Can we skip 2017? And 2018-2020?

The Thinker by Rodin

For the first time in my adult life, I won’t be watching the inauguration tomorrow. Of course when I watched it, I always watched it on television. You get a great view and there is never a line at the restroom. Unlike with Barack Obama’s first inauguration in 2009, it’s unlikely that the national mall will be jammed to capacity tomorrow. In fact, it may be the least attended inauguration in forty years or more.

It’s not surprising. District of Columbia residents voted 94% for Clinton, so they’re not going to show up. Both nearby Virginia and Maryland also went for Clinton, as well as the country. Clinton after all won the popular vote by over 2.9 million votes. Last I read DC officials had approved 200 bus permits for inauguration day, a record low. The protests the day afterward has at least 1000 bus permits approved. If you want to see hoopla, you might want to wait to turn on the TV until Saturday. So many entertainers have refused to perform at his inauguration festivities that he may be reduced to the U.S. army band. At least they can be made to attend.

Anyhow, I won’t be watching. I’ll be avoiding media tomorrow, which is one reason I’m getting this off today. For many of us it will be a black day, made blacker by the overwhelming nature of the unqualified people Donald Trump has chosen for his cabinet. One after another they embarrassed themselves at their confirmation hearings. Nominee Rick Perry at least apologized for wanting to get rid of the Department of Energy. He was so naïve that he had no idea that its principal mission is to regulate our atomic energy and nuclear stockpile. Even a Tea Party Republican will make an exception for the Department of Energy, well, at least those who take the time to learn about its mission, and that wasn’t Rick Perry. And so it went and is going, nominee after nominee. If you were looking for the least qualified people to head up the departments they will probably be running, they’ve been in front of Congress exposing their woeful ignorance. But I guess if you are trying to drain the swamp, why not throw in a whole bunch of stink bombs and hope the swamp’s denizens quickly evacuate?

Some really can’t leave, and that includes some three million federal employees, one of which used to be me. I spent my last ten years before retirement with the U. S. Geological Survey, part of the U.S. Department of the Interior. A big part of its mission (aside from the earthquakes) is monitoring climate change. Our new president has declared it to be a hoax created by the Chinese, so naturally plenty of them are scared they will be intimidated into publishing false science or fired when their mission is declared over.

For over 100 years, even through conservative administrations like Bush II and Reagan, the USGS has been protected from political pressure. That’s probably not going to happen this time around, at least not with Ryan Zinke as the new Interior Secretary. When Bush II was president, the USGS got an Alaskan geologist for its director, and even he managed to leave the USGS nonpolitical. Naturally, I keep in touch with many of my former colleagues still working there. They are appalled and frightened by the ignoramus in chief about to be unleashed. Those who could retire mostly opted to do so on January 1.

Trump has already promised to freeze federal hiring. If draining the swamp means destroying a government we’ve spent centuries carefully building, this is a great way to affect change. The federal workforce is predominantly older anyhow. Without fresh blood coming in, it’s going to wither on the vine. Each agency is a complex system. Knowledge is primarily transferred via mentoring. With older employees leaving and no new ones coming in, those left will be increasingly ignorant, just like their new leaders.

There are signs that America is waking up. Saturday we’ll see plenty of them on the mall angrily protesting. Trump’s pre-inauguration approval ratings are dismal, reaching levels not seen since Jimmy Carter was sworn in. As his appointees get confirmed and bumble badly through their new roles, the press will be rife with lurid stories reporting their endless boondoggles. Obama ran a virtually scandal-free administration. Trump’s has already started; it’s clear that from the moment he is sworn in he’ll be in violation of the Emoluments Clause of the constitution.

For Trump, it’s unlikely that Republicans will hold him to account for it. Once the master bullies, they are now the bullied. Trump warns them via tweets that they better not oppose him. They would be wise not to do so, as his supporters will raise holy hell if they do. These portraits of courage under Obama will prove wallflowers under Trump. So expect Republicans mostly to sit on their hands while we drop Russian sanctions, reduce our commitment to NATO and as he makes impulsive and catastrophically bad decisions in the months and years ahead.

For me this would be a good time to go into a coma, to be woken in four or eight years. I’m not sure we’ll still have a country then, but I’m hardly the only one not anxious not to watch this predictable wreckage to our once great country. I can fight like hell, but traveling 400 miles to D.C. to protest Saturday won’t be one action I’ll take, although there are plenty of marches locally that I can easily attend.

Or I could do what my wife is doing and literally escape. Her birthday falls on Inauguration Day. I happened to be out of town the night Trump was elected. I came home to find her barely functional, all her muscles tense, sleepless, with chronic headaches and crying a lot. Most of her friends are in the LGBTQ community and they were in a similar state. In the weeks that followed she did not get much better. Her relief is to fly to Aruba, hole up at a B&B near the beach for a few days, read trash and go nowhere near the news. She comes back early Monday morning at which time I expect she will be headachy again, her muscles all taunt, her lower back a mass of agony and despondent. And then the real carnage starts. But at least for a few days she can escape it all.

Welcome to 2017. Thought 2016 was bad? It was just a warm-up.

Texans needs an intervention, not an invasion

The Thinker by Rodin

“Well, Doctor, what have we got—a Republic or a Monarchy?”
“A Republic, if you can keep it.”

Response by Dr. Benjamin Franklin to an onlooker after the close of the 1787 constitutional convention

In case you missed the news, Texas Governor Greg Abbott has ordered the Texas State Guard to monitor the activities of the U.S. military in Texas during their upcoming military exercise Jade Helm. No, I swear I’m not making this up! When I first heard it, I chuckled. “I can’t wait to read The Onion article,” I said. To my astonishment, it’s true. Conspiracy theorists have whipped up yet another dazzling conspiracy theory: that this multi-state military exercise to train our special forces against enemies like ISIS is actually an invasion of Texas by our own military. It’s an attempt to subjugate and subdue Texans, and to allow the Mexicans and radical Muslims in, because as everyone knows President Obama is not actually an American, but is a secret Muslim. Yeah, the same guy who brought down Osama bin Laden when George W. Bush could not. Go figure!

Conspiracy theorists of course are always dreaming up something. The only thing different here is that the governor of Texas – the governor – gave some legitimacy to these nutcases. It was not by offering some token sympathy to these people; it was by taking some deliberate action to appease them.

So I guess it’s official: the lunatics are running the government of Texas and Greg Abbott is one of them. I’m going to hope this was just an exercise in political cowardice, something you would not expect from Texans where the primary preoccupation seems to be asserting your state’s manliness and your right to do things your way. As the saying goes, don’t mess with Texas. Abbott is hoping for former governor Rick Perry’s hold on office. As Rick Perry learned you can’t possibly run too far to the right if you want to stay elected in Texas. Abbott’s political calculus may have been that this is simply the next step. Maybe he’s just acknowledging that most of his fellow Texans, at least the ones that vote, are nutcases so he better make them happy. Or he’s a nutcase too.

It doesn’t really matter because either scenario is appalling. This crazy response to a batshit crazy conspiracy theory does suggest that Texas needs an intervention instead of an invasion. Detroit got taken over by the state because it couldn’t keep itself solvent. The grownups, if there are any of them left in the state, need to stage a Texas intervention. It’s gotten so bad that former governor Rick Perry now sounds like a reasonable person.

It doesn’t matter who does it as long as it is someone who can separate fantasy from reality. The proper response to these conspiracy theorists is not respect but derisive laughter. I mean, it’s right on the floor funny. It certainly was for me, because the more I read the harder I laughed. Because many of these conspiracy theorists also believe this is somehow tied to the recent closure of six Walmart stores due to plumbing problems. The conspiracy theorists see this as related: these stores are actually going to be used as staging areas for Texans who are going to be shipped from there to FEMA camps.

Perhaps this is the logical result of progressive gerrymandering. When you create increasingly polarized voting districts you tend to elect only progressively more partisan legislators. It’s no longer okay just to be conservative. To get elected you have to be conservative, fundamentalist, against abortion, want to take away all subsidies for the poor and disenfranchise anyone who doesn’t look like you or parrot your behavior. Now it has been demonstrated that even governors can feel forced to take lunatic acts like this one simply to appease their base. Whether it will work is unclear, and there are plenty of conspiracy theorists that think Abbott’s actions aren’t nearly enough.

Perhaps as part of an intervention it would help for Texans to recall why they joined the United States in the first place. Basically, Texans could not beat the Mexicans alone, so it petitioned to join the United States because with its forces they could (read up on the Mexican-American War). By joining the Union, Mexico lost and Texas was saved for white people. Texas was stronger as part of the United States than it was as a republic. For all their macho posturing, if Texas did leave the union they would be back in a similar situation. It would be entirely up to them to stop migrations from Mexico and other parts of the Americas. Texans though seem incapable of admitting that they are needy; that their survival as a culture is predicated on belonging to a larger entity. Unless all the other forty-nine states do things exactly as they would do them, they don’t really feel an affiliation.

I do know one thing: if the Texas republic did reemerge, it wouldn’t last very long. These same nuts would be in charge, but since they can’t seem to manage reality, they would be easy prey. For all their mean mouthing and domineering attitudes, it’s all bravado and they are mostly cowards. They need the United States much more than the rest of us need Texas. Acts like this one would have me gladly voting for the state to succeed. Eventually they would realize it was a big mistake and put the sane people in charge again. Then I would let them back in.

Maybe.

Liz Warren for president?

The Thinker by Rodin

Moveon.org members are convinced: Massachusetts’s senator Elizabeth Warren is their overwhelming pick for president in 2016. They want to convince her to run although so far Senator Warren is proving tone deaf. When prompted by NPR recently she didn’t say she would never run, but kept reiterating she is not running for president. Her groupies may take this as an encouraging sign. I won’t be reading too much into it.

Senator Warren is one of a number of boutique candidates or candidate possibilities of interest to various groups. Often the most interested ones are the potential candidates themselves. They are already out there preening and posturing, and that includes soon to be ex-governor Rick Perry of Texas who is hoping his new ugly black framed glasses will look presidential this time around. It also includes “Mr. Sweater-vest” and former anemic Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum, but also quite clearly Jeb Bush and so many other Republicans in waiting that it’s hard to list them all.

On the Democratic side until recently there has been no one willing to challenge Hillary Clinton, should she announce her candidacy for president. Despite her public hedging, there is little suspense about if she will run, just when she will announce it. My former senator Jim Webb apparently wants to run, or is at least working on an exploratory committee, which is the first step. There is also the soon to be former governor of Maryland, Martin O’Malley that is thinking maybe he should run, particularly if Hillary looks vulnerable or if by running he might be on her ticket. And then there are the boutique candidates who really have no chance but want to promote their issues. Vermont senator Bernie Sanders, who is actually a socialist and caucuses with the Democrats, is considering running to call attention to the problems of the middle class. Warren’s supporters, and there are many of them, want her to do the same thing.

Watching Warren speak is interesting. She is a compelling speaker. Unlike most politicians, she speaks from her heart. She is genuine and weirdly enough she actually cares passionately about her issues, which is mostly the transfer of wealth from the poor to the rich and the oversized influence of Wall Street on our lives. Most recently she made the news criticizing the recent “cromnibus” bill that funds most of the federal government through fiscal year 2015, in particular the provisions slipped in to ease the ability of banks to invest in derivatives. Her mixture of authenticity, scholarship and passion is definitely unique at the moment, and it doesn’t hurt that she is a woman as well.

But Liz Warren for president? She seems to be smart enough to realize her own limitations, which speaks well of her. She is working hard to restore America’s middle class, but she is going up against institutional forces that are likely to defeat her. Still she keeps at it, and it is heartening to see her not lose hope in what seems like a lost cause. She makes most progressive Democrats feel downright tingly. She connects with us in a way that we haven’t felt since Barack Obama entered the national stage.

Liz Warren has many wonderful attributes, but she is no Barack Obama, at least not yet. Liz is focused like a laser on addressing the problems of the middle class. The problem with focus though is you tune out all the other stuff about governing. It’s not fair to say she is disinterested about things like defense spending, terrorism or race relations. She probably knows quite a bit about these things. She just chooses not to open her mouth much on them. That was not the case with Barack Obama. While he may not have had much experience in these areas, he certainly understood them and gave thoughtful, analytical and nuanced positions on all these issues. He looked and sounded like presidential material because someone who is going to be president should see the big picture. Rarely has our national chessboard been so complex. We need someone who has the political skills to handle the multifaceted, 24/7/365 aspects of being president.

Liz Warren simply hasn’t demonstrated this. Progressive Democrats’ hearts may skip a beat when she opens her mouth but that’s not a particularly good reason to nominate anyone for president. She is passionate and persistent, but was she to be president she would face most of the same issues President Obama has struggled with. She would likely be dealing with a Congress controlled by Republicans. To govern she would have to make deals, assuming anyone on the other side wanted to make a deal. Lately Republicans have been all about obstinacy. It’s all well and good to stand up for your values, but being president requires compromise. It means selectively sticking up for certain things and giving up on others. She makes noise in the Senate but so far she hasn’t done much to effectively cross the aisle, not that it’s an easy thing to do when your opposition basically won’t concede anything.

Liz is guilty of being popular, but being popular does not mean that someone is presidential material. I like Liz a lot. I expect in 2015 when my wife and I move to Massachusetts that she will be my senator, and I will be glad to call her my senator. But she is not yet presidential material. It seems that she understands this too, which speaks highly of her. So I don’t expect her to be a candidate, no matter what the members of MoveOn.org want, because she has too much common sense.

I’d rather see her move the needle where she can and continue to be a top fundraiser for Democratic candidates. I want her to be our chief cheerleader, because we will need plenty of enthusiasm from the rank and file to win in 2016 and maybe take back the Senate. Absent evidence I don’t yet see in her, I hope she won’t run for president. If you are one of her supporters, I hope you will see that she can be far more effective for our side right where she is.

The Mormon, the serial adulterer, the zealot and the crackpot

The Thinker by Rodin

Get out the popcorn! Thanks to Newt Gingrich’s surprising win in the South Carolina Republican primary yesterday, it looks like those of us who enjoy political theater have many more weeks or months of it to revel in. One thing is clear: Republican primary voters are having a hard time choosing from their crop of candidates. You get the feeling Bob Forehead would win if he were on the ballot. (Mitt Romney does remind me a lot of Bob Forehead. It must be coincidence.)

At least it is now down to four: the Mormon, the serial adulterer, the zealot and the crackpot. A number of other crackpots have already exited stage right, including Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain and Rick Perry. Jon Huntsman posed as the moderate candidate in the race, although his tax policies were anything but moderate. Anyhow, they are gone and I for one will miss Bachmann, Cain and Perry for their circus sideshow qualities. It’s hard to lampoon candidates who are already crazy parodies of candidates but simply do not know it.

We are learning some things as these primaries drag on. First, it’s a bad idea to entrust vote counting to the Iowa Republican Party. They must not have excelled in math in school, and they lost votes altogether for some precincts. Mitt Romney won Iowa by eight votes, then some weeks later he lost it, but no one can really say for sure because they also lost precinct votes. Doing all that vote counting at an undisclosed location is hardly a way to instill confidence in the process either. Call it a tie, maybe, between the Mormon and the zealot.

Second, Republicans simply refuse to nominate a moderate. In today’s Republican Party, Ronald Reagan would be castigated as a flaming liberal. Even Jon Huntsman tilted much further to the right than Ronald Reagan ever did. Being angry is considered an asset; being statesman-like means you are a pussy. At least anecdotally, South Carolina Republicans picked serial philanderer Newt Gingrich not because of his family values, but because he was the best of the four of them at articulating their rage. It takes balls to tell an African American to their face their problem is they don’t work hard enough.

Third, for a party supposedly centered on liberty and freedom, they sure don’t want to hand much of it out. In fact, they want to take away a lot of freedoms. One freedom they can all agree on: the right to own lots and lots of increasingly lethal weapons, with no pesky laws to get in the way of you and your paranoia. But on many other freedoms, they would gladly rescind them. The freedom to have an abortion? Perish the thought. The freedom to marry someone you love who happens to be of the same sex? It’s immoral and hence must be outlawed. The freedom of a 17-year old girl to buy a Plan B “after the fact” contraceptive over the counter, which is clinically proven both safe and effective? Not for you, you little harlot. The freedom to vote without having an officially blessed form of state-issued identification? Sorry, no, at least in many of these Republican states which recently passed onerous voter ID laws.

Freedom, as Republicans like to tell us, is not free, which is another way of saying freedom has to be purchased, i.e. it’s sort of like buying emancipation. If you cannot afford to buy it, well that’s just tough. If you want the freedom to vote, then trek down to your local DMV and get an official ID and pay for it with your own money, and do it on your own time. (This is not, they tell us, a poll tax. Go figure.) You have the freedom to eat as much food as you can afford to buy, and if you cannot afford any you are free to starve. The same goes with your health, your employment and your choice of abode. You have the freedom to call a cardboard box home rather than pay rent. Freedom means never getting a handout. Freedom essentially means that those with the means get to have a whole lot more freedom than you do. Also it is an essential part of the government’s mission to remove any possibility that society might help the poor climb the social ladder. As Herman Cain informed us, if you are poor it’s your own damn fault. You just aren’t trying hard enough.

You can see why it would be confusing to Republican primary voters to choose a nominee, although right now anger seems to be a vote getter. In conservative family-values South Carolina of all places you would think that a serial philanderer would have a hard time getting votes. But voters seem more interested in a candidate who can express their anger than one who is consistent with family values. So they cheered Gingrich on in a recent debate when moderator John King asked Gingrich to comment on his ex-wife Marianne’s allegation that he petitioned her for an open marriage. Gingrich turned the inevitable question into a personal attack and the audience roared approval. Perhaps all this family value talk is just talk, as red states have higher divorce rates than blue states anyhow.

Then there is the question: can a true Christian pull the lever for a Mormon? New Hampshire Republicans had no problem, but they are suspiciously secular up there. In God-fearing South Carolina, if your candidate is not a real Christian, he doesn’t share your values, so you cannot vote for him. Instead, pick Gingrich, the faux-Christian instead. You would think his Catholicism would be a stroke against him in a deeply Protestant state, but it’s Christian enough apparently. Besides, Gingrich is about as Christian in temperament as Attila the Hun was a humanitarian, which in fact resembles most so-called Christians that I know.

Which leaves the zealot and the crackpot. The zealot, a.k.a. as Rick Santorum, is so incredibly monogamous he won’t even sit on a sofa with another woman not his wife. He was a huge failure as a U.S. senator but apparently did not get the message, even when he lost his reelection bid by seventeen points. Santorum says he is the only true conservative in the race. Maybe so, but he is conservative in a nasty Fred Rogers sort of way, although he looks great in a sweater vest. This is a guy who is so far to the right that even obvious right-wingers avoid him. His proposal to limit the National Weather Service to issuing severe long-range weather forecasts only was so bizarre and unworldly that not a single other senator signed on as a cosponsor. Santorum is a true conservative indeed. Even I have to give him credit for this.

Then there is the crackpot. Doubtless I risk the ire of legions of Ron Paul fans out there by calling him a crackpot, but he is one. Anyone who refuses to ever make an exception to move outside his or her ideology is a crackpot. One way I can tell a true crackpot is I tend to agree with some of their positions. I agree with Paul that we should be out of Afghanistan, for example. It’s all that other weird stuff he believes in where it’s hard to stifle derisive laughter. He wants to eliminate much of the government including essential agencies like the EPA, kill the Federal Reserve Board, go on the gold standard, and withdraw from the UN and WTO. And for a pro-freedom kind of guy, freedom apparently doesn’t extend to a woman’s right to have an abortion, or the right to have consensual sodomy, since granted to us by a conservative Supreme Court. Calling Ron Paul a crackpot is actually to diminish him with faint praise. Nonetheless, a significant portion of the Republican electorate apparently agrees with this guy. Fortunately, his anti-foreign-policy stand makes it impossible for him to win the nomination. His candidacy does beg the question: who is freakier: the fetishly clean Rick Santorum or the obsessively and ideologically weird Ron Paul? This is the kind of question I could debate with friends all night, and we could never agree on, but it would still be a fun debate.

I plan to stock up on popcorn and hope this nominating process goes all the way to a brokered convention.

The virtues and pitfalls of fellowship

The Thinker by Rodin

Ever notice how people tend to congregate with people who act and behave a lot like them? I am no exception. I live in a middle class suburb, quite similar to the one I grew up in, with people mostly of my race and around my income level. Our weekends are spent on domestic things like mowing grass and trimming hedges.

Why did I seek this lifestyle instead of hanging on to my old lifestyle, which was living in a townhouse in a truly diverse community? In part it was because I got promoted and could afford a single family house. But I also didn’t like the teenager next door persistently sitting on the hood of our Camry while he smoked, who continued even when repeatedly asked to stop. I’d never do that with his car, or turn up the bass on my stereo so his floorboards rattled. I shared similar values with many of my neighbors, but not with some, particularly those renting next door. So when opportunity presented itself, I skedaddled to a community that did share my values. Here typically the only noise I hear from my neighbors is if they turn on their leaf blower. No one sits on my car hood anymore either, because my car is parked on my property, not communal property. I am happier when people that share my values live around me.

It has been remarked that Unitarian Universalists like me are principally a lot of liberal, upper income, predominantly white people. That is true of the UU church that I attend, although we do have a handful of African American members now as well as a few other families from other races and cultures. In our unison affirmation at every service we covenant to “help one another in fellowship.” Now there’s a strange world: fellowship. It’s so archaic that I had to look up the definition:

The condition of sharing similar interests, ideals, or experiences, as by reason of profession, religion, or nationality.

Fellowship is basically enjoying spending time with people a lot like you. Perhaps that’s why I enjoy going to services: not only do I hear great sermons, but services are followed by coffee and conversation: code words for fellowship. There I try not to eat too many carbohydrates while chatting mostly with liberal white guys and ladies and discussing issues near and dear to us, like the building expansion. I also practice fellowship by attending my covenant group meeting at the church once a month: more time to interact with smart white people, share our travails and joys, and to discuss some issue of the heart.

I’m not a Rotarian, Lions Club member, Masonite, or Knights of Columbus member, but they are all principally doing the same thing: practicing fellowship. Fellowship seems a bit unnatural to us liberals, even though we guiltily enjoy it. Surely we should be using our time to help the poor or save the earth or something. Instead, we are busy engaging in fellowship. The actual doing of that other stuff is somewhat harder, at least in person. It’s much easier to give money to charities. If I start handing out food to poor people, I may get grateful looks but some teenager may also decide to sit on the hood of my car. That would not be cool.

It turns out America is all about fellowship, and our fellowship is often fierce and insular. Texas governor Rick Perry represents a certain kind of fellowship: almost exclusively conservative Republican white guys and their spouses from Texas with evangelical roots and humble beginnings. He won’t hang out much with George W. Bush, who is also a conservative Republican, but really only gave lip service to religion and evangelicals, is a faux Texan and never had to worry about bills because Daddy always had his back. No wonder they reputedly don’t get along.

Americans love to self-segregate. We mostly unconsciously surround ourselves by yes men who largely parrot our values. Hear enough of it and when you hear something outside of your bubble your tendency is to be hostile toward it.

Yet we do need to escape our bubbles now and then, because too much fellowship leads toward insular outlooks, warped perspectives and ultimately a false picture of how the world is and what is required to fit inside it. It turns out that’s a pretty hard thing to do that, because it requires an open mind, an open heart and finding the courage within yourself to admit that, hey, maybe I am insular. And maybe it came from too much fellowship.

And yet I have found out that fellowship does have merit. I find enormous satisfaction is simply having a community of fellows: people a lot like me that I can bounce ideas off and know I will get heard. In many cases these people may superficially look like me, but they often have life experiences they can share that are outside my experience. Of course, it tends to be easier to consider these ideas when they come from people you perceive as peers.

One way I step outside my comfort circle is by teaching. I teach a course or two a year at a community college. It gives me some satisfaction, but when I teach I am also deliberately moving into a zone of potential discomfort. I am not a peer, I am a teacher, which makes me something of a leader and judge. And unlike in my congregation, neighborhood or even at work, few white middle class faces stare back at me from across my desk. Instead, I see lots of hues. I see people working two or three jobs and still trying to fit college into their lives. I see more women than men. I see a plurality of people from India and Pakistan. Communicating with them is sometimes a struggle, because we both have to struggle through cultural, language and age barriers. At the end of a class I am frequently wrung out. However, I do return home feeling like I have a truer understanding of the community I live in than if I had stayed home instead. By stepping outside my comfort zone, I have developed empathy for the tough lives that so many people endure for just the chance for real middle class prosperity.

I hope you do something to step outside your comfy circle of fellows, at least semi-regularly. It grounds and centers you. It also makes you appreciate the comfort of fellowship in more measured doses. Last week I traveled all the way to Tacoma, Washington and back. Yet it was like I never left home: the same sorts of people and the same conveniences of modern living were available 2300 miles away, right down to the Starbucks on the corner. For a truly grounding experience, I merely had to drive a dozen miles to campus, stand in front of a room full of students, speak and listen. Last night, as is true of most nights after teaching, I felt that I learned far more than I taught.

Republicans and their bogus notion of federalism

The Thinker by Rodin

Texas Governor Rick Perry is one of the latest entrants into the 2012 Republican presidential primary race. In fact, in barely a week he has managed to displace former Governor Mitt Romney in polls as Republicans’ favorite choice. Clearly, Republicans are more enamored with his record than voters overall will be, once they get the facts on his “Texas miracle”. One thing Perry is very adamant about, aside from the usual whines about cutting taxes, is federalism.

I’m betting some of you don’t know what federalism is. Just incase you don’t know, federalism is not the philosophy that the federal government should do more and states less. What federalism really means is that sovereignty is split between the national government and state governments. In the usual dopey Republican thinking, federalism means that the federal government should do almost nothing and the states should do almost everything else. “Republican federalism” generally means they choose to ignore the constitutional provision that the federal government is empowered to “promote the general welfare”. Moreover, they would also be happy to ignore, if not outright repeal the Supremacy Clause of the U.S. Constitution that says U.S. federal laws are the supreme law of the land. In short, they believe states are more than peers to the federal government; states are superior to the federal government. States are the masters, and the federal government is a little yappy dog that they occasionally throw dog biscuits at to keep happy. The federal government is a servile little puppy that amuses the states and is good at growling at strangers that come near its borders.

Rick Perry’s latest personal beef is that he thinks “Obamacare” is unconstitutional and thus should be repealed. He believes states have the authority to create statewide health insurance plans, or not, but definitely not the federal government. The states should be incubators of laws to see what works in the real world. At the same time, Perry is being a typically schizophrenic Republican by castigating Mitt Romney for the Massachusetts’s health care law, because it requires citizens to have health insurance, except in some limited cases.  Massachusetts’s law, of course, was something of a model for “Obamacare”, known by its proper name as the Affordable Care Act. If this dichotomy bothers you then congratulations: you are a rational person. If you a Republican, it should not bother you at all. Of course you can be for states’ rights while at the same time being selectively against state laws that you believe impinge on personal freedom, even if you don’t live in the state. In fact, you can be for federal laws requiring that all states prohibit gay marriage or abortion, while still believing in states’ rights and ignoring the Supremacy Clause. It’s crazily confusing to those Americans who retain their sanity, but wholly sensible to Republicans.

Anyhow, Perry wants to repeal “Obamacare” natch, and let states be laboratories for health care reform, unless it looks anything like Massachusetts’s health care law. In that case, at best he will hold his nose and accept it as the price of federalism. At worst, he will argue that the original intent of the constitution does not allow states to encroach in this area because it impinges on personal freedom. In general though he believes the federal government’s authority should be much more limited than it is, probably limited to providing for the common defense and controlling immigration, and not much else. Why? Because he thinks this was the founding fathers’ original intent, in spite of the words in the constitution ratified by the many states saying otherwise!

In Rick Perry’s ideal world, agencies like the Food and Drug Administration would be abolished and the money saved on these wasteful agencies returned to taxpayers. States would choose whether or not to regulate drugs. In fact, states already can regulate drugs. Here in Virginia, for example, I cannot buy Sudafed over the counter without giving them my driver’s license, which is scanned. A record of the purchase is put into a database that tracks how many times I bought Sudafed. Basically, Virginia wants to know if I might be running a meth lab. Virginia can extend federal law, but cannot selectively override federal law. This is perfectly clear to most of us who have read the Supremacy Clause.

I do hope that Rick Perry’s idea of federalism at least extends to allowing the federal government to regulate the airwaves and airline traffic. Because otherwise, goodness, it would be a hell of a mess trying to fly anywhere or keeping deviant radio waves from illegally crossing a state’s boundaries. However, neither of these is directly mentioned in the U.S. constitution so maybe they are not allowed. After all, original intent triumphs everything.

The Supremacy Clause exists specifically to answer the question that Rick Perry and so many other Republicans raise. You would think that they might, like, actually read it. The Supremacy Clause also has the side effect of allowing activities that affect the country as a whole to be done nationally once, instead of replicating it inefficiently and piecemeal up to fifty times across the fifty states. Do we really want to take federalism to the extreme where the New York State health department says that heroin is an addictive drug and hence illegal, while California judges it is a matter of individual liberty and should thus not be regulated? Do we really want one state to allow shoddy Chinese drywall while another state prohibits it?

It all sounds so dreadfully confusing and, worse, incredibly inefficient. Granted the federal government has lots of bad laws, but at least if it is repealed it is gone nationally. If federalism existed the way Rick Perry envisions it, most of us would find it too risky to ever leave our state, simply because there are too many ways you can get in trouble with the law moving to another state. You couldn’t count on any law being consistent. We’d probably want an opinion from our lawyers before we moved to another state. Our lifestyle, say living with our gay spouse, could be criminal in a neighboring state. One state may be okay with Miranda rights, another prohibit them.

My wan hope is that as Americans learn more about Perry and other Republicans’ bizarre idea of federalism that they will come to my conclusion: it’s crazy and wrong. But it’s more than that: it’s unconstitutional. Let’s just hope if someone like Perry does get elected president and tries out this notion of federalism, our federal judges will apply the U.S. constitution as it was actually written in judging the cases. This includes those inconvenient clauses like the Supremacy Clause that plainly say what they plainly say.