Wednesday, April 20, 2016

In defense of closed primaries

I voted for Bernie Sanders in the Texas Democratic primary, and I stand by that vote.  I'm in substantial agreement with him on most issues.  I continue to believe that he's the right person to be the 45th President.

But it looks today like that's not to be.  It looks very much like there have been some shenanigans, especially in Arizona and New York.  Unlike many of my fellow Bernie supporters, however, I don't think those shenanigans have been the product of some concerted* effort to install Hillary Clinton as the nominee through vote suppression and fraud.  Rather, it can be attributed mostly to inertia (in New York, which has absurd rules for primary voting) and racist malevolence (in Arizona, where substantial Republican majorities in elected office are working hard to keep casual voters and racial minorities from casting ballots).  Hillary isn't to blame for either of those factors.  As the frontrunner, and until voting actually began, the presumptive nominee, she was merely the beneficiary.

* - N.B. While many people use the term "concerted" to mean "vigorous" or "strong," it actually means "joint," as in "in concert," in that a "concerted effort" means a group of people working together toward a common goal or purpose.

What caught Bernie out in New York was something that's largely beyond his control.  To vote in a partisan primary, New York requires you to be a registered member of that party for six months before the election.  That means that unless you were a registered Democrat in October 2015, you were excluded from voting in yesterday's Democratic primary.  What makes that absurd is that it's very difficult to get new voters engaged enough, six months in advance of an election, to organize any significant number of them to do what's needed to vote.  That's just human nature, and the political powers in New York, recognizing that, simply keep the rules that way to keep voting totals low.

While I think that's ludicrous and anti-democratic (small d), you will not hear me criticizing the closed primary system.

Historically, although their relative numbers have fluctuated, party registrations have hovered around the following:  35% Democratic, 30% Republican, 35% independent or third-party.  The partisan numbers tend to go down in times of hyperpartisanship and up at other times.  Lately it has been fashionable to declare yourself an "independent," on some theory that being a partisan means being a mind-numb robot.  In the last few years, lots of people have decided to "stick it to the Man" by changing their voter registrations to independent or to some third party (commonly Libertarian or Green).

I'll say it now:  Unless you are committed to building a political party from the ground up, becoming a registered member of one of these microparties is ridiculous and foolish.  (I also happen to think that trying to build a political party from the ground up is also ridiculous and foolish.)

You're not sticking it to the Man.  The Man doesn't care what your party registration is.  Ultimately, what matters is how you vote in November, and your party affiliation means nothing in November.

But what you are doing is making it much more difficult for you to have a say in who the major parties' nominees are, at least in states with closed primaries.

And I think that states should have closed primaries.  After all, the purpose of a primary election is for members of a party to choose the person who appears on their line in the general election, not to have a "first cut" of candidates.

Like it or not, we have a system in which the two major parties dominate elections.  Elected independents—Bernie notwithstanding—are rare.  Elected microparty candidates are even rarer.  The reason for this is simple:  It's very, very difficult to organize to win elections.  Parties provide continuity and an apparatus of support for their candidates.

We also have a binary system because the American people are largely binary in their approach to politics.  If you forget about the party labels and just ask people their opinions on the broad topics around which our political system is organized, something like 95% of Americans will be at least 75% aligned with the views of one major party or the other.  In fact, the broad majority of self-described independents tend to align with the Democrats on the issues.  Of course, we don't vote on issues (usually); we vote on candidates.  It's certainly true that people who aren't sufficiently engaged with the political process to register with the party they align with politically are going to vote for candidates they don't align with, for reasons of personality (either in favor of the candidate they vote for or against the candidate they don't vote for).

But I don't think it's too much to ask that you register as a Democrat to be able to vote in the Democratic primary.  If you can't bothered to declare yourself a Democrat, why should you have any say in determining the Democratic nominee for any particular office?  If you want to have a say in the party's nomination process, join the party!  It's free, and if you don't like our candidate in November, feel free to vote for the other guy.  We'll never know, unless you say so.

Where New York errs is in making it so difficult to get qualified to vote in a partisan primary.  If you're going to hold an election on April 19, a reasonable cutoff for voter and party registration is March 20, 30 days before.  Not October.  (New York also errs by requiring you to cast your ballot in your precinct on Election Day; it should permit no-excuse early voting, and it should make voting centers available for that purpose.  I've been pleasantly surprised by the approach taken by Collin County, Texas, where I live.  You can vote in any voting center in the county, either on Election Day or for about two weeks before.  They even provide up-to-the-minute statuses for each voting center so you can choose one with short lines.  They also have plenty of voting centers, unlike Maricopa County, Arizona, which implemented such a plan but slashed the number of centers available by two-thirds, which resulted in long lines earlier this year.)

I'm all in favor of getting casual voters and independents into the electoral process, but to the extent they are going to influence my party's primary elections, I want them to be members of my party. 

Wednesday, April 13, 2016


I'm not mad.  Really, I'm not.

And I'm not disappointed.  In you, anyway.

But I'm glad you didn't succeed. That would've been devastating.

I wouldn't call him a close friend.  We knew each other in high school. He was a couple of years behind me. We only shared one class, I think, choir.  At 15 he was still a little kid, especially compared to me.  I'm sure he got his share of teasing.  I hope I wasn't one of the ones teasing him, but I can't remember.

We reconnected a few years ago via Facebook, as people of our age do these days.  He was out.  The fact that he's gay didn't surprise me; sometimes you just know these things, no matter how carefully they're hidden.  But it's hard to be out in Arkansas.

I'm a different person from the one I was when I knew him in real life.  It took some time, and an experience I now regret (and about which I've previously written), for me to realize that being gay is like having blue eyes or freckles.  It's not a good thing or a bad thing; it's just a part of being human.  I used to worry that other people might think I was gay, like it was something to be guarded against, like the flu or drinking too much.  Better not hang around a gay guy too much, or people will think you are, too.  Back then, the voice in my head, the one that follows up stupid thoughts like that with so what if they do?--that voice was silent.

I'm hesitant to write this story.  It's really not mine to tell.  But it needs writing.

*  *  *  *  *

He came to me about writing.  He was finishing up his certification to be a counselor, and he wanted to start writing a blog, and he knew I wrote a blog, and I guess he liked it.  We exchanged a brief set of messages about the process--technical stuff, like how to set up a blog, and more substantive stuff, too.  My advice was what it is to every aspiring writer who asks me:  Write about what you care about.  Don't worry if no one reads it, or likes it.  The writing won't mean anything if it doesn't first mean something to you.

A few weeks later, he sent me a short note about a post I'd made about the Justin Harris incident, in which it came out that a state senator had "re-homed" two girls he and his wife had adopted, sending them to live with a man who proceeded to rape them, on the basis that they were "demonically possessed."  His praise was flattering and meaningful to me. 

I do write about what I care about, but I'd be lying if I said it didn't feel good to know that other people read it, and like it.

A few weeks after that, he was involved in a Facebook discussion, or argument, with a friend of his from college, about whether homosexuals are "born that way."  I wanted to step in on his side, in the thread, but I was unable to comment on the post because I'm not friends with the original poster.  I sent him a personal message instead:

[That] comment about not being born gay really sticks in my craw. I can only truly know my own experience, but I know that being straight wasn't a choice I made--it is just the way I am. I don't expect it would be different for anyone else, gay, straight, or other. But even if it were, so what? There are many choices that other people make that I wouldn't make. That doesn't mean they aren't allowed to make those choices or that discrimination against them on that basis is right. After all, religion is 100% a choice, yet we don't allow discrimination on that basis.

Ever the conciliator, he rose to his friend's defense, explaining that at least his friend, though ignorant, was talking with him about it, and that made him at least somewhat open to being educated.  I thought his approach was amazing and strong.

He thanked me for my support, and I explained to him why I offered it--because there was a time, years before, when I could have offered support to a friend, and didn't.  When I should have offered support to a friend, and didn't.  When I made a fool of myself, and hurt my friend in the process.

Better not hang around a gay guy too much, or people will think you are, too.

That little voice was silent that day.

So I can't be silent now.

*  *  *  *  *

He got a counseling job, then another.  This new one was going to be a challenge--being some sort of social worker in an impoverished county in the Delta.  He embraced it with relish and excitement.  I could tell that this was the kind of work he had been looking for all along.

But fate intervened.  He became sick--some sort of flu, that turned into pneumonia, and a lengthy hospital stay and plenty of missed work.  Even the most understanding supervisor would have his limits with a new employee.  It took a long time to recover.

I still don't have the full story, but what I can surmise from his comments on social media is that the job had gone away.  When you lose a job, it's easy to feel like a failure.  Forget about the loss of income; it's the feeling of failure that hurts.  When you lose a job that you've worked toward for a long time, it hurts more.  It hurts even more when it's nobody's fault, but it can somehow still feel like it's your fault.  If only I'd been stronger.  There's supposed to be a little voice in your head that says, don't be silly; this has nothing to do with you; sometimes bad things happen no matter what you do.

But what do you do if that voice is silent?

*  *  *  *  *

I had been off social media for a few days, busy with work.  When I got back on, his messages were at the top of my feed.  They were disturbing:

"I'll miss you all.  I love you."

"If I died today, what would you have wanted to tell me?"

"Giving up isn't cowardly.  It's finding freedom in a way that you never knew existed before."

Immediately I sent him a personal message.  I was intentionally cautious; he was clearly depressed, but I didn't know if he was serious about suicide, so I didn't want to plant the seed.  I split the difference.  "On the chance that you're saying what you could be, I want to reach out to you and remind you that there are many people who love you and who want the best things for you, that I'm one of those people, and that your story isn't finished being written yet. And, come to think of it, I think everybody could stand to hear that once in a while anyway."

I don't know if he saw it.  If he did, he didn't respond.

*  *  *  *  *

Four days later, he posted on Facebook that he had indeed attempted suicide, that he'd been hospitalized for a few days, and that he was headed to a 28-day program.  "I'm so sorry that I disappointed you all. I hope you can forgive me."

I'm not mad.  Really, I'm not.

And I'm not disappointed.  In you, anyway.

But I'm glad you didn't succeed.  That would've been devastating.

*  *  *  *  *

If there is one thing I know to be true, it's that depression lies.  I have been depressed at times, though I'm lucky that it has never weighed on me to that point.  But there have been times in my life when I had to struggle to force that little voice inside me to speak up, to speak up for me, to counter the lies that my own traitorous brain was throwing on me.  When the pain gets to be too much, will you do anything to make it stop?

No matter how strong you are, there may be times when you can't hold back the tide by yourself.

*  *  *  *  *

I look back, now 23 or 24 years ago, to that little kid, the late bloomer, the tag-along with the nice tenor voice. I had a foot or more on him in height and maybe 150 pounds on him in weight.  I want the 17-year-old me to have hugged that kid, to have let him know that I loved him.  I want the 17-year-old me to have been able to do that, so that it wouldn't be so hard for the 40-year-old me to do it today.  I don't pretend that it would have made a difference in what happened, but we'll never know.

*  *  *  *  *

I hope that someday there is a good coda to this story.  When my friend gets out of his program in a few weeks, I hope the little voice inside him will have learned how to speak up again.  I hope that one day he'll maybe read this and know that I care about him, even if we're hundreds of miles apart, and even if we weren't all that close to begin with.  I hope he'll come to understand that I know how strong he really is.  I hope he'll know that I'm not disappointed in him, that I don't think he's weak or cowardly. I hope he'll recognize that even things that feel like failure aren't always bad.

And most of all, I hope he's not disappointed in me.

*  *  *  *  *

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year.  If you are having thoughts of suicide, don't wait:  Call (800) 273-8255 now.  You do not have to bear your burdens alone.  There are people who care about you, even if you don't know it.

Friday, April 8, 2016

(Im)pertinent questions

I got to a (heated? my opposite number would probably call it that) discussion the other day—with someone whom I don't know—about Hillary Clinton. I'll preface this by saying that if Hillary is the Democratic nominee, I will vote for her, no question, but in the Texas primary, I voted for Bernie, and—all else being equal—I would prefer that he get the nomination.
The discussion arose because I objected to being called a "BernieBro." My support for Bernie has zero to do with Hillary being a woman; it has nothing to do with my wanting to get something for free; and, as indicated above, I’m not a “Bernie or Bust” kind of guy. As much as I like and admire Hillary, she doesn’t have my support for the nomination because the positions she’s staked out on the issues I think are most important are too conservative. In particular, I think Hillary is insufficiently concerned about wealth inequality, and I think that as president she would be likely to institute policies that would increase it, not decrease it.
I think you can probably project onto Hillary Clinton whatever views you want on the issue of wealth inequality, at least on a personal level. She’s a Democrat, so you would expect her generally to be opposed to wealth inequality, but she’s a DLCer, so maybe not. Wealth inequality is a big women’s issue, so maybe; but she’s personally rather wealthy, so maybe not.
Of course, her personal views are largely irrelevant. What causes my misgivings about Hillary—aside from some structural problems I have with the way the system appears to have been gamed for her in ways that hurt the Democratic Party, which may or may not be her fault—is a figure I ran across the other day from OpenSecrets. According to their analysis, Hillary’s campaign (along with nominally outside groups that align with her) has received more than $21 million in contributions from people who work in the “securities and investment” industry. That’s the largest single industry to contribute to her election effort. A further $5 million has come from people who work in “miscellaneous finance.”
I’m not naive; I know that money is required to run campaigns, and that money has to come from somewhere, especially if you’re not a billionaire and can’t simply write the check. When the modern campaign finance rules were written shortly after Watergate, it was possible to fund your campaign based on contributions from people who supported your election because they liked your views, or how you voted. Yes, contributors likely got access in ways that non-contributors didn’t, but the quid-pro-quo was less explicit.
In today’s world, I don’t think we can live under that pretense anymore. The amount of money raised and spent is so enormous that it can’t not have an impact on how an elected official will vote. When I was in college, a candidate for Congress would need to have access to around $250,000 per election cycle to run a credible campaign. That’s a lot of money, but it could easily be raised from small donors entirely in one’s district. Today, which is closer to 20 years later than I like to admit, to run for Congress, it takes 12 times as much to run a credible campaign.  For that reason, it’s necessary to raise funds virtually every day of the year to keep up. So the lobbyists, the executives, the moneyed elite have a political advantage over the common person; they can save a candidate an enormous amount of time by contributing bundled hard money to the campaign and other money to PACs that support the candidate.
That is the system we live under, and it will continue to be that way as long as Citizens United is the law of the land.
So the question is, why would these people contribute to political candidates? I will admit somewhat to being puzzled over that question generally.  I've never made a political contribution of any size to any candidate for any office.  Probably the biggest part of the reason for that is that I've never really been in a financial position where it made sense to spend money in that way.  But I've never been particularly motivated to have "my guy" in a particular office.
But I am particularly interested to hear the answer with regard to contributions from the financial sector to Hillary Clinton. After all, these are bankers and stock brokers and financial advisors and hedge fund managers—people whose primary job it is to understand how best to invest money for a profitable return.
I jokingly asked my opposite number, a Hillary supporter, if she thought maybe they contributed to her because they liked her hairstyle. Seeing an opportunity, she complained that I was a sexist for saying that she only supported Hillary because of her hairstyle and not because she is an accomplished person who would make a good president.
Yeah, I don’t follow it either.
(For the record, I couldn’t care less about Hillary’s hair or anything else about her physical appearance—body, clothes, hair, or whatever. I can’t believe it even had to be said.)
When her attempt to smear me didn't work, she shifted gears:  Isn't your candidate, she asked, owned by the NRA?  Didn't the NRA buy him his Senate seat in Vermont?
Actually, Bernie has routinely been given very low grades by the NRA—D-minus in the last rating, and frequently an F.  He does not strike me as a friend to the NRA.  He does represent a rural state with a lot of hunters, and he has taken what I think is a very commonsense position on gun control:  What is right for New York City may not be right for Vermont.
But we weren't talking about Bernie and guns.  We were talking about Hillary and the millions of dollars she has taken from people who work in the financial services industry.
Anyway, I couldn’t pin her down to an answer to my question: If Hillary’s so well aligned with my views on banking and the economy, and, more largely, on wealth inequality, why are all of these bankers bankrolling her campaign, to the tune of more than $26 million?  Many of these checks are written for the maximum amount allowed by law, $2700.  And these aren't secretaries and mailroom clerks writing these checks.  They're top-level executives.  To someone who makes millions of dollars per year, it's a small amount (which they tend to augment with larger contributions to PACs).  What do they know about Hillary that isn't apparent to the rest of us?  What are they expecting in return for the financial help they're giving her?
These people do not strike me as the kind of folks who don't expect to see a return on their investment. 

But I am nothing if not fair.  I would like someone to give me an answer to my questions that is something other than "she's on the banksters' side."