Category Archives: U.S. Politics

Tech tools: Paths to participation?

This past Valentine’s Day at my daughter’s school led me to thinking about whether all the technology tools now available really do–or do not–increase participation.

The PTA organizes staff appreciation lunches throughout the school year, one of which is traditionally on Valentine’s Day. Well before these lunches, an email from the PTA goes out to parents soliciting suggested contributions. This is linked to an electronic sign-up site, where folk can add their names to the categories of needs for the event. And then the promised items should be delivered on the appropriate day.

Do these broad appeals elicit different people participating each time? Or do the same “usual suspects” respond and contribute each time? I surveyed the current PTA school directory of family names and contact details: Nearly all families provided an email address as a contact point (only a small minority opt out of being in the directory), so the universe of potential participants in an event such as the Valentine’s Day staff appreciation lunch is very large. It would be revealing to know if the same families are repeat participants in these events or if different families step forward to contribute.

Two other experiences that same week reinforced this interest in who is engaging and who is not. Our landline rang about an hour and a half before President Barack Obama was to deliver his State of the Union address. Caller ID showed the incoming call to be from “U S Captl”. We usually ignore phone calls when it is unclear who is calling, but you can’t blame me for being curious that night. Who would be calling us at that time on that particular night—from the U.S. Capitol?

The call was from our congressman’s office. It was completely unexpected and unsolicited. A recording by an aide to Congressman Jim Moran invited immediate participation in a live telephone discussion with the congressman on various issues. I decided to stay on the line, intrigued by how something like this would work. Congressman Moran first addressed themes thought likely to be in President Obama’s State of the Union speech. And then he took about six to eight questions. Constituents who wished to ask a question were instructed to punch in a code. When they asked their question, they became audible to all, while the rest of us remained mute.

The most surprising part of this technology experience was that the outreach was routed through our landline, yesteryear’s technology.

Minutes after he had finished delivering the State of Union address to a national television audience, President Obama spoke to supporters through an online conference call. To connect to this online opportunity with the president, you had to have signed up beforehand with Organizing for Action, the nonprofit organization derived from Obama’s reelection campaign that is trying to mobilize community (and financial) support for his legislative priorities. President Obama had participated in a similar massive conference call with supporters a few days after his reelection last November.

President Obama and Congressman Moran targeted different audiences and used different tools to reach them. Nevertheless, I do wonder how many people were caught in the intersection of both these outreach efforts. How many engaged American voters participated in both of those opportunities? The congressman’s initiative was unsolicited (yes, I could have put the phone down) and participation in the president’s was self-selecting. But it would be fascinating to know who took part in both? Same old, same old? Or were people new to the political process drawn in by either outreach effort?

Since landlines were the way Congressman Moran’s office could identify who lived in his constituency, this was a feasible way to go. Yet many are now choosing to discontinue having a landline and depending exclusively on smart or cell phones.

A question about the Obama team’s outreach reflects broader concern about the digital divide. Nowadays, wealthy and middle-class urban residents take for granted Internet access and rely on the technologies that allow it. The assumption of almost universal Internet connectivity in the Washington D.C. metro area is alarming. But how many are not included? Here the digital divide may reinforce existing socio-economic inequities, with the well-connected, excuse the pun, always being favored. And the more Internet-enabled technology one has at one’s fingertips, the better and wider one’s choices.

Public libraries are critical to bridging the digital divide. They are a mainstay for those with limited or no other Internet access. Observing the rows of computer users at the terminals in libraries here is always such a pleasure (and a painful reminder of how South Africa has neglected and underfunded its public libraries in recent years). Many of the public libraries around here are hives of activity and engines of digital integration.

Notwithstanding the hustle and bustle at nearby libraries, is all this online activity really expanding opportunities for true political participation? Is political participation narrowing or broadening with the ubiquity of Internet access? Or is the noise only the reverberations of the echo chamber of the “well-connected”?

A quintessential Washington night

It was the first time for me. Never before had I attended an inaugural party, never mind an official inaugural ball, around a U.S. presidential inauguration.

Aspects of last night will stay with me forever, but the subway ride back to our car at the end of the evening provided some memorable moments. The juxtaposition of riders reflected the assorted diversity of America in snapshot form. The bejeweled, glamorously clad attendees of inaugural celebrations contrasted with other riders. Some were journalists in jeans pushing carts laden with equipment. Others too had clearly put in an extra-long day’s work and seemed drained, relieved to be finally heading home. Some already seated on the train when we boarded had the dazed, weary look of folk who had been on the job all day. Perhaps they had worked since sunrise, preparing to cater to throngs of inauguration viewers? Or maybe they were cleaners who had just finished a shift dealing with the aftermath of the day’s revelry? They looked with seeming indifference at the black-tie folk in their midst. Or was it with bemusement? Disgust? Or even envy? It was hard to read their minds as they surveyed the groups of loud, fancily dressed partygoers standing in the train.

The eclectic combination of people thrown together in our subway carriage included a statuesque woman with an incredibly tall and dramatic gold hat. She seemed Nigerian—or at least her hat did. Perhaps she had attended the widely promoted charity ball that ambassadors from various countries had put together? This lady with the imposing hat didn’t look at all tired. She looked ready for a regal procession or to be part of a family wedding photo.

Men in formal military dress wear, with all kinds of medals filling their lapels, also stood out. They and their wives or dates were clearly fresh from the “Commander-in-Chief’s Ball”, one of two official inaugural balls. One such gentleman, in a splendid Southern drawl, had immediately offered me his seat when we boarded. Such gallantry is not generally expected at that late hour on Washington public transportation.

Like the passengers on the subway last night, Washington encapsulates diversity. The powerful coexist with the relatively powerless, the haves with the have-nots, the chivalrous with the rude. The scene had me thinking about the inaugural speech President Barack Obama delivered earlier that day. He had observed, “For we the people understand that our country cannot succeed when a shrinking few do very well and a growing many barely make it… We do not believe in this country that freedom is reserved for the lucky or happiness for the few.”

D.C.’s Metro system was the great leveler last night. The subway was definitely the most efficient way to get around. The gridlock was as bad as forewarned. Unless you were the president or vice president and travel with police escorts in a motorcade, you were foolish to be wedded to a car. I’m not sure if other chauffeured, limousine-riding VIPs were able to beat the traffic odds. The many road closures around the National Mall where President Obama and Vice President Joe Biden were publicly inaugurated earlier in the day were partly to blame. Backups were also due to the sheer volume of vehicles on the road, especially around the Washington Convention Center where the two official inaugural balls were held.

Walking was also extremely popular—despite the frigid weather. A regular sight earlier in the evening was people walking hand-in-hand, bundled in coats, heading toward the Convention Center. Surprisingly often, a man might have been carrying a woman’s pair of impressively high-heeled shoes, with a woman ambling alongside in a pair of flats, holding a clutch bag. Guess the flat shoes were going to be stuffed into coat pockets at the coat check, and the showy, sexy, high pair then given the chance to strut their stuff. Trust ever-practical Americans! Have to get to the event comfortably, but then look good when there!

An inaugural ball myth was exploded for me: Most people DID wear coats, given the fearsome, wind-chilled cold. One is warned about the long coat-check queues at the end of such events, so the recommendation is not to bring a coat to check. The chilliness of the evening showed most to be sensible though. Only a minority seemed to be “underdressed” despite being in black-tie and ball-gown finery.

We attended two events: A sponsored party at one of the Smithsonian Museums, plus one of the two official inaugural balls at the Convention Center. The former was a cocktail party, with delicious food, a wide-ranging bar, quiet music so conversation with fellow attendees was possible, and, most remarkably, the possibility to sit down. The latter was not exactly an intimate affair—we were part of the reputed 40,000 who attended the two official balls. We missed the fleeting appearance and dance of President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama, but it really didn’t matter. With so many people present, I doubt we would have been able to get close enough to actually witness the moment with the naked eye. Giant video screens provided a sense of what was happening on stage. That was how we were able to enjoy Stevie Wonder giving his all, belting out his familiar songs while weaving characteristically to the rhythms. No food was available at this event, but champagne, wine, and other sundries could be purchased for a princely sum.

People watching and celebrity spotting were most rewarding. The whole kaleidoscope that is America was present. Local Washingtonians danced in delight to honour Martin Luther King, Jr., whose birthday it was yesterday, plus to celebrate the re-inaugurated Obama. Many of those filling the expansive dance floor were grassroots activists from out of town who had worked to reelect Obama. Seasoned, older political operatives mingled with young activists. Pride and joy were palpable.

That is the overriding impression: Folk really had fun and enjoyed themselves. And the buzz of happy people was infectious. Even when they were outside in the mind-numbing cold, traipsing from one event to another, they were laughing, smiling, and full of joy. People in Washington are typically intense and usually take themselves too seriously. Last night was different. There was an appealing lightness to the mood.

Hopeful hints of change

When Barack Obama is re-inaugurated as president of the United States this long weekend, the weather is expected to be chilly, bright, and clear. This forecast is symbolically appropriate, as President Obama is beginning to articulate his vision for America with greater clarity, vigor, and purpose.

The team President Obama is assembling around him for his second term suggests an agenda stressing domestic priorities. World events will always compel a U.S. president’s attention, but Obama is signaling clearly that his focus will be on domestic issues. As he emphasized during his reelection campaign, “It’s time for nation building at home”. This is true. The world needs a strengthened America. The world needs an America that has reprioritized and balanced its budget, and bolstered its economy to create more jobs. The world needs an America that has rededicated itself to supporting its citizens with better education, improved infrastructure, accessible healthcare, and other tools to get ahead and provide for themselves and their families into the future.

The administration’s battles with Congress have acquired a different hue lately, hinting at a new dynamic. Despite itself, the Republican-dominated House of Representatives voted for that anathema—tax increases—for those Americans with annual incomes over $400,000.00. Wary of authorizing further spending, Republicans reluctantly also agreed to extend $50 billion in aid to those devastated by Hurricane Sandy in New York and New Jersey last November.

A slim minority of House Republicans breaking with their party and supporting the Democrats to provide the winning votes was essential to passage of these two bills. This is the formula Obama and his team will have to use repeatedly in coming months to get measures through the House of Representatives. Obama will have to keep coaxing such splits in the Republican monolith to enable passage of his legislative priorities. This type of bipartisan behaviour is, of course, how effective democracies should operate.

There is yet another new approach from House Republicans: They announced yesterday they will support extending the government’s borrowing authority for three months, rather than force another fabricated crisis now. This action will give more time to craft agreement on budgets for the new fiscal year, including possible tangible deficit reduction. This extension of the debt ceiling is a most positive and practical concession from the Republican side.

President Obama is also a more seasoned politician and strategist this time round. This past week, he showed how much he has learned from past battles with Congress when he presented very particular proposals for executive and legislative action to curb gun violence. The horrific murders of twenty first-grade students and six adult staff members at their Newtown, Connecticut elementary school in mid-December have galvanized opposition to America’s loose gun laws. Newtown has created the opportunity for changes to America’s permissive gun culture like no other recent mass tragedy involving a gun—and there have, unfortunately, been too many. Shifts in public opinion show majorities of Americans now support, in differing degrees, various specific measures to curb guns.

Since the day of the massacre, which he has described as the “most difficult day” of his presidency, President Obama has appealed for action in common sense, reasonable, and nonpartisan terms. He says Americans will have failed in their duty as parents to keep children safe if they do not act to curtail gun violence.

In making his very specific recommendations for action this week—derived from Vice President Joe Biden’s task force—Obama promised he will “put everything [he’s] got” into getting the announced measures adopted. Having been criticized for “leading from behind” on other issues, his fast, impassioned, and firm response to the gun control challenge is the essence of presidential leadership.

Obama has thrown down the gauntlet to members of Congress and the National Rifle Association. He challenged the American public to put pressure on members of Congress to state their position on the measures “on record” and “…[I]f they say no, ask them why not. Ask them what’s more important: Doing whatever it takes to get an ‘A’ grade from the gun lobby that funds their campaigns, or giving parents some peace of mind when they drop their child off to first grade?” He added, “There will be pundits and politicians and special-interest lobbyists publicly warning of a tyrannical, all-out assault on liberty—not because that’s true, but because they want to gin up fear or higher ratings or revenue for themselves. And behind the scenes, they’ll do everything they can to block any common-sense reform and make sure nothing changes whatsoever.” He has urged members of Congress to “examine their own conscience.”

The NRA’s capture of the legislative process concerning guns at federal, state, and local levels of government has been alarmingly successful until now. Its disturbingly effective modus operandi is to bully legislators to do its bidding. In elections, it spends millions to bolster proponents and, far more importantly, oppose those who reject its viewpoint. The NRA ferociously pursues those who vote against its narrowly defined interests. Republican members of Congress who oppose it have been vulnerable to primary challenges by NRA-sponsored candidates, while Democrats have been vulnerable to general election challenges. Gerrymandered voting districts across America that limit diversity in opinion have further strengthened the hand of the NRA and other special interest groups.

Until now, the NRA has been ruthlessly effective in furthering its agenda. Might the debate about gun control be different after Newtown, especially with such strong presidential sponsorship? How the gun violence prevention debate plays out in Congress could have an enormous impact on President Obama’s second term.

After the storm

Until Hurricane Sandy’s arrival, neighbourhoods around here looked festive and jolly, cluttered as they were with colourful adornments. Rotund orange pumpkins and pots of chrysanthemums in the warm hues of autumn flanked front doors. Shrubs, bushes, and trees were decked in coats of gold, orange, and red foliage. There were also Halloween decorations, creative or corny, but always spooky—proving again that no one decorates outdoors like Americans. Repetitively mind-numbing political signage for the presidential and congressional elections was everywhere.

Much of it is gone now. Hurricane Sandy took care of that, and left a world somberly transformed. Nonstop rain and gusting winds stripped off many leaves, creating soggy brown-yellow mounds of unedifying mush. Many folk brought in their chrysants, Halloween decorations, and political signs to prevent Sandy blowing them about and damaging people or property. Those who didn’t take preventative measures had to pick up remnants of dreams for a “Happy Halloween” and a routine election.

People in the D.C. area are lucky. Public transport here closed down for a couple of days, but has mostly resumed. The worst many of us suffered was flooded basements, no electricity for a couple of days, cold homes, defrosting freezers, and yards littered with storm debris. There are unfortunate folk who had trees crashing down on their homes, causing major structural damage. But, relative to those further north and east in New Jersey and New York, we fared very well. It is heartbreaking to see and hear people there grieving for the dozens of loved ones lost, and thousands of homes and livelihoods destroyed. The cleanup from Sandy will be expensive, time-consuming, and require great patience and perseverance.

Everyone is, of course, fixated on Sandy’s impact on the elections. And it could be really significant. Which candidate will “benefit” from the storm and its aftermath? And what will be the effect on voters in the key battleground states of North Carolina, Ohio, and Virginia, never mind Pennsylvania, a blue-leaning state that, before Sandy, suddenly became in contention again for Republicans?

President Barack Obama went back to governing full time for a few days, taking a break from campaigning. The crisis has allowed him to highlight that he is the commander-in-chief, the one who leads the relief effort for those now in dire need. Given the haggling in the campaign over the role and extent of government, he was able to remind Americans how all look to government, as well as NGOs such as the Red Cross, for assistance and support in a disaster like this—even those who lambasted government during the campaign. By being effective, authoritative, and caring, Obama would also been able to create a contrast with the Republicans under President George W. Bush who mishandled the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Sandy halted early voting in the mid-Atlantic states. Even though early voting has now resumed in states in Sandy’s path—such as in Maryland—reduced hours or days for voting could be significant for this year’s election, especially in crucial swing states. In the 2008 election, for example, around 30 percent of all votes were cast before Election Day. This trend was likely to be heightened this year, as more states now permit early voting, and voters are more familiar with the concept. Prior to Sandy, a National Public Radio commentator estimated that about one fifth of likely voters had already cast their ballots. The campaigns of both Obama and Governor Mitt Romney were encouraging the electorate to vote early, with both campaigns wanting to “bank” as many votes as possible before November 6. With much fanfare, Obama himself voted early in his home city of Chicago, apparently the first sitting president to do so.

In addition to perhaps impacting early voting numbers, Sandy is also likely to affect turnout. This will be so when early voting resumes, and for Election Day itself. Will voters whose homes or businesses were hammered by Sandy care to vote? High turnout typically benefits Democratic Party candidates. So reduced turnout would likely hurt the Democratic ticket more. The profound consequence of diminished turnout among Democratic voters could be that Obama could lose the national popular vote in the election, even as many polls perceive him to be narrowly ahead in the state-based electoral college that determines the outcome of the election.

The halt in campaigning due to Sandy is, frankly, a relief. The negativity, pettiness, and vitriolic nature of both campaigns were becoming extremely off-putting. When the campaigns resume, I fervently hope they will do so with a new tenor. This is probably wishful thinking.

If the demeaning nature and tone of pre-Sandy campaigning was the low point, for me, of this high-stakes election, the categorical high point was the remarks both Obama and Romney delivered at the Alfred E. Smith Memorial Foundation dinner on October 18. If you have not already done so, please watch the full comments of both presidential candidates that evening in New York City. They are riveting.

Their remarks that evening represent the best of U.S. democracy in my eyes. The dinner took place between the second and third presidential debates, at a time of heightened competition between the two men due to Obama’s weak first debate. The remarks both gentlemen delivered that night were, of course, scripted— unlikely by themselves—but the content and way in which both presented them is outstanding.

Humour is an essential part of U.S. society: No one can take them self too seriously; everyone has to be able to make jokes at their own expense. While the veneer of the comments at the Al Smith dinner was funny, the reality was that this was campaigning in a different guise, with very pointed digs being made at each other—and, most importantly, at themselves. Whatever happens on November 6, this encounter will be my best memory from the campaign of 2012.

Electioneering

The presidential campaign permeates everything at present. Even if you’re totally disinterested in politics, the campaign is hard to avoid or ignore. Certainly its ubiquity, the sheer overwhelming quantity of all its manifestations, and the negativity of much of the advertising can be a turn off. And it is such a  l-o-n-g process, even for political junkies like myself.

Part of the cacophony relates to living in Virginia, one of the key battleground and swing states—along with Colorado, Florida, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio, and Wisconsin—in the race between President Barack Obama and Governor Mitt Romney. Obama has succinctly acknowledged Virginia’s pivotal significance: “If we win Virginia, we will win this election”. Virginia also has an extremely tight U.S. Senate race underway between former governors George Allen and Tim Kaine. The outcome of this race could impact whether the Democratic Party retains the majority in the Senate, or control shifts to the Republicans.

There are so many avenues for campaign activity now. The Internet and social media are drenched in promotion and advertising for the candidates and their platforms. Yet television as a forum still appears to trump web-based promotion. Both of the presidential candidates and their wives have appeared on countless TV programs, including daytime chat shows and late night comedy hours. When in New York last week to address the U.N. General Assembly, Obama did not participate in any traditional bilateral asides with other visiting heads of state, delegating this role to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton instead. Controversially though, his busy schedule did accommodate him and his wife filming a segment for “The View”, a popular daytime talk show.

The biggest television moments for the campaigns will be the three presidential debates and the sole vice-presidential debate. The first debate, which takes place tomorrow night and focuses on domestic policies, will likely attract the largest audience of the campaign, larger than for either of the two parties’ conventions.

TV in Virginia is also saturated with advertising by both campaigns and their surrogate political action committees. Back-to-back political ads have long displaced dog food, hair shampoo, and laundry detergent commercials. More interesting to me is the placement of political ads in video games. Already in 2008, the Obama campaign embedded ads in games like Need for Speed Carbon, and it is doing so again this year in Madden NFL 13, for example. National Public Radio reported yesterday that these ads apparently appear only if you are playing online games in a targeted battleground state.

Turn on the radio for a few minutes, and the odds are high you will hear a political advertisement or two. Open your mailbox, and there’s probably a pamphlet, brochure, or fundraising appeal from any of the campaigns. Lawn signs are starting to proliferate in the neighbourhood, although the “battle of the lawns” hasn’t really begun yet this far from November 6. It is fascinating to observe neighbours revealing their political colours with their choice of lawn signs. I’ve been playing a guessing game with myself, trying to anticipate who supports whom. The lawns of those living at prominent junctions are obviously especially coveted.

The “ground game” in Virginia is particularly impressive. Both campaigns have opened dozens of field offices here, and have signed up swarms of volunteers to go door to door to solicit interest, canvass support, and remind folk to vote. People from both presidential campaigns have stopped by our house to chat, check whether we are registered to vote, and of course try to glean how our household votes. Given that I’m not an American and thus of course not eligible to vote, conversations with me end quite quickly.

We’ve received phone calls from both campaigns, some being automated “robocalls”, but also a couple from “real people” who have left messages, requesting our participation. My favourite anecdote with one of these automated calls stems from late in the 2000 presidential election when we were living in Seattle. A recorded message on our answering machine one day was from Robert Redford! Redford had “called” in support of environmentalist Al Gore. I enjoyed listening to his three-minute message about saving the earth and how Gore was the man for the task. My husband teased me as it admittedly took a few days for me to delete the message. I’m wondering who may call our home this time round. George Clooney? Clint Eastwood?

Another area of contest is the car. Bumper stickers and car magnets proliferate. The “doggy wars” are particularly active on the back of people’s cars, given Romney’s noteworthy strapping of the family’s dog (in its kennel) to the top of their car one family holiday years ago. Subsequently, Obama allowed a photograph of him with Bo, the Obama family’s dog, to be taken inside the presidential limousine. Democrats are delighting in displaying “I Ride Inside” bumper stickers, a product from “DogsAgainstRomney”.

Other moments from the campaign have also already been absorbed into popular culture. An empty chair will, for example, never be the same again. And the surreptitiously made video of Romney damagingly disparaging 47 percent of the American public as people “who are dependent upon government, who believe they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to take care of them, who believe they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, you name it” has galvanized Democratic t-shirt and poster makers, and provided fodder for some of their best material.

When we look back at the 2012 campaign, I believe the disclosure of these comments from Romney will be seen as the turning point in the campaign, the moment when he lost his bid to succeed Obama. These unguarded comments revealed Romney’s true disposition, showing that he really doesn’t understand how America works, if you’ll excuse the pun, and revealing the extent of his detachment from the lives of regular Americans. This candid speech validated the caricature of Romney that relentless Democratic attack ads suggested all summer long.

The unceasing demand for exposure to the candidates in a U.S. presidential campaign creates the chance for such slip-ups, especially when candidates are trawling for money. And more character revelations may yet come. There is, after all, still over a month to go until the votes are in.

Yes, the campaign is arduous and—especially this year, after the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision permitting unlimited corporate donations to campaigns—an atrociously extravagant way for people to choose their government. But there is no other purposeful spectacle quite like it, anywhere in the world. Viva democracy.

Update on October 4, 2012: The spectacle isn’t over, folks! After last night’s first presidential debate, it’s once again a real race. Romney’s campaign has bounced back from the debacle over the “47 percent” remarks with him delivering a strong, impassioned debate performance. While debating solidly, President Obama seemed under-prepared. Romney was too aggressive at times, I felt, and part of Obama’s demeanour suggested to me that, after four years in the presidential bubble, he wasn’t used to being spoken to without deference. Last night was really a celebration of democracy though. Imagine South African President Jacob Zuma having to defend his government’s policies for 90 minutes in a similar forum with Helen Zille? Or China’s leader-in-waiting Xi Jinping being exposed to 90 minutes of back-and forth with a seasoned domestic critic of China’s current economic policies?

Absolutism in America

There is a disconnect between political elites’ stark rhetorical excesses and extremism and the practical, common sense civility with which most Americans go about their every-day lives. Only absolutist positions seem possible in today’s shrill war of words on the campaign trail. And these seem far removed from the sensible practicality of the majority of Americans.

Yes, Americans are notoriously politically polarized at present, with folk splitting into “blue” and “red” points of view and states. But these acknowledged deep partisan divides are not apparent in their daily engagement with each other. People’s typical every-day behaviour suggests civility, decency, and moderation—despite political differences and the profound economic strains under which too many are living.

Every utterance from politicians is, of course, fair game in democracies, particularly at election time and for those topping the tickets. So it should be. But the rhetoric in this year’s election season is especially vitriolic and nasty in tone, particularly this far from actual voting.

Take the current debate on whether individualism or communalism is more determining of success in America. The initial fodder for the present outburst in this longstanding dualism in Americans was President Barack Obama’s July 13 remarks in Roanoke, Virginia, in which he implied that entrepreneurial success was due, in part, to government’s role, rather than individual initiative.

Republican operatives have seized on two sentences from this speech and are milking them as much as possible in negative “attack” advertisements. Obama said: “If you’ve got a business—you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.” On their own, these two sentences are certainly provocative, but the context of these statements is necessary to understand what Obama meant:

“They know they didn’t—look, if you’ve been successful, you didn’t get there on your own. You didn’t get there on your own. I’m always struck by people who think, well, it must be because I was just so smart. There are a lot of smart people out there. It must be because I worked harder than everybody else. Let me tell you something—there are a whole bunch of hardworking people out there.

“If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business—you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen. The Internet didn’t get invented on its own. Government research created the Internet so that all the companies could make money off the Internet.

“The point is, is that when we succeed, we succeed because of our individual initiative, but also because we do things together.“

In context, the comments are less incendiary and not disagreeable. No one is an island, no one lives or succeeds in a vacuum, and no one who has succeeded achieved this alone. Behind any person or company’s success lie the contributions of others, including the government. Of course individual drive, ambition, determination, and luck are needed for particular success, but this is true in any field of endeavour, not only in creating a successful business. It seems ridiculous to even expand on these truisms. But such is the absurdity and absolutism of present U.S. political discourse that even the obvious needs to be said.

This past week, again in Roanoke, Congressman Paul Ryan, Mitt Romney’s selected vice presidential running mate, declared, “The president makes these comments that reveal his mindset…He believes in a government-centered society and a government-driven economy. And that doesn’t work. It never has worked…Look at what it’s doing to Europe.” He continued, “We have a person in Mitt Romney who knows through experience the challenge that businesses face, how job creation works, that the engine of opportunity, the nucleus of our economy is not government, but the successful small business, the entrepreneurs, the people of this country.”

An enormous sign stating, “We Did Build It!” was displayed behind Ryan as he spoke.  The local small-business owner who introduced him at the rally had earlier refused a visit from and photo opportunity with Vice President Joe Biden due to differences with the Obama campaign.

There are profound philosophical differences between the two campaigns. And these two speeches underscore longstanding, competing solutions to today’s challenges. Obama sees the public and private sectors working together as offering solutions, whereas Romney/Ryan stress the individual and the market as the sources for solutions. In Obama’s communitarian vision, the government helps “level the playing field” and helps support the vulnerable and less successful. Romney and Ryan see a diminished role for government, with greater individual responsibility and greater reliance on market mechanisms. And tax policy is the battleground. Obama recommends raising taxes on the wealthiest Americans to raise government revenue, whereas Romney/Ryan want to extend the Bush tax cuts and indeed slash taxes further to reduce the size and scope of government.

This is an old fissure in American politics and society, and it represents a profound choice for Americans at this sensitive economic juncture. Economic recovery is tentative, while socio-economic inequality is growing. Both campaigns offer vastly different platforms on how to deal with well-recognized problems. We’ll learn on November 6 which vision appeals to most Americans.

 

Fund it, build it, get on with it

Connecting Dulles International Airport, Washington D.C.’s primary international air hub, to the city’s subway system is a goal that has, until recently, received near unanimous support. A project that was perceived as essential for the region’s economy, transportation, and functionality is now mired in partisan dithering, posturing, and shenanigans. Which all seems rather absurd when there is basic agreement on the need for the project.

The lack of a convenient mass transit link from the main international airport to downtown in a city of Washington’s undeniable national and international relevance and stature is, in truth, incredible. When Dulles Airport was constructed in the 1970s, easy passenger access to the Metro was always intentioned. Only in recent years though has the plan really gathered steam.

But now the funding for this patently necessary project has become captive to acrimonious state and local politics. The lack of bipartisanship at the federal level is mirrored at the state level, and the state of Virginia is no exception.

Virginia looms large in presidential politics. A conservative leaning state, it is one of the key “swing” states that could determine this year’s presidential race. In 2008, it voted for President Barack Obama; in 2012, the Obama campaign hopes the state will again vote his way. The southern part of the state is more rural and conservative. The northern part, encompassing Washington D.C. suburbs, is more urban, liberal, and heavily congested, with other liberal pockets around university towns such as Charlottesville and Williamsburg.

At present, Virginians have voted into place office holders who are predominantly Republican, although its two senators in Congress are both Democrats. One of these Senate seats is up for grabs this November, with two former governors likely competing for it in one of the tightest, most expensive races this election. Present Republican Governor Robert F. McDonnell was widely considered a potential vice presidential running mate for probable Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney. That was before he became embroiled in an off-putting conservative pander this past legislative session that tried to legislate a compulsory vaginal ultrasound procedure for those in Virginia considering an abortion. The legislation failed, even with both houses of the state legislature being Republican controlled.

Phase 2 of Dulles Rail, or extending Metro’s Silver Line from Reston, Virginia, to Dulles Airport is, in theory, to be funded with federal, state, and Fairfax and Loudoun County assistance, plus revenue from the Dulles Toll Road. The Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA) is overseeing construction of the Silver Line, including the proposed extension to Dulles. Phase 1 is expected to be finished late in 2013, while construction of Phase 2 to Dulles should ideally commence early in 2013.

The most recent brouhaha stems from a labour requirement in the general contract for Phase 2. The MWAA supports this pro-union clause, whereas the state government and the all-Republican supervisory board in Loudoun County, the county in which Dulles is located and through which the Silver Line extension would primarily pass, do not. Virginia is a “right-to-work” state, so the state feels any pro-union labour preferences would violate state laws. The state even called a special legislative session specifically to outlaw any consideration of labour agreements in the awarding of contracts. The two-year Virginia state budget was revealed recently—without the inclusion of any funding for the Silver Line.

For the second time, U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, the remaining Republican in Obama’s cabinet, has helped mediate between the various parties. Thanks to the Secretary’s involvement, it appears that the WMAA will possibly weaken the pro-union labour provision. This would presumably permit the state to release its promised contribution of $150 million for the project and Loudoun County to commit to supporting the project. Let’s hope this compromise really comes to pass so that bidding for Phase 2 can proceed.

Another issue that could delay the proceedings is a federal audit of the WMAA. The airports authority has been criticized for opaque decision-making, top-heavy management, and its estimates of escalated tolls on the Dulles Toll Road. A preliminary report on the audit should be available shortly. This audit will hopefully result in greater transparency, changes in WMAA’s funding formula, and better atmospherics.

Funding the Silver Line certainly shouldn’t come on the backs of those using the Dulles Toll Road. Steep tolling on a major highway—thereby forcing users onto secondary roads and worsening the traffic patterns that the tolled road was supposed to address—will sound painfully familiar to road users in Johannesburg, South Africa, who are grappling with similar, although different, issues.

Part of the pushback is from Virginians in the southern part of the state feeling they shouldn’t be subsidizing a huge transportation project in the north from which they derive no benefit. Northerners would retort that they provide most of Virginia’s tax base in the first place.

The real issue behind the new resistance to the project stems from Republicans not wanting to fall in with the broader Democratic narrative. They do not want to boost employment, foster economic growth, or create aggregate demand through building infrastructure. They do not want to help fund an investment that would have a multiplier effect on employment and growth in the region. They do not want to increase spending and provide stimulus. They do not want to support unionised labour.  They want to cut back on public spending and shrink budgets. Such is the politics of economic recovery in the state of Virginia—and the United States.

Update on June 7, 2012: The Washington Post reports that the MWAA voted to drop the pro-union provision in the Silver Line contract, thereby paving the way for Virginian Governor McDonnell to come through with the promised $150 million. Now will Loudoun County’s Board of Supervisors support the project too? Stay tuned.

Update on July 3, 2012: In a 5-4 vote this morning, Loudoun County’s Board of Supervisors agreed to Phase 2 of the Silver Line. Funding issues were resolved by an agreement to create special tax districts around prospective Metro stops in the county and to increase tolls on the Dulles Access Road. There is still a dream for some federal funding. But, without further delay, bids on Phase 2 can now be placed. Progress indeed.

Whither America?

The relative decline of the United States and imminent rise of China are exaggerated—if transparency and participation are the criteria for good governance. Two recent big news stories reflect core characteristics of governance in the two societies, highlighting their respective political strengths and weaknesses.

The U.S. Supreme Court’s possible rejection of the Affordable Care Act, the core legislative accomplishment of the Obama Administration, affirms the strengths of the contentious U.S. democratic model. Juxtaposed to this debate is the dark drama surrounding Chongqing Party Chief Bo Xilai, formerly a contender for promotion to China’s über-powerful Politburo Standing Committee. Bo was stripped of all Communist Party posts and his wife arrested in a murder investigation. This unfolding story underlines the limitations of the opaque Chinese Leninist model.

These processes are occurring at politically delicate times in both countries, with potentially profound implications for each.

The United States is, of course, caught up in the orderly tumult of presidential and congressional elections, to be held this November 6. China is gearing up for its usually carefully orchestrated transfer of power between Communist Party elites at the 18th Party Congress this October, and the allocation of government roles at the National People’s Congress next March.

The rough-and-tumble of Chinese elite politics usually takes place behind closed doors. Chinese society and the world learn the outcome of the cut-throat politicking of leadership shifts only when Chinese leaders emerge from behind the curtain at Party Congresses. Glimpses of factional politics have been seen this time due to Bo’s wife Gu Kailai being implicated in the deadly poisoning of British businessman Neil Heywood. If the victim of this conspiracy were a hapless Chinese businessman not a foreigner, the world would be none the wiser. However, the appearance at the U.S. consulate in Chengdu of Bo’s right-hand-man-turned-opponent, Chongqing Police Chief Wang Lijun, with documents suggesting fishy circumstances to Heywood’s death injected unwanted global interest in the case, leading to the dismissal and arrest.

The sad fact is the outside world is probably more aware of the evolving situation in China than its citizens. The Chinese government is trying hard to control debate within China about Bo’s campaigns in Chongqing, his recent purging, and its meaning for the political transition. Yet its ability to do so in the era of the Internet, social media, micro-blogging, and instant messaging is greatly complicated. China’s cyber security police are extremely busy behind its “Great Firewall”.

Meanwhile, the specter of the U.S. Supreme Court possibly throwing out President Barack Obama’s signature healthcare law has garnered enormous attention within the United States and internationally. President Obama himself incurred great disapproval for initial criticism of the Court. He said it would be “…an unprecedented, extraordinary step” to reject a law that was “passed by a strong majority of a democratically elected Congress.” The key critique of Obama was that a president should not comment on a case pending before the Court. The Court is duty-bound to void unconstitutional laws, and it has done so before.

Obama later stepped back from this, acknowledging, “…the Supreme Court [has] the final say on our Constitution and our laws… It’s precisely because of that extraordinary power that the Court has traditionally exercised significant restraint and deference to our duly elected legislature, our Congress.”

Spending a few hours outside the Supreme Court late last month when it was hearing arguments on the law was fascinating for this South African. I enjoyed listening to the cacophony of chants and calls by the equally well-represented proponents and opponents of the law. The good-natured back-and-forth between the two sides was delightful and inspiring.

The discourse included competing chants—delivered simultaneously—like: “Ho, Ho/Hey, Hey/Obamacare/Is Here to Stay” and “Hey, Hey/Ho, Ho/Obamacare/Has Got to Go”. Or it was: “We.Love.Obamacare/We.Need.Obamacare” and “The Constitution Matters/Protect the Constitution”. Songs included (sung to “This Little Light of Mine”) “This Healthcare of Mine/I’m Gonna Let It Shine…” and (sung to “Everywhere We Go, People Wanna Know”) “Everywhere We Go/There’s a New Tax There…” It was a highly memorable, albeit noisy, way to enjoy a spring morning.

Those in other industrial democracies both marvel and recoil at the prospect of politically appointed government officials rejecting a law passed by a majority of democratically elected representatives. They are also incredulous at the very debate on whether individual healthcare insurance should be “mandated” for all American citizens, and how such a mandate could be perceived as impinging on individual freedom.

The Supreme Court’s decision is expected in late June. In a recent opinion poll, Americans anticipate the justices’ political views will determine their ruling on the healthcare law—rather than a neutral interpretation of the law. Republican presidents nominated the five more conservative-leaning justices on the bench, while Democratic presidents nominated the four more liberal justices. Whether or not the Court casts out the healthcare law, either entirely or partly, the crucial point is that the U.S. public will also get to render their verdict on the law. When the U.S. public votes on November 6, they will be able to endorse Obama’s policy prescriptions for the nation—including on healthcare—or they can repudiate them.

The long-suffering Chinese people won’t be given a chance to express their views on subjects as wide ranging as the merits or demerits of Bo’s “Chongqing model” of development or who should ascend to the nine-member Standing Committee of the Politburo. These subjects will not even be debated in the Chinese press.

Comparing a U.S. constitutional issue and Chinese elite factional politics—tangled with a criminal case—seems incongruous and contrived. But the two cases project core truths about the two countries and their systems of governance. The United States, with its often perplexing division of government authority and its relentless expectation of transparency, allows vigorous participation of its people. China is characterised by dead-end, impenetrable opacity in choosing who governs and how they govern; minimal accountability; and unwillingness to hear and indeed heavy-handed suppression of the views of those who are governed.

The all-too-often gridlocked system of divided government in the United States is exasperating. But don’t discount the United States. Give me “too much” transparency and “too much” democracy any day over none.

Pious politics


Rick Santorum, one of the conservative Republicans vying to be the GOP presidential nominee, has hurt his chances of being selected by espousing views on religion that alienate many Americans. In contrast, a recent civic exercise for 12-year-olds illustrated a positive approach to teaching social and moral values.

Volunteering at an “Ethics Day” for 12-year-old school children turned out to be a rewarding way to spend a morning. A local, secular, civil-society coalition organized the half-day event; a nearby Jewish temple provided the facilities; and all sixth graders from two area elementary schools took a break from their regular school day to participate. The point of the exercise was to stress how ethical choices determine the kind of schools, communities, and world in which we live. Ethical dilemmas were presented for discussion, and the challenge of reconciling what one could do in certain situations, what one would do, and what one should do was highlighted.

Every religion, faith, and creed could endorse the universalisms that underpinned the deliberations. It was agreed that integrity comes from living basic values like honesty, trust, fairness, justice, compassion, responsibility, and respect. The tenor of the presentations and discussions was practical and respectful, yet also idealistic and inspirational. The approach was non-theological, nondenominational, and non-divisive. It showed how moral conduct and civic duty can be inspired in a pluralistic, diverse society in a way that is sensitive and doesn’t cause offense—and supplements moral and religious guidance provided through family and private faith.

Rick Santorum and his evangelical supporters would likely find the formula followed at “Ethics Day” to be wanting. He recently said he didn’t “believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute”, and he accused President Barack Obama of “advancing a phony theology, not a theology based on the Bible”.

In what has effectively become a two-man race between former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney and himself, Santorum’s elevation of divisive social wedge issues is also clever politics. Part of Santorum’s recent rhetoric is unquestionably belief—he is a deeply religious man. Part of it is also deliberate strategy. Some of the continued lack of enthusiasm for Romney among the core of the Republican Party relates to mistrust of his Mormonism and his reluctance to speak about his faith and how it informs who he is. By speaking so forcefully about his own faith and views, the Catholic Santorum is intentionally making this contrast with Romney. While Republican voters are also unsure whether Romney is a real conservative, Santorum assures all he is a “full-spectrum” conservative.

The politics surrounding the presidential campaign also explains why Romney, Santorum, and Newt Gingrich, the other conservative Republic presidential hopeful, berated President Obama for apologizing to Afghan President Hamid Karzai for the disrespectful burning of the Koran at the U.S. airbase outside Kabul. Obama’s apology had struck me as totally appropriate and, in fact, essential after the inflammatory treatment, albeit not intentioned, of Islam’s holy book.

This overreach and heated rhetoric on social and religious matters has, I think, backfired for Santorum. He already has the evangelical vote sown up—although there is still some dwindling support for Gingrich—so continuing to hammer away on these themes is counter productive for his presidential ambitions. The brighter prospects of the U.S. economy also partly explains this pivot from focusing on the economy, but highlighting religion in the public sphere and social issues is not a winning strategy for Republicans for the general election. Santorum, a former senator from Pennsylvania, lost his 2006 senatorial reelection campaign by 18 percentage points largely due to his views on faith and gay rights.

The longer the divisive Republican nomination battle continues, the less likely Republicans will unify for the November election against President Obama, and the greater the possibility of a third candidate emerging to contest the election—which would split the conservative vote.

A protest poster at a recent Santorum rally said it all to me: “America is a democracy, not a theocracy”. Long live separation of church and state.

Unoccupying D.C.

Protesters occupying two downtown Washington, D.C., locations are being told to pack up and leave, and are being forcibly removed—even arrested—if they don’t leave voluntarily. After months of tolerance and inaction, U.S. Park Police have started enforcing the law on no overnight camping in parks.

Respecting people’s First Amendment right to freedom of expression from government interference and the concomitant right to peaceful assembly have underpinned acceptance of the occupiers in the two parks at McPherson Square and Freedom Plaza. However, District sanitation officials have been concerned for weeks about deteriorating sanitary conditions, especially at the McPherson camp, with rat sightings becoming commonplace, even during daylight. A congressional committee also started investigating the violation of no nightly camping on federal land. Park police had also been asking occupiers to remove an enormous tarpaulin—the “Tent of Dreams”—that they had erected around the statue of General McPherson, a Civil War hero, in the center of the Square.

Police cleared most of the tent community at McPherson Square yesterday at dawn. As of this afternoon, the remaining stragglers on the one side of the square defiantly maintained they would never leave. At Freedom Plaza, from the volume of police on the plaza and in the immediate area this afternoon, it is appears similar clearing procedures are imminent. The number of tents at Freedom Plaza has certainly decreased in the last days, with campers evidently heeding warnings to pack up and leave. Churches in the District have apparently been offering temporary shelter.

A couple of visits to the two sites in recent days left me with some impressions. The physical squalor of the McPherson camp was impossible to ignore. Nonstop human traffic since the occupation started in early October, coupled with rain, sleet and a little snow, have ensured that the formerly grassy square has become a mushy, gooey mud bath (no wonder occupiers resorted to sleeping on pallets). Paving at the Freedom Plaza site facilitated a less unsanitary environment.

But more than the deterioration of the physical environment, what struck me was how the nature of those now occupying the camps, especially McPherson, changed. The median age of the occupiers definitely increased. Gone are the younger, idealistic, perhaps naïve occupiers of autumn. Those remaining are older, more seasoned activists; some are anarchists and others nihilists. The gentle bearded young man from California with whom I chatted last November as he munched his breakfast in his “tent” of draped clear plastic with its sign proclaiming “Occupy DC is transparent and participatory” seems long gone.

Despite admonitions such as “Cops: Don’t Be Tools of the 1%” seen earlier at McPherson, one could argue that police are doing “Occupy D.C.” a favour by clearing out the camps. This phase of the Occupy movement here in D.C. had run its course. But the occupiers couldn’t back down without losing face. Park police have now given them the way out. It was time anyway for the occupiers to retreat, regroup, consolidate, reassess, and plan new strategies for spring. And now they can do so.

The Occupy movement has unquestionably influenced the national debate. The discussion it provoked on income and social inequality, corporate greed, indebtedness, and unemployment is ongoing. Indeed, its focus on social inequity in the United States and how economic policies benefit the already haves is central in current discourse. President Barack Obama is urging tax reform so that the wealthiest pay more than they have been. He highlights the issue that Warren Buffett brought to the fore—that Buffett’s secretary pays taxes at a higher rate than Buffett himself does. The tax returns of likely Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, one of the wealthiest men ever to be running for president, with a net worth estimated to be around $250 million, further underscore this point. Romney is shown to have paid a tax rate of 13,9% in 2010 on capital gains from $20 million in income. Revelations such as this and Romney’s general awkwardness in discussing money, wealth, and poverty should surely galvanize the Occupy movement as its followers deliberate the way forward.

As the Occupy movement in D.C. ends its current phase, perhaps the miracle is that the D.C. camps lasted as long as they did. An unusually mild winter certainly helped. While those in the ski industry have cursed the relative lack of snow, those in Occupy D.C. were grateful.

Update on February 13, 2012: As of this afternoon, McPherson Square and Freedom Plaza still house a few token Occupy D.C. tents.  No sleeping or camping is permitted in these tents. Compliance with Park Police also requires tent flaps always to be open so police can confirm no bedding or personal effects are being kept there. Occupiers are apparently maintaining a constant presence in the parks. I was told that people are sleeping in shifts elsewhere—such as in churches and shelters—and then taking turns keeping vigil 24/7 in the parks. The library tent at McPherson Square still stands, packed tight with books and magazines, but the “OccuTeaHouse” is gone.

Update on February 20, 2012: The Washington Post complements the Park Police for the way they handled the Occupy D.C. protests.