March 6, 2009

A Case in Backward Thinking: The U.S. Military's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" Policy

I recently came across an enlightening little morsel while reading Portland's Willamette Week. Of course, by "enlightening," I actually mean "apalling." And by "morsel," I actually mean "absurdity." In 2006, the U.S. Military discharged 612 troops due to its "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy, which was actually a 12-year low over the life of the policy. (The policy, crafted by then Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin Powell, was introduced in 1993 as a compromise measure after President Clinton had previously campaigned on a platform to end discrimination by sexual orientation in the military). Over the life of the policy, over 12,000 troops have been dismissed from all branches of the military as a result of disclosure of homosexuality.

Now, here's the kicker. By contrast, from 2003-2006, the U.S. Military allowed
4,230 convicted felons to enlist under the "moral waivers" program, which enables otherwise unqualified candidates to serve. In 2006 alone, the military granted waivers for 1,605 convicted felons.

I have no problem with the military granting waivers to *certain* convicted felons to serve our country. In fact, I think it presents a tremendous opportunity for those whose behaviors have been a detriment to society to rehabilitate themselvelves and contribute to the common good. But it seems glaringly ridiculous and absurd that our political leaders see homosexuals as more of a threat to the integrity of the military than convicted felons.

Germane to this topic is the fact that neoconservative political policies have left our military overextended, charged with policing and rebuilding two Middle Eastern nations while attempting to snuff out and abate the threat of terrorism. I would think the military could use all the enlistees it can get at this time rather than discriminating on the basis of any metric other than character, patriotism, and fitness to serve.

February 8, 2009

Race & American Politics: Part 1

February is Black History Month in many countries around the world. Moreover, Barack Obama's recent inauguration has perhaps made this month that much more relevant for observers of black history.

In this two-part series, I want to explore a pair of political events, one from the 19th century and the other from the 20th, each of which had a dramatic effect on black history and the political landscape in the U.S as it relates to race. When many historians and political scientists discuss identity politics and particularly black history, the focus of discussion inevitably leads to two events -- the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr's "I have a Dream" speech from a century later. My intent is to focus on two events which are perhaps a bit more under the radar, and examine the impact of each on the political landscape of our country as it relates to race. Without further adieu, the first:

The Presidential Election of 1876

To be blunt, the 1876 Presidential election quite frankly made the 2000 Bush-Gore fiasco look vanilla by comparison. In 1876, Republican Rutherford Hayes cast his die against Democrat Samuel Tilden in an extremely tense and heated contest. For the previous 11 years, "Radical" Republicans had worked to repair a fractured nation from Civil War and ensure the implementation of Abraham Lincoln's creed - equal rights and an end to racial subjugation in the south.

This process was accomplished through Reconstruction, which involved, among other details, concentration of power to the federal government and the courts, and the placement of federal troops in southern States to ensure black suffrage. Reconstruction enraged southern Democrats, many of whom retained bitterness from the outcome of the Civil War and were not pleased to see the federal government wrest power away from the States.

Now, in the general election, Tilden the Democrat appeared to have come out on top after winning 51% of the popular vote (Hayes garnered 47.9%, by contrast). With three States (Florida, Louisiana and South Carolina) still in dispute, Tilden mainted a 184-165 lead in the electoral college. In these three States, each party fervently declared its candidate the winner.

What resulted was a series of backroom dealings between the party leaders. Hayes was awarded the 20 remaining electoral votes, thus giving him a slight edge (185-184) in the electoral college AND the Presidency, despite a popular vote deficit (does this sound familiar, Gore supporters?).

In exchange for gifting Hayes and the Republicans the White House, Democrats mandated that Republicans withdraw all federal troops from the South, effectively ending Reconstruction. It was further stipulated per the terms of the compromise that Democrats would be appointed to patronage positions in the South.

So what was the aftermath of the Compromise of 1877? The compromise essentially pushed African-Americans out of existing positions of political power in the South, and disenfranchised many for nearly a century after. Shortly after Reconstruction ended in 1877, literacy tests and poll taxes were erected to restrict blacks from voting. Poorer Southern whites were in effect exempted from these restrictions through grandfather clauses, which stated that men could still retain the right to vote if they had ancestors who shared that right prior to the Civil War (thus only applicable to whites). Since the South was slow to industrialize and move off the agrarian economy (and King Cotton) after the Civil War (despite losing access to free factors of production), the region remained severely depressed. And the economic climate was perhaps harshest on newly-freed blacks, who often lacked both an educational foundation and the opportunity to secure good jobs.

In essence, the outcome of the 1876 Presidential Election legitimized the enactment of Jim Crow laws and sealed in what would become almost 100 years of disenfranchisement, lynching, segregation and institutionalized bigotry in the South. The Compromise of 1877 was seen by millions of former slaves as a "great betrayal" as Republican efforts to extend civil rights were virtually abandoned for the sake of politics.

The Jim Crow era in the South left a legacy of black subjugation and inequality, and stands as one of the greatest stains in our history. And it was perhaps only possible because of the compromise following the 1876 election which saw Rutherford Hayes ascend to the Presidency.

January 20, 2009

President Obama's Inauguration

In a day worthy of celebration whether you are a Republican or a Democrat, Barack Obama was sworn in today as the 44th President of the United States. Below is the video of his swearing in and inaugural address:

Obama takes office amid crisis at home and abroad. Two separate wars in the Middle-East have strained our vital military resources. Al-Qaida, in defiance of Western intervention in the region, continues to garner new recruits and plot violence against the Western world. Unrest in Israel and the Palestinian territories of Gaza and the West Bank has threatened the stability of the entire Middle-East. And at home, economic recession and heightened unemployment has put a tremendous strain on American families.

Exogenous events often catalyze shifts in Presidential power. With our world in such turmoil, Obama will have the prerogative to chart a new course and stamp his place in history.

January 9, 2009

So Barack Obama's A Wacky Leftist, huh?

If you're at all like Crazy McCain Lady and believed all the rhetoric spewed during the 2008 Presidential Campaign, then you might be surprised to see that President-elect Obama doesn't seem in a rush to tack our country to the political far left (he's also not an Arab, by the way). This despite a very comfortable victory for Obama that also saw Democrats pick up vast majorities in both houses of Congress.

In 1932, FDR toppled incompetent incumbent Herbert Hoover in a landslide (472-59 in the electoral college). FDR used his electoral mandate to repudiate Hoover's
laissez-faire policies and usher in a new era of Keynsian economic policy, marked by dramatic increases in state spending and creation of social programs to stimulate economic growth.

In 1964, Lyndon Johnson rode a massive wave of public sympathy over JFK's assassination to victory in the Presidential race, defeating Barry Goldwater with 61% of the popular vote. He used that mandate to implement his Great Society - a set of liberal policies and reforms designed to eliminate poverty and racial injustice, which tacked the country further left.

In 1980, Ronald Reagan cruised to a very lopsided victory on a road paved by Teddy Kennedy, after the Massachusetts Senator took incumbent Democrat Jimmy Carter to the wire in a heated Primary campaign. Reagan ushered in a new era of supply-side economics, characterized by massive deregulation and a slashing of income and capital gains tax rates (including the marginal income tax rate from 70% to 28% by 1986). Reagan's restructuring of US economic policy was perhaps a consequence of the prevailing winds at the time (as the supply-side theory gained momentum), but Reagan also claimed a mandate by interpreting his margin of victory during a time of stagflation as a repudiation by the public of liberal economic policies.

Each of these Presidents used large margins of victory to justify the introduction of new paradigms into public policy, each leading to fundamental ideological shifts in our political landscape. But while "change" was a key theme of Obama's campaign, at this point it is not apparent that Obama is driven by an unwavering political ideology that will see him tack us back to the left.

First, days after his election win, Obama announced that Secretary of Defense Robert Gates would maintain his post under the new Administration. Gates, who enjoys fairly widespread bipartisan support but isn't exactly considered the messiah by antiwar activists, was selected by President Bush to replace Donald Rumsfeld as Defense Secretary in 2006. Obama also announced last month that proposed tax increases for those making over $200,000 per year may be delayed in an effort to stimulate economic growth. This move has infuriated liberals, who see such tax increases as necessary both to finance Obama's domestic agenda and to ease the ballooning federal budget deficit (currently at around $450 billion...and counting).

So, despite an electoral mandate and an allied majority in both the House and Senate, the President-elect thus far has straddled the political center, reaching to both sides while keeping the ideologues at bay. We'll see how long the spirit of bipartisanship holds, but in the meantime, it may be that Obama isn't quite the champion of the political left that many thought during the campaign.

Oh, as for the picture above, I just couldn't help myself. Let's hope that, since Crazy McCain Lady has read so much about Obama, she stumbles across this blog.