Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Hooray for My Team!

No one who posts to an internet bulletin board could have been surprised by this article in the Washington Post yesterday, which includes the following:

There is another piece of evidence that party identification rather than ideology is behind the growing polarization of the electorate: On a variety of unrelated issues -- gun control, the economy, war, same-sex marriage, abortion, the environment, the financial bailout -- the views of Republicans and Democrats have become increasingly monolithic. There is no reason someone who is against abortion should necessarily also be against gun control or for economic deregulation, but that is exactly what tends to happen among committed Republicans. Loyal Democrats have similarly monolithic views on unrelated issues.

"Party identification is part of your social identity, in the same way you relate to your religion or ethnic group or baseball team," said Gary C. Jacobson, a political scientist at the University of California at San Diego. This explains why, on a range of issues, partisans invariably feel their side can do nothing wrong and the other side can do nothing right. By contrast, moderates don't feel there is a yawning divide on issues because they don't identify with one party or another. Moderates, in other words, are like people who are uninterested in sports and roll their eyes when fans of opposing teams hurl abuse at each other.

One of the most dependable reactions on the net is the impulse of a netizen to support a fellow partisan, to concentrate on the areas of agreement with him/her, and to attack those identified with the "other side". It's disorienting to see those who agree with one on the Iraq occupation take a position contrary to one's position on gun control, abortion, religion, NAFTA, or same sex marriage. I like to think I handle this sort of cognitive dissonance better than most, though; I often see fellow liberals become irate over a former comrade's apostasy on some issue, almost to the point of claiming he's forthwith drummed out of our club. It's even worse on the conservatives' side; their big boards (like FreeRepublic) are famous for banning anyone who deviates from orthodoxy in the slightest.

So, the cited article says this tendency has become more pronounced over the years in the US, and I believe it. But how smart is it? My answer is, not smart at all, if you care about a civil society and a functioning democracy. There is no good reason a person can't be a free trader, pro-life, pro-gun control, and for universal health care. But those people would not have a home in either major party today. They'd have to keep half their opinions to themselves when among friends. And we haven't even started talking about religion.

I don't know how we can improve this situation. The major parties and their politicians keep talking about "big tents" and such, but it makes no difference. The hoi polloi still needs their culture wars. And I definitely feel this urge too. "President Sarah Palin" makes me want to retch. To me, she stands for a return to the Dark Ages and a repudiation of the Enlightenment. Everything about her and her family strikes me as trashy and destructive, from the snowmobile fixation through hunting and beauty pageants and religious fundamentalism to the shotgun marriage of her daughter to an unemployed high school dropout. If they were neighbors I'd avoid socializing with them. And I'm sure I'd be called a "hater" by Palin, as she terms all those who don't think as she does.

Maybe it'll take a realignment to shake up this very stable dichotomy. If one party becomes substantially more numerous, the other's exclusivity would have to weaken if it were to have any chance of regaining some parity.

But maybe we're all beyond that. Americans tend to move to areas whose values they share. And the net allows us to select our own communities. You can always be in the majority somewhere in cyberspace, and somewhere in the real world, if you're willing to move.

I don't know how much further apart we can get than Jon Stewart and Rush Limbaugh, Pat Robertson and Michael Moore. Conservatives usually have (take you pick) no sense of humor or a very different one from me. They are not open to new experiences. Many of their moral choices are repugnant to me--and vice versa. I often think we're doomed to a cycle of shoving each other's faces into the ground as we gain temporary ascendancy in politics or popular culture, all the time nurturing our fears and resentments about each other.

We can try to be civil, and we often succeed. I hope that this does not become impossible.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

The Meaning of a Western Strategy

In any strategy which focuses on the importance of winning certain swing states, the Western States of Montana, Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada, and Arizona are states which should be looked at. I mention all five of these states however, because they have all swung at least once in the last four elections.

Although Arizona is not considered a swing state in 2008, it could be critical in 2012 depending on how the electoral votes are re-allocated.
In general, the blue states are likely to lose electoral votes as a result of the next census, but most of the above mentioned states will grow at a faster rate than other states; therefore, it is more significant that these swings states will gain electoral votes than that the blue states will decline in relative electoral strength.

The candidates tend to chose a strategy which ignores states that are not competitive. But is this really the best strategy? By ignoring California and Texas, Obama and McCain might be making a mistake, since they could be raising a lot of money in these states.
Finally look at Alaska: once considered a swing state, although it has leaned Republican, it has moved more into the strong states column for McCain because it is Palin's home state. But Alaskans for Obama know more about Palin than most of Obama's supporters and a visit there could be beneficial for Obama.
It wouldn't change the likely outcome of a McCain victory there, but it would accomplish at least three things.

1. He could raise money there.
2. It would make a good story on the evening news.
3. It could increase his chances of winning the popular vote, which doesn't help him win the election, but would make the fairness of the electoral college more of an issue.

The counter argument, is, of course, that such a visit would limit his time in critical states like Colorado.
By the way, if Obama does better in Nevada than in Colorado it would increase the likelyhood of a 269-269 tie which would result in Obama being elected by the House of Representatives and Biden being elected by the Senate, assuming a decisive victory for the Democrats in both bodies in November.
If such a scenario occurs and McCain gets more popular votes that Obama, don't be surprised to hear key Republicans talk about abolishing the electoral college and replacing it with a popular vote. Don't forget, however, that in all likelyhood this would mean that the election could be based on a plurality rather than a majority of the popular vote which I see as being opposed to the principle of being ruled by the "consent of the governed".

(adding Nevada, New Mexico, Iowa, and New Hampshire to the blue states results in a 269-269 tie)

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Values and Pride

This blog is tied to a forum with some history behind it called Turn Left Interactive, and while there's a lot of typical web board bullshit that goes on there, every once in a while something pops up, in this rabid microcosm of the national talking-points war, that's very revealing.

One of our members posed the question, "What are small-town values?" a la the Sarah Palin quote: "We grow people with good values in our small towns."

Here are two of the answers Republican participants put forth, when they actually bothered to try to answer:
"I think much of what makes small town values seem more appealing is the presumption of a more caring and cohesive society -- one in which your neighbors are "known" -- not only to and by each other, but known within the community. In many cases, for generations."

"You're 2 times as likely to be murdered by the morally enlightened members or our nation's urban communities. We upstanding urbanites improve a bit when it comes to forcibly raping our neighbors, only outpacing our rural counterparts by about 30%."

So, in essence, small-town values are knowing who your neighbors are and having a lower crime rate?

Both attempts at this answer are earnestly made, but fail when confronted with logic. You can know your neighbors in any community, rural or urban, (Hell, some cities even have a sampling of the recently maligned "community organizers"), and if anything has served to isolate us in our communities, it's television, computers and cars. As for the crime rate, it's doubtful anybody really believes Sarah Palin was talking about not getting mugged.

The reason the boat is missed here is because "small-town values" is just code for small-town pride.

Small-towns throughout the country have seen massive losses recently. The family farm is disappearing. Rust-belt cities where life revolved around one or two industries are falling apart as those industries abandon them. These places are full of people desperately in search of pride.

The reason the neo-conservatives don't use the word "pride" is because pride itself is not enough to be proud of. There has to be something you have, intrinsically superior to the alternative, available to make pride possible. And values are where that's at.

"Our schools may be struggling, but I can be proud that I'm a hunter."

"I may not have health insurance, but at least my neighbors share my cultural roots."

"I may have lost my job, but I'm going to Heaven."

This is the tricky part, that Obama has, for the most part, been very conscious of. This is not something to lash out at with anger and sharp tongues. Small-town folks are already beaten down. The situation is actually just sad. When all you have to turn to is your heritage and the afterlife, then you've given up any hope that you can control your own life at all.

Preaching about "small-town values" does nothing but encourage the same bad habits many Americans developed as a result of Republican policies. It's the same cycle that we've seen for years, and it will continue until enough people snap out of the funk, at least for that necessary brief window of time, and stop it in the voting booth.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Abstinence-Only Fails, Contraception Works

While obvious inferences might be drawn from my title to the recent scandal regarding the Republican Vice-Presidential candidate's family, aside this notice I'm not especially interested in talking about them. I suspect I will be the odd man out on this blog, since I find the daily news cycle a bit tedious and thus am rarely inclined to do straight, topical posts. We all have our different strengths and weaknesses. My interest is more issue- and idea-oriented.

It has for some time been a standard Republican policy to support one and only one form of sex education in the schools: "Don't do it!" This approach is the darling of social conservatives, who can correctly point out that abstaining from sex is a most efficacious way to avoid being pregnant or contracting a sexually-transmitted disease. It's even fair to say that recommending teenagers do not have sex because they lack the life experience or emotional maturity to handle the personal and interpersonal issues involved in that decision. One does not want teenagers to have sex for the same reasons one does not want them drinking, smoking, or any number of other things.

However, there's an element of equivocation I often observe in the social conservative appeal to abstinence. Yes, abstinence is a 100% effective way to avoid ending up in unfortunate situations that only arise from having sex. If a disease can only be transmitted sexually, refraining from sex will spare you any risk of the disease. But this simply ignores obvious reality that teenagers will have sex. Not all of them, certainly, but some percentage will. This has likely been a constant for the whole of human history, so the notion that a few teachers and parents telling them to do otherwise is breathtakingly naive.

Yet this is exactly the position one must endorse in order to favor abstinence-only education. Yes, abstinence works for those who remain abstinent. However, teaching abstinence and abstinence only leaves those who do elect to have sex as endangered as they possibly can be by their conduct. Closing our eyes and hoping for the best is not just bad policy, but an abrogation of our responsibility to the next generation.

Given that some teenagers will have sex, whether we tell them to or not, what can we do about the resultant pathologies? The answer is obvious to anyone who has read my title. We can teach teenagers about contraception. We can educate them about proper condom use. We can inform them about birth control pills. These are all simple, common sense solutions that also happen to work, as this just-released study demonstrates:

“The United States seems to be following the recent patterns in other developed countries where increased availability and use of modern contraceptives and condoms have led to remarkable declines in teen pregnancy,” said lead author John Santelli. “If most of the progress in reducing teen pregnancy rates is due to improved contraceptive use, national policy needs to catch up with those realities.”

Clearly we are enjoying a decline in teen pregnancy, and we have not abstinence-only education but greater access information about contraception to credit for it. So why do we have social conservatives pushing the exclusion of education about contraception from the curriculum? Are they devoted to increasing teen pregnancy? Is there a sexually-transmitted disease lobby plying them?

No. Rather it seems that the social conservatives have decided that sex outside of heterosexual marriage is wrong in itself and doing anything to aid those who elect to have such sex is only aiding a sinner in escaping punishment. If one accepts this premise, then one must conclude that abstinence-only education is working exactly as intended.

I have sometimes heard from conservatives who will admit to some of these facts that whatever the case may be, sex education is not the place of the schools. Having them involved means that children could learn things contrary to the values or beliefs of their parents. Isn't questioning your opinions, however cherished, the thing a good education is supposed to be about in the first place?

As I fail to see how teaching children about abstinence and contraception in the schools prevents parents from also teaching children about abstinence, condoms, or anything else they wish to teach their children, I see no grounds on which to make an objection except the notion that sex is a dirty thing that you should only give to one you love enough to marry and those who think otherwise deserve hardship and disease. I find it impossible to make a moral defense of any such position.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Pregnant With Controversy

Who'd have thunk it? In a mere three days, the John McCain campaign has transformed into an episode of Jerry Springer.

Obama rightly scolded his own out-of-control troops and told them to quit the frothing, and now that we've had a good full day of Preggersgate, the dust is finally starting to clear a little bit. What do we see?

There is a real issue buried under all the slop: Teennage pregnancy. Bristol Palin's issue is an issue for a lot of families in America, enough so that most other first world countries outrank us in keeping their horny young ones from an early end to childhood. That distinction includes Russia, which, if you follow the link to the Wikipedia article, you'll see has a teenage birth rate of 30 out of 1,000 - compared to our birth rate of 53 out of 1,000.

If all the frantic mudslinging leads to an honest debate on this issue it may have all been worthwhile. As an added bonus, teen pregnancy is irrevocably tied to abstinence education and religious indoctrination, which also direly need to be addressed.

So gear up for another God vs. condoms debate.

There's also a secondary issue with major ramifications hidden beneath the tabloid trash: Abortion. For example, let's read this already famous line:
"We're proud of Bristol's decision to have her baby and even prouder to become grandparents."
Bristol's decision? Really? That's an odd choice of words from someone who would like to see one of her options taken away. And for all we could possibly know, it may not even be true. Parental and social pressure is a powerful thing.

So my point is, the issue goes far deeper than the young daughter of a surprise VP choice. This situation could become a symbol for every other kid across the country facing the same trial, and the challenges they face when confronted with their family, religion and upbringing.

That is, it could become a symbol if we have the national maturity to allow it to. That much has yet to be seen.

All Spin, All the Time

It's become fashionable to decry partisanship these days. I see commercials featuring elephant/donkey hybrids kicking graphics representing intractable problems, implying that if we could only forget about those silly policy and values differences and work together, we could make short work of global warming, the energy crisis, and inadequate health care. Well, that's pretty silly. there are fundamental differences between conservatives and liberals on most issues of importance. And that's OK.

But what does bother me is that partisans today seem to consider facts as soldiers and analyses as campaigns in the political war. There isn't even a nod to truth. The editorial pages are schizophrenic. Half of the commentators seem to live on different planets from the other half.

There are many examples I could point to, but let's take the experience debate. I'm a Democrat supporting Barack Obama, but I'm not about to tell anyone that I'm confident he would come through in a pinch. I think he would, but he hasn't shown that he would. It's a genuine issue. Why not just admit it and address it?

Well, because it's got to the point where if you show any weakness or doubt, the opposition will pounce. They're not going to reciprocate by admitting that McCain's first few years in the Senate weren't so hot, or that his best days are behind him and he really hasn't done all that much in over two decades. They'll take your admission and run with it, overpraising McCain in comparison. You can take comfort in your openmindedness and fairness, but your opponent will outpoint you.

However, what good are those points? The idea, it seems to me, is not to win points or even arguments, but to win votes. Is 24/7 propaganda doing it? I don't know. In one-on-one conversations with leaners or undecideds, my sense is that it doesn't work. Admitting the other guy's strong points does establish some good faith basis for further discussion, and may make space for a real conversation. Just a thought.