Taking a chomp out of the mess that is US politics, one issue at a time...

Saturday, February 23, 2008

A Last Farewell to Mitt

Stephen Mack's assertion that "religion makes a virtue of alienation" (Stephen Mack) can't be more true in the wake of Mitt Romney's withdrawal from the Republican primary. A successful businessman attributed with saving the Salt Lake City Olympics of 2002, a moderate and relatively well-liked member of the GOP, the governor of the typically "blue" state of Massachusetts, and an all-around good-looking guy, Mitt Romney seemed to be the perfect Republican nomination for the next US President. (Wall Street Journal)

But then there's the fact he's Mormon.

According to the Washington Monthly, "We would all like to believe that a politician's religious affiliation isn't an obstacle to higher office." But of those polled, 17% of Americans admit to having qualms electing a Mormon to the white house, compared to the substantial yet significantly lower 4% of people who found electing a Catholic to the white house unacceptable before John F. Kennedy. This, coupled with the composition of the Republican voting block (30% are declared evangelical Christians), Mitt Romney's religious affiliation seems to be his Achilles heel. (Washington Monthly)

Romney's forced withdrawal from the presidential race ultimately raises an age-old question, how separate are church and state? This question was first posed by Roger Williams, a dissenter of the Massachusetts Bay Colony and subsequent founder of Providence. He argued that our democracy requires a "hedge or wall of separation between the Garden of the Church and the Wilderness of the World". (Stephen Mack)

However, this separation can hardly be absolute when it comes to political public intellectuals or figures, and I argue that all politicians are public intellectuals. (see Public Intellectual? Who, Me?) Religion undeniably forms who we are and how we view the world. It is an institution partially created and spread to enforce moral codes and respect that are required in civilized society. Essentially, a good afterlife is the reward for showing kindness to your neighbors. But, one must argue the extent that a public intellectual can use religion as a communication or even unification tool. Edward Said of Columbia University defined a public intellectual as someone who has "personal commitment to an ideal". However, that ideal "must also have relevance for society". Applying this notion to the political public intellectual, one should keep in mind that religion can be central to one's outlook and attitude. However, "when you make public arguments, you have to ground them - as much as possible in reason and evidence...otherwise you can't persuade other people". (Peter Beinart as rephrased by Stephen Mack)

Essentially, a politician cannot be expected to deny the part of his character that is formed by religious affiliation. However, if he expects to lead such a diverse country, he must be able to communicate in a universal language to the people; a language that cannot be religious. He must "communicate his ideas to the world, not just to fellow intellectuals" or people of the same faith. (Ralph Waldo Emerson)

And to be fair, Mitt Romney made no attempt to hide his religion, nor any to advocate it. He honestly admitted, "The respect I have for American values flows from the faith that I have." (Wall Street Journal) But also squelched fears saying, "No candidate should become the spokesman for his faith. For if he becomes president he will need the prayers of the people of all faiths." (CNN)

Stephen Mack summed up the argument of the religious aspect of public intellectuals when he said, "A more important challenge would center on how religion is being used, not whether it is used." It is absurd to ask public intellectuals to ignore, or at least appear to ignore, their religious affiliations in the same way it would be absurd to ask the American people to completely disregard a presidential candidate's religious background. But there should be boundaries. A politician cannot base public policy on the religious doctrines of his church. It would be unethical to attempt to outlaw abortion based on the fact that one's personal faith does not support it. And while the American people have the right to analyze the effect that one's religion will have on their governing practices, that should not be the sole qualification for a presidential candidate. Unfortunately for Mitt Romney, I believe it was a deciding factor for some Republican voters. It certainly seems to be the case for that block of evangelicals who are now unhappy with the relatively moderate McCain. Mitt Romney was obviously the greater of two evils. And while I find fault in his policies and the Republican party in general, I find fault in the American public for continuing to headline his religion throughout the the primaries, at a time when there are arguably much more important topics to be discussed.

Public Intellectual? Who, Me?

Ralph Waldo Emerson described the public intellectual as an active force in society. They should be knowledgeable in history, but only because of its relevance in today’s world. “Emerson’s intellectual, while enriched by the past, should not be bound by books. His most important activity is action. Inaction is cowardice.” (MIT Communications Forum) Regarding the “public” aspect of the public intellectual’s career, Emerson elucidates, “He communicates his ideas to the world, not just his fellow intellectuals.” In affect, an intellectual can be relatively ineffective on a widespread scale regardless of the level of their expertise or knowledge. They can only reach the elevated status of a public intellectual once they have the skills to present that material to the public, or as much of the public as possible.

Alan Lightman of MIT, a physicist and self-proclaimed public intellectual, takes this definition one step further and classifies public intellectuals in today’s world according to a three-level hierarchy. At the broadest level are the academic intellectuals. These individuals are extremely knowledgeable in one area of expertise and stick to it. And they communicate this expertise exclusively, without excess commentary on areas out of their comfort realm. One example of this academic intellectual would be Brian Greene, author of the popular book The Elegant Universe. In effect Brian Greene took string theory, easily one of the most difficult and obscure scientific postulations, and formatted it into a novelesque piece of writing that has garnered mainstream media attention and respect from members of all sects of our society. He is a public intellectual because he is able to communicate the complexities of his chosen discipline to the average Joe.

The second level of Alan Lightman’s definition of a public intellectual adds another dimension to the first-level academic intellectual; these individuals don’t just write about their disciplines, but attempt to relate that discipline’s relevance to the “social, cultural, and political world around it” (Alan Lightman). An example of this would be James Watson and his detailed account of discovering the structure of DNA in his novel, The Double Helix. And note that I say novel, not scientific paper. The piece of work is complete with a forward by Sir Lawrence Bragg, 29 chapters, and an epilogue. In addition, the novel moves beyond the technical aspects of the double helix discovery to the moral issues and boundaries involved in scientific research and the cultural implications of such boundaries.
“The Double Helix is also an exceptional piece of writing. It is lively, engaging, and even scandalous in parts, shattering the myth that great science is done in an atmosphere of dispassion and objectivity” (Kenneth Miller of Brown University).

On the third and most exclusive hierarchical level of public intellectualism sits the public intellectuals written about in our history books, those individuals who have been “elevated to a symbol” in our society.
“A level III intellectual is asked to write and speak about a large range of public issues, not necessarily directly connected to their original field of expertise at all” (Alan Lightman).
Lightman goes on to give Albert Einstein as a famous historical example. I would consider a more current member of this elite group of intellectuals to be Al Gore. With a B.A. from Harvard in government, a long career as a U.S. representative, member of the U.S. Senate, and Vice President to Bill Clinton, one could argue that his field of expertise is most definitely politics. However, in the past eight years Al Gore has moved beyond his direct area of expertise to become a very public advocate for environmentalism. His documentary, An Inconvenient Truth, effectively communicates “the climate crisis” to the world. Winning multiple awards, this documentary elevated Al Gore to the status of a public symbol. Recently he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for all of his efforts in bringing the dangers of climate ignorance to the public. He has been subsequently asked to lecture throughout the country on the moral, cultural, and scientific aspects of our “climate crisis”, three areas that are relatively removed from his previous life as a politician.

Alan Lightman’s hierarchy of public intellectuals seems to make sense at a cursory glance, but one wonders, how do you even enter the pyramid of public intellectualism? I’d like to consider myself a self-proclaimed expert on politics, specifically the current presidential election, and by creating this blog for everyone to read and learn from, I’m positioning myself as a public intellectual, right?


As Einstein would say, by doing some research and writing social commentary about it, I am not practicing public intellectualism. I am not reaching out to a widespread audience or acting any further than my desk. A public intellectual is expected to take action, public action no less. Writing a blog simply doesn't cut it.

On the other hand, Stephen Mack of the University of Southern California, takes a different viewpoint on the stigma of a public intellectual. He quotes Jean Bethke Elshtain: "So the public intellectual needs, it seems to me, to puncture the myth-makers of any era, including his own, whether it's those who promise that utopia is just around the corner if we see the total victory of free markets worldwide, or communism worldwide or positive genetic enhancement worldwide, or mouse-maneuvering democracy worldwide, or any other run-amok enthusiasm. Public intellectuals, much of the time at least, should be party poopers."

"Elshtain's point is that the public intellectual function is criticism...It is only because learning the process of criticism and practicing them with some regularity are requisites for intellectual employment." (Stephen Mack)

Basically, the public intellectual makes a career of opening out eyes to the faults inherent in our society. This definition does not contradict Lightman's but rather expands on it. To intelligently criticize some aspect of society, one must have a certain level of expertise. In addition, to be effective they must widen that area of expertise to include the relevance their criticism has on the social, cultural, and political aspects of our everyday lives. And finally, to be a public intellectual, one must communicate their viewpoints and/or critiques to a receptive audience, outside of their professional colleagues.

I'd say that technically, this doesn't make me a public intellectual. For one, my experience in the political realm extends only as far as being a grassroots campaigner and active voter. And probably most importantly, while probably not professional colleagues of mine, my audience falls far short of some magic number that I can imagine must define and legitimize a public intellectual.

However, Mack goes on to say that social criticism and therefore public intellectualism is "the obligation of every citizen in a democracy. Trained to it or not, all participants in self-government are duty-bound to prod, poke, and pester the powerful institutions that would shape their lives." It is my job and right as a citizen of this country to criticize contemporary politics and the election process. By analyzing and finding fault, I am simply paving the road for a better tomorrow in the saga that is American Politics.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

An Undemocratic Democrat Candidate?

The Democratic Party recently instituted the notion of superdelegates, a term largely overlooked and undervalued before the current democratic primaries. With the neck and neck race between Clinton and Obama, it seems that superdelegates may make their mark on this nomination process, whether the majority of voters agree or not. So what exactly is a superdelegate?

Superdelegates are high ranking members of the democratic party, like senators and governers, who do not represent specific states. And unlike pledged delegates, they are not required or expected to vote for the winner of their state's primary vote. While they can pledge support for certain candidates, they can also change that vote up until the minute they actually place it.

As of the February 12th primaries, Barack Obama has a total of 1,262 pledged delegates compared to Hillary Clinton's 1,213. (cnn.com) To win the democratic nomination, a candidate is required to win 2,025 of the delegate votes. Despite Obama's overwhelming victories in the last eight primaries, Clinton and Obama are within 50 pledged delegate votes and it looks like the race will continue to stay close, with the possibility that neither will win the necessary 2,025 votes before the convention. If this is the case, the responsibility to choose the democratic nominee will fall to the party elite - the superdelegates. A recent article in Fox News made the claim:

"A top Hillary Clinton adviser on Saturday boldly predicted his candidate would lock down the nomination before the August convention by definitively winning over party insiders and officials known as superdelegates, claiming the number of state elections won by rival Barack Obama would be “irrelevant” to their decision." (Fox News)

This particular aspect of the democratic convention could be deadly for the current overwhelming favorite, Obama. Harold Ickes, part of the party elite for over 40 years, "said superdelegates — who “have a sense of what it takes to get elected” — would determine the outcome and side in larger numbers for Clinton." (Fox News)

But how democratic would this be? Would the democratic party be gutsy enough to essentially throw out the results, and thereby the entire primary election, and vote in favor of the unfavored candidate? I doubt that the political momentum Obama has gained in the past eight primaries with the possibility of two more in the next three days can be completely ignored. I will be personally outraged if the party that ideally represents the common man in America turns to the politically elite to choose their candidate. And if they do vote against the winner of the popular vote, they obviously do not know "what it takes to get elected" in this country and we could very well end up with a Republican president yet again.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Why We Don't Care

In 2004 “students went to bed November 2 not knowing who the next president would be.” (Arizona Daily) And while John Kerry was actually victorious among those same 18-24 year olds, they only constituted 9% of the voting population, much less than would be required to get their presidential hopeful into office (Arizona Daily). [The age bracket 18-29 was actually the only bracket that Kerry won.] So why with such a potential for impact and obviously unique political views, do we see such disinterest among the younger demographic? There seems to exist an apathy stemming mainly from the fact that political “hot spots”, especially in the current presidential election, seem to have little direct effect on our adolescent lives. In short we don’t vote because politicians don’t speak to us. Politicians don’t speak to us because we don’t vote. Can you say Catch-22?

Despite efforts by youth-targeted organizations, like MTV’s Rock the Vote campaign, voter turnout in the younger generation has continued to remain the lowest in the nation. This, in a nation where only 54% of the voting age population (infoplease) votes in presidential elections, with an even lower percentage in midterm elections. This dismal percentage places US voter turnout at the bottom of the international scale of democracies, ranking only slightly above Poland and Switzerland (California Progress Report). In Los Angeles Country alone in 2006, out of 3.8 million registered voters, only 1 million showed up at the polls (California Progress Report). So to say that the youngest age bracket of the voting age population has the lowest turnout in our country is comparing them to the low of the low as far as voter turnout demographics is concerned.

Stimulating the younger demographic to vote in US elections continues to be an ongoing issue because in short, we simply don’t care enough. With current presidential debates centering on issues like Iraq, foreign relations, and a declining economy, I find myself flipping from televised debates to the much more exciting Lost season premier. I fail to be interested in the fact that average wages are at an all time low because frankly school is, and will be for the next couple of years, my primary focus. Furthermore, studying for an upcoming exam ranks much higher on my agenda than does researching the increasingly complex propositions so that I can knowledgeably vote on them.

Whether or not this apathy is substantiated is debatable. After all in two short years I will be searching for a job in our currently depleting job market and looking to obtain a reasonable salary in this declining economy. But two years is not right now, and we have been raised in a society that values instant gratification (Can you say drive thru Starbucks?) Right now, I want someone to address the fact that I’m paying close to a quarter of a million dollars for college, four short years of higher education that without, I’m most likely resigned to the bottom tier of the workplace hierarchy. I want to know why I’m weary to commit to any function over 20 miles away because I don’t want to pay $50+ dollars for a single tank of gas. I’m worried about the world that my parents are leaving my children and me; I want to hear about solutions to global warming, not sidestepped answers and more strategies on how to exit the Middle East. It would seem that I’m currently disproving my previous argument of apathetic young adults. Obviously I do care about some current issues, they are just different from the ones that politicians tend to elaborate on.

So how will the next president of the United States affect my life? Will a republican or democrat be more conducive to my attending and paying for college? Who will improve the economy to the point that in two years when I am scouring the job market for a career I will find something I want to do and get paid well for it? While these questions are debatable, presidential candidates fail to spend much of their time actually debating them. The few candidates who do campaign at universities obviously structure their speeches briefly toward issues that the average college student would be interested in, but these issues tend to fly out the window during important, televised debates. This brings us back to the Catch 22 – with limited on-air time the presidential candidates need to focus on older age brackets because they will be the majority of the voters. Just as 10 years ago, paying for a college education was a major issue for the large Baby Boomer generation, this election Universal Healthcare and Social Security are frontrunners, programs that frankly I have little faith will be around by the time I am ready to take advantage of them. So while candidates continue to appeal to the older and larger age brackets, I continue to grow dissatisfied with their platforms.

Other than policy and lifestyle differences, the younger demographic has to cope with the fact that many of them attend school or have started new careers away from their hometown. As I sit here ready to slam my peers for not having the foresight to vote absentee, I realize that I, myself am unsure of how to vote. As a typical college student, I procrastinated applying for a mail-in ballot and now have the option of not voting or attempting to brave rush hour traffic to get home to San Diego and vote at the polls. While the two-hour drive seems like nothing compared to what the forefathers of our nation did to create this democracy, I see how it would pose as a legitimate barrier to many of my peers. Our voting process takes effort, and in elections involving “choosing between two evils” and an array of public policies that will probably not affect my life at college, is it worth it? Will my one vote make the difference between Barack Obama getting the democratic nomination over Hillary Clinton? Probably not. And I’m not alone in my thinking. College students have been quoted saying that they didn’t vote because they just “never got around to it.” (Arizona Daily Wildcat) On a college campus where everything moves at a hundred miles a second and most of us don’t have Mom or Dad holding our hands and telling us to be active citizens, voting just isn’t a priority. Couple this with the common viewpoint that one vote doesn’t make a difference in our complicated voting system, and voila – dismally low voter turnout. This cynicism is further reinforced by the past two presidential elections. The Florida scandal and ballot recount in the 2000 election and again with the difference between the popular vote and the Electoral College in the 2004 election.

Joe Lieberman gives additional reasons for the cynicism that has become inherent among our younger voting population in his book, In Praise of the Public Life. He says that cynicism is a “by-product of sensational politics”. In reference to this he mentions his fellow democrat, Bill Clinton, and the Lewinsky scandal that captured our nation’s attention for so long. With the amount of campaign fundraising and spending that occurs, and accusations that candidates sling at each other, politics has become similar to action movies – fake, expensive, and nasty. Another reason he gives for the marked disinterest in politics is the exaggerated partisan aspect of our current political scene. (Newshour Extra) This can best be seen in Congress during Bush’s last State of the Union address. (The Whitehouse) When you repeatedly see only one side of the aisle standing and clapping at his proclamations, it is apparent that fundamental differences reside in Congress, differences that are impeding any real betterment of our nation. Instead of cooperating, the republicans are struggling to get everything done they can to cement their policy favorites before they are voted out. Likewise the democrats are just sitting and biding their time until they can undo all the measures that the republicans are trying so fervently to get passed. With such a divided political system, it seems almost impossible that we could ever present a united front on issues like education and foreign relations.

It is an undeniable fact that US voter turnout is at an all-time low, which can't be good in any representative democracy. Furthermore, voting among the younger generation remains consistently behind the averages in other age brackets. While this is the result of a multitude of characteristics of current politics, including the fact that most young adults attend school away from their hometown, the obvious disinterest is mainly due to the fact that candidates and public policies tend to cater to older generations because they are guaranteed voters. It would frankly be suicide for any politician to focus too much time and energy on us because undoubtedly our turnout would remain low. The main message? We have to vote if we want to get noticed and respected. Only once we start voting, will politicians start creating platforms that we can appreciate as well.

This need for change on the political scene is embodied best by the man all about "change we can believe in"- Barack Obama. And it is obvious the younger generation has seen this potential for change as across the nation students have been grass roots campaigning for Obama. It will be interesting to see if the voter turnout numbers increase with this presidential election. I believe that simply by increasing the number of voters who go to the polls on election day, we will see a drastic improvement in our government and national pride.