What You Should Think About the President-Elect

November 9, 2016

“I should like to be able to love my country and still love justice.”

–Albert Camus

This is not good.  In a lesser-of-two-evils system, the same can be said about most Presidential elections.  This is a special case.  My fellow Americans have collectively decided to shake up that system by electing P.T. Barnum Donald J. Trump as the next President of the United States.

This man began his present political arc by challenging the citizenship of a duly elected President.  This man began his successful candidacy by pandering to hateful misconceptions about immigration — in a nation with barely 2% indigenous population!  Contemplating how he will begin his Presidency requires that I stiffen my drink.

Voter behavior yesterday hints at the prospect of a new dark age.  Perhaps I should save my booze for “mazel tov cocktails” to hurl in battle during the imminent Purge.  Serious thought reveals no such devastation is inevitable.  Every moment in time precedes a sprawling tree of possibilities.

Nearly half of the electorate did not make this choice.  It is fair to suggest many among the other half were misinformed.  Must we guard against a wave of militant nationalism?  Absolutely, but change need not take that particular course.  Last night’s popularity contest was entirely Constitutional.  It is far from the end of our American struggle.

There is no way to deny both major parties’ primary processes reflected a powerful national craving for upheaval.  Elder statesmen amongst the Democratic Party managed to keep that genie in the bottle, expertly exploiting superdelegates and other process issues to orchestrate their desired outcome.

Elder statesmen amongst the Republican Party did not prove so capable.  Many made no secret of their displeasure at Donald Trump’s sweeping victories over other contenders for the GOP nomination.  Some even announced their intention to vote for Hillary Clinton.  Yet their genie has run amok, now granting wishes to a range of unsavory characters.

For almost all of us, the easy way forward is to put politics in the rearview mirror.  Voting when the hivemind is sending “vote” messages is sufficient to feel a sense of belonging, even duty fulfilled.  Democracy never thrives where standards are that low.  Instead of quadrennial spasms, civic duty permeates every moment of thought about political matters.

This duty extends into communications.  Next week, next month, next year, and beyond; you should take political conversations seriously.  The price of avoiding these uncomfortable moments goes wildly beyond any social discomfort.  If you have relevant investments, weigh a cringe here or a cold shoulder there against the dollar value of your recent losses.  Then consider the ramifications for Americans who are not blessed with capital reserves of their own.

Becoming “that person,” strident or even tedious in defense of political ideas, is the barest minimum of political activism.  Yet that has value.  Dismissive attitudes about substantive political discussion are the driving force behind our obsession with the politics of personal destruction.  The general phase of this Presidential election, despite considerable divergence of policy positions, was overwhelmed by savage personal attacks.  Even Presidential debates wound up in those gutters.

Candidates were selected in large part by the culture of celebrity permeating American corporate infotainment.  Only the most egregious buzzkillers do wrong by driving political chatter toward serious fact-based discourse.  140 characters is seldom adequate to the task of conveying useful insight.  How passionate about his or her opinion can anyone be if reluctant to delve deeper into an issue?

Even more than words, this situation demands action.  The ramshackle establishment of the Republican Party was overcome by one billionaire’s bluster.  The power structure of the Democratic Party is more resilient, yet it was almost overcome by real financial support from millions of ordinary citizens passionate about non-incremental remedies to aggressively accelerating maladies of capitalist excess.  Radical upheaval is only worse than stability if the nature of that upheaval is unjust.

A grand American movement has twice showed itself to the world.  Occupy Wall Street, incoherent as it was, rightly identified both the severe burden imposed by our bloated financial sector and the enormous gulf between perception and reality on the subject of wealth distribution.  The American economy  is presently dominated by a mix of counterproductive and unsustainable practices.  If we do not find thoughtful remedy through constructive interventions, we will be forced to reckon with harsh inevitabilities.

Bernie Sanders is not known for fire and brimstone or its political equivalent in the form of violent revolutionary rhetoric.  In a thoroughly muddied lexicon, “democratic socialism” is still a far greater departure from the American mainstream than the Sanders agenda.  Single-payer healthcare, public universities, sweeping criminal justice reform, military non-aggression, national renewable energy investment — a fact-based path forward can easily generate more prosperity than any alternative.

November 8th, 2016 was not about a choice between that principled vision of the future and a Mexican border wall.  For the ~90% of citizens who would never consider casting a third party vote, yesterday was a choice between continuity for a dysfunctional system or spectacularly unpredictable disruption.  Public support for disruption exceeded public support for continuity.  If that is no surprise, by extension last night’s result should be less surprising.

The upheaval has begun.  The genie is out of the bottle.  Unlike any other time since the Viet Nam era, the United States is on the brink of major transformation.  Supported by a precarious entwining of oligarchs, nationalists, zealots, and opportunists; one political party now grasps every major lever of federal power.  Active citizens will be challenged.  Complacent citizens will experience unrest.  Backlash is inevitable.

Is our society functional?  Can we process this backlash before those who know the history of the Bolsheviks seriously entertain less enjoyable purposes for imported liquor?  I prefer to think that we are not so barbaric.  Donald Trump is a vainglorious buffoon who triumphed over a series of insincere professional politicians.  He is not Satan.  He isn’t even Skeletor.  The man sometimes fairs poorly when he goes toe-to-toe with Rosie O’Donnell!

What well-informed people of conscience must overcome is no more insidious than apathy.  The emergent federal power structure has no anchors in the real world.  Coal subsidies will not enrich the nation.  Immigrant hunts will not drive down unemployment.  Privatization for its own sake will not increase efficiency.  Military adventurism will not make us more secure.  Donald Trump’s supporters will pursue their agenda.  There are no actual successes to be achieved along those paths.

Alleviating educational finance burdens would be a real victory.  Separating health care decisions from financial planning would be a real victory.  Moving subsidies from petrochemicals to renewable technologies would be a real victory.  Voting behavior does not change physical realities.  Actions dedicated to constructive goals are the only reliable path to progress.  As citizens of a self-governing society, we are all duty-bound to be mindful of this not merely in 1,460 days, but continuously across that interval.

Over the next week, readers will no doubt become tired of encountering the Winston Churchill quote, “you can always count on Americans to do the right thing — after they’ve tried everything else.”  It aligns with the facile glibness of infotainment airheads.  Yet it is also an intuitive nod toward our present situation.  The 2016 election did not catapult us forward.  The 2016 election did not offer us an option to be catapulted forward.  At best it only offered incremental advances.  Voters instead chose a retrograde option.

Last night set the stage for a struggle that may finally allow our culture to get real about the failings of financial oligarchy.  If Abraham Lincoln was right about the best way to get a bad law repealed, then our vigorous embrace of trickle down economics, fossil fuels, and authoritarian law enforcement will become our springboard toward a future of broad prosperity, sustainable industry, and peaceful coexistence.  The difference sits in the space between becoming distressed about current events or acknowledging every call to action leading up to this election is but a whisper before the klaxon of Donald Trump’s triumph.

What You Should Think About Thomas Jefferson

May 31, 2011

“The general spread of the light of science has already laid open to every view the palpable truth, that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred. . .”

–Thomas Jefferson

Before our country was a sovereign nation, it was a series of ideas.  Some among the ancient Greeks wrote about and lived by the belief that specific populations were well-suited to self-government in the form of direct democracy.  Both the ancient Romans and the people of 18th century England had experience with rule by elected representatives.  Yet the Greek concept of popular governance was thought unsuitable for most people born outside specific city-states, and the British Parliament formed as an outgrowth of compromises designed to maintain order in a society where monarchs presided by a claim of divine right.

The notion of intrinsic and universal human rights was not widely accepted in the 1770s.  Even among the most progressive societies today, the struggle continues to recognize and address increasingly subtle ramifications of commitments to liberty and equality.  In the time America struggled for independence, many British loyalists remained skeptical of the idea that life without an official aristocracy would be an improvement over the status quo.  Before soldiers and arms could be rallied to the cause of freedom, voices and printing presses had to make the case that freedom was a cause worth fighting for.

Abusive policies and a fundamental lack of fairness in the dealings between England and its colonies created the unrest needed to drive rebellion.  Yet fear and anger never accomplish anything productive when they are given free reign to shape the course of human events.  It took rational men, acting with benefit of calm reflection, to reshape this unrest into a constructive force.  Most of the Founding Fathers were men of ideas, reasonable and thoughtful by nature.  When it came to declaring their intention to rebel, they turned to the foremost intellect in their midst — Thomas Jefferson.

Like so many other architects of the revolution, Jefferson was an educated lawyer.  However, no single discipline could monopolize his mind.  He took an active interest in farming, both as a landowner and a believer in agricultural productivity as the foundation of any prosperous economy.  He studied architecture, pouring much of his own time and money into neoclassical buildings like his beloved Monticello.  His personal library was among the largest in the New World.  When British troops burned the original Library of Congress, it would rise from the ashes through the acquisition of Jefferson’s personal book collection.  He was also a prolific inventor, perhaps second only to Benjamin Franklin in terms of his contributions to early American technology.

Yet Jefferson’s greatest invention was the argument that the fight for independence was both just and necessary.  He did not fall back on the worldly concerns of rising taxation, unfair trade, or coercive garrisons.  He claimed that rule by unelected authorities, even the most enlightened of despots, was an intolerable abridgement of “certain unalienable Rights.”  He gave voice to the will of the people in his time by insisting that the will of the people in all times and all places must determine under what laws and institutions those people would live.  He could have chosen the path of the incendiary bombast, ridiculing royalty while stoking the fires of hatred.  Instead he embraced the way of the philosopher, invoking reason and principle to shape the world’s grandest experiment in the history of civics.

Thomas Jefferson embodied so many of the best qualities of our nation.  He lived much of his life in debt not for lack of accomplishment, but because he thought his greatest inventions were too important to be constrained by the doctrine of intellectual property.  Enriching the nation and the world were much more important pursuits to him than personal enrichment.  He always hungered for knowledge, yet he was also not shy about thirsting for wine.  Though he lived much of his adult life as a debtor, he was the first U.S. President to push for an end to the federal debt.  His reluctance to tax made that pursuit one of his few great failures, but it was the start of a tradition that has produced balanced budgets as recently as the Clinton administration.

Keenly aware of the importance of land, it was Thomas Jefferson who made the Louisiana Purchase, nearly doubling the size of the United States and paving the way for the modern scope of our nation.  He also dispatched Lewis & Clark to explore the lands west of the Mississippi.  Were it not for his vision, the U.S.A. might still find France in control of the entire western bank of that river and lands beyond.  West Point and the Army Corps of Engineers were also achievements of his Presidency.  Though he did not favor costly standing armed forces, he understood the value of professional officers and other military specialists constantly prepared in ways only possible through a career of service.  His lofty ideals did not blind him to the need for actions of practical advantage to our young nation.

Such were the dividends of rational and brilliant leadership.  Like all nations, America never thrives and grows quite so well as when it embraces thoughtful guidance and elevates those persons most intent on advancing the general welfare.  This makes it all the more unfortunate that we have lost our taste for pursuit of the public good in modern times.  In military matters, the euphemisms of “defense” and “security” disguise belligerent posturing that builds at least once per generation into a misadventure of epic proportions (and epic losses.)  At the same time, “liberalism” and “socialism” have become epithets that malign one of the central purposes of all governments.

The Constitution expressly limits acts of war to those authorized by Congress. It also repeatedly articulates a national duty to provide for the general welfare of the citizenry.  Alas, legislative reflection is long lost as a prerequisite to war, and even the most reasonable efforts to improve the American way of life are attacked as a betrayal of the very traditions and documents that dictate such efforts should be undertaken!  The perversions of this modern “ownership society” make it seem downright un-American for a corporation to balance any other concerns against stockholder gains or for an individual to forfeit a fortune in the name of making new technology available more quickly and cheaply.  In this nation conceived so that people might peacefully enjoy the fruits of worthwhile labors free from the imposition of aristocrats, we instead concentrate rewards on a new aristocracy of do-nothing heirs and downright harmful wheeler-dealer types.

Thomas Jefferson lived in bizarre times fraught with suffering and injustice.  His boldest actions served to make this land a better place for inhabitants both present and future.  The suffering and injustice we see in America today is so much less severe than the hardships faced by colonists in the 18th century.  Yet to some degree it is also more intractable.  Because we are the architects of our own misfortunes, we must look inward for remedy.  Wisely, the Founding Fathers gave us a system capable of supporting perpetual revolution.  Through voting alone, it is possible to replace leaders and even amend our Constitution.

Yet to get those votes — to make those changes and build a better tomorrow — we need great ideas and wonderful language with which to popularize those ideas.  The voices of fear and anger are upraised in ever newer and more powerful ways.  A booming choir of willful ignorance constantly threatens to dominate the process by which we practice self-government.  There is no need for this to continue.  There is no reason for this to continue.

Progress requires turning the greatest minds of our times away from the crafting of ever more arcane financial instruments or ever more trivial enhancements to common medications.  Progress requires turning that brilliance toward the invention of new systems of economic organization and new technologies of real benefit to humanity.  This would improve the quality of life for rich and poor alike in ways we can scarcely begin to imagine.  Once this land was a haven for the greatest of ideas.  We can and should choose to make it so again.