Gingrich the Grey

In the last 20 years of Presidential elections, the younger of the two major party candidates has won the national popular vote every single time.  Of course, winning the national popular vote doesn’t necessarily translate into an electoral victory, as 2000’s Bush v. Gore reminds us.  But the numbers are interesting nonetheless.

1992: Bush (68) versus Clinton (46)
DEM -22; DEM WIN

1996: Clinton (50) versus Dole (73)
DEM -23; DEM WIN

2000: Bush (54) versus Gore (52)
DEM -2; DEM WIN*

2004: Bush (58) versus Kerry (60)
REP -2; REP WIN

2008: McCain (72) versus Obama (47)
DEM -25; DEM WIN

This November, Obama will be 51 years old as he seeks reelection for a second term.  His opponent will be older than him.  On election day, Rick Santorum will be 54; Mitt Romney will be 65;  Newt Gingrich will be 69; and Ron Paul will be 77.

This trend says something about how each party vets candidates and values certain qualities in leaders.  For example, you could argue that youth has a powerful association with change and the future, and age with the status quo and the past.  In each of the contests above the prevailing mood of the nation was either inclined toward those associative qualities or actively seeking them.  That’s a far cry from Reagan’s two victories, when the national mood sought a return to an imagined past and other qualities best found in an elder leader.

Right now, I see nothing to suggest we are less inclined as a national body to favor the qualities most associated with youth.  This–and the circus that is the slate of Republican candidates–bodes well for the Prez.

Why I Don’t Care (Much) About Hate Speech

Yesterday’s tragedy in Arizona is beginning to foster a national discussion on “hate speech” and “civility” in politics.  There is nothing inherently wrong in this.  I’d say its even welcome from the millions of Americans who feel politics has grown especially vitriolic in the past decade.

I do worry that too much will be given to such a discussion, as if the tragedy itself is the direct result of our political discourse.  It is an undeniable factor in what occurred, but focusing on “discourse” seems to hide as much as it clarifies for me.


WWII era poster, published by Seagram-Distillers Corp.

One of the disturbing trends in politics from the Right in the past generation has been a willingness to engage in what I call an inflammatory rhetoric of absolutism.  (Actually, “willingness” might be a soft word to use in this case because I think we have every reason to believe that it is a political tactic that is knowingly organized in its use.)  This language feeds off the idea of crisis, turning political debate into a “war.”  It frames the opposition as a threat to “your way of life,” not as a group of people with different ideas, analyses, or philosophies than you, but as “traitors” to the country.

This is where the absolutism comes into play.  In this way of thinking, there are only two ways to think: your way and the wrong way.  People who oppose you or don’t agree with you are “un-American”; they are “Socialists” and “Communists”; they are trying to “ruin our great country” and to “take away all that makes us great.”

All of the above terms (and more) are employed to end debate by excluding the authority of the opposing side to speak.  For example, somebody who advocates “un-American” ideas can not be rationally listened to.  So these characterizations become rhetorical tools to limit debate rather than foster it.  This is another form of its absolutism.

Of course, much of their language is imbued with the rhetoric of danger and violence, where people are encouraged to “take our country back” with allusions made to revolution, physical violence, death and blood, and the like.  These particular linguistic tactics convey the sense of urgency and crisis inherent in their absolutism.

Now this might seem like a defense of the current debate about rhetoric and language, but it’s not.

You see, while I don’t like to hear this language, and while I also think it contributes nothing positive to our political process, I don’t fear it or its use.  As a historian of the 20th century, I can’t tell you how many times the Right has policed activities of the Left on the basis of language.  Ideas and ideals like “civility” are as dangerous as ones of “radicalism” or “un-Americanism.”  The danger does not lie in these forms of debate and rhetoric but in the heavy-handed power that gets to label them and define them as outside the “appropriate” parameters of participation in our political system.

The danger is inherent in the ways power assigns “acceptability” and “unacceptability” to forms of discourse, in effect delineating who can and can not participate in the political system.

I don’t fear language. I do fear many of the ideas behind language.  I do fear many of the systems of belief which undergird our current political system and the positions of certain people in power.  But even ideas are not the problem.

Yesterday’s tragedy in Arizona wasn’t caused by language.  It was caused by the implementation of nihilistic ideas into our political system, comfortably and callously promoted by certain members of the Republican Party.  Language and ideas aren’t the real problem, except in how they let us understand the ways our system of power operates.  They become reflections of the problem in their use as rationalizing systems for power.

I don’t care if people go around saying they think Health Care for children is “the most un-American piece of legislation ever passed.”  It is hyperbole.  It is irrational and untrue.  If somebody actually believes it they are likely to be ill-informed.  But I don’t care if they say it or even believe it.

I do care when a mainstream political party who is in power makes a decision to deliberately use this hyperbole as a political tool to gain more power.  I do care when they implement their absolutism as the foundation of political debate in this country.

Too many people in the GOP have been willingly promoting this nihilistic political analysis in order to gain a greater position in the government.  I don’t doubt there are many ill-educated or dimwitted Congresspeople who actually believe Obama is trying to dismantle the country, but most of them do not.  Most who are engaging in and promoting these ways of thinking have been doing so while know all along that they lack credible foundation.

Most of the GOP opposes Obama’s health care plan because they want to defend the profits of tremendously powerful corporations and because they don’t want a Democrat in the White House.  As they nurture a context of crises and political radicalism they do so for the most traditional of reasons–to protect power.

And this is the real danger.  This empty and inflammatory political rhetoric is not the reflection of a real political analysis of our present but a tool in order to protect the status quo.  People are being mobilized into a political frenzy by people who are trying to limit their real political efficacy.

Congresswoman Gifford wasn’t shot because of rhetoric.  She was shot because people in power have made stupidity seem rational, just to protect the powers they serve.

Whether or not politicians believe in white supremacy, vigilantism, armed revolution, that “God hates fags,” or that Obama is a muslim is irrelevant in our present situation.  Whether or not they advocate for the killing of Democrats is also.  But each must ask themselves if they are comfortable attracting the support of people who do.  Each politician must account for their own political ways of thinking which resonate with the kinds of movements that are the real threat to our democracy.

We lose much more than we gain when we live in a society that wants to police rhetoric for inclusion and exclusion in our political realm.  That absolutism is bad on both sides of the spectrum.

As a democratic society, we have an obligation to openly debate policy, sometimes by confronting radical, revolutionary, fringe, or extreme views.  But this isn’t what we have been doing.  Instead, we’ve been using these views as a priori conclusions in order to stifle the free exchange of ideas.  We’ve been subverting the heart of the democratic process–the free and open exchange of ideas–by limiting that debate with a fascist tactic of absolutism.

One cannot openly advocate and institutionalize a philosophy of absolutism, crisis, and panic and not take responsibility for the results.  Those who have done so must now face the consequences.  If those entail a national litmus test for “civil” and “uncivil” ideas–an emboldened absolutism–then we have all lost.

Illegal immigrants “are all over my house”

Colin Powell appeared on “Meet the Press” (9/19/10) and spoke about a Republican party he described as “waiting to emerge once again,” a party of moderates who are more balanced in their approach to several issues, including immigration.

Here is the section of his interview where he responds to the opportunistic xenophobia that is currently the preferred stance on immigration within the GOP:

Vodpod videos no longer available.

Meet The Press, posted with vodpod.

In his varied defense of reforming this position, he presents an assortment of analytical assumptions, some aspects of which I find more than a little problematic or incomplete. For example, he bases part of his defense of “illegal immigration” on what we might label a utilitarian approach, arguing (in essence) that “we” need “them” to do the work that “we” need done. Powell also presents another fairly opportunistic analysis when he speaks directly to the concerns of an aging “baby boomer” population. He suggests that immigrants are the “lifeblood” of this nation, but he describes that lifeblood as an economic transfusion—the maintaining of a workforce (and implied tax base) to support an aging and retiring population of natives.

Such ways of interpreting the immigration issue are a form of progress on purely policy-oriented terms, since they can lead to a more “moderate” and more realistic immigration system, one that spends less time on criminalizing migrants than on finding pathways for their legal stability. However, they also further a mode of analysis which deprives immigrants of their right to be seen as something more than inanimate workers.

Immigrants have the right—the human right—to be seen and treated as people with desires, concerns, and needs. When we view them in these “disembodied” ways (that is, disconnecting their human selves from the values we derive from their physical selves) we create a context like we have today—where immigration policies promote inhumane forms of detention and removal and, in many cases, outright death.

Viewing immigrants as humans means acting in responsible ways. We all have a responsibility—and I would argue, this is both a moral and a legal responsibility—to recognize and safeguard everyone’s ability to fulfill their basic human needs.

I recognize this is a distinct way of understanding the “immigration issue.” It says the issue is bigger than whether or not it “benefits us” to allow them into “our” nation. It says the issue is, fundamentally, about viewing this nation as part of a larger whole, with an accompanying responsibility to act in deliberate humanistic ways.

Powell flirts with the kinds of understandings I support when he expresses the need for us to spend more effort educating “our minorities” and immigrants. Leaving along the paternalistic tone his choice of words suggests—and not at all discounting the ways his education argument can be interpreted as opportunistic—I view education as a fundamental human right. Education facilitates one’s ability to fulfill their basic human needs. It is intimately connected to a set of opportunities–to achieve meaningful social inclusion, to defend and maintain cultural rights, and to assure true participatory political power.

All this said, I welcome Powell’s stance and hope it gains more traction in our political debate. His vocal support of the Dream Act at this critical hour is the right thing to do. The same can be said for the ways he is promoting a more moderate way of approaching immigration reform. None of this is “perfect,” and it often falls short of true humanism, but who cares?

When we have people dying as a result of our policies there is a moral urgency to creating a policy context that is more just, even if that falls short of perfect.

A Slice of America?

If you’re not a person of color, let me fill you in on something. Most of us think most whites are Republican and most Republicans are white. This is so despite the fact that we all know somebody of color who is a Republican, and lots of whites who are Democrats, leftists, and/or allies in the struggle.

If you are one of those people of color who swings to the right, you also know what I’m talking about. All those times your friends jumped on you for being a “sell-out” serve as but one reminder.

This isn’t racial paranoia. In the case of assuming most whites are conservative, its a self-defense mechanism. In the case of thinking of Republicans as a “white party,” well, turns out it might just be solid experiential truth.

The recent Democratic National Convention was sold as “the most diverse convention in party history,” with 44% of the delegates being non-white. Here are some of the figures for the Dems:

• 24% were Black
• 12% were Latino
• over 50% were women

Now, here are the same for the Republicans:

• 1.5% were Black (the lowest percentage in 40 years)
• 5% were Latino
• 68% were men

Surprising?

[Source]