Earning the Grade

Writing papers is always a struggle for me. My best, and most natural writing is what you see on this blog - completely unedited save for spelling as I type, I can place an idea down and leave it alone. Essays aren't quite so friendly. For them, you need to have an idea or hypothesis, do the reading/research, and only then can you formulate the "real" idea about which your paper is based. You then must structure a paper that expresses that idea, and then you have to dig in and write the thing.


The thing that happens to me with essays - repeatedly - is that I spend much more time on the research/thinking portion than I should, relative to the writing portion. The interesting part of essay writing to me isn't expressing my thoughts (which is irrational, since much of one's grade is based on the quality of expression), but formulating and balancing them. However, what that can mean is that I end up 24 hours before an essay is due with a piece of writing that doesn't match my own standards - not because the grammar is wrong, but instead because I don't like the final ideal product.

So I refine the ideas, forgetting or ignoring the inevitable re-writing that is required, and I get into a timecrunch. That happened twice this semester in a single class, and each time I had to take my own medicine and turn in the papers late, despite a grade hit, because I wanted to get the ideas right. Neither turned out super, in the end (at some point, you start to loathe your graphs and data), but I was much happier with the intellectual content I had produced and the mental twisting they had required.

And this time (unlike in past classes), I got a grade that reflected the work I did, despite the grade hit. Sometimes sucking it up and turning a paper in late is a good idea. Whew.

Tone, Truth, and the Democratic Party

Obama wrote this blog post in 2005. I will provide excerpts and commentary.
There is one way, over the long haul, to guarantee the appointment of judges that are sensitive to issues of social justice, and that is to win the right to appoint them by recapturing the presidency and the Senate.  And I don't believe we get there by vilifying good allies, with a lifetime record of battling for progressive causes, over one vote or position.    I am convinced that, our mutual frustrations and strongly-held beliefs notwithstanding, the strategy driving much of Democratic advocacy, and the tone of much of our rhetoric, is an impediment to creating a workable progressive majority in this country.  
Obama is saying here that. Elections matter, and they matter more than specific policy wins. This post was in the context of John Roberts's confirmation hearings. Obama was writing to convince bloggers not to go after Democrats supporting Roberts, because he felt demanding purity was unwise.
According to the storyline that drives many advocacy groups and Democratic activists - a storyline often reflected in comments on this blog - we are up against a sharply partisan, radically conservative, take-no-prisoners Republican party.  They have beaten us twice by energizing their base with red meat rhetoric and single-minded devotion and discipline to their agenda.  In order to beat them, it is necessary for Democrats to get some backbone, give as good as they get, brook no compromise, drive out Democrats who are interested in "appeasing" the right wing, and enforce a more clearly progressive agenda.  The country, finally knowing what we stand for and seeing a sharp contrast, will rally to our side and thereby usher in a new progressive era.
I think this perspective misreads the American people.  From traveling throughout Illinois and more recently around the country, I can tell you that Americans are suspicious of labels and suspicious of jargon
Obama knows that this path is available - and he is specifically rejecting it. The Healthcare and Tax Cut deals are a part of his political DNA, one reason I supported him, and what he's saying with the bolded sentence is that the Public isn't going to catch on to the great policy goals. Because we won't get it, he shouldn't try it. Cynical.
It's this non-ideological lens through which much of the country viewed Judge Roberts' confirmation hearings.   A majority of folks, including a number of Democrats and Independents, don't think that John Roberts is an ideologue bent on overturning every vestige of civil rights and civil liberties protections in our possession.  Instead, they have good reason to believe he is a conservative judge who is (like it or not) within the mainstream of American jurisprudence, a judge appointed by a conservative president who could have done much worse (and probably, I fear, may do worse with the next nominee).  While they hope Roberts doesn't swing the court too sharply to the right, a majority of Americans think that the President should probably get the benefit of the doubt on a clearly qualified nominee.
This is Obama being aware that he's outside the mainstream in some ways, and aware that leading from the left is hard.
Or to make the point differently: How can we ask Republican senators to resist pressure from their right wing and vote against flawed appointees like John Bolton, if we engage in similar rhetoric against Democrats who dissent from our own party line?  How can we expect Republican moderates who are concerned about the nation's fiscal meltdown to ignore Grover Norquist's threats if we make similar threats to those who buck our party orthodoxy?   
I am not drawing a facile equivalence here between progressive advocacy groups and right-wing advocacy groups.  The consequences of their ideas are vastly different. Fighting on behalf of the poor and the vulnerable is not the same as fighting for homophobia and Halliburton.  But to the degree that we brook no dissent within the Democratic Party, and demand fealty to the one, "true" progressive vision for the country, we risk the very thoughtfulness and openness to new ideas that are required to move this country forward.  When we lash out at those who share our fundamental values because they have not met the criteria of every single item on our progressive "checklist," then we are essentially preventing them from thinking in new ways about problems.  We are tying them up in a straightjacket and forcing them into a conversation only with the converted.
Beyond that, by applying such tests, we are hamstringing our ability to build a majority.  We won't be able to transform the country with such a polarized electorate.  Because the truth of the matter is this: Most of the issues this country faces are hard.  They require tough choices, and they require sacrifice.  The Bush Administration and the Republican Congress may have made the problems worse, but they won't go away after President Bush is gone.  Unless we are open to new ideas, and not just new packaging, we won't change enough hearts and minds to initiate a serious energy or fiscal policy that calls for serious sacrifice.  We won't have the popular support to craft a foreign policy that meets the challenges of globalization or terrorism while avoiding isolationism and protecting civil liberties.  We certainly won't have a mandate to overhaul a health care policy that overcomes all the entrenched interests that are the legacy of a jerry-rigged health care system.  And we won't have the broad political support, or the effective strategies, required to lift large numbers of our fellow citizens out of numbing poverty.
The bottom line is that our job is harder than the conservatives' job.  After all, it's easy to articulate a belligerent foreign policy based solely on unilateral military action, a policy that sounds tough and acts dumb; it's harder to craft a foreign policy that's tough and smart.  It's easy to dismantle government safety nets; it's harder to transform those safety nets so that they work for people and can be paid for.  It's easy to embrace a theological absolutism; it's harder to find the right balance between the legitimate role of faith in our lives and the demands of our civic religion.  But that's our job.  And I firmly believe that whenever we exaggerate or demonize, or oversimplify or overstate our case, we lose.  Whenever we dumb down the political debate, we lose.  A polarized electorate that is turned off of politics, and easily dismisses both parties because of the nasty, dishonest tone of the debate, works perfectly well for those who seek to chip away at the very idea of government because, in the end, a cynical electorate is a selfish electorate.
Let me be clear: I am not arguing that the Democrats should trim their sails and be more "centrist."  In fact, I think the whole "centrist" versus "liberal" labels that continue to characterize the debate within the Democratic Party misses the mark.  Too often, the "centrist" label seems to mean compromise for compromise sake, whereas on issues like health care, energy, education and tackling poverty, I don't think Democrats have been bold enough.  But I do think that being bold involves more than just putting more money into existing programs and will instead require us to admit that some existing programs and policies don't work very well.  And further, it will require us to innovate and experiment with whatever ideas hold promise (including market- or faith-based ideas that originate from Republicans).
Our goal should be to stick to our guns on those core values that make this country great, show a spirit of flexibility and sustained attention that can achieve those goals, and try to create the sort of serious, adult, consensus around our problems that can admit Democrats, Republicans and Independents of good will.  This is more than just a matter of "framing," although clarity of language, thought, and heart are required.  It's a matter of actually having faith in the American people's ability to hear a real and authentic debate about the issues that matter.
Finally, I am not arguing that we "unilaterally disarm" in the face of Republican attacks, or bite our tongue when this Administration screws up.  Whenever they are wrong, inept, or dishonest, we should say so clearly and repeatedly; and whenever they gear up their attack machine, we should respond quickly and forcefully.  I am suggesting that the tone we take matters, and that truth, as best we know it, be the hallmark of our response. 
This is our President. Time has made him more realist, as I noted in the previous post, but this is what he wants to believe, and why I'm glad he has the job. He gets it.

Honesty and Education in Campaigns

There was an unfortunate pattern during the 2008 campaign of Obama "dumbing down"- specific rhetoric on policy was ignored by the media, and his honest statements about occasional home discord or leaving socks around weren't effective at showing him to be a real person, so he stopped making them. For as much as we prefer people who are kind and honest, the results show that being ruthless is the true path to power - just look at the characters in "All the Devils Are Here," which I read yesterday. That's why the charge of Obama mania was so accurate - in simplifying a message for the masses, Obama (and Palin) both took an individually correct path that, in sum, hurt the entire election process.

I believe that candidates and their campaigns should treat each race as a learning/education opportunity for the public, so that people are empowered to understand issues as they learn who will represent them best.