All Politics National? All Power Local

Newark      I recently read a fascinating argument by Yascha Mounk, a Harvard instructor in The New Yorker that was wrapped in the cover of a review of some new books trying to puzzle through the political life of the nation currently.  The heart of the argument Mounk and some of the cited authors made, to boil it down, was that in these days and times “all politics is national” a rejoinder to the classic expression from former Speaker of the House and Democrat from Massachusetts Tip O’Neil that “all politics is local.”

Much of this argument was hung on a current book by the University of Pennsylvania’s Daniel J. Hopkins called The Increasingly United States.  So, full disclosure, I’ve just added the book to my Kindle, but haven’t read it yet, so I can’t pretend to do justice to him and the rightness or wrongness of his argument, but I can follow Mounk’s argument pretty well.

There is a lot going for it.  National party platforms have become more easily distinguishable.   Issues are more ideological, though the divisions in both parties between moderates and extremes within these platforms are stark, there are signposts that are easily observable by most voters.  Certainly, communications through daily news channels have become heavily nationalized with less and less local coverage past the blood and gore, traffic and crime beats.

The point is made that voters “have grown less able to name their governor and less likely to vote in local elections.”   The structure of the ballot and the diminishment of standard civics undoubtedly plays a role as well, but there has been a falloff from the top to the bottom of the ballot virtually forever unless there are heated local contests.

I don’t want to quibble though.  The real issue that leaves me scratching my head as I try to absorb this argument is less about politics and more about power.  Parties are still pretty weak in resources, structure, and their roles in daily life outside of the direct election cycle, so it is hard for me to believe that they have reached peak power in our democracy in the way being speculated in these reports.

Power is still very diffuse.  The impact of money is huge and the right with the Koch’s and the left with the Steyer’s have proven that money is especially powerful in moving the dial in the more localized frameworks of states and cities.   The way power devolved to the states and the stark differences between life and citizen expression and benefits in blue versus red states, Democratic versus Republican states, continues to make a case that pretending that all politics is national puts all of us in peril.

The truth still remains that without a strong local base, it is hard to move the political needle nationally.  My advice for what it is worth continues to be:  don’t move to Washington.  If you want to change the country, dig deep, and do the job where you are.


The Difference between Senators Lindsey Graham and Tom Cotton

Rally for Haiti on the 8th anniversary of the earthquake in Miami, Fl.
Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

New Orleans   President Trump seems determined to remind the American people and the world that he is a chauvinist and racist, and his recent vulgar and boorish behavior in a White House conference on trying to sort out a deal that includes a government shutdown and a path forward on immigration and the Dreamers is just the most recent example. Trump is by now a known commodity, so we should sadly expect this from him, even as we continue to demand more. We need to worry more about the Trump effect and what it is doing to any semblance of character and dignity in American politics, and there is no better example than the reports that emerge from other witnesses to the Trump tirades and what they reveal.

We could make a point about the fact that Illinois Senator Dick Durbin, long an outspoken advocate for the rights of immigrants broke the code of silence on the meeting, and revealed Trump’s comments to the president’s embarrassment, though it seems not his shame. We won’t do that because he’s a Democrat and some might tune out the message as partisanship. We’re talking about character and dignity as bedrock national principles, so let’s look at two southern senators who were in the room with the President in order to see this more clearly.

Lindsay Graham and Tom Cotton are both Republican Senators and both are from the South, Graham from South Carolina and Cotton from Arkansas. Both are ambitious. Graham had a brief run for President, losing in the early primaries. Cotton is widely touted as a wannabe future candidate. Graham has reportedly mended his fences with Trump and become a valued adviser and interpreter for the President, especially on immigration. Cotton has been the subject of numerous media reports that he is the “Trump whisperer” offering a sounding board for the President and hugely influential.

Reports now emerging from the meeting are giving a clearer picture. It turns out that Graham rebutted and chided the President after his racist remarks, correctly saying that “America is an idea not a people.” His comments were reported by others, including Durbin. They were lengthy, well understood and widely heard, just as the President’s remarks were. Cotton on the other hand when asked, claimed that he heard nothing. How is that possible? Was he in another room? Had he left to take a call or visit the washroom? Or, is he just “playing politics” and trying to protect the President and his own policy positions and access to Trump. He has not offered an alibi that I have heard, and likely believes his “see no evil, hear no evil” answer serves as his “no comment” on the whole affair. Several other Republican Senators who were not at the meeting were clear that the President needed to apologize to the American people and other countries that he disparaged. Cotton, continuing to dishonor himself and his state, says no such thing.

Plutarch, centuries ago wrote “a small thing…often makes a greater revelation of character than battles where thousands die.” The one thing that Americans and the world are going to takeaway from the Trump presidency and its horrific escapades is that character is hugely important in the leadership and stewardship of a country and its highest offices. It trumps party, politics, and short term transactional policy points.

A country song has the lines, “if you don’t stand for something, you don’t stand for nothing at all.” Senator Tom Cotton has now proven that he has insufficient character to be in public life and stands for nothing at all aside from his own petty ambition. Trump has proven conclusively that such vacuity disqualifies you for any office and Graham has established that character is a minimum standard for public leadership, no matter what your position.