Friday, January 22, 2021

The Congressional Struggle Begins

On the one side you have a minority that has no respect for the fact that the American majority opposes them and that in democracies the majority rules. This minority is adamant about using historical quirks and technicalities to maintain their control despite their minority status.

On the other side you have a majority which has a pile of work that needs to get done to relieve suffering and even the toll of death in our country. Much of this work has genuine bipartisan support. 

If our institution of democracy is to survive, it must be able to respond positively to the will of the majority. The majority will need to fully exercise the power it has within the rules to affirm the power of the majority. Only this can bring the obstructive minority back into the fold of a truly democratic process. The minority has shown itself to not be willing to submit to the demands of a democratic form of government. Essentially despite the failure of the storming of the Capitol, our democracy is still at risk and will remain so as long as the faction that does not have the support of the people is able to exercise more power than that to which they are entitled.

Under standard Roberts Rules, two-thirds of a body can close debate and bring a question to vote. Any member of the body who gains the floor can move to close debate. Originally, the Senate operated without any cloture rule because senators wanted to maintain the privilege of any one senator to hold the floor as long as he wanted to talk. There was a natural limit to debate in the stamina of any single member.  In 1917, the Senate adopted a rule that brought it into line with standard Roberts Rules. Historically, this rule was most often used by southern Senators to block efforts to disassemble Jim Crow laws. In 1975, the rule was slightly modified to use a three-fifths threshold for cloture. It now takes 60 senators to force cloture instead of 67. Nonetheless, a united minority can block legislation yet today. 

What can the majority do to bring the minority into line? I'm not an expert on all this but this is how I see it. The majority can drop the "nice-guy" attitude since the minority has clearly thrown it out the window altogether. It should require senators to physically debate the questions they wish to block. And they should actually force cloture votes, repeatedly if necessary. At some point, the minority will crack. The optics of them intentionally voting against things that the majority of American desire must be a burden they risk and bear. Furthermore, the majority can bring bill to the floor outside of the minority-controlled committees and force votes on things that indeed have a filibuster-proof majority. In doing so, the hidden fragmentation of the minority party will be exposed. Given that the minority fights with procedural technicalities, the majority must also enter the same battlefield and bring sufficient humiliation to the minority that in no longer falls within their self-interest to continue the battle. 

The will and cohesion of the majority will be tested. But perversely, it's the will and cohesion of the minority that will, in fact, strengthen the cohesiveness of their opposition. This is how democracy should work. The things the majority wants should be the things the legislative bodies provide. If such is not the case, democracy is not present. 

Make no mistake. This battle is existential for our democracy just as much as the struggle against the mob in the Capitol.

Saturday, January 16, 2021

Saturday, January 16

 Life these days seems to be a waiting game. Waiting for sanity to return to the White House. Waiting for vaccination programs to start producing results. Waiting for life to get more back to normal. Waiting to enjoy live choral music and concerts. There has been so much that we used to take for granted that it's hard to imagine that we will ever travel fully and not think about what a gift it is to be able to do so. Perhaps we will even see a leap forward in the quality of life as more people stay constructively engaged it the process of self-government. Maybe we can see a real recovery and advancement of our economy with more opportunity for all our children and a new emphasis on social fairness. Possibly, these dark days of struggle may bring a dawn of good times: times so good that our grandchildren will begin to take them for granted. And maybe, just maybe, we can learn the lessons that need to be learned. Freedom and justice require eternal vigilance. Once you master the environment, you must reverently care for it. All people are part of a universal family and none can be discarded or made into objects of disrespect.

Science fiction writers have hypothesized that contact with an alien world would be the impetus that would unite all of humanity. I submit that the lesson of this pandemic is that we all must find ways to get along because there are sufficient dangers on our own planet that don't discriminate. These dangers threaten the rich and poor, educated and uneducated, all nations, all political systems, all religions, and all levels of social privilege. We have to learn to heal our rifts and build diverse and skilled teams to meet both the challenges of nature and the messes we make ourselves.

Thursday, January 14, 2021

For deeper consideration

Why are people susceptible to conspiracy theories?

Conspiracy theories

Conspiracy theories arise in the context of fear, anxiety, mistrust, uncertainty, and feelings of powerlessness. For many Americans, recent years have provided many sources for these feelings. There’s been employment insecurity, stagnating wages, and thwarted social mobility. For some, technological leaps and social progress—expanding views of sexuality, and racial unrest—can feel destabilizing. 

People with low levels of education are more likely than more-educated people to believe in conspiracy theories, but such theories are also common among the well-educated. 
People at the political extremes of both the “left” and “right” seem more likely to endorse conspiracy beliefs than more moderate groups on either side. 

Those who believe these theories typically show high levels of anxiety independent of external sources of stress, a high need for control over environment, and a high need for subjective certainty and, conversely, a low tolerance for ambiguity. They tend to have negative attitudes to authority, to feel alienated from the political system, and to see the modern world as unintelligible. Conspiracy theory believers are often suspicious and untrusting, and see others as plotting against them. They struggle with anger, resentment, and other hostile feelings as well as with fear. They have lower self-esteem than nonbelievers and have a need for external validation to maintain their self-esteem. They may have a strong desire to feel unique and special, and an exaggerated need to be in an exclusive in-group. Belief in conspiracy theories often also goes along with belief in paranormal phenomena, skepticism of scientific knowledge, and weaknesses in analytic thinking. Proneness to belief in conspiracy theories is also associated with religiosity, especially with people for whom a religious worldview is especially important. These traits are hardly universal among or exclusive to conspiracy theorists, but they help create a vulnerability to belief

The tenacity of many conspiracy theories in the face of facts suggests that these beliefs are not merely alternate interpretations of facts but are rooted in conscious or unconscious wishes, in what cognitive psychologists call “motivated reasoning.”
There are a few motivations driving these wishes. They may be an effort to “protect or bolster one’s political worldview.” They may also protect or bolster a person’s own view of themselves. Anxiety, fear, and distrust can engender shame, resentment, jealousy, anger, or guilt. A person may disown their own feelings and project them onto others. The conspiracy theory can then serve to explain these feelings.

It is easier to pin our anxiety to the malevolent actions of others than to confront our own fears and worries. Thus, unacknowledged fear of becoming ill with COVID-19 might turn into fear that others are making up or exaggerating the pandemic for nefarious purposes. 

...some conspiracy theories lead to actions and other beliefs that have negative social consequences. Belief in one or another conspiracy theory is associated with more acceptance of violent behavior, refusal to vaccinate school-age children, and opposition to actions to respond to climate change. In 2019, the FBI identified belief in the QAnon theories as a potential domestic terror threat. In the current COVID-19 crisis, believers in the many virus-related conspiracy theories are more likely to refuse to wear masks or maintain social distance. And, last Wednesday, thousands of Trump supporters, believers in the conspiracy theory promoted by the president that the election was stolen, invaded the Capitol and threatened American democracy itself.

...columnist Paul Krugman wrote, “Unlike the crazy conspiracy theories of the left—which do exist, but are supported only by a tiny fringe—the crazy conspiracy theories of the right are supported by important people: powerful politicians, television personalities with large audiences.” The widespread belief on the part of Trump supporters that Biden won the election only because of voter fraud, egged on by Trump himself despite the lack of any significant evidence, may leave a legacy of delegitimating the Biden administration and of delegitimating government and normal political processes themselves. And that, in fact, may be the point.

Monday, January 11, 2021

Dealing with the Trump Cult - Chapter 2

We all know one or more people who fully sympathize with the Capital rioters. We are all in the spotlight to lend a hand in the healing from this episode and the recovery of our body politic while at the same time protecting and defending our society from future like episodes. We have known this since 2016 but the severity of the stakes have just been made suddenly certain rather than speculative like they have been up until now.

Let's try to get into the heads of those people who felt justified in invading the Capitol and threatening the lives of the Vice-President and members of Congress. As a Democrat imagine if you will, how 2016 would have felt if any of the narrow-margin states that gave the Electoral College to Trump had voting irregularities such that the vote count had been in serious question. Granted, the Democrats actually have a precedent for this with Bush v. Gore. We also have a record of how Democrats handled it. They clearly demonstrated that the Left respects the rule of law and democratic norms over their personal desire to win. Democrats acquiesced to the somewhat specious Supreme Court decision to give the Presidency to George Bush. Note that the Court explicitly stated that the decision was not intended to set any precedent. (One could argue that they were operating outside of their authority to decide any case that couldn't be relied upon to set judicial precedent.)

In clear contrast, the more recent events make it clear that those in the Trump cult have been conditioned to believe these norms don't apply if they hinder their side from winning. (You can be sure they are much more supportive of them when they work in their favor.) With the Bush v Gore precedent notwithstanding, they have been conditioned to believe that the Left such an evil threat that violence is not only justified but possibly required.

Stay with me here. We are used to calling on protests to be disciplined when it comes to violence because of the appreciation we hold for the work of Rev. Martin Luther King and those who struggled with him. In the deep story of the Right, the success of King and Civil Rights is a lost battle (much like the Civil War itself). It makes perfect sense that Confederate icons and flags have been adopted by them. They are still fighting that war. Their God-given privilege of having someone to look down upon no matter how bad their own life gets is essential to their understanding of the social order. In the conservative mindset, social order is a zero-sum game. If someone rises, then it is a given that someone else must fall. If someone different than them gains a right, then it is axiomatic that someone like them must lose a right. It's also a given that one rises in the social hierarchy by dent of effective competition, by doing their jobs better than those who don't rise. Capitalism is an absolute meritocracy, and so forth. Under this mindset, lower classes (other than themselves) are low not because of structural discrimination but because of poor performance. When it appears that political forces are placing less-qualified and less-capable "other" people ahead of them in the cosmic hierarchy (remember, it's a zero-sum set), they experience a profound sense of grievance. And that feeling of grievance is what the Trump cult has exploited and fanned.

If we are to engage in the work of healing our body politic, we need to engage with this clear-eyed understanding of how the oppositions feels and thinks. (More exploration of this will be coming.)

Saturday, January 09, 2021

Dealing with the Trump-cult

The news of the past few days has been alarming. It's possible that some of the alarm has been slightly exaggerated by the media as is often the case, but it's equally possible that the media may actually be understating the danger we are in. Today, I read a Twitter thread from Seth Abramson, whom I consider to be a reputable source, in which he connects some dots that indicate that the assault on the Capitol may very well have been orchestrated from the beginning. Just think what national chaos would have ensued if the rioters had been successful in stopping the ceremonial counting of the Electoral College votes. In a country ruled by law, these formal ceremonies involving congressional action matter. The Trump-cult would have been able to argue that Biden had not been formally authorized to take over the White House and the Executive branch. It pales credulity to not think that this would not have been at least in the back of Trump's mind if not actually foremost. 

It should again be said that the problem is not so much as the man himself but the movement of which he is the titular head. The adherents will not be dissuaded easily. We can point to numerous time in history when true believer movements survive the collapse of their initiating reason for existence. Examples include such things as posthumous Elvis sightings, too many 2nd-coming-based religious movements (many of which are mainstream denominations today), and even Christianity itself. So, should Trump be removed from the playing field, those who thrive on the lies and wild conspiracy theories will still be a political force. It's estimated that a full 20% of the 74 million people who voted for the man, fall into this bracket.  This means over 13 million people. Reports in social media have identified many who are recognizable local figures or even members of local law enforcement agencies

Tim Snyder points out that tyrannical actions must be resisted as quickly as possible because if they are not, the perpetrators are only emboldened to even more destructive actions. Even then, deeply held belief systems are persistent. We did not eliminate racism with the Civil War. There has been ongoing racial suppression ever since. With every effort to criminalize racist practices, there are those who find ways to get around the laws and persist with institutionalized racism. Core beliefs only seem to change when adherents die out of the population without successfully passing their beliefs into the future generations.

On the other hand, it is possible to see things change quickly. We have experienced a rapid change in the acceptance and even appreciation of homosexuality. A key aspect of this is that homosexuals learned to courageously strive to be more visible in general society. So many people discovered that they had beloved family members and close friends who were part of the struggle, that they could not dismiss homosexuals as a peculiar "other". Acceptance came out of the love and connections they had with people that made it clear that the fears stoked by the lies simply could not be justified or even tolerated.

There may be a lesson in this for today's situation. The Trump-cult and others like it can only be relegated to the dustbin of history as more and more people denounce it both publicly and privately. And just like the progress with sexual orientation and racial equity, such actions can be dangerous. It was dangerous for conscientious Southern citizens who opposed the horrors of Jim Crow. Each one felt that they were alone and without the power to buck the system. Many paid a price for quixotically opposing Jim Crow. The 10-level of courage shown by an exceptional few allowed those with at 9-level of courage to stand up and stand out as well. Their example heartened those with an 8-level of courage to make themselves known. And so forth until the fight for civil rights turned a corner.

As we face the specter of the Trump-cult that seems to hold sway over the majority of our neighbors, there has to be a few of the 10-level courage who have the wherewithal to visually and vocally stand up and stand out. The Trump-cult is the wounded beast of the power-crazed, white-supremacist sector of our society. Wounded beasts are dangerous and will inflict harm if allowed to do so. Those who lead this struggle must do so well-armored and clear-eyed. There will be pushback. The vanguard always suffer losses. But it is they who open the path for the rest of us to walk from the night into the day.

Weblog Reboot

 Over the past year, I have kept a hand-written journal of my thoughts as they are triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic. I had the quaint idea that they may be of interest to somebody someday. But, it is a hand-written hardcopy paper-based journal and as such, it will be exposed to the vagaries of chance of whether my posterity will judge it worthy of preserving (along with many years of other Gregg-written memos and thoughts). Today, I decide that perhaps I should put some of these things and others into the cloud in the form of weblog entries. Even then, I realize that weblogs are passé. While it's on a corporate platform, I still think the format is more under my personal control than other social media platforms. Perhaps some people will actually read this and perhaps they may wish to participate in meaningful discussions. We shall see.

I've had many teachers in my formative years of which I thought highly. One of them was Miss Plato in my junior year high school English class. She threw much of the standard curriculum (American Literature) out the window and decided to teach us how to write. Her regimen included turning in a paragraph of written work every day. The purpose was to get us to exercise our brains daily in the discipline of writing. She wasn't at all interested in the content (which took a lot of pressure off our young minds) but she was brutal about basic things like spelling, punctuation, and grammar. If your paragraph had any of the verboten errors in these errors, you receive a score of 0 for that day's paper. Assuming your were able to get past that threshold, the paper was graded on how well you expressed you thought clearly and meaningfully. The accumulated grades on the daily paragraphs scored as half your grade for the entire class. American literature was merely the mountain that was mined for ideas to use in our paragraphs. I've always appreciated her take-no-prisoners attitude toward things that mattered. The sad part of the story is that her ideas didn't sit well with suburban Texas parents in 1967 and she only lasted a single year. (There is a hint of a memory that she may have had a same-sex partner and that may have contributed to her short tenure.) Regardless, I will always remember her fondly and I regret that so few students were able to benefit from her influence.

This is a long story to basically say, having been journaling by hand, I intend to use this space to do some journaling in the cloud on a frequent, disciplined basis. Perhaps, some of my hand-written material will find it's way here.