Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Stupid Media Misconceptions

The worst thing by far about the current political situation is the quality of the political analysis. It’s not all poor, of course, but about ninety percent of it is, and that ninety percent includes most of the mainstream media (and I include outlets like talk radio and conservative columnists in the term “mainstream media”). The lines of political commentary are drawn within a set of preconceived ideas, a distressingly large number of which have no basis in fact.

The Republican Party Is Dead

The GOP might not be permanently dead, but the convention wisdom is that it is comatose for the foreseeable future. The GOP’s two consecutive bad elections, and gloomy demographic projections (the older white voters who make up the party’s base are dying off) mean that the Republican party as we know it is dead. It will only return after a long period of self-examination, and a complete makeover.

The defection of Arlen Spector the Democrat party is touted as a example of this phenomenon. Because if the Republican party can’t keep a very liberal senator whom conservatives have hated for years and is facing a tough primary challenge within its ranks, who can it keep?

The people who support this theory—practically everyone, as even most conservatives think the Republican party must be wholly redefined—ignore the fact that the Democrat party four years ago was supposed to be just as dead as the Republican party is now. They didn’t really change anything (though the conventional wisdom at the time was that the Democrat party would have to adapt to “values voters” in order to stay relevant), and won the next election two years later.

So many veteran columnists, with years of experience behind them, seem to forget that the political scene changes. Issues that aren’t important in the least one year are vitally important the next. In 2004, “security moms” and “values voters” drove the GOP to victory; four years later, the important issues were getting out of Iraq and the economic crisis.

The Republican Party Must Move On From Traditional Conservatism

The idea that the “new conservatives,” like David Frum and Meghan McCain are the new face of the Republican party is ubiquitous. Liberals cheer this change, since it would move the Republican party much closer to their beliefs, while conservatives fear it for the same reason. No one ever seems to notice that Frum, McCain, and the rest don’t seem to have many followers.

In fact, they don’t really seem to have any. David Frum, Kathleen Parker, David Brooks, and others have soapboxes, but the only people listening are those who disagree with them, either liberals who want them to join the Democrat party or conservatives who vow to never let their ideas infect the Republican party. Few of their followers actually seem to agree with them. There certainly aren’t enough to form a grassroots movement to remake the party. The rank and file of the GOP still listens to Rush Limbaugh, and without them the “New Republicans” don’t have a chance of doing anything to really change the GOP.

Barack Obama Is the Greatest President Ever (So Far)

This idea is mostly held by liberals invested in Obama’s success. Not surprisingly, given that his party controls the House and Senate, Obama has gotten much of his agenda through. His supporters point to that fact as evidence of his success.

Unfortunately for them, Obama will only be successful if his policies work. And it’s impossible to tell whether they will or not after only one hundred days. But there are signs, at least, that his presidency won’t be the triumph his supporters think it already is. Obama has quadrupled the deficit, the economy shows few signs of improving, and his administration has not yet proven itself to be very competent, as demonstrated by Obama’s difficulty in filling his cabinet, and the embarrassing New York City flyover scare. In addition, Obama’s approval ratings, while still high, are lower than those of other presidents at the same point in their presidencies, and have come back to earth.

Obama’s presidency may be a resounding success. But there isn’t any evidence to support that claim, and can’t be till much later in his presidency.

Barack Obama Is the Worst President Ever

This is the conservative flip side of the “best president ever” meme. It’s just as stupid, too, and for the same reason—it’s only been one hundred days. It is far too early to make any judgments about the course of Obama’s presidency. So far, Obama has acted like a typical Democrat—high taxes, high spending, lots of regulation. That’s bad news for conservatives, but many voters like that sort of thing, and Obama certainly isn’t doing anything that you wouldn’t see Hillary Clinton, or John Edwards doing.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Earth Day Reflections

Wednesday was Earth Day, which is perhaps the least observed event on the calendar. It is supposed to be a call for action, an alarm reminding us that our Earth is delicate, sustainability is good, and all the rest of the environmentalist clichés. In reality, the only people who celebrate it are eccentric environmentalists and people who look at their calendar, say “hey, it’s Earth Day!” and then forget about it.

Even if no one pays attention to Earth Day, though, it’s lessons are still worth thinking about. Earth Day is a holiday invented and promoted by environmentalists, and the loaded label “environmentalist” sometimes obscures the substance of what they say. Conservatives usually oppose environmentalism, while liberals usually support it, both sides almost always without thinking.

The most pressing issue for environmentalists, of course, is global warming. Liberals, proving that perhaps Al Gore’s infamous condescension may be justified at times, simply accept that man made global warming is a threat, and that something must be done immediately. Most of them are willing to wait for government regulations, while the more enthusiastic and asinine try to “do their part” by performing useless penances like recycling or taking cold showers.

Conservatives, on the other hand, reject global warming as impulsively as liberals embrace it. To them, climate change is a hoax designed to let the government into their wallets and lives.

Conservatives are partially right, but mostly wrong here. Global warming is real, and humanity is causing it. Virtually every climate scientist agrees that that is true. Unless there is some massive conspiracy to promote global warming, or the science is incredibly wrong, global warming does exist.

How to stop it is the tricky part. In 1998, almost every industrialized country—with the rather notable exception of the United States—signed the Kyoto Protocols, which put limits on carbon emissions. Then all those countries ignored the Protocols and emitted as much carbon as they wanted.

The industrialized world couldn’t implement the Kyoto Protocols. It would take twenty-five Kyoto Protocols to make a significant dent in carbon emissions. If humanity can’t be bound by the rules it has now, could it ever hope to follow rules twenty-five times as stringent?

Even if it could, it wouldn’t matter anyway. China didn’t sign the Kyoto Protocols either, and their economy is a) growing rapidly, and b) based largely on coal burning plants. China would never dream of slowing its economy for environmental reasons, and won’t reach a stage where they could consider going carbon neutral for several decades yet. If the Western world decides to sabotage their economies in order to save the earth, other countries will pick up the slack. (India hasn’t signed the Protocols either).

Barack Obama wants to make the United States do its part by implementing a cap and trade plan where companies and individuals can buy and trade carbon credits. This plan will fail. It would severely hurt the economy (everyone agrees that you simply don’t raise taxes in a recession), would destroy what is left of American manufacturing, and wouldn’t help the earth much anyway because China and India would keep pumping out carbon dioxide.

The Maldives are a tiny island nation that will be one of the first affected by global warming. They are barely above sea level, and any change in sea levels would flood them. The Maldives’ president, Mohamed Nasheed, has announced that he will set aside an investment fund, so that his nation can buy a new country if the worst happens.

That kind of thinking should be America’s answer to climate change too. Global warming is happening, and there is no practical way to stop it. The U.S. should invest its resources in preparing for a warmer world, not in futilely trying to prevent the inevitable.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Meghan McCain as Paris Hilton

John McCain was a loser in the last presidential election. His daughter Meghan was a winner. Meghan McCain shot to stardom during the presidential campaign, starting a blog and campaigning hard for her father. After the election, she used her newfound fame to get a writing job at the website The Daily Beast, where she has used her platform to promote her vision for a renewal of the Republican party.

Meghan is the “reformer” camp, and thinks that the Republican party needs to fundamentally change its message in order to appeal to younger voters. Inevitably, some prominent conservatives have disapproved, and her writings have become the subject of a great deal of debate.

Before analyzing Meghan’s ideas, it’s worth noting that she is not a good writer. She’s not a bad writer—her stuff is readable—but she’s certainly not up to columnist par. Her usage is suspect sometimes, and so is her vocabulary. And her points are sometimes a little confusing, like criticizing Karl Rove for following her on Twitter, or for touting Aaron Schock as a potential party leader on the strength of his rock hard abs.

As for McCain’s ideas, they seem to be inspired mostly by embarrassment at being apparently the only Republican at Columbia University. All her ideas are based around the idea that the Republican party would prosper if only its ideas were a bit more attractive to young people.

Hence McCain’s support for gay marriage, global warming, and stem cell research, and her constant reassurances that she is totally cool and hip and stuff. Her speech to the Log Cabin Republicans, during which she reminded her audience that she likes black, punk rock, and gays is both revealing and pathetic, like she’s a high school freshman trying to get in with the cool kids by exhibiting the same interests. (And was her best example of a gay friend really her hairdresser? I’m surprised she didn’t drag an interior designer and struggling poet out there to complete the gay stereotype trifecta).

Unfortunately, she’s almost certainly doomed to fail, because the Republican party, quite simply, is not built to be cool. People think that the Republican party is the party of older people, and they think that because it’s true.

Young people have never been enthusiastic about the Republican party, and there is no reason to expect that to change. Churchill was right—anyone who is twenty and not a liberal has no heart; anyone forty and not a conservative has no brains. You can’t take that axiom too seriously (unless I am truly heartless, because I’m nineteen and not a liberal), but it does sum up how most young people feel about politics.

I’m a young conservative too. I suppose I’m a minority among my peers, though I go to a relatively conservative college, and my father is not a Republican senator, so my experiences have been nothing like what Meghan’s must have been. Still, I recognize that conservatism isn’t considered cool, and am content to accept that fact instead of pathetically reminding people of my body art and how much I love punk rock.

Meghan McCain disagrees, apparently, but doesn’t propose any solutions. She thinks she knows what’s wrong with the GOP (opposition to gay marriage, Ann Coulter, uncoolness), but can’t present her vision of what the party should look like, outside of more gays and more sixpack abs.

I feel slightly guilty criticizing Meghan McCain, since she obviously means well, and diverse points of view are always desirable. (But then, Meghan is attractive and rich, so I think she can handle the criticism). But her profile is so high, and her points both so lame and so undeservedly regarded, that I think some analysis is useful.

McCain has become the Paris Hilton of conservative bloggers—she is known because of her last name, got famous because of something mildly outrageous though predicable (attacking Ann Coulter isn’t quite as shocking as a sex tape, but still), and hasn’t really done anything useful since. Unlike Hilton, Meghan has a useful life ahead of her, but is a bit of an embarrassment right now, and probably will be till she gets tired of blogging.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Krugman and the Tea Parties

The Tea Parties, and Tax Day, came and went Wednesday. The Tea Parties were reasonably well attended, with something like 250,000 protesters showing up across the nation. Protests aren’t my thing (I can think of many more useful ways of spending my time), and the only way I’d go to one of these protests would be out of curiosity on a day in which I had nothing else to do (those days are rare), but those who did go seemed satisfied.

The conservative media gave the Tea Parties lots of praise, just as one would expect. Predictably, Fox News gave the protests positive coverage, while CNN and MSNBC provided negative coverage. The worst were the “teabagging” jokes (a reference to a sexual act) on CNN and MSNBC, which are really staggeringly unfunny. All that was exactly what you would expect.

What was unexpected, at least to me, was the reaction of prominent liberals. No one could expect that they would like or approve of the protests. But the typical liberal reaction was much more vehement, and much more worried, than I expected them to be. They seemed almost…afraid.

One example of this is Paul Krugman. Krugman is the farthest thing from a hack, or an extremist. He has won a Nobel Prize, and is a respected columnist for the New York Times. He’s a scholar—other economists take his work seriously.

But his pre-Tea Parties column was just stupid. Some of his points are, in my opinion, wrong, but definitely debatable, so I’ll grant that saying that the only true policy debates are within the Democratic Party, that the Tea Parties are embarrassing and fit for mockery, and that the GOP “looked as crazy 10 or 15 years ago as it does now” are points that are at least arguable. And while Krugman is unfair in picking out isolated examples of unadulterated craziness (Obama birth certificate Truthers) in order to smear the whole movement, that “guilt by association” strategy is merely unfair, not stupid.

But without including all that, there is still plenty of stupidity in Krugman’s article. He tries to link those isolated idiots who are convinced that Obama is ineligible for the presidency with the mainstream of the Republican party, providing a convoluted parallel which compares the birth certificate people to Vince Foster conspiracy theorists, and the Vince Foster theorists to Rush Limbaugh. Limbaugh once (irresponsibly) suggested that possibly the theories surrounding Foster’s death had some truth, which in Krugman’s mind apparently translates into Limbaugh relentlessly pushing those theories.

Krugman expanded on his anti-Rush theme, comparing the apologies he has extracted from those Republicans foolish enough to criticize him to Stalinist show trials, which is unfair on many levels. He says that while it is “new to have a talk show host in that role” (apparently, no editors at the New York Times noticed that “that role” was never defined), such party discipline is nothing new. Apparently, Stalinist show trials are business as usual for Republicans.

The rest is more of the same—Krugman rambles on about evolution, Astroturfing (which Krugman defines are “fake grass roots events,” although the Tea Parties seemed as genuine was any grass root event, and anyway I don’t see that it matters who, if anyone, was behind them), Fox News, and the 2000 presidential election, all of which he relates somehow to the Tea Parties. (Some Tea Partiers protest evolution too, Fox News gave the events favorable coverage, etc).

Krugman’s point, as far as he has one, is that the Republican party needs to grow up and move on. (Actually, he is right, though for none of the reasons he cites in his column). But the fact that the only evidence he presents are some slightly silly but harmless protests, and every liberal talking point used against conservatives sounds inconsistent. His argument would be a lot more persuasive if he moved on (to borrow a phrase) and stopped spreading liberal paranoia about Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, and any gathering of conservatives with more than three people.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Random Thoughts

Just a few random thoughts…

Rod Blagojevichis all set to appear on a reality show, provided a federal judge gives permission. Blago’s gone down in the world—but not as far down as the people who watch that show. (For the record, it’s called "I'm a Celebrity ... Get Me Out of Here!", in case you want to check it out). How boring must your life be if you find watching Rod Blagojevich the most interesting thing you can do?

Governor Rick Perry of Texas suggested that Texas could secede from the Union if it wanted to. Didn’t we fight a war about that issue? I know he wanted to rally the base, but I think he could have chosen a less controversial way of doing so.

The big mega-Tea Party was today. Meh.

How did Joe Biden donate less than two thousand dollars out of over $250,000 earned to charity? Far be it for me to criticize him for greediness (let he who is without sin…), but honestly, you’d expect him to donate at least one percent to charity.

Barack Obama hasn’t been able to find a new church yet. It must be harder to find another church run by a racist lunatic than he thought. Given that Obama claims to be quite religious, it’s surprising that he hasn’t attended church even once since becoming president.

Meghan McCain has been spending her time since the campaign ended trying to make a name for herself as a conservative pundit. She bills herself as a reformer trying to woo younger voters, but unfortunately she has spent most of her time sparring with Laura Ingraham and Ann Coulter. Coulter should be attacked as often as possible, but given that McCain only joined the GOP after her father starting running for president, I’m not sure she’s the best person to reinvent the party.

Also, McCain seems sensitive about the lack of younger voters who are Republicans. Frankly, I wouldn’t spend too much time worrying about them—young people probably won’t start voting Republican in very large numbers anytime soon. I’m reminded of Churchill’s quote: “Anyone who is twenty and not a liberal has no heart; anyone who is forty and not a conservative has no brains.”

I’m nineteen. What does that say about me?

I know that my blogging hasn’t been very good over the last few weeks. What can I say—I’m really busy, I’m taking 19 credit hours this semester (I’m a college student, if you didn’t know), and I’m getting close to finals. I’ll keep blogging, but I probably won’t hit my target of five posts per week. I know that it’s boring reading a blog that isn’t update often, but I’ll try to at least make the posts I do get done quality posts.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Gay Marriage and Conservatives

In 2004, opponents of gay marriage rallied to vote for a large number of state constitutional amendments banning gay marriage. In 2008, California voters voted down Proposition 8, which would have legitimized same-sex marriages in that state. Gay marriage activists were stunned and upset. It hadn’t been a good half-decade for gay marriage advocates—after years of hard work trying to build support for gay marriage, only two states (Massachusetts and Connecticut) recognized same-sex marriages at the beginning of this year.

However, it appears that perhaps their work is starting to pay off. Recently, the Iowa Supreme Court decreed that the Iowa state Constitution supported the recognition of gay unions. And the Vermont legislature passed a bill legalizing same-sex marriages.

Demographically, the situation looks encouraging for gay marriage supporters. Polls show that a majority of young people support gay marriage, and the fastest growing demographic segments mostly support gay marriage. (Of course, those things can change. A generation ago, young people seemed to spend all their time on anti-war protests and sit-ins, while now they all work in offices and vote Republican. And a generation ago, Catholics were a solidly Democratic voting bloc, while now they are more evenly split between the two parties).

These facts have generated a great deal of fuzzy logic and bad reasoning on both sides. Liberals, who tend to support gay marriage, chastise the United States for being so far behind the rest of the world on the subject of gay rights. Conservatives, on the other hand, see the advance of gay marriage as an unprecedented assault on traditional values.

Conservatives who make the latter case are partly right. Liberals who make the former case are wrong. The United States doesn’t recognize gay marriage. Neither do most countries. Great Britain doesn’t permit gay marriage. Neither do Australia, France, Portugal, Brazil, Switzerland, or any other country other than Belgium, Norway, Canada, the Netherlands, Sweden, and Spain. Apart from those seven countries, gay marriage isn’t recognized anywhere.

(Lending some credence to the liberal point, however, is the fact that many other countries do include a form of civil union for same-sex or unmarried opposite couples, a measure that strikes me as sensible and worth considering for the U.S.).

In fact, given that four states currently allow same-sex marriage, America is actually a bit more liberal towards same-sex couples than other countries. A gay couple living in Ohio can move to Massachusetts and get married, which is more than that a couple in England can do.

True, most states don’t recognize gay marriage, and neither does the federal government. But that doesn’t make the U.S. much different from most other countries, and the fact remains that it is easier for a gay couple to get married in America than in France.

Conservatives see gay marriage as a great threat, striking at the heart of all tradition moral norms. They see permitting gay marriages as making the institution of marriage meaningless, divorcing it from its traditional meaning, as well as from childbearing.

They are right, to an extent. But the advent of gay marriage is a symptom, not a disease. If gay marriage is recognized, then it is so because the institution of marriage is already meaningless. About fifty percent of heterosexual marriages end in divorce; cohabitation and illegitimate pregnancies are universally accepted. If marriage is supposed to be a permanent union, or supposed to exist for the purpose of providing a stable, loving home for children, then marriage as the Western world knows it has no meaning at all. Gay marriage isn’t a threat to traditional marriage—you can’t threaten something that doesn’t exist.

Conservatives can go ahead and protest gay marriage, and pass constitutional amendments and lobby state supreme courts all they want to. But their efforts will be in vain unless American (and Western) society returns to a more traditional view of marriage, in which marriage is viewed as permanent and the only acceptable way to raise a family. Until then, trying to fight gay marriage is, in the long run pointless.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

The Tea Party Protests--Pros and Cons

A lot of conservatives are very excited about the Tea Party movement. The idea behind the tea parties is that conservatives should take a page out of the liberal playbook, and stage sizeable demonstrations to protest high taxes and spending, while waving around tea bags to remind people of the Boston Tea Party. The Tea Party label was chosen, of course, in order that people would identify them with the historical tea party.

The Tea Parties have been reasonably successful, especially considering that the first one the brainchild of lone conservative blogger, and the idea snowballed from there. They’ve gotten decent turnout (though not what your average antiwar protest would get), and they’ve gotten a great deal of coverage in the conservative media, and a significant amount of attention in the media in general. There should be a lot more attention on April 15, on that day, there are over a thousand Tea Parties planned across the country, expected to involve hundreds of thousands of people.

Many, many conservatives consider the Tea Party movement a good thing. But it has some pretty significant weaknesses, which the conservative movement would do well to consider.

First, of course, there is the fact that the modern Tea Parties and the original Tea Party had very different goals. The original Tea Party protested taxation without representation, while the modern Tea Party generally stands against higher taxes. The modern Tea Parties are similar in name only to the original, and their label is merely an attempt to cash in on the Tea Party name. This disconnect makes the Tea Party organizers look calculating and misleading.

Another reason to be wary of such protests is the fact that such protests backfire as often as they succeed. There was a Tea Party in my hometown of Cincinnati. I didn’t go, but it did give me the chance to see local coverage of the protest. According to several local news sources, their reporters felt unsafe at the demonstration. That isn’t exactly the press conservatives need.

(The Tea Party organizer, in a Facebook message, didn’t deny that the reporters concerned might have been threatened, but complained that there wasn’t any proof outside of their unsupported testimony, which makes for a very feeble defense).

And any missteps by Tea Party participants will become known. Most of the mainstream media is hostile to conservatives, and anything negative about these demonstrations will certainly become widely disseminated. And protests tend to be votile places—it is easy to imagine a protest spiraling out of control.

A final reason that conservatives shouldn’t become too attached to the idea of mass protests. Protests are blatant appeals to emotion. During a protest, there is no other message involved other than “look, thousands of other people agree with me.” There is no logic, no reasoning, nothing other than an appeal to emotion.

The conservative movement has had more than enough appeals to emotion in the past months. Joe the Plumber was, initially, a useful archetype of the common man. But his effective shelf life was about a week, and the McCain campaign made him a centerpiece of their campaign far past his expiration date. And by the end of the presidential campaign, Sarah Palin had dropped almost all substance from her stump speech, instead emphasizing that she was a) a hockey mom, b) a maverick, and c) opposed to earmarks.

The Tea Party demonstrations are not without value. They inspire the base, and can serve as a first step into the world of conservative grassroots. And they do inspire media coverage, much of it positive.

But protests are no substitute for ideas and organization. The Tea Parties can be an effective gimmick—but they are only a gimmick. They should play only a very secondary role in the conservative arsenal.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Democracy In Action

It seems that the election of Al Franken to the U.S. Senate is basically a fait accompli. This is a little embarrassing for America—Franken’s books had little in the way of serious political thought, and were poorly researched and unfair. I believe—and this is mere conjecture, and time may prove it unfair to Franken—that future generations will see the election of Al Franken as similar to the elections of Bella Abzurg or Dennis Kucinich (his first election)—as shameful, never to be repeated mistakes.

(What was Kucinich’s first election? Some people have forgotten, but his first prominent government job was as mayor of Cleveland, elected at the age of thirty-one. His performance was about as strong as you would expect, although he was slated for a mob hit, which was only lifted when the city fell into default).

But whether or not Franken is a competent Senator, his election is worrisome, and those worries arise from fears that are far more important than the quality of Franken’s political brain. Because the 2008 Minnesota Senate was a travesty, and should never happen again, anywhere, or at least not too many more times.

Franken will, eventually, become Minnesota’s junior Senator. Coleman will be the loser. But it is impossible to say with certainty which man deserves to win or lose. The vote counting in Minnesota was plagued with irregularities and mistakes. Franken will win—but it is impossible to say with any conviction that he was the candidate with the most votes.

After the initial count—which showed Coleman ahead—absentee ballots came flowing in, from unusual places. Some were found in poll workers cars, others were recounted or discounted because of mistakes made during the first count.

A recount began, and both sides started flying in lawyers to make sure that no legal stone was left unturned. Both sides started challenging every possible ballot (particularly absentee ballots, which have more rules attached to them), even if the voter’s intent was obvious. Some of these challenges were upheld, others were rejected; in the end, over twelve thousand absentee ballots were rejected, out of over two hundred eighty thousand cast.

By all accounts, Coleman’s team of lawyers did a very poor job—they were outhustled and outmaneuvered by Franken’s team. And the Coleman camp still maintains that different Minnesota counties apply the rules for absentee ballots inconsistently, and that Democrat counties tend to be slack, while Republican counties are more stringent.

Coleman’s biggest mistake was his campaign’s reaction to a Minnesota Supreme Court decision that held that previously rejected absentee ballots should be included in the final count, provided that both sides agreed. Coleman allowed 933 ballots to be counted—without first getting a guarantee of uniform treatment of all absentee ballots. The 933 ballots increased Franken’s lead, and Coleman was unable to get enough addition absentee ballots counted to take the lead. Coleman was plagued by poor legal advice throughout the legal battle.

Franken won the election fair and square—the recount process was even-handed, and his lawyers were much better. He did not steal the election. But nobody, even Franken, could say with any degree of certainty that he got the largest number of legitimate votes. Maybe he did, and maybe he didn’t. But he was victorious mostly due to the skill and experience of his lawyers.

That sort of thing can be fatal for a democracy. If voters cannot trust that their votes will be counted, they lose confidence in the democratic system. And if that confidence is lost, democracy cannot work. This is hardly the first time this has happened—George W. Bush won Florida in 2000 in much the same way that Franken won Minnesota—but it should be the last. If elections are decided by lawyers, and not votes, then democracy is meaningless.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Patriotic Grace

According to a recent Pew poll, Barack Obama is the most divisive president in a half century. The partisan gap in approval rating between Republicans and Democrats is the largest it has been in decades. The gap is 61% now; just forty years ago, in 1969, the partisan gap regarding Richard Nixon’s performance at the same time in his presidency was a mere 29%. The gap has increased for every president since, with only two exceptions (Carter and George H.W. Bush).

The trend towards divisiveness seems to have started with Reagan. The gap with Nixon was 29%; the gap with Carter was 25%. When Reagan was elected, the partisan approval gap shot up to 46%. Reagan inspired many people, and established the foundation for modern conservatism (small government, less regulation, strong military). He was also the antithesis of modern liberalism. This meant that nearly all liberals disapproved of him, while virtually the entire conservative movement gave him their support.

Reagan forced the Republican party to the right, which widened the ideological gap between the two parties. (Today, a moderate like Nelson Rockefeller would have no shot at all at the Republican nomination). Politics became more polarized, and political strategists used that to their candidate’s advantage.

Political attacks became more personal—Republicans loathed the very idea of Bill Clinton, seeing him as a sort of Machiavellian genius for his talent in dodging the Monica Lewinsky scandal, while liberals considered Bush a mad dictator who had stolen the election.

During the most recent election, many Democrats considered John McCain a warmongering, far right extremist (and if there is anything John McCain is not, it is an extremist), while many conservatives still consider Barack Obama a Muslim, terrorist supporting snake in the grass.

(True story: I was talking to a conservative friend recently, and he claimed that he would root for UNC to win the NCAA tournament, except that Obama picked them. A perfect example of polarization).

This polarization is ubiquitous—and unhealthy. Just prior to the election, Peggy Noonan wrote an overlooked little book called Patriotic Grace. In this book, she argued that no matter which presidential candidate won, Americans, for the good of the country, must rally around him.

Noonan fears that America will soon some difficult challenges. Her fear is of a terrorist attack, but her book was written before the full scope of the financial collapse was known, and the financial crisis, if it continues as it is, could be an equally traumatic disaster.

If the country is not united, then Noonan fears that it will collapse under the strain. She is right. If the president cannot implement his agenda without the absolute, uncompromising disapproval of half the country, then it will be almost impossible to solve any of the country’ problems. This could be seen in Bush’s handling of Iraq—while he made more than his share of unforced errors, Democratic opposition definitely made his job harder. And I believe that Obama will experience much the
same thing, as congressional Republicans oppose his economic plans.

As Abraham Lincoln said, a house divided cannot long stand. America, of course, is nowhere near as divided as it was in Lincoln’s time, and secession is not something that America needs to worry about. But it is divided enough to make any attempts by the government to do anything productive enormously difficult, and to ensure that there is a great deal of waste and gridlock in Washington.

As we grow farther apart, I think that both parties will become more and more desperate in their attempts to woo voters, and grow farther and farther apart. The Republicans will attempt to energize their base by pushing tax cuts and war when in power, while the Democrats will fight for increased welfare programs. Neither side will care much for pragmatism and compromise. Since the liberal and conservative goals are mutually exclusive (you can’t have both low taxes and a large welfare state), this will have a horrible effect on the health of our country.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Liberty Versus Security

Friday, a gunman stormed into a New York immigration class, slaughtering thirteen people before killing himself. It’s the fifth mass shooting in the U.S. during this month alone, shootings that have left 44 people dead.

It’s inevitable that the usual suspects will use this tragedy as evidence that increased gun control is necessary, just as they did after Columbine, Virginia Tech, and every other newsworthy massacre. Their arguments haven’t changed much over the years—gun violence is a major problem in the United States, and one that can only be solved by aggressive gun control.

Assume that they are correct. Assume that if stringent gun control laws were passed, violent crime would drop precipitously. Imagine that more controls on gun ownership could make shooting sprees like the one in New York a thing of the past, and would make every American’s life much safer. The only drawback would be that many Americans would be forced to surrender their guns. Would such a measure be worth it?

(Of course, gun control has not had a very good record—countries such as Great Britain, which have virtually no guns, are still plagued with high crime rates.)

Some people would say “yes,” that any law that makes citizens safer is a just and worthy law. And there is something to be said for that argument—it is one of the primary duties of any government to keep its citizens protected. And guns serve no other purpose than to kill, and most guns are made for the purpose of killing human beings.

But there is another side to this argument, that I think trumps the pro-gun control viewpoint. The framers of America’s Constitution included the Second Amendment for reason. They felt that the right to bear arms to defend oneself was an important human right, one worth guaranteeing in the nation’s founding document. (Although actually, the Founders probably included the Second Amendment more to ensure that a militia was always available than to make sure that citizens could shoot intruders. Still, the point stands that they considered the right to bear arms a right of every citizen).

It is rarely a good practice to do an evil so that a good may result. And that is why I think that it is wrong to violate a constitutional right in the name of law and order. Sometimes it is not possible to fully guarantee one right (the right to life and property) without violating another (the right to bear arms). Many people fail to consider this.

It is the same with health care. If a European style nationalized system would work—if it would make health care more efficient and more affordable, there would still be a strong case to be made that moving in that direction would be inadvisable. Because it would put the most important thing any of us have—our health—into the hands of the government. Maybe the government would be a good steward of the public health. But maybe it would not. Health care is a very important thing—too important, I think, for the individual to surrender his autonomy in this matter to the state.

America was built around the ideals of liberty, and the individual. Absolute liberty is obviously impossible—one’s liberty does not allow one to infringe on the rights of others. And absolute individualism is likewise impossible—every society requires mutual cooperation.

But if absolute liberty and individualism are not possible, it is still best, I think, to maximize both as far as possible. Because the very foundation of our democracy is liberty, and any attempt to limit it undercuts our democracy. Sometimes, perhaps, we must make sacrifices for liberty—but they are worth making.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Accepting Global Warming

If there is one thing that all conservatives agree on, it is that the theory of manmade global warming is a myth. It’s all hype perpetuated by overzealous environmentalists who want to impose their nigh religious environmental hysteria on everyone. All the scientific claims supporting global warming are part of a giant hoax to spread fear about the health of the earth. But conservatives are not fooled.

In reality, they are fooling themselves. Global warming is happening, and people are responsible. (Not solely responsible, of course, but humanity’s actions have a large impact). Whatever conservatives believe about global warming (their narrative varies) is wrong.

Conservatives can’t seem to keep their story straight regarding global warming. Sometimes it’s that the earth isn’t warming at all (“it hasn’t warmed in ten years!”), other times it’s that it is but we aren’t responsible (“natural cycles”), and sometimes that humanity’s carbon emissions are insignificant compared to other sources of carbon dioxide (“cows/volcanoes/some other non-manmade cause emits way more carbon dioxide than humans do”!).

This inability to decide on a narrative doesn’t say much for the scientific rigor of the anti-global warming side. Those who disagree with the theory of global warming seem willing to seize on any possible interpretation of the available data, as long as it fits one of their theories. Even if the theories contradict each other (the earth’s temperatures can’t be holding steady and rising due to global warming at the same time), climate change deniers just try to accept both.

The “natural cycles” theory is the most common among global warming opponents, since it’s pretty clear that the earth has been warming and if humans are causing global warming, worrying about alternate sources of carbon dioxide emissions (like volcanoes or cows) is beside the point.

The natural cycles theory has two very large weak points. The first is that even if we are in a natural warming cycle, human activity could still have a hand in global warming. Human activity could very well be warming the earth, even if it is already in a warming cycle.

Also, there isn’t really any real evidence to suggest that we are in a warming cycle. It’s a possibility, but simply proposing alternate hypotheses doesn’t prove anything at all. There has to be some evidence backing it up, and there is precious little evidence to back up this theory.

The rest of the anti-global warming arguments are even worse. The weakest goes that since some scientists predicted global cooling during the seventies, and were wrong then, then all those scientists predicting global warming must be wrong now. This is pretty flimsy reasoning, especially since there were very few scientists at any time who seriously suggested that the planet was cooling.

Another idea is that since so many global warming advocates undeniably see preventing climate change as more of a religion than anything else, then climate change must be wrong. Of course, this doesn’t alter the scientific arguments at all, and is a simple ad hominem attack.

The case for global warming is simple, and logical. Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas, which means it traps heat from the sun. Human activity has increased the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere by a significant amount since the Industrial Revolution. Over that time, earth’s temperatures have risen. The reasoning seems conclusive.

Most scientists agree, since there really is a consensus about global warming. Ever wonder why anti-global warming people advertise every single scientist that agrees with them, no matter how sketchy his credentials (does the founder of Weather Channel really qualify as an expert on climate?), while those who believe in climate change seem to have every scientist in the world on their side?

That’s because almost every scientist believes, to some degree or another, in manmade global warming. And unless there is a massive conspiracy to promote global warming, or every scrap of scientific data is being reading wholly incorrectly, then the scientific world’s belief in climate change is an indicator of whom the science favors in this argument.

If people are causing global warming, that fact doesn’t necessarily mean that everyone must wholly agree with Al Gore on everything. For myself, I believe that global warming is an inevitable part of human development, and that we would be better served by planning for a world in which global warming is a reality, instead of futilely trying to prevent it. But wherever one stands on this issue, ignoring the science and clinging to a ridiculous idea that global warming isn’t happening serves no one.

How Influential Is Jon Stewart?

There are some notions and memes that are extremely widespread, but exist without a shred of supporting evidence. The greatness of John F. Kennedy’s presidency is one such meme; another is the idea that pork king Robert Byrd represents the “conscience of the Senate.” (Although given the corruption to be found in the Senate, maybe he is). And there is another such impression that is wholly absurd, and dismayingly ubiquitous—that Jon Stewart is a hard-hitting interviewer on television, speaking truth to power and covering stories no one else dare cover.

I’ll accept that Jon Stewart is a very funny person, though I’ve never found him very amusing. (In fairness, I haven’t watched much Stewart. And my sense of humor might differ from that of others). But that’s all he is. He’s not the oracle of the younger generation, and he isn’t Edward R. Murrow. He is only a comedian.

It is often claimed that Stewart controls the news consumption of America’s youth; that most of the under-thirty set get their news chiefly from Stewart’s Daily Show. Many do, and the Daily Show’s audience consists primarily of young people, but unless there are only about 1.6 million young people, the Daily Show only reaches a tiny proportion of them. Jon Stewart has done an impressive job of growing his audience (he’s tripled it since taking over in 1999), but it’s still small—Stewart’s reach is about as large as that of Greta Van Susteren’s.

But the size of one’s audience doesn’t always correspond to the amount of influence one has—after all, William Buckley didn’t reach many people directly through Firing Line and National Review, but he wielded a great deal of influence just the same. Is this the case with Stewart?

One of Stewart’s first triumphs was his feud with the CNN show Crossfire, and with Crossfire host Tucker Carlson. Stewart appeared on the show to promote his latest book—instead, he took the opportunity to criticize the show, saying that it reduced the news to talking points and engaged in “partisan hackery.” Three months later, Crossfire was cancelled.

Impressive, until you consider the circumstances surrounding the cancellation. Crossfire had just been reduced from an hour to a half hour, and moved from primetime to an afternoon slot. The show only averaged about 600,000 viewers an episode, which is a low figure for a channel like CNN. And if Stewart hoped to end cable news’ “partisan hackery,” he failed—cable news is as acrimonious as ever.

Stewart’s Crossfire feud may have been entertaining, and did show that Jon Stewart was a force to be reckoned with. But Stewart merely dealt a death blow to a dying show—he hardly forced Crossfire into cancellation by himself.

Stewart’s latest exploit was his feud with Jim Cramer, in the course of which he pointed out that Cramer’s stock predictions have frequently been wrong and accussed Cramer of being remiss in not warning of the stock collapse. I was a bit surprised that Stewart felt the need to point out the first part of his accusation—I had assumed that most people had long ago realized that listening to Jim Cramer was not a guaranteed path to wealth. And the idea that Cramer could have done anything to warn of or prevent the stock market collapse is just silly—Cramer gave stock tips, not detailed economic analysis’.

So Stewart embarrassed Cramer a bit by playing clips of some Cramer’s less impressive moments. But oddly, the rest of media jumped on this story like it was the modern version of the Frost/Nixon interviews. This was ridiculous for two reasons.

The first was that while Jim Cramer is well known, he’s not very influential—more people probably saw his cameo in Iron Man than watch his show in a year. Even if Cramer had seen the collapse coming, he couldn’t have done anything to slow it—he just doesn’t have the clout.

And the second reason, as noted above, is that even if Jim Cramer did have the influence to have done something about the financial crisis, he is the last person one would expect to play Jeremiah. Cramer’s show exists only because of Cramer’s ridiculous antics—were it not for them, Jim Cramer would be unknown. Stewart seems to have Jim Cramer confused with Alan Greenspan.

Jon Stewart is talented, and is not without influence. But his influence is very much exaggerated—he is not the conscience of the media, nor is he the voice of America’s youth. He is a comedian—and that’s all he wants to be.