Can Democrats Win The Midterms? Here’s How;

The Democratic Party is a fascinating creature.  It’s broadly reflective of cultural, ethnic, and economic diversity in the nation.  Bipartisan debates and decision-making prized in the American political tradition are alive and well within its ranks, including nearly the full spectrum from left to right.  Only extreme right wing libertarians are excluded.  Why excluded?  Because anti-democratic; autocracy is more to their liking.

For all its “big tent” democratic qualities, the Democratic Party clings to the merest thread of control in Congress and has a hard time making inroads at state and local levels.  Too many of its candidates are skilled at snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, even as they showcase the advantages of popular Democratic politics.  It leaves the trumpist controlled GOP salivating at the probability that they can recapture control of Congress in the midterms while cementing their control of a majority of state legislatures.  

What do Democratic candidates have to do that is different from what they have been doing if they want to win?

Three simple things.

First, ignore Trump, trumpy candidates, and trumpy rhetoric. Responding to it gives them control of the messaging; it puts them on offense with Democrats on permanent defense. A well known hockey rule applies to politics: the team that makes the most shots on goal will probably win.  You can’t make shots on goal playing only defense. Rebutting right wing campaign rehetoric with reason and facts is to dive down rabbit holes from which there is no escape.  Knock down one lie and the next one is rolled out for public consumption.  It puts Democrats on the defensive with GOP operatives calling plays. Democratic candidates need to run with messages aimed at voters, not against Trump & Co.  But messages aimed at voters must be framed in the right way.

Second, frame every message to celebrates the American virtue of individualism.  Telling voters that the Biden agenda provides trillions in worthy benefits is just so much glib tax and spend palaver unless it is framed as providing resources needed to strengthen and enhance the virtue of American individualism by strengthening the foundations that make it possible. 

A proposed $3 trillion bill to underwrite the essentials of a strong society was ridiculed as wasteful, budget busting spending.  On the other hand, $7 trillion in bloated defense spending goes without challenge.  Why?  Opponents of the Biden plan said it would entice voters with goodies to buy into an expanded welfare state weakening American individualism..  Unquestioned defense spending is sold as essential to securing America against enemies of the freedom of American individualism.

The virtue of American individualism has a curious internal conflict.  It struggles to admit there is such a thing as a common good that extends beyond family and nearby likeminded neighbors.  It’s uncomfortable with too much importance given to the need for building up communities of equitable justice that would upset the established equilibrium.

Third, frame every message about the value of Democratic policies as tools to promote and enhance the American virtue of self-reliance.

Americans in general, rural Americans in particular, and many immigrant Americans, anchor their understanding of what it means to be American in the virtue of self-reliance. It’s the go to virtue Conservatives have traditionally used to constrain  government programs as welfare for the undeserving that subordinates American self-reliance to liberal fantasies about the common good.  The voice of reasonable constraint is not a bad thing in itself, but today’s right wing libertarianism has taken it to an extreme that wants to limit government programs to a few generous benefits available to business and industry.

They’ve labeled Biden’s agenda as nanny state welfare socialism that will destroy America’s virtue of self-reliance that prides itself on taking responsibility for one’s self, free of government interference or handouts.

It’s been very effective. Ironically social and infrastructure programs of long standing have become foundational as aids to individualism and self-reliance; the just rewards hard working, tax paying Americans have earned.  The undeserving need only to work harder if they want more.  

Biden agenda initiatives must be presented to the voting public as tools essential for self-reliant individualism to succeed in the 21st century.  It’s the only way Democratic candidates can win in the midterms. It’s the only way to preserve a vibrant democracy of conservative and liberal voices challenging each other in good faith.  It’s the only way the fiery brands of autocratic extremism can be extinguished.

Dubious Advice On How To Become The Next Billionaire

A neighbor who manages investments, and knows I have an interest in economics, asked what investment opportunities I had divined from the tea leaves. Not a single one, was my reply.  My impaired vision no longer lets me read FRED charts and graphs; even reading plain text is painfully slow, so I’ve fallen way out of whatever marginal loop I was ever in.  Still, the question haunted me.

What have we got to work with?  Global climate change is a real and present danger, but aside from vague promises, it looks like few governments will actually do much about it.  The fossil fuel industry says hopeful things on one hand, and defends the old ways on the other.  They have no incentive to change unless forced, and they are pretty sure carbon fuel interests have been secured through campaign contributions and high priced lobbyists. We’re emerging from COVID, but not leaving it behind.  COVID has moved from pandemic to endemic.  Moreover, it’s messed up the the world’s commercial processes sufficiently to take years to untangle.  Inflation, which is not all that bad, has everyone afraid that rising prices will erode standards of living.  A sizable minority of Americans favors autocracy over democracy, ironically in the name of small government, low taxes, and minimal regulation.  That the impending loss of white supremacy is a factor is vehemently denied in the same breath as white supremacist propaganda is swallowed whole.  Any old crackpot opinion has been given equal status with learned thought based on disciplined study.   None of it adds up to hopeful opportunities for investment in the near future. 

However, Congress passed the infrastructure act that will pump several trillion dollars into infrastructure related investment opportunities, generating ripple effects with an unknown multiplier effect on the nation’s economy.  It bodes well for savvy investors.

In what should they invest?  Maybe not the obvious: cement, steel, copper, etc.  Maybe not even contractors or heavy equipment manufacturers.  It seems to me that savvy investors will aim at industries behind the obvious, especially innovative companies creating new forms of the elements used to weave infrastructure.  Laser printing manufacturing might be one example.  New ways of managing logistics might be another. Lithium extraction research around the Salton Sea has produced little of practical value, but the potential is enormous.  What new, environmentally acceptable extraction processes might be in the offing?  Recycling is another possibility, not of cans and paper, but of essential elements wired into obsolete electronic equipment.  It’s a boutique industry now.  Could it be more?  For that matter, what about glass? Crushed glass has possibilities for infrastructure, but no one has made it cost effective yet.   

Making investment decisions is not my thing, but I’m happy to offer flippantly improbable advice to anyone willing to listen.  Look in the corners and closets for opportunity.  Maybe you will find the next billionaire nugget, or maybe just dust bunnies.  It’s your money.  Go for it.  

Read, Mark, Learn & Digest

Collects are short prayers that set a theme for reflection and direction.  In the Episcopal Church there are collects for each Sunday, and one used at this time of year asks us to read, mark, learn and inwardly digest holy scripture because it was written for our benefit.

It’s good advice.  To read, mark, learn and inwardly digest is a process of heavy work that never ends.  It is far away from memorizing verses by rote, along with their unambiguous and immutable meanings.

There’s an old rule of thumb about reading scripture.  My somewhat shaky memory recalls that it has rabbinic origins: read once to know what the words are; read twice to understand what they mean; read a third time to hear what God is saying through them.  What’s curious is that every three part reading,  no matter how often repeated, will never produce the same result.  It’s especially true when reading in the company of others doing the same thing. 

To mark scripture is to underline or circle particular words or phrases that seem to stand out, begging for more attention.  They’re not always the same words or phrases.  We do the same in other studies when using a highlighter, or “posit tabs.”  My study bibles are littered with underlines and handwritten notes that have helped me mark scripture.  It’s not the same thing as a man I met at an evangelical prayer meeting.  The preacher told the congregation to open their bibles to a certain verse and underline it.  The man opened his, and there was not a word on the page that had not been highlighted; he obediently underlined an already highlighted verse, then sat back to hear what the preacher told him it meant for the umpteenth time.  That’s not marking scripture.  It’s not very much different than a well trained dog knowing when to sit or stay to get a treat.

To learn is not to memorize, it is to be open to instruction, but instruction about what?  It can’t be about the singularly definitive meaning of the text because all instruction is interpretation.  To learn has to be about  how to interpret text for one’s self, how ancient and modern authorities have interpreted it, and how friends and colleagues interpret it.   The what and why of interpretation is as important as how.  Reading scripture always occurs in the context of the socio-political world in which one lives.  It’s always affected by local customs, beliefs and attitudes.  Learning to read scripture, and learning its meaning, requires attention to the what and why of social and cultural forces influencing so called ordinary, plain meanings of the text. 

To inwardly digest scripture is to rest and reflect .  Give the mind time and space to ruminate as it will.  Give the Holy Spirit time and space to enter into the rumination.  

To read, mark, learn and inwardly digest Holy Scripture is a long term process that requires some time under the tutelage of qualified teachers, some time in conversation with friends and colleagues, and a life time of private contemplation.

It’s a work that has little patience with fill in the blanks workbooks or fundamentalists who think scripture inerrantly tells one truth known with certainty. 

All scripture was written for our learning, it was divinely inspired, but God did not dictate it, and it isn’t inerrant.  It reliably and truthfully reveals God’s word.  It illuminates God’s word.  God is still speaking through scripture with new words and new meanings ever guiding those who read, mark, learn and inwardly digest  in new more godly ways.  Reading scripture is holy conversation not only with God, but with thousands of years of God’s faithful who, in their own times and places, have read, marked, learned and inwardly digested.

I’ll close with an anecdote.  Twenty-five years ago a parishioner in my weekly bible study demanded to know what the ”law of liberty” is (James 1.25, 2.12). We spent an hour exploring it. I’m still exploring it twenty-five years later. 

God’s Laws & Christian Citizenship

The highest laws of God for Christians are guidelines, not rules but guidelines, for the Christian life.  They are few and simple:  Love God; Love your neighbor; Love yourself; Love others as Christ loves you.  That’s it.

Learning what it means to love others as Christ loves us is what the gospel record illuminates.  Learning in that light is a life long work of reflection and discernment that never comes to an end.  Loving yourself is especially difficult.  It seeks to honestly own the reality of who you are that includes the public you, private you, hidden you, and everything in between.  It’s something that can be done only by recognizing that you are beloved of God not by merit but grace.  Anything else leads to self abnegation or narcissism.  The others we are to love, as the story of the Good Samaritan demonstrates, include enemies, people we don’t like, and people who challenge our prejudices.  Curiously, it’s not only a matter of loving them, but also allowing them to love us when we don’t want them to.  Loving God is the summation that has little to do with warm hearted affection, though it might, but with words and deeds that demonstrate loyalty and obedience to God above all other authorities.  In a world filled with competing authorities, that’s not an easy thing to do.

The practical application of these guidelines has two parts.  The first is to develop habits of the heart that reflexively direct word and deed  in the direction of godly love.  They’re habits; they don’t require much cognitive effort, they’ve become a part of who one is.  The second is to pause in deliberate reflection when faced with choices in conflict.  Is the deed or the words a defensible form of loving God, neighbor and self as Christ loves you?  The answer may not be clear.  God asks only that you do the best you can and trus  in God.

It’s nothing new, and when I taught it in a class I could count on an avalanche of responses in the form of “”Yeah, but…, and “What if…”. Each question was a way of probing for an escape clause that allowed one’s personal desires to evade God’s law as inapplicable to this or that situation.    There are no loopholes, no bypasses,  no buts or ifs.  There is grace.  Do what you can, as you are able, with what you have.  Will you blow it, make big mistakes, hurt others?  It seems likely if you are like me and everybody else I know.  Pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and get on with life.  That’s what Confession is about – admitting errors, receiving assurance of God’s forgiveness, and being guided in appropriate mid-course corrections.

College professors are famous for presenting classes with ethical problems in which every outcome involves the death of one or more persons.   They’re interesting classroom thought experiments forcing discussion about moral choices.   The circumstances of daily American life  are seldom that dire.  Christians are commanded to engage with others  in the ordinary ways of life at home, work and play in ways that demonstrate godly love. As a clergy friend said a few days ago, “We are not to ask what would Jesus do?  We are to ask what would Jesus have us do?  At a minimum it is do no harm, but the minimum is not enough.  Christians are to engage with others in ways that heal, reconcile, make whole, and break down barriers that separate us one from another.  In like manner, Christians are to receive the same from others, even others we dislike and distrust.

Christians, as citizens practicing citizenship (see country Parson, October 29) are obligated to evaluate public policies and public office holders on the criteria of godly love.  The moral rub for many Christians is that they put their political ideologies ahead of Jesus’ commandments, and finagle flimsy resolutions to the cognitive dissonance that cannot be defended except by emotionally charged “yeah, but.”…   

It is not our duty to promote a Christian nation.  It is our duty to promote policies and office holders  more likely to demonstrate what it means to love neighbor  and self as Jesus love us.  There are a couple of things that need to be done to help the most disadvantaged: create conditions enabling others to help themselves, conditions needed for society to run efficiently while caring for God’s creation; establish norms against oppression and discrimination.   It’s a balancing act with no perfect solution, yet bequeathing a better society to future generations.    

Small City Dailies, Cost Cutting, Customer Service, Second Rate Corporate Thinking

My daily paper, The Daily Press, serves the Hampton Roads communities of Virginia and is a subsidiary of The Tribune Co. (aka: Chicago Tribune).  Like other small city dailies, it struggles to stay profitable and is.

Corporate bean counters believe keeping local papers afloat means cost cutting.  Given the choice of investing for the future and cost cutting today, they’ll always go for the cheap way.  One way they’ve cut cost is to block subscribers from human contact with front office staff, most of whom they’ve fired anyway.  Trying to contact The Daily Press leads to an electronic Berlin Wall of automated messages offering a limited menu of options, only one of which allows human contact.

It’s a customer service option for subscription and billing issues that can’t be solved by the automated menu.  Turns out it’s an off-shore call center in an unknown Asian country staffed with people with limited authority to address issues.

Several months ago I started receiving regular emails from the paper that my subscription could not be renewed because they didn’t have an up to date credit card number.  There were even a few phone calls from people with strange accents asking for my new credit card number so my subscription could be renewed.  I wouldn’t give it to them, but said I’d go to the website and fill in any missing information.  You can’t do that online, they said, you have to give the number to us.  They were half right.  You can’t do it online, or at least I couldn’t figure it out.

I probably shouldn’t worry about it since not one but two morning papers are emailed each day.  Apparently I’m getting  two for the price of none, but I’m a Country Parson who likes to keep his affairs in decent order.  Caution, based on experience, keeps me from giving my card number to an unknown call center in a country on the other side of the globe. So I spent the better part of an afternoon trying to breach the automated Berlin Wall, thinking there had to be a way to talk to a live person in the local office here where I live.  Give them credit, it can’t be done.  They’ve created an electronic fortress as solid as ever there was. There are gaps.  The newsroom and commercial ad offices appear to have some kind of access.  It would be intruding on understaffed, overworked turf only to complain about an issue they couldn’t solve.

Corporate strategies to make money by cutting cost often kill the company by confusing cost cutting with improving efficiency.  Automated systems that keep customers from gumming up the works, with the added benefit of getting rid of staff, give the illusion of cost control with improved efficiency.  After all, whatever can’t be automated is marginal and of little consequence.  Is it?  

What is the the value of on site, in person customer service?  Might it be an investment in the paper’s profit potential?  In my case, I get the paper for free because their beloved system doesn’t synchronize lapsed subscriptions with outgoing papers.

I like The Daily Press.  As long as it keeps coming, I’ll keep reading.  If they ever figure out their blunder and stop delivery, I’ll subscribe anew.  I can wait. In the meantime, corporate overlords are doing the best they can to erode good will and confidence in the name of doing the least they can at the cheapest cost without regard to long term effects.