Know Where You Stand
January 18, 2017

We need to know the facts: is the stove turned off, do I have health insurance, does my partner love me, are the people who work for me getting the job done? We also need to know our values: what is fair, decent, good, and proper.

This is knowing where you stand. It's necessary for safety, well-being, and success. Being foggy about facts and unclear about values is like driving a car eyes-closed and not caring what happens.

In a piece that's long than usual and draws on a previous essay, I'm focusing here on knowing the facts of US politics and policy because these have become personally relevant - and often upsetting - for so many people. If you consider this an improper subject for me, there's no need to read further.

Valuing the Truth

America had a national election on November 8, 2016 - but on every day this country and all others face a more fundamental question:

Yes or No?

Democracy is impossible without a basic consensus about what's true. The common good requires common ground. 

Unfortunately, the truth is that many of us don't know what the truth is. Fact-based journalism has been replaced by horse-race commentary and false equivalence ("shape of the earth: opinions differ"). Fake news spreads virally through social media. People refuse to recognize facts that contradict their beliefs or challenge group loyalty. Businesses, politicians, and nations suppress facts, hide them in clouds of disinformation, and attack scientists and journalists, as well as ordinary people who point out that the emperor is wearing no clothes.  

Yet it's surprisingly easy to find a credible answer to most questions. Just do a quick search of Wikipedia, a major newspaper, the BBC, university websites, or online journalists with similar sources. Plus the big picture is usually already obvious; in the Bob Dylan line, "You don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows."  

Then we need to relate the facts to our values, so I should disclose some of my own: I'm for civil liberties, against cheaters and tyrants, and I was a registered Libertarian for many years; I'm deeply grateful to those who have served our country; I'm for children, human rights, and the earth altogether.

Social Primate Politics 

Politics at all levels, from grade-school playgrounds to the UN, is grounded in the social structure of primate and human hunter-gatherer bands in which "alphas" try to gain power to control resources such as food and reproduction. With the development of agriculture about 10,000 years ago, wealth and power became even more concentrated in the hands of a few, enabling them to support warriors to enforce their rule and priests to justify it. 

I'm not saying that all those who have wealth and power gained it unfairly. But throughout history, wealth and power have been used routinely to confuse and frighten the many for the benefit of the few, and to rig the system to gain even more wealth and power. The classic strategy is to repeat the Big Lie, hide facts, whip up fears about "them" attacking "us," and exploit our vulnerability as tribal beings to grievance, anger, and payback. 

 America Since 1960  

Does this sound familiar? It's happened a lot over the last forty years in America, and is now at a fever pitch. Here's a summary of relevant facts, and skim whatever you already know.  

  • The 1960's swing toward civil rights, environmentalism, feminism, gay rights, a strong social safety net, and support for blue collar workers - forming the base of the Democratic party.
  • The Republican party responds with its "Southern strategy" to win over white voters, and becomes a coalition of wealthy people, traditionalists, and fundamentalists serving each other's interests. (By "Republican" or "Democrat," I mean the leadership and policy core of each party, not people in general who vote for one party or another.) Republican policy favors low regulation of business, low taxes on the wealthy, and a minimal social safety net, while Democratic policy is the opposite.
  • Then and now, large majorities prefer Democratic policies. Therefore, the Republican party recognizes it must do five things to win elections: suppress voting (e.g., gerrymandering), obscure facts (e.g., block research into global warming), create mistrust of government (e.g., "they're coming to take your guns"), heighten fears, and appeal to patriotism, religion, and ethnic identity.
  • In 1968, Richard Nixon promises law and order. He, Spiro Agnew, and top aides break multiple laws and leave office for prison or disgrace.
  • Starting in 1980, Ronald Reagan and his Congress slash taxes on the wealthy, deregulate the finance industry, and attack unions, workplace safety, and other protections for working-class people. Running as a moralist standing up to liberal decadence, Reagan's terms contain much corruption and illegal activity, including Iran-Contra and the savings-and-loan scandal. "Supply-side" and "trickle-down" policies have little effect on the economy and tax-base; running as fiscal conservatives, Reagan and George. H. W. Bush oversee a tripling of the national debt.
  • A network of Republican think tanks, wealthy donors, talk radio programs, and media outlets (e.g., Fox, Drudge, Breitbart) develops. It attacks government as "takers" who rob "makers" - while in fact, the rural counties and states that comprise the Republican base are high net takers of government services paid for by urban, mainly Democratic taxpayers.
  • Bill Clinton becomes President in 1992. Taxes are raised on the wealthy, the economy grows strongly, and the national debt begins shrinking. Running as traditionalists and moralists, Newt Gingrich and his party attack longstanding traditions and norms of governance. They shut down the Federal government, "weaponize" probes into Bill and Hillary Clinton, and impeach Bill to delegitimize his presidency. Gingrich is revealed to be a serial adulterer, and his successor, Dennis Hastert, is a child molester. Many years of legal investigations of both Clintons prove that Bill lied about consensual sex with an intern. At the end of his second term, there's a projected federal surplus of $5 trillion over the next 10 years.
  • Al Gore gets half a million more votes than George W. Bush, but the result in Florida is critical for the Electoral College. There's widespread suppression of Democratic votes in that state, Republican election officials halt a recount enforced 5-4 by Republican Justices on the Supreme Court, and Bush becomes President.
  • After running as a "compassionate conservative," Bush swings to the right, and cuts controls over the financial sector, taxes on the wealthy, and help for the working class. Wealth inequality grows and middle class incomes stay flat. The denial of facts accelerates. Bush downplays repeated warnings about al-Qaeda, and on September 11, 2001, over three thousand Americans die. In 2003, US forces invade Iraq, based on White House exaggerations of ambiguous intelligence regarding ties to al-Qaeda and weapons of mass destruction, neither of which are found. The costs of this invasion and the occupation that followed will be about 190,000 lives and 2.2 trillion dollars. Released from regulation, the financial sector implodes, triggering the Great Recession, throwing millions of people out of work. The $5 trillion surplus disappears, replaced by a doubling of the national debt, for a six-fold increase under Republican presidents.
  • Republican officials suppress voting through eliminating polling sites, reducing voting hours and days, intimidation, and voter ID laws (actual fraud is almost nonexistent). They also gerrymander congressional districts to tilt the electoral playing field further, and in 2012, "Democrats received 1.4 million more votes for the House of Representatives, yet Republicans won control of the House by a 234 to 201 margin." In most "red states," the only serious challenge to a Republican politician comes from the right. Consequently, Republican policies have become much more conservative since Ronald Reagan while Democratic policies have remained roughly the same. Any Republican caught cooperating with a Democrat is likely to lose in the next primary, ending most bipartisanship in Congress. Washington "gridlock" is not "both parties do it"; for powerful reasons grounded in political self-interest, "one party does it."
  • In 2008, Barack Obama becomes our first African-American President, entering office with a 70% approval rating while inheriting the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression and a mess in Iraq and Afghanistan. Nonetheless, the stated aim of Republican lawmakers is to defeat anything Obama proposes in order to create a "failed presidency." The Tea Party movement quickly emerges and pushes Republicans farther to the right. Numerous lawmakers and pundits, including Donald Trump, spend years attacking the legitimacy of Barack Obama as not an American citizen. On November 6, 2012, Trump tweets: "This election is a total sham and a travesty. We are not a democracy!" Repeated lies have effects: after the release of Obama's birth certificate in 2015, a third of Republican voters still believe he was not born in the US.
  • Violating two centuries of norms, Republicans filibuster nearly everything so it takes 60 votes to pass just about anything, and they refuse to fill routine vacancies in Federal agencies and courts, including those related to national security and financial industry regulation. The premier example of this comes in Obama's second term: Antonin Scalia dies on February 12/13, 2016, and for the first time in our nation's history, Republican Senators refuse to hold a confirmation hearing on any Obama nominee for over 265 days.
  • Early in his first term, in the face of fierce opposition, Obama gets a stimulus package passed and the US has a much stronger recovery than Europe or Japan, with major benefits for blue collar workers. During his two terms, the unemployment rate drops from 9.3% to 4.9%, and the private sector adds 11 million new jobs.
  • America has the highest medical care costs of any developed nation along with the highest rate of increase in costs, yet relatively poor average health. We also have millions of uninsured people who get their medical care as a last resort at expensive hospital emergency rooms, driving up costs further. To cover everyone and control costs, the conservative Heritage Foundation shows that any workable plan has three necessary elements: (1) "community ratings" for premiums to include people with preexisting conditions; (2) an "individual mandate" requiring people to get insurance (otherwise, premiums will skyrocket); (3) subsidies for low income people needing insurance. Mitt Romney implements this plan in Massachusetts and it is very successful. But when Obama proposes essentially the same plan during his first term, Republicans attack it vehemently, and the Affordable Care Act (ACA) barely passes Congress. After a shaky start, more than 20 million people have gained health insurance, the average rate of increase in premiums has been substantially reduced, and the ACA is effective (with room for improvement) and popular (as long as it's not called "Obamacare").
  • Obama directs our military and intelligence services to pursue and kill Osama bin-Laden and many other al-Qaeda leaders. Based on a prior agreement with the Bush administration, Iraq insists that we withdraw our military by the end of 2011. Multiple factors give rise to ISIS, including the Bush administration invasion of Iraq and a Sunni-centered insurgency against the Shiite-dominated government in Iraq after US forces leave. ISIS is one of many players in the complex and terrible Syrian civil war beginning in 2011 against the brutal Assad regime, which has been supported by Russian military aid. Obama says chemical weapons would cross a "red line," and after Assad uses them, he resists pressure to use military force because of the risks, and instead arranges with the Russians to have all of them removed from Syria. In late 2015, as rebel forces appear to be gaining, Russian airpower begins devastating strikes against them and nearby civilians to prop up Assad and gain access to a major naval base on the Mediterranean.
  • As relevant background, NATO was formed to deter aggression by the Soviet Union, whose core is Russia, the major international adversary of the United States for 70 years. After the Soviet Union unraveled in 1990, NATO gradually added 16 countries that asked to join it given their history of Russian domination, including the Baltic states. NATO has been a bulwark of relative global stability since WWII. The glue that holds it together is the unbreakable promise that "an attack on one is an attack on all."
  • In the last days of his second term, Barack Obama's approval rating is 57%.
The 2016 Election

Feel free to skim things you already know.

Transition to the Presidency

Legal Authority or Moral Legitimacy

Whew. I haven't included every possible detail, but the essence above is factually accurate. At this point I'm going to speak more about my own values.

The United States has only one national election - for President - and Democrats have won the popular vote four out of the last five times. Yet through the actions of the Republican-allied Supreme Court in 2000 and FBI in 2016, two out of four - 50% - of those popular votes have been effectively nullified to appoint a Republican President. Most recently, a foreign power shook the foundation of our republic: the electoral process. How do you think the Wall Street Journal, Paul Ryan, the Koch brothers, Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, and the National Rifle Association would react if these facts were reversed?

Besides common ground, the common good requires common values. Rights for us must be rights for them, and rules for them must be rules for us. We respect fair competition on a level playing field even if we don't like the result (and I hope the Golden State Warriors do better this season). But if one team has to cheat to win, that's a team that deserves to lose.

It's human nature to accuse others of the darkness we hope to hide in ourselves. For decades Trump and others like him have accused their opponents of being illegitimate. But actually it is Trump and his allies who've acquired power through rigging the system, and it is Democrats who have championed voting rights, whose policies are preferred by most Americans, and whose candidates have won most recent national elections.

Bought with blood, our Constitution's guiding principle is that legitimate power comes only from the people. Trump and his allies have acquired legal authority. But they have certainly not earned moral legitimacy. He knows it and they know it.

That's why we see such panicked attempts to deny Russian influence, dismiss Clinton's 2.9 million vote victory, intimidate the press, and attack anyone who dares to question the legitimacy of a con-man with a chip on his shoulder who talks like a populist but acts like an authoritarian plutocrat. 
Knowing these facts and knowing your values - no one can take that away from you. You may not be able to change injustice, but it is calming and strengthening to know where you stand about it (see Take Heart, Find Your Ground, and Find the Good That Lasts for more on this).

Then stand up. I am trying to stand up myself here.

Then we can stand together now and in the years ahead. Standing for what is true and what we value. For our own sake, and that of all others.


This comes from Rick Hanson, Ph.D., clinical psychologist, New York Times best-selling author, and invited speaker at Oxford, Stanford, and Harvard universities. See Rick's workshops and lectures.