Tag Archives: Hyper-partisanship

Why DOMA is Unconstitutional or America’s Grand Heritage of Egalitarianism

For those of us concerned about socioeconomic trends and their consequences, Robert Gordon’s The Rise and Fall of American Growth is one of the most important books we’ll see in 2016. This blog post is the third in a series that touches upon the issues the book covers: inequality, economic growth, and poverty, among others. Click on links for first and second posts in the series.

 

Robert Gordon’s The Rise and Fall of American Growth (Princeton University Press), an economic history of the United States, highlights important moments of American egalitarianism. Yes, good ol’ American egalitarianism!

gordon book

In the current age of excess that exuberates in chest-thumping hyper-partisanship and the attitude of winner-take-all, the meaning and sense of egalitarianism seems forgotten. A biblical concept, egalitarianism is the cry of the Israelites wanting freedom from Pharaoh and slavery; we hear echoes of it when the apostle Paul, calling for unity in the nascent Christian community of Galatia, challenges the Galatians’ understanding of entrenched identities, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female . . .” The word itself comes from the French egal – meaning “equal”but it refers to much more than equal parts or measurements. Egalitarianism emerges and comes to light from a situation of dominance-subordination, or inequality. Egalitarianism is opportunity and access for rich and poor alike. Egalitarianism is blind to the advantages typically derived from social status, pedigree, and wealth.

“What Happened to Egalitarianism?” is the title of the third chapter of my book Just a Little Bit More. I reference anthropologist Christopher Boehm, who studies primates and their social relationships. Boehm looks for interplay between the competing spirits of egalitarianism and winner-take-all in our evolutionary relatives as he investigates the origins of morality in the human family. He speaks of the principle of “reverse dominance hierarchy” as a form of egalitarianism; he witnessed weaker members in a group joining forces to combat the dominance of alpha males.* I call this not survival of the fittest, but survival of the united. Egalitarianism is a sociopolitical phenomenon. A group or community engaged in the struggle for self-determination within a larger community or with a competing community seeks or maintains a sense of equality. The achievements of the civil rights era in the United States are a prime example of the workings of egalitarianism, as is the process that led to the 2015 Supreme Court ruling that the US Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) is unconstitutional.

Gordon knows that America has a grand heritage of egalitarianism, starting with the Boston Tea Party and the revolutionary plea “No taxation without representation.” When Thomas Jefferson asserted in the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal,” the divine right of kings (sorry, George III) took a decisive egalitarian kick to the groin from which it has not recovered.** The competitive spirit of winner-take-all is legitimate and necessary, and has benefitted American ingenuity, inventiveness, and innovation. The winner-take-all ploy becomes troublesome, however, when there is no mitigating force to keep its excesses in check. Egalitarianism serves as the mitigating force of winner-take-all (and vice versa, for that matter), ensuring that the values of equality and greater access for the many win out over unmerited privilege for the few.

Here are some other gems in the history of American egalitarianism, according to Gordon:

The Price Tag: John Wannamaker opened the nation’s first department store, Grand Depot, in Philadelphia in 1876. Whereas bartering and haggling dominated the ways of buying and selling prior to this time, Wannamaker believed all people were “equal before price.” He eliminated price breaks and discounts for the connected, favored, and powerful. A religious man, he believed that all as equals before the Creator meant “one price for all.” He was the inventor of the price tag, an egalitarian innovation that revoluti0nized the consumer age.

The Networking of  Utilities – Electricity, Heating, Telephone, and Sewer: It wasn’t until the mid-1930s that more than half of Americans lived in cities. A majority of these urban dwellings were constructed after the turn of the century, enabling the inclusion of indoor plumbing, electricity, heat, and telephone. As Gordon says, “Networking implies equality. Everyone, rich and poor, is plugged into the same electric, water, sewer, gas, and telephone network. The poor may only be able to afford to hook up years after the rich, but eventually they receive the same access” (p. 95). Because of American society’s relative youth, the networking revolution of utilities spread much more quickly than it did in older European societies. (The current tragedy of lead-laden water in Flint, Michigan is a shameful example of inequality in this land where we refer to these utilities as “basic.”)

Radio: Pittsburgh’s first department store, Joseph Horne’s, began to sell amateur wireless sets – radios – for 10 dollars in the fall of 1920. On November 2, 1920, KDKA in Pittsburgh made the first radio broadcast in American history by transmitting election results as Warren Harding defeated James Cox to become the nation’s twenty-ninth president. Twenty years later, 80 percent of American households had radios in their domiciles. (For sake of comparison, only 75 percent of American households today have Internet access.) Gordon says the invention and rapid diffusion of radio was an example of “striking egalitarianism . . . enjoyed equally by the richest baron or poorest street cleaner” (p. 193).

Both forces – cooperative egalitarianism and competitive winner-take-all – are legitimate and inherently American; our society shines best when neither force dominates, but when they hold each other’s excesses in check. Too much egalitarianism stifles drive and creativity; too much winner-take-all produces inequality and accompanying ill effects. In Just a Little Bit More, I argue that our much cherished democracy needs egalitarianism in order to function at its best. American egalitarianism has helped make possible the following: emancipation from slavery, women’s suffrage, the many acheivements of the civil rights era, same sex marriage, and other accomplishments. Egalitarianism is a main driver of social progress in American and beyond. May we continue to lift it up and advocate it.

 

*Christopher Boehm, Hierarchy in the Forest: The Evolution of Egalitarian Behavior, Harvard University Press (1999), pgs. 1-3.

**More than two centuries after Jefferson’s famous formulation, we’re still working on fully living out its implied intention.

 

This blog and website are representative of the views expressed in my book Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good. Distributed by ACTA Publications (Chicago), JaLBM is available on Amazon as a paperback and an ebook. It’s also available on Nook and iBooks/iTunes, and at the website of Blue Ocotillo Publishing.

isbn 9780991532827

If you’re a member of a faith community – Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, or other – consider a book study series of Just a Little Bit More. The full-length book (257 pgs.) is intended for engaged readers, whereas the Summary Version and Study Guide (52 pgs.) is intended for readers desiring a quick overview of the work. It also contains discussion questions at the end of all eight chapter summaries.

Readers of both books can join together for study, conversation, and subsequent action in support of the common good.

The Spanish version of the Summary Version and Study Guide will be available in September 2016. ¡Que Bueno!

¡El librito de JaLBM – llamado Solo un Poco Más saldrá este Septiembre de 2016!

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In Lieu of Flowers . . .

inlieuofflowersI recently received a text message from my mom informing me that the mother of one of my high school classmates had passed away. My mom still lives in the locale where I went to high school back in the last quarter of the former century; I most recently lived there twenty-five years ago. As we texted back and forth, my mom further informed me that the deceased woman’s obituary had an interesting closing request: In lieu of flowers, please don’t vote for Hillary Clinton.

How’s that for a new twist on the obit pages? A quick search on the world-wide wonder reveals that, in obits across the country during this political cycle, numerous similar requests reach out to voters from the great beyond, or, at least, from the grave. And in an accurate reflection of unfavorable rating polls, Donald Trump and Ms. Clinton lead the way with negative mentions on the bereavement pages.

hilldonald

Negative requests are a sign of the times, skewed hyper-partisan. Before this era of hyper-partisanship, a rare obit might have kindly solicited a request for a positive vote for a particular candidate. In lieu of flowers, be so kind to consider a vote for candidate X in memory of the deceased. Even so, previous to this current era, such a request would have betrayed a slight breach of etiquette.

Newt Gingrich can be praised or blamed – depending on your point of view – for the current wave of hyper-partisanship. Elected Minority Whip of the House of Representatives in 1989, Gingrich became Speaker of the House as Republicans swept into power in 1994. Named Time‘s Man of the Year in 1995, Gingrich was lionized for his strategy to take the House after forty years of Democratic rule. Gingrich’s strategy wasn’t new, but it was effective: destroy the institution to save it – throw the majority bums out. Under his leadership, House Republicans refused to cooperate with Democrats and publicly portrayed them as the party most benefitting from entrenched corruption. The strategy worked so well, in fact, that the Democrats adopted it and succeeded in bringing ethics violations against Speaker Gingrich in 1998, eventually forcing his resignation from office the following year.

Hyper-partisanship is yet the political modus operandi of the day, and it has spilled over into American society as acceptable behavior. Economic segregation in America has increased; and, in some quarters, the demonization of others who are “different” is on the rise. It makes me wonder: Could the spirit of American hyper-partisanship be strong enough to survive into the great beyond, colonizing a few cloistered places for hyper-partisans? God only knows if there will be gated communities in the afterlife . . .

vernonjohns

Pastor Vernon Johns (1892-1965)

Vernon Johns was Martin Luther King Jr.’s predecessor at Dexter Avenue Baptist in Montgomery, Alabama – the church that proudly stands one block away from the Alabama State Capitol. Johns, provocative and creative, was a firebrand for equality.

One weekday morning in 1949, Brother Johns, as was his custom, arranged the letters on the front sidewalk sign announcing his coming Sunday sermon topic for passersby. What a shock to the good people of Montgomery, abiding by the laws of racial separation, to see the preacher’s sermon title spelled out: Segregation after Death. The Montgomery police chief noticed the sign and demanded that Johns come to the police station to explain himself. Luke 16:19-31 – Jesus’ parable of the beggar Lazarus and the rich man Dives – provided Johns with his textual basis. Johns explained to the chief and his lieutenants that Dives, a staunch practitioner of segregation (economic and otherwise) during his earthly life, was cursed by it in the afterlife. The reversal of fortune – Dives suffering in Hades, and Lazarus being comforted by Father Abraham in Paradise – was not enough for Dives to see that he shared common humanity with Lazarus. The chief and his men, according to Johns’ retelling of the encounter, were moved with empathy. He was not required to alter or take down the sign with his bold sermon title.

Johns’ brilliant interpretation of Jesus’ parable for Montgomery’s specific context focused Luke’s message not on the afterlife, but on how human brothers and sisters, sharing common humanity, treat one another in this life.

That said, brothers and sisters: Vote your conscience, love your neighbor, and begin to shed any negative hyper-partisanship* that unnecessarily discolors your relationships with others in the human family. You can’t take it with you when you go, you know.

 

*I suppose there is an occasional time and place for hyper-partisan strategy. But may it be rare, and not commonplace.

If you’re interested in further reading on the life of Vernon Johns, see Taylor Branch’s incomparable Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-1963; Simon & Schuster (1989) pages 7-25.

 

 

This blog and website are representative of the views expressed in my book Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good. JaLBM, distributed by ACTA Publications (Chicago), is available on Amazon as a paperback and an ebook. It’s also available on Nook and iBooks/iTunes, and at the website of Blue Ocotillo Publishing.

isbn 9780991532827

If you’re a member of a faith community – Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, or other – consider a book study series of Just a Little Bit More. The full-length book (257 pgs.) is intended for engaged readers, whereas the Summary Version and Study Guide (52 pgs.) is intended for readers desiring a quick overview of the work. It also contains discussion questions at the end of all eight chapter summaries.

Readers of both books can join together for study, conversation, and subsequent action in support of the common good.

 

The Spanish version of the Summary Version and Study Guide will be available in September 2016. ¡Que Bueno!

¡El librito de JaLBM – llamado Solo un Poco Más saldrá este Septiembre de 2016!

 

 

 

 

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Blue Ruts and Red Ruts

My wife and I took in Richard Linklater’s Boyhood last year when it came out. Encompassing twelve years of filming, Boyhood gently breaks new ground as viewers watch its characters grow, develop, and age. In one of the opening scenes, siblings Sam (played by Linklater’s real-life daughter Lorelei) and Mason (played by Austinite Ellar Coltrane) seek out their mother’s attention via a good old-fashioned sibling yelling fight. “Mom! Tell her to quit it!” What younger brother wouldn’t yell for his mom to tell his older sister to be quiet when she annoyingly sings and dances out Britney Spears’s Oops! . . . I Did It Again in his face?

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Mark and Tim (circa 1980)

My brother and I used to pull crap like that all the time; not mugging Brittany, but slamming an imaginary Mike Nesmith axe in the other one’s face, among other pranks. Only 13 months and mere weeks apart, my brother Mark and I used to go at it competitively and contentiously. It’s a miracle we didn’t drive our poor mother out of her mind. (Although, back in the day when embarking on a trip of any sort our mom would instinctively answer our constant query of Where are we going? with the stock reply of Crazy.) But something happened as my brother and I hit our teenage years and headed off to college: we realized we were on the same team. Brothers – family – yes, teammates.

Witnessing the political behavior that emanates from Washington DC (and from other capitols across the country) is akin to watching small children – siblings, no less – fight and argue, kick and scream, and without fail, blame the other. Of course, it’s always been this way and this is how democracy works. Partly true, but things are markedly worse now than they’ve been for a long time. How nostalgic to remember President Ronald Reagan (Republican red) and House Speaker Tip O’Neill (Democratic blue) in action: they agreed that before 6:00 p.m. it was all politics, and after that designated hour they were to be on cordial behavior. Reagan even threw a seventieth birthday party for O’Neill at the White House. They saw themselves as adversaries, and not mortal enemies. Today’s political hyper-partisanship traces back to Newt Gingrich’s strategy as the Republicans, in 1994, took majority control of the House of Representatives for the first time in forty years. It was a brilliant strategy that brought an end to an entrenched status quo: Destroy the institution to save it – throw the majority bums out. But, unfortunately, that same strategy has been the modus operandi for both dominant political parties ever since, producing ample gridlock which helps maintain the status quo. Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein in their book It’s Even Worse Than It Looks (Basic Books, 2012) argue that political polarization is at an all-time high in American society. And that’s going some 150 years back to the time of Reconstruction.

Blue ruts and red ruts. Not only our politicians, but many citizens are stuck in what I call blue and red ruts. Many people are stuck in place not moving forward, like a spinning car wheel stuck in a rut, not able to perform its task of moving the car forward, but only digging the rut deeper and deeper. Many citizens, of course, align themselves with one of the two major political parties. We all have our preferences and heartfelt convictions. But to be hyper-partisan to the point where one side feels as if the other side has no legitimate ideas or input? If you are a committed Democrat, do you truly feel the country would be better off if everyone was a Democrat? And putting the shoe on the other foot, would we be better off if we all were Republicans – every single one of us? How many of us – aligned with one of the dominant political parties – actually have adult conversations (without temper tantrums or name calling) on important societal topics with a friend or acquaintance aligned with the opposing political party? Think about the possibilities for positive change in our society if we turned off Fox News and MSNBC and actually conversed one with another in a civil manner . . . and then acted upon our convictions in public service to benefit the common good.

Diversity – different parts working together, carrying out specific tasks – moves us forward. As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks claims in his book Future Tense (Shocken, 2009), ideology is “the attempt to impose a single truth on a plural world.” Partisans want to have their way; that’s normal. But they also realize in a big world it’s good to get along with others, share, and not pout (too often). Hyper-partisans, on the other hand, like siblings who can only fight and whine, don’t get along with those who are “different” and certainly don’t want to share or cooperate. That’s not how families or democratic societies function at their best. Getting stuck in a rut – no matter the color – that’s not much good for anyone.

It’s much better to live out and recover the democratic understanding of politics as the art of the possible. Impossible? Time to call out (and vote out when possible) the hyper-partisans who act more like children than adults.

brothers

Brothers Mark, Matt, and T. Carlos

 

If you like what is written in this blog post, you’ll like what I have to say in Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good (Blue Ocotillo Publishing, 2014). It’s available at this link, and at other venues where books and ebooks are sold.

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