We are not the enemy

It’s a sad reflection on Americans to see what our political discourse has devolved into. If you review my political posts, you’ll see that I am careful to keep them fact-based and don’t resort to personal insults. I do this because I can have a substantive, reasoned discussion about politics when it’s based on facts and devoid of fallacy. But I also disagree with others’ politics in a respectful manner and avoid publishing commentary that is emotionally driven and hostile so that I don’t make enemies simply by exercising my freedom of speech.

In spite of my diplomacy when discussing politics, what do I get in return? Vitriol and ad hominem attacks—and this from people who don’t know me from Adam and often make false assumptions about my politics. For example, I voice a lot of criticism of Donald Trump and some people mistakenly assume that means I’m a Hillary Clinton supporter. As expected, Trump supporters respond to me as if I’m their enemy. Just this morning, someone I never met called me an “idiot” for simply stating a fact that did not resonate with her preconceived narrative about Trump’s virtues.

But I’m far from the only one being attacked personally for voicing a political position and it happens on both sides of the spectrum. Trump opponents often make derogatory comments about his followers, calling them racist and worse, even though they don’t even know the individuals they denigrate. Even Clinton said, “You know, to just be grossly generalistic, you could put half of Trump’s supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables. Right? The racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic—you name it.” You’re right, Secretary Clinton, that is gross.

Americans are segregating themselves into tribes and, now more than ever, demonizing any American that doesn’t share their ideology. They feel as if it’s “us against them.” Although many of these fellow Americans are their neighbors and family, they see them as enemies if they’re not part of their tribe.

Social media is only exacerbating this effect. People say things online to their fellow Americans that they would never utter if they ran into that same stranger face-to-face on the street. I often feel like I need to take a shower after reading some threads of political commentary on facebook posts, YouTube videos, and tweets. All sense of common decency and empathy for fellow Americans is thrown out the window in these media.

But the truth is that we are all Americans and we are far more alike than we are different. We all love our family and (real) friends and just want to live in peace and prosperity. We all feel blessed that we live in a country that, despite all its follies and foibles, is far preferable to living just about anywhere else on this planet. And we all need to respect each other’s personal opinions and positions, especially those with whom we disagree politically, if we are to retain this sound democratic foundation that America is built upon. In the words of Rodney King, “can we all get along?”

Bernie Sanders is not the revolutionary

I understand how you feel, Bernie Bro; I voted for Bernie Sanders too. Like Bernie actually is, I too am an independent but I voted the Democrat ballot in California’s primary election. I felt the Bern and I want to see a political revolution in this country as much as he and you do. So like you, I was disappointed when Bernie lost the Democrat nomination.

Cover of The Beatles' Revolution albumBut if Bernie were the next president, it would not guaranty that the political revolution he campaigned about would happen. And the political revolution can still happen, no matter who the next president is. Because Bernie is not the revolutionary—we are.

That’s right—none of Bernie’s platforms can be implemented without the legislature. And even if Bernie were in the Oval Office, he would not be able to sign any of his platforms into law unless the legislature was to first pass a bill that legislates one of his platforms. We the people have much more sway over our congress than any president ever could.

How do you affect your legislators? You write to them and tell them how you feel about the issues. It’s easy to do. You can message them through a form on the senators’ and representatives’ web sites. There’s a search tool to help you find your own representative or a committee. Unfortunately, as easy as it is, few constituents ever contact their congressman. A political revolution means that we all need to do this regularly. If everyone who felt the Bern did this, congress would be deluged by many millions of messages echoing the positions that Bernie took and that resonated so strongly with you.

Some of you have conservative congressmen. That means you also need to tell them that, if they vote contrary to the position you are asking them to take, you will vote for someone more like Bernie when they are up for reelection. And then you actually need to do so. That threat might not impress your congressmen if they only get a few of them but, if millions of constituents threaten to vote them out of office, they will pay attention. Over ninety percent of incumbent congressmen get reelected. There are not nearly that many of them supporting or opposing legislation the way their constituency wants them to. What incentive is there for them to do what their constituents ask if they will reelect them anyway?

Finally, a political revolutionary needs to be informed accurately on the issues. You cannot effectively write to your congressmen and vote for them if you are ignorant about politics. The three sources you should not use to inform yourself are Internet memes, TV commercials, and Fox News. All three sources are notorious for providing information that is false as frequently as it is truthful. Get your political news from multiple sources, including ones that favor the Left and ones that favor the Right, so you get a well rounded perspective on politics. Visit the Library of Congress legislative repository to read the actual bills, see their current status and, if they’ve been brought to the floor, how your congressman voted. Both FactCheck.org and PolitiFact are great tools to separate the lies from the truth. It is surprisingly easy to get detailed information about congress but you must be discerning to identify the bullshit.

You can start a political revolution even though Bernie will not be president. But it’s important to vote for the presidential candidate who would be most likely to sign Bernie’s platforms into law—and has a possibility of being elected. If your political revolution is successful at getting the legislation you want through congress, you don’t want it to just get vetoed in the Oval Office. Sitting out the presidential election because Bernie Sanders was not nominated as the Democrat candidate will not start the revolution he called for. And electing a megalomaniacal autocrat will stop it cold.

Defining Donald Trump

The surprising success of Donald J. Trump’s primary campaign shows that he is unquestionably appealing to millions of Americans. This made me curious as to what about him is appealing to them. I started my analysis by describing Trump to see which of his characteristics are the most appealing. So I thought of all the words I could come up with that describe him.

Donald Trump is a narcissist, a racist, a megalomaniac, a demagogue, an oligarch, an egomaniac, and a sociopathic liar. He’s bombastic, arrogant, delusional, embarrassing, habitually litigious, and politically inconsistent.

At first glance, it might seem that this is not a serious description of Trump but is simply just a caricature. After all, how could a real person actually exhibit all of these traits? So I hyperlinked each one to the word’s definition in the Merriam-Webster dictionary. If you follow the links and read the definitions, you’ll see that they literally define Trump—without exaggeration, every one of them!

So what then is the appeal of this kind of a man? It turns out that many Americans do not so much support Trump as they oppose Hillary Clinton. The biggest criticism of her is that she’s a liar and it’s not hard to make that case. This is an understandable reason to oppose Clinton but it’s a poor reason to support Trump.

When it comes to lying, Trump makes Clinton sound like George Washington admitting to chopping down the cherry tree. Trump lies so blatantly that he doesn’t even care that it’s obvious and simple to show his lies to be false. Even his supporters know that he was lying when he claimed that “thousands and thousands” of Muslims in New Jersey were “cheering” the 9/11 attack. This is the man who stuck to his claim that Barack Obama was born in Kenya, even after the president released his long-form birth certificate to the public.

He lied so much that FactCheck.org dubbed Trump the “King of Whoppers” for 2015. Then they went on to cite a long list of lies he said over the course of the year and presented evidence that the statements were all false. PolitiFact put many of Trump’s statements through its Truth-O-Meter. It turns out that Trump made far more statements that were false at some level than he did statements that were at least partially true. Of PolitiFact’s six rulings of truthfulness (or lack thereof), only three percent of Trump’s statements were completely true—the fewest of all the categories.

Trump’s statements by ruling

Chart of Donald Trump's statements by ruling
Source: PolitiFact

After my analysis, I got a clear picture of what Donald Trump is really like. But I never found out what is so appealing about him. If you find him appealing, please make a comment below telling American voters why. If you think any of my characterizations does not apply to Trump, let me know which one and I’ll cite evidence that the definition is accurate in his case.

Keeping the right to bear arms real

In the wake of the worst mass shooting in U.S. history, we are certain to see another increase in arguments about gun control in the days to come. This is an important issue, so I welcome reasoned public discourse about it. But I do not like to see all the bullshit that is sure to accompany the arguments. I want to see this issue debated with valid grounds, not with fallacy.

Before I get into keeping it real, here is my position for the record:

  • I support Americans’ Second Amendment right to bear arms. I oppose the government taking Americans’ guns away.
  • That right has limitations, just as the First Amendment right to free speech does not permit “falsely shouting fire in a crowded theater.”
  • If my hands were not paralyzed, I would probably buy a gun, get trained on its use, and practice those skills so I could use it safely.

That said, I don’t deny facts presented by those who support abolishing the Second Amendment. The one most commonly used is that the most effective way to reduce gun violence is to take Americans’ guns away from them. The evidence shows unequivocally that there is a direct positive correlation between the level of gun ownership in a given country and the incidence of gun violence. The following charts comprise just one piece in a mountain of evidence that supports this argument.

Charts showing per capita firearm possession and firearm homicides in major countries
Level of firearm ownership compared to incidence of firearm homicides

For Americans who value a reduction in gun violence and mass shootings (like the one that occurred yesterday) over their right to bear arms, it’s a valid argument. But gun rights advocates who rebut by saying that, if guns were outlawed, criminals would still get them and use them violently are being fallacious. Their words are factual but irrelevant to the argument. Although it would not eliminate gun violence altogether, it’s unequivocal that abolishing the Second Amendment would significantly reduce the incidence of mass shootings like the one in Orlando and other gun violence, even though some Americans would still have guns and use them violently. To deny that simply makes a person appear to lack the capacity for rational thought on the issue.

Those of us who support their right to bear arms should keep it real when we argue in favor of it. There’s no need to deny facts because the Second Amendment is clear and unqualified:

A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.

The Constitution does not qualify that right with a condition that it becomes void in the event that firearm homicides in the USA are much greater than in countries that limit gun ownership. Therefore, the high incidence of mass shootings in the USA is completely irrelevant to the right granted Americans by the Second Amendment.

While the right to bear arms is unqualified, it is also limited. Because my hands are paralyzed, I could not safely handle a gun, so I’m sure that even the staunchest gun rights advocates would say that I should not be allowed to fire a gun around them. As the Supreme Court of the United States decided in District of Columbia v. Heller:

The Second Amendment right is not unlimited. It is not a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose.

So Americans should be debating common sense limitations on the use of guns that can protect Americans from attacks like the one in Orlando yesterday without infringing our right to keep and bear arms.

Should the backgrounds of all gun buyers be checked for criminal prosecutions? Should Americans be permitted to own military-style assault weapons and high-capacity magazines? Should people with a history of mental illness be allowed to buy guns? These are good questions to debate and valid points can be made on both sides of the issues. But let’s keep that debate real by doing so rationally and based on facts instead of using fallacy and falsehoods.

The restroom dilemma

North Carolina passed House Bill 2 (PDF) last month in a special session. It kicked off a nation-wide debate regarding the civil rights of transgender people because it includes provisions requiring transgender people to use multi-stall restrooms that align with their gender at birth. Some companies from outside the state have halted planned expansions because of the law. Many groups have canceled scheduled conventions in the state. For the state to pass a law that is so unpopular far beyond its borders, the use of restrooms by transgender people must be a major problem in North Carolina, right? Well, it turns out, not so much.

Gov. Pat McCrory defended the law, saying it “was to ensure that expectation of privacy would remain in our high schools and our universities and our community colleges.” However, the president of the University of North Carolina told chancellors that it could endanger the system’s federal funding and hurt alumni giving and recruitment efforts. But the law will have no impact on expectation of privacy.

Long before HB 2 was enacted, people with XY chromosomes who identify as women were already using the women’s restrooms. None of the other women in the restrooms ever had any idea that the women they were sharing it with were born boys because transgender women typically try to look like women. And people with XX chromosomes who identify as men were using the men’s restrooms without any of the other men in the restrooms having any idea that the men they were sharing it with were born girls.

But consider what will happen if a transgender person complies with HB 2 instead. Take the case of a college student with XX chromosomes who has had sex change surgeries and is receiving testosterone therapy. He has a beard and a deep voice. He has a hairy chest but no breasts. His vulva has been surgically transformed to a penis. Yet because he was born a girl, the law would require him to use the women’s locker room. Or imagine a woman with XY chromosomes. She looks and dresses much more like other women than like a man. But because she was born a boy, she would be required to use the men’s restroom. Do these situations really seem like the best way to deal with transgender use of restrooms?

HB 2 is a solution for something that was not a problem. As you would expect, all it does is create problems. Since the status quo ante wasn’t harming anyone, North Carolina should have just left things as they were. Let people use whichever restroom they’re most comfortable using. What harm could it really cause?

He said, she didn’t say

The latest dustup in the Democrat primary race is Senator Bernie Sanders questioning Secretary Hillary Clinton’s qualifications to be president of the United States. It’s pretty clear that he did just that Wednesday at Temple University when he said:

Well let me just say in response to Secretary Clinton, I don’t  believe that she is qualified if she is—through her Super PAC—taking tens of millions of dollars in special interest funds. I don’t think that you are qualified if you get 15-million dollars from Wall Street through your Super PAC. I don’t think you are qualified if you have voted for the disastrous war in Iraq. I don’t think you are qualified if you’ve supported virtually every disastrous trade agreement, which has cost us millions of decent paying jobs.

Some Hillary supporters felt that this was a low blow, claiming that Clinton never called Sanders unqualified to be president. While that may be true, they fail to recognize that the day before Sanders discussed her qualifications, she was interview by Joe Scarborough on Morning Joe. Scarborough asked Clinton directly if Sanders is “qualified” to be president. She dodged the question and instead discussed reasons she thinks Democrats should not vote for Sanders. So Scarborough explicitly asked her if Sanders is qualified to be president twice more and she again dodged the question and criticized Sanders each time. From her responses, there’s no question in anyone’s mind that she was implying that Sanders is unqualified to be president, even if she did not explicitly say the word. In view of these comments Clinton made about then presidential candidate Barack Obama during the 2008 Democrat primary race (video below), it smacks of the pot calling the kettle black.

The word (not) “qualified” was a poor choice by Sanders. I have not read the job description for POTUS, so I don’t know what the official qualifications are, but considering her background, education, and experience, it would be difficult to make a compelling case that Clinton does not meet the qualifications. But let’s take a closer look at the empirical portions of the issues Sanders raised about Clinton and see what a better choice of words would be without talking about her qualifications.

  • “Through her Super PAC—taking tens of millions of dollars in special interest funds,” it’s fair to say that Sanders would be less influenced by special interests than Clinton since there are no Super PACs campaigning in support of him.
  • “If you get 15-million dollars from Wall Street through your Super PAC,” it’s fair to say that Clinton would be more likely to favor the banking industry than Sanders would be if he were president.
  • “If you have voted for the disastrous war in Iraq,” the most damaging foreign blunder a president of the USA has made in modern history, it’s fair to say that Clinton demonstrated poor judgement on the most critical factor that can be faced by the POTUS.
  • “If you’ve supported virtually every disastrous trade agreement, which has cost us millions of decent paying jobs,” it’s fair to say that supporting them demonstrated poor understanding of macroeconomics, the most important domestic topic for a POTUS to have a strong grasp of.

Sanders’ comments about qualifications notwithstanding, both he and Clinton have held by far the most positive, civil, and substantive political campaigns in this Democrat primary that I have seen in recent decades—including the current GOP primary race—even when compared to how Obama and Clinton conducted themselves in the 2008 primary. For example, while the press has constantly tried to get Sanders to comment on Clinton’s email server scandal or the Benghazi embassy attack, he has never taken the bait. In fact, he has not only consistently dismissed the issue, he has even supported Clinton by downplaying it multiple times while debating against her on national TV.

The truth is, Sanders explicitly said Clinton is not qualified and Clinton strongly implied that Sanders’ is not by dodging questions about his qualifications. But regardless of which one is nominated by the Democrat party to be the presidential candidate, the eventual nominee will face withering attacks infinitely more negative and untruthful than anything either of them has faced from the other once the race moves to the general election. Both Clinton and Sanders need to really toughen up their skin to prepare for that.

Petition to allow guns at Republican convention nears 30,000 signatures
Tens of thousands of people have signed an anonymous call to allow weapons to be carried at the Republican national convention in July

Let’s see—a bunch of enraged, scared Republicans; a contentious nominee battle; a packed, raucous arena in a crime-ridden city; and everyone packing heat to make a point. What could possibly go wrong?

Duty to uphold the Constitution

A few weeks have transpired since Justice Antonin Scalia died and the uproar over the nomination of a justice to replace him on the Supreme Court of the United States began. I observed the uproar for about a week and it seemed like Senate Republicans didn’t want President Barack Obama to nominate a replacement for no reason other than just because it was Scalia who died. I have observed for another month since then and have seen Senators’ justifications for not allowing a hearing and a vote on Obama’s nominee Judge Merrick Garland become more nuanced and less focused on Scalia.

It’s ironic and hypocritical that Republicans are not the only Senators who have made the claim that a president should not exercise their duty to appoint a Supreme Court justice. The oft cited “Biden rule” (which is not actually a rule) refers to Vice President Joe Biden saying (when he was a Senator):

It is my view that if a Supreme Court Justice resigns tomorrow, or within the next several weeks, or resigns at the end of the summer, President [George H. W.] Bush should consider following the practice of a majority of his predecessors and not—and not—name a nominee until after the November election is completed.

In 2005, Senator Harry Reid (D) said regarding judges that, “The duties of the United States senator are set forth in the Constitution of the United States. Nowhere in that document does it say that the Senate has a duty to give presidential nominees a vote.” Of course, both Democrat senators made those statements when there was a Republican president. Reid was as wrong about the issue then as the GOP leaders are now and it’s no surprise that he is now supporting the polar opposite side of the issue since Obama is in office.

As a wonk, I follow politics closely and have seen, read, and heard many different justifications made in the Sunday morning news shows and other media. In large part, I find that the justifications used by Republican senators are factual. But even though the veracity of their grounds is sound, their justifications are still not valid. The Senators never cite the Constitution of the United States to justify the claim that they should not hold hearings and vote on Garland’s nomination but the Constitution is the only governing document that is relevant to the Senate’s duty to uphold it.

So let’s take a look at what the Constitution actually does say on the issue in Article II Section 2: “The President…shall nominate, and by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, shall appoint…Judges of the supreme Court.” The word “shall” makes it the duty of the president to do so and there are no qualifications such as an exception during a president’s last year in office, when the president is nominating a replacement for a justice with an ideology contrary to the president’s, or during a contentious election season. There are no limitations to that duty of any type in the Constitution.

Regarding that clause, many GOP senators are claiming that the Constitution says nothing about how promptly they must give their advice and consent. While that is a true statement, it is not a valid justification for delaying the appointment strictly for political purposes (which none of these senators deny is the reason they want to delay a vote on Garland—in fact, it is their explicit reason). Otherwise, if the Founding Fathers did not specify how long the Senate could delay giving advice and consent with the intent that the Senate use the lack of a deadline to delay advice and consent indefinitely, no justice nominee would ever get appointed when the Senate majority is a different party than the president’s. The Founding Fathers erroneously assumed that the Senate would act like mature adults in carrying out their sworn duty instead of acting like petty schoolchildren.

The word “and” in the beginning of the clause “and by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate” ties the Senate’s duty to provide advice and consent to the president’s duty to nominate. That means the Senate must do so as judiciously as possible. If there were a war on American soil or some other extraordinary situation, it would be reasonable for the Senate to delay hearings and a vote until after a new president is inaugurated. But it would only be reasonable because of the urgency of making extraordinary circumstances a priority to deal with, not because of the timing of the inauguration.

Both the President and senators vow to uphold the Constitution when they take office. Therefore, Obama has a duty to nominate a justice, which he has done, and the Senate has a duty to give advice and consent on that nomination. Since 1975, the average number of days from nomination to final Senate vote is 67 days. The current congress has passed fewer laws than any congress in modern history, so it’s not as if the Senate has anything else to do. There is no catastrophic situation occurring in the nation at this time. If the Senate fails to hold hearings and vote on the nomination of Garland by the time the GOP and Democrat national conventions are held (barring a major catastrophe in the USA), they are abdicating their duty to uphold the Constitution.

Just because it’s Justice Scalia

I’ve been observing many responses by Republicans and conservatives to the question of why President Obama should not nominate a replacement for Justice Antonin Scalia on the Supreme Court. Perhaps the most common response is an echo of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell who said (while Scalia’s body was still warm), “The American people should have a voice in the selection of their next Supreme Court Justice. Therefore, this vacancy should not be filled until we have a new president.”

But what McConnell failed to recognize is that the American people already had a voice. Shortly after electing Obama in 2008, the president nominated two justices to the Supreme Court. This made it clear to the American people that the president is responsible for filling vacancies on the bench. With that in mind, they proceeded to reelect Obama by a large majority.

The other most common response I have observed is that Obama should not nominate a replacement because the justice who died is Scalia. Then the person follows that response up by lauding Scalia. They not only extol Scalia legally but also politically, intellectually, and personally. They warrant that Scalia’s individual characteristics preclude Obama from nominating his replacement. Presumably this is because Obama is too liberal to replace such an influential conservative.

I read Article II, Section 2 of the Constitution of the United States. It clearly states that the President shall nominate Judges of the Supreme Court. It gives no conditions under which the Senate should not perform its obligation to advise and consent the president on his (or her) nomination. If the Senate does not consent to Obama’s nomination by vote, then that nominee should not become a Supreme Court Justice. But the Senate has a duty to at least vote to give consent on Obama’s nomination because each senator vowed to uphold the Constitution.

The Constitution does not make any exceptions to this duty based on a vacating Supreme Court justice’s individual characteristics. It does not say that conservative justices should only be replaced by conservative presidents and liberal justices by liberal presidents. It says nothing about justices who are constitutional originalists, have wit & good humor, are hunters, or have great legal intellect (in fact, the Constitution does not include any legal education, license, or experience in the qualifications for Supreme Court justice).

Thoroughly read the Constitution. You will find that it does not say that President Obama can fill David Souter’s and John Paul Stevens’ places on the bench but replacing Justice Antonin Scalia alone is exempt. The specific justice leaving the Supreme Court has no relevancy whatsoever to a president’s obligation to nominate his or her successor.