Thursday, July 20, 2017

Tyrannies of democratic Government

One of the most interesting commentaries on our political life came from an unusual place: a newspaper from Montana. A recent column in a Billings newspaper offers an interesting twist on the system of checks and balances in our Constitution. It also offers some perspective on the long game that constantly plays out between our two major political parties.

It's often necessary for me to clarify what separates Democrats and Republicans in the classroom. I shy away from using terms such as liberal and conservative in doing so. We're living in a time where there has been a lot of crossover between ideology and party identification. But that's fleeting. Is Republican President Donald Trump really all that conservative? And, if Democrats are fighting to defend the Affordable Care Act, the status quo really, then aren't they essentially playing the role of conservative. Okay, I'm getting away from the point here. Let me wrap up this thought, though, by simply saying that as a teacher it's not as helpful as one might think to conflate conservativism and liberalism with the Ds and Rs.

So, what unifies the parties over time? My favorite way to simplify it is to suggest that Democrats believe government should reflect the will of the majority. Meanwhile Republicans wish to defend the country from a tyranny of the majority. This is a debate as old as the country itself, as old as Tea floating in the Harbor, and best articulated in the debates over the ratification of our Constitution.

I think it's important to note that the article from that Billings newspaper never uses the word "minority" adjacent to the word "rule." "Minority rule" has such an ugly connotation, and I don't read that into Mr. Darby's essay. And I don't consider the Republicans evil or un-American for trying to work within the boundaries of the Constitution to prevent the will of the majority from depriving Americans of their liberties. Political parties exist to win elections.

Republicans enjoy control of both house of Congress, the White House, and many state legislatures for a variety of reasons. Objectively, their success in redrawing Congressional boundaries to make Republican success in House elections has played a big role in that. Whether or not that's above board or dirty pool is a matter of debate. Their success there is symptomatic of a long-run approach to politics that has confounded their opponents. Democrats need to put their energies into the long game now.

A system featuring two powerful parties plays an important role, and Democrats cannot overlook that. Democrats, if they represent the will of the majority, need to do a better role in selling voters as to the merits of less splashy matters such as Congressional redistricting, voter registration, and funding for local services. The Democrats' job in our democracy is to mobilize democracy. The Republicans' job is to enforce boundaries to Americans' liberty.

Both jobs are essential. How do we know? Just look at the concerns and problems that occur whenever one party gets too good at its job.

Six Months

Six months, or one half of one year, seems an appropriate time to permit someone some benefit of the doubt. Some time ago I decided to give that amount of time to our president, and I therefore have refrained from commenting on the administration, its conduct, and its policies, on this blog. Is it because I'm trying to save him from my scathing analysis? No. It's been more about me stepping back and trying to gain perspective. 

When one imposes a ban on oneself from commenting politically, it ends up closing down a lot of ideas for writing on anything. Hence why this blog has been relatively silent for a few months. 

So, what do I want to say now that my self-imposed ban of silence is over? Not much. President Trump has done little to surprise me. I opposed his election as president in November. If I were asked to cast a ballot today, I'd still cast a ballot against him. In all likelihood, if he were to run for reelection in 2020, I'll vote against him. 

Yet I imagine his supporters feel much the same way. He earned their vote in November. He'd earn it again today. And there are many who I love as friends and family who cast their vote for him last month. It's possible that by criticizing the president today, I'll be criticizing people I care about. The president, the news, the political cycle . . . they'll all give me chances to critique and pick in the coming three and a half years. But really, nothing has changed since November. 

And that's a shame. 

I find that the media focuses very heavily on the actions of the president, either to criticize him (as many outlets do) or to defend him (as a few outlets do). It would seem as if any major news story covered by the great oligopolies of news media (CNN, MSNBC, and FoxNews on the TV; New York Times, WaPo, and WSJ in print/online) is either directly about Trump or about the healthcare debate, which overlaps heavily with the president. There are many other things of national interest getting lost in this noisy coverage. There is also much of importance at the state and local level on which we are not focusing. The country is much bigger than the president. 

And there is always the business of what we're fighting for in our homes, churches, communities, and workplaces. 

If one is an opponent of the president (but at the same time, one who respects the office of the President of the United States), there is little to do that changes the fact that Mr. Trump is our president until 2020. In the meantime, there is much to do in the arenas where I can make a difference. 

Saturday, July 8, 2017

Lighter Fare

I really enjoyed reading this column from David Brooks in the New York Times on something of a slippery social standard. Interestingly, one reader found it unbecoming the standards set by that news source.

Mr. Averill's sarcastic protest calls to mind a few reasons why I appreciate Mr. Brooks taking the time to write on the trend of bailing. First, it's good that a serious and articulate columnist tries to apply his gifts at a behavioral trend. And I would suggest that the trend Brooks is shedding light on is more important than we think, and it allows me to better understand a behavior I see a lot in the students I work with as well as my same-age peers (I don't notice it nearly as much from those who are older than me). It allows me to better understand a poor behavior I engage in from time to time or consider engaging in. Bailing is a more significant issue than initially meets the eye.

Second, it's useful that a serious journalist takes time away from analyzing the malaise that has fallen on national politics. It's hard to separate small thinking from large problems from our political leadership right now. Brooks is applying large thinking to a societal issue that seems small but I think is more onerous.

And, finally, it's a reminder of how we shouldn't forget to look at the way we, as members of a society, are incentivizing behaviors that make us more civilized or challenge us to be as civil as we could be. We're more in control of our fates that we realize, and a focus on what is or is not happening in Washington (or Harrisburg) lets us off easy. Being conscious of the way we may be aiding and abetting ills to befall our society is as necessary as awareness of what a person whose name is followed by a D or R is enacting or Tweeting.