A politics primer

A friend of mine sent me a link to her daughter’s blog, and a terrific, funny, smart recent post on that blog. I don’t seem to be able to link to it, but name of the blog is Abundant Recompense, and the post had the title “Why I’m just the Worst at Politics.” It was a coming of age thing, about a young woman learning about politics, and developing her own convictions. I thought I would respond.

Let me start here: politics is about winning elections; policy is about getting things done. Politics and policy are closely aligned, of course–you can’t get your policies passed unless you win elections. But one way to win elections is to paint your opponent as a horrible, horrible human being. That’s why cultural issues–abortion, gay marriage–are so important. If you can convince people that the other side wants to murder babies, you can get them to vote for your side. If you can convince people that the other side wants to prevent all these really nice gay people from being with the people they love, your side might have a better chance of winning. And I certainly don’t mean to suggest that these kinds of social issues are unimportant. But they take on an exaggerated importance in elections, because they’re so emotionally potent.

On Facebook, we see posts all the time that portray either liberals or conservatives (or liberal or conservative candidates) as absolutely horrible human beings. Republicans want big corporations to enslave Americans. Democrats hate America, and want to take everyone’s guns away. None of this is remotely true. George W. Bush was not the village idiot, and Barack Obama is not a terrorist. Republicans and Democrats are patriotic and intelligent people who disagree on questions of policy. That’s the truth of things. Both sides have ideological biases. In general Republicans are skeptical of the ability of the federal government to solve problems. In general, Democrats think lots of problems are amenable to government solutions. Both are sometimes right, and both are sometimes wrong.

In my friend’s blog post, she talks about how she’s regarded as liberal in largely conservative areas of the country, and as a conservative in largely liberal areas. Good for her! But I suspect this is because, again, of the sorts of social issues that each side favors. It’s not remotely difficult for staunch conservatives and die-hard liberals, in their natural habitat, to look a little crazy. (And the most important thing a young politically engaged person needs is, I’m not kidding, a sense of humor).

Anyway. Not all issues break neatly down along ideological grounds. One of the most contentious bills in Congress right now is something called the Trans-Pacific Partnership. It’s a big trade bill, involving a treaty between the United States and other countries that border the Pacific ocean. President Obama favors it, and is opposed by many, if not most, members of the Democratic party, including such important liberals as Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. Republicans, like House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell support it. Strange bedfellows indeed. I’m a liberal Democrat, which means, I guess, that I’m supposed to oppose it. But I’ve learned enough economics over the years to really like free trade; I have some reservations about the bill, but generally I support it, though I’ll admit it’s a tough call. So, from a partisan political perspective, it’s a very weird bill. From a policy perspective, it’s really interesting.

Right now, in my home state of Utah, the toughest issue currently under discussion has to do with the state prison. The current prison is in Draper, just north of point-of-the-mountain, the ridge that demarks the boundary between Utah County and Salt Lake County. When the prison was first built, Draper wasn’t very populous. Now, it’s prime real estate. So those who oppose moving the prison have been casting all sorts of nasty aspersions against those who support moving it. They’re all ‘developers,’ get-rich-quick real estate con men–that’s how they’re portrayed. That’s neither fair, nor accurate, but neither is it entirely inaccurate; the prison is in a prime housing market, and many of the state legislators who want to move it are in the real estate business. But it’s way too easy to portray them as venal and corrupt.

I’ve read a lot about the prison issue, and the facts are clear–the current prison has become inadequate. The main purpose of a prison has to be to help inmates transition to lives as responsible and productive citizens. Recidivism isn’t good for anyone. People make mistakes, even serious mistakes, and if those mistakes rise to the level of criminality, of course they should be caught, tried, incarcerated. But while in stir, they should have educational and vocational opportunities; of course they should. Joseph Smith thought prisons should essentially function as schools; that’s obviously the ideal we should strive for. Utah is very involved in criminal justice reform, and revamping the prison should be an important part of that reform. The current prison just isn’t set up very well for providing for those kinds of reforming efforts.

The problem is, nobody else wants it. NIMBY–Not In My Back Yard. Put a prison close to my house, and watch my property decline in value. No thanks. Utah is certainly well supplied with vast tracts of worthless real estate. But putting the state prison out in the middle of the desert would be a terrible idea. Prisoners need a support system–they need to be able to see their families. The nice thing about the current location is that it’s convenient to the two largest population centers in the state.

So here we have a very contentious political and policy issue, and emotions are running high, but it’s not remotely ideological. It isn’t about ‘liberals’ or ‘conservatives.’ Every study shows clearly that the prison needs to be either rebuilt or moved. It’s going to cost a lot of money either way–money the state is willing to pay. But where to put it?

I don’t actually know, and I don’t have any good suggestions. I just say that most of the time, politics is about this kind of issue. Where should we put the new prison? How are we going to repair or rebuild that bridge? How do we properly fund education? What about that new development; how do we zone it? And these are all difficult issues, in part because they require research, expertise, hard thinking and hard study. Which most Americans would rather not bother with. (And doing that research and study is also kind of boring. And that’s a huge problem–we don’t like boring policy studies. Way easier to compare the other guy to Hitler or something).

But here’s the thing: that’s what we really need to do more of. What’s really not needed is more partisan rancor and name calling and false accusations of corruption. What we do need is for smart decent people to take policy seriously enough to do all the hard work of deciding, well, where we should put that prison. I have a son who aspires to do that kind of work. He just finished a master’s degree in public policy. Multiply him times a thousand and we’d be making a good start.

How do we vote? How do we make those hard choices, in the ballot box. May I gently suggest that pretty much every political candidate in pretty much every race, national state and local, has a website. Check ’em out. Vote for the person who makes the most specific, concrete, intelligible proposals. That’s at least a start.

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