Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Jim Denning is in a Tight Spot

I’m posting this on my personal blog because it is my analysis and is not meant to speak for KIFA.

Jim Denning is in a tough spot.

By saying this, let the reader not get the impression that I feel in any way sorry for him. Denning, along with Susan Wagle and Dan Hawkins, squashed Medicaid Expansion this year solely through the use of  McConnell-esque power tactics. Sympathy is not owed him. But he is in a difficult situation. 

To recap: leadership in both the Kansas House (Majority Leader Hawkins and Speaker Ron Ryckman) and Senate (Senate President Wagle and Majority Leader Denning) refused to give Medicaid Expansion so much as a hearing, despite the fact that a clear majority of legislators wanted it, and the new governor would have signed it, and in fact made it one of her highest priorities for the legislative year. No hearings, no floor action, and in fact bills that might have been “germane” were also kept off the floor, to prevent them from being amended to include Expansion.

In the House, a confluence of circumstances (not least that much (most?) of the Republican caucus despises Dan Hawkins) led to a bill that was ruled not germane by the Rules Committee being stripped and amended as a Medicaid Expansion bill. It required a supermajority to do this and that, of course, required a significant number of Republicans. But, said Republicans were brave enough to pass a bill, but not brave enough to put it in a Senate shell, which would have prevented further interference by Denning and Wagle by allowing the Senate to pass Expansion by a simple majority vote.

Friday, October 19, 2018

Orman Pre-Mortem

The election is in 3 weeks, and I think it's safe to assume that Greg Orman will not be elected the next governor of Kansas. I'm in a bit of a bubble, but from my vantage point I haven't seen him catch any kind of fire, either in terms of endorsements or voter energy. He's polling 10-12%, and I suspect that when the dust settles he'll get between 7-8% of the vote. (I have friendly wager going that he won't break 10.)

Ever since there has been talk of him running, there have been Democrats (and poli sci professors) warning that his votes will come from the Democratic candidate, and that it would be impossible for a Dem to win if Orman was in the race. This is usually accompanied with either pleading or angry demanding that he drop out, which he has not done. I have never made this argument and am agnostic on it, and in fact am usually skeptical of the claim that third party candidates are what defeats major party candidates. Jill Stein didn't make Hillary Clinton lose, for instance. (Ross Perot might be the exception that proves the rule.) The argument assumes that every vote, or the vast majority of votes, that someone like Orman would get would come from (in this case) Laura Kelly, and I don't think that's a fair assumption.

Nevertheless, I think Orman is on a fool's errand, and I want to explain why.

Philosophically I agree with him that there are vast swaths of the voting public who are not served adequately by what the major parties have to offer, and that they have rigged the game in their favor.  I think this is self-evident. One only has to look at the strange creature of the moderate Republican, steadfastly determined to remain a member of a club that doesn't want him as a member. Or, to take my case, a progressive Democrat, watching in dismay as (to use only one recent example) the likes of Chuck Schumer rolls over and gives Trump another 15 federal judgeships with nary a whisper. Or votes for an increase in the defense budget, as almost every congressional Democrat did. (That's 2 examples, but grrr.) I absolutely agree that there are many more gradations of political identity that are not represented in the two-party paradigm, and I would be happy (thrilled, even) if there were viable Green Party or Socialist Party or Labor Party options available. I would also support measures, such as ranked-choice voting, that would make this more possible.

However, wishing doesn't make it so. American history is piled high with the carcasses of independent candidates and third party movements that seemed like a good idea at the time, or that had a brief constituency and then fell away. The system is just not set up to accommodate it. To me that makes the project rather a waste of time. You have to spend so much extra effort to be viable as an independent or third-party candidate that it's virtually impossible (not absolutely impossible, but really really rare) to be successful by that route. Today's crop of Democratic Socialists seem to have learned this lesson, as they have attempted to gain access to the Democratic Party ballot line, as opposed to reinventing a wheel that has failed so many times before.

A local example is a fellow in Manhattan named Aaron Estabrook, a political activist type who has been executive director of an organization (a Pac, mostly) called Save Kansas for the past several years. He has run for office himself several times, as an independent, and lost (badly) a state BOE race in 2016 this way. This year he wanted to run for Riley County commissioner, and had to gather 500 signatures to get on the ballot. He gathered more than that but had many of them thrown out for various reason and lo and behold, he's not on the ballot. If he had run as a Democrat he wouldn't have had that extra, onerous procedural step. The question is, what's your goal? If your goal is to prove the viability of independence, that's fine (not that Estabrook has done that, of course, since he's not on the ballot), but if your goal is to be an elected official, then why would you give yourself the extra hassle of just getting on the ballot, which takes a lot of energy but in and of itself doesn't give you any power? Running as an independent unquestionably detracts from your ability to win elected office. Whether it "should" or not doesn't enter into it. It does. 

And that brings us back to Orman, who does want to prove that independence is a viable political strategy. Orman's argument in the election is based on 2 factors: first, that he's an independent and thus is free of the vicissitudes of partisan politics, and second, that as a business owner he's uniquely qualified to run the multi-million dollar “business” that is the Kansas state government. Everybody who runs for office says they're the most qualified, so I'll leave that one to the side for the moment, and focus instead on argument 1.

I believe that Orman's strategy is based on a logical fallacy, to whit: that if there are 300,000 unaffiliated voters in Kansas, they are fed up with the two party system in a relatively consistent way, and would be motivated by a viable alternative to the party system. But unaffiliated voters are a heterogeneous group: many, perhaps most, are what we're calling these days “low-propensity” voters. (When I was younger we called them “marginal” voters, which sounds pejorative now.) Most of the rest are fellow-travelers to one of the two major parties, and break that way in the elections. Some are more “extreme” versions of the parties, such as people who consider themselves more libertarian or whatever than the Republican Party. Orman positions himself as the flagbearer for this group, which isn't a group, in the way that Laura Kelly is the leader of Kansas Democrats or Kris Kobach (God help us) is for the Republicans. But – and this is key – nobody elected Orman to that position. He has no claim to the position other than his own assertion.

The codicil of this argument is that this group, which isn't a group, is looking for a rich, white, moderate business owner to lead them to the promised land. I think we'll see the flaw in that reasoning when Michael Bloomberg or John Kasich try this strategy in 2020.

Over a year ago I asked people that I know in Orman's circle to show me an actual strategy toward winning this election – where the votes had to come from, both in geography and in voter profile. They couldn't do it then and I bet they wouldn't be able to do it now. Orman isn't running a campaign so much as a crusade, the arguments for which he sees as self-evident, and that it is only fear or force of habit that prevents people from acknowledging the obvious truth of his analysis and flocking to his side. And as his message continues not to resonate, and as this flocking continues not to occur, his argument for it gets more annoyed-sounding and shrill.

And this brings me to my main objection to Orman's project: his inveterate “bothsides-ism”. He claims that the problem with our politics is partisanship between the two parties (he compares it to the Hatfields vs. McCoys) and that the choice between Democrats and Republicans is the choice between “shingles and the flu.” It's hard for me to express how tone-deaf I find this framing. I bring this fairly famous quote from Norman Ornstein and Thomas Mann, from 2012:

The GOP has become an insurgent outlier in American politics. It is ideologically extreme; scornful of compromise; unmoved by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.

The difference between the two parties is evidenced in the behavior of the two major party candidates in the Kansas gubernatorial election this year: Kobach is doubling down on his Trumpian message in the hopes of winning narrowly by motivating his base, while Kelly is attempting to appeal across the political spectrum, as evidenced by her recruiting of endorsements from dozens of former Republican elected officials. Even in Orman's book his examples of partisan gamesmanship are one-sided – a dozen examples from the Republicans and one or two examples from the Democrats, and that's his example of “both-sides.”

(Even Orman's argument that he would be uniquely positioned to “get things done” in Topeka ring false. Kelly has relationships with people there and will be able to leverage whatever remnants of the Dem-Mod R coalition there are to get things through. Orman, having no base in the legislature, and no one there having supported him – Doll would be lieutenant governor - means that neither party will have any reason to help him succeed.)

It needs to be stated clearly: the reason the political system isn't working is because the Republican party has been taken over by extreme conservatives who play the hardest of hardball politics and will break any norm in pursuit of their goals. Democrats still believe in bipartisanship (as evidenced by Kelly's strategy) and norms and that's one of the reasons they've been at such a disadvantage. The fact that some Democrats are moving left or are objecting loudly to Republican tactics is not evidence of both-sides-ism, and anyone – including Greg Orman – who thinks that both sides are equally at fault ("shingles vs. flu") in the current state of our politics is either willfully blind or just not a very good analyst of politics.

I told Orman a year ago that if he ran as a Dem he had a very good chance of being the next governor. I think he would have been fine in that role. He chose not to do that, and the reasons for that decision, and the arguments he makes in support of it are, in my opinion, themselves disqualifying. His political career (as a candidate) in Kansas will end in three weeks, and his campaign will go into the pile of “it seemed like a good idea at the time” - even though in this case, it didn't.

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

RH Journal 5779

In keeping with the tradition of self-assessment at the opening of the Jewish year, I want to follow up on a piece I did three years ago. This piece, like that one, will start off as a journal and then morph into a cri du coeur about Israel. Such is the nature of things. 

In my spiritual life I've more or less continued on the path I laid out in the previous piece. My Jewish practice is mostly oriented around year-cycle: We just had a family dinner on Rosh Hashanah, and I will fast on Yom Kippur and then build a sukkah. My daily practice is mostly Buddhist-ish: every morning I read an inspirational passage, meditate for 20-25 minutes, and conclude with a brief prayer. I've been pretty consistent with that; my Insight Timer says I've done it over 1100 times since I started doing it three years ago. And of course I consider my political work part and parcel of my spiritual life. All in all I'm pretty satisfied with where my spiritual path is right now.

Our Shabbat practice is casual, to put it that way. I recently decided that bullying my way through my kids' reluctance to cooperate in weekly Shabbat dinner was no longer worth the effort. We probably do a full sit-down Shabbat dinner once or twice a month now, when the stars align and everyone is home and in the mood for it. Less has turned out to be more in this case. I don't take work commitments on Friday night and Saturday morning is usually spent at the park and library.

I only rarely go to synagogue during the regular year. I'm tutoring bnai mitzvah students at the Temple, so I go to their events; if there's a special service that we're involved with (Boy Scout Shabbat, for instance) we'll go to that. I read haftarah a couple of times a year. Once in a while I'll think about going (or making the kids go) to synagogue once a month, but I never do it, mostly because I don't really want to go.

A while ago I posted on Facebook a list of my favorite podcasts – mostly political/left casts with one recovery cast and a couple of Buddhist ones. My friend Daniel said simply, “Nothing Jewish?” Instead of saying “pshaw” or unloading my resentment on him, I asked him which ones he would recommend. He gave me a couple but of course I never listened to them. (I do listen to 2 Jewish podcasts now: Treyf, which is mostly Jewish leftist politics, and Judaism Unbound, which is more spiritually oriented and which is sympathetic to my viewpoints, both political and spiritual.)

For the most part I keep a healthy distance from the Jewish community. I like to think it's by mutual decision but that's probably flattering myself. I pay my modest, partial-scholarship dues to the synagogue we still belong to. I don't donate to the Federation and no one ever asks. I haven't had any kind of pulpit or official Jewish leadership role (aside from the tutoring) since I lost my job in Lawrence in 2015. At some point I “put out into the universe” that I wanted a High Holiday pulpit, but I haven't gotten one. This year there was a holiday posting that came up late because their previous rabbi had to pull out; I applied for it and interviewed, but didn't get it. Because of this late near-miss I'm more melancholy about this (non-)aspect of my life than usual. It seems clear that my pulpit rabbinic career, such as it was, is over, and while I don't think I'd be doing what I'm doing now if I weren't a rabbi - and I'm happy doing what I'm doing now - in my weaker moments I wonder why I went $65,000 into debt for a career that I basically had for 3 years (my one and only full-time pulpit.)

And, as ever, the other factor that's interfering with my ability to find my place as a mainstream Jew -- the elephant in the room -- is Israel. Since I talked about this three years ago, Israel has continued down its dark path, becoming more autocratic, making common cause with the most horrible right wing leaders in the world, and continuing its violent repression of the Palestinians – this past summer's sniper target practice being only the most extreme recent example.

Of course, just typing the phrase “continued its violent repression of the Palestinians” is enough to make one unviable in mainstream Jewish community. Post it on social media and you'll get 100 responses about how Netanyahu is bad but that's not “Israel” or about how the dead protesters had it coming because some of them flew burning kites into Israel or about how (I'm not kidding) this is all the Palestinians' fault because they didn't accept the UN partition plan in 1947. I look at this aghast, as what seems to be to a clear-cut moral issue (Israel shouldn't shoot unarmed protesters, and Americans shouldn't defend it) is treated as, perhaps regrettable, but necessary self-defense. You can say it's necessary defense, and you can sort-of say it's regrettable (but still necessary self-defense), but if you say it's a war crime (as it is) you're pretty much out of the communal tent.

Parenthetical explanation of a concept: I'm re-reading a book by Jonathan Smucker about organizing called Hegemony How-to. In it, in discussing the accomplishments and failings of the the Occupy Wall Street encampment, he explains at some length the differences between two models of activist-group dynamics: prefigurative politics, and strategic politics. To make a 50-page story short, the former is focused on a) developing and maintaining the identity of the group, and b) living as if the revolution (as it were) had already taken place -- that is, prefiguratively; the latter looks to expand the effectiveness of the group in the real, existing political context, so that it can attain political goals, i.e. win something. He claims OWS' main failing was too much a reliance on prefigurativeness. In reality the two need to be balanced: too much reliance on group cohesion and idealism will make it impossible to act effectively when and if the opportunity arises; too much reliance on strategizing and practicality can lead to the jettisoning of even the most deeply held values when they appear to get in the way of effective action.

Smucker points out that when a group is out of power, or has no chance of influencing events, it will be (understandably) more likely to focus on building the cohesiveness of the group and articulating an idealized philosophy. (End parenthetical explanation.) It is this that I think makes it pertinent to a discussion of Judaism and Israel. When the Jewish people existed in a state of powerlessness, it was necessary for us to focus our efforts on group cohesion and stability, and it was possible, or even necessary, for us to idealize our beliefs and practices: to promulgate an ideology of righteousness. When we “returned to the world stage,” as the Zionist locution had it, we moved over time to the other extreme, a radical pragmaticism that has now led to the situation we find ourselves in. In other words, we jettisoned the ideal – the values that formed the core of Jewish identity for all those centuries – for the sake of the realized practical. (Although Israel and its defenders often use the idealistic explication of Jewish values in defense of its actions – the defense of continuity and thereby, Jewish values – it's rather a call-back to values rather than the values themselves.)

In other words, we've sacrificed something core to the Jewish project and irreplaceable – our ideals, our Jewish moral center – for the sake of the pragmatic statecraft of (what has turned out to be) an unjust state of Israel. That's why I say that the Zionist project is not only calling itself into question but is threatening the continued viability of the Jewish project itself.

This summer, in an attempt to dip my toe back into Jewish thought, I started reading Heschel, perhaps the greatest Jewish theologian of the second half of 20th century. A few pages in I read the line, “Judaism teaches us that beauty which is acquired at the cost of justice is an abomination and should be rejected for its loathsomeness." And immediately I have to put the book down, for I am hit by one thought: What about Israel? All this wonderful Jewish theology, this godliness, this “you shall be holy for I am holy” - how does it stand up next to the major historical Jewish project of the era, the state of Israel? When our ideals are realized, what happens? The Palestinians are destroyed, individually and collectively, that's what happens. Heschel, and other theologians, are working from a theological premise that does not include the state of Israel – or at least does not include it in its full, current, decrepit form. The idealism of Jewish theology, the fullness of the prophetic tradition, the true beauty of the Jewish ideology (admittedly, developed in powerlessness) is devastatingly undermined by three simple words: What about Israel?

The single most important question facing Jewish individuals, communities, and theology today is how to respond to the reality of an unjust Israel. Some (most, apparently) will support it, some will oppose it (and be excommunicated for their troubles), and some will try to distance themselves from it and pretend it is no concern of theirs. I don't think that last is really possible, both because Israel – the reality of Jewishness in state power – calls into question everything we were taught to believe was important in Jewish ideology, and because it remains the main political aim of official American Jewish-dom to support Israel, whatever its behavior, whatever its crimes. We can't absolve ourselves of that by distancing ourselves from either Israel or the mainstream Jewish community, for we are part of them, and they are part of us.

As Heschel also said: “Some are guilty, but all are responsible.”

Friday, April 13, 2018

Sermon: Rav, Shmuel and Martin Luther King

delivered at Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Lawrence on April 8, 2018 
Today I want to talk about two events that took place last week. The first is Passover and the 2nd was the 50th anniversary of the death of Dr. King. Hopefully at the end I'll be able to bring the two pieces together.
So Passover is the commemoration of the exodus from Egypt, the end of slavery and the beginning of freedom. I say the beginning of freedom because although in one very important way the Israelites are freed – they are no longer in servitude – in another way they are just getting started.
The haggadah – the ritual guide to the seder service – talks about a conversation between two rabbis, Shmuel and Rav. They're study buddies, and in the rabbinic tradition argumentation is an important means of getting at spiritual truth. So the question is, is slavery in the Exodus story a physical thing or a spiritual thing? Are we talking about actual, physical slavery – working without recompense – or are we talking about spiritual slavery, which Rav says is idol worship that our ancestors did before they came to the realization of the one God. And of course the answer is, both.

Sermon: Civility is Not Enough

delivered at Shawnee Mission UU on Feb. 18, 2018 and at First Congregational in Manhattan on March 18, 2018 
I see political activity as part and parcel of my spiritual practice, and I also have a tendency to self-righteousness.
But with those caveats - I have an aversion to the word “civility.” This idea has been around a while. It was a big part of the appeal of Barack Obama during his first run in 2008. “We don't have red states and or blue states, we have the United States,” he famously said.
I see it around quite a bit. It's based on the idea that America is super-partisanized, that we all live in our little self-thinking bubbles, and that we tend not to have friends across the partisan line. The answer to this, so the thinking goes, is civility. It usually means, trying to understand the other person's perspective, to treat their beliefs with respect. Sometimes it means, recognizing what we have in common as people underneath, or perhaps above, our political differences.

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Book review: Reclaiming Hope by Michael Wear

Michael Wear is an Evangelical Christian who was a college student in Washington, DC, when he heard Barack Obama give his speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention and decided to hitch himself to Obama's wagon. Wear served a role in faith outreach in the 2008 campaign and then in the Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships during Obama's first term. He returned to do faith outreach in the 2012 campaign and then left Obama-ville.

This book is his account of that time. It's part memoir, part political analysis, and part religious witness.

There's no question that, especially in the early days, Wear was a true believer. What appealed to him about Obama, as to so many of us, was the candidate's steadfast commitment to bringing all sides together. One of Obama's greatest moments, Wear says, was his invitation to Evangelical super-pastor Rick Warren to give the invocation at his first inaugural. There was significant blowback among Obama's staff and supporters to this choice because, like most Evangelicals, Warren has a poor record on LGBT issues; but Obama said, early and often, that just because we can't agree on everything doesn't mean we have to oppose each other on everything. And Warren spoke.

Monday, November 27, 2017

Guns, Violence and Nonviolence

The mission of my organization is based on Dr. King's three evils, which he called racism, materialism and militarism. I frame the third as “violence/militarism.” This is what I say about it in my “stump speech”:

Violence/ militarism. In the Riverside Church sermon Dr. King said that a society that “A nation that continues year after year to spend more on defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.” Is any of this different today? We as a society more or less agree that the Iraq war was a mistake, but when a new threat is perceived the first instinct is to address it with military means. We never really process or absorb our mistakes, we just repress them and go on to make the next one.

Dr. King said that the biggest purveyor of violence in the world was his own government. This is an issue we tend to ignore, but with a military budget the size of the next 7 countries combined, and 800 military bases in 70 countries, we have a lot of hammers with which to look for nails. 5 Trillion dollars in war spending over the past 1 years. Couldn't all that money be put to much better use fixing our roads and bridges, educating and feeding our children, and building our clean energy future?

And so without, so within. We live in a society racked with fear of each other, and armed to the teeth. Anyone without a criminal record – and some with – can carry any weapon they want anywhere they want, without training or permit or consideration for those who don't want to live in such a society. And as the statistics show, the “good guy with a gun” myth is just that – a myth – and weapons are far more likely to be used for domestic violence or suicide than for self- or home protection.

Kansas has the laxest gun laws in the country, and to this we have just added the ability to carry concealed firearms – without training or permit – on to our public college and university campuses.