Longing for common ground

Christopher Murray

Governing the United States — while certainly always a difficult assignment — has become virtually impossible. What seems to be making the presidency such a thankless job is a function of two forces. The irony is that both of these forces are, in and of themselves, positive.

First, as reams of demographic data show, the United States is becoming increasingly diverse across a range of variables: race, ethnicity, income, education level, religious affiliation, language, etc. The picture the 2010 census provides is a fascinating mosaic and a testament to the notion that our country is indeed a melting pot. The difficulty with this image, however, is that as the diversity of the country increases, so does the range of issues, beliefs and policy preferences being brought to bear on our political system. To navigate this landscape and create a coalition of voters designed to propel them to the White House, both Romney and Obama took positions on difficult issues that would prove challenging for any president to implement.

A second force complicating modern politics is the rapidly advancing technology that allows this increasingly diverse electorate to mobilize and petition the government. Individuals and groups now have the ability to instantaneously organize and communicate their feelings to elected officials. Like the growing diversity of the country, this is in many ways a good thing. The functioning of a healthy democracy requires that its politicians be accessible, responsive and accountable to the people who elect them. The question, though, is whether this access comes at the expense of deliberation and sound judgment. As many people who have worked in the office of an elected official can attest, it often seems impossible to make a decision on an issue without being bombarded from all directions by emails, phone calls, blog posts and twitter messages in support or opposition to the elected official’s latest move.

As a result of these factors, the United States is becoming increasingly fragmented and divided. Beyond being divided into the two main partisan camps of the Democratic and Republican parties, people now have multiple ways to express themselves politically. Our political identities are shaped by who we socialize with, where we live and work, what media we consume, and numerous other factors. Because we now have more choices available to us — and instantaneous means for connecting with each other — we are able to self-select into our own communities of like-minded thinkers. Rather than conversing or debating honestly, more often than not we simply re-enforce our own beliefs and filter out information that challenges our thinking. As a result, it is becoming increasingly difficult to find areas of common ground — not because common ground doesn’t exist but because we’ve walled ourselves off from those who might lead us to it. To make the compromises that are necessary to produce policy for the whole country, people first must be able to recognize how other people view the world. Increasingly it seems as if this empathy is elusive.

This might seem an overly pessimistic view of the American political process, but I believe there is a path forward. After nearly 20 years spent living and working in our nation’s capital, I’ve come to conclude that the three most rarely heard words in Washington are “I don’t know.” It is only when we pursue knowledge with an intellectual humility that we allow ourselves to consider perspectives, beliefs and ideas that challenge our preconceived notions and assumptions. When we realize that we might be wrong, we make it easier to find what’s right. As our country gets larger, grows more diverse, becomes increasingly mobilized and more highly interconnected, each of us has a responsibility to look at the world through as many lenses as possible. If we do so, it will be much easier to find the common ground that has recently eluded us on so many issues and problems. It will also make the job much easier for whomever is the U.S. president.

Christopher Murray is coordinator of student affairs and visiting instructor at the Marquette University Les Aspin Center for Government in Washington, D.C. His article is edited from Marquette magazine, Fall 2012, and was reprinted in PeaceMeal, Nov/December 2012.

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)

badalamente.jpg (3490 bytes)‘The Last Best Hope’

by Richard Badalamente

When I tell someone that I’m an American, I am conveying to him or her not just where I’m from but, in a larger sense, who I am. Today, I’m no longer sure who that is.

I served in the United States Air Force from 1961 to 1981, and during that time I spent time in a number of different countries. Most people I met in these places invariably admired Americans. They always wanted to shake my hand. It may be that they idealized us. I know they thought everyone in America was rich. But more than that, I believe that they saw America as a model to which other countries could aspire — that “shining city on a hill” that former President Ronald Reagan spoke of when he said that we Americans are “the last best hope of man on earth.”

I was proud to be a person thought to reflect the grand idea of America. I knew that America was not perfect, nor was I. We were never perfect, but never have we been so imperfect.

At one time admired and respected for our sense of decency and fair play, we are today justifiably reviled for the abuses at Abu Ghraib and the abomination that is Guantanamo.

Envied for the freedoms we enjoyed and admired for the physical and intellectual courage we demonstrated in earning those freedoms, we are looked upon today as a country gripped by fear, teetering on the edge of a police state.

And where so many other countries struggled valiantly to light the torch of democracy, and we were looked to as a beacon in the surrounding darkness, now that beacon flickers and dims as our elected representatives sell their votes, gerrymander congressional districts to ensure their party wins, and deny the vote to minorities and the poor.

And as for being rich, America — once the world’s biggest creditor nation — is now the world’s biggest debtor nation. We are spending borrowed money to pursue an ill-conceived and executed military strategy of preemptive war, and prioritizing military spending over Social Security and Medicare reform, healthcare, stem cell research, research into the make up of the human genome, and economic opportunity programs for the growing proportion of Americans — some 13% — living in poverty.

I want an America with a government of the people, by the people, and for the people — a people unwilling to permit the erosion of human rights that is a legacy of that government. I want an America that has faith in its leaders, its institutions and its self. And an America whose faith in a higher being is an individual choice that manifests itself in acts of compassion and generosity towards its citizens and its neighbors.

I want an America that values not material wealth per se, but the wealth of talent, ingenuity, and spirit that create the quality of life that we all work to afford. I want an America that abrogates to no nation leadership in exploring the frontiers of knowledge. I want an America whose conquests are of hunger, disease, poverty, ignorance, deceit, and hate, at home and abroad.

I want my America back, my last best hope.

Richard Badalamente lives in Kennewick, Washington. His article was published in the Tri-City (Wash.) Herald, 8 April 2006, and in PeaceMeal, May/June 2006.

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)

Impeachment whispers get louder

The San Francisco Board of Supervisors voted in February to urge Congress to impeach President George W. Bush, as have state Democratic parties, including those of New Mexico, Nevada, North Carolina and Wisconsin. Three of Massachusetts' 10 House members have called for the investigation and possible impeachment of President Bush. And a Zogby International poll showed that 51 percent of respondents agreed that the president should be impeached if he lied about Iraq — a far greater percentage than believed President Bill Clinton should be impeached during the Monica Lewinsky scandal.

But it would be a considerable overstatement to say the fledgling impeachment movement threatens to topple this presidency. There are just 33 House co-sponsors of a motion by Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) to investigate and perhaps impeach Bush. Prominent party leaders and a large majority of those in Congress distance themselves from the effort. They say the very word is a distraction. For impeachment to even be a possibility, Democrats must retake at least one house of Congress in November.

"Impeachment is an outlet for anger and frustration, which I share, but politics ain't therapy," said Rep. Barney Frank, a Massachusetts liberal who declined to sign the Conyers resolution. "Bush would much rather debate impeachment than the disastrous war in Iraq."

On the other hand, Rep. Michael E. Capuano (D-Mass.) said: "If the president says ‘We made mistakes,' fine, let's move on. But if he lied to get America into a war, I can't imagine anything more impeachable."

Several websites on the Internet have led the charge for impeachment, giving liberals an outlet for anger that has been years in the making. "The value of a powerful idea, like impeachment of the president for criminal acts, is that it has a long shelf life and opens a debate," said Bill Goodman of the Center for Constitutional Rights, which represents Guantanamo Bay detainees. And Harper's Magazine ran a cover piece in March titled "The Case for Impeachment: Why We Can No Longer Afford George W. Bush."

The GOP establishment has welcomed the threat. It has been a rough patch for the party -- Bush's approval ratings in polls are lower than for any president in recent history. With midterm elections in the offing, Republican leaders view impeachment as kerosene poured on the bonfires of their party base.

"The Democrats' plan for 2006? Take the House and Senate and impeach the president," Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman wrote in a recent fundraising e-mail. "With our nation at war, is this the kind of Congress you want?"

The argument for an impeachment inquiry, which draws support from prominent constitutional scholars such as Harvard's Laurence H. Tribe and former Reagan deputy attorney general Bruce Fein, centers on President Bush's conduct before and after the invasion of Iraq in 2003. It is argued that Bush and his officials conspired to manufacture evidence of weapons of mass destruction to persuade Congress to approve the invasion. Former Treasury secretary Paul H. O'Neill told CBS News's 60 Minutes that "from the very beginning there was a conviction that Saddam Hussein was a bad person and that he needed to go . . . it was all about finding a way to do it." And a senior British intelligence official wrote in what is now known as the Downing Street Memo that Bush officials were intent on fixing "the intelligence and the facts ... around the policy."

Critics point to the president's approval of harsh interrogations of prisoners captured Iraq and Afghanistan, tactics that human rights groups such as Amnesty International say amount to torture. President Bush also authorized electronic surveillance of telephone calls and e-mails without a warrant, subjecting possibly thousands of Americans each year to eavesdropping since 2001.

Following revelations of Bush's domestic spying program — and the president's unrepentant insistence on continuing it — former Nixon White House counsel John Dean called Bush "the first president to admit to an impeachable offense."

In January, former Rep. Elizabeth Holtzman, a member of the House Judiciary Committee during the impeachment of President Nixon, penned an appeal for Bush's removal in the Nation, citing his illegal wiretaps, his deliberate deceptions over Iraq, his incompetent prosecution of the war, and his authorizing systemic torture and abuse. "Impeachment is a tortuous process, but now that President Bush has thrown down the gauntlet and virtually dared Congress to stop him from violating the law, nothing less is necessary to protect our constitutional system and preserve our democracy," she wrote.

The Center for Constitutional Rights, a legal group representing many of the victims of President Bush's torture policies, has just published a book called "Articles of Impeachment Against George W. Bush." Michael Ratner, an international human rights lawyer and president of the Center said, "Bush is saying ‘I'm the president' and, on a range of issues — from war to torture to illegal surveillance — ‘I can do as I like.' This administration needs to be slapped down and held accountable for actions that could change the shape of our democracy."

    – compiled from The Washington Post, 25 March 2006, and Salon.com
PeaceMeal March/April 2006

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)

Dream on, America

by Andrew Moravcsik

Not long ago, the American Dream was a global fantasy. It was not only Americans who saw themselves as a beacon unto nations. So did much of the rest of the world. To appreciate just how deeply Americans still believe in this founding myth, you had only to listen to George W. Bush's 2nd Inaugural Address, invoking "freedom" and "liberty" 49 times. For many in the world, the president's rhetoric confirmed their worst fears of an imperial America relentlessly pursuing its narrow national interests. But the greater danger may be a delusional America, one that believes America remains a model for the world — despite all evidence to the contrary.

The gulf between how Americans view themselves and how the rest of the world views them was summed up in a mid-January poll by the BBC. Fully 71 percent of Americans see the United States as a source of good in the world, and more than half view Bush's election as positive for global security. But foreigners take an entirely different view. Fifty-eight percent in the BBC poll see Bush's re-election as a threat to world peace. And among America's traditional allies, the figure is strikingly higher: 77 percent in Germany, 64 percent in Britain, and 82 percent in Turkey. Among the 1.3 billion members of the Islamic world, public support for the United States is measured in single digits.

The anti-Bushism of the president's first term is giving way to a more general anti-Americanism. In each of the 21 countries surveyed by the BBC, an average of 70 percent of voters oppose sending any troops to Iraq. Only one third, disproportionately in the poorest and most dictatorial countries, would like to see American values spread in their country. Former Brazilian president Josť Sarney expressed the sentiments of the 78 percent of his countrymen who see America as a threat: "Now that Bush has been re-elected, all I can say is, God bless the rest of the world."

The truth is that Americans are living in a dream world. Not only do others not share America's self-regard, they no longer aspire to emulate the country's social and economic achievements. The loss of faith in the American Dream goes beyond this swaggering administration and its war in Iraq. It grows from the success of something America holds dear: the spread of democracy, free markets, and international institutions — in a word, globalization.

Anti-Americanism is especially virulent in Europe and Latin America, where countries have established their own distinctive political, economic, and social ways — none made in America. Futurologist Jeremy Rifkin, in his recent book The European Dream, hails an emerging European Union based on generous social welfare, cultural diversity, and respect for international law — a model that's caught on quickly across the former nations of Eastern Europe.

Many here are tempted to write off the new anti-Americanism as mere resentment. Blinded by its own myth, America has grown incapable of recognizing its flaws. For there is much about the American Dream to fault.

American Democracy: When nations write a new constitution today, they seldom look to the American model. When the Soviets withdrew from Central Europe, U.S. constitutional experts rushed in. They got a polite hearing, and were sent home. Jiri Pehe, adviser to former president Vaclav Havel, recalls the Czechs' firm decision to adopt a European-style parliamentary system with strict limits on campaigning. "For Europeans, money talks too much in American democracy. It's very prone to certain kinds of corruption, or at least influence from powerful lobbies," he says. They also limited the dominance of television, unlike in American campaigns where, Pehe says, "TV debates and photogenic looks govern election victories."

Much in American law and society troubles the world these days. Nearly all countries reject the United States' right to bear arms as a quirky and dangerous anachronism. They abhor the death penalty and demand broader privacy protections. Above all, once most foreign systems reach a reasonable level of affluence, they follow the Europeans in treating the provision of adequate social welfare as a basic right. The United States' refusal to ratify global human-rights treaties such as the innocuous Convention on the Rights of the Child, or to endorse the International Criminal Court — coupled with the abuses at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo — reinforces the conviction that America's Constitution and legal system are out of step with the rest of the world.

Economic Prosperity: The American Dream has always been chiefly economic — a dynamic ideal of free enterprise, free markets, and individual opportunity based on merit and mobility. Certainly the U.S. economy has been extraordinarily productive. Yet these days there's as much economic dynamism in the newly industrializing economies of Asia, Latin America, and even eastern Europe. All are growing faster than the United States.

Much has been made here of the differences between the dynamic American model and the purportedly sluggish and over-regulated "European model." Sooner or later, the conventional wisdom goes, Europeans will adopt the American model — or perish. Yet this is a myth. Airbus recently overtook Boeing in sales of commercial aircraft, and the EU recently surpassed America as China's top trading partner.

Europeans are aware that their systems provide better primary education, more job security, and a more generous social net than the American system. They are willing to pay higher taxes and submit to regulation in order to bolster their quality of life. Americans work far longer hours than Europeans do, but they are not necessarily more productive nor happier, buried as they are in household debt. George Monbiot, a British intellectual, observes: "The American model has become an American nightmare rather than an American dream."

"Americans have the best medical care in the world," President Bush declared in his Inaugural Address. Yet the United States is the only developed democracy without a universal guarantee of health care, leaving about 45 million Americans uninsured. U.S. infant mortality rates are among the highest for developed democracies. The World Health Organization rates the U.S. healthcare system only 37th best in the world — on a par with Cuba.

Foreign Policy: U.S. leaders have long believed military power and the American Dream went hand in hand. World War II was fought not just to defeat the Axis powers, but to make the world safe for the United Nations and other international institutions that would strengthen weaker countries. Today, Americans make the same presumption, confusing military might with right. A former French minister muses that the United States is the last country to believe that the pinpoint application of military power is the critical instrument of foreign policy.

Contrast that with the European Union, pioneering an approach based on civilian instruments like trade, foreign aid, peacekeeping, international monitoring, and international law. No single policy has contributed as much to Western peace and security as the admission of 10 new countries to the European Union. In country after country, authoritarian nationalists were beaten back by democratic coalitions held together by the promise of joining Europe.

Americans still invoke democratic idealism. We heard it in Bush's address, with his apocalyptic proclamation that "the survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands." But fewer and fewer people listen. Has this administration learned nothing from Iraq, they ask?

The failure of the American Dream has only been highlighted by our country's foreign-policy failures, not caused by them. The true danger is that we Americans — speechifying about liberty and freedom and lost in the reveries of greatness — do not realize this.

– edited from Newsweek International, January 31, 2005, issue. For full article, see: www.msnbc.msn.com/id/6857387/site/newsweek
PeaceMeal Jan/February 2005

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)