Friday, September 24, 2010

My pledge to you...

This week GOP leadership in the House of Representatives produced a 21-page document they call the Pledge to America. I downloaded the document and took the time to read through it. This move is obviously politically motivated. (All concerted actions by either party are politically motivated.) Predictably, the document is full of patriotic euphemisms, political rhetoric, and vague statements. But it does commit its authors to a set of beliefs and even some specific legislative actions.

As you’d expect, Democratic critics immediately denounced the entire document with a bunch of their own vague, evasive rhetoric. But of more interest and significance, a number of right-wing political pundits jumped all over the pledge wondering why Republicans would want to pigeon-hole themselves into specific future direction. Their logic is that by focusing on what the Democrats are doing wrong (in the economy, border security, foreign policy, and ignoring voters) they will win seats in the coming congressional elections. If Republicans state what they will do, then the Democrats will be able to shift the focus away from their own deficiencies and simply rip holes in the Republican strategy, maybe preserving seats in the process.


Probably no other institution in our society thrives so intensely on blame as our two-party political system. By the time John Adams faced off with Thomas Jefferson in the first Presidential campaign, political strategists began to realize that blaming the other party for national problems was the key to winning votes.

This current GOP strategy of a “Pledge to America” may, or may not, be smart political theory. Its framers obviously believe it will garner favor with voters as did the Republican “Contract with America” a generation ago. But conventional political advisors worry that it takes on accountability and surrenders their attack opportunity. This is an interesting deviation from the norm. Blame (which is the tried and true strategy) is an abdication of responsibility. This pledge lays out in writing, for all to see, the GOP commitments. It will be tough to deny these statements two years from now if they are not achieved, or if they produce poor results.

Whether you consider yourself a liberal or conservative, I think this sort of pledge is exactly what we need from any party. It gives us, the voters, a specification of what we can expect from that party. We get to evaluate those promises, then vote the direction we believe will take us in the right direction – sort of like when you compare bids on two different contractors to re-do your bathroom. We also get a subsequent basis for accountability two years down the road. Did we get what we paid for? Would we hire them again?

Our democracy has survived for over 200 years with the blame game being the dominant political mantra. So, maybe it will survive another 200 years using the same techniques. But wouldn’t you sooner evaluate a few written proposals than watch months of grotesque, mud-slinging, attack ads on television?

Monday, September 20, 2010

Step Right Up

Last Tuesday, primary elections were held in many states around the country. On average, about 25% of eligible voters turned out to cast their ballots. What prevented the other three out of every four people from bothering to vote? I’m sure some couldn’t find the extra 5 minutes in their pre-work or after-work schedules. I’m sure some didn’t want to go out in the rain. Some others probably completely forgot. Some likely didn’t have a clue who the candidates were. And then there were probably a bunch that just didn’t care.

On Saturday, parliamentary elections were held in Afghanistan. Al Qaeda, in an attempt to disrupt the elections, made it clear that anyone who tried to vote was putting their life on the line. Polling places were bombed. Rockets were launched into civilian neighborhoods and city centers to scare people into staying in their homes. Yet, about 25% of Afghan citizens risked death to get to the polls and cast their vote.

Two points about this contrast really stand out for me. First, America is supposed to be the beacon of democracy in the world. We hold ourselves out as the example for others to follow, and we try to convert the rest of the world to our democratic ideals. But the ugly reality is that most Americans have lost their appreciation for what we have. We thump our chests about “land of the free” but quietly shirk the responsibilities that go along with that freedom. It’s much easier to simply whine about the country being headed “in the wrong direction” as survey polls often indicate, than to spend the time and effort learning about our candidates and issues, electing the most qualified ones, then guiding their actions through our feedback.

The second point is that those Americans who did not vote are probably most likely to be the ones complaining that they are somehow “disenfranchised” by our society. (That seems to be the popular banner of victimization today – is it not?) They are disgruntled that our government does not take adequate care of their special interest. Yet, they shirk the responsibility to organize around their interest and seek solutions to attaining whatever objective they desire. Whatever your level of agreement or disagreement with the ideals of America’s Tea Party movement, you have to admire their ambition in gathering like-minded people, defining their vision, and promoting political candidates who support that vision. That’s a lot tougher than sitting back and whining about being “disenfranchised.”

This truly is a nation of opportunity. But opportunity remains unattainable unless you are willing to mount the campaign to seize it. If you don’t take the time to get involved in our democracy, then don’t complain about the direction it takes.