Tag Archives: American politics

American Democracy: Listening to Two Georges

American Democracy: Listening to Two Georges   —by Jinny Batterson

Back before most holidays were on Mondays, we celebrated George Washington’s birthday each year on February 22. Though the fable about young Georgie chopping down the cherry tree and then owning up to his misdeed is likely more legend than truth, it is quite true that our first national President could easily have been re-elected in 1796 and chose not to run for another term. Instead, Washington sent a letter to Congress expressing his sense of the young country, thanking his colleagues for the opportunity to serve, looking forward to his retirement, and warning the new republic of some of the pitfalls it might face going forward. He cautioned against the forces of geographical sectionalism, political factionalism, and interference by foreign powers in the nation’s domestic affairs. 

For the past century and a half, nearly every year around the time of Washington’s birthday, a U.S. Senator has been assigned to read Washington’s entire farewell letter and then to inscribe his or her name and brief remarks into a leather bound book maintained by the Secretary of the Senate (https://www.senate.gov/artandhistory/history/minute/Washingtons_Farewell_Address.htm). I haven’t yet found a record of which Senator will have the honor of doing the 2020 reading.  

As this year’s election cycle heats up, I am often outraged by the depths of corruption in the current U.S. national administration. Rather than “draining the swamp,” this administration has done its utmost to fill said swamp with sleazier, bigger alligators. Factionalism seems the order of the day. Both documented instances and rumors of foreign interference in our electoral process abound. Our current chief executive rarely confers with advisors and bridles at any criticism. He relishes vilifying opponents. He fires or forces resignations of long-term military and civil servants seemingly at will. He believes that only his views and desires matter, a sort of universal pass—“you have to let me, because I’m the star.” 

It’s likely to take a great deal of work by a lot of us, combined with a small modicum of luck, to reorient our national politics, whose slide into sectionalism, factionalism, and interference by foreign powers has tainted both political parties for a good while. Within my voting adulthood since 1968, we’ve had one Presidential resignation, two Presidential impeachments, plus several other national scandals. During the same period, we’ve had major changes in our media landscapes, our manufacturing processes, our economy, our demographics, our communications and transportation technologies, and the state of the global economy. Nevertheless, President Washington’s concerns are still relevant. 

A more recent former President had a bit of trouble correctly quoting an earlier proverb, but got the gist of it across. In 2002, George W. Bush admonished a Tennessee audience with a paraphrase of the aphorism: “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.”  It’s high time we listened to both Georges.   

The Light is Starting to Come Back

The Light is Starting to Come Back   —by Jinny Batterson

So far, 2017 has not been my favorite year. I’ve been fortunate to have had generally good health, good friends, good weather, and adequate finances, but I cannot say the same about the wider world. Hunger and disease have decimated our most vulnerable human populations, while many other species suffer from man-made changes over which they have little control. Our American political culture has mostly continued to turn away from civility and dialogue toward further name-calling, dissension, and gridlock. Economic disparity grows unchecked. It remains to be seen whether a recently enacted U.S. tax reform plan will provide relief for those less well off. Catastrophic storms and weather events have become more common and more deadly. Globally, tensions in multiple regions have produced lethal violence.

So as a somewhat bleak December drew toward its close amid tidings of discomfort and malcontent, I marked the times of sunrise and sunset on December 21, the winter solstice, more carefully than usual: where I live, our nourishing star made its grand entry that day at about 7:22 a.m., and exited around 5:05 p.m.  On Christmas Eve, the sun rose at about 7:23, and set near 5:07 p.m. The shape of our days changes as the sun returns—it takes a while after the solstice before sunrise starts to get earlier. The first inkling of longer days comes in later sunsets. Detailed charts show a December 24th day length a scant eight seconds longer than at its minimum, but the rate of increase accelerates day by day until around the spring equinox in late March, when each day is over two minutes longer than the day before.

Our civic culture, if it is to recover, will not right itself immediately. Underlying diseases of racism, sexism, classism, heterosexism, and all our other “isms” will not diminish or disappear without ongoing effort. Needed changes will require shifts in both personal attitudes and public policy. Still, just as the physical light is strengthening, I see a few first glimmers that our civic light level may also be on the rise. Participation rates in recent state, municipal, and special elections have increased. Women and other minorities who’ve previously suffered in silence are finding the courage to speak out about abusive behavior. Charitable giving has bumped up. Like the lengthening of days, societal changes often start at the “bottom” or sunset, rather than at the “top” or sunrise. A warm smile to a neighbor, a small kindness to a stranger, an hour or two spent volunteering at a homeless shelter, are not as likely to be highly publicized as our current chief executive’s sneers and slurs. They are just as important, or more so, to our society’s health.

At the beginning of 2017, I participated in our local edition of the global women’s march. Rather than spout vitriol about the 2016 election outcome, I tried to look forward. I crafted a sign to help inspire others, and also to remind myself of what I found most important, a three-pronged plan for action:
–adapt to climate change
–support voting rights
–practice kindness
In smaller letters at the bottom of the sign, I added a postscript: “Make Trump irrelevant.” 

I’m not sure what follow-ups will occur in 2018 to the shifts begun this year. I have to believe that the light is starting to come back.

Other Things Some Older People are Thinking and Need to Say Out Loud

Other Things Some Older People are Thinking and Need to Say Out Loud

                       —by Jinny Batterson

This spring, as the U.S. 2016 presidential campaign began heating up, I came across an interview with the daughter of former third party presidential candidate George Wallace of Alabama, most famously noted for having said in 1963, “Segregation now. Segregation tomorrow, and segregation forever.” In late April, Peggy Wallace Kennedy suggested as part of a radio interview that the 1968 third party presidential candidacy of her late father has echoes in the current campaign.

“Trump and my father say out loud what others are thinking but don’t have the courage to say. They both were able to adopt the notion that fear and hate are the two greatest motivators of voters that feel alienated from government,” she remarked.  Much of what Mr. Trump has had to say so far strikes me as racist, xenophobic, misogynistic, jingoistic, reactionary, or all of the above.

It occurs to me on the eve of the 2016 political conventions that both this year’s major party presumptive nominees are my close contemporaries—we are “leading edge boomers,” over a decade older than our current president. Donald Trump (born in June, 1946) and Hillary Clinton (born in October, 1947) are within a year of my age. So here are a few things that I remember from our mutual early adulthoods in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, compared with our current situation. Candidates may remember them, too, even though they are generally not saying them out loud.

Work: In 1970, about 80 percent of working age men were in the paid labor force, nearly twice the rate of working age women. Since then, that gap has declined significantly. It’s estimated that by 2020, the proportions will be roughly 70% for men and 60% for women. The gender pay gap has also declined, though women’s wages have yet to reach parity with men’s for comparable jobs—an estimate in 2015 put women’s average earnings, across all occupations and wage levels, at roughly 82% of men’s. Wages for all workers, adjusted for inflation, have stagnated since the mid-1970’s.

The number of American manufacturing jobs peaked in 1979, when roughly 19.5 million workers were employed in the manufacturing sector. In 2016, roughly 12.3 million Americans (about 8% of the overall labor force) work in manufacturing. Some manufacturing job losses are the result of outsourcing to lower wage countries; many previous manufacturing jobs have been automated out of existence.

Some segments of the economy, dominant in earlier phases of American history, were at much lower levels by 2014, according to labor statistics: agriculture/forestry/fishing employed less than 1.5% of the workforce; construction accounted for just over 4%; mining only about half a percent. The fastest growing sector is health care/social assistance, which now accounts for about 12% of the labor force.  Professional/business services jobs (12.7%) are also increasing rapidly.

Immigration: The proportion of foreign-born residents in the American population hit an all-time low at the 1970 census. Just 4.7% of Americans then were foreign born.  Both numbers and proportions of foreign-born legal U.S. residents have increased dramatically since then, reaching an estimated 13.3% in 2014. The number of additional undocumented residents is in the range of 10 to 12 million, with an immigration system that nearly all agree is badly flawed.

Military: A military draft in force from 1948 through 1973 affected men aged 19 through 26.  In 1969 and 1970, during the height of U.S. involvement in Vietnam, about half a million Americans served in that country each year, many of them draftees. In late 1969, a birthday-related draft lottery was reinitiated to reduce the uncertainty for eligible young men. With about 850,000 potential draftees to be called up starting in 1970, those with low lottery numbers would be nearly certain to get drafted, while those with high numbers could resume their lives free of worry about military conscription. The draft was ended in 1973.

Active duty military personnel declined in numbers and as a proportion of the population as the Vietnam War and later the Cold War wound down. The post-World-War-II number of U.S. soldiers peaked in 1968 at about 3.5 million. Its current level is about 1.35 million, or less than half a percent of the total U.S. population. About 150,000 troops are stationed outside the U.S.

Some other areas in which substantial changes have occurred since the late 1960’s: Race Relations: major urban riots in 110 U.S. cities following the 1968 assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. led to better, if sometimes spotty, enforcement of the1964 Civil Rights Act and 1965 Voting Rights Act; increasing numbers of minority voters and elected officials;  Environment: major periodic oil spills; Earth Day; establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency; recognition of global climate change as an issue; Women’s Rights: the Equal Rights Amendment debate; affirmation via the 1973 Roe V. Wade Supreme Court decision of a woman’s right, within limits, to choose whether or not to terminate a pregnancy; Media: from 3 commercial networks plus PBS and NPR to an Internet-laced selection of nearly infinite numbers of channels and viewpoints, many of them unsubstantiated; Political Culture:  increasing frustration with widening wealth and income gaps; lessening civility; splintering of some conventional voting blocs; extensive gerrymandering and attempts at voter suppression.

I’ll likely watch some coverage of both conventions, listening closely to what candidates actually have to say. Improvements in Americans’ lives since I was young have been substantial, but uneven, with periodic backsliding. Much more can be done, but it’s unlikely to take place in an atmosphere of fear and hatred. Much will depend not on the candidates, but on citizens’ willingness to stay engaged, informed, and civil.