Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

Government Schools

Author: Gary Hart

The State of Kansas now calls its public schools “government schools.” Thomas Jefferson, who linked public schooling to democracy and vice versa, now has yet another reason to roll over in his grave.

So, I guess we now have government highways, and government parks and wilderness areas and government forests, and government libraries, and government State boundaries, and a whole lot of other government things. Before Kansas enlightened me I though these were all facilities that belonged to the public, all the people of America, and that we administered them on our behalf by electing a government to do so.You have to ask yourself whether federal farm subsidies to Kansas farmers also makes them “government farms.” It would be interesting to know how many Kansas farmers send the subsidies back.

But now Kansas tells me all these public assets and resources belong to the government, not to the American people. I went to public schools in Kansas and they didn’t teach me that back then. But perhaps I had a premonition because I migrated to Colorado well over a half century ago. I thought it was just that Colorado had mountains and Kansas didn’t have any. But, no, I anticipated that Kansas would give its public schools to the government. Thank goodness, Colorado hasn’t chosen to do so.

Sometime between Abraham Lincoln and Barry Goldwater, the Republican Party became the anti-government party. And, to quote a Republican president, “the government is the problem.” Which reminds one of Gertrude Stein’s last words. When asked, “Gertrude, what is the answer?” She replied: “What is the question?”

The government is the problem of what? Last time I checked, we the people elect the government—president, House of Representatives, Senate. Two of these are now in the control of the anti-government party. What’s the problem?  The president was elected twice by a majority of American voters.

And that Republican president who claimed the government he was responsible for running was the problem didn’t reduce its size or budget one bit. Anyone with an ounce of knowledge of American history knows that public education from the time of Jefferson until today has been in the hands of local people. The State of Texas has a committee that selects school books and it insists those books not contain anything about evolution and only a footnote about slavery. Any State or local schoolboard that wants its children to be ignorant is free to make them ignorant. Presumably Kansas is as free to turn out ignorant students as Texas is. So, what’s the beef?

The Kansans who elected their current government (yes, government) claim to love their country but hate its government. That kind of thinking requires an agile, some might say demented, mind.

Few would argue that we do not have a government Army, or Navy, or Marine Corps. That doesn’t seem to bother Kansas. But to the arch-conservative, anti-government mind, that’s alright. It’s everything else the government does that is bad, especially those programs for poor people and civil rights laws and government interference like that. What business is it of the government if we want to leave people in poverty, including a fifth of America’s children. We don’t need no stinking government. But, rest assured, even the most ardent right-wing Kansan insists that you keep your dirty government hands off his Medicare and Social Security. “Those aren’t government programs because they benefit me.”

There are some very good people in Kansas, including relatives of mine, and I enjoyed as good a small town upbringing as any young American could want. But I always knew I was an American before I was a Kansan and I learned to respect the Government of the United States that so many have died defending. History provides reason to hope that we will eventually grow up and out of this latest know-nothing spasm that brings the demagogues out from under their rocks. But politicians in Kansas or elsewhere who don’t know the difference between the public interest and the government we elect to protect it will not ease the transition back to sanity.

People of Paradox

Author: Gary Hart

We Americans imagine ourselves to be progressive…that is to say, embracing change, experimental, imaginative, and creative.  At the same time, however, we are much more conservative than we consider ourselves to be.  We are cautious about adapting to new processes and institutions.  We protect past practices and traditional ways of doing things.

We want better public service, but are reluctant to pay for them.  We want better transportation systems, but do not want higher taxes.  We want a stronger military, but do not want a draft and do not want expensive weapons systems to be counted as part of the budget deficits.  We want better schools, but do not want to pay teachers what they deserve.  We want a strong foreign policy but do not want entangling alliances.  We want the benefits of foreign trade, including the jobs created by our exports, but do not want the competition trade involves.

Much of this is standard human nature.  But clinging to the past while seeking to move into the future can cause a form of collective national schizophrenia.  It is the source of much confusion and friction.  When we are confronted with our duality, it often makes us angry.  The best study of this paradox is People of Paradox by the late Professor Michael Kammen.

Nowhere is our ambivalence more prevalent than in foreign venues.  The most dangerous phrase in Washington is “do something.”  During the Cold War when a disturbance virtually anywhere in the world took place, it was a “communist takeover” and we must “do something.”  We did something in Vietnam and seven years later left after 58,000 American and over a million Vietnamese had died.  Now it is the complex Syrian civil war and, despite the sincere hesitancy of senior military commanders, many hawks are heard to say “we must do something.”

When doing something turns out badly, the interventionists disappear or blame the party in power for not “doing more.”  A former Secretary of State might say, What do we have this big military for if we’re not going to use it.  But serious students of military affairs know that, in local indigenous conflicts, our military, if it is used at all, must be used as a scalpel, not a hammer.  The first question a senior military commander asks is, What’s the exit strategy?

Our ambivalence about the use of military power abroad is not just the outcome of Vietnam and Iraq.  It is the changing nature of warfare.  Some politicians, who should know better, are still saying we should have won in Iraq.  But national conflicts based on ancient sectarianism, tribalism, and ethnic nationalism do not lend themselves to permanent “victory” for U.S. interventionist forces as they did in World War II.  There is no surrender ceremony and signing of documents.

So, for a mature nation such as ours on this our national birthday to face a new and different century full of greys and plaids and not blacks and whites requires a higher degree of maturity, a study of history, a knowledge of the roots of our own ambivalences, and appreciation for overcoming paradoxes.

We cannot always have it both ways…large problems solved without expenditures and investments.  We must sideline the ideological hucksters who rant about “government spending” and look at our commonwealth, all those public goods we own together, as in need of periodic investment to transfer them in good health to our children and future generations.  No more pointed illustration of this need is to be found than in this, our centennial of our National Parks.  They require care and maintenance presently being denied by members of Congress incapable of educating their constituents on the need for that investment.

Our slow progress toward what it means to be a mature nation must be speeded up.  We are wasting time in petty, irrelevant squabbles when the nation is in serious need of both mature leaders but also mature citizens.

Happy Independence Day to all.

Party Loyalty

Author: Gary Hart

“Sometimes,” John Kennedy once said, “party loyalty asks too much.”  Let’s imagine a situation in which lifelong members and leaders of a political party, strongly motivated by its ideology, its beliefs, and its culture, find that fellow party members have selected a leader of that party who claims to share those motivations but whose words and behavior are antithetical to the principles of that party.

Further suppose many of the party voters in the leadership contest had only recently been attracted to the party by calculating “strategists” who promised that the party would endorse and support, especially in Congress and the White House, the particularly narrow issue or issues which had radicalized them and caused them to support the leader who identified with their radical notions.

Whether consciously or not, those supposedly smart “strategists” sold out the party’s traditional principles for the immediate expedient of broadening the party’s “base” by taking these groups on board and promising to support their non-traditional agendas.

Faced with this situation, what are traditional party leaders to do?  If they do not fall into line behind the new radical leader, then they risk losing the support of the new radical groups who brought him to leadership.  If, however, they do abandon their traditional beliefs and support the new radical leadership, they will reveal themselves to be more interested in political power (and their own political careers) than in their principles.

With some notable exceptions, most Republican Party elected officials and party officials have endorsed Donald Trump for President.  Some have done so with varying degrees of enthusiasm and some have done so while whispering behind a shielding hand that they are doing so knowing the candidate to be badly tainted but fearing to alienate that candidate’s radical following.

Each of us should reverse this scenario to test how we would respond.  Those of us who have been lifelong Democrats could, in theory at least, find ourselves with a presidential candidate who cast racial aspersions, demonized immigrants, ridiculed women, pandered to prejudices, abandoned historic allies, threatened military actions in various venues, and fanned the flames of fear and hate.  I say in theory because I cannot imagine this happening.  But neither could traditional, principled Republicans as recently as a year ago.

Speaking only personally, it would take me about ten seconds to publicly denounce this candidate and all those “strategists” and talk-show loud-mouths who had high-jacked my party and turned it into something totally at odds with the principles for which it traditionally stood.

Republican elected and party officials will have to account for themselves.  History will judge those who put their re-elections and power positions ahead of human decency, the national interest, and the principles for which the United States claims to stand.  In the meantime, they must live with the fact that, by endorsing and supporting Donald Trump, they have done serious damage to the political party in which they claim to believe and have called into question whether, in the eyes of the closely observing world, the United States is still the land of the free and the home of the brave.

Sometimes party loyalty does ask too much.

Lines on a Napkin

Author: Gary Hart

In the mid-1970s, Dr. Arthur Laffer became famous for drawing a curve on a napkin.  It represented his theory that tax cuts would more than pay for themselves in new revenue returned by economic growth stimulated by the tax cuts.  In short order the Laffer curve became Republican dogma, principally because it gave tax cuts, a standard conservative hallmark, economic dignity by promising growth with balanced budgets.  It is a beautiful theory murdered by one ugly fact: it has never worked.

About the same time, I began to use restaurant napkins to draw a different picture.

As long as anyone can remember, political journalists have seen the world on a one-dimensional, horizontal line with liberals on the left and conservatives on the right.  Then came Mr. and Mrs. Clinton, as Republicans dispelled their moderate members and began their steady march to the right (ending up in the mess they are in today), and those same journalists had to place the Clintons in a non-ideological center characterized by “triangulation” and murky policy.

Now political journalists instinctively put Senator Sanders on the left end of the spectrum and virtually all the Republican Party on the right end.  So far as I can tell, Mr. Trump’s greatest achievement is to confuse this worn out dichotomy.

My napkin chart drew a vertical line through the middle of the old ideological left-right line with the top of the vertical line labeled the future and the bottom of the line labeled the past.  The horizontal line is static.  The vertical line is dynamic.  It is based on the most elemental of human truths: things change.  Political systems that adapt to inevitable change move most effectively into the future.  Those that refuse to adapt to change slip farther back into the past.

Since the age of Franklin Roosevelt the Democratic Party has been the party most able to adapt to change.  That is because it is also the Party of innovation.  Roosevelt’s mantra was: try something and if it works, keep it; if it doesn’t work, throw it away.  Because the bedrock of conservatism is preservation of traditional institutions, and the policies that established them, conservatives instinctively resist change and dread experimentation.

Emerson wrote of “gravity, custom, and fear” and Arthur Schlesinger said of their power and “given the dead weight of inertia, of orthodoxy, and of complacency, the tasks of persuading majorities to accept innovation remain forever formidable.”  Machiavelli observed “the incredulity of mankind who do not believe in anything new until they have had actual experience of it.”  And Emerson wrote further of a party of memory and a party of hope: “Conservatism makes no poetry, breathes no prayer, has not invention…It is all memory.”

One of the great ironies of ideological politics is that to preserve the best of our past we must often change, especially when there is rapid change around us.  I used my two dimensional chart to urge my Party and its leaders to see the tidal waves of change coming and prepare for them in creative, not defensive, ways.  Globalization and the information revolution beginning in the 1970s.  The winding down of the Cold War under Mikhail Gorbachev in the late 1980s.  The rise of religious fundamentalism, tribalism, and ethnic nationalism in the late 1990s leading to terrorism, including against the U.S.  And much else.

Revolutions continue.  Climate change.  The threat of viral pandemics.  Rising threats to personal privacy.  Growing income disparities.  Mass migrations.  The rise of authoritarianism.  And much else.

So, while confused political journalists search for a traditional ideological box in which to place Mr. Trump, the rest of us ought to be scanning the horizon for leaders on the vertical line of the spectrum who can see farthest ahead and issue not only warnings but, much more importantly, also ideas based upon our founding principles that prepare us to adapt to the changes ahead in positive and constructive ways.

If America gives way to fear and loses its optimism for the future, we will no longer be America.

Beacons in the Storm

Author: Gary Hart

Nothing in the U.S. Constitution guarantees that we will have strong leaders or, for that matter, uninterrupted progress.  Someone recently pointed out that we had very flawed or mediocre presidents between Andrew Jackson and Abraham Lincoln and then between Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt.  So, historically, the nation does muddle through as often, if not more so, than it takes a principled stand.

Observing the history of America’s lurches from one side to the other and forward and then backward, Winston Churchill said: Depend on the Americans to do the right thing…after they have tried everything else.

This history of lurching offers some comfort in today’s strange political culture.  We have had, in that history, periods of isolationism, anti-immigration, intolerance, bigotry, racism, gender discrimination (women could not vote until about a hundred years ago), and a litany of bad cultural behavior.  In almost every case such behavior occurred most prominently in periods of great stress when the status quo was upset by waves of new reality.

There is in the American society, if not humanity at large, a segment of people who are easily angered by social change, ready to blame the symbols of that change, and looking for someone to voice their anger.  The political pundits and historians are mining this history.

Continued study of our history provides reassurance that we will, once again, muddle through this period.  Nothing would help more than a sustained period of economic opportunity so that those threatened with irrelevance or redundancy gained genuine hope for financial security.  Equally important will be a deep understanding that different races must live side by side in mutual respect.  Slowing of mass migration will help.  Stable communities and families are required.  The owners of wealth must overcome greed with concern for community and national stability.

In other words, our collective humanity, our respect for each other, our sense of obligation and service, our love of our unique nation and the unique experiment it represents, must all rise up and make us better people.  No political savior can guarantee this.  But mediocre political figures can prevent it only if we let them.  In other words, our destiny is in our own hands.

Even in the storm of political media cacophony there are beacons.  There are stories of individual sacrifice.  Individual people lending a hand to someone in need.  Strangers stopping and returning to help a fellow human being in trouble.  People giving dollars they need to help feed hungry children.  One fellow picks up another fellow who has fallen.  A neighbor leaves food on the doorstep.  A restaurant provides a meal without charge.  A worker takes a pay cut so that a colleague will not be fired.  A young student raises money for other children with cancer.  There are occasional media stories of someone lending a hand.

In today’s political storm, we must keep focus on decency, humanity, community, respect, humility, and concern for others.

Right now, we Americans are better than many of those seeking political power.  If we keep the beacons of hope lit in this period of storm and darkness, we will, in the words of William Faulkner, not only survive, we will prevail.

The Death of Civility

Author: Gary Hart

Civility is the name we give to mutual respect, decency, and honor among men and women.  Like civilization itself, civility evolves over time.  It is utilitarian in that societies function best when civility is the norm.  But its deeper meaning has to do with the nature of humanity.  When civility breaks down, societies fall apart.

Incivility in American politics did not occur overnight and it is not solely Donald Trump’s contribution.  The decline of civility began sometime back and has been increasing in momentum in recent months.

Books are being churned out analyzing this development and isolating causes.  The coarsening of popular culture—movies, music, television, and so on.  The conversion of big banks, under the liberation of deregulation, from sober temples of caution to casinos.  Trade, technology, and immigration shrinking opportunity for advancement.  Multi-culturalism eroding the dominant position of middle (white) Americans.  The rise of women in the workforce, in competition with men, the traditional wage earners and heads of household.

Shifting cultural tectonic plates first cause confusion, then anxiety, then resentment, then finally anger.  Angry people on a mass scale soon replace mutual respect with resentment.  Wide-spread, simmering resentment looks only for a spokesman, someone to give it a voice.

Political civility began to crack two or three decades ago.  Coded language was used to give resentment a voice.  “States’ rights” was invoked to express resentment at national civil rights legislation.  The long hair of 60s hippies was, curiously, adopted by Vietnam vets and blue collar workers in protest against powerful elites.

Resentment requires an object.  It does not operate in a vacuum.  Someone is to blame, and too often that is true.

The new media, first non-stop partisan cable, then the startling rise of an array of social media, caused traditional media outlets, print and electronic, to abandon professional standards and join the mad hunt for “the story” at the cost of the privacy of public servants and eventually the very caliber of those willing to seek office.  Those traditional media outlets, driven by professionalism and ethical standards, began to wither even before being lampooned by Sarah Palin.

This perfect storm inevitably brought wide-spread resentment, political candidates proudly proclaiming their ignorance, and desperately voracious media outlets together in 2016.  Donald Trump didn’t invent all of this.  He was simply clever enough to stand outside, watch the storm gathering, and then give it voice.

To exhibit thoughtfulness, intelligence, magnanimity imagination, and a sense of understanding the future on the part of a candidate for national office is to risk ridicule and scorn poured on top of rejection.  For the forces of know-nothingness on the right, to warn of climate change is an insult.  To call attention to the decay of our public infrastructure is to foster “big government.”  To suggest we ought to pay for the public benefits we demand is socialism.


Once torn down, civility is not easily or quickly restored.  No single leader, however talented, can bring it back.  No new election in four years will restore us to the ranks of a sober, thoughtful, respected and respectful nation.

We are in danger of following nations of former times into the ranks of decline and irrelevance.  We must think about this and discuss it before the trend becomes irreversible.

Brief Retreat

Author: Gary Hart

As used here, retreat means to withdraw from the noises of the day to reflect and meditate.  There is currently too much static and dust to be able to reach any thoughtful analysis of the nature of the historic corner the United States seems to be turning.  Retreat means to step back and to step up, to obtain distance, to achieve perspective.  For the hardy band of followers, readers, and commentators on this site, look for a new post mid-May or thereabouts.  GH

Fairness and what is now called transparency are central to democracy.  Any political process that seems unfair, concealed, or manipulated creates distrust in the system.  And distrust predictably yields to anger and hostility.  Political parties often lose track of this truth in their efforts to perpetuate their own power.

All this comes to mind with the building anger within the Democratic Party’s system of so-called super delegates.  By and large to be “super” one must be an elected or party official, a Senator, Representative, Governor, or Mayor, or a precinct chair, county chair, or state party official.

In brief, the history is this: following an angry Democratic convention in 1968 in Chicago, a Democratic Party reform commission opened up the nomination process of primaries and caucuses to women, young people, minorities and others historically left out by big city party bosses. This led to many elected and party officials being left out of the 1972 convention.  And that led to a counter-reform in which automatic delegate seats were reserved for elected and party officials.

In 1984, there were some 800 super delegates to the Democratic convention.  Even though I was successful in half of the primaries and caucuses, all 800 voted for Vice President Walter Mondale at the convention including those from States that I had won.  There was no legal, or apparently moral, obligation on the part of those delegates to acknowledge the results of the primary or caucus in their States.  Those super delegates represented the difference in the nomination process that year.

It has only become apparent recently to supporters of Senator Sanders that super delegates have no obligation to acknowledge or respect the outcome of a primary or caucus in their States.  But, for better or worse, those are the rules.

Clearly, those rules should be changed.

Following this convention the Democratic Party should change its rules to require the super delegates in every State to reflect the outcome of the contest in their States.  But this should be proportional.  Just because candidate A wins a primary, that does not mean candidate A should get all the super delegates.  If the vote in State X is 60% for candidate A and 40% for candidate B, then the ten super delegates from State X should be apportioned six for candidate A and four for candidate B.

The original concept of the super delegate was to ensure that an elected or party official should be enabled to participate in a national convention out of respect for his or her contribution in serving the nation and the party.  It was not meant to give super delegates as a class the right to overrule the party voters in their States and lock-step nominate a candidate that a large minority or even majority of primary voters have opposed.

There will be serious protests at the Democratic convention over this issue, and super delegates who vote against the clear opinion of the party voters in their States will pay a price.  It is too late to change the rules in the middle of the process this year.

But the rules regarding super delegates must be changed before the next national election in the interest of upholding democratic principles of fairness, transparency, and justice.

The Media and the Demagogue

Author: Gary Hart

Conscience-striken political journalists are now falling over each other with mea culpas for helping create Donald Trump, the likely Republican nominee for president.  Unquestionably, Mr. Trump has received far more unpaid media attention than any of his several rivals.  This is particularly true in the realm of cable political talk programs.

It was virtually inevitable with the amount of time these programs have to kill (and they more often kill time than not), that a flamboyant, over-the-top product of those same show business networks would appear at or near the top of the political pyramid.

What else can a cable television producer do, when confronted with the need to fill empty hours of mostly empty talk, than turn repeatedly to the most controversial, least constrained, most bombastic figure in the litter.  He does what most true entertainers and few traditional politicians do.  He draws eyeballs to the screen.

In case there is any confusion about this, television is all about ratings and ratings are simply the measure of total eyeballs.  Despite repeated protestations that the First Amendment provides the media the protection to inform the public about its business–government, all media outlets, electronic and print, (except for public broadcasting, thank God) are commercial enterprises.  Ratings trump (ooops) the First Amendment obligation to inform.  The First Amendment was not enacted so that television networks could make money.

So the latter-day anguish about all-Trump, all the time, much more from print than electronic journalists, is quaint.  Whatever chance there might have been years ago, and even then it was a slim chance, that substance would triumph over circus, the age of twitter, tweet, and sound bite has eliminated.  Even the policy speeches of the more thoughtful Democratic candidates receive short shrift given the insistence on recycling Hillary’s emails and Bernie’s socialism. (My own experience quite a long time ago: my opponent and I were trading charges about media spots in the Illinois primary and the Chicago Tribune gave lead story treatment to this controversy ending with this sentence: “Hart was in Chicago to give a major economic address.”)

For all the current bout of media hand-wringing about “creating Trump”, nothing will change.  There is the equivalent of Gresham’s Law in politics: bad candidates drive out good ones.  The caliber and quality of today’s candidates for office, with a few important exceptions, does not match that of saner times.  Have there been chaotic periods in American politics in the past?  Of course.  But they were not sustained by a demented need by television producers and commentators to highlight, repeatedly, the zany and destructive antics of fear peddlers, nativist demagogues, and know-nothings.

Mass media are the propellant for mass movements.  The wackier the movement, the more attention the camera gives it.  They need each other.  All Jeffersonians are weeping for their country.

[For a prediction regarding all this some thirty years ago:]


Why We Should Care

Author: Gary Hart

Among the many important issues not being discussed in this presidential election year is the relationship between our society and its military.  It is not a subject that lends itself to the sclerotic ideological march of the right.  It is out of sight and therefore out of mind.  And too many on the left continue to exhibit discomfort about military matters.  (The last two Democratic president have both picked Republicans as Secretary of Defense.)

But those who think about these matters know that the civilian-military gap is wide and widening.  In a republic, this is cause for concern.  And the welcome and hardy band who take the trouble to monitor this site know that its author is preoccupied by the ideal of the republic.

When the United States adopted an all-volunteer military following the deep division over the Vietnam War, the civilian-military gap was guaranteed.  Put simply, conscription—the draft—guaranteed the reverse.  The families of those selected for military service, whether wholesale during World War II or randomly thereafter, cared about their sons in harm’s way and followed with considerable attention troop deployments, new conflicts, and most of all combat engagements scrupulously.  Additionally, letters from those sons gave vivid insights into the hazards, and occasional rewards, of military service.

This remains true for the all-volunteer force, but its occupants are there by choice.  This changes the dynamic of the relationship of the military to the broader civil society.  If you do not have a son, and now quite possibly daughter, in uniform, you are at a much greater distance from day to day military operations.   This is true of the vast majority of Americans.

The republican ideal stressed the citizen-soldier, because that ideal is based on duty.  It is the duty of all republican citizens to participate in the life of the community and nation by paying taxes, voting, and defending the republic.  Too many Americans don’t like doing any of these things.  We have become a democracy of rights, but have forgotten we are also a republic of duties.  Thomas Jefferson called himself a democratic republican.  My political touchstone is this: we must protect our rights by performance of our duties.

The question, with no easy answer, is whether the civilian-military gap can only be closed by a selective service.  That would be the most direct way, but even that way has problems.  Today’s higher tech military requires better trained and educated troops.  Sad to say, the broad cross section of American young people is not uniformly trained and educated and therefore capable, without extensive additional training, of operating today’s sophisticated military equipment.  Indeed, potential recruits who fit mental, physical, and moral standards are a shockingly low percentage.

The consequences of citizen unawareness are these: troops who feel that those they protect don’t care; difficulty in relating to civilian society after mustering out; a closed political-military system whose weapons deliberations are far from public view; widespread citizen ignorance about what our military does; increased confusion about the role of special forces, drone warfare, and the limits of both air and ground power against dispersed terrorists; and, perhaps most of all, the stresses of a military career on military families.

This last factor is most troubling.  An all-volunteer force is made up of professional soldiers in large part and those soldiers have families.  Wars are won by people, not weapons.  Those people have wives and husbands and children.  How many every-day Americans know or care about military housing, medical care (including psychiatric care), schools, and recreational facilities for the troops and their families.  Long term troop deployments and sea duty take men and women away from their families for many months.  Do we care?

Clearly, there is no magic answer to the growing civilian-military gap.  The burdens we place on those who protect us, burdens they willingly accept, require us to pay more attention. It is as simple as this: the people who volunteer to protect us deserve our concern and our support.  They earn it every day.