Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The Health Of Our Democracy

The word democracy derives from the Greek word meaning "the power to the people." Because we treasure it so dearly we are constantly vigilant of threats to it. So with all the talk from conservatives about Pres. Obama precipitating the fall of democracy, I wanted to share my impressions on the current threats to democracy we are facing. I don't think democracy is in any real danger in the short term, but these are the issues I see as worth keeping an eye on, in no particular order:

Campaign finance laws

In the recently decided case Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission, the Supreme Court struck down a law that limited the amount of direct campaigning that can be done by corporations and groups. The ruling allows special interests, lobbyists, corporations, labor unions, and the like to spend potentially unlimited amounts of money on political campaigning for or against individual candidates.

This means several things. For one, corporations are now able to buy candidates by promising them immense amounts of money in return for political favors. For another, candidates who speak out against corporations or special interests will be overwhelmed by the corporate money spent to have them ousted.

Because of the exponentially larger amount of money available through corporations, candidates will no longer see the necessity of soliciting funds from the average citizens, nor will they need to persuade an army of volunteers to help them through an election, which are fundamentally democratic ways of getting elected. The average citizen is now expendable. In essence, the Obama campaign strategy relying on millions of Americans donating and volunteering is a thing of the past, replaced by candidates relying on just a few corporations.

The supposed impetus of this decision is to protect political free speech. But the Constitution only protects the free speech of the people, and a corporation is not a person. A special interest is not a person. A labor union is not a person. If democracy is the power to the people, this decision, which takes away the power of the people and gives it to corporations, is the antithesis of democracy.

Lack of term limits

I've made my point about term limits known here. Without term limits in Congress we get an entrenched political elite with virtually no ties to the American people and no sense of urgency to solve the problems of everyday Americans. These politicians' first priority is to remain an elected official with all the power and fame that goes along with it. They are always in reelection mode and, indeed, over 90% of incumbents win reelection. With term limits we would get fresh ideas, fresh leaders, and more emphasis on the American people.

Widening gap between rich and poor

I went into more depth here about the widening gap between the rich and poor in America. Not since the pre-Depression era has the gap been so gaping. The top ten percent of income earners own a majority of the wealth in the United States, meaning of course that the 90% of the rest of us own less than half of the wealth. And it is only getting worse.

Wealth and power being accumulated by the elite very few is the death knell of a healthy democracy. We live in a political system where, increasingly, money, and money alone, talks. A family that has to worry constantly about putting food on the table, losing their home, the lack of affordable health insurance, and the like, will have less free time and mental and emotional will to get involved in the political process. They are also more likely to become jaded and disinterested in a society that is set up for them to fail. This is the new reality for the majority of American families and it is bad for democracy.


I remember back in 2005 when the Republicans were debating whether or not to employ the "nuclear option" and end filibusters on judicial nominees, and potentially ending the practice altogether, thinking that I wish they would go ahead and just do it. Where before it was used sparingly, it is now accepted that any bill in the Senate needs a super-majority of 60 votes to pass, where the Constitution only requires a bare majority. The filibuster is so plainly undemocratic, and potentially unconstitutional, that it should be ended. Here is a chart that demonstrates why now is the time to end the practice (from wikipedia):

Since the Democrats have taken over power in the Senate the use of the filibuster by Republicans has skyrocketed, and before that its use was steadily increasing. The axiom of "majority rule," which is the entire point of "the power to the people" has been replaced by "minority rule." Those that received fewer votes now have more power than those that received more votes.

Destruction of public natural resources
There is nothing more democratic than our natural resources. Everyone has free access to air. Everyone has access to our public lands. Everyone needs access to these things to reconnect with the earth and each other on a spiritual level. God created this world for our use and enjoyment, "for the earth is full, and there is enough and to spare."

But what happens when a certain few corporations are able to freely pollute our air and water, develop our last vestiges of wilderness, and profit from our communal lands? Is it democracy when a single logging company spoils old growth forest that belonged to the public at large? Is it democracy when a single oil refinery makes the air we breath harmful to our health? Our natural resources should be preserved for the people, for all to enjoy, and not managed for the profits of a few corporations. I don't think the destruction of natural resources is a direct threat our democracy, but I do think it is a apt barometer for the health of it.

I'm sure there are other legitimate threats to democracy that I have not named here, this is not meant to be an exhaustive list, but I think these are among the most important.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

The State of the President Part 2: Reality Bites

Change and hope. Hope and change. These are the reasons America elected Pres. Obama. The aughts constituted America's worst decade for quite some time. There was 9/11, which exasperated an already ailing economy, two wars, one of which was sold to us on false pretenses, the seeming breakdown of the rule of law amongst Washington insiders, cynicism, hyper-partisanship, torture, the bursting of the housing bubble which lead to the worst economy since the Great Depression, bank and auto industry bailouts, global warming, and a complete loss of trust in our government.

This on the heels of the 90s which saw record growth in the economy and no wars. Peace and Prosperity. That's all we want. But in a post-9/11 world it was beginning to seem as though that was no longer possible.

So Pres. Obama came along with ideas that made us have some hope again. He said we'd end that awful war in Iraq. We'd close that symbol of American arrogance and torture, Guantanamo Bay. We'd ensure that every American, not just the wealthy, had access to humane health care. We'd invest in green jobs and renewable energy, fighting the dual threats of global warming and a weak economy. We'd reward people that volunteer. We'd raise the bar for our teachers and schools. We'd make government more efficient by reviewing the individual agencies and programs. We would no longer be beholden to special interests and lobbyists. We'd do it all as a united America, not red and blue, Republican and Democrat. Oh, and he'd be the our first black president, showing the world, and ourselves, that America had finally put to rest our shameful history of race relations. Yes, he sold change and hope.

And now, reality.

The reality is that, like every politician that ever campaigned in the history of America, he simply could never fulfill all that promise, and especially after only one year. But America was so worn down after the aughts and Barack Obama was such a new, interesting, charismatic political force, that we invested a little too much of our hope in him. We expected a little too much change too fast. This Modern World sums up pretty well how we became enamored with our ideal of Pres. Obama.

All this is not to say that America was hoodwinked or believed naively in some sort of American Savior. There is good reason he won the election: he was the best choice. And he has made changes that we absolutely needed. He's closing Guantanamo (albeit slower than we'd like). He's withdrawing from Iraq (albeit with an ugly escalation in Afghanistan). He's committing to reducing greenhouse gas emissions (albeit with major concessions to industry). He's committed to reforming health care (albeit with major concessions to industry).

Things are changing for the better, but without the stark break from the past we were expecting. If we had come into the Obama administration with more tempered expectations I suspect we'd be pretty pleased with what we saw, and I suspect that after four years we'll look back and see more progress than we realized while in the middle of it. But there is no denying that reality is a lot less appealing than the ideal.

And the most stark reality is that America is in a hyper-partisan mood right now. Conservatives impeached Pres. Clinton, liberals went after Pres. Bush hard, and now conservatives are going after Pres. Obama hard. We are willing to put party before country. There was never any dispute, for instance, that the health care system is broken and shameful, but no matter what was proposed conservatives were going to oppose it. It is hard to blame that strategy from a political perspective because it seems to be working pretty well. But that's not to say that it is good for America.

In this party before country atmosphere the group that has gained the most is lobbyists. They use the partisanship to exploit their relationships with the Washington insiders and thus create gridlock. The lobbyists want nothing more than status quo. As long as the system stays the same, a system where bankers and insurance companies can ruin peoples' lives without consequence, the lobbyists have won. So even in a world where Pres. Obama was actually disposed to fight hard for every ideal he embodies, the system is set up for him to fail.

Can he find a second wind and change the system? Doubtful. Is that our ideal of him? It is. Hope and change? Prospects diminishing. But let's see what he's got in store for 2010 before making any final judgments.

Friday, January 15, 2010

The State of the President Part 1: The Polls

As President Obama gets ready to deliver his State of the Union address (which, thankfully, will not conflict with the season premier of Lost, which would have been a deal-breaker for me, and not just for watching the speech but for supporting the president at all), I thought I'd give my own little state of the president.

Let's start with the polls in this post and then get to specific issues and opinions in the next post.

Americans like Pres. Obama. You may disagree with his policies, but you can't disagree with the polls that show his popularity remains fairly high. Take a look at his favorability ratings here. Remember to scroll down and look through all the polls. After the mean-spirited contention of the health care debate and the attacks on the president from the right, I was expecting some dismal numbers. It turns out, however, that he is sitting around +15 across the board, which is a big number.

Favorability measures how much we like Pres. Obama, which is a lot, but job approval might be a little more substantive. Yet even here we see that the president is holding his own after a difficult first year in office. Take a look at some polls here and here and the Gallup daily tracking here. He has a stable number since around last August or September fluctuating between +3 and +10. Again, this was a brutal year to be a politician, and president in particular, and he came out with the support of the majority of Americans.

Now for the more sobering polls. When it breaks down to specific issues there are some major areas of concern. See the polls here. On domestic issues Pres. Obama typically gets poor marks. On the economy he's about -10, on healthcare he is about -15, on taxes he's about even, on jobs he's about -10. Those aren't good, but I will say a couple things about them. The economy has, by all indicators, hit its nadir and is on the rise. This year should see solid growth, so I expect improved numbers on the economy, taxes, and jobs. If the economy continues to dawdle along, though, those numbers could get even worse.

As for health care, many polls are showing (example here) that more people disapprove of the bill for not going far enough than for going too far. So it is not the case that a strong majority disapproves of the direction of health insurance reform, a strong majority actually wants the reform. So I expect that once the bill is passed and the hysteria has died down these numbers will improve some because the large portion of the president's base which is showing dissatisfaction will come back around. That is the nature of bases.

On the international front, the president is getting much better marks from the American people. On foreign affairs he's around +5 (and with such efficient response to the Haiti earthquake, government aid is already on the ground there, that could go up), on Iraq, Afghanistan, terrorism he is anywhere from even to about +8 or so.

So a strong majority of Americans have a favorable opinion of the president and a solid majority approve of the job he is doing. This after one of the most contentious partisan years America has endured in quite some time.

Liberals, I sense, are starting to feel defeated, but this is qualified good news I think. We gave away a public option, Copenhagen essentially failed, and Democrats are facing losses in the midterm elections. But it has only been one year of a four-year first term for the president and progress is being made and a majority of America still supports our president. Once the health insurance bill is passed and the government moves on to focusing on the economy, jobs, and energy reform things should start to look better, but there is no question that right now Democrats are hurting, and liberals are hurting even more.

This coming year, though, may be crucial, which is where we'll pick up next week.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

The Thirst For War

Al Qaeda is gaining momentum in the Arabian peninsula, and in particular in Yemen. Underwear bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab confessed to being trained by al Qaeda in Yemen. As a result there is a growing sentiment among many conservatives that we should be preparing to launch a military campaign in Yemen. War.

I do not understand this insatiable desire to be at war. Dick Cheney continually complains that Pres. Obama refuses to admit that we are at war (despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Dick Cheney has an honesty problem). Many conservatives fear that if liberals do not regularly admit to and discuss being at war with Islamic extremists that the extremists will destroy America. The assumption underlying this rhetoric is that war is the only way to make America safe.

This assumption is wrong. The United States government, even under the Bush administration, and other independent sources have all concluded that our wars with and occupations of Islamic nations is the single greatest factor in creating anti-American extremists. We often hear that these extremists hate America for its freedoms and ideals, which is generally not the case. They hate America for its wars and occupation of Muslim nations and lands. This is not necessarily a reason for America to act differently, but it should absolutely be treated seriously.

If we followed the conservative hawks' desire to start a war with Yemen, it would do more harm than good. It would create more terrorists than it would destroy. It would stretch our military even more and put Americans abroad in even more risk. And then Al Qaeda would simply pack up and move to a new country. And we can't just start a new war with every nation that harbors terrorists, we do not have unlimited resources. When America became sufficiently blase about Yemen, like we have about Afghanistan, the extremists would move back in, like they have in Afghanistan. This is a conflict that simply cannot be won through war.

And let's not forget the human side. Most of us are so detached from actual war that we have no idea what it actually means for the nations we attack. I know I don't. But take a look at this article and this photo essay about Yemen and its citizens from Foreign Policy magazine. These are real people living normal lives who harbor no ill-will towards America. These are people whose homes, families, and ways of life would be forever shattered by a misguided attack by America. It was the same for Afghans and and Iraqis. That is not to say that war is never justified, but, again, we have to take it into account.

As members of the church we should be even more acutely aware of these issues. Do we really believe that Muslims are sons and daughters of God? Do we really believe that the Gospel is universal? Can we reconcile these beliefs with disdain for Arabs, disparagement of Islam, and a thirst for war? Protection of America against terrorists is certainly not mutually exclusive to the Gospel, but the way in which we go about it and the emotions and motivations that propel us should be carefully evaluated.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Sadly, Your Personal Observations Alone Are Irrelevant to Global Warming

I make it a general rule to avoid the Drudge Report, but today he is leading with the big, bad headline: Cold, Cold, Colder. It is cold right now, no question, but clearly the idea Drudge is shoveling is that global warming cannot possibly exist when it is so cold outside! He also links to the following stories:

Temps Plunge to Record as Cold Snap Freezes North, East States...
Vermont sets 'all-time record for one snowstorm'...
Iowa temps 'a solid 30 degrees below normal'...
Power outage halts flights at Washington Reagan National Airport...
Seoul buried in heaviest snowfall in 70 years...
Peru's mountain people 'face extinction because of cold conditions'...
Beijing -- coldest in 40 years...
World copes with Arctic weather...

It's almost like we are trying, at times, to show how little we understand about logic and reasoning and critical thinking. Let me start here: the terms "global warming" and "global climate change" have something in common, can you spot it? Yes, it is the word global. As in, the entire globe throughout the entire year. So a few news stories from a smattering of places that happen to be cold are not persuasive, at all, to refute global warming.

Here are some items that Drudge and others have conveniently omitted from their crack efforts to debunk global warming:

In 2007, the 11 hottest years occurred in the previous 13 years.
2009 was the fifth hottest year on record.
The Aught's was the hottest decade on record.
The polar ice caps are melting faster than expected.
Polar ice is at record lows.
New sea routes are opening because of melting polar ice.

Here we have stories in which scientists that are remembering to take into account the global part of "global warming" find compelling evidence that global warming is occurring, and that man-made actions are a major factor. It is no longer sufficient to walk outside your house to see if it's a cold winter to have an opinion on the global climate. We're a little more sophisticated now.

And I am by no means an alarmist. I tend to think we still have time to take a measured approach to this problem as long as we start now. I think the legislation that is making its way through Congress now, which reduces emissions of greenhouse gases by around 17% by 2020, is a nice sensible step. I think the modest agreement Pres. Obama arranged in the Copenhagen climate change summit can do some real good. By taking moderate steps now we can avoid having to make drastic, economy-altering changes in the future.

In a perfect world we would all voluntarily cut our personal emissions drastically for the good of Earth and ourselves. We would demand more fuel-efficient cars, drive less, use less electricity, buy locally-produced food, recycle everything possible, and demand real investment in alternative and renewable energy sources. We would have a cleaner planet and lead healthier and happier lives.

But in the real world, on a global economic scale, we unfortunately have to take more moderate steps. What doesn't help, though, is people drawing conclusions about global issues based on infinitesimally small data points, like how cold it got last night in their back yard.