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Where politics and faith dance in the shadow of the windmill.

The Amash Dilemma

In the era of Trump, Michigan’s Justin Amash has made a name for himself. Not only has he shown the ability to go tweet to tweet with the President, but he has also shown a willingness to meet with constituents, as The Hill reports

He has faced packed town halls in his home state recently with hundreds of constituents, many of whom are anti-Trump.

“I think it is critical that members of Congress hold in-person town halls like this,” Amash said at an event about two weeks ago. “There aren’t enough of people on either side of the aisle who do it.”

This puts a problem to local Dems. On one hand we actually like being listened to; there’s a respect here that is rather ego-gratifying. And we do like having some one who actually stands up to the President, who even in his libertarian ways nonetheless appears to have a backbone.

Of course, what that all means is that no one serious will run against Amash. The already steep odds have gotten psychologically steeper. To oppose him one needs to draw contrasts, but at least psychologically, he deflates this. At the same time his “moderation” buys him freedom from outside money. The path for engagement then lies less on the issues, but on the philosophical — how do establish our life together — and on the empirical. The former begins to create a space to draw in Republicans, the latter can help establish what the actual policy questions are. And then, what are their consequences.

 

 

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Betsy DeVos, Michigan’s finest

A friend writes on Facebook:

“But what I do know is that she’s smart, committed to kids, and a mainstream conservative Republican.” I think that we need to question how mainstream she is given who she is associating herself with. Also, is she committed to kids or to privatization? Another question.

Any one who has clashed with Betsy DeVos knows what kind of Republican she is, she is moneyed,  partisan. and close to the center of Michigan politics, if not in fact one of its main movers. So  “mainstream” is altogether reasonable given where the GOP is these days. There are several aspects of this mainstream Republican that bear on educational policy, that in fact have given such heartburn: there’s the preference for the private solution, at least so far as services are considered — and urban education falls into that category; and then there’s the no tax dogma which again seeks to hamstring social spending generally by pitting services against each other, a process that at once short-changes retirees, yet refuses to raise funds. This has bred considerable trouble for our State.
Here is where privatization of schools takes shape. From her past actions, Betsy DeVos  push for privatization is  a combination of private school advocacy and triage of the urban school. Charters basically began as a way of addressing the urban schools, their administration and teacher corps — both being perceived as intrinsically hostile to GOP interests (this is Engler c. 1998), and manifestly failing. This failure drives the larger push for educational reform. And it is a fair question to ask (as do the conservatives): Must the kids in Detroit or Lansing or Grand Rapids  have their future cut short simply because of where they live and go to school?  That’s the big question that the Charter-ists have been trying to address. One can read the current reform efforts of Grand Rapids Superintendent Neal as a direct response to this problem. Those who care about schools and our cities know that something needs to be done.
 
To this, DeVos and other conservatives also bring the voucher. This is a sort of triage: the very best get a private education, the middle gets charters, and the rest? well sucks to be you. And of course the middle class (white) suburbs also get a benefit. That the charter payments are lower than the state grants only adds to the benefits: the charter provides the “reform” while taking the requirement to meet educational goals off the plate. Lansing gets cheaper schools and less accountability laid at its doorstep — it’s now someone else’s problem. Disadvantage the city, reward the suburb: classic GOP policy.
 
Of course, the unions are right to be so oppositional. Betsy has been their foe directly for at least 15 years, 20 if you add in the Engler years. The movement to educational reform was not simply to meet the needs of the city (something of an afterthought, actually, having to wait until Pres. George W Bush came by with No Child Left Behind), its goal was to break the power of the teacher unions for a generation. In Michigan the job was made all the easier by a longstanding cultural hostility that had persistently underfunded schools — a  residue of manufacturing era.
 
Then there is the darker secret behind the DeVos/Republican agenda, that it fed on the racial animosity and segregation that so profoundly shaped Detroit’s regional politics. In this politics, any attempt to help kids in the urban setting (and especially Detroit) was seen as coming out of the pockets of the middle class (white) suburbs.In effect, the DeVos led reforms envision two systems of schools: one for the poor (the charters, with income for GOP supporters), and another, the regular schools of aspiration and achievement, te schools of GOP supporters. This two-track model is the problem, but that is for another day. For now, thanks to tax cuts, Michigan’s educational problems have metastasized so  that we have educational dysfunction across the state. By refusing to address the question of revenue the DeVos/Republican approach has cut short the possibility of real reform or achievement, and threatened the schools of its supporters. This is less a problem of privatization than of neglect and the ironic turning to Washington to help out. Betsy DeVos may yet help clean up Michigan’s mess.

Filed under: Michigan, Politics, , , ,

A most peculiar turn

What are we to make of the mayoral candidacy of Rev. Robert Dean?

One one hand, it represents the most peculiar of alliances, between old school African American politics, the more sharply radicalized left of Jose Flores, and fiscal austerity package — Tea Party in all but name — of Rina Baker and our raft of comptrollers. What each has in common is a sense of distance, even alienation from the present downtown initiatives. As a potential vehicle for outside grievances, the Dean candidacy could be useful. After all, with all the building downtown, the  city’s population still struggles, particularly in the African American community. And one might ask if the downtown emphasis also helps the Hispanic communities. Are they prospering? Or only providing the low-wage service support to keep the new buildings gleaming?

And as irascible as Baker and her compatriot Betty Burke are, they function as an outside populist counter to the young and downtown crowd.

But…

Instead of raising the issues of neighborhoods, the campaign has instead chosen to focus on the subject of debt. In the literature from Dean, it is a billion dollar cliff. But as the reactions in Wednesday’s debate reveal, it is a most peculiar cliff. If it is as dire as made out, then one must focus on cutting it — this is the basic argument. How odd, then, when asked about current surpluses, the response?

“Why not return (the voter-approved rate increase) back to the voters?”

Well that’s an answer, but it just doesn’t match with the threat. Giving back revenue only increases the obligation, scarcely the thing one wants to do. And in this response, Dean basically gives away the game.

No, there is not cliff. The earlier respect for the City’s budget by Comptroller Sara VanderWerf is correct.

Picking up Fleas.

Sadly, Rev. Dean appears to have picked up some of the worst habits of the fiscal hawks. He touts a billion dollar debt, but a debt only if one lumps all types of debt together, including that that is covered by other revenue streams. While such an approach has a kitchen table, monetarist appeal, it mistakes the problem of debt, viz. that of cash flow. The question with any obligation is one’s ability to meet the demands.

However the question of debt is not simply that of what Grand Rapids is doing, it is part of the fiscal hawk narrative generally: the city’s debt is a stand in for the perceived national debt.

Here, Dean’s advocacy of this narrative does a genuine disservice to those who have backed him. The implicit solution from the fiscal hawks is not more taxes, but more cuts. Assume that the problem is as dire as Dean says, the actual City response would then be more cuts to personnel and programs. It’s fewer police and closed parks. Lying down with the fiscal hawks, these are the fleas one eventually picks up.

Or the Reverend may want to remember Scripture: Bad company ruins good morals (1 Cor 15:33).

Filed under: Politics, , , , , ,

Listening to Bad Advice

Gabriel Sanchez at the Bridge was thinking about the past elections and his decision not to vote. Formally, he was appalled by the choice between Justin Amash and Bob Goodrich, both deeply offensive to his Catholic values if in different ways.

Faced with such impossible choices (and I suspect others) Sanchez decided that the best answer was to sit this one out. This is certainly culturally understandable: there is something of this despair in the air, the stench of disconnection. But sadly, that was not his point, but rather there was another path to be followed, one pioneered by Alasdair McIntyre

I have chosen to keep faith with moral philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre’s provocative dictate: “When offered a choice between two politically intolerable alternatives, it is important to choose neither.”

He expands this later,

MacIntyre, we cannot forget that in our present political environment “a vote cast is not only a vote for a particular candidate, it is also a vote cast for a system that presents us only with unacceptable alternatives.” As such, “The way to vote against the system is not to vote.”

McIntyre’s branch is a poor one to try and hang much on.

McIntyre’s proposal cleaves participation in the political process with its fundamental questions of how power is to be distributed, and the act of ratification — the vote. In contemporary terms, we may see the political process in both its advocacy and actions as a kind of secular liturgy — a set of acts we collectively engage in. Voting, then is a ratification of these decisions; my vote participates in the process. Again to steal from religion, there is something sacramental about it.

Political participation without voting is either a tacit acceptance of the status quo, or an appeal to a non-electoral model of change. An end around of some kind; it’s McIntyre as an anti-democrat.

What about justice?

As an acceptance or willingness to accept the status quo, non-voting makes another statement: it denies the possibility of justice. Whether it is the hunkering down despair of the working poor, the too-busy indifference of the young adult, or the belief that they’re all the same — the action testifies to a belief that what finally counts is power, power alone. The notion that power can be rightly ordered (the actual stuff of politics) is glossed over. McIntyre ends up with Nietzsche.

While there is a temptation to withdraw, especially from educated conservatives of a certain ilk (e.g. see Rod Dreher’s “Bendict option”), it is one clouded by a lack of hope. In the name of principle, it denies the possibility of principled action.

It is the peculiar evil of this age of partisanship to devolve issues of all kinds to simply that of power and self interest without the possibility of something better, greater, a good. At the end of the day politics is an exercise in hope, in believing the best about our neighbor; that’s why there can be no walking away.

Filed under: Community, Politics, , , , , , ,

The problem in a word

Well, two: “single women.”

“I am available to share a platform with Congressman Amash. My campaign isn’t about battling the Republican incumbent. My campaign is focusing on messaging to women, especially single women, what they appropriately expect government programs can do to help them and those who depend on them.” – Bob Goodrich, Democratic candidate for the Third Congressional District.

This might have had a chance against a Brian Ellis who wanted to be a truer-than-true Republican, less so with Amash with his maverick reputation, who has invested significant energy on the National Security Administration (NSA) and away from social conservative issues.  Counting on single women for victory is not unlike the imagined path to deficit control through austerity measures alone. There are no magic bullets here, only the hard work of coalition building.

 

 

 

Filed under: Democratic Party, Politics, , , , ,

On Leaving the Frying Pan

If Roy Schmidt’s inept change of parties demonstrated anything, it was just how non-Machiavellian he actually is. By his own admission he’s  a regular guy who  very much wants to have voters remember him as he was, a conservative but not ideological, pragmatic politician. Sure he switched, but as he reminded voters, “he’s still the same old Roy.”

While in my party switch I made a poor political decision, it is becoming clear the people of Grand Rapids want to move on, and so do I. The people of Grand Rapids can expect to see me at their front door over the next few months to talk about the issues that are important to us here in this City: Jobs, protecting hardworking taxpayers, education and public safety.

Any hope of moving on, however, was crushed Friday, when Mitt Romney chose Rep. Paul Ryan as his running mate.

At a tactical level, appeals to hardworking taxpayers, education and public safety are savaged by a Ryan-Romney budget that slashes the federal expenditures. Of course, Schmidt can move farther to the right and embrace the anti-poor budget with its  slashing of EITC and sharp reductions in Medicaid. And that’s the start of the impact of the Ryan proposal. As Ryan Lizza shows in his Ryan profile in The New Yorker, the federal programs that could build up a city or region — the sort that Schmidt has always championed — these are antithetical to the views of Ryan and his patron.

But the issues are more than tactical. The selection of Ryan functions as a definitional event. The positions that Romney has taken are now explicitly those of the GOP as a whole. They are branded. The only way out for centrists and moderate conservatives is a sort of disavowal (at risk of picking up a RINO label), but of couse, with the media storm, such a disavowal won’t work. At this point, one can even imagine Bing Goei giving thanks that he doesn’t have to face this challenge.

And it’s not just Schmidt. His predicament is one that Republicans of all stripes must face. While they may be known personally as men and women of a certain sensibility, the lurch to the Right by the radical faction now obligates them to defend positions that fly in face of their own commitment. Some, naturally, can eat that sandwich and smile.

Conversely, this is also the opportunity for the Democrats. A Ryan-branded party is an even better target than the know-nothing Tea Party brand of Sarah Palin. Republicans (and conservatives) at all levels now can be addressed as supporting the undoing of the social safety net and the rewarding of the already very wealthy. In a fight over principles, pragmatism loses out.

And already there are already rumblings from the pros that this brand may be a disaster.

Filed under: Elections, Politics, , , ,

The Future of Pro Life

Marcie Wheeler raises some interesting questions about the status of anti-choice in the Democratic constellation here in Kent County. The short version: is pro-life the dominant, requisite force that it once was, one that requires women to take it and say nothing?

There is a right way and a wrong way, IMO, to run an anti-choice candidate. Telling voters–particularly the women voters being impacted by anti-choice Dems of late–they can’t talk about it bc they don’t know enough is not the way to do it.

Particularly in the context of a run for the Third by Steve Pestka, the question of the pro-life Dems again rises up. The pro-life stance (or “anti-choice”) has been seen as a prerequisite for competitive candidates since the Clinton election, in part because recruiting drew from the Catholic west side community and the Christian Reformed — both distinctly pro-life. Their victories and general growth in the number of elected officials seemed to confirm the stance. Wheeler’s challenge (and others) invites a reconsideration of this political axiom. The question of abortion may not be the deal breaker that it was 10 or 15 years ago.

One sign of change has been the growing political leadership in the City, on the school board (Tony Baker, Wendy Falb), and especially in the Second Ward with Ruth Kelley and Rosalynn Bliss.

A second sigh of change has been the diminishing of the cultural drivers for anti-choice over the past 10 years. It’s traditional electoral base has been in the Catholic and Dutch Reformed communities, the latter especially weakening demographically and broadening over this time. The interesting aspect about the redistricting of the Third has been the removal of some of these traditional bastions for the anti-choice side in the cities of Wyoming and Kentwood.

A third change is generational. The Life/Choice battle is a Boomer/Gen X issues. Anecdotally and by surveys, young evangelicals are not as wrapped up in the cultural war aspects — other issues, e.g. sex slavery or development, carry greater weight. This broadening of concern allows Dems to frame other compelling moral arguments away from the Life/Choice arena. While most young evangelicals will continue to vote R, the wider, more holistic range offers opportunity to pick up votes, perhaps moving from 25 percent D to 30 percent.

And finally,  there are the efforts of the Republican Party itself. Turning Life into a voting issue certainly assisted them in the 90s; it clearly motivates their base.  However, the very scope of their victory has capped their votes; once you have the significant plurality of pro-life votes, how many more are there? The pool of voters for whom Life is a voting issue has shrunk, most are Republican already. Moreover the radicalization of the GOP on this and general women’s health issues also functions to confirm present voters but push away moderates.  Internal victory and radicalization has reduced the penalty for being Choice, in fact may render it moot.

Something like this can be seen in Justin Amash, himself. While in a nominal way pro-life, his own libertarian tendencies push him away from a (self) definition as pro-life. (Consider that in two years he has issued four news releases related to abortion).

If the Life/Choice battle is no longer the deal breaker it once was, what should Dems do? Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Democratic Party, Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Virtually Political

The story today is the campaign by little tykes to expand the Virtual Charter Schools. I’m all for political theatre, but this seems a bit odd. Supporters of expanded access brought along  current students to read the names — 5,000 — of those who wanted to get in.

The staging is bit unusual. Were  a teacher at a general school to bring a bunch of middle school students to lobby for expanded teacher pay the howls of outrage would mount up, at least if the Mackinac Center’s howl a few years ago is any indication. So far on this? Virtual crickets.

What’s going on? Unintentionally or not, the image (and the protest) reveal more about our Virtual Charter. First the mobilization of the students to expand the school program is ethically questionable, particularly in the context of for-profit management systems. the students may think they are doing civic duty or politics, but they are actually in the business of sales. The questions about profit motive of the management of these schools, let alone the oversight of their curriculum — these all gain added currency because of this stunt.

But the second issue is perhaps the more interesting. Look at the picture: the image of students, younger sibs and moms in the background at the very least speak in the visual language of home school, if not the substance. This aspect of the program has been played down in Michigan discussions on the west side. When the measure went through the State Senate, MLive led with this human interest story:

LANSING – Critics of “cyber” charter schools said Wednesday there’s not enough information to determine whether the schools are successful, but Steve Slisko pointed to his grandson.
The boy has cognitive impairments that prohibit him from speaking, but he can work a keyboard – and attend the Michigan Virtual Charter Academy, one of two virtual charter schools in the state.

Yet the home school subtext tends to be right there, as  the MVCA site states,

Michigan Virtual Charter Academy is redefining traditional home schooling, but not within the home school network.

A Fox-17 report this past November further bears this out.

Michigan joins a number of other states with similar programs and impacts, including Pennsylvania and South Carolina.

However, one would be mistaken to think that such State support is necessarily a welcome move on the part of home schoolers. After all, the heart of the home school approach is a philosophic commitment about the appropriate locale for the education of one’s children. From within the movement, this development threatens to undo three decades of legal wrangling for recognition.

(The Home School Legal Defense Association) believes that a distinction between virtual charter schools and homeschooling is vital. While charter schools provide parents with another choice, we emphasize that they are still public schools in every sense of the word.
HSLDA also strongly cautions homeschoolers against enrolling in virtual charter schools. Many homeschoolers are seduced by attractive marketing and forget that virtual charter schools are actually controlled by the public school system. HSLDA does not represent students enrolled in full-time charter school programs.
HSLDA is also concerned that virtual charter schools will negatively impact the public and American lawmakers’ understanding of what it means to homeschool.

Agree or not, home schoolers have pushed their cause, and in their own way expanded both public speech and options in our education. The irony now, is that Republicans will subvert the home school movement with the virtual charter, much the same way that a decade ago the physical charter gutted the parochial schools. While the left believes that such charters will weaken the efforts of general schools, the likelihood is that the expanded virtual charter will instead weaken the home school movement generally, all for one obvious reason. It’s free.

Filed under: Education Policy, Michigan, Politics, , , , , ,

That Hoekstra Dog Whistle

Bad ads are rarely an accident. Quite the contrary, sometimes the things most offensive are the very things most planned. Ask GoDaddy. Or perhaps Peter Hoekstra.

Hoekstra’s infamous  Asian-bashing xenophobic Super Bowl ad went viral, receiving mention in The Atlantic, the New York Times, the New Yorker and countless other blogs (including those in China). A disaster. And now it’s pulled — a mercy death, surely. Still, it deserves an autopsy, in part because in examining the corpse, we we may be able to see something of the thinking of the Hoekstra campaign and its electoral strategy.

After all, this is a Michigan MBA, the former vice-president of marketing at Herman Miller, a smart guy. So just what was he thinking?

Her Lips say Finance but Her Eyes say Jobs

Advertising works on two levels: there is the direct cognitive message, charged with the main marketing points; then wrapping it are the associations created by allusions, the visuals, the manner of presentation.  This latter makes another unspoken argument.  When these two go together the effect can be can be quite powerful, as Ronald Reagan’s  Morning in America ad demonstrates. The twin message paths also lure political advertisers to create ads with two messages, a nominal message and a “dog whistle” inside message created for some subset of the audience.

And the two message approach seems to be the approach of the Hoekstra ad.

On the face of it (and in subsequent ads, here) Hoekstra goes after Sen. Debbie Stabenow and her (profligate) spending, positioning Hoekstra as a fiscal conservative. This is actually boring and forgettable. The images, the emotional vehicle is something else again.

The “dog whistle” is about jobs.

For all the mocking tone of our debt to China, in Michigan the issue of the economy is less that of finance than of manufacturing. The story of the past decade is the near-death of domestic auto manufacturing, the loss of 800,000 jobs from GM alone; a story of shuttered factories, faltering communities, and nation-leading unemployment.

It goes to the gut.

And that seems to be what  Hoekstra was looking to do: a two-fer.  Nominally, this was going to be an ad about Debbie Stabenow and her (profligate) ways and positioning Hoekstra as a fiscal conservative. A good message for the managerial suburbs like those of eastern Kent County or Oakland County. Underneath, in visuals a different emotional message was going to be told, one aimed at the working class suburbs of Muskegon, Wyoming, Downriver or  Macomb County.

In looking at the presentation of this appeal, we can see the subset Hoekstra was hoping to reach. Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Michigan, Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Failing Grade

Peter Hoekstra certainly launched a small to-do the other day with this ad released for the SuperBowl broadcast in Michigan.

One can see what the message goal was, that the Obama administration response to the economic crisis plunged us into hock to the Chinese. However, as the saying goes, it’s all in the execution. One doesn’t know whether to flunk the campaign for its political tone deafness, its failed advertising, or for flunking strategic thinking.

The politics, like too much of the current conservative thinking, is especially deaf (blind?) to the actual deeds. Move past 2009, and stances now condemned by Mr “Spend-it-Not” were apparently business as usual. Over his tenure Peter Hoekstra voted to add more than $5 trillion to the deficit — the dreaded free-spending Democrats, spending it now? A net increase of $800 billion (see  the chart from the Washington Post). The resulting deficits are simply the engine that drove the economy into the hands of  foreign investors. Peter “Spend-it-Not” Hoekstra? Alas, only if this isn’t the same Peter Hoekstra who once served in Congress.

One may also point out that the Senator hasn’t been sitting on her hands.

Stabenow, who’s running for a third term, has pushed for trade policies aimed at China that impose duties and penalties on countries that manipulate their currency and penalize companies that steal intellectual property from U.S. companies.

But let’s talk about the imagery used. Racist? Xenophobic? Those are the words of GOP consultant Nick De Leeuw.

“Stabenow has got to go. But shame on Pete Hoekstra for that appalling new advertisement,” De Leeuw wrote on his Facebook page Sunday morning. “Racism and xenophobia aren’t any way to get things done.”

As far as advertising goes, the image is further off. If it is about the Chinese (or East Asian) trade imbalance, it’s off target. We don’t have the trade imbalance because we spend too much on rice. Bluntly, had she been on an assembly line, or inside a factory it would have had more edge. (And there is the odd, Viet Nam vibe to the whole this something of a dog whistle to the old guard right.)

This all returns to the strategic judgement of the candidate himself. Sound advertising, particularly the high visibility, Super Bowl kind, needs to be on target all the way through. For a former vice president of marketing, this is embarrassing. Strategically one cannot say “I did this to raise visibility.” The racial question is not simply whether or not he dealt fairly with East Asians, but rather one of the future: will he deal fairly with other minorities. In today’s diverse  public, that is not something that should be risked.

Filed under: Michigan, Politics, , , , , ,

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