#tbt: Governing in the grey

An op-ed in yesterday’s New York Times discussed the party that brought us both Ronald Reagan and Donald Trump. Thomas Friedman’s “My Question for the Republican Presidential Debate,” felt all too familiar.

Originally published September 4, 2012, I am posting today’s #tbt in psuedo-response to Friedman’s op-ed. Because it kind of feels like nothing’s changed.

The Republican National Convention has ended, and the 24-hour media has mostly finished its sensationalized coverage of both it and the 2012 Republican Party Platform.

Much of this coverage has, sadly, focused around caricatures of Republican and Democratic positions on the issues.

In many cases, too, media coverage has been about the blatant disregard for facts in the current Republican campaign — platform and speeches included. (As one of many examples, see Ezra Klein’s article on this precise topic. While you’re at it, check out the graph about debt, which succinctly shows precise causes for our current national debt.)

When it comes to reporting facts in their proper context, and instances in which those facts are being disregarded, I do think that it is the job of journalists to make the public aware.

Call me naive, but I still believe that media should be the truth-seeking watchdog. I want to know when I am being manipulated.

However, my fear is that this kind of coverage becomes all-consuming. All full of finger pointing.

We begin to listen to only those that speak things we want to hear, things that resonate with what we already believe (Republicans are liars; don’t listen to journalists because the media is liberally-biased; etc.), things that fit into our current networks of knowledge.

We dig in our heels, and we don’t listen.

So while I have much to say regarding the ‘truthiness’ of certain claims in the 2012 Republican Party Platform, I simply don’t want to write about them.

I am disinterested in countering blame with blame.

In fact, I want the Republican Party back. I want reasonableness back. I want to be able to talk about more than whether or not the truth is being told.

I want to talk about ideas and policies, even when we don’t agree.

Photo from BBC.com

President Obama said during the 2008 campaign that he doesn’t think that Democrats have a monopoly on good ideas; how true that is. But as long as we’re dealing in oversimplifications, and as long as we’re arguing over something as elementary as just telling the truth, what hope do we have of governing from some common ground?

So let’s start with some things we can agree on. (Beyond, of course, the obvious things like creating jobs, encouraging entrepreneurship, working against human trafficking, and upholding the Constitution.) In order of their appearance:

  1. “Activist judges” should not be judges.
  2. Family farms are in decline, and we should be doing more to ensure their sustainability.
  3. All people should have access to a clean environment, and we should be doing more to protect our water supplies.
  4. Encourage homeownership.
  5. Invest in infrastructure.
  6. Keep our workforce moving forward by training workers for a 21st century economy.
  7. Union dues should not be used for political purposes.
  8. People are living longer, so we should adjust the retirement age accordingly.
  9. Home care should be an option for seniors.
  10. We continue to spend more money on education without seeing better results; our educational system requires reform, including an increased focus on STEM disciplines, merit pay for good teachers, and fundamental change in teacher’s unions and tenure rules for K-12 educators. (I added the tenure rules bit… in the spirit of full disclosure.)
  11. The international community should have unregulated access to the Internet, which should maintain its independence and culture of free speech.
  12. Military personnel should be able to vote. (I feel like this should really go without saying.)
  13. Government to government foreign aid is not always the most effective way of helping.
  14. Our relationships with European nations are positive and “based on shared culture and values, common interests and goals” (p. 49).
  15. Support Israel. And the Arab Spring.

That’s a pretty substantial list, and we’re not even in the weeds. The problem I’m having with a lot of this, though, is that the policies outlined for one thing often directly hinder our abilities to do another.

For example: How can we protect our water supplies and conserve our natural resources, thereby providing future generations with a clean environment, if we deregulate industries that exploit them?

You can call it a “scare campaign” all you want (p. 16), but fracking is doing some serious damage, particularly to the quality of drinking water; just ask Greene County, Pennsylvania.

And I have more.

Family farms are not going to be saved by eliminating the estate tax. Because that’s not what’s pushing them out. Genetically modified food, seed patents, and other practices by companies like Monsanto are making small farms unsustainable. Regulations could help (you know, real ones, enforced ones devoid of fraud). But not if you’ve drawn a hard line against government regulation.

Investing in infrastructure is a fantastic idea, albeit not a very sexy thing to campaign about. But the hard line on spending, and clear disdain for urban public transit and even a small increase in the gas tax, has led infrastructure bills to be killed by Congressional Republicans.

Given the state of Social Security, it makes sense to raise the retirement age for people who are living longer, if those people are not just living longer, but are healthy for longer. Not dying is not the same thing as being healthy enough to work.

So by providing better access to better care through the Affordable Care Act, we will ensure that future generations will constitute a healthy work force that is able to make that sacrifice. But not if you repeal it because you don’t like the individual mandate that was a Republican idea in the first place.

You can’t say that the profit made by a company can be used for political purposes and is equivalent to speech, but the profit made by a union cannot be treated the same way. Union dues are no more free speech than a corporation’s profits and neither should be used to fund politicians or PACs.

I don’t think judges should be writing new laws, but they most certainly are charged with interpreting laws for our days and times. This interpretation ought not be governed by partisan views, but should instead be governed by a balance of precedent and common sense, and in everything, a striving for equity.

Decisions not grounded in precedent, reason, and equity — or put another way, decisions grounded in partisan intent — could be considered “activist.” But you simply cannot grant respect to the courts and their judges only when it is politically convenient.

Judges that strike down marriage bans, or voter ID laws, or rule in the favor of legislation you don’t like are not “activist judges” by default. Activism is not the same thing as disagreement.

How can you praise Europe and champion our shared cultural values and common interests, and then turn around and use “European” as a euphemism for “anti-American”?

How do you reconcile requiring a voting system that can “verify the identity of the voter” (p. 18) for voters in the U.S. through requiring presentation of a government-issued I.D. (though instances of voter fraud account for far less than 1% of votes cast, by the way; it’s not exactly a rampant problem), but not for absentee ballots sent to military personnel in enemy territory? Without, of course, making it sound like voter suppression of only those demographics unlikely to vote Republican?

You can’t have one without the other. And this is my problem.

Because we can’t have a functioning democracy when we don’t have a functioning dialogue.

And the only way we can have a dialogue is through a willingness to compromise, a willingness to see reason, truth, and intelligence in an argument other than our own.

There is a whole lot that Democrats and Republicans should be able to agree on.

And even if we can’t always agree on the method of solving problems, surely we could step back from the lines we’ve drawn in the sand to govern with a little give and take.

The solutions to our biggest problems cannot be solved with a simple yes or no, or sense of absolutism. And they certainly can’t be solved with a refusal to admit our problems exist.

Our economy, our education system, the landscape of international relations… all of these things have too much grey area to be considered in black and white terms. And there might be much on which we disagree, but it is our responsibility to work together in the grey areas. And that’s what I want from our politicians.

I want them to govern in the grey.

Originally published September 4, 2012.