Of Men and Ideas

Listen to the people in your world that vigorously disagree with you. Don’t try to change their mind. Don’t argue with them. Not yet. Not until you’ve listened. Just listen and seek to understand.

It’s a rare and difficult principle to maintain. I do try to get outside the echo chambers that agree with me as much as I can. But sometimes, I don’t know I’m in one until it’s too late. Recently, around October 8th maybe, I realized that I’d been in one for quite a while. It was one that told me that Donald Trump was personally too despicable to be president of the United States of America. Clearly I was wrong. Because I didn’t do that thing I just said to do. I didn’t seek to understand. I saw the man. And I dismissed him, with good cause to be fair. But I never dug down deep into understanding Trump-ism. I fought the man, never the idea. And that’s a problem.

So what is Trump-ism?

You can find the answer wedged somewhere between Scott Baio and Jerry Fallwell Jr. telling Yo Mama jokes at the Republican National Convention this year. A man named Peter Thiel spoke. Thiel is a billionaire Silicon Valley businessman who is one of the few men in the world who have founded multiple billion dollar corporations. He sits on the board of directors for Facebook. He counts people like Elon Musk as his partners and peers. And if there’s a Mount Rushmore of the modern “dot com” business ecosystem, Thiel is on it. You could write ten thousand words on what’s right and wrong with Thiel and still not be done. You could write another ten thousand on why he doesn’t fit any molds that we like to put people in. I’m not going to do that here. But I’m familiar with him. And as someone who works in the tech world and moves in the Silicon Valley circles, I can get you pretty far with a few sentences.

Peter Thiel has had success listening to what everyone is saying and doing, and going and finding something else, building it before anyone else does and winning before there is competition. He asks aloud in his books and speeches, and urges us to ask ourselves, what truth do you believe, that almost no one else does? It’s a hell of a question, especially in business. He is, after all, Silicon Valley’s contrarian. If you want to know more about him, Google him. There’s loads of stuff, much of it ugly and negative. But as far as this discussion goes, that stuff, is noise. Because it’s fighting the man again, not the idea. His ideas, though, are at the emotional center of Trump-ism, whether or not he ever intended them to be. They can be summed up in two Peter Thiel quotes:

“For a long time our elites have been in the habit of denying difficult realities. That’s how bubbles form.” Thiel is the anti-bubble.

Yes.

People incorrectly believe that “If you don’t conform (to diversity), then you don’t count as diverse. No matter what your background”

I love it.

When I read those quotes as a business leader and someone who has worked on my own start-up, I get pretty fired up. It evokes emotion. It stimulates me. They are powerful words that speak directly to the psyche of change makers-people who want to drive to a better tomorrow. And when I posted those quotes and his name on my Facebook page without commentary, I got a very heavy dose of feedback about Thiel being a white nationalist and an anti-semite and a rape apologist and an opponent of the free press. All of which may be true. I don’t know. I’ve never been in the same room with the man. But none of the dissenting commentary addressed the ideas he had. Because in a vacuum, they are ideas that are nearly impossible to discredit.

We don’t live in a vacuum though. And right now, those words are being spoken in the Trump-ist echo chamber with great excitement.

So what exactly is that truth Trump-ists believe that no one else does? Except all other Tump-ists of course. Steve Bannon, chairman of Breitbart News and recently appointed chief strategist of Donald Trump’s administration can help explain it. Now, it’s possible that hearing the words Steve Bannon evokes a blinding rage in you and a need to spout out a laundry list of grievances about white supremacy, misogyny and maybe even a twenty year old arrest report for domestic violence. And that’s fine. But realize, you’re doing it again. That’s the man. The man is easy to beat. The idea, well, that’s another thing all together.

So here’s the idea in his words.

America is in “a crisis both of capitalism and the underpinnings of the Judeo-Christian west in our beliefs.”

Bannon says that crony capitalism and globalization have eroded the stability of our country and weakened us to the point of crisis. Whether or not he believes it matters far less then what it means. Thiel and Bannon are Trump-ism. They form a combination of contrarian, anti-elite non-conformists, conforming together behind the belief that the key to restoring righteous capitalism is a focus on the return to a Judeo-Christian led world.

If not…it’s going to be China for a hundred years…

That’s the idea. And it comes in the form or a red hat, and a slogan.

It’s powerful idea. And it represents one side of the modern political argument in America today. You couldn’t have sent a worse champion than Hillary Clinton to strike it down if you tried. She was perfect if you were fighting the man. But she wasn’t fighting the man. She was fighting the idea. And she was powerless against it. Perhaps if we had taken the time to understand the idea, we may have thought differently. Perhaps that’s why the Democratic National Committee is in ruins, when most of us thought that it was the Republicans on the edge of oblivion.

That doesn’t mean Trump-ism is right though. In fact I believe it’s quite wrong. But it took a little digging and understanding to get there for me. And in order to do that, you have to be willing to divorce the ideas from the men saying them, especially since some of those men are only saying those ideas because they know they are the ideas that work right now. Because the ideas are not wrong because of the men saying them. The ideas, by themselves, on their own merit are wrong. Dangerously so. And we need to start screaming from the mountain tops why.

First, intended or not, the core argument of Trump-ism, Judeo-Christian leadership of the world, is a substantial part of the argument that white supremacist groups use to further their message. Trump-ism left off the part about racial superiority. Those groups gladly add it back in. And when you deliver the Trump-ism message, and you are willing to accept anyone who believes it, without strong condemnation of those specific groups that add racial superiority to it, it provides oxygen for them to grow and breed and start to normalize and call themselves things like “Alt Right”. And then they form groups that sound snappy like The National Policy Institute. Make no mistake about it.The National Policy Institute is a white supremacy organization. If you can’t get a couple hundred of your members in a room without a bunch of them throwing out Nazi salutes or yelling sieg heil, and the first Op-Ed on your pretty web page is about the folly of desegregation in schools, then you are a white supremacy group.

You can call yourself something else. And you can ooze into the room with lots of other dis-enfranchised people and tell them you are the same. But you aren’t. And unless the leadership of the new Republican Party denounces it and cast it out of their numbers, a dangerous political discussion is on the horizon. Because whether or not to denounce and eliminate from prominence groups that further white supremacist ideology cannot become a political debate.

Secondly, because frighteningly the first part isn’t enough, if the “Judeo-Christian” portion of your message really is the whole message, than that’s a problem. Because that’s not American. America, imperfect in her ways, has been defined by relative inclusivity. Our strength has come from differing people coming to us from places with their ideas and their drive to build something. And my opposition to Trump-ism is grounded on the belief that I’m not willing to give on that. Not because I’m full of love and togetherness and because I’m naive to those out there that want to do us harm. I’ve fought them all over the world in places you’ve probably never seen doing things you’ll probably never do. I’m not willing to give on that relative inclusivity because turning inward makes you weak. And ignoring the skills and ideas that others have, and forcing them to seek other places to have them, makes others stronger. My message of dissent is about making and keeping us strong.

It pretty simple for me.  If that big idea that you have that no one else agrees with, that Peter Thiel disruptive change the world for the better idea, is that the words penned in our Declaration of Independence or in the Bill of Rights are wrong, that all men aren’t created equal and that only some are born with liberties and the freedom to pursue their faiths, then fine, let’s have that debate. And let’s have it in earnest. The fact that middle America, my strong patriotic brothers and sisters that took up arms with me to fight Islamic fundamentalism and other ideologies that threatened our way of life appear willing to have it, hurts me. It hurts me down to my soul. Because I believed, and I still need to believe that we are better than that. And that the principles that I swore to defend with my very life didn’t only apply to me and people like me. They applied to everyone.

So let the debate begin.

What Now?

I’m not a liberal. I’m not a safe space, social crusader.

I’m not a sore loser who can’t get over the fact that Hillary Clinton wasn’t elected president. The notion that I had to put what lukewarm support I had for a candidate behind her was a source of great frustration for me.

I am, at my very core, someone with conservative foundations.

I believe that men and women, whenever possible, should be free to live their lives without government intervention. My family and my Christian faith are the center of my life. I like my guns. Chances are, I’m better than you at using them.

I’ve worked with and for the toughest most dangerous men on the planet. Men you’ve read books about. Men you’ve seen movies about. I’ll never claim to be one. But I’ve proven myself useful in their presence. I share this with you so you understand where and who the message I’m about to deliver comes from.

I’ve been all over this planet. And there’s a troubling observation that I’ve made on my way. It’s that mankind, when left to our own devices, does not naturally accept different people. Whether I saw Sunni and Shia in Iraq refusing to recognize the humanity of the other because of relatively nuanced differences in their common faith, or tribal warfare and genocide in sub-Saharan Africa or racial oppression and modern slavery of East Asia, the ingrained need to divide and subjugate others is ever present. In mankind’s darkest moments, the most common culprit has been that division.

For most of the last seventy thousand years, since the cognitive revolution of man drove us to organize, we’ve programmed ourselves to trust and support those that are similar to us. The result is that there have been frighteningly few societies in the history of mankind which have not been separated by either race, class or gender.

Where there is one race, we make caste systems.

Where lack of structure provides no castes, we subjugate gender.

It’s as consistent across time and region as the number of our limbs or the shape of our organs.

Fifty years ago in America, we made the first real effort, at scale, in the history of man, to change it in a society as diverse as ours. And since then, we’ve made great but imperfect progress. The work isn’t done. But we’re further than where we were 50 years ago. When we get there and make good on the promise penned by our forefathers, it will be the greatest, rarest accomplishment in our history.

On Tuesday, we took one giant leap backward on the arc of our journey to one people. And over the last four days, I’ve been bombarded by explanations of why Donald J. Trump was just elected president. I don’t need any more. I didn’t need them in the first place.

I know why he was elected.

He was elected because the only message that matters for the American government in 2016 is a need for change. And when the alternative to that change was someone who moved into the White House when I was fifteen, (I’m 40 now) that choice was clear for some.

But it was a choice.

And the ultimate choice that was made, the one people will remember a hundred years from now, was a willingness to ignore personal decency and fair treatment towards people who are different in service to that change. That was the choice that the minority of the American electorate made. That was the choice that about a quarter of eligible American voters made.

I’m not here to argue the legitimacy of the results. And I don’t get to pick and choose whether I support democracy because of the outcomes. I won’t tell you that you are a racist or a bigot if you voted for Donald Trump. I won’t even tell you that you personally are indecent. But I will tell you what you just bought with your choice.

You bought a very vigilant, sensitive and loud American majority who will cry foul at the drop of a hat for anything that resembles attacks on those we have fought so hard for these last fifty years.

Because what you showed us with his nomination and your vote in the election, is that you can’t be trusted to do it without us.

Many of my devout conservative friends were remarkably quiet when their candidate trashed their personal values. And they were remarkably quiet when their candidate made inexcusable first hand remarks about minorities, women and disabled Americans. And they were remarkably quiet when the dark forces of white supremacists aligned themselves in support of their candidate.

I understand why. You couldn’t live with the alternative. So you rationalized out of fear that speaking up would enable it. Well, that risk is gone now. You avoided the end you couldn’t live with.

That excuse is gone.

And now it’s fair to say that tolerance of that behavior from here on can only be seen as an endorsement of it. So when there’s a KKK rally in North Carolina to celebrate the election of the candidate you support, you no longer have any excuse not to condemn it with the same uncompromising vigor that you condemned Hillary. Let’s see the memes. Let’s see the Facebook posts. Let’s see the outrage.

Perhaps the rest of America can trust you to hold the leader of our government to the change you so uncompromisingly sought. But we won’t trust you to look out for our fellow Americans who are different.

So, get ready for four years of vocal, loud, peaceful I pray, dissent. If you thought the core Trump supporters would be loud if Hillary Clinton won, what do you think is going to happen now that you’ve  marginalized a group that has much more to lose than freedom from background checks for guns and a ten percent lag in wage growth?

At stake for them, is participation in our society. And if their vocal insistence on it is something you aren’t willing to tolerate, then perhaps you might consider a different path in thirty months when you get to choose your next leader without the looming evil of Hillary excusing your choice.

You can’t point to her any more as cause.

If insistence on decent treatment of all Americans makes me a liberal in the eyes of conservatives, then maybe we should take some time to reflect on who our modern conservatives actually are. The world is watching.

The American System

Mass conflagration.

It’s one of my favorite terms. It’s a kind of training exercise on a naval ship. It simulates a scenario where everything has gone so horribly wrong in combat that the crew is no longer trying to focus on the military objective of defeating the enemy. Instead, they’ve shifted their resources to saving the ship and themselves. It’s not an easy thing to do. It requires lots of coordination and expertise. So you have to practice it. I did it more times than I can remember during the two years when that’s what I did with my life-serve on a ship.

I’m not on a ship any more. I’m not even in the navy any more. But I experience mass conflagration often-for about an hour, every morning,  in my house, when my wife and I are getting our children ready for school. If you have grade school aged kids, you know exactly what I mean. If you pretend you don’t, you’re a bald face liar.

No matter how hard we try, within the first 30 minutes of our day, my wife and I surrender all attempts at making this a “great” morning and instead are forced to focus on two things 1) getting them to the bus alive and 2) staying married. Save the ship…and her crew…Both are in question more times than I’m happy to admit. To be fair, neither are ever her fault.

The risk to #1 is caused by my kids. Every morning they appear to be both equally surprised by the existence of school and unaware of the any activities required to get them there. Again, if you have kids, you know exactly what I mean. The risk to #2, staying married, is more interesting-and also why I’m talking about getting my kids ready for school in the morning in a politics and society blog. Why my wife hates be by the time the bus gets there is really the issue.

I have what I like to call a linear approach to solving the problem of getting through the morning with school aged children. I like to think that waking up earlier, preparing lunches the night before, waking the kids up earlier, or limiting breakfast options are all things that give us more time to get out of the house. Yelling louder makes them move faster…gives us more time to get out of the house. My approach is more rigor, leads to more efficiency, leads to less time required, leads to less hurrying, leads to less stress, leads to a calmer, happier morning-a better outcome.

It seems like a common sense approach.  Many people like common sense, effort in-results out approaches. Because it makes us feel like we’re in control. But here’s why I’m wrong-and she’s right.  And here’s why my approach has the opposite effect of a calm, happy morning for my family. I’m not in control.  Neither is she. No one is. Because morning in the Hughes household is complicated.

My kids, are young. And their needs vary. Some are autistic and can’t really communicate-yelling makes it worse, not better. Some have very real medication needs. Others are simply a pain in the ass-yelling helps them-hurts others.  Sometimes my wife has clients she has to see early. And sometimes she doesn’t. And sometimes my job emails me in the middle of the night and an emergency is waiting for me when I wake up. So even if I wake up early, my attention goes there instead of making pancakes. And then I’m grumpy about work and no pancakes all at once.

Mornings in the Hughes household look a lot more like a living breathing organism then an assembly line. Living breathing organisms are hard to control. Assembly lines are not.  Assembly lines are linear. Input, effort and execution yields outputs. Organisms are systems. Sometimes inputs don’t match outputs the way you would think. Some things work with others better than others work with some.  Improving a single aspect (screaming at one kid) can potentially have a negative effect on another (an autistic panic in the one sitting next to him). Doing some things worse (waking up later) can actually make others better (more rest, less grumpy-but still grumpy-dad).

Mornings in the Hughes household are a system-a set of connected things or parts forming a complex whole. And the goal of that system is to get our children to school fed, clothed and in a state of mind to learn. And when you apply a linear strategy to a system, well, you get yelled at by your wife for being stupid. Because it doesn’t work. Doing things that don’t work over and over again is stupid.

About the only time I don’t apply systems thinking is when I’m being an obtuse rock head dad or husband. I don’t really know why, but I know I’m not alone. Outside the home though, I’m a systems thinker. I’ve taken a systems approach to fighting wars and insurgencies. I’ve used it to build software products. I’ve used it to market this blog. Just about any problem more complex then brushing your teeth takes systems thinking. I live by it. Because its how you solve hard problems. Which are the best kind to solve.

America is a system-a giant system. Problems like poverty, job creation, racial inequality and terrorism take systems thinking-because they’re hard, complex problems with lots of overlapping and inconsistent inputs. Doing something logical and linear may sound like a good idea. (We have too many people from outside our country inside our country. We must build a wall.) Because it’s simple and it makes you feel in control. But it actually doesn’t solve the problem. Because it’s not actually designed to solve a problem. It’s designed to make people angry or happy. Because it’s politics.

The core difference between a political debate and a debate of any other kind is that other debates focus on differing opinions to solving an issue. Political debates focus on differing opinions of what the issue is. There are no solutions to political debates. And nowhere besides government do we focus the energy on the politics of something and not the solution. Good non-government entities usually use the word politics at the beginning of a sentence used to describe an effort or decision that didn’t make any sense. My wife and I never argue over whether or not its good if the kids get to school on time-only how effective me yelling at them is. See the difference? Spending a morning on the former would be stupid.

This is a round about way to get to the following fairly simple point.

Politics are stupid.  

Political cycles are a long standing dialogue that argues whether the problem at hand is making our country great again or keeping it great. Those are two very different problems. And it’s party agnostic. Whatever party owns the government, owns the burden of arguing to keep our country great. Whatever party  is out in the cold owns the burden of arguing that we must return the party to greatness. The problems you identify when your task is keep are very different then the problems you identify when your task is return.

Here’s my point again: Politics are stupid.

Systems thinking is not. Political thinking is linear. You are allowed and expected to make simple arguments that people can digest that have no chance at solving any material problem in politics. Political motivation and systems motivation cannot occupy the same space at the same time. You cannot solve hard problems without systems thinking. You cannot solve problems with politics.

Politics are lunacy. Political opinion is a waste of time.

So the next time you are about to engage in a political debate with someone or spend time listening to two gas bags argue about whether or not something is a problem by proposing simple bite sized ideas that won’t solve anything important, pause and say to yourself, out loud.

“What I am about to do is an absolute and thorough waste of time.”

If you must continue, realize you’re using the same part of your brain that argues whether or not Lebron James is better then Kobe Bryant-or whether or not the best Pebbles are Co-Co or Fruity. Political thinking is capable of solving one problem-maintaining or taking control of government. The less time you spend there-says the guy with the political blog-the freer you are to think about the things that matter.

Like how the hell your son can lose his shoes twice in one morning.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Left Behind

How did they get this way?

It’s the question you can’t avoid asking when you see it-hundreds of them, all ages, men, women, even children. Every race. It’s hopelessness smeared across the canvas of the human experience. It’s an end to which you can’t see your way to. From where you were to where they are just doesn’t connect. So you have to ask it.

How the hell did they get this way?

For the last year, my wife has been helping them. Our kids are all in school now and it was time to start on a new journey for her. She went back to grad school and now is serving as a counselor at The Veteran’s Village of San Diego-a facility that takes in addicted homeless veterans. The task is to provide them with a chance to start over, get off the streets, get sober. So that’s what she does with her days at work. She listens to the problems of homeless, addicted veterans and tries to help them develop some emotional skills to cope. It’s not light work. And it’s not for the faint of heart.

Today we’re at Stand Down, the annual three day event where volunteers and resource providers gather in one spot and invite the homeless veterans of San Diego to come to them and seek help-anything from medical care, to clothing to haircuts to legal assistance. It’s a massive intervention. And every year, since 1988, about a thousand homeless vets come here to get what they can. After her first day, she told me I needed to come. I needed to see it. As a vet. As a father. As a man. So I did.

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Now we sit outside the tent where the people she’s completed an”intake” for are finding out whether or not they can get off the streets and participate in the program at Veteran’s Village. At the table a woman checks their name. If they’ve been accepted into the program, she shakes their hand and says, “welcome home”. Tears and hugs follow. It’s the first good news any of them have heard in a long time. Years. Decades. Maybe a lifetime.

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She takes me to other places.  She wants me to see all of it. The children’s tent, where there’s daycare for the kids while their parents seek services. The tent is full. It tugs at your heartstrings. If you look too closely it rips them clean out of your chest. A woman drops off her listless son, four maybe five.  She walks unevenly away, too quickly, yet too slowly at the same time, coherent but a little off the way someone who’s body no longer understands it’s place any more.

“She’s tweeking” my wife says.  “They all are.”

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We head over to where they hand out clothes and get haircuts.  A man, gray beard, raggedy clothes, shows her pictures of his reenlistment-20 years ago maybe, clean cut in his dungaree uniform. I’ve seen that photo a hundred times. Hell, I could have been there. He babbles, trying to tell a story but mostly just repeats that he’s been driving cross country.  And that he has daughters.  And that he’s “service connected” as in service connected disabled.  He wanders off to show the pictures to someone else and finds another audience in one of the volunteers. Out comes the photo book. And the story.

Over the PA system, a live testimonial of a former Air Force enlisted woman cuts loudly over the crowded murmur. Today she received two things-her chip for being sober one year. And the good news from the legal tent that they were able to overturn her dishonorable discharge and change it to honorable. She was now two albatrosses lighter-though still hopelessly behind in the race. More applause. More tears. The question comes back in the silence that follows. I have to ask my wife.

How did they get this way?

She says, matter of factly, almost surprised that I couldn’t tell. “Addiction.  Almost all of them.”

We walk a little further out into the center of the field of tents, surrounded by them now. She continues, “And every single one, that I’ve talked to at least, every one, is self-medicating something. Anxiety, depression, ADD, PTSD, maybe a little of all of it.”

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I think about my boys. And me. And the generations of my family of addicts. I could see them there. After we’re gone maybe. It’s too tough to think about though. So I stop.

The week before, the two of us attended a talk given by former Congressman Patrick Kennedy-son of Senator Ted Kennedy. Congressman Kennedy, who retired from office in 2011, recently authored a book chronicling his own public journey with addiction titled, A Common Struggle.  In 2008 he sponsored the Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act (MHPAEA), groundbreaking legislation prohibiting less favorable treatment for benefits related to substance abuse disorders than to other disorders. In retirement, Congressmen Kennedy now serves as an advocate for mental health issues. Of particular focus on the day we saw him was the enforcement of requirements laid out by the very law he sponsored-something that has been sadly slow to catch on. The outcomes, in many ways, have directly contributed to the massive addiction epidemic that is arguably the most serious medical crisis facing America today. As I walked from tent to tent, I bathed in that reality.

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There was something that he told us, in the grand ball room at the majestic Manchester Grand Hyatt that overlooked San Diego harbor, that I couldn’t shake. Now, as I stood there watching these poor souls shuffle around, over the dust and dirt of the dying grass, it started to grind slowly into my brain. The Congressmen noticed that other members of Congress who had, behind closed doors, disclosed the impact addiction had on their lives, also voted against the bill he introduced. When he asked them why, they stated that where they came from, the heartland of America, things like addiction were considered a moral issue-not a medical issue. And that supporting a bill that found its motivation grounded in something to the contrary, would open them up to risk- politically.

As I watched these men and women who served us all at one time, in their broken state, those words grew louder in my head.

Moral. Not Medical.

Then I remembered my experience transitioning out of the service. I remember returning from Iraq and having about a year before I was completely out. I remember the stress and the horrible feeling of detachment. I remember that, for the first time since I was 18, I no longer had someone to reach out to that was responsible for my well-being as a function of their job. I remember, that for the first time, I alone was responsible for my family. I remember the crippling anxiety. And I remember, for a brief time, when that inner turmoil transitioned from the “moral” to the physical by way of crippling panic attacks.

Most of the time they came at night. I would wake up shortly after I fell asleep gasping for air-my heart racing. I wasn’t having bad dreams. I wasn’t even feeling stressed. I couldn’t explain it. Then, they started coming in broad daylight. I would feel fine, and then a rush of dread, racing heart, panic, frozen in fear. Twice they happened in job interviews. I hid it well, I thought. I didn’t get those jobs though. And I always got the jobs.  I was an officer from Annapolis with an MBA and a shining war-time service record. And I’m a hell of an interview. But I was falling apart.

I had options though. And time. And the support of a loving wife and family. And the fellowship of a loving church. And I needed every bit of all of it. Eventually the father of my roommate from the Naval Academy made a connection for me. And I made the most of it and turned it into a job. I got counseling and learned some methods to control the attacks. And soon they went away and never came back. That was a long time ago. But not that long.

Looking out from the gated suburban neighborhood I live in, from my over sized track house or from my corporate office at the Silicon Valley tech firm I work at, the distance between where I am now to where these people are, seems immeasurably far. But the reality you’ll realize, once you’re willing to share some of the credit with fate, or luck or others or God, is that it’s not quite as far as it seems. At least it wasn’t at one point. And the difference had absolutely nothing to do with my morals. Or my character. It had to do with the amount of support I had. And luck. I had tons of both. Anything less, and all bets are off.  I’d like to think that I wouldn’t have ended up there, at Stand Down, on the other side of those tables. But that’s a question I’ll never have to answer.

Because of Support. Not morals.

Here’s the deal. There’s a large strong loud American constituency that loves to fly the flag and talk a big game about supporting the troops. They’re gritty people who believe in rugged individualism and freedom and liberty. And they’re every bit a part of what makes America great. If you’re a part of that group, that’s wonderful. I am too. But I’ve got a message for you. There’s a very good chance that you support elected officials that either voted against Congressman Kennedy’s MHPAEA or oppose further action to ensure it’s enforcement. In all, about 200 members of congress did just that. You can check out who.

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You’ll have to do a little work though. Maybe something more than flying a flag in front of your house. Or sharing tough guy memes on Facebook that support those who fight.  Supporting the troops means supporting them when they can’t fight-when they need it most. Looking around Stand Down in San Diego, I see a whole lot of people left behind. So maybe this year, save the meme forward. Or maybe even forward this instead. And maybe this year, check out where your congressmen stands on the issue. And reach out and let him or her know that you support the troops with your vote. And your voice. Because they need it a whole hell of a lot more then we need representatives who still think that people choose to be addicted. And that the crisis of addiction gripping our country is simply, a crisis of morality.

This is a path no one would ever choose.

 

 

The Seventh Party System

Change is frightening.  It’s disruptive and mysterious.  It’s also constant.  Embrace it or shape it and you can survive.  Ignore it or resist it and you won’t.  As it is in business, technology or climate, change in American politics is also constant. And more rapid than you might think.

Though political change can feel like it moves at a glacial pace, it can move fast—sometimes violently. And often. Political historians will tell you that America has experienced six distinct political party periods in our 240-year history, each one ushered in by fairly swift changes, usually within the course of a few years.

We refer to these periods as “party systems.”

What makes them distinct actually varies. The creation of a party—we’ve had presidents from four—the arrival of a new issue, the enfranchisement of a group of people or just a general shift in social or economic consciousness can all contribute to what signals the birth of a new and the death of an old party system. It happens about every 40 years.   And it will happen again, without question.

The current one turned 50 a few years ago.  Straight math tells you, we’re due.

As humans, one of the things that our nature makes us susceptible to is the tendency to overstate the permanency of our current environment. Unless we have a concrete reason to believe something to the contrary, we assume things have always been the way they are, fundamentally.  We also overstate the resiliency of current circumstances and underestimate just how different the future may look. Because we haven’t seen it yet. Projections are exactly that; views of what the past might look like in the future. They’re dangerous that way.

If you ask most people, they’ll have some sense that though the specificity of political issues has changed over the years, our political history has always broken down along conservative or liberal lines and always will be. And in America, the land of the free and the home of the brave, conservative means small government, liberal means more government. Which would imply that we’ve been locked in a 240-year struggle over “as little as possible” vs. “as much as it takes”, when it comes to government that is.

It’s a fine narrative.  One you could probably support with dozens of quotes from our founding fathers about the dangers of government infringement.

It’s also mostly false.

Here’s one of those times where context and history can help us understand the past in a way that will lead us to the conclusion that we really don’t understand the future. At least not the way we think we do. Because tracking a distinct line of demarcation between conservative or liberal views throughout the six American party systems is a pretty frustrating exercise. I tried. You can’t. And for good reason. Because the idea of liberal or conservative is something that we didn’t actually get around to arguing until the 20th century, and not really in the way that we do now until the last 50 years.

Hard to believe…I know.

What about all those quotes from our founding fathers about the evils of government? Jefferson, the man who wrote “life liberty and the pursuit of happiness” also wrote. “The best government is that which governs least.”  Right?

Well, there’s a few things to consider there. The least of which may be the fact that he never actually said that. The first appearance of that quote in print was ten years or so after Jefferson died. But never mind that. There’s something more important. It’s what our founding fathers actually meant when they spoke of tyrannical government overreach. It’s vastly different than what we think of today, and not just because it’s adjusted for technology and culture. Because it was fundamentally a different debate.

So let’s unpack it.

When it comes to revolutions, the American Revolution is a big one. When it comes to impact on Americans however, one could make the argument that it’s actually a runner up to another one that happened 90 years earlier in England, the Glorious Revolution.  That one’s a long complicated story that we won’t get too far into that involves a civil war, religion, the collapse of a monarchy, the rise of parliamentary power and all kinds of things in between that took decades to sort out. But the key takeaway from the blood and battles of 17th century England was that there was an ongoing and growing struggle over the balance of power between the monarchy and parliament. It’s a straight line to our founding fathers.

Ninety years later when the enlightenment movement migrated to the colonies and the “Rights of Man” became the battle cry for our revolution, that other revolution was still front of mind. And for our bristling revolutionaries, parliament had become synonymous with the interest of the people (which people would take another hundred years to sort out) and the monarchy represented the interest of centralized authority.

For context, it’s important to remember that tragically few people in 17th and 18th centuries were granted the ability to elect their representatives. Nearly all of mankind was still governed  in some form, absolutely. So for the most part, when our founding fathers lamented government, they lamented the crown, because it was absolute, ordained and not democratically elected.

Our original “ask” as a colony was for representation in Parliament. Had we gotten it, history may have been different. The expansion of the distrust of all government, even representative government, was still a good century away. And it really only cranked up when that representative government started to tell people that they weren’t allowed to do things that they wanted to…like own other people. Which wasn’t really about government. It was about owning other people and the economic and cultural dependency on the practice in one region relative to another. It was fundamentally different though.

The debate is flexible. And it changes.

The true political debate for the first 75 or so years of our country, the first two of our six party systems, had nothing to do with the size and power of the government as a whole.  It was actually an ongoing debate between the power of the president and the power of congress, our version of the crown versus the parliament. The formerly English white land owners continued the argument from the previous 150 years because they didn’t really know any better. And they were scared to death that we would slide back into monarchy. It had very little to do with the role of federal government as a whole. And everything to do with the relationship of Congress and the President.

The next few systems would show us wander even further away from big government concerns. The third party system was a debate over slavery masked in state’s rights propaganda. Following that, the fourth party system was an interesting transition into trust busting and the elimination of corporate influence in government. By the end of the fourth party system, the Republican party, born at the dawn of the third system had ridden a wave of equal treatment of minorities and big business reform to eighty years of political dominance.

Try to find today’s Republican Party in that message.

It’s fair to ask the question, if conservative values are anchored in tradition, which traditions are we actually talking about here? The answer is entirely dependent on what point in time to choose to discuss.

So what?

Once we dismiss the notion of a permanent debate of big government versus small government, we are now freer to investigate the roots of our current situation. Which can be found in two significant events of the 20th century. The first was the great depression and the dawn of the “New Deal” Democrats of the fifth party system which focused, for the first time really, on the needs of the modern American working man at the expense of corporate shareholders and general taxpayers. The second was the final enfranchisement of African Americans that resulted from the Civil Rights movement of the 1960’s that ushered in the 6th and current political party system. These two events that happened within a generation of each other served to do two critical things.

The first was that for the first time, we created an immediate risk that those who possessed wealth, could be impacted by the need to support those that did not.

The second was to create a need to sustain a cultural, ideological racial divide that once was satisfied by law.

And the overall impact is this. On two impossible to change levels, we’ve created the “we’s” and the “they’s”.  And if there’s one thing we generally struggle to get past in any large scale, it’s the fact that the we’s are always right…and the they’s are always wrong.  Which is why our current political discourse sounds like Red Sox and Yankees fans debating who sucks more. It’s not getting sorted out. And it’s painful to watch.

We are now in the time of identity based politics.

But we don’t have to stay there.

If we decide to look at the problem objectively, a social safety net and the overnight enfranchisement of a minority group that will disproportionately require that safety net, raises a very real concern that we may grow our government programs at a level that will require disproportionate funding from the people who need it least. And it’s a fair concern, logically.

It’s not going back to the old way though. Because there never really was the old way without legal segregation or other unacceptable poverty and social justice issues. And people tend to forget those things when they think of the Mayberry they so desire. So we need to take the next step. The step that no one is interesting in taking just yet. The step that will likely kill the sixth party system and give birth the seventh. That step is to ask ourselves, if it’s not going back to the old way, and the old way is a subjective term relative to how old and what color or what gender we are, is this debate still relevant?

The reality that has been building over the last 30 years is that that it’s not.

We’re not shrinking our government. Both Democratic and Republican regimes over the last thirty years have increased the size and scope of government. We haven’t had a balanced budget in twenty years and when we did it came under the party that is supposed to spend too much. We live to be eighty years old. Technology and communication have shrunk the world to the point that our requirement to defend ourselves is enormously expensive. Most of the medical treatments we use today to provide our quality of life didn’t exist forty years ago. The burden to educate our youth requires them to graduate from 18th grade before they’re competitive for employment because the things we make today are made with science and technology, not sweat and commitment.

The list of current issues could go on and on. None of these things are good or bad. They simply are. We adapt to or shape the change and survive. Or we ignore and resist and you don’t.

Nothing about the reality of 2015 America would have you believe that shrinking the government alone is the most effective strategy to advocate for in order to navigate the next fifty years, unless you were stuck in the irrelevant loop of the sixth party system debate.

On the other hand, growing government with ineffective social programs that don’t work is a lousy plan to.  So we need to stop talking about either of those things and start talking about something else; solving 21st century problems, not complaining that the 20th century ones didn’t go your way.

If you’re a stalwart of political parties, I understand that this is hard. But don’t worry, the parties, as they exist right now, are terminally ill. And history has shown us, they’ll eventually die, if not in name, in form and function.

So be wary of hanging on. History is generally not too kind to those who stay too long.

42% of our voting population identifies as independent. Which means that presently 58% of the voting population, registered Democrats and Republicans have weakened their relevance as members of the electorate. That sounds harsh, but when our elected officials have increased their partisan voting records over the last forty years to levels not seen in modern political times and no one will address the meaningful issues discussed in the previous paragraph in a productive way, that’s where we are.

Don’t mistake one party owning the government for winning. Winning is effective governance. And that’s not happening right now.

People who blindly vote the party line, are soon to lose their relevance. We’ve seen that you can trot anyone out there with they’re party and they’ll vote. And the outcomes are unacceptable. Which means that we independent minded people have all the power. We also have all the obligation to drive change. And history shows, change comes swiftly when it does.

So, in service to making our country as great for the next 100 years as it has been for the last 240, let the seventh party system be the system of outcomes. Where we debate the how of our outcomes, not the if.  No congress and no president can get elected without our consent. We are the king makers. So let’s choose wisely. Let’s choose those who stop debating climate change and start talking about solutions.  Let’s choose those who are willing to throw out the current social safety net in service to creating one that actually works.  Let’s choose those who talk about how our government can fund itself without beating around the same debates of taxes or debt. The change is coming.  The 42% of the electorate identifying as independent voters, by the way, is the highest it’s ever been since pollsters started asking that question. And it’s growing.  The winds of change are blowing.