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Executive Orders: the ultimate non-jury verdict

As I sat through orientation for jury duty the morning of January 5, the irony did not escape me.

The jury clerk thanked us prospective jurors, underscoring that we’d been summoned away from our jobs and responsibilities for good cause. “Imagine if we had no juries, and every court decision rested solely in the hands of a single judge, as it does in many other nations,” he said. The system would be ripe for biased outcomes and abuse of authority. “Democracy cannot not be realized when left only in the hands of the powerful.”

I scribbled his words onto my notepad. His comments struck me hard. On the drive to the courthouse less than an hour before, I had listened to the news of President Obama issuing an executive order on gun control.

“Until we have a Congress that’s in line with the majority of Americans, there are actions within my legal authority that we can take to help reduce gun violence to save more lives,” the President had stated. He claimed his policy would be supported “by the overwhelming majority of the American people, including gun owners.”

The NPR radio report included an endorsement by White House spokesman Josh Earnest. “The president’s view is that he is going to forcefully advocate for the kind of gun safety measures that common sense tells us will not prevent every act of gun violence, but even if it makes some acts of gun violence less likely — and we can do all of that without undermining the constitutional rights of law-abiding Americans — then why wouldn’t we do it?”

So why wouldn’t we? I considered this question as I bided my time in the jury selection waiting room. After all, only a monster wouldn’t want to help prevent gun deaths. Of course I’d like to find policies to lower gun violence!

But even if President Obama’s heart is in the right place, there are several reasons why his executive order is problematic. Let’s break down the White House spokesman’s statement:

  • The president “is going to forcefully advocate” gun safety measures

By “forcefully,” Earnest means the president is imposing a piece of legislation by “executive order” without the consent of Congress.

No provision in the Constitution explicitly permits a president to issue executive orders, but the practice has a history as long as our government itself. In the 20th century, however, executive orders became much more commonly used by presidents for both good and bad purposes. For example, Eisenhower desegregated public schools and Truman desegregated the military by executive order. But it was also used by Franklin Roosevelt to round up Japanese Americans during WWII and remove them from their homes.

As my jury clerk explained, when we allow one person in power to create laws, even for something they personally consider in our best interest, democracy is not served. If this is true of individual court decisions, it’s immeasurably more important when it comes to a national law.

An easy way to drive home the danger of executive orders is to consider some of our next presidential choices, be it Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, Ted Cruz or anyone else. Pick your least desirable candidate, then pick the scheme of that person that you fear the most. Should a president be allowed to to push through legislation to construct a patrolled wall around America’s southern border? Should he be permitted to take over the health industry and make it a governmental agency?

  • The president wants to create “the kind of gun safety measures that common sense tells us will not prevent every act of gun violence, but [may possibly make] some acts of gun violence less likely.”

“Common sense” is a specious term. As described above, the president’s common sense conclusions and passionate beliefs may be completely different from yours, or from what Congress would vote for.

  • We can pass this executive order “without undermining the constitutional rights of law-abiding Americans.”

Here Earnest is giving his opinion, but presenting it as fact. Whether or not you agree with him, the truth is that the constitutionality of gun regulations is an ongoing debate that hasn’t been resolved.

  • “If it makes some acts of gun violence less likely…then why wouldn’t we do it?”

This is aimed at our emotions but is a flimsy argument. Even if a law will potentially solve a particular problem, it doesn’t mean we should necessarily take that path. For example, there were 32,719 automobile fatalities in 2014. Every one of those deaths is a tragedy. Though outlawing cars would certainly make automobile deaths a thing of the past, just because it’s possible to pass that law doesn’t mean we should.

The primary reason executive orders should give us pause is because there are inherent dangers when our president makes laws without the consent of Congress. Groups such as The Heritage Foundation have accused presidents of abusing this executive privilege in order to make laws that would not pass Congressional approval, or to shift existing laws from their original aims.

Just one example is Executive Order 12333 issued by Ronald Reagan in 1981 to authorize foreign intelligence investigations. Presumably, Reagan crafted this law with the people’s best interest in mind to protect them from foreign threats.

The problem is that this act has been expanded upon by one president after another without being subject to meaningful oversight from Congress or any court. Today that order is the basis for NSA policy that allows the government to spy on our emails, our phone conversations and more without issuing a warrant. As Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, has said, her committee cannot sufficiently oversee NSA programs or protect the privacy of Americans because “the executive controls intelligence in the country.” Even those who may trust Obama must recognize that future presidents will also have that power and may continue to expand it at their will.

For example, without checks and balances, Obama’s executive order could someday be expanded to include a No-Gun List, barring anyone chosen from legally purchasing a gun without explanation. We already have a precedent: the government currently has a No-Fly List which prohibits people from boarding aircrafts in or to the U.S. There were 47,000 people on the list in 2013 and the government need not disclose why any of those people were selected. The ACLU has spent 5 years  challenging the policy’s vague standards of inclusion, lack of transparency, and the roadblocks faced by the innocent to get taken off the list.

Now let’s examine Obama’s own statements:

  • “Until we have a Congress that’s in line with the majority of Americans, there are actions within my legal authority that we can take to help reduce gun violence.”

The President’s premise is that Congress is not voting in line with the public’s wishes. Yet it’s hard to substantiate Obama’s claim that his policy would be supported “by the overwhelming majority of the American people, including gun owners.” The polls show a divided America. In December 2015 a Quinnipiac University poll showed that 47% of Americans supported stricter gun laws, with 50% opposed. A CNN poll found 48% in favor and 51%.

So without overstepping Congress, how can the President take positive steps to help reduce firearms deaths?

  • “If we can set it up so you can’t unlock your phone unless you’ve got the right fingerprint, why can’t we do the same thing for our guns?” President Obama asked on Tuesday.

According to Stephen Teret, founder of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research, our Commander -in-Chief could have a hand in moving smart-gun technology forward. Teret believes that if federal law enforcement and the military supported smart guns, their large demand would be the incentive that manufacturers and investors needed to consider such guns as a viable product.

  • Education and research

Educating the public about safe and responsible gun ownership through a national teaching campaign is another avenue to help reduce misuse and accidents. So is establishing research into the causes and prevention of gun violence. Obama actually signed legislation to institute both these measures in January 2013, but unfortunately three years later we have yet to see evidence of either.

The democratic process can be frustrating when a cause we’re advocating gets stalled.  But if we believe in democracy, then we must respect the processes of our free nation, even when they’re slow-moving or go against our desired outcome. Executive orders can dangerously expand the power of our chief executive and run contrary to our constitutional checks on government. All legislation, including gun laws, should only be enacted through the appropriate channel of congressional approval.

 

Why we have poor options for President

as originally published on AllSides.com

What happens when our political party veers from our beliefs? Unfortunately, the way our political system operates, we’re left with few options, which is a problem for both Democrats and Republicans.

Whether you admire John Boehner or are glad he’s gone, the House Majority leader’s recent resignation drives home an important point: a politician’s career can grind to a halt if he doesn’t remain in step with his party’s ideology. Or in this case, if party ideology doesn’t remain in step with a particular politician.

John Boehner was elected Majority Leader in 2006. The Washington Post opines that if you’d predicted “Boehner would resign his seat in less than 10 years for being insufficiently conservative, you probably would have been laughed at.” After all, the Tea Party movement was instrumental to his rise to power.

However, the Republican party has shifted significantly to the right in the years since Boehner was elected, according to ideology indexes such as dw-nominate. Boehner’s collaborative brand of politics no longer satisfied the growing far-right movement within the Republican Party. Negotiation with Democrats, a forte of Boehner, was considered unacceptable by the conservative bloc. Boehner felt compelled to cede his seat for the good of the GOP.

So what does this mean for the registered Republican whose ideology is more centrist? As the Republican Party moves further to the right, those who identify as Republican have two choices, move along with the party, or abandon ship for the Democrats. For some, a choice of a rock or a hard place.

When it comes to running for president, Republican hopefuls know they must be attractive to the far right to have a chance at the GOP nomination. The result is that the more moderate candidates are tossed from the ring. This lack of choice hurts our political process. Centristscandidates who might have found wide appeal with moderate voters of both parties are shut out of the process.

And though it’s still early in the campaign process, the same case can be made on the Democratic side. As lingering issues continue to plague Hillary Clinton, Democrats most viable presidential choice may be Bernie Sanders, a self-describedDemocratic Socialist.” Not necessarily what moderate Democrats are looking for.

According to a composite of polls released by Gallup in 2014, 42% of Americans identify themselves as political independents. Just 25% consider themselves Republicans, 31% Democrats. In other words, independents outnumber both Republicans and Democrats by a wide margin.

So as the Republican Party edges towards the Tea Party and the Democrats move towards socialism, why don’t some politicians simply branch out and form new parties?

The truth is the two major political parties have crafted a system that makes it virtually impossible for third party candidates to get a foothold in the process.

  1. Most Americans have no idea that presidential debates are run by a private organization owned jointly by the Democrats and Republicans.

Despite its official, non-partisan-sounding name, the Commission on Presidential Debates is operated by the two major parties for the purpose of maintaining exclusive control over the debate process.

Prior to the CPD, presidential debates were sponsored and moderated by the League of Women Voters. But the League threw in the towel in 1987 after Democrats and Republicans secretly agreed to jointly decide which candidates could participate in the debates and which individuals could ask questions. The League withdrew support, stating “the demands of the two campaign organizations would perpetrate a fraud on the American voter.”

Republican Frank Fahrenkopf, Jr., who has remained at the CPD’s helm since its inception, was quoted in 1987 as saying “the commission was not likely to include third-party candidates in debates.” This was reiterated by Democratic co-chair Paul G. Kirk,who said he believed third parties should be excluded from debates.

In 1992 Independent candidate Ross Perot, who was leading in polls over both Republican Bush and Democrat Clinton, was granted inclusion in the debates. But in 1996, the CPD declined to allow Perot to participate, citing that he was “not likely to win,” according to a NY TImes article written that year. In 2000, the CPD made inclusion requirements more rigorous.

Our America Initiative, an organization that fights for the participation of independent parties in debates, says that this is not only “unfair, but illegal. Any candidate who is qualified to be president under the Constitution and has qualified for enough state ballots to receive at least 50% of Electoral College votes should be included. Those requirements alone would insure that participation will be limited to only the most serious candidates.”

Currently, organizations like OAI and Level the Playing Field are working to challenge the CPD monopoly on presidential debates.

Party insiders have an inordinate amount of influence on primary debates as well. Lawrence Lessing, a non-politician attempting a run at the presidency, chronicled in Politico how the Democratic Party has refused him a fair chance at getting the in the polls, and thus a chance at the podium during primary debates. Even for those who make it as far as debates, candidates are not treated equally. Debate monitors often divvy up speaking time wildly unequally among candidates. The public can’t adequately judge candidates who don’t have sufficient time to speak, or aren’t given a fair opportunity to appear at all.

  2. Ballot access laws are a major challenge to third party candidacies.

Smaller parties typically can’t meet the onerous and expensive criteria required to get on the ballot, such as steep registration fees and petition signature requirements which aren’t necessary for Democrats or Republicans. When it comes to running for national office, parties must wade through 50 different sets of rules. “Each state has its own mountain of minutiae” for getting on the presidential ballot, says Jill Stein, former Green Party presidential nominee.

Gallup poll shows that 58% of U.S. adults believe a third U.S. political party is needed because the Republican and Democratic parties do a “poor job” representing the American people.

“Imagine how much broader the dialogue would be with the inclusion of third parties,” says Professor Frank Page of Our America Initiative.

When it’s insiders, rather than the public, who decide who’s running for office, we no longer have democracy. Our choices become unjustly restricted, giving politicians with diverse points of view no opportunity to be heard, either from within or without the major political parties. The result is representatives who are no longer representing the people. Instead they’re representing two political machines.

Left and right aren’t our only options

In the United States we’re given a conservative vs. liberal choice that’s supposed to make up the entire range of political opinion. The problem is, it doesn’t. As a result, Americans are funneled into a one-dimensional track that eliminates a whole spectrum of thought.

One of the aims of AllSides is to get readers to understand just how different a story can be when presented from a conservative or a liberal vantage point. By exposing us to multiple interpretations of a story, AllSides encourages open-minded thinking, a crucial step towards tolerance and respect.

That’s a great start. But just because a reader may identify with a conservative view on one issue doesn’t necessarily define him as a Conservative. Expanding our concept of politics beyond left vs. right not only helps us more clearly define our own political standing, it helps us recognize the variety of political viewpoints out there and can aid us when deciding who to vote for.

Voters are often labeled either conservatives, liberals or moderates. But does “moderate” accurately describe everyone who doesn’t fit into the other two categories? Not really. After all, there’s really nothing moderate about a person who’d like to see less government in both economic and social aspects of Americans’ lives. Similarly, someone who strongly believes in more overall regulation also has no place on the standard left-to-right line. There are types of political thinking that don’t fall neatly in between conservatism and liberalism.

Rather than a simple line, a better way to chart our political leanings would be a diamond-shaped graph, such as the Nolan Chart. Libertarian activist David Nolan first created this chart back in 1971. Personal freedoms (such as the freedom to marry who we choose and reproductive freedom) are charted on one axis. Economic freedoms (such as fewer tax burdens and free markets) are graphed along the other. Each axis goes from 0 (total state control) to 100 (total freedom). By charting a person’s responses to political questions, we can graph the amount of personal liberty and economic liberty a person believes in.

https://lh4.googleusercontent.com/I1I8zpk2-hqGkmYpfOWIYN3SD5Xne3A7jNsN0ADyFq3DKyJLpm_Qlskez3VM1yu1vDRelxDUABcky7pOcHuJYA2W5pFi_FyKNCOCwPeEwPCaMP9704AtLoReUtKmznDOW17mpME

The graph is divided into five segments. As one would expect, Liberalism is in the left corner. Liberals generally believe that government intervention is needed to keep society ethical in economic aspects (in the form of things such as redistribution of wealth), but that the government shouldn’t intervene in our social lives. In the right corner are Conservatives, those who believe that government is needed to keep society ethical in social aspects (like tough drug laws) but that government should have a limited role in business and our personal finances.

At the bottom corner are those who feel government should control our resources, finances as well as our personal choices. This sector is usually labeled Statism or Authoritarianism. Statists have little faith in society’s ability to make personal choices without central control.

At the top is Libertarianism. Libertarians tend to have little faith in government and believe people should be free to make as many of their own personal and economic choices as possible. At the midpoint of these four sections lies Centrism.

A Nolan Chart very specifically defines where people stand. There can be big variations even between those who fall within the same sector. For example, Centrists may be moderate in relative terms, but some Centrists may lie much closer to any of the four corners than others.

Graphing our views on a Nolan Chart reveals the diversity of opinion in America. More specificity in our political labels would benefit us in several ways:

  • We could better identify our own views
  • We could better identify where candidates stand
  • We wouldn’t be forced to conform our thinking along a simplistic line that doesn’t account for the full scope of our views

In August 2011, a Reason-Rupe poll found that “Americans cannot easily be bundled into either the ‘liberal’ or ‘conservative’ groups.” The results of their poll fell fairly evenly: Conservatives made up 28%, Liberals 28%, Libertarians 24%, and Statists 20%.

Identifying someone as “Conservative” on a linear chart is overly simplistic. A Statist-leaning Conservative may believe in using subsidies and preferential regulations to support industries while using legislation to enforce traditional social values. A Libertarian-leaning Conservative may advocate a hands-off approach to business while limiting government’s role in private matters.

There are a various versions of Nolan Chart quizzes to take online, such as this one and this one. Where do you lie?

Political candidates are notoriously vague about their views. It’s in their best interest to appeal to as many constituents as possible. So once we’ve identified our own leanings on a Nolan Chart, it would be insightful to know where candidates stand. Graphing Donald Trump vs. Jeb Bush or Hillary Clinton vs. Bernie Sanders on a Nolan Chart would be very useful information.

The first step towards thinking freely is understanding how narrow political messages affect us all. Lumping ourselves into simplified categories such as “liberal” and “conservative” is inadequate. The best way to evaluate politicians and government is to stop trying to fit our complete universe of political views along a one-dimensional line. There are more than two ways to represent political thought.

Why is Washington in Debt?

– as originally published on AllSides.com

Few Americans think partisan bias affects their own reasoning. Yet many of us jump to prejudiced assumptions without even realizing it. Biased reasoning can sidetrack us or cause us to make illogical leaps that don’t actually support our premise.

Take the federal deficit for example. Voters often let tax quarrels and other partisan disputes divert their attention from the irresponsible behavior of both parties, allowing bad practices to continue.

In 2015 the federal government will borrow 14 cents of every dollar it spends. In the first 200 years of its history, the U.S. government rarely ran a deficit except during wartime and financial crisis. But since 1960, the federal government has nearly always spent more than they’ve taken in.

As of August 2015, our National Debt is $18,152,809,942,589 and growing rapidly. That’s about $57,000 for every man, woman and child in the United States. In 2014, taxpayers spent more than twice as much on interest payments as they did on transportation infrastructure, and over three times as much as they spent on education. But because of the budget deficit, we have no chance of ever slowing the growth of our debt.

Whenever politicians address the deficit problem, it always seems to turn into a dispute over taxes. But the truth is that spending and taxes are two different issues.

U.S. tax laws are often unfair and inequitable. As I’ve talked about before, the corporate world is intimately involved in law creation, with armies of lawyers and lobbyists at work to pass advantageous tax rules. The result is a distorted system in which some businesses pay substantially less in taxes than others.

Our byzantine individual tax laws are so complex, even IRS officers aren’t always sure of the answers. This is alarming for multiple reasons: not only does it allow some people to find ways to avoid paying their share, but if you or I honestly misinterpret a law and pay the wrong amount, we can be fined or even go to jail.

But the fact that our tax codes need to be overhauled shouldn’t distract us from another critical fact: in the early 20th century, the government’s budget was only 6.9% of our gross domestic product. A hundred years later, it spends 35% to 40% of GDP.

Regardless of how the tax burden is distributed, the U.S. government spends a much bigger portion of the pie than ever before.

Politicians aren’t blind to our debt problems.  But key problems are typically ignored by both voters and legislators:

  • Mandatory spending is a huge constraint. More than two-thirds of federal spending is labeled “mandatory” and isn’t on the negotiation table. Neither Democrats nor Republicans explain to voters that we’d have to nearly shut down the rest of government to actually balance the budget.

  • When politicians from one party attempt to cut a program, legislators from the other party are often championing its cause. Party members form an alliance, stalemating each cut by making it a partisan battle.

Back in August 2011, Democrats and Republicans promised to work together through the Budget Control Act. The White House issued a press release assuring that, among other things:

  • Legislators would place “caps on discretionary spending that would produce more than $900 billion in savings over the next 10 years,”

  • Congress would reduce “domestic discretionary spending to the lowest level since Eisenhower… through entitlement and tax reform.”

In the 2011 “bipartisan victory” press release issued by the White House, the administration called the deal “A DOWNPAYMENT ON DEFICIT REDUCTION BY LOCKING IN HISTORIC SPENDING DISCIPLINE” (their bold and capital letters, not mine).

In the ensuing 17 months (during which time President Obama as well as many senators and congressmen were re-elected), both Democrats and Republicans failed to budge in any negotiations, delivering on none of these promises.

When an automatic “sequester” budget cut of 1.2% kicked in, the President called it “brutal” and “severe.” (Though after many media stories proved this to be an overstatement, he backpedaled, changing his protest to, “This is not the apocalypse. It’s just dumb.”)

But if shaving a small percentage of their original agreement was so arduous, how are we to believe that our representatives ever intended to hold up their “historic” pact in the first place?

This would be similar to the following scenario in the private sector: Ford promises a car that will get 60 miles to the gallon. After choosing it, you learn the car actually has the same mediocre gas mileage as your old car. When you complain, you’re told by Ford’s CEO that it’s simply impossible to get that kind of mileage without taking the doors off.

Of course, the company expects you to buy their cars again next time.

Our partisan system doesn’t reward responsible behavior:

  • Voters seldom demonstrate gratitude when politicians make tough budget decisions. But when programs get cut there are always angry factions eager to criticize. Constituents who benefit from programs are always louder than those who would like sensible cutbacks. Unpopular politicians don’t get reelected.

  • There’s no repercussion to politicians when budgets aren’t passed or if we spend more than we have. The government simply borrows more to pay the added expense.

The House and Senate have not agreed on a budget since 2009. Another government shutdown is anticipated this fall. As usual, expect politicians to keep us sidetracked on specific spending and tax battles, while diverting our attention from the deeper issues within our political system.

Taxes are inequitable and tax reform must be addressed, but that doesn’t solve the problem of a government that can’t curb its spending.

If we focus on the roots of our problems rather than partisan battles, congressmen would have less incentive to pass the blame to the other party and more motivation to find solutions together.

Why we tolerate inadequate choices

-originally published on Allsides.com

Why do Americans tolerate limited political choices?

America is a vast and varied nation. We’re composed of 320 million people who represent nearly every ethnicity and civilization in the world. With nearly 4 million square miles, the U.S. is an eclectic collection of diverse regions, each with its own set of traditions and customs.

Yet all of us are asked to fit into one of just two political platforms.

The statistics tell the story:  in 2014 less than 14% of Americans polled believed Congress was doing a good job.  Dissatisfaction with Democratic and Republican leadership, and the general partisan conflict topped the list of the “nation’s most important problems” in a Gallup poll. Neither party cracked a 40% favorability rating.

Yet despite the overwhelming lack of confidence in our lawmakers, over 95% of incumbent politicians were re-elected to office in the 2014 general election.

In other words, the vast majority of voters chose to re-elect congressmen who they believed were doing a bad job.

When you look at it in those terms, that may sound absurd. But when we’re presented with limited choices, we often stop thinking beyond those options. After all, why bother when those are the only alternatives? The problem with this is we’re resigned to choose between “the lesser of two evils” even when we find all the options unsatisfactory.

Even tiny Switzerland has at least six political parties holding a significant number of seats in government. Yet in general, Americans have complied with our constrained system. The Democrats and Republicans maintain a strong duopoly through a system that reinforces our urge for loyalty and discourages outside opposition.

As described in my last post, our political parties artificially limit our options with an overly simplified left or right choice. Voters and politicians whose viewpoints don’t neatly conform to either party find themselves in no-man’s land.

Certainly there are those who are solidly sold on Democratic or Republican platforms. These people don’t question their party’s positions and are leery about alternative opinions. But many of us are left to brood over such things as:

  • Whose side am I on if I believe that certain portions of Obama’s new healthcare bill have merit, but don’t want to blindly agree to all 2400 pages of new laws?
  • Am I a disloyal Republican if I don’t oppose same-sex marriage?
  • Am I a traitor to Democrats or people in poverty if I criticize the current welfare system?
  • What’s my alternative if I want the freedom to make my own healthcare choices as well as my own reproductive decisions?

Though adhering to one of two political parties constrains free thinking, Americans have been willing to wear those chains.

Why?

There are many examples of how society has trained us to yield to group-think:

  • Our definition of faithfulness, learned from an early age in our church, temple or mosque, leaves little room for thinking outside what we’ve been taught. Religious groups may be “tolerant” of outsiders, though with the assumption that those other souls are hanging on to misguided beliefs. As studies show, this attitude often carries over into the political spectrum. But this can lead to assumptions that the other side’s view has no merit without thoughtfully considering what they have to say.
  • Americans love their sports. We bond with our teammates. We typically root for the professional or college team our friends and family root for, whether or not they’re the best team out there. Team loyalty teaches us to have allegiance to our own team even when they’re down or the players make mistakes. This is a valuable lesson when it comes to relationships with loved ones, but is less beneficial when it comes to political thinking.
  • Beginning in grade school, we’re often fed what to think from teachers instead of being encouraged to form our own conclusions. Rote memorization is easier for instructors to teach and standardized tests to quantify than critical or analytical thinking. This has become even more pronounced in higher education. Colleges were once hailed as places where we could share and consider opposing views. Now fear of insulting the sensibilities of others often stifles conversation. Sensitivity is a laudable goal, but sometimes comes as the expense of free ideas. Anything worth thinking about is often displeasing to someone else. When the opportunity for dissent and opposition is lacking, students rely on the wisdom of their professors instead of questioning what they’re being taught.

Politicians like us to rely on their wisdom as well. We’re discouraged from questioning the two-party system or the platforms of the party with which we identify. The message from the status quo is that anyone who does not toe one of the two established party lines must be an eccentric or “fringe” thinker. While there are certainly fringe thinkers out there, it doesn’t mean they represent the majority of people who don’t fit into either of the established party lines.

As the powerful parties have demonstrated time and again, political hopefuls must stay in step with the general party consensus to gain support within their ranks. Those to stray from specific platforms risk the backing they need to succeed. This results in little opposition and few fresh ideas from our politicians. Viewpoints tend to get homogenized and polarized.

This isn’t a groundbreaking opinion: concern about the negative influence of political parties was first voiced by George Washington in his farewell address. “The spirit of party, unfortunately, is inseparable from our nature, having its root in the strongest passions of the human mind,” he said, warning that loyalty to parties “agitates the Community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms; kindles the animosity of one part against another.”

As I’ve discussed before, it’s human nature to want to belong to a group that shares your principles and your ideals. But political parties shouldn’t be treated as our team, our family or our religion. In order to get out of our dismal hole of dissatisfaction, we must have a wider spectrum of choice. Every politician must have the freedom to question party policies and branch off on his own path.

Without a system in which independent political thinking is encouraged and rewarded, we’re doomed to let the powerful do the thinking for us.

Does Truth Take a Back Seat in the Media?

– originally published on Allsides.com

Trust in mass media is at an all-time low. According to a recent Gallup study, only 40% of today’s Americans believe that the news is reported “fully, accurately, and fairly” by the media. Many recognize that instead of seeking balance, the media’s goal is often to construe stories that lead readers to a desired conclusion.

For example, who do you think should face more serious consequences?

  • Journalists who produce stories that falsely accuse innocent people of a heinous crimes without obtaining supporting facts.
  • Editorialists who write controversial opinion pieces that some readers find insensitive.

Recent events demonstrate that the press is more willing to penalize writers for espousing unpopular views than they are to discipline journalists who produce stories that have no basis in fact.

On September 23, 2014, long-time Forbes writer William Frezza wrote an editorial entitled “Drunk Female Guests Gravest Threat to Fraternities.” Frezza takes an atypical slant on the issue of sexual assaults on college campus: he suggests that fraternities should protect both themselves and intoxicated female guests by ejecting girls who appear out of control from their parties as freely as they bounce rowdy males.

The first sentence of Mr. Frezza’s article acknowledges that the headline is intentionally contentious to grab attention. And attention he grabbed. After a rapid and powerful backlash of criticism, Forbes quickly pulled the article (reposted here).

Regardless of whether one agrees with his position (or whether it’s conceivable that a fraternity would follow his advice), a thorough read of this article reveals that it’s not misogynistic. Frezza’s point is that out-of-control guests, regardless of their sex, mean trouble for their hosts. Despite today’s supposed gender equality, women who willingly drink to excess are often given a pass on reckless behavior, though drunk males are rarely cast as “sympathetic victims, as opposed to the irresponsible jerks that they are.”

Perhaps Bill Frezza most grievous error was to overestimate the ability of Americans to consider this sensitive topic from outside the typical vantage point. He paid dearly for his controversial opinion: Frezza was promptly fired as a Forbes contributor.

Two months later, an article by Sabrina Rubin Erdely appeared in Rolling Stone magazine, claiming to expose a vicious gang rape on the University of Virginia campus. The story accuses members of the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity of a particularly brutal crime in precise detail. However, just days after the article appeared, other publications began to unearth basic facts which didn’t add up.

The investigation for the story relied solely on the firsthand report of an anonymous purported victim called “Jackie.” Erdely asserts that she didn’t press Jackie for details when Jackie declined to provide basic information, such as the names of friends who were with her the evening of the attack, because she didn’t want to upset the victim.

Against journalistic protocol, Erdely failed to contact or confirm the identity of the accused perpetrators. Details of Jackie’s account, such as whether a fraternity party and an initiation of new brothers had taken place on the night alleged, were not verified and turned out to be false.

A Columbia University report called the article a “journalistic failure,” which set aside essential reporting, editing, editorial supervision and fact-checking practices. Yet no one associated with the article was terminated, fined or otherwise penalized. Publisher Jann Wenner stated that the Columbia report “was punishment enough.”

One of the first to question the Rolling Stone article was Richard Bradley. Bradley has experience in this area: when editor of George Magazine in the 1990’s, he was famously duped into publishing several fabricated stories by journalist Steven Glass. Bradley has learned to look at stories “with a different set of eyes—not the eyes of a man or a woman, but those of a magazine editor who has seen fakes before.”

Bradley’s advice: “One must be most critical about stories that play into existing biases. And this story nourishes a lot of them: biases against fraternities, against men, against the South; biases about the naiveté of young women…And, of course, this is a very charged time when it comes to the issue of sexual assault on campuses. Emotion has outswept reason.”

Erdely presented a fabricated story as documented fact. Regardless of whether someone found his viewpoint offensive, Bill Frezza skews no facts nor states erroneous information in his opinion piece. The fact that Freeza was the journalist who was terminated speaks volumes for the mindset of the industry.

When it comes to the issue of college sexual assaults, a lack of even-handedness has been displayed by the media before: earlier in 2014, the media was flooded with stories about Emma Sulkowicz, a Columbia University student who vowed to carry a mattress around campus until her alleged rapist, Paul Nungesser, was expelled. “Every day, I am afraid to leave my room. Even seeing people who look remotely like my rapist scares me,” Sulkowicz says in Time’s cover story.

Only in April of 2015, when Nungesser filed a lawsuit of his own, did his side emerge, painting a very different portrayal. He reveals that the pair had been in an intimate relationship involving casual sex for months when the alleged incident occurred. It was seven months after the incident when she filed a report with the university, while in between she’d sent him many text messages, both friendly and sexual, which led to affectionate exchanges between them. He denies any wrongdoing. Columbia, the NY Police Department and the NY district attorney’s office all conducted investigations, and charges were dismissed each time. When Sulkowicz appealed to the school, the verdict was upheld. Yet none of these facts were mentioned in articles about Sulkowicz’ mattress project.

Nungesser called the mattress campaign a groundless “act of bullying, a very public, very personal and very painful attack” that “effectively destroyed” his reputation and student life. He has been shunned by fellow students and plagued with cyber-threats. Meanwhile, Sulkowicz’ fame has grown: she was even invited to attend a State of the Union address.

“This is a good cause—but even in a good cause, you have to try to check the facts,” says Nungesser’s mother Karin. “We can’t understand to this day why the major media never asked Paul about his side.”

Perhaps the saddest irony is that, by withholding the full story, journalists have damaged the very cause they’re trying to champion. Instead of enlightening us on horrors of rape on campus, these stories give the public more reason to question true victims.

When personal agenda obstructs journalists from seeking the truth, and the media withholds controversial viewpoints for fear of offending the public, we have little reason to trust the press.

Should we Occupy Wall Street or Washington?

Do America’s problems stem from big government or big business?

On one side we have Occupy Wall Street. This Liberal-leaning group rallies against the unethical practices of the financial industry, and objects to corporate welfare at the expense of the taxpayer.

From another perspective we have the Tea Party. This Conservative movement protests the massive debt that’s being incurred by our government, and believes that unconstitutional bureaucracy is encroaching on our freedoms and stripping us of our civil liberties.

You may have dismissed one or both of these groups as extremists. But do they have valid points that are worthy of consideration?

Nearly all of us can agree that things are awry in America.  Yet defining what’s gone wrong has resulted in finger-pointing and a clash of ideologies.

It’s undeniable that most of us naturally lean to the left or the right politically. However, the problem with aligning ourselves too tightly to ”liberal” or “conservative” labels is that we run the danger of disregarding valid points of the other party.

If we can think without partisan bias, we can consider that Occupy Wall Street and Tea Party grievances aren’t separate, isolated issues. They’re two sides of the same coin: the problem of too much power in the hands of too few.

Most Americans can agree that excessive power is an unjust and dangerous thing. If this is a shared theme, we need to be truly open minded and willing to identify the “too powerful” no matter which side of the debate they fall on.

Both the financial world and the government have acquired a vast amount of power. How has this happened?

Some say free enterprise hasn’t been in America’s best interest. But in reality, enterprise hasn’t been very free in this country in a long, long time. The government manipulates our economic system in a myriad of ways, and it’s the well-connected in the business world who usually benefit.

In the past century both political parties have massively expanded the authority of our government. This has given politicians the ability to inordinately empower industries, corporate leaders, unelected bureaucrats and special interest groups of all kinds. Today’s government has the ability to dole out subsidies, tax breaks, bailouts, favorable regulations, and other special advantages to particular groups. The cost of that special treatment is borne by private citizens like you and I, even if we don’t agree with it, benefit from it, or even know about it.

People express concern that without copious regulations big business will become too powerful. On the contrary however, the more regulations the government writes, the greater the advantage of the powerful corporate lobby. Congressmen don’t have the time to read, let alone write, all the laws they pass. They are typically unfamiliar with the businesses they regulate. So they often rely on business “experts” to draft laws for them. “Experts” who are frequently tied to the very companies that are being regulated.

Corporate bailouts are a prime example of how the financial industry benefits from legislation written by lobbyists. Citigroup lobbyists drafted the vast majority of a bill that allowed banks to engage in risky trades backed by a potential taxpayer-funded bailout.

This breech of justice is something that both Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party can sink their teeth into.

“I won’t dispute for one second the problems of a system that demands immense amount of fundraisers by its legislators,” says Rep. Jim Himes who supported the bill. The CT Democrat is a former Goldman Sacks banker and also one of the top recipients of Wall Street donations. “It’s unfortunately the world we live in.”

The small businessman and the average American have no one to lobby for them and no opportunity for a say in law creation.

It becomes treacherously tempting for both politicians and businessmen to use the system for their own advantage. Big business will always look for ways to use money and influence to get preferential treatment. It’s their goal to earn profits and stay in business. The thing is, politicians want to “stay in business” too, and that requires funds for reelection. Corporations and special interest groups who make significant donations expect lawmakers to advance their groups’ causes. This is undue power.

Both Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party are concerned about injustice to the average American by the privileged few. But we must be able to look beyond our political position to recognize the validity of all sides. Every American is impacted when we don’t properly enforce the boundaries of both the financial world and the government.

The best way to ensure fair trade is to keep the influence of big business and banks out of Washington. Of course we need laws to protect unfettered competition and guard against unscrupulous business practices. We must ensure that companies uphold contracts, keep their promises, and don’t cheat or lie to consumers. We must make certain that employees are treated fairly, and that employers don’t trespass on their rights.

It’s just as important that we hold our government up to similar standards. The public must insist that our government doesn’t spend our tax dollars irresponsibly. We must ensure that legislators don’t abuse the power of their office by granting themselves unconstitutional authority, aren’t unduly influenced by political contributors, and don’t trespass on our civil liberties.

Not all politicians are corrupt. Not all business leaders are corrupt. But corruption is inevitable when there are significant benefits to be had. When fewer favors can be written into law, fewer can be bought, and the less power big business AND big government will have.

 

When party loyalty trumps the law

It would be easy to predict your reaction when a politician you don’t care for passes an unjust law or does something you consider wrong. You’d be outraged.

But just how important is party loyalty to you? Are you willing to switch your opinion on fundamental issues based on who’s in office? Do you value your commitment to a political party more than the constitutional rights of others? Are you willing to give up your own freedoms, or overlook basic American rules of law for your party?

Your initial reaction may be “certainly not!” But in recent years, Americans have demonstrated a willingness to choose party loyalty over independent thinking or defending our principles of government.

History proves this is nothing new.

Americans’ opinions on the National Security Agency’s expansion of powers is a good illustration. The NSA was originally created during World War II as a small defense unit employed to decipher coded communications. It was gradually expanded to become one of the largest intelligence organizations in the U.S. government. George W Bush widened the scope of the organization during his War on Terror, authorizing the agency to secretly spy upon whoever it chose, without warrants or any other checks required. This included eavesdropping on Americans’ phone calls and collecting email communications without disclosing these actions to the public.

In a 2006 Pew survey, just 23% of Republicans disagreed with the new NSA policy.

Complaints from Republican ranks were rare, and vehemently resisted by the GOP. When conservative columnist Glenn Greenwald questioned Bush’s authority to spy on Americans he was demonized by fellow Republicans. “Now, in order to be considered a ‘liberal,’ only one thing is required – a failure to pledge blind loyalty to George W. Bush,” Greenwald wrote in his own defense.

Bear in mind that ‘liberal’ is the worst insult a Republican could lay upon a fellow party member.

On the other hand, 61% of Democrats found the new NSA policy unacceptable. Opponents pointed out this type of public tracking granted unconstitutional powers that negated Americans’ Fourth Amendment rights prohibiting searches and seizures without a warrant supported by probable cause.

When running for president, Barack Obama featured NSA’s surveillance in his campaign, giving eloquent speeches about protecting the rights and privacy of Americans even as the government defended against terrorist threats. “[The Bush] administration puts forward a false choice between the liberties we cherish and the security we provide,” Obama stated. He promised to “take out the terrorists without undermining our Constitution and our freedom. That means no more illegal wiretapping of American citizens.”

But when Obama reached office, little changed at the NSA. In 2010 his administration defended NSA policy, arguing that governmental agencies can tap into cell phones because Americans enjoy no “reasonable expectation of privacy” when using their phones. Department of Justice lawyers claimed that “a customer’s Fourth Amendment rights are not violated when the phone company reveals records to the government.”

What did change, however, was the public’s opinion of the surveillance.

A 2013 poll Pew study found that the percentage of Republicans who found the NSA surveillance program unacceptable more than doubled to 47%. Meanwhile, Democratic opinion had shifted to almost the exact opposite of what it was under Bush: now only 34% found it unacceptable.

But perhaps the most significant outcome was that, because our nation is fairly equally divided between Republican and Democratic voters, the overall acceptance rate of the NSA program stayed nearly unchanged under both administrations: just over half of Americans found the surveillance program acceptable.

In other words, a slim majority of Americans gave their consent for government to track their movements and take note of their every conversation, with no transparency and without providing justification. The only difference is that now, more Democrats are in that majority than Republicans.

Had Republican candidate Mitt Romney won the presidential race against Obama in 2012, and proceeded to act in exactly the same way as Obama has, would the partisan ratios in the 2013 opinion polls be very different? The evidence says yes.

Why does this happen?

Often, when a nation is divided among different cultural groups or creeds, our ‘tribal minds’ want to be sure “one of us” is in charge. Students of history are familiar with peoples who have not only tolerated, but often enthusiastically supported the unchecked power of monarchs and rulers, as long as he was considered “one of them.”

When Americans base their values and political identity on a party, their priority is to make sure their guys stay in power. Faith in their party’s leadership make them feel so safe that they’re even willing to relinquish their freedom and privacy. Loyal Republicans believed the Bush administration would use their newfound powers wisely; dutiful Democrats admired Obama, and had no doubt he’d employ the surveillance program only for the common good.

But even if that trust is justified, once that authority has been granted to one politician, it’s almost impossible to reverse. No matter who’s elected next time. This means that if you aren’t comfortable granting a particular power to your most despised politician, that power shouldn’t be in the hands of government.

Voters can’t complain about politicians’ misuse of power when they themselves contribute to the problem. Blind faithfulness in politicians and parties not only risks our civil rights, but our ability to think clearly about politics as a whole.

Divided opinion is not the problem

A common lament in the United States is that our problems can’t be overcome because of the ever-expanding ideological gulf between Democrats and Republicans. Many Americans see this problem escalating with no solution in sight.

But is it really divided opinion that’s creating havoc on our political system? Or are there other forces at work we aren’t considering?

It’s not necessary that we all see things the same way for our political system to work effectively. The only points we really need to agree upon is the proper role of government and the equal, inalienable rights of all Americans.

Yet this isn’t a view we often hear espoused. We won’t hear it from political parties, whose objective is to prove how misguided the other side is. We don’t hear it from the media. After all, discord is interesting, and conflict between Red and Blue sells papers.

However, America was founded upon the notion that we can live freely among people with very different views. The laws of our land were designed to allow us all to enjoy our own manner of living and our own ways of thinking as long as we don’t hurt others.

America is sometimes called a melting pot, but a more accurate description would be a stew of very different perspectives and backgrounds. Some of us are carrots, others are potatoes. The blended flavors of all the varied people in our nation, our wide-ranging array of customs and backgrounds, talents and viewpoints, is what makes the United States so unique and wonderful.

So why have our differences in lifestyle become more problematic than ever before? Why so much animosity today?

Because when government becomes the arbiter of morality, and is given the task of solving all society’s problems, it must encroach on our lives, whether it’s in our bedroom, in our pocketbook, or in our pursuit of happiness. Our differences become more than a disagreement. They become a fight for our way of life.

The truth is we’ll never all see eye to eye. Every liberal and every conservative believes with all their heart that they have morality on their side. They believe that the other side has a warped view of the world. Perhaps we need to consider that this isn’t only out of our control, but not necessarily an awful thing. It only becomes a sticking point when each group wants to create laws that encroach on others’ beliefs, regardless of how those other groups may feel.

In our partisan fights for control, the public hears only two messages: we must rule from the left or we must rule from the right. Rarely is there a spokesperson simply advocating freedom at both ends of the spectrum.

We may believe we’re all for freedom, that is until we come across a freedom that we find personally objectionable. We’re not always mindful that we also champion laws that impose our moral code on others who think differently.

Perhaps we don’t want the government to control healthcare, but we do want to make sure it controls who we can marry. Or maybe we believe we all have the right to make our own decisions about abortion, yet we want to compel taxpayers to subsidize abortions for the poor. In the name of caring for society, we may want government to dictate what we’re allowed to eat, drink and smoke, how much of our income we’re allowed to keep, what products we cannot buy, or what services we must be forced to purchase.

Chances are, there is something in this list that you feel passionate about. We don’t need to compromise our personal beliefs or surrender our quest to help society. But we need to reevaluate whether government control is the best answer. When we give government the power to settle moral disputes, we infringe upon the liberty of those who disagree.

Seldom do we consider that nowadays, our political focus is typically not on the freedom of each of us to live as we choose, but instead to make sure that our political party gets its way. This creates more than just animosity between us, but outright fear of the other side.

Our Constitution was painstakingly written to protect American citizens from undue authority by government. In contemporary times however, the constitutional limits of the federal government have been significantly stretched. Instead of legislating within constitutional parameters, politicians often concentrate on finding ways around the rules.

According to a Pew 2014 survey, the share of Democrats and Republicans with a highly negative view of the other party has more than doubled in just the past 20 years. Many believe the opposing party’s policies “are so misguided that they threaten the nation’s well-being.”

We will never all share the same code of ethics. But if our politicians enforce individual liberty, tolerance and justice for all over their own personal agendas, many of the issues that have seemed to become unsolvable would suddenly become much easier to sort out.

Imposing our own morality upon others through political force is not only immoral, but un-American.

 

Do facts play a role in your political decisions?

How critical is the truth when it comes to your political opinion? How important are the facts about the candidates you vote for?

Do you consider these ridiculous questions? Of course we all strive to reach logical conclusions about politics based on the truth!

Actually, evidence shows that for many partisan thinkers, facts and veracity aren’t as vital as their support for their political party.

An Emory University study used MRIs to study the brain activity of “committed” Democrats and Republicans while they evaluated facts about candidates in the 2004 presidential race.

“None of the circuits involved in conscious reasoning were particularly engaged,” says Drew Westen, director of clinical psychology at Emory. “What we saw instead was a network of emotion circuits lighting up.”

Partisans displayed “a pattern of emotionally biased reasoning” and simply ignored facts that worked against their preconceived notions.  For example, when confronted with a candidate’s contradictions in words and deeds, or shown evidence of a candidate’s dishonesty, partisans were able to deny the duplicity of their party’s candidates while having no difficulty detecting dishonesty in the opposing candidate.

Researchers found that not only did portions of the brain that mediate negative emotions like sadness and disgust turn off, but after partisans came to their biased conclusions about their own candidates they got a “blast of activation in brain circuits involved in reward — similar to what addicts receive when they get their fix.”

Of course it’s not only voters who let partisanship blind them– politicians have even more of an incentive to choose bias over logic, whether consciously or subconsciously. After all, for them partisanship isn’t just about feeling an emotional attachment to a political community. Without the backing of a party, their entire livelihood is at stake.

Politicians are obliged to support the platforms and the leaders of their party. But what if they find fault with their colleagues? What if they don’t agree with the positions they’re expected to uphold?

In psychology, “cognitive dissonance” describes the stress or discomfort a person experiences when he holds two or more beliefs that are contradictory, or is confronted by new information that conflicts with existing ideas or values. For example, a politician may think:

“I am a proponent of peace. I belong to the party that’s opposed to war,”

while he is also faced with the knowledge that,

“The party I belong to is propagating war.”

To reduce the powerful disturbance created by these two conflicting truths, the politician can:

  •       Try to change the way his party behaves, which would be extremely difficult and potentially be fatal to his career,
  •       Switch his allegiance to a party that’s promoting peace, if there is one,
  •       Change his mind about being opposed to war, or
  •       Rationalize away the conflict by convincing himself that his party’s actions are somehow justified, or making an exception is more important than his quest for peace.

In 2007, then-Senator Joe Biden made an impassioned speech about the Iraq war that had been initiated by George W. Bush, stating that, “The president has no constitutional authority to take this nation to war against a country of 70 million people unless we are attacked or unless there is proof that we’re about to be attacked. And if he does, if he does, I would move to impeach him.”

Yet Vice President Joe Biden has stood by supportively as President Obama  authorized military operations and bombed seven countries without any imminent threat of attack. There was little debate over the President’s authority despite that, unlike Bush, Obama didn’t even seek congressional authorization for his actions as dictated by law.

Examples of seemingly irrational behavior are common from both Republican and Democratic politicians. Sometimes it’s rational to be irrational, explains Bryan Caplan in his book The Myth of the Rational Voter. People employ “rational irrationality” if taking an illogical stance makes them feel better about themselves or allows them to keep membership in a valued group. When it’s difficult for people to deeply examine their choices or seek the truth, it becomes more sensible to accept irrational decisions than to go through the pain of facing contradictions.

What if you’re a politician, and the rival party makes a policy decision that’s not only one you’ve endorsed in the past, but could possibly lead to good press that will bolster their chances in upcoming elections? Do you change your mind on the policy?

When George Bush was in office, Senator John McCain was a proponent of normalizing relations with Cuba. “I’m not in favor of sticking my finger in the eye of Fidel Castro,” said McCain in 2000. “In fact, I would favor a road map towards normalization of relations such as we presented to the Vietnamese.”

Yet when this very thing was proposed by President Obama in 2014, McCain asserted that normalization with Cuba was “about the appeasement of autocratic dictators, thugs, and adversaries, diminishing America’s influence in the world.”

Why do politicians get away with irrational behavior? Because for voters, it may be sensible to maintain a “rational ignorance.” Americans are busy people. Since our one vote isn’t going to make or break an election, it doesn’t make sense for us to invest an excessive amount of time on political analysis. Many of us rely on intellectual shortcuts, supporting candidates from the party that we trust, and simply counting on them to make good decisions.

Political loyalty has become a convenient alternative to facing hard truths and thinking for ourselves.

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