A Brief Foray into Politics

I was speaking the other day before a group of people that I hadn’t known for very long about the need for a new constitutional convention. I advanced the opinion that the flaws that have become obvious in our governmental structure – the disproportionate representation for rural areas, the electoral college, the ludicrous notion that corporations are people, the disproportionate share of influence that goes to the wealthy, just to name a few – are as serious now as the flaws in the Articles of Confederation were in the 1780’s.

The reaction I received surprised me – “Why,” I was asked, “Isn’t anybody talking about this?” My audience hadn’t thought about the issue, because no one was raising the question.

Somewhat reluctantly, I have begun to put my mind around it.  It’s a good question, and the answer has a lot to do with the corrosive effects of the chemical reaction between modern technology, money, and the gullibility of the average citizen. In the coming weeks, I will have more to say about this issue, and we shall see where it leads me.

Fairness in Media

I am old enough to remember when media coverage of politics – TV and radio only in those days – was governed by the FCC’s fairness doctrine. The fairness doctrine said, essentially, that if you wanted to report on an election, all sides, and all candidates, needed to be given equal time.

This was both useful, and boring. It was useful because it meant that the public at large could hear underfunded candidates, and get to know them. It was boring because vanity candidates and single-issue candidates got as much time as more serious contenders, and voters as a result, sometimes didn’t listen to everyone worth listening to.

By 1980, you could make a case that the fairness doctrine needed tweaking, perhaps along the lines of the two-tiered system in use for the 2016 Republican debates, but less arbitrary. Then Ronald Reagan was elected, and the fairness doctrine was thrown out entirely, for ideological reasons. This had a number of obvious effects, one of which was that it aided in the rise of what might be called prejudice-enforcing reporting, of which Fox News is the primary, but by no means the only, current example.

Newspapers and magazines were not subject to the fairness doctrine, and, historically, some newspaper owners, like Colonel McCormick in Chicago and William Randolph Hearst, used their papers for propaganda purposes, but by 1980, there was genuine consensus among newspapers that opinion belonged only on editorial pages, and that reporting should be fair and objective.

But the Reagan Revolution brought genuine change to the media world, and I would argue that it was felt locally. When I became active in Sonoma County politics in 1984, I began to notice something about the local paper, the Santa Rosa Press Democrat. The headlines placed on stories, especially politically charged stories, often didn’t fit the content of the stories. Sometimes, the headline would flatly contradict the plain meaning of the story beneath. Sometimes, the story and headline would match well enough, but the effect would still be misleading because crucial facts would either be left out of the story (probably by an editor; reporters weren’t usually the problem), or crucial facts would be buried so that their significance would be easy to miss (editors again).

An especially suspicious use of the newspaper took place in 1992. For several election cycles, The Press Democrat had conducted two polls on the Santa Rosa City Council race – one three weeks before the election, to see what the voter’s initial choices were, and again one week before the election, to see what the changes were as the election drew near. In those pre-absentee-voting days, candidates had grown used to timing their mailers for this pattern. But 1992 was different – the first poll was taken four weeks before the election and, by an odd coincidence, the newspaper’s favorite candidate happened to be the only candidate to time her first mail piece to arrive exactly four weeks before the election date. The Press Democrat was then able to report that their candidate was comfortably in the lead…

In the 2016 election, the Press Democrat has apparently given up on such subtle tactics. Recently, in honor of Women’s History Month, the newspaper published a list of twenty-five “women who shaped the North Coast”.   I was immediately interested – my late wife, Senator Pat Wiggins, was an obvious candidate, and so was my friend, Senator Noreen Evans.   I looked at the article, but neither was on the list. “Oh, well,” you might think, “all the women who are on the list are worthy, and if you are limiting yourself to twenty-five, someone has to go. And besides, Noreen is running for Fifth District Supervisor; it wouldn’t be appropriate to give her free publicity in this context.”

A few days later, a second list was published in honor of Women’s History Month: “30 women you should know in Sonoma County.”   Number 28 on that list just happens to be Noreen’s opponent in the Fifth District race, a woman who is supported by one of the owners of the Press Democrat and his friends.   Apparently you should know her because she was the first to enter the race.

Sigh, it never ends.

 

Acting Locally

From time to time, people who know how interested in politics I am ask me if I watch the Presidential debates.  I always reply: “No, I’m not interested,” and try to change the subject.

But why don’t I want to watch?  There’s plenty of drama.  Donald Trump talks about whatever comes into his head, without a trace of a normal person’s filter.   He gets the most attention, but there’s lot’s more – Ted  Cruz, smarmy and smug, but obviously intelligent. There’s Ben Carson, who seems to be running in order to sell his books.  There’s Bernie Sanders, challenging us all to have a better vision of what’s politically possible. And finally, there’s Hilary Clinton, brimming with competence,  but oddly uninspiring.

All in all, the story line for the Republican and Democratic nominations is as intriguing as any I can remember.  but I have never felt the urge to watch a single debate.  Part of the reason is that social media gives me the highlights almost as soon as they happen;  I don’t really need to sit passively in front of a television screen.  But a more important reason is that there is virtually nothing I can do to influence the outcome.  At the moment , I am deeply engaged in the race for an important local office – the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors.  I am supporting a candidate I believe in.  I know that by involving myself in the race, I can make a difference, and I get a great deal of satisfaction, from knowing that.  I’m sorry to say that, for the moment, I’ve lost all sense that involvement in national politics can matter.  I’m sure that as 2016 moves along, that will change.  But for now,  I’m thinking locally and acting locally.

 

Reality Show Politics

Today, a friend asked me why I never seem to want to talk about national politics.  Anyone who knows me is aware of my willingness to discuss politics in general, and state and local politics in particular.  So why do I avoid talking about national politics?

I thought about it for a while, and replied that national politics didn’t feel like real politics to me — it was more like watching a reality show.  The kind of politics I like is about people; about understanding their needs and about representing their interests.  It’s about listening; not about showing off.

A reality show is different from a documentary; the focus is on drama and personal conflict, rather than on education.  In a similar fashion, a national political campaign today is different from a local grass-roots political campaign; the focus is on drama and personal conflict (not to mention name-calling), rather than on getting to know all the residents of a district and understanding their needs.

To be fair, a certain amouat of hyperbole and name-calling has always been a part of national political campaigns since the founding of this country.  For example, Abraham Lincoln was called a “gorilla”, an “idiot”, and a “coward” during the 1864 campaign.  But we used also to have a tradition of statesmanship.  In 1944, FDR and Wendell Wilkie seriously discussed forming a national unity government, on the premise that uniting to win the war was more important than partisan politics.  We also used to have a tradition of putting the interests of the country above the interests of getting elected.  A good case can be made that George H. W. Bush was denied reelection in 1992 because of his decision to support new taxes that he felt the country needed.

When I look at the kind of national political campaign we have as 2016 approaches, I am reminded of the stages of my reaction when I discovered that there was a reality show  called “Dating Naked.”  My first reaction was: “this has to be a joke.”

Then I realized it was serious, and I wept for the country.

My Introduction to Politics – Part One

I don’t remember not being able to read.   I do have a clear memory ( I was two or three) of being lifted up and placed in the center of a big bed — covered in one of those old-fashioned bedspreads with raised embroidery.   My father surrounded me with what seemed like a sea of comic books and told me to learn to read them.

And learn I did. I’m not sure how I did it — I have no memory of anyone sounding out letters for me.  I could tell you that I seem to remember words being spelled out for me, but I can’t be sure it isn’t an invented memory, created as I try to puzzle out this question…in any event , it doesn’t have the same clarity in my mind as the being placed on the bed memory.   My best guess is that, with help from my parents, I matched the pictures to the words.

Flash forward a few years.  It’s 1950, and I’m in New Orleans on a  trolley with my father.  he’s taking me to a drugstore near the Tulane University campus, where he’s a graduate student in mathematics.  I’ve received a few dollars for my sixth birthday, and I’m to be allowed to spend it on comic books — Donald Duck and Little Lulu are my favorites.  We get off the trolley after a short ride, and I’m left by myself for a while to look through the comic books — I call them “funny books”, like everyone else in that part of the world at the time.   My eye is caught by something anomalous sitting in the nearby magazine racks, along with Time and Life, and The Saturday Evening Post.

It’s a strange little book, shaped like one of today’s paperbacks, entitled “POGO” with a drawing of a winsome possum on the cover.  When I opened it up, it was filled with comic strips organized into stories that seemed to have more of a point than I was used to in the Sunday comics, home to Prince Valiant (boring) and Li’l Abner (often funny, but also often boorish – not that i knew what boorish meant in those days).  Howland Owl, Albert the Alligator and Pogo the Possum seemed much more, well , human, than Scrooge Mc Duck.    Then there was Wile E. Coyote.  Even at the age of six, I could tell that there was something wrong with the way he wanted to run the swamp.  It would be a few years before i realized that he looked just like  Senator Joe McCarthy…

(To be continued)

More Than Possible

“Politics is the art of the possible.”

The phrase, practically a cliché in political circles, is usually attributed to Otto von Bismarck , the Prussian politician who unified Germany in the latter part of the Nineteenth Century.  Bismarck, of course, said it in German : Die Politik ist die Lehre vom Möglichen.  The word he used for”possible”,  “Möglichen”, can have the connotation of “maximum possible”,  which is very different from the usual American interpretation of the phrase: “You have to settle for what you can get.”

It’s not true – you don’t have to settle for what you can get.  In every political situation, there is a range of possible and realistic political outcomes.  An effective politician understands that, and works to go as far to the top of that range as she or he can.

It is true, that the first step in analyzing any particular situation is to determine the lowest common denominator, the most achievable favorable outcome.  It is also true that you need to devise a strategy that make sure that the lowest common denominator is achieved.   But it is not true that you have to stop there.  Some politicians use the fact that “you can’t always get everything you want,” as an excuse for not working as hard as possible.  But the best politicians never stop working until a given process is complete, never stop getting just a little bit more.

So don’t be fooled by cynical political types who make fun of citizens who want a completely satisfying solution to a problem — an end to capital punishment, say, or a tax system that makes sense.  If it is in the best interest of the people she or he represents, the right sort of politician will take his or her job seriously, and work to get the people their heart’s desire.