Monday’s Mtg: Does the Constitution Need Updating?

The $64,000 question in American politics in the last decade has been, what went wrong?  Why is our political system so gridlocked and unable to address the nation’s problems?  Everybody has their favorite explanation and we’ve talked about a lot of them.  Polarization and voter sorting.  Money in politics.  An extreme and/or dysfunctional Republican Party.  Too many Americans dependent on government spending.  Too much government interference in the economy.  Barack Obama.  People that agree with Bruce.  Or with me.

In case you didn’t know, some experts pin a lot of the blame on the Constitution itself.  They point out that no other nation on earth is governed by a founding document written over 200 years ago and amended barely at all in the last 100 years.  They draw a straight line between the Constitution’s alleged flaws and archaic provisions and many of our longstanding political problems, especially the gridlock.  A lot fo these experts have their own wish list of amendments they say would update the constitution for the 21st century.

None of them are going to be adopted, of course.  It’s almost impossible to amend the Constitution at all, given the need for a 2/3 vote in both House and Senate and ratification by ¾ of the states.  Worse, any amendment that would substantially alter our political system also would upset the current distribution of power within it. I suggested this topic anyway because I think it is illuminating to consider how constitutional restrictions affect our political problems and whether and how a different set of rules might change things.  I also think that where people stand on prominent proposed constitutional amendment reveals a lot about their political values and priorities in our democracy.  Progressives and conservatives have very different ideas on what’s wrong with our Constitution and/or what’s wrong with the way we interpret it.  I’ll explain more what I mean in Monday’s opening.

Lots of links this week.  I tried to highlight the pithiest and best ones.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –

  1. Why did the founding fathers make the Constitution so hard to amend?  Was this wise or an error?
  2. Can today’s political problems really be laid at the Constitution’s feet, or do they have other origins?  Which are the most problematic parts of the Constitution and why?
  3. What major amendments have been proposed to “update” the constitution?  Do you think any of them would improve the functioning of the system?
  4. What do our opinions about this subject reveal about our political philosophy and political motives?
  5. Workarounds:
    1. Are there ways to “get around” the constitution’s restrictions or archaic parts other than by amendment?
    2. What about calling a constitutional convention of the states?  Would this bypass Washington and the special interests – or be taken over by them and/or by ideological partisans?

LINKS – The Problem (or is it?)-

Solutions –

Next Week:  Why Do Grass Roots Political Movements Succeed or Fail??

Monday’s Mtg: Finding Iraq’s Future

As the world decides how to handle the latest disaster in Iraq, it’s our turn to discuss the future of that tortured nation.  It’s hard to know how permanent a problem the Islamic State (IS) is.  The group has been around in some form for a few years, and was formally allied with and subordinate to Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) until February of this year.  It’s run by some guy who thinks he’s destined to be the Sultan of a new Islamic caliphate that will encompass the entire region.  IS is crueler and crazier than many of its peers, but radical Islamist groups are common these days, especially in the wild west that is central Iraq.

Yet, as everybody knows, in the last couple of months (and to the shock of Western intelligence agencies) IS has become a significant threat to Iraq and, probably, to the West.  IS has gone on a bloody conquest spree.  The group now controls about 1/3 of Iraq and gleefully slaughters its enemies and innocent civilians.  After IS overran Fallujah and Mosul the West woke up.  The United States began airstrikes and emergency humanitarian aid, and may have succeeded in stopping the group’s advance.  Obama and world leaders are trying furiously to come up with a plan to stop IS and eventually roll it back.  NATO met this week to decide on a course of action.

Making the stopping of IS even harder is that IS has become a major force in Syria’s ghastly, never-ending civil war.   As President Obama has admitted, no one really knows what to do to stop IS in Syria.  We have very little influence inside Syria and can have little confidence we even know who’s who exactly, plus there is no friendly government to work with.

So, IS, IS, IS.  Yet, the Islamic State is just one more manifestation of  the same basic problem that we have been staring at since we toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003: Iraq has not achieved national reconciliation between its major factions: Sunnis, Shiites, Kurds, and assorted other religious and ethnic minorities.  That is our real subject for Monday, IMO, along with U.S. strategy.  As Obama said, Iraq’s disunity fundamentally is a POLITICAL problem and can only be solved by Iraqis.  Obama did just engineer the ousting of Iraq’s Shiite prime minister, who was part of the problem.  But, the road will be long.

I’ll explain recent events in a little more detail to open Monday’s meeting.  Then, I’ll open it up.  I hope we can speak realistically about what we can and cannot accomplish in Iraq.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –

  1. IS:  Who are these monsters?  What caused IS rise?  How does the IS situation both arise from Iraq’s longstanding problems and make them worse?
  2. Stopping IS:  How can the group be stopped?  Can it be rolled back or just contained?  Who should do what specifically?
    Syria:  What are our options?  Any good ones?  Would attacking IS in Syria mean we’d be supporting Assad?  Should we do it anyway?
  3. Iraq:  What are its basic political divisions and problems?  How – ideally only, let’s say – can the country find peace?
  4. U.S. culpability:  Is all of this just the fallout from Bush’s war?  Does Obama deserve any blame here?
  5. U.S. Limits:  How much influence does the United States really have over Iraq’s long-term future?  Over Syria’s?
  6. U.S. Policy:  What should the United States do?  What should be our (1) goal and (2) the means?

LINKS –

The Islamic State (IS) –

Healing Iraq, more broadly – 

Healing the Middle east, more broadly –

Next Week:  Does the Constitution Need Updating?

Monday’s Mtg: Voting Wars and Protecting Voting Rights

With an election upcoming, I thought now would be a good time to reschedule a topic of major importance that we originally were going to discuss last June: The struggle over voting access and voting rights.  (We postponed because a young man fresh from Iraq showed up and we persuaded him to discuss what life there was like in the last decade.)  We did debate the Voting Rights Act last year, right before the Supreme Court struck down its key enforcement mechanism and Southern states began gleefully passing a bunch of new laws to make voting harder, or, as they argue, boosting their elections’ integrity.  

As I wrote in my pre-meeting post to the postponed meeting, the war over who can vote has very old roots in America, of course, but it was rekindled with a vengeance 14 years ago:

Suppressing the other side’s votes is as American as apple pie.  Rigging the rules and fooling or intimidating voters happened all over the country for much of our history – not just in the South.  In the 21st century, however, we all thought that was largely behind us.

Then came Bush v. Gore.  Florida in 2000 reminded both sides that, in a sharply divided country in which the differences between the two parties are greater than they have ever been, just a few votes can make a huge difference in which direction the country takes.  Discouraging the other side’s voters from casting their ballot counts just as much as encouraging one’s own side.   So, since then, Democrats have tried to make it easier for people to vote, maybe out of the goodness of their hearts, but also because when more people vote, they win. 

I added that after 2000 Democratic-controlled states:

  • Made registering to vote easier, including through same day and on-line registration;,
  • Expanded early voting opportunities, including by mail;
  • Extended election day voting hours; and, most of all
  • Fought the GOP’s highly coordinated and dedicated attempts to make voting harder for some people. 

While Republicans-governed state have tightened voting rules to make it casting a ballot harder.  Especially since the 2010 tea party wave election, a top priority in many GOP-controlled states has been to:

  • Impose severe limits on voter-registration drives;
  • Close early-voting windows;
  • Further limit voting rights for ex-felons;
  • Enact strict new limits on absentee ballots;
  • Pass restrictive voter ID laws that many young, poor, and minority Democratic voters lack; and
  • Prevent Democrats from extending voting hours on election day, even when there are long lines.       

What I did not say on-line last time is how despicable I think the GOP efforts are.  These laws are subtle efforts to rig the rules of elections so that their side wins more often.  I categorically reject the idea that what the Democrats are doing is just a mirror-image or morally equivalent effort.  To me, trying to stop Americans from voting is on a much lower ethical plane than trying to help more people vote, even if the latter also is done for partisan advantage. à  So, the links this week are more unbalanced than usual.  Sue me.  I’m sure our discussion of just this one aspect will be fun for the whole family.

Still, conservatives in my opinion have identified two matters that deserve our attention for a good reason, IMO.  First, liberals probably are exaggerating the number of votes that will be lost under GOP voter ID and similar laws.  A well-respected expert on election law is clear: Far fewer than 5-7 million Americans will be blocked or discouraged from casting ballots.  That may change our calculus on how harmful these laws are, although, in my view, it should not change our level of outrage, especially over the dishonest justification for them.   

Second and more crucially, the U.S. election systems have some real problems.  They are, at all levels, often poorly managed and chaotic.  Maybe it’s partly because, we have no national election standards that states or localities must adhere to, unlike every other advanced industrial democracy,  Regardless, public confidence in the integrity of our most basic tool of democracy is very low.  Large majorities (75%!) support things like strict voter ID laws as commonsense solutions.  People also believe that in-person voter ID fraud is common, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

I will open on Monday by explaining what’s new in the voting wars and some of the arguments and evidence (and motives for!) for tightening U.S. election laws.  I hope, at some point in the evening, we can get into whether there might actually be room for compromise between the two warring sides on this volatile issue.  I think there is, at least in a a good government reform-y sort of way.

Discussion Questions –

  1. WHAT:  What tactics has each party used to either expand and shrink the electorate?  Why did they not make much difference in 2012?
  2. WHY:  Where is the evidence of a problem that these laws solve?! 
  3. WHY:  If not, is this just a cynical, despicable, effort by one side to suppress votes, like Democrats claim, or (and, IMO!) is something else at work philosophically?  Is there any independent value to democracy in making it as convenient as possible to vote, or are Democrats just trying to win more, too?
  4. THE PUBLIC:  Why do huge majorities of Americans support these laws?  What evidence/arguments could persuade them otherwise? 
  5. THE FUTURE:  What’s coming in the voting wars, from both sides?  What will  happen now that the Supreme Court has stricken the Voting Rights Act?
  6. A FIX?  Could there really a problem with election integrity?  Are there ways to both expand/protect the right to vote AND ensure integrity?

Links –

NEXT WEEK –   The future of Iraq.  (New schedule begins)

New Topics Are Ready

Thanks to Bill and Zelekha, we now have topics for Sept – January.  Some very interesting ones, too.  From Iraq to Ferguson, MO.  From life (sex education) to death (euthanasia).  From the Constitution to the grass roots.  Try to find another group that does all that!  See “Full Mtg Schedule,” above.  I’ll have hard copies on Monday night.

Monday’s Mtg: Evaluating Lyndon Johnson’s Presidency.

I hope you’ve liked our meetings on individual presidents and their legacies as much as I have.  We’ve done Reagan, Andrew Jackson, and Wilson so far, and Nixon is up later this year.  But, to me, LBJ has got to be one of history’s most fascinating – and consequential – presidents.  He also has been meticulously studied, notably by historian Robert Caro, who wrote four (I think) vast biographies of the man.  I have not read any bios of LBJ, but any basic list of Johnson’s domestic policy accomplishments would include:

  • The Great Society, including Medicare and Medicaid.  He raised Social Security benefits by 20%
  • The Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act.
  • The War on Poverty: e.g., Food Stamps and Head Start
  • Federal aid to education laws, esp. Elementary and Secondary Education Act.
  • Open housing laws
  • Public Broadcasting Act, creating public TV and radio.

It was a flurry of government activism not seen since FDR and never seen since.

Lyndon Johnson’s foreign policy legacy is, of course dominated by the Vietnam war.  By 1968 we had 550,000 troops there, up from less than 20,000 when JFK was killed.  Many weeks saw 500 U.S. casualties as our national wealth poured into that tiny country.  However, LBJ also

  • Signed major immigration liberalization law.
  • Prosecuted the Cold War around the world (especially via covert actions in other countries), and
  • Intervened militarily in the Dominican Republic.

Jim Zimmerman, our resident historian, will try to make it to the meeting, although he has another commitment.  I’ll save the explanation of how historians judge presidencies for our upcoming meeting on presidential power.  I think Johnson’s presidency was one of the most important in American history.  But, I’m not that well-versed.  So, Monday, I’ll just give  a quickies opening listing the highlights and lowlights of the Johnson presidency.   Then we can talk about LBJ and, I’m hoping, how his legacy shapes our world today. 

DISCUSSION  QUESTIONS –

  1. What were the Johnson Administration’s major achievements and notable failures?  To what extent are we still affected by those achievements 50 years later?
  2. How different are the liberal and conservative points of view here?  Why?
  3. To what extent was LBJ himself the driving force behind these achievements and failures?  What does that tell us about presidential power?  (we’re discussing the power of the presidency next quarter.)
  4. Also, hindsight is 20/20.  Do any of LBJ’s achievements look different if we put ourselves in their shoes back in the mid-1960s?
  5. How do other Democratic presidents stack up to LBJ, including Obama?  How different is our national political environment from those days (1964-69)?  How can we compare the performance of presidents across time?

LINKS –

Next Week:  Voting Wars: How Can We Protect Americans’ Voting Rights?

Monday’s Mtg: Is the News Media Too Biased To Do Its Job?

Is the news media too biased to do its job?  The last time we talked about bias in the news was in 2011, and what I got out of it was that the exact nature and extent of bias is hard to pin down.  Unfairness can be a crime of commission or omission and either deliberate or unconscious.  Some of it is not explicitly political or ideological, but results from prejudices of class, culture, religiosity (or lack of it), or the pursuit of ratings or profit.  Worse, most journalists and their bosses adhere to an unrealistic cult of neutrality – the “view from nowhere” – to use the parlance of my favorite (read) media analyst.  So, bias in the mainstream news media (MSM, as the bloggers say) is hard to see and measure and seldom acknowledged.  Yet, we all claim to see it all the time!

I’ve got a lot of good links this week, some of which I have not studied in detail yet.  So, as a first approximation, I think a good way to structure our meeting would be to take each part of our question in turn.

  • What is the “news media” these days?
  • What is “bias?”  How do we know it’s there, whether it’s deliberate or unconscious, and its causes? 
  • What constitutes the MSM “doing its job?” Is it to be balanced ideologically?  To investigate and inform us of the truth?  To please its audiences and sponsors?  Etc.

I’m being a little vague on details here since I have not done much research yet.  By Monday night I’ll be able to make some brief remarks framing the issue, then we can talk.

HOMEWORK QUESTION!!

  1. My opening question Monday night will be:  Using one or two sentences, what is the news media’s job; i.e., its appropriate role in society?

LINKS –  

Criticisms of the MSM’s Biases -

In (partial) defense of the News Media –

Next Week:  Assessing Lyndon Johnson’s Presidency.

Topic Ideas Needed.

We need topics for September – end-2014.  Please put them in comments, email me, or see me at a meeting.  We do

–  Politics and public policy issues.
–  Foreign policy.
–  Religion
–  Philosophy
–  Culture
–  History
–  Science.

If you need a better idea of our topic zeitgeist, peruse our Topics 2014, Topics 2013, or earlier pages, above.

David

Monday’s Mtg: Are Criticisms of Obama From the Left Valid?

This is a corker of a topic idea from Ron, although a hard one to get a handle on since it could include most everything that’s happened in national politics in the last six years. Criticism of President Obama from the left gets very little mainstream news media coverage compared to the hurricane of opposition from the right. Yet it has been steady and fierce, even as the President’s critics acknowledge the extraordinarily awful situation he inherited, like a collapsing economy, failing wars, large budget deficits, a broken immigration system, etc. To simplify somewhat for discussion purposes, here’s my take on what arguments Obama’s progressive critics and his defenders make.

THE PROSECUTION’S CASE –  

Policy – Obama is not and never really was a true progressive. In fact, on domestic policy he has governed as just another centrist Democrat like Bill Clinton, trying to push small, incremental changes in a country that’s problems are now so huge that small reforms achieve little. In foreign policy, Obama is little better than Bush-lite. He’s adopted all but the worst of W.’s policies in the war on terror and continued the permanent war footing of the Cold War. Despite Obama’s soaring campaign rhetoric, he has never wanted to be – much less tried to be – a transformational president.

Examples: Bank sector bailouts (too big, no strings attached, let the banks off the hook and more regulatory weak tea). Stimulus (too small) and the budget (too austere and he offered to put entitlements on the chopping block). Obamacare (too timid, not even aimed at single payer as the goal). Domestic spying and assassinations (flatly unconstitutional). War (too much). Immigration (the “deporter in chief’). Education (too anti-teacher). Climate (too little too late). Etc.

Tactics – Obama naively believed his own rhetoric of post-partisanship. During his entire first term, he mainly negotiated with himself, pre-compromising every proposal instead if realizing no compromises were possible with a fanatical GOP dedicated to destroying him and letting the country burn down so they could inherit its ashes. Had Obama been more realistic earlier and/or been a tougher negotiator, and/or better used the bully pulpit to rally the public to his cause, then he could have accomplished a lot more to help the country by moving it in a progressive direction.

Examples: Obamacare (pre-compromised to get imaginary GOP and blue dog Democrats’ support). Stimulus (too scared to propose a trillion dollar one, even though it was needed). Budget cuts and taxes (accepted large spending cuts which rewarded GOP blackmail).  Cap and trade (gave up without trying to rally Hill or public support).

STRATEGY: Obama has failed to do all he can to wean the country off of the conservative framing/paradigm that says government is bad and regulation and taxes are evil. Nor has he done enough to cement the emerging Democratic coalition of White liberals, non-Whites, young people, and women.

Examples: In 2011, he allowed the national conversation to change from creating jobs and economic growth to counterproductive fiscal austerity. He never explained in simple language why austerity is a bad idea. Plus, what has Obama actually done to improve the fortunes and futures of young people and Americans of color?

THE DEFENSE’S CASE –

Historical: All presidents disappoint their most leftward or rightward wing. Most presidents also make any major accomplishments in their first couple of years and then spend the rest of their terms defending them from being reversed. Big, transformative progressive change is almost impossible in our constitutional system and only happens rarely. On foreign policy, all the post-WWII presidents have followed the same basic policy of U.S. dominance and policing of global hotspots, even if you hate it.

Examples: FDR and LBJ had huge congressional majorities and giant crises that mobilized public opinion, and even FDR spent most of 1934-39 playing defense. All but one 20th century presidents have lost seats in Congress in year 6 of their presidencies. Conservatives worship Reagan now, but considered him a moderate sell-out at the time. Everybody compromises when they must to advance the ball forward.

Inheritance: Obama had to make saving us from another Great Depression his top priority. This was destined it be a thankless task because the financial system had to be bailed out. Worse, the public was never going to reward Obama for preventing something (depression) that did not happen. Winding down Bush’s wars and slowly extricating us from an open-ended “war on terror” would never be called victories, either, even though they were very important. Much of Obama’s affirmative agenda was swallowed while he put out these fires.

Power of the Opposition: Obama had 60 Democrats in the Senate for only 184 days  in his presidency, and that “majority” included a half dozen conservative Democrats that he had to compromise with on everything. This was because Republicans effectively altered the Constitution by filibustering every bill and every routine task of legislating. No president, not Lincoln or Reagan or FDR ever had to play by these rules.

Add these completely new rules for governing and a scorched-earth opposition party to the vastly powerful societal forces that fight all big progressive policy changes (corporations, right-wing media institutions) and you get guaranteed gridlock that no amount of presidential soapboxing could break.

And, lest we forget, liberals are a minority – around 20% at most – of American voters! Many support progressive policies when they understand them. But, most voters reflexively oppose most liberal ideas because they are liberal; i.e., unless and until someone clearly explains to them why they are good ideas. Oftentimes, not even then.

Obama Didn’t Fail: Finally, despite all of these obstacles, Obama has achieved a lot of progress towards progressive goals. That’s why conservatives hate him. Obama has now kept all of his major campaign promises (recommended) in foreign and domestic and has a long, long list of impressive achievements. He is building an enduring coalition, too, that turns out to vote for Democrats every four years. This president is playing a long game and he is winning it. See here or below for a full explanation.

 

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –

  1. Who has been criticizing Obama from the Left? What do they want and expect from a Democratic president?
  2. What are these criticisms, in terms of, say, disagreement with Obama’s (1) policies and priorities, (2) tactics, and (3) long term strategy?
  3. Have any of these criticism had any impact on the course of action the Obama administration has pursued? Why/Why not?
  4. What are the major defenses to these criticisms? What more could Obama actually have accomplished if he had listened to his liberal critics?  If you think he could not have gotten more out of Congress, what about with his foreign policy decisions or executive actions?
  5. Could Obama have done more in defeat? That is, by more fiercely attacking conservatives to change the conversation in a more progressive direction?
  6. What will happen to progressivism after Obama?

LINKS –

Note: There have been dozens of major pieces criticizing Obama from the Left. Here are a few of them and some rebuttals and defenses of the guy.

  • Has Obama done a good job? Compared to what? Recommended.
  • Attack #1: Obama is obstructing a progressive majority (by Thomas Frank, the What’s the matter with Kansas guy). Recommended.
  • Rebuttal to Attack #1, plus another one. Recommended.
  • Attack #2: Obama is really a conservative. Recommended.
  • Attack #3: Obama has not used his rhetoric to change the story (by Drew Westin, the psychologist and language expert).
  • Rebuttal to Attack #3.

Next Week: The News Media’s Bias

A Tribute to a Fascinating Man

I just found this.  RIP, Sid.

IMG_2824

Monday’s Mtg: Is It Time To Abolish the Death Penalty?

We last discussed the death penalty in February 2010 (plus for a death penalty-related ballot proposition in 2012). Some things have changed since then. Several more states have halted executions temporarily or abolished them altogether. Public opinion in the United States still favors the death penalty, but the majority is slowing declining. Conservatives have come on board on some criminal justice reforms, like mandatory minimum reductions. And, a recent string of botched executions has thrown the mechanics of the death penalty into stark relief. So, we may be on a slow road to abolition. Alternatively, we could be near a tipping point, like we recently were on gay marriage equality. Or, we could stay the way we are now, where death sentences remain a state issue and a few states do most of it.

Most Americans and most of this group are firmly in one camp or the other on the death penalty. So, I have an idea for a way to discuss “is it time to abolish” it in a way that does more than just rehash the pros and cons of the issue (although we can do that, too). How about discussing why it is that most Americans support support or oppose the death penalty and what it might take to change their minds? Even if you support the death penalty, it might be illuminating to think of this issue in the larger context of how public opinion in the United States gets moved over time. After all, public opinion on some hot button social issues stays remarkably stable over the decades, as we recently discussed regarding abortion. But, in others, like gay marriage, it’s changed rapidly. Why does this happen and what might make it happen on the death penalty – whether you think that’s a good idea or not?

I’m as tired of lecturing each week as you probably are of hearing me. (Okay, probably not.) Either way, I’ll open Monday’s meeting by just spieling out a few statistics on the death penalty’s application in the United States and summarizing recent developments that may (or may not) have the potential to move public opinion. Then, I’ll see if anybody wants to bite on the “what would it take to tip public opinion” angle.
DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –

  1. What’s new in the politics of the death penalty in the United States?
  2. Has public opinion moved on the issue in recent years? Why?
  3. Why do people support the death penalty (e.g., vengeance, deterrence, religious belief, inertia)?   Why do people oppose it (morality/religious, cruel/unusual, racial disparity, cost…)?  Is there a difference between the reasons people cite and their real reasons?
  4. What arguments or evidence would it take to change people’s minds? What kinds of arguments sway Americans on issues of crime, or morality, or anything else?
  5. What arguments/evidence would make YOU change your mind?

LINKS –

Next Week: How Valid Are Criticisms of Obama From the Left?

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