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Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Greg Orman's Declaration of Independents

Greg Orman is gone but not forgotten--and given the political rumors which abounded during the early part of this year's election cycle here in Kansas, he's probably not even gone. As the many people who worked for the man's Independent campaign for the U.S. Senate against Republican Pat Roberts in 2014 can testify, he's a resourceful, charismatic, serious individual--and the fact that he's rich certainly doesn't hurt. Very likely, Orman will at some point take to the hustings once more. When he does so next time, though, he won't just be presenting himself as the answer to the longings of voters frustrated with the political process--instead, he'll have a whole book-length cause behind him.

That book is A Declaration of Independents, subtitled, humbly enough, "How we Can Break the Two-Party Stranglehold and Restore the American Dream." Yes, it's one of those "reform the system" books, which always alternate between inspiring and wearisome. But it's also more than that; it is, first and foremost, a good book, with some thoughtful discussions and interesting excursions into Orman's own life and his experiences on the campaign trail. Ultimately, the book doesn't live up to its subtitle, because there are too many electoral realities, ones both deeply embedded in America's political history and culture and structurally supported by our constitutional system, which Orman simply ignores; his determination to stay true to his vision of genuinely independent and practical voters and representatives governing our country leads him to pass by more radical alternatives which, in contrast to pure "independence," actually have some record of success. But that doesn't mean the book isn't worth reading. It provides an important view of the political landscape, in Kansas and America, in 2016, and that's valuable all on its own.

The key insight the book provides into Orman's worldview is his deep conviction that the American party system serves to limit and depress real productive thinking. He repeats this again and again. In talking about his economically deprived childhood, his parent's divorce, and his youthful enthusiasm for John Anderson (the Illinois congressman who ran as an Independent for president in 1980), he claims "one of the real strengths of Independents" is that "they're able to approach an issue with an open mind and see all sides of an argument" (p. 23); much later, in talking about the excitement he discovered on the campaign trail for his candidacy, with "people traveling seventy-five miles to share a few minutes with a first-time Senate candidate running third in the polls," he observes that political Independents have the mental freedom to avoid "empty games" and can instead "focus exclusively on solving problems" (pp. 63, 66). (At the end of the book, in his list of "Common Independent Principles," the utilitarian, resolutely pragmatic bias of his praise in made clear; in his view, "Independents view political issues the way those running a business seek to ensure its success: understanding all sides, embracing facts, identifying root causes, and ultimately trying to make logical conclusions"--p. 264.) That this kind of self-congratulatory thinking is pretty much identical to what conservative and liberal partisans routinely believe about themselves--e.g., "the good thing about us Republicans is that we actually care about God and morality" or "at least we Democrats still believe in fairness and treating people equally"--is apparently lost on Orman, but he's certainly not alone in believing it's true. What Orman correct identifies as today's "hyper-partisanship" really does frequently seem to stand in the way of people being able to see, as George Orwell once put it, what is right in front of their nose. The problem is that seeing a problem "independently" is no more guarantee of being able to formulate a good response to it than if one sees it in a particular partisan light.

Why do so many people see the issues which confront us through a partisan lens? Here, Orman understands the relevant research very well. In chapters 5, 6, and 7 of his book, he identifies most of the culprits which political scientists and historians have long pointed out: how mobility, individualism, and suburbanization in American life has functioned as a "Big Sort" that has resulted in overwhelmingly Republican or Democratic neighborhoods, churches, and social circles; how the gerrymandering of congressional districts has taken advantage of that sorting and magnified it; how our own very human habits of judgment tend to direct us towards becoming defensive advocates rather than open-minded explorers; how technology (and particularly social media) encourages--and makes profitable--the nationalization, simplification, and polarization of particular, complicated, local debates; and how our single-member, plurality-based, winner-take-all electoral system logically leads people to think in terms of maximizing majorities and eliminating minority viewpoints anyway ("Don't vote for a third party candidate; you'll be throwing your vote away!"). This middle section of Orman's book is really a masterful review of important scholarly literature, communicated in an impassioned yet common-sense way. It's the best part of the book. (Though his reflections on his campaign, with its multiple eminently justified--though never mean--snarks at the alternately unimaginative, lazy, and ignorant, if ultimately successful, campaign Roberts waged against Orman is a lot of fun as well.)

Unfortunately though, Orman's solution to addressing these well-documented and mutually reinforcing trends--namely, figuring out what kinds of reforms would enable as many non-major-party-affiliated candidates as possible to get elected to office--reflects his own admirable, but somewhat simplistic, individualism. Career-minded politicians, angling for a "seven-figure job lobbying their former colleagues" (p. 169), earn his ire, not the economic and political structures that which have proliferated such corrupting incentives in the first place. He's right to argue that Citizens United should be overturned, but he doesn't consider that Citizens United was only the latest (however grievous) step down the road which the Supreme Court set us on with Buckley v. Valeo decades ago, when they established that spending money on a candidate was equivalent to speaking out on their behalf, and thus was a constitutionally enshrined right. He rails against closed political primaries, claiming that they are an act of disenfranchisement which rob Independents of their political rights, thus failing to appreciate the importance of the constitutional guarantee of collective, private self-association...though he does have a strong point when he asks, "if party primaries are a private political endeavor, as courts have ruled, why does the state administer the primary elections--and why do taxpayers pay for the process of holding them?" (p. 225).

Answering that question cuts to the heart of why Orman, despite the attractiveness of his personal determination, simply undermines his own cause when he writes that being an Independent doesn't mean "belonging to a third party or sharing a particular political ideology. Independence is really a state of mind" (p. 258). Why do state governments enlist nominally private organizations like the Republican and Democratic parties to organize elections to public office? Because as mass democracy slowly emerged as the aim of the American experiment from the early 1800s on, the necessity of creating some kind of structure to bind together voters, and translate their individual preferences into majorities that could actually wield the levers of our representative system, became undeniable. Parties, which were essentially unheard of at the time the Constitution was written, became central to its effective operation by the time of John Adams's administration, and within a generation after him they were not only central--they were essential. Under a different form of government, with a different electoral arrangement, parties (especially what Orman routinely condemns as the "two party duopoly") would play a very different role--and if that's what Orman really would like to achieve, then his criticisms and ideas need to move away from simply praising the brave Independent candidates out there, and instead be radically re-focused on the structures of our constitutional system as it was written and as it has evolved. Until then, a "state of mind" is exactly the wrong approach. Ultimately, those who wish to bring "independent" thinking into government need to either commit themselves to one of the major parties and work to build support and coalitions within them, with the aim of using them as a vehicle for introducing real system reforms....or, if that is not a tolerable option, they need to go about building an alternative party to challenge the duopoly, and that means discovering a set of motivating ideas (which, yes, may well mean an "ideology") which fall outside the intellectual space where the logically, structurally inevitable two dominant parties of our country currently reside, and starting attracting voters to that party, from the ground up. That is, after all, how the Populist and Progressive parties ended up profoundly changing the direction of the dominant parties a century ago: by stealing their voters, and thus obliging them to change.

This is not to discourage candidates who are inspired by Orman's example and words, and who think, upon serious study, that the opportunity exists for an unaffiliated, Independent candidate to influence a particular election for better. (Locally I'm thinking here of Miranda Allen, who is very much following in Orman's footsteps, and more power to her!) On every level, from the most local to the presidential, there will occasionally emerge opportunities for well-prepared Independents to insert themselves into races and attract the support of voters grateful for the chance to support an alternative. There are, after all, all sorts of reasons to vote for any given candidate, not all of them strategic. And the pure civic benefit of seeing new faces and considering new issues is great, for voters and candidates alike. But if Orman truly imagines that hundreds, even thousands of such one-off races will "break the two-party stranglehold," he misunderstands something basic about how American government works. Our messy, divisive democratic system can't function without parties to give the interests of voters some rough shape, however self-interested those who operate those parties may be. A real Declaration of Independents's first step would thus have to be an upfront announcement of the formation of an Independence Party. Until then, Orman's story is an impressive one, but not very instructive at all.

Thursday, September 08, 2016

Five Moments out of Fifty

I'm 47, not 50, so Star Trek--the television show, the film franchise, the pop culture property, the fan phenomenon--is older than me. I don't know how old I was when I first became addicted to the Star Trek, but considering my dim memory of sitting in a particular room in a particular house watching the show, I probably wasn't more than six years old. So Roddenberry's vision, in one form or another, has been with me my whole life, and has influenced my imagination of, and interaction with, the world around me accordingly. That's not a confession; that's a boast--I may not be a truly hard-core Trekker, but beneath Dungeons and Dragons and Harry Potter, a Trekker I was first, and a Trekker I remain. I've watched the shows, seen the movies, read the comic books and (a slight portion of) the novels. It actually wouldn't be hard to come up with 50 memories from the Original Series that have stuck with me for decades, but it would take a lot more time to write, and few would read it anyway. So here are 5 personal moments, in honor of 50 years of entertainment and (surprisingly often) enlightenment.

1) "The Deadly Years." Is it a great episode? No, more like one of their middling ones. But for some reason it sticks in my head as my earliest exposure to Trek, and I feel like I saw this episode in re-runs more than any other single episode. And really, it's not a bad introduction--the action, while minimal, is compelling, driven by bureaucratic ambition (Commodore Stocker pulling rank on Captain Kirk to claim command as he ages from one of those weird, random space-born diseases) and perilous legality (an arbitrarily drawn border with the Romulan empire that Stocker foolishly pushes the Enterprise across, despite Uhura and Sulu tosses shade at him). And the drama is thoroughly adult: self-conscious fears of weakness, joined with anger at one's own body and social structures--and friends, including the ever-logical Spock!--which seem to be conspiring to overlook you as your face your inevitable end. As a little kid, Kirk's defiant insistence, after the computer calculates his physical age as 60-something, that "I'm 34!" echoed in my head, both a promise and a threat.

2) "The Doomsday Machine." This one, by contrast, is heralded by many as one of the greatest of the original series's episodes, and I don't disagree; my older brother Daniel and I (we were the original faithful Star Trek fanboys in the family, until some of our younger siblings caught the Next Generation fever) loved and endlessly replayed in our play talk and imaginations every detail of the episode. The acting and plotting made it genuinely thrilling (has there been any James Bond moment cooler than Kirk staring into the face of death and calmly saying "Gentlemen, I suggest you beam me aboard"?), and the bad guy wasn't a bad guy at all; Commodore Matt Decker was a plausible, even admirable, character, driven to the point of helpless madness. I swear, just going through this old episode gets my heart racing and my eyes tearing up all over again. And, of course, the fact that it was all a horrifying Cold War parable just made it all the more memorable to a 70s and 80s kid like myself.

3) "The City on the Edge of Forever." The greatest one of them all, of course; I knew it when I first saw it as an impressionable kid, and it's been reconfirmed again and again as I've re-watched who knows--20? more?--times over the years. The climax is poorly staged and hammy, but it doesn't matter at all, because the personal and world-historical stakes had been so wonderfully enacted by the performers, sealed by the brilliant final minute of the episode, where the camera gets volumes of dialogue out a few terse words from Spock, a couple of slowly realizing glances from Uhura and Scotty, and Kirk's final command (as us Mormon kids looked at each other and said, "Uh, did Kirk just say 'hell'?"). Did my young, naive notions of adult humor, romance, politics, history, and more begin with this awesome 46 minutes of television? Probably so.

4) "The Lorelei Signal." Okay, fine, I'm cheating. But seriously folks, Star Trek: The Animated Series gets almost no love, and that's just wrong. First, it's canon, people; you can't deny it. Second, given the relatively few episodes produced over its two seasons, it actually has a better stinker-excellent ratio that the Original Series itself (though TOS's best episodes remain the best story-telling that any version of Star Trek has ever yet produced in my opinion). Third, some of its best episodes broke boundaries in a way that far out-paced even what ardent apologists like myself love to claim about TOS, this episode--with a race of energy-sapping female aliens brain-washing all the men on the ship--being a prime example. Is it a clumsy bit of 70s-era we-really-mean-it-okay-maybe-not feminism? Absolutely. But it's endured in my head for all these years--Uhura's no-nonsene assumption of command, the underplayed references to Nurse Chapel's love for Spock (complete with Kirk's single most Kirkest line-reading ever: "We...must...get...out...of here")--it's all awesome.

5) Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Shut up, haters; you're all wrong. Yes, I'm cheating again, and I don't care--I was there, sitting in the theater, all of 11-years-old, and I couldn't have cared less that there was little action, and even fewer character developments, in this movie: this was what The Original Series had been promising us all along. Or so I was certain of when I left the theater, brimming over with excitement and fascination for what I had just seen: namely, a genuine, puzzling, terrifying, beautiful science-fiction story, one with gloriously self-indulgent visuals and a plot straight out of the greatest I-reach-out-and-touch-the-face-of-God hard sci-fi of the classic era of Heinlein and Asimov. And the details! Spock with long hair! McCoy with a beard! Chapel with a decent hairdo! Sorry, while I'm fully cognizant of its weaknesses as a film, as a moment in the whole myth which is Star Trek? It was never surpassed, and never will be. Not in my memory, anyway.

Tuesday, September 06, 2016

10 Years and Change(s)

So, I've spent a surprising amount of time over the past couple of months planning on getting back to the blog--and then not doing it. Sorry, everybody. While I procrastinated, several anniversaries passed me by--particularly the 10th anniversary of our arrival in Wichita, Kansas, in late July 2006, and my beginning, as a lowly assistant professor (that's right: not even an associate!) here at Friends University a few weeks later. Well, I may have forgotten, but my place of employment didn't, for which I'm grateful. I'm grateful for a lot of things associated with my decade at Friends, and in Wichita, and in Kansas, and with many other people and events that have come along with them, in fact. So, today, late for the anniversaries as I may be, let me mention a few changes I'm grateful for, for the record if for nothing else.

1) Friends was the first small liberal arts college I'd ever taught at--and as I obviously hope to never to be forced to go back on the job market, I sincerely intend (speaking, as always, without any knowledge of what the future may hold) to make it the only one I'll ever teach at as well. Every where I'd been previous to coming here had been a temporary gig, demanding as they sometimes were; it's here that I've been able to put down the kind of roots (part of which has been my advancement to full professor, but it's more than just that) which have encouraged me to think about my teaching, my students, and my field in a way I never could before. That thinking has been driven by exigencies as well as my own curiosity; like nearly all SLACs, Friends is a tuition-driven school perennially facing hard financial choices, and my own position here, while never directly in the cross-hairs, has seen plenty of ups and downs. (Witness the fact that when I arrived the major I taught classes for was "Political Science/History," which I later split off to form its own separate "Political Science" degree, and which is now, coming full circle, back to "History and Political Science" again, with me as the sole full-time faculty responsible to work with adjuncts to get our History courses taught.) I don't want to paper over the frustrations and fears contained in those ups and downs, nor make them out to be a greater trial than they were, but through it all there's been learning and stretching and growth. I understand what it means to be part of a faculty in a way I couldn't have possibly done ten years ago, and I've taken on responsibilities (on a general education reform committee, as the chair of the undergraduate college, and most recently as the director of the Honors Program) that now just seem par for the course. I look back on some of my old Friend-inspired speculations about my profession, and while I'm not sure I would dismiss it all as naive, I do know that I'm grateful for all the changes which time has wrought--because it's forced me to go back to drawing board, again and again, and dig deeper into what I can offer, and not be content with any one interpretation of My Place at Friends. There's an organic quality to this institution, like all institutions, and I want to be able to continue to grow and develop along with it.

2) I can't separate my feelings of appreciation for my position from my affection for the city its a part of. No, Friends isn't a world-famous SLAC with an awesome reputation (I personally thought the tag-line the marketers once came up with for Friends--"a regional university with national programs and an international presence"--was both basically misleading as well as hokey). But it is a school that is entwined enough in the story of this place--see the university's Davis building there in the A of that old post card?--that getting my roots into its personable practices and spiritual traditions (which, 10 years on, I still love) has only deepened my appreciation of the particular urban space it's a part of as well. So my interest in sustainability and ecology, the revival and re-focusing of my old love for farms and gardens and nature and agriculture has ended up occupying my mind in connection with the sort local possibilities a small college might involve itself with; and my old fascination with community and democracy, with working out just what kind of government and political culture can promote both locality and equality, has ultimately revolved again and again around theoretical questions of city life and city politics: specifically, ones that take into account Wichita's own context. And it's been genuinely fun to get so engaged, because through so doing I've been able to meet and learn from so many other urban activists (whether they would describe themselves that way or not) who are doing the same, and moreover (to allow myself some vanity for a moment) meeting and involving myself which such people and groups have led to me being noticed, called upon to speak and pontificate, in all sorts of social gatherings and on local media venues to such a degree that sometimes I even get paid for it. So yes, the city of Wichita has been good to me, and appropriately so, because I think it really is a good city, located in a good place, despite how so many people here can't quite see that. Being in one part of the country for so long, and going through so much while here (anniversaries being celebrated and friendships surviving both meetings and partings, being some of the most important), has enabled me to talk about this place as a home in a way I've never been able to speak of any other location.

3) Of course, "Kansas" doesn't rate very high on most Americans' lists of preferred locations. Ten years here, and the language I hear is pretty constant: we don't have mountains, but we do have Brownback, so Kansas is unimpressive both coming and going, right? Well, my opinions about Brownback are clear, so I'm not going to attempt a defense there (though, as always, just wait to November!). I've lived in conservative states--allowing for the one year in Illinois--ever since I left graduate school, and the simple truth is that I really don't mind being surrounded by and making friends with people whom I disagree with; conservatism is fascinating to me, and figuring out how the conservatives (as opposed to the simple-minded, Know-Nothing, dead-end Republican voters who show up at ever election; they bore and frustrate me--but so would they, and their equally unimaginative Democratic compatriots, in any locale) I know and like really think has been an important journey to me. Perhaps Kansas's political culture added a slight twist to that process, but when I think of what Kansas--especially this part of Kansas, my south-central section of it--has added to my life over the past decade, I mostly don't think politics. Instead, I think this.

Lame and folky, you think? Sorry; don't care. Yes, I already had an affection for a productive, pastoral relationship with the land in my background, so perhaps I was an easy mark for Kansas's lessons. But the simple fact is that I really kind of love it here. I think I love the summers best: I love the blue skies, the broad horizons, the golds and browns and surprising splashes of color throughout the fields. I love getting out on my bike under that hot sun and with the never-ending breezes blowing and letting the wide world turn in all directions around me. And I love being in one place--a city, a campus, a classroom--in the middle of it all. So what has happened to me for the past ten years? I've been centered--or I've centered myself, I guess. And communitarian and family man and believer that I am, being centered is something which I, predictably enough, think everyone needs to be. I suppose I could well have found a center for myself most anywhere...but I did it here, and for that, I'm happy.

Okay, that's it, for now. Here's to another ten years of changes, everyone!