Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Three Things You Need To Know About the Romney Video

Most of the commentary around the video Mother Jones released yesterday of Mitt Romney addressing a roomful of high-dollar donors has focused on the single, most obvious, aspect of what he said, but I think there are really three salient observations arising from this episode. One of them isn’t as bad as it sounds… but either one of the other two ought, in my opinion, disqualify Mr. Romney from the presidency.

The most consequential aspect, and the one primarily being discussed, is the contempt Romney expressed for nearly half of his fellow Americans, and uncritically for all of President Obama’s supporters, calling them, in effect, lazy moochers who can’t be persuaded, under any circumstances, to take responsibility for their own lives or be productive members of society. This false generalization is not merely offensive in principle, though it is certainly that; it is not merely terrible electoral tactics likely to turn off the very swing voters Romney is focused on, though it is certainly that, as well; it is also a judgment, which Romney can never un-say, that would likely make it impossible for Romney to lead this country were he to be elected. Consider President Obama’s words in Grant Park, Chicago, on Election Night in 2008:
”…while the Democratic Party has won a great victory tonight, we do so with a measure of humility and determination to heal the divides that have held back our progress.¹ As Lincoln said to a nation far more divided than ours, ‘We are not enemies, but friends…though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection.’ And to those Americans whose support I have yet to earn – I may not have won your vote, but I hear your voices, I need your help, and I will be your President too.”
How can we imagine a President Romney saying anything similar (and having anyone believe him) after having written off half the country as not only unprincipled, but intransigently so? And having characterized half the country as, in effect, undeserving and incorrigibly selfish children, how could we hope his approach to governing would be anything other than punitive and authoritarian? This is not just about socioeconomic prejudice, though it is about that in spades; it is also about the fundamental conservative vision of government as a process of identifying and correcting moral deficiencies: what George Lakoff calls the strict father model.

Ironically, I suspect one of the reasons some conservatives are terrified of government is that this authoritarian vision of government as a moral “corrections officer” is the only model they have. In fact, though, that’s not, and never has been, how our government actually operates, and it’s hard to see how a man who has articulated such a paternalistic view of half our population could be an effective president.

But in addition to revealing a paternalistic contempt for a huge fraction of the people he seeks to lead, Romney’s comments also reveal a sloppy and innumerate mind: 47 percent is probably a reasonable estimate of the number of voters who are committed to voting for the president, and who are beyond persuasion to do otherwise. 47 percent is also the characteristic number that’s been consistently thrown around on the right as the proportion of the population that “doesn’t pay any taxes.” Now, there are lots of reasons to criticize that assertion, but that number is a persistent and popular meme in the right-wing blogosphere and Facebookosphere.

What Mitt Romney appears to have done is seize on 47 percent to conflate what are actually two distinct populations: The 47 percent who don’t pay federal income tax are not the lazy slackers Romney caricatures them as, of course, but they are also not the same as the group of people who are committed to voting for the president, no matter that they share a number. For one thing, it’s 47 percent² of Americans who don’t pay income tax, but 47 percent of voters who are undissuadably committed to supporting the president. As much as we may wish it were otherwise, the population of registered voters is smaller than the population of eligible voters, and that, in turn, is smaller than the whole American population. My own admittedly anecdotal experience is that no small number of President Obama’s supporters — who not only vote for him but devote no small amount of time and treasure advocating for his reelection — are solidly in the tax-paying classes, while many Republican voters likely fall into the group that doesn’t pay income tax (e.g., many conservative senior citizens don’t pay taxes, due to the nontaxability of Social Security benefits and special tax deductions available to the elderly).

That Romney has apparently confused these two distinct groups based on a numerical (shall we say, numerological?) coincidence does not speak well for his possession of the analytical powers we expect of an American leader. I don’t imagine Romney is stupid, mind you, but a sloppy comment like this suggests he may be intellectually lazy. Or perhaps he just doesn’t think “the 47 percent” deserve his consideration? If his contempt for the struggles of working people and the poor didn’t already disqualify him for leadership, his disinclination to even think hard about their struggles surely ought to. No matter what Rick Santorum thinks about “elite, smart people,” I think that’s who most of us want in the Oval Office.

The third aspect of this — Romney’s assertion that “my job is not to worry about those people. …” — may not be quite as awful as it sounds. Remember that this was a campaign fundraiser, and he was talking campaign strategy. If what he really meant was, “my job [as a candidate] is not to worry about those people [who aren’t going to vote for me anyway]”… well, every serious candidate for office has said the same thing (or has had a campaign manager or consultant say it too them) at some point in every serious campaign. It is a truism of politics that before your platform, no matter how noble, can become policy, you must first win. So noting that a campaign can’t afford to spend time and resources talking to the unpersuadable is just smart electoral strategy.

It would, of course, be easier to credit that motivation to Romney if he hadn’t followed that sentence with “I'll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives [emphasis added]”… which gets us right back into the realm of strict father contempt.

So maybe this part, too, really is as bad as it sounds, after all.


¹ I anticipate the rejoinder that President Obama has not, in fact, healed those divides; I submit that it hasn’t been for lack of “determination” to do so. Indeed, many of his own partisans complain that the president has invested too much of his political capital on bridging divides, even after it was clear there was nobody on the opposite bank also interested in bridge building.

² Actually, a little more than 46 percent, but the right seems to be good at rounding up instead of rounding off.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

A Message From the Doors

No, not those Doors; Jim Morrison hasn't risen from the grave! The doors I'm talking about the ones I knocked on today, canvassing for Democratic candidates Joe Courtney (running for reelection in Connecticut's 2nd Congressional District), Chris Murphy (running for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Joe Lieberman, who is retiring), Susan Eastwood (running for State Senate in the 35th District), and John Murphy (running for the 8th District in the Connecticut state house).

Canvassing and phonebanking — direct, real-time contact with voters — is hard work, but I love doing it. I think if more people got involved in campaigns, fewer people would be cynical about politics, in part because of the contact with voters, and in part because, at every level below presidential races, volunteers actually meet the elected officials and candidates they're working for, and they get to see that most of them (in my personal experience, all of them) are intelligent, hardworking people deeply committed to working for the good of their constituents (or those they hope will soon be constituents).

I get that there are differing philosophies about government and society, so "the good of their constituents" is up for debate... but that's why we have elections, and that's why election results ought to matter. Disagreement alone shouldn't be a cause for cynicism — it's the mark of a healthy, diverse culture — but when it turns out that the debate didn't matter, because the winning ideas aren't allowed to actually win, even the most hopeful among us are at risk for despair.

I was hearing a bit of that at the doors today: More than one voter told me they had supported President Obama in 2008, but they weren't planning to support any Democrats this year. Now, when they train you on canvassing, they tell you not to spend too much time at any one door: The point is to gather data and identify supporters, and the key is knocking on as many doors as you can get to. But I couldn't leave these doors without finding out why these voters had changed their minds.

It turned out they hadn't changed their minds: They still believed in the same things and wanted the same changes that they voted for 4 years ago, but they're disappointed... maybe even disgusted... that so little seems to have gotten done, and that things still seem so tough for so many people. I might (though I didn't today) argue with them over how much has gotten done, but on the surface, it's a reasonable response: These people haven't fixed things, so let's get some different people.

But under the surface, it's more complicated: These people haven't fixed things, in large part, because the different people stopped them... not just because they disagree, but because they refused to accept that they lost the argument fair and square. And even if you think that these people are aren't doing enough, aren't trying hard enough, it doesn't follow that what they're trying to do is wrong, or that doing the opposite would be better.

I know not everybody supports the president's policies or the progressive Democratic agenda. But if you do support them - if you still believe in the things that led you to vote for hope and change 4 years ago - please know that you can't achieve your ends by voting for Republicans, nor by not voting at all: The only possible way to fix the things that disappointed you about the last 4 years is to give the president 4 more years. He still believes in the things he believed in then; what he needs to give you the things you hope for is more time... and more Democrats to work with, both in the Congress and in state governments around the country. Voting for different people might feel good for a moment... but not only will it not accomplish the change you want, it will make it impossible.

I think I convinced at least one of the voters I talked to today, but this is what terrifies me: That we'll lose the argument this time not on the merits, but because people who actually agree with us have been driven to cynicism and despair. I won't stop worrying about that 'til after November 6. Talk about riding the storm out!

Friday, September 14, 2012

More About Heartbreak

In my last post, I mentioned that I'd considered, then thought better of, a longer post about the situation in Egypt and Libya, which has sadly now spread to much of the rest of the Muslim world, and is affecting American businesses and the outposts of other Western governments.

Even though there's now reason to think the fatal attack on our consulate in Benghazi was a planned terrorist operation and not a protest-gone-wrong after all, there's no doubt there were actual organic protests in Egypt and elsewhere, nor that it's common around the world for people to attack the U.S. Government for the actions and words of American (or at least U.S.-based) individuals and private businesses.

What I had in mind to say on Wednesday, but couldn't figure out how to articulate without appearing to validate the actions of thugs, was this: I think the reason people around the world blame our government for the speech of individuals is that they simply don't believe our government doesn't control our people's words... and I fear the reason they don't believe that is that it's never been true for them in their own countries.

None of that excuses or justifies violence and murder, of course, but one of the many things about this story that breaks my heart is that it stands as evidence of how many people around the world have lived under tyranny for so long that they can't even wrap their heads around real freedom. The behavior of the violent mobs (and let's remember that many of the protestors have not been violent) is inexcusable, but that doesn't mean they're not victims, too.

On Wednesday, I was afraid to say this; last night, in the final segment of her show, Rachel Maddow was braver and smarter than me (she almost always is):

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Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Heartbroken for More than the Obvious Reason

I had a longer post in mind about the tragic loss of Ambassador Chris Stevens, Sean Smith, and two of their colleagues in Benghazi, Libya, but I find I'm too heartbroken. Heartbroken for the obvious reason, of course, but it's more than that:

Today may be the day Mitt Romney definitively lost the 2012 presidential election. That's a result I devoutly hope for... one that I believe is vital to the secure future of our nation... and yet I can take no joy in it. By choosing to take cynical political advantage of American diplomats in peril, and by doubling down even after that peril turned lethal, Romney defiled the political process.

That might sound like a joke — how could politics get any more defiled than it already is, right? — but it's not: Politics — the actual practice of democratic self-government — is at the very heart of the American idea. It's a big part of what Stevens, Smith, and the others were in Benghazi to represent, and what they were trying to bring to the Libyan people.

Romney's callous and cynical comments not only disrespected these brave Americans' deaths, they disrespected the very thing they gave their lives for. They deserved better.

And that is all I can bring myself to say tonight.

Thursday, September 06, 2012

Do We Really Need Gendered Restaurants?

In the grand scheme of things, restaurant concepts aren't the most consequential of all possible things, so I won't take up too much of your time with it, but this story of a "steakhouse for women" bounced off my head today.

At some level, I get it: The traditional steakhouse ambiance — baked potatoes and great slabs of bloody beef, served up with multiple martinis, cocooned in an environment of dark tones and leather upholstery — is the quintessence of Hollywood masculinity. But does a separate-but-equal feminine counterpart work against that stereotype... or does it simply reinforce it?

Restaurants have all sorts of "hooks," some clever, some silly, and some borderline offensive, and ultimately there are more important things in the world... as hours of watching the Democratic National Convention this evening have driven home for me.

But all things being equal, I think I'd rather live in a world without gendered restaurants.

Wednesday, September 05, 2012

Way Better

As we steam through convention season, we've been hearing the question "are you better off than you were 4 years ago" almost incessantly, and frankly, it's pissing me off. Of course, we are better off than we were in late 2008 — anyone who says otherwise is suffering from an epic case of situational amnesia — but the question as posed has embedded in it two assumptions that I cannot abide:

First is the assumption that comparing two points on the "graph" of history is meaningful to making a choice between two sets of policy options. Instead, I think what's important is to compare the same point on two parallel graphs: That of what actually did happen, and that of what would have happened if we'd made different choices.

We know the choices President Obama made, and we know that Mitt Romney would have made different choices... because he's told us so. In late 2008, our economy was in freefall, and as candidate, president-elect, and then the newly inaugurated president, Barack Obama supported and/or took steps to stop the headlong slide... steps that Mitt Romney and his party have condemned.

So it's as if we were an out-of-control downhill skier, careening toward a collision with the trees, but we've regained control, skidded to a safe stop, and started laboriously sidestepping back up the hill. The right question to ask is not whether we're higher on the hill than when we lost control: Maybe we are, and maybe we aren't, but the question that matters is where would we be if we hadn't taken the steps we did? If we'd tried some different method to miss the trees.

Many of us, of course, are still hurting: We've lost a job, or a home, or a life's savings. But as a society, we are collectively better off than we were in those crazy, out-of-control days of 2008-2009... and I'm absolutely certain that we're better off than we would've been without TARP and the Recovery Act and the auto bailout and Dodd-Frank and the payroll tax holiday and the extension of unemployment benefits and... well, you get the idea.

And while we're talking about "as a society" and "collectively," let me get to the second thing that pisses me off about this question:

Why do we assume that "better off" can only be measured in financial terms, and only in terms of individual wellbeing?

I was lucky, more or less, in the financial downturn: I lost a couple years of raises, but I didn't lose my job, and my pay is higher now than in 2008; we lost essentially 3 years of appreciation in our 401k, but it's recovered, and the account balance is higher than in 2008; we lost some of the equity in our home, but we didn't lose our home, and we've never been "upside-down" in our mortgage... so you tell me whether I'm "better off" in strictly material terms.

But strictly material terms aren't all that matters to me. I'm better off than I was 4 years ago because of the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. I'm better off because more of my neighbors enjoy the access to quality healthcare my family already enjoyed. I'm better off because same-sex couples can marry in my state, and because LGBT folk can serve openly in my country's military. Hard times come and go, but whether we're better or worse off materially, financially, at any given moment, we are all better off when we're working to build a fairer, more humane, more mutually supportive society.

I'm convinced that that's what Barack Obama has been leading us to do over the last 4 years, and I'm convinced that's how he will lead us for the next 4 years. So yes, dammit, I'm better off.

Way better.

Tuesday, September 04, 2012

That's Not Whining...

Here’s an article that I think is not wrong, but misses the point rather badly. That is, Kimberly Stiens is certainly correct in pointing out that a single college-graduate 20-something earning more than $30 thousand per year (with healthcare and paid vacation) doing work they care about probably shouldn’t be whining about how poor they are… especially not while they’re knocking back their second $8 cocktail in a trendy DC bar. And we should all be mindful that literally billions of people around the world would not only trade places with almost any American, but would walk across broken glass to do so. Most of us in the U.S. — including even most of the least fortunate among us — are vastly better off than huge percentages of our fellow humans, and we should be grateful for that.

But does that mean that worries about the middle class are misplaced, as Stiens suggests? That we should all join her in being “sick of hearing about the trials and tribulations of the middle class”? I don’t think so, for a number of reasons.

First, I think it’s a bit of a strawman. I haven’t been spending a lot of time clubbing with ambitious, privileged recent graduates in DC — maybe my daughter, who has just started as a George Washington University graduate student will be able to provide me some field intel on the question — but in terms of the political discourse around the plight of the middle class, what I’ve been hearing was really not been primarily privileged youths whining that they’re not even more privileged. Instead, the discussion has been about the increasingly great number of people who are falling out of that privileged group, and the increasingly fewer numbers of college graduates who can count on joining it. Stiens’ own article admits that the middle class is shrinking, and points out that she was far more confident about her future when she enrolled in college (in 2004) than she was four years later when she graduated. Those are important facts, and they’re not rendered less important by the fact that some young adults can still afford to go out drinking. We ignore the shrinking of the middle class, and a whole generation’s loss of confidence in its future, at our peril.

Second, I think Stiens is a bit na├»ve about how deep or durable her privilege is. She’s young, and presumably healthy, and as yet has (as far as we can tell from the essay) no spouse/partner, children, elderly parents, etc., depending upon her to provide some or all of their support: When she happily announces that her job provides healthcare coverage, she doesn’t mention how good it is, nor what her share of the premium is, nor what her share of the premium will be once she needs to change her coverage to “Employee + Spouse” or “Employee + Family.”

There’s no doubt that having employer-subsidized health insurance is a privilege, compared to those living in poverty, but she may be surprised, when the time comes, to learn how much less of a privilege it is for her than it was for her parents’ generation. She might also be surprised to learn how many of her putative socioeconomic peers — people who are otherwise middle class — are uninsured or underinsured. I also note that her listing of employer-provided benefits includes paid vacation in addition to health insurance, but not paid sick time or a pension plan. Perhaps she just didn’t mention the former, because it seems to go without saying (except that for too many, it really doesn’t), but I’m guessing she doesn’t have a pension plan: Most new hires don’t, these days. If they’re lucky, they get some sort of tax-deferred savings plan (401k or equivalent), to which the employer maybe contributes a little bit, but for most working people under about 50, the traditional defined-benefit pension is giving way to market-based accounts that carry no guarantee of retirement income, or to nothing at all. To a single 25 year old, it probably doesn’t seem like a big deal, but the middle class has not only shrunk, it’s also gotten less secure — shall we say, thinner — in ways that will matter to Stiens someday, even if she can’t see it yet.

Does that mean she should join her whiny acquaintances and start complaining? Of course not. She’s not wrong to think she’s privileged. I’m privileged, too. But the fact that some of us — perhaps many of us — are still living what can only fairly be called a good life doesn’t mean the shrinking, thinning middle class isn’t a social problem, and a harbinger of even greater problems looming before us. It's a problem not only for the middle class itself; it's also a problem for all the segments of our economy that depend on a thriving middle class that feels secure enough to spend its "disposable" income... including those who really are poor, and whose minimum-wage jobs depend on a thriving consumer economy.

It’s a problem that arises from public policy, and one that can only be solved through public policy, and talking about it isn't "whining"; it's citizenship.