Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Cultural Issues: A Broad Outline

For a long time, culture has been the elephant in the room during American political discussions. That is, whenever actual political discussions have been held. I feel sorry for the younger generation today because they seem to have grown up in a period much more sharply divided than I remember. There does not seem to be any room for dissent anymore and therefore political discussion has largely been replaced by shouting matches or, to avoid the shouting match, an unspoken taboo has been attached to all political issues at social gatherings.

Cultural may not be the appropriate word for the substance of this division but it may have to suffice. The matter is simply that people argue about surface political issues when, actually, there are geographic fault lines dividing them which no one is addressing.

Thinking about this division, I initially determined that it goes all the way back to the Roe v Wade decision of 1973. After all, if one side of the discussion thinks that they are discussing murder and the other side doesn't, each is attaching a very distinct level of importance to the topic. Anyone who has been married knows how much damage can occur when one half of the couple does not take a disputed issue as seriously as the other.

Perhaps, though, this issue goes much farther back. I thought, for some time, that there was good reason to believe that the matter had its origin in the Civil War. Now, I am thinking that perhaps we are reaping what we sowed in the American Revolution.

I will speculate more about that issue in later articles. For now, it should be enough to outline the primary matters which are causing such turmoil in today's political forums.

Religion
Has the Sun set on American religion?


Religion has always divided America to some extent. Today, the source of the division is unusual in that having a religion or adhering to one makes you stand out against the general American background in many places.

Before World War II, the US was a staunchly Protestant country. While Catholics had been slowly gaining popular acceptance since the US Civil War (in which thousands of Irish and other immigrants fought for the North), it was really the Second World War which erased some of the cultural division.

During the war, men of all faiths found themselves fighting side by side. They had access to one another's pastors when it was necessary to consult about spiritual matters. After the war, these men went to work in factories together, lived in the suburbs together and so on. There was definitely a sentiment abroad that one should attend the church of his choice so long as you went to church.

It would be foolish to pretend that atheism is entirely new to the US culture. There have been atheist s since the beginning and Jefferson's Bible is certainly proof that the Founding Fathers had different ideas about faith than many continue to think.

However, since the 1960s, the impulse toward atheism has grown. Whereas one once had to be convinced to become an atheist, now one must be convinced to believe in spiritual matters. The default spiritual mindset has now become one of disregard for religion rather than disbelief.

There is no question that this movement away from the ancestral faiths of previous generations has made a huge impact on politics. It is what we are really talking about when we talk about some of the major issues in front of the populace today.

Sexuality

What is really going on in our minds when we talk politics.


The sexuality issue is really almost a sub-category of the religion issue. While acceptance of gay people has grown in the last few decades, the fact of the matter remains that many Americans are just not comfortable with the thought. Furthermore, a growing number of people may have voted for gay marriage and related issues but are increasingly turned off by the activism of many gay groups.

Furthermore, due to the way that the Internet interface allows people to escape immediate public rebuke or even violence for expressing unpopular opinions, you see many people coming out and declaring their open disgust with homosexuals and homosexuality. I think that a lot of revulsion was apparently dormant during previous decades when communications technology was less developed. People are now able to express their opinions on these matters in public rather than simply stating them at the dinner table.

I am not simply saying that sexuality issues affect how people vote on topics such as gay marriage. I am saying that this matter and others are driving how people vote on a spectrum of issues. People are conflating apparently distinct issues with this one. Your view on gay marriage can probably tell me a lot about your view on the environment, foreign policy, etc.

Race
Each of us feels something different looking at this picture.

As I was growing up in the 1970s and 1980s. there was definitely the perceptible sentiment that we were achieving racial equality and that, soon, race would not matter. That dream never really came true. Seven years after electing the first black POTUS, it is almost as if we have decided to review the last 150 years of racial issues and legal decisions with a critical eye.

Certainly, the Internet has made it easier for people with less accepting views on race to express themselves safely. Furthermore, there seems to be a growing and vocal concern that cultural divisions between blacks and whites may be more real than was previously thought. No one can deny that crime rates are distinctly higher among black populations and the excuse of systemic oppression or the legacy of slavery is getting harder for many people to accept.

Again, an opinion on this issue often tells you a lot about the holder of that opinion. You would have to dig deep to find someone willing to say that they do not think that the races are equal these days. But it is not so hard to find someone that thinks that the people in Ferguson are self-destructive thugs or that Trayvon Martin got what he had coming.

Very recent events have stirred the pot even more. While the media glosses over the racial identity of the latest murders related in the press, at the grassroots level people are upset. The Virginia reporter shooting just last week caused an eruption of articles and comments about race. The vitriol unleashed on comment boards beneath news articles online should be enough to disturb anyone.

Other Issues

There are many other issues which the reader could easily associate with these as far as their ability to divide the public into warring factions. Climate change is another issue. Again, your view on climate change is likely to be a guide to your other opinions on issues such as gay marriage, abortion, gun control, the Ferguson riots and so on.

While the media circus ramps up the excitement about the upcoming election, it is important to remember that there is much more than politics at stake here. This is not just about social security or the war on terror. There are issues here at home which Americans have still not decided, though history books may make it seem that such issues were resolved decades ago.

Monday, August 31, 2015

The Competition: Democrats

The democratic field is far less expansive than the republican. However, it has generated its own brand of excitement due to the recent rumors surrounding the possible entrance of Vice President Joe Biden into the race.

Front-Runner


Hillary Clinton has been aiming this shot for a long time. She won election to the US Senate in 2000 and served until the presidential election of 2008. She missed her opportunity that year when so many people considered her a shoe-in.  Somehow, Barack Obama beat the Clinton machine and left her begging for leftovers. She got Secretary of State but left her post in 2013, presumably to give herself some distance from the Obama administration and to prepare for this campaign.

Clinton has been hampered primarily by the Benghazi issue and the cloud surrounding her private Internet server while overseeing the State Department. Only recently has her shot at the nomination been seriously challenged by the potential entry of Joe Biden.

The Old-School Socialist

Bernie Sanders does not mind being called a socialist. He adheres to a leftist, trade-union form of political philosophy that would have made him an anachronistic candidate even decades ago. This approach to politics, long honored in Europe, is simply out-of-place in the US but his appeal to the poor and the under-employed is nevertheless real. Until now, his candidacy has only really been a sideshow.


King of the Gaffe

I remember Joseph Biden running for the 1988 presidential nomination of the democratic party. He and many others lost to Michael Dukakis. Biden tried again in 2008 and was washed out of the running early. In the end, Obama put him on the ticket in a surprising choice. Biden is another relic of 20th century American politics: part of the Irish-Catholic wing that guided the democrats during much of the Cold War.

Since reaching the office of Vice President, Biden has mostly been known for his gaffes. In fact, he made a few awful ones during his own campaign for the nomination. He made the awkward comment that Obama was an articulate, clean black guy.

Somehow, somebody thought it would be a good idea for him to run for the Presidency again. I am not a Clinton fan but I don't see how this is a good idea for the party. It just seems likely to undermine their strongest candidate. Perhaps, though, TPTB don't want her to win.

The Biden candidacy is not yet a fact but it seems to be gaining strength. It seems likely to be the only thing standing in Clinton's way. Without that distraction, Clinton's real opponent is already Donald Trump for as long as he retains the lead in republican polls.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

The Competition: Republicans

There is probably more competition, in terms of quantity anyway, for the office of President of the United States than anytime before in my memory. I remember the Democratic queue being laughably long in 1988 but the republican turnout this year is ridiculously huge. I have heard the number 17 in the press. Let's see if I can actually dig up these individuals from the dogpile.

I will divide the competition into two categories, if only for the sake of breaking up the text. More elaborate reviews of each candidate will follow as time permits and as candidates gain legitimacy. I'm not going to devote significant time to men like Lindsey Graham or Rick Santorum until they pick up some real numbers.

Contenders
  • Donald Trump - Enough said so far. Let's look at the others.
  • Ben Carson - Retired neurosurgeon notable for a few reasons in my mind: he is the only other candidate to receive double-digit support in current polls, he is more cerebral than the other candidates and he is black. That last point may seem blunt but if you don't think that race is a factor in modern politics then you are either disingenuous or stupid. I won't say that you are both because stupid people are incapable of being disingenuous.
  • Jeb Bush - Former governor of Florida and a member of the Bush clan. He was the one expected to run for the office back in 2000 but the option went to the crown prince of the clan, GW Bush. Notable for his marriage to a Latin American woman, conversion to Catholicism and a low-key approach to confrontations.
  • Marco Rubio - Junior senator from Florida. He is comparatively young (44) and of Latin background. This may be crucial in the long run if the republicans want more of the Latino vote. I'll explain why the concept of a Latino vote is ridiculous later.
  • Ted Cruz - Another young (44) Latino senator, this one from Texas. He is associated with the Tea Party.
  • Scott Walker - Fairly young (47) governor of Wisconsin. Notable for youth and executive experience as a governor. He is anti-abortion, even in cases of rape or incest.
  • Carly Fiorina - Left out of the debate of the top ten candidates a few weeks ago, Fiorina has fought her way into the inner circle, mostly due to an off-the-cuff speech given outside that forum. She has much business experience but has never won political office.
  • John Kasich - A career politician, he first gained office in the Ohio Senate in 1978 at age 26. He has been governor of that state since 2010.
  • Chris Christie - Governor of New Jersey since 2010, he is notable for his tough stances on certain issues but also for working closely with President Obama after Hurricane Sandy devastated his state. In addition, his morbid obesity was allegedly recognized as a major bar keeping him from higher office. Somewhere along the way, he has lost some weight and people do not mention the issue. 
Dark Horses

The placement of some of the following in this category is debatable and they could easily be interchanged with some of the above. It will take some time to eliminate the hopeless cases and form a better idea of the republican field before January 2016, when the first primaries occur.
  • Rand Paul - Son of Congressman Ron Paul and Senator from Kentucky. He is the darling of the libertarian fringe of the republican party.
  • Mike Huckabee - Southern Baptist minister and former governor of Arkansas. He is notable for his strong evangelical views and his Fox TV show the Huckabee Report, which he abandoned in January 2015 to run for President.
  • Rick Perry - He took over governorship of Texas after GW Bush won the presidency in 2000. He ran for POTUS in 2012 but lost the nomination to Mitt Romney. Trump may have given his failing candidacy a fatal blow when he made repeated references to Perry's allegedly low IQ.
  • George Pataki - Former governor of New York and soon-to-be former candidate for the republican nomination.
  • Bobby Jindal - Governor of Louisiana and former US congressman. He is just 44 years old, known for his conversion to Catholicism and strong moral stances.
  • Rick Santorum - Some guys just never give up.
  • Lindsey Graham - Yeah, he's running.
I only count 16 there but it was too depressing to keep searching for names. Maybe there really are 17 candidates. Now I make light of these last few candidates, but I will refer you to an SNL skit in 1992 in which the most prominent democratic candidates were humorously featured trying to avoid losing to George HW Bush. I could not find the video but here is a transcript.

If you take the time to read it, you will note that one democratic candidate is not even given stage space for the skit: William Jefferson Clinton, 42nd President of the United States. He was such a dark horse no one had even bothered to make fun of him by that point.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

The Immigration Issue and Trump's Solution

For a while, it seemed like Donald Trump was almost a single-issue candidate. Immigration was the only topic he appeared to address. Now he has begun to delve into other issues with a little more depth but this still remains a major dividing line between him and other candidates. That may change over time but there is no question that he has struck a chord that resonates with many Americans.

Some Figures About Immigration

Lest you think that Trump is just eager to bash in the heads of some earnest braceros as they emerge from the Rio Grande onto American soil, you should at least understand the magnitude of the problem which he addresses.

In the interest of full disclosure, I should reveal here that I married an immigrant and that my eldest daughter is an immigrant. Both women are now citizens and were never in the US illegally. Nevertheless, and unlike many liberals who espouse amnesty for the undocumented, I actually know and converse with illegal immigrants on a regular basis. I also worked in shelters on both sides of the border when I was just out of college, helping to feed and house the undocumented from all over Latin America. I have a lot of personal knowledge about this topic and have seen many facets of the issue.

The most reliable research suggests that there are about 11 million illegal immigrants in the US right now. I am not sure exactly how that number could be determined, only that everyone seems to agree on it. I suspect that the real number might be higher.

That number is enough to offend many people thinking about the problem for the first time. However, the real problem that motivates people to vote one way or another is the impact of these immigrants on the economy and even on culture.

A major issue for many on the conservative side is the number of jobs lost to illegal immigrants. When virtually everyone was employed in the late 1990s, there was little concern about immigration. Later, especially after 2008, it became a huge issue as unemployment surged above 9%.

Though the official unemployment rate is much lower today, those who have lived on the underemployed side of that divide do not have much confidence in it. Many people returned to employment but it was at much lower-paying jobs than we had before.

It is estimated that illegal immigrants make up about 5% of the present labor force. It is pretty obvious that, with those individuals removed, the employment situation for citizens would improve dramatically.

A lot of people will also quickly start arguing around the topic of laziness vs hard work with regard to immigrants. While liberal defenders will often point out that illegal immigrants only come to find work and therefore contribute to the economy, conservative opponents will claim that they all come to get on welfare rolls.

The truth is actually that they are both correct. I know a lot of illegal couples and the usual routine is that the woman goes to sign up as a single mother and get public assistance. The man of the house usually works. No one seems to see this as dishonest. Instead, it just seems like the thing to do. And it really helps them preserve a traditional family structure.

I'm not saying that it is correct but it does seem like people genuinely believe that they are just doing what is normal. They have little understanding or sympathy for the complexities involved in paying your own way because they never have to worry about healthcare and, in many cases, the assistance even pays rent. The immigrant family is free to spend all the man's earnings on consumer goods.

The economic impact of this is a two-edged sword. There is no doubt that this is a significant drain on public resources. I know people with large families raking in thousands of dollars per month in public subsidies. At the same time, though, they make a lot of money working in manual labor and spend most of it locally, contributing to businesses in the community.

A less ambiguous burden on state resources involves the children of illegal immigrants. Around 7% of children in K-12 schools have at least one illegal parent. Given that the states spend anywhere from $5-10,000 per student each year, this drain on the tax base cannot be denied.

One aspect of the outcry about this situation that is often overlooked is the cultural aspect. People are upset not only about the financial cost of illegal immigration but also about the cultural changes brought about by their presence. Ann Coulter, a Trump supporter, has pointed out that many of the immigrants come from countries in which respect for women, children and the environment are virtually non-existent. Having lived in Latin America, I can respect this as a genuine concern.

The Trump Solution

Over the years, many different solutions to this issue have been suggested. In the mid-90s, I was present in El Paso, Texas to see operation Toe-the-Line. This approach was one essentially involving a more coordinated defense of the border, with Border Patrol trucks always within sight of each other along the border. Obviously, this increased efficiency in the local area but just moved crossings into the deserts of New Mexico and Arizona.

Other attempts have had internal focuses, busting businesses that hired large numbers of illegals and corraling them at their workplace. The SSN verification method started some years ago is another example.

Trump has called for a much more direct attempt to handle the issue. His idea is not original (Pat Buchanan spoke about this in the 1990s during his presidential run) but he may be the first one to really take it so far. Trump has called the erection of a wall running all the way from the Gulf of Mexico to the Pacific Ocean. This wall would be more than 1,000 miles long and I don't know how high it would have to be.

Some detractors have likened the scope of the project to the pyramids or the journey to the moon. Not only would it be too large a project, it would cost too much and be impossible to maintain. Proponents of the idea generally say that it would be less expensive than the present welfare bill for the illegal immigrants already here.

Trump's solution does not overlook those illegals already in place. The plan, which has no specifics as of yet, is for those illegals already here to be rounded up and deported. Trump has hedged on this promise a little already, saying in some remarks that the ones who behaved well and worked hard might be allowed to stay.

I tend to think that the immigration issue will be an early horse for Trump to ride on but I am not sure it will carry him the whole way. As primaries approach, I think that he will have to address other issues and that immigration will eventually take a backseat to foreign policy and economics. Even if he does win the presidency, I do not think that the wall will ever be built. The immigration problem is here to stay. Prevention may improve but I don't think anybody here illegally is going anywhere anytime soon.

The Sarah Palin Interview with Donald Trump

Here the man speaks for himself with regard to many of the issues of the day.