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Ask Auntie Pinko

October 22, 2004
By Auntie Pinko

Dear Auntie Pinko,

I will be voting (proudly) for John Kerry on November 2nd, and I truly believe he will start the much-needed (possibly painful) turn-around that America sorely needs. However, I understand that this is an incredibly difficult job, and I respect him immensely for taking on the task. What worries me is that Americans might see his difficulty in improving situations in Iraq, reducing the deficit, and improving healthcare as a sign of his incompetence. I, as a critical thinker (aka liberal) understand that the mess we are in now (that GWB got us in), will not disappear overnight. But I am afraid that the rest of the country will blame the Democrats. How do I handle this?

Austin, TX

Dear Anna

Thank you for the excellent question! I only wish that I could give you a magic-bullet answer, in return. But there isn't one.

Just as the GOP blamed Mr. Clinton's Administration for the country's economic mess, claiming that it started on his watch, and Mr. Clinton's Administration took all the credit for turning the economy around and balancing the budget (regardless of economic trends that could be traced to factors unrelated to their own policies,) whoever loses this election has a free pass to point the blame finger at whoever wins, when conditions fail to improve quickly enough to suit them. That is the nature of politics.

The relationship between policies pursued by any government, and actual conditions in the world, is tremendously complex. There is a relationship, certainly, and often an important one. But time horizons for all of the consequences (intended and unintended) of policy changes are almost always longer than America's four-year political cycle. And so many complex variables interact in the real world, that the establishment of an unambiguous causal relationship between policies and conditions is dicey, at best.

Often, such relationships can only be perceived in the long run, sometimes in the very long run. We are only just now, for example, beginning to appreciate the real value of many of the environmental protection policies implemented under Mr. Nixon.

In fact, Mr. Nixon's Presidency is a good illustration of just how complex these things are, and how long are the shadows they cast. The terrible, perhaps crippling, damage that Mr. Nixon's willingness to subvert the law and the Constitution for his personal electoral ambitions, did to America's confidence in our government and its leaders-how does it weigh in the balance against some of the visionary, even brilliant, solutions he proposed, encouraged, or permitted to some of our domestic problems? How does his callous and short-sighted pragmatism in some foreign policy areas weigh against his truly inspired leadership in other areas?

Auntie Pinko has formed her own judgment of the value of Mr. Nixon's Presidency to America, not once but many times. Had you asked me for my assessment in 1969, 1973, or 1990, you would have gotten very different answers each time, and all would be different than the one I would give you today.

On some level, I think, Americans understand this. What we are really criticizing, when we criticize a President's policies or actions, is not so much the empirical results of any decision or initiative, but the quality of his leadership. That is something that transcends both policy and objective reality. We look at that leadership through the lens of his values and goals, and how well he manages to connect them with our own values and goals.

In this sense, the terrible division in our country represents the greatest challenge for anyone elected to the Presidency. One measure of his leadership will be how well he manages to transcend the narrow, self-serving interests of the Washington power structure, and the lobbyists for moneyed and powerful interests, to reach out and communicate effectively with all of our own people, and our neighbors in the world.

It won't be easy, because having half of America at the throats of the other half creates a tremendous opportunity for the greedy and powerful, and the greedy would-be powerful, to exploit our differences for their own benefit. They pour money into media and politics in order to maintain and increase the conditions that allow them to prosper. Their goal is to convince all of us that "those other people" are perfect, two-dimensional bad guys whom we don't have to listen to, and should work with all our strength to defeat, whether it is by shutting "the losers" out of the political process altogether; or by making it impossible for "the winners" to exercise leadership.

In order to succeed in getting us to do this, they have to do two things: First (and most important,) prevent us from engaging in any kind of critical thinking. (Making sure children don't learn critical thinking skills in schools is a great way to start.) Second, they need to control the flow of information and facts that reach us, in order to make critical thinking attempts difficult to impossible. The measure of the success of their efforts, over the past forty years, is the current polarized and divided state of American public discourse.

So Mr. Kerry, if elected, will have to simply endure the consequences of the cumulative effects of forty years' work, by both conservatives AND liberals, to unravel the social fabric that enables Americans to govern ourselves effectively. Auntie Pinko thinks that he'll do a better job of it than Mr. Bush, but I have no illusions about how much he can accomplish to halt and reverse it in a mere four years. Still, from tiny acorns grow mighty oaks, even if our great-grandchildren are the ones to benefit from the planting.

I'm sorry I couldn't provide a nice, chipper, sound-bite answer to your excellent and thoughtful question, Anna, but thank you anyway for asking Auntie Pinko!

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