Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Perhaps There Really Are Two Americas

Way back in 2004, a then-up and coming Democratic senator named Barack Obama gave a stirring speech about how there were really no Red States or Blue States, but rather, there was just the United States. As a professor who teaches public speaking, I loved the speech because of its hopeful tone, and because it stressed that maybe Republicans and Democrats aren't so different after all-- maybe we do have things in common and maybe we really can find ways to compromise.

But as I watch our current political climate, I admit I'm not so sure; and I'm certainly not so hopeful, even though I want to be.  More and more, it really does seem like what Republicans want is very different from what Democrats want. I am not saying one side is good and one side is bad, but our differences seem like an ever-widening gulf, and I'm beginning to worry that it cannot be bridged.  For example, I'm having a really hard time finding common ground with those who support Donald Trump.  According to exit polls taken in South Carolina after Trump won the primary there, large numbers of voters who chose him also believed that all undocumented immigrants should be deported immediately; that there should be a total ban on Muslims who want to enter the US; and that the Confederate battle flag should once again fly over the state house.  Other polls, including some taken nationally, showed that as many as 20% of his voters believed freeing the slaves was a mistake, and about 1/3 of his voters believed that putting Japanese-Americans in internment camps during World War II was a good idea.  Much has already been written about Mr. Trump's assertions that Mexican immigrants are rapists and criminals, and about his claim that President Obama wasn't really born in the United States; what's troubling is that many of his voters agree.

I admit to being stunned by Donald Trump's appeal. I would never have thought that so much demagoguery and bigotry would win over large numbers of people.  And yet, he has become a hero to many Republican voters, especially working-class whites, who seem to long for the America that used to be, a mythical "good old days" before gay people could marry, a time when Christian prayer was allowed in the public schools, women stayed at home, and few if any black people occupied positions of influence (let alone aspired to the presidency).  It was a world where everyone knew their place, and it's a world Mr. Trump seems to want to restore.  Even a dear friend of mine from Tennessee, who has strong evangelical Baptist beliefs, is supporting Trump-- despite his three marriages and the fact that he admitted cheating on his ex-wives.  She likes him because she believes he will be tough on illegal immigrants, and defend Christians (who she believes are under constant threat, even in America).

I know that some of my Republican colleagues and friends share those views.  They have told me so, on social media and in person; and they are mystified that I don't agree with them.  In addition to their utter contempt for Hillary Clinton, and their dismissive attitude about Bernie Sanders, they sincerely believe our current president is a total loser, and that only Donald Trump can restore America's greatness, which they are certain Mr. Obama has taken away.  (They also agree with Marco Rubio's and Ted Cruz's talking points that Barack Obama has been destroying America intentionally, perhaps trying to weaken it to appease the Muslims, or trying to transform it into some Marxist paradise).  And Mr. Trump, while no longer making the Birther claim that Mr. Obama isn't really an American, has also hinted that there is something "foreign" about him, or that he doesn't have America's best interests at heart. 

Needless to say, I find these beliefs bizarre.  As most of us in the blue states see it, President Obama actually did restore America's greatness during difficult times. He inherited a horrible economy from President Bush, and turned it around. He also inherited the results of a disastrous war in Iraq, and brought the vast majority of the troops home, while leading the mission that killed Bin Laden (something President Bush was unable to accomplish).  But worst of all, Mr. Obama inherited a Republican party that no longer wanted to govern.  Rather, as Sen. Mitch McConnell put it, his one goal was to make Mr. Obama a one-term president. In that, he failed; but he and his Republican colleagues were certainly able to obstruct nearly everything the president tried to do.  To this day, the goal of Republicans seems to be total obstruction-- in an unprecedented move, Leader McConnell now says the Senate will refuse to even consider any nominee for the Supreme Court, no matter how qualified he or she might be.  While previous congresses have wrangled over nominees and some have been defeated, the idea that the Senate will not even meet with or consider anyone the president nominates has never happened before, and we in the blue states think it's outrageous.

But for us, it's also typical of the disrespect the Republicans have shown this president since he first took office:  not only have some questioned whether he is a "real" American, but others have sent out racist cartoons of him and the First Lady, or called him rude names.  No matter what he accomplished (and he accomplished a lot), he never got the credit:  if things were going well, it must be accidental, but if things were going badly, of course, it was all his fault.  One congressman even felt it was okay to shout "you lie!" during a State of the Union address.  I understand that not everyone will like what a president does, and even some of his supporters haven't agreed with every decision he made; but the level of anger and disrespect directed at President Obama from his opponents is deeply troubling.

So, is the anger that seems to be motivating Republican voters, anger that sometimes seems to boil over during Trump rallies, leading to some of his supporters threatening journalists or trying to forcibly remove protesters (Mr. Trump himself has waxed nostalgic about the era when one could just beat such people up).  I don't know where the Republican moderates have gone-- surely there must be some out there, and surely they must be nervous about having Donald Trump, or for that matter, Ted Cruz, as their nominee.  I've been observing politics for many years, and I can't recall seeing so many furious people-- Mr. Trump seems content to add fuel to that fire, as it is getting him votes.  But the heated rhetoric and the encouragement of hateful views could have disastrous consequences.  At this point, I don't know if anyone in the Republican party can stop Donald Trump, and he does seem to have a larger following than many of us expected. But I fear for our country, and for our democracy, if he is allowed to become the nominee... which seems more likely with each passing day.  

Monday, February 15, 2016

My Valentine's Birthday and My First Year of Blogging

Yesterday was my birthday.  Over the years, I've had a love-hate relationship with that particular event.  For one thing, my birthday falls on Valentine's Day, which is a day set aside for love and romance.  As I've mentioned in earlier blog posts, I was quite unpopular when I was growing up.  I had few if any friends, other kids told me I was ugly, and at school, I endured what today would be called bullying.  It was a time that valued tradition and conformity, and I was just too different.  Girls were expected to love makeup, high heels and frilly dresses (to this day, I love none of these). But I loved watching baseball, listening to rock music, and dreaming of a career-- at a time when a girl's only dream was supposed to be finding a husband.  I also was not blessed with the genes that made me look like a Playboy Bunny, so I had no boyfriends; to my knowledge, I was the only girl in my neighborhood not invited to the senior prom.  And every birthday, the only cards and Valentines I received came from members of my family.  Truth be told, I dreaded birthdays-- not because I feared getting older, but because they were an annual reminder of how unlovable I thought I was.

Fast-forward to yesterday.  I am 69 now-- I've never lied about my age, nor understood why women are expected to do so.  I have no idea what being 69 means today; we Baby Boomers have redefined a lot of things, and after all, I got my PhD when I was 64. Still, whatever meaning age 69 has, I hope to set a good example for it.  Meanwhile, a lot has changed since my teen-aged years, most notably the fact that I no longer dread either my birthday or Valentine's Day.  Accepting myself was a long, slow process, but I did finally reach a place where I decided birthdays aren't so bad; and these days, I am grateful to be alive (I think most of us cancer survivors feel that way).  But what I still find puzzling is the reaction to my birthday on social media:  by my last count, nearly a thousand people have reached out to me on Facebook and Twitter.  In many cases, they are people I've never met, who know me from my ongoing friendship with Rush.  In some cases, they are former students; people I've mentored or encouraged over the years; people who heard me give a talk somewhere (or met me at a Rush-related event); some former and current colleagues; members of Rush's management and immediate family; and amazingly, a few former enemies who for whatever reason have decided it's okay to wish me well!

If you had told me when I was growing up that I would have that many people sending their good wishes in my direction, I never would have believed it.  And yet, for whatever reason, that's what happened.  People often criticize social media for its excesses, and yes, it can definitely be a place where rudeness, outrage, and conspiracy theories reign.  But let's not ignore the other side:  at its best, it can also be a place where there is encouragement, comfort, and even love. That is what I saw (and felt) yesterday, and I am both surprised and grateful.  I'm glad that thanks to social media, I've come into contact with so many interesting people-- many of whom have views far different from mine, yet who keep in touch, and not just on my birthday.

Yesterday was also the one-year anniversary of my first blog post:  you can read it here.  I never planned on blogging:  I was recovering from cancer surgery and to keep my mind occupied (as opposed to worrying), I signed up for a course about political campaigns, a subject in which I've always had considerable interest.  The professor insisted that we all have a blog, and that we write about current events.  Had he not made blogging part of our grade, I doubt I would ever have started.  I believed then, and still believe now, that the world has lots of bloggers and probably doesn't need more, but now that I've done it for a year (and gotten an "A" in the course I was taking), I will probably continue.  I doubt my blog will make me famous, but it's nice to have a vehicle for expressing my opinion.  I understand that the most page views occur whenever I blog about Rush (between 2500-4000 views, according to the blog statistics); but even if much of the time, my readership is small, I'm glad I can contribute to the public conversation, and I hope every now and then I say something interesting.

So, thank you to those who remembered my birthday, thank you to those who have kept in contact with me, and especially, thank you to those who have taken the time to read my blog.  Coming as I do from an era when all communication was either in person, via letters, or by telephone, it's still amazing to know that I can exchange ideas with folks from Pakistan or Finland or England as quickly as I can with folks from here in Massachusetts; and it's also gratifying to know that even those who disagree with me still feel I'm someone they want to talk to.  I'm sure as the presidential campaign heats up, the discussions may turn more contentious, and yes, I fully expect some folks will disagree with what I post. But for now, I have nothing contentious to offer.  I'm just happy to be able to express myself, and appreciative that there are people who care about what I have to say.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Some Lessons from the New Hampshire Primaries

If you had told me six months ago that the winners of the New Hampshire Primary would be an outspoken TV celebrity and real estate mogul (Donald Trump), and a self-described Democratic Socialist from Vermont (Bernie Sanders), I would have said you must be joking. Back then, few pundits expected that Republicans would gravitate to someone who said John McCain wasn't a war hero, who advocated banning all Muslims from entering the country, and who promised to build a wall to keep out Mexican immigrants. And on the Democratic side, few pundits believed that anyone would listen to a 74 year old left-leaning socialist who railed against corporate greed and expressed frequent outrage at how most politicians serve their donors rather than the voters.  According to the common wisdom, Republicans wanted someone "moderate'--Jeb Bush was supposedly to be the favorite; and Democrats were going to ignore Mr. Sanders in favor of the much more electable Hillary Clinton.

But somehow, Mr. Sanders and Mr. Trump didn't get the memo, and neither did the voters, who gave the two men resounding victories.  As it turned out, voters were really, really angry with the status quo, and they didn't want someone they considered part of the establishment.  While the stereotype of the Trump voter is someone without much education, it turned out that he picked up votes from across all demographics.  The same was true for the Sanders voters-- they were not comprised of old hippies, but rather, a coalition of young people and middle-class adults-- and Mr. Sanders was especially strong with female voters.  Of course, there is no guarantee that going forward, the results will be the same in other states:  will Republicans really pick as their nominee someone who not only has little political and governing experience but also has a tendency to bully his opponents and make outrageous remarks?  And will Democrats really choose as their nominee someone who offers an idealistic (and some say impractical) vision, but who forcefully objects to the way political campaigns are conducted in this country?  Or will everyone decide to gravitate towards some safer, although less interesting, alternatives? 

So, now that both Iowa and New Hampshire are behind us, I do have a few observations:

(1) It seems to be a year for non-traditional candidates. Neither Mr. Trump nor Mr. Sanders has offered the proverbial twelve-point plan, nor really provided specifics about how they will achieve their goals; but both have their own kind of charisma, and voters seem willing to trust and believe in them.  Mr. Trump, as I see it, speaks to the fears and anxieties of his voters, and promises to protect them from harm.  Mr. Sanders speaks to the hopes and dreams of his voters and promises to restore their faith in democracy.  Both men speak with authenticity, even when delivering their stump speech-- they seem to understand what their audience wants, and they know what issues resonate with voters.

(2)  I'm not surprised that Hillary Clinton's surrogates did not help her win over women voters.  She had some well-respected female members of congress stumping for her, as well as former political leaders like Madeleine Albright and high-profile feminist icons like Gloria Steinem, and even some female pop stars and actresses.  Yet some of her surrogates came across like they were scolding anyone who dared to support a male politician rather than supporting a woman.  As a second-wave feminist who has great admiration for many of Hillary Clinton's achievements over the years, I was totally turned off by the assertion that women should vote for other women just because they are women.  And I was not alone in rejecting that assertion.

(3)  Marco Rubio needs to find a way to talk to the voters other than reciting the same talking points over and over. I teach Public Speaking, and I can certainly sympathize with people who are so worried about making a mistake that they memorize their entire speech; but doing that is not an effective way to win over an audience, especially if your opponents (or reporters, or even voters) are trying to get you to deviate from your planned remarks.  You really do sound like a robot if all you can do is recite your speech word-for-word, or repeat your talking points.  Further, Mr. Rubio's claim that Barack Obama is somehow dangerous because he is trying to change America is utter nonsense-- ALL presidents, including Reagan and Bush, have tried to change America in one way or other.  And whether Mr. Rubio is right, or whether he is wrong, repeating something five times, and then doubling down on it out on the road, just makes him sound unprepared.  And it may have contributed to Mr. Rubio's poor showing in New Hampshire.

(4)  Contrary to what Ted Nugent just said about the Jews (note to Ted:  expressing views that are both neo-Nazi and anti-Semitic makes you seem like a truly vile human being), voters in Iowa and new Hampshire had no problem casting their vote for Bernie Sanders.  In fact, Mr. Sanders just became the first Jewish person in US history to win a primary.  And if I'm not mistaken, when Ted Cruz won the Iowa caucus for the Republicans, he became the first person of Hispanic descent to do so.  For all the huffing and puffing from certain bigoted people, voters seem willing to vote for the best person, regardless of race, religion, or gender.  That is a good thing, and I hope it continues.

(5)  Bernie Sanders is 100% right that there is too much money in politics, and yes, studies do show that a small number of billionaires can dramatically influence our elections.  Whatever party you favor, the integrity of the vote must be maintained; and to help make that a reality again, disastrous Supreme Court decisions like Citizens United need to be overturned, or we will continue to get the best congress money can buy.  

To be honest, I never expected either Mr. Trump or Mr. Sanders to be on top.  But it's pretty obvious  these two men have touched a nerve, and that's why so many voters have responded.  Meanwhile, I'd be interested to know which candidate you believe will get the nomination-- is the Trump/Sanders victory a fluke?  Is either one electable?  (And why do I feel like we haven't heard the last of Hillary Clinton, who seems to campaign best when she is an underdog?)  To say the least, it's an interesting time to be following politics, and I'm glad I'm not a TV pundit-- I wouldn't want to predict what will happen next.  In fact, I admit I genuinely don't know...

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

What We Learned from the Iowa Caucuses

Because I'm fascinated by politics, I was one of the folks who stayed up till about 3:30 A.M. to find out whether Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders won in Iowa.  At this point, while Mrs. Clinton has declared victory, there are still some questions about whether she really won; and even if it turns out she did defeat Mr. Sanders, it was by the narrowest of margins.  Six months ago, few if any pundits thought a 74 year old self-described socialist from Vermont would have a chance against a well-qualified (and well-funded) establishment Democrat like Hillary Clinton; and yet Mr. Sanders was able to run a strong race and come within inches of victory.  Okay fine, it's Iowa, and Iowa's population does not represent that of the entire US, but it's still a great story.  Going forward, can Mrs. Clinton win over those voters who see her as too much of a centrist?  And can Mr. Sanders win over those voters who like his populist message but think it's impossible for him to get elected? Those questions remain to be answered.

The  Republican story was equally fascinating, especially given the high expectations many pundits and pollsters had about Donald Trump; the common wisdom was that he could not possibly lose.  But as it turned out, he could. And he did.  We can all wonder whether his snub of the Fox News debate, or his feud with Megyn Kelley, had anything to do with his loss; more likely, he did not have the ground game that his opponents (especially Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio) had.  And as I suggested on several occasions, I think lots of curious spectators showed up at Mr. Trump's rallies and events, eager to meet the famous celebrity.  Many even cheered at his speeches and applauded some of his most controversial assertions.  But in the end, when it came to casting their vote, they chose someone else.  One wonders what Mr. Trump was feeling as the votes were counted and it became clear that he would not be the victor.  He had spent so much time bragging about how he always wins.  His concession speech was short and courteous, but I wonder if this unexpected defeat will affect his style of campaigning.  Will he brag and insult his opponents less, and instead focus on his plans for improving our country?

Another story-line in Iowa, and one that will probably persist, is religion.  Because a large number of Iowa Republicans are evangelical Christians, most of the GOP candidates who campaigned there tried to out-do themselves in mentioning their own religiosity, quoting scripture, praising God and Jesus, and promising to restore morality to America (in some cases, it seemed they were also pledging to promote evangelical Christianity, or at least give it a favored place in the government).  And while I have never been fond of candidates publicly announcing how religious they are, at least I could understand why Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio made their religious faith a central pillar of their conversation with voters-- if most of your voters are very religious, it's important to let them know you speak their language and support their views.

But here's what I don't understand:  there was a recent anti-Bernie Sanders article in the Washington Post which remarked on his lack of religious piety, saying that his refusal to align with an organized faith or speak about God could hurt him in a general election.  (It is well-known that Mr. Sanders was born and raised Jewish; but while he respects his heritage, organized religion does not play a central role in his life.)  I tweeted about this-- I said I truly did not care what religion a candidate was, as long as he or she cared about the country and wanted to move things in a positive direction.  In fact, I find it annoying when candidates pander to certain voters with mentions of how often they pray; and I find it equally annoying when voters feel they must know which house of worship a candidate attends, and how often they go there.  I fail to see the correlation between going to church (or synagogue or mosque) and being a good leader for our country. There have been many politicians who were regularly seen in church, but who turned out to be corrupt and dishonest.  The Founding Fathers were right when they stated in the Constitution that there should be no religious test.  Sadly, some people think there should be one, and that their faith should win.  (And whether a candidate who is proudly non-religious could ever get elected is another open question.)

So, now everything moves to New Hampshire.  I'll be interested to see if the way Mr. Cruz and Mr. Rubio campaigned in Iowa will resonate with voters in the Granite State.  I'll be interested to see how Mr. Trump recovers, and whether he comes back with a new strategy.  And of course, I'll be interested to see how the Sanders/Clinton battle plays out.  But whatever happens in New Hampshire over the next week, there is one trend from Iowa that I hope will continue:  a large number of young voters actually came out and caucused, working hard for their favorite candidate, and becoming an active part of the political process.  Too often in the past, young adults have not participated-- but in Iowa, to the surprise of many political observers, they did.  I'm hoping this will continue.  In fact, I'm hoping more people of all ages will get off the sidelines and begin to support a candidate they believe in.  Whether you are a Democrat, a Republican, an Independent, or something else, there's a lot at stake in this upcoming election, and sitting around complaining on social media isn't an effective strategy for improving the direction of the country.  Now is the time for all of us to get involved... or we have no right to be upset about the results of the next election.