Note: This podcast was recorded before Ted Cruz's Super Saturday victories and Ben Carson dropping out of the race.
We have problems with our politics these days. I've been holding off on posting about it because I'm not sure I've had reasonable words, but comedian (and UFC commentator, etc.) Joe Rogan and former CIA covert operative Mike Baker really get it right.
Baker, who is more a rationalist than anything else (he has operational issues, for example, with Hillary Clinton — he explains in plain language what happened with her email), spells out the issue with anyone willing to run for the presidency: "There's a certain personality type that's way up its own ass that allows you to think, 'Yes, I should be president of the United States.'"
"We're down to assholes, basically," agrees Rogan. "Bernie Sanders seems like an old kook, he doesn't seem like an asshole," but he doesn't seem to think we should really be voting for anyone who would actually want the job.
That all happens in the first few minutes of the podcast, by the way. You needn't put yourself through very much of the video above (the first five or seven minutes will be plenty to get you started) to see where they head with the conversation.
Let me be honest with my perspective, before we get too deep in here. I'm a disenchanted liberal. I grew up in a strictly Democratic household, and identified as a Democrat until about 2000, when I really saw Ralph Nader's point. Barack Obama brought my back into the party, but quickly lost me (here's my very hopeful post after his first inauguration, and my jaded look forward after his reelection). I now live in a state with open primaries, so I have no need to register for a party ever again. In political "quizzes," I match up as a left-leaning Libertarian.
Louis C.K. — another comic — writes, in what I think is a really important rant about Donald Trump, puts it nicely:
When I was growing up and when I was a younger man, liberals and conservatives were friends with differences. They weren’t enemies. And it always made sense that everyone gets a president they like for a while and then hates the president for a while.
Around 11 minutes into his discussion with Rogan, Baker points out that somehow compromise is now seen as a weakness. And that's really a major problem for me. That's what we're built on: discourse and compromise. The rhetoric from both sides these days is not only angry, it's vindictive. And that's our fault as voters.
It's been pretty well figured out, I think, that to win a primary, a candidate has to move toward an extreme, and then will have to move to the middle to win a general election. What we don't know is what happens when the president gets into office — on Day 1, is he handed a book (he, here; we haven't had a she yet) of what we know and then he has to look back on his campaign promises and say, "Holy crow, we can't do that!"
Baker says soon we're going to need an end to the two-party system, to really have stronger other options. He also goes on to say he thinks presidential candidates should have to disclose who they'd like in their cabinet: after all, presidents don't know everything about everything, they take advice from their circle. Rogan goes even further, saying maybe we should eliminate the position of president, instead making decisions by committee.
We sort of do that, actually. We need a point person, and the president sort of acts as CEO — the board (cabinet, generals, etc.) gives him all the options, and the president has to make the final call. For example, Baker points out, there's a lawyer in the White House who advises the president on whether the secondary casualties that would result from going after a "high-value target" make it a doable operation.
As for Trump, Rogan says that people like him because he "talks shit," which he clearly does. Personally, I don't want someone who's verbal political tactics are a great way to get into a bar fight. "There's so many goofy white guys who are ready and psyched to have a reality star as president," he says.
C.K., in his rant, calls for people to just read up a little on Trump. "If you do vote for Trump," he writes, "at least look very carefully at him first." Here's a guy who has said he likes people who weren't captured, but further, that John McCain, who was the target of that criticism, "has to be very careful" for criticizing the candidate and that "he'll find out" why. I don't know about you, but the way I read that, any US soldier who gets wounded or captured is going to be in trouble, and that if you say anything bad about Trump, you'd better be prepared for...something.
We do know that Trump wants to change libel laws (that's a conservative publication I linked to, by the way). The Daily Beast (which claims to be independent but seems to lean liberal at a quick glance) has a good explanation of our current laws and Trump's proposed law.
Whatever you think of the Chronicle's take on Trump gutting the First Amendment, I can say that I watched his Super Saturday rally and noted that Trump said, before taking questions, "you know the press is among the most dishonest people created by God, so I would love to take a few questions from these dishonest people." Start around 12:37 here:
If I'd have been there, I probably would have left. As a voter (and Jew and member of the media), I'm scared of Trump; as a journalist, I'm over him. If you could get me to go to cover a rally, I'd be there with duct tape over my mouth.
Trump calls reporters dishonest, says he hates answering questions and that he'd rather just campaign. Let's just stop covering him.
I'll close with Baker talking about Trump and the American Dream. Baker served the US as a covert CIA officer abroad for many years, and now runs an intelligence agency called Diligence LLC (around 51 minutes into the conversation).
How does it happen that this country — this fantastic country, and again I've spent most of my life overseas — I can go to the deepest darkest shithole out there, somewhere out there [in the] middle of nowhere, and someone will say, "if I go to America and I can work this hard and I can do really well, I just have to, you know, if I can get to America," they still — people out there in the middle of nowhere — still believe the American Dream.
And yet you worry about it, because I think we seem to be giving up on it here. If this is the best we've got, if we're willing to follow this guy down the tunnel, I don't know where we're heading, but it's not good."
Poynter has a really good piece up this week about Nate Silver and the future of bloggers as journalists (OK, so I oversold that a little, but still, that's sort of the gist).
Silver, as you probably know, predicted a landslide for President Obama in the electoral vote in this year's election. While news media were busy talking about the 1% difference in popular votes according to polls leading up to the election, Silver was figuring out which polls made the most sense in which states and predicted that Obama would have 313 electoral votes on election night.
Conservatives, and even some in the media, thought that was ridiculous. If their polling was so close, how could Obama win 313 electoral votes to 225?
Not only was Silver right about a landslide, he was off by 19. I don't know where that came from; maybe Virgina and Nevada (13 and 6 electoral votes, respectively).
Part of the bloggers vs. journalists debate over the years has been this. Bloggers are typically politically biased, while journalists are objective.
Here's the thing: That's not true. In The American Journalist, we find out that most (nearly three-quarters of them, in fact) journalists lean to the left. And while we might call that a liberal bias in media (particularly in print), content analyses show over and over that while some newspapers lean left on the editorial page while others lean right, as a whole, newspapers tend to pick on whoever's in office, regardless of their politics.
I'd argue that people who attack every story objectively are dull writers.
We want to hear both (or all, really) sides of every story, not no side of every story. And if the writer is honest with me about his or her viewpoint, it's easy to forgive a viewpoint injection. It's when the journalist injects a viewpoint under guise of objectivity that we have a problem. You can disagree with a writer, but you can't disagree with a piece of paper in front of you (well, you can, but it can't put up a coherent argument – it's a piece of paper).
Poynter also notes that the Times didn't take on a risk when they signed Silver; someone else had already dropped $700,000 on a couple of books. Good for him.
I'll ask you: Would you rather read a strictly objective article by a journalist with no viewpoint (nor the guts to take a side), or a biased article written by a smart person who uses all sides to tell you why s/he thinks s/he is right?
Give me smart, biased journalism any day. Just give me all the information so that I can make a decision, too.
It's a crisp but still 25 degrees out this morning, with a fuzzy crescent moon visible as the sky is lightening. The day after election day this year doesn't feel like a new era to me; in fact, it feels like a good time for leaders to sit down, light a fire, open a bottle of Scotch, and spend a couple of months reflecting on where our country is really going.
The nation is 236 years old; about halfway through the expected lifespan of a strong empire, historically speaking (Rome and Greece each lasted about 500 years). Our economy has evolved in such a way that we don't really know how to pull out of a slide. We make less stuff; we're primarily service-based. And for the people who do make stuff – domestically that's fewer and fewer people – we have a burgeoning movement of people who want to get rid of their stuff.
In 2008, Barack Obama ran on a platform of change. It feels like something has changed, but as a whole, it's not tangible. He won the Nobel Peace Prize on the promise of what he could do for the world, and I don't think we've seen that promise come through yet. Obama is certainly a divisive figure, but I don't think he's any more divisive than George W. Bush before him or Bill Clinton before Bush. They've been divisive in different ways (read: people hate them differently), but I think, given the way communications is evolving, we're going to keep seeing bigger and bigger divides for the next couple of election cycles, before it comes to a head.
I don't know what that head will be.
This year, Obama has run on a platform of forward. Here are some things I think we need to do to make forward happen.
Civil equality. So much of our division has to do with social issues. We've stopped competing with each other for food resources and the physical ability to procreate, and so the way to feed our evolutionary need to keep ahead of our neighbors is to legislate that hunter-gatherer competition. It's the reason we fought the Revolutionary War. It's the reason we fought the Civil War. It's the reason we had to push through abolition and women's suffrage and to allow everybody to drink from the same water fountain and it's the reason – wait for it – we need to do the marriage equality thing tomorrow, and it's the reason we need to do something for immigrants who have been here illegally for a long time.
We're not going to get any real work done until we're all full citizens. Let me repeat that. We are not going to get any real work done. Not until we take away the need for my friends and our neighbors to worry about what happens if the person they love gets sick, or if their 17-year-old son gets into college.
Seriously, let's just get this done. Let's do the equivalent of a wet-foot-dry-foot policy for immigrants who have been here five years. If you've been here less than five years, let's fast-track your residency application so that, even if you have to leave, at least you won't be looking over your shoulder anymore. And let's just pass a national marriage equality act.
The day after those things happen, the people we're bringing into full American-hood will be able to fight other battles. And so will the people who oppose them. They'll be able to help look at the economy and the environment and figure out how we end the wars we're in.
Environmental destruction. I don't care what you think about global warming or climate change or whatever we want to call it. It's pretty clear that something's up. We're still cleaning up from Katrina in some parts of the Gulf. We're going to be cleaning up from Sandy for a long time. We keep moving people inland as mudslides hit the California coast. It seems like every summer there's a wildfire it takes longer and longer to contain.
I can't tell you the causes. Humans might have nothing to do with the creation of these events. (I think we do, but I can't prove the science myself, so I'm not going to push that on you.) We might not be able to do anything to stop these storms, fires and slides.
But we can change the lifestyles that keep getting disrupted by these natural disasters. I don't think we can legislate those changes, but enough people have been affected by weather events over the past decade that if wind up having some good ideas, people might actually listen.
Fund all mandates. If you want to "fix" the economy, one of the things that we need to do is start funding all mandates. We have a healthcare mandate that will cost some people upwards of 10% of their income when it's enacted. We have federal education mandates and Medicare/Medicaid mandates that states and municipalities are picking up the cost for, at the cost of things like public safety departments and public works items like, say, enough road salt to last the winter.
I think we've shown that things like tax breaks for small businesses and higher taxes for the wealthy are only going to get us so far. They are policies that will help tweak statistics in the directions we want them, but they're never going to actually solve anything.
Diversity of viewpoints in government. Our focus on diversity in positions like judicial and cabinet appointments through the past two administrations has revolved primarily around gender and ethnic background. But for the most part, everyone appointed tends to fall into line, at least on the surface, with the political views of the person who appointed them. That leads to an us vs. them attitude in elections every four years, and it specifically excludes the viability of a third party coming into play.
We're never going to bridge divides if we don't have to build coalitions. In a two-party system, we either pass all legislation in one direction (if the presidency and the majority in both houses of Congress are of the same party), or we pass only moderate legislation (because the Democractic president and Senate need to concede some stuff to House Republicans).
We move in small increments, and every four years we have the option to push those small increments in a different direction. Let's sprinkle some Libertarians, Green Party candidates and other minor-party representatives into the cabinet and into our courts. It will be a slow change, but eventually, those parties will start to really put some seats in Congress, and leaders will have to create coalitions across a variety of viewpoints. Instead of Blue vs. Red on every issue, there will be a gradient of purples in the mix.
I recognize that I've left foreign policy entirely out of this post. But I think we need to take care of things at home before we're going to effect much change abroad. And if we take care of stuff at home, we'll be able to put more people to work on what's going on in the world.
Wherein a politician tells his 8-year-old son he plays piano in an opium den because he doesn't want the kid to know he's really in politics.
Tuesday is election day here in the U.S. It's a day when a bunch of people puff up their chest and smile proudly about civic duty (though most of us only vote in presidential elections and then only when it looks close going in – and even then our voter turnout is embarrassingly low). The reason we're doing this on Tuesday is that people are more likely to stop at the polls on their way to or from work – or take an hour out of the office – than to give up some time out of their weekend to vote.
For me, the most important races in my neck of the woods are on the federal level: president and Congress.
Here are my pet issues right now.
Civil rights. Marriage equality is at the top of my list. I have a bunch of friends who, unless they live in a handful of states, won't be able to visit their partners in the hospital – even after 40 years of monogamous couplehood. Seriously, it's ridiculous. We don't even need to talk about children, but let's do. If one of the couple has a child, the partner has no parental rights and has a terrible uphill battle to get some. Sure, raise the kids together for 12 years while the birth mother is healthy, but the second she gets hit by a bus, we'd rather make that 12-year-old a ward of the state than let him live with the other woman who helped raise him. Makes sense, right? Nope, didn't think so.
Also, I'm going to put abortion here, as a civil right, not under health care, though health care's an important piece. Abortion should be safe and legal. Why? Because laws limiting (or outright outlawing abortion) don't actually decrease the number of abortions performed. They just limit the safety. You want to pretend you're "pro-life"? How about saving the lives of moms in need, and how about making every child a wanted one, instead of one that's born into malnutrition and raised as a burden?
Health care. At this point, it looks like a single-payer system is the only way to go, unless we're willing to regulate the hell out of the system and make it a la carte. Health care is so expensive that even those of us you might consider to be middle class can't afford it, because it represents upward of 14% of our pre-tax income for a lot of us. And unfunded mandates coming up in 2014 are going to cripple some people, especially young families.
Jobs and income. OK, I really don't know how to create more jobs. But nobody can live on minimum wage. $7.25 an hour gives you $15,225 a year for a full-time job. Let's assume that gets you 50% off your health care cost and 50% off your housing cost and a 0% tax rate because your state is really helpful. You're still paying well over a third of your income into a bare-bones health plan and a small apartment ($150 and $300, respectively, out-of-pocket). There aren't any good-paying jobs out there, so I hope you didn't bother going to college, because another $300 a month in students loans would really put a dent in there. Also, I'm pretty sure you're taking the bus to work, since even if you managed a small car payment, you couldn't pay insurance. It just seems our elected politicians are entirely out of touch with reality.
Higher education. I have someone on my staff I was going to give more hours and perhaps start developing toward a management position. But I wound up having to cut his hours because he went back to school. He went back to school because his student loans were called in and, though we're paying him more than minimum wage, he can't come close to making payments, and going back to school – and getting deeper in debt in the process – was the only way to put off paying those loans. Yeah, what a crappy system.
The environment. Go ahead, tell me climate change doesn't exist. These freak storms that we're getting every couple of years are just that – freak occurrences. Except that they're happening regularly. We just had this storm come up the east coast that was 1,000 miles across. A thousand miles! And it was colliding with this giant snowstorm that came in from across the country. Have you had a headache or vertigo the past couple of days that seemed unusually strong? Yeah, that's the lowest barometric pressure that's ever been recorded getting to you. I'm sure our consumption has nothing to do with this.</sarcasm>
I left the Commonwealth during Mitt Romney's years as governor of Massachusetts. He didn't do anything for the Bay State. In fact, the most notable thing he did accomplish was to pass an unfunded mandatory health care law like the one President Obama passed that Romney is fond of claiming he'll repeal (you know, because presidents can repeal stuff – has he even read the Constitution?).
And I've had high hopes since Obama took office. I loved his speech at the 2004 Convention, and I was surprised to see him running in 2008 (I thought Hillary Clinton was going to be the obvious choice for a couple of election cycles and Obama would be the Democratic candidate of choice in 2016). Still, I was optimistic, and, in general, I've been unimpressed. Yes, Obama's done some important things, but every president does.
I don't like my relationship with my government more than I did four years ago, and really, that's what we're asking. "Are you better off now than you were four years ago?" is always the wrong question, because over the course of four years, most of what happens to us is our own doing, for the most part.
I'll be casting my vote for Jill Stein. It's an easy decision for me; if I accept that we're a de facto two-party system and either Romney or Obama will be sworn in January 20, 2013, and I accept that, for me, Obama is the lesser of the two evils, New York is safely an Obama state. Look at Stein's issues page. It speaks to me. It's by and large stuff I agree with. As I said, voting for Stein is an easy decision for me.
Not such an easy decision for me is the one to vote for Ursula Rozum. I definitely align with her on the issues, and I've seen Rozum out in the community – my community – talking to groups I'm part of, engaging young voters and organizing for some important issues. And she's aggressively outspoken, which I think is important.
It's a difficult decision for me because I know the major-party race is going to be close. Ann Marie Buerkle, the incumbent Republican, has not spoken for me over the past two years. Not by a long shot. Her website doesn't allow donations under $15, and says so up front. Civil liberties and education aren't on her issues list. On the other hand, the Democratic challenger, Dan Maffei, surprised me by aggressively pursuing legislation and generally sounding smart during his term in Congress.
I say Maffei surprised me because I'd met him a few times before his run. I used to work for syracuse.com, a news website. Each time I met him at a party or other function and he discovered who my employer was, he'd immediately ask the host for a non-alcoholic beverage (seriously? The current president brews beer in the White House) and would go find someone else to talk to. Meanwhile, I'd bump into his then-fiance, Abby, at all kinds of volunteer events. She'd be real easy to vote for, but I just can't bring myself to vote for him. I mean, look at what he says about education. It says, "someone should make this better," not "I'm going to make this better, and here's how."
In a close race, that might mean two more years of Buerkle, but I'm getting tired of voting for the lesser of the two evils. America was built by idealists, and I'm an idealist, so I'm voting my heart.
Pay attention to what Clay Shirky says here, because it's important.
The commercial Internet is approaching 20 years of age. From an availability standpoint, it's a mature medium – there are few places in the world you can't access the Internet, and in the developed world, it is readily available to a large percentage of the population either in their homes, at work or in libraries or other places of public accommodation.
From a standpoint of what we're going to do with it, we're not even close.
Shirky points out that the printing press was invented in 1454; we know of erotic novels dating to 1499 but not scientific journals until the 1660s. So, LOLcats might be everywhere on the Internet in various forms right now, but give it time.
Mitch Joel recently likened Shirky to Marshall McLuhan, a comparison I've grown more comfortable with since I first read it a week ago. And if you can understand what that means, you can understand why Shirky's projections on the Internet's future are important.
Here in the U.S., we're in presidential election season. One of the toughest things for me in this season is our de facto two-party system. Anybody meeting a short list of qualifications (35 years old, natural born U.S. citizen) is allowed to run for president, but it's always a two-person race.
This means that typically, we're voting for the person whose policies we dislike least (or, in very bad years, the person we dislike least).
The continuing maturity of the Internet has opened up a more transparent government. We know more about who has done and said what, what our laws are, what legislation is coming up for votes and who is throwing stupid amendments on what.
What the Internet hasn't yet done for us is create a more participatory government. Participation starts and ends with voting for the average citizen. While the occasional letter to a legislator may or may not change someone's mind on an issue, but it doesn't directly contribute to government. Shirky explains how people are using GitHub for open organizational flow.
I'm breaking from my publishing schedule to make sure you read this. Because it's fucking great.
Baltimore Ravens linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo has come out in favor of a Maryland bill that would allow marriage equality in the state. Fair enough. Maryland legislator Emmett Burns sent a letter to Ayanbadejo's boss – the owner of the team – saying that maybe he should tell his employee to shut his mouth and just play football.
That prompted a response from Minnesota Vikings punter Chris Kluwe that begins by reminding Burns that freedom of speech exists and as such Ayanbadejo can support whatever bill he wants to support, and then goes on to light into the legislator:
why do you hate freedom? Why do you hate the fact that other people want a chance to live their lives and be happy, even though they may believe in something different than you, or act different than you? How does gay marriage, in any way shape or form, affect your life? If gay marriage becomes legal, are you worried that all of a sudden you'll start thinking about penis? "Oh shit. Gay marriage just passed. Gotta get me some of that hot dong action!" Will all of your friends suddenly turn gay and refuse to come to your Sunday Ticket grill-outs? (Unlikely, since gay people enjoy watching football too.)
I can assure you that gay people getting married will have zero effect on your life. They won't come into your house and steal your children. They won't magically turn you into a lustful cockmonster. They won't even overthrow the government in an orgy of hedonistic debauchery because all of a sudden they have the same legal rights as the other 90 percent of our population—rights like Social Security benefits, child care tax credits, Family and Medical Leave to take care of loved ones, and COBRA healthcare for spouses and children. You know what having these rights will make gays? Full-fledged American citizens just like everyone else, with the freedom to pursue happiness and all that entails. Do the civil-rights struggles of the past 200 years mean absolutely nothing to you?
As we head toward U.S. elections this fall, remember a few things:
• Language is important. It's how we write laws, so it's also how we enforce and interpret those laws. How lawmakers (or potential lawmakers) say things does mean something.
• Don't vote on a single issue. You could get your way and lose all your other rights in the process.
• Policy should be written for the future of the nation, and for the U.S.'s role in the world going forward, not for what your bank account is going to look like in the next reelection year.
• Parties don't mean anything. There are idiots on both sides of the aisle. There are people fighting for great causes on both sides of the aisle.
• Two parties are not enough. We do not all neatly fit into column A or column B on every issue. Neither should the people who represent us.
• What will you have to explain to your kids? If an inquisitive six-year-old were to ask you why something exists, what would you say? Income disparity, drug abuse, unemployment, health care gaps and more are very real things; how would you explain to a child why Jimmy can get a cast for his broken leg but Johnny has to limp around for the rest of his life? And why is that man crying? How will your choices at the poll affect your answers?
• There's no such thing as a "side issue." While we all have our priorities, government is not going to tackle one issue over two, or four, or six years. Government still has to handle everything we have going on, however they're going to handle it.
When you're going to the polls, don't look for the D or the R or the (i). Do your research on the people running. It's important.
I made a mention of Buy Nothing Day in a tweet – for the uninitiated, that's today in the U.S. and tomorrow in the rest of the world. In the U.S., it is "celebrated" (such as it is), alongside Black Friday, the first "official" shopping day of the Christmas season.
When the person to whom the initial tweet was directed learned what Buy Nothing Day was, she said, "People come up with the stupidest things." And all I could think was, "Yeah, like lining up at 3 a.m. to buy crap they don't need and that their kids will stop playing with by February." I didn't say it, because frankly, I'm not anti-consumerist, and really my problem with Black Friday is that few things make me as uncomfortable as giant signs and throngs of people fighting over the last t-shirt or toy. My day after Thanksgiving is usually spent emptying the dishwasher's fifth load, hanging with the family, and avoiding the mall, though buying a meal or coffee or admission ticket isn't out of the question.
There's moderation in everything, isn't there? People who aren't doing the buy everything thing and who aren't doing the buy nothing thing?
It's the same dichotomy issue we're having with our (de facto) two-party system in the U.S. In 2004, Republicans won the White House and both houses of Congress. And so they spent two years making the moderate middle angry, and in 2006 Democrats took over Congress, and with a Republican in the White House, nothing got done. That changed in 2008 when a Democrat took the White House, and then earlier this month, after two years of making the moderate middle angry, Democrats lost control of the House and now nobody's talking compromise.
The past six years of U.S. politics are a tighter cycle than we're used to, but it's a cycle that we are, in fact, used to. And it's going to lead to a long cycle of government accomplishing something that annoys just over half the country for two years, then nothing for two years, then annoying just over half the country (with a different outlier composition) for two years, then nothing for another two years.
No one ever has to build a coalition. And no one gets to claim success for more than two years at a time.
Dichotomy is not the way things get done. Humans are not an either-or species; there are shades of gray, and worse (or better), we change our thinking. Unfortunately, it's easiest to express, in language, everything in an either-or fashion.
Democrat or Republican. Black Friday or Buy Nothing Day. No carbs or no meat. Writing for search engines or for humans. Paper or plastic.
When we think outside of language, we'll think outside of dichotomy. And that's when progress happens.
When I was at Syracuse University, one of the things I did was to help put together a conference for the Center for Digital Literacy focusing on Democracy and the Internet.
It was summer 2004, and Howard Dean was making waves in the online fundraising and organizing world, thanks in large part to Meetup. We had one of Meetup's co-founders; Joe Trippi, a top Democratic strategist; and a bunch of other great speakers.
Among the co-coordinators of the conference were the authors of Click on Democracy. One of those authors, Grant Reeher, has recently launched a new public affairs blog, Reeher Window.
Grant is open to guest posts and suggestions, so please go over there and be active.
Incidentally, he's also hosting The Campbell Conversations on WRVO each week; he's done everything from interviews with local politicians and political candidates to having a really interesting discussion with Lakshmi Singh, who is the mid-day newscaster for NPR.