitler.  This is a hard hitting ad that points out how Trump has gone after one group after another just like Hitler (and McCarthy) did.  Surprising that the ad is by a candidate and not a SuperPac.  But it does appear that other candidates are no longer afraid of Trump.

Trump Part II:   @!*&%# Off!
Trump has had a major impact on the Republican presidential race in many ways, including his use of foul language.  The NY Times reports that other GOP candidates are now also swearing on the campaign circuit.  The road to macho must be through the seven words that George Carlin could not say on television (and which Bono got fined for using) but which candidates for president can now freely deploy.  I a waiting for the next Republican debate where Kasich turns to Trump and says “F— off!”  If that happens we are not far from the classic SNL routine where Dan Aykroyd and Jane Curtin do a mock debate, ending with the famous line “Jane you ignorant slut.”

Why we hate politicians
Ann Lenczewski was a well respected member of the Minnesota House of Representative.  She was perhaps the leading expert on tax policy.  Yet she recently announced her resignation to join a law firm to become a lobbyist lobbying the state legislature.  In a recent interview in Politics in Minnesota when asked about the fact that this looks really bad she replied:

“That’s understandable.  If the Legislature would pass a law, which has never happened, and a governor would sign it, that would say you can’t lobby for one or two years, I would follow the law. ...Many former House members have gone on to be lobbyists:...there’s dozens and dozens of them...The House has a rule [against lobbying], but it only applies if you’re a member of the House.”

Her answer is akin to the “if everyone else is doing it, it must be ok.”  Her answer simply rang hollow and showed clear deafness for how bad this looks.  It is even worse to know that for years she was one of the major sponsors of legislation to ban this type of behavior.  I guess at the end of the day it is another story of if you can’t beat them, join them.  Ann is a good person whose statement simply captures the reality of how bad even Minnesota politics is.  No wonder the state earned a D- in its most recent ranking on ethics.

The 2016 Minnesota Election Themes 
It is becoming clear what the 2016 elections themes will be in the battle for the Minnesota House and Senate.  Of course it will be the Senate Office Building but so too look to see Polymet and Black Lives Matters as issues.  So too will be whether to help workers on the Iron Range and Lake Mille Lacs as the governor had wanted.  These are issues that divide not just the two major parties but also the Democrats.
Moreover, while the governor is perfectly correct that something needs to be done to address  the racial disparities in Minnesota, it is not clear that the Democrats and he are building the political coalition in greater Minnesota to accomplish this.  Black Lives Matters may be good copy and a salient issue that could help urban Democrats, but it is not an issue that will help them in the suburbs and greater Minnesota.
Why raise all this?  So far the Republicans in Minnesota seem to be defining a better set of themes and campaign narratives than are the Democrats.  While in a presidential election year DFLers normally do better look at 2016 as a year where it will still be difficult for Democrats to retake the House and the battle for the Senate will be challenging.

The Achievement Gap
Finally, take a look at this sobering article on the state of education and race in America since Brown v. The Board of Education.  The gaps between Blacks and Whites show that race still matters and that perhaps we need to show as much anger about the education gap as we do about the shooting of African-Americans by police officers.
No, the solution is not vouchers or to get rid of public schools as conservatives demand.  There is little evidence that these gimmicks along with charter schools have succeeded.  Simply spending more money on schools is not the answer (although the US does spend less on education as a percentage of its GDP compared to other major countries) in the same way that cutting taxes is not  always the answer. The question is how to spend money–existing and new–to improve education.  The answer lies not just in spending on schools but also in support networks that make it possible to support families, parents, and communities.


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  2. But David, you are so connected to reality, while today's politics seem to be about ignoring reality, being entertaining, and blaming the other party for all of the problems