Saturday, February 25, 2012

A Platform in Knots

I can't be the only one who gets dizzy trying to follow some of the twisted and contradictory Republican policy positions. I've always noted a few that didn't make sense, but it seems to be getting worse. I'm not sure if it's because they are trying to appeal to too many different groups within the party or not, but it sure is confusing.

The backbone of conservative thinking is 'small government'. The idea that the federal government only does the minimum needed. It's generally talked about as keeping the government out of your life. And yet, there appear to be a number of caveats to this idea. They are famously on record for wanting to remove regulations on financial institutions, roll back environmental protections and any number of other corporate related areas. Yet, oddly, the small government zeal ends rather abruptly at the edge of your personal life. And it is odd, since I would think that keeping government out of your personal business would be more important than keeping it out of corporate business.

And yet there are GOP led initiatives to deny, by law, the right of two people who love each other from getting married simply because they are the same sex. The reason for this seems to always boil down to either theological interpretations or just the fact that it makes some people uncomfortable. Neither is a good reason to deny citizens the same rights as their fellow Americans. There are a lot of things in this world that make me uncomfortable, but you don't see me trying to make them all illegal. I've always loosely interpreted the idea of 'liberty' as the right to live your life as you want, as long as it doesn't violate someone else's rights. Two men or two women getting married has no impact on the rights of Rick Santorum, Mike Huckabee or any other conservative, as far as I can tell. So, to my mind, it's not any of their business. I'm sorry, but being creeped out by homosexuality doesn't give you the right to make gay Americans second class citizens.

Then we have the fringes of the anti-abortion debate. Since the conservatives haven't been able to overturn Roe v. Wade after 40 years, they decided to make the process as psychologically and physically stressful as possible for any woman attempting to exercise their Constitutional rights. So we end up with bills like the one Virginia proposed recently. It would have had the VA state government dictate medically unnecessary procedures, even against medical advice or the objections of the patient, to include an INTERNAL, vaginal ultrasound. In other words, a state government wanted to force a woman to undergo a procedure whereby she is penetrated against her will. That's what you call a government that's not just small enough to drown in a tub, but actually small enough to fit inside a vagina! The bill was only scuttled, after passing all the way to the Governor's desk, due to a sudden deluge of national attention and outrage. Similar bills, without the penetration component, have already passed in a number of other states. These exist for only one purpose, to coerce and psychologically abuse a woman when she is at her most vulnerable. Sounds exactly like small government to me!

This election cycle we've seen yet another example of twisted policy, this time about birth control of all things. Yes, we are suddenly debating the availability of birth control in the year 2012. When did this become controversial, outside of Vatican City? Condoms have been in use since perhaps as far back as the 15th century, in some form or another, and female contraception has a history that stretches to ancient Egypt. This isn't a 'Liberal' agenda item, it's established and accepted history. One thing it isn't though is the business of any government or faith to dictate! I'm unable to grasp how a party that claims to value individual liberty can turn around and begin making noises about the legality of birth control. But the discussion gets really psychedelic when people like Rick Santorum starts babbling about the availability of birth control being related to increases in abortion rates. Huh?! I'm no doctor, but I'm pretty sure that contraception, by its very design and definition, prevents fertilization of an egg and thus any resulting fetus. If you're against abortion, than you damn well should be Pro-Contraception!! Just trying to parse the conservative logic on this is enough to induce a migraine.

On yet another front is the constant push to wedge theology into government and use that to dictate a specific moral view for the entire country. Santorum, and he's hardly alone in this mindset, recently declared that, "We have Judeo-Christian values that are based on biblical truth. ... And those truths don't change just because people's attitudes may change". First off, who's this 'we' of which you speak? Not sure if he realizes this or not, but America's citizens represent just about every theological point on the compass. In other words, 'we' aren't all 'Judeo-Christian,' shocking as that may be to hear. Secondly, I'm sorry, I was under the impression that the Constitution was based on the laws of man, not a completely unsupported theological text filled with barbaric customs that include stoning, fratricide and slavery, among many others. Shall we bring those back too? After all, they are also "biblical truth," are they not? Oh, I forgot! You get to pick and choose what parts to live by, don't you? Look, if you are for small government, you can't then be for dictating theology as policy or as the basis for national law. Faith is a personal choice and that's where it should begin and end.

It's this sort of contradictory thinking that drives me nuts, short drive that it is. I don't expect absolute consistency, but this is just a spaghetti bowl of random ideas. Maybe it stems from trying to house both ultra-conservative evangelicals under the same roof as secular moderates. But whatever the reason, it's insane. To paraphrase a line from one of my favorite movies, you keep using that phrase, 'small government.' "I don't think it means what you think it means."

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Legal Fiction

Most people are at least familiar with Stephen Colbert's name, even if you've never watched a single episode of The Colbert Report on Comedy Central. That's probably because the man is a self promotional machine. For example, back in 2009 NASA did a poll to decide on a name for the newest node added to the ISS (International Space Station). Colbert exhorted his viewers to vote and ultimately he actually topped the list. NASA did, ultimately choose to name it 'Tranquility' but Colbert still got his name in space. NASA named the treadmill that would be housed in that node after him. Well, to be accurate they named it the Combined Operational Load Bearing External Resistance Treadmill, or COLBERT. In his typical deadpan, Colbert responded that:

"I think a treadmill is better than a node ... because the node is just a box for the treadmill. Nobody says, 'Hey, my mom bought me a Nike box.' They want the shoes that are inside."

While it may seem frivolous on the surface, the incident did draw more attention to the often forgotten ISS and NASA in general. And ultimately I think that's what he wanted all along. Celebrities have long used their popular reach to raise awareness of a cause, Colbert just does it with his own unique, over the top, faux conservative flair.

This election season, Colbert is using the same sort of technique to draw attention to something that is far more important to our democracy, campaign finance. Specifically the practical results of the Supreme Court's so called 'Citizen's United' decision. Over the last year, Colbert has, in the guise of his uber-Conservative on-screen persona, laid bare the real world implications of that decision. It began with his declaration that he would be forming his own 'Super PAC,' a political action committee that is allowed to raise unlimited donations from any individual, group or business. While Super PACs are required to disclose donors, like regular PACs, they can usually take advantage of technicalities to delay disclosure far longer and sometimes even until after the election itself, thus making the disclosure more academic than enlightening. In successive episodes throughout the year Colbert went through the process, always doing so with his lawyer, Trevor Potter, on hand to show that there was a serious legal footing to the segment. As Potter said in an interview with NPR in September 2011,

"It's not a joke. Because, as he has put it, he wanted to bring people in behind the curtain so they could see [how superPACs] actually worked and what they actually did."

He certainly does that. To watch these segments is to see the threadbare legal fiction that has been created to allow cash to pour into our political system with minimal oversight. Literally, it requires only a few sheets of paper to be signed in order to 'upgrade' a regular PAC, which operates under more restrictive rules, to be a Super PAC. From what I can tell, it takes more effort and paperwork to setup a one man, home business than it does to setup a Super PAC that can collect and administer donations into the tens of millions of dollars. And the home business probably requires more oversight!

One of the other fictions at work here is that a candidate cannot directly coordinate with a Super PAC. The operative word here is 'directly,' as most of the current gang of Super PACs are actually being run by close associates and, in many cases, former senior campaign staffers! Not a lot of separation there, thus making the Super PAC, functionally, just an extension of the candidate's formal campaign apparatus. Colbert pointed this out in a recent episode, with his usual comedic twist. During a very brief 'campaign' to run for President of the United States of South Carolina, he transferred control of his SuperPAC to Jon Stewart of The Daily Show. A few days later he spoke to his audience about not being able to directly coordinate with Stewart about the Super PAC's activities and then proceeded to openly ponder what Stewart might do with all that Super PAC money. Indirectly mocking Newt Gingrich's earlier press conference where he 'called on' the Super PAC supporting his campaign to not run a particular ad in its current form. This is apparently not coordinating. It seems that as long as the campaign staff doesn't meet with Super PAC representatives or call them up directly, you can coordinate via the media to your heart's content. Thus this so called restriction is merely a minor inconvenience rather than an actual impediment.

There are a lot of things we need in our electoral system, but more money sure isn't one of them. What benefit does our Republic actually gain from hundreds of millions of dollars in campaign donations? Does it ensure just and fair elections? Does it give us candidates who are more dedicated to serving the people? Does it help provide us with unbiased facts on, not just what the candidates say they stand for, but what they've actually done? Does it make elected officials more trustworthy? That would be a 'No' on all accounts. What it does accomplish is to ensure our elected politicians feel indebted to those who flooded their campaigns with cash and not the rule of law or service to their constituents.  It allows the candidates to overwhelm the voters with a flood of propaganda that neither informs nor educates them, but simply hammers them with repetitious soundbites and wild hyperbole. It all but guarantees that, if elected and faced with a choice between safeguarding their constituents or smoothing the way for a lavish donor, that the voter will almost always lose. There is no doubt that money is one of the greatest corrupting forces in this world and the one place we do NOT need more corruption is our government! There's a saying 'that everyone has their price' and as long as we allow private money to run rampant in our electoral system we will ensure that politicians are consistently able to achieve their particular asking price.