Thursday, April 27, 2006

Two Party System: Breaking the Cycle

My rage increases around election time, but it's really not limited to November. I know I am not alone in bemoaning our nation's two party system on an almost daily basis.

Most of us, of course, identify ourselves as Republicans, Democrats or independents, but the reality is that our two main parties can seldom encapsulate who we are and what we believe. I have Republican friends who can't stand the current state of affairs and are sage enough to blame their own party instead of nation-hating liberals.

I consider myself a progressive, but am often mystified at the proposals that come from liberal elitist factions within the Democratic Party.

Left or right, we are often able to come together in our desire for more choices. Many of us find ourselves, regardless of which candidate we support, voting for the lesser of two evils every November and wishing it weren't so. Is that really a democracy? One of the principle tenets of democracy is full information - without it, we are unable to make informed choices. This peripheral participation only increases our frustration and weakens our desire to partake in the process.

We disagree on how to handle the problem, but we all know that it comes down to money. Candidates in major parties are able to raise large sums of money. This allows them to get their message out, which makes them viable, increases their media coverage, which then amplifies their fundraising, which leads to events, which leads to more press, and so on and so on. It is a victory cycle for the established party candidate; a vicious cycle for the independent. In the end, it is the voters who lose.

Thank you, Judy Ettenhofer and The Capital Times, for breaking the cycle and running a story on Green Party candidate Rae Vogeler and her campaign for U.S. Senate. She may not win and not all of your readers may vote for her. But we learned that she has compassion, political skill, and experience. We learned that she is a caring wife, mother, worker and organizer who believes in quality education and tackling our health care crisis - real issues about which we all care. We learned that she is a quality candidate who deserves a chance to lock horns with our current senator for the chance to represent us.

The open and honest debate we all deserve may not happen, but the political process is richer, and we as citizens more engaged, when we have the opportunity to learn more about those who offer us the alternatives we crave, but seldom have the resources to make us aware of their presence.

(Article published, The Capital Times, 4/25/06)

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

DC: Loathin' and Lovin'

I'm off the shuttle bus less than ten seconds before I remember how I can loathe and love this city so much in the exact same moment. Washington DC represents, possibly more than any other place on earth, the vast extremes of the human condition. Within its borders reside the most powerful people in the world, and the most powerless. The richest and the poorest. The most hopeful and the most hopeless. The most active, compassionate people in the history of humankind, and the most apathetic. Some of the most racist people on earth share space with a dozen races, a hundred ethnicities, and countless nationalities.

I drop my bag off in my hotel room and come back downstairs. There is a clothing store in the hotel; I walk in to check it out. Mens shirts are $140 each. I walk out disgusted. Onto the street and I'm immediately asked for change by a respectful man, back to the wall, cup in hand, with probably less than $140 to his name.

I walk toward the White House, the most powerful place on the planet, and see hundreds upon hundreds of Chinese protesting the treatment of Falun Gong practitioners being imprisoned and reportedly harvested for their internal organs in their native land. Dozens upon dozens of Chinese, sitting quietly cross legged, with their right arms bent in front of their chests, palms out and fingers facing skyward. Barely moving, they are the personification of peace and calm. Asking the White House to care about the gruesome inhumanities occurring within the borders of our number one trading partner.

A block further, a woman sits by the anti-nuclear signage that, for over twenty years, has passionately made its point and been dispassionately ignored.

I wonder how our government, with its vast resources, can quietly endure such suffering. I wonder how the President can look out his windows at what I am currently seeing, and not be outraged.

This city is a cathedral to freedom, a celebration of democracy. It is marble halls of exquisite beauty, parks of unparalled number, and tourists of unimaginable awe. But it is also walled gates that say, "do not enter." And it is fenced homes and mansion filled suburbs, looking inward at inescapable poverty, crumbling schools, struggling families, and, perhaps worst of all, a black hole sized vacuum of hope.

When hope is lost, freedom is a thing of the past. And as I stare at the White House, with hundreds of beautiful people of all different shapes and colors standing beside me, soccer and softball games going on all around, street vendors selling hot dogs, and protestors calmly beseeching change, I wonder why we are trying to build democracy in some foreign land when we seem so close to losing it at home.

I look at the White House and loathe the injustice it cannot or will not end. I peel my eyes away, and look at everything else, and fall back in love again.

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Athens, Apathy, or At a Loss?

I received an interesting spam email the other day, indicating that the end of American democracy is upon us. It began with an Alexander Tyler (Scottish history professor) quote from 1787 regarding the fall of Athens.

"A democracy is always temporary in nature; it simply cannot exist as a permanent form of government. A democracy will continue to exist up until the time that voters discover that they can vote themselves generous gifts from the public treasury. From that moment on, the majority always votes for the candidates who promise the most benefits from the public treasury, with the result that every democracy will finally collapse due to loose fiscal policy, which is always followed by a dictatorship.

The average age of the worlds greatest civilizations from the beginning of history, has been about 200 years. During those 200 years, these nations always progressed through the following sequence:
  1. From bondage to spiritual faith;
  2. From spiritual faith to great courage;
  3. From courage to liberty;
  4. From liberty to abundance;
  5. From abundance to complacency;
  6. From complacency to apathy;
  7. From apathy to dependence;
  8. From dependence back into bondage."

I began to consider this quote. Our inception as a nation most certainly included a great deal of bondage, spiritual faith, courage, liberty, and abundance. Were one required to choose a single item from the above list, I'd say it should be liberty. I'd proceed from liberty to bondage.

Additionally, our age of complacency and apathy came far after the beginning of our age of dependence. Meanwhile, the author seems to be defining dependence as a welfare state. The only way I can see bondage stemming from dependence would be if the dependence era were part of an increasing gap between rich and poor, where those with power placed those without into a state of bondage. That doesn't seem to be the point of our welfare state which, following the passage of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), truly doesn't even exist anymore (see below).

As for spiritual faith, it is clearly more dominant in decisionmaking (e.g., politics) now than it has ever been. We often hear rhetoric to the contrary, but that is what it is: rhetoric. The Constitution, written by Christian - even Protestant - men, does not mention "God" one single time. Not once. If is simply specious, if not a downright untruth, to claim the founders intended a government based on Christianity, when they failed to include a single reference to such in the document that would guide said government.

The email continues by quoting Professor Joseph Olson of Hamline University School of Law in St. Paul, Minnesota, who points out that: "In aggregate, the map of the territory Bush won was mostly the land owned by the tax-paying citizens of this great country. Gore's territory mostly encompassed those citizens living in government-owned tenements and living off government welfare..." Oson believes the United States is now somewhere between the "complacency and apathy" phase of Professor Tyler's definition of democracy, with some 40 percent of the nation's population already having reached the "governmental dependency" phase.

How does one define government dependency? As elderly people having the security blanket of Social Security? As low income citizens having the safety net of Medicaid? Or is he referring to the couple thousand people left on welfare? Perhaps he's referring to the vast majority of citizens that "depend" on the government, through public schools, to educate our children? Or maybe he's referring to that nation-jeopardizing practice of "depending" on fire, police, and the military for public safety?

I would argue that a government that strives toward the common good, toward equal rights and equal access for all of its citizens, is certainly one that is likely to continue existing into the foreseeable future.

A quite perplexing piece of spam. However, there are two incredibly relevant points to be drawn from this email.

The first is this: this email is very likely an urban myth. indicates that the Tyler quote is likely fictitious and that Professor Olson is the source of nothing contained in this email. A friendly reminder we shouldn't believe everything we read, regardless of how intelligent it might sound.

The second is this: mythical as it is, the email nonetheless contains a solid conclusion. Apathy is, without question, the greatest danger to our democracy. On that point, it was dead-on.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Rights not Rhetoric

On April 10, 2006, ten thousand Latinos and supporters marched on the Wisconsin Capitol in Madison to protest HR 4437 and other anti-immigrant legislation currently working its way through Washington and dozens of statehouses throughout the US. This has become a predictably partisan issue, with those on the left screaming "racism" and those on the right screaming "law breakers."

There is some truth to both sides. There seems to be little question that if the majority of immigrants were educated, white, English speakers, that this issue would be less prominent. However, there is a complex reality that must be faced. A great number of Mexicans are in fact entering the US illegally. This is only possible because of our shared border. What of the countless Mexicans, other Latinos, Africans, Indians, Chinese, and Eastern Europeans who try to enter the United States legally?

There is the arduous and time consuming process of obtaining a green card. Only 50,000 green cards are awarded per year, via lottery. This requires an application fee, filling out dozens of forms, and a fair amount of luck. There is also the H-1B work visa process. This is difficult as well, with only 65,000 issued - at most - each year. Sadly, these are only for college educated professionals who can make a contribution to the US economy. Then there's citizenship itself. An expensive and time consuming process, one must maintain a period of permanent presence in the United States -- the date of which doesn't even begin until one has permanent legal resident status.

For better or worse, this is our process and our law. When some immigrants circumvent said law, what message does that send to other immigrants who endeavor to go through the almost unimaginable difficulty of doing it legally? Also, when immigrants circumvent the law and remain illegal, they become part of a permanent underclass from which they simply cannot escape.

At the same time, the United States has always stood as the beacon of freedom. "Give us your tired, your poor." Most Latinos are coming here to work and provide a better life for their families. In most cases, they are doing jobs that most Americans are unwilling to do, for wages we'd consider ludicrous.

This is not an easy problem and like most, there is no easy solution. One thing that will not solve the problem: the left screaming "racism" at the right, while the right screams "illegals" at the left. The solution will require several elements:

(1) An avenue to legal status and citizenship for the illegal immigrants already living and working here. Any other solution does nothing but drive the problem underground and create a police state where neighbors spy on neighbors.

(2) A new temporary work visa that belongs to the worker, not the employer, and enables a wider range of migrants with job offers to enter the U.S. legally. The vast majority of immigrants come here to work. Let's create a system that allows them to come legally, work with dignity, and maneuver their way into our economic mainstream.

(3) An improved family unification system, which would reduce the delays experienced by immigrants seeking to rejoin their family members in the U.S. This is simply essential in any nation that purports to care about family values.

(4) Possibly most importantly, we need to recognize that the vast majority of us are descendents of immigrants. Our grandfathers and grandmothers often faced the same scorn upon entering this country. It is the 21st century and it is time to evolve our thinking. We are rapidly becoming the most multi-cultural nation on earth. Assimilation is no longer the answer. Instead, we must guarantee equal opportunity for all, celebrate the diverse traditions and cultures that add so much value to our nation, and welcome our new neighbors with open arms.

There is great complexity here, but answers do exist. We need to focus on solutions, not rhetoric... and we can begin to solve the immigration problem in a way that is both fair and dignified.