Dissent. Diversity. Unity.

Dear Democratic Leadership: Here’s How You Win

in Political Thought by

Dear Democratic leadership,

Today an article announced that the leadership of the Democratic Party has laid out their agenda: Win back the House and investigate Trump.

Please, I’m begging you. Listen to me: This agenda will NOT help you win.

If your focus is simply to win, then you will lose. If all you are doing is vying for power for the sake of being in power, people will not flock to the polls to support you.

Just as your 2016 election strategyignore battleground states in the general election, focus all of your rhetoric and talking points on bashing Trump and his followers rather than tell people who Clinton is and why we should support her, and offer only empty concern and superficial policies rather than real, substantial solutions to the struggles Americans facedid not bring you an electoral victory in November.

When 20% of American children are living in poverty, your focus should be on helping those families put food on the table and ensure that the utilities stay on, that they have a house to live in, and that there are good jobs that pay a living wage for struggling parents. Focus on these goals, and people will know what you stand forwhat you fight forand the votes will come.

As poverty, foreclosures, and hunger among the nation’s elderly continue to rise and as the GOP works to increase healthcare and drug costs for those 65 and older, fight to make sure that everyone can retire and live out their later years with dignity and security. When you tell everyone you can and whenever you can that you are doing everything you can for America’s aging generation, then people will know that you are on their side, and they will vote for you.

When tens of millions of people are facing the prospect of losing critical healthcare because of skyrocketing costs, put your energy into figuring out how to deliver truly universal coverage in the most cost-efficient way. If Democrats once and for all solve the problem that is the American healthcare systemnot just tinker around the edges, which is what Obamacare doespeople will take notice and will work to get you elected by getting more people to the polls.

When our schools are fighting for the most basic funding while Republicans are working to funnel money to the communities that need it least and away from those who need it most, you need to be battling every day for every American kid to have access to quality education and the opportunity to build a good life for themselves. If you do this, people will know what it means to be a Democrat and will proudly cast their vote for anyone with a (D) next to their name.

When our young adults are struggling under crushing student loan debt, a stagnant economy that offers very little in good entry-level jobs, and a cultural narrative that continually denigrates them, our Democratic elected officials need to work to relieve the burden of those with prohibitive student loan payments, make college affordable for all, revive the economy by supporting industries set to explode (e.g., renewable energies, technology), and begin changing the way we talk about and to our nation’s emerging leaders. Give the next generation your care, respect, and attention, and they will take heed and throw their energy and support behind you to make you the leading party for at least the next forty years.

But when your #1 issue focus is Russia, something that feels distant and abstract and reeks of Washington political game playing to the millions of Americans struggling to keep a roof over their heads and the utilities on, to feed their families, to get the healthcare they need to survive, to find a good, steady job that pays a living wage, you are not talking to voters.

You are talking to yourselves.

And there’s not enough of you in your narrow echo chamber to win elections.

Democratic leadership: Stop focusing on what YOU want, and start working toward what Americans NEED.

THAT’S how you win.

Six Months After Election 2016: A Moment’s Assessment

in Election 2016/Uncategorized by

It is hard to imagine that it has been six months since November 8, 2016. For what it’s worth, I imagine that all of us have a tale to tell for how that day went down.

Here, for your enjoyment, is mine.

The night before was a late one for me because I had an evening theology class at my college. The discussion was on Martin Luther King Jr. and the fight for civil rights. Considering this was coming only eight years after the election of 2008, the subject and the material seemed slightly off to me. We first talked about the Civil Rights Movement, but the conversation moved inexorably toward the invisible black hole that was the 2016 presidential election. Although we never speculated about who would win, we did talk about the incalculable ramifications that this election, like 2008, would have on the country and the world at-large.

Although we constantly like to think that these elections happen in a vacuum, events like the recent French presidential election should be ample evidence to show that this is not the case. In the end the entire class of six and our teacher agreed that whatever the outcome would be, it certainly would be a unique event quite unlike any election any of us had seen.

The next morning I got up shortly before 8 a.m. and went to my polling station to commit my civic duty. I had done so three times already that year; in April, in June, and in September. Each time I always made sure to note how many people were voting with me in the booths and how many had already voted by the counter in our vote-scan tabulators.

In April the number who had voted by 6 a.m. (when the polls opened) was one (me!). By June the number who had voted by 10 a.m. (when I finished my morning routine) was thirty. By September the number who had voted by 12 p.m. (after a brief lunch) was twelve. This morning the number at 8:30 was a steady 125 and rising. Unlike my last trips, a steady line was in place, with people checking into their polling site and moving to their voting booths with ease.

I could not understand why people did not vote in the same numbers on any of those primary dates just as I did now, but as I had come to observe over the past year in working for the Bernie Sanders campaign, democracy was not a right afforded to its citizens without a fight. Sadly, these questions would need to wait for another day, and I cast my vote and promptly went to the hospital.

See, my father is a doctor at a nearby hospital. When the schedule permits we usually get together for lunch and swap stories about our day so far. He tells me his stories on the ward, and I tell him about my assignments and friends at school. I was going to see him early today, though, because I badly needed a pick-me-up.

I’ve been voting since my eighteenth birthday in 2009, and my feelings after voting could be comparable to soaring under the warmth of the sun. It felt exhilarating to be participating in something people had fought and died for. I not only honored their sacrifices but also felt invested in the great experiment that is democracy. The past year had been a rude awakening, however; democracy, even one as vaulted and rarified as ours, was in a bad way. My father—having lived through a dictatorship, a coup, and numerous authoritarian regimes—perhaps could give me perspective over what I and the world had been a witness to over the last eighteen months.

After quickly going through our respective days, we soon came to the heart of the matter. I am not very good at hiding my disaffection, and my father saw right through my slumped appearance and quiet demeanor.

I told him about the unique melancholy and detachment I had felt while voting earlier in the day and the feeling that no matter who won, things had been said that could not be undone with the unambiguous will of the people tonight. Although he agreed that the campaign had been one that would be better remembered for how politics could reach for our coarser behavior, there was still much to admire about the campaigns of both Bernie Sanders and a congressional candidate whom I had also worked for earlier that month.

After the Democratic Convention in July I had worked for a time for the Clinton campaign, canvassing on the streets of Philadelphia. I suspect that I did so out of some guilt perhaps, but I also felt an urgency unlike anything I had felt before. Even then the experience felt much more canned and sterile than what I had suspected it would be. Perhaps the most difficult experience of the whole affair was to hear people repeatedly tell me (paraphrasing), “With the Electoral College, I just don’t think that my vote counts.” After spending three hours in a bus getting to Philadelphia from the safe blue state of New York, it was something that was quite ironic to hear.

Another warning sign I saw was the oft-repeated phrase, “Ahh those politicians, they’re all just crooks! Who wants to vote for them anyway!” I could not help but feel that my position as a lowly campaign volunteer was a poor one through which to explain the mechanics of our electoral politics as well as the merits of civic engagement. It was way above my pay grade.

However, persist I did, both on my own and with a wingman, either in an open dialog or in a mostly one-way conversation. Despite my best attempts and my honing and tinkering of the wording, I could tell my message was not getting through. It was not that my sincerity was in question; my heart just was not in it anymore.

After October 7 I hung up my walking shoes. I had simply had enough. The Hollywood Access video and the WikiLeaks revelations made me realize that I was dealing with forces that were beyond my ability to comprehend, let alone explain to others. The break was exactly what the doctor—or my old man!—ordered. Life and its welcome monotony and routine came back to me in a welcome flood of comfort and relaxation. The election was as far away as a foreign country across the ocean or on the other side of the moon. I had learned an important thing: everyday life is more important than any election.

For election day I planned to continue my willful ignorance by steeling myself from the wall-to-wall coverage. After running a few errands, I took the family car toward a nearby park on a river, and as the results started spilling in, I tuned in to the nearest music station. Rather than listening to commentary and the latest figures, I spent the evening on the hood of my family’s station wagon, listening to rock ‘n’ roll.

Sure, there were the occasional updates from the disc jockey, but my mind wistfully rolled the tape of the history of the world as the night wore on and the temperature plummeted. I had my own pet theories about how the night would proceed, but rather than ruminate, my mind rolled about the world much like pinballs dart about a machine, bouncing off everything they touch.

“Wow, I can’t believe my grandma lived and died without seeing the Cubs win, and now I have.”

“Nobody’s on the river tonight. Guess it’s not the weather to go boating or fishing in early November.”

“I wonder how candidate X [not Clinton or Trump] is doing? Probably losing.”

“Gosh, I better remember to get that paper handed in to my professor. He seemed insistent we hand it in on-time.”

“Man, I wish I had a telescope! The stars look really good tonight!”

“That reminds me—I better get the camera from my friend’s dad. I’m sure he done using it by now.”

After flipping through a couple of pages of the latest book I was reading and catching a few minutes shut-eye, I made my way to some civilization in the form of a twenty-four-hour diner.

It being long past the midnight hour, the place was mercifully empty and quiet. The PA system, tuned in to a slow-jazz radio station, kept me blissfully unaware of the tumultuous events ensuing in New York City. A few fellow patrons quietly munched on some late-night meals on the counter or in individual booths, and mostly alone. Most were truckers taking a break in their long trek across the nation on the way to their destination. The parking lot was lined with Mac trucks silently awaiting their pilots for the next leg of the journey.

Again, my mind wandered, thinking about the stories these men of the road could tell me if they had the strength or the time. After placing my order, I quickly took a stroll around the establishment to snoop out the trucks’ license plates. Of the six trucks out there that cold November morning, there were trucks from Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, North Dakota, Tennessee, North Carolina, and Missouri. In the swing-state sweepstakes I had hit two out of six—not bad!

At roughly 2:30 a.m. I returned home. The viewing party had long since departed, and only my mother stood as a silent sentinel awaiting my return home. “Whatever happens, everything will be all right,” she cryptically told me as I hugged her. None the wiser about what was unfolding across the country. I thought nothing more about my troubles and restless mind, and I quickly drifted away.

The morning saw me awake very late after everyone had left for work or school. My class was in the evening, so I showered, dressed, and stepped out to what I thought would be a changed world.

My plan was to do as before: visit my father for lunch after doing some homework at the nearby library. The walk was a brisk eight blocks filled with the sights and sounds of a neighborhood. As I began my early morning walkabout I began to notice the profound and deafening silence I encountered as I ventured through the streets.

Don’t get me wrong: people were out and about, cars were running everywhere, and the soundtrack of city life seemed perfectly normal. But nobody spoke. There was no conversation, no smiles, no laughter, no mumbles—nothing. At the end of a simple fifteen-minute walk, I had learned more than any news article or video could ever tell me.

As if by osmosis, I had learned the outcome of the race by the sheer magnitude of the event. I recalled what joy and hope people had in their expressions, faces, and voices after 2008. It seemed now that that blissful period had tragically run out, run aground, and was torn asunder, never to return.

I unilaterally ended my media embargo at midday, just in time to listen and watch the Clinton concession and President Obama’s remarks, largely the most symbolic and final chapters to the most historic and divisive election our nation had ever known. I for one did not share in the shock many had, but the feelings of anger and despair were all too familiar by now.

Had not Bernie been actively defeated—or even sabotaged—to avoid this very situation from becoming a reality? Why, oh why had she used the word “deplorable”? How could this happen? The Electoral College again!? I had so many questions, but the worst thing was knowing that to some questions, there would never be a satisfying answer.

Since then I’ve thought long and hard about what I as a citizen did wrong to help contribute to what occurred six months ago. In fact, we all share some of the blame for what happened—not as individuals but as a part of a civilization.

One thing I can say is that people have gotten the message, and perhaps that is what good has come from this election. No longer will we see ourselves as merely pieces of life but now as parts of the fabric of society. No longer will we believe that our involvement in some action or effort is to be taken for granted or will passed on to someone else. No more will people see politics as a flavor or a sport of choice but rather as a dynamic debate. No more will people see the other side as some unintelligible group of aliens—in more ways than one—but as citizens, compatriots . . . as people.

What the long-term impact of Tuesday, November 8, 2016, will be is too early to tell. But if the last six months are any indication, it goes to show how people can see the real power they have as individuals, the great strength they carry as a group, and the real value we all share as a nation. As our country’s motto aptly says: E pluribus Unum.

Out of many, one.

What Does It Mean to Pledge Allegiance to the Flag of the United States of America?

in Political Thought by

What I’m about to say is going to anger a lot of people. And I’ve held my tongue (or, rather, my typing fingers) because of that—I’m at heart a people-pleaser, and I just want everyone to be happy. But I can’t always make that happen and still speak my truth.

Last week my family and I (me, my husband, and our two kids, aged six and four) were in an airport, waiting to board our connecting flight as we traveled home after visiting my in-laws. My children saw some American flags while we were sitting at the gate and began to recite the Pledge of Allegiance together.

A couple of minutes later a man came over and handed us $20 and said he’d like to buy our drinks on the plane. We looked at him confused—why? “I’m so happy to hear your kids reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. I think it’s great. I’m active military, so it means a lot to me.”

We tried to refuse the money—my husband makes a good salary, and if anything, WE should be buying HIM a drink on the plane because he’s the one serving our country in such a fundamental and possibly ultimately sacrificial way. But he insisted we take his money. Hesitantly, I put it in my back pocket, and the man went to board the plane (active military are one of the first groups to board).

My husband turned to me and said, “I feel bad taking his money. We didn’t even teach them the Pledge of Allegiance.”

This is true: they learned it at school. To be clear, we didn’t choose to NOT teach them the Pledge of Allegiance—it’s just not something we’ve thought to prioritize in the limited time we get with our kids (we both work full time).

But the thing is: I do have a little bit of an issue with making kids pledge allegiance to a flag.

And before anyone starts leaving angry comments below, let me break this down to help you understand why.

“I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America and to the republic for which it stands, one nation under God,[*] indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”
—The Pledge of Allegiance, 1954–present
“I pledge allegiance to the Flag of the United States of America and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”
—The Pledge of Allegiance, 1923–1954
“I pledge allegiance to my Flag and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”
—The Pledge of Allegiance, 1892–1923

To me, making a pledge—a binding promise—of allegiance—devotion and loyalty—is a serious thing. It is personal because it binds the person to that which they pledge. Any pledge of allegiance should be made with a full understanding of what it means—its significance, what it asks and demands of a person.

A pledge of allegiance should be made thoughtfully, carefully, without being compelled to do so, and with the ability to comprehend what that pledge entails.

My kids have no idea what they’re saying when they say those words. They have not been taught what this pledge means. No one has talked to them about the significance of a pledge or of allegiance. And certainly no one has talked to them about what is meant when we make this pledge of allegiance to a flag.

Not a person. Not an ideal. A flag. A symbol. And a nebulous one at that.

What is the American flag a symbol of? The easy answer, of course, is the United States of America. But why should a person make the individual choice to bind themselves in loyalty to the United States of America? What about America is so special that we, as individuals, should not only pledge our allegiance to it but also compel our children to do so without even giving them an understanding or a choice of what we are asking of them?

What is America? What does it mean? Is it a set of values? Is it the American people? Is it our geographic territory? Is it our shared history?

What are we promising to remain loyal to? What does this promise demand of us?

And should we all agree on what we mean when we make this pledge?

Is it the values and guidelines set forth by our founding documents of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights?

If so, I can get behind that. If that’s what we mean, yes, I will pledge to uphold and defend the Constitution and Bill of Rights every day of my life. Happily. Proudly.

These guidelines and statements and structures set forth a foundation of values, rights, and a relationship between a people and their government that I believe in, even as they are in places vague and open for interpretation—they remain living documents that help us stay on a path of democracy and liberty even as our world changes and evolves. They are the blueprint for our national community, our sense of what we mean when stand for our country and when we stand together as a country.

And this is why I’m particularly bothered by recent comments by Donald Trump, who lamented that our constitutional system of checks and balances is hindering his ability to efficiently do what he wants to do, saying, “It’s an archaic system. . . . It’s a really bad thing for the country.”

Yes, that’s right, folks: the man who has taken an oath (a pledge) to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States” just said that our Constitution is bad for America. If you’re angry at me for questioning what it means to pledge allegiance to a flag (and compelling our children to do so without first ensuring that they understand what they are pledging) but you are not completely outraged by Trump’s comments here, then I’d like you to do some soul searching, because this is a contradiction.

The Constitution established “the Republic for which it [the Flag of United States of America] stands.” If we have willingly and thoughtfully made the Pledge of Allegiance, then we need to be aware that what we have pledged allegiance to may need defending right now from the man who may seek to break his own presidential oath.

Does the flag symbolize a love of the American people?

You know what? I can get behind that too. I don’t agree with everyone in the United States, but I believe all people (even non-Americans) have the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. I believe we all have a right to live with dignity and kindness and compassion. I believe in community and caring for one another. I believe all people deserve love, regardless of their political views, their family background, their religion (or lack thereof), their ethnic and/or racial heritage—all of it. I hold a general love for all people based solely on their humanity, and this, of course, includes all Americans.

But I look around at all the people who proudly make the Pledge of Allegiance and who believe that we should compel children to recite it beginning as soon as they can ape the words—and I don’t believe all Pledge lovers and defenders actually love and are willing to defend ALL Americans.

On every kind of media, I see people all too willing to walk down the path that our corporate propagandists and political party leaders are leading us down, paths that divide us and encourage us to hate each other, blame each other, and see each other as fundamentally wrong, as deficient, as less worthy of kindness, compassion, understanding, empathy, and basic human dignity.

I see people shrugging with indifference or even scowling in contempt as fellow Americans are killed and beaten without justice or humanity, as entire communities are abandoned economically and culturally and then decimated by mass incarceration and addiction, as millions of people struggle to make ends meet, provide shelter and food and healthcare for their families, and face impossible choices for their very survival.

How can anyone love America while they also hate or are indifferent to Americans?

Are we “one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all?” Are we really?

Are we pledging allegiance to this great land we call America?

We should definitely do that. I support that all the way. Yes, please, let’s pledge allegiance to this land.

Let’s vow to defend and protect our land, our water, our biodiversity, our air. Because it is amazing. And we love it. As well we should. Because we live here and depend upon this land and water and air for our very survival, as do the generations that will (hopefully) follow us.

This geographic territory that makes up what we and the world demarcate as the United States of America is our country. The country we claim to love. And we treat it like shit and are destroying it.

We are destroying our own country.

We are destroying our—the American people’s (see above)—ability to survive. To eat healthy food. To breathe clean air. To drink potable water. To not be ravaged by devastating storms and debilitating droughts and destructive fires. To not have our land taken by the rising sea.

How can anyone love America and not care about this land?

What about our shared history?

This is a hard one.

The republic of the United States of America has a great and proud history of grit and determination and idealism made law. We fought for our freedom from an oppressive, parasitic monarchy. We built this nation from the ground up. We took on massive projects that transformed our ability to trade, to move around this country and explore, to build a strong and thriving economy. We were instrumental in defeating fascism that threatened to take over the world, and we then helped rebuild economies globally, not just for our allies but also for those we vanquished. We should all be proud of our country for these things.

But we also built this country through the theft of its land from its native people, a theft that was made possible through genocide, destroying families and communities and cultures. And we continue to steal from and poison and disparage Native Americans.

We built this country and its thriving economy through the abduction, cruel and inhumane subjugation, bondage, and forced servitude of people from another land, which saw the murder of millions of Africans through the slave trade; the rape of millions of women; the physical, emotional, mental, cultural, and economic abuse of generations of black people, abuse that continues to this day in different, evolving forms.

We built this country while we subjugated and devalued an entire gender, reduced them to property, and denied their political voice until relatively recently (it is not yet a century now that women have had the right to vote). And we continue to treat women, their work, their contributions, their voices, their bodies as inferior, as less worthy, as objects to be used and disposed of as the patriarchy sees fit.

I could go on. But the point is: How do we pledge allegiance to a country that is both so great while also so flawed?

Someone once told me that if all of us were perfect, there would be no need for love.

To love America is to embrace our shared history—our imperfect legacy. It is to be proud of when we did good, but it is also to listen with all of our being to those who ask us to acknowledge and own when we failed humanity, when we ignored our own values, as set forth by our Constitution and Bill of Rights. To love America is both to honor our accomplishments as well as to always actively remember and seek to correct our failures of humanity and morality.

When I make the Pledge of Allegiance, this is also what I am promising to do.

I only hope that when we all make this pledge, we think about what it means to us. What does that flag symbolize for each of us? What are we promising of ourselves when we take this oath of loyalty?

What are you willing to do to uphold your pledge of allegiance?

To finish the story that began this post: my husband and I never purchased drinks on the plane—because it was a short flight, it was late at night, and we needed our energy to get our tired kids through the airport, to baggage claim, and then to the car. The man who gave us the money turned out to be sitting in the row in front of me, and I tried to give it back to him: as I said, we didn’t need the money, and I’m sure he needed it more than we did. But he refused. A few days later, still feeling bad for taking that money, I donated it plus another $20 to Wounded Warrior Project. And then I started writing this post.

I agree with him that the Pledge of Allegiance should be taken seriously, and to me this means that it should be respected, that it should be made with thought and care and understanding. I don’t think children should be compelled to take a pledge they don’t comprehend; instead I think we should teach them about it and allow them to participate when they feel they are ready. Because then it will mean something to them. Then it will be real and not just a bunch of words strung together because an authority figure tells us to say them.

After all, wasn’t the Revolutionary War fought in resistance to an authority figure making us do things because he said so?

[*] Note that “under God” was not added until 1954. I am not religious, so when I make the Pledge of Allegiance, I simply don’t say that part, and I know that my pledge doesn’t need it. The First Amendment of the Bill of Rights, which is part of what I am pledging my allegiance to, tells us that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” This tells me that people have the right not only to practice whatever faith they believe in but also to not practice a faith if they do not believe. For this reason, I object to this later addition to the Pledge of Allegiance because it is in contradiction to one of the components of what we are pledging allegiance to. It should also be noted that one religious faith, Quakers, do not allow the taking of a pledge, period. And the Bill of Rights protects their right to not pledge allegiance.

And What About That Other (Northern) Border?

in Foreign Policy by

In case you haven’t been listening to the news (me neither), the United States shares the longest international border in the world. It stretches 5,525 miles (8,891 kilometers) long and stretches from the Atlantic all the way to the mighty Pacific. The boundary moves through rivers, lakes, towns, and villages, over majestic country-side and rugged mountain peaks to separate our two countries. The border was established through war and peace and from difficult and tenuous negotiations first with Great Britain and then with the territorial government of Canada.

A picture of a segment of the US-Canada border. Note the lack of wall, access roads, watch posts, border crossings, surveillance points, or any signs of a border at all, with the exception of an obvious gap in the tree line extending from ocean to ocean.

Perhaps you were thinking I was instead referring to the US-Mexico border, itself 1,989 miles (3,201 kilometers) long and stretching from the Gulf of Mexico and Rio Grande to San Diego bay off California, but no, I wasn’t. The border between the United States and Canada also has the added distinction of being the most undefended border in the world. From Point Roberts in Washington to the disputed island of Campobello in the Bay of Fundy and all the way through the border with Alaska, the US-Canadian border carries with it none of the security detail, the technological sophistication, or the political concerns of our Mexican border to the south.

A photo of the US-Mexican border, with its stark contrast to the US-Canada border above. In addition to the “No-Man’s Land” and detention center on the US side (on the left), note the thirty-foot fence, paved access road, and surveillance cameras both on the secondary wall (not straight) and telephone poles strung along the line (ahead of the wall).

In fact, with the exception of a twenty-foot (six meters—hey, it’s Canada!) clearing between the United States and Canada at the border that stretches from coast to coast, one would never guess that one is approaching or crossing a border between the fifteenth largest and the largest economies in the world. A joint US-Canadian Commission is largely responsible for maintaining the border as well as mediating all disputes between the two countries, but for the most part the two nations share this border with little concern over immigration, trade, drugs, terrorism, or other issues that affect most other bordering countries. The same could not be said of the border some two thousand miles to the south.

And the question that should be on everyone’s mind (and I do mean everyone) is just why that is? Why do I suspect that with an annual operating budget of $13.5 billion (that’s right: BILLION, in cold hard tax dollars) for customs and border protection, most of it is going to one border and not the other. Why is it that no joint arbitration committee exists between the Mexico and the United States (well, not before, anyway)? And why don’t we hear anything about the need for more border control and protection with our friends to the north?

A basic lesson we can learn from this is that borders—or the apparent lack of them—says as much about the border erectors as they do about those whom the border is meant to keep out. Perhaps that’s why some of the most inspiring rhetoric Americans can still recite speak of tearing down barriers, whether figuratively (“A house divided against itself cannot stand.” Abraham Lincoln) to even literally (“Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate, tear down this wall!” Ronald Reagan). Strange isn’t it that this rhetoric speaks to one of our borders and not the other.

Although the US-Mexico border does actually extend twelve nautical miles (22.2 kilometers) out to sea, the actual border “fence” extends one hundred feet beyond the break line of the waves in Baja California. Now a secondary “no man’s land” fence is being installed one hundred feet north of the border along this section of the line, as seen in the foreground here. No such border extender or “no man’s land” exists with the Canadian frontier.


A study in contrasts between the two borders. “We always think of borders as something that separates two peoples, but of course they unite them. It’s something you have in common, literally.” Don Winslow. Perhaps some more than others.

Perhaps that’s the point. Although we have shared a long and fraught relationship with both the people of Canada (we’ve invaded them four times! 1767, 1778, 1812, and 1846) and Mexico (only three times! 1828, 1846, and 1912), we’ve never seemed to treat them the same (well, except for the invading part), despite our shared history, geography, and, indeed, people and culture. And despite the fact that Mexico contributes more land (literally the entire western third of our nation, seven states in all!), more of its people (in a 2009 study 1,062,640 Canadian Americans vs. 11.4 to 22.3 million Mexican Americans), and perhaps more of its treasure, we still don’t have the relationship and thus the border with our southern neighbor that we should.

There is one thing that is clear from all of this: we need to change our relationship between our two countries. By the election, that has already been arranged. Unfortunately, though, it’s probably not in the direction you (or I) think it should be going. But as the French (that is, Canadians) would say, “C’est la vie.”

CPAC and the Failing Politics of Vanity

in Progressive Organization by

Last month the American Conservative Union held its 44th Annual Conservative Political Action Conference (pronounced C-PAC for short) in National Harbor, Maryland. Held at the austere Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center on the banks of the Potomac, this convention has grown both in size and in stature to become known as “the conservative equivalent to Woodstock.”

Steven Bannon and Reince Preibus speaking at this year’s CPAC. Although the interview was carried out amidst all smiles and laughs, the delicate tension that currently exists between their two worlds will certainly create a moment of existential identity crisis for the right, if it hasn’t already.

What began as a rather humble gathering of young and idealistic conservatives in 1973 has evolved into a modern bazaar of the many shades and faces of the modern conservative movement. From laissez faire capitalism and small government libertarianism to gun rights, religious fundamentalism, and much more, the convention holds forth to over ten thousand paying attendees from all over the country and world, following in the footsteps of such famed conservatives as William Buckley, Phyllis Schlafly, and Ronald Reagan.

Various concession tables at CPAC 2015. It only goes to show that partisanship knows no barriers when it comes to good T-shirts and cupcakes.

The conference received good coverage this year, as both Vice President Pence and President Trump were among the many high-profile speakers who attended. Along with this new star power, even newcomers such as White House Chief Strategist Steven Bannon, once banned from the meeting for his extremist and white nationalist views, himself received a lukewarm (if not robust) welcome to the proceedings. Considering this stark and rapid change in the makeup of the face of American conservatism today, some dyed-in-the-wool conservatives are wondering whether the broader movement they helped birth and lead half a century ago is still a place for them.

Let’s not forget that for some conservatives the past year has also been one of growing frustration and bewilderment as it has been for many progressives as well. The words some conservative friends of mine have used when speaking about 2016 are “stunned,” “confounded,” and “resentful.” All at the thought that a former pro-choice, pro–universal healthcare Democrat with “New York values” could so eclipse the traditional makeup of what it means to be an American conservative. These are the realities of today’s vastly more complex and hazardous political terrain, but that story is for another day.

What also struck me as unique about this recent enclave was its lack of a likewise opposing convention by any groups on the left. A typical presidential address is always rapidly followed by an opposition-party response to the president’s message and agenda, so why not a progressive response to CPAC? Funny enough, but evidence suggests that CPAC was originally created as a response to the many progressive political action groups that once existed in the 1960s, whose origins could be traced back to the New Deal and even the Progressive Era.

Such gatherings made tremendous efforts on a host of issues such as child labor and worker’s rights, women’s and minority voting, fair housing and educational standards to name just a few. All these causes had their formal genesis at one point or another, through a joint declaration or statement from a convened body of like-minded citizens, prepared for the tough road head in advocacy for their cause.

Such conferences (or congresses as they are called) were places of real discussion and insight, as well as networking. Where activists and organizers could compare notes, confer amongst each other, and form lasting partnerships, which could yield tremendous results. Famous political conferences in the U.S. have resulted in the formation of the Republican Party (Ripon, Wisconsin 1854), the birth of feminism with the ‘Declaration of Sentiments’ at Seneca Falls, New York (1848), as well as the very founding of our modern government (Albany, New York, 1754; Annapolis, Maryland, 1777; and of course Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 1787).

A moment of tension at the famous 1977 National Women’s Convention held in Houston, Texas. Although the majority of the conference attendees supported the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), conservative women, led by Phyllis Schlafly, made their displeasure about the amendment heard. This split would lead to a larger rift in the feminist movement and would hamper calls for equality and equal treatment for women for decades to come.

Sadly, no such revered gathering of progressives exists today that carries the broad national attention and interest as CPAC does. This absence seems to suggest that the Left has lost some basic footing in creating and broadcasting a cohesive message that resonates with Americans today. In lacking this ideological alignment and organization, I fear we cede much of grassroots oxygen and attention to conservatives, who carry their ideology as if it were some fashion now in vogue. It need not be this way, and it can be different. But this isn’t what this article is about.

Even if such a progressive gathering akin to a “CPAC for the Left” did exist, with quadruple the number of attendees and such comparable luminaries such as former President Barack Obama, Senator Bernie Sanders, and Senator Elizabeth Warren along with all the headline activists you could name, something tells me the media coverage would still be a fraction of what CPAC receives, based on the way the media covered the Sanders campaign and how they have treated all major populist Left movements in the United States in the twenty-first century, from Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, to the Fight for $15, compared to the Tea Party movement. It does not look like anyone will be blaming the media for being too politically biased anytime soon. But, for that matter no one said the media played fair.

No, the real revelation that I have came away with from this year’s CPAC is the glamour and even vanity that the whole affair seems to exude. Much like a rock concert or a highly staged gun show, CPAC carries with it all the hallmarks of a great nostalgia concert tour, playing all the greatest hits to an audience (and media) of the converted, filled with concession stands selling its baubles and strains of whatever is considered “conservative” these days. Given the glitzy and almost stylish frontage that is now rolled out every year in from of the media and the viewers, I doubt it is a place where any concrete ideas, debates, or even discussions about what the movement, with all its newly acquired and tremendous power, will do. The red-carpet quality and coverage the gathering receives confirms this.

For me, although I’m frustrated that, as yet, no real response to such a gathering exists for the nascent progressive movement, I would never try to simply replicate a “CPAC of the Left,” even if the consequence was no conference at all. For although CPAC may draw newspaper headlines and attention, it is merely the façade for a failing ideology whose harsh and cruel nature and governing style will soon be painstakingly revealed. No hat, button, book, or performance can truly show someone how conservative or progressive one is; it can only be seen through action as much as it can be revealed in words.

Katy Perry performing for voters at a Hillary Clinton campaign rally in Pennsylvania. Despite the Clinton campaign’s star-studded rallies, overwhelming organization, and massive superiority to the Trump campaign in money (up to three to one), field staff, advertising, and endorsements, key swing states swung narrowly but decisively to Donald Trump.

Consider briefly the “glamour” and perhaps “vanity” that marked the Hillary Clinton campaign. I doubt activism involves listening to Beyoncé, Lena Dunham, or Katy Perry while on the campaign trail. The real act of political activism is listening to a family on the street regale you of their daily plight and helping them all better their lot in life, not just taking selfies. Wearing something political, posting to Facebook or Twitter, and attending rallies do not make you any more political than someone who regularly attends a playhouse or even a movie theater, for that matter. The same perhaps can also be said of CPAC, as this is what conventional wisdom considers political “activism” these days.

Several students presenting their findings at New York’s annual Left Forum hosted at John Jay College in Lower Manhattan in early June 2016. Similar low-key (though no less critical!) conferences might be happening in your area right now! Attend today!

I for one am not fooled by such vestiges of pomp and circumstance, though the Clinton campaign clearly was. Perhaps they thought they were part of the vanguard of a new politics for the Left. But there is a lesson we can learn from this, because like it or not, here we are. If you know of a conference of like-minded, politically oriented, civically minded people, join it. If there isn’t one, start one up. You’ll be surprised who you meet there, and maybe like the Founding Fathers, you too will start something special in your conversations and networks. It’s not like they expected to achieve very much—only change the course of history!

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