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Ok, GOP, Let’s Talk About Compromise November 3, 2010

Posted by Jamie Friedland in Congress, Election, Politics.
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I made the mistake of turning on the TV this morning.  Ms. Generic Correspondent was interviewing triumphant supporters from John Boehner’s district in Ohio about what their win means for America.  What I heard floored me.  This was live and I was too stunned to think to record it, so I’m paraphrasing:

OHIO RESIDENT:  “For the last 2 years, it’s been Obama’s way or the highway.  Finally we’ll get some compromise in this country.”

REPORTER: “You really think this election will result in more compromise?”

OHIO RESIDENT: “Yup.  That’s what this election said to Congress.  It’s time for Democrats to actually work with Republicans now.”

For starters, we really need to set the record straight on the alleged liberalism of Obama’s first two years.  He embraced tax cuts and offshore drilling and punted on much of the liberal agenda.  There’s a reason the base didn’t come out to support Democrats yesterday, and it’s not because we went too far.  More on this later.

Back to Boehner’s band of merry [white] men, this was not an isolated incident.  Most of the guys that were interviewed in this segment spoke about compromise.  What’s wrong with a conciliatory post-victory tone?  It’s a disingenuous 180-degree reversal.  Sure, one district’s Kool-Aid could go bad, but Boehner’s?  That’s bizarre.

Just last week, in Boehner’s own words:

“Now is not a time for compromise, and I can tell you we will not compromise on our principles.”

And you want to tell Democrats about misinterpreting a mandate?  Please.

I know conservative activists only listen to their Fox News echo chamber, but surely they must at least listen to their candidate when he’s on Fox News! Especially when that man is now a glowing beacon in the House of Representatives, piercing the darkness to guide them through.… ok, I don’t have an end to this metaphor – the man is orange.

The point is, the next two years will be nothing but gridlock.  Congressional Republicans have come right out and said that their single highest legislative priority is making sure Obama doesn’t get reelected.

That means the only “compromise” they will propose or accept is the kind that makes Obama less appealing to his base.  They will advance nothing that doesn’t detract from Obama’s re-electability.  House Republicanswill reach across the aisle, but they will extend a sword, not their empty hands; they will allow Obama to move forward only by pulling himself up their blade towards the hilt.

With this strategy in place, let me assure you, compromise is dead.  Conservatives hijacked the contemporary narrative, but in retrospect we will see that Obama briefly attempted centrist bipartisanship – and it failed.  Liberals were unsatisfied and conservatives either feigned or successfully deluded themselves into their trusty partisan outrage.

Obama’s attempt at compromise was unilateral disarmament, and the GOP hit with everything it had the moment he let down his shield.  Clearly, that was good short-term electoral strategy.  Obama had hoped that Americans would appreciate this effort to transcend partisan politics.  That did not happen.

So yesterday, the GOP won big.  But conservatives, don’t you dare for a second claim to have the moral high ground and make false overtures of cooperation.  That’s not what’s going to happen and it’s not even what you want.  You wanted gridlock and now you’ve got it.  Congratulations.

Now own it.  Or as your mercifully endangered Mama Grizzlies would say, “Man Up.”

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FL-Sen: Steele Queues Race Card for RNC Re-Elect Bid November 3, 2010

Posted by Jamie Friedland in Congress, Election, Politics.
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On today’s menu for political scandal du jour is a report that Bill Clinton tried to encourage Kendrick Meek, the Democratic senate candidate in Florida, to drop out of the race in favor of independent candidate Charlie Crist.  At the moment, Kendrick is trailing in very distant 3rd place, splitting the Democratic-leaning vote with Crist and ensuring a Republican victory next week.

As often happens when such situations arise, a trusted party figure tried to get the trailing candidate to step down for the good of the party.  It’s pretty simple.  However, Kendrick Meek is an African American.

Predictably, Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele had this to say:

“One can only imagine the response if Republican leadership tried to force out of the race…a qualified black candidate”.

As luck would have it, this probably won’t be a hypothetical for long.  It does not stretch the imagination to predict that the GOP will soon attempt to ouster its own prominent black politician: RNC Chairman Michael Steele (admittedly, this is not a perfect fulfillment of Steele’s scenario – I said it 19 months ago and I maintain today that Steele has proven himself far from qualified).

This month, when one would expect the RNC Chairman to be focused on the upcoming midterm elections, Steele has instead visited and donated money to Republican leaders in Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Obviously, there are not any important Congressional races in these territories.  However, party members from these islands do vote to select the committee chairman.  Steele is clearly planning a reelection bid for RNC Chairman; there is no other explanation for his selfish beach getaways at the height of election season.

I’m just going to come out and say it: Steele has done an atrocious job as RNC Chairman.  I would happily work for his reelect campaign after I’m done helping out at Organizing For America for the midterms.  I’d cite links about his poor performance, but it’s everywhere: very public gaffes, terrible fundraising, party infighting…Steele’s mismanagement is one of the few things breaking for Democrats in this election cycle.

Many GOP leaders are rightly fed up with Steele.  Suffice it to say they would not be enthusiastic about continuing his control of the RNC.  So when Steele injects race into this textbook political situation in Florida, it reads like more than just a leader of the party of angry white men jumping at the opportunity to call Democrats racist.

Michael Steele is queuing up the Race Card to play when his RNC reelection bid encounters its inevitable resistance.  Instead of seeing calls for his replacement as what they are – an attempt to remove a horrendous politician from power – Steele will undoubtedly accuse his detractors of racism.  Republicans don’t get to do that a lot, so Steele is apparently warming up so that he doesn’t hurt himself when he plays the Card.

Tangentially related: Democrats/anyone who cares at all about the environment – if you haven’t already, go vote early! Volunteer if you can.  If you’re in the DC area, get on a free bus with us to a nearby battleground state to help Get Out The Vote!

What the Primary Elections Mean for the Environment September 16, 2010

Posted by Jamie Friedland in Climate Change, Congress, Election, Politics.
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Check out my first post at Change.org on what the primary elections mean for the environment:

Despite a Democratic supermajority and a successful bill in the House of Representatives, this summer witnessed another climate failure in the Senate. Unfortunately, the situation is not improving. In our warming world, the term “glacial pace” is now a completely appropriate description for climate policy progress: Decades of frustratingly slow advance are now reversing into a rapid retreat.

Mike Castle is not the first moderate conservative to fall to an extremist challenger sure to be a solid ‘no’ for environmental protection. Last month, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) lost her primary to another climate-denying Tea Partier, Joe Miller.  It is sadly telling that even lame duck Murkowski—who is already back in Washington trying to gut EPA’s authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions—is being mourned in some pragmatic environmental circles. Her bid to block EPA essentially involves replacing uncontroversial climate science with partisan political science—and she lost her primary for being too moderate?

As of now, I’ll be posting at Change.org on a weekly basis.

The Political Climate is now on Twitter!  Follow @PoliticalClimat for updates as well as daily tweets linking to important and under-reported environmental news.

Another Day on the Campaign Trail: GOP Lies = News August 17, 2010

Posted by Jamie Friedland in Climate Change, Congress, Election, Media, Politics.
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On Monday, a GOP senate candidate in Wisconsin made the following statement:

I absolutely do not believe in the science of man-caused climate change.  It’s not proven by any stretch of the imagination.” –Ron Johnson, six-figure BP stockholder and oil spill apologist.

This “forgotten Tea Party candidate” went on to expound his misguided opinion in detail. He said some other stupid things, but I think my favorite was that a strong economy would keep the environment clean.  Isn’t that cute?

It always angers me to see such baseless denial, especially when excreted by a man who would seek to become among the most powerful decision-makers in our country.  But what really set me off was how this story was covered.

The national press will do what they always do, so for Congressional races, I prefer to take a look at how these stories are covered locally in order to better gauge what effect they will have on the people who can actually vote.  The Milwaukee-Wisconsin Journal Sentinel has more than twice as many readers as the next biggest newspaper in Wisconsin.

This is the article they ran by Steve Schultze.  Suffice it to say that it did not calm me down.

In the ~800 word piece, the word “said” appears 25 times and makes up 3% of all the words used.  This “article” isn’t journalism, it’s stenography.  Worse, in letting Ron Johnson dictate to the newspaper, this reporter just spread blatant misinformation.

Yes, I know this guy was reporting an interview.  I am aware that Mr. Johnson is entitled to his opinion, even if it’s wrong, and that a reporter’s job is, in this case, to present that opinion to the electorate.  But journalists are supposed to pursue the truth, not just balance.

Let me offer a more specific example from the interview.  Johnson is 100% sure that humans aren’t warming the planet.  So how does he explain the rising temperatures?

“It’s far more likely that it’s just sunspot activity,” he says.

That’s Johnson’s opinion, that’s what Schultze reported.  Why is that poor journalism?  Because it is demonstrably false.

Solar output does vary, and that radiated energy does exert some influence on our climate systems.  So at first blush, sunspots do appear to be a valid hypothesis for global warming.  …That is, until you take even a glance at solar output data and discover that we are in a drastic solar minimum; the sun is currently cooler than it’s been in over a century.

Since 1975 the sun has been cooling while our planet warmed. That’s not how cause and effect work. Click for full size | Image credit: SkepticalScience.com

Fact: the sun is not causing our current climate change.  If anything, decreased solar output is masking what would otherwise be even more extreme warming!

After reading Schultze’s article, Wisconsinites know that Ron Johnson thinks the sun is causing global warming.  Don’t the voters deserve to know that he is unquestionably wrong?  Wouldn’t that help them make a more informed decision?  I think so.

In the hallowed name of fairness and balance, Mr. Schultze did offer a counterpoint to Johnson’s falsities:

[Democratic Sen. Russ] Feingold has taken a completely opposite position on global warming, saying that “most people think man had some role in it.”

And that was that.  A difference of opinion, nothing more.

In political news coverage, media outlets strive to maintain objectivity by offering both candidates equal coverage, without appearing to favor one or the other.  That 50-50 coverage, presenting both sides of the story in a “we report, you decide” paradigm, accomplishes objectivity when covering differences of opinion.

However, when the media provide 50-50 coverage to a situation where one party is clearly lying or wrong, that attempt at objectivity becomes what is called the “bias of balance,” about which I have blogged extensively and wrote my honors thesis.

This problem pollutes the debate about every major issue our country faces today.  Gutless, “balanced” media coverage enables conservative demagogues to successfully manipulate public opinion against effective and desperately needed legislative reforms.  And the situation is not improving.

Everyday, critical policy considerations are buried further and further beneath piles of manufactured yet diligently transcribed political drama.  THAT is why I am among the majority of people who think this country is on the wrong track.

And no, Mainstream Media, that is NOT bad news for Democrats – it’s bad news for America.  And it is in no small part your fault.

Case in point a la Jon Stewart and the NYC mosque ridiculousness (as usual, worth watching in its entirety, but most directly relevant starting at 4:00).

For Sale: The Fourth Estate April 15, 2010

Posted by Jamie Friedland in Congress, Election, Media, Politics.
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In a classroom, if you present an argument, it is expected to be logically sound.  If it’s not, you can expect to be called out for that.  As a [relatively] recent college graduate, it has been disheartening to discover that those expectations do not extend to important places off-campus.  Like our government.

I now live in Washington, DC, the front-line of a polarized America.  And from the floor of the Senate to the op-ed page of the Washington Post, I am disgusted by the deliberate mistruths and toxicity that have polluted the national dialogue. Name your issue, they’re there.

I have taken to watching Fox News at the gym; say what you will about Glenn Beck, but I have yet to find anything that keeps me as fired up – provided I can overcome the urge to assure passersby that I am not a Tea Partier.  But if you actually watch the programs, it becomes clear that these talk shows are a cleverly wielded and dangerously effective political tool.

Listening makes me want to run harder. Looking makes me want to keep running.

It is true that MSNBC runs similarly structured programming and is guilty of some of the same partisan tactics.  Both “news” organizations should clean up their acts.  But MSNBC does not operate with Fox’s defiant shamelessness, and ideological opposition does not automatically confer equivalency.

Many people I’ve talked to argue that Fox News is irrelevant because it yells into its own echo chamber and thus does not affect moderate, independent or undecided voters anyways.  But even if I were to concede that premise, in the media’s current state, I have to disagree with the conclusion.

Last year, I lamented Fox’s apparent victory as the mainstream media embraced “balance” as their primary value, unseating objective accuracy.  Consider a linear spectrum from liberal to conservative.  As long as balance trumps accuracy, whenever conservatives dive to the right, no matter how outrageous the claim, media outlets must move at least half as far in that direction to stay in the center.  That taints everybody’s news.

Instead of trying to perfectly straddle that mobile center, media outlets have increasingly drawn upon punditry; pair each comment from the left with a comment from the right and you have ostensibly achieved balance – at the expense of the truth.  Case-in-point: CNN’s recent hiring of the despicable, foul-mouthed conservative blogger Erick Erickson.

If the news is just a soapbox for politicos and outlets are afraid to call out disprovable lies, the system has collapsed.

When the now infamous Rep. Joe Wilson (R-SC) interrupted President Obama, he didn’t yell, “I have statistical data that casts your theory into doubt!”  A baseless claim, “you lie!” now suffices as a political riposte.  And the solution to this behavior is not an equally extreme liberal demagogue like Rep. Alan Grayson (D-FL).  Just tell the truth!

The nastiness of our political discourse is unprecedented, but not inexplicable.  Our two-party system has had this all-out combative capability since Jefferson and Adams.  It has just been held in check by the media…until now.

With its financial survival threatened, American journalism has sold out and compromised its ideals.  Accusations of media partisanship have begun to stick partly because they’ve begun to be true.  And with its objectivity in question, one of our government’s most important safeguards has failed: the loss of accountability is to blame for our current political climate.

Politicians used to be restrained by unbiased fact-checking and investigative journalism.  Trusted, objective news coverage once held extreme rhetoric in check.  Today, American news outlets are either perversely partisan or utterly defanged.  And when the referees are biased or silent, the game quickly turns violent.

Knowing what we’ve lost is the first step towards replacing it.  But I’m not sure how to take the second.  Journalism didn’t fall from grace because it grew tired of protecting of our democracy, it succumbed to increasing financial pressure and failed to adapt.

There is money to be made in opinion journalism because we, the public, are demanding it.  So we must instead demand that news sources provide news, not spin or the political talking points du jour.  If that means stop watching MSNBC and Fox News, we must do that too – I once managed to motivate myself without staring at Glenn Beck’s curvaceous bod, I can do it again.

Fox News created the tea party movement. That isn't news reporting, it's news-making. That is not what media outlets do.

Even if we cannot sway the national media, we are not powerless to turn back this ugly tide.  We can’t pick the refs, but we can pick the players.

Believe it or not, it’s already another election year.  Many primaries are just next month, and in November many of us will be able to elect a new U.S. Senator and Representative.

So let me be the first this year to say, “please vote.”   As an official DC resident, I essentially no longer can.  It’s one of the many things I miss that I was able to do in college.

A version of this post appeared in The Chronicle at Duke University.

Separation of Church and School February 22, 2010

Posted by Jamie Friedland in Election, Politics.
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***Much of this post is incited and informed by Russell Shorto’s excellent NYT Magazine article, “How Christian Were the Founders?”  It is long, but well worth the read.***

There are times when we are reminded that even a single, small election can matter.  No, this isn’t about Scott Brown.  I am speaking of the Texas State Board of Education (SBOE).  How many of you vote in your state’s BOE elections?  Do you even remember?  If it wasn’t on the straight party ticket I certainly didn’t.  But these elections can have sweeping consequences, especially in Texas.

I have written previously of Don McLeroy, the dentist on the Texas SBOE who last year decided he was more qualified to determine the science curriculum than the National Academy of Sciences.  Specifically about creationism.  Each year, the Texas SBOE reviews and rewrites that state’s public school curriculum standards for one subject, and this year is History.

Before we move any further, it is important to highlight the significance of these decisions and the broader implications of the public school curriculum in Texas.  With 4.7 million public school students, Texas is the second largest domestic market for textbooks.  Because the largest, California, is so specific, Texas essentially determines what is or isn’t included in textbooks for the rest of the country.  While publishers offer the decidedly weak defense that “It’s not a given that Texas’ curriculum translates into other states,” Professor James Kracht of Texas A&M, who has long been involved in the state’s textbook process, explains that “Texas governs 46 or 47 states.”  So a perversion of Texas’ curriculum is a national problem.

This situation is not lost on the members of the Texas SBOE.  In fact, for many, it’s the entire reason they’re there.  7 of the 15 members operate openly as a Christian conservative voting bloc and are quite frank about their objectives.  This causes some tension with the rational world.

Mr. Shorto offers samples of this year’s controversies:

“McLeroy moved that Margaret Sanger, the birth-control pioneer, be included because she “and her followers promoted eugenics,” that language be inserted about Ronald Reagan’s “leadership in restoring national confidence” following Jimmy Carter’s presidency and that students be instructed to “describe the causes and key organizations and individuals of the conservative resurgence of the 1980s and 1990s, including Phyllis Schlafly, the Contract With America, the Heritage Foundation, the Moral Majority and the National Rifle Association.” The injection of partisan politics into education went so far that at one point another Republican board member burst out in seemingly embarrassed exasperation, “Guys, you’re rewriting history now!” Nevertheless, most of McLeroy’s proposed amendments passed by a show of hands.”

and

“The board considered an amendment to require students to evaluate the contributions of significant Americans. The names proposed included Thurgood Marshall, Billy Graham, Newt Gingrich, William F. Buckley Jr., Hillary Rodham Clinton and Edward Kennedy. All passed muster except Kennedy, who was voted down.”

Many of you may remember the beloved children’s book “Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?”  Its author, Bill Martin Jr., was recently removed from the Texas 3rd grade social studies curriculum on account of un-American “critiques of capitalism and the American system.”  The board members were concerned about a 2008 book entitled “Ethical Marxism” written by Bill Martin.  A different Bill Martin. By the time their mistake was pointed out, the board members had already struck Bill Martin Jr. from the curriculum.  This is a benign example of what happens when non-expert ideologues are allowed to decide what our kids should and shouldn’t learn.

The latest victim of McCarthyism. In textbooks for children no less.

Don McLeroy has long led this misguided charge, but he is not at all alone.

Another board member, Cynthia Dunbar, works at the new law school at Jerry Falwell’s conservative Liberty University.  The school’s stated objective is “to transform legislatures, courts, commerce and civil government at all levels.”  As a law professor, she teaches her students legal techniques to overturn rulings against conservative objectives such as prayer in schools.  In her book “One Nation Under God,” Dunbar described her work on the SBOE as a “battle for our nation’s children and who will control their education and training” and described it as crucial to our [Christians’] success for reclaiming our nation.

With such strong beliefs about education, it is not surprising to find Dunbar on a SBOE; indeed, concerned parents have every right to voice concern about their children’s education and even to get involved if they so choose.  But Dunbar does not have children in the Texas public school system.  She wrote in her book about “the inappropriateness of a state-created, taxpayer-supported school system” and compared sending kids to public schools to “throwing them into the enemy’s flames, even as the children of Israel threw their children to Moloch.” All of her kids were home-schooled or attended private Christian schools.  She is on the SBOE purely to indoctrinate America’s youth.

Fortunately, these abuses have not gone unnoticed.  Campaigns are in full swing ahead of the March 3rd election for these important positions, and Don McLeroy and his social conservative bloc have serious challengers running against them.  But stakeholders on both sides of the aisle are mobilizing their supporters; conservatives only need to pick up one more reliable vote to gain complete control of the Board.  Conservatives are typically much more active in small mid-term elections (which is how we found ourselves in this predicament to begin with), but rational people are fed up with these 7 zealots in unfortunate positions of outsized power.  It is time to end this perversion of our nation’s public education, and on March 3rd, Texans will have their chance to do it.

I’m Back! | Are Campaigns Just Games? January 20, 2010

Posted by Jamie Friedland in Congress, Election, Media, Politics.
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I’m back.  I haven’t posted for a few months because I was working in a political internship where I was not allowed to blog.  That has ended, so I will be writing again.  Please read on:

Campaigning and governing are two very different things.  The obviousness of that statement is a serious problem.  Yesterday’s “surprising” special election in Massachusetts is a case study in why the separation between these two processes is detrimental to our country.

State Attorney General Martha Coakley was a terrible campaigner.  Gaffes drive election coverage, and her short campaign had media outlets drooling.  But is she any less fit to govern now than she was when she clinched the Democratic nomination?  No.

Massachusetts is fairly considered a Democratic state.  Currently, voters have elected Democrats into every state executive office, 89.5% of its state legislature and, until Senator-elect Scott Brown is sworn in, 100% of its congressional representatives.  It is safe to say that a majority of Bay Staters embraces the Democratic policy agenda.

Voters favor the Democratic Party in Massachusetts (click for larger)

The first poll after the primaries showed Coakley 15 points ahead of Brown.  Eleven days later, the final poll showed Coakley 9 points behind Brown.  Yesterday, she lost by 5 points. Polls are inaccurate, but during those two weeks a significant portion of voters changed their minds, either about the candidates or about their decision to vote.

In a democratic republic, citizens elect representatives to legislate on their behalf.  It is clearly within a person’s interest to vote for someone who shares his or her policy perspective.  So congressional elections should be about policy, the laws each candidate will support.  Unfortunately, campaigns have lost sight of this because we, the voters, have let them.  The media enable and cultivate this electoral perversion.

The Coakley-Brown campaign was largely devoid of policy.  Yes, Brown was going to (and now will) vote to block healthcare reform.  What will he do after that?  He ran a campaign ad featuring his truck.  Not one of Coakley’s “gaffes” was policy-related.  Some might point to her Afghanistan comment, but that was a defensible opinion.  All we heard about in the news was an admittedly egregious typo of her state’s name.  Not a word about what she would do as a senator.

We as a country neglect policy in campaigns.  Since 2004, it is political suicide to reverse a policy position, even in the face of new, better information; “flip-flopper” is a politician’s death knell.  Brown actually did successfully flip his stance on climate to pander to Tea Partiers, but that was before the primaries, and this election was not about climate change.  None of the drastic poll movement over the last two weeks can be attributed to policy positions because they didn’t change.  So what did?  And can it possibly be more important than policy?

“Reducing carbon dioxide emission in Massachusetts has long been a priority of mine” -Scott Brown in 2008, after voting for RGGI, the regional cap and trade system among Northeastern power plants.

“It’s interesting. I think the globe is always heating and cooling.  It’s a natural way of ebb and flow.”  – Scott Brown in 2010, pandering to the ignorance of the extreme right.

Campaigns have become a sport of their own.  Candidates are being evaluated on a scale separate from how well they would govern.  It’s like drafting a basketball player based not on his skill but rather on how many people would want to come to see him.  Sarah Palin comes to mind.  President Obama does too, but he can dribble and shoot.  Still, campaign prowess and governing ability are not inherently correlated, and we cannot continue conflating the two.

Scott Brown definitively won his campaign.  Or rather, Martha Coakley definitively lost hers.  But I challenge the notion that Senator Brown will represent the majority opinion of the state of Massachusetts.  And if that’s true, the system is flawed.

So what to do?  If most of the state’s registered voters had turned out last night, the state would be more accurately represented.  Perhaps voting should be mandatory, an official civic duty instead of a “freedom” to be celebrated and then apathetically shirked on election day.  A Massachusetts election official projected last night’s “explosive” turnout to be in the 40% range.

It is hypocritical for us to hold up our democracy as the model government while recording unremarkable if not weak voter turnout on an international scale (check out this website for some interesting international election statistics).  Yet unless people take much more time to educate themselves about the issues, mandatory voting would be no solution.   At least today’s voters care, even if some opinions are based on the distortions of demagogues.

If elections are truly about selecting the best people to govern, I propose we completely remove the pageantry from the campaign process.  Congressional representatives, unlike presidents, have essentially one task: creating legislation.  So we should vote for person who will enact the policies we support most.

Therefore, let every candidate write down his or her ideal prescriptions for each major policy area.  Compare and contrast the answers.  Publish and widely circulate that document.  Then let us choose the best person for the job.  Who cares what kind of car they drive?  What does it matter which sports teams they support?  These are unnecessary distractions.  Let the media provide the electorate with enough information to pick an effective legislator and then go report real current events.  Surely there’s a little boy in a balloon somewhere.

We should vote for the right reasons.  And we should all vote.

The Spam We Need February 10, 2009

Posted by Jamie Friedland in Congress, Election.
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For at least the next two years, the impotent Republican minority in the House of Representatives will produce nothing but drama and headlines.  And the theme of this show will be partisanship.  President Obama promised us a new era of bipartisanship, so whenever he supports a Democratic policy, Republicans are crying foul.  Disregarding the fact that liberals got “partisan-ed” pretty hard during Bush II years, let’s examine what bipartisanship really means today.

First, “partisan” does not deserve such a negative connotation; it describes how our legislature functions.  Two parties with widely differing ideologies will obviously support the solutions they believe will work, as they have for centuries.

When Obama won, the phrase ‘mandate for change’ surfaced – the sense that a clear majority of Americans trusted that this Democratic president had a better platform to fix our country.  For Obama to now embrace Republican plans for a stimulus package (mainly tax breaks) would violate the trust of every person who voted for him.  Americans elected Democrats into the White House and clear majorities in the House and the Senate.  This is not a product of random chance.

2008 election results with states scaled by population.  See all the blue?

2008 election results with states scaled by population. See all the blue?

Worthy or not, Republicans successfully cast themselves as the party of “tax breaks.”  And if that is your single, shortsighted priority for our government, it seems clear you should vote Republican.  But in November, America did not.  So last month, when Obama was asked why there weren’t more Republican ideas in his stimulus plan and he replied “I won,” his response was not only delightfully honest but informative.

Bipartisanship means understanding, respecting, and listening to the opposition.  Obama is doing that.  Sometimes it means making compromises too, but not on everything.  I’m no economist, so let’s try this from a civics perspective: in a democratic republic, citizens vote for the people they think will choose what is best for their country.  Because Republican policies and leadership failed us so spectacularly during the last eight years, we voted them out of power.  We already tried pure tax breaks – they didn’t work. And there’s a reason Albert Einstein defined insanity as “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”  So maybe this time our government should actually govern?

But no, Republicans want to give tax breaks another whirl.  All 188 of them in the House voted against the stimulus bill (which still passed easily).  But they are quite proud of their completely ineffective yet unanimous opposition.  They even view it as a victory because Obama spent time meeting with them.  Rep. Zach Wamp (R-Tenn.) explained, “if he comes and meets with us like that and it doesn’t have an impact, it begins to hurt his credibility.”  …Or alternatively, one could interpret that to mean that Republicans are equally unwilling to compromise on their core beliefs and voted with their party.  What’s that called again?  Oh yeah, “partisan.”  Bipartisanship is a two-way street, not the unilateral acquiescence of a ruling majority.

While Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) proposes a $3.1 trillion tax break “stimulus” alternative, his fellow Republicans oppose the current $838 billion plan as wastefully large.  Highlighting minor expenditures (like the efficiency measures I last wrote about), they’ve framed the bill as a giant helping of congressional pork.  But this label doesn’t quite fit.

Legislative “pork” is normally funding for projects that benefit only a small constituency, frequently within a single congressperson’s district.  Most of the “controversial” stimulus expenditures fund broader objectives, such as anti-smoking campaigns.  These seem more like “riders,” unrelated and often contentious provisions attached to a larger, important bill that is likely to pass.  But this comparison doesn’t work either, because these expenditures themselves are the bill.  That would make the stimulus package some kind of conglomeration of self-propelling riders, or maybe “meta-pork,” but that’s a little confusing.

Given the difficulty of classifying this project and our penchant for labeling legislation as meat, I propose that this bill is most like spam: nobody really knows quite what it is, it’s probably a lot of different things mashed together, and whatever it is, it’s going to be around for a while.  It’s not your first choice, but you’d certainly eat it if you were starving.

Looks...yummy, doesn't it?

...yum.

This stimulus spam is not perfect, but our economy is famished.  Barring a government-wide “kumbaya” moment, continued debate will accomplish little.  I concede that some of the proposed expenditures would not provide short-term economic stimulus and perhaps should be removed, but the Democratic agenda has long been stifled and a crisis is indeed a terrible thing to waste.  And it’s worth mentioning that many of the “jobless” investments, like the anti-smoking campaign or computerizing medical records, would surely save money in the long run.

Regardless, the performance of our economy during this administration will be attributed to, or blamed on, Democrats; if we’re shouldering all the risk, we might as well do this our way (if we can get the votes in the Senate).  Claims of partisanship are the crutch of an intellectually bankrupt Republican party that has nothing new to offer.

Last week, Sen. John McCain sent an email to his supporters with an anti-stimulus petition.  He wrote, “With so much at stake, the last thing we need is partisanship driving our attempts to turn the economy around.”  But is partisanship really worse than a prolonged, deeper recession?  I don’t think so.

A version of this post ran in The Chronicle at Duke University.

A Chilling Experience January 13, 2009

Posted by Jamie Friedland in Climate Change, Election, Politics.
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My family does not take normal vacations.  Many people head home for the holidays, go skiing or perhaps seek warmer weather on a beach somewhere.  I spent much of my winter break aboard a small ship called the National Geographic Endeavour exploring Antarctica.  Yes, it was cold, but at the time it was actually warmer there than at home thanks to the Southern hemisphere summer and an impressive winter storm here in the U.S.  Apparently if you’re from Chicago, flying south for the winter works no matter how far you go.

Christmas Day found us returning to Argentina via the Drake Passage, home of some of the world’s most violent nautical conditions.  We had relatively mild crossings-strong but favorable winds and mere 20-foot seas, but even these were sufficient to put most people in bed (or the bathroom) with a seasickness that trumped preventative medication.  And we were lucky.

Storms in the Drake are frequent and powerful, capable of generating sustained swells of 60 feet and rogue waves much larger.  In 2001, the Endeavour herself was struck by a wave over 100 feet tall and had to be escorted back into port by the Chilean navy.  The two-day trip through the Drake each way is the supplemental price to visit the White Continent.

The Drake can be rough, but Antarctica is beautiful.

As one might expect, the group of people who opt for such adventures is largely self-selecting: suffice it to say that politics were a safe topic for conversation.  Although I did befriend a future petroleum engineer from the University of Texas who was quite cavalier with his indifference towards climate change, even he voted for Obama.  And he was certainly an outlier.

The passengers on board were generally well educated and environmentally aware.  The extreme to this side of spectrum was the president of Conservation International, traveling with his family.  His wife founded and directs the International League of Conservation Photographers, a group of conservation photographers who use images to raise awareness about underreported environmental crises.  Once we’d entered the calmer waters past Cape Horn, she showed one of their presentations about climate change.

After the video, another woman approached her and asked a question to the effect of, “Are people really causing global warming?  I’ve heard that it’s natural.”  Apparently disbelief was visible on my face, because I found myself sharing a silent moment of frustration with an MIT professor who had also overheard the query.

Statistically, this misinformed woman is not unusual.  While a majority of Americans now accept that climate change is occurring, a May 2008 Pew poll found that only 47% of Americans correctly attribute some of this warming to human causes.  Responses were highly correlated with political party affiliation: broken down, that 47% included 58% of Democrats and just 27% of Republicans polled.  It should not be surprising to hear, then, that the domestic political debate on climate change is in a word disgraceful and pollutes discussion about every facet of the issue.

The concept of anthropogenic (human-caused) climate change via fossil fuel emissions was first theorized as early as 1896 by the Swedish physicist Svante Arrhenius.  It has been recognized as a major problem for decades.  The question of whether it is happening should be (and really is) long settled, but  America stubbornly rejects this reality. And despite some obstructive political postures abroad, no other country can claim to foment such indefensible, inertial denial as ours.  At least the international conversation has advanced some during the last 113 years.

Last month, representatives from about 190 countries convened at the United Nations climate negotiations in Poznan, Poland, to discuss climate change.  Brazil and Mexico chose this forum to announce concrete plans to reduce their national emissions.  South Africa and South Korea released their own plans just this summer, joining the larger standing commitment of the European Union.  Despite some shortcomings, the Poznan convention set the stage for a meeting next December in Copenhagen, at which the group hopes to formulate a successor to the Kyoto Protocol, which expires in 2012.

Yet for all the climate progress around the world, enthusiasm is often short-lived.  Personally, interactions like that I overheard aboard the Endeavour always temper what optimism I may have had.  America will not act on global warming if its citizens (and politicians) don’t understand the basic facts about fossil fuels and the greenhouse effect; people will not tolerate emissions reductions if they don’t think greenhouse gases cause climate change or that it’s not a problem.  And even on a holiday cruise in the Southern Ocean, which ought to be a hotbed of-to borrow an ultraconservative term-“enviro-facism,” I discovered a woman who does not understand that people are causing global warming.

In the coming months, I plan to examine the causes and consequences of a misinformed American public, as they will certainly continue to frame political and environmental events both in the US and around the world. Only with broad public support can we enact policy strong enough to avert whatever future climate effects may otherwise manifest themselves.  I hope to be wrong, but I don’t think America today is ready to embrace the changes we really need.

So we have some work to do.  And one week from today, we will finally have a president who understands this.

A version of this post ran in The Chronicle at Duke University.

Year of the Youth Vote November 6, 2008

Posted by Jamie Friedland in Election.
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Back in January, Time dubbed 2008 “The Year of the Youth Vote.”  It appears they were correct. Pollsters consider “youth voters” citizens between 18 and 29 years old. CIRCLE (from whom I got all these stats) estimates that youth voter turnout was between 49 and 55 percent (votes are still being counted).  In the three preceding presidential elections, youth voter turnout rose from 37 to 48 percent. In each of those elections, youth votes accounted for just 17 percent of ballots cast (overall turnout also rose).  This year, the National Exit Poll projects our share of votes at 18 percent.  This increase may seem small, but even a minor vote share increase in a year of strong overall turnout is significant.

Students comprise about a quarter of the youth vote. We will have to wait for more detailed statistics, but an examination of votes in counties with major universities suggests that students broke heavily Democratic this year. Youth voters chose Sen. Barack Obama over Sen. John McCain by a whopping 34-point margin (66-32), and many analysts believe that students were pivotal in electing Democrats up and down the ballot.  Obama won the youth vote in 41 states with over 80 percent support in some states.

Obama’s campaign pursued the youth vote much more actively than McCain’s. While I knew this intuitively, I wanted to see if I could quantify this assertion – Yes I Can. There are 23 special “coalition” pages on McCain’s website.  While bikers (leather, not spandex), racing fans, and lawyers were important enough to get their own pages, students were not. Even Lebanese Americans got their own page. Now I have nothing against Lebanese Americans; unlike Senator McCain, I never implied that ‘Arab’ is derogatory word. But the fact that McCain’s website would court a decidedly minor demographic and not students is absurd. If ever there was a demographic to appeal to online…But my quest for quantification continued.

Barack Obama is an Arab.

A domain search on johnmccain.com for the word “students” returns just 317 hits, and some of the first hits aren’t even about us, they clarify Sarah Palin’s position on teaching creationism in schools (she’s for it, but thankfully that doesn’t matter anymore). Conversely, the same search on barackobama.com returns 931,000 hits.

Students for Barack Obama was largely responsible for this disparity. SFBO, the official student wing of the campaign, was almost entirely student-run. It had hundreds of chapters at schools in every state and tapped students to volunteer, canvass, phone-bank, and register voters throughout the nation. Full disclosure: I started working for SFBO nearly a year and a half ago, but my own considerable bias aside, it is quite telling that our group had no counterpart in the McCain campaign.   I was unable to find even a state-level organization. The campaign supported efforts on individual campuses and external groups like College Republicans, but did not create any organization of or for new supporters.  At least none that was ever meant to be found online.

Why? The obvious explanation is that McCain was expending his resources elsewhere because students heavily favored Obama, but that has major implications. Sure, demographics have their trends, but do campaigns regularly leave such a large, important group unchallenged? Young voters are not just a subset of America, we’re a cross-section of it. We come from every part of the nation, every socio-economic situation, and as diverse a racial background as our country has to offer. And you know those future generations that will have to pay for today’s mistakes? That’s us. And our kids. Considering the number of recent mistakes, shouldn’t our perspective matter?

Vote by Age

Young voters won the election for Obama. Graphic from CNN.com, data from the National Exit Poll.

In this election, it did. And what of the future? Regardless of how they vote, many young voters consider themselves independents. That sentiment typically dwindles in higher age brackets. It is conventional electoral wisdom that lifelong party identification forms some time in a voter’s first few elections. In 1984, Ronald Reagan won 55.4 percent of the youth vote, the highest percentage since the voting age dropped to 18. That election had formative, lasting effects on the youth voters who participated; their age cohort still trends more Republican than those immediately younger and older. Although we are not all predestined to become Democrats and could maintain our relative political independence, this certainly doesn’t bode well for the Republican Party.

At least 22 million young people voted in this election. While youth turnout increased, what is extraordinary is how lopsided our support was. Obama tied McCain among voters aged 45-64 and lost among voters 65+. According to CIRCLE Director Peter Levine, who studies the youth vote, we are Obama’s core constituency and he couldn’t have won without us. We won’t be youth voters forever, but our generation has definitively asserted itself on the political stage. Let’s keep it up.

A version of this post ran in The Chronicle at Duke University.