The Gordian Knot of Democratic Politics

Gordian Knot 2 Yes, Democrats – there’s a problem.  A party which can haul out voters during presidential elections is having an obvious problem getting the citizens out during the off-year elections.   The GOP, which did an “autopsy” of its 2012 efforts and then proceeded to ignore the results, did quite well.  It probably did so by offering the ideologues what they wanted —

The Philosophical Knot

At the risk of getting a bit philosophical,  “political zealots are people who are  over-indulging their emotional need of hatred.”  And, “men adopt ideas, not because it seems to them that those ideas are true, or because it seems to them that those ideas are expedient, but because those ideas satisfy a basic emotional need of their nature.”  (Bruce Montgomery)

If one’s “basic emotional need” is to have someone or something to blame for one’s anxiety then the GOP offered up a veritable gourmand’s banquet of targets.  The Appetizer:  Demonized Democratic leadership – Don’t you want to hate those people like Senator Harry Reid? Representative Nancy Pelosi? President Barack Obama?  The Soup: A Beltway Press club which once having determined its preferred narrative is loathe to give it up even in the face of stark evidence to the contrary.  “The President won’t work with the Congress,” for example, as if the Republican congressional leaders didn’t meet in a D.C. restaurant in 2009 and determine that theirs would be a strategy of obstruction throughout the President’s term.   The Fish or Chicken:  Well publicized Republican whines when their positions weren’t adopted completely, re-defining what the term “compromise” initially meant.  The GOP got nearly everything it wanted in the Affordable Care Act, including the adoption of a proposal originating with the Heritage Foundation, and then voted solidly against it, after which they  whined to the gates of glory about the provisions.  The Palate Cleanser:  The careful packaging of otherwise radical Tea Party candidates so that their rough edges were camouflaged, see incoming Senator Joni Ernst.  The Main Course: Fear! Ebola!  — all one case of it. ISIS! Some 33,000 terrorists who would really like to kill Americans – the U.S. population is about 317 million.  The Salad/Fine Vegetable:  A lovely diversion from real issues and a delicate scattering of pure inventions such as the Democrats are going to take your guns, or Democrats are going to promote abortions.  And finally, the Hot or Cold Dessert:  The Republican assumption that they’ve worked the refs sufficiently, and ginned up the base enough to make Democrats run away from their own leadership, see Grimes in Kentucky.   There are ways to make this dinner come to an end.

The Structural Knot

There’s the predictable grousing about the efforts of DNC chair Rep. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz.  However, few have commented on the structural issues about her position.  She’s wearing two hats and both of them represent  full time jobs.  Did she not “do enough” in the last election – or was running her own campaign, running the DNC, and trying to represent her constituents just a bit too much to ask.  One way to untangle the leadership thread of the structural knot would be for the Democrats to employ a full time chairman.

Independent leadership is fine in concept, however there must be something to lead.  A national party which allows state and local organizations to wither won’t be national for long.  [DB

The Media Knot

How where the Republicans able to keep their seven course gourmand banquet going well into election night?  This strand has been long entangled in American politics.  The corporate media represented by the beltway journalists have used the cable news outlets to broadcast some well known and recognizable narratives.  There must be two sides.  Not when we’re talking about the implications of global climate change.  Not when we’re talking about the decimation of the American middle class.  Not when we’re speaking of the need to fund infrastructure elements in America. Not when we’re addressing the need to adequately fund taking  care of our veterans.

The national media has not served this nation well.  This frustration is altogether too common:

“Finding clear information about issues and candidates in this midterm was difficult, and I certainly didn’t find it on cable television. Lots of times I went and dug it out myself. Sometimes I relied on alternatives. It was often frustrating to have to dig around in the universe of silos that exist today on the Internet, particularly when those siloes are loaded with hate talk on the right side of things.”

To adopt the notion that there are two sides to every question means that both sides should be presented.  However, the cable news outlets are content to state the Democratic position, and then allow Republican/Libertarian critics air time for commentary after commentary after commentary to present their talking points.  This isn’t “both” sides – it’s purely corporate sponsored, corporate presented propaganda.  It’s especially not “news” when there is little attention paid to issues.

Chart News Issues

65% of what the viewing public got was “political speculation,” and they’d have to be lucky to turn on the set when the 35% appeared, to inform them of related issues.  Untying the media knot will require coordinated effort, based on an intelligent analysis of the current situation.

Little wonder the author of the excerpt above  on media news is frustrated with the silos.  The sources are drying up.  The number of black journalists working for daily newspapers has dropped by 40% since 1985, and the number of white journalists working for daily papers is down 34%, the number of Hispanic journalists is off 16%, and the number of Asian-American journalists is down 2%. [Pew]   What do they all have in common? Down.  How about the number of reporters covering state politics and governance?  Since 2003 the number of persons employed to cover state governance has declined by 35%. [WaPo]  In the interest of “shareholder value” we have accepted a diminished press corps from one end of this country to the other.   It is almost as it we’ve decided that the “product” created by the press should be “share value” and not “news.”  There’s always been tension between the business side and the production side in journalism, and it appears the business side has won.

What makes the problem a double whammy for American citizens is that while the number of people employed to cover state and national news is declining, the cable TV system still provides most of the national coverage of major national and international issues.  The American Press Institute explains, including the chart below:

Cable News Source

Note: People are going to the cable news outlets for an explication of news about foreign, international, national government, social, business and the economic issues, and they aren’t getting it!

Not only will Democrats have to calculate the best messages in order to reach voters they are going to have to figure out how to get those messages broadcast to the general public, in the face of business-referenced cable news decisions.   If the cable news networks aren’t the answer, will social media make a difference?  The answer is still a large “maybe:”

“…social media appears to be largely adding to, rather than replacing, other ways that people get news. At the same time that 4 in 10 now use social media, more than 80 percent of Americans say they also got news in the last week by going directly to a news organization in some manner—and that was consistent across generations.

Even for the youngest adults, age 18-29, social media and the web in general have hardly replaced more traditional ways of getting the news. Nearly half of the youngest adults also read news in print during the last week, 3 in 4 watched news on television, and just over half listened to it on the radio.” [API.org]

While the expressed hope that social media will help resolve messaging issues for younger voters who lean Democratic, it’s still important to incorporate a media strategy which includes a more robust use of cable television broadcasting.

The Messaging Issue

The Republicans have made a conscious decision not to play the role of a minority party in the traditional sense of the term.  Where Democrats played significant roles in the adoption of “no child left behind” and the Bush tax reforms, that dinner at the Washington D.C. restaurant the night President Obama was Inaugurated in 2009 left no doubt about GOP strategy:

“If you act like you’re the minority, you’re going to stay in the minority,” said Keven McCarthy, quoted by Draper. “We’ve gotta challenge them on every single bill and challenge them on every single campaign.” [VF]

The call to Gridlock was as clear as Great Paul in London.  The strategy was simplicity itself.  Create gridlock, guarantee nothing important was done for Middle Class Americans, veterans, the infrastructure, employment, etc. and then blame the President “He won’t schmooze with us,” when nothing was accomplished.   The DC Press Corps dutifully picked up the narrative and ran with it, ignoring the fact that Boehner and the GOP were “frequent no-shows” at White House events.  Republicans refused to attend the “Lincoln Screening,” and turned down invitations to state dinners for Great Britain, South Korea, Germany, Mexico, and India. Senator McConnell even turned down an invitation to a White House event celebrating Kentucky and the UK NCAA basketball championship. [NJ]   So, of course, the DC Pundits declared the President to be “aloof.”

If the analysis of the media situation demonstrates it’s difficult to get the Democratic message out, then perhaps some adjustment needs to be made in the message itself.  For the sake of easy examples we might explore two possibilities.

Adjusted Messages

Democrats are for the Middle Class.  This should be easy because it’s true. Democrats are for increasing the minimum wage. Democrats are for organized labor. Democrats are for limiting corporate powers and for the regulation of banking institutions.  Perhaps not to the extent some on the left might require, but they are certainly more supportive of these issues than the Republicans of the Business Roundtable.   If the Republicans can attach the word “feckless” to every comment about the President, then why not have Democrats attach the term “economic elitist” to every comment about the GOP agenda?

Only an “economic elitist” would oppose the increase in the minimum wage. Only an “economic elitist” would oppose regulating the banks. Only an “economic elitist” would support repealing the Affordable Care Act.  Republicans have expended every energy defining the Democrats as a coalition of minorities – there’s nothing that says they can’t be defined, in turn, as supporters of a truly small minority in American life – the 1%.

Democrats aren’t afraid.   Democrats elected the man who got Osama Bin Ladin. Democrats aren’t afraid of a virus which really hasn’t done much in the U.S. Democrats aren’t scared of a few fanatical terrorists in the Middle East. Democrats aren’t afraid of spending some money on veterans, on our infrastructure, and on jobs for Americans.   Republicans are so busy being afraid of their own shadows – The Deficit (down) The Debt (down) The Terrorists (confined to the Middle East), Muslims (the bogeyman du jour) and every other issue – why not include “fear” in the running commentary.

Only a true Wet Pants Dancer is afraid of ISIL?  Only an obvious coward would be scared into a Hazmat suit over Ebola? Only the truly squeamish would be so frightened of The Debt that he couldn’t support more services for veterans, and only one so terrified of his own shadow couldn’t vote for more funding for infrastructure – want to be afraid of a real problem – think about most of the bridges in this country that are more than 60 years old. Our parents and grandparents weren’t afraid of spending for infrastructure, what’s the matter with us?

Another element which has been commented upon by those much wiser than I is that Democrats have allowed the Republicans to create the narrative, and the Democrats have acceded to the position of playing Defense.  There’s nothing wrong with going on offense, indeed, it would be helpful in sending the Not Afraid message.  For example, we KNOW the deficit has been reduced. However, how many Democrats talked about deficit and debt reduction in the last election?  Not enough.  But why was it a major topic in the first place? Because the Republicans decided it would be. 

Pew described “major” issues in the 2014 elections as: Terrorist Threat, Budget Deficit, Economy, Immigration, and Health Care.  We couldn’t make a list more in tune with GOP manufactured issues.   What was missed was the polling which showed 54% agreed with the statement: “The Democrats are more concerned about needs of people like me.”  What was also interesting is that the news organizations which sponsored polling also selected those issues to investigate. [TPP]   What would happen if some Democratic leaning organizations, not tied to the corporate media, would commission polling on the state of veterans’ services? Infrastructure projects? Civil rights? Banking reforms?  In short, the Democrats need to create their issues – not merely wait for the GOP to set the public agenda.

Or, to put it less elegantly – the Democrats can stop tying themselves in Gordian Knots trying to respond to the Republican obstructionist/fear based agenda and concentrate on what George H.W. Bush once called the Vision Thing.

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Local Politics by the Numbers

Number Lottery Balls This is a local post, so for those who read DB for national news or analysis – or to follow the rants on the favorite house topic (economics/politics) – please hold on for a second while I play with some numbers.

Consider the information in the following table:

County Democrats Republicans Turnout %
Carson 8310 11562 60.7
Churchill 2651 6895 61.1
Douglas 4650 15491 61.9
Elko 3137 10558 55.6
Esmeralda 60 313 65.9
Eureka 98 617 74.9
Humboldt 1092 3446 69.02
Lander 378 1431 82.6
Lincoln 309 1496 60.4
Lyon 5247 14223 47.4
Mineral 367 1075 52.07
Nye 4056 10573 51.4
Pershing 442 1087 70.36
Storey 425 1137 78.3
White Pine 743 1998 63.5
Total 31965 81902  

* the registration numbers are active voters as of October 2014, turnout percentages are from the Secretary of States’ office including early, absentee, mail-in, and election day totals

The total number of active registered voters in Nevada as of the end of October 2014 was 1,213,193; the election day turnout was 20.36%; the Early Voting turnout was 21.96%; and absentee ballots made up 3.9% of the total. The total turnout was 552,380 or 45.51%. [SoSNV]

All of the rural counties showed turnout rates significantly higher than the statewide returns.  This is probably obvious, since those of us in the outback attend high school athletic events and amateur theatricals; we’re so Off Broadway they wouldn’t even know we were here.  Voting is at least a nice social event, and in General Elections there are usually some “hot” local non-partisan races.  Either things were very dull or extremely interesting in Eureka and Lander counties, their election turnout could demonstrate both.  However, there doesn’t seem to have been as much enthusiasm in Elko, Lyon, Mineral, and Nye counties. 

County Population Voting Age Registered  
Carson 54080 42723 25158 17565
Churchill 24877 18907 12240 6667
Douglas 47118 38401 29257 9144
Elko 52384 37664 18456 17362
Esmeralda 832 699 545 154
Eureka 2076 1599 880 719
Humboldt 17363 12571 6333 6238
Lander 6032 4421 2427 1994
Lincoln 5245 4075 2693 1383
Mineral 4614 3737 2738 999
Nye 42297 34387 23808 10579
Pershing 6877 5563 2292 3271
Storey 3942 3370 2433 937
White Pine 10057 7844 4431 3414

 

If we take the population, subtract the number of those the Census Bureau counts as under 18 years of age, and subtract again for foreign born persons residing in the county, we can roughly estimate the voting age population in each of the rural or suburban counties. There’s obviously some wiggle in the count because, of course, not all foreign born persons are necessarily non-citizens. However, to keep things on the low ball side of estimations, the assumption is made that all foreign born are possibly not eligible to vote.

When the voting age population is aligned with the actual number of registered active voters the difference shown in the last column are those who are of voting age, probably eligible to vote, and who have not registered to do so. The total number of people in the counties listed above who are of voting age and have not registered comes to about 63,000 souls.

Numbers are lovely. However, these don’t tell us all that much about the outcomes of elections in any predictive way – the number which might be instructive is that during the Primary Election in Nevada (2014) the turnout was 222,240 voters or approximately 19.27% of the total number of active voters statewide.  No one was particularly “energized” and they stayed that way.

What we can see from the second table is that all of the political parties in Nevada have left a significant number of “votes on the table,” and many of these are in the suburban or rural counties.

The problem for any political party is essentially to (1) pull votes from the faithful; (2) get votes off the sidelines (register voters); and (3) get voters to turn out – early, absentee, mail-in, or in person.   The 2014 general election showed that the Democrats didn’t do a particularly good job in these three essential segments.   For that matter, the low statewide turnout showed the Republicans, while successful by all accounts, didn’t really do a much better job either.

However, my interest is in the Democratic Party so here come the fractious observations.

For all the time and effort expended by a few Solid Citizens who have obviously given their all for party efforts – the structure of the Democratic Party State Central Committee indicates some valid weaknesses in the process.  It’s my understanding that each county is guaranteed at least one seat, and that a county gets 1 seat for every thousand registered party members.   Churchill County has 2651 registered Democrats and 1 seat – they couldn’t find another person?  The same question applies to Elko County, with 3589 registered Democrats and only 1 seat?  Lyon has 7823 registered Democrats and 2 seats filled…. and so it goes.

If the Democratic Party in Nevada wants to be considered a Statewide operation then it surely should provide more support for the local leadership and leadership training efforts.  And, if the state leadership is to allocate personnel and resources for rural party development then at least a significant amount of national attention should reward these efforts. To have a handful of people trying to carry the load in multiple counties is not only unconscionable it’s obviously not the best way to carry on.

Electricity is a Wonderful Thing

What the rurals DO have is an excellent base for electronic communications.  The Nevada Rural Democratic Caucus has an excellent blog site.  Humboldt County Democrats maintain an updated site.  Heaven only knows what’s happened with the State Party Blog? Nor does it link directly with the NRDC or HCD sites from the Blog Page.  The Carson City Democratic Party link takes you back to the state site.  The Douglas County site links to the NRDC, and covers local events and items of interest.  Lyon County maintains a web presence, advertizes local events, but doesn’t link directly with other rural communications – clicking on the blog roll takes you nowhere.  The Nye County party has a web site, and links to the State site, the National Site, the NRDC, Blue Nevadan, Democracy for America, Nevada Stonewall Democrats, and two independent blogs, Turbokitty, and The ObamaCrat.   Here’s a thought –

What might happen if the Nevada State Democratic Party put together an updated blog roll of (1) Local Party Websites, and (2) an up to date list of Democratic, progressive, and liberal bloggers in the state?

What might happen if the Nevada State Democratic Party sent a list of updated and current Local Party websites, and a list of current independent blog sites with links which the parties and the bloggers could insert in their sidebars?  Instead of, say, relying on the parties and bloggers to try to find each other on their own?  What might happen if the NSDP looked for even more and newer means of electronic “social media” use?

What might happen if the State Democratic Party took an interest in having a web presence for every county in the state?

Avoiding Sclerotics

Allow me to take a wild flying guess that one of the issues in some rural counties  concerns the aging process; some Democrats are getting Older—and Older—and Older. And more tired, and more tired … Granted in any organization it’s nearly always 10% of the people who do 90% of the work. However, in the words of the very old business bard/mentor – if you aren’t growing you’re dying.   Another notion, which the Republicans are probably going to have to deal with sooner rather than later, is that a Party is not a monolithic creation. No one is ever going to be completely satisfied with everything.  Nothing will so advance the sclerosis of an organization quite as well as having the direction of the glacier moving toward ideological purity, of any stripe.  Avoiding the Purity Trap and the Sclerotic Trap requires getting some new hands on the deck.

From this perch in the outback, it looks as though the State Democratic Party might do well to (1) put some major resources into leadership training and (2) create an atmosphere such that the Party is perceived not merely as the delivery vehicle for election purposes but also as a coalition of those interested in democratic issues and values.  Where to find these people?

If you want to keep a person engaged give them something to do.  It’s a good business practice to give new hires increasingly larger roles in the operations; and the same is true of most political organizations.  There’s nothing wrong with starting small.  For example, what might happen if a county party leader gave a younger individual the task of going through the voter registration list or a precinct listing and creating a phone tree or contact list?  What might happen if the State Party helped with the costs involved in creating the “Can We Count On Your Vote?” contact lists? One of the more beneficial bits of advice from the Leader is “Can you find a friend to help you?”  Now, you’ve got two people for the price of one task.

The numbers in the charts above indicate some voters who aren’t registered.  Another small chore might be to have someone to conduct a “little voter registration” drive-let.”  “Can you find us three more eligible voters to register?  “Can you compile a list of people in the county who run blog sites?  Calendar sites? Special events sites?”  “Could you attend (fill in some local event) and report back to us for our web page?” 

On a heftier scale, what issues are important in the area?  Are there groups interested in improving a local airport? Are there issues revolving around school building maintenance problems and funding?  [PVT]  Land use planning issues?  No one will notice you if you aren’t there.  Engaging in reasonable and civil discourse while working on projects in which there are several layers and levels of interest may not be a route to recruitment but can mitigate “image” problems, which in turn makes recruitment an easier matter.  Does the communication structure (system) of the local party include postings on topical local issues?

All this rambling leads to some central questions.  Is the State Party sufficiently interested in, or fiscally capable of, strengthening and encouraging the development of rural and suburban party elements? Is the State Party in a position to and interested in assisting in the coordination of the Democratic Party message on a statewide basis? 

In the end, “All politics is local.”

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Who Are We?

Sorrow So, we have the usual post mid-term election gnashing of teeth and rending of fabrics, and while I’ve assiduously avoided the Pundits, there are some ordinary types who  have some insights which deserve a mention and more.

Messages and Media

For example, there’s this excerpt from the comments section of the previous post:

“It isn’t so hard to realize what we need to do — but I’ve been saying this for five years straight. We need to run against REPUBLICANS, not the one Republican that is our opponent. We need to put Republicans on the defensive, instead of letting them define the situations so we are too bust defending ourselves.”

There are two kernels of useful insight illustrated here. First, that Democrats have to define their agenda more clearly and succinctly for public consumption.  The first element leads to the second: Democrats need to adopt the time honored rule of election campaigning – define your opponent before he or she defines you.

What ARE we for?

Economically speaking we’re FOR increasing the prosperity of the 99% of the citizens in this nation; those who are not members of the exclusive set of 1%’ers  whose income is primarily obtained by investment.  Or, in a shorter version – we’re the party for Middle Class Americans.

Socially speaking we’re FOR liberty and opportunity for all. We respect the rights of every single citizen in this nation – white, black, young, old, male and female, gay and straight.

Politically speaking we embrace diversity.  There are fiscally conservative Democrats who are socially liberal.  Socially liberal Democrats who are economically more conservative,  and we want every one of them to believe that the right to vote is essential for one and all.

We can distill this down even more finely: We are the party for the vast majority of Americans, and those who want everyone to participate in our democracy.

Who ARE they?

The Republicans are the party of the 1%, a party which embraces the interests of Wall Street and the financial sector.  They oppose increasing the minimum wage; they oppose equal pay for equal work; they oppose any proposition to make health insurance more affordable, and any plan to allow students to refinance student loans at more affordable rates.  They oppose any regulation of the financial sector, in the face of the Enrons, World Coms, Lehman Brothers and similar debacles.  Ye shall know them by their works.

The Republicans are the party of exclusion.  “Some people” ought not to be included in ‘their America;’  while they speak of divisive politics in sneering tones,  it was their idea to peddle the notion that both white and black Americans receiving social services were ‘stealing from the pockets’ of hard working people.  While they speak of the politics of division, it is their adherence to the idea that America is a Christian Nation – in spite of large numbers of non-believers, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Sikhs, and non-evangelicals among us.    The only way their Politics of Complaint works is via the ideological buttress that they are a Persecuted Majority – a more illogical concept is difficult to imagine.

The Republicans are the party of Big Daddy Government.   Hey, African American citizen or Hispanic American citizen – know your place, and it’s not at the precinct polling station.   Hallo, Little Lady – Father knows best. You should have that transvaginal ultrasound procedure, whether you want it or not.  Your employer will decide if you can get affordable contraceptive prescriptions.  Hello, little man – we’ll tell you all those things of which you should be afraid.  Don’t fret, while you’re worried about your job being off-shored to some Asian manufacturing base, Big Daddy will protect you from ISIS, Ebola, the IRS, the Homosexual Agenda (whatever that might be?) and Big Government.

We’ve seen Big Daddy on the silver screen, he was Burl Ives in Cat On A Hot Tin Roof.  He’s white, he’s rich, he’s large. He’s a fetishist of the first water.  He will have what he wants when he wants it.  He’s Entitled to what he wants when he wants it.  Not a very appealing character – but he was never meant to be; he’s beyond caring about being acceptable, he’d rather simply be obeyed.

Media and Messages

Forget about seeing the corporate media independently reveal the elitism, or the exclusionism, or the innate authoritarianism of the Right.  Corporations are people, with shareholder value to consider, ratings to gain and advertising to sell.   Witness the disdain with which the chatterati observed the Occupy Movement.   Witness the decline in the popularity of broadcast and print media as sources of news.  It’s in the interstitial  spaces where opportunity lies.

There’s room in the use of one of the oldest axioms of political life: All politics is local.   However, in this world there are two kinds of local: Your neighbors, friends, and physical community; and your social media friends and followers.   Thus far both parties seem to be clutching  a rather old fashioned view of social media – both my e-mail inbox, and the inbox of a Republican friend were overflowing with Send Money Messages (attached to precious little substance) during the last campaign – who’s going to be the first to fully capitalize on the power of social media to DEFINE the opposing party? The opposing party’s candidates?

There are spaces in and among interest groups.  During the recent election I received three glossy mailers opposing a tax increase to support the Nevada Distributive School Fund – all three contained massive misinformation, and all three came from the same source – a combine of Real Estate Interests.  There was precious little tie-in between candidates and the tax issue on display in this little segment of the world.  There should have been. Who should have told me that a combination of corporate interests and Republican allies were opposing more money for schools?

Big Money groups, a product of the highly unfortunate but ultimately predictable decision in Citizens United,  can only drive a message so far. And their range can be constrained by defining them as antithetical to local interests.  For example, a pro-NRA candidate won the Arkansas election for Senator, BUT Washington state voters overwhelmingly passed I-594, an initiative requiring background checks for firearm sales. [MMA]

“[Washington voters] showed that while the gun lobby can intimidate politicians in Washington, it’s a lot harder to intimidate America’s voters,” former US Representative Gabby Giffords said in a statement last night. “This victory for responsibility in Washington State sends a clear message to the other Washington that if Congress is not ready to act to reduce gun violence, voters in states around the country can and will take the matter into their own hands.” [The Nation, 11/5/14]

There’s a message here.  The Big Money NRA took a position antithetical to local interests.

There’s also another space into which the message can be inserted: All politics is national.   There are some newly elected Republicans who could come to symbolize the state of the party. Do your friends and neighbors, physical and social media, relate to this comment from Joni Ernst (R-IA)

“I have a beautiful little Smith & Wesson, 9 millimeter, and it goes with me virtually everywhere. But I do believe in the right to carry, and I believe in the right to defend myself and my family — whether it’s from an intruder, or whether it’s from the government, should they decide that my rights are no longer important.”  [HuffPo]

Then there’s newly elected Representative Crescent Hardy (R-NV4) opining on the situation with the standoff between Federal officials and the ‘sovereign citizen’ domestic terrorists on the Bundy Ranch:

“But Hardy also claimed that the BLM and federal park rangers had no right to enforce laws on the property in question. Asked about that odd statement, Hardy cited the Constitution and the Federalist Papers, which he said were ‘part of the Constitution,’ although he acknowledged he couldn’t immediately identify a passage to support his contention.”  [LVRJ]

And who could forget Senator Ted Cruz and his government shutdown, except that he’d very much like to have everyone forget he was for it before he was against it. Remember the headline, “House Republicans Credit Ted Cruz As Government Shutdown Looms?”   He’d very much like for us to forget this, unfortunately for Cruz and the Republicans – it’s still out there.  Who would like to be associated with these three? Some will, and the rock bottom base of the GOP will cling to these characters like quagga on a row boat – the great American middle?  Perhaps not so much, especially if Democrats are capable of defining their opponents before the opponents define them.

A modest example: What might happen if some party activists, or some interest group, or just a small group of independent citizens, put together a Top Ten List of Great Republican Quotes periodically, and sent them to everyone on their “mailing” list – to be forwarded to everyone on the recipient’s “mailing” lists… Or how about a nice Viral Video?  These activities are relatively cheap and depend more on relationships than money – things could get interesting? If a single person shipped off a Famous GOP Quote to everyone on their e-mail list even if it’s a modest five person collection and each recipient forwarded the message to another five … it doesn’t take long to get to some 625 people, 3125 people….

Here’s hoping the Democratic Party in Nevada, and elsewhere, is not depending on the Big Draw of  a Presidential election to create an atmosphere conducive to the Democratic agenda for 2016.  I hope that the candidate recruitment process is going on NOW. That the messaging process is being calculated NOW. And that the penultimate strategy is we have nothing to fear from Republican candidates other than fear itself.

Democrats have a party the leadership of which: Produced 63 consecutive months of economic growth; we have 54 straight months of increased private sector employment; the unemployment rate has dropped from 10.1% in October 2009 to 5.9%; the federal deficit has been reduced by 66% since October 2009; the rate of federal spending increases is the lowest (1.4%) since the Eisenhower administration; 95% of Americans pay lower taxes than at any time in the last fifty years; 7 million Americans have health insurance they could not have afforded before the ACA; and the rate of health care spending increases has been less (1.3%) than any year since 1965. [pdf]

Cutting through the Crap from the Noise Machine

No regular viewer of the Faux News Machine is going to believe anything in the previous paragraph.  There is a non-productive tendency to want to answer everything tossed out by the Noise Machine when in fact it may better serve Democrats to let them indulge in their regular tantrums and merely enjoy the ludicrous irrationality.

Perhaps we’d be better served by a narrative about fear – as in we’re tired of being afraid.  When did this nation become such a country filled with shrinking violets that we can become frightened of ONE case of Ebola infection in our entire territory?

When did this nation become so afraid of our own neighbors that we must arm ourselves to the gunwales and tremble before the prospect – highly unlikely – of a home invasion?  (the rate is about 0.42%)  When did we become such a troupe of Wet Pants Dancers that we, all 319,000,000 of us,  don’t think we can stand up to 33,000 wacky terrorists in Iraq and Syria?

When did we become so afraid of “debt” that we can’t even consider improving our physical infrastructure, building schools and libraries, expanding our parks, employing more high school counselors, increasing the capacity of our community colleges and technical schools, improving medical and social services for veterans, investing in medical and scientific research….   There are issues here. Positive, practical issues.  We could use some new voices – voices that aren’t afraid – voices telling us we are the strongest, most productive, richest, and most vibrant nation on the face of this planet – and it’s high time we acted like it.

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The Big Fizzle: How many things can we enjoy watching for the next two years?

Escher 1

There’s one number that says it all about the mid-term elections in this state (Nevada) and I’d guess it would be comparable to other states as well: 45.51% – that’s the turnout percentage. [SoS]   Voter turnout in 2012 was a nice 80.77%. [SoS]  However, it could have been worse – in the 2010 election the statewide turnout was a miserable 30.12% of active voters. [SoS] Perverse as I am when it comes items in the humor category, there are some things I will find amusing in the next two years as a result of the Big Fizzle.  Here they are in no particular order:

Senator Mitch McConnell may very well want to share more Kentucky bourbon with Representative John Boehner.   Merely because some newly elected senator shares the same party label doesn’t necessarily mean he or she loves you.   Now, who might such hide-bound ideologues like Colorado’s Cory Gardner or the Iowa Pig Snipper Joni Ernst love more? McConnell or Cruz?    As Representative Boehner discovered to his periodic humiliation after 2010, one party can have a majority and still not be able to function like a well ordered caucus.   The Republicans may have figured out how to make the Tea Party candidates more presentable, but they’ve yet to calculate how to make them useful.   I could enjoy watching this scene play out.

Age and craft will be hard pressed to dampen youth and enthusiasm.  There are some wonderfully symbolic things the Tea Party GOP members would like to do – like “repeal Obamacare” however doing so would toss millions of Americans out of the health insurance market, and this won’t be very popular even with the insurance corporations which are now making money off the new customers.   Youth and Enthusiasm will at least want to allow employers to refuse to offer contraception coverage in group plans – enacting this legislation will alienate yet more female voters, especially those of child bearing age – and the husbands who agree with their wives about family planning.

Should McConnell and Boehner retain their leadership positions, they’ll have to face members of their own caucuses who want to repeal the Dodd-Frank Act, defund or dismantle the Environmental Protection Agency, disassemble the Department of Education, allow the government to shut down, and impeach the President – for something, anything.  Since for many Republicans history only begins in November 2008 they’ll not remember what happened in the wake of the impeachment debacle of Bill (now wildly popular) Clinton, and perhaps not even remember how unpopular their own shut down was not too long ago.

Kids say the darndest things.   If the nation learned to love Michelle “Loony Bin” Bachmann from Minnesota, they’re going to be equally enamored of “Granny Get Your Gun” Ernst from Iowa, or Cresent “Bundy Boy” Hardy from Nevada.  Politicians don’t get elected without talking, and the more the likes of these two talk the more 24 Carat Comedy Gold will be mined from the veins of Republican politics.

Heaven has no rage like love to hatred turned, Nor hell a fury like a woman scorned,” spoken by Zara in Act III, Scene VIII The Mourning Bride by William Congreve (1697)   Want to get better turnout in the 2016 elections, especially among women voters?  Keep opposing equal pay for equal work, and opposing insurance coverage for contraceptive prescriptions, and opposing abortion services for women with life threatening pregnancies, and opposing affordable student loans for the women’s children, and opposing increases in the national minimum wage …. that should do it.   And, while we’re being poetic –

Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, Or what’s a heaven for?”  Robert Browning (Andrea Del Sarto)  The aforementioned activities like government shut-downs and impeachments are difficult to stop once the Beltway Bovines start moving as a herd.  A free, headlong rush of cattle/Congressmen in a mass impulsive action, makes for great television. The networks will be only too delighted to broadcast these events.  But then there was the Gallup polling which reported the following on December 24, 1998:

“Despite the fact that he is only the second President in U.S. history to be impeached by the House of Representatives, President Bill Clinton received a 73% job approval rating from the American public this past weekend, the highest rating of his administration, and one of the higher job approval ratings given any president since the mid-1960s.”

I’m sure the President would like to see a 73% approval rating.  Then there was that 9%-11% Congressional approval rating after the government shut down of 2013.  That would be a drop from the current 14% rating. How low can they go?

Be careful what you wish for,” or was that the title of a Jeffrey Archer novel?   Okay, the Senate will be controlled by the Republican(t) caucus.  Former Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell has already offered some timely advice under this heading to the Republicans in Congress:

“I think the Republicans, be careful what you wish for, because if they win the Senate, they better do something, they better send the president some responsible pieces of legislation or they’ll get crushed in 2016,” the former Democratic governor said Sunday on CNN’s “State of the Union.”

And what might that “responsible” legislation be? If we assume the newly elected Representatives and Senators want to stay in office?  69% of American voters want an increase in the minimum wage. [HuffPoGallup did a bit of polling of working women and found the #1 issue among them was equal pay for equal work, none of the other items in the open ended poll came close to the 42%.  We’ve known since last July that 92% of gun owners support universal background checks. [TheHill]  One could ignore these, or one could “get crushed in 2016?”

Get the popcorn buttered.

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Have You Voted? Vote today, ignore the pundits tomorrow

ballot box Just asking!  For all the mega-money that’s been tossed into the elections, there is only one poll that matters…and that’s the vote count at the end of the day.   We might also want to give some consideration to a National Ignore the Pundits Day, which I’d not so humbly suggest be the day after any election.

Pundits are on my television screen because (1) they’re available – think Senator John McCain (R- Green Room) and (2) because the producers of the shows know that their contributions will either enhance or assault the Narrative of the Day.   Cable “news” doesn’t just happen – it’s produced.  Let’s take a look at the job description of a “producer:”

“Television producers make sure that television shows run smoothly in all details, and take responsibility for everything from coordinating writers and performers/correspondents right down to overseeing the fact-checking of credit names and titles.” [Princeton Review]

Note, the show must run ‘smoothly’ and the fact-checking is concerned with getting the credit names and titles broadcast correctly.  What the contributors and anchors have to say will be either ‘scripted’ or at least expected.  No one on the production end really wants any major surprises.

Pundits and anchors want to ask questions, but the production will determine the level and type of information made available.  There are a few, a resplendent few, anchors who will actually elicit information of use to the general public.  Because the sponsors of a production don’t care to pay for air time in which their interests aren’t supported, we’d be better off not to expect the national media to do a very good job of getting facts together in a coherent package – and for the most part they don’t.  Public television and local shows tend to do a better job in this department.

Back in 1994 Peter Anderson’s analysis of the press made an observation about the Perfect News Story.  A perfect news story had (1) a celebrity, plus (2) a scandal, which could be simply stated, and (3) engendered endless speculation.  Diving for ratings? Clicks? Hits?  Follow the formula.  And, following the formula requires a production that will fit a predetermined narrative (remember we don’t really want surprises.)  This situation, in turn, creates the vacuity of the national pundit/anchor shows.

Type A:  The what you said then and what you say now inquiry.  The late Tim Russert was a master at this form of vacuity.  A politician’s statement from deep in the archives would be resurrected, printed out on the screen and then form the subject of “Why have you changed your position?”  The question isn’t necessarily a bad one, IF the person answering the question is given sufficient time to respond, to explain why his or her beliefs have changed over time. However, the flip side of the coin is that the format, if carted along to its obvious conclusion, is that changing one’s position is a bad thing and demonstrates the weakness of a belief system.  The unfortunate result is that the only people who end up looking good are the ones who’ve never changed their opinions – often in the face of mountains of evidence to the contrary.

Other than taking carved-in-stone objurgate positions never to be moved a millimeter, the only alternative is do take so many positions on an issue that the quotation resurrection process is flooded with diverse and often self-contradictory opinions; see Senators McCain and Paul who’ve been on every side of every possible issue.

Type B: In this model the question is posed with a pre-determined answer.  “Senator Sludgepump, do you think the House Minority Leader’s proposal for increasing the minimum wage is a good one?”   If Sludgepump is a member of the opposing political party, then of course he doesn’t believe it’s a good idea.   For the sake of the example, let’s assume Sludgepump is opposed to increasing the minimum wage, and is only too willing to recite the talking points against the measure.  What’s lost in this conversation?  You’ve guessed it – it’s why the House Minority Leader supports an increase in the minimum wage in the first place.

Rather than truly offering both sides of an issue what the producers/anchors have accomplished is to offer the original idea, shorn of any context or background information, and to challenge it with the opposition’s argument complete with the appropriate talking points.  There’s nothing “balanced” about this.  For that matter, there really isn’t anything of much substance offered to the viewing public.  There is, however, a pernicious element inserted into public discourse in which only the opposition (to just about anything) is given precedence over the affirmative.

Type C:  This third type of format which abets the Perfect Story Formula is associated with the notion that human beings are herd animals.  If the story doesn’t have a celebrity, or a hint of scandal, or doesn’t lend itself to endless speculation, then it will be spiked in favor of that which does have all the elements.   The FACT that there is only ONE case of Ebola infection in the entire United States hasn’t discouraged the cable news channels from spouting off and encouraging that “endless speculation,” some of which has been downright loony.  But, if one network is focused on it then we’d better believe that at some point they will all be staring at that same shiny object.

In this instance the producer will line up all the usual suspects: the opposition leader(s) who have criticisms of the administration or their opponents; the ‘experts’ in the field, albeit some with highly questionable credentials; and, the ‘analysts’ who will explain (interminably) what some bit of minutia means.   What have we missed? We can use the Islamic State as an example.

Explaining the relationship of the Islamic State terrorists to other opposition groups in Syria is a complicated process; the mutations and permutations of the group are based in long simmering territorial, religious, and social disputes, some going back as far as the Sykes-Picot Agreement of May 19, 1916, and the diplomatic/military maneuvering during the First World War.  Modern history isn’t any simpler. The migration of the Islamic State terrorists from Iraq to Syria and back to Iraq takes more than a twelve minute segment to explain.  Since the story doesn’t fit neatly into the Celebrity + Scandal + Endless speculation formula, and can’t be explained succinctly in sound bytes, it probably won’t be explicated by any major network.  The herd will continue to follow the shiny objects which are easier to explain.

The Type C, or follow the leader, Sunday show journalism – even if practiced on a Wednesday, has all manner of sources.  Want to guess what Fox News will promote – see Drudge?  Want to guess what NBC will promote?  See the front page of the New York Times or the Washington Post.  And so it goes. The danger of playing following the leader is obvious. If the Leader goes after a dramatic, if trivial, story then the other media outlets must follow lest they be shamed by charges of “ignoring” important news.  Thus the herd is rounded up, pointed in essentially the same direction, and those stories which truly affect people’s lives are demoted to the back pages and the “if it bleeds it leads” items head to the forefront.

We shouldn’t be surprised if this leads to endless palaver about the fizzling frantic ‘stories’ about Benghazi, Fast and Furious, the IRS or other attempts to create drama in the news room.   The formula is perfectly suited to this kind of reporting.

If we put A, and B, and C together the fiction that we are getting important news from our broadcast and major media outlets should be starkly highlighted.

Therefore, the Pundits will be Plentiful on November 5, each and every one seeking to please the anchors and meet the expectations of the producers.  They will be eager to speculate about Congressional leadership, anxious to speculate on matters of political priorities, and yearning to speculate about what these election returns mean for the next great Horse Race Season.  What do all three of these have in common – Speculation. Endless Speculation. The final element in the perfect story formula.

Speculation is cheap.  Any one of us can do it on a daily basis; we could probably keep it up for hours.  Speculation doesn’t require much research beyond what’s necessary for the “show to run smoothly.” Speculation doesn’t require much background information, “just set up the question and let Senator Sludgepump or Representative Mudmire rattle on.”  Speculation doesn’t require reporters on the ground doing journalism at the source.  Reporters cost money, and shows can be produced more cheaply if there aren’t so many of them.

There are precious few news shows which aren’t so over-produced that relatively little information can be gleaned from them.  Find them. Watch them. Support them.  The rest can be safely ignored on National Ignore the  Pundits Day.

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VOTE! Here’s why…

ballot box Here are 50 reasons to vote: Washington Monthly.

Here are more: “Obama outperforms Reagan on jobs, growth, and investing” [Forbes]

Vote, like your right to vote depends on it. Because it does.

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Curmudgeon Junction: Short Term Thinking Long Term Losses

Halloween Pumpkin Want something to be afraid of this Halloween week?  No, it’s not Ebola, nor is it ISIS, nor is it that some undocumented person will cast an “impersonation ballot” at some polling station… it’s Short Term Thinking.  Today’s rant from Curmudgeon Junction is a general grouse about the lack of foresight intrinsic in our economic and political institutions. 

The Economics of Myopia

The whole artificial edifice of Shareholder Value would collapse in a heap if the Management Interests would take a longer view of their corporate health.  When one’s interests are aligned with quarterly earnings reports, and the effect on stock market prices, then what we will get are executives who place cost cutting measures above the long term interests of the corporation.  It will be necessarily more important to lay off expensive workers than to promote long term corporate loyalty.  It will be necessarily more important to engage in stock buy backs than to allocate resources to research and development.  It will be necessarily more important to invent ever more exotic tax treatments and financial products than to invest in corporate expansion.  It will be necessarily more important to conflate the interests of trade with the interests of financial markets.  It will necessarily be more important to accumulate a profitable financial product revenue stream than to invest in modern plants and equipment.  And, this is a recipe for a witch’s brew for short term “results” and long term losses.

What U.S. steel industry?  Yes, U.S. Steel is still in business, but it’s no longer producing 67% of this country’s steel. [USX] Did anyone notice when U.S. Steel was removed from the Standard and Poor 500 Index? [NYT] Yes, the company has diversified, but it also moved in and out of some very risky propositions in the process, and simply surviving isn’t a particularly impressive item in comparison to actually thriving. 

VWonder Bread is back on the shelves, but why did the process have to be such a mess?  Let’s start with what financial writers are pleased to call a “highly leveraged capital structure with little room for error.” [Forbes]  And, we can add in an obsolete line of products – where was the investment in product research and development? And,  we can add in relatively high labor costs – which were cut in return for a promise (unkept) that the management would allocate resources into more efficient plants and equipment… So, the Twinkies got the axe, (rather later than perhaps that product line should have in the face of changing consumer trends), and the whole jerry-built private equity backed operation couldn’t take the strain of having to turn a mismanaged company around in the face of immediate capital needs.

Chevron made much of its prowess in developing alternative energy, it even created a renewable power group (CVX) and then shut the lights down.

“In January, employees of Chevron’s (CVX) renewable power group, whose mission was to launch large, profitable clean-energy projects, dined at San Francisco’s trendy Sens restaurant as managers applauded them for nearly doubling their projected profit in 2013, the group’s first full year of operations. But the mood quickly turned somber. Despite the financial results and the team’s role in helping launch more than a half-dozen solar and geothermal projects capable of powering at least 65,000 homes, managers told the group that funding for the effort would dry up and encouraged staffers to find jobs elsewhere, say four people who attended the dinner.” [Bloomberg]

The renewable power group created a net profit of $27 million in 2013, well above the $15 million target, so why did Chevron pull the plug? 

“When you have a very successful and profitable core oil and gas business, it can be quite difficult to justify investing in renewables,” says Robert Redlinger, who ran a previous effort at Chevron to develop large renewable-energy projects before he left in 2010. “It requires significant commitment at the most senior levels of management. I didn’t perceive that kind of commitment from Chevron during my time with the firm.” [Bloomberg]

Translation: OK, the renewables were making money just not enough money to get the attention of top management.  More translation: the Renewables group wasn’t making enough money in the short term to get management support in the long run.

How many investments banks are there in the United States? If you guessed Zero you got it right.  None, zilch, zip. We now have Bank Holding Companies, as the former high flyers on Wall Street sought the protection of the Federal Reserve to avoid financial oblivion in September 2008. [MotleyFool]  After running, ever so willingly, into the arms of the government in their debacle of 1002-2008, the bankers now want to revert to playing by their own rules – Repeal Dodd Frank – and re-engage in the same short term behaviors which brought on the collapse of the financial sector in 2007 and 2008.

The Politics of Myopia

There’s never been a shortage of self-serving myopia in politics. Ever.  Nor has there been a surfeit of times in which there was less costuming going on in political campaigns than there were little goblins out seeking confectionary items to put in their pillow cases.  However, turning the politics of fear into an art form, is to emphasize the fear and trivialize the long term prospects of hope.

So, we have politicians ginning up fear of a virus – of which we now have ONE case in the entire country  of 330 million people – to secure short term votes based on “Did the administration do enough?” Has the administration been strong enough?”  Probably – given that we have ONE case in a population of 330 million.   Notice, we’re not talking about (1) What should U.S. funding priorities be for the research and development of vaccines for relatively rare viral diseases which occur primarily in third world nations? or, (2) What should be the U.S. contribution to world wide efforts to eradicate viral infections?  Those would be long term questions – and we seem to have the attention span of fruit flies when it comes to politics.

The Media and Myopia

While we’re on the topic of viral diseases – has it occurred to anyone in the management end of public media that Wolf! is not to be carried to extremes, or have we missed that point from the kindergarten reading list?  How many times have we been told that Swine Flu!  Avian Flu! West Nile Virus! MERS! SARS! was going to be the End of Humanity! Or, close to it.   Now, it’s Ebola – and the media circus begins once more.  Has it not taken hold in the imaginations of media management that there may come a time when something like the Spanish Flu – a real pandemic – may creep up on us and because the “Wolf!” cry has been offered up so often and in such a dramatic way, that health care professionals will have trouble convincing the public that “This time it’s REAL?”  Are the monthly, or weekly, ratings really so important in the short run that we’d take this risk in the long run?

How many editors across the nation are assigning people to cover stories for which the reporter is simply unqualified?  That’s not ‘on’ the reporter.  If a reporter turns in a story about race relations in a mid-western city based on impressions made during a few nights of protest, with little or no background knowledge of the historic context, do we blame the superficiality of the reporting on the writer – or on the management which decided to cut back on the number of writers in order to “increase shareholder value?”  How many media outlets retain the services of several persons with a background in economics or finance to craft articles about our economy?  How many media outlets hire individuals with a background in history/sociology to write about race and ethnic relations?   How many can afford to?

It’s one thing to blast the banality of much political reporting – and another to remember that national pundits aren’t reporters.  The pundits are time fillers.  It’s expensive to send reporters to New Hampshire, Colorado, or Nevada. It’s more expensive to send them to Ukraine,  Burkina Faso, and China.  It’s cheaper to keep a pool of reporters in central locations and send “teams” out to cover events – whether or not the team members have any expertise in the regions to which they are sent.

In return for short term economies we get a long term prospect of sensationalized reporting on the dramatic and very little contextual information about subjects of greater long term impact ( such as, the efforts of Middle Eastern nations to come to terms with the historic impact of post World War I boundaries).  Are we hearing about what mega-studies of student learning models tell us about how children actually learn, or are we getting packaged news about how children in one city measure up against children in another on a high stakes standardized test?

Are we hearing about how most bridges in the United States are designed to last 50 years, and the average age of bridges in this country is 43?  Do we know that in just ten years one out of every four bridges in this country will be over 65 years of age, that would be some 170,000 of them. [BridgeReport pdf] Or, do we wait until another one collapses and more lives are lost? 

And so it goes. We’ll shove more and more eye-catching events with less and less context into the great maw of 24 hour news cycles until the information is granulized into particles about which the Time Fillers will offer interminable speculation because that’s what they’re paid to do – speculate. In the short term it’s entertaining – in the long run it isn’t conducive to a well informed electorate.

Worse still, we’ll probably keep doing this until the old song lyrics are true: “I get all the news I need from the weather report.”

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