Sunday, August 19, 2012

Panem Et Circenses (Bread and Circuses)

So the race for the White House has been fully joined.  The conventions are coming up shortly and we'll hear hosannas of praise for the selected candidates and derisive smears against the opposition. Each party will plead with you the voter to understand that their way forward for America is the best way and the other guys are despicable, anti-American, power hungry lunatics who will kill your grandma.  Truly, the process is comparable to the Bread and Circus days of the old Roman Empire where for the people's amusement, the Emperor imported gladiators, exotic animals, a few Christians here and there, tossed them in the middle of the Colosseum and everyone had a good old time watching the combatants tear each other apart.  Then, they went back to their lives and not much changed.  The race for the White House is much the same as those events back in Rome. There will be much theatre, metaphorical blood letting, we'll all get churned up and excited, then the next day things will return to basically the same as they were.

The presidential election of 2012 has really been going on since Barack Obama was inaugurated in January of 2009.  Mitt Romney, an erstwhile candidate in 2008 never slowed down his desire to become the 45th President of the United States and has spent the better part of the last 4 years working toward that goal.  In a couple of weeks in Tampa, Florida, at the Republican National Convention, Willard Mitt Romney will formally accept the nomination of his party to be President.  On his arm will be Paul Ryan, a seven term congressman from Wisconsin, the wunderkind of fiscal responsibility and a Tea Party darling.

We have a full set of combatants for the Circus now.  President Obama and Vice-President Biden, the Democratic incumbents facing off against former Governor of Massachusetts Mitt Romney and Congressman Paul Ryan.  The process is the same, the rhetoric will be the same, the outcome is in question. 

The choices between the two candidates couldn't be more clear.   On one side, the Democratic side, you have two career politicians who deeply believe in the power of government to be used on the country's behalf.  On the Republican side, you have a self-avowed Business Man who routinely shuns his short stint in government and touts his private sector experience as the cure for what ails Washington. His running mate, although a career politician himself, is however looked upon by his followers as a prophet in a land of iniquity and the one man in Washington who is truly a small government apostle. 

How will this play out?  Well, if you believe polls, and there are a lot of them out there right now to look at and form an opinion, the general view is the race is a dead-heat.  There are about 45 percent of the nation's voters in Obama's camp and another 45 percent in Romney's camp.  The fight will be for the remaining 10 percent.  The independents.  Those people who either have not been paying attention, don't care until the last minute, or are truly perplexed about what to do will decide who becomes the next President of the United States.  It is mind boggling to me to believe that that many people haven't yet made up their minds, but, so be it.  I can tell you this, they will not lack for information about the candidates (most of it bad) in the ensuing 80 odd days until the election.  The Super Pacs, non-disclosed donor groups, and the political parties have spent a combined half a billion dollars to get a job for someone who they hope will represent their interest.  This is the first presidential election since the Citizens United case was decided and money was ensconced as free speech.  The result of the election shows, with massive amounts of money being spent in the Presidential and down ballot races.   As an off topic editorial, I wonder how many people half a billion dollars can feed for a year?

Anyway, we'll get to see the bright and shiniest moments of the candidates at the conventions. We'll get to see the dirtiest, most sinister moments of the candidates (also at the conventions, but more in the ad buys that will blanket the swing states and rest of the country for the next two and a half months) as well.  It will be up to you to decide which version of the soft drink you want?  Pepsi or Coke?  Like the soft drinks, both parties taste good to some, both are bad for you in massive quantities, and both provide no nutritional value. 

It will be curious to me to see the debates play out.  How will Romney do against Obama?  How will Ryan do against Biden?  Does it matter? Yes, it does.  The voters in either camp will remain with their favorite sons unless something dramatic happens like Rick Perry's "failure to remember" gaffe in the primaries, but that isn't likely.  However, it matters because of the independents and undecideds.  And because of this, Mr. Romney better have his game face on in the debates, because he will be squaring off against a pro.  Like it or not, Mr. Obama is in his element when he's debating, and as Mr. McCain found out, not taking this seriously will cost you in the long run.

Bread and Circus indeed.  But, this time, instead of Nero deciding the fate of the combatants, it is the people who will hold thumbs up or thumbs down.

Tell me what you think.


Monday, August 13, 2012

Independents Rising - A Book Review

“In his Farewell Address in 1796, George Washington warned that political parties can “become potent engines by which cunning, ambitious and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people, and to usurp for themselves the reins of government.”

This recounting of our first president’s warning about the potential for political parties to abscond with the power of elective politics is part of the last paragraph of Jacqueline Salit’s new book “Independents Rising – Outsider movements, Third Parties and the Struggle for a Post-Partisan America.”   The book was published this month and it is a great read.  The policy wonk in me loved it for Salit’s meticulous detail in terms of how the current political party machines, both Democratic and Republican have been attempting to crush independent political movements for years.

If you do not know who Jacqueline Salit is and you care about politics, then you need to get yourself introduced to her and her writings.   Ms. Salit, along with many others who are discussed in her book has been saving our “political backsides” for the last 30+ years.  Without Ms. Salit’s work, we would likely all be political serfs giving favor to our noble lords and masters in the two major political parties and receiving only paltry scraps of progress in return.   In the book,  Ms. Salit recounts the growth of the nascent  independent political movement in the modern age (post 1960) with a description of how young people like her imputed themselves in the political process in order to drive up the volume of the voices who are so often overlooked in the political theater we call elections. While not necessarily successful through electoral politics at the national level, the movement of independents and the influence on overall electoral politics cannot be denied nor dismissed.  

Independents Rising is all at once a history book, a mystery/thriller, a soap opera and a textbook on grass-roots political movements.  Salit’s writing, crisp and descriptive, takes us through her first-hand journey of becoming involved in politics as a kid, working “both sides of the fence”, working for democrats and republicans in the mid to late 1960’s and early 70’s.  She worked in the news business for part of the mid 1970’s for a while and then became involved in the birth of a political party:  The New Alliance Party.  Fred Newman, the patriarch of this party established in 1979 and Salit remain life-long friends and traveling companions as they both made the somewhat surreal journey through the ups and down of the independent political movements over the next 3 decades.

The book’s first few chapters read as a first-hand historical account of the independent political movement with Salit both playing the role of participant in the battles and war correspondent.  She recounts the story of the first serious national candidate, John Anderson, a liberal Republican who was a congressman from Illinois, and his efforts at establishing a new, third leg to our political stool.  Mr. Anderson was a well-liked member of Congress, so much so that Gerald Ford, once said of him that “He’s the smartest guy in Congress, but he continues to vote his conscience instead of his party.”  Mr. Anderson ran a respectable 3rd in the election that swept Jimmy Carter out and Ronald Reagan into office in 1980.

 Mr. Anderson’s national Unity Party, like many before and after, fizzled out after Mr. Anderson threw his endorsement behind Walter Mondale in 1984, but the die had been cast.  For really the first time since 1912, where Teddy Roosevelt ran a 3rd party campaign as the leader of the Progressive Party (also known as the “Bull Moose Party), a Presidential election had a credible alternative to the Democratic or Republican Candidate. 

Just a few short years later, two other rising stars in the firmament of Independent Political movers and shakers would emerge.  Lenora Fulani, a developmental psychologist who had been working with young African Americans in her home  state of New York, became the first woman and the first African American to gain access to the ballot  as a candidate for President in all 50 states.   Ms. Fulani was the National Alliance Party candidate for President and while unsuccessful in winning the election, she succeeded in getting the attention of some fairly significant players in New York as well as the National political scene. 

Ms. Fulani, as Ms. Salit’s book will describe goes on to be a power player in the Reform Party movement, which saw billionaire Ross Perot, Conservative gadfly Patrick Buchanan and many others from both sides of the political spectrum all come to her for support.  The other “player” in the independent movement launched an effort in 1988 on an independent platform stressing his “Libertarian views”.  Ron Paul made the first of many runs for President, first as an independent, then as a Libertarian in Republican clothing where he finds himself and a dedicated and enthusiastic following still today. 

In the 1990’s, the country would see a young, charismatic “New Democrat” be elected President.  William Jefferson Clinton defeated the incumbent, George Herbert Walker Bush, a patrician, establishment President who was just coming off a major victory with the first Iraq War, but was having some economic troubles at home.   Mr. Clinton’s team adroitly coined the term “It’s the Economy Stupid”, and hammered the affable but lackluster Bush with an assault about supporting the middle class and providing better opportunity for economic growth.  The truth is that Clinton was a centrist to conservative Democrat, and member of the Democratic Leadership Committee.  The DLC was a pro-business, pro-growth group that was making large efforts to reinvent the Democrats from the left-wing, soft on defense and crime party to a party more representative of those Reagan Democrats that fled the party in the 1980’s.  It was a good strategy, but probably wouldn’t have happened without a disruptive force joining the fray known as H. Ross Perot.  Perot, a billionaire from Texas who had started up the technology services giant known as Electronic Data Systems (EDS) jumped into the election with an announcement on Larry King live.  He energized this country in a manner that hasn’t been seen in a long time.  A very, very rich guy with a populist message and Power Point slides to boot, Perot vilified the NAFTA and GATT treaties that Bush had entered into and Clinton supported.   Perot was a “rock star” with funny ears and a funnier demeanor on the stage.  His plain speaking manner of going after Washington as a feckless and dangerous group of politicians resonated with the people who jumped on the Perot band wagon.

The subscript to Perot’s emergence was his work with the Independence movement and much of the credit for his success in creating the Reform Party movement goes to his work with Lenora Fulani, who marshaled left-leaning independents to the Perot cause and formed an unlikely alliance of a conservative Texan, schooled in big business and an African American, decidedly liberal, developmental psychologist and erstwhile Presidential candidate.  The alliance worked for a time, and Perot would go on and garner almost 20 percent of the vote in 1992 giving the Democrats back the White House by a 43% plurality.   Perot was the momentum that spawned independence movements across the country, but not without Fulani, Newman and Salit’s help.  They all worked feverishly to form unlikely coalitions of left-wing, right wing and middle of the road voters who were tired of the stranglehold of the two-party system. 

Alas, all good movements seem to come to an end, or if not an end, a new beginning, and the Perot era ended quietly with another run by the great man in 1996 that was a shadow of its success in 1992.  Still, the independence movement had legs, and the disciples of non-partisan politics found, after a brief flirtation with Patrick Buchanan a candidate that they could get behind and who would not disappoint them.  At least not disappoint them too much.  Mike Bloomberg, currently on his third term as mayor of New York joined with the cause in 2001 and has been a fairly good friend to the movement and its players ever since.   Will the independence movement finally have their national candidate for President?  Will Bloomberg finally break through the glass ceiling established by the Democrats and the Republicans?  It’s hard to say.  Bloomberg is a billionaire with a pretty good job right now.  He may decide to go after it in 2016, depending upon the state of the country and who is in the White House.  Should Obama win reelection, my belief is he may go for it. If Romney is in office, it might be more difficult for him to pull Republicans to his cause.  Salit describes her relationship with Bloomberg in great detail, and the book gives you some really good insight on the man himself.

There are many luminaries whose dalliances with the Independence Movement are recounted in the book.  Well known players like Rudy Giuliani, Mark Green,  Al Sharpton, Hillary Clinton, are just a few of the major political figures who loomed large in the success and failures of the independence movement that is discussed in “Independents Rising”.   The stories are fresh and bring back quite a few memories of vigorous campaigns between the two parties but bring the added flavor of the behind the scenes meetings with people like Newman and Fulani, of deals struck and deals betrayed.  Reading how Patrick Buchanan struck a deal with Fulani, then went on to sabotage it is incredibly interesting, as it all at once shows the possibility and the cynicism of the political process.

If there are Villains in this story, and there are many lesser trouble makers discussed, it is the two National Parties that come off as the sinister and oppressive overlords crushing the voter and his or her independence.  The independence movement, as Salit describes not only garnered a lot of energy from the people at large, but also made significant strides to change the electoral process itself through trying to open up primary elections.  Currently and seemingly unalterably, the Democratic and Republican parties have a pincer-like stranglehold on the way we vote in our elections.  In most states, one cannot vote for a Democrat in the Democratic Primary and then vote for a Republican in the Republican Primary.  They are closed elections.  This process effectively replaces the old “Tammany Hall” style backroom bosses of the parties with an electoral process that drives voters to pick one from the Democrats and one from the Republicans and that is it.  Independents have to come together and either vote for one party or another in the primary, or field their own, third party candidate.  The problem is that the third party candidates don’t have the resources nor the influence to break this cycle and have time and again, been repudiated in the court system when they’ve had the gumption to file a legal challenge to the current state of affairs.  Salit’s description of the legal fights undertaken by the Independents reads like a David and Goliath story, but unfortunately in most cases Goliath wins.  

Nonetheless, the book, and the independence movement is full of energy and optimism.  Salit continues to be a true believer.  Fulani is still working hard to get a voice for those who aren’t heard or listened to.  Sometime soon, perhaps sooner than later, a well-funded, well respected figure will emerge on the national scene and take the Democrats and the Republicans to the metaphorical woodshed on behalf of the American people.  It can’t come too soon in my opinion.  Mike, are you listening? 

Go get this book.  It is available now.  Ms. Salit has done us a great service by recounting her experiences and years working on our behalf.  The book should be required reading in college.  I heartedly recommend it. 
I thank Ms. Salit for her work and wish her continued success.   Besides being a great writer and story teller, she is also the President of and the publisher of The Neo-Independent magazine.  
 Independents do need to Rise and do it quickly, or I’m afraid we’ll be lost in the noise of Citizens United ads for the rest of our days.

Tell me what you think.