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Empathy for the GOP

Ted_cruz2I had an epiphany of sorts during a long drive today.

I have long wondered why so many Republicans can't stomach Barack Obama as president. Why do perfectly rational people seem so eager to accept accusations that he's a socialist bent on destorying our way of life?

Clearly, there's an element of racism in some of these attitudes. But some of these people are personal friends. I've worked with them for decades and I know they don't have a racist bone in their bodies.

Then, during my drive today, I heard speculation on the local NPR radio station that Ted Cruz's real agenda in opposing Obamacare (even if it drives the country into budget gridlock) is to lay the groundwork for a presidential run in 2016.

Ted Cruz as president?!?

Then it hit me -- that's exactly how most Republicans feel about Obama and for the same reasons (though erroneously).

Cruz has been a senator for less than a single term. Ditto Obama when he first ran for president.

Cruz is the darling of the far right wing of his party. Ditto Obama (though of the opposite end of his party).

Cruz seems obsessed with the Affordable Care Act. Ditto Obama (though his obsession was the war in Iraq).

Cruz is even a minority, born outside the U.S.  Okay, so Obama was born in Hawaii, but try to convince the real Obama haters. 

Now I get it. 

It doesn't solve the problem, but it increases my empathy for the other side, which is always step one.


Dispossessed Americans

Grapes-of-wrathTo better understand why so many people are opposed to immigration reform, I analyzed the comments to the Wall Street Journal article mentioned in my last blog post.

That piece characterized immigration as basically positive, but didn't take a position on any of the issues surrounding the current proposal for reform. Rather, it took an historical perspective, exploring the long history of immigration in America and even suggesting that the country was "built for immigrants" rather than simply "by immigrants." (Emphasis mine.)

Nevertheless, or not surprisingly, depending on your perspective, the online comments were overwhelmingly negative.  I analyzed the first 100 comments published.

I counted separate postings by the same person as one comment, but tracked the total number of "recommendations" they received. (On the Journal web site, a "recommendation" is equivalent to a Facebook "like" and is a rough indication of agreement.)

For simplicity and clarity, I ignored threads that sometimes made comments off topic or simply repeated prior assertions.

I recognize that people who disagree with something are more likely to comment than those who agree. The article continued to attract comments after I began my analysis. As of this writing, it had attracted more than 270 comments. A quick reading suggests that the tenor of the comments hadn't changed much.

So what did I find?

  • Nearly 9 out of 10 comments (88%) took issue with the article's premise that the U.S. has an innate ability to accomodate diverse peoples and that immigration is basically positive.

  • Negative comments received far more "recommendations" than the positive comments did, 95% to 5%.

  • More than half the negative comments and recommendations (51%) were based on a perception that immigrants aren't assimilating into American culture (28%) but are here simply to collect welfare benefits (22%). 
  • About one out of ten (9%) said they were not opposed to immigration but simply to giving illegal immigrants anything but a one-way ticket home. 
  • Another one out of ten (12.5%) consider today's immigrants fundamentally different from prior generations, largely for the reasons explained above.

  • Finally, a small (12.5%) but not insignifant group believes immigration reform, as well as the changing character of immigrants themselves, is part of a liberal plot to expand its electoral power.

  • The last 15% had a variety of reasons for opposing immigration reform -- from calling it a plot by Big Business to lower wages or expressing an enduring fear of Muslims, to saying "I don't care about the rest of the world" or "if diversity had real benefits, whites would want more of it."  

So what are we to make of all this?

It seems to me these are the comments of people who feel dispossessd, aliens in their own country. They are scared and angry. No rational argument -- no fact-based rebuttal -- is going to shake them from their feelings of assault and betrayal.  

A question worth exploring: what will?


Invasion or new blood?

Anti_amnesty_rectMichael Barone is a fellow of the American Enterprise Institute, a reliably conservative Washington think tank. His piece in this morning's Wall Street Journal on immigration is a thoughtful, insightful, and informative survey of the subject.

The title summarizes it nicely: "A Nation Built For Immigrants." Barone's thesis is that America's diversity is not the unintended consequence of the way the country was designed, but it's very purpose.

He notes that not everyone is happy about this. "Will the recent surge of newcomers tear the U.S. apart?" he asks in the subtitle, quickly replying, "Not if history is any guide: From the beginning, America was made to unite citizens, even those with deep differences." 

Barone believes America has always had "an inbuilt capacity to accommodate and assimilate outsiders." And he documents it admirably.

I learned a lot from the article and I plan to read the book on which it's based: Shaping Our Nation: How Surges of Migration Transformed America and Its Politics

Since I've written a book on bridging differences -- OtherWise -- I found his thesis encouraging.

But then I read the comments from Journal readers. Here are just a few examples: 

"Historically Immigrants came from similiar cultures while many different countries. They had many of the same values, ethics, and beliefs. Today's immigrants come from a totally different set of cultures where they don't come to become an American but to be what they already are while enjoying the American life. They don't want to adapt, they don't want to melt in, they don't even want to be an American. They just want what we have and feel somehow they deserve that we provide it for them."

"Our founders expected everyone to be an American not a Muslim American, an African American and all the other sub categories that are divisive and not at all unifying. It is multiculturalism that will ultimately tear the country apart."

"In many cities like Miami or Los Angeles it is easy to find many immigrants who have been in the U.S. for years who can barely speak English. Previous generations of immigrants to America wanted to speak English and assimilate into American society."

"Up until the 1960's, America's hardscrabble immigrants had to land on their own two feet as quickly as possible if they were to survive. They survived and then they succeeded. Today, immigrants land on a social net of housing, health care and Food Stamps."

"Today, the vast majority of Illegal Aliens are entering from Mexico. Most are illiterate, uneducated, have no real job skills except the very lowest skill levels. Many are a drain on the tax payers who collect public assistance, food stamps and welfare. They have an " anchor baby" and a whole new opportunity for " freebie benefits" become available, courtesy of the hard working American taxpayers."

"Asian and European culture is education/development of skills to get ahead. Unfortunately, if you travel South you get to see a culture that is not the same. Sitting-around idle is the norm and not a stigma like most other cultures."

There were some pro-immigration comments in the mix, but most railed about what they called this "new crop" of immigrants.

I tried correcting some of the most obvious errors of fact -- e.g., illegal immigrants can't collect welfare and are not eligible for food stamps, the proportion of U.S. foreign born who speak English is higher than it's ever been, the Congressional Research Service estimated that the net cost immigrants impose on government is essentially a wash when their taxes and spending are taken into account, studies show that immigrants are acculturating at the same rate as in the past, Muslin Americans have essentially the same values as other Americans, etc.

But then I realized few of the commenters were interested in factual information.

This is not exactly a new situation. Despite our founders' intentions, we have always been somewhat suspicious of immigrants. What Ben Frankin said about German immigrants in Pennsylvania would resonate well with the "Minute Men" guarding our southern border.

Barone's thesis that America was created to unite people with deep differences is correct. The comments simply demonstrate that the process of assimilation is much messier than the article suggests. 

Assimilation has never proceeded at an even pace for any group.

Individuals adopt different elements of their receiving society's culture at different rates.-- e.g., language, music preferences, social values, food choices, marriage in or out of culture, religion, etc. They often conform to different cultures in different settings, e.g., at home or at work. And they may retain some aspects of their original culture for generations. 

 In the meanwhile, the receiving culture itself is changing, partly in response to the influx of new immigrants. I suspect Mr. Carbone would agree that this openness to cultural change is one of the things that makes America different from other countries. It accounts for the richness and vitality of our culture.

Ironically, it's also one of the things that scares many people about immigration. 



Scorched earth politics

Scorched earthToday's Wall Street Journal editorial pages provide a step-by-step guide to modern electioneering and, in the process, demonstrate how politics have degenerated into a scorched earth exercise in character assassination.

"A Democratic candidate, assisted by unions and outside partisan groups, floods the zone with attack ads, painting the GOP opponent as a tea-party nut who is too "extreme" for the state. The left focuses on divisive wedge issues—like abortion—that resonate with women or other important voting constituencies.

"As the Republican's unfavorable ratings rise, the Democrat presents himself as a reasonable moderate, in tune with the state's values. A friendly media overlook the Democrat's reliably liberal record, and the lies within the smears against his opponent, and ultimately declares the Democrat unbeatable."

The Journal uses a Democrat -- aided by unions and left-leaning partisan groups -- as Exhibit A in its description of attack politics. 

But it could have just as easily found a Republican example. (Indeed, some political scientists credit Republican strategists Lee Atwater and Karl Rove for creating and perfecting the strategy.)

One could also substitute Fox News and a choir of conservative talk-show hosts for the friendly liberal media that "overlooks" outight lies and smears. And the "conservative SuperPACs" it praises later in the column count as "outside partisan groups."

But what's most worrisome is that, while the Journal doesn't come right out and applaud the GOP's use of the technique, it claims "no one can fault" them for doing so.

Well, I can.

The politics of division may work, but they're precisely what's wrong with the way our candidates campaign. After they've won office, they've left nothing but scorched earth behind.

Scorched earth the rest of us have to live in.

Us & Them

In a world of "us" and "them," the deepest, darkest chasm seems to be between people of different political beliefs.

According to Pew Research, 8 out of 10 people see more conflict between Democrats and Republicans than between any other groups.

More than between the rich and poor, immigrant and native, black and white, or old and young.

Of course, political conflict has always been an American characteristic. Senators were known to draw swords on each other within the Senate chamber. But somehow the People's work got done.

Neither is the case these days. It's worth asking why. Several thoughts occur to me: 

The divide between the political parties is sharpest on so-called cultural issues (e.g., gay marriage and abortion). Sociologist Jim Hunter, who first used the "culture war" metaphor, says such conflict is "rooted in different systems of moral understanding... that provide a source of identity, purpose, and togetherness for people who live by them." In other words, it's salient and sticky.

The Republicans were first to figure that out when they called for a constitutional amendment to ban abortion in their 1980 campaign platform. The Democrats responded by opposing such an amendment. And the games were on. Religion, sex, and politics fused for those who were highly religious, making compromise impossible. 

Villifying one's political opponents not only became easier, it was also more effective. In time, tactic became habit and eventually morphed into core belief. It's now the dominant feature of the political scene, available in high definition outrage on Fox and MSNBC. 

It’s also reflected in grassroot political feelings. Since 1977, the National Election Survey has asked people to gauge the warmth of their feelings for the "other party" from 0 to 100 degrees on an imaginary thermometer. Political Feelings.020From Carter through the presidency of Bush 41, people's feelings about the "other party" hovered a comfortable, if chilly, 40 plus degrees. Today, it's in the freezing teens for both parties.

In fact, it took a particularly frosty 10-point nose dive when President Obama was elected. 

 Although he won election by a popular vote margin of six points, and then won re-election by a larger margin than his predecessor had, nearly half of Republican voters doubt his legitimacy. One in five literally believe he is the anti-Christ.

One doesn't negotiate with the anti-Christ. As Mark Warren put it in the October issue of Esquire, "many Republicans have come to feel righteous in their willingness to cripple the government rather than accede to governing with evil. They imagine themselves as oppressed, as warriors in league with the Founders, and they feel justified in opposing this evil by any means necessary."

Certainly that doesn't apply to all Republicans. It may not even be true of the Republican leaders in the House and Senate.

But it's true enough of enough true believers to shape what those leaders can do. And that, friends, is why the government may shut down next month, or default on its debts, with all the attendant chaos and gnashing of teeth.

Which will just deepen the chasm between us.

A new Corporate Garbo

Garbo, Greta_NRFPT_07AT&T apparently has a new slogan. It doesn't appear at the end of its ads, but it's the gist of a recent letter my former AT&T colleague Jim Cicconi sent to Senator Dick Durbin.

To wit, "I want to be left alone." 

Durbin had asked AT&T if it agreed with “stand your ground” legislation a company-funded organization was recommending as a national model.

The organization in question is the  American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). 

ALEC is a nominally non-partisan organization that produces "model legislation" to promote "free markets" and "limited government" at the state level. About 200 of it's "model policies" become law every year. It is funded largely by companies that benefit from said "free markets" and limited "government," i.e., regulation.

CicconiMr. Cicconi is the man with the company checkbook for ALEC's purposes. He also commands an army of state and federal lobbyists. When I worked with him, Cicconi had a war chest in excess of $60 million. It's probably more now, and he knows how to spend it to get what he wants. 

One way he spends it is on organizations like ALEC that give him a voice in the drafting of legislation.  One thing he wants is to be left alone as he goes about this task.

That was the point of the letter he sent to Senator Durbin. Cicconi said he considered the senator's question an attack on AT&T's rights to free speech. "Any response to your request," he wrote, "will be used by those interests whose purpose is to pressure corporations to de-fund organizations and political speech with which they disagree."

In other words, Cicconi suggested the real issue at stake is defending a company's right to free speech, not changes to self-defense laws that give people immunity for using deadly force.  

The Wall Street Journal, which ran extensive quotes from Cicconi's letter and praised him for refusing to be "blackmailed" or "bullied," wholeheartedly agreed.

As it happens, when the Trayvon Martin case stirred up public concern about stand your ground laws, AT&T quietly told ALEC to cool its jets or, as the Journal put it, to shut down "noneconomic advocacy" that "detracts from the group's core mission."

Frankly, that core mission deserves a long, hard look, especially since the Wall Street Journal and companies like AT&T seem so sensitive about it. 

Do we want anonymous corporations paying for "model laws" in such areas as civil justice, commerce, insurance, communications technology, education, energy, the environment, agriculture, health, human aervices, international relations and tax and fiscal policy?  

That's what ALEC -- which started life as the Conservative Caucus of State Legislators -- considers its core mission. According to Common Cause, 98% of ALEC's funding comes from the very corporations most affected by laws in those areas. And, according to an ALEC executive quoted in an NPR report, company lobbyists and lawyers work side by side with state legislators in crafting the "model laws." 

Companies certainly have the right to fund such activity. According to the Supreme Court, it's a matter of free speech.

And  Mr. Ciconni is probably right -- revealing AT&T's funding of such organizations might subject it to criticism or at least uncomfortable questions. But isn't that the price of free speech? 

The Wall Street Journal won't print op eds without identifying the economic entanglements of the people who write them. Is it too much to ask that state legislatures do the same for the so-called "model legislation" they're considering?


Columbo on the case

ColumnoInteresting stuff I picked up in my morning reading. Though it might take Columbo to figure out the significance of some of it.

Men with small testicles are more likely to be caring fathers. It seems that testicle size is a function of sperm production, which requires a lot of energy. So men face a trade-off between investing energy in parenting and investing energy in mating effort, according to the Emory University anthropologist who co-authored the article in the journal Neuropsychologia.

There are four ways one spouse can embarrass another, but only one requires marriage counseling.  The most simple is "empathetic" when one spouse feels the other's embarrassment at doing something like knocking over a glass of wine. The second is "relective" when one spouse does something the other finds humiliating, like speaking loudly during a theater performance. "One-sided" is when your spouse does something like break-dancing at a wedding but isn't the least bit embarrassed. And finally "targeted" embarrassment is when your spouse directly embarrasses you, whether intentionally or not, by revealing something intimate or private about you. Sometimes the embarrassment caused by these actions is all in your head, according to the Wall Street Journal. But guess which one could require marriage counseling. (You don't have to be Columbo to figure this one out.)

Also in the Journal, the worse time to brush your teeth is immediately after eating. Apparently, eating increases the acidity of your mouth demineralizes your teeth making them more susceptible to abrasion and decay. Chewing cheese, on the other hand, will make you salivate lowering the acidity in your mouth. So I guess you should end every meal with a foot or two of string cheese.

Finally, eating fruit can improve your health, but some fruit is better than others. Topping the list: blueberries. According to a study reported in the New York Times, eating one to three servings of blueberries a month decreases the risk of diabetes by about 11%, and having five servings a week reduces it by 26%. My wife says she's known about this for years. She may even have told me about it.

I'll stop now so you can all head to the supermarket.





Babies, chocolate, and PR

Baby with chocolateP&G is downsizing Pampers.

No, not because babies are getting smaller. But because the company's costs are getting bigger. P&G will be putting fewer diapers in every package of Pampers without changing the sticker price, resulting in a roughly 6% increase per diaper. They call it "resheeting."

I'm not shocked and you shouldn't be either. Companies raise prices now and then. Pampers' price hasn't changed since 2011.

What is surprising is the forthrightness with which P&G handled this.

I don't think the company issued a news release announcing the desheeting. At least, I couldn't find one.  But when a Wall Street Journal reporter asked about the backdoor price increase, the company's media relations people didn't try to change the subject.

They pointed out that the price increase reflected improvements that make the diapers more absorbent and soak up more leaks, making them more expensive to make. They also described the R&D investment behind those improvements.

Contrast that with the New York Times' experience when it asked the makers of Baker's chocolate about a change in package size that resulted in a 47% price increase. 

The company spokesperson explained that bakers prefer the smaller package because most of their recipes require less chocolate than in the larger package. The smaller package ensures the chocolate is fresher. 

Fair enough, the Times' intrepid reporter said. But why the price increase?

"Our packaging change was driven by consumer research," the flack replied. And I use the term "flack" advisedly.

"Ooo-kay," the reporter pressed on, "but did your customers tell you to raise the price?"

Cornered, the spokesperson confessed: "“Our new four-ounce size of Baker’s Chocolate is competitively priced with other brands.”

That's amusing enough, but what the Times reporter wrote in response should be read by every corporate PR department in flackdom.

"The reality is that that for many items, production costs have been rising. Given these circumstances, a price increase is perfectly understandable and arguably inevitable. What’s odd is that few manufacturers, it seems, ever level with consumers about what might be valid reasons for higher prices.”

In other words, the truth shouldn't be self-serving, but that doesn’t mean you have to ignore your perspective. In fact, it’s part of telling the truth. Trying to hide a price increase isn’t. 

Unfortunately, the flacks of the world approach media relations like the politician who started a news conference by asking, "Does anyone have any questions for my answers?"

That's just infantile.