Denise, my wife, and I recently visited her parents in Champaign, Illinois. While perusing The News-Gazette, Champaign-Urbana’s daily, an article reminded me that the esteemed political columnist George Will, like my wife, hails from Champaign, hometown of the University of Illinois. Will’s father, Frederick, taught philosophy at the university. The newspaper article I looked at celebrated its famous son, reviewed his career (he taught at Harvard early on), and trumpeted his future book, a comprehensive analysis of conservative politics. It was a good article; Will gave some excellent quotes covering politics and presidents from TR to Obama that made News-Gazette writer Paul Wood’s job that much easier.
I’m not sure if I’ll read Will’s book when it comes out. I can remember in the 1970s and ’80s occasionally reading Will’s column in Newsweek. I didn’t have a chosen political self-identity at that point in my life. Political self-identity. According to a recent Gallup.com article, 26 percent of Americans identify themselves as Republican, 30 percent as Democrat, and a record 43 percent identify themselves as politically independent. I include myself in this last grouping. The hyper-partisanship present in both major parties is responsible for the lack of legislative progress on important issues (immigration reform, for example), and is simply characteristic of a society in regression. One of my previous blog post titles aptly describes the situation: “Blue Ruts and Red Ruts.”
My hometown daily, The Austin-American Statesman, runs a George Will column once a week. From the looks I’ve given those columns over the past couple of years, it’s apparent that Will now preaches more often than not to the Republican choir. He’s certainly not a lap-dog for the all the typical Republican causes – he was critical of the Bush-Cheney Iraq war, continues to be critical of the Nixon/Reagan-initiated “war on drugs,” and is an opponent of “too big to fail” Wall Street banks. However, his recent departure from ABC News (after a thirty year plus run) to partisan Fox News solidifies the perception that Will is simply speaking to the base, and not reaching out to independents or Dems. The A-AS also runs conservative political columnist David Brooks once a week; I read Brooks’ column every chance I get. Brooks intentionally writes for a wider audience and covers topics without having to make partisan political reference. Brooks’ presence on NPR also broadens his appeal (except to those, of course, on the far right).
A recent Will column, “Questions for attorney general nominee Loretta Lynch,” showcased some of his conservative wisdom: the bloated incarceration rates in America as unjust and expensive, and the rise of civil forfeiture – the seizure of property suspected of being involved with criminal activity – as unconstitutional. Will’s last point in the column, however, exposes a weak point symptomatic of today’s pockets-of-isolation American society.
Many progressives say that the 34 states that have passed laws requiring voters to have a government-issued photo ID are practicing “vote suppression.” Does requiring a photo ID at airports constitute “travel suppression”? Visitors to the Justice Department are required to present photo IDs. Will you – we will be watching with a fine-toothed comb – plan to end this “visit suppression”? (Published in The Washington Post, January 9, 2015.)
I can’t substantiate the following assertion as I don’t know Dr. Will personally, but I’m quite confident of its veracity: George Will doesn’t know anyone who is poor. Today’s America is separated into socio-economic enclaves of like-minded folks. I’ve referenced Bill Bishop’s The Big Sort (Mariner, 2009) previously in this blog; he’s shown that unlike American neighborhoods of a couple of generations ago, today’s American neighborhoods rarely allow for a mechanic to live next door to a medical doctor. Furthermore, wealthier people increasingly do not interact with those who are economically poor, except in situations of work or service. And in these instances, first names and amicabilities are seldom exchanged. Even so, wealthier people certainly will talk derisively about people who are on the lower ends of economic markers – 2012 presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s infamous “47 percent” gaffe being the most indicative.
George Will doesn’t know anyone who is poor. Poverty rates in America by ethnicity: whites, 10 percent; blacks, 27 percent; Latinos, 24 percent. Republicans favor voter ID laws out of concern for voter fraud, which has been shown to be rare. Democrats, remembering an American history of voter exclusion by numerous categories and tactics, oppose voter ID laws out of concern for minority voter suppression. The economically poor, however, have had low voter turnout rates for decades and initial studies in this new era of voter ID laws do not show lower voter turnout rates among their ranks. But, it’s a plain fact that not everyone eligible to vote has a government-issued photo ID. Who are these? Generally, they are younger Americans, those not college educated, Latinos, and those living in poverty (regardless of ethnicity or age). It costs money to have access to a car and have an accompanying drivers license, to arm oneself with a handgun (its photo permit an acceptable form of identification in order to vote in Texas), or to have a passport (another form of ID acceptable for voting in most states with voter ID laws). Requiring a photo ID at an airport in order to fly? Yes, of course, that’s a necessity in the post-9/11 world. But, again, it costs money to fly. Generally speaking, people living in poverty don’t do a whole lot of cruising in cars to an airport, .22 pistol in the glove box, ready to hop on a flight – domestic or international.
And what about the requirement that visitors to the Justice Department have a photo ID to get in? Yes, of course, for the protection of all in the building, entry through a metal detector and the offering of a photo ID is a necessity (until iris-recognition biometric technology is perfected). And what percentage of Americans ever enter the DOJ headquarters in Washington, D.C.? Answer: an incrementally small percentage. The topic at hand is not access to a privilege – car or gun ownership, a seat on an airplane, or entrance to a tightly secured federal building. The topic is voting – according to the Constitution – “a right” conferred to all citizens. The right to vote is taken away from convicted felons, but living in poverty is not supposed to be an obstacle to the ballot. It’s easy enough for middle- and upper-class folks to comply with voter ID laws; the requirements of these new laws reflect middle- and upper-class lifestyles and values. The new voter ID laws were written by people who, like George Will, for the most part, don’t know anyone who is poor.
Getting voter eligible identification cards into the hands of those who don’t have a photo ID is a pragmatic solution. Of the 34 states putting the voter ID laws into practice, how many are allowing for a “grace period” (two years seems reasonable) so that the estimated 10-12 percent that don’t have drivers licenses can procure a government-issued ID in order to vote, complying with the new laws?
There’s no questioning that George Will is a brilliant scholar and commentator. His brilliance is tarnished, however, by something that plagues many well-to-do Americans: not having personal relationships with anyone living in poverty, their understanding of their poorer neighbors’ reality is jaundiced – often loaded with judgment and lacking of deeper insight and compassion.
My book, Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good, is available at http://www.blueocotillo.com and wherever books and ebooks are sold, including Amazon.