I read your recent piece entitled Why I could never be a liberal, and I have several concerns. First, you seem to confuse Liberals with liberals and Conservatives with conservatives (you may be a Conservative, but I’m not sure you’re conservative), but we don’t need to get into the problem with labels right now, because what I really want to address is the idea of moral absolutism vs. moral subjectivity.
As Conor Friederdorf points out in his response in The Atlantic, the right has its own problems with what would rightly be considered more of a moral hypocrisy if not a moral subjectivity (even if it’s morally wrong it can still be acceptable because the ends justify the means – i.e. torture) , but still clearly demonstrates that the moral absolutism of the right is not really so morally absolute after all. What Friederdorf does not really touch on though is the central difference between the moral positions of the right and left, which you say is the difference between moral absolutism, and moral subjectivity, claiming moral absolutism has the higher ground. To put this in a different perspective though, the difference seems to be that the right wants everything to be simplistic, black and white, morally right or morally wrong, while the left has a greater understanding that reality is full of moral gray areas.
Take the abortion example you give in your editorial. Left, right or center, pretty much all of us agree that if you kill a child that has taken a breath, even in the act of performing an abortion, that is murder, and murder is morally wrong. Most all of us even agree that if a fetus has reached the point of viability, where it can survive on its own outside the womb, then killing it is morally wrong. There are those on the right however that see abortion as a moral absolute; that once a sperm cell merges with an egg cell, under no circumstances is abortion moral or permissible. Health of the mother be damned. Grossly malformed fetus that will either be stillborn or live mere minutes be damned. Rape be damned, incest be damned, whether or not that child will grow up in a loving home and be properly cared for be damned. And where does this notion come from? Certainly not the numinous, at least not the Christian version of it, as there are plenty of references in the Bible as to when life begins, and it is not at the moment of conception, but when a being takes its first breath. So who decided this is a moral absolute? And even if the Bible did declare without any equivocation that life begins at conception, what gives that particular text and those who take an absolutist (and wrongheaded) interpretation of it a monopoly on dictating morality?
The reality is that morality IS subjective, at least to a degree, and that absolutism can be quite dangerous. If these people got their way, they would ban all abortion and some forms of birth control. This wouldn’t prevent something they see as absolutely morally wrong though; it would simply make it less safe, putting women at risk of potentially life threatening complications. And it would also make mothers out of more women who do not want and at least in some cases cannot properly care for the child. Where is the morality in that?
And even in cases such as in rape and murder, it is still possible to find a moral gray area. What if the last fertile woman on the planet refused to procreate, thereby putting the future of our species at risk? Would it then be morally acceptable to rape her? There doesn't seem to be a good answer to this question, which shows that even in an area where we can agree there is a relative moral absolutism, there is still the possibility, however remote, of a moral quandary arising.
The other thing that I’d like to briefly address is your misrepresentation of the Melissa Harris Perry statement you paraphrased, which again, I believe stems from the tendency to see the world as black or white, either/or, rather than a complex amalgamation where we can both be right and wrong at the same time. Melissa’s statement that a greater realization that our children belong to whole communities leads to better investments does not somehow mean that children would no longer belong to their parents and families. The two aren’t mutually exclusive—you can belong to a family and a community and a church and a sports team, and your belonging to each in no way diminishes the degree to which you belong to the others. And to read it any other way, and create the impression that she is saying the left wants to take kids away from their parents and families because they are collective property, that is either a gross (and intellectually stunted) misunderstanding based on a worldview where everything has to be black or white, or it is an intentionally dishonest statement that plays to the fear on the right and only serves to stifle honest conversation and further the partisan divide. If it was the former, I hope the misunderstanding has been corrected. If it was the latter, then I have to ask whether or not doing so is in line with your morality.
Frank Lee Speaking
Dear Senate Republicans,
Congratulations on finally coming to your senses and confirming Robert E. Bacharach for a seat on the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
While this story probably won’t get much publicity, it is a shining example of pretty much everything that is wrong with our political system, and your party in particular. The honorable Mr. Bacharach has been a magistrate judge in the district since 1999, has received the highest rating from the American Bar Association, and was recommended for the position by two of your Republican senators from the district, Tom Coburn and James Inhofe. Despite lavishing unequivocal praise on the man however, after the recommendation was accepted by the President, your entire caucus—including the two guys who recommended him in the first place—decided to block his nomination for nearly nine months.
I’m really curious why you all decided to do this. Clearly it wasn’t for the lack of work to be done there—the position has been vacant since July 2010, which almost certainly makes it difficult for the court to hear cases in a timely fashion. And clearly there weren’t really any legitimate concerns regarding the man’s qualifications; when his appointment was finally voted on, he was confirmed 93-0. So what could possibly be the cause, other than pure obstructionism and partisan politicking (and not particularly well thought out partisan politicking at that)?
Judge Bacharach deserved better than this. The people of this country deserve better than this. It is time to stop the political games and start doing the job you were elected to do. For if you continue to put your own interests over the interests of the people, you will not long retain any sort of relevance.
Thanks for Your Concern,
Frank Lee Speaking
CCC LFGSD Committee Chair
Dear Mr. President,
I agree with pretty much everything you said last night in the State of the Union address. But I want to talk about something you didn’t talk about very much, so rather than responding to the state of the Union, I want to address the state of our democracy.
According to the latest Public Policy poll, the United States Congress currently has a 9% approval rating. And while Congressional approval historically hovers around 30%, Congress as a whole has never been less popular. In fact, the poll got a little creative this time and found Congress currently to be less popular than things such as cockroaches, head lice, and root canals.
Part of the reason for this unpopularity is undoubtedly that getting anything passed through Congress these days is quite similar to performing a root canal. Since 2006, the number of filibusters in the Senate has skyrocketed, creating a situation where the most routine legislation and executive and judicial appointments now require a 60 vote majority. In many cases, this is not done out of any legitimate policy concerns, but is instead used as a tool to score political points. The result is that important and popular legislation gets held up, watered down, or filled with less popular policies and special earmarks, and important positions in our judicial and executive branches go unfilled for long periods of time, making it that much more difficult for our government to go ahead with the business of the people.
I know you have addressed this issue in the past, and alluded to it during your speech by repeating the phrase, “They deserve a vote.” But it’s not just the advocates for sensible measures to prevent gun violence that deserve a vote. Those of us who believe we need to invest in education and infrastructure and green energy deserve a vote. Those of us who believe we need immigration reform, prison reform, banking reform, tax reform, and many other common sense reforms aimed at increasing social mobility, ensuring equality, and creating a better world for citizens everywhere deserve a vote. And the more than 200 executive and judicial nominees currently languishing in the Senate? They definitely deserve a vote.
Of course it remains to be seen whether or not the recent changes to the Senate filibuster rule truly make a difference, or whether stronger reforms are necessary, such as ending the silent filibuster and forcing those who would oppose a particular piece of legislation or nominee to take to the floor to defend their position, but the abuse of the Senate filibuster is only a small part of what is hindering our government from acting in the best interest of the people. So what I really want to talk about is how money is undermining our democracy.
According to FEC reports, more than $7.3 billion dollars was spent during the 2012 campaign season by candidates, parties, and outside groups running for federal office. This represents a 37% increase from the $5.3 billion spent in 2008, and a 74% increase from the $4.2 billion spent in 2004.
Not only could much of this money be put to more productive use, but the ever increasing amount of money it takes to win an election—and more than 90% of the winning candidates outspend their opponents—has created a situation where Congressional incumbents now need to raise an average of $10,000 per week starting the day they get elected in order finance their next campaign. This means they generally spend at least 8 hours per week on fundraising efforts, and much more during campaign season, which seems to grow ever longer, taking time away from the job we elected them to do. And if you are not an incumbent, especially if you don’t have the backing of one of the two major parties, raising funds is all the more difficult, and winning even less likely, discouraging many who would make exceptional public officials from running for office.
The high cost of running a competitive political campaign has made politics largely the province of the wealthy and well-connected; nearly half the members on Congress are millionaires, as opposed to a mere one percent of the general population. As renowned astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson points out, “What professions do all these Senators and Congressmen have? Law, law, law, businessman, law, law, law…. Where are the scientists? Where are the engineers? Where is the rest of…life?” Indeed, don’t we want teachers guiding our education policies, doctors guiding our healthcare policies, environmental scientists guiding our environmental policies, economists guiding our economic policies, etc. etc.?
Transparency too is a key issue, as is the blurry line between advocating for a candidate, and issue based advocacy. Issue based groups can spend unlimited sums of money to influence elections without having to disclose their donors, doing so to the tune of more than $1.1 billion this election cycle, more than three times what they spent in 2008. Attack ads to target specific candidates are certainly fair game for these groups, and dishonest portrayals are easy to come by, but so long as they steer clear of a certain few key phrases, it is all perfectly acceptable, and the voters never get to know who paid for the ad because the real donors hide behind innocuous sounding names—like say Americans for America, or the Concerned Citizens Coalition.
We now live in a world where the mere threat that an outside group would spend millions on negative advertising can affect a politician’s willingness to vote for a particular piece of legislation, regardless of whether they think it is the right thing to do or not. And this gets to the root of the dysfunction in our campaign finance system—it often creates a fundamental conflict of interest for our elected officials between doing what is right by the people, and doing what is going to help remain in office, whether it be appeasing their major donors, or attempting to prevent some shadowy special interest group from deciding to spend millions in an effort to unseat them. It creates a situation where the political calculus, and particularly the money involved, outweigh the importance of policy; and whenever politics become more important than policy, the result tends to be bad policy (or in some cases no policy, which can be even worse).
Certainly, things such as reducing unemployment and encouraging sustainable economic growth are more pressing concerns, but the influence of money in politics cuts to the very core of our democratic principles, and makes it exceedingly difficult to properly address any of the complex challenges we face as a society in a manner than truly represents the best interests of the people.
You want create jobs? We need campaign finance reform. You want to improve our infrastructure? We need campaign finance reform. You want to make bold moves toward clean energy? To invest in education? To make college more affordable? A living wage? Immigration reform? More sensible gun control laws? Better ballot access? Better cost control in our healthcare system? We need campaign finance reform, campaign finance reform, campaign finance reform. We need our elections to be about who has the best ideas, and who best represents the people, not who can most effectively fundraise, and who is willing to conform to their party ideology in order to remain in office.
So what now are we going to do about it?
Thank you for your concern, and may God Bless America.
Frank Lee Speaking
We are concerned. We are concerned with a great many concerns concerning the citizenry. Such a great many concerns both great and small that we do not have enough concern to be concerned about all of the concerns the citizens are concerned with, and so, we have had to prioritize our concerns, because some concerns are more concerning than others.
Now some citizens might be more concerned about some concerns than others, and other citizens might be more concerned about other concerns than some, but we as a Coalition have decided that the most concerning concern concerning concerned citizens generally speaking is a dysfunctional government. This concern is most concerning because a dysfunctional government makes it difficult to address the great many other concerns concerning the citizenry.
The Concerned Citizens Coalition seeks to foster a conversation concerning the sorts of reforms needed to restore a properly functioning government, and welcomes collaboration from concerned citizens concerning these most concerning concerns that will help us address all the other concerns we all need to concern ourselves about together. Among the concerns that our Campaign to Restore American Democracy will concern itself with are campaign finance, gerrymandering, term limits, voter fraud, and other related concerns. Our most pressing concern right now however is the abuse of the Senate Filibuster Rule.
What was once used rarely, to prevent simple majority votes on important issues has now made it difficult for Congress to pass what used to be routine legislation, or confirm even noncontroversial executive and judicial appointees, causing necessary funding measures to be delayed and necessary government positions to remain vacant for long periods of time. Traditionally, the filibustering Senator or Senators would hold the floor and speak out against something in order to prevent a vote, but now it is often the mere threat of a filibuster from the entire minority party that prevents many issues from even being debated, much less voted on, which has essentially created a tyranny of the minority, requiring 60 votes to get more or less anything done at all. (For more information on the history and abuse of the filibuster, click here.)
Fortunately, this concern can easily be addressed by a simple majority vote to change the rules surrounding the filibuster on the first day of the Senate’s new legislative session. Several options have been presented, including one option by Senators McCain and Levin that some concerned citizens have criticized as not going far enough to reduce obstructionism, and another endorsed by Senators Udall, Merkeley, Harkin, Klobuchar, Warren and others that would restore the so-called talking filibuster. The window to act however is small; the Senate must vote to change the rules on January 22, otherwise the current rules will remain in place, and would require a two-thirds majority to change before January 2015. So if you are concerned, contact your Senators and tell them the filibuster needs to be reformed.
And of course feel free to contact us if you would like to collaborate on the Concerned Citizens Coalition Campaign to Restore American Democracy or any other concerns concerning the citizenry.
Thank you for your concern,
The Concerned Citizens Coalition Committee Concerning Most Concerning Concerns