Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Chuck Grassley (IA) vs. Dianne Feinstein (CA): the Peacock & the Self-Restrained

Many Californians--plagued by party conformity across political offices and two Senators in office for decades (Boxer: 1993 to 2017; Feinstein: 1992 to the present)--seem unable to understand issues that ought to be simple. I happen to like Dianne Feinstein, will vote for her again if given the chance, 
and know tenured Senators are not unique to liberal states. For example, Iowa's Charles "Chuck" Grassley, in office since 1981, plays the part of cranky old man very convincingly. 
And get off my lawn!
Would Senator Feinstein ever publicly criticize a female college basketball for insufficient patriotism? Probably not. Feinstein's tenure as one of the longest-serving female Senators in American history has been marked by class, dignity, and the kind of intelligence one wishes Hillary Clinton and Elizabeth Warren had. 

Notably, unlike Warren and Clinton, Senator Feinstein's job is secure, and such security allows the taking of difficult, controversial positions; in contrast, jostling for higher public office requires more secrecy and more PR, which favors image curators over truth. We are lucky Senator Feinstein has, more often than not, restrained herself and her staff from using her power to target private citizens--including but not limited to college basketball players--and decided the title of "Senator" was a comfortable enough perch for her ambition. 

Senator Grassley also enjoys a secure Senatorial seat. (America's two major political parties utilized data mining and analysis--the foundation of gerrymandering--long before hackers decided to enter politics.) Because of his political security, Grassley can use his power to go after private citizens who disagree with his views--including female college basketball players in a different state. I am not as old as Senator Grassley, but I come from a time when a powerful man inciting hatred against young female college athletes in any jurisdiction would be considered disrespectful and impolite. Perhaps Iowans--who also elected
Steve King aka "Trump before President Trump"--have different views on Midwestern hospitality. 

Regardless of your political views, it should be plain the problem isn't tenure or even gerrymandering, but the concept of power itself. I do not know Senator Feinstein, but I imagine growing up during a time when women were not respected as equals to men professionally gave her ballast and a sense of justice not easily replicated by the kind of man who would go after a college athlete in a different state merely because some Iowans sent him emails after a basketball game. (Clinton and Warren show that environment matters, but not decisively.) At the same time, there is no doubt the same security that allows Senator Feinstein to take substantive, difficult positions without suffering Russ Feingoldian consequences is the same phenomenon that allows Senator Grassley and Representative Steve King to act recklessly. A system that does not actually constrain power will always be at risk of violating the very principles the system was designed to promote. This is true in any time period and under any system, whether it is Thomas Jefferson using the law to own slaves, FDR authorizing Japanese internment camps with the express approval of the Supreme Court, or Senator McCarthy doing one better than Senator Grassley on the issue of insufficient patriotism. 

But why have politics at the ground level become so heated, so divisive? The power of television and images, magnified by greater technological access, plays a part, but the issue is simpler. Politicians who act as political peacocks, flaunting their colors rather than their principles to get elected, eventually need brighter feathers and louder calls to accomplish the same result. Senator Feinstein, a woman of substance, need not raise her voice at the podium--her experience and record speak for themselves. Only a man frightened that opponents may offer better siren songs bellows without thinking, and we can infer from Senator Grassley's behavior that Iowans may be looking for alternatives. Indeed, Senator Grassley's share of votes has been steadily declining: he was elected by a 70% share in 2004; a 64% share in 2010; and a 60% share in 2016. 

I started this article trying to educate liberal-minded readers but ended up scolding Senator Grassley and praising Senator Feinstein, even though Feinstein also voted for the war in Iraq. (See here for journalist Glenn Greenwald's numerous counterarguments against Feinstein.) My original intent was to share a thought experiment showing why American communities have become fractured. I will end with it below, though the main lesson I had hoped to impart should now be clear: in politics, the exercise of power is key, not the system or party itself. The thought experiment below may impart other lessons, and I leave it to you to determine the content of those lessons.

City 1 has 100 people, including 5 police officers and 5 firefighters. It is 100% white and Christian. 


City 2 has 100 people, including 5 police officers, 5 firefighters, and 5 grant-receiving non-profit organization officers to handle language translation, parks and recreation, and other social issues promoting assimilation and harmony. Its residents are a perfect mix of diversity, and I leave it to the reader to render his or her own demographic utopia. 

City 1 responds to each police call with an investigation. If an investigation does not occur or is not done to the citizen's satisfaction, citizens feel comfortable going to the mayor's office to ask for intervention or greater oversight. 

City 2 investigates only major crimes. Theft under 500 USD is recorded but not investigated due to allegedly insufficient resources. Complaints to the mayor go nowhere at first, but as petty thefts increase, the mayor is forced to take action. She cancels one of the nonprofit's grants and transfers the funds to a specialized unit investigating petty crime. The nonprofit lays off 5 people and criticizes the mayor for canceling the grant as well as the police department for not utilizing existing resources efficiently. The police criticize the nonprofit and hire a media manager to defend their conduct. Slogans ("All Thefts Matter") are chanted by both sides, and the city's readers and viewers see angry complaints on television and in print. After the backlog of petty thefts is finally resolved, the mayor reinstates the nonprofit's grant and unemployment returns to 1%. The mayor decides to issue a bond and raise taxes in the future to prevent similar conflict. Unbeknownst to her, some of the city's residents have left to City 1, citing less tension there. 

Even with its new entrants, City 1 realizes many of its young residents are leaving and decides to hire a consultant to create more "culture" to convince them to stay. The consultant recommends issuing grants to nonprofits to promote arts and culture and laying off a police officer to free up funding for the consultant's recommendations. The council, in a divided vote, accepts the consultant's recommendations. 

To handle the increased workload while maintaining morale, the police department decides it will not investigate thefts under 500 USD. Residents soon complain that outsiders have corrupted the city and say they no longer feel safe. The young and new employees hired by the nonprofits realize their funding may be pulled and criticize the police department's productivity, demanding the mayor look into police officers' schedules and use of time. Soon, residents who experienced petty theft refuse to listen to anyone who supports arts and culture projects and respond to criticism of police productivity with unwavering allegiance to law and order. There is even talk of supporting a new media channel dedicated to conservative values. 

The nonprofits continue to push forward with projects that provide the town with options other than big box stores and strip malls. The mayor wonders why he didn't just issue a bond or raise taxes, but he realizes his city is more conservative and disfavors debt. He asks the police department to change its policy but the police department, encouraged by national police unions, sues him, claiming the mayor's requests violate state law. City 1's lawyers now spend less time responding to day-to-day matters and more time on litigation. Soon, the lawyers request additional headcount, leaving the mayor looking into outside law firms and promising residents such fees will be temporary.

Will the mayor keep his job in the next election? What values other than self-restraint appear necessary for sustainable growth? 

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