American Taliban

As the neverending Republican campaign for the presidency slogs along to its distant conclusion, I’d like to step back for a broader look. We focus on details: What regulations should we apply to offshore oil drilling? Should rich people pay 35% or 39% income tax? Is giving “historical” advice to Fannie Mae worth $1.3 million? And of course these and similar questions are very important, sometimes critically so. But, despite the strength of partisan opinions (including mine), it’s clear that many if not most have no objectively “right” answer (well, maybe except for the one about giving historical advice to Fannie Mae). Certainly not right answers in the same way that “How many houses were destroyed in the latest Alabama tornado, and how much will it cost to repair them?” has a right answer.

Now this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to understand what candidates want to do and their reasons why. But not only do politicians tend to try to dodge providing detailed (and hence debatable) answers, but there wouldn’t be enough time in the day to hear their opinions on everything. Hence the need to take a broader look past the day-to-day antics of who the Republicans want to bomb or jail. So, how do we do that?

Well, if we’re going to give vast power to a person or group of people, it would help to know what kind of people they are. Although I wouldn’t hold that we each can be stereotyped as one, specific kind of person, I think everybody knows from day-to-day life that we all have underlying character traits (or tendencies, if you will) that shape how we typically respond to problems and challenges. So what are the traits we want in people to whom we hand power and authority, people to whom we might turn in times of personal or social need? Maybe more importantly, what traits do we not wish to see? (If it would help redirect you from thoughts of partisan politics, think of bosses you’ve worked for, rather than political candidates)

Well, maybe it’s just me (or maybe not) but let me throw out this starter list of character traits we don’t want in people who are tasked with representing the incredibly varied interests of large numbers of people:

  • Cruelty
  • Rigidity
  • Intolerance
  • Mean-spiritedness

Perhaps you might argue that it depends in part on what problem we’re addressing. For example, if we need to lock up (Al Capone) or kill (Al Qaeda) dangerous people, maybe we need cruel, rigid, intolerant, mean-spirited leaders. On the other hand, since we first need to figure out who to lock up or kill, maybe we don’t. And if there’s a problem to which incarceration or death is not a solution, then what? Typically, leaders with these negative traits deal with such problems by denying their existence (what climate change?), and then suggesting that everybody just deal with it on their own (good luck with that flood thing!).

There are numerous historical examples of individual leaders with those repellant characteristics (eg, Attila the Hun, Hitler, Stalin, Donald Trump). But what happens when the whole power structure of a country is composed of people like that? Look no further than Afghanistan under the Taliban—jail for kite flying or playing music, no education for women, mandatory observance of the leaders’ religion, a haven for Al Qaeda but not for anyone who’s sick. Great place, don’t you think?

But what’s that got to do with us, here in America? Well, for some, strange reasons (for once, no sarcasm intended) one of our political parties has been possessed by the spirit of the Taliban, right down to the religious fundamentalism (except they are consumed by the tenets of a different religion). Which party? Does even the most right-wing among you think for a minute I’m talking about the Democrats (you of course don’t agree with me, but you knew right away who I meant, didn’t you)? No, the Republican party (though certainly not every Republican) has taken on a Taliban type of cruelty (GW Bush chuckling about what he imagined an executed woman’s last words were: “Please don’t kill me!”), rigidity (refusing to democratically compromise so that everybody gets a little of what they want), intolerance (gays out of the military), and mean-spiritedness (all our opponents hate America).

Now there are certainly many conservative individuals with whom I disagree about, say, the need for troops in Korea or stronger regulation of derivative trading, who are good-hearted people—people who donate money to help the needy, volunteer time to teach, etc. But can you honestly look at the words and actions of the Republican party (particularly its leadership, and especially the presidential candidates) and conclude they represent the positive traits I suggest we would like to see:

  • Fairness
  • Open-mindedness
  • Care for others (and by “others” I mean people of different sex, skin color, religion, ethnic origin, hobbies, fashion sense, etc.)

I didn’t think so. A shame.

Horse Race Journalism

When I was 11, I loved horses, and often watched horse races on TV (beyond everyone’s obligatory viewing of the Kentucky Derby). It was always helpful when the broadcasters would provide commentary like “Sea Biscuit’s in 4th but moving up strong,” which would help make sense of the seething mass of identical brown horses. I suppose that’s what today’s journalists and political pundits think they’re doing when they provide their daily (or hourly) accounting of who’s ahead in the presidential primaries—along with endless theories of why. We’re treated to interminable discussions of candidates’ hairstyles, lapel buttons (flag or no flag? disease ribbon?), verbal missteps, and the fact that were seen shaking hands with someone whose neighbor once said he thought Muslims really weren’t so bad. And the sole context for these discussions is the horse race commentary “Michelle’s in 4th place in Iowa now, will this help her with left-handed voters who hate cats?”  

But the thing is, the sole point of a horse race is to see who wins.  There is no larger meaning of any kind, whereas, in politics, the race exists only as a means to an end—selecting someone to guide the nation. (To be fair, there are certain similarities, to wit that the winners of both types of races get to make more money and mate with larger numbers of desirable females). So how about we spend a little more time thinking about the end than the means?

 What do I mean? Well, I suggest that these on-screen “journalists” spend the months leading up to an election exploring in depth the consequences to the country of a candidate’s statements and positions rather than the consequences to the candidate. Wouldn’t you like someone smarter than you (or at least with more time to research the topic than you) to help figure out this kind of thing? This is such an alien idea, something so outside our everyday experience with TV “journalism”, that I’d better give an example. Here’s a random one: This morning, reading a typical horse race commentary, I noticed a writer mention in passing that Mitt Romney suggested we deport all 11 million “illegal aliens.” Ok, that’s certainly a concrete proposal (i.e., not “let’s keep America Number One,” or “I support our troops”), and is one that has been voiced in various forms by a number of Republican candidates. And immigration is certainly a very important issue. But to the pundits, the only importance to a candidate’s plan to remove 11 million workers from the country seems to be in how it might hurt his chances with Hispanic voters vs. help him with covertly racist voters in border states. What nonsense! I want someone with the time, money, and clout to access data and expert researchers (not partisan mouthpieces) to explore the consequences of this plan and explain them to me! What do I mean? Well, a number of questions come readily to mind:

  • If we deport a large number of people who are employed in low-wage jobs, who will do these jobs?
  • Are there people to take those jobs?
  • If so, will they have to be paid more than the illegals? And presuming they will (since if there were legal residents willing to take the jobs for less money than the illegals, the illegals wouldn’t be working here in the first place) how much more will it cost?
  • Who will pay these costs and how will they affect the economy?
  • Will increased costs drive anyone out of business?  
  • If the illegals aren’t replaced, what work will not get done and how will that affect us all?
  • How much will it cost to identify and deport that many people and where will that money come from?
  • What are alternative proposals to deal with the issue of illegal immigration and what are their consequences?

 It took me a good 3 minutes to think of these questions, and I’m sure in 3 minutes you could easily add more sensible ones. And that’s just on the one topic. One passing remark by a candidate. What if we did that for all the major policy positions of the different candidates and parties? Invade this country? Bomb that one? Raise taxes? Lower taxes? Regulate trading of derivatives? What are derivatives, anyway? Gee, that would be hard! It would take a long time! Well, it would take too long for a 2 minute horse race, but not for a 2 year political race. Why not use the 24/7 “news” cycle for something helpful rather than entertaining? Bring back investigative journalism that focuses on something other than sexual scandals! Maybe we wouldn’t always have to be so surprised by the consequences of our country’s actions if we thought about them a little bit beforehand.