The Year of Tragical Thinking

The 2016 Election: what we knew, what we missed and what we can learn.



Photo Credit: Andres Kudacki/NY Magazine.

It started, as it often does, at a bar.

I had met my friend Brian for his birthday in Brooklyn on a windy Saturday afternoon in mid-February. We received the news via push-notification on an iPhone: Antonin Scalia had died. As law nerds, we were dismayed – one of the nation’s transformative legal minds had left us. As political junkies, we were concerned – a primary season already littered with unappealing presidential contenders now added the wrinkle of a crucial Supreme Court vacancy. As humans, we were sad – after all, a person was dead, and no man is an island.

It soon became apparent not everyone around us shared this seemingly natural reaction. “Did you hear?” a well-layered hipster asked us as he summoned the bartender for a round of shots. “Scalia is dead!” He was happy – elated even – yet was taken aback upon noticing that we did not share his excitement and found it far from an event worth celebrating. He responded with a condescending comment about Brian and I being Federalist Society members before retreating to a snarky, flannelled blur in the corner of the bar.

The exchange baffled me, but it shouldn’t have. It was a small but telling example of a disturbing trend I had noticed for months and would only see more of as Election Day neared: too many of us have become too dismissive of those who think differently than we do. I did not initially realize how significant this issue would be during the process of choosing the 45th president of the United States, but as the months passed, it became more clear. Too many of us convinced ourselves that this election was a predetermined battle between right and wrong, intelligence and ignorance, the future and the past. We knew who would win because to believe otherwise would mean our country was somehow a more dark and evil place than we could conceive it to be. We did not learn and/or did not care about the shades of gray between these two “sides,” middle grounds that often prove critical when the broad swath of people that is the American electorate partakes in the quirky popularity contest that is the presidential election.

This meant that the generation of people least prepared for and most unable to cope with not getting what they want might ultimately have to come to grips with an outcome they did not desire and certainly did not expect. That is precisely what occurred when a once-in-a-lifetime series of events – two heavily flawed, severely distrusted candidates; a smug, assured media and a dumbed down electorate; an overestimation of uber-progressivism; an underestimation of economic anxiety; the departure of identity politics in favor of individual choice; the abandonment of political parties in support of a change agent; the inevitable clash of political correctness versus “telling it like it is”; the delicate balance of moving forward without leaving others behind; rising premiums and missing emails; hacked messages and leaked tapes; midnight tweets and deplorable baskets; letters from Comey and pics from Weiner; Pence, Priebus, Conway, Kaepernick and Harambe – all resulted in this week’s seemingly shocking outcome: Donald J. Trump as the president-elect of the United States.

I. Why We Missed It.

We should have been more prepared for the impossible. After all, 2016 has seen its fair share of unthinkable events. Brexit occurred. Prince died. The Chicago Cubs won the World Series. I got engaged. Yet the idea of a Trump presidency seemed beyond comprehension, a bridge too far in the realm of what we could fathom. There are several reasons for this. First, the media, or the channels through which we receive and process our news, generally presented us with imperfect information from which to develop a fully-formed perspective. Initially, Trump’s candidacy was presented as a form of entertainment; the head of CBS notoriously quipped that Trump’s presence “may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.” But after Trump won the GOP nomination, the press became more critical, rightly calling into question much of the rhetoric and methods he was using to appeal to some of his supporters.

It is no secret that most members of the mainstream press lean to the political left. By excoriating Trump, many surely sensed they were not only fulfilling their journalistic duty as government watchdogs, but also the important public service of boosting the chances of their preferred candidate, Hillary Clinton. The media’s views largely overlapped with those of Clinton, which meant many of those responsible for objectively covering the candidate tended to be blind to her flaws, ones that were more obvious to those who did not agree with or support her. Early signs like the real challenge posed by Bernie Sanders (and, by some measures, Sanders’ superior chances in a head-to-head battle with Trump) were too easily pushed aside; it would later be revealed the Democratic National Committee assisted in squashing Sanders’ candidacy in favor of Clinton. The media did not give enough credit to the middling enthusiasm minorities tended to have for Clinton and underestimated the role voter turnout could play when dealing with a nominee who lacked the charisma of a Barack Obama. They badly missed the mark on the actual effect Trump’s flawed but (to some) appealing personal image could have among a significant portion of the electorate that was desperate for anything other than more of the same.

At the same time, news coverage was too often incapable of or unwilling to give a real portrayal of what many between the coasts were thinking. Much of this coverage often carried a subtext of a media at a loss with this difference of opinion, flummoxed by those who somehow were not seeing the proverbial Hillary light. We were told which of Trump’s actions and words were offensive, even though the nation has a wider acceptance than the media of what views should and should not be tolerated. We were told that Trump was a racist and a fascist, even though just about every Republican nominee has been depicted as such during recent campaigns. The mistake too many made was not necessarily spending too much time conveying why not to vote for Trump, but too little time actually exploring why anyone would. There were token Trump supporters on the evening news, late night television or your social media feed, but how often were you really given the opportunity to listen to what they were saying, outside of a quick sound bite that was followed by a grin or a joke? You very likely saw Trump supporters mocked or made fun of – some perhaps deservedly so – but how often did you read a thorough report of their reasonings? What has become apparent in the days since the election is how out of touch the media – mostly liberal, mostly based in big cities – was with many of the issues that proved critical in the election: rural disenfranchisement, economic anxiety and the strong desire for change. Reporters filed their dispatches from Trump country, columnists and pundits took plenty of shots, and television hosts and celebrities made plenty of jokes, but ultimately, many of the people and perspectives the media missed ended up having the last laugh.

Ultimately, for those of us shocked by Tuesday’s outcome, we have no one to blame but ourselves. Too many of us made the mistake of being so confident in the rightness of our view, so dismissive of thinking about the election from any perspective other than our own, all the while not taking the time to ask a crucial question: what if we’re wrong? This is certainly not to suggest that voting for Trump was the right choice, but instead, that we should have at least considered that there may have been more people than we realized who might disagree with us and for reasons that maybe were not so unreasonable.

If you are reading this, you are probably a millennial, you are probably college-educated and you probably live in or around a big city. The data suggests you probably voted for Clinton, and your friends, neighbors and co-workers probably did too. I am by no means telling you that you voted for the wrong candidate. What I am telling you is that you very likely live in a Clinton-favoring bubble that is not entirely reflective of our nation as a whole. You are probably smart enough to know that, but if you are like me, you probably are not smart or aware enough to realize how true it really is. As Kanye West opined, “Some people graduate, but we still stupid.”

Many of the places where we tend to cluster – cities, campuses, younger-leaning workplaces – tend to be perceived as liberal and diverse havens. To a degree, this is true: these places are generally very accepting of diverse skin colors, ethnicities, genders, sexual orientations and religions. Unfortunately, these places have tended to become less accepting of and place less of an importance on the diversity of thought, and in doing so, have in effect become some of the least diverse places in our country. When we surround ourselves with only those who agree with us, we fail to achieve actual diversity. When we create environments where opposing views are immediately discredited or made to feel unwelcome, we miss the opportunity to learn something from those views, even if we do not subscribe to them. When the presumably liberal, educated, open-minded members of society reject these views from the marketplace of ideas, we perpetuate a dangerous groupthink and feel a false sense of certainty that is made worse by dissuading those who disagree with us from sharing their views. When so many of us receive our news from the same online sources, cable networks and late night satire, we feel sufficiently informed yet are only seeing part of the picture. 

There are at least two reasons to worry that this problem may very well get worse before it gets better, beginning with the central role social media plays in how we form and solidify our positions. Many use social media not only to feel connected, but also for affirmation and confirmation, to receive digital fist bumps and pats on the back, to know that – as Don Draper once said – “you are OK.” Most of your Facebook friends likely share your political alignments, and many of us tend to share “news” and “articles” that reinforce our preconceived beliefs. It creates a pleasant bubble where it is easy to engage with those we agree and easy to avoid engaging with those we don’t. This can become problematic when we mistake these feeds as being representative of more than what they are, as necessarily representative of a majority or correct opinion. This creates the risk that some of us can become uncomfortable with or startled by the eventual realization that there are other ways of thinking.

The perils of social media bias are particularly dangerous when coupled with the millennial generation’s growing inability to accept thoughts, actions or outcomes that we don’t tend to agree with. It has too often resulted in the use of social media as a platform of outrage over the latest comment or outburst deemed “offensive” or the place to assign blame for an unfortunate event, regardless of actual causation. College campuses have embraced a “safe space” culture that ironically makes them as dangerous a place as any to put forth a perspective not accepted by the progressive majority. Students face disciplinary action for using the wrong pronoun or wearing the wrong Halloween costume. Institutions have made punishable the acts of appropriating culture or failing to check privilege. This has created a system that is the antithesis of liberalism. It results in the restricting of speech, the demonizing of dissent and promotes the false idea that a free society is a place where everyone else will and should agree with you.

Though I was not a Trump supporter, I was also one who struggled to board the Clinton hype train. In most of my social circles, it almost went without saying that Trump was not a viable candidate for president. As a result, I tended to be more interested in challenging Clinton supporters regarding their candidate’s potential weaknesses. These were conversations with people whose intellect and opinion I respect, but sadly, the reactions and responses I most frequently heard were rather hollow. “She’s the lesser of two evils” or “It’s a binary choice” suggested that because Trump was so unfit, any and all of Clinton’s flaws were irrelevant and not really worth discussing. “You’re too smart for that” or “Wake up, sheeple!” tended to follow any attempt at giving validity to a Clinton-related controversy or credit to any component of Trump’s campaign. “What would you tell your daughter?” was a valid question, but ignored the idea that one might be willing to vote for Trump in spite – not because – of his treatment of women and rejected the possibility that the presidential choice could be made based on anything other than gender. Drawing a “false equivalency” was a cardinal sin; backing a third party was “a waste” of a vote; abstaining from voting was “un-American.” Clinton scandals – questionable practices by the DNC, messages divulged by Wikileaks, ongoing FBI investigations – were quickly shooed away with a nothing-to-see-here-folks smugness. Very well then.

And so election week arrived. Lines had been drawn, sides had been solidified and the result appeared predictable. After a late October surge, Trump was again falling behind in the polls. He was wasting precious time and resources in states the media and experts believed to be out of play. He was booed at his own voting precinct. It was not a matter of if he would lose, but only a question of by how much. Meanwhile, Clinton stood on the precipice of #herstory. On Election Eve, she gathered the masses in Pennsylvania and North Carolina. She was backed by Bill and Barack, Michelle and Gaga, Bruce and Bon Jovi. She had fanatics cheering in Philly and fireworks prepared to explode over the Hudson. Even more, she had destiny, and the backing of all of us. We were not only voting to shatter the “glass ceiling,” we were going to defeat evil and save the country: as one voter ahead of me boasted, “We’re voting against the Apocalypse!” We were Hashtag With Her and Hashtag Stronger Together. Love trumps hate, we were told, and we so proudly shared on social media not only our civic duty of voting but our sincerest belief that we were right.

Except we were wrong. The Apocalypse had happened.

II. What We Missed.

How could we have been so wrong? The signs were there, though it usually required us to leave our comfort zone and maybe squint a little to see them. Some were more obvious than others. First, the GOP entered the race with some very basic advantages, namely the inherent benefit of being the challenger to a party that had spent two terms in the Oval Office. It is very difficult for any political party to win a third consecutive presidential term and this was a very real obstacle for Clinton from the beginning. In fact, the 2016 presidential election was merely the latest (albeit loudest) contest in an era of frequent GOP success. Obama’s filibuster-proof majority following 2008 was followed by Republican backlash in both 2010 and 2014. Nationwide under Obama, Democratic governorships have dropped from 29 to 15; more than 900 Democratic state legislators have been defeated. In addition to the presidency, the GOP on Tuesday also maintained control of both chambers of Congress. Many believed that Trump – new to the Republican party and a major disruptor to the GOP – was such an outlier and Clinton such a candidate of destiny that these basic party trends could be overcome. Neither proved to be true.

It has also become evident that Clinton did herself few favors in overcoming these odds. Carrying with her the political baggage accumulated over 30 years in the public eye, Clinton called on Obama – who she had feuded with so fiercely just eight years earlier – to rally the Democratic base and help shake off the apathy that some felt toward another Clinton taking the White House. By doing so, she limited her ability to run as anything other than a third term of the Obama presidency, for better and for worse. This meant another four or eight years of big government and progressivism. To many of us, that seemed appealing. The post-Great Recession economy has been largely kind to those in the coastal cities, and hey, the Obamas are popular and cool people. Clinton bet – and bet big – that groups like minorities, environmentalists and urban elites would be enough to carry the day.

But to many Americans, a third term of Obama was the last thing they wanted. To vote for such would mean a vote for a Democratic party that many felt ignored by during recent years and especially so during election season. It meant another four or eight years of watching their families, neighbors and towns falling further behind, their lives continuing to be worse with their opportunities for advancement more fleeting. It meant helping pass the baton from a president who characterized them as ones who “cling to guns or religion” to one who placed at least a portion of them into what she called “the basket of deplorables.” It meant another era of not only no jobs, no value and no dignity, but – made more glaringly clear during the campaign – no attention. There was a segment of the country that wanted a smaller government, but regardless of that government’s size, it wanted one that made its people at least some sort of priority. Too often, Clinton ignored this part of the nation. And into that ignored America stepped Trump.

The voters who are largely believed to have been the deciding factors in this election have a few characteristics in common. Yes, many were white (Trump won the white vote, 58-37), but it is more complex than just race. Many of the pivotal states – Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin – are home to voters who live in areas of economic and drug-stricken decline, who lack a strict allegiance to either political party and who have demonstrated a growing detachment from big-money, big-government Washington, D.C. To many of these voters, Trump offered some appeal as a self-described outsider promising to change the political game. He promised to return their jobs, to shake up a “rigged” system and – not insignificant in an era of safe spaces and political correctness – to “tell it like it is.” He may not have shared their rural background, but he spoke directly to them in a voice that sounded like how they spoke and channeled a populist message they wanted to hear. While many of these voters were commonly depicted as racists and the like, their anger seemed less toward any particular ethnic group and more toward an economy that ignored them, a pop culture that laughed at them and an elitist culture that seemed to want to tell them how to think and what they could and could not say without offering them any type of help. As a result, many of these voters embraced Trump, warts and all. However flawed or hollow his offer was, it was something. Clinton and the Democrats – purposefully or not – ran a campaign that at least wrote off – even derided – half the country and still expected to win. That half of the country begged to differ.

It is easy for city-dwelling, non-Trump voters to cast aside his supporters as the caricatures our media often depicts them as, but many of their motives seem to have been driven less by evil, racist urges and more by basic self-interest. When one candidate promised to save their job or return their town’s factory while the other told them “we’re going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business,” they tended to choose the person who was more likely to help them keep food on their table and make sure their children could find work. When one candidate demonstrated to them at least the appearance of respect while the other appeared to cast them off as a lost cause, they tended to choose the person who gave them the time of day. Most simply, when presented with the imperfect choice between placing a high-risk bet on changing their lives for the better or doubling down on continuing what they believed to be the road to economic doom, they weighed their options and tended to vote for Trump. When you’ve got nothing, you’ve got nothing to lose.

It became apparent that Trump supporters are a more diverse group than commonly given credit for. They included Rust Belt union workers who voted for Obama twice, but failed to see any change they could continue to believe in. They included suburban women who were willing to vote for Trump in spite of the “Access Hollywood” tape because they just could not bring themselves to vote for Clinton. They were Evangelicals and Latinos and Independents. They were a collection of individuals who made up their own minds, departing from the easy-to-classify boxes of identity politics to make a choice that they believed to be most in-line with how they wanted to live and how they wanted our government to operate. 

I don’t agree with some of the reasons offered for voting for Trump, but I respect each person’s ability and willingness to vote their own conscience and to choose the candidate they believe is the best for them. I am disappointed that I did not give more thought and credibility to the chances of Trump winning the election. I am as guilty as any of allowing the predominant perspectives within my privileged bubble to shape what I perceived to be within the range of possible outcomes. There are plenty of reasons to believe our country is on the right track, but there are plenty of indications that might explain why some people might think otherwise. Town after town of decimation while driving through upstate and Western New York. Heroin addiction treatment advertisements at train stations just outside urban hubs. I can also understand how some voters chose to ignore the personality flaws of the candidates that so many of us focused on and instead voted on a particular issue – a Supreme Court candidacy, rising Obamacare premiums – and decided that Trump was the superior candidate to Clinton. I was pretty shocked as the clock struck midnight on Tuesday, but I really wish I wouldn’t have been.

III. What We Can Learn.

In late October, “Saturday Night Live” staged the latest installment of its “Black Jeopardy” sketch, featuring Tom Hanks as the white, rural caricature that many believed Trump supporters to be, competing on an otherwise African-American game show. In addition to being sharply-written, well-executed and quite funny, the sketch also deftly identified just how many shared characteristics – a distrust of big government, a feeling of disenfranchisement – there are among people of different skin colors that were too often assumed to be diametrically opposed during a racially charged calendar year and presidential campaign. The sketch received critical praise and was heavily-shared on social media; I would not have blamed you for sharing the clip with a quick text or tweet and a simple endorsement along the lines of “Tom Hanks FTW!” But we then retreated all too easily back to our ardently held positions; after all, the election was just weeks away. In the days that followed, we’d have all been better off keeping that sketch in mind – not for its butt jokes or for Hanks’ hat, but for the message it really sent: our common ground.

I joked with friends that Election Day would be the worst day in the history of social media, and for a brief time, that proved to be the case. Then Tuesday night happened and the hours and days that followed revealed the worst in too many of us. We were “horrified” by the result. It was “Armageddon.” Comparisons were made to 9/11 and Hitler. Blame was, of course, assigned, but to mysterious places: third parties (“Dear Gary Johnson voters: F*** YOU!” read a status on my timeline. Classy.); social media; “whitelash”; sexism; voter suppression; even – again – Harambe. In cities, protests filled the streets and property was destroyed. On campuses, classes were canceled and support sessions were offered. At the Javits Center, Clinton never arrived, the champagne never left the ice and the “It’s a Girl!” balloons never released. Tragically, Lena Dunham had trouble breathing and broke out in hives. Anecdotes indicate many spent Wednesday crying at their desks, if they made it to work at all. Implausibly, we were wrong. Worse, our generation proved mentally and emotionally incapable of dealing with the reality that an imperfect process like a democratic election could produce any result other than the one we wanted.

This election was a contest between Trump and Clinton, but it was just as much an assessment of ourselves: how we speak, how we listen, how we think. It revealed some harsh realities that are more true than we would like to admit. We have never had so much information, yet so little knowledge. We have never been so worldly, yet had such poor grasp of our own country. We have never been so connected, yet so detached to what is going on around us. We seek affirmation and shy away from disagreement. We struggle to civilly disagree; maybe some of us never learned.

Some of our reactions to Trump’s victory have been more justifiable than others. Campaigns are projects of passion. Elections get emotional. Candidates use fiery rhetoric and divisive strategies to stir up their base and achieve power. But when the race is over, there really is no need for sides; after all, as “Black Jeopardy” suggested, there is much common ground between us. We want to feel safe. We want jobs, or the opportunity to get better ones. We want to leave this country in better shape for our children and grandchildren. We may differ on how we reach those goals, but we really just want to achieve them. So if your reaction to this election was a fear that the country is more racist than you realized, or more sexist than you realized, or that there are more of “them” than there are of “us,” you’re really missing the point. Take a break from your fourth protest march up 5th Avenue or your latest apoplectic Facebook status. Take a ferry to Staten Island (where Trump won 57% of the vote) or Breezy Point (58%) or the Jersey Shore (virtually entirely red on the electoral map) or visit a state you otherwise only fly over to attend weddings and bachelorette parties. Have an actual discussion about how and why a person there may have voted differently from you. You’d be shocked at just how much you have in common.

Or maybe just take a breath. The election has ended. Clinton has conceded. Markets have rebounded. The sun still rises and sets. Concern yourself with what you can control. Spend less time inside of your bubble and more time in critical thought. Subscribe to a newspaper or podcast that challenges your positions rather than reaffirms them. Devote time and resources to issues and causes you can impact. Vote in midterm and local elections. Rely less on your government and more on yourself. Respect your peers as well as their thoughts.

And then relax. The next time the world ends, you will be so much better prepared.

Yi! Interviews: Neil Ruddock on Education Reform


Image via PolitiFact
Image via PolitiFact

Editor’s note: Education reform has received a great deal of attention from politicians, business leaders, and celebrities. To learn more about the topic, Yi! News spoke with Neil Ruddock, a State Advocacy Director for the Foundation for Excellence in Education. (Full disclosure: Ruddock is Contributing Editor Brian’s brother.) Neil’s resume includes stints as a congressional staffer, consultant for Educational Testing Service, and Policy Advisor for the Indiana Department of Education. He holds a Master’s Degree in Government from Johns Hopkins University and a BA in Government from the University of Notre Dame.

Yi! News: We’re seeing the topic of education come up a lot. Fortune 500 executives are talking about it. The president dedicated several lines of his State of the Union Address to it. Why now?

Neil Ruddock: First of all, you have a realization that the notion of a good-paying, low-skill job that you can support a family on is largely a thing of the past. Increased education is crucial. That doesn’t mean everyone coming out of our system has to get a degree from a Yale or a Harvard, or even have a four year degree necessarily. But for most of the jobs providing a livable wage, a 12-year education won’t do it. There needs to be some sort of formal, post-high school education.

A lot of folks will start post-secondary and not be prepared for it. So not only will they not finish, but they’ll wind up with a lot of debt on top of it. That’s not sustainable for the economy in the long term.

Yi!: So for those of our readers who don’t actively follow education policy, can you provide a quick definition of charter schools and vouchers?

Ruddock:  A charter school is public school that walks, talks, acts like, and is recognized as, a public school. The key difference between a charter and traditional public school is that charters, by and large, aren’t subject to collective bargaining. For the most part, charter schools are run by folks who don’t want to be tied down by the regulations that come with collective bargaining.

Vouchers provide public funding that allows a student to attend a public or private school they may otherwise not be able to afford. In practice, they’re generally used at private schools, but state laws usually allow them to be used at public schools. The number of regulations that a private school has to implement to accept vouchers varies state by state.

Yi!: Both Republicans and Democrats agree that there has to be reform, and they seem to have some common ground. Yet nothing of significance has been passed. What are the main sources of disagreement?

Ruddock: No Child Left Behind has not been renewed, to be sure, but I don’t think it’s accurate to say that nothing of significance has passed. Race to the Top pushed states to start taking meaningful steps towards reform, but implementing those reforms is hard work.

Efforts to pay the best teachers more; to make layoff decisions based on merit, or lack thereof, rather than seniority, are going to be controversial because they get at the current power structure, where unions have built in protection for members as a justification for membership. This isn’t to say they’re the source of all issues. We still have school boards and superintendents that allow a lot of these harmful provisions in there. It takes two to tango. So there are some serious structural issues that get in the way of progress.

Yi!: You mentioned some unwise policies like seniority-based firing. What are some of the most ill-advised rules or laws you’ve come across?

Ruddock: Before we worked on reform, the collective bargaining agreement for one of the largest districts in Indiana had a rule that when two teachers being considered for a layoff had the same seniority, they’d add up the last four digits of each teacher’s Social Security number. The one with the lowest sum was let go. You’d have other places where maybe one teacher’s last name started with an “R”, and the other started with a “B”, and the teacher with the “R” name was let go. So you had all kinds of things that were really harmful to students. Several Teacher of the Year candidates were laid off, because there was no evaluation system, no baseline, in place.

Yi!: It seems that there’s a lot of opposition around metrics for teachers. Do you think the main problem critics have is with quantification overall, or with specific methodologies and how the numbers are calculated?

Ruddock: What you’ve highlighted is the difference between teachers and teachers unions. I think you have a lot of teachers one hundred percent comfortable being evaluated with some objective measures. When the rubber meets the road of implementation, the unions are not as comfortable including test-score data as many of their members are.

Evaluation is still in its early stages. I don’t think anyone thinks one metric, one test score should determine things. Any class can have a bad test on a particular day. But in guarding against that, you can’t say “Does the teacher try hard?,”  “Do they have good relationship with the students?,”  etc…some of those soft variables that take focus away from whether or not the students are actually learning. But there’s a lot of work still to be done.

Yi!: President Obama mentioned in his State of the Union address the need for increased federal education funding, specifically for lowering student loan interest rates and providing more tuition subsidies. Critics point out that such policies have contributed to increasing tuition costs. Do you agree with this critique?

Ruddock: There’s a fair argument to be made there, that you’re feeding the beast. The reality is that both student financial aid spending and tuition rates have gone up by a significant amount.

Yi!: Some of the calls for reform, particularly from pundits on the right, have revolved around using education to reduce the deficit. Do you think it’s more important to cut the waste from education, or to just “get it right” with existing funds?

Ruddock: State budgets are written by legislators, and they have many priorities to balance when they write those budgets. Dollars have just been poured at the same system rather than using the extra money for structural reform. My position, and the position of my organization, is if a state wants to spend more money on education, where is it being put? To help truly good teachers be paid well? To help kids improve their reading skills? Or is it simply going into the existing system that pays based on tenure and how many degrees a teacher has? If it’s the latter, we’re missing a huge opportunity.

As far as how it plays into deficit reduction, entitlements are the main drivers of the deficit. It’s confusing as to why the same folks who want more money in the same system, ala teachers unions, why aren’t they more in favor of entitlement reform? The tragedy is that Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, etc. will swallow programs like education.

I struggle to understand why those who advocate for more education funding are so hesitant to challenge the seniors lobby and join the effort to reform entitlements. They have nothing to lose, because the dirty secret is that senior citizens vote even in low-turnout elections., i.e. elections where many school levies fail.

At day’s end, education spending is something that is threatened by the deficit–not something that drives it.

Yi!: You deal with politicians on a daily basis. Who are some Republicans and Democrats that are getting education reform “right”?

Ruddock: On the GOP side, [Louisiana Governor] Bobby Jindal has been very emphatic about doing what’s right for students. [Former Indiana Governor] Mitch Daniels took a very aggressive stance and didn’t apologize for it. He really provided cover to people that were doing the tough but necessary work. As far as Democrats go, a lot of interesting things are coming out of Colorado. Governor Hickenlooper is willing to have the hard conversations. [Chicago Mayor] Rahm Emmanuel, who has a steeper hill to climb because of how powerful unions are there, has worked very hard to push for reform.

Yi!: We tend to think of reform as just happening through public or government channels, but we’ve seen the private sector come up with the concept of MOOC’s, or massive open online courses. Do you think MOOC’s are a real game-changer, or more just something that can help out on the margins?

Ruddock: It remains to be seen, but I think it will fundamentally alter the higher-ed market. It won’t eviscerate the brick-and-mortar model necessarily, but you have a system where the cost increases have been outpacing ability of customer base to pay for some time now. Whether it will happen in two, five, or ten years is open for debate. What is clear is that the current higher-ed model is unsustainable. So I think MOOC’s will have a significant impact.

Yi!: Any closing thoughts?

Ruddock: What I would point out is that at a broad level, there’s a lot of money, there’s a lot of turf, and the folks that want to protect that turf have been better informed and active than the regular citizens. Somehow, someway, those numbers have got to start shifting in order to make reform sustainable.

Say what you will about legislators, but they know how to count votes. It’s one thing to make a difficult vote. It’s another thing to make a suicidal vote. The more your average citizen follows these things, the better. Policy change doesn’t happen in a vacuum.

State of the Union, Tea Party Response Detail Fault Lines


Image via Business Insider
Image via Business Insider

President Barack Obama made last Tuesday what many are considering to be one of the most liberal State of the Union addresses in history. Obama advocated an extensive second-term agenda and, despite brief rhetoric to the contrary, defended big government as an answer to our ailments.

The media largely seems to have focused on Senator Marco Rubio’s (R-FL) infamous “water-gaffe”. (Rubio gave the Republican Party’s response to the SOTU, as is tradition for the opposition party.) Rubio’s gaffe was unimportant, and anyways, his speech wasn’t much different from most opposition speeches: light on detail and entirely uncontroversial.

Lost in all of this was that Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) delivered a speech that showed the points of divergence between today’s two major governing theories: Obama’s blue-model liberalism and the Tea Party’s neo-constitutionalism. Whether because of 2016 presidential rumors or as his influence as a sitting senator, Paul is worth paying attention to.

The differences in theories have been split into four major categories: the purpose and size of government, the role of the executive, the budget, and new policies proposed. For each, we’ll examine a relevant quote from both Obama’s and Paul’s speeches.



This country only works when we accept certain obligations to one another and future generations; that our rights are wrapped up in the rights of others; and that…it remains the task of us all, as citizens of these United States, to be the authors of the next great chapter in our American story


What America needs is not Robin Hood but Adam Smith. In the year we won our independence, Adam Smith described what creates the wealth of nations. He described a limited government that largely did not interfere with individuals and their pursuit of happiness.

Obama ties the concept of obligations into citizenship: as someone living in this country, there are things you must do because the state’s functioning requires it. He speaks of joint responsibility, collective action, and a shared future. Paul instead focuses on prosperity through freedom; we thrive because of individuals seeking their own ends. Obama makes a subtle rip on individual liberty (“our rights are wrapped up in the rights of others”), which is a common argument against the sort of individualism, or natural-rights based government, Paul seeks. Essentially, the argument goes, no man exists in a vacuum, so your right to pursue your own ends will often come into conflict with my right to prosper.



…if Congress won’t act soon to protect future generations [from climate change], I will. I will direct my Cabinet to come up with executive actions we can take.


We cannot and will not allow any President to act as if he were a king.

Obama believes that in many debates, there is Right and Wrong, or Good and Evil, and that sometimes politics prevent people from doing the right thing. Thus, the President can and should do whatever is possible to make sure Right prevails.

Paul, by contrast, is extremely sensitive to executive overreach. As a member of the legislative branch, he is offended by the notion that an executive thinks he can bring a certain piece of legislation to the floor, or demand he vote a certain way. This is similar to government power in that Obama takes a very end-centric view: we do whatever we need to to achieve the best result. Paul is more sensitive to rule of law concerns, in which it is crucial to respect existing procedures and limitations.



These sudden, harsh, arbitrary [sequester] cuts would jeopardize our military readiness. They’d devastate priorities like education, energy, and medical research.


The President does a bit “woe is me” over the sequester…the sequester doesn’t even cut any spending. It just slows the rate of growth. Even with the sequester, government will grow over $7 trillion over the next decade.

The sequester was essentially a “poison pill”; if the two parties couldn’t come up with enough deficit reduction, automatic cuts to both military and domestic spending would kick in. The thinking was that Republicans wouldn’t want the military cuts, and Democrats wouldn’t want domestic cuts, so both parties would be pressured to cooperate.

Obama is trying to press Republicans here by mentioning the military cuts first. Some Republicans think military spending is sacrosanct; Paul is not one of them, so he doesn’t take the bait.

The president sees a lot of good being done by spending that would be cut as a result of sequestration. He’s less worried about deficits, since America is still the world’s reserve currency; the debt is something that may or may not come to bear, whereas these cuts will definitely cut important programs.

Paul’s take is that the budget will grow regardless, and that we need to start having honest conversations about what a “cut” really is.


Obama proposes, among other things: a government-written “college scorecard”; tax reform that hikes rates on millionaires; executive action to combat climate change; a public-private “energy security trust” to reduce oil consumption; federal subsidies for states that build energy efficient buildings; increased pre-K funding; an increased minimum wage; a voting-rights commission that would enforce its recommendations at the state level; American assistance in the eradication of global poverty and AIDS.

Paul’s major proposal was a Balanced Budget Amendment coupled with a budget that will balance the budget in five years. He also advocates for greater government transparency, school vouchers, cessation of foreign aid to countries hostile to us, and a flat tax.

Each politician’s policy prescriptions are reflective of their overarching philosophies. The president wishes to use the government’s considerable power to solve everything from climate change to poverty. Paul wants to narrow the focus of our activities and let the private sector work its magic. Obama’s proposals would require a considerable increase in taxes and the size of government; just about all of Paul’s proposals involve shrinking government influence.

These speeches represent a fascinating philosophical contrast; they’re likely a good indicator of the lines along which the 2016 presidential race will be fought (even if Paul is not a candidate). Both were direct, ideological, and aggressive. They present us with a real contrast that makes us think about the role we want government to play. This is what our political discourse should resemble.

The Perils of “Do Something” Governance


There is an impulse among our citizenry to demand action in the wake of any perceived tragedy or crisis. Usually fueled by one noteworthy event, the subsequent furor often leads to “national conversations” accompanied by expansive legislation.

The arenas of these flashpoints are foreign and domestic. They range from school shootings to eighth graders’ math test scores; from climate change to foreign insurgencies. In each instance, the bad news story is apparently indicative of systemic problems with catastrophic consequences, barring government action.


(Image via)

There is certainly a logical element to this thinking. In our personal lives, after all, when we detect a problem, we generally go about to solve it. We act quickly and expect others to do so, be they friends, colleagues, or ourselves. And this usually leads to positive outcomes.

However effective in our own lives, though, such action when executed by government is often quite harmful. Politicians, while often well-intentioned, are subject to influences that cloud their judgement. The instinct for political survival is as strong as any. (According to the Center for Responsive Politics, House incumbent re-election rates have ranged from 88%-98% since 1990.) Hastily-crafted, far-reaching legislation passed in response to supposedly urgent crises creates myriad issues, especially in regards to cost, restrictions of freedom, and unintended consequences.

History is replete with examples of heavy-handed, ill-fated government interference in response to crises. As Robert Higgs of The Independent Institute notes in his book Delusions of Power, ”Crisis…produces a virtual free-for-all of policies, programs, and plans that expand the government’s power in new directions and strengthen it where it previously existed in a weaker form.” (p. 80).

Consider the following examples:

Ronald Reagan and the war on drugs: For over the first hundred years of America’s existence, what individuals put into their own bodies was none of the government’s business for the purpose of criminal law. The Founding Fathers, often depicted as demigods by Republicans, made no attempt to ban individual consumption. Yet in 1986, modern GOP hero Ronald Reagan went on national TV declaring that illegal narcotics were a national security threat. “Crack babies”, destruction of the family, and drug-fueled gang violence threatened the country’s moral fiber, and action was demanded.

Reagan stepped up interdiction efforts through his newly created Office of National Drug Control Policy, which houses the DEA. In fiscal 2012, ONDCP spent $25.2 billion on prevention and enforcement. The US now has the highest imprisonment rate among industrialized countries. Many prisoners, particularly minorities, are nonviolent offenders who used or dealt minimal amounts of marijuana. (Pot is now classified as a Stage One drug, on par with heroin.) Citizens with chronic ailments are forbidden from alleviating their pain. Raids are conducted regularly on Americans’ homes.

In addition to the loss of liberty and money, the crisis-inspired drug war has led to an appalling loss of life. Former Mexican President Felipe Calderon pinned the blame of much of Mexico’s 50,000+ gang-related deaths on America’s drug prohibition.

Uninsured Americans and the Affordable Care Act: Facing a mounting debt and fighting two wars, the Obama administration and others focused on the supposed crisis of Americans without health insurance. Respected news outlets spoke of 44 or more million uninsured Americans, vulnerable should they become ill. Additionally, health care costs were rising, increasing nearly tenfold from 1980 to 2010. After gathering support, the Democratic congress passed a 2,000 page bill that would apparently provide coverage to all Americans while simultaneously driving down costs.

As it turned out, the 44 million figure was incorrect, as it included non-citizens and individuals who could afford health insurance but chose not to buy it. The actual number was closer to eight million, and even that didn’t account for people who lacked insurance but could still access emergency services. The bill was later shown to lack the ability to even cover that many recipients, as its complicated structure of penalties, taxes, and regulations created an unpredictable set of responses. Similarly, the supposed cost savings turned out to be bogus. Economist Veronique de Rugy of George Mason University noted that 2011 healthcare costs rose 4.6 percent in 2011.

Cost overruns and excessive mandates stymieing small businesses were bad enough, but were also accompanied by a trampling of numerous parts of the Constitution. The Act confers to the state the ability to levy a tax for just about any reason it wants, and will make the creation of more bureaucracies that much easier.

9/11 and the anti-terror state: The bombing of the World Trade Center was an unspeakable tragedy. US policymakers were certainly justified in pursuing a focused, timely, and limited military action to subdue the forces responsible and lessen the chances of a repeat occurrence. But Americans were scared; we clung to government as the guarantor of our absolute safety. As such, the Bush administration sensed (correctly) that it had the political capital to pursue a far-reaching agenda at home and abroad.

Stateside, Bush created the Department of Homeland Security, combining 22 federal agencies into one cabinet-level bureaucracy with a FY 2012 budget of $56.9 billion. He nationalized airport security, giving the Transportation Security Administration new authority and more money. For that, Americans now have the pleasure of enduring embarrassing and/or harmful screenings that do little to improve our safety.

Americans’ constitutional rights and privacy were trampled by the creation of the Patriot Act, which, among other things, allows DHS to monitor our communications without a search warrant. Pressed recently by Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR), the department couldn’t even provide an estimate of how many Americans have been spied on by their own government.

Abroad, the US fought wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that are responsible for over 4,500 US deaths and 1,500 amputations. They have caused tremendous suffering among even the uninjured soldiers forced to serve multiple tours of duty and placed strain on their families. Combined, CBO estimates the wars to have cost over $1.7 trillion. Gideon Rose of Foreign Affairs magazine called the Iraq War “one of the oldest and most straightforward stories in the book-a classic realist cautionary tale of unchecked power leading to hubris, then folly, then nemesis.”  (How Wars End, p. 266)

The above are only a very small sample of this prevalent phenomenon. As citizens, we need to recognize the history and anticipate the consequences. Rather than giving into the logical desire to throw our hands up and make someone fix every ailment in our society, we should look for remedies outside of government action.

The Myth Of Money In Politics


As we get closer to November’s presidential election, there has been increased interest in campaign finance law. What was once the bane of most political science majors’ existence is now suddenly a popular topic in both the media and even pop culture. Campaign finance law has earned a byline in a seeming majority of major news outlets’ election stories, and was the subject of an episode of Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom weeks ago.

For most folks, their knowledge of an otherwise obscure topic centers on the 2010 Supreme Court case Citizens United v. Federal Election Committee. As the popular narrative goes, Citizens United was a controversial ruling engineered by Republican-appointed justices to give their political allies a leg up in elections. It supposedly led to a flood of outsider money into elections, thereby corrupting politicians and helping Republicans win a historic majority in the 2010 midterm Congressional elections. President Obama went so far as to criticize the Court’s decision in his first State of the Union address:

 “With all due deference to separation of powers, last week the Supreme Court reversed a century of law that I believe will open the floodgates for special interests – including foreign corporations – to spend without limit in our elections.”

First, let’s acknowledge the president’s misreading of the case. Citizens United did not allow corporations to spend without limits; corporations (and individuals) may only donate a set amount of money to an individual candidate or political party, per the 2002 McCain Feingold campaign finance law. Nor, despite the claims of even respected news outlets such as Politico, did the case foster the creation of “super PACs”. A subsequent court ruling did this ( v. FEC). Citizens United really just allowed for independent organizations (be they corporations, nonprofits, media outlets, etc.) to make unlimited independent (i.e. not tied to a candidate or party) expenditures. Such protections even cover CNN and The New York Times from potential prosecution for political speech. (Shapiro)

 The broader arguments against money in politics flow from some logical assumptions. We don’t want our politicians to simply be instruments of big corporations, and allowing anyone to spend as much money as possible on elections may do this. But the problem isn’t really that there’s too much money in politics. It’s that politicians control too much money.

Americans spend more money on chewing gum than we do in all federal elections. For the amount of areas under government control, I’d argue that we’re not spending enough. (Using OMB data, the nonpartisan estimates 2010 government spending as nearly 25 percent of our total GDP.) As rational actors, and with so much of our time and money subject to government control and or confiscation, we really should be more interested in politics. As the Cato Institute’s Trevor Burrus notes:

 Our political parties no longer fight over simple regulations of interstate commerce and tariffs, we fight, on a national level, over the nature of American health care and how we will educate our children. How could these fights not be schismatic, vicious, and underhanded?

With this much at stake, the money will come into politics somehow. Past attempts to legislate money out of politics have failed. Consider the very notion of a “super PAC.” PACs (political action committees) were started by labor unions as a way around the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act, which forbade unions and corporations from spending money on elections. So instead of giving money directly to candidates and political parties (who are easier for regulators to identify and scrutinize), the money dispersed between more sources that were tougher to regulate. Oops.

But even if it were possible to effectively regulate political spending, would we want to? If you’re one of the majority of Americans who disapproves of Congress’ performance, the answer should be “no.”

The whole concept of campaign finance reform has largely been advanced by insiders and current officeholders. Money spent on campaigns generally helps to provide information about candidates, be it good or bad. More spending means more information, and more information means more accountability. This is not good for Congressmen who would prefer to coast to 30+ year reigns full of influence peddling and largesse.

Finally, money isn’t everything in elections. Scores of candidates have been badly outspent and gone on to win major elections; Ted Cruz’s GOP Senate primary victory over lieutenant governor David Dewhurst (who outspent Cruz by a 3-to-1 margin) is an example from only one week ago. Corporations, in general, don’t give a ton of money to candidates…doing otherwise would alienate large chunks of their client bases.

Campaign finance limits are relevant in very narrow, specific cases. Shapiro (cited above) has some great insights as to when and where this should happen; he essentially argues for disclosure requirements for particularly large donations. Such limits are reasonable and should be the starting point for any discussion of the regulation of political speech. Banning spending from persons or organizations who disagree with you? Probably not a wise goal of election law.


“Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom: One-Sided Politics Will Not Save Us from Politics”, Trevor Burrus

“3 Reasons Not to Sweat the Citizens United Ruling”, Reason TV

“Why Citizens United Has Nothing to Do with What Ails American Politics”, Ilya Shapiro

Stranger In A Strange Land


Today’s media and national politicians tend to characterize America as an amorphous mass of interchangeable pieces. Both speak and act as if there is some sort of universal moral code and common cause that unite us all. Whether we are “keeping our streets drug free,” “fighting radical terrorists” or “protecting American workers,” those in power project values upon us and urge – if not force – us to act accordingly.

The problem, of course, is that concepts of morality and duty are not universal. Robert Heinlein touched on this concept brilliantly in his Hugo Award-winning novel “Stranger in a Strange Land.” In it, a human born on Mars (Valentine Michael Smith) is brought back to Earth. Gifted with incredible physical and mental powers, Smith soon questions almost every accepted tenet of mainstream culture. He considers monogamy, for example, to be outrageously selfish. He considers murder acceptable in many circumstances. He flips the concept of God entirely upside down.

At face value, many of these moral discussions strike the reader as outrageous. Yet Heinlein, through his surrogate character Jubal Harshaw, makes logically sound cases for each claim. After an hours-long talk with the Martian, Harshaw notes:

“A prude is a person who thinks that his own rules of propriety are natural laws. You are almost entirely free of this prevalent evil.”

In other words, just because we as individuals hold certain beliefs, there is nothing that makes them inherently right or broadly applicable to others. It is, if anything, immoral to project our views on others.

Yet that is exactly what the national media and federal government attempt to do to us. In the case of the former, they forge the notion of a “common cause” through the airwaves. Pundits such as Rachel Maddow and Bill O’Reilly are the most obvious: they directly advocate for collective action, be it to universalize health care or to invade remote desert territories. Strictly news programs, however, more subtly encourage a mass morality through their coverage and framing of “national” tragedies, or decrying “congressional gridlock.”

Federal politicians are even more to blame. They commonly make laws that assume the presence of national priorities and the authority to address them. Federal tax policy is the most obvious: Americans frequently pay for things that either violate their individual moral codes (wars, abortions, the war on drugs, etc.) or provide no benefit to them whatsoever (arts programs, fisheries in distant states, etc.). Outside of the tax code, the national government enforces a range of behaviors that millions of its citizens likely disagree with (drug prohibition, gay marriage bans, drinking age limits, speed limits, etc.).

The writer grants that the dual goals of appeasing every individual’s moral code completely and maintaining a workable state are mutually exclusive. This is why the Framers invented the concept of federalism, and codified it in the 10th Amendment: with the exception of a few very limited and enumerated powers, all other laws are to be written by the states.

Federalism obviously doesn’t prevent states from making laws that an individual may not agree with. It still assumes some shared morals. But it’s a workable compromise, which, when actually enforced, leads to far less egregious enforcement of a collective good. When practiced, federalism allows a citizen to have a greater influence in shaping the laws under which they live: citizens have easier access to state legislators who are, in turn, more in-touch with the concerns of their state. States are, theoretically, free to prioritize. Because a citizen can move, state taxes are more voluntary than federal taxes. Want to live in a highly taxed state with a plethora of public goods? California and the northeastern states are all yours. Prefer a minimalist government, low taxes and less services? New Hampshire and North Dakota are calling your name.

Thus, I take issue with the calls of President Barack Obama (and George W. Bush before him) to “unify behind a common cause,” be it for the Affordable Care Act or the War On Terror. No, Mr. President, I do not want to pay for another man’s health insurance (I’d rather donate money to hospitals directly). No, Mr. Bush, I do not want to fund a war against regimes with less than a one in 75,000 chance of killing me (I’d prefer to spend that money fighting cancer). I’d vastly prefer to be left damn well alone and contribute to the moral causes that I see fit, without the threat of federal coercion.

Stranger in a strange land, perhaps I am.

Obamacare: A Primer


The Supreme Court will begin to hear three days of oral arguments on the Affordable Care Act on Monday morning. (Credit: Getty Images)

Today, the Supreme Court will begin oral arguments over the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, colloquially known as “Obamacare.” The Act was signed into law in 2010; shortly thereafter its constitutionality was challenged by 26 state attorneys general as well as a number of independent organizations. My colleague Ryan will shortly provide Yi! News readers with a summary of the act’s legal issues. I will focus on the legislation’s likely policy and political effects. In short, I believe it will be an unmitigated disaster in both realms.

First, the policy. The Affordable Care Act was Washington’s answer to two very real but misrepresented problems: lack of access to health insurance, and rising medical costs. Democrats claimed that more than 46 million Americans didn’t have health insurance, but this was misleading. When adjusting for non-citizens and people who could afford to buy insurance but choose not to, the number is closer to 8 million. The Act also seeks to curtail ever-rising health care costs, which have increased from $256 million in 1980 to $2.6 trillion in 2010. This, of course, overlooks that much of rising health care costs have been the result of longer lifespans and improved life-saving medicines and technologies. It also ignores the fact that, according to the Congressional Budget Office, even optimistic scenarios show negligible savings in long-term health care costs.

To combat these problems, the Act creates a wildly complicated scheme that took more than 2,500 pages to write (the Cato Institute’s Michael Tanner “summarizes” it here in a 70 page whitepaper). The key provisions are as follows. First, it creates a series of state-run but federally-subsidized insurance exchanges. These exchanges technically are the responsibility of the states, but talk about faux federalism: if the states do not live up to the federal government’s rigorous requirements, they lose funding for Medicare. Much of this funding, of course, is made necessary because of the Affordable Care Act. Many also believe these exchanges are a precursor to a single-payer (or 100 percent) government-run system.

Second, it requires all citizens to either purchase insurance through their employer or through an exchange. Citizens not complying are subject to fines. Companies with 50 or more employees will be fined for not providing insurance deemed “adequate” by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). These provisions will, respectively, put every citizen at the mercy of the federal government and discourage small businesses from hiring more employees. Finally, the Act requires all hospitals to participate in an on-going cost-benefit analysis by the Independent Payment Advisory Board (IPAB). IPAB then instructs doctors which procedures and medications they can and can’t use. Such rationing is very real: similar programs in Britain and Canada led to increased wait times and lower cancer survival rates.

Politically, the Affordable Care Act is a step in the absolute wrong direction. America has thrived as a constitutional republic with a government that largely respected concrete limits on its power. The idea wasn’t to come up with a system that would always come up with the best outcome – that would be impossible. Rather, the Founders hoped to create a government that could not trample the liberty of its citizens. Government for the citizens – not the other way around.

The Affordable Care Act stands in stark contrast to this sentiment. Congressional Democrats and President Barack Obama believe that it is within their authority to, among other things, compel individuals to purchase a product that they will have themselves largely designed. They also find it appropriate to regulate the relationship between doctor and patient, something which has hitherto been private.

Setting and respecting areas of life in which the government cannot interfere is vital. It prevents unsavory politicians – or those who we seriously disagree with – from making laws that adversely affect our fundamental rights. This Act, if it and its major provisions are upheld by the Supreme Court, will be a major step in doing away with limited government as we know it.