America’s Character Limit

American doesn’t listen anymore.  Not because we’ve become petulant children, but rather our attention spans have been reduced to 140 characters or less. For comedy, this change has reaped large benefits, as bite sized observations of everyday hilarity truly are wonderful.

For politics however, this phenomenon has had a disastrous effect.  As traditional morning papers have seen their subscriptions plummet, people no longer take the time to listen, understand, or comprehend an idea that may be different than their original inclination.  Nor do people judge a candidate beyond the five word headlines they inspire.

Politics may be a game, but policy is not.  There is a reason that bills written in Congress are hundreds if not thousands of pages long.  New laws that affect a population of 300 million people require an increasingly intense attention to detail.  They require days, weeks, and even months of back and forth between various stakeholders to consider every possible side effect an idea may have. 

How will a change in a business tax rate affect those with few employees or minimal revenue?  Could a new regulation written for polluters produce an unforeseen externality for small business?  These are not simple deliberations.  Too often in the public arena these series considerations are shunned for the shortened, hyped, and radical characterization of how a move may either make America great, or turn us into a third world country.

Twitter is not individually to blame for this phenomenon.  Rather, it’s a symptom of this modern age, one in which we can order meals on our smart phones to be delivered within the hour.  This instantaneous satisfaction is great in any arena except politics.

Let’s look at three examples in which shortened debate has had a largely negative effect, starting with the Affordable Care Act. 

Currently there are only two acceptable positions when it comes to the ACA.  The act is either the single best thing to ever happen to this country, or it is the single reason freedom is dead.

Providing health care for the sick and poor by every means is a positive thing for this country.  Our European counterparts have done it for years to a very successful tune.  Does that mean the ACA is perfect? Of course not.  The exchanges have flaws, the economics haven’t worked entirely as planned, and some claim that provisions such as the medical device tax will be burdensome. 

Yet seldom ever discussed in the halls of Congress are any fixes or improvements.  Republicans have voted more than 50 times to repeal or cripple the ACA, while Democrats refuse to offer any amendments because they fear being cast as traitors to their president.

In a perfect world, voters would take the time to analyze what their representative has done and consider that casting their vote for an improvement to the ACA wasn’t an abandonment of their party’s ideals, but rather a sensible move towards good governance.

I don’t expect that fantasy to become a reality anytime soon.  When a CNN poll from the past summer shows that 43% of Republicans still believe that President Obama is a muslim, one can’t expect that group to think that the only reason they are covered for health insurance is because of that same person. For example Kentucky residents have been the single largest beneficiary of the ACA, yet its residents have voted for Rand Paul and Mitch McConnell both of whom are dead set on repealing every last word of it.

Next is the oft-cited one of the sinking of immigration reform in 2013. 

That year, the “Gang of Eight” which included current presidential hopeful Marco Rubio, authored a bill that would have reformed the immigration process while adding nearly 40,000 border agents (jobs program anyone?), creating new visa categories, and creating a path to citizenship for some of the 11 million illegal immigrants currently in the country.

This bill passed the Senate, but it never came up to the floor in the House because the path to citizenship portion quickly became branded as an “amnesty” program for those who had violated United States law by bypassing our legal immigration process.  In 140 characters that does sound unfair.  But in a few paragraphs… not so much. 

The bill required anyone seeking legal status to:

  • Apply for a permit and pay a $1,000 fine.  This allows them to work and is good for six years.
  • After six years they must pass another background check to renew that permit.  No crimes may have been committed.
  • After an additional four years, they can apply for a green card and pay another $1,000 fine.
  • After 3 more years – 13 years total – they can apply for citizenship if they have paid all owed back taxes for the years in which they have lived in the United States.
  • BUT WAIT, there’s more.
  • All of that work and time is null and void if the United States Congress doesn’t declare the southern border secure, hasn’t hired all 38,405 full time border agents, and hasn’t completed 700 miles of fencing.

Whether you think it is wrong or right for people to have come into this country illegally, you can hardly look at a process that takes over thirteen years, costs several thousand dollars and is contingent on the United States Congress to declare a 1,989 mile border “secure” (which is about as politically feasible as unicorns are real) and call it “amnesty.”

But in the national debate that surrounded immigration reform, none of those details mattered.  All that mattered was the word “amnesty.”  The public was robbed of an intellectual and thought provoking debate around a very important issue in favor of tag lines and compact sentences.

To this day the “Gang of Eight” association has hurt Marco Rubio.  On the campaign trail he is often forced to defend himself and toe the party line of “secure the border” because his attempt to be a lawmaker and an example of good governance has become a liability.

The final shining example of this saddened state of affairs came on January 7, at a CNN “town hall” featuring President Obama on the topic of new gun safety measures.  The town hall itself was remarkably civil and featured honest discussion of the pros and cons of gun laws.  And then we cut back to the CNN panel of partisan pit bulls. Sigh.

Almost instantly the Twitter politics returned.  Former police detective Harry Houck called the measures a “slippery slope” and suggested that Obama wanted to charge $1,000 for a gun license – there is literally zero evidence for this.  The left side of the room erupted, repeating their own tag lines of “common-sense safety measures” and accusing the right of perpetuating conspiracy theories.  Conservative talking head S.E. Cupp then asked why it was called a conspiracy to think Obama wanted to “take your guns away” because, well, it is his ultimate goal after all.

One step forward, two steps back. 

After a couple hours of honest discussion, CNN filled a room with attack dogs each ready to blast their entrenched positions in the form of soundbites and tag lines.  And this is why we can’t have nice things. 

Our national media has an obligation in correcting this degradation of our political discourse.  Because CNN, MSNBC, and Fox have essentially become 24-hour political new channels, they are the main way that the majority of this country learns about what is happening in Washington. 

As a result, when they publicize a political attack that boils a thousand pages of negotiations down to a dramatic headline they’re perpetuating this volatile discourse.  Anytime I hear someone on the street or at a nearby table in a coffee shop repeat a hyper-sensitized version of current events, I almost inevitably see that same headline flashing beneath Wolf Blitzer’s furry face a few hours later.

While it is certainly true that our attention spans need to expand, our media and political leaders have the primary obligation to increase their character limits.  They are the drivers of our national dialogue and people are only as informed as their sources of information. We need to move beyond twitter politics and be reminded that their is more to any policy than just the press release.

Fear and Loathing in Washington

Few emotions are more powerful than fear. Laughter must be prompted and happiness must be induced, whether by an environment or another person.  But fear—fear can overtake you the way a wave swallows up a sandcastle.  It can consume you in an instant, raise your heartbeat, cause you to set aside rationality, and instantly numb any other senses so that the body may form a response to the fear-inducing stigma.

In nature this has served humans well—it is what has allowed us survive as a species for millennia.  Normally fear subsides when the stimulus vanishes.  Unless, that is, the stimulus is a six-foot-two figure with wispy blonde hair wearing a red tie and white dress shirt bearing down on your from your flat screen. 

For the all the things Donald Trump is not, he is certainly clever – albeit in a very Machiavellian way.  He has tapped into our most primal sensation and kept his foot on the gas, blinding us and denying us the ability to take a step back to rationally analyze the situation.  Because in nature, if you step back to analyze… you’re dead.

The good news is we’ve come a long way from those primordial days.  For the most part we are sitting comfortably on a couch when this fear creeps into our life.  We are in a state where we ought to be able to set fear aside for even the briefest of seconds in order to ask ourselves what kind of danger we are truly in.

In the final Republican debate of 2015, several candidates once again presented the outright fallacy that the fight against ISIL is a clash of civilizations that only ends with one man standing. 

Let’s get something straight: as President Obama said  in his State of the Union address, the United States of America is the single most powerful nation the world has ever seen.  We have more naval power idling domestically than most other nations have en masse.  We can project enormous power to any corner of the globe within a matter of days, if not hours.  ISIL is a band of desert-dwelling ideologues whose most advanced weapon of war is a used Toyota with a gun mounted in the bed.

By contrast, during WWII the United States sacrificed nearly half a million of its sons to defend our way of life in a true clash of civilizations, the advent of Nazism and fascism that was swallowing up Europe.  At this point in the fight against ISIL, the United States is primarily committed to aerial bombardments and to this date has lost one soldier.  In the famous words of John Paul Jones: We have not yet begun to fight.

Yes, self-radicalized individuals within our borders have killed our fellow citizens in dastardly attacks at our strip malls and education centers.  But that is nowhere near what a clash of civilizations looks like.

Which brings us back to the element of fear.  Could you be killed the next time you leave your house by an AR-15 wielding terrorist? Sure.  But you are much more likely to be killed in a car accident, or struck by lightning, or killed by a falling tree. 

It is no more reasonable to ban every refugee or tourist from Syria than it is to deforest our lands, or to build underground bunkers for every time a thunderstorm rolls in.

Despite that rationale, the candidates this election cycle preach that we are as likely to be the next victim of terrorism as we are to be the “millionth user” of that website giving away free laptops.  And it is working.

According to Public Policy Polling, 56% of Americans either believe or are still deciding if Trump is correct in wanting to institute a blanket moratorium on Muslims entering our country.  By this logic we ought to ban white males from our schools.

With all the comforts of modern life, the fear we face is not one of immediate threat, but one of the unknown.  The language of the 2016 election has invoked fear of the “other” and brought out the worst in people, who as David Frum pointed out in the The Atlantic, are “irked” when asked to specify which language they would like to use when they call Comcast. 

These feelings are not new.  They have been simmering beneath the surface of the American psyche since before the ink of the words “all men are created equal” had dried. 

In the 1800s we banned the Chinese.  In the 1940s we interned the Japanese. And throughout that entire time and into the 1960s, we discriminated in every possible way against African Americans.  We – the white man – were afraid that the contributions of others may exceed those of our own, that they may create an environment in which we were not the richest, smartest, or most powerful person in the room.

What is different about today is that politicians—those who by raw definition we entrust to be our leaders—are addressing that fear not to raise the conversation above the din, but rather to lift themselves, propelled by the surge of this rising tide.  

Trump has mastered the ability to add to this wave in a way that a surfer could only dream of.  He has fueled his supporters’ fear while pitching himself as the only sensible savior.  Mexicans are rapists.  Muslims are terrorists. Republican leaders are weaklings.  Democrats will take your guns away.  The insinuation is clear:  This country is slipping away and Trump is the only one who can save you.

The good news in this madness is that the election is still more than 10 months away.  No matter how terrified one is, the ability to keep fear alive over that period of time is a task that even the grandiose and bellicose Donald Trump may have difficulty pulling off. 

At the end of the day, fear will always be surpassed by hope.  Hope may now be a tired promise of elections past, but as the sun rises after a nightmare, the light of hope will always outshine the shadow of fear.  Sometimes that shadow just takes longer to vanish.