Friday, May 27, 2016

New 'political correctness' law misses the point

Last week, President Obama signed a bill that seems a perfect exercise in “political correctness.”  Amazingly, in a time of legislative deadlock, the bill had passed the Senate unanimously.

The new law removes from federal statutes what are considered derogatory racial terms.  For example, “Oriental” is replaced by “Asian American.”

This move gets right at the heart of political correctness.  It means that people should not be addressed or labeled by terms they consider offensive.  It’s politically correct, because it is bad politics to call people by a name they dislike or associate with discriminatory treatment.

These terms change over time, so that a term considered at one time to be acceptable may be rejected later.  “Negro” was used to dislodge the racist “n-word,” but it is now to be officially abandoned.

People, who used the older terms innocently without any conscious discriminatory intent, may want to keep using those names.  The change seems to imply they are racists, when they are not.  Of course, some, clinging to old labels, are racists. 

For whatever reason, innocent or malicious, these people may be ripe targets for candidates who attack political correctness.

Nothing shows the problems with trying to find the correct name for a group than the use of the words “Native Americans,” now required to replace “Indians.”  It reflects the impossible task for government or any agency to dictate language.

In a couple of national surveys, tribal members said they preferred to be called “American Indians” or simply “Indians” rather than “Native Americans.”  They did not create the new official term, and the law simply ignores their sentiments.

Some Indians say they prefer to be called by the name of their tribe, say, Navajo or Sioux (even though that’s not entirely accurate either), rather than a general name.  It’s a bit like a person being known as an “Italian American,” not a “European American.”  

How about the word “Indian” itself?  One writer says that Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull called themselves by that name, so the tradition should not be abandoned.

People from India might be called “East Indians” as contrasted with “American Indians.”  Anyway, the context gives the meaning away.

The surveys and common usage of Indian names suggest that Washington cannot effectively authorize official names that will be used.  Will the law have to be amended in a few years when what’s acceptable changes?

In Oklahoma, the former Indian Territory was whittled down by Sooners and other white settlers, and the Indians were denied the state of their own they had sought.  Does calling them Native Americans fix that?  

Where this often seems to matter is the names of sports mascots.  There’s a move to change the name of the Washington Redskins.  A recent national survey of Indians shows that 90 percent don’t care if the team has that name.  For many, there are more important issues affecting Indians, but they get far less attention.

In North Dakota, the ice hockey team has been known as the “Fighting Sioux,” though, apparently, there had been no Indians on the team.  The NCAA ruled the name must go unless all Sioux tribes approved its use. 

In violation of a formal treaty with the U.S., Congress had stripped the Standing Rock Sioux of most of their land.  The Supreme Court later said, "A more ripe and rank case of dishonorable dealings will never, in all probability, be found in our history." 

The tribe did not give its approval to keeping the name, and the team became the “Fighting Hawks.”  But fans keep on wearing Fighting Sioux jerseys.  The label “Native Americans” probably matters little. 

Even Maine has been touched by the naming issue.  Whether the Skowhegan Indians ought to change their name has been debated.

Two tribal representatives left the Maine Legislature in 2015, saying state government ignored their interests on hunting and fishing.  They were disheartened after Gov. LePage ended a formal consultation arrangement with them.

The effort to avoid giving offense to Indians or African Americans and other racial groups reveals defects in government thinking about minorities.

Nobody is going to dictate language usage in American English.  It’s a living language.  Congress has better things to do with its time.  How about unanimous Senate support for voting rights?
Many see the new terms as an effort to improve relations between white Americans and groups subject to discrimination in the past.  It looks like an easy way to make amends.  Still, even if the new law shows a long-missing sensitivity, changing names alone only avoids dealing with real issues.

Friday, May 20, 2016

Maine governor model for Trump presidency

When asked if he would like to be Donald Trump’s Republican running mate, Maine Gov. Paul LePage said it would not happen.  “We’re too much alike,” he said.

What he says is often highly controversial, but this time LePage may have provided a helpful view about what a Trump presidency would be like.

There are already striking similarities.  Trump slashes his opponents with degrading insults, sometimes with racist overtones.

LePage promised to tell President Obama to “go to hell.”  He called the IRS “the new Gestapo” for its role under the Affordable Care Act.  And he quipped that one of his Democratic opponents wanted to “give it to the people without providing Vaseline.”

Refusing to follow the precedent of attending the NAACP’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Day breakfast, LePage said, “tell them to kiss my butt.”

Both resent the need for restraint, to be “politically correct.”  When either Trump or LePage listens for the voice of the people, he seems to hear his own voice.  Winning elections appears to equate with an almost divine right to lead.

Their shared sense of being above the limits of normal political speech may result from their having been business chiefs.  With a compliant board, you may have a free hand in business, but government is different.

Trump would be likely to struggle with Congress, which sees itself as more than a board of directors, just as LePage has fought with the Maine Legislature, even with the state senate under the control of the GOP.

The result has been his record-setting number of vetoes.  Just this year, LePage issued 32 vetoes, most of which were overridden by the Legislature.  In rejecting one bill providing medication for drug addicts, he seemed to favor letting them die over giving them a chance to recover.

Last year, he issued one block of 65 vetoes, claiming the Legislature had adjourned so it could not override them.  The Maine Supreme Court ruled that the Legislature, not the Governor, decides when it finishes its work and nullified all the vetoes.

Like LePage, Trump would find that he simply could not keep his campaign promises without gaining legislative support.  For the Maine governor, the result has been massive, public outbursts of frustration with a process he seems never to have understood.

He has at times threatened to move out of his office, not make any nominations to executive or regulatory positions, and not swear in a legislator.  In the end, he was forced to relent.

Trump could push the limits of executive power, like LePage.  When the Democratic House speaker got a job running a charter school dependent on state funding, he warned the school’s board that he would cut off its funding unless they told the speaker, “You’re fired.”  They complied.

Trump claims to be a tough negotiator, and LePage tries to be one.  LePage refused to issue voter-approved bonds without first getting legislative concessions.  But his gambit failed and after the Legislature did not meet his demands, LePage simply let the bonds lapse, overruling the voters.

Trump’s candidacy so far suggests his presidency could look a lot like this, including attempts at unilateral action, deadlock with Congress and ignoring the public will.
But it could go beyond a struggle between the executive and legislative branches.  If Maine offers any hints, some matters will go to court.

The judicial branch does not like becoming involved in disputes between the other branches of government.  It prefers to say that the voters are the court of last resort on such matters.

Without a way to reconcile differences between the executive and legislators, not much happens.  Government fails to meet basic public needs.  Voters experience deadlock and disappointment.

The LePage or Trump promise of change gives way to frustration.  Frustration leads to desperation.

For what may be the first time in Maine history, the Legislature began considering the possibility of impeaching the governor.  The move went nowhere out of deference to public opinion that probably would have been unhappy with the resulting chaos.

But impeachment at the federal level is less unusual.  If a President Trump treated Congress the way LePage has treated the Maine Legislature, an effort to impeach him could be conceivable.

An executive, reckless in his public utterances and treatment of others and who believes his electoral victory should yield a compliant legislature and unchecked power, looks like Maine’s LePage today and could be tomorrow’s America with Trump.

Trump could bring back to life that old political saying, “As Maine Goes, so goes the Nation.”

Friday, May 13, 2016

Election 2016 to reflect real political unhappiness

Gone is the talk of “open” presidential nominating conventions or arguments about “open” primaries, which allow independents to vote in partisan elections.

The parties seem to have made their choices, closing a lot of open mouths.

What remain “open” are the November election and the temper of American voters.  Because, aside from the forecasts by overrated and underperforming pundits, the outcome is truly an “open” question.

Uncertainty results from the surprising takeover of the Republican nomination process by Donald Trump, one of the most unconventional candidates in recent America history.  He has exploited public unhappiness with the current political system.

Questions remain to be settled before the election.  Will the GOP and Trump make peace or at least a truce?  Will there be a third party, conservative or moderate, to provide shelter to traditional Republicans?  Will the Libertarian Party offer an alternative?  Will some Republicans support Hillary Clinton?

The Republican Party has problems.  Traditional pro-business, anti-government, strong military Republicans have been losing ground to doctrinaire conservatives with different interests: no gun control, no same-sex marriage, few or no abortions and certainly no Affordable Care Act.

Trump seems to represent people who believe the entire system is failing and even corrupt.  To them, what makes Trump attractive is his never having held elective office.  He doesn’t talk like a politician.  His appeal is based more on his style than on where he stands on issues dividing the GOP.

When analysts say that Trump has no chance of winning, they really are saying there is not a large enough constituency in the general electorate willing to support an inflammatory and apparently racist candidate.  But could his anti-establishment aura override concern about his excesses?

The Republican Party, in business since 1856, is part of the American political establishment.  Already divided, the traditional party runs the risk of disappearing.  Given its divisions, Trump’s supporters may represent a constituency using its mechanisms not to make it either traditional or conservative, but revolutionary.

The GOP may have made matters worse by trying to be an exclusive club.  It has worked hard to reduce voting access for minorities.  That party attitude legitimizes Trump’s views on immigrants.

Before going too far with Trump’s effect, it’s worth remembering he has won about 11 million votes until now.  In 2012, Mitt Romney, the GOP candidate, got 60.9 million votes and the total of the two major parties was 126.8 million.

Whatever his ultimate strength, Trump does reflect the political unhappiness of a block of voters.  They believe candidates lie to them and that the answers are less complicated than the politicians say.  They are ready to reject candidates who cannot give them simple answers to what they see as simple problems.

Voters want to be lied to.  They want candidates who make big promises.  No matter the candidate will have to deal with Congress or that issues are complicated.  But when a candidate becomes president, he or she must be more realistic than when campaigning.  That’s when it looks like they have been lying.

If the promises are simple and sweeping enough, yet cannot be kept for practical reasons, voters can finally lose trust not only in politicians but in government itself.  The Trump candidacy, if he holds onto the nomination, implies there is now a large body of voters who have lost trust in government.

The book “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” marveled at the way average voters oppose their own self-interest by supporting GOP policies favoring the wealthy.  Perhaps Trump has now caught the attention of these voters.

Look at the difference in the electorate between 2000 and 2016.  Then, the popular vote for president was displaced by a court that made the decision by one vote, and the voters accepted the result without violent protest.  Now, the Trump rejectionists are truly angry, and they are willing to rough up their opponents.

In effect, the country now has four political groups.  Liberals and conservatives have long been with us.  Moderates exist, but their numbers seem to dwindle.  Add to that the rejectionists, Trump supporters who call into question the effectiveness of the traditional governmental system itself.  If these groups cannot compromise, then what?

This year’s election may force Americans to take stock of their support for a system of government many have come to believe yields them nothing while the wealthy and the politicians prosper.  That’s what vocal Trump supporters say.

The November election will tell us the identity of the next president.  Perhaps more importantly, it may tell us who we are.

Friday, May 6, 2016

“Checks and balances” become checks without balances

Americans think of our country as a special place.  American “exceptionalism” is a part of our national character.

But we are increasingly aware that something is wrong, that we have lost something.  That’s why a presidential candidate can claim that he will “make America great again.”

The American system of government is not working as intended and as it has historically.  Some presidential candidates target scapegoats such as illegal immigrants, trade deals and Wall Street billionaires.

The underlying cause may be that the traditional rules, even if informal, no longer apply.  Instead, they are bent, legally perhaps, beyond their ability to make government work.  Most people have allowed this to happen without protest or even much concern.  They may simply have missed what happened.

The system planned by the Founders has changed over time.  They paid little attention to the possibility of political parties.  Now parties not only exist but they are unable to compromise to make government work.

The veto is a good example of the problem.  Thanks to a major ideological split between Gov. Paul LePage and the Maine Legislature, even with a Republican Senate, the Legislature has just dealt with 32 LePage vetoes.  It overrode 20 of them.

Numbers this large are unusual.  Counting the 65 vetoes that the Supreme Court said he made out of time last year and many others, LePage almost certainly holds the modern record.

Battles between the governor and Legislature result from their inability to negotiate and compromise.  Above all, the governor insists legislators should accept his proposals without modification, while a legislative majority believes laws should originate with them.

At the federal level, President Obama has issued relatively few vetoes – only nine so far in almost two full terms.  All have been sustained.  But that’s not because of a good working relationship with Congress.

Republican congressional leaders worry that the Democrats would use the president’s vetoes, even if overridden, as positive talking points in their campaigns this fall.  And they want to avoid taking possibly unpopular positions in a veto fight.

The net result is that the GOP-dominated Congress will not pass many bills that Obama would veto.  The president even helps them when his legislative staff sends advance signals about his veto intentions. 

The veto process has become a show rather than part of the legislative relationship foreseen in the federal and state constitutions.  The resulting deadlock produces fewer urgently needed pieces of legislation.

Another fault in the operation of the constitutional system is the appointment process.

In Maine, LePage dodges putting the nomination of his proposed education commissioner before the Legislature, concerned the nominee will be rejected.  Instead, LePage gives him a phony, unconfirmed position, so he can run the department, and says that he himself will act as commissioner when necessary.  It’s at least questionable if that’s legal.

In Washington, the Republican-controlled Senate refuses to process important presidential appointments during Obama’s final year in office.  The GOP leaders hope a president of their party will be making nominations next year for confirmation by a Senate still under their control.

Meanwhile, a seat on the U.S. Supreme Court and two of the seven seats at the Federal Reserve go unfilled.  And, through a trick allowing the Senate to remain in session without recess, the constitutional process for temporary presidential appointments has been ended.

The filibuster is yet another political amendment of the Constitution.  Most votes are required to be decided by only a simple majority.  By insisting that 60 votes are required to end debate on any bill, the Senate in effect demands a supermajority for any legislation.  The filibuster is used hundreds of times.

As for the federal courts, judicial opinions have increasingly become a substitute for legislation with jurists routinely overruling Congress.  A judge’s political affiliation and ideology matter these days, more than legal expertise and independence.

At times, the Supreme Court openly makes political, not legal, judgments.  And, after all, it elected the president in 2000.

All of these actions have in common a desire to bend constitutional provisions, state and federal, to serve partisan purposes.  The original intent was to create a system of checks and balances, designed to prevent government from hastily making mistakes or approving the appointment of incompetents.

Now, constitutional mechanisms are used as partisan tools.  What may be legal under constitutions written in broad terms may not be “constitutional” in spirit.  Partisanship has led to what was a system of “checks and balances” among the three branches of government becoming simply a system of “checks.”