Friday, February 10, 2012

Let's talk politics: an open letter to America

A gentleman never discusses religion, politics, or sex. However, I never claimed to be a gentleman. In all honesty, politics is my absolute least favorite topic to discuss. Not because I'm uninformed, but just the very nature of how politics is handled in every day conversation. Politics has become such an adversarial and biting topic for discussion, and any disagreement politically devolves so quickly into judgmental and derogatory name calling contest.
I'm fucking sick of it.
Politics, and the way Americans as a society now deal with it, is so far broken that people just want nothing to do with it anymore. This is terrible. A country that is ostensibly led “by and for the people” has disconnected itself from its own government in such a way that our government and elected leaders are now picked by about a third of people who can vote.
So before we go any further, I'm gonna shine a light on myself here. I want no misgivings about what you are reading, and whom the author is. So when it comes down to my politics, I tend to fall into the camp of the following things (and this is over-simplifying, which is something I'll do a few times here:)
I am registered either as an independent, or with no political affiliation. I don't quite remember because it was ten years ago.
Socially, I am a liberal, no question. I support women's and gay rights, and equal treatment under the law for all law-abiding citizens.
Fiscally, I'm definitely on both sides of the fence. I do support social programs that benefit the poor and impoverished, I believe in universal healthcare for all, and I believe we should be a country that benefits all of her people. On the same note, I do agree with a more conservative view that people should always try their hardest to be self-sustaining, and that a social safety net is only a means to catch you, so that you might pick yourself up and start climbing.
I am an atheist.
All this said, I want you to understand that I am writing this NOT to attempt to win anybody over to my way of political belief, and I believe that 80% of what is to come is applicable to 100% of the American voting population, period. There is one point later on where I most definitely will spout off for a paragraph or so about my personal view on a current political issue, but I'll put big stars around it and make sure you know where I'm editorializing, and I'll try to keep it brief. A rant by a 27-year-old American citizen who cares, in four acts.

An additional disclaimer here: I may be not entirely correct on my facts in this article, but any time I use information here, I either a) quote the source, or b) take full responsibility for any way I may have misconstrued a factual argument or piece of information.

Where did we go wrong?

If I had to pick a date, the day that American politics began to fall apart, it would have to be September 11, 2001. It's an unfair day to pick, and voter apathy is much much older than that, but it was on that date that a process began that would turn that feeling of voter apathy into something resembling bitter, divisive rage.
At the time, the internet was not the go-to for delivering news, and although television news was still causing a steady downward trend, newspapers were the choice du jour for how people consumed information. There were a few young channels though, that were nationwide, 24-hour news. They did not have the highest of viewership at the time, but they did well by offering a little more convenience than newspapers, in that any breaking story could be communicated and updated in real time, and it was on 24 hours a day so you no longer had to wait for the 7/12/5/11 o'clock news for major stories. The parent networks no longer had to override their regular scheduled programs for every news event.
Then, 9/11.
A moment when every single person in the country had a want, a need, to get every bit of information possible about a tragedy unfolding at that moment. I myself remember being glued to the television for days, watching the scenes over and over again, seeing people being pulled from the wreckage in real time. It was important, and compelling, and it mattered.
     Television channels, in the end, are businesses. They make money through ad revenue, and the only way to increase that revenue is by getting more money from advertisers, and the only way to get that money is by getting as many eyeballs on their screens as possible. So they chose not to waste this opportunity by creating several shows, and several new networks, and filled the 24 hours of television by adding in news analysis and editorials. Now, before this point, when people were seeking editorial commentary they would look in specific places. Rush Limbaugh, for instance, has made his career editorializing the modern political structure. People understood that this was what he did. When they read a newspaper, the sections of analysis and editorials were clearly labeled.
Now, however, these 24 hour news channels were not only delivering news, they were also creating and airing hours upon hours of editorial shows, and 'debate' shows (which rarely offered actual informative debate, but instead ended up being two old white guys yelling at each other until they were red in the face), and shows to offer the “what it really means” side of the news. The problem is that almost every single one of these programs, airing on channels that labeled themselves as “fair and balanced” or “just the facts” and promising information without bias, were clogging their schedules with exactly the opposite.
I will never argue the utility and usefulness of 24 hour news when it comes to major events that impact the world, 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, the earthquakes and floods in Haiti, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, and many other events around the world. The instant and constant attention and delivery are good, and effective. But the other 350 days of the year need to entertain the viewers to keep them watching, and therein lay the birth of sensational journalism.
Stories that, however factual and true they may be, got a lot more attention than they deserve, and more attention than other bigger issues. Not because people needed to be informed of these events, but merely because they were the most entertaining news stories.
“What does all of this have to do with politics?” I hear you ask. Here is your answer: the soundbite (or, tongue-in-cheek, the 'soundbyte.')
It saw its first inklings decades ago, and rose to meteoric levels after the rise of 24 hour news. Not only were journalists (and more importantly editorialists and analysts) compacting political messages into quick 2-5 second soundbites, they were now able to deliver them several times an hour. They were boiling political campaigns into sentences and phrases that over-simplified complicated and important issues.
And because the marketing teams in political campaigns are smart, they understood the sensationalized nature of modern journalism, so the more powerfully, succinctly, and controversially they could word their messages, the more the news would repeat them, and the more people would hear them.

A personal aside here: as a writer, explanations are best kept brief, but you need to deliver all relevant information. On the other hand, insults lend themselves very well to brevity, colorful language, and sharp, memorable wording. So you can see where the whole line of communication was headed.

George W. Bush, in his own way, was perfect in helping this evolve. It's no secret he was not the world's greatest orator. Beside that, he had a penchant for the most hyperbolic language I have ever heard from an elected official. The word 'evildoer' entered into public discourse solely on his shoulders. But it was this kind of speech that, because it became so commonplace, it naturally took up residence in political rhetoric.
Words that before had a level of civility to their nature changed. 'Opponent' became synonymous with 'enemy.' The same happened to 'debate' and 'fight.' Congress no longer 'discussed' bills, they 'argued' over them. In the last twelve years, think of how many times you have heard politicians used the following words when describing their fellow politicians: Nazi, Communist, Brownshirt, Socialist, Enemy, Worst, Ruined, the list goes on and on. This language at best only serves to demean other human beings, and at its worst cheapens the dialogue in politics and our country.

(I heard an interview a few years ago with a senator (I don't remember who) from a state that had both a Republican and Democrat serving together, and they had served together for years. He said that ten years ago, when they left the senate floor at the end of the day, they would get drinks together, have dinner together, that he never had a problem being friendly and socializing with people on both sides of the aisle outside of their job. He went on to say the mood in Washington has changed so drastically that he and his fellow senator hardly even speak anymore. That even in the lunch room, the senators break off and only sit with the others in their party.)

Voter Apathy

My generation, 'the 35 and under' are the least likely to vote, with turnouts generally ranging way under 50% (source) and declining almost every election. Compare this to those over 45, who consistently turnout in numbers in the 60-70% range. Now I know that this is typical, that as we age we understand more and more the importance of being politically aware, blah blah blah.
Where I see the problem is in the steady decline. As younger generations are raised, the less they care about politics.
It's impossible to say with ANY accuracy as to why this is, but from my experience and discussions with people of many ages, I'm willing to venture a guess, and I think most of you may agree.
My parents are on the young end of the Baby Boomer generation, and I'm definitely on the young end of the Boom-lets, but as generations, both separately and together, our experiences with American politics haven't really been the best. The Baby Boomers, as a generation, dealt with the following things as they grew into adults and shaped their opinions of government:
First, and most importantly, Television. There's been many books, essays, etc written about the effect of TV on politics, so if you don't understand why this is important, there are ready and available resources out there just for you.
To continue down the list, the assassination of a president, Watergate and the following resignation of a president, stagflation, the oil crises of '73 and '79, a wildly unpopular, undeclared, and arguably unconstitutional war in which the US was not being threatened by another country, (two, technically) The Cold War and it's resultant exponential increase in government military spending, a military draft and conscription...
  It's no surprise that this generation felt fairly disenfranchised and distrustful of politicians in general. A sentiment that managed to get planted in the next (my) generation, especially whenever there was a presidential election. We have all heard the phrase “the lesser of two evils” in reference to this situation, and it gets buried. I've talked to so many people my age who don't vote at all, because they feel like either way, they're getting a Politician. And that Politicians, by their nature, lie, cheat, steal, and do nothing. And with the Boomer generation making up a majority of our voting population, it's no surprise that this has kinda become the national sentiment.
Let me add in the things MY generation saw as we matured into adulthood:
“Read my lips: No New Taxes.” (remember how I said the soundbite had been around for decades? And it goes way farther back. That's another topic for another day though.) A president who spent almost 2 years in impeachment hearings over an affair. The same president who then made it much easier for American business to outsource employment out of our borders. The Florida “hanging chad” and subsequent Supreme Court election of a President. Two more undeclared wars, only one of which could feasibly be linked to an attack and immediate threat to US security.
I turned 18 in 2002, and I really, truly, did not feel like it mattered if I voted. Luckily, I had good Civics teachers in school. (Here I will make a personal shout out to Iona Flowers, one the most intelligent, patient, insistent, and effective teachers I had the privilege of learning from in my life.) I'll get to the Civics bit of this a little later on.
I want to throw some numbers at you really quick: (source)
In the last 40 years:
Four of the ten presidential elections had turnouts of more than 55%, and of those four, I feel they were all notable.
(1972) Nixon v. McGovern: McGovern was so disliked by his own party by the time the election came around, not only had he already switched his VP in the middle of his campaign (his original VP candidate Thomas Eagleton not only barely knew anything about McGovern, but also [privately] disagreed with a lot of his policies, and it was also uncovered that Eagleton had received electroshock therapy for depression, and that his depression was very possible to manifest again source,_1972 ), but there were people in the democratic party who were actively endorsing Nixon, because they hated the guy that much.
(1992) H W Bush v. Clinton: Bush was actually not a terribly unpopular president. But the combination of an economy that began tanking in an election year, and the fact that Clinton was able to rally the Youth (the guy played sax on MTV and 'did not inhale.' What 18-35 year old would not love that?) and Black votes (he carried 83% in 92 and 84% in 96. Unprecedented.) really cranked up the turnout and made Bush a one-term president. (trivia, because I love to educate and inform. George H W Bush was the first one term republican since Herbert Hoover (el. 1928)
(2004) W Bush v. Kerry: Regardless of your political standpoint, W Bush was one of the most controversial presidents in the last century, and was able to stir up both an incredible amount of grassroots support and opposition, so it is no surprise that turnout in this election was the highest it had been, percentage-wise, since 1968.
(2008) McCain v. Obama: I really don't even need to go into why this was an historic election, and garnered an even higher turnout than the election previous, and the highest it had been in 40 years.
Also in the last 40 years, there was not a single mid-term election that was able to garner a turnout of 40% or more.
By way of comparison, in the 40 years previous, all but one of the Presidential elections had less than 55%, and all but two of the mid-term elections were under 40%. In my eye, that's a pretty significant indicator of voter apathy in this country.
We have become an electorate that is so disconnected from the process of electing our representative because of so much growing cynicism about how our country is run. I do have some proposals for a solution, but that is a little farther down.

Religion in Politics

I shouldn't have to talk about this, and I am about to go a bit off topic. Let me say that an atheist talking about the role of religion in the minds of voters is like a rich white middle class kid from LA trying to relate the struggle of impoverished black youth in Chicago. I have no relatable experience with the topic. I do, however, have a fairly strong understanding of the role that religion itself plays in both government and politics.
A disclaimer here: When I say or refer to religion in this section, I'm gonna go ahead and say it's safe to assume I mean Christianity. By far and large not the only religion in the US, but it is the predominant religion among US citizens. This is also the part where I will probably step on a few toes, and do have a very personal, politically biased segue. Like I said before though, I will make it very clear before I dive into that.
Religion is, in the mind of many people, equated with morality. For this, I need look no farther than the fact that when I tell somebody I'm an atheist, the response is almost invariably along the lines of “Really? But you seem like such a nice guy!” Religion can be, and is in a lot of cases, a great set of moral guidelines, but morality does not exclusively belong to religion. I don't need the influence of God to tell me that stealing, lying, and killing are bad behavior. I am far from a perfect example of humanity, but I truly try my best to make sure I do right by every person in my life. So really, please don't equate atheism with unethical and immoral behavior. I love holding doors open for people, and I am always down to help a friend in need. In my mind, there is almost no difference between a good Christian, and a good Person (and vice-versa. They are not mutually exclusive.)
To go back 250 years or so, we all grew up hearing the stories of the Quakers who left England for religious freedom. I have heard it argued many times, and my I say ignorantly so, that the Founding Fathers, when they used the words “freedom of religion” while writing the Constitution, they meant “freedom to practice whatever type of Christianity you want.” that may have been why the Quakers came here, but not at all the spirit behind the freedom of religion article in the Constitution.
It's colloquial knowledge that many of the Founding Fathers were atheists, but that's not entirely true. People like  Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, Ethan Allen, and Thomas Paine are
referred to often as 'atheists,' but the truth is that they were Deists. Deism, to once again way over-simplify is a belief in a completely non-interactive Creator. The Creator made the universe, then has just sat back and watched (not judged) ever since.
So freedom of religion, to the founding fathers, was, to put it in modern terminology, “you do you, I'll do me.”
To quote the Constitution, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof" 
This establishes two things: the “establishment clause”-there will not be a state religion (church of the government); the “free exercise clause”-there will not be government interaction in religion (government of the church). This was created for two reasons: to protect the government from religion (America had just separated from England, where there had been a state religion (Church of England) which itself in turn had been created by England's response to the interference by the Catholic church into the monarchy.) The second, and more important thing, was to protect the church from ever being legislated by the government.
Now here is where my atheism actually benefits (in my own opinion) my view of how the government chooses legislation,


I have not heard a single argument against gay marriage that was not fundamentally based in Christianity's opposition to homosexuality. In fact, I did not even begin to hear the “it's a choice” argument until homosexuality was removed from the DSM and was no longer considered a mental disease.
  Homosexuality in humans is THOUSANDS of years old, (as far back as recorded history, probably longer) and in most enlightened ancient civilizations was at the very least tolerated, and in many cases was completely socially allowed.
It is my own view that homosexuality is, on a genetic level, a defect. But this is in no way something a person can be held responsible for. I say this only because all life on the planet is geared on a genetic level for continuation of the species, so homosexuality, as a means to that end, is an entirely aberrant trait. In all fairness, I think the same way about pinkie toes.
But disliking, hating someone for being homosexual (or having a pinkie toe), legislating against homosexuality is the equivalent of legislating against a person who is born with blonde hair, or a person who is allergic to seafood. These are things that reside in their genetic code, and cannot change in any permanent form. Homosexuality is not a choice.


you know what is a choice? Religion.
At some point in your life, you made a choice to accept (or not) that whatever religion you were raised in, or had been studying, or had been introduced to, was the Truth (or not.)
Religion is a choice. Don't let anybody fool you about that. Faith and belief are conscious decisions that what you have heard is what you choose to believe.
And I will never, for one moment, fault somebody for choosing to be faithful. Faith is a beautiful and rewarding endeavor. The place where I draw the line is this: The government does not legislate how you choose to worship, or what your faith is allowed to encourage, or how you are allowed to engage in your religious actions. The only exception to this is any prayer, or religious activity, led by a state employee while they are actively working a job wherein the role they fulfill is compensated by government money.
I won't say that my high school teachers conformed to this law. I sat through many prayers in school, but they were neither led nor mandated by any teacher, and the teachers who allowed the behavior asked ahead of time if anybody was opposed doing it. I never participated, but I was never offended by bowing my head while my class-mates prayed.
Honestly, this maybe happened all of three times in my high school career. Again, it's important that you understand, I have no problem with, and in fact look up to, a majority of devoutly religious people. I find a strong adherence to a set of convictions as a virtue. The only point where I really disagree is that religious faith is a prerequisite to upholding moral values.
Before I go too far in espousing anything pro- or anti-religion, suffice it to say that I treat it as something entirely separate from governance and politics. As should anybody, regardless of faith

To create laws based on religion in a secular government is to say to people that, while they have a choice of how they choose to practice (or not) their religion, they, by law, must adhere to the standards and laws of your chosen faith. That is not only unfair, but a violation of the principle of religious freedom in the US.

Where do we go from here?

It's really easy to go around pointing out problems, but a little harder to pose solutions. So this is going to have several parts: The first is a brief lesson in Civics, then the reality of lying and taxes, and finally a primer on civil discourse.
We live in what is called a 'Representative Democracy.' In a representative democracy, The people elect 'representatives' who will, by proxy, represent and vote on laws based on majority opinion among their constituency, as opposed to a direct democracy wherein every citizen is given an opportunity to vote on every single governmental initiative and policy. America chose this method of governance because it is more efficient than a direct democracy.
WE are responsible for who holds elected office in our city, state, and national governments. The idea that has become so prevalent lately of every candidate having their personal agenda is so antithetical to the idea of what our government is supposed to be. Only by voting and informing ourselves can we make our government resemble what we want it to be.
It does not stop there. We need to hold our elected officials accountable, and communicate with them. Just because a politician may disagree with you, they are your elected representative and you are part of their constituency. The only thing they gain by pissing off a civic minded person is an opponent, and somebody who will actively work to prevent their re-election. Convince them that you are one of these people, and they will be more apt to pay attention to you.
The most important part of this is to inform and educate yourself. Do this by not just reading one newspaper, or watching one television channel, but by consuming many of them, especially the ones you disagree with the most. Our parents and teachers always told us not to believe everything we were told, or everything we heard, so why do we limit ourselves when it comes to information? There are many resources available to us to parse the truth out of every story, websites out there like snopes and politifact that make it their job to analyze every word a politician says for its truth value. In the era of the internet, we have every bit of information we need to make an informed decisions at our fingertips at all times, so use it.
Then take that information, and go vote with it. It's a little thing called civic duty: the more we, as a people, involve ourselves with the workings of government, the better our government will serve us.
My quick note on lying: We have to ease off on accusing politicians of lying when they campaign. Firstly, because I will give my left foot if most of YOU out there never lied or dressed up the truth in a job interview. Secondly, no one person out there can completely change the laws or how they work, it takes the time and effort of many. Instead of getting mad at politicians for 'lying' in their campaigns, help them achieve their goals by writing to or calling them. See what you can do to help. If you feel like they aren't working hard enough to achieve their campaign promises, fire their ass and elect someone who will.
My quick note about taxes: We have to stop constantly saying that taxes are through the roof. The effective income tax rate for a majority of Americans has not increased over the last 15-20 years. It has, for the most part, stayed the same or gotten smaller for most people.(source) I know this is a big oversimplification of a fairly hefty issue, but keep in mind, the only thing I'm talking about in this paragraph is income tax, the one that effects the largest amount of the population directly.
We need to raise the level of public and political discourse back to a level of argument and debate, rather than fighting and sticking our fingers in our ears. While some people dream of having a government that is wholly run by republicans, or by democrats, this would be a terrible thing because it would not reflect the population of the country. Politics works best when these sides meet in the middle, and compromise on legislation in a way that it benefits the largest number of people possible. We need to stop using the following words as if they were insults:
           1. a. A settlement of differences in which each side makes concessions.
               b. The result of such a settlement.
           2. Something that combines qualities or elements of different things
           1. a. Not limited to or by established, traditional, orthodox, or authoritarian attitudes, views, or
                   dogmas; free from bigotry.
               b. Favoring proposals for reform, open to new ideas for progress, and tolerant of the ideas and
                   behavior of others; broad-minded.
           1. Favoring traditional views and values; tending to oppose change.
           2. Traditional or restrained in style
           3. Moderate; cautious
These are all admirable values, and should be things we accept and appreciate in one another, not hurl at each other as if they were dripping with noxious goo.
We have to learn to agree to disagree, by coming to grips with the fact that the values of an opposing political party are just as valid as the ones you hold. Rarely is anybody ever completely in the right or completely in the wrong. We have to not only understand these things, but behave as if we understand these things. I want the fighting in politics to stop, and the debates to begin again. We need to teach our politicians the virtue of listening, and the difference between listening and just hearing.
This government belongs to all of us, and we've hit a point in our culture where not only is the politics of politics dividing us as a nation, but dividing us from the government itself. Everybody in this country needs to take up a bit more personal responsibility in restoring civility to our rhetoric, informing ourselves what the government is doing, and voting and communicating based on that information.
When I see that the president is elected by the votes of only 55% of the electorate, and the House and Senate in mid-term years are elected by 30-35% of the electorate, this tells me that we are not a government of and by its people, we are a government of and by the few, who are disconnected from the many.
This is our government, and we need to be proud of it. The only way this can happen is if we change our own minds about politics first. We can change the language and nature of politics if we push hard enough, and demand it loudly enough, and dissuade ourselves of the idea that there's nothing we can do about it.
Because we can do everything about it.

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