Republicans Begat Trump—Now What?

By Mike Koetting September 10, 2020

This is the third of three posts on why I think the Republican Party must be electorally annihilated. 

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The first two posts made the argument that the Republican Party no longer had moral claim to be one of the parties in America’s two-party system. These arguments did not mention Donald Trump. I believe Trump is a symptom—a particularly toxic symptom to be sure—but not the fundamental reason for the Republicans’ loss of legitimacy in the American system.

I don’t want to downplay the outrageous excesses of Donald Trump. In private, even Republican legislators shake their heads and roll their eyes at Trump. But however awful Trump is—and he is a real threat to democracy–the more important point for this argument is that he is in fact the logical end point of today’s Republican Party.

It starts with Richard Nixon’s Southern Strategy. As Robert Jones of the Public Religion Research Institute puts it:

When such a tactic is deployed for half a century, no one should be surprised when white-supremacist sentiments turn out to be an animating core of group identity…. Trump is most accurately understood as the inevitable end of a road paved brick by brick through 13 presidential election cycles since 1968.

It continues through Reagan’s open attacks on the legitimacy of government, through Newt Gingrich’s approach to skipping issues in favor of contentless messaging, Karl Rove’s flagrant use of wedge issues and voter suppression, Add 30 years of muttering about presumably otherwise unfettered freedoms that were being curtailed, and 10 years of immigrant bashing, and the Republicans created a core of the electorate that was primed for Donald Trump.

To be sure, they had help. The rise of right wing social media and Fox news accelerated these trends. Of course, the Republican Party winked and nodded at these developments, often adding fuel to various fires. Likewise, the strident anti-New Dealers—most openly identified with Koch, Mercer and the like—but in fact widely sprinkled throughout high income America, provided funds for these ventures, even as they kept their true motives submerged. (It is risible to pretend that Trump could have won had he openly campaigned on the tax bill plan he supported and signed.)

The consequences were a growth of income inequality to levels not seen in a century. But the Republicans deflected from their actual policies by blaming “the other,” “liberals,” and a myth of curtailed freedoms. This created deep bitterness in the hearts of the White losers in the distribution. Trump ruthlessly exploited every one of these cracks in the electorate, but he did not start it and relied on a portion of the electorate cultivated for years to be ready for his message. It is hard to understand how any Republican could have been surprised when Trump won the nomination. He is the president for whom they had been paving the way.

The failure of Republicans to constrain Trump is the ultimate evidence in the emptiness of this party. In 1974, a group of Republican leaders took Nixon aside and told him it was time to resign. Since 2016, the Republicans—with very few exceptions—have continued to defend the indefensible. One might argue about any one of Trump’s questionable actions, but considered as a whole, he is indisputably an outrage. There are no doubt myriad reasons and considerations for Republic inaction, but the net impact is tidily summarized by Stuart Spencer, a former Republican operative:

Trump was the moral test, and the Republican Party failed. It’s an utter disaster for the long-term fate of the Party. The Party has become an obsession with power without purpose.

The prosecution rests. The Republican Party as it currently stands no longer deserves to be one of America’s two governing parties. It has eschewed the responsibilities of loyal and sensible participation in the difficult business of democracy.

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But I want to be crystal clear about what I am not implying. This is not an argument for an unlimited era of total hegemony by the Democratic Party. Democracy rests on the ability to reconcile the diverging needs for a good society, in particular the ability to balance between collective welfare and individual freedoms. In America we have chosen to represent this structurally via a two-party system where each party carries one of these banners a bit more prominently. This hasn’t worked perfectly, but—modifying the old saying—it was good enough for government to work.

I can’t imagine great alternatives to the two-party system in 2020 America. Maybe a multi-party, parliamentary system might be better at some level of theory, but the odds of that here are beyond remote. There may well be systems (various types of proportional voting) that could reduce the likelihood of extreme polarization. Those are worth consideration. But, given context, I think what we need most urgently is a functional two-party system.  At one level, I’m inclined to agree with Steve Schmidt, one of the founders of the Lincoln Project:

I think a good sign of being an idiot in life is believing that all virtue is vested in one of these political parties and all evil in the other.

On the other hand, it is clearly the case that a party can lose its way so badly that it no longer serves its structural purpose. When the gap between its purported values and its actions reaches a certain point, it can no longer function as an honest broker in reconciling the structural tensions inherent in liberal democracy. The Lincoln Project and other similar organizations are raising the same flag of alarm that I am raising.

I also want to be clear this is not a partisan issue in the narrow sense of the term. It sounds partisan because it is explicitly couched in terms of the electoral annihilation of the Republican Party as it now exists. But the argument is not about what the Democrats offer—an important, but separate discussion—but about the degree to which the Republican Party has forsaken its role as a good-faith participant in a two party system. Given that Republicans have abrogated their responsibilities, the appropriate response is to remove them from the board. And the only way to do that is through the political process. This is less about supporting Democrats and more about maintaining our system of democracy.

I don’t know what the next move will be for those who want to regroup around the principles espoused by the Republican Party before the current occupants of the party bent and distorted them to achieve the maintenance of power beyond any other aim. It is possible that an entirely new party will be created. Or the existing party may undergo a severe makeover—as the Democratic Party did between 1960 and 1980 when they shed the Dixiecrats. (The many years of tolerance by the Democratic Party of openly aggressive white supremacy, particularly in the South, is more evidence that no political party has a monopoly on morality.)

I am happy to leave the Republican restructuring project to others. It will be enormously difficult to get all the problems they have let loose back into the bottle. As Annie Lowery points out in The Atlantic, they have built their coalition on culture wars and slash and burn of the safety net. Creating a new brand that is electorally competitive will take a long time. It will be hard to avoid the temptation to enlist those warriors in the new party, but if they do, they will get the same feckless Republican party.

That, however, is not my problem. If the Republican Party in its current form is annihilated, my attention will be more focused on trying to keep the Democratic Party from going off the rails, the possibility of which will most likely be enhanced by the momentary absence of counter-vailing electoral currents.

American democracy will be best served with a two party system when there are actually two responsible parties.

Why the GOP Is No Longer a Responsible Party

By Mike Koetting August 27, 2020

This is the second of three posts on why the Republican Party in its current form deserves electoral annihilation.

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In the decade after Gingrich unveiled the Contract with America, Republicans faced two problems:

  • The number of people likely to be consumed by total fear of the changes in society was declining as the demography changed.
  • The “make whatever you can and treat taxes as theft” message was really attractive to only a small sliver of the population. A sliver with access to phenomenal resources to be sure. But still a message that most Americans found suspect.

Steve Greenberg/Seattle Post-Intelligencer

In short, Republicans had to either adapt their core strategy or try to survive as a minority party. They chose the latter. They used four strategies:

  • Burying messages about their economic intent in a more general message about government taking your freedom, which contributed to general paranoia.
  • Promulgating a series of “wedge issues” designed to motivate sectors of their constituencies to vote on those issues without regard to larger context.
  • Using newly available technologies to gerrymander on an unprecedented scale in order to inflate the value of votes from their supporters. And simply suppress votes where that worked.
  • Legislative obstruction of anything proposed by Democrats

These issues have been well discussed and documented elsewhere. There are tons of articles on how Republicans simply obstructed legislation rather than offering solutions. The refusal to consider Obama’s Supreme Court nomination was a classic example. And David Daly’s Ratf**ked outlined the impressive success of gerrymandering. In Wisconsin, for instance, Republicans hold a 63-36 margin in the House despite the fact that in aggregate Democratic candidates received 190,000 more votes. One in five Americans lives in a state where at least one house of the legislature is controlled by a party that did not get the majority of votes.

But rather than focusing on these issues per se, I want to explore the consequences that went beyond the direct impact.

Increased Dependence on the Base

The more the Republican Party relied on an ever-shrinking base, the less latitude it had within its base because districts had been constructed with scientific precision to achieve maximum leverage with a minimum margin. This made primaries less about selecting a candidate who would do well in the general election—as that was engineered to be a largely foregone conclusion–and more about selecting a candidate who met the test of ideological purity.

Wedge issues had the same impact. Wedge issues gain traction by raising the importance of the issues. Republicans focused on certain issues that had relatively clear dividing lines and treated those as if they were the most important—perhaps the only issue—in an election. But once activated, these “wedge” voters don’t disappear; they stay around and carry that wedge issue into successive elections—regardless of what other issues may also be in play. Thus, the wedge element became an indispensable part of their narrow coalition, effectively imprisoning the party on that issue. The Republican Party, for instance, is now totally fenced in on the issue of gun rights, even when many of its members know that the sentiment of the overall nation is somewhere else and even have questions themselves about what they have unleashed.

Republicans Recognized They Were Propping up a Minority

The Republican Party knew exactly what it was doing when it embarked on strategies to govern as a minority. By the 2012 election it was clear to Republicans that they had a problem. In its so-called “autopsy” on the 2012 election a group of analysts commissioned by the Republican Party concluded that the GOP was seen as too-backwards looking and needed to broaden its base to include younger people and others.

We need to campaign among Hispanic, Black, Asian, and gay Americans and demonstrate we care about them, too. We must recruit more candidates who come from minority communities.

But the GOP couldn’t go there. It was too deeply entrenched as a white-party, and, indeed, one that catered to only a portion of the white electorate. So it went the only place it could: governing as a minority party.

You don’t have to take my word for it. Here are a fraction of the quotes that outline the approach.

  • The Republican speaker of the Georgia House complained that high turnout would be “extremely devastating to Republicans and conservatives:”
  • The Romney consultant who said voting ID requirements and long lines were part of his party’s tool kit.
  • The North Carolina Republican in charge of drawing North Carolina’s 2023 map (that was subsequently rejected by the courts for the degree to which it disenfranchised Black voters) said:  “I think electing Republicans is better than electing Democrats. So I drew this map to help foster what I think is better for the country.”

Indeed, the website for REDMAP (the Republican Party $30M initiative to maximize their legislative advantage after the 2010 census) crows about their success:

However, all components of a successful congressional race, including recruitment, message development and resource allocation, rest on the district lines….In the 2012 election Republicans won a 33 seat margin in the U.S. House….having enduring Democratic successes atop the ticket and over one million more votes cast for Democratic House candidates than Republicans.

Republicans Stopped Participating in Policy

As the Republicans became more focused on their ability to govern as a minority party with a narrower base, they gave up on the idea of participating in actual policy, but retreated to pseudo-policy assertions designed to obstruct rather than govern. Don’t have a sensible replacement for the ACA? “Repeal and replace.” (No need to discuss with what.) Need support from big business for environment deregulation? “We really don’t know whether we have an environmental issue.” (What evidence would it take?) Want to lower taxes? “These tax decreases will pay for themselves.” (How much counter-evidence is necessary? And whatever happened to the concern for deficit reduction?)

There may still be ideological differences between the Republicans and the Democrats. But they are no longer expressed in actual policy discussions, which require accepting a standard of evidence and understanding that policy is messy and requires compromise. Rather, as exhaustively documented in Steven Benen’s book Imposters, Republicans stopped participating in the give and take that is essential to the development of policy in a democratic society. They substituted issue engagement with rhetoric that sounds like they are talking policy, but in fact are spinning campaign slogans unconnected to substantive policy analysis, even if occasionally supported by an actual fact.

Among other things, the unwillingness to participate in policy has made Republicans the party of anti-science. Watching this play out in the coronavirus epidemic has been painful. It may be more painful to realize this same dynamic is at play around environmental issues, the potentially catastrophic consequences of which are temporarily masked by the longer feed-back loop of environmental issues. Science does not always have the right answer and it often needs to be tempered by context. But it creates a crucial standard for discussing complicated issues—if you participate.

The Republican Party’s withdrawal from policy has also nourished the anti-government sentiment that has always lurked in American politics. Skepticism of the powers of government is one thing; but openly supporting anti-government sentiment is another—and a dangerous thing for a democracy. Democracy depends on the will of people to be involved. Allowing the idea to flourish that almost any government act can be construed as a deleterious restriction of otherwise unlimited freedom creates foolish understandings of what “freedom” means. Contemporary society will simply not work unless the majority understand that all freedoms are tradeoffs. Moreover, the reluctance to address the worsening income gaps created by weakening the New Deal makes it more difficult for government to deliver benefits to many Americans, further increasing the income gap and undermining belief in the social contract.

Holding Power Is the Only Goal

Many Republicans realize they are prisoners of a base which has large elements deeply at odds with the majority of Americans, realize they are holding on only by manipulating the levers of power regardless of underlying sentiment, and know they have stopped participating meaningfully in public policy.

Still, they want to hold on to power, apparently for its own sake. Maybe they see themselves as some bulwark against the forces of liberalism. But they are unable to articulate that position in a way that relates to the actual policy choices confronting America as opposed to a caricatured version of leftists taking away freedoms.

It is time to face up to the fact Republicans are no longer fit to be one of the two parties governing America. Although it is a bit less obvious at this moment, they are the contemporary Whig party. It is time for the Republican Party as it now stands to meet the same fate. Despite its apparent electoral heft, It, too, is no longer substantively relevant.

Context for a Change in Party Structure

By Mike Koetting August 14, 2020

Perhaps I flatter myself—or flatter you—but I believe that most of the people who read this blog accept the basic notion that most difficult social and political issues don’t have easy or even clear answers. There is a tendency to view all broadly assertive statements with a question about the other side of the coin and etc. So it’s unusual for me to launch a post with a clean, aggressive prescription, in this case that the only way to address America’s political malaise is the electoral annihilation of the Republican Party as it now stands.

Now, there are so many things this assertion does not mean that they will have to be addressed separately in a later post. Until then, today’s post outlines the context for this assertion.

Two Party System

America has a relatively unique political structure—a strong president elected more or less directly by the people and two independent legislative houses with broad powers. Far and away the more common arrangement is a multi-party parliamentary system where the parties elect a prime minister.

While the idea of two parties is not inherent in the American Constitution, it has become so much a feature of the landscape (and state law) that it is hard to imagine a change. There have been third party initiatives at various times, and some of these have definitely changed elections and shaped subsequent events. But they were mostly one-time efforts. The last change in the broad structure of the American parties was in the 1850’s when the Whig Party could not reconcile its northern and southern branches and was replaced by the Republican Party with its relatively clear anti-slavery position.

The two party system has worked well enough in America. But, as numerous political commenters have noted, it worked because the political parties were relatively flexible and tended toward the middle. Years ago a political science professor explained it to me like this:

Imagine a stretch of beach with just two vendors. From a consumer standpoint, optimal location would be for each to be in the middle of his half. But in reality, each will “cheat” toward the middle, assuming that people on their far side would figure it was still closer to that vendor than walking past that vendor to other one.

The result was that differences between the parties, while still generally clear, were blurred enough at the edges that deals got made, legislation got passed and the country managed its way through World Wars, a Depression, a Cold War, expanded the social safety net, and started to enforce the meaning of citizenship for Black Americans. Not a bad half-century’s work.

We aren’t there any more. Any number of academics from all perspectives have shown that the US political landscape is more polarized that at any time since the period leading up to the Civil War, when slavery versus non-slavery was a dichotomous choice. While differences are greater or lesser around specific issues, the below table makes it clear how much the landscape has changed over the last 50 years.

What caused this change? I believe it is a combination of larger changes in the society and deliberate political choices.

The biggest change is in the idea of what compromises the rights of citizens. I don’t want to be simple-minded about this. In hardly any corner of American life are the issues of prejudice and discrimination solved; likewise, few places display the same open racial animosity that existed in 1960. Moreover, the issue of rights of citizens has become more complicated, expanding to a whole range of issues around gender, immigration, gender-orientation and others.

Still, in uneven and disputed ways, a material majority of the country has come to accept this wider-range of the definition of rights. Again, I am not suggesting there is a “liberal” unanimity of view. There isn’t. Nor does the country need it to function. But there has been a new center of what is “mainstream”. As there has been a new mainstream, there have been new definitions of what is “too far off mainstream” to be accorded the same status as differences within the general ambit. I don’t want to get into a detailed discussion of the philosophical rights of minorities. Such discussions are important, but for a different day. The point here is that over time certain positions come to be sufficiently outside mainstream thought that society is simply done with them.

These boundaries change over time. For a long time it was acceptable within the political arena to argue that the country should continue to tolerate slavery. Now it’s not. Other differences might not be as a categorically stark, but they are just as important in explaining what is going on in our society. Without denying that some “political correctness” gets silly, much of what is derided by segments of the country is simply an attempt to outline the norms as they have evolved over time—norms that these groups are not prepared to accept.

The second significant change is the shrinking percentage of the non-Hispanic, white population. It has fallen by one third since 1940 and all signs suggest it will continue to decline.

Both of these changes leave a material portion of the country fearful and angry. Yes, there are legitimate policy issues around how the society incorporates these phenomena, including some thorny issues about individual freedom in democracy. But there is a group of people who are, in my view, irrationally angry at the fact that the rules of the game seem to be shifting in ways that affront them and that they cannot control. It is plausible that throughout modern history there has always been such a crowd. But how much do we want these people to influence our national discussion?

Which brings us to the issue of specific political choices.

The New Deal represented the ascendency of a vision of society in which the well-being of the majority was more important than the ability of individuals to purse their ends without limits. While this view enjoyed wide support, it was by no means universal. Those who were radically opposed to this view did not have much political leverage in a two party system where the other side had the majority.

In the Sixties, however, the landscape started to change. The Democratic party had existed for years—pretty much since the Civil War—as a coalition of economic progressives with staunch segregationists in the South. But for reasons both moral and political, the Democrats began to embrace rights for Blacks. The Republican party countered with the Southern Strategy which, among other things, brought the disaffected segregationists into the Republican Party. The latter group included a large part of the people I have described as irrationally angry and fearful.

There were other changes. Some moderate Republicans—hard as it is to remember now, Republicans were the party of civil rights until Richard Nixon pivoted South—gravitated to the Democratic party. Some union members, disconcerted by the changes described above, became Republicans. Other Democrats, fearful of further defections to the Republicans, became more cautious. The net effect was to make the Democratic Party more willing to acquiesce to Ronald Reagan’s specific attempt to begin rolling back the New Deal. And by their tepid responses, they became complicit in his attacks on the very nature of government.

Enter Newt Gingrich. He was not willing to settle for a war of attrition against the New Deal and, with the “Contract with America”,  launched an all-out assault. But it wasn’t just the substance. McKay Coppins, who refers to  Gingrich as the man who broke American politics, describes it thusly:

The way Gingrich saw it, Republicans would never be able to take back the House as long as they kept compromising with the Democrats out of some high-minded civic desire to keep congressional business humming along. His strategy was to blow up the bipartisan coalitions that were essential to legislating, and then seize on the resulting dysfunction to wage a populist crusade against the institution of Congress itself.

He undertook a thorough process of turning the Republican staff organization from a policy oriented staff to a staff oriented almost exclusively to getting the best spin for Republican slogans. He issued detailed instructions on the best language to use to create divides, down to suggestions on the use of alliterative nicknames to demean other party candidates. All issues became rhetorical and the historic practice of policy compromise that had supported a successful two party system deteriorated.

The extremity of the Contract with America—in its attraction to both the more fearful portion of the population and those relentlessly offended by the New Deal—sent the Republicans down a road that is flatly inconsistent with America’s two party system. It is not clear there is a way back.

This is the story to which I will return in my next post.

Fixing Racism Is Even Harder Than It Seems

By Mike Koetting            June 6, 2020

NOTE: This was written in the first week of June, but I am just now posting. I ran into some nasty health issues that made it impossible to post—and, in fact, put the entire blog on hiatus. But I am recovering nicely and anticipate that I’ll be posting again on my usual semi-regular schedule starting in mid-August. Thanks to all who sent words of support.

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In 1967, I was 19 and spending the summer in New York, where the drinking age was 18. For 10 day in the middle of July, every night was spent in a Bronxville tavern glued to riots, first in Newark, then in Detroit.

If you don’t remember this, I doubt it is possible to recreate the impact of watching the flames and the tanks roll through those cities. Now the very names Newark and Detroit summon images of urban decay and despair. But in 1967, they were still major centers of commerce. Until then we had grown up in this haze of unending, if largely unexamined, national optimism. Riots and tanks in the streets were things that happened elsewhere, not in America.

The conversation those evenings was a stew of despair about what we were seeing and what we understood was behind it, and optimism that somehow we would make it right. This wouldn’t happen again on our watch.

Fifty-three years later, I stood on my balcony and saw the smoke rising from the Loop where the crowd had set a police car on fire. We failed. It was harder than we thought and, one has to concede, we didn’t care enough.

The latter is a bitter pill. We did care. But not enough to cure the racism which has so deeply infected our society.

At this point, there is pretty wide-spread acknowledgement of the ways that the current racial attitudes were built into the foundation of the country. It would be foolish to not acknowledge that they have moderated. But it would be even more foolish to turn our back on how much hasn’t changed and on how slowly change has come. No one in their right mind could pretend that our racism ended with the Civil War…or the Voting Rights Act.

Despite progress, there is the stubborn reality that, counter to the instinct that racism is a spectrum of attitudes, it is actually more of a “yes-no” proposition. Racism gets built in ways large and small into every aspect of society. Each piece makes an incremental contribution to the cumulative effect, both within the society and within each individual. Each piece that doesn’t change reinforces the idea that change is too difficult, maybe impossible. And if change is slow enough in coming, that is proof that not much can be done.

Sometimes this is expressed in outright racism—a foundational sense of superiority over “the other,” whoever that might be. But for most people it is much more subtle, a quiet infection. Even those of us who try not to be. Racism erects many barriers to full participation in society. When people, inevitably, become snagged on the barriers, that in itself reduces societal empathy, particularly when it’s possible to point to people who somehow overcame the obstacles. Some of us are better at seeing problems as a symptom not a cause of racism.  But when we are honest, we know that even many of us who are committed to the idea of a just society remain disconcerted by the specifics.

Dahleen Glanton, in the Chicago Tribune, spells it out:

Take an honest assessment of your attitudes Admit that would you be less likely to believe Floyd did noting wrong without the video to prove it…Ask why doubt creeps into your head when you find out that the victim didn’t live a perfect life.

The sum of these doubts, distances and hesitations keep us from the all-out, sustained assault on the problem that would be necessary to actually tame American racism. Without such a comprehensive assault, we’ll be in an endless cycle of a “whack-a mole”.

I believe such a comprehensive effort requires:

  • Attitudinal change
  • Structural change
  • Patience and persistence

Attitude change will be the hardest. It is not like we don’t know what are the manifestations of racism in America. Any sentient American can list at least a handful of unarmed Black men shot down in situations ranging from flimsy to downright felonious.  We might know something is wrong and we might try some things and those might make some difference. But it doesn’t get at how deeply gnarled the problem is in every aspect of society.

We won’t make necessary progress until the attitude changes from “Racism is wrong” to an unrelenting focus on “It is wrong to not end racism.” We are a long way from there.

There is another tricky aspect of changing the national conversation. We want to move away from us-versus-them attitudes. It is hard, because racism is so heavily implicated in many of those discussions. Unfortunately, significant focus on ending racism will inevitably stoke it in some quarters. We must be prepared and not let it deter us. If we get this right, the haters will simply be left behind by history.

It is beyond this post to get into details on the necessary structural changes. A few general things are, however, clear:

  • It will require large sums of money, probably over a long period of time.  Reparations however structured. I favor expenditures on structured programs rather than outright grants, but the topic requires a long and thoughtful communal discussion.
  • We will need to level the economic distance between Blacks and the rest of the population.
  • We will need powerful levers to mitigate residential segregation. It is too easy to maintain discriminatory structures—even unwittingly—when there is so much physical and social separation.
  • We need a completely different approach to policing. It is clear the current structures aren’t propagating the right attitudes. It may be easier to largely blow them up and start over.
  • Related, we must rethink drug policies. From my perspective, we have it mostly backwards when we legalize guns and criminalize drugs. Untrammeled drugs are a scourge. But the current approaches have been ineffective and have led to unacceptable collateral damage.

Beyond that, I think there needs to be a lot of attention to the process by which we move this forward. Addressing racism will impact so many aspects of our society, there will need to be massive buy-in. Think of the societal effort support for WWII. We won’t get that unless many elements of society feel their voices were included, particularly including those less enfranchised.

Patience and persistence will be required, on all sides. The reason I started this post outlining how hard it is to mitigate racism is to illuminate why this is not going to be a “one-shot” affair. Changing attitudes and making necessary structural changes will require years and years, probably decades and decades, of focused, concerted effort. Many Blacks will justifiably think progress is too slow. Many Whites will incorrectly think we are giving too much. And everyone will be shocked at the price tag. But the moral imperative is clear enough—and perhaps this time shared enough.

Almost 60 years ago John Kennedy said:

We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard; because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one we intend to win, and the others, too.

Getting our house on earth is an even more worthy goal. We must not underestimate how long and hard the journey—or we will not have the political fortitude to get there. But we must pick up the torch now.

We shouldn’t fool ourselves again. Fixing the racism problem in our country will not be a single program or set of expenditures. Addressing this fundamental flaw in the way America developed will be a project for several generations.

The question is whether we are going to do it or not. Do we choose to start now on this long and difficult road? Or, will we settle for some one-time changes and 50 years from now our children and grandchildren will look again at the flames of outrage, shake their heads, and say “We really should have fixed this.

The Intractability of What We Have

By Mike Koetting May 22, 2020

I am happy to report I got more comments than usual on my recent post outlining my take on what the virus told us about Federalism. Some people applauded that states provided an alternative source power when their populace didn’t agree with the flavors on offer from the central government. Others noted the need for local components to target appropriately for local circumstances and, sometimes, simply to develop local support necessary for a program to be effective.

Both fair comments. But I was still skeptical states are the best vehicle for either of these. So I decided to think about what alternatives might exist.

Set aside the fact that from a practical perspective, making a major change in the role of states is a non-starter, short of a catastrophe so bad that we don’t want to think about it. People like me can sit around and think of reasons why states don’t work until the cows come home. No matter how impressive the list of problems, change seems well less likely than absolutely no way.

Continue reading “The Intractability of What We Have”

Federalism and the Virus

By Mike Koetting May 12, 2020

I am not a big fan of the idea of states. It’s hard to see what reality they are mapping aside from historical precedent. Take Illinois. While the Chicago metropolitan area shares one media market, one air and water space, a common labor pool, a shared healthcare market and intertwined transportation, there are at least two state governments that get involved, often to peculiar results, and two other states impacted. Conversely, the rest of Illinois is perpetually aggrieved by the idea that Illinois government is overly shaped by Chicago.

The history of state governments in the U.S. is of course inextricably linked to the founding of the country. At the time of the Revolutionary War, political and practical identity was tied to individual states, which in fact had already evolved in different ways because of the political and economic circumstances of their founding.

At the time of the Constitution, there was simply no way of creating a unified country that didn’t carefully limit federal power over the individual states. No states, no country. It was as simple as that. It was also as simple as no slavery, no country. Giving states power to regulate that matter was a necessary condition for forming a country. It was a moral dodge required by reality. The Senate, and the electoral college, were part of the package.

Continue reading “Federalism and the Virus”

Voting in the Time of Covid

By Mike Koetting April 24, 2020

I am very concerned that in the necessity of dealing with the immediate problems of the pandemic, we are unable to focus on the actual mechanics of voting in November, an election that will decide the fate of our democracy.

There is a high level of public concern about how safe voting in person will be. The prudent thing is to plan as if the pandemic were still raging. Hopefully that will be overkill, but the downsides are trivial in comparison to the problems of a chaotic election. As in Wisconsin.

Continue reading “Voting in the Time of Covid”

Trump’s Approval Rating

By Mike Koetting April 10, 2020

Polls have been showing about 50% of the country approves of President’s Trump handling of the coronavirus pandemic. I was at first perplexed by how this could be in the face of what seems to me like egregiously poor performance. Then I decided I was confused by the wrong thing.

For the purposes of this post, I want to focus only on the non-substantive parts of his performance. Initial returns suggest that the administration made many substantive mistakes. But I want to set this aside for the moment. Plenty of people are writing on the specifics and the final evaluation will get hashed out over time. Even so, it is worth keeping in mind that, as much as we like to pretend we are non-biased, no one is immune. For instance, the Washington Post notes that the constantly quoted charge that Trump disbanded the office of global health affairs is substantively more complicated. More time will give us a better view.

Continue reading “Trump’s Approval Rating”

Lessons for the (Really) Big One

By Mike Koetting March 27, 2020

Coronavirus is a monster hit to every aspect of our lives. It is hard to imagine writing about anything else right now and every publication is full of articles on the topic. But most of them are providing advice (not always consistent), looking at its short term impacts, or, here and there, guessing about long term impacts. I have nothing to add to those. At least at this time.

What I do want to write about is lessons that might be learned for dealing with another issue of even potentially larger impact–climate change. As disruptive as coronavirus undoubtedly is, my guess is that the changes that could be wrought by unchecked climate change will be even bigger, and last longer. Maybe we should consider the virus as a practice run and take advantage of what seems like a teachable moment to get the people of this country thinking about what we can learn from the pandemic and what it might suggest we focus on going forward.

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Political Myths and Mything the Point

By Mike Koetting March 11, 2020

David Brooks’ recent column, “Why Sanders Will Probably Win the Nomination,” at this point seems to have been seriously premature. But what he got right and wrong is worth revisiting.

The gist of his column was that Sanders would probably win the nomination because he had a story—Brooks call it a “myth”—that is simple, easy to get your head around, and coherent in its own way. The other candidates didn’t. (Actually, Brooks thought Warren did too, but he believes it was just a different version of Bernie’s.) Brooks see the Sanders’ myth as having the same “us versus them” structure as the myths told by Donald Trump, just with different villains. Brooks argues that not only are both myths wrong, but their “us-versus-them” narratives are obstacles to the “great yearning for solidarity, and eagerness to come together and make practical change” that are the real underlying wish of ordinary people.

There is truth, myth and obtuseness here.

Continue reading “Political Myths and Mything the Point”