How Did We Get Here?

I. The Candidates

In the years that I’ve been able to vote, I don’t recall disliking both candidates as much as I do these two:

  • I voted enthusiastically for Reagan in both 1980 and 1984.
  • I voted for George Bush, but also respected Dukakis in 1988.
  • In 1992, I voted for George Bush. I really respected his pragmatism, and the way he was able to pull together a bunch of disparate countries during the Gulf War.
  • In 1996, I felt comfortable voting for Bob Dole. I didn’t like Dole’s ‘attack dog’ persona, but felt that at core, he was principled and honest.
  • In 2000, I simply couldn’t decide. I neither liked nor disliked either candidate. In the end, I ended up voting for Gore, rooting for Bush on the way from the poll booth, then rooting against Bush during all the legal maneuvering. I didn’t care for either one, but I didn’t dislike either one either.
  • In 2004, I voted for Kerry.  I wasn’t enthusiastic for Kerry, but I respected him.
  • I voted for Obama in both 2008 and 2012. I’m happy with these votes. I don’t think he’s nearly as liberal as his vilifiers make him out to be. He’s pragmatic, and he thinks before reacting.

Which brings us to this year. Ugh. Out of all the people in the country, these two are our choice. A raging racist narcissist/fascist, and a power hungry politician whose only guiding principle appears to be a desire for power.

Trump taps into the anger and frustration– and, let’s be plain– the racism of a lot of white Americans. There are a lot of people who are worried by him, but for a lot of people, he’s talking the kind of trash these people want to hear.

Even worse, I think Hillary Clinton is an incredibly weak candidate. You never get the sense of a set of core values, like you did with Bernie Sanders. You might not agree with Sanders, but it was easy to see that his positions arose out of a consistent set of values and philosophy that drove them. I don’t have a sense that Hillary stands for anything other than Hillary.

She is not an inspiring leader or politician. She can’t work a crowd like her husband, or inspire like Reagan. She can say the lines, but in her mouth, they sound hollow.

There is the sense that both Clintons feel they are above the law; that they are willing to bend the law or facts to suit themselves. The problems with the State Department emails speak for themselves.

Hillary Clinton feels like Martha Coakley writ large; people will find a reason not to vote for her.

Trump really worries me. I do see the parallels to the rise of Nazism in Germany in his campaign.

He doesn’t seem to understand the Constitution. He doesn’t seem to understand what the role of the President is in our system.

He leads with his mouth, and doesn’t appear to think at all.   He’s changed his stands on so many things that I can’t credibly predict how he would react on anything. He is reckless and hateful and doesn’t give a damn who he hurts, or who he provokes.

I think the thing that worries me most about Trump is his lack of understanding or respect for the Constitution. The two main reasons our system of government works are the divided structure of the government, preventing a concentration of power in any branch, and a cultural respect for the institution of the government, instilled by our Founding Fathers.

It’s this respect for the law that fundamentally keeps office holders in bounds. In 1952, in response to a steel mill strike, Harry Truman nationalized the steel mills. The owners sued, won the case, and Truman obeyed the court, returning the mills to their owners. Once this respect for the law breaks down, it’s all over, and we’re in the same boat as any banana republic.

He is incredibly dangerous, and I think he has a decent shot at winning.

II. How Did We Get Here?

So how did we get here? How is it that these two are the choice we’re left with?


I think the first place to look is the educational system. Instead of teaching history and civics, we teach “social studies”. Kids don’t learn American history — we were playing a game one evening, and none of my nephews knew who George III was — and they don’t have a sense of how things work. They learn the trappings of patriotism — red, white and blue, let’s wave some flags — but they don’t know the meaning. They don’t know of the sacrifices made during the Revolutionary War, or of the service to country made by both the soldiers and the home front during World War II. They have little sense of civic duty; what we owe our country and our countrymen, in return for what it provides us. We’ve come to see voting or serving on a jury as a chore, let alone making sacrifices for the larger good.


Gerrymandering is the “is a practice intended to establish a political advantage for a particular party or group by manipulating district boundaries.” The way it works is you concentrate your political opponents into one or two districts; you may lose that district, but you’ve strengthened your hand in the rest of them. My friend Barbara recently sent me a long an interesting article about how the Republican party gerrymandered its way into Congressional dominance. What you wind up with is long rambling Congressional districts that resemble a salamander on a map, designed to create “safe” districts for incumbents.


Once you’ve created safe districts, you’ve moved the electoral action from the general election to the primaries. In a general election, you have to appeal to the full electorate; in a primary, you only have to appeal to party members, and primaries on both sides favor the extremes on both sides, as the more extreme candidates are more likely to fire up their supporters. This is how the Tea Party became a force in Congress, and what explains the radical turn to the right of the Republican party; with safe Republican seats, the battles turned to the primaries, and a number of more moderate Republican congressmen and senators lost their seats in the primaries.

(It also explains the rise of Elizabeth Warren in Massachusetts.)

The Media

Coverage of the election by the media has been piss-poor.

It used to be that newscasts were something networks and television stations ran to satisfy the public service obligations of their broadcast license. And then, somewhere along the line, broadcasters realized newscasts could be incredibly profitable, and that’s all she wrote.

It used to be that journalists would report what a candidate said, but then they would also report whether what was said was accurate.  Now, they’re so afraid of looking “partial” that they do not call either side on whether they’re lying or not.

It used to be that reporters would focus on the important stuff. Now they’d rather report on what’s become viral on youTube.

Most pernicious, it used be that the media reported on where the candidates stood. Now, they’d rather report on the polls.

They’d rather broadcast highly stylized “debates” that say nothing, and are more about each candidate scoring off each other, than in-depth interviews explaining how each would govern.

The Electorate

We’ve become an electorate that would rather “send a message” than elect someone to serve us. People don’t take the election seriously enough. Voting is perceived as a nuisance rather than a duty to be taken seriously.

III. What’s to Be Done?

Unfortunately, I think Donald Trump is far too dangerous to risk voting for anyone other than Hillary Clinton. He scares the hell out of me. If he means what he says, a vote for Trump is a vote for repression, for shooting from the hip, of risking war because our president can’t be trusted to think before he acts. And if he doesn’t mean what he says, then what the hell does he stand for?

There are a lot of disaffected Bernie Sanders followers, and a lot of people disaffected by both candidates, who are talking about write in votes, or not voting, or voting for a third party. Normally, I believe in voting for who you want to vote for, but I feel that Trump is such a clear and present danger that there is no choice but to hold one’s nose and vote for Clinton.

But we also need to examine what brought us to this place, and what we can do to prevent ourselves from being in this bind again.


There needs to be more emphasis on history in schools. History does repeat itself,  and if you can recognize the historical patterns, you can act on that recognition. There needs to be more emphasis, both at home and at school, on civics, on duty, on being part of something larger than oneself or one’s family.


I think the day of manually drawn electoral districts needs to come to a close. One technique that has worked is bipartisan districting commissions; if both sides are part of the process, there is less likelihood of shenanigans. Both sides need to recognize that gerrymandering is a two edged sword. What I would like to see is both sides agree ahead of time to accept a computer generated district map. The algorithms for the mapping software should favor compactness, equal populations, natural boundaries and existing municipal boundaries.

The Media and Us

The media need to stop with the horse race coverage already. I don’t want to know what the percentage points are; I want to know what the candidates stand for, what their biases are, how they plan to run things. How do they plan on dealing with Congress? Do they understand the powers and limitations of the office? Are they honest? Do they tend to parse the truth? What’s their past experience?

I’ve never cared for the debates. I think they’re just theater, and they’re more about scoring points off one’s opponents than communicating what the candidate is about.

What I’d really like to see is a long one-on-one interview with each candidate with a really skilled interviewer. Charlie Rose would be great. I don’t want someone to “nail” the candidate; I want someone who can talk with them about themselves, and dig a little bit and find out what makes them tick.

No president gets to do exactly what they want to do, so for me, individual promises and stands of the moment aren’t particularly important. I want a President who is intellectually honest, has a set of core values that I can generally live with, and the competence to work toward those values.

A lot of the British population voted for the Brexit, hoping to send a message about immigration and the sovereignty of British law, and then, when it won, when the pound dropped, and they saw the prospect of  international markets closing against them, had second thoughts. Elections do have consequences.

What people tend to forget is that a campaign is a long job interview, and at the end of the day, we’re not sending a message, we’re hiring someone. To serve us. Not their own interests, not their career, not their egos. Us. All of us.

July 4th on the Charles

I spent Fourth of July watching the Boston fireworks on the Charles from my kayak. Without a doubt, it’s the best way to see the fireworks.

I’ve done this a couple of times now; Charles River Canoe and Kayak rents boats from their Brighton and Kendall Square locations for the event. The first time couple of times I did it, the atmosphere was very relaxed, and there was a lot less security. I remember one year seeing a couple of guys on a raft made up of office water cooler bottles, and people on floating rafts; after the marathon bombing, security was tightened up. The last time I did it, in 2013, all boats had to be anchored by 7 and there was a Coast Guard boat with a big black machine gun on the front deck patrolling the river.

This was the first year I did it in my own boat. I put in from Herter Park, just downstream from Charles River Canoe and Kayak, around five-thirty-ish, and got to the Mass Ave bridge a little past 7. There were already a bunch of boats there, some of them fairly large. Boats were required to anchor by 8:15, but I felt like a motorcyclist among a bunch of SUVs with all the boat traffic, so I waited until nearly 8 to anchor. I wanted to be able to move if a boat did something stupid.

Once I anchored, there was nothing to do but wait. Fortunately, the weather was gorgeous: clear, not humid, not too warm. There was enough wind to raise a little chop, but it kept the bugs away. It was really nice just sitting there in the boat. We were treated to a spectacular sunset:

Sunset, July 4th

Sunset, July 4th

This year, the concert and fireworks were on network television. I’ve been to years both with and without the network, and I much prefer it when network TV isn’t calling the shots. This year, they played the 1812 Overture fairly early, with a small display of fireworks, and then there were 90 minutes of filler country music until the main show at 10:30, timed to end just before the 11:00 news.

But, oh, what a show it was. It made the wait worthwhile. Not only did they shoot them from the barge, but they launched sprays of fireworks from the Mass Ave bridge itself, and I was close enough to the bridge to feel the heat from the fireworks. There were jets of fireworks flying up from the length of the bridge, with sprays of light in the sky beyond. It was magnificent.

Finally, though, came the finale, and then it was time to up-anchor and head back. It was kind of cool kayaking in the dark, part of a stream of boats heading upstream. Each boat had at least a light, and several of us were adorned with a number of glow sticks. I’d been worried about pulling out of the river, but I found the exit pretty easily, and was able to get out without a problem. All in all, a wonderful night.