Why Kiev Matters

The struggle over Ukraine’s political system is important to the world for a lot of reasons. In short:

  1. It matters whether any human population has fair and transparent, democratically accountable government;
  2. Ukraine is a strategic crossroads, both for political and economic reasons;
  3. The tension over violence against protesters in Kiev could explode into a regional war that no one can afford;
  4. A peaceful resolution is an indicator of whether Russia and Europe can work together;
  5. Ukraine’s strategic value is partly to do with geopolitical spheres of influence, partly about carbon-based energy.

So, what is happening at this hour in Kiev matters to the wider world for moral reasons, for strategic political and economic reasons and because the outcome may determine whether petrostate hegemony will hold sway over the future of more than half a billion people. That authoritarian petrostate model—an outgrowth of both the Soviet dictatorship and the post-Soviet plutocracy in Russia—severely limits the power of individuals and communities to influence government, and to build a more humane, more collaborative, more sustainable future, from the ground up.

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Fourth of July: Egypt at a Crossroads

On January 25, 2011, the people of Egypt began a nonviolent uprising against 3-decade dictator Hosni Mubarak. On February 11, 2011, Egypt became the second nation of the Middle East / North Africa (MENA) region, after Tunisia, to oust a long-standing dictator in this way. Mubarak’s forces killed near 1,000 civilians, but never succeeded in slowing the growth of the nationwide movement.

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Working Together Makes Us Free: Inauguration 2013

The year is 2013. The world did not come to an end in the last month of 2012, as so many had feared. Cynicism and existential terror have not won the future. It is Martin Luther King Day, three weeks to the day after the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation—which declared in the gravest of moments in our national history that we will be a true democracy, one day. As Barack Obama is sworn in for his second term, the nation aches with a desire for forward motion.

Thomas Jefferson wrote, in what is perhaps the most effective, action-oriented treatise on democracy, that “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all [people] are created equal, endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Near the start of his 2nd inaugural address, Pres. Obama said “Today we continue a never-ending journey to bridge the meaning of those words with the reality of our time, for history tells us that while those truths may be self-evident, they have never been self-executing.” He described the essence of the challenge we all face as that generational and never-ending effort “to keep safe our founding creed.”

The first truth of democracy is that all human beings are conscious spirits with a right to make decisions about their fate and the circumstances of the society in which they live. The second truth is that our life, our liberty and our pursuit of happiness, focus most intently on the intimate relationships that constitute the substance of our lived experience: family, chosen and cherished friendships, and romantic love.

The poet Marilyn Chin said in an interview in 2012 that “the bliss of eros must sooner or later be interrupted by the bad news of the world.” This, of course, is the cause of much rebellion, mistrust and conflict: I may find my corner of relative erotic, familial or community bliss, but degradations rooted elsewhere will, somehow, creep back in. We are challenged to address the failings of the social structures we inhabit.

It is then the work of our romantic, familial, community and individual selves, in the space of our democracy, to bring human souls together in a viable fabric of meaning, which can thrive and defy and make magic, even in the face of the hoax-math, illusion and tragedy, so active around the edges of the political sphere.

The fact is: that interference of the world in our affairs is also part of what it is to live in a democracy. The third truth of democracy is that it acts as a framework through which we can take a measure of collective or composite ethical conscience. What Chin calls “the cries of those less fortunate” are an existential summons to each of us.

That summons requires that we ask ourselves: Are we up to the ethical challenge of forging “a more perfect union”—an optimal commonwealth in which the benefits of democracy, however local or remote, accrue genuinely and irrevocably to all people? Are we free enough to do so? Can we be the democracy we seek, unafraid of any challenge, unwilling to cast aside any human being?

Senator Lamar Alexander, Republican of Tennessee, cited the author of Roots, Alex Haley, who said he had lived his life by six simple words: “Find the good, and praise it.” He was speaking, in this case, of the peaceful transition of power, how we recognize and honor the inauguration of a democratically elected president, without mob violence, rebellion or political disintegration.

Alexander subtly hinted at the challenge his party now faces, after four years of relentless and nearly uniform attacks on Pres. Obama and his legislative agenda. It is necessary to recognize that the inauguration of Barack Obama for a second term, and the peaceful transition of power that comes with it, are in themselves a triumph for democracy and human liberty, and so his party will need to find the true heart of their commitment to public service, praise the good in our system and in the work of this president, and collaborate constructively for the benefit of the nation.

Merly Evers-Williams, widow of Medgar Evers, asked God to bless “all those who contribute” to constructively serving the improvement and upkeep of our democracy. She added that “We ask you to grant our president the will to act courageously but cautiously when confronted by danger… to act prudently but deliberately when faced with adversity…” and to “strengthen us for the journey that lies ahead.”

Firm in his call for principled, pragmatic problem-solving that honors the dignity of all people, Pres. Obama revived his call for people in public life to see beyond the perceived boundaries of party or class, declaring that “Through blood born by lash and blood spilled by war, we have learned that no nation can survive half-slave and half-free.”

For a long time, Barack Obama’s warning that “a chorus of cynics” would tell us that achieving a “more perfect union”, rooted in the core truths of democracy, is not possible, rang all too true. For the years 2009-2012, cynics took this propaganda to a radical extreme, going as far as to suggest, at almost any opportunity, that efforts to provide for a more democratic, liberated and resilient American experience, must be an expression of “hatred” toward America, an attempt to “destroy” American families, or to “crush” the spirit of free enterprise.

Over that time, however, we have witnessed the persistence of humane imaginative patriotism, in the face of so much naked cynicism. Efforts to adjust problematic policy standards, to allow for a more democratic, liberated and resilient American experience, and to build that more perfect union, have proven to be expressions of love for America, for its history, its people and their future, attempts to empower families and breathe life into the collaborative creative spirit of enterprise that undergirds American democracy, the middle class, Main Street and the aspirations of hundreds of millions.

Pres. Obama specifically noted this element of his agenda and of American culture more broadly, saying “Our celebration of initiative and enterprise, our insistence on hard work … are constants in our character.” He added that public servants need to consider that “preserving our individual freedoms ultimately requires collective action,” a requirement that defines the meaning of their work in the sweep of American life.

The 2012 election seems to have been a national vote in favor of Robert Kennedy’s faithful admonition that “The American dream need not forever be deferred.” The people of the United States have voted for possibility, demanding that the Congress join the president in moving American democracy forward intelligently and with respect for life at the human scale.

The president’s voice nearly cracked when speaking of the “many who barely make it” in our economy. He sought to set the tone for how to address economic inequity and systematized community degradation, saying that “While the means will change, our purpose endures: a nation that rewards the efforts and determination of every single citizen.”

The president promised: “We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations,” also noting that “The commitments we make to each other … do not sap our initiative … they free us” to be the society we hope to be. He added that we cannot afford to cede the clean energy transition to other nations, saying that achieving that position of world leadership will give meaning to our creed.

In two statements that received resounding applause, the president said that security does not require “perpetual war” and reminded members of Congress that “We cannot mistake absolutism for principle or substitute spectacle for politics.”

Taking the long view of democracy, he sought to frame the nature of pro-active social policy reform, saying “We must act knowing our victories will be only partial, and that it will be up to those who stand here four years, and forty years, and four hundred years hence,” to make good on the promise of our founding.

Richard Blanco’s solemn, generous and deliberative poem cast the moment in the light of a collective joy at having the opportunity that is a true democracy, if we can manifest it. A partial transcription:

A simple truth … charging across the Rockies … told by our silent gestures … millions of faces in morning’s mirrors … pencil-yellow school buses … apples and oranges, arranged like rainbows, begging our praise … on our way … to ring up groceries, as my mother did, for 20 years, so I could write this poem, for all of us … equations to solve, history confronted or atoms imagined … the impossible vocabulary of sorrow that won’t explain the tragedy of 20 children marked ‘absent’ today and every day … one ground, our ground, rooting us to ever stalk of corn, every head of wheat sown by sweat and hands … hands gleaning coal or planting windmills that keep us warm … one breath … breathe … hear it through the din … hear the doors we open each day for each other, saying Hello, Shalom, Buon Giorno … Namaste or Buenos Días, in the language my mother taught me … one wind … one sky … thank the work of our hands … stitching another wound … the last floor on the Freedom Tower, jutting toward the sky that yields to our resilience … sometimes giving thanks for a love that loves you back … forgiving … heading home … through the plum blush of dusk … always home … one sky, our sky, and always one moon … all of us, facing the stars, Hope: a new constellation waiting for us to map it, waiting for us to name it, together…

Pres. Obama ended his address with an explicit recognition of that vital ethical summons: “Let us answer the call of history, and carry into an uncertain future that precious light of freedom.” There is a mandate, now, for collaborative creative problem-solving and principled progress toward full democracy and genuinely open opportunity, at the human scale.

As Lucie Brock-Broido has written: “Make a fist for heart. That is the size of it.” Citizenship is about honoring the great strength of people honoring the dignity of human connections; democracy is about the fabric of informed conscience and shared interest citizens enact, to protect the liberties of each by opening liberty to all.

Beyond the Perverse Politics of Partisan Sabotage

A desperate situation has overtaken the national organizing structure of the Republican Party: the party’s primary electorate is heavily skewed by radical anti-government fringe politics, while the national culture has shifted—demographically and ideologically—away from right-wing jingoism and militancy. The party’s leadership no longer has adequate friendly political affiliation throughout the base and the rank-and-file.

Consequently, some observers now believe the party has been rendered functionally irrelevant. It talks of austerity, fiscal responsibility, small government and tax cuts, but its actions show a pathological disregard for the actual wellbeing of the American people and the security of the national economy. It may be possible to show that the tug-of-war between a pseudo-populist fringe base and top-level billionaire funding interests is doing this to the party.

The perverse politics that requires the party to adopt a hapless “burn-it-down” attitude toward nearly every issue of major structural relevance to the future of our economy—healthcare reform, tax policy, immigration, assault weapons, the debt ceiling, the funding of earned entitlements and the fiscal cliff negotiations—may seem irrevocable. But there are some easy things Republican leaders can do to pull their party back from the brink.

First of all, it became clear to most astute observers that despite the wild inspirational quality of the 2008 election environment, both Pres. Obama’s governing style and the mood of the country, confronted with such pervasive and long-running economic and security perils, were nudging the political apparatus of the country toward a focus on pragmatic problem solving. In 2010, the Republican Party misunderstood that mood change, instead retrenching into a deep ideological groove, and in 2012, the election clearly showed support for Pres. Obama as the leader in this pragmatic problem-solving mission.

So, to abandon ideology and adopt an approach to principle pragmatic problem-solving, committing to work with anyone willing to do the hard work of governing and serving, is a necessary first step toward regaining relevance and taking part in important national achievements. The president has consistently made the case that he is doing this, and the public has supported him in that effort. The top-level Republican leadership needs to steer its next-level legislative leadership into this mode, to help organize a party-wide transformation that will allow for more reasoned, more rational negotiating on issues like the negotiations about the Bush tax cut expiration and budget sequestration—the twin perils that have become known as “the fiscal cliff”.

Here’s how that can happen:

  • Walk away from lame duck Grover Norquist, whose zero taxes ever pledge is now seen by most Americans as a direct threat to the nation;
  • Reimagine the meaning of the word “entitlement”—to most Americans, and as a matter of law, entitlements are “earned benefits”;
  • Commit to acting with profound respect toward those earned benefits and basic services (like quality education) that no citizen is willing to give up;
  • Walk the walk on Constitutional liberties and immigration: small government and family values are incompatible with an effort to round up 15 million people, throw them in camps, then send them out of the country;
  • Get with the Dreamers: people view the DREAM Act concept as integral to the American Dream and conducive to a more prosperous and democratic future;
  • Be rational about Defense: from 2001 to 2012, the Pentagon budget expanded nearly four-fold, due to two ongoing wars, which are now ending;
  • Make a deal with Obama that shows genuine willingness to compromise: that means give without crippling the nation;

Most Americans believe Pres. Obama has consistently shown willingness to bend, to find the compromise necessary to serve the interests of the American people. Polls show most Americans will blame Congressional Republicans if a deal is not reached. Pres. Obama has rightly said the nation “cannot afford a politically self-inflicted wound” to the economy.

The Fiscal Cliff negotiations are an incomparable opportunity for the Republican leadership to eschew the logic of partisan sabotage as an organizing principle, and act in service of the American people.

Today’s Republican Party Cannot Save Itself

The national strategic and organizing structure of the Republican Party cannot save itself. It has become functionally obsolete. The strategy adopted two generations ago—whereby the Republican Party essentially bet everything on the perceived reliability and uniformity of the white male vote—is no longer a serious strategy, no matter how cynical your point of view. The party needs a dramatic infusion of new ideas, more moderate thinkers and genuinely centrist strategy.

A combination of demographic shifts and Republican radicalism has allowed the Democratic Party to hold both the far left and the broad center of the American political spectrum. There are a number of Democratic members of the House and the Senate who are more conservative than many Reagan-era Republicans. A sclerotic adherence to ideological dogma, in many cases without any foundation in the historical or economic record, has led GOP leadership to disavow even those Democrats who could help make a more moderate GOP relevant.

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Future Voting: Free, Fair, Efficient

We need to admit two things about elections: first, they need to be 100% citizen-centered; second, citizens need to go the extra mile whenever necessary to make elections work. The first point is about legitimacy; the second is about making sure we can have it, given the imperfection of all systems known to date. Every since the year 2000, in the United States, there has been evidence that our voting systems are not 100% secure, efficient and legitimate.

The third thing we need to say about elections is that they really do decide, to some degree, the future. All elections are future elections, and all elections should live up to that responsibility. We can build a better system, if we prioritize:

  • 100% accuracy in capturing votes
  • voter-verified redundancy (a paper trail)
  • inviolable ballot security
  • 100% voter access to vote
  • rapid, reliably error-free count

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Two-party System: Envelope Pushed to Limit?

New coalitions are needed, to do the work we need done.

It is time to take a hard look in the mirror once again. Our democracy is an indirect democracy, so much so that we don’t even vote directly for our preferred candidates for president and vice president; we vote for the slate of “electors” who will in turn cast votes for them. In 2000, we saw the tremendous flaws inherent in this process and how it was originally designed to ensure “the mob” would not rule. The Senate was originally not chosen by the people at all. The mechanism for removing corrupt or ideologically biased Supreme Court justices is virtually non-existent, though it does, in theory, exist.

We can, through the House of Representatives, have more or less “direct” access to our elected representatives, and at lower levels of government, citizen involvement is not only eminently possible, and fairly commonplace, but urgently necessary. As Pres. Obama said on election night, this year: “America has never been about what can be done for us. It’s about what can be done by us, together, through the hard and frustrating but necessary work of self-government. That’s the principle we were founded on.”

Self government is not easy; indeed, it is “hard and frustrating”, and “necessary”, if we are to have anything like a just society with a legitimate form of civilian rule. Democracy is not for the faint of heart, but it is for all of us. And, when we look in the mirror, in the year 2012, we can see that the two-party duopoly does not adequately express the aspirations, concerns, demands and creative collaborative potential of the American people. All too often, the choice between the parties seems to be a choice to counter the vices and inadequacies of the party that has been governing. Instead of the aspirational politics exemplified by the unique phenomenon of Obama’s two campaigns, we normally have something like the most reductive form of a constructive experiment in the peaceful transition of power.

In 2006, Democrats swept to power amid revelations of rampant corruption in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives. In 2008, a relative newcomer to the United States Senate, Barack Obama built a campaign of more than 13 million supporters and participants, an online network bigger than either party itself, secured record numbers of donations from record numbers of “small donors”, amounting to a record overall campaign warchest. The national passion for this de facto third party challenger to the inertia of the duopoly won him nearly 70 million votes, far more than any candidate in US history.

The response from Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, was to organize every action any member of his caucus would take, for the next four years, around the singular purpose of “destroying the Obama presidency”. (One might argue McConnell and his gang of pirates—the meaning of “filibuster” refers to 17th- and 18th-century piracy in the Mediterranean—have now forfeited all credibility, having sworn themselves to the sabotage of the American experience, for the sole purpose of getting rid of the most widely supported US president in history, but no one seems to be making that case, at the moment.)

In 2010, a billionaire-funded “astroturf” movement calling itself “the Tea Party” made an attempt to take over the Republican party, posing as populists but with an agenda to hand control of the party irreversibly to big business interests. Low voter turnout and a surge of populist fervor on the right, swept the Republicans back to power in the House of Representatives. The result has been “divided government” of a kind that is not only sclerotic and vitriolic, but unbelievably counterproductive and corrosive to American democracy.

Bipartisanship has been cast by Republicans as a betrayal on a par with treason, and campaign literature has consistently shown a reluctance to move toward any less emotionally unstable conceptualization of democracy. Hysteria and propaganda have replaced constructive problem-solving as first-order priorities for too many of our public officials. Part of the reason for that is the very real and warranted fear that the other side will, inevitably, regain power, at some point. Coalition-building is not rewarded as much as it should be in an open democracy.

On election night, this year, Republican strategists, from moderates through to fiscal and even social conservatives, spoke surprisingly openly about the party’s existential peril, going forward. If the Republican party wants to remain “a national party”, said Steve Schmidt, top adviser to the McCain campaign in 2008, it will need to diversify. The Romney campaign should be, he and others argued, the last Republican campaign that bets the farm on thinly veiled white supremacist language and the language of patriarchy and opposition to the rights of women and immigrants.

As the Republican party’s market appeal shrinks, necessarily, and the vote of young people, women and minority groups, expands, the party has two choices: moderate the extremist discourse that has been dominating the party’s national agenda or be relegated to the right-wing fringe. So far, the party has held off this inevitable reckoning with a hysterical cry against “socialist” domination of the American political system—and by socialist, they mean Democratic.

But that will only work for so long. The Democratic party is not a socialist party, and its way of creating, funding, maintaining and improving social service systems is decidedly more democratic and grassroots-focused than any European socialist system. The system of social services we have was largely created by the Democratic party, and so a moderate Democratic party—which is what we have—now sits astride the political center, more genuinely conservative on many issues than the Republican radicals calling for “2nd Amendment options” against the system we as a nation have established by way of democratic process.

As the Republican party shifts more and more to the right, the Democratic party is freed to take over more and more of the political center, and it has done so. The United States Senate and the House of Representatives both include Democratic members that are more conservative than most Republican presidents of the 20th century, even some more conservative than George W. Bush and Mitt Romney. And of course there are real liberals, unapologetically committed to the social agenda of human liberation and civil rights.

The Democratic party is positioned to own the system for a generation, if the other half of the duopoly falters. And it has faltered. In 2012, the Republican party was unable to muster even a single credible presidential candidate. Mitt Romney was never trusted by the American people, and his naming of Paul Ryan to the ticket was a weak-kneed attempt to appear serious on a single issue, where his party has been unable to propose any constructive solutions.

The Republican campaign flailed back and forth, desperately, from extremist Randian anti-Christian feudalism to pro-plutocracy to arbitrarily applied Christian fundamentalism, to grasping at straws on taxes, social policy, immigration, jobs and the environment. The Republican party campaign apparatus became a lie factory, spending over a billion dollars on absurd claims, not supported by facts, and which did not produce in the minds of voters even one clear, coherent message about actual policy planning.

Nate Silver was right to put the odds of Obama’s re-election as over 70%, then over 80%, and eventually over 90%, as it became clear that voters did not like Romney, did not trust Romney, did not support eliminating Medicare—virtually the only policy plan publicly stated by the campaign—, and did not believe they would ever know enough about Romney in order to believe he was on their side. Even Republicans consistently shared such feelings with pollsters and the press.

So, this week the political press is awash in talk about Obama’s great “coalition”, bringing together minority groups, social interest groups, the traditional Democratic “base” and even “smart money”—the kind of affluent political thinkers who understand they actually do better in a more equitable economy, led by a Democratic president, than they do in a laissez-faire economy where consumers are poorer and poorer over time. But what coalition exists to rival that new center-left? At present: none.

But for some time, it has been evident that there is a natural, if awkward, affinity between the Green Party and the Libertarian Party and the grassroots movements they aspire to represent. Both favor genuine liberation of the individual in civil rights and jurisprudence; both favor a ground-up democracy, not a top-down democracy; both favor participatory consensus-building over party committee rule. Both have a genuine appeal to make to middle class voters, on the potential of crafting policies that will humanize government, build quality of life for communities and rationalize our politics.

As the shift away from the old Republican way continues, the Republican party will have one crucial decision to make that will affect us all: will it moderate its discourse, open its doors to newcomers, embrace constructive pragmatic problem solving and socially viable 21st century individual and community liberation, or will it continue to move to the extremist fringe? If it comes back to the world the rest of us inhabit, the two party system might go on for some time.

If it does not, a Green-Libertarian grassroots alliance will be poised to assimilate the most intelligent and constructive voices from the Occupy movement, even the Tea Party grassroots, and certainly from committed independents, and might have enough appeal, over the next few election cycles, to become the 2nd party nationally by 2020. The rise of Barack Obama illustrated perfectly how a true insurgent, more focused on letting the voices of his supporters emerge from the background noise, can rapidly replace the old guard, when democracy comes to its truer expression.

Look now for opportunities to bridge the divide between Libertarians and Greens. Look now for opportunities to build grassroots coalitions that will influence or replace out-of-date partisans, starting at the local level. Look for opportunities like the Senate campaign of Bill Barron, in Utah—a principled independent running to restore genuine thinking about life at the human scale to our discussion about environment, energy, economics and industry. Look for ways to find your voice within the fabric of our “hard and frustrating, but necessary” democratic process for making public policy and law.

2012 is not a “mandate” for divided government; it is a reminder that we need a more thoughtful political system, where creative collaborative problem-solving is the norm, not the critically endangered species. The new era of constructive coalition-building starts now.

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