American Conservative Union Speaker

Jillian’s comment that conservatives are different than Republicans is a very interesting – and possibly even laughable – point of view in our day in age. While there once was a class of Republicans known as moderates, that level-headed type of legislators who actually want to make progress on the issues affecting Americans, there are so few Republicans left in Congress who are not conservative that the two titles are fast becoming synonymous. We have discussed in class the reality that our members of Congress are actually becoming more polarized and partisan, so this holds true for liberal Democrats as much as it does for conservative Republicans.

The conservative argument that continues to fascinate me the most, however, is the point that Jillian herself reiterated when questioned about it: conservatives are opposed to progressivism. While her argument would have benefited from a self-proscribed definition of “progressives,” I find it hard to believe that anyone in a democracy would oppose progressivism. Progressives, after all, gave women the right to vote and advanced the cause of civil rights. They are behind policies of economic equality that attempt to design a fair tax code for those of lesser incomes. Progressivism, in my opinion, is not a partisan agenda, but an American ideal, which is supported, upheld, and maintained by our very Constitution.

That being said, it was very apparent that the ACU is an umbrella group, as Jillian mentioned. It is obvious that there are various viewpoints voiced within the Union, many of which are not held by all “conservatives,” or even most. Such umbrella organizations pose great challenges in wrangling together a cohesive group, but at the same time offer great opportunity. Umbrella groups bring more people into the conversation, and give them a place in the organization, enfranchising them and their opinions while growing the numbers of the organization. This was, after all, the goal of Ronald Reagan’s GOP, which sought to expand the party and move the conservative agenda forward.

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The Pentagon

If there is one thing I can say after seeing the Pentagon, it is how proud I am to be an American. The hall of pictures that capture the U.S. military involvement in tens of humanitarian actions makes clear the high caliber of the individuals we have representing and protecting us in the Armed Forces. They have always been generous in helping and serving others, like in the Berlin Airlift, when our servicemen flew their planes low so that they could drop bars of chocolate for the children in the streets. And there are countless other examples of the gentleness and compassion of our men and women in uniform that should make us think of what we can do to return the favor when they come home and even while they are away.

This is why, despite fierce opposition to the War in Iraq, its funding was never cut off – because the money appropriated to the War by Congress went to Kevlar, food, clothing, and other supplies for our troops. As fierce as opposition to what sent them there may be, there is an even fiercer loyalty and love extended to our men and women in uniform. And this is one area in which, no matter the political parties of the two, the Executive and the Legislature can agree. For brief periods in our political history, we have had that consensus that defies party politics and raises up the best of our citizens to that place and that title they deserve in our National Narrative: heroes.

At the same time, the Pentagon – as any agency of the government is liable to do – overlooks the importance of its fellow agencies in its desire to get as much funding as possible. It views all of its policies as necessities, and therefore brushes off or disregards controversy, and this was stridently apparent in how our tour guides ran the tour. When asked about the repeal of DADT and how this has affected the troops, the answer of the tour guide amounted to, “No comment.” On the relationship between the Pentagon and the Executive: “I don’t know.”

I wouldn’t say the tour guides were not knowledgeable, but I think there is an inherent culture in the Pentagon of withholding information and releasing it purely on a need-to-know basis, no matter how trivial the information may be. The Pentagon is intensely protective of its policies to an almost laughable point – as if they think we don’t know (or can’t adequately guess at) what goes on behind closed doors or overseas. This is reflected in the President’s power of Executive Privilege. As Commander-in-Chief, I think the Executive is tied very closely to the Pentagon, even to the point of having to defer to it in some situations which the President – a politician – cannot grasp as well as career military officers. And for this reason, it only makes sense that every President has strongly backed the Pentagon and demanded funding for it while the Congress has been reluctant at times to hand it over.

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“The Highest Court in the Land”

“Equal Justice Under the Law” is the Court’s motto, and in some ways (oddly enough), the Court may in fact be more representative of the make-up of our nation than our actual representatives. Every one of President Obama’s Supreme Court nominations (all two, that is) have been women, expanding female representation in our government and on the Court. We have an African American Justice, a Latina Justice, and two Jewish Justices. And all these proportions – 1 out of 9, 2 out of 9, 3 women out of 9 – are likely larger (and therefore more representative) proportions of our population in government than those proportions of the same demographics in our Congress, which we talked about in class just this week.

That being said, however, some of the Court’s decisions – and indeed, some of the Court’s indecision or inaction – are so diametrically opposed to its motto that it is appalling we accept the Court as it stands today. Of these is the recent Citizens United ruling, which not only opposes the Constitution the Court is supposed to protect, but fundamentally breaks with the founding of this nation, which was based on an individual’s right to consent to be governed – and corporations are not individuals. The Court’s inaction in seriously divisive social issues makes our current Justices appear much smaller than their predecessors, who established the great precedent they say they follow. The corporate greed that fueled our financial collapse could have been curtailed by the Court. Even the hot-button topic of gay marriage, a political football in our society today, could be addressed by the Court and handled so as to set precedent in providing equality: according to the Constitution’s Full Faith and Credit Clause, marriages in one state performed under that state’s law should be recognized in other states even if they haven’t legalized gay marriage. This idea of “Full Faith and Credit” is another topic we discussed in class recently, and it is surprising to this observer that it has not been brought up as the pivotal clause in this social debate.

The Court’s inaction in regard to one of their own – Clarence Thomas – is also quite appalling. Thomas, whose nomination should never have been approved in the first place, has of late been showing his disregard for the Law itself. His wife is a conservative spokesperson who rakes in thousands (if not millions) of dollars in speaking engagements, in addition to raising money for conservative candidates through  the indirect channels of PACs. This being inappropriate enough (for the spouse of a supposedly unbiased, “non-political” justice), Thomas refuses to recuse himself in cases in which his wife’s activities could potentially create a conflict of interest. It is quite shocking that the Congress, in light of these facts, hasn’t moved to impeach him, although at the same time, I can understand the awfully dangerous precedent this would set. If the Congress impeached every Justice they disagreed with, we wouldn’t have a Court left – and this is precisely why the Court needs to take action and disavow their colleague’s egregious behavior.

These deviances from the Court’s motto aside, I do believe the Supreme Court as a “Temple” is in some respects appropriate. The Court is the heart and soul of our country, and its humongous role in our history and our lives unfortunately goes unnoticed all too often.

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Inside the Capitol

For me, the Capitol building was always a majestic sculpture in the distance; I had never been inside before. So it was understandably awing to enter the building and see all the grandeur of our nation’s house of law-making. Of course, the overly-elaborate tour video gave an interesting impression of the Capitol and the Congress to its viewers, conveniently glossing over the heated debates on issues that severely divided this country and not even touching the many rules and forms of etiquette that guide our legislative body’s day-to-day work.

The history of our legislature is important, and this history is something that I think our nation tries to remember, in the many statues erected in the Capitol. I found it very interesting that there were so many statues of Native Americans in the Capitol. I am glad to see that there is some remembrance of our nation’s very first citizens, though of course it can be considered disingenuous to house such memories in a building from which our nation took away their lands and continues to refuse to provide adequate assistance to the reservations, which have the highest rates of alcoholism and school drop-outs in the country.

On a brighter note, it was great to be able to walk into the House and Senate office buildings to meet with our representatives in government (or at least, representatives of our representatives). I think it is a testament to our democracy that we are able to access these men and women so easily; it is as it should be, and they offer the many constituent services that make us feel welcome to call on them at any time. I also had the opportunity to sit in the galleries, and while the House was in recess, the Senate was in session. I watched as Senators Franken (D-MN) and Paul (R-KY) debated over an education reform bill, and caught glimpses of Senate Assistant Majority Leader Sen. Durbin (D-IL), Sen. Snowe (R-ME), and one of my own Senators, Scott Brown (R-MA). Some would say – and I have heard it before – that “it is scary to see how few people actually run our government,” as only a few Senators other than Franken and Paul were actually in the Senate chambers. But I would argue that legislators are always busy; they have nearly constant schedules that keep them interacting with constituents, meeting with issues groups, helping to craft legislation, and working on legislative compromises in offices and committee rooms in what must feel like 24-hour workdays. And while they may have the nicest offices in the nation, part of me wants to believe that they deserve them after all, for all the work they do.

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Grassroots Organizers

It seems that grassroots campaigning has gained such incredible prominence in the last few years, due to President Obama’s landmark campaign, followed shortly by the Tea Party Movement and now the “Occupy” movement, that it is important to talk about. The grassroots method of face-to-face lobbying is what has proven to be effective; so says one of our speakers, Francesca Villa, and so says the results – a President elected almost entirely on small donations and those same face-to-face, door-to-door organizing strategies. I think this is due in large part to the conversation that develops in this type of organizing, a personal relationship that has been lost in our technology-driven age, a relationship that people (especially of older generations) seem to miss.

Interestingly, I got the feeling from the speakers that Obama’s election to the Presidency was a victory for grassroots organizing, and the kind of work that they do. It is interesting also that the type of organizing has become associated with certain issues, mainly liberal talking-points. I was a little surprised that the speakers focused on traditional liberal issues, as I would assume that conservatives engage in grassroots organizing, too. However, whether our speakers were just a part of the overall movement or not, it does seem that conservative idealists are not as effective grassroots organizers as their liberal counterparts.

And yet, regardless of party, I think it is foolish for any politician, political group, or politics class to discount grassroots organizers. They are, after all, at the start of every movement: Egypt’s revolution leaders were arguably grassroots organizers, though they worked via Twitter, and Occupy Wall Street spread not by news coverage, because there was none, but by word of mouth. Furthermore, our speakers’ emphasis on education is, I think, an important aspect of organizing; the ones who started Egypt’s revolution were the young intellectuals, and as we talked about in class, the number-one indicator of whether or not someone will vote is his or her education level. Those with more education tend to be more politically active. Imagine how much higher our political discourse could go if we focused on ensuring a quality education for every one of our students across this country!

I very much enjoyed the talk given by the organizers, and I think their ideas, which we can all use to accomplish the goals and ideals that we believe in, will prove to be the future of political activism.

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You and Me at the DNC (like the rhyme?)

Interestingly, I have a quite different perspective on parties after studying Russia for my Comparative Politics class. For that class, I recently wrote a paper discussing the weaknesses of Russia’s political parties, which are in turn responsible for the weakness of Russia’s legislature, relative to its presidency. The relationship between the strength of party ideology and the strength and effectiveness of a legislature is a relationship that can be studied across many nations with many ideological spectra. One of these is the United States.

The question of whether political parties are beneficial to American democracy or not has been raised time and again. Some would argue today that we should dissolve the parties and start over. I would argue the exact opposite. History has shown us that when the country’s two political parties were strongest, in the late 1800s and early 1900s, voter participation was the highest it’s ever been, because the parties were incredibly effective in “getting out the vote.” There is something to be said for party loyalty in terms of sticking by your beliefs, and in this way, I applaud Jenn Bissett, our speaker at the DNC, for describing herself as a “party-person.” In fact, it is true (having been tested in studies, namely by Dan Cassino, in his book Consuming Politics) that people who identify with one party or the other are actually more informed on the issues than those who identify as “independents.” (Such studies determining how informed people are were based on a subject pool of citizens who were given a quiz on current events and overall general knowledge questions.)

It was interesting to get a sneak-peek of what goes on behind the scenes at a party’s headquarters, though it was not entirely surprising. The DNC is heavily already in campaign mode for 2012. What was surprising to me, however, was Ms. Bissett’s nonchalance when it came to the 2012 presidential race. Even Robert Gibbs, when visiting AU, said that the 2012 race will be extremely close, and it seems to me that the DNC is once again looking to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. From this observer’s perspective, there appears to be a pattern – or at least a circle of belief – at the DNC that expects voters to see the Democratic platform as beneficial as they see it. It worries me, as  a Democrat, that the DNC almost constantly underestimates the level of mud-throwing to which the Republicans are willing to go.

But of course, that is why we must stay informed and engaged in the process, and this latter effort is one that the DNC is heavily invested in – especially since President Obama’s 2008 victory. I think this investment is likely to see a second grassroots expansion, and (I hope) another growth of involvement in 2012.

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Race in America

“What is race? Does it matter? Have we moved beyond race?”

I think one of the most interesting pieces of the exhibit was the first part, showing that the human “race” (in its original context of “species”) originated in Africa, and spread to all the world from that central location where, some would say, Adam was first created from the clay of the Earth. This knowledge, that we have all come from the same origin, literally a spot on the map that can be located and determined by the fossil record, is a major tool in the effort to break down the assumptions and barriers of “race.”

To some extent, I do think the Civil Rights Movement accomplished what it set out to do. Through nonviolence, the marchers and the protesters and the bus-riders achieved independence and freedom from many forms of oppression, including the limitations of the poll tax, the slavery of segregation, and the inequality of discrimination. And yet, there is still rampant racism in this country. There remains a huge divide in the funds that go to minority, inner-city school districts, and well-to-do, suburban (mostly white) school districts. The stacks of money in the exhibit show this divide clearly, and yet we as a society are deaf and blind to these hold-overs of segregation that exist in our midst. There remains in this country a huge divide in the number of whites on death row and minorities on death row, and the treatment those two groups get under the law (particularly in the South). Troy Davis was only the most recent heart-rending example of this.

In many ways, we remain a divided society. The very ideology of cultural heritage is a mechanism rooted in a history of division that simply repeats the vicious cycle. Am I “just” an American? Yes. But that is all I want to be. By blood, I would be considered a “mutt,” with ancestors from France, Italy, Ireland, Scotland, and Egypt. But many of us are like that; we all have blood from all corners of the Earth, but that is not what unites us. In this country, blood is not what makes us unique as a citizenship of the world. Blood is not what gives us common purpose or leads us to the polls or urges us to enlist and defend our nation. We are Americans because of our belief in democracy, and in the civil rights guaranteed to everyone. And we would spill whatever blood we contain for that purpose and that ideal, not for France or Italy or Ireland or Scotland or Egypt.

Should there be an exhibit for gender? Absolutely. For sexuality? Absolutely. I think it is best to address these issues, to acknowledge our history of division so that we can move toward that time and place when we no longer make considerations of black and white, man and woman, straight and gay, but recognize that we are all American, and we are all created equal.

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The Newseum!

This week we went to the Newseum, the newest(?) museum in D.C., and I have to say that one of my favorite parts was the gallery of photos taken by Presidential photographers, who, I realized for the first time, have such an intimate look at our Commanders-in-Chief. These pictures are entertaining, and give us a fresh look at our Presidents as real human beings with senses of humor.

It was also quite amazing (or perhaps overwhelming might be a better adjective) to see the tens of newspaper front pages throughout our nation’s history preserved under glass. Being in the room of preserved newspapers was like having history literally unfold before my eyes. The biggest events of our nation’s life were right there, in the original context of the time, going as far back as our Revolution.

I have always thought of the media (particularly the newspapers) as protectors of truth in our society. Besides some examples like the yellow journalism that led this nation into war with Spain, our newspapers have not led us astray, and in fact, have kept our democracy pure, like when Woodward and Bernstein of the New York Times uncovered the crime of the century that led to the impeaching and resigning of a President.

In nations without democracy, without elected leaders, the press is one of – if not the – first thing to go. We should always be proud of our press and the tradition it has upheld, and we should always fight to defend and protect it.

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The Nat’l Archives: History vs. Memory

Hello again!

This week we went to the National Archives, one of many shrine-like places where history and memory visibly clash. While it is important to remember the great ideals out of which this nation sprang, and to honor the men who articulated them (I, at least, think they were geniuses of their time), it also does well to acknowledge the humanity of those men, and their singular positions in life (i.e. wealthy, educated, land-owning white males).

One of the glorified “Founding Fathers” at the Archives is Alexander Hamilton, a man who, but for his passion in helping to create this country, was practically a supporter of Great Britain following the Revolution. He was one of the few supporters of an American monarchy and a stratified Congress in which an upper class of aristocrats held the reins. (And yet his face looks up at us from every $10 dollar bill!)

The background stories of the Founders, who were, after all, politicians concerned with their own legacies and state interests, are nothing short of fascinating. While all the details of their writings and compromises cannot make the history books, perhaps more of those tidbits should be more widely disseminated.

I think the greatest danger that arises from our (ahem) lack of knowledge in this area of history is not that we will be led to blindly follow the government based on the All-Powerful Constitution written by these Most Honored Men of Our Proud Tradition. Rather, I believe that because we may not know all the facts, we can be more easily led astray by political demagogues who evoke such patriotic imagery and “history” for support (such as claiming that Paul Revere warned the British).

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Viewing the 9/11 Smithsonian Exhibit

For me, remembering and reflecting on 9/11 is a very real and raw thing; I was only in third grade when it happened, and yet I can remember the fear and the sinking feeling of uncertainty at what it meant. Of course, for our country, the event has had far-reaching implications. The exhibit at the Smithsonian, I think, adequately and effectively displays how people’s lives were changed because of that horrific event. Whether it is in the suitcase recovered from one of the Towers; or the piece of the plane that crashed in Shanksville, Pennsylvania; or the clock that fell to the floor of the Pentagon, frozen in time; the exhibit poignantly reveals how instantly people’s lives were lost and how greatly the trajectories of others’ were reset.

As can be seen at the TSA part of the exhibit, our social contract with our government was updated – or at least brought back to its most basic function, keeping us safe – as a direct result of the terrorist attacks of 9/11. While we did not expressly tell the government we wanted to make sure people were checked more thoroughly at airports, our very reason for having a government, and our expectation of that government, was to maintain our security. It did not matter that “the government” was attacked, because in fact, it wasn’t; it was the ordinary, everyday citizens of this country who were mercilessly and callously “punished” for what a few men believed to be the fault of their government. It was American citizens who were simply going to work, doing their everyday jobs to support their families, that became victims of a cruel and backward ideology held in the twisted minds of cowardly men who could never stand toe to toe with real soldiers.

On 9/11 we were attacked as a People, and it did not matter whether we were brown people or black people or red people or blue people. It only mattered that we were the People, united in common purpose to form a more perfect union and establish justice, insure domestic tranquility and provide for the common defense. We were then – and remain today – a People committed to the protection of liberty, and this love for the most basic of Man’s rights will never leave us, no matter what a few sick and dastardly men attempt to do.

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