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.

Fierce Lives Matter

I am a graduate of the mighty class of 1999 from the United States Naval Academy. While I was there, I was less than a model midshipman. I was a lousy student. I struggled to follow the thousands of ridiculous rules and finished in the bottom of my class. I made a lot of friends though. And had a lot less fun than most college kids have at college. But it was worth it. Of that, I am sure.

Getting yourself into and out of trouble at a service academy is an art form. Some master it better than others. The night before the Army/Navy game in 1997, a bunch of kids from 19th Company, my company, decided to do something stupid. What isn’t important. I don’t even remember what it was to be honest. But we were all put on lock down for the weekend.

Screen Shot 2016-05-13 at 9.38.53 PMThe next day we all got on a bus and drove to Giants Stadium to go sit in the stands and cheer our team on, in uniform, as has been the tradition for a century. Afterward, while the rest of the school went on liberty and spent the night in New York, we got back on the bus and drove back to Maryland.

In protest, a few of us wore luau shirts under our uniform jackets so that the ridiculous pastel patterns would muddy up the pure black sea of midshipmen coats at the end of the stadium. After halftime, a giant banner unfurled from the deck above us with the words “Free 19” on it-an effort to gain our freedom.

My roommate and I were from New Jersey.  And Giants Stadium was our hometown. The lock down was going to cost us a whole lot of fun. This was our protest. Our cause: Beer and partying. And no one cared that a bunch of boys from Annapolis were disrespecting the uniform in service to missing out on partying. On the contrary, it started a tradition. Free 19 is a phrase that lives on to this day at Annapolis.

Last week 16 of the 17 African American women in the 2016 graduating class of the United States Military Academy at West Point posed for pictures in their uniforms. In one of the photos, they raised their right fists. Shortly after, the Army conducted an investigation into whether or not the women violated DOD regulations prohibiting political displays while in uniform-African Americans with raised right fists being a symbol of the “Black Lives Matter Movement”.

Within days, they were all cleared of any formal offense. No punitive actions were taken against them. There’s still a bit of a political debate going on. So I’d like to take a little time to share my point of view on it.

Rules prohibiting military personnel from displaying political support as official representatives of the military are important, maybe about as important as any rule the military has. Those rules affirm a critically important thing about our military and our society. That we have a force of arms, completely separate from the political process, entirely under the command of civilian elected officials and therefore formed entirely in service to the American people.

The military serves the people. And as a result, we enjoy a society where the American people have lived free of fear from the most destructive man-made force the world has ever seen. So those rules are important.

If there’s one thing that I can absolutely assure you, all sixteen of those cadets are aware of that now, if they weren’t a few weeks ago. The military has a good way of making you realize when you’ve wandered off the path. The Army was doing its job to ensure that critical rule was recognized in what I think was an important, teachable moment. Not because of the nature of the movement in question but because the rule matters that much.

That’s a very important distinction.

I’d like to respond to some of the more offended folks I’ve seen take this topic to task though. Because there’s some mad people out there. And their frustration is worth responding to.

If a lack of punishment here bothered you deeply, you probably didn’t go to a service academy-West Point, Annapolis or the Air Force Academy. If you did, you probably weren’t a woman that graduated from one of them. And if you were, you probably weren’t a woman of color.

This year, at West Point, 17 out of about a thousand graduates were African American women. Which means that for the four toughest years of their lives, and the lives of most people they will run into, one had to fill a room with 75 classmates before statistically, one could expect the 76th to look like them.  And that’s hard. Because we don’t tend to give people that aren’t like us the same leeway.  Even if it’s not on purpose. It’s just the way it is. Getting through West Point with less leeway is hard. Crazy hard.

I don’t know what it’s like to be a woman at a service academy but I know with certainty, they didn’t have it easier than I did. I was a male athlete at Annapolis and I made it through on the goodwill of others that these women unquestionably had less of. If you think that’s not true, go ask any woman who ever graduated from a service academy.  If you can find one.

In America, the racial inequality divide is staggering. We can debate the causes but when you’re black in America, the chance that you came from a poor family, a family with a single parent or an incarcerated parent or a low income neighborhood is so disturbingly slanted against you that graduating from a school like West Point is statistically so improbable, that it’s literally unbelievable. As in, if someone tells you they did it, you should be skeptical because it’s so rare.

Here’s a hard truth.  These women would never say this. So I will. You didn’t do what they just did. And you probably couldn’t. So take a breath.

I have no idea what the intent of those women were. I’m not naive enough to believe that all of them were just fired up at graduation. Some probably were.  Or maybe they were doing it to shout at the top of their lungs that that black lives do matter. And that they matter because this is what can be done with one.

One of the most valuable lessons I ever learned at Annapolis was learning the nuance of how not to conform amidst an overwhelming sea of conformity.  And learning it meant that I got it wrong a lot more than I got it right. And like those West Point cadets, I took some lumps for it along the way. But it was worth it. There’s some heavy decorations and more than a half dozen war time deployments on those idiots in the luau shirts above. Much of it was enabled by one indomitable notion. Don’t tell me I can’t. 

We were misfits and failures. And people told us in no uncertain terms we weren’t fit to lead.  But that streak of defiance, the very one that drove us to places others wouldn’t go, is an important one. The trajectory of humankind has pivoted on it. It always has.

It always will.

So, if you’re going to break that rule, and I want to be clear, it’s a good rule, that’s how you do it. Go be one of the 17 black women on the planet that graduated from West Point this year. And in a moment of pride and realization of all you’ve been through to get to that moment,  raise your right fist. Because the world told you and your brothers and sisters that you couldn’t accomplish what you just did.  And you said, don’t tell me I can’t. Because black lives do matter. Because they can be fierce lives. And fierce lives move us.

The separation of politics and the military will survive it. So for the vocally outraged, you can rest easy. Everything is going to be all right.

And for those proud women, I’ll add one more thing. Welcome to the family ladies. Now get to work. There’s plenty of opportunity to put boot to ass for God and country right over the next ridge line. And I would have been proud to serve with any one of you any day.

City By the Sea

My people are an old Atlantic City people. We go back to the grand days of the boardwalk empire. My great-grandfather was a boat captain in the inlet basin. He drove the famed Miss America speedboats. My grandmother was a show girl in the Ice Capades. She performed on Steel Pier long before it burnt down and fell into the sea. My father worked over 30 years on the Atlantic City Beach Patrol. I put in 6 myself. It’s in my blood.

Gambling came to the city the year I was born. My mother, a schoolteacher, worked as a blackjack dealer in the summers and in the evenings. She wasn’t from there. She married into Atlantic City. And it wove itself into her. She died there.

I have aunts and uncles and brothers who all work in the casino industry today. And though I left to join the navy when I was 18, and spent most of my adult life in California, Atlantic City has stayed with me. It’s the kind of town that leaves a mark-for good or for bad.

Like I said. It’s in my blood.

Something’s gone horribly wrong with America’s Playground though. To be honest, something’s always been wrong. She’s never really been on the up and up. Even when she tried. And now it looks like it’s caught up to her in a way it never had before.

This past week, the municipal government of Atlantic City received permission to shift paying their employees-cops, firefighters, teachers, etc-to a monthly basis instead of bi-weekly. Had she not, the city would have been out of money by the end of the month. This new payment schedule buys them until May. Which means that unless something changes, the first and arguably grandest destination resort of 20th Century America will be unable to pay her employees, her debt obligations or any of her other financial commitments. In which case, under normal circumstances, she would declare bankruptcy.

Except she can’t.

Because there’s something else going on in New Jersey. Something that, fifty years from now, history and political science majors will be dissecting in case studies. If we’re lucky.  If we’re not, they’ll be teaching it to our grade school and high school students learning about it the way they learn about things like Tammany Hall or the Teapot Dome scandal.  It will be one of those otherwise obscure events we teach to generations for how teachably perfect it illustrates a massive societal problem of the time, and how it served as a warning-a canary in the coal mine if you will-that ushered in change. It’s a troubling compilations of civic catastrophe.

If you’re not paying attention to it, let me help.

If you are paying attention to what’s going on in New Jersey, you’ll see what appears to be a long series of governing through press conferences. You’ll see the mayor of Atlantic City, Don Guardian with his odd bow-tie, defiantly standing at city hall trading barbs with the imposing Governor Chris Christie, fresh off of his unsuccessful presidential bid having somehow been out bullied by Donald Trump before eventually endorsing him in a tragic race to the bottom that is the political despair of the Republican Party. The mayor and the governor are at an impasse.

But over what?

Hold on tight because this gets complicated. And you may begin to think I’m joking as I explain. Sadly, I’m not.

The municipal government of Atlantic City wants to receive state assistance that is on par with other municipalities. If they do, they will be able to pay the bills. If they don’t they will likely have to declare bankruptcy. But they can’t. Because bankruptcy would have to be approved by the governor. And he won’t. Because the governor believes that Atlantic City spends too much money on their government workforce and is incapable of self government. And he’s right. So he wants state takeover of the city as a condition of increased funding. Except he can’t do that because only the state legislature can pass that type of legislation and they won’t. Because a state take-over would void all public union contracts previously negotiated by the city of Atlantic City and open up state collective bargaining agreements that would no doubt be more austere.  And if there’s one thing you don’t do as a state legislator in New Jersey, it’s take on public unions. Which brings us back to three groups pulling on the same rope in three different directions. All while the meter is running in Atlantic City who is out of money. It’s a mess that’s hard to follow but that’s about 150 words that sums it up.

So who is right?

No one.

What I just said is a massive oversimplification of the issues. But that actually doesn’t matter because the level of detail required to form an opinion on their differences and take a side isn’t required. Because no one’s right. Which is good for me because if I actually had to take sides, family barbecues would be uncomfortable. It’s a remarkably small town and I’ve got family on both sides of this issue all the way to the top. Me glossing over the details isn’t for lack of information or understanding. It’s because it doesn’t matter.  Because what they actually can’t agree on, won’t be what is taught in history classes fifty years from now.  How they’ve gotten to this stand off and what it says about early 21st Century America, will be.

If you took the time to listen to what Governor Christie said in his press conference earlier this week, you would have heard him run through a litany of items showing a gross mismanagement of tax payer money by the Atlantic City government officials.  He called out the fact that police and fire department employees, allowed to retire in their 40’s are able to cash in unused sick pay and vacation time to walk away with $300K “boat checks” on retirement. And that health care plans divested by the state decades ago but still in use in Atlantic City were costing the government $4M more a year than they need to. And that there are over 100 municipal employees that make over $100K a year. And that the utilities managed by the city are inefficient and have needed to be reformed or privatized for decades. All of these things are clear and inarguable mismanagement for a city of 39,000 people. That’s right. There are only 39,000 people in Atlantic City. Hold that thought.  We’ll get back to it.  The list goes on and on to make the point:

Horrible greedy government workers are manipulating the system for personal gain while their city goes broke.

That’s the message.

Here’s the thing with those claims. They’re reasonably accurate. For the most part, these are indefensible positions for the municipal government to have. And they are in need of reform. And they probably don’t deserve to receive state assistance unless they fix them.  But here’s one other thing to consider.

None of it matters.

Not a bit of it.  Because the budget gap for Atlantic City is about $100M. Annually. You could fire every one of those high paid employees and save $10M. Great. Now you’re down to $90M. In fact, you could fire every police officer and fireman in the city-don’t worry this is hypothetical- and still only be about 2/3 of the way to solving your problem. And one other thing. It’s 2016. $100K isn’t really that much money in NJ where you’re going to pay 4% property tax on your highly valued home. So when it comes down to it, this massive over spending is wrong and it needs to be fixed. Because of principle and future impacts. But fixing it isn’t solving the problem. At least not on a material level. Let’s ask a better question.

How did a city with 39,000 people open up a budget deficit of $100M?

Here’s where this story actually starts to matter. Because on a microeconomic scale, it’s an extreme but accurate portrayal of what is happening in 21st century urban America.  The city has a massive infrastructure that is designed to support it’s singular industry, casino gaming. Over 30 million people a year visit the city. Another 40,000 are employed by the casinos. None of them live in Atlantic City. Because the city of Atlantic City has 39,000 people. 75% of those people own no property. Which means that the city’s lone source of income, property taxes, is funded almost entirely by the lone industry in the city-casinos. 80% of city revenue comes from the property taxes paid by the casinos.  Which is great. Until the economy takes a turn for the worse, and a neighboring state opens a few casinos and then the industry tanks.

In 2015, four of Atlantic City’s 11 casinos closed.  And the fifth, the Borgata, the largest tax payer in the city was awarded a $150M tax ruling that makes it so they don’t have to pay taxes to the city for years or until the debt is paid off. Which means that Atlantic City lost about half of its tax revenue, almost overnight.

That’s how 39,000 people get behind a $100M eight ball.

In Atlantic City it’s the casinos. In Detroit it was the auto industry. In Baltimore, it was the steel industry. Name the town and the outcomes are the same. High paying, working class jobs have left urban America because they’ve moved overseas, been automated or moved to the suburbs.  And those that do work in the cities live outside of it. That’s always been the case in Atlantic City. So those left behind, the urban poor, live in a city that quickly runs out of money during an economic downturn and the basic services, schools, police and safety and general infrastructure-see Flint, MI-break down. And the urban gap widens.

In the four decades that Atlantic City has had gambling, the revenue generated by that gambling is in the tens of billions of dollars. The property values have increased over 600%. But the people of Atlantic City haven’t benefited much. They have double the unemployment rate of the rest of the state. Their median income is a third of the rest of the state. Their crime rate is six times the rest of the state. 30% live under the poverty level. Beyond the gaming and tourist attractions-the ones still open are actually amazing-the city of Atlantic City is an urban wasteland. And in about a month, they’re about to stop paying their teachers…and their cops…and their firefighters. It’s a cycle of despair we don’t have a way out of.  And it’s bad for all of us, not just them.

Enter the State of New Jersey. The bow-tied mayor has a point. This is why municipalities organize into counties and why counties organize into states and states organize into a union. They do it to minimize risk. The state clearly benefited by the fact that South Jersey’s economy boomed in the last decade. And the city gets 0% of the gaming revenue, unlike the 2% being proposed for the cities hosting the development of proposed North Jersey Casinos-which will kill Atlantic City by the way. But in the mean time,  now that Atlantic City is suffering, it’s time to help them weather the storm. Right?

Here’s the second part of the discussion that actually matters. The governor can’t help.  Because the state is broke too. Not the same way that Atlantic City is broke. The state can pay its current bills. It just can’t pay it’s future ones. Here’s why.

When you look at New Jersey’s government spending on a macro level, it looks pretty unremarkable. New Jersey has the 8th largest budget in America for the 8th largest economy in America generated by the 11th largest population. New Jersey spends just over $11K per citizen, which is 12th highest in the country. As bad as taxes feel in New Jersey, the state collects about $10K in taxes per citizen which is the 17th most in the country.  Which means that the state runs about about a thousand dollars per citizen in the red each year. Which sounds bad but it’s actually better then neighboring Pennsylvania, New York, Connecticut and Massachusetts. Only 10 states run at a surplus. The others close the gap with planned federal funding or other assistance programs. So what’s wrong with New Jersey?

Well, the big one is this. For the last 20 years, the state government has decided not to fund it’s pension program.

If you listen to the governor talk about the issue, you’ll hear him speak  of a massive out of control pension program that has suffered mismanagement resulting from public unions having their way with the government contracts. Which there’s certainly truth to. But when you actually look at the numbers, it’s about on par with other states expenditures. New Jersey spends about $1,100 per citizen on pensions, the 8th most in the country, entirely aligned with the size of its economy-less than New York, about the same as Pennsylvania. There’s one difference though. New Jersey hasn’t fully funded its pension fund for the last 20 years. In fact, from 2001 to 2004, they didn’t fund it at all. And now, New Jersey has a $37B pension gap for a state with $100B budget.  Which means they can pay pensions to those currently retired, but unless something changes, those retiring in the future will have nothing.

Now, the details of how the Governor has handled the pension problem are a source of great frustration and anger for state and local employees in New Jersey. They claim that he’s  been a bully, called people names and gone back on his word. And they’re right. He has. Partly because of who he is. But mostly because he’s trying to jam reform down the throats of New Jersey citizens to close a gap that even draconian reform won’t solve.  Because the damage is done. The ship has already hit the ice berg. And the only thing that’s going to help New Jersey is massive increases in revenue-yes that means taxes. Or a complete scrapping of their pension system. Which means that people who have paid into a pension system that legally have the right to expect a return on it when they retire, will not get one. Which is wrong. And no one can tell anyone that it’s right. And telling them they are greedy and that the pension system is bloated is political crap designed to lubricate the populous for change. Just like calling out how many employees in Atlantic City make over $100 a year.  It’s the same thing.

You can ignore it all.

Because it’s detached from the real tragedy here. Which is this. Unfortunately, all the expectations that the citizens of New Jersey had for their retirement, assumed one thing.  That the public representatives that they elected to office, the legislature, the governors, all of them, would do their civic duty and responsibly manage the states finances. For 20 years they did not. So all bets are off.

Democracy has consequences.  Electing the wrong people has consequences.

So what does this have to do with Atlantic City?  It’s not a long leap. The governor can’t let them declare bankruptcy because places like Camden and Patterson and a list of other urban areas in New Jersey that are in similar boats would quickly follow suit. And if the governor capitulates and simply hands Atlantic City the funding, he has the same risk. So he’s using Atlantic City as an opportunity to drive reform because in the end, the state can’t pay its own bills and it can’t run the risk of paying municipal bills for the failing urban areas. So here’s the message. We can help. But it’s going to be painful for you. And any of you other places thinking about going this route, take notice.

In the end, both sides have valid arguments. And the men standing at the podiums trading political jabs aren’t the ones that put their respective organizations in this mess. And what will probably happen is some level of anti-climactic agreement that involves some state take over and assistance and both Atlantic City and New Jersey will live to fight another day, having successfully kicked the can down the road, the way American politics in 2016 does.

So why will they be teaching this in civics classes 50 years from now?  Because in one small package- 4.1 miles of build-able land to be exact-the Atlantic City crisis illustrates two of the most troubling issues about American society today. The first is urban decay that has resulted from the de-insdustrialization of America. The crumbling infrastructure and failing socioeconomic climates in our cities is a massive problem driving racial inequality and driving citizens in the most powerful country in the world down to a quality of life that is massively at odds with our national wealth. The second is that we have a cataclysmic entitlements problem in our country. At the state level, we are under funding our pensions by a trillion dollars collectively. That’s 20% underfunded. And if you think that’s bad, social security at a federal level is 32% underfunded, that’s a shade under 26 trillion dollars. Right now about 40% of our federal budget goes to social security and medical costs.

And it’s not enough.  Not by a long shot.

So, while we select the next leader of the free world, candidates from both sides are waving the shiny objects of traditional values, immigration and wars on women. But probably the only two things that really matter is that our economy can no longer support our urban inhabitants and we’re going to go broke because we can’t fund our entitlements without massive cuts in other areas or higher taxes. Those are hard problems. Give a listen for solutions in our national political debate. You won’t hear them. And as we plod forward on our path as we do, eventually we’ll fall over when the issue becomes so big that we have no choice. What Atlantic City is telling us is when we do fall, we’re left with men standing at podiums shouting bad options at each other. Because all the good ones went away when the tide of irresponsible governing receded.

I’m saying prayers for my friends and family back home that they make it through this difficult time as whole as they can. In the end, it’s the people that suffer. But it’s also the people who elect. So we’ve got a choice here.  Learn the lesson Atlantic City and New Jersey are teaching us. Or face the consequences.

I’ll mourn the canary. Those are my people. Everyone else, worry about the coal mine.

Democracy has it’s consequences.

 

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.