Fears & Hopes: Failure of representative government?

https://readthespirit.com/ourvalues/wp-content/uploads/sites/17/2013/03/wpid-1107_President_Obama_reelection_photo.jpgMillions cheered! But, millions grieved. Half of us re-elected President Obama. But half of us opposed him. When CNN declared the president’s re-election at 11:18 p.m., TV screens across America were filled with cheering crowds waving flags. The victors among us were the exciting news for the cameras. But half of us didn’t see ourselves on the CNN screen for quite a while.

Something else was missed yesterday by most network-TV pundits: A key failure in our representative government was the explosion of ballot initiatives. When I went to the polls yesterday morning, I was struck by all the proposals to consider, especially several proposed changes to my home state’s constitution. I expected them, since I keep up on such things. Still, it was a shock to see that ballot full of potential changes in our constitution.

A constitution is supposed to be about guiding principles. But these initiatives proposed changes to the constitution that would privilege certain occupational groups or certain business interests. Do these protections really belong in a state’s constitution?

Yesterday’s elections included 188 ballot questions in 38 states, according to Ballotpedia. That’s a nonprofit, nonpartisan encyclopedia that tracks and shares information about ballots nationwide. It calls itself “an interactive almanac of state politics.”

On the face of it, ballot initiatives sound like a good idea. They are an example of direct democracy—going right to the people and enabling them to make a law. Related ideas are the referendum (where the electorate can veto a law) and recalls (where the electorate can remove an elected official from office).

All of these sound like great ideas. But in our complex society, are we well served by them? After all, we are a representative democracy. We elect representatives who consider and decide on various matters. Direct democracy was workable in small villages, but does it become unwieldy in modern times?

There’s plenty of time to talk about the next four years for Democrats and Republicans, but today—let’s talk about those nearly 200 ballot initiatives …

Did you vote yesterday on specific ballot initiatives?

Did you feel well informed?

Is this the best way to govern?

Please, leave a Comment below.

Originally published at www.OurValues.org, an experiment in civil dialogue about American values.

Election 2012: Debates or American Idol auditions?

https://readthespirit.com/ourvalues/wp-content/uploads/sites/17/2013/03/wpid-1005ov_Ottawa_Illinois_site_of_Lincoln_Douglas_Debate_01.jpgA more-than-life-size monument to the first of the famous debates between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas on August 21, 1858. A crowd of 10,000 showed up to hear the candidates debate for a seat in the U.S. Senate in Washington Squre, Ottawa, Illinois.Interest in this year’s first presidential debate may be waning already, but I’m still thinking about it. Yesterday, I asked you who won Wednesday night’s debate. Romney did, according to most of the post-debate rehash, commentary, and spin. Even Democrats said he did. I agree that Romney was more effective, polished. Romney looked good; Obama looked tired.

What puzzles me is what a “win” means in a presidential debate. In a real debate, both sides make well-reasoned, factual, and passionate arguments for their point of view. Erroneous facts will undermine a debater. But there wasn’t a whole lot of accuracy in the facts cited during the debate, according to the fact checkers. Rather, there seems to be plenty of what I talked about on Wednesday: Pinocchio politics.

So what is really going on? Conservative columnist Cal Thomas offered an interpretation in a back-and-forth opinion piece with his liberal friend Bob Beckel. Here is what Thomas said:

“These dog-and-pony shows resemble auditions for American Idol rather than serious policy discussions. Judgments are made based on glibness and other superficialities that give viewers (and radio listeners) few insights into core beliefs. People familiar with the background of these events know that answers have been focused-grouped to see what words will best appeal to voters. No wonder people are so cynical about politics and politicians.”

Presidential debates are not really debates and haven’t been for a long time. They cited the 1858 Lincoln-Douglas debates as an example of a real one. I consulted the Commission on Presidential Debates to learn more.

Seven debates were held during August, September, and October of 1858. Each debate was three hours long. The first to speak got 60 minutes. The second got 90 minutes. The first then got another 30 minutes. Slavery and the union were the main topics. Now, I don’t know if they engaged in Pinocchio politics, but this format seems to have the makings of a real debate.

Do you agree that the presidential debates are more like American Idol?

Would you like to see a real debate?

Please, leave a Comment below.

Originally published at www.OurValues.org, an experiment in civil dialogue about American values.

US & the World: How’s our democracy?


When Benjamin Franklin left the Constitutional Convention in 1787, he was asked what kind of government had been created. “A republic, madam—if you can keep it.”

How well have we kept it? How vital is our democracy?

All week, we’ve discussed the key findings from Howard Steven Friedman’s new book, The Measure of a Nation. We’ve talked about health, equality, safety, and education. We end the week by considering Friedman’s findings about the vitality of our democracy. As we know from our discussion this week, he compares the U.S. with a set of large, rich nations around the globe. (See Monday’s post for the list.) We also know that the U.S. doesn’t fare well in the comparisons all week.

So what about our democracy?

Here, too, the comparisons reveal a gap between our perceptions and reality. America had the first modern design for democracy, but, as Friedman notes, we haven’t fixed problems that have existed from the beginning. Perhaps the most glaring is the Electoral College system, which can allow one candidate to be elected president even though another candidate won the popular vote. This effect can be produced, due to the state-by-state winner-take-all policies on the Electoral College, shown in the map above. That’s not very democratic.

Voting in free elections is a critical aspiration for many people around the world. We have free elections, but also the lowest voter turnout rate of any large, rich nation. Some nations have high turnouts because they have compulsory voting laws—Australia, for example. Most democracies don’t, yet their voters still show up at the polls.

Our two-party system tends to stifle minority voices. America has never had a viable third party, but multi-party systems are the norm in democracies elsewhere. Multiple party systems often require building coalitions to run a country, leading to broader representation, inclusiveness, and compromise. Our two-party system leads to political polarization. So, the case can be made that America isn’t the best among democracies in the health of our political system.

Overall, Friedman’s fact-based analysis shows that America doesn’t rank favorably with other large, rich nations. There’s a big gap between the perception of our nation as Number 1 and the reality shown in these comparisons. Now, of course, we can argue with the facts and perhaps come up with reasons why we are still the best.

Or, we can take Friedman’s book as a wake-up call to do better.

Despite the impression given in election-year media, Americans actually share many core values. This is one of the main findings from my own research, which we’ve highlight over the years on OurValues.org. Values are ideals. Our core values mean that we share these ideals. Our best course is to take Friedman’s book at face value and strive to make the improvements we need to live up to the ideals of our nation.

Do you plan to vote in the November elections?

How do you feel about Friedman’s critical evaluation?

To close the gap between ideals and reality, where would you start?

Please, leave a Comment below.

Originally published at www.OurValues.org, an experiment in civil dialogue about American values.

Freedom’s folly? The rise of the ‘Opt Out’ culture

https://readthespirit.com/ourvalues/wp-content/uploads/sites/17/2013/03/wpid-0720_ov_opt_out_ngram_google.jpgCLICK THE GRAPH (above) to visit the N-Gram service and play with the search function yourself.All this week, we’ve been discussing how our American passion for freedom may have taken us too far from the values that build healthy communities. We started by talking about our obsession with cars and getting away, then the trend toward opting out of organized religion. We looked at the Boy Scout decision banning gays—and looked at whether people who disagree with such a stand should opt out of scouting. On Thursday, I reported on the Supreme Court decision limiting union flexibility in political activism—centering on employees who want to opt out on various political causes.

See the pattern? “Getting away,” “opting out,” “opt out,” “opt out.” So, for this final column in the series, I ran the phrase “opt out” through Google’s n-gram tool. It scans Google’s vast database of books and charts, over time, the relative frequency of English-language terms. The chart, above, speaks for itself. We’re doing a lot more opting out these days—or at least we’re talking about it more.

Is all this “opting out” a reflection of an American core value, a way of reaffirming our belief in individualism, in freedom and independence? Or is it a sign of the deterioration of civil society, a tearing of the social fabric?

When independence is paramount, what happens to other values?  What happens to solidarity, to community, to empathy? What happens to the value of going along to get along?





Originally published at www.OurValues.org, an experiment in civil dialogue about American values.

Freedom: Could new ‘opt out’ ruling cripple unions?

https://readthespirit.com/ourvalues/wp-content/uploads/sites/17/2013/03/wpid-0719ov_US_Supreme_Court_union_ruling.jpgDr. Wayne Baker is traveling and welcomes back popular guest columnist Terry Gallagher.

The U.S. Supreme Court has handed down a new decision that is criticized by many as an overreaching assault on the rights of working people. This ruling moves in the direction of crippling unions, these critics argue. Defenders of this ruling argue that it is an essential re-affirmation of individuals’ rights.

The case revolved around one of the basic issues in an “agency shop,” where all workers in a unit organized by a union pay the equivalent of union dues to cover the costs of negotiating and defending their contracts whether they choose to be members of the union or not. In this case, all the workers covered by the contract also were assessed a fee to cover political advocacy—over and above the costs of representation—with the option of opting out of that fee. In the end, however, many workers found themselves contributing to political campaigns they didn’t support.

The Supreme Court ruled 7-2 “that when a union imposes a special assessment not previously disclosed, not only must the union provide a new notice but non-members must affirmatively ‘opt-in’ to paying the assessment, contrary to the long-standing ‘opt-out’ rule in the union dues context.”

Two justices traditionally considered part of the court’s liberal wing, Sotomayer and Ginsburg, joined the majority. They shared in their own separate opinion on the case (opening lines of it are shown in the photo above). Overall, this strong 7-2 majority looks like a slam dunk for individual liberty, the notion that no one should be compelled to support a cause or candidate they don’t like.

On the other hand, many people see the decision as the thin end of a wedge aimed at destroying the ability of workers to come together to fight for their common interests.

What do you think about this ruling?
Should we make it harder for unions to fund political action?
Could our defense of the freedom to ‘opt out’ wind up crippling unions?

Originally published at www.OurValues.org, an experiment in civil dialogue about American values.

Forecast 2012: Happy with the Supreme decision?

https://readthespirit.com/ourvalues/wp-content/uploads/sites/17/2013/03/wpid-0628_Supreme_Court_Health_Care_ruling.jpgBuy health insurance or pay a penalty. Are you happy with the Supreme Court’s decision?

History was made on Thursday when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that the heart of the healthcare reform law—the so-called individual mandate—is constitutional. Americans who don’t have healthcare insurance will have to buy it, or pay a “penalty.”

The ruling was such a shock that an over-eager CNN editor is a media laughingstock for pre-emptively publishing the headline: “Mandate struck down.” After all, everyone was expecting that. The Boston Herald is among many papers reporting on CNN’s mistake, writing: “Somebody call a doctor, the folks at CNN must be having a heart attack after they goofed and declared Obamacare was dead.”

This was, indeed, a history-making decision. It establishes that healthcare will remain one of the top values-related issues of 2012—as I predicted in January. My other January forecasts of top values issues were: the economy, the wealth gap, the political matchup of Obama and Romney, and the culture wars.

I put “penalty” in quotation marks above because the constitutionality of the law hinged on the court’s interpretation of what that word meant. The high court ruled that the “penalty” was, in fact, a tax—and Congress has broad powers when it comes to taxes. Hence, the individual mandate is constitutional. The court actually struck down an earlier rationale for the law that argued it fell under Congress’s power to regulate commerce.

If you read the court’s full text, there is a long passage that sounds like the court is going to conclude that the individual mandate is unconstitutional. After talking about all the flaws in other legal rationales and rejecting those arguments, the court finally reaches the conclusion that the mandate is constitutional, after all.

On the eve of the high court’s decision, Americans were divided on what the court should do, according to a poll by the Public Opinion Research Institute. More than four in ten (43%) said they didn’t want the Supreme Court to strike down the healthcare law. About a third (35%) wanted to see it struck down, while 21% were undecided. A majority of white evangelical Protestants (52%) favored striking down the law.

The Supreme Court’s ruling is a major victory for Obama and will help garner more votes in November. But, the ruling could also work in Romney’s favor if it energizes his base. He’s been clear, prior to the decision, in telling voters that he will work to undo the healthcare law if he is elected.

What’s your gut reaction to the high court’s decision?

Do you think it will help Obama?

Will it energize Romney’s base?


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Originally published at www.OurValues.org, an experiment in civil dialogue about American values.

American Bible: What’s essential in your Law of the land?


Today we complete our tour of American Bible, Stephen Prothero’s latest book. It’s a compendium of secular writings that unite, divide, and define America. The book is organized in ten sections, patterned after the Old and New Testaments. We’ve covered “Genesis” (the Declaration of Independence and other beginnings), “Chronicles” (stories like Uncle Tom’s Cabin), “Proverbs” (memorable wise sayings), and “Psalms” (The Star Spangled Banner and other patriotic songs). Now, let’s consider “Law”—the secular version of religious codes like the Ten Commandments.

Many laws, rulings, and commentary could be included in “Law.” Prothero chooses three: the U.S. Constitution, Brown v. Board of Education, and Roe v. Wade. The Constitution is the supreme law of the land, making it clear choice. The next two are landmark U.S. Supreme Court decisions, rulings that deeply changed America. Brown declared that separate is not equal when it comes to education. Roe made abortion legal in certain circumstances.

What else ought to be in “Law”? It’s impossible to predict landmark cases, but if I had to pick from recent or pending Supreme Court decisions, I would nominate two: Citizens United and also Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. Citizens United will become a landmark case if it turns out that the unleashed torrent of untraceable money becomes a factor in local, state, and federal elections. The Supreme Court’s decision later this month about the constitutionality of the healthcare law, especially the “individual mandate” that requires everyone to obtain insurance or pay penalties, could be a landmark case no matter which way the court decides.

Do you agree with Prothero’s three choices?

Do you think my two nominations will become landmark case?

What’s your nomination for “Law”?


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Originally published at www.OurValues.org, an experiment in civil dialogue about American values.