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Thursday, June 14, 2012

AMERICAN TRIBALISM


TRIBE: “A social division in a traditional society consisting of families or communities linked by social, economic, religious, or blood ties, and among whom leadership is typically neither formalized nor permanent.”


The hoped for reform movements in the “Arab Spring” nations have exposed the underlying weakness of these societies with respect to democratic structures and processes. That weakness is tribalism. It is an ancient and entrenched basis for social organization which now unfettered by authoritarian suppression, is dividing the respective nations into hostile, even violent groups competing for political power.

The current federal election campaigns in the United States provide a sharp contrast to the seemingly intractable social, and thus political, divisions in these countries as they struggle to create representative governments. But while the U.S. manages to avoid election violence and citizens generally accept the legitimacy of election outcomes, the nation's political environment is taking on more and more of the characteristics of a tribal society. These include divisions and group identity based on race, ethnicity, religion, and region.

Certainly there is no complete homogeneity with respect to political views in these groups but there is historic consistency in voting patterns with respect to majorities within the groups. The problem is that political operatives promote and exploit the identification of individuals as an electoral strategy while self appointed “leaders” and politicians demagogue the groups for personal gain. The result of years of this appeal to differences is the further division of American society into competing, aggrieved groups. This breeds further intolerance and a tribal like mutual hostility which has on occasion deteriorated into open hostility. The Congress recognizes and abets these divisions by including in its organizational structure sub-groups or caucuses which are driven by the perceived need to address group identities and agendas. Thus the Congress has, among many others, the Congressional Black Caucus; the Congressional Hispanic Caucus; and the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus.

Now, in an election year, pursuit of electoral support in the groups quickly becomes pandering on narrow topics. While all Americans are, or should be, concerned primarily with economic well being and opportunity for their children, personal and national security and quality and affordable health care, the caucuses, non-governmental organizations and periodically, political campaigns, emphasize grievances. For black Americans, the campaigns offer affirmative action, government financial assistance and the seemingly permanent claim of institutional racism. The campaign issue for Hispanics is immigration reform which is short hand for more liberal entry and amnesty for illegals currently in the country. Asians represent only 4.8 percent of the population but have followed the lead of the other aggrieved groups and their “leaders” are quick to condemn any public remark or joke referencing Asian stereotypes as well as seeking “representation” on non-representative executive branch bodies and bureaucracies.

These racial/ethnic divisions are reenforced in the public school systems and institutions of higher education by the misguided celebration of “multiculturalism” and “diversity”. This is based on the notion that individual foreign cultures which are simplistically represented by individual American students with different family ancestries, when grouped together, foster mutual respect. In reality, the effort diminishes respect for American's common cultural heritage, political history and sense of national identity as well as discouraging new immigrants from making efforts to assimilate.

The media insists on promoting simple differences in ethnic background of natural born Americans by describing hyphenated “firsts”: the “first Hispanic-American Supreme Court Justice (Sonia Sotomayor); the “first” female Hispanic-American governor (Susana Martinez); the “first” Chinese-American play in the NBA (Jeremy Lin).
There are no religious based American “tribes” as such because even though most Americans self identify with some organized religion, the major political issues in general cut across the major religious groups. There are however, sub-groups or what might be the political equivalent of “clans” within the major groups which are bound together in support of one or two specific issues at the expense of the larger issues. Thus, as seen in the Republican presidential primaries, self identified Evangelicals focused on the issues of abortion and gay rights as their primary qualification for support.
The recent controversy among religiously conservative Roman Catholics concerning the federal government's (Obamacare) requirement that religious based organizations provide health insurance coverage for birth control has been a major call to arms by Catholic bishops who are attempting to use the election as leverage for their position.

The political efforts by Evangelical preachers and the Catholic bishops is not unlike the claims of the religious (Islamic) political parties in recent elections in Tunisia and Egypt who demand strict adherence to their interpretation of Koranic principles.

Region also presents a significant and semi-permanent divide as described by “red”, “blue” and “purple” states. The red states are in the South and non-coastal West, the blue are on both coasts and the upper mid-west, with the purple being a few states undergoing demographic changes i.e. Colorado, New Mexico, Florida. In a country as vast as the United States, cultural differences are to be expected in different regions. The troubling aspect of this in terms of national politics is the divisive demagoguery that has resulted. Liberal leaning California, Oregon and Washington are disparaged as the “Left Coast”, the western and mid-western states are referred to dismissively as unimportant “fly over states” while the socially conservative southern states are still vilified by self described intellectual superiors in the urban centers further north, as the home of backward, dentally challenged “red necks”.

The United States is indeed a diverse nation and people by nature tend to aggregate in neighborhoods and social organizations with others most like themselves. It is unfortunate that the political efforts of parties, national media and self serving group “leaders” seek to create political advantage by creating political divisions among these social groups. Political analysts and “strategists” will be measuring the success of these dividers by keeping track of the “women's(feminist) vote, the Hispanic vote, the Evangelical vote, the black vote (in this case, turnout), blue collar union vote, Jewish vote, and Islamic vote.

Because the parties and group leaders will characterize the campaigns for the president and Congress in terms of “victims” and “perpetrators” the post election political environment will be even more hostile than it is currently, and further the creation of a permanent and entrenched opposition no matter which party wins.

Addendum: The 2008 presidential election

                    % of total vote:   % Obama:  %  McCain:

Men            47                         49                48
Women       53                         56                43
White          74                         43                55
Black          13                          95                 4
Hispanic       9                          67                31
Asian            2                          62                35
Protestant                                 45                54
Catholic                                    54                45
Jews                                          78                21
Evangelicals                              24               74
Union Homes 21                       59                39
East            21                            59                40
Midwest     24                            54                44
South          32                            45                54
West           23                            57                40






Monday, June 4, 2012

NOW FOR VICE PRESIDENT. . . . ?

The 2012 presidential campaign is following a predictable path.  Republican candidate Mitt  Romney is conducting a relentless attack on President Obama’s handling, and non-handling of the economy, which is slowly sliding back into pre-double dip recession stagnation characterized by low job growth and increasing unemployment numbers.   Since the Obama campaign can't run on his record, it is trying to find a workable attack message.  It has tried the “dog on the roof of the SUV” strategy; the “Ann Romney has never worked“, tactic; the Romney acted like a teenager when he was a teenager character assassination ploy, and now the class warfare approach i.e. Romney is rich, made his fortune in private capitalism based investment banking and has foreign bank accounts so he must be evil, approach.

The hoped for image of the Romney’s Irish Setter desperately hanging on by his claws to a luggage rack failed to resonate with voters, probably because the happy hound was in a pet carrier in a similar circumstance to those commonly carried in the backs of pick-up trucks.  The hoped for PETA vote was further diminished by Obama’s admission that he had enjoyed a pup kabob in his past, presumably in Asia and not in Chicago or at Harvard.  Campaign operatives who tried to make an issue of Mrs. Romney’s choice to stay at home and raise her five sons, drew the ire of other millions of other women who made similar choices and was quickly abandoned.  Attempts to make a 1960s high school prank into a 2012 bullying crime also just drew contrived outrage from predictable media commentators.  Recently the attacks on Romney’s business background have run aground on the shoals of criticism by the Democrat mayor of Newark, New Jersey, Cory Booker and by former Democrat President Bill Clinton.  Both made it clear that private investment capital companies such as Romney’s Bain Capital are legitimate and productive parts of a free market economy. Clinton went further, describing Romney's business background a "sterling" and when combined with his governorship of Massachusetts, a valid qualification for the presidency.


Thus while the Obama campaign tries to find a focus, and voters grow weary of the angry and predictable rhetoric of the formal campaign public, media attention is shifting to the question of running mates.  The “dump Biden, nominate Hillary” scenario has been “run up the flag pole” by several Democrat bloggers and sooth sayers, but nobody saluted so Romney’s choice is becoming more of an item.  It is conventional wisdom among political scientists that vice presidential nominees do little to help a presidential candidate, since voters tend to focus on the “top of the ticket”. We are reminded that the “first female vice presidential candidate”, Geraldine Ferraro could not help 1984 Democrat candidate Walter Mondale avoid a 49 state loss vs. Ronald Reagan. Ferraro, a member of the House of Representatives, even failed to carry her own House district in New York. 


This is not to say that a bad choice cannot hurt an already struggling campaign.
Vice President Dan Quayle, whose intellect was constantly questioned , even after serving four years with George H.W. Bush, was considered by many to have contributed to Bush’s unsuccessful reelection campaign in 1988.  John McCain’s attempt to excite his base with his woefully unfortunate pick of the clueless Sarah Palin had the opposite effect with moderates and independent voters.

 
In spite of the entertainment value of the American Idol style Republican primary campaign, the entrants kept being voted out for reasons that make them all unattractive candidates for the vice presidential nomination. Herman Cain went down for singing the old Beatles tune "I want to hold your hand" (and other things); Michelle Bachmann failed after multiple scenes from "Lost in Space"; Rick Perry lasted what seemed like about two weeks with his excerpts from "Dumb and Dumber"; anti-birth control advocate Rick Perry, who has seven children finally went down after six months of singing "I Could Have ('should have') Danced All Night", and Newt Gingrich was in confusing and  angry Don Quixote mode until he ran out of windmills and money.   


Thus Romney, whose candidacy has so far created all the excitement of a six month long PTA meeting, might be tempted to select a more exciting or “surprise” candidate for the vice presidential nominee.  However he will probably be reminded by more traditional campaign advisers to simply adopt the physician’s credo of  “do no harm”.  The current crop of most speculated candidates contains several who would seem to fit this requirement but also a few others who might at least create more interest.
 
In general terms, the speculative list, which hasn't been revealed, can be broken down into two groups, most qualified, and most interesting. Mitch Daniels, the governor of Indiana clearly falls into the most qualified category. He served as Director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) (2001-2003) in the Bush Administration and has experience in the private corporate world.  He has been an effective and popular governor of his state with a good record of financial management.  The first problem with a Daniels nomination is the fact that he has said he isn't interested in being Vice President.  While such an admonition isn't rare among potential nominees who seek to protect themselves from the appearance of rejection should they not be offered the candidacy, Daniels seems emphatic. This is made more believable by the fact that he was touted as a presidential candidate but declined to enter the race.  Also, while competence should be the primary qualification for the office, elections are mostly about marketing.  Thus appearance, personality, ability to articulate ideas and think on one's feet often over shadow the more important perception of one's ability.  In this area, Daniels comes across to some as a short balding guy with a policy wonk like persona.

 
On the personality spectrum, New Jersey Governor Chris Christy is Daniel's polar opposite.  Christy is outspoken, and although a "moderate" by social conservative standards, is unafraid to take on political opponents and entrenched interest groups like unions and is willing to take political risks in pursuit of his core beliefs, which include financial discipline.  These characteristics have made him popular among Tea Party conservatives and he would no doubt raise the excitement level among much of the Republican base.  However, there are those, probably including some Romney advisers, who think that such a dynamic and outspoken running mate might cast a shadow over Romney and tend to emphasize his own lack of charisma.

Additionally on the down side, is the fact that Christy's background as U.S. Attorney for the state of New Jersey was not without controversy which would sure to be dredged up and used against he and Romney.  Also, he has been governor of New Jersey only since 2010 thus making him vulnerable to charges of lack of experience.

Unfortunately, from the marketing angle, Christy's significant bulk has generated some negativity.  He indeed wears suits that fall somewhere in between "super sized" and "Sumo" sized, and has the type of physique with lots of curves and no angles.  However, the relevance of this characteristic has yet to be identified and his personality for the most part dominates his public image.  Still, if nominated he, and Romney would have to expect a run of derision from late night television comedians as well as Democrat hate mongers.

Certain to be on the short list for potential vice presidential candidates is the much talked about Senator from Florida, Marco Rubio.  Although, research has shown that geographic balance or the ability to attract home state voters is weak at best, these ideas persist and are probably still a consideration in the vice president nominee selection process.  This would add to the appeal of Rubio since Florida is a key swing state with a lot of electoral votes (29). Then there is the appeal to identity politics and the Hispanic vote.  Rubio is a second generation Cuban.  However, the large number of Cuban immigrants and their U.S. born children living mostly in Florida already identify strongly with the Republican party.  The idea that large numbers of Mexican and Latin American immigrants living in the swing states of New Mexico, Nevada and Colorado, would vote for Romney simply because his running mate was a second generation Cuban is a leap of faith but it still is a factor in the minds of some people.

In terms of marketing, Rubio is young and articulate.  However, his youth and recent entry into national politics as a U.S. senator in 2010, like Christy, would be a point of criticism of his candidacy.

A third candidate who could be identified as one of the three top tier choices is Ohio Senator,  Rob Portman.  Portman, based on experience, is undoubtedly the most qualified of the potential candidates.  He was a seven term Congressman from Ohio, has served at both the Director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) (2006-2007) and the Special Trade Representative in the George W. Bush Administration, and since January, 2011 has served in the U.S. Senate.  He is also very popular in Ohio, an important swing state.

The major problem with Portman in simple political terms is that few Americans have ever heard of him.  Also, from a marketing/personality point of view a Romney/Portman ticket would be a case of double vanilla.  Portman is quiet and competent but voters tend to vote for candidates that they like and can connect with.  So Portman's candidacy would likely confirm the conventional academic wisdom that vice presidential candidates don't materially affect presidential election outcomes unless they are significantly flawed.

There are several other names in the speculative mix but each has some aspect that put them more in the possible but long shot category.  These include former Arkansas Governor and 2008 presidential candidate Mike Huckabee, House of Representative's Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, Governor of Louisiana Bobby Jindal and Governor Susanna Martinez of New Mexico.  Huckabee has a following among religious conservatives and is a semi-popular guitar strumming Fox News television host.  However, as a Baptist minister he has taken far right positions on social issues which would not play well with moderates and independents and is probably having too much fun and making too much money to want to get into the slash and burn political world again.

Ryan has introduced his own Republican budget which makes significant changes to Social Security and Medicare programs and thus is highly controversial.  Romney has said he supports the budget but would probably not want to have to debate its specific provisions as part of the presidential campaign. 

Both governors are "firsts" and might have some appeal to their respective background groups but not so much in the wider voting population.  Jindal is the "first" Indian-American governor.  He is young (41), is demonstrably brilliant and has had a remarkable career, serving as both a member of he House of Representatives and as governor.  His focus in politics since he was a Rhodes Scholar has been on public health issues which would serve him well in national office. However, his remarkable educational and professional background for someone so young might make him the focus of the media rather than Romney and thus make him a campaign liability.

Martinez is the "first"  female Hispanic governor.  However, she is newly elected and her resume' is thin.  In addition, she has repeatedly stated that she doesn't want the job of Vice President, so continued speculation by political pundits seems to be based simply on her ethnic and gender characteristics.

Thus, if Mitch Daniels is to be taken at his word and does not want the nomination, it seems that the logical choice will come down to Chris Christy, Marco Rubio and Robb Portman.  Portman clearly has the edge with respect to political experience.  Christy is a Republican governor in a traditionally Democratic state which might have some appeal to Romney.  Rubio is relatively popular in a vital, big electoral vote swing state.  Portman is probably the least risky choice but also the least appealing at this early stage.  Given his blunt and colorful speaking style and approach to politics, Christy would give the Romney campaign some much needed life.  Rubio probably is less risky than Christy but more of a gamble than Portman. 

Of course, besides political considerations, there are issues of compatibility with the presidential nominee on both ideological and personal levels, so personal chemistry will come into play at some point..

Still, the vetting process has become an extended microscopic tour through each potential candidate's entire life.  A disqualifying item need not be an entire skeleton hiding out in the closet, a simple shin bone can be enough so Romney's campaign advisers will no doubt have one or more fall back candidates which could defy conventional wisdom.

Right now, the best guess is Portman, Rubio and Christy in that order.  Maybe, possibly, sort of.