Democracy on the Cliff’s Edge by Al Sikes

We are in the center of the bulls-eye. Micro-targeting, shaped by the details we reveal, comes full circle in the offers we receive.

Micro-targeting is also a favored tool of the politicians and advocacy organizations. The National Rifle Association, much in the news these days, can with great specificity push the hot buttons of its members right down to the household level. And, when they decide to target a political candidate they don’t confuse their member with any extraneous information like his/her position on the deficit, or foreign policy or anything other than a hyped emotional expression used to provoke not inform.

Conversely, significant parts of the public are content with broad political narratives that too often drive tribal clustering.

Bernie Sanders said that Hillary Clinton was a captive of Wall Street and even though a Socialist from Vermont might well have beaten her on a level playing field. Imagine the Democratic Party manipulating delegate selection to protect the favorite candidate of Goldman Sachs.

Donald Trump promised to “drain the swamp” and “make America great again.” The swamp was made up of, well almost everybody who worked in Washington. So in the swamp category was John McCain and others of independent views and dispositions. And making America great, well who knew what that meant. Trump careened around the issues like a pig on ice except he let everybody know that Mexico would build a wall a few feet from its boundary line and that every trade agreement was a disaster. Our President, sensing emotional vulnerability, speaks only in hyperbole. So while those who sell products and positions construct increasingly specific profiles, we are all too prone to overlook the detail.

America is at great risk if lack of discernment among candidates, issue positions and the like are dealt with at an emotional level while those who sell to us proceed with amoral marketing pitches.
Democracy works when people are well informed and at least intuitively discerning. Otherwise, it doesn’t, and overtime democratic nations that are shaped by message makers using our physical and psychological profiles will be fatally weakened unless we are to assume that the marketing class is patriotically constructive.
We should know as much about the Clintons or Trumps or Sanders or Romneys as they and their marketers know about us. A logical question is how. How can we live our lives successfully and still spend significant time learning about political candidates? The answer is we cannot.

Over the centuries we have had a surrogate—journalists. Our forefathers even gave the journalists a series of protections including freedom of the press to make sure they were able to play that role well.

In recent decades what we call the press (providers of news regardless of its format) has too often failed us. Some are guided by marketing analyses that tell them which markets (points of view) are underserved. What is now called the mainstream press did such a poor job balancing their coverage that it opened up counter-programming opportunities for conservative outlets like Fox and talk show ones like Rush Limbaugh.

Those on the left have tried to repeat those successes but found that many on the left feel well served by the mainstream media. Too bad. America needs true journalistic balance produced by networks that employ superior production values. No longer will boring news coverage, regardless of accuracy and balance, survive.

But true balance is only recognized by the actively curious. If we yield to micro-targeting, while skating through life, we will clearly be on thin ice.

The icons of journalistic expression are celebrated in a Washington-based museum called the Newseum. I was there in its opening week and was quite impressed. But, the Newseum is operating at a serious deficit and is at risk of being closed. Perhaps it is no wonder when polls find confidence in America’s news media disturbingly small and traditional media doesn’t generate enough cash flow to keep its own museum open.

Inevitably industries celebrate the past. What will the news media celebrate in 2050? If they are not celebrating a dramatic turnaround in confidence, our nation itself will not have much to celebrate. We need curious citizens served by balanced journalism; without it, our constitutional guarantee of free speech will be principally used to protect the outrageous.

 

Climate Change Denial by Al Sikes

Denial can be encapsulating—totally so. It, not infrequently, is an emotion that takes over our brain and sometimes destructively. The hard right of the Republican Party is in denial on the subject of climate change. Those who populate that branch regard scientific findings as polemics from the Democratic National Committee. To put it another way, “if Democrats are for it I am against it”—almost regardless of what the “it” is. Democrats often suffer from the same myopia.

I lack the necessary background knowledge to delve deep into the science behind the various and sometimes conflicting claims about the trajectory of our climate. While I have read quite a few articles and essays on the subject, I never pose as an authority.

I am probably more of an authority on the dynamics of people and groups who convert a narrow set of facts into political causes—they are never wrong. To admit being even a little bit in doubt seems tantamount to heresy with punishment to soon follow. Many climate change activists are absolutists. The problem with absolutism is that it fights science—inquiry is no longer needed.

But, to me climate change is personal. Are we insuring the future for our children, grandchildren and their progeny? Are we leaving the earth better off than we found it? Are we meeting our obligation to be better stewards?

Some of my hard-nose friends will say I have gone soft and perhaps that is right. I know that the weather at any given point is a consequence of colliding patterns. Chaos Theory examples often start with the weather.

A study just published in Geology by Michael Toomey of the United States Geological details a survey of sediment cores collected off the coast of Florida. The study suggests that “hurricanes which struck Florida during a cool period 12,000 years ago were more powerful than those during a subsequent time of warming.” This finding is contrary to the oft-stated (and if you state it often enough it becomes fact) conventional wisdom that warming translates into more powerful hurricanes.

But then I come back to the question of insuring the future, after all, many more scientists believe climate change is affected by our carbon emissions than not.  We buy insurance to protect ourselves from all sorts of unpredictable possibilities. The patterns in my life suggest I will not need automobile insurance this year, but I have it. When I was young, I would buy term life insurance even though mortality tables said I was very unlikely to die in the covered period. In fact, caution is probably our most conservative impulse.

So, what kind of insurance premium should we pay as it is clear that engineering a more rapid transition away from carbon-based fuels will carry a large price tag? In the world of insurance, there are actually “catastrophists” who specialize in the mathematical modeling of extreme risks. In our political system, we ultimately decide how much economic disruption we will bear—what insurance price we are willing to pay and how it might be mitigated.

The question does not give way to easy political solutions. Predictions, regardless of how skillfully modeled, are still predictions. Plus, we know that America alone cannot fix anything—the result, complexity squared.

And when there is an honest debate about alternatives, we find that the use of alternative fuels is riven by what else, environmental considerations. Environmentalists fight coal generation under any circumstances but also the nuclear generation which offers the most scalable carbon-fighting alternative.

Ultimately we must do what we are no longer good at doing. We need an honest debate, not overwrought polemics. We need to debate, not just weather change but insurance policies. In short, what environmental and economic policies will fulfill our obligation to protect the future? Or, are we prepared to go uninsured?

Blaise Pascal, the French philosopher, and mathematician argued that a rational person should live as though God exists and seek to believe in God. He said if God does not actually exist, such a person will have only a finite loss, whereas they stand to receive infinite gains and avoid infinite losses if they bet on God and are right. Seems to me taking rational steps to lessen our real or even theoretical effects on the weather is a sound wager.

Virginia Election

“Virginia has told us to end the divisiveness, that we will not condone hatred and bigotry,” Northam said. “It’s going to take a doctor to heal our differences. And I’m here to tell you; the doctor is in!”

This comment by Governor-Elect Ralph Northam, a doctor, sums up what America needs. Issue specifics aside political healing is needed, and the Virginia electorate has just sent a strong message.

Al Sikes is the former Chair of the Federal Communications Commission under George H.W. Bush. Al recently published Culture Leads Leaders Follow published by Koehler Books.

Explosive, Compelling, Tender by Al Sikes

Elvis Presley has been revived and will appear at The Avalon theatre on November 18th and 19th. Now that I have gotten your attention, please give me a minute of your time.

Too often performers on their umpteenth farewell tour eclipse marvelous new performers and performances. So, Elvis Presley is not returning, but a far more compelling musical event will take the stage of The Avalon on November 18-19.

I struggle for the most persuasive words to describe the musical event of the year—well maybe any year on the Eastern Shore or maybe most places. The event is Modern Warrior Live and it will occur at The Avalon on November 18th at 8:00 pm and 19th as a matinee at 2:00 pm.

Dominick Farinacci and Retired Staff Sgt. Jaymes Poling

Modern Warrior Live is a theatrical music experience co-created by United States Army veteran Jaymes Poling and musician Dominick Farinacci. This dynamic production explores the psychological weights of war, the challenges of reintegration as a civilian, and the potential for positive personal and communal growth.

Narrated by Staff Sergeant Poling, who spent three years in Afghanistan as an infantryman with the 82nd Airborne Division, the autobiographical production details his time in the military and his subsequent transition to civilian life back home. It’s complemented by dynamic musical performances led by Dominick Farinacci. Modern Warrior Live will, I predict, find its way to Broadway.

Retired Staff Sgt. Jaymes Poling began his service in the Army at age 17 and to use an old theatrical reference has been to “hell and back.” He takes the audience both places.

Co-Creator, Dominick Farinacci’s resume includes such iconic names as Wynton Marsalis (Lincoln Center Jazz Ambassador) and Juilliard, where he studied jazz. As many will recall, he is one of the favorites of the Monty Alexander Jazz Festival.

In Dominick’s latest CD, Short Stories, all of his songs have a narrative that any listener can relate to, from an enchanting melody that takes over your life to the tremendous empathy that can come from seeing someone else overcome an unimaginable personal struggle. Blending with Jaymes’ narration and Dominick’s instrumentalists will be the sensational vocalist, Shenel Johns.

Modern Warrior Live provides Easton with a distinctive first. While it will be staged first in Dominick and Jayme’s home town of Cleveland, Modern Warrior Live will then debut in Easton. Chesapeake Music is excited to offer such a remarkable experience.

Tickets can be purchased by going to ChesapeakeMusic.org or calling 410-822-0380

Al Sikes is the former Chair of the Federal Communications Commission under George H.W. Bush. Al recently published Culture Leads Leaders Follow published by Koehler Books. 

 

 

Che Guevara and Steve Bannon by Al Sikes

Che Guevara’s father said of his son, “In my son’s blood flowed the blood of Irish rebels.” Perhaps Steve Bannon, the son of an Irish Catholic family, has a similar emotional core. Anyone want a Steve Bannon t-shirt?

Che Guevara, the Argentine-born revolutionary who is said to have been the intellectual energy behind Fidel Castro’s revolution in Cuba, has had his experiment–fifty years’ worth. Guevara’s thoughts, animated by Castro’s leadership, impoverished the island.

Bannon with his initial proxy, Donald Trump, will have a similar effect on the Republican Party.

Today the ideological battle plays out on the East side of the congressional grounds as the United States Senate plays its role as a legislative bottleneck. This drama pits Bannon against the Majority Leader, Mitch McConnell. McConnell is short on assets.

Bannon is colorful; McConnell is dull. Bannon is strategic; McConnell is tactical. And so history once again plays out through personalities.

Bannon has created an interesting new engine—it makes rip tides, cross-currents that tear apart. McConnell, being from a non-tidal state, Kentucky, fails to understand the power of tides. He bobs around in an unnatural state—a relentless ebb tide. And so goes the Republican Party. Its putative leader, President

Trump, being a transactional politician, only wants wins—bills presented to him for signature. Alternatively, executive orders.
Today’s dynamic will ebb and flow. Bannon’s brigade will attack almost everybody who is an elected Republican, although many of the Bannon proxies are losers. McConnell, who is in a leadership position, has been given an even higher profile by a President who periodically trashes him and key members of the Republican majority in the Senate. Why build, the President must think when demolition feels so good? Having demolished the establishment in the Party, it would seem to be a good time to build but Trump, who can build hotels, has no philosophical core which might serve as a foundation.

In the meantime, Republicans, who continue to think, have actively begun floating the possibility of a third party. Hooray, because the Democrat party of Bill Clinton ceased to exist a long time ago and for most right of center voters is not an option. Centrism is a half continent away from the leftist takeover and coastal dominance.

Bill Kristol, who has impeccable Republican and Never-Trump credentials (yes that is possible) recently floated four pairings of candidates for President and Vice-President in 2020. The two that received the most votes in a Twitter poll paired Republican John Kasich and Democrat John Hickenlooper, Governors of Ohio and Colorado. Coming in second in the poll were Mark Cuban, the owner of lots of assets and a reality TV show role along with Niki Haley, the United Nation Ambassador, as his running mate. The names and standings are less interesting than the fact there is active discussion about other than fringe candidates.

Poll after poll for decades have shown the decline of the Democrat and Republican parties. And as the leaders of each Party have increasingly been scripted by their left and right movements, the decline, if anything, has steepened. Polls regularly show that most people are most comfortable around the center. Yet, it seems that the passion that stirred Guevara’s blood and now seems to stir Bannon finds its source in the latest revolution against the latest establishment with compromise being especially detestable.

The United States was born of revolution. The founders then designed a profound framework to avoid the pathology of most revolutions—tyranny. I would suggest the next revolutionary needs to come from the Center where the limits of humankind are understood.

While I am in the unsolicited advice business, let me also suggest to whoever might want to try and revive the Republican Party, a governing core. Only Party leadership that embraces Lincoln’s passion for equality and union and that can, in the 21st Century, translate Theodore Roosevelt’s insistent battle against concentrated power, and give voice to Reagan’s optimism about freedom, have a chance. The rhetorical and public policy blend that captures their contribution to the Party, articulated with understanding and passion, will be enormously persuasive. The pinched and often harsh public policy and rhetoric that thrives on division is both anti-Republican and American.

America’s greatness does not come from a large central government with its inevitable appetite for human engineering. Greatness will also not be sustained by the power of a wealthy oligarchy using its wealth to manipulate the levers of authority. We need a better way as a movement, not a slogan.

Al Sikes is the former Chair of the Federal Communications Commission under George H.W. Bush. Al recently published Culture Leads Leaders Follow published by Koehler Books.

 

To Kneel or Stand by Al Sikes

We have been, for several weeks, greeted each morning by news of which athletes at what game refused to stand during the National Anthem. Most recently the Vice President, Mike Pence, decided to make the body’s posture an even more fractious political stance. It was as if he said, “If you disagree with President Trump and me, you should knell.”

Generally, the anthem divide is racial and began with Black Lives Matter protesting police killings of black men. As the initial reason for the protest has morphed, it is hard to know whether the current expressions are driven by heartfelt belief or politics.

In church each Sunday, the spiritual leader leads his or her congregation in both personal and global prayer. This past Sunday the theme of the global prayer was for the families of the Las Vegas shooting victims. The theme of the sermon at Christ Church in Easton, Maryland, was the divine guidance to honor God, not our chosen gods.

The Las Vegas shooting featured a white shooter who had concluded that he was a god and for reasons obscure would kill as many as his weaponry would allow. A man humbled by an understanding of the evil within us and connected with forgiveness and redemption would not have sprayed bullets on concert-goers or anybody else.

The theme of evil within us and opportunity for redemption is the sacred text of the two most important spiritual hymns we sing. And you certainly do not have to attend church to have listened or sung either song. They, at least tonally, are a part of our culture. I suspect after the Star Spangled Banner and America they are the two most familiar songs. The songs: The Battle Hymn of the Republic and Amazing Grace.

The Battle Hymn of the Republic was written by Julia Ward Howe at the outset of the Civil War. She reflected: “I went to bed that night as usual, and slept, according to my wont, quite soundly. I awoke in the gray of the morning twilight; and as I lay waiting for the dawn, the long lines of the desired poem began to twine themselves in my mind. Having thought out all the stanzas, I said to myself, ‘I must get up and write these verses down, lest I fall asleep again and forget them.’ So, with a sudden effort, I sprang out of bed and found in the dimness an old stump of a pen which I remembered to have used the day before. I scrawled the verses almost without looking at the paper.”

Howe’s song is woven into our culture. The lyrics of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” appeared in Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s sermons and speeches, most notably in his speech “How Long, Not Long” from the steps of the Alabama State Capitol building on March 25, 1965, after the 3rd Selma March, and in his final sermon “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop”, delivered in Memphis, Tennessee on the evening of April 3, 1968, the night before his assassination. In fact, the latter sermon, King’s last public words, ends with the initial lyrics of The Battle Hymn of the Republic: “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”

Amazing Grace was written by John Newton. He had been a soldier and then a slave trader and redemptively, a pastor. The first two verses reflect his humility and his understanding of the gift of grace.

Amazing grace! How sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found;
Was blind, but now I see.
’Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,
And grace my fears relieved;
How precious did that grace appear
The hour I first believed.

Music for many of us, no for most of us, is often our translation key—an emotional expression of what we have come to believe. I stand for our National Anthem, and I do that recognizing that our collective use of weaponry has not always been warranted whether in police shootings or global wars. But, I also understand that for the overwhelming majority of people our anthem is an iconic expression of national unity—“out of many one.”

The President and Vice President look for opportunities to express their faith in Jesus Christ. They should, in His spirit as captured by John Newton, strive for a more graceful presence. It would indeed be a “sweet sound.” A contrary sound suggests exploitation whether by athletes or elected officials.

Historical material sourced from Wikipedia

Al Sikes is the former Chair of the Federal Communications Commission under George H.W. Bush. Al recently published Culture Leads Leaders Follow published by Koehler Books. 

Contrarian Thoughts on Conservatism by Al Sikes

Authentic Conservatism is Careful

“Regular order” is a new technical phrase to most people. It is also a pivotal dimension in making law the right way. It simply means that the Congress will handle bills that are proposed with hearings, mark-up (amendment process), and debate in a public forum.In the Obama Administration the Democrats evoked Republican anger by not following “regular order” in passing what has become known as Obamacare. The Republicans, less cohesive, have tried to do the same thing but failed. A key Senator, John McCain, refused to go along and was pilloried by a wide range of so-called conservative pundits. I will miss Senator McCain.Do conservatives prefer disorder or backroom deals guided by lobbyists? A failure to follow regular order is anti-conservative.

Equipping a Small Army

The Wall Street Journal reported that Stephen Paddock, the Las Vegas shooter, was not on any law enforcement radar. It is shocking that a person can assemble enough weaponry to start a small war, without a trace, at a time when Amazon, Google and Facebook know the details of our private lives. Conservatives should, by nature, be cautious. Blocking attempts to track gun sales is not conservative. When Paddock’s purchases hit a high-risk tipping point, he should have been on the radar.The second amendment to the US constitution says: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”  Paddock was not buying a musket so that he could become a part of a “well regulated militia.”

Tax Cuts and Deficits

The prospective tax cut plans have been dribbling out for the last several months. It is no surprise that the debate is quickly becoming polarized, even though details are in short supply.I happen to believe we are in need of tax reform and applaud reform initiatives. But, reform will not be conservative if it adds to the national debt. And, as noted above, if it is not shaped by a rigorous public process, the American public will be right to believe that the K Street crowd (tax lobbyist hangout) will have subordinated the public by having more influence than its representatives.

Current River

Last week my wife and I returned to my home state to canoe the spring- fed streams that flow through the federal and state forests of south central Missouri. The weather was stunning and the spring flows were undeterred by the drought. The quiet, only interrupted by otters, waterfalls and a variety of ducks and herons was restorative. My advice: don’t fly over Missouri to float the streams of the West. Stop there and then go west. By the way, there are no fires in the Missouri forests.

Al Sikes is the former Chair of the Federal Communications Commission under George H.W. Bush. Al recently published Culture Leads Leaders Follow published by Koehler Books. 

 

Mississippi River Blues by Al Sikes

I grew up just miles off the Mississippi River, blissfully unaware of the vast economic consequences of living or farming in or close to a flood plain. I do, however, remember my father telling me that we lived in an area which once had been a swamp. The drainage ditches that crisscrossed the farm land just outside of Sikeston, Missouri had been part of “land reclamation” (euphemism for fighting nature), and I enjoyed both hunting and fishing in them.

Awakenings happen; mine was early and occurred in Missouri’s state capitol which was on the banks of the Missouri River. It was circa 1973 when the newly minted gubernatorial administration of Kit Bond found itself face-to-face with widespread flooding shortly after the new governor took office.

My awakening happened because the Department of Community Affairs, my responsibility, had among other programs statewide land use planning.  After the flood waters receded, we began to plan for lessening damage potential by restricting building or rebuilding in the Missouri river floodplain.

Landowners were outraged as were the construction, agriculture, and real estate industries. It seemed at the time that every state legislator, regardless of which river valley they were in, was incensed. Cautionary planning was not a hit in 1973.

This was not my only brush with political extinction. Later on, my responsibilities included statewide implementation of the National Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. If a river, and there are well over a dozen spring fed ones in the Ozark region of Missouri, was designated under the program then a land buffer was required along its shores, and the State had to enforce it. Many landowners fought each river’s inclusion.

In short, Americans, or should I say most who either live on or exploit environmental features, do not want to be restricted. They do, however, want the government involved in their affairs. They want financial protection to lessen their risk. All other Americans pay the bill through a broad spectrum of reclamation, insurance, dam building, flood relief and water quality, programs.

Now I know this sounds unsympathetic to those who have just suffered damage. But, all those who are concerned about America’s balance sheet, and that should be all of us, need laws that don’t fight nature. America’s private and public relief organizations are often heroic—better that we don’t need quite so many heroes while actively reducing avoidable and unfunded risks.

We cannot afford, through a range of subsidies, to shore up lands that often redefine where shores stop and start. Attention needs to be paid to natural sponges such as marshes, swamps, and bogs which have often been paved over to make way for the latest development. And, the problem is not limited to flooding; in the West this summer wild fires have been especially destructive to homes built on the edge of the woods.

President Trump is a real estate developer whose properties populate environmentally sensitive areas including the island of Manhattan. I would not expect him to take leadership on this issue. But, I for one find a Trump hotel in Washington much less threatening than the ownership of much of the political class by those who have an economic stake in fighting nature.

Al Sikes is the former Chair of the Federal Communications Commission under George H.W. Bush. Al recently published Culture Leads Leaders Follow published by Koehler Books. 

 

Thoughts on Recent Events by Al Sikes

Is bi-partisanship possible? I have been a critic of President Trump dating back to when he was candidate Trump noting that attacking members of his adopted Party, especially John McCain, would haunt him. But, Trump being Trump managed in his first weeks to alienate virtually every person of consequence in both Parties. His insults were often hurled in the middle of the night in the form of tweets, and these were not the tweets of the Nightingale.

The President has now turned on his own Party’s Congressional poohbahs and none too soon. He has apparently decided that his four years are not going to be spent fuming over this fractious grouping called Republicans. This is not a compliant aggregation, so their congressional majorities count for less and less.

I hope the President’s pivot last week serves notice that he has learned how to count both votes and egos and use his own creatively. His deal with the minority leaders, Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi, does not, however, portend a new coalition. It does, however, challenge Republicans to be a governing Party and tells its leaders, and especially those in the so-called Freedom Caucus, that there is a penalty box.

One frequent critic of Trump said that his administration’s responses to the hurricanes formed his best week. I would add that the deal with the Democrats hinted at a coherent presidency.

Irony of the week.

It now appears that many of the fake social media posts attacking Hillary Clinton were manufactured by Russian digital saboteurs. Many of these posts were passed on by a mix of social media warriors and, I assume, some were conservatives gleefully piling on Clinton. Imagine–conservatives in unwitting collusion with the Russians. Beyond the lack of caution in repeating what others post, I would think conservatives would by nature be incredulous. But partisanship on all sides is often blinding.

Bannon: Wrong Again

Steve Bannon’s interview with Charlie Rose on 60 Minutes has been getting a lot of attention. I watched it recently and was struck by Bannon’s assertion that the Republican Establishment (hard to define) was attempting to nullify the election.

While trying to deal with the fractious Republican majority is not easy I would attribute any loss of leadership stature to the President himself. His amateurish and preening conduct has been a form of self-nullification.

Some commentators are even talking about Trump as the leader of an independent party. If Trump is to succeed in leading any party, he is going to have to articulate and follow governing principles. Mostly he has been a populist performance artist, and they don’t create sustainable political coalitions. Personality cults might look like political movements, but they are not.

Al Sikes is the former Chair of the Federal Communications Commission under George H.W. Bush. Al recently published Culture Leads Leaders Follow published by Koehler Books. 

 

Where Does a Nation Divided Turn? By Al Sikes

The headline: Making History. The place: China. The magazine: The Economist. The gist of the article is captured in these lines: “The blistering pace of change in recent decades has kindled an anxiety that China is suffering from moral decay and a concomitant yearning for a revival of ancient values. The government is harnessing those feelings, using ancient rites and customs to spread favoured values.”

Interesting, Communists worried that Confucianism would undermine the Party, but now worry that its absence is undermining society.

Americans certainly share the disorientation provoked by “the blistering pace of change.” But, when offered a political leader, many voted for a person whose values hardly resembled our nation’s rites and customs.

America’s foundation has been shaped by Judeo-Christian values. Our Declaration of Independence most memorably noted:  “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

For much of our history the various levels of government were undergirded by a citizenry that went to church and synagogue. Most took a weekly pause, a moment of reflection and gained a larger sense of self and life.

Hillel, the Hebrew elder, observed: “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. That is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation of this—go study it.” Much the same can be said of the Christian testament. Those who hear variations on this divine theme weekly are, at the very least, challenged to be better citizens.

The British writer and poet Samuel Johnson, assessing government power observed: “How small, of all that human hearts endure, that part which laws and kings can cause or cure.”

We live in times that hold every judgment fallible. We live in times where more energy is spent criticizing our history than revering it. Criticism is warranted, but so is reverence. So let me try a few lines of an inaugural address on you and without first going to the next paragraph for an answer, attribute it to an American president.

“With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”

These were the words of Abraham Lincoln on the occasion of his second inaugural address; our nation was still engaged in a civil war. Hundreds of thousands had died for their cause. His plaintive plea was for a nation violently divided to turn to God and seek the clarity and firmness necessary to heal and unite.

Where do we turn today? As the Chinese are urged to turn back to Confucius, where should American’s turn? Martin Luther King spoke directly to his peers in the pulpit when he urged them, from the Birmingham jail, to take a position on the front line in ending segregation. Sadly, many of his religious peers seemed to not understand the Gospels.

If those who lead churches and synagogues today choose political power over the demands of love, then the Judeo-Christian architecture of our nation will recede further and our nation will end up looking for “rites and customs” that can be substituted. There is no substitute.

Al Sikes is the former Chair of the Federal Communications Commission under George H.W. Bush. Al recently published Culture Leads Leaders Follow published by Koehler Books. 

The Eclipse of Rational Politics by Al Sikes

The total solar eclipse timed out at 160 seconds. It might have passed quickly, but it was a sensation in a nation that needs a distraction.

It is hard to say when the eclipse of our relatively stable and orderly political order began. It will be neither short nor salutary.

Scholars will take apart the political events of recent years. Dozens of questions will be asked and answered, and the few who pay attention to political science will enjoy the inevitable debates about the various perspectives; but, what about the rest of us?

Voters and candidates alike are not unlike little plastic figures that are moved around on chess boards. And, for the most part, they are pawns being manipulated by cynical political operatives. Those operatives who were once subordinated by political leadership are now the dominant forces. The leaders have abdicated, and those (us) who are supposed to choose between the pretenders and contenders are buffeted by the manipulators.

The results are frightening—democracy debased. The tools are well known, but their collective power is underestimated.

The playing field reflects a large and intrusive central government being used to shape and re-shape our social and economic lives—the stakes are high. The so-called political leaders, feigning an interest in what voters want, commission polls and the questions are largely made up of words and phrases that have the potential to make us mad.

The poll results are then turned over to the marketers who helped shape the survey. The marketers using advanced computer models categorize us by demographic traits and the emotions that we reveal through both our online and offline activities. They then go to work raising money and swaying opinion. Their messages largely engage our emotions not our brains.

We become subjects on a game board of identity politics. As we wittingly or unwittingly self-identify, we become targets of highly emotional appeals. Every medium is used to make and reinforce the appeal. And since the news media is often an extension of identity politics, the targeted audiences are easy to find.

Social media, a relatively new vehicle in this war of images and words, is an especially powerful tool in the minds and hands of the manipulators. It is used to both identify and animate and often we are provoked to pass the outrage along.

Washington marches provide an interesting context for today’s political engagement. These marches are organized by emotion. We leave the federal budget to the lobbyists, while we march on the pros and cons of abortion or the right to bear arms. We might be sinking in a bog of debt, but our representatives know where we stand on the “hot button” issues.

We now have a president who specializes in pushing emotional buttons. He is the ultimate identity politician.

It is hard to know whether Donald Trump is the last stage in our weakness. It is hard to know whether identity politics that closes minds and campuses represents the most elevated fever or not.

It is, however, clear that Americans need new leadership—voters need thoughtful, not scripted choices. But, if we the voters allow ourselves to be herded into the cattle chutes of identity politics, the debasement of democracy will continue.

Al Sikes is the former Chair of the Federal Communications Commission under George H.W. Bush. Al recently published Culture Leads Leaders Follow published by Koehler Books.