• The Breakdown of Politics

    On the 22nd of May, 1856, Representative Preston Brooks of South Carolina entered the old Senate chamber shortly after the Senate concluded its business for the day.  After sitting for a moment in an empty seat on the floor of the chamber, Representative Brooks offered to a member of the Senate staff that he hoped the attractive woman sitting just outside the Senate chamber would leave.  Despite such chivalrous concerns, moments later, Representative Brooks strode to the chair of Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner and beat him unconscious with a walking stick.

    A week earlier, in a heated debate about whether Kansas should be admitted to the Union as a slave-state or as a free-state, Senator Sumner had, in Mr. Brooks’ estimation, insulted South Carolina as well the state’s Senator, Andrew Butler, who was a relative of Mr. Brooks.  Reading the text of Sumner’s speech 164 years later, it still pulses with a righteous rage—questioning what South Carolina had contributed to human history and suggesting that Senator Butler had taken an “ugly” mistress—slavery.

    The assault on Senator Sumner was a milestone in our country’s path to civil war.  It signaled a break-down in the ability of our politics to grapple with difficult issues.  Representative Brooks may have been triggered by Senator Sumner’s heated rhetoric, but throughout history violence results when politics fails to resolve complex issues, and throughout the 1850s, the United States proved incapable of resolving the issue of slavery.

    I found myself contemplating this dark era in American history after watching the presidential debate on Tuesday night.  In Sumner’s towering and whirling rhetoric, he asked fundamental questions about the nature of a republic, about freedom, ethics, governing, and whether the United States would ever free itself of the bondage of slavery.

    In stark contrast, the disputes between contemporary Republicans and Democrats, seem substantively insignificant in comparison to the meaty issues of the decade before the Civil War.  Republicans may oppose the Affordable Care Act as an unnecessary intervention in national healthcare markets, but they at least pay lip service to its popular provisions, including coverage for pre-existing conditions.  Democrats may believe that the country needs to be a global leader on climate change, but during the Obama administration they saw the United States resume its global leadership as a producer of petroleum and natural gas.

    I’m not suggesting that there aren’t substantial differences between the two parties—especially between the extreme wings of the parties.  There are.  Democrats believe in a more responsive role for government that seeks to reduce the rough-edges of economic inequality, social injustice, and discrimination in all its forms.  Republicans hold, with equal conviction, to the belief that government should not intervene in human lives in ways that alters the power of free markets to self-regulate.  These are big ideas and they are worthy of sustained and passionate debate.

    But the spectacle we saw on Tuesday night wasn’t about big ideas or the governing philosophies of parties or candidates.  I wish that it had been.  In the midst of the pandemic, America deserved a debate about how we pay for healthcare.  As automation threatens more and more jobs with replacement, Americans deserved a debate about the future of work.  As China invests in strategic partnerships across Asia, Africa, Europe, and South America, the United States needs to have a debate about what role we want to play in the world.  And as technology further dominates how we interact with one another, the American people deserve a debate about free speech before artificial intelligence makes it impossible for us to discern between things said by human beings and things said by computers.

    It’s often said that politics is a tough business, but what we saw in Tuesday night’s debate wasn’t politics just as Representative Brooks’ beating of Senator Sumner wasn’t politics.  Politics is how we get things done in a free society, it’s how we resolve difficult issues without killing one another.  The first presidential debate wasn’t about politics, it was about power—who has it, who doesn’t, and, ultimately, what we, as a people, are willing to tolerate in those who want it or want to keep it.

  • Power and Values

    We live in a cynical time. The president of the United States boasts that his pandemic response warrants a grade of A+ in the same week that deaths from the pandemic exceed 200,000 Americans. A GOP-controlled committee of the U.S. Senate released a preliminary report on an investigation into the son of Vice President Joe Biden that tracks with rumors spread by Russian agents the same week that the U.S. intelligence community warned, again, that Russia is trying to intervene in the U.S. election to denigrate Biden.  The National Catholic Prayer Breakfast intends to present Attorney General William Barr with its newly minted Faithful Christian Laity Award, despite the fact that the attorney general reinstated the federal death penalty—in contradiction of Catholic teaching—and five men have been killed by the federal government on Barr’s orders since July.

    Finally, it’s hard to look past the cynicism, hypocrisy, and tortured logic of Senate Republicans who claimed precedent kept them from confirming President Obama’s nominee for a Supreme Court Justice nine months before the 2016 election, but that same precedent does not keep a Republican president from naming a nominee six weeks before an election.

    It would be easy to give in to cynicism and believe that politics should not operate on ideals and, instead, adopt the practice of those who behave as if politics is only about who holds power—and operate accordingly.

    But I don’t believe it.

    Power, in the absence of values, is as ugly as it is dangerous.  Power in the absence of values has given the world fascism and communism, concentration camps and gulags, slavery, death and war.

    But power married to ideals is the stuff of liberation.  It was the ideals of emancipation tied to the power of the Union Army that ended slavery, effectively, in the United States.  It was the ideals of freedom tied to the power of allied armies that liberated Western Europe, North Africa, and the Pacific in World War II.  And it was the song of America’s founding values sung by countless voices in the civil rights era married to the power of the federal government that ultimately delivered the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, and the other major accomplishments of that era.

    So the cynics are right: power is important, but it is dangerous when it is untethered from ideals and limits.

    Earlier this week, I moderated a session with former Massachusetts Governor Mike Dukakis, the 1988 Democratic Party nominee for president. He reminded the audience that when he became governor for the first time in the 1970s, Massachusetts had a real problem with public corruption.  If you wanted to start a bank at that time, it would cost you $35,000.  That wasn’t the cost of licensing, it was the cost of corruption—an abuse of power designed to serve one person.

    Ultimately, the corruption Governor Dukakis confronted was rooted out by idealists who leveraged the power of government and laws to protect the commonwealth of the people.

    As we approach election day 2020, we are confronted by a crisis in our public life.  Personal integrity, fairness, the rule of law, and the sanctity of our democracy are challenged by cynics who see power as the only purpose in public life.  Pity them, pray for them, and then make sure you go out and vote against them—that’s the best way to marry our ideals to real power.

  • Truth and Panic

    In May of 1940, the German Army nearly won the war in Europe.  After invading the low countries, their forces swung left and engaged a joint British and French army.  As German forces swept across Belgium, Belgian resistance collapsed and its king, Leopold, capitulated.  British and French forces were driven onto a sliver of beach in the small port city of Dunkirk.  On those sands, the remnants of the British Expeditionary Force waited for rescue.  In one of the most improbable feats of the war, the British Royal Navy, supplemented by individually owned craft, evacuated more than 338,000 allied forces, including 26,000 French troops from Dunkirk—a total 10 times greater than what most had thought possible.

    Days later, in the House of Commons, Churchill described the rescue.  He praised the valor and the courage of all the British military services.  But he quickly pointed out “We must be very careful not to assign to this deliverance the attributes of a victory. Wars are not won by evacuations.”  In fact, he went on to point out the losses to the British at Dunkirk, including the lives of 30,000 British soldiers.  Britain had lost, said Churchill, as many guns at Dunkirk as the British Army had lost in the German spring offensive in the second battle of the Somme in 1918.  They lost a vast trove of transports, heavy vehicles, and all of their armor.  According to the prime minister, the British Expeditionary Force had received the best equipment the nation could offer to its armed forces—and it was all lost at Dunkirk.  In addition, their Belgian allies were defeated.  France teetered on total collapse.  A German invasion of Britain seemed likely, just as Germany had already invaded Poland, Denmark, Norway, Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, and France.

    In the first week of June 1940, the British people had every right to be panicked.  While their Army had escaped annihilation, their country was in grave peril.  Churchill didn’t sugar coat it.  He vowed to fight on, to “outlive the menace of tyranny, if necessary for years, if necessary alone.”  He vowed to fight in France, on the seas, and in the air.  He said “we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.”

    Chuchill is one of the great political leaders of a nation at war.  His instinct after Dunkirk wasn’t to control fear, but to underscore the seriousness of the threat by speaking with cold, clear precision about the facts, in order to gird the British public for whatever came next.  It was only in marshalling the power of the masses that Great Britain would prevail.  Churchill knew that—as all great political leaders do—and he spoke to the public with a straight-forwardness that inspired confidence and brought the public to his side.

    A generation later, an American president, John F. Kennedy, faced another existential threat when U.S. intelligence found evidence of Soviet nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them in Cuba.  As the United States declared a quarantine on Cuba and vowed to intercept any vessels approaching the island nation, President Kennedy spoke to the public.  Like Chuchill, he didn’t pull any punches.  “And having now confirmed and completed our evaluation of the evidence and our decision on a course of action,” the president said, “this Government feels obliged to report this new crisis to you in fullest detail.”

    The president went on to describe the deployment of Soviet medium- and intermediate-range ballistic missiles as well as jet-bombers all capable of delivering nuclear weapons to “most of the major cities in the Western Hemisphere.”  Those missiles had to be removed from Cuba.  Kennedy summarized the dangers:

    My fellow citizens, let no one doubt that this is a difficult and dangerous effort on which we have set out. No one can foresee precisely what course it will take or what costs or casualties will be incurred. Many months of sacrifice and self-discipline lie ahead — months in which both our patience and our will will be tested, months in which many threats and denunciations will keep us aware of our dangers. But the greatest danger of all would be to do nothing.

    Great leaders in war and in peace have understood that when they speak plainly and explain the dangers we face collectively as a free people, then our resilience and our strength only grow.  President Trump made a strategic blunder in failing to level with the American people last winter when he knew full-well what the pandemic would test us in ways we never imagined. He said he didn’t want to panic us.  In fact, he underestimated the American people, our ability to face dangers, and the role of a president in crisis.  We didn’t need him to shelter us from difficult truths.  We needed him to share them with us so that together we could respond.  That’s what Churchill did in 1940.  It’s what Kennedy did in 1962.  President Trump failed to lead in 2020, and 200,000 Americans are dead, so far.

  • Reporting on the Portland Protests with Noelle Crombie

    Air Dates: August 31-September 6, 2020

    While national media coverage often swoops in to cover local stories with national significance, local reporters are typically there from the beginning.  They know the details.  They know the sequence of events.  And they know the community in which they are reporting.  Noelle Crombie knows Portland as well as anyone and she’s been reporting on the protests and violence in that beautiful city.

    Crombie is a senior staff writer at The Oregonian. She writes extensively about criminal justice issues in Oregon. She was the lead reporter on “Ghosts of Highway 20,” a narrative series and 5-part documentary that won 5 regional Emmys and Oregon’s top investigative journalism award.  Crombie led a 10-month investigation into sexual abuse allegations against a founder of Mercy Corps, an international humanitarian relief organization based in Portland.  The Oregonian’s reporting prompted the immediate resignation of the organization’s CEO, one of its top lawyers and a veteran board member.  The series won two regional Emmys and captured a top prize in the prestigious Pictures of the Year International competition.  Previously, she worked as a reporter for The Day in New London, Connecticut.

    On this episode of “Story in the Public Square,” Crombie discusses the protests in Portland, Oregon that followed George Floyd’s murder.  She says, “there is an overreaching message against police brutality and police reform, that is clear, but [now] that message has, as some have told me, has been sort of co-opted by the focus on the federal involvement here.”

    “Story in the Public Square” broadcasts each week on public television stations across the United States. A full listing of the national television distribution is available at this link. In Rhode Island and southeastern New England, the show is broadcast on Rhode Island PBS on Sundays at 11 a.m. and is rebroadcast Thursdays at 7:30 p.m. An audio version of the program airs Saturdays at 8:30 a.m. & 6:30 p.m. ET, Sundays at 3:30 a.m. & 11:30 p.m. ET on SiriusXM’s popular P.O.T.U.S. (Politics of the United States), channel 124. “Story in the Public Square” is a partnership between the Pell Center and The Providence Journal. The initiative aims to study, celebrate and tell stories that matter.

  • R.I.P. GOP

    Born of a righteous conviction that no person should be enslaved, the Republican Party died this week, a victim of its leaders’ lust for power and abandonment of the Union which Lincoln fought to save.  At its zenith, the GOP advanced a freedom agenda derived from the ideals of the American experience and the European enlightenment.  A commitment to free labor, free markets, free trade, and free institutions provided the philosophical underpinnings of Republican governments.  By the time of its death, however, the Republican Party had devolved into an openly authoritarian party.

    Between 1992 and 2020, the GOP won only one popular vote for president, but controlled the White House for 12 of those 28 years.  Over that period, the party came to embrace decidedly un-democratic solutions to their electoral weakness: gerrymandering congressional districts, adopting voter suppression, welcoming assistance from hostile foreign governments in elections, and, most recently, undermining the U.S. postal service in a bald-faced effort to prohibit voting by mail in the midst of a global pandemic that has already taken the lives of 180,000 citizens, so far.

    The life of any political party is intertwined with the accomplishments of its greatest politicians, its accomplishments not the fruit of populism but of the power of ideas and the political skills of its leaders.  Here, the Republican party can lay claim to a proud history.

    The Republican Party traces its roots to 1854 when a coalition of former Whigs and Free Soilers organized their opposition to the dominant Democratic Party.  Their principal, animating impetus was opposition to the expansion of territories in the growing United States where slavery was legal.  This was the decade of the Missouri Compromise, of bleeding Kansas, of John Brown’s raid.  National politics seemed woefully incapable of dealing with the issue of slavery.  Two years after the party’s establishment, it’s first presidential candidate John C. Fremont won 11 of the 16 Northern states in the Union.  Then in 1860, Abraham Lincoln won election to the presidency of the United States of America.  The civil war that followed tested the republic in ways that linger to this day.  Still, Lincoln’s steadfast defense of the Union, his wartime emancipation of Southern slaves, his support for the 13th amendment prohibiting slavery in the United States, and, tragically, his martyrdom, place him in the pantheon of American presidents.  If Lincoln’s presidency was the only service Republicans had done, then their status among American political parties would be secure.

    But that’s not the end of the legacy of the Republican party.

    In the middle of the 20th century, the United States and, indeed, the free world, faced a new, existential threat.  Dwight Eisenhower rose to political prominence as commander of the allied armies fighting fascism and Nazis in Europe.  Upon entering American domestic politics, he focused the country on a long-strategy to prevail in “cold war.”  It was Eisenhower’s administration that linked ends and means—the stuff of strategy—with an incisive view of the Soviet threat and its internal weaknesses.  The strategy Eisenhower adopted sought to build American and Western strength while exploiting Soviet weaknesses and Eastern bloc divisions.  The broad outlines initiated by Truman were formalized by Eisenhower and guided American presidents through the end of the Cold War.

    The end of the Cold War had as much to do with Soviet leadership as it did with American policies.  But when a young Mikhail Gorbachev and a young Eduard Shevardnadze confided in one another—years before they rose to the roles of premier and foreign minister, respectively—that the Soviet system was failing and much in-need of reform, the long-twilight struggle organized by Eisenhower raced to a conclusion.  Where Republican President Ronald Reagan provided the inspirational leadership of a nation committed to freedom around the world, President George H. W. Bush, another Republican, managed the end of the Cold War, the collapse of the Warsaw Pact, and the demise of the Soviet Union with masterful diplomacy. 

    No life examined is ever flawless.  The GOP’s response to the Great Depression left far too many Americans hungry, without shelter, and without work.  While Democrats and Republicans supported the 2003 march to war in Iraq, the administration of President George W. Bush will own forever the decision to invade that country.

    But it’s the transformation of the Republican Party between 2016 and 2020 from the Grand Ol’ Party to the party of Trump that lies so fundamentally outside the boundaries of American political norms.  In its final years, the party dismissed the high-minded ideals of Lincoln, Eisenhower, Reagan and both Bushes.  Instead, by the time of its death, the GOP looked like a party committed to holding on to power at all costs.  It embraced well-documented voter suppression efforts. Its standard bearer repeatedly sought foreign intervention to support his election and re-electionCynicism replaced ideals and truth was drowned in a torrent of lies on everything from the president’s extra-marital affairs to proper treatments for a pandemic virusCronyism replaced competence and the meritocracy of public service was replaced by those who seek the favor of the president, who stroke his ego, and who deliver the news he wants to hear.

    The final, fatal blow for the party came this week when it announced it would not issue a party platform for the 2020 election.  Devoid of principles other than fealty to the president, the party issued a press release that said, feebly, that had it issued a platform, it “would have undoubtedly unanimously agreed to reassert the Party’s strong support for President Donald Trump and his administration.”

    Political parties emerged to give coherence to the ideas that candidates could mobilize around.  They served—in the era before instant communication—to provide an infrastructure for the dissemination of those ideas.  While modern technology makes it easier to communicate, the ideas we communicate still matter.  In failing to articulate a platform other than adulation for the leader, the Republican party has revealed itself to be nothing more than an authoritarian party.

    Authoritarianism is inconsistent with republican government, with democracy, with the long history of American governance and our role in the world—and that’s why the Republican Party, as a governing party in these United States of America, is dead.  The only remaining question is whether its illness spread deeply into the free-institutions of our nation and whether Lincoln’s government of, by and for the people shall perish, too, from this Earth.

  • The Democrats’ “Radical Agenda”

    Like a lot of Americans, I’ve been watching the Democratic convention this week.  On the first night, I was flipping between the three major cable networks just to take stock of how each was covering the proceedings.  When I got to Fox News, I learned that the Democrats were in the midst of unveiling their “radical agenda” to “change America.”  And my first reaction was, “holy cow, did I dose off and sleep through that part?”  I mean, you’d think there would have been more red flags—maybe even literally. 

    Undeterred, I went and downloaded the Democratic party’s 2020 platform. This isn’t some secret plan.  There is no hidden agenda.  This is a public document that anyone can take the time to read.  If you’re really undecided, I’d encourage you to do that and to read the Republican platform when it’s released next week, too.  But I thought it might be worthwhile to review the so-called “radical” agenda Democrats have offered.

    The Democratic platform calls for an economy that works for all Americans, including working families and small businesses, regardless of your race, your gender, or your zip code.  It aspires to create an economy where whether you are a man or a woman, you should be paid fairly for your work.  Democrats argue that if you want to form a union with your fellow workers to negotiate for better wages or working conditions with management, you should be able to do that.  If a family member gets sick, you should be able to get paid-time off from work to care for them.  Democrats talk about policies aimed at ending homelessness in America.  (Yes, I looked.  I saw no mention of Soviet-style apartment blocks—not even in the footnotes.)

    Based on the history of the debate since 1992, perhaps the most “radical” language in the platform is the belief that healthcare is a right that should be accessible to all, not a privilege reserved for the few.  Americans shouldn’t go bankrupt because they get sick or are victims of an accident.  And if you are on a fixed income, you shouldn’t have to pick and choose the prescriptions you fill each month because you can’t afford all of them.  The interesting thing to me is that these are not new ideas.  Hell, they’re not even particularly innovative.  Thomas Paine called for publicly provided healthcare in at our nation’s founding.  Richard Nixon proposed requiring employers to provide health insurance in 1974.  But for the last 28 years we have wrapped ourselves around the axle even when a Democratic president stole the healthcare model of a successful Republican governor.  The truth is Obamacare is Romneycare.

    According to their platform, Democrats believe all Americans should be able to vote freely.  The will of the people should matter more than corporate money and so-called “dark-money” in American politics.  Public service should be elevated and celebrated as service to the American people and in support of our Constitution—which it is.

    There are things that Democrats oppose: specifically, discrimination in all of its forms and climate change. They think we should provide a world-class education to all of God’s children.  They think we should rebuild America’s alliances and stand-up to the growing specter of authoritarianism around the world.

    I also looked, purposefully, for really, radical proposals—like adopting socialism or “defunding the police.”  I found no discussion of public ownership of the means of production—which is literally the definition of socialism.  There is a long discussion of the need for police reform and societal investments so that police officers don’t have to be the last guardians in a system that criminalizes poverty and mental illness.  But no where did I find a proposal to “defund the police.”

    I’m not here to convince anyone that these are the right solutions for America.  People can make their own judgments.  But I am here to plead with folks to move beyond the talking points and not simply dismiss any candidate or idea—whether Democratic or Republican—based on the cartoonish portrayals of partisans.  They are trying to high-jack the debate and when we let them, or when we help them, we cheapen our politics.

    It may very well be that a majority of Americans don’t like all the details of the plan advanced by the Democrats—or the Republicans.  But to limit the debate to an exchange of epithets serves no one and reinforces the canard that politics is only about winning when—at its best—it’s about solving society’s great problems.

  • Stand Up and Be Counted

    On Tuesday, as we learned that former Vice President Joe Biden had selected Senator Kamala Harris as his running mate, I saw a Tweet from Ron Klain, Biden’s former chief of staff.  It was a picture of the moment the vice president asked Senator Harris to join him on the ticket. 

    The picture is pretty straight forward: the vice president is in profile, holding a smartphone to his computer while he chats with Senator Harris via video-conference.  A used coffee mug sits just out of focus, along with a binder, some paper, and a letter opener, among the litter of a desk that looks like it’s actually used.

    A small frame, sitting on the base of the desk lamp, caught my attention.  It’s partially obscured by the computer screen, but if you zoom in, you see that it’s a framed strip from the “Hagar the Horrible” comic.

    In it, Hagar—the conquering Viking drawn by Chris Brown—stands on a rocky coast, his warship smoking and sinking in the waves while rain pounds him and lightening strikes.  Hagar looks to the heavens and asks, “Why me?!”  In the next frame, a voice from on-high replies, “Why not?”

    Biden—who has known great loss and tragedy in his life—has spoken about this comic-strip.  He’s had it on his desk for 25 years.  It’s a reminder of wisdom his father gave him that nothing is promised in life.  It has helped him cope with the loss of his wife and daughter when he was a young, Senator-elect.  More recently, it helped him cope with the loss of his son, Beau.

    For those drawn to public life, however, I think there’s another message we can draw from those black-and-white lines on newspaper print. Anyone who has ever contemplated running for anything has had to grapple with the question “Why me?”  Who am I to be elected to the school board?  What makes me so special that I think I should be mayor?  Or governor?  Or senator?  Or president?  Literally, “why me?”

    Candidates who are savvy or just slick have a good answer to this question—but in the quiet moments before they threw their hat in the ring, the modest among them had to ask and answer for themselves, “Why me?” 

    The most basic response in a society that prizes democracy and whose rhetoric and traditions speak to the ideal that anyone—anyone—can have their voice heard is, as Chris Brown depicts in this strip, “Why not?”  It’s the promise of a first-generation American citizen whose parents met in the United States from opposite sides of the world.  It’s the same promise made to the son of a successful real estate investor from New York, or the son of a former president and CIA director, or the son of an immigrant from Kenya and a woman from Kansas.  The greatest promise of the American dream is that leadership in this country isn’t reserved for the high-born or the wealthy.  It’s open to any of us who look at the world and want to change it.

    I’ve worked for candidates who won and lost, and I’ve had friends win and lose, too.  The genius of our system is that by merely engaging in the arena, anyone who runs, anyone who adds their voice to the debate, strengthens the fabric of our democracy—adding color, depth, and meaning along the way.

    Often, in recent months, I’ve heard friends reacting to the latest loss or outrage with increasingly plaintive laments.  They may not use the words, but they are asking the same question Hagar asked: “Why me?”  Why did this have to happen, now?  I know I asked myself that question after 9/11.  My step-kids are asking it today.

    The answer isn’t some divine message from the heavens, but the learned wisdom of human experience.  The only way to change the world is to work for it, to lend your voice to arguments that matter, to march, to vote, and to fight for what you believe.  We can’t leave those fights to others.  It’s time for all of us to stand up and be counted.

  • Narratives of Illegitimacy

    American politics are awash with narratives of illegitimacy.  We’re not just questioning the judgment of our rivals, we’re questioning their loyalty, their commitment to the rule of law and the Constitution, as well as their patriotism.  In other words, we’re questioning whether our political opposites are, truly, American.  It’s difficult to imagine a more serious threat to the American experiment.

    The playbook is familiar at this point.  Republicans—including then-citizen Donald Trump—openly challenged whether Barack Obama was born in the United States.  They demanded he release his birth certificate.  They said he was educated in a “madrassa” or Islamic religious school.  They used that language to stoke fear in some corners of a black man with a funny-sounding name becoming president.  They did so to undermine Obama’s presidency, they openly wished for his failure, and they claimed that his loyalties lay with America’s enemies—in particular, with Islamic extremists.

    Many on the left have never recognized the legitimacy of Donald Trump’s presidency.  Obsessing over the loss of the popular vote for the second time in less than two-decades, they claim that Trump is not their president.  They point to Russia’s intervention in the American election in 2016 to help Trump as grounds for questioning the loyalty and integrity of the president and his political allies, like Senator Lindsey Graham

    Even now, two principle narratives of illegitimacy hang over the 2020 race.  The first, pushed by President Trump and his allies, contends that mail-in ballots are susceptible to fraud and will make the outcome of the 2020 election unreliable.  The other is the open fretting of some, not limited just to the left, that President Trump may not leave the White House peacefully if he loses the election in November. 

    The danger in all of these stories is that they depict our political rivals as illegitimate.  Legitimacy speaks to whether an individual has the standing, the appropriately conceived authority, to act within our governing system.  If you believed Barack Obama was not a natural-born U.S. citizen, then you didn’t believe he was the legitimate president of the United States.  If you believe that Donald Trump is compromised by Russian blackmail, then you question the legitimacy of his administration.

    Some might dismiss my reasoning as a false equivalency—that I shouldn’t equate “birtherism” with the well-documented attack by Russia on American democracy and President Trump’s peculiar deference to Russian President Vladimir Putin.  But this essay isn’t about the truth, it’s about narrative, and what happens when both sides see their rival’s political power as inherently illegitimate.

    If, for political expediency, we dismiss our rivals as illegitimate, then we dismiss the rule of law; we dismiss the Constitution; we dismiss the fact that elections have consequences.  Governing, in that environment, ceases to be about service to the nation and bringing Americans together to solve common problems.  Instead, governing becomes about power—who has it, who wants it, and what will they do to preserve it.  By any measure, left or right, this is the path to political violence and tyranny.

    These aren’t new forces in American politics.  In the 1950s, Senator Joseph McCarthy used fear and innuendo of communist subversion to further his own political fortunes at the expense of the lives and careers of the people he smeared.  Even in the first decade of the Republic, the Federalist-controlled Congress passed the Alien and Sedition Acts to protect President John Adams and his political power from Republican critics in Congress and the press. 

    In each of those cases, the fever ultimately broke, not because it was destined to—federal courts prosecuted 26 individuals under the Alien and Sedition Acts between 1798 and 1801—but because individuals rose to fight it.  Often, the heroes were members of the press like Edward R. Murrow in the 1950s and James Callender in the 1790s.

    In today’s very different media environment, where social media makes every citizen a purveyor of information, it falls to each of us to check the impulse to dismiss those who disagree with us politically as “other,” as “foreign,” as “compromised,” as “less American than me.”  That’s the only way we avoid the trap of seeing this amazing nation divided into “Democratic cities” and “Republican cities” or “Red states” and “Blue states” whose challenges—whether COVID infections, or opioid addictions, or social injustice—are viewed as little more than parochial, partisan issues.

    These are the United States of America, after all, and we’re in this together.

  • Why I Laugh

    2020 has been the longest decade of my life.  It’s not even close.  The year that began with presidential impeachment, has, so far, brought us also a pandemic that continues to ravage the United States and the world, massive unemployment, the murder of George Floyd, protests for social justice, and violent confrontations in cities across the United States set against the backdrop of perhaps the most important U.S. election since 1860. 

    On top of that, the U.S. government has confirmed the existence of UFOs, there are “murder hornets” in the northwest, and late last week scientists announced their intention to dive into a mysterious blue pool at the bottom of the ocean. My only reaction for those scientists is this: READ THE ROOM!

    We the people are tired, cranky, and we really need a good laugh.  So unless that blue pool is the portal to the wisdom of Atlantis, maybe just let it be.

    When I sat down to think about what I wanted to say today, I debated with myself whether I really wanted to talk about laughing.  It seems a little flip and not worthy of the importance of this moment, but, then again, maybe it is.  I learned the importance of laughter in my home as a child.  My Mom and Dad laughed a lot—they still do.  I recall one friend of theirs whose out-sized personality and sense of humor left everyone in tears of laughter on a regular basis.  To this day, if you make my Mom really laugh, it becomes infectious and we’ll laugh until our faces hurt.  And my Dad, who is no stranger to public speaking, taught me, early, the power of humor to engage an audience and settle them in for often difficult issues that need to be discussed.

    In a moment when the world seems chaotic, when so much bad news swirls around us, when so much seems at stake, maybe, just maybe, we need to find some joy and, yes, some laughter in our lives again.

    There’s a long history of humor in dark times.  I remember reading Bob Hope’s autobiography decades ago and being fascinated by his account of telling jokes about Hitler.  Long before Mel Brooks made mocking Nazis his signature, while American GIs were fighting and dying to liberate Europe, Bob Hope was mocking the German leader.  It was a way of knocking him down to size, of making him smaller.  As Bob Hope told it, it was a red-letter day in the free world when comedians learned Hitler’s family name was really Schicklgruber.

    Like Bob Hope had done previously, David Letterman understood the power of comedians to diminish America’s adversaries after 9/11.  On his “Late Night” show, Letterman mercilessly mocked Osama bin Laden, the terrorist leader who had just murdered nearly 3,000 Americans, not because it was comedy-gold, but because it was what the country needed—a bit of humor, a bit of lightness, a bit of relief from the terrible.

    I’m not clever enough to know what’s funny now, or even hopeful that I could make you laugh if I tried, but I know we need to keep laughing.  We need to find humor even when times are tough—maybe especially then. 

    Humor and wit are signs of both IQ—intelligence—and EQ—emotional intelligence.  One of the least appreciated aspects of public life is the ability of a politician to tell a good joke—or even engage in some self-effacing humor.  Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s speech about his little dog Fala was heart-warming, human, and funny.  John Kennedy used humor to take the sting out of the criticism that he was just the child of a rich man buying his way into the White House.  And President George H.W. Bush absolutely loved Dana Carvey’s impression of him—so much so that he invited the Saturday Night Live comedian to the White House and shared the podium with him.  Can you imagine President Trump inviting Alec Baldwin to do the same?

    I’m not saying we don’t face serious issues and that times aren’t hard—exceptionally hard—for a lot of Americans.  They are.  But in times of trial and conflict, we need to find that release, to seek it out, and to breathe deeply in the air of freedom that lets us mock our tormentors and feel alive in our laughter. 

    In the Soviet Union, jokes were often subversive.  In Afghanistan under the Taliban, public laughter was a crime.  Authoritarians don’t want us to laugh because in laughing we challenge authority just as surely as we assert our individuality, our conscience, and our freedom.

  • Irresponsible or Tyrannical?

    Every week, I try to share some insights from history, from my scholarship, or from my experience working in Washington.  I am mindful that it would be easy to look at my resume and dismiss me as a partisan.  And so I try to be careful about the language I use and the points I make.  The truth is that I’m actually a passionate moderate—if that’s not an oxymoron—who is much more comfortable working with centrists from either party than I am with fringe movements on either end of the political spectrum.

    So I was very careful in my preparation this week.

    Like a lot of Americans, I’ve been watching events in Portland, Oregon, with a growing sense of alarm.  Federal law enforcement, dressed in camouflage and kevlar—the stuff of American infantry patrolling in a battle zone—are dispersing protestors with aggressive tactics, and even abducting protestors from the streets and transporting them in unmarked vehicles.  The acting-Secretary of Homeland Security says his personnel are “proactively” arresting Americans.

    In the editorial pages of America’s leading newspapers, respected columnists are asking “Can we call it fascism, yet?”  They wonder if this means Trump may try to hold on to power if he loses the election in November.  They warn about the creeping authoritarianism of the Trump administration and wonder what happened to the principled Republicans who previously expressed grave concern about the expansive power of the federal government.

    A couple of summers ago, I read a short book by Timothy Snyder, one of the best scholars of 20th century authoritarianism out there, titled simply On Tyranny.  In it, Snyder describes the hallmarks of authoritarianism and offers advice to those who would resist it.  Several of his lessons came flooding back to me watching events unfold in Portland:

    • “Do not obey in advance,” says Snyder.  Authoritarians are counting on you to surrender your freedom to their exercise of power. 
    • “Defend institutions,” he says they are the instruments that preserve our democracy. 
    • Don’t let them fall, he warns, to the “one party state” that castigates its rivals as illegitimate or criminals. 
    • “Be kind to our language,” Snyder says.  Don’t simply repeat the talking points and crude characterizations we hear from political leaders or in social media.
    • “Believe in truth.”  Freedom requires a belief in knowable facts that can inform debate and lay the basis for criticizing power.  That may require us to research and learn before we speak, or post, or tweet about an issue.  But care for the truth is a decidedly anti-authoritarian task.

    There is much more, and I strongly recommend the book to anyone who cares about freedom and worries about this moment, but one final passage stopped me cold when I re-read it this week.  “Listen for dangerous words,” warns Snyder. “Be alert to the use of the words extremism and terrorism. Be alive to the fatal notions of emergency and exception. Be angry about the treacherous use of patriotic vocabulary.”

    Set that warning against the way the president talks about “radical left Democrats” who “will destroy our country as we know it.” He said the situation in Portland was “worse than Afghanistan,” where the United States has been fighting an insurgency for 20 years.  He claims his hand is forced by failed leaders, all of whom are “liberal Democrats” who run cities like New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Oakland.  He describes the protestors in Portland as “anarchists.  These are people who,” the president says, “hate our country” who have cowed and physically intimidated the elected mayors, senators, and governor of Oregon. Then the president said, “And you know what? If Biden got in, that would be true for the country. The whole country would go to hell.”

    The President of the United States is playing a dangerous and cynical game—dismissing Americans who are protesting for social justice as anarchists, warning that his rivals will destroy the country, using force—or the threat of force—to bolster his political base—and generally acting like a would-be strongman. 

    If history teaches us anything, it’s that tyranny arrives wrapped in the cloak of patriotism on the backs of politicians more interested in power than in service to others.  At best, the president’s rhetoric and deeds are irresponsible.  At worst, they are the stuff of tyranny, and we, as citizens, need to be on guard.