24 November 2012

The Republicans' Branding Problem

Immediately after their loss in the general election earlier this month, Republican leaders began saying that their problem was in their branding. People did not accept their message, they said, in essence because it was "packaged" wrong.

The Republicans have a brand problem because they have branded being Republican. If that sounds circular, its because the whole concept is tautological. As usual, the explanation lies in the history which brought us to this point. Indulge me in a brief overview.

When I came to the US, where I was born, from Argentina, where I grew up, for college many decades ago, conservative was a bad word among my classmates. This was true even in the reliably ultra-conservative city of Lubbock, Texas. Conservatives were those who preached segregation and opposed integration of schools. Conservatives were those who insisted all those drafted into military service should serve in Viet Nam without questioning authority in any way. Conservatives burnt stacks of Beatles records and were deathly scared of Communism. When questioned for the reasons for sexual morality, they did not explain: they just told their children "Do it because I say so and don't question."

In 1968, the Republicans captured the White House only because of three factors: first, the Viet Nam war had become Lyndon Johnson's war and, by extension, Hubert Humphrey's. Second, George Wallace ran a strong third party campaign, taking votes from the Democratic candidate in the Southern States, which still voted Democrat. Finally, the strongest candidate, who would surely have won, had been assassinated. I'm speaking of Robert Kennedy. That put Nixon in the White House, but he was an unsavory, grouchy, depressive representative for the Republicans.

When I started graduate school, for the first time I saw Republicans showing up for a citizenship emphasis at our church. They were, though I did not fully realize it at the time, on a propaganda campaign which consisted of repeating tirelessly conservative = good; liberal = bad. I clearly remember pointing out to the middle aged woman who came to talk to us that conservative comes from the word to conserve and had always characterized people who want keep things as they are. They would be the royalists at the time of the American Revolution, the supporters of slavery against the abolitionists, and of Jim Crow against the civil rights movement. She said she had never heard of such a thing. That was not the point. The point was to change perceptions.

To a populace mesmerized by TV and conditioned to take as true anything repeated sufficiently in commercials, accepting the relentless mantra of conservative = good, American, enterprise and liberal = bad, anti-American, socialist came naturally. It had roots in the McCarthyist propaganda of the 50's and felt comfortable to a new mentality which fled social responsibility and threw itself into working and spending, working and spending, and filling up lives with things rather than people and issues.

Now things have changed. Young people wish to serve the community and to find meaning beyond consumer items. They long for relationship, for accomplishment, for dealing with the great problems of inequality, injustice, wars, and the depredation of the environment. The country is rapidly becoming a minority-majority country, therefore the base to which the Republican brand is meaningful is shrinking. The "angry old white men" which form their base are the same people who marched against the Viet Nam war in the 60's. That insubstantial show is over.

Precisely because Republicans gained power through branding, their discourse has been all perception, all talking points, and no essence. We elected an actor for president. What was really happening, the return of the robber baron mentality and the dismantling of the protections that had been built over the decades, was masked by propaganda. But since democracy is neither a product nor a business, because real problems cannot be solved by propaganda, because the particular kind of economy conceived of as perennial "growth" is unsustainable, reality has been asserting itself and the Republican project, long on ideology and short on engagement with the society, has fallen apart.

The point is not that Democrats should gloat. The point is that all of us, of whatever political persuasion, had better ditch propaganda and get to work.

11 November 2012

Fallout from the Election

Here are my thoughts on the results of last Tuesday's national election.

The interests of big money were resoundingly defeated. The president was elected and seats were picked up in both houses of Congress by the Democrats. The Democrats won almost every swing state. This happened in the face of unprecedented amounts of money and an unethical campaign of lies and misrepresentations against them. For now, elections still cannot be bought when there are such major issues at stake.

Exit polls showed that the majority (that is, those who voted Democrat) wanted primarily to keep the Affordable Care Act and many of them wish us to go further in reforming health care. Apparently we feel that the health care system, left to its own devices, is about to fail us if we do not do something about it.

We cannot go back to the 50's. The Republicans seemed to paint a nostalgic picture of a bygone America, in tune with older white people and various religious groups who had a hold on the culture back then. This election showed that those are shrinking populations and that we are heading quickly to being a minority-majority country, as Texas already is.

The Republicans are heading for a split. The "Tea Party" is completely instransigent in its positions because they are ideologically driven. If they take over the party, it will most certainly lose miserably. Other Republicans have the option of seeing their party go down or to split off. It doesn't bode well for them. The country needs to keep two strong parties. Now all this is part of a historical pattern. Jefferson's party, then called the Republican party, came to be known later as the Democractic Republicans and then the Democratic Party, the one we know today. It has always been a party with a broader umbrella and a sense of what it can do to make this a great country. It was the principal mover for the creation of the two most important institutions that created our prosperity: free highways paid through taxes and free universal education. We are at present in a long trend which, if not stopped, will end in losing both. The Federalists in the late 18th century represented the interests of the aristocrats. When it folded, it was replaced by the Whigs. When they in turn folded, their interests were taken up by the Republican party, which is really the not-so-Grand (any more) New Party.

I do not believe that parties, politics, or politicians will save us. However, it is incumbent on all of us to choose and this time, one side was clearly better than the other.

A word to the Evangelical Christians. I am one of you. If you want the church to grow, as I do, and for it to influence society to the good, as I do, then preach the Gospel. We cannot and should not force people to our way of thinking through the government. That, my friends, would be big government indeed and would only repeat what Emperor Constantine did.

My Angela Fournier series of three books, of which only the first is out for now, is about how young people can become responsible citizens and what it will cost them to stand up to entrenched interests. You can read about it and purchase it at www.strategicpublishinggroup.com/title/Angela1.html

04 November 2012

More on Health Care

My older son, who lives in the UK, read my post and would like to add the following:

"The NHS was formally founded by a Labour politician (Aneurin Bevan) in 1948, although the Conservatives produced the first white paper on the viability of it in 1944. Good history of it can be found here:


Also, Labour greatly increased funding the NHS and improved a number of issues - the issue many people have is whether that money was well spent and if we got value for money as there were a number of schemes, such as private finance initiatives (PFIs) which were good for drawing in private investment but not good value for the public purse.

Even now the NHS budget is increasing more or less in line with inflation but costs are increasing as more and more people get diseases of wealth such as heart disease and diabetes and as the population ages. This has combined with recent studies following some poor heath outcomes which have concluded that care, especially specialised care units such as neurology or neonatal care, is better in large centralised "centres of excellence". These two factors have driven some of the closures of some local hospitals with services being moved to larger ones.

However, now a number of trusts are going bankrupt now under the burden of PFI debts which were set up mostly by the previous Labour government, although the practice first stated under the last Conservative government which went out in 1997. This is also allowing administrators to consolidate services in novel ways, including contracting in the private sector, which is generating a lot of controversy over here, as is the implementation of the Health Bill which is a massive and fundamental change to how the NHS is structured, which passed only this year.

Anyway, I thought you might be interested - I should point out that while things here are not ideal, there is still no question of how superior the system, however flawed, is to the US one. Here you will never go bankrupt for having the audacity to catch cancer, or get hit by a car. My kids will live without knowing that fear and I greatly value this and am constantly reminding people here to appreciate what they have."
  There it is, folks. Please mull it over dispassionately and see how far we have to go to catch up with our "Mother Country."   Finally in expectation of the election, I will not tell you how to vote but, urged by my son, who thinks it would be a good idea, I will tell you whom I will vote for and why. I am voting for President Obama. He has put through a reluctant Congress a significant improvement to our health care system. We still have far to go on it, and nothing more will be done if we let money interests control our government to the exclusion of "we the people," but we have a start. The Congress has blocked his way at every turn, but the economic measures he was able to put through in spite of Republican opposition kept us from going into a second Great Depression. He rescued the auto industry and has received preciously little thanks for it. He has done much to begin to heal the damage done in the last sixty years to American standing around the world by our blundering, uninformed, and hegemonic foreign policy. He has put an end to the war in Iraq, which began under false pretenses and has accomplished nothing to increase world security. He has shown solid, mature leadership in the wake of horrible Hurricane Sandy. He is a professed Christian believer. I have been disappointed by his weakness for the perks of power, which have led him to persecute breaches of "security" which have revealed nothing that would put our country in danger, only matters that embarrass those in power. I am also alarmed that under his administration we still hold Americans indefinitely and deny them, if accused of terrorism, the rights guaranteed under the constitution. This is extremely dangerous ground as it can lead to your or my being imprisoned for political reasons merely by virtue of being classed as terrorism suspects. This has happened over and over in other countries and it can happen here.   His opponent, however, will clearly do nothing to address those problems just mentioned, but the President may in his second term. Govern Romney's prescription for dealing with the housing issue, which precipitated the crisis under the Bush administration, was to "do nothing and let the market hit bottom." That was essentially Herbert Hoover's response to the crisis of 1930, which was very similar in nature and that's what they did. Result: the Great Depression. Romney has said practically nothing of what he will do to accomplish his promises. He has changed positions on many issues 180º. This means that no one can have any idea of what he will actually do if elected. Ryan, the vice-presidential nominee, promises to take a high profile role. He belongs to the extreme right, which is every bit as lacking a hold on reality and every bit as dangerous, as any extreme left faction (of which we have none at present in our country). What will happen if the current trend of concentrating all the country's wealth in the 1% is that the middle class will dry up and most of us will slide into the lower class. The ultra rich account for very little job creation. It's small business that is our biggest employer, followed by local governments and then the federal government. All these people pay taxes and buy big and small ticket items. Eliminate these sources of work and we will become a poor populace.   All I ask you is to think about these matters as you cast your vote and then vote as you wish. It is your right and the right of every American.  

03 November 2012

Election issues: Health care

Health care is a hot-button issue which most people, rather than examining rationally and analytically, react to emotionally. This state of affairs helps no one and ensures that we will make the wrong decisions. I will not tell you whom you should vote for nor where you should come down on health care, but I really must tell you a little of what I know about the issue.

I grew up in Argentina, which has a mixed health care system: public hospitals which take any and everyone and charge nothing, but which most Argentines consider sub-par and not clean enough. In addition there is health care insurance provided through the employer, much as in the US. Most people were traditionally covered in that manner, though now it is questionable if even half have such coverage. These people have access to more desirable hospitals, named clínicas. If you are wealthy you can pay for the best private hospitals and have access to health care equal to the best anywhere in the world. The inequalities of such a system are glaring, but let me tell you a story about my family.

When my wife and I were relatively recently married and our first son was 18 months old, I took advantage of two months' accumulated vacation to spend an extended time in Argentina with them. My parents met us at the Buenos Aires airport and we set out by car to La Falda, in the Córdoba province hill country, some 800 kilometers away. As we neared Rosario (a little over a third of the way), our son developed a high fever. Since we had lived in Rosario and knew it well, we stopped at a public hospital. It did not match US standards of visible "cleanliness", but you can be sure there was no methycillin-resistant staphylococcus aureous (MERSA) there. They diagnosed him accurately very quickly, gave him the correct prescription, handed us the medicine (no hunting for an open pharmacy), and charged us nothing even though he was not a citizen of Argentina or even a resident. When we got to my parent's house my son was feeling much better. As we gave him his medicine that night, he said his first word: Gracias, which means "thank you." In two days he was back to normal. This would never happen in the USA.

Bear with me for just one more story. After this very selfsame son of ours graduated from college, he married a wonderful British girl in England (where they now live). Since the wedding day was 21 December, we stayed for Christmas and my father- and mother-in-law came from Argentina. My mother-in-law developed a potentially serious eye ailment the day before Christmas. On Christmas day I took her to a beautiful hospital in a village in West Sussex, where they took her information, diagnosed her eye disease, and handed her a eye pomade. My mother-in-law is a nurse and she knew exactly what her eye infection was and she knew they had given her the right medicine. They did not charge her a penny. The referred her to an eye hospital in Brighton and told her to go the next day, which she did. They looked her over and made sure things were going well and she cured quickly. Again, they charged her nothing. This would never happen in the USA.

One more thing you need to know which may surprise you. The British National Health Service was created by the Conservative Party. During WWII many people were evacuated from London to the countryside. The government set up field hospitals to care for the displaced people. After the war, the government found itself paying for health care for the population, so they made the system official. Now the system is in financial trouble because the Labour Party (primarily) has been taking away national funding for the system. They argue that rich shires should pay for health care so West Sussex and Oxfordshire have had their national health care monies curtailed severely. That wonderful hospital I took my mother-in-law to has been closed as a result. That makes me sick. My son and daughter-in-law seriously considered moving to the US. However, after adding up all the various factors, they have decided to make a permanent life in England. One of the main factors in their decision is the inordinate cost of health care in this country.

We have the most expensive health care system in the world by a factor of 10 in the US, but of all the industrialized countries, we have the lowest quality of health care by all accounts. This is a scandal. We must address it as a nation and do so informed and dispassionately.