Sunday, October 28, 2012

Confessions of an Undecided Voter

Sometimes it's easy to decide who to vote for. Elaine Nekritz and Julie Morrison have my support. They are both good people with strong credentials and records, I generally agree with their views, and their opponents are both scary.

But like a lot of people, I am having trouble deciding which presidential candidate to vote for. Certainly I won't be voting for Romney. On too many issues, he appears to have no idea what he is talking about, and when he does articulate a clear policy, it is usually one that will hurt more people than it will help.

Although I tend to vote for Democrats, I am having trouble convincing myself to vote for Obama. Too often, he has turned his back on the principles he espoused and the constituencies that supported him when he was first running for office. I can't find any reason to think he will be any more courageous or effective in a second term than he was in his first.

Fortunately, Obama is making it easy for me to not support him by sending strong signals that he doesn't care whether or not I vote for him. He hasn't campaigned in Illinois where I live. He seems to assume, as do many analysts, that he will win this state without making any effort. Like any other candidate, if he doesn't think he needs me, I don't see any reason to argue with him.

There is a Green party candidate, Jill Stein, who may get my vote. I'd be shocked if she won Illinois or any other state, but maybe this is a good time to help third parties get a larger voice in our elections. Some of my Democratic friends will be upset with me if I don't back the entire ticket, but I know that a lot of them haven't been very happy with Obama either, even if they have been making apologies for him.

I can't really think of any reason not to vote Green, but still, I haven't decided for sure. The two-party system is ingrained in me. I recall Ralph Nader, Ross Perot, John Anderson, and George Wallace. Parts of some of their campaigns were good for the country. Parts were irrelevant. Some of their efforts may have helped elect people who we would have been better off not electing.

It would have been nice if the media had given Stein more coverage. She could have changed the dynamic of the debates, which were pretty boring. I don't really know why the media lets the Republicans and Democrats monopolize our political life, but I don't like it.

My most difficult choices will be in races where neither the Republican nor Democratic candidates are attractive but there are no third party alternatives. I don't like to leave a ballot blank, but neither do I like being forced to choose between people who are equally unlikely to move the country in the directions I think it needs to go, and I resent that some Democratic candidates seem to assume that they will get my vote no matter what they stand for and how offensive their campaigning is.

I have heard partisans disparage people who don't make up their minds until they get into the voting booths, implying that indecision is a result of not being informed or of not having strong opinions. In my case they are wrong. I'm pretty well informed politically, and my opinions are well developed. I just don't like some of the choices I am being given.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

It's Not the Economy, Stupid

Having just talked with people from all across America as I rode from Chicago to the West Coast on Amtrak, I am convinced that both the Romney and Obama campaigns are wrong in thinking that the most important issue on people's minds is the economy. People understand that the worldwide economy is changing. They don't expect any president to be able to single-handedly bring back the prosperity that our country enjoyed during most of the past sixty years. They don't believe either candidate's promises to create jobs. Yes, people are hurting financially. But they are not looking to the president to fix their situation by cutting taxes or instituting new programs.

What people want from candidates is honesty, and they don't feel like they are getting it from either the Republican or the Democrat. Unemployed fifty-five year olds know they aren't going to retrain for exciting new careers in green energy. They know that no matter how skilled they become as X-Ray technicians or welders, employers will hire younger workers. They don't want to spend a year or two taking courses at community colleges, and they sure don't want to be racking up student loans.

What people want is some security. They want to know that even if they don't find work, they will get medical care and they will get a social security check to help them get by. But instead of talking about the kinds of systemic changes that are needed in order to bring our country's health care system up to the same level as the rest of the developed world, politicians are talking about fixing the national deficit, which is something that very few people understand and which has little real relevance to most voters. Instead of showing the people how their government will make sure that they are able to meet their basic human needs, politicians in both parties are playing slight-of-hand tricks with numbers. The people are not fooled. They know the difference between reality and illusion.

It has been sixty five years since the U.S. fought a war that most people think we needed to fight, which means that nearly every person who will vote in the upcoming elections knows that we don't need to be wasting more than half of our national budget on our military. But with two billion dollars already having been spent on just this one election, no one is hearing a word about that. They are hearing about abortion and every other issue that the politicians think can be used to divide people from their neighbors.

The people are not as stupid as the politicians seem to believe they are. The people know the politicians are trying to frighten them. What the politicians don't seem to understand is that people are already terrified. People know that the American dominance of the world economy is gone, and they sense that it won't return for a very long time. They can accept that. They just want someone to talk honestly about what comes next. Romney and Obama don't want to talk about that.

From the Great Plains to the Rockies to the ocean, Americans are frightened, frustrated, and angry. They are not fools, but they feel that their politicians are treating them as if they were. It may be too late for either Romney or Obama to start talking straight with the American people. Any change of strategy or message would be viewed as a desperation move. So the campaigns will almost certainly keep talking around in circles, and the voters will almost certainly feel disgusted the day after the election.

The past two years of campaigning have been almost a complete waste of everyone's time. They have not been enlightening, and the candidates have not given the people what they want and need. The campaigns should not have been about the economy, they should have been about the people, and we're not stupid.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

"Be Nice" Isn't Enough

Last evening, I was in an audience made up mostly of parents of high school students. We had come to hear the lecture that was presented earlier in the day to the entire student body. The presenter was the uncle of a girl who had been among thirteen people who were shot to death at Columbine High School in 1999. His message was simple: we should all be nice to one another.

The speaker didn't say a word about the gun culture in America, the issue of gun control, or how it was that the two killers at Columbine were able to get hold of the weapons and ammunition they used. He didn't mention that just a couple of months ago there was another shooting just down the road from the Columbine shooting which killed another twelve people at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado. He didn't mention that even after the Columbine shooting, Colorado law allows people to carry concealed weapons nearly everywhere, including on college campuses.

The speaker didn't talk about people committing suicide using guns, which happens much more often than mass shootings and kills far more people. He didn't say a word about mental illness, which contributes to a large number of shootings. He didn't talk about poverty, racism, or the gang shootings which arise out of urban ghettos. All he talked about was one shooting incident, and the only message he derived from it was that we should all be nice to one another.

It was a simple message. It would appeal to people who like the “Just Say No” approach to drug abuse, even though that approach has been proven to be ineffective. It would appeal to people who don't want to deal with the complexities of the gun-violence problem.

If everyone took the speaker's advice, some shootings might be avoided. But a lot more would still happen. People get depressed even if other people are nice to them. People who are taught that violence is a legitimate solution to problems use violence in response to the challenges they face, even if they see someone wearing a rubber bracelet that encourages them to have a nice day. People who have guns at hand use them when they are angry, frightened, confused, drunk, or just bored.

“Be Nice” may be a message that soothes suburban parents' anxiety, but it is largely irrelevant to the types of people who end up in the headlines because of who they shot. It's a nice message for kindergartners, but way too simple for high-school students and their parents. Unless we take a more meaningful look at what is causing the shootings which are daily occurrences across our country, we can expect the shootings to continue unabated.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Business Experience

When Dan Seals was running for Congress full-time, Republicans and some Democrats said he wasn't qualified because he was just trying to land a job. They said he didn't have enough business experience to serve in Congress.

When Bob Dold first ran for Congress, some Democrats gleefully turned the tables and attacked him for not having really managed his family business as he claimed. They pointed out that he was named president of his parents' pest control business just in time for the election, and that his resume showed that he was so busy working on various political staffs outside Illinois that he couldn't possibly have been the business executive that he pretended to be.

Two years later, when Ilya Sheyman ran for the Democratic nomination to run against Dold, he was attacked for being too young and not having enough business experience to know how to help the country get out of the recession. Republicans had fun joining some Democrats who were making these attacks.

Now, Bob Dold is saying that Brad Schneider doesn't really have the business experience that he claims to have. Dold and his backers say that Schneider's consulting company didn't show a profit for the past few years, and that his business credentials are therefore invalid.

The cycle is complete. A pattern has been established. Democrats and Republicans in the 10th District attack each other every election on exactly the same personal issue. Candidates are judged, among other things, on whether they are rich enough and have enough business experience. Neither Mother Theresa, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., or Jesus Christ would do very well if judged by this standard. Very few people who unselfishly devote their lives to public service would.

Despite weekly exhortations from the pulpit that we should devote our lives not to the quest for wealth but to the pursuit of more significant goals, and despite sanctimonious pronouncements on MLK Day by politicians that we should judge one another by the contents of our characters, it is obvious that some politicians think the real criteria we should use to select our leaders is whether they have somehow accumulated a lot of money.

Americans used to tell each other that a person shouldn't be discouraged if they stumbled. The important thing was whether you got up, dusted yourself off, and tried again. But in the 10th District the ethos has changed. Now, it doesn't matter how determined you are. If you don't manage to make a lot of money in business, you are branded a failure in all aspects of life, and particularly unacceptable as a politician.

If government was a business, it might make sense to elect only business people to office. But government is supposed to be more than that. It is supposed to be the instrument of the will of all people. If success at business was due only to skill, it might make sense to elect only skilled business people. But success at business is due to a lot of things other than skill, including luck. If the only measure of success in business was money, we could decide who to vote for simply by looking at their bank accounts and investments. But for business people, success should also be measured by how they treat their customers, suppliers, employees, competitors, and the world.

Neither Democrats or Republicans will say that they prefer to live in a plutocracy, where the wealthy govern, rather than in a democracy, where the people rule themselves. But in the 10th District, it seems like plutocrats are what some people in both parties want.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Romney's Desperation

On the eve of the first presidential debate, with the polls showing Romney trailing and losing support, Republicans decided that their only hope of winning the election is to remind people that President Barack Obama is black and then hope for a racist reaction. They got Fox News to air a recording of Obama speaking in 2007 and to have the Fox commentators push the message that because Obama says he is concerned about the poor and minorities, he is bad for white people.

The video was nothing new. It was shown over and over by Fox during Obama's first presidential campaign. Obama responded to it, and the voters decided not to take the bait that Fox was dangling in front of them. America elected a black man.

One might think that Republicans would have something new to say this election because they can point to Obama's record as president and make their arguments. But apparently, having tried that and seen that it isn't working, Romney's supporters have decided to once again see if they can win the presidency by appealing to racists.

What does Romney have to say about this type of campaigning? So far he hasn't objected. He knows his campaign is in trouble, and he is willing to go along with whatever he is told might help. This does not prove that Romney is a racist. It just shows that he is willing to go along with the race-based strategy.

There shouldn't have been much doubt that this is how Romney would act. Way back when there were a dozen or so candidates in the Republican primaries, the insiders were always lined up on Romney's side. They weren't going to back someone who might show some independence and perhaps turn on them in the future on some issue or other. They wanted what they always want in a candidate – someone who will do what he is told.

The Republicans aren't the only ones who look for compliance above all else. That's what the Democrats were looking for, too, in 2008, which is why Obama spent his term as a senator doing little other than scratching backs. He knew that to get the Democrats to nominate him, the powerful and wealthy insiders of his party would have to be reassured that he would go along with their agenda. It shouldn't be a surprise to anyone that he responded to the fiscal crisis by bailing out powerful people and companies, that he hasn't prosecuted any of them for their crimes, and he hasn't done anything to reduce the concentration in the industries whose concentration helped cause the crisis. They are still too big to fail, and some of them have gotten bigger.

The most powerful dynamic in American politics, and probably all over the world, is personal relationships. The universal lubricant in politics is wealth. Powerful people use them both to perpetuate their positions. This happens not just at the presidential level, but all the way down to the local school boards and village governments. It happens in township political organizations. It happens on church and charity boards.

For the moment, Romney's rich and powerful backers are making a desperate effort to save his candidacy. But they aren't really worried. In a few weeks, regardless of which candidate wins, they will still have plenty of influence and power. And in a few weeks, the great majority of Americans will still feel shut out, which is why the racial campaigning failed against Obama in 2008 and why it will fail this time. People understand that the divide in America isn't Black against White – it is insiders and their money against everyone else. Sadly, neither major party has much to offer all the everyone elses.