Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.
--Daniel Patrick Moynihan

February 25, 2016

The Temporary Death of Political Cynicism

By David K. Shipler

            Cynicism about politics appears not to be genetic. It has to be relearned generation after generation, election after election. So it is that voters who are fed up with ineffective or unjust government, and by politicians who promise what they don’t deliver, are flocking to two candidates who cannot possibly deliver what they are promising: Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders.
            The attraction, at each end of the spectrum, seems to run beyond protest or anger. Not only do Trump and Sanders supporters know what they dislike, they also know what they want to believe is doable: “Make America great again,” says Trump. “Make this political revolution a reality,” says Sanders.
            Polling shows that only six percent of voters “would consider voting for both men,” Thomas Edsall reports in The New York Times, based on recent NBC/Wall Street Journal surveys. But a few of their policy proposals actually overlap: hitting corporations for taxes on overseas profits; eliminating tax loopholes for the very rich, opposing trade agreements that have facilitated the American job drain; raising the wages required for foreigners who get H-1B work visas; and increasing spending on mental health treatment for veterans, for example.
Trump also favors letting vets use their Veterans Administration cards for private physicians, outside the system, who accept Medicare. Sanders takes credit for a law that “makes it easier for some veterans to see private doctors or go to community health centers,” his website declares.
If you take time to drill down into the positions detailed by both candidates, you’ll find that while both offer some concrete specifics about how they would accomplish their goals, Sanders’s are more solidly documented. Some liberal economists have questioned his math, but there is no doubt that his proposed tax increases would generate hundreds of billions in additional revenue. All he’d need is a Congress that looks nothing like the one we’re fated to have.

February 14, 2016

The Nihilist Republicans and Political Bigotry

By David K. Shipler

            Senate Republicans’ pledge to reject President Obama’s Supreme Court nominee who hasn’t been named contains as much intellectual integrity as trying to ban a book you haven’t read. It further politicizes an institution that works properly only above politics, when justices examine the law and the Constitution without regard to their personal preferences. And it could paralyze the Court on key cases, producing 4-4 ties that would let stand lower appeals court rulings but would set no nationwide precedents on matters that cry out for clear resolution.
The ironic fact that this would promote government’s dysfunction and further reduce its stature does not help so-called “establishment” Republicans who are worried about the protest vote being mobilized by Donald Trump and Ted Cruz. Those voters have been energized by the disdain for government, encouraged by the Tea Party movement and other radicals who could be called the Nihilist Republicans, as distinguished from the Responsible Republicans who used to try to govern when they won elections.
Justice Antonin Scalia’s body wasn’t even cold before Nihilist Republicans voiced their political prejudice by stereotyping as leftwing any conceivable candidate who could be proposed by Obama. This is the classic dynamic of bigotry: reject an individual—even an unidentified individual—because of his or her membership in a group. Reject because of the origin. Reject because of who supports the person. It is the same deviant logic that Trump uses to oppose letting Muslims into the country.
In a society that supposedly values individualism over collectivism, judging people by their collective associations rather than by their individual traits violates a basic American ethic—at least one we wish to see practiced.

February 5, 2016

Foreign Policy: Jazz or Football?

By David K. Shipler

            American football is a convenient metaphor, and it’s sure to be overused on this Super Bowl weekend. But what if we turn it around and recognize that our foreign policy is actually the metaphor—a metaphor for football, and that our trick tactics and testosterone-driven plays internationally are often modeled on what works in the National Football League?
             The decision this week to ramp up US military deployment in Europe, like putting more muscle on the line, is designed to cow Vladimir Putin’s “aggression,” to use the word that is kicked around casually by the Pentagon. It seems logical if you think you’re in a game to win by defeating the opponent rather than finding victory on common ground. The real world of foreign affairs is rarely a zero-sum game, however, and there’s never a final whistle.
 The American-Russian face-off is full of football-style moves that look tough but have had the perverse effect of strengthening the hand of the other side. Expanding NATO, which commits the United States to go to war to defend any of its members, has alarmed Moscow as the former Soviet republics of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania have joined the alliance, along with Eastern European countries once in the Soviet sphere of influence. Russia’s reaction has been the opposite of what’s good for the West.

February 2, 2016

The American Myth of "Who We Are"

By David K. Shipler

            All countries need myths, especially if they’re at least a little bit true. They inspire imagination, set high standards, and foster hope. The American Dream is such a myth, for it challenges the society to make real the principle that anyone who works hard can prosper. American democracy is partly mythological in an age of voter suppression and billionaire campaign funding.
President Obama has summoned up another myth—one about American character—by often declaring that this or that bigoted, inhumane, self-destructive policy is “not who we are.” That’s partly correct, but only partly. The notion of a people inherently devoted to inclusive, rational decency is a beautiful myth being sullied daily by the leading Republican presidential candidates and now, as seen in the Iowa results, by their supporters. If they are “who we are,” then we have some work to do on truth-telling, cooperative problem-solving, and respect for the country’s religious and ethnic diversity.