Throughout Mr. Obama’s entire presidency, even as I had qualms with some of his policies, the thing I could never understand was the vitriol that was thrown his way by the Republican Party. I couldn’t believe the disrespect that those on the right had for the office with him in it.
I started to see the same thing in my friends that were more conservative too. These were smart, college educated people that value many of the same things that I do. How could it be that they were as disillusioned as those incentivized to score points in the media or with the Republican base? What possible reason could there be?
And then the Trump candidacy gained steam and the Donald taught me a valuable lesson…
Trump is to the left as Obama is to the right
Reason is discarded and emotion remains. As a politician stands opposed to the things you believe in, that you have worked your whole life to uphold, things you have taught your kids, you move from listening to belittling, seeking to understand to being incensed. You take umbrage. You declare the absolute, that nothing like this has ever happened before and it is a sign of a separation from our values.
If thou art pained by any external thing, it is not this that disturbs thee, but thy own judgment about it. And it is in thy power to wipe out this judgment now.
– Marcus Aurelius, “Meditations”
To be fair, I feel the same way about Ted Cruz, but like the current state of the campaign, Mr. Trump is a more appealing headline. With the strategic problems the planet faces, I cannot imagine a worse individual in the most powerful office in the world than Cruz or Trump — indeed they deny the reality of climate change and are underwhelmed by the loss of biodiversity — and are absolutely distracted by hawkishly challenging a regional terror group like ISIS.
But if I put the shoes on the other foot, President Obama came into office spending. Increases to quantitative easing to combat the Great Recession and a new subsidized health care plan for the underemployed was at first frustrating to conservatives and ultimately led to the schism that we have today.
Of course, all of this is bad for democracy. Filibusters have been on the rise as a tactic to require all votes come to a super-majority in the Senate, restricting the amount of work that can be done in that body to an extraordinarily low amount of low quality legislation.
In the House, gerrymandering is responsible for a swing of 17 seats or having 4% more Democrats represented by Republicans in heavily gerrymandered counties. To be fair, large county voter seat swings occur in Democratic states on each of the coasts but in those states the redistricting is largely done by a bipartisan committee. In just looking at the map of redistricting control, it is highly correlated to where Republicans have made gains in recently redistricted districts.
The current state of the American government is bureaucracy, vitriol, and gridlock. The question is: is there a practical means to turn this around?
Kitchen Table Compromise
…I can neither be injured by any of them, for no one can fix on me what is ugly, nor can I be angry with my kinsman, nor hate him, For we are made for co-operation, like feet, like hands, like eyelids, like the rows of the upper and lower teeth. To act against one another then is contrary to nature; and it is acting against one another to be vexed and to turn away.
– Marcus Aurelius, “Meditations”
In almost all of our homes today there is divide. My own parents talk about how they cancel one another out at the polls. My wife is left of me on a few key issues. Yet in households across America, we sit down and are forced into an understanding and negotiate where we can.
Family and friendship bring us together where politicians seek to divide us in order to have clear voting blocks free of ambiguity. No matter what you think of your aunt’s politics, if you love her, you’ll make an effort to listen.
And it is in this conversation that democracy flourishes. On the wonderful Slate Political Gabfest, CBS’s Face the Nation host John Dickerson constantly and rightfully declares that instead of deriding the unfiltered ideas ambitiously thrown into the ring, counter with a better idea. It is then the work of statesmen to compromise and give the nation a starting point.
Our American constitutional system has lost the frame of statesmanship. Party partisanship with its oaths and safe districts is the dominate frame. Instead of doing right by the country, our elected “representatives” win on emotional wedges (guns, taxes, race, social security) and fail to address the big problems that face us (incarceration, climate change, economic disparity, deficit and debt).
Politicians will still need to give clear distinctions on what they would like to prioritize. Often these are opposite priorities: domestic over foreign, competition over collaboration. Yet so much of the framing comes off as if the priorities of the opposing side are amoral or idiotic as to stop debate. Conservatives are tired of being associated with monsters for suggesting fiscal strength over social programs and liberals should not be treated like children for putting together programs for the poor and disenfranchised.
But from these distinctions, compromise can be made. Climate change control can be the next great inventive industry – a new Silicon Valley — and conservation and pay for success can temper growth of government spending in the social sector.
Distempers of the State
For the distempers of a State being discovered while yet inchoate, which can only be done by a sagacious ruler, may easily be dealt with; but when, from not being observed, they are suffered to grow until they are obvious to every one, there is no longer any remedy.
– Machiavelli, “The Prince”
In President Obama’s final State of the Union Address, he reflected on one of the few regrets of his presidency that “the rancor and suspicion between the parties has gotten worse instead of better” motivated by “the imperatives of getting elected, by the noise coming out of your base.” He admitted failure and has continued to press his agenda even broadening the executive authority that will one day be handed over to his political enemies to overturn — by the same fiat — that which he has wasted so much political capital to gain.
It does none of us good to bury our head in the sand or assign racist motivations to the millions of Americans that are now polling for Donald Trump or that support Tea Party politicians against a more conservative Republican party than even Ronald Regan would have ever imagined. Instead, it is time to find perspective about how we got here and regain the frame that our politics are not about party affiliation but statecraft.
True to Examined Life Living, I have begun an effort to understand the political science behind my own political beliefs and the path that the country has taken. Like many Americans, I have too much emotion wrapped up in my political belief to be able to thoughtfully approach another person’s views. So I am starting at the beginning and standing upon the shoulders of giants, the classics — Machiavelli’s “The Prince” [Amazon][Project Guetenberg] and “Meditations” by Marcus Aurelius [Amazon][Free Internet Classics] to begin this quest of self-discovery and statecraft.
There is no more delicate matter to take in hand, nor more dangerous to conduct, nor more doubtful in its success, than to set up as a leader in the introduction of changes. For he who innovates will have for his enemies all those who are well off under the existing order of things, and only lukewarm supporters in those who might be better off under the new. This lukewarm temper arises partly from the fear of adversaries who have the laws on their side, and partly from the incredulity of mankind, who will never admit the merit of anything new, until they have seen it proved by the event.
– Machiavelli, “The Prince”
The promise of change is another item that Mr. Trump and President Obama have in common. President Obama largely made good on his promise of change to the landscape of healthcare and ending the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and as the above quote shows, paid an obvious price for it both with the Republican Party and amongst his base. The 2016 election is being pitched in the same way the election eight years ago was… a populist campaign against an overreaching incumbent, complete with an upstart, inexperienced but charismatic campaigner rewriting many of the rules.
Candidate Obama’s fifty state, data scientific, hyper-local, historical, and oratorical campaign optimized many of the political science ideas (and revolutionized a few too), but Donald Trump’s candidacy only parallel’s Obama’s in its precedent setting nature. The P.T. Barnum of our time, Trump has consistently out maneuvered his own mouth, his arrogance making his gaffs (or worse his apparent bigotry/misogyny) seem like another anti-establishment position against political correctness. He speaks to a growing base of disenfranchised voters that rally to the lowest common denominator instead of a marketplace of ideas. Like Romney, he considers himself a maker; but that is not his appeal to the Republican voting beyond his pocketbook, for to these members of the stay away from my Medicare base it is that he is a self-proclaimed winner. (Start below video at 3:04)
While the themes may be the same, how and what candidate Obama and Trump have done in their campaigns couldn’t be more different. Smarts or swagger, memoires or money the appeal to each base is apparent for each man. The change, thus far that President Obama could never accomplish, is that for him (and I am guilty of this too) Democrats fell in love, but never fell in line; however, the Donald thus far is causing chaos in the lines and Party Republicans, even super delegates, are trying to understand the lovefest that is happening in their camp.
Princedom is created either by the people or by the nobles, according as one or other of these factions has occasion for it.
– Machiavelli, “The Prince”
If you cannot be a good example, serve as a horrible warning.
– Catherine Aird
I have a better understanding of where the Republicans and even the Tea Party are coming from in their disdain for my President thanks to the Trump candidacy. This perspective is valuable and the metaphor extraordinarily useful for those of us still emotionally tied to our candidates. This does not help the hardened political wonks that better understand the manipulations and ego required to represent an entire ideology and beguile the others with strategic intent.
But it is the people that elected President Obama (not the Party elite that started behind Hillary) and it will be the unlikely base striking out against the Grand Ole Party if they elect Mr. Trump.
And it is the people that are the most approachable.
If we want to take the republic back for the people, we will have to see our fellow Americans not as idiots or immoral, but as partners. We must end bipolar politics by giving people more options — left, right, and center. We must define the pareto of problem statements and go after the most fundamental, scientifically characterizing both the problems, the solutions, and the funding.
So to all the candidates on the eve of the first vote, I’ll be looking to both sides to begin to beat back the uncensored party line for greater discourse on statecraft and solutions. Otherwise, I’ll stay home from the process and instead take my understanding to the water cooler. I’ll use my understanding to talk to people proud not only of speech, but listening.