Submitted for your consideration

The Congressional election just two weeks away will lead us down one of only a few possible paths.  If the Republicans who control the House and the Senate maintain their majorities in both chambers, there’s no reason to think that they will then choose to start exerting more constitutional authority as a counterweight to President Trump’s apparent on-going violations of constitutionally-mandated behavior of a government official, or have any new political reason to begin to seriously challenge or even oppose their party’s leader.  If they lose control of both houses, the Democrats would take command of the constitutional machinery that could restrict the president’s future activities and investigate or prosecute some of his apparent past crimes.  If the GOP loses control of just one chamber, life will get more confusing…more confusing than it already is, and that’s saying something.  Despite polling which shows less than half of the country approves of the president’s performance in office, the outcome for November 6 is unclear.

It’s no great pronouncement to say that American politics is polarized today, which by the way is not the same as having two major political parties with different opinions about the means to achieve goals…or which have completely different goals.  As they say on the Internet, I’m old enough to remember when having opposing beliefs or values from other people did not mean that I was good and pure and true and a Real Loyal Patriotic American and that they were stupid and evil and dishonest and corrupt and traitorous.  How’d we get from there to here?

Submitted for your consideration: the October 25th edition of The Daily, the podcast of the New York Times, which explores the premise that the 1994 midterm elections—in which the Republicans gained 54 seats in the House of Representatives to take control for the first time in 40 years—holds the seeds to the political divisiveness that rules the day today.  Give it a listen: host Michael Barbaro talks with opinion writer Jennifer Senior about the 1994 midterm elections, which she covered as a reporter, and she interviews former congressman Vin Weber, a Republican from Minnesota who left Congress in 1993 but whose friendship and political alliance with Newt Gingrich made him a behind-the-scenes force in the 1994 elections which resulted in Gingrich becoming speaker of the House.

Without question, Gingrich and the GOP played a clever political game to maximize the party’s gain of seats beyond what is usual for the party out of the White House.  They focused on wedge issues—they created the term “wedge issues,” I think—which were successful that day, and which have been driving wedges in our lives ever since.  Whether or not the politicians were sincere in their stated belief in the positions they advocated can be argued, but as a tactic it worked beyond their expectations.

Was it a good thing to have done?  Did Republicans of 1994 do the country a disservice in opening a rift in civil society that’s only gotten worse in the years since?  Good questions to consider, I think…

One thought on “Submitted for your consideration

  1. Once again, Pat, you’ve posted a very well thought out and well-presented piece on a very important topic—social and political civility. So as to place my comments in perspective, I am writing in the aftermath of the 2018 mid-term elections.

    I agree with you that the social and political climate has indeed changed…or at least it seems to have. I wonder if, sometimes, we don’t fondly remember things simply because we choose to remember them fondly or because it makes us feel better about ourselves to think that we are better than we are or, at least, were better than ‘they’ are now.

    There is no doubt that I am a far superior high school football player now than I was in 1974. My memories assure me that I was a stellar performer. In reality, if I dare look at reality or the small smatterings of it that age and time have left me, I believe that I would have to admit that most would say that I was an under-sized, overly aggressive, possibly borderline psychotic, young man with an overly developed sense of competition, a lack of regard for the rules of fair play, and a complete disregard for the well-being of himself or others, who played, while not perhaps well, with an undeniable reckless abandon. I prefer my version; but then again spearing was the preferred method of rendering the foe immobile in those days, so should others belittle me for my remembrances, I can always defend myself by falling back on the Post-Concussion Syndrome argument.

    The political climate today, as you noted, seems fraught with contention. To a degree that seems unprecedented, the language and anger in the campaign rhetoric seems to have moved well beyond the pale in terms of previous years. Or has it?

    Free speech, the two-edged sword that is either our greatest freedom or our most foul curse—usually depending on whether you are on the giving or the receiving end of it—is a weapon that has always been wielded with reckless abandon the gladiatorial arena that we call politics, even from the earliest days of our republic.

    Mudslinging has a long and distinguished history in the politics of our country. As early as the presidential campaign of 1800, the two sides were slashing each other with the Excalibur of Free Speech in ways that make today seem almost tame. Jefferson’s editorial friends claimed that Adams was a “hideous hermaphroditical character, which has neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman” Not to be outdone or to leave a salvo unanswered, the Adams camp returned the broadside by calling the then sitting Vice President Thomas Jefferson “a mean-spirited, low-lived fellow, the son of a half-breed Indian squaw, sired by a Virginia mulatto father.”

    Franklin Pierce got his licks, too. “The minions of power are watching you, to be turned out by the pimp of the White House if you refuse to sustain him. A man sunk so low we can hardly hate. We have nothing but disgust, pity, and contempt.” —The Weekly Standard [Raleigh, NC], 4 July 1855.
    Even the great Abraham Lincoln wasn’t spared. In 1864, Harper’s Weekly published an article which contained the following insults that had been lobbed Lincoln’s way: “Filthy story-teller, Ignoramus Abe, Despot, Old scoundrel, big secessionist, perjurer, liar, robber, thief, swindler, braggart, tyrant, buffoon, fiend, usurper, butcher, monster, land-pirate, a long, lean, lank, lantern-jawed, high-cheeked-boned, spavined, rail-splitting stallion.” He was even referred to as an idiot, a fool, and the ‘original gorilla’—all by none other than his own Commander of the Army of the Potomac, General George McClellan.

    So, what is different today? Maybe the unbridled plethora of media formats that individuals, both private and public, have literally at the tips of their fingers. In days gone by, to reach any significant number of people, an individual had to go through, most likely, a number of editors at an extremely limited number of venues. This meant that time and talent had to be invested to give the author’s idea even the remotest chance of being published…unless, of course, the author was the editor or the owner, aka William Randolph Hearst. This tended to result in most, if not all, ideas being rendered into a less vitriolic tone with some sort of coherent narrative. Thus, there was, of necessity, time for reflection and consideration before the thought went from brain (or spleen) to the public. Alas, it is this way no more. Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, and WhatsApp, just to name a few (and it seems that a new one comes out almost daily), allow the near instantaneous flow of ideas without any filter whatsoever.

    Is this good? Bad? I don’t have the answer. One issue is the very real availability of anonymity on these platforms. The ill-informed, slur-ridden rants on all sides of all genuine issues that were once kept behind closed doors for fear of losing a job or getting one’s tires slashed or teeth knocked in, are now cast out onto the Internet with reckless abandon and utter disregard for the respect of human dignity, and hidden behind cleverly named avatars such as TwitterTrumpTroller, aerodawg, DingDon16, or TBirdinFL. In fact, I just checked an article from the Washington Post about the high level of out of state spending in the recent Texas Senate race. Only 2 of the first 10 comments had anything approaching a real name where the commenter could be reasonably identified. It’s easy to be brave when you’re anonymous—there’s a reason the KKK wears hoods…and Antifa masks.

    We have divorced personal responsibility from personal actions, including free speech. We want to say or do anything we please, but not live with the consequences of those actions. While I do not agree with the manner of the protest, I applaud the NFL players who take a knee or raise a fist during the National Anthem. They have a grievance. They make their statement. They live with the consequences. I find their method disrespectful for all those who fought and died for this country, so I choose not to watch football and tacitly endorse their behavior. And, while I personally find it hard for men playing a child’s game while earning an average of $2.1 million dollars to feel oppressed, they are entitled to make the opinion known. They probably have much the same feeling about me, an aging, middle-class white man who fails to see them as patriots in their own cause. They are not evil; I am not evil; we simply disagree. And so it should be: honest men with honest complaints or disagreements, voicing our concerns and looking for redress. Open, above board, responsibly.

    Our respective stances might even cause some individuals mental anguish, however unintended. The elderly African-American man who experienced the indignities and repression of the Jim Crow Laws might well feel that my form a protest to this issue is insensitive to his suffering under such oppression. And the child of a soldier who died in the sands of some foreign land to preserve this right might very well feel the same about these football players who take a knee or raise a fist against a symbol of the country for which his or her mother or father gave his or her last full measure of devotion. I do not for one minute believe, and I hope fervently that I am right, that none of these young men intends to hurt that child. But every action follows the Law of Unintended Consequences and we would do well to remember that.

    You also spoke of vigorously pursuing investigations and prosecution of Donald Trump. I agree. A criminal is a criminal, regardless of his or her color, creed, race, orientation, or social status. But as disagreeable as Trump might be as a person or a president, he doesn’t deserve special consideration. We need to look at all politicians with a critical eye. Investigate Trump’s collusion charges, certainly. But let’s not forget Hilary Clinton’s security violations or the shady financial dealings of the Clinton Foundation, or the Obamas, or the Daly’s of Chicago, or Lois Lerner, or Chris Collins or Tom Price or any other politician who has had questionable, unethical, or illegal activities. They hold the public trust and the key to the public coffers. They should be held accountable regardless of what party they affiliate with or which program they support.

    You also spoke of a public politically divided and asked the very important question of whether this ‘new normal’ of divisive political rancor is a good thing. I agree with your analysis of the Contract With America that is believed to have helped sweep the Republican Party into power in 1994 for the first time in over five decades, or as I like to say, since the Great Give-Aways began.

    The purpose of the Contract was to make the mid-terms, which were usually about local issues within the representatives’ districts, into a national referendum where candidates could avoid uncomfortable issues at home and focus on ‘big picture’ items. They carefully researched and crafted the Contract to include only items that their pollsters believed appealed to at least 60% of voting Americans. Did the Republican politicians who sponsored, wrote, and campaigned on this really believe in them? I pause while I make an impossible attempt to stifle my laughter.

    What was really remarkable about this Contract With America is that it caused politicians to do an almost unprecedented thing: prior to an election, they gave very specific points of policy on which they intended to act, reasonably specific details on how they intended to act on those points, and a promised timeline for implementing those acts.

    Let’s see what they promised to do on the first day:

    “FIRST, require all laws that apply to the rest of the country also apply equally to the Congress; SECOND, select a major, independent auditing firm to conduct a comprehensive audit of Congress for waste, fraud or abuse; THIRD, cut the number of House committees, and cut committee staff by one-third; FOURTH, limit the terms of all committee chairs; FIFTH, ban the casting of proxy votes in committee; SIXTH, require committee meetings to be open to the public; SEVENTH, require a three-fifths majority vote to pass a tax increase; EIGHTH, guarantee an honest accounting of our Federal Budget by implementing zero base-line budgeting.”

    If these are ‘wedge issues’ then I must confess, I wish they had truly given us a wedgie.

    Next, they promised to propose, within the first 100 days to bring the following up for vote:
    A balanced budget/tax limitation amendment and a legislative line-item veto to restore fiscal responsibility to an out-of-control Congress, requiring them to live under the same budget constraints as families and businesses.
    An anti-crime package including stronger truth-in-sentencing, “good faith” exclusionary rule exemptions, effective death penalty provisions, and cuts in social spending from this summer’s “crime” bill to fund prison construction and additional law enforcement to keep people secure in their neighborhoods and kids safe in their schools.
    Discourage illegitimacy and teen pregnancy by prohibiting welfare to minor mothers and denying increased AFDC for additional children while on welfare, cut spending for welfare programs, and enact a tough two-years-and-out provision with work requirements to promote individual responsibility.
    Child support enforcement, tax incentives for adoption, strengthening rights of parents in their children’s education, stronger child pornography laws, and an elderly dependent care tax credit to reinforce the central role of families in American society.
    A $500 per child tax credit, begin repeal of the marriage tax penalty, and creation of American Dream Savings Accounts to provide middle-class tax relief.
    No U.S. troops under U.N. command and restoration of the essential parts of our national security funding to strengthen our national defense and maintain our credibility around the world.
    Raise the Social Security earnings limit which currently forces seniors out of the work force, repeal the 1993 tax hikes on Social Security benefits and provide tax incentives for private long-term care insurance to let Older Americans keep more of what they have earned over the years.
    Small business incentives, capital gains cut and indexation, neutral cost recovery, risk assessment/cost-benefit analysis, strengthening the Regulatory Flexibility Act and unfunded mandate reform to create jobs and raise worker wages.
    “Loser pays” laws, reasonable limits on punitive damages and reform of product liability laws to stem the endless tide of litigation.
    A first-ever vote on term limits to replace career politicians with citizen legislators.”

    Again, I’d have to say that at least numbers 1, 4, 5, 7 and 10 are pretty much slam dunks, at least depending on the details. Numbers 2, 3, 6, 8 and 9 are iffier, but, again, depending on the details, possibly pretty palatable to a big swathe of the country.

    I don’t think this Contract With America was really a set of wedge issues strung together. There was no talk of abortion or gay rights or any other hot button issues of the day. What it was supposed to represent was a sweeping change in the way Washington did business. What it ended up being was a gigantic hoodwinking of the American people by the same clever professional politicians that they pretended to be decrying. Once in office these oh-so-noble Republicans passed their first eight points on Day One all right. But, and it’s a big but, they were all resolutions, not laws, and so had no real binding effect. The ten Acts they proposed to pass in the first 100 days ended up, for the most part, watered down, abandoned completely, or struck down in court.

    Americans, by putting the Republicans in charge on the promise of making things right, had voted that they distrusted Congress in particular and the government in general. Instead of real reform, what they got was basically more of the same with very few exceptions. There’s a reason that politicians, year after year, end up on the very bottom of the list of most trusted professions.

    Well, I guess my own rant is about over. In case you’re wondering, I don’t have a solution. That’s a shame, too, because I’m old enough now to proclaim it as the salvation of the American way of life (whatever that is) and die before I find out I’m wrong.

    If this has been rambling and wordy, I blame it on wife and my age. She’s out of town speaking at a conference so there’s no ‘honey-do’ list this weekend and my vision and arthritis are so bad that cruising the Internet porn sites is only a study in frustration. That sort of left this. Keep writing these things, Pat. It’s good to think. In fact, right now I’m thinking of getting a larger screen for my computer and a fifty-five gallon drum of hand-cream.

    “There’s a lot of things great about life. But I think tomorrow is the most important thing. It comes to us at midnight very clean. It’s perfect when it arrives and it puts itself in our hands. It hopes we’ve learned something from yesterday.”—John Wayne.

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