We (and Obama) Should Embrace the Politics

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Last month Karlo and Colin wrote a post following Netroots Nation that called for some reconciliation in the name of progress.

Millennials carry the spirit of the founding fathers, perhaps more closely than generations in recent times. We understand that quality interactions with our counterparts advocating in good faith are more important than building huge e-mail lists based upon tactics of fear and hate. We talk to others, on this blog, on Facebook, on Twitter, and we do it with civility – or at least we try. We interact this way because we know others are watching and that everything we do and say is on-the-record. This does not mean that we don’t stick to our principles and our values and voice our opinions. What it does mean is that we know that we are having conversations with people, other than those that just agree with everything we say. We’re not about burning bridges; we’re about mending them and building them out into the future.

I agree with their vision as expressed here. I think the two predominant political camps in this country do spend too much time trying to find the most vulnerable aspects in the opposition’s activities for their own short-term political advantage. While I would point out that not all Millennials carry the spirit Karlo and Colin describe, the prevailing view among youth today is that compromise is important. “Pragmatic idealism” is a descriptor I have seen used for the way we view politics. To engage in this approach, though, I believe we need to take a step back and rethink the way we view politics.

Obama was elected on a platform that had at its core the notion that we could disagree without being disagreeable. And I still believe that’s one of the more redeeming qualities our president possesses, to be able to espouse that and enact it day to day. However, to our detriment, he does this while viewing politics as an episodic adventure, as a negative thing. I can’t tell you how many times I have heard him accusing someone of “playing politics.”

First, politics isn’t something to be played. It’s a reality. It happens all around us. My writing this blog is political. You reading it is political. You daring to think about it later today and telling someone about it (crossing fingers) is political. What I’m trying to convey is that politics is not a battle that can be joined and not joined.

In addition, politics is not inherently negative. Interestingly, in its original Greek form, the definition of politics is less loaded; with polis meaning “city state,” politikos roughly translates to “of the citizen,” signaling a citizen-centered view of politics with a focus on those things concerning city or state affairs. Aristotle argues that politics consists of the interplay between people from different backgrounds and interests, holding different views, while aiming to complete a task. In other words, politics is a constant that citizens cannot ignore; in fact, acknowledging and embracing one’s constant participation forms the heart of democracy.

Viewing politics this way, we can see why E.J. Dionne’s column is so discerning in today’s Post.

Obama’s mistake is captured by that disdainful reference to “politicking.” In a democracy, separating governing from “politicking” is impossible. “Politicking” is nothing less than the ongoing effort to convince free citizens of the merits of a set of ideas, policies and decisions. Voters feel better about politicians who put what they are doing in a compelling context. Citizens can endure setbacks as long as they believe the overall direction of the government’s approach is right.

I suppose this is another take on the whole “Obama needs a narrative” meme that has been playing out. But I like this because I think the critique is more accurate. His attacking politics undercuts himself and what he is trying to do. This damage is then made worse by not giving any foundational rationale for what he is trying to do in the first place. Talk about giving special interests and “anything goes” politics a free pass…

Colin and Karlo were right: as long as we’re fighting about character issues and other small-minded topics, we have already lost. When we are not talking about a set of ideas, policies, and decisions to be made in an honest way, we let special interests wreck everything (at which point Millennials may as well turn on some John Mayer).

It behooves all of us, including our president, to view politics as a constant, something we cannot ignore. The mixing of various views, backgrounds, and interests is always at work, and, especially now, there will always be a task to pursue. If the 2008 enthusiasm was genuine, if it meant something — if Obama was serious about his call for citizens to step it up — our president and all of us need to re-calibrate our views on politics. Pragmatic idealism just might have a shot then.

Underestimating the Impact of the Youth Vote

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Thomas Goldstein and Thomas Bates, Executive Director of the Washington Bus and Vice President for Civic Engagement at Rock the Vote respectively, penned an op-ed published in today’s Seattle Times.  Goldstein and Bates took aim at the idea that youth’s “low” turnout in midterm elections relative to older age groups ultimately means a smaller impact on the results.

It isn’t exactly news that young people tend to vote at lower rates than older voters. The more interesting story is that even if young people turn out at lower rates, they can dramatically affect the election landscape and outcomes. That happened most visibly in the 2008 presidential election, but also in certain nonpresidential elections closer to home.

The approval of Referendum 71, the election of a young mayor in Tacoma, and two victorious young City Council candidates in Spokane are all evidence of the efficacy of targeting young voters. Moreover, the highest turnout in the state in 2009 was in the 43rd Legislative District, which has the greatest concentration of young voters.

Even with mounting evidence, too many campaigns write off young voters, and this tired habit has made the prophecy of low turnout a self-fulfilling one. It almost reads as a new definition of madness: Time and time again, campaigns don’t invest time and resources into young people, and then are surprised when they don’t mail in their ballots.

[…]

Luckily, we’re doing something about it. Forward-looking organizations and campaigns have tested methods to engage young people and have committed resources to make them reliable voters. And we’re seeing results: For the past three major election cycles — yes, even pre-Obama — the turnout of young people has steadily increased.

We know what works: Make sure young people are registered to vote, give them relevant information in an engaging way, and run campaigns that connect with their values.

The point both are making is that, blessed with size, the effect of even a subtle increase in the Millennial voting rate can be worth a few points in various midterm elections — enough to tip those races in different directions.

As we move forward into the meat of the 21st Century, these younger people, increasingly becoming adults, are going to need to be pursued in a different way than past voters.  This calls for aggressive engagement, complete with the “relevant information” Goldstein and Gates mention above, as well as managing campaigns that reflect youth’s values.

Douthat’s Flawed View of the Mosque Controversy

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Though he tries to act like he’s playing the role of peacemaking conciliator, New York Times columnist Ross Douthat eventually reveals his true feelings:

By global standards, [Feisal Abdul Rauf, the man behind the mosque] may be the model of a “moderate Muslim.” But global standards and American standards are different. For Muslim Americans to integrate fully into our national life, they’ll need leaders who don’t describe America as “an accessory to the crime” of 9/11 (as Rauf did shortly after the 2001 attacks), or duck questions about whether groups like Hamas count as terrorist organizations (as Rauf did in a radio interview in June). And they’ll need leaders whose antennas are sensitive enough to recognize that the quest for inter-religious dialogue is ill served by throwing up a high-profile mosque two blocks from the site of a mass murder committed in the name of Islam.

Douthat makes the same error that most other observers are making in failing to see the wide spectrum of beliefs in Islam. Yes, there are those (al-Qaeda) who couch their hatred of America in the religion (just like there are Christians who use their faith to justify their hatred of our government). But there are also Muslims — in fact, the large majority of those in the United States — who worship peacefully, just like other the Judeo-Christian worship communities Douthat taps earlier in his piece.

I wouldn’t like to be told as a Christian that I could not buy a property in Wichita, Kansas because Scott Roeder, a Christian zealot, killed a doctor who performed abortions. Same goes for Atlanta, Georgia, when Eric Rudolph bombed the Olympic Park during the ceremonies in 1996, “to confound, anger and embarrass the Washington government in the eyes of the world for its abominable sanctioning of abortion on demand.” But because Christianity is the privileged religion in Douthat’s second America, we simply understand that Roeder and Rudolph are right-wing nut jobs that do not represent the wide majority of Christians. The same doesn’t go for Muslims.

Questions for Islamophobes

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The recent controversy over a proposed Islamic community center and mosque being built near Ground Zero continues today in a national discussion with little reason. I thought this post, complete with six questions, is a great response to those who are so fearful of Muslims exercising their right to practice their religion.

1. Since the proposed site for the Park51 worship space is 2 blocks away from Ground Zero, why do you keep calling it the “Ground Zero Mosque”?

2. What precisely is an acceptable distance from the former site of the World Trade Center for Muslims to practice their religion? (Terms like “so close” or “in the shadow of” or “steps away” are obviously subjective.)

3. Is there a difference between violent Islamic extremists and mainstream Muslims?

4. If your answer to #3 is “yes,” why is there an objection to Muslims practicing their religion in Lower Manhattan?

5. Since Muslims have been holding religious services at Park51 for over a year, should they be stopped?

6. As Park51 is private property, are you in favor of the government regulating how the space is utilized?

If you disagree with the mosque’s construction and feel like taking a shot at answering these, please comment.