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Monday Musings: Forlorn On The Fourth Of July

We have a fun July 4th celebration in our little town. It’s a university town, and a somewhat affluent one at that, especially when compared with the surrounding communities. And so we attract a lot of visitors. There are games for kids, a fun, somewhat tongue-in-cheek dog show, a parade, lots of food stands, a crafts fair, and, in the evening, a surprisingly good fireworks display over one of the local lakes.

Erin face paintAlex face paintOur girls LOVED Sewanee Fourth of July when they were young. We would give them a bit of cash, help them meet up with friends, and then pretty much say goodbye to them for the day. It’s a small, safe, friendly town, and we never worried about them. They always found us eventually, sunburned and sweaty, their faces covered in face-paint, their pockets stuffed with candy that was thrown to kids by the parade participants. We’d go home, have a nap and some dinner, not that any of us was very hungry, and then, after covering ourselves with bug spray, would make our way to the fireworks venue.

Fond memories.

Nancy and I have been doing July 4th on our own for many years now, since we became empty-nesters. It’s easier in a way, though a bit less fun. The magic of the day has dissipated with the years. We still enjoy seeing people, and we can usually find something good to eat. These days, we tend to stop by a couple of the parties that take place along the parade route, and, once the parade is done, we head home. Some years we go to see the fireworks, some years we don’t.

I will admit that this year my heart isn’t in it. Not the way it used to be. Part of that is personal — those fond memories have thorns these days.

But more than that, I feel less inclined to celebrate America than I used to. I have long found the equating of conservatism with patriotism offensive. I was brought up by liberals, and I raised my kids as a committed progressive. The terminology changed, but the love of country has never wavered. I have a Ph.D. in U.S. history, and while it is impossible to dive into the depths of our nation’s past without seeing its many flaws, it is also impossible to do so without gaining a healthy appreciation for qualities in our national story that are worthy of admiration. Resolve and resilience, boundless ambition and a commitment to human dignity that is often myopic and even hypocritical but also naïvely sincere. Ours is an imperfect but charmingly idealistic vision of government, an experiment in democratic republicanism that has yet to fulfill the dreams of its Founders, but which continues to strive for realization.

All of which makes our current state of political affairs so terrifying. The aforementioned experiment is at risk. If the Presidential election were held today, we would likely elect a man who has shown no compunction at all about placing his personal hunger for power above the national good, a man who has shown utter disregard for the centuries-old norms of our governing system, a man who has been convicted of 34 felonies and accused of dozens more, a man who literally lies about everything, who has made grievance and greed and graft synonymous with his personal brand, and who has declared without shame that he intends to begin his next term in the White House — a sequel to his disastrous, chaotic, hate-filled first term — with a one-day dictatorship. As if this paragon of gluttony will be able to stop after a single day.

Is our incumbent old? Yes. Do his communications skills leave much to be desired? Absolutely. This is why your Democratic friends and neighbors haven’t slept or eaten in days and have the look of caffeine addicts whose coffee machine is on the fritz. But Joseph Biden has been a remarkably effective President when it comes to passing bipartisan legislation. He has overseen an economic recovery that includes the creation of fifteen million new jobs. To be sure, inflation went up on his watch, spurred by supply-chain disruptions that began during the Covid recession of 2020 and worldwide economic dislocations caused by the ongoing war between Russia and Ukraine. But it has come down steadily since its 2022 peak and is now below 3% annually.

Most of all, though, the President is a decent, honest man, who honors and upholds our nation’s political ideals. He poses no threat to our republic. On the contrary, he is committed to saving our heating planet, improving the lives of those who face discrimination and economic injustice, and restoring a national right to women’s health care access. He has spent his life fighting for social equality. Is he a step slower now? A bit more muddled in his speech? A bit more frail and forgetful? Yes, yes, and yes. But on his worst day, he is better than the lying felon running against him.

I hope desperately that the American people will realize this before it’s too late. I fear they won’t.

I hope your July Fourth is fun and fulfilling.

Monday Musings: Contemplating Our Republic As July 4th Approaches

This is a holiday week and Nancy’s first week as FORMER acting-president of the university. And so I am feeling lazy and rather unmotivated. I can think of lots of stuff to write about, but those thoughts have been slow to coalesce into a coherent post.

I find myself drawn to the idea of commenting on the July 4th holiday. Our nation is two hundred and forty-seven years old and while I’m sure the founders would be heartened, and probably somewhat amazed, that their experiment in representative government has lasted so long, I am also certain they would be troubled by the strength and prevalence of anti-democratic forces in today’s society. Rarely in our history has our republic appeared so frail.

I could go on for pages and pages about the damage the Supreme Court has done to racial progress in this country with its rulings in the Harvard and UNC cases. Affirmative Action, though demonized on the right for decades, was the single most valuable tool institutions of higher education had at their disposal to rectify racial underrepresentation at elite schools caused by historical and systemic socio-economic inequality. Without it, lingering inequities in our society will only get worse. In the name of “leveling the playing field” the conservative majority on the Court has actually allowed existing structural inequalities — better funded schools in White communities; standardized tests that have been shown again and again to favor White students of means; access to tutors, college admission consultants, and other resources that only the wealthy can afford — to be determinative factors in college enrollment.

But I could also go on and on about the Supreme Court’s ruling in the Moore v. Harper case, in which it rejected a fringe conservative interpretation — the so called “independent state legislature” theory — of the Constitution’s mandates regarding the administration of federal elections. Basically, the decision rejects the notion that state legislatures can do anything they wish, without being subject to state judicial overview, with regard to the creation of Congressional maps and the implementation of election lawse. This decision was a victory for democracy and it offered some hope that this Supreme Court conservative majority, while willing to ignore precedent in cases addressing abortion, Affirmative Action, and other long-established principles, is not simply a jurisprudential arm of the Republican National Committee.

I could lament the fact that for four years we allowed our nation to be hijacked by a venal, narcissistic, kleptocratic, authoritarian thug, who very nearly destroyed our system of government.

But he didn’t destroy it. Instead, he was defeated, soundly and legitimately, and his defeat was affirmed by Congress and the courts. Moreover, we can take satisfaction in seeing his legal chickens come home to roost, and I am hopeful that he will spend the bulk of his remaining years fighting off one well-deserved indictment after another.

And so it goes; so it has always been in this country. Dreams of progress are tempered by signs of retrenchment. Frightening assaults on the norms of a democratic society are countered by reassertions of our shared values. Our imperfect union stumbles forward and teeters back, lurching toward an uncertain future. There is an elegant simplicity to the system set up in our Constitution, one for which I gained enormous appreciation as a student of U.S. history. That simplicity, however, masks an unfortunate truth: ours is an inherently conservative system. I don’t mean this in a “progressive-versus-conservative” context, though often the mechanisms of our government do seem to favor political conservatism.

Rather, I mean that our Revolution was essentially a rebellion of the upper middle class. Learned elites threw off a monarchical system that had outgrown its usefulness and replaced it with a system designed to preserve the social order as it was understood and valued at the time, and to slow-walk any possible radical change that might be contemplated in the future. In essence, the founders sought to alter completely America’s governing realities with as little disruption as possible.

And so, in a sense, the system they created is intended to be frustrating to those of us who wish for systemic reform. That stasis, the founders believed, was a reasonable price to pay for stability. One could argue that a more flexible, change-friendly system might NOT have survived the last Administration. On the other hand, such a system might have allowed us to address decades ago problems of racial and economic inequality that have proved historically intractable.

What’s my point?

I’m flattered that you think I have one.

I suppose I am reminded of the Winston Churchill quote: “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.” It is easy on this Fourth of July to lament all that is wrong with our country. And no doubt there is a lot to lament. But it’s not all terrible, and the alternatives — some of which we glimpsed as possibilities just a few years ago, much to our horror — range from “not ideal either” to utterly unthinkable. All of which leaves me thankful for the republic we have, even as I chafe at the stubborn pace of progress that it allows.

I hope you have a great week. Enjoy your holiday.

Monday Musings: Midterms Round-up — Orange is the New Blech!

This time last week, I was lamenting the what I saw as inevitable advances by anti-democratic forces in this year’s midterm elections. Yes, I was worried my party would take a drubbing, but more, I feared elections in Arizona, Nevada, Pennsylvania, and elsewhere might put in power election deniers, people more wedded to party and certain personalities than to the founding principles of our republic.

What a difference one week can make.

Incredibly, miraculously, astoundingly, this year’s midterms turned out to be a reaffirmation of America’s commitment to democracy and those aforementioned founding principles. Yes, Democrats are poised to lose control of the House of Representatives, though only by five seats or fewer. Republicans might — might — get to 221 seats (leaving Democrats with 214). But I think it’s more likely they’ll have 220 or 219, which would constitute a razor thin majority, one of the smallest in the last century. Actually, I just looked it up. It would be the smallest majority since the 65th Congress of 1917-1919. It would likely be a recipe for infighting, and for repeated failures and embarrassments for new Speaker Kevin McCarthy and his buddies.

The Senate remains in Democratic hands. Remarkably, incredibly, astoundingly, miraculously. By the time the Georgia runoff is done, Democrats might well have 51 seats, a PICKUP of one. Now this assumes that Joe Manchin (D-West Virginia) and/or Kyrsten Sinema (D-Arizona) won’t jump ship and switch parties to swing the majority to the Republicans. But I don’t believe either is likely to do so. Certainly Manchin won’t do that before the Georgia runoff. If the Democrats win in Georgia, he won’t switch at all. And Sinema has to be looking at fellow Arizona Democrat Mark Kelly’s reelection victory, at the Arizona Governor’s race, which Democrat Katie Hobbs currently leads, and also at other down-ballot races. Being a true Democrat in today’s Arizona has proven to be a pretty good thing electorally speaking. Moreover, as a Republican she would absolutely face a right-wing primary challenge. She would likely lose her seat months before the general election. I believe it’s more likely that over the next two years, her Senate voting will trend leftward — slowly, cautiously, but inexorably.

The most important results from Tuesday night, though, had far less to do with Congress, and far more to do with the sanctity of America elections. ALL the MAGA loonies who were running for Secretary of State positions in key battleground states lost. Every one. Including the biggest loony of all, Jim Marchant in Nevada. And with the temporary exception of Kari “Wackadoodle” Lake in Arizona, all the election deniers running for governor in key battleground states also lost. And Lake is trailing and may be on the verge of being declared the loser in her race.

Make no mistake, this election was a repudiation of a soiled Republican brand. It was a rejection of election denying. It was an endorsement of free and fair elections. And, by the way, it was also an expression of outrage at the overturning of Roe v Wade, the 1973 ruling that for nearly fifty years provided national legal protection for women’s reproductive freedom. Constitutional bans on abortion were defeated at the polls in the ruby-red states of Kentucky and Montana. Constitutional guarantees of abortion rights passed in California, Michigan, and Vermont. Opponents of the right to choose had a very, very bad night. Indeed, early evidence suggests that young voters, especially young women, were motivated to vote this year to an extent rarely seen in midterm elections, their activism fueled by outrage over the Supreme Court’s reversal of Roe as well as by opposition to anti-democratic candidates.

Most of all, last week’s election serves as a reminder that a certain former President is NOT the most powerful force in American politics. He is the loudest certainly, the most dangerous beyond any doubt. But he is weak, driven by ego and pique more than by any true political skill or insight. He is a drag on the Republican party. He is a has-been.

Already he is tearing his party apart from within, attacking both Florida Governor RonDeSantis and Virginia governor Glenn Youngkin, who have emerged as his chief rivals for the 2024 Republican nomination. (He said Youngkin’s name “sounds Chinese” — a quote. I swear to God. And he claimed he sent the FBI to Florida in 2018 to save DeSantis’s flagging gubernatorial campaign, which, if true, would be something worth investigating, to say the least.) The former guy intends to go ahead with an announcement of his 2024 Presidential bid, but now it will be welcomed only by his most rabid supporters.

Across the country, again and again in high profile races, his hand-picked candidates lost. More than anything else, this election was a repudiation of Trumpism. Twice now he has lost the popular vote while running for President, and now twice in midterm elections that were in large part all about him, the Republican party has underperformed. In 2018, the GOP suffered historic losses. And this time, in a midterm that should have provided his party with a bonanza, the country instead gave its votes to the party of an unpopular President who has (through no fault of his own, I should add) presided over high inflation and rising gas prices. The Republicans should have kicked butt this year. They didn’t, and it is largely because of the orange has-been. Everyone knows it. Even Rupert Murdoch is rethinking his support of the man. When a Republican leader has lost Fox News, he has lost everything.

I don’t know what will happen in two years. None of us knows. Two years in politics is like ten lifetimes. But I do know this: Donald Trump’s attempt to elect a state-level MAGA infrastructure that would steal the 2024 election for him has failed utterly.

Am I gloating? Yeah, a little bit. Where Trump is concerned, more than a little bit. But the fucker deserves it.

God bless America.

Have a great week.

Monday Musings: Elections, John Adams, and the Future of Our Republic

Back in September 2020, as we lurched toward the Presidential election, I wrote a piece for this blog on the peaceful transfer of power. In it, I warned of the dangerous path followed by the former inhabitant of the White House, who was already sowing doubts about the integrity of the vote and laying the groundwork for his unsuccessful coup attempt in January 2021.

My warnings were well-founded, of course, but I fear I was terribly naïve about how to combat the threat our former president posed. When I wrote the piece, I believed that once he was defeated and removed from office, his pernicious influence on American politics would fade. I was wrong.

Tomorrow is Election Day, and as of this date, a staggering number of Republican candidates at all levels of government have, like the former guy in 2020 (and 2016), refused to promise that they will honor the voting results in their races. To draw upon a turn of phrase used by President Biden in a speech last week, they have decided that they only love this country and its founding principles when they win.

If you will allow me to slip on my historian’s cap for a moment . . . . The most important date in the history of our republic is not July 4, 1776 or October 19, 1781 (the effective end of the War for Independence) or March 9, 1779 (the date on which our new nation started operating under the authority of the Constitution). To my mind, the most important date in our history is March 4, 1801. That was the day on which President John Adams relinquished power to his political rival, Thomas Jefferson, who had defeated him in the election of 1800.

Here is what I wrote in 2020 about that moment in our history:

This acquiescence to the people’s will, this statement of belief in the greater good, turned the ideal of a democratic republic into reality.

Over the past 220 years, our nation has repeated this ritual literally dozens of times. Democratic-Republicans have given way to Whigs, who have given way to Democrats, who have given way to Republicans, who, in turn, have given way once more to Democrats. And so on. The peaceful transfer of power lies at the very heart of our system of government. Declaring and winning independence was important. Creating a foundational document, flawed though it was, that spelled out how our government would work was crucial.

None of it would have meant a thing, however, if in actual practice America’s election losers refused to accept defeat, to acknowledge the legitimate claim to power of America’s election winners.

It was bad enough that a defeated President, driven by ego and pique and an insatiable appetite for affirmation and power, should imperil this foundational imperative of our system of government. But it is truly chilling to see one of our two major parties mimicking his behavior, adopting his model of petulance and self-interest as an across-the-board election strategy. Make no mistake: The future of our nation is under threat.

Our republic has endured for as long as it has because, with very few exceptions (Rutherford B. Hayes, Richard Nixon, and now Donald Trump), our leaders on both sides of the aisle have chosen to abide by the rules as laid out in the Constitution. Yes, politicians cheat. They wage dirty campaigns. They look for every advantage. This has been true for as long as our nation has existed. In the end, though, they have accepted voters as the final arbiters of their electoral fates. As soon as candidates refuse to do this, they expose the fragility and brittleness of our system. If enough politicians on either end of the political spectrum decide the only legitimate outcome of a race is their own victory, the entire system will collapse. Outcomes matter, of course. But the integrity of the process itself is what preserves democratic institutions. Take away that integrity, leave election outcomes to be determined by who can scream “fraud” loudest and longest, and we are doomed.

This is the future today’s GOP is embracing. They have chosen to place themselves and their party over the will of the people, and if they are rewarded for doing so, the American Experiment is over.

Let me be clear: When elections are close, there are going to be recounts. That is part of the process as well. No one disputes that. (It is worth remembering that in 2020 the Trump Campaign demanded and was granted multiple recounts in Georgia, Arizona, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. And while a handful of votes shifted one way or another, not one of these recounts altered the final result.) One can demand a recount and then honor the decision of voters once the process is complete

What we are seeing this year is not the expression of legitimate concerns about close election results. The elections haven’t been held yet. Rather, this is a systematic attempt to sow doubts about the elections ahead of time and thus justify whatever shenanigans they intend to try next. It’s disgusting. It’s immoral and corrupt and corrosive.

There are other issues on voters’ minds this year, obviously. I would argue that the preservation of our republic outweighs all of them. Vote like democracy itself is at stake. Because it is.

Have a good week.

Monday Musings: Politics, Likability, and Beer

The other night in a Senate debate held in Milwaukee, Wisconsin’s Republican Senator, Ron Johnson, faced off against his challenger, Lieutenant Governor Mandela Barnes. At the end of the debate, which was, by all accounts, a brutally hostile affair, one of the moderators asked the candidates what, if anything, they found admirable about their opponent. Barnes answered by saying that Johnson was a devoted family man and he respected that. When Johnson had his turn he said that Barnes was raised well by his parents. “What puzzles me,” he went on, “is why did he turn against America?”

To their credit, the audience in the theater booed lustily.

Autumn has arrived in Tennessee, bringing azure skies, cool breezes, and crystal clear nights, and coaxing yellows and reds and oranges from our foliage. This time of year, my thoughts turn to bird migration, to baseball’s postseason, and, yes, to politics. I am reluctant to go there in a post, and yet I also feel I can hardly avoid it. We are living in such a fraught, dangerous time. In our current climate, I honestly believe the fate of our republic, not to mention our planet, is on the line each time Americans go to the polls.

I am old enough to remember when, during the 1980s, pundits speculated that part of Ronald Reagan’s incredible popularity was attributable to his down-to-earth demeanor. He was a candidate, analysts said, who people, regardless of ideology or party affiliation, would like to have a beer with. (One can only assume the poor grammar in this analysis was meant to reinforce the idea that people drinking beer with friendly politicians pay no attention to syntax.)

In contrast to the dispassionate, moralizing Jimmy Carter and the slightly dweeb-ish Walter Mondale, Reagan was cool, charming, charismatic, and other things that start with “c.” (Although, surprisingly, not “competent” or “coherent” or “compassionate.” But that’s a subject for some other post.) People liked Reagan, even if they didn’t always agree with his policies.

This likability, the “let’s have a beer with him” explanation for political success, came up again in 1988, not because anyone really liked George H.W. Bush, but because no one could imagine Democratic nominee Mike Dukakis even drinking a beer. And also, to be fair, because of the picture of Dukakis riding in a tank, wearing a helmet that made him look like Rick Moranis from that scene in Ghostbusters where he’s wearing a colander on his head.

Bill Clinton was seen as more likable than his Republican opponents: the elder Bush, and then, in 1996, the irascible Bob Dole. But nearly everyone in the country agreed that the candidate they really wanted to have a beer with was Ross Perot, the third-party gadfly who mounted insurgency campaigns in both ’92 and ’96. To be clear, it wasn’t that people really liked Perot, but given the crazy shit he said when sober, folks were eager to see what they could get him to say if they plied him with a few brews.

George W. Bush’s 2000 and 2004 campaigns fully revived the “who would you like to drink with?” conversation, in part because old George was a party boy in his younger days and likely would have known the best bars, and in part because his two Democratic opponents, Al Gore and John Kerry, were blue-blood scions of privilege and wealth, who came across as self-righteous, all-knowing prigs. (Understand, please, that I supported and voted for both of them. I say this from a place of love. Really.)

Barack Obama, with his effortless cool and star power, was the obvious choice in both 2008 and 2012. John McCain, his first opponent was a war hero, but he had nearly as little charm as Bob Dole. And Mitt Romney was and is Mormon, meaning he doesn’t drink at all, rendering moot the question of who was likely to be the better bar mate.

Finally, we come to the election of 2016. Trump against Hillary. Both candidates were deeply unpopular. Neither candidate engendered much enthusiasm in the “who would you like to have a beer with?” measure. And in 2020, the idea that anyone not ideologically aligned with one of the candidates might deign to have a beer with him . . . well, that was pretty much unthinkable. Which kind of brings me to the end of my joking and to my actually-rather-serious point.

Politics have long divided Americans from one another. A glance at popular vote margins through our history show a nation that is more often than not split fairly evenly between (or among) Presidential candidates. Yet today’s America feels particularly tribal. It’s hard to imagine any MAGA Republican setting aside partisanship to say, “Yeah, I’d love to have a beer with Joe Biden.” And no Democrat I know would willingly sit at a bar with Donald Trump.

I will admit that I have always thought the so-called “have a beer” test a foolish way to choose a President (or a Senator, Governor, or Representative). I vote on the issues, and I look for candidates who have gravitas, who are thoughtful, erudite, and analytical. I really couldn’t care less if they seem like a fun drinking companion. Sure, it might be a bonus, but that’s all.

But given the state of our body politic, I’m wondering if I have been too quick to dismiss the value of this other approach. Not because it’s a great way to choose our leaders, but rather because just being able to think in such terms suggests a healthier state of politics than the one we’re in now. Maybe if all of us could once again imagine clinking glasses with a politician from “the other side,” our country might be better off.

Sadly, I don’t see that happening soon.

And so, I would very much like to sit down and have a beer with Ron Johnson. Not because I think he’d be a fun drinking buddy, but because when he’s not looking, I’d very much like to spit in his glass.

Have a great week.

Monday Musings: Taming My Inner Eeyore

The hard part of getting back into posting isn’t the first post. It’s the second, and the ones after that. In part, I retreated from social media six or seven weeks back because I couldn’t imagine carrying the emotional load I had shouldered while simultaneously producing essays about things that mattered less to me, which was pretty much everything else. At the same time, I also knew that I didn’t want to post every Monday about our family problems or my mental health issues. Nobody wants to read that guy week after week after week.

I touched on this a bit back in May, at a time when I was also struggling to come up with essay ideas for these Monday Musing entries.

So, what to do this time around . . . .

In truth, right now there is lots to write about. And the world is a far more promising place today than it was in May. Which makes this blogging thing a little easier. Consider:

Our former Felon-In-Chief is twisting slowly, slowly in the wind (that’s a Watergate reference, for those of you too young to remember), and I will admit that I’ve enjoyed watching him flop about like a hooked fish on a pier (yeah, I know, I’m mixing metaphors — deal with it), searching for any defense that might save his sorry ass. “The documents were planted! It’s a hoax.” “I declassified the documents ages ago.” (Quite a neat trick — knowing to declassify documents that would be planted on his property without his knowledge years later . . . .) “This is all legal under the Presidential Records Act.” (Spoiler alert: It’s not.)

At the same time, our current President (legally and fairly elected) is having a summer to remember. Tumbling gas prices, inflation starting to come under control, continued historic strength in the job market, Democratic voters motivated and mobilized by the SCOTUS decision overturning Roe v. Wade, voters in ruby red Kansas rejecting an abortion ban, one piece of major legislation after another passed and signed into law, rising poll numbers, surprisingly strong Democratic performances in special elections. It all adds up to a changing political landscape, and the realization that November might not turn out the way most pundits were predicting only a few months ago.

On the other hand, drought and floods and fires serve as constant reminders that despite the passage of the climate change bill — a significant and laudable achievement for the Administration and Congress — our planet remains gravely at risk. With that in mind, I believe when historians look back on 2022 decades from now, they will identify as the most significant moment of the year this week’s decision by the California Air Resources Board to ban the sale of new gasoline-powered motor vehicles after 2035.

Yes, it’s only one state. Don’t let that fool you. If California were a sovereign nation, its economy would be the fifth largest in the world, behind only the U.S., China, Japan, and Germany. Alone it accounts for more than 1/7 of our country’s GDP, and its citizens own far more cars than do the residents of any other state. Where California goes, the automobile industry will have little choice but to follow.

At long last, someone in this country has stepped forward and said, “This way to climate sanity. Follow me.” I expect Gavin Newsom, California’s governor and a Democratic Presidential hopeful for 2024 or 2028, sees this as good politics, which is also telling.

Look, anyone who knows me well will tell you I have a lot more in common with Eeyore than I do with Pollyanna. I am all too aware of the threat Trumpism poses to our republic, of the damage the Supreme Court has done to our society and the further damage it could very well do in its next term, of the precarious state of our planet and the limited reach of even California’s dramatic actions this week.

I am also aware of the tough road that lies ahead for my family, for my older daughter in particular.

As a part-time essayist, I can choose to dwell on the negative, or, as the song goes, I can accentuate the positive. For now, I prefer to do the latter. My hope may prove audacious, fantastical even. But I embrace it anyway. I can also promise you I won’t always be able to do this. My inner Eeyore is strong and persistent. For now, though, he is quiescent, and I’m glad.

I wish you a week of hope, good health, and good tidings.

Monday Musings: Taxes and Patriotism

I started work on my taxes this weekend, which is probably why taxes and government spending are on my mind for this Monday Musings posts.

Let’s get this out of the way up front: No one likes to pay taxes. And if we didn’t care about driving our cars on roads, or flying in airplanes that don’t crash into each other, or eating meat that doesn’t make us sick, or having some basic income in our golden years, or having access to health care after retirement, or going to beautiful National Parks, or doing about a thousand other things that we take for granted, we would love to keep all that tax money for ourselves, to spend as we see fit.

But, of course, we do want those things I mentioned. Plus we want a national defense. We want the police and fire and EMT services paid for by local taxes. We want to foster the arts and promote scientific research.

As Oliver Wendell Holmes famously said, “Taxes are what we pay for civilized society.”

(A couple of other tax quotes for you: “The best measure of a man’s honesty isn’t his income tax return. It’s the zero adjust on his bathroom scale.” — Arthur C. Clarke; “Income tax has made more liars out of the American people than golf.” — Will Rogers.)

I agree wholly with the Holmes quote (and probably the other two as well) and also with Joe Biden, who said during the 2008 campaign that paying taxes is an act of patriotism.

Biden said this after Barack Obama was criticized for proposing an end to the Bush tax cuts. Obama did raise taxes marginally, only to see them cut again under the most recent Administration. I have every expectation that the Biden Administration will roll back at least some of Trump’s tax cuts — those that were targeted at corporations and the wealthy.

Without revealing too much, I will say that Nancy and do pretty well financially. We benefitted from the Trump cuts, and wish we hadn’t. We didn’t need the cut. Others did. We wound up increasing our charitable giving to compensate, and we will gladly pay more in taxes if it means cutting the tax burden for those who aren’t as financially secure as we are.

What bothers me most about the conversation surrounding taxes in this country is those who say they don’t want their tax dollars going to social welfare programs, because they don’t believe in giving others a free ride.

First of all, if they honestly think that living in poverty is a “free ride,” they’re insane. Folks in Texas lost their heat and electricity for a week, and there was an outpouring of sympathy and aid — all of it justified and deserved. But there are plenty of people in this country who can’t afford to heat their homes at all. There are people in this country who live on the streets, who wander from shelter to shelter seeking a meal or a bed or a bit of warmth. Every night in the United States children go to bed hungry.

In a civilized society, we try to take care of them, to feed and house, to warm and comfort.

And I would say to those who object to social welfare spending that I, too, don’t like all the things my tax dollars buy. We spend nearly $700 billion a year on the military. I believe that is way, way too much. We spend money to benefit oil and gas companies, big pharmaceutical companies, huge agricultural conglomerates, and all sorts of other corporate entities. Most of those expenditures come in the form of tax breaks and credits, but that doesn’t change the fact that they increase the tax burden on the rest of us. I object to much of that spending.

Some would tell me that defense systems, the search for oil, R & D for new drugs — these are things that benefit all of us. I might argue with these points — I don’t think new defense systems are necessarily good for anyone, and I know that finding more oil to burn is a terrible idea — but I understand the logic of the argument. And I would counter that lifting up those in need helps all of us as well, that improving education for those with the least pays dividends for all of society, that enabling all to participate fully in the nation’s economy improves that economy for everyone.

The larger point is this: We don’t get to pick and choose where our tax dollars go. I have to pay for a new weapons system and for oil and gas exploration that Exxon can easily afford to do on its own. Others have to spend on school lunches, teacher training, childhood health subsidies, vocational retraining, etc.

This is the price we all pay in order to live in a diverse, thriving nation.

Federal Deficit ChartAnd one more point I would like to make. Interest on the national debt currently gobbles up 8 cents out of every tax dollar. The budget deficit for 2020 was $3.7 TRILLION (slightly less than the chart above projects — I included the chart for the trend line). Even before the pandemic hit, necessitating emergency spending, the Trump tax cuts had driven projected deficits way up over where they were by the end of the Obama Administration. Some will try to tell you that those tax cuts simply returned money to the pockets of Americans. Bull. Every dollar that Donald Trump added to the deficit increased that interest expenditure I just mentioned and forced the rest to pay more. By skewing his cuts to the wealthiest among us, he basically forced the rest of Americans to subsidize a tax cut for the rich.

In any case, I still have a bit of work to do on our taxes, but it looks like we overpaid for the year. Most likely, we’ll take our refund in the form of prepayment of my estimated taxes for 2021. That’s just the way it works.

Have a good week.

Monday Musings: Beyond Impeachment

I really didn’t want to write another Monday Musings post about Donald Trump. I would like to be shot of him, just like a majority of the country. And (this is Washington’s dirty little secret) just like a majority of elected Republicans.

Clearly they remain terrified of the man and his rabid supporters, too many of whom have proven themselves willing to resort to violence. And so only ten Republicans in the House of Representatives supported impeachment. And only seven Republicans in the Senate voted to convict. And yet it is worth noting that these are the highest levels of support from members of a President’s own party in the history of American impeachments. Yes, that’s right. Never before have as many as ten House members voted to impeach a President in their own party. Before Trump’s 2019 impeachment trial, no Senator had ever voted to convict a President of the same party. Seven GOP votes for conviction this time around, in what was the equivalent of a landslide.

Don’t get me wrong: I am utterly disgusted by the cowardice and capitulation of most Congressional Republicans. Their continued support of this man — a man who incited his supporters to a murderous frenzy in order to overturn the legitimate results of a free and fair election — makes me sick and leaves me fearful for the future of our republic.

Yet, I think the impeachment trial was not only worth pursuing, it was also largely successful. The House impeachment managers were masterful in presenting their case. They established beyond doubt that the assault on the U.S. Capitol was a coordinated effort fueled by Trump’s false claims about the election and enabled by those in the Republican party who parroted Trump’s lies.

We have known for some time now that Congressional Republicans are spineless, that they are more interested in partisan gain than in the health of our political system. We knew there weren’t seventeen men or women in the party’s Senate caucus with the guts to vote for a conviction. And the specious and largely discredited argument legal argument they clung to — that a President can’t be impeached after leaving office — gave them the excuse they needed to vote for Trump without defending his indefensible actions.

But it’s worth noting that Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Lord, how I LOVE typing that) took to the Senate floor just after the vote to acquit, and essentially endorsed the case laid out by the House “prosecutors.” Trump, he admitted, incited his supporters to riot. The former President did so over the course of months, repeating his “big lie” about the election being rigged, and he did so that very day with a speech that pushed an already agitated mob to do the unthinkable. The Capitol Building was ransacked; former Vice President Mike Pence, Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and others were nearly murdered; police officers were assaulted and wounded. One died that day. Two others have died since. Six people died in total. And all of this is Donald Trump’s fault.

Many seem to believe that Donald Trump still has a political future. I suppose that’s possible. But I would remind everyone of something that activist/journalist Bill Palmer mentioned on his site shortly before Trump left office: After Barack Obama’s victory over John McCain in the 2008 Presidential election and his triumphant inauguration in January of 2009, everyone in the country assumed that the Republican Party would be led going forward by Sarah Palin, McCain’s running mate. She was considered a rising star, the face of the new GOP, a virtual lock to be the party’s 2012 Presidential nominee.

Of course she proved to be none of these things.

In the same way, we shouldn’t assume that in four years Donald Trump will wield anywhere near as much power in the Republican party as he does now. He faces criminal proceedings in New York for his questionable finances. He faces prosecution in Georgia for his blatant violations of state election laws. He may face Federal charges for his incitement of the Capitol Hill riot. We simply can’t know what his future may hold. And I guarantee you that even Trump’s most vocal supporters in the Senate — guys like Lindsey Graham, Ted Cruz, and Josh Hawley — would love to see him prosecuted, humiliated, and turned into a political pariah. They’d never admit as much, of course. They’re too eager to claim Trump’s supporters for themselves. But they know that as long as Trump remains the ostensible leader of the GOP, the party itself will be vilified and their own Presidential ambitions will be thwarted.

When it comes right down to it, they have no reason to support the man a day longer than political expediency demands. The trick, of course, is pinpointing that precise day, and I doubt any of them has the acumen to time this well. They will make themselves look like fools, undermining their own political hopes in the process. Ultimately they will have no choice but to throw Trump under a bus, just as he would do to them if need arose. They will, in short, wind up destroying themselves, Trump, and each other.

And, to my mind, on this President’s Day, that is a comforting thought.

Monday Musings: This is EXACTLY Who We Are

“This is not who we are.”

Comforting words that have been trotted out repeatedly in the days since the Capitol Hill insurrection that left six dead and scores injured, and that shook to the core our faith in the strength of our republic.

We’ve heard politicians from both sides of the aisle say this, none with more conviction than Joe Biden. “This is not who we are. We’re Americans. We’re better than this.”

I’m paraphrasing — that’s not an exact quote. But it’s close enough.

The problem is, this is exactly who we are. It’s who we have been for two and a half centuries. We are a nation whose racism and blithe acceptance of White Supremacist doctrine is embedded in the original wording of our Constitution. According to that revered document, the version ratified in 1788, slavery was an accepted economic and political reality, black slaves counted as merely three-fifths of a human being, and unless you were a white man, you didn’t get to participate in our political process.

Subsequent amendments have remedied the worst offenses of the original, but it took a prolonged and bloody Civil War to make most of them possible, and another fifty years of agitation to win the vote for women.

Our politics have been riven by race, by anti-democratic tendencies, by a win-at-all-costs mentality for nearly the entire history of our nation. Andrew Jackson refused to enforce the Supreme Court’s 1832 Worcester v. Georgia ruling that ordered the state of Georgia to halt the removal of the Cherokee from the state. “[Chief Justice] John Marshall has made his decision,” Jackson said. “Now let him enforce it.”

In 1856, Representative Preston Brooks, a pro-slavery Democrat from South Carolina, walked into the Senate Chamber and assaulted Massachusetts Republican Charles Sumner, beating him bloody and senseless with a gold-tipped wooden cane. Sumner had “given offense” with a fiery speech condemning slavery.

Anti-communist crusades in the 20th century — in the 1920s, led by Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer, and in the 1950s, led by Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin — saw frightening curtailments of civil liberties and shocking violence aimed at suspected socialists and communists. Palmerism and McCarthyism were built on lies and distortions that fed a frenzy of authoritarian rhetoric and policy, all in the name of protecting our democratic republic.

Police brutality directed at Blacks and the political Left is also nothing new. Images of police attacks on Blacks during the urban race riots of the 1910s and ‘20s, can be laid alongside footage of similar attacks on Civil Rights protesters in the 1950s and ‘60s. And these can be matched with video captures of the violence and cruelty we all witnessed during the summer of 2020, when Black Lives Matter activists were beaten and shot in the streets of America’s cities.

Of course this is who we are. It is who we have been from the start.

I don’t say this to feed complacency or to justify any recent events. I don’t say it because I hate America. I don’t say it even to reassure — “we’ve been through this before; we’ll get through it this time.”

I say it because the sooner we accept that what we’re witnessing now is nothing new, the sooner we can change “This is not who we are,” to “This is not who we ought to be.”

I have been horrified by the excesses of Trumpism (which will take its place alongside “Palmerism” and “McCarthyism” in the annals of history). I fear what might happen at Wednesday’s inauguration. And yet, I will admit that I do take some comfort in knowing that we have weathered crises of this kind before. On Friday, I heard an NPR interview with Stephanie Cutter, the producer of the 2021 inauguration. She was asked about the threats aimed at Wednesday’s festivities, and she made clear that while she is taking them seriously, she is not panicking. It seems there were equally credible threats aimed at Barack Obama’s 2009 inauguration — no surprise there. The threats were so serious, that Obama had prepared instructions for the huge crowd gathered on the Mall, telling them what to do in the event of a terrorist attack. Fortunately, he didn’t need them. But threats of this sort are nothing new.

So, yes, this is who we are. America is, and has always been, as flawed and conflicted as the people who populate her. Nor are we alone in this regard. History tells us that nations on every continent have been subject, at one time or another, to violent assaults on liberty, to authoritarianism, to political conflicts that result in bloodshed and threaten to tear the very fabric of civil society. The United States is hardly unique in this regard.

And perhaps that is the point. Americans have long touted our “exceptionalism.” Our system of government, which truly is unique in many regards, was supposed to protect us from the sort of raw, ugly violence we saw on January 6th. We were supposed to be immune.

But THAT is not who we are. This nation — of the people, by the people, for the people — is by definition doomed to be flawed. The American experiment is a human endeavor, and so is subject to all the foibles and problems of anything human. The sooner we accept this, the sooner we stop denying who and what we are, the sooner we can get to the crucial task of becoming who and what we aspire to be.

Monday Musings: Tempering Optimism with Reality

In my New Year’s post last Friday, I wrote about my optimism for the coming year, my resolve to anticipate good things instead of expecting the worst.

And the world responded with a hefty dose of reality — a new COVID strain that is far more contagious than the original, the death of a colleague (not from COVID as far as I know), and the hospitalization of a colleague and friend (definitely because of COVID). The numbers keep going up. Tennessee, which was largely spared in the first wave, and saw few enough cases in the second to enable COVID-deniers to continue their foolishness, is now being clobbered by this terrible illness. My state ended the year ranked first in the country in new cases per capita. And still our governor refuses to mandate mask-wearing or take any reasonable steps to curb the spread.

When I said that I was optimistic, I should have added a caveat: “All expressions of optimism are predicated on state and national leaders not behaving like spineless morons.” Or something of the sort.

One hundred and forty Republican members of the House of Representatives, and at least one baldly ambitious Republican Senator, have vowed to contest the results of the Electoral College when Congress takes up the election certification on Wednesday. This in the absence of ANY tangible evidence of systemic or widespread election fraud. But for the House members, it’s a free ride, a painless and useless way to endear themselves to Donald Trump’s crazed supporters. They know their objections will go nowhere. Both houses of Congress must ratify such a protest for even one state’s electors to be refused, and with a Democratic House, and enough sane Republicans in the Senate, neither house is likely to support this effort.

The willingness of Senators Josh Hawley (Sycophant — Missouri), Ted Cruz (Slimeball — Texas), and others to join in this pointless exercise is both more insidious and more dangerous. Hawley was elected to the Senate in 2018, and has spent the past two years positioning himself for a White House run in 2024. Cruz ran against Trump in 2016, and is such a profile in cowardice that he didn’t allow Trump’s highly personal attacks on his wife and his deceased father keep him from becoming one of Trump’s most vocal lackeys in the Senate. Both men see their actions on the Electoral College as a springboard to the Republican nomination, as a way to convince Trump supporters that they are the true heirs to Trump’s legacy of corruption, incompetence, hatred, and support for batshit-crazy conspiracy theories. This is a naked play for political advantage, and it comes at the expense of the stability and legitimacy of our republic. But hey, I bet both men get bumps in the next poll out of Iowa…

The thing is, as Senator Ben Sasse (Wishy-Washy — Nebraska) said the other day, most Republicans in the House and Senate know that Trump has lost, and won’t really be all that sorry to see him go. And we know this is the case because just this weekend Trump had his veto of the National Defense Authorization Act overridden by huge bipartisan majorities. This was the first veto override of his Presidency. Only eighty-seven House Republicans voted to sustain the veto, meaning that at least fifty-three of those planning to contest the Electoral College vote understand that their actions on January 6 will be purely for show. If the Republicans in either house really thought Trump would be around for another term, no way would they have humiliated him in this way.

Meanwhile, Trump is handing out pardons like it’s Halloween at the White House and they’ve run out of Big Macs to give away. Campaign felons, murderous mercenaries, brutal cops, cronies, anyone with knowledge of Trump’s wrongdoing — the list of those already pardoned or eligible for future pardons grows longer by the day. When he is not issuing pardons, he is pushing as hard as he can to allow oil and gas drilling on protected federal lands, including the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and continuing to use his baseless claims about election fraud to fundraise, bilking his supporters out of literally tens of millions of dollars.

When I said that I was optimistic, I should have added a timestamp: “All expressions of optimism are predicated on the notion that improvement will occur after 12:00 pm (EST) on January 20, 2021.” Or something of the sort…

In all seriousness, I am optimistic, but I’m also a realist. I grieve for the thousands upon thousands who succumb to this vicious disease every day. I send good thoughts to my sick friend and all who are fighting to recover. I expect the remaining two weeks and change of the Trump Administration to be even more of a shit-show than usual. I hope and hope and hope some more than the special elections in Georgia continue that state’s transition from red to purple to blue.

I know that advances and improvements will come slowly, and will be accompanied by setbacks, many of them heartrending. But what choice do we have? I meant what I said last week: I have spent too long anticipating the worst, and I know that doing so is not good for my emotional or physical health. So optimism is what’s left.

More than that, I honestly do believe.

Be patient, friends, for just a short while longer. A change is coming. Better times lie ahead.