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Old notions that hamstring today's politics
There are ideas and phrases that no longer describe public life in America, and we risk irrelevance if we cling to them
Heraclitus had a notion worth holding, but a lot of others need to be abandoned if we hope to understand today’s politics. (Photo by Afshin Taylor Darian from the Victoria and Albert Museum)
A lot of things that people used to believe turned out not to be true: The earth is not flat, and it isn’t the center of the universe. Smoking is not good for you, nor is tobacco an aid to digestion. Human sperm does not contain miniscule but completely preformed individuals, called “animalcules,” which so-called spermists insisted is how babies were created.
Beyond ideas, there are a lot of words and sayings, too, that we don’t use anymore. Calling a police van a “paddy wagon” is an insulting throwback to anti-immigrant sentiment that saw early-20th-century Irish newcomers as drunken hooligans. It’s offensive to label people with intellectual disabilities as “retarded” or “morons.” We don’t store information on a “floppy disc” or food in an “icebox.” And nobody wears “dungarees” to a “hootenanny” nor, if they arrive now at such an unlikely event, do they “toke on a doobie” after “scoring a lid of pot.”
In the world of politics, though, it’s hard to give up some ideas and phrases that we’ve long thought were true. Experience is a slow teacher when it has to do battle with either our ideals or our ideology.
Many of us always assumed that our democracy is so valuable to all Americans that nobody would risk killing it by normalizing foul play. We were sure that the stability of our government institutions would always assure that, eventually, what’s right would be rewarded and what’s wrong would be rejected.
If only that were so. The new normal seems to be that nothing will ever be normal again. Experts’ predictions are now routinely turning out to be dead wrong. If we fail to rethink our language and the notions underlying it, we won’t be equipped to cope with a future that’s so different from the way things have always been. You don’t want to be one of those old generals who is fighting the last war.
So let’s consider some of those phrases and ideas that it’s time to abandon, so we won’t be shackled to those that might hamstring our future.
Take, for example, the wise political analysts of 2016, who repeatedly asserted, “He’s unelectable.” Donald Trump’s supporters, we were told, couldn’t be more than 20 percent — or, later, 30 percent — of the Republican electorate, and when it came time to reach beyond that number, Trump would fail, because he couldn’t win mainstream Republican support, let alone draw swing voters.
Wrong, obviously. The notion of “unelectable” ought to be retired — right now, please, because Trump seems to be on a glide path to his party’s nomination for another term, and we must take seriously the threat that his re-election would pose. More than 70 million voters embraced Trump despite his record as a philandering liar who is largely ignorant of public policy (and too lazy to learn it), devoid of personal charm and likely a dangerous narcissist. His success ought to make it clear that nobody is unelectable. As to the current wisdom suggesting that Trump, despite the loyalty of rank-and-file Republicans, surely cannot win a general election, 16th-century English speakers would have called that “beef-witted” — an outmoded term, just like “unelectable” should be. Banish the word, and the faulty thinking behind it.
“Now he’s gone too far”
What follows “Now he’s gone too far,” might be, “He’ll never get away with that.” Both are flawed notions. You probably think I’m going to refer here to Trump’s attempt to extort a political favor from Volodymyr Zelenskyy before agreeing to provide arms to Ukraine, which led to his first impeachment; or maybe you think I’ll mention Trump’s incitement of his supporters to attack the U.S. Capitol, which prompted his second impeachment.
Naw, that would be too easy. Trump went too far, indeed, and you might imagine he never would have gotten away with any of it. But that thinking under-estimated the craven careerism of Republican officeholders, who fear offending Trump and his most loyal voters more than they care about the rule of law. There are good examples in this moment of “too far” being too idealistic a notion to retain.
Consider Charles Grassley, 89, the senior U.S. senator from Iowa, who this week surely seemed to have “gone too far” in Republicans’ eagerness to tie the travails of Hunter Biden to his father. Grassley violated a confidentiality agreement with the FBI in releasing an unverified investigative form — a document that had been probed by Trump’s Justice Department and set aside years ago as not credible. The form is a report on a source who claimed, without any supporting evidence, that the Ukrainian energy company Burisma paid “the Bidens” $10 million. The FBI warned that releasing the form “unnecessarily risks the safety of a confidential source.” Did Grassley care? Of course not.
It’s that FBI document that has led some right-wing members of Congress, like Upstate New York’s Elise Stefanik, to refer to the “Biden crime family” and call for abolishing the FBI for its failure to prosecute the president. That’s the sort of mindless nastiness that used to be “too far” in American politics, because of the sense that voters didn’t like ugly partisanship. How quaint! You think those officials won’t “get away with that” now? Think again: Against aggressive and well-qualified opponents, Grassley won re-election last year by a 13-point margin, and Stefanik claimed a 19-point win. They can get away with about about anything. So excise that phrase, too, from your lexicon: nothing is “too far” for this type of politician.
“The GOP is conservative”
One of the hardest notions to shake is that the Republican party is fundamentally conservative. That has long been the reputation of what we used to call the Grand Old Party — “GOP” being another term to strike, by the way, since today’s Republicans have abandoned the tenets of such giants as Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt. Prime evidence: The turn against the rule of law at the urging of Trump, and the embrace of an activist, anti-business role for government that is part of the 2023 Republican playbook.
Advancing a law-and-order agenda has been fundamental to Republican strategy since at least Richard Nixon’s 1968 campaign, and it was key to the party’s 2022 election plan. But just after the disappointing midterm election results, Trump tweeted a call “for the termination of all rules, regulations, and articles, even those found in the Constitution” — a logical extension of his failed drive to overturn the 2020 election.It was a call for lawlessness that Michael Paulsen, a conservative legal scholar and professor at the University of St. Thomas, in Minnesota, called a “form of a political coup d’état against our Constitution.” Now, as Republican officials line up to endorse Trump and back the baseless claim that he was cheated out of reelection, it’s fair to note that they’re standing against the rule of law.
In light of that, of course, you may cite the old notion, “They know better,” which is clearly true of elected officials: They know Trump’s Big Lie is a fraud, but they’re touting it anyway to avoid Trump’s wrath. But what of Republican voters? Almost two-thirds of them, according to a May CNN poll, believe the Trump conspiracy theory.Pity them more than disparage them; they’re victims of their ideology, misled by callous politicians and unethical Fox News hosts that they’re inclined to trust. They probably don’t, in fact, know better.
Meanwhile, Republican-led states — most notably, Ron DeSantis’s Florida — are stepping into fights with businesses that would astonish their capitalist forebearers. Republican governors and legislators are trying to restrict investment funds from considering environmental, social and governance factors when deciding where to invest money — that is, to ban so-called ESG investing. It’s nothing less than blatant political meddling into private financial decisions, clearly aimed at currying favor with both reactionary voters and companies that don’t want to have to spend money related to climate change or workers’ rights.
There is nothing conservative in government telling investors that they must abandon thoughtful analysis of risk. “When you're an investor, you have something old-fashioned and a really important thing to do, and it's called fiduciary duty,” Anne Simpson, of the asset management firm Franklin Templeton, said in March, just after 19 Republican governors vowed to stand against ESG investing. “That's not our money; it belongs to the people who put their trust in us. There is no situation in which we can ... ignore something that might be relevant to risk or return.”
Of course, as many abortion rights activists have noted, it’s also not conservative government to pass laws governing what a woman can do with her uterus. (Note: No similar laws have been introduced in Republican-led states that would apply to male reproductive organs.)
Protecting citizens’ rights and conserving the environment are fundamental American principles — conservative ideas, in fact — and it’s time to abandon the notion that politicians who stand against that, and who want to punish businesses for considering those issues, are “conservative” just because of the history of their party label. Today’s Republican leaders are, by and large, radical anti-environmentalists who also are hostile to individual rights, and they’re out of step with most Americans’ views.
“Character is destiny”
Historians say the Greek philosopher Heraclitus was the first Western thinker to search for moral applications for his philosophies. It was Heraclitus who wrote, “Character is destiny,” suggesting that our fate is determined by our own hand, rather than by any outside force.
Some 2,500 years later, a book with the title “Character is Destiny” was published by John McCain, who is remembered as a public servant of high character. At the end of his life, McCain watched in sorrow as his onetime political allies sank into the morass of opportunism and chaos created by a very different sort of public figure, Donald Trump. In refusing to kowtow to Trump, McCain assured that his legacy would be one that reflected the strength of his character.
It's tempting to look at the success of Trump and other bad players of his ilk in our political system as evidence that Heraclitus and McCain were wrong — that character matters less than cleverness or raw power or simply good luck. But abandoning our faith in the value of character would amount to a surrender to the cynics who want to manipulate society for their own gain. So while Heraclitus viewed the world as being in constant flux, the changes that brought us today’s reality must not lead us to challenge his view of character.
Both as individuals and as a nation, the choices we make reflect our values and our character. So even as we abandon the notions that clearly have outlasted their time, we must embrace those old values that still matter. Maybe none is more useful than our confidence in the ultimate triumph of character. That can, in fact, power our own activism in the face of the harsh realities of the moment — activism, that is, reflecting our own character, and our trust that we can shape a better future.
NEWSCLIPS FROM THE UPSTATES
Dispatches from our common ground *
Wherein each week we look around what we call the nation’s Upstates — those places just a bit removed from the center of things — to find illumLinating news and intriguing viewpoints, which you might not otherwise see.
This week, we share reporting published here:
Pine Island, Fla. (Fort Myers News-Press, news-press.com)
Cape Cod, Mass. (Cape Cod Times, capecodtimes.com)
Cincinnati, Ohio (Cincinnati Enquirer, cincinnati.com)
Eagle Pass, Texas (Corpus Christi Caller Times, caller.com)
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Develop that land? Not so fast.
Flipping the usual Florida real estate story on its head, a group of neighbors banded together to stop residential development in its tracks, by buying a dilapidated golf course next to their neighborhood and protecting it from builders. Amy Bennett Williams reports in the Fort Myers News-Press that some residents of Pine Island, the largest island off Florida’s Gulf Coast, were perturbed to learn that the owners of Alden Pines Golf Course, which hasn’t been open since the deadly Hurricane Ian tore it apart last year, planned to sell it. So they made an offer of $1.2 million and took the golf course off the market — along with the prospect of 76 new residences, including townhomes and duplexes, going up alongside their idyllic neighborhood, where wildlife that once roamed free in Florida still can find a home.
Military base extension annoys environmental advocates
With little notice, commonwealth officials signed a deal to give the U.S. military a lease through the end of this century on 30 square miles of environmentally sensitive land on Upper Cape Cod that is already home to a military base. According to reporting by Walker Armstrong in the Cape Cod Times, some community advocates are upset, saying the quiet deal takes away the opportunity to protect Cape Cod groundwater or use some of the land for needed housing growth. The Association to Preserve Cape Cod said the lease deal had lost “a generational opportunity to solve some of the Cape's most difficult economic and environmental challenges.”
Amendment pushed by anti-abortion groups draws little support
Ohio voters are likely to be asked to decide in November on a state constitutional amendment to enshrine the right to abortion in the state. Early polling indicates it is likely to pass. Eyeing that, Republican officials have created an August ballot measure aimed at getting ahead of the November vote and blocking it by making it harder to amend the state constitution, according to reporting in the Cincinnati Enquirer by Haley BeMiller. Issue 1 on the August ballot would set up a process that would require more signatures on a petition and would require a 60 percent favorable vote to approve any amendment, rather than a simple majority. But the ploy seems to not be working: A new poll finds that 57 percent of voters are against Issue 1, while only 26 percent back it. Even a lot of Republicans oppose it. Backers are in a bind, said University of Cincinnati political scientist David Niven: “There’s nothing people want. They’re grasping at something and trying to tell you it's for your own good."
Military buildup on border draws lawsuit
As part of what he calls Operation Lone Star, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has deployed troops in military vehicles — who have laid razor wire and buoys along the Rio Grande — in an effort to stop the decades-long flow of undocumented immigrants from Mexico to the United States. Now a retired schoolteacher is suing to stop the military buildup, arguing that it is illegally depriving him of a livelihood operating a kayaking business in the river. John C. Moritz reports in the Texas Gannett newspapers that Jessie Fuentes’ lawsuit alleges that Abbott’s floating barrier system has killed his business and is destroying the natural beauty and flow of the river that separates Texas from Mexico. “They took away something that doesn’t belong to them,” Fuentes said. “Everything they are doing, excuse me, f---s up the ecosystem.”
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