Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

30 January 2008

Double Crossers

The Clinton campaign has done a remarkable trick. In a less than four weeks, it has committed no less than three double crosses. Two undermined deeply held principles by which Democrats once distinguished themselves from Republicans. The last reneged on a solemn promise of the Clinton campaign.

The first double-cross was voter suppression. Remember why Alberto Gonzales had to go as attorney general? He supervised the firing of Republican prosecutors. Why were they fired? They had resisted orders to waste time prosecuting alleged “voter fraud”—a code word for voting by the poor and minorities. In other words, they had resisted orders to betray their professional judgment and to suppress citizens’ votes.

Until recently, suppressing “undesirable” voting was a strategy belonging to Karl Rove and his political commissars. But not any more. In the last several weeks, the Clinton campaign and its fellow travelers have tried to suppress voting by young people in Iowa and by caucus goers in Nevada. Their turn to the Dark Side of voter suppression involved political action, legal action and literally closing the doors. It was a double cross not only against the Democratic Party, but against democracy itself.

The second double cross involved racism. For several decades, it has been an article of faith among Democrats that only Republicans “play the race card.” Only they exploit the vestiges of human tribalism and Civil-War resentment to get people to vote against their own economic interests.

That’s what Nixon did. He developed the so-called “Southern strategy”—using white Southerners’ resentment and racism to give Republicans the presidency for twenty out of the last twenty-eight years.

In order to form a more perfect party, we Democrats suffered defeat after defeat. We opened our arms to equality and made Martin Luther, King, Jr., our hero. We placed our bets on the future, not the past.

As a result, nearly all racists have become Republicans (although not all Republicans are racists). We Democrats believe at our core than racism is morally, socially, economically, and politically wrong. So, apparently, do most Americans today.

But not all Democrats any more. In the last two weeks the Clinton campaign and Bill himself have “played the race card” not once, but twice. They sought to define Barack Obama as a “black” candidate, rather than what he is: a candidate of mixed race who appeals to a broad range of Americans. They tried—and are still trying—to divide Latinos from African-Americans on racial lines, despite the fact that both have common economic interests and common grievances as neglected communities. Billary are not only exploiting racism; they are fostering it.

I don’t for minute believe that Hillary or Bill is a racist. But as I’ve written before, that is precisely what makes their double-cross so despicable. They are betraying their own and their party’s principles—for which so many sacrificed so much for so long—just for their own personal political glory. There is no conceivable policy or social interest that their betrayal will advance, only their own ambition.

The last double-cross is much simpler. Any crook or drug dealer would understand it: you give your word and then take it back when doing so might give you an advantage.

Like every other Democratic campaign, Billary’s subscribed to a simple remedy. Having primaries at all requires someone to make rules. The Democratic party decided on certain timing rules to maintain order in our most chaotic primary season ever. Michigan and Florida flouted those rules, so the party decided that their primary votes wouldn’t count. Every presidential campaign agreed.

Parties’ rules used to mean something in politics. But not any more. After promising to let Michigan’s and Florida’s illegal primaries remain “beauty contests” without political impact, Billary campaigned there. Their campaign now will make a full court press to count those illegal votes, despite their solemn promises to the contrary, on which the whole country relied. It doesn’t seem to bother either Bill or Hillary that their opponents played by the rules and didn’t campaign in either state. They don’t want fair play. They just want to win.

“Principles, promises and rules are for suckers!” Isn’t that what Billary are saying?

Yet think a bit. Isn’t that precisely why the whole country despises George W. Bush? He broke his campaign promises, to be a “uniter, not a divider,” with a “humbler” foreign policy. He ignored the rule of law. He violated the Geneva Convention and the Bill of Rights with Guantánamo and torture. He used “signing statements” in an attempt to override Congress’ power to make laws that he himself had signed. And he ignored his own party’s most cherished principles: budgetary discipline, small government, and a cautious and prudent foreign policy.

We have nearly lost our national soul—let alone our security, economy, sense of purpose, and international credibility—because we put a double-crosser in the White House. Now some Democrats want our own double-crossers as an antidote.

A basic rule of human nature is older and stronger than our nation and our Constitution. It holds that people who cheat will do so again.

Based on this universal truth, I can make a prediction. If Billary reach the White House, they will take to the “imperial presidency” like ducks to water. As folks who don’t think rules or principles apply to them, they will be right at home in the world of secret budgets, covert actions, secret surveillance, signing statements, and congressional investigations that go nowhere while the executive thumbs its nose at Congress. Hillary has already told us that her plans to fight Al Qaeda in Pakistan, if any, must remain secret, because we children are too naïve and impressionable to understand. With all his self-restraint, Bill will be ecstatic.

So there will be serious scandals, serious mistakes and serious lies, because having our own cheats in the White House will be no substitute for restoring honor and virtue. If you don’t like our democracy now, wait until you have to rely on the likes of Mitch McConnell, Jon Kyle and Rush Limbaugh—the only opposition there will be—to stand up for honesty, fairness and justice.

So I’ll say again what I said in an earlier post. I will vote for Hillary only if her opponent is Mitt, and then only because disaster might arrive more quickly if he wins. If Hillary wins, disaster will surely come, but it will come more slowly.

We Boomers are old enough that we might escape the worst of it: corruption of democracy, national decline, the impact of global warming and oil running out, and maybe a terrorist nuke or two in our cities. The young won’t be so lucky. That’s why they support Obama. They know their welfare, prosperity, civil rights, and maybe their lives, are on the line. With that much at stake, they want someone they can trust. Maybe we Boomers should, too.



Note: the following essay, originally posted on January 27, 2008, was inadvertently deleted on January 31. What follows is a shorter version of the original essay. It makes a nice contrast with the tale of duplicity posted immediately above. Links to the following essay had to be modified, and some may still be inoperative, but the permalink at the end should work.

“Virtue” is an outmoded word. I can’t remember the last time I heard it used orally, except in common phrases like “by virtue of . . .” It sounds vaguely Victorian, and folks under thirty reading this post may have to look it up.

Plato and Socrates were no strangers to the word. Plato thought it the key to a healthy public life and a good and just society. Socrates got himself condemned to death for running around the Acropolis asking everyone he could find, “What is virtue?”

You can take Socrates’ incessant questioning in several ways. Some think he was trying to expose the word as a vapid abstraction, devoid of specific meaning and therefore useless. Others say he was trying to show that everyone has a different “take” on what “virtue” is. He was, they say, proving that “virtue” is “culturally relative.”

But there’s a third interpretation of Socrates’ badgering. Some say he was trying to infuse the term with specific meaning. He was forcing everyone to think hard about the personal qualities needed for effective leadership in a democratic society.

We Americans cling to the “rule of law” and the notion of “government of laws, not of men.” But those phrases are goals, not descriptions of human nature, far less confident predictions of human action. They are talismans that we grip in our sweaty hands as we skirt the graveyards of hubris, tyranny and corruption.

After seven years of Dubya, we know that now. Our Bill of Rights lies frayed and forgotten in the dust because of the personal failings of one man (or two, if you count Cheney).

Our tragedy is not an accident. Like the Greek and Roman constitutions, our so-called “democratic” Constitution gives our president dictatorial power in time of war. It tries to limit that power to intelligence, the military, and foreign relations. But within those spheres presidential power is nearly absolute.

We are now facing what many call a “generational” war. It is likely to last at least as long as the Cold War, which went on for almost half a century. And the type of war we are facing confuses foreign and domestic affairs because the enemy may lurk among us. As long as that war continues, our liberty, dignity and prosperity—as well as our survival—will depend on the virtue of the men and women who lead our nation.

So it makes sense to emulate Socrates and probe the meaning of “virtue” in the twenty-first century.

We can quickly eliminate a few things that virtue is not. It is not “experience.” Cheney and Rumsfeld taught us that. They each had lots of experience, but our souls cringe when we think of them as symbols of our nation. As we ponder what they said and did in our name, we feel shame.

Nor is “judgment” part of “virtue.” Judgment is a tactical matter, one’s response to an issue of the moment. Good judgment springs from deeper virtues like humility, wisdom and patience. Our Founders had the good judgment to insert checks and balances in our Constitution because they had these deeper virtues. They were humble and wise enough to understand the fallibility of men and laws, including themselves and their own work product. That’s why they encouraged amendment.

So what is “virtue”? As Socrates gave his life to show, it is no one thing. It is a constellation of slippery, hard-to-identify personal qualities. It takes as many discrete forms as there are souls among us. Each of us has some, but some of us have more than others.

The trick is not to define “virtue” conclusively, but to assess who has more—especially among candidates for leadership. At times like the present, that trick may be essential to our survival.

Since the days of Plato and Socrates, nothing fundamental has changed in human nature. We are still the same flawed creatures, fallible blends of emotion and reason. Our electronic appliances aid our communication, but they cannot manufacture virtue. And our modern weapons and interdependence have made virtue all the more important.

Our Boomers’ parents knew what virtue was. They survived the Great Depression and beat back totalitarian militarism. They did it with humility, patience, fortitude, determination, wisdom, self-discipline, self-sacrifice, and self-restraint. When they won, they treated defeated Japan and Germany with wisdom, compassion, generosity, mercy and justice—more than either had a right to expect. As a result, those nations have become beacons of civilization and the world’s second and third largest economies, respectively. That’s virtue!

But we Boomers didn’t listen to our parents. We were the first generation in history freed in large numbers from the pressures of both want and war. We enjoyed the greatest and most widely distributed prosperity in human history. Except for the brief interlude of Vietnam, we also avoided the ravages of war. Although serious, the Cold War was a distant and abstract threat, with minimal casualties (mostly covert) among our forces, and none at home.

So we Boomers thought we were exempt from the laws of life. We thought our plush heritage, won through our parents’ virtue, freed us from the need to cultivate our own.

We were wrong. Nothing can reduce the need to cultivate virtue, and nothing ever will. As long as mankind lives, it will be the essence of a just and healthy society.

Our children seem to understand this. Among white voters 29 or under in South Carolina, more than half preferred Barack Obama, a man of virtue. And that was in the Deep South. Among young African-Americans, 77% preferred him. Meanwhile the Republicans appear to be coalescing, if somewhat reluctantly, around John McCain, also a man of virtue.

But we Boomers are confused. We listen to the charges and countercharges. We scrutinize the five-point plans. We argue about past mistakes. We second-guess the experts. We immerse ourselves in minutiae, as if our limited individual brains could hope to match the collective expertise of a nation of 300 million.

What we don’t understand is that none of this matters. No single voter can hope to appreciate, let alone replicate, the knowledge and expertise available in the thousands of departments and subspecialties of our great universities, government bureaucracies, laboratories and think tanks. All that knowledge and expertise are available to any leader for the taking, and any leader with the virtues of wisdom, patience and humility will tap them.

Therefore what matters is the old virtues. Our leaders need humility to seek expertise and follow experts’ advice. They need wisdom to understand what the experts say and to judge who—if anyone—has real answers that will work. They need patience to wait when answers are incomplete or premature, as they were before we invaded Iraq. They need fortitude and determination to push through unpopular solutions. Amid inevitable multiple crises, they need the self-discipline to focus on what’s most important. They need the self-restraint to avoid antagonizing internal and external opponents and making conflict worse. Most of all, they need honesty, integrity, empathy, compassion, humility, charity and mercy to attract and hold the public’s allegiance, not just during their “honeymoon” period, but for eight long years.

The key demographic question before us is therefore simple but profound. Will we Boomers learn our lesson in time? Will we heed our forbears, our parents and our children? Or will we take one last, dangerous fling of arrogance and self-indulgence, putting our nation, our planet and our children’s future at risk yet one more time? Will we leave it to the next generation to rediscover the importance of what Plato and Socrates knew millennia ago? The future of our Republic—and perhaps our survival in the Age of Terror—depend upon the answer.


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